Science Talk

Time to reconnect with nature

Carbon dioxide levels grew at a record rate last year - a rate called "explosive" by a lead scientist at the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

And just yesterday, a study warned of an abrupt climate shift that could see all coastal cities lost to rapidly rising sea levels in as short as 50 years.

But you can be sure that few who read these findings in The Straits Times really changed their behaviour. Barely 15 minutes after reading the article, people were perhaps tooting their horn and swearing through a traffic jam, all the way to the air-conditioned comfort of the office.

Who cares about carbon dioxide when there are dim prospects for business on the horizon?

At around the same time were reports of economists reducing their forecast for Singapore's growth. Adding to concerns is reduced consumer spending, bringing with it retrenchments and shop closures.

The economy must be kept humming at ever higher pitches, but at what environmental cost?

There is a disconnect between people's economic needs and their environmental conscience. People need to earn a living today, while the environment can wait - after all it's not too hot yet and water is still plentiful.

But the twain must meet, or future generations will bear the consequences.

True, world leaders announced in Paris last December that they were going to do something about climate change. And Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong envisions Singapore as a "car-lite" nation in the Sustainable Singapore Blueprint.

But there are time lags in turning words into legislation, legislation into implementation, and implementation having a sufficient cumulative effect on reducing emissions. Especially in the presence of bureaucratic red tape.

To speed up the process, the individual has to take some responsibility, instead of leaving everything to the Government.

For example, you decide not to buy a car because it makes no sense further polluting the air when there are buses, trains and taxis to suit your every transportation need.

By making that simple decision, you've eliminated a car's worth of emissions even before the problem begins for the Government.

Many governments are also taking advantage of the drop in oil prices to trim fossil fuel subsidies, giving renewable energy a more level playing field. Again, individuals can chip in, by cultivating energy-saving habits. In this way, emissions would be reduced even more, and more quickly.

Individual action seems so easy, yet it is so hard.

The problem has deeper roots: a disconnect from nature. Just look at the people around you, their eyes transfixed on their smartphones. OK, they might be admiring nature photography on their touchscreens, but it's still just a bunch of pixels on a slab of tempered glass.

Most of the human race, in fact, is disconnected because people no longer find their own food from the jungle and the river. All it takes now is a drive to the supermarket where on display is the endless manna that literally falls from the sky - from air-freighted American strawberries to Norwegian salmon to New Zealand kiwi fruit.

Worse, humans waste a third of all this food globally. Food takes energy to grow. And wasted food is the third-largest producer of greenhouse gases, after China and the United States.

Another symptom of the disconnect with nature is that people here no longer breathe natural air - most of what people inhale comes from air-conditioning vents, either in the office or in the car.

Thanks to the local culture of wearing Western business attire inappropriate for the humid tropics, air-conditioning is a must. Just last week, office workers in Malaysia said they were thankful for the ever-present air-conditioning amid the hot spell.

There are too many people on earth now to be able to return to the leaf skirts and hunter-gatherer ways of the Orang Asli, who never take more from the jungle for food and shelter than the jungle can replace.

But there is a valuable lesson to be learnt from these indigenous people: that many could get by happily with a lot less.

Don't buy something just because it's on sale, only to end up throwing it away later. Don't leave the lights on because you aren't paying the electricity bill.

However, to turn these words into action, humans have to reconnect with nature. Because only then will they truly under- stand the consequences of their bloated sense of entitlement, and be compelled to act.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 25, 2016, with the headline 'ScienceTalk Time to reconnect with nature'. Print Edition | Subscribe