Eight steps to a healthier and more sustainable Bermuda
Did you ever get the feeling that Bermuda has outgrown its skin? For a tiny island, it seems we have adopted many of the practices common in a larger country such as the United States. We drive large SUVs to work, generate large amounts of waste, engage in a “throw away” lifestyle and have a very active commercial/residential construction industry. All this for an island of 22 square miles. Yet Bermuda has been showing signs that it is bursting at the seams.
“Sustainability” is the key here. This word is thrown about often. Many things are not sustainable, such as my wife’s spending habits and my newborn’s voracious appetite, but in the context of the environment, this word has a very large part to play for Bermuda’s future.
We cannot afford to overlook the importance of our environment given our tiny size — we are more intrinsically linked to our environment here than in larger countries, as land here is a much more finite resource and what we all do affects our neighbours more quickly. The path to environmental sustainability has been largely neglected by successive governments. We can and must do more.
The late Bermuda resident and futurist James Martin placed a value on the environment — he called it “natural capital”. Natural capital would include trees, the ocean, even the air we breathe, and can be considered assets that ultimately belong to all of us. Unfortunately, this natural capital is often exploited by corporations and ignored by governments to the detriment of the people. They are more focused on the short term — a very human fallibility.
Bermuda’s natural capital belongs to all Bermudians, yet we, too, are losing touch with what really matters, which is ensuring that Bermuda remains an environmental going concern for our children and all generations of future Bermudians.
Given that Earth Day is tomorrow, I thought it quite timely to share some ideas as to how we can get the ball rolling for Bermuda’s environmental sustainability:
1, Save our open spaces. Anyone flying over the island can see it is clearly overdeveloped, with areas in real danger of becoming a concrete jungle. Everyone wants to build on what little open space we have left. More concrete pouring and the removal of trees and shrubs mean more flooding, more topsoil erosion, and higher surface temperatures. It also has a negative impact psychologically — human sensibilities are more familiar with natural surroundings, which have a calming effect on us.
Bermudians with large amounts of land should see themselves as “land stewards”, heeding their assumed environmental obligation to preserve the green space and to protect from development. Bermuda Environmental Sustainability Taskforce has done amazing work in this regard. Thanks to them we didn’t have to carve up the Botanical Gardens for the new hospital, and future generations will be able to enjoy the unspoilt tranquility at Southlands. More work needs to be done, starting with tighter planning restrictions. Realtors are selling off open plots for development all over the island now. How much open space can we afford to lose?
2, Support the Blue Halo Project. We should create our own marine reserve within Bermuda’s exclusive economic zone to help to protect the Sargasso Sea, recognised internationally as crucial for healthy fisheries, water purification, waste management and moderation of extreme weather events such as hurricanes. This could be Bermuda’s gift to the world. A reserve would also attract ecotourism, provide indefinite protection for our fragile but stressed coral reefs and help to reverse the damage from overfishing by giving our fish stocks a chance to replenish. Furthermore, our beaches, reefs and coastline would be safeguarded for ever from the potentially catastrophic effects of deep-sea mining activity — a ludicrous proposition put forward by some as another potential source of income, despite the extreme fragility of our marine ecosystem.
Why will our government not support this and make Bermuda an example for the rest of the world in marine conservation? We are missing a golden opportunity here; a perfect example of protecting Bermuda’s natural capital.
3, No more plastic or paper single-use bags. We are so behind the times here. China, and many African and European countries, have total bans in place. Other countries such as Britain levy a small charge for plastic/paper bags. Don’t want to pay? No problem, bring your own reusable bag. People quickly get in the habit of bringing their own. Why can’t we? Plastic is toxic and plastic waste is a significant problem for the 21st century. Paper bags are cheap to produce but very expensive for the environment, as they consume valuable resources such as trees and water, and use vast amounts of energy in their production. We do not have the proper facilities in Bermuda to recycle these, or to provide the necessary conditions for biodegradable plastic bags to break down. Greenrock initiated a campaign to encourage local retailers to charge customers 25 cents per bag a few years ago, but not all retailers would participate. The only way forward is to legislate this charge. People will of course complain initially but will adapt quickly, as they have done in many other countries. A quick change of habit can lead to a huge win for sustainability. This should be a quick win for Bermuda in 2017.
4, Protect our remaining farmland. Only 6 per cent of the island is arable land. We grow only a fraction of what we need to feed ourselves. As a country we have minimal food security — we are almost completely reliant on food shipments from the US. This is a tenuous lifeline that can easily be severed by a catastrophic event affecting the East Coast.
