Not Only Carbon Dioxide
Posted on 1-July-2007
Ever since the publication of the report of the UN sponsored study on climate change by the Inter-Governmental group of experts, the worldwide noise about the dangers of global warming and about the need to limit and cut down the emission of green house gases has grown louder. There has been a surfeit of 'newer' evidence of the consequences of global warming: the discovery, due to the melting of snow and ice, that what had been thought to be a peninsula on the coast of Greenland is in fact an island; the melting of snow and ice in both the Arctic and the Antarctica; the slow reduction in the size of the glaciers in the Himalayas and so forth. Nothing fundamentally new has been said in the UN study which is in fact only the latest in a series of studies in the last two decades pointing at increasingly incontrovertible evidence that the earth's atmosphere is warming up because human activity is adding too much of carbon dioxide to it and that the consequences of not doing anything about it will be catastrophic for everyone.
This noise has spurred politicians in diverse places to make national and regional commitments about policies towards reduction in the emission of carbon dioxide. Even the hitherto sceptical President of the USA made a half commitment at the G-8 summit in Germany in June this year for working towards agreed and specific carbon dioxide emission targets. In all likelihood, these heightened concerns about global warming will lead to a new international regime setting more stringent limits on carbon dioxide emissions, to replace the present regime known as the Kyoto Protocol when it expires. Also, in all likelihood, the international community will oblige China and India, described in many circles as the newest great spewers of carbon dioxide, one at the point of overtaking the USA and the other already having overtaken the UK, to more or less dilute their opposition to universal and uniform limits on carbon dioxide emissions.
Scientific opinion both about the evidence of global warming and about disasters that would surely befall planet earth if present trends continued is so overwhelming that any international agreement about concerted action meant to reduce or eliminate the causes of global warming should be welcome. But concern with global warming and with the emission into the atmosphere of those gases that cause it, must not distract attention from the fact that mankind has quite assiduously been making attacks on the environment from many directions, nor from those real factors of modern life that pose the greatest danger to environment. In spite of all that has been done in recent years, forests, tropical forests, are still threatened. Ironically, the promotion of ethanol as a substitute for petrol and of palm oil as bio-diesel, supposedly environment-friendly measures, will, if unchecked, start threatening the forests of the Amazon and of Indonesia. The conversion of entire sea shores or hillsides into housing estates--by whatever other swanky names they may be known--by the tourism and leisure industries does not often make newspaper headlines. All kinds of natural resources are being depleted too rapidly: different minerals, fresh water, varieties of fish in the North Sea, the whale, the Caspian sturgeon, different plant species.
It is almost a truism to say the earth is being overexploited, far beyond the limit within which nature can renew its resources, and this is the most basic environmental problem humanity faces today. All else, including excessive burning of fossil fuels which in turn leads to excessive emission of carbon dioxide flows from this fundamental truth. Unless this, the main cause is dealt with, other solutions including the placing of mechanical limits on carbon dioxide emissions will prove to be either partial or temporary palliatives. Overexploitation is happening in response to high demand which in its turn is caused in part by the large population of the world and partly by the modern world's wasteful ways.
The present population of the world is a little more than six billion people. It could rise to nine by the middle of the present century. Too many people, some might say; many more, others might say, than the earth can sustain. Let us cull half the world's population, a future incarnation of Adolf Hitler might say. Culling would not be all that difficult. The scientists who prepared the latest report on global warming say that if the earth's temperature continued to rise as it is doing at present, a few hundred million, even a billion people might perish due to droughts and famines. Wars, natural calamities and pestilence could also decimate large numbers as they have done throughout history. It would not be difficult to choose who should die--in wars, hurricanes, cyclones, tsunamis, earthquakes, epidemics and famines it is mostly the lower classes, the poor, the homeless and the weak who die.
But our twenty-first century sensibilities, filled as we are with respect for human life and dignity, will be outraged that someone can even contemplate such possibilities. And therefore the earth will in the foreseeable future be populated by between six and nine billion people. Our humanitarian values dictate that all these people should be fed, clothed, sheltered, educated and protected from disease, and in a better way than has been the case till now. To achieve such goals it will naturally be necessary to harness all the potential of science and technology to increase productivity and efficiency in ways that cause no long term, irreversible damage to our planet and its resources. But it will also be necessary to husband and optimise existing resources. The former can take time; the latter can begin now, if mankind has the will and is prepared to change the ethic of modern capitalism.
The prosperity of the world measured in terms of GDP and other economic aggregates, we are told, has grown spectacularly in the last decade or so. Practically every major country has become immensely richer than ever in the past. In the same measure income disparities in practically every major economy have also increased; in some countries such as India, while the number of the super rich--high net worth individuals as the latest modish expression goes--has been increasing rapidly, the abject poverty in which the roughly one third of the population lives has remained untouched by the superbly impressive economic indicators, the 'fundamentals of the economy'. Higher prosperity means higher consumption of material goods, for even in this age when a large portion of a man's income may be spent on many intangibles, a great deal of what people consume are materials: food, drinks, fabrics, petrol, metals for motor cars and aircraft, hard discs for computers, plastics and semiconductors for mobile phones, timber and cement for homes, all of which come from mother earth in one way or the other. The wealthier an individual is, the more of material goods he desires and acquires. What is more, his way of life becomes a model for masses of other people with more modest means to aspire to. The advertisement industry and the media conspire to create demands for goods based on dreams of affluence and luxury sold by them and not on needs.
Modern capitalism is driven by cycles of ever rising consumption, ever higher growth and production and ever greater accumulation. In this scheme, ever rising consumption occupies a central place for it is this which makes growth and accumulation possible. In all this, notions of necessity, adequacy, contentment and happiness have been lost somewhere. Obviously with the increasing strain on the earth's resources, this model of ever increasing consumption, growth and accumulation cannot be sustained for too long. And it is in this sense that the ethic of modern capitalism will have to change. Somewhere in this scheme the concept of adequacy will need to be given a place of prominence. Adequacy does not mean asceticism. After the fall of Ferdinand Marcos from power, the press reported that Imelda Marcos had owned seven thousand pairs of shoes. Most ordinary people would consider themselves reasonably well-shod if they owned seven pairs of shoes. Similarly, there are a thousand and one things of people's necessity which they can either acquire in wastefully large numbers or of which they can only possess what is adequate for their needs. It is a revision of this kind in people's pursuits that is necessary and if as a consequence the advertisement, beauty or fashion industries, for example, disappeared altogether, the world would be none the worse off for it. If the old model stays, the earth will continue being spoliated and destroyed till it becomes uninhabitable.
It can be argued that modern capitalism was a spontaneous growth. No one planned it and therefore it is not possible through deliberate, planned action, to change or replace the mechanisms that move and sustain it. To say so is to endow this economic model with a deterministic force that it does not possess and to deny the power of human thought and action to change society. For thinking people it should be more important in the present environmental predicament to sustain the earth and ensure the survival of our species than to continue with the excess of greed and senseless acquisitiveness which have become the defining traits of modern society and which are at the root of so many ills of our world and its environment. Mankind does not have very many years in which to make this choice.