Is it the final straw that breaks the camel’s back?

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There are many Finnish folk tales about the inhabitants of the village of Hölmölä (roughly translated as Moronsville). The stories revolve around the stubborn stupidity of the inhabitants and how their actions inevitably frustrate their intentions. One folk tale describes the actions of a farmer loading firewood onto a cart to be pulled by a horse. With every new log, the farmer mutters “Well, if it can manage so much, then it can manage one more log”. Ultimately, the poor horse is not able to pull the huge burden of wood even one step. The farmer then starts to remove the piles of firewood one at a time, saying now “Well if it can’t cope with this, then it can’t manage even this log”. Finally, all the firewood has returned to its original pile, and the farmer with his horse return home with an empty cart.

This fable illustrates one major dilemma in trying to formulate a working environmental policy. It is always possible to claim that one more load on the environment will not matter; it’s only a drop in the ocean. Conversely, when attempts are being made to place restrictions on some environmental pollutant, then the arguments are made that the limits should be set even lower, the emissions reduced even further and the polluter should be penalized by paying even greater fines.

One may get the impression that it is industry-supported interest groups who state that the environment will not be disturbed by one further burden, whereas it is activist organizations and individuals wishing to preserve the environment who are forever urging that the entire burden has to be eliminated. In fact such a clear, black-white distinction has not existed for many years.

There is an inconsistency in the attitudes of all of us to the environment; we hold opinions which simultaneously exaggerate and minimize the risks to our environment. We vehemently oppose the construction of a waste-combustion facility in our neighbourhood, but happily burn garden (and other household) refuse in our own back yard. We are in favour of the creation of more and larger national parks but campaign in favour of better and wider highways to make it easier to drive to our country cottage. We support measures to limit air pollution at the same time as we purchase a new, heavier, poor fuel economy, turbo-charged SUV to transport us to the shops downtown. We demand that our food has to be safe and free of chemicals but are content to grab a bite to eat at a service station where we are surrounded by fumes and chemicals.

The author, Jared Diamond, has described in his book “Collapse” how the Easter Islanders in a mere two hundred years were able to destroy the lush, paradise-like, environment of their island home and to condemn their descendants to a life of poverty, hunger and misery. Diamond traced the seeds of this tragedy to the destruction of the island’s forests. What makes the situation so tragic is that the trees were felled for the most inconsequential reasons.

The village clans would compete to see who could build the biggest and greatest number of monumental statues and huge numbers of trees were cut down to roll the statues from the stone quarries to their sites on the coast. The huge funeral pyres, which burnt for days to commemorate the death of a clan chief, were another waste of timber. More and more forest was cleared to provide land for agriculture, but without the stabilizing influence of the trees, the soil was quickly eroded and thus more virgin forests had to be cleared.

The ultimate irony is that Easter Island is surrounded by some of the best fishing stocks in the world, but when the last tree was cut down, the islanders could no longer build ocean-worthy fishing vessels and a large proportion of the population went hungry while surrounded by an abundance of food. This ignorance and stupidity when combined with senseless competition and vanity led to the total collapse of the civilization, cannibalism and the most extreme misery imaginable.

We need to ask ourselves these questions. How can we avoid the fate of the Easter Islanders? What is the best and most sensible approach? How can we achieve a balance between exploitation and preservation of our planet’s resources? How great an emphasis should we place on health when we are debating environmental issues? How strict do we need to be in adhering to agreed policies? It is clear that decisions need to be backed by political consensus and widespread support from the general public. However, it seems today as if the greatest problem is ignorance and lack of understanding. This may seem a surprising statement; never before has so much information been available so widely.

The problem is that there is a plethora of information, but much of it resembles the information on the Internet. One only has to google the term “dioxin” to be linked to millions of so-called facts. The problem is to find the few nuggets of wisdom in this mass of dross. Can we identify sites that are reliable, based on a comprehensive assessment of the available data? Instead, we are provided with a more and more fragmented perspective and a failure to view the larger picture. Even the so-called experts often are unable to take the wider view; they have their own specialities and their own territories, which they defend with terrier-like ferocity. The same can be said about the environmental activist organizations, they too can take a very blinkered view of the world.

During the 1980s, a committee was created to draft proposals for incorporation into the Public Health Act. During the hearings, a junior civil servant whose job description included supervision of environmental issues in the greater Helsinki region expressed his opinions. The committee had not yet agreed on who should have overall responsibility for monitoring and enforcing environmental health issues, should it be the civil servants from the environmental agency or those from the health care system? The young man argued that whenever a problem arose about the health effects of some pollutant, it was the environmental agency which invariably demanded the strictest possible limits to be enforced. He believed that this “strictest possible” approach was the best way to achieve the desired public health goals.

In fact, adoption of a “strictest possible” policy does not require any professional skills or expertise. The test of true professional expertise is being able to differentiate between those issues where it is essential to be strict from other cases where such stringency is harmful. An old fable tells of the boy who cried wolf so often that when the wolf did arrive no-one listened to his cries anymore. We need to keep our powder dry for the day when the wolf does appear at our door.

The simplistic approach of invariably calling for the strictest limits and controls in environmental and environmental health issues may be self-defeating. True professional expertise, often lacking today, is able to identify the cases when we need to be strict from those times when more flexibility should be applied. It often requires expert cooperation to gain a wider perspective of the problems.

One level up: Perception of the risks around us

Next chapter: Is expert jargon just a way to confuse the man in the street?