‘Protecting the Planet’, & ‘Wellcome to the Science of Protecting the Planet’

(WEA courses)


Introduction: a dawning of awareness


Return to Index page               

Updates and extra notes



1. Overview: how concerns have developed: industrialisation to 20th century:

1.1Humans and the environment from earliest times  #overview

1.2 Industrialisation (dark satanic mills; sewage and health) #industrialisation

1.3 Twentieth century: air pollution, smog (interactions), Clean Air Act 1955 #air pollution

1.4 “Silent Spring” (1962): chemical residues, the food chain #Silent Spring

1.5 “Limits to Growth” (1972): computer model of the earth as a system: #Limits to Growth


(ii) interconnections in a whole system population, resource depletion, production of food, and of goods, land, pollution,

(iii) #feedback loops

(iv) #

exponential growth.


1.6 Edward Goldsmith and Robert Allen published ‘A Blueprint for Survival’ in the magazine The Ecologist in 1972. #Blueprint

1.7 1980s: ‘acid rain’ (remedies...) #acid rain 

1.8 The ozone layer and CFCs – 1987 Montreal Protocol #ozone 


2. This and other examples also illustrate:

2.1 The unexpected consequences of new inventions and chemicals #unexpected consequences 

2.2 The need for the “precautionary principle” #precautionary principle  

2.3 The problem of time delays before corrective action reverses damage, #time delay 

2.4 The need for international action. #international action 


3. They also raise the question: what is it about our society that has led to environmental damage?

We will return to this question of ‘causes’ when we look at specific current instances, but here is a brief summary of some #causes:

3.1Industry (factories, mining, power stations)

3.2 Modern technology and chemicals (fridge coolants, pesticides)


However, in my view there are two fundamental causes which I shall deal with throughout this course:

3.3 Our way of thinking about ‘nature’ and the natural environment

3.4 Our ideas about economics, and especially what we mean by ‘value’


Other underlying causes we need to think about are:

3.5 Population growth - see Update (5)

3.6 Consumerism

3.7 Growth, profit and other aspects of our economy. See 5. Below.


4. New ways of thinking: Summary of Key Concepts:     #new thinking

4.1 Ecology and the ecosystem - living things interacting with each other & with their environment: #biodiversity à #balance and stability; non-hierarchical interdependency. [Also see Updates] #ecology  [See, for more detail, Species decline and biodiversity]

    Examples of inter-dependency, including the #wood-wide-web

4.2 A world model: the planet as balanced, closed ecosystem – #spaceship earth 

4.3 The Gaia hypothesis (James Lovelock 1979): earth as self-regulating system [see 6. Updates] #Gaia 


5. Economics, business, & the environment:          #economics and business 

5.1 Monetary values: how to put a price on quality of life? air, sea, rivers: free? #value 

5.2 ‘Externalities’/residuals - the market’s limitations.


6. Updates:

Update (1) Aug 2019, Ecosystems and ecological breakdown from UK Youth Climate Coalition.  #ecosystems  

Update (2) Demonstration of how environmental awareness is developing very quickly (in some places!) #growing awareness 

Update (3) The argument that we need new language to reflect the reality of ‘global heating’ and ‘the climate crisis’ #new language needed? 

Update (4)#Gaia 2.0

Update (5) Population growth




#acid rain                  #Blueprint for Survival       #Club of Rome       #feedback             #industrialisation           #ozone layer        #sewage #Silent Spring 


Key concepts:

#ecology     #economics and business  #exponential growth  #externalities       #Gaia [see also Updates]   #Limits to Growth

#Spaceship Earth      





1. Overview: how concerns have developed:  from industrialisation and into the 20th century: [see Updates for recent growing concern]


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.afarming 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 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 1956 in Britain. (A similar act was passed in the United States in 1970).


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 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, increased industrialisation, increasing 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. The whole is an ecosystem... (see #ecology at 4.1 below). 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 Guardian April 14th 2017 put it (reflecting my own experience): ‘I and my colleagues teaching general studies in FE spent some enlightening weeks with our students exploring the validity of the proposals. I also wrote to my MP asking what the government’s attitude was; I got a nondescript reply.’ (Ted Clark, Leamington Spa). I’m not sure I had many deep discussions about zero-growth, but we did start to challenge the dominant ideas about the economy, consumption etc.


