Ecological Concerns


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Ecological Concerns - Jeremy Rifkin





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Ecological Concerns

"The Dream of the Earth"

No-one has written more eloquently about the Earth and our relationship with it than Thomas Berry in his book The Dream of the Earth. No-one has evoked in such compelling language the need for human sensitivity, compassion and intelligence in our relationship with the Earth and its living systems. In homage to his life work, I have quoted these few pasages from his book. He asks that we wake up from our mythic dream of progress and the dominance of nature and take on the role of becoming responsible custodians of the dwindling species and resources of the planet. In the first paragraph below he describes why we have lost our connection to the Earth:

"The biblical tradition begins with the creation narrative wherein the Earth Mother of the eastern mediterranean is abandoned in favor of the transcendent Heaven Father. Later the relationship between the human and the divine is constituted in terms of a covenant between a chosen people and a personal transcendent creative Father deity. This becomes the context in which human-divine affairs are worked out over the succeeding centuries. The natural world is no longer the locus for the meeting of the divine and the human. A subtle aversion develops toward the natural world, a feeling that humans in the depth of their beings do not really belong to the earthly community of life, but to a heavenly community. We are presently in a state of exile from our true country" p. 149:

"None of the other revolutionary movements in Western civilisation has prepared us for what we must now confront. Quite naturally, this demand for change, as with all such moments of radical confrontation, brings with it a heightened level of psychic intensity. Everything is at stake... It is possibly the most complete reversal of values that has taken place since the Neolithic period. p. 159

"Suddenly we awaken to the devastation that has resulted from the entire modern process…In relation to the earth, we have been autistic for centuries. Only now have we begun to listen with some attention and with a willingness to respond to the earth's demands that we cease our industrial assault, that we abandon our inner rage against the conditions of our earthly existence, that we renew our human participation in the grand liturgy of the universe…p. 215

"If the supreme disaster in the comprehensive story of the earth is our present closing down of the major life systems of the planet, then the supreme need of our times is to bring about a healing of the earth through this mutually enhancing human presence to the earth community. To achieve this mode of pressure, a new type of sensitivity is needed, a sensitivity that is something more than romantic attachment to some of the more brilliant manifestations of the natural world, a sensitivity that comprehends the larger patterns of nature, its severe demands as well as its delightful aspects, and is willing to see the human diminish so that other lifeforms might flourish." p. 212

"We should be clear about what happens when we destroy the living forms of this planet. The first consequence is that we destroy modes of divine presence. If we have a wonderful sense of the divine, it is because we live amid such awesome magnificence. If we have refinement of emotion and sensitivity, it is because of the delicacy, the fragrance, and indescribable beauty of song and music and rhythmic movement in the world about us...If we have powers of imagination, these are activated by the magic display of color and sound, of form and movement, such as we observe in the clouds of the sky, the trees and bushes and flowers, the waters and the wind, the singing birds, and the movement of the great blue whale through the sea. If we have words with which to speak and think and commune, words for the inner experience of the divine, words for the intimacies of life, if we have words for telling stories to our children, words with which we can sing, it is again because of the impressions we have received from the variety of beings about us." p. 11

"If the dynamics of the universe from the beginning shaped the course of the heavens, lighted the sun, and formed the earth, if this same dynamism brought forth the continents and seas and atmosphere, if it awakened life in the primordial cell and then brought into being the unnumbered variety of living beings, and finally brought us into being and guided us safely through the turbulent centuries, there is reason to believe that this same guiding process is precisely what has awakened in us our present understanding of ourselves and our relation to this stupendous process. Sensitized to such guidance from the very structure and functioning of the universe, we can have confidence in the future that awaits the human venture." p. 137               

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January 2007. Everything in the report below has been confirmed in Al Gore's DVD "An Inconvenient Truth" which he has shown in over 1000 cities world-wide. Not only do the graphs he presents show the sudden and accelerated increase in CO2 emissions which has already taken place but also the rise in temperature that will accompany this increase. In 650,000 years (according to core-ice samples drawn from deep within the Earth) there has not been this increase in either CO2 emissions or a comparable temperature rise. What he finds worrying and incomprehensible is the denial on the part of the US government of the facts of climate change and its incomprehension of the threat to the planet which they represent. He compares this denial to the situation of a frog sitting in a container of water which is gradually heating up. Because the warming process is gradual, the frog doesn't realise what is happening until suddenly the water becomes unbearably hot. Luckily for the frog (in his DVD), a hand lifts it out of the water in the nick of time - that hand being the warnings of climate change. One alarming fact in Al Gore's presentation which does not appear in the article below is the effect on the planet's resources - water, food etc. - of the growth of the human population. In 1945 the population of the Earth was approximately 2.2 billion. Today it is 6.3 billion. By 2050, it could be over 9 billion. So in a single generation - for someone born in 1945 - it will have increased by nearly 7 billion. That level of growth is unsustainable but this fact does not seem to have dawned on governments or, for that matter, on the religions which encourage their followers to have many children.

