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human activity and the destruction of the planet


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Bringing it all together and a way forward

CHAPTER 9

So there we have it!  A plethora of human activities which have put the harmonious cycles of our beautiful planet out of balance, leading to loss of habitat for many species, increasing global temperatures, climate change, extreme weather events, melting of the ice caps, raised sea levels, deforestation, acidification of the sea, space junk, accumulations of waste plastic and the threat of a mass extinction – all related to increasing carbon emissions, a process which may never be reversed unless urgent action is taken.

And, alongside of this, there has been the rapidly increasing human population, now seven times greater than at pre-industrial levels, leading to a multiplication of the destructive effects of human activity and loss of habitat for many species. Each of these activities has an inter-connectedness, which has led to a situation where a domino effect may take place, one factor triggering another factor, the total effect of which may make our planet unstable and uninhabitable in just three generations:

  • Industrial revolution, which did not end pre-1900 but which continued with an ever-increasing momentum, through the IR Continuum, to the present time;
  • Increasing human population, multiplying the effects of the IR;
  • Changes to economies from local agrarian economies to market economies, which encourage further industrialisation and rewards businesses who increase manufactured production;
  • International and multinational trading patterns, adding to the IR Continuum and leading to local situations where more is imported than is exported, and politicians desiring to take action for more and more economic growth; such actions are counter-productive, adding to the carbon load;
  • Greater divisions between the rich and poor in the world, leading to migration, unrest and wars, and with the rich contributing considerably more to climate change than the poor and with wars adding to the carbon footprint.

Fig. 75 attempts to show how all of these factors are interrelated and how each is contributing to ecological instability, both in its own right and by interaction with the others.  For example, the increasing human population has a multiplying effect on all the others; weakening economies result in increased efforts to promote economic growth, which multiply the effects of industrialisation, trading systems and global travel; increasing affluence of the super-rich provides a multiplying effect through increased multi-national trading; poverty in some areas being related to deforestation in order to grow crops to survive, this has the effect of reducing the number of trees available to absorb carbon dioxide as part of the photosynthetic cycle; market economies exaggerate the effects of the industrial revolution and its continuum, as well as affecting trading systems; greater unrest in the world, leading to wars, which add to the carbon load.

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Fig. 75:  Our beautiful planet no longer in harmony due to ten of the

                interrelated factors at work in the world today

I hope I have made a convincing case about the urgent need for change in the ways in which the global human population organises its affairs.  To bring this change about needs a complete re-think by everybody, a complete change in the way in which we go about our normal lives and our business (see also Naomi Klein8).

As this book has unfolded, and during the writing of it, I have learnt so much myself – but this new learning has also opened me up to seeing things in a totally different light. It has been a revolution in my own thinking and responses. So, what started as a gut instinct has been transformed into an urgent imperative. I hope it does the same to you as well.

Many of the things that clutter up our lives, or make our lives more comfortable or exciting, have been produced at the cost of the planet.

So, some of the questions that have come to me, I will pose also to my readers:

  • Can we continue to slavishly follow consumer trends? Buying the latest gadgets, regardless of whether they have been transported across the world, thus increasing carbon emissions?
  • Can we continue to use our motor cars just to travel down the road to the shops or the school?
  • Should we continue to import foodstuffs that can be produced in our own country by our own farmers?
  • Can we continue to rob other species which share this planet with us, of their habitats?
  • Can we continue to clutter up the space around our planet with redundant and unused space junk?
  • Can we continue to fill our oceans with discarded, non-biodegradable plastic, which can also kill many marine species?
  • Can we continue to support the free-trade movement, which feeds into further industrialisation and the IR continuum?
  • Can we continue to give tacit support to a market economy, which rewards those companies and individuals who selfishly add to the carbon footprint of our planet?
  • Can we continue to support those industries which make unheeding use of fossil fuels in order to make a profit for themselves?
  • Can we continue to let the super-rich control most of the systems of the planet to feed their own greed, at the expense of the planet and of the poorest of the poor?
  • Can we continue to use nuclear power and manufacture nuclear weapons, when there is no safe way to dispose of nuclear waste?
  • Can we continue to go to war at the drop of a hat, when the carbon emissions released in such a war, add substantially to the carbon footprint of the planet?
  • Can we continue to trade in weapons and spend vast amounts of money in producing them, when many millions of people across the world go hungry?
  • Can we continue to allow the rich and multi-national companies to evade taxes, at the expense of supporting poorer nations to drag themselves out of poverty?
  • Can we continue to ignore the comfortable relationship that our governments have with the business world, which leads them to take decisions which support the business world, regardless of the damage they are doing to our planet and at the expense of the majority of the population?
  • Can we continue to take long-haul holidays, travelling across the world, using airlines, which are one of the worst polluters of the atmosphere?
  • Can we continue to give birth to babies, when the planet is already over-populated, with humans robbing many beautiful species of their habitats?
  • Can we control or curb the results of human curiosity and inventiveness? Or should it be channelled into less world-destroying end-products, such as innovations to produce clean energy?
  • Can we put sufficient pressure on our politicians to change direction regarding current economic thinking, the mathematics of which are flawed?
  • Can changes in the economy be introduced in time to save the planet?
  • What are the risks of changing trading practices on the economy?
  • What if one country makes changes and is exploited by other, less scrupulous, nations?
  • Will big business play ball?
  • What about the rich super elite? Will they recognise the urgency of the situation and change their behaviour to a more altruistic approach?
  • Is the idea of global co-operation to save the planet realistic?

