August 20, 2017

An open letter to Mrs Thatcher

Dear Prime Minister,

It is heartening that you should have chosen the occasion of your speech to the UN General Assembly to address the ecological crisis facing our planet. It was a timely speech and, given the global nature of the problems, a highly appropriate forum in which to make it.

That said, the contents of your speech are worrying. You say that “We have all recently become aware of . . . the prospect of irretrievable damage to the atmosphere, to the oceans, to earth itself.” This is surely to pass the buck. There is nothing “recent” about the warnings from ecologists, soil scientists, climatologists and others that our activities are causing irreparable damage to the biosphere. In 1972, a full 17 years ago, we ourselves stated in the Preface to our Blueprint for Survival:

“An examination of the relevant information available has impressed upon us the extreme gravity of the global situation today. For, if current trends are allowed to persist, the breakdown of society and the irreversible destruction of the life support systems on this planet, possibly by the end of this century, certainly within the lifetimes of our children, are inevitable.”

Nor, at the time, was this judged a gratuitous statement: on the contrary, it was endorsed by some of the leading scientific brains in Britain, including Sir Peter Medawer FRS (Nobel Laureate), Sir Julian Huxley FRS, Sir Frank Fraser Darling, Professor C.H. Waddington, Sir Macfarlane Burnet and Sir Peter Scott.

On the specific issue of the greenhouse effect, we warned:

“The C02 content of the atmosphere has increased at the rate of 0.2 per cent a year since 1958. One can project, on the basis of these trends, an 18 per cent increase by the year 2000, from 320 ppm to 379 ppm. This might increase the temperature of the earth by 0.5°C. A doubling of C02 might increase mean annual surface temperatures by 2°C.”

These projections were, if anything, conservative: certainly they are entirely consistent with climatologists’ current predictions of the “insidious danger” which we face. We also documented in detail the damage we are doing to terrestrial ecosystems, to the oceans, to food supplies, and to human health. The Blueprint received wide publicity and prompted serious political debate. Indeed, Mr Peter Walker, then Minister for the Environment and now your Welsh Secretary, was briefed personally on the report.

Since The Blueprint, other reports—some commissioned by governments, others by groups such as Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace—have reiterated the threat to our environment and to our survival. President Carter’s Global 2000 report, published in 1980, could not have been more explicit about the prospects facing humanity. “If present trends continue, the world in 2000 will be more crowded, more polluted, less stable ecologically, and more vulnerable to disruption than the world we live in now.”

We do not raise this issue to make a political point or to nit-pick over words, but because we are alarmed that, despite the wealth of hard data that has existed on the environmental crisis for 25 years and more, you should only “recently” have become aware of its importance. This raises serious questions about the ability of your advisors and the quality of advice you are being given. On the nuclear issue, for example, your government ministers now claim that the true costs of nuclear electricity have only recently come to light. This is nonsense. Seven years ago, we ourselves published a detailed study, commissioned by us and undertaken by the Committee for the Study of the Costs of Nuclear Electricity, showing quite clearly that the Central Electricity Generating Board was using an accounting sleight-of-hand to disguise the true costs of nuclear power. Seven years later, the CSENE findings have been broadly confirmed. The study concluded:

“We contend that the high capital costs of building nuclear plant, their poorer than expected performance, as well as rapidly rising nuclear fuel costs, have already made electricity from nuclear plant considerably more expensive than that from coal-fired plant . . . If other considerations are taken into account—doubts about reprocessing, waste disposal, decommissioning and reactor insurance—then the economic case against nuclear power becomes overwhelming.”

The study was sent to the relevant ministries and to your own office. It was ignored. Its findings were elaborated upon at the Sizewell Inquiry; they were ignored. A subsequent study, sent to Mr Parkinson, then Secretary of State for Energy, showing that Electricté de France had also falsified the costs of its nuclear programme was similarly ignored.

