Waking Up in Time

Crisis -- Sounding the Alarm

 

This we know -- the earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth. All things are connected like the blood which unites one family. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of the earth. Man did not weave the web of life; he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.

Chief Seattle

We may be living through the most stimulating and exciting times in history; but our rapid development has brought with it unexpected dangers, not the least of which is humanity’s ever-growing size.

Ten thousand years ago the human population numbered around ten million, gathered into small settlements. As the conditions of our lives improved, our numbers grew. By AD1000 there were about 350 million of us. In 1650 the world population was around 550 million and by 1800 it was 900 million. Nineteenth-century advances in hygiene and medicine kept our numbers expanding, and by 1900 they had reached 1.6 billion. In 1950 there were 2.5 billion of us; by 1990, 5 billion; and in 1998 we passed the 6 billion mark. Thankfully, there are now signs that this explosion is slowing. If current trends continue, the human population will probably stabilize somewhere between 10 and 12 billion -- a dauntingly large figure, but one that is sustainable, provided we tackle the various problems that follow in its wake.

Our rapidly growing numbers mean that there are more and more mouths to feed, more and more bodies to clothe, and more and more people to house. There are an ever-increasing number of tools to manufacture, a growing amount of waste to dispose of, and much more energy required to do it all. As if these were not problems enough, our technological development is magnifying the demands made by each person. The average city-dweller of today uses far more energy and resources than did a peasant farmer two hundred years ago. There are all those household appliances we use, plus the energy and resources it took to create them. We have central heating and air conditioning; we travel to work and for leisure; we ride the elevator and use many other labor-saving (but energy and resource consuming) conveniences. There is the growing and processing of the food we buy in the supermarket, its packaging and its transportation. And there is the share we all have in the material infrastructure of our society -- government buildings, defense projects, emergency services, scientific research, etc. Estimating the total energy and resource consumption is not easy due to the many factors that need to be taken into consideration, but all the estimates I know of suggest that we each consume somewhere between two hundred and a thousand times the energy and resources of a person living before the Industrial Revolution.

This added per capita consumption when compounded by our growing numbers results in an even greater impact on the planet. There are now ten times as many people in the Western world as there were 300 years ago, and if we take only the more conservative estimate of a two-hundred fold increase in individual consumption, the combined effect for the whole of our society is a two-thousand fold increase in consumption. This means that in one year we now consume more energy and resources than we would previously have consumed in two thousand years. Or, to put it even more strikingly, we now consume more in one year than we did in the whole period from the birth of Christ to the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. Little wonder we are in a crisis.

 

The Price of Fire

Most of the energy we have consumed has been obtained from the taming of fire -- initially from the burning of wood and dung, but later from coal, oil, and gas. Before the dawn of civilization forests carpeted most of the land, and had wood been used only to keep us warm, it might have stayed that way. However, our developing technologies were also hungry for wood -- wood to fire the kilns that produced pottery and bricks, wood to build houses and boats, wood to construct carts, plows, and other machinery. The result was deforestation.

The faster humanity developed, the more rapidly did the forests disappear. In Europe trees were felled to provide both fuel and timber, and the cleared areas became fields (the word is derived from “felled”) to grow food for the swelling population. As the European forests dwindled the forests of North America were plundered. The ships that brought the early settlers over from Europe went back laden with timber for the new railways and factories.

Today less than 20 percent of the earth remains forested; yet our demand for wood is greater than it has ever been. The consequence, as we are all well aware, is the plundering of the largest remaining forests -- the tropical rainforests of South America and South-East Asia.

I remember the first time I flew across the Brazilian forests at night, I looked out the window and saw what looked like the thin red line you get along the edge of a smoldering piece of paper. The only problem was, that line was ten miles long, and it was not paper but forest that was burning. In 1997 we saw the devastating effect of forest fires in Indonesia, exacerbated by the Pacific's El Niño warming effect. According to the WorldWide Fund for Nature, more forests were burned around the world in 1997 than in any other year in recorded history. At least 12 million acres of forest and scrub -- an area nearly the size of England -- burned in Indonesia and Brazil, along with vast areas of Papua New Guinea, Colombia, Peru, Tanzania, Kenya, Rwanda and the Congo. Jean-Paul Jeanrenaud, head of the fund's forest program and one of the report's authors, said: "1997 will be remembered as the year the world caught fire.

No one really knows what the long-term effects will be. The rainforests are an important organ of the biosphere and exert a considerable influence on the earth’s weather. Moreover, the destroyed areas cannot easily be reclaimed. The soil that remains is relatively poor, and after a few years of grazing collapses into desert.

As we destroy the forests we also eradicate entire species of plants and animals. No one knows how many millions of species of life there are on Earth; scientists think that we may have only discovered ten per cent of the total. And no one knows how fast they are disappearing. Current estimates suggest something like ten thousand species become extinct every year, that is about one every hour. One thing we do know is the survival of life on Earth depends upon the rich diversity of species. How many more can be destroyed before the planet’s biosystem collapses?

 

A Warmer World

The second price we had to pay for fire has been a warming we did not intend -- global warming.

The principal waste product of fire is carbon dioxide. This is not in itself a dangerous gas; indeed it is crucial to the life of plants, and, given time, the biosphere could absorb all the carbon dioxide that we produce. The problem is that we are now producing this gas far faster than the oceans and plants can absorb it. As a result the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere has risen by about a third over the last thirty years, with potentially serious consequences for the planet’s climate.

The more carbon dioxide there is, the more heat is trapped by the “greenhouse” effect, and the warmer the atmosphere becomes. Just how much warming is currently occurring remains unclear, and its full impact is still far from certain, but it could trigger changes that radically alter the course of life on Earth.

Most of us have heard how global warming could lead to a melting of the polar ice caps and a consequent rise in sea levels, leading to the flooding of lowland areas such as Bangladesh, the Netherlands, and many of the world’s coastal cities, with all its ensuing problems and enormous costs. But there are other possible consequences of even greater concern. Vegetation would not be able to “migrate” as fast as the changes in climate; many temperate forests would vanish, adding further to climatic instability. Areas that we rely upon for much of our food, such as the grain prairies of the USA, may suddenly become arid.

Shifts in climate could lead to changes in ocean currents such as the Gulf Stream, which circulates heat from the tropics to Western Europe. If this were to occur countries such as Britain could be in for a dramatic cooling rather than a warming. Hurricanes, which are seeded by warmer tropical waters, are likely to increase -- both in frequency and strength. And the El Niño warming in the Pacific, can, as we were made aware in the winter of 1998, shift weather patterns across the world.

Even a modest global warming could trigger a runaway effect. Frozen in the tundras of northern Canada and Russia are vast amounts of methane, which is an even more potent greenhouse gas. If these areas thaw, releasing their methane into the atmosphere, the world would warm much faster. This is without the current doubling in methane produced by all the cows we keep, by the rice paddies that are growing in step with our population, by decomposing swamps, and by the termites that feed on the dead wood in our dying forests. Water vapor itself is a greenhouse gas; and as the air becomes warmer and more moist, the heat trapped in the tropical regions will increase yet further. Deforestation does not help either, reducing the biosphere’s capacity to absorb carbon dioxide. Moreover, the warmer the world becomes the faster will dead vegetation decay, both on land and in the sea, further speeding the release of greenhouse gases.

As a result of these and other positive-feedback loops, the earth’s temperature may rise much more rapidly than initially suspected. Summarizing this runaway scenario in the British science magazine New Scientist, John Gribbin warned that if this happens “the greenhouse threat facing us is worse than any forecaster has yet dared to imagine.”