So many questions have come to me and I am sure that other questions have come to you too as you have read this book.  There are so many decisions we need to take as well, both as individuals and as nations and global citizens.

Some groups are looking at the issue of climate justice, in which reparation is made by the greatest polluters, to poorer countries whose way of life is severely affected by climate change. Indeed, this formed part of the COP21 Paris agreement.

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Fig.76:   ©Joel Pett, with permission

Reasons for the lethargy

Of course, many people already realise and understand about the damage we have done to the planet, as a species, and many people are already taking action across the globe, but there seems to be a lethargy to make the significant changes needed, so I will address this too.

Part of the lethargy is, I think, due to the success of the big business-climate-change-deniers, who have influenced people to think that the scientists are wrong and that there is nothing to worry about. Naomi Klein8 addresses this issue strongly in her book, “This Changes Everything”, as she places most of the blame for the desperate situation we face today, firmly in the courts of the big corporate businesses. In her opinion, they have used their money, and lots of it, to establish a climate-denial movement, in which the credibility of the climate scientists is attacked and the seriousness of global warming is minimised. She identifies a strong right wing caucus, which sees those campaigning for climate action, as a group of left wingers who wish to establish their own political agendas on the rest of the world. They also see it as a new battle they must fight in much the same way as they fought communism during the Cold War.  And they believe that they can use their $ millions to protect themselves from climate change disasters. In her view, they have little empathy for the victims of global warming and climate change, especially the poor in developing nations and island states; their attitude to such people is cruel and nothing short of racism.

Another reason for the lethargy is, I believe, that the whole concept of another mass extinction caused by climate change is too horrendous to think about and, in a way, unthinkable. Thus, people blank it out and just concentrate on their own lives and their normal agendas for the next few years.  It is easier to do this than to institute, and campaign for, the major lifestyle changes that are needed to avert this crisis. And it is easier to label people who, like me, write books to raise the issues, as doom-mongers, greenies or left-wing loonies.

I have come across people who look at the greenness of the English countryside, stretching for mile upon mile and, looking at the lovely green foliage, they cannot take on board that this is likely to disappear and so, like others, they dismiss global warming as unlikely.  The problem with this approach is that, we probably will see the countryside looking greener for a while, as plants and trees, in response to the increased carbon dioxide in the air, will produce more chlorophyll.  This may have a minimal effect on atmospheric carbon dioxide. But the mind-set fails to acknowledge that ocean acidification is already taking place and rises in sea levels have already swallowed up some islands (five of the Solomon Islands, for example), that coral is bleaching and that the ice caps are melting at increasing rates.  And that, whilst some areas are greening, other parts of the world are being ravaged and scorched by unprecedented temperatures and others suffering more and more wildfires and bush fires due to tinder-dry conditions (see also the quote from India at the end of chapter 10).

The scientist James Lovelock, who described the Gaia Hypothesis and who came up with methods to measure CFCs in the atmosphere, followed up his thesis with a warning124.  He comments in his book that:  “… it seemed there was little understanding of the great dangers that we face. The recipients of climate forecasts, the news media, government departments, the financial market – normally as skittish as blushing teenagers – and the insurance companies all seem relatively unperturbed about climate change and continued with business as usual until their world, the global economy, almost collapsed.”

