September 19, 2017

Foreword to The Earth Report 2

The last two years have seen considerable changes in the public’s perception of the environmental problems that confront us today. More and more people have woken up to the realization that we are rapidly destroying our planet and that something must be done about it. As a result more and more people are joining environmental activist groups such as Earth First, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. More, too, are joining the various Green parties whose power has increased massively in the last few months. In Tasmania, for instance, the Green Party now holds the balance between the two major parties. In Italy, the Greens now have 17 members of Parliament and are a force to be reckoned with. But it was at the elections for the European Parliament in June 1989 that it suddenly became clear that the Greens were on the way to becoming a major influence in European politics, and this suggests that it is but a question of time before they wield a similar influence in the rest of the industrialized world, the Eastern block and eventually in the Third World as well.

Significantly, independent environmental movements are emerging in many Eastern bloc countries and are rapidly gaining in influence. For instance, in the USSR some 40 people from such movements now participate as deputies of the Supreme Soviet.

A number of traumatic events have triggered off this new awareness. One is the belated acceptance by our leading climatologists that the greenhouse effect is a reality and that we are heading for a man-made global climatic catastrophe that could make life difficult if not impossible over a wide area of our planet, bringing about a major population collapse. Another is the equally sudden discovery of the holes in the ozone layer, first one over Antarctica and now another one over the Arctic, together with a general thinning of the ozone layer over most of the planet, with very serious implications for our health, for ecosystems the world over and hence for the world’s food supply.

Another traumatic event was the news of the true extent of the mass burning of the Amazonian rain forests, which at the current rate would lead to their virtual annihilation in little more than a decade, again with devastating ecological, social and climatic implications.

Yet another such event was the unprecedented US drought in the summer of 1988 which created dustbowl conditions and reduced cereal production in what is supposed to be the breadbasket of the world, to the point of transforming the usual us wheat surplus of between 80 and 125 million tonnes, on which millions of Third World (mainly urban) people depend for their survival, into an actual deficit of 10 million tonnes.

The past year also saw the flood in Bangladesh, the worst in living memory, which put two-thirds of that country under water, drastically affecting food availability, and creating terrible misery in what is one of the world’s least privileged countries.

In the UK, one of the events that most awakened people out of their complacency was the decimation of seal, porpoise and sea-bird populations which drove home -to those who were not taken in by government propaganda—that the seas surrounding the British Isles are becoming too contaminated to support complex forms of life.

Meanwhile, in the Eastern bloc countries, environmental degradation has become a major cause for concern. In parts of Moldavia in the USSR, infant mortality rates have begun to rise again as a result of widespread air and water pollution. In Uzbekistan, pollution from agricultural chemicals is blamed for high rates of stomach and liver disease and birth defects. In addition, the siphoning off of water from the Aral Sea for irrigation has reduced the surface area of the sea by 40 per cent since 1960, leaving behind 26,000 sq km (10,000 sq miles) of salt-encrusted desert. The surrounding area has been transformed into a dustbowl—an ecological catastrophe which one Soviet writer has deemed to be “of no lesser magnitude than Chernobyl”.

What the public is beginning to realize, though it is rarely spelled out explicitly, is that all these disasters are closely related problems.

This is the crux of the matter. These disasters are, in effect, but the symptoms of the same disease: the disruption of biological, social and ecological systems under the impact of economic development and the demographic growth that is largely the product of the terrible insecurity that this process gives rise to among the mass of Third World people whose lives it totally shatters.

The authors of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s 1969 “Study of Critical Environmental Problems” (SCEP) referred to this impact as “ecological demand” which they defined as “a summation of all man’s demands on the environment, such as the extraction of resources and the return of wastes.”

Unfortunately, the ecological demand exerted by us on our natural environment is increasingly greater than the latter can conceivably sustain. The world’s forests, for instance, are being over-logged, its rangelands over-grazed, its arable lands over-cultivated, its oceans, seas and rivers over-fished, and together with its groundwater reserves and the atmosphere itself, grotesquely over-exploited as a sink for our evermore voluminous and toxic wastes.

The result can only be a corresponding degradation of the natural world, which in turn must further reduce its carrying capacity (i.e., its ability to sustain a given impact or ecological demand).

