…”down the rabbit hole”, a metaphor for an entry into the unknown, the disorientating or the mentally deranging, from its use in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
I can’t decide whether I’m disappearing down a rabbit hole, or perhaps emerging from one. Given my state of ongoing confusion and disenchantment with the state of the planet I suspect I may still be spiralling downwards instead of upwards. Incidentally, this might not be the most uplifting of blog posts I’ve ever written, perhaps because today is allegedly the most depressing day of the year, however these are topics I’ve been thinking about a lot since getting back from pedalling around Europe, and as such I thought they deserved an airing. Perhaps I’m still suffering from post expedition blues; a well-known condition where the individual just wants to keep on pedalling/walking/exploring, and has trouble fitting back in to ‘normal’ life and work.
It’s definitely not all doom and gloom. I’ve been enjoying getting out for some long cycle rides in the January sunshine, whilst avoiding too many stunts on icy roads, meeting up with friends, attempting to learn to slackline (look it up), and have even started running a couple of times a week. I’ve decided running isn’t very good for you, but hopefully it’ll get easier, and I’ve joined a team of friends running 2016 miles in 2016 for charity to assist with motivation.
Before I dive into more serious stuff here are some uplifting photos; please refer back to them if reading this all gets a bit much. The Norfolk countryside and coastline is really beautiful at this time of year.
Nature, the environment, conservation and climate change are areas I’ve been interested in all my life, which is probably one of the reasons I studied Biology; not sure why I work in Financial Services now however it pays the bills and allows me to finance cool stuff, so all good. When you’re on the road for a long time, sleeping in a tent and pedalling through all sorts of weather, you tend to become a lot more aware and attuned to the climate and seasons, prone to thinking about the impact it can have on you each day, and to wondering what things will be like if some of the forecast changes come to pass. Travelling also brings you into contact with a wide variety of people, both rich and poor, with varying degrees of security, from refugees on the road to tourists on holiday in expensive villas. If we see some of the major climate changes scientists are talking about it’ll affect everyone regardless of wealth, however as usual it’ll be the poor that’ll suffer the most.
I’ve been doing a fair amount of reading since I returned to the UK, and am increasingly concerned we’re heading for a meltdown; I’ll present my very short conclusion and some of the sources I’ve garnered information from at the end of this post.
Here’s the stuff I’m worried about, especially when I think about the sort of world the last few generations are leaving for future generations. It shocking really, and driven by greed, ignorance to an extent laziness, oh and did I mention greed. I might delve into these topics in more detail in future blog posts.
- The Plasticene Age – I read that the human race produces over 300 million tonnes of plastic a year, with a third of this going into the trash pretty much straight away. This has an enormous impact, so much so that we’ve created a new age which will be recognisable in the Earth’s geology for hundreds of thousands of years. At least we’ve cut down on plastic bag use, however it’d be great if we started using more sustainable materials; bring back clay pots!
- Plastic and micro-beads – continuing on the subject of plastic, the polluting effects it has on the planet’s flora and fauna, especially in our oceans, is catastrophic. More recently the issue of the plastic micro-beads you find in so many products (toothpaste, face scrub etc) being washed straight into the sea has been widely reported. These beads, as well other types of plastic, end up in the food chain, causing pollution and poisoning animals all the way up the chain, including humans eating fish at their favourite restaurant. It’s pretty heart-rending seeing the pictures of seabirds and creatures who’ve ingested too much plastic, often dying a particularly painful and slow death.
- Overfishing – just when are we going to get real about this? There are still huge factory ships and fishing fleets dredging up anything from our oceans, indiscriminately, effectively turning huge swathes in dead zones. Overfishing is a real problem, with the WWF reporting that the global fishing fleet is 2 to 3 times bigger that the oceans can sustainably support. You can read the stats on the WWF website, and plenty of other sources, on irrecoverable species decline, and how new species are now starting to be exploited due to the old ones not being there anymore. Unfortunately due to economic pressures it looks highly likely oceans such as the Indian will be turned into barren wastelands before too long.
