Sustainability and the Right to a Future

By Zachary Bernstein   |   November 17, 2023

For some, the concept of sustainability, defined by the U.N. in 1987 as, “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,” has been muddied as a mere environmentalist buzzword, which is a shame because it’s a noble and necessary pursuit.

In the book Collapse, written by UCLA professor of geography Jared Diamond, the author tells in deep anthropological detail about the fall of several civilizations throughout world history. While reading, it could strike the reader how frequently societies thrived or languished based on the simple administrational choices they made regarding the preservation of their trees, fertile soils, and water sources. 

A close-up shot of a great grey owl. (Photo courtesy of Tuolumne River Trust)

One pattern emerges in these stories: As populations grow, sustainability becomes a more difficult and critical goal to maintain.

Consider the Tuolumne River, which originates from the glaciers of Yosemite National Park, flows through the Sierra Nevada to Central California, and ultimately to the San Francisco Bay. This pristine river serves as a thriving wildlife habitat that’s home to river otters, North American beavers, Chinook Salmon, steelhead trout, and black bears. The Tuolumne River serves humans too as the singular water source for up to 2.7 million Bay Area residents stretching from San Francisco to San Jose, a detail some California residents may not even be aware of.

“Chronic oversubscription to the available water and increasing demand mean there’s not enough left for the environment,” said Patrick Koepele, executive director of the Tuolumne River Trust, perhaps the fiercest advocacy organization working for the preservation and safety of the mighty Tuolumne.

With rising global temperatures, the increasing onslaught of California wildfires is another threat that keeps the stewards of the Tuolumne on high alert. One of its largest environmental setbacks was the devastating Rim Fire of 2013 which destroyed 270,000 acres of forest in the Stanislaus National Forest. In the years since, Tuolumne River Trust has worked to restore what was lost, recently surpassing the milestone of replanting over two million new trees in the area. Maintaining a robust tree culture benefits the health of the wildlife, the water, and the atmosphere of the planet.

Activists gathering to raise awareness about the climate crisis. (Photo courtesy of Climate Rights International)

“Emissions from a fire like that eclipse any carbon reductions we see in California,” Koepele said, “so it’s critical that we improve the forest in the Tuolumne watershed so we can sequester carbon rather than emit carbon.”

Carbon reduction and habitat preservation also loom large in the mind of Sam Wasser, executive director of the Center for Environmental Forensic Science (CEFS), a collaborative operation based out of the University of Washington in Seattle devoted to using scientific methods to take down poachers all over the world.

“Transnational criminal organizations have operative cells all over Africa,” said Wasser. “They’re very skilled and they’ve figured out lots of ways to reduce risk. We’re trying to counter those strategies.”

CEFS uses samples from seized contraband – smuggled elephant ivory, pangolin scales, or illegally poached African timber – and genetically tests the samples to trace a map that helps lead international law enforcement teams right back to the kingpins profiting off these trafficking operations.

Identifying tusk pairs from the same elephant from 4.6-ton seizures of savannah elephant ivory. (Photo courtesy of Center for Environmental Forensic Science)

With a lean and mean ragtag team of around 40 collaborative scientists, the center’s unique brand of genetic detective work yields high impact results and international recognition. Wasser said with pride, “There isn’t a country in Africa and Southeast Asia that hasn’t heard of us.”

Wasser emphasizes with great passion and expertise how poaching of animals and plant life causes environmental problems all around the world, including money flowing into the hands of terrorist groups, and the potential spreading of animal-borne disease (not unlike COVID-19). 

To maintain thriving, sustainable ecosystems, the preservation of animal wildlife is paramount.

“Illegal poaching of timber impacts habitat and climate,” said Wasser. “In the Congo Basin rainforest, second in size only to the Amazon, those trees are needed for carbon capture and have seeds that only a large animal like an elephant can disperse. If you wipe out the elephants, you wipe out the seed dispersers that regenerate the forest. Inferior trees tend to grow in their place.”

From wildlife poaching to catastrophic wildfires, of all the environmental woes that plague our planet, climate change is the issue connecting them all. For some advocates, reversing the trajectory of a man-made warming world climate is the most critical issue for our generation and for generations to come.

The illegal timber trade is the largest of the environmental crimes, valued between $50-150 billion USD annually. (Photo courtesy of Center for Environmental Forensic Science)

Brad Adams is executive director of Climate Rights International (CRI), a role he recently stepped into after 20 years with Human Rights Watch. His former advocacy on behalf of human rights informs his advocacy fighting climate change.

“One of the main challenges is putting people in vulnerable communities at the center of the discussion,” said Adams. “We tend to focus on images of the environment, endangered species, polar bears on ice floes – all important – but that doesn’t capture the main risk to humanity. My years of work living in Cambodia and all around Asia has been to try to tell the stories of those who are most marginalized, persecuted, and forgotten; to make policy decisions that will improve their lives.”

Mining areas in Indonesia. (Photo courtesy of Climate Rights International)

Indigenous communities from Brazil to Indonesia to Africa are losing their land to deforestation, often as the result of decisions made on a corporate level. CRI seeks to leverage its well-established contacts in world governments and business sectors to promote sustainable practices that benefit the planet and the people who live on it.

“The biggest challenge for the climate rights community is moving the problems of people at the sharp end of climate change to the top of government regulations,” said Adams. “The secret sauce of human rights work is having well-connected advocates in key capitals who have government officials on speed dial.”

Environmental advocacy groups like these are what keep the negligence of profit-driven interests, illicit and corporate, from transforming societies into the ill-fated kind written about in Jared Diamond books.

“We have a responsibility to protect the planet from further damage,” said Adams. “We owe our kids and our grandkids the right to a future.”