Thursday, March 14, 2019

The world's top ten biggest environmental problems (and how to solve them)

Even though I hardly ever blog about the environment I'm probably more passionate about the planet and its wildlife than anything else. And it's pretty hard to ignore nowadays, with much of the news on a daily basis – if it's not about Brexit* – being about climate change, freak weather (whether it be flash floods, wildfires or a hot February – which the BBC bizarrely chose to celebrate with photos of daffodils and ice creams, somewhat missing the point that it's climate change in action. Enjoy it – but please do feel guilty about enjoying it), loss of wildlife populations, plastic waste and air pollution. So here's a top ten with pretty obvious solutions. Unfortunately humans are so selfish and stuck in their ways, nothing will ever change. Until it's too late.

These ten all link to each other – 'everything connects' – so apologies for any repetitions.

1. Climate Change
This is the big one, vying with Brexit on the front page of the Guardian on a daily basis. It's an emergency (one we have known about for decades and done nothing) which is happening right now... and still no one is doing anything. Yes, there's some peaceful protests and petitions being signed, and reports and articles telling us it's an emergency and we have to do something, like, now, and a 15-year-old schoolgirl climate change warrior and films and documentaries and there's government targets of too little too late and energy corporations saying they'll cut 20% of this or that by 2050... yet still nothing is really happening to prevent it.

So what is it? Climate change is the increase of global average weather temperatures and their effects on the planet's weather patterns. Temperatures have been going up steadily for the last fifty years, mainly due to man's reliance on fossil fuels and the resulting build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Chopping down the world's rainforests hasn't helped things either.

(Global warming refers only to the rising average global temperatures, whereas climate change refers to global warming as well as changes in weather patterns such as heat waves, droughts, melting glaciers, etc.)

The effects of this human-caused increase in temperatures can be seen in changing seasons, more frequent, severe weather such as droughts and snowstorms in temperate regions, and warmer, drier weather in other regions, which has caused wildfires. Glaciers – which store 75% of the world's fresh water – are melting at an alarming rate, which causes sea levels to rise. Warming oceans are affecting coral reef bleaching and ocean life. Any more increase in temperature – the now-familiar "well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels" of the Paris Agreement, which doesn't even come into effect until 2020 – will see potential cataclysmic problems.

Solution: Using more clean, sustainable energy like wind, wave, tidal and solar power. Use public transport. Stop using cars. Stop chopping down forests.

2. Wildlife Decline
Mankind has wiped out 60% of wildlife since 1970; that is, mammals, birds, fish and reptiles. This is mainly due to the destruction of their natural habitat to make way for farmland*. The UK has lost much of its wildlife, ranking 189th for biodiversity loss out of 218 countries in 2016. Bees – essential for a healthy environment – are in severe decline, in part due to neonicotinoid, an insecticide resembling nicotine.

Solution: Nothing, really. 

3. Overpopulation
The optimum world population is about 2 billion; we're currently at over 7bn – more than double the amount it was fifty years ago. We probably need a good old-fashioned war or virus to wipe out half the population (luckily war and viruses can be a result of overpopulation).

Solution: Stop having babies; natural resources to be redistributed from the rich to the poor.

4. Air Pollution
Vehicle exhausts are the major cause of air pollution, now said to cause 800,000 deaths in Europe alone and 8.8m worldwide, per year, which is more deaths than smoking (cars also account for 1.25 million deaths from road traffic accidents, making the total amount of deaths from cars over 10 million per year). Cars, planes, trains, factories, power plants, insecticides and pesticides from agriculture-related activities all contribute to air pollution, which is also a major contributor to global warming.

Cars, the largest cause of air pollution and one of the top ten causes of deaths in the world, consume much energy before they're even on the road: car production – whether an electric car or traditionally fuelled one – leaves a huge carbon footprint.

Unfortunately electric cars aren't the answer: they run on electricity produced by burning fossils fuels, and use precious metals. The extraction of nickel, a metal used to produce the battery to power the cars, comes at an environmental and health cost.

