It’s Extreme Not to Be Green

Lori Pottinger
Thursday, April 7, 2005

The recently released Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, a UN–sponsored analysis of the overall health of the planet, reveals the extent to which humanity’s destruction of the natural world is threatening our ability to thrive on the planet. The report – the largest–ever assessment of environmental changes and their impacts on human well–being – reveals the rapid and accelerating degradation to ecosystems that are essential to life on Earth.

While some of these environmental changes are "invisible" to the average person, others are more obvious – such as worsening floods, droughts, landslides and fires associated with deforestation, damming and climate change; increasing disease outbreaks, especially water–borne illnesses; and the collapse of freshwater and marine fisheries.

Freshwater ecosystems are in particularly precarious shape. For example, the assessment found that wetlands provide services to humanity valued as high as $15 trillion annually, including the water supply on which an estimated 1.5–3 billion people depend. Yet current human practices are degrading and destroying these wetlands at a faster rate than any other type of ecosystem. And channelized rivers, the report notes, are more apt to result in extreme flood damage; more than 100,000 people were killed by floods in the 1990s, with damages totaling $243 billion.

Large dams have probably done more harm to freshwater ecosystems than any other human intervention. The Millennium Assessment notes that the amount of water impounded behind dams has quadrupled since 1960, and that six times more water is held in reservoirs than flows in natural rivers.

Not only are a degraded environment and declining water resources health issues, but they are also increasing poverty and the gap between rich and poor. The assessment notes that levels of poverty remain high and inequalities are growing: over one billion people survive on less than $1 a day, and up to 2 billion are affected by water scarcity. Some 1.8 million people die annually due to inadequate hygiene, sanitation or water supply.

The assessment states that: "Any progress achieved in addressing the goals of poverty and hunger eradication, improved health and environmental protection is unlikely to be sustained if most of the ecosystem services on which humanity relies continue to be degraded." It calls for "radical changes in the way nature is treated at every level of decision–making and new ways of cooperation between government, business and civil society."

Noteworthy efforts have been made to improve the quality of development projects. An international effort to reduce the impacts of large dams on rivers and communities resulted exemplary guidelines for planning and building large dams by the The World Commission on Dams (WCD). The WCD’s transparent and participatory approach to decision–making would help steer investment away from large dam–and–canal irrigation schemes toward approaches that help the poor be masters of their own development while reducing the environmental impacts of water and energy consumption. It would raise public awareness of the advantages of decentralized options and force developers to take responsibility for the costs of adequately assessing, mitigating and compensating for the negative impacts of large dam projects. It would also help to reduce the rampant corruption that bedevils infrastructure projects and leads to wasted money and bad choices.

Yet the widely acclaimed WCD report was deemed too extreme by many in the powerful dam lobby. Today, after a decade during which big dam building has been in steady decline, the World Bank, numerous developing country governments and the dam industry associations are pushing for a revitalization of megadam construction, and the sidelining of the WCD report. This is truly an extreme reaction. Returning to the bad old days of building concrete walls in every river (and other "business as usual" approaches to human development) will worsen our ecological tailspin, the social ills of developing countries, and the gap between haves and have–nots.

The dam industry is not alone in resisting "radical change." Those now entrenched in promoting a business–as–usual approach – the oil industry, the US auto industry, timber interests and large agribusiness are just a few – will fight calls to find new ways of doing business and bringing development to poorer countries without destroying the environment. These entrenched defenders of the status quo can be expected to keep up their fight to keep the environmental movement marginalized, "too extreme" to accommodate human progress.

Most of us who toil in the "green trenches" have been labeled extreme at one time or another, often just for holding an opinion that differs from that of the powers–that–be. The efforts to label NGOs as extremist have greatly intensified in the current political climate.

What the Millennium Assessment shows is that fighting against environmental protection and for the development status quo is the extreme position. If the international community is to reduce both poverty and environmental degradation, we need tools to discourage business–as–usual approaches to development and to promote innovative, pro–poor and pro–environment schemes.

It is time to turn the tables on what is labeled radical and what is considered mainstream. Those who refuse to heed the recommendations of forward–looking bodies such as the WCD and the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment are the true extremists, and they should be sidelined.

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