Special Issue 3 – The Earth and Us

This article has been written for us by Henry Haslam.  Henry obtained his PhD for a study of the rocks of Ben Nevis.  He spent his career working in the earth sciences with the Institute of Geological Sciences (now the British Geological Survey), with tours in Tanzania and Malawi.

In addition to two books (“The Moral Mind” and the “The Earth and Us”) he has written more than 50 papers and reports on geology and related topics, articles on theology, politics and economics, and delivered lectures on moral thinking.

In retirement he pursues his interests in the humanities:  psychology, philosophy, politics and economics.  His leisure interests include hill walking and bell ringing. He lives in Taunton and is Secretary to Taunton Transition Town. 

Henry welcomes discussion of the points raised.  Please send your points of view to quantockeco@btinternet.com.

The Future Has No Vote

The democratic system is the best;
We know it’s so much better than the rest.
It means that we must hear what people say.
If we do that, the votes will come our way.

We strive to please the voters all the time
We watch the polls to see our ratings climb.
We know the people want more stuff to buy
And more and more; a truth we can’t deny.

You tell me we are damaging the Earth:
We’re using up the oil for all we’re worth,
Polluting air and water, land and sea,
Bequeathing desert to posterity.

You tell me that we ought to buy less stuff;
And use less oil and power: enough’s enough.
For that’s the only way to save the Earth
For generations yet to come to birth.

It may be as you say, I do concede;
I cannot argue with you when you plead
The cause of generations yet to come,
But we must march to the present voters’ drum.

The voters need to have their cars, their planes,
Their every want: consumerism reigns.
It’s economic growth that steers the boat,
It’s not the future, for the future has no vote.

If voters tell us what they want is wealth,
It’s not for us to seek the planet’s health.
The future plight of Earth is too remote,
We must face facts: the future has no vote.

The Earth and Us

‘Man is a rational animal – so at least I have been told.  Throughout a long life, I have looked diligently for evidence in favour of this statement, but so far I have not had the good fortune to come across it, though I have searched in many countries spread over three continents.’  Bertrand Russell

There are lots of books on the environment.  In The Earth and Us I wanted to give it a different slant and look at the human angle.  After all, it is humans who have done the damage and it is humans who need to change their ways.  The human population has done and continues to do serious damage to the environment.   This is because there are too many of us, and we consume too much.  

There are no simple technofixes.  It is human behaviour that must change.

I am sure there is no need for me to dwell on the damage that humans have been doing to the Earth:  running down the Earth’s resources of groundwater, minerals, fossil fuels; destruction of soil and natural habitats, leading to loss of biodiversity; pollution, including by plastics, with damage to other species. 

I’ll just refer to the example of the decline in vulture populations in India, leading to the proliferation of other scavengers (dogs and rats) and the spread of disease.  The cause was not obvious, but research showed that the cause was diclofenac, a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) which is useful for treating humans and livestock but is fatal for vultures.

How could this have been predicted?  We cannot expect every new chemical – industrial, pharmaceutical or agricultural – to be tested for its effect on every species on Earth.  There is so much we don’t know. 

The one thing we do know is that we are conducting a gigantic experiment with this precious and fragile planet of ours, with little idea what the consequences will be.  What is frightening is not so much what we know as what we don’t know.

How did we get here?

For most peoples in most of history, how they look after their environment is closely bound up with how they see their place in the world and thus with their religious beliefs.  Ideas about land and nature are central to every culture.  Only in the West and in recent times have religion and nature been seen as separate entities. 

The major religions contain, in their early teachings, the message that we should care for our environment.  Some religions see humans as distinct from the rest of creation, with a special responsibility for it.  Others do not draw this distinction, seeing humans as an integral part of nature.

The latter view is also built into that unstructured sense of the sacred that appears to have been present in most cultures before the emergence of more formal religion some two thousand or more years ago.  Humans don’t always live up to their ideals, of course, and history has examples of destruction, through thoughtlessness or deliberate action, but there was a strong sense either that humans were at one with nature (‘We are the land’ is how many native Americans sum up their relationship with the natural world) or that they had a special responsibility for looking after it.

