Running Out of World
There is a common myth that the environmental crisis dates from the first pictures of the earth from space, and the sudden realisation that we live on a finite globe with finite resources. This is not true. Although the impact of the idea of ‘Spaceship Earth’ was sharpened by those remarkable photographs and the ‘one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind’ of Neil Armstrong in 1969, environmental crises of one sort or another have been occurring throughout recorded history. An astonishingly modern perception was penned over two centuries earlier than Neil Armstrong’s ‘giant leap’ by the Reverend Otto Lütken, Rector of a parish on the island of Fyn, Denmark. He wrote in 1758:
Since the circumference of the globe is given and does not expand with the increased number of its inhabitants, and as travel to other planets thought to be inhabitable has not yet been invented; since the earth’s fertility cannot be extended beyond a given point, and since human nature will presumably remain unchanged, so that a given number will hereafter require the same quantity of the fruits of the earth for their support as now, and as their rations cannot be arbitrarily reduced, it follows that the proposition ‘that the world’s inhabitants will be happier, the greater their number’ cannot be maintained, for as soon as the number exceeds that which our planet with all its wealth of land and water can support, they must needs starve one another out, not to mention other necessarily attendant inconveniences, to wit, a lack of the other comforts of life, wool, flax, timber, fuel, and so on. But the wise Creator who commanded men in the beginning to be fruitful and multiply, did not intend, since He set limits to their habitation and sustenance, that multiplication should continue without limit. (cited by Cohen, 1995:7)
Environmental problems are not a phenomenon of the modern world, nor of the exponential population growth over the past few decades. Overpopulation was described in a Babylonian history dating from before 1600 BC. The Babylonian gods created humans on the earth to do the work of the lesser gods, but problems soon arose:
Twelve hundred years had not yet passed
When the land extended and the people multiplied.
The land was bellowing like a bull,
The gods got disturbed with their uproar.
Enlil heard their noise
And addressed the great gods:
’The noise of mankind has become too much for me,
With their noise I am deprived of sleep.
Let there be a pestilence (upon mankind).
Lest the problem was repeated, the gods went on to impose religious obligations of celibacy on priestesses and sent a demon to destroy infants.
Whatever the rationalisation for their cause, environmental crises are not new. There were 200 famines in Britain alone between AD 10 and 1846, whilst the Chinese have had nearly 2,000 famines during the past 2,000 years. Even in this century, an estimated 5 to 10 million died in the USSR in 1918–22 and 1932–4; four million in China in 1920–21; and 2 to 4 million in West Bengal in 1943.
Time and again cultures have contributed to their own decline. The early Polynesian population of New Zealand depended on large flightless Moas for food, but after 600 years they had cleared so much forest that a number of bird species including swans, eagles and Moas were virtually extinct. At some stage there must have been an ‘ecological crisis’ when the increasing difficulty of obtaining enough Moas indicated inadequate recruitment of young birds into the population so that a decline in the number of adults available to be hunted was inevitable.
The decline of the great Babylonian grain-growing civilisation was probably due to the increasing salinity of irrigated areas as a result of imperfect drainage. Again there must have been a time when yields were declining, more and more unsuitable areas were being pressed into cultivation, and irrigation channels required extending and reconstruction, while at the same time the demands of the cities for food would have been increasing (Ponting, 1991:72).
There are plenty of other examples: the Dust Bowl of the southern central United States arose from the practice of growing crops in an area where the rainfall is low and the soil surface is eroded by wind and storm.1
Sicily was once the ‘granary of Italy’ but less and less corn is grown there as the soil has deteriorated under excessive cultivation and the grazing of goats. Recently half the population of the Tokelau Islands had to be resettled elsewhere, because hurricane damage on top of overpopulation threatened their continued survival.
Repeatedly crises have arisen and been overcome either by emigration (as from Ireland after the potato blight of 1845–7) or the introduction of new technologies (such as the so-called green revolution in tropical areas following the development of new, high-yielding strains of rice). The easiest assumption about these recurring problems is that they are the result of overpopulation, that there are too many people for the habitable part of the globe to support, and that crowding produces secondary consequences such as epidemic disease and loss of agricultural land. This is an oversimplification, well exposed and reviewed by Joel Cohen in his How Many People Can the Earth Support
? (1995). Notwithstanding, and whatever one’s view about liberty and freedom of choice, parents cannot continue indefinitely to have, on the average, more children than required to replace themselves. The finiteness of the earth guarantees that there are ceilings on human numbers.2
The practical problem is that the levels of these ceilings are tremendously uncertain.
Perhaps the best way to seek an answer is through the concept of ‘carrying capacity’ (the number of individuals which can be supported indefinitely or sustainably in a particular habitat), an idea commonly used by ecologists and equally often misapplied by politicians.
The problem is that ‘carrying capacity’ depends on a whole complex of constraints. If a population of animals has no limitations on food or space, it will grow exponentially in numbers, much as the global human population has been doing until recently. However, the assumption of unlimited food and space is unrealistic, and as numbers increase various intrinsic or extrinsic factors will begin to affect the rate of population growth, until birth and death rates become equal and the population size stabilises. This balance is the carrying capacity of the environment for that population; it was Thomas Malthus’s nightmare as he viewed the nineteenth-century world. The error is to refer to the carrying capacity of the environment without specifying the conditions that determine it. Cohen (1995) lists 65 different estimates of the earth’s total carrying capacity. He separates those which have focused on a single assumed constraint (usually food), and those which recognise that ‘man and woman do not live by bread alone. People also require wood, fibre, fuel and amenities.’ These needs can be broken down into physical (shelter, food, clean air, and water), economic (transport, shops, work) and aesthetic (space, quiet, access to countryside). Another approach is to examine the link between the quantity and quality of life, explored by Goulet (1995:41), who identifies three goals: optimum life-sustenance, esteem and freedom. ‘These goals are properly universalisable, although their specific modalities vary in different times and places. They refer to fundamental human needs capable of finding expression in all cultural matrices and at all times.’
This is an idea to which we shall have to return (p. 206). Sadly it is a factor rarely considered by those who calculate (and worry about) how many people the Earth can support. Perhaps the best known of these is the ‘Club of Rome’ Report, The Limits of Growth (Meadows, Meadows and Randers, 1972), based on a computer simulation of the effects on survival if we carry on growing in number and using non-renewable resources at the same increasing rate as at present. Its conclusions were:
- If present growth trends in world population and resource depletion continue, the limits to growth on this planet will be reached within the next 100 years.
- It is theoretically possible to alter these growth trends and to establish a state of global equilibrium; this could be designed so that the basic material needs of each person are satisfied and each person has an equal opportunity to realise their individual human potential.
- If the world’s people decide to strive for this second outcome rather than the first, the sooner they begin working to attain it the greater their chances of success.
The authors reran their model twenty years later (Meadows, Meadows, Randers and Behrens, 1992) with better data, and reached similar conclusions—albeit with a sinister addition that ‘business as usual would continue beyond the point where systems could be sustained, and then the overshoot would end with a cataclysmic collapse’.
The Limits study has been heavily criticised by economists (e.g. Beckerman, 1995) on the grounds that it ignored market forces and technological developments. Yale economist William Nordhaus (1996) expressed conventional wisdom when he wrote: ‘If the earth is reaching… its limits on land and resources, the increasing stress should be accompanied by rising prices of land, food and energy. But these prices have been declining.’ This complaint is off-target. Global market prices are useful for co-ordinating economic activity. They are not reliable as indicators of change for three reasons (Cohen, 1996):
- Global prices do not reflect the depletion of unowned stocks, such as marine fisheries, the atmospheric ozone, or water in internationally shared rivers.