Denial is a primary psychological symptom of an addiction - in this case an addiction to oil and to the power that a technology based on oil brings. Addicts are often the last to recognise and acknowledge their addiction, even when their world is about to collapse around them. While governments lagged behind, science accepted Al Gore's 'inconvenient truth'. As long ago as 1988 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was established by two United Nations organisations: the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Programme - to assess the risk of human-induced change.

After a report in 1993 on the analysis of the Greenland ice cores, it became clear to scientists that the climate could change massively within a decade or two. But this was not enough to make governments change course. They clung to the idea that acceptance of these findings would threaten economic growth. The book put out by Bjorn Lomborg, an Adjunct Professor at the Copenhagen Business School - "The Skeptical Environmentalist" - poured scorn on the studies which proved that climate change was immanent. Naturally, there were many who chose to believe him since it meant that things could continue as before.

However, the Report of 2006 by Nicholas Stern, former chief economist at the World Bank, stating in no uncertain terms that business cannot proceed as usual, has suddenly woken the business world up to the crisis that is facing it. One article commenting on it (Paul Allen in "Clean Slate", the journal of the Centre for Alternative Technology) has compared its effect to that of Nicolas Copernicus five hundred years ago. For the first time there is a template of what the financial cost of climate change could be. Although it will be expensive to counteract the effects of climage change - about 1 percent of the world's gross domestic product - doing nothing will cost anything from 5 to 20 percent more. The final report says that we risk losing up to a fifth of the world's wealth and this, if unchecked, could devastate the global economy. This in turn would lead to major economic and social disruptions, mass deaths and migrations on a scale far worse even than the devastating wars and convulsions of the last century.

Pia Hansen, spokeswoman for the European Commission has said:"It clearly makes a case for action, and climate change is not a problem that Europe can afford to put into the "too difficult" pile. It is not an option to wait and see, and we must act now."

The Stern Report was quickly followed up by a report from the Institute of Public Policy Research that suggests we need to move even faster. Rather than 60% reduction of CO2 emissions by 2050, more recent science demands a 90% decrease by 2030. The world has less than a decade to reverse the growth in greenhouse gas emissions. By 2015 the world would need to be cutting carbon emissions by 4-5 % annually.

As Paul Allen writes: "There can be no more fob-offs and excuses ; there is no longer any rational economic or scientific case for 'business as usual'. Community and corporate champions now have a mainstream economic and scientific case to justify their projects to those they seek to influence...Taking responsibility for such action cannot be left solely to international agreements. It is a job for the whole of civil society. The recent climate conference in Nairobi left a large gap between the emissions cuts that science suggests are necessary, and the level of political commmitment to making those cuts. Change must be embedded in Government, local authorities, communities, businesses, trade unions, families and individuals."


A report by top US scientists on climate change suggests that catastrophe could be imminent.

Jeremy Rifkin - The Manchester Guardian, Friday March 1, 2002

We live in a world that has become so desensitised by watching calamities unfold on global television - both natural and human-induced - that it takes something really spectacular even to get our attention.

And it usually has to be visually dramatic to register, much less elicit a deep emotional response - such as the tragic events of September 11. Recently, I came across a frightening report published by the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) - the nation's most august scientific body. Yet, because there was no visually provocative content, the report had received only a couple of short paragraphs tucked away inside a few newspapers.

Here is what the academy had to say: it is possible that the global warming trend projected over the course of the next 100 years could, all of a sudden and without warning, dramatically accelerate in just a handful of years - forcing a qualitative new climatic regime which could undermine ecosystems and human settlements throughout the world, leaving little or no time for plants, animals and humans to adjust.

The new climate could result in a wholesale change in the earth's environment, with effects that would be felt for thousands of years. If the projections and warnings in this study turn out to be prophetic, no other catastrophic event in all of recorded history will have had as damaging an impact on the future of human civilisation and the life of the planet.

A year ago the UN intergovernmental panel on climate change (IPCC) issued a voluminous report forecasting that global average surface temperature is likely to rise by 1.4 to 5.8 degrees centigrade between now and 2100. If that projection holds up, we were told, the change in temperature forecast for the next 100 years will be larger than any climate change on earth in more than 10,000 years.

