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Lee Yuan-tse: It’s not saving the world, it’s saving ourselves
Taiwan News, Staff Writer
2013-12-25 03:26 PM
Dr. Lee Yuan-tseh had a word of advice Wednesday for those concerned about the fate of the Earth. The former president of Academia Sinica told an audience at National Taiwan Normal University (NTNU) that people who are going on about wanting to save the planet are wrong. Lee said, given the state of over-development and over-exploitation of the planet seen today, the emphasis in planning and protection should be on saving “man” himself. One important step toward achieving this goal, he said, will be revising the way of thinking that says achieving more production and more consumption is equal to progress.

Lee was the first Taiwanese to ever win a Nobel Prize when he garnered the honor for chemistry in 1986 for his study of the molecular dynamics in chemical reactions. He served as president of Academia Sinica from 1994 to 2006, and his speech at NTNU’s Education Center Wednesday was titled "Seeking Sustainable Development of Human Society in a Sinking World."

Lee started off his address by noting that one of the greatest concerns for many people right now is the problem of "generational change.” He explained that the world now faces many serious problems that today’s generation will have to leave to the next generation to resolve. He noted that this is not good for the planet, and it is also not good for the people who inherit the earth.

Lee pointed out that in the past century, the Earth's population has increased four-fold, while production and consumption have leaped by eight-fold. These tremendous increases have put severe pressure on the global environment, leading to ill effects like global climate change and a die-off of many species that is narrowing the range of species diversity in many places. The effects of these phenomena are accelerating, Lee said, with unsettling changes having occurred during the past 50 years.

"We often say we need to save the planet,” said Lee, “when in fact we need to save our own humanity." He explained that while the earth will change and go from one state to another no matter what Mankind does, the Earth will still be around even if all humans are gone. The extinction of the human race, he said, will not mean the end of the Earth.

Lee said people must accept the fact that the Earth has been over-developed and exploited. With this in mind, the international practice of classifying countries as developed or developing and using GDP and other numbers to measure the degree of economic development is “meaningless, this view is wrong," He added that saying production and consumption add up to progress is another example of flawed thinking.

Lee summed up his message by saying, "If humans are to achieve sustainable development, we must abandon our current mode of development. Otherwise, there is no hope in change.” Lee added that global problems demand common global solutions; a return to a more natural, smaller carbon-footprint way of life; changing consumption patterns; reduction in personal energy consumption and materialism; and controlled population growth. Without these steps, he said, it will be impossible to resolve any of the other problems.

Turning to domestic issues, Lee pointed out that over the years Taiwan’s pension programs have accumulated obligations that mean those born today face a debt of nearly NT$1 million per person. At the same time, he often goes to meetings abroad where people say they see civil servants from Taiwan traveling in droves overseas and enjoying the benefits of collecting 18% interest on their pension funds. For these people, the island's retirement system is perfect.

Lee said that when he left Academia Sinica he was eligible for the 18% perk but felt that it was very unfair for young people and never applied for it. Seven years ago he finally chose to waive his right to the interest. Lee explained that Taiwan currently faces a national debt of NT$21 trillion, much of which is due to pension payments to retired military and government personnel and teachers. He said he felt it was not right that retirees frolic abroad on their 18% earnings while young people at home are not even afford to buy the cheapest house.

Lee noted that after the inheritance tax was slashed in Taiwan, waves of capital from overseas flowed into the local real estate market. He said that 20 years ago, housing near the Academia Sinica sold for about NT$100 000/ping (about US$1000/sq.m). Young scholars returning from studies abroad could live frugally for a few years and pay off the loan for a house. Now property in the same areas sells for about NT$5.6 million/ping or US$56,000/sq.m, and young scholars simply cannot afford to buy a home here.

Lee said he recently met three academics at Academia Sinica who live in the Taipei suburbs of Linkou, Banqiao and Nankan. Each spends 40 minutes to an hour driving to work, contributing daily to global warming through carbon dioxide emissions because they cannot afford a house closer to where they work.

Lee finished by warning his audience not to believe ‘experts’ who say that if Taiwan’s GDP rises by 3% next year people will be better off in the future. He said young people today should wake up each day ready for class and exams, and after graduation they should be prepared to look for jobs that will allow them to change society and help steer it away from old paths that go nowhere.

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