Pray for Copenhagen

Today, the 7th December 2009, the leaders of 192 countries converge on Copenhagen in an attempt to prevent climate change from ravaging the planet.  These people come to Copenhagen amidst claims, and counter-claims, that this is a man-made problem, as opposed to a natural phenomena.  Public opinion in most countries, though decreasingly so in the world’s two greatest polluters (American and China) is largely in favour of policies that would constrain economic practices that increase global emissions.

I am a geographer by training, and spent years helping youngsters make sense of the world around them.  Long ago I read Rachael Carson’s Silent Spring in which she stated the obvious; “the thin layer of soil that forms a patchy covering over the continents controls our existence, and that of every other animal of the land.”  By the time of James Lovelock’s publication of The Gaia Hypothesis in 1979 very many of us had in our minds that in this fragile skin of no more than ten miles down into the earth and ten miles into the sky, was all the space that humanity had “to live and die and have our being.”  Millions of years of life forms have created an environment conducive to human life, and have bequeathed to us vast deposits of carbon that could be released to give enormous short-term benefits, but probably long-term disaster.  Having visited the Athabasca Tar Sands earlier this year I now have a frightening picture of the devastation that results from the exploitation in a few short years, of reserves that had been built up over the millennia.

In that thin ‘skin’ which surrounds the earth – equivalent to the thinnest layer of varnish you could ever put on a baseball – humanity has to live, work, breath and somehow throw away its rubbish.  But the ‘rubbish’ is only part of the problem.  If civilisation is to survive it must live on the interest, not the capital of nature.  “Ecological markers suggest”, wrote the Canadian Ronald Wright, “that in the early 1960s humans were using about 70% of natures yearly output.  By the early 1980s we had reached 100%.  In 1999 we were at 125%,” and now it is thought to be approaching 150%.  The numbers may lack precision but their trend is clear – they point to planetary bankruptcy because one-third of what we are consuming comes from non-renewable resources.  And still the world population grows remorselessly.

So last Saturday, for the second time in my life, I joined a demonstration marching through London in support of the Copenhagen Conference.  On the trip up to London I re-read the conclusion of the biologist Fritjof Capra’s book Hidden Connections.  “As this new century unfolds, there are two developments that will have major impacts on the well-being and ways of life of humanity.  Both have to do with networks, and both involve radical new technologies.  One is the rise of global capitalism; the other is the creation of sustainable communities based on ecological literacy and the practice of eco-design.  Whereas global capitalism is concerned with electronic networks of financial and information flows, eco-design is concerned with ecological networks of energy and material flows.  The goal of the global economy is to maximise the wealth and power of its elite; the goal of eco-design is to maximise the sustainability of the web of life.”

In ancient Jewish tradition it is said that God told Adam and Eve “Take care that you do not destroy the world, for if you do, there will be no one left to repair what you have destroyed.”  A century or more ago Chief Seattle reminded the European settlers moving into his part of the Pacific Northwest of the fundamental belief of the Native Americans: “We have not inherited this world from our parents, we have been loaned it by our children.”

If there is the vaguest chance that global warming has been caused or exaggerated by the way in which we are living our lives then we have absolutely no alternative but to take the Copenhagen Conference incredibly seriously – for the sake of our children’s children’s children.

See Chapter Two of Overschooled but Undereducated