Nature & Society - February/March 2004
Welcome to another year of trying to improve our own and other's understanding of humans' relationship with nature. It is a task which seems never ending and never easy, but at least it is now firmly on the public agenda. Fires, water shortages, extreme climatic events have all forced themselves into everyone's consciousness, and the possible human causes are discussed.
Late last year Nature and Society Forum achieved two milestones in fostering such discussion. In Search of Sustainability, the culmination of the nine months long internet conference which had been run by NSF in conjunction with Australia 21 and Sustainable Population Australia. The full lecture theatre at the Academy of Science was treated to an impressively interesting, informative and entertaining day as speaker after speaker made the most of their few minutes. Congratulations to all the organisations and speakers.
A less publicised event was the running of a couple of trial workshops of the Futures Forum, proposed by Stephen Boyden and based on his PAN (People and Nature) booklet The Big Picture. The two groups who participated were very different, one consisting of students at the University of Canberra, the other a U3A group. A fasinating aspect of this was the often repeated expectation by the older group that the younger one would be more environmentally aware and knowledgeable because the environment features in school education and the media these days. Yet the U3A group, admittedly very small and self-selected, was very knowledgeable whereas the members of the UC group were often surprised by the facts and the connections made in the booklet and the course. It is not common knowledge, for instance, that almost all life on earth is dependent on the photosynthetic activities of plants harvesting sunlight. Possibly, understanding of environmental education and issues matures as an individual ages; it takes time to develop understanding as well as knowledge. As understanding of the connectedness of living creatures develops, so the individual may be prepared to alter their own behaviour and seek to change society's behaviour to have a less adverse impact on the environment.
Continuing education and growth in understanding is important for individuals and for society as a whole. Modern societies need to learn from the past as authors such as Jared Diamond and Tim Flannery have emphasised. Recently some researchers claimed to have found physical evidence of human induced climate change starting from early farming societies. It certainly would have accelerated with the development of cities, trade and metallurgy. Over two thousand years ago parts of the Middle East and the Mediterranean lands had been deforested, not so much by farming as by early industrialisation. Timber for building ships and as fuel for metal working and firing pottery was in high demand. Cutting of the forests led to soil loss and changes in rainfall. Demand for new forests drove civilisation out of its Middle Eastern cradle and pushed it further west and north, and ultimately to the New World. We think of human-induced climate change as starting with the modern industrialisation that took off in the eighteenth century, but indeed it had been a long time abrewing.
A similarly long gestation period lies behind many of the other deleterious effects on the natural world which we are now beginning to understand have been caused by human actions. We have been slow to pick this up, because for a long time the effect was too small to notice, or was seen as beneficial for our own species, the costs were negligible or at least quite acceptable.
The apochryphal story of the origin of the game of chess is a wonderful example of our problems with the perception of growth. Long ago, the story says, there was a prince who delighted in new games and amusements. When he was presented with the first game of chess he was so pleased that he offered the inventor a rich reward, gold, precious stones, whichever he fancied. "No" said the inventor, "just pay me in wheat - one grain for the first square, two for the next, four for the next, doubling on each of the sixty four squares". "Oh," said the prince, "what a poor reward for inventing such a marvellous game! Choose something more valuable". But no, wheat was what he wanted.
To his dismay, the prince found that this poor reward was far more than he could pay. Two muliplied by itself sixty four times is an astronomical sum that works out to being more than 500,000,000,000 tonnes of wheat. So it is with any material thing that keeps doubling, whether it is population of humans, mice or bacteria, use of any material resources or generation of waste products. Eventually the cost becomes too high to pay. The system will break down and there will have to be a new beginning.
It is fun to play with numbers as in the chess board problem, but too few people understand them. It would be good if more people could do so; then surely they could understand that continuous growth is something that the world cannot sustain. That realisation is needed now, while we have some room to manoeuvre, before change is forced on us by a really large scale calamity.