You can’t save the planet. But Dr. Seuss and your kids can.

Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax explores the consequences of deforestation and the environmental costs of development. It concludes with the Once-ler, the narrator of the story who is principally responsible for deforestation of the decimated Truffula tree, entrusting its final seed to a young boy. He implores the child, “Grow a forest. Protect it from axes that hack. Then the Lorax and all of his friends might come back.”

The Once-ler, wracked by guilt for his complicity in this environmental disaster, passes along responsibility for reversing damage done by his generation to a child. The Lorax suggests the young take on duties of planetary stewardship where adults have failed.

Is this fair? Perhaps the generation responsible for mucking up the planet has lost its moral authority to try and save it. So the task of conservation is inherited by those with a longer-term stake in its future.

That adults might vest hope for a better planet in our children is both edifying and deeply troubling.  Edifying because the environmental record of the world’s children bests that of adults by default. The young have not yet begun to reproduce the patterns of behavior that implicate their parents – resource depletion, biodiversity loss, climate change…

Troubling because they may reproduce them in future. We cannot realistically expect young people socialised into a world of willful environmental neglect to behave much differently than their parents have. Adults cannot so easily absolve themselves of the responsibility of addressing environmental harm they have caused.

Rather than saving the planet, a more modest objective might be to refrain from making it much worse for our children. Even this is a daunting prospect. Patterns of energy use dependent on fossil fuels all but guarantee that global temperatures will continue to rise. For most, climate change is no longer a debate about “if” but “how severe?”

We may still hope to make the planet better for our children in other ways. For instance, by adding to the richness of human culture and the stock of beneficial technologies. When it comes to climate though, a more appropriate aim might be to refrain from chopping that last Truffula tree. To preserve our remaining forests so our children might be able to see the proverbial Brown Bar-ba-loots, Swomee-Swans or Humming Fish in their native habitats rather than natural history museums.

Doing this will be challenging. It will require an often uncomfortable reflection on what drives global environmental degradation. In Seuss’ tale the insatiable demand for thneeds – the ultimate commodity – drives the Truffula deforestation. This implicates our heedless consumerism in the causal chain of degradation alongside the Once-ler.

When we consume things we don’t need, and when the industry around these commodities is obviously unsustainable despite our obliviousness to this fact, we contribute to resource depletion. What’s more, we add to the attitudes and norms that suggest this is a private matter, answerable only to private consumer preferences and not larger public concerns for equity or sustainability.

Worst of all, we teach our children to do the same.

The first step in reducing our negative impact upon the planet must be to understand how and where we make the impact we do. We need to understand alternatives that yield comparable value to us with a lighter toll upon the planet. Consuming more conscientiously will leave our children a better planet and make them better citizens of it. Though it requires us to consume differently and less.

Thinking about the long-term consequences of our choices will also help. We cannot plausibly claim to value our children’s future while discounting the future value of current investments in sustainable infrastructure or future costs of unsustainable current practices.

To help make better children for our planet we must teach them that out of sight is not out of mind.

Our deeds announce our concern for the welfare of future generations more accurately than our words or thoughts. Thinking about such choices must be accompanied by some changes in course. Citizens must demand better public choices be made rather than acquiescing to worse ones as unavoidable products of political inertia or inviolable market forces.

The tendency to shift problems across borders is no less insidious than passing them to our children or grandchildren. To help make better children for our planet we must teach them that out of sight is not out of mind.

As role models for our children our success in stopping environmental harm will matter less than our sincerity in the efforts we make. If we honestly try to maintain the planet, our example will help make them into the kind of people our planet needs.

For as the Once-ler interprets the Lorax’s cryptic final word, “UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better.  It’s not.”

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Can we save the environment for our children?


Flaky arguments for shark culling lack bite

Culling sharks is unnecessarily harmful, disproportionate and will do little to protect humans.

The question of whether we should protect humans by culling sharks is not new. There are many parallels to the problems posed by land-based apex predators such as lions and tigers. The solutions we have adopted on land – including widespread culling – are unlikely to be either ethical or effective in dealing with shark attacks.

