The 18th century “European Enlightenment” was supposed to have ushered in a new age: when man’s activities would be guided by reason and rationality, as opposed to the “superstitions” prevailing before.
Unfortunately, while leading to great progress in most areas of learning and the production of new goods for our consumption, it also led to the most destructive wars in the history of mankind, and to the creation of weapons which can literally destroy all life on Earth overnight.
By the 20th century, however, another threat to life on Earth was conceded, after the evidence accumulating since the previous century finally became incontrovertible: pollution and poisoning of the land and waters by the effluents from the industrial production and use of the same goods that were supposed to deliver the good life to all mankind.
The USA by then had clawed its way to become the most “advanced” country in the world, and it was therefore not surprising it had produced the most pollutants and became the most polluted country. By 1970, exactly one century after the Industrial Revolution” was accepted to have been launched, an American senator started a campaign for “Earth Day” to be commemorated annually on April 21, to publicise the need to reduce pollution of the Earth.
At that time, the leaching of fertilisers and dumping of industrial wastes into rivers were seen as the most potent polluters. The US and other developed countries have since done much to reverse that trend.
On the other hand, the Third World, in its quest to become First World, has now not only picked up the slack in the production of pollutants, but has surged past the polluters previously mentioned. In addition, it has been discovered that pollution of the Earth had been much more insidious and pervasive.
The burning of petroleum and other fossil fuels, such as coal, all produce the gas carbon dioxide, which accumulates in the atmosphere and acts to prevent radiant energy impinging on the earth from the sun from escaping into space. As such, with the onset of progress in the production of goods by the Industrial Revolution, its carbon dioxide waste was leading to the steady and inexorable warming of the atmosphere. This, in turn, unleashed all kinds of deleterious effects, such as a change in weather patterns and raised sea levels, caused by ever faster melting ice caps.
While “global warming” was fought by many, especially by those that benefited from the production of fossil fuels, the UN made a fin de siècle warning that we could not afford to go beyond a 2C rise from the temperature of the 19th century. This would push global warming beyond its tipping point, with its concomitant climate change that could lead to an even more rapid rise in sea level, crop failures, and the collapse of coral reefs and invaluable ecosystems. According to the report, the world can only continue to emit carbon for roughly another 23 years at current levels before it will have a more than two-thirds chance of going over the 2C limit.
But the theme for this year’s Earth Day highlighted yet another facet of our unwitting destruction of the Earth’s delicate ecosystem that permits life as we know it: ending plastic pollution by 2020. The production of plastic – a completely new substance never produced in the billions of years of Earth’s existence — was seen as a wonder of the Industrial Revolution. Today, its use is ubiquitous, but so is its disposal; and since it is not “biodegradable”, it is now seen as a pollutant from several angles.
In Guyana, we should all be aware of its effects in clogging up canals and causing massive flooding on our coasts. But a new threat has been revealed: the amount of plastic in the oceans will soon exceed that of marine life, and pose a threat to the latter’s survival.
Maybe the old “superstitious” belief of regarding and treating Earth as our “mother” should be revived?