Running the planet without a user-guide

There is a best-selling small book titled Everything Men Know About Women. It’s authored by Cindy Cashman, writing under the pseudonym Dr. Alan Francis.

The book is revealing as it’s simple: every page is completely blank.

I was reminded of this little book while listening to some of the world’s leading environmental scientists and conservationists speak this week during the 4th IUCN Asia Conservation Forum, held in the Nepali capital of Kathmandu, 10 – 13 September 2007.

Expert after expert admitted how limited our understanding still was of the planet’s intricate and inter-linked natural systems. Some processes — such as how climate change would impact different geographical regions, natural cycles and ecosystems — are only just beginning to be understood. We know more about the surface of the Moon than about the bottom of the oceans on our planet. We have only had a few recent glimpses into the large and complex world of micro organisms.

In short, many pages of our planet’s ‘operations manual’ or user guide are still completely blank!

Read related post: Talking Big Foot in YetiLand – Got a spare planet, mate?

Yet the ecological threats are real, and they are here. The pressures we humans exert on our environment is increasing by the day. Deferring action until we have better knowledge and understanding is no longer an option.

Instead, we now have to use a combination of the best current knowledge, common sense and intuition to address a multitude of formidable environmental issues including the growing piles of our waste, intensification of disasters, march of desertification, changing climate as well as the poisoning of our freshwater, seas and the air. Some of these degradation factors feed on each other, producing more damage – and rude shocks – than each one could on their own.


In this scenario, the conservation community — in Asia and elsewhere — faces three major challenges:

First, they just have to doggedly persist in gathering new knowledge, and deriving understanding and insights on how our planet works. This is not research for its own sake, or mere academic theorising. It’s now a pre-requisite for survival.

Second, they have to find smart and strategic ways to fill up the ‘blank pages’ in our planet’s user-guide. In the 1970s, they used to say we have been handed over a planet without that manual and it seemed we had time to figure things out. The truth is, time is running out and we have to write that manual as we go along.

Third, it’s vital that the user-guide is widely shared using every available advocacy and dissemination method, tool and medium. Staying within comfort zones and talking to each other in technical jargon is not enough. This is the point I personally stressed at the meeting: use modern ICT tools to discuss, debate and engage everyone in changing their ways where needed.

The current conservation imperative reminds me of what H G Wells said: History is a race between education and catastrophe. Right now, it seems, we are just staying ahead to avoid disaster.

Thanks to initiatives like the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, those blank pages in the Earth’s user guide are filling up.

Strange as it sounds, the book’s already filled pages have to be be peddled far and wide even as the other pages are being written.

Talk about a race between education and catastrophe!