The Mess We're In

Sitting comfortably? Of course you are, if you’re reading this then you’re probably one of the lucky handful born in the consumer playground of the West; our mass produced garden of plenty where we feast from bottomless plates and indulge in all manner of hi-tech pleasures. A wonderland where we laze in dreamy fictions while the outside world is abridged on our behalf to digestible 2D pantomimes, role-plays where our mischievous but ultimately benevolent leaders keep everything under control so we can afford to nap the haze of Hollywood blockbusters and arcane subcultures. A NewsCorp edited reality where the unspoken message is “spend, little consumer, spend”, not because we want to or can even afford to, but because if we don’t embrace our cultivated greeds the entire global economy will collapse. 

Our shoppers paradise however, has come at a terrible price. Already the consequences of our Caligulan lifestyles are leaking through the artifice of mainstream culture into our immediate lives. It could manifest in the island of park round your estate which no longer echoes with the sound of amphibious wildlife, it could hit you when you and your partner try for children only to find your chemically deformed sperm have problems hitting the target, or it could be when your house and everything you ever owned are swept away by gargantuan hurricanes that unnerve even sceptical climatologists. Of course we can’t be too hard on ourselves; the immediate human reaction to an oncoming disaster is denial, even if stark neon warning signs present themselves at every turn. Besides we’re a society of junkies hooked on escapism, post modern arseholes for whom “killing the planet” is a snigger inducing cliché. 

Junk science

We’ve developed a number of ways to cope with the scary sounding notion of “environmental collapse”, and some of these ideas have well funded sponsors. These days fostering denial is a vast sub industry, one that strives to make sure we are never troubled by uncomfortable and profit damaging realities.  Mention a phrase like “global warming” and you’ll always find somebody who quacks “junk science” in return. This is hardly surprising, as the memorable meme “junk science” was itself coined by representatives of the pesticide and chemical industry to discredit concerns of environmental groups (28), and was also used by the ‘Advancement of Sound Science Coalition’ to debunk the idea of passive smoking. Strangely enough, the ‘Advancement of Sound Science Coalition’ was a front group of cancer tycoon Phillip Morris (29). Today it’s still the weapon of choice for bitter talk show hosts, clandestine PR departments and sniping Farkers who want to dismiss anything outwith their belief system  with a cool sounding quip.  

Nurturing flowery sounding front groups to dispense ‘through the looking glass’ logic is a common tactic of corporations trying to make people love them. Take the “Greening Earth Society”, who claimed that pumping more CO2 into the atmosphere is a great idea because it’s basically just plant food, and ipso facto this will mean an increase in lovely green plants for us to frolic in. But, you guessed it; the now defunct “Greening Earth Society” was a wholly owned arm of the Western Fuels Association, aka Coal industry, and these are only a few examples of many. 

It’s not just the FTSE 100 gang that encourage such apparently studious denials, the general trend since the 70s onwards (hippies aside) has to respond to rather negatively to claims that we need to curb our lifestyles or face a doomed future. The fashionable thing in some circles is to see the white coated killjoys not as anxious scientists, but bewitched pawns of the prince of darkness. Yes, that polymorphic scapegoat the Illuminati are just trying to trick us into thinking the ice caps are melting, but are instead just weaving their ancient tapestry of deceit and lies to further their nefarious agenda. To take on this claim in detail, we’d need several books of tedious point by point argument, but suffice to say that this is denial in its purest and most refined form. Information that does not slot nicely into the conspiratorial worldview is rejected as the propaganda of the Other, to achieve some creatively imagined end. 

The Story of Global Warming

Our story begins around in the early Carboniferous, a remote epoch millions of years before the dinosaurs when animal life consisted of weird fish, primeval sharks and insects as big as men. But one species reigned supreme; the trees. Endless, continent wide jungles of giant ferns and spore spitting undergrowth, hundreds of feet thick and thousands of miles wide. The trees thrived in this period because the early Earth had a huge amount of carbon (CO2) in the atmosphere, leftovers from an earlier age when the planet was still forming. When tree life began to emerge they fed off the carbon in much the same way as early sea life sucked the calcium out of the primordial soup to form bones and exoskeletons. The ancient carbon was stored alongside photosynthesised sunlight in tree husks that were ultimately drawn underground to lie silently for millions of years where it would be compressed into coal and other fossil fuels. 

350 million years later. Man. Having burnt every tree in sight we look for new things to fuel our war machines, a problem solved by sending poor people’s children into small holes to mine the ancient rainforests. Having found coal inefficient, we turned to oil to fuel our battleships and labour saving devices.  As the ancient liquefied sunlight is used to fire the factories and Fords, the carbon is once again released into the atmosphere, million of years of it within the space of a few centuries. As it stands right now, there’s more carbon in the atmosphere now than there has been in 650,000 years (32), and we’re still releasing 22 billions tonnes of it annually. By changing the chemical makeup of the atmosphere so drastically we’re stopping excess heat from the Sun being bouncing back into space because the excess carbon acts like a chemical shield. In a nutshell, this is Global Warming.

It should be noted here that humans and greenhouse gasses have a very long relationship. Ice cores from Antarctica show that there was a huge increase in greenhouse gasses at the start of the first millennium, coinciding with the ascent of the Roman Empire and their decimation of the primordial forests of Europe (31). Similar finds in China indicate that their Neolithic ancestors also began incinerating trees 5000 years ago to fuel the ascent of their civilization (33). The more our panicky scientists learn, the more it seems that city-state societies like ours have been gobbling up disproportionate amounts of resources and shitting them back into the atmosphere since the Bronze Age. Only now that we’ve discovered fossil fuels, we’re doing it on fast forward with a thousand times the intensity, and only now with the advent of computers are we now beginning to understand the consequences of this.

These consequences come in the form of killjoy experts telling the government to cut carbon emissions and further penalise the ‘overtaxed motorist’.  We see hysterical scientists telling us that the ice caps are vanishing and the Gulf Stream is totally fucked. "At this rate, permanent ice will have disappeared before the end of this century," says NASA ice physicist Josefino Comiso. (1) "61 percent of the total of grade one land in England and Wales" will be consumed by the sea, says a report by the UK government's Energy Savings Trust (3). 

We’ve even had big budget films made on such subjects and still it doesn’t seem to sink it. “Bravo” we clap to ‘The Day After Tomorrow’ as the anthropomorphised frost chases hunky Jake Gyllenhall around the snazzy adventure. We momentarily entertain the notion that something like this could happed, but a miniature Saeed al-Sahaf sits on our shoulder whispering “Everything will be OK”. After all, it’s just a movie, and even if this did happen our southern Hemisphere neighbours, whom we’ve been so kind to for the last 500 years, will welcome us with open arms – it says so in the movie. But where Hollywood pens a happy ending, the Pentagon’s forecasts frenzied nuclear wars and famine. (35)

Show me the Carbon

“But it we’re releasing all of these ancient carbon deposits, surely there’d be more carbon in the atmosphere” a sceptic shouts from the back. Several years back it was a mystery where the ‘missing carbon’ was going. Now we know where; the sea. It appears the oceans have been doing their part to help global warming, by absorbing half of all CO2 emissions that have been released in the last 200 years. The good news is that the oceans have significantly lessened the impact of global warming, on the downside though, the seven seas are slowly turning into a vast ocean of acid. When CO2 dissolves in seawater, it forms carbonic acid, which in turn can dissolve the shells and skeletons of marine life. (11.) This rate of carbonisation is slowly raising the pH level of the planet’s water, a process which has not happened for millions of years. John Raven, at the University of Dundee believes that once the pH of the oceans “flips” to become acid “It will take many thousands of years for natural processes to return the oceans to their pre-industrial state.” (4.) 

There was something else that had been confuddling scientists for the last 10 years, if the world is getting warming, why has there been a 22% drop in solar energy reaching Earth? Boffins across the world have been quietly measuring something called the “Pan Evaporation Rate”, the low tech method of measuring how long it takes a pan of water to evaporate, and have discovered that the rate of evaporation has slowed by an average of 100ml in the last 30 years. As it turns out, it’s not so much temperature that makes water evaporate, its photons of sunlight hitting the water. It appears that all the ash, soot, vapour trails, sulphur dioxide and other pollutants dumped into the atmosphere by industrialised nations are gathering in clouds and causing them to become super dense, to act in effect like giant floating mirrors that bounce sunlight back into space. It’s a process called ‘global dimming’. 

