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In 1992, at the first world environment conference in Rio de Janeiro, attended by 192 heads of state or of government, George HW Bush (a.k.a. Bush ’41) refused to accept certain terms and conditions of the draft agreements that had been worked out by international negotiation teams. The teams involved experts from all UN member countries on agriculture, forestry, and environment and they had thrashed out details of the various agreements over months of preliminary meetings, painstakingly modifying or eliminating wording that was unacceptable to this country or that, Of course the richest countries carried the most clout when all these decisions were made. At that time, in 1992, the US consumed a quarter of the world’s oil, a third of its paper, and 40% of its beef and veal. Some of the terms of the agreements would have impinged on the US’ ability to continue consuming so much of the world’s natural resources, so at the final meetings President George HW Bush insisted on last minute changes to some of the previously agreed text. The reason he gave: the American way of life is not negotiable.
This statement naturally did not go down well with the other countries, but as the 800 pound gorilla at the UN, the nations of the world grinned and bore it. A host of watered down agreements were signed, and the world went back to business-as-usual. Environmental activists sighed and thought: at least we’ve managed to bring all these issues to the world agenda; kings, dictators, prime ministers and presidents of 192 countries came to Rio, the first such meeting in the history of the world, so surely we’re beginning to make progress.
Today, 28 years later, the American way of life is indeed being re-negotiated, but it is Nature that is doing the re-negotiating, not the UN or other countries. As Covid, climate change, and repeated financial meltdowns are showing us, the American way of life is indeed negotiable.
When Austrian-born American economist Joseph Schumpeter spoke of creative destruction, he was referring to cycles of innovation in industry as new technologies displaced older, less efficient ones. As a new technology gained the upper hand, older industries died out, giving rise to a period of disruption and major unemployment.
In a chapter in his book Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, Schumpeter writes: “The same process of industrial mutation—if I may use that biological term—that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one. This process of creative destruction is the essential fact about capitalism,” he said. Schumpeter was more right than he knew, not only about industrial mutation, but in regard to natural mutation. As a passionate environmentalist, I would assert that Schumpeter’s insight is primarily applicable to natural systems. More than 60% of the world’s wealth is embedded in nature and natural systems. Heedless of that, we, in developed industrial societies and all aspiring, developing industrial societies, are recklessly plundering our planet’s natural resources in order to fuel economic growth; in pursuit of the cachet of success, of material wealth far beyond basic human needs of food, clothing and shelter.
Studies show that most forest trees need to be exposed to fire every 50 to 100 years to invigorate new growth. Epidemiologists have long predicted pandemics like the current one, but societies at large have been too busy chasing prosperity to pay much attention. Now that Nature has targeted humanity with some creative destruction of its own, it’s up to us to learn the lessons of the forest; clearing away the dead wood of outdated industrial practices, investing in lifestyles and technologies that eliminate waste and support planetary health.
What need for annual trillion dollar subsidies for fossil fuels when 99% of scientific studies say we should stop carbon emissions? What need for continued economic growth when wealth accrues to the 1% of the population and leaves the other 99% behind? What need for new technologies when the best ones currently available are not being used widely enough?
Political leaders won’t ask us these questions. We must ask it of them. Our survival as a species depends on it.
The Covid-19 lockdown has put a damper on my scheme to sponsor the planting of at least 1000 trees in 2020. I hoped to plant a few of the thousand with my own hands. I think taking personal action leads to a deeper commitment.
There have been many articles recently about a Swiss company called CLIMEWORKS that has a strategy to remove CO2 from the air through conversion to carbonates. These carbonates can then store carbon underground as solids or else, in gaseous form, be treated to produce synthetic liquid fuels at an ultimate cost of around $ 1 per liter, as mentioned in a recent Nature Briefing newsletter.
Sequestering carbon with trees is much slower, less industrial, and would be Nature’s way to restore the planet. Following Nature’s way might be less glamorous to the uninitiated, but to be done well, it requires a wealth of local knowledge. This local knowledge is often the kind that is not found in text books or taught in schools. The kind of people who possess this knowledge usually do not know they possess something valuable, since much of the world discounts their knowledge for lack of paper qualifications, not even a high school diploma. But some of the most successful development programs have been based on inputs from aboriginals and “primitive” forest tribes. After all, artemisinin, cinchona and willow bark had been in use for centuries before modern medicine discovered them; artemisinin in China 2000 years ago, cinchona in early South American cultures. Willow bark and leaves were used by Assyrians, Sumerians, early Egyptians and ancient Greeks. So let’s plant trees then, as widely as we can, in order to suck up carbon. But if we make use of available local knowledge, we will find dozens, if not hundreds, of ancillary benefits.
