Protecting the Planet

(a WEA course)

3. Examples/cases and alternative solutions.



Imagining Other Home Page


Protecting the planet 1: Introduction          Protecting the Planet 2: some key industries          Protecting the Planet 4: alternative strategies

Protecting the Planet 6: global warming (i) causes         Protecting the Planet 7: global warming (ii) possible effects        

Protecting the Planet 8: species decline      Protecting the Planet 9: energy policies           Protecting the Planet 10: the environmental movement


These notes are a development of earlier notes on corporate responsibility to the environment: CSR 6 environment

SUMMARY: Different Possible Solutions to sample problems:

Note: different possible solutions are grouped in a similar way to the different approaches explained in Protecting 4:

(a) (i) individual or voluntary level, lifestyle choices, (ii) socially responsible business/industry

(b) government policies and regulations (local or national), including lobbyists

(c) pressure groups’ aims and more radical ideas.

Sample problems: 1. air pollution, 2. agriculture and the soil, 3. bees, 4. biodiversity, 5. waste – including plastics.


1. Air pollution (acid rain, ozone layer) #air

1.1 Causes (recap): internal combustion engine, factories (smelting), power stations, aircraft. Wood-burning stoves.

1.2 A world-wide problem. Millions die. Poor countries suffer most.

1.3 Deaths: 40,000 a year in UK, 9,000 in London, and costing £22.6bn. Nearly 40 million people are living in areas with illegal levels of air pollution.

1.4 New links being found between air pollution and: dementia, diabetes, kidney disease, mental illness, climate change.

1.5 Possible solutions:

(a) individual, industrial levels:

(i) gas fires rather than coal (less sulphur), drive less often if at all – walk or cycle, or get an electric car! Buses and trains are cleaner. No idling! Car-free roads outside schools

(ii) scrubbers in factory chimneys, in cars: catalytic converters (remove nitrogen oxides), electric and hybrid cars, cleaner buses. But ‘Dieselgate’... 

(b) local and central government and EU: smoother traffic-flows, ‘air quality action plans’, monitoring stations, regulations on emissions (Euro-6). (Clean Air Zones). Car pool lanes, priority parking for electric cars. Cleaning up company/local authority fleets, etc. Scrappage schemes.

2009: Caroline Lucas attacked the government for not meeting EU P10 limits (should have been met in 2005).

(c) Stop Killing Londoners – Week of action – Tower Bridge, Brixton, 1 hour blockade of London Bridge – 7 people arrested – (5th July 2017).

Opposition to expansion of Heathrow. Direct action. Extinction Rebellion (see later).

 2. Agriculture and the soil: #agriculture

Causes: damage from over-ploughing and use of fertilizers and monocultures, removal of hedges and ‘wild’ areas, removal of trees, hedges, shrubs; loss to buildings, roads etc; over-ploughing, over-use of nitrogen fertilisers, pesticides

Possible solutions: (a) reduction in use of chemicals, and less ploughing; more localism (b) planning for ‘green infrastructure’; (c) organic methods, not national parks?

 3. Bees: #bees

Causes: threats to habitat, intensive farming, loss of wildflower meadows, disease, pesticides (especially neonicotinoids) – colony collapse disorder. Neonics affect bees’ sense of direction, ability to communicate (waggle dance), reproduction, ability to shake out pollen...

Possible solutions: (a) more flowers including wild flowers in gardens, less use of pesticides; more meadows and edges of fields for wild flowers, natural methods of pest control; (b) controls on pesticides; (c) less monoculture, more organic, oppose multinationals

International controls and other dangerous chemicals, e.g. herbicide atrazine – an endocrine disruptor. The LD50 test (dose required to kill half the population tested), reference dose (‘safe’ level for human consumption, and other controversies over safe levels

 4. Biodiversity decline and species extinction#biodiversity   (see also Protecting 8).  

1 in 10 species in the UK is threatened with extinction, and worldwide there is significant decline:

Causes: habitat loss through urbanization, intensive farming, pesticides, climate change.

Solutions: (a) conservation, reserves, (b) re-wilding (return to recent normal) (c) re-wilding (return to older ecology)

5 Waste: 

Food waste: in the UK we send 10m tonnes of waste a year to landfill sites. Of this, 60% is food, a quarter of which is reckoned to be edible. 200,000 tonnes of the food waste comes from seven major supermarkets. 70% of produce is dumped by producers and retailers before it even gets to the stores. Each adult throws away over £400 of food a year (plus a further £400+ in packaging).

Electronics, #water, #plastics, PCBs, POPs.

Solutions: (a) consumer awareness, (b) regulations, fines (c) rejection of consumerism.



1. Air pollution

1.1 Recap of causes: internal combustion engine, factories (especially smelting & cement manufacturing), mining, construction, power stations, aircraft. Recent fog in London was partly caused by increased use of wood-burning stoves.   

1.2 Air pollution worldwide: moving the focus on from cars in the developed world, it is worth looking at the world-wide picture: air pollution kills approx. 9 million people a year worldwide, of which 800,000 due solely to coal burning. (Commission on Pollution and Health report in Lancet, 20th Oct 2017, Prof Philip Landrigan Mt Sinai Univ NY, and Richard Fuller, Pure Earth charity (Guardian, Damian Carrington). More people worldwide die of dirty air than of HIV/Aids, malaria and flu combined (Hadassah Egbedi, 13th Feb 2017).

This costs trillions of dollars every year, and ‘threatens the survival of human societies.’ Air pollution causes more deaths than water, soil and workplace pollution. The deaths are three times those for Aids, malaria and TB combined.

(Water/sewage pollution kills 1.8m; workplace pollution: 800,000; lead: 500,000).

Low-income countries suffer 92% of pollution-related deaths. (India: 2.5m; China: 1.8m; Russia and US in the top 10).

Workplace pollution: UK, Japan and Germany all in top 10. 

Air pollution deaths in south-east Asia could double by 2050.

Traditional pollution deaths, from contaminated water and wood cooking fires are falling, but ‘modern’ forms (fossil fuels) are rising.

1.3 The UK:

Deaths: 40,000 a year in UK, 9,000 in London, and costing £22.6bn. Nearly 40 million people are living in areas with illegal levels of air pollution.

UN report 31st Oct 2017: air in 44 UK cities and towns is unsafe according to WHO standards for PM2.5 (10 micrograms per cubic metre of air – EU level is 25). Glasgow has 16, London, Southampton and Leeds 15, Cardiff, Birmingham and Oxford 14, Manchester 13. 

The most obvious damage done is to cause asthma and lung disease. The High Court ruled in May 2019 that the death of Ella Kissi-Debrah 6 years ago could be linked to air pollution. High Court rules this can be considered at a new inquest. The South Circular road had levels of nitrogen dioxide and particulates that breached legal limits for much of the time Ella was ill.  (Guardian 3rd May 2019, Sandra Laville).

1.4 New links such as air pollution and dementia, diabetes and kidney disease are still being found:

Aug 2019. Air pollution linked to mental illness (Nicola Davis):

People who spend their childhood in areas with high levels of air pollution may be more likely to later develop mental disorders, research suggests. Air pollution has become a matter of growing concern as an increasing number of studies have found links to conditions ranging from asthma to dementia and various types of cancer. There are also signs it may take a toll on mental health. Research published in January found that children growing up in the more polluted areas of London were more likely to have depression by the age of 18 than those growing up in areas with cleaner air. But a study by researchers in the US and Denmark has suggested a link between air pollution and an increased risk of mental health problems, including bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and personality disorders.

Between 1% and 2% of the UK population have bipolar disorder in their lifetime, with similar figures for schizophrenia. It is estimated that about 5% of people in the UK have a personality disorder at any one time. Prof Andrey Rzhetsky, a co-author of the research at the University of Chicago, in the journal PLOS Biology,

Note also that there are links between how we treat the atmosphere and climate change: CO2 is a greenhouse gas, but so is NO2; and the built environment (especially cement in buildings) contributes 40% of greenhouse gases. To be dealt with later…

1.5 Possible solutions:

(a) (i) at the individual level:

- drive less often if at all – walk or cycle, or get an electric car! Buses and trains are less polluting (because more passengers per mile). Walking/cycling is more healthy anyway, and Dr Toby Hillman of Royal College of Physicians says government needs do more about cycling and walking.

- for householders: using gas rather than coal (less sulphur) for fires

- nearly two-thirds of teachers would support car-free roads outside schools during drop-off and pick-up times, according to Sustrans (Guardian Mon 25th March 2019). 43% of teachers are also concerned about idling...

(ii) industry: scrubbers in factory chimneys cleaned up emissions somewhat.

- in cars: catalytic converters (remove nitrogen oxides), electric and hybrid cars, cleaner buses

But motor manufacturers have been known to cheat: ‘Dieselgate’

Timeline from France24.com:

2014 - US researchers at the University of West Virginia discover that certain VW diesel cars emit up to 40 times the permissible levels of harmful nitrogen oxide when tested on the road.

- 2015 - September 18: The US Environmental Protection Agency accuses VW of duping diesel emissions tests using so-called "defeat devices". September 22: Volkswagen admits installing software designed to reduce emissions during lab tests in 11 million diesel engines worldwide. VW shares plunge by 40 percent in two days. September 23: Chief executive Martin Winterkorn steps down but insists he knew nothing of the scam.

- 2016 - April 22: VW announces a net loss for 2015, its first in 20 years, after setting aside billions to cover the anticipated costs of the scandal. June 28: VW agrees to pay $14.7 billion in buybacks, compensation and penalties in a mammoth settlement with US authorities. The deal, which covers 2.0 litre diesel engines only, includes cash payouts for nearly 500,000 US drivers. September 21: The first VW investors file lawsuits in a German court seeking billions in damages. They accuse the automaker of failing to communicate about the crisis in a timely way. December 8: The European Commission launches legal action against seven EU nations including Germany for failing to crack down on emissions cheating.

- 2017 - January 11: VW pleads guilty to three US charges including fraud and agrees to pay $4.3 billion in civil and criminal fines. As part of the plea deal, VW signs up to a "statement of facts" in which it admits that the cheating dates back to 2006, but it remains unclear how much the top brass knew about the scam. January 27: German prosecutors say they are investigating Winterkorn on suspicion of fraud, accusing him of knowing about the defeat devices earlier than admitted. He is already under investigation for suspected market manipulation over the scandal.

