The problem is of course the humans

I have just watched “An Inconvenient Truth” on DVD. I recommend you watch it to get an insight into the issues facing the planet in our current generation. Films such as “The Day After Tomorrow” dramatise the issue to the point of disbelief that anything on this scale could happen. However, the facts of the matter are there and, when you look at geological cycles and recent trends, an event such as that portrayed in The Day After Tomorrow could precipitate in our lifetimes, although a little slower.

Most of the political direction in the UK at the moment is focused towards green issues, in particular CO2 emissions and, unfortunately, proposing new and increased taxes on pollution and polluting vehicles. The Conservatives recently rebranded and adopted a fuzzy tree as their logo (instead of a torch), while the Labour party have now started to adopt the same policies as their own. In essence, the Government of the UK is agreed with one voice on the key issue – environmental damage as a result of CO2 emissions – but their approach varies.

On the one hand, we are being sold on the idea that [over] taxing people who deliberately choose to run cars which have high emissions is a good thing; that those people are somehow “bad” (morally, ethically, etc.) and not doing their part to save the planet. However, the root cause of CO2 emissions is the dependency on fossil fuels to operate our cars and our industry. But alternatives would be more readily available if we allowed industry and the car makers to adopt them on a wide scale. There is evidence that such moves are blocked by the very companies that are benefiting from the continued use of fossil fuels and so the consumer has to pay a higher price for being put in a position where viable options are limited (and expensive) – a Catch 22 – higher taxes or expensive alternatives. This point was raised in the Inconvenient Truth DVD when Al Gore told us that California was being sued by the auto manufacturers for insisting that lower CO2 emission targets for cars were enforced by 2020, and that this target was “unrealistic”. However, the target set was the same as the current emissions being used in China.

While I am in no doubt that global warming is a very real phenomenon, and that its dramatic shift over the last 20-30 years is having major impact on the world around us and will continue to do so with quantum changes in how we live and survive over the coming decade, I think the true underlying nature of the problem needs a little more investigation.

Early in the DVD, Al Gore quotes Mark Twain: “What gets us into trouble is not what we don’t know. It’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so.” In other words, when we’re convinced that a falsehood is in fact truth.

Having watched the Inconvenient Truth DVD it became clear to me that much of the global warming effect of the recent 30-40 years is directly proportional to the population growth of mankind. When the “baby boom” happened after World War II, the population exploded. Consequently we have gone from 2 billion people living on the planet to nearly 6.5 billion, with a projected 9.5 billion being reached within a space of about 60 years. That’s a massive change.

When the first wave of these baby boomers reached maturity (their twenties), the first real signs of global warming were noticed – for example, this was when the polar ice caps started their steady thinning and melting. Prior to this, the planet managed to sustain a “balanced” cycle, accommodating any excesses with a balancing reduction in emissions (as the earth wobbles on its access, the more highly populated northern hemisphere moves closer and farther from the sun on an annual cycle – this allows the less populated and more forested souther hemisphere to compensate for the activities of the northern hemisphere populations).

After the baby boom, the increased population required more resources. Consequently, there was an ongoing deforestation of the Amazon and other areas (south of the equator), a growth in strip mining and an increasing drain on fossil fuel reserves. This tipping point created an imbalance in the natural cycle (which, incidentally rebalances itself every few tens of thousand years with an ice age) causing an increasing decline in the sustainability of our environment.

I recall reading a WHO (World Health Organisation) report back in the early 90s that suggested that the Earth had exceeded its sustainable biomass in 1986 – to all intents and purposes the point of no return if we were to continue as we were. And here we are 20 years later just starting to wake up to the issue.

To adopt a fatalistic viewpoint, Nature is doing what She does best – balance things out in the long run. When a species overpopulates, She creates a balancing disaster to reduce the population to a manageable level and so sustain the whole ecosystem of the planet. Whether this is achieved by “natural” means (i.e. outside of our direct making) or through “unnatural” means (i.e. those of our direct making because our conscience dictates that we should try to fix the problem), the end result is the same – Nature achieves balance (I believe that our consciousness is part of the release valve for Nature and as much as some people criticise mankind for meddling with Nature, this very meddling is part of the natural order).

