4 February 2006

Your waste is my waste

By Jacqui McCarney

Some thirty years ago independent scientist James Lovelock scrambled over the mountain of western knowledge to proclaim that the earth was a self-regulating, interdependent system which continually adjusted to maintain conditions fit for life. He named his theory of a living planet after the Greek Goddess of the earth; Gaia.

What Mr Lovelock, the scientific community and the media failed to notice was that sitting on the other side of the mountain having waited for the last two and a half thousand years was the Buddha along with most indigenous peoples.

Despite the revolutionary feel to Lovelock's theory, it was not new, for at the heart of the wisdom traditions is a profound belief in the interconnectness and interdependence of all life, expressed in Buddhism (Dharma) as the "dependent co-arising of all phenomenon". The Buddhist precept to "do no harm" is a call for compassion but also a call for enlightened self-interest because in an interconnected world harming others is harming ourselves, poisoning the environment is poisoning ourselves and our children.

Acknowledging this interconnection with the earth is primary to the cultures of indigenous people of the past and those few surviving today. Through art, ritual, festival and ceremony kinship and reverence is expressed for mother earth. Remembering their interconnection with life around them their choices tend to be in harmony with their environment and the good of the whole.

Modern industrial society has made a virtue out of forgetting this relationship. Lovelock's work, now largely accepted by the scientific community, remains in practice a mere theory. Yet environmentalists who took Lovelock’s work seriously and have spent the last thirty years campaigning for the planet have largely been ignored.

A large part of the scientific world with the help of large corporations have spent the last thirty years on what can only be described as throw away trivia - DVDs, iPods, personal computers, ever newer mobile phones - or technological indulgences - GMs, cloning, plastic surgery. Why are scientists not focusing on saving the planet?

In James Lovelock's new book Revenge of Gaia, he paints a damming picture of runaway global warming and argues that climate change may have gone beyond the point of no return. His solution is little more than extraordinary - as an exponent of a living systems theory, he is advocating that we build more nuclear power stations.

If ever there was a technology that ignored the interconnectedness of life on this planet, it must be the nuclear industry. Chernobyl exploded a cloud of radiation over most of Europe and killed many Ukrainians. Britain already has 2.3 million cubic metres of stored nuclear waste which can kill an adult within two minutes in its most potent form. It remains lethal for one million years and will cost £85 billion to deal with. Rising sea levels makes all our nuclear sites, largely built on the coast, vulnerable with the catastrophic risk of polluting all the worlds' seas.

Unfortunately, our government wants to expand nuclear power and to triple mass burn incineration, despite strong environmental arguments against both.

The planned Costessey incinerator compared to Norwich CathedralThis mocked-up photograph shows just how big the planned Costessey incinerator is when placed alongside Norwich Cathedral.

Locally, we have seen an excellent example of 'enlightened self interest' working and people empowerment in the debate over the incinerator at Costessey. Residents have turned up in their hundreds to debate this issue, well informed and determined to prevent harm to their children, and grandchildren. They are now painfully aware of the need for less packaging, more recycling and the treatment of waste in the most environmentally sensitive way.

Any new nuclear programme, like incineration, will bring people out to protect their environment and community. In doing so, their action benefits all of us and Gaia, aiming to protect us from nuclear and incineration toxins entering our atmosphere, waterways and food supply.

These technologies flourish in a growth based industrial society which assumes the earth is not alive, nature is reducible to its individual parts, we are all separate and independent of each other, and that we can pollute here and not affect there.

There is another approach and that is to work with Gaia using models for society that are sympathetic to a living Systems. A vital part of this approach is de-centralising power so that decisions are not based on riches for the few but for the good of all.

Ancient wisdom tells us it is time to listen and act now with principle and truth. Lovelock may be right and it may be too late, but either way we must leave a planet as clean as possible for the handful of descendents who do manage to survive. To bestow on them even more waste, nuclear or toxic incineration residue, as well as global warming would be sheer irresponsibility.