Tag Archives: sustainability

Oceans 14: Making Peace with Life Below Water, Dr. Robert Zuber

4 Jun


Global warming is the foreboding thunder in the distance. Ocean acidification is the lightning strike in our front yard. David Horsey

It is horrifying that we have to fight our own government to save the environment.   Ansel Adams

If you’re out someplace like the ocean on a capsized boat, it doesn’t matter if you have academic degrees, or if you’re a martial-arts ninja. Nature is a bigger force than you. Rachael Taylor

Monday, the UN is poised to welcome delegates from around the world, including many heads of state and foreign ministers from Small Island Developing States (SIDS). These leaders have come to profess their deep commitment to the vast and unique resource represented by our oceans.  They have come to share threats of desalination and sea water rise, of acidification, fisheries depletion, mass “islands” of plastic waste and growing species loss.  They have come to ask for justice and assistance to preserve their island homes and ways of life.

For months now, under the guidance of the president of the General Assembly, Fiji’s Peter Thomson, and with enthusiastic support from much of the UN system, our UN conference rooms been the scene of intense scrutiny of the consequences of our frivolous and longstanding misuses of our oceans, a resource that our western mythology has long cast as infinite and fearsome, but which we now recognize is showing grave strains that jeopardize the livelihoods, safety and well-being of all who live on its shores, all the families and communities who depend on its bounty.

The culmination of efforts by President Thompson and many other UN leaders is what is known as “The Ocean Conference,” or in its longer version, the United Nations Conference to Support the Implementation of Sustainable Development Goal 14: Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.

The larger policy backdrop for this meeting is a series of climate-related warning signs with implications for and from our oceans, including mass ice cap fissures, record high global temperatures, and increasing levels of food insecurity exacerbated by climate-related drought, flooding and damage from massive ocean storms.  And then there is the decision by the UN’s “host state” to pull out of the Paris Climate agreement, only one of a series of steps taken by the current US administration to roll back virtually all environmental protections for which the federal government has previously taken responsibility.

This isn’t the setting to undertake a thorough critique of the US president’s decisions on environmental protection, ocean health and climate change. From a multi-lateral perspective, though, we are inclined to reject the lens promoted by many in the media that US leadership is utterly indispensable to the urgent pursuit of ocean and climate health.   We have, in fact, both seen and welcomed the determination of many states around the world to step up their environmental commitments in partial recognition of the fact that the Paris agreement, for all of its hopeful policy urgency, establishes a still-shaky floor for climate health.  Many scientists believe that the targets established by Paris are probably not robust enough (a point also made by Nicaragua which has thus far refused to support the agreement); some scientists believe that we have already crossed a dangerous threshold and that much more will be needed from many corners of the globe if a permanent crisis is still to be averted. A bit of formal US government hostility towards environmental health may increase the shaking a bit, but thankfully others are doing more and pledging even more than that.  And the tide in the waters of US state concern can always turn again.

In this context, we should recall that a lack of formal US commitment to UN agreements has rarely, on its face, indicated an unwillingness to work with relevant UN mechanisms.   The US has long been a serial offender when it comes to ratifying UN treaties but not always a serial offender when it comes to honoring their spirit.  The US may never ratify the Rome Statute, for instance, but that doesn’t mean that the US won’t work with the International Criminal Court prosecutors to promote justice for mass atrocities.  There is wiggle room here to negotiate cooperative, if not binding arrangements on oceans and other climate-impacting resources, even with members of this fact-challenged administration.

Nevertheless, given recent threats to state support (at least for now in the US) for climate-healthy, environmentally-friendly policies, the onus must shift (and has shifted in many instances) to cities and communities, activists and academics, designers and farmers, people from all walks of life and their supporting organizations who have both skills and contexts to contribute to our urgent environmental tasks.  Indeed, one key feature of this week’s Ocean Conference is its focus on voluntary commitments from state and non-state actors, commitments ranging widely from efforts to rid the oceans of discarded fishing gear and micro-plastics to establishing new or larger ocean sanctuaries.  We will need to solicit and network many thousands more of these commitments by government and non-government actors, especially from within the major oceans-abusing and even climate-denying states.

One “commitment” that we value greatly is Green Map, which is now in the process of aligning its global iconography (170 core images) with the Sustainable Development Goals.   The point of this exercise is not to promote the icons themselves, but rather what the icons themselves promote – hopeful local sustainability initiatives taking place in communities worldwide.    There are many such initiatives underway and many more soon to take root.   We need them all, and then some.

