Tag Archives: Larry Speight

Eco-Awareness with Larry Speight: Everything is connected

Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –

Some things we read, hear, and witness bring us up sharp, causing us to suddenly grasp the reality of something considered until then common and every-day. The awakening moves us to ponder about the subliminal reasons for the thing we have come to see more clearly and question the norms and values widely regarded as common sense; natural and inevitable. Many readers might consider the assertion that we are financing our own extinction as belonging in this category. In the context of our risk-averse society, which prides itself on its rationality and the use of evidence in decision making the idea that we would bring about our demise is widely considered absurd. If only this were the case.

The recently published report by Earth Track, an organisation which monitors subsidies which harm the biosphere, found that worldwide governments subsidise the destruction of nonhuman nature to the tune of $1.8tn a year. The fossil fuel industry receives $620bn, agriculture $520bn and water $320bn. High as the net figure is it is thought by the authors of the report, Doug Koplow and Ronald Steenblik, to be an underestimate as it does not include the subsidies given to mining, which annually cause billions of dollars’ worth of damage to ecosystems and it does not include the ecological costs of the withdrawal of freshwater for agriculture and industry.

It should be said that placing a financial cost on the harm done to nonhuman nature is problematic as it is misleading to place a monetary value on life which by definition has intrinsic value. These costs should be considered as indicators of the degree of harm done within the framework of the market economy. The financial cost aside there is no escaping the case that the harm we are doing to the biosphere could, if it is not soon abated, result in our extinction.

This, however, does not have to be. Although it is a long-shot we can, metaphorically, turn the ship of our throw-away, life-annihilating economy around. As the local and global economy is the manifestation of our cultural values, attitudes and perspectives, the means of doing this is through ensuring, by means of education, that the public thoroughly understand that everything is connected.

One of the cardinal fallacies of our time is the belief that we are not only biologically and existentially different from nonhuman nature but are categorically separate from each other. The latter belief is highlighted by the individualism that underpins much of the motivation behind the protests against the measures taken by governments to curtail the spread of Covid-19. Although some measures are contradictory and are a cause of anger what is overlooked is that some perceived individual freedoms impinge on the biological reality of our interconnectedness and social and economic interdependencies.

This sense of disconnectedness can be addressed through formal and informal education as in group discussions led by informed mediators, TV soaps, film, drama, art and documentaries. The story of what happened when wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone Park in the United States aptly illustrates the interconnected nature of ecosystems.

In brief the introduction of wolves resulted in elk, their main prey, changing their feeding habits and grazing less on young saplings which led to the regeneration of flora along river banks, which led to less soil erosion which meant less siltation in the rivers which caused the numbers of fish to multiply, benefitting bears and eagles whose left-overs aided other species. A key, eco-shaping species that benefited the return of the wolves, is the beaver. As habitat improved birds, bears and mice returned further accelerating regeneration. Each species, even some long-adapted ones, are part of the jig-saw of the eco-system in which they dwell and the loss of one can have a negative, often unforeseen, impact on the whole.

The inter-connectedness of life-forms and eco-processes needs to be embraced in a practical policy-making sense by our culture and economy if we are to avert our extinction and that of other species. The idea that we have a right to behave as we want regardless of negative consequences, something which is particularly prevalent in western societies as the ‘freedom protests’ illustrate, should be critically examined through the prism of connections by the broad range of agencies that perform an educational role.

That everything is connected is vividly illustrated by President Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Within a short time of the invasion the price of wheat, corn, sunflower oil, fertilizers, oil and gas shot-up. These price rises adversely affect people across the world with harsh consequences for the billions living in low-income countries. The sharp rise in the price of bread and fuel often leads to the attempted over-throw of governments and in turn further suffering.

Awareness that everything is connected should sensitize us to the possible negative effects of our behaviour leading to better personal relationships and an ecologically healthier and more harmonious world. To this end it might be helpful to remember that a person is a ’we’ rather than an ’I’.

Eco-Awareness with Larry Speight: Caring for the whole biosphere

Two outstanding features of the multitude of commitments made to limit global warming emissions in order to prevent the average global temperature rising above 1.5C against pre-industrial levels by 2050 is the almost complete absence of any interest in preserving other species, habitats, and an element essential to life, the finite supply of clean water. The other notable feature is the almost universal view that what needs to change is our means of generating energy but not our conception of the good life on which the energy is expended. This is blind folly, strongly suggesting that we have an inaccurate, self-defeating sense of our place within nature.

