Four Worlds in 30 Hours

Reflections on four different realities and the lessons to be learned from each.

Thursday afternoon—Nairobi, Kenya

I am sitting in a huge hall at a meeting of the Global Ministerial Forum organized by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). I look around the room and see row after row of ministers, ambassadors, delegates and officials from more than one hundred countries. As executive director of CERES and the chair of the Global Reporting Initiative, I was invited by UNEP to participate in several meetings and I have stayed for several extra days to observe the Governing Council and ministerial meetings.

The mood in the hall is grim. Every speaker begins with praise for what UNEP’s work has done, then moves to an anguished description of how little has taken place since the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. All indicators are showing steeper decline than ever before—the disappearance of forests, the extinction of species, the advance of deserts, the destruction of coral reefs, the contamination of fresh water, the build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Sitting there, I can’t help but share their dismay. The first discussions of the dangers of the “greenhouse effect” began more than 30 years ago. Warnings that CO2 could have serious planetary effects came more than 20 years ago. Evidence that the process was already causing serious disturbances in the atmosphere was released 10 years ago. Yet the response of the governments represented here has been slow and timid. The Kyoto Treaty of 1997, a modest step that would only have slowed the rate of increase of greenhouse gas emissions, has not been ratified, and a recent attempt in The Hague to resolve some of the developed world’s objections to it collapsed ignominiously. As if the world needed an additional reminder, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has just released its newest report which suggests that global temperatures are now forecast to climb even faster and higher than had been anticipated.

In the United States, environmental questions are often portrayed as secondary—a pastime for political do-gooders who don’t understand the need for more oil, more development, more growth. At the local level, this view is starting to fade as more and more Americans understand the relationship between environmental protection and the basic issues of health and quality of life in their communities. Still, at the national and international level, American policy has not been to lead, but to obstruct. Given our colossal wealth, our historical ingenuity and our disproportionate responsibility for the atmospheric carbon, American inaction causes widespread disbelief, heartbreak and anger.

American timidity is particularly shocking when compared to the courage and tenacity shown in other parts of the world. In Kenya, for example, environmental questions cut to the heart of the identity and future of the country. Environmentalists like Wangari Maatthai of the Green Belt Movement, who has been fighting to protect forests against the encroachments of a corrupt government, or the dozens who are trying to prevent the devastation of the coastal district of Kwale by Tiomin, a Canadian titanium mining company, must struggle against a cabal of government officials, local business leaders and foreign investors. To oppose them is to court ridicule, punishment, imprisonment and even death.

Back in the UN hall the delegates keep talking. The World Summit on Sustainable Development—the 10th anniversary of the Earth Summit—will take place less than 18 months from now in Johannesburg. “What will we have achieved by then?” the delegates ask. “We need fewer speeches and more actions!” the delegates insist. The president of the governing council agrees with the speakers and thanks them for their words. I pull together my papers, say goodbye to my friends and leave for the airport.

Friday morning—Amsterdam, The Netherlands

I am unexpectedly in central Amsterdam at the headquarters of Greenpeace International.

As I was about to board the overnight flight from Nairobi to Holland I met Remy Parmentier, the brilliant and tenacious political director of Greenpeace, who was on the same flight. While chatting, we discovered that I had a lengthy lay-over at the airport in Holland. “Why don’t you come in with me to the office for a few hours?” Remy suggested. I accept his offer and the next morning I find myself standing at dawn beside a Dutch canal in front of Greenpeace International’s headquarters.

Within an hour the building is bustling with energy and purpose. In the elevator a printed notice announces that one of the organization’s ships, the M.V. Greenpeace, is in port—everyone from the home office is invited to come by, take a tour and say hello. On every floor scientists, activists, organizers and Internet experts apply themselves to campaigns ranging from forests to oceans to the auto industry to climate change.

Although Greenpeace still takes on its share of direct action, it has also developed a strong and sophisticated diplomatic strategy. Greenpeace representatives attend government meetings and carefully track the development of both national and international laws. They are particularly vigilant at UN meetings and have helped to push through several vital environmental treaties that now are binding under international law.

In the middle of the morning I take a walk along the canals near their offices and marvel at the natural commitment to sustainability that is part of Dutch life. People glide to and from their homes on tens of thousands of plain, no-nonsense bicycles. Trains carry people around the country; barges move goods and visitors around the city. Like many other European countries, The Netherlands has made peace with the idea of the physical limits and has demonstrated that limits on quantity do not have to translate into loss of quality.

Friday afternoon—altitude 33,000 feet; 1,000 miles east of Labrador

My airplane, an amazing device made of hundreds of thousands of carefully machined and assembled parts given life by thousands of gallons of refined petroleum, is carrying me rapidly toward home. The compartment around me is completely dark; people have pulled their shades down in order to sleep or to watch in-flight films. My screen shows the electronic map registering our altitude, speed and position. We are travelling six miles above the surface of the ocean at three-quarters of the speed of sound. Three hours remain until I reach my destination. The outside air temperature is minus 76 degrees Fahrenheit.

Curious, I lift my window shade a couple of inches. Brilliant sunshine floods into the cabin. Looking down I can see a long, broken line of ice floes interspersed with huge icebergs that look like pristine white islands. The sight reminds me of all I have read about the signs that climate change is already under way—the appearance of new water channels in the Arctic; the thinning of the polar ice caps and the rapid retreat of glaciers; the cracking of the immense Larsen B ice shelf in Antarctica, which sent a piece of ice the size of Rhode Island adrift.

The music through my headphones shifts to Strauss’s Blue Danube Waltz, and I suddenly remember the early scene from Stanley Kubrick’s film, “2001: A Space Odyssey,” in which, to this same music, a commercial spaceship is shown carrying sleeping passengers to a rendezvous with an international space station. We are not travelling in space, but we are not far. When I turn my eyes to the horizon I can see the slight curvature of the earth. I look up at the royal blue of the sky, whose darkness tells me that we are skirting the edges of the stratosphere. I look around the cabin at the people sleeping or watching their films and I reflect on how rapidly humans lose their capacity for awe. Not long ago a ride at this height and speed would have shocked people into silent wonder; now we keep the shades down in order to rest or to be entertained.

Friday evening—back home in Boston, MA

I am in a taxi heading with anticipation and relief toward my home and family. After my time in Kenya, everything around me seems strange. Boston’s sights and sounds suggest relentless vigor, power and wealth. Cars rush toward their destinations; the gigantic cranes of Boston’s public works project slowly move titanic pieces of bridge and road into place; the windows on the skyline sparkle in the frigid, gold color of a setting winter sun. Soon I will be back in my home, telling my wife and three children about what I experienced in Nairobi and Amsterdam. Within a day or two I will be driving my car, absorbed by the daily duties of work, distracted by the priorities and amusements of our self-important, self-indulgent culture. What will I really be able to retain, let alone convey, of the last week?

In 30 hours I passed through what seemed like four completely different worlds. Yet they are not different worlds—they are four realities located on the same planet. Somehow they must all be brought together and the lessons from each shared with the other. If this does not happen, our wisdom will never coalesce into action, our words will never become deeds. Instead, the talkers will keep talking, the sellers will keep selling and the builders will keep building. Above all, the travelers will keep traveling, distracted by their movies or immobilized by their fatigue, while their sleek metal chariots skim the edge of space and the planet below them slides toward a slow and infinitely tragic end.

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