We can’tSave the Planetwith Green Myths!By Nalaka GunawardeneScience Writer, Blogger & Media WatcherColumnist (Ravaya, Cey...
My Approach… Covered  science, technology  & environment in public  media for 25 yrs… ‘Bridging’ experts & publics… Ask...
My Premise… We’re faced with many & varied  environmental problems Complex, interlinked causes  effects No easy soluti...
MYTHS get in the way… Discourage  individual action Feed into apathy & fatalism Mislead collective action Misguide/dis...
Science: A Journey of Discovery No  absolute truths in science No dogmas or SACRED COWS! Scientific method:   Question...
Believe it – or Not?“One of the most widespreadhuman weaknesses is ourreadiness to accept claims that fitour beliefs and r...
Eco Myths: 3 Kinds (my sorting)First Kind:            Second Kind:               Third Kind:   Honest mistakes       Exa...
Sri Lanka: An Island of Legend, Loreand Modern Myths? Burden of a  long history:  fact & lore mixed up! 25 Centuries of ...
Lanka: Eco Myths - Historical Myth:   All our environmental problems  started with colonisation & modernisation.  Fact: G...
Sri Lanka:Spice Island or Bland Nation?“The diverse origins didn’t reallymatter: the islanders knew justhow to mix the nat...
Sri Lanka:Spice Island or Bland Nation?“Sri Lanka is more resilientthan we think — and morevibrant and diverse than itappe...
Lanka: More Eco Myths – the Air Myth: Factory fumes are mostly  responsible for polluting the air we  breathe.  Fact: Ove...
Cartoonists: Do they reflect or shape public perceptions on problems?Cartoon by W R Wijesoma, doyen of Lankan cartoonists,...
Cartoon by W R Wijesoma, 1993
Even younger cartoonists believe factories are biggest air polluters!Cartoon by Ramesh de Silva, 2010: British Council Cli...
Cartoon by M M D M Dileepa Dolawatta, 2010: British Council Climate Cartoons Contest
Whether we admit or not…We’re ALL part of the problem!
Why don’t we see more cartoonslike this in Lankan media?
More Eco Myths:    What drives Lanka’s deforestation? Myth: Politically-backed illicit  loggers are ‘mostly responsible’ ...
What drives Lanka’s deforestation? Sri Lanka’s forest cover estimated  at 22.4% of total land in 1999. Forest cover decl...
Where do we source our timber? Myth: More    timber we  consume, more natural forests  will be ‘sacrificed’ to source it....
Who drives Lanka’s deforestation?Cartoon by W R Wijesoma, circa 1992
Who drives Lanka’s deforestation?         Cartoon by W R Wijesoma drawn to illustrate         Nalaka Gunawardene article o...
The ‘Sinharaja Mentality’?“How many environmentallyconcerned Lankans can namespecific forest areas besides themuch hyped S...
Eco Myths Galore:Too much ‘hot air’ on Climate Change…
What Sane Limits of Scepticism?
There is also much confusion!
Media Reports:‘Climate Disaster’ in the making?“3 Lankan Districts inDanger!No rice cultivation inAnuradhapura,Polonnaruwa...
The Nation newspaper, 23 Oct 2007
Fears on Climate Change “Sea levels will rise,                       submerging  many of Lanka’s coastal areas” “Threate...
Weather Extreme…Or “Foreign Interference”?By Gihan de Chickera, Daily Mirror, 19 Jan 2011
What doLankan peoplethink or knowabout Climate?
Public Perceptions onClimate Change in Sri Lanka 2010 1,000 Lankans  aged 18 & above Surveyed during: March – April 2010...
Surveying Public Perceptions onEnvironment & Climate in Sri Lanka To map out what ordinary Lankans  FEEL/RECALL about:  ...
Survey Sample… 1,000 respondents All 25 districts of Sri Lanka Urban: 144; Rural: 856 Wet Zone: 42%; Intermediate Zone...
Percentage ofpeople who feelthat rains don’tcome on timeanymore...
Do you think thetemperatures have changed in yourarea in the past 10      years ?       90%            said:              ...