I've never got used to cars, and never owned one. I've never thought it right to have cars on roads with people on pavements walking beside them. I've never thought it energy-efficient to take a ton of metal to transport (usually) a single human being around. Cars are ugly and noisy. Roads are horrible and clogged up with cars. Roads destroy communities. And wildlife. I hate it that I've seen hundreds of dead badgers on road sides and never one alive (the UK Government's much-opposed badger cull – deemed 'ineffective' and 'inhumane' in 2013 but continuing to this day – is indeed ineffective when compared to badgers killed by cars: 50,000 a year in the UK, as compared to 20,000 killed by culling in 2017).

Solution: What can I say? Ban cars. Cycle, get the bus, the train.

5. Eating Meat
Aside from the cruelty aspect, meat production is one of the leading causes of greenhouse gas emissions. It contributes to the loss of animal diversity and is a major source of water pollution and deforestation (animals need a lot of land to graze). Meat eating isn't sustainable.

Solution: Become vegetarian.

6. Capitalism / Economic Growth
Capitalism's relentless pursuit of profit creates a disregard for planetary resources with no account for environmental impact. 'Growth for the sake of growth' is the mantra of all governments, companies and corporations. Economic growth is always presented as a great thing that can solve the world's problems. Unfortunately, growth actually increases both inequality and unemployment, and is disastrous for the environment: it leads to deforestation, loss of natural habitat and biodiversity of wildlife, increase in material and energy use and immense waste. Oxfam believes 'extreme capitalism' is to blame for poverty, with 82% of the world's money going to just 1% of its population.

Economic growth as we know it, measuring GDP, the capitalist-consumerist ideal; these concepts are barely 300 years old – since the start of the Industrial Revolution, yet they have already reached their peak. No one said growth was infinite. It's not. But capitalism without growth is apparently a sustainable possibility.

Solution: Socialism! Or something like it.

7. Consumerism / Waste
This is the by-product of capitalism and economic growth, of course. Crap gets made. Crap gets bought and consumed. Lots of crap is wasted and dumped. Hardly any of it is recycled.

We in the west had it so good for so long – houses, TVs, cars, debt, bad diets, unhappiness, pointless objects of desire in a disposable and throwaway society – but now the rest of the world, in particular the vast populations of China and India, want it too, and who are we to blame them or stop them and tell them it's all a lie (and disastrous for the environment)?

Solution: Stop producing and buying crap. Use less.

8. Plastic Waste
It's suddenly all over the news. Of course I've been moaning about it for years (like here and here; yes I wrote that a decade ago); I haven't accepted a plastic bag from a shop for years (despite every cashier asking me if I want one, every time I buy anything, even if it's just one item); haven't bought a bottle of water for years (been using the same old bottle for years); can't understand what's wrong with tap water. Recycling isn't the answer – it's to stop using plastic. Banning straws seems like a joke (like a tear in the ocean; a tip of the iceberg).

I always tell people I go days without drinking a drop of water (any drink, such as tea, does the same job water does), and then I might bore them with the story of when I walked 20 miles in the Sahara desert in Morocco with no water and a heavy backpack, chain smoking all the way. When I did eventually find a village with a cafe, I ordered a (glass) bottle of Coke. Tasted great. Nowadays people can't seem to go a ten minute train journey without glugging from their precious bottle of Evian.

Anyway, plastic waste is found everywhere, in our cities, countryside, seas and rivers, even embedded in Arctic ice. The waste harms the environment, pollutes our waterways and threatens wildlife. There's an island of plastic waste (now twice) the size of Texas in the Atlantic Ocean. The production of plastic also contributes to climate change.

Solution: Ban plastic bottles and reduce packaging in general; replace with glass and cardboard. Bring back water fountains. Ban coffee cups that can't be recycled. Friends of the Earth are calling for a ban on all non-essential single-use plastics by 2025.

