In prehistory, human society depended on the exploitation of natural resources that seemed abundant and effectively limitless. Even after the development of agriculture, when the cycles of the seasons and the pattern of rainfall became a matter of more than passing concern – for the harvest depended on it, and on the harvest came to depend the whole complex structure of civilization – it seemed that bountiful nature almost always provided, if only the husbandman (and woman) prayed correctly to the gods who were responsible for the weather. But civilization became increasingly dependent on the exploitation of the physical resources of the earth – not only on the growing and harvesting of crops, but the extraction of minerals for the manufacture of tools and artefacts of all kinds, including weapons.Through the ages of copper, bronze, iron and steel, until the modern age, with its hungry reliance on a wide range of minerals, its factory farming and massive trawling for fish and other sea-food, its devastation of the forests and pollution of water supplies, humankind has become more and more reliant on the exploitation of the earth’s physical resources, on land and in the sea.
We are only just beginning to recognise that our depredations have had a devastating effect, not only on our immediate environment in the cities and the villages, in which some two thirds of the world’s population now live, but in the rural areas beyond, in the scrub and the forests and jungles, in the streams and rivers and even in the oceans. The destruction, pollution and general degradation of our environment has reached a peak in the last over-industrialized century. Our farming relies increasingly on artificial pesticides and insecticides, and on mono-crops, all too vulnerable to disease, on livestock and poultry production with intensive methods of rearing, using inappropriate foodstuffs and inflicting terrible living conditions on the animals and birds involved.Our own living conditions in the villages, towns and cities in which most people now live have in many ways deteriorated, as private affluence and gated ‘communities’ develop side by side with slums and shanty towns, and all come to share the pollution and litter of the modern urban environment. And now we are dimly beginning to realise that not only have we devastated our immediate physical environment, the very water we drink and the very air we breathe, but we have also affected the climate – bringing global warming and unknown changes to our weather patterns around the world.
Some extreme physical events, such as volcanoes, earthquakes and tsunamis, like that which recently devastated Japan, may be unrelated to human activity, and the closest things to ‘natural disasters’ – largely unpredictable and almost entirely unavoidable – but these too are compounded by economic, social and political decisions, such as to promote reliance on nuclear power for the bulk of domestic energy requirements, with all of the risks of breakdown, explosion and the release of nuclear radiation that we are now seeing realised, tragically, in Japan. But most of the so-called ‘natural’ disasters are extreme physical events, probably now made more likely by climate change, with adverse effects on economy and society that are substantially affected by patterns of settlement, industrial and agricultural practices, reliance on certain sources of energy, and so on.Our vulnerability to ‘natural disasters’ is increasing as we devastate our own environment; the vulnerability of the poor and disadvantaged is generally the greatest, for they tend to live in more hostile and/or degraded environments and have fewer resources with which to respond to environmental crises. Protecting our environment is no longer – if ever it was – a diversion from the important task of improving human welfare and wellbeing; it is an essential part of it and may even be a pre-condition for our survival as a human race. Certainly it is for the millions of people now living in areas that will be effectively uninhabitable in a few decades – the arid and semi-arid areas of the world, the low-lying especially coastal areas, and small islands, the high mountains and the Arctic.
Increasingly, the issue of ‘climate change’ has come onto the agenda of governments and international organisations, like the United Nations, and gradually even the most sceptical have become convinced that there is something here to be concerned about. But so far, the commitment of national governments and what is often termed ‘the international community’ to face up to the realities and begin to address the enormous problem that we face is extremely limited. Various international conferences, most recently in Copenhagen in Denmark and Cancun in Mexico, have addressed the issue and confirmed that there is much to be done. But real willingness to take serious action remains elusive.Some measures are being taken by the most developed countries, and by the emerging developing countries, to reduce carbon emissions and other activities contributing to climate change; aid to the least developed countries is beginning to include a ‘climate change’ component, but it is usually ‘added on’ as if an afterthought. Far more money has been devoted in the last two years to saving the banking community and the global financial architecture, than to the measures urgently required to prevent serious levels of global warming, to mitigate the major impact and to adapt, where possible, to the changing world in which we shall be living in only a few decades from now. Protection of the environment is not just a ‘green’ issue, involving recycling and the reduction of pollution; it is a crucial part of sustainable living. Every act that contributes to global warming and the degradation of the environment is a crime against humanity. Already the death toll is rising and the likelihood that environmental degradation, and with it the destruction of civilization as we know, it is becoming irreversible increasing. Act here, and now!