It was the industrial revolution that invited us to change our values, a revolution that grew out of Western Christendom.  Recent Chinese scholars, asked to account for the pre-eminences of the West, concluded that it was not their guns or their political or economic systems but their religion – Christianity.  Just as industry grew from Christianity, so too did the sense of human pre-eminence.  In Christianity, nature is not, of itself, sacred (as it is in Daoism, Hinduism, Shinto and many folk religions).  The interests of humans are more important than nature.

The last 300 years have brought wealth, health, longer life, education and greater choice for most people in the West and many people in the rest of the world.  All these changes would have been thought of as beneficial by most Christians.  Poverty, ill-health and lack of education were regarded as evils that should be eradicated.  Such thinking was always part of Judaeo-Christian thinking, but in modern times it became detached from its roots in caring for creation.

In 1967, Lynn White could write ‘Our science and technology have grown out of Christian attitudes towards man’s relation to nature which are almost universally held not only by Christians and neo-Christians but also by those who fondly regard themselves as post-Christians.  We are superior to nature, contemptuous of it, willing to use it for our slightest whim’.

Some religious and moral leaders criticised specific harmful trends, such as excessive greed or destructiveness or the misuse of power, but there was little reason to challenge the underlying belief that scientific and technological advances were making life better for most people and were therefore to be welcomed. 

We lost sight of the bigger picture, of the damage to nature and the consequences for the future of humanity. 

As White recognised, this sense of human pre-eminence was also adopted by non-believers, some of whom actually describe themselves as ‘humanists’. ‘Modern man’, wrote E F Schumacher in 1973, ‘does not experience himself as a part of nature but as an outside force destined to dominate and conquer it.’

We had lost the sense of giftedness, of humility before a natural world that was greater than us, replacing it with a sense of mastery, of entitlement.  ‘The environmental problem arises’, wrote Roger Scruton, ‘because we have treated the earth as an object and an instrument.’

It is the West that has given birth to our present environmental problems – the unintended consequences of the innovations in industry, agriculture, medicine and hygiene that have enabled us to live longer, healthier and more prosperous lives.

It is in the West, too, that the recent environmental movement has grown – a disenchantment with modern Western lifestyles, a sense that we are in danger of losing something important and, increasingly, an awareness of the irreversible damage we are doing to our planet. 

The roots of this disenchantment can be traced back to the nineteenth century, with thinkers like Henry David Thoreau and John Muir who urged us to care about the wild and natural world.

William Vogt’s 1948 book Road to Survival mounted a sustained attack on the consumer society, population pressures and the degradation of the land:  ‘Despoiled forests, wildlife extermination, overgrazing, and the dropping of water tables are unforeseen and unwanted by-blows of a vigorous and adolescent culture on the loose’

Vogt strongly criticised Britain and other European countries for allowing their populations to grow beyond the numbers that they could feed and their consequent dependence on the New World for food.  He recorded that biologists throughout the world were alarmed by the widespread and unselective use of DDT, because it destroyed insects that are valuable to humans (pollinators, for example, and species that parasitise destructive insects).  He also pointed out that insects inimical to humans could have a valuable function: by keeping people away, they helped to preserve natural habitats (the tsetse fly in parts of Africa, for example).

The turning point for DDT and for public awareness of environmental issues, however, came with the publication in 1962 of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, one of the most influential books of the twentieth century.

How We Are

J K Galbraith’s 1958 book, The Affluent Society, written long before greenhouse gases became an issue, described the consumer society in terms very similar to those we might use today, emphasising the unimportance of the things on which we spent much of our money.  He pointed out that for most of history poverty was an all-pervading fact of the world.  ‘Obviously’, he wrote, ‘it is not of ours’.  More people in the United States at that time died of too much food than of too little. 

He went on to say that our economic thinking had not adjusted to this new state of affairs.  Our needs for certain products couldn’t be all that important if great efforts have to be made to persuade us that we have such needs. This, however, does not lead us, as it should, to question our preoccupation with production:  ‘To cast doubt on the importance of production is thus to bring into question the foundation of the entire edifice’.  In pursuit of this end, he wrote, economics was divorced from any judgement about the goods that are produced.