- Prices tend not to include all the environmental and social costs of a product, such as atmospheric pollution, restoring used mines, decommissioning nuclear power stations, particularly when these are unknown (e.g. metabolic effects of polychlorobiphenyls [PCBs]).
- Markets respond to demand, not to human need. The very poor have too little money to buy food, so they cannot drive up its price. Even if there is no global shortage of food relative to effective demand and even if global food prices are falling, there may be chronic hunger, or even serious famine in some parts of the world.
Notwithstanding the economists, The Limits resonated widely in drawing attention to the fact that a finite system must have limits, even if we cannot agree on what these are or when we will reach them.
The Limits approach was taken up in the year it appeared by A Blueprint for Survival (Goldsmith, Allen, Allaby, Davoll and Lawrence, 1972). This employed two linked arguments. The first was that the I rate of exploitation of non-renewable resources of raw materials which sustain industrial activity threatens them with depletion within the sort of time scale that ordinarily commands political action. The second was that the effects of this exploitation, particularly its waste products, significantly degrade the natural systems which sustain human life.
The Blueprint authors argued that industrial societies need to convert themselves into stable societies characterised by a minimum disruption of ecological processes, maximum conservation of materials and energy, and an end to population growth. They outlined a ‘green’ political programme to achieve these ends.
The Times accorded the Blueprint a first leader, ‘The prophets may be right’. The leader writer judged ‘the thesis is too plausible to be dismissed’. In rather cruder language we can assert that we are ‘running out of world’. In past times it was possible to escape from local overpopulation or overdepletion of resources by emigrating. This brought the beaker folk to Britain, and saw the Teutons spreading across Europe, the Vikings sailing west and south from Scandinavia, the peopling of North America in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the expansion of empires in the nineteenth century; on a local scale, it is the basis of slash-and-burn agricultures; more sinisterly, it is the spectre of millions of ‘environmental refugees’ inexorably spreading across national boundaries in the foreseeable future as existing tracts become uninhabitable through climate change, radioactive contamination, or other anthropogenic activity.
Population, Pollution and Responsibility
‘Solutions’ to environmental problems have to take a range of factors into account. In the 1960s there was a debate between proponents of ‘zero population growth’ and those who saw salvation emerging through better and more efficiently used resources. The argument was really about the influence of limiting or critical factors: do population numbers determine pollution levels and environmental quality generally, or can improvements in, say, the management of pollution allow ever-increasing numbers to enjoy better life?
The background to this uncertainty is that:
there is no simple relation between pollution, population and technology; [However,] population growth is not the main issue facing our nation [Britain]. More important are the concentration of population in cities and in certain geographical areas, and the output [of waste] per head which accompanies a rise in living standards; on a conservative estimate this output could well double over the next 30 years. Failing deliberate measures to control pollution and to repair past damage, there is likely to be a substantial deterioration of the environment in the years ahead and the quality of life in Britain will be correspondingly impoverished, despite an appearance of greater affluence. (Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, 1971)3
Sixteen years after the Royal Commission Report, the Brundtland Commission Report declared:
The population issue is not solely about numbers. Poverty and resource degradation can exist on thinly populated lands, such as the dry lands and the tropical forests… threats to the sustainable use of resources come as much from inequalities in people’s access to resources and from the ways in which they use them as from the sheer numbers of people. Thus concern over the ‘population problem’ also calls forth concern for human progress and human equality. (World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987:95)
Religions—particularly Roman Catholicism and some parts of Islam—are traditionally seen as unenthusiastic if not actively antagonistic to contraception. Their opposition is that children are ‘God’s will’ and it is ‘unnatural’ to oppose the clear workings of nature in marriage. Such an approach could be described as improperly reductionist. From a Christian point of view, marriage was ordained for companionship not primarily for reproduction (Genesis 2.18, 24; Matthew 19.5); Christ’s view of adultery goes far beyond sexual intercourse (Matthew 5.27–28). The Bible uses two words to describe the physical union of a man and woman: kollao—to join, glue or cement together, and ginosko—to know. These words describe the very deep emotional and spiritual relationship between a man and a woman, the physical vehicle and sign of which is sexual intercourse.
The Old Testament emphasis on the Jews as God’s chosen people is a genetic concept, backed by the command to ‘increase in numbers and fill the earth’ (Genesis 1.28–29; 9.1) and the Levitical teaching on marriage and the importance of families. However, the Old Testament genetical line was abruptly and radically replaced in the New Testament by the spiritual line constituting the Church founded by Christ, which is completely independent for its existence and spread of any genetic link (John 1.12–13; Romans 4.16; 1 Peter 2.9; etc.). Indeed, Paul’s exhortations to avoid arguments about ‘genealogies’ (1 Timothy 1.4; Titus 3.9) can be interpreted as warnings that genetic descent has been superseded by ‘the new and living way of Christ’.
The whole thrust of the Bible is that we should be responsible to God for all his creation, and not merely seek to propagate our own genes. In the light of this background, it is depressing that
Papal encyclicals on ethical issues notably Veritatis Splendor and Evangelicum Vitae indicate that the humanocentrism of the modern Vatican remains ecologically problematic… Only human life is [regarded as] the object of the revealed moral law, and of the moral laws of the church and civil society. Amidst the many ringing condemnations of the failure of these laws in modern societies to protect the human embryo or the unborn child, there is no single reference to the immoral treatment and loss of dignity which so many millions of farm animals and birds experience, also at the hands of modern technology, and which technology is visiting on all forms of life throughout the created order. (Northcott, 1996:135–6)
Whether we argue from the ecological need to involve a range of factors in calculating the carrying capacity of the earth or from the implication that religious prescriptions have to be inclusive to be convincing, we are faced with the inadequacy of simple unifactorial solutions for overpopulation or wide environmental questions. We will run out of world by default unless we successfully address all the relevant factors.
God made a covenant with Noah after the floodwaters subsided that ‘as long as the earth lasts, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, they will never cease’ (Genesis 8.22). Whether we believe that these regularities are God’s providence or merely the way that things are, our experience is of living in a reliable world. Obviously some habitats and some parts of the world are less predictable than others. Retrospectively we can identify some trends or significant fluctuations during history: 10,000–12,000 years ago most of Britain was weighed down by a massive ice sheet; there was a ‘Little Ice Age’ in the late seventeenth century with much colder winters than normal (Fagan, 2000); during recent decades the southern edge of the Sahara desert has extended significantly further south; the movements of herring shoals around northern Britain are annoyingly variable; and so on. But these are relatively minor fluctuations around our reasonable expectations.
