The old planet has a score to settle: animals, plants, earth, water, air, and the human organism itself are allegations in a massive indictment. More than 200 animal species have gone extinct in the last 300 years: an irreversible loss for science and the balance of nature, which faces voids which are unlikely to be filled. Death advances on entire regions that have now become silent and deserted, and places with larger human populations are equally dismal given the lack of air, light and wildlife as well as vegetation. The Council of Europe has listed 20 species of mammal in danger of extinction. Can anything be done to save them?
Until not long ago, on balance, we seemed to be doing quite well. We have everything we need and treat ourselves to things we don’t need at all; we have gained knowledge, and therefore dominance, over some natural forces that had hitherto made us feel as small as industrious ants; we have emerged from millennial conditions of inferiority, though many other such conditions still oppress us; we live better and could live better still, especially if we set aside an unfortunate penchant for selfishness.
But today the people who are farther along these paths than everyone else have stopped to look around, and on every side loom the by-products of technical progress: endless eyesores and enormous threats. In other words, by taking a closer look at how well we seem to be doing, we note that too high a price has been paid, that we might be crushed by the very output of this crazy race.
And with us our entire planet, our Mother Earth, could be crushed. The Earth is trembling.
A terrible fear is consuming us all.
But perhaps this very fear will lead us to a more sensible balance. Setting aside ambitions and special interests, we will have to try to dismantle a mechanism we have set in motion, which is now grinding along on its own, beyond our control. Maybe we just need to change a part or two and breathe some soul into it. Going back is not the answer; we need to go forward, but in a better way.
We are about to see this attempt in America (today’s image of what all countries could be tomorrow), struck by fear of its own myth, stressed more than it cares to admit by violent youth protests, which are thus far perceived and disdained only for their outward extravagance and not understood for their fundamental sincerity. We are about to see this attempt in America, because America has reached a conclusion: either man has to change things and save Mother Earth now, or she can no longer be saved. It has pledged, for the coming years, to take care of a country grown ugly and sick, covered in waste from a technology whose only concern is to create an efficient machine (which is not even efficient, if thousands of people die of hunger every day).
The people have grasped the anguish so vigorously stated in February’s us presidential address. Young people have found another opportunity to accuse the old world, on the strength of devastated forests, deserted expanses of water, land and air, the terrible conglomerates of houses and the spirits of the bison exterminated by their ancestors. In a collective – perhaps earnest – act of contrition, they say: we are children of the same sphere rolling in space, we have undermined its laws and structures, we are killing it bit by bit and with it we are killing ourselves: we are ants, still, but intelligent ants we must remain.
We’ve taken a wrong turn; let’s stop and save sphere and ants alike.
How lasting and sincere this new humility is, we cannot say. But we do know how America reached this point. We Italians, too, from our uglified, darkened, suffocated little peninsula must recognise, in the American frontier position, some general, absolute truths. And we would have a hard time challenging them.
Let’s recall a bit of history: these truths will jump out. And they are confirmed in the news every day.
Man has always feared nature, hated it in fact. Giacomo Leopardi calls nature the enemy; any number of writers have called it alien and indifferent, or just plain cruel. In its slow evolution, nature has always victimised the weak: species emerge, their populations grow, then start to decline. When no longer needed, they are swept away.
But the process used to be a slow one, spread across millennia. When man destroyed forests to plant fields, seeking space wherever it was convenient, nature managed to adapt and rebalance itself. But then man started to change things quickly, all over: adjusting and altering the course of rivers, procuring food at the expense of once-ignored plants and animals, and above all, covering Earth with the buildings where he lives and works. When he invented industry, he caused an exponential rise in the need for homes and land and came up with rapid, powerful tools that in turn destroyed centuries of natural equilibrium.
The ratio of men to space has also changed: the former continue to multiply without considering that the latter is not following the same trajectory.
The human population, now 3 billion, will reach 6 billion by the end of the century. Humans will need more and more room where they can build, live, move and be fed. Other land, currently still ruled by nature, will pay the price. But man has also psychologically changed his attitude and way of life. Arrogant and confident that he can solve any problem, he no longer preserves his strength but wastes it. He gobbles up whatever a zealous industry offers him on silver platters and tosses out the rubbish. Rapid consumption is a consequence of greater production, but also an incentive to produce even more. The spiral happily tightens and the positive statistics of progress bring out a childish sense of pride. No concern for what is happening all around. Ignorance of the physical environment and its laws plays another part in this. More generally, this is incivility pure and simple.
Yes, the destruction of nature demonstrates basic incivility. The act of contrition we mentioned above has to do with this very assertion, but also with the haughty, condescending attitude that has made man into such a solitary figure, out on his isolated avant-garde, where nothing has followed, not even what he really needs. At most, birdsong.
But the old planet has a score to settle: animals, plants, earth, water, air, and the human organism itself are allegations in a massive indictment.
More than 200 animal species, naturalists say, have gone extinct in the last 300 years.
Death advances on entire regions, which have now become silent and deserted. The forms of life that still exist there (insects, for the most part) do not make the desert less deserted.
The Council of Europe has listed 20 species of mammal in danger of extinction. Many of them live in our country. The porcupine and the otter and the Sardinian mouflon, decimated by ruthless hunting. The ibex (there are 3,000 of them left around Gran Paradiso), the wild goat of Montecristo and Tavolara islands, the extremely rare Mediterranean monk seal, the wolf, the brown bear in Trentino (maybe 10 left by now) and the Marsican brown bear in Abruzzo (of which 60 remain). The number of Sardinian deer has dwindled to around 300. On their way to total extinction are the Eurasian eagle-owl, the Western swamp-hen, the wildcat and many animals defined as “harmful”.
