21 January 2021
Bright and beautiful, or bleak?
By Lynda Goetz
Did you know there were hippos in Columbia? Until this week, I certainly didn’t. Apparently four of the animals were left behind when the drug lord Pablo Escobar was shot in 1993 and his private zoo broken up. Other creatures were shipped out and re-homed, but, for whatever reason, the hippos remained. With no natural predators and a plentiful supply of food and water, those left have been breeding so rapidly that there are now between 80 and 100 in the Magdalen river basin. Attempts to control the population by castration or sterilisation have not worked and scientists are calling for a cull of this invasive species before it is too late. Animal rights activists are opposed to this idea.
What does this tale of the ‘cocaine hippos’ tell us about humans? Well, apart from our ability to create entertainment from almost any situation (Netflix apparently have plans to make a comedy based around Escobar’s hippos) it also shows our inability to foresee the consequences of our actions. For all our intelligence, our creativity, our understanding of the concept of time and our capacity to adapt, it does seem we are so often unable to grasp the possible outcomes of given actions; or that if some are, most are not. We as individuals and societies change things around us, we move, remove, make and remake, we improve and innovate but we are unable in so many instances to realise what might be the outcomes of our interferences with life, with other species, with the environment and with our climate. By the time we do realise, it is almost too late.
In America, the new President, Joe Biden, seemingly offers hope for a greener future. He has already agreed to re-join the 2016 Paris Agreement (on Climate Change) spurned by Trump, and promised $2 trillion investment into renewable energy. In Britain, Boris’s government has also pledged billions, although not trillions, towards greener energy. The behind-the-scenes influence on the PM of a millennial fiancée, who is a political activist and conservationist (senior adviser to ocean conservation charity Oceana) will also undoubtedly move forward the environmental agenda in this country. Around the world, the mood has changed over the last few decades and what used to be cries in the wilderness have become thundering voices. So, it would appear that we could be moving towards a less disastrous future for our health, our planet and the environment. These days climate change deniers and those who put technological progress above all else appear to be seriously out of fashion. But is this enough?
As has often been pointed out in this column, nothing in modern politics or indeed modern life is simple. The connections, interconnections and consequences of any policies or actions reverberate not just around a country, but around the world. This week, Harry de Quetteville writes in the Telegraph Magazine about ‘The Dark Side of Green Energy’. It is an interesting article which identifies truths many may not want to acknowledge; that although the so-called rare earth elements essential to renewable energy may not be that rare, the mining of them is, as presently carried out, destructive; that our current ideas for preventing or halting climate change with new energy sources may well be environmentally devastating; that currently the Chinese (who appear to have no interest whatsoever in climate or environmental issues) are in control of over 95% of these rare earths; that the way forward may in fact require greater use of nuclear power. Guillaume Pitron, whose book The Rare Metals War is referred to extensively in the article, considers that ‘we are moving into a situation where, in 20 years, the cost of green technologies will actually be superior to the benefits.’
Much has also been made over the last few years of the need to move away from meat production and towards an increase in plant-based diets. (This week for the first time ever, a Michelin star was awarded to a vegan restaurant in Arès near Bordeaux). At first glance, it is easy to agree with such a conclusion, but, as with green energy, closer examination of the facts doesn’t necessarily bear out all the agitation. Meat production in this country, as the NFU (National Farmers Union) made clear in its objections to the lack of impartiality in a BBC programme aired in November 2019, is not the same as that practised in the USA or South America. Free-range cattle reared in this country are grass fed, and the only reclamation of land has been the regenerative restoration of land used after the wars for the production of chemical-dependent crop monocultures. Although this does not apply to factory-farmed animals, which are fed on intensively grown soy and cereal crops, the founder of The Sustainable Food Trust, Sir Patrick Holden considers that ‘sustainably farmed beef and dairy cattle are integral to maintaining our green and pleasant land, keeping our waterways free of chemicals and feeding our population in the most efficient manner possible’.
Soy, a staple in the vegan repertoire, has already been shown not to be the answer to sustainable food supply. Like many other crops put forward by the vegan lobby as the answer to the world’s food problems, the issue is not as simple as it looks. Tofu (made from soy beans) may well be a good alternative source of protein, but as people are increasingly aware, the deforestation of large swathes of land for agriculture is in itself a cause of global greenhouse emissions and loss of biodiversity (Is Tofu Really Worse than Meat for the Environment?). Boris Johnson, after a consultation which ran for 6 weeks last year, is looking to introduce a new UK law to curb deforestation in supply chains. Of course the extent to which this has any effect on the continuing deforestation of the Amazon or other rainforests, when the countries which have custody of this land are happy to ignore the extent of the problem, is likely to be limited.
The basic problem globally is simply that there are too many of us. In spite of wars and pandemics wiping out millions over the last centuries, modern medicines and food production methods have enabled us to save lives and reproduce at a rate which is proving damaging to the climate, the environment and to other species. As we are now told repeatedly by Sir David Attenborough as well as by activists and environmentalists, we are literally destroying the planet on which we rely for our continued existence.
Clearly, this in the long term is probably not an issue for the planet, which would (or will, depending on how you wish to look at this) almost certainly survive our own extinction. It is a problem for the human race. It is not just a problem to be addressed by governments or businesses, although we need them to respond to our calls. Increasingly, with the power of social media, this is happening, but is it, as with so many other things, the most vocal minorities whose voices are being heard? Are the majority really ready to make the sacrifices which may be required now for a future they may not be here to see? Based on past performance of human behaviour this seems unlikely.
As things stand at present, very few of us are able to travel. In this country at least we have been told to limit our exercise to our immediate locality; those who can work from home should be doing so etc. Around the world the restrictions may be more or less stringent, but essentially the international travel, which this time last year looked set to continue to grow exponentially as it came within the reach of more and more ordinary people, has been halted. This has had some beneficial effects on air quality, but I have not heard a single person suggest that this state of affairs should continue. We are all, it seems, looking forward to a return to normality. Normality in this case presumably means a return to the status quo pre-Covid with future growth continuing, albeit with a slight change in terms of energy usage. But what if in reality what is needed is more sacrifice from all of us to ensure that there is a sustainable future and a bearable tomorrow for our children and grandchildren? I suspect the great majority will not be willing to do this voluntarily. If, however it were imposed upon them, it could be another matter. According to some surveys, 80% of those in this country felt that the imposition of yet another lockdown was the right thing to do. So perhaps essentially most would accept rules to ‘save the planet’ if these were presented as the only way forward or maybe, more importantly, the correct slogans were deployed and the fear levels ramped up sufficiently.