February 1: Car parts maker Bosch, which supplied elements of the software, agrees to pay nearly $330 million to US car owners and dealers but admits no wrongdoing. VW says it will pay at least $1.2 billion to compensate some 80,000 US buyers of 3.0 litre engines as well as buying back or refitting their vehicles. August 25: A Michigan court sentences VW engineer James Liang to 40 months in prison and a $200,000 fine, after he pleads guilty to conspiracy to defraud the US and to violating the US Clean Air Act. He had asked for a more lenient sentence after cooperating with investigators. December 6: VW executive Oliver Schmidt, who was arrested while on holiday in Florida, is sentenced to seven years in jail after pleading guilty to fraud and violating the US Clean Air Act.

2018 - February 23: VW roars back to profit after record sales in 2017. February 27: A German court paves the way for cities to ban the oldest diesels from their roads to combat air pollution. April 12: VW brand chief Herbert Diess hastily replaces CEO Matthias Mueller after he too lands in prosecutors' sights. April 20: A top manager at Porsche, a VW subsidiary, is arrested in Germany as part of "dieselgate" inquiries. May 3: Winterkorn is indicted in the US, accused of trying to cover up the cheating. June 13: VW agrees to pay a one-billion-euro fine in Germany, admitting its responsibility for the diesel crisis. The scandal has now cost the group over 27 billion euros. June 18: Rupert Stadler, CEO of VW's Audi subsidiary, is arrested in Germany, accused of fraud and trying to suppress evidence.

All this shows that industry has to be pushed into making changes!

From the Independent 2nd May 2019: Volkswagen said the diesel emissions scandal has now cost the company €30bn (£25bn). The German car maker’s chief financial officer revealed the figure on Thursday alongside a 10 per cent fall in quarterly profits. The group set aside a further €1bn to cover legal costs associated with the scandal, which was first revealed in 2015. VW admitted that it had cheated tests to make its vehicles appear less polluting than they were. 

After-tax profit fell to €3bn from €3.3bn in the same quarter a year ago. Group revenues revenue rose 3.1 per cent to €60bn as sales volumes fell but profit margins rose. Mr Wittner said that earnings were under pressure from high outlays for the company’s future lineup of battery vehicles, but said that was “without alternatives”.

The company is pivoting to zero-local emissions vehicles to meet lower EU limits on greenhouse gas emissions. The company expects to begin production later this this year of the battery-powered ID hatchback at its plant in Zwickau in eastern Germany.    So, some progress in the end?

(b) at local/national government level:

Clearly government and local authorities need to be involved in making these changes easier.

Local authorities: cycling routes. Public Health England called for promoting car pool lanes, and providing priority parking for electric cars. Others have called for scrappage schemes (to encourage selling of cars – could also be used to encourage public transport by use of tokens)

Examples: Government (and EU) regulations on emissions, local authority ‘air quality action plans’, smoother traffic-flows, cleaning up older buses, and company/local authority fleets, low emission zones, monitoring stations etc


2009: Mayor Johnson took various measures: hybrid buses, smoother traffic-flows, cycling, opposing expansion of Heathrow. But nationally we are not doing anything. Caroline Lucas attacked the government for not meeting EU P10 limits (should have been met in 2005).

1st Feb 2017: Example: (Times): Cornwall may use compulsory purchases to get to move away from polluted areas! NICE (National Inst for Health and Care Excellence) recommends: average speed cameras on A roads, new homes and schools away from polluted areas, ‘no idling zones’ especially outside schools, hedgerows between cycle paths and roads, and cyclists allowed to pass quickly where vehicles idle, councils ‘should consider the impact of speed humps (?), roadside noise barriers and street trees which can trap pollutants beneath their canopies.’

EU: 16th Feb 2017: Britain has been sent a final warning to comply with EU air pollution limits or be taken to the European Court of Justice. Heavy fines could follow. 40 – 50,000 people die prematurely from respiratory, cardiovascular and other illnesses associated with air pollution (NO2, particulates and ozone).

NB Germany, Italy, France and Spain were also served with final warnings, and 23 of the EU’s 28 countries have breached limits – including 130 cities. Britain has been resisting the laws though.

May 2017: government admits defeat in its avoiding publishing its air quality plans, having been sued by ClientEarth founded by James Thornton. ClientEarth argue the government has put off any action until 2025.  It took the government to court to get it to publish a plan by the end of 2015, but it was such a poor plan that they went to court again and the government had to improve it and publish a better plan by April 2017. They had tried to get it postponed until after the elections (i.e. September) but they were again ruled against by the courts.


2nd August 2017. George Monbiot: cars have a chokehold on Britain. More roads is not an answer as more roads induces more traffic (known since 1937). There is even an economic danger now as more people take out purchasing plans to get new cars – more debt... Government claims high level of NO2 only affects some streets but there are thousands of streets in Britain and only 300 monitoring stations. Clean Air Zones: local authorities can introduce them when other measures have been tried, and when ‘compliance’ is reached they must be closed down...


The government’s proposal of no more new diesel or petrol cars by 2040 is pointless: a child born today will be 23 by then and their lungs will have been damaged already. The Dutch bank ING predicts all new cars in Europe will be electric by 2035. [And, I ask, what about all the existing diesel and petrol cars?]


25th August 2017: a report by the Green alliance, supported by CAFOD, Christian Aid, Greenpeace, RSPB and WWF, proposes all new cars and vans to be emissions-free by 2030. This would also reduce imports of foreign oil by 51%In 2016 transport accounted for 40% of UK’s total energy consumption, of which 75% was road transport. Other countries such as Norway, India, are further ahead in switching to electric vehicles. New jobs would be created in the new technology and in green technologies generally.


Oct 2017 – toxicity charge in London: from later this month (October 2017) drivers of cars registered in 2005 or earlier that do not meet Euro 4 standard will have to pay £10 daily to enter central London, on top of the £11.50 congestion charge. London introduced the world’s first T-charge (toxicity charge) - the toughest emission standard of any major city - and will introduce the Ultra Low Emissions Zone to operate alongside the congestion charge. Will affect up to 10,000 vehicles – those that do not meet Euro 4 standards, that is. typically registered before 2006. It will operate on top of the congestion charge, so: £21.50 a day between 7 am and 6 pm on weekdays. It should reduce NOx emissions by 45% (Sadiq Khan, Nov 2018) Government needs to ‘stop burying their heads in the sand over this invisible killer. It is shocking that they have been taken to court three times over their inability to bring pollution down to safe levels – and have lost every time.’ Cities need more funding and more powers. We need a modern Clean Air and Environment Act.


March 2019, PHE report, and 2 letters to the Guardian:

Cars should be banned from idling near schools and congestion charges imposed across the UK as part of measures recommended by the government public health agency. In a report on Monday, Public Health England (PHE) said up to 36,000 people were dying each year from human-made air pollution.

It also pointed to emerging evidence of air pollution causing dementia, low birth weight and diabetes.

In a 263-page review of the options for improving air quality [pdf] the report calls for on councils to introduce no-idling zones outside schools and hospitals; the imposition of more congestion charges and low emission zones; and the development of a vehicle-charging infrastructure to promote a “step-change” in the uptake of electric cars.

The review favours measures that improve the air quality for as many people as possible, such as the wide implementation of low emission zones, rather than a focus on local pollution hotspots.

It also called for action against the sources of air pollution such as highly polluting vehicles and wood-burning stoves.

Prof Paul Cosford, the director for health protection and medical director of PHE, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I’m a doctor, I see a figure of 35,000 to 40,000 people each year dying as a result of the harm that is caused by air pollution.”

Calling for more urgency, he said: “If we were having a conversation about 30,000 people dying each year because of a polluted water supply, I think we would have a very different conversation. It would be about: ‘what do we need to do now and how quickly can we do it?’”

Cosford added: “Technologies are available, the things that we need to do we know about, so this is a matter of how we take this issue as seriously as we need to, and how we move the technologies and the planning and all of that into reality so we actually deal with this problem for us and for future generations.”

The review stops short of suggesting banning cars from the school run. Asked about the idea, Cosford said: “I do think that if we consider this to be an issue of future generations, for our children, let’s have a generation of children brought up free from the scourge and the harms of air pollution. And that does then take you to ‘what can we do about making sure schools are at least as clean as possible?’

“We should stop idling outside schools, we should make sure children can walk or cycle to school, and we should make sure that schools work with their parents about how they can do their best for this.”

In the US, the Dieselgate scandal has resulted in prosecutions against VW personnel and multibillion dollar fines (Where’s there’s smoke, 22 March).

In Europe, no one has been charged and nobody has gone to jail, though the EU commission has threatened action against the UK government for failing to prosecute VW.

Defeat devices result in higher emissions of nitrogen dioxide, but the real danger from a health perspective are small particulates, notably the ultra-fine nanoparticles that can penetrate tissue, reach a placenta and cross the blood-brain barrier. These are largely present in exhaust emissions, so while all vehicles generate particulates from tyres and brakes, researchers have demonstrated that medical effects such as low birth weight are tied more closely to exhaust particulates than to friction particulates. This is important as the government likes to pretend that all particulates are equivalent, regardless of the source. Thus its clean air strategy emphasises the contribution of secondary particulates generated from agriculture etc, even though these contain little in the way of ultra-fine particles. It is disheartening that the UK government seems more anxious to protect the interests of car manufacturers than the health of its own citizens, but this situation is likely to worsen post-Brexit.
Dr Robin Russell-Jones Scientific adviser, Geraint Davies MP Chair, All-party parliamentary group on air pollution

The proposals from Public Health England (PHE) that you reported (Ban cars from idling near schools, says UK public health agency, theguardian.com, 11 March) are welcome – positive action against all sources of air pollution, such as such as highly polluting vehicles and wood-burning stoves, is undoubtedly essential. However, I regret that PHE’s proposals on idling are not fully thought through.

Of course, an idling vehicle will emit more CO2 and use more fuel than one that is switched off, but that is not the whole story. Other pollutants such as particulates, NOx, unburned fuel and carbon monoxide are carefully controlled on modern vehicles by filters and catalysts – and catalysts do not work when they are cold, and take some time to come up to temperature.

The studies mentioned by PHE in its report advocating anti-idling do not consider most of these other pollutants, and there is a real risk of unintended harm, as emissions on start-up (whether warm or cold) often form a substantial part of the total emissions from a vehicle’s journey. A study from the US Department of Energy showed that a vehicle would have to be idling for 10 minutes or three hours to emit as much NOx or carbon monoxide (respectively) as a single (warm) restart. There is a significant need for more research in this area – particularly on modern vehicles that use substantial levels of exhaust gas after treatment to control emissions.