If this were generally understood, and if our political and economic leaders were responsible men and women who were really committed to assuring our welfare, they would set about systematically to reduce the ecological demand created by our economic activities to that level which ecological systems can sustain. But up till now, they have done precisely the opposite. They have systematically interpreted the symptoms of ecological degradation in such a way as to rationalize and hence legitimize those “solutions” that are politically expedient and economically viable—largely technological solutions whose application requires further economic development, thereby further increasing the impact of our economic activities on an environment whose capacity to sustain it is constantly being reduced.

Thus poverty in the Third World is interpreted as under-development that can only be cured by further economic development, malnutrition and famine are attributed to “archaic agricultural methods”, thereby rationalizing the modernization of agriculture, and in this way creating a vast market for modern fertilizers, pesticides, tractors and large dams. In the same way the increase in the crime rate among previously self-reliant and perfectly socialised villagers, who have been expelled from their lands to accommodate some vast development scheme, is attributed to a shortage of burglar alarms, appropriately equipped policemen and modern prisons, while the inevitable deterioration of our health as a result of malnutrition, psychological stress, and exposure to toxic chemicals in the food we eat, the water we drink and the air we breathe, is attributed to a shortage of pharmaceutical preparations and of modern hospitals complete with the latest technical gadgetry.

Unfortunately there is little sign that our political and industrial leaders are willing to undertake those policies that would lead to a reduction rather than a further increase in the impact of our economic activities on the natural environment. They have now accepted that environmental degradation is a serious problem, which is more than was the case just a few years ago, but they are not willing to consider solutions that might reduce the competitiveness of industry, and which could thereby bring about a reduction in economic activity.

Thus politicians throughout the West now accept that there must be a reduction in the emission of CFCS that are rapidly eroding the ozone layer, but only if substitutes can be found by the companies making the cosmetic spray, the refrigerators, and the air-conditioners that use these chemicals. They also realize that something must be done about the greenhouse effect, but (with the exception of the last Dutch Government) are not willing to consider reducing the emission of greenhouse gases by more than 20 to 25 per cent—the maximum they consider to be compatible with the maintenance of the present level of economic activity.

What is more, governments are still blithely talking of increasing the number of automobiles on the roads, of building more motorways, of extending airports to cater for the massive increase in air traffic expected during the 1990s. The British and French Governments are happily going ahead with their Channel tunnel, and EEC countries do not question the desirability of eliminating all trade barriers in 1992. Yet such undertakings are solely designed further to increase the level of economic activity, thereby further increasing energy use, which must further exacerbate the greenhouse effect and in general further increase the impact of such activities on our rapidly deteriorating environment.

This clearly demonstrates just how unwilling are our politicians to reconsider their basic priorities. Yet it must surely be clear to all thinking people that man’s survival depends on the immediate reversal of such priorities. Man must rapidly come to realize that he does not need to consume vast amounts of fossil fuels and generate vast amounts of toxic chemicals to live a happy and fulfilling life, that he can live very well without cosmetic sprays, refrigerators and air-conditioners, and indeed without many of the other products of the modern industrial system. He did so, after all, for perhaps as much as 95 per cent of his tenancy of this planet. On the other hand, he cannot survive without the benefits provided by the normal functioning of the biosphere or natural world, such as fertile soil, abundant clean water and a favourable and predictable climate.

It is these, the products of the biosphere or natural world, that must constitute our real wealth, and they are being methodically destroyed in order to provide us with the relatively superfluous products of the technosphere or world of human artefacts which our economic activities are substituting in their stead.

This being so, it should be quite clear that rather than subordinate ecological and climatic imperatives to short-term economic requirements, we must, if we are to survive, do precisely the opposite. First, we must methodically reduce the impact our economic activities have on the environment. This must mean reorganizing our society in such a way as to reduce its requirement for material goods and technological devices. For instance, by living in largely self-sufficient villages and small towns, among our family and friends, we would drastically reduce the need for energy-intensive and polluting transport. By returning to small-scale organic farming we would drastically reduce our need for tractors, polluting agro-chemicals, and devitalised processed foods. Secondly, we must correspondingly increase our environment’s “carrying capacity” by undertaking a global campaign to restore, to the extent that this is still possible, the functioning of the degraded ecosystems (forests, marshlands, coral reefs, rangelands and arable lands) that we have so irresponsibly destroyed in the last decades.

Finally, we must develop a world view in terms of which this is seen to be the only path to survival and the only means of escaping from the social, moral, spiritual and aesthetic vacuum in which we live today and thereby of satisfying, in a way that our modern world cannot conceivably do, what, after mere physical survival, must be man’s most fundamental needs.


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