The ways we choose our fate – the real tragedy of environmental ignorance

I might, for a moment, drift away to the realms of science fiction, before returning to science fact to give an interesting example that I have noticed.

Of the large volume of sci-fi pop-art out there, I noticed a trend; the “ideal” future is often one that is clean, open-spaced (without the clutter), bright and somewhat organically designed, while the harsh and brutal future image is dirty, cluttered with pipes and steaming gases, dark with unnatural lighting and incredibly industrial. The food too in the former world is fruit and vegetables – but often exotic and unusual, while the latter world supplies processed food in packages from vending machines.

It would seem instinctively, we can see that the ideal world would be much more efficient, a true student to the philosophy that “less is more”, much more an artistic representation of the natural world, yet intrinsically our own space, yet the dreaded future (and I would argue, the much more likely future) is a depressing slum and must be the final, unsustainable age of humanity (indeed, often these end with the hero and a number of good-looking people escaping the wreck to some utopia, somewhere else).

I mentioned that because it is important to the piece I wish to write. It is becoming more and more apparent to me that we are at a cross-road of human nature and with the results of our choices a long way off from now (many of which are beyond the life time of any living human today), it is incredibly difficult for most to see the inherent dangers in our actions. Every age and every generation faces their own distinct trials which future generations will judge them for, and many of the high-points and low-points of a generation will unfortunately only hold any real importance to that generation alone, requiring only a foot-note in history as another example of, “you had to been there”.

What matters across the generations and across the ages are the things that shape the world and make it something new – the things you can’t take back.

The generations of the industrial and information ages have made radical changes to the world and we now know enough to know that sloppy behaviour that is intuitive of business-as-usual will be inexcusable to future generations. We have, however, done some amazing things; there is little doubt that few could truly appreciate just how much medicine and technology (probably the most important being transport and communication) have changed human cultures as well as all environments. We can make islands, remove half a mountain and create pits staggering in size! We can send people to other worlds or to the other side of the world to enjoy the same meal twice on the same day!

We are ingenious at the best of times, but also dangerously thoughtless at the worst of times.

What troubles me the most are the following points;

  • If Barney Foran, in chapter four of, Biodiversity: integrating conservation and production (Editors; Ted Lefroy, Kay Bailey, Greg Unwin, and Tony Norton), is correct in stating that without discovering how to make fertilizer from natural gas, human population would have been limited to 3 billion due to the fact that we would have to rely on traditional sources of nitrogen (legumes and compost). What will happen to the ever amounting world population when this gas runs out (when it is currently used to cart Joe average back and forth from work or play, and when it’s swallowed up to run turbines)?
  • Looking at the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the most recent data that I could find suggested that the average Aussie consumed 103KL per capita of water over the 2004-05 period. Australia’s population is just over 22.3 million currently. Few Australians would not be aware of the political war carried on over very limited water supplies and the dire situation of the Murray Darling Basin as well as the lower lakes. Yet, projections hint that the population of Australia could increase by more than 10 million over the next 40yrs. Where will the extra water come from for direct consumption for these new people as well as all the rest to feed the increased agricultural needs (extra burden on fertilizers as well)? Desalination plants will not solve this problem (as well as requiring electricity to run) and although there are examples of interesting new technologies (such as this on BraveNewClimate), it is at this point impractical and dangerous to assume that we’ll “work out the bugs later”.
  • Regardless of all the arguments that I’ve gone into thus far and the debates carried out across the globe, there are two unavoidable facts that overshadow the threat of a changing climate that should logically mean that all of us work as a team. The first is the simple fact that the fossils we’re burning up will only become scarcer and scarcer from now on. This will make them more expensive. This will in turn raise the costs of living. This will impact all sectors and all people. And the will cause and increase in political stability within struggling states and between states that have fuel and those that do not. An interesting and somewhat scary commentary about the recent Nuclear Summit was posted on BNC, “Analysis of the 2010 Nuclear Summit and the obsession with highly enriched uranium”, which only highlights more immediate issues that are facing our future power needs and potential political pressures.
  • The second fact is even more obvious and potentially more disturbing; it is beyond a doubt that the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere is rising, a large part of this extra carbon dioxide is taken up by the oceans, leading to a lowering of pH. As soft drinks erode teeth, acid rain breaks down limestone statues and buildings, the more acidic the ocean becomes, the more likely it will damage corals and species with exoskeletons made of calcium carbonate. There’s historical evidence to suggest as much.
  • And then (finally, I guess), there’s climate change. Whatever the rising temperature really means, the only way that we can adapt our procedures to avoid the worst effects of a changing climate is to stop entertaining this fight against logic; this mockery of a debate over the science. It is pure self-indulgence when we should be asking ourselves how we can improve; not just because of the changing climate, not just because the acidification of our oceans; not just because of our depleting fossil fuels; and not just because population growth is carrying on with little regard for the available resources; but for all these reasons and many many more.