So in another twisted irony, our pollutants are actually slowing global warming. Good news eh? Not if we cut back on pollution but don’t deal with carbon emissions. PR departments looking do dump bad news weren’t the only ones to find opportunity in 9/11. Climate scientist David Travis saw it as a once in a century opportunity to measure temperature change while the US skies were empty of all air traffic and their poisonous vapour trails. After chewing over data from over 5000 weather stations, he was astonished to find that there was an average temperature rise of 1 degree Celsius. This means almost nothing to the ordinary Joe, but to climate nerds this is a big deal – that means the temperature rose more in that three day period that it did over the last hundred years. That’s just by removing one type of pollution – what if tomorrow all those reflective toxic clouds disappeared? Current climate change models predict that global temperate will rise by 5 degrees Celsius in the next century, however if global dimming is reversed, it will rise by an enormous 10 degrees – the largest warming in planetary history. (26)

Dr Peter Cox at the Met Office believes that if global warming is not tackled in the next 10 to 15 years, if not sooner, global warming may become irreversible as soon as 2030.  By 2040 the heat will become so intense that jungle regions such as the Amazon rainforest may dry out and catch fire; the lungs of the Earth will become a vast cloud of carbon dioxide, accelerating global warming even further and leaving behind an arid desert.  Winter and summer would be replaced with flood and sandstorm seasons (26). Hotter climates such as the Middle East and Australia would become uninhabitable. 

By this time all the energy efficient bulbs in the world won’t save us. The heat will become so intense that it may kick off the meltdown of the 10,000 billion tons of methane hydrate sleeping quietly at the bottom of the poles (26). Methane hydrate, a weird type of combustible ice, is 10 times stronger that carbon dioxide and will accelerate the warming to absurd proportions. If this is released, it will make the planet hotter than it has been for 4 billion years, a time when the weather was so inhospitable that life was yet to evolve. 

Stripped bare like locusts

But to focus on global warming is perhaps ignoring the broader picture. Even if we woke up tomorrow to find our TV’s were powered by sunlight and our cars ran on good intentions, we’d still be in an awful mess. Its’ not just our energy of choice that’s the problem, it’s what it’s used for, it’s the mountains we dismantle to make cars, it’s the trees we tear down to make mahogany cupboards, it’s the freakish byproducts we don’t even know exist. But at the heart of it all, it’s fetish for the New that drives the insatiable machine. Entrepreneur and environmental activist Paul Hawken wrote in his 1994 book “The Ecology of Commerce”;

We are drawing down resources that took millions of years to create in order to supplement current consumption. This is the ecological perspective of the industrial age; we cannot hold onto it indefinitely, in fact industrialism itself may not last for more than one human lifetime. At present, to compensate for the limitations based on production by the carrying capacity of the environment, we are speeding up the rate at which we fish, farm, deforest and extract. In other words, rather than facing the creative challenges posed by ecosystem limits, we are temporarily bypassing the problem by harvesting resources more rapidly, by driftnetting, mechanical deforestation, and factory farming. (18)

Currently we in the cosy West, numbering little over half a billion people use 40% of the planet’s production capacity to support our couch potato lifestyles. As we speak the world’s two most populous nations, India and China, are constructing superhighways and industrial infrastructures in anticipation of the same standard of living. That’s a further 2 billion people requiring around 4 times the resources we’re presently using, not taking into account increases in the standard of living and population growth. Using even 70% of the planet’s production capacity may well provoke an ecological catastrophe, (18) but the WWF warn that by 2050 we will need several new planets identical to Earth to quench our thirst for resources. (17)  It would appear that Gandhi was spot on when he mused over what would happen if India industrialised; 

“God forbid that India should ever take to industrialism after the manner of the west... keeping the world in chains. If [our nation] took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts.”