Disasters make us aware that we do not live in a privileged enclosure, but depend on a dynamic system: the volcanic eruptions that destroyed Pompeii and Montserrat; the earthquake that almost obliterated Lisbon; the combination of wind, wave and vibration that broke the Tay Bridge; the iceberg which ripped open the Titanic; the near ‘silent spring’ as songbirds declined following the widespread use of DDT-type insecticides; catastrophic oil spills in many parts of the world; Bhopal; Three Mile Island; Chernobyl—the list is long. The problem is that they are all, almost by definition, the product of rare happenings. Slow deteriorations in our environment are much less easy to detect. Declines in soil fertility are more than matched by better seed quality and fertiliser application. Today’s photochemical smog is no worse that last week’s and anyway the air is so much cleaner since comprehensive smoke control was introduced; we cannot see the reduction in atmospheric ozone, and it does not really inconvenience us since we have been persuaded to apply appropriate sun blocking creams; cod has become expensive, but salmon is much cheaper. Is there, we ask ourselves, any long-term environmental worsening? We play safe and moan about other people’s polluting habits, and contribute on occasion to the Worldwide Fund for Nature (as well as Age Concern and a few cancer charities).
The problem about ‘running out of world’ is recognising that there is a problem; change is so slow and insidious that it is effectively undetectable except at the very local level. Here, of course, we have no difficulty. Some of the earliest recorded laws are regulations to protect game, mainly to prohibit trespassing and poaching. As time went on, scientific—or at least natural history—observations were incorporated into legislation. An Act of 1533 banned the taking of eggs of wildfowl between 1 March and 20 June each year, and the slaughter of adult birds between 31 May and 31 August; this was because there were signs of a serious decline in the numbers of ‘dukkes mallardes wygeons teales wyldgeese and diverse other kyndes of wildfowle’. The Act noted how some people were taking large numbers of birds ‘in the somer season at such tyme as the seid olds fowle be mowted and not replenysshed with fethers to flye nor the yonge fowle fully fetherede perfectlye to flye’.
Pollution was a problem even earlier. Horace mentions the blackening of buildings in Rome. Seneca was repeatedly advised to leave Rome for his health; he wrote to one Lucillus around AD 61 that no sooner did he leave Rome’s oppressive fumes and cooking smells than he felt better (Epistolae Morales 104). The earliest recorded smoke pollution incident in Britain was in 1257 when Henry III’s wife (Eleanor of Provence) moved from Nottingham to Tutbury Castle because of the stench of sea-coal in the town (Brimblecombe, 1987). Ironically, Mary, Queen of Scots, complained about the stink of the privies when she stayed at Tutbury in 1585. In 1306, the Knights Templar as owners of a mill at the mouth of the River Fleet (off Fleet Street) were prosecuted for blocking the river and preventing offensive waste and offal from the butchers and leather workers of Smithfield market escaping into the Thames.
In 1662 John Graunt, a draper, published a pioneering work of demography, Natural and Political Observations… Made upon the Bills of Mortality, using the weekly records kept by parish clerks. He showed the death rate in London was much higher than in rural areas, and argued that this was due to the smoke-polluted air producing ‘suffocations which many could not endure’. The diarist, John Evelyn (1620–1706) who had written a tract on coal smoke Fumifugium or The Inconvenience of the Aer and the Smoke of London Dissipated seized upon this and in an oft-quoted passage described London as shrouded in
such a cloud of sea-coale, as if there be a resemblance of hell upon earth, it is in this volcano in a foggy day: this pestilent smoak, which corrodes the very yron, and spoils all the moveables, leaving a soot on all things that it lights: and so fatally seizing on the lungs of the inhabitants, that cough and consumption spare no man. (Evelyn, 1661)
He laid the blame for this squarely on the owners of a ‘few Funnels and Issues, belonging to only Brewers, Diers, Lime-burners, Salt and Sope-boylers’.
Evelyn saw no excuse for the air of London being so bad. The city had been built on ‘a sweet and agreeable eminency of the ground’ with a gently sloping aspect that allowed the sun to clear the fumes from the waters and lower grounds to the south. Notwithstanding, it was another three centuries and many more pea-soup fogs before Parliament passed a comprehensive Clean Air Act (1956), and then only because of extreme—and in some ways irrelevant—political pressures.4
Environmental problems arise through unmanageable stresses being placed upon the systems that deal with insults. Natural organic pollutants are quickly broken down into harmless and usually helpful components. Thus an apple core thrown into a hedge rapidly disappears, although an orange or banana skin remains because it has no common bacterial or other detrifers in a temperate country like Britain. Running water will oxidise sewage into valuable nutrients unless the amount of sewage overwhelms the oxidising capacity of the stream or river. These exceptions are important: ‘nature’ can be overwhelmed more easily in some situations than others. Whereas small settlements can dispose of their rubbish by dumping it locally, larger towns and cities need to have special arrangements for dealing with their refuse. The sewage outlets of villages become wholly inadequate when the villages grow into towns. Notwithstanding, most environmental problems are generated locally and dealt with locally.
The General Inclosure Act of 1845 is sometimes described as the first conservation legislation in Britain, because at a time when urbanisation was proceeding rapidly and fortunes could be made by enclosing and then selling urban plots for building, it acknowledged that enclosure was the concern of all the local inhabitants, and not merely of the lord of the manor and a privileged group of commoners; and that the health, comfort, convenience, exercise and recreation of all local inhabitants should be taken into account before any enclosure was sanctioned. In 1865, the Commons, Open Spaces and Footpaths Preservation Society was formed to resist the continuing enclosure of common land; it was the forerunner of the host of pressure groups which now exist to protect or conserve nature.
Two points are worth making about the subsequent development of modern attitudes. First, the simple Christian idea of personal responsibility has been replaced increasingly by that of state control: Locke’s principle of a person’s unfettered rights over property has moved towards a situation of statutory responsibility, with the state intervening ever more in the economic and social life of the citizen. Today, the Western world has reached a position almost diametrically opposed to Locke’s, but there has been a radical reassessment of attitudes that goes much further than rights in physical property alone. The area of responsibility of the Church has shrunk, and matters of economic and commercial significance have reverted to individuals in the state. The state is acknowledged as the ultimate authority to which the individual owes a duty for the management of the natural resources ‘entrusted’ to its care. These changes have, naturally enough, proceeded at different rates in different countries, and have gone much further in some (for instance the Netherlands or Great Britain) than in others (such as the United States), depending on different attitudes to centralised government and, ultimately, on different population-resource balances. Ironically, the new approach to the ownership of resources and the responsibility attendant upon it, sometimes referred to as ‘fiduciary ownership’, is not so far removed from the traditional. Christian attitude as might appear at first sight, despite the complete secularisation of responsibility, and the substitution of the state for God.
Secondly, the British perception of the environment has matured for particular geographical and biological reasons. In many developing countries, the natural world is still seen as a resource to be exploited—trees to be sold for timber, forest to be cleared for agriculture, plant and animal compounds to be patented for pharmaceuticals, wildlife and scenery to be managed for tourism, and so on. Even in continental areas of the First World, natural ‘goods’ are often treated as utilitarian possessions for human use and management. For example, the Rhine is 1,320 km long, the longest river in Europe. Between its glacial source in Switzerland and its mouth at Rotterdam it receives each year 3,000 tonnes of zinc, 1,100 tonnes of arsenic, and most damaging in some ways, 19 million tonnes of salt (sodium chloride). All these pollutants have to be monitored and controlled for the sake of those who live along the course of the river and who use it for irrigation, industry or drinking, quite apart from its significance as a transport artery (Bennett, 1992:54–91).