9. The Cult of Personality
By which I mean people. CEOs, Jeremy Clarkson, Donald Trump (still denying climate change), Boris Johnson, professional footballers, celebrities, politicians – can't we just do away with them all? People are swayed by personalities rather than policies. I read some time ago about a theory to vote via the internet on policies without politicians or political parties to sway us one way or another.

The Green Party has the right idea – the environment is more important than any political allegiance. If you remember Green Party candidate Natalie Bennett's interview on Radio 4 a few years ago, it's probably only for what was called in the press 'a car crash interview' where, according to the Telegraph, 'she fails to recognise her own party's manifesto policies'. When I listened to it, I heard nothing of the sort, only things I agreed with: the Citizen's Income, legalising the sex trade and drugs industry, dismantling the armed forces, using weapons factories to build wind turbines... all sheer lunacy, according to Telegraph and Radio 4 readers and listeners, I'm sure.

Anyway, what I'm getting at is the environment should be above politicians and personalities. It's still not top of the agenda for any political party (except the Green Party), or still even barely mentioned. Brexit has consumed British politics for the past two years, to the detriment of more important issues like the environment, education, the NHS, and poverty.

The environment shouldn't be political – the recent climate change protests by school children held outside council buildings, people working for the council weren't allowed to show any support for the protest (and the UK Government was more concerned about children missing a day of school than saving the planet). Unfortunately the media still needs personalities to sell climate change: see the '15-year-old Swedish schoolgirl climate change warrior', Greta Thunberg. She's great. Unfortunately peaceful protest has a record of achieving nothing (remember a million protesting against Blair's invasion of Iraq?) but the children are the future. Thunberg managed to stop her mum from flying and persuade her dad to become vegetarian, so let's hope other children are stopping their parents from driving their SUVs, for example.

Organisations like Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and Extinction Rebellion (formed in 2018) are taking positive action to avert climate breakdown. If only it wasn't an uphill battle against governments and corporations (sometimes to an alarming extent: in 2017, more than 200 peaceful protesters and activists were murdered, mainly in South America). 

10. Doing Stuff
I often get asked what am I doing to help save the planet. Nothing, I reply. Absolutely nothing. I'm not driving a car. I've been on a plane once in two years. I'm not using plastic bags. I'm not buying plastic bottles. I'm not eating meat. I'm not buying new clothes, books or anything at all really (regular readers will know I'm all about the barngains in charity shops).

The problem is the world is full of people doing things. Some good things, sure, but mainly bad, selfish, pointless stuff: driving to places, having holidays, having babies, working, consuming: everything you thought was your birthright is harmful to the planet. There are too many people doing too many things. No matter what you do or eat or consume or watch or desire, somewhere, somehow, it's either exploiting someone, the environment, or both. The best thing is to try to do nothing at all.

I say – semi-seriously – we partially go back to pre-industrial times; that is, work locally, produce food locally, with an immediate ban of fossil fuels (and embrace renewable energy) and traffic (all this government crap of we’ll do this or that by 2025 or 2065 is pathetic; we need to make the changes now, and sort out the repercussions later). Obviously, the internet is a great tool for working remotely and keeping in touch with family and friends. Our current way of life is obviously wrong in many respects. It's time to try something different.


*One of the few benefits of Brexit, believes George Monbiot writing in the Guardian, is leaving the EU's Common Agricultural Policy, a farm subsidy system causing widespread destruction of wildlife habitats by paying farmers and landowners for empty ground that's in 'agricultural condition'. This can be land that's unsuitable for farming but as long as it's empty it's eligible for public money (to the tune of £44bn a year). The payments have led to the destruction of hundreds of thousands of hectares of magnificent wild places all across Europe. It's a policy that benefits, surprise surprise, the rich the most: landowning billionaires and aristocrats receive the most money just for owning land, not for actually having to do anything with it. 

Previously on Barnflakes:
Aspire to be average
In 100 years everyone in the world will be dead
Busy bein' busy
Blight of the plastic bag
Water as it Oughta