Why do you think rainfall, temp. &other natural factors changed?   “Deforestation, tree felling, setting fire to wilderne...
Do you know of any other reasons thatcause Climate Change? “Tsunami” (12%) “Earthquakes” (8%) “Floods” (8%) “Melting o...
Top climate impacts feared…
Nearly 80% believe something can andshould be done about Climate Change.We asked them: who should take action?Me & my fami...
Info sources on ALL current issues.. Outdoor billboards, banners, etc              27%         Educational institutions   ...
Survey Reports Online… Public Perceptions on Climate Change in  Sri Lanka 2010 Survey: findings are  published and in the...
Some winning/commended entries ofClimate Change Cartoon Contest 2009British Council Sri Lanka
Contest scope/rules   Open to all Lankans aged 18 – 35   Black & white cartoons (up to 5/person)   6 themes:      drou...
Second PrizeSecond Place: Cartoon by M M D Dileepa Dolawatta
Third PrizeThird Place: Cartoon by Ms M W D Nishani
Climate Change: No Escape… Climate change: reality we can’t escape. Our contribution to global warming is  negligible. ...
Lanka WILL BE Impacted…but exactly when and how?“A major part of Jaffna and othernorthern areas of Sri Lanka willbe submer...
We should worry more about effectson Monsoons with major impacts                                          We are ALL      ...
Adaptation: Living with climate change impacts! In order to protect our people &  national interests, we must plan for  a...
Climate Communication Challenges… How to communicate a clear,  coherent message on CC? How to avoid climate related  pub...
Everyone Loves a Good Myth?
From Jana Thakshana Puwath, Vol 2, No 3Published by Practical Action Sri Lanka, 2008
Summing Up: MYTHS can entertain - but not save us! Myths & legends are part of culture:  people are not always logical,  ...
I’m NOT arguing for simplistic,purely technocratic solutions… Like individuals, nations are also  not always driven by ra...
As I’ve been saying for 20 years:No room for apathy or fatalism…“There is a common perception[in Sri Lanka] that the cumul...
Go Beyond Sentimentality…"Sentimental stuff is fine tolisten to and was actuallyinspiring 20 years or moreago, but absolut...
But we need Tree-huggers too!“Without the tree huggers, wewould be lost without ways toconvince people and politicians onc...
Eco Myth-Busters Beware! True Greens love their little myths… My Blogpost, April 2009:  “Much-touted & lyrical  speech at...
What’s in a name?Earth: Home planet, Mother or God?
Thanks…Everything here is open to debate!Email:alien@nalaka.orgBlog:nalakagunawardene.comTwitter:twitter.com/NalakaGThanks...
Myths Can't Save the Environment - by Nalaka Gunawardene 7 June 2012
Myths Can't Save the Environment - by Nalaka Gunawardene 7 June 2012
Myths Can't Save the Environment - by Nalaka Gunawardene 7 June 2012
Myths Can't Save the Environment - by Nalaka Gunawardene 7 June 2012
Myths Can't Save the Environment - by Nalaka Gunawardene 7 June 2012
Myths Can't Save the Environment - by Nalaka Gunawardene 7 June 2012
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Myths Can't Save the Environment - by Nalaka Gunawardene 7 June 2012

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A talk given to Sri Lanka Rationalists' Association (SLRA) in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on 7 June 2012. In this presentation, I share my observations on how attempts aimed at environmental conservation and sustainable resource use in Sri Lanka are hindered by many misconceptions and myths.

I propose a basic categorization of eco-myths as myths of the first, second and third kind – the last one being the most pervasive and harmful. Drawing on my 25 years of experience as a science writer and journalist, I cite several examples from air pollution, biodiversity and climate change.

There is also the mother of all eco-myths that Lankan nationalists never tire of repeating: romanticising the ‘good old days’ before modernisation and colonisation. Ah, if only real life were that simple…

I acknowledge that scientific knowledge and understanding on some ecological matters are evolving so have to keep an open, inquisitive mind: science does not have all the answers, but provides a framework in which to ask the right questions and to go in search of answers supported by evidence.

