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Can the Human Civilization and the Global Environment Coexist ? -- Hiroyuki Ishi + Kiyoshi Itao

Can the Human Civilization and the Global Environment Coexist ?


Professor of Graduate School of Frontier Science, The University of Tokyo / Special Adviser to the President of Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA)


General Editor of Nature Interface

Various aspects of the environmental problems of differing demand levels depending on people, societies, countries, and areas.

Environmental problems have various aspects in accordance with the people, societies, countries and areas. The earth that has nourished various ecosystems, including human beings, is only one. This earth is nevertheless afflicted by a serious illness. The environmental problem is one of the examples. This time, Prof. Hiroyuki Ishi, the author of "Report on Global Environment I-II" who has visited various countries in the world to research environmental issues, tells us about the serous situation of the earth.

[ITAO] In your book "Report on Global Environment I" (Iwanami Shoten,) you wrote, "Without exploiting even the 'frontier districts' under bad natural conditions, it would be impossible for the earth to accommodate human beings. We could only understand this as an 'environmental problem', and didn't see the aboriginal inhabitants who had lived in these frontier districts. " We are frightened that human beings have exploited even frontier districts and the global environment in the 20th century has become stuck in a stagnant situation.

To start our discussion, could you talk me about the research theme that you are currently dealing with?

[ISHI] Basically, I am studying with three themes. First, the loss of biodiversity by researching how the deforestation in Southeast Asia influences on the local people and community. For example, in Borneo Island, the oil palm plantation has been rapidly developed and now covered huge areas with oil palm trees. The oil taken from palm fruits is used for various materials. Especially, the "vegetable oil soaps" made of this oil have become popular, as the synthetic detergent was said to be "bad for the skin and the environment" and restricted its use. Unlike the animal oil and fat, it is considered to be healthy, and used widely for foods, even for the substitute of coffee cream. The tropical rainforests have been rapidly disappearing by the large-scale development of the plantation. As a consequence, indigenous people living in the forests are oppressed.

The second is the research on the influence of environmental degradation in the semi-arid regions in Africa where people have been often suffered from serious draught and starvation. This research has been interrupted for about ten years, but I'll go to Africa this April and resume it.

The third research is about how the transition to the market economy in the former East European countries has affected the environment. They were boasting in the socialist period that there were no environmental problems, but when the Iron Curtain was opened, the most serious pollution and destruction of the environment in the world had emerged. I have been involved in the international organization to recover their environment.

In addition to these researches, I have recently started researches on the problems of the waste management. Especially in the least developing countries in Asia, as the economy has been growing rapidly, the waste has been also increasing enormously. Anyhow the quantity of the waste per head in Cambodia is about 1.1kg per day, which is almost the same as in Japan. They import the liquid products contained in a plastic pack or bottle from Japan and other countries, however, these countries do not have the system to collect and process the waste. Illegal dumping can be seen everywhere. Since they incinerate in open air freely, the dioxin and other chemical pollution occurs as a result. How we should build a system to deal with the rapid increasing waste in developing countries is very urgent.

[ITAO] Has the waste taken out from Japan also influenced on the problem of the waste in those developing countries?

[ISHI] Yes. In fact, the amount of industrial wastes in Asia has increased due to the recent economic growth. The increase of illegal exports to the poorer countries like Cambodia is now the international dispute. In Japan, because of the high cost of processing industrial waste disposal, they let it out to settle. If we recycled the used car batteries in Japan, it might cause lead contamination. So we export them to China on the pretext of recycling. This is just an export of pollution.

[ITAO] Why does such a thing happen?

[ISHI] Do you remember the incident in which 122 containers of medical waste illegally exported from Japan were discovered in the Philippines the year before last? If they were processed in Japan, it would cost 200,000 to 300,000 yen (ca. 1700 to 2500 U.S. dollar) per ton. However, if we sold it to a developing country, it would be only 10,000 yen (ca. 80 U.S. dollar.)

These illegal exports of wastes are carried out by many other developed countries, for example, from Europe to Africa and from the United States to Central America.

[ITAO] In the early 70s we used to be worried that the petroleum would be exhausted. 30 years have already passed since then, and it is not actually exhausted yet. However, I have an impression that the global environment is more diseased and severe now.