Pete Hay, in the opening chapter of Biodiversity: integrating conservation and production, makes it quite clear that there is enough evidence that we are watching a mass extinction event. This is beyond climate change, as many of the factors (hunting, land clearing, pollution, etc) have been in play much longer than the detectable changes in climate. Species loss is easily one of our high points of ignorance.

The diversity of any given wetlands for example, provides an invaluable service to water treatment which in turn can feed commercially valuable fisheries. Any given forest, from the tropics to the temperate alpine, provides a wide range of chemical transfers, carbon collection, storm protection, habitat for countless species as well as a wealth of natural resources, that, if managed sustainably, can provide countless services to humanity (one of which, not heavily highlighted is bio-prospecting; we are far from understanding the medicinal properties of a most biologically derived chemicals and to lose the change to explore this will ultimately do our species more harm).

It certainly doesn’t take an expert to see that we are out running the Red Queen; we are burning up our resources quicker than they can recover (and in many examples, they are unrecoverable).

The more biodiversity we lose, the greater the population, and the slower we are to adopt an ever increasing sustainable lifestyle;

  • the less likely we will be able to provide fresh food and water to the overall population (so look forward to proceeded packaged food and recycled water),
  • the less likely that we will be able to meet the power requirements of the ridiculous population size (dark, with dim unnatural lighting)
  • fewer species probably means sicker species – something I don’t like the idea of testing at large, (sure, we’ll have a lot of rats, cockroaches, cats, dogs and pigeons, so if you’re a fan of those, you’ll be fine),
  • no doubt such a bleak place would lower moral, which would tend to suggest ineffective upkeep (do you feeling like cleaning up someone else’s mess when you’re feeling down/sick?), and
  • thus the more likely we are to the post-industrial slums of the nightmarish sci-fi forecast.
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2 thoughts on “The ways we choose our fate – the real tragedy of environmental ignorance

  1. Thought-provoking – and disturbing – post, Tim. Having just learned about ocean acidification from “Seasick”, I wonder what it will take for the world to wake up to the horrors that we are about to unleash?
    On a lighter note, your first cartoon reminded of the Cordell Barker short that I saw recently, entitled “Runaway Train”, which is about society sleep walking through their own destruction. Sound familiar? Here’s a link to a short interview with the animator, and a few clips, fyi:

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  2. Hi Christine,
    thanks for your comments and the heads-up about the “Runaway Train.. the animator and myself definitely have the same fears!
    I guess on the question of what it will take to wake the world up, I’ve come up with two most likely, “optimal” scenarios and the most likely version;
    If governments make a genuine change (unlikely – the piece I’ve linked to about the nuclear summit on BNC suggest that they see the near future shifts), and the public do not; sanctions.. It’ll cause a lot of problems no doubt..
    If the public are the leaders, governments will have to follow suit – especially in the more democratic states – simply to win votes. This I guess is most ideal, but I reckon the only way to achieve this is education. Just like we’ve seen before with the general public being unaware of the horrors played out in wars elsewhere – it took genuine, hard working and persistent journalists to bring the truth back home. We need that again, but to illustrate a very sick environment – we’re like a tick unaware of the ailing animal we’re draining dry.
    The most likely, however, is when change is irrefutable, the public and government will suddenly turn to science to save them with a near miracle cure. It irritates me that, for the most science is often “out to get people”, “plotting to control”, “stealing money from an unaware public” etc and when things really turn bad the tone turns to, “why don’t scientists do something about it?”
    Maybe what really needs to happen is better PR work for science and what it’s really about and where it fits into societies.
    cheers,
    Tim

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