Monuments of a civilisation lost to the desert

With the news being dominated by political turmoil over Brexit, you could be forgiven for having missed some significant developments on a still more important matter: the future of life on earth.

Take the new report in the prestigious medical journal the Lancet, which begins with this warning:
“Food systems have the potential to nurture human health and support environmental sustainability; however, they are currently threatening both”.

Actually, this is not news as such, merely the most recent in a series of authoritative warnings about the manner and rate at which our economic, industrial and agricultural system is consuming the very foundations on which the living world – including our own species – depends.

Here, for instance, is a report from the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, according to whom we lose some 24 billion tonnes of fertile soil each year.

In 2017, a five-year, $60 million study revealed that we are facing a “nitrogen pollution crisis”, as artificial fertiliser use, fossil fuels, livestock waste, and sewage contribute to a doubling of nitrogen flows in the last few decades, resulting in ecological “dead zones” across the planet.

Here is a report from the US National Academy of Sciences, which, on the basis of a study of over 27,000 living species, speaks of of the “biological annihilation” we are causing; and here is another from the WWF which says there has been a “60% decline in the size of populations of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians in just over 40 years”.

If that’s not enough, here is a long article from the Guardian, setting out how glaciers – sources of fresh water that sustain human and other animal populations – are disappearing at an unprecedented rate. Here is another, similarly bleak story on how insect numbers are “falling drastically”.

[UPDATE 3: On 4 February, a truly alarming report on the same issue was released by a team of over 300 leading researchers, experts and policymakers, brought together by the Hindu Kush Himalayan Monitoring and Assessment Programme (HIMAP). For a newspaper summary, follow this link. To download the full report, see here.]

Or take this report from the World Health Organisation, which rates air pollution as the greatest environmental risk to health in 2019, and reminds us that the primary cause of air pollution (burning fossil fuels) is also a major contributor to climate change, about which the IPCC so recently released a stark warning. In case this seems like a problem for others in far off places, by the way, in the UK a record number of people are dying of asthma, and experts have linked this to air pollution.

Earth, water, air, and consuming fire. Our fossil-fuel driven system is forcing the living world towards an elemental crisis. We are entering what Hannah Holleman calls a new ‘global Dust Bowl’ era, as a sytematic result of “increasingly extreme expropriation—in both scale and technique—of the land, of the planet’s hydrocarbon deposits, and of freshwater systems”.

None of this has an easy fix. None of the damage can be quickly reversed, nor the system quickly turned round. Which is why we can no longer waste time waiting for those who benefit from the system – many of our major corporations, those who grow wealthy by investing in them, the politicians who defend their interests – to see the light and start making changes on the scale and at the speed required.

In fifty years’ time, we will look back and see, clearly, that all the warnings were there, all the reports, all the science, all the evidence. And the record of those who refused to accept the obvious, in order to protect their own wealth, will also be clear for all to see.

This is why the Extinction Rebellion of which Tanya wrote in the last article, is so important. It is about more than climate change – important as this issue is. It is about acting on the clear evidence of unfolding systemic collapse, and the equally clear evidence that there are political and economic actors who are determined to stop the rest of us undertaking the radical action that alone will meet the elemental scale of the situation.

Lest this very scale appear debilitating – what’s the point, as one comedian said, of washing out Marmite jars when they’re blowing the tops off mountains? – it’s worth saying that if the problems are already known, so are some of the solutions. Indeed, with renewable energy becoming ever more affordable, and with the revival of interest in the US in a ‘Green New Deal’, campaigners need not simply campaign against the exploitative, extractive, ‘crank’ economy; they can also point the way towards a system that meets the needs of all within the means of the living planet, to adapt a phrase from Kate Raworth’s brilliant book, Doughnut Economics (which we discussed in an earlier post).

So if the problem is elemental, the elements of a solution are already visible; now we just need to combine them.

Maurice Macartney

20 January 2019

UPDATE: 22 January 2019 – this just in from the New York Times: ‘Greenland’s Melting Ice Nears a ‘Tipping Point,’ Scientists Say’

UPDATE 2: 24 January 2019; Another record broken – this time for the number of private jets flying in to Davos for the World Economic Forum.

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