29 August 2011

Row, Row, Row the Boat

By Mark Crutchley
A news item on the BBC website caught my eye the other day and I had to read it again to convince myself that it was really true. A British team has rowed to the North Pole – yes rowed, in a boat! Now admittedly it was the magnetic North Pole which is a long way from being at the very top of the planet, but despite that it is still a very long way North and should by all rights be covered in ice even in the middle of summer. That you can row to it highlights just how far global warming has gone in melting the ice pack of the Arctic Ocean.

Actually, following the progress of the melting ice is something of an obsession of mine. You can find regular updates on the web at the National Snow and Ice Data Center (nsidc.org/arcticseaicenews/) and it doesn’t make good reading, showing graphically, in both senses of the word, one of the most dramatic impacts our activities are having on the natural world. The charts show the area of ocean with at least 15% sea ice and naturally over the summer this falls to a much lower level. But in recent years the decline has become far more dramatic; the current year is very close to the record lows observed in 2007 and may yet exceed them before the summer is over. While the last five years are the lowest five on record – this comes from satellite data, so only goes back to 1979 but we know from other sources that the current ice loss is well in excess of a much longer historical record.

Nor was this the only story emphasising how rapidly the Arctic ice is disappearing because the BBC were also reporting the opening up of sea lanes. The Northwest Passage round the north of Canada and the Northeast Passage across the top of Russia, have both become navigable and though the former is not yet being used by freight shipping, tankers are already using the latter to reach the Far East more rapidly.

This may not seem to matter much to most people, particularly those threatened with losing their jobs or struggling with soaring energy bills. But just as everything is connected in an ecosystem, so too it is the case in the human world. It is our total dependence on fossil fuels which is changing the climate and causing the Arctic ice area to shrink. And it is that same dependence which is driving up the price of oil and gas as new supplies become scarcer and the number of consumers around the world grows.

Moreover our economies are in such a fragile state because we have pursued an impossible dream of endless growth in a world of finite resources. When the dream began to unravel, rather than facing up to the fact that it was unsustainable, both governments and individuals just borrowed more and more to keep the game going for as long as possible. All that did though, was put off the day of reckoning and ensure that the bust would be even more painful than it might have been.

In her excellent book The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein detailed how global economic institutions such as the IMF and World Bank, used periods of crisis in individual countries economies, particularly those of South America, to force radical open market global capitalism solutions on them. Now with our current economic orthodoxy collapsing around us it is time for a new, sustainable, environmentally friendly future to replace it. The New Economics Foundation (www.neweconomics.org/) is one of the few places discussing the real economic future and it is an excellent place to start understanding what we need to be doing in our society. Going back to debt fuelled growth is no longer an option whatever the politicians of all parties may tell you.

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