Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Our Small Blue Planet

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Our Small Blue Planet

Article excerpt

Our small blue planet

HARDLY a day goes by without bringing news of an environmental problem of some kind. What with polluted rivers, disappearing animal species, oil spills in Alaska and the destruction of the Amazonian rainforest, something always seems to be going wrong in the sphere of what we often rather inaccurately refer to as ecology. We are overwhelmed by this constant avalanche of threats and disruptions. We are not sure how important the problems really are and sometimes even wonder whether they exist. In many cases the scientists seem uncertain of their ground and, to the delight of sceptics, their opinions diverge.

Many people claim that they are ready to help safeguard the environment but most of them change their tune as soon as there is any possibility that they may have to alter their habits. Whenever there is a problem, people tend to blame the government or industry, the rich or the poor, often their neighbours but never themselves. Media sensationalism diverts attention from the delicate long-term processes that cause the most significant changes in our complex world. Faced with this mass of highly diversified and widespread environmental problems, we feel that they are linked in some way--but how?

Misunderstanding of the underlying causes of the environmental problems that face both industrialized and developing countries leads to a certain intellectual confusion. Piecemeal measures in specific situations are only partially effective and even sometimes make the situation worse, but do not provide a lasting solution.

A far-reaching concept

The concept of the environment is so vast that we are often inclined to narrow it down. It is not confined to air and water pollution and the protection of nature. When we talk about the environment we refer to everything around us--the homes and workplaces where we spend most of our time and the cities in which more than half the world's population now lives. It also englobes the countryside, forests, countries, oceans, deserts and ultimately the planet as a whole which, as we now realize, is being adversely affected by human activity. The environment is thus not only the so-called natural areas, which have themselves often been shaped to some extent by our ancestors, but the man-made locations in which most people live and work.

This physical environment is objective in the sense that it can be observed and measured. Its functioning and development can be analysed by such sciences as chemistry, geology and biology (especially by ecology, the branch of biology which deals with the relations between living creatures and their habitat). We are all part of this objective environment, and we all perceive it in our own necessarily subjective way. What one person regards as an excessive degree of pollution, another may find acceptable. Such perceptions, whether individual or collective, play an important role in determining both individual behaviour and the action taken by public institutions, since they shape our spontaneous reactions to our physical environment and determine the hierarchy of values we attach to its component parts. Hunting wild animals, for example, has been regarded in different ways by different cultures at different times.

Debates about the environment are often difficult for objective reasons since they involve conflicts of material interest. They are complicated still further by the widely different emotional and cultural reactions of those who take part. This is another reason why we should try to find a common cause.

Biosphere and technosphere

It will be a long time before we know whether forms of life exist in distant galaxies. All the life we know today is confined to what is known as the biosphere--the Earth's surface and the thin atmospheric envelope around it. The biosphere includes all the living creatures on land, in the sea and in the lower atmosphere, and all the exchanges and bio-geochemical processes that make life on Earth possible. …

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