- Rising sea levels – continuing on a water based theme for the time being, I wonder if it’s now too late to avert a catastrophic rise in sea levels. I know the Paris cop21 agreements might give us some hope, however changes might not come soon enough to avert widespread flooding and certain island based countries disappearing for good. I read recently how the storms this winter have been pushing hot air up into the Arctic, causing temperatures to rise above freezing at Christmas, which could be unprecedented in recent times. These hot temperatures may well be causing glacial melt in Greenland, rather than them freezing and growing during the winter period, which in turn could be causing a massive meltwater run off into the ocean (think lots of analysis still going on). Glacial melt, unlike melting sea ice, contributes to sea level rises, so it’ll be ‘interesting’, or perhaps I should terrifying, to see what impact this has over the next few years.
- Climate change in general – I don’t particularly care, other than getting slightly annoyed, if you want to dispute the cause of climate change, but I don’t think anyone can say it’s not happening. And yes, we know the Earth has gone through ‘natural’ climate change in the past and bounced back, however the speed it is occurring at now is rather frightening, and whilst the planet might bounce back, will we? Personally I’m with the camp naming human based CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels as the perpetrator, with contributions from farming practices; 20% of CO2 global carbon emissions alone come from deforestation (WWF). We’ve all experienced the intense storms of the last few years, with many scientists calling them unprecedented, and in particular this year the impact of the El Nino effect. These storms seem destined to become the norm, and get worse, so we’ll see more flooding and damage from hurricanes and typhoons. There’s loads you can read about this on for example Robert Scribbler website, including details on average temperature increases and the knock on impacts weather systems can have on different areas.
- Migration – more extreme weather types look to be the next big cause of population migration, once we’ve got over fighting one another in different arenas; not sure that’ll happen as part of me thinks it’s deliberate on some governments parts. Drought in Africa and other parts of the world will cause massive population movement to Europe, and other less dry regions. This will in turn cause ongoing social and economic problems, with borders being closed, right-wing movements gaining power, and all the associated problems we’re seeing with the economic and refugee migrants at the moment; not a pretty picture.
- Increased standards of living – this might seem like a weird one, but it’s going to have an exponential effect on the above unless we find and implement for example a clean source of energy (fusion, more wind farms and solar), and more sustainable sources of protein. China and India all have burgeoning populations, as do several other parts of the world, and they’ll all going to want better lifestyles, and to consume more, whether it be food or goods. This is all going to take up more resources which we’re running out of. You can’t blame people for wanting a better life, and it’s difficult to object when the West has had it good for so long, and is the cause of a lot of the damage, but something has got to stop/give somewhere along the line.
- Exploitation of natural resources and pollution – huge companies continue to exploit the planet’s natural resources, at the expense of the environment, animals, plants and other humans. You see it in then news with pollution caused from oil and gas leaks, habitat destruction to make way for drilling or mining, and wars being fought to get control of these resources, all for the sake of profit.
- Species decline and extinction – okay, I know species decline and extinction can be regarded as a ‘natural’ event, it’s what happened to the dinosaurs, but it’s depressing how the human race is causing so much of it; you could argue us causing it is natural, otherwise you’re saying humans are unnatural, maybe natural is an awkward word but best not get too philosophical. There have been reports of mass die offs amongst some sea-bird species, due to starvation; warming sea water leading to food sources moving. Then there is the problem we’re seeing with bee colonies dying, due to Neonicotinoids, at alarming rates, which in turn could impact agriculture, and ecosystems being completely disrupted due to one species disappearing, for example a top predator, due to human interference. I could write several blogs alone on the impact we have on different species due to fishing and farming practices, overhunting, poaching, habitat destruction and climate change. I can’t believe people still hunt endangered species, including for example whales, how is that possibly acceptable other than if you’re doing it because you need to live (e.g. some small aboriginal communities kill the odd whale for food and resources). I fear children in a few generations time will only be able to look at creatures we take for granted today on a computer screen.
- Conservation – on the face of it conservation has got to be a good thing, right? It is but it’s got to be done right and with the proper commitment from governments and organisations. For example, many of the National Parks in the UK are pretty devoid of wildlife, both flora and fauna, aside from sheep, game birds and deer. They might be nice to walk around, but they’re pretty barren due to overgrazing, and controlled burn-offs (swaling), thus no species succession occurs in terms of long-term tree growth and areas being re-forested with something other than conifers. Economic pressure from landowners wanting to earn money from sheep farming and hunting is often the cause; sheep farming in mountainous National Parks is one of the least efficient forms of farming around, but I suppose it looks nice.