If some states begin to lose their grip on the urgency of our ocean and climate risks, the rest of us must tighten our collective resolve.  We cannot survive as a species without our oceans.  We surely cannot meet our diverse obligations to the SDGs without healthy oceans. We cannot eliminate poverty, educate our children, resolve our governance-related issues, end discrimination and even solve climate change without oceans that can sustain its complex and still-undiscovered life forms while continuing to host our livelihoods and absorb our carbon excesses.

Many of us have had the experience of standing on an ocean shore staring at darkening clouds kissed by a setting sun.   Alarmingly, the thunder in those clouds is louder now; the lightning is getting closer than is comfortable.  The time has come, indeed past, for us to pause our grateful gaze and take up our urgent cause.



Green Lantern: UNGA Informal Debate on ‘Harmony with Nature”

23 Apr

As a nod to Earth Day 2013, the UN General Assembly was the setting for an ‘informal debate’ focused on ways to more effectively promote planetary ‘harmony’.

A half-full conference room listened to a short presentation from the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and more passionate speeches by the UN General Assembly President, Mr. Vuk Jeremić of Serbia, and by Ministers from Bolivia and Ecuador, two ‘left-leaning’ governments that tend to exercise a great deal of control over national economic outcomes.

There were some valuable reminders shared by these four speakers during what was a bit of an ideologically-imbalanced opening session.   From our own organizational standpoint, it is good to be reminded that consumption in the developed world is largely optional and has increasingly deleterious impacts on natural health in all global regions.  In addition, we should recognize that too much of the ‘green’ movement has been co-opted by those who seek to institutionalize levels of developed world consumption while attempting to ‘manage’ levels of growth in less developed nations.

At the debate, there were also renewed calls for a ‘universal declaration’ of the rights of nature tied to an alleged, if helpful, ‘right to recovery’ for nature that has been ravaged by a preponderance of short-term economic resource use disconnected from any reasonable capacity for future generations to access (and preserve) the same resources.

Our economic situation has been increasingly dark in recent times – inequities and shortages abound, as do the toxic effects of our mindless exploitation.    While it is not yet clear how ‘nature rights’ could be properly identified and enforced, nor is it clear how economic reform would result in locally based economies rather than state structures attempting to micro-manage large scale economic development, it is critically important to shine a light on alternatives that are urgent, viable and fair.  Needless to say, we don’t have sufficient alternatives at present. We need to keep the lantern lit as much as possible.

An office like ours has very limited access to deliberations on economic futures.   From our experience in meetings such as this one, it is clear that States too have limited options, more limited than they generally acknowledge.  Economic decisions, more and more, take place beyond the reach of states in board rooms and investment houses.  Whatever one thinks of “Occupy’ and other movements to expose economic inequities, including in economic decision making, it is clear that this current system is being driven by self-interested and unaccountable forces.   If such forces were merely accumulating wealth, there would be sufficient cause for general concern.  That accumulated wealth is driving so much planetary dysfunction should be cause for the loudest general alarm.

Simply put, there are biological limits to economic growth.   And those limits are not being acknowledged, let alone respected.   As one of the ministers from Ecuador wondered aloud and with some urgency, “Who precisely is going to bell this cat?”  How will that be accomplished? The cat has a defensive, nasty disposition and sharp claws.  It will take some real courage to bell it.  Until that happens, though, the rest of us will largely remain ignorant (willfully or otherwise) of the ways that our lives are about to become more painful and toxic than they need to be!

Our collective disenchantment with our economic system seems to grow daily.   At the same time, our resistance to economic change borders on the neurotic.   We have deep addictions to unsustainable and largely optional patters of consumption that remain stubborn in their remedial application and are also quite devastating to our long-term biological prospects.

On Earth Day, we need to shine more light on the structures and choices that undermine a ‘green’ agenda – unequal economic access, unsustainable (and largely optional) patterns of consumption, and more.  We also need to renew our connections with some of our more ‘intimate’ ecological processes – how our food is grown, where our drinking water comes from, what happens to our waste when we are ‘done’ with it.

Our ignorance of basic environmental processes as well as our insistence that we own everything we use are both planet-defeating attitudes. Our preference for owning a neighbor’s land to having a neighbor undermines community integrity.   Our relentless pursuit of non-essential consumer goods represents a psychologically defective, wasteful application of time and resources.   Our ability to simultaneously express a deep love for our children while contributing to the demise of the system that supports their lives is a dangerous inconsistency.  Clearly, we must continue to shine a light on these and other discontinuities, and then organize a viable, participatory strategy to overcome them.


–Dr. Robert Zuber