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Towards a sustainable mindset



After Qatar, Curaçao is the second most polluting country in the world when it comes to CO2 emissions per capita [1]. The Central Bureau of Statistics Curaçao sets the ecological footprint of the island at 26.4 tonnes of greenhouse gases per capita [2]. For comparison: for an average country in Europe that amount is 6.7 tonnes. This is not exactly a ranking to be proud of as a desirable Caribbean tourist destination. Even though this is mainly due to the combination of Curaçao’s relatively small population and the presence of a large and old oil refinery, it is also a consequence of other, deeper issues. In this article, we address the importance and underlying challenges of developing a sustainable mindset when becoming a sustainable nation. Although all stakeholders play a role in sustainability, this article focuses on the part of the challenge which is within the reach of us as citizens and how we can contribute towards becoming a more sustainable country.


Why Sustainable Development is important

First, we explore what is meant by sustainability and why it is important in the first place. The vague use of the term in popular media has made it into a buzzword with little practical applicability. In particular, ‘sustainable development’ has become a widely popular term in recent years. But what does this loaded term even mean and why has it become such a popular (arguably over-used) buzz-phrase? One commonly used, all-encompassing, definition of sustainable development is:


“Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” [3]


In short, sustainable development is a long-term solution to how we plan our indefinite progress in the future without causing damage to the environment so as to guarantee a safe habitat for future generations. To put it more precisely; it strives to satisfy our needs without sabotaging the opportunities of future generations. When it is put like this, most people can agree that this is a worthy goal to strive towards. Yet, due to the vague nature of the term ‘Sustainable Development’ and the gravity of the situation which it looks to solve, many still treat it as an abstract, unachievable concept.


Now, why is Sustainable Development important on a small island like Curaçao?

Fundamentally, a healthy environment is the basis of all life-support systems, including that of human well-being and socio-economic development. Priority environmental problems for small islands are climate change and sea-level rise, threats to biodiversity, threats to freshwater resources and degradation of coastal environments [4]. Ultimately these issues affect the health and well-being of the citizens. Among these challenges, climate change and its associated impacts are expected to pose the greatest threat to the environment and therefore to sustainable development. On a global scale, small islands are arguably the most vulnerable to the negative effects of climate change [5]. Paradoxically, Curaçao has an abundance of natural resources like the sun and the consistent wind, yet despite substantial progress in recent years, it is still an island nation that mainly relies on energy from petroleum fuels [6].


Although the root cause of this issue is very nuanced and complex, this next part explores one issue that lies at the root of the problem in Curaçao, namely; the mindset towards sustainability.


The first step: changing to a sustainable mindset

This is where it all begins; the mindset of the community. Consumers are an essential component for advocating for sustainability. Both large companies and governmental responses attribute a large part of their actions almost directly to the needs and wants of active consumers. If consumers place little value on climate issues, companies or the government feel less pressure to strive towards sustainable development. To think of this in a more practical sense, take the example of the utility company, Aqualectra. The company operates as a natural monopoly, which means that it has little competitive incentive to move towards renewable energy. This is where the role of consumers comes in since the company is (partly) driven by consumer satisfaction. In such a case, consumers can apply pressure from the bottom-up, which stimulates a transition towards sustainable development. Yet, this can only be the case if consumers are aware and care enough to actively strive towards the same goal.


Taking responsibility

The power of consumers seems to be severely underestimated, hence there is a tendency to shift responsibility towards other entities, such as the government. An example of this is a common argument for the seeming normalization of waste disposal in an environmentally unfriendly way. Citizens feel that it is the government’s responsibility to invest in a better trash pick-up and processing system or in better infrastructure to facilitate this, which leads to the justification of dumping garbage in the woods. If it takes over an hour to drive to the landfill – which also costs fuel – why not just dump your garbage in the woods, especially if nobody cares or sees you?


