Sunday, 13 March 2011

History lessons

Time for a blast from the past. One of the CIN writers dug up an essay they had written over 18 years ago, in February 1993. After initially laughing at how badly written some of it is, the question formed: have things improved much since then? Knowing the environmental problems we faced 18 years years ago, what has human society done to improve matters? In the interest of fostering debate we have decided to post the old piece below. Feel free to email us with thoughts or comment on this post.


In the first part of the essay I will look at the ways in which society damages the environment, then this will be followed up with a look at what preventative measures the green movement believes are needed.

First I will look at the general problem of waste, which is produced by nearly everything we do. It can be solid (thrown onto tips), liquid (enters sewers/watercourses) or gas (goes into the atmosphere). All can cause pollution.

Often waste is dumped in seas and rivers from industry, farms and houses in massive concentrations, poisoning them - and therefore the fish and animals that depend on them. In 1990, 4,680 km of British river were classified by the National Rivers Authority as badly polluted. As human and livestock populations grow the problem will get worse. An example from industry is the release of poisonous chemicals such as mercury and cadmium, which become concentrated in fish, that are eaten by other animals, and the chemicals kill animals at the top of the food chain.

Greenpeace ran a 'No Legal Pollution' tour recently to highlight this problem. They emphasised that pollution kills animals - in 1988, 18,000 common seals in the North Sea were wiped out by a virus. Organochlorine burdens in their bodies were thought to have contributed to the disease. Some seals contained such high levels of poisonous chemicals that the carcasses were classified as toxic waste.

Solid waste from industry and domestic sources is generally not recycled. It is just dumped in quarries or the beds of drained lakes, which rapidly fill up. Often dangerous chemicals are leached out by the rain which then enters water supplies. Also decay produces methane gas (which can ignite). Toxic materials often find their way onto tips illegally as well. This is because there are acute disposal problems for chemical, pharmaceutical and radioactive waste.

Radioactive waste from power stations is a vast problem - where can it go? It always pollutes, and lasts incredibly long lengths of time. The danger was illustrated when the Chernobyl explosion contaminated western Europe.

Gaseous waste comes in three main forms:

i> Carbon Dioxide (CO2) derives from burning fossil fuels (coal, oil, gas). It is burnt in cars, power stations, and industry mainly. It is a non-poisonous natural chemical, but we produce so much by burning fossil fuels that the amount in the atmosphere has grown and is still growing very fast. CO2 tends to trap the heat of the sun in the atmosphere, like a greenhouse - hence 'greenhouse effect/gases'. This raises Earth's temperature and affects the climate - and therefore agriculture - causing a rise in sea levels as oceans expand and ice caps melt, which leads to widespread flooding.

ii> Acidic gases such as sulphur dioxide and oxides of nitrogen come from combustion of impurities in fossil fuels. The gases mix with water in the atmosphere to create acid, which falls as 'acid rain'. It can travel large distances, and even pollute other countries. Output is so large that Britain alone produced over 6 million tonnes of acid gases in 1988. Acid rain acidifies rivers and lakes, killing fish, birds and some other animals. It can affect human health in high concentrations. It also acidifies soil, and kills trees by lowering their tolerance to disease and parasites.

iii> Ozone-destroying gases come from aerosols, the manufacture and breakdown of foams, refrigerators, air-conditioning units, and solvents. Ozone is similar to oxygen, but unstable and likely to become oxygen if it interacts with other elements. It is mainly high in the atmosphere (20-50 km up), and acts as a shield, stopping ultraviolet radiation from reaching the surface of Earth. But artificial gases such as CFC's (chlorofluorocarbons), can reach that part of the atmosphere as they are long-lived, and turn ozone into oxygen. So holes appear in the ozone layer, and they are getting bigger all the time. The high-energy radiation then getting to the surface can cause skin cancer in most animals. Even a 10% decrease in ozone would produce well over 100,000 cases of skin cancer and 1.75 million cases of eye cataracts throughout the world every year (United Nations Environment Programme report). That does not include the effect on animals, and the disruption to the marine food chain by killing plankton, a basic food source. Millions of tonnes of CFC's are on their way into the atmosphere even now. CFC's are also greenhouse gases.