The question is: why? And why indeed for nine out of the ten years that you have been in power has your government been so dismissive of those who have tried to bring the environmental crisis to your attention? Is it because you have been shielded from unpleasant realities by the civil service? Is it because you have only sought advice from those who share your view of the world? Is it because your advisors have been afraid to give you the true facts? (We note with alarm recent editorial comments in the press suggesting that this was the case with Mr Parkinson over the costs of nuclear electricity). Or is it because, naively, you were willing to trust the data presented by those who stood to gain from misinforming you—the Central Electricity Generating Board, for example.

Indeed, the most troublesome aspect of your UN speech is that you still appear extremely badly briefed as to the fundamental causes of the crisis and therefore its solutions. Throughout the speech, you repeat long-discredited shibboleths. To give you a few examples.

You tell us that we need action to improve agricultural methods: “Good husbandry which ploughs back nourishment into the soil rather than the cut-and-burn which has damaged and degraded so much land in some parts of the world.” It is hard, however, to blame “cut-and-burn” agriculture for the massive rate of soil erosion in the USA (4,000 million tonnes of top-soil a year—enough to fill a train of freight cars long enough to circle the earth 24 times) or the increasingly worrying levels of erosion in East Anglia. Illinois and Norfolk may be home to many wonders but, not as far as we know, “cut-and-burn” agriculturalists. Nor is “cut and burn” conceivably responsible for the millions of hectares of agricultural land that have been lost as a result of bringing arid areas under perennial irrigation. Nor for the rising levels of nitrate in groundwaters throughout the temperate world. Nor for the algal blooms that are now a regular occurrence in temperate waters. These are problems that are a direct result of the intensive farming methods that you are promoting as “better husbandry” and which the industrialized North is successfully imposing upon the peasants of the South.

You extol the virtues of multinationals—“far from being the villains, it is on them that we rely to do the research and find the solutions.” But you seem to have overlooked a critical consideration: it is the research of the multinationals which has caused many of the problems in the first place. It was not peasant farmers—“cut-and-burn” or otherwise—who produced PCBs or DDT or CFCs or indeed the nuclear waste that you hope industry will find a means to “make safe”. It was multinational corporations. Moreover, once many millions of pounds have been spent on researching and developing a product, there is an almost unstoppable momentum to put the product onto—and to keep it on—the market, regardless of evidence of harm. Thalidomide was an example; many pesticides too; so also asbestos, whose dangers were known for a full 30 years before US companies agreed to stricter regulations on its use. Even as we write, we learn that ICI is lobbying against restrictions on the production of methyl chloroform, a chemical which is estimated to be contributing as much to current ozone depletion as either of the two most destructive CFCs. Nor does the record of multinationals in the Third World inspire confidence. Frequently, they have chosen to “dump” dangerous products and processes in developing countries, when environmental controls become too tough in the industrialized world (see Steven Shrybman, this issue).

You say we need more research before taking action. “Before we act, we need the best possible scientific assessment: otherwise, we risk making matters worse.” How? When all the evidence suggests that we are heading for massive climatic desta-bilization, almost any measure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions can only be a step in the right direction. There will never be absolute scientific certainty on this issue—and further research is unlikely to reveal anything, other than details, that we do not already know. As Science points out, “The fundamental theories of how greenhouse gases trap heat have been substantiated by billions of observations of the atmosphere.” When one is falling from an aeroplane, one needs a parachute, not an altimeter.

You single out growing human numbers as the prime threat to our environment.

“Put in its bluntest form: the main threat to our environment is more and more people, and their activities: the land they cultivate ever more intensively; the forests they cut down and burn; the mountain sides they lay bare; the fossil fuels they burn; the rivers and seas they pollute.”

(We emphasize your use of the word “they”, when, in this case, your more usual “we” might have been more appropriate).

We would in no way wish to underplay the problem of population growth. But it is difficult to invoke the ghost of Malthus to explain, for example, the current destruction of North America’s forests. What about acid rain? Or the activities of the lumber industry? And with regard to tropical forests, what about logging, ranching, dam schemes, colonization programmes and large industrial projects—these get no mention in your speech.

