Category Archives: Eco-Awareness

Only the ‘Eco-Awareness’ columns from 2021 onwards are accessible here. For older Eco-Awareness columns by Larry Speight please click on the “Go to our pre-2021 Archive Website’ tag on the right of this page. Also see ‘Eco Echoes’ – a selection from his columns – in ‘Pamphlets’ under ‘Much more’ in the menu bar.

Eco-Awareness, NN 290

Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –

The Invisible Economy

Lessenich calls this a ‘generalised desire for knowing nothing.’

(The Imperial Mode of Living, Ulrich Brand & Markus Wissen, 2021, p.145)

If we mentally removed ourselves from the imperatives, routines and interests that absorb our time we might, in our absence from the theatre of life, see that the fabric of society, every cell and fibre of it, is sustained by a complex network of relationships we are not normally aware of. It is not only that our attention is so focused on living within the perimeters of our circumstances that we are ignorant of them but that the institutions that shape our society, the large corporations, powerful financial institutions and government, prefer that we remain so.

These relationships are environmental and economic. When we put an item into our shopping basket, one out of 3,000 different products many supermarkets have on display, it is extremely unlikely that we will know its life story. Our decision on whether to buy a product or not is based on our familiarity with it, the design of the packaging, quantity and price.

If the product is one we have never used before we will probably read the label to see if it will do the job we intend it for. Most labels list the product’s main ingredients, many of which will be completely meaningless to us. We can buy the item regardless or use the internet to learn about the ingredients. This, however, is time consuming and will only take us so far. There are 5,000 natural minerals and 170,000 synthetic ones. If any of the latter are in the desired product the company, wanting to protect its commercial interests, will have revealed little. If in doubt ask Coca-Cola in Atlanta, Georgia to give you the list of ingredients in its drinks.

What companies most certainly don’t want you to know is the impact its products have on the environment in the course of their life-cycle and the remuneration the workers receive during each stage of their manufacture. The company though will have employed creative minds to lead you astray with uplifting visuals of the natural world assigned to the product you are thinking of buying, evocative and memorable catch-phrases about its health benefits and various capabilities. To discover the truth of these will involve more research.

If all is good you still can’t buy the product with a clear conscience as the company, even if it abides by the highest ethical standards, may use the profits to support products that are not produced in an ethical way. The truth is most of the things we buy have, during their life story, a negative environmental impact. The question is on learning of these, and the low wages paid to the workers who made it, are we prepared to do without. Many people take this option even though it can be a challenge.

Take the case of palm oil, an ingredient in over 50 percent of consumer products including margarine, breakfast cereal, chocolate, biscuits, shampoos, tooth paste and soap. It is also used as a biofuel for motor vehicles and power stations. The plant is mainly grown in Indonesia and Malaysia where tens of thousands of square miles of rainforest have been set alight and turned to ash in order to provide land to grow the crop. Millions of sentient creatures in the forests will have been killed by the fire and smoke including pollinating insects, orangutans and tigers. The indigenous people will have been expelled to live as paupers in a culture they were not socialised to survive and thrive in.

The 2016 report by Amnesty International ‘The Great Palm Oil Scandal’ found that in one of the plantations it surveyed the workers were not paid enough to meet their basic needs and that there were serious human rights abuses. These, the report says:

included forced labour and child labour, gender discrimination, as well as exploitative and dangerous working practices that put the health of workers at risk. The abuses identified were not isolated incidents but due to systemic business practices.

The ill-treatment of the workers on the palm oil plantations and the destruction wrent on the environment, in what can only be called ecocide, applies to the production of many of the products we in the high income countries consume without a second thought. These include tea, coffee, cocoa beans, cotton, bananas, and rubber as well as many types of clothing and electronic items.

The Guardian, 13 May 2021, used its centre-fold pages to highlight the environmental destruction and dangerous working conditions of people working in the informal gold mines in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Cobalt, another mineral of global importance that mostly originates from the DRC, is used in electronic devices that many consider as essential to their life as a set of healthy lungs These include mobile phones, laptops, digital TVs and smart speakers. Cobalt is a vital component in the batteries used in electric vehicles and other technologies which it is vainly hoped will reduce the emission of global warming gasses to the point we can continue our orgy of consumption with environmental impunity.