Human Responses to warnings

One of the things that I find quite intriguing is how some people fail to take heed of warnings, a fire alarm for example. Whilst I get up, grab my things and run out of the door to the nearest fire exit, most people just carry on as if nothing had happened.  The same thing happens on motorways, when warning messages urge you to slow down because there is some hazard ahead.  Why is this?  Of course, these could be false alarms but why take the risk?  I can remember reading an article once about a tragedy when a ferry sank, drowning many people on board.  It would appear that those who survived were the ones, who reacted immediately and made extreme efforts to get to the upper decks and the lifeboats.  Are people unable to visualise a hazardous and different future?  Why do we continue to live for the present even if it makes the future more risky?

In an article in the New Scientist125, Robert Gifford, a Canadian environmental psychologist looked at the psychological reasons why people have failed to take action on climate change.  He came up with 33 reasons, which he grouped under certain headings.  I’ll attempt to give a short summary of them:

  1. LIMITED UNDERSTANDING

Gifford believes that humans are far less rational than was once believed and gives a list of 10 reasons why humans are not acting on climate change. The reasons range through sheer ignorance, limited brain power, not knowing what to do about it, a lack of priority to climate change because it does not seem to be causing any immediate problems, hearing the message so often that we switch off to it (message numbness), not understanding the urgency of the situation, due to poor reporting, undervaluing distant and future risks, a tendency to over-optimism, a perception that climate change is a complex global problem, so people think that their own behaviour will have little or no impact. Some have a fatalistic bias because they think nothing can be done, even by collective human action. People with doubts about the reality of climate change tend to read newspapers or listen to broadcasters which reinforce their convictions.  Also, studies show that, when people view the time they have available to do something in monetary terms,they tend to skip acting in environmentally friendly ways. Some think they are unable to take climate-friendly action because they don’t have the knowledge or skill and some claim they are unable to take certain actions, such as riding a bicycle or changing their diet.

 

 

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Fig. 77

  1. IDEOLOGIES

Gifford believes that there are four broad belief systems that inhibit climate-positive behaviour. These include a strong belief in capitalism, a tendency to justify the status quo, a belief that a religious or secular deity will not forsake them or that “Mother Nature will take a course that we mere mortals cannot influence” and a belief that technology will be able to solve all the problems.

This category of Gifford’s has resonance with Naomi Klein’s views, though he does not place it first, as she has.

 SOCIAL COMPARISON

Gifford believes that, as humans are social animals, we will gravitate towards the choices of people we admire, so that, if they are climate change deniers, we will also deny that it is happening.  He also believes that, if we see others not changing their behaviour, we will think, “Why should I change if they don’t?” So this also leads to inaction about climate change.


fig78


Fig.78:  From: Justin Bilicki, with permission

We buy things and spend money to make our lives more comfortable and some of these will not be climate-positive.  They include financial investments, in a car, for example, or working in a fossil-fuel burning industry. Habit can also lead to repeating actions which increase climate change, in order to keep life more ordered and regular; people also have conflicting goals, values and aspirations, which do not always accord with climate friendly actions. People have strong aspirations to “get ahead” and their actions may compete with climate change goals, such as buying a larger house or car, taking an exotic holiday for example. This is a form of the consumer culture, which I mentioned in an earlier chapter. Gifford also believes that people get attached to a place and may thus oppose nearby wind farms (Nimbyism).


fig79

 


Fig.79  From : Joe Heller with permission

4.  DISCREDANCE (OR DISAPPROVAL)

When people think ill of others, they are unlikely to believe what they say or take direction from them.  For example, many people mistrust scientists, government officials or politicians, so do not take on board what they are saying. Some programmes have been introduced by government to encourage climate-friendly behaviour (such as solar panels at reduced costs) but are not considered by some to be generous enough. Large numbers of people in most countries do not believe that climate change is happening and so deny it; they are called climate change deniers and would include ordinary people as well as those with vested interests in using fossil fuels.

In chapter 3, I discussed the attractiveness of the concept of freedom and many people may struggle against what they consider will restrict their freedom.  This includes big business, which strongly adhere to the free trade movement.

  1. PERCEIVED RISK

Some people may consider that changing their behaviour and/or possessions is risky (eg buying an electric car, cycling instead of driving) or cost them too much or they may be afraid of being judged or teased by their peers for their choices.