At the moment, however, we simply do not know enough about the planet’s climate to tell exactly what repercussions global warming will have. There is even a school of thought that argues that a warming in the tropics may flip the climate near the poles into an Ice Age. As tropical air warms it takes up more water from the oceans. When it arrives at Arctic regions, this more moist air could result in greater cloud cover. The ground beneath, being more shielded from the sun, would cool, while the increased moisture would fall as more snow. Rather than melting, the ice caps could begin to grow.

Paleoclimatologists estimate that recent Ice Ages have occurred on a regular cycle; roughly a hundred thousand years of ice, broken by warmer interglacial periods of about fifteen thousand years. The next Ice Age is due any time -- any time within the next few hundred years, that is -- and a cooling of the poles could be just the trigger to set off the next ice age. In that case we might find Scandinavia under ice while Italy dried out.

(During an ice age more water is frozen in the polar ice caps, and sea levels are much lower. During the last ice age sea levels would have been 200 to 300 feet lower than they are now. Many of the human settlements of the time would have been in low-lying areas; it is easier to grow crops in river valleys than on the sides of mountains, and early trade would have led to settlement around river mouths and along coastlines. When the ice age ended, these early settlements would have been buried beneath rising sea levels, and their occupants forced to move to much higher ground. Could this be the source of the myth of the Great Flood to be found in so many cultures? Could this have been what happened to the fabled Atlantis and Lemuria? If so, we should be looking for these lost civilizations 300 feet under the sea, out on the edge of the continental shelves. )

 

Recipes for Disaster

Carbon dioxide is just one unwanted waste product of our industrialization. Automobiles, power stations and chemical plants pour poisonous gases into the atmosphere, to fall later as acid rain. As the acidity of rivers, lakes and soil rises, the fauna and flora suffer. In Central Europe as many as half the trees have suffered or died, and the damage in Eastern Europe, where pollution has been more severe, has been even more disastrous. In Scandinavia entire lakes are dead. And we are only just beginning to recognize the effects of acid rain on human beings.

Meanwhile we dump our chemical garbage out of sight under the soil, only to find it later seeping into our water supplies. Or we pour it into the sea, killing not just fish but other organisms crucial to the ecological balance.

As if this were not enough, short-sighted intensive agricultural practices turn soil into sterile dust to be washed or blown away. At present rates of loss of twenty six billion tons per year -- that is five tons per person per year -- there will be nothing left in a hundred years.

Most dangerous of all, the ozone layer in the upper atmosphere, which protects life on land from the Sun’s damaging ultraviolet rays, is being destroyed by the chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) gases. With CFCs we have done more than release a pollutant; we have released a catalyst, a substance that speeds up other reactions without itself being changed. One CFC molecule can destroy tens of thousands of ozone molecules, and can continue doing so for many decades before it is itself destroyed.

Every new report of thinning ozone is met with pictures of children in Australia and New Zealand having to cover their skin and wear broad-brimmed hats, along with estimates of the increase in skin cancers and eye cataracts that are likely to result from the increased exposure to ultra-violet light. But skin cancers and eye cataracts will probably be the least of our worries. What will happen to other creatures? We cannot fit bees with sunglasses; and blind bees will not be much good as plant pollinators. The consequences of that could be catastrophic. And what about the effect of increased UV light on plants? The most vulnerable parts are the growing tips of plants. Destroy the DNA in these cells and the plant will not reach maturity, and will not seed -- with equally catastrophic consequences. Or consider the effects on the microscopic phytoplankton in the sea which have no skin to protect them, and are very vulnerable to ultraviolet radiation. Destroy these and the planet’s food chain will crash.

If we do severely damage, or even destroy, the ozone layer life on land will become nigh impossible. For half a billion years the ozone layer has shielded the earth from ultraviolet light, making it possible for plants and animals to emerge from the sea and colonize the land. Without this protection the only life that survived would be back beneath the surface of the sea. We would have destroyed half a billion years of evolution -- and ourselves with it. That is how dangerous the situation is.

