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OPINION: Selfish exploitation of environment deadly

NOT-SO HELPING HANDS: The world’s skyrocketing population is failing to treat the Earth in a more sustainable way. IN March the air of many south-east Asian cities was blanketed with smog – a combination of industrial pollution, vehicle exhaust fumes and smoke.
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The smoke came from forest fires in Sumatra, lit by landholders clearing rainforest for palm oil and timber plantations.

The same phenomenon occurred in mid-2013 and in previous years. This year the smog came earlier because the landholders set the fires earlier.

Air pollution causes a staggering number of deaths: 200,000 annually in the US, 100,000 a year in the European Union. Globally, air pollution and obesity are the fastest-growing causes of death.

This month, the Newcastle Herald reported that, despite repeated warnings, motorists had continued to drive recklessly on Stockton Beach, putting their own and others’ lives at risk.

The vehicles were exacerbating storm damage, destroying vegetation and eroding the already fragile dune system.

Air pollution and coastal erosion are only two of a host of well-established environmental problems. Every day we receive new evidence of environmental crisis: climate change, over-fishing, species extinction, the list is long.

Given the scope and depth of these problems, why can’t we deal with them?

One reason is that for decades now government policy making in Australia and elsewhere has been dominated by free market economic thought.

Increasingly, governments try to deal with environmental problems by relying on industry and citizens to self-regulate, and on slowly negotiated international agreements, such as World Heritage listing and greenhouse gas reduction targets.

These measures have limited effect. While we negotiate and self-regulate, environmental problems become more acute.

The ineffectiveness of neo-liberal policy-making is reinforced by an idea deep in our culture: that humans are the superior species.

Despite half a century of growing awareness of environmental harm, we still follow the Old Testament injunction to ‘‘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 on the earth’’ (Genesis 1:28).

The idea that humans have a right to use nature for profit or pleasure is deeply ingrained in us. So deeply that Indonesian plantation operators believe they have a right to burn huge areas of rainforest, and four-wheel drivers think that any attempt to control their activities on Stockton dunes is an assault on their rights.

Neo-liberal environmental policy making and humanity’s species chauvinism meet in the strategic concept of balance.

We are continually told that a balance must be struck between environmental and economic considerations.

The desire to preserve an ecosystem must be weighed against the need to create jobs, flattening a forest to expand a mine in one area can be offset by creating a conservation area in another.

The trouble with the idea of ‘‘balance’’ is that human-induced environmental damage is now so great that it threatens the life systems that support us. We humans are like a man sitting at the end of branch, busily sawing through it.

Twenty years ago the American environmentalist David Brower pointed out that in the 25 years since the first Earth Day in 1970 the human population had doubled and one-seventh of the world’s agricultural land had been lost through forest clearing, urban development and other human activity.

As Brower also noted, anyone who thinks mankind has a divine remit to dominate nature not only has a problem with humility, he or she also refuses to face the enormity of our assault on the life forms on which our own lives are dependent.

A central idea in human culture is that people are educable, that they are capable of rational and ethical thinking, of making decisions after carefully considering evidence and the greater good.

Our problem today is that key ideas in our political economy and culture, including the three I have discussed here, undermine rational thinking and action.

If we are to deal with the looming environmental crisis we must make a big shift in our thinking and behaviour. We must jettison free-market fundamentalism, species chauvinism, and a spurious notion of balance. We must embrace a relatively new idea, that we humans are but one of a myriad of mutually dependent species.

Restraint will be a key value in this new way of thinking. Indonesian plantation owners, four-wheel drivers on Stockton beach, Hunter Valley miners – all of us – will have to give up some of our prerogatives.

The pay-off will be a better life for all of us, humans and other species.

Griff Foley was formerly associate professor of adult education at the University of Technology, Sydney

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