Sanjiva Wijesinha -writer and physician

Short stories, Travel and Health Information

The Human Footprint

After I wrote in The Sunday Island last week (Sunday 17th June 2012) about the need to protect the biodiversity – the fish, animals and plants – in the lands around the Indian Ocean, I happened to meet an old friend who is now a professor of biology at a leading Australian university. Co-incidentally, his particular field of interest is Conservation Biology – which his students irreverently refer to as the “Con Bio” part of their Biology course.

But in talking with him, I came to realize that Conservation is not such a Con subject – in fact it is a very important subject today because it deals with what is becoming quite a serious problem for our world.

With a world population currently estimated at over seven BILLION people, the idea of conserving the world ‘s resources has much to commend – in fact, it is imperative that we prioritize this. But how do you motivate a poor fisherman in Sri Lanka to reduce his catching of small fish (because the visiting international trawlers have overfished the area and taken away all the big fish) when his family’s livelihood depends on his meagre catch? How can you tell a man who is clearing part of an endangered forest not to engage in chena cultivation because cutting down hundred year old trees is destroying the habitat, leading to extinction of wildlife, soil erosion and carbon pollution?

The term “Ecological Footprint” it would appear was first coined by a Canadian Biologist, William Rees from the University of British Columbia. In 1996, Rees and his former PhD student Mathis Wackernagel wrote a book enttitled Our Ecological Footprint in which they discussed the effect that the infinite demand of human beings for consumption is having on the finite resources of our planet. In their book they suggested ways that scientists could use to measure the biologically productive areas of land and sea that are required to produce the resources that the world’s population is using up, taking into account the earth’s ability to regenerate these resources and absorb the corresponding waste.

Unfortunately, Wackernagel and Rees’ work, while highly significant and accurate from a scientifc point of view, was explained in terms that were easy to understand by scientists – but did not make as much of an impact as they deserved to on the rest of the population. Conservation biologists and ecologists were quite discouraged about their inability to get across to society and the world at large the message that humans, by their 20th century lifestyles, were having a huge and adverse influence on the Earth’s ecosystems. In countries like the United States, which consumes far more of the world’s natural resources per person than most other countries, many people still have the idea that there are these really big wild spaces out there which can sustain the world’s insatiable quest for natural resources.

In October 2002, Eric Sanderson and others published in the journal BioScience a landmark paper The Human Footprint and the Last of the Wild. They began the article by quoting from the Bible. In the book of Genesis, they quoted “God blesses human beings and bids us to take dominion over the fish in the sea, the birds in the air, and every other living thing. We are entreated to be fruitful and multiply, to fill the earth, and subdue it “. The bad news as well as the good news, they said, is that we have almost succeeded!

Sanderson and his co-authors utilized four criteria to measure the influence of humans on the earth: population density, access from roads and waterways, electrical power infrastructure, and land transformation. They went on to explain their findings using easy to understand maps that clearly showed the adverse impact that human beings were having on the earth. Their user friendly maps showed the human impact – our Human Footprint on the Planet – in terms that anyone could comprehend and appreciate.

Whether it is from the Dhammapada (“As bees while foraging among the flowers extract only the nectar, without harming their color and scent, just so, O bhikkhus, should you do“) or from the Mahabharata (“Just as a bumble-bee sucks nectar from flowers delicately without harming the plant and one who milks a cow does not milk it dry but takes care to see that some milk is left for its calf”), conservation of the world’s resources is something that should be part of our value system.

There is certainly much in these old texts – the ancient wisdom of the East – to which we in the 2st century can pay heed.

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This entry was posted on June 24, 2012 by in Uncategorized.
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