  1. LIMITED BEHAVIOUR

Most of us engage in some climate-friendly actions but these are not enough and may be just tokenistic.  Others may make positive changes but these are cancelled out by other actions they take, which are not so climate-friendly.

It is helpful knowing the reasons why more action against climate change has not taken place but, in acknowledging these, we must also find ways to reduce their effect. In reading through them, I can find examples within my own behaviour amongst the lists, as well as in people I have discussed the issue with.  For example, I have found people with a strong sense of fatalism about it (“What will be will be”), as well as those who react as if its old hat: “We’ve heard it all before. What’s new?”  I feel that perceived risks also feature very strongly and the government could do much more, by providing more generous subsidies for conversion to solar panels, for example, and by encouraging the motor industry to develop greener cars, which do not have perceived operational problems.

At the start of this book, I mentioned that it took me 22 years to begin to write it, after first becoming aware of the clouds of pollution hanging over each of the cities that I visited on my world trip in 1994. So, I have been part of the lethargy in a way that seems to hit most people to one degree or another. When I look back over those 22 years, I can see that I have been altering my behaviour in small ways to be more climate friendly, though like others, not by enough. Also, when I returned from my world trip in 1994, there were other imperatives for me to attend to, most of which have been described in my second book (The Desert will Rejoice). During that trip, I was introduced to many models of good social projects for working with the urban poor and marginalised and I became involved in developing or founding some new inner city projects. And I also had two other books to write – the story of my journey and the inspiration behind these inner city projects.  So, global warming and climate needs went to the back of my mind. But they didn’t totally disappear. Maybe a similar thing happens to others – we all lead such busy lives. Being too busy to take action about global warming may be another thing to add to Gifford’s lists.  But I am glad that I eventually became jolted into researching and putting together the evidence for this book.

And, for those who are still in denial after reading this book, I have just one thing to say “JUST LOOK AT THE EVIDENCE” and let it work on you, just as the clouds of hazy pollution I saw in 1994 eventually worked on me.

2015 has been the hottest year on record, this last winter too has been the wettest, with excessive rainfall leading to devastating floods in the north of England and elsewhere, causing £250 million worth of damage.  The immediate reaction of people who have had their homes flooded is to accuse the government of not spending enough money on flood defences.  This is important but, far more important is that they lobby government to do more to reduce carbon emissions nationally and to take a global lead to institute some of the changes necessary to avert global climate disaster. Just focussing on flood defences is an example of limited understanding (cognition) from Gifford’s lists.

Is the idea of global co-operation to save the planet realistic?

This is a question I posed earlier in this chapter and it is worth looking at the difficulties in more detail.  Global co-operation is the idea I have promoted throughout this book because I believe it is the only way to produce the kind of rapid changes in human activity that are needed if we are to save the world from destruction.  We are all in this together, so the divisiveness promoted by some groups and countries is just not appropriate.  The world is facing a crisis and we need to join hands and work together to solve it.

So, what are the factors which are likely to limit global co-operation? I list some of them below:

  • The massive size of the global population;
  • Differences in national priorities, ethos and cultures;
  • Differences across the world in how climate change is affecting individual countries;
  • Lack of trust between nations;
  • Ideological differences;
  • Other crises seem more important to address, such as terrorism, migration etc.;
  • Risks to national economies;
  • Fears that other nations will not do likewise;
  • Fears of being left behind in trading competitiveness;
  • Unwillingness to give up prestigious possessions, power and status.

Unless some of these factors are overcome, then global co-operation will not occur.  They are all challenging but I do believe that the human intellect is capable of finding ways to take global co-operation forward.  What is less likely to happen is to find the will to do it.

In the meantime

In the meantime a group of UK climate activists found themselves in the dock recently.  The following is a post on Barbara Panvel’s website “Antidote to doom and gloom” which describes what happened.  The five activists had whitewashed the walls of the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) and painted on them, in black: “The Department for Extreme Climate Change”, to expose the department’s hypocrisy.

The five activists, members of the Climate Change Action Group, were ordered to pay £340 each at Hammersmith Magistrates Court. The defendants, who represented themselves, did not dispute their presence at the scene or the actions attributed to them, but argued that they had a ‘lawful excuse’ under section 5 of the Criminal Damage Act.126

DECC was not fined.

