The Importance of Connections

The Importance of Connections

Global interdependence ties our environmental fate to others, but also creates a public store of good examples to follow.

In nature everything is connected to everything else. Aldo Leopold taught us that back in the 1950s. Twenty years after the first issue of World Watch was published, an ever larger segment of the population seems to understand the implications of our interconnectedness.

NASA scientist James Hansen warned us in 1988 that humans were changing the climate and the effects of that change were starting to become evident. Not many people outside of Washington paid attention. Many refused to believe it. Today, millions of people live in town centers to avoid driving to work. Consumers buy the hybrid Toyota Prius in record numbers. Venture capital floods into technologies that reduce energy use or generate power from renewable sources. Architects and engineers brag about who can design the greenest building.

Does this mean our society has figured out how to live in harmony with the Earth's natural systems? Far from it. But we are certainly closer to, if not at, the "tipping point." As Ray Anderson, chairman of Interface and a tireless evangelist for industrial ecology, explains it, An Inconvenient Truth caused the supersaturated solution of concern about climate change to precipitate into action. The movie came after Hurricane Katrina, high gasoline prices, and several reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. An Inconvenient Truth galvanized people around the world to stand up and say "Enough! It's time to get serious about climate change."

My job at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill brings me into contact with many people from a variety of backgrounds. In the UNC community, students were the first to understand the profound implications of climate change. They even raised their own fees to invest in renewable energy infrastructure directly on campus. Now some faculty members are changing their research focus-a rare occurrence in academia-to study a range of energy and climate related topics. Our chancellor has signed the American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment, pledging us to climate neutrality by mid-century.

While it's true that talk about climate change still greatly exceeds action, signs of progress abound. When I wrote about renewable energy technologies in the 1980s, California was the only state with commercial wind turbines. Last year, 20 states installed utility-scale wind turbines and Texas surpassed California in the amount of installed generating capacity. Fully half the states now require utilities to generate a certain minimum percentage of their electricity from renewable sources. North Carolina joined the list in August, the first state in the southeast to do so.

Unfortunately price signals do not yet steer people to make good environmental choices. Food transported halfway around the world is often less expensive than food sold by local farmers. A gallon of nonrenewable gasoline purchased from countries that don't much like us costs less than a large mocha latte. Small businesses can deduct the full price of a gas-guzzling sport utility vehicle from their income taxes. And first cost still trumps life-cycle cost savings for most individuals, businesses, and government agencies.

Since leaving the Worldwatch Institute, I have lived in Germany, the Netherlands, and several cities in Canada and the United States. Seeing how various cultures address economic, environmental, and social challenges is eye opening. When Germany unified in 1990, the country recognized that the cleanup required in the East would position German companies to be international leaders in environmental technologies. Packaging laws required product manufacturers to take responsibility for recycling the packaging on their products. Toxic components, unnecessary packaging, and materials that were difficult to recycle disappeared quickly. This strategic approach to economic development and public policy surfaces less frequently in the United States.

In the Netherlands we paid a pre-recycling fee when we registered our car, and a quarterly road tax even though we rarely drove the vehicle. Like the Dutch of all ages and socio­economic classes, we rode our bikes everywhere. When my youngest was eight months old, she sat in the bike seat mounted in front of my handlebars and peered out at the world through a clear windshield. Saddlebags and a device that allowed me to strap on an umbrella stroller enabled me to continue shopping car-free at the open air markets. Safe and expansive bike networks, and expensive gas and parking, made bike riding the easy choice.

In Canada, Germany, and the Netherlands we appreciated the universal access to health care. I relished giving birth to my younger daughter at home, the Dutch way, in a country with one of the lowest infant mortality rates in the world. Now that I have a fulltime job with health insurance in the United States, I pray that large medical bills will not someday deplete all our savings. With half of all personal bankruptcies caused by illness and medical bills, and most of those among people who started with health insurance, I know that millions of Americans must share this fear.

While outside the United States, we marveled at the multi-stakeholder decision-making processes that included government, the private sector, and community-based organizations. Maybe our wobbly language skills had something to do with it, but there certainly appeared to be less conflict and litigiousness. The cronyism, corruption, and stonewalling that plague the current U.S. administration have set many environmental causes back decades. On the plus side, I have participated in multi-stakeholder community design processes in Florida and am engaging in them more frequently as we design new buildings at UNC. Nonetheless, I feel a diminished sense of civility and inclusiveness in the United States.

Fundamentally, the question comes down to whether a society acts on its values. Providing health care for all, discouraging the use of fossil fuels, and respectfully listening to multiple points of view are values I hold strongly. My gut tells me that many, if not most, Americans share these values. If that's true, then why do we struggle so much, often with futility, to achieve these common goals?

I have seen many positive changes over the past 20 years. Curbside recycling has become the norm. Yet new landfills are still needed to make up the slack and they are as vocally opposed as the Mobro garbage barge was in 1987. Wind turbines and solar cells are starting to sprout up everywhere, though less rapidly than I had hoped and anticipated. Building owners from all sectors are starting to out-green each other. Many corporations, especially those that also operate in Europe and Asia, are genuinely trying to reduce their ecological footprint and improve their bottom line, rather than just greenwashing.

My hope is that if I am still around to write a column 20 years from now I will be able to write about how we have reduced greenhouse gas emissions significantly, how we have reduced the gap between rich and poor, and how we have protected habitats in order to preserve the phenomenal biodiversity of this planet.

So next time you buy a house or a car, or vote for a politician, or decide to take a new job, ask yourself "Am I creating the change I want to see in this world?" Because like it or not, everything is connected to everything else.


Cynthia Pollock Shea is director of the sustainability office at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.