New Internationalist

Only One Earth

Issue 091

… being the book that showed how to look after a fragile planet for the good of all its inhabitants.

Only One Earth : The Care and Maintenance of a Small Planet
by Barbara Ward and Rene Dubos (1972)
Penguin (paperback)
UK: £1.50
Aus: $5.25

ONLY One Earth is for those who wonder if it is really worth worrying about the survival of the whale when millions of babies sleep hungry every night. Or whether society’s growing car dependence really matters, beyond making grubby cities a little grubbier. However, ‘it takes only the smallest movement at its fulcrum,’ the authors point out, ‘to swing a seesaw out of the horizontal’. So what appears to be a minor insult by man to one aspect of life may have undreamt of repercussions elsewhere. For example, just a 2°C rise in the earth’s surface temperature would be enough to melt the polar ice caps, submerge some inhabited landmasses and scorch others. But how do humans contribute to warming up the surface? The authors explain: carbon dioxide in the atmosphere makes heat that would otherwise escape into space bounce back to earth. In 1972 alone, people burning fossil fuels increased the CO2 content of the air by an alarming 0.2 per cent. At that rate of use, ‘the earth’s temperature would rise by 0.5° C by the year 2000’. But rates have risen sharply in the developed world since 1972, and estimatesof ThirdWorld power demands since then are even bigger. In addition, deforestation reduces the natural disposal of carbon dioxide through leaves. Together, burning fossil fuels and deforestation could bring about the longterm warming up of the planet.

Barbara Ward, the celebrated economist and writer, whose death earlier this year will be a loss to all those who work in world development, collaborated with Dr Rene Dubos to write Only One Earth. To the authors’ own encyclopaedic knowledge was added that of some 150 other experts from 58 countries participating in the UN Conference on the Human Environment at Stockholm in 1972. It lacks the sparkle of Barbara Ward’s usual style, not surprisingly since it was at least partly written by committee. But the end product does demonstrate unequivocally, if stolidly, that to look at the world as a single, vulnerable life-support system for all mankind is not just an attractive moral stance. It is reaffirmed by each advance in scientific knowledge. Showing how ‘there exists a single unified system from one end of the cosmos to the other’, the authors guide us from the orderly macrocosm of the universe to the equally orderly microcosm of the atom and the gene,

Rene Dubos and Barbara Ward are our guides through time as well as space. Whisking us through the aeons, they show us how the vast cosmic forces interacted to give birth to life. Disturbing the subtle balances of the biosphere, evolved over millennia, comes man with his ‘technosphere’, like a heedless and greedy infant.

As a kind of pocket ‘integrated studies’ course, the book is a prodigious achievement. Volumes of information about physics, chemistry, metereology, biology, geography, astronomy and history seem to have been concentrated into a few literate chapters. The authors assume a good deal of intelligence and perseverence on the part of the reader but little knowledge. How an atom is structured, how the Green Revolution works, how nature’s self-repairing cycles fail - all these mysteries are quickly explained.

Most important of all, Barbara Ward and Rene Dubos point to solutions for the world’s biggest problems: poverty, hunger, and the destruction of natural resources. They outline strategies for developing both rich and poor worlds that will make life more bearable for its inhabitants while restoring the earth to the ‘health, beauty, and variety’ that Dr Schumacher later called for in Small is Beautiful (see N.I. Jan ‘80). In the end, Only One Earth is an optimistic book. The authors feel that science could be used for its true purpose - to clarify reality, rather than to help people escape from it. If we were made to understand what grave danger threatened our planet, our shared home, our loyalty to her wellbeing might overcome our narrower loyalties to ‘the idols of the market and the idols of the tribe’, profitmaking and nationalism.

The alternative, quoted by Barbara Ward in The Home of Man, was described 4,000 years ago at the fall of Ur, man’s earliest city. Then, an ancient elegy lamented:

Verily all my birds and winged creatures have flown away
‘Alas! for my city,’ I will say.
‘Alas! for my men,’ I will say.
0 my city which exists no longer.

Anuradha Vittachi

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