Friday, 29 June 2012

Sustainability and Responsibility

Post by Ian from an address given on 3rd June 2012 at New Meeting House on the subject "Sustainability and Responsibility - The Earth is a sacred place, and we belong in it".

I have struggled with this address. The subject matter is huge, and there is the problem of where to begin. Please forgive me if I jump around a little and, as always, the standard disclaimer: the thoughts being presented here are my own, for you to agree or disagree with.

As you heard earlier, with the readings from Genesis (Gen 1:20-31; Gen 9:1-17), I start by going to the beginning. Our cultural heritage places humans at the pinnacle of creation, granted dominion over the fish of the sea, of the birds of the air, and the beasts of the land. We are told, indeed given a duty, to be fruitful and multiply. We have obeyed this instruction. 

In Western culture, we accept that the resources of the Earth are our to use as we will. They were, after all, put there by God for our use. We have exported this culture, and this attitude, to the rest of the world during the many years of colonisation. The industrial revolution and the technological discoveries of the Victorian era, and beyond, to the 1950s were years of hope. The technological age was to bring prosperity, a life of ease and comfort for all. 

In Native American traditions, a  different relationship with the earth was taught. Like the majority of animistic tribal cultures, they lived within the world and granted respect to the others they shared the world with. When an animal was slain, thanks and forgiveness would be sought of the dead animal. Thanks that, by their death, they sustain the tribe. Forgiveness, for the death that has been brought on them.

A Pawnee, Letakos-Lesa or Eagle Chief stated: In the beginning of all things, wisdom and knowledge were with the animals, for Tirawa, the One Above, did not speak directly to man. He sent certain animals to tell men that he showed himself through the beast, and that from them, and from the stars and the sun and moon should man learn.

Back to Genesis for a brief moment, the other animals were also told to be fruitful and multiply. A covenant was made by God, after the flood, with all life. In Leviticus, Jews are given the instructions:  When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner. (Leviticus 19:9-10).

In the 1960s, things started to change as the realisation of the impact we were having on the world began to filter through our consciousness. In 1962, Rachel Carson wrote the book Silent Spring about the effect of DDT on the bird and animal population, killing more than the mosquitoes it was meant to. The title was meant to evoke the though of a spring where no bird song could be heard. This was the age of the flower child and the hippie movement, when we were all supposed to turn on, tune in and drop out. 

In the 1970s, the threat of world overpopulation began to filter out to the general public. Paul Ehrlich wrote his book, The Population Bomb, warning of global famine as population outstrips the ability of the world to produce enough food. The agricultural revolution in the late 70s and early 80s rendered his warnings mute, as methods of industrial farming increased yields. The years of the agribusiness took off. Yet, the warnings should sounds familiar. There is, again, talk of how will we feed the expected 9 billion humans that are expected to be on the planet by the year 2050. Again, scientists look to improvements in technology to answer the call. GM crops and further industrial farming methods will meet our needs, or so they say. Even if they do, it will only be for a while – the problem kicked another 40 years down the trail.

Also in the 1970s, Professor James Lovelock produced his Gaia Hypothesis. This hypothesis was resisted strongly at the time, mainly as it contained notions that could be interpreted as spiritual or hippy-like. It was developed with the help of micro-biologist Lynn Margulis and it has become accepted as true as scientific discoveries have proved the hypothesis. It has even spawned a new cross-specialism branch of science, the Earth Sciences. The hypothesis states that the earth is a self-regulating, complex system involving the biosphere, the atmosphere, the hydrosphere and the pedosphere, tightly coupled as an evolving system. The theory sustains that this system as a whole seeks a physical and chemical environment optimal for contemporary life. That is: the life around us, the air we breathe, the water that sustains us, and the soil that grows our food all act in a balance that we disrupt at our own peril. If the balance shifts, a new equilibrium is found – one which may not be so favourable to contemporary life.

Most of us now recognise that we have an impact on our environment. We recycle and try to reduce our impact. Or so we tell ourselves. These things all help. We reduce the impact we have, slightly, and reduce waste. It's not enough.

