Only 25% of primary forest remains uncut. (State of the World report, 1991)
In the last 5,000 years humanity has impacted greatly on the landscape. If another species did this, we’d try to exterminate it. Our goats and sheep have denuded the hillsides, human effluent has poured into rivers and our smoke has climbed high in the sky. Out of sight, out of mind - once upon a time. Yet today, it stares us in the face.
4,000 years ago the plains of Mesopotamia grew saline thanks to Sumerian over-farming. The beechwoods around Stonehenge were felled to create open space around the same time. Human impacts started early yet, while they continually grew, they were localised. Then, from around 500 years ago, things changed.
Earth’s population started growing. Wars began to consume whole forests. 200 years ago, machines began to clank noisily, vomiting smoke. Human feelings toward Nature were growing distanced, exploitative, massively imposing.
The environmental impact-curve rose exponentially. Planet Earth was being fundamentally changed. Towns once served the countryside: nowadays the country – even Antarctica – serves megalopolitan populations as a playground and resource-base. By year 1000 there were five world cities with a million inhabitants. By year 2000 there are five in southern Japan alone.
This has never been done before. We don’t know how far things can stretch before they snap. Climatic figures cover two centuries: we need much more data than this. The research and decisions seem to be in the hands of people who aren’t necessarily seeing the big picture – vested interests or past world-views seem to prevail, and whistle-blowers are labelled extremist. Yet commonsense tells us much of what we need to know – our need for incontestable proof could be suicidal.
Modern industry, agri-business and metropolitan affluence are increasingly accepted to be damagingly unsustainable, yet we lack the will to correct things. We don’t want our comforts and appurtenances to disappear. We narrowly expect environment-friendliness to be achieved without cost, without loss or change. We spend vast amounts on military defence while disregarding defence of the ecosystem – even though this concerns our home and already costs us dearly.
There are critical factors to address. All species are interdependent, and certain specific species – microbes, bees, predators – are crucial. According to Complexity (Chaos) Theory a butterfly in one continent can cause a storm elsewhere. So which species, conditions, environments and gene-pools are most critical to the biosphere? How much must CFCs be reduced to restore the Ozone Layer? Is the world’s ecosystem irreversibly changing? Our fear of hearing the truth makes us avoid hearing what we actually know, deep in our bones.
Some say that today’s poisons could be tomorrow’s resources and nutrients. This might be true in some cases. In other cases, pollutants and toxins are deadly, for a long time. Some regard all new development as criminal: yet if we must bulldoze land, we must simply plant three trees for every tree we fell. Some people think nature can take it – and if it can’t, we could make profitable business from re-engineering it.
Yet life has its magic paradoxes. To treat symptoms of spiritual blockage, some homeopaths prescribe... super-diluted Plutonium! A remedy for spiritual constipation, it’s being circulated and diluted in our atmosphere into homeopathic potencies. Interestingly. Some people heartlessly think the negative effect of PCB pollution on male sperm counts is a godsend, curtailing male sexuality and reducing population growth. Easily said – not so easy if it hits you.
Time will tell. However, we cannot be complacent. It’s actually a state of emergency. Earth will survive – but will humanity? And what about the other species we’re playing God over?
Soon we might see an environmental revolution to redeem the ills of the industrial revolution. This could cause a human mobilisation and an evolutionary breakthrough of enormous proportions. In the coming cntury we might see free-energy devices and permaculture landscapes becoming common, and the growth of genuinely sustainable communities and collaboration between masses of people in environmental rescue. We need to be both visionary and pragmatic, to find the simplest, most do-able solutions. And do it.
Once things start, they can move quickly. In reponse to its 1980s economic crisis it took five years for the mighty USSR to reorientate to a new reality. It took three years for the British to mobilise a WW2 ‘war effort’ in the 1940s. So things can move quickly. Today we perhaps face a need for mass mobilisation again – this time, not for war.
The Illustrated Guide to the Millennium
© Copyright Palden Jenkins 1998, 2012.
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The Illustrated Guide to the Millennium was partially written in 1997-98 and never published.