Laurie Gourlay: We are edging closer to saving the planet

Thirty years ago, global esteem for Canada’s commitment to environmental protection was untouchable. We were the standard-bearers for the world, on the high road of a sustainable development approach that would enrich us all.

Heady days. As a grand Canadian Environment Week began in June 1986, Ottawa hosted the UN World Commission on Environment and Development, comprising elected leaders from around the world in search of global goals for sustainable development.

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A day or two later, the forum for the World Conservation Strategy brought the illuminati of academia, along with the movers and shakers of countrywide biodiversity planning and habitat restoration.

And then came the rag-tag bunch of environmentalists and social activists to the conference of the decade, committed to the betterment of humankind and concerned about the fate of the Earth. Beauty, as the functional definition of a balanced and healthy environment, never had so many advocates.

Lessons learned and heard in Ottawa 30 years ago still echo down the halls of power, and could soon fulfil the opportunity of today.

The heresy of the time, that tome to doom and gloom that was the Club of Rome’s 1972 best-seller, Limits to Growth, still nags at us, of course. But humans are a solution-oriented bunch. Sometimes it just takes a little longer to admit our mistakes.

Back in the mid-1980s, the sky was the limit. The Soviets had launched the Mir space station, and U.S. shuttle missions were just about monthly. The Cold War and nuclear armageddon were still a good reason to hide under a desk.

And British prime minister Margaret Thatcher could hardly be faulted for comments such as this one concerning the Falklands conflict: “When you’ve spent half your political life dealing with humdrum issues like the environment, it’s exciting to have a real crisis on your hands.”

And today?

Well, the problems of the human condition and our top-dog hold on the planet are still not resolved. But we’re no longer in denial. Passionate, bold and scientific analysis is steadily advancing plans to meet the needs of the nine or 10 billion people we expect to share the Earth with, along with the hundreds of thousands of non-human species.

While loath to let a little thing like climate change interfere with our 21st-century visions, we are, however, now willing to consider the possibilities of a fossil-free future. And the nagging complaints of baby-boomers and millenials who wail on and on about a plethora of ailments befalling nature’s realm are not being ignored.

In fact, these modern-day saints are increasingly thanked for their commitment and contributions to the betterment of humanity, to the sustainability solutions we’re all searching for.

An optimistic bunch, we still lean toward a belief that we will prevail, no matter the odds. Priorities such as family, health and food on the table come first, though, with the understanding that global conflicts will be negotiated before they get out of hand. We’d rather they didn’t begin in the first place, but representative democracy still has a way to go, as does spreading the wealth. We’ll wait and see, ready to step in as circumstances dictate.

While the blood oath of fealty to a higher moral order still needs attending, we evolving hominids are gradually setting aside our differences and self-interests for our common good. We’re aligned more and at odds less. On the verge of a mature and blessed marriage of the economy and ecology, we’ve put the sordid shotgun affair of sustainable development behind us, or at least, the mid-1980s hormone-driven engagement promise thereof.

We truly, honestly, deeply aspire to a better world as this new millennium takes shape. We believe a quality of life that embraces nature’s wealth with fiscal equanimity is possible. And we don’t want to just talk about our common future.

We want to do it, together, forevermore. And that will be our saving grace.


Laurie Gourlay is president of the Vancouver Island and Coast Conservation Society.

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