A few months ago, photographer and environmentalist Yann Arthus-Bertrand
and his non-profit organization GoodPlanet
released the movie HOME,
a documentary about life on Earth and the current environmental challenges
of our planet (Arthus-Bertrand is famous for his aerial photography, and
the movie is quite wonderfully shot - if you haven't seen it before, it's
worth a look: HOME is available in
full, free on YouTube).
As a companion to the movie, Arthus-Bertrand released a companion book
A Hymn to the Planet and Humanity.
The book is composed of nearly 200 short segments on the various environmental,
political, and sociological aspects of the problems facing the world.
From poverty to pollution, coal to carbon dioxide, the book is full of
(alarming) facts that Arthus-Bertrand hope will inspire people to act.
It was hard to pick just a few segments from the book to excerpt - the
whole book is interesting. And yes, undoubtedly there are many oversimplifications
that is inherent in presenting complex problems in short vignettes - but
Home: A Hymn to the Planet and Humanity is a good starting point
for many of us in understanding the environmental problems of today.
Here are 5 short segments from the book, published on Neatorama with
SIX BILLION SOULS
Blocks of flats on Seoul's south bank, South Korea
The world’s population quadrupled over the course of the 20th century
and now stands at 6.7 billion. Since 2000 it has increased by 700 million,
which is equivalent to the entire population rise in the 19th century.
In the 18th century, it rose by a mere 200 million. As their numbers have
grown, human beings have gravitated increasingly toward cities, which
have also grown as a result. Since 2007, more than one in two of us live
in a town or city.
There are more people in some of the bigger cities – such as Tokyo,
with its population of 35 million – than in some countries as a
whole. In developing countries, urban growth can occur at a rate that
is simply mind-boggling. Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, had a population
of 300,000 in 1950, whereas today the figure stands at more than 15 million:
a fiftyfold increase in fifty years. Boom towns such as Dhaka face immense
problems in terms of infrastructure including electricity, drinking water,
and waste disposal.
Nevertheless, this demographic explosion and the urbanization linked
to it seem also to hold part of the solution. Birth rates have been shown
to be decreasing over a great many parts of the globe, particularly in
urban areas. The current average stands at 2.6, with significant regional
disparities. In many Western countries, it has even fallen below 2.1,
the threshold for population increase. The world population is shrinking
and ageing. Whereas earlier projections for the coming decades envisaged
a global population of 12 billion, the estimate has fallen and it is now
thought that the population should stabilize at around 9 billion by 2050.
This seems to be due to the fact that city-dwellers generally have better
access to education. For many women, in particular, this signifies access
to information and to methods of contraception. It also means that these
women are often able to work in addition to having a family. Having children
becomes a choice, to be balanced against a career, for example. Urban
life, moreover, changes people’s behavior and living requirements:
couples have fewer children than those living in the country since they
no longer need help in the fields. This reduction in the birth rate responds
to one of the major challenges of the century: that of population control
as a means of successfully feeding the world and saving the planet.
THE END OF OIL
Oil fields near Bakersfield, California, USA
Oil will not run out suddenly. It will be a slow, agonizing decline.
As oil becomes scarcer its price will rise, and what used to be very cheap
will become expensive. Society will be wholly transformed.
The reason for this is simple: a finite planet has finite resources.
Once we have consumed all of our oil and other primary materials, there
will be nothing left. Oil is not a renewable resource on any timescale
comparable to its rate of consumption. The chemical reactions which led
to its formation occurred over millions of years.
There are, undoubtedly, oil deposits that remain to be discovered. But
the easiest have already been found and exploited. Each year, we consume
more oil than we find. This is clearly going to cause problems.
It is not only a question of when oil will run out, but how society will
change as it does. A world in which oil is much rarer – and therefore
costlier – will be different from our own. The modern petrochemical
industry will have to change dramatically: everything from lipsticks to
fertilizers and plastics of all types will either be made differently
or not at all. Transport will obviously become more expensive. This will
spell the end of the West’s huge retail and supermarket networks,
since these rely on road transportation and economies of scale. The price
of imported products will rise, and international tourism will return
to what it used to be in previous centuries: a luxury for the privileged
few. Competition for access to the last remaining oil deposits will increase,
and may lead to conflict.
