By Rex Weyler
The world's youth have finally seen and heard enough from the deplorable political process, from compromised delegates, corrupted political appointees, and criminal corporations who sabotage these critical international discussions.
The truth of our ecological crisis is not difficult to see. Fragile ecosystems are unraveling all around us. We have been warned by scientists for two centuries: by the 1972 "Limits to Growth" study, William Catton's 1980 book Overshoot, by reliable scientists, and by millions of ecology activists. We were warned by the 2009 Nature article, "Planetary Boundaries" showing that humanity has breached seven critical tipping points; and by the 2012, Nature article, "Approaching a State Shift in Earth's Biosphere," by 22 international scientists warning of an "irreversible" planetary-scale transition, "unknown in human experience."
And yet, politicians and delegates travel around the world, stay in luxury hotels and dither about our children's future, as carbon emissions rise, species blink from existence, rivers run dry and ancient forests burn. It is no wonder, and a welcome sight, that the world's youth have seen enough and are not impressed.
Thirty Years of Pep Talks
On Dec. 12 2018, at the COP 24 UN climate conference in Katowice, Poland, Swedish student Greta Thunberg finally said what the politicized delegates have failed to say. Thunberg is a direct descendant of Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius, who predicted global heating from carbon emissions in 1896.
During this year's heat wave and wildfires in Sweden, Thunberg gained world attention by staging a school strike outside the Swedish Riksdag, holding a sign that read, "Skolstrejk för klimatet" (school strike for climate). She demanded that the Swedish government reduce carbon emissions. Her actions inspired student strikes in over 270 cities around the world.
Greta Thunberg full speech at UN Climate Change COP24 Conference youtu.be
Speaking on behalf of Climate Justice Now, Thunberg chastised the delegates and member nations for failing to take action appropriate to the climate crisis: "Until you start focusing on what needs to be done rather than what is politically possible, there is no hope. We can't solve a crisis without treating it as a crisis. We need to keep the fossil fuels in the ground."
Thunberg pointed out that "if solutions within the system are so impossible to find, maybe we should change the system itself," and she spoke directly to the errors and injustice of our economic system. "Our biosphere is being sacrificed so that rich people in countries like mine can live in luxury. It is the sufferings of the many which pay for the luxuries of the few."
She exposed the errors of convenient but false solutions that have displaced the genuine solutions to climate change and ecological collapse. "You only speak of green eternal economic growth because you are too scared of being unpopular," she said. "You only talk about moving forward with the same bad ideas that got us into this mess, even when the only sensible thing to do is pull the emergency brake."
"We've had thirty years of pep-talking and selling positive ideas," she said in Stockholm prior to departing for Poland, "And I'm sorry, but it doesn't work. Because if it would have, the emissions would have gone down by now—they haven't."
Meanwhile, outside the conference, 330 organizations from 129 countries presented six "People's Demands for Climate Justice," beginning with "Keep fossil fuels in the ground and end subsidies to fossil fuel industry."
The youth leaders urged nations to "reject false solutions"—techno-fixes and offsetting schemes—in favor of "real solutions that are just, feasible, and essential." They particularly called out corporations and rich nations, who use the excuse of carbon sinks to seize indigenous land.
They called on the rich nations, whose historical carbon emissions have caused the climate crisis, to accept their fair share of climate reparation costs by honoring their Green Climate Fund obligations.
Finally, the coalition demanded that UN conferences end "corporate interference" and sabotage of the climate talks. Extraction corporations "have been getting massively wealthy," said Sriram Madhusoodanan from Corporate Accountability. "They're in these talks, blocking real solutions and advancing false solutions that will continue to propagate their business model."
Why Thunberg Is Correct
Thunberg is correct about years, decades, of pep-talks and positive ideas that have failed to reduce carbon emissions. Scientists have known about the threat of global heating since Thunberg's ancestor, Arrhenius calculated the impact in the nineteenth century. The modern world has been meeting about the crisis for almost forty years, since the first World Climate Conference in Geneva in 1979. Since then, human carbon emissions have doubled from about 5 gigatonnes of carbon per year (GtC/yr) to 2018's record-breaking 10.88 GtC/yr. Meanwhile, CO2 concentration in the atmosphere has grown by 22 percent, from 337 parts per million (ppm) in 1979 to over 412 ppm today. These results represent an enormous failure on the part of world governments.
Laser Projection on the COP24 Venue in Poland
She is also correct about the unfulfilled promise of "green growth," a notion made popular in 2012, at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro, by the World Bank and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, both dedicated to industrial growth.
However, recent studies show that "green" or "sustainable" growth are delusions. In 2018, anthropologist Jason Hickel reviewed recent data and wrote in Foreign Policy that "green growth ... is based more on wishful thinking than on evidence." A 2012 study by German resource economist Monika Dittrich and colleagues showed that even under optimum conditions, decoupling economic growth from resource use has not occurred. The United Nations Environment Programme came to similar conclusions in 2016 and 2017 studies. They predicted that by 2050, with continued growth, resource use would double to 180 billion metric tons per year (Gt/y). Ecological footprint data shows that a sustainable level of resource use is about 50 Gt/y, a limit breached in 2000.
