The Little Prince and Climate Change*
“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” –Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince
This familiar line from the well-loved tale, The Little Prince, is a source of inspiration for the exploration of the statement, “climate change is a social problem and not just an environmental problem,” a take-off point for this paper. [Note: I had submitted this paper–with some portions deleted for the sake of brevity–last February in one of my courses in UPOU.]
For those who have not yet read the book, The Little Prince is a touching story of a little boy and a pilot who accidentally met in a desert. The story revolves around their conversations and the stories that the little boy (whom the author had referred to as “the little prince”) had shared, with the straightforward innocence of a child. The book, while mostly written through the use of simple language and narration, is filled with philosophical underpinnings and significant life lessons, elevating it as among the world’s best works ever written.
“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye,” is probably the most popular and favorite line from the book. It can be interpreted in many different ways but the simplest lesson there could be that the most important things in life are those that can only be felt from the heart–things like love, joy, commitment, and kindness. The issue on climate change can best be appreciated from the same place because it involves human behaviors and decisions–the same things that no one can touch and the same things that are slowly changing the face of the earth or all creations, an appreciation of the environment
The Little Prince takes the readers on a journey toward deeper self-awareness and for the readers who assume that Antoine de Saint-Exupery demonstrates a semblance of respect for all creations, an appreciation of the environment. It invites readers to look at their lives through the lens of a child and examine their actions, decisions, goals, and aspirations and the ways through which they live their lives and relate with the world (including with the roses, volcanoes, and the trees). Does love, for example, require a kind of relationship where one needs to tame his or her partner in order to strengthen the trust between them? Consider the following excerpt from the book, which carries the conversation between the prince and the fox:
“It is an act too often neglected,” said the fox. “It means to establish ties.”
“Just that,” said the fox. “To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you, on your part, have no need of me. To you I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world…” (de Saint-Exupery, 1943, p. 64)
Was the author simple talking about love or was he also alluding to humanity’s relationship with nature when he wrote this particular section? No one knows for sure but this brief paper–drawing some thoughts from The Little Prince and those of other authors who tried to analyze the tale–hopes to contribute to the discourses on climate change and environmental manageent in general, particularly as we highlight our role as social beings in the whole scheme of things.
Thoughts on life and the environment from The Little Prince
In Douban.com, an unnamed author suggested that “The Little Prince implies a philosophy of life: it warns the modern people against being alienated by desires such as domination, possession and vanity. Modern people should learn from children and try to keep their innate characters, be faithful to love and friendship and have the sense of responsibility, creative spirit and imaginative power (李千钧＆候桂杰,2006).**
The concepts such as alienation by desires, domination, possession, and sense of responsibility are central to human existence. It is said that human beings are moved and motivated by personal goals and desires amid a culture that expects them to care for their children and families. In fact, in the Philippines, the family system is so closely-knit that it is not surprising to see adult children and grandchildren supporting their loved ones even through their old age. However, such inherited and assumed responsibilities require economic decisions that may sometimes hurt the environment. This is where the lesson of The Little Prince become significant and practical. Among other tings, humans are reminded about the importance of discipline and hard work as they interact with the environment, for example, in this passage:
“It is a question of discipline,” the little prince said. “When you’ve finished your own toilet in the morning, then it is time to attend to the toilet of your planet, just so, with the greatest care. You must see to it that you pull up regularly the baobabs, at the very first moment where they can be distinguished from the rose-bushes which they resemble so closely in their earliest youths. It is very tedious work,” the little prince added, “but very easy.” (de Saint-Exupery, 1943, p. 20)
Munakata (2005), a science educator and author, also thinks that The Little Prince speaks about the impact of human control over nature and science. He has reflected, for example, on this passage:
Indeed, as I learned, there were on the planet where the little prince lived–as on all planets–good plants and bad plants. In consequence, there were good seeds from good plants, and bad seeds from bad plants. But seeds are invisible. They sleep deep in the heart of the Earth’s darkness, until someone among them is seized with the desire to awaken. This little seed will stretch itself and begin–timidly at first–to push a charming little sprig inoffensively upward toward the Sun. If it is only a sprout of radish or the sprig of a rose-bush, one would let it grow wherever it might wish. But when it is a bad plant, one must destroy it as soon as possible, the very first instant that one recognized it (de Saint-Exupery, 1943, p. 18-19).
