3. When you first started to study ecology, there was not the same widespread interest in that subject as there is today. Can you comment further on this?
I did not fully grasp the importance of ecology until about 1980. I had formerly heard of this subject, but had not studied it in any depth. I did not actually do that until I had access to the shelves of Cambridge University Library (CUL), where I found material relating to the Club of Rome. That grouping was founded in 1968 by an eminent British scientist and an Italian industrialist, namely Dr. Alexander King (1909-2007) and Aurelio Peccei (1908-1984). Dr. King had the repute of an international civil servant. These two very notable collaborators grasped that if certain crucial matters continued to be ignored by governments, then the global situation would deteriorate markedly in the not too distant future. They have been proven decisively correct.
Peccei is noted for stating: “If the Club of Rome has any merit, it is that of having been the first to rebel against the suicidal ignorance of the human condition.” The Club started as an informal gathering in Peccei’s home. They developed the leitmotif of “limits to growth,” and assimilated cues associated with a project undertaken by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The early ecological themes which then evolved in this manner were population increase, agricultural production, non-renewable resource depletion, industrial output, and pollution.
A controversial book resulted, being commissioned by the Club of Rome. The Limits to Growth (1972) gained widespread acclaim, and also some strong resistance from both academics and governments. The Club of Rome subsequently amplified their pioneering probe. During the 1970s, King and Peccei were very active in the ecological cause. King contributed summaries and books like The State of the Planet, and Peccei became a futurologist in One Hundred Pages for the Future (1981). Yet governments failed to act upon the Club’s message, despite the scientific concerns in more general evidence.
l to r: Alexander King, Aurelio Peccei
The Club was run on independent lines, with no employees or livelihood factors. Peccei was the President, insisting that the Club should not handle money. He and King travelled continually to meet heads of state in almost every country on the globe. Politicians listened to the ecological pleading, but knew that their own positions were at risk if they commenced the measures necessary for rectification. Some argued that the public would resist the transition; unpopular measures could not be imposed in democracies.
More than most other ecologists, King and Peccei knew by 1980 that time was seriously running out. The opposition and prevalent lethargy were too great. They were aware that if this situation persisted for much longer, it would be too late to stop the consequences. That was many years ago.
The death of Peccei was a further setback. King took over leadership for a few years until 1990, and later resigned from the Club during 1999, in the face of new internal bureaucratic measures. These included the Paris secretariat being abolished against his advice. The Club headquarters were newly accommodated in the UNESCO branch at Paris. Dr. King complained at these developments. Some felt that the originating inspiration of the Club had ceased. The significant autobiography of Alexander King is Let the Cat Turn Round: One Man’s Traverse of the Twentieth Century (2006).
I was keen to incorporate some pages on the Club of Rome in my first book Psychology in Science (1983). At that time, many people did not understand the extent of the ecological data, and ignored the problems incurred by technology. Some people dismissed ecology as a marginal factor, or as being exaggerated. The Club of Rome were predicting the melting of the polar ice masses (ibid., p. 153), for instance, but this sounded incredibly far-fetched to a society reared upon complacent affluence and “increased standards of living,” a phrase that I came to dislike. Twenty years elapsed before global warming came to be recognised as a fact of life. Popular science columnists in Britain were disputing the validity of global warming until the last minute (in the early years of the twenty-first century).
In reality, the problem had set in far too strongly to eradicate. Some members of the scientific establishment adversely influenced the politicians. Too many scientists ignored the danger, sharing in the affluent complacency. "Science" is a word of ambivalent meaning; it can, for instance, merely designate well paid technicians who create lethal weapons of destruction. However, in a more specific area of expertise, many climate scientists have convincingly argued for global warming in the face of denialism. The situation in America was practically unbelievable; political evasionism proved extreme. The Club of Rome became demonised by conservative factions in America. See further my Pointed Observations (2005), chapters 38 and 39, for the Club of Rome and related matters. See also Climate Change Complexities.
A relatively small rectification occurred via the refrigerator issue, highlighted in relation to the ozone layer. Some sanity prevailed in the Montreal Protocol, which confronted ozone issues. The international treaty of 1987 banned the use of chemicals such as CFCs (chlorinated fluorocarbons), released by refrigerators and aerosols. People at last knew that their fridges were a danger to the atmosphere, a theme which only a short while before had been regarded as “loony,” to use a common epithet.
Another problem then started. The confused public were now led to assume, by politicians and others, that all drawbacks would be solved by wonderful scientific adaptations to refrigerators and aerosols. Ozone-friendly chemicals had now become a saviour (the damaged ozone will not recover for many years). Factories, motor cars, and aeroplanes were just some of the reasons why no common solution was afforded to a growing complex of very serious problems. These drawbacks were still being swept under the carpet by defensive oil companies and other lucrative agencies.
