Wed | Jan 16, 2019

Peter Espeut | Towards a sustainable future

Published:Friday | February 23, 2018 | 12:00 AM
Plastic bottles strewn all over Refuge Cay. Garbage galore reigns on the cay.

To mark my 25 years as a weekly columnist, The Gleaner has asked me to write six short pieces on a topic of my choice, and it should be no surprise that I have chosen Jamaica's natural environment as my subject. I am committed to the conservation of Jamaica's natural resources because I am a patriotic Jamaican who wishes this nation well, and also because I take seriously the Lord's injunction to care for his creation.

Every thoughtful student of the natural sciences will be struck by the complementary order in nature: plants consume nitrogen and carbon dioxide to produce proteins and carbohydrates, and give off oxygen, while animals consume proteins, carbohydrates and oxygen, and give off carbon dioxide and urea (good nitrogen-based plant fertiliser). Natural cycles circulate water and energy, and land and ocean feed on each other.

And then along comes humanity to turn order into disorder. It was ignorance at first, until we used our brains to work out the laws of science, and to discover how to order human activity to align and complement nature. But ignorance still abounds, and our natural environment continues to be degraded, threatening all life on the planet, including the very existence of humanity.

Progress we must, and increases in population require the use of more resources for food, clothing and shelter, as well as recreation. We know that the assets of the earth are finite and diminishing. How does humanity plan for the future? Are we going to continue our environmentally degrading behaviour, or will we use our knowledge of science to set ourselves on a path to a sustainable future?

Scientifically literate humanity has devised a principle and philosophy to guide us on our way - so that we and our great-grandchildren will have a future worth living. It is called sustainable development. It is called 'development' because we must progress, and it is called 'sustainable' because we must modify the way we develop to minimise our damage to the natural environment.

It is such an obviously necessary approach that there are few who will openly disavow it. Most governments and political parties (including the Jamaica Labour Party and the People's National Party) write it into their manifestos, but scientific illiteracy is such that few understand it, and because it requires discipline and restraint - virtues in short supply - in practice, it is usually abandoned in favour of self-aggrandisement and greed.

It is easiest to understand in fisheries and forestry: We cannot catch fish faster than they breed and grow, and expect to have abundant supplies in the future. And we cannot chop down trees faster than they grow, and expect to have enough oxygen to breathe and timber for furniture and housing.

We are good at unsustainable development. CARICOM ranks Jamaican waters as the most overfished in the region (and probably the world); and at one time (when we had lots of trees to chop down) we were ranked as the country with the highest rate of deforestation in the world.

And all this time, successive Jamaican governments went to all the environmental conferences and signed all the treaties, conventions and protocols.

But the truth is that often, when foreign investors come with fistfuls of dollars, they know how to get around environmental regulations.




Some crave economic growth so much that they are prepared to sacrifice Jamaica's environmental health and integrity to get it. Assessing environmental impacts takes time, and many investors know their projects have negative consequences, and pressure governments to speed up approvals - even to waive the need for environmental (and archaeological) assessments. It is irresponsible and unpatriotic to try to short-circuit environmental due diligence.

Over the last 25 years in this column, I have tried to raise the level of environmental awareness. Judging by the success of our Cockpit Country petition, I believe we are making progress with the populace, if not with their political leaders.

I want to pay tribute to Mike Schwartz, one of the leaders in the Cockpit Country battle, who passed away this week. He leaves a void difficult to fill, but which, hopefully, some of you can work towards.

And Diana McCaulay retired last year as CEO of the Jamaica Environment Trust (JET). I encourage my readers to join JET and to strengthen the environmental movement, especially those of you with a sense of stewardship and patriotism.

- Peter Espeut is a sociologist and natural resource manager. Email: