Why we are drawn to doing the wrong things right


It’s been awhile since my last blog. I’ve been out in the countryside, Mr Badger’s domain and found myself distracted by a duck. In fact, there are two of them. While observing them I realised something about our wonderful human ingenuity. The ducks have given me a lesson.

Last week I read with fascination about something called the Cassini spacecraft. It left Earth in 1997 and spent seven years travelling 1.3 billion kilometres to the rings of Saturn. Since arriving, we have had eleven years of images and scientific data successfully transmitted back to Earth. The latest gem is from Enceladus, Saturn’s sixth largest moon. At only 500kms in diameter, it is much smaller than the Earth’s moon. Thanks to the skill and technical proficiency of the team behind Cassini we now believe this tiny ice covered, remote planetary flea-speck has a 10 kilometres deep liquid water ocean below the 30 to 40 kilometres thick ice surface at its south pole. And that could harbour some basic form of life.

I must admit I love the whole field of space discovery and my reaction to Enceladus was, WOW! Isn’t it marvellous we can carry out these missions? Perhaps even more encouraging was the news that a working group from seventeen countries had collaborated for fifteen years to get this spacecraft launched. It is a reminder of the tremendous ability we have to collaborate and innovate with new technology to do wonderful things. Surely, I tell myself technology and human innovation will take us to ever greater achievements and solve the sustainability challenge we face.

I want to believe this, yet all the evidence suggests it’s not working this way at present. Western consumer lifestyles are still putting increasing pressure on planet Earth, the one most important to us. Despite all our technology and innovation, the challenges we face seem to be getting bigger, not better. So, why is it we can work with such splendid dedication and creativity to track down potential obscure life forms in very remote inhospitable parts of the solar system, and yet not save Earth’s species which are becoming extinct under our noses at a rate one thousand times greater than normal? Just as I thought hard about the role of technology and innovation, the ducks came to my rescue.

Human ingenuity can indeed inspire wonderful developments in the way we live. However, it isn’t being harnessed to solve the sustainability conundrum yet. In fact, right now it often makes things worse. Look at all the consumer technology improvements that bring hi-definition nature programs to ever bigger TV screens and mobile phones in our homes. We lap it up, but it doesn’t engage us to protect the species with which we share this planet. We read stories all too often like the one about Suci, a critically endangered Sumatran rhinoceros living at Cincinnati Zoo who died last year. Almost with a sense of resignation, we acknowledge the fewer than 200 still living in the wild will soon be gone. We can of course simply switch our concern to the Sumatran Orang-utan or the Western Gorillas, or the long list of others.

The thing about watching nature through the frame of a TV or computer screen is that we don’t experience the real thing. It is two dimensional, an electrical signal, displaying bright colours accompanied by sharp sounds, but without any deep emotional contact with the life of the creatures displayed. It’s not a real nature experience and it doesn’t enable people to enter into a relationship with the lives on show. The ducks reminded me on this point.

For the last four days, I have been irresistibly drawn to duck watching. A pair of small ducks had taken over the dam by our wood cabin a few weeks back. On this visit, I soon became fascinated observing their exploits as they moved purposely back and forth across the weedy surface, always returning to a point they had chosen just ten metres from the bank. Gradually over two days they constructed a small free-floating islet about half a metre in diameter. I started to wonder about the instinctive forces that drive them to do this and the incredible dedication on display as they selected suitable wisps of pondweeds and scraps of particular greenery from the bank. The slightly larger duck would often sit astride the tiny platform, its beak now more a crochet hook interweaving the green threads for strength. Then finally, the work complete, up she hopped squatting carefully, fluffing out her under feathers and lowering herself to sit peacefully. On rare excursions to float around her estate since then, I have seen at least three small dark brown eggs. I have become spellbound by this pair. I’m involved with them in this birthing ritual, awaiting the eggs to burst forth with new life just as the ducks do.

My reaction stems from an emotional connection with another species. It is the sort of reaction that results from spending time and sharing the same space with them. Technology, however exciting just cannot do this. It is the technology we become involved with, not the subject of the pictures. In this respect, technology often distracts us from visceral connection with the life literally waiting outside our door. So, just as I know human ingenuity and new technology is a wondrous thing that can do so much to help sort out our sustainability problems, it won’t happen until we harness it for that purpose. Otherwise, we are likely to continue a way of thinking that sees humans as separate from and able to control nature through an on off switch. Thinking typified by the trivialisation of our planetary home as simply a suite of resources and ‘services’ for us to exploit. And that’s an approach destined to keep us doing the wrong things right, rather than doing the right things.

Probably Mr Badger would be blissfully unaware of such things as he surveys his territory. Anyway, excuse me now, I’ve been away from my ducks for far too long.

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