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Wise words from Earth’s defenders


Most of us have heard warnings that humans are destroying the Earth and all that lives on it since we were toddlers. So much so that the message has lost its urgency. More than that, we’ve become cynical. What good can we do when in the United States, for example, every bill aimed at cutting back on waste, reducing fossil-fuel consumption or preserving biodiversity is killed off by lobbyists with deep pockets and short-term financial goals? Can we do anything, and why should we, when the real offenders have made themselves exempt?

Speaking at recent press conferences to mark prizes awarded in recognition of their contribution to global environmental conservation, Robert May, Norman Myers and Jane Goodall told us what we can do, and why.

If species extinction continues at its current rate, which is more or less the same as that when the dinosaurs were extinguished, then we will soon find out (or our grandchildren will) what it is like to live in an impoverished world. That’s if we survive.

“Even if we could survive [in a world with vastly reduced biodiversity],” said May, in Tokyo last week to collect the Asahi Glass Foundation 2001 Blue Planet Prize, “the world would be like it is in the movie, ‘Blade Runner.’ I wouldn’t like to live in such a world.”

May, formerly chief scientific adviser to the British government, knows better than most what is likely to happen in the future — that’s one of the reasons he’s been awarded the 50-million-yen prize. His formal title is Lord May of Oxford, and he is also president of the London-based Royal Society, one of the most esteemed positions in the scientific world. May established mathematical models that allow the estimation of species population growth — information that underpins most basic conservation work, both globally and locally. He demonstrated for biologists what physicists already suspected: that the Newtonian dream of an orderly world is wrong. Instead, the world is governed by simple rules so sensitive to minor disturbances that they can never yield long-term predictions.

Chaos, as this mathematical state is known, is why we will probably never be able to give accurate local weather forecasts; weather systems are nonlinear. (Popularly known as “the butterfly effect,” the weather-forecast problem is encapsulated in the idea that a butterfly flapping its wings in Panama can cause a storm in Vietnam. In other words, small things can lead to big perturbations.)

“We are currently losing species at 1,000 times the rate that is average in the fossil record,” said May. “Many of the effects driving climate change are nonlinear. So small things done now are better than big things done later,” he emphasized. “The future is going to see industrial winners and losers. The winners will be those who get on the train as it leaves the station.”

The Blue Planet Prize was also awarded to independent scientist Norman Myers, one of the first to fire up the train’s engine by alerting the world that a mass extinction was under way. Myers, speaking at the same press conference, also emphasized the economic arguments for conservation.

A hard-nosed calculation of the money value of environmental services (things like the water supply, the climate, biodiversity, the environmental capacity to maintain the topsoil), produced an estimated bill of $33 trillion. The global economy, on the other hand, is worth $28 trillion. “Global natural product,” said Myers, “is worth more than global national product. So why do we allow environmental degradation?”

Why indeed.

At the Rio biodiversity Earth Summit in 1992, 170 countries signed the biodiversity convention — the United States refused. (“America always has to be special,” said May.) It was estimated at Rio that a sustainable economy would cost $600 billion per year. World leaders balked at such a sum, said Myers, yet the subsidies spent on bailing out unsustainable development in sectors such as agriculture, fossil fuels, road transport, water and forestry, amount to $2 trillion a year.

“That’s $2 trillion going down a rathole of unsustainability,” said Myers, exasperation plain in his voice despite the number of times he must have repeated his message. “The bottom line is that nothing would help the world economy more than tackling perverse subsidies.”

While May touched on the ethical reasons for conservation (the “Blade Runner” comment), adding that such arguments are less forceful in developing countries, which don’t have the luxury to sit back and worry about biodiversity, it was left to Monday’s speaker, Jane Goodall, to really hammer home the ethical, even spiritual, reasons why we should conserve the natural world.

Goodall is also the most famous of the three scientists. When she was 23, she went to Africa and, with no formal training, started a chimpanzee research project with the renowned anthropologist Louis Leakey that is still running today, more than 40 years later. She was the first to show tool-use in nonhuman animals. It seems almost ordinary today: We all know how closely related humans are to chimps and how clever they are, but it all started with Goodall. The discovery that other animals can use tools was revelatory — and it at once started blurring the line that we’d always thought divided us from other animals.

“I think the most important thing we’ve learnt from that long-term study is that it really has taught us about our relationship with the rest of the animal kingdom,” said Goodall, who was speaking after she’d popped round to meet the Emperor and Empress. “You cannot spend time with chimpanzees and not understand that we humans, for all our arrogance, for all our sophisticated brains, for all our development of spoken language . . . for all of this, we are not separated from the animal kingdom because we are not the only beings capable of rational thought, and above all, we’re not the only beings capable of emotions.”

The realization of the similarities between chimps and humans led Goodall inexorably to conservation work. And it is her message, urging harmony with nature, for which she was last month awarded the Gandhi-King Prize. The prize, which honors those whose lifework embodies the principles and practices of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, was previously awarded to Nelson Mandela and Kofi Annan.

It’s easy to see why she won such a prize. Goodall connects with people in a way that most scientists can only dream of. She showed us the symbols of hope she carries with her: the booty made for the New York rescue dog that cut its foot in the ruins of the World Trade Center but refused vet’s orders to rest; the peace bell made from a defused land mine from the Killing Fields of Cambodia; and the teddy-bear chimp made by a blind man, which has been touched for inspiration, good luck and hope by more than a million people.

Goodall was at the Millennium World Peace Summit last year, and the environment, she said, was barely mentioned. But one man stood up, the representative of the indigenous people of Greenland. “He said, ‘Up in the North we feel everyday what you people do in the South. Up in the North, the ice is melting. What will it take to melt the ice in the human heart?’ “

It might take the $2 trillion that would be saved by stopping perverse subsidies — that sort of cash certainly has heartwarming properties. But Goodall believes in hope. She established the Jane Goodall Institute in 1977, and started Roots and Shoots, an environmental and humanitarian program, aiming to show that a difference can be made by normal people.

“The message is one of hope, that hundreds of thousands of young people round the world can, like small roots and shoots, break through the brick walls of all these problems, human greed and crime and cruelty and war. And now terrorism.”

Goodall’s insight and her message, that has seen Roots and Shoots programs springing up in 69 countries, comes from her recognition that chimps and other animals are so similar to us.

“But there’s one difference I’m thankful for,” Goodall emphasized. “When female chimps come into estrus, their backsides turn bright red. I’m glad that doesn’t happen to humans.”