The search for sustainability

Three weeks ago, government officials, business leaders and Non Government Organizations representatives from around the world met in Johannesburg, South Africa at the U.N. World Summit on Sustainable Development. There, they discussed how to raise living standards worldwide without permanently destroying the ecosystems that sustain life on Earth.

The current state of humanity and of the planet does not paint a pleasant picture. 1.1 billion people lack access to clean water and 2.4 million lack proper toilets and sanitation systems. By 2050, approximately two-thirds of the world’s population will live in countries facing severe water shortages, if present rates of water consumption continue. Two billion people do not have access to a reliable supply of nutritious food, and 800 million of them are chronically malnourished. 2.5 billion people lack access to modern energy services. If those energy needs are met by fossil fuels, atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide will soar, further heating the planet and exacerbating global climate change. Rainforests, coral reefs and other species-rich habitats around the world are disappearing at unprecedented rates, triggering what scientists agree is the greatest mass extinction since the dinosaurs disappeared from the Earth. By the end of this century as many as half of all the species on the planet could be extinct.

Unless action is taken, the picture will not become any less bleak. The per capita availability of fresh water, arable land and fish continue to decline, and the world population is likely to reach 11 billion people by the end of the century.

If we are to have any hope of providing a modern standard of living to all of the world’s inhabitants, it is clear that we must change how we manufacture, how we farm, how we produce energy, how we construct buildings and how we accomplish the multitude of other tasks that meet our modern needs. Fortunately, we are already witnessing some of these changes. A carpet factory whose effluent is cleaner than its influent. . .cars that emit only water vapor as exhaust. . .buildings that are powered entirely by the sun or the wind. . . These are not unrealistic pipe-dreams. They already exist. Nevertheless, we are very far from fully realizing the ultimate goal of sustainable development – to meet the needs of the present global population without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Like other colleges and universities, such as Oberlin, Middlebury and Tufts, Williams could play a significant role in leading the transition to a sustainable society by serving as a model for other institutions and communities. Consequently, the President’s Office, the Center for Environmental Studies and the Campus Environmental Advisory Committee are sponsoring a conference entitled Meeting the Environmental Challenge: Should Williams College be a Leader or a Follower? This conference will provide a forum for exploring creative, cutting-edge ways to mitigate the College’s negative environmental impacts. I urge all members of the Williams community to attend the conference, which will take place Saturday, September 21, at 8:30 a.m. in Lawrence Hall Room 231.

The conference will include opening remarks by President Schapiro; a keynote address by Professor David Orr, chair of the Environmental Studies Program at Oberlin College; and a presentation by Sarah Creighton, Project Manager of the Tufts Climate Initiative. We will then divide into three groups to discuss how Williams College can become more environmentally intelligent. Discussion will cover a variety of campus issues, including how to integrate environmental concerns into the College’s Master Plan, how to preserve the Williams composting program and how to use sustainability measures implemented by the College to educate the Williams community about the global environmental challenges of our time.

I hope as many of you as possible will set your alarm clocks for 8 a.m. on this one Saturday of the year. If, we, who are among the most educated in the richest nation of the world (and are, therefore, the best-equipped to surmount this challenge), remain apathetic, I’m convinced there is little reason for hope. These issues are not specific to political parties or economic ideologies. If you lean to the right and don’t normally think of yourself as a champion of the environment, consider that Natural Capitalism, one of the most important books written about the transition to a sustainable economy. Natural Capitalism argues that business, not government, will be the prime mover in the transition because the new technologies and product designs of the sustainable economy are more profitable and more competitive than current ones. Imagine you are a factory owner. If you can manufacture your product such that your factory’s effluent is cleaner than its influent, why would you choose to manufacture the product using conventional processes, which pollute, endanger workers and open you up to government regulation and fines?

Furthermore, as per capita availability of fresh water, arable land, and fish continue to decline, the potential for increased political and economic instability in certain areas of the world looms large. And as the horrible events of Sept. 11 made so painfully clear: we cannot insulate ourselves from conflict and instability abroad. In 1996 former Secretary of State Warren Christopher said, “Environmental forces transcend borders and oceans to threaten directly the health, prosperity, and jobs of American citizens. . . Addressing natural resource issues is frequently critical to achieving political and economic stability, and to pursuing our strategic goals around the world.”

This conference is not just for die-hard environmentalists. It shouldn’t ever be. This conference is for everyone who has a genuine interest in any academic field, the future of the College, the future of the planet and the future of humanity. The solutions to the environmental challenge will require insight from almost every conceivable academic field. Your contributions to the discussion and planning on Saturday morning will be invaluable. I hope you will come make them.

To register for the conference call ext. 3900 or email 04ces_2@williams.edu. Registration is not required but would be greatly appreciated.