Passport to sustainability
Chico State’s annual environmental conference boasts big names with big ideas
Of all the scientific analysis, charts and devastating predictions about the future of Earth and humankind, perhaps the most powerful images unveiled by environmental educator David Orr are pictures of kids: a boy of 8 and his 5-year-old sister in one photograph and a 22-month-old girl with big blue eyes in another.
“These are my grandchildren; those are my stake,” Orr told an attentive Laxson Auditorium audience at Chico State University last Thursday (Nov. 1). “What kind of a world do we leave behind for them?”
After all, when it comes to climate change, they have no voice, nor do their unborn children, and time is of the essence. Looking back at the turbulent late-1960s and early ‘70s, environmental issues were of national interest and transcended partisan politics, leading to major legislation and the formulation of agencies such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
But the 30-some years thereafter, replete with failed environmental protection in the political realm, has led to an array of negative phenomena, including global temperature increases of 0.8 degrees centigrade, on average. Another 1.4-1.5 degrees is in the pipeline no matter what steps are taken, said Orr, who holds to the school of thought that climate change is manmade.
The figures are frighteningly close to the 2-degree increase that a majority of climate scientists consider as the point of no return, he said. Instead of blowing off the research as gloom and doom, the public should heed the message as they would if a doctor told them they had a terminal illness.
“We have to have the courage to stare down the barrel at these numbers,” said Orr, a keynote speaker during the third annual This Way to Sustainability conference. “We’re not going to get a second chance.”
He pointed to alarming statistics such as the World Trade Organization’s estimate of 150,000-180,000 annual deaths due to climate-driven events. Without intervention, future generations will be dealing not with global warming but with what he called planetary destabilization; the result of heat waves, drought, shrinking crop patterns, increasing deserts and rises in sea levels, among other ill effects.
Orr, who teaches environmental studies and politics at Oberlin College in Ohio, is the author of five books, including The Last Refuge: Patriotism, Politics, and the Environment. During the lecture, he called the 2008 bid for the White House a fateful election. But the ecological issues facing mankind go beyond party lines. They are not about Republican versus Democrat or liberal versus conservative; they are about protecting the environment for those who come after us.
The Declaration of Independence asserts that all men are created equal. Perhaps someday that will be applied to future generations, said the professor. For now, much of the battle comes down to personal responsibility and accepting the truth about what’s in store. Orr remains optimistic that humanity will rise to the challenge.
“Summoned to heroic purposes, I think we can respond heroically,” he said.
During the four-day conference, Chico State was host to five big-name speakers such as chef Ann Cooper, an author and advocate of healthful school lunches, and A.G. Kawamura, secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture. Their appearances were part of an extensive schedule of sessions, workshops and tours designed for everyone from students to teachers and businesspeople to the public.
On Friday (Nov. 2), internationally acclaimed population expert Werner Fornos discussed some of the very same human-induced ecological impacts as Orr, but in relation to a planet now inhabited by 6.6 billion people and growing by 80 million every year.
Fornos, president of the nonprofit organization Global Population Education, acknowledged that the topic of population makes people feel uneasy, but said it shouldn’t. Worldwide, 350 million women have told credible demographic health surveys that they don’t want more children, or they want to space the time between their pregnancies to protect the lives of their children. If the same women had the means and the knowledge to control their fertility, it would stabilize the world population at 8 billion, he said.
What’s hidden in the population statistics is that 99 percent of growth is occurring in the world’s poorest countries, places already embroiled in civil strife and social unrest. Solving the problems of those people, he said, will help create a sustainable planet. He cited four things we should all be concerned about: declining forests, topsoil erosion, expanding deserts and a changing global climate, all of which are resulting in resource shortages.
Fornos pointed out that developing nations aren’t the only places facing depleting resources. California, for instance, where the population is nearing 40 million, is in the midst of a water crisis.
“Obviously, you don’t have to be a scientist to realize that we’re on a course for very serious problems,” he said.
Solutions to the global population problem, he added, are simple and ones Americans take for granted because they are practiced here daily. The first is to ensure every girl in the world gets an eighth-grade education. Second, women need access to employment opportunities. Efforts need to be taken to reduce the infant mortality rate. This may seem counterintuitive, but women in developing nations often choose to have many children to increase the chances that some of their babies will survive to childhood. And last, women need universal access to family-planning practices.
Today, with 87 countries unable to feed their populations and lacking the money to buy the food they need, intervention is key for everyone, Fornos said.
“When you look at the shortages of water in our own country, you can see that none of the global issues really escape us,” he said. “So slowing down population growth becomes a requirement that all of us need to address because there are no acceptable humanitarian alternatives.”