The out-of-sight human and environmental relationships that bind the global economy together need to be made visible. We have to release ourselves from the “generalised desire for knowing nothing”. Otherwise we will continue to act as if the terrible harms we do to sustain our way of life don’t exist. Not only can this situation last for much longer, as all the indices of biodegradation indicate, but in “knowing nothing” we are bad ancestors as well as our own worst enemy.

Eco-Awareness, NN 289

Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –

Religion and salvation

Although it is widely thought by the inhabitants of these islands that we live in a secular society this would not wash with a first time visitor from a distant country if they had listened to the radio, watched TV and read the newspapers these past few weeks. A fair amount of time was devoted by the mainstream media to the Easter celebrations, and to a lesser extent to Ramadan. The lament of Christian leaders over the Covid-19 closure of their churches received considerable media attention. In addition to covering religious festivals and giving airtime and print space to the debate of such issues as the teaching of religion in schools the traditional media, RTE 1, Radio 4 and Radio Ulster for instance, have a stable of religious programmes.

Our visitor would certainly not have missed the confluence of religion and militarism at the funeral of Prince Philip. This entwinement of military and religious symbols is on display in many a Protestant church. Examples are St Ann’s Cathedral, Belfast and St Macartan’s Cathedral, Enniskillen where an impressive amount of space is given to remembering British soldiers who died in various wars. Needless to say the people killed by these same soldiers are not mentioned, probably because they were regarded as non-entities, impediments to British sovereignty and profit. One will also observe that in some Protestant churches homage to British regiments is on par with the homage paid to saints in Catholic churches.

The pairing of religion and militarisms is a classic case of cognitive dissonance. What of the Christian ethic of not living by the sword? If abided by, air planes, ships and submarines designed to carry nuclear weapons whose sole purpose is to kill people by the million, utterly destroy material culture and decimate the nonhuman world would not be blessed in the name of the very same God held to have created life.

In Ireland, if not in other parts of our archipelago, our visitor would likely by struck by the degree of religious thought that runs like a stream through everyday conversations. In spite of the prevalence of religion in everyday life there is a marked lack of appreciation of the role it could play in affecting positive social change especially in regard to the need for us to realign our relationship with nonhuman nature.

If religion was more concerned with universal wellbeing than of trying to ensure that people go to Heaven then all the money, energy, time and administrative know-how that goes into running a religion, and adhering to the do’s and don’ts, would be channelled into eradicating poverty, assisting the needy and healing our dying biosphere. In other words the religious would be devoted to securing the salvation of all living things.

In fact if religions abided by their golden rule of love your neighbour as yourself their adherents would not destroy the handiwork of God in the first place and there would be little if any structural poverty. The retort to this might be that humans by their nature commit sin – which is to say cause harm. This does not hold. What does is that people care more about the earthly delights of a meat based diet, using a private car in a city well served by public transport, and taking regular flights than the health of the biosphere.

Barring the exception of religiously minded individuals who defy orthodoxy in compassionate and socially creative ways, the main function of religion is to provide a sense of existential comfort and security by shoring up the normal as sanctioned by the state and endorsed by society at large rather than as an agency of wholesale positive change. The “mother and baby homes” in Ireland and the forced schooling of Aboriginal children in Australia are a testimony to this as is institutionalised racism in the Church of England as recently documented by Panorama on BBC 1. It does not have to be this way. Religions could learn from liberation theology as practised by some parishes in South America.

The term liberation theology was coined by Gustavo Gutiérrez in his book A Theology of Liberation (1971). Gutiérrez encapsulated what he thought the focus of organized religion should be with the phrase “preferential option of the poor”. By this he meant that God has a preference for those considered to be outsiders and insignificant, the marginalized, vulnerable, and the poor. Gutiérrez emphasised praxis over doctrine. Fifty years on some of the mainstream religions have developed a theology of the environment underpinned by praxis. The best known text in this field is perhaps that of Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical Laudato Si; On Care for Our Common Home.

