Building peace in the minds of men and women

Man against nature

Charles Richet, French physiologist and Nobel Prize winner, once published a tiny book called L'Homme stupide (The Stupidity of Man) the caustic title of which might well give us cause for reflexion. Those of us to whom it was addressed could still find therein reasons for humility and a chance for improvement. For the fact is that mankind is brilliant and yet so stupid.

Brilliant, in being able to produce a number of exceptional individuals endowed with the spark of creation and whose genius has made possible the astounding progress of today, particularly in the field of science. Stupid, in being incapable of forethought, except where immediate and selfish interests are involved, and almost inept in avoiding major catastrophes. Today, enchained by the swarm of increasing populations, our planet is being plundered on an unimaginable scale while mankind races toward a destiny which it refuses to envisage.

It is not intended here to formulate a one-sided or philosophical critique of our era or of technical progress, but rather to look squarely at the things being done around us, at the facts and figures, on the one hand recalling the chain of causes, and on the other, their resounding repercussions.

The erosion of the soil has been going on for a long long time: and yet, relatively speaking, it is a much more serious threat today than ever before. The ravages of the goat go back thousands of years: yet the tank and the bulldozer cause greater destruction and do so with greater swiftness. The clearing of land by fire has always been practiced in cultivation: yet the introduction of European methods of intensive farming has, in some cases, been even more harmful. Pollution has been a scourge for aeons: yet the atomic era is bringing it to us in another form. The stripping of our planet's top-soil, the deterioration of our capital of renewable resources, the shattering of the delicate balance of nature... all these are brutal events of weighty importance which, since they are all occurring at the same time, are the cause of the deepest concern.

The notion of the protection of nature has now given way to that of the conservation of renewable resources. The earlier notion contained an emotional, sentimental significance and its goals were disinterested, purely aesthetic, scientific and moral in nature. These are no longer priority considerations, for today our overpopulated world is hungry. What is of the utmost importance is no longer merely the knowledge and study of living species their surroundings and habitat, or the respect which they should inspire, or the interest they might arouse, or even the protection which these species deserve, but rather the food supply of our rising generations.

The statistics stare us in the face: we must produce and produce more. Yet the gap between this accelerated production and world consumption widens every year. What a terrible price we must pay for this economic failure... the price of the destruction of what was once one of life's most beautiful mirages.

Are we then headed for catastrophe?

We have one last chance ‒ if the power of education can overcome the power of ignorance. A rational population policy, a stop-and-arrest stand against the cancer of erosion, the adaptation of cultivation to climate and soil, the preservation of renewable resources ‒ all these depend upon education. It is our sincere hope that this issue will help Unesco to defend the great cause of the conservation of nature which it has espoused.

Roger Hein, Member of the French Institute, President, International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources

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January 1958