Plunging a Hole into the Ship’s Bottom

Read in Japanese.

by Akio Matsumura

The disaster from Hurricane Katrina on August 29, 2005, is still vivid in our memory.

In the city of New Orleans, the storm surge caused more than 50 breaches in drainage canal levees and precipitated the worst engineering disaster in the history of the United States. 80 percent of New Orleans was flooded.

People around the world tuned in to see the wreckage and could not believe their eyes: dead bodies lying in city streets and floating in still-flooded sections. The advanced state of decomposition of many corpses, some of which were left in the water or sun for days before being collected, hindered the coroners’ efforts to identify many of the dead. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, looting, violence, and other criminal activities became serious problems.

During the next five years, people and communities in New Orleans and states along the Gulf coast have made extraordinary efforts to recover their lives and community. Tourists are returning, fishermen are enjoying profitable catches, the economy is recovering, and the Saints won the Super Bowl. New Orleans is back in business.

However, feelings of extreme fear and insecurity returned with the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20, 2010.

The oil spill, originating from a deepwater oil well 5,000 feet (1,500 m) below sea level is discharging an estimated 210,000 US gallons of crude oil daily. The spill is expected to eclipse the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill as the worst US oil disaster in history. Experts fear that it will result in an environmental disaster as the oil from the well site reaches the Gulf coast, damaging the Gulf’s fishing and tourism industries, and the habitat of hundreds of bird species. I am afraid I predict the worst possible outcomes, but I am more afraid that reality is on my side.

Consider why life in New Orleans and the surrounding region was able to recover in a relatively short period of time. The Gulf is an ecosystem teeming with a rich diversity of birds, aquatic life, and people. Such a complex system is also delicately balanced. New Orleans, despite its repeatedly unfortunate history, has been blessed with a wealth of natural resources. But, we have missed the basic vision and wisdom that allowed our ancestors to live cooperatively and sustainably in such an environment. And without this abundance of resources the quick recovery of the city would not be possible.

America has benefited immensely from its natural resources—resources that were not handed down to us by our ancestors at free price. Native Americans have passed on their wisdom from collaborating with nature, the government drew out the borders of the National Parks as public property for the next generations, and John Muir founded the Sierra Club in 1892 to protect the Earth’s wild places and promote the responsible use of its ecosystem and resources. This spirit of environmentalism, even in the face of increasingly more harmful problems, has persevered.

Dr. Thor Heyerdahl, Mrs. Heyerdahl, Maki, and Akio

Six decades ago, Dr. Thor Heyerdahl of Norway led the Kon-Tiki Expedition on a 4,300 mile (8,000 km) journey across the Pacific Ocean in 1947. Later, when he made the Ra Expedition in 1969 he took samples of ocean pollution and presented his findings in a report to Mr. U Thant, UN Secretary General. His discovery of the pollution in the Pacific Ocean brought about the conception of the United Nations Environment Program. At the time, people thought of the Pacific Ocean as always blue and clean, and the Pacific Islands as a permanent paradise. Dr. Heyerdahl helped frame the contemporary environmental movement; I mentioned his work in my article, “Acupuncture Approach to Environmental Global Thinking.”

In the last ten years our knowledge and awareness of environmental issues has immensely improved, but so has the seriousness of environmental harms. Our ancestors left us a network of ecosystems rich in natural resources, and in turn, we are passing to our descendants a world where fish and birds populations are in grave danger. We are not living collaboratively, but instead as predators. As we ignore this need for balance, we are placing future generations in a harder position. But, by being selfish tenants of the planet, we are also making our own lives more difficult. The people of New Orleans know this very well.

We must continue to construct buildings and help industry to thrive in order to develop economies and prosper as a species. But this is only one piece of a larger picture. We must also focus on developing communities, improving the health of our citizens, and promoting responsible use of the natural environment. Our concept of prosperity must expand to include all of these aspects, not just the financial and material wealth that drove us through the industrial revolution. Disasters such as the BP oil spill several weeks ago drive this point home. If we do not work to improve health—of our citizens or our ecosystems—who will enjoy the dollars our efforts bring?

Following the footsteps of John Muir and Thor Heyerdahl, the Earth Day Network, Green Cross International, and all environmental groups should continue to inspire awareness and appreciation for our contract of responsibility with the planet. As we continue to harvest its natural resources, we must be responsible tenants of the Earth and stand alongside its millions of species.

One could imagine that we are on Noah’s Ark with all of Earth’s species, but this time the humans are greedily plunging holes in the bottom of the ship in search of the ocean’s riches.

Akio Matsumura is the former Secretary General of the Parliamentary Earth Summit Conference at Rio de Janeiro, June 1992.

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