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The environment

Watch Gaia Vince describe how we might begin to solve some of the envionmental challenges we face
We’ve changed the environment in a way that enables our species to flourish and be the most successful species on Earth. In terms of numbers, we’re the most populous big animal on Earth and the next in line are the animals and plants that we’ve created to feed and serve us. So we’ve changed the environment incredibly, and we’ve changed it for our own success. At the moment, we’re also threatening our future success because of climate change, because of pollution, because of biodiversity loss, water streams, all sorts of ways.
And the same creature that created this successful human world is going to be the one that can sort it out, so it’s only through ourselves - it’s only through recognising that the solution lies within ourselves - that we can address these problems.
There’s a saying that the wise, kind person plants the seed of a tree that he will never seek shade under. And what he’s doing is, he’s producing trees for generations to come. And whether you have children or not, we assume, we hope that humanity will continue and there will be more and more generations. If we take the long view of what we’re doing, we are at this very unique time in our history, because before us, 100, 200, 500 years before us, the changes that we could make would only have very limited effect on future generations because our effects were quite minimal on a planetary scale. Now our effects really are global.
They are truly global and also our civilizations, our populations, are all interlinked and global. So something we do in one place can affect people geographically far away, but also temporally far away, people who haven’t been born yet. So, I think we do have a responsibility to be good ancestors.
We have a huge number of overwhelming problems facing us all the time and they’re going to take behavioural change, social change; they’re also going to take technological innovations, they’re going to take all of our skills as humans to get through it, and as cooperative, coordinated humans, because we have very little power to do things on our own. We must act together, we must cooperate, because when we act together, when we cooperate, we can solve much bigger problems, and more globally than we can solve them on our own. But at the same time we can start small.
As individuals, we can change our very, very local environment and, of course that’s the environment that we see all the time, the environment that we interact with personally, so changing that actually has a really big effect, and we can all start small, we can all take small steps to improving the world, and it’s only by all of us as individuals taking small steps that we do as a collective take a much bigger step.
I set off on a two-and-a-half year journey around the world, mainly the Global South and I visited more than 50 different countries in that time, and I was really looking at people who are living on the forefront of our environmental changes that we’re making as a species to the planet. What I discovered in that time is some really incredible people that individually were managing to rally around their community, to bring them together to solve problems that they were facing, and whether these solutions can be extrapolated and used in other places is uncertain, but it’s only through trying different things, trying different mechanisms to solve our problems, that we can learn and find which ones might work in the future.
So, I met, in the Himalayas, somebody who was creating artificial glaciers to replace natural ones that had gone due to global warming. I found, in the Caribbean, somebody whose islands were washed away, creating an artificial island by using garbage. I found a woman who was saving an enormous pocket of the Amazonian rainforest, enabling biodiversity for generations to come. And these were individual heroes but even though they were incredible people, really quite remarkable, what was really interesting about them was that they had managed to gather other people around their idea and make it happen, despite all sorts of problems, and I think that is what’s most inspirational.
If we can show that small changes have a big effect, if we can gather round these ideas, I think we can achieve a lot.

Gaia Vince is an environmental journalist, broadcaster, and author. Her book Adventures in the Anthropocene: A Journey to the Heart of the Planet We Made was published in 2015.

‘Although denying that we have a special position in the natural world might seem becomingly modest in the eye of eternity, it might also be used as an excuse for evading our responsibilities. The fact is that no species has ever had such wholesale control over everything on earth, living or dead, as we now have. That lays upon us, whether we like it or not, an awesome responsibility. In our hands now lies not only our own future, but that of all other living creatures with whom we share the earth.’
David Attenborough, humanist, broadcaster and natural historian

Humanists do not believe that human beings were given dominion over the Earth. However, many will argue that the clear evidence of the impact our species is having on the planet means we have a responsibility to take care of it. After all, help is not going to come from anywhere else.

Humanist motivations to protect the environment stem from a number of sources. There is the evidence that the consequences on humanity of doing nothing will potentially be catastrophic. Our natural sense of empathy for other human beings, including those not born yet, can provide a motivation to act. Future generations should also have the same human rights we guarantee today, to food, to homes, and to health. Many humanists will speak of their empathy also encompassing other sentient animals, and they believe they too should be included in our circle of moral concern. Additionally, the natural world can be a source of great beauty, inspiration, and solace to us. When the former President of the British Humanist Association, Sir Hermann Bondi, was asked why he cared about conservation, he replied, ‘Because I want my grandchildren to be able to see elephants.’

Some conservationists place the blame for the environmental challenges we face today on an insatiable human hunger for scientific and technological progress. However, this rarely draws humanists to the conclusion that science and technology themselves are inherently bad. The positive or negative impact of our scientific knowledge is for human beings to decide. Indeed, it is scientists (mainly biologists and ecologists) who have been responsible for uncovering and monitoring many of our environmental problems. Scientists and engineers will also play an important role in finding new sources of energy and in finding ways to clean up our planet.

Question: Should the natural environment be protected because of its value to human beings or because it has any inherent value in itself?

This article is from the free online

Humanist Lives, with Alice Roberts

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