Environmental storm: the clouds are gathering

For almost fifty years now there has been a debate about pollution, climate change, overpopulation, over-consumption and whether or not we are bringing doom upon ourselves. It began as a whisper, but now the swell of voices is rising, and in the virtual absence of corporate and governmental action, more and more people – among them the young who will inherit the earth from us – are trying to force change. At the core of this movement is the admittance that, regardless of whether or not we are causing global warming, we are turning this beautiful planet into a gigantic garbage heap.

Where we are
So, quite apart from all the wasteful, useless debates about whether there is global warming or not – I think that one has now been decided, finally – and even then, whether or not it was caused by us, it is fair to say that the world is awash in pollution. In some of the developed countries things do look quite nice and tidy, and the urban water and air are actually cleaner than a few decades ago, but on the whole the environmental ledger book does not make for happy reading: plastic litters the land and chokes much of the sea; deforestation, over-grazing, over-fishing and over-building are depleting resources; chemical and petrochemical pollutants have seeped into the water, leeched into the soil and merged into the air; and rampant population growth is depriving most of the world’s species of their habitats and leading to an ever-accelerating rate of extinction and environmental degradation.

Put simply, we are populating and consuming the world to death, polluting it to a point where the earth’s natural recuperative powers can no longer cope and compensate for our activities. It’s one thing if you don’t care about nature or the world’s species, but eventually this is something that will come to haunt us all. From this, we can see that our way of life is neither in harmony with our resources, nor sustainable or even inherently good for us. For one thing, the recent surge in allergies, food intolerances and also the on-going threat of cancer seen in the developed world is a sign that our exploitative, consumer-based way of life is catching up with us. But this is a global problem, not just an embarrassment of riches. In the poor Third World, it’s not over-consumption but overpopulation that is depleting the natural environment and turning living environments into smouldering hell-holes, like something drawn from Dante’s nightmares.

Where we’re headed
In the newly emerging countries, the desire to consume like the west is aggravated by populations that are still growing fast, so they’re kind of caught between two of the worst elements – high consumption and high numerical growth – and not surprisingly it’s in such countries that much of the worst environmental damage is done. Think of China, Brazil and Indonesia, but also Malaysia, Vietnam, India, Iran, Turkey, Egypt, Mexico and many others. The west cannot tell others not to do what it has done, especially when even today it does little to change its ways. So for the foreseeable future we can expect more, not less, pollution and exploitation of the environment, as ambitious corporations and governments feed their dreams of growth and power, forever locked in a mental battle with a western world that once dominated and colonised it.

The world now has eight billion people, and is adding 80-100 million more every single year. Eventually, the wars we have seen waged over oil and other economic resources will be added to by violent conflict for control of – or even access to – basic survival elements such as water, food and land space. As more people live on top of each other in megalopolis cities, the disparity between rich and poor grows, the middle class evaporates and climatic conditions worsen and become as extreme as the political environment, urban decay and violence. In this setting, the dystopian world depicted in the films and TV series so popular right now might actually come to pass. Indeed, the way things are going it’s not just sweltering summers and the end of seasons that we have to worry about; the very state of civilisation is heading for a fall if we’re not careful, and in our treatment of the environment we may just have unleashed irreversible forces beyond our control.

Climatic predictions
Some laugh and say everything is ok, and they could be right, but who would gamble our existence on such optimism in the face of evidence to the contrary? Even if we haven’t caused the warming that is now clearly visible, wouldn’t it be wise to try to slow down or reverse this ‘natural’ phenomenon, rather than waiting for the earth to turn into a furnace? Enough people are warning of possibly dire changes in the near future, and while many are no doubt loonies or acting to agendas, they can’t all be entirely wrong. Here are some of the main potential impacts of global warming:

– Using current and past trends, computer models are predicting a rise in average global temperature during the 21st century of between 1.8° and 4°, with the greatest impact over land and in highland areas yet the greatest damage done in the oceans and polar zones

– Global warming leads to higher levels of evaporation, as seen in greater turbulence and more frequent/powerful storms, and it will cause some areas to dry up while others suffer monsoon-like inundations – thus adding to the severe weather we are already seeing more of

– More evaporation means more clouds, resulting in more humidity, and this again could lead to the much-vaunted Greenhouse Effect, which sees an almost permanent tropical-style cloud cover trapping heat but possibly in the end also keeping out sunshine and producing a new Ice Age

– Ice caps and glaciers are melting at an accelerating rate, raising sea levels, drowning low-lying land and releasing huge amounts of carbon dioxide and other gasses currently trapped in the ice. The disappearance of the ice will also do away with its important cooling effect

– By the year 2100 the oceans are expected to more than double their current levels of acidity, thus affecting coral and other marine life, while changes in temperature and rainfall patterns will also have an impact on vegetation and farming on land

How we got here
The earliest humans who began the process of ‘conquering’ the world made little impact on it. Small in number, they were scattered over vast distances as they relied implicitly on the land to survive. Life was a perpetual Groundhog Day of waking up, hunting/gathering and going to sleep. This kind of human posed little threat to the world, save for helping to drive cave bears, mammoths and sabre tooth tigers to extinction, but it was with the settling of farming communities that the big change began. Now capable of producing a surplus from their labour through agriculture, these quaint little creatures began to trade, establish the codes and ornaments of society, and wage war on a bigger scale.