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.

1.7 1980s: acid rain

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. Sulphur dissolved in water makes sulphuric acid. In Scandinavia and Eastern Europe, lakes have been made so acid that the fish die (with consequences for whatever or whoever normally would eat the fish); trees have been killed; and in cities, buildings begin to crumble as the acid eats away at the stonework. The added complication here is that the gases from chimneys are carried away in the wind, and the acid rain formed is most likely to fall on distant countries – so, more and more these days, there is an international dimension to the problem. It seems inevitable, if we are going to deal with this problem, that it cannot be left to business and industry alone, but government and international bodies must be involved.


- 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 Global Ocean, pub: Oneworld.]


We 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 Britain. But the sea is acid in places, and China has dirty emissions and acid rain, so it is still a problem…


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.

1.8 Case Study: The Ozone Layer:

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 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).

Oct 2017. BBC News – rising global emissions of some chlorine-containing chemicals could slow the recovery. Used in paint-stripping, PVC, e.g. dichloromethane.. these chemicals are short-lived but are still getting to the upper atmosphere. China a particular source.


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.


3. They also raise the question: what is it about our society that has led to environmental damage?


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

- consumerism

- 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...


Update, May 2020: Another astonishing relationship has recently been discovered, between acacia plants and ants. The ants live on and in the stems of the plants, and when the plant is threatened the ants send out an acidic liquid that stings and scares off the predator. They have even been known to attack large predators such as giraffe!



On the other hand, in order to stop the ants eating the flowers on the plant, it produces a chemical the ants cannot stand, keeping the ants off the flowers!


Jan 2020. Biodiversity – extraordinary inter-dependence: Another example of the incredible inter-relationship between different living things - ants and aphids:

The pale giant oak aphid (stomaphis wojciechowskii) has only recently been discovered. It is looked after by brown ants (lasius brunneus): The ants build structures on the trees out of mosses, lichens and the exoskeletons of beetles. These act as a ‘barn’ to keep the aphids in, where they are milked to extract sugary water for the ants. If the aphids are disturbed, the ants move them down the tree to their underground shelters – they carry the little ones in their jaws. They keep the aphids underground in severe weather, and march the aphids up the tree when summer comes. The ants are classified as ‘nationally notable’ and the aphids are probably rare, as there have only been a few locations where they have been found. (Patrick Barkham, 25th Jan 2020).

Update June 2020. The ‘wood-wide web’: https://www.ecowatch.com/trees-communicate-2646209343.html?rebelltitem=7#rebelltitem7  

How trees and fungi benefit from each other...


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 argued differently by Lord May of Oxford – see update below]. 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.


Update, May 2020. Obituary of Lord May of Oxford who was chief scientific advisor to the government 1995 – 2000, says that in his book Stability and Complexity in Model Ecosystems he ‘showed mathematically that in a system with multiple species competing for resources, the more species there were, the less stable was the system as a whole. This theoretical challenge provoked numerous field studies, concluding that diverse systems were generally more stable in the real world, but that stability depended critically on the nature of the relationships (such as predator and prey) within the community. Even diverse environments, such as rainforests and coral reefs, can still be highly vulnerable to changes they have not evolved to withstand.’



(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.


Update: a recent book: The Self Delusion, by Tom Oliver, argues – using scientific evidence – that we ourselves are not separate individuals but parts of a physical and cultural ecosystem. Our bodies are made of atoms and molecules that have existed elsewhere, we are occupied by bacteria (38tn cells are bacteria and fungi – a larger number than the other cells in the body). Our brains are a collection of pathways (a ‘connectome’...) always being shaped by the world around us. As Susan Greenfield puts it – identity is an activity not a state. We need, he argues, to re-think our sense of identity in order to deal with the problems that face us now – especially the ecological problems!


Review of The Self delusion by Richard Kereridge: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/jan/18/the-self-delusion-tom-oliver-review


and an article by Tom Oliver: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/jan/16/the-age-of-the-individual-must-end-tom-oliver-the-self-delusion


(See also The environmental movement and philosophies). 



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 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.


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!)


Putting a value on nature?


