Protecting the Planet
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
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:
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
Homo sapiens appears as a species in
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
y.a. modern humans reach
y.a. cave art begins, modern humans reach
y.a. modern humans reach
– 11,000 y.a. farming
y.a. earliest known city in
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 “
in large towns such as
1.3 Another kind of
pollution that arrived with towns and cities was air pollution
(see further details later). 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
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 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, especially DDT – which was used very widely indeed. 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
(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 resources.
(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!
More recent examples of feedback:
Now that we are aware of climate change (see later), there are some striking examples of feedback.
Carbon dioxide, 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... but the oceans, soil and trees absorb half the CO2 that humans produce. Acidification of the oceans brings its own problems (see later...), but if tropical forests die from excessive warmth or dry weather, there will be less absorption of CO2. Thus more CO2 fills the atmosphere (if we don’t stop producing it!) and more trees will die...
Also the polar ice-sheets reflect nearly 80% of sunlight – if they melt the water reflects less heat, so warming increases leading to more melting of the ice. As if this were not enough, the Siberian tundra (frozen ice containing vegetation) is thawing, and releasing methane previously trapped in the ice. Methane is four times a more powerful than CO2 as a greenhouse gas. Thus, again, the atmosphere will heat up more, and more tundra will melt releasing more methane.
(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!
The broad conclusion
many people drew from this report was that economic growth could not go on the
way it had so far. The idea of a ‘no-growth’ or ‘zero-growth’ economy was
discussed, along with ideas for recycling. As a letter in the
1.6 A Blueprint for Survival (1972)
In the magazine The Ecologist (still being published today, jointly with Resurgence, and edited by Satish Kumar), Edward Goldsmith (father of one-time MP Zac Goldsmith!) and Robert Allen foresaw the breakdown of the life-support systems of the planet unless something drastic was done. Their proposals were more radical than the Limits to Growth, in that they argued that only small decentralised and largely de-industrialised communities would be viable. They drew on their beliefs about tribal societies, which were human scale, had low-impact technologies, successful population controls, sustainable resource management, holistic and integrated worldviews, a high degree of social cohesion, physical health, psychological wellbeing and spiritual fulfilment for their members. (Wikipedia)
The statement was signed by a number of scientists including Sir Julian Huxley, Sir Frank Fraser Darling, Sir Peter Medawar and Sir Peter Scott.
As an example of how
pollutants can change when exposed to the environment, acid rain is formed when
gases in the air dissolve and make the rain acidic. The main ‘culprit’ here is
sulphur, in coal.
- acid rain is now known to affect the oceans (Green World 65, Summer 2009, and National Geographic website):
- pH indicates the alkalinity of water – 7 is neutral, i.e. anything below 7 is acidic, and above 7 is alkaline or base. The pH of the ocean’s open water has been 8.2 for millions of years, now (since burning fossil fuel for couple of centuries) it is down to 8.1 or 8.05 (8.1 is 25% more acidic), and this damages coral reefs, & microscopic life at the base of the food chain;
– acidity goes down to 1,000 metres and in some places to 3,000 metres – ocean makes up 99% of planet’s living space – plankton control the carbon cycle, nitrogen cycle and part of the oxygen cycle – 3.6 billion yrs ago plankton began to produce oxygen, hence life could develop – every second breath we take is of oxygen from plankton; also plankton makes less calcium in more acidic water – we don’t know what effect this will have, though coral reefs (home to rich diversity of life) are dying
acidification could lead to mass extinction: the previous 5 such events were
all accompanied by acidification (last time, 65 m yrs ago, the dinosaurs died
out – probably the gases came from a meteor strike). [Alanna
Mitchell, author: The Hidden Ecological Crisis of the
cleared up a lot of the problem in 1980s by switching from coal to gas (little sulphur), catalytic converters (reduce nitrogen), scrubbers
in factory chimneys, and this led to an 80% cut in acid rain. In the early
‘80s, 3m tonnes SO2 were emitted p.a. in
Pre-industrial levels of SO2 were 280 ppm by volume, and by mid-century this is likely to be doubled to 560 ppm – plankton makes less calcium in more acidic water – we don’t know what effect this will have.
This is a thin layer of ozone gas, high in the atmosphere (in the stratosphere, about 30 miles up) that protects us from 95% of the sun’s harmful ultra-violet radiation. Ozone (O3) is formed when ultra-violet light reacts with oxygen (O2) – as it does so, the ultra-violet light is absorbed. At ground level it is a pollutant that is harmful to our health. However the thin layer in the stratosphere protects us.
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, air-conditioning, and refrigerators.
The main offender is CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons – introduced in the 1920s), but carbon dioxide and methane have a similar effect. CFCs are also used in aerosols, in processes that involve “foam blowing”, and in fridges. When they are exposed to ultra-violet light they break down into components such as chlorine, which then in turn attack the ozone, breaking it down to oxygen again. Incidentally, CFCs are also greenhouse gases (which we will explore when we deal with climate change.)
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
2. 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.
We will return to this question of ‘causes’ when we look at specific current instances, but here are some initial explanations that clearly follow from the examples above:
- industry (factories, mining, power stations etc that were developed during the industrial revolution)
- technology and modern chemicals (fridge coolants, pesticides)
However, in my view there are two fundamental causes which I shall deal with throughout this course:
- our way of thinking about ‘nature’ and the natural environment
- the values underpinning our economics
Other underlying causes we need to think about are:
- population growth
- growth, profit and other aspects of our economy.
