Friday, 21 June 2013

Look around you. What do you see?

 Global Ecology – a New Arena of political Conflict. Editor Wolfgang Sachs. Fermwood Publishing, Halifax, Nova Scotia, 1993. pp 262.

I found this book in April 2011 while browsing in the library of the Royal Dublin Society. It was in mint condition and immediately caught my interest. There was no evidence from the reader’s slip that it had been read by a member. I assumed that it was recently published and therefore would bring me up to date on the issues of ecology. I borrowed it to include in my winter holiday reading in Tenerife. Imagine my surprise when I discovered on returning home from the library that it was published in 1993 and reprinted in 2004. 

It includes 17 essays by eminent academics from universities and other institutions.  They were ecologists, economists, biologists, and anthropologists. They were drawn from all parts of the world and they included some who could speak for the third world.  The authors adopted in economic terms the North as representing the first level countries and the South as the rest of the world including the third level countries.

After my reading I came to the conclusion that no realistic steps have taken place over the last 18 years to challenge the rapid deterioration in our environment nor has there been any evidence that there is concern about the burgeoning human population which during the 18 years since first publication has increased by one and a half billion. What a contribution these newcomers have made to the so-called carbon footprint! There were no references to the need for population restraint. 

Concerns about the environment have not been changed over these 18 years. It can be simply put. We are out of balance with Nature in terms of destroying many aspects of our environment on which we depend for our survival as a species and we have done nothing about it.

 The evidence is clear – There are too many people in the world and our obsession about development in terms of energy usage, waste and globalisation are not consistent with a stable environment. We cannot survive with our dependency on and abuse of the natural features on the planet. A human population which has increased three-fold during the last 70 years to an estimated 7 billion in the autumn of 2012 is inconsistent with stable carbon emissions. Added to this are the changes which are taking place in the world to-day and which are in practice largely ignored because their insidious nature fails to impact on our minds... The drying up of rivers and lakes, the loss of wetlands, the melting of snow and ice, the increasing temperature of the atmosphere and the oceans, the rapid rise in carbon, the loss of rain forests, the spread of alien species and the more obvious and unprecedented loss of species, the recent unstable weather, the increasing civil strife, immigration and refugeeism, the disposal of massive amount of waste, some of which is toxic –these are only some of the changes which face us to-day and which threaten the lives and the future of our children and future generations

These distinguished authors are likely to have little influence on our current environmental problems. As academics they appear to be unconcerned about the effects of globalisation and they add little to practical solutions. Some features which may be relevant to a stable and enduring world are reviewed but there is a lack of realism in encouraging the third world to reach our own level of development, when it is clear that we in the first world should strive to reduce our waste and our contributions to climatic warming to that of the third world. And it is clear that the first world is seriously abusing the welfare of the third world by depriving the latter of much of their natural wealth in terms of forestry, mineral wealth, fishing and other non-renewable resources. Poverty in the South must be eliminated, an aspiration which has so far failed despite the billions which have already been donated in recent years to the central African countries where the massive increase in population is outstripping the benefits of foreign help. 

The authors fail to underline the crucial fact that we are destroying the very fabric of our environment, a fabric which is worldwide in nature and which we and all other species are depending on for our very existence. They emphasise the importance of maintaining our standard of living worldwide. Energy must be reduced but there is no reference to the burgeoning car industry, to unnecessary flying, to the worst features of globalisation; and virtually no reference to the burgeoning increase of population; and no reference to the need to return to a more community form of living. 

When I was a teenager in the mid- and late 1930s, we were an extended family living in a suburban community and close to our cousins, neighbours and friends. We had no car, but used our legs, the bicycle and public transport. We rarely travelled further than the city and then only to our cousins in the country. If we travelled abroad it was to stay with foreign families as part of our education as we reached adulthood, and in my case to complete my medical education in London. My parents took two weeks’ holiday a year to stay with friends or in provincial hotels. We were reasonably housed but could have been better clothed to avoid the prevailing chilblains and the paucity of artificial heating.

Me, third from the right
We were adequately fed although our tastes were simple and eating habits were more disciplined then. The obesity syndrome was to await many more years. We had the grounds to grow some of our own food and fruit, and to provide eggs for the family and a few other households in the area. We had a large galvanised water butt for use in the garden and greenhouse. Washing dried on the line outside or, when it rained, in the kitchen. Our garden was teeming with insects, bees and butterflies in the summer and with birds at all seasons. We had access to the local library, saw little crime and were at least as happy as an equivalent family today and probably more secure.

