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Cause and effect

There’s one irrefutable axiom of science that applies to life in so many ways, and that’s Sir Isaac Newton’s third law of motion – "For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction."

Put on a pair of inline skates and throw a baseball, and the ball will go forwards, while your body moves backwards. Step onto a boat from a dock too slowly and see what kind of reaction happens when you shift your weight from a solid dock to a moveable object. Something always has to give.

When we move, the energy we expend pushing our foot down onto the ground bounces back to us, allowing us to walk, run and jump. When we lean against a wall, a well-designed wall will lean back.

Action and reaction. Cause and effect.

Newton’s laws have withstood scientific scrutiny for more than 300 years, and yet we still refuse to acknowledge that they apply to everything we do.

For example, few people would have connected the tuna sandwich they had for lunch with a recent report by Dalhousie University researchers that the ocean’s large fish, including tuna, are disappearing.

People don’t connect the gas they burn driving to work with global warming, air pollution, growing asthma rates, and a pair of devastating wars in Iraq – Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz admitted as much on a recent trip to Asia.

People don’t link the steaks on their barbecues to water pollution, the steady market devaluation of grain and other animal feed stocks on the global market, the destruction of the Amazon rainforest, and billions of tax dollars either spent or remitted as farm subsidies.

Without subsidies and government turning a blind eye to the environment, how else would you explain the fact that a pound of ground beef costs less than a pound of soy burgers, when a cow eats about 90 pounds of grain, including 40 pounds of soybeans, each and every day for up to three years? In addition, it’s estimated that it takes about 10,000 litres of water to produce one pound of beef, between 15 and 50 times more than is required to produce a pound of soybeans. A quarter of all developed land is currently used for livestock production, a fraction of which could feed the world if it were used to grow beans and vegetables.

A corollary to Newton’s third law of motion is the "free lunch" principle, whereby there is no such thing as a free lunch. This is action and reaction on a social and economic scale; nobody picks up the tab without expecting something in return, and nothing – nothing – is ever as cheap or as free as it appears.

A prime example is the low cost of fast food, and the low, low prices at your neighbourhood Wal-Mart. While the executives of these concerns attribute their low prices to economies of scale and shrewd management, the reality is that every cost savings comes at the expense of something, whether it’s fair working wages at home, Third World sweatshops, a disregard for the environment, government subsidies, genetically modified crops or automated manufacturing. That’s why globalization is a myth – if workers in the Third World enjoyed the same standard of living that we do (and we’re enjoying it less and less), the price of everything would skyrocket, and there wouldn’t be enough to go around. Right now the inequity in wages works in our favour, and anyone who tells you differently is lying.

The choices we make in our daily lives are essentially actions, and although we don’t always see or feel the reactions, they are definitely there. And the more people that take those actions, the greater that reaction will be until we can no longer ignore it.

For example, are you thinking about buying an SUV? Then join the 25 per cent of other drivers who made a similar choice in recent years, thereby decreasing average fuel economy for the first time in more than 20 years, and increasing annual fuel consumption in North America by more than 150 million barrels of oil.

There’s another concept at play here that could be defined as Newton’s third law of social conscience – "If you’re not part of the solution, then you’re part of the problem." In other words, if you don’t watch your actions, then you’re responsible for their reactions.

Of course, nobody likes to be told that they are part of the problem, and people usually block out these types of argument at this point by viewing them as a personal attack.

Nobody means to be part of the problem. Some people don’t even believe there is a problem.

Some people acknowledge that they are part of the problem, but have faith that science and technology will offer a solution.

Some people don’t care – we’re all going to die anyway when (pick one) the next meteor hits, the air runs out, the ice caps melt, the world powers go nuclear, and the next plague hits, so why bother?

Although people probably feel a lot more guilty about the choices they make than they have in the past, until they can be made to feel the effects, nothing is going to change.

Accepting that our actions have consequences is a central tenet of sustainability, conserving environmental capital by living within our means and by making better choices. The principles of sustainability apply to everything, from managing population growth to changing the way we buy shampoo.

This is a movement that’s rooted in gradual change, accepting the status quo and working slowly to change the way we do things. Put it this way – the new Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, is being printed on 100 per cent recycled paper, without the use of bleaches or harmful dyes. That is expected to save some 29,000 trees, or a forest that’s slightly larger than Stanley Park.

The extra cost of producing the book? An extra $200,000, or a three-per cent in production costs.

Whistler’s own sustainability initiative seems to have lost momentum recently, but that’s not the case. Everything from community composting to a recent bylaw requiring the use of low-flow toilets falls under the sustainability umbrella. Small changes can have huge benefits.

Get involved, and take responsibility for your actions. Visit