INTRO: Biologists gathered for a meeting at the University of Michigan today. Their goal is improving Great Lakes water quality. But they realize that might mean a worse economy. Michigan Now’s Chris McCarus reports that the path to a sustainable future is not clear.
Canadians filled much of Palmer Commons on the University of Michigan campus. They came with stories of pollution emanating from both sides of the border. Josee Methot is a graduate student in natural resources at McGill University in Montreal. Methot specializes in food systems.
“We see impacts of climate change already. This will influence our societies and how we live our day to day lives. We can’t pretend it’s not happening.”
21 U.S. and Canadian universities are working on the Great Lakes Futures Project. They’re trying to figure out what’s going to happen to the basin and to the planet. What will shape the future? They asked. Rebecca Schneider teaches about water at Cornell University.
“It really comes down to carrying capacity of any given system, in this case this whole watershed system to support people at a decent quality of living. So growth as the metric, and it’s usually construction of homes, is not sustainable. But I’m not sure how you put in a different underlying philosophy to say we’re not going to focus on growth. We’re going to focus on a sustainable community at the watershed scale. Nobody’s talking about what’s carrying capacity.”
In other words, how much abuse can the environment take? So what else is destroying this part of the world? Most of the 80 researchers here today blamed climate change. But they also factor in invasive species, biological and chemical contaminants, bad governance and the economy. Some suggest that economic growth comes at the expense of the environment. Should we shut down industries and park our cars? Biology professor Irena Creed came from Western University in London, Ontario.
“The worst case scenario was a one percent. There is always the assumption that we’re going to continue to grow. Has anyone thought about an end of growth scenario and whether that could be a good thing or bad thing?”
John Bratton has thought about it.
“Examples of negative growth, shrinkage in Eastern Europe and Detroit have created opportunities for planners at this point to say what do we do with all these vacant buildings and space?”
Dr. Bratton is with the Great Lakes Environmental Research lab in Ann Arbor. The lab is run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
“I think the economy is still set up traditionally to be growth oriented and return on investment oriented and very short term gain oriented. So until population and consumption peak and start to decline there won’t be any serious engagement. Capital will just move to where the growth is….growth du jour.”
Free trade has allowed the free flow of money around the world. But goods and labor have not followed. That has left people in our cities with no goods and no money but plenty of contaminated water, soil and air.
Dr. David Ullrich from the Great Lakes/St. Lawrence Cities Initiative in Chicago says the gap between rich and poor needs to go away.
“The degree of growth or lack thereof is not anywhere near as important as the gap between rich and poor and who’s being left behind. Can we be looking at an economy that is more efficient and more equitable.”
Montreal researcher Josee Methot says people and nature are connected.
“Everything you do, everything you consume comes from somewhere and goes somewhere. So it’s not enough to go about your day to day blindly. So if you care about your children and your neighbor educate yourself to take steps to correct it. Put pressure on your government. Participate in your community. These are the small things we can do now and hopefully shift in direction in the future.”