In 1975, British environmental scientist Sir James Lovelock published an elegant theory of unified planetary biology in which he postulated that the Earth is alive, and indeed functions as a whole living, self-regulating organism.
Human beings are therefore an integral part of nature, and nature is an integral part of us. This biological connectedness is good reason to care about the environment.
David Suzuki, the long-time host of Canadian Broadcasting Company's "The Nature of Things," said recently that the bottom line is that "we are the environment."
"The air and everything in the air is in us, fused to our lungs," he continued. "Everything that we are and do depends entirely on nature. The air we breathe, the water that we drink, the soil that grows our food are the fundamental things that sustain us. If we destroy them, we destroy ourselves."
Margaret Wooster, a member of the Buffalo Niagara River Keepers, adds: "Caring about the environment has everything to do with our quality of life. If Lake Erie is 'dead' and Scajaquada Creek is full of sewage, a major part of my world is dead and full of sewage.". . Toxic substances from landfills and sediments are still contaminating the fish in the Buffalo and Niagara rivers, and winding up in the people who eat those fish, and in their children, causing a wide array of ills."
International Earth Day 2006 on Monday (other groups celebrate April 22) finds us facing pressing problems. But despite the horrific state of the environment, there are some remarkable opportunities.
There is room still for hope, and action. It requires vigilance, leadership. We enter an age that includes new ideas in Buffalo's City Hall and new initiatives to address regional economic development, including our critical waterfront. It is important to remember that not only do we have to fight for a better future, but we can fight.
Chief among the issues facing society is a profound lack of respect for the importance of our environment. We are faced with massive issues, including climate change, persistent toxins, habitat loss, the related issues of economic development and a host of social issues, including education, race, health care, war and poverty. These are not disconnected issues. Connecting them is part of the pathway toward a sustainable future.
Sylvia Earle, in her remarkable 1995 book, "Sea Change," which profiled the changing chemistry of the oceans, said, "If the sea is sick, we feel it. If it dies, we die."
The same must be said about the environment of our international Buffalo Niagara region. Connecting our own well-being with that of our environment, and then connecting our environment with economic and social issues, policies and plans will help us to find a future that works. These are profound and consequential reasons to care about our environment.
Our region is located on a critical nexus of nature, geology, biology and humanity. We live, work and develop on the largest inland seas on the planet. The Great Lakes, the Niagara River and the attendant streams, forests, fields, marshes, ground water and air that surround us make up a watershed that is both primeval in its origins and essential to the contemporary and future health of the planet.
The Great Lakes contain one fifth of all of the fresh surface water on the planet. Combined with the St. Lawrence River, it is the largest freshwater system on Earth. Most of that water passes through our front yard, the Niagara River.
This is a valuable natural asset. Clean water is endangered and becoming increasingly scarce worldwide. Issues such as climate change and globalization will continue to put the spotlight on clean water. It is not beyond imagination that a future economy will have water as a central theme. The pressure to commodify water will continue to rise. The appropriate stewardship of water is central to a future that works for our region.
>Important Bird Area
The biodiversity of our region is astounding. We have significant and in some cases, still abundant, native animal and plant populations and ecosystems. Bird conservation here is so important that our Niagara River Corridor has been named a "globally significant" Important Bird Area, just like the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge. Biodiversity is so important here that the United Nations named the Niagara escarpment a World Biosphere Reserve, just like the Galapagos Islands.
Our international region is also under constant threat from development and poor decision-making. Over 200 years, a lack of understanding of the value of nature and natural systems encouraged humans to plunder and despoil our natural assets in the name of economic development. This continues.
Certainly, the most pressing issue facing the planet and our region today is climate change. It is here, most scientific experts agree. It is real, it is devastating, and it is changing the planet, they say. Ice caps melt. The weather, including storms and heat and cold, grows more intense. Across the planet the average temperatures are climbing.
Climate change is a symptom of deep global illness. It is a symptom of the disconnectedness between economic development, social well-being and environmental consequences. It tells us that we do not have a sustainable planet.
"We have reached beyond the tipping point," Suzuki said. "If we stopped all human-generated damage of the environment and the ecosystems that support life now, it would take hundreds, maybe thousands of years for the Earth to fully recover."
Climate change will affect our lives in ways that we are only beginning to imagine. How we respond will characterize our ability to survive as a community and our ability to compete.
>The value of green space
Buffalo Niagara River Keepers is promoting a discussion locally about "ecological economics." Some of the basic points go to the measured market value of green space, including the increased taxable value of land adjacent to, or in, green space, and the relatively unmeasured ecological "service value" of ecological systems.
Economic systems are manmade. And as such, they are subject to the manipulations and pressures of society. Ecological economics may provide a valuable perspective, especially as we evaluate opportunities for local and regional development that will affect our economy and our well being for generations.
Traditional economics tend to marginalize ecological values and services. The ecologocal benefits of natural resources are referred to in the gross domestic product as "externalities," suggesting they are beyond control and irrelevant, like meteors.
Yet quantifiable ecological services include improved water and air quality, energy conservation, reduced erosion, minimizing flooding, promoting biodiversity and climate stabilization. When humans have to invest in mitigation or remediation for these issues, the costs are always much higher then if we left an ecosystem intact and let it do its work. .
