‘On the last day of the world / I would want to plant a tree’ wrote US Poet Laureate WS Merwin. Indeed, sometimes it feels like the whole world is burning, and to act in the spirit of hope is to plant a whole forest.
An everyday review of news headlines reports fires across the globe – record temperatures, drought. Australia’s a classic example of an extreme environment made even more extreme by both local land and energy use, and anthropogenic climate change at global level. Unfortunately for Australia, as one of the worst contributors per capita to climate change and greenhouse gas emissions through its reliance on coal fired power generation, its chickens are coming home to roost. It’s more surprising, and a scary portent, that the Port Hills of Christchurch have been aflame this week, along with parts of Hawke’s Bay. Many of us are used to seeing the backdrop to Christchurch dry as cardboard in summer, but when it’s on fire and burning houses, you realise human environmental impacts and climate change got real.
A huge mass of ice sheet is about to cleave off Antarctica, and last year, the Arctic was up to 20 degrees warmer than in the more stable recent past. Even the ocean’s deepest places, the Mariana and Kermadec trenches, are host to the world’s worst chemicals, at a scale equal to the world’s most polluted industrial sites, according to scientists in the Guardian. A news report showed a can of spam on the seabed 5km deep. The crustaceans from the deepest trenches contain 10 times the industrial pollution of the average earthworm. Recent reports calculated that there are about 6000 pieces of rubbish per km2 even in the Arctic.
At various locations around the world, sudden tree collapse is killing hundreds of thousands of trees – whole forests. Manmade deforestation of course kills a whole lot more. Then there’s the very finite nature of global species, and depopulation – extinction – of much of the world’s wild living wonder. Leopards are just one of the recent high profile species added to the long ‘going, going, gone’ list of endangered biodiversity in the current era. Previously common animals like the polar bear, hippo and gazelle are now threatened. Some scientists reckon extinctions will peak around 2060, because there will be hardly any more species to lose. We’re losing them before many are even discovered. Once species are lost, they’re gone forever.
Meanwhile, closer to home, swimming at many of Auckland’s beaches poses a health risk because of our unreformed habit of flushing toilet waste into streams and harbours. South Island lakes and rivers have dried up into algal cess pits devoid of life, and neither ‘wadeable’, or ‘swimmable’, diminished because of our habit of denuding landscapes, using land right up to rivers’ edges, indirectly flushing agricultural waste into streams and rivers.
Even if the many perpetrators of these environmental and social crimes had the best intentions, these issues would take as long to repair as they have taken to create – about since the industrial revolution, and especially since the second world war. Halting our destruction of nature would require champions, sacrifice from most of us, ‘buy-in’, major long-term commitment, action toward reducing environmental harm. But we’re in a profit driven economy where land and water and life are commodified and at the same time, go largely unpriced, undervalued, invisible; gifts from the world to the capitalists. Repair, would require a whole different model.
The whole planet seems overpopulated with people but wealth and health are distributed unevenly. Anger, fear and greed are fostered by ‘leaders’ in the media and society. What’s the future for human and non-human life and ecosystems?
Today’s problems are systemic and seem intractable. The ‘human asteroid’ is on a full speed collision course with a sustainable future. Human behaviour has caused a tragic distortion to the biosphere; the Anthropocene, now in a ‘great acceleration’ of change.
I’m going outside to plant some trees.