Greens, wildlife and habitats

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It is an obvious truism that we humans share our finite and, beyond a certain point, fragile Earth with a myriad of other species. It is also starkly true that human activity is destroying the richness and diversity of those other forms of life, a process sometimes called the ‘Sixth Extinction’.[i]We do not just face specific threats such as ‘peaks’ in terms of sustainable supplies of particular resources. We now face ‘peak life’.[ii]It further seems true that many people are concerned about such destruction. But Greens perceive the problem — and solutions — in quite distinct ways.

It is, of course, commonplace to hear people to talk about something they call ‘the natural world’ or for short, just ‘nature’. Greens avoid such notions. The language suggests that, somehow, humans are separate, above and apart from this ‘nature’. Indeed, there is a long and destructive tradition within human society of people thinking themselves as lords and masters of all life. What others in the past have seen as ‘mother Earth’, these would-be rulers of all creation see the planet and its processes as some sort of a disorderly if not treacherous ‘bitch’, to be brought to heel under human control.[iii]

Habitats and species are perceived in this worldview as merely so much ‘stuff’, merely there to be used, reshaped and engineered to serve open-ended and indiscriminate human wants. Its physical expression has been the homogenisation of the Earth, with vast monocultures of crops, farm animals and tree plantations, enormous mines and quarries, giant dams, ever creeping tentacles of roads and other transport infrastructure, and, of course, sprawling conurbations. Many farms, for example, have become veritable biological ‘deserts’, while, in built-up areas, any ‘greenery’ is often in the form of heavily manicured and chemically saturated lawns.

What may look like ‘wild areas’, such as many upland moors, are, in fact, simply barren tracts of man-made degradation, sometimes kept that way so certain people can indulge in blood sports or overgraze sheep, often heavily subsidised at public expense. Many areas are being trashed by ‘thrillcraft’.[iv]Elsewhere, some species are ‘tolerated’ simply for the sake of trophy hunting. Meanwhile, other habitats are denuded of their wildlife by the animal ‘body parts’ trade and by toxic spraying as well as by, at sea, by pollution, not least ‘plastification’, plus ‘bottom trawling’ and, increasingly, seabed mining. Even the most remote areas are not safe.[v]

The protective regulations that exist are usually weak and often feebly enforced. Protected areas are similarly totally inadequate, both too small and too fragmented. Indeed some, especially national parks, have been yoked to industrial tourism.[vi]Local urban parks are routinely treated not as places for quiet ‘re-creation’, with plenty of space for wildlife, but as venues for all sorts of commercial activities, many less than tranquil. Individual trees are being felled left, right and centre, sometimes by ‘left-wing’ councils.[vii]

There is a veritable war against the rest of nature. Homo Sapiens is often more a matter of Homo Rapiens. Though there was never any ‘golden age’ — many species were driven to extinction in prehistoric times – the breadth and depth of this destruction has accelerated since World War Two and continues to speed up, with governments such as Bolsonaro in Brazil and Trump in USA seeking to remove remaining restraints. Thus, Japan has resumed whaling while China’s ‘Belt and Road’ programme is set to carve up environments that have escaped past onslaughts.

Much of the motivation is, of course, economic. But the problem cannot be reduced just to, say, private profiteering. Wildlife and habitats were destroyed in planned and state owned economies, sometimes on a greater scale than in so-called ‘market’ economies. Nor can the problem be separated from mass culture and popular lifestyles: food predilections, fashion fads, the thirst for creature comforts, mass car ownership, many forms of sport and tourism.

Indeed, one of the very first conservation movements was the fight led by women against the fashion of what was rightly called ‘murderous millinery’ (the bird feathers trade). Personal consumption patterns and their cumulative impact hit the rest of nature in many ways, with food production topping the table. But it is not just a matter of lifestyle choices (and, sometimes, lifestyles ‘enforced’ by poverty, lack of alternatives, and so forth).

Ultimately, it is a matter of the sheer number of ‘mouths’, not just individual appetites. On a finite planet, more and more people must mean less and less physical space and resources for ‘non-people’. It is an issue about which many supposed conservationists seem in active evasion, if not actual denial.

A crisis of culture

At the root of ‘biodiversity breakdown’ and habitat loss is not economics but culture. Fundamentally the war against the rest of nature is driven by anthropocentrism, a domineering and exclusively human-centred view of planet Earth.[viii]Humans are totally exceptional as well as above and apart from the rest of nature. Without the replacement of that ‘paradigm’ by an ethic and practice of living in greater harmony with our fellow dependents of planet Earth, the degradation of biodiversity will continue, even if we can halt the spread of palm oil plantations, reduce plastic production and curb carbon emissions.

Such human-centred ways of valuing, thinking about and doing things also make harder the task of understanding the ecological systems on which all life depends. There has been a pronounced tendency in relevant sciences to analyse life in disconnected and reductionist ways. Too often, fragments of the whole are studied in microscopic detail (how an individual plant may respond to a particular pesticide etc) but the big picture of ecological structures and processes is thereby lost. Indeed, if everything is but a fragment, there is a positive invitation to chop and change at random, simplifying once complex environments, introducing exotic species or releasing genetically engineered organisms.

If everything is just random and inherently unstable, then any land use, any technological innovation, any manipulation is just part of the laissez-faire pattern.[ix]The precautionary principle is just for ‘snowflakes’ in this view. Similarly, there’s no need to keep all parts of the jigsaw of life if we can rearrange and substitute at will. Indeed, there are a fair few people who see today’s level of extinction as just part of change. Perish the thought that the plughole of extinction is now draining the reservoir of life.

Such perceptions mirror the competitive and individualistic worldview that has dominated social thinking since, very roughly, the 17thcentury, most sharply in the realm of economics (‘survival of the fittest’, with competitors grabbing all they can). Thus, ’efficiency’ in land use became nothing more than the yield of a single commodity or output per individual worker, all else downgraded if not totally discounted. Indeed if, say, spotted owls got in the way of maximising timber output, get rid of the pests![x]

If species only count for their utilitarian value, there is little incentive to conserve them if some seemingly more ‘effective’ technological replacement comes along. In reality, those substitutes are usually poorer ones but that is not necessarily immediately obvious and, for some, there may be short-term gains in the meantime (the range of ‘vested interests’, with such a stake, is far wider than just private capitalists!).[xi]

To be fair, it can be useful at times to use human-related concepts such as ‘health’. It can shed light on whether soils, water, flora and fauna are healthily self-renewing or whether they are in decline (tree diseases, eroded soils, oxygen depleted waters, damage by invasive species, a narrowing genetic base… ). The whole direction of evolution has been towards greater complexity and therefore more stable and resilient systems. Indeed, it is remarkable how quickly life can return to land devastated by, say , volcanic eruptions. But the total human ‘footprint’ is now stamping out such healthy vitality.

There is also true that there are sound utilitarian arguments for conserving species and habitats.[xii]Indeed, all species depend, in a variety of ways, on other species. Prey is a resource for a predator, a parasite uses its host and so forth. They are no ‘free lunches’ but, equally, there are no free ‘fasts’, such is the necessary ebb and flow of life.

False fixes for biodevastation

Utilitarianism is not enough and, indeed, can so easily rationalise further destruction. In the short-term, there may seem to be ‘cost-free’ extinctions, with no loss of noticeable utility (for people or, rather, some people). Thus, there is positive feedback that there is nothing to worry about if we drive yet more species into extinction. The Ehrlichs rightly compared this to popping rivers on a flying aeroplane. It may fly along OK for a bit but…[xiii]

Similarly, putting an economic price on a given species or ecosystem ‘function’ perhaps might persuade one or two decision-makers who see life through economic spectacles to stop and think whether current valuations are a genuine guide to real values. But it is, in reality, a poor measure and in any case cannot be said to have had much effect.[xiv]It is truly a case of (sort of) knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Ecological interactions are so complex that it is impossibly hard to separate out different elements and award the ‘service’ they are deemed to provide some nominal price. If something else (say, a development of luxury office blocks proposed for some area that is significant wildlife habitat) commands a higher price, then the signal will be to throw up that new build. Market signals reflect, of course, what people in the marketplace bid: flora and fauna are not likely to enter bids and therefore get eliminated from the process.

In passing, it is worth noting that so-called ‘biodiversity offsetting’ suffers from similar failings and has failed to deliver any significant gains in practice. Basically, it legitimises further ‘development’ which, if not checked, will encroach one day on any places set aside for ‘enhancement’. In the meantime, localities will lose much of the ‘greenery’ that was, before not far from their doorstep. There will be those that argue that building over farmland is no great loss since it is so biologically impoverished anyway.

Greens argue that the challenge is to change farming practices to restore the biodiversity that has been lost, something that can yield quite spectacular improvement in fairly short order.[xv]It might be noted as well that we may desperately need all the farmland we have in future decades.[xvi]For many reasons, from climate breakdown to growing pressure within food exporting counties to feed their own populations, it cannot be assumed that past capacity to rely on large-scale food imports will continue in the future.

There is however another reason why putting a price on nature or planning trade-offs are insufficient.[xvii]What has really motivated people to act on behalf of their fellow species are seldom been economic. Rather, it has been an emotional response and an ethical belief that it only right and proper to share the planet, regardless of what prices may signal. People seldom campaign to protect other species because they stand to gain from their conservation and appeals to such values are therefore likely to be quite inadequate ways to build the cause of conservation.

The Green Alternative

The great American forester and conservationist Aldo Leopold neatly summed up the Green perspective. It changes “the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it.” As another outstanding American David Brower noted, “from citizenship comes responsibility to care”. Caring means valuing other species and the habitat they need for their own sake, their ‘intrinsic rights’, not their usefulness for people. It means ‘living lightly’ so there is physical space and resources for the non-human species.

But citizens have their own rights. The Green perspective is not misanthropic, uncaring about people. [xviii]It is about the search for the sustainable common good of all the Earth’s dependents. In terms of the big picture, we humans can only survive, let alone thrive, if the Earth’s life-support systems remain intact.[xix]Those structures and processes cannot be separated from the flora and fauna that are part of them. Biotic and abiotic components are both part of the total system that needs to be conserved as such. [xx]Setting aside a few scraps of land for certain ‘charismatic’ species will not work. That fact does not deny the value of species such as pandas, orangutans, red squirrels, whales, ospreys, etc, as campaign tools for that wider cause nor the role of ‘flagship species’.[xxi]

The importance of protecting those life-support functions cannot be overestimated if life on Earth is to thrive. Look at what will happens when climate patterns break down, the sky loses the protection of the ozone layer, the air is no longer fit to breathe, the water is no longer fit to drink, soils lose their fertility, coastal areas lose protective marshland, pollinators cease to pollinate, decomposers stop breaking down wastes, uplands are denuded of tree cover, pests multiply following the loss of ‘checks and balances’, the ‘shelves’ of the genetic library empty … Consider in particular how hard it is to survive in outer space where the Earth’s ecological ‘services’ are absent.

But there is also abundant and still growing evidence of the human need for regular interaction with non-human nature. That experience is especially in terms of local and readily accessible ‘green spaces’ (green walls and roofs, backyard wildlife gardens, neighbourhood micro-parks, copses, ponds, etc) The physical and mental health dividends are central to human wellbeing. They too are part of our rights as “plain citizens of nature”.

Some words on language

The above realities can be wrongly represented by the language we use. Thus, as noted above, words such as ‘nature’ and the ‘natural world’ are a kind of ‘othering’, putting humans on some pedestal, above and apart from that ‘other’ world of non-human nature. In reality we are belong to the Earth ‘collective’. At the very least we should alwaystalk of the ‘rest of nature’, thereby demonstrating we are but a part of that whole.

We should similarly beware the word ‘environment’. As the great Canadian scientist and campaigner Stan Rowe used to argue, it is a term that positively invites its own marginalisation. Indeed if, as commonly taken, it means everything around an individual, it privileges issues such as family circumstances, the state of the local schools and so forth, putting wildlife and habitat issues way to the rear of the backburner. It further encourages the ludicrous notion that sensible policy as some balance between economy and ecology (as the widely but wrongly praised ‘Brundtland Report’)[xxii], whereas the former could not exist without the latter. ‘Natural capital’ implies that there are other forms of capital just as important, for which it may have to be sacrificed.[xxiii]For Greens, the human economy is but a sub-set of a wider system on which it is totally dependent.

Sadly, it is probably far too late to stop using another misleading word, that of ‘biodiversity’. Indeed, it is much used above. Yet Greens would seek to stress that it is not about numbers per se. After all, taking rabbits to Australia or European starlings to America added at first to the total number of species there. But great harm followed. There are some 1,500 introduced species in the ecological treasure house that is Galapagos Islands., with similar consequences. Just one plant, the humble raspberry, has been ruinous.[xxiv]Greens see the issue as ‘biocomplexity’, a co-evolved web of life, within whose patterns, flows, and capacities humans need to mesh.

‘Green infrastructure’ is now a commonplace term. The former tends to carry connotations of setting aside patches of land for a few more reserves and parks plus, perhaps, more trees and other vegetation in other areas. Even then those councils who have local development plans and use the terminology have often delivered little in practice.[xxv]Indeed, most remain firmly committed to more new housing estates, more business ‘parks’, more roads, and so forth, all of which must reduce the total amount of ‘green infrastructure’. Not a few are also in the business of cutting down swathes of tree cover (as are organisations such as Network Rail).[xxvi]

We do not want to repeat the mistake of the great conservationist John Muir who, rightly, saw the need to protect the wonders of places such as Yosemite but who seems not to have fully appreciated the need to control as well what was happening in seemingly faraway San Francisco and other Californian cities. But the growing demand for water, increasing air pollution, more cropland  and indeed the thirst for outdoor recreation from expanding urban populations was bound to impact negatively on Muir’s beloved wildernesses.

The last word ‘wilderness’ is problematic too. For millennia, there have been few places in which human activity has not been a part. Human presence in Amazonia goes back some 13,000 years. Like all species we people impact on our surroundings. The issue is the scale and direction of that impact. Beavers impact on rivers but only humans destroy hydrological systems. However, given the ‘great acceleration’[xxvii]in the total human impact and its consequences for non-human life, we must think in terms of creating areas — and links between them — where human interference is minimal so other species have a chance to recover. Certainly, that means an end to the treatment of national parks as some sort of outdoor arena for whatever ‘fun’ activities (some) people want, be off road vehicles, cruise ships or ski resorts, let alone forest clear-cutting and dam construction. Otherwise wilderness will indeed be on the rocks, as Howie Wolke put it.[xxviii]

A Green New Deal for the rest of nature

There is now much talk of a Green New Deal (GND).[xxix]Yet most versions focus on cleaning up the human act (reduced greenhouse gases etc). Leaving aside some extremely optimistic claims for abundant renewable energy or the faith in what electric cars and other technofixes can deliver, most of the goals are self-evidently worthy. Yet they also tend to remain trapped with the same narrow human-centred paradigm critiqued above.

