Perspectives: Has man’s dominion been good for the planet?

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Has man's dominion been good for the planet?

As part of the Perspectives series, BBC Religion and Ethics asked two contributors to BBC One's religious debate programme The Big Questions to develop some of the issues.

Fiona Harvey is the environment correspondent for the Guardian, covering all aspects of the environment from climate change and pollution to overfishing and biodiversity. She has reported from ecological hotspots around the world, including the Arctic and the Amazon.

Richard D North is a writer, broadcaster and commentator. He is a fellow of the Social Affairs Unit and media fellow of the Institute of Economic Affairs, a free market think tank. In the late '80s he was the Independent's (and then the Sunday Times') environment and developing world columnist.

Reparable damage?

Fiona Harvery and Richard D North Fiona Harvey and Richard D North approach the debate from different perspectives

Richard: I do think man has been good for his planet. I don't really think it is our planet, nor that God - whoever or whatever that is - gave us dominion over it. But we are the most powerful, or anyway dominating, species on Earth and I don't at all mind that.

We have added a quite fresh kind of consciousness to the biosphere, and I think its cathedrals, cities, gardens, orchards and farms, as well as the web of trade and airline routes and ideas and stories are an adornment.

We have done damage, for sure. But much of it is reparable, given time and energy, and these will probably be forthcoming. In the cases of climate change and disease, we may have already or may soon unleash what we cannot survive or repair. If this turns out to be the case, which I doubt, the planet will spin on very well without us.

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We were given paradise and we trashed it”

End Quote Fiona Harvey

So I am optimistic that God or nature can be tolerably proud of their human creation, and even of our stewardship of the rest of nature, which we, uniquely amongst species, care about.

Fiona: I think we can agree that we are indeed the most dominating species on earth, and I too don't have a problem with that - in as far as it goes. Where I take issue is that as the most dominant species we have an obligation to look after this planet because it is the only planet we have to live on.

All of our life, all the wonderful adornments of civilisation that you mention, come from this planet. At present, we are depleting the resources of the planet at such a rate that we would need four Earths to sustain ourselves.

We are polluting our air and water, sending beautiful animals to extinction, denuding the oceans of fish, chopping down our forests, and killing each other. This cannot be good in the long term. We were given paradise and we trashed it.

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Richard: My cavil with some conventional "green" arguments is that they can degenerate into man-as-impure, nature-as-pure, or - at its worst - man as a cancer and nature as healer.

You think I under-estimate the damage that man is now doing to the planet. I counter with the argument Julian Simon and others have put: that our present predicament tends to be exaggerated and that, in any case, our human population includes huge amounts of ingenuity, which will find solutions.

Arguably, mankind has already passed his most dangerous phase. Is climate change, for example, the result of old-hat technology and thus very likely to be solved by some much more modern ones, e.g. solar, or some form of nuclear power?

Do animals have rights?

White laboratory mouse

Is there something deeply ungovernable about the demands of a future population of, say 10 billion, humans? With talent and maybe what the West might call material austerity, I can't see any profound ecological problem with a huge human population.

If humankind proves to be a very bad steward of his planet, the failure (I surmise) will be cultural and, more sharply, political.

Fiona: You refer to the number of people living on Earth - at present, seven billion and within a few decades 10 billion.

I'm certain this planet could support 10 billion people, but not in the ways we are currently living and using and distributing our resource - or if we overheat the atmosphere and oceans with greenhouse gases. At least not living in peace and democracy.

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I would be amazed if nature did not flourish gloriously alongside us, perhaps especially if we are reduced to a remnant hanging on by a thread”

End Quote Richard D North

You suggest that the changes needed will somehow happen spontaneously. We can't rely on that sort of spontaneity - we haven't time.

We need structures and incentives to ensure innovations are brought forward which limit climate change - instead of those that worsen it - for instance, fracking, the widespread use of which has been enabled by recent advances in methods of horizontal well drilling, which delivers more fossil fuels to burn at the risk of climate catastrophe.

We should also bear in mind that some of our ecological problems are extremely urgent - rhinos and tigers will be extinct in the wild within a decade at current rates, orang-utans are swiftly following them, and the population of elephants is plummeting, and we are killing tens of millions of sharks each year only for their fins.