Following Munakata’s (2005) argument, the book can be a helpful tool in highlighting the role of the human population over the environment, particularly as people, organizations, and cultures recognize the importance of environmental science, which is, in fact, a multidisciplinary science.
Humans, not just science, contribute to climate change
The natural sciences provide sound explanations about the natural causes of climate change. Such causes include the greenhouse effect, solar activity, radiative forcing, continental drift, variations in the earth’s orbit, and ocean currents (Collins et al., 2008). Meanwhile, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has reported that “it is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the 20th century” (Alexander et al., 2013).
Indeed, such an analysis from among the internationally-recognized authorities on climate change presents a solid justification for humans to seriously think about their contribution. More than ever, it is becoming clearer that climate change us not solely an environmental problem. For if it is, then all that humanity can do is apply the best solution and approaches in environmental science and the problem on climate change can be resolved.
Unfortunately, this is not the case. Climate change is an issue that encompasses many if not all facets of our existence, for example, from the sociological, economic, and political dimensions to the ecological aspects. Therefore, adapting to it and minimizing its negative impacts will require not only an analysis and positive action from the vantage view of environmental science but also from the perspective of the social sciences including sociology.
Climate change and the human-environment interaction models
Most if not all human-environment interaction theories and models covered in this course’s textbook, Socio-cultural principles of human-environment interactions (Malayang, 1999) are helpful theoretical frameworks. While each model has its own failures and weaknesses, they provide, when taken as a whole, in-depth analysis of human-environmental interactions and relationships.
For example, the actor/actress-based model of human ecology, while seemingly “human-centric”, supports the argument that individual behaviors have greater impact on environmental adaptation. According to Rambo (1983), a culture’s environmental adaptation takes form and develops from the decisions of thousands of individuals as they figure out and decide on how they can interact with their environment (Malayang, 1999).
Climate change, as IPCC reported, is becoming significantly caused by decisions and actions of the people. People in modern times have discovered and embraced the comforts of air-conditioned homes and offices, the efficiency of cars and airplanes, and technology-driven lifestyles where mobile phones and internet had seemingly become necessary fixtures. All these material ‘necessities’, comforts, and excesses ultimately contribute to climate change.
A fellow member of the class, Articona (2014) has shared in Module 8’s discussion form that individuals exhibit the tendency to exploit available resources “for personal gain and convenience.” She cited dynamite fishing method as an example. In her argument, she highlighted individual fisher’s decision to use it because it is more convenient and makes the work easier.
This is a good example that illustrates the influence of individual decisions and actions toward the development of a culture. A human being with his own desires, needs, and wants, will decide based on factors such as convenience and ease. This tendency toward a ‘more comfortable and easier option’ has to be explored without necessarily making quick judgements, for example, that people are simply individualistic, egocentric, and selfish.
in some sense, they are, but solutions and adaptation schemes to climate change should consider these human tendencies if nations and communities are to deal with it more realistically.
What will convince an individualistic fisherman, for example, to shift to a safer and more environmentally-friendly fishing method? What is in it for him? He has a family to feed and has no capital. The answers should go down to the gut level, in the same way that climate change should be considered in a very personal level.
This author has also highlighted in a course assignment that climate change merits a closer and more personal attention. The urgency of climate change necessitates that it becomes ‘closer’ to the hearts and minds (and stomachs!) of the people. It should be seen as intrinsically connected to poverty issue and how should we authentically address it (Velas-Suarin, 2013).
Meanwhile, Supangan (2014), in a discussion forum for Module 10 (political ecology), cited the dynamics of flashfloods and illegal logging. She related illegal logging activities to corrupt politicians who derive economic benefits from these destructive activities. She also believes that addressing corruption will ultimately protect our forests.
The political ecology model, the basis of Supangan’s (2014) example, considers “the flow and distribution of power among individuals and groups in a human population” (Manangan, 1999). The exercise and distribution of power, therefore, are the drivers to the changes in a society. While the model is quite a complex thought and merits a more extensive discussion, the example of corruption in the backdrop of power can bring significant havoc to both the environment and the human population.