Two things are necessary. First there must be a rigorous critique of any proposals made under the GND umbrella that will have negative impacts on wildlife and habitats. Indeed, that goes for all election manifestos too. An instance is the rather glib tendency to propose brownfield sites for housing developments, ignoring the fact that some have become wildlife havens (not to overlook remediation barriers on a few as well). It has to be stressed too that some renewable energy schemes can devastate wildlife habitat, not least giant tidal barrages and ill sited wind turbines. Indeed, abroad, giant solar power towers have been literally burning birds alive.[xxx]

If there are going to be any ‘sacrifices’, they should be made inside human society. After all, just road transport and related infrastructure takes an enormous amount of land.[xxxi]A study in 2005 found that supermarkets, including their car parks, covered the equivalent of 15,000 football pitches. Ignoring foreign bases, 240,000 hectares of land in the UK is used by the Ministry of Defence alone. If land is going to be ‘sacrificed, such areas should be targeted, not critical wildlife habitat.[xxxii]

Second, we need a truly visionary and comprehensive for protecting, enhancing and spreading high quality wildlife habitat, not just large ‘nodes’ but connecting corridors. We must think big.[xxxiii]Anything less simply will not suffice. More locally, we need a new wave of Biodiversity Action Plans, ones that really do plan for wildlife and habitat as part of comprehensive ecological analysis and land use planning, including the fundamental but routinely neglected framework of sustainable ‘carrying capacity’.[xxxiv]

The fundamental issue is habitat. Wildlife is nothing without it. As David Brower noted with relation to the Californian Condor, such creatures are “manifestations of place… A condor is five per cent feathers, flesh, blood, and bone. All the rest is place.”Without habitat, captive-bred and then released ones have limited chance of flourishing, as the ‘recovery programme’ for the species shows.[xxxv]Given the scale of the biodiversity crisis, there may be a role for (reformed) zoos but it will be an extremely limited one and will have little real point without the protection and restoration of habitats.

Ground cover

Farming is the country’s biggest user of land. Here, there are inherent conflicts between the ecological simplification intrinsic to farming systems and especially high output ones. Specific sowing patterns, overgrazing, water extraction, and especially the use of biocides intensify those incompatibilities. Yet there is a great deal that can be done to reduce those conflicts, especially if grants and subsidies were redirected to reward farming with wildlife in mind.[xxxvi]Contemporary forestry similarly offers much scope for biodiversity enhancement.[xxxvii]

Cities too offer a huge range of opportunities.[xxxviii]Even very small patches of urban land can be transformed.[xxxix]Given the still spreading sprawl of cities (‘patholopolis’)[xl], ways have to be found to create room there for wildlife.[xli]Old industrial sites and waste dumps can be recovered for wildlife.[xlii]Sewage treatment works provide more opportunities.[xliii]

Land now used for sport could be targeted. Sporting estates especially in the uplands provide golden opportunities.[xliv]British golf courses cover an area roughly equivalent to the whole of Greater Manchester. They could be really greened or, indeed when they close, harnessed for full-blown wildlife sites.[xlv]Literally and metaphorically, in one field after another, there is so much scope for making little improvements that, together, can halt biodiversity breakdown.[xlvi]In all these cases, wildlife protection and restoration cannot be separated from the issue of land ownership, an issue that has been remarkably side-lined and needs to be brought back to the centre of debate.[xlvii]

There is of course a vociferous ‘animal rights’ lobby which has raised a good many legitimate issues that urgently need to be resolved. They range from the cruelty and pollution inherent in intensive livestock ‘factory farming’ (including fish pens) and the fur trade to circuses, blood sports and other abuses in the name of ‘entertainment’. To some extent it reflects the basic paradigm of society in which to focuses on animal welfare at an individual level, rather than that of species.

That said, the lobby’s demands overlap with a more ecological approach. Eating high on the hog consumes vast areas of land, drive new deforestation and, in terms of energy and other resource inputs, is a very inefficient way of putting food on the table. Overall, animal rights have little meaning if animals are ‘homeless’, ie habitats in which to thrive. Both ends — animal welfare and survival as species — depend on hugely reduced meat consumption.[xlviii]

It must be remembered, however, that wildlife friendly land usage will tend to be low output. It probably will be significantly higher in quality, but not short-term quantity, as in shown in the practice of ‘ecoforestry’.[xlix]It is basic thermodynamics that it is impossible to get more from less, more production from reduced inputs of land and resources. This brings back the fundamental of the scale of demand created by human populations and their appetites.

The issue of growth — the physical expansion of the total human economy, not just GDP growth — remains fundamental. Protection of wildlife and habitat will involve a downsizing of the ‘technosphere’ — people and their artefacts — if the ‘ecosphere’ is not to shrink further. So, plans to check biodiversity breakdown must be shaped, along with action on global overheating, ‘plastification’, air pollution, indebtedness, the ills of ‘affluenza’ and all the other symptoms of overshoot, within the framework of degrowth to a steady-state economy.[l]Even then no amount of economic change can substitute for the spread of a whole new ethos about the sustainable common good, not just of people but all species.[li]

 

 

[i]https://jhupbooks.press.jhu.edu/title/annihilation-nature; https://news.stanford.edu/2015/06/19/mass-extinction-ehrlich-061915/; https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/the-sixth-extinction-9781408851210/; https://amp.theguardian.com/environment/2019/jun/10/frightening-number-of-plant-extinctions-found-in-global-survey?fbclid=IwAR3AOsk76cbu7iN4wn6R9Kt5JCbwLH14z8w0-sevpDWHSUaPepoRlsuhNNI; https://160g7a3snajg2i1r662yjd5r-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/protectourspeciesprimerandactiontoolkit.pdf?fbclid=IwAR3UpvMQ8PQcK8JCMl1GZD35lyZ4F5XjF-7kO9LfaBSiARQjjLxG4iebJVM; https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/may/23/humans-causing-shrinking-of-nature-as-larger-animals-die-off?fbclid=IwAR3wm_jFi8orX_9rhzjf-eIK01RarIvMOn60gG_x8Ak6YUa-XPps43QYtUE

[ii]https://www.scribd.com/document/63608422/BIODIVERSITY-Peak-Nature-by-Stephanie-Mills

[iii]Such hubris is not confined to rabid technophiles or the sellers of economic growth. Some religions too have treated people as above and apart from the rest of nature, as Lynn J White demonstrate in his critique of some elements of Christianity (https://science.sciencemag.org/content/155/3767/1203). New Age thinking has suffered from a similar arrogance eg http://users.clas.ufl.edu/bron/re/Sessions–deandnewage7(8)27(sep87).pdf

[iv]https://www.stopthrillcraft.org

[v]Eg https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/fears-for-arctic-life-as-cruise-ships-bring-in-tourist-hordes-qrxn3pmrgand https://phys.org/news/2019-05-tonnes-rubbish-everest.htmlWildlife suffers in many ways eg https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2019/06/global-wildlife-tourism-social-media-causes-animal-suffering/and https://www.worldanimalprotection.org/news/bali-horror-wildlife-tourist-attractions-are-living-hell-animals

[vi]A classic study is: https://uapress.arizona.edu/book/desert-solitaireNational Parks in the UK such as the Lake District are failing to stop destructive activities eg https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/sep/13/ban-4×4-off-roading-in-the-lake-district-campaigners-sayand https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jul/11/lake-district-world-heritage-site-sheep See also: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/nov/20/national-parks-america-overcrowding-crisis-tourism-visitation-solutions

[vii]https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/sunday-times-investigation-110-000-trees-lost-to-council-axemen-pjlkp6qkz?fbclid=IwAR3vpgbLb-X4a-mWqWgdas3y8Ez8CRxU1fCR6DtwMkuj6iRkwqldJIes44w

[viii]https://www.jstor.org/stable/23261527?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents; https://global.oup.com/academic/product/the-arrogance-of-humanism-9780195028904; https://www.wiley.com/en-ad/Ecological+Ethics%3A+An+Introduction%2C+Updated+for+2018+-p-9780745651262; https://books.google.co.uk/books/about/The_John_A_Livingston_Reader.html?id=RwbYAzkXFJYC&redir_esc=y

[ix]See the critique of so-called ‘New Ecology’ in Part 6 of https://newestpress.com/books/earth-alive-essays-on-ecology

[x]https://www.pdcnet.org/enviroethics/content/enviroethics_1984_0006_0004_0293_0322

[xi]http://www.conserv.missouri.edu/forms&papers/Ehrlich%20and%20Mooney%201983%20Ecosystem%20services.pdf

[xii]Some are documented here: https://consensusforaction.stanford.edu/see-scientific-consensus/consensus_english.pdfSee also: https://www.tonyjuniper.com/content/what-has-nature-ever-done-us

[xiii]https://books.google.co.uk/books/about/Extinction.html?id=KUwzHAAACAAJ&redir_esc=y

[xiv]https://scholarship.law.berkeley.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://www.google.co.uk/&httpsredir=1&article=1187&context=elq

[xv]https://knepp.co.uk/home

[xvi]https://www.cam.ac.uk/research/news/two-million-hectare-shortfall-in-uk-land-possible-by-2030-study-finds

[xvii]https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/may/15/price-natural-world-destruction-natural-capital

[xviii]As Stan Rowe put it: “Not a misanthrope, but a defender of Earth against the excesses of anthropes.”

[xix]https://www.routledge.com/Human-Dependence-on-Nature-How-to-Help-Solve-the-Environmental-Crisis/Washington-Ehrlich/p/book/9780415632584

[xx]http://www.ecospherics.net/pages/MosqEcoFun5.html

[xxi]Eg https://butterfly-conservation.org/butterflies/why-butterflies-matter

[xxii]In reality the World Commission on Environment and Development (note the anthropocentric bias there) was largely an updating of the concepts of resource management and sustained yield developed by Gifford Pinchot and others many decades before. Related practices have done great harm to wildlife and habitat. The Brundtland Report advocated a big increase in manufacturing output , more cattle ranching and more international trade, all of which would erode biodiversity. In particular ‘Pareto optimality’ in trade is likely to encourage monocultural specialisation and with, therefore, a severely suboptimal consequences for the rest of nature.

[xxiii]Indeed, there is a history of ‘national sacrifice areas’, mainly for nuclear weapon testing and radioactive waste disposal. That aspect is alive and kicking eg https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/india-uranium-mining-amrabad-tiger-reserve-telangana-conservation-species-protect-a9004096.htmlNow we face the same threat but in the name of ‘clean energy’ with wildlife yet again in the firing line eg https://www.rapidtransition.org/stories/can-costa-ricas-path-to-carbon-neutrality-be-replicated-by-other-countries/

[xxiv]http://intobiology.org.uk/galapagos/

[xxv]The same is of course true of national government eg https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/jun/13/tree-planting-in-england-falls-72-short-of-government-target?fbclid=IwAR3SzVPaggCjHf5N1zZecLEWdQWuL3XP6_Ms0tj2DdouAjKSRCMPJaA6PLc, failure to meet what was itself a feeble target.

[xxvi]https://www.theguardian.com/business/2018/apr/29/millions-of-trees-at-risk-in-secretive-network-rail-felling-programme?fbclid=IwAR062Nhbzg89Vi9W3jku_2a8jdqedUdw9oTQHYf3IAQpVUxFWVVP2EBv0N0

[xxvii]http://www.igbp.net/globalchange/greatacceleration.4.1b8ae20512db692f2a680001630.html

[xxviii]Referenced here: http://www.environmentandsociety.org/sites/default/files/key_docs/books_of_the_big_outside-fall_1991.pdf

[xxix]Eg https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/feb/07/green-new-deal-alexandria-ocasio-cortez-plan; https://www.greennewdealgroup.org; https://neweconomics.org/2019/04/a-green-new-deal

[xxx]https://www.latimes.com/local/california/la-me-solar-bird-deaths-20160831-snap-story.html

[xxxi]https://www.eco-logica.co.uk/pdf/CPRELandTake.pdf

[xxxii]However these case studies are far, far more typical: https://www.landlove.com/article/3196/nightingale-stronghold-threatened-by-housing-plans; http://www.niddgorgeca.org/our-concerns/?fbclid=IwAR1n7YKyLsw2FMIHtaC_PqiLHJb9Bqvlxnu272LIVGFhSmAwO4A9CxzUhaw;  https://sussexwildlifetrust.org.uk/campaign/sustainable-transport/proposed-improvements-to-the-a27; https://www.cpre.org.uk/media-centre/sound-bites/item/4959-cpre-reaction-to-selection-of-preferred-route-for-oxford-cambridge-expressway?highlight=WyJveGZvcmQiLCJveGZvcmQncyIsImV4cHJlc3N3YXkiLCJleHByZXNzd2F5Jy4iXQ==&gclid=CjwKCAjwgqbpBRAREiwAF046JdJKveJMuUaLlFU8zjgz9jQB0nkkTVjO8ucxliN9iwBcnIZH3nHmshoCQuwQAvD_BwE  ; https://www.cpre.org.uk/magazine/opinion/item/3305-standing-up-for-the-green-belt-is-vital-for-our-wildlife; https://saynotoyep.wordpress.comhttps://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/budget-2018-trees-green-spaces-hammond-roads-friends-of-the-earth-cpre-a8605821.html

[xxxiii]Eg https://www.half-earthproject.org. See also: https://www.press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/A/bo31043560.html; https://islandpress.org/books/keeping-wild; https://islandpress.org/books/saving-natures-legacy; https://islandpress.org/books/environmental-policy-and-biodiversity; http://www.beacon.org/The-Future-of-the-Wild-P618.aspxhttps://www.monbiot.com/2013/05/24/feral-searching-for-enchantment-on-the-frontiers-of-rewilding/; https://rewilding.org; https://www.earthday.org/campaigns/reforestation/reforestation-projects-map/; https://www.greatgreenwall.org/about-great-green-wall

[xxxiv]A sample study can be found here: http://www.betternotbiggervt.org/htm/opt_sustainable_report_vt_2013_ver4.pdfMore generally: https://www.wiley.com/en-gb/Design+with+Nature%2C+25th+Anniversary+Edition-p-9780471114604

There are some illustrative projects here: https://www.rspb.org.uk/globalassets/downloads/documents/positions/agriculture/scotlands-land-use-future.pdf

[xxxv]https://www.kcet.org/redefine/the-deceptive-recovery-of-the-california-condor

[xxxvi]https://www.rspb.org.uk/get-involved/campaigning/The-future-for-farming-and-nature/and https://www.wildlifetrusts.org/farmingSee also: https://www.bto.org/understanding-birds/book-reviews/ploughing-new-furrow-blueprint-wildlife-friendly-farming

