Peace Prize Is a Well-Deserved Honor
Sometimes what at first seems like a minor change can actually signal major shift in understanding.
Last week, Kenyan deputy environment minister Wangari Maathai won the Nobel Peace Prize, a wonderful achievement for two reasons. First, she is the first African woman to ever win the prize. And second, she won the prize for her environmental dedication and success.
This is the first time that work to preserve the environment has been recognized as part of the criteria the Nobel committee looks at in choosing a winner. While it may seem like a minor, obvious addition to selection criteria, its significance is quite profound. This is, after all, the Peace Prize. Making explicit the connection between environmental degradation and political and social unrest is an important step forward in recognizing the significance of nature in all our lives.
Nature is the ultimate source of everything we have. All our natural resources and raw materials come from nature. The energy needed to process them comes from nature. Nature also absorbs our wastes and provides us with clean air and water, a stable climate, and fertile soils.
In countries as plentiful as Canada, it's easy to take all these natural services for granted. But many other countries do not have that luxury.
Haiti, for example, was completely devastated by hurricanes this fall in part because the country's trees have all been chopped down for fuel and building materials. This has destabilized the soils and left Haiti's citizens vulnerable to mudslides and flash floods.
If left unchecked, climate change is expected to bring even greater resource stress to developing regions like the Caribbean, parts of Asia, and Africa. Increasingly frequent droughts and other extreme weather events, expanding disease vectors, and lowered water tables leading to freshwater scarcity are just some of the expected problems in the future.
These sorts of stresses can create environmental refugees and lead to resource conflicts. Preventing environmental degradation is therefore essential to world security and world peace. It's about time this was finally recognized by the Nobel selection committee.
Environmentalists, on the other hand, must also recognize the importance of social justice and peace in protecting nature. A starving person who comes across an edible plant or animal, for example, will not pause and wonder whether it is endangered. Similarly, those living without justice or under conditions of terror, genocide, or war, must worry about survival above all. Thus, these issues must also be addressed if we are to protect nature.
In Canada, I was recently heartened to hear a new tune from our federal leaders. The throne speech contained language about the environment that signaled a growing understanding of the disconnect between the actual importance of the environment in our lives and the low priority it is given by government.
The speech stated, "Our quality of life today and the legacy we bequeath to future generations demands fundamental change in the way in which we think about the environment. The Government will work with its partners to build sustainable development systematically into decision making."
If the federal government follows through on this promise, it will be a critical step toward sustainability. Cleaning up our messes is expensive and time consuming. By building nature into all our decisions, we can avoid making messes in the first place. This will ultimately reduce costs and improve our health and quality of life.
In his reply to the throne speech, Prime Minister Paul Martin further noted that that a healthy environment is crucial. He said, "For it is vital not only to our health and well-being but to our economy and our competitiveness."
This is absolutely true, which is why I was disappointed that it was not mentioned as one of the key points in the section of the speech on the economy or in the section on health.
Still, the change is most promising. Environmental security and national security are intricately connected. Environmental health and public health are joined at the hip. And, ultimately, a strong environment and a strong economy go hand-in-hand too. One can only hope that our federal government's words will be backed up with action.
Take the Nature Challenge and learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org The David Suzuki Foundation.
Source: David Suzuki Foundation