What's green on the inside and black on the outside and is neither a fruit nor a vegetable? We'll skip the hints and go straight to the answer - the State of California. In California, the green is preserved thanks to a combination of one of the most progressive environmental policies in the world and public pressure. But outside, in other countries, the environment is blackened by pollution of the oil that provides the fuel for the cars of California's residents.
At the beginning of this month, IUCN, the World Conservation Union, an important nature protection organization, held its third world congress, in Bangkok. One of the events at the gathering was the awarding of a prize, given jointly by the IUCN and the Reuters Foundation, for the best article in the realm of environmental conservation. The prize went to Tom Knudson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning correspondent for the California Sacramento Bee. (The articles are on the Internet: www.sacbee.com/static/live/news/projects/denial/index.html.)
Knudson was awarded the environmental prize for a series of articles describing the less well-known side of the environmental policy in California. While the state's residents zealously protect forests and prevent oil prospecting along the coast, they continue to gobble up resources that are brought in from other places, where shocking harm is done to people and nature.
A forestry expert from California, Prof. William Libby, explained the matter to Knudsen in a nutshell: "We consume like mad. And we preserve like mad."
He went on to draw a succinct distinction between conservation and preservation. "Conservation means you use resources well and responsibly. Preservation means you are rich enough to set aside things you want and buy them from someone else."
The residents of Ecuador are among the victims of the exploitation of resources for wealthy California. The rain forests in that country are being rapidly destroyed for the benefit of oil drilling that helps Ecuador cover its external debts. The oil is poisoning the environment and seriously affecting the people's health - and they do not have a powerful environmental protection agency like the one in California. Every day a quarter of a million barrels of oil are pumped out of the soil of Ecuador. A third of that amount goes to the refineries in Los Angeles and San Francisco.
People in Ecuador told Knudson about cases of death and disease caused by exposure to pollution generated by the oil companies. Incessant leaks from the drilling facilities and accidents such as large fires have spread the oil into the air and the water sources. Knudson was not able to investigate all the complaints in depth, but it is clear that for the people of Ecuador, the oil is an ongoing nightmare. Compounding the situation is the fact that only a small group benefits from the profits of the oil operations.
Impoverished Ecuador is not the only country that has become a warehouse for raw materials. The natural forests of Canada, a rich country, are being cut down for the benefit of Californians at a rapid pace and without anything being done to renew the forests. Richard Thomas, an environmental consultant from Alberta, told Knudson: "You do the cosmetic stuff at home. You minimize your ecological footprint in your own back yard. And here in Canada, you get away with murder. It's out of sight and out of mind."
Knudson's description is also largely appropriate for Europe, too. A German research institute recently examined the import-export balance on the continent. It found that the environmental burden is being shifted from Europe to other parts of the world, especially developing countries. While in Europe the environmental burden, as reflected in the exploitation of local natural resources to produce industrial raw materials, has been reduced in recent years, the continent is now importing more of these materials from other places, where mountains have been sliced open and forests uprooted. The researchers describe this as an "unequal ecological balance."
The message of Knudson's articles and of the study in Europe is as simple as it is frustrating. If the residents of the rich countries do not change their consumption habits and come up with substitutes for raw materials - ones that do not destroy the environment - they will succeed in preserving their home but will bring about the ruin of the rest of the world.
Today, though, it would appear to be impossible to significantly change the consumer habits of the residents of Europe and North America. And anyway, who wants to think about that as long as the local forests are green and the beaches are protected and safe?
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