Nature’s messages and a collective destiny
People around the world have been besieged by the hysteria of the spread of H1N1 flu for the past few months. Even though the threat is not as imminent as first predicted, it is still a major concern. A distribution map of the disease, recently released by the World Health Organization, shows that affected people have been identified in four continents. The organization is working flat-out to deal with the problem.
Andrew Nikiforuk said in his book Pandemonium (2006) that biological invaders such as infectious diseases could easily spread across the globe. They would find three conditions which are unique to this era: a global economy, acute urban crowding and a high level of human mobility; conditions that did not exist in the era of our ancestors. Without proper preparation, a pandemic is just a matter of time, since the disease could spread into unknown territory. The anxiety is intensified because it is taking place in the middle of a global financial crisis. And Indonesia is still under threat from another kind of biological threat: bird flu.
However, in terms of ecology, this is not the only problem we face. Ecological disasters are commonplace right now. Just look at our own backyard, the Lapindo Brantas disaster, for example, has caused thousands of people lose their homes. Floods are everywhere. We recently witnessed the Situ Gintung dam tragedy.
But are pandemics and ecological disasters related each other? Well, I would say yes! In ecology, it is believed that natural populations are regulated by density-dependent factors. The main factors in density-dependency are competition to utilize resources, diseases and predation (see Clive Hambler, 2004).
Pressures on population are stronger as it grows and are weaker when it decreases. As human population booms, opportunities for diseases to develop also increase. There have been indications the development of the H1N1 flu virus was closely connected to the unhealthy, crowded urban environment and unhealthy practices in pig farming. Mexico City, where the virus initially developed, is in fact a vastly overcrowded city.
As population grows, the need for land increases. Consequently, ecologically important areas, such as forests, are converted into residential areas. The problem in many developing countries is these conversions are without proper regional and urban planning. We should, therefore, not be surprised by the disastrous results.
The series of ecological disasters, as well as disease development, are clear signs of the decline in human-supporting capacity. The decrease of the natural ability to support human lives, on the one hand, and a higher rate of human population growth, on the other, results in ecological complexity. As an integral part of the natural system, humans are interacting, affecting and are affected by environmental processes.
As the most intelligent creature on the planet, humans have been exploiting natural resources for their own benefit and industrialization has been speeding up the process. Globalization then serves as a very effective way to drive the world to jump on the same bandwagon: the race to exploit natural resources. There is nothing wrong with globalization per se. However, the ability of globalization to create desires rather than needs has made us guilty of overconsumption; consequently, we overexploit the resources, including the scarce ones.
However, would the earth be better off without humans? This is the main question behind Alan Weisman’s book The World without Us (2007). The answer, he said, might not be that it would be better off. What we really need today is to reduce the human ecological impact by slowing natural resource exploitation.
Another lesson from the recent H1N1 flu cases is that it shows the other face of globalization: the shared destiny of the world’s residents. Albert Camus once said that we are in the middle of an era where “no longer were there individual destinies; only a collective destiny, made of plague and emotions shared by all.” Globalization has not only created a global economy and politics, but it also has generated a collective destiny. We cannot completely avoid negative externalities.
Ecological disasters clearly indicate that every human strongly interconnects with each other. People living in one place might cause negative impacts, either directly or indirectly, for other people living far away. Illegal loggers in the highlands, for example, contribute to the floods in the lowland areas. Therefore, we need to work together to create a better world in which to live.
The series of Mother Nature disasters has an important message, i.e. the human-supporting ecological system is becoming more complex. As the human population keeps rising, this problem will become even more complicated. For Indonesia, this means the nation will face more challenges in the future. Then, the question will be have we prepared ourselves as a nation to overcome these future challenges? If we haven’t, we should be ready for the terrible prospect of our collective destiny.
The writer is a lecturer on ecology at the Department of Forestry, University of Bengkulu and an Australian Leadership Award scholar
(The picture is taken from http://newsitemstoday.today.com/files/2009/04/swine_flu_mexico-3.jpg)