Movie star Leonardo DiCaprio produced and provided the voice-over for the documentary The 11th Hour. The film features 71 academics from different countries lecturing on the environment. They say that the human race made its appearance only at a very late point. If the world came into existence on Jan. 1, they say, humankind arrived only on Dec. 31, following a long process of evolution.
By now, people have used up most of the earth's natural resources and destroyed the environment, bringing humankind closer to one second to midnight. After that hour, man-made ecological problems, like global warming and the pollution of the oceans, will cause many species -- including humankind itself -- to quickly go extinct.
Humans would only be one of the many species that have become extinct in the past 4.6 billion years. After humans have become extinct, new species will develop. In time, the earth will give birth to new life and the world will go on without humans.
Is this view that the end of humankind and the earth is nigh overly dramatic?
Why is it that so many people, including physicist Steven Hawkins, want to talk about the prospect of the extinction of humankind?
Fortunately, the second half of the film mentions many ways the human race can avert extinction. Of course people are not expected to return to the way of life of primitive humans, but the film wants to wake everyone up and lead them to care about nature and the earth.
To prevent a future tragedy, people should actively look for smarter, more scientific ways of living, ways that use up fewer natural resources, and don't produce polluting substances -- or greenhouse gases.
Is it the "11th hour" for Taiwan, too? Many academics have undertaken the mission to spread the word about the plight of the environment and future dangers for Taiwan and have come up with many ideas on how to solve the problem.
They propose, for example, that industrial structure be changed. They say the existing structure cannot be sustained by investing in companies that use a lot of natural resources and emit large amounts of carbon dioxide, like the Kuokuang Petrochemical Technology Co (國光石化科技) or the Formosa Plastics Group's (台塑) steel mill project.
The ecology of the Hualien and Taitung coast must be protected, so the planned Suhua Freeway connecting Suao and Hualien should not be built. The water supply areas in the mountains must be protected and the rampant development of mountain slopes or building of golf courses should not be allowed. Disadvantaged groups in society should also be protected. The rich-poor gap should not be allowed to grow wider, so that social problems don't get worse.
But the Western world's attempts to bring about introspection and improvements by broadcasting concerns about the future of humankind is not going to work in Taiwan.
Many important politicians think the academics who worry about such things in Taiwan are downright wrong. They think that economic growth is the main thing and that anything goes as long as it produces immediate results. In the eyes of these people, the future doesn't exist, and there is no need to take any notice of it.
Western academics say the earth's natural resources are limited, that humankind has already used up too much of it, and that this is already endangering the world's ecology and future generations. Taiwanese academics say that Taiwan's natural resources are limited, that traditional industries have used up too much of them and that this is a danger to Taiwan's ecology and our children and grandchildren.
In the West, they make a movie about this, and show it all over the world. Regardless of how well the film does at the box office, in the end it will be the best-visited lecture series about the environment ever. In Taiwan, on the other hand, people insist almost to the man that protecting the environment should not be made at the expense of the economy. This slogan alone makes a sustainable Taiwan even less likely than a sustainable Earth.
The important question is whether it is possible for us to create a smart way of life and scientific ecology and industry that do not recklessly use up natural resources or produce pollution. Once devised, could the practice take root in Taiwan?
Taiwan's efforts are laudable, but slow. Taiwan is encouraging environmentally friendly construction and communities with low carbon dioxide emissions, while the US is planning zero discharge highrises. Taiwan is mulling when to continue construction on its fourth nuclear power plant, while Japan is planning a zero discharge thermal power plant. Taiwan is building a MRT system, but northern Europe and California are already building a "hydrogen freeway" with hydrogen fueling stations along that freeway.
Other countries think of the world 30 years from now when they make plans, Taiwan only thinks about the short-term future four years from now. Without a long-term ideal, it's very hard to create a future where resources, the economy and the environment all come out on top.
Taiwan may already be at the 11th hour, but who is noticing?
Liu Chung-ming is director of the Global Change Research Center at National Taiwan University. Liou Ming-lone is an assistant professor at National Taiwan University's Graduate Institute of Environmental Engineering.
Translated by Anna Stiggelbout
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