While there are many organisations and individuals dedicated to halting species extinction and safeguarding the purity of water; conferences convened and summits held in an attempt to get governments to commit to binding conservation targets, the coverage of the issues in the mainstream media compared to that given to what is misleadingly called the climate emergency is scant and fleeting, Have you for example heard of COP15 or the Aichi Biodiversity Targets? I expect few people have.

A UN conference on preserving biological diversity was held in Aichi, Japan in 2011 in which governments agreed on 20 targets to reduce the loss of biodiversity. Ten years later not a single target was met and during this time we exterminated species with aplomb. In May of this year, Covid-19 permitting, the follow up conference, COP15, will be held in Kunming, China. It aims to get governments to agree to conserve 30 per cent of land and sea by 2030 and reduce government subsidies that harm biodiversity by $500 billion a year.

Giving colossal sums of money to destroy our astoundingly beautiful biosphere with its wondrous sentient life is surely insane. It is akin to sitting in a tree and sawing off the branch you are perched on. When we see cartoon depictions of this we laugh at the absurdity of it and are genuinely puzzled by the short-sightedness of the person with the saw. That we fail to see ourselves doing this very thing in regards to the biosphere is surely a failure of our imagination especially when the mass extinction of species is thought by many biologists to be a greater existential threat than climate breakdown. Our blasé attitude towards fresh water increases this threat.

If anyone doubts the latter then what other explanation is there for us not providing our water authorities with funds sufficient to process our raw sewage rather than have it flow untreated into rivers and the sea? What accounts for the large number of people who flush sanitary products down toilets and the high number of mass fish kills in our rivers? In December 2021 the Northern Ireland infrastructure minister, Nichola Mallon, gave a measure of the extent of our lack of appreciation for fresh water when she told the Stormont Assembly that on average 7m tonnes of raw sewage are released into the country’s rivers and seas every year. About 200,000 tonnes pour into the catchment area of Lough Neagh, from which 40 per cent of Northern Ireland’s drinking water is sourced, and about 250,000 tonnes into Lough Erne.

This abuse of clean water occurs across our archipelago. In fact our misuse and abuse of water, with catastrophic consequences for humankind and whole ecosystems, takes place across the world. This is thoroughly documented by Fred Pearce in his book, When the Rivers Run Dry, (2019).

The systematic and casual abuse of water is illustrative of our instrumental relationship with the biosphere. In other words we think it is there for us do with as we wish without moral consequence. This attitude towards nonhuman nature has been stitched into our culture by our institutions, including most of the world religions, and is how climate breakdown is viewed and understood. Thus the techno approach to addressing climate breakdown, which is that we can abuse the biosphere as we have always done, vis-a-via unlimited consumption, but in a way that does not lead to the average global temperature rising above 1.5C. As for the loss of biodiversity and the pollution of water we imagine that we can live well-enough without the former and that there will be a techno fix for the latter. In spite of the major differences between governments on various issues what there is near consensus on is that the eco-ravaging consumer culture that underpins our exponential-growth economy is the only show in town.

Eco-Awareness with Larry Speight:

Dominant views, cognitive dissonance and climate breakdown

It can be said with reasonable confidence that few people are unaware of the disintegration of the bio-world as it has evolved since the last ice age 11,500 years ago. The response to its disintegration caused by how we have interacted with it over the centuries, and crucially since the industrial revolution, varies enormously.

The dominant view, biblical based and integral to capitalism, is that the Earth exists solely to meet the needs and wants of humankind. Other species, and natural processes deemed to have no practical use, or indeed considered impediments to furthering our perceived interests, are relocated, altered, destroyed or extinguished. An example is the building of the multi-billion pound HS2 high-speed train line from Birmingham to London in which every living thing in its path is sacrificed on the altar of economic growth. No amount of financial gain or travel time saved can ever replace felled ancient woodlands, altered river courses and the death of life forms through the loss of habitat.