We must consider whether sharks offer humans indirect benefits. For example, sharks help control the seal population, which eats the fish we rely on for food and trade. Last winter, fishermen called for seal culls in South Australia because of the healthy fur seal population there.

People enjoy observing sharks in the ocean either directly through “shark tourism” or on TV. Discovery Channel’s Shark Week” has become a cultural phenomenon in many nations. Apex predators hold a certain fascination – we marvel at their control of their territory. The awe we feel when viewing sharks is itself an indirect, unquantifiable benefit.

Even if these indirect benefits did not outweigh the risks to swimmers and surfers, this alone would not justify culling. We would have to consider whether the harms involved in controlling sharks are greater than the harms shark attacks cause to humans.

The numbers of sharks we would need to control for effective protection far exceeds the number of humans who benefit from controlling shark populations. Less aggressive forms of land-based controls for apex predators – for example, excluding lions from agricultural areas – are unlikely to work in the marine environment.

The numbers of sharks we would need to control for effective protection far exceeds the number of humans who benefit from controlling shark populations.

The practical outcome of this means many more sharks are killed than humans. In Queensland alone, about 700 sharks die per year in the culling program. By comparison, only one human has been killed – in an unbaited region.

In addition, baiting – a key tactic in the culling process – generates unintended harms such as “bycatching”. Baiting works on more than just sharks. It also lures turtles, whales and dolphins, which pose no threat to anyone. They are collateral damage in the war against sharks.

Netting beaches has been presented as a viable alternative to culling but here too there is risk of bycatch. Furthermore, netting leaves sharks to suffer and die slowly, giving rise to another raft of ethical concerns.

If culling is to be justifiable we need to consider the steps being taken to minimise shark suffering. Sharks captured on baited hooks suffer extensively, even when patrols detect and shoot injured sharks.

Let us suppose we could eventually devise ways of effectively stopping sharks entering the littoral zone by culling them in a way that minimised suffering. We would still have to consider the desirability of interfering in this way.

The long-term ethical consequences of destroying or reducing the population of an apex predator are considerable. The absence of apex predators in Australia has allowed an enormous kangaroo population to thrive. This population has had to be culled due to the competition they pose to domestic herbivores.

What’s more, the huge population means kangaroos face widespread starvation during droughts. The existence of apex predators may be bad for those caught in their path, but it is good for the entire ecosystem.

Human culling works contrary to the ‘natural’ culling apex predators perform. While predators prey on the weak and elderly, human culling targets the fittest or those with others dependent on them. As such it challenges the continuity of the entire species.

Many will argue that sharks have a right to occupy the territory in which they have evolved over millions of years, and this trumps the alleged right of humans to use territory they are ill-suited to and gain little significant benefit from. Certainly, many surfers respect these rights – acknowledging sharks as fellows in the ocean rather than threats or enemies.

The shark cull may in fact be exacerbating the shark problem in a cruel and ironic circle.

The sharks’ rights are enshrined in our law. Great Whites are an endangered species and therefore enjoy legal protection. Given the legal status sharks enjoy, the benefits to humans would have to be especially high to justify culling as an ethical option.

Surfers can adopt another sport if they are unwilling to assume the risk of shark attacks – and many are. This is particularly true if they are unwilling to explore cheaper, more reasonable ways of protecting themselves.

The shark cull may in fact be exacerbating the shark problem in a cruel and ironic circle. Sharks may be driven to attack humans because of the damage we have done to their environment. Shark experts argue that injured sharks on baited hooks attract other sharks to the area.

The elimination of apex predators such as Great Whites destroys millions of years of evolutionary adaptation. The ethical risks and costs of controlling the environment in this way are rarely contemplated in the face of tragic but rare fatal attacks. Instead of balanced reflection, we see knee-jerk responses that fail to adequately address the broad range of ethical issues.

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Should we kill sharks to ensure our own safety?