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Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The planet is not at risk. We are.

The planet is not at risk. We are
By Vaclav Havel

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Over the past few years questions have been asked ever more forcefully whether global climate changes occur in natural cycles or not, to what degree we human beings contribute to them, what threats stem from them and what can be done to prevent them.

Scientific studies demonstrate that any changes in temperature and energy cycles on a planetary scale could mean a generalized danger to all people on all continents.

It is also obvious from published research that human activity is a cause of change; we just don't know how big its specific contribution is.

Is it really necessary to know that to the last percentage point, though? By waiting for incontrovertible precision, aren't we simply wasting time when we could be taking measures that are relatively painless compared to those we would have to adopt after further delays?

Maybe we should start considering our sojourn on Earth as a loan. There can be no doubt that for past hundred years at least, the Euro-American world has been running up a debt, and now other parts of the world are following its example.

Nature is now issuing warnings and demanding that we not only stop the debt growing but start to pay it back. There is little point in asking whether we have borrowed too much or what would happen if we postponed the repayments. Anyone with a mortgage or a bank loan can easily imagine the answer.

The effects of possible climate changes are hard to estimate. Our planet has never been in a state of balance from which it could deviate through human or other influence and then, in time, return to its original state.

The climate is not like some kind of pendulum that will return to its original position after a certain period. It has evolved turbulently over billions of years into a gigantic complex of networks, and of networks within networks, where everything is interlinked in diverse ways.

Its structures will never return to precisely the same state they were 50 or 5,000 years ago. They will only change into a new state, which, so long as the change is slight, need not mean any threat to life.

Larger changes, however, could have unforeseeable effects within the global ecosystem. In that case, we would have to ask ourselves whether human life would be possible. Because so much uncertainty still reigns, a great deal of humility and circumspection is called for.

We can't go on endlessly fooling ourselves that nothing is wrong and that we can go on cheerfully pursuing our consumer lifestyles, ignoring the climate threats and postponing a solution. Maybe there is no danger of any major catastrophe in the coming years or decades. Who knows? But that doesn't relieve us of responsibility toward future generations.

I don't agree with those whose reaction to the possible threats is to warn against the restrictions on civil freedoms. Were the forecasts of certain climatologists to be fulfilled, our freedoms would be tantamount to the freedom of someone hanging from a 20th-story parapet.

We live in a world ringed by a single global civilization comprising various areas of civilization. Most of them these days share one thing in common: technocracy. Priority is given to everything that is calculable, quantifiable or ratable. That is a very materialistic concept, however, and one that is drawing us toward an important crossroads for our civilization.

Whenever I reflect on the problems of today's world, whether they concern the economy, society, culture, security, ecology or civilization in general, I always end up confronting the moral question: what action is responsible or acceptable? The moral order, our conscience and human rights - these are the most important issues at the beginning of the third millennium.

We must return again and again to the roots of human existence and consider our prospects in centuries to come. We must analyze everything open-mindedly, soberly, unideologically and unobsessively, and project our knowledge into practical policies.

Maybe it is no longer a matter of simply promoting energy-saving technologies, but chiefly of introducing ecologically clean technologies, of diversifying resources and of not relying on just one invention as a panacea.

I'm also skeptical that a problem as complex as climate change can be solved by any single branch of science. Technological measures and regulations are important, but equally important is support for education, ecological training and ethics - a consciousness of the commonality of all living beings and an emphasis on shared responsibility.

We will either achieve an awareness of our place in the living and life-giving organism of our planet, or we will face the threat that our evolutionary journey may be set back thousands or even millions of years. That is why we must take this issue very seriously and see it as a challenge to behave responsibly and not as a harbinger of the end of the world.

The end of the world has been anticipated many times in the course of history and has never come, of course. And it won't come this time either. We need not fear for our planet. It was here before us and most likely will be here after us. But that doesn't mean that the human race is not at serious risk.

As a result of our endeavors and our irresponsibility our climate system might leave no place for us. If we drag our feet, the scope for decision-making - and hence for our individual freedom - could be considerably reduced.

Vaclav Havel is the former president of Czechoslovakia. Translated from the Czech by Gerald Turner.