Another view about the human-induced disintegration of the biosphere, one that is widely held but few admit to, is contained in the phrase ‘it’s no concern of mine’. This view is rooted in our culture of individualism which says one is primarily responsible for oneself, immediate family and close friends. Excluded are other folk, especially those we think of as outside our tribe, and other species. The ‘no concern of mine’ individualism encompasses the welfare of future generations who will have to live with our legacy, which as Pope Francis said is the “immense pile of filth” the “Earth has turned into”.

The trashing of nonhuman nature is based on another deeply rooted view which is that as it has no intrinsic value it is not deserving of our affection and concern. Thus litter, which is a serious hazard to wildlife, is tossed out of car windows, left by picnickers on beaches and dropped by walkers, cyclists and people who fish.

These views, combined with a degree of delusion, help account for the recent figures released by the UN which reveal that none of the commitments the 196 countries made to reduce global warming emissions at the climate change conference in Paris in 2015 have been met. In fact greenhouse gasses are on a trajectory to rise by 16 per cent by 2030 compared with 2020. This it is estimated will, if not reduced, raise the temperature to 2.7 degrees C by the close of the century. As the average global temperature continues to rise the commitments to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, which it is hoped will be underpinned by definite plans at the Cop26 conference in Glasgow in November, are seen as delusionary.

This delusion might well be due to a character trait we acquired to help us to survive. The trait induces us to say what we think others would like to hear and what we think aligns with the dominant political norms, rather than what we actually believe and are prepared to follow through on. The trait also manifests itself in people holding an idealized view of themselves markedly different from the type of person they actually are. This is particularly the case in regard to virtues including those related to living in an ecologically sustainable way. The inconsistency between belief and behaviour is known as cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance underpins the societal approach to making the immediate and radical changes needed to rebalance our relationship with nonhuman nature. We say that it is imperative that this be done with governments and local councils declaring a climate emergency but act with complacency. Another example is the expression of intent to avoid a sixth mass extinction without doing anything meaningful to prevent it from happening in changing our habits of consumption.

The science is clear about the behavioural changes needed to reduce our global warming emissions and protect biodiversity. At a personal level these include an immediate and steep reduction in the amount of meat and dairy the average person consumes; walking, cycling and using public transport rather than travelling by private car and restricting aviation for leisure purposes. Cognitive dissonance also comes into play when we think that these changes are for others but not us.

For good or ill, governments circumscribe our lives and the options open to us. Their job in the area of ecological breakdown is to pass and enforce legislation that ensures ecologically sustainable practices are abided by in every economic sector. For the legislation to be effective they need to educate, incentivize and deter whilst ensuring that the poor, the vulnerable and marginalized are not penalized but rather, to use the words of the UK government, given the “levelling-up” support they need. Active citizenship involves persuading government to do what we would like them to do, which should be predicated on the common good.

The question is can we, individually and collectively, close the cognitive dissonance gap and cohere around an agreed set of restrictions and innovations to prevent the temperature rising above the 1.5 degree level by 2050 as well as abruptly bringing an end to the sixth mass extinction. With the global temperature now close to 1.2 degree C and global warming emissions continuing to rise this seems highly unlikely. This tragic state of affairs does not, however, release us from our responsibility to live as good eco-citizens and love the Earth as we love ourselves and our nearest and dearest. Any behavioural change that protects our wondrous and beautiful Earth, even by a small degree, is more than worth it.

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Eco-Awareness 291

The Delusion of the Green Economy

The idea of success has always played an important role in human society; putting food on the table, finding a compatible mate, acquiring the means to protect one’s self from severe weather, maintaining good relations with one’s neighbours and receiving respect and admiration for attributes and accomplishments such as being a good tool-maker, weaver, story-teller, singer, artist, healer, planner or negotiator. An aspect of success that should be an integral part of our sense of what it is to live a meaningful life is the effort we make towards leaving the biosphere a more diverse and healthier place than it was when we each become a short-term resident.

Outside of sports and the arts the meaning of success that society most embraces is illustrated by the case of the CEOs of large corporations receiving millions in annual bonuses, in addition to high salaries, for increasing the financial wealth of their company whilst the environmental damage done and the impoverishment caused to communities whose livelihood is dependent on the health of these ecosystems is ignored. In this all too common facet of the international economic order the harm done to people and planet is called development and is celebrated. Reinforcing this perverse view of success the CEOs are more likely to receive a state honour than a school teacher or a nurse.