Cars are used heavily in contemporary societies, and cause problems related to gaseous emissions. There are more cars every year, which not only uses more resources to make and fuel them, but produces more pollution. Road building destroys the natural environment (e.g. the extension of the M6 in the Staffordshire area will destroy large parts of a wood). Also the problem is compounded by 60% of car drivers exceeding the 70 mph upper limit, thereby increasing fuel consumption, emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) and nitrogen oxides (Department of Transport).

Resource depletion is another problem. With economic growth we consume more and more energy, minerals etc. Yet they are only a finite resource. It is not clear when shortages will be felt, be they will be one day.

War certainly damages the natural environment and there is always one going on. The amount of damage one bomb can do is phenomenal - the amount of forest destroyed in the Vietnam War was massive. Sometimes environmental damage is done on purpose, such as the oil-fields of Kuwait, burnt in the Iraqi retreat in 1991. This irresponsible act caused massive damage to land, sea, and air throughout Kuwait, Iran and along the Saudi coastline. 50% of the land surface in Kuwait is coated in a black layer of oily soot. The vegetation is destroyed by this and many ecosystems will never recover.

Because contemporary societies often use dangerous substances lots of damage occurs when accidents do (e.g. oil spills). Greenpeace recently concentrated on the Braer tanker which ran aground, spilling oil on to the Shetland coast. The spill threatens thousands of seabirds and mammals still.

Agriculture is a damaging practice. Natural habitats are destroyed to create land for farming, thereby destroying the places where wildlife would live such as hedges and small woods. Also farming leads to increased use of fertilizers and herbicides, which enter watercourses and rivers. They are designed to be harmful, so kill animals and fish, and often end up in our drinking water. Also intensive agriculture drains the land and leads to desertification, as well as contributing to deforestation.

Deforestation is a widespread problem. The destruction of rainforests is also the destruction of wildlife habitats. Deforestation destroys an estimated 50,000 species a year in tropical forests alone: "So acute is the loss that species are being wiped out before we even know they exist" - Jean-Paul Jeanrenaud, a WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature) Forest Conservation Officer. The most recent report by the United Nations' Food and Agricultural Organisation says that 17 million hectares of rainforest a year are being destroyed. The World Bank claims this is an underestimate, the real figure may be 24 million hectares if forest degradation is added to outright loss. And up to 50 million hectares if we also include non-tropical forest. Jean-Paul Jeanrenaud also said "If the destruction continues at the present rate, tropical forests will be wiped out in 40 years". The UK alone has lost 50% of its native woodland in the last 50 years. Deforestation causes climatic change, and leads to soil erosion. This means there is more likely to be famine and drought.

Animals are further threatened by hunting and shooting. Rare animals are sought after more, and therefore likely to be made extinct, as many species have been done in the past. A current species threatened with extinction - though only one of many - is the black rhino. It has suffered a 96% decline since 1970, there are less than 500 left in Zimbabwe. Rhino horn is worth a lot to Taiwanese, Korean and Chinese markets where the horn is used for medicine. The situation is so desperate that conservationists are now even trying de-horning - at a cost Of $1000 per rhino - to prevent them being killed for their horn.

Staying on the topic of animals, we find other ways in which they are exploited, leading to a degradation of the natural environment. Fur farming has definite, adverse effects on the environment. North American mink were first imported in 1929, and escapes were soon reported. In 1957 it was officially announced that they were breeding in the wild. They are now irreversibly part of our fauna. This causes problems as they often carry diseases from fur factories to our wild species such as otters. Mink only threaten Wildlife in areas which have been degraded and polluted by man and therefore which cannot support as many populations of animals; unfortunately many areas like this exist, and mink are very territorial, so damage our native populations.

