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What Price the Planet?


Al Gore, An Inconvenient Truth, Bloomsbury, 2006, 324 pages, ISBN 978-

0747589068, £14.99


Steve Jones, Coral: A Pessimist in Paradise, Little Brown, 2007, 242 pages,

ISBN 978-0316729383, £15.99


Larry Lohman, Carbon Dating in Development Dialogue, no. 48, September 2006, 360 pages, Hammarskjold Foundation, Sweden


Colin Leys & Leo Panich, Coming to Terms with Nature, Socialist Register,

2007, 364 pages, Merlin Press, ISBN 978-0850365788, £14.95


James Lovelock, The Revenge of Gaia, Penguin, Allen Lane, 2006, 192 pages, ISBN 978-0713999143, £16.99


It has been said that human beings are the only animals which foul their own nest. The damage we have done to our planet, Earth, is detailed in these books, with due warnings of the destruction that is to come if we do not change our ways. The main threat comes from our insatiable extraction of fossil carbon deposits from the earth’s surface to fuel our whole economic system, and the release of these deposits as carbon dioxide into the air and oceans with the consequent global warming. At the same time we are cutting down forests, over-fishing the seas, ruining the coral reefs, polluting the air, turning land into desert, while expanding populations as if the resources of the planet were endless. These are the matters dealt with in these books, but all the authors who, with the exception of Al Gore, are scientific experts in their own fields, regard global warming as the most serious threat, and all see this as primarily the result of human actions. Sun spots and the wobble of the earth on its axis are not regarded as the prime suspects. And yet, one cannot forget that it was only 70,000 years ago that the last ice age ended, and the coming and going of this massive climate change was sudden and no fault of the tiny human population on earth at the time.


The main concern of all these authors is naturally, what can be done in time to avert total human catastrophe. In the much vaunted Kyoto Protocol the governments of the Developed Countries, the main perpetrators of carbon emission, promised to make planned reductions in their emissions. President Bush withdrew the United States from this agreement, since he did not believe in global warming, but the US negotiators had already inserted into the Kyoto Protocol a whole series of measures for a system of carbon trading which would allow the big energy companies to buy exemptions from the planned carbon reductions.


These have not been so widely advertised, but they form the substance of the 350 page Swedish study under review and of one of the Socialist Register studies. In effect these exemptions make a nonsense of the whole agreement. As one wit put it, it is as if a bigamist or polygamist found an unmarried person or persons of the same sex who were then paid to abstain from marriage so that their illegal practices could continue. It is in fact worse than this. First, because it is the poor countries which are persuaded to contribute to the rich countries’ immunities. Second, because there is no adequate regulation of the bargains, many of which are phoney, and the result is that no actual cuts in carbon emissions are made. The allocation of carbon allowances, so-called ‘emission rights’ under the Kyoto Protocol, was made to countries at a certain percentage below what they said they were emitting in 1990. Then these rights in Europe were transferred to countries which transferred them to their several industrial sectors, leading in the case of the United Kingdom to annual ‘gifts’ in excess of actual average emissions over the years 1998-2003 (Carbon Trading Table 2. p.89).


When it comes to the trading of rights by individual companies, this has been compared to the medieval Christian practice of the sale of indulgencies to offset sins (Achim Brunnengraber of the Free University of Berlin in Socialist Register,

p.220). Two instruments are provided to states – to issue certificates corresponding to their assigned amount of emissions. Trading is planned for 2008 onwards. One instrument, the Joint Implementation provision (JI), relates to projects involving investment in carbon reducing measures in an industrial country (mostly Eastern Europe) by another such country. The other, the Clean

Development Mechanism (CDM), relates to investment in a Developing Country. Several hundred projects were already under consideration by June 2006.

Examples of such investments are more efficient power stations, windmills and water power and, most popular, forestation schemes. These investments can then be set as credits against reduction obligations. There are several difficulties about both Joint Implementations and Clean Development Mechanisms. Such investments might have taken place without this incentive and it is not easy to calculate what the actual carbon savings are and how comparable they are to what is being reduced from the investor’s carbon emission obligations.