As children we caused no damage to the environment. Indoor games and self-entertainment, added to the girls’ activities in designing, creating and repairing clothes, kept us busy, and outdoor games and hobbies were enjoyed and sometimes shared with neighbours and cousins. The emphasis was still on non-elitist sport and regular physical activity. Scouting for the boys was invaluable in terms of occupation, education and training. There was no accumulation of toys and plastic in the house – it was long before the plastic era and the heavy pressure on parents and friends to provide the huge variety of plastic toys so attractive to the young today.

Above all, when I was young there was little waste and no evidence of the current pollution of the environment or of unwelcome incinerators. Darkness still prevailed in most places at night. The only possible damage to the environment we might have wrought was the high birth rate, the gradual elimination of the contagious epidemic diseases which had so drastically controlled population in the past and the huge decline in infant mortality. These factors were to contribute to the emerging rapid increase in world population.

Why do we not return to such community existence and thus eliminate the worst elements of globalisation that must inevitably lead to disaster for the world and for humanity? Look at the advantages which we have over and above my family of seventy-five years ago. The dramatic progress of communication by internet, radio and television; the technical advances in food production and product manufacture; the advances in clothing and insulation of houses and offices, the remarkable advances in bike technology and equipment and in public transportation; the great improvement in general health thanks to prevention, public education and advances in medicine; the great advances in education for the masses and, finally, the inspirational resources of the human mind; and all this without causing damage to the good earth or its inhabitants.

We will continue to need energy to provide essential services, but we surely could have access to and utilise solar power more widely and, perhaps to a lesser degree, wind and water energy and energy from the earth’s core. A worldwide change from a meat to a vegetable agricultural economy would provide enough food to cater for an inflated human population.

One author is optimistic about the role of NGOs such as Greenpeace, WorldWatch and many other local and international organisations. They have certainly been active but their successes have been hardly such as to make a significant change in our efforts to protect the world. Whatever success they may have has done little to curb the power of the globalisation industries.  There is little reference to the failure of our national and international politicians and none to the baleful influence of the armament, oil, monoculture food industries and the international media which are controlled by the global business interests.

Politicians are urged to keep human extraction/emission in balance with the regenerative capacity of nature, but how can we influence politicians who are under the spell of world industry and are elected by people who are committed to an acquisitive and wasteful lifestyle?

This book is not without its obvious merits. Much of its academic approach cannot be ignored even as late as 18 years after its publication.

It is clear that the ecological problems remain implacably with us. The failures of Copenhagen and Cancún were simply a continuation of many previous failures by our politicians and ecologists. Most countries do not see the issues as very relevant to their concerns. Environment was seen by our leading politicians as antithetical to development. Although several civic groups and NGOs articulate alternate views, they are invariably treated by governments with indifference and are excluded from their councils. There continues to be an enduring pessimism about the potential of North/South dialogue on issues of global impact. Like First level countries, most of the South’s governments pursue narrowly parochial agendas – the most obvious being to seek financial gains for themselves, rather than trying to influence real environmental challenges

Nemesis is the Greek conception of retribution as when we challenge Nature, when we dominate and destroy other creatures and when we violate the natural order through water and air pollution, tree destruction and other aspects of our environment. Nemesis can be attributed to hubris, to the price we pay for our rejection of Gaia, the natural world on which we are totally dependent for our wellbeing and survival. It is the assumption that we can dominate nature and that nature exists solely for our own wellbeing in terms of possessions and personal comfort and satisfaction. Our behaviour can be justified as a trade-off for the gradual destruction of the natural order.

I don’t believe we have any idea of the consequences of the capitalistic and globalised order of our selfish world. I fear for our grandchildren, our birds, our bees and many other species ordained by nature. We are in need of a world leader and a world movement to adjust our relationship with Nature if we are to survive the threat to humanity and the earth we live in. 

22nd April 2011.

Postscript 19/6/2013:

Global Ecology was written in 1992. It was largely related to the politics of the environment. Little or nothing has changed since then. I sent the review to my editor, Lisa Mulcahy, on this date for early publication in my blog. This was the same day that the Irish Times headline read

G8 leaders call for flexibility in fiscal policy to help boost global economy

These were the leaders of the eight most powerful nations in the world meeting in the North of Ireland the day before. These are the people who will determine the future of humanity and our natural world. So what are we to expect from such leaders?

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