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Here’s a story for the dwindling number (I hope) of climate change skeptics who still look forward to business-as-usual, or more-of-the-same as a blueprint for the rest of the 21st century. A HuffPost report in November reveals that, way back in 1956, the coal industry accepted the reality of global warming and did not feel threatened by it (the problem lay one generation in the future!). The same is true for the oil industry, according to a spate of lawsuits brought against it by various groups and several US States. In December 2019, Exxon won a major climate change lawsuit brought against it by the state of New York, but there are many more on the way.
The remarkable thing here is that the science of impending climate change was uncontested as long as the threat to the profits of fossil fuel corporations lay decades in the future. Here is the paradox at the heart of the debate about climate change. In the early days of global climate modelling, in the 1970s, the models were relatively unrefined and scientists themselves did not stake strong positions based on the results of their own models. Additionally, the majority of scientists subscribed to the myth that science has to be neutral in order to serve as an impartial referee that floated above the discussion, distributing facts where necessary. In reality, the discussions on the ground were becoming messy. The science began to be disputed as the soon as the deadline for meaningful action neared. Powerful polluters, mining companies, oil corporations, muddied the waters (both literally and intellectually) with arguments that played on statistical uncertainty to kick the decision a few decades down the road.
Meanwhile scientists sat back and redoubled their efforts, striving for ever greater accuracy in their models. They reasoned, logically, that once their results achieved greater accuracy, people would come round to their point of view. But that is not the way the world works. It has little place for logic and reason. So they toiled on, with ever more dense reports of double- and triple-checked facts and innumerable citations. Meanwhile the world went on guzzling gas and emitting CO2, methane, and worse. This is the point when the world drowns in despair or A MESSIAH APPEARS. Lo and behold! We have our unlikely messiah. Hundreds of thousands of school children, young people. Their face is that of Greta Thunberg whose single-minded focus has made her the global symbol of the movement.
If we look at simple facts, solutions to the problem are much more doable than we think. Elon Musk is mocked for saying that 10,000 sq. miles of the Nevada desert covered in solar panels could produce all the energy requirements of the United States. He’s right of course, but this is only intended as an example of scale. It wouldn’t be safe or desirable to have the entire nation’s energy needs produced at a single source. The following is a better example. An engineer acquaintance, Klaus Turek, calculates that in the case of a temperate country like Austria, just 0.391% of its surface covered with solar panels is sufficient to meet its electricity requirements. That works out to about 328 sq. km. for the whole country. The area covered by buildings is 2.4%, however (2,013 sq km approximately). Therefore, just 16% of the currently available roof space would be sufficient to cover all of Austria’s current electricity needs, with plenty left over for expansion.
Fake news is alive and flourishing in all parts of the world, including in India, where WhatsApp and Facebook (among others) are helping to spread misinformation (inaccuracies) and disinformation (intentional inaccuracies) about events around the world. The above headline about Gandhi’s death apparently appeared in a school textbook in Gujarat, and probably represents ongoing attempts by rightwing Hindu zealots to rewrite history to the party’s liking.
Biology teaches us that life forms flourish when they exist in robust interplay. An increase in biodiversity in an ecosystem results in increased productivity in the system, increased resilience against natural disasters and increased stability overall. In our tech-driven century, the opposite is happening in the financial and business world. Commerce and economic activity are being increasingly dominated by a handful of powerful corporations: Google, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook, Walmart, Tencent, Alibaba, and so on. The pattern is replicated within countries as well. In every case, in every country, Ambani, Adani, Li Ka-shing, Bezos, Zuckerberg, Ma… whatever their names, each and every one will use every means at their disposal to protect their wealth; economic biodiversity and planetary health be damned. It is truly easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle…
It is time for us, planetary citizens and voters, to stiffen the spines of our politicians so that they can take steps to curtail the planet-destroying power of the Putins and Murdochs of this world. It won’t be easy, but the survival of the planet is at stake. Unlikely beacons of hope at this juncture are the protests of thousands of school children around the world led by a Swedish sixteen year-old girl with Asperger’s. Theirs is an example for every one of us to follow, in every way we possibly can. The next few years will decide whether we can salvage our planetary heritage for coming generations.
