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What's your role in fixing our planet?

What's your role in fixing our planet? Many economists think that the solutions to our environmental problems will be found by scientists. As a scientist, I think more solutions will be found by economists.

Business people have been bombarded recently with data on the rate at which we've been disrupting the Earth. All of us deal with this information differently. Some use denial: "Well, it can't be that bad. Nature will provide some mechanism we just haven't found yet. Or they probably have the data wrong again." Some invoke a techno-fix: "Scientists will find a way to overcome that. There'll be new inventions. Mankind is ingenious when the problem gets bad enough." Some of us just throw up our hands in defeat and get on with the rest of our lives: "If we're going to produce wealth, it has to cost some part of the system."

But a look at the facts is necessary.

Truth in numbers

For the last 140,000 years, the level of [CO.sub.2] in the atmosphere was constant at around 285 parts per million. It now stands at some 350 ppm, which may seem only a trace higher, but the fact is these changes have not happened in the last 400 generations of man's history. They have occurred in the last four, and most of them in the last single generation--in fact, the last 10 years of the last generation. If you let that 140,000 years be a 24-hour clock, then the Euphrates was being settled an hour and a half ago and the [CO.sub.2] level started to change in the last 24 seconds, with most of it changing in the last six seconds.

Some say that the greenhouse effect is not coming. It is here. The six warmest years in Britain since 1880 were 1988, 1987, 1983, 1981, 1980, and 1986, in that order. We have experienced a warming of the global temperature by .6[degrees]C, and the temperature will be going up about 1[degrees]C per decade for a bit.

Let me put these small temperature rises into perspective: Man evolved about 100,000 years ago. A rise of only 1.5[degrees]C would make the Earth warmer than it has been in all of those years. A rise of 3[degrees]C would make the Earth warmer than it has been in millions of years. A warming of 5[degrees]C would mean very little bio-diversity left, which provides the "nuts and bolts" that hold the whole works together. These kinds of warming will take place when the [CO.sub.2] level doubles, and there is enough coal and oil still in the ground to raise the [CO.sub.2] level by 10 times.

Other effects of bringing the carbon back include the warming of high latitudes, which will occur two or more times faster than the warming of lower latitudes. This means that much more water will flow out of Canada and Siberia into the Arctic Ocean. We can only guess the consequences of this, but certainly it means more melting of polar ice, a mechanism for further warming the planet and for raising the sea level.

The average height of the oceans, while difficult to get a good measure of, has likely already risen. And most models show the oceans could rise up to one meter in the next decade, and perhaps another in the decade following that. What would this do to the coasts of Canada, to the eastern and southern seaboards of the United States? We need some large-scale economic modeling to get a grip on the probable costs for coastal countries.

As temperatures change, so will winds. Hurricanes will be more powerful. And the amount of rain will change. In fact, the most noticeable changes will be the increase in the chances of facing "extreme events." With even a 1[degrees]C rise in temperature, some of the events that occur once every 100 years become events that occur once every 20 years, and some of the events that occur once every 20 years become events that occur once every five years. Tornadoes, droughts, and floods will occur more often and be more severe. Some American cities will become almost unbearable to live in; others may become more comfortable.

But the biggest change will be in food production. Farmers worldwide will have to change crops, irrigate more, and in some places even stop growing things. In a world of ever-increasing population, a disruption of food production is at the least costly and fraught with economic upheaval.

As for the forest industry, an increase of 1[degrees]C moves the climatic zone 60 miles north. Trees are climate-specific. Forest ecologists say that forests will move on their own at the rate of about one-half mile per year, while this change of climate is advancing at about 6 miles per year. If the movement in climate is out-stripping the movement in trees by 12 times, trees have to die. Doesn't this information change our strategies on what we should cut? Or what we should plant? Does it make any sense to talk about an 80-year rotation in our forests if it is likely that we will have a radically different climate in less than three decades? We need to combine economic policy with good science.

We can design better engines so that they put out less polluting gases. But if we burn petroleum, we are going to produce [CO.sub.2]. The average car driven the average distance per year releases its own weight annually in carbon as [CO.sub.2] into the air. Part of our addiction to petroleum is, of course, our addiction to cars. We can already build cars that get two to five times the mileage of the average car on the road today. But where are they?