So too, it is not human numbers alone that are behind the increase in greenhouse gases. The bulk of population growth today is in the Third World, but it is not the Third World that is the major emitter—either today or historically—of either CFCs or C02. You cannot blame Indian peasants who have never seen a fridge, let alone a deodorant spray-can, for the rise in CFCs. It is us, the Northern industrialized countries, who are responsible. The figures speak for themselves. The USA, with just 4 per cent of the world’s population, is responsible for some 24 per cent of global C02 emissions. India, by contrast, is responsible for just 2.2 per cent of emissions, yet it is home to one sixth of humanity.

Indeed, your speech seems to have failed to grasp the essential nature of the crisis—that it is our industrial patterns of consumption and production that are at the root of the headlong dash to destruction. You tell us, “We must have continued economic growth in order to generate the wealth required to pay for the protection of the environment”. Indeed your commitment to growth is such that although you accept the need to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases, you believe it vital that “this should be done in a way which enables all our economies to continue to grow and develop.” In effect, the achievement of growth must take precedence over the measures necessary to avert climatic catastrophe.

Of course, we would like to see growth in some sectors of the economy—for example, a large-scale reafforestation programme is essential. However, if tree planting is to achieve the desired ecological and social ends, commercial considerations must take a secondary role—the precise opposite of your prescription. Planting eucalyptus and cutting them down every ten years, as is happening throughout the Third World, may increase economic growth, but it is ruinous for both the environment and local villagers (see Larry Lohmann, this issue). Moreover, whilst economic growth enables us to earn the money to pay for new technologies, which may help to ameliorate some of the damage (by reducing pollution for example), there are a whole range of problems that are simply not amenable to fiscal or technological solutions. Growth cannot bring back the Dodo or the “between 3 and 50” species we are losing every day. Growth cannot undo the radioactive contamination caused by the Chernobyl disaster (see Zhores A. Medvedev, this issue). But most important, the economic growth that brings fiscal wealth through increased production and consumption is invariably achieved by cashing in the natural wealth of the biosphere (see William E. Rees, this issue). It is this natural wealth—a stable climate, clean air, fertile soil, and abundant clean water—on which we depend as a species.

You argue that market forces act “as a corrective” against this destruction.

“As peoples’ consciousness of environmental needs rises, they are turning increasingly to ozone-friendly and other environmentally safe products . . . the new products sell and those which cause environmental damage are disappearing from the shelves.”

But the new ozone-friendly propellents cannot repair the gaping hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica. Moreover, whilst it demands little sacrifice from either industry or the consumer to change from one type of spray-can to another, the same is not true when it come to the major changes that will be necessary if we are really to reduce greenhouse emissions. However aware we the public may be of the ozone hole, we still buy fridges and air-conditioners containing CFCs. And the market (which does not reflect the ecological costs of CFCs) is encouraging us, not discouraging us, to do so.

Nothing could demonstrate the wrong-headedness of your approach better than your decision to donate £100 million to the Tropical Forestry Action Plan (TFAP). As a publicity stunt, it is capital. However, in terms of saving the world’s tropical forests, it is a disaster. The TFAP, as has been exhaustively documented in The Ecologist, is not a plan to save the forests. As its name makes clear, it a plan to extend forestry—in effect, to promote commercial plantations. Indeed, its conservation programme consists of no more than assisting “in the establishment of a national network of protected areas designed to conserve representative samples of ecosystems.” The forests will thus be reduced to ecological Disneylands—a few isolated islands to satisfy tourists and scientists but of little value in terms of the global ecosystem.

We urge you to withdraw Britain’s support for the TFAP. We urge you too to broaden your choice of advisors to include those whom you refer to as “so-called greens”. It is they who have correctly predicted the crisis and diagnosed its causes—not the industrialists, scientists and civil servants whom you have so far relied upon for advice. Much of what the greens have to tell you may at first appear unpalatable. But if we are to leave a world fit for future generations to live in, it is critical that you act on their recommendations.
The Editors


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