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The next generation

Musings on sustainability

by Jean-Claude Havard

I enjoy watching TV documentaries on wildlife and nature. The plots are simple enough: find food, survive predators, and produce the next generation. I am just amazed at the amount of creativity plants and animals alike demonstrate in achieving these objectives.

But the other night, after watching an exceptionally good program from the BBC, it occurred to me that there had been no mention of the environment or sustainability. Yet some plants or animals have been around for hundreds of thousands or even millions of years.  Is their resilience due to an exceptional awareness of their environment? Not likely.

The laws of evolution dictate that survival is predicated on adaptation to the prevailing environment. If crocodiles have hardly changed over 2 million years, it must be that they got it right almost from the beginning. Other species have had to undergo many mutations to achieve a degree of permanence as a species. The efficiency of the whole system has relied on a straightforward system of checks and balances. In other words, the prey needs the predator as much as the predator needs the prey.

Then came Homo sapiens! The smartest species of the lot. So smart that it has multiplied at the expense of all other species, but not smart enough to understand that it still needs all the other species to survive on Earth. Smart enough to explore the solar system and the universe, but not smart enough to ensure sustainable living conditions for a majority on Earth. Smart enough to address an increasing range of human needs, but not smart enough to understand that meeting needs involves assuming responsibilities.

As humans, we have come to believe that the old checks and balances system no longer applies to us. We are so smart that our science and technology will solve all the problems our science and technology have created. Even the problems that our arrogance towards other species has created. Yet biodiversity, which is key to the sustainability of our environment, has nosedived in just a decade. Yet we cannot seem to agree on effective measures to mitigate climate change.

Why is that? Because our priorities are driven not by survival of the human species but by short term needs (real or perceived). So much emphasis on needs, and so little on responsibilities!

We must provide our fellow humans with food, shelter and smartphones, but we do not perceive our responsibility to do so in a sustainable manner, let alone act as if it mattered. Rehabilitating or protecting an environment that is compatible with long term human life mostly remains a responsibility that we are unwilling to assume, a luxury that we cannot afford.

You would be surprised if I did not mention trees and forests. They actually provide a good example. Our forests have been shrinking drastically under the combine pressures of agriculture and building construction, which, I am told, respond to needs that cannot be restrained. Forests are the soft spot, so they literally lose ground. The long term need to ensure air and water protection, not to mention other health benefits, for our children and grand-children has no current economic value. So forests must give way to more « serious » needs!

Don’t we, as citizens, parents, community leaders or elected politicians, have the responsibility to ensure that our need for a healthy environment is treated with the same seriousness as our needs for food and shelter? Are we prepared to stand up for our environmental rights to be respected?

If we are not, we may find sooner than later that the immemorial checks and balances system has not really disappeared. Only the predators and the preys have changed.


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