...looking back on centuries of short-term thinking for profit.
By A.K. Gupta
The earth has heated up dramatically in the past, notably some 55 million years ago when sea surface temperatures in the Arctic reached a balmy 73 degrees. Not that this was a day at the beach. The resulting changes in oceanic chemistry caused a mass extinction. What’s different about this epoch is that we are committing ecocide to sustain consumer capitalism.
Even without human-forced global warming, we are causing the sixth great extinction in earth’s history. Much of this is due to habitat loss. Humans have expanded into every possible terrestrial nook and cranny without regard for any other species. We are clear-cutting the world’s forests for cheap furniture manufacture, in China and purchased in the United States. The Amazon is reeling from multiple assaults — for beef for fast-food burgers, for minerals and now for biofuel crops.
Cities around the world are choked in deadly smog while acid rain is sterilizing many bodies of water.We are trawling the oceans to the point that most fish stocks are nearing collapse, rending the whole aquatic web asunder. Mangroves, incubators of waterfowl and innumerable fish species, are being wiped out for beachfront tourism and shrimp farming. Coral reefs, considered the rainforests of the seas for their biodiversity, are crumbling due to the exotic fish trade and abuse from tourism, cruise ships and agricultural run-off and sewage. And the oceans are saturated with plastic and Styrofoam bits to the point where they’re impossible to clean up.
Many wildlife biologists warn the biggest threat is invasive species. Opportunistic fauna and flora have been introduced into environments worldwide with few checks on their growth and appetite. While the East Coast has reforested in the last few decades, it’s been taken over by alien species that leave little room for native plants and animals. Some scientists fret that before this century is over we will have turned earth into a desert world inhabited by pest species — weeds, rodents, roaches and parasites.
Rivers, lakes, watersheds and aquifers the world over are being pumped dry for export-led agriculture, manufacturing and mining even as they are being turned into poison-filled reservoirs. Amphibian species are undergoing a massive die-off, their permeable skins soaking up toxins, indicating how much we’ve polluted the globe.
While the earth will eventually heal these ailments, the only question is how many millions of years it will take.
But we’re adding time bombs to the mix also. The scope of nuclear power, which is being green-washed as a carbon-free energy source, means highly radioactive waste will endure millions of years. Even more significant, we are forever altering the genetic fabric of nature through the spread of genetically modified organisms.
Human-caused global warming and the resulting climate change compound all these problems. Species are unable to retreat to more hospitable climes because development has isolated them in fragmented eco-prisons. The current warming threatens to outpace the ability of species to evolve and adapt. The multiple assaults on coral reefs make warming (and acidifying) oceans the final injustice they cannot survive.
Just as there is a web of life there is a web of destruction. Global warming is not an isolated threat. It must be understood as part of the larger web. And if we are to restore balance to the natural world, we need to understand our place in the web of life, not where we dominate, destroy and commodify but where we value nature as such and allow it to thrive. No matter how much we try to reduce carbon emissions, our economic system is still killing the only planet we have.
The increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere can be directly correlated to the history of industrial capitalism.
1600s Deforestation Begins in the New World: European colonists establish the first farms in the Amazon rainforest, using slash-and-burn methods to raise crops. For three centuries, Amazon deforestation moves forward at a glacial pace.
1781 Rise of the First Industrial Towns: Richard Arkwright opens the world’s first coal-powered steam-driven textile mill in Manchester, England. Eventually spawning a vast collection of mills, factories and administrative offices, the coal-powered growth of “Cottonopolis” marks the birth of the Industrial Revolution.
1818 Pittsburgh Incorporated: Sitting on one of the largest coalfields in the United States, the industrial revolution transforms Pittsburgh from a sleepy river town to the Iron (and then Steel) City by the 1810s. By the 1850s, Pittsburgh serves as the principal market for bituminous (or “soft”) coal.
1821 First U.S. Natural Gas Well: William Hart digs the first successful U.S. natural gas well in Fredonia, New York. The Fredonia Gas Light Company opens its doors in 1858 as the nation’s first natural gas company.