Their letter, which was handed in to Energy Secretary Amber Rudd, made many powerful points. In a preamble, they declared:

Climate change is not one in a number of issues to be addressed. A stable climate is a fundamental need on which the maintenance of our civilisation and the earth’s abundant life relies. There will be no economy, health or security to speak of on the planet towards which we are currently heading”.

Edited extract from list of actions June-Sept 2015:

In 2009 G20 countries, including the UK, pledged to phase out ‘inefficient’ fossil fuel subsidies. But on the 19 March 2015: George Osborne announces £1 billion worth of subsidies for North Sea Oil, on top of a whole series of previous measures, including support for further exploration:

16 June: The European Union says the UK is set to miss its EU target of generating 15 per cent of its energy (not just electricity) by renewable methods, despite being set one of the lowest targets of all EU countries.

17 June: On the evening of the Big Climate Lobby on the 17th June, when thousands met with their MPs to ask them to put climate as a priority, you announced the first of your ‘cut-the-green-crap’ policies, that new onshore wind farms (the cheapest form of renewable energy) will be excluded from a subsidy scheme from 1 April 2016, a year earlier than planned.

25 June: The UK says it will sell off up to 70% of its Green Bank, set up to lend money to risky green schemes such as wind farms that couldn’t raise cash elsewhere. The sell-off means it may no longer focus on risky green schemes, and most of the profits will not go to taxpayers. By contrast, a similar US scheme is set to make $5 billion profit for taxpayers on $30 billion-worth of loans. Companies it helped include Tesla Motors, which paid back its loan early.

30 June: The Committee on Climate Change warns that the UK is not on course to meet targets after 2020. Its recommendations include taking action to encourage long-term investment in low-carbon energy, such as by extending existing short-term schemes to a 10-year timescale.

Ruth Jarman, one of the five members of the Christian Climate Action demonstration, who are deeply concerned about climate change and its impact on God’s creation, the lives of people now the world over, and future generations, said:

We do not agree with today’s judgement. The point of the law is to maintain justice, stability and order. Climate change threatens all these things so fundamentally that the law should be used to defend those who are trying to stop climate change, not those who are creating it. We think DECC should have been in the dock, not us. The department speaks fine words, but with its actions scuppers any possibility of global action to tackle climate change.”

Michael Northcott, Professor of Ethics at the University of Edinburgh reminds us that without such acts in the history of the United Kingdom, the vote would not have been conferred on non-land owning citizens, nor on women and slavery, or forced child labour in our factories would not have ended. He said:

“The actions of these protestors were a non-violent and peaceable way to expose the hypocrisy of current UK government energy policies. The UK has the potential still to lead the world towards the new sustainable energy economy that the climate crisis calls for and this type of action is essential to the democratic process in the UK.”

I believe that we will see many more actions like this, as the world in which we live gets more and more unstable.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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Human Inventiveness and the Concepts of Progress and Freedom

CHAPTER 3

Human inventiveness

The industrial revolution (IR) continuum of development, which has continued unrelentingly since it began, demonstrates the huge human potential to invent, explore, manufacture, develop, innovate and improve – something that we can be proud of as the species which has come to dominate this planet. Human achievements are extraordinary and the potential to continue in a similar vein is tempting and attractive, each generation wanting to better the one before and each nation wanting to do better than its rivals. But somehow, we need to differentiate between natural pride in our achievements, curiosity, the desire to invent more and more complex gadgets and the need for responsibility.  Otherwise human inventiveness becomes a continuum of its own and a weapon of our own destruction.

One of the best examples of this is, perhaps, the situation we find ourselves in, as a result of space travel and satellite technology.  The picture below, recently featured in a BBC Horizon programme, in which we were informed that there are 22,000 large objects circulating the planet, each travelling (hurtling) at 17,000 mph.  The result of collisions could be catastrophic, yet there is currently no law governing space operations. At the moment about 120 new satellites are launched every year and are used for all kinds of purposes, from GPS systems to TV programmes linking events happening across the world and drone warfare. Some of them are just debris remaining from previous space missions. Only recently part of an American space rocket washed up in the Isles of Scilly.

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Fig. 29: Picture showing Space junk circling the earth (European Space Agency) See also the animated video at http://www.rigb.org/docs/debris/ from the Royal Institution.