Self-sufficiency is a key component of sustainability. We have outgrown our skin and cannot feed our own people. Because of our population/land imbalance, we will always rely on imports, but nevertheless we should incentivise more people to grow their own vegetables in square-foot gardens, making us more self-sufficient, and following the trend for growing local and eating fresh — better for the environment, better for Bermuda, better for us.
5, Mandatory recycling. We are an incredibly wasteful community. As avid consumers, we cannot afford to be lazy about disposal. We forget that when we throw away, there is really no “away”. We need to be masters of recycling, reusability and making things last. Let’s at least start with mandatory recycling of tin and glass, such as they have in Germany and some Canadian provinces, and more initiatives to encourage composting. Bermuda has more reason to do this than other countries, as unlike them we do not have the resources to recycle the other paper and plastic waste we produce.
Burning trash at the incinerator is not the long-term answer. Just because the toxic smoke goes out to sea, does that make it OK? Bermudians produce 80,000 tonnes of waste per year. The incinerator can burn only 105,120 tonnes if it runs 24/7, which it does not. That means we are dangerously close to our maximum capacity, leading to a “trash tempest” if the incinerator were to ever go offline for even a short period of time. Let’s ease the load instead of building yet another chimney.
6, Phase out fuel-powered vehicles. Let’s get with the times and have a formal commitment by the Government to phase out fossil-fuelled vehicles and phase in electric/hybrid vehicles on a large scale within a realistic timescale, following many European countries. No more dirty exhausts. Also think about the noise pollution this would cut — houses next to main roads would go up in value.
Most vehicles are now available as hybrid or full electric. Again, Bermuda could be an example to the world: with its small land mass and modest speed limit, the island is a perfect situation for a case study to see how electrification can work in a small-scale, urban environment. Belco could offset the increased electricity demand with more solar and wind generation, and more energy efficiency. Local auto retailers should be more proactive here and work with the Government to develop an implementation plan.
7, Let’s “big up” solar and wind energy. The resources are there. The technology is there. Other countries are all over this and have targets in place for renewable energy as a percentage of total generation. Costa Rica ran its whole country on renewable energy. Our renewable resources can be solar, wind and wave/ocean currents. Technology is now there that increases both the efficiency and storage of renewable energy. Anyone with a roof can generate their own electricity and feed back to the grid. Belco should not invest more in new fossil-fuel powered generators. That is moving backwards and would be an expensive mistake with long-term implications, considering the rest of the world is moving in the renewables direction.
8, SUVs should RIP. A controversial topic, but I do not think we need SUVs on our tiny island. Still reading? Let’s have some relativity here. Look at their size with respect to our narrow country roads. Look at our traffic congestion. Look at their higher fuel consumption, which in turn increases the island’s reliance on fossil fuels and adds more poisonous carbon monoxide into our air. Granted, there may be exceptions where people may need a larger car — for example, the disabled — but for the most part they do not belong here. Remember, this is not North America but a 22-square-mile island with a 40km/h speed limit. It would make sense to levy a luxury tax on these vehicles, which could help to subsidise solar/wind development, or better yet, phase them out over a period of years. This argument is likely to meet resistance from many in the community, but I would urge anyone to heed the logic and to look at the facts objectively. We may need to have public pressure on the Government to take these steps for our greater welfare, and to offset the conflict that will arise from those looking to protect their own business interests.
If we adopted many of the aforementioned, Bermuda could be a shining example to the world of sustainable development. We could be an excellent case study for nations looking to assess the positive impact of sustainability measures. This would put us on the world stage and be a huge boon for the island’s ecotourism, but more importantly put us at rights with future generations of Bermudians.
The government of the day, whoever it may be, must task itself with making sustainability a priority of its governance. With the upcoming elections, I would like to see both parties address this as a serious issue in their election manifestos. Some of what has been mentioned may not be vote-winning material, but I would urge a government that is acting in our best long-term interests to educate and to engage the public on these topics.
Some tough decisions would have to be made, but like restrictions on single-use bags, people adapt quickly and then it is a non-issue. We need to make them accountable and to remind the government of the day that history will judge them for the choices they make, and the opportunities they ignore. The same goes for all of us.
We all want our little piece of Bermuda paradise. We are extremely fortunate to live here, but need to recognise that this should not come without some sort of sacrifice. No, not sacrifice, but moderation.
“Living within our own skin”. Smaller cars. Electric vehicles. No single-use bags. More sustainable development and protection of our limited natural resources. These things are really a small price to pay for maintaining the enduring beauty of this, our island home.
We all owe it to future Bermudians.
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