More radically: https://www.nebraskapress.unl.edu/nebraska/9780803275621/; https://islandpress.org/books/farming-natures-image; https://pfaf.org/user/cmspage.aspx?pageid=93

[xxxvii]https://www.rspb.org.uk/our-work/our-positions-and-casework/our-positions/forestry/and  https://www.banc.org.uk/ecos-39-1-continuous-cover-forestry-and-rewilding/

[xxxviii]There are plenty of case studies here of what can be done even in the face of seemingly discouraging circumstances: https://www.biophiliccities.org

[xxxix]A short walk from the noise and the crowds at Kings Cross railway station in London leads to this little gem: https://www.wildlondon.org.uk/reserves/camley-street-natural-park /London as a whole offers much potential: http://www.nationalparkcity.london

[xl]This creature is not a new one: https://www.panarchy.org/mumford/rome.htmlBut the scale of today’s transformation is unprecedented: https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2018/mar/19/urban-explosion-kinshasa-el-alto-growth-mexico-city-bangalore-lagosThough attention normally focuses on Asia, Africa and Latin America, the same phenomenon is at work in older industrial countries eg http://worldpopulationreview.com/world-cities/london-population/; https://www.ecologic.eu/1886and https://www.wwnorton.co.uk/books/9780393731989-a-field-guide-to-sprawl-9e310988-fcbe-4c7a-82f1-62eb28f6bdd3

[xli]https://e360.yale.edu/features/habitat-on-the-edges-making-room-for-wildlife-in-an-urbanized-world

[xlii]Eg https://www.rspb.org.uk/reserves-and-events/reserves-a-z/fairburn-ings/and  https://www.citylab.com/solutions/2017/02/the-wild-comeback-of-new-yorks-legendary-landfill/516822/

[xliii]Eg https://durhamwt.com/sewage-treatment-works-wildlife-havens/

[xliv]https://treesforlife.org.uk/blogs/article/glenfeshie-reborn/

[xlv]https://medium.com/ensia/as-hundreds-of-golf-courses-close-nature-gets-a-chance-to-make-a-comeback-723687a66993and https://www.audubon.org/magazine/september-october-2013/bye-bye-golf-courses-hello-nature  On greening golf for wildlife, see: https://www.golfmagic.com/news/golf-news/make-your-course-a-haven-for-wildlife-says-rspb/16217Here is an interesting scheme for surviving golf courses: https://www.mtesp.org/DNR_Module.pdf

[xlvi]For some case studies, see: https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/109/1094552/wild-kingdom/9780099581635.html

[xlvii]Eg http://www.andywightman.com/archives/category/who-owns-scotland; https://books.google.co.uk/books/about/Who_Owns_Scotland_Now.html?id=-uQIAAAACAAJ&redir_esc=y; https://www.harpercollins.co.uk/9780008321673/who-owns-england-how-we-lost-our-green-and-pleasant-land-and-how-to-take-it-back

[xlviii]https://www.foeeurope.org/sites/default/files/publications/foee_hbf_meatatlas_jan2014.pdfand https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/farmageddon-9781408846445/

[xlix]There is a revealing case study here: https://www.ecoforestry.ca/the-legacy-of-merv-wilkinson

[l]https://steadystatensw.wordpress.com/2017/06/26/positive-steps-to-a-steady-state-economy/; http://commonstransition.org/policies-for-a-post-growth-economy/; https://steadystate.org/wp-content/uploads/EnoughIsEnough_FullReport.pdf

[li]Eg https://www.ecologicalcitizen.net/statement-of-ecocentrism.php; https://www.wiley.com/en-fj/Ecological+Ethics%3A+An+Introduction%2C+Updated+for+2018+-p-9780745651255;

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UK steel industry in crisis again

Screenshot 2019-05-27 at 15.04.36

In late May 2019, there was again widespread concern about the future of the entire British steel industry, following the threat of closure of the Scunthorpe works. The wastelands left in many areas by past pit closures, with few alternative sources of livelihood put in place beforehand, are indeed a grim warning. Below are a few notes tentatively exploring what might be a green response to the crisis. The Green Party’s response has been a bit feeble, focusing largely on the demand for a recall of parliament. That begs somewhat big questions about the place of industries such as steel making in a comprehensive strategy for building a sustainable society.

Some of the figures below, especially about steel and energy, are taken from the ‘Claverton’ energy group (David Lowry, Neil Crumpton et al). There seems to be a paucity of data about the whole iron-steel cycle and much of what is readily available comes from industry sources. Heaven forbid that they might take a more rosy view of things than is actually warranted.

There are critical assessments of particular iron ore mines but not much, it would appear, of the cumulative impact of iron ore mining and pig iron production (there is more just on steel itself). If that is the case, it is a sad reflection on the incapacity/unwillingness to monitor the collective impact on the Earth’s life-support systems from a major component of modern living.

Steel Still Needed

Clearly at present we need steel (http://www.eef.org.uk/uksteel/About-the-industry/How-steel-is-made/step-by-step/End-uses-of-steel.htm ). Renewable energy technologies often use much steel, for example. The European wind energy sector consumes 700,000 tonnes of steel a year. About 85% of the wind turbines around the world are installed on tubular steel structures. Steel represents on average 80% of all materials used to construct a wind turbine, including steel foundations. But there are many other good things for which steel is necessary, not least public transport (eg http://www.bordersrailway.co.uk/progress/timeline.aspx). Steel is also one of the most recyclable of materials (http://www.steelconstruction.info/Recycling_and_reuse).

So many are calling for state intervention to save the industry (in the manner of, say Rolls Royce in the 70s: http://www.theguardian.com/business/2016/mar/31/public-ownership-of-tata-steel-could-work-just-look-at-rolls-royce ). After all, at quite enormous public cost the government bailed out the private banks, institutions whose problems were largely brought to a head by their own greed and irresponsibility.

Bank Error Not in Our Favour

An absurd report by the BBC (http://www.bbc.co.uk/newsbeat/article/35933173/steel-v-banks-why-theyre-different-when-it-comes-to-a-government-bail-out) attacked this argument, claiming that “we” (they always confuse the few with everyone) depend on the banks but not steel. This superficial assertion assumes that whatever we want can simply be sourced courtesy of the world market whereas we need the ‘City’.

For one thing, that argument falsely assumes that there will always be sufficient cheap energy to sustain large-scale long-distance trade in bulky materials such as steel. But, more fundamentally, such reports mistake the nature of the two activities. Steel making is about real wealth, the creation of actual physical artefacts with genuine utility value.

Banking is largely about the movement of symbols, tokens that give claims to wealth but not wealth itself. It is a matter of human choice how we arrange the means by which we exchange goods and services as well as account for their value. Money is not worth much in and of itself, except for the minimal value of the paper and metals used in physical currencies. The BBC is guilty of the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness”. [Actually most money is debt but that’s another story!]

What a dump

Many have also been noted that the government has in effect sold out industries such as steel, largely the victim of dumping by China, in return for Chinese investment in such monumental follies as the Hinckley C nuclear power plan. Thus the Queen was rolled out to welcome Chinese autocrat Xi Jinping on a state visit to the UK while George Osborne sucked up to the Chinese government on his visit there. (See: http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2013-10/16/content_17035049.htm )

Apparently, Britain has blocked initiatives proposed by the rest of the EU to deal with Chinese flooding of the world market with below cost steel (export subsidies, tax breaks, cheap state credit…). It’s been even said that, at one point, steel was cheaper per tonne than cabbage in China. In 2015, the giant Chinese state producer Sinosteel (some $16bn in debt) was rescued from bankruptcy. Chinese steel is also the product of hugely polluting foundries, workplaces that are literally and metaphorically ‘sweatshops’ too. (http://www.theguardian.com/environment/gallery/2015/jan/13/hebeis-steel-cities-chinas-pollution-crisis-in-pictures).

Such factors are built into the current world economic system in which there will always be pressure to undercut rivals in one way or another. Yet Labour politician such as Stephen Kinnock (MP for Aberavon, which covers the Port Talbot steelworks) have supported the whole globalisation project. He talks of “confidence in our engagement with the world” so we can win “the global race”. Yet it is a race to the bottom. The steel crisis is to a large extent the product of competition in a rigged race. [It might be remembered that Labour ‘lefties’ such as Clare Short also defended globalisation as ‘inevitable’ etc. [cf: http://bfewster.members.gn.apc.org/politics/glob.htm ]

Not fault of green tax

Various groups are using the crisis to attack green taxes. They noisily assert that such charges have made British uncompetitive on the world market. Friends of the Earth such as the ‘Daily Mail’ and the ‘Daily Telegraph’ have been talking about “Britain’s steel’s green death”. Boris Johnston was also quick to jump on this bandwagon.
Yet energy costs only account for some 15-20% of total costs (https://www.worldsteel.org/media-centre/press-releases/2015/Energy-use-in-the-steel-industry-report-available-now.html) Clearly other costs need to be considered such as local business rates, the burden of current pension commitments, inadequate investment in up-to-date technology…

These are all things where is scope for intervention by a government that understands why the British steel industry cannot be shredded and is prepared to act. The Tories cannot say that there was no warning of what was a looming crisis. It might also be remembered Chancellor George Osborne took Brussels to court for trying to cap bankers’ bonuses – but has shown little stomach for such a fight over steel.

Of course, steelworks such as Port Talbot are big energy users. Apparently, it uses as much electricity as nearby Swansea. Each year its power bill runs to £60m. But a recent study (http://www.carbonbrief.org/factcheck-the-steel-crisis-and-uk-electricity-prices) suggests electricity constitutes 6-8% of the plant’s total production costs. Of this, perhaps 2-3% is due to green policy costs. But because the UK compensates energy-intensive industries for around two-thirds of the impact of these levies, the real cost of green levies at Port Talbot is about 1% of production costs.
UK electricity does cost more than in any other European country but the Tory press exaggerates what difference that makes for our steel industry (https://www.gov.uk/government/statistical-data-sets/international-industrial-energy-prices)

The UK operates a carbon floor price, which it recently but it is now frozen until 2020, which does affect the competitiveness of UK industry with its continental competitors. Overall, green taxes are a small factor in the difficulties of the steel industry.
Indeed EU emissions trading scheme (ETS) had delivered Tata Steel’s European operations a £780m windfall through the over-allocation of carbon credits between 2008 and 2014. Apparently, the Port Talbot works alone received more than £239m over that period (ie £34 million per year). Revealingly in countries such as France where there is a dominant state-owned electricity company, there is more scope to subsidise prices to meet specific economic and social needs.

Jobs

Part of the problem has been past government inaction. For many years the old Port Talbot Borough Council, for example, did nothing to hold the steel industry accountable for the pollution of the area. Accordingly, Port Talbot was one of the most polluted steel towns in the world.

That said, the British steel industry is far more likely to pay decent wages, provide better health and safety conditions as well as try to cut carbon emissions and other pollution than ones in regions such as Eastern Europe or Asia. It might also be noted that wages in the UK steel industry have tended to be above the national average, while jobs in the industry tend to be very skilled.

This stands in marked contrast to growing numbers of precarious, badly paid, and sometimes rather pointless jobs elsewhere in the economy (eg http://www.theguardian.com/business/2015/dec/09/how-sports-direct-effectively-pays-below-minimum-wage-pay). Surely it is better to have people making steel than standing around as bouncers or serving burgers.

But carbon taxes and the like must be preserved, indeed increased. They are critical to success in the fight against excessive climate emissions and ruinous climate change. It cannot be said too strongly and too often that this threat trumps all others. To chart a path to a more sustainable future for the steel industry, we need to put the current crisis in a wider context.

Deeper problems

Though there is clearly an immediate threat from the state of the world steel market, Labour is wrong to treat the British steel crisis as just some temporary blip in the economic cycle, with intervention needed to keep things afloat until the next cyclical upturn. The problem is much deeper, with economic overcapacity on the one hand, thanks largely to Chinese hyper-expansion, but also, on the other hand, a whole global industry that is in ‘overshoot’ in ecological terms.

Most commentary does not put the steel industry into that latter context. Yet it is the most critical one. Steel making is only one part of a material cycle that starts with the mining of the original ore and ends with final use and disposal of steel products. At an abstract level there is a lot of iron ore in the Earth’s crust (c5%). The problem is not sheer availability, though reserves of easily accessible, high-quality ore have become considerably depleted.

Supply must also be set against demand. That and the likelihood declining grades suggest that iron ore will follow, sooner rather than later, the inevitable path of all non-renewable resources: future shortages. So a steel industry based on iron ore mining (as opposed to recycled materials) would rest on somewhat unsustainable foundations. Careful analysis by Chris Clugston of official data suggests that ‘virgin’ supply problems could begin to bite by 2030 (http://www.thesocialcontract.com/pdf/twentyfive-two/tsc25_2_clugston.pdf) This leaves aside issues of access to raw materials from politically unstable regions.

Then there are the ecological and economic costs of mining and refining that ore. Mines have a huge land take. On average, over 2 billion metric tons of raw iron ore are mined annually, with major impacts in term of land loss, air, water and noise pollution.

In poorer countries roads are often carved out across forests and pasturelands. In some cases such as Mongolia, herder communities have been forced. Iron ore mining is a major agent of deforestation in areas such as Brazil whose Carajas mine complex is the largest iron ore mine on Earth. Some trucks there are the size of a house. Indeed the ‘Guardian’ called Brazil’s iron ore programme a “slow-motion environmental catastrophe” (http://www.theguardian.com/business/2015/nov/13/brazils-slow-motion-environmental-catastrophe-unfolds). More mines are being blasted out of the jungle eg https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/the_americas/another-huge-and-open-iron-mine-is-carved-out-of-brazils-rain-forest/2015/04/13/cc1ce49a-cd75-11e4-8730-4f473416e759_story.html More mining often means more rail and port facilities, plus sometimes whole new towns (eg http://www.robinchapple.com/sites/default/files/EPA_Cumulative_Env_Impacts_August_2014.pdf )

All the digging, blasting, loading, crushing, waste rock dumping, transporting and so forth consumes energy, produces dust and other air pollutants whilst generally degrading the environment through ground clearance. Routine disposal of rock waste brings environmental degradation (eg http://nopr.niscair.res.in/bitstream/123456789/17865/1/JSIR%2058(9)%20699-704.pdf) But accidents from tailing dams grossly amplify the problem. They can create a veritable sea of destructive sludge (eg http://www.economist.com/news/americas/21679299-embattled-government-not-helping-much-it-should-growing-environmental-costs and http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2016/03/03/3756140/brazil-dam-burst-pay/ ). Abandoned mines can create acid water pollution (http://www.groundtruthtrekking.org/Issues/MetalsMining/AcidMineDrainage.html). The problems are far from restricted to countries with poor environmental standards and enforcement eg https://www.earthworksaction.org/files/pubs-others/IronMiningEnviroTrackRecord-201301-SC.pdf.

