Protecting the Planet... Updates and Extra notes... By weekly topics...

It is pretty difficult keeping up with all the news on the environment, even following one good newspaper such as the Guardian!

I try to add to these notes from time to time, and to use points from here when updating my teaching notes.

The entries are updates for the topic(s) for each week. They are arranged in chronological order, with oldest dates first.

Return to index page.

For the corresponding web page go to: protecting1



Week 1. Introduction: Smog, the ozone layer (first signs of environmental damage), DDT and Silent Spring, sewage and health [post war].    Computer models of the earth’s system – Limits to Growth. Planet earth as ecosystem – Gaia (alternative science?) [1970s]. {protecting1introduction]

March 2018. Population growth – Paul Ehrlich strikes again! Interview by Damian Carrington on 50th anniversary of his book The Population Bomb

The world’s optimum population is less than two billion people – 5.6 billion fewer than on the planet today, he argues, and there is an increasing toxification of the entire planet by synthetic chemicals that may be more dangerous to people and wildlife than climate change.

Ehrlich also says an unprecedented redistribution of wealth is needed to end the over-consumption of resources, but “the rich who now run the global system – that hold the annual ‘world destroyer’ meetings in Davos – are unlikely to let it happen”.

– to start with we must: ‘make modern contraception and back-up abortion available to all and give women full equal rights, pay and opportunities with men.’ This will take a long time to reduce the world’s population, which he estimates should be 1.5 – 2 billion, or 5.6 billion fewer than at present...

However, a letter 28th March 2018, from Prof. John MacInnes argues Ehrlich’s views are ‘discredited’ – ‘the birth rate in the developing world is now lower than it was in rich countries a few decades ago. ... the carrying capacity of our planet ... is almost certainly well above the likely peak of population that will be reached in the second half of this century. Reducing the vast global inequalities in energy consumption will do far more for the environment than the ultimately racist idea that the poor have too many children.’ 

See also: Oct 2020. Population:    by  Joel Millward-Hopkins

Postdoctoral Researcher in Sustainability, University of Leeds

A larger population does make it harder to treat the environment in the right way. But there’s no quick fix, as even the most conservative projections suggest a global population of over 8 billion by 2050.

Fortunately, in new research we found that using 60% less energy than today, decent living standards could be provided to a global population of 10 billion by 2050. That’s 75% less energy than the world is currently forecast to consume by 2050 on our present trajectory – or as much energy as the world used in the 1960s.

Jan 2020. 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:

and an article by Tom Oliver:

(See also The environmental movement and philosophies). 

6th June 2020. Bruno Latour interviewed by Jonathan Watts, The Observer.

The pandemic has shown us the economy is a very narrow and limited way of organising life and deciding who is important and who is not important. If I could change one thing, it would be to get out of the system of production and instead build a political ecology. 

We live in ‘the critical zone’ and not in ‘nature’ – ‘nature’ is too big, and messy...  The critical zone is limited. It is just a few kilometres thick – above and below the surface of the Earth. But all discovered life is within it... But when you think in terms of a critical zone, you are locked in, you cannot escape. What does it mean for politics if we are locked in and not in the infinite cosmology opened by Galileo? It means we cannot behave in the same way. It means we cannot just endlessly extract resources and discard our waste. In the critical zone, we must maintain what we have because it is finite, it’s local, it’s at risk and it’s the object of conflict. 

This seems to add a political edge to James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis, which explains how “Life” acts to maintain habitable conditions for itself. You have long been a champion of this theory…
Lovelock locked us in! While Galileo used a telescope to reveal that the Earth is part of an infinite universe, Lovelock used his electron capture detector to reveal that the Earth is completely different from any other planet because it has life. He and [Lynn] Margulis spotted Gaia. Lovelock from space, taking the question as globally as possible; Margulis from bacteria, taking the question from the other end, both realising that Life, capital L, has managed to engineer its own conditions of existence. For me that is the greatest discovery of this period, though it is still not very much accepted by mainstream science. This may be because we do not yet have the tools to receive it. ..

