Eco Myths Can’t Save the Planet. Wake Up and Smell the Foul Air!

We Can’t Save the Planet with Green Myths!

This was the title of a talk I gave to Sri Lanka Rationalists’ Association (SLRA) in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on 7 June 2012 — two days after World Environment Day.

In this, I shared my observations on how attempts aimed at environmental conservation and sustainable resource use in Sri Lanka are often hindered by many misconceptions and myths about natural resources and our impact on them.

I invoked the words of George Monbiot, journalist/columnist, The Guardian, UK: “One of the most widespread human weaknesses is our readiness to accept claims that fit our beliefs and reject those that clash with them. We demand impossible standards of proof when confronted with something we don’t want to hear — but will believe any old cobblers if it confirms our prejudices…”

At the outset, I proposed a basic categorization of eco-myths as myths of the first, second and third kind – the last one being the most pervasive and harmful. Drawing on my 25 years of experience as a science writer and journalist, I cite several examples from air pollution, biodiversity and climate change.

There is also the mother of all eco-myths that Lankan nationalists never tire of repeating: romanticising the ‘good old days’ before modernisation and colonisation. Ah, if only real life were that simple…

I acknowledged that scientific knowledge and understanding on some ecological matters are evolving so have to keep an open, inquisitive mind: science does not have all the answers, but provides a framework in which to ask the right questions and to go in search of answers supported by evidence.

I also conceded that many individuals – and their societies – are not always rational. Governments (at least in democracies) take their cue from the people, and so…irrationality feeds on itself.

The bottomline: it’s a free world and individuals may cling on to any fantasy or belief. As long as it doesn’t harm others around the believer, and/or affects collective thinking. When it does, the good of the many must outweigh the good of one.

The last time I took on a myth was April 2009 with my blog post: ‘Chief Seattle speech’: Global environmental legend, or pervasive myth?

See, in particular, the kind of comments and berating I received from the true-believers!

2008: A Halloween Year – Prepare to get really scared…

Be scared...very scared!

Be scared...very scared!

Today, October 31, Halloween would be observed in several countries of the western world.

One Halloween custom is Trick-or-treating where children move from house to house in costumes, asking for treats such as sweets with the question: “Trick or treat?” The “trick” part of “trick or treat” is an idle threat to play a trick on the homeowners or their property if no treat is given.

2008 has been a highly turbulent year for most parts of the world. Oil and food prices went through the roof (and while oil has come down in recent weeks, food scarcities still loom large). Then came the global economic crisis, triggered by greedy bankers lending recklessly.

In such a year, what would it take to scare people on Halloween night? Or would Halloween be mild compared to the shocks and jolts we’ve been living through for much of the year?

Just when you think it can’t get any worse, it does. My favourite cartoon character Calvin had it figured out years ago:

Aren't you scared yet?

Aren't you scared yet?

According to some analysts, the global economic crisis that we are living through at the moment just a harbinger of a much more dramatic global ecological collapse to come.

One of them is Patrik Etschmayer, who recently wrote an essay in Nachrichten, Switzerland, titled:
The Wall Street Crisis and the Coming Ecological Disaster”. His main point: the same people that got the world into the present crisis are driving the world over an ecological cliff.

Here’s an extract in translation: “What if this crisis was just a prelude – a precursor to a much greater threat – one that could possibly cost millions of lives? The current economic crises was based on the idea that we can live and consume based on credit – and the belief that we can continue to do so unabated as long as we steadfastly ignore the facts and spread the risks widely enough. That idea didn’t fly. Yet its seems that humanity still seems to believe that the things that have failed in the monetary economy, will, in the long run, still apply to the material reality of our world. Quite simply, because nature will not present us with a bill for the resources upon which we depend for our very survival.”

British journalist George Monbiot made the same point in his weekly environmental column. Writing in The Guardian on 14 Oct 2008, he said:

“As we goggle at the fluttering financial figures, a different set of numbers passes us by. On Friday, Pavan Sukhdev, the Deutsche Bank economist leading a European study on ecosystems, reported that we are losing natural capital worth between $2 trillion and $5 trillion every year, as a result of deforestation alone. The losses incurred so far by the financial sector amount to between $1 trillion and $1.5 trillion. Sukhdev arrived at his figure by estimating the value of the services – such as locking up carbon and providing freshwater – that forests perform, and calculating the cost of either replacing them or living without them. The credit crunch is petty when compared to the nature crunch.

“The two crises have the same cause. In both cases, those who exploit the resource have demanded impossible rates of return and invoked debts that can never be repaid. In both cases we denied the likely consequences. I used to believe that collective denial was peculiar to climate change. Now I know that it’s the first response to every impending dislocation.”

So the Halloween scares could be pretty mild compared to the scares of the real world. As the Hollywood copy writers used to say, we might as well: Get ready to be scared…really scared.