The blog of Tokyo based photographer and photojournalist, Damon Coulter

Are You An Environmental Pessimist?

I wonder…

Over the course of  the twentieth-century the ideas related to our environmental awareness became part of the language we use everyday, particularly in the 1960s when images from space, like the famous image of earth from Apollo 17 known as photograph 22727, showed not only the interconnectedness of the countries who share this planet but also the atmosphere that swirled around them. Books like Rachel Carson‘s Silent Spring, that were published around the same time, cemented the idea that we belong to the planet as much as it belonged to us and the later omnipotence of the worries about global warming and the solutions searched for in the likes of the Kyoto Protocol expanded on this feeling that we could and were directly affecting the nature around us in a negative way.

Environmental thinking has progressed over this time. First we saw and worried about a future  scarcity of resources available for exploitation. later this changed into a very real fear that our actions now can and will ultimately affect our ability to live in the environment in the future. It has become clear that a “green” agenda; a sensitivity to the fragility of the planet is not something the human race can easily live without these days. To a greater or lesser degree, in politics, business and most importantly in personal, individual minds, society has taken the message to heart that we must look after the planet we inhabit. That is why I do not think pessimism is particularly needed at this time, though I do not argue that the future will be the same as now, or an easy one, indeed I believe the rest of this century is going to be a very hard but ultimately fruitful experience regarding our contract with this unique planet.

But there are difficult times ahead as I said. Not least of the problems that could undo some of the positive steps we have recently taken to undo the damage we earlier did is the fact that, by a conservative estimate, the global population is set to increase to 8 or 9 billion by 2050. While the world produces enough grain to feed 10 billion mouths many of the new people will live in Sub-Saharan Africa and Central and East Asia which do not have the land or are prone to climate problems that can disrupt farming. Thus the food must be produced elsewhere and shipped to those in need. But food is not usually given away free and the hungry must buy it. The hungry are hungry because they are also poor so the wealthier, developed nations will trade food for industry in those nations with an over-abundance of  young, cheap workers and  which, luckily, are also perhaps among the least environmentally aware and least ecologically restrictive areas of the planet. Such massive increases in numbers of people and their associated industrial activities, both domestically and internationally sanctioned, are going to adversely affect the environment. It is inevitable that life for many people is going to get harder and poorer as climate and physical environments adjust to over use and increased pollution and degredation.

There is the possibility though that just as populations increase in some areas of the globe, in other areas, particularly in Western Europe and Japan, populations will actually be in decline and these areas may be able to reduce a little the pressure on the over populated ones with their need for large scale immigration to keep national residency at acceptable and economically sustainable levels. The immigration issue will have its own problems of course, pointedly the difficulties of assimilation and culturalisation of the immigrant and the attendant acceptance of the host countries’ populations to multi-culturalism and perhaps even ethnic marginalization. The immigrants will generally be younger than the hosts and emboldened with a sense of adventure and knowledge gained from the experience which will make the receiving countries uncomfortable. But I do believe the transfer of ideas will be two-way also: the environmental empathy of countries in Europe, North America and Japan (though flawed at government and commercial levels) will palpably affect the immigrants’ understanding and respect for their home-countries’ endangered environments and one hopes, as people return home after having worked and succeeded abroad, they will cause resultant increases in a protective attitude to their native eco-systems, particularly from the neo-colonialist exploitation of foreign investment and conditional aid.

Also as development occurs and is spread through transfers of working people, population increase seem to follow a connected slow-down and reduction. The mobile nature of the modern global workforce must mean fewer children while  the increase in workers wealth will facilitate improved education, health and options for those children that are born. The Malthusian idea that scarcity of resources, and the resulting hunger, starvation and conflicts, act as natural balances or “checks” on population growth is will become less evident. For one thing where the situation is bad or has the potential to turn bad;  his “benign neglect!” will be unrealistic. Any conflicts that arise for resources are more likely to be targeted outwards at the developed world for it perceived luxuries than across similarly impoverished communities and in an effort to avoid aggression and instability, charity and unconditional investment from the richer countries will endeavor to alleviate some of the suffering directly with food aid and donations but also, it is hoped,with technology that increases efficiency and is thus also cleaner and greener. After all global warming is not a local problem.

Yet global warming itself, once so universally accepted and galvanizing, has not faired well against the concerted attacks of interest groups in the multi-national commercial and petroleum industries. Partizan organisations and industries skeptical of climate change; aided by a neo-conservative media in many developed countries, have been very effective in getting a message of doubt and dishonesty out to consumers who a short while earlier were looking for CFC (chlorofluorocarbon) free aerosols and other “ethical” products like free range eggs and sustainably harvested woods and had even been prepared to spend a little more to “do their bit” for the environment.