The problems involved in climate change worsened continually. A fatal blow to potential curb was the refusal of America to comply with crucially necessary reductions in carbon dioxide emission. That ominous event occurred many years ago. More recent developments in America are likewise viewed by environmentalists with deep misgivings. The situation of this planet is staggeringly precarious. Coal, gas, and oil are all big ecological headaches. The oceans are poisoned. The ice sheets continue to melt, yet the affluent standards of living breed multiple examples of the proverbial ostrich with his head in the sand.
Greenland glaciers now melting
Torrents of meltwater have been cascading in summertime from the glaciers of Greenland. The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) caused much consternation in their research view of global warming (see Michael Mann and Lee Kump, Dire Predictions, 2008). Warming denialists jibed at the disclosures. The IPCC nevertheless made a conservative assessment of ice melt.
Confusion has for long existed about what to expect. An IPCC report in 2007 predicted a maximum of 60 cm or two feet in the rise of sea level by 2100. Whereas other commentators spoke in terms of two metres. Even a two feet rise in worldwide sea level will amount to a catastrophe for many coastlines.
The ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica may take more than a century to melt completely. The change in sea level will then be dramatic, eventually raising the oceans by fifty metres (David Archer, The Long Thaw: How Humans are Changing the Next 100,000 Years of Earth's Climate, Princeton University Press, 2009). Much depends upon the increasing temperature. The initial IPCC forecast of 0.6 metres in sea level rise includes the effect of thermal expansion and the water from melting mountain glaciers in places like Alaska. This well known prediction did not include the melting of Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets (Archer 2009:7-8). "The IPCC business-as-usual forecast for 3 degrees Celsius would translate to 20-50 metres of sea level rise" (Archer 2009:9). The current global warming temperature is 1 degree Celsius. If that temperature goes out of control, severe repercussions could ensue.
The Greenland ice melt increased in the 1990s. Greenland has about eight per cent of all ice on the planet. Ice is more than a mile thick in some areas of Greenland. The same online source states: "If the entire Greenland ice sheet were to melt, it would raise global sea levels by 20 feet." Other factors are also relevant. Since 1992, Antarctica has lost nearly three trillion tonnes of ice. Almost half of this loss has occurred in the past five years. The IMBIE project has assessed Antarctic ice sheet mass balance. Sea level rise is currently measured in millimetres, but this is nevertheless a matter for concern, the increase being sufficiently substantial.
Predictions affirm that all low-lying coastal cities will become uninhabitable, unless the process of warming is arrested. This means New York, London, Tokyo, Calcutta, and other metropolitan sites. The tangible and tragic phenomenon of warming oceans, blighted by acidity, is no excuse for convenient distractions provided by politicians.
Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions continue at an alarming rate. The largest zone of emissions is China, followed by America. Russia and India also have a reputation for pronounced air pollution, and likewise the EU.
To ascertain the ecological problem is one thing, but to make firm chronological predictions about future events is quite another. Some ecologists query views expressed by Dr. James Lovelock, an independent British scientist who became known on the media as a "climate science maverick."
Lovelock invented the electron capture detector in the late 1960s, and was the first to detect the widespread presence of CFCs in the atmosphere. He also created the Gaia hypothesis, which views the planet in terms of a living and self-regulating organism whose balance has been disturbed by carbon dioxide emissions. See Lovelock, Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth (1979); Lovelock, The Revenge of Gaia (2006). The hypothesis was not accepted by all the scientific community, and some strong resistance was expressed. The factor of global warming was for long repudiated and modified on the media.
An agnostic, Lovelock was in some friction with contemporary greens; he maintained that the desired sustainable development is contradicted by population growth (A man for all seasons). The global population is expected to reach ten billion by 2055, including a strong Asian component.
The provocative predictions of James Lovelock were reported on the media. For instance, “by 2040, China will be uninhabitable” (Sarah Sands, “We’re All Doomed!,” Daily Mail, March 22nd 2008, p. 43 col. 1). That is a very strong statement; other ecologists were more cautious. There are numerous complexities in train. If unchecked, the situation would surely become critical. The affliction and disappearance of plant life is certainly a pressing issue; the intensive industrial activity of the Chinese remains a matter of concern. Lovelock nevertheless expressed the argument that global warming could get even worse if Chinese industry weakens, due to the removal of the side-effect dust and haze which screens out heat.
The theories of Lovelock about ethnic migration do not meet with universal agreement. He became rather notorious for predicting that the Chinese will migrate to Africa, while Americans will move to Canada. We need not doubt that there will be some very climatically harassed regions in North America; recent hurricanes (in 2018) have caused havoc on the East Coast, astounding many inhabitants by the ferocity of winds over 150 miles per hour.
