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Commentaries, Philosophy, The Edge, Uncategorized

If only the world would remain flat…

By Ooi Kee Beng

For THE EDGE, Malaysia, 24 December 2012


Where do litterbugs come from? By litterbugs, I mean anyone who leaves trash, wastes or pollutants behind for others to dispose of. Actually, I mean everybody.

Let us also ask, in what kind of world would such behaviour not matter?  Well, conceivably, there was a time in human history when our wastes were of no great consequence to the Earth.

This was a time when we had little to throw away; when we humans were not as incredibly numerous as we are now; when our rubbish was infinitely less toxic and not as long-lasting; and, most importantly, when the world was endlessly big in relation to our ability to intrude upon its processes.

In short, this was during a time when we acted as if the world were flat—flat meaning it effectively went on forever—the world had no end and there was no cliff that marked the beginning of nothingness.

This was psychologically the time of the hunter gatherer, when everything he consumed was easily broken down, and because he never stayed in one place for long, Mother Nature could in most cases heal herself from whatever damage he had caused.

He had the luxury of not having to care—and the habit of not caring—about his own effect on his ecology. So even if he was one who would wander back to familiar places seasonally, the forests or plains would have recovered each time.

When we conceptually move on to the agriculturalist, what we then imagine is a person whose original body of knowledge was about predicting the weather and the movements of heavenly bodies and how these affected him. He had to nullify the whims of Nature, and he had to irrigate or drain his fields to suit his crops. He had to think in ecosystemic terms, even though on a geographically limited scale.

And then we have the city dweller, whose understanding of cycles and of nature in his daily life is highly fragmentary. He is the spoiled being who does not have to hunt for his food, or grow his own crop, or catch his own fish, and therefore, does not have to experience the consequences of his daily actions.

In our day, he is the insatiable consumer of everything under the sky, under the seas and under the sands. His numbers and his appetite has made the Earth round and finite.

The world is no longer flat. It is now a globe, and in effect, the rubbish we throw in our backyard ends up in our living room. We have harnessed so much energy—so much power—that we now threaten the very life process of the planet.

As a species, then, Modern Man is in serious trouble. He is in serious need of a mindset change. For now, his habits remain that of a hunter gatherer, which assume the Earth has endless resources and a natural ability to absorb any amount of rubbish, pollutants and damage we throw into it.

Yet, as a species, we have never been as knowledgeable as we are today and we have never been as capable of altering our surroundings as we are today, and yet, we have never been as good at poisoning ourselves and degrading the Earth as we are today.

We prefer not to think that the air we sully as a species is breathed by us as a species, the water we pollute is drunk by us as a species, and the soil we stain is the soil that will grow our food.

As a species, the pressure we put on the Earth’s natural resources and Nature’s ability to recycle is nothing short of suicidal.

The world as our provider and our rubbish dump is no longer flat, and shall never be again. While priding ourselves at our productiveness, innovativeness and creativeness, we continue not to see ourselves as the greatest producers of rubbish—of waste—of all times. Like the hunter gatherer, we acquire, consume, chuck rubbish behind us—be this a banana peal or nuclear waste—and move on to greener pastures.

And greener pastures are becoming very rare.

I suppose the mentality that the highly urbanised world needs to adopt is more that of the traditionaly agriculturalist, who has to think in terms of recyclables. But one extra ingredient is needed though—the global perspective.

We have to become global agriculturalists, concerned with the Earth as a finite place whose cyclical and recycling essence is what sustains us.

We are able today, perhaps for the first time in history, to see that the Earth is a globe, finite in essence. Our needs therefore cannot be infinite, and the wastes we leave behind cannot be infinite. Our development as a species cannot continue to be driven by greed, but by a strong sense of impending doom.



About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.


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