Environment and environmental justice is this generation’s crisis

Maude Barlow with hands together

Every generation faces a particular crisis they have to tackle together and for this generation it is the multiple threats to the earth from over-exploitation, pollution and the growth imperative, Maude Barlow said Thursday during Spring Convocation ceremonies.

Barlow, national chair of the Council of Canadians and chair of the board of Washington-based Food & Water Watch, spoke to the graduating classes of the Faculties of environmental studies and education after receiving an honorary doctor of laws degree from York.

Maude Barlow
Maude Barlow

“York Univeristy takes the environmental issue really seriously,” she said. “It should be proud of the leadership it has shown.”

Barlow is the recipient of many awards, including the 2005 Right Livelihood Award, the 2005 Lannan Foundation Cultural Freedom Fellowship Award, the Citation of Lifetime Achievement at the 2008 Canadian Environment Awards, the 2009 Earth Day Canada Outstanding Environmental Achievement Award, the 2009 Planet in Focus Eco-Hero Award and the 2011 Earth Care Award, which is the highest international honour of the Sierra Club.

She urged everyone to take up the challenge of the environment and environmental justice, which she said should not be separated. “We need to come together no matter what we’re doing, whether it’s environmental or anything else that we’re choosing. We have to take time from our lives to fight,” she said.

“From the diminishing life in the oceans, and the destruction of old growth forests, to the clear limits of a fossil fuel economy, our Mother Earth is suffering and are countless others are suffering as well.”

Even though students in grade school were told it could never happen, “fresh water supplies are rapidly declining,” said Barlow.

Water is being polluted, extracted and diverted from lakes, rivers and aquifers to quench the thirst of cities, industry and mega farms. “When we are done with it, we often dump that water, usually untreated, into the oceans, leaving landscapes parched behind us. As a result, many parts of the world are literally running out water.”

According to a new study out of China, half their rivers have disappeared since 1990; they are completely gone. “It affects people around the world. It affects the poor,” she said. “We’re finding people around the world in desperate need. Every three seconds a child in the Global South dies of water borne disease. Dirty water kills more children then all forms of violence together, including war.” In Detroit, they’re turning off the water to thousands of poor, inner city people who can’t afford the cost of water, which has risen dramatically.

From left, Maude Barlow and Chancellor Gregory Sorbara
From left, Maude Barlow and Chancellor Gregory Sorbara

In Canada, “we are among the worst water wasters in the world. We don’t protect or properly map our ground water. Our great lakes are in crisis. One global study on ground water said, if the great lakes are being depleted the way ground water supplies are around the world, our great lakes could be bone dry, I quote, in 80 years,” she said.

Add to that a national water act that is 45 years old and in desperate need of updating. Canadians also consume about three billion plastic bottles of commercial water every year. Only about 35 per cent of which are recycled. The rest end up in lakes, rivers, forests and landfills, where they will take at least 500 years to break down. “So a big shout out to York University for their planned phase out of bottle water here on campus,” said Barlow.

“Mining and heavy oil extractions are destroying many freshwater lakes and rivers in Canada, allowing giant dams of poisoned water to contaminate groundwater sources. Yet changes recently made to federal regulations mean that 99 per cent of all our lakes and rivers in Canada are no long protected by federal law,” she added.

“Sadly there is still a water and sanitation crisis on many First Nations communities, where residents are 90 per cent more likely to be without running water than other Canadians.”

Barlow called out to every who is blessed to live in a “water wealthy country” to find solutions to this global crisis and to be good stewards of their own water by protecting watersheds, wetlands and aquifers and “ensuring safe, clean drinking water as a human right and a public trust”.

There is much work to do still, said Barlow. One of those is to ensure water cannot be bought and sold on the market like oil.

“This is your legacy, this is your challenge. This is the challenge of our time,” she said. There is still hope.

York’s 2014 Spring Convocation ceremonies are streamed live and then archived online. To view Barlow’s convocation speech, visit York University’s convocation website.