Energy and sustainable development: Time to rethink how we live

As an outgrowth of the 1992 Rio Summit on Sustainable Development, Charles Hopkins developed a network of 70 faculties of education in 50 countries focused on sustainable development education. It is a concern for equity and social justice allowing current and future generations to live quality lives.

Yet, the majority of the world’s population is focused on basic survival. Only 8 percent of the world’s 6 billion people have discretionary funds to spend beyond basic necessities. Nearly half the world’s population lives on $1 a day. Two million people in a city of 4 million in India are homeless.

As many struggle to survive, widespread environmental deterioration is evident. The glaciers of Mt. Kilimanjaro, which are of great spiritual significance to local people, will be gone by 2010. In parts of Nepal and China, people hand-pollinate plants as bees and other insects have disappeared under the onslaught of insecticides. In the United States, beekeepers bring their insects northward from Florida with the growing season to ensure pollination since local pollinators no longer exist in sufficient numbers.

Priorities of the one-third of the world’s population without sanitation and fresh water are far different from ours in the developed world. In an area of India, women are not to be seen defecating, and must perform these functions early in the morning or late in the evening. One woman’s dream for her daughter is that she marries a man rich enough to afford a toilet.

In contrast, luxury toilets with heated seats, music, a bidet and blow dryer are appearing in parts of Japan.

Almost every village in the world has at least one television set. The poor of the world see how well others live and become angry they have so little while others have so much. Anger explodes into rioting when they experience further deprivation.

The question regarding sustainable development is what will be sustained, and who will benefit from it? The most educated citizens in the world are leaving the deepest ecological footprint on this planet. We need to rethink how we live, and recognize the effects our lifestyles and high energy prices have on the developing world. In Central and South America, power plants are designed to burn oil; high prices dramatically curtail electrical services. When these services are cut, rioting breaks out.

It is possible for Canadians and U.S. citizens to reduce energy consumption by 50 percent and still maintain the same level of services. If we drastically cut our demand for oil, the world will be more secure.

Educational programs and events need to occur both within schools and in the broader community. The recent Fourth Annual Illinois Renewable Energy & Sustainable Lifestyle Fair in Oregon, Ill., Aug. 13-14 is an example of community education. With greater public understanding of the need for sustainable development, citizens can take the necessary steps to lessen their adverse impacts on the environment.

Individual action is only a starting point. Political action is necessary as well. An informed public must persuade its leaders that it wants sustainable energy practices, and that such policies will help politicians get re-elected.

Corporations need to know there is a market for sustainable energy technologies and services so they find a way to meet it. People need to be willing to purchase sustainable products and services.

Our schools need to model appropriate environmental and energy practices, and teach students to deal with controversial issues in real life. Students need to learn how to gather and access information, discuss differences rationally and tolerate views different from their own. Energy issues are particularly complex and require patience to develop a full understanding. Appropriate actions should follow.

If we cut our energy consumption, switch to renewable energy sources and share them with developing countries, our lives and those of future generations and life on earth will benefit.

This column is based on a presentation by Charles Hopkins at the Fourth Annual Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair, Oregon, Ill., Aug.14, 2005.

From the Aug. 31-Sept. 6, 2005, issue

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