Flying into Sydney one recent morning, our pilot was directed to join the queue of planes lining up to land. To kill time he flew westwards, over the city's burgeoning outer suburbs. It was a beautiful day, clear as glass; Sydney lay beneath us, freshly-polished, blinking in the sunshine.
As the plane banked, the city's endlessness became apparent, for it stretched in tiny matchbox configurations to the furthest edges of the horizon. As I beheld this sprawling concrete landscape rimmed with green, a realisation struck me sharp as a slap to the face.
We humans are a plague upon this earth. A blight upon the landscape. An infestation of destructive creatures whose numbers have grown so huge we now occupy almost every cranny, whose appetites are so insatiable we have exploited earth's every last reserve. A species so certain of its own sanctity, we have wiped out entire ecologies in pursuit of our own wellbeing.
A few days later, I interviewed the British ethologist, anthropologist, environmentalist and UN Messenger of Peace, Dr Jane Goodall, during her visit to Australia.
Revered for her groundbreaking study of chimpanzees in Tanzania's Gombe Stream (during which she documented tool-making and tool-using among these apes, man's closest genetic relative), Goodall has spent the past three decades travelling the world in an effort to alert its human inhabitants to the alarming news: we are destroying the planet.
But this urgent message, gleaned from her extensive environmental observations, seems to have been lost on those in a position to halt the change (politicians, corporations), for research scientists have just reported that a mass extinction is currently underway, a biological annihilation of wildlife in which billions of regional or local populations have already been lost.
The report pinpoints several contributing factors: habitat destruction, overhunting, pollution, alien species invasion and climate change. But the definitive cause, it says, is human overpopulation and overconsumption (especially by the wealthy) which threatens, most ironically, human civilisation itself.
One of the report's authors, Professor Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University, warns there is only a small window of time in which humans can act to reverse this obliteration of species — and says the shrinkage of the human population is essential for its own survival.
"If we don't buy the product from the businesses that are harming the environment, they'll do it a different way. And if enough people support the politicians who do stand up, then they'll get reelected." — Dr Jane Goodall
'The serious warning ... needs to be heeded because civilisation depends utterly on the plants, animals, and microorganisms of Earth that supply it with essential ecosystem services ranging from crop pollination and protection to supplying food from the sea and maintaining a livable climate,' Ehrlich told The Guardian. The report's most dire prediction is this: 'Humanity will eventually pay a very high price for the decimation of the only assemblage of life that we know of in the universe.'
But are the policy-makers listening? Did they pay any attention at all to Goodall and her ilk for these past decades? 'The problem is, [environmental preservation is] directly in competition with development, and certainly, in many countries, with corruption,' says Goodall. 'So the government is very often pressured by big business — we know that, and it's a corrupt arrangement.'
Real power, she says, lies with ordinary people from developed countries (not the powerless poor) who possess two potent weapons: spending power and the vote. 'If we don't buy the product from the businesses that are harming the environment, they'll do it a different way. And if enough people support the politicians who do stand up, then they'll get reelected. It's us: we have to stand firm, we have to say, "If it means tightening our belt one notch we're prepared to do it". We have to rethink the [idea that] natural resources are not infinite. They're finite.'
At 83, Dr Goodall is a living example of this ascetic philosophy: though she travels frequently for work (a carbon-producing activity), she's been a vegetarian since the late 1960s. It was a lifestyle initially adopted for humane reasons, but which later assumed an environmental purpose. 'To feed all these billions of animals, as people eat more and more meat, they have to grow more grain, and environments are destroyed,' she says. 'Then you've got to use masses of fossil fuel to get the grains to the animals, the animals to the slaughter houses and the meat to the table.'
Add to this methane emissions and the unchecked use of antibiotics in feedlots, and vegetarianism (whose carbon footprint is ultimately smaller than that of an omnivore) starts to makes good environmental sense.
But whether it's forsaking meat or eating less of it, driving fuel-efficient cars or voting for parties that will reduce development (and, consequently, economic growth), few ordinary citizens are willing to relinquish the comforts of consumptive living. Our existence, we're told, is sacred — though surely not so sacred we should be allowed to guiltlessly smother and subsume every other life form around us. And human beings, we're led to believe, are intelligent — yet obviously not bright enough to halt a catastrophic event of which we're the sole cause.
Catherine Marshall is a Sydney-based journalist and travel writer.
Main image: The writer pictured with Dr Jane Goodall and her mascots, Mr H the monkey and Cow the cow, which she uses as a tool when teaching children about methane emissions. Dr Goodall was in Australia to promote Roots and Shoots, a not-for-profit youth organisation which is part of the Jane Goodall Institute and which strives to make the world a better place for people, animals and the environment.
Comments should be short, respectful and on topic. Email is requested for identification purposes only.
12 July 2017
If real power dose indeed reside with ordinary people, the whole mess wouldn't have happened. Perhaps Dr Goodall has spent too much time living with and studying the chimpanzee - time needs to be spent understanding the human being. It is the human being that needs to change in its self-seeking aspirations not only those who choose to exploit those aspirations for their own aspirations for wealth and "power". A return to valueing God and his creation is perhaps what is needed.
13 July 2017
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us sinners.
13 July 2017
Thank you Catherine for a fine article and for bringing Jane Goodall into our midst.
13 July 2017
What an excellent and yet tragic summary of our species in your first few paragraphs Catherine. Indeed we are a plague upon the earth. We are also good and bad and all the other things but despite what we and our political and business leaders say, we are doing all the things you describe so well. Ask us directly if we mean to do this and we would probably say no. But we are, sadly. Thanks again for your very challenging words.
Roy Chen Yee
13 July 2017
The first parents of Genesis, before they sinned, did not eat meat. St Peter was given a dream in which he was told that Christians were not bound by religious restrictions on what to eat although, like Moses and divorce, that might have been a concession. Mass vegetarianism would seem to be an idea both practical and consonant with Christianity.
Andrew (Andy) Alcock
14 July 2017
A great article Catherine. it was good that Dr Jane Goodall came to Australia to bring her message.
I think it is important that we are all reminded that there are limits to the exponential growth that the leaders of large corporations have initiated and continue to expand.
Massive mining operations, the alarming rate of deforestation, the massive pollution from the continued use of fossil fuels, the refusal by the polluting industries to contain their wastes and store them properly and of course, the armaments producers whose products not only kill and maim people but also destroy infrastructure and cause massive pollution of the natural environment.
There is a web of life and human activities are destroying this at an alarming rate.
The will to change the way international society is going is that we must choose leaders who are dedicated to combatting climate change and stopping the pollution and destruction of the environment that we rely on to survive.
In addition, we need to promote leaders who will work for true social justice and human rights and international peace.
Our leaders need to cease supporting the US Military Industrial Complex war machine which is a big part of the problem.
14 July 2017
To seriously quote Paul Ehrlich, who has proved so spectacularly wrong time and again in his doomsday forecasts for nigh on fifty years, is to deprive one's argument of all credibility.