Protecting the Planet

(a WEA course)



Week 2

Week 3

Week 4

Week 5

Imagining Other Index Page  


Week 1. Overview: how concerns have developed:  from industrialisation and into the 20th century:


1.1 Humans have always affected their environment, especially since they settled on the land. (Nomadic peoples and hunter-gatherers have a more balanced relationship with the land). Agriculture needs the clearing of trees, and many places we think of as “natural” such as the Lake District, in Britain, and even the Sahara Desert, are in fact man-made!

However, note the time-scale below, and remember how recently we have used agriculture and industry – we have affected the environment without realising how short the time-scale of our existence is:


5.2 million years ago first hominids emerged in East Africa

2.6 million years ago first stone tools

2.3 earliest Homo genus

1.175 million – 350,000 Homo erectus

250,000 – 28,000 Neanderthals

200,000 Homo sapiens appears as a species in Africa

90,00 years ago modern humans reach Near East, then rest of world

72,000 y.a. first use of fire to modify stone tools, 70,000 y.a. earliest decorated stones

50,000 y.a. modern humans reach Australia

40,000 y.a. cave art begins, modern humans reach Europe

12,000 y.a. modern humans reach Americas

10 – 11,000 y.a. farming begins in Middle East

7,500 farming reaches Europe

6,200 y.a. earliest known city in Middle East

200 years ago industrialised society emerges.


In other words, industrialised society has existed for 0.000027% of the time humans and their ancestors have been in existence. Or: 8 generations out of 300,000.

(From Natural World, Winter 2009)


1.2 However, once industrialisation got under way, factories and railways altered the landscape dramatically, and began to cause what we think of as pollution.  William Blake, the 18th century English poet and artist, who wrote the words of “Jerusalem”, complained of the “dark satanic mills” where cotton goods were produced.


Later, especially in large towns such as London, the amount of sewage (i.e. waste) produced became a problem. We might notice here that there is a tendency for humans not to deal with problems until they become really serious: thus, it was only when people became ill, and the smell of the open sewers (running down the middle of the streets!) and the river Thames became a problem for the Members of Parliament (next to the river) – only then were plans made for underground sewers.


1.3 Another kind of pollution that arrived with towns and cities was air pollution (see further details below). The smoke from factory chimneys became so thick, that at times visibility was reduced to a few feet. The mixture of fog and smoke (especially when they reacted with sunlight: photochemical smog) came to be called “smog”. Again, when it was realised that large numbers of people, especially the very young and the elderly, were suffering from asthma and other lung diseases as a result of the air pollution, then legislation was passed: the Clean Air Act of 1955 in Britain. (A similar act was passed earlier in the United States).


The other salient point to be emphasised as something that was learnt from the phenomenon of smog was that often combinations of chemicals are more dangerous than each one separately. Thus smog was actually caused by a mixture of otherwise fairly harmless gases, but which when exposed to sunlight, became dangerous – photochemical smog. These interactions are an important part of the phenomenon of pollution. 


1.4 The next step in our gradual realisation of the scale and complexity of problems of pollution came in the 1962, with the publication of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring”. She noticed that there were less birds than there had been, and she traced the decline to the increased use of chemical pesticides. It was soon realised that chemicals used to spray crops or to remove weeds were not disappearing, but remained in the bodies of the insects, animals and finally humans that ate the crops. Thus, also, the idea of the “food chain” was accepted as important in understanding our interaction with the environment.


1.5 In the 1970s another publication – the report of the “Club of Rome” which was called “Limits to Growth” took the debate another step forward. The Club of Rome comprised a group of industrialists and scientists who had studied the interactions in the global environment between human population growth, the increased industrialisation, increased demand for food, and the consequent pollution and resource depletion. This report made a number of fundamental points:


(i) There are limits to many resources, such as coal, minerals and oil, and at some point in the future we are going to exhaust these resources


(ii) Each element in the relationship between humans and their environment needs to

be studied in relation to the whole – as each affects other elements. Thus, obviously,

population growth leads to more pollution, and growing more food leads to a scarcity

of land; but also reducing pollution means a growth in population – so a faster use of



(iii) Another way of describing these interactions is to think of feedback loops –

as when you place a microphone to near a loudspeaker, and the sound from the

speaker goes through the microphone, back through the speaker, and so on – the result

is a horrible whining or hum!


Examples of feedback:

Note: now we are aware of climate change (see later), there are some striking examples of feedback. CO2 is a ‘greenhouse gas’ – that is, a gas that acts like the glass of a greenhouse, and traps warmth (which would otherwise have escaped into space).

We have produced more CO2 since the industrial revolution began, as we have burned fossil fuel (coal, gas and oil). This is increasing the average temperature of the earth...

- oceans, soil and trees absorb half the CO2 that humans produce. As the climate warms (due to the extra CO2 we have produced), the sea and the soil may produce yet more CO2 as they warm up, thus increasing the warming effect.

Also tropical forests may die from excessive warmth or dry weather, and there will be less absorption of CO2

- the polar ice-sheets reflect nearly 80% of sunlight – if they melt the water reflects less heat

- Siberia is thawing, and releasing methane, a more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2.


(iv) The kind of growth pattern that many natural phenomena (such as increases in

population) follow is what is called exponential – that is, the rate of growth

increases as time goes on. This is a dangerous process, since we tend not to realise

there is a problem until too late in the day. For example, weed on the surface of a

pond may be growing exponentially – if so, it will take some time to cover half the

pond, but then only a fraction of that time to completely cover the pond and suffocate

the living creatures in it.


There were some unexpected results from this study: in particular, it was suggested that if we only apply solutions to single problems (e.g. pollution, or population control) we will in fact make the overall situation worse!


1.6 Recently, John Vidal has written of 7 dangers – we are trashing the planet: the 7 are: hyper-consumerism, corporate power, the car, population, soil, inequality, poverty...  and they are interconnected (in much the same way as the Limits to Growth model demonstrates)


1.7 New dangers such as nuclear radiation – which not only poisons individuals subjected to it, but damages their genetic makeup, and therefore affects future offspring. Some radioactive materials also “decay” very slowly (radioactivity is a process of decay of the atoms in a substance), and some man-made radioactive elements will take hundreds of years to disappear. We don’t seem to be able to leave “nature” alone, however, and scientists are now experimenting with genetic modification of plants, and animals, and even cloning – the public is alarmed by these experiments, and there is widespread opposition, but commercial interests come into play and the experiments are going ahead in many cases.            

2. New ways of thinking: Summary of key concepts:


The science of ecology deals with living things interacting with each other and with their environment. We can study the ecology of any area – a pond, a river estuary, even parts of our bodies (since bacteria etc live on our skin!). The area studied acts as an ecosystem. What scientists have observed, and which gives a scientific basis to some of the points made above, is that there is widespread interdependency between the different elements in an ecosystem. This corresponds to the point made above about food chains.


A recent article by Robin McKie (Observer10th July 2016) illustrates this in a number of ways, including how otters can help absorb carbon dioxide – when the population of sea otters declined, then the crustaceans which formed their foods increased, and they in turn destroyed the kelp forests – which are important for absorbing CO2. The article deals with ‘trophic cascades’ – the effects via the food chain on other components. This can be top-down (as here) as well as bottom-up. The other discovery noted is that killer whales began to feed on otters when their own food (whales) was diminished by whaling...


Two important lessons can be learned from ecology:

(i)         The more elements in a system, the more likely it is that the whole system will stay in balance. This is because a degree of “redundancy” is built in i.e. elements can take over the function of others when needed (as in a sophisticated electrical circuit, or in the human brain!). Thus, diversity, especially biodiversity, makes for stability, and therefore for survival. We can apply this principle to economies and human communities as well, I believe. Any country that relies on only producing one or two agricultural products (as was the case with Cuba and sugar) is vulnerable when either the price of that product falls, or someone finds a substitute (as with sugar beet). In addition, should the crop succumb to a disease, then the producers have no alternative to fall back on.  On the other hand, if you are producing a variety of crops (or goods or services!) then should one fail you can always substitute another.


(ii) More unexpectedly, there is not the same hierarchical arrangement in ecosystems that we have developed in our human, social systems. Just because mammals are more complex living creatures, it does not follow that they play a more important part in the survival of the system as a whole. We could even argue that the “humblest” forms of life, i.e. bacteria, are the most important, as without them most other life-forms would disappear.



Another fundamental principle (pointed out by the Club of Rome report see Meadows et al 1972) comes from the application of ecosystems thinking to the whole planet.

We live in a carefully balanced, closed system – that is, the only extra resource that enters the system is sunlight, otherwise everything else (water, air, land, plants, minerals) is finite.  The different elements within the system - population, resource depletion, production of food, and of goods, land, pollution, interact in complex ways.


More recently, James Lovelock (a scientist who worked for NASA on the question of how to identify life on other planets) came up with the radical observation that the earth is a self-regulating system (see Lovelock 1979, etc). It is amazing that life exists at all, given the very special conditions that it needs; moreover, the earth seems to maintain itself in balance – plants, microbes, water and air all interacting and re-adjusting themselves to keep a steady set of environmental conditions. Lovelock was not suggesting that there is anything like a god maintaining the earth (even though Gaia was the name of the Greek earth goddess), but some have rejected his theory because it seems metaphysical. Lovelock always maintains that he is giving a scientific description of how the earth system works.

It was also not Lovelock’s intention to suggest that we need not do anything to protect the environment: if we humans do enough damage we could upset the whole system, whereas other living things always seem to keep the balance. The human race, then, surely has a special responsibility to take care!


