The Conservation Conversation about Sustainability

Hey look, I won an essay contest! While in London, my program hosted a lecture by Ed Gillespie about sustainability. Below is my response:

Unless you have been living under a rock for the past thirty years – in which case your carbon footprint is most likely unsubstantial, so praise is in order – it would have been impossible to avoid the global conversation about sustainability. Here is some numerical food for thought: A quarter of the world’s armed conflicts in recent years have involved a struggle for natural resources. Only 1% of China’s 560 million city residents breathe air considered safe by the European Union. Americans throw away 2.5 million plastic bottles every hour, produce enough Styrofoam cups annually to circle the earth 436 times and trash enough office paper to build a 12-foot wall from Los Angeles to New York City. Between May and September, five million barrels of oil gushed from an underwater well in the Gulf of Mexico and all the while, what is known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch continued its swirling vortex across what is roughly twice the size of the continental United States.

In short, human beings are wasteful, we are foolish, we worship the illusion of bottomless resources and we single-mindedly pursue a mentality of consumption so aptly summed up by “drill, baby, drill.” Experts predict that by 2050, our planet will no longer be able to sustain its nine billion inhabitants. For that reason alone it is absolutely vital to redefine and revamp the sustainability conversation in terms of desirability and communication. The ultimate message is not so much about hugging trees and saving the planet as it is about saving our collective well-being – we are intrinsically selfish creatures, so it should not be a hard idea to sell.

As I sat attentively in the auditorium at Ed Gillespie’s presentation, diligently scrawling notes throughout his spitfire delivery, I realized that I was the epitome of his stereotypical consumer blissfully unconcerned with sustainability. Fresh from a jaunt in Europe, I had flown three times in the past week and purchased (and discarded) roughly fifteen plastic water bottles. But crumpled beneath my chair was a reusable grocery bag, surely that could be the redeeming note amidst a myriad of wasteful actions? But then on second thought, the cardboard and plastic packaging within that I most likely would not have recycled is a damning piece of evidence against me. Given this position, it is no wonder Gillespie’s pyramid of willingness vs. effectiveness – in which our willingness to make an effort toward sustainability decreases with its respective impact – resonated with my “faux green” sensibilities. I certainly agree that it is much easier to cease using plastic bags than it is to cease traveling by air, and the attractiveness of these sustainable options hinge on how easily they are accomplished. But until someone actually demonstrated this all-too-human trait in a lovely diagram on a snazzy Powerpoint slide, I never put much thought to the matter. Part bystander-effect, part-psychological numbing, my unconscious refusal to “do the right thing” because it is just too much work is rather troubling. Multiply this mentality by however many billion consumers also flew in an “aluminum sausage,” jokes Gillespie, and tossed plastic bottles just last week, and the result is terrifying.

Moving from the individual to the societal level, I particularly enjoyed Gillespie’s assertion that whether or not climate change can be scientifically proven is ultimately irrelevant to the sustainability conversation. All too often, pundits and politicians are caught up in a maelstrom of competing statistics about the rate of ocean acidification, the decreasing ozone layer and at what rate the glaciers are melting, or if it is all an elaborate hoax. Regardless, as the cartoon so aptly highlighted, sustainability has positive outcomes: cleaner water and air, livable cities, green jobs, preserving the rainforests, energy independence and healthy children. If we can move beyond the climate change roadblock, the discussion will be exponentially more productive.

The year 2008 marked a devastating financial crash the likes of which has not been seen since the Great Depression.  and the fallout has severely hampered the sustainability movement. As businesses and individuals alike struggle to meet the bottom-line, many claim they cannot pay the price for going green. As Gillespie pointed out, the opposite is true. The age of cheap oil is over and since the 1980s, we have exceeded the world’s biocapacity, consuming each three to five planet’s worth of resources. The bottom line is that we cannot have a healthy economy and society without a healthy environment. In fact, the financial and ecological problems can be solved simultaneously because “being green” is smart business in that it focuses on efficiencies in energy, waste and processes. In the long run, money is being saved, not wasted. Furthermore, the evidence Gillespie provided about innovation in infrastructure and energy like the wind turbines in Australia, the wave hub off the coast of England and the Sahara Project all are excellent examples of progress.

In short, Gillespie and his organization are all about making sustainable development so desirable it becomes normal. The alarm bells have been ringing ever since we began exceeding the planet’s biocapacity in the 1980s. This is a crisis of resources, there simply is not enough oil to fuel our cars, not enough space to hold our carbon waste, not enough land to sustain population growth.

Rather than “Keep Calm and Carry On,” let’s “Get excited and change things,” and unleash the collective human potential to save ourselves.

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