There is a serious need to tackle air pollution, but to do so effectively will requires coherent interdisciplinary engagement and evidence-based policy making. The PHE document is a well-intentioned start, but we have a long way to go. Dr Felix Leach. Associate professor of engineering science, Shell-Pocock fellow and tutor, Keble College, University of Oxford

(c) pressure groups and more radical:

Radical:  Stop Killing Londoners – Week of action – Tower Bridge, Brixton, 1 hour blockade of London Bridge – 7 people arrested – another demo tomorrow (5th July 2017).

Opposing expansion of Heathrow: Heathrow etc: (9th Jan 2017 Andrew Simms G2) and global warming: 70% of all flights by UK residents are accounted for by just 15% of the population.

Direct action... Extinction Rebellion (see later).

Greenpeace and four local councils are taking legal action against expansion (Gwyn Topham, 26th Oct 2016: government announces a third runway will go ahead) which would worsen air quality, increase noise, and jeopardise Britain’s climate change commitments. Mayor Sadiq Khan also opposes the expansion. The number of planes taking off will go up by about 50% to 740,000 annually. Air quality around Heathrow has already broken legal limits – it may be mitigated by congestion charging and better public transport but up to 200,000 more people will be overflown.

Warnings about levels of pollution (see also local authority), e.g: COPI - Humphrey Milles has set up Central Office of Public Interest (COPI) – a non-profit advertising group, that will put notices on houses up for sale, warning of high air pollution in the area. An air quality index rating can be worked out for every house. Some notices will be on billboards. (Damian Carrington, Guardian Weds 1st May 2019).

Finally: Cleaning up helps the economy: since US Clean Air Act 1970: levels of the six major pollutants had fallen by 70%, while GDP had gone up by 250%...

2. Agriculture, farming and soil:

The importance of the soil:

Soil is crucial (May 19th 2013 New York Times), not only to grow food and feed animals, but we get most of our antibiotics from it, and scientists are looking for more. Soil is rich in biodiversity: it contains almost one third of all living organisms, according to the EU Joint Research Centre.

Only 1% of its micro-organisms have been identified. A teaspoon may contain billions of microbes, divided among 5,000 different types. Not to mention thousands of species of fungi, nematodes, mites etc. See the Global Soil Biodiversity Initiative.

Here is a quote from a review of book (The World-ending Fire’) a collection of essays by Wendell Berry, selected by Paul Kingsnorth (review from the New Statesman, by Andrew Marr, 2nd Feb 2017):  ‘Without topsoil the thin layer between the Earth’s scores-of-miles deep crust, and the atmosphere we breathe, we could not exist. The historian JR McNeill describes topsoil thus: ‘It consists of mineral particles, organic matter, gases and a swarm of tiny living things. It is a thin skin, rarely more than a hip deep, and usually much less so. Soil takes centuries or millennia to form. Eventually it all ends up in the sea through erosion. In the interval between formation and erosion, it is basic to human survival.’

Wendell Berry is a farmer and writer, with radical views: modern industrial capitalism is a machine based on greed and short-termism that produces grotesque unfairness and waste – and will lead us, before long, to disaster. We must return to cherish and look after the soil we depend on. ‘Our destructiveness has not been, and is not, inevitable. People who use that excuse are morally incompetent, they are cowardly, and they are lazy.... All of us, regardless of party, can be inspired by love of our land to rise above the greed and contempt of our land’s exploiters.’

In other words, soil is basic to human survival. Berry uses horses not tractors. Like John Berger, Berry has championed the cause of migrant workers, and he is one of the most compelling writers on racism in America.  

In Ali Smith’s novel Autumn there is this epigraph taken from a Guardian article published last July: ‘At current rates of soil erosion, Britain has just 100 harvests left.’ (Andrew Marr loc cit).

The problem(s):

Large-scale agriculture, which leads to removal of hedges, and over-use of pesticides. Also, repeated plowing kills off beneficial fungi and earth-worms – the soil then requires more fertilizer and is prone to being washed away in heavy rain (and the nitrogen etc spreads into rivers and streams). Each 1% increase in soil organic matter helps the soil hold 30,000 more litres of water per hectare. Organic matter also helps the soil store carbon dioxide (reducing global warming).

Fiona Harvey, Guardian 14th August 2017.

Antibiotics and farming: the use of antibiotics in Asian factory farms is set to double in just over a decade. Half of all antibiotics are used in China. Two Chinese meat and animal feed producers are among the 10 biggest animal feed manufacturers in the world. The growth means more greenhouse gas production, and the knock-on effects include deforestation – more than a third of Brazil’s soya bean production is for Chinese animals. A report: Factory Farming in Asia: Assessing Investment Risks suggests investors should put pressure on companies to improve their use of antibiotics, look after the health of their animals better, and ‘manage sustainability issues’.

Shana Galagher, of Mighty Earth. From alternet food 27Oct 2017:

In America there are five times as many livestock animals as humans. Over a third of America’s agricultural land is used for producing corn and soy, but humans consume less than 10% of this, and the rest goes into livestock feed.

This livestock feed production is controlled by a very small number of large and powerful corporations, such as ADM, Bunge and Cargill. They make huge profits, but create huge pollution – but they are not held responsible for this as run-off and excess fertilizer use are ‘non-point source’ pollution.

Less than 30% of fertilizer is absorbed by plants, the rest runs off. There is now a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico: 8,000 square miles – the largest in US history. The majority of US waterways are polluted with fertilizer.

The Environmental Working Group estimates that more than 200 million Americans (over half the population) are exposed to contaminated drinking water as a result of fertilizer pollution. Nitrates and phosphorous are associated with cancers, birth defects etc. Rural communities suffer most as their water treatment systems were not built to deal with this level of pollution. ‘85% or more of the communities with elevated levels of nitrate have no treatment systems in place to remove the contaminant. (EWG)

Campaign is under way to get America’s largest meat producer (second largest globally): Tyson to ‘clean up’. Produces over 20% of all (US?) meat (chicken, beef and pork).

Some companies have committed to improve their fertilizer and soil-health practices: Kellogg’s, General Mills, Walmart, Pepsi Co and even Smithfield.

Soil becomes useless after intensive production...

Deforestation is another result of soy production: Cargill is the biggest private company in the world and feeds its poultry on imported soy, grown in the Brazilian Amazon and savanna – there was a moratorium on cutting trees in the Amazon, but the companies have simply moved production into different parts of Brazil and Bolivia. UK chickens are bought from Cargill, by e.g. Morrisons. Cargill’s plant in Hereford slaughters over a million birds a week.

In the Bolivian Amazon an area twice the size of Greater London has been deforested for agriculture each year since 2011 (twice the rate seen in the 1990s). This also reduces the amount of forest that can absorb CO2.

March 25th 2015: The Soil. George Monbiot: according to the UN we need 6m more hectares of land every year to grow food for the growing population of the world. In fact, we are losing 12m hectares a year due to soil degradation.

Intensive methods are the problem: allotment holders (according to UK researchers last year) produce 4 - 11 times more food per hectare than farmers do!!



(a) No-till: March 22nd 2015: Putting the Plow Down to Help the Soil (by Erica Goode NYT/Observer):

A 2,000 hectare farm in North Dakota, run by Gabe Brown, uses no tilling, and applies ‘green manures’ etc – no nitrogen fertilizers, and no fungicide, and produces yields above the county average. Organisations like No-Till on the Plains encourage it. Some 35% of cropland in US is no-tillage. For soybeans the amount of no-till land has doubled in the last 15 years (12 million hectares in 2012). (NYT/Observer article 2015).

George Monbiot: allotment holders (according to UK researchers last year) produce 4 - 11 times more food per hectare than farmers do!!

We have used so much of our land for (intensive) agriculture, and removed hedges, that we have removed habitats for wildlife, so the RSPB has suggested a mandatory 4-5% of farmland to be out of production. Increasingly farmers are leaving uncultivated strips around their fields. When the EU had a ‘set-aside’ policy – which lasted about 20 years until 2007 (it was dropped when food prices rose after some poor harvests) the bird population flourished. [The policy was brought in because of over-production: grain mountains etc...]

Localism: (19th Oct 2005, John Vidal, Ian Sample, Guardian). Need return to localism for food production, as 4 companies sell 70% of the food in Britain – high costs in transport etc. 1500 shops feed half the country. Tim Lang: “Land around London that once fed the city now goes to stockbrokers’ ponies. It’s bonkers… Simply unsustainable”

Reducing pesticide use:

7th April 2017, Damian Carrington: research published in Nature Plants (peer-reviewed) analysed pesticide use, productivity and profitability across almost 1,000 farms in France, and found that 94% could cut their use of pesticides without any loss of production, and two-fifths would actually produce more. With insecticides the results were even more dramatic: in 86%, lower levels would produce more, and in no farms would lose production.

This comes on top of a UN report which said that it was a myth that pesticides were necessary (March 2017) and that they have ‘catastrophic impacts on the environment and human health.’ The report accuses pesticide manufacturers of a ‘systematic denial of harms.’



See above for references to the power of ‘dark money’.

(b) Set-aside (and the EU): (David Adam, G 25.05.09):

About 75% of British countryside is farmed.

During 1980s, farmers were paid a guaranteed price by EU for wheat, barley etc. this led to an oversupply, and ‘grain mountains’ …

The cost of storing the surplus grew, and it was then cheaper to pay farmers not to use the land. This led to the policy of ‘set-aside’ (though according to David Adam this was “voodoo economics”): 8% - 15% farming land set aside, the policy continued for 20 years, and during this time bird population flourished… (less chemicals, more weed seeds).

In 2007 the policy was dropped (it had lasted about 20 years) after poor harvests led to rising food prices. More food was needed, so farmers took set-aside land back into use.

Then a decline in cereal prices led to a slight rise in unfarmed land – and the government plans to start set-aside again (because concern over wildlife?), giving subsidies. [check...]

We have used so much of our land for (intensive) agriculture, and removed hedges, that we have destroyed habitats for wildlife. The RSPB wants a mandatory 4-5% of farmland to be out of production, while farmers want it left to them. Increasingly farmers are leaving uncultivated strips around their fields.

However, farmers say they can manage the problem, and compulsory measures mean farmers don’t deal with it so thoroughly/effectively.

