21 July, 2024


On Protecting Mother Earth

By Vagisha I. Gunasekara

Dr. Vagisha Gunasekara

We live in a time of severe ecological and economic challenges.  In 2012 the world crossed a dangerous limit.  A reading of 400 parts per million (ppm) of atmospheric carbon dioxide was recorded by monitoring stations across the Arctic. This figure is at least 50ppm higher than the maximum concentration during the last 12,000 years, a threshold that granted us the privilege to develop agriculture and civilization. We have already begun to experience a substantially more chaotic climate that demonstrates this altered architecture of our atmosphere.

Extreme heat, dustbowl drought, stunted crops, climate change, and massive wildfires have resulted in major food crop losses in Russia in 2010, and the U.S. in 2012.  In many countries in the West, increased costs for animal feed mean higher prices for milk, meat and processed foods based on corn and soy.  Price rises on the international grain market will have a major negative impact on poor countries in Africa, Asia, and South America, where many people spend most of their personal income on food.  Rocketing bread prices, food and water shortages have all plagued parts of the Middle East and analysts at the Center for American Progress in Washington say a combination of food shortages and other environmental factors exacerbated the already tense politics in the region.  Recent studies in Sri Lanka indicate that predicted changes in rainfall, temperature, and the soil moisture deficit, will demand additional irrigation water to compensate for the crop water requirement now and in the coming years. Therefore the climate change effects on maha and yala seasonal rains will cause serious problem for agricultural activities, such as paddy and other field crop cultivations in the north, north central and eastern regions (Prof Shanthi De Silva 2012, Open University of Sri Lanka).  4 million Sri Lankans are already malnourished and the World Food Programme (2012) cautions anything up to 200 million more food-insecure people by 2050.  Just as much we accept these hard facts about the creeping disaster of climate change, we must also recognize that environmental chaos represents an imminent threat to a multitude of human rights:  the right to food, to water and sanitation, to social and economic development.  This is only a sliver of evidence that tells us to ‘care’ about the environment, if not for its own sake, but for humanity’s sake (a`la Nalaka Gunawardena).

Climate Injustice

The raison d’être of our consumer society – acquisition – is supported by polluting energy sources and guided by a pseudo-scientific principle of limitless growth.  Bewitched by these ideas that run contrary to basic laws of biology, we imagine our society as above and beyond the rest of the living world.  The truth, as former senior economist at the World Bank, Professor Herman Daly states, is different: “the larger system is the biosphere and the subsystem is the economy. The economy is geared for growth, whereas the parent system doesn’t grow. It remains the same size. So as the economy grows, it encroaches upon the biosphere, and this is its fundamental cost.”  Whose wellbeing are we compromising in the name of incessant acquisition?”

In Moral Ground (Moore & Nelson 2011), South African Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu argues, that it is unjust that people in Africa — who don’t reap the “benefits” of the reckless burning of fossil fuel — are suffering from droughts and crop shortages as a result of the West’s consumption of oil.  Although some perceive climate change as people of one culture (the developed world) destroying the material basis of another (Sheila Watt-Cloutier 2011), the issue cannot be confined to the Global South.  The formation of the Earth’s atmosphere affects rich and poor countries alike; and global warming, influenced by agriculture and civilization should get everybody’s attention.

Moreover, we need to realize that ‘our children are our future’ is not merely a feel-good phrase, and that we have shared responsibility to not to compromise “the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (Brundtland Report 1987).  As such, we have horizontal (to others that live among us) and vertical (to our descendents) responsibility to protect the environment.  Although we know all this, why are we sleepwalking into such an unprecedented betrayal of intergenerational justice?  In order to find answers, we must examine our basic way of making sense of who we are, what the world is, and our role in it.

Constructed Delusions

This is the Age of Reason, in which we have managed to bring ourselves to the verge of destruction by acting under the delusion that humans are separate from the Earth, and that we, are in control of it. The idea that ‘we are the masters of the universe’ stems from the belief that humans are the only beings of spirit and our adroitness grants us to rule over other ‘less important’ forms of life.  Our hubris about human exceptionalism has even made us coin terms such as “individualism”, that lead us to believe that we are exceptional rights holders, separate from one another and always in conflict or competition with each other.  Another one of our sophisticated terms – “dualism” confirms that on one side are humans with spirit and value, and on the other side is the insentient physical world that was created for the purpose of serving our needs.  In the process of constructing and strengthening these delusions, we have led ourselves to believe in our ability to exceed natural limits.

Since the late 19th Century, Darwin’s findings about the biology of the evolutionary process have been misappropriated to define the industrial society.  With phrases such as “survival of the fittest” (coined by the Victorian Social Darwinist Herbert Spencer), we see society as a jungle, where one must crawl over the other to survive and succeed.  In other words, I can pursue my own welfare even at the expense of your (or everyone’s) well-being.  If we take a close look at what motivates multi-national corporations or nation-states, we observe a scaled-up manifestation of the same worldview that prioritizes success, growth, and exploitation of others.

