Zack Gross
Zack Gross

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Are We Losing the Battle to Save Our Planet?

Brandon Sun “Small World” Column, Sunday, October 21/07

Zack Gross
Policymakers often move at a snail’s pace to deal with the environmental challenges that face us, even though a recent survey showed that 100% of the world’s reputable scientific community is convinced that global warming and drastic climate change are a reality. 

Consumers may worry about our future on a philosophical level, but when it comes to action, the vast majority seems happy to purchase the latest hi-tech hydro-draining and polluting gadgets, drive gas-guzzling cars, and use cleaning and gardening products that poison our air, soil and water.

Some observers of global economic, social and environmental realities are saying now that we are no longer “developing” the planet – and bettering the position of the poor – but rather we are “fighting fires” and playing a game of global survival.  This is a game we are losing.  We are not even holding our own.  Natural disasters, wars and the scourge of disease are getting the upper hand. 

This crisis is manifested in the storms, mudslides and earthquakes that have hit Asia and the area around the Gulf of Mexico in recent years, in the regional wars in the Middle East, Western Asia and Central Africa, and in the spread of HIV / AIDS, which has devastated communities and economies, particularly in East and Southern Africa.  The Earth is a mess and climate change and the fight over resources are at the heart of the problem.

There are still voices of hope, however, and Manitoba is home to many of those voices.  Our province hosts the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), an organization set up by the federal government back in the Mulroney days to undertake, in particular, research projects on environmental concerns. 

Some twenty years later, the IISD boasts of offices in New York, Geneva, Winnipeg and elsewhere and has become a well-known authority on sustainable development issues around the globe.  Its budget stands at about $12 million per year from a variety of sources, including government, United Nations, philanthropic organizations and the private sector.

IISD’s vision is “better living for all – sustainably” and its mission is “to champion innovation, enabling societies to live sustainably
.”  IISD advances policy recommendations, based on its research, on international trade and investment, economics, climate change and energy, measurement and assessment, and natural resources management.  Internationally, it focuses on building the capacity of Third World development practitioners and improving the dialogue on sustainability issues between the North and the South.

Donna Huffam is Media & Communications Officer at IISD in Winnipeg.  She is one of the hopeful ones and says that Manitoba is leading the way, focusing on meeting Kyoto targets, developing hydro-electricity and offering rebates on hybrid vehicles.  She also points out that the European Union is meeting its Kyoto targets but she won’t comment on our federal government’s stand on Kyoto and the previous administration’s championing of environmental causes.  

Huffam says that humanity has created the problems that face our global eco-system, and it is up to us now to solve them.  She calls the IISD a leader in working at all levels – with local communities and world leaders - on these challenges, from algae blooms in Lake Winnipeg to the relationship between conflict and conservation in the Great Lakes Region of Central Africa.  “We’re not just a think-tank
, ”she says, “We’re also a do-tank!

With pride, Huffam also extols the virtues of the IISD’s Intern Program which has sent 30 young Canadians around the world working on six-month environmental projects each year for the past 10.  The specific internships make a difference and tracking of alumni from the program show that almost all stay involved in sustainable development efforts at the professional level once they begin their careers. 

The IISD also “walks the talk” in its own operation, making efforts to avoid further environmental harm, for instance, by videoconferencing rather than traveling for meetings.  The organization has also been asked for advice, by a number of international aid groups, on doing their work more efficiently. 

“An institute like ours needs to demonstrate how high policy principles manifest in real practical examples
,” says Henry Venema, Director of IISD’s Sustainable Natural Resources Management unit.

Maybe there are some hopeful signs that humanity will take on and solve some of the potentially catastrophic environmental situations that face us.  Certainly, the IISD is confident that it can make a difference.

Zack Gross is program coordinator at the Manitoba Council for International Cooperation (MCIC), a coalition of 36 international development organizations active in our province.

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