Studies have consistently and rigidly linked economic growth to energy. In a 2012 paper, "No way out? The double-bind in seeking global prosperity alongside mitigated climate change," T. J. Garrett, at the University of Utah, performed the calculations and determined that every single dollar (U.S. dollar, 1990) of global economic growth in recent decades required approximately 9.7 milliwatts of energy. "Global CO2 emission rates," wrote Garrett, "cannot be decoupled from wealth through efficiency gains."
Wealthy nations, such as the UK and U.S., have claimed to "decouple" energy use from GDP, but only because they have exported energy-intensive industries and now import finished goods—cars, computers, trinkets—which represent massive embedded energy.
Based on recent data, Thunberg is entirely correct that "green growth" is a delusion.
Pull the Break
Finally, Thunberg is correct that the only paths out of our predicament require that we "change the system itself." Global heating, biodiversity loss, environmental toxins, nutrient cycle disruption and all other ecological challenges arise as symptoms of a single, larger biophysical reality. Humanity is in a state of ecological overshoot. There is no way to grow out of overshoot. All genuine solutions to overshoot require that the species contract, not grow. As Thunberg says, it is time to face these facts, to slow down, and to "pull the emergency brake" on economic growth.
This is the reality that the climate conference delegates are too scared to voice. Our status quo economic system—industrial capitalism—requires growth to survive. Without endless economic growth, the $250 trillion global debt to bankers and investors cannot be paid. As Thunberg says, "Our biosphere is being sacrificed so that rich people .. can live in luxury." The biosphere is being sacrificed so bankers can receive their interest payments, to keep stock prices up and to avoid facing reality.
The current system is biased for the rich to get richer, as multitudes suffer, as the ecosystem collapses, and as other species disappear. Economist Jeremy Grantham concurs in "The Race for our Lives," when he states that "capitalism and mainstream economics simply cannot deal with these problems." Corporate sabotage of the climate talks is not new. In the 1920s and 30s, Standard Oil, General Motors and Firestone Tires acquired and sabotaged public transportation throughout North America for the purpose of replacing efficient public transport with gas-guzzling cars. Today in Nigeria, Ecuador, Canada, in the Arctic, around the world and at these UN conferences, oil companies are still sabotaging the public interest for profits.
It gives us some measure of hope that young leaders appear to be among the few who have the courage and insight to speak the truth. Greta Thunberg closed her short talk by announcing, "We have not come here to beg world leaders to care … We have come here to let you know that change is coming, whether you like it or not."
Her speech stands as one of the most hopeful moments for ecological realism in recent years.
'We Need to Act Now': 15-Year-Old Greta Thunberg Calls for Global Climate Strike https://t.co/Gv5guD43D3— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1544985789.0
Rex Weyler was a director of the original Greenpeace Foundation, the editor of the organization's first newsletter, and a co-founder of Greenpeace International in 1979.
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By Bob Jacobs
Hanako, a female Asian elephant, lived in a tiny concrete enclosure at Japan's Inokashira Park Zoo for more than 60 years, often in chains, with no stimulation. In the wild, elephants live in herds, with close family ties. Hanako was solitary for the last decade of her life.
Hanako, an Asian elephant kept at Japan's Inokashira Park Zoo; and Kiska, an orca that lives at Marineland Canada. One image depicts Kiska's damaged teeth. Elephants in Japan (left image), Ontario Captive Animal Watch (right image), CC BY-ND
Affecting Health and Altering Behavior<p>It is easy to observe the overall health and psychological consequences of life in captivity for these animals. Many captive elephants suffer from arthritis, obesity or skin problems. Both <a href="https://doi.org/10.11609/JoTT.o2620.1826-36" target="_blank">elephants</a> and orcas often have severe dental problems. Captive orcas are plagued by <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2019.05.005" target="_blank">pneumonia, kidney disease, gastrointestinal illnesses and infections</a>.</p><p>Many animals <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2017.09.010" target="_blank">try to cope</a> with captivity by adopting abnormal behaviors. Some develop "<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2017.05.003" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">stereotypies</a>," which are repetitive, purposeless habits such as constantly bobbing their heads, swaying incessantly or chewing on the bars of their cages. Others, especially big cats, pace their enclosures. Elephants rub or break their tusks.</p>
Changing Brain Structure<p>Neuroscientific research indicates that living in an impoverished, stressful captive environment <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2019.05.005" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">physically damages the brain</a>. These changes have been documented in many <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/cne.903270108" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">species</a>, including rodents, rabbits, cats and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/nimg.2001.0917" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">humans</a>.</p><p>Although researchers have directly studied some animal brains, most of what we know comes from observing animal behavior, analyzing stress hormone levels in the blood and applying knowledge gained from a half-century of neuroscience research. Laboratory research also suggests that mammals in a zoo or aquarium have compromised brain function.</p>
This illustration shows differences in the brain's cerebral cortex in animals held in impoverished (captive) and enriched (natural) environments. Impoverishment results in thinning of the cortex, a decreased blood supply, less support for neurons and decreased connectivity among neurons. Arnold B. Scheibel, CC BY-ND<p>Subsisting in confined, barren quarters that lack intellectual stimulation or appropriate social contact seems to <a href="https://doi.org/10.1590/S0001-37652001000200006" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">thin the cerebral cortex</a> – the part of the brain involved in voluntary movement and higher cognitive function, including memory, planning and decision-making.</p><p>There are other consequences. Capillaries shrink, depriving the brain of the oxygen-rich blood it needs to survive. Neurons become smaller, and their dendrites – the branches that form connections with other neurons – become less complex, impairing communication within the brain. As a result, the cortical neurons in captive animals <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/cne.901230110" target="_blank">process information less efficiently</a> than those living in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/dev.420020208" target="_blank">enriched, more natural environments</a>.</p>
