Tending the Garden

by Angela Hijjas

Recently the Selangor Branch showed the new three hour BBC series by David Attenborough called ‘State of the Planet’, and I have been mulling over it ever since. The main issue he explores is the impact of humans on the global landscape of plants and animals and he demonstrates quite conclusively that the process of impoverishment of species is unrelenting once mankind arrives on the scene.

Islands provide the most easily read examples of what happens after the arrival of man. Hawaii was first settled some centuries ago and the impact on biodiversity has reduced the number of species by a half and counting, to the extent that there is little remaining of the original habitat, hence the application of the term ‘impoverishment’.

Easter Island experienced the same process in a more dramatic form. The people who occupied the islands made boats from forest wood that enabled them to fish, but eventually with the growing success of the human population there were fewer and fewer trees for boat building until all were gone. Diets changed without these boats, demonstrated by archaeological middens. Fish were no longer a source of protein, nor did the people have any way to leave the islands. Eventually they all died and left their plaintive monuments of huge stone faces staring out over the ocean, perhaps as a prayer for rescue from their devastated island.

The famous biologist Edward Wilson was interviewed extensively in the series, and summarised man’s impact as not intentionally destructive, but that we ‘succeeded too well’. Hand in hand with a technological revolution that enables us to extract the vast majority of the world’s resources for our own consumption means devastation for forests and oceans. As our numbers increase with greater security of food supplies so our impact explodes.

To continue like this can only mean the destruction of our habitat, just as on the Easter Islands.

We may think of our own immediate habitat as being relatively intact, but with globalization our foot print is actually widespread; Japan provides an interesting example. For decades the Japanese have not cut their own forests, believing that they enshrine an irreplaceable essence of Japanese culture. But rather than using other materials instead of wood, they buy their timber from lower cost countries where the environmental or cultural impact is not added to the cost of extraction. But in the long term, if we degrade the habitat of other countries, we degrade our own.

But how long is the long term? How long will it be before we feel the impact of our over extraction of resources? I think within this decade we will see significant changes in the Malaysian lifestyle. Already we eat less seafood, not because we lack the boats, but because we have over ‘harvested’ most of our tropical fishing grounds and the international market takes the best of what remains. We will no longer be able to afford wood for construction, so our housing and interiors will be unrelenting concrete. Our sources of water will be severely polluted by the destruction of forest cover, clean water will be a rarity, and tap water will be undrinkable (in fact many already refuse to drink it). Most power will not come from renewable sources in the foreseeable future, and until it does we continue to live off our capital. In fact, our whole present lifestyle is ‘off our capital’, and until we reverse that the future does not look bright.

Sustainable development is something that banks and governments do not consider enough in their cost-benefit analyses, but by ignoring the people who have to make a living from the small things and concentrating only on those who make on the big things, the balance will invariably be upset.

As the biologists know, it is the small things that make the big things work.

The global threat of the disenfranchised poor, eking out marginal lives in desert lands like Afghanistan, is not going to go away as more and more areas become biologically impoverished and can no longer support the life they did before.

On a positive side, there are some relatively painless things we can do to moderate the problem. First and foremost, we must introduce population control of our own species. The days of successive horizons of economic growth are gone. Even Malaysia which is blessed with a small population (by Asian standards) needs to take immediate steps to control population growth to a level where economic growth is not a prerequisite to provide jobs for everyone. We need to determine what population our land can support on a sustainable basis and make that our target.

The belief that God will provide for however many children there are is patently untrue, as God did not provide for the Afghanis. If the war doesn’t kill them, the drought will. However, God did provide a garden, which should have been enough for all but now the garden itself is in danger of being destroyed. We submit to the will of God in the inevitable, but we are obliged to look after ourselves when it is not inevitable and not to depend on miracles. Providing jobs for all our children out of nothing would indeed be a miracle.

Second we must revitalize our rural areas where once productive land has been abused and neglected. Restore its usefulness and reinvigorate the rural traditions that nurture land rather than neglect it.

Third, we must protect as inviolate our natural assets, the forests and seas.

The tragedy of September 11th may well mark a new age in world politics, but it has certainly brought into focus the power that humankind has acquired. The wealth of the developed world expressed as the military strength massing in the Gulf compared with a devastated Afghanistan is an obscene example of what is wrong with humankind’s success. Somehow we miss the whole picture, as we strive for self fulfillment we fail to understand that our habitat is now global. There are no more hiding places for us than there are for Osama bin Laden, the fate of humanity rests with the management of our global habitat, and this requires an enormous will to realign priorities.

Possibly democracy and human rights are no longer the principal goals for humanity. As America will have to cope with restrictions on its freedoms in order to curb terrorism, so we all may find that we have to do without a great deal of what we take for granted if humanity (and the biodiversity that supports us) is to continue.

The best we can hope for is that the wealthy of the world realise they have a moral obligation to ensure the development of the poor, to clean up environmental damage and to restore our habitat to what can support humanity and the rest of global biodiversity.

Otherwise Attenborough’s view of impoverishment will develop to its logical conclusion: we will destroy our habitat and ourselves, and the final scenes will be uglier than anything you have seen on CNN.