“S pread the word about conservation” screamed the headline of an article I came across recently. The writer of this article urges the reader to let as many people know, in whatever manner, to think about the earth.
He goes on to state “There are over seven billion people on this earth, and, every one of them needs to take care of it.” Not stopping there, he reminds us that “Our world is precious to us and we must become more aware of it. Many of our everyday actions are changing the planet permanently. We must all do everything in our power to save our world”. One is immediately stuck by the incessant prevalence of the imperative, as over and over the reader is exhorted to ‘HELP SAVE THE PLANET’ – all of which, honestly speaking leaves me a bit confused and vexed. For many, the effort to persuade others to environmental activism is purely a symbolic gesture. The sheer redundancy of virtually interchangeable depictions of the earth, with ‘recycle’, ‘Save the earth’, ‘save the planet’ or similar impassioned pleas and pat phrases, apart from depicting treacly sentimentality, suggests subtle contradictions and confusion worse confounded.
What does it mean?
What exactly does one mean by ‘saving the earth’? Let me get something absolutely clear here. Our planet doesn’t need any saving. No sir it doesn’t. Having survived 4.54 billion years thus far, (with an error range of 50 million years), it is likely to be there even after another 4.54 billion years from now. Even if we tried, there is no way on earth that we can kill it either! What we can do however is to cripple its ability to support life as we have come to know it. Clearly, mankind’s ability to contaminate the earth’s delicate climate, air, water and bio-mass balance is the ‘game changer’.
What will happen is that unless we fulfill our obligation to be responsible stewards of the earth’s life-sustaining capabilities, it will simply eradicate humanity off its face as it has done with countless other (now extinct) species before us! To cut a long story short and bluntly put, it’s not the earth that needs to be saved – it’s the human race and that’s us!
Tragedy of the commons
Tragedy of the commons is a term used when we tend not t o look after what isn’t, strictly speaking, ‘ours’, so resources used i n common and especially if it is free, get abused. If air costs us nothing, we’ll happily use it as an endless dump for the waste from our tuk tuks, buses, cars and factories.
Furthermore, as pointed out by Adair Turner of the Institute for New Economic Thinking and Centre for Financial studies, falling oil prices and an abundance of fossil fuels will not just support prosperous economies but also continue to nourish wasteful consumption.
The cheaper the juice the more use. In the US, SUV’s, the largest of which are 5 metres long and weigh 2.6 tons are the automobiles market’s fastest growing sector. To Turner, as to many of us, the human-welfare benefit of these monstrous vehicles is unclear. The legroom is no longer, the headroom no taller, and the seats no more comfortable than in a mid-size semi-luxury sedan Never mind that one and a half tons of unnecessary steel are simply hitching a ride (I see a parallel in Sri Lanka with the growing number of SUV’s plying our roads).
The writer concludes that if people choose to drive enormous cars, they must derive some benefit from it, and if switching to green energy makes that choice non-viable, human welfare must suffer. Let’s face it, global warming will disproportionately impact the poor. Affluence and Austerity: never the twain shall meet (with apologies to Rudyard Kipling). Generally, the richer the person is, the more access he/she has to the earth’s natural resources and the greater their ability to disturb the balance of the earth.
How does one persuade developing countries to pay clean up the mess created mostly by those who are already rich? One of the key issues that affect sustainability is the unabated overconsumption by an affluent and mostly apathetic section of the world’s population.
According to ‘Worldwatch Institute’, “1.7 billion people worldwide belong to the ‘global consumer class’ and no longer is it limited to North America, Europe and Japan. Today, some Middle Eastern states, China, India and other fast developing countries are home to growing numbers of these consumers. While the consumer class thrives, great inequalities remain. Twelve percent of the world’s population that lives in North America and Western Europe accounts for 60 percent of private consumption spending, while the 33 percent living in South Asia and subSaharan Africa accounts for only 3.2 percent. .
As many as 2.8 billion people on the planet struggle to survive on less than $2 a day, and more than one billion people lack reasonable access to safe drinking water”. Combating climate change must therefore help those most in need without depriving them of the use of technology to better their life chances. In essence, ‘doing well by all by doing good for all’. But in an all pervasive environment of ‘Capitalism’, which as Bill Gates argues “harnesses self-interest in a helpful and sustainable way, but only on behalf of those who can pay”, will this ever happen?
Triumph of the collective
Can we really bring a happy ending to the tragedy that we humans have caused to the environment? We can… but it won’t be easy. For starters, we humans must react better to climate change rather than flop around ineffectively.
Every year towards the end of March, ‘Earth hour’, is held worldwide. Earth Hour asks people to turn off non-essential lights for one hour. I ask you why turn off nonessential lights for just one hour in the year? Why not always? I turn them off regularly all the time.
Infact, I turn off all my lights for 7 hours every night – not just because I want to sleep in the dark but as most thrifty households, I want to pay less by saving on expensive electricity. Earth Hour started in Sydney, Australia, in 2007, saw 2.2 million homes and businesses turn their lights off for one hour to make their stand against climate change that year. However, it did not stop Australia from becoming one of the world’s largest polluters. By 2012, Australia’s per capita CO2 emissions were more than four times the world average. Bjorn Lomborg, author of The Skeptical Environmentalist, called Earth Hour “an ineffective feel-good event,” which is absolutely correct. Earth hour like other symbolic activities is more about humans t han t he earth. A vigorously brief ‘feel good’ programme, that causes a momentary feeling of happiness and well being with no eventual change. I recall Madonna performing at a concert several years ago, where she exhorted the crowd “If you want to save the planet let me see you jump!”, and thought to myself, ‘good lord, what a dilemma - what’s worse, jumping and not being seen by Madonna or not jumping at all? Seriously, we need to rate earth’s environment just as important as the global economy.
We need to recognise that our planet cannot support its population if we all consumed like Americans. We need to acknowledge that decades of prosperity in the 20th century, for a few countries such as the US and for those in Europe, from the use of mass production to create a world of abundance, can no longer be replicated in the 21st. Infinite accumulation of goods collectively or individually will need to be restrained and we need to focus instead on a better quality of life for all, with minimal environmental abuse.