September 19, 2017

Are we all doomed?

Simon Retallack talks to a founding-father of the ecological movement—Edward Goldsmith

From The Beaver, 20th February 1996


Politicians and the mass media hardly ever mention the issue of the environment. Does that mean, as millions seem to believe, that the problems facing the environment have been solved?

It means that the problems appear too distant and too abstract to pre-occupy people who have more immediate and more pressing problems. In particular, the fear of unemployment, their reduced purchasing power, the increase in crime, delinquency, drug addiction, the effect upon families, the effects on their health of a whole lot of new diseases emerging and old ones reappearing, like Tuberculosis, while knowing perfectly well that the Health Service, just like the rest of the Welfare State, is going to be systematically dismantled, and has to be if we are going to be competitive in the global economy that we have set up. For this reason, politicians can avoid discussing the embarrassing issue of the environment. It is embarrassing because to solve the problems means reversing their current policies. If the environment is degrading fast it is because we cannot sustain the present impact of our activities, and by globalising the economy, by setting up world free-trade, we are massively increasing this impact and making the environmental problems very much worse.

What would you say are the most pressing threats to our global environment?

The most pressing threat to our global environment is of course climate change. This is occurring very much more quickly than anticipated. There are five or six dissidents among the climatologists whom we now know are being paid to question global warming by oil companies and others. But the truth is that there is now unanimous agreement that we are facing this problem, and pretty unanimous agreement that it is already occurring. This could make our planet uninhabitable very quickly.

What is your response to those scientists who say that climate change may not necessarily have anything to do with man’s activities, but it might just be a natural phenomenon?

No one has said that for some time, except a few people paid by the oil industry. There are of course long-term climatic cycles, but super-imposed upon these are the man-made changes, which no one now questions.

What would happen if we had global warming?

Global warming is best regarded as the destabilisation of climate. It may not necessarily lead to uniform warming. It is now generally accepted that the temperature change at the equator could be very small compared to the temperature change at the poles. This of course will affect oceanic currents, which are largely powered by the difference in temperature between the equator and the poles. It could mean that we would have to do without the Gulf Stream; England and Western Europe in general would freeze up – like Labrador. So global warming, paradoxically, could lead to freezing in certain areas.

It is going to lead to a massive increase in storms and the severity of storms, and to rising water levels as the ice caps melt, which itself could cause absolute devastation. Certain areas, too, are likely to become very much drier, and other areas could become very much wetter. But what is important is the unpredictability, because you can only farm if you know when to reap and when to sow.

Another problem is that if things warm up in the temperate areas we are going to inherit all the parasites that make life very difficult in the tropics. This will have another serious effect on agriculture, because we will have many more pests, and insects than we have today. It will affect our health as well. We’ll start inheriting diseases like malaria, which already kills several million people a year in the tropics, and because we have got no experience of it, it is going to affect us much more seriously. Life is going to be very difficult.

We hear little about the ozone holeis that still a problem?

It’s getting bigger every year. The ozone hole is now about the size of Western Europe. But it is not just where the ozone hole is located that ultra-violet radiation is increasing. The ozone layer is being thinned throughout the world. It’s not surprising that skin cancer rates have increased very dramatically by something like 80 per cent over the past few years. Of course the Government would never admit this because it makes a nonsense of their policies. So they pretend that if there is more skin cancer it is because more people spend their holidays in the sun.

How is the planet going to cope with the industrial and economic development of China?

It’s not. First of all, is it actually going to go on developing? Because to industrialise a country you have to get rid of its peasantry. When we developed in Europe we had to send 35 million peasants to America. When the Soviets decided to develop they exterminated 30 or 40 million surplus peasants. When you develop you have to move from small two or three acre farms to five hundred to one thousand acre farms. If you are going to do that in China, you will end up with nearly a billion surplus people. What are you going to do with them? There are already about 100 to 200 million of them wandering around, desperately looking for jobs, and the government talks quite blithely about resettling 440 million in their cities by the year 2040, which is not even remotely possible. This is going to lead to so many revolts and civil wars, that the development of China is going to be very seriously threatened by this alone.

