Trashing the Planet

For an updated account of Biodiversity Holocaust please refer to:
The Rape of the Planet and Genetic Holocaust
in our 2006 work Sexual Paradox

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Air Pollution, Acid Rain and the Dying Forests

Neither is air pollution a new phenomenon. The very greyness of the industrial revolution was typified by shocking levels of air pollution across the heartland of the British Isles. Many of the larger cities of today from Los Angeles to Bangkok and Mexico City suffer extremes of air pollution from a cocktail of industrial chemicals from nitrogen oxides and sulphur dioxide through small particulates from diesel to excessive ozone. Such urban air pollution constitutes a severe health hazard to entire populations who have to work in such environments, particularly children. Some areas of Eastern Europe are still as polluted as the worst episodes of the industrial past and large cities in developing countries with a high proportion of 2-stroke vehicles regularly have toxic levels of contaminants. For such populations, a heavily contaminated world is the norm.

A variety of measures from electrostatic precipitation to catalytic converters are used to reduce industrial and automobile air pollution. One of the simplest most direct ways of reducing air pollution would be to invest in renewable energy technologies. Hydroelectricity, wind power, solar power, hydrogen and fuel cells are all clean technologies of the future.

Associated with air pollution are a variety of detrimental effects on whole ecosystems. Of particular note is the effect of acid rain on temperate forests such as those of Europe where fragmentation and the effects of acid rain combine to push many forests towards degeneration and decomposition.

Gold mining (Amazon) causes mercury contamination of waterways.
Smokey Mountains Manilla Diverse chemical pollution. (Porritt 126)

The Proliferation of Refuse and Plastics and the Dying Oceans

One of the central manifestations of humanity is refuse, an entropic disorganised mess of potentially valuable items many of which are reusable or recyclable mixed in with other useless or toxic materials in a way which causes severe headaches to disentangle. Smokey Mountains, the famous rubbish dump in Manilla is perhaps the epitomes of something which is common to every civilized centre in the world.

The proliferation of refuse causes not only chemical contamination and the loss of valuable reusable resources, but the production of biohazards which can be lethal to a variety of forms of wildlife. Plastic containers, discarded fishing nets and other industrial items litter our oceans and shorelines carrying away with them a variety of wildlife from sea birds such as the albatross to the great turtle species. Such prolitteration is an unnecessary result of mass-marketing disposable commercialization. A society which litters in this way is transient. There are a variety of organic, biodegradable or even frankly edible 'plastics' now being produced from biological sources such as maize which could replace the heavily contaminating plastics sourced from the oil industry.

Two forms of biodiversity pollution: Left: Introduced mustelid ferret killing an endemic rare native bird. Mustelids have evolved to become selectively indiscriminate killers of wildlife diversity (King Caroline). Right: Polio virus was grown in rhesus monkeys and became extensively contaminated with simian virus SV40, a carcinogenic virus. Whole human populations became exposed (Watson et. al pl 8.).

Biodiversity Pollution

Biodiversity pollution is a less recognised menace, but one which is one of the single most devastating causes of biodiversity loss on a planet-wide scale. Exotic species are transferred in huge numbers and varieties from one habitat to another. Often these directly take the place of wild species through intentional human action, as plantations, farms or crops, however in other cases, weeds, new predators and diseases are introduced to habitats in which they never before existed, often with devastating results.

Weedy species take over from rare endemic ones, choking whole habitats with a single dominant species. Introduced herbivores, with no natural predators explode in population until whole native forests are consumed. Predators such as mustelids destroy many different bird species at once by systematically eating all the eggs produced until the birds die of old age.

On a different scale, the world is plagued by whole new types of global epidemic disease, both of humans and of our agricultural crops, as a result of high populations, rapid movement and transfer of infectious agents, monoculture of commercial varieties which have lowered natural resistance and the emergence of resistant strains of organism. While we have not been infested with plague in the 20th century, resistant forms of malaria are becoming rampant, flu epidemics have carried away even more people than plague, HIV which appears to have evolved from a disease of monkeys has become a global epidemic whose end is not in sight, and antibiotic resistance threatens to undo the entire revolution of the magic bullet. Other worrying outbreaks of heamorrhagic viruses such as ebola have occurred, both in primate laboratories and in human populations. Outbreaks of antibiotic-resistant pathogens are often transferred to several continents before being discovered. Early polio vaccine was contaminated with simian virus SV40 leading to whole human populations becoming inoculated with this carcinogenic monkey virus. SV40 is now associated with mesothelioma in combination with asbestos pollution.

