This is really a fragment of a rant against the damage being caused by rampant economic growth around the planet. I began writing it whilst in India last year and have fleshed it out ever so slightly. It has no real beginning or ending, but I cannot quite see where it could begin and end, as it treats a subject too vast for detail. I figured that rather than agonising over what to do with it, I ought to just get it out there… So, here it is!
I see a future black with carbon smoke. Everywhere I look, I see carbon rising into the atmosphere. From factories, kitchens, chimneys, cars, bonfires and barbecues; there is a lot of burning taking place. I too am making my contribution; every time I fly or charge my phone; every time I eat, every time I turn on a light to read, even now as I type on my computer I’m emitting carbon into the atmosphere. The world is rapidly being overwhelmed by the stuff; and it’s certainly not just carbon dioxide. Methane, a gas twenty times more effective at warming the planet, is bubbling out of the melting permafrost and sea floor of far eastern Russia, and from the warming seabed of the Arctic. Already our warming has kick-started other environmental mechanisms and feedbacks; already we have reached a tipping point where a certain amount of warming is now inevitable. There has been much talk at an international level, but the biggest dent put in emissions in the last decades did not come from policy or effort, but simply from the Global Financial Crisis reducing demand. As we return slowly but surely to business as usual, the Earth continues to be threatened not by a mild warming effect, but instead by its worst-case scenario.
Such is the strength of our influence on the atmosphere already, that scientists have signalled the end of the Holocene epoch and are pushing for the present to mark the beginning of a new geological epoch dubbed the Anthropocene. It may be some time before such a designation is recognised, for one question still to be answered is just how long will the Anthropocene last? Will it last long enough to warrant being labelled as a new geological epoch? In truth, humans have already been altering the planet significantly since they first migrated out of Africa, wiped out the remaining megafauna and took up agriculture and animal husbandry. It is estimated that even as little as 8000 years ago, with a population of just 10 million, humans had altered one fifth of the Earth’s ice-free land, mostly through burning and clearing of forest. The widespread nature of the alteration derives from early practices of clearing, exhausting, then moving on to another location. Much of the land was thus in a state of recovery after being transformed by humans. In the present, the scale of transformation is staggering, and even if some catastrophic event caused a large scale reduction in the use of land, our efforts would still leave an indelible record on the environment, particularly when we consider the ongoing mass extinction of species and the unnaturally high levels of carbon in the atmosphere.
So it is that we are burning, clearing, cutting and tearing up the earth on a scale and with an impact that equates to the natural geological climate shifts the earth has undergone in its four-billion year history. All around me, here in India, the burning is just getting underway. It is happening everywhere. In 2009, I saw the countless fires burning in Bali. Even there, where much forest still remained, above everything a haze of smoke hung. From the hills near Munduk, one could see all the carbon; not black, but white, diaphanous coils of carbon dissolving into a wide flat smog across the land. Hundreds of fires, in every home, in every village. Burning off, cooking fires, fires for the amusement of children. It seemed that soon enough all the fires would join and there would no longer be forest in between. No more would the hills be clothed with trees but tamed and terraced, or stripped to rock and dirt.
Yet, Bali was still a paradise of sorts. Java, however, the most populated island on Earth was, environmentally, sinking like an overloaded ferry. What if anything, would be left in fifty years? Leonard Cohen’s lyric came to mind:
Take the only tree that’s left and stuff it up the hole in your culture.
And what was that hole? It was a general, almost endemic absence of environmental awareness, the great hole in the culture of the entire planet. Because, the simple truth is, we’re all as guilty as sin. In America, it’s mass overconsumption, rampant emissions, car dependence, land-stripping and thousands upon thousands of domestic flights. Europe likes to think they’re moving forward, yet half of what they buy is made elsewhere in unsound conditions. The developing world might pollute at will, but it’s not just domestic demand building those coal-fired power stations and dirty factories nor are they all domestic companies.
Australia, perhaps the most guilty country of all, likes to think any guilt is offset by the economics of scale. Being the fattest, greediest, laziest and most self-indulgent population on the planet, living in the largest houses is nothing to be proud of. It doesn’t matter that there are only twenty-one million of us. It is not a valid excuse.
