On the opportunity of the Copenhagen Conference on the Environment it might be purposeful to reflect on an aspect of the foundations of the debate often leading to wrong perceptions, expectations and often apathy.

Since earlier than the 60s of the previous century the environmental movement, embracing enlightened individuals and genuinely concerned citizens, observing worrying changes in humanity’s broader habitat, has been driving through the message “Save the Planet”. Around this message civil society and industrial interests, including modern agriculture, seen as culprits, clashed with increasing intensity. The process took more than a generation to gestate. During that period scientific evidence was tenuous, one sided with disturbing political motives. Often in their campaigns the two sides used various means, sometimes not so noble.

Recently however, enhanced and better quality scientific evidence as well as more maturity of the two camps in the public debate has driven to the realization that there is an increasing threat to humanity because of changes to its habitat and for which man might be partly responsible. Under this climate the environmental movement is seeking very high sustainability standards as soon as possible whilst industry is seeking a pace of change towards such standards that will not break its back. With the majority of professionals in this debate from the two camps busy with specific issues one can find few individuals focused on this conflict at macro level.

In all this what strikes the observer is this core message we are so used to: “Save the planet”. It appears elegant, noble and comforting but it is inaccurate and leading the average person in a wrong alley on urgency for action and having achieved poor mobilization. We believe this is because people realize that humanity’s capacity to save the planet from an eventual demise is nil and regular or irregular major changes of conditions on it are beyond man’s capability to control.

The apparent increase of human activity in the last two centuries might have an influence but it pales to insignificance compared to the course of the planet’s life dictated by regular cosmic cycles, the tilting of its axis, collision with other objects such as meteorites and asteroids, major geological and volcanic activity cycles, variations of its magnetic field, the sun’s varying radiation and so many others. On all this humans can do nothing to change earth’s destiny. Luckily such events occur on cosmic time scale, exponentially greater than the human horizon but probability of occurrence exists.

But humanity’s minor influence on planetary conditions might be enough to threaten life as we know it and thus its survival. Consequently, a more accurate message might be “Protect humanity’s conditions for survival” or perhaps “Protect environmental conditions of life”. Focusing on humanity or broader on life, as the former cannot exist without the latter, a realistic vision might be established; a goal where humanity could have a chance to be effective. As for the final form of this message we are sure more elegant expressions can be found without deviation from the core concept.

We believe that the average individual must identify all efforts to redress the adverse effects of human activity on his environment with his own survival and not of the planet. There should be a distinction between the planet’s destiny that we cannot influence and life’s environment on it that we might up to a point. One could even suggest, given humanity’s curiosity nature leading to longer term space colonization, life’s environment needs not only protection but also development in such a manner that it could be transposable to other colonies. This approach would bring into the debate a case of an eventual cosmic event when life will avoid extinction only by timely space colonization.

Only sensitizing the global population on such focused and achievable goal of intimate interest could build in time the momentum required to take action.

An example of the importance of distinction between the two basic messages is depletion of natural energy resources. This is a fundamental dimension of life’s environment. With projected rates of consumption, the end of horizon of carbon based energy and its implications are apparent. Assuming that there will be no alternatives on time and the world runs very short of energy life and consequently humanity will experience catastrophic events ranging from severe climatic changes to massive migration and wars. There are no reasons however to suggest that the planet will be affected.

The same applies to the rain forests depletion. An important regulator of life’s environment, it will reach a point when climatic changes will severely threaten life. The planet however would cope with such change and will eventually redress the conditions on a new equilibrium that might not support life as we know it. One can see the same distinction on so many issues debated recently.

In conclusion, we suggest that it is erroneous to project as a key message of the environmental challenge “Save the Planet”. The real message seems to be “Protect and Develop the Environment of Life”.

K. P. Vlahodimos

June 2009

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