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human activity and the destruction of the planet


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Australia is burning: is this a portent of what is to come?

As our hearts go out to the people of Australia, as they battle with unprecedented and devastating fires across the country, with lives lost, as well as homes and a billion of their unique marsupial and other wildlife species being burnt to death, I have to ask the question:

Is this one of the first of many such events that we are going to witness over the next decades?  Is this going to be the face of the effects of climate change in the future?  Are we going to witness even more harrowing events and deaths across the world?

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Photographs from Australia during the fires in recent weeks

wombat after fire

Animals that survive the fires, like this wombat pictured in New South Wales, will struggle to find food and shelter

How much more dreadful is it going to become globally, as we see multiple fires, floods, hurricanes, monsoons, high temperatures, coastal erosion and mass loss of species? Ecologists are already saying that they fear two rare species (found only on Kangaroo Island, to the south of Australia), may have been wiped out in the recent fires.  These include a small mouse-like marsupial, called a dunnart, and glossy black cockatoos. See:

https://www.msn.com/en-gb/news/empowering-the-planet/australia-wildfires-entire-species-may-have-been-wiped-out-by-inferno-conservationists-say/ar-BBYDoQk?ocid=spartandhp

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The endangered marsupial: Kangaroo Island Dunnart

See also: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/jan/04/ecologists-warn-silent-death-australia-bushfires-endangered-species-extinction

An article in Nature, by an Australian ecologist Michael Clarke, describes the aftermath of such terrible fires.  He says,

“It is deathly silent when you go into a forest after a fire. Apart from the ‘undertakers’ — the carrion eaters like currawongs, ravens and shrike-thrushes — picking off the dead bodies, there’s nothing much left in the forest. It’s a chilling experience.

For survivors, it’s a perilous existence in the months that follow. Any animal that manages to make it through the fire uninjured faces three major challenges. One is finding shelter from climatic extremes — places they can hide from bad weather, like a hollow tree or a hole in the ground. The second is the risk of starvation. And third, they’ve got to avoid predators like feral cats and foxes. They’re exposed; there’s nowhere to hide in a barren landscape.

Even if an animal makes it to an unburnt patch, the density of organisms trying to eke out a living will be way beyond the area’s carrying capacity. After fires in 2007, one unburnt patch I visited in the Mallee [a region in the far north of Victoria] was literally crawling with birds, all chasing one another, trying to work out who owned the last little bit of turf. It was clearly insufficient to sustain them all.

Animals like koalas that live above ground in small, isolated populations and that have a limited capacity to flee or discover unburnt patches of forest are in all sorts of trouble. During past fires, we’ve seen some really surprising creative behaviours, like lyrebirds and wallabies going down wombat burrows to escape fire. But a large majority of animals are simply incinerated. Even really big, fast-flying birds like falcons and crimson rosellas can succumb to fire.

Some animals are more resilient to fire than others. The best adapted are those that can get underground. Termite colonies happily hum along underneath these all-consuming fires. Burrow-dwelling lizards are similar.”

See: https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-00043-2

michaelClarke

Professor Michael Clarke



 

Australia is not alone in facing wildfires. In 2018, a similar thing happened in California.  The 2018 wildfire season was the deadliest and most destructive wildfire season ever recorded in California, with a total of 8,527 fires burning an area of 1,893,913 acres (766,439 ha), the largest area of burned acreage recorded in a fire season, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) and the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC), as of December 21. Through to the end of August 2018, Cal Fire alone spent $432 million on operations. As of May 2019, insurance claims related to this fire season had reached $12 billion, most related to the Camp Fire, in Butte County (see Wikipedia). And wildfires happened in Europe too.

In India, from June to September 2019, the country received the highest amount of monsoonal rain in the past 25 years. According to the India Meteorological Department, those rains are not expected to retreat until at least October 10th, which would be the latest withdrawal of the monsoon in the country’s recorded history.

indian monsoon floods

2019 monsoon flooding in India

According to Wikepedia, climate change in China is having major effects on the economy, society and the environment. The energy structure and human activities caused global warming and climate change, and China suffered from negative effects of global warming in agriculture, forestry and water resources.

Beijing-Smog

Photograph taken in Beijing, China, where smog pollution reaches 24 times the WHO recommended safe level and children are kept from attending school as a result.

I have chosen to mention these three countries – Australia, India and China – because they were exempted from the UN Kyoto Protocol agreement, because at that time, they pleaded that they were only just beginning to industrialise and needed to be given a chance to compete with industrialised countries. This chance was given and, now, they have become amongst the highest polluting countries in the world, with China in the lead, despite its intentions to tackle climate change.  Ironic, isn’t it?

It’s easy to criticise with hindsight but I believe the UNFCCC should have had the confidence to stand firm over the Kyoto Protocol.  Because of this, many countries (including the USA – another high polluter) did not ratify it.

I came across an interesting graph a few months ago, which shows that carbon emissions have continued to climb, despite UN efforts and agreements: Rio, Kyoto and Paris and beyond.  The dates of these initiatives is marked on an ever-upwardly climbing graph of global carbon emissions.

cemissionsgraph

As I’ve watched the events of this summer unfolding, I’ve found myself wondering whether the Earth system has now breached a tipping point, an irreversible shift in the stability of the planetary system.

There may now be so much heat trapped in the system that we may have already triggered a domino effect that could unleash a cascade of abrupt changes that will continue to play out in the years and decades to come.

Rapid climate change has the potential to reconfigure life on the planet as we know it.

 

However, I believe that global warming and climate change will have multiple effects across the world; some of it will be related to food scarcity but the other effects will be more random: fires, floods, hurricanes, heat stroke, coastal erosion and the loss of islands, as well as land in low-lying countries. And, of course, the disappearance of many iconic species of wildlife. And, as a Biologist and an animal lover, I feel enormous grief over this devastating loss – and I know that I am not the only one.

Unless huge co-operative efforts are made to limit the burning of fossil fuels, the future looks bleak for all of us, including some of the wonderful and unique species with whom we share this planet. If we are seeing these effects with just 1 degree of global warming, what will it be like at 1.5 degrees, 2 degrees or even higher?  Three degrees and above are predicted if carbon emissions do not start to fall in the very near future.



 


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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?

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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….