October 23, 2017

Environmental destruction and political myopia

Review of The Fragile Environment, edited by Laurie Friday and Ronald Laskey, Cambridge University Press, 1989, 198pp


This luxuriously produced book contains the text of the eight lectures that made up the 1987 Darwin College Lecture Series. It is a useful and well produced selection of articles that are likely to be of interest to anyone concerned with the problems caused by the present rapid destruction of the global environment.

In the first chapter, Andrew Goudie provides a history of environmental destruction, starting off with that caused by our palaeolithic ancestors and proceeding to the present day. Much of the destruction is attributed to agriculture. I feel, however, that he should have made a clearer distinction between traditional agriculture, which was generally sustainable, and modern agriculture, which is incomparably more destructive.

The second chapter by Norman Myers on the future of the forests is superb, but then Norman Myers’ knowledge of the subject is encyclopaedic. He is particularly interesting in the section devoted to the interrelationships between deforestation and global warming. As the most drastic change is likely to occur at high latitudes he considers that boreal forests are likely to decline from 23 per cent of the total forested area of our planet to a mere 1 per cent. Forests partly adapted to the warmer weather could ‘migrate’ to replace the boreal forests, but possibly not fast enough to prevent “a marked decline in carbon stocks held in plants and soil” which would of course release still more carbon into the atmosphere since boreal forests and their soils harbour 500 billion tons of carbon (25 per cent of the global total). It has been estimated that anywhere between 10 and 50 per cent of this carbon could be released into the atmosphere during the course of several decades, which means the release of somewhere between 3 and 10 billion tons of carbon a year as compared to a projected release of between 6.2 and 8.4 billion tons in the year 2000 from fossil fuels. This is indeed a terrifying thought.

The material gathered by Roger Whitehead on famine is of great interest. The author has conducted studies of chronic malnutrition and its causes in a number of villages in The Gambia. He notes the ineffectiveness of food aid, which is largely provided as a means of getting rid of surpluses in the West. Providing the starving with wheat flour is not much use as they are rarely “equipped with oven facilities for turning the flour into foods such as bread”. Again, wheat ‘soy blend’, another surplus product, is difficult to use and it usually ends up being fed to rich men’s chickens. Dried, skimmed milk, another surplus product, is usually simply “dumped at the frontier and can become as hard as concrete if left in the sun and rain”. Often it is just used to fatten rich men’s pigs. Often the food is simply sold by government agents on the open market.

He is not particularly impressed by family planning schemes either, and rightly points out that effective stabilization of population size is a natural concomitant of a growing sense of general well-being “it is difficult to impose family-planning in the absence of this confidence for the future.”

My only criticism of this chapter is that it does not go into the real causes of malnutrition and famine at a global level. He does not explain how Third World countries have been induced by Western policies, spearheaded by the World Bank, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and other International Agencies, to use their best agricultural land for the export of food and non-food crops, using highly destructive methods of production that can only cause soil erosion, desertification and salinization. But then this is a large and extremely controversial subject, and it would need more than a chapter to go into it in the necessary depth.

The chapter on Changing Climates by Bert Bolin is a particularly good one. Bolin notes how already as far back as 1896 the Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius showed how the accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could cause a warmer climate. The fact that CO2 was concentrating in the atmosphere was established by Callender in 1938. Since then the increase in the concentration of CO2 has been continuously measured, in particular by CD. Keeling. Unfortunately, governments and their scientific advisers have ignored all this. Bolin notes that the amount of carbon on living matter in land is only about 75 per cent of the amount found in the atmosphere. This is in stark contrast with the amount of carbon locked up in fossil fuels, which is 10-20 times larger. Bolin stresses the critical role of the oceans in the carbon cycle. They contain about 50 times more carbon than is at present in the atmosphere.

According to Bolin about 50 per cent of the CO2 taken up by the oceans is accounted for by photosynthesis. “If photosynthesis in the seas were to cease,” he notes, “the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere would double”. Bolin reviews other possible sinks for CO2 and considers the effects of the different greenhouse gases on global warming. Nitrous oxides are likely to become a big problem. Increased emissions cannot easily be stopped, “since the present larger amounts of nitrogen in soils and waters due to fertilization during past decades will decline only slowly and release this excess of fixed nitrogen to the atmosphere for a long time to come.” What is more, the residence of time of N2O in the atmosphere is very long—about 150 years.

The residence time of CFCs is about 100 years. They decompose only very slowly. He considers that projected warming trends have probably been underestimated, perhaps by as much as 50-100 per cent because the warming must lead to an increase of water vapour in the atmosphere, which will in turn absorb more infra-red radiation and hence cause more warming.

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