Every bit of iron ore used to produce a tonne of steel gives rise to an average of about two tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions. That is partly due to mining and transport, but mostly due to the smelting/refining with coking coal. The amount of water discharged each year to the environment from mines is also increasing substantially as mines get bigger and deeper. Generally, the poorer the grade of iron ore (and this will always be the long-term direction), the more energy, more water, more emissions, and more mine wastes there will be.

Post-mine comes the making of pig iron and steel. The impacts at this stage of the cycle are perhaps more generally known, from water consumption to the emission of nitrogen oxides, sulphur dioxide and dust. The quantitatively largest airborne emission from the steel plants is carbon dioxide, however. The world’s consumption of iron and steel constitute 6% of global carbon emissions (http://www.carbontrust.com/media/38362/ctc791-international-carbon-flows-steel.pdf)

Steel has some significant advantages from an environmental point of view yet comparison with other alternatives such as wood involves some difficult assessments eg http://www.treehugger.com/sustainable-product-design/does-steel-construction-have-a-lower-carbon-footprint-than-wood.html). On average, emissions are around 2t CO2 per tonne of steel produced using the blast furnace route. However, the emissions vary significantly between countries. In some countries such as Brazil, use of charcoal badly aggravates the emission problem (https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/02/150209122846.htm )

Limits to growth again

At the end of the day it has to be remembered that steel depends on finite resources and there will always limits to how much can be recycled in practice (technological recycling often depends on large-scale transportation too).

To be fair to the steel industry itself (as opposed to the mining sector), there seems to have been considerable progress in some countries particularly with regard to air pollution. There would also appear to be a number of promising initiatives eg http://www.eurofer.org/Sustainable%20Steel/Closed%20Loops_Steel%20Production.fhtml?wtd=UnV20xTqNoQvEGZ0&sid=-1859055699; http://carbon-pulse.com/17894/; https://www.worldsteel.org/dms/internetDocumentList/bookshop/Sustainable-steel-at-the-core-of-a-green-economy/document/Sustainable-steel-at-the-core-of-a-green-economy.pdf; http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/cleaner-cheaper-way-to-make-steel-uses-electricity/; https://coalactionnetworkaotearoa.wordpress.com/2013/04/24/can-we-make-steel-without-coal/

Electric arc furnace production from scrap steel seems likely to become the norm. Expansion of the ‘secondary’ steel route seems critical. Steps to it might include greater efforts on the design front to make steel products more readily recyclable. Some commentators have suggested that the industry could move ‘downstream’, making more components, rather than just steel itself.

But, of course, markets for such production have to be stimulated. Such possible steps forward will not happen if things are left to the ‘market’. Only direct state intervention, via grants, subsidies and special purchasing policies, will make them happen. It is also the case that carbon taxes can actually stimulate energy-saving and pollution-cutting efforts.

We certainly need to encourage innovations in electricity production. The longer term road to steel with a lower carbon footprint is perhaps to create links to new renewable energy development (http://www.goodenergy.co.uk/media/W1siZiIsIjU2MjRkMWRkYjBkY2Y3MDAwYzAwMjZkMyJdXQ/WindandsolarreducingconsumerbillsAninvestigationintotheMerit….pdf ). Electricity use in UK-based iron & steel production was 3.8 TWh/y in 2014. It would require some 1.5 GW of new wind capacity to deliver that energy (https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/447632/DUKES_2015_Chapter_5.pdf ). One emerging possibility is that of floating wind turbine platforms. It looks as if they might deliver more energy per ton of steel than traditional ones.

Green protectionism

But none is this will work unless action is taken to control so-called free trade and the scope for dumping that, in practice, it is creating. Clearly few people ‘want’ steel per se. They want the products such as the buildings steel is used to create. Businesses that supply those products will always be likely to turn to the cheapest steel suppliers until governments intervene to change the ‘playing field’, not least via anti-dumping duties.

There is one last danger. It is that concern for steel jobs, coupled to a one-dimensional enthusiasm for ‘renewable’ energy schemes, takes us down wrong paths. Thus arguments are circulating that construction of HS2, even new Trident submarines, would demand a lot of steel and that could save British steel. Such programmes would be disastrous regardless the source of the steel or how low-carbon it is.

Similarly it has claimed that giant renewable schemes in the form of, say, mega-barrages on the Severn could cheaply power the Port Talbot steelworks, saving at least that part of the industry. Yet they too could come at too high an ecological cost (eg http://www.wildlifetrusts.org/sites/default/files/Severn-barrage-report.pdf; http://www.wildlifetrusts.org/blog/joan/2015/03/02/more-tidal-lagoons-proposed-opportunity-or-threat; http://www.wwf.org.uk/filelibrary/pdf/turningthetide_full.pdf) There may be scope for reducing some of these negative impacts (http://nora.nerc.ac.uk/9776/1/WOLF_-_environmental_impacts.pdf; http://www.theecologist.org/News/news_round_up/2983549/revolutionary_sea_fence_promises_tidal_power_price_crash.html ; http://www.wired.com/2016/04/corpower-buoy/ )

But we should not dive straight into such schemes, especially large-scale ones where there is the additional danger of crippling cost overruns. We need to see things in the round, not least giving due consideration to the needs of non-human species. The issue is the long-term common good, not the sectional interests of any group in society.

A review of David Attenborough’s ‘Climate Change: The Facts’: Facts Do Not Speak for Themselves

Screenshot 2019-04-24 at 10.17.33

In April 2019, the BBC broadcast the ‘Climate Change: The Facts’, fronted by Sir David Attenborough,[i]whose previous programmes about the state of the seas had done much to raise public concern about plastic pollution.[ii] In a 60 minute programme, there is, of course, only so much that can be said about what is an extremely complex issue.

‘Climate Change: The Facts’ was, at that level, a remarkable piece of television. It was clear and hard-hitting, far better than other attempts, some of whom were much longer but failed to hit home.[iii]It was telling demolition job of assorted deniers such as Nigel Lawson and a certain man in the White House.[iv]It also tried to encourage viewers to become involved rather than just gape at another documentary.

Facts and frameworks

‘Climate Change: The Facts’ bend over backwards to provide solid facts. A strong team of scientists gave testimonies to back up Attenborough’s narrative. It is certainly better to be guided by evidence than by wild guesses. The fact remains, however that if we wait until all the facts are ‘in’, it will probably be too late. As the programme itself made clear, there simply too many unknowns and perhaps never to be knowns.

Data & Evidence-based policy

In any case, isolated facts seldom ‘speak’ for themselves. Their value depends not only the quality of the original research. There is also the problem of robust interpretation. Many critical variables such as ‘ecosystem functions’, ‘food security’ and ‘safety’ are hard to quantify and not amenable to expression in prices. Furthermore, factually we humans might survive the losses of some other species but that does not give us the ‘right’ to wipe them out.

We can state certain facts about, say, wind turbines (they filled the screen at times). There are still bound to be conflicting interests and value judgements inherent in plans for more wind power . It is a fact, one not seen in the programme, that mining for neodymium (used in wind turbine magnets) has caused terrible pollution in certain places.[v]Some forms of solar power have generated so much heat as to burn passing birds. We need to be upfront about  the dilemmas involved in some ‘alternatives.’

The statement that nuclear power is ‘carbon-free’ was made without qualification. Yet the fact is that nuclear power plants are part of a whole fuel cycle, from uranium mine to waste disposal site, one that generates significant levels of CO2, not least in the transportation from one part of the cycle to another.[vi]Those emissions (and the many other problems inherent in this blighted energy source) will get far worse as high grade and easily accessible source of uranium are depleted.

The fundamental problem of not one of shortages of evidence or deficient data-processing. The deeper problem is one of analysis, vision and appropriate policy. Here ‘Climate Change: The Facts’ fell short. Mention was made, for example, of rewilding. On a quite huge scale and with more space for ‘non-people’, it will make a real difference.[ix]But, of course, that means restriction on the scale and locations of human activity. Here the programme remained glued to vague generalities.

Though the programme dealt with ‘facts’, it might be imagined that a number of assumptions were being made, if not by Attenborough then by some of the ‘talking heads’. They perhaps include the fallacy of ‘green growth’ and two related assumptions, those of ‘decoupling’ and of a ‘circular economy, both propositions that defy biophysical reality, not least the entropy law,

There was scarcely a hint in the programme that we will have to abandon the pursuit of growth, trying to find paths to significant degrowth in several sectors[vii]and, overall, build a steady-state with a much lower overall level of economic activity.[viii]Instead, the impression was left that the magic wand of technology will vanquish the climate monster, aided by a more responsible form of consumerism. Palatable or not, society is, in toto, obese: some slimming is the only sustainable option.

Gloves Off

Attenborough has been criticised in the past for pulling his punches. He was certainly much more forthright this time round. Overall, ‘Climate Change: The Facts’ was a big change of tone compared to previous Attenborough series and, indeed, parts of the programme, notably on ‘tipping points’, were truly scary.

There is, of course, a difficult balance to be struck between doom and gloom on the one hand and, on the other, messages of hope. Too much of the former only leads to dismay and abandonment of all effort to turn things around. Too much of the latter can feed unwarranted optimism, leading, in turn, to seemingly ‘realistic’ but, in fact, really ineffective programmes of modest changes.

On balance, ‘Climate Change: The Facts’ erred on the side of underestimating the danger. Time is running out and at an accelerating speed.[x]The scale of the overall global predicament is actually worse than the programme recognised. Climate breakdown is, in fact, only one expression of a multiple and interacting set of crises, for which the only accurate description is ‘overshoot.’[xi]Through the sheer weight of its collective ‘footprint’, humanity is depleting, degrading and destroying the web of life.

Climate breakdown is only one symptom of that excess. Deforestation was indeed spotlighted but mainly regarding the loss of carbon ‘sinks’ (there was a particularly moving sequence in which an orangutan seemingly tried to stop a machine cutting down its habitat). Yet there are many other symptoms of an unsustainable imbalance between people and planet: soil erosion and denutrification, aquifer depletion, salinisation, eutrophication, direct pollution of air, land and water, coming ‘peaks’ across a whole range of key resources, including even sand …[xii]We live in what economist Herman Daly has called a “full world” (ie a full-up world).[xiii]‘Decarbonisation’ and a ‘low carbon economy are very far from enough.[xiv]

As its title rather suggests, the programme was indeed about just climate change but ways could have been found to allude to those other ‘crunches’, some of which, especially falling water tables, might wreck whole regions well before climate breakdown finishes them off. Other species are certainly being wiped out in a variety of ways, not just from the impact of climate chaos: the animal body parts trade, bush meat consumption, trophy hunting as well as, more broadly, habitat clearance, poisoning by biocides and human-introduced invasive species. Trawling techniques alone are decimating the seas. It is not just a matter of changing water temperature and acid levels due to GHG emissions.[xv]

Mercifully, many of the measures that can halt global overwarming are solution multipliers. That fact could perhaps have been used towards the end of the programme, showing such benign interactions, forest conservation and reforestation being an obvious example. In purely human terms, a national effort to make every house energy efficient would also reduce the economic and health problems associated with fuel poverty.

Causes and consequences

Much of the programme was devoted to the relentless climb in CO2 omissions, the biggest ‘driver’ of climate breakdown. Only later did methane appear in the story, while other potent GHGs, nitrous oxide and CFCs, were somewhat passed over.[xvi]Clearly, in such a programme there must be some simplification and the main task was to link human activity to global overwarming. Rather unwisely, the programme stuck with the term ‘climate change’, terminology that can cause complacency, unlike, say, ‘climate breakdown’. Global warming does not sound too bad, unlike ‘global overheating.’

There were good sequences on what lies behind such immediate drivers. Thus, the programme featured the images of the tidal wave of cars and lorries. But it said less about the number of governments and businesses, with some public support, seeking to massively expand road networks, thereby inducing yet more traffic. The biggest scheme is China’s ‘Belt and Roads’ project, a veritable infrastructural Armageddon.[xvii]But most countries are racing down the same road.[xviii]It is one thing to talk in generalities about emissions from the transport sector. It is another to condemn actual transport projects that are driving climate breakdown.[xix]

There were certainly some alarming images of the extreme weather events and other consequences of global overheating. The images of mass bat deaths in northern Australia, due to a heat wave, were truly awful but again they are only one symptom of its impact on wildlife.[xx]It made for gripping television but the footage still ate into time that could have been used to tease out wider aspects of the climate crisis.

For instance, little attention was paid to the likely spread of tropical diseases and its impacts.[xxi]Another understated was the likelihood of more civil unrest and war[xxii]as well as migration on an unprecedented scale,[xxiii]probably triggering further rounds of violence. The problem of such colossal human population shifts tends to be kept under wraps.

Indeed, many otherwise sensible people seem to prefer to hide behind the cosy but facile rhetoric of ‘freedom of movement’, the logical application of which would mean no wilderness areas, no nature reserves, no restrictions on settlements on, say, flood plains or the best soils, and no action to protect areas where facilities such as accomodation, schools, welfare facilities, transport systems and so forth are overcrowded. Building more hospitals and other infrastructure may buy a bit more time (at the cost of more sprawl and resource use) but does not resolve the problem.

Pointing the finger

One of the ‘taking heads’ commented that the bulk of us are to blame, though rightly adding that some are more responsible than others. Of course, there are many, many reasons why people and organisations do what they should not do, in terms of the sustainable common good. They range from ignorance, laziness, insecurity, rashness, myopia, delusion, group think, short termism, and hubris to profiteering and power plays. Sometimes, there is wilful intent or, at least, culpable irresponsibility, at other times, more benign purposes which, nonetheless , cumulatively still produce malign consequences.

It would take an entire series to unpick all these elements, not least what is sometimes called the ‘tyranny of small decisions’, a dynamic more significant than self-serving behaviour of assorted vested interests.[xxiv]Sir David specifically ‘called out’ the major fossil fuel companies for their public denial of the crisis when, internally, they had acknowledged the facts of fossil fuel and global overwarming. Yet the list of culpable parties is far, far longer. Almost two thousand companies with investments in fossil fuel extraction, infrastructure, and power, received a shocking $1.912 trillion from 33 global bankssince the Paris Accord was adopted.[xxv]

Sir David did focus on the enormous profits of the fossil fuel industries. However, they make all that money only because they do not pay for the costs of all the damage they cause and fail to make reparations for all the resources they deplete. Government subsidies further inflate those profits, with the UK being especially generous in giving public monies to dirty private coffers.[xxvi],

Businesses are driven by economic demand, in the main the spending patterns of ordinary consumers (the key exception being the arms industry and defence sector, together a major generator of greenhouse emissions).[xxvii]In the call for more responsible consumption, the current stranglehold of consumerist values was somewhat underplayed. Apparently, Easter 2019 saw British consumers splash out over £1 billion, most of which expenditure will add to the unsustainable demands we collectively place on the planet.[xxviii]Sales of SUV and ‘top-end’ TVs rise.[xxix]There are roughly 1,000,000 people in the air at any given time and over 100,000 flights the cross-cross the world every day.[xxx]Many without such spending power aspire to join the party. Such predilections constitute a formidable barrier that messages of hope cannot wish away.