I also concede that many individuals - and their societies - are not always rational. Some people readily believe in their favourite misconceptions, but demand the most exacting proof for scientific theories or explanations.

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Myths Can't Save the Environment - by Nalaka Gunawardene 7 June 2012

  1. 1. We can’tSave the Planetwith Green Myths!By Nalaka GunawardeneScience Writer, Blogger & Media WatcherColumnist (Ravaya, Ceylon Today)nalakagunawardene.comSri Lanka Rationalists AssociationColombo: 7 June 2012
  2. 2. My Approach… Covered science, technology & environment in public media for 25 yrs… ‘Bridging’ experts & publics… Asking many questions… Seeking answers & clarity:  Curious, eager, open-minded  Sceptical enquirer  With wide-ranging interests
  3. 3. My Premise… We’re faced with many & varied environmental problems Complex, interlinked causes  effects No easy solutions or ‘quick fixes’ Path to viable solutions found thru:  Evidence (from research, field observations)  Public discussion & debate  Consideration of choices & alternatives  Sustaining implementation
  4. 4. MYTHS get in the way… Discourage individual action Feed into apathy & fatalism Mislead collective action Misguide/distort policy Can also lead, in some cases, to:  waste of public funds  Irreversible damage/loss  lost opportunities to act in time  massive costs of repair/restoration
  5. 5. Science: A Journey of Discovery No absolute truths in science No dogmas or SACRED COWS! Scientific method:  Questions everything  Investigates hypothesis  Gathers and analyses evidence  Draws conclusions  Remains open for later revision
  6. 6. Believe it – or Not?“One of the most widespreadhuman weaknesses is ourreadiness to accept claims that fitour beliefs and reject those thatclash with them. We demandimpossible standards of proofwhen confronted with something - George Monbiot, journalist/columnist,we don’t want to hear -- but will The Guardian, UKbelieve any old cobblers if it www.monbiot.com/2confirms our prejudices…” 011/11/22/how-the- greens-were-misled/
  7. 7. Eco Myths: 3 Kinds (my sorting)First Kind: Second Kind: Third Kind: Honest mistakes  Exaggerations or  Fabrications by that gained distortions that vested interests currency started with facts  False science Repeated by many and/or Probably based  interpretations on outdated info without question  Can harm believer  Actively peddled to Does no great confuse public harm to holders in some situations  Great potential for or wider society  Some policy misleading public implications, but no No major policy  Intended to rig major damage implications possible policy & regulation
  8. 8. Sri Lanka: An Island of Legend, Loreand Modern Myths? Burden of a long history: fact & lore mixed up! 25 Centuries of stories, some taller than others… 21st Century Lanka: creating modern myths Lankans also like to peddle conspiracy theories!
  9. 9. Lanka: Eco Myths - Historical Myth: All our environmental problems started with colonisation & modernisation. Fact: Generalisations not possible. Analyse each trend on its own. Myth: All exotic species are harmful. Native species are better (Us vs. Them?) Fact: Generalisations highly misleading. No country is an island - genetically speaking. It’s a mixed & mashed up world. Get used to it!
  10. 10. Sri Lanka:Spice Island or Bland Nation?“The diverse origins didn’t reallymatter: the islanders knew justhow to mix the native andforeign to achieve legendaryresults. As Sri Lanka embarks onnational integration andreconciliation after threedecades of war, it’s worthrecalling this particular aspectof our heritage…”– Nalaka Gunawardene op-edJuly 2009: contd. 
  11. 11. Sri Lanka:Spice Island or Bland Nation?“Sri Lanka is more resilientthan we think — and morevibrant and diverse than itappears at first glance.“Let genes, ideas and spicesflow freely again!”- Nalaka Gunawardene, in essayfirst published in July 2009Full text at: http://tiny.cc/SpiceIsle
  12. 12. Lanka: More Eco Myths – the Air Myth: Factory fumes are mostly responsible for polluting the air we breathe. Fact: Over 60% of outdoor air pollution in LK caused by vehicle exhaust emissions. Diesel power plant emissions are also significant. Myth: Staying indoors can protect you from worst exposure to air pollution. Fact: Not always. Indoor air pollution from poorly ventilated kitchens is a major health hazard to women & children.
