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Let us learn to be good guests on this planet

How would you regard a guest in your home who trashed the place carelessly, tried to take it over, or generally made life very difficult for the original inhabitants?

Human beings are guests, and planet Earth is our host. None of us is a long-term tenant; we are all on short-stay contracts. Barely any of us will make it past a century here; but our host has been around for four and half billion years. This, our temporary home, has been around for aeons before us; and it will outlast all of us.

Why then, do we behave as though we will outlive our host? Why do we try to corral and harness and subdue our host? Why do we try to take over the functioning of our temporary home, as though only we have the intelligence to run it, as though our host is a dimwit? Why do we have to always make it about us?

The present-day epoch is referred to as the Anthropocene, the era in which the temporary guests, humans, have significantly altered the Earth through their activity. What are the changes we have introduced to our host? Global warming; habitat loss; pollution of the atmosphere, soils, rivers, and oceans; and extinctions of many of our fellow inhabitants.

We are the guests from hell.

We come in swaggering, thinking we own the place that offered to host us. We find a supremely balanced world, and set out to unbalance it. We take what we like, build where we like, piss where we like.

We look at a beautiful 500-year tree, and see only firewood, or eye the land in which it has sat peacefully rooted long before we erupted from our mothers’ wombs. We see majestic rivers, and try to divert their natural courses to suit our own ends. We see a clear sky, set up so that we can breathe easily, and seek to befoul it with our noxious emissions.

As thinks the individual, thus behaves the collective. Governments and corporations have magnified and amplified the harm we do to our host. Small groups of humans were also natural exploiters, but they could co-exist as nastier elements amidst more benevolent inhabitants without causing large-scale harm. No more. Now our impact is off the charts. We no longer harm our host in order to survive; we do it to feed our greed; to have more, and more, and more.

Many of the organizations supposedly in the business of helping the world have much to answer for. They are either feeble and ineffective; or simply timid lapdogs in the service of rapacious governments and overlords. They extol temperance and discipline for the poorest, while looking away from the rampant excesses of the richest.

Our host has now woken up to the danger, and is in the process of taming its unruly and irresponsible guest. Using its timeless method of rebalancing, the planet will sort us out. It will send us fires and floods; it will unleash its hidden viruses on us; it will chase us away from coastlines; it will make much of its land uninhabitable for us.

I hope 2023 can be the year many more of us come to an individual realisation: that we are but short-stay guests in the home of a benevolent host. It behoves us to behave with respect and decorum in this temporary home; to respect its norms and its rules; to appreciate our stay and to be grateful for it.

For organizations, 2023 will be the year of ESG—a time to firm up our environmental, social and governance-related commitments. Many will do no more than “greenwash” the challenge, engaging in endless PR and hype and virtue signalling, rather than enforcing meaningful commitments. That is a shame, for our collectives have an even greater responsibility to be responsible inhabitants.

I hope many more leaders, directors, shareholders, and voters stand up to be counted in support of our planet next year. If we all do nothing, the Anthropocene will end in chaos and mass destruction of habitats. We seem incapable as a species of seeing the danger until it is too late. Well, “too late” is fast becoming literal, clear and present.

Let’s begin with ourselves. If I am but a speck on this speck; if I am no more than a brief guest, one of many billions that this planet has hosted; what good then does it do me to accumulate brainless riches at the expense of my host? What will I do with my booty when I leave this life, with a trail of destruction behind me?

Let us all follow the wisdom of those amongst us who have been responsible, thoughtful guests. We could do worse than begin with John Burroughs, who told us: “I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order.”

(Sunday Nation, 25 December 2022)

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