The Affluent Society was widely read and widely praised (The Modern Library rates it at No 46 in the top 100 non-fiction books of the twentieth century) – and just as widely ignored.  Galbraith’s lesson has not been learnt.  We have gone on operating the economy as if we still lived before the age of plenty.  We still believe that we need to produce more and more goods (we call it growth) to satisfy consumer demand.

And it is founded on a lie.  The whole edifice of our economic life is built on a falsehood; we are conned into thinking that life will be better for us if we get more stuff and throw away more stuff.  Of course, there are people and situations in real need, but most of the money, most of the stuff, is with people who have more than they need. 

Acquiring stuff, so far from bringing the hoped for satisfaction, simply creates the desire to acquire still more.  It promises so much but fails to deliver.  As Tim Jackson wrote in Prosperity without Growth, ‘It is precisely because material goods are flawed, but somehow plausible proxies for our dreams and aspirations, that consumer culture seems on the surface to work so well.  Consumer culture perpetuates itself here precisely because it succeeds so well at failure!’

There are numerous studies showing (as if we didn’t already know) what it is that brings people happiness.  Teresa Belton sums it up in Happier People Healthier Planet: ‘It is not material wealth but non-material assets, such as strong relationships, active engagement, and thriving communities, that enrich our personal and social well-being.’

The psychological falsehood about the happy life was compounded by a wrong turning taken by economics, which departed from its roots as a study of human behaviour and ethics to embrace a mechanistic view of human behaviour and promote the concept of the economic man, a seriously distorted image of human nature.

There were other falsehoods put about in the twentieth century that militated against the environment. It would seem fairly obvious that caring for the Earth is the right thing to do, both for the Earth itself and for future generations of humans, but for much of the twentieth century we were told that ‘What is the right thing to do?’ was a meaningless question, because the answers had no validity.  It became fashionable to denigrate the whole concept of moral thinking – failing to recognise its potential as a powerful tool in the human personality.

Then again, it is fairly obvious that the more people there are in the world the greater the damage they can do.  If there were just one billion of us, as there were in 1800, the damage would be more manageable, perhaps even under the Earth’s self-regulating powers.  And yet, during the period when the world’s population was growing at its fastest rate (it more than doubled from 3 billion in 1960 to 7 billion in 2011) there was a taboo against talking about – and addressing – the problem of population growth.

In view of all this misguided thinking, it hardly comes as a surprise to note that in an age that puts so much emphasis on Elf’n’Safety and risk assessment affecting the most trivial of activities, such precautions should be cast aside when experimenting with our planet.

How We Could Be

There is an old saying that ‘You can’t change human nature’.  However, as the economic historian R H Tawney wrote, ‘The conventional statement that human nature does not change is plausible only so long as attention is focused on those aspects of it which are least distinctively human’.  One of the great strengths of our species is our ability to innovate and adapt. 

Our adaptability has enabled us to colonise and flourish in many different climates and environments.  Today, we find humans in cold climates (Inuit in the American Arctic, reindeer people in the Siberian tundra) and hot climates; in dry climates (the Sahara) and wet climates.  Humans live off diets that are almost entirely animal (Inuit, Maasai) and entirely vegetable (the Jain in India). 

Throughout history, human societies have changed their way of life in different ways and for different reasons.  This ability may give us hope that we can make the necessary changes to our lifestyles to enable human life to flourish on earth for many years into the future.  If the will is there.

It is clear that information is not enough to change our behaviour.  As the Duke of Edinburgh said in 1986, ‘If the environmental crisis was a matter of data and information it would be over now.  We know what the problems are.  The trouble is we’re not touching anybody’s hearts or minds.’  Change happens only when our emotions are engaged. 

That is our challenge.

Most of the environmental issues we are concerned about have been known for more than 30 years.  What have we achieved?  What progress has been made?  Scientists, technologists and engineers have been working away, and we are now seeing the fruits of their labours.

New, planet-friendly technologies have been taken up by business and are being put to use.  Numerous others are in the pipeline.  At the same time, there has been a change in the rationale underlying business operations.  Instead of emphasising money as what really counts (as in the twentieth-century term ‘the bottom line’), businesses, investors and commentators are now talking in terms of ESG (environmental, social and governance) criteria – and companies with good ESG ratings are financially successful.

