On May 9th 2013, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere atop Mauna Loa exceeded 400ppm for the first time since recording commenced in 1958. It was last at this level over 3 million years ago, before our wise human species (Homo sapiens) had evolved. As the long-term curve of average annual concentration since 1958 shows, not only has CO2 concentration been going steeply upwards, but it has been rising slightly faster in recent years than it was in the 1960s and 1970s. As NOAA’s data on the Mauna Loa website reveal, the annual rate of increase during 2012 was the second highest ever (1998 was higher), despite the fact that the nations of the world began attempting to do something about this problem in 1992. Any suggestion that humanity is rising to the challenge is a frantic clutch at gossamer strands so fine that it surpasses all understanding.
Daily and weekly mean CO2 concentrations in the air above Mauna Kea for the last 12 months. I’ve explained why CO2 amount goes down in late summer in Our Dying Planet. It’s all because of our trees. Figure from NOAA.
The full record of CO2 at Mauna Loa since 1958. Image from NOAA.
I had been trying to find the time to post, having been silent for two weeks, and this news spurred me into action. Because the Keeling curve (as the 1958 to present track of CO2 is called) tells us clearly that our puny efforts to rein in our production of greenhouse gases continue simply to not measure up to the challenge, and the dire future we could leave to our children is becoming ever more certain. This led me to ponder the value we place on the natural world – you know the one, the world that provides us with essential goods and services and which sustains our lives.
A long time ago, as a student at University of Hawaii, I learned an important lesson. I lived in a basement apartment half-way up St. Louis Heights, the slope to the east of the campus. I watched the building of a new high-rise tower condominium that rose day by day on the hillside a few miles east of me, and I thought about the wonderful views those condo owners were going to have. Majestic high panoramic views across the developed lowlands to the sea, with at night the lights of Waikiki and Honolulu to the right, Diamond Head rising center left, and the lights of Waialai off to the left. I even imagined being one day wealthy enough to own such a place. A year later, I watched the start of a second tower condominium that began to grow in front of the first, now complete with all its units sold. It was then I learned that it is almost impossible to buy a view, unless you choose to live at the very edge or a long way from other people. And yet views continue to sell real estate; the phrase ‘location, location, location’ is not entirely about proximity to transport, to restaurants, or to jobs. And property continues to have a value based partly on non-owned attributes, such as the view beyond its boundaries.
Who would not like this outside the living room window?
It’s only much later that I put this Honolulu lesson into a new context – that