Screenshot 2019-04-20 at 09.24.01

Extinction Rebellion protest in London, April 2019

Action!

A number of reviewers deemed the programme to be a robust “call to arm”.[xxxi]The question is, of course, what is to be done. To his great credit, Sir David praised the protests from school students around the world, triggered by the brave action of Greta Thunberg.[xxxii]By contrast, he was rather reticent about the actions of Extinction Rebellion and other such militant bodies.

Yet the most inspiring protests still beg big questions not about just immediate tactics but also basic goals and the best means by which to achieve them. In other words, we need a practicable, comprehensive and internally coherent programme of policies. Otherwise, we might solve one problem but only by making others worse. Like it or not, that means not just protests and slogans but politics and use of the levers of power. It also means rigorous debate alongside protests and practical projects. We need politically active citizens as well as conscientious consumers.

As noted above, great of emphasis was placed was put on personal lifestyle change. To be sure, it is important that people feel that they can be part of the necessary change. It is better to be part of a solution, even in small ways, than persist in helping to make things worse. But personal change is small change, even if, over time, it can add up. The biggest single difference individuals might make was not mentioned, however.[xxxiii]We will return to that deafening silence later.

Yet, often, there are structural, economic and cultural barriers to what individuals can achieve on their own. It is hard to use public transport when there are no bus or train services or when the fares are much, much higher than the alternative of going by car or plane. Such choices are, however, not just shaped by prices but also knowledge of the relevant facts, time needed to seek out better good and services (assuming availability), peer pressure and much more, not least the baleful influence of advertising. In any case, the time factor is decisive. Consider the speed with which CFCs would have been phased out if it had been just left to consumer choice, compared to the much speedier impact of the Montréal Accords.

Changing the framework

Governmental action is more critical than was recognised in ‘Climate Change: The Facts.’ Of course, in the age of Trump as well as seemingly all mighty transnational corporations, that may sound implausible. Yet major steps are being taken by local and provincial governments, despite such straightjackets, some of the best examples being in the USA.[xxxiv]

Thus, the renewable energy revolution rolls on despite the obstacles put in its way. Around the world, community groups and networks are taking matters in their own hands and, in the process, pushing at least some politicians to act. Part of that drive is divestment from fossil fuel firms.[xxxv]Though not without real limitations, the actions of Norway’s Government Pension Fund to pull out of oil and gas is a step forward.[xxxvi]Some actions may be symbolic, such as declarations of a ‘climate emergency’ by local councils, yet it is all part of a shift in the overall agenda. It is a pity a few minutes were not found in the programme to mention more of this work.

In some cases, it will be a case of governments enforcing laws that already exist, in others new laws and regulations.[xxxvii]A whole series of regulations favour the carbon emitters and other forms of unsustainable development.[xxxviii]Only governments can address the huge perversions in land ownership, releasing land for reforestation and other desiderata.[xxxix]Only governmental action can reverse the enclose of public urban spaces, reclaiming them for sustainable regeneration schemes.[xl]Only government action can put in place schemes such as universal basic income to help people get of the growth treadmill.[xli]Specific schemes such as diesel car scrappage payments or mandatory deposit return (bottles etc) similarly depend on government action. So too does the creation of an attractive, affordable and reliable public transport network.[xlii]

Governments retain a huge raft of powers. Indeed, in many ways private businesses depend upon the state.[xliii]Simply switching around current grants, tax breaks, subsidies, insurance requirements, research outlays, infrastructural support and so forth would make a huge difference as would much stronger legislation and enforcement regarding producer liability.[xliv]Again, the programme would have been more powerful had there been more recognition of such opportunities.

Cars filling massive road copy

How much difference would it make if all these vehicles were electric?

Limited alternatives

The programme emphasised technological innovation as the main way forward. To be sure, it is part of the answer but only a part and one not without pitfalls. There is indeed a long history of fetishising the ‘technofix’ as an alternative to necessary economic and social and especially cultural change. [xlv]

Yet, as the programme did depict, there are a number of technologies that really would help. The problem is to separate out the genuinely benign ones, rejecting those what look as if they will do more harm than good or simply not work. ‘Clean’ technology is not necessarily ‘green’ technology. Large-scale hydroelectric schemes, for example, have wrought grievance ecological and social damage. In hot regions, their reservoirs are adding to global overwarming.[xlvi]

Meanwhile, ‘bioenergy’ covers a range of options, some genuine possibilities, others literally taking food out of people’s mouths as well as spreading ecologically unstable monocultures and depleting nutrient cycles.[xlvii]Carbon capture featured quite prominently in the programme but, again, all that glisters… [xlviii]It was interesting to be shown electric aeroplanes but there is little chance they can make even tiny inroads into today’s enormous and still growing aviation industry.

There are many other proposed fixes of one sort or another where a choice has to be made. Examples include: high-speed trains; autonomous vehicles; ‘solar roads’; small modular nuclear reactors; the so-called ‘gas bridge’; hydrogen fuel (often wrongly portrayed as an energy source, not just a potential carrier of energy that has to be generated somewhere); big tidal barrages; energy-from-waste; ‘vertical farms’; aquaculture; genetically modified fast-growing trees; biochar; crypto-currencies such as Bitcoin; ‘teleworking’; concrete flood defences; even geo-engineering and space colonisation. There are still of people deluded enough to think there is such a thing as ‘clean coal’, most of whom focus on the problems caused by burning coal, not its mining.

In all cases, we have to test proposals against likely output, land take, reliability, safety, storage requirements, costs (including opportunity costs), scaling up constraints, dependency on diminishing non-renewable resource inputs (rare earths etc), ecological side-effects, specific impacts on wildlife and so forth. Production and operating costs apart, electric cars, for example, will still need land-guzzling roads and parking spaces as well as traffic signals, road lighting, policing and so forth. Their tyres and brakes will still generate air pollutants. They will still compete with other road users. In 2015, there were 947 million passenger cars and 335 million commercial vehicles worldwide. It may take some time to electrify them!

Or take the case of plastics. Apart from direct pollution, they have a fast rising carbon footprint. By 2050, they are projected to account for a sixth of all global emissions. When they degrade, they further add to global overwarming by releasing methane. Let us assume that biological feedstocks are a good alternative. Currently, they account for less than 1% of all plastics. Other problems apart, shifting all plastic from petroleum to bio-based feedstocks would also require as much as 5 percent of all arable land, a formidable constraint.[xlix]

There is no single economic policy or technology that alone can do the trick. We need a whole programme. However, if we were to single out one overriding ‘fix’, it is not new gadgetry but an age-old entity: the tree.[l]That alternative extends to what are sometimes called ‘natural climate solutions.’[li]Overall, however it will be simpler, cheaper, safer and faster to consume less than to switch from one mode of production to another. Yes, we need better forms of supply but far more important is the level of demand. That means not just looking at per capita consumption but also the number of consumers.

Energy futures delusion

Some visions of  a sustainable alternative (this one is taken from a ‘National Geographic’ magazine special edition on ‘energy futures’) look rather like a modified ‘business-as-usual’. Sources of carbon-free energy are prominent but there is scarcely any space for non-human nature and the this new ‘civilisation’ is devoid of human scale, with people reduced to some anonymus mass.

Numbers count too

Some 230,000 people are added to world population each day.[lii]The growth rate might have slowed but that is very different from an absolute and lasting fall in total numbers. Each addition means more demand for food, water, energy, housing, transport, education and employment opportunities, plus, at least basic consumer goods such as furniture and cooking equipment. Their provision will add more greenhouse gases and more generally, increase the weight of humankind’s already unsustainable ‘footprint’ on the Earth’s life-support systems. It will also take away space and resources for non-human species. Responsible reproduction is in fact more important than responsible consumption (not that it is an either/or choice matter but both!).[liii]

Sir David has indeed been very vocal about this elsewhere, but tjhere was scarcely a peep in this programme, apart from a passing mention of the ‘p’ word (but no strong images to drive home the point). As noted, it focused instead on technology and consumption, not the numbers that multiply their effects.[liv]Respected journals such as ‘The Lancet’[lv]have put their heads above the parapet on this matter as have ecologists such as Paul Ehrlich.[lvi]Surely a minute might have been found for someone from such sources to give the issue at least more a mention.

It is as foolish to omit the role of human numbers as it is ignore the ‘overconsumers’ and the inherently malign impacts of certain technologies. This is as true of climate breakdown as it is of just about every other environmental problem and many ‘purely’ social ones too.[lvii]Conversely ,there are few problems that would not be easier to solve if there were fewer people. ‘Population deniers’ are little better than climate deniers. One wonders why the usually forthright Attenborough was so quiet about the biggest elephant in the room.

Elephant getting on bus

____________________________________________________________________________________________

“Unlike plagues of the dark ages or contemporary diseases we do not yet understand, the modern plague of overpopulation is soluble by means we have discovered and with resources we possess. What is lacking is not sufficient knowledge of the solution but universal consciousness of the gravity of the problem and education of the billions who are its victims.” (Martin Luther King)
____________________________________________________________________________________________

Time and scale

Finally, we come to a barrier that the programme somewhat skirted. It rightly noted a number of solutions, even if the range could have been wider, with more emphasis on the role of government. Whatever the proposed solution, we have to test it against the ‘rate and magnitude’ barrier, ie could it deliver in sufficient time and on sufficient scale, at an affordable cost, without dangerous disruption and without compromising safety and other standards, to make a meaningful difference?

All other arguments apart, nuclear power, for example, fails to pass muster. It is simply beyond all credibility that sufficient nuclear reactors could be built, to replace not just fossil fuel powered plants but also the fast ageing fleet of current reactors plus all those likely to be threatened by rising sea levels. Arguably, carbon capture schemes fail the same test. But the question must be asked of all proposals. Some proposals for PV and wind power seem to assume a rate of manufacture and installation several times that achieved to date by leading countries such as Germany.

‘Climate Change: The Facts’ knocked on the head a lot of nonsense from those who deny or evade what is now compelling evidence. But, for all the alarm bells it rang, it still did not paint a full enough picture of the predicaments now facing us. There is much to be still debated and clarified about what needs to be done.

Box ticked

The BBC has been under a lot of criticism for its failure to cover adequately the climate crisis.[lviii]In particular it has given platforms to deniers as part of a misguided policy of so-called ‘balance’.[lix]It gave the impression that there really was room for doubt. More generally, its sense of ‘newsworthiness’ and overall scheduling policy treat a truly existential crisis as but one matter amongst many.

Conversely, its reportage, as with most media, continues to treat the human economy as the fundamental source of wealth, not the Earth’s life-support systems. Money is treated as real value in itself, rather than what it is: a symbolic token conferring a claim on resources. ‘Market forces’ continue to be represented as some natural phenomenon, just blowing like the wind, not the human constructs that they actually are. Economic growth is deemed to be, ipso facto, a good thing, the bigger the better.

‘Climate Change: The Facts’ did permit the BBC to claw back some of its reputation as a serious broadcaster, not just entertaining but informing and educating. But it will have to do far more if this single programme isn’t going to be just an exercice in box-ticking.

Endnotes

[i]https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m00049b1

[ii] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/oct/15/david-attenborough-urges-immediate-action-on-plastics-blue-planet
and https://www.radiotimes.com/news/tv/2018-01-25/david-attenborough-says-plastic-pollution-outcry-makes-blue-planet-ii-a-job-worth-doing/

[iii]Eg https://sandyirvineblog.wordpress.com/2016/06/04/age-of-stupid-not-so-clever/and https://sandyirvineblog.files.wordpress.com/2017/08/al-gores-an-inconvenient-truth-a-critique.pdf

[iv]Even the Daily Telegraph’, not a bastion of radical politics, gave the programme a 5 star rating:
https://www.telegraph.co.uk/tv/2019/04/18/climate-change-facts-review-david-attenboroughs-superb-documentary/
The Daily Mail however still found it necessary to moan about scientists and what it called their ‘pet theories”:
https://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-6937767/CHRISTOPHER-STEVENS-reviews-nights-TV-Pity-Sir-David-got-hijacked-doom-mongers-theories.html

[v]http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20150402-the-worst-place-on-earth

[vi]https://theecologist.org/2015/feb/05/false-solution-nuclear-power-not-low-carbon; https://wiseinternational.org/sites/default/files/u93/climatenuclear.pdf; https://worldbusiness.org/nuclear-power-totally-unqualified-to-combat-climate-change/; https://www.beaconbroadside.com/broadside/2018/11/more-nuclear-energy-is-not-the-solution-to-our-climate-crisis.html; https://www.resilience.org/stories/2006-05-11/does-nuclear-power-produce-no-co2/;

[vii]http://kevinanderson.info/blog/avoiding-dangerous-climate-change-demands-de-growth-strategies-from-wealthier-nations/?fbclid=IwAR3ARMZ1P5WKg_vHQK2TzZv_M25O_fCPXG_C9JTi1X46Gcfh1Azp594qYw4;
https://www.ineteconomics.org/perspectives/blog/why-green-growth-is-an-illusion;
https://www.resilience.org/stories/2018-11-21/the-limits-of-renewable-energy-and-the-case-for-degrowth/ 

[viii]https://steadystate.org

[ix]https://www.half-earthproject.org

[x]eg
https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-03-26/record-carbon-emissions-seen-as-energy-use-grew-most-in-decade; https://library.wmo.int/index.php?lvl=notice_display&id=20697#.XLyncS_MzgF; https://www.wri.org/blog/2018/06/deforestation-accelerating-despite-mounting-efforts-protect-tropical-forests;
https://www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/plastic-production-increase-pollution-ocean-waste/;
https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/jul/10/earths-sixth-mass-extinction-event-already-underway-scientists-warn; https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/nov/05/air-pollution-everything-you-should-know-about-a-public-health-emergency; https://theecologist.org/2019/mar/15/global-use-natural-resources-skyrocketing

