Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Preliminary Considerations on Intercultural Ethics

It is mandatory that we identify more opportunities to create change in the way we interact with one another and with other living beings. Symbiosis is the intricate co-dependency between species in any and all ecosystems. Unfortunately, humans have grown to believe that we reign over the rest of plants and animals on the planet and that we dispose of them with a sense of ownership that empowers us to even destroy what we believe belongs to us. Right or wrong, the truth is that we cannot survive without clean air and drinkable water, and the process of cleaning air and water in the planet relies, almost entirely, on trees in our dense forests in Latin America and Africa and Southeast Asia, where most rainforests still remain. As Jared Diamond wonders about the defunct inhabitants of Easter Island, what did the person that cut down the last tree on the island think as she was chopping it down?

Of course, the most expected response to this question is denial: there are still plenty a tree around to think about this question. True. But this denial has led humanity to reduce forest coverage as much as five million hectares, cause a loss of land to soil erosion of seven million hectares, and lead to the desertification of fertile land to almost 12 million hectares. The scariest thing is that these statistics are for 2011 alone. At this pace, the question is not whether or when will we run out of trees. The critical question is how much are we reducing nature’s capability to renew itself to continue cleaning our air and water, especially when, also in 2011, human industry managed to generate 33.5 billion metric tons of CO2.

When I say it is mandatory to seek change, I am not suggesting that it is mandatory by force of law or market incentive or sanction –say, like a carbon tax. Instead, it is an ethical mandate that crosses borders and cultures, gender and socioeconomic status. Survival on the planet lies on the symbiosis that must exist between animals and plants, oceans and skies, as a single and perfectly integrated system that has worked flawlessly for millions of years and has only been disrupted by the footprint of just a few generations of humans roaming the Earth.

This is not too hard to understand. Anyone who studied the water cycle in third grade science knows what I am talking about here. It is far more difficult, I presume, to change course of what we are doing on a daily basis that is causing so much irreparable damage. It is partly due to the fact that it is more complex to comprehend the connection between a beef patty on your burger and the corresponding carbon emissions attached to the transportation of that meat from Uruguay to Singapore, as well as the emissions generated where forest has been transformed into grassland to produce beef meat. In this particular example, when a tree has been chopped down to clear land for agricultural production, the calculation of CO2 emissions is inestimable, since a tree acts as a vacuum of carbon dioxide, and cutting it down reduces the planet’s ability to absorb those emissions permanently.

This is a hard fact and a solid truth in any language, for every religion, in every small village in the world. This is why the ethical mandate is of intercultural characteristics. Whoever cut or burned down those five million hectares of forests in 2011 affects you and me and them alike. We may consider the reasons as to why people do that, whether lack of information or the presence of very strong, monetary incentives. One thing is that a person knows that cutting a tree damages the environment and his own ability to actually grow food to put on his table, and another very different one is understanding that, in order to buy the bottled drink or mobile phone he will need money to do so. This is a microcosm of the trade-off that takes place billions of times every day around the world: doing what is right for the environment by planting a tree or choosing a different product with a lower ecological impact, or going for the immediate hedonistic satisfaction that only money can buy.

The reason why I consider the mandate that is calling is of an ethical nature is precisely because we are reducing the quality of our own lives and increasing exponentially the risk of health and safety for future generations. There is another reason why it is critical that we revise our priorities as human civilization based on ethics and values: because there has never been so much monetary wealth to go around in our history, it is despicable to know that as many as one hundred thousand people die every day from preventable causes, whether lack of proper hygiene, drinking water, malnourishment, diseases that should have been already eradicated, or violent armed conflict.

As it seems, prosperity is not correlated to monetary wealth. Even people that live well off are mistaken if they believe that they are prosperous because they are rich, because, as long as our natural capital is decreasing, we are all worse off. This trend of loss of wealth has been occurring for over two decades now, and as long as we continue to measure our wealth in coins, we will be oblivious to the reality that each and every coin, as well as every single gold bar is backed by a portion of the planet’s limited –and decreasing- natural environment.

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