Arts & Culture / Mosaic / February 4, 2009

Talks on a sustainable planet and sustainable economy open Knox’s International-Week

Keeping the environmental movement factual as opposed to emotional was the message students took away from last week’s environmental presentations that were connected with the International Fair (I-Fair). This past Tuesday and Wednesday night, Knox Environmental Studies Professor Peter Schwartzman and Knox Economics Professor Steve Cohn gave presentations on their respective fields to open the I-Week events.

Schwartzman, using a slideshow and video clips about global sustainability, gave the first presentation on Tuesday. He identified the three main global environmental problems as being resource lacking or depletion, resource pollution [and] contamination, and the harming of both present and future life. Schwartzman said the “five biggies” involve climate change, the energy we use, fresh water availability, the creation, introduction, and modification of chemicals, and issues of peace and de-militarization.

Citing hidden connections between environmental issues abroad and consumption here in the United States, Schwartzman played video clips about issues in Ecuador, Peru, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The first showed how carcinogenic pollution and contamination left by Chevron-Texaco is causing cancer to indigenous people of Ecuador and harming the land on which they live. The second showed a lead smelter in Peru owned by Dow-Run that is poisoning the land, animals, and people in that area. The last clip showed the conflict and exploitation in the Congo caused by the mining of Coltan, which is a substance needed to make devices such as laptops, cell phones, digital cameras, Playstation, X-Box, and Nintendo.

To end, Schwartzman reminded the audience that the future of the planet is not all “doom and gloom.” To uplift the listeners, he spoke of the Goldman Environmental Prize, similar to the Nobel Prize. He also noted that in the past few years, two of the Nobel Prize winners were environmental activists Wangari Muta Maathai and Al Gore.

Lastly, he showed a final video clip of Paul Hawken, an environmentalist and author, speaking about social justice and the environmental movement that has begun naturally and organically. In the clip, Hawken speaks of this movement while a list of thousands of organizations devoted to social and environmental justice plays in the background. To finish, Schwartzman noted that this movement includes people at Knox, and that students here should be recognized for their part.

Cohn’s talk on Wednesday continued on some of the themes in Schwartzman’s presentation. First, Cohn pointed out the environmental and economic difference between renewable and non-renewable resources, and the environments in which they are contained.

Cohn also warned against being overly alarmist when discussing the future of the environment and the economy, noting Malthusian warnings, the Limits to Growth computer model, and the bet between Julian Simon and Paul Ehrlich.

“Be very careful to not make claims beyond what is reasonable. This gave a crying wolf kind of reputation to people who are concerned with sustainability…It is important not to play into the hands of people who believe the environmental movement is emotional rather than factual,” said Cohn in his presentation.

He then used the analogy that “capitalism is like a bicycle; as long as it is moving forward it can glide gracefully. But, there is a wall in front of us, and we can’t stop because we’ll fall down.” However, he proposed research and development to find new solutions, non-reformist reforms to address immediate social needs and to subtly lead to long-term transformations in society and institutional changes at establishments like Knox College.

Next, he discussed whether capitalism in particular is sustainable or not. To decide this, he posed two questions. First, what is the situation with resources and substitutions? Secondly, how good are our institutions at indicating scarcity and responding to it? According to Cohn, in this economic market it is possible to find substitutions, so resources are not the strain on sustainability per se, but rather the environment that holds them is being strained.

Laurie Nowak


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