Thursday, May 22, 2014

Environment v. Development

Slash and burn farming, Westmoreland, Jamaica
In response to 'Jamaica Blog Day' here are the ruminations  of a former biology teacher 
on 'Environment v. Development'.
     The human species, Homo sapiens, is one of the most successful species on planet earth, that is if you measure success by ability to live almost anywhere on earth and for young ones to have the expectation of living to average old age. However, if you measure success by the length of time a species has remained unchanged, humans cannot compare with the chambered nautilus, which has been around for 500 million years, and the horseshoe crab 445 million years. Humans in their present form have been around for about one million years and are unlikely to be here for another 499 million years, the way things are going. If you measure success by numbers, we cannot compare with ants which E.O. Wilson has estimated at 10,000 trillion with a combined weight more than the combined weight of all humans. Actually, it isn’t fair to compare the one species of humans with the many species of ant, but for an individual ant species, the numbers would still be impressive. If you measure success by length of life, humans cannot compare with the bristle cone pine which can live for 5000 years, or giant tortoises - over 200 years, or Ming the clam which reached 507 years, before humans killed it trying to find out how old it was. If you believe that Methuselah lived for 969 years, we have certainly regressed, as nobody lives that long nowadays.
     The success of the human species can be attributed to the use of tools, agriculture and fire. These have enabled us to live almost anywhere on the planet, by altering the environment. Instead of having thick fur coats and depositing insulating layers of blubber which enable other animals to live in cold climates, we have built houses and heated them. Instead of hunting and gathering as in the early years of man’s existence, we grow crops and herd animals. There is evidence of agricultural practices going back ten thousand years, so for that long man has been altering the environment. However, the last two hundred years have seen massive developments in agriculture, with machines used to clear vast tracts of land, to prepare it for planting and for harvesting of crops; the manufacture of fertilizers, herbicides and insecticides; and the production of higher yielding crops. These developments have resulted in better nutrition for millions of people, which, coupled with advances in medicine which have reduced infant mortality rates and extended life expectancy, have led to a population explosion.
     The first agricultural practices resulted in a surplus of food, which resulted in a division of labour. Not everyone had to grow their own crops, so people were available to do other things, including building. This in turn led to the construction of cities and the development of civilizations.  We have been brought up to believe that civilization is a ‘good thing’. However, civilization concentrates power in the hands a few individuals, giving them control over other human beings and over the environment. Many people have benefited, but vast numbers, from the dawn of civilization until today, endured and are still enduring deprivation. At all high points in the expansion of Western Civilization there were slaves. The ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman Civilizations also depended on slavery.
     Another pervasive aspect of civilization is war, which can hardly be considered to be a civilized activity, and is one of the most anti-environmental endeavours that man undertakes. In the last three hundred years, and more so in the last hundred, with the development of weapons of mass destruction, mankind faces the possibility of total annihilation. There is no such thing as a limited nuclear war. The products of burning resulting from any nuclear war would  result in a ‘nuclear night’. Sunlight would be blocked from the planet for so long that all plants would die. Being aware of these negative effects of civilization, individuals have informed others and led movements, such as the ban-the-bomb protests and anti-Vietnam War demonstrations, to discourage those in power from exposing all of us to these dangers.
     Other not quite as harmful results of human practices have been highlighted by individuals and groups, and a stop has been put to them. In nineteenth century Britain, the pollutants spewed out by factories resulted in smog and damaging air quality. Clean Air Acts controlled this. Unfortunately, building taller factory chimneys, so that the pollutants blow further away, results in acid rain causing destruction of forests, and damage to life in lakes and rivers. Legislation to control acid rain is slow in coming.
 Rachel Carson, in her book ‘The Silent Spring’ explained, to the layman, the effect of the insecticide DDT on the reproduction of birds. The concentration of DDT in the food chain would have ended with us poisoning ourselves, so DDT is now banned. Cod fishing, with more sophisticated equipment, in the North Atlantic (800,000 tons in 1968), nearly wiped out all the cod, so in the early 1990’s a complete ban on cod fishing was introduced. The expected recovery has not taken place.
     All development impacts the environment in some way, but given the intelligence we possess as human beings, we are able to assess impact and predict outcomes. We also have the capacity to disseminate this information to educate and inform large numbers of people. What we are not so good at is having the will to make change, especially if one is a politician and the change is not popular.
     In Jamaica, those of us who have cars would be loathe to part with them, and we are grateful for good roads, although internal combustion engines and road building are damaging to the environment. Those who don’t have cars aspire to car ownership, meanwhile utilizing public transport. We bemoan the cost of gas instead of asking ourselves whether we could travel less. Children attend schools far from their homes, while near their homes, schools are under populated. Many other developments, such as the construction of hotels are popular because they provide employment both in the construction phase and when they are operating. However, the environmental damage which some of them cause is irreversible.
     Other developments such as the Hunts Bay Power Plant and the Montego Bay Freezone have severely damaged fish breeding grounds. In addition, Jamaica’s waters are overfished, and the large numbers of fishermen are catching fewer and smaller fish, but efforts at improving fish stocks have been limited rather than drastic. The fishermen themselves are aware of the problem, but few have an alternative source of income. Deforestation is a serious problem, but continues in spite of laws to prevent it. It is hard to catch a man cutting down a tree, which he is able to turn into charcoal or sell quickly. The same people who cut down the trees are among the first to demonstrate because of lack of water or poor roads, both of which result from water running off hillsides too quickly after they are denuded of trees.
     An enlightened leadership with a well-informed followership could do more to prevent environmental degradation in Jamaica, by looking at long-term consequences of choices for development. There are many people with knowledge about the environment, and several, who are highly qualified to do so, disseminate information. There are others, some of them in leadership positions, who not only fail to listen to these experts, but describe them in the most derogatory terms. They misconstrue what they say for the purpose of misleading less knowledgeable people. They say that the environmentalists are more interested in preserving lizards than in people getting jobs. What they fail to realize is that what is bad for the lizard today will be bad for human beings tomorrow. The discussion becomes fogged by the misconception that one has to choose between development and environment, instead of between  the type of development which would have the minimal environmental impact, and one which would have more.
     Jamaica isn’t the only country making unwise decisions. Worldwide, one of the biggest threats to our planet is global warming, which, although having its naysayers, is generally accepted. We know what should be done - cut down the carbon footprint of every one of us - but again it is the will that is lacking. Increasing carbon dioxide levels are likely to cause acidification of the seas, which could threaten even the chambered nautilus with extinction. Will unwise choices eventually lead to the extinction of Homo sapiens, too? Or will the knowledge that we have about how we have damaged our planet enable us to restore the balance before it’s too late?

1 comment:

Pamela K Witte said...


This is an amazing post with so much food for thought presented beautifully. I started reading and couldn't stop. I hope more and more people around the world start to consider how their existence effects our environment. We share this world with so many, humans, animals, plants. It's my hope that information becomes a powerful tool for change. Thank you for providing so much profound food for thought! Let's keep our forests and our creatures alive and well.