More damage to the environment comes from fishing: or rather, overfishing. Despite being inefficient (only 0.15kg of fish is harvested in the seas per hectare of ocean per year, and 40% of this is fed to farm animals and factory farmed fish), the world's annual catch is over 80 million tonnes. There are many problems with this. Pollution in the North Sea means half the catch suffers from lesions and tumours. Young fish are caught - fishing being indiscriminate - which severely affects future stocks. Large scale fishing has led to the decimation of many species. Also, fishing takes the food that would otherwise feed other animals such as seabirds. Drift nets can be up to 40km long and cause large scale, indiscriminate slaughter (e.g. 250,000 porpoises and dolphins a year are caught - then thrown back dead as non-target fish). Nearly a million seabirds die in nets. Every year thousands of miles of nets are simply abandoned, and continue to trap and kill. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates 90% of the world's commercial fisheries are overfished to an unsustainable degree. In the North Sea it has been claimed that a quarter of the entire fish population is removed every year.

Finally, meat production damages the environment as well. Rainforests are being destroyed for this (not just for their wood), which is also destroying the habitats for species, and stops trees from producing oxygen and absorbing carbon dioxide. Millions of trees a year are destroyed to provide cropland for meat production. For example, in Central America 90% of the forest has been cleared primarily for cattle ranching. For every burger eaten, half a tonne of vegetation is lost. 60% of Brazil's forest has been destroyed for cattle ranching. Burning rainforests produce a major greenhouse gas, CO2, and forest burning in Brazil was responsible for 20% of the greenhouse gases released in 1988. This seems even more ridiculous when you consider that livestock are fed while people in the developing world starve in their millions, leading their Governments to adopt environmentally unsound practices (such as growing cash-crops) to try and feed the population. US livestock consume almost twice as such grain as is eaten by the entire American population. In the UK 80% of all agricultural land is now used to feed animals: in fact, half the world's cereal harvest is used to feed livestock. Meat production is extremely inefficient too. It takes 10 pounds of grain to produce 1 pound of intensively reared beef, a mere 6% conversion rate from plant to meat protein. Since WWII there have been 38 major famines, and in 33 of these the West continued to import grain from the starving to feed their cattle. Also a greenhouse gas is produced by cattle - 200 litres of methane per day per cow. Finally, meat production is a major cause of river pollution in Britain - slurry (which is 100 times stronger than human sewage) simply runs into rivers. It contains heavy metals, nitrates and drug residues.

Many Third World countries are in the process of developing, and will cause all the above problems too if they adopt western models of development. What is needed is a new form of development, but is sustainable development possible? That is not for this essay to discuss.

What does the green movement suggest is needed to avoid the pattern of environmental degradation outlined above?

Most environmental groups have learnt to use legislation to get their views turned into action. They lobby governments, official aid agencies and international bodies such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. It is not always easy though. WWF is having a lot of trouble making the Government keep its Rio Summit promises, which are now being 'forgotten'. So by using legislation, we see that the Government is expected to be doing something about environmental degradation.

Many believe laws should be passed to ban environmentally damaging practices, e.g. making hunting and shooting illegal, banning fur farms, making pollution illegal (Greenpeace in particular recently ran a 'No Legal Pollution' tour of the UK), all of which again comes down to the Government's responsibility.

Similarly, using lobbying, pressure groups have learnt to encourage banks to reduce Third World debt; this reduces short-term pressures which lead to deforestation, intensive agriculture etc. There is limited success. In WWF News (Winter 1992 issue), it was announced that National Westminster Bank was funding over 100 projects for them and has also agreed to 'Debt for Nature' swaps - part of a country's debt is cancelled in return for local currency which is spent on conservation.

In this age of mass media, many environmental groups find it a lot easier to get publicity, which drums up support for them and gives them more lobbying power. Many believe very strongly in educating the young, who will be the Government/consumers of the future. WWF and The Vegetarian Society both believe in this.

