Indigenous people know the reality of fossil energy.   The Shuar peoples of Amazonian Ecuador, under whose territories lie huge reserves of oil. Unlike those eager to find oil in their territories, have rejected exploration, they do not want to get rich on selling oil.  They have a saying “Oil’ represents the sprits of a long dead world, that we use to satisfy our greed for power and sacrifice and our children in return.” (CESR 1996).  Here lies a truth that cannot be escaped when looking at climate change.  But in this statement there also lies wisdom, a truth, which if appreciated will clarify the actions needed to address the spectre of climate change. Their wisdom is that, they are aware of the difference between the spirits of the living world and the dead.  They know that, asking for power from the spirits of the dead world has a great price, often they seeking the lives of our own children.

What does this dead and living world mean? Does it have any relevance in modern science?

Carbon that cycles through living systems represents a fixed proportion of the planetary carbon. This carbon called ‘biotic’ or living carbon has a very different makeup to other sources of carbon. The biotic carbon cycling in the planetary biosphere is measured in time cycles of thousands of years. This carbon is activated by the energy of the sun fixed by living things.  There is another pool of carbon, which is the ‘lithospheric’ or fossil carbon. This is carbon that once existed in the biosphere, but died and was buried underground where they reside for time periods measured in millions of years. This ‘dead’ carbon has no contact with the world of living carbon. Over geologic time vast quantities of carbon sequestered by living forms became fossilized and removed from the biotic/atmospheric cycles to become distilled as the ‘spirits of a long dead world.’

It is the failure to recognize the two significantly different pools of Carbon and their functions and values within the biosphere that has led to much of the confusion when considering the utility of biotic systems under the current rules that determine carbon markets.

Carbon from biotic pools can be accommodated under the current trading agreements, as they will help to slow down the turnover rate of carbon in the atmosphere.  Carbon from fossil pools can only be considered under the current trading regimes by technologies that curb emissions at the source or by a financial mechanism that accounts for the time differential between the two pools. In other words, carbon dioxide emanating from forest or other ecosystem destruction can be compensated for by planting trees at the current cost, but carbon dioxide emanating from the burning of fossil fuels cannot pay the same price to compensate.

It is now clear that fossil Carbon and biotic Carbon have extremely different sinks and need to be valued differentially when considering the impact on the global biosphere. While the carbon balance of the planet has been greatly modified by post-industrial human activity such as massive deforestation, it is the ‘fossil injection’ that introduces the disruptive, increasing, increment of ‘new’ carbon into the atmosphere.

These facts, underscore the great danger of accepting the consumption on fossil fuels as a tool for ‘development’. Once a nation or economy has become ‘fossil addicted’, they are willing to sacrifice their own well-being and the well-being of others to feed their addiction.

Here the sayings of the Shuar are pertinent. “Oil’ represents the sprits of a long dead world, that we use to satisfy our greed for power and sacrifice and our children in return.” The consequences of addicting ourselves to oil dependency, are already clear, the soaring price of living and the soaring rates of non-communicable (development) diseases, are clear indicators of the price that we and our children will have to pay.

Recognizing the distinction between fossil and biotic carbon and placing differential values on each, will go a long way to expose these addicted economies and assist nations such as ours to avoid the pitfalls.  The amount of oil, coal or gas required for the creation and operation of future ‘development’ projects should become basic criteria for acceptance or rejection of future ‘development’ projects.

Thus, in evaluating all ‘development’ proposals, it will be good to consider a caution expressed in all traditional societies:  ‘Oppose serving of the spirits of the dead’ (boothyas), or in today’s words, do not get trapped into the belief that the consumption of fossil energy and resources means development (promoted by modern boothyas),  Such actions will bring the spirits of the dead (fossil)  into our living world (biotic) and degrade the quality of life for our children most horribly ! Development diseases such as cancer, stress, lung diseases, heart diseases and diabetes have not only reached epidemic proportions but are now also reaching down to the children.  The rate of growth of these diseases amongst the younger segment of our population should create some national soul searching and response, Is this growth in fossil addiction the right development model for Sri Lanka ?