Update: Gaia and James Lovelock: June 2012 interview where he defends nuclear power and fracking (!) he argues we need fracking because methane is better than coal; suggests politics here works like a self-regulating system, the parties balancing each other out; the greens are a religion... Lovelock says he is influenced by EO Wilson in that the mega-city is the way of the future (seems to have little sympathy for those who fall out because of competition etc), sustainable development is ‘meaningless drivel’




One of the challenging criticisms that the green movement, and ecology, have thrown up is that conventional economics is unable to help us understand the environment. At all sorts of levels, the value-system of economics is inappropriate.


In economics we put a value on all kinds of “productive” activity, and the GDP of a country will go up with any increase in the number of people working, or the amount of work being done – in other words creating pollution may well improve a country’s GDP!!  If many people are sick, and we have to employ more nurses and doctors to deal with them, this in fact puts up the GDP! (All this is the flip side, as it were, of a point made by Keynes: when urging governments to intervene to help lift their economy out of a recession, he said that the state could employ two groups of people, one to dig holes and others to fill them in – so long as the workers were being paid, the economy would begin to grow again. This is because with their purchasing power these workers would then want to buy other goods, and this would stimulate production!


On the other hand, economics is not able to put a value (or price) on the essential parts of the environment: air, water, sunshine – so that if an industry damages, say the air, there is no market mechanism that will prevent this. Essentially, economics treats the natural environment as a “free” resource: it belongs to no-one and so no-one will seek costs, or sue anyone, if it is damaged. The market is a mechanism that only works with regard to private property.


In economics, such “costs” to the environment (e.g. a polluted river) incurred alongside but not in the production process are actually called “externalities” or “residuals”. (See Mishan 1967)


Surely this encourages the attitude of irresponsibility that is at the root of most environmental problems? The air is not in fact “free”, and it is encouraging misuse of it to regard it this way. How ironic, that because the air belongs to us all, it is counted as of no value! We have a situation then where, in the end, we can only deal with the costs of pollution when the state steps in and sets fines or penalties for pollution.


It has also often been pointed out that the conventional economic measures such as GNP do not measure the quality of life. Not many people want to live in a noisy, dirty, ugly industrial environment where illness is widespread as a result of pollution – yet such conditions may well be counted as part of a high GNP!  Some attempts have been made to find alternative measurements, such as a Measure of Domestic Progress (MDP), suggested by the New Economics Foundation - this measure would “factor in the social and environmental costs of economic growth, and the benefits of unpaid work such as household labour, that are excluded from GDP”


Finally, economics cannot put a value on life itself, for example when someone is killed, other than by calculating the amount of production that was lost by the death! What an insult to the relatives of someone who has been, say, killed at work, to be compensated in terms of the value to the workplace! The problem is that if we use money as the measure of value, this means that the value of something lies in what we can exchange it for, not in any intrinsic (or “use”) value. Both Aristotle and Karl Marx believed that problems would follow from disregarding use value in this way.


Diana Liverman surveys the debate over the “commodification of nature” and the related question of how to put a price on environmental services, in an article published in the Annals of the Association of American Geographers – 94 (4).. As she points out, the pro-market view regards putting all aspects of the environment on to the market as the best solution to environmental damage – whilst opponents believe this would lead to pillaging and damage to indigenous peoples. (See further under Solutions, below).


Case Study: The Ozone Layer:

This is a thin layer of ozone gas, high in the atmosphere, that protects us from 95% of the sun’s harmful ultra-violet radiation.  Some years ago, in the 1980s, scientists noticed that the layer had a hole in it over one of the poles. The layer is being destroyed by gases used in industrial production and air-conditioning, especially CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons), and carbon dioxide and methane have a similar effect. CFCs are also used in aerosols, in processes that involve “foam blowing”, and in fridges.


If the protection we get from the ozone layer is reduced, then there will be more cases of skin cancer as a result.  Again, this problem has been known about for since the 1970s, and some changes have been made: the United Nations passed the Montreal Protocol in 1987, as a result of which CFCs have being phased out. (Substitutes have been identified and put into use, but even here there is controversy over their safety). Like other aspects of our self-regulating planet, the ozone layer is able to replenish itself naturally, and scientists are watching for this. However, as with many natural phenomena, there is a “time delay”, and, according to the National Geographic (August 2003) there is still no evidence of ozone levels going back up in the lower stratosphere, where most ozone is to be found (some evidence of decreases in the upper stratosphere were reported).


This and other examples illustrate:


- the unexpected consequences of new inventions and chemicals: I believe very strongly in the “precautionary principle” i.e. any innovation in technology should be carefully tested for safety and environmental damage before being implemented. Of course, this might mean slowing down the rate of change and innovation, but given the danger of reaching a “tipping point” beyond which changes become irreversible, surely precaution makes sense? 


- the problem of time delays before corrective action reverses damage,


- and, again, the need for international action.