4. The improved awareness of the problems affecting the environmental has led to new ways of thinking:
Summary/recap 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
(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. When ‘man’ first reached space, and could see the planet from a distance [picture] we became more aware of how fragile and vulnerable we are – like a spaceship floating in a hostile environment.
Another consequence of the Limits to Growth publication was a questioning of the whole basis of our economic system: the necessity for growth. Some economists argued for ‘zero growth’ – others based their analysis on Marxist ideas, criticising the drive for profit.
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)
In the late ‘70s, 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 (the atmosphere, the seas, the earth’s crust and all the life on it) 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. The simple view of evolution is that each species is competing with others for survival, and those that find a niche in which they can flourish are the ones that survive. Lovelock pointed out that if this is all that is happening, then each species would tends to create an environment that eventually would collapse. Instead, a complex range of life forms has evolved, all interacting with each other and with the physical environment – and a balance has been maintained. There is no one mechanism that does this – rather, a large number of different phenomena and processes.
The example given above, of feedback mechanisms, seems to be part of the picture. (The following notes are from an article by Tony Osman – source unknown I’m afraid). Thus we need first to note that the temperature has only varied by a small amount in the 3,500 million years since life first appeared. This ‘small’ variation nevertheless meant that we moved from ice age to warm periods – but it is within a range that is suitable for life.
When we look at how the temperature changed we find, for example, that the earliest atmosphere must have been rich in CO2 (warming the planet) – since the sun was not so hot then and otherwise the temperature would have been well below freezing. Life emerged, and then the earliest life forms began to absorb the CO2 (as plants do – then animals as they eat the plants) – with the result that the earth was is danger of cooling too much. Carl Sagan and others have suggested that life must have produced another greenhouse gas – possibly ammonia – that then warmed the planet. Perhaps also darker forms of life absorbed the sunlight. And living creatures give off CO2. So collectively the earth’s temperature was kept in balance.
Another interesting example is isoprene in trees – which makes trees flammable, but seems to have no other purpose. Yet when forests burn, the result is an increase in biodiversity as light reaches the seeds of plants that had been stopped from growing in the dark forests!
Sunlight produces phytoplankton in the sea. The green plankton produces a chemical – dimethyl sulphide – that forms sulphate in the atmosphere, which produces clouds, thus cooling the sea and reducing the amount of phytoplankton produced! An aspect of global warming that we will be dealing with revolves around these plankton being produced in excessive amounts...
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, and complex life forms like our own may be more vulnerable - while other living things may well be able to keep the balance. The human race, then, surely has a responsibility to itself 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.
economics we put a value on all kinds of “productive” activity, and the
two recent pieces in The Guardian, George Monbiot and Patrick Barkham discuss this issue. Barkham
recommends (‘Put a price on urban trees and halt this chainsaw massacre’) that
councils try to calculate the value of their trees before cutting them down.
There has been controversy in
says that in Wandsworth, where the council wants to
spend £45,000 from the Heritage Lottery on rejuvenating Tooting Common by
removing an avenue of mature chestnuts with ‘sleek young lime trees’, residents
commissioned an expert Jeremy Barrell, who says first
that a variety of trees is better because of the diseases that are spreading,
and second that the best thing to do would be to trim the old trees, remove a
few, and add a variety of new ones. Barrell uses a
calculation called Cavat (similar to a method used by
surveyors for housing). By this method the
American method of calculating value – i-Tree – could
be used; this gives a value of £133m to
These methods are known as ‘ecosystem service’ arguments, and some criticise them because they are reductive and cannot include such ‘intangibles’ as the positive effect on mental wellbeing, or ecological diversity. ‘Nature will always be the loser in any cost-benefit crunch’ some people say. But to convince a council, this may be the best way.
On the other hand, in a polemical piece, George Monbiot rejects the idea of quantifying the value of nature:
Economics of the Friedmanite variety (Milton Friedman) argues you can ‘leave it to the market’ but ‘Hurricanes do not respond to market signals. The plastic fibres in our oceans, food and drinking water do not respond to market signals. Nor does the collapse of insect populations, or coral reefs, or the extirpation of orangutans from Borneo.’
He goes on to say that there are two problems with ‘monetising’ the environment: one is, as Barkham says, there are things which cannot be given a price (human beings, species, ecosystems); the other is that environmental crises erupt unpredictably – like hurricane Irma (Sep. 2017). Monbiot goes a step further and points out that Keynesian economics also fails to deal with the environment, since it depends on constant production and growth – whereas, as I will argue, the planet’s resources are not limitless.
He concludes: ‘The environmental crisis demands a new ethics, politics and economics.’ I couldn’t agree more!
One way of demonstrating that economics is not able to put a value (or price) on the essential parts of the environment: air, water, sunshine is that 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 things that have a price, especially private property.
In economics, “costs” to the environment, such as a polluted river incurred alongside but not in the production process, are actually called “externalities” or “residuals”. (See Mishan 1967)
An article by John Breslaw (source unknown ) the argument is taken still further: there are two fundamental processes in the economy – inputs and outputs. Outputs are the residuals (sewage, trash, CO2 and other gases, radioactive waste etc). ‘The environment has a limited capacity to absorb wastes without harmful effects. Once the ambient residuals rise above a certain level, however, they become unwanted inputs to other production processes or to final consumers. The size of these residual is in fact massive. In an economy which is closed, the weight of residuals ejected into the environment is about equal to the weight of input materials, plus oxygen taken from the atmosphere.’ This is a shock when you think about it, but his main point is that the market process breaks down when faced with this situation.
Surely this attitude to the natural environment as ‘external’ 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 [?commoditisation] 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, later).