[…] The noxious tendencies of man are similar wherever one goes. His blows are direct, because he kills to dress “well” (furs, hats, jewellery), out of prejudice, and for food (including needless delicacies). He also kills for the thrill of it.
Man is indirectly to blame as well: destroying a species’ habitat ultimately means destroying the species itself. […] Hunting and fishing must be restricted to certain areas and times of year, or to a certain number of kills. We need to create natural reserves where animals can live undisturbed; but these oases must be connected within a system not immersed in burnt, soundless lands. What we need, that is, is to classify all available natural resources (from full-fledged nature reserves to the countryside and urban parks) and create, finally, the conditions for the respectful coexistence of man and nature, by defining each one’s pre-eminent spheres of influence. […]
Let’s take a closer look at the state of the Earth’s vegetation: the most damaging and widespread extermination is caused by cutting down woods and forests. […] Deforestation is the first link in a chain reaction where the underbrush and grass disappear, the upper layer of dirt becomes easy prey to rainfall, and the ground underneath is left defenceless. The runoff drags tonnes of soil downstream: riverbeds fill and are increasingly likely to overflow. […]
Around the globe, woods and forests are steadily shrinking. After satisfying our eternal hunger for new farmland, the usual cause of destruction in past centuries, we are now hungry for land where we can build properties.
Woods and forests are also shrinking because of diseases and insecticides; because of fires, caused in large part by ignorance, disrespect or malice; because of the constant need for wood for fuel and construction.
This impoverishment shows no signs of slowing; quite the contrary. Urban life is more taxing and people are increasingly stressed: the weekend getaway is becoming a must. But with that comes more consumption of natural resources. Even sports and exercise demand their sacrifice.
The number of cars is on the rise as cities and countryside, not to mention human mentalities, adjust to their overwhelming needs. Here too, let’s pause: may the government agencies that love to cut tricolour ribbons on brand new stretches of asphalt (roads are seen and used, therefore they bring in votes) stop and think. […] The few forests and woods that have survived by chance should be treated like sanctuaries of nature, man participating in their lives with prudence and care. […]
Pollution plays a huge role in the slaughter of animals and plants.
This is a serious allegation in several respects: scientific, because records of plant and animal life are lost forever; economic, because hunting, fishing and farming, which provide our food, are in trouble everywhere; social, because normal vital processes are upset and the social fabric is likewise unsettled; ecological, because balances are being altered after nature had reached them slowly – adapting gradually to the changes forced upon it – while the disruption wrought by pollution is fast and brutal. Also harmed is the landscape, both in terms of its beauty and practical value (tourism, physical and mental rejuvenation), and in its value as a historical relic.
[…] We can spare the reader endless examples and enormous quantities of data and focus on the Region of Lombardy, which unfortunately reaches levels of global significance and can in some cases serve as a sample. […]
Air quality: at rush hour in central Milan, car pollution prevails. The record levels dissipate as we move away from the centre, until we run into pollution from domestic heating and, to a lesser degree, from industry. On average, it is still the heat from our fireplaces that wins the prize as top polluter.
Sulphur dioxide and sulphur trioxide are the products of domestic heating. In Italy, Milan in particular, there is no widespread use of district heating systems to serve entire blocks, or even, as in Helsinki, three quarters of the city […]. In the Po River Valley, the particular climate (clear skies and absence of wind in the colder months) encourages fog, which supports the particulate that translates into smog. […]
Far more tragic is the state of the entire planet, if we examine it under its mantle of carbon dioxide. Twenty billion tonnes of the stuff are produced and dispersed every year: it is a harmless gas in itself, but because it is “transparent” to the rays of the sun and “opaque” to heat from the Earth, it holds the heat snugly, like a mantle, against the globe. Temperatures rise, polar ice melts, sea levels go up. If it’s true that in the year 2000 we will produce six times as much carbon dioxide as we do now, then sea levels will rise by tens of centimetres, with consequences we can easily imagine.
Water quality is just as serious a problem. Rivers, streams and canals are polluted by wells […], unfiltered sewerage, industrial and animal waste, and contact with farmland steeped in insecticides, pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers. Lombard rivers are among the unhealthiest in the world. […]
The lakes are polluted if not actually poisoned, like Lake Orta (dead for years) and Lake Varese: dead and buried, at its bottom, by an astonishing layer of metallic waste. Even Swiss lakes are no exception, though the Confederation is installing a series of purifiers in Lake Constance.
[…] The waters will continue to warm with the growth of power plants, which eat up huge amounts of cold water and flush it out hot. The proliferation of nuclear plants will exacerbate the problem even further.
Drinking water is scarce around the globe. Consumption is growing at a staggering pace, while supply is decreasing as polluted areas expand. […]
The seas are dumped with sewage and industrial waste from coastal communities, as well as the water from polluted rivers that pick up inland waste. They are dumped with wash water from oil tankers (laced with naphtha) and rubbish from cargo ships, powerboats, fishing vessels, etc. Ultimately, the sea is a dumping ground for an infinite variety of waste […]. Along the coasts and in inland seas, where the motion of the waves is less intense, there are areas of extreme pollution. […]
But land, too, is increasingly poisoned. Contributing to its decline are the chemicals used and misused for agriculture, acid rain, and, in alarming proportions, debris and rubbish, another major problem that our consumerist, wasteful society has magnified and that the few existing incinerators (which cause air pollution) show no signs of ameliorating. […] Perhaps only atomic energy, as some have proposed, can be truly effective at destroying this ever-expanding crust. But maybe the serious idea is a different one: to change the nature of these containers and make them usable more than once.
This is the work of Homo sapiens. […] Man, more reckless than evil, has concentrated all his energy on single, localised battles and won quite a few of them. But he has lost sight of the most basic question of all: his relationship with the Earth. Man has truly remained an ant. […]