Borders and environmental ethics

- Simon Lawson, Ph.D.
Institute of Biological Sciences, University of Tsukuba,
Tsukuba Science City 305, JAPAN

Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 6 (1996), 165.
Frank Leavitt's discussion on the problems facing Israelis and Palestinians in coming to terms with their shared problems, in this case of environmental health, was a tangible demon-stration of the problems that we all have to face when problems (particularly environmental/ecological ones) transgress international borders. In fact, numerous examples of the same kind of problems occur even only interstate or even intercity ones are involved! Nevertheless, it seems to me that the same factors are at work; namely parochialism (or in its more extreme form, fanatical nationalism) and political expedience.

A case in point from my own knowledge in Australia may serve as an illustration. I hail from Adelaide in the state of South Australia ("The driest State in the driest continent") where drinking water is of necessity often taken from the Murray river when demand is high or rainfall has been low. This is all very well except that 4 of the 6 states border the river or form part of its catchment area and so are jointly responsible for its management. In the past it has been notoriously difficult to get agreement between states even on fairly basic initiatives on controlling waste inputs, irrigation allocations, salinity management, ecosystem management and a whole bevy of other problems. For Adelaide, which is situated near the mouth of the river, this has often meant that, because the river has been treated more or less as a sewer upstream, water quality has not always been the best, to say the least. (There is an apocryphal story that there used to be only two ports in the world at which ships would not take on drinking water, Bombay in India - and Adelaide). The matter is improving somewhat but much work still needs to be done in coordinating legislation and research between the states. Again, parochialism and cynical political gain have often been to blame.

As Dr. Leavitt pointed out so well, nature takes no notice of the artificial political and other boundaries that people erect. It is therefore time for us, our politicians, business people and scientists to recognize that we need to move away from this sort of petty parochialism and to be able to embrace a more global, international way of thinking. To some extent this has happened, which the recent international agreements on the Ozone layer, Global warming and Biodiversity have shown. Whether these agreements actually are implemented fully or not, they do demonstrate that we can agree if we try. However, as Dr. Leavitt showed, more can be achieved on a local level also, if only we can leave behind parochial attitudes and address issues head on. Obviously in some cases, such as those confronting the Israelis and Palestinians, or in Northern Ireland and Bosnia, deep-seated distrusts and hatreds also have to be overcome and this will never be an easy process. Hopefully, there will be enough rational, compassionate people on either side that those who espouse hatred and 'easy' fixes will not prevail. As I have shown above, even when racial, cultural, and historical values are shared (such as in the states of Australia), parochialism can still prevent us from tackling the issues properly.

Finally, the strongest images that I will take away from Dr. Leavitt's presentation are of those showing cooperation and understanding taking place between ordinary Israelis and Palestinians going about their day-to-day activities. Sadly, these sorts of images are not those which are very often presented in the media today, where negative stories prevail, and stories of hope and cooperation are few and far between. The media also has a responsibility to provide messages of just what can be achieved by like-minded people on either side of any border.

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