Most of us rally behind Adam Smith’s idea of the “invisible hand” of the market in our efforts to justify capitalism.  This notion implies that if everyone works towards individual welfare, it will work for the benefit of the whole.  There is an undeniable element of truth to this inference, as markets are profoundly efficient ways of distributing and re-distributing resources.  Yet, when left completely unrestrained, they often end up being unfair.  Markets need to be tamed within a political structure that minimizes the exploitative tendencies that arise.  Though we are quick to spout Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” in protesting the oppressive control of the economy by the government, we are oblivious to the real motivations of the world’s top 200 oil, coal, and gas companies (with a net worth of about $7.4 trillion), Wall Street, or the politicians they have bought.  The driving principle behind these entities is Social Darwinism: using your position to get everything you can.

Similarly, the likelihood of the world’s leading emitters of carbon such as the United States or the emerging economies of China and India cutting back the main source of emissions is extremely low.  China’s emissions now make up over 24% of total global emissions (UN Statistics Division, MDG Indicators 2012).  The United States of America, the former world heavyweight champion of carbon pollution, is still generating 18% of the total followed by the European Union contributing 14%. India’s emissions have jumped 9.4% to over two billion tons, placing it fourth in this game of existential “hawk-dove.”  None of these leading emitters has agreed to sign an international treaty that would obligate them to cut emissions.  The excuse presented by the Global South is the difficulty of squaring the historic carbon debt of the overdeveloped world with the need for developing countries to accept universal emissions reductions now.

The hallmarks of our globalized society – greed, consumerism, and separation from nature, combined with the supine disposition of “democratic” governments are successfully fueling a mutually beneficial relationship that will eventually take us towards extinction.  Their shared worldview thrives on limitless economic growth no matter what the long-term consequences may be.

Looking Inwards – A Starting Point

Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh believes that fundamental change can happen only if we fall back in love with our planet. When we recognize the virtues, talent and beauty of Mother Earth, he says, love is born in us. When we reconnect with it, we naturally want to do anything we can for the benefit of the Earth, and the Earth will do anything for our wellbeing.  We need to start by revisiting ecological and evolutionary science that tell us that humans are part of interconnected, interdependent systems; that the thriving of the individual parts is necessary for the thriving of the whole; and that we are created, defined, and sustained by our relationships, both with each other and with the natural world. If we come to understand that deeply, we can invent new models of human goodness.  As such, what is needed is an evolution of our current worldview that starts at the individual level and transmutes into the structures of society.  In the article that follows this, we will look at how this awakening can occur at the individual and societal levels.  What we need is a new ethic, derived by a community of diverse “mindful” people that can reimagine our place in the world.

*Vagisha Gunasekara is a Senior Research Professional at the Centre for Poverty Analysis (CEPA), Sri Lanka.  Vagisha received her PhD in political science from Purdue University, USA.  Her research straddles issues at the intersection of post-war reconstruction, gender, feminism and international relations.  (CEPA) is an independent, Sri Lankan think-tank promoting a better understanding of poverty related development issues. 

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Latest comments

  • 0

    Very good letter Mrs.Vagisha Gunasekara

    • 0

      Dear Vaniga

      Thank you for writing something besides BBS and the Various Myths.

      “We live in a time of severe ecological and economic challenges. In 2012 the world crossed a dangerous limit. A reading of 400 parts per million (ppm) of atmospheric carbon dioxide was recorded by monitoring stations across the Arctic.”

      “In the article that follows this, we will look at how this awakening can occur at the individual and societal levels. What we need is a new ethic, derived by a community of diverse “mindful” people that can reimagine our place in the world.”

      Or they can face human extinction = Nirvana=Nibbana, the goal of Buddhism for humanity.

      What is wrong with that? Humans evolved only during the past million years and the major religions over the past 4,000 years. The Earth is over billion years old.

  • 0

    Dear Dr. Gunasekara,

    Thank you for a well laid out thesis and I eagerly await the next chapter.

    It is interesting that you identify the ‘Age of Reason’ as contributing to the current state we are in. While we all understand the benefits of reason what is less understood is that without an accompanying ethical and moral framework reason can go haywire as ably demonstrated with the consumption driven economic paradigm that we are saddled with. What is reasonable to one can be a death certificate to another as shown by the inability of the major emitters to agree to binding GHG emission reductions.

    In this context, trying to ‘adapt’ to climate change without changing the underlying drivers is like sinking to the bottom of the ocean while hoping to grow gills along the way. But what other choices do we have? Can we conceive of a mass transformation towards a zero GHG emission production system within the available time horizon prior to catastrophic ecosystem collapse? The meager hope that we had that Obama would tackle this problem with the necessary urgency is now shattered. I guess it is up to us to try and figure out a way.


    • 0


      You should have listened to my elders.

      They have a wealth of knowledge about environment and consumption and are willing to share them with you lot. It is not too late, even at this eleventh hour they can give you sound advice on how to renounce worldly possessions and reverse unlimited consumption.

