We are spending the principal called Earth

We are spending the principal called Earth

Every year around this time, the following sentiment — eloquently expressed by Irish author Dervla Murphy — comes to mind:

“The multiple threats to the Earth are so complex that in most cases they seem beyond the reach of an average citizen’s influence. Yet we can all launch a personal campaign to reduce consumption — though perhaps only after a change of mind-set, to overcome the fear of seeming poor, parsimonious or eccentric. This does not mean being deprived or uncomfortable. It simply means stopping to think, before each purchase, ‘Do I really need this?’ For years a small minority has been living and thinking thus. If a large majority did likewise — if frugality and shabbiness could become trendy — then the Earth, though not saved, would be measurably less endangered.” — Dervla Murphy, Irish author

I’ve long felt this would make a great alternative Christmas card, especially for someone who wanted to share their reasons for opting out of the practice of gift-giving. I no longer buy gifts or send cards, but sometimes, if I do receive a gift, I share this quotation as a means for explaining why I feel the way that I do.

One of the things I don’t like about holidays is that they take us out of just appreciating the moment that we’re in and being satisfied with what we already have. Personally, I try my best to live by the following credo: If I did without it yesterday, I can do without it today.

One of the most frightening things about our predicament is the fact that one of the best things we can do for the planet, would be to simply stop buying stuff (and this time of the year really brings home the point that so much of what we buy we can so easily do without), and yet, if we did just that, the consequences would be catastrophic (soaring unemployment, bankruptcies, homelessness, hunger … there would be a full-scale global economic collapse). As I point out on this website, that is truly one of the biggest quandaries humanity must grapple with: how best to resolve that diametrically opposed conflict (and quickly!); because that is definitely the road we must take, whether or not we can all agree on the best way to proceed.

Back in 1999, I remember reading a sentiment expressed by William Eichbaum, a vice president at the World Wildlife Federation in Washington. This is what he said: “We have to learn to live off the interest of the Earth, not the principal.” Don’t you just love it when something so deep can be expressed so simply and so succinctly. Those are words we must learn to live by. I can think of myriads of examples to illustrate how we have been living off the principal, and not the interest. I’ll give a few examples below.

In the September 28, 2014 edition of The New York Times, in a question and answer column in the Travel section (“In Transit” / “Travel News, Deals and Tips”) Emily Brennan asks Hilary Bradt some questions (“Hilary Bradt on the changes in Madagascar”). Bradt, a “British guidebook publisher and tour operator” with extensive experience traveling to Madagascar throughout the years, describes the changes she has personally witnessed since her first trip there in 1976. Here is her response to the question “What has changed in the years since?”:

“A lot. Deforestation gets a lot of publicity, quite rightly. I remember taking a train from the capital to the coast and almost being able to pick the flowers from the window — the rain forest was towering over the railway. Now, it’s almost all cleared, almost all savanna …”

Incidentally, I occasionally read (as is the case here) opinions expressed that speak laudably about the positive effect tourism is having in some areas throughout the world, but I am nevertheless not an advocate for such tourism and am of the opinion that while the monetary support is good, biologists, investigative journalists and private investigators can best determine whether the funding is having its intended effect.

Here is another perfect illustration of how we’re spending the principal of this planet, not the interest. In an article published in The New York Times, written by Larry Rohter (“Loggers, Scorning the Law, Ravage the Amazon Jungle” Oct. 16, 2005), we get a glimpse of the extent of some of the devastation being wreaked upon the Amazon rain forest:

“With large parts of the eastern and southern flanks of the Amazon already devastated, the principal target of loggers and sawmill owners these days is the so-called Terra do Meio, or Midlands, between the Xingu and Iriri Rivers. In fact, the area north of here, between the Trans-Amazon Highway and the Amazon River, is so active that local people have begun calling it Iraq. “Because the loggers are bombing the life out of it,” Mr. [Milton Fernandes] Coutinho of the farmworkers’ association explained.”

In the accompanying photo appearing on the same page as the article, the area shown doesn’t even remotely resemble a rain forest. A long road, a long row of telephone poles, no standing trees, a flatbed truck is in full view and filled with sawed-down trees. Milton Fernandes Coutinho, president of the local farmworkers’ association, which represents peasant settlers living along the roads used by the loggers is further quoted in the article as stating that “It goes on all night long, with the traffic so intense some nights, 30 or 40 trucks thundering through, that people can’t even sleep.”

Finally, just one more example of how all around the globe we can see examples of how we are living off the principal of this planet and not the interest. This comes from an opinion piece written by the novelist Sheng Keyi [it was translated by Jane Weizhen Pan and Martin Merz, from Chinese] and published in The New York Times, on April 6, 2014 (“China’s Poisonous Waterways”). Keyi describes the dire situation she has witnessed in her home country and in her home village, one of China’s hundreds of so-called “cancer villages,” which she defines as areas “blanketed with factories where cancer rates have risen far above the national average.” She talks about the deaths of people she knew well, some “only in their 30s or 40s.” Here is the part where I believe Keyi best illustrates the point I’ve been making:

“More than 50 percent of China’s rivers have disappeared altogether, and few of the surviving waterways are not completely polluted. Some 280 million Chinese people drink unsafe water, according to the Ministry of Environmental Protection. Nearly half of the country’s rivers and lakes carry water that is unfit even for human contact.”

I can go on and on and on giving example after example of this same sort of thing going on all around the globe but these were the examples I wanted to use to illustrate how we are spending the principal of the Earth, not the interest.