Recently the Beirut River in Lebanon, mysteriously turned ruby red spilling unknown substances into the Mediterranean Sea. The Environmental minister Nazem el-Khoury and his team of experts hastily launched an investigation involving scientists, police force and lawyers but the source and cause of the redness still remains uncertain, some sources talk about dye being dumped by upstream factories. The Daily Star reports:
“Eyewitnesses working in the area … [said] this was not the first time the river had turned a different color. Several business owners around the Chevrolet crossing said that colored water pours into the river roughly every two months but no one pays attention to it. It was the quantity and brightness of the red liquid that grabbed the attention of many passersby and commuters.”
This event exemplifies three very sad stories.
First, environmental degradation, even when visible, slowly risks becoming normalized within societies. Second, action is being taken only once the situation is particularly abnormal. Finally alarm and media attention has been created because the degradation was colored red, a color which the human brain associates with blood and because this event could be linked to “revelation 16” in the bible which several you tube videos, blogs and news cuttings suggest is sign of “an impending doom of apocalyptic nature.”
Unfortunately, not much has been discussed in terms of the serious environmental threat this may have posed, what to do about it in this state of emergency and in the long run.
After reading this story I started to wonder: how much does it take to get people to care, worry and act? And then I imagined what it would it be like if all environmental issues where “marked” in red, the redder the more serious the issue; a sort of natural warning system visible to humans which would instill a sense of alarm and perhaps incite action.
How can “invisible” environmental threats such as colorless and odorless pollutants, small scale changes, slow transformations, genetic mutations become visibly worrying? Fortunately we have science to help us out here.
Geospatial Information Systems, genetic research, nanoscopes and satellites are all examples of scientific tools which help us to track and record some of the important natural changes this world is undergoing.
Moreover the precision of these tools is becoming increasingly astounding, for example, the World View satellite launched in 2009 is capable of capturing nearly 1 million km2 of multispectral imagery every day, with a resolution of 0.5 meters from almost 500 miles above the earth! Think of the benefits this is having on environmental research.
Yet why is global environmental governance stalling even though science has extensively proven the urgency of global warming? Why are international environmental agreements failing? Is there too little empathy?
Are temperature change figures, texts, graphs, percentage changes, reports from the IPCC not enough to create sufficient alarm to lead decision makers to act decisively? Perhaps the answer is yes, words are not enough because the human brain needs a sensory stimulus before it can feel any sort of emotion like empathy. A less “naïve” answer could say that it is due to the Machiavellian nature of this increasing populous world and obsession with GDP figures, which sees the preservation of environmental resources as an obstacle to economic development.
A more realistic reason for standstills in multilateral agreements is due to useless bureaucracy, lack of coordination and cooperation. The final issue is relatively easy to fix (if there is the desire to), but let’s imagine that the real reason for multilateral deadlocks is lack of empathy. The interesting thing about empathy is that it is difficult for the human mind to experience these emotions when issues are geographically or temporally distant; the human psyche is usually finally nudged to commiserate only when problems come knocking at our doors or when there is some form of stimulus (like documentaries) which brings the issue “closer” to us.
So perhaps the answer to the lack of environmental governance is lack of environmental empathy. In turn empathy, as JK Rowling ably explains in her inspirational Harvard commencement speech is due to a lack of imagination. I am hopeful that this is the generation where environmental empathy will grow amongst us and across the world so that we stop walking next to ruby red rivers thinking it is ok, and so that we start to act before it is too late.
Above image via stateofmind13