The Australian economy grew at nearly five percent for fifteen years, with barely a hiccup. But what is the goal of this growth? What’s the point of it all? We’ve long since passed the target of general wealth. Sure, not everyone owns a house and has three cars, but there are very few genuinely poor people, and many many massively fat, greedy people living in houses with far more toilets than necessary. Is it this that we have all been striving for? Cocooning ourselves in layers of flab, lounging in unnecessarily large houses and only shaking a fist when interest rates rise and the mortgage becomes more of a burden? There is no real politics in the Australian mainstream anymore. Or rather, it is all politics and no ethics, morality, philosophy or responsibility. Of course, this is an exaggeration; there are many very committed people who are careful about how they use power, careful about where they shop and what they buy, who are sympathetic to the plight of the unfortunate, yet the bulk of the population seem to be rather selfishly indifferent. I myself could do a good deal more.
The relative indifference to the environment, as epitomised by an unwillingness to act or support government initiatives on this front, is mirrored by the selfish attitudes to refugees. In Australia, attitudes to asylum seekers have been hardening rather than softening. Do we not have enough here to share with other people? I’d consider an enviro-ecological argument against increasing the population in the country, though that rarely gets a look in in the “debate” about refugees, asylum seekers and boat people. And anyway, compassion for those who are vulnerable and in need of help will always trump it in my case. Instead, it’s always the old paradigm; refugees have it too good, they’re taking our jobs and costing us precious tax dollars. Well, the truth is that everyone in Australia could afford to give a little more, not just from their wallets but from their hearts. Two cars, three bathrooms and no fucking heart. We do very little suffering here, but around the world there are millions in a tragic limbo. Not to feel compassion for these people strikes me as a very odd thing indeed.
The Australian public has a terribly disproportionate set of values. It has been said that we are no longer living in a society, but rather, an economy. At election time, the one truly humanitarian issue on the agenda was boat people, which is odd considering that, the total number who have come to Australia in the last thirty-odd years is less than 30000, equivalent to roughly 0.14% of the population. There was no public debate about how to help these people, but only how we could stop them coming in the first place. At the election, voting intention will be dictated by financial concerns, fear and paranoia, not a moral or ethical concern about what is right or wrong. It seems that anything tantamount to making a sacrifice is off the agenda in Australia. The debate about the carbon tax is further evidence of this. Whilst there are legitimate questions about its implementation and effectiveness, the public and media response has been hugely negative, simply on account of its being a tax, irrespective of its goals or intended outcomes.
Meanwhile, here, in India, the fires are burning everywhere. The middle class, now swollen to above three-hundred million, will soon own two cars each and live in India-ready air-conditioned houses. The future is a fat and pampered world of skin-whitening products, dandruff-free hair, big fridges, filtered drinking water, cheap domestic flights, and cricket, cricket, cricket! – the bhang of the masses.
Everywhere the fires are burning. The roadsides are rubbish-heaps. There are few if any garbage bins, and most people don’t use them anyway. The West preaches incessantly, and with immense hypocrisy, yet there is no question, what is happening in India does not look like sustainable development. India will swallow itself whole; the people will cut and burn all they can, they will eat up everything, except the cows who graze the rubbish-heaps, chewing their way through plastic and cardboard. What is dumped is picked over by the poor. Thus, to some degree, recycling is an active, ongoing process. But most of what is dumped is heaped into piles, which are then set alight. One cannot even begin to calculate the sheer amount of carbon that is going into the atmosphere from this source alone. Nor is it any surprise that so many Indians have respiratory problems. The burning rubbish, mixed with human excrement, is, more often than not, plastic waste. How much longer can people go on breathing in burning plastic in the cities?
The roads are already choking with motor vehicles, and whilst many of these, by virtue of their small motors, are, relatively speaking, low emission, they will soon be joined by millions more cars with larger engines and power-hungry air-con. In both India and China the land is drying up. Not only have there been problems with failing rainfall, but the water tables and aquifers have been tapped to such a point that soon there will be no ground water to rely upon as backup. China this year has faced the worst ever drought in its long history, and if the rains fail again and the aquifers are gone, how will they eat but by importing even more food from abroad, thus raising the already skyrocketing price of food.
How anyone could pull a rabbit out of this hat, is a mystery to me. I want to be hopeful, but my inclination is to despair. A respected science fiction author, whose name escapes me, when asked what the Earth might be like at the end of this century, stated, in so many words, “I can’t see over the vast pile of corpses.” I hope to goodness that we can avoid the worst of the harm that is already being done, but the reality seems to be one of putting things off until tomorrow. The only problem is that tomorrow is already yesterday.