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Our Country, the Planet
Forging a Partnership for Survival
By Shridath Ramphal
ISLAND PRESSCopyright © 1992 ECOFUND '92
All rights reserved.
A Fragile World
The Universe requires an eternity.
—Jorge Luis Borges
AT THE end of 1988, the National Geographic magazine carried on its cover a holograph of our planet that fractured as it was tilted: state-of-the-art technology depicting with some irony the fragile state of the world. The message was clear: Despite human accomplishments, Earth and all it sustains are endangered. It was not a new message, but it had acquired new authority and urgency with the recognition that human survival itself could be at risk.
This book is about survival on an endangered planet. It will draw attention to some of the more portentous ways in which we are imperiling our human habitation. It will underline our need for awareness that as humans we are a part of nature, not apart from it; that we should adopt humility, not arrogance, in our dealings with nature; and that we should resolve to live in harmony, not contention, with nature. It will argue that changing our behavior, our impact on the planet, is necessary and ethically right, and is the path dictated by wisdom—the attribute on which rests all our claims to special status in this world. It will emphasize how urgent it is to take that path, and why we must do so in practice, by action, and through performance; not only in perception, by words, or through promises. It will urge that we can do this only by dealing with causes, not merely with symptoms or effects. Throughout, it will try to convey how the various environmental issues appear to the great majority of humans who individually have contributed little to the predicament in which they are placed but who will inevitably be its main victims-two-thirds of the human population, those living in the poorer parts of the world, however described: the "developing countries," the "Third World," the "South."
FREQUENTLY in the book I use the word we; it is necessary to explain who I have in mind. Occasionally, as when I refer to some of the international bodies on which I have served such as the Brandt Commission, we has a specific and self-evident meaning. Such use apart, however, we refers to all of us, the human species. I acknowledge, particularly in chapter 7, how divided we are; there will be times, therefore, when we will refer to particular groups among us—like people in rich countries or in poor ones—but always as part of the whole community of people that I perceive the world to be.
The people of the planet Earth are multiracial, multicultural, multireligious, and multilingual, and as a result they experience all the stresses that variety brings with its riches. But they are also bound together by their common humanity, their common home, the planet Earth, and their common future. Some people are more aware of this than others. Young people are, intuitively; so too are those who work in global activities like communications, or travel, or international business, as well as professionals of many disciplines for whom knowledge can rarely be circumscribed by national frontiers. We is beginning to mean not some of us but all of us. Not everyone is convinced that there is a human society to which we all belong; I hope this book will encourage some of them, at least, to change their way of looking at the world.
Another word of explanation: Since differences in various people's quality of life and the relevance of these differences to the human environment are of prominent concern here, it must be acknowledged at the outset that one cannot always measure quality of life in terms of money or material possessions. There are some who want for nothing money can buy whose quality of life is poor; there are others who have nothing the material world values whose quality of life is rich. But these are exceptions. We need to warn ourselves that quality is not only, perhaps not essentially, in the eye of the beholder.
We must also remember that there are poor in the rich countries and rich in the poor countries. In wealthy nations life is a struggle for many who for one reason or another, often unrelated to personal inadequacy, stand outside the mainstream. Members of ethnic minorities live often on the periphery.
Nor does the mainstream in a rich country have great wealth. The large middle class of the industrial world consists of hardworking people buying their homes on mortgages, saving for the annual holiday, contributing to the support of parents and grandparents in homes for senior citizens. They have social security benefits on retirement, the fallback of unemployment insurance of one kind or another, and in most countries, free or heavily subsidized medical care, but invariably they feel obliged to supplement these safety nets with personal insurance. To describe such people as rich may be misleading in a national context; to describe them as rich in a global context, as I do in this book, is a reasonable generalization. Where families enjoy comfortable housing, heated or cooled as the season requires, one or perhaps two cars, quality clothing, frequently changed according to the dictates of fashion, annual vacations, guaranteed medical care, good education facilities, a miscellany of labor-saving devices, power and water on tap, television, and ample recreational opportunities, it is neither inaccurate nor pejorative to describe these people—relative to those in the wider world—as rich. And that is all that I mean.
There are many in poor countries who aspire to the quality of life enjoyed by the comfortable middle class of rich countries. And there are some who attain these standards. At the moment they are a small minority in most developing countries. They are more prominent in some places, such as the newly industrializing Asian countries of Singapore and South Korea and countries where the distribution of income is particularly uneven, like Mexico or Brazil. The rich in developing countries, however, are the inhabitants of an oasis whose prosperity is under constant threat of erosion from the surrounding wasteland of poverty. And there are, of course, the superrich in the oil-producing Gulf states whose feudal structures perpetuate vast inequalities of wealth.
International financial institutions sometimes refer to the extremes of wealth and poverty in a world of some five billion as the top billion and the bottom billion. By the top billion, they mean most of the people of the rich industrial countries—the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries of Western Europe and North America, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand—plus the superrich in poor countries. In other words, the top billion is in large part the one-quarter of the world's people to whom this book refers as rich. By the bottom billion, these institutions mean the poorest of the poor, those living on one dollar a day or less, people so destitute they almost fall off the economic scales. In truth, the poor of the world cover a much wider range of people, including the great majority of people in the low-income and lower-middle-income countries of the developing world, from Nepal and China to Morocco and Brazil.
Bearing all these considerations in mind, it remains valid to speak of rich and poor countries and of the rich and the poor within them. All such references of mine should be read in this light.
One final word of introduction to the text. Throughout it you will find references to human survival, in respect of both the threats we face from a degraded environment and the goals toward which solutions must be directed. Human survival implies the threat of extinction, the end of Homo sapiens as one of Earth's species. That is, of course, extreme. It would be wrong to suggest that the alternatives before us are existence as we know it or the end of the human race. The dinosaurs may have gone in a cataclysmic bang, and that could happen to humans (though not necessarily) in a nuclear holocaust; but the consequence of persistent unsustainable living is much more likely to be a steady deterioration of the quality of life, leading to an indeterminate end.
That that end will be extinction some would certainly contend. The cumulative consequences of global warming, ozone shield depletion, population explosion, and other emerging critical stresses could lead to extinction. But human survival has another, less literal, implication. Even if total extinction is not likely, it is clear that the fundamental elements of human existence are at risk. Our predicament can be variously described. Steady deterioration of the quality of life, traumatic for the rich, catastrophic for the poor, is perhaps the least dramatic way of describing humanity's future. Climate change and a rising sea level are life-threatening for at least some humans. The prospect of our exhausting the life-giving product of green plants, the gift of photosynthesis, is critical for very many more, perhaps everyone. Deterioration in the standard of living (if it can be called living) of the one billion of the world's poorest is, for them, decidedly a matter of survival.
We need to understand that in respect to both the threat we face and the goal toward which we reach, human survival connotes the critical path of humanity's prospects. It is not just a matter of here today and gone tomorrow—that is not nature's way. More apposite is the analogy of a tree dying from acid rain. For humanity, it is the tree of life that is endangered. Whether it dies altogether, or withers but clings to life, or loses its leaves and branches yet survives to bloom again, depends on our responses to the blight that afflicts it in the form of the crisis of environment and development.
SURVIVAL is a concept involving time. It speaks of continuity or conclusion. But we cannot begin to address survival without an awareness of beginnings: human origins in the natural order, the place of our species in the vista of time. The magnitudes of time involved are, however, so overwhelming that they can easily distort our perspectives. They need reducing to simpler terms. If we compress geologic time from billions of years to a more readily grasped span, for example a century, we can think of our planet as a garden one hundred years in the making. Ninety-two years to be precise, if we take the formation of the solar system 4.6 billion years ago as the birth of the planet and take one year to represent 50 million years. On that basis, for the first thirty-two of those ninety-two years, Earth remained a barren wasteland spinning endlessly in space like many another planet. Then came the first stirring of life in the Earth's oceans when cells began to replicate. It took another fifty years, by which time the garden was already eighty-four years old, for the first animals and plants to emerge—some seven years ago. And that was well before the human species appeared.
The dinosaurs and great reptiles emerged only two years ago, and well over a year and eleven months were to pass before our first recognizably human ancestors, Homo habilis, manlike apes, appeared in the garden. The first of the recent ice ages was to follow—some two weeks ago—displacing the forests and their attendant life forms from the regions around the Earth's poles and bringing changes in the distribution and make-up even of the tropical forests. It was only during and after the last of these glacial periods, within the past 50,000 years—or eight hours in garden time—that modern man, Homo sapiens, spread over the planet, reaching into Australasia and the Americas. Earth's garden has been rolled and watered by the elements for ninety-two years; we have been in it for less than a day.