[xi]https://www.overshootday.org/about-earth-overshoot-day/

[xii]Examples:
https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/oct/30/humanity-wiped-out-animals-since-1970-major-report-finds; https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/mar/19/water-shortages-could-affect-5bn-people-by-2050-un-report-warns?CMP=share_btn_link;
https://phys.org/news/2019-01-global-groundwater-agriculture.html; https://ensia.com/features/salinization-salt-threatens-soil-crops-ecosystems/; https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/only-60-years-of-farming-left-if-soil-degradation-continues/;
https://www.vims.edu/research/topics/dead_zones/index.php; https://www.livescience.com/62489-dead-zone-arabian-sea.html; https://www.wri.org/our-work/project/eutrophication-and-hypoxia/interactive-map-eutrophication-hypoxia; https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0025326X19302061; https://theecologist.org/2019/apr/23/europes-rivers-riddled-pesticides; https://www.stateofglobalair.org/sites/default/files/soga_2019_report.pdf; https://www.pnas.org/content/112/18/5750; https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/feb/10/plummeting-insect-numbers-threaten-collapse-of-nature; http://peak-oil.org/peak-oil-review-19-nov-2018/; https://www.resilience.org/stories/2013-09-19/peak-oil-demand-peak-oil/; https://www.researchgate.net/publication/49846798_Energy_return_on_investment_peak_oil_and_the_end_of_economic_growth;
https://www.americanscientist.org/article/does-peak-phosphorus-loom; https://www.npr.org/sections/money/2018/07/13/628894815/episode-853-peak-sand;
Everywhere is being hit, unlike crises in the past. Some snapshots: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/microplastics-found-in-remote-region-frances-pyrenees-180971973/; https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2019/03/mongolia-air-pollution/https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/apr/18/decades-of-denial-major-report-finds-new-zealands-environment-is-in-serious-trouble; https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-42947155;
https://amp.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/nov/18/gwent-levels-wetlands-biodiversity-risk-wales-motorway?fbclid=IwAR1vySyaX1XpVWePFcyht0KGRnehRJWBrrdTOBesRoadcKCTCjSR6ly_1Ew; https://theconversation.com/from-australia-to-africa-fences-are-stopping-earths-great-animal-migrations-114586?fbclid=IwAR3f8fCgvuxHOKkQ6KqIYSUCynQ4tlpn-rKJdRvRKekU3tnsLnPAZVFmvA8;
https://theecologist.org/2019/jan/30/highway-threatens-bolivian-national-park?fbclid=IwAR0gafnXMRxHiTXQQGZ4iGT6mRxBl3cRErjoZEmm7SFazyJJ4U1B-0l4Wms; https://blueheart.patagonia.com/discover; https://www.independent.co.uk/environment/china-belt-and-road-initiative-silk-route-cost-environment-damage-a8354256.html;
Even sea beds are not safe eg
https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-00757-y?utm_source=Nature+Briefing&utm_campaign=85e9e98bc8-briefing-dy-20190318&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_c9dfd39373-85e9e98bc8-43745793&fbclid=IwAR0blwKJzYAavYqgF3liRMNRBEbErjI252O8-PPp_cBqDhEQhR0YdwU9UWs

[xiii]https://pages.wustl.edu/files/pages/imce/fazz/ad_5_2_daly.pdf

[xiv]https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/english/currentstudents/postgraduate/masters/modules/en9b5worldlitanthropocene/crist-beyond_the_climate_crisis.pdf?fbclid=IwAR07dc5VjKlj3jgXN_nwyE0-z8pJ_TpfWXebbom1BygFYy3eCou2V9ozHP4

[xv]Eg https://www.iucn.org/resources/issues-briefs/ocean-acidification;

[xvi]https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/nitrous-oxide-emissions-could-double/; https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2018/03/countries-crank-ac-emissions-potent-greenhouse-gases-are-likely-skyrocket;

[xvii]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JhuEvnkVXBE&feature=youtu.be&fbclid=IwAR1FodeVRHBMa4tofOFu3Bt0ZTseVsqP-Zg2acNztHWnWHj6aI3SgjdtVXI

[xviii]https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/dec/15/new-map-reveals-shattering-effect-of-roads-on-nature?utm_source=esp&utm_medium=Email&utm_campaign=Green+Light+2016&utm_term=204482&subid=7423597&CMP=EMCENVEML1631&fbclid=IwAR3fQk16edfkSdI1bLqWmysqHXJDid_MH6km-yXwAiOyQyoK3O9eCOK1Tj4; https://news.mongabay.com/2018/04/chinas-belt-and-road-poised-to-transform-the-earth-but-at-what-cost/?n3wsletter&utm_source=Mongabay+Newsletter&utm_campaign=15abe15f05-newsletter_2018_04_19&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_940652e1f4-15abe15f05-67232675&fbclid=IwAR0JHx4SFiORsAaidLjazWyPpVjajXMoDAlHdJu02_cL3GEdoDm4cEtCxe0;
https://friendsoftheearth.uk/climate-change/roads-ruin-uks-most-controversial-road-plans;
https://e360.yale.edu/features/a-highway-megaproject-tears-at-the-heart-of-papuas-rainforest;

[xix]By way of comparison, the edition of the BBC’s ‘Gardeners’ World’ magazine on sale at the time of the Attenborough broadcast featured an article by Monty Don in which he forthrightly and unquivocally condemned all use of biocides in the garden (https://magsdirect.co.uk/magazine/gwmay19/)
Sticking to generalities can be a form of evasion itself.

[xx]https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/australasia/australia-heatwave-latest-temperature-heat-records-stress-new-south-wales-bushfires-a8735541.html

[xxi]Eg https://www.theguardian.com/science/2019/apr/14/tropical-insect-diseases-europe-at-risk-dengue-fever
and
https://grist.org/article/climate-change-could-push-tropical-diseases-to-alaska-according-to-a-new-study/;

[xxii]https://journals.ametsoc.org/doi/full/10.1175/WCAS-D-13-00059.1; http://emiguel.econ.berkeley.edu/research/warming-increases-the-risk-of-civil-war-in-africa;
https://www.newclimateforpeace.org/blog/insurgency-terrorism-and-organised-crime-warming-climate

The causal link between climate and conflict is another instance of the straw man arguments common in the whole debate. Those who warn of dangers are portrayed as if they only blame climate and other environmental factors. The fact that, as is usually the case in history, there are many factors at work does not thereby mean that ecological dynamics can be ignored. In fact, they are increasingly significant direct drivers of conflict and make other factors more potent eg
https://thehill.com/policy/energy-environment/220575-pentagon-unveils-plan-to-fight-climate-change.
See also:
https://nexusmedianews.com/study-shows-climate-change-is-fueling-conflict-and-mass-migration-5f37de166ec6

[xxiii]https://www.nrdc.org/onearth/climate-change-already-driving-mass-migration-around-globe
and
https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/mar/19/climate-change-soon-to-cause-mass-movement-world-bank-warns.

[xxiv]https://www.researchgate.net/publication/240297227_Environmental_Degradation_and_the_Tyranny_of_Small_Decisions

[xxv]https://www.ran.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/Banking_on_Climate_Change_2019_vFINAL1.pdf

[xxvi]https://www.carbonbrief.org/oecd-fossil-fuel-subsidies-373-billion-2015
and
https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/jan/23/uk-has-biggest-fossil-fuel-subsidies-in-the-eu-finds-commission
‘Free market’ America is also free-handed with the public purse eg http://priceofoil.org/content/uploads/2017/10/OCI_US-Fossil-Fuel-Subs-2015-16_Final_Oct2017.pdf

[xxvii]https://www.tni.org/es/node/22587;https://truthout.org/articles/the-military-assault-on-global-climate/
Such matters can only be addressed by people as citizens (eg voters), not consumers

[xxviii]US consumers play their part:
https://r-login.wordpress.com/remote-login.php?action=auth&host=philadelphia.cbslocal.com&id=15116066&back=https%3A%2F%2Fphiladelphia.cbslocal.com%2F2018%2F03%2F22%2Feaster-spending-survey-2nd-highest-in-history%2F&h=
Perhaps the straw that is breaking the Earth’s back is the rise of the new global middle class eg
https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-22956470; https://www.brookings.edu/blog/future-development/2018/09/27/a-global-tipping-point-half-the-world-is-now-middle-class-or-wealthier/;
https://www.reuters.com/middle-class-infographic.

[xxix]https://www.fleetnews.co.uk/news/manufacturer-news/2018/04/16/suvs-account-for-almost-a-third-of-cars-on-uk-roads; https://www.broadbandtvnews.com/2018/08/29/high-end-tv-sets-drive-global-market/

[xxx]https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07g70j1

[xxxi]https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2019/apr/18/climate-change-the-facts-review-our-greatest-threat-laid-bare-david-attenborough

[xxxii]https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/mar/11/greta-thunberg-schoolgirl-climate-change-warrior-some-people-can-let-things-go-i-cant

[xxxiii]https://qz.com/1590642/these-millennials-are-going-on-birth-strike-due-to-climate-change/?utm_campaign=Weekly%20Digest&utm_source=hs_email&utm_medium=email&utm_content=71906136&_hsenc=p2ANqtz-8nLuafa1WjxQ-hCc48Q1Q4fHgrjVGcblhgnIyuBQefpSSlIAMIb3K70iAQRy9g3zChoSvK_GM38M9ibvch17gu2klIUA&_hsmi=71906136

[xxxiv]Eg https://wallethub.com/edu/most-least-green-cities/16246/?fbclid=IwAR2OH47IQBC4OvLe8GZBb4mSKnjAXsdbs-0OTl-5Qmz29T1XnRx8ReTxT3wand https://insideclimatenews.org/news/18042019/new-york-city-climate-solutions-buildings-energy-efficiency-jobs-low-income-greenhouse-gases?utm_source=InsideClimate+News&utm_campaign=421af59ce8-&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_29c928ffb5-421af59ce8-327903589See also: https://carbonneutralcities.org

[xxxv]Eg https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/dec/16/divestment-fossil-fuel-industry-trillions-dollars-investments-carbon

[xxxvi]https://www.forbes.com/sites/rrapier/2019/03/15/how-significant-is-norways-fossil-fuel-divestment-announcement/#7755dd9e50de

[xxxvii]Eg https://eradicatingecocide.com/the-law/what-is-ecocide/

[xxxviii]Examples in the UK include the National Planning Policy Framework and the energy market ‘capacity’ mechanism, the latter favouring large-scale centralised power generation.

[xxxix]https://www.theguardian.com/money/2019/apr/17/who-owns-england-thousand-secret-landowners-author

[xl]https://docs.wixstatic.com/ugd/e87dab_c893a52a18624acdb94472869d942a09.pdf
Land Value Tax is another part of this armoury eg http://www.andywightman.com/docs/LVT_england_final.pdf.

[xli]One of the first statements of this case was by Warren Johnson: https://books.openedition.org/pucl/1772?lang=en

[xlii]https://www.independent.co.uk/travel/news-and-advice/luxembourg-free-public-transport-no-fares-trains-trams-buses-tickets-2020-a8743581.html

[xliii]Some ways are outlined here: https://www.penguinrandomhouse.ca/books/392081/the-trouble-with-billionaires-by-linda-mcquaigneil-brooks/9780143174547
and
https://policy.bristoluniversitypress.co.uk/why-we-cant-afford-the-rich.

[xliv]There is a flavour here: https://www.taxpayer.net/energy-natural-resources/green-scissors-report-2012/;
https://www.cbd.int/financial/fiscalenviron/g-subsidiesoverview.pdf ;
and
http://www.earth-policy.org/books/eco/eech11_ss4

[xlv]https://www.newsociety.com/Books/T/Techno-Fix
and http://www.edwardtenner.com/why_things_bite_back__technology_and_the_revenge_of_unintended_consequences_21108.htm.
Specifically on carbon fixes:
https://corporatewatch.org/product/technofixes-a-critical-guide-to-climate-change-technologies/

[xlvi]https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2016/nov/06/hydropower-hydroelectricity-methane-clean-climate-change-study; https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2016/09/hundreds-new-dams-could-mean-trouble-our-climate;
https://www.climatecentral.org/news/hydropower-as-major-methane-emitter-18246?fbclid=IwAR3Qm1zS-IlC8NPhXRBiQncpXyvR5t6tHmsAhAO-DZSGAwFiXItvHJ4rLOU;  and https://www.earthlawcenter.org/blog-entries/2017/12/dams-climate-change-bad-news.

Again the challenge is not to think just in terms of carbon emissions but to see the big ecological picture: https://www.internationalrivers.org/problems-with-big-dams; https://phys.org/news/2017-05-major-driver-global-environmental.htmland http://www.ecoropa.info/publication/social-and-environmental-effects-large-dams

[xlvii]https://www.biofuelwatch.org.uk; https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10584-016-1764-4?fbclid=IwAR3TzqqjaV-6F96ftHHS-Zh6MIP9JTxXNdiVLE6s9QLBruGbBJfIosSGsGU; https://www.independentsciencenews.org/environment/biofuel-or-biofraud-the-vast-taxpayer-cost-of-failed-cellulosic-and-algal-biofuels/?fbclid=IwAR1Z39OUkizHljbBnjljAvx7_9MeSt6egvLYGknJaCMMvMxIX0zO9ozc58s;  http://ww2.rspb.org.uk/Images/biomass_report_tcm9-326672.pdf?fbclid=IwAR0gKhMzzXmw-0sq4meZ3c64cvmQ60gaa9hR8t07GPUsByfrKtpnwUPR8Ukand https://www.econexus.info/sites/econexus/files/EU%20Bioenergy%20Briefing_0.pdf?fbclid=IwAR2wPXS6gIYjdV78E8NZehl_prnw6bXjdktOvUniPT8Pj6gmc_uh6S9IDWs

Sometimes, bioenergy is linked to carbon capture (BECCS) eg https://www.technologyreview.com/s/544736/the-dubious-promise-of-bioenergy-plus-carbon-capture/?fbclid=IwAR2OoLQ_qe1aaOw_GKQpeNKyII64WSUUVrGGXXfbKxyAVqcpb2NqpPiI_3c.
For an overview, see:
https://tyndall.ac.uk/publications/tyndall-working-paper/2010/biomass-energy-carbon-capture-and-storage-beccs-revie
See also:
https://www.carbonbrief.org/world-can-limit-global-warming-to-onepointfive-without-beccs?fbclid=IwAR38Jo6ear4xyAcM6kznOLy2PcNVvPOlSpw9ti3msO2DjgilfIoo1WZOjew

