Once we know what’s right, it is impossible to un-know it, to un-think it and carry on as before

I’ve just had this epiphany on how one can absolve mankind of all responsibility towards the planet. It’s easy as one-two-three. Man is destroying nature. But man is part of nature. Therefore whatever man does is an act of nature. Forget the distinction between natural and manmade disasters. Just as nature destroys the environment via floods and earthquakes, man destroys it through plunder and pollution.

I feel so much better now. No need to wrinkle my forehead over shopping hysteria and electrocuted elephants and displaced communities and factories that dump metals into rivers. No guilt or recrimination. If man wants to eliminate other species, let him. If, in the process, he eliminates himself, let him. Since we’ve come this far we might as well go all the way. Let the planet go to hell and we along with it.

I think we need to adopt an attitude of what I call cheerful pessimism. We cannot turn back the clock. We thought our conquest of the planet’s riches would be limitless. Now our karma is catching up with us. Let us await the inevitable with a smile on our lips.

I can hear loud booing from the gallery. You’re a model citizen, are you? You buy local, you prefer organic, you save water, you conserve energy, you take public transport, you recycle your plastic bags and you compost your organic waste. Know what? It’s not enough. You shouldn’t be living in this city. And I shouldn’t be writing this column. Not on a PC, anyway. I should be carving the letters on a rock with a pointy stone. Yes, if I were really serious about minimising my impact on the planet I should be meditating somewhere in the Himalayas, living on air and prayer. Or practising natural (not even organic) farming in a village without electricity, travelling only as far as my feet take me and subsisting entirely on what I grow. Since I cannot do that I should shut my trap and bear the consequences.

The in thing is to talk about global warming and carbon emissions. Let the scientists argue it out. You and I needn’t lose sleep over the Kyoto Protocol. Let the politicians battle it out. We should be more worried about carbon monoxide than dioxide. Man may or may not be responsible for climate change but he sure as hell is the cause of pollution of water, air and soil. You may be right to dismiss the carbon footprint as just another fad but you’ll have to concede that food spiked with pesticides cannot be very good for your health. Someone might prove tomorrow that the earth is getting cooler, not hotter, but nobody’s going to prove that the best way to start the day is to eat a bowlful of nuclear waste. Garbage cannot be wished away; in fact there’s plastic rubbish the size of a small continent floating in the Pacific.

We know, with our amazing gift of hindsight, that the industrial revolution was the beginning of our end. Our notion of progress is intrinsically harmful to the environment. If we’ve bought into this system we cannot hope to change it through our half-hearted measures. For every one of us who conserves, reduces and reuses, there are 50,000 others busy squandering, acquiring, and throwing away. Want to hear a grisly story of how waste and wanton cruelty add up to good economics? Every year, hundreds of thousands of sharks have their fins sliced off and are tossed back into the ocean to die a lingering, painful death. Fins are prized, low-cost flesh takes up too much storage space on the trawler, so it makes economic sense to extract the maximum value from the creature. Think about it the next time you order shark fin soup.

My, my, this pessimism of mine has turned distinctly cheerless, don’t you think? You might expect my next statement to be a gloomy “What’s the point? Let’s go in for some retail therapy.” En-Oh: No. You heard me loud and clear. I can give you a very sound reason for why we should continue to live responsibly. Because it’s the right thing to do. It’s as simple as that.

I don’t have a brilliant clinching argument to dazzle you with. The simplest reason is often the truest and the best. If most people around you started cheating or stealing, would you do so? Those who answer “no” would also be the ones who say, “Just because the majority lives carelessly it doesn’t mean I should follow their example.” I, for one, cannot bear to walk past a dripping tap and not close it, to throw away food that’s edible, to replace what works perfectly, or to buy what I do not need. You wouldn’t either, I am certain. Some of us do not mind being branded as nuts or simpletons or whatever the world wants to call us. Knowledge binds us to action. Once we know what’s right, it is impossible to un-know it, to un-think it and carry on as before.

Let me sound a final note of cheerful pessimism. When mankind is extinct and when the wounds we have inflicted on the earth have healed, what a spectacular sight it would make! Pity we won’t be around to see it.

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