The carrying capacity of the earth, last calculated at 6.8 billion people was an average of 1.8 global hectares per person. That is the amount of land it takes to sustain us. We, in the UK, consume at around the 6.1 global hectare per person mark. The US is closer to 9 or 10 global hectares per person. Ten years ago, this average was 2.1 global hectares per person, today is will be slightly lower as we have past the 7 billion mark in global population. In order to support  UK living standard for everyone, we would need approximately 3½ Earths. In order to match the 1.8 global hectare figure, everyone would have to reduce their living standards to those of African or Pacific Asian countries. However, the opposite is happening, the countries that we ought to be emulating to become sustainable are looking to emulate our excesses. This just can not be done with our current population.

We hear a lot recently about the need for growth. Our economic system is built on a model that requires constant growth. Growth in the amount of money available, growth in the number of working people available to pay pensions of the previous generation, and the taxes to support the healthcare and social care systems. Maybe we need to start thinking of these times of austerity as the way things will be from now on. The years of unconstrained capitalism are over, the debt crisis should have taught us this. We should look to gradually reduce our living standards and think about what we really need – rather than what we want.

Sir David Attenborough, at an address for the 2011 President's Lecture at the Royal Society of Arts, stated: “Anyone who believes in indefinite growth in anything physical, on a physically finite planet, is either mad - or an economist.”. The population growth that is being predicted is not sustainable and will, in time, self-correct. As in other animal populations,this would mean starvation through famine or an increase in the global death rate – for example, a global pandemic disease. It would be far more beneficial to us all to begin to think in terms of reducing the global population by the mechanism of reducing the birth rate to below the current death rate. In order to do this, we ought to be educating people – especially women. Wherever in the world that women have access to a vote, education and birth control, the birth rates drop. But, for now, the population increases. Growing by nearly 80 million a year.  One and a half million a week.  A quarter of a million a day.  Ten thousand an hour. Growing. 

Another quote from Sir David's address: “There is no major problem facing our planet that would not be easier to solve if there were fewer people and no problem that does not become harder - and ultimately impossible to solve - with ever more”. 

All of these extra people need space. Space for their homes, space to grow their food (or to get others to grow it for them), space to build schools and roads and airfields. Where does that come from? A little might be taken from land occupied by other people but most of it could only come from the land which, for millions of years, animals and plants have had to themselves. The natural world. We are using the land that others, who share our planet, need for their own survival. Not only that, but we look to use the land we take for our own exclusive use, denying food and sustenance as well as habitat. This is ours, we deserve it as the highest form of life on earth. So our culture tells us.

As space becomes more precious, only the wealthy can afford to buy premium land. Those less well off have to settle for land that the wealthy don't want. In these times of ever more violent weather patterns, a symptom of our effect on the world's climate, this results in the poor being more heavily affected by the climatic changes. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, the storm impacted on the poor Black communities more than those of rich White people. When time came to rebuild, the poor of New Orleans were again sidelined – prompting various commentaries and even a rap song. Today, nearly 90% of displaced white people have returned to New Orleans, compared to only 65% of displaced Black people.

If this is how we treat our own species, we pay even less regard to any other species in our way, or any other culture. After all, our civilised way of life is the best way for humans to live, isn't it? This western ideal is what we should all be aiming for. Tribal cultures, those who are left, compete for land in which to live their own lives – in the traditional manner that they have practised for tens of thousands of years. Tribes such as the Penan of Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo, sharing the jungles with the Orangutan – both under threat of extinction. Logging and palm oil are to blame here. The Aw√° of the Brazilian Amazon, threatened by logging and the need for arable land for ranchers and settlers to use. The Maasai of Kenya, no longer able to roam as nomads but being forced to settle. There is no longer the land for them to roam with their cattle. This makes them  extremely vulnerable to drought. If the water dries up, the cattle die and the people starve. 