  13. 13. Cartoonists: Do they reflect or shape public perceptions on problems?Cartoon by W R Wijesoma, doyen of Lankan cartoonists, circa 1990
  14. 14. Cartoon by W R Wijesoma, 1993
  15. 15. Even younger cartoonists believe factories are biggest air polluters!Cartoon by Ramesh de Silva, 2010: British Council Climate Cartoons Contest
  16. 16. Cartoon by M M D M Dileepa Dolawatta, 2010: British Council Climate Cartoons Contest
  17. 17. Whether we admit or not…We’re ALL part of the problem!
  18. 18. Why don’t we see more cartoonslike this in Lankan media?
  19. 19. More Eco Myths: What drives Lanka’s deforestation? Myth: Politically-backed illicit loggers are ‘mostly responsible’ for LK deforestation. “It’s all to do with greed and corruption!” Fact: Illicit logging for timber does happen -- but NOT the main reason for Ldeclining forest cover. Deforestation & forest degradation result from complex, multiple causes. There is no single ‘villain’!
  20. 20. What drives Lanka’s deforestation? Sri Lanka’s forest cover estimated at 22.4% of total land in 1999. Forest cover decline driven mostly by land uses (demand for land):  Large scale Irrigation schemes incl Mahaweli River project  Expanding human settlements & public infrastructure, e.g. roads  Growing food & cash crops  Activities in other sectors also impact forest cover, e.g. hydro power reservoirs that flood forests
  21. 21. Where do we source our timber? Myth: More timber we consume, more natural forests will be ‘sacrificed’ to source it. Fact: Not quite. Most of Lanka’s timber (70%) & firewood (80%) now harvested from trees OUTSIDE natural forests. Trees a renewable resource that can be grown!
  22. 22. Who drives Lanka’s deforestation?Cartoon by W R Wijesoma, circa 1992
  23. 23. Who drives Lanka’s deforestation? Cartoon by W R Wijesoma drawn to illustrate Nalaka Gunawardene article on elephants running out of habitat in Lanka’s forests; 1993
  24. 24. The ‘Sinharaja Mentality’?“How many environmentallyconcerned Lankans can namespecific forest areas besides themuch hyped Sinharaja, Yala (andperhaps Wilpattu)? Most can’t!There are more biologicallydiverse forests in Sri Lanka thanSinharaja - but far less known…”– Dr Alawattagoda Pemadasa,botanist & writer, quoted in thelate 1980s
  25. 25. Eco Myths Galore:Too much ‘hot air’ on Climate Change…
  26. 26. What Sane Limits of Scepticism?
  27. 27. There is also much confusion!
  28. 28. Media Reports:‘Climate Disaster’ in the making?“3 Lankan Districts inDanger!No rice cultivation inAnuradhapura,Polonnaruwa &Hambantota DistrictsPart of Colombo willsubmerge” Lankadeepa, top-selling Sinhala daily newspaper in Sri Lanka, front page lead on 8 Dec 2007
  29. 29. The Nation newspaper, 23 Oct 2007
  30. 30. Fears on Climate Change “Sea levels will rise, submerging many of Lanka’s coastal areas” “Threaten our food (rice) production & fresh water” “Disasters will increase, threatening life & property” “Global warming can even trigger tsunamis!”Many are based on some basis…
  31. 31. Weather Extreme…Or “Foreign Interference”?By Gihan de Chickera, Daily Mirror, 19 Jan 2011
  32. 32. What doLankan peoplethink or knowabout Climate?
