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 HOME: 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 permission:
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 of groundwater.
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 crises.
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.
Yann 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.