What would you pick as the key environmental issue facing us in 2006?
You might choose global warming, loss of biodiversity or species extinction, air and water pollution, the question of consumption patterns.... and tomorrow the list might be longer. Yet my own feeling is that our number one key environmental issue for 2006 is to renew our courage. Saving species, defending the habitats that support those species, protecting the life processes (that support those habitats that support the species), all are important, no question. But science, thinking, knowledge, are not going to be enough: to translate the terrible knowledge we have about the world, to face the enormity of what needs to be done, that's going to take a renewal of our courage.
There's a lot out there to dampen our enthusiasm. For example, a recent study of American television networks by media analyst Andrew Tyndall revealed that environmental coverage - not counting natural disasters and weather - dropped to nearly record low levels last year on the national broadcast networks' weekday nightly newscasts. In the whole year, the American people got just 168 minutes' news tilted in the environment's direction.
Forget Kyoto, forget the desertification of Africa, forget DDT levels in Mexican workers, forget as much as you can, amnesia and anaesthesia seems to be the overall message of the three major outlets in that country.
Take courage: it's hard to get the good news stories, but they're out there. We might have been told many times there has to be a nuclear power debate, but how much have we heard of the Sliver solar cells invented by the Centre for Sustainable Energy Systems at the Australian National University? Sliver technology uses a revolutionary process to achieve high efficiencies, while reducing the amount of expensive silicon needed in solar cells, cutting photovoltaic costs by three quarters. That means Sliver solar modules can be lightweight, flexible, transparent, and substantially improve the cost competitiveness of photovoltaics compared to electricity derived from fossil fuels. Wow! Any surprise that Sliver Technology won the Global 100 Eco Tech Award in 2005? Renewable energy is taking giant strides. How does it feel to be a world leader in solar technology? We can take courage from such news. But when the news isn't offered to us, our courage has to make up the difference.
A brave heart knows how difficult the odds are, but makes the effort anyway. Like Reepicheep in Voyage of the Dawn Treader and the brave hobbits of Lord of the Rings, the task always seems impossible, because it probably is. That never stopped a brave hobbit! What inspires is the dignity and daring of believing in the quest. We are not alone in facing the fear: we are joined by others who fear, too, but reach outwards to care. This act is courageous. The open heart builds links between us as humans to those beyond: the species, habitats and life processes we seek to maintain. Courage links us with future generations. They will remember us. They will see that even in these dark times, people took a stand, in small and big ways, to value life on Earth.
The first astronauts and cosmonauts looked down on us and saw we had no borders, no flags that can be seen from orbit. The world, it turns out, is one, a united blue and green planet of life. Unfortunately, as the astronauts and cosmonauts returned into space over ensuing decades, they looked down on a life system that was turning brown and murky in too many places. Great seas, like the Aral Sea, were drying up. Deserts were spreading. Pollution blooms stained their way round ocean currents. Human harm was making too much difference. Despite being members of their nation's military, many astronauts could see, as they glanced from their capsule's tiny windows, that the problems crossed boundaries and we needed a new way of looking at the world, that the Cold War mentality had little bearing on the larger questions. Perhaps the old way of looking at the world first began to wither with the first Earthrise, photographed from the Moon.
Many environmentalists are tied up doing work on our behalf, writing submissions, producing press releases, initiating meetings, sending off letters. They ask us to join them, in the small and big ways. We have much to thank them for. Poet Judith Wright helped us keep the Great Barrier Reef safe from oil exploration; photographer Peter Dombrovski gave us the Franklin River and South West; but tens of thousands of people have worked anonymously to keep their local wetlands intact, their nearby beach pristine, their rivers purer, their farms replanted, the remnant bush weed-free, the oceans safe for future shoals of fish, Jabiluka safe from uranium mining, helped achieve the World Court ruling that the use of nuclear weapons in most exchanges would be genocide and a crime against humanity, have helped the international ban on landmines to reclaim the Earth for children.
Sometimes these activists travel to Rio or Jo'burg or Kyoto, so civil society sentiments can be heard. They give up their spare time and make a giant effort because they love it; it comes from the heart; they can do no other. Such brave hearts often pay a price, though. When the rare orchids are dug out of the ground to put up a parking lot on the new Perth-Mandurah railway line; when the people of Toowoomba vote against recycling water; when yellowcake starts shipping out of Australia; when sheep are stranded on the open seas for an extra fortnight off the Persian Gulf; the ones with their hearts open might grieve more than most, because their hearts are so open. David Suzuki wept with his wife when they learned about the damage to the ozone layer. They and others refuse to be numb to the truth of this pain. But their willingness to face the pain is, to use an old fashioned word, purifying. They are facing the truth, and it sets them free. The courage in them is renewed. There is dignity in acting for life on our planet.
So many of us, at different times of life and circumstance, have held back from what would have given us life. Our fears bark that the rush of oxygen might hurt our lungs too much, hit too hard, be too unkind for us to bear, make our life too uncomfortable. The fear is usually much worse than the reality. The break is cleansing, rather than fatal. Winter storms and rains bring carpets of colour in springtime. The best hobbits and story mice prepare for the worst, but prepare with courage and warmth. For real life humans, the quest for a renewed Earth is one of the most thrilling possibilities. It can be done, in ways that will be spoken of for centuries to come. All it will take is courage.
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