  33. 33. Public Perceptions onClimate Change in Sri Lanka 2010 1,000 Lankans aged 18 & above Surveyed during: March – April 2010 Conducted by market research firm, Survey Research Lanka (Pvt) Limited For Strengthening Capacity for Climate Change Adaptation Project, Ministry of Environment Supervised by Dr Buddhi Weerasinghe & Nalaka Gunawardene Results released: Nov 2010
  34. 34. Surveying Public Perceptions onEnvironment & Climate in Sri Lanka To map out what ordinary Lankans FEEL/RECALL about:  changes in local environment  if/what they THINK about climate change Opinion survey, NOT a test of knowledge Answers collated, but not judged Snapshot of popular beliefs, worries and fears on current environment…
  35. 35. Survey Sample… 1,000 respondents All 25 districts of Sri Lanka Urban: 144; Rural: 856 Wet Zone: 42%; Intermediate Zone: 31%; Dry Zone: 27% 54% women; 46% men Average age: 40 years Average respondent: 10 years of schooling Just over 50% of respondents wage-earners Total income of average sample household: LKR 22,600 (USD 200)/month
  36. 36. Percentage ofpeople who feelthat rains don’tcome on timeanymore...
  37. 37. Do you think thetemperatures have changed in yourarea in the past 10 years ? 90% said: temperatures are higher
  38. 38. Why do you think rainfall, temp. &other natural factors changed? “Deforestation, tree felling, setting fire to wilderness & extinction of wildlife” (74%) “Air pollution caused by vehicle emissions” (11%) “Accelerated development of projects and construction activities” (11%) “Air pollution caused by factories” (10%) “Population growth” (8%) “Air pollution” (7%) “Environmental pollution” (6%) “Due to natural disasters” (5%) “Destroying the ozone layer” (3%) “Nuclear testing” (3%) “Water pollution by use of agro-chemicals” (3%) “Cannot say” (7%)
  39. 39. Do you know of any other reasons thatcause Climate Change? “Tsunami” (12%) “Earthquakes” (8%) “Floods” (8%) “Melting of icebergs and ice-caps on mountains” (7%) “Landslides” (6%) “Harm to the ozone layer” (6%) “Volcanic eruptions” (5%) Multiple answers “Cyclones” (5%) were allowed. “Natural phenomenon” (5%) Answers not “Do not know” (44%) prompted.
  40. 40. Top climate impacts feared…
  41. 41. Nearly 80% believe something can andshould be done about Climate Change.We asked them: who should take action?Me & my family 77%My local community 79%Local government body 55%Provincial administration 47%National government 78%United Nations / Global level 42%
  42. 42. Info sources on ALL current issues.. Outdoor billboards, banners, etc 27% Educational institutions 7% Friends, neighbors, colleagues 52% Public exhibitions, seminars,etc 13% Mobile phone/SMS alerts 13% Internet 9% TV 94% Radio 74% Newspapers and magazines 70%
  43. 43. Survey Reports Online… Public Perceptions on Climate Change in Sri Lanka 2010 Survey: findings are published and in the public domain Illustrated summary with highlights: http://tiny.cc/PPSLSum Full report: http://tiny.cc/PPSL New story: www.tveap.org/? q=1011_mmc.php Another report by Centre for Environmental Justice done in Feb 2009, available at: www.elaw.org/node/3872
  44. 44. Some winning/commended entries ofClimate Change Cartoon Contest 2009British Council Sri Lanka
  45. 45. Contest scope/rules Open to all Lankans aged 18 – 35 Black & white cartoons (up to 5/person) 6 themes:  drought and water shortage  deforestation & rain forest destruction  melting of polar ice caps  role of industry in polluting the atmosphere  devastation of our seas & marine life  climate change in an urban environment. Details: http://tiny.cc/CCCartoon
  46. 46. Second PrizeSecond Place: Cartoon by M M D Dileepa Dolawatta
  47. 47. Third PrizeThird Place: Cartoon by Ms M W D Nishani
  48. 48. Climate Change: No Escape… Climate change: reality we can’t escape. Our contribution to global warming is negligible. But already facing negative impacts, e.g.  Increases in frequency/intensity of disasters  Variability of rainfall patterns  Temperature increases  Sea level rise (slow but steady) These will be more severe in future.
