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Plenary 1 - The Interconnectness of All Things,
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21/10/2009 14:00

The devastating impact of mankind on the earth's fragile environment was highlighted today as delegates gathered for the first plenary of the RSE Symposium in a city still struggling to recover from the worst disaster in recent US history.

Speaking just weeks ahead of the Copenhagen summit on climate change, prize-winning author John M Barry said it was time to face up to the man-made triggers of Hurricane Katrina's disastrous aftermath and to acknowledge that how the US deals with the continuing threat to its coastal regions will be a global test-case.

“New Orleans is the point of the sphere,” he said. “It will be a model for the rest of the world...a model to either emulate or avoid. So far the United States has failed the test,” he added.

From the jetties built 2.5 miles into the Gulf of Mexico to the levees intended to protect navigation, the underlying causes of the huge land loss around New Orleans were the result of human activity, Barry said.

“All of them are man-made problems,” he concluded. Many of the 180,000 people whose homes were destroyed by Katrina were “essentially victims of the shipping industry.”

Echoing his warning, Hylton Murray-Philipson, director of Wingate Ventures and trustee of the Global Canopy Programme, told delegates that a 'profound reality check' was necessary to redress the balance between man and the environment.

“[Over the past 50 years] we have bent nature to our will as never before,” he said. Drawing a comparison between the environmental and banking crises, he told delegates: “It's just like sub-prime. You know that a correction is coming.”

Calling for a 'revolution' in human behaviour in an attempt to halt the destruction of climate change, Murray-Watson said December's meeting in Copenhagen would be a 'unique' opportunity to change the course of history.

“The scale of the challenge is unprecedented outside of wartime but, if we are to avoid a tipping point, our turning point is now,” he said. “Do we have to wait until a hurricane hits New York and not New Orleans?”

Also calling for mankind to develop a greater sense of responsibility for their role in the natural world, Professor Mary Evelyn Tucker of Yale University said that scientific advances of recent years had permitted a deeper understanding of the world's 'interconnectedness'.

A film produced by Professor Tucker and shown to delegates said that, 'because of us', the world was undergoing the most devastating change since the extinction of the dinosaurs. “We're changing life's dynamics in an irreversible way,” it said.

Speaking on behalf of the American city to have suffered the worst at the hands of this process, Jackie Clarkson of the New Orleans city council stuck a more positive note.

“As we watched the greatest city of multicultural love and virtue slowly slipping away, we knew...we would rebuild,” she said. “80% of this city may have been underwater but the spirit of New Orleans will never be.”

by Lizzy Davies