The Covid-19 mantra that no one is safe until everyone is safe should apply to the religious promise of salvation. In effect this means we are obliged to do what we can to save all life forms from extinction and protect the ecosystems we dwell in and are part of. This, without doubt, would be one of the cardinal messages of Jesus Christ, Muhammad and other religious figures if they breathed toxic air, saw the scattering of plastic waste, were aware of the plummeting loss of biodiversity as well as experienced extreme weather conditions that scientists link to climate breakdown.

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Eco-Awareness, NN 288

Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –

The Jevons Paradox

Technical innovations that have the capacity to reduce global warming emissions to 1.5C by 2050, as stipulated by the 2015 Paris Climate Change Agreement, won’t accomplish this in the absence of a cultural change in favour of people actually caring for nonhuman nature. The reason is due to what is called the Jevons paradox. This was conceived by the economist William Stanley Jevons (1835-1882) when he observed that an increase in the efficient use of coal lead to an increase in the demand for coal. In his book The Coal Question (1865) he wrote:

It is a confusion of ideas to suppose that the economical use of fuel is equivalent to diminishing consumption. The very contrary is the truth.”

Research presented in New Scientist, 6 March 2021, gives credence to this through showing that the more energy efficient a device becomes the more people are inclined to use it resulting in an increase in the emission of global warming gases relative to the less energy efficient version of the device. Another aspect of the Jevons paradox that hinders the achievement of global warming goals is the rebound phenomenon. This occurs when the money saved through greater energy efficiency is spent on another energy consuming device or service. An example is when the money saved in the course of a year through running a zero-emissions home is spent on an overseas holiday which would not have been taken but for the savings.

The Jevons paradox means that technological innovations that have the ability to radically reduce the emission of global warming gasses and the consumption of raw materials could in practice increase both. This makes achieving net-zero global warming emissions a behavioural problem that should include the input of anthropologists, sociologists and psychologists in the formulation of government policy rather than, as is mostly the case at present, people in the technical sciences. This point is made by Hatan Shah, head of the British Academy, in the journal Nature, 23 March 2021. He writes in regard to Covid-19 that:

Governments have sought expert advice from the beginning of the pandemic, but that expertise tended to come from people in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) – despite it being clear from the beginning that human behaviour, motivation and culture were key to an effective response.”

The case study from India mentioned below illustrates how even the most worthy of aspirations supported by adequate funding and field tested technology can be foiled in achieving widespread application through cultural blindness.

The Clean India Mission, 2014 – 2019, implemented by the Indian government with the support of NGOs provided rural communities with public toilets and household latrines. In the course of the programme $20 billion was spent building 110 million toilets for 600 million people. Follow-up surveys showed that the toilets are not as widely used as initially expected. In part this was because rural culture perceives open defecation as more wholesome, natural and convenient than using a household or public toilet. Another reason is open defecation gives women the highly valued opportunity to socialize with each other out of sight and sound of the men of their family. There is also volatile issue of caste and who cleans and maintains the toilets. (*1)

This lesson on the importance of cultural awareness and critique needs to be applied to the effort by the international community to achieve net-zero global warming emissions by 2050. One overlooked area that should be considered in this regard is the linear economy in which raw materials are extracted from the ground and after a short life as a manufactured good or unwanted food item are dumped in the ground. The examples of e-waste, clothing, plastic bottles and food give a sense of the magnitude of this, which if it were not to take place, would go a long way towards healing the biosphere. Less waste translates into less emission of global warming gases and more CO2 absorbing forests, peatlands, soil and sea grasses. It results in cleaner air, waterways, an increase in biodiversity and less persecution of indigenous peoples.

With regard to food the UNEP Food Waste Index Report 2021 estimates that 931 million tonnes of food waste was generated worldwide in 2019. According to the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation recovering just half of the food that is lost or wasted could feed the world. Producing this food involves the emission of greenhouse gases as does the decomposition process. The latter emits methane which has a global warming potential 25 times that of CO2.

