If civilisation is to survive, we have to live on the interest, not the capital, of nature. Ecological markers suggest that in the early 1960s, humans were using about 70% of nature’s yearly output; by the end of the 1980s had reached 100%; and in 1999 we were at 125%. We are raiding ‘the larder’, and eating seed corn1.
Man has always been fascinated by the stars, and named them to fit his own imagination — Apollo, Jupiter, Mars, The Great Bear. Once Copernicus proved that our earth was just another planet, we have steadily come to recognise what, in cosmic terms, a puny object earth is. Our amazement increases still further when we wonder that we have it within our brains to ‘sit comfortably in our homes thinking about it all’2. Then, between Christmas Eve 1968 and the last Apollo Space Mission three years later, man first walked on the moon and gave us photographs of our ‘home’ shown up with amazing clarity against the deep blackness of outer space3. Here was an image of incomparable significance; our tiny, fragile earth, wonderfully beautiful to comprehend, “home” to men with brains capable both of projecting themselves into that space, but with the power to destroy everything. Men shuddered at their responsibility, and grudgingly turned their minds to an inconvenient truth that every cat knows; you never defecate on your own door step, for if you can’t safely dispose of your “crap”, your home will no longer be safe to live in4.
The earth has evolved to be our home because, over billions of years, events have triggered other events which in their turn made possible the creation of something even more advanced. Every school child knows this. The atmosphere is a shockingly thin layer of gasses that moderate the effect of the sun’s rays in ways which led first to plant life, and then to the fishes, birds and then to man. As organisms took carbon out of the atmosphere and laid it down first in oil deposits, then later as coal and peat, so the atmosphere became ever more conducive to an array of life forms5. But our planet is not isolated from the rest of the universe; sometimes we are dealt a shattering blow by passing meteorites, at other times the nature of our spinning axis changes, or a vast spot develops on the surface of the sun creating endless shifts of climate, ice ages and desserts. Whole species can be obliterated. Volcanoes can spew out so much dust and ash that the world is darkened for centuries, and whole ecosystems disappeared.
It was discovering how to start fire that upset the ecological balance6. With the development of deep coal mining techniques three hundred years ago man became an ecological threat by releasing into the atmosphere in a year literally millions of years’ worth of carbon. It was the huge fire places around which sat our Victorian ancestors that first started to make a hole in the ozone layer, though we did not understand this until the 1980s. The factory chimneys of the Industrial Age punched into this. They still do. The top five industrial concerns in Britain (including the Drax Power Station in Yorkshire, the country’s biggest emitter of carbon gasses) between them emit little more than do the country’s 26 million private cars7. Worldwide the burning of fossil fuels continues to climb, despite the increase in public awareness; half of all the global car exhausts come from the United States, which had only 5% of the world’s population.
Measuring pollution is not an exact science8, but virtually every reputable scientist now accepts that this is an altogether different phenomenon to the normal climatic oscillations that created, and reversed, the ice ages of the Pleistocene. The Greenland icecap is melting; if it were to melt completely sea levels would rise 21 feet. If the Antarctic icecap were to melt sea levels would rise a further 210 feet. The scale of all this is almost incomprehensible. So are the predictions of how fast it could happen — an increase in annual temperatures of between 3 and 5°c could happen within 100 years, we are told. Our technological wizardry, linked to our insatiable desire for still more novelty, is destroying wetlands, forests, savannahs, river estuaries, and coral reefs; we have obliterated fish stocks in many oceans and destroyed a massive 90% of the total weight of the ocean’s largest predators. There are no more mahogany trees left in Honduras, that once produced the furniture so beloved of the Georgians; oak, ash, elm and teak could soon go the same way. After ‘an unprecedented period of spending earth’s natural bounty’9 scientists scream for people and politicians together to start balancing the account.
The World Wildlife Foundation10 has calculated a way of measuring the ‘ecological footprint’11 of peoples in different parts of the world. They calculate that the world has about 11 billion hectare equivalence of useable land and water for a world population of 6.5 billion people. That is an average of 1.9 hectares per person. Across the world, however, people are already ‘occupying’ an average of 2.3 hectares by drawing on non-renewable resources (such as artesian water, oil and minerals). This ‘occupancy rate’ varies greatly. The average African or Asian exists on 1.4 hectares; the average European occupies 5 hectares and is nearly three times the sustainable level; while in North America it is a massive 9.6 hectares, five times the sustainable level. A five hundred-year-old Tudor mansion in Essex, modernised lavishly perhaps by a city bond dealer, to have full central heating (in addition to open-log fires) flood lights, a sauna and a heated swimming pool, produce as many CO2 emissions in a year as does a Boeing 747 on a return flight to Australia12. Just sitting still, in the wrong way, destroys the ozone layer. To glibly assume that all the world’s problems would be solved if everyone had the technological capability of living at the same level as North America (New Yorkers, that is, not as in the ghettos of St. Louis) would require the natural resources of two more planets, the size of planet Earth, but with no further increase in population.
Thesis 94: 28th August 2006