I’m currently reading a book by Kate Raworth called “Doughnut Economics.” In it, the author pleads for a rethink of the traditional growth model of an ever-expanding economy to one of equitable development, keeping planetary boundaries in mind, and ensuring redistribution of resources so that the most disadvantaged in society are also looked after.
In the traditional testosterone model (my own term) of economic growth, the rich prosper while the rest of the population benefit from the trickle-down effect of an expanding economy. Trickle down is a euphemism for the rich pissing down on the rest, thus validating the term piss-poor long after the expression came into use. I have examined the disastrous effects of testosterone based decision-making in two earlier blog posts: in 2015 (Golden Skirts vs. Testosterone in the Financial World), and in 2018 (Leadership Hope for a Warming World). Another reflective piece, published on this website in 2018, is related to the topic of the current post (Three Score Years and Ten: Planetary Health and your Lifetime).
It’s clear now to all but the most self-absorbed amongst us that we’re already consuming much more than the planet can sustainably provide. If Mother Nature and the earth’s resources were assumed to be a bank account, then we’re no longer living off the interest alone but are drawing down its capital. Since 1971, the Global Footprint Network has calculated Earth Overshoot Day for each year. In the website’s own words:
The Global Footprint Network calculates the number of days of the year that Earth’s bio-capacity suffices to provide for humanity’s ecological footprint. The remainder of the year corresponds to global consumption of Nature’s capital. Earth Overshoot Day is computed by dividing the planet’s bio-capacity (the amount of ecological resources Earth is able to generate that year), by humanity’s ecological footprint (humanity’s demand for that year), and multiplying by 365, the number of days in a year:
(Planet’s Biocapacity / Humanity’s Ecological Footprint) x 365 = Earth Overshoot Day. (EOD)
In 2018, Earth Overshoot Day was calculated to have happened on 1 August. In 2004, the overshoot fell on 1 September! By this calculation, the last time mankind was truly sustainable was in 1969 or 1970 when overshoot day fell in a subsequent year!
Since this planetary over-consumption was first computed in 1971, we have been steadily increasing our ecological debt, and the interest we’re paying on that mounting debt is measured in food shortages, soil erosion, rising temperatures, increasing atmospheric CO2 concentration, biodiversity loss and much, much more. The problem is huge and solutions seem daunting and unreachable to us as individuals. Before we sink into despair, Kate Raworth tells us that there’s plenty we can do as societies to reverse this state of affairs and restore the planet to health. Doughnut Economics, the term she has coined, outlines the solutions that society needs. In the diagram above, the light green space denotes the resources mankind can safely take from the earth while restoring it to health. The dark green lines are the planetary boundaries that have to be respected if we wish to do this. The blue segments are the labels of the various sectors that have to be addressed. The book outlines broad prescriptions to deal with the problems of each of these sectors. In reading through this and other books written in a similar vein, we see that the answer to climate change lies in social change, not in new technologies. Technology alone is useless without the human will to adopt them and to adapt.
So here is the answer to the initial despairing question. What can we do as individuals? There’s plenty one can do. The EOD website lists hundreds of steps individuals can take to mitigate planetary health. Therein lies our power as individuals. Out of many, one.
Doughnut Economics: Kate Raworth, Random House Business 2018, 384 pp.,
When I was a small child, wealth meant the ability to buy different kinds of imported food. There were no cold stores then, only a single ice factory in town, so exotic food meant things like tinned preserves, Danish ham, Australian Cheddar, canned sardines and chocolates. These delicacies usually came as gifts from visitors and were saved for special occasions, treasured long after the guests had left.
As I grew older, found a job and struggled to become economically self-sufficient, wealth meant money in the bank. Money was saved to finance the luxury of travel, buy a car, savor the security of owning an apartment (or even that impossible dream, owning a house with a garden), to provide a cushion against unexpected job loss. All these hurdles were crossed and there was a steady job with enough money in the bank to survive for a year. Yet the insecurity remained.