An actual cortical neuron in a wild African elephant living in its natural habitat compared with a hypothesized cortical neuron from a captive elephant. Bob Jacobs, CC BY-ND<p>Brain health is also affected by living in small quarters that <a href="https://doi.org/10.3233/BPL-160040" target="_blank">don't allow for needed exercise</a>. Physical activity increases the flow of blood to the brain, which requires large amounts of oxygen. Exercise increases the production of new connections and <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.aaw2622" target="_blank">enhances cognitive abilities</a>.</p><p>In their native habits these animals must move to survive, covering great distances to forage or find a mate. Elephants typically travel anywhere from <a href="https://www.elephantsforafrica.org/elephant-facts/#:%7E:text=How%20far%20do%20elephants%20walk,km%20on%20a%20daily%20basis." target="_blank">15 to 120 miles per day</a>. In a zoo, they average <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0150331" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">three miles daily</a>, often walking back and forth in small enclosures. One free orca studied in Canada swam <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s00300-010-0958-x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">up to 156 miles a day</a>; meanwhile, an average orca tank is about 10,000 times smaller than its <a href="https://www.cascadiaresearch.org/projects/killer-whales/using-dtags-study-acoustics-and-behavior-southern" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">natural home range</a>.</p>
Disrupting Brain Chemistry and Killing Cells<p>Living in enclosures that restrict or prevent normal behavior creates chronic frustration and boredom. In the wild, an animal's stress-response system helps it escape from danger. But captivity traps animals with <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1215502109" target="_blank">almost no control</a> over their environment.</p><p>These situations foster <a href="https://doi.org/10.1037/rev0000033" target="_blank">learned helplessness</a>, negatively impacting the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1155/2016/6391686" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">hippocampus</a>, which handles memory functions, and the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuropharm.2011.02.024" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">amygdala</a>, which processes emotions. Prolonged stress <a href="https://doi.org/10.3109/10253899609001092" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elevates stress hormones</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.10-09-02897.1990" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">damages or even kills neurons</a> in both brain regions. It also disrupts the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2005.03.021" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">delicate balance of serotonin</a>, a neurotransmitter that stabilizes mood, among other functions.</p><p>In humans, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/nimg.2001.0917" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">deprivation</a> can trigger <a href="https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00367" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">psychiatric issues</a>, including depression, anxiety, <a href="https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00367" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mood disorders</a> or <a href="https://doi.org/10.1177/1073858409333072" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">post-traumatic stress disorder</a>. <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s00429-010-0288-3" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Elephants</a>, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.0050139" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">orcas</a> and other animals with large brains are likely to react in similar ways to life in a severely stressful environment.</p>
Damaged Wiring<p>Captivity can damage the brain's complex circuitry, including the basal ganglia. This group of neurons communicates with the cerebral cortex along two networks: a direct pathway that enhances movement and behavior, and an indirect pathway that inhibits them.</p><p>The repetitive, <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.bbr.2014.05.057" target="_blank">stereotypic behaviors</a> that many animals adopt in captivity are caused by an imbalance of two neurotransmitters, dopamine and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2010.02.004" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">serotonin</a>. This impairs the indirect pathway's ability to modulate movement, a condition documented in species from chickens, cows, sheep and horses to primates and big cats.</p>
The cerebral cortex, hippocampus and amygdala are physically altered by captivity, along with brain circuitry that involves the basal ganglia. Bob Jacobs, CC BY-ND<p>Evolution has constructed animal brains to be exquisitely responsive to their environment. Those reactions can affect neural function by <a href="https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/311787/behave-by-robert-m-sapolsky/" target="_blank">turning different genes on or off</a>. Living in inappropriate or abusive circumstance alters biochemical processes: It disrupts the synthesis of proteins that build connections between brain cells and the neurotransmitters that facilitate communication among them.</p><p>There is strong evidence that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0577-11.2011" target="_blank">enrichment</a>, social contact and appropriate space in more natural habitats are <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1748-1090.2003.tb02071.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">necessary</a> for long-lived animals with large brains such as <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0152490" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elephants</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1080/13880292.2017.1309858" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cetaceans</a>. Better conditions <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5543669/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">reduce disturbing sterotypical behaviors</a>, improve connections in the brain, and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/cdd.2009.193" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">trigger neurochemical changes</a> that enhance learning and memory.</p>