Book review: Tread Lightly on the Earth – religion, the environment and the human future, by C. G. Weeramantry (A Stamford Lake Publication, 2009)
Posted on November 18th, 2009

Politics threaten the environment

H. L. D. Mahindapala

Part II

In his book Tread Lightly on the Earth Judge Weeramantry provides a compelling argument for humanity to rediscover the wisdom of traditional societies that found their happiness in less than in craving for more and more. For how long can 6.5 billion people keep on exploiting the limited resources of the earth? For how long can the market place keep on feeding the greed of consumerism and its own greed for profit by exploiting the greed of consumers? Is globalization the spade that is digging the grave of civilization?

In a cartoon of yesteryear drawn by the celebrated cartoonist David Low he caricatured the boastful claims of modern progress in two frames. In the first frame he sketched a peaceful, almost idyllic, scene of a native African in his remote village enjoying the day with his baby crawling on his fours in the garden outside his thatched hut. In the second frame he pin-pointed a modern plane from advanced civilizations of the West dropping bombs on this primitive village. Low was juxtapositioning the modern and traditional values to question the validity of the fanciful notions of technological and scientific “progress”.

After the quantum leap of scientific and technological “progress” in the post-Industrial  period, humanity has ended up virtually in a dead end, burdened with knowledge to destroy itself many times over. The tragedy is that there is neither the collective global will nor a reliable safety mechanism in place on a planetary scale to avert the impending wrath of nature taking its revenge on man usurping the role of God, according to some environmentalists.

In the meantime, the doomsday scenarios continue to proliferate. One popular scenario is the coming of “2012” “”…” the year in which the world is supposed to end, according to folklore. Those who advance this “2012” end-of-the-world scenario are not the old-fashioned Biblical preachers thundering from the pulpits. They cite Nostradamus as the primary source. According to his calculations 2012 seems to be the decisive date. They also cite the Mexican calendar of the Aztecs which ends abruptly in 2012. It is also reported that the Maorian culture too highlights this date. The “2012” doomsayers argue that it can’t be just a coincidence that three different cultures unrelated to each other and separated in time and space can arrive at this date without some significance attached to it.

Skeptics may dismiss this as fear-mongering. Of course, if this scenario is taken seriously it can even cause a run on the banks in and around 2010 “”…” 11 because the neither the banks nor the borrowers will be there to repay the loans. But the mounting evidence has gone beyond speculation. The sins of our forefathers are threatening every aspect of human existence. Man, however, is supposed to be a problem-solving animal. The Micawberian optimists are hoping that sooner or later something will happen somehow to save the planet from sinking into its own garbage. But can man solve this problem in time? Does he have the capacity and the will to do it? Time is not on the side of humanity. Time is surely running out.

The politicizing of the critical issues on the delicate and threatened balance of the environment is as great a danger as the impending disasters of climate change. Environmental issues are now locked in the bitter rivalry of right vs. left politics. The right is challenging the scientific evidence and the left is dependent increasingly on the new evidence provided by science to defend their position on environment. The right-wing politicians, driven by big business and military industrial complex, are not only pooh-poohing the argument that man is a contributor to the degradation of the environment but they are actually playing an active role to prevent any nation states and the international community taking any collective action to do whatever is within the capacity of human society to save the precious ecosystem.

For instance, the left-wing greens see the Czech President Vaclav Klaus as “an anti-warming fanatic declaring it to be a ploy by the UN to achieve world government”, according to Clive Hamilton, the Greens candidate for the seat of Higgins in Australia. (The Australian, November 11, 2009 “”…” p 14). The greens claim that greedy politics is making a desperate bid to replace scientific evidence and rationality. They argue that the neo-cons have hijacked the debate and with it the political clout to change laws for greater protection of environment.

The politicizing of this issue is typified in the crisis faced, oddly enough, by Malcolm Turnbull, the leader of the conservative, right-wing Liberal Party in Australia. He is virtually facing a revolt within the party because he is greenie of sorts on this issue of global warming. He says: “The overwhelming consensus of the scientific community is that we are going through a period of global warming caused by human, principally by the burning of fossil fuels and releasing of greenhouse gases, into the atmosphere at higher rates. They are the main contributors and I accept that.” (Herald Sun, November 11, 2009 “”…” p21)

But the right-wingers in his party are refusing to go along with that line and Turnbull is in a quandary not knowing how to take the party along with him. The Acting Prime Minister, Julia Roberts, Labour Party, has thrown the ball into the court of Turnbull and is telling him to bring the party into line.

