Unit B4


Many people ask why they should do something about the environment. They may see is as a foreign idea brought in from outside, as something idealistic and impractical, as something that interferes with their life and makes things harder for them, or as something that was not needed in the past, so why should it be now, etc. The following are some of the reasons why the environment is of immediate practical concern to everyone.

We are part of the environment

The environment is everything around you, and you are part of it, not separate from it. You depend on it for your most immediate needs: breathing, eating, drinking, and disposing of your wastes. We often take these things for granted and do not even think about them until something goes wrong. Imagine how you would feel if the air around you was no longer fit to breathe - suppose it was full of dense smoke, for instance. If you did not improve your environment very quickly or move rapidly to another environment, you would die. In some big cities, the air is hardly fit to breathe; many people get sick from it, and some even die. Suppose the environment refused to accept your wastes, so that they would neither decompose nor wash away. You would quickly find yourself in an unpleasant situation.

The above are only the most basic human or animal needs. The quality of our living environment is important in many other ways. The environment is where we live and work. It can be agreeable - even beautiful - satisfying all of our needs, or it can be depressing and constraining, so that we dream of escaping from it. How do you feel about your own environment: where you live? where you work? If you could choose your ideal environment, what would it be like?

We are all responsible for the environment

The place where you live and work today did not suddenly start to exist at your birth. You inherited it from your ancestors, and each of them left their mark on it. Try to imagine what it was like before anyone came here. How much has it been changed by man's activities? Who cleared the land, built the houses and roads, planted the coconut palms and other useful trees? You may know who did some of these things, or it may have been so long ago that no one remembers. Nevertheless, what you have today was passed on to you by those who came before you. If they did their work well and improved the environment, you are richer for it. If they neglected the environment and did not care about the future effects of their actions, you are now suffering the consequences.

There is a famous story of an old man who was out in his garden planting fruit trees. Someone asked him why he was planting the trees, when he was so old that he would certainly not live to eat the fruits from them. The old man replied that when he was young, he had enjoyed the fruits of trees planted by those who lived before him. Now he wanted to ensure that those who came after him could benefit as he had.

In the same way, you will pass on the environment to your children and grandchildren. Will they thank you for your foresightedness, or curse you for your selfishness? Your environment is an inheritance in your care and custody for a time. It is up to you to exercise your responsibility with wisdom.

Humans and nature

Before humans existed, the environment resulted entirely from natural processes. As civilizations have developed, we have increased our powers to change or direct nature. Some changes have been beneficial, others have upset natural balances or degraded natural resources. Sometimes an accumulation of many small actions can have a big effect. Suppose each person who visited a beach took one bucket of sand away with him to put in his garden or make cement. Taking one bucket of sand from a beach does not seem to make any difference; the waves and tides smooth the hole and the beach seems as before. But many bucketfuls of sand will eventually remove all the sand on the beach, and it will slowly but surely disappear. Many beaches throughout the islands have suffered this fate.

The same kind of cumulative change can come from cutting down trees, burning a bit of bush, letting a little bit of land erode, dynamiting a coral patch, or some other small destructive action. The result over time is a big change in something very important, and usually very limited, especially on a small island.

Nature does have some power of recovery from our actions. If you cut a tree or break a coral, another can grow in its place. The balance depends on how often we cut a tree and how long trees take to grow back. Back when men cut trees with stone axes, it was hard to cut down more than could grow. Now that we have chain saws and bulldozers, we can clear a whole forest in less time than it takes a tree to grow. If we want to keep some important resources like trees, we have to control our development of them to what nature (sometimes with our help) can replace.

Environmental awareness as a key to success

Taking care of the environment is not just something we do for our children (important as that may be), it can also contribute to our own success. For example, suppose you are planting a garden. You have to work hard to clear the land, prepare the soil, plant, tend and harvest. If the harvest is not good, your effort is wasted (and you and your family may go hungry). Many things in the environment can make your garden fail if you do not respect them. A storm or cyclone may bring wind or flooding. Erosion can wash away the soil and plants. The soil may be too poor in nutrients, or these may be quickly lost. The crop may be invaded by pests, diseases or weeds. If you plant at the wrong time, or if there is a drought, the crop may fail. You may choose the wrong varieties or the wrong conditions.

The more you know about the environment, including both the potentials and the risks, the better your chances of developing the potential and of lessening or eliminating the risks. The same thing can be true of most other activities such as building a house, fishing, and even many businesses or development projects.

Traditional cultures had this environmental awareness; it was necessary for survival. Agriculture was often governed by complex practices and elaborate beliefs. Many of these developed over centuries of trial and error as the best way to ensure success. A community that could not ensure success did not live. Traditional farmers do not like to change their way of doing things, because for them any change to something unknown increases the risk of failure.

Environment and health

Our health and that of our families depends in large measure on how we take care of the environment. Many sicknesses are spread through the environment, through the water we drink or the food we eat. There are many ways that nature can destroy the germs that cause these sicknesses, if we know how to use or help these natural processes. If we do not pay attention to good sanitation, and instead spread our germs around, it is much easier for everyone to get sick.

Some sicknesses are also spread by mosquitos or rats. If we let junk and dirt collect, then there are many more places for rats and mosquitos to breed, and the diseases they carry will spread more easily. A clean environment is also a healthy environment.

Today there are many useful products like pesticides and chemicals that are also dangerous poisons if they are misused and get into the environment. Many industrial waste products are also highly toxic or cause cancer or other sicknesses. In developed countries where these products are most common, many deaths and illnesses can be traced to environmental causes. As these products become more common in the islands, they may cause new health problems if they are not used and disposed of with great care.

For all these reasons, the care with which we manage our environment is essential to the health and wellbeing of ourselves and our families. What is more immediate and practical than good health?

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UN System-Wide Earthwatch Coordination
Updated 5 April 1998