These developments are inevitable, and will only be temporarily delayed
by the current recession which is slowing down the global economy. Developing
renewable forms of energy and reducing consumption are the two most basic
measures we can take to prepare ourselves.
FISHERIES: AN OVEREXPLOITED RESOURCE
What is the current state of world fisheries?
How important is fish to the average diet?
Moshav (co-operative village) farm at Nahalal, Jezrael plain, Israel
Today a third of humanity is suffering from water scarcity. Specialists
use the term “water stress” when the demand for water exceeds
the available freshwater supply by 10%. Although 10% of renewable resource
may not seem like much, we should not forget that before mankind’s
invention, 100% of this water was used by ecosystems. This extra demand
is enough to dry a water course, drain a spring, or prevent the replenishment
While the population of Canada and the Amazon or Congo basin have a plentiful
water supply, the people of the Mediterranean basin, Central Asia and
Mexico are at greater risk of scarcity. The particular problem with water
is that it is difficult to transport in large quantities over great distances.
One solution is to use the same water several times. An increasing number
of industries are reusing water, retreating it up to 30 times in some
cases. Domestic washwater, known as “greywater,” can be reused
to water a garden or flush a toilet, reserving drinkable water for human
consumption, cooking, or washing. In countries where water is scarce,
wastewater from cities is retreated for use in agriculture. In Israel,
for example, where the average rainfall is 1 inch (25 mm) a year, 70%
of wastewater is recycled, allowing 49,000 acres (20,000 hectares) of
land to be watered.
There are many other ways of saving water, especially by being aware
of how much of it we consume. Some of this water is invisible: it is used
to make a product, but is not present in the product itself. This is called
virtual water. One pound of grain means hundreds of gallons of irrigation
water; a pair of cotton jeans require 2,860 gallons (10,850 liters) of
water; a cup of coffee 9 gallons (35 liters); a sheet of paper 2.5 gallons
(10 liters). A single tomato contains 3.5 gallons (13 liters) of virtual
water, which is more than many people use in a day. Paradoxically, some
countries that face water scarcity are actually exporting some of their
limited water resources in the form of agricultural or manufactured products.
THE COLLAPSE OF SOCIETIES
Volcano of Rano Kau, Easter Island, Chile
Sooner or later, societies disappear and are replaced by new ones. As
our own society enters a critical phase, what lessons can be learned from
those that preceded us? One example that has been extensively studied
is Easter Island in the Pacific Ocean. The island was once home to a flourishing
civilization, which reached its peak in around 1500, but it subsequently
experienced a rapid decline, losing four fifths of its population in just
one century. According to the American expert Jared Diamond, the explanation
lies principally in the fact that the people deforested their entire land.
Without trees, they were no longer able to build fishing boats, and crucially
the soil was eroded. As the situation worsened, the people began fighting
among themselves, and developed bizarre religious practices. In an effort
to erect increasingly gigantic statutes, they cut down more and more trees,
accelerating their demise.
Diamond also studied a number of other civilizations that vanished largely
as a result of environmental factors, such as the Maya and Babylonians,
who exhausted their land, and the Greenland Vikings, who could not adapt
to the cooler climate. While these societies did not vanish because of
environmental damage alone, it certainly weakened their economic and social
structures and created vicious cycles that ultimately proved fatal. The
same pattern could easily be applied to modern society.
In Diamond’s analysis, the factors leading to a society’s
collapse seem to be quite clearly set out every time. But for political,
religious, or social reasons, the society is incapable of reacting and
taking adequate measures to ensure its survival. What would the Easter
Islander who cut down the last tree have been thinking? Another expert
in the history of civilizations, the British historian Arnold Toynbee,
wrote that “civilizations die from suicide, not by murder”
– in other words, from their inability to resolve their internal
Today most people agree that we are facing an environmental catastrophe.
We need to change the course in which our society is heading, and remove
the obstacles to that change. It is too late to bury our heads in the
sand. It is also too late to be pessimistic.
Arthus-Bertrand published more than 40 books, including the multimillion-copy
international bestseller Earth from Above. Home, released in
conjunction with a film of the same name, is a stunning visual odyssey
across 50 countries combining Arthus-Bertrand's images and text by the
editorial team of Good Planet.
Links: HOME official website
| Watch the movie
at YouTube | The
book at Amazon