Moving on, the green movement obviously believes that there should not be so much waste produced. In many cases waste gases can be purified before emission, though this is expensive. And if ozone-destroying gases are not released the ozone layer will eventually heal itself. Unfortunately, many 'substitutes' for CFC's often lead to ozone depletion too e.g. HCFC's (Hydrochlorofluorocarbons), so a total ban is needed. Greenpeace have produced a non-CFC fridge, the 'Greenfreeze' which is 100% ozone safe and can be made on a commercial basis. This shows that the use of chemicals need not be so damaging, though there may not be alternatives for all processes.

Much waste can be recycled, which the green movement believes should be more widespread. What is needed for this is new techniques, suitable markets and collection points. In a similar vein human and animal waste could be used as fertilizers.

Many groups in the green movement, especially Greenpeace, believe that there should be more investment in non-nuclear, non-fossil fuel burning power - again, the Government's responsibility. 90% of all UK Government funding in non-fossil fuel energy goes towards nuclear energy. They claim that up to 10% of our energy requirements could realistically be supplied from renewable sources, much more than the current 2%. If this figure became 10%, we would get: 23,000,000 tonnes less CO2 per year, 160,000 tonnes less sulphur dioxide per year, and 100,000 tonnes less nitrogen oxide per year, which would mean less global warming and acid rain.

Many environmentalists believe we shouldn't use agrochemicals on crops - resources would go further (as the chemicals are based on minerals) and it would prevent a lot of intensive agriculture which exhausts the land, turning it into desert in extreme cases, and promotes deforestation.

Some in the green movement say green consumerism can help solve many problems, i.e. where people only buy things that are less polluting or recycled. So economic growth need not be polluting. Many claim this is proved because most recent growth is in the service sector. However that claim is undermined because this sector includes tourism, which utilises transport that causes pollution (and planes release pollution at the most damaging place, high up in the atmosphere); promotes the building of holiday destinations (that destroy the landscape); and allows tourists to ruin the beaches with their numbers etc.

Others say we need to consume fewer resources and less energy. They say economic growth is not compatible with environmental protection. This is because the capitalist system is inherently competitive, people compete by raising productivity, so growth is necessary. There are too many things being made that we don't need. They would call for radical social change, changing society to small-scale models of production, but for this everyone would need to take part. It would be hard to achieve, as some people don't believe the warnings; some don't care; some are less affected (e.g. because they are rich and can move); and some people profit from pollution (e.g. people who make catalytic converters).

A lot of people concerned for the environment are also vegetarians or vegans, as they believe this avoids supporting environmentally damaging practices. There is enough food to feed everyone on a vegetarian diet. 10 acres of land could feed 2 people on a diet of cattle meat or 61 people on a diet of soya beans. The UK alone could feed 130 million people on a vegetarian diet, or 250 million people on a vegan diet, which is almost five times the current population. So there would not be the intense pressures on the Earth that meat production and overfishing causes, discussed above.

To conclude, most 'greens' believe that the Government should be doing more to protect the environment, and we should aim for reform by lobbying them. They also believe reform can be achieved by green consumerism. Other 'greens' believe this is wrong, radical social change is needed. This seems unlikely to take place though. So, with reform seeming more likely (and hoping that it will be enough), the former kind of environmentalists believe a lot can be achieved by educating the young, reducing Third World debt, promoting recycling, and becoming vegetarian.

  • HALL, S. S & HELD, D. & MCGREW, A. eds Modernity and its Futures (1992)
  • PORRITT, J. & WINNER, D. The Coming of the Greens (1988)
Also lots of information from:
  • GREENPEACE, Canonbury Villas, London N1 2PN.
  • LYNX (anti-fur charity), P.O. Box 300, Nottingham NG1 5HN.
  • THE VEGAN SOCIETY, 7 Battle Road, St. Leonards-on-Sea, East Sussex TN37 7AA.
  • THE VEGETARIAN SOCIETY, Parkdale, Dunham Altrincham, Cheshire WA14 4QG.
  • WWF, Panda House, Weyside Park, Godalming, Surrey GU7 1XR.

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