Lovelock affirmed that the current population of the planet (now over seven billion) is too big to sustain equably. Opponents have preferred to believe that nothing is wrong with overpopulation. Lovelock stated that a billion is the sustainable number. This verdict decodes to the level of global population in 1804. The statistic doubled by 1927.
The controversial dateline of 2040 is attended in the Lovelock presentation by a culling of the global population through floods, drought, and famine. This version of natural selection is very grim in certain dimensions of the argument. We are told that flooding will wipe out entire countries. There will be almost no food grown in Europe, says Lovelock, and Saharan desert areas will encroach onto the European mainland. Paris and Berlin are both in jeopardy from this scenario. The inhabitants of southern Europe are here forecast as migrating in desperation to countries like Canada, Britain, and Australia.
Britain is viewed by Lovelock as having a more favourable position than many other countries. The reason being that soaring temperatures will be offset by cooler water created by cessation of the Gulf Stream. In this projection, Britain will be subject to rising sea levels sufficient to harass areas like central London. Parliament will have to move, an exercise that could conceivably make their outlook more realistic in a violent metropolis needing far more policemen.
In 2008, a Guardian interview with Lovelock featured the title "Enjoy life while you can." This gained a reputation for a form of scepticism. For instance, Lovelock asserted that carbon offsetting by planting trees was a joke. The claim is here made that 80% of humans will perish by the year 2100. By that date, a global temperature increase of between two and six degrees Celsius has been forecast by the IPCC. Even two degrees (above pre-industrial level) is a serious climatic hazard.
The hostility of Lovelock to renewable energy is well known. This is because he viewed such commitment as superfluous, being too late to alter the basic ecological situation. Wind, tide, and water power are here discounted. Fifty years grace would be needed for such alternatives, and there is no such time in hand. Even if all fossil fuel burning were to stop immediately, the consequences of that activity to date will last for a thousand years (and some experts say much longer).
In 2004, Lovelock caused a stir when he announced that only nuclear power can now halt global warming. The reason for this adamance is that nuclear energy supposedly comprises the only available source not causing global warming. Lovelock argues that nuclear waste and radiation are not dangerous, and refers to “the minute statistical risks of cancer from chemicals or radiation.” (Lovelock, “Nuclear power is the only green solution,” The Independent, May 24th 2004). Other environmentalists are in strong disagreement. According to Lovelock, wind turbines are a waste of time, as such an extensive number of these mechanisms would be needed for the purpose envisaged. The call to renew ageing nuclear reactors may be regarded as an undue complication.
The radical commentator stressed that ignorance of the ecological situation was perpetuated by the American political attitude of denying climate change. This neglect has been a sore point with ecologists for many years. Lovelock emphasises that the highly rated oil reserves will substantially deplete in the not too remote future. The Club of Rome were misrepresented by the American oil economists, blocking due perspective on climate change (Shepherd, Pointed Observations, 2005, pp. 313ff.).
The Gaia hypothesis became the most popular ecological format in Britain. This was pirated by the "new age" eco-drive. “Pop ecology” of the 1980s and 90s yoked Gaia to such themes as a spiritual enlightenment supposedly achieved by commercial therapy centres like Esalen and the Findhorn Foundation. There has been no such era of enlightenment, but instead extortion and narcissism in the new age sectors (see no. 10 and no. 12 below). The new age lore of the past fifty years or so may be regarded as largely bankrupt of significance other than commercial ploys, pirating, and major misconceptions. Too many old age strategies are also reprehensible.
Eight years after his "Enjoy life while you can" proviso, Lovelock gave another interview to the same journalist. This is very disappointing, and regarded by critics as an eccentric digression. His attitude to climate change has now become flippant. "I'm not sure the whole thing isn't crazy, this climate change." Lovelock now sounds more like a denialist than an ecologist, just another of the affluent spectators. He remains a supporter of nuclear power, to which he has added fracking. "Gas in America is incredibly cheap, because of fracking." Economics are not the best guide to global problems, despite denialist assumptions.
Lovelock expresses superficial chat with a Darwinist accent. Perhaps influenced strongly by science fiction, he now believes that robots will rule the world by 2100. Lovelock cannot diagnose the situation effectively. He believes that computers will develop independent volition and intuition. The word intuition, like the term holistic, has been taken over by chat society, and is largely meaningless. Computers will be capable of evolving, we are told. "We'll have a world where Darwin's working." His confidence in the robotic future is "fairly high."
In an extremist idiom, Lovelock asserts that "human beings may fuse with robots to become a blend of robotic and human tissue." However, the more likely scenario will be "pure robots." This nonsense is laced with an assertion that the robots "won't give a fourpenny f--- about the temperature." Four letter words are very fashionable in chat, but do not prove science or intuition.
