Absent Globally, Acting Locally: a ray of hope at Earth Summit's end

by Dave Tilford, Center for a New American Dream

n 1992, George Bush the elder went to the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro and defiantly declared, “the American life-style is not up for negotiation.” At least he went. In Rio, the United States played the curmudgeon but still signed onto Agenda 21, an ambitious declaration of principles designed to stem global environmental deterioration, alleviate poverty and promote “sustainable development” – development that provides a high quality of life for people today without pulling the verdant rug out from under generations of the future.

    Few would characterize much of what has occurred since 1992 as sustainable. Close to a billion people still live on less than one dollar a day. More than one out of every six people on Earth lack access to safe drinking water. Hundreds of millions of children are chronically malnourished. Meanwhile, we continue to warm the planet at an alarming rate and chew away at habitat, precipitating biodiversity losses the Earth hasn't seen since a meteorite slammed into it 65 million years ago. Whatever trouble we've had over the past decade defining what is sustainable development, clearly this isn't.

    In fact, the latest data indicate that humans are consuming natural resources at a rate exceeding Earth's renewal capacity by a whopping 20 percent. We are depleting fisheries, water supplies and forests – generally drawing down on the natural capital account far faster than it can be replenished. American consumption patterns are particularly harmful. America's “ecological footprint” – the physical space required to provide resources and absorb waste – is over four times the world average. With less than 5 percent of the world's population, we account for nearly a quarter of global carbon dioxide emissions.

    Not surprisingly, world leaders reacted with anger and dismay when George W. Bush declined even to attend the recent World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg to discuss these issues. Bush may hedge on global warming, but he knows one thing: Earth Summits and the like are too hot for him. Rightly fearing a backlash from the 100+ heads of state who attended the summit for his stubborn refusal to acknowledge and take responsibility for American contribution to global ills, Bush decided instead to cool his heels in Texas on an extended vacation. It would be difficult to strike a more callous and self-centered pose on the world stage, especially given his post-September 11th call for unity and support.

    A ray of hope does exist, however. It lies in the fact that this ostrich-like approach to daunting problems has not filtered down to the local level. Across the country, citizens and elected officials in states and municipalities are going forward with initiatives designed to help people live well today without hindering the ability of our children and grandchildren to do the same. Case in point: Vermont Governor Howard Dean signed an executive order directing the state to reduce government greenhouse gas emissions 25 percent by 2012 and 75 percent by 2050 – cuts far exceeding those called for in the Kyoto treaty. The goal will be achieved, in part, by switching to cleaner, safer alternatives to fossil fuels.

    Other examples abound: more than 125 American cities and counties participate in the international Cities for Climate Protection Campaign. In San Francisco, voters overwhelmingly approved bond measures that will transform this fog-shrouded city into the nation's largest municipal producer of solar electricity. New Hampshire used broad, bipartisan support from citizens, environmental groups and the state's largest utility to pass legislation curtailing statewide greenhouse gas emissions. Nationwide, a cadre of state and local purchasing officials are working together to shift some of the $385 billion their governments spend annually on goods and services toward more environmentally and socially responsible products. The efforts of this network will also stimulate the market, making these products more accessible to the growing number of concerned citizens who want choices that reflect their social values.

    There is a long way to go. If we are going to achieve sustainability, we have to reform faulty accounting systems that subsidize social ills and hide the true costs of our consumption patterns. We must take personal actions and demand that our leaders support ecologically saner economic policies.

    Until that happens, it is heartening that at least some governments and citizens are laying the foundation for a brighter future. Hopefully, these actions taken at the local level will begin to override the inertia at the top.

    Dave Tilford is Senior Writer at the Center for a New American Dream. This article is distributed by the Center for a New American Dream. For more information, please visit www.newdream.org