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2007's Best: Big Picture Pieces
Alex Steffen, 31 Dec 07

Understanding Extinction

When I was a child, we had a set of coffee table books full of photos and descriptions of world's marvelous animals. The Baiji, or Chinese river dolphin, was one of these animals, an exotic -- and it seemed to me improbable -- beast from the other end of the world. I felt then, and feel now, a certain sense of fellowship with such critters, which are, after all, our evolutionary cousins.

So it saddened me to read that the Baiji is no more.

It's an unpleasant fact of 21st century life that we live in the midst of the Sixth Extinction, and we can expect to hear of the departure of beloved species on a regular basis. Today the river dolphin, tomorrow the polar bear?

If it's true that “the first rule of intelligent tinkering is to save all the parts" we need to wrap our brains around extinction, and really understand the various ways in which it is happening, and the potential responses available to us as we search to preserve our planet's biodiversity.

Review: Who Owns the Water?

If the challenges we face are like a huge and complicated knot, one of the larger strands running through that knot is water. Water shortages, water pollution and water conflicts are everywhere woven together with the other profound problems we face: from climate change and biodiversity loss, to soil depletion and food politics, civil conflict and sustainable development, nearly all the issues we most need to address are made more difficult by the water crisis, make that crisis more difficult to solve, or both.

Most of the time at Worldchanging, we focus exclusively on solutions. Sometimes, however, a resource which is primarily about explaining a problem is so insightful that it helps to change your thinking, and becomes part of the search for innovative answers. For me, Who Owns the Water is such a book.

Acoustic Ecology and the Extinction of Silence

Even more powerful are the adaptations we can observe in wildlife as their habitat changes due to the presence of human activity. This is the primary focus of the Acoustic Ecology Institute, a New Mexico-based non-profit working to "increase personal and social awareness of our sound environment, through education programs in schools, regional events, and our internationally recognized website," and to build "a comprehensive [online] clearinghouse for information on sound-related environmental issues and scientific research."

Tools for Understanding Poverty

Poverty is another country, one with languages, cultures, assumptions and patterns which are quite different from the ones those of us who live in the wealthier parts of the world take for granted. If we want to think clearly about sustainable development, we need to see more clearly the nature of poverty itself. Here are a few resources that have given us some "aha!" moments:

Ending the Small Arms Trade

The spread of small arms -- weapons like automatic rifles, mortars and landmines -- drives much of the instability that retards progress towards a sustainable world.

These weapons directly kill over 300,000 people each year, but as we've discussed before, direct deaths due to violence are merely the tip of the iceberg: violence also leads to the collapse of essential survival systems, spreading disease, hunger and privation and undermining victim's efforts to meet their needs in the future. Indeed, some argue that stopping conflicts can do more to help the world's poor than aid or trade reforms. Around the world, from Iraq to Darfur, the ready availability of cheap, powerful weapons is a dire problem.

Jeremy Finkelstein's interview with Ed Burtynsky, Behind the Lens, offers a great window into the thinking of a man who somehow finds time to be not only the chair of Worldchanging's board, but arguably the most influential environmental photographer in the world:

Edward Burtynsky: What's consistent with China and Alberta is the speed at which they're both evolving, and you can't control things if they're moving that fast. With a 10% growth like China's, it's very hard to keep the checks and balances in place for whether the environment is being harmed or not, whether employees are getting their fair share or not, whether systems are being built in a safe and reliable way… all these things are gone to the wind when you start moving at that speed. I think Alberta is moving at that speed. In fact, we've already started hearing of the 'on-the-ground' types of problems in Alberta. For instance, small businesses are failing because no one can find employees at lesser wages when the same person can get $30 an hour to stand with a shovel in the oil sands.

But what I think is a bigger and broader issue is what's going to happen to Alberta itself. Alberta is on the further edges of the Boreal Forest, and this forest means to the earth and its atmosphere what the Amazon means. So in Canada we are custodians of this really important lung for the world. But the proposals that are on the table for the development of the oil sands have dissected the province into microscopic chunks to the point where a number of animals who require a certain distance from human habitation will never find it again.

As well, the oil sands are the single largest contributor of carbon emissions for Canada. And what I think is often misunderstood about the oil sands is that over the next 12 to 15 years, if nothing changes in the way we deal with carbon emissions, the rest of Canada could lead carbon free lives, and we would still be out of compliance with Kyoto. I don't know how many Canadians recognize this dilemma. So while Alberta may be keeping us buoyant financially, it is also keeping us dependant as a resource economy… and there's a price to be paid for being a resource economy.

Mark's Worldchanging Interview: Lester Brown

LB: I think Americans are more concerned about the future than any time that I can remember.

Two of the things they're concerned about: One is oil. They realize, in the Middle East, it's a mess right now, and to count on oil from there is really a high risk proposition. And also, that our reserves are being depleted. That's pretty clear. I mean, peak oil may be imminent. A world very different, when oil production is declining. Very different from any we've known. We've spent our lifetimes in an environment where global production was rising: there are temporary interruptions, but basically ... not.

I think concerns with oil are one thing, and concerns about climate change are another thing. And fortunately, they both have the same solution, or solutions. What reduces our dependence on oil also helps to reduce carbon emissions.

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