The problem is thus reduced to one of simple survival.

We could hit the problem head on and say that since the problem is one of over-population we need to reduce and/or control the population so that this trend is reversed. However, such actions would not be well received by the general public, however well intentioned at preserving the human race in the long term (let’s look at the current figures – 4 billion people would need to be “culled” to return to a pre-1986 sustainable ecosystem; furthermore any future Great War would probably only lead to another baby boom and so rapidly undo the brutal solution within a generation in the same way the WWII boom did).

So we need to look at the next best thing – how to maintain a status quo where we can all live in a sustainable way. And that’s where the issue of CO2 emissions comes into play since we all contribute to the global emissions and it’s something we can do something about.

Later in the DVD, Al Gore quotes Upton Sinclair who said: “You can’t make somebody understand something if their salary depends upon them not understanding it.” Unfortunately, this is where the solution starts to not fit the problem, even though the problem has been clearly identified.

Personal ambition, greed and many of the “qualities” that make humans what they are start to confuse the issue. As Al Gore said in the DVD, the number of scientists disputing the global warming issue in the peer-reviewed scientific press is zero, but the number of “scientists” disputing the global warming issue in the popular press is over 50%. Needless to say, the popular press which is accessed by the majority, has lead to confusion about where we should stand on the issue, and politicians are having to intervene on our behalf to make progress. Further, as Sinclair highlighted, there are other ambitions at play which do not help in producing the best solution, which is why I think we end up with taxes instead of real alternatives.

Lets look at some of the options available today:

  • Hybrid cars – reduced emissions and lower fossil fuel consumption. Ironically there are hybrid 4×4 models but 4×4 cars are being targeted as a generic “immoral” category of car by environmental campaigners who are lobbying for the imposition of prohibitive taxes on such vehicles across the board. Let’s get our facts straight people!
  • Fuel alternatives. Mercedes Benz have developed a bio-fuel alternative to diesel which has a neutral (zero) CO2 emission footprint. It’s completely renewable and can be used in current diesel engines with no modification. Large-scale production is expected to start later this year, but how likely is it that we will see it in our petrol stations so that we can use it in our cars? Is the motto then “buy diesel” so at least we can use it when it does finally go mass-market without needing to replace the car?
  • Renewable energy sources. Wind farms and solar power are becoming more viable as technology improves and we can extract more energy out of the given source. As much as a wind farm may look ugly in the natural environment, it helps solve one of the greatest issues facing man today – our possible extinction. However, the home-based wind turbines which are being sold have recently been discredited as not giving a viable return on investment – so don’t jump on the self-sufficiency bandwagon just yet.
  • Alternative energy sources. Nuclear fuel has been chosen as the new alternative in the UK (rather than renewables) much to the disgust of the environmentalists. A couple of years ago I would have agreed, but I have done some research into nuclear fuel and, as with all things, technological advances do suggest that it is a much safer, clean and manageable power source whose waste can be dealt with sensibly without forever contaminating the planet or our Solar System. Personally, I’m now on the fence and neither pro or anti nuclear, but that’s normal with all the misinformation that flies around the public press – especially when catastrophes such as Chernobyl are brought up which happened as a result of outdated and poorly maintained technology (according to one report).

I think we are nearing a social tipping point where the decisions taken for us by our elected leaders will anger too many of the voters. We run the risk of imploding as a global society if the current situation continues too far into the future and I think we need to simplify the solutions we adopt to mitigate the environmental crisis that looms large upon us. There needs to be a seed change in policy and direction so that we can look forward to a brighter future. This will require much greater cooperation among currently opposing nations in order to succeed, so we rise above our insignificant differences and focus on future survival and greater advancement as a global civilisation or face the risk of being responsible for our own extinction by ignoring the problem.

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