Heroes of the Earth

As Margaret Mead once said, never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world--it's the only thing that ever has.

Who says environmentalism is dead? All across the globe, ecoactivists are emerging as leaders of the fourth wave--a true grassroots movement, providing us with models of courage, vision, and commitment. The Goldman Environmental Prize, awarded annually to one activist from each inhabited continental region, celebrates such individuals: ordinary people who take extraordinary stands, often alone and at great personal risk, against corporate and government despoliation. At a recent public forum moderated by Mother Jones, these ecoheroes gathered to discuss the challenges they face and their strategies to move forward. An adaptation of their remarks:

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As a physician, how would you diagnose the state of the planet?

Robert Brown, Australia: We are in the middle of the greatest environmental calamity since the dinosaurs went extinct, the difference being there's no dispute about the cause: it is us. And there's no dispute about the cure: it is us. Materialism has knocked the great ethics of the past out of the way. If we do not learn to share with our fellow people and species now, we will continue this process leading inevitably to a chaotic social and environmental situation.

What is required is a greening revolution of the human intellect, globally. In everything we do, we should first ask, "Will people 100 years from now thank us for doing this?" If we can't say yes, or even if we're unsure, we should not do it. It is simple common sense.

With the entire world rushing to develop and consume, where do you focus your efforts?

Ildiko Schucking, Germany: If you look at the current model of development, it's a kind of religion. The World Bank is like the Vatican. It has strategic influence on other investors. For the $24-$25 billion the bank invests into projects each year, the money additionally attracted is three to four times as high. So by attacking the bank we're attacking the model at its center, destroying the image that if this institution funds a project, it is a seal of approval.

With the World Bank, with bilateral aid agencies, it's public money. It's much easier to address that and to create a social movement to fight development. Attacking private investment is harder. Nonetheless, I think that by addressing the uses of public money we can set standards to influence private investments.

In China, who poses the greater environmental threat--the government or the new entrepreneurs?

Dai Qing, China: The Three Gorges Dam may be one of the last decisions of the old economic and political system. As a result of reforms, people have started to have a sense of their own [entrepreneurial] rights. We now have lots of small factories--printing, textiles, etc. This has caused new environmental damage in China. Factories want rapid development, but don't want to spend money to update their equipment. So, for example, our space satellite cannot see Benxi, a famous steel city with a population of 1 million, because of the air pollution. It's terrible.

How are U.S. government and industry fighting back against activists?

Lois Gibbs, United States: Because of the huge outcry about toxic waste, government and industry decided to use the famous love canal to set residential exposure standards. They compared its contaminated air, water, and soil with two communities in Niagara Falls, N.Y., that were also contaminated. Because people were living in the two other communities, it was OK to move back to Love canal--where there's still 20,000 tons of toxics. Essentially they said: They have the same level of chemicals, they're all rotten oranges. Nowhere did they say if these oranges were edible, only comparable.

We worked very hard against the lending institutions. We told them we would do civil disobedience if they held mortgages for Love Canal homes. We won that. But the Clinton administration decided that the homes could be insured by government, so now taxpayers are taking the place of private lending institutions. The folks moving back are low-income families who have few options. A woman I spoke to said, "I live in a housing development that has crime, prostitution, drugs, lead. The worst that could happen in Love Canal is my children would get cancer." Government strategy is to set exposure standards in the U.S. that may likely be applied globally, so that's where our focus is.

How do we counter with higher, common environmental standards if our concepts of toxics, waste--even population growth--differ from country to country, North to South?

Laila Kamel, Egypt: As Cairo grows, and as we become greedier, the poor live on the remains of our greed. They recycle every little scrap. They need a lot of children to do it, so they keep having babies. Kids cost a lot of money, but the technology they use is so basic it requires many hands. Also, many babies die; they need to have spare ones. And because the culture upholds kinship ties, and social security does not provide for old age, their sons will bring in money to support them. So the poor are making intelligent economic decisions when they have lots of kids. They're not stupid; they're not irresponsible.

We are the stupid ones who waste. They take it, construct a whole life, and save the earth. We look down on them with disdain: They're dirty, they're illiterate, they have babies. But here's a model that, in Africa, we are sharing with each other [see caption]. Nonprofit groups capitalize on the greed of the rich, and provide themselves with an economic base. But the United States looks down on anything that's not high-tech. This deafness of the North, the unwillingness to listen to alternatives being developed very creatively in the South, will undo it.

Do we need to evolve a common language for consumption, such as pricing mechanisms to increase the costs of our natural resources?

Catherine Wallace, New Zealand: We absolutely have to bring in mechanisms that make people confront the environmental and social costs of what they purchase and produce. We have to couple that with changing fundamental values. I would like to see, as a start, governments adopt a carbon tax, and allow labor taxes and service taxes to be replaced with resource taxes.

How do you bring about dramatic changes in the marketplace when the entire world seems hellbent on consumption?

Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come, Canada: My people are hunters, fishermen, trappers. But my daughter uses a hair drier, my son an electric shaver. We used to have dog teams; now we have scooters. I'm not sure how to change our new consumption attitudes, but I do know that we've survived for 5,000 years because of some co-management, some conservation measures.

The challenge will be whether government and multinationals involve people who are directly affected by forestry, mining, tourism, megaprojects. Once you empower these people, they're full participants, they have a say about what happens in their own backyard, they can make decisions.

Andrew Simmons, the Caribbean: If you take a stone and throw it in the pond, you'll see ripples until the entire pond is distorted. Soon there will be a ripple effect that will change the world. We have to make sure we involve local people and communities in forming our philosophy of government. And unless women and youths participate in this movement, the change that we want on the local level will not be realized.

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