[xlviii]https://truthout.org/articles/techno-optimism-and-bad-science-in-paris-the-problem-with-carbon-capture-and-storage/; https://hub.globalccsinstitute.com/sites/default/files/publications/49611/424-alstom-sub3.pdf?fbclid=IwAR1EZTlrmMAolICtGnTv8ayFbJzCL_2DF_VYcoAl73T-CUmJMh_Z6gI9waY;
https://thebulletin.org/2016/10/wed-have-to-finish-one-new-facility-every-working-day-for-the-next-70-years-why-carbon-capture-is-no-panacea/; https://www.greenpeace.org/usa/wp-content/uploads/legacy/Global/usa/planet3/PDFs/Carbon-Capture-Scam.pdf?fbclid=IwAR3rH7-FyxKeJ0uObExOBqVij0dfhzcWddit939ccNHMYe5dj6Kt_TFxWkM; https://www.independentsciencenews.org/environment/climate-technofix-weaving-carbon-into-gold-and-other-myths-of-negative-emissions/?fbclid=IwAR3ZBu8JLVZmT3AiVfe3EPKAHOl606fo4MoVmkvjwQZ7Hn_W-5MSF606vds; http://airclim.org/acidnews/myths-about-carbon-storage-–-sleipner-case?fbclid=IwAR0r0zulqwzMT_4UtuCdem556X21d8k-mxvYZdGOwZgkC0VJcGVsGiS-ptU; https://corporatewatch.org/the-zombie-technofix/?fbclid=IwAR09aIbWYmt60OMNcdTerdCg9IlzcrphRhqDGjARCUvNhxeegfThxASC3ck; https://www.greenamerica.org/fight-dirty-energy/amazon-build-cleaner-cloud/coal-carbon-capture-and-storage-not-solution?fbclid=IwAR0SCVvEWtJnydI_0YwBqP1C5CpRpTV2jcFb2C54eSOgXNX4xlbWrButFxc

Carbon capture might, however, be a fix for oil companies, of course: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-02-15/big-oil-ceos-appeal-to-norway-to-back-carbon-capture-and-storage?fbclid=IwAR2r-9a2naH7W32–V_8k8RS2Av2u817I2F0LwbSYouhNWtwzNDE91tvvJ8

[xlix]https://www.nature.com/articles/s41558-019-0459-z

[l]Eg https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/the-best-technology-for-fighting-climate-change-isnt-a-technology/
and
https://www.postcarbon.org/amazing-new-energy-source-introducing-trees/

[li]http://naturalclimatesolutions.org

[lii]This is an interesting overview here:
https://overpopulation-project.com/2019/03/28/overpopulation-during-my-lifetime-of-eighty-years/?utm_campaign=Weekly%20Digest&utm_source=hs_email&utm_medium=email&utm_content=71906136&_hsenc=p2ANqtz-8nLuafa1WjxQ-hCc48Q1Q4fHgrjVGcblhgnIyuBQefpSSlIAMIb3K70iAQRy9g3zChoSvK_GM38M9ibvch17gu2klIUA&_hsmi=71906136

To watch the human race still racing, see:

https://population.io/?utm_source=google&utm_medium=search&utm_campaign=population&campaignid=1695828135&adgroupid=64502612525&adid=329422103477&gclid=Cj0KCQjw4-XlBRDuARIsAK96p3BFlPjDdPlCUTYEHWpqlXDkeQsedkm2b9fQw09Umm6mTt_l-zxLt-waAmgSEALw_wcB

https://www.worldometers.info/world-population/

[liii]https://www.bigissue.com/latest/social-activism/how-do-you-stop-the-planet-burning-through-climate-change-stop-making-babies/;

[liv]https://mahb.stanford.edu/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/2010_Ryerson_TheMultiplierofEverythingElse_PostCarbonReaderSeries.pdf; https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=HqhFbplNYQEC&pg=PA136&lpg=PA136&dq=John+Harte+Numbers+matter&source=bl&ots=0-IxF8z4x9&sig=ACfU3U3-Y_-2L6jtRDCaIl60o6_SNRLJdQ&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwin1pGlxubhAhUITBUIHe23AN4Q6AEwAXoECAgQAQ#v=onepage&q=John%20Harte%20Numbers%20matter&f=false; https://www.albartlett.org/presentations/arithmetic_population_energy.htmlhttps://www.biologicaldiversity.org/programs/population_and_sustainability/climate/.

[lv]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22784534

[lvi]https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2018/mar/22/collapse-civilisation-near-certain-decades-population-bomb-paul-ehrlich;
http://dieoff.org/page112.htm.

[lvii]https://www.pnas.org/content/107/41/17521;
https://phys.org/news/2010-10-population-trends-climate.html; https://unfccc.int/sites/default/files/360.pdf;
http://www.philipcafaro.com/alternative-climate-wedges/population-wedge.

With particular reference to the so-called developing world (sometimes an out-of-date descriptiongiven the level of industrialisation and urbanisation across many parts of such regions), see:
https://www.cgdev.org/publication/economics-population-policy-carbon-emissions-reduction-developing-countries-working

[lviii]https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/sep/07/bbc-we-get-climate-change-coverage-wrong-too-often

[lix]https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/aug/02/bbc-climate-change-deniers-balance

Extinction Rebellion: Activism needs theory

Screenshot 2019-04-20 at 09.24.01
The Extinction Rebellion protests hit London in late April 2019. It is indeed heartening to see all the energy and commitment. Yet such activism raises many issues.
The problem with action-based protest movements is not only that they have to keep upping the ‘ante’ to sustain interest and make an impact, risking, in the process, mass arrests, debilitating fines from the courts and possible alienation of the unconverted.
There is also the problem of practicable goals and the best means to achieve. It is all very well to pick a somewhat arbitrary date and simply proclaim that we must achieve net zero CO2 emissions by then. But it is another matter altogether to show how that can be done by, say, 2025, especially when, to have any meaning, other states would have to be doing more or less the same thing.
That could cause massive production bottlenecks and logistical nightmares, not to overlook possible political backlashes because of sudden changes to existing lifestyle patterns (new waves of demonstrations by groups in the footsteps of the Gilets Jaunes and Bonnets Rouges, ballot box revolts, strikes by fuel tanker drivers and other key workers, and speculation-driven currency crises… ).
Then there is the capacity of our political institutions to play their part. They have utterly failed to deal with the comparatively simple problem of Brexit. ER proposes a Citizens Assembly instead. It is not clear how it would avoid becoming a chaotic Tower of Babel, with many assembly members speaking, for example, the language of more growth, others talking about degrowth and steady-state economics.
Presumably, groups such as the trade unions and chambers of commerce would be invited to send representatives. That could create a big lobby for airport expansion, more nuclear power plants and other giant infrastructure projects, all ravenous consumers of energy and raw materials, not least cement and concrete, ie more CO2 emissions and other negative impacts.
It is equally unclear how such an assembly would deal with the complexities of selecting what elements of schemes for, say, bioenergy and carbon capture (BECCS) or hydrogen fuel are practicable and truly sustainable in terms of total ecosystem impacts. It is all very well to proclaim a renewable energy revolution but there are questions to answer about problems such as demand for rare earth elements, variability, low power density and associated land take.
The activism of ER has pushed climate breakdown far up the agenda. To date, climate campaigners have largely failed but things might be changing thanks to ER (and David Attenborough!). Yet activity on the ground is not enough. We meet ‘theory’. It might be surmised that many climate activists in London today see theory as so much hot air, akin to medieval scholars debating how many angels could fit on the head of a pin. It is indeed true that much theorising is removed from the real world and often there is sectarian disputation over the most trivial and arcane differences.
Yet theory and related debate, constructively conducted, really matter. Without values clarification, we will not know what are good goals. Without analysis, we won’t know in sufficient depth what are the key threats and what lies beneath them. Also, without analysis, we won’t be able to separate good policies from bad ones. Is, for example, the so-called ‘Green New Deal’ still fiddling about or something really worthwhile. Only theory can tell us. To take another example, the rewilding movement has hit some difficult choices (which reintroductions etc). It need theory to resolve them.
Without strategic and tactical thought, we won’t know what are the best opportunities and best ways to exploit them. Should we stick to pressure groups, reform a mainstream party or try to build independent parties such as the Greens. Should we support the ‘lesser evil’? It is theory that can shed light on the best options We need to analyse careful the appeal of climate deniers so we can find ways to counter it.
Good theory can however emerge through thorough, robust but still constructive debate. That debate will probably be more productive in participants are agreed on certain basics. Good theory further provides the vision of a better world without which it is easy to give up, such are the disappointments of activism. But good ideas — a compelling vision — can help to keep up one’s efforts. If we cease to make them, disaster must follow. If we keep up the fight there’s still a change, even if now a slim one.
So, it is not either/or, ideas and debate versus action. If I have to have surgery (‘practice’), I’d prefer to have a surgeon who knows something of the human body (‘theory’).
Featured

Green: What Does It Mean?’ presentation

This Powerpoint presentations hopefully, might help to deepen appreciation of the depth and breadth of green politics. It tries to provide an overview of the roots and shoots of those ideas as well as summarise them.

Green – What Does It Mean?

Green – What Does It Mean?Green – What does it mean?- notes

 

 

 

 

From Stockholm to Rio

Screenshot 2019-04-09 at 17.06.39

In some ways, the UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio in 1992 was a re-run of the Stockholm conference twenty years earlier, sometimes with the same faces. It aroused great media interest but again subsequent actions by national governments have not matched the environmental sickness documented in the conference proceedings.

The Earth Summit launched a programme under the name of Agenda 21, which actually endorsed greater world trade ‘liberalisation’, something that has done demonstrable and huge harm to ecosystems and human communities around the planet. Like the 1987 Brundtland Reportfrom the World Commission on Environment and Development, the Earth Summit reflected and emphasised the notions of global environmental change and of sustainable development, the latter making a false assumption that social improvement and environmental conservation go hand in hand. This is in marked contrast to the notion of ‘limits to growth’ popularised in the early 1970s.

Though it is possible to point to minor achievements, the fact is, when set against what needs to be done to secure the future for the Earth and all its inhabitants, the Summit was a massive failure. But it will have served some purpose if the roots of the debacle are recognised. The seeds of failure were sown years before the 10,000 delegates, 700 UN officials, 7,000 journalists, and 12,000 NGO members boarded their jets to Rio, before some 100 million sheets of unrecycled paper piled up around the conference, before the Brazilians had spent $100m on a new road to speed the politicians past shanty towns and before a $23b. budget had been allocated.

The story starts in Stockholm in 1972 at the ‘One Earth’ conference, when the ideas that dominated this year’s Earth Summit took root. Stockholm too was a failure. Although, like Rio, some progress was registered and the world’s problems were highlighted, the march to ecological meltdown still speeded up. Stockholm left another and more dangerous bequest: the fallacy that has blinded not just decision-makers but also many pressure groups, namely that environmental protection and development (albeit reformed) go hand in hand.

In the following years, this fundamentally flawed perspective blossomed. In particular, the notion that ‘poverty is pollution’ took hold, when it is the total consumption of resources that determines environmental impact. London’s homeless huddled in ‘cardboard cities’, for example, damage the environment far less than the car drivers who speed past them. At the same time, demands grew for a ‘new economic order’ in which raw material producers in the Third World would get a higher price for their exports.

Other bad ideas encouraged the thesis that the world was suffering from ‘misdirected’, rather than too much, growth. There was, for example, the so-called ‘demographic transition theory’, whose misconception was that affluence was the best contraceptive. Meanwhile, the market mechanism was peddled as the way to solve resource shortages, to identify the ‘optimum’ level of pollution and even put a price on the value of wildlife.

All these ideas came together in two key publications—the Brandtand BrundtlandReports. They reflected the fact that concern the environment, human suffering and the arms race was not confined to ecofreaks and dissident scientists. Far-sighted members of business, academic and political elites realised that environmental damage would interfere with growth.  The programme of these ‘Planet Managers’ was the efficient allocation of land, energy and mineral resources (people became ‘human resources’) through scientific management. It is a bit like Taylorism (the ‘time and motion’ managerialism of turn-of-the century America) applied to the entire world. Even the genes of living things are to become an offering on the altar of production.

Another source of misconceptions was the fast growing empire of pressure groups and non-governmental organisations. In  particular, they contributed to a one-sided blaming of the world’s ills upon the rich ‘North’. There was a resurgence of the ‘Third Worldism’of 1960s when many radicals in the rich countries held up as heroes people like Che Guevara and Ho Chi Minh. The problems of the Third World were ascribed solelyto imperialist machinations. Organisations such as Oxfam denied the reality of global overpopulation. Others came up with the absurd argument that past deforestation in temperate lands meant that no-one there had the right to criticise the same thing in tropical areas today. More generally, there was an unwillingness to recognise that neither national sovereignty nor any other grounds constitute a right to abuse local environments.

The Earth Summit was therefore a child of many parents Their failings are the failings of Rio and its action programme, Agenda 21. They must not be disguised in the bouts of ‘Bush-bashing’ in the search for scapegoats. The role of the American government under the then George Bush senior merits all the criticism it has received. The Bush administration, like the Tories in Britain, has denied the existence of problems, blocked action and, when those tactics failed, only signed agreements devoid of targets, timetables or mechanisms for enforcement. Yet outrage over their behaviour should not conceal more important realities.

For a start, such politicians reflect pressures upon them, including those from their electorates. Large sections of the public in countries like the USA and UK are not prepared to change their lifestyles in order to combat world poverty and environmental destruction. It is certainly true that responsible politicians would be trying to raise public consciousness rather than exploit it for the sake of self-aggrandisement. Nevertheless, there is no escaping the depth of the crisis in human culture and behaviour.

The leaders of other industrialised countries have been let off the hook by the behaviour of the Americans. The Japanese government in particular has been keen to present itself as the world’s new saviour. Yet Japan remains the global ecosystem’s leading rapist. The funds promised by Japan to protect the environment are but a tiny part of the profits made from its destruction to satisfy her consumer appetites. Other governments might seem less tarnished yet the picture remains substantially the same. Since Rio, the Norwegians, for example, have joined the Japanese in the campaign to resume the massacre of the world’s surviving whale populations.

Furthermore, the failings of Bush and other leaders of the industrialised countries have served to cloak those of the so-called G77 countries. For the Chinese government, for example, Rio was a handy device to cover its appalling record on human rights. Furthermore, its new concern for the Earth, has not stopped it from going ahead with one of the most disastrous projects anywhere in the world, the Three Gorges dam scheme on the Yangtse, which displaced more than a million people. The G77 leaders oppose the present division of the global cake, not its size or content. For many members of the G77 elites, the main concern is to get more resources to pay for the armies that keep them in power as well as the luxury imports essential to their lifestyles.

Many Earth Summiteers therefore wanted an agenda focussed upon symptoms, not the causes, of the Earth’s problems. Yet, though the hands of the assembled delegates may have been tied in many ways, they could have given the world at least a lead if they had addressed instead the real issues—not deforestation but the timber trade and the pulp industry; not global warming but the power supply, car and cattle industries; not hunger but the food trade; not indebtedness but the monetary and banking system; not war but the arms trade and militarism; not poverty and unemployment but the transnational corporations and the world market; not population growth per se but the social forces opposed to birth control.