A singular example of biodiversity pollution was the development of mad cow disease through feeding ground-up animals to other animals in a manner which may have converted a natural protein prion associated with the disease scrapie in sheep to a much more virulent form in cattle. The manner in which this irresponsible process became standard farming procedure for many years and still lingers in the ecosystem despite several years of draconian attempts to stamp it out, including wholesale slaughter, emphasizes how little confidence can be placed by the consumer in corner-cutting industrial methods introduced into agriculture and farming. The wanton use of antibiotics as growth-promoters is another burning fuse which could spring to light at any time.

Genetic pollution: Left: Cloned teak trees are planned to replace 250,000 hectares of Indonesia's wilderness a year (New Scientist 23 Aug 1997). The very resources of genetic diversity from which such clones come is thus eliminated in the process of establishing a dominant monoculture. Where will the subsequent clones come from, when evolving disease strikes the genetically-uniform crop? Right: Genetically-engineered Maize has three additional genetic components not present in the natural form, herbicide resistance, a bacillus thurigensis gene conferring pest resistance, and finally a free-loading antibiotic resistance gene left over from the development process. The widespread use of such maize thus runs a risk on several fronts. It could harm pollinating insects. It could replace the natural variety leading to the loss of natural genomes. But it could also cause the spread of antibiotic resistance genes into other organisms (New Scientist 4 Jan 97).

Genetic Pollution and Biotechnology

The newest form of pollution and without doubt the most pernicious and dangerous is genetic pollution, resulting from the widespread dissemination of genes from one organism to another through the uncontrolled use of genetic engineering techniques in combination with natural avenues of gene transfer in the wild.

Although gene technology was first treated with great care and caution, virtually all regulatory controls have now been released and particularly in the U.S. a systematic process of industrial counter-intelligence is under way to try to force on to the market in advance of any ethical decision by the consumer, products and processes which could forever change the nature not only of our food plants but ourselves. The following ethical issues are merely indicative.

Genetically-engineered foods are frequently contaminated with antibiotic resistance genes as markers. The genetic information for antibiotic resistance is thus disseminated across a vast productive area of the planet where other natural genetic engineering such as occurs through viral exchange could release these factors as infectious agents.

Valuable genes, which confer pest resistance in a bacterium or a few species of plant, are transferred ad-hoc to a wide variety of our food plants, where they have the potential to cause all manner of serious problems, starting with causing infertility because of damage to pollinating insects and ending with super-resistant predators and parasites.

Genes for a variety of unrelated species are engineered into other species with unforeseen results. For example a gene from Brazil nuts, which are frequently allergenic, was inserted into soya beans to make them richer in their distribution of amino acids. However the key protein the gene coded for proved to be the very one causing the allergy. The process was only then terminated. In New Zealand, a nitrogen-fixing bacterium was merged into a saprophytic pine fungus. The engineered variety became pathological and infested the pines, leading to a scare of a fungus epidemic of our productive exotic plantations.

The single most worrying new phenomenon is the development of the so-called terminator gene - the death of the immortal germ line. This gene, seen as the elixir of permanent profit by gene tech companies causes all seeds grown after the first generation to become infertile, thus rendering genetically-engineered varieties unable to be grown in perpetuity. In this sense they are no longer living creatures.

The invasion of major areas of the planet flooded with such species-unrelated genes could easily lead to dissemination of such a genie out of the bottle of the cultivated species and into wild relatives, where the effects are almost impossible to predict.

With these changes comes the ultimate form of genetic pollution - genetic cloning which replaces natural biodiversity and all the almost infinite variation this implies with a mechanical replicon, carrying no new combinations for future disease resistance and completely lacking the variation necessary to sustain a future world whose conditions may be substantially different form our own. Catastrophe could happen because of any natural or astronomical crisis or just the failure of a few germ-plasm banks holding world stocks of the natural varieties or by the contamination of all natural varieties with genes form the engineered ones.