The most damaging attack came in November 2009 with the theft of thousands of private e-mails from the University of East Anglia‘s Climate Research Unit (CRU) which showed the climate science community was not always speaking with a united voice on the dangers and data of the global environment. Scientific debate, which is often heated and all in all a healthy process was, through the edited and “cherry-picked” distribution of damaging and out of context phrases and exchanges, particularly with the aid of what Greenpeace called the “Koch Industries echo chamber” of generously funded skeptical organisations, made to look like a lie and this gave the impression that the whole global warming fear was a hoax. The media reported extensively on the allegations against the director of the CRU, Phil Jones, and Pennsylvania State University research professor, Dr. Michael Mann, even though by early 2010, four independent commissions had found there to be “no evidence of deliberate scientific malpractice”. Indeed, while calling for the openness of the research process to be improved, not one of the inquires found anything to challenge the idea that man-made global warming is a real and pressing threat. The Independent Climate Change Email Review inquiry, chaired by Sir Muir Russell actually stated “the scientists’ rigor and honesty [is] not in doubt”.

Unsurprisingly the results of these inquiries did not receive quite the publicity the initial accusations did.

But as Hurricane Katrina in 2005 showed the planet is bigger than all our attempts to understand and profit from it. There have been great leaps of faith to get where we are today: environmentalism has gone from being a fringe belief enjoyed by sub-cultures and the politically suspect to a more or less mainstream ideology. The vocabulary is in common use these day. Everyone knows about the Ozone Layer, biodegradable materials and sustainability. The ideas that we can affect the planet both for the better and worse is accepted, even an American climate-change skeptic would probably fight urban development inside of one of the National Parks of which The United States is so proud, and local governments in some States even spend tax Dollars policing people’s garbage to ensure proper recycling. But when Hurricane Katrina killed over 1,800 people and caused over 81 billion dollars worth of damage as it hit Louisiana on August 29th 2005 the overwhelming impression was that nature had grown aggressive and people started to ask questions why.

Whether Hurricane Katrina or the floods in Europe, heat waves in Australia or a myriad other climate anomalies that have been leading the news over the last ten or fifteen years are related to our effects on the climate and environment of the planet is not, in itself, important. I find it difficult to believe all of them are unconnected however but there is always the possibility that strong hurricanes or droughts or mudslides or forest fires have always occurred like this and just never been so completely and widely reported before. It does seem as if we are experiencing an era of climate and environmental upheaval though and whatever the causes the fact that people think our indifference to the balance of the environment is to blame has to be a good thing. Coupled with the distrust and dislike in the moneyed elites and the whole capitalist system caused by the financial crisis of 2008 I do not find it hard to imagine people questioning the inaction of their leaders when yet another natural disaster hits sometime in the future. Especially if it hits a developed country. Even as climate-change faces a crisis of support, the images of extreme weather will continue to fill our television screens and newspapers making the connections for us until later and in a more difficult situation, that could have been avoided by action now or ten or more years ago, but still not too late to help, the people will force their respective governments to face down the power of the polluting industries and face up to the challenge of fixing the Earth, not just at home but also across the world.

Picture form a Clean Shinjuku volunteer group that picked up litter in Shinjuku a month or so back. They’re  not pessimists!



2 responses

  1. Tomo

    This article is fascinating me, Damon. I researched waste disposal and composting in London and proposed an eco-friendly mushroom farm which can produce mushrooms from waste. The continuous boost in the world population is absolutely straightforward issue, which would become the most significant cause of food shortage. Also, I’ve got an idea right now. The global warming could be accelerated by the population boost. It’s easy to forget that human body emits heat and more obviously, we produce CO2 every second.

    July 18, 2010 at 11:45 pm

  2. Tomo San! Long time no hear. Indeed, not really thought of that, as animals we produce heat and CO2 and if the population grows to 10 of more billion the effect directly and through the expansion of cities (with heat island effects) could exponentially add to the expected and usual causes: like massive increases in car and motorbike (remember a lot of growth will be in the developing world) ownership, larger industry output and area and sprawling areas of farming and deforestation. I still do think that there will be some massive wake up call a shocking climate calamity that will force the arm of the developed world to put their own house in order along with assistance and aid to make sure the developing world does too. This will of course mean the end of western hegemony if the tragedy occurs in the west. But it could just as easily be China that has to bite the bullet and get globally responsible. Whichever way it pans out the future is not looking the same as now, there will massive realignments of wealth and power, there will be serious problems environmentally that we cannot ignore or transport to make someone else’s problem. And yet I am not pessimistic because this (I hope) will result in a better global society, one that is obviously more responsible to the environment but also one that is perhaps more egalitarian and altruistic. One where people do not get rich by pushing others into poverty. In the mean time everyone should try and do a bit more to slow the process of climate change more and as always you have great ideas. I like the saying: “If you think you are too small to make a impact, just try spending a night in a room with a mosquito.”
    Says it all.

    July 20, 2010 at 6:51 am

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