Costa Rica's call to lead sustainability in the Carbon Age

July 15, 2008

Years from now it will be referred to in some dramatic fashion, like the Environmental Age, or the Carbon Revolution.  And it will be a decisive period and mark an era that is unlike all others that have come before.  I trace the dawn of the era to 06 JUL 2005, when George W. Bush stunningly acknowledged that global warming was real and caused by man.  The anticlimactic collapse of this final resistance settled the science and seemed to launch an expanding series of initiatives and findings and NGO partnerships and funding ventures all over the world that have reminded us in progress along the way that the planet is increasingly coalescing around a recognition of its existential dilemma.  In those future years when we can look back and point to key milestones along the way--the development of carbon sequestration, the taming of cold fusion, the retirement of the internal combustion engine, the maturation of the hydrogen economy--we will know whether the changes man has wrought in the earth's atmosphere can be reversed or whether global warming turned out to have had an irreversible knick point after all?  For now we don't know and can only hope and cordially assume that it is not too late to mend our ways and begin to look after our planet a bit.

What does it mean to be the longest standing democracy in Latin America?  What are the natural consequences of a nation that outlaws its own army following a revolution that ratifies democracy rather than introduces it?  Where does the planetary standard-bearer of eco-tourism go when it gets off work?  Is there a corollary to being one of the most literate and healthy societies in the western hemisphere?  Should there not be a little bit of guilt for getting through the long night of the Cold War so unscathed and vibrant?  If the sitting President of the nation is a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, what must that demand of its citizenry?

The dawn of the Environmental Revolution presents nations with unprecedented challenges and opportunities.  Asian Rim economies responded to the technological revolution with quality cars and low-priced electronics.  The middle east replied to the bright-eyed hydrocarbon economy by standing up to the plate, shirt sleeves rolled.  The United States wrapped itself around the information age and boosted accrued wealth by untold trillions and counting.  So too will nations step up to the plate and fill niche parts and secure cornerstones of the transcendence myth that will come to define the planet's salvation in this, its latest paradigm and most quintessential and unforgiving zeitgeist.

Let’s face it, the Switzerland of Central America has found itself swaddled in velvety robes of mythic stature arguably since before its very inception.  After all, this is a nation that learned of its own independence two weeks after the fact and before the opportunity to understand what independence was and whether it had any merit or not.  This is a nation that lost only two thousand souls in its only civil conflict, the formative 1948 revolution that birthed this most progressive of western hemispheric nations. 

It is not just that it is in Costa Rica's national identity to lead by example and to lean into challenges that neighboring states lean back from or shrug off altogether.  It is not simply that Costa Rica must protect its extensive investment in the eco-tourism industry by shoring up its environmental street cred.  It is not just that Costa Rica possesses all the political instruments and the national will to stand up and be counted.  It’s not just that Costa Rica could hardly have it be any other way and still be consonant with its national values.  For Costa Rica, water and power supply and waste management are not merely threats to the nation’s economic mainstay of eco-tourism or to its happy-go-lucky national spirit.  These challenges, in a small, semi-equatorial nation without oil or coal reserves and characterized with an expanding population density and an agricultural capacity unable to completely feed itself, are existential threats.  Costa Rica must embrace environmental sustainability if it is to maintain its own high standard of living, the dignity of its people, and the hopeful promise for a better tomorrow that it has always had.  Costa Rica has no real choice but to cultivate and groom its modest and finite resources with managerial finesse and custodial pride. 

Until the nation institutes a universal wastewater management policy and musters the necessary sums for basic waste treatment infrastructure, the natural beauty of its receiving streams and coastal waters will under a growing population be continuously dirtied, its aquatic diversity steadily degraded.  Until the country is able to diversify its energy production toward small-scale alternative energy sources and away from plants powered by Venezuelan crude, the nation’s basic infrastructure will be hobbled by the high costs of the fossil fuel economy, its skies impacted by the billows of soot and carbon dioxide tithed daily in unwilling support of Hugo Chavez's populist petro-social experiments.  Until the nation is able to channel its nearly infinite supply of rain to satisfy the explosive water demands of the Guanacaste region, development that favors the whole country shall be stymied and stunted, for ironic wont of the resource in greatest national supply.   Un-faced, these challenges are sufficient to suppress the Costa Rican standard of living and depress national pride.  Ignored, these challenges are hungry to whittle at the national economic mainstay of eco-tourism.  However, energy, water, and waste challenges in Costa Rica  are not exactly rocket science.  It is not like these things are insurmountable.  Compared to hardships without number, water, energy, and waste Costa Rican challenges are little more than speed bumps for a determined and motivated society.

It seems a daunting challenge as a private citizen to influence such macro-environmental issues as those listed in preceding paragraphs.  Few of us are in a position to directly affect national policy beyond the impact and force of our opinions and vote.  For some, the idea of personal responsibility is a zero-sum game played by tree-huggers and field hippies.  For others every choice in lifestyle and action is predicated on a complicated ethical balance between personal needs and planetary responsibility.  For most, environmental sustainability falls somewhere between the two.  Just as an individual may bemoan that his choices are so small as to be insignificant compared to the wider society, so too may small nations speciously argue that their efforts are insignificant beside environmental behemoths like the US, EU, China, Brazil, and Russia.  Both arguments are fatuous.  Action by a planet begins by a member state.  And action within a member state begins at the urging of a coalition.  And at the root of the coalition invariably reside the voices of individuals.  Just as the flap of a butterfly's wings in Brazil might spawn tornados in Texas, so too does everything we do have a direct bearing on our environment in general and planet as a whole.   Now that global warming has strayed beyond the boundaries of theory and into the record books of fact, more and more of us wonder if our actions don't in fact obey Newton’s second law of Physics after all and indeed have equal and opposing reactions, many of them negative opposing reactions at that.  But that’s the rub:  you have to exist and there are consequences to existence.  It is a prosaic conflict that it is the duty of forward-leaning societies to resolve through selfless immersion and faceless leadership.  There is no nation too small or too large for the planetary challenge that we have launched in the form of the Environmental Age or the Carbon Revolution, or whatever name it will come to bear.

As our planet shrinks beneath a swelling human fecundity, the boundaries between personal freedoms and environmental responsibility have risen, just as the global confrontation with radical Islam has led to a compromise of civil liberties in the name of increased security.  Yet, civil liberties and personal freedoms are antithetical to neither religious temperance nor environmental sustainability, and since the planet has no choice but to get smarter about getting along better in more crowded courtyards, it seems only reasonable to remove any blinders remaining and get busy with the work of making the accommodations and wielding the tools so as to evolve and change with our planet as we control its evolutions to conform to the extent possible with our own. 

The luminary physicist, Stephen Hawking, prophesied that without colonizing space, humanity would be unable to mediate its future, unable to control its intrinsic greed, unable to save itself from extinction in its own waste.  Even if it were true—a long shot in itself—it surely remains within our hands to determine the pace of our chosen salvation or destruction.  Just as humanity has been a cause of its current circumstance, so too does it control the future of its environment.  And it is precisely the combination of inalienable Costa Rican traits and circumstances of the country that suggests this nation as a likely ideal crucible for informing the human genome of the vitality and scope of a lifestyle of environmental sustainability that is within the reach of both individuals and societies at large.

Just as Costa Rica is the planetary standard bearer of eco-tourism, so must it become the test case for societal environmental sustainability.  Just as Costa Rica is the Latin American exemplar of democracy, so too is it required to decry the cop-out of its American patron and take Kyoto to the next level.  Simply because Costa Rica is arguably Latin America’s most educated society requires that it educate its neighbors and peers through its own example of environmental sustainability.  For the simple reason that Costa Rica enjoys standards of health to which many nations can at best only aspire and envy, the Republic of Costa Rica is ethically obliged to manifest its health as an example to the world by becoming the first carbon-neutral, or even better, net-carbon consuming nation on the planet.  The nation's target for carbon neutrality?  2021.  Thirteen years from now.

The Greening of Costa Rica is a series of essays viewing environmental sustainability through the prism of Costa Rican life.  Whether this nation's part in the Environmental Revolution underway rises from an institutional berth amid national policy or a one-off outgrowth of a demographic critical mass, these essays are intended to codify and inspire, to reduce and transcend, to serve as a template and operand, to nudge and nurture and defy this nation into a leadership role as it edges headlong into the Carbon Age with a clear advantage to turn the planetary paradigm through its own leadership into existential transcendence, national wealth, and hemispheric goodwill and gratitude.

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