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Wednesday 23 January 2019

Apocalypse ignored

We know all about the ecological holocaust ahead. But, hey, why should we bother if it’s happening so slowly?

By Simon Barnes

Let’s not worry about global warming. After all, it’s happened before, and the Earth recovered. A series of volcanic eruptions in Siberia caused a release of carbon dioxide and methane. Greenhouse gases. As a result, all the rainforests were destroyed, their beneficial effect was lost and the soil they once stood in eroded away. The oceans lost their oxygen; 96 per cent of all species were wiped out.

And yet the earth recovered. The snag is, it took 20 million years. Humans have been walking upright for about three million years; civilisation began in the Fertile Crescent 12,000 years ago.

In other words, it may be a good idea to cut down on greenhouse emissions. Last year carbon emissions reached a record high. Might we recreate a repeat of that great extinction, which took place 251 million years ago? Last November David Attenborough was invited to take a “people’s seat” at the UN Climate Conference in Katowice. He said climate change is “our greatest threat in thousands of years”. This week, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, he told business leaders and politicians: “We need to move beyond guilt or blame and get on with the practical tasks at hand.”

Remember the Black Death? World war? Ethiopian famine? Well, it’s going to get a great deal worse.

COLLART Hervé/Sygma via Getty Images)

The Amazon rainforest is under threat and consequently so is the world’s climate balance

It’s not in our nature to notice such things. It’s not how we are made. You’d notice if the big oak tree in front of your house was cut down, but you wouldn’t notice if someone planted an acorn on your lawn, or care very much that in 200 years it will undermine your foundations. You don’t say: look! The oak tree grew an inch this month!

Our senses, and by extension our news media, are not tuned in to the slow, the subtle and cumulative. It follows that our politicians – our leaders – aren’t either. For them, a week of Brexit frenzy is a geological age and five years is an eternity. Only the Vatican thinks in centuries. We are aware of the ecological holocaust: we just don’t take it very seriously. It’s just too slow.

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A power station in Germany

In 1962, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was published: generally accepted as the start of the green movement. Environmentalists have been accused of spreading alarm and despondency ever since. But when there’s a pack of ravening carnivores outside your village, it’s a good idea to do something when someone cries “Wolf!”

Here is a pack of wolves:

Air pollution

If we didn’t have greenhouse gases, life wouldn’t exist at all. We need warmth to sustain life. But it’s getting warmer. Since the start of the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century there’s 40 per cent more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. There is also a great deal more methane, most of it expelled by the 1.4 billion cattle we currently have on earth. We might just turn out to be the first species that ever managed to fart itself to extinction.


Great forests absorb carbon dioxide and expel oxygen, which is good news for all members of the animal kingdom. We now have about 40 per cent of rainforest left. This level of reduction is foolish enough but – astonishingly – we are continuing to chop down forests. We are putting more carbon into the atmosphere and at the same time destroying the mechanism for dealing with it. We’ve got the climate in a pincer movement.

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A Hummingbird hovering next to lily flowers

Species extinction

The hard-nosed assumption of too many political leaders is that this is mere sentimentality. Non-human life is treated as a luxury we can no longer afford. So we are destroying pollinators, who are responsible for one in every three mouthfuls of food we eat. There is also evidence that life on Earth depends on the bafflingly complex web of diversity. That assumption might be wrong but as the great scientist Edward O Wilson said: “One planet, one experiment.”

Soil degradation

We have lost half the planet’s topsoil in the last 150 years, and we are working our way through the rest by the process of erosion and degradation. Some crops actually increase erosion: coffee, cotton, palm oil, soybean and wheat. What will we do when it’s all gone?


About 10,000 years ago, humans and their domestic animals constituted 0.1 per cent of animal biomass. Today the figure is 90 per cent. The current human population is 7.3 billion; UN estimates suggest that the figure will be 9 billion by 2050 and 11 billion by 2100. This is the crisis that dare not speak its name; if there is an answer it lies in the education and empowerment of women.

That’s enough good news. The rest is worse. And as nature is relegated to the peripheries, so human lives become increasingly impoverished and unhappy, drowning in an anoxic sea of unregarded warnings. Perhaps the Earth will borrow the epitaph of Spike Milligan: “I told you I was ill.”

Or as Attenborough told his audience in Katowice: “Leaders of the world, you must lead.” His great speech was greeted with … polite applause.


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Chinese commuters crowd onto a subway car on the metro during rush hour