- Overpopulation – this might be a taboo subject when it comes to discussing a solution, however the basic cause of a lot of the problems we’re seeing is there are too many people, wanting to consume too much. Thankfully with antibiotic resistant bacteria on the rise, due to irresponsible farming practices, it’s probably only a matter of time before a superbug kills off large proportion of the human race.
So what can we do about all this? Does it even matter, in the grander scheme of things? If it all goes horribly wrong then yes lots of people will die, but in a few thousand years the Earth will perhaps have recovered without us, or with a lot less of us. It’s easy to comment on and rant about such topics when we live in a first world country and don’t have to worry about running out of food or somewhere warm to sleep. Do the majority of people even care, other than paying lip service to these issues? What’s it going to take for people to make changes, and change their priorities from consuming to conserving what we have left?
Aside from running away and living in a cabin deep in a forest in the mountains somewhere, waiting for the end, which I’m still seriously considering, there are several things I’ve been doing, and I know a lot of other people are too, or things we should do as a whole, to try to improve matters. Here are some of them.
- Read more – it’s free, and easy with the Internet. Remaining ignorant on these issues isn’t an excuse when you live in a developed country. There are loads of websites out there you can use to educate yourself, a lot of them using simple language and explanations, which I find very helpful. Following the right people on social media also helps – Twitter very useful for this. In turn you can help to educate other people and encourage constructive changes, or engage in lively debate; there is no doubt stuff I’ve written here that people will disagree with, or offer an alternative view-point or evidence, that’s great, bring it on, as long as it raises the profile of the challenges we’re facing.
- Reduce ignorance – on the same subject as reading more, it would be great to spread the word on the issues we’re facing, and their causes, to people and in particular other cultures who don’t have it as high on their agendas. I know it’s hard to argue that someone shouldn’t clear that piece of land to grow good to feed their family, however once it’s gone in many cases it’s gone, and alternatives need to be offered. Signing petitions can often help with this, for example by highlighting issues to governments, especially in those countries where people just don’t see it as an issue, or are unaware of the disdain it causes from other nations (e.g. Japan and some Scandinavian countries with their whaling practices)
- Consume less and recycle more – it would be great if we could all consume less in the way of plastic, and goods in general, however we’re all constantly encouraged to buy and use more stuff we don’t really need to be happy. In fact more stuff often makes you unhappy. I’ve been trying to buy things with less packaging, which is surprisingly difficult, however at least we can all try to recycle more. I’ll also be holding on to my current mobile phone for as long as possible, as well as other gadgets, and not upgrading them, as the amount of resource used to make for example a new smart phone, and the knock impact this can have, is pretty gruesome.
- Put pressure on corporations and governments to change their ways – it works as we’ve seen from prominent TV campaigns by the likes of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, or as a result of petitions asking supermarkets to stop stocking certain brands (e.g. Tuna caught unsustainably). If we know something is wrong, and causing damage, we shouldn’t let them get away with it for the sake of profit. Greenpeace run a lot of worthwhile petitions, and engage in a lot of good work to highlight issues and put the pressure on companies or governments, but there are plenty of other organisations to support if you don’t like them. Here’s a petition I recently signed on the micro-bead issue: https://secure.greenpeace.org.uk/page/s/ban-microbeads
- Eat less meat – I’m trying to have several vegetarian meals a week, and do my bit to reduce CO2 emissions from some types of farming. It’s really not very hard, and enjoyable finding alternatives. I think it’s important we set an example to other countries in areas like this, particularly developing nations where meat is becoming more available, or where there’s an increasing demand for it.
- Drive less – perhaps this is easy for me to say, as I cycle a lot, and use my bike for commuting to work. I’m also fortunate I have no disabilities preventing me from an active lifestyle. It’s frustrating seeing the number of people using their car for such short journeys; perhaps a few kilometres to drop their kids off at school. I believe the average commute was recorded at around 15km in a 2011 census, which means many people have to travel a lot less than this each day, and could therefore walk or cycle. I felt slightly nauseous cycling to work the other day due to the pollution from car and lorry exhausts; it’d be great if we saw lots more people walking or cycling, and think of the personal health benefits.