  49. 49. Lanka WILL BE Impacted…but exactly when and how?“A major part of Jaffna and othernorthern areas of Sri Lanka willbe submerged when sea levelsrise. So people are fighting anddying over areas that may soonnot be there.”- Dr Mohan Munasinghe, former vice chair,UN-IPCC [In 2007 media interview given toIPS -- while Lanka’s war was still on!]Full text:http://ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=37463
  50. 50. We should worry more about effectson Monsoons with major impacts We are ALL Children of the Monsoon in South Asia! Even small change can affect 1.5 billion peopleImage by Kalpana-1 Indian satellite, 18 May 2010
  51. 51. Adaptation: Living with climate change impacts! In order to protect our people & national interests, we must plan for and adapt to expected climate change impacts. Climate change adaptation is not a choice. It’s an imperative. National Climate Change Adaptation Strategy 2011-2016, ADB/Govt of Sri Lanka Full Report at: www.climatechange.lk/Publications .html
  52. 52. Climate Communication Challenges… How to communicate a clear, coherent message on CC? How to avoid climate related public scare mongering? Dangers of over-stating the case? Separating climate impacts from effects of other human activities Short term survival vs. long term climate adaptation Moving BEYOND RHETORIC!
  53. 53. Everyone Loves a Good Myth?
  54. 54. From Jana Thakshana Puwath, Vol 2, No 3Published by Practical Action Sri Lanka, 2008
  55. 55. Summing Up: MYTHS can entertain - but not save us! Myths & legends are part of culture: people are not always logical, evidence-based or rational Modern humans: like to create their own ‘urban legends’! Believing and/or peddling myths is part of individual liberty… AS LONG AS it causes no harm! Green Dragon named WORRY: when myths distort public Ai-Ai-Yo, made in debate, misdirect policy or threaten China and gifted to public safety and/or lives Sri Lanka (OK, I’m just kidding here!)
  56. 56. I’m NOT arguing for simplistic,purely technocratic solutions… Like individuals, nations are also not always driven by rational arguments & scientific logic alone… Emotions & beliefs matter, too! Don’t look for simple techno fixes to real world problems… MY PLEA: Open-minded, broad- based discussion & debate, instead of DOGMA or BELIEF!
  57. 57. As I’ve been saying for 20 years:No room for apathy or fatalism…“There is a common perception[in Sri Lanka] that the cumulativeenvironmental impacts of the - Nalaka Gunawardeneliberalised economy,government-driven development “Bridging the Gap Betweenprogrammes and population Perception andpressures are both inevitable and Reality”irreversible -- and that individual Op-ed written foraction cannot make a difference. IIED PerspectivesThis is wrong…” (London) in 1993
  58. 58. Go Beyond Sentimentality…"Sentimental stuff is fine tolisten to and was actuallyinspiring 20 years or moreago, but absolutely counter-productive now! One has topositively contribute toeconomics, livelihoods or -- Dr Jinie Dela, Primatologist andother human aspirations to Member, IUCNget through to most Commission onpeople…” Education and Communication
  59. 59. But we need Tree-huggers too!“Without the tree huggers, wewould be lost without ways toconvince people and politicians oncritical environmental issues. So,while I agree that they cannot solvethe environmental issues of our dayby themselves, neither can the - Lalanath de Silvascientists or politicians. These Director, The Accesscomplex issues require honest Initiative, Worldpartnerships between all: the Resources Institute,scientists, the tree huggers, the Washington,DCpoliticians, the companies, etc.”
  60. 60. Eco Myth-Busters Beware! True Greens love their little myths… My Blogpost, April 2009: “Much-touted & lyrical speech attributed to native American Chief Seattle not his words” No verbatim record of his 1854 speech Famous words: written ‘Chief Seattle speech’: Global in 1970 by Ted Perry for environmental legend, or a green film script! pervasive myth? Eco Defenders cry foul: “Hands off sacred chief” Full Text & heated discussion: http://tiny.cc/MythChief
  61. 61. What’s in a name?Earth: Home planet, Mother or God?
  62. 62. Thanks…Everything here is open to debate!Email:alien@nalaka.orgBlog:nalakagunawardene.comTwitter:twitter.com/NalakaGThanks to: Dr Jini Dela, Lalanath de Silva, Rohan Pethiyagoda,Dr Janaka Ratnasiri, Dr Ranil Senanayake, DilrukshiHandunnetti, Dr Buddhi Weerasinghe for ideas & refsThey are not responsible for my interpretations & opinions!

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