6 September 2008

Life after people?

By Marguerite Finn

Towards the end of August I watched a thought-provoking programme on television entitled: Life after people, wherein geologists, climatologists and archaeologists all gave their predictions about what planet Earth might be like after the human race had left it.

Much of it was entirely predictable: Nature would take over cities, trees would grow up through concrete buildings – which would eventually fall down – and so-called 'wild' animals would roam the former streets. A glance through my bedroom window at a piece of ivy inching its way slowly across the glass pane and, finding itself unchecked and getting bolder by the minute, confirmed the general thesis of the programme.

But one thing puzzled me – how did the entire human race vanish at one go? Did they line up to board a fleet of Virgin space shuttles? Did they wipe themselves out in a nuclear war? Were there no pockets of survivors, such as indigenous tribes unaware of the great evacuation?

Although it was not the programme's intention to explain the absence of humans but merely to suggest how life on earth might continue after their intervention and subsequent disappearance, one thing that clearly came out of the programme was the vulnerability of our existence on this planet. It demonstrated that without maintenance by humans, the machines, which are integral to our way of life in the built environment, would fail with disastrous consequences. We were shown spectacular images of bridges cracking and falling into the rivers below. And what about our nuclear legacy? With the inevitable degradation of the materials used to build the power stations, their radioactive components would leak into ground water systems and the atmosphere, affecting any life extant at the time.

But the real effect of the programme on me was its own inherent armchair complacency – although its simplistic nature gave me a jolt. Compared with the severity of what we face, from the way we carelessly presume to manage the planet, our current economic recession is just a minor blip! But does a 'recession' not also offer an opportunity? At the moment, our stewardship of the Earth is being called into question. We are so obsessed with our culture of consumerism that we have forgotten we share this planet with millions of other species. Every day a new example of our carelessness is highlighted. One of the latest – and quite close to home – is the pollution of the Baltic Sea. The Baltic Sea ecosystem could collapse unless states bordering it find common ground on ways to decrease maritime pollution, according to a new report from World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), which accuses governments of failing to take responsibility for working to improve the situation. Vast algal blooms, such as those that threatened to disrupt watersports during the Beijing Olympics, cover large parts of the Baltic Sea, killing off large swathes of the seabed as oxygen fails to spread throughout the water - a process known as eutrophication. The build-up of plant growth is caused by an increase in the volume of nutrients in the water as a result of sewage, shipping pollution or agricultural run-off. Seven of the world's ten largest "dead zones" are found in the Baltic Sea, making it the world's most damaged, according to WWF.

In Stockholm, in August, experts from around the world warned that global food wastage must be halved by 2025 to meet the challenges of feeding the rapidly-growing population and preserving global water supplies. Their report was presented during World Water Week and it warned that "tremendous quantities of food are discarded in processing, transport, supermarkets and people's kitchens", adding: "This wasted food is also wasted water." In the US, up to 30% of food, worth some $48.3 billion, is thrown away each year, it notes, pointing to similar levels of waste in Europe.

Next week, a group of small islands' leaders, desperate due to accelerating sea level rise, plan to take the unprecedented step of putting a resolution before the United Nations calling upon the Security Council to address climate change.

Faraway from the escapism of the television programme, this crisis is for real. The window of opportunity to restore natural balance to the world is closing fast but it is not shut yet. People are becoming more aware that the problems we created for the planet like climate change, overpopulation, the built environment, and chronic water shortages arising from rampant, wasteful consumerism, mean that we have been using the planet rather as we use a toilet. I am reminded of the polite notice often seen in cloakrooms: please leave this place as you would like to find it.