Man and the Earth
Posted on 6-January-2016
...."and God said unto them, Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.
"And God said, Behold I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; and to you it shall be for meat.
"And to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creepeth upon the earth, wherein there is life, I have given every green herb for meat: and it was so."
Genesis, 1,xxviii-xxx (A.V.)
In this season of myths about the birth of Jesus, about the beginning of the Christian era and about Epiphany, I think of the creation myth contained in the first book of the Hebrew Bible. Like many other mythological stories, the Book of Genesis contains a kernel of truth: it in fact contains two. The first is about the understanding of its authors of the order in which different forms of life evolved. The second is about their understanding of man's relationship with the rest of nature and their understanding was so accurate as to be true for nearly all time. Ever since its arrival on earth, our species has lived and prospered by the exploitation of the resources, at first mainly only biological, but with time also inorganic resources on the surface and underground. Change wrought on the environment by human activity is as old as humanity itself. Not only with the increase in population and advancement of technology, but also with the expansion of people's notion of their needs, the quantity and rate of exploitation of the earth's resources has increased and so has man's impact on nature. In one sense the relationship between human needs and the environment is adversarial.
Till about the end of the nineteenth century, even till the middle of the twentieth, people, governments, economists, intellectuals of different kinds thought of industrial and technological progress as the most valuable goal for mankind. With a global population of 1.6 billion in 1900 and 3 billion in 1960, it seemed that industrial and technical progress could be pursued for ever without paying any heed to the environment. It is only around the middle of the twentieth century that many writers and thinkers started warning of the dangers of damaging the environment as also of the unchecked growth of population. Against this background, the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, held in Stockholm in 1972 adopted a declaration embodying 26 principles, all very laudable and all very necessary for ensuring the habitability of planet earth. Another United Nations Conference on Environment and Development held twenty years later in Rio de Janeiro sought to build on the Stockholm Declaration and adopted a declaration embodying 27 principles. Since then, the earth's population has grown to about 7.5 billion at present and may hopefully plateau at 9 billion by the middle of the present century. Technology enabling ever more efficient and ever cheaper ways of extracting and using the resources of the earth has been changing increasingly rapidly. In some areas the earth's capacity to renew itself may be very close to being destroyed irretrievably. Forests continue to be destroyed; the earth's photosynthetic cover continues to be reduced; the toxification of waterways and oceans and even the grounds near mines continues and biodiversity continues to be slowly destroyed.
After the Rio de Janeiro conference there have been a number of international meetings on environmental issues to deal with the question of climate change which is really short hand for the anticipated rise in the temperature of the earth to an unsustainable level if no concerted action is taken to reduce the emission of green house gases--mainly carbon dioxide and methane. With the exception of the Kyoto Protocol which was not ratified by the largest emitter of carbon dioxide, the USA, there is as yet no legally binding global agreement on concrete action towards limiting the emission of carbon dioxide. The Climate Conference held in Paris in December last year is in theory binding but its actual effectiveness will in the end depend on whether the rich countries will actually live up to their commitment to put together $100 billion every year to help the poorer countries acquire carbon dioxide reducing technologies or to switch over to non-fossil fuel sources of energy and whether the parties will adhere to their voluntary national commitments to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. The target agreed was to limit the rise of global temperature to 2 degrees C at the end of the present century and try to achieve the target of 1.5 degrees. The coming into force of the consensus document will depend on the signature and ratification by 55 countries. Thus the effectiveness of what was agreed on at Paris will depend on a number of developments yet to happen. At this moment the best is to be hopeful.
One consequence of the emphasis during the last two decades on the need to limit global warming has been that the much wider environmental questions that the Rio and the Stockholm conferences concerned themselves with have now receded into the background. Yet they remain important for two reasons. One is that our planet's resources are finite. So is its capacity to renew itself. Conserving these is as crucial for the survival of life on earth--human life especially because insects or bacteria have a greater capacity for survival in difficult environmental conditions--as limiting the rise of temperature. The second reason is that some kinds of environmental damage such as deforestation or reduction of photosynthetic cover have a direct bearing on global warming. The traditional response to Malthusianism has been that technology always comes to the rescue of mankind to help deal with the problem of overpopulation for example. But technology has limits. If the earth's aquifers start getting depleted at double the rate at which nature can renew them, it is difficult to see how technology can help unless someone invents a way to harvest the ice in the outer solar system! The only real answer to the problem of conserving the habitability of the planet is to find ways of limiting human consumption. This raises difficult ethical questions answers to which mankind must collectively find. The trouble lies with human nature itself. Human selfishness and human greed often defeat the most important moral teaching. We revere and salute a Buddha or a Jesus, even place them in shrines, and then go about our lives, ignoring their teachings. The challenge for humanity is to find a way for limiting human consumption. We could also of course start a United Nations programme for culling half of the world's population every twenty-five years--eugenicists should determine who should be culled. The the third alternative is to silence all the world's environmentalists or to dismiss them with a collective wave of hand as dreamers and literally obey Jehova's command to subdue the earth. In this season of hope and joy, let us not be pulled down by dark forebodings about the future. Why should we assume that humans and most mammals and fish and reptiles need to inhabit the earth beyond the next five hundred years?