Implementation is not a science problem. It is an economic policy problem. I do not foresee that any politican will lead us into giving up this automobile addiction in the near future, and yet there are huge benefits for doing so beyond the environmental ones. The years following the OPEC oil embargo showed that economic actions can change our behavior as a geological force in the world.

For four years, the amount of [CO.sub.2] we put into the air decreased. Since 1984, it has been increasing again. The most likely way to bring it down is to charge the user more.

The burning of forests puts into the air as much [CO.sub.2] as all the cars. But can we politically control this worldwide? Trees are the most efficient way of keeping carbon locked up, and they are the greatest moderator of climate, short of the oceans. But far too much paper gets burned. Of course, we will eventually stop using paper for newspapers. The New York Times has a committee working on this proposal right now. We need economic models and policies that encourage us to see the real value of wood and paper before the trees are cut down.

As we lose our forests, we also are losing about two species of plant and animal per hour, at least 20,000 per year, and with them the biological diversity that holds our ecosystems together. Both business and government need to support the preservation of wild land in Canada and around the world.

How do we find the political leadership willing to commit the resources necessary to deal with changes in climate caused by man? It makes no sense to deal with the problem on other than a world level, and most experts in this field say the crisis point will be happening within this decade.

The central problem is that there are already far too many people in the world, and our politicians are unwilling to even acknowledge it. I have seen very little debate over the fact that the Quebec government pays hefty dividends for families having their third or fourth child. This is ethnocentric madness in a global community.

There are three times as many people in the world now as there were at the turn of the century. And this number is going to at least double again. Economies expand, too. In fact, they expand faster than the population or we consider them failures.

Edward O. Wilson, one of the prominent thinkers of this century, has calculated that the world could sustain indefinitely at North American standards only about 200 million people. That is 1/25 of the present population. We are already deficit budgeting. Wilson further allows that the world could support anywhere from 5 to 8 billion people at third-world standards. But is this what we want to pass on to future generations?

How can you help?

Who is going to search for ways to solve these environmental problems? Not the academics. They are people of ideas and data, not usually thought of as decision-makers. Not the environmental activists. They are raising the alarm and pushing for solutions, but many of their solutions will be too simplistic. Not the politicians, for we have learned that politicians follow voters. That leaves business people, the educated decision-makers of North American business and industry, because they are the people who take action.

Effective ecological remedies require initiative and innovation on all levels, not the inertia of an overly centralized and bureaucratized economy. The free market economy will have a large role to play. But adequate constraints, international agreements, and a new ecological morality are also needed.

Look at how all of your actions relate to the natural world. Make strong physical, emotional, and philosophical connections to the Earth yourself. Start gardening, go hiking, take up kayaking or birdwatching--anything that will get you out in the world not dominated by man. Cancel that golf holiday that would take you to developed spaces and go nourish yourself in someplace wilder.

I know from many experiences that when people nurture a sense of wonder and delight in the natural world they begin to see the truth in biocentric equality. They see the worth in the idea that all of the planet's beings are of equal intrinsic worth. All are interconnected. All, including us, have the right to satisfy their vital needs. That's why I fight for the preservation of wild places. The world needs wilderness to help us see how and why to solve problems in the non-wilderness world.

Some part of our problem is that we seem comfortable measuring our worth, whether personal or corporate, in only dollars. If you measure your net worth as an individual in dollars, you won't get a good understanding of yourself.

In the same vein, we get more from the economists and geographers who measure our "quality of life" than from those who measure our "standard of living." The former may have less accurate measures, but they are far more informative. If you have chosen to work on the west coast of Canada rather than accept a higher paying job in the east, then you already have an implicit understanding of this.

If your company or any companies with which you are associated measure their output and net worth only in terms of the bottom line, then you are misleading yourselves, your stockholders, probably your clients, and almost certainly society. Bottom-line accounting is good for figuring taxes, but it lacks the reality necessary to tell us whether our actions are doing the world any good. The real worth of companies is measured in character, in citizenship, in worthwhileness of products, in the way they treat people, in the way they respect our non-human fellow occupants of the planet, in the way they take responsibility for their products and byproducts.

