Happy 40th birthday to Norway's Environment Ministry! Do we deserve cake and ice cream, though?
Consider all the other environmental anniversaries this year. 10 years from the Johannesburg World Summit for Sustainable Development, 20 years from the Rio Earth Summit, and 40 years from the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment. Moreover, Rachel Carson's 'Silent Spring' was published 50 years ago in September.
Despite these two generations of active environmentalism, not to mention the dedicated work long beforehand, the improvement question remains. From human-caused climate change to biodiversity devastation, comprehensive assessments of the Earth and humanity have shown the ruinous variety of severe environmental problems we cause.
Even worse is the disparity between rich and poor individuals and countries. Those with power are choosing to allocate wealth so that it does not help the environment--or humanity. How pessimistic should we be?
Decades ago, parts of Lake Erie were declared dead due to pollution. When action was taken, it soon recovered. Acid rain no longer threatens North America or Europe. Some ozone depleting chemicals are illegal. Many countries have banned leaded petrol. Groups such as the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere and Eradicating Ecocide are inspiring change.
So how optimistic should we be? Perhaps the threats are less visible yet more insidious. Persistent organic pollutants accumulating in wildlife are far removed from most of humanity. We cannot feel the endocrine modulators seeping into our bodies from our processed food and drink.
In the less affluent countries, environmental devastation continues--often to supply the more affluent, environmentally cleaner countries with their products. Tropical forest destruction is driven mainly by markets in the richer countries.
Norway is also a good/bad news story. Many environmental movements were birthed here, from Deep Ecology to fighting dams and pollution from the pulp and paper industry. Norwegians have a deep environmental conscience--while enjoying the country's wealth, built on fossil fuels, to shop and travel.
Norway's Environment Ministry has always faced tough battles within the country's and globe's tough choices. As a country and as a global species, we deserve a muted celebration for our achievements. But we still have a long way to go.
We cannot have our cake and eat it.
Dr. Ilan Kelman is a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research - Oslo (CICERO).
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