In Britain, the whole of the land surface has been modified by human activity. Although we have significant proportions of some species within our bounds (e.g. grey seals, great skuas), most species that are rare in Britain (such as the osprey or natterjack toad) are not threatened over their international range. We have some habitats (particular estuaries, maritime heath, sea bird colonies) which are very special in the global context, but are not important in the financial sense. For these reasons, the Nature Conservancy Council (whose function but not purpose has now been divided between separate organisations for England, Scotland and Wales) declared in 1984 that the rationale for nature conservation in Britain ‘is primarily cultural, that is the conservation of wild flora and fauna, geological and physiographic features of Britain for their scientific, educational, recreational, aesthetic and inspirational value’. The NCC statement then made an interesting clarification:
The term cultural should not be misconstrued: it is used here in the broadest sense as referring to the whole mental life of a nation. This cultural purpose shades imperceptibly into that which is clearly economic, that is dealing with aspects of resource utilisation providing the commodities for material existence and regulated by commercial factors. [Indeed] it is perhaps undesirable to distinguish sharply between the two, for both are necessary to the quality of life, and many nature conservation activities serve both purposes… Science has an important place within this range of cultural purpose, as an end in itself and also as a means of supporting the technical practice of nature conservation. (Nature Conservancy Council, 1984:75)
We are thus faced with two trends: from individual to corporate responsibility, and from simplistic reaction to a considered, multifactorial, and, in a dangerous term, ‘holistic’ approach. But a third difficulty intrudes: the environment is not divided by national or political boundaries, but is a global entity. And that is beyond personal perception and realistically foreseeable political will.
From Local to Global
We are aware of problems in our own ‘backyard’: noise, smell, litter, erosion, species loss, air quality, urban dereliction, loss of countryside, traffic jams, and so on. These are the goads that spur people to take an interest in the environment. But increasingly there has come a recognition that some hazards are truly global. Perhaps the first inkling of this was the discovery that the derivatives of the chlorinated hydrocarbon insecticides (i.e. the DDT family) which had been so effective in mosquito (and hence malarial) control in the 1950s were becoming concentrated in food chains and affecting the fertility of predatory birds (owls, hawks and the like), and were also turning up far from the source of their application—in the fat of Antarctic penguins and the milk of Inuit women. No one knew if they had any detrimental effects on human health but a warning bell was sounding.
Then in 1986, radioactive fallout from the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl affected reindeer in Lapland, deer in Scotland, sheep in Wales, far from the site of the explosion. Long-term transport of radioactive particles was well known and well monitored since nuclear weapon testing in the 1950s, but was generally perceived to have only a marginal, chronic affect. Chernobyl showed that the assumption was radically incorrect.
However, the clearest example of human-induced damage to the global environment was the discovery in 1984–5 of severe ozone depletion in the atmosphere 20–30 km above Antarctica. Ozone is formed naturally by the addition of a third oxygen atom to the normal biatomic molecule of oxygen (O2), under the influence of ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun. The ozone layer acts as an absorber of UV, reducing the latter’s impact at the earth’s surface, where it can be a powerful carcinogen. Every 1 per cent decrease in atmospheric ozone increases UV irradiation of the earth’s surface by around 2 per cent, and this leads to an estimated 8 per cent increase in skin cancer in white-skinned people. At the same time it was shown that the chloro-fluoro-carbons (CFCs) widely used in refrigerators and as spray-can propellants (for deodorants, etc.) had increased significantly in the atmosphere, and then soon afterwards that CFCs were active in breaking down ozone.
Banning CFCs was clearly sensible and should have been simple. It involved a single group of chemicals made by a small number of firms with little doubt about their effects. Nevertheless considerable international bargaining was required before an agreement was signed in 1987, and even this remains imperfect: the phasing out of CFCs has been slower than it should be, there are stories of massive imports of CFCs into developing countries from countries where their manufacture is still legal, and there are concerns that the vast numbers of fridges which will be sold in countries like India and China will use CFCs because they will be cheaper than more ‘environmentally friendly’ chemicals. Notwithstanding, control of CFCs is the best example so far of international action for environmental causes, and is repeatedly lauded by politicians as an example of what can be achieved. Unfortunately, other global problems—deforestation, disposal of toxic wastes and particularly the spectre of climate change are scientifically and politically far more complicated (Brenton, 1994).
Climate change or the greenhouse effect is undoubtedly the most serious threat facing life on earth as we know it, short of all-out nuclear war. As long ago as 1827, the French mathematician Jean Baptiste Fourier suggested that the earth’s atmosphere traps the heal of the sun in the same way as glass raptures heal in a green house. It was then shown that the amount of heal trapped depends upon the presence in the atmosphere of certain ‘greenhouse gases’, of which carbon dioxide, methane and the CFCs are the most potent. Crudely speaking, the higher the proportion of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere the warmer the planet will become. If there were no greenhouse gases, the earth would be 33°C colder than it is, and life might never have got started. Then in 1896 the Swedish scientist Arrhenius pointed out the possibility that the coming of the industrial revolution and the large-scale burning of fossil fuels could raise the surface temperature of the earth, with possible sea-level rises and disruption to weather patterns (Christianson, 1999).
This hypothesis attracted little scientific interest over the next three-quarters of a century and only began to get serious attention with increased international scientific cooperation on meteorological and atmospheric questions following the International Geophysical Year of 1957–8. Little notice was taken of it, for understandable if pusillanimous reasons. The earth’s climate is a highly complex physical system, involving not only the entire atmosphere but also the ocean circulations, and is in any case subject to wide natural fluctuations, the best known being the Ice Ages. However, interest quickened in the late 1980s. The years 1987 and 1988 were among the hottest of the century and followed two years (1981 and 1983) with above-average temperatures. The end of 1987 had seen a swathe of destruction in the Channel Islands and southern England by a gale, and a chunk of ice 40 km wide by 155 km long broke off the coast of Antarctica. The following year (1988) brought hurricane Gilbert to the Caribbean and a catastrophic drought in the American mid-west. James Hansen, a NASA scientist, testified to a US Senate sub-committee that it was ‘time to stop waffling so much and say the evidence is pretty strong that the greenhouse effect is here’.
Concern was not confined to the developed world. The South Pacific Forum, speaking for the small Pacific island states, many of them low-lying and therefore seriously threatened by any sea-level rise, drew attention to the ‘500,000 environmental refugees’ who might be one of the early results of global warming. This was a highly significant contribution, because it came from a group of ‘developing’ countries prepared to join the industrial-scientific complex of the North in a subject where arguments were too often polarised between North and South.
In 1990, the UN General Assembly woke up to the problem, and a Framework Convention on Climate Change was drafted and then agreed at the Rio Summit (the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development [UNCED]) in 1992. The framework included a statement that action on climate change could not wait for the resolution of scientific uncertainties, that developed countries should take the lead and compensate developing countries for any additional costs incurred in taking action under the convention, and that signatories should meet regularly and amend their commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as necessary.
Following Rio, the Scientific Group of the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change cautiously stated:
Our ability to quantify the human influence on global climate is currently limited because the expected signal is still emerging from the noise of natural variability, and because there are uncertainties in key factors. These include the magnitude and patterns of long-term natural variability and the time-evolving pattern of forcing by, and response to, changes in concentrations of greenhouse gases and aerosols, and land surface changes. Nevertheless, the balance of evidence suggests that there is a discernible human influence on global climate.
Even this careful statement was too much for some (e.g. Lomborg, 2001), but there is certainly a massive majority consensus that drastic action to restrict carbon dioxide producing activities will have to be taken as soon as possible.
The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased by over a quarter since the industrial revolution, and is rising at an increasingly rapid rate. This means that the blanketing effect of the atmosphere is growing. The current estimate is that sea level will rise by about half a metre by the year 2100—not too serious for the UK, but calamitous for Bangladesh, Egypt, large parts of China, and many islands. Serious impacts are expected on water supplies, especially in the more vulnerable parts of the world. Droughts and floods are likely to become more frequent and more intense.
In the summary of its White Paper on the Environment, which formed the official UK input to UNCED, the government began:
Mankind long believed that, whatever we did, the Earth would remain much the same. We now know that is untrue. The ways we produce energy and the rate at which we multiply, use natural resources and produce waste, threaten to make fundamental changes in the world environment. Nature is under threat.
Not only are we running out of world, we are so ill-treating the world that we have that we are reducing its carrying capacity. Can this bad behaviour be reversed? How should we view the world?
Values and Valuations
‘Ethics is about how we ought to live. What makes an action the right, rather than the wrong thing to do? What should our goals be?’ (Singer, 1994:3). Although ethics is conventionally treated as a branch of philosophy, it is really a cross- (or perhaps an extra-) disciplinary problem, occupying the no man’s land where philosophy, psychology, politics, economics, human biology and management techniques meet. These all contribute to the values we place on certain actions or objects. Some things we value highly and care for; other things are less valuable to us and their protection is of less interest to us. There have been centuries of debate about the source and subjectivity of values and valuation. My concern here is to recognise that there are differences in the values we attribute to things or processes, and therefore of the commitment in time, money or effort that we are prepared to contribute towards them.
‘Value’ is a key concept, not least because it is a trait which strongly influences decision-making. It is important to ethicists because the nature of the ‘good life’ is:
based on conceptions of what is of intrinsic or ultimate value in a life… The first reason [for examining ideas about what kind of life is really worth living] is the need to challenge the dominance of the assumption that the good life requires ever-rising standards of material affluence. This assumption is in opposition to the overwhelming majority of serious thinkers, past and present, from a wide variety of cultures. That does not show that the assumption is mistaken, but it gives us grounds to reflect and reconsider, especially since there is no evidence that—once we have provided for our basic needs—our increasing affluence makes us happier. The need for such reflection is greatly reinforced by the second reason for needing to revive discussion of this topic. We are running up against the limits of our planet’s capacity to absorb the wastes produced by our affluent lifestyle. If we wish to avoid drastic change in the global climate, we may need to find a new ideal of the good life which is less reliant on a high level of material consumption. (Singer, 1994:179)
The difficulty is rescuing the notion of environmental ‘value’ from the arrogance of economists, obfuscation by philosophers, and rhetoric from politicians (Ashby, 1978). Mary Midgley has commented that:
G. E. Moore and other moral theorists, have used the word ‘value’ as a central weapon in the campaign to assert the self-sufficiency of man and to defend him against seeming to have any need of religion. They have observed that serious attitudes to the whole cosmos tend to be religious, and because institutionalised religions have often been harmful, they have wanted to resist that trend… [Sadly, the idea of ‘value’] is somewhat polluted by its constant use in economic contexts and other cost-benefit calculations, where it reverts to its literal meaning of ‘price.’ Moore, solemnly discussing the comparative ‘values’ of various large-scale states of affairs (in Principia Ethica, 1903, chapter 6) managed to give an uncomfortably condescending impression of a distinguished connoisseur pricing picture in an exhibition. He wrote as if he stood in a secure, neutral, outside position, evaluating these things as an expert. But that is not a human situation at all. (Midgley, 1997:97–8)
A further complication is that value has at least four different meanings: cost in the market-place, quantified as cash; usefulness, for persons or society; what Locke called ‘intrinsic natural worth’, which is the objective quality of the thing itself, in contrast to the market-place cost (which is its value only in relation to the value of other things which can be acquired in its stead); and the meaning attached to symbols or concepts, such as a national flag or liberty. The same object can carry all these values. Thus, a piece of land has a market value; it has value-as-use for a farmer or developer; it may have intrinsic value for its beauty; and it can be valuable as the symbol of homeland, to be defended against enemies. Even worse, these four meanings may change independently for the same thing. For example, water in a river in highland Scotland or in lowland England will be valued by an economist in terms of its usefulness—whether it is drunk, fished or treated as an amenity; it may be an object of beauty or a stinking sewer; it may represent a boundary between counties or countries; or a barrier to the spread of pests; and so on.
The link between environmental values, ethics and action was highlighted by the Cow Green Reservoir saga. In 1964, the Tees Valley and Cleveland Water Board wanted to build a reservoir at Cow Green in a remote valley in upper Teesdale so as to provide an adequate water supply to the industrial area of Teesside. The reservoir was to meet the needs of expanding industry, and in particular to enable the chemicals company ICI to build the largest ammonia plant in the world. There was no problem of rehousing people or dispossessing farmers; no one lived around Cow Green, and the place was useless for agriculture. But the site overlapped the sole remaining one in England for a rather dull little plant called the Teesdale Sandwort (Minuartia stricta), along with some other rare plants believed to the survivors of the Ice Age in Britain (Clapham, 1978).
It seemed likely that the Teesdale Sandwort and its fellow relics would be imperilled if the reservoir were built. A Teesdale Defence Committee was set up. Letters were written to The Times expressing grave anxiety about the fate of the flora. The issue became a conflict of values: on the one hand an important industry needing water (with a hint that there might be unemployment if the ammonia plant could not be built); on the other hand the ‘integrity’ (that was one of the emotive words used) of a few patches of natural vegetation in a high and unfrequented stretch of moorland. In past years there would have been no discussion: the Teesdale Sandwort would have stood no chance against the ammonia plant. But in the 1960s a botanical David going into battle with an industrial Goliath aroused massive public support. The affair went to Parliament. A Select Committee of the House of Commons recommended that the reservoir be approved, but when its report came back to the full House an amendment was moved, ‘That this House declines to consider a Bill which would involve irreparable harm to a unique area of international importance.’ The amendment was defeated—but only by 112 votes to 82. The matter then went to the House of Lords, where it was remitted to another Select Committee. That Committee met 19 times and even visited the site. During the debate on the Bill, which lasted eight hours, it became clear that the reservoir could be built without destroying the botanical interest of the area, if care were taken. After all this, the reservoir was built; but it occupies only some 6 per cent of the limestone outcrop where the rare plants grow, and the Teesdale Sandwort still flourishes there. The importance of the episode was that Parliament concerned itself with the value of a particular natural environment, and acted from what may be termed altruism. The Teesdale Sandwort did not directly affect the well-being of electors, but both Houses of Parliament spent time and energy considering its value.
The Teesdale debate shows the difficulty of thinking wholly in terms of the financial or even the utilitarian worth of an environmental feature. This point is important. It is obviously necessary to ‘cost’ values as objectively as possible, but this can lead to ridiculous results. This was gloriously highlighted by the approach of the Roskill Commission appointed by the British government in 1968 to recommend the best site for a new London airport. It was important that possible sites should be compared as rigorously—which meant quantitatively—as possible. The assumption was that while local opposition to the siting of an airport would be understandable, it would be more easily overruled if it could be ‘objectively’ demonstrated that the benefit to the majority should not be thwarted by the selfish interests of a few.