The severity of the threat posed by CFCs is so great that two major international agreements have been made to limit, and eventually halt, their production. But that does not mean the danger has passed. The CFCs released during the past two decades will continue to wreak their havoc for up to fifty years or more. Moreover, in many developing countries CFC production has not decreased at all; in some it has even increased. The U.S.A. has put a high tax on its existing CFC stocks so as to encourage people to use less harmful alternatives. But across the Mexican border, where production continues, CFCs cost one fifth the price, and much of this production finds its way into the U.S.A., creating the biggest smuggling problem after drugs. According to the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, the trade in illegal CFCs is currently more 60,000 tons per year. And why? Its cheaper to buy a $100 canister of black market CFC than it is to refit an air-conditioner to take the safer substitutes.

 

Other Threats

It need not be environmental disasters that claim us. As the people of the world become ever-more intimately linked we become increasingly vulnerable to plagues. Some years ago scientists working for the US. Government conducted a simple experiment. They sprayed harmless bacteria into the departure lounge of Washington’s National Airport. Hitching rides on the passengers and transferring at their destination on to others, the bacteria spread from person to person. Within three weeks they were to be found in nearly every corner of the U.S.A.

We should count ourselves lucky that AIDS is not spread as easily -- we would all have been infected before the first case had been diagnosed. Who knows what other diseases are lurking, waiting for the right conditions in order to become epidemic; or what diseases we might inadvertently create through genetic engineering? Moreover, should a new plague appear, our over-enthusiasm for antibiotics has left our bodies weakened and our medical armory that much poorer. With the passing of time our vulnerability rises rather than falls. Several bacteria that previously were treatable with drugs are developing resistance to every one of our antibiotics. At present we are managing to contain such bugs in hospitals, but they could break out at any time.

Finally we should not overlook the ecological effects of war. Military operations consume much of the world’s oil production, and many of the earth’s resources. Nor is modern warfare very good for the planet. Agent orange, napalm, biological weapons, and high explosives have a far more devastating impact than bows and arrows, and cannonballs.

So far we have managed to avoid the horrors of a nuclear war, but it remains an ever-present danger. As resources become less plentiful, food and water become more scarce, the gap between rich and poor grows, and climatic change promotes mass migrations, it is not difficult to imagine a number of scenarios leading, either accidentally or deliberately, to a nuclear conflagration.

 

The Totally Unexpected

As likely as any of these scenarios are those that remain totally unexpected. The appearance of the first ozone hole over Antarctica was a surprise. Scientists had known for twenty years that CFCs would deplete the ozone layer, but none of their models had predicted an ozone hole, nor did the idea feature among any of their hunches. Indeed, so surprising was the data that the computers analyzing it systematically rejected it for several years.

Our knowledge of ecology and global climate still contains so many gaps and gray areas that other unanticipated changes are virtually certain. There may be unforeseen flips in the weather; unexpected changes in ecosystems; surprising responses by other species; or unpredicted earthquakes in significant locations. All that we can say with certainty is that change will come -- and more and more rapidly.

The winds of change are brewing into a storm of change; perhaps a hurricane of change. How can we cope with such change? For me, trees provide a good lesson. If a tree is to withstand a storm it must be flexible, able to bend with the winds. A rigid tree will soon blow down. In addition, it must have strong roots, be stably anchored in the ground. The same is true for us. If we are to survive the accelerating changes that are coming our way we need first to be flexible. We need to be able to let go of out-dated assumptions and habits of thinking that no longer serve us. We need to find the inner freedom to see things with fresh eyes and respond more creatively. And second, we need greater inner stability. We need to be stably anchored in the ground of our own being, so that when we meet the unexpected we can remain cool, calm and collected, not thrown into fear and panic. If we can learn this, then, as I shall be exploring in forthcoming chapters, we will be in a position to respond to the completely unexpected with greater wisdom and maturity.


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Date created: 3-Oct-03