Global Connections: Towards Sustainability

Submitted by Content on Thu, 2006/12/14 - 1:30pm.

Towards a Sustainable Future

Jennie MooreJennie MooreBy Jennie Moore,
Director Sustainable Development and Environmental Stewardship
British Columbia Institute of Technology

Making Global Connections is absolutely critical to our progress toward a sustainable future. Take a moment to imagine the world from outer space. Our planet is finite in size, and all of life clings to its surface between a thin atmospheric layer that keeps average global temperatures warm enough to support a terrestrial surface complete with soils, and fresh water that cycles nutrients needed by plants and animals alike. There are also vast oceans that cover two-thirds of the world’s surface that are home to aquatic plants and animals. Taken together, this interconnected web of life is called the global ecosphere.

Humans take their place within the ecosphere as one important thread that is intrinsically linked to all the rest. For example, did you know that human-made compounds called polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, are in Antarctica’s penguins? PCBs were used developed in 1929 and widely used from the 1930s to the end of the 1970s for everything from adhesives, hydraulic fluids and caulking compounds to electricity supply, gas pipeline systems, and mining. They were banned in 1979 when they were discovered to be toxic, but they remain in the environment. PCBs travel through the atmosphere and in ocean currents all around the globe. They become stored in the fat of animals who consume them – that’s how they ended up in the penguins’ bodies.

Danny Catt’s journey from Antarctica to South America is helping all of us learn to make the global connections necessary to move towards a sustainable future. We are all connected to each other and our society and cultural values have emerged from within the reality of our dependence on our planet for the essential life support systems that keep us healthy, fed and sheltered. However, today, with the modern world’s comforts provided in our built environment, it is hard to recognize just how dependent we still are on nature to provide the fresh air that we breathe, the clean water that we drink, the clothes that we wear, the food that we eat, and the resources that we use to build everything from cell phones to the kitchen sink.

Making Global Connections is about realizing the intrinsic relationship between ourselves and the rest of the world. If you look around you right now, ask yourself how many things make up a part of your daily existence that came from somewhere else on the planet. How many products or their components have travelled from other parts of the globe to where you are right now? Who helped to make them and where? What happens when you are through with using them and they become waste?

Why are these questions important?

To quote well known scientist David Suzuki, “It’s a matter of survival.” Although the Earth has not been getting any bigger, our human populations have, and more importantly our levels of consumption have increased at a faster rate than population growth! So there are more of us and we are consuming more and more of the Earth’s natural resources. Natural resources are converted through economic activity into manufactured products that are traded and consumed all around the world. Technology has enabled incredible innovations that help people live better lives, but not everyone is benefiting equally and there is a cost to the planet – and ultimately to ourselves. Although technology can make manufacturing and transportation more efficient, these gains are cancelled out by the ever-increasing consumption of more materials and goods. At a societal level this phenomenon is termed “economic growth.” And if those goods happen to create pollution problems as illustrated by the example of PCBs, then there are added concerns about how, and if, nature can absorb these waste materials in ways that do not contribute to further ecological damage.

Although economic growth creates wealth for some people and jobs and incomes for others, there is a cost in terms of depletion of resources, destruction of natural ecosystems, loss of habitat and species, as well as accumulation of pollution that has already reached global proportions. Many lives are ruined by all of this; they bear more of the cost of economic growth. They might live in the rainforests of Brazil or the river basins of Nigeria’s Niger Delta. A growing number of scientists are concerned that, at a global level, the ecosphere may be at risk of irreparable changes. The recently published International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report written by scientists from around the world, warns of the risks associated with global warming, which they believe is caused by the cumulative impact of human activities that are largely related to consumption of fossil fuels. Scientists are also discovering the cumulative impacts of toxic compounds such as PCBs, which like the penguins, are also found in humans.

What can I do?

Moving towards a sustainable future is tough. For most of us it means changing the way we think about the world and what is happening in it. Can an economy grow forever if the planet is not getting bigger? Can technology find solutions so that we don’t have to change our own lifestyles? If it can, why are the problems related to the environment still getting worse?

As you start making global connections try noticing whether your choices and actions are moving you towards a sustainable future. Here are some tips to get you started:

  1. Is what you are doing helping to protect and strengthen the environment?
  2. Are the products you are using produced in a way that supports renewal of the resource base from which they came?
  3. Are you accounting for all the costs and benefits of your actions and purchases? Sometimes a product that is cheap does not reflect some of the environmental or social costs associated with its production.
  4. Are you doing your part to reduce waste and eliminate toxic substances from the waste stream? Try buying organic foods, fabrics and cleaners.
  5. Are you looking for ethical-brand products that ensure that the people who made them were protected from human rights abuses or potentially hazardous working conditions?
  6. Can you support opportunities for improvement wherever you can? No one is perfect and we can all do our part and learn how to do it better. Remember that living and learning can be a lot of fun – especially when it is contributing toward a sustainable future!