Essay. It matters little if such a failure increases human suffering and the death toll, if such measures do not fit into national and corporate economic plans.

Climate change: A long history of unheard prophets

“Man has lost the ability to foresee and to forestall. He will end by destroying the earth.” These words were uttered by Albert Schweitzer, the great thinker and Nobel Peace Prize winner, in 1953, as atomic bombs were being set off in the atmosphere.

The explosions from the nuclear tests were spreading radioactive and carcinogenic atoms over the entire planet. During the decades which followed, mankind developed an increase in consumption and in the use of energy and natural resources, accompanied by a corresponding increase everywhere in terms of emissions of solid and liquid waste and gases such as carbon dioxide, methane, chlorine compounds, etc., which are modifying the chemical composition of the atmosphere, with a consequent increase in the average temperature of the planet.

This increase is causing changes in the processes of water circulation, and the consequences can be seen in the form of more frequent violent storms or long periods of drought, the advance of deserts in some areas, and the increase in landslides and flooding in others.

The negative effects of climate change could be contained by placing limits on human activities that cause pollution, but so far every attempt in this direction has failed, because it would damage powerful economic interests, businesses, finances, corporations, oil and energy producers and exploiters of agricultural land and forests.

Ninety years ago, the mathematicians and biologists Volterra and Kostitzin showed that the poisoning of the environment due to waste from the activities of its inhabitants leads to inevitable suffering and to a decline of the populations that live in such an environment—a more rapid decline the greater the quantity of waste produced. And 40 years ago, Barry Commoner (in his “The Closing Circle”) wrote that environmental damage is proportional to the consumption of goods and natural resources per capita, and the consequent production of waste. He returned to the same themes later, in his book “The Limits to Growth.” These ideas were all ridiculed, forgotten or ignored by the economic powers-that-be and the political authorities, because they would have disturbed the “normal” course of things.

What can we do to at least mitigate the costs and the suffering? There are several options. The one being implemented at the moment is to go on as usual, ignoring the (certain) fact that there will be more and more frequent environmental disasters like those that ravaged the picturesque New Orleans, the Philippines, or a number of exotic islands and touristic coasts, and just fix the damage with money. In Italy, one can invoke a condition of natural disaster, thus requesting public money to compensate those who lost their houses, possessions, savings, or industrial equipment, and to rebuild roads, railways, embankments and bridges that have been swept away by extreme weather, landslides and floods. The money is then typically spent for rebuilding in the same places, which will certainly be devastated by other future catastrophes.

The same goes for disasters on a global level, on account of which local and international communities spend money to compensate for the damages people suffer because of the lack of foresight of their governments, which did not take the necessary precautions—same as with regard to limiting greenhouse gas emissions—that would have saved lives and property. It matters little if such a failure increases human suffering and the death toll, if such measures do not fit into national and corporate economic plans. It also matters little that “business as usual” is causing the mass migration of those who are fleeing from the advance of deserts and from areas devastated by cyclones and landslides, which in turn causes endless conflicts between peoples as they fight over livable land.

A second option is proposed by the recent developments regarding the concept of resilience, i.e. the adaptation to predictable disasters, but without doing anything to prevent them. We know that tropical storms and rising sea levels could damage coastal structures: therefore, we plan to build buildings on pylons and erect sea barriers to protect the shore. We know that the more frequent and heavy rains are causing landslides and floods: therefore, we plan to force rivers into canals and artificial embankments. The imagination of those touting resilience is limitless in suggesting how we should adapt to the “evils” of nature and the planet without resorting to any regulations that would slow down the glorious march of economic growth.

But there is also another solution: since by studying nature we can predict how the water and the air masses will circulate as a result of what we are doing to the planet, and since there seems to be no reasonable possibility to curb the changes taking place, i.e. to consume less energy or slow down consumption, we could at least try to refrain from occupying the lands where the destructive forces of nature will manifest, no matter how economically attractive they might be.

This used to be called territorial planning. It was taught in university departments and was being touted and its benefits explained by scholars, and although it did not end up being implemented in practice, it did catch the ear of some enlightened politicians, who ended up, however, out of power in short order. That is because even the smallest improvement suggested by such planning assumes the “impolitic” courage to say no, to prohibit human presence in ecologically fragile areas, as well as in those exposed to landslides, storms, storm surges and other catastrophic events.

For example, such a minimum precautionary measure as banning the construction of permanent structures less than 100 meters away from the sea shore or river banks, in order to allow the water free rein in its natural domain, impinges on the exploitation of the most sought-after locations and hurts property owners. Thus, it is an unacceptable regulation for the state to enact, even though, in theory, it is the owner of part of the coast and the river banks. Most telling is the current frenzy to sell the beaches outright to those who had been “leasing” them, even after they already devastated the very same areas as tenants.

Planning and prevention do not yield profit, they have costs and affect property rights (private as well as public). Thus, it matters little that these costs would allow others to save on future costs. In our free market society, no reasonable person can be forced to spend even one dime thinking of other people—not even their neighbors next door, to say nothing of those who will live there in the future. When TV news show us rows of dead bodies and desperate people trudging through the mud, the most we can do is spare a thought about those “unfortunate poor people,” after which we get back to our plentiful meals. And so it is that, due to the cheerful recklessness and ignorance of both individuals and governments, we are marching on, unawares, straight towards a future that is looking more unpleasant by the minute.

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