The idea of launching rockets, space stations and satellites into space is exciting for us as a species but, over the last 40-50 years, it has been carried out with no forethought, no cohesion, inadequate co-operation between nations and with no real plan to mop up the debris it has created. In fact, in the early days, it was carried out in competition between nations, America and the Soviet Union each wanting to be the first to put a man into space or on the moon.  This is only one issue where there is a need for more, and better, co-operation between nations.  In a way, the image is a dramatic reminder of how man, left to his own devices, has messed with the planet almost irrevocably.

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Fig 30: The launch of a space rocket (from http://www.google.com)

 The Concept of Progress

Everything that has happened since the beginning of the industrial revolution has been seen as progress. But is this so-called progress really progress at all or is it a hedonistic route leading to the destruction of the planet? This is assuming that we do not destroy each other in a fight for supremacy in the process.  One of the voices raised against those who warn that we need to live more simply, is that we cannot ignore progress and return to the times before the industrial revolution, which were not as comfortable as the times we live in today. It is seen as a backward step. And I am definitely not advocating that we return to the way things were before the industrial revolution.

So, let’s have a look at this idea of progress and what it really means. Perhaps it means different things to different people. Perhaps it is being used to justify practices that are dangerous to the planet and to our future existence, for many have benefited financially from the relentless IR Continuum.

The word “progress” itself gives a feeling of dynamism and of continuous advances and improvements.  But, if these advances are not beneficial to the global population as a whole, and its many species, then they cannot be described as progress at all but are more accurately described as “destructiveness” or “dissolution”. I would therefore like to re-define the word “progress” to: making advances that benefit society and the global population”.  With this new definition, we could still include advances in technology, such as the development of forms of renewable energy and some medical advances, as progress. But everything else should not be deemed as progress at all.

Freedom of Choice

Along with “progress” another word that is attractive to us as a species is the concept of “freedom” or “free-will”. Individuals like to be able to have a choice about what they do and to have the freedom to engage in whatever it is that fascinates them, whether it be space technology, weaponry, driving fast cars, inventing new machines or just taking a holiday abroad. But freedom has to be accompanied by responsibility, or it just becomes selfishness.  Any suggestion that we should curb our lifestyles is opposed rigorously. Yet unpopular legislation that has happened in the past (like seat-belt legislation, MOT testing of vehicles and the rationing of food after the Second World War) has eventually led to greater safety and more responsible behaviour. In an effort to reduce the number of plastic carrier bags littering the world, some supermarkets have recently started to charge for these. A good idea but I have been gobsmacked at the negative response to this in some quarters.

Two Opposing Dynamics

I believe that there are two dynamics in operation here.  On the one hand there is the wondrous beauty of the world that we live in, a world where everything fits harmoniously together in the cycles, webs and relationships described in chapter 1. And, on the other hand, there are the mind-boggling achievements of the human race, developed through our special intelligence, which sets us apart from other species.  The two dynamics are juxtaposed but, as yet, not in harmony.  Can we, as intelligent human beings, find a way forward in which our inventiveness and inquisitiveness and (yes) greed, does not destroy the beautiful world in which we live, before we end up destroying ourselves and the habitats we, and the creatures we share this planet with, live in?

The two opposing dynamics in juxtaposition

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Fig.31

Britain’s role in saving the Planet

Furthermore, since Britain was the country to introduce industrialisation to the world, I believe it should also play a major leadership role in finding ways to reduce the damaging effects of carbon emissions and other pollutants (methane, chlorofluorocarbons, nitrous oxide, black carbon particulates, nuclear materials) produced by industrial economies.  And, in a similar vein, perhaps the responsibility of clearing up space junk should rest with the space-pioneering countries, America, China and Russia and, to a lesser extent, Europe.

During the 1940s-50s, one of the problems faced by Britain was smog – a thick, dense fog that descended on our cities, making breathing difficult and reducing the ability to see where you were going. A powerful memory from my childhood was a time when smog had descended so thickly that we could not find our way home; my sister and I therefore decided (perhaps unwisely) to take a bus; the bus did eventually arrive but the smog was so thick that the driver could not see the kerb and the bus conductor had to walk alongside the bus with a torch, to help the driver to see the way ahead. It took us hours to get home and, in those days, there were no mobile phones to reassure parents that we were OK.