Really the biggest danger of all is that, simply because of the onrush of such technologies, with no proper ethical consideration by the consuming public, we will lose the natural varieties of food species upon which we have always depended for our survival in evolutionary time. If this should happen, it is likely that, within a short time, humanity will become extinct. It is thus our duty in this generation of all generations to ensure this does a not happen and that natural diversity and the continuity of life from one generation to the next is sustained.

Existing deserts (yellow) and new areas threatened with desertification (brown).
Global warming will exacerbate existing trends in several of these areas (Lean 54-5).

Desertification and Loss of Productive land and Forest (Lean 53)

Both as a result of exploitation of marginal arid land for pasture and firewood, and as a result of climate change, the world's deserts are spreading, extending over more and more land. Desertification threatens about one third of the world's land surface and affects the lives of some 850 million people. By comparison with the world's tropical forests the world's deserts are vastly more extensive.

Desert landscapes vary a great deal, from the hot wastelands of the Middle East and the sea of sand around the Gulf of Arabia and parts of the Sahara, to the high, cold deserts of the Andes. Despite being covered with snow, the Antarctic is also sometimes referred to as a frozen desert because its annual precipitation amounts to only a few centimeters. Whether too high and cold, too hot and sandy, or too rocky and impassable, deserts all have one thing in common: their poor soils and/or harsh low-precipitation climates make farming and agriculture impossible, without massive and expensive imports of water, fertilizers, fodder and labor.

Virtually every continent is affected by spreading desertification, sometimes thousands of kilometers away from the margins of the Sahara, Gobi, Atacama and the other so-called true deserts. The situation has been accurately likened to a skin disease in which existing eruptions worsen and coalesce with new outbreaks of the disease.

The five main causes of desertification:

People have been creating deserts since the beginning of settled agriculture, 10,000 years ago. Nearly the whole of Mesopotamia - the once fertile crescent lying between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers - is now desert. Yet 4,000 years ago, it was the cradle of civilization; an area that supported tens of thousands of people and nurtured the world's first true cities, outside China. Centuries of over-use, combined with poor irrigation techniques, sterilized the land and was the main cause of the civilization's collapse.

"UNEP estimates that some 3.3 billion hectares of the world's rangeland, rain-fed cropland and irrigated land - an area about the size of North and South America combined - is under assault by desertification. About 63 per cent of all rangelands - 2.6 billion hectares - are affected to one degree or another. Likewise, just over 60 per cent of the world's rainfed croplands - 347 million hectares - are subject to desertification, along with 30 per cent (roughly 40 million hectares) of the world's irrigated lands. Every year 6 million hectares of productive land are lost altogether and another 21 million hectares - an area the size of the State of Kansas - are so impoverished that they are no longer worth farming or grazing. If present trends continue, by the year 2000 desertification could threaten the livelihoods of 1.2 billion people worldwide" (Lean 53).

Grazing by wild goats has contributed to major productive areas becoming desert, including ancient areas of civilization from Afghanistan to the fertile crescent. Shar-i-gholghola in the Sistan region of Afghanistan was a fertile centre until irrigation canals fell into ruin. Firewood cropping can strip remaining foliage from arid regions hastening their desertification (Ayensu, Ayensu, Porritt 36). This has extended the Sahara.

Accelerating Desertification

Desertification is to be accelerating in diverse areas of the planet from sub-Saharan Africa, Mediterranean Africa, the Middle East, through Western Asia (from Iran to Bangla-desh), South Asia, to the Western United States, and parts of South America and Mexico. "Over the last half century, some 65 million hectares of Africa south of the Sahara have been turned to desert. In Mali, the desert has spread 350 kilometers south in just 20 years, in the Sudan it has advanced 100 kilometers in 17. About 78 million people now have to cope with severely degraded land" (Lean 53).

Africa has particularly fragile soils. Only a fifth of them are free from inherent limitations on their fertility and, are generally low in organic matter and clay and so erode easily. The harsh climate, including long periods of drought effecting up to two-thirds of the continent, interspersed with precipitate rains, makes the continent particularly susceptible to desertification. "Even in "normal years" the rains are highly erratic. Over the past 15 years, average annual rainfall in the West African countries of Mali, Senegal, Burkina Faso and Niger has been significantly less than over the half century between 1934 and 1984 as a whole" (Lean 53).