Your work has often challenged the objective, God’s-eye view of science. You argue convincingly that humanity cannot be so detached. But the political right have twisted this approach to undermine all expert knowledge on the climate and nature crises. Any regrets?
A critique of how science is produced is very different from the post-truth argument that there are alternative truths that you can choose from. Post-truth is a defensive posture. If you have to defend yourself against climate change, economic change, coronavirus change, then you grab at any alternative. If those alternatives are fed to you by thousands of fake news farms in Siberia, they are hard to resist, especially if they look vaguely empirical. If you have enough of them and they are contradictory enough, they allow you to stick to your old beliefs. But this should not be confused with rational scepticism.

Has the Covid-19 crisis affected our belief in science?
The virus has revealed the number of things you need to know to decide what is factual and what’s not. The public are learning a great deal about the difficulty of statistics, about experiment, about epidemiology. In everyday life, people are talking about degrees of confidence and margin of error. I think that’s good. If you want people to have some grasp of science, you must show how it is produced. Review of 1979 publication of Gaia by Tim Radford.

Once in a generation, perhaps, you get to read a book that will change the way we see the world. But it might take a whole generation to realise by how much.

The once-tentative Gaia hypothesis has become part of scientific orthodoxy and has been formally enshrined as the Gaia Theory, although in the US it has been dubbed Earth System Science.

Life may be the product of blind chance and opportune circumstance, but once it has established itself on a planet, it takes over. It manages the planet in ways that continue to sustain life in more or less optimum circumstances. That is why it may be a mistake to call Earth the Goldilocks planet: not too hot, not too cold, but just right. In fact, Earth's average temperature may be just right because life, by unconsciously manipulating the planet's oceanic and atmospheric chemistry, sets the thermostat that keeps its Earthly home within a temperature range that is comfortable for life.

On page 113 Lovelock reports, expressionlessly: "It has been predicted that the increase in carbon dioxide will act as a sort of gaseous blanket to keep the Earth warmer." On page 41, he addresses a different bubbling atmospheric anxiety by conceding: "There was of course at the time of the report a strange and disproportionate concern in America about stratospheric ozone. It might in the end prove to be prescient, but then as now it was a speculation based on very tenuous evidence."

It would be another six years before a British scientist identified the alarming hole in the ozone layer, and it was Lovelock himself who devised the instruments sensitive enough to detect levels of CFCs in the atmosphere. So at the time of writing the book he was right: ozone destruction was speculative, and the evidence was tenuous.

Similarly, it would be another nine years before global warming exploded as a political concern

24th Aug 2020. Book: The Scientific Attitude: defending science from denial, fraud and pseudoscience, by Lee McIntyre (MIT). Review by Steven Rose, Guardian.  Harks back to ‘What is the scientific attitude?’ by Hal Warrington, 1941: rational, disinterested, evidence-dependent and modern. It was opposed to the irrationality of Nazism, but shared many of the values of soviet communism (!). Disagrees with Popper, Re falsifying, as most scientists most of the time don’t do this. Also there is not one scientific method (experimental, observational). Key is sceptical respect for evidence as opposed to mere anecdote, belief or opinion, and willingness to change its mind when confronted with new data. Hence peer review and replication which show it is self-correcting. Challenges to science: fraud, such as Wakefield on MMR (he had a financial interest...); denial, such as ‘climate change is just a theory; pseudo-science, such as homeopathy...  Rose adds that scientists’ theories and use of data are not value-free and neutral, but shaped by the values of the society in which they are embedded. Commercial interests, for example, and pressure to publish, have transformed the scientific enterprise.

Feb.  2021 UN Environment Programme (UNEP) report (in HFoE folder): Making Peace with Nature

Antonio Guterres, UN Secretary General’s Foreword: ‘Humanity is waging war on nature. This is senseless and suicidal. The consequences of our recklessness are already apparent in human suffering, towering economic losses and the accelerating erosion of life on Earth’

Report is ‘a scientific blueprint to tackle the climate, biodiversity and pollution emergencies’