But at least Locusts are efficient in their devastation, humans, for all their fancy machines and preposterous Six Sigma philosophies, waste the vast proportion of what they destroy.  Our society is like a vast machine that rips up nature and replaces it with hazardous waste, and much of the time it’s almost like the product itself is the byproduct. Put it this way, the average westerner consumes about 136 pounds of resources per week, but in doing this discards 2000 pounds of waste, a ratio which would be almost comical if the consequences weren’t so severe. Household waste which isn’t packed into landfills is incinerated, just pumped into the sky and forgotten. A study of a single incineration plant in New Jersey found that by burning 2,250 tons of waste per day would emit annually; 5 tons of lead, 17 tons of mercury 580 tons of cadmium, 2,248 tons of nitrous oxide, 853 tons of sulphur dioxide and 87 tons of sulphuric acid. (18) To support our consumption of food, we release 4.1 billion pounds of pesticides into the environment every year (18), which are classified as waste the moment they are deployed. On paper they cease to exist at that very moment, just vanish, flushed down the memory hole. 

The post war world appears to be a series of increasingly alarming case studies in the lack of human foresight.  Eggheads in the 1950s got a bit excited with breakthroughs in molecular science, and so did the companies that fed their children. Funky new chemicals were dreamt up in labs across the world, and as soon as a commercial application was found, be that killing insects (DDT), stopping morning sickness (Thalidomide) or hunting gooks (Agent Orange) they were mass produced filtered through the biosphere without a care in the world. 

Take chlorine, a now everyday chemical derived from brine. This totally artificial element is volatile and can become extremely toxic when linked to other molecules, especially hydrocarbons. The chlorine-hydrocarbon family of chemicals are known as organochlorines, and have been used in everything from pesticides, poisons and artificial sweeteners. (20) However, organochlorines do not appear anywhere else in the known universe, and because of this our bodies have no means of dealing with them. So they’re not metebolised and just build up in the body, something now called “bio-accumulation”. This bio-accumulation of organochlorines has been shown to result in infertility, immune suppression, birth defects, cancer and neurological disorders. (18) 

Despite being banned in Europe and the US since the 70’s organochlorines such as DDT (a derivative of nerve gas) are still being found in humans. Environmental Research Institute Commonweal recently carried out a toxilogical analysis of various Californians via hair, blood and urine samples. All of them had abnormal traces of DDT in their system, alongside mercury and the flame retardant PBDE. (21) And it not just adults either, studies now show that the unborn are already riddled with this molecular level toxic waste. Pieter Sauer at the University Hospital Groningen in the Netherlands has analysed dozens of samples of umbilical cord and discovered that antibacterial agents, pesticides, flame-retardants, detergents, pesticides and plasticizers flowing through the bloodstream from mother to child. "What we don't know is what the long-term effects of these substances are”, he says (2). It would seem that bio-accumulation has now become hereditary. 

The dead zones

Of course it is not just humans who are affected by this shall we say ‘forgetful’ attitude to waste; the arbitrary dumping of these chemicals also has disastrous effects on wildlife, who frankly seem too doped up on the toxins to care. Birds affected by the insecticide dicrotophos appear to be becoming mentally retarded, or at the very least severely depressed. They’ve displayed a 50% drop in normal bird-like activity; the usual stuff like singing, building nests, hiding from cats and or being bothered to look for food.  Newts tanked up on endosulfan stumble round swamps completely unable to detect the pheromones of potential mates (10) while crabs tripping out on chlordane clumsily try to fuck rocks. (18) Similarly confused behaviour has been noticed in gulls, snails, quails, rats and macaques, minnows, mosquito fish, falcons, frogs and a kaleidoscope of other hapless creatures. 

But weird sex lives are the least of the wildlife’s worries. For over a decade turtles have been washing up on the shores of Indonesia and the Gulf of Mexico with baseball sized tumours. In the 1990s a beluga whale washed up on the shores of the St Lawrence, Canada, its body so riddled with poisons and cancers that it’s corpse had to be classified as toxic waste. (18) The St Lawrence River is, coincidentally, a dumping ground for amongst other things, PCBs and heavy metals such as lead, mercury, and cadmium (19) 

In fact a huge proportion of waterways in the northern Hemisphere are horrendously polluted. The 1998 UN World Development Report noted that 40% of water bodies in the US were “not deemed fit for World distribution of hydropower recreational use due to nutrient, metal and agricultural pollution”. It also noted that only 5 out of 55 largest rivers in Europe are now considered “pristine”, and only the upper sections of the largest rivers retain “good ecological status”. (22) In North America every year 6.5 million metric tonnes of fertilisers, pesticides and other exotic chemicals are pumped into the Mississippi, which snakes down the continent to a place in the Gulf of Mexico now called the “dead zone”, because it’s now devoid of all life except the hardiest of primeval bacteria. (23) Similar dead zones exist in Europe, Asia and Oceania, and all of them are growing at a terrifying rate.