The main task of the Commission was to compare costs and benefits of four possible sites (Cublington, Foulness, Nuthampstead and Thurleigh). The largest single element of cost for an airport is ‘airspace movement’ (c.42 percent of the total). This was similar for all four sites. The next largest amount is ‘passenger user’ costs (c.38 per cent). This allocates passengers to airports in proportion to the distance to be travelled. The calculation used by the Roskill Commission depended heavily on the assumed capacities of the four airports, and the assumption that the relationship between accessibility and traffic would remain constant (i.e. that there would be no change in the methods of getting to the airport); the first assumption is arbitrary, and the second is dubious. But the most questionable part of the Roskill costings was the attempt to put a monetary value on amenity losses. For example, some ancient churches would have had to be destroyed at three of the four sites. Their ‘loss’ was calculated on the insurance value of the buildings concerned. It was recognised that this method ‘did not fully take into account historic benefits’. The problem was that insurance values must be related to either market values or replacement costs; since there is no market for the sale of old churches, their market Value is rather low.
Adams (1970) repeated the Roskill calculation for an airport centred on Westminster. Such an airport would cut journey time by at least an hour as compared to an airport outside London. Updating the average cost per journey in the year 2000 for people in central London to be £2 per journey, the annual savings would be £400 million a year or £12,000 million over an assumed thirty-year life for the airport. There would be a large property cost because of the value of houses in central London, but it seemed reasonable to assume that a 12 kilometre square central London site could be purchased for around £2,500 million and another 18 square kilometres could be insulated against sound and depreciated property values for a further £1,000 million. Westminster Abbey was in the centre of the area, but it could be insulated or moved; in any event, it was unlikely to be ‘worth’ much more than its insured value of £1.5 million. The loss of central London parks would be a major amenity loss but this was taken into account by Adams’s costing and anyway the airport itself would be a major recreational amenity. The safety of those on the ground would not cost too much: Roskill anticipated an average of one third party accident over thirty years, and the costs assumed were only £9,300 for each fatality and £625 for each injury. So all in all, there seems to be as good an ‘objective’ case for building the next London Airport in Hyde Park as anywhere.
Economists argue that their role in contributing to policy is legitimate because they are neutral and hence unbiased about competing values. The problem is that any economic analysis necessarily depends on weighing all the respective merits of costs and benefits, and this in turn is based on the utilitarian assumption that an action or development is legitimate if it makes more people better off than those who lose. In fairness to economists, they now mostly recognise that they have to incorporate into their calculations factors which formerly would have been omitted. For example, a manufacturing process may produce waste products which have to be disposed of as pollution into air or water. Such ‘externalities’ are part of the manufacturing ‘cost’, which a manufacturer would once have sought to ignore in the interest of minimising costs and the price of the product, but which should properly be charged to the manufacturer rather than the ‘environment’ which otherwise bears it.
In recent years ‘contingent valuation’ has emerged as an additional technique for assessing the costs and benefits of environmental projects and decisions which fall outside existing markets; it builds in what people would pay if there were a market. This in turn has led to a recognition of the need for ‘deliberate judgements’ rather than automatic computation. ‘Value’ can be construed as the fruit of judgement, involving both subjective and objective criteria (Holland, 1995).
Clearly, there is a continuing need to:
- improve valuation techniques, including valuing future costs and benefits more carefully;
- integrate environmental considerations into all economic decisions;
- incorporate a sustainability constraint in the appraisal of environmental programmes (Pearce et al., 1989:151–2).
However, another challenge for policy makers is how to assimilate—and budget for—the vast sums involved in providing ‘environmental services’, that is the ‘goods and life-support functions provided by natural ecosystems and their species that sustain and fulfil human life’ (Daly, 1997). In a crude and almost certainly underestimated calculation, Costanza et al. (1997) calculated that the world’s ecosystems contribute $33 million million a year to the world’s sustenance (by such processes as photosynthesis), a sum twice the annual gross national product of all the nations of the globe (see also Abramovitz, 1997). Damage to services of this magnitude would be extremely expensive—if not catastrophic.
One way of looking afresh at environmental accounting is the idea of the ‘ecological footprint’, which is ‘the land (and water) area that would be required to support a defined human population and material standard indefinitely’ (Wackernagel and Rees, 1996). Traditional communities depend on and draw their needs from a finite area around their territory. As cities have grown and consumption has risen, the size of their ecological footprint has increased. All developed’ countries are overconsuming on this model, effectively plundering the natural capital of the earth for food, housing, transport, consumer goods and services (p. 159, note 2). For example, the UK has an ‘ecological footprint’ three times the area of the country (the eighth worst of the countries surveyed by the World Economic Forum in 1991). Every person is drawing on 4.6 hectares of land, but the ‘eco productivity’ of the UK is only 1.5 hectares per person. If this capital were being replaced in some way, this might be justifiable, but there is no evidence that it is. Globally, we currently use 40 per cent of the total annual plant growth, 60 per cent of available freshwater, and 35 per cent of the continental shelf productivity (Pimm, 2001). We are living unsustainable lives and—here is the nub—the market is failing through undercharging us despite our overuse. An acute example of this is overexploitation of fish stocks. It is ‘more efficient’ for the fishing industry to catch as many fish as can be sold in as short a time as possible than merely to remove surplus stock and maintain long-term stability of the populations of cod, herring, and so on. Conventional economics requires supplementing with some sort of constraint to stop us running out of world.
Money, Quality of Life and the Environment
There is an automatic assumption that quality of life depends on an ability to purchase it. There is obviously an element of truth in this, but there is no direct correlation between the two. Although the quality of life on the streets of Calcutta or in the barriadas of Peru is manifestly virtually non-existent, with short life-span, rampant disease and effectively no opportunities for escape, there are paradoxically considerable interpersonal relationships which are absent and mourned in the anonymity of modern cities by those displaced in ‘urban regeneration’ projects or regretted when they look back to stable rural settlements. It is this loss of community which is a major stimulus for moving from town to country—which, of course, requires a degree of affluence to make it possible. Unfortunately, rural idylls are too often not the expected Arcadia for incomers. Diana Forsythe (1982) has described the poignant impact of ‘incomers’ on one of the Orkney islands, which she calls Stormay. In 1981 the island had a population of 186, of which 77 (41 per cent) were incomers, all except nine of them from outside Orkney. These immigrants produced discord:
Despite the incomers’ expressed desire to preserve the Stormay way of life, their very presence is helping to destroy it. Although individually the incomers are generally pleasant and well meaning additions to the island’s community, they are also contributing to a cultural evolution in which ethnic, regional and national differences are being eroded away, to be replaced by a more standardised and homogeneous way of life. In 1981, incomers were still a minority on Stormay, albeit a vocal and powerful minority. But the receiving population on Stormay is relatively old, whilst continuing in-migration from Scotland and England brings in a steady stream of young adults in their prime childbearing years. In the face of this in-migration, its influence augmented by national radio, television and standardised education, the number of people who actually use and identify with Stormay speech and customs will inevitably diminish. There is tragedy in this situation for both islanders and incomers. The Stormay folk have welcomed the migrants as bringing new life and new ideas to their depopulated and ageing community, but they already have reason to regret their generosity. The energy the incomers bring to the island is committed to a vision of the future in which local people have no active part. They have sought to attain this vision by moving to a remote island to partake of the mystique of country life. But these migrants are not countrymen, nor do they really wish to become so; instead they seek a stage on which to act out an urban conception of what rural life should be like. The coming of urban refugees may revitalise the community in a demographic sense, but it will also transform it beyond recognition, for most incomers have little understanding of the distinctiveness and value of Orkney’s cultural heritage as different from their own. In the long run, the conflicts that have accompanied the incomers’ move to the island probably will be resolved through the submergence of the way of life of the receiving community—a high price to pay for the personal fulfilment of a few. (Forsythe, 1982:89, 94)
Of course, this example is not typical: incomers to Orkney are rarely poverty-stricken slum dwellers; a small island community will probably never be a stable nirvana for affluent urbanites. But it indicates some of the factors involved in the search for a ‘good life’.