1859 First American Commercial Oil Well Drilled: Edwin Drake drills a 69-foot-deep well on Oil Creek, Pennsylvania, marking the birth of the modern petroleum industry. Early demand is small, driven by the use of oil in lamps and patent medicines. [Atmospheric Concentrations]
1899 – 1920 Battle Over the Electric Car: The electric car, after an initial surge of popularity (28 percent of all cars were electric in 1900), fades as a viable commercial product. Thomas Edison’s inability to improve his alkaline battery, the invention of the auto “self-starter” (1912) and Henry Ford’s mass production of the Model T and its internal combustion engine (1908), pave the way for the demise of the electric car.
1936 – 1950 “The Great American Streetcar Scandal:” Led by General Motors, a cabal of car- and bus-oriented corporations (Firestone Tire, Standard Oil of California and Phillips Petroleum) form National City Lines (NCL). A holding company that acquires more than 100 streetcar systems throughout the United States, NCL has them torn up after World War II. In 1974, U.S. Attorney Bradford Snell testifies to Congress that the ulterior motive of NCL’s companies was to impose mass use of the automobile in the United States.
1940 – present Booming Petroleum Consumption: Beginning in the 1920s and accelerating after World War II, oil consumption explodes. Factors include increased automobile usage, the related migration out of city centers and the growth of suburbs in the United States, and the manufacturing and use of plastic, a synthetic polymer derived from oil.
1940s – 1960s The Green Revolution: Largely driven by Cold War imperatives and funded by the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, the “Green Revolution” uses agricultural research, extension and infrastructural development to significantly increase petro-chemical-based agricultural production first in the West and then in the Third World.
1960s – present Amazon Deforestation Begins in Earnest: Deforestation rates in the Amazon increase exponentially, propelled by Brazilian government policies and the actions of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. The growth in cattle ranching (spurred by currency devaluation) and the building of extensive road networks (funded by the bank) are the primary culprits
1990– present The Globalization of Consumer Society: Fossil fuel usage soars in the United States as SUVs, McMansions, computers, mobile communication devices and obese people proliferate. Developing nations, led by China and India, make rapid strides in developing Western-style consumer societies. In China, the number of private cars is expected to increase seven-fold to 140 million in 2020.
An Accumulation of Evidence: 1950s Fossil Fuels lin ked to Atmospheric Carbon Levels : Geophysicist Roger Revelle, with the help of Hans Suess, demonstrated that carbon dioxide levels in the air had increased as a result of fossil fuels.
1958 The Keeling Curve: Taking readings atop Mauna Loa in Hawaii, Charles David Keeling makes the first regular measurements of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration. The resulting data — showing a steady increase in mean atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration since 1958 — is known as the Keeling Curve.
1965 First Report: Serving on the president’s Science Advisory Committee Panel on Environmental Pollution in 1965, Roger Revelle helped publish the first high-level government mention of global warming.
1979 World Climate Conference: The first major international meeting on climate
change is held in Geneva, Switzerland.
1980s Sweeping Senate: Rep. Al Gore (D-TN) co-sponsors the first congressional
hearings to study the implications of global warming and to encourage the development of environmental technologies to combat global warming.
1988 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Established: Set up by two U.N. organizations, the World Meteorological Organization and the U.N. Environment Program, to evaluate the risk of man-made climate change, the IPCC produces reports in 1990, 1995, 2001 and 2007.
1997 Kyoto Protocol Signed: The Kyoto treaty assigns mandatory greenhouse emission caps to its (as of December 2006) 169 signatory nations. The Clinton-Gore administration never pushed for the treaty’s approval, while Bush announced in 2001 that he was withdrawing from the Kyoto process entirely. Other non-signatories include Australia and Canada.
2007 Fourth IPCC Assessment Report Released: Major conclusions include: Warming of the climate system is unequivocal and global atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases have increased markedly as a result of human activities since 1750 and now far exceed pre-industrial levels over the last 650,000 years.
2007 Arctic Sea Ice Melting Faster than Predicted: In a report published online in Geophysical Research Letters, climate scientists admit that they may have significantly underestimated the power of global warming from heat-trapping gases to shrink the cap of sea ice floating on the Arctic Ocean.
Illustration: Brian Ponto