Is this the concept of corruption reflected in The Little Prince as well? This passage may very well serve as reminder:
“Now there were some terrible seeds on the planet that was the home of the little prince; and these were the seeds of that baobab. The soil of that planet was infested with them. A baobab is something you will never, never be able to get rid of if you attend to it too late. It spreads over the entire planet. It bores clear through it with its roots. And if the planet is too small, and the baobabs are too many, they split it in pieces.” (de Saint-Exupéry, p. 19-20)
One can only wonder whether de Saint-Exupery was referring to the corruption (and similar human frailty) when he wrote these words. However, one can almost be certain that the author uses symbolism (from nature) to put his message across: human beings must not wait for the time when the baobabs are already “too many” to conquer. Climate change can be considered in the same breath: the people must not wait for the time when it is already too late to do something about it.
The exploration of the statement, “climate change is a social problem and not just an environmental problem,” has hopefully brought us to helpful insights and arguments, with some help from The Little Prince and several human-environment interaction models.
Clearly, human decisions and action have significant impact on climate change and the environment in general (in the same way that the environment shapes and affects human cultures). Physical sciences alone cannot explain climate change; a comprehensive analysis requires that the human and social dimensions are adequately and thoughtfully considered. These are the intangibles and to quote de Saint-Exupéry again, “it is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” (p. 68)
Munakata (2005), as he explored The Little Prince, touched on the challenge of finding a perfect balance between the people’s economic goals and environmental protection and preservation. He thinks that the conflict makes it “difficult to nurture one without compromising the other. It is our role as educators to make students aware of conflicts such as those between large corporations and environmental groups and to convey to students how our daily actions affect the environment.”
It is hoped that in the journey towards adapting to and dealing with climate change, the people and human societies are forever reminded of their responsibility toward one another, their intrinsic link with the environment, the need to curb one’s wants and desires for the greater good, and their power to make a difference. As de Saint-Exupery reminds us profoundly,
“It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important. Men have forgotten this truth…but you must not forget it. You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed. You are responsible for your rose.” (p. 70)
*This is a paper that I had submitted to Dr. Joane V. Serrano, faculty-in-charge for ENRM 221, Socio-cultural Perspectives on the Environment, University of the Philippines Open University, where I am currently doing my graduate course work.
**A Google translation tool was used to determine the English equivalent of these Chinese scripts. However, the tool only came up with “Breaking the Guijie and Climate.” In the author’s references, an annotation was found with the name, “Hou Guijie”, so s/he is assumed as the source of the quoted material. See note under “References.”
Alexander, L., Simon, A., Bindoff, N., Bréon, F., Church, J., Cubasch U., et al. (2013, September 27). Working Group I Contribution to the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report, Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis Summary for policymakers. Retrieved 11, February, 2014, from http://www.ipcc.ch/publications_and_data/ar4/syr/en/spms2.html
Articona, K. (2014, February 3). [Discussion forum in Module 8 of ENRM 221– Socio-cultural Perspectives on the Environment, UP Open University]. Message posted to http://myportal.upou.edu.ph/mod/forum/view.php?id=23963
Collins, W., Colman R., Haywood, J.,, Manning, M., Mote, P., et al. (2008, October 6). The Physical Science behind Climate Change. Scientific American, Scientific American, a division of Nature America, Inc. Retrieved from http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/science-behind-climate-change/
de Saint-Exupery, A. (1943). The Little Prince. London, UK: Mammoth.
The self analysis of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: Reflected in The Little Prince (2012, May 30). Retrieved 12, February, 2014, from http://book.douban.com/review/5448099/
Malayang, B.S. (1999). Socio-cultural principles of human-environment interactions. Quezon City, Philippines: UP Open University.
Supangan, K. (2014, February 10). [Discussion forum in Module 7 of ENRM 221– Socio-cultural Perspectives on the Environment, UP Open University]. Message posted to http://myportal.upou.edu.ph/mod/forum/view.php?id=23962
Velas-Suarin, M.M. (2013, October 31). [Reflections on climate change, an assignment submission for an online course]. Unpublished essay submitted in the course, Responding to Climate Risks in Agriculture and Natural Resource Management, UP Open University and SEARCA.
Note about the first footnote (*):
The author from Douban.com must have used the following material (the original annotation was directly lifted, with no editing):
Li Qianjun, Hou Guijie. (2006). From Breaking the Traditional Fairy Tale Narrative to Criticizing the Sickness of Modern Civilization – Comment on Stylistic Innovation and Ideological Connotation in The Little Prince by Exupéry, Journal of H IT (Social Sciences Edition), 8 (6).
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