Goulet (1995) has identified three goals sought by all individuals and societies. He regards them as truly universal (p. 133). They are:
- Life sustenance (or death control). Wherever there is a dearth of life-sustaining goods (food, medicine, adequate shelter and protection), absolute underdevelopment exists.
- Esteem (i.e. the sense that one is respected as a being and not as a mere tool for others). Because of the status attached to material success in developed countries, esteem is nowadays equated with those who possess material wealth or technological power. Notwithstanding, in the dominant world view of most traditional societies, the fullness of good (some ideal image of society and the worthwhile human life) is distinct from the abundance of goods.
- Freedom (i.e. a range of choices for individuals or societies, or the reduction of constraints in the pursuit of a perceived good). Economic growth does not lead automatically to freedom, or provide a proof for its existence (Arendt, 1963:218), and the availability of choice is complicated by a paradoxical desire in developed societies to ‘escape from freedom’, which usually means a search for security. Another way of referring to freedom in this universal sense is as a transcendental need, i.e. relating to goods which cannot be measured or priced, although no less real. They include religion and friendship (Goulet, 1990). Such transcendental goods are part of that which distinguishes us from non-human animals (p. 75).
The fundamental importance of Goulet’s three universal goals has been documented in many diverse societies—Asian, South and Central American, European (Goulet 1995 and references therein). This is not the place to pursue the subject of development ethics in detail, but merely to repeat the distinction between the quality of life and the quantity of possession, and recall the responses of men and women down the centuries that there is ‘something more’ to life than mere biological existence. René Dubos (1973:83) asserts that ‘the measure of man is his ability to overcome the constraints of determinism so that he can select or create his persona instead of passively accepting his biological individuality’. He argues that the most searching criterion of humanness is the definition of Paul Tillich, that ‘Man becomes truly human only at the time of decision.’ Environmental awareness is a moral issue as well as a historical one.
Constraints and Attitudes: Two Examples
Most of the Scottish Highlands is a wet desert forged through human activity, although whether the main damage was done in early medieval times by wood cutting or by overgrazing cattle and then sheep in the early modern age is disputed (Smout, 1991).5
By the eighteenth century, the population was inflated in the need of the clan chiefs to maintain their private fighting tones and was certainly exceeding its sustainable ecological footprint (Richards, 2000). Then the Jacobite rebellions led to the introduction of a money economy, resulting in increased rents and other economic measures by the lairds to support their standard of living and to maintain the labour force required for working the land and long-line fishing around the coast.
In this situation, some of the more compassionate landowners sought to provide for their people by helping them to emigrate, one of the better documented cases of an environmental refugee movement (e.g. McLean, 1991). But—and this is its relevance here—hundreds of people were displaced from their traditional homes and relocated to marginal land along the coast. A few ended up in model towns like Wick and Ullapool, but the suffering and bitterness of the ‘clearances’ have left a deeply festering sore in the Highlands (Grimble, 1962; Prebble, 1963). Hunter (1995) argues that it is a Highland angst resulting from an abiding passion of place that has shaped the inhabitants of the land over fifteen hundred years; in contrast, Smout (1991), identifies it as a folk memory exaggerating traditional attitudes (including the well-nurtured antipathy of crofters and small farmers to landowners) coupled with a post-Romantic glow melding Victorian ingenuity to an alert tourist industry.
Hunter has sought to establish his interpretation by calling on witnesses from warriors and poets of old. He describes the way the Highlands have been treated as equivalent to the assaults of imperialism and colonialism in countries round the world. He cites Duncan Ban MacIntyre’s magnificent poem ‘In Praise of Ben Dorain’ as ‘indicating MacIntyre’s detailed understanding of the natural environment’, which is certainly true, though whether love for one’s native place translates into a permanent upset when one is removed from it is another question. John Veitch (1887), one time Professor of Logic at Glasgow University, anticipated the same point as Hunter in a systematic teasing out of the ‘feeling for nature in Scottish poetry’ from the thirteenth century onwards. He believes that in Scotland ‘we have a specially typical feeling for nature… love for free, wild nature and the objects that fill up the landscape… and an imaginative sympathy for the grand and powerful in nature’.
The role of religion in this passion for place is equivocal. For Hunter the
adversarial approach to nature was… reinforced by Christianity. The Bible, as a result of stressing humanity’s God-given right of dominion over the rest of the divine creation, encourages a dim view to be taken of any components of the natural world which manage, as it were, to maintain their independence. (Hunter, 1995:45)
This is an oversimplification, and is very different from the early Christianity of Ireland and Scotland described by Esther de Waal:
Elsewhere in Europe the Christian Church was fulminating against the natural world, imposing its strictures on the landscape, cutting down sacred trees, despoiling sacred wells, and denying the natural rhythm that depended on the slow turning of the sun and moon and planets… In the Celtic approach to God… the world was brought into being in order that through its study the character of the creator might be learnt… Creation reveals God. (de Waal, 1991:68)
Ian Bradley (1993:54) reckons that ‘Celtic Christians derived their sense of the goodness of creation from living so close to nature and having the time and the temperament to study and contemplate its variety and beauty.’
How do theses facts add up? We tend to translate both our past and our hopes into some sort of physical context. Our past may be an ideal to which we want to return or a hell which we want to avoid; our future may be an actual place or an imaginary nirvana shaped by advertising or envy. Whatever that future’s relationship with reality, place and people are major anchors to our perceptions. Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism all centre on historical events. The history of the Hebrews in the Old Testament is an extended story of land, its treatment and its misuse. Walter Brueggemann puts it thus:
In the Old Testament there is no timeless space but there also is no spaceless time. There is rather storied place, that is a place which has meaning because of the history lodged there. There are stories, which have authority because they are located in a place. This means the biblical faith cannot be presented simply as an historical movement indifferent to place which could have happened in one setting as well as another, because it is undeniably fixed in this place with this meaning. And for all its apparent ‘spiritualising,’ the New Testament does not escape this rootage. The Christian tradition has been very clear in locating the story in Bethlehem, Nazareth, Jerusalem, and Galilee. (Brueggemann, 1977:185)
The folk memory of the Highlanders is dominated by the clearances; it can be regarded as a microcosm of the commodification of land.