[ISHI] Of course, non-recyclable petroleum will be exhausted one day, however, in my opinion, it will possible to use another hundreds years even if the price would be risen seriously. On the contrary, recyclable resources such as water, soil and timbers that we did believe inexhaustible at that time are now facing a crisis because the demand exceeds their regenerations. Therefore, at the present we must be conscious of preserving recyclable resources rather than non-recyclable resource.

After all, the damage of such global scale exploitation is concentrated on to the weak parts. The most vulnerable is the indigenous habitants or the minority races whose political voice is hardly heard. For example in Africa, many cases have revealed that the developed countries exploit the resource and bring the waste in.

Or it was also in the land of the indigenous people who seldom complained that the U.S., Russia, and France had carried out nuclear tests.

[ITAO] We used to talk about the "North-South problem," but recently the situation is becoming more complex, as seen from the new North South problem happening in the southern countries, the "South-South problem" so to speak.

[ISHI] Yes, also among the developing countries, especially those that have economically failed are seriously affected by the environmental destruction. Those are Cambodia, Laos, and Bangladesh in Asia, and the countries to the Sub- Sahara in Africa and the Caribbean countries.

Since they cannot buy commercial fuel, they depend on the firewood and the charcoal for most energy sources, and eventually the forests become bare to make them. Consequently the secondary influences such as the exhaustion of water resources or soil erosion occur.

After all, the earth follows the logic of the strong and the weak. The principle of the market economy merely reproduces the strong and the weak in terms of the environment, and the weak is driven to an increasingly severe situation. Furthermore, I think, not only internationally but also domestically, a disparity of "the have" and "the have-not" is widening. Resent typical case is the accessibility to the computer. The diffusion of the computer becomes higher in proportion to the income. So naturally, the lower the income is, the more disadvantages they have.

[ITAO] Certainly, in the world of capitalism, the strong and the weak have always existed. It can be said that by introducing the information technology like the computer, the situation around the weak and the strong has brought a bigger gap in their relation. However, from another viewpoint, we can also say that the reality was revealed by computerization. Which is true?

[ISHI] It is an interesting point. Both are true, I would say. Computer technology has extended the difference in income, but on the other hand, it has made us see the present state of the destruction of the global environment.

In other words, no matter how much data we collected on the ground, we couldn't see the whole picture of the deforestation. However, in the end of the 70s, the satellite information allowed us to see the whole situation of the forests and the desertification, or of the soil degradation, and this has led us realize the problems of the global environment very seriously.

[ITAO] But today, because of the progress of information technology, it would be possible, say, to capture fish entirely by using a fish finder, a position information sensor, and radio technology.

[ISHI] That's right. I'm also concerned about information technology depleting the marine fish stocks. Nowadays, as we can use GPS (Global Positioning System) even in the small fishing boat to go directly to the exact fishing ground as many times as we want to. Eventually the fish stocks are rapidly disappearing from the seas near Japan because of the widespread use of the highly efficient fish finders.

[ITAO] We have to turn our eyes to the reality that the information technology, while bringing the happiness to human beings, is speeding up the environmental destruction. That the weak become weaker concerns each researcher's environment ethics.

[ISHI] Even the codfish of the North Sea, which was said to be caught inexhaustibly, has decreased drastically, and fish catch restrictions are applied in various areas of the Atlantic as those of the Pacific Ocean. This is also caused by the progress of the detection technology including GPS. Like this case, computerization can, of course, destroy the environment.

[ITAO] This is really the light and shadow of the information technology for the global environment.

[ISHI] Until now, the grass for the livestock of the nomads can be found only by their long experiences, but this as well may be eaten up like fish.

[ITAO] Among hunting people, when there were no computers, those who excelled in intuition and at hunting were able to have certain power. But today, anyone could hunt with a computer and GPS.

[ISHI] Dr. Itao, you are involved in the tracking of the routes of migratory birds by attaching transmitters to their bodies. We are now in the time when we can use such a technology for protecting migratory birds. But at the same time, this suggests we can hunt them whenever we want, since we can get the information about the birds' locations. It's a double-edged sword!

This time Prof. Ishi talked about the new social situations surfacing from the environmental problems in relation to the progress of the information technology. We'd like to express our deepest gratitude to Prof. Ishi.

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