Monday, 14 January 2013

Lonesome George

The one piece of news that rather affected me this past week is the death of Lonesome George, a 100 year-old giant tortoise at the Galapagos National Park in Ecuador, and believed to be the last of its subspecies.  Apparently as far as giant tortoises go, 100 is a fairly young age, as Lonesome George’s kind could live up to 200 years.  Lonesome George was the last one of his kind, and the Chelonoidis nigra abingdoni is now officially extinct.

Moreover, Lonesome George led a rather lonely life too.  Hence the name.  Since 1972 he was part of the Park’s breeding programme, but he never did succeed in producing any offspring or showed interest in mating with the female tortoises that he shared his corral with.  And his sad existence became a symbol not just for the Galapagos, but for human’s struggle to preserve the richness and diversity of the planet.

Lonesome George’s disappearance also reminds us of the other wildlife species that are endangered:  the tigers, elephants, rhinos, pandas and many others, whose lives are threatened because we humans are calling the shots on who or what gets to live on this planet and our activities are pushing our more vulnerable fellow creatures over the edge of existence.

It makes me wonder about how we humans actually value Nature and all the species within it in.  I fear we don’t.  Because we can only value things economically. 

This can be seen in the result of the Rio+20 summit that fails to come up with a global action to respond to the eco-perils that the earth is facing.  It seems that a multinational gathering is not the best way to come up with planetary solutions that all nation-states can agree on.  Because the issues are discussed from the perspective of human, not planetary, needs.

Meanwhile, the inequality in the economic conditions of the over seven billion people living on the planet means that any global discussion on creating a sustainable future for our world is bound to be stuck, with each country only concerned in putting forward its own vested interests.  For developing countries, sustainable development can sound a lot like anti-development, and green initiatives to protect the environment and preserve biodiversity can be taken as a ploy to keep the poor forever in poverty.

Personally, our inability to agree on how to value Nature and all the other living things on the planet, is because of how we view ourselves and our role.  As the dominant species, we always put ourselves at the centre of every action we take and legitimize it as the special right we have as the smartest creature around.  Elephants are poisoned because they attack the village, whereas it is humans that are encroaching on their territory.  Orang Utans are killed because it’s cheaper to have them dead than having to care for them when their forests are chopped down for plantations.

Moreover, we still need to emit CO2 and use a lot of energy because everyone on the planet has a right to want to catch up on having their cars, TV sets, nice houses and their wealth of material possessions.  Any attempt at slowing this down is seen as unfair and unjust to a lot of human beings still living below the poverty line.  Our purpose as humans is to be economically well-off, even if it means doing without clean air and other species.

By defining ourselves in economic terms however, not only are we taking ourselves out of the Nature equation, but we’re systematically impoverishing the entire planet of its wealth.  A species that believes a motorbike is worth more than an Orang Utan is one that has evolved out of synch with the environment that it lives in.

In a recent discussion amongst friends, I argued that I would rather sponsor an endangered animal to make sure that it’s welfare is taken care of, than a human child, for the simple reason that it is our privilege as the thinking and dominant species to be the guardian of this planet.  And because once extinct, like the Dodo, we can never have the animal back.  Whereas in terms of number, there are seven billions of us and counting.  Humans will not only proliferate, but have the capacity to destroy the planet and themselves in it.  

On the cosmic level however, regardless of our dreams and beliefs, humans are merely current winners in this particular evolutionary race.  It was not like that when dinosaurs walked the earth and there’s no guarantee that we will last forever either.

In Ridley Scott’s latest sci-fi film Prometheus, it turns out that the ‘gods’ that created human beings also had plans to destroy our entire planet.  It is a mystery why our creators went to all that trouble of populating the Earth with humans only to wish to destroy us. 

A possible answer lies in the fact that perhaps we’re not worthy guardians who can be trusted to look after the planet after all.

(Desi Anwar:  First Published in The Jakarta Globe)

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