Who cares about the Earth? - RSA

Blog: Who cares about the Earth?


  • Picture of Dr Thomas SK Tang FRSA
    Dr Thomas SK Tang FRSA
  • Environment
  • Fellowship

What will you be doing on 19th March? Or Friday 22nd April? Both of these days tend to get celebrated in a low-key fashion around the globe. This is not surprising, as various days of the calendar year are earmarked for different themes: environment, water, sustainable development … the list goes on. But this year’s Earth Hour and Earth Day, respectively, raise an interesting question. Who really cares in the end?

The amount of damage inflicted on the planet is unquestionable. In the pursuit of development, mankind has extracted resources, polluted the land and seas, despoiled nature and generally become the most destructive force in history to be reckoned with. There is realism in Garrett Hardin’s ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ seminal concept that as long as the common resource pool of oceans and lands exists, it is no one’s responsibility to look after them - but it is each individual’s prerogative to take as much as possible before others do so.

Yet the earth survives. The Gaia theory propounded by the venerable James Lovelock hypothesises that the planet is a living mechanism that corrects itself despite the damage inflicted. In his book, Lovelock cites examples like spontaneous combustion of forests to control excessive growth; but he goes on to state that nuclear power, which is man-made, is something Gaia cannot do anything about. Nuclear is perhaps the tip of a very large iceberg as numerous man-made activities are now manifesting themselves globally in irreversible ways. Yet, stewardship of the earth is nothing new. There are references in the Bible and the Koran, whereby man’s execution of responsibility is to look after the land and animals and in return, he will be served by the very same. Sadly, in spite of divine imperatives, we find ourselves in dereliction of duty.

However, not all is gloom. Technology has correspondingly developed to help Gaia mend its wounds. With advances in smartness and intelligence, we are able to manage our resources more carefully and efficiently, help ageing infrastructure do their jobs and at the same time recreate ecosystems to preserve natural cycles. A growing field in the future will be biomimicry whereby we copy rather than fight against nature, particularly as we get good at miniaturising things in nanotechnology methods that can replicate organism-like features. Technology alone though will not cure our ills. Policy and governance will be the keystones for our survival. We possess conscientious bodies like the World Business Council for Sustainable Development as well as the Global Development Goals but these are not enough. In the end, it will require a superpower to take ownership of protecting the planet - leading by example and overriding petty squabbles for a just and sustainable world. Maybe, we will see the emergence of a gentle China-led Asia? Or a kinder United States of Euramerica?

But back to the present and the immediate; with burgeoning urban growth, cities are the obvious places to deliver good. The KL Centre for Sustainable Innovation, located in SE Asia, is an attempt to merge community effort, technology and commerce in a ‘living laboratory’ style setting, in other words: proof that policy can work in the right setting. Moving further ahead, building climate resilience is key. But what works for one city in a temperate environment may not work for another in the tropics. This again is something we must be cognisant of.

Lastly, the welfare of the ‘have-nots’ must be seen too otherwise the efforts of a few will be undermined by the wants of many in need. The poor in the world are in search of economic security and will do anything to achieve this. Urban migration, the result of this quest, is only answering part of the dilemma and there is an enormous downside through burdening cities which are not designed for the populations they are attracting. Another factor is the expanding middle class together with all of their expectations. This places an even greater stretching of resources to meet new and exorbitant lifestyles. We must come up with creative ways of reusing resources, a sort of circular economy, that finds ingenious ways of designing products to be recycled and reconditioned.

In his futuristic book, the physicist Michio Kaku speaks of the possibilities of mining the resources of other planets once we master space travel. Unfortunately, unless we make some revolutionary breakthroughs in reducing the costs and time spent in space transportation, this is not going to happen based on our current crude and energy demanding rocket technology. The likelihood of finding anything useful on Mars is also low based on exploration data, so we should not pin our hopes on this. The conclusion to draw is that we have one Earth, which is lush and abounding, which supports us and will continue to do so, provided we live up to our end of the bargain. Protecting the Earth is crucial, even if no one cares. Mankind’s fate is interlinked to the Earth’s fate. Every day should be an earth day.

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