What Is this Thing called Eco?

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Pamela Nowicka PenangWhat is this thing called ‘eco’? It’s a term that means different things to different people. Pamela Nowicka, Penang Spirit’s Green Guru, gives a beginners guide to what the term ‘eco’ really means.

At a presentation the other day, to which I’d been lured by the usual green/tourism/ eco-friendly buzzwords floating around in the ether, I found myself musing on what exactly people mean when they use words like ‘green’ or ‘eco’.

Because, quite frankly, it’s clear that either a) most people who use them do not have the faintest idea about what these terms refer to or b) their shaky grasp amounts to something along the lines of ‘plant a few saplings and forget about the areas of forest that we’ve knocked down to build our latest project’ or ‘save a few turtle eggs and just forget about the coastal ecosystem we’re trashing’. And by the way, can we take shed loads of photos and slap them up on our website to show how green and eco and fluffy our multinational corporation really is? Thanks.

As an environmentalist, campaigner and journalist, I have become increasingly… well, basically, cheesed off, with the annexation of these words by the corporate PR spods and spin doctors.

So, in the interests of clarity, here is a beginners guide to eco. ‘Eco’ is an abbreviation of ecological – the study of eco systems. Ecology is the study of the way living biological (eco) systems interact. NB it is not a PR term and has nothing to do with schoolchildren planting saplings or tourists watching turtle eggs hatching.

What is an eco-system? I hear the more alert of you ask. Eco-systems allow life on earth to exist. An eco system is a complex web of animal, plant, and physical (water, soil, oxygen, etc) interactions which keep this planet habitable.

To be ‘eco-friendly’ or ‘eco’ is NOT an optional extra (herb garden/eco park/eco this that or the other) which can be tagged onto a project as some kind of compensating factor for systematically trashing the environment. Eco in the true sense of the word means not destroying the environmental balance.

What is eco

Ecosystems are just that – systems – interdependent webs of animal, plant, climatic and other biological activities. A simple ecosystem, might be a garden lawn, comprising soil, earthworms, the micro-organisms in the soil, birds, insects, wild flowers. All existing in a self-regulating system of checks and balances.

To put it simplistically: worms eat organic matter in the soil and excrete high quality wormcasts; birds eat the worms and excrete seeds of wildflowers. Bees and other insects pollinate the wild flowers, which provide nectar for insects to consume. A balanced and largely self-regulating system. If one element is changed or removed eg pesticides sprayed on the lawn to remove ‘pests’ (unwanted insects), birds will die because of the build-up of toxins in their bodies, certain plants will flourish and others will not. This is what ‘eco’ means.

So what does it mean when someone talks about, for example, eco-tourism, or eco friendly? To be truly eco, the tourism or whatever needs to be in harmony with the set of ecosystems in which it is taking place. It has nothing to do with looking at turtle eggs or planting saplings. Depending on the context in which these activities take place, they may be detrimental to the environment and delicately balanced eco-systems.

Does this matter? Well, since we are all depending on intact and flourishing eco-systems in order to breathe, eat, and live, as well as to support all the wonderful animal and plant life which inhabit this beautiful planet, some people think so.

Others believe that the profits of multinational corporations are more important, and that ‘eco’ or ‘the environment’ are optional extras to real-life realities. Or, at best, a PR figleaf to cover up more environmentally destructive core activities.

As forests and green cover are destroyed to make way for multi-storey investment opportunities; as rivers and seas are polluted and filled with plastic; as once fertile soil is reduced to dust, and daily, species go extinct, some people question how much longer a lifestyle based on consumption and stuff can continue. But for many, ‘eco’ continues to be a fluffily meaningless term, which allows them to enjoy trashing the planet while paying lip service to saving it.

Pamela will be contributing regularly to Penang Spirit on how we can ‘green’ our lifestyles.

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