World Environment Day is today, June 5th.
And we celebrate it in an atmosphere of sadness and fear. We ask what exactly there is to celebrate in a climate of continued destruction. The short answer is that there is lots to celebrate – even in a world of declining species and ruined habitat.
For those who care about the environment, and there are many, that sadness is an advance on previous attitudes. There was a time not long ago when you couldn’t find anyone who wanted to sit down and talk about what was wrong with the natural world what needed doing to correct it.
And before that, most people thought the environment was endless – that it could never be destroyed.
Robert Openheimer, who is sometimes described as the father of the atom bomb, said this after the first test explosion in the New Mexico desert in 1945, quoting from the Bhagavad Gita:
Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.
The quote is where one of the gods of Indian cosmology declares that it can snuff out the very notion of time and end everything if it chooses. And if we bring the world to a certain point, we could do something similar to what we know, and turn Earth into a brown planet. World Environment Day is a reminder of what we can so easily lose.
Have you read Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari? He paints a grim picture of our species, nearer to the definition of a virus that Mr Smith paints in The Matrix than to a caring stewards of the planet. In the spread of homo sapiens across the planet, Harari describes how we (the collective we) have killed all the megafauna. We have done it in every place we have settled. From Alaska to Australia we sent large animals to extinction.
With the rise of science, and the means to spread complex compounds, we have eradicated creatures big and small in every corner of the Earth.
Now we are in danger of wiping out elephants in our own lifetime. How can that be, how could we contemplate allowing such a thing to happen?
As an aside, the photograph of the young elephant isn’t in our catalogue yet. If you like it, drop us a line via the contact form page and if we get enough positive feedback, we’ll add it next time we do a print run.
And this damage is being done now, right now. It is happening even after the warnings that the marine biologist Rachel Carson shouted out in 1962 in her seminal book Silent Spring. She told us how pesticides were killing the environment. She said this”
One way to open your eyes is to ask yourself, ‘What if I had never seen this before? What if I knew I would never see it again?’
And what has happened since then? The rate of destruction has sped up. World Environment Day is a joke on us in some ways.
Do you remember the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant disaster in Japan?
Yes, earthquakes happen, but maybe we would have learned not to build nuclear power stations in an earthquake zone.
The designers thought of that. If the mains power failed, the backup generator would keep the reactor cool. Problem averted.
But no one imagined a tsunami so big that it knocked out the mains power supply and the back-up generator.
When the power failed, the cooling system failed and the reactor overheated. And they didn’t think of what would happen in that eventuality.
Did you know that the reactor was designed with dozens of holes at the bottom of the reactor vessel.
The holes allowed graphite control rods to slide into the reactor vessel to slow down the nuclear reaction. The holes were put at the bottom of the vessel because they were easier to get to and more efficient at controlling the nuclear reaction.
However, when the backup generator failed, the rods melted under the intense heat allowed radioactive water to escape.
The accident happened because no one envisioned the series of events that would lead to the rods melting.
Had the designers envisioned this, they would not have put the holes at the bottom of the reactor vessels where liquid could simply run out and contaminate the environment.
Man has a big brain, but the world is complex. And we can model and plan and do our risk assessments, and still we can damage nature in ways we never foresaw.
Do you remember the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf Of Mexico? It released between 150 and 190 million gallons of oil into the Gulf in the 87 days that the broken pipe was spewing oil.
The explosion was probably caused by a build-up of methane that was not properly controlled by the blowout preventer and the pipe stabilisers. The arguments are still going on about whether it was faulty design, failure to control the setting of the cement seals, or something else.
Many tens of thousands of birds and animals and fish wiped out.
A Personal Reflection
I was born and brought up in an industrial city. I knew next to nothing about nature, animals, and birds beyond the two budgerigars we kept as pets and the four mice I was able to keep at school for while.
The only time we saw the countryside was in the local parks. I did have an awakening of sorts when I travelled abroad in my teens, but on the whole, ‘nature’ simply served as the backdrop to whatever we were doing.
Then I was lucky to make friends with someone who had been watching birds since he was young. We went out into the grounds of the university and he showed me a robin’s nest. I stood on tiptoes and looked down. In the nest was a heap of baby robins with the top one looking at me with one tiny, dark, bright eye.
From that moment on, I spent every moment I could out in the fields and at a local Nature Reserve. And I devoured books on bird identification, tree and plant identification – you name it and I read it.
In my mind’s eye I can still see the heath and sandy beach of the Reserve where I watched shore birds picking food from the shallows. In my mind’s eye I can see sand martins whistling past my head and diving into the nests they made in the impossibly small holes they excavated deep in the sandy banks.
To Care Or Not To Care – That Is The Question
Do you remember the film The Age Of Stupid? It was an imagined look back at the present and the damage we are doing and asked why we did nothing, why we marched on to environmental destruction.
Did you see The End Of The Line, about how 90% of the world’s fish have gone. How can the seas withstand the onslaught of modern trawlers? The mouth of a modern trawler net is as wide as thirteen transatlantic airliners, wingtip-to-wingtip. The weight of the trawl nets dragging on the sea bed destroys it in seconds.
What Separates Us?
Most of us live somewhere in the middle between on the one hand accepting that it is acceptable to slaughter animals for food, and on the other hand objecting to inhumane cruelty.
Still, why do some people not care whether animals live a terrible life and have an agonising death? Why do some policy makers and politicians and business people make decisions that knowingly destroys the environment,? What is the disconnect that enables them to see living beings and the environment itself as just objects in the way?
Education turns a flat scene into a three-dimensional world. But what triggers us to care for the environment? And what causes some to simply not care at all?
World Environment Day Of Care
If there is a message of hope in all of this and in World Environment Day, it is this. It is that perhaps for the first time in history we have substantial numbers of people who are all too aware of how we are capable of destroying the planet. And at the same time we care that it does not happen. How near the brink, the tipping point do we get before we turn back the tide?