Looking Back While Moving Forward
February 28, 2009

Since the emergence of life on our planet, humans have been living in two sets of environments: the natural environment and the built environment.

In living in the natural environment, humans were able to domesticate both plants and animals. In the process, early humans were able to identify the non-poisonous plants from the poisonous ones. Today, we are able to grow and consume the crops that were identified as non-poisonous. We do not worry about the nature of the crops we grow and consume, even though many of us subconsciously express before a meal our wish for the proper assimilation of the food we consume, or parts thereof, in our body. For example, as we say Sifa in Afan Oromo before we eat, some of us may be reminded about the processes in early human history that led to the selection and domestication of the poisonous plants from the non-poisonous plants. This process seems to have found its way into religious establishments that practice praying before every meal. Arguably, these wish and praying practices may be reminders of the social trauma early humans may have gone through to adapt well to the natural environment.

Some research reports note that with the onset of settled societies, an incipient condition for the beginning of the built environment, the fast spread of diseases affected the settled society in large numbers. These may have led to the search for medicine and the pursuit of knowledge in medicine. Today, there are numerous prescription materials for various diseases even as more diseases that have no known cure are continuously discovered.

The advancement of science helped humanity to categorize matter into a little over one hundred elements, which are the building blocks of our planet, if not the universe. Science has also helped categorize these basic elements and the compounds that they make into stable and unstable materials. Some of these materials have been found to be useful in the built environment from which they find a way to diffuse, sometimes in surprising ways, to wider areas and scopes. A potentially dangerous material that may have been dumped into a stream from a certain city could be taken in by cows far away from the city before getting to the dinar table of an unsuspecting family that consumes the cows’ milk.

With the convenience of the built environment comes the mechanism of widely spreading materials that are unhealthy to living things. These materials would otherwise be limited to certain localities where their effect is minimal, or would not be manufactured if they were not useful in the built environment. Once these materials are widely spread in the environmental media such as soil, groundwater, and surface water, remediating these environmental media is a complex and costly process. In U.S.A, the yearly cost of environmental remediation, which was started after 1980, is in the billions of dollars.

In today’s Ethiopia, few dispute that there is a meaningful economic development although many agree that this economic development is not balanced. Either way, there is no doubt that the economic development occurs by significantly increasing the built environment at the expense of the natural environment. While the trend of economic growth in Ethiopia is a long awaited desire, and all those who contributed to putting the country in the direction it is in today may be far from a comfortable level to wield meaningful achievements, the unintended damage to the country’s natural environment should be worrisome to all those who are involved in the decision making process. A recent documentary by Al-Jazeera Television about the effect of Koka Dam’s polluted water on the lives of the local people and livestock is very alarming. One of the local residents featured in the documentary reported missing her husband and five children and expressed worries about the health of her remaining children. Such is a case of a trauma brought upon our people not by the forces of the old natural environment but as a result of the effects of the built environment. All those involved in making the decisions to cause such amount of damages to the environment, unknowingly or unintentionally, are duty bound to look back while moving forward so that the desired economic development is achieved with minimal cost to the natural environment.

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