  • yapa

    I think Ranil’s theory against using the spirits of dead (fossil fuel) for development is justified in terms of material evidence provided by him. However, in the man’s word things are usually not decided by concrete facts or evidence or sound theories, but by whims of fancies like “will of the people” or in hard words by “collective desires” or “collective greed” of the people. Greed driven demand is the deciding force of the world. “Democracy”, gives the freedom for people to choose their own destructive end by popular vote. I think democracy is a opportunity given to fools to decide the destiny of the world. I think capitalist system based on greed along with the “freedom of choice” for fools to decide the destiny of the world have become the order of the day for several centuries and I think world cannot any more bear it. I think future decisions of societies that affects the world in turn should be taken by “an informed minority” of societies, and not by “majority of fools”. The world I think no more can bear and sustain with “popular foolish decisions”. I think Plato has to overcome Aristotle once again. Plato was advocating a “philosopher king” as the ruler to guide the society to the best goals. Aristotle objected to the notion that one cannot bear the risk of having a philosopher king, as no one can be certain that whether “to be King” would covert to be a philosopher when he is ready to take over the responsibility. Today we have to question Aristotle whether the “Majorities will” is taking the society to the best goals. Ranil’s sharp arguments derived from reality challenge Aristotle’s version of “Rule of the world” or “Rule of the Law”, on the basis it is sustainable or viable anymore for the future world. I think “freedom” is not a word of “choice” for the future world. We have no many choices or alternative paths to take the world to a safe destination. It would be a hard and narrow path, a miscalculated step would destroy the whole journey. So the decision making cannot be handed over to a criterion that set on the popular principle of satisfying the greed of the masses. I think freedom of choice is an outdated concept That should never be entertained in the future, as there is no viability for that. The limited “resource” of fossil fuel sufficient less that a forty years at the current trend of consumption has no left us with any alternative. How can we “feed” the world population of overt 10 billion people in forty years without a single drop of petroleum in the Filling stations all over the world? Can we sustain that population without a petroleum powered machinery, without electricity or with the hospitals devoid of “modern equipment”? Are we not a pack of crabs playing in a pot of water heated from outside?

    I think we have less than a half a century to get ready to face the challenge. Are we ready for it, are we ready to tighten our belts giving up clownish slogans like “freedom of choice”, freedom of expression” etc… etc.. as our criteria?

    However, there is one point I cannot agree with Ranil. Ranil’s question “Is this growth in fossil addiction the right development model for Sri Lanka ?” is incorrect and misguiding conclusion arrived at after so much of sound and marvelous arguments. We should never go for a different model of development all by ourselves as a country. The policy based on Ranil’s sound theory should be a global one, and should not be a local one. A local policy adopted in isolation, would destroy us before the world succumb to its own end at the end of the fossil fuels in a couple of decades.

    Don’t think globally and act locally in this particular case.


    • Ranil Senanayake

      “Is this growth in fossil addiction the right development model for Sri Lanka ?”

      President Mahinda Rajapaksa said today, that the real war criminals are the countries that contribute to global warming. “All plants and animal species could be wiped out by global warming. Therefore, the real war criminals and human rights violators are such countries, which contribute to the rise in global warming” he said.

      Thus those who propel us on the road to fossil addiction and increase out output of fossil carbon dioxide, must be the real war criminals, no ?

      • kadphises

        So yet another vacuous pronouncement by our President.. Does he think his own personal carbon foot print is any less than that of an American’s? He needs to remind himself of all the carbon emitted by his helicopter travel, multi-car motor cades, charter of aircraft for pointless foreign trips, etc before pointing fingers at others. OK. Carbon consumption can be argued as being a crime, but how is it a war-crime? The poor President seems to have conflated the two and got himself in an awfully confused and angry state.

        There are however some uncomfortable truths for all of us here..

        1. Do we have a right to deny fellow Sri Lankans the right to “develop”? To have a bigger house, better clothes, travel for pleasure, travel in comfort if we are ourselves guilty of all that? If we use a car, travel overseas by air, use airconditioning, are we able to deny others of that priviledge?

        2. To my mind there are only two ways of limitting carbon consumption.

        a) Introduce tough legislature that applies to all. e.g. A blanket ban on private transport. (At least within Colombo city to start with)Forcing people to use bicycles or public transport. Banning air travel within the island. Eventually phasing out private transport altogether and replacing it with efficient and comfortable buses. Also, imposing floor area limits on new housing.

        b) Take meaningful steps to reduce the number of people consuming fossil fuels by introducing a one child policy like in China for example.

        Nothing positive is going to happen without tough and painful measures. The rich will never give up their luxuries (although they will talk about the carbon cost of making the poor a little richer). The poor will always strive to get richer which inevitably means they will consume more carbon. There is no getting away from the fact that poverty eleviation and cabon emissions are inextricably linked. So either we all become equally poor or we reduce our numbers voluntarily by having fewer babies. But as we all know.. it will never happen voluntarily. There will always be someone else doing it so why should we? And the crises will inevitably lead to its catastrophic conclusion.