Agriculture and Brexit:  3rd August 2017, Sandra Laville. National Trust warns Brexit is damaging countryside: farmers are returning to intensive methods because of uncertainty. Director Dame Helen Ghosh says farmers have ploughed up pasture which had been created with EU money. Legislation needed now. Maintain the £3bn a year subsidy with incentives for nature-friendly farming. Provide guarantees that food and environmental standards will be maintained or strengthened. Ensure £800m of greening subsidies are redirected in 2019 (and not later) into more effective incentives.

NT is part of the Greener UK coalition, along with FoE, Greenpeace and RSPB.  We need to repair historic damage, adapt to climate change, restore soil and water quality, habitats, species, natural flood protection and damaged landscapes. Over the last 50 years 60% of species have declined in the UK and 31% have strongly declined. Farming yields are suffering because the soil is exhausted largely as a result of the industrialised farming methods which have been incentivised since WW2.

(c) More controversial views:

Going organic: Soil Association: less than one sixth of the land on Earth is suitable for growing crops – and now one third of this is degraded, and 75% of that is severely degraded. It can take a thousand years for one centimetre of topsoil to form. The UK countryside has only 100 harvests left.


Seven ways to protect and support our soils:

- recycle plant and animal matter for natural fertilizers

- improve soils health monitoring

- encourage soil organisms

- protect soils with continuous vegetation cover

- plant and retain trees on vulnerable and marginal land

- reduce soil compaction from livestock and machinery

- crop rotations designed to improve soil health


(i) remove subsidies for maize grown for anaerobic digesters. Maize is already subsidised under CAP, so it shouldn’t also get the Feed-in Tariff and Renewable Heat Incentive subsidies. (ii) Maize is harvested in autumn when soil is wet and compact – rain then washes pesticides and fertilizers into waterways (causing flooding too as the rain doesn’t sink in).

(ii) introduce strict management measures to minimise soil loss. UK accounts for 5% of soil erosion in Europe although it occupies only 1% of the land area.

Organic matter reduces the amount of sediment washed off. 89% of agricultural CO2 emissions can be mitigated by improving soil carbon levels. Organic farms in N-W Europe have 20% more SOM (soil organic material) than non-organic – and organic farms store more CO2 in topsoil. There are now 186,000 farms with organic farmland across the EU, and the area is increasing by half a million hectares every year. Organic farming may be less productive than conventional farming, but this is not definite since many organic farms are situated on less favourable land. It requires more labour, and the same amount of fossil fuels, but of course no synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, so is ‘low input’. 

Parks – how English ‘national parks’ are ‘neither national nor parks’ (George Monbiot G 1st June 2015):


March 6th – 7th 2014: Landowners and farmers:

Useful and controversial piece by George Monbiot: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/mar/03/rich-landowners-farmers-welfare-nfu-defra

and replies in Guardian 7th March: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/mar/06/mistake-claim-all-farming-same

Sheep farming:

Lake District: should it have World Heritage status? George Monbiot argues against, as the groups pushing for this are preserving sheep-farming, which is not good for the environment.



3. Bees:

There are many different species of bees, and they have two extremely valuable roles: to produce honey (honey bees) and to pollinate flowers, fruit and flowering vegetables. They pollinate roughly 70% of our food crops.

The history of colony collapse disorder:

In America an industry has grown up around using bees as pollinators: in the early 2000s, two things shook up this industry. First, the world discovered almonds. Thanks to global demand, particularly from Asia, the nut has taken over Central Valley, nearly doubling its hectarage to 370,000 since 2005. California produces more than 80% of the world’s almond supply today. The boom brought with it an unprecedented demand for pollination. With bees, an almond tree produces 70% more nuts than without. “Bees,” one almond grower told me, “are as important as water.”

Second, the bees started to die. During the 2006 winter, beekeepers reported losing anything from 30% to 90% of their hives to disease, an unprecedented amount compared with previous decades, in which losses hovered around 10 or 15%. The average death toll has since leveled to just under 30% each year. Beekeepers find ‘boxes and boxes of dead colonies every winter, and have to scrape out the crusted nectar and tiny corpses.’

In the UK, hive losses were between 20% and 40% in the last few years. Factors that contribute are: loss of wild flowers, meadows, etc. the varroa mite, climate change, and finally pesticides.

What became known as “colony collapse disorder” – a lethal combination of disease, drought, land loss and pesticide use – brought the industry to its knees, forcing hundreds of keepers, unable to maintain their hives through the cold winter, out of business.

Consequently, the national supply of bees fell, while demand for pollination has since quadrupled alongside almond growth. This year, almond farmers paid $180 to rent a single hive. And every half-hectare requires two hives... Hives are so valuable that there is large-scale theft: in 2015, poachers stole more than 1,700 hives...

Scientific research has demonstrated that insecticides – especially neonicotinoids – are perhaps the main factor in the decline of bees. (Some apiarists blame disease – and the varroa mite - first, but the counter-argument is that neonics must weaken the bees’ immunity). It is believed that neonics disrupt the bees’ nervous system, resulting in disorientation – not knowing how to find pollen/nectar, or to get back to the hive.

In 2010 the European Union placed a moratorium on three types of neonicotinoids on flowering crops such as oilseed rape (Britain abstained in the vote), but three years later these insecticides have not disappeared.

In fact (says Dave Goulson of Sussex University) their use in British farming continues to rise. They are deployed on non-flowering crops such as wheat. We use them in horticulture, and daub them on our pets: flea powders for cats and dogs contain imidacloprid, a neonicotinoid. Dave Goulson says the “plausible deniability” he encounters from neonicotinoid makers is “rather similar to what the tobacco industry did for 50 years claiming that smoking didn’t cause any harm”.’

2015: ‘Scientists this year calculated that these insecticides caused a 10% reduction in the distribution of bee species that forage on oilseed rape. Another study found neonicotinoids cut live sperm in male honeybees by almost 40%. Two studies show a strong correlation between neonicotinoids and declining butterfly populations, while another showed the insecticide accumulating to dangerous levels in nearby wildflowers.

2017 (Report by Damian Carrington): The world’s most widely used insecticides harm the ability of bees to vibrate flowers and shake out the pollen to fertilise crops, according to preliminary results from a new study, led by Penelope Whitehorn of the University of Stirling in Scotland and presented at British Ecological Society conference.

Some flowers, such as those of crops like tomatoes and potatoes, must be shaken to release pollen and bumblebees are particularly good at creating the buzz needed to do this.

We are talking about tiny doses of these chemicals: The researchers took two colonies of bumblebees in a laboratory setting and split the bees in each into three groups. One control group was not exposed to the neonicotinoid thiamethoxam, but the other two groups were fed solutions containing two parts per billion or 10ppb of the pesticide, doses similar to those found in crop fields.

The study adds to a large body of evidence from lab- and field-based studies that neonicotinoids reduce learning and memory in bees, impair their communication, foraging efficiency and immune systems and, crucially, reduce their reproductive success as well as the pollination services that they can provide.

Bees and pesticides

24th March 2017, Damian Carrington, Guardian: possible ban on neonicotinoids, following European Food Safety Authority risk assessments 2016. ‘High acute risks for bees’ identified for ‘most crops’ from imidacloprid and clothianidin, both made by Bayer. Thiamethoxam made by Syngenta: the company’s evidence was not sufficient to address the risks.  In 2015 a study of Europe’s nearly 2,000 bee species showed wild bees declining, with nearly 10% of species facing extinction.

Book: Bee Quest, Dave Goulson, Cape £16.99: reviewed Laline Paul Observer 9th April 2017. Travels to a number of countries, and lets the evidence speak for itself. Shows how macro and micro connect, e.g. drive for food after WWII, industrial farming given an artificial advantage leading to poverty in developing world.  To create a global network of protected areas for most of the endangered species would cost 42bn a year, which is just 20% of the annual global spend on fizzy drinks, and less than half what is paid out every year in bonuses to bankers in Wall Street’s investment banks.

6th Oct 2017 (Guardian, Damian Carrington): Professor Edward Mitchell, University of Neuchatel, finds 75% of 200 samples of honey from around the world(collected 2012 – 2016) had measurable levels of neonics. 48% of the samples had levels above the minimum concentration which would harm bees... Published in Science journal. Highest levels in US: 86% of samples; Asia: 80%; Europe: 79%; South America lowest: 57%. Almost half had several insecticides.

Jean-Marc Bonmatin, Centre national de la Recherche Scientifique, Orleans: ‘The use of pesticides runs contrary to environmentally sustainable practices. It provides no real benefit to farmers, decreases soil quality, hurts biodiversity and contaminates water, air and food. There is no longer any reason to continue down this path of destruction.’

Pesticides: Fri 22nd Sep 2017 Guardian, Damian Carrington: chief scientific advisor to UK government Ian Boyd, and Alice Milner in Science journal, it is not safe to use pesticides on an industrial scale.

There are no regulations to limit their use, and no monitoring. (This follows UN report denouncing ‘myth’ that pesticides are necessary to feed the world, also research showing use could be cut drastically without affecting food production). Contrast pharmaceuticals, where there is global monitoring... In the UK there is no systematic monitoring of pesticide residues, no consideration of safe limits at landscape scales. Buglife says: 35% of countries have no regulation. UN report accused global corporations of ‘systematic denial of harms... aggressive unethical marketing tactics’ and heavy lobbying of governments which ‘obstructed reforms’.

But Sarah Mukherjee of the Crop Protection Association said ‘Pesticides are among the most heavily regulated products in the world’.  

Other effects of pesticides:

NB 2017, eggs were found to have toxic (and banned from use on products for the human food chain) pesticide: fipronil (used to destroy poultry mite). They were distributed to 15 EU countries, Switzerland and Hong Kong. 700,000 eggs reached UK alone.

Authorities in Netherlands were alerted by an anonymous source in Nov 2016, but didn’t pass on the findings. July/August 2017 millions of eggs blocked from sale or withdrawn from the market after fipronil was discovered by Dutch food and product safety board. 180 Dutch farms temporarily shut down. A criminal investigation is under way.

Poultry Vision in Belgium is accused of knowingly selling DEGA-16 (a cleaning and sanitizing product approved to clean chicken stables) mixed with fipronil, and to ChickFriend in the Netherlands, also accused of knowingly supplying it. Food Standards Agency needs to name and shame when it finds poor standards.

It is not just bees that are affected: Dec 6th 2016. Patrick Barkham listens to Dave Goulson talking at the 2015 National Honey Show: ‘Scientists this year calculated that these insecticides caused a 10% reduction in the distribution of bee species that forage on oilseed rape. Another study found neonicotinoids cut live sperm in male honeybees by almost 40%. Two studies show a strong correlation between neonicotinoids and declining butterfly populations, while another showed the insecticide accumulating to dangerous levels in nearby wildflowers.’