Then came the unexpected day when confronted with the deep contentment of someone who had nothing but a small suitcase of possessions, the clothes on his back and confidence in his life skills. Using this person as an inspiration, I gave all my possessions away, keeping only a (t)rusty old car and a part-time job. The nagging insecurity vanished, leaving behind a surge of confidence that the universe would provide; that the intangibles of life were more important than possessions or money in the bank. Where did this faith come from? I don’t know. It was a deep, gut feeling that I trusted. For many people faith comes from religious belief, but in my case I had no strong adherence to any religion although I respected the universal truths of all religions.
Security is such an elusive thing. Ultimately it can be defined as a state of mind. But although this definition is largely true, it does break down at times. Try telling refugees fleeing from bullets and bombs that security is a mental attitude. “Whose mental attitude? Not ours,” they’d say. I believe that Gandhi’s appeal to the World War II allies to counter Hitler with non-violent resistance was ill-advised and would not have succeeded. Civil disobedience worked with the British Empire because, despite rampant colonial hypocrisy, they ultimately respected their own rule of law. Today we see this respect for the rule of law and human rights breaking down in many countries around the world.
Every age has its own definitions of wealth. In Biblical Old Testament times, wealth was measured in nomadic terms; cattle, goats, large families and many servants. This was traditionally also true among the Maasai, the Baktiari, and most other nomadic tribes. The Book of Proverbs defines wealth thus: the rich rule over the poor and the borrower is servant to the lender; i.e. neither a borrower nor a lender be. Modern day banking practices seem to have upended this rule and if you’re a big enough borrower, you might end up owning the bank.
Today, in the face of unprecedented anthropogenic climate change, true wealth needs to be redefined as the health of the planet. This basic fact is easy for billionaires and the world’s rich corporations to overlook. They think in terms of quarterly returns to shareholders, GNP, or other artificial indicators and forget that all wealth ultimately depends on two measures of health; planetary and personal. The planet is sending us enough warning signs. It’s time for all of us to stop counting money as a measure of success and concentrate on living healthy lives while improving the health of the planet.∞
Hans Christian Andersen said it best more than one hundred and fifty years ago. Children have the capacity to speak truth to power when sages are silenced for daring to state the obvious in a climate of denial. Scientific studies have shown, with ever-increasing certainly, for more than four decades now, that human action is changing the planet in alarming ways. What was at first a trickle of change has turned into a flood. Despite years of unseasonal floods, droughts, ice melts, desertification and habitat loss, it is only now, when children take to the streets in protest, that there is any real hope of progress.
And this childrens’ movement has an unlikely heroine; sixteen year-old Greta Thunberg, who didn’t mince words while addressing self-important bodies like the UN COP24 conference or to EU leaders. “You lied to us. You gave us false hope. You told us the future was something to look forward to. Those who will be affected the hardest are already suffering the consequences, but their voices are not heard. Is my microphone on? Can you hear me?” Her words shamed members of the UK Parliament who took the unprecedented step of declaring the climate crisis an emergency.
At the COP24 conference in Poland, she told the assembled delegates: “You only talk about moving forward with the same bad ideas that got us into this mess, even when the only sensible thing to do is to pull the emergency brake. You are not mature enough to tell it like it is. Even that burden you leave to us children. But I don’t care about being popular. I care about climate justice and the living planet.”
Greta Thunberg’s words and actions are a reminder of the eternal truth of a tale by Danish author Hans Christian Andersen. In his tale, the Emperor’s New Clothes, everyone pretends to see and admire the marvellous garments that are supposedly visible to everyone but the foolish. Until one child cries out, “But the Emperor has no clothes!” At that moment everyone sees the truth and repeats the child’s words. In our real-life parable, Greta Thunberg is the unnamed child in Andersen’s story, and the Emperor stands for the corporations and big businesses that stand to lose their profits if climate change is accepted as an issue that is vital to humanity’s future.
Although this blog was begun to publicise my own fiction, there are so many interesting things to write about that the fiction element has been displaced by other kinds of stories; stories about geopolitics, concerns about global change (of which not least, climate change), and new developments in science and technology.
