“Conservation is a state of harmony between men and land”
Aldo Leopold (1886-1948), U.S. Naturalist, Conservationist and Philosopher
Conservatism may be defined as reluctance in accepting abrupt changes while sustainability means functioning of the ecosystem in perpetuity.
Man was at peace with his environment in the early days, taking and returning materials from it without debasing the very usual resilience of his coherence with nature. As a lad growing up, I used hear a lot of this popular proverbial saying ‘Go to the ant, you sluggard! Consider her ways and be wise’. I really did not give this much thought until few years back when the hydra-headed monster, Climate change became a major issue in the world’s political, social and economic realm and the menace it poses to human continued existence on planet earth.
The ants are a tiny creature, living together as a group (gregarious) watching out for one another especially their young ones. It gathers food in the summer and autumn while it relaxes during the winter. In his quest for economic development and industrial growth, man has completely forgotten that conservatism is synonymous to sustainability and this negligence has brought about catastrophic concepts like global warming and climate change, erosion, desertification among others. The early man (before the industrial revolution) conducted his way of life in a manner that nature approved of.
First and foremost, if we consider how the conservative man got his food from nature, then we would see why nature was always kind to him and never rewarded him with erosion and drought. He tills his land with simple farm tools, made ridges in a way that were in consonance with the ecology of the land (so that erosion never occurred). He used resources such as leaves, cow dung from the farm to increase the soil nutrient. This nutrient enriching system had little impact on the soil and environment (so that siltation and eutrophication of rivers do not result from the use of industrial fertilizer). He ploughed his land with the members of his household in the wet season and takes off time to enjoy festivities during the dry weather similar to the gregarious way of the ants. He also plants trees on the same farm with arable crops. The nature because of this gesture always made sure that land remained fertile for man to get his food to sustain his livelihood. However, the new man in his wisdom believes that this old way of life was too crude and old-fashioned so he decided to apply fertilizer to land; in return, he got siltation, eutrophication of streams and death of aquatic organisms. He also decided to standardize his crop and nature paid him with pest and disease incidence. He uses heavy machinery to till the soil and leaching of nutrients results. His artificial irrigation system disrupts the trough level of the water table. The present man believes that he does not need the trees so that he could build his industries and houses, yet he complains of desertification, erosion, acidification of the oceans and loss habitat and biodiversity.
Secondly, in the traditional system, the old men made use crude tools in making life comfortable for themselves. Their political system was representation by all and decisions were always unanimous and bottom-up though painstaking. The new man believes that this method was too rigorous. Therefore, he decides to make use of industrial chemicals, aerosols, fossil fuel and nuclear nukes. Consequently, he got feedbacks like environmental degradation, rise in sea level, ozone depletion, cancer, etc. He decided to modernize his political structure where a large majority is represented by few; in return there was economic recession, societal conflict and impoverishment of many to the benefit of the few.
It is pertinent to note however, that moving outside the old realm has also birthed positive changes. Examples can be said of improved drugs (as against the traditional man making use of medicinal products from trees in no appropriate quantity), knowledge of the eco balance, etc.
My submission is that while we strive to improve the quality of life for ourselves, this should be done in ways that are ecologically stable, socially acceptable and economically viable. Then we can enjoy life like the small ants that always look ahead of themselves and know certain action or inaction today will come back and continue to hunt them in the future.
I agree with Dean in that sustainable development is an unlikely outcome, especially in a capitalist world that continually pushes for liberalisation of the market. In my eyes I do not think it is possible, as capitalist modes of production and consumption have done and continue to rely on the exploitation of resources whether they be in the shape of the environment and/or other humans in order to maximise profits. It is a nice ideal to think about going back to living a simple life off the land (like the ants) however I don’t think it is a feasible or realistic response especially under current circumstances. In todays world someone always has to win…
I enjoyed your post and references immensely. I believe the main reason for the shift towards environmental degradation and the adjoined climate change is due to a development of fast paced lives. Sadly I don’t see this changing any time soon. Therefore it is up to each individual, and especially the environmental scientists and conservationists like us, to ensure awareness and change. I was confronted with the question of the bottom-up approach, such as in the past. Although it is a difficult ideal, I sometimes wonder if it is such a good idea. In some cases management systems need to be in place but this timely process (getting everyone’s contribution) would continue, while the fast paced modern lives keep affecting the environment to who knows what extent an then again to whose advantage will it be then?
Dean, I think you have a valid point. I am however pro to attempting to reach development that can be sustained even though it may seem far fetched. I think it does take some lifestyle compromises from everyone in order to reach that goal – and then we would have to see how long that “sustainability” would last…
With regards to Gemma’s comment about my comment:
The justification for your answer to the question of whether sustainable development is achievable only further supports my claim that it is not achievable. Sustainable development is centred around the idea that development occurs in a manner that is simultaneously socially/politically, environmentally and financially sustainable. While financial sustainability and “making profits” appears to be the more greedy approach, if a development project is financially unsustainable, it will ultimately fail in the capitalist world.
As I mentioned in my early comment, I agree that we need to work towards sustainable development and address past transgressions. However, supplemented by your comment, it still appears that sustainable development as an achievable outcome is unrealistic.
I really like this blog. And agree with so many of the issues you raise. The “old man” was indeed much more respectful of his environment and the use thereof, while today (with the over population and modern issues) large-scale agriculture is not a relationship between man and nature. Rather it is man’s abuse of nature. I personally believe that sustainable development is the way forward, and while certain aspects of it may be difficult to achieve, some action is better than no action. Unless we acknowledge the damage we and our ancestors have done, and vow to make some kind of change for the better – no matter how small – business as usual will continue. Surely it is our duty to protect our environment, for ourselves and the future generations? Lastly, commenting on Dean’s question: “can we really meet the needs of the present without compromising the needs of the future?” I believe that we can. Sure, it might not make a profit at the end of the day, but it is completely doable!
Apologies for the second comment – The train of thought is still travelling
Is the concept of sustainable development not redundant? By severe overpopulation we have significantly breached the Earth’s holding capacity for humanity. Therefore, can we really meet the needs of the present without compromising the needs of the future? I do not dispute that we need to make better decisions in terms of development but is sustainable development a realistically achievable outcome?
I really enjoyed the analogy of “old man” to the ant.
It is very apparent that development and technological advancement has resulted in severe damage to the environmental system that then feeds back into all other systems (social, political, financial, governance etc).
The concept of sustainable development has been in the public spotlight for a while now.
Arguably the biggest problem with this concept is that it is near impossible to satisfy all three of the requirements you have mentioned simultaneously (“ecologically stable, socially acceptable and economically viable”). In the probable event that all three requirements cannot be met, how do we decide which requirement to neglect?
Furthermore, how do we define the limit of what is “ecologically stable, socially acceptable and economically viable”? Any development will procure a certain cost to one of these three elements. What is the acceptable cost for an improvement in life quality?