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Monday, April 17, 2000

OUR PLANET EARTH

Chance meeting provides valuable insights on Japan and environment


In early April I had a chance to meet with Rea Litty, an environmentalist from the Netherlands, and Fushi Zen, president of the Association for the Conservation of Humans Against the Natural Environment, and former director of Humans First!

Initially the two declined a meeting, but eventually they both relented. Litty was visiting Japan for the first time, and Zen lives in central Tokyo. Below are some highlights of their exchange.

Litty: I've only been in Japan a few weeks, but I've already heard from many people that the Japanese have a long tradition of coexisting with nature. How can you reconcile this tradition with the present state of Japan's environment? I mean, traveling around, I've been shocked by the total lack of zoning, the jumbles of wire that clutter the sky, and the cementing of everything, from public parks to riverbeds.

Zen: First, let me make one thing clear. I don't speak for all Japanese; in fact, I speak for very few. Many of those I do speak for, however, are the rich and powerful in government and business. So don't get me wrong, I don't speak for the people, I speak for those who count.

That said, modern Japanese love nature about as much as your average New Yorker loves riding buffalo. I mean, really, how can you love something you know nothing about?

RL: Isn't that a problem? Getting people to conserve and protect something they don't appreciate?

FZ: Conserve and protect? We're not a police force. Get out there and look around, Mother Nature's doing just fine. She's just waiting to pounce. I don't know about your country, but Japan doesn't have the best of luck trying to get along with nature. Volcanoes popping off, earthquakes cracking open our cities, typhoons, floods, landslides. We'd be happy with a whole lot less nature.

RL: I'm sure you're joking.

FZ: No, really. To be honest, nature isn't all it's cracked up to be. Economic policies make a country great, not nature conservation. Take a look at the U.S. They're sucking up resources like there's no tomorrow and look where it's gotten them: Numero Uno, the world's sole superpower.

RL: The way the U.S. is going, there won't be many more tomorrows. Have you ever heard the phrase, "There are no jobs on a dead planet?" That's where we're headed if we put economic growth before environmental sustainability.

FZ: Come on! With the progress we're making in science and technology, within decades we'll be replacing nature with something far better.

RL: Like what? Look at Japan's rivers, for instance: They're concrete! They're not even rivers, they're canals. Why not zone to protect the flood plain, instead of imprisoning Japan's natural beauty in concrete?

FZ: Take a closer look! Japan is a flood plain. Seventy percent of Japan is mountains. The only flat places in Japan are flood plains, so that's where we live and work.

RL: But that's what zoning is for. Put agriculture in the flood plain closest to the rivers, and move the residential and industrial areas further back. Then concrete will be far less necessary.

FZ: Don't you realize concrete plays a key role in the economy of Japan? As we often say, Japan's economy is built on the 3 Cs: cars, concrete, construction.

RL: So that explains the coastline as well.

FZ: You bet. More than 50 percent of Japan's coastline has been altered by human activity. You can imagine how much that's helped the economy, all those construction jobs, all those millions of concrete tetrapods.

RL: Maybe you can explain why urban areas have so few trees. I recently heard about a whole hillside of trees that was cleared because the falling leaves were a nuisance.

FZ: Trees are fine, in their place. Out of place they're natural disturbances. In addition to leaves they also harbor birds and bugs. Need I say more?

RL: Oh, please do.

FZ: Birds are wonderful, in books and postcards. In real life, they're a health menace. They carry diseases, drop feathers and defecate. Less trees mean less birds, less bird s**t, and less noise -- not to mention less bugs to spray and leaves to rake.

RL: With a name like Zen, do you have any Buddhist beliefs?

FZ: Well, I believe in reincarnation; that's why I'm not too concerned about species extinction.

RL: Excuse me?

FZ: Well, Buddhists believe we transmigrate up or down, right? Anyone who supports wildlife exploitation as much as I do has an extremely good chance of coming back as a lower form of life, say a toad.

RL: I don't follow.

FZ: OK, chances are I'll be coming back as an amphibian to make up for all my wasteful consumption in this life. That said, aren't my chances of coming back as a human a whole lot better if there aren't any toads?

RL: So if we kill off all the lower species, you won't have to worry about being reincarnated as an animal?

FZ: You've got it. But let's not get off track. My real concern is the economy. A strong economy makes a strong nation. Nature will always be second.

RL: But there are so many problems your economy has spawned, dioxin, nuclear waste, overfishing, forest destruction . . .

FZ: You forgot whales, the stockyards of the sea. Now there's a topic I can sink my teeth into!

(This discussion took place on April 1, naturally.)

On the other hand, for those seriously concerned about the environment and looking for information on individual and group efforts to create a more sustainable society, visit Hibiya Park this weekend, April 22-23, for Japan's annual Earth Day celebration.

Stephen Hesse welcomes questions and comments at steve@tamacc.chuo-u.ac.jp


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