Frogs in Australia: 5th July 2016 (AP): Neonicotinoids are widely used in Australia and frogs have declined by 95% in Cairns – which Deborah Pergolotti has happened since neonics were introduced 20 years ago. She has treated frogs with extra limbs, missing eyes, cancer, stunted growth and skeletal problems – none of which occurred before 1996.


(a) more flowers including wild flowers in gardens and parks, less use of pesticides; encouraging meadows and leaving the edges of fields for wild flowers, natural methods of pest control;

(b) European Union has brought in a ban on neonicotinoids which are believed to be the main culprit in causing the decline of bees. However, not every member country has gone along with this (Britain opposed the ban when it was proposed), and there is intense lobbying by multinational companies such as Monsanto, Bayer and Syngenta.

The problem is that these companies make genetically modified seeds to enable crops to be grown which will (in theory!) not be damaged by weedkillers. They also, of course, produce the chemicals that go into the weedkillers!

These companies are known to lobby very effectively. The National Farmers’ Union also puts pressure on government.

(c) On the other hand, a range of pressure-groups such as Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace... are all campaigning hard to get neonicotinoids banned.

One (American) example: the Bee Defenders’ Alliance – coalition of beekeeping organisations: ‘This year, we’re working around the clock to get Canada to join France in banning neonics, extend the European neonic ban, and stop U.S. grocery store giants like Kroger from selling bee-killing products. We’ll also continue to support threatened bee scientists like Jonathan Lundgren and the beekeeper alliance that’s fighting Bayer and Syngenta in court.

And finally, we’ll do everything we can to stop the Bayer-Monsanto merger from hell and continue to fight the biggest bee-killer of them all, Bayer.’

Jonathan Lundgren, from Washington Post March 3 2016: “I don’t think science can be done, at least on this subject, in any of the conventional ways,” he says. “I think we need truly independent scientists — not funded by government or industry.”

Bee declines, says Lundgren, are not difficult to understand. “Yes, the bees are in crisis, and we need to help them,” he says. “But what we have is not a bee problem. What we have is a biodiversity problem.”

U.S. corporate agriculture tends toward monoculture farming — in the simplest terms, one giant farm specializing in one crop. The two key monoculture crops are corn and soybeans. Corn alone takes up 30 percent of the country’s crop space, an area almost the size of California.

Soybean acreage is nearly as vast. The corn rootworm, the Colorado potato beetle and soybean aphids all thrive best on the crops that give them their names. And so monocultures have allowed, even caused, says Lundgren, pest populations to explode.

“We’re using all of these pesticides because we’ve created a pest problem,” Lundgren says, “and bee health is a symptom of this underlying cause.”

He says the solution is to diversify American farming. “Any other course is unsustainable,” he says. “Pesticides, herbicides, fungicides should be something we resort to, not a first option.”

Note on the problem of international agreement on standards:

There are other dangerous chemicals that are the subject of bans in some countries but not in others:

Sat 23rd May 2015: US lobbying led to EU not banning Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs) – this was done as a result of fears of a trade backlash under the TTIP. PAN has details... http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/may/22/eu-dropped-pesticide-laws-due-to-us-pressure-over-ttip-documents-reveal 

March 22nd 2015: the use of atrazine, made by Syngenta, one of America’s most popular herbicides, is subject of a piece in New York Times International Weekly/Observer: 33.4 million kilos were used in US in 2013. But it is banned in Europe and Switzerland because it contaminates water: in US the onus is on regulators to show evidence of danger – while in EU companies have to establish they are safe before they are put on the market. Question is will the Transatlantic Trade talks lower the threshold?

Jan 29th 2017, The Observer (Joanna Blythman): 82 pesticides are banned in the EU on health and environmental grounds – but not in the US.

These include: permethrin, a broad spectrum insecticide that is classed as a likely carcinogen and suspected endocrine disruptor, and atrazine, a herbicide thought to affect the immune system, which has also been linked to birth defects.

Of course, if the UK agrees a trade deal with the US after Brexit, then these protections could be lost.

March 2015 (New York Times/Observer): atrazine, made by Syngenta, is one of Australia and America’s most popular herbicides: 33.4 million kilos were used in US in 2013. But it is banned in Europe (2004) and Switzerland as an endocrine disruptor (can alter the natural hormonal system – frogs change sex) and because it contaminates water. Farm workers show health effects of pesticides, but as they are exposed to several it is not easy to identify specific dangerous products. However, ‘maternal exposure to atrazine in drinking water has been associated with low foetal weight and heart, urinary and limb defects in humans.’ (ATSDR – Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry).

LD50 measurements and ‘threshold doses’ controversy. 750 mg/kg in rabbits, 1,000 mg/kg in hamsters, 3,090 mg/kg in rats...  EPA’s ‘reference dose’: 0.035 mg/kg/day. 

NB in US the onus is on regulators to show evidence of danger – while in EU companies have to establish they are safe before they are put on the market.

May 2015: US lobbying led to EU not banning Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs) – this was done as a result of fears of a trade backlash under the TTIP.... Further information from PAN.


4. Biodiversity and species decline:  (to return to with global warming)

The 2016 State of Nature report found: More than one in 10 of the UK’s wildlife species are threatened with extinction. (Damian Carrington 14/9/16). The numbers of the most endangered creatures have fallen by two-thirds since 1970. This covers birds, animals, fish and plants.

Overall 53% - 56% of species declined between 1970 and 2011, but some species increased - this ‘does not look like a healthy, natural situation’ (Mark Eaton, conservation scientist at RSPB) – some species going up very quickly, and others going down equally quickly, so we could end up with ‘50% left’.

Insects and invertebrates have declined most dramatically, by 59% since 1970. Thus pollination, healthy soil etc are damaged. ‘They are about the most important things out there’ says Eaton.


‘The new data was gathered in nature reserves across Germany but has implications for all landscapes dominated by agriculture, the researchers said.

The cause of the huge decline is as yet unclear, although the destruction of wild areas and widespread use of pesticides are the most likely factors and climate change may play a role.

“Insects make up about two-thirds of all life on Earth [but] there has been some kind of horrific decline,” said Prof Dave Goulson of Sussex University, UK, and part of the team behind the new study. “We appear to be making vast tracts of land inhospitable to most forms of life, and are currently on course for ecological Armageddon. If we lose the insects then everything is going to collapse.”

Flies, beetles and wasps are also predators and decomposers, controlling pests and cleaning up the place generally.

The research, published in the journal Plos One, is based on the work of dozens of amateur entomologists across Germany who began using strictly standardised ways of collecting insects in 1989. Special tents called malaise traps were used to capture more than 1,500 samples of all flying insects at 63 different nature reserves.’

If the insects leave the reserves and go on to farmland, then they won’t find anything much to eat, and they may be exposed to pesticides, says Dave Goulson.

Oct 2017 Michael McCarthy Guardian 21st Oct 2017..

Scientists tell of alarm at huge fall in flying insects... the biomass of flying insects in Germany has dropped by 75% since 1989. Insects are vital plant pollinators, and the food base of thousands and thousands of food chains. Britain’s farmland birds have declined by more than half because of loss of insects. The grey partridge and spotted flycatcher have declined by more than 95%, and the red-backed shrike is extinct.

We have not noticed partly because we don’t like insects and partly because we don’t (can’t perhaps) count them. In Britain alone there are about 24,500 insect species.

Two-thirds of all species on Earth are insects. They have been present on earth for about 350 million years (humans for 130,000). There are more kinds of beetle than of all plants.

Letter in Guardian, Oct 2017: Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust: insecticide use is responsible for declining numbers. Agri-environmental measures are available through the Countryside Stewardship Scheme: conservation headlands (low-input cereal headlands), wildbird seed mix. (Measured less decline (35% in Sussex than found in Germany (87%), but high decline (72%) in insects (and 45% of invertebrates) that are chick feed for declining farmland birds. Concern about post-Brexit policies...

Hedgehogs – decline due to our building roads, etc and clearing hedges, though badgers predating them is main cause (they would stand a better chance if we hadn’t changed their environment) Patrick Barkham 2nd March 2017 Guardian G2.

Causes: intensive farming, urbanization, climate change.

Public funding for biodiversity has fallen by 32% from 2008 to 2015.

Nature provides economic and health benefits of about £30bn a year (government 2011 analysis).

March 3rd 2017. Mozambique’s ‘Google Forest’ – Mount Mabu - was ‘discovered’ by Julian Bayliss when looking at Google Earth in 2005 – with a Kew Gardens team he has discovered three new species of snake, eight of butterflies, a bat, a crab, tow chameleons, many plants, and birds that are critically endangered. Expedition by Alliance Earth March 2017 (Observer 26.03.17) to create a 3D map publish studies, seek out potential non-timber forest products and film a VR experience for museums etc. The hill was used by local people when the fight for independence from Portugal took place – 1964 – and there are holes where people hid, especially with children, so their cries would not be heard by the Portuguese looking for them...

Mozambique is still losing timber through illegal operations, and according to the Environmental Investigation Agency some $130m of hardwoods are stolen annually, much of it going to China. 

Aim is to use ecological/sustainable tourism to preserve the biodiversity: honey, mushrooms to generate income locally. It needs to be legally designated as a community conservation area.

Palm oil and loss of forests: Bank of England looking for other sources of fat for its notes, after row over use of animal fat, and may use palm oil. WWF says ‘Palm oil has benefits as it produces more oil per acre of land than any other equivalent crop... Worldwide demand is expected to double by 2050 but this expansion comes at the expense of human rights and tropical forest – unless it is sustainable.’

Doug Maw who started the petition against animal fats says ‘Palm oil production has brought the orangutan to the brink of extinction and coconuts are often harvested in a very exploitative way.’

NB: there is also a world-wide problem with the killing of elephants, rhinos, sharks etc.

Possible solutions

(a) Conservation

15th Feb 2017 (Zoological Society of London): a group of 14 scimitar-horned oryx (type of antelope) have been reintroduced to a nature reserve in Chad (the size of Scotland!), by the Sahara desert where they used to live. (Driven to extinction during civil unrest 1980s and 1990s). They were bred in captivity in zoos including Whipsnade.