It currently seems to me, as an informed layperson, that the answer to the planet’s global warming crisis lies primarily not so much in technological advances as in social engineering for change. For example, livestock farming produces 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Halving the consumption of meat, to take only one measure, would have enormous health benefits for individuals and at a stroke, reduce greenhouse gas emissions. That’s the equivalent of removing the 2015 contributions of the two most populous countries, India and China! According to a 2006 FAO report, Livestock’s Long Shadow (416 pp.), cattle alone are responsible for more global warming than all forms of transportation put together.
Another quick fix would be to reduce national defence budgets and invest the money in women’s health and education, easier said than done, considering the political madness that one sees in countries around the world. This too can be changed if enough people around the world set their minds to it and realise that we, the people, are the drivers of political change. Politicians are servants. They are merely people responding to our collective angsts and biases.
As global temperatures rise, people try to cope by installing air-conditioning units. This compounds the problem, since electricity consumption multiplies and heat dissipates to the outside world, creating urban heat islands and causing yet more global warming. It’s like polluting an ocean. Imperceptible when only one person does it, but massive when done by millions. Here’s an exciting technological fix in the works that might help to solve the air-conditioning problem: thermoacoustic cooling.
The principle was apparently observed by glassblowers more than two centuries ago. They noticed a sound was created when blowing a hot glass bubble at the end of a cold, long tube. 19th century scientists figured the sound was produced by the thermal gradient, and resonance was giving extra energy to the air in the tube. Apparently the first modern application to capture this energy for cooling was used in NASA’s Space Shuttle Discovery in 1992. Today, there seem to be two companies, in the Netherlands and in France, who offer solutions based on this principle for pollution free cooling. Here’s a link to the websites of Dutch company, SoundEnergy and France-based Equium. The sooner such companies are commercially successful, the better for the planet. Here’s a simple demonstration of the principle showing the working of a thermoacoustic engine.
I’ve sporadically followed Paul Salopek’s six-year walk across the world in National Geographic. As someone who loves to walk in all kinds of terrain myself, I find his a fascinating journey, a wonderful way to see the world up close in all its varied colors, moods and seasons. This to me is real travel; travel measured in footsteps rather than miles in a car or hours of flight. The very word flight conjures images of an attempt to escape rather than a journey to explore and expand one’s horizons. For much of the journey, Paul’s companions have been pack animals and his long treks have brought him to a real and humble understanding of the rich variety of sentient life. For this reason, he speaks with simple sadness of the death of Raju, the donkey who accompanied him on his walk across much of northern India. See the National Geo article here.
I’ve aimed to walk 10,000 steps a day (around 5 miles/8 km) for the past few years and more or less achieved it, except when the weather’s been impossible. I was also surprisingly moved by the death of a feline friend last year. Maybe that’s why the article resonated with me. Maybe that’s why the following passage he quotes from Matthew Scully’s book Dominion lingers in the mind long after reading.
“How we treat our fellow creatures is only one more way in which each one of us, every day, writes our own epitaph—bearing into the world a message of light and life or just more darkness and death, adding to the world’s joy or to its despair… Perhaps that is part of the animals’ role among us, to awaken humility, to turn our minds back to the mystery of things, and open our hearts to that most impractical of hopes in which all creation speaks as one.” From Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy by Matthew Scully.
“…to awaken humility…” and to perhaps remind ourselves that a warming planet requires us to do this for our own salvation.
Several years ago, an Italian acquaintance said to me, “The growth of the Roman Empire was driven by testosterone, you know.” He was a polyglot polymath; a materials scientist by profession, and a keen historian who sometimes spouted Greek and Latin quotations to illustrate the points he made. Julius Caesar, as a promising young general in his thirties, felt like an under-achiever and a failure. He is known to have lamented that Alexander had conquered most of the known world by the age of thirty, while he himself was only a Quaestor (a local magistrate) in Rome. Caesar was forty years old when he formed the first Triumvirate with Crassus and Pompey. He then went on to defeat the Gallic tribes of modern day France over the next eight years, killing more than a million Gauls and Germans in the process (according to Plutarch) and enslaving a million more. Presumably, by the mores of his time, these deaths were considered necessary to establish rule of law, discipline unruly Roman citizens with firm leadership and ensure stable government.