“I call it the Burns Omni-Net…” 

In Indonesia’s largest Island Sumatra 60% of the rainforests have been torn down in the last century, most of it during the reign of commie murdering thug General Suharto, who divvied up the entire country for western companies to replace with pesticide soaked rubber plantations.  Even today an area the size of Belgium is wiped out every year so the West quench is thirst for palm oil and novelty erasers. Astonishingly though, much of the 100 million year old jungle is torn down not for wood, but for farmland to feed our hunger for quarter pounders and spinal cord sausages. In these cases the wood is not turned not lumber, it is simply burned to make fertiliser. And on the subject of fertiliser…

It is well known that trees, especially those in tropical rainforests, produce much of the oxygen you’re breathing at this very moment. It is less well known that trees perform another equally vital role in creating fertile soil. Not only do they siphon water down into the soil, but they draw up important minerals from lower depths. When they die, they decay and become the bulk of the rich topsoil that feeds the rest of the ecosystem. Topsoil, for you non-green fingered types, is where the majority of the Earth’s biological activity (i.e life) occurs. However it takes about 400 years of this process to create a foot of topsoil, and due to deforestation we lose around 300 tons of topsoil every minute. (23) 

According to the UN Environment Programme, we’re losing 108 million acres of productive, fertile land annually. To combat this we irrigate soil with water from subterranean deposits, a quick-fix method which depletes water reserves and ultimately decreases fertility due to build-ups of excess salt.  (18) The US, a major crop exporter, has lost around a third of it topsoil in the last 50 years, and the same is now happening in Latin America, Indonesia and virtually every other ecologically diverse site on Earth. The net result is that forests are slowly but surely turning into desert at the rate of 1500 acres an hour. (23)

This is again not good news for wildlife, whose habitats we are being decimated. This, combined with the aforementioned pollution, has had devastating effects on biodiversity. Even the word “devastating” seems somehow inadequate in describing these rates of extinction. Every living system on earth is in decline, depending on who you ask, rates of extinction are between 1000 and 10,000 times grater that of the “background level”. We are currently losing 27,000 species a year (18 and the rates are accelerating fast. Professor Peter Crane of The Royal Society believes "The living world is disappearing before our eyes” (14), a view echoed in a 1998 survey by the American Museum of Natural History, which found that 70% of biologists view the present era as part of a mass extinction event (25), or to give it its full title, the “Holocene Extinction Event”. 

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that areas currently earmarked for ‘development’ are amongst the most ecologically diverse areas on Earth. One such area is Panama’s tropical forest, a “biodiversity bottleneck” between North and South America. Due to its location it is a major stopover for migratory birds, the tiny sliver of forest containing more species that the entire European continent. Dr Bill Laurance, an ecologist from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama explains that "As a bio-geographic meeting point between North and South America and the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, plant and animal life in this small area of forest is hyper-diverse," (13) However the area is to be logged and the land used to develop not farmland, not plantations, but luxury villas and supermarkets.  