There have been five great extinction events in the history of our planet, that can be found in the fossil record. The last one, 65 million years ago marked the boundary of the Cretaceous and the Paleocene eras. This marked the end for the dinosaurs, together with most large land creatures. The cause of this extinction event was probably a large asteroid. Other events have been caused by massive volcanic eruptions. There is one of these previous events that should interest us today. That is the Permian / Triassic extinction event. Why should this be? Well, it is the last time that the global network of oceanic currents were disrupted. The ocean’s current basically circulates life around the globe, achieved by its ability to carry heat and cycle nutrients throughout the globe. Warm water from the equator gets carried along the top of the water to the Arctic, where the water is frozen. It then is dropped to the bottom of the ocean where it follows the ocean floor back down to the Equator. Then it heats back up, rising to the surface and gets carried back to the Arctic. This is an endless cycle. Ocean currents are responsible for the warmer temperature in Western Europe, as well as Antarctica’s ability to support plant and animal life in such large numbers. Without the currents, life would die off – in large numbers. Why is this of interest? Well, warming of ocean waters at the poles have resulted in a large amount of ice melting. In the Arctic, summer ice flows are almost at a stage where the fabled North-West passage may be possible. Ironically, global warming may result in the UK getting a lot colder. The ice pack is freshwater, which can disrupt the salinity needed to keep the conveyor system of ocean currents going. If this happens, then we'd better be prepared for more cold weather. We're on the same latitude as Newfoundland and Labrador in Canada. It's only the gulf stream ocean current that keeps our climate mild.

There is a sixth great extinction event. The Holocene Extinction Event. This one isn't well known, not like the one that killed off the dinosaurs. The Holocene era is the current geological era, and we are a major contributing factor. This is the first extinction event that the cause is the actions of one species. Up to now, the causes have been catastrophic natural events. Through human action, the current rate of extinction is between 3 and 12 times the normal background rate in the fossil record. In the catalogued species of birds, mammals and amphibians, approximately 1 species goes extinct every year. 

I will leave you with these thoughts. It is our children, grandchildren and great-grand children that will have to live with the consequences of the actions of the last few generations. They will not thank us if we procrastinate and kick the problem down the line. The problems of today will be harder to solve tomorrow. 

We need to learn to share the resources we have with those who we share our world with. We need to think whether an ever increasing number of us is a good thing, and what we might do about that.

In the end, we have nothing to lose but our dominion.


  1. There is no doubt we need to return to a simpler life-style Ian, but having let the Genie out of the bottle it is difficult to foresee an answer.

    You in your small corner and I in mine can do but little - except perhaps to make a few ripples on the human pond.

  2. I live with the hope that, if enough people recognise the problem we will be able to make an impact and turn the damage we are causing around before it is too late. However, the pessimist in me says that it won't be enough. With an ever growing population, the problem will become ever more insurmountable - with an ever lower average standard of living required in order to be sustainable. That particular issue needs to be recognised and brought in to open debate. Currently, population crisis and global overcrowding is not spoken about - see the blog on the Last Taboo.

    Technological answers will only delay the problem and cause issues of their own - soil quality degradation and erosion, desertification, sterile crop seed (to preserve biotech companies patents and profits - affecting food security in the aftermath of a global crisis such as a pandemic). The current GM crop debate - seen as the only answer to feeding a global population of 9 billion by 2050. Noone in the media or political spheres are questioning whether a global population of 9 billion by 2050 is a desirable thing or suggesting that maybe that is the issue that we ought to be tackling. A social solution is required, not a technological one.

    The only humane answer to the problem is to bring the birth rate below the death rate and reduce population - before there is a spike in the death rate acting as a correction in the system. Research tells us that educating people, especially women, would have this effect.

  3. I agree with reducing the birth rate through education Ian, but this would have to be on a global scale and this would require a world government to achieve it.

    As you suggest, a major correction by Mother Earth would seem to be the on the cards.

    Maybe Yellowstone National Park erupting ?

    Remember the Mayan Prophesy for December 2012 !!!

    OH Dear !!!!!