On the political front, the UK government passed the Climate Change Act in 2008, but environmental concerns remained on the sidelines, for a few enthusiasts.  There were not thought to be votes in environmental policies.  That has now changed (my poem at the head of this article was written some ten years ago and now looks somewhat out of date).  Leaders of all political parties support the environmental agenda – and there is a great deal that government can do.

Less progress has been made by the general public.  I have tried to be optimistic, showing so many ways in which enterprising people were leading the way, but if I’m honest I have to admit that there has been little interest in following their lead.  People can see the point of recycling, and David Attenborough’s message about plastics got through, but our roads are ever more congested and our bins show how much stuff we buy only to get rid of. 

Politicians accept the need to reduce carbon emissions, but the general public seem to think it is nothing to do with them.  Extinction Rebellion was launched in October 2018 and achieved a very high media profile, but they didn’t use the opportunity to tell the public how they could have a part to play in reducing the world’s carbon emissions. Their message, instead, was that the responsibility lay entirely with the government.

Amazingly, the government seemed to share that view and accept responsibility. 

They still do.  To take one example, Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, who has set out an impressive vision for decarbonising transport by increasing public transport, cycling and walking, has been making speeches to the aviation industry saying that the market is going to continue to grow over the coming years and decades through decarbonising flights. 

Of all the sectors where carbon emissions need to be reduced, aviation must be one of the easiest to address by behavioural change and one of the hardest to change by developing new technologies.

Many of the ways that people can change to live more planet-friendly lives are fairly easy, save money, reduce stress and generally make life pleasanter.  It’s important to recognise that behavioural change need not mean a life of deprivation.  Nor need it mean a smaller economy.  We need a thriving economy in order to raise the taxes to pay for so many things that are important to us: health and social care, schooling, police, justice, infrastructure.

The important thing is that our economic activity should not damage the environment. The covid months have shown that very many of us earn our crust by working at a computer.  Similarly, we can spend our earnings at a computer: the video games industry is worth £1.8 billion – which is more than the fishing industry. 

It doesn’t matter whether we have economic growth or not; what matters is that we should stop destroying our planet and live in harmony with the environment.  I shall end by looking at some people who made the decision to change their lives and do just that.  Few of us will go the extent that they did, but maybe we can all learn some lessons from them.

In Happier People Healthier Planet, Teresa Belton tells how she sent out a questionnaire to people, most of whom she contacted via an advertisement in The Big Issue, who had chosen to live a life of modest material consumption – and who said they were happy with it. 

Of the 94 people who completed the questionnaire, 50 said that their modest lifestyle was partly due to financial circumstances and partly to choice.  For 42 it was purely a matter of choice.  Belton then went on to interview 37 of the participants in order to gain further insights.  Her book describes in detail the lives of these 94 ‘modest consumers’ and why they chose to live as they did.

Some of them did without a washing machine, television or mobile phone.  Many were enthusiastic re-users, repairers and recyclers.  Most engaged in the sharing economy.  Many had a particular dislike of waste.  They were people who thought about their values. 

Many of them were motivated by a concern for the environment or social justice.  Many of them were involved in voluntary work or community activities and making ethical purchases, like fair trade. 

They found pleasure in being engaged in challenging and absorbing activities.  They were very much aware of the importance of the non-material aspects of life and the contribution they make to our well-being – like friendships, spirituality, creativity, playfulness and closeness to nature. 

They were active physically, culturally and socially.  Their most frequent non-essential purchases included books, CDs, DVDs, theatre and music, and good food, wine and beer.

They differed a great deal in the choices they made – but all were proactive, forging their own ways of doing things.  Some had been brought up to be modest consumers; for others it was a decision made at some point in adult life.  

Interestingly, none of them allowed their chosen lifestyles to jeopardise close family relationships.  Avoiding conventional consumption patterns doesn’t have to cut you off from other people.

Most of the modest consumers had low incomes and low expenditure, but an environmentally friendly lifestyle doesn’t have to be like that.  Belton points out that you could spend a fortune buying antiques, commissioning works of art, planting trees and donating to charity – and this would do far less damage to the environment than a smaller amount of money spent on clothes, novelty items, cheap flights or other popular items of expenditure.

An inspiration!

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