Enviro conference sheds more light than doom and gloom
July 15, 2002
Environmental conferences have a knack for dishing out so much doom and gloom that participants often flee to a dark room to bang their heads against a wall when they’re finished.
So when the third annual “State of the World Conference” convened in Aspen this weekend, organizers placed a heavy emphasis on offering ample solutions to the abundant problems plaguing the world.
The speakers didn’t exactly gloss over the environmental and social ills facing the planet. They often painted grim and dire pictures of the exploding population, disappearing natural resources, degradation of the environment and apparent indifference by humankind.
But they also provided inspiration and avenues for coming up with solutions.
Obviously the problems that need to be faced are daunting, but that should make us even more tenacious, said Wes Jackson, president of the Land Institute of Salina, Kansas. The nonprofit organization is researching and promoting sustainable agricultural as an alternative to the industrial method practiced today.
“If you’re working on something that can be solved in your lifetime, you’re not thinking big enough,” Jackson declared.
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One focus of the Land Institute is to breed perennial crops, such as sorghum, wheat and corn. They produce higher yields without depleting the soil the way annual planting does, he said. The effort is going to require money and patience.
“This cannot be solved with Wal-Mart science,” said Jackson. “We’ll leave that to Monsanto.”
While seeking solutions and suggesting ways that individuals can make a difference, the conference avoided falling into an atmosphere where everyone hugged and declared we can accomplish anything if we only try. That was the pitfall that seemed to doom the old Windstar Foundation’s “Choices for the Future” conferences of the 1980s.
Instead, experts dished out a healthy dose of reality about the problems and solutions at this gathering, sponsored by the Aspen-based Sopris Foundation and Washington, D.C.-based Worldwatch Institute. (To learn more about them, visit http://www.soprisfoundation.org and http://www.worldwatch.org.)
About 300 participants were attracted to Paepcke Auditorium, including a healthy contingent of locals.
Worldwatch senior researcher Michael Renner acknowledged that there is an overwhelming amount of information and even hyperbole in the environmental movement. He advised individuals to pick their areas of deepest concern, study them and act by changing their lifestyles and sharing information with friends.
Worldwatch isn’t involved heavily in political lobbying but has gained a reputation for providing solid data on selected topics. It produces a renowned annual report called “Vital Signs: The Trends that Are Shaping Our Future.” In it, the nonprofit organization practices what it preaches to individuals.
“Let’s cut through all the stuff that’s out there and focus on the things that are really important,” Renner said.
He also urged the crowd to stop our society’s irritating habit of looking at issues strictly in terms of dollars. Car accidents pump money into the economy by requiring repairs to damaged vehicles and care for injured people. Yet no one would argue they are an economic asset, Renner noted. Economic practices that harm the environment should be seen in the same light.
Lester Brown, founder and president of the Earth Policy Institute, said he believes a more environmentally oriented treatment of issues is inevitable. Every major issue that the world will face is already being dealt with by one country or another, he said.
Israel uses waste water for drip irrigation on a massive scale in the arid Middle East desert. South Korea provided a model for reforestation. Denmark satisfies about 15 percent of its energy needs with wind power.
Brown said Americans are becoming increasingly aware of environmental issues and supportive of environmentally friendly solutions. Soon, it won’t matter who gets elected president because the wave of environmental activism will be so strong – just as it really didn’t matter who was in office on Sept. 11, he said. The immediate response was generally going to be the same, whoever was president.
But, Brown said, his concern is whether humankind will act on a large scale before its hand is forced and before it is too late to make a difference on some issues.
President Bush wasn’t criticized by name, but Worldwatch Institute President Chris Flavin noted that “the whole world is upset” with the administration’s disregard for environmentally related pacts and agreements. He expressed hope that the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa, in September 2002 would provide an opportunity for the United States to make adjustments.
Like Brown, Flavin said change is inevitable, although it won’t come without hard work. He likened the effort to force an environmentally oriented approach to the six-decade effort to abolish slavery in the United States.
“We certainly shouldn’t give up just as our ancestors didn’t give up on the issue of slavery in the 1790s,” Flavin said.
Worldwatch’s Renner was pressed by an audience member on whether he thought a sustainable future – where humans didn’t gobble all resources to the detriment of the environmental and themselves – was possible.
“Ultimately I’m feeling positive, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to continue in this line of work,” said Renner. “We pretty much know what works and what doesn’t work.”
Now it’s just a matter of implementing those practices that work.