But we can too easily over-simplify the clearances by ignoring their precipitating factors. Agricultural revolution and its associated suffering in England was acute in Napoleonic times. In Scotland
Gaelic society and clanship were in decay long before the later eighteenth century… in the 1760s and 1770s there was a marked acceleration in the rate of social change and in subsequent decades, material, cultural and demographic forces combined to produce a dramatic revolution in the Highland way of life. In simple terms traditional society was destroyed in this period and a new order based on quite different values, principles and relationships emerged to take its place… Most clearances before 1815 were not designed to expel the people… That the occupiers of the soil adhered tenaciously to the traditionalist concept of duthchas [i.e. the area settled by each clan as its collective heritage, protected but not dominated by the gentry] long after clanship had been abrogated by the conduct of the chiefs and leading gentry is testimony more to cultural disorientation rather than cultural alienation occasioned by the first phase of Clearance. (Devine, 1994:32–41)
The scenic splendours of the Scottish Highlands are the product of millennia of climatic and economic pressures. To many Scots they are the legacy of inhuman greed, attitudes forged by calamities hallowed by folk memory rather than a long-continued and often uphill battle for survival in a harsh environment. For James Hunter (1995:13) the crucial factor was the continued and ‘developing relationship between people and place in Scotland’ since the arrival of the first folk known as Scots, while Christopher Smout (1991) dates the key elements as emerging through romanticism etched by suffering over the past couple of centuries. They are, of course, both right: our attitudes to the environment have deep roots, but they also have more recent and luxuriant growths which can mask and obscure the real trunk.6
Our practical task is to tease out the factors underlying and determining such attitudes.
My second example of the interaction between environmental attitudes and constraints is concerned wholly with human artefacts: the proper way to dispose of the redundant Brent Spar oil storage platform, a 14,500–tonne structure anchored in the North Sea 190 km north-east of Shetland, where the sea depth was 140 m. The formal position agreed in the Geneva Convention on the Continental Shelf (1958) was that ‘Any installations which are abandoned or disused must be entirely removed’, although a later guideline from the UN’s International Maritime Organisation stated that (oil) platforms in water deeper that 100 m need only be partially removed, so long as there are ‘55 m of clear water above any submerged remains’.
The Brent Spar was established as an oil reservoir by its owners Shell in 1978, and was an important element in the export of North Sea oil from the large Brent Field. However, it became redundant in 1991 and was costly to maintain. Shell’s original intention had been to return it to land and break it up there, but the structure was damaged during its construction and might not have survived towing to the coast. Moreover the only inshore water deep enough for the Brent Spar was around Norway, and the Norwegian authorities were unwilling to accept the rig.
Shell commissioned a group of independent experts to advise on the best practicable environmental option for disposal. They examined thirteen possible methods of abandoning or reusing the structure. They concluded that the most appropriate one, involving the least risk of anything going wrong, the minimum danger to both environment and workers, and the relatively low cost, was to sink it in deep water. This advice was accepted by both Shell and the British government, and towing to a deep-water disposal site started.
Everybody had acted as responsibly as they knew how. But at this point, the environmental group Greenpeace began a programme of ‘direct action’ and propaganda against Shell, with calls for an inter-national boycott of Shell products. Shell petrol stations in Germany were fire-bombed; Shell’s behaviour was targeted in Germany as an environmental crime, and an official complaint was made to the British Prime Minister by German Chancellor Kohl. In the face of this, Shell changed its strategy, and Brent Spar was towed into a sheltered site off Norway (the Norwegians having changed their Attitude) for further thought about its future.
There were many unsavoury details in this saga, Greenpeace claimed that the Brent Spar contained ‘14,500 tonnes of toxic rubbish’ and ‘over 100 tonnes of toxic sludge’, whereas 14,500 tonnes was the total weight of the structure, and most of the sludge was inert sand. The scientific concern was of possible contamination of the shallow waters of the North Sea (or worse, of land) which was why deep sea disposal was selected; in the deep-sea, natural hydrothermal vents expel heavy metals in quantities that rival the entire output of the world’s mining industry (German and Angel, 1995). Greenpeace established a broadcasting studio on the Brent Spar while it was under tow. Both BBC and ITV news organisations later confessed to being manipulated by Greenpeace.
It is difficult not to react against the tactics used by Greenpeace, but they succeeded in influencing environmental attitudes and changing the policy of a major transnational corporation. The Greenpeace defence was that the end justified the means, and that transnationals have too often flouted both public opinion and environmental rectitude. In the case of Brent Spar, Shell look all reasonable steps to minimise the environmental impact of its disposal, and were wrongly pilloried. Their conclusion from the episode was ‘that emotions and beliefs can ultimately have as much influence on our “licence to operate” as hard facts and demonstrated performance; and that we need to consult more, earlier, with external stakeholders in order to find the best way forward’.
This enshrines the dilemma of ‘running out of world’. Decision makers call for advice, but are quick to avoid its implications. Politicians, adept as some of them are at making evasive pronouncements, dislike receiving ambiguous evidence; but it is inevitable that scientific evidence on complex issues, such as global warming, should be hedged with reservations and blurred by words like ‘probably’ and ‘possibly’. ‘Certainty’ is not a word scientists like to use. They wince when they hear a minister, after taking the best scientific advice, announce that some food can be regarded as absolutely safe to eat. US Senator Muskie spoke for many politicians when he called for ‘one-armed’ scientists; advisers who will not say, ‘On the one hand the evidence is such and such, but on the other hand…’
The way forward is not to distort evidence. Too many environmentalists have cried wolf too often, and then found themselves ignored. What we have to do is to learn how to combine the grim reality of ‘running out of world’ with the love and wonder of our surroundings so that our decisions, however irrational or emotive they may appear, are those which are right for us and our fellows, never mind our grandchildren and all the other creatures which make our life possible.
I end this section with another story about caring for creation. Morton Boyd, former director of the Nature Conservancy in Scotland, has described his conversion from dedicated technocrat to fervent environmentalist:
As a young engineer working on the construction of Loch Sloy pipelines (a major hydroelectric scheme), I admired greatly the big-hearted spirit of my engineering mentors in overcoming the forces of nature. I saw an intrinsic beauty in the precision of their technology and in their works in concrete and steel. To the technical eye, the scheme was an epic in the harnessing and unleashing of the might of nature. There was no conflict in the engineers’ minds about the probity of their actions against the serene backdrop of Loch Lomondside. Their work was professional, honest and even patriotic.
I had greater difficulty in reconciling that probity. Although I did not know it at the time, the benign influence of wilderness which so gripped John Muir in the high Sierra of California, had touched me in my own way in my own place. From the human vulgarity of the workers’ camp to the blasting open of the mountain, I saw a gigantic offence on nature which would endure for all time, graven on the face of the mountain.
To escape from the harsher realities of life on the job, I took a tent to the lochside where the call of sandpipers and the balm of lapping waters replaced the racket of the camp. Weekends and holidays I spent in the hills with deer and ptarmigan, far from pneumatic drills and rivet guns. Was mountaineering simply a thirst for adventure following my flying days in the RAF, or was I running away from my destiny? I came from a line of stonemasons and blacksmiths of which I was proud. Engineering was bred into me, but I was possessed by a new and compelling idea, as much mystical as it was rational: a burning desire to research nature in order to communicate its beauty to my peers, and to care for it had become an imperative in my life. Although I did not know it at the time, the personal dilemma from which I emerged in 1948 to follow a career in conservation instead of engineering, was to become in later years, one of global proportions. Today, it is enshrined in the concept of ‘sustainable development,’ which has become a slogan in world conservation, a centre piece of international congresses on the environment, and a plank in the policies of national governments. (Boyd, 1993:152)
Morton Boyd’s reaction against the intrusions of hydroelectric pipelines above Loch Lomond has the same root as Greenpeace’s activism against Brent Spar and James Hunter’s pining for repeopled Highland glens. We are ‘running out of world’; the problem is how we treat the world we have—the only one we have.