Monday, September 24, 2012

Sustainability #4: Geo-engineering, The Marikina River Janitor Fish and the Nature of Human Problems

My Sustainability posts spring from my forum posts in the free Sustainability Course, offered by the University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign, which I am participating in.

In David Keith's TED talk on geo-engineering, he asks the right question: when presented with a solution to our climate change problem (an absurdly cheap solution, at that) what do we do as human beings? In another thread by a Sustainability student, Fedor Ovchinnikov, talks about another "cheap, effective, shocking solution" that caused the death by starvation of 30 million Chinese citizens. When presented with an option, some organizations or governments act on it quickly (such as Mao Zedong and the case of sparrow killing in China in the 1950s). Keith requests that we think through the option and engage in debates involving not just scientists but a cross-section of society before we implement a solution with long term effects like geo-engineering. It's a wise piece of advice. At some point, we will have to act. But it is worth our time to really understand the problem that we are facing.

Closer to home, in the late 1990s janitor fish was introduced into the Marikina River in the Philippines to help solve the problem of pollution. The fish was supposed to clean up the river similar to the way ornamental fish clean up an aquarium. Little did the government know that the fish ended up being a pest, an invasive species that didn't have any natural predators, spawning uncontrolled in the river and affecting the biodiversity in the river. Now, the local government is trying to rid the river of this fish. Such is the nature of solutions like janitor fish in the Marikina river...and the sparrow killing in China.

Problems will never end for human beings. When we solve one problem, another one will crop up. What needs careful consideration is the kind of problems we will face when we solve a problem. As human beings, we need to start looking at the long term versus the short term. Most of our modern day conveniences are the culprits behind global warming: burning of fossil fuel for electricity and transportation, production of excess methane from modern farming practices, bigger carbon footprints from consumption of meat, particularly beef. What are the costs of our modern day conveniences? What are the costs of anything that human beings "engineer?" It costs us our planet.

The question I go back to is one that I asked in the first week of the Sustainability course: Why do we deserve to inherit this earth? There are a multitude of answers. It is a question that we answer on behalf of future generations of human beings. Why do we think we should be the stewards of the earth when we abuse it so much? What kind of planet will our children and our children's children inherit from us? What conveniences are we willing to let go off so that future generations will still have a planet to live in? Not only that. We answer the question for the rest of the species, whether plant or animal, on this earth. Our actions have resulted in the mass extinction of several species already.

Keith refers to "moral hazard" when discussing the problem of what to do with a solution. A question of right and wrong can raise the hackles of any human being. Perhaps we can reduce it further to a problem of workability. What will work such human beings continue to exist and live in harmony with their environment? This is not something that can be given a quick fix. I agree with Keith, this requires the discipline of working on the real problem and it will require participation and tangible changes in the way we live.

Image of the Marikina River from Wikimedia Commons.

No comments:

Search This Blog