- Change priorities – it’s hard to do this in today’s modern society, with the pressure to keep up with your neighbours, consume more, and of course there’s never enough time to fit everything in. I think it’s a question of priorities. You could make time to walk to school or your workplace if you decided not to do something else, set off a bit earlier, or have a conversation with your employer. You could also choose to consume less, not buy the latest version of such and such, or live a simpler life. There are lots of articles out there about how changing your priorities to lead a simpler life, fitting in time for stuff that matters, or only buying what you really need, can make you a lot happier. I’m giving it a go, but am not going to say it’s easy to escape the trap of the modern lifestyle, especially with so much advertising telling you to consume more. I guess you also need to consider the impact of us all stopping consuming; there’d definitely be an economic meltdown of sorts, which is perhaps what the big cheeses are all scared of and thus do everything to stop. I agree there’d be some pretty tricky times in the short-term, but things would balance out in the longer term, with priorities changing and helpfully a better society and environment resulting.
- Plant a tree – or even better, plant lots of trees. All the deforestation around not only emits loads of CO2, but also means there are less trees to convert the CO2 back to O2. It can be a fun activity, and something rewarding to watch grow. Even if you can’t plant one yourself you could support organisations doing so.
- Tolerance – with the issues mentioned around increased migration due to climate change, it’s going to be even more important we become more tolerant of other cultures and nationalities wanting to enter our respective countries. If not we’ll no doubt see more unrest and wars starting, as well as acts of terrorism. Unfortunately I think this is one of the biggest challenges facing us in the next decade, and not one that’s going to be easy to overcome, as people, understandably, want to protect their own interests/families etc. After travelling around Europe for 6 months last year, and meeting people from all over the world, I can safely say that the majority of folks are essentially the same; nice people who want the same as you or I.
- Reduce overpopulation – okay, this could be a tricky one. Breed less? Overpopulation by the human race is the root cause of so many problems, but not sure how you stop it. Medical advances are brilliant, and I’m all for them, but they unfortunately mean people are living longer, and surviving more illnesses. It’s a bit of a taboo subject really, but we need to start talking about it more.
- Develop and use more clean energy – this needs to happen, with Fusion being the ultimate goal, however in the meantime I’m supporting the development of , and trying to use, more clean and sustainable forms of energy such as wind, solar and tidal, however these come with their own environmental and social challenges; you can’t please everyone and they all have an adverse impact in one regard or another.
- Seed and gene banks – seed banks such as the one on Svalbard already exist to safeguard versus catastrophes that wipe out for example a crop type or important plant species. Maybe we could build a gene back as well, in the hope that one day we’ll be able to bring back species that have since gone extinct through genetic engineering and cloning techniques; might be a bit far-fetched however there are new developments all the time in these areas.
- More conservation areas and re-wilding – and managed in the right way to encourage species diversity, and environmental benefits such as reducing flood risk. These areas don’t have to be human free, far from it, they just have to respected, allowed to grow, well-managed and non-commercial; this will unfortunately always run into the pressure of making money from tourism through resorts etc.
I think that was mostly a cathartic exercise on my part, however hopefully others will be encouraged to think more on these subjects, and make a few changes for the better. I’m more than happy to be challenged on any of the above, in a constructive fashion, as I learn something new every day, and have seen lots of counter arguments and theories. I’m may also have missed important topics in the above which I’ll write about some other time. It’s often surprising that what you take as a given, on face value, can actually be incorrect or ill-informed when you start digging a bit. If I was being a conspiracy theorist I might suggest that the uber rich and powerful, that top 1% who are richer than the rest of the world combined, don’t want us to change as it’ll impact them too much, whereas if we carry on as we are they’ll be safe in their ivory towers at our expense, but maybe that’s just fantasy. Either way it looks like some big changes are going to happen over the next decade which will impact everyone whether we like it or not, and regardless of whether we make any changes now or not, so maybe my plan of a cabin somewhere remote isn’t such a bad one.
That was also a bit of a diversion from my usual posts, but still has a self-propelled theme from the point of view of sustainability. I think my final conclusion is we’re probably screwed whatever we do now, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep trying to fix stuff.
Sources include the below – I should really get a bit better at listing them and referencing in future.