As they tamed land and animal alike, domesticating both for the purpose of food production, these nascent civilisations made their first major impact on the surface of the earth, irrigating, building dams and raising crops or livestock where wild land had existed before. For all this, they maintained a precarious balance with the available natural resources, and while their numbers had grown significantly, there was still a ratio of population to land size and its productive yield capacity. Trading ports and merchant cities broke this rule in small, concentrated spots where large numbers of people lived on top of each other, producing enough wealth with their activities to draw in food and other resources from surroundings areas.

The colonial era disturbed things once again, as whole populations were displaced, eradicated and replaced by invaders, usually from Europe, the Middle East or Asia, but occasionally also Africa. It was, however, the industrial revolution that would have the biggest impact to date, for not only did it mechanise the world, rather violently extract resources and concentrate them in overpopulated points of production, but it also added the rather new factor of mass pollution of land, water and soil. Add the era of the train and car, and the mucky industrial cities mushroomed uncontrollably into massive agglomerations, many of which now extend for hundreds of square kilometres and house tens of millions of people.

Another product of the industrial revolution is overpopulation, for the technological development that sparked it and ensued from it made it possible to keep people alive longer. In an era when many died in their infancy and few reached old age, having scores of children kept the population in balance, but when fewer died a huge population surge resulted from the delayed reaction in social attitudes. At first, this applied to the industrial countries of the west, but since the Second World War it is the Third World whose population has exploded from 1.5 billion to 7 billion – within the lifetime of a person. This, together with over-consumption, now poses the greatest threat to our planet, and our ‘way of life’.

Living the American Dream
Though the industrial revolution began in Europe, by the early 20th century it was the USA that was dictating the pace. Increasingly, it developed the way of life we now call American, and gradually it has been exporting this consumer-based lifestyle across the globe. First came the car, the suburban house, the office job and the annual summer vacation, not to mention lots of consumer goodies and a large daily dose of meat, preferably beef. It started in the USA, moved to Europe and other parts of the western world, and is now infiltrating much of the developing and third world, where those who can eat quickly become as obese as their American cousins.

Then came the second car for every family, multiple cheap-flight holidays spent stomping through other people’s home territory, readily available snacks and processed foods, a consumer-based disposable society and gadgets that allow you to be lazy. Several decades on, and lack of exercise, the rise of the couch potato, screen/computer game/social media addiction, drug and alcohol problems, mental health issues and rising crime, violence and intolerance are just some of the hangovers we have inherited in the post-industrial, reality TV, shopping mall world we now live in. Old traditions and family and/or community ties have largely been replaced with solitary individualism and, in some cases, isolation in the midst of millions.

You see, it’s a social and economic—and therefore also political—problem as well as an environmental one, and how could it not be, for it was technology in the service of economic forces that shaped the social and environmental debacle we may well be facing sometime soon. We inherited a beautiful world, but trying to live a by now rather empty and meaningless life based upon material desire and the need to impress people we often don’t even know has brought us to a potential tipping point in which you would have to search long and hard to find a field, beach or river without some form of plastic or other pollutant contaminating it.

The call for change
The call for change is a seductive one, and it has been chanted by many a zealot or revolutionary since time immemorial, but if you don’t qualify the change – and make it a feasible and worthy ideal – then the message is lost in hype and can be appropriated by those with other agendas. One thing seems increasingly evident, and this is that our ‘American’ way of life is not only unsustainable, but also in many ways not good for us, in much the same way that chocolate bars are delicious but you can’t live on them and expect to be healthy.

For this reason there has been a growing groundswell of voices demanding action and change in the face of inaction by governments and corporations, who respectively hold expensive conferences every few years or use environmental terminology as a marketing tool, but let the damage build up decade upon decade. For years it was the environmental zealots of Greenpeace and other eco-warrior organisations that drew headlines, or more benevolent institutions such as the World Wildlife Fund who sought to address the situation, but now students, school kids and consumers alike appear to be slowly mobilising.

Recent strikes by pupils across Sweden and other countries have followed demonstrations by environmental activists and calls for more action on the part of those with power. However, while this kind of lobby is important, we as everyday people are not as powerless as we may think. At the end of the day, the only unstoppable force is that of money, and if we begin to use our collective consumer power and demand cleaner, healthier, more ethical products, manufacturers will respond and jump on the bandwagon more quickly than any government or NGO could ever do.

Let’s not be hypocrites
But to achieve this we too need to make some sacrifices and change our habits a little. It’s very easy to blame everyone else – especially big ‘nasty’ governments and corporations – but in many ways we, as consumers, are as complicit as they are, and while many pay lip service to environmental issues and are even willing to criticise, strike or demonstrate for ‘change’, the majority are not willing to change anything themselves. A recent UK poll published through Sky News showed that 53% of British consumers oppose even a slight reduction in the amount they fly and only 28% would be willing to consider less air travel.

It just goes to show how easy it is to be a hypocrite who condemns others but refuses to buy ethical products if they are even a little more expensive; uses huge amounts of plastic and other disposable waste; flies around the world at a whim; eats far too much meat and throws food away thoughtlessly. What we need is not more anti-globalisation activists snacking at McDonalds after throwing Molotov cocktails at police, but everyday people who vote with their feet, are willing to make some lifestyle adjustments, and in so doing give an example: recycling, reducing their impact on the environment and forcing companies to follow suit.


First published in Essential Magazine

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