Up-Front Ecology

2011-12-05 20:12:44

Erazim Kohák

(Introductory remarks for the evening session of Dobříš Conference June 22, 1991)

As with the human rights "third basket" at the Helsinki conference fifteen years ago, we consider this environmental "third basket" of our conference important not just as an appendage but in its own right. Like all of you, we, too, know the frustration of treating ecology as the clean-up detail that comes in to pick up the pieces after the environmental damage had been done. Yet so often that damage is needless in the first place. We think it crucially important that environmental considerations come in not as an afterthought, but at the very beginning, in setting our national and human priorities.

For too long, we have been content to let our priorities just happen to us. As Europeans and as humans, we have focused on how to achieve our goals without giving much thought to what those goals should be, what is important to us. For the most part, we have left our priorities to be shaped for us by the habits of millennia.

Those habits, though, tend to reflect the experience of rather different conditions than those under which we live today. Through the ages of human habitations upon the earth, nature had been bountiful, vast, self-renewing. Humans survived marginally in clearings within its vastness. Their overriding task was to wrest more sustenance from it, knowing they could seldom take enough and never too much.

Those habits are still with us, shaping our priorities, even though the situation to which they once were appropriate has changed dramatically. Today it is humans who are numerous and affluent while nature has become impoverished, an endangered species. Under these very different circumstances our habitual strategy of more, simply more, has become inappropriate. It is the assumption, bred by centuries of habit, that more is always better that is at the root of our ecological crisis. We need urgently to rethink our priorities. It is no longer enough just to clean up the damage.

Not for a moment do we doubt the importance of cleaning up the damage. Yes, we urgently need to develop new sources of energy and ways of using it effectively, we need new non-destructive technologies and new ways of dealing with our waste. Yet such efforts will prove futile if the overall aim of our civilization will remain the habitual, mindless quest for more. We need also to rethink our aims. What is really important for us as Europeans and as humans?

In a city like Prague, it is hard to believe we need more automobiles. Our city is already choking on exhaust fumes. Given the typical Czech diet, it is hard to believe that we need to consume more meat. As humans, we need far more the clean conscience of knowing that our domestic animals do not suffer needlessly. In a country like Czechoslovakia, it is hard to believe that we need to generate ever more energy. We do need to learn to treat our land with respect, that it may be a land of pure streams and healthy forests.

What are our priorities, really? Is the purpose of human life really to consume ever more and more? In other animal species, overeating is a sign of pathology. Could overconsumption be a virtue in humans? Or are the true human virtues generosity toward nature, concern for our own kind, respect for all life? Should the aim of our civilization be one of providing individual citizens with ever more material possessions or one of learning to respect, love and care for the world of nature which we have received as a gift, in trust for those who will come after us?

Those, too, are crucial ecological questions, though for the most part they are questions we have not raised, much less answered. We are still letting the habits of millennia set our priorities, but those habitual priorities have become inappropriate.

We of the Czech and Slovak delegation believe that it is an important part of the responsibility of all, who are charged with caring for our environment to raise such questions. We believe that an educational campaign needs to be a part of our environmental programmes, to make us aware of the destructive implications of our habitual priorities. We believe, most of all that it is urgent that we open up the questions of what our real interests are and what we want to make our aim, as Europeans and as humans.

Ecology can be--and, alas, has to be--also a clean-up detail in the devastated wake of our "progress". More urgently, though, we need ecology up front, in setting our priorities. If at this conference, we can raise the question and call upon the nations and governments of Europe to reconsider their human aims, not only the means of achieving them, then our ecological "third basket" can become no less a major contribution to the future of humankind and of our planet than the "third basket" of the Helsinki conference.


Erazim KOHAK, Professor of Philosophy,
Charles' University, Prague, Czechoslovakia
and Boston University, Boston, Mass., USA