        • Silva


          I too agree with you. This so called president must first address the issue where he and his government is involved in the destruction and pollution of this country by wasteful, extravagant and zero return projects. The Norochcholai, adulterated fuel imports, the environmental destruction caused by the wasteful extravagant and unsuitable highways built bu the regime just to rob the money of the tax payer and the resultant air pollution bound to happen in future on these roads by unbearably heavy traffic, deforestation caused by the ruling families infantile desire to build golf courts in the heart of hitherto intact forests, carbon damage of their election campaign vehicle fleets and security squads and helicopters, processions of political merry-go-rounds taken by the president with his jumbo cabinet, the carbon cost of Hambanthota jarbour, the despot family’s helicopter joy-rides, the failure to solve the traffic jam problem on the roads while the king and the sons enjoy car racing nights during the night wasting huge amounts of electricity as well which too adds to carbon cost and money more of such destruction and pollution caused by the Rajapakshas would definitely add to the global problem of carbon emission and warming. Such a president’s mere utterances about the ecology is just a meaningless harangue aimed at misleading others and to attack his adversaries! If Sri Lanka is to contribute even a semblance of value to the global effort of environmental preservation what the people here and in the world must do is to get rid of this regime of fools!

      • Davidson

        Mr President, Good Governance obviates
        i. triumphalist celebrations
        ii. jumbo delegations to intergovernmental organisations and
        iii. unsustainable development to cater for political patronage and show-off:
        when IDPs have no roof over their heads, foundation stone for Sports Stadium was laid in Kilinochchi by the President the day before the elections and when schools don’t have basic classrooms in the North, swimming pool is built in a Jaffna school to show as ”development” by the Presidential Task Force for Northern Development (the Task Force has 18 Sinhalese from the Central government and Armed Forces and just one Muslim and NO Tamils)
        i -iii have much carbon foot printing.

  • yapa


    “However, in the man’s [word] things are usually not decided by concrete facts or evidence or sound theories,….”

    The bracketed word should be “world” nor “word”.


  • luxmy

    Thank you, Ranil:
    ”The amount of oil, coal or gas required for the creation and operation of future ‘development’ projects should become basic criteria for acceptance or rejection of future ‘development’ projects.”

    This should be applied to sand, rock, water, etc., how we are using them carelessly causing landslides, erosion of shores, etc and how we should use them most carefully for our children’s future. Hope Ranil will cover this next.

    Paying attention to the overall environment will solve out ethnic problem if Sri Lankan constitution, UN Charter and International Laws cannot be easily understood by politicians and people.

  • Ranil Senanayake

    Dear Kadphises,

    There is a huge difference between development and desire. Development as seen by many commentators is the pursuit of happiness, but as we know that state is defined by the pecuniary intent of ‘those who have things to sell’, whose only aim is to increase desire

    We should not deny anyone the right to ‘develop’ in a manner that is conducive to the sustainability and well being of our children. We should not deny anyone the freedom of word and action, as long as it does not impinge on well being of others.

    We have to look beyond the formula that is being promoted by the trans nationals as ‘development’

    However it is very important to recognize the fact that there is a huge value difference between fossil carbon fuels and biotic carbon fuels. We can grow, as we like, as long as we do not get addicted to the fossil component. Leaving this out of the ‘development’ equation disrespects the future.

    The current debacle stems from a poor vision and knowledge base

    One way that I can see us getting out of the trap is to realize value for Photosynthetic Biomass.

    It will be difficult, but not impossible I feel to develop in a healthy, sustainable direction. But unless the public and the leadership understands and recognizes such needs, we will, in the words of Ananda Coomaraswany:

    “…be proud to ‘progress’, not knowing wither “ !!

  • yapa

    Definitely “capitalism” as an economic system and “democracy” as a political ideology or any other forms of them have no place in the future world. They will not anymore represent the aspirations of the future man in the advent of the loss of fossil fuels on which the whole the present civilization is built on. Capitalism and democracy can thrive only when the resources are abundantly available. All the ethics, morality, legal systems, norms, values and knowledge systems based on them and revered today will be invalidated and become null and void.

    No man made sociological, economic, political or legal principles we consider as “developed” to harbour fruits of present “petroleum civilization” will not govern the society of “petroleum-less civilization”. Only the natural laws and some man made “conventions” in accordance with then environment would direct the lazy journey of the society, if they do not fight with stones clubs with each other.

    Einstein said: “I don’t know what kind of weapons will be used in the third world war, assuming there will be a third world war. But I can tell you what the fourth world war will be fought with—stone clubs.

    However, even if the third world war is not “realized or achieved or won” by the present civilization, I can surely tell you that all the wars after the petroleum civilization will be fought with stone clubs.

    It is the doomed time to give up clownish boasting with loaded wishful words about the achievements of the humankind, and high time for serious thinking. Ranil is perfectly right in his warning.

    “Kumana naetum keli kawata sinada……..”


    • yapa

      “No man made sociological, economic, political or legal principles we consider as “developed” to harbour fruits of present “petroleum civilization” will [not] govern the society of “petroleum-less civilization”.”

      should be

      No man made sociological, economic, political or legal principles we consider as “developed” to harbour fruits of present “petroleum civilization” will govern the society of “petroleum-less civilization”.