17th Feb 2017 (Hannah Devlin, Guardian science correspondent): scientists are trying to ‘resurrect’ the woolly mammoth (by splicing mammoth DNA – preserved in the ice – into an elephant genome). Woolly mammoths could help prevent tundra permafrost from melting as they punch through snow and allow cold air to come in. A simulate ecosystem study showed that mammoths in Siberia could bring about a drop in temperature of up to 20 degrees C. In the summer they knock down trees and help the grass grow.

(b) Reserves and re-wilding:

(George Monbiot on re-wilding the seas, 4th Feb 2017): ocean ecologists want 30% of Britain’s seas protected – we have achieved on 0.01% (off Lundy Island in the Bristol Channel, Lamlash Bay off the Isle of Arran, Flamborough Head in East Yorkshire). ‘When you establish reserves in which fish and shellfish can breed and grow to large sizes, [you get a] ‘spillover effect’ – fish migrating to the surrounding waters’ – so the policy actually helps the fishing industry.

‘Declaring areas of sea off-limits to the fishing industry would also revitalise other coastal industries [attracting] divers, whale watchers and sport fishers – all of whom tend to bring in more income and jobs than commercial fishing.’

Monbiot says that ‘a rich ecosystem includes many different species of fish, tuna, ‘blue, porbeagle, thresher, mako and occasional great white sharks’, and behind, within sight of the shore, fin whales and sperm whales...’ as described by Oliver Goldsmith in the late 18th century. He saw: ‘[fish] in distinct columns of five and six miles in length and three or four broad.’

The world’s largest marine park has been created in the Ross Sea off Antarctica – widely seen as Earth’s last intact marine ecosystem. (29th Oct 2016 Michael Slezak)

Protection of rivers: payments in lieu of fines.

Businesses are paying ‘enforcement undertakings’ as an alternative to prosecutions – Environment Agency says the money will go to charities and projects to clean up rivers etc and for community groups to invest in public parkland. Northumbrian Water has paid £375,000 for pumping sewage into a river, and Anglian water has paid £100,000 twice for 2 pollution incidents which killed fish. 31st Jan 2017Press Association

(c) More controversial re-wilding: Lynx UK hopes to introduce six Eurasian lynxes, imported from Sweden, into Kielder Forest (a nature reserve in Northumberland). Lynx was last seen across Britain in AD700. They would reinvigorate the biggest forested area in Britain and control its herbivore population – their main food is roe deer, which is damaging the growth of wild flowers and plants, and preventing the regeneration of trees. They have been successfully re-introduced in northern Germany. Dr Ian Convery (Univ of Cumbria) says we have lost significantly more nature over the long term than the global average and we are amongst the most nature-depleted countries in the world. Three benefits: restoring ecosystems, controlling deer, attracting tourists (as happened in Germany).

Other re-wilding initiatives: (Observer 13th May 2015, p 31 Tracy McVeigh): attempts are being made to return wild animals (and plants etc) to areas from which they have died out. Examples: reindeer (extinct since the 12th century, reintroduced 1952, especially in Cairngorms) black Grouse (reintroduced in Derbyshire in 2003), wild horses, wild boar have been re-establishing themselves for several decades (but these have escaped from farms?). 

(Observer 26th June2016 Jessica Aldred): dormice being reintroduced to Yorkshire Dales National Park.

They need managed (coppiced) woodland and hedgerows – England lost 50% of its hedgerows between 1946 and 1993 from an estimated 500,000 miles to 236,000. Dormice need to be off the ground, so drystone walls and woods are essential.

This community it is hoped will link up with another released three miles away. A good species to get people involved with conservation, and what’s good for them is also good for birds, bats and butterflies.

Beavers have improved water (flood management etc) and biodiversity in Devon. Wolves could manage deer. Sea eagles were returned to the Inner Hebrides (but endangered sheep...).

5. Waste:


(i) food:

In the UK we send 10m tonnes of food waste a year to landfill sites, a quarter of which is reckoned to be edible. Some will be from supermarkets (2m tonnes according to Waste and Resources Action Programme - WRAP), some from manufacturers (1.8m tonnes) some from the hospitality sector (1m tonnes), some from households.  (Press Association, quoting Defra).

In 2015 the UK threw away an estimated 15 million tonnes of food.

Tesco alone threw away 59,400 tonnes in 2015, the equivalent of 119m meals.

UK looks to be top of the EU league table for food waste!!! (Though Americans throw away almost as much food as they eat – a cult of perfection is to blame. Vast quantities left in the fields to rot).

200,000 tonnes of the food waste comes from seven major supermarkets.         

70% of produce is dumped by producers and retailers before it even gets to the stores.

This averages out (!)at  each adult throwing away over £400 of food a year (plus a further £400+ in packaging).

Avoidable food waste also generates 19m tonnes of greenhouse gases over its lifetime – equivalent to a quarter of the cars on the road. (Rebecca Smithers, 10th Jan 2017).



The amount of waste we create is astounding: UK households and businesses used 11m tonnes of packaging last year, according to government figures – much of this is exported. At least 100 containers of plastic waste a day are shipped out from ports including Felixstowe and Southampton to Europe and the Far East.

Recently there have been difficulties because some countries have refused to take any more of our waste, or because they have been unable to process it properly, or because it was contaminated.

Illegal waste, declared as other imports, has been going from the UK, Australia, the US and Germany.

In 2018 China – recipient of at least half of the world’s waste for recycling – stopped accepting it.  Companies then looked for other outlets, and countries such as the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam and Malaysia, where regulations were more lax, started receiving our waste.

In April 2019 Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia have all introduced legislation to prevent contaminated waste coming in. In May 2019 the president of the Philippines threatened to sever ties with Canada if it didn’t take back 69 containers, holding 1,500 tonnes of rubbish exported in 2013 – 14.

Malaysia has sent back containers of plastic waste. (Hannah Ellis-Petersen, 28th May 2019).

There has also been concern because it is regarded as wrong for us to dump our waste on other countries, and toxic waste has caused water contamination, crop death and respiratory illnesses.

The Basel convention was amended (May 2019) to prohibit such waste being exported without the consent of developing countries – but it will not come into effect until 2020.

Update, Feb. 2019: Amazon criticised for using plastic bags instead of card/paper.

It is thought that Amazon ships between 4bn and 5bn parcels a year worldwide. In February, the Washington Post reported on how the new Amazon envelopes were clogging up US recycling centres as consumers were wrongly placing them in recycling bins.

On Monday, Amazon was among 181 companies that signed up to a new official definition of corporate purpose in the US, which threw out the decades-old sole objective of making as much profit for shareholders as possible to embrace the interests of other stakeholders, including employees, customers, suppliers and the community.

The move, seen as a response to increasing criticism of business and traditional capitalism, included a pledge to protect the environment “by embracing sustainable practices”. It was signed by Jeff Bezos, the Amazon founder and boss.

Plastics: See also: Plastics lecture notes 

Forty per cent of plastic packaging waste is disposed of at landfills, 14% goes to incineration facilities and 14% is collected for recycling. Incineration creates the most CO2 emissions among the plastic waste management methods. (CIEL – the Center for International Environmental Law, 2019 report plastics and health).


It is not often realised that plastic comes from oil... In fact the dominant companies in plastic production are major petro-chemical companies such as Mobil, Exxon, DuPont, BASF, Monsanto, and Dow.

Seven of the 10 largest plastic producers are oil and natural gas companies. When the public started rejecting single-use plastic bags in the US, BP predicted that by 2040 the industry would be producing 2m fewer barrels of oil per day.


Monsanto and Dow are also heavily involved in pesticide manufacture – another cause for concern, given the current decline in wildlife and especially insects.


Another not-so-well-known petro-chemical company, INEOS is one of the largest producers of plastic in the world, and it wants to carry out fracking – to extract gas from shale rocks - in Yorkshire...



Strands of fishing twine were first found off the coast of Iceland in 1957, then a plastic bag in 1965. During the three decades from the ‘50s less than 1% of tows were disrupted, by the 1990s it was 2% and now it is between 3% and 4%.

What was disturbing was the rate at which the disruption was increasing. Also, the device was towed at a depth of about 7 metres, which is where many fish and marine mammals are found, and it covered a very wide range of oceans (the worst was the southern North Sea).

Then, in the early 1990s, researchers noticed that some 60-80% of the waste in the ocean was non-biodegradable plastic. In some places the waste accumulates into ‘great garbage patches’ (as they were called by another oceanographer) – the largest of these is three times the size of France and contains 79,000 tonnes of waste!

The next shift in thinking came when it was realised that shampoos, cosmetics and cleaning products all had ‘microbeads’ in them: even Body Shop products had them, and in 2010 scientists became concerned that they were being washed out into the sea, and would be eaten by fish. In 2015 the US Congress passed a limited ban on microbeads with broad partisan support. The UK soon followed suit with a comprehensive ban on their manufacture and sale.

Ever since, and with David Attenborough’s television programmes, Blue Planet, we have become aware of how serious a problem plastic is.


Since the 1950s, around 8.3 billion tons of plastic have been produced worldwide.

We have been dramatically increasing the amount of plastic we produce: over the past 50 years, world plastic production has doubled. By 2050 we will be producing 1.1 billion tonnes per year, i.e. 36 tonnes per second.

In 1950 production was 5m tonnes, by 2014: 311m tonnes, of which 40% was for single-use packing]. 15th Feb 2017, Guardian Susan Smillie: 8 million tonnes of waste plastic ends up in the sea each year (Science magazine 2015). Now, more than 350m tonnes of plastic are produced every year.


Most is not recycled, it is buoyant, durable and never degrades. A million plastic bottles are bought around the world every minute.


The Italian Institute for Environmental Protection and Research (Ispra) says that more than 500,000 tonnes of plastic waste end up in the Mediterranean each year. There are between 500 and 1,000 items of plastic rubbish every 100 metres on beaches, and Lake Como is the most polluted in Europe with microplastic.

Prince of Wales’ International Sustainability Unit took a working group with representatives of Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Adidas, Marks, and Dell to Rainham Marshes and 80% of waste was plastic bottles.

Worldwide, about 2 million plastic bags are used every minute.


Plastic bottles are the most prevalent form of plastic pollution, followed by food wrappers and then cigarette butts. Plastic bags only comprise 1%, showing the bans etc have had an impact, according to the Plastic Rivers Report (check for reference).


Bottles and plastic bags are examples of ‘single-use’ plastic – once used they are discarded. The average time that a plastic bag is used for is … 12 minutes. Then it takes up to a thousand years to decompose!