The world is clearly divided into two traditional right and left camps on this issue of environmental protection. Angela Merkel of Germany is speaking out firmly for strong action on global warming. But America is still to declare its stand. The Republicans, who tend the embrace the Bible more than Darwin, have been at war with science practically on all issues except on building the military-industrial complex to retain America’s dominant power status. So at the coming world summit in Copenhagen analysts are expecting only a non-binding formula to tide over their difficulties.

The way the political forces are aligned as of now it is doubtful whether any positive or meaningful action will be taken at Copenhagen to fulfill the aspirations encoded in the Johannesburg Political Declaration, which stated in its final paragraph: “We commit ourselves to act together, united by a common determination to save our planet, promote human development and achieve universal prosperity and peace. We commit ourselves to the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation and to expedite the achievement of the time-bound, socio-economic and environmental targets contained therein … we solemnly pledge to the peoples of the world, and the generations that will surely inherit this earth, that we are determined to ensure that our collective hope for sustainable development is realized” (Johannesburg Declaration on Sustainable Development. World Summit on Sustainable Development, Johannesburg, South Africa, 4 September 2002).

As in most noble declarations the rhetoric soars to high heavens but action dives into the depths of despair. Political leaders have failed “”…” and will continue to fail “”…” because they are willing to sacrifice the long-term future of the planet for the short-term gains of surviving in power. Besides, politicians play the game of giving more and not less. They pander to the bottomless centre of greed. They outbid each other in competitive politics to be seen as the Santa Claus bringing the cornucopia of goods and services to all and sundry.

But their capacity to give is limited by earth’s decreasing capacity to sustain growth at an unlimited pace. For how long can the rising waters of the sea, the longer-lasting droughts, the expanding desertification of arable lands, the deforestation, exhausting the seas of the fish, gouging the decreasing resources of the planet keep on increasing profits? If the earth dries up what are we going to have for dinner? Who can eat money for breakfast, lunch and dinner? Are we, in short, cursed with the Midas touch? If on the demands of market forces we all turn into gold what will be left of humanity?

Since the threatened environment is threatening growth the potential for destabilizing and disrupting societies is bound to increase exponentially. The comfort zone in which the 21st century is ensconced is not guaranteed to last long. As the comfort zone shrinks it is bound to create socio-economic frustrations that can lead only to uncontrollable violence. In the long run, saving the planet means moving away from conspicuous consumerism into an alternative life style which Judge Weeramantry outlines concisely.

On page 21 he presents the agenda derived from religions for the future in point form: * intergenerational equities; * avoidance of luxury and ostentation; * the stress on simple living; * concerns for one’s neighbour; * the emphasis on duties rather than on rights; *stress on spiritual rather than materialistic views; * notion of trusteeship of earth resources; * discouragement of pursuit of wealth and power; * avoidance of waste and *the stress on the interests of the community rather that the rights of the individual.

All this constitutes the essence of pure religion. Religions, of course, have been waging a losing battle from birth to keep humanity on the straight and the narrow. Judge Weeramantry’s argument emphasizes the urgency to return to the religious ethic as a way of avoiding the dangers that lie ahead. Religions have consistently focused on limiting the insatiable appetites of consumers which are aided and abetted by rampant market forces dominating advertising space in the media “”…” forces which are running away like uncontrollable wild horses. In essence, Judge Weeramantry’s remedy is to tie up law with the principles of religions as a countervailing deterrent to rein in the apocalyptic market forces running rough shod over civilization as we know it.

In varying degrees, religion and law have acted as separate forces down the ages to control the appetites of man. The new order visualized by Judge Weeramantry is to combine the two into one single force. If, of course, the current trends continue the law will have to step in to control the disruptive forces unleashed by environmental disasters. So should the law-makers wait till the disasters hit mankind (it will be too late then) or should they start now?

But the law-makers are dependent on the consumers who are their voters. So which one of them will have the guts to control the appetites of consumers?

To be continued

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