Overpopulation, for example, is easily the biggest and most urgent of all the pressures tearing apart social and environmental systems. Yet the silence from almost all parts of the Earth Summit, official and unofficial, was deafening. The Friends of the Earth ‘Verdict on the Earth Summit’ (Press release, 14/6/92) did not even mention the issue. The main exceptions were opportunists like Lynda Chalker who use it as a way to divert attention from the profligacy of the lifestyles they support and who remain just as silent when it comes to overpopulation in their own countries.

Similarly, the rights of non-human species received scant support. Most debate about biodiversity was about the loss of potential resources to satisfy human wants, not our responsibility to share the Earth with other forms of life. Yet, the ‘resourcist’ approach accepts the logic of sacrificing more parts of the biosphere if the cost/benefit calculations deem it expedient. Contrary to John Major’s talk about the ‘Darwin Initiative’, the real issue is what biologist David Ehrenfeld calls the Noah principle: ‘long-standing existence in nature (carries) with it the unimpeachable right to continued existence’. It implies limits on many human activities which people like John Major bitterly oppose.

Many people have pointed to the weaknesses of the Rio treaties. However, the real problem lies in the background. It is within the Earth Summit’s main legacy, the action programme known as Agenda 21.It is about sustaining industrial society by fine-tuning the engine of production. Its goal remains the maximum-feasible expansion of human society.

The contradictory concept of ‘sustainable growth’ is at the core of the UNCED project (it is usually given the cosmetic rewording of ‘sustainable development’0. Within Agenda 21, notions such as ‘free trade’, ‘comparative advantage’ and ‘global integration’ will guide policy despite all the evidence of the damage done by unfettered market forces. Problems are to be solved by more research (as if we were not saturated by information), by technology transfer (as if the failure of the green revolution and other  technofixes never happened), by more crumbs from the rich man’s table, courtesy of the Global Environment Facility (as if underconsumption was not the necessary companion of overconsumption in a finite world).

Otherwise, it is business-as-before: the same goals, lifestyles, and institutions that created the crisis in the first place. Perhaps there will be National Sustainability Plans and even an international Commission to monitor them but they will have little value if based on the kind of ‘sustainable management’ that, for example, has destroyed most old growth forest in regions like Canada and Scandinavia.

Beneath the concept of ‘sustainable growth’ is the notion that we live in an open-ended system capable of more expansion. Shorn of rhetoric, it is nothing more than a revival of the old dream of the perpetual motion machine. In reality, in a geologically finite, entropy bound and ecologically interconnected world sustaining more of this means choosing to sustain less of that.

What matters at the end of the day is the total impact of human society as a whole on the biosphere. It is now quite unsustainable. The Ehrlichs, for example, estimate that already ‘our one species has co-opted or destroyed some 40% of potential terrestrial productivity.’ Coppinger and Smith estimate that, on present trends, by the year 2050, at least 60% of all terrestrial animal biomass and 25% of all plant life would be composed of humans and a few domesticated species. Far from baking a bigger cake, such trends will destroy the very oven!

The Earth Summiteers refused to recognise that human society and its artefacts have grown too large in proportion to the biosphere on which they totally depend. Further attempts at more physical production, no matter how refined or regulated, can only be achieved at the expense of a lowering of the long-term capacity of environmental systems to sustain life. The primary task is to reduce the impact generated by that all important equation of human numbers multiplied byper capita consumption multiplied bythe kinds of technologies we use. Every policy and indeed every aspect of society must be judged in the light of whether it increases or decreases human pressure on the biosphere.

Genuinely sustainable systems will be slower and smaller than today’s superficially productive farms and factories. The reason is simple. Any stable system has to use a lot of what it produces simply to protect and maintain itself: there is less left over for other uses. An agriculture based on the cultivation of perennials, for example, would be much more ecologically sustainable than one that cultivates annual crops but its food yield would be lower. The sustainable cake will cater only for reduced demand.

There are areas where there is avoidable waste such as planned obsolescence and military spending which offer scope for a better use of a lowered throughput of resources (though it must be remembered that ambulances have the same ecological price tag as armoured cars even if they are more socially useful). Beyond that, increased output is possible only at the cost of extra inputs and increased entropy in the system.

In calculating right targets and the policies needed to achieve them, a genuinely ecological approach starts from the outer boundaries of the biosphere and specific ecosystems and works inwards It would deduce what is the carrying capacity for human numbers and derive equitable per capitaconsumption from what space/resources are available afterthe conservation of biodiversity, fertile soil, potable water and clean air has been ensured.

Forestry can illustrate how things would change. To conserve many species, sufficient old trees and snags must be left; to protect soil and water, felling must be done selectively; to maintain soil fertility, sufficient dead trees must be left to decay; to protect people and wildlife, toxic chemicals would be prohibited. Such criteria rule out certain practices and permit others.

Of course, in today’s culture, ‘think shrink’ is not exactly a popular slogan to engrave on one’s banners. Yet the problems of presentingand popularisingpolicy should be kept separate from the development of the right policies. Acceptance of the idea of ‘sustainable contraction’ is theprecondition for the formulation of measures that really will solve the fast-escalating global crisis. Otherwise, we will chase the will o’ the wisps of technological miracle workers and new financial mechanisms until one day, not too far away, it will be too late.

More global conferences like the Earth Summit clearly are not the way forward. Conventional politicians, intergovernmental bureaucracies, global business elites are too much part of the problem to becomes sources of solutions. Fortunately, there is another road. It is one shown, in the same period of the conference, by the struggles of ordinary men and women fighting for democracy on the streets of Bangkok and for their land in the forests of Brazil. It was also shown by the electorate of Denmark in their vote against the Maastricht Treaty. All these struggles are partial ones and will still need political leadership to link them into an unstoppable movement to save the Earth and all our futures.

The Earth Summit in Rio, 1992, illustrated the difficulties of developing an effective international response. It is already forgotten by many, including the media who devoted so much space and time to what was hailed as the last chance to save the planet. Though it is possible to point to minor achievements, the fact is, when set against what needs to be  done to secure the future for the Earth and all its inhabitants, the Summit was a massive failure.

But it will have served some purpose if the roots of the debacle are recognised. The seeds of failure were sown years before the 10,000 delegates, 700 UN officials, 7,000 journalists, and 12,000 NGO members boarded their jets to Rio, before some 100 million sheets of unrecycled paper piled up around the conference, before the Brazilians had spent $100m on a new road to speed the politicians past shanty towns and before a $23b. budget had been allocated.

The story starts in Stockholm in 1972 at the ‘One Earth’ conference, when the ideas that dominated this year’s Earth Summit took root. Stockholm too was a failure. Although, like Rio, some progress was registered and the world’s problems were highlighted, the march to ecological meltdown still speeded up.

Stockholm left another and more dangerous bequest: the fallacy that has blinded not just decision-makers but also many pressure groups, namely that environmental protection and development (albeit reformed) go hand in hand.

In the following years, this fundamentally flawed perspective blossomed. In particular, the notion that ‘poverty is pollution’ took hold, when it is the total consumption of resources that determines environmental impact. London’s homeless huddled in ‘cardboard cities’, for example, damage the environment far less than the car drivers who speed past them. At the same time, demands grew for a ‘new economic order’ in which raw material producers in the Third World would get a higher price for their exports.

Other bad ideas encouraged the thesis that the world was suffering from ‘misdirected’, rather than too much, growth. There was, for example, the so-called ‘demographic transition theory’, whose misconception was that affluence was the best contraceptive. Meanwhile, the market mechanism was peddled as the way to solve resource shortages, to identify the ‘optimum’ level of pollution and even put a price on the value of wildlife.

The Earth Summit was therefore a child of many parents Their failings are the failings of Rio and its action programme, Agenda 21. They must not be disguised in the bouts of ‘Bush-bashing’ that happened as the search for scapegoats followed the Rio failure. The role of the American government merits all the criticism it has received. The Bush administration, like the Tories in Britain, has denied the existence of problems, blocked action and, when those tactics failed, only signed agreements devoid of targets, timetables or mechanisms for enforcement. Yet outrage over their behaviour should not conceal more important realities.

For a start, such politicians reflect pressures upon them, including those from their electorates. Large sections of the public in countries like the USA and UK are not prepared to change their lifestyles in order to combat world poverty and environmental destruction. It is certainly true that responsible politicians would be trying to raise public consciousness rather than exploit it for the sake of self-aggrandisement. Nevertheless, there is no escaping the depth of the crisis in human culture and behaviour.

The leaders of other industrialised countries have been let off the hook by the behaviour of the Americans. The Japanese government in particular has been keen to present itself as the world’s new saviour. Yet Japan remains the global ecosystem’s leading rapist. The funds promised by Japan to protect the environment are but a tiny part of the profits made from its destruction to satisfy her consumer appetites. Other governments might seem less tarnished yet the picture remains substantially the same. Since Rio, the Norwegians, for example, have joined the Japanese in the campaign to resume the massacre of the world’s surviving whale populations.

Furthermore, the failings of Bush and other leaders of the industrialised countries have served to cloak those of the so-called G77 countries. For the Chinese government, for example, Rio was a handy device to cover its appalling record on human rights. Furthermore, its new concern for the Earth, has not stopped it from going ahead with one of the most disastrous projects anywhere in the world, the Three Gorges dam scheme on the Yangtse, which will displace more than a million people. The G77 leaders oppose the present division of the global cake, not its size or content. For many members of the G77 elites, the main concern is to get more resources to pay for the armies that keep them in power as well as the luxury imports essential to their lifestyles.

Many Earth Summiteers therefore wanted an agenda focused upon symptoms, not the causes, of the Earth’s problems. Yet, though the hands of the assembled delegates may have been tied in many ways, they could have given the world at least a lead if they had addressed instead the real issues—not deforestation but the timber trade and the pulp industry; not global warming but the power supply, car and cattle industries; not hunger but the food trade; not indebtedness but the monetary and banking system; not war but the arms trade and militarism; not poverty and unemployment but the transnational corporations and the world market; not population growth per se but the social forces opposed to birth control.

Overpopulation, for example, is easily the biggest and most urgent of all the pressures tearing apart social and environmental systems. Yet the silence from almost all parts of the Earth Summit, official and unofficial, was deafening. The Friends of the Earth ‘Verdict on the Earth Summit’ (Press release, 14/6/92) did not even mention the issue. The main exceptions were opportunists like Tory minister Lynda Chalker who use it as a way to divert attention from the profligacy of the lifestyles they support and who remain just as silent when it comes to overpopulation in their own countries.

The USA and other industrialised countries adopted positions for UNCED which in some areas (e.g. military waste) fell behind what was agreed in Stockholm in 1972. Demands that TNC’s accept environmental responsibilities were defeated. At the final UNCED Prepcom meeting the US delegate even objected to the inclusion in Agenda 21 of a recommendation for “less energy intensive consumption patterns and lifestyles in developed countries” as this would “infringe on personal freedom”. References to overconsumption being a cause of environmental degradation were watered down, although, as former World Bank president R.S. McNamara told the UN in 1991, it is “neither morally defensible nor politically acceptable” to avoid the issue of how the rich can “adjust consumption patterns… so as to help assure a sustainable path of development for all the inhabitants of our planet”.

Similarly, the rights of non-human species received scant support. Most debate about biodiversity was about the loss of potential resources to satisfy human wants, not our responsibility to share the Earth with other forms of life. Yet, the ‘resourcist’ approach accepts the logic of sacrificing more parts of the biosphere if the cost/benefit calculations deem it expedient. Contrary to British Prime Minister John Major’s talk about the ‘Darwin Initiative’, the real issue is what biologist David Ehrenfeld calls the Noah principle: ‘long-standing existence in nature (carries) with it the unimpeachable right to continued existence’. It implies limits on many human activities which people like John Major bitterly oppose.

Many people have pointed to the weaknesses of the Rio treaties. However, the real problem lies in the background. It is within the Earth Summit’s main legacy, the action programme known as Agenda 21. It is about sustaining industrial society by fine-tuning the engine of production. Its goal remains the maximum-feasible expansion of human society.

The contradictory concept of ‘sustainable growth’ is at the core of the UNCED project. Within Agenda 21, notions such as ‘free trade’, ‘comparative advantage’ and ‘global integration’ will guide policy despite all the evidence of the damage done by unfettered market forces. Problems are to be solved by more research (as if we were not saturated by information), by technology transfer (as if the failure of the green revolution and other  technofixes never happened), by more crumbs from the rich man’s table, courtesy of the Global Environment Facility (as if underconsumption was not the necessary companion of overconsumption in a finite world). Otherwise, it is business-as-before: the same goals, lifestyles, and institutions that created the crisis in the first place. Perhaps there will be National Sustainability Plans and even an international Commission to monitor them but they will have little value if based on the kind of ‘sustainable management’ that, for example, has destroyed most old growth forest in regions like Canada and Scandinavia.

The Earth Summiteers refused to recognise that human society and its artefacts have grown too large in proportion to the biosphere on which they totally depend. Further attempts at more physical production, no matter how refined or regulated, can only be achieved at the expense of a lowering of the long-term capacity of environmental systems to sustain life.

More global conferences like the Earth Summit clearly are not the way forward. Conventional politicians, intergovernmental bureaucracies, global business elites are too much part of the problem to becomes sources of solutions. The answer is more likely to be found by a combination of direct action, individual lifestyle change, political campaigning within existing parties and, last but not least, the formation of new parties.

 

 

Changing Newcastle 1960s-2010s

Below is a Powerpoint presentation of how Newcastle in the NE of England has physically changed from the 1960s to the 2010s. Next to it is a commentary in PDF format that hopefully will provide background so viewers can make better sense of the slide

Newcastle-Changing for Better of Worse?

Newcastle-Changing for Better of Worse? notes

Newcastle from air from south

The first part uses the narrative structure of a route I took when I first visited the city in early 1968 for an interview at Newcastle upon Tyne University where I had applied to study Town and Country Planning (I was accepted).

I walked from Newcastle Central station through the city centre to the Claremont Tower on the campus.  Pictures from around that time are compared to roughly the same scene in recent years. Ones featuring trolley buses or trolley bus wires will, however,  be pre-1966 when the last service ran.

The second part spotlights some other changes, with a few slides at the end exploring changes already in the pipeline or being touted by the council and other forces in the city. Some issues are posed about the nature of change, its goals and related decision-making structures. Although Newcastle got off lightly compared to many Brtish cities in terms of  ‘civic vandalism’, many of the changes were steps away from the sustainable common good, sometimes making the city even less resilient in terms of coming ecological challenges. Too often the needs of the private car dominated all else, for example.

Current plans and projections also tend to ignore the ecological ‘facts of life’ and how the future will be very different to what is widely assumed by leading decision-makers and indeed the general public. We need a radically different vision if civilised living is to be sustained and a viable home created by other forms of life with whom we share both our local ‘patch’ and the Earth as a whole.