We have been seduced by the ‘disposability’ of plastic, and seem to be prepared to pay more for a basic requirement like water if it comes in a convenient plastic bottle. After all, a litre of tap water, the stuff we have ingeniously piped into our homes, costs less than half a penny. A litre of bottled water can cost well over a pound.


Plastics in the oceans


June 2019: the Canal and River Trust charity says that abandoned plastic accounts for 59% of litter found in canals in England, and this means that  570,000 plastic items reach the oceans each year. This is due to public negligence.

July 2017: 17th Feb 2017: plastic pellets known as nurdles (used as raw material to make plastic products) have been found on 73% of UK beaches.

At Widemouth Bay, Cornwall, volunteers collected 127,500 pellets on a 100-metre stretch of beach. The pellets can get into drains or rivers during manufacture, transport or use – they are a main source of microplastics, which can soak up toxic chemicals and then are eaten by birds and fish. The search was organised by a Scottish charity Fidra, and involved the Environmental Investigation Agency, Fauna and Flora International, Greenpeace, the Marine Conservation Society and Surfers Against Sewage. ‘Fidra has been working with the UK plastics industry since 2012 to promote best practice to end further pellet pollution.’

14th Feb 2017: (Damian Carrington, information from Nature, Ecology and Evolution): extraordinary levels of pollutants in the six-mile deep Mariana trench in the Pacific Ocean.  Many miles from any industry... The levels were ‘sky-high’ in the creatures that scavenge on the ocean floor


Plastic: 20th May 2017 Guardian, Elle Hunt – Henderson Island, in the UK’s Pitcairn territory, eastern South Pacific ocean, and a world heritage site.

Scientists found the highest density recorded of debris: 37.7m pieces of plastic (up to 671 items per sq metre).

More than 3,570 pieces of litter thought to be washing up daily on one beach.

68% of the debris was buried to a depth of up to 10cm. may be a lot more, deeper down.

More than 27% of identifiable items were from South America, and 7.7% from fishing.

It is near the South pacific Gyre ocean current:

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch was found in 1997 (one of 5 main subtropical gyres – draw floating debris into a vortex): size is difficult to ascertain because of movements of the water, but likely has a 1m sq km ‘heart’ with the periphery spanning a further 3.5m sq km – from west coast of North America to Japan. In 2013 scientists concluded there were more than 5 trillion pieces of plastic in the oceans, mostly microplastics (from 5mm to 10 nanometres). Some of this comes from transportation of raw pellets. Some from microbeads.

Cans and plastic bags have also been found in the Mariana trench!


Dangers for biodiversity:

A lot of waste plastic is dumped in rivers and then flows into the sea. In fact 90% of plastic polluting our oceans is carried by just 10 rivers. Each year 8m tonnes of plastic ends up in the ocean, so that there are now 100 million tonnes (approximately 110 million U.S. tons) of plastic in the oceans, and 80 to 90 percent of it comes from land, UN Environment said.

More than 200 species are at risk from eating it, including more than half the world’s seabirds.

Fish eat it and shellfish lovers [all? Per person?] are estimated to eat up to 11,000 fragments each year (Ghent University). Last year Plymouth University found plastic in a third of UK-caught fish. Likewise plastic has been found in fish from Europe, Canada, Brazil to the coast of mainland China.

Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates by 2050 plastic will take up more volume than fish in the oceans.

Plastic is killing more than 1.1 million seabirds and animals every year. One of the main problems is fishing gear – nets especially, which can trap mammals such as dolphins as well as birds.


One of the most frightening examples I have come across was of a dead whale which had 1,000 plastic items in its stomach (Nov. 2018). It was a 9.5 metre sperm whale. The plastic weighed 5.9 kg.


The whale was washed up in eastern Indonesia. Indonesia is the world’s second-largest plastic polluter after China. The plastic in its stomach included flip-flops, and over a hundred drinking cups according to staff from Wakatobi national park.

Plastics do eventually photodegrade – UV exposure breaks them down, and they can leach toxic chemicals (PCBs, pesticides, flame retardants – added during manufacture).

Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs - including polychlorinated biphenyl: PCB) which were banned in the late 1970s, do not break down in the environment, and adhere to plastics. Some 1.3 million tonnes were produced, and about a third of this has leaked into coastal sediments and open waters (and still coming from poorly protected landfill sites). They affect reproduction in living things, and have been found in Inuit peoples, killer whales and dolphins in western Europe. POPs accumulate in fat and are concentrated in creatures higher up the food chain. They stick to plastic and are water-repellent. Plastic waste and dead animals sink to the floor of the ocean.


Plastic pieces also attract a thin layer of algae and so smell like food for sea creatures.

Zooplankton have been observed (Plymouth Marine Laboratory) eating plastic, as do shellfish. Plastic in the stomach of fish is not a threat to us, but if it passes into the flesh, or leaches toxins into the flesh – and we eat whole shellfish – this is serious.

In 2011 in the Clyde in Scotland, 83% of Dublin Bay prawns (the tails go to scampi) had eaten plastic, and 63% of brown shrimp.

Gesamp – experts on marine environmental protection – found contamination in tens of thousands of organisms and more than 100 species.

Some (Prof Richard Thompson at Plymouth University) argue it’s not serious because you would have to eat a large quantity to suffer harm. But it is going to increase if we carry on the same way. Especially as many people across the world rely on fish for protein.

Other animals affected at sea:

As Arctic ice melts, polar bears are having to seek food elsewhere, and they are moving into areas inhabited by humans. They have been known to eat plastic when they scavenge on rubbish dumps. Of course, plastic is indigestible, so the bears think they are taking in food, but it is doing them no food whatsoever.


Plastic has been found to cause disease in coral reefs. (26th January 2018. Damian Carrington). Scientists examined 125,000 corals across the Asia-Pacific region, and 89% of the corals examined that were fouled by plastic were found to be diseased. 



Packaging: June 2019: Waitrose tries out dispensers for dried foods in their Oxford store, for an 11-week trial.  75% of its fresh produce is unwrapped. Reusable containers are on sale, and compostable or reusable bags. Customers save 15% compared to the packaged alternative.

In Italy food, detergents, shampoos etc will be cheaper if sold from dispensers or in reusable containers. (Oct 2019)

Food waste: Tesco, Sainsbury, Waitrose and Nestle agreed (May 2019) to halve food waste by 2030. Government wants them to adopt the Food Waste Reduction Roadmap (PA).

Recycling: only a third of UK’s annual 1.5m tonnes of recyclable plastic waste is recycled. Recyled plastic has limited life and is not as pure quality (can’t be used for food).

The Recycling Association believes supermarkets could do a lot more. One problem is laminated plastic (pick it up, and press it and it crackles) – two different sorts of plastic, meaning it can’t be recycled. Likewise black plastic – as the scanning machinery can’t identify it. Companies pay 10% of the cost of recycling their products under the Packaging Recovery Notes system – maybe they should pay 100%?

Consumer awareness: 4th July 2016 (Rebecca Smithers, consumer affairs, from Food Standards Agency and Defra): people need more guidance on how to store frozen food safely – including on date markings. Ignorance contributes to the food and drink waste mountain. Britons throw away 7m tonnes of food and drink from their homes every year, most of which could have been eaten, and the grocery supply chain wastes 1.9m tonnes a year (Waste and Resources Action Programme – Wrap - a government body). Better use of the freezer would lead to less food being thrown away.

Labelling changes and price rises meant that between 2007 and 2012 total household food waste fell 15%.

16th June 2016 (Zoe Wood): Tesco is the only UK retail company to publish how much is wasted – the information helps reduce waste. It showed a 4% increase over the previous year however... Other solutions: reduce time food stays in supply chain (so it can be on sale for longer), selling more ‘wonky’ fruit and veg (changing consumers’ perceptions – much food is wasted because it is not ‘perfect’). There is an agreement – the Courtauld Commitment 2025 – to reduce waste by a fifth within the next decade, but there is little evidence that much is being done.

Limitations of the market:

Oct 2019: the increasing demand for recycled plastic flakes has led to a rise in the price – so it is no longer cheaper to make goods from recycled plastic than from virgin plastic. Alongside this, the shale gas boom in the US has brought down the cost of new/virgin plastic. Possible remedies: to tax companies that do not use at least 30%recycled plastic in their products; to increase the supply of recycled plastic. (Jillian Ambrose 14th Oct 2019).

Laws, regulations etc.:

The United Nations has said single-use plastic should be banned.

The UN’s Global Goals include calls to protect life on land and life below water (Goal No. 14 and 15), and to create cities and communities that are sustainable (Goal No.11)..... 52 UNESCO island and coastal biosphere areas exist.

The EU has a ‘circular economy’ package, which requires companies and retailers to cover the net costs of household recycling collections by local authorities. This is already done in Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands.

There is now (since 2017) a BS standard (8001:2017) but there is little practical guidance and no consensus on a set of performance indicators (Wikipedia).  

Maybe a Stewardship Council for Plastics (as marine Stewardship Council).

This month [??] the new environment secretary, Theresa Villiers, claimed society “was calling time on being “throwaway” after the publication of figures showing how single-use plastic bags had fallen out of favour.

The figures from the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs showed the number of single-use plastic bags sold in the main supermarket chains had fallen by more than 90% since the introduction of the 5p charge in October 2015.

Our own government aims to phase out non-recyclable packaging in the next 25 years.

In Swansea there are inspectors who check residents’ recycling and black bags to see if things are put in the wrong container. Fines of up to £1000 can be imposed if people refuse to recycle their waste. Swansea currently recycles 62-63% of its waste – higher than the UK average of 44.6%.

France has banned supermarkets from throwing away food (14th July 2016, Arthur Nelson, Brussels) – outlets can be fined up to 75,000 euro if they refuse to donate to food banks or charities. MEPs have voted to end unfair trading practices which lead to overproduction and waste, and there is a demand for legally binding food waste targets.

(c) Rejection of consumer society.... (See some ideas to be explored week 10 especially)




Some extra problems:

(i) electronics:

People get a new mobile phone on average every 18 months

1.5 million computers are thrown away each year, of which 99% work perfectly.

‘Restart Parties’ may help? (See later).

(ii)  Water: 

15th June 2017: Damian Carrington. Thames Water fined £8.5m for failure to cut leaks. It missed its targets by 47m litres a day. Amount of leakage has not decreased for at least four years. In March it was hit by a record fine of £20.3m for pumping 1.4bn litres of untreated sewage into the Thames, its tributaries and on to land. A ‘shocking and disgraceful’ situation according to the judge. TW also revealed it caused 315 pollution incidents last year – higher than the year before. Steve Robertson, chief executive, earns £700,000 a year , and has an annual bonus of £54,000.

