Environmental Sustainability

In 1835, when Charles Darwin visited the Galapagos Islands 800 kilometers off the coast of Ecuador, the nearly pristine isolation of the volcanic archipelago and its many unique species inspired his theory of natural selection. Although isolation had been the best insurance policy for the island’s ecology, the Galapagos quickly lost that distinction. Nineteenth-century whaling vessels severely depleted the population of the giant tortoise, which sailors used for provisions.

Ecuador established prison colonies on the islands and mined salt for preserving the fish and tortoise meat.  Cattle ranching, canning, and even World War II military bases transformed the landscape. By the middle of the 20th century, three tortoise species were extinct and one of the three native mammals – the rice rat – was wiped out on many islands. In 1959, recognizing the scientific and cultural treasures of the islands, Ecuador declared all but 2 percent of the territory a national park.  Attempts were made to develop the islands in a “sustainable” manner.  While the fishing industry continued to hang on, the islands came to depend increasingly on tourism for revenue.  The government established visitor stations and trails from which tourists can’t stray.  Designated tourism guides accompany all visitors.

Despite these extensive precautions, this development hasn’t necessarily been sustainable.  The human population of the islands has swelled to 16,000, increasing at a rate of 6-7 percent a year, and the islands now boast three airports.  In 1995, the government raised the ceiling on visitors, tripling the number to 60,000 annually.  The fishing industry – cod, lobster, shark fin – has tested the environmental limits, and in the case of sea cucumbers in 1994, triggered a severe depletion of stocks.  Non-native animals – such as feral goats and dogs – are ravaging the landscape. Although many of the boats that visit the Galapagos qualify as “eco-tourist,” conventional tours still service the route, which translates into millions of gallons of wastewater dumped around the archipelago (though this has been reduced in part by the designation in 2004 of the Galapagos as a “particularly sensitive sea area”).   The world’s showcase of sustainable development, in other words, also highlights the uneasy coexistence of environmental protection and economic growth.

Advocates of development in the service of economic justice have frequently locked horns with environmentalists who have challenged the growth paradigm at the heart of most economic models. In the 1980s, this battle yielded the compromise of “sustainable development.”  The Brundtland Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, issued in 1987, served as the touchstone document for “sustainable development,” defining the concept as that which “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”  Corporations quickly picked up on the new buzzword as they “greened” their operations.  For some, like 3M, this green revolution translated into a considerable reduction of energy inputs and waste outputs; for other businesses, the “green” never penetrated further than the public relations department.

On the other side of the traditional divide, environmental organizations scrambled to demonstrate that ecology could help the bottom line.  They began to speak of income-generating projects and micro-enterprise development, of eco-tourism and fair trade and sustainable agriculture.  Entrepreneur and environmentalist Paul Hawken, along with energy expert Amory Lovins, introduced the concept of “natural capitalism,” combining the green of money and the green of ecology.  Although the category of sustainable development established a middle ground for business, NGOs, and governments, there remains considerable disagreement over how the term becomes actual policy.

How much development is acceptable from an environmental point of view, and who makes this decision? Is sustainable development targeted only at production in the global South and not consumption in the industrialized North?  Is it an unacceptable abridgement of sovereignty for indebted countries to trade pieces of their territory for debt cancellation, even if that territory becomes protected?  Can a monetary value be placed on nature?  Can economic growth continue indefinitely?  Do savings from energy reduction only spur further growth?   If sacrifices have to be made, on whose shoulders will the burden fall?

On a trip to Provisions, read Brian Tokar’s devastating critique of the environmental movement’s cooptation at the hands of business and government in Earth for Sale, check out the practical tips on green living in Coop America Quarterly, find out where your country ranks on the global sustainability index, ponder the restorative capacity of art and artists in the 20-year Ghost Nets project, tune in to the Green Scene radio show on the web, and see the movie Thirst about the water crisis that is happening right now.

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