An orrery of errors

Shadow on brick wall

One of the trickiest questions of environmental politics is always whether we are actually managing to deal with problems, or whether we are just shifting them elsewhere – either spatially or temporally. This is true on many fronts: with regards to pollution, with regards to resources, and with regards to the overall intensity with which we are exploiting the earth. Our experiences of environmental conditions in the rich world are certainly not reflective of the overall global story, nor of the ultimate consequences.

Looking first at pollution: during the early periods of their industrialization, the countries that are now the world’s cleanest were polluted to the point of seriously impinging upon the health of those who lived within them, particularly in the cities. London’s notorious fogs were more the product of particulate matter from burning coal than the product of the natural humidity of the place. Some Japanese cities were so saturated with heavy metals from industrial sources that they became notorious for the illnesses and birth defects that resulted. Evidently, the bulk of these problems have now been overcome in the developed world. Zoning laws, environmental regulations, new technologies, and the rest have all come together to make our air and water broadly safer than they have been since the industrial revolution.

The extent to which we can cheer this is, however, mitigated somewhat in the knowledge that much of the health and safety we enjoy is the product of misery elsewhere. Consider the conditions in the industrializing regions of India or China. Consider the conditions in the various resource sectors that provide the raw materials of affluence: from coal and diamond mines to hazardous timber industries run by corrupt national armies and organized crime syndicates in the Asia Pacific.

Indeed, resources are probably the area where this outsourcing can be most obviously seen. What forests remain in much of the developed world are fairly rigorously protected. Even Canada’s vast timber industry has requirements for conservation, replanting, and the protection of streams. I am certainly not claiming that this industry is perfect, nor entirely sustainable in its present form, but it is clear that these kind of standards certainly do not exist worldwide. Where once the big area of concern among environmentalists was the Amazon rainforest in Brazil (certainly still in danger from a growing human population and the desire for land), the real, widespread damage being done today is in Asia: where the smoke from massive land-clearing forest fires occasionally rains down on cities and where Japan uses more tropical hardwood than any other nation in the world. The primary use: shaping concrete.

The most difficult to assess area in which such phenomena are occurring is in terms of just how much stress vital ecological and climatological systems can endure before they are degraded in the long term. I needn’t remind any long-term readers about the example of fisheries, but is also bears considering just how much toxic and radioactive sludge we can continue dumping into the sea before the problem comes back to bite us. Consider the dozens of Soviet nuclear warships and submarines that have been scuttled off obscure portions of the Russian coastline: both well-stuffed with spent fuel and other radioactive waste and, in most cases, themselves rendered dangerously radioactive. Like the concrete tomb in which the Chernobyl reactor has been encased, it is only a matter of time before these containers are broken down by time and corrosion.

A similar story of large scale pollution can be told about the atmosphere – and I am not talking about greenhouse gasses and climate change. A broad collection of chemicals including the products of burning garbage, as Japan does widely, industrial chemicals, like the PCBs leaking from the old RADAR stations along Canada’s Distant Early Warning Line, and pesticides have such chemical compositions that they break down only extremely slowly in the biosphere. They do, however, concentrate in fatty tissues and in ever-greater concentrations as they progress up the food chain. The long-term ramifications of these persistent organic pollutants are, naturally, far from entirely known.

As for climate change, this is the macro-level elephant in the room. While we don’t know exactly what it will involve, what magnitude it will be, and what it will cost to deal with, the reality of climate change demonstrates how human activity can impact the entire planet. It also underscores the extent to which our present prosperity may be banking colossal problems for future generations.

The point of this is not to be overly alarmist, nor to endorse specific policies for dealing with the above problems. The point is related to how problems need to reach a certain level of severity before action against them comes together. Look at the present political circuses about health care and pensions in all the demographically-shifting rich states. Sometimes, action taken at the point where danger is apprehended is effective. Look at the Montreal Protocol on chlorofluorocarbons: the major class of chemicals that was eroding the ozone layer. Within a couple of decades of the identification of the problem, a fairly effective international regime was in place to begin dealing with it. The ozone is recovering.

Looking through the literature, you will see the ozone example a lot. That’s not just because it is a fairly good example of international cooperation on a clear environmental problem: it’s because it is one of a few success stories among myriad failures. Hopefully, in the next few decades, we will gain tools to better understand the future consequences of present choices and actions. Likewise, I am hopeful that we will develop the wisdom – individual and collective – to begin curbing contemporary demands and wasteful and destructive contemporary practices, both with an eye to global equity and another towards those who are to succeed us on this planet.

11 thoughts on “An orrery of errors”

  1. Personally, I think you’re better off sticking with your A510. Not that you post many photos of people, but it is certainly less intimidating to people than an SLR. More importantly, you’re much more likely to carry it around with you.

    Dropping more than $1000 on a dSLR just isn’t smart when you’ve got student debt and a real need for funding next year, is it?

  2. @Anonymous,

    Entirely true, which is a large part of why I have no intention of buying one in the foreseeable future. Now, if I found myself with some kind of huge scholarship or highly lucrative job, that might change. Even then, however, I would probably spend any windfall on a trip to Africa.

  3. Regarding all the environment stuff, can’t you just take a lesson from our commander in chief? As he said:

    “I know the human being and fish can coexist peacefully.”

  4. From The Guardian:

    As George Bush observed during the 2000 presidential campaign: “I know the human being and fish can coexist peacefully.” He was right, of course, but human beings have had much the upper hand in this relationship. So much so that in the North Sea, an area that once teemed with fish, cod stocks are now running dangerously low. The International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (Ices) – a group of marine scientists who specialise in the North Atlantic – has released its annual survey of fish stocks. It recommends a minimum cod stock size of 150,000 tonnes in the North Sea. Alarmingly, the current stock is estimated to be less than one-third of that figure, at just 46,000 tonnes. The figures show a similar tale for Irish Sea cod, as well as sharp declines in Bay of Biscay hake and North Sea plaice numbers.

  5. On the ozone issue, there isn’t 100% consensus that the ozone layer is actually recovering. There are also doubts about whether the stabilization will continue as the developing world begins using more refrigeration, much of which will not employ non-CFC coolants. A very large portion of Chinese refrigerators, for instance, are apparently based on ozone-depleting coolants.

    Makes the point about this being one of a small number of successes even scarier, no?

  6. Re comment 6.

    The exhaustion of cod supplies in the North Sea is circumvented by switching to haddock. That’s what the Scots eat anyhow. Much nicer.

  7. From the BBC:

    Currently, the atmosphere contains about 380 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide, the principal greenhouse gas, compared to levels before the industrial revolution of about 275ppm.

    To have a good chance of achieving the EU’s two-degree target, levels should be stabilised at 450ppm or below, the report concludes.

    But, speaking on Today, the UK government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir David King, said that was unlikely to happen.

    “We’re going to be at 400 ppm in 10 years’ time, I predict that without any delight in saying it,” he said.

    “But no country is going to turn off a power station which is providing much-desired energy for its population to tackle this problem – we have to accept that.

    “To aim for 450 (ppm) would, I am afraid, seem unfeasible.”

    Full Article

  8. Meghan,

    I am guessing we were sick of the sharks.

    Up here, we basically just have ourselves to worry about.

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