Traditionally, African farmers rotated their crops and rested their most vulnerable land, letting it lie fallow for up to 20 years at a time as a means to adapt to these difficult conditions. But the carrying capacity of the land is coming under increasing strain. By 1980 the northernmost parts of West Africa were already unable to support the demands placed upon them for fuelwood and agriculture, with seven countries approaching the limits of what they could stand.

Increasing population and decreasing rainfall has forced farmers onto marginal land. In many countries, appropriation of the better land by wealthy landowners has made matters worse. Subsistence farmers become obliged to sacrifice their futures and the future of the land on which they live to grow enough food to meet their families' immediate needs, then becoming destitute as their land erodes away. Fallow periods are reduced and more land is cleared for growing food, reducing fuelwood supplies and grazing area. Finally, the topsoil itself turns to dust and blows away. At the height of the Sahelian drought of the early 1970s, three times as much dust - precious topsoil - was blown across the Atlantic to Barbados, 4,700 kilometers away. Similar winds are eroding huge areas of Australia which have been the subject of unwise mechanised agriculture practices, giving an equally gloomy prediction for the future of one of colonialism's brightest historical frontiers.

"Ethiopia's highlands, the scene of repeated famines, used to be rich and fertile; they supported agrarian-based societies for millennia . Since 1900, more than 90 per cent of the forests of the highlands have been cut down. Every year almost a billion metric tons of topsoil are washed away. Already 20,000 square kilometers of land have lost so much that they can no longer grow crops, and this is expected to increase to 100,000 hectares over the next 25 years. When the Soviet Union opened up the "new lands" with irrigation, more than 7 million hectares of marginally productive land were turned into near-desert. Salinization and alkalinization sterilized the soils, rendering them unfit for food production. All water contains salts. If irrigated soils are not drained properly, the salts build up in the root zones of the crops, killing them and ruining the soil. Rehabilitating such land can cost billions of dollars" (Lean 56).

Although it is regarded as the last pristine frontier, Antarctica is a water-laden desert because of its inclement climate. It already has refuse accumulating around the few research stations and problems with ultra-violet damage to phyto-plankton and other life from the ozone hole (Porritt 87).

Turning Back the Deserts

Deserts can be turned back provided the initiative is taken to mobilize local communities and national resources. Cohesive action mounted by governments to support the initiatives of local communities to halt desertification and begin ecological reclamation of desert regions can be done without excessive costs. Where local people have been given responsibility for their pasture, water or fuelwood needs - in combination with relevant government programs - wonders have been worked.

"Although the UN claims that at least $4.5 billion is needed annually for the next 20 years to halt desertification and reclaim degraded land, much has been done with little money. In northern China, over the last decade, a "great green wall", rivalling the Great Wall built to keep out rampaging Mongols, has been planted in an effort to hold off the advancing desert and to stabilize badly eroded uplands. Known officially as the San Bei forest belt, it will eventually cover 3.5 million square kilometers, stretching in a wide arc across the dry hills. So far, local communities, assisted by government experts and supervisors, have managed to plant a forest belt 7,000 kilometers long and 400-1,700 kilometers wide. Nearly 8 million hectares of crop- land in this region are now protected by such shelter forests, and annual grain harvests have increased by 13 per cent. Although total forest cover in northern China has risen from 4 to 6 per cent, the amount of money spent by the Chinese Government was a mere $600,000. Despite setbacks in some areas, where seedlings were not tended properly and died, the project is an example of what political commitment can accomplish in partnership with local communities" (Lean 56).

"In Rajasthan, India, imported acacia trees from the Middle East were used to stabilize 60,000 hectares of sand dunes. And in parts of West Africa, the kad tree (Acacia albida) was used to revitalize exhausted cropland and pasture. Not only does the tree have leaves during the dry season, giving shade when it is most needed, but it also buffers the wind, fixes nitrogen from the air (increasing the yield of crops around it) and provides fuelwood. Its pods and seeds provide protein-rich fodder for cattle and goats. In Kenya, farmers - mostly women - have planted trees around croplands to reduce wind erosion. In Haiti, 35 million trees have been planted. Simple lines of stones placed in fields in Burkina Faso have trapped soil that would otherwise have been washed away, raising crop yields by 50 per cent" (Lean 56).

Just as we need to preserve the world's great tropical and temperate forests, we likewise urgently need to heal the desertification of the planet to sustain its potential abundance for the future.

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