Cover Image


View/Hide Left Panel
Click for next page ( 195

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine
500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001

Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement

Below are the first 10 and last 10 pages of uncorrected machine-read text (when available) of this chapter, followed by the top 30 algorithmically extracted key phrases from the chapter as a whole.
Intended to provide our own search engines and external engines with highly rich, chapter-representative searchable text on the opening pages of each chapter. Because it is UNCORRECTED material, please consider the following text as a useful but insufficient proxy for the authoritative book pages.

Do not use for reproduction, copying, pasting, or reading; exclusively for search engines.

OCR for page 194
19 VIEW FROM THE NORTH Digby J. McLaren This discussion does not represent the view from the North but merely _ view from the North. ("North" in this title means Canada.) Furthermore, although I am interested in and concerned about the ques- tions of global change and Canada's part in the world program, I speak officially for no government or organization within my country. I did not have time to assess the official view, and indeed when I do know what it is, I am not necessarily always in agreement with it. I can, however, assure you that there is strong support from working scientists for the research program on global change. Already a great deal of good science is being carried out in a very large spectrum of disciplines that might be considered grist to the program's mill. The scientists that are already involved in such activities might not ne- cessarily be aware of their contribution to the program, and there is a huge job to be done in overcoming generations of traditional speciali- zation in science disciplines. We are now required to learn how to communicate broadly with people in other disciplines and indeed with those in the social sciences and humanities, the decision makers, and, more important than any other, the public. The Royal Society of Canada was involved in the planning of a global change program from the incep- tion of the idea, and it set up a research committee in 1985, which subsequently organized working groups geographically and by discipline. Canada early recognized the importance of collaboration with the "other cultures" and unified all in one program, subdivided into two overlapping parts--the human dimension and the scientific dimension. In the world program, Canada has a double obligation. First, it is the second largest country with the longest coastline and must therefore play a major part in contributing to the whole. Plainly there must be a major effort in the Arctic, a region particularly sensitive to change; in agriculture, which is found only in a small southern strip currently restricted by climate and whose future expansion is limited by geology; in water and wetlands and their huge importance in moderating atmospheric chemistry and the effects of northern climate as well as their sensi- tivity to climate change; and many other ecological concerns. In the oceans, Canada plays its part in the major international programs, e.g., the Ocean Drilling Program, the World Ocean Circulation Experiment, and the Joint Global Ocean Flux Study. Second, as a "have's nation, Canada has shown a strong interest in the Third World through existing 194

OCR for page 194
195 organizations. Attention has been given to tropical rain forests and a number of geographically important areas: Southeast Asia (Borneo, Thai- land, Bangladesh, Nepal), Africa (southern Africa and the Sahel), and Latin America (the Pacific coast of South America). The most important aspect of the research program on global change is that it is truly global and must involve all people on earth. To point this up, Bill Fyfe has recently suggested that the developed countries, because they are outnumbered four to one by the lesser-developed nations, should pitch their level of effort to populated areas containing four times as many people as their own population. Canada should, therefore, accept responsibility for collaborating with about 100 million people, at a minimum. The Brundtland Commission has provided us with a baseline on which to build. This hugely important work was the subject of two major meetings in Canada, and the results were published as the Brundtland Challenge and the Cost of Inaction involving scientists economists, moralists, and , , politicians. Canadian granting councils and others are considering pro- posals for major projects on economic, urban, agricultural, and other dimensions of the social challenge of global change. The Brundtland publication Our Common Future (World Commission on Environment and Development, Oxford University Press, London, 1987) coined the term "sustainable development." The commission was content to link sustain- ability with discipline and restraint but suggested that growth might continue. While in no way critical of this classic work, I should like to examine some aspects of sustainability. o Sustainable for whom? It appears that our economic system empha- sizes short-term profit as a benefit and does not put a real cost on the resources we consume. There must be a price put on such commodities as soils as well as ground water, surface waters, atmosphere, and the bio- sphere--or the sum total of all kinds of life on earth. Current eco- nomic thinking appears to be caught up in a system that assumes limit- less resources and ignores the production of waste products. This system worked when resources did appear to be limitless and when waste was easily disposed of and self-cleansing. Neither of these qualities exists any longer. The economic subsystem takes in resources and ex- cretes waste and is thus irrevocably and closely linked to the ecosys- tem. Input and output are finite, and the main variable is the one-way flow of matter-energy. Such a way of looking at things raises the question of how big the economic system should be in relation to the physical dimensions of the global system. This also necessarily ques- tions the concept of growth economics and the impossibility of general- izing western standards to the world as a whole. Since one-quarter of the world population uses most of the resources and produces most of the waste, can we increase both in the other three-quarters? What are the limits that must exist in every finite system? o Sustainable until when? The population of the world has fluc- tuated widely in the past, controlled by the harsh laws of the natural environment--flood, famine, plague, and conquest--and it has remained well below 1 billion until the Industrial Revolution. With the present population at 5 billion, therefore, we may claim that this runaway growth

OCR for page 194
196 is the direct result of the application of technology, primarily improved food production and hygiene, and that it is not a product of the natural environment. The increase in the present population is grossly unequal geographically. The largest birth rates are still in underdeveloped countries, but in regard to resource use and production of waste the inequality is reversed and taken over by the developed world. Currently we are adding 1 billion human beings every 11 years. There just is not enough time for demographic theories of population stability, arising from increased standards of living and education, to work. Recent global projections suggest stabilization at 11 billion by the end of the next century, which approximates the date when, at current rates of destruc- tion, all forests will have been felled. How will all these people be fed? Any global attack on the disequilibrium of earth's systems must take these facts into account. 0 Sustainable energy. The present system of energy use faces an inevitable change. The fossil fuels currently account for about 79 per- cent of world usage of energy, and 72 percent of this is oil and gas. Availability will dictate a reduction in the use of oil and gas, which do not have an unlimited future. Coal represents at least 10 times the stored energy of petroleum products. Burning coal also produces nearly twice as much carbon dioxide per unit of energy produced as does natural gas, along with a large number of highly undesirable other wastes. It has been suggested that, if one-third of the total global coal resource is used, the atmosphere may pass the point of no return and become subject to a runaway greenhouse effect. The warming effect appears to have started: How much shall we accept, bearing in mind the inevitable change in climate and rise in sea level? When shall we make the change- over? How shall we pay for it? Do we have the technology ready? o Sustainable ecology. Humankind lives inside the environment and, in spite of biblical license, cannot dominate the whole of life on earth. We have heard how the biodiversity of the planet is being reduced by many of our current agricultural and other exploitative practices, and we appear to be entering a major extinction event. There have been many major events in the past during which the planet lost 80 percent or even up to 90 percent of the extant biomass at the time of the catastrophe. Without going into the question of what causes such mass extinction events, one can make certain observations from the past, which should serve us today. Mass killings have been sudden, but this just means that they cannot be resolved accurately at this distance in time. The current extinction event may be as sudden as any of them. When the killing is over, it takes a very long time to reestablish ecological equilibrium. Certain major features of the ecology of the earth are reestablished with difficulty, and new ecologies must be worked out by a long, slow process of selection. Thus coral reefs have become extinct at many times in the past, but their recovery has commonly taken as long as 10 million years. Other animal groups have shown a similar pattern in the past. This talk is not meant to be preaching doom, but I do not believe that describing reality, or the best interpretation of what reality is from the facts given to us, is undesirable. I am not a pessimist; I believe that humankind will survive the present crisis, but it will not

OCR for page 194
197 do so unless it faces the reality of what is going on in this small planet. We cannot dominate life. We do not understand the intricacies of earth ecology; court disaster. Perhaps a way may be found to judge our actions by a new principle: the health of the planet. The economy could be seen as being within the environment and not the environment as being within the economy. Perhaps we should ask the question of any action that we take, Does it increase or decrease survivability? The term "quality of life" might take on a new meaning. We could try to limit our own needs with a consciousness of the global resource and global needs in the broadest terms. We could live in balance with all life but could crop and harvest according to preference and needs, providing that these do not reduce the capacity of future generations to do so also. In a similar way, we may look on sovereignty in a different light. We may assume a common cause with all people on earth against a common enemy--action that threatens balance within our environment or reduces our legacy for future generations. Somehow a way must be found to permit us to look for one brief moment at the world without the filters of be- lief, axiom, or political theory. In this moment we could observe the planet and draw conclusions from our observations as to the health of our habitat and assess the probability that life may be self-sustaining indefinitely into the future. Sustainability is the ultimate criterion by which we must measure our behavior and influence the presuppositions that lie behind all our beliefs. to pretend that we do and to act accordingly are to r