Dr. Robert Costanza, the director of the University of Vermont's Gund Institute for Ecological Economics, calculated that the world's natural resources are conservatively worth $33 trillion. That is more than the annual gross domestic products of all the world's economies combined. He suggests that an investment in an intact natural ecosystem, such as a protection or restoration, yields an actual return of 100 to 1.
The recently published Millennium Ecosystem Assessment has continued Costanza's work. The report emphasizes the need to conserve natural resources as a tool to improve the environment and fight poverty.
"The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment makes the case that ecosystems and the services they provide are financially significant and that to degrade and damage them is tantamount to economic suicide," said Klaus Toepfer, executive director of the U.N.'s Environment Program.
The report demonstrates that intact ecosystems such as wetlands, forests and unpolluted surface and ground water are far more valuable and cost effective than what has come to replace them. For instance, the collapse of Newfoundland's cod fishing industry put thousands out of work and cost an estimated $2 billion in income support and retraining. Conservation over the last decades would have cost much less.
In these days of economic globalization, it is important that we learn to think like an economic region. It is critical for the public to keep its eye on local public resources such as our ecological inventory, which has a direct if unmeasured benefit.
It is critical that we ask ourselves who is benefiting from the development we are engaged in. Are we exporting our wealth in the context of letting global economic policies despoil our environment for outside profit that minimizes local benefit?
According to a report published recently in The Buffalo News, our regional economy ranks 99th in the world, is growing annually at about 4 percent and has an output of $56.1 billion. Where is that money? We need to keep asking, who is benefiting and how?
Herman Daly, the father of ecological economics and formerly the World Bank's senior evironmental eonomist, puts it this way: "Like a human population, when the economy grows, it does so at the expense of the ecosystems that sustain it."
Said Suzuki: "If we are going to survive, we are going to have to have a very different economy. The system that we have now, that we are all bowing down before, is fundamentally flawed."
New York's Environmental Quality Review Act, enacted 30 years ago, is one of the most important tools the state and its citizens have to protect the environment. Used properly, it can help balance economic development needs with environmental common sense.
The law outlines procedures under which a community can require a project to undergo environmental review. This includes an environmental impact statement that includes procedures that address quality of life in communities where projects are occurring.
Arthur Giacalone, a local attorney and review act expert, explains the purpose and intent of the law this way:
"When the then-New York State Gov. Hugh Carey signed SEQRA into law, the accepting memorandum said: 'It has become abundantly clear that state and local agencies have not given sufficient consideration to environmental factors when undertaking or approving various projects or activities.' "
Unfortunately, in many people's eyes, appropriate use of the review act is declining. It is often viewed as an unneeded expense that challenges profit opportunities. This puts pressure on decision makers and elected officials that are charged with implementing it.
"SEQRA is the law of the state, even though many municipal officials seem not to believe that," said Barry Boyer, a University at Buffalo Law School professor.
Elizabeth Chetney, director of planning for the Urban Design Project at UB and a trustee for the Village of East Aurora, has a hands-on perspective on how the review act can and has been misused. "The bottom line is that most agencies in Western New York, and there are exceptions, treat SEQRA as an irritating obstacle."
She added: "In general, most Western New York agencies do not take seriously their obligation to protect the environment. This is reflected by the fact that, except for the largest publicly sponsored projects, developers are not even asked to provide the most basic information on existing environmental site conditions."
Richard M. Tobe, Buffalo's commissioner of economic development, permits and inspections, said the act "is both the law and good public policy when used properly."
"As projects grow in complexity, it is all the more important to have a comprehensive review of environmental impacts. We hope to strengthen the letter and spirit of SEQRA compliance."
>Who's in charge
There are lots of things that we can do now for future generations so that they can have a quality of life that will never again be ours.
There is new leadership in Buffalo's City Hall, and there is a focus on development. Tobe said one of the city's primary economic goals is to "develop and implement a strategy to attract and retain businesses. This should include an effort to determine if companies can be lured to Western New York because of the availability of vast quantities of fresh water."
There are also two new and important state development organizations. The Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp., a subsidiary of the Empire State Development Corp., is charged with coordinating and leading development of the city's waterfront. The Niagara Greenway Commission is charged with developing a management plan for the Niagara River waterfront between Youngstown and Buffalo.
Paul Dyster, chair of the greenway commission's citizen advisory committee, says that "this is primarily an ecological project, and it is lake to lake."
Lynda Schkneekloth, president of the Buffalo Niagara River Keepers, is concerned about keeping the greenway green. Commissioners "are currently comprised of political appointees, for the most part, who have their own agenda, most of which has nothing to do with a greenway," she said.
>A future that works
What government and citizens do is consequential. It will take political will, vigilance and action to make a future that works. That requires a lot of effort. It is important to pay attention and to get involved with solutions.
We can take actions now that will reduce the impact and to a certain extent remediate the damage and help the Earth to recover so that future generations can have an improved quality of life. And of course we should plan to address the rapidly advancing changes that we will be facing in the next decades.
We are in the midst of an economic and political crisis, and many leaders think that full speed ahead on issues such as commercialized and industrialized waterfront development are a substantial part of the answer.
It is important that we as citizens realize that, as Suzuki said, "all actions have consequences."
Economic development on behalf of globalization, growth, and expansion may not be the best answer. It may not be an answer at all. It is absolutely critical that we take the time to evaluate the whole future -- the future of our economy, the future of our environment and the future of our culture.
Otherwise, the legacy that we leave for future generations may be consequential to only the dusty cosmos.