England is the only nation to have a fully privatized water industry. TW paid out more than £1bn in dividends to its shareholders in the decade up to 2015.    It is owned by a consortium of investment funds including sovereign wealth funds of Abu Dhabi and China, as well as investors from Canada and Kuwait.




Supplementary Notes:

(i) Regulations on pesticides: Extracts from COMMISSION IMPLEMENTING REGULATION (EU) No 485/2013 of 24 May 2013 amending Implementing Regulation (EU) No 540/2011, as regards the conditions of approval of the active substances clothianidin, thiamethoxam and imidacloprid, and prohibiting the use and sale of seeds treated with plant protection products containing those active substances 

In spring 2012, new scientific information on the sub- lethal effects of neonicotinoids on bees was published.

In particular, pending the evaluation of the Authority on foliar uses it considered that the risk for bees from foliar applications is similar to the risk identified by the Authority for seed treatment applications and soil treatment, due to the systemic translocation of the active substances clothianidin, thiamethoxam and imidacloprid through the plant.

In particular the uses as seed treatment and soil treatment of plant protection products containing clothianidin, thiamethoxam or imidacloprid should be prohibited for crops attractive to bees and for cereals except for uses in greenhouses and for winter cereals.

Extracts from guidance on risk assessment for bees EFSA Journal 2012:

‘A decline of some pollinator species was reported in several different regions of the world (Biesmeijer et al., 2006; Committee on the status of Pollinators in North America, 2007). Bee poisoning incidents were reported in Europe (e.g. exposure to dust from seed treatments). Pollination is a very important ecosystem service for food production and maintenance of biodiversity (Gallai et al., 2009).’

[See also: Laura Maxim and Jeroen van der Sluijs – EEA Late Lessons Volume II Chapter 16 pdf ]

(ii) Further notes on ‘Sustainability and ‘sustainable growth’ by Olivia Hanks – Norwich Radical:


‘Labour MEP David Martin, was author of a European Committee on International Trade document celebrating climate change as creating “new opportunities for the economic development of the Arctic”.

The comment, spotted and lambasted by Green MEP Molly Scott Cato, might seem extreme in its suicidal logic: we’re burning down the house, but look, we can use the newly exposed rafters for more firewood!

Yet such statements are the logical conclusion when economic growth is viewed as the goal of all human activity. They lead on naturally from support for wasteful and destructive infrastructure projects like Hinkley Point, Trident and any number of ill-conceived road schemes on the grounds that these projects will provide jobs. This is the Labour position from which the party will have to free itself before it can have anything meaningful to say about climate change.

It has been known to us for decades now that there are limits to the growth of an economy based on the extraction of fossil fuels and minerals. At first, the focus was on the finite nature of the planet’s resources: the economist and philosopher Kenneth Boulding famously observed in 1973 that “anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.”

Supporters of the pro-growth status quo have come up with a phrase to reduce their cognitive dissonance: ‘sustainable growth’. The use of the word ‘sustainable’, with its association with the green movement, makes this phenomenon sound ideal to the appearance-conscious capitalist: we can keep building and burning all we like, with a friendly nod to the treehuggers. But, lest we forget, ‘sustainable’ means ‘can be maintained’ – maintained indefinitely. Political and business documents are littered with examples of the word ‘sustainable’ achieving nothing but a warm sense of satisfaction for those involved. The second point of the trade committee document states that “any current and new economic activity should be carried out in a sustainable way in order not to undermine the Arctic’s natural heritage”. The idea that profiting from the melting of the Arctic by extracting oil and gas reserves which can be burned to further melt the Arctic can be done “in a sustainable way” would be laughable if it weren’t so frightening. It simply doesn’t make any sense. But it doesn’t have to make sense – it just has to include the magic word ‘sustainable’, and then all will be well.

When we go back to thinking about what growth actually is, we quickly realise that the idea of it as a) a goal and b) sustainable doesn’t make sense in any field. Whether it’s an ecosystem, the human body, or a friendship group, for example, any system regulates itself so that it can continue to function – it doesn’t expand indefinitely. Growth is the means by which a system reaches the optimum size for its function.

Yet when it comes to the economy, we have stopped speaking of growth as a means to ends we might once have considered its functions: better health, prosperity or quality of life. Growth itself has become the goal; and if growth is the goal, then the economy will never reach a size that is ‘big enough’ – it will always demand more resources. That cannot be sustainable.

We are able to mentally project the upward curve of growth endlessly into the future because we view time as a straight line. We can rely on fossil fuels only if we have this linear view of time, since each fuel can be used only once – an extreme example being fracking, where wells are exhausted and abandoned almost immediately as companies move on to new sites, ignoring the obvious snag that the Earth’s land doesn’t actually stretch on for ever.

The linear model of time allows us to imagine a future onward march in which we discover ever more resources and solutions to the problems we are creating today; an upward curve which allows us to predict only a continuation of that curve. This leads to a dangerous reliance on future technology, as found in the belief that geoengineering will save us from climate change – releasing us from any obligation to change our high-carbon way of life today.

Societies with a more cyclical understanding of time, like Native American and many African cultures, would feel this to be a nonsense: our ways of living must be such that recurrence is possible. Sustainability is fundamentally circular, as proponents of the circular economy understand.

Societies like ours, with a linear view of time, may be more inclined to focus on the short term because it’s all we can see; we talk of ‘future generations’, but it is a fairly abstract concept. If, however, we understand time as cyclical, in some sense we are future generations too.

We cannot rebuild our entire way of thinking on a cyclical model (regardless of what a recent Hollywood offering might have you believe). What we can do is try to learn from cultures which think in different ways; learn from natural systems, which embody real, eternal sustainability in ways we are at risk of forgetting; and in fact, while we’re at it, maybe abandon the word ‘sustainable’ to its bland corporate fate. It is so ubiquitous that it is a dead term: we no longer think about what it means. A new word is needed. How about ‘cyclical’?’

See also:

Comments on report by Sustainable Development Commission at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/mar/30/g20-sustainable-development-commission  

Extra Notes (to be developed...):

Genetic Modification:

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.

John Vidal in the Guardian, 20th Oct 2011, on the ‘Global Citizens’ Report on the state of GMOs’ – this groups together 20 Indian, South-east Asian and Latin American conservation groups, representing millions of people. The report casts doubt on the effectiveness of GM crops:

- more insecticides have to be used, and Monsanto, Syngenta and Dupont control nearly 70% of global seed sales, and are the three largest GM firms. Monsanto has control of over 95% of the Indian cotton-seed market and this pushes prices up.

250,000 Indian farmers have killed themselves over the past 15 years, mainly because of indebtedness. See:


The Ecologist Magazine, Dec/Jan 2009 has article on Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser, who has battled with Monsanto over the contamination of his crops with GM rape seed – he argues that it is almost impossible now to buy non-GM seed in Canada, and these seeds would not be acceptable in Europe. ‘There is no such thing as containment; there is no such thing as co-existence; there is no such thing as choice. Your yields drop and you end up using three to five times more chemicals. We now have superweeds in our towns, on our golf courses, in our cemeteries and on our roads. The chemicals we have to use on them contain up to 70% of the constituents of Agent Orange.’

The Ecologist June 2009: French govt has agreed introduction of labelling ‘fed on non-GM feed’ on meat and dairy products, a victory for group Que Choisir. In Germany a ban on GM maize variety (because when fed to mice they showed reproductive problems) has led to lawsuit from Montano…

The Ecologist May 2009: criticises the publication by ‘Sense About Science’ – ‘Making Sense of GM’, which appears to have been written by people with connections with the GM industry, viz: Prof. V Moses, head of industry-funded GM lobby group CropGen; 8 contributors from John Innes Centre, which receives funding from the GM industry; and a draft version, obtained by Private Eye, shows that one of the contributors – whose name was removed from the publication! – was toxicologist Andrew Cockburn, former director of scientific affairs at Monsanto (when he was invited to author part of a government review there were questions in parliament and one of the other panellists resigned).  

More disturbingly, the publishers (directors of SAS) are part of the Living Marxism group, which also is ‘behind online magazine Spiked and the Institute of Ideas – the group promotes climate change denial, eulogises GMOs, human cloning and nuclear power, and portrays environmentalists as Nazis…’ (Jonathan Matthews in The Ecologist). LM lost a libel action against ITN when it tried to argue that new pictures of starving Bosnians were faked. The magazine had to close… http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Living_Marxism.

See also Zac Goldsmith’s Guardian article: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/jan/05/sense-about-science-celebrity-observations.

Jonathan Matthews is the founder of GM Watch www.gmwatch.eu   

Population: global growth: predictions for world population, from 6.5 bn in 2010 to 9.2 bn in 2050; consequences: 50 m new mouths to feed each year (= population of UK/Italy); if Chinaincreasingly eats meat, then demand for grain will increase; perhaps also demand for biofuels. So: food prices increase – and hunger unless something done. See WDM report: The Great Hunger Lottery. (Patrick Collinson, G24.07.10) Also notes that it is likely that investment in food is a good bet – but speculation will increase prices further…

Book: Population Ten Billion, by Danny Dorling, (Constable) professor of human geography at university of Sheffield.

The Sea: the North Sea is almost dead from over-fishing (Callum Roberts: The Unnatural History of the Sea, Gaia Books) Sep 2007 (New St 13.08.07)

Dangers of encroachment into permafrost in Arctic:  Russian gas/ plants e.g. Sakhalin, Yamal, BP’s Alaskan Prudhoe Bay oilfield: closed after spill… Settlements also bring environmental damage and HIV… New St 13.08.07


Aug 2019. Reactions to George Monbiot article on IPCC special report on climate change and land – the report does mention the Nature paper on carbon opportunity costs (ch 5) and it does explicitly address the advantages of reducing meat and dairy. However, priority must be reduction of fossil fuels and deforestation. Changes in agriculture will take a long time.

Another view: the report is disappointing: no mention of conservation agriculture (CA) – even though it says that soil is being lost 100 times faster than it is being formed where it is ploughed, and 10 to 20 times faster on no-till areas. CA is based on (i) continuous no or minimum mechanical sol disturbance (ii) permanent maintenance of soil mulch cover (iii) diversification of cropping system. (Reduced tillage alone is not CA).

Aug 2019. Waste/recycling: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/aug/17/plastic-recycling-myth-what-really-happens-your-rubbish