I reject science fiction and aborted Gaia. The nature of the current crisis has been reliably charted by climatologists of a different kind to Lovelock (see, e.g., David Archer, Global Warming: Understanding the Forecast, 2006). The anthropogenic dimensions of global warming are demonstrated by the substantial increase in CO2 emissions. The issue has been afflicted by pronounced contractions in America.
Ideological "climate wars" became a revealing feature of the American milieu. Climate scientists were repudiated by the "denialist" faction vested in the oil and energy industries. Denialists opposed the prospect of a governmental regulation of their exploitive activities. Science discovered that humans had increased CO2 levels to the point of impending catastrophe. In the opposite camp, commerce opposed restraints, and influenced an ignorant media committed to urban excess and trivia (see Michael Mann, The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars, 2012; Mann, The Madhouse Effect: How Climate Change Denial is Threatening our Planet, 2016).
I have encountered persons who were completely fooled by the denialist versions. There were (and are) large numbers of casual and complacent followers of denialist doctrines in diverse countries. In this erroneous perspective, humans are not guilty of any ecological backslide.
The Trump administration, of America, is closely associated with repressive measures against climate science. In this disastrous situation, hurricanes are increasing via the response of oceans to global warming. A government censorship on climate change is a very retrogressive feature of the twenty-first century. Far more positive is SR15, meaning the IPCC Special Report dating to October 2018. The title of this important document is Global Warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius. A catastrophic rise to 2 degrees Celsius would eliminate all coral reefs, and produce many other drawbacks.
Limiting the effect of warming to 1.5 degrees (above pre-industrial level) will require rapid and extensive transitions in land, energy, industry, buildings, transport, and cities. The current rate of warming is one degree, and symptomatic of rising sea levels. For too long, both the public and academe have in general ignored the significance of "even half a degree" in the global context denoted. Doubling one to two is ecological suicide.
The Special Report further states that global man-made emissions of CO2 will need to fall by about 45 per cent from 2010 levels by 2030. Furthermore, carbon pollution will need to come down to zero by 2050. Considerable optimism is needed to believe that this target is possible. A very high level of sustained international commitment will be necessary. Political complications include the discrepant agendas of countries with denialist tendencies or other reservations. A positive factor is that China has affirmed climate commitment, in a mood of "not to backtrack or renegotiate" on targets resolved at the Paris Agreement in 2015. However, the reduction of Chinese emissions during the next few decades is evidently a challenge of very substantial proportions.
The loaded UN option of twelve years is offset by nearly fifty years of political and social neglect occurring since the Club of Rome supplied due warnings. Now there are only twelve years left to limit catastrophe on an unprecedented scale. The prospect is one of floods, hurricanes, drought, earthquakes, extreme heat, and poverty for vast numbers. Atlantic hurricanes have increased in strength as the consequence of warmer waters, recently demonstrating an alarming power of disruption. The unpleasant subject of earthquakes is still very little understood in general, and too often omitted from the inventory under discussion.
Capable researchers like Rebekka Steffen and Christian Brandes are altering the "controversial" perspective on climate change precipitating earthquakes. The decrease of ice sheets may affect seismic activity and create tsunamis. This matter is potentially crucial to understanding the phenomenon of global warming. Dr. Brandes reveals how earthquakes are quite likely to be influenced by climate change. The same source emphasises that "because many people live in earthquake-prone regions, a huge proportion of the global population is at risk of injury or death." An explicit contribution is Bill McGuire, Waking the Giant (2012). The sub-title of this significant book is: How a Changing Climate Triggers Earthquakes, Tsunamis and Volcanoes. Such themes are a pertinent reminder that climate change is a very formidable (and terrifying) landscape requiring due attention.
The crux of the ecological problem is that affluent American and European lifestyles are imitated by the rest of the world. This has led to an additional abuse of the environment, a drawback maintained by the West. The UN estimate for global population, at ten billion by 2055, is no reason to believe that major disasters will be averted. Too many humans want affluence, not prudent survival. The basic consequences of non-arrested warming are very predictable. An uncertainty is the amount of damage. Even minimal damage will be extensive, and possibly out of control sooner than expected.
A formerly fashionable assertion was that population growth would level out by 2050 with 7.8 billion. That number has now already been reached at an estimated 7.7 billion (over half of this total being Asian). Thirty years in advance, thus confounding the reductionists with their reassuring case for affluence. The UN estimate for 2030 is currently 8.6 billion. The reality is often too complex for arbitrary preference. There are diverse factors to take into account. Population growth, by 2050, "could result in oceans containing more plastic than fish by weight" (World Population). Some commentators emphasise the declining rates of population growth. Unfortunately, this welcome development will not prevent climate change being furthered by the massive and increasing number of humans currently in existence.