Daily Archives: December 15, 2007

TODAY 20071201: I’m a virus Harming the earth

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This commentary (1) may be a wee bit dampening during this season, but perhaps it is precisely because of the rank rampant spirit of giving defining this season that provides the foil to the reality humans seem to not totally grasp yet. Frankly, it IS NO LONGER enough to give gifts that are meaningful and beneficial to others.

It is a bit late to only join that bandwagon. Though we still have our collective foot on the fifth gear, we are STILL telling ourselves we’re ok but that we ought to ease off the pedal, and perhaps roll down the window instead of having the air-con in the car-con full-blast.

Of course, such a statement would not go down well with the creationists/theists. But hey, look around, the evidence is piling up: we, humans, are shaping up to be the SIXTH Great Extinction.

It doesn’t mean we should let it all hang out and continue to party with abandon. It’s not too late (2), even now.

So ask yourself – what’s the best gift you can give your loved ones? Yourself? The Earth?

Just bloody make a start already.

Articles appended for easy reference(1)

This story was printed from TODAYonline

I’m a virus Harming the earth

Weekend • December 1, 2007

Dr Manoj Thulasidas

On one poignantly beautiful autumn day in Syracuse, a group of us physics graduate students were gathered around a frugal kitchen table. We had our brilliant professor, Lee Smolin, talking to us. We held our promising mentors in very high regard. And we had high hopes for Lee.

The topic of conversation on that day was a bit philosophical, with Lee describing to us how the Earth could be considered a living organism. Using insightful arguments, Lee made a compelling case that the Earth, in fact, satisfied all the conditions of being an organism.

Lee, by the way, lived up to our great expectations in later years, publishing highly-acclaimed books and generally leaving a glorious imprint in the world of modern physics.

The point in Lee’s view was not so much whether or not the Earth was literally alive, but that thinking of it as an organism was a viable intellectual model to represent the Earth. Such intellectual acrobatics was not uncommon among us physics students.

In the last few years, Lee has actually taken this mode of thinking much farther in one of his books, picturing the universe in the light of evolution. Again, the argument is not to be taken literally, imagining a bunch of parallel universes vying for survival. The idea is to let the mode of thinking carry us forward and guide our thoughts, and see what conclusions we can draw from the thought exercise.

A similar mode of thinking was introduced in the movie Matrix. In fact, several profound models were introduced in that hit movie. One misanthropic model that the computer agent Smith proposes is that human beings are a virus on our planet.

It is okay for the bad guy in a movie to suggest it, but an entirely different matter for a newspaper columnist to do so. But bear with me as I combine Lee’s notion of the Earth being an organism and Agent Smith’s suggestion of us being a virus on it. Let’s see where it takes us.

The first thing a virus does when it invades an organism is to flourish using the genetic material of the host body. The virus does it with little regard for the well-being of the host. On our part, we humans plunder the raw material from our host planet with such abandon that the similarity is hard to miss.

But the similarity doesn’t end there. What are the typical symptoms of a viral infection on the host? One symptom is a bout of fever. Similarly, due to our activities on our host planet, we are going through a bout of global warming. Eerily similar, in my view.

The viral symptoms could extend to sores and blisters as well. Comparing the cities and other eye sores that we proudly create out of pristine forests and natural landscapes, it is not hard to imagine that we are indeed inflicting fetid atrocities on our host Earth. Can’t we see the city sewers and the polluted air as the stinking, oozing ulcers on its body?

Going one step further, could we also imagine that natural calamities, such as the Asian tsunami, are the planet’s natural immune systems kicking into high gear?

I know that it is supremely cynical to push this comparison to these extreme limits. Looking at the innocent faces of your loved ones, you may feel rightfully angry at this comparison. How dare I call them an evil virus?

Then again, if a virus could think, would it think of its activities as evil?

If that doesn’t assuage your sense of indignation, remember that this virus analogy is a mode of thinking rather than a literal indictment. Such a mode of thinking is only useful if it can yield some conclusions. What are the conclusions from this human-viral comparison?