The Times, 17 March 2021, reports that over 100 billion garments are produced annually from virgin materials and that 87 percent of clothing material is incinerated, sent to landfill or dumped every year. Another ubiquitous waste are plastic bottles. The City to Sea campaigning group estimate that in the UK alone 7.7 billion plastic bottles go unrecycled every day. Based on this figure the global number must be in the trillions.

An almost unseen waste, or you might say misuse of resources, are the array of electronic devices including smart phones and computers that together are called e-waste. The UN Global E-waste Monitor 2020 reports that in 2019 we created 53.6 million metric tons of electronic waste of which only 17.4 percent was recycled. The report states that:

This means that gold, silver, copper, platinum and other high-value, recoverable materials conservatively valued at US $57 billion – a sum greater than the Gross Domestic Product of most countries – were mostly dumped or burned rather than being collected for treatment and reuse.”

Without a radical change on many fronts e-waste will reach 74 million metric tons by 2030. On top of this will be the hard to recycle hundreds of millions of batteries from electric vehicles. The Republic of Ireland for example aims to have a million electric vehicles on the road within nine years. (*2)

The widespread, even universal use, of energy efficient technologies won’t, in the absence of regarding nonhuman nature as having intrinsic value, release us from the Jevons paradox, which if they did, might avoid the collapse of the ecosphere as it has evolved since the last ice-age 11,500 years ago. Voicing the link between valuing something and protecting it the palaeontologist and science writer S.J. Gould (1941-2002) said “we will not fight to save what we do not love.”

On the basis of this understanding social scientists studying environmental change encourage education authorities to put the study of nature, learning to appreciate and love it, at the heart of curricula from nursery school to university. Intrigued by the possible outcome of this Matthew Adams, principle lecturer in psychology at the University of Brighton, recently said:

Who knows how powerful the collective nurturing of a childhood sense of awe and wonder, and a deep attachment to nature, might be were it allowed to blossom and flourish?” (*3)

Such an education might be powerful enough to completely change how we interact with nonhuman nature and therein nullify the Jevons paradox.

(*1) Sarita Panchang, A Year On, the Clean India Mission Falls Short, www.fairobserver.com, 8 October 2020.

(*2) Pat Leahy, The Irish Times, 27 March 2021.

(*3) Matthew Adams, I, 23 March 2021.

Eco-Awareness, NN 287

Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –

The Greenwash of Green Technologies

Compared to ten years ago when the media, governments, corporations, organized religions and educational institutions largely endorsed and actively supported the fossil fuel based economic paradigm there has, it would seem, been a radical shift in thinking in regard to our relationship with nonhuman nature. This change is underscored by the UK’s most trusted public person Sir David Attenborough coming out of the closet and declaring himself an environmentalist. During his long career in broadcasting he studiously avoided drawing the public’s attention to the dire state the biosphere is in. More recently Bill Gates, with a private fortune of £165 billion, has made his concerns known about climate breakdown through the publication of his book ‘How To Avoid A Climate Disaster’.

Galvanised by environmentally-minded celebrities, who have enormous persuasive power, a more pro-environmental stance on the part of the mass media, (*1) and a more vocal public an increasing number of governments and corporations acknowledge that the biosphere is critically ill and vow to do something about one of its main aliments, global warming. The formula, which the public whole-heartily welcome, is a techno-fix in the form of electric vehicles, wind farms, solar panels, smart grids and increased digitalisation. It is hoped that these technologies will enable the global economy to become carbon-neutral by 2050.

The evidence suggests that this hope is a case of mass delusion. A case of wanting an equitable, ecologically sustainable society with the comforts, conveniences and recreational opportunities the wealthy world is accustomed to without anyone having to change a single iota of how they live. The aim of the EU, UK and the USA to replace petrol and diesel vehicles by 2035 with electric ones as an illustrative example. Every announcement by vehicle manufacturers to produce electric-only by a near-future date is widely applauded as a long stride taken towards meeting the aim of carbon neutrality b mid-century. The scrutiny applied to new medicines and building proposals is largely absent from the plan to replace the estimated one billion fleet of fossil driven vehicles with electric ones.