The impacts on the earth's biosphere are going to be of a qualitative kind. To understand how significant this rise in temperature is likely to be, we need to keep in mind that a 5 degrees centigrade increase in temperature between the last ice age and today resulted in much of the northern hemisphere of the planet going from being buried under thousands of feet of ice to being ice-free.

The UN study predicts that a temperature rise of 1.4 to 5.8 degrees centigrade over the course of the coming century could include the melting of glaciers and the Arctic polar cap, sea water rise, increased precipitation and storms and more violent weather patterns, destabilisation and loss of habitats, migration northward of ecosystems, contamination of fresh water by salt water, massive forest dieback, accelerated species extinction and increased droughts.

The IPCC report also warns of adverse impacts on human settlements, including the submerging of island nations and low-lying countries, diminishing crop yields, especially in the southern hemisphere, and the spread of tropical disease northward into previously temperate zones.

The newly released NAS report begins by noting that the current projections about global warming and its ecological, economic and social impacts cited in the UN report are based on the assumption of a steady upward climb in temperatures, more or less evenly distributed over the course of the 21st century. But that assumption, they say, may be faulty - there is a possibility that temperatures could rise suddenly in just a few years' time, creating a new climatic regime virtually overnight.

They also point out that abrupt changes in climate, whose effects are long lasting, have occurred repeatedly in the past 100,000 years. For example, at the end of the Younger-Dryas interval about 11,500 years ago, "global climate shifted dramatically, in many regions by about one-third to one-half the difference between ice age and modern conditions, with much of the change occurring over a few years".

According to the study: "An abrupt climate change occurs when the climate system is forced to cross some threshold, triggering a transition to a new state at a rate determined by the climate system itself and faster than the cause." Moreover, the paleoclimatic record shows that "the most dramatic shifts in climate have occurred when factors controlling the climate system were changing". Given the fact that human activity - especially the burning of fossil fuels - is expected to double the CO2 content emitted into the atmosphere in the current century, the conditions could be ripe for an abrupt change in climate around the world, perhaps in only a few years.

What is really unnerving is that it may take only a slight deviation in boundary conditions or a small random fluctuation somewhere in the system "to excite large changes ... when the system is close to a threshold", says the NAS committee.

An abrupt change in climate, of the kind that occurred during the Younger-Dryas interval, could prove catastrophic for ecosystems and species around the world. During that particular period, for instance, spruce, fir and paper birch trees experienced mass extinction in southern New England in less than 50 years. The extinction of horses, mastodons, mammoths, and sabre-toothed tigers in North America were greater at that time than in any other extinction event in millions of years.

The committee lays out a potentially nightmarish scenario in which random triggering events take the climate across the threshold into a new regime, causing widespread havoc and destruction.

Ecosystems could collapse suddenly with forests decimated in vast fires and grasslands drying out and turning into dust bowls. Wildlife could disappear and waterborne diseases such as cholera and vector-borne diseases such as malaria, dengue and yellow fever, could spread uncontrollably beyond host ranges, threatening human health around the world.

The NAS concludes its report with a dire warning: "On the basis of the inference from the paleoclimatic record, it is possible that the projected change will occur not through gradual evolution, proportional to greenhouse gas concentrations, but through abrupt and persistent regime shifts affecting subcontinental or larger regions - denying the likelihood or downplaying the relevance of past abrupt changes could be costly."

Global warming represents the dark side of the commercial ledger for the industrial age. For the past several hundred years, and especially in the 20th century, human beings burned massive amounts of "stored sun" in the form of coal, oil and natural gas, to produce the energy that made an industrial way of life possible. That spent energy has accumulated in the atmosphere and has begun to adversely affect the climate of the planet and the workings of its many ecosystems. If we were to measure human accomplishments in terms of the sheer impact our activities have had on the life of the planet, then we would sadly have to conclude that global warming is our most significant accomplishment to date, albeit a negative one.

We have affected the biochemistry of the earth and we have done it in less than a century. If a qualitative climate change were to occur suddenly in the coming century - within less than 10 years - as has happened many times before in geological history, we may already have written our epitaph.

When future generations look back at this period, tens of thousands of years from now, it is possible that the only historical legacy we will have left them in the geologic record is a great change in the earth's climate and its impact on the biosphere.

Jeremy Rifkin is the author of The Biotech Century (Gollancz) and President of the Foundation on Economic Trends in Washington DC.


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