Land animals and birds are getting a good deal compared to what we’re doing to aquatic life. In 1994, over a decade ago, a study by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation concluded that 70% of fish stocks were “overfished” (going) or “fully exhausted” (gone). In 2003 the results of a 50 year study of five separate sea basins was published in Nature magazine, and concluded that over 90% of large predatory fish such as Tuna and Swordfish have disappeared since the advent of industrialisation. (23)  Nitin Desai, Secretary General of the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development claims that “The depletion of fisheries poses a major threat to the food supply of millions of people”. In the last decade, in the north Atlantic, commercial fish populations of cod, hake and haddock have fallen by as much as 95%. (12)  

The War Against Terra

While the above unfolds and nature its hacked, burned and poisoned to death before us we remain troubled at best, preferring to concern ourselves with our personal melodramas or geekish escapisms. While you’d expect the fate of life itself to be daily front page news, instead we’re cowering from paedophilic bogeymen and lunatic Muslim cults.  The environment perhaps gets a token mention in election manifestos, but is buried beneath cynical screeds of scapegoating and formulaic straw man arguments designed by computer to target floating voters who, quite understandably, can’t tell one bunch of cross-fingered tricksters from the next. But we’re also to blame. Saving the planet is electorally unpopular because it requires us to change our indulgent, wasteful ways, the thing we and our whole society seems to cherish above all else. Who’d vote for that? We’re riding the rapids of shit creek and all we’re concerned about whether the boat matches our shoes. Paddles aren’t even an issue. 

To climb on a soapbox, its time we awoke from our debt amassing dreamworlds and stopped mining deeper and deeper into corporate sponsored fantasies.  We need to stop using that booze soaked slop of neurons between our ears to project some half-baked self image to co-workers and apply its precious processing power to some serious old fashioned problem solving.  The clowns and thieves in charge of our respective power structures are too busy comparing bell-ends to make anything more than token gestures regarding the environment, which means it’s up to us. And if we don’t?  

If we don’t, by the time the seas are just barren, acidic cocktails of carcinogens and artificial hormones, by the time you’re eating nail clippings and radioactive strays to stay alive, by the time the weather has been confused to senility and you wonder why winter has lasted for the last eight solid years, you won’t be the self scripted hero of your own life adventure. Not even the hapless comedy sidekick. Instead you’ll be an aging extra in the pathetic waste of evolution that was mankind. A withered cancer infested invalid watching the world crumble before your eyes, sickened with the knowledge that you could have done something about it if you weren’t so busy watching Cribs.  


1. Arctic to lose all summer ice by 2100 (New Scientist), 04 December 2002

2. Toxins transferred to unborn children (New Scientist), 10 September 2005

3. Climate change threatens London's future – report (Reuters) September 15, 2002

4. Marine crisis looms over acidifying oceans (New Scientist) 30 June 2005

5. Global warming is a 'clear and increasing threat' (New Scientist) 08 June 2005

6. Seabirds ingest bellyfuls of plastic pollution (New Scientist) 08 January 2005

7. Clouds of pollution pictured from space (New Scientist) 18 November 2004

8. China's changing farms damaging soil and water (New Scientist) 18 September 2004

9. European deaths from air pollution set to rise (New Scientist) 07 September 2004

10. Pollution triggers bizarre behaviour in animals (New Scientist) 03 September 2004

11. Seas absorb half of carbon dioxide pollution (New Scientist) 15 July 2004

12. Overfishing: a threat to marine biodiversity (UN) 22 August 2005

13. Builders threaten Panama forests (BBC) 23 March 2005

14. Wake-up call on extinction wave (BBC) 19 May 2003

15. Clock ticking for Indonesian rainforest (BBC) 30 August 2002

16. Amazon destruction speeds up (BBC) 27 June 2003

17. Earth 'will expire by 2050' (Guardian) 7July 2002
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18. The Ecology of Commerce (Paul Hawken) 1994
19. Beluga Whales: Longevity and Causes of Death (Sea World)

20. Organochlorine compound (Wikipedia)

21. People filled with toxins, study finds (AP) Aug. 30, 2005
22. The UN World Development Report (United Nations)

23: The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight (Thom Hartmann) 2004  

24. Holocene extinction event (Wikipedia)

25 Extinction Event  (Wikipedia)

26 Global Dimming (BBC Horizon)

27. The Dangers of the Bio-Tech Industry

28. Junk Science (Source Watch)

29. The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition (Source Watch)

30. The Greening Earth Society vs The State of the World (CEM)

31. Ancient humans ‘altered’ climate

32. CO2 ‘highest for 650,000 years’

33. Greenhouse effect occurred 5000 years ago: archeologists

34. Sting Interview (The Daily Mail)

34. Pentagon Climate Change Report.