Zack Gross
Zack Gross

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World Environment Day Focuses on Our Effect on Planet Earth

Brandon Sun “Small World” Column,  Monday, June1 / 15

Zack Gross

Friday, June 5th is World Environment Day!  The United Nations’ World Environment Program uses this annual event to raise awareness of issues facing our natural world and humans’ quality of life on it.  This year, the overall theme is “sustainable lifestyles.

Back in 1972, the UN hosted the first Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, Sweden.  Western Manitoba was very much connected to this as Maurice Strong, originally from Oak Lake, born in 1929 was the Director General of the Conference and then became the first Executive Director of the UN Environment Program.  He also had a long career in the energy sector, including with Ontario Hydro and Petro-Canada, and was for many years an adviser to Prime Ministers and Presidents.

Strong was on the scene again in 1986 as a Commissioner for the World Commission on Environment & Development which authored the watershed report Our Common Future, which has been the basis since of global research and action on our environment.

Since that time, a variety of themes have “headlined” over 40 successive World Environment Days.  As well, different countries, cities and events have hosted major expos on the environment on and around June 5th.    WED aims to create greater understand of and action on environmental issues, targeting all sectors of society from the school system, to the many levels of government, to corporations. 

This year’s premier event will take place in Milan, Italy at a major Expo running from May through October.  Twenty million visitors are expected to visit the Expo, which will have representation from 140 countries and many international organizations.  The theme, in keeping with our planet’s population and its fragility, is Seven Billion Dreams. One Planet. Consume with Care.

The 2015 theme is intended to get consumers to stop and evaluate their consumption habits, in such activities as eating, shopping and traveling.  UNEP is quoted as saying that by 2050, we will need three planet Earths to sustain our consumption, given that world population will rise by then to 9.6 billion.  These actually are conservative figures.  When it comes to our “abuse” of the planet, people in wealthy countries such as Canada, the United States and Australia lead the way.  Experts suggest that, if everyone lived it up as the Western world does, we would need four planet Earths at present just to sustain that small segment of the global population in the lifestyle to which they are accustomed!

To add to this, with a growing middle class around the world, including in Developing Countries, UNEP worries that consumption is rising.  While 1 billion people on the planet are undernourished, many of the rest of us are wasting food.  As well, while we enjoy unlimited freedom in the rich world to travel, the impact of this jet and car travel has been damage to our ozone layer. 

This has been one of the factors that has led to climate change and extreme weather (from tornadoes to droughts) that has killed people and caused property and economic damage to rich and poor countries alike.  The most devastating consequences have been to the poor who have no social safety net to rely on.  As one can see, in a cascading effect in our inter-connected world, one positive or negative environmental choice has multiple effects on people, animal species, and more.

Finally, in our shopping habits, people have long purchased products without thinking about where and how these goods were produced.  The effects of export agriculture or unregulated factory work on people and the environment are becoming more of a concern for consumers as they hear about collapsed factories, child labour and other human rights abuses.  This has spawned such movements as “buy local,” organics and fair trade.

So, there is reason to “celebrate” World Environment Day.  The UN suggests putting on an event, intentionally changing a purchasing decision or habit, and reminding your local politicians about public concerns about the environment.  This topic has risen in the ranks from the days a generation ago when no one was aware of environmental issues to today when it sits in the top ten concerns of Canadians at election time.  May it always be this way!

Zack Gross is a former Executive Director of the Marquis Project in Brandon.

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