The Swedish study of Carbon Trading emphasises an even more serious objection. The United States experience of controlling pollution through marketing devices, on which the Kyoto measures were based, has revealed that in the words of the Heinrich Böll Foundation of Berlin ‘the “polluter pays” principle has been turned into “the polluter buys his way out principle”.’ The result is that emissions markets are only stop-gap measures, structurally biased against the kind of radical change needed to tackle global warming. (Carbon Trading, p.117).They do nothing to end the way the capitalist economy is ‘locked in’, often by state subsidies and by the International Financial Institutions’ programmes, to high fossil fuel use – in military spending, untaxed airplane fuel, motorways, out of town supermarkets, centralised power plants, etc. Similarly, the emphasis on trading and markets brings in the whole panoply of financial mediation – jobbers and brokers, consultants and lawyers, insurance and speculation – the very heart of the capitalist system.


The Socialist Register’s issue on ‘Coming to Terms with Nature’ is aimed to find a socialist alternative to the dictates of capital. The unsustainable nature of the capitalist system is explored in several essays and the implications of disaster made clear, but answers are not evident. The trading answer is well disposed of, but nothing put in its place except suggestions of ‘far-reaching structural change’.  


The volume ends with a lament at the failure of ‘red’ and ‘green’ forces to work together. The contribution by Frieder Otto Wolf, one-time German Euro-MP, offers a particularly tragic account of the failure of the German Greens to build an eco-socialist national party. A final contribution recognises, however, the limits to ‘eco-localism’. The Socialist Register editors in the end hope only that the essays will provoke discussion and perhaps rescue the possibility of democratic planning from the ‘failed practices of authoritarian communism’.


Al Gore’s book, which is beautifully illustrated (but rather irritatingly studded with pictures of him and his family) and now made into a film, describes in detail just what is happening to the planet as a result of global warming, and what will happen if no steps are taken to reduce carbon use, but it has a rather limited list of recommendations. Apart from carbon trading and especially tree planting, he pleads for a more responsible consumerism among individual families. It is hardly the ‘catalyst for change’ which he hopes for.


Steve Jones, Professor of Genetics at University College London, gave the Reith lectures in 1991 and is the author of several books of popular science. His book Coral: A Pessimist in Paradise I have included in this review because of the beauty of his writing, fitting the beauty of its subject, which our pollution of the seas has almost destroyed, but he has no expectation that human folly will cease.  The coral reefs, he concludes, ‘only remind us that our extinction is as certain as is theirs. Whether it will take place in the slow course of evolutionary time or in the near future, as our own imprudence causes Nature to take her revenge, neither Newton nor Darwin can tell.’


No review of books on the prospects for the planet earth would be complete without mention of James Lovelock’s concept of ‘Gaia’, the Greek earth goddess who gave her name to all the words we have which begin with ‘ge’. ‘Gaia’ for

Lovelock is a biosphere which has evolved as an ‘active adaptive control system able to maintain the earth in homeostasis’ – an equilibrium temperature for organisms’ growth and optimum acidity, salinity and oxygen. It is all this which human greed and imprudence are destroying with inevitable dire consequences for the future of the planet and life on it.


Lovelock is a distinguished English scientist, Companion of Honour, author of over 200 scientific papers and three books, who at the age of 86 has written this warning book on ‘Why the earth is fighting back and how we can save humanity’. The warnings are spelt out with full scientific evidence, carefully cited mainly from the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). While global warming is accepted as a natural phenomenon between ice ages, human activity from our excessive consumption of energy using up the carbon deposits in the earth’s surface is enormously speeding up the process so as to melt down the ice caps, raising sea levels to a height which will flood many of the world’s major cities. On top of this we have been polluting the oceans and destroying the earth’s forest cover both of which absorbed much of the carbon dioxide (CO2) released by the consumption practices of our rapidly increasing population.


Lovelock does not believe that any of the measures being proposed to halt the warming process – by converting from coal, oil and gas to hydro, wind power, solar, hydrogen and biofuels or by tree planting , let alone carbon trading – will work in time to prevent disaster. There is no such thing, he believes, as sustainable development, only sustainable retreat. We have to learn to replace economic growth by economic reduction, but how within the next 30 years? Lovelock sees the only hope in bringing up our children to have faith in a Gaia who expects care and restraint rather than in a God who requires them to be ‘fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth and subdue it’. In the meantime, he says that ‘we should now be preparing for a rise of sea level, spells of near intolerable heat like that in Central Europe in 2003 and storms of unprecedented severity’. ‘The immediate need’, he goes on, ‘is safe and secure sources of energy to keep the lights of civilisation burning and for the preparation of our defences against rising sea levels’. And here he will offend most conservationists by recommending nuclear fission, until our scientists can master nuclear fusion.


Michael Barratt Brown






































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