What will be the impact on the global environment of every Chinese family owning a car and a fridge?

It will massively accelerate global warming and ozone layer depletion. It’s something the biosphere cannot sustain. Economic development is something that is feasible if it is limited to a few specific areas, like Western Europe and no more, and for a very short period. If you want to generalise this process throughout the entire world then it is going to lead to total ecological collapse. It can’t do otherwise.

What would you say are the most important environmental problems in this country?

In this country, as far as the Government is concerned, there is absolutely no concern for the environment whatsoever. Our environmental policy is outrageous. Our Government is only interested in quick cash. We encourage people to sell us their chemical wastes by making it much cheaper to send them here than to anywhere else in Europe, and then we dump them all over the country. We have developed a massive nuclear industry, which is completely irresponsible. We have got the most highly polluted nuclear installation in the world at Sellafield, the Irish Sea is highly contaminated, and we have done nothing of any importance about controlling air pollution. Of course we have cut down sulphur-dioxide emissions, but only by building very high chimneys and sending the stuff over to Scandinavia. We have had a Clean Air Act, but that will just affect the more visible particulate pollution, and doesn’t affect the rest. The fact that the incidence of lung disease and lung cancer is higher in England than anywhere else in the world is indicative of just how bad the pollution is here. They tell us that the water we drink is safe but that’s totally untrue. We are lied to on all these issues. It’s untrue because an awful lot of things we put into our rivers and into our ground water, such as synthetic-organic chemicals, which include a lot of industrial pollutants like PCBs and modern pesticides, cannot be extracted by water purification plants. And there are now quite a lot of lawsuits by the EU, because the level of these pesticides in our drinking water is far too high. There shouldn’t be any, the limit should be zero.

What effect will that have on us?

Among other things, it will increase cancer rates. Cancer now affects one person in three and the incidence is going up all the time. Again we are lied to about that. This cancer is largely caused by increasing exposure to carcinogenic chemicals and to radiation, and it is going to get very much worse.

If we don’t start making changes now, how long has the human race got until it’s too late?

It is already too late now to save an awful lot of people. There are a lot of people on this planet now whose future, as a result of environmental degradation, is pretty grim. With global warming, the people who live on low-lying islands like the Maldives have no future. Those islands will be submerged and some have already been evacuated. One third of the population of Bangladesh live on land which is extremely low lying and which will be flooded. It will affect Britain very dramatically, especially in the eastern part of the country. Don’t forget that we build all our nuclear power plants by the sea, and if they are flooded it would be pretty nasty. Also, some of our worst chemical waste disposal dumps are at sea level and if they are flooded they will pollute the sea in a very dramatic way. We hope all these problems will not occur all at once.

You’ve also got the problem of land erosion; of agricultural land which is being subjected to terrible erosion throughout the world, as a result of over-exploitation and a failure to return organic matter to the soil by just using artificial fertiliser. Vast areas of the world are becoming deserts. Officially we are losing 67 million hectares a year of land to erosion. That’s about 15 million acres of land a year which are abandoned because they have become so eroded and so desertified, or so salinated, or compacted by big machines, or simply paved over. So you can see that our capacity to produce food is going to fall very dramatically, especially as the responsiveness of crops to artificial fertilisers is falling all over the world.

So what will happen?

In my opinion, the world’s population is going to be very much lower in the future than it is today. People talk about ten billion people on this planet in forty years time, but they have no idea of the problem. There is going to be a massive population reduction, by disease, by starvation because of a loss of food-producing land to erosion and by being paved over. No one is going to be able to feed China for example. There are a number of other possible collapses on the horizon. Our society is collapsing very quickly, which is why we have got all this crime and delinquency and drug addiction. The biosphere is under threat, and the economy itself could easily collapse. Everything’s out of control.

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