One such afforestation program, conducted by a non-profit foundation called The Forest Way, strictly plants only indigenous species of trees on an area that covers a few square miles of once-barren land. In the twelve years since the planting began, a few dried out streams carry water again, leaf litter decomposing on the forest floor is slowly building up a layer of healthy soil and, most spectacular, the number of bird species sightings have increased from around 60 to 230+ at last count.
The subject of tree-planting brings me finally to the title of this post. ECOSIA calls itself an “ecological search engine” and it aims to help reforest the earth. According to Wikipedia, Ecosia plants an average of 1 tree for every 45 searches made on it. The Ecosia search engine works with all browsers and once you begin to use it, the page shows a small window with a tree symbol and a number to denote the searches made on this search engine since the download. Most recently Ecosia’s website reports 97 million trees planted (and counting), and more than 15 million users. Make that 15 million and one. I became an Ecosia user yesterday!
Personal growth is the theme of most management text books and self-development manuals. A passage by Lebanese-American poet Kahlil Gibran is a timely reminder in this fearful age of Covid. It reminds us that death is only the ultimate step of self-development and growth in the journey of life.
“It is said that before entering the sea, a river trembles with fear. She looks back at the path she has traveled, from the peaks of the mountains, the long winding road crossing forests and villages. And in front of her, she sees an ocean so vast, that to enter there seems nothing more than to disappear forever. But there is no other way. The river can not go back. Nobody can go back. To go back is impossible in existence. The river needs to take the risk of entering the ocean, because only then will fear disappear, because that’s where the river will know — it’s not about disappearing into the ocean, but of becoming the ocean.”
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.
It happened one evening in the new year, driving back to the city on the autobahn from a visit to the town of Petronell-Carnuntum (once home to Marcus Aurelius’ Roman legions as they fought against the barbarians, so colorfully depicted in Ridley Scott’s movie, Gladiator). I was travelling at about 100 kmh, overtaking a column of trucks travelling at their legal speed limit of 80. There was a gusty wind blowing. The road was clear although it had snowed a day or two earlier. The temperature was close to freezing. Suddenly in the gathering twilight I saw something large and white swirling towards the windscreen of the car. Travelling in the middle of three lanes, with trucks on the right and faster cars on the left, there was neither time nor space to avoid it. A bone-jarring thump, and the windshield of the car dissolved into a criss-cross of lines as the safety glass shattered but did not break apart. Recovering from the shock, I realized it was a block of ice, the size of two or three bricks, that had dislodged from the roof of one of the trucks ahead of us. A harder gust of wind or a few km/h faster and I, with my precious cargo of three other people in the car, might all be dead.
Thinking about the incident later brought to mind the phrase “the hand of God.” Being of a non-religious bent, I am inclined to ask: was it the hand of God that threw the chunk of ice, or was it the hand of God that blocked it? Or was it both? A display of divine power? An attempt to impress that seems unworthy of an all-powerful being!
The beliefs of various religions claiming to know the origin of the universe and to give its creator a name; be it Jehovah, Jahveh, Allah, Brahman, etc. seems to me to be just that; beliefs. And the claims made by brilliant scientists like Stephen Hawking who said that the universe was decided by the laws of science simply fails my common-sense test.
“So then science is your God?” I ask Hawking in my dream.
“Well yes,” he replies. “If you like you can call the laws of science “God,” but it wouldn’t be a personal God you could meet and put questions to.” (see USA Today, Oct. 17, 2018)
So to my mind, the beliefs of both science and theology are limited, rather like the motto of the New York Times; “All the News That’s Fit to Print.” Although admittedly a superior newspaper, the claim is, in global terms, ludicrous. As ludicrous as the claim of any religion or science to know all the truth. As someone who has been close to death on two occasions, I can assure you there’s nothing to fear on the other side. On the contrary, the overwhelming feeling is a warm sense of peace accompanied by deep, wordless joy. One comes out of the experience loving life more than ever, but in a detached kind of way that is infinitely liberating. As to what really lies on the other side, I’m sure no one really knows for sure, so if it comforts you, go ahead and cling to your beliefs. But for God’s sake, don’t go starting wars or fighting over it.