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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


July-August 2009

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Editorial - Journeys toward Solutions

In an ideal world, environmental problems move seamlessly to solutions. Scientists, laboring in their ivory towers, uncover an unforeseen threat to humanity. The word gets out, the public agitates, and policymakers implement incentives and regulations. The technology sector responds, devising and disseminating fixes. Problem solved—billowing smokestacks disappear from the landscape, contaminated waterways run clean, the stratosphere is free from ozone-depleting substances. Then the cycle begins anew with another threat. This scenario is oversimplified, of course, and far from the messy, intertwined nexus among science, policy, and solutions that characterize the problems of the world we live in today.

Much more so than in decades past, the journey from environmental problem to solution now must traverse a zigzagged, often globe-trekking path. During the birth of the environmental movement, urban smog and toxic rivers were in plain sight, and the sources of these ills were traceable. New York City’s smog, for example, could be directly linked to manufacturing plants or vehicle tailpipes.

Taken together, two articles in this issue—Rutherford Platt’s piece on greening New York’s waterfront and John Chung-En Liu and Anthony Leiserowitz’s article on the slowly shifting perceptions of the local environment in urban China—show how much things have changed. Now New Yorkers enjoy a green urban waterfront for biking, recreating, and admiring the city’s transformation from dirty manufacturing port to cleaner financial center. Meanwhile, Chinese urban dwellers live day in and day out with serious air and water pollution problems—hazards that have been well-documented there but, possibly because the ubiquity of these conditions give little frame of reference, hardly register in public opinions about local air or water quality. Perhaps it is not too far in the future when tested technologies will allow the Chinese public to enjoy a clean environment, but that day is not in the immediate future.

The juxtaposition of these two articles begs the question of the linkage between them. Who is consuming the products from China’s factories? New Yorkers, who decades ago endured the same hazards but today enjoy a green waterfront? Who should join in the journey from problem to solution? Who should bear the costs of a cleaner environment? Who should champion China’s obvious need to leapfrog the older, dirtier technologies in favor of more efficient, cleaner ones?

Of all the environmental problems we face today, none is more complex than climate change. Unlike smokestacks and industrial effluents, greenhouse gases result from nearly every aspect of daily life. Cooking breakfast, driving to work, and checking the headlines on TV or the computer most likely involve fossil fuel energy. But the repercussions for the atmosphere remain invisible, and the ramifications of accumulating greenhouse gases appear in distant locales as coastal nations seek higher ground and farmers contemplate the dire outcome of another drought.

The article by Jessica Ayers and Tim Forsyth on integrating climate adaptation with local development illustrates the globalization of environmental problems. Bangladesh hardly contributes to the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere but occupies prime real estate to bear the consequences. Development plans that do not account for inundated coastlines will yield as little as a drowned rice field.

Even the nascent revolution in sustainable energy technologies Charles Weiss and William Bonvillian discuss will not halt the encroaching waters of the Bay of Bengal for many decades. Here again, juxtaposing articles raises more questions than it answers. Who takes responsibility for the millions of people affected by climate change? How can a country like Bangladesh respond to a problem it had little part in creating? How can New Yorkers a world away fathom the global reach of a gas they cannot see, taste, or smell?

As the well-known proverb goes, every journey starts with a single step. The journey from problem to solution for today’s messy, complex, intertwined environmental issues makes that advice all the more poignant. Livable cities and sustainable energy appear as far on the horizon as the journey’s distant destination. But the path is twisted, and there is no road map. The only option is to put one foot in front of the other and trudge forward.

—Ruth S. DeFries

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