After the Second World War, with American leadership and the newly instituted United Nations organizations in 1945, it was widely believed that conquest and rule by force of arms was a thing of the past. Post-1945 the world entered an era of global peace and the longest absence of major wars mankind has ever known. If today’s world outlook seems bleak, blame it on the internet and social media, which are able to convey local impacts of minor skirmishes into our homes with larger-than-life images. Brutal killings appear immediately on the screens we carry in our pockets, or on laptops and smart tablets in homes and offices. When the Cold War ended, American philosopher Francis Fukuyama famously declared the end of history. In a nutshell his thesis was: with the spread of globalization and its accompanying prosperity, liberalism would spread around the world. Fukuyama’s book “The End of History and the Last Man” was published in the heady post-Cold War days of 1992. Today Fukuyama confesses: Twenty five years ago I didn’t have a sense or a theory about how democracies can go backward. And I think they clearly can.” (Washington Post article here)
On the other hand, Harvard psychologist and popular science author Steven Pinker argues that humanity is currently experiencing decreasing levels of violence (TED talk, 20 minutes) However he argues that liberal values are under threat from authoritarian populism, religious fundamentalism and radicalism of the left and right. There is no doubt in my mind that liberal democracies will do better than dictatorships and autocracies in tackling the gravest problem facing humanity today, global climate change. And it is mainly in democracies that the #MeToo movement is taking shape. People involved in the movement are asking questions and demanding action from their governments. Have we reached a tipping point? Can this watershed moment go beyond words to drive meaningful action? My answer to these questions is an emphatic yes. The fact that the movement has unexpectedly taken root in Asia is an enormous portent of things to come.
African press reports indicate that in many countries on the continent, women are afraid to talk about sexual harassment, especially in many of its conflict zones. According to this Zimbabwe newsletter, four of the five riskiest cities for sexual assault and rape are in Africa. There also appears to be a direct correlation between sexual harassment and geopolitics. The greater the gender equality that exists in a country, the less likelihood of autocratic leaders. Strongmen (and wannabe strongmen) look on the exercise of power as a kind of pissing contest, with the Trumps and Erdogans of this world trying to outdo the Putins, Kim Jong-Uns and Dutertes. More women leaders coming to power in countries around the world as a result of the #MeToo movement would be the best news for global climate. Women are less likely to indulge in geopolitical pissing contests. On the one hand women are generally more inclined to collaborate and cooperate and and on the other, their plumbing discourages such childish displays, leaving them with more time to get on with the urgent tasks of governing.
A quotation from the Psalms recently came to mind. The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off and we fly away. (Psalm 90, v. 10).
Having reached that Biblical milestone earlier this year, I recall a favourite uncle of mine quoting the above lines at me some decades ago when he reached the age of 70. At that time, his attitude was: I’ve done my bit for the world, and given you a good start. Now it’s up to your generation to carry on the good work. Study hard, find jobs, work hard, and you’ll end up like me, looking back on a life well-lived and enjoying the fruits of prosperity.
Based on the foundations laid by an earlier generation, many in this generation (myself included) worked hard and enjoyed a prosperous life, largely managing to evade the conflicts and other terrible things that happened around the world at different places and different times. We lived in a time of a rising tide lifts all boats otherwise known as trickle-down economics, but somehow gravity didn’t do what it was supposed to do, for the simple reason that human greed defies gravity. So instead of trickling down, money trickled up, slowly at first, until the present day when it’s become a roaring flood. Economic pundits (and most famously the pop group Abba) call it “The Winner Takes it All” syndrome. Economist Brian Arthur who has published a body of work on technology and society calls it “the network effect locking markets in to the domination of a single player.”
So here I am, at three score years and ten years thinking, the work’s not done yet; we’ve not laid the foundations of prosperity for coming generations, we’re not leaving behind a healthy planet for them. There’s still time, but there’s a lot of work to do, easily doable despite the shortening window of opportunity remaining, if enough people join in. Here are some links to steps for a healthier planet.
These are only small actions, but following the suggested prescriptions on only one of these links can greatly improve your own health as well as that of the planet. As a side benefit you might find, like Moses, that your eyes are not dimmed, nor your natural force abated. So here’s wishing you all the best for the future of the planet.