By the time we came, the garden was a bounteous place. Flora and fauna had emerged in wondrous, bewildering, and exquisitely interlocking variety. Humanity is the baby of the family, the newcomer in the garden of Earth. Already, however, we have done more than any other species to change the ancient garden for good and ill. We developed agricultural skills within the last few hours and greatly enlarged the garden's capacity to sustain life. And within the last five minutes we began our industrial revolution, a process of change that was to be at once both wonderfully creative and incredibly destructive.
The crisis of survival we face arises from the propensity for destruction, including self-destruction, our species has displayed in the brief moment of time it has been a guest in the garden of Earth. It is, in truth, a crisis. Many no longer doubt or discount the massive danger confronting our planet and the living things on it. Few assert that such a turn of events is chastisement at the hands of the Almighty. We are our own scourge, threatening the capacity to survive not only of ourselves but of the very garden that gave us life.
IN LATER chapters I shall try to illustrate how we have gone about being such wanton guests, we who believe we are far superior to any species that ever occupied the garden. The point I am making here is how utterly brief our presence has been in the scale of time, and perhaps how transient it will be. It is a point that must not only alert us to the humility becoming of newcomers but also remind us of our duty to the long process of evolution that preceded, produced, and nurtured us. Both acts are important; together they should lead us to acknowledge our obligation to the process of creation, our true ancestor, and to realize that the elements of that process must be nurtured if we are to preserve our earthly home. In his Historia de la Eternidad, the Latin American writer Jorge Luis Borges captured all this poignantly: "The Universe requires an eternity.... Thus they say that the conservation of this world is a perpetual creation and that the verbs, 'conserve' and 'create,' so much at odds here, are synonymous in heaven." (p. 33) To make them synonymous on Earth as well is a central challenge to Homo sapiens.
Life on Earth has taken many forms. Creation did not begin with humanity, and we would do well to remember that not all life forms have lasted. Biologists reckon that over the sweep of geological history many times more species than now exist evolved, flourished for a time, then became extinct as planetary conditions changed and fitter forms emerged to replace them. Survival in nature's garden was never easy; it demanded adaptation to a continuously changing environment and success in unending competition, particularly for food. Sometimes changes were catastrophic, like the uncertain events that ended the age of the dinosaurs sixty-five million years ago, a little over one year in our compressed version of time. Nature's basic elements were life giving, but they were harsh controllers. Life was constantly at their mercy. Air, water, earth, and fire, often separately, sometimes together, could destroy no less than create. A series of ice ages ravaged life forms, but, as when fire burns a forest, regeneration followed. There was both mercy and method in the elements.
It was out of this process of continuous evolution that we emerged late in time. We were marvelously gifted, more advanced in important ways than other species, especially and essentially in cerebration, and by extension, thanks to elaborate neural pathways, in speech. New and different, we came into a world already teeming with life—in the air, in the oceans, on the land and beneath it. We too were at the mercy of the elements; and for us too they were harsh. But over the years that we have been on Earth, we have used our unique mental gifts to survive and to succeed in our natural environment, overcoming what was inhospitable and harnessing what was favorable. Today, we have much to show for the stewardship of our species.
We developed great civilizations—in Mesopotamia and Egypt, in China and the Indus Valley, in the Americas, in Greece and Rome and, later, Europe. Our ancient centers of learning produced our early philosophers, our first scientists. We showed great courage and skill in exploring the planet and understanding its wholeness. In more recent times, our science and technology have made rapid advances in fields as various as agriculture, medicine, communications, and electronics. The pace has been breathtaking and bewildering. It was not so long ago that Gutenberg pioneered printing with movable type, Stephenson built the steam locomotive, and Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone. But they are oldtimers now, with printing revolutionized by computers and lasers, the steam engine superseded by the rockets of space travel, and the telephone wire overtaken by satellites and fiber-optic cables. And still we proceed, our science and technology speeding us ever more rapidly up the hill of progress.
Excerpted from Our Country, the Planet by Shridath Ramphal. Copyright © 1992 ECOFUND '92. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
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