A Manifesto for Personal Action

by Dr Bob Rich.

This essay received a Certificate of Commendation in the Todhunter Literary Award, 1998, which had the theme: 'End of the Millennium'

  Comments are welcome, and this essay may be freely reproduced with acknowledgement.

You may look at another, shorter essay
This essay is listed under
'Environmental Ethics' by

The Problem
The Reasons
The Solution
What Must Change?
Who Can Teach Us?

The Problem

    Two millennia ago, a Revolutionary expelled the money-changers from God’s Temple.
    They are back. They now own the temple, which is God’s earth. They own the trees, the denizens of the deep, the beauty that draws admirers from across the globe, the wealth within the soil, and the wealth beneath it. They own the very genes that define life, and above all, they own us, the people.
    If they were good shepherds, responsible managers of unlimited power, this would not matter. But are they?
    No. They indulge in a game of Monopoly with six billion tokens, controlled by a few thousand players. As in Monopoly, the aim is to own all, achieved by any means. Questions of ethics and ecology are ridiculous in a cardboard and plastic game. But the game of real life has our planet as its board, the survival of real people as its cost, the future as its stake. And another difference is, Presidents and Chairmen, Generals and Magnates, Wall Street sharks and Multinationals, all are tokens as well as players. Whatever they do to us, they do to themselves.
    In California, you can buy a cup with the inscription:


    Even stupid jokes can embody wisdom.
    The Revolutionary Whose 2000th birthday approaches was fond of parables. Though not His style, here is a parable for the present:

    I offer you a million dollars. What could you do with a million dollars! No more drudgery or hardship. Think of all the luxuries you could have! All the good things you could do!
    Of course, there is a price. Tomorrow, I’ll deposit the million dollars in your bank account. Exactly one year later, you must kill every person you love, then commit suicide. Will you do it?

    Surely not. Yet, we are doing it. The Faustian bargain is a perennial theme that has become reality. For present wealth, we are destroying all that humanity has ever cherished.

*    We are denuding the sea of life.
*    We are destroying the forests.
*    The wonderful variety of Nature is under attack. How many species are no more?
*    Our cities are spreading cancers, replacing fertile soil with asphalt and concrete.
*    Our farming practices are turning topsoil into barrenness.
*    Our sewage, potentially a precious resource, poisons rivers, estuaries and coastal waters.
*    Even our history, the magnificent buildings of the past, is being eaten away by the poisonous breath of commerce.

    And when we have killed all the things we love, then we will have committed suicide. For the Book of Genesis is wrong: Man was not given dominion over the earth, but stewardship. We are not apart from Nature, but part of Her.
On the cosmic scale, our passing may be immaterial. The real tragedy is the destruction during our passage.


    Even now, at the turn of the Millennium, some may say: ‘Hysterical Greenie propaganda!’ And yet, the evidence is overwhelming. I will limit myself to one example, termite control.
    Termites are essential members of the ecosystem: recycling wood, aerating the soil, being at the bottom of several food chains. Unfortunately, our buildings are some of the wood they recycle.
    Buildings can be designed to minimise termite damage. Monitoring systems exist, allowing early detection and environmentally safe control. Nest-specific baiting techniques were devised before 1907, and the 1950’s saw the development of several physical termite barriers.
    Until the late ‘80’s, for 40 years, all such approaches had faded into disuse, in favour of barriers of cyclodienes, which are organochlorines related to DDT.
Cyclodienes cause a horrendous list of health problems to humans, including birth defects, developmental problems in babies, cancer, damage to the liver, the nervous, immune and endocrine systems. They cross the placenta, contaminate breast milk, persist in soil over 20 years, penetrate a house’s air space even through concrete, migrate in ground water, accumulate in food chains.
    Research, kept secret by the manufacturers, had demonstrated these facts years ago, and was made public only in a US Government Inquiry in 1989. For 40 years, the manufacturers encouraged the yearly reapplication of cyclodienes to homes, schools, hospitals. Pest-controllers, building workers, house occupants, and consumers of food were poisoned, to maintain profits.
    Thousands of such examples exist. The conclusion is inescapable. There are only two kinds of people: Greenies and Suicides.
    This is not a question of Capitalism versus Communism. Communist China is the worst polluter in the world — now that the USSR is no more. Marxists and economic irrationalists agree over an essential fallacy: that there is an ever-growing pie to be shared. They merely disagree over the way to divide it.
    Rather, the Club of Rome was right. We have reached, and passed, several of the limits. As their Reports emphasized, a complex system responds to the reaching of a limit by compensating. Texas no longer flows with oil? Extract it in Alaska, at much greater cost, and frightful environmental risk. Are noxious emissions and greenhouse gases from coal-fired power stations unacceptable? Dam up valleys clothed with forest or farm, expel mountain tribes from their homes, and use ‘clean’ hydroelectricity — until the dam silts up, as the Aswan High Dam has. Or opt for the crazy choice of nuclear power, the djinn of millennial pollution that’s best left in its bottle. How do you treat a ‘decommissioned’ nuclear facility?
    Australians and Americans are fortunate to occupy two of the few remaining mountains of prosperity. They stand on a plain, much of which is already under the rising flood of destruction. Desperate wars of genocide, famines, the resurgence of savagery in the name of God, the emergence of new diseases, the tide of addictions sweeping the world, the loss of life and property to natural disasters on a scale never before seen, all are linked to global crowding, to massive environmental degradation. There are limits, and humanity has passed them.
    Tim Flannery has persuasively argued that early man is responsible for the extinction of ‘the huge, the fierce and the strange’: animals that provided a lot of meat for the effort, or were our competitors, or were so specialised that habitat change exterminated them. Over and over, we entered paradise, then destroyed it through overuse, through explosively rapid breeding. His best-documented case is New Zealand. The ancestors of the Maori arrived perhaps 800 years ago, to a land teeming with birds, including the gigantic moa. There are great heaps of remains of wastefully used bird bodies dated to those times, but no indications of war. A mere few hundred years later, Europeans found warlike cannibals subsisting on scarce resources.
    Flannery focuses on fossils, but history shows the same lesson. The great desert of the Indus Valley is man-made, by the ancient, irrigation-using civilisation of Harappa and Mohanjo-Daro. The Sahara was once the grain supply of Rome. When Europeans came to America, it was said that a chipmunk could go from ocean to ocean, without once touching ground. By the 1930’s, in less than four centuries, the American Midwest had become a dustbowl.
    Time and again, in place after place, people have reached the limits of their local environment, and severely damaged it before coming into some kind of equilibrium with the remnants. Only the wilfully blind can ignore the evidence.
    Pre-technological people had the excuse of ignorance. Also, the damage they caused took hundreds of years to manifest itself, and usually there was somewhere else to go. But, since the Industrial Revolution, knowledge has grown exponentially. We now know what we are doing to our planet. Our power to cause change has also increased exponentially. We are now an ever-increasing rush towards extinction, not on a local scale, but globally.
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