One reason why people welcome electric vehicles is because they are thought to cause no air pollution. What is over-looked is the case that whether a vehicle is electric or not braking and the friction of tyres on roads creates toxic dust. In 2019 the UK government’s Air Quality Expert Group warned that breaking and tyre wear contribute to more than half of the particle pollution from road transport.

Many other negative environmental factors of fossil driven vehicles apply to electric ones including the material and organizational infrastructure needed to support them. Thus paving over precious habitat and agricultural land will continue apace. There will still be traffic congestion and fatal road collisions. In fact the latter might rise as those on foot and bicycle are likely be less aware of the presence of electric vehicles as they emit little noise. This will especially be the case is residential areas and rural settings. Mass recharging parks might be required taking up more precious land.

A critical factor in regard to ecological sustainability of electric vehicles in that the materials required to manufacture them leave an ecological footprint equal to if not exceeding that required to manufacture petrol and diesel vehicles. Cuillaume Pitron in his book The Rare Metals War (2020) writes:

The 2016 report by the French Environment & Management Agency finds: ‘the energy consumption of an electric vehicle (EV) over its entire lifecycle is, on the whole, similar to that of a diesel vehicle.’ The report also finds that its environmental impact is ‘on par with (that of) the petrol car’. In fact, an EV might even emit more carbon dioxide than it consumes if the electricity it uses comes predominantly from coal –fired plants, as is the case in countries such as China, Australia, India, Taiwan and South Africa.” (*2).

Electric vehicles use a host of rare metals that are mined and refined at great cost to the environment and in the case of cobalt, an essential component of their batteries, more than 60 percent of which comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo where it is mined using slave labour. (*3) The vehicles use alloys which at present cannot easily be recycled and nor can the batteries which have a relatively short life span. It is feared that the latter will create a ‘waste’ disposal problem no Local Council’ will be able to deal with which means they could end up in illegal dumps polluting soil and above and underground bodies of water.

When one looks at the evidence of the ecological impact of electric vehicles in the course of their lifecycle, the health and human rights issues, one can only but conclude that society has either been duped by the politicians and the vehicle manufacturers, or is happy to collude with the pretence that electric vehicles are considerably better for the environment than diesel and petrol ones.

In spite of the difficulty in recycling rare metals, especially when combined to form alloys, and the absence of any intention to curtail economic growth, which would be an anathema to the dominant economic paradigm, the assumption is that rare metals can be mined indefinably and are not what their name proclaims them to be. Their rarity is revealed by the figures provided by Pitron.

Eight and a half tonnes of rock need to be purified to produce a kilogram of vanadium; sixteen tonnes for a kilogram of cerium; fifty tonnes for the equivalent in gallium; and a staggering 1,200 tonnes for one miserable kilogram of the rarest of rare metals; lutecium.” (*4)

The ecological calamity that will be caused in meeting the insatiable demand for the rare metals used in electric vehicles will likely be as bad as that caused by the fossil fuel industry. The same ecological hazards and human suffering incurred by the manufacture of electric vehicles pertains to all so-called green technologies including wind turbines, solar panels, smart phones, home computers and the entire infrastructure of the internet all of which require rare metals, substantive amounts of energy and vast supplies of water to manufacture and maintain.

Given the historical lack of honesty of governments and corporations – we might recall their stoic reluctance to tighten the laws on the sale of tobacco and the use of lead – it is astounding that society passively accepts the idea that so called green technology will result in a global green nirvana. It seems that belief in green technology based on rare metals is akin to the belief in diet pills which can make people who want to lose weight to do so without them having to change their diet or lifestyle in any way. What society does not want to change is the paradigm of unlimited economic growth and the power structures and behaviour patterns that are an integral part of it.

(*1) Ian Burrell, Media on Monday, i newspaper, 22 February 2021.

(*2) The Rare Metals War: The dark side of clean energy and digital technologies, Guillaume Pitron, 2020, p. 38.

(*3) From Stone to Phone: Modern Day Cobalt Slavery In Congo, www.bylinetimes.com, 10 December 2020.

(*4) The Rare Metals War: The dark side of clean energy and digital technologies, Guillaume Pitron, 2020, p. 3 & 4.