      By the way have you thought about greed?

  • 0

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    • 0

      Furzana has been converted overnight to Japanese?
      Miracle of asia?
      Fuckshima, change your name and write again CT might consider your comment this time around. try again and make us laugh please.

    • 0

      Hi Fat “Mama”

      Now you have turned into a Cross Breed. Half Muslim Half Japanese. You sound like a rare remnant( A small remaining quantity of something)from the Nuclear fall out in Fukushima.

      Hopefully next time when you pop your head you will half be Half Muslim (Fat Mama) and Half Pig.
      There is a saying:
      What will happen if the pigs start flying? The answer is beacon will go up. You are probably too primitive and ignorant to understand this. Enjoy what is left in your life.

  • 0

    – This is the Age of Reason,-

    You say before this people were not reasonable and were emotional or were dumb ?

    Weliweiriya should not have happened if the govt or the people were caring about their atmosphere.

    If you haven’t read, there is a complete section in buddhism which is called ENVIRONMENTAL BUDDHISM which says any changes should begin within our internal environment (mind). Those changes affect our outer environment and every body living in it.

    • 0

      For the first time I’ve seen something half sensible come out of you! Well done Softy… seems like we’re getting there.

      • 0

        This implies that Jim has been taking his prescribed medications! Good boy.

    • 0

      “You say before this people were not reasonable and were emotional or were dumb ?”

      Some people still are.

  • 0

    Worth to read, understand and Practice.

  • 0

    Thanks for the good article Dr. V. Gunasekara.

  • 0

    Excellent piece Ma’am. One of the issues is very well outlined by an air crash investigator: “You cannot get people to make change unless you make them feel a liability”. Looking at some of the “makka” comments to your article that ties everything to some entity known as a “regime” I don’t think that people are ready to understand that they need to change as individuals not sit around lamely complaining that every ill that visits them and the planet is due to some external dependency.

    You might be interested in the following two pieces in CT:




  • 0

    Perhaps we should all join Greenpeace and protest fracking.

  • 0


    Too difficult to read your piece. My eyes keep drifting towards your cute picture.

    With regards the environmental degradation – well all what you say is true.

    However nothing is going to change the path that humans have paved for itself. The economy as we have embraced it is in direct collusion with environmental destruction. Economic growth is the yardstick by which excellence is measured, individually as well as nationally. The environment will not stand a chance in hell in weathering the devastating urgent thrust of economic growth.

    The only solace for people like you and me is in philosophical musings that all things must come to an end. We know many species on earth have come and gone. The dinosaurs are no more along with so many millions of lesser known species. If the humans become extinct – so what. One day the sun will deplete itself of hydrogen and become a failed star. All life in this planet is destined to end anyway. If human extinction should come early, so be it.

  • 0

    We learned Darwin’s theory at school and about Carbon Emissions much later.
    In sri lanka our politicians do not care for both.
    Talking about markets,sri lanka is the only country which purchases a vital commodity – petroleum – at world market prices,sells it to a ‘captive market’ – the vehicle owners – at many times the cost,yet incurs a loss!!
    Am intrigued that ‘poverty’ is being analysed – would like to know the results.
    What for instance,is the Poverty Line in sri lanka?
    In the fifties Rs.50 per month was the Charitable Allowance doled out by kachcheris.
    Later,a Disability Allowance of Rs 300 monthly for a disabled breadwinner,and Rs 50 each for the spouse and each child below 18 yrs.of age was doled out.
    These kept total starvation at bay.
    Now,most who deserve Samurdhi do not get it,and most of those who get it do not deserve it.
    Samurdhi Niyamakas are political activists – for which party,is well known.
    Hence the millions of women slaves fleeing to the middle east.
    What we are doing to Mother Earth at Weliwerya and elsewhere is slow murder.
    But political gain transcends environmental disasters in the making, in sri lanka.

  • 0

    Wonderful, thoughtful, revealing write up!

  • 0

    Dr Gunasekara,

    It is a timely intervention to thrust something in to the argument which in Sri Lanka revolves around the pollution of Morality, Civilised Standard and behaviour, break down in Law and Order, greed for personal gains and lust for power.

    I am fascinated by your following finding

    Just as much we accept these hard facts about the creeping disaster of climate change, we must also recognize that environmental chaos represents an imminent threat to a multitude of human rights: the right to food, to water and sanitation, to social and economic development. This is only a sliver of evidence that tells us to ‘care’ about the environment, if not for its own sake, but for humanity’s sake (a`la Nalaka Gunawardena).

    I agree with you when you say environmental chaos represents an imminent threat to a multitude of human rights:
    such as the right to food, to water and sanitation, to social and economic development.
    But in a Sri Lankan context as an extension of Social and Economic Development you should have also included RIGHT to LIFE and I am sure as a Tamil you know where my argument is heading. A reading well in excess of 400 parts per million (ppm)( lethal threshold ) of atmospheric carbon dioxide was recorded in Mulliwaikal years ago.

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