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22 April 2006 

Are we observing earth's sustainable destruction?

Israr Ardiansyah, London
The Jakarta Post. 22 April 2006

In February 2006, amid the global outrage over the re-publication of the Prophet Muhammad cartoons, a story from Indonesia stole the show: The discovery of new species in Papua.

A full-page photo of Berlepschs' six-wired bird of paradise, which was rediscovered by the Conservation International team in Indonesia, and a large headline that read "Paradise found!" provoked me to buy The Independent's February 7 edition. The controversial populist tabloid The Sun published the story in its center page the following day, titled 'Scientists discover a Garden of Eden where no man has gone before.'

That was then. The story of the newly-discovered golden-mantled tree kangaroo and other unique creatures of the lost world recorded by the scientists from the Indonesian Institute of Science, Conservation International, Cendrawasih University and the Ministry of Forestry was about to make history. But the good news from the Foja Mountains in Papua was suddenly overshadowed by bad news from the same island.

A report released earlier this month by the Environmental Investigation Agency/Telapak, titled Behind the Veneer, revealed the other face of Papua's rich natural resources: Every cubic-metre of Merbau timber earns a local Papuan less than US$10, while the luxurious wood-flooring made from it is valued at $2,000 per cubic metre in the UK market.

The data, released by EIA/Telapak, said that in January 2005 alone, Merbau timber from Papua, smuggled out by international syndicates, generated $342 million-worth of wood-flooring sales in western markets, thanks to collusion between syndicates and corrupt Indonesian security personnel.

For years anti-illegal logging campaigns have targeted western consumers. The demand for tropical forest timber, however, is still high. The bitter reality of natural resources management and governance in Papua and Indonesia, not to mention the recent violent protests against Freeport's operation and related environmental destruction and socio-economic injustices, reveal more than just global fundamental aspects of the modern human being. They show the way we treat our natural resources in order to meet our drive for conspicuous consumption.

Every one of us contributes to our earth's destruction. The increasing human consumption of renewable natural resources is still considered business as usual. We feel less guilty for it because we think every one else does the same to the nature.

It is similar to a river -- our common property -- where every one throws rubbish into it and thinks that he or she only makes a minor contribution, a situation well-illustrated by Garrett J. Hardin in his The Tragedy of Commons. However, we still consume and waste goods excessively, almost half a century after this landmark article was written.

The April 22 Earth Day celebration, pioneered in the 1970s by U.S. senator Gaylord Nelson and student activists, led by Denis Hayes, is the one day of the year dedicated to raising people's awareness of the environment.

We may organize environment friendly activities and not pollute the town during Earth Day but the next day we're back to normal. Assuming that we are aware of Earth Day, aren't we all just celebrating earth's sustainable destruction?

We must acknowledge that we cannot leave environmental problems to market mechanisms because they are the roots of our conspicuous consumption. How can we rely on a mechanism which has contributed the most to environmental deterioration in the name of the provision of human needs (and greed)? A report on increasing car sales is still more impressive than one on the rise in the number of public-transport users.

On the other hand, most consumers still think that exotic hardwood furniture or energy-sapping bright lighting systems are worth buying to decorate their houses. Hence, we should keep demanding the government creates regulations and public facilities based on sustainable development agenda.

Moreover, the business actors need to shift their business paradigm by promoting greener production lines and sustainable consumption practices. Within this paradigm, Corporate Social Responsibility is not merely a public-relations matter. It is a must. The negative market reaction in Europe to the recent sale of the "environmentally friendly" cosmetic company The Body Shop to L'Oreal -- despite the latter's vow to uphold the ethical values promoted by The Body Shop's founder Dame Anita Roddick -- is a sign that consumers are becoming more aware of ethical issues related to consumption.

Meanwhile, we must acknowledge that the media is becoming sharper in its criticisms of global environmental destruction. A research report released by Fritz Reusswig and his colleagues supported by the European Climate Forum last year found that the blockbuster movie The Day After Tomorrow reinforced people's willingness to act.

I strongly believe a similar response will be given to An Inconvenient Truth, a movie whose production is supported by former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, when it is released this summer.

Improved environmental awareness communication, indicated by the increasing frequency of media coverage on environmental issues, is quite promising. Maybe this April 22 Earth Day won't mark another celebration of sustainable earth destruction.

The writer is a British Chevening Award scholar undertaking a postgraduate program in Environment, Science and Society at University College London (UCL). He can be reached at israrardi@yahoo.com.


Great piece. You have a witty and enriching argument. Keep up the good work.


Great piece. You have a witty and enriching argument. Keep up the good work.

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