Smog was caused by factory pollutants, such as sulphur dioxide, and government legislation was brought in to limit the emission of such chemicals and, as a result, smog has not been the same problem that it was during my childhood. That particular era demonstrates that it is possible to reduce the harmful effects of industrialisation. However, we still see a haze of pollutants in the skies over many of the major cities of the world.  It was observing the cloud of haze over many of the cities of the world during my 1994 world trip that made me realise that one day I would have to raise awareness about it.  It has taken me 22 years to take such action but I do hope that the action required to save the planet does not take another 22 years.

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Fig.32: People in China wearing masks due to the urban pollution there

Interestingly, I am not the only person to use the smog era as an example of what can be done if the motivation is there, through the British legislation at that time to prevent further smog. Prof. Paul Rogers, in his ORG Special briefing to the Oxford Research Group30 and his lecture at the Imperial War Museum (2012) has also cited it, together with three other examples of actions that can be introduced to alleviate the worst effects of human activity. The following are four of his examples:

  • Municipal engineers like Sir Joseph Bazelgette were already working on plans for proper sewage disposal in the squalid and cholera-ridden London of the 1850s, but it took the “Great Stink” of the 1858 summer to prompt sustained and effective action, with London leading the way for many other cities and resulting in sustained improvements in health.
  • A century later, 4,000 people died in 1952 in the four-day “Great Smog of London” but this prompted radical improvements in air pollution control across Britain that were already being called for.
  • Atmospheric chemists and the UN Environment Programme were already pointing to the dangerous effect of CFC pollutants on the world’s ozone layer in the late 1970s, and, partly because of this, the discovery of the extent of the Antarctic “ozone hole” in 1983 prompted a rapid international response, with the global Montreal Convention signed just four years later.
  • Even at the height of the Cold War, the shock of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 was a major factor in leading the US and the Soviet Union to a welcome process of trust building and some key agreements, including the Partial Test Ban Treaty, as well as leading to a political climate that helped bring about the Non-Proliferation Treaty

The move of populations throughout the world to cities has also led to urban sprawl and cities becoming more and more industrialised.  Pollution of the atmosphere around cities is very evident.  A recent article in the Financial Times31, reporting on studies at Kings College London, claimed that up to 9,400 Londoners per year die prematurely because of breathing in pollutants commonly found in fumes from diesel trucks, buses and cars. Thus Londoners are more likely to be killed by the air they breathe than in a car accident.  During 2010, more than 3,000 people were admitted to hospital with breathing and heart problems related to air pollution.

So, in summary then, human inventiveness, whilst being a remarkable feature of the human species, can also have its downside.  Not all inventiveness should be seen as progress. We need to develop as a species a new quality – that of being able to assess what destruction unregulated-inventiveness might bring and acting responsibly as a result.  We do still have a beautiful world, even though it is in danger.  Can I add another dynamic to the picture. Is this achievable?

fig33

Fig.33: The three dynamics in balance

 

Human Inventiveness – Part II – May 2019

The first part of this chapter was written almost four years ago and, since then, awareness of the issues relating to destruction of our planet has become much greater.  This may be related to the issuing of an IPPC (UN) publication in October 2018, stating that climate change is happening much more quickly than we anticipated and that the Paris-agreement-target of keeping below 2ºC  of global warming needs to come down to 1.5ºC. This report seems to have triggered much action across the world.  Children are particularly concerned, as it is their future that is at risk. It has also led to scientists sending an open letter to The Guardian, stating the urgency of the problem.  I was privileged to sign this myself and it can be found in one of the blogs above.

The other thing that has happened is the development of campaigning groups across the world.  In the UK, this was Extinction Rebellion, which held major demonstrations last month in the capital, leading to the blocking of most of the streets.  Interestingly, during this period, pollution levels in London, dropped down into the normal zone.

But, there is still a resistance in many circles to stop the addiction to consumerism, which has been one of the things associated with the IR continuum.  Some people think, and promote the idea that, the human race can deal with this threat through some technological device or other.  They think that human ingenuity, which got us into this situation in the first place, can help get us out of it. Rather than changing our lifestyles, they want us to invent some process of capturing carbon emissions.  Others think that we need both: developing renewable energy, as well as carbon capture.

Yet others think it is too late anyway and that we face disruptive and uncontrollable levels of climate change in our lifetimes, bringing starvation, destruction,
migration, disease and war. I will discuss this issue further in another post.

Only the future will show whether human ingenuity can get us out of this dilemma….