How would you avert such destruction?

Beyond left and right

Richard: I long for mankind to come to grips with the natural limits of his planet with as little regulation as possible. I dread totalitarianism or state bossiness, which turns out to be intrusive and wrongly-directed. But I am not a libertarian or an anarchist. I think we are engaged in a race between environmental hazard and good government, whether democratic or not.

Resource-crises pose severe political challenge, but are almost easy compared with those posed by climate change. I do not believe our current generation of human consumers are prepared to much curb their carbon footprint, and so I think climate change is set to unfold unchecked at least until some salutary horror intervenes. We may well be set on hundreds of years of "climate chaos".

That mess may bring out the worst in peoples, but it may bring out the best. Anyway, I am optimistic that we humans will scrape through, remaining the most interesting creature in creation, and I would be amazed if nature did not flourish gloriously alongside us, perhaps especially if we are reduced to a remnant hanging on by a thread.

I don't think we have been "managing" the planet at all. So far we have been talented blunderers, but with some tweaks to our style may well become decent stewards. It would be sad if, in the meantime, we lost glamorous species, and much more wilderness, and I hope we don't, but nature and mankind will probably survive such losses well enough.

Fiona: You call it state bossiness, I call it managing the planet's resources in an equitable way. I'm certainly not suggesting any kind of imperialism or totalitarianism. Quite the opposite - if everyone on the planet had their democratic say, I think we would be much better placed to manage what we have wisely.

You are absolutely right when you say that however much we trash the planet, nature will recover, with or without us, and with or without tigers, rhinos, sharks. But is that something we should simply allow to happen because you have a horror of governments interfering in the economy?

However - and I'm going to be a bit provocative here - I suppose I shouldn't be surprised as you are the author of The Right Wing Guide to Everything. The right wing side of politics has always been much too at ease with the idea that billions of our fellow humans can be allowed to live in filth and misery while a favoured few bask in splendour, because that's supposedly just the way it is.

And if you think like that, why shouldn't billions of people and huge numbers of other species just be wiped off the face of the planet in a post-climate change bloodbath?

Richard: Both left and right have their faults, for sure. I say that your vaunted democracy (which I love, too) has not been able to address the West's climate-habits, and indeed has never been good at taming consumers.

Luckily - as we right-wingers have it - democracies have produced the capitalism which so enriches people that they care about the planet in a way denied those whose noses are all-too-firmly pressed against grindstones of economic survival.

I am a huge believer in very limited, very clever regulation. I accept that this reformism may be swamped by disasters or by revolutions. In the meantime, I think much green thought and campaigning is rather in love with catastrophism and calls for government interference with very little consideration for the political likelihood of its ever happening or - just as important - being effective.

I do think it hardly ever does harm to interrogate reformist campaigns: they may even become more powerful when tested.

Fiona: My point is that we face a unique confluence of environmental factors that are leading us to the point of no return on many fronts. That's not just the extinction of megafauna and other iconic species. And not just the threat of climate change, either. I'm also referring to the dire state of the oceans, where within a few decades most of the fisheries people rely on for food will have collapsed beyond recovery.

I'm talking about the exhaustion of fertile soils by over use, deforestation and erosion, with millions of tonnes of topsoil washed into the sea each year. I'm talking about dead zones in the oceans caused by the run off of agricultural fertiliser. I'm talking about the wholesale destruction of the world's forests. I'm talking about the pollution of our water supplies to the extent that most people now live near a polluted source.

Imagine all of this with 10 bn people. Today, with 7 bn people, more than 1 bn go hungry every night, more than 1 bn have no access to clean water, more than 2.5 bn have no access to decent sanitation.

We have never faced so many existential threats, all occurring at the same time. That we escaped global catastrophe in the past is no guarantee we will do so in the future.

Humanity has coasted for too long, breezily assuming that something will always turn up. But it's easy for the rich world to ignore that we are already a world in crisis, and nearly everything we are doing is only making that crisis worse.

What's going to happen when the poor of the world decide enough is enough?

Perspectives is a forum for invited contributors to write about personal and contemporary issues of faith and ethics. The views expressed here are those of the individual authors, not the BBC.

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