Eco-Awareness, NN 286

Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –

Covid, Climate and the Systems View of Life

In the course of a year the Covid-19 pandemic has infected 100,000,000 people, killed over two million, led to a massive increase in the number of people suffering acute anxiety and mental health problems and reduced incomes worldwide.. (*1) The latter has had a crushing effect on those who at the best of times find it a struggle to live. According to the IMF Covid-19 has cost the global economy, as of October 2020, £21.5 trillion, which translates into a considerable loss of money to public services.

Another cost is the curtailment on people living their life to the full as in not been able to take part in cultural and sporting events, socialise, form friendships, exchange and test ideas and provide each other with emotional sustenance. School pupils, college and university students are an example of a set of people whose education and personal development has been negatively impacted by the necessary health restrictions.

In spite of the social visibility of the virus there is a difficult to calculate but sizeable number of people who believe it is a hoax contrived and disseminated by unnamed powerful individuals to increase their level of control over people’s lives. Credence to this perspective appears to be on the basis of emotionally identifying with the source, rather than on critical assessment. Perspectives that have no basis in science act as a vector for the virus as they reduce caution.

There is another group of people who in the spirit of libertarianism say they won’t be told what to do and therefore, regardless of whether they believe Covid-19 exists or not, don’t follow the health guidelines and say they won’t be vaccinated. People with these mindsets turned out in high numbers at Donald Trump’s presidential rallies and some have protested outside Downing Street, on the streets of Dublin and Belfast, the Netherlands, Denmark and Spain.

Whatever reason people have for not believing that Covid-19 exists, or abiding by the health guidelines, it is critically important that they are persuaded that the virus is as real as the sun in the sky if it is to be eliminated. This is because the pandemic shows that we are not, as libertarians believe, discrete autonomous individuals who can behave as we like but rather are part of a symbiotic community.

Our interconnectedness pertain to an even greater catastrophe than Covid-19 which is our ruination of the biosphere through global warming, deforestation, the building of mega dams, our poisoning of the air, water and soil to mention a few of the environmental harms we exacerbate by the day. To take just one harm caused by our reckless regard for nonhuman nature, 8.8 million people die prematurely every year due to outdoor air pollution, a death rate that far exceeds that of Covid-19. (*2) Indoor air pollution also takes a heavy toll.

Covid-19 provides the world with what one hopes is not too late a reminder that individualism, long considered by western societies as a desirable character trait, is counter to the common good unless imbued with a strong sense of community responsibility underpinned by an understanding of the systems view of life. This view holds that all things are connected, share a common interest and that we, for good or ill, affect each other. It means, as Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi write in the preface to their book on the subject, “thinking in terms of relationships, patterns and context.” (*3)

Individualism is on display in ordinary every day events such as when a farmer, thinking that they can do what they like with the land they are custodians of, digs up a mature hedgerow and sets it alight. When this happens harm is caused to neighbours and passers-by who breathe in the toxic smoke and the survival prospects of innumerable creatures is undermined through the loss of habitat. There is also a cultural and aesthetic loss. People who litter may tell themselves that they have a right to behave as they want to blithely ignore the fact that they are harming the bio-community and the livelihood of farmers whose cattle and sheep are liable to swallow what they have scattered around them or thrown out of a vehicle window.

In spite of errors of judgement and decades of ignoring scientific evidence of the strong likelihood of a pandemic, governments who are acting with great urgency to address Covid-19 are to be commended. However, unless they imbue the cultural milieu through public education programmes with a systems view of life, pandemics will reoccur, the climate will continue to get warmer, air pollution along with other environmental woes will get worse and as the research shows we will by century’s end be living on a planet that is unable to provide for human need or support other life-forms. (*4) Thankfully it is not too late to adopt a systems mindset and in doing so make the world a better one for everyone to live in.

Notes:

(*1) The Mental Health Pandemic, Patrick Freyne, The Irish Times Weekend Review, 23 January 2021.

(*2) Damian Carrington, Air pollution deaths are double previous estimates, finds research, Guardian, 12 March 2019.

(*3.) Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luigi, The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision, 2014, Cambridge University Press.

(4*) Increase the discoverability of your research, Conservation Science, 13 January 2021.