Everything has a limit except perhaps the universe. As far as we are concerned, the sun will burn out in 5 billion years. We don’t know how long the earth will last, but it will die much sooner if we don’t treat Mother Nature with respect. The age-old idea that the environment is limitless for us to exploit is breaking down. The reality is increasingly evidenced by heavy industrial pollution, worsening climate and the extinction and endangerment of many species.
The word limit is scary because it may impact negatively on the global economy and our way of life. Many people try to ignore or even deny its existence. Their selfish reasoning is easily understood. After all, a person seldom lives for more than 100 years. Why worry about the environment when you can exploit and enjoy the fullest during your own lifetime? However, the environment is not about this generation. It’s about the next and beyond, especially when you have children and grandchildren. Therefore, it becomes a responsibility issue more than economic. Can we deal with both these issues at the same time? Yes, and we must do it with creativity and flexibility. The key is to conduct our economic activities in a responsible and smart manner.
Why do we have a worsening environment? It all boils down to a worsening imbalance on a broad front. What cause this imbalance? It’s partly population but mostly irresponsible industrial development and wasteful consumption. Many people still cannot accept the fact that climate change results from human activities despite the obvious evidence. First, the climate worsens much faster during the last few decades corresponding to a period of dramatic global industrialization and consumption that generate tremendous amounts of pollution and wastes. Second, the industrialized countries are the biggest generators of pollution and wastes, despite accounting for less than one fifth of the world’s population. Third, the agrarian countries with large populations who pollute less are catching up. Their consumption creates even greater pressure on the environment. Now, China has replaced the United States as the top polluter. India will follow not much later. So rapid industrialization, combined with greater human consumption, is the culprit pushing against the environmental limits.
Does that mean we have to curb industrialization and human consumption? Not really, so do not fear and keep your mind open. There exist far more opportunities than risks. What we are experiencing is uneven and unbalanced human technological progress. We need to switch emphasis to cleaner industrialization and smarter human consumption, which can be achieved if we are willing to break down all existing barriers that include the outdated attitudes and economic practices. This means adopting new technologies having gentle environmental impacts that involve less pollution, less wastes, more recycle and more reuse of used materials. In short, we must try to achieve a smarter and more responsible world economy. This switch of emphasis may initially incur higher cost and inconvenience. It will pay off handsomely because it is a good investment for the future by adopting new clean technologies consistent with human progress.
Mother Nature accommodates human economic activities to an incredible extent. She has sustained human development for millions of years. Imagine how much fresh water we have taken from the ground through all these years, how much fossil fuels and metals we have extracted, how many forests we have cut down, and how many tons of fish we have taken out from the seas and rivers. The problem is that we have taken too much too fast during the last century. Most resources underground cannot be replenished. Those above ground must take time to regenerate. If we consume too much too fast, we are in fact killing the goose that lays the golden eggs. Worse, when we burn the fossil fuels extracted from the ground, we release huge quantities of buried carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere causing a global warming effect. Now, Mother Nature is coming back with a vengeance in the form of extreme weather conditions detrimental to agricultural production and causing economic havoc.
What about population growth? Many people seem to have overestimated its negative effect. As we have seen, irresponsible industrialization and wasteful consumption are vicious circles that must be broken. Population growth is not because industrialization will limit its increase. The following is major evidence: The countries having slow or negative population growth are the industrialized ones such as Japan, Italy and many others in Europe because raising a child is expensive in the cities. The list now includes China due to fast urbanization besides the long-established one-child policy. On the contrary, the agrarian countries tend to have higher population growth because they need more hands to work in the field. However, as they industrialize, their high birth rates will slow down or turn negative.
Hence there is a way to protect the environment and enhance the economy simultaneously if we are willing to accept the new realities and make adjustments. For those with selfish thoughts about bigger profits, they should open their minds to the new opportunities that clean technologies can bring. The 21st century is the beginning of the environmental challenge that we have to face. It is a global challenge of existential proportion that is unprecedented. More than anything else, the environmental challenge will bring the whole world together because it requires a truly global effort.