House Warming: Fixing the Thermostat on our Environmental Health, Dr. Robert Zuber

9 Feb

Nature is not a place to visit. It is home. Gary Snyder

The sea, though changed in a sinister way, will continue to exist; the threat is rather to life itself. Rachel Carson

Those who live by the sea can hardly form a single thought of which the sea would not be part. Hermann Broch

The real names of the environment are the names of rivers and river valleys; creeks, ridges, and mountains; towns and cities; lakes, woodlands, lanes, roads, creatures, and people. Wendell Berry

Home is where my habits have a habitat. Fiona Apple

How foolish to believe we are more powerful than the sea or the sky. Ruta Sepetys

The themes which run through much of the work of the UN in these precarious times are many, but can actually be placed in a couple of large and inter-related bins – the things we need to do better for the people with whom we share this earthly home, and the things we need to change about our relationship to our home itself, changes that can address at least some of the damage that we have willfully inflicted on our climate, our oceans, our biodiversity, our agriculture.

The first of these bins is quite large indeed and contains tools and norms for stopping and resolving conflict, protecting human rights, guaranteeing political and cultural participation, rolling back the excess production of weapons, responding effectively to humanitarian emergencies, ensuring decent work for people, especially young people, improving access to health and education for all, but especially for children and persons with disabilities…

You get the idea. These and more are part of our collective effort – often enabled by the UN — to better “humanize” our human relations, to provide a context for overcoming at least some of the callousness and cruelty that too-often dominate our political and economic relations. UN events on hate speech, counter-terror and excess weapons production this past week are but three examples of multi-lateral efforts to enhance prospects for and conditions of security for global constituents.

And then there are those responsibilities in that other “bin” which are about protecting the quality of human life on a planetary home towards which our species has created incalculable disruption and about which we still mostly fail to make good faith efforts that clearly convey the origins and nature of the crisis facing these eco-“co-authors” of our very existence. Here we speak of the natural treasures we claim to revere but to not sufficiently protect; the soils and insects that make our sustenance feasible but to which we pay scant attention; the climate now altering our home in frightening ways and now on the cusp of permanence but which have inspired mostly half-hearted responses and half-fulfilled commitments.

The UN has a constructive role to play here as well, given its ability to convene diplomats, scientists, NGOs, youth and others to highlight major eco-challenges.   The preparatory meetings held this week in New York for a June conference on oceans in Lisbon brought the potential and limitations of such convening to light. Despite robust enthusiasm from diplomats and a full gallery of NGOs, and noting with appreciation fresh efforts to “green” the shipping industry and approach other of what UN Special Envoy Thomson called “positive tipping points,”’ we were fearful that, much like the recent climate summit in Madrid, this could well be yet another event as likely to disappoint as to inspire, and this despite the contention of some key speakers that Lisbon could indeed be a “game changing” moment.

The reasons for our concern are, to our mind at least, quite clear. There is, on the face of it, value to be had in bringing a diverse range of stakeholders together to discuss the current state of ocean health and explore the gaps that need to be filled (including on ocean science) if we are to seize our responsibility to protect a living entity that is more than a recreational destination, more than a source of protein and recreation, more than a “sink” for our carbon excesses.

But this begs the question: Is there reason to believe that massive UN conferences that are so costly in human energy, hospitality and carbon emissions are actually able to “change the game” on matters of fundamental importance to our survival? Is the Lisbon event really going to move the needle on the “equitable prosperity” called for this week by Kenya, the enhanced ocean governance called for by the UN Office for Legal Affairs? Will it be successful in convincing the global public, as advocated by Portugal’s Minister of Oceans, that our leadership will no longer be satisfied with “half measures” on oceans instead of genuine transformation “that is urgent and fair?”

Perhaps. But events alone will not get us to the sustainable future on which our children’s lives depend.

What is missing?   From our vantage point in the middle of these global discussions, we have not yet made the case to enough people that the situation is as perilous as it actually is, that the earth and its oceans which house our collective aspirations are as “sick” as Envoy Thomson claimed this past week.   Moreover, and perhaps more important, we have not convinced people that we as erstwhile leaders are willing to make the hard choices needed to divert this course, to change the way we do our own business and not merely externalize concern to what we have already concluded are the “bad actors.”

Why, for instance, do we insist on holding large events which waste resources, burn carbon, and create often-tepid outcomes for which few leaders are actually held accountable? Why have we not made better use of the technology now available to enable participation by a wider range of stakeholders who might otherwise and rightly be deterred by the eco-consequences of long-distance air travel and four-star hotels?

And why do people like me tend to hold on to issues at global level instead of enabling the localizing of environmental concerns, the people who best know their lands and waterways and understand their neighbors, the people who can make the case for loving a home enough to preserve and protect it, certainly more than any diplomat or global “expert” ever could? Over the past few days, thanks to the great generosity of two old friends, I was privileged to see local initiatives in rural Mississippi and Louisiana, young people of very modest means, together with the adults who teach and mentor them, working the land and producing crops for local sale that are raising community nutrition levels, bringing people together and restoring community pride – and all without poisoning community relations or the local environment.

Indeed, these young people were described by one of my friends as “smart, connected to each other, knowledgeable, hopeful, proud and going places.” Who better to vouch for the preciousness of their home places? Who better to call things by their proper, local names while bringing attention to these oft-forgotten places of cultural and agricultural abundance? Who better to restore the reverence of home places as the condition for helping such places to thrive?

Like the rest of our threatened biosphere, the care and restoration of our oceans must be led by the people who know them best, the people whose every thought seems to take the ocean into account.   If the UN is determined to keep holding grand events that, to some degree, threaten the decay of our environmental home in the name of preserving it, then such events must fundamentally change their face — ensuring every technological opportunity for “greener access,” allowing for more active listening to persons closer to our lands and seas, and fully acknowledging the search of diverse peoples for deep meanings and even a bit of romance for the home places that can inspire actions in all corners of our world for a cooler, healthier, more bio-diverse planet.

Together with our friends and colleagues, we will use whatever access and leverage we have to make the case for policy that reverences local initiatives as the beating heart of efforts to lower the global thermostat and allow for the restoration of the bio-abundance that once adorned our earthly home.

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