As measured by the success – failure scale used by society, people are hailed successful if they are prolific consumers as in living in a large house, drive an expensive vehicle, or two or three, and take more than a few aviation-based holidays a year. By way of contrast the person who by circumstance or choice lives in a small house, uses public transport and holidays in nearby locations is considered mediocre on the consumption scale. I am sure we have all observed that the mega consumer driving a luxury vehicle and wearing expensive brand clothes receives admiring looks but not the person wearing tatty clothes and cycling to their destination. That the latter person has a considerably less negative impact on the biosphere than the former is considered unworthy of comment. In a society living by an inverse set of values people who avoid causing irreversible harm to the environment and impoverishing others would be commended.

The prevailing widespread view of success has to change if we are to make the necessary rapid transition to an ecologically sustainable society. This not only means achieving zero net emissions of greenhouse warming gases but also zero emission of pollutants, the burning, dumping and landfilling of ‘waste’ as well as protecting what biodiversity remains and healing degraded habitat. Regardless of what governments say most of the above cannot be done without a major reduction in our consumption of meat and diary products.

It is a tragedy that in spite of more and more local councils and governments declaring a climate emergency there are no signs of a substantial shift in society’s understanding of success. Perhaps this is because the model of a “new green society” proffered is based on the norms and structures of our ecologically failed one. This is no better illustrated than the drive to leave fossil fuels in the ground.

Given climate breakdown there is no doubting the need to cease using fossil fuels as quickly as possible. What, however, is not questioned is consumerism and the enabling material infrastructure that the new forms of energy will fuel. In the utopia of non-fossil fuel electrification, for which corporations and governments have drawn-up a blueprint, adults will still have their own car, be able to fly to near and distant destinations, eat as much meat and dairy as they like and be encouraged to buy the latest technological devices not to mention clothes and beauty merchandise. Given that there are close to 7.9 billion people on the planet there are simply not enough resources to enable this to happen, certainly not enough to sustain unlimited consumption for an indefinite period of time. At present the rich world uses 50 per cent more bio- resources each year than the Earth produces. If the blueprint for the “green economy” were presented to early-year primary school pupils in the form of a story they would understand it as fantasy.

The fantasy nature of the new green society is underscored by the case that the materials essential for it such as cadmium, cobalt, copper, lead, lithium and platinum have to be mined and as Thea Riofrancos informs us in The Guardian, 14 June 2021, mining causes enormous environmental damage:

extractive activities like mining, are responsible for 90% of biodiversity loss and more than half of carbon emissions. One report estimates that the mining sector produces 100bn tons of waste every year. Extraction and processing are typically water-and energy-intensive, and contaminate waterways and soil. Alongside these dramatic changes to the natural environment, mining is linked to human rights abuses, respiratory ailments, dispossession of indigenous territory and labour exploitation. “

The “green society” as envisaged by governments and corporation, and which mainstream media accept without question, is incompatible with an equitable, ecologically sustainable society. Some of the reasons include the following:

– The environmental devastation that will be caused by mining on the gigantic scale necessary to fuel and sustain it.

– The additional trillions of litres of fresh water needed annually for the industrial processes in a period of increasing worldwide droughts.

– Mining of the minerals can emit more tons of carbon than the mined minerals. (*1)

– The environmental problems associated with disposing of trillions of defunct batteries. (*2)

– The industrialization of hundreds of thousands of square kilometres of land and sea.

– The plethora of economic injustices and human rights abuses that will underpin the drive for low costs.

With regard to the industrialization of the countryside The Economist, 12 June 2021, reports that in the United States the land occupied by solar and wind installations by 2030 might well measure 61,000 square miles. This is approximately twice the size of Ireland. Similar amounts of land and sea will be required in other parts of the world. (*3) In the envisaged clean energy utopia the idea of success will, as at present, be judged by how much we consume, the material wealth we have accumulated and the power and influence that goes with this. In other words the blueprint put forward by governments and corporations for an ecologically sustainable society is delusionary.

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(*1) Austin Price, The Rush for White Gold, Earth Island Journal, Summer 2021.

(*2) Millions of electric cars are coming. What happens to all the dead batteries? Ian Morse, Science, 20 May 2021.

(*3) Environmental minister rules huge renewable energy hub in WA ‘clearly unacceptable’, Adam Morton, Guardian, 21 June 2021.

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 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.