As the United Nations puts it; Curaçao’s inhabitants experience island-specific barriers that are limiting sustainable development [7]. This observation has led to a deeper question as to why island citizens tend to be less worried about sustainable development, as opposed to, for example, European citizens. It would be easy to just attribute all the blame to a lack of awareness, but this would be too simplistic of a conclusion, lacking further analysis. Through further consideration there seem to be three main reasons for a lack of responsibility with regards to sustainability in Curaçao. These three reasons can be summarized to:


1. Lack of sustainability in education

The first main reason is a lack of attention to sustainability in formal education. In Curaçao, education on environmental subjects is almost completely left in the hands of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs). For this reason, local children and adults are simply less aware of the implications of issues such as climate change or environmental conservation. It is one thing to hear about these concepts through the media at a later stage in life, but a better understanding can be granted if one learns it from a young age and is made aware of the benefits and urgency of sustainable development.

2. Sense of urgency

This second aspect is closely related to the issue of responsibility versus the power of the consumers. There can be a survival aspect that comes into play when consumers don’t have sufficient financial means, which trumps the need for climate action. It basically comes down to the following: If I have to fight to survive every day and have to struggle to feed my kids, then the environment is the last thing on my mind.

The research on this is quite clear; caring about the environment is directly linked with the financial situation of an individual. Yet, the results from research indicate that environmental awareness rises when the GDP of a country reaches a threshold of about $5000, - [8], which Curaçao surpasses at approx. $22.000, -. Nevertheless, the GDP can grant a skewed picture of reality since an issue faced by Curaçao is the general income inequality within society.


3. Lack of scale

The last aspect of the conversation regarding environmental issues is the subject of scale [9]. In general, locals tend to use their definition of scale to challenge the impact that citizen-consumers action can make. This proves especially true in the context of small islands like Curaçao, in which people tend to feel that the impact that they can make is very limited compared to other bigger nations. This leads to the feeling that such issues should be left to bigger, more impactful countries to solve, even though negative effects are felt locally.


Seeing sustainability as an opportunity

We have yet a long way to go before we can remove ourselves from the ranks of most polluting countries in the world. The first step in changing is developing a mindset that urges for sustainable development projects. Consumers that are aware and take responsibility are essential as they have the power to pressure companies and the government. Education is another vital element to developing a sustainable mindset as the children and youth of today will become the consumers, companies and government of tomorrow.


Let us also start seeing sustainable development as an opportunity rather than a burden. As opposed to thinking the island is too small to make a real impact, we can use our small scale to our advantage. As a small nation with multiple natural resources, we can try out and implement sustainable ideas that directly impact our people and our environment. After all, we do not need to be doing it for the rest of the world, but primarily because of the positive effects on the health of our people and the environment.



References

[1] Key World Energy Statistics, 2019

https://www.connaissancedesenergies.org/sites/default/files/pdf-actualites/Key_World_Energy_Statistics_2019.pdf

[2] The Central Bureau of Statistics Curaçao, 2018

https://www.cbs.cw/

[3] Brundtland, G. (1987). Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future. United Nations General Assembly document A/42/427.

[4] Ghina, F. Sustainable Development in Small Island Developing States. Environment, Development and Sustainability 5, 139–165 (2003).

https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/index.php?page=view&type=400&nr=2173&menu=1515

[5] The Carbon War Room (2013). Smart growth pathways: Building a green platform for sustainable Aruba. Washington, DC: The War room.

[6] National Energy Policy for Curacao. Willemstad: Ministry of Economic Development. 2017

[7] United Nations, 2012

[8] Everett, T., Ishwaran, M., Ansaloni, G. P., & Rubin, A. (2010). Economic Growth and the Environment. Report. Munchen: Defra.

[9] Barr, S., Gilg, Andrew, & Shaw, G. (2011). Citizens, consumers and sustainability: (Re)Framing environmental practice in an age of climate change. Global Environmental Change-human and Policy Dimensions - Global Environmental Change, 21 (4), 1224-1233.


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