Single poppy in wheat field

Ten steps towards saving the environment

In Business and Environment, Environment, Ethical and Eco Agriculture by David ScheelLeave a Comment

I had the pleasure of delivering two lectures at the Living Now Symposia held in Melbourne and Sydney. At the end of each lecture I gave a summation of what I believe are the ten key factors necessary in the preservation of global biodiversity and the environment. During the ensuing question-and-answer session a number of people enquired as to whether the summation was available in print form, and as I had not anticipated this, I resolved to publish it at the earliest opportunity.

What follows is an expanded version, which explains my arguments more fully than would be the case if I simply revisited the summation verbatim.

1. The first essential is, I believe, the need for a fundamental shift in attitude, which, as noted by Erich Fromm in The Sane Society, and E.F. Schumacher in Small is Beautiful, sees the economy as the servant of humankind, and not humankind as the servant of the economy. At present we live – as never before – in a world where politics and social systems are at the mercy of economic number-crunchers. The economy is god, and balancing the budget has become the new holy grail. We must place economics in its right and proper slot, as a necessary cog in the machine, but not as its engine. This is essential, because only such a re-think will enable us to judge the true value of all that is around us, including ourselves.

2. That said, if we are living in an economically driven society we can turn this to the environment’s advantage by actively assigning a monetary value to all aspects of the biosphere, based on their intrinsic worth, rather than their potential for short-term economic gain. The short-termist wants profits now, and it is this tunnel vision which is seeing our forests cleared, and rivers, lakes and atmosphere polluted. It is possible to assign a dollar value to these natural resources which would see them worth more if left in a state of preservation, than if exploited for short-term windfalls.

3. We should inculcate into our children a respect for the environment and an awareness of its fragility at the hands of humans, so that when they take their turn as our corporate and political leaders, they do so from a background of knowledge rather than ignorance. There are already signs that some of the world’s politicians and CEOs are beginning to take seriously such things as global warming. The next generation, which is just around the corner, and better informed, will be well placed to take the difficult decisions necessary to stop the rot, and if the lead comes from captains of industry (whose actions accelerated Gaia’s degradation in the first place) then so much the better.

4. The shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources must be a priority for all developed nations, and equally for the pretenders to their thrones, such as India and China. If these two economic juggernauts continue their exponential growth, with almost a third of the world’s population contained within their borders, and all of those aspiring to the ‘American dream’, then we could see atmospheric and water pollution catapult to uncontrollable levels within 20 years. We must therefore embark immediately on a global energy policy which phases out petrol engines and coal or uranium fired power plants, and start replacing these outdated technologies with cleaner versions, based principally, I believe, on solar power.

5. To preserve the biodiversity of our fauna we must expand our nature reserves, and keep human activity – especially industrial and manufacturing – in its proper place, without encroaching on environmentally sensitive areas. Not only should we have more nature reserves, but it is also essential to link these reserves with migration corridors, so that the animals have freedom to follow their often nomadic instincts as and when feeding or breeding dictate. Isolated reserves are vulnerable to fire and disease, and they also represent a form of house arrest for the many creatures which are not strictly territorial.

6. The felling of old-growth forest must stop immediately, and be accompanied by a global campaign of planting new stands, of the appropriate native species and in appropriate areas (in other words, don’t replace a mahogany tree with a Monterey pine). Because of the variable, sometimes slow, growth rates of some tree species, planting simple replacement value (one for each one felled) is not sufficient. New planting should far outstrip numbers of harvested trees by a factor that could be as high as 60 to 1. If this is done, we can over time redress the growing carbon dioxide imbalance in the atmosphere. The spin-off effects will include a rise in the water table and consequent reduction in salinity, as well as a binding effect as tree roots hold the earth together, reducing the hazards of land and mudslides, especially in vulnerable countries such as Bangladesh.

7. Although I have some reservations regarding the G8’s noblesse d’esprit, I think we should welcome recent initiatives to amortise third world debt, and expand these initiatives. One such expansion could be along the lines of the already-mentioned allocation of a monetary value to wilderness areas, which would guarantee a financial reward for the host nation, in the form of debt reduction and/or direct humanitarian aid.

8. Is this desirable and at the same time unthinkable? Could we not address our hunger for power and possession, and divert the moneys expended on military adventures to environmental and ‘green technology’ schemes? The US military budget spent over just one four-year presidential term, if so re-assigned, could redress all the environmental wrongs, many within a single generation. Most of us would still be alive to see the results. Allow me to dream…

9. I am convinced that widespread third world poverty must be abolished as a precondition for environmental preservation. A global society with various tiers of wealth is inevitable, but one which is increasingly polarised into rich and poor is unacceptable, especially when those riches fall into the hands of fewer and fewer individuals and institutions, and the percentage of the world’s population living below the poverty line increases annually. The triumph of the industrial revolution was the creation of a middle class, of which this country is – or perhaps was until recently – a perfect example. We are eroding that middle class, propelling ever-smaller portions of it upward, and shunting more and more people toward the abyss of poverty. The restoration of, if not an equal society, but an equable society, has to be government-led, and treated as a matter of absolute priority.

10. And finally, we have to look at ourselves, and appreciate ourselves for what we are. Wild animals whose prime purpose – if we cut out the fripperies of modern society – is to do what all other wild animals do: eat, sleep, breed. Of course we have developed our intellect to a much higher degree than other species; we have concepts such as laughter and enjoyment, leisure, meditation and so on, but this does not mean that we are not as selfish as wild animals. Wolves kill to eat; the female cicada devours her mate during the act and he remains a willing accomplice; the salmon lives in the sea and then curiously consigns itself to suicide by swimming upstream in fresh water, against the odds and elements, just to reproduce. In essence we are no different. We may have made vast physical and intellectual leaps since the days when we scraped our knuckles on the ground, but Also Sprach Zinganthropus: we are here to ensure our own survival. We have only to look at Rwanda, Darfur in Sudan, September 11 or the recent London bombings to realise that all too often our compassion for our fellow human beings has not developed one whit since those days in the Olduvai Gorge.

But armed with the knowledge that we can feed, clothe, house and educate ourselves, we have predicated our existence on other things, such as: will we have petrol for our car? (we can fight a war on that!); do we want these people in our midst (we can ethnically cleanse on that); is the latest new computer gadget really a necessity or just a another periphery of rampant and often unnecessary consumerism?

Let us remember who we are, and why, as animals – still – we are here. And let us remember all the rest of those wild animals and plants, and realise that we have no right, God-given or self-appointed, to destroy the environment in an all-too-often Quixotic pursuit of shibboleths. If we do not do this, and now, then everything we are, have ever achieved, or ever may achieve, will be as transient as a smoke ring in a windstorm.


David Scheel is a concert pianist, composer and humourist. Away from live performance he is also a respected writer and broadcaster on environmental and conservation issues. He lives in the Blue Mountains.

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