The end result of a viral infection is always gloomy. Either the host succumbs or the virus gets beaten by the host’s immune systems. If we are the virus, both these eventualities are unpalatable. We don’t want to kill the Earth. And we certainly don’t want to be exterminated by the Earth. But those are the only possible outcomes of our viral-like activity here.

It is unlikely that we will get exterminated; we are far too sophisticated for that. In all likelihood, we will make our planet uninhabitable. We may, by then, have our technological means of migrating to other planetary systems. In other words, if we are lucky, we may be contagious! This is the inescapable conclusion of this intellectual exercise.

There is a less likely scenario — a symbiotic viral existence in a host body. It is the kind of benign lifestyle that Al Gore and others recommend for us. But, taking stock of our activities on the planet, my doomsday view is that it is too late for a peaceful symbiosis. What do you think?

The writer is a scientist from the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, or Cern, who currently works as a senior quantitative developer at Standard Chartered Bank in Singapore.

Copyright MediaCorp Press Ltd. All rights reserved.


This story was printed from TODAYonline

Empowering the poor, saving the planet

Tuesday • December 11, 2007

He’s an environmental thinker and one of the world’s leading experts on sustainable development. Dr Ashok Khosla taught Harvard University’s first undergraduate course on the environment back in the ’60s.

For the last 25 years, he has been chairman of Development Alternatives, a non-profit organisation that develops and promotes environmentally-friendly and commercially viable businesses. These include companies that manufacture low-cost roofing tiles and transform agricultural waste to fuel.

In 2002, he was awarded the United Nations-Sasakawa Environment Prize — the Nobel Prize of the environment world. He spoke to Esther Ng (estherng@mediacorp.com.sg) recently about his passion for the green movement at Indochine’s roundtable talks on corporate social responsibility.

What was it like to champion the green cause way before it became popular?

My professor, Roger Revelle, was the first person in the world to discover the effects of global warming as early as 1958.

But because the study was very early, it was something unfamiliar, and therefore something that people didn’t quite relate to. But what was known was that species were beginning to disappear; DDT (Dichloro-Diphenyl-Trichloroethane) was getting into the bodies of penguins in the South Pole; and pollution from factories was affecting the quality of our air and land.

You’ve been described as “an individual who personifies the hopes and dreams of billions trapped in the indignity of acute deprivation”. Give us an idea of what this “acute deprivation” is?

Living in Singapore, it’s hard to imagine the kind of poverty some 2 or 3 billion people live in. They face hunger, crime and marginalisation. Many people die from malnutrition and disease.

The fact is half the people in the world live on less than $3 a day — it’s very hard to live on that anywhere in the world.

You’re one of the few academics who put what they teach into practice. Tell us what you have done for the rural poor.

I set up Development Alternatives 25 years ago. We’ve developed technologies that have enabled communities to set up small businesses to supply things that everyone needs like roofing tiles, unfired bricks, recycled paper, toilets and energy.

How is your development scheme different from the Grameen Bank?

The Grameen Bank is about giving microcredit of say, $500, for people to set up a cottage industry.

Our work is the next level up from the Grameen Bank. We help small entrepreneurs generate eight to 10 jobs and profit to improve their business.

How do you go about convincing governments and businesses that it is in their interest to implement environmentally sustainable practices?

It’s been pretty hard to create not just the awareness but the intention to make a change in those sectors.

I wouldn’t say every government feels the same way, but I think in the next 10 years this is going be a major commitment of every government.

Part of it is because these issues are more visible simply because things are getting worse — you can’t hardly avoid seeing the problems of managing waste and pollution — and part of it I think is we are beginning to be more demanding about the quality of our lives.

What are the stumbling blocks for sustainable development?

I’d say greed and short-term self interest. Having said that, I believe we can make this world a better place with the help of the media.

What do you think about your former student, this year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner Al Gore’s efforts in raising environmental consciousness on a global scale?

He’s done a terrific job — I think he’s single-handedly gone out and proselytised and preached for a better world.

But I do think that we need other Al Gores to deal with issues of loss of species and the lives of the poor. The biggest problem I think today continues to be the existence of poverty and we do need to address this.

Copyright MediaCorp Press Ltd. All rights reserved.

Additional references

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