By relying on symbols of success, we set up a feedback loop that drives the system to looking for even more satisfaction. The symbols themselves do not satisfy. Indeed, they are the crux of many national and world environmental problems. Corporations often take symbolic action, rather than real action, on environmental issues. They tend to focus on looking as if they are taking care of the environment, instead of really doing something.

The pulp and paper industry of Canada and the Council of Forest Industries are both spending many advertising dollars telling the people of Canada that they are doing a fine job of managing our forests, conserving our wilderness, even producing areas that we can use for recreation (as if we couldn't use them before the companies came along). But these ads are misleading. I ask both of these industries for some reality education, as well as an open-ear policy toward the community.

Here's an example of a more realistic ad: "You want houses? You want lumber to build things? You want the wealth that goes along with exports? You want jobs? You want newspapers? You use an enormous quantity of paper--and are prepared to recycle very little of it. Yes, you are part of the forestry problem. But you can help be part of the solution.

"We can't provide you with wood and paper without damaging the environment, and it takes a cooperative effort to minimize that damage. We do not think we can operate without some clearcutting. If we can, it certainly is going to cost more. And there will be waste. If you think there should be less waste, that will cost, too. If you think there shouldn't be clearcuts, here are the likely costs...."

The open-ear policy would mean the people of Canada could say to the forest industry: "We need evidence that the mess we see out there is not an evergrowing cancer, that it has bounds, that there will always be places where we can go and find solace in virgin forests, that you are answering the needs of people other than your stockholders, and that you are concerned about the other species that occupy the planet.

"If we have an 80-year rotation and have been logging for over 100 years, why was 35 percent of the logging this year from old growth? We are all complicit in the changing of our forests. We need openness on your part. We want to be shown that you are measuring more than the bottom line. What controls have you got in place?"

Self-centered suicide?

Perhaps the most fundamental inadequacy of the free market economic system is that market systems do not protect future generations, because future generations have no purchasing power. Much of what we do for comfort or profits for ourselves is at the expense of future generations. Our successors will have to both suffer a world with fewer resources--oil, for example--and bear the costs of our use of them.

But what if some percentage of corporate profits or taxes were set aside for the claims of our grandchildren? It would take a legislative expert to find a way to make the idea work by law, but you can make it work for you as an individual. And the corporate world might eventually even find that concern for the future pays.

There is no longer a place for backroom bargaining, covert counsel, hidden decision-making. This is best illustrated by the last three White House contingents. And, as the interconnectedness and diversity of the corporate world increases, there are plenty of illustrations closer to home.

We are forced by predicament to cooperate as people, as corporations, as nations. We need to either overcome or respond to the circumstances that are upon us, to become creators of a future that is good for us and good for all species on the planet.

Is there room for optimism? Yes, I believe there is. We have the scientific tools to model, monitor, and predict the impact of our actions. We have the abilities to cooperate, care, and create futures that are desirable. And I think that, over most of the world, we have the political will and the human energy. You know better than I if we have the economic models necessary to provide incentives and disincentives, but I believe in mankind's abilities to create better ones where we do not.

But let us not be naive. This is the biggest problem that has ever confronted man. We have to get informed and start working separately and together at every level.

What is happening to the atmosphere is catastrophically abrupt. That should be enough to get us going. However, man does not tend to respond to processes. We respond to events. We need floods and landslides and automobile crashes and famines to remind us of the processes. But then it may be too late.

A teacher illustrated the difference between process and even by dropping a frog in a beaker of hot water. The frog jumped out. He then put the frog in a beaker of cold water and heated the beaker. The frog kept swimming in the water until it boiled to death.

Dr. Whitney is president of Pacific Synergies Ltd. in Vancouver, British Columbia. This article was developed from a speech be delivered to FEI's Vancouver Chapter.
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Title Annotation:business and the environment
Author:Whitney, Alan G.
Publication:Financial Executive
Date:Jul 1, 1990
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