In 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 Sheffield over the council’s cutting down of 50 mature trees. One of the old elms is home to a colony of a rare butterfly species, the white-letter hairstreak.



He 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 Sheffield trees (in Chestnut Avenue) are worth 2.6m, while the new trees would only be worth £50,000 – £100,000. If big tees are replaced by saplings, the trees lose their beneficial effects on flooding alleviation and reduction of pollution.

An American method of calculating value – i-Tree – could be used; this gives a value of £133m to London’s trees.


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. I will deal with arguments about ‘growth’ and the environment elsewhere...


He concludes: ‘The environmental crisis demands a new ethics, politics and economics.’ I couldn’t agree more!


Valuing Water:

In a ‘round table’ discussion (Guardian 13th Sep 2016, Katherine Purvis report) the problem of water shortages is discussed: ‘The panel was unanimous that, at present, water is not valued in the way it should be. Lack of awareness from industry, agriculture and domestic users was suggested as a likely cause.’  Where there has been drought people realise the value of water – otherwise they don’t. So, ‘Valuing Nature’ – a sustainability consultancy – says we need to ‘understand the value of water in terms of the cost of delivering it in socially equitable, environmentally sustainable and economically beneficial ways.’ That is, understanding the total cost would lead to more effective investment.

Other points made here were: ‘Agriculture is the largest consumer and the largest polluter of water’ (Paul Reig, World Resources Institute) but ‘it’s difficult to ask farmers to pay for water when they struggle to make a living due to market crises of the commodities or crops they produce.’ (Precisely!)

This is the crux of the problem, I would argue: the environment needs to be protected and scarce natural resources need to be valued, but the market is a mechanism that only works with regard to things that have a price. Private property has a price or value, but public goods don’t. This needs to change!


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.


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 (in John Barr (ed.), The Environmental Handbook, London: Ballantine/Friends of the Earth, 1971, 83—93, p.) 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).



Week 1 Updates:

Update (1) Aug 2019, Ecosystems and ecological breakdown from UK Youth Climate Coalition.  #ecosystems

Update (2) Demonstration of how environmental awareness is developing very quickly (in some places!) #growing awareness

Update (3) The argument that we need new language to reflect the reality of ‘global heating’ and ‘the climate crisis’ #new language needed?

Update (4)#Gaia 2.0

Update (1)

Aug 2019, Ecosystems and ecological breakdown from UK Youth Climate Coalition.  https://theecologist.org/2019/aug/27/system-change-youth-activism

Ecosystems - defined as ‘all the living things in an area and the way they affect each other and the environment’ - are central to how the natural world functions.

They depend on something referred to as ‘dynamic equilibrium’ for stability. That is to say, through constant rebalancing, a stable ecosystem can thrive.

The threats to balance in an ecosystem may be a natural disaster or the spread of disease, for example, but are also human interference and habitat destruction. Around the globe, human activity threatens the fine balance of the ecosystems that all life on earth, including our own, depends on.


Throughout history these ecosystems have been impacted, devalued, and devastated by human influence, as have the human and animal lives which directly depend on them.

The scale of this damage has increased in line with an industrialised, and increasingly powerful global society, and in the past century catastrophic and at times irreversible changes have taken place.

However, only relatively recently have large numbers of people in the Global North become actively engaged with the issue.

To those not directly impacted, widely available media on social networks, news articles, documentaries — such as the widely-acclaimed Netflix series ‘Our Planet’ — have brought the reality of ecological breakdown home to an audience of concerned viewers.

Images of bleached coral reefs devoid of life, seabirds dripping in oil, and walruses crammed onto tiny remnants of ice sheets demonstrate the severity of currently unfolding ecosystem impacts.


This societal shift in understanding is having implications in the political sphere, with grassroots social movements such as the UK Student Climate Network’s #YouthStrike4Climate and Extinction Rebellion gaining increasing prominence.

This has been coupled with headline-dominating reports from the UN climate change panel (IPCC), which highlights the urgent requirement for action, now crystallised in the common-place use of the term ‘emergency’.

In this spirit, our parliamentarians in the UK have brought the climate and ecological crisis to the House of Commons a number of times in the form of debates and interventions, while voting to pass a symbolic parliamentary climate emergency motion. However, much more still needs to be done.

