In great need of less greed

Edwin Lau says the planet is suffering because of our throwaway society and we – from government planners to consumers – must change course

Earth Day was launched in 1970, in the United States, as people began to realise that modern economic development coupled with their way of life had brought not just wealth but health hazards and illness.

The movement aimed to make the US government legislate penalties for environmental damage, forcing industry to clean up its pollution and individuals to go green. It also highlighted how the human race had already done a lot of damage to the planet and that action was needed urgently.

Forty-six years on, humans still claim to “manage” the planet, yet we have done more harm to the environment than people of that era. Take atmospheric carbon dioxide. In 1979, it was about 325 parts per million (ppm). But, in line with the gross domestic product of many developed and developing nations, that figure has kept growing, and reached 404 ppm last month, a rise of 24 per cent in less than half a century.

This increase was despite more environmental legislation, more environmental technologies being invented and several multinational agreements to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Climate scientists predict that we have not reached peak atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration. That means more severe weather conditions, putting humans and other species at risk.

Clearly everyone needs to rethink deeply what has gone wrong. Is it our economic development strategies? Our energy policies? Our consumer lifestyle? Most probably all three.

China has become one of the major manufacturing nations, which has made it wealthy. But, in the process, it has become environmentally impoverished. Its citizens endure alarmingly poor air quality, while drinking water is still drawn from rivers polluted by factories and farms.

Yet, built-in obsolescence has become an accepted way for manufacturers to boost turnover. Today’s world generates a lot more waste and pollution than in the old days.

What can be done? A responsible corporate citizen should be putting environmental sustainability as the top priority when making business plans. A responsible government should be ensuring that all policies adhere to the principle of sustainable development. And, as responsible inhabitants of planet earth, shouldn’t we all rethink our purchasing behaviour? What a difference it would make if we all bought only what we really need instead of what we want.

As Mahatma Gandhi said: “Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s needs, but not every man’s greed.”

Edwin Lau Che-feng is executive director of The Green Earth
22 April, 2016 South China Morning Post