Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Copenhagen Summit and the Last Tree

For all the mighty hopes that were pinned on it and the massive demonstrations that took place in connection with it, nothing substantial except disaster emerged from the Copenhagen summit. A token agreement of a very minimal sort, with no targets and no binding force, quite inadequate to address an accelerating environmental crisis, was hastily cobbled together as a last resort while the delegates fell to screaming at each other, barely avoiding physical assaults.

If this is the best that our leading statespersons could do, it doesn’t leave much hope for the planet. The amour propre of the Chinese and the witless complacent greed of the US Senate appear to have been the prime obstacles. According to report there are some background elements in the Chinese political class who believe that global warming is a myth manufactured by the Americans to retard Chinese economic growth. In the West the Daily Express, most toxic of the toxic tabloids, similarly informs its readers in shrieking headlines that though global warming may be a reality it has nothing to do with human activity.

During past centuries of human history for all but the most fortunate minority (and even they had little protection against devastating disease) life was precarious in the extreme and generally short – filled with toil, pain, discomfort, sorrow and superstitious terrors. Not surprisingly there has also been a constant struggle to alleviate such conditions through technological advance, social struggle and cultural enlightenment.

In the last 150 years and especially in the twentieth century, for the majority populations in the industrially and technically advanced countries that objective is at last achieved. For those, including our fortunate selves, food supply is unproblematic, the wastes we generate both through our bodies and our activities, are smoothly disposed of; the flick of a switch or turn of a tap provide us with levels of comfort and stimulation unimaginable to past generations – and unavailable to our contemporaries who cannot access them. Our lives are significantly extended and with them our opportunity to enjoy those benefits. In previous eras one was fortunate to survive past fifty; now one is unfortunate not to.

It all seems too good to be true and indeed it is. There being no such thing as a free lunch, a price has to be paid and we are paying it now. Irreplaceable natural resources are rapidly being exhausted, the rainforest lungs of the planet are in process of extermination, and pollution generated to a degree which is acidifying the oceans and threatens life on earth. If the present level of global warming, serious enough on its own account, unlocks the methane frozen under the arctic permafrost then what we are experiencing now will look like child’s play in comparison. The consumer society is consuming the planet.

We would not be the first culture to have self-destroyed its environment. The inhabitants of Easter Island are a notorious historical example. When the Polynesian settlers arrived the island was heavily forested. They used the wood to construct the fishing boats on which their food supply depended, but also plundered the forests for timber to move and erect the monumental ancestral statues for which the island is renowned. Social competition is believed to have stimulated the frenzy of construction. In the end the island was deforested and no further fishing boats could be made. One wonders how those watching felt as the last tree was being cut down. The islanders did survive, but at a decidedly lower level of population, comfort and culture.

Perhaps that is the best that we too can hope for, with the collapse of civilisation being among the more optimistic scenarios. Certainly, and Copenhagen underlines this all too vividly, there is no sign whatsoever that the will can be found for the drastic measures that would be necessary to avert the threatened environmental catastrophe. Only a massive but not wholly irrecoverable calamity seems to have any hope of generating that degree of commitment. Otherwise, if things continue as at present, the world will gradually slide downhill until it is much too late. At least that’s how it looks.

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