Furthermore, 2019 has seen a spike in reporting on unfolding environmental damage, with climate and environmental issues polling at their highest in terms of societal concerns in the UK.

Disasters and extreme weather can be the most obvious forms of climate change, and spark conversations in the social and political worlds.


Examples of this include the extreme water shortages in the cities of Chennai, India and Cape Town, South Africa, home to millions and millions of people. Thousands more of these disasters, particularly in the Global South, don’t even make it to our headlines.

Hurricanes and tropical storms become more ‘energetic’ as the planet warms, and have devastating impacts on humans and nature.

The impact that they have is not just due to the warming planet however, but is also due to the relative poverty and emergency structures in place where they land. Partly due to this, the same hurricane can have a deadly impact as it lands in Haiti, and continue on to the USA to inflict only material damage to buildings.

As this blog series progresses, we will continue to explore the interaction between the ‘ecosystems’ (the natural world) and the ‘political systems’ of our world, showing how they are in fact a single, global system. The current, dominant political system, not only devalues nature, but also values certain lives over others.

It’s easy to get lost in all of the headlines that spell out devastating and often unimaginable global destruction. A lot of the media doesn’t really break down the on-the-ground situation, how our ecosystems that comprise the natural world are being destroyed, so we’re going to try and do our best at just that.


Life on Earth is currently experiencing the 6th mass extinction event in its history. The previous event occurred around 66 million years ago, wiping out around 75 percent of all species on earth. Shockingly, a #2018 report found that since 1970, humans have wiped out 60 percent of animal populations on Earth.

The primary direct cause of this destruction is the clearing of forests and other habitats to make way for agriculture (especially beef, and cereal crops) and for the production of commodities such as palm oil and rubber.

The unsustainable use of habitat destroying and non-discriminant fishing techniques are also emptying the seas of fish, while agriculture is polluting the soils and waters with chemicals.

So though climate breakdown is having an increasingly deadly impact on our ecosystems, it is not alone, but sits among other leading causes such as agricultural practices, resource extraction, and air and water pollution.

The natural world is threatened by all of these, all of them are worsened by human activity, and so all interact with our ‘political system’.


Meanwhile, other industries such as fossil fuels and fashion sectors are also having immense impacts on ecosystems as companies compete to extract and harvest resources. As a result, UN’s Global Assessment Report states that “nature and its vital contributions to people” are “deteriorating worldwide”.

But what does that mean to young people across the world? We can live without nature right? WRONG.

Nature’s contributions to human life are invaluable and often irreplaceable. Whether it’s the air we breathe, the water we drink or the food we eat, we need the natural world. We are part of the natural world, not outside or above it — and like all life on Earth, we depend on it for survival.

So when we talk about nature, the natural world and how it sustains life on the planet, these are referred to as ‘ecosystem services’. As defined by the UK National Ecosystem Assessment:

Put in these terms, it seems obvious that we can’t do without them, and we certainly shouldn’t be doing anything to the natural world that may jeopardise such services.


However, as demonstrated previously, we’re destroying nature at such an alarming rate that our ecosystems, and the services they provide are very much at risk.  Though we can understand ecosystems to exist in a state of flux, change at this rate outstrips many species’ ability to adapt.

These species and ecosystems have intrinsic value (meaning that they have value regardless of the outside world, there is something within them which gives them value). However the role they play in human systems can be described through such services, to help us understand how systems can interact.

In the next blog, the sociopolitical systems we inhabit are explored further, allowing us to dissect the relationships between the two.

One system, our economic system, based upon continuous growth through the extraction of resources from the Earth, is putting dangerous stress on the ecosystems supporting life on our planet.

It’s even framing the very way we refer to nature, through phrases such as ‘ecosystem services’. Ensuring that balance can grow, that the natural world isn’t destroyed beyond repair, and that all life and all lives are valued, will require a shift in our economic, political and social modes of organising, in other words, system change.

This article

This article has been written by members of the UK Youth Climate Coalition for The Ecologist.

Update (2)

Demonstration of how environmental awareness is developing very quickly (in some places!):

From one day (Weds. 26th) in June 2019 in the Guardian:

1. Southern Water faces prosecution, and has had a penalty of a £3m fine, and £123m to be paid to customers as compensation, after failures at sewage treatment sites that polluted rivers and beaches. (Julia Kollewe)

2. Al Gore warns that the global economy needs a fundamental upgrade to become more sustainable, and to survive the ecological crisis and widening social divides. (Jilian Ambrose) From annual report of Generation Investment Management (founded 2004). Rising use of fossil fuels and unsustainable food and meat production are accelerating the climate crisis while driving a global healthcare breakdown. Global obesity levels are rising in line with a growing global appetite for meat and packaged foods. The growing divide between rich and poor risks encouraging populist politics and geopolitical instability.

3. Biffa Waste Services Ltd has been convicted of illegally sending contaminated materials to China (claiming it was paper). Seven 25-tonne containers were stopped from leaving Felixstowe. Environment Agency is prosecuting the company. Sentencing has been deferred to September 27th. (Sandra Laville)

4. A study has shown that government action can cut air pollution – early deaths in the UK linked to air pollution have fallen by half between 1970 and 2010. But air pollution is the number one environmental health hazard, causing as much harm as alcohol. Cleaning up power stations (sulphur dioxide fell sharply) and vehicles, contributed (small particles and NO2 – EU regulations helped). But ammonia from farms is still a major hazard. Published by Environmental Research Letters. Charging vehicles to enter city centres is effective, government research shows – though govt says should be only last resort... Enabling people to walk, cycle and use public transport – also cutting down on meat consumption – would help health and the climate crisis. (Damian Carrington).

5. France is failing to deliver on its promises to cut emissions – from France’s independent advisory council on climate (HCC). Paris needs to tackle car use, and building renovation. Rate of decrease of carbon emissions needs to triple by 2025 to meet target of net zero by 2050. No real decrease in emissions from transport in the last 10 years. (Angelique Chrisafis)

6. Meanwhile Europe faces hottest June on record, due to climate crisis. (Jon Henley).

7. Plastic pollution is forming a kind of crust on rocks on the Portuguese island of Madeira – researchers call it ‘plasticrust’ – blue and grey patches looking like melted plastic, first spotted in 2016, and since have been spreading. Made of polyethylene... (AP Lisbon).

8. Philip Alston, UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights warns the world is increasingly at risk of ‘climate apartheid’ where the rich pay to escape heat and hunger while the rest of the world suffers. Alston’s report to the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) says measures being taken to tackle climate crisis are ‘patently inadequate’ and he condemns Trump for ‘actively silencing’ climate science. Positive developments are: legal cases taken against states and fossil fuel companies, also Greta Thunberg’s activism and Extinction Rebellion. Developing countries will bear an estimated 75% of the costs of the climate crisis, despite the poorest half of the world’s population only causing 10% of carbon dioxide emissions. (Damian Carrington).

Update (3)

The argument that we need new language to reflect the reality of ‘global heating’ and ‘the climate crisis’:

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/jun/16/urgency-climate-crisis-robust-new-language-guardian-katharine-viner - new terminology needed!

Update (4)

‘Gaia 2.0’ – a term devised by Tim Lenton (Exeter Uni and Bruno Latour (Sciences Po). Humans are in control of ‘the system’ (which was originally self-regulating). 

Update (5)

Population growth. Following Guardian editorial 24th July 2020, there were letters from:

- Alastair Currie of Population Matters arguing for smaller families because increased population and consumption would lead to ‘even more profound challenges including crashing biodiversity, hunger, poverty and worsening climate change.’

Joe Williams, dept of geography Durham Uni, and Caitlin Robinson, dept of geography and planning, Liverpool Uni: Malthus’s predictions never transpired because he ‘ignored the role of technology in increasing resource use efficiency’, but he also ‘overlooked the fact that there are huge inequalities in resource consumption, and it is these inequalities that are to blame for crises such as famine’. Wealthy countries have often used population as a way of blaming developing countries for environmental problems. But per capita emissions are the only morally defensible way of measuring environmental damage, and a report in India 1991 called out ‘environmental colonialism.’ ‘Global Justice Now rightly describes the overpopulation debate as fuelled by eugenics and racism.’

- Martin Pask from York cites The Spirit Level by Wilkinson and Picket. Inequality needs dealing with!