...and we are winning. We employ weapons of mass destruction: physical, chemical and biological. We engage in ethnic cleansing and commit genocide. But any final victory will be suicide - for we are destroying our own life-support system." Dr Richard L Munisamy (Co-Founder of We Love Mauritius)
The idea that man is at war with nature is not a new one. This world view is deeply engrained in some of the world's major traditions. However, only since the advent of the industrial revolution has the domination of nature become a possibility.
Between 1949 and 1976 Mao Zedong enjoyed political power, and applied what he called Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong thought to the environment and people of China. One of his most potent slogans was "Man must conquer Nature", and over the length and breadth of the land and to different degrees a kind of conquest took place. But as Fritz Schumacher once wrote, "man talks of a battle with Nature, forgetting that if he won the battle, he would find himself on the losing side". In this case China was certainly the loser.
There are three broad philosophical traditions in China. One springs from Taoism which looks to accommodation with nature, and is best encapsulated in the slogan, "Harmony between the Heavens and Human Kind"; one springs from Buddhism with its reverence for all living creatures; and one springs from Confucianism with its respect for authority, including control and mastery of the natural environment. Although Mao was most influenced by the Soviet experience with its forced industrialization, collectivization of agriculture and overturning of established hierarchies, he falls well within the Confucian tradition and relied upon it crucially for the application of his ideas and policies.
The Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) all place humanity at the apex of God's creation. To a greater or lesser extent they believe that God has given man dominion over nature such that the ecology of the planet is something to be controlled and exploited. This attitude is exemplified by the capitalist free-market economy which has the under-lying belief that the summation of every individual acting his or her own self-interest will result in the highest good for society as a whole. The assumption is that the market is self-correcting and therefore requires no regulation. Time has consistently proved this view wrong, however, even regulated capitalism only places value on privately owned assets and no cost is attributed to the degradation of the ecological systems that we share in common and no value to the services they provide. (For more read this analysis of George W. Bush's Holy War on Nature.)
Our language often describes nature as a force at war with us. So called "natural disasters" are not disasters at all but natural processes that have continued for millions, if not billions, of years. The "disaster" element, which in fact refers to loss of human life and property, is actually man-made by our lack of respect for nature's processes. If we build our communities on coasts vulnerable to cyclones, hurricanes and tsunamis and then remove or degrade natural protections such as wetlands, mangroves and coral reefs, how can we blame nature for the consequences?
Taking the example of Mauritius, when it was first discovered by man, much of the land was covered in lush tropical rain-forest, the reefs and lagoon were a home and nursery for fish, turtles and marine mammals and our coastal waters were teaming with an amazing abundance of life. We are proud to have the dodo as our national symbol, forgetting the tragedy it represents. Mauritius' natural assets have been systematically destroyed in the pursuit of wealth. Long ago the rain-forest was felled to provide valuable ebony and other tropical hard-woods. As a result, much of the top-soil has been washed into the sea and the natural fertility of what remains has been destroyed by a sugar mono-culture that exploited many to enrich a few.
Soil erosion, leaching fertilisers and pesticides, over-fishing and coastal development have decimated the reef system and life within the lagoon is a tiny fraction of what it used to be. Polluting denim factories have been translated from the US to our shores where environmental protection laws are non-existent or rarely enforced. Storm-water that was once buffered by wetlands and mangroves or soaked into the soil and sand now runs off tarmac roads and car parks, concrete buildings and yards, and compacted, over-used beaches, straight into the lagoon. It carries with it all the accumulated surface pollution left by our vehicles, homes and businesses and faecal matter from flooded absorption pits and over-flowing sewerage systems, contaminating our drinking water on the way.
Sadly few of us are learning nature's lessons. We are enticed by dreams of aquaculture, oceanic industries and the holy grail of two million tourist arrivals per year. The socialist rhetoric of increased employment and democratised economic growth hides the truth that only the rich who invest their excess capital are the real beneficiaries. Not forgetting, of course, the politicians, their agents and civil servants who get bribes and kick-backs to sell off our national assets to the most generous palm-greasers. None of this can be sustainable while we ignore the damage we are causing to our ecosystems and the vital services they provide. And what about those left behind who, without hope, dull their misery with alcohol and drugs, purchased by crime and prostitution?
However, not all hope is lost. While having no idea what would be the implications and forgetting that Mauritius is a republic of islands and not just one, our Prime Minister launched the concept of "Maurice Ile Durable", also ignoring the basic rules of French grammar. After months of refusing to explain what MID actually means, he has hired a foreign consultant to ask the population for a definition. The sense of deja vu will pass most by, but hopefully those who are older and wiser will dust off their copy of Vision 2020 (The National Long Term Perspective Study), compiled in 1994, to find an answer. The jury is out on whether our society has matured or regressed in the intervening years.
For evidence that we can turn war into peace, please watch this film: