October 22, 2017

Stark choices on the road from Rio

Edward Goldsmith examined the upcoming “Earth Summit” conference in Rio de Janeiro, June 1992 – reaching pessimistic conclusions which have been all too amply fulfilled. The real global threat, he argues, is the relentless demand for growth.

Published in The Sunday Times, 31 May 1992.


It is essential to realise the extreme seriousness of the environmental problems that confront us and which are being discussed superficially and half-heartedly at Rio over the next two weeks. The world’s forests are going at about 20 million hectares a year an area the size of Britain. Nearly always this means a reduction in rainfall, the transformation of rivers into seasonal torrents, the drying up of springs, and the erosion of unprotected soil.

Massive deforestation in west Africa is almost certainly the main cause of the drying up of much of Africa, where famine, for the first time in human experience, is now endemic on a continental scale. Soil degradation through erosion and salinisation is now so severe that we are said to be losing 26 billion tons of topsoil a year. The extent of the damage is masked by increasing use of fertiliser, but this is a temporary expedient. Land is being paved over at a terrifying rate.

China, since it started industrialising, is said to have paved over nearly one tenth of its agricultural land. Egypt, 97 percent desert, is losing 0.5 percent of its agricultural land every year. Our air, soil, beaches, seas, oceans, rivers, ground water, food and drinking water are increasingly polluted with sewage, chemicals, heavy metals and radionuclides. Tens of thousands of different pesticide formulations are regularly sprayed over agricultural lands. Chemical waste is dumped into holes in the ground or deep injection wells, polluting drinking water.

Nuclear waste is disposed of in much the same way. Anything up to 80 percent of the 5m annual cases of cancer worldwide can probably be attributed to exposure to chemicals and radionuclides. The ozone layer, which protects life from lethal ultraviolet radiation, is being depleted at three times the rate we thought it was a couple of years ago. This can be attributed to emissions of chlorine-based chemicals, in particular to the 1 million or so tons of CFCs that are annually dumped into the atmosphere.

The ozone hole over Antarctica is now the size of North America. Even in temperate areas there is an 8 percent reduction in the ozone layer in winter. Even if emissions stop today, ozone loss would be of the order of 20 – 30 percent by the year 2000. A 1 percent loss is estimated to increase ultraviolet radiation by 2 percent and the incidence of skin cancer by 5 percent. The United States Environmental Protection Agency has predicted that 12 million Americans will develop skin cancer over the next 20 years.

Ultraviolet radiation also adversely affects the human immune system, which means a drastic increase in the incidence of infectious diseases, and it could affect the food chain in the oceans seriously reducing their ability to absorb CO2 and thereby accelerating global warming.

Undoubtedly the most serious environmental problem is global warming. There has already been a 0.5 – 0.7C increase in global mean temperatures since the start of the industrial age, and it is predicted by different international and national agencies that emissions of greenhouse gases will lead to a 1.5 – 4C increase over the coming decades. The last ice age was triggered by a mere 1 [degree] drop in temperature.

Climatologists admit that a small temperature change could trigger a chain reaction of ever bigger changes. The climate will become less predictable, with extremes of heat and cold. Tens, if not hundreds of millions of refugees from areas that are no longer habitable will swarm into those that still are.

It is argued, in particular by George Bush and the oil industry, that there is no scientific evidence that global warming is occurring. But the concept of scientific evidence when applied to complex biological, social or ecological issues is largely meaningless.

What makes the whole thing incomparably worse is that our politicians show no signs of solving any of these problems. They are concerned only with short-term political and economic considerations. There is little hope that they will solve any problems at Rio.

Our modern society is no longer organised into families and communities, but into ever more massive corporations. These are specifically designed to increase economic development, which must necessarily increase our impact on an environment that is ever less capable of sustaining growth. We interpret all the problems that confront us in such a way as to make them appear amenable to the only sort of ‘solutions’ that our corporation-based society is capable of providing: those that involve still further environmental destruction.

For example, the population explosion is attributed to poverty and insecurity. The only solution proposed today is to increase economic development to make Third World people rich and secure. The trouble is that economic development, by destroying peoples, families and communities and pushing them off their land to accommodate development projects, is the main cause of insecurity and thereby the main cause of the population explosion.

Unfortunately our politicians need the money generated by this process to keep themselves in power by appearing at least to be solving the problems that confront them. If we are to extract ourselves from this fatal chain reaction, we have no alternative but to create a very different sort of society: one that is highly decentralised, based on the family and the community and in which economic activities are conducted on a much smaller scale, catering for much smaller local and regional markets. It is only in such a society that the impact of economic activities can be sustained by the global environment.

Teddy Goldsmith’s book, The Way: an ecological world view, was published by Rider Books on May 21 (1992).

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