Business professor Boyd Cohen wants to turn some everyday environmental heroes into international celebrities. It’s the best way the SFU academic can envision to trigger huge and necessary changes in behaviour that will make the world inhabitable in the future for his four-year-old son Mateo.
“I’m 100-percent convinced that if we don’t turn the ship around, his quality of life is going to be diminished,” Cohen told the Georgia Straight in a recent phone interview. “I’m concerned that if we don’t get things done fast enough, he might not even live out his natural life. There are times when I’m talking that I choke up when I tell you that. Honestly, that’s how I feel.”
Cohen, who teaches students how to develop green businesses, said he gets frustrated by the superficial way in which the media often address sustainability. He said he gets tired of reading stories about “baby steps”, like how much progress would be made if everybody turned off the water when they brushed their teeth.
Or articles that suggest that if people just changed the light bulbs in their houses, everything would be fine. Or if a certain number of cars were taken off the road in a year, it would help address the carbon-dioxide problem.
“That is a very shortsighted view of the reality of the problems we face on the planet and how we’re going to solve them,” Cohen said somewhat vehemently. “If everybody did those things, we would have an incremental impact, but we would, actually, one year from now still have a net worse impact on the planet than we do today even if everyone adopted all those strategies.”
He pointed out that because humans are consuming the earth’s resources and polluting at such a rapid pace, these changes are way too minor to stave off an environmental Armageddon. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, there were approximately 280 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Now the level has surpassed 380 parts per million.
According to some estimates, the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide will reach 700 parts per million by the end of the century if we keep burning fossil fuels at the current rate.
Here’s the kicker: many scientists believe that if there are just 450 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, there is a 50-percent chance that this will only elevate the world’s average temperature by 2 °C. That would give human beings a chance of surviving as a species. Others, such as NASA’s James Hansen, say that we must strive for lower atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide. As a business professor, Cohen understands the arithmetic.
“People are referring to the tipping point and the exponential impact of environmental devastation,” he said. “We think just one more degree of temperature is going to have a small percentage impact. But at some point, one degree means x amount of glaciers melt, which means x amount of impact on humans living near coastal areas and various other downstream and upstream impacts. We’re seeing this stuff already.”
His biggest fear? “I’m very concerned it might not get better, which makes some people say, ”˜Why bother?’ ”
Which leads back to his idea of turning responsible environmentalists into role models. Cohen decided that the best way to do this would be to create a global contest, which is now taking place on his Web site www.3rdwhale.com/. He described it as the “American Idol for green people”. The objective was to find the greenest person in the world.
“One of my motivations before starting this was to make stars out of people who are going the extra length to live environmentally responsible lifestyles when they have lots of choices that aren’t so environmentally responsible,” Cohen said. “It’s actually working. I have to admit that I’m actually personally overwhelmed with the media attention and the general overall interest the competition has created around the world. We’ve been covered in magazines and newspapers and Web sites from Malaysia to China, all over the U.S. and Canada.”
More than 600 people answered 20 questions in the on-line survey to enter the contest. Cohen whittled the list down to 50 semifinalists. Then he posted their profiles on the site and people could click to their region and vote for their choice. “Our system was set up to recognize your IP address on your computer,” he said. “You could only vote once.”
Visitors to the Web site narrowed the list to five finalists, which include Vancouver guerilla gardener Emily Jubenville. Cohen said the winner will be announced on September 16.
Cohen noted that cities and businesses are often rated in terms of their impact on the planet, but the same standards haven’t been applied to human beings. “Those rankings are done to incent companies and citizens to try to be competitive and to be rated higher because, increasingly, people are realizing there are tangible values to cities and companies that achieve those things,” he said. “So my thought is, ”˜Why don’t we do the same thing with people?’ Cities and companies and everything else are made of people.”
Cohen said he has been interested in environmental issues for many years. He only realized that he could apply it to his career as a business professor in 2001 after reading Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution by Paul Hawken. At the time, he was finishing his PhD at the University of Colorado, Boulder. The University of Victoria recruited him in 2002, and he moved to SFU two years ago.
He said he realizes there are enormous obstacles to convincing human beings to reduce their output of greenhouse gases. Even his own father denied the existence of climate change for many years, which was a reflection, Cohen said, of the traditional American right-wing view of environmental issues. But Cohen said he thinks things are beginning to change and that there is a growing recognition of the magnitude of the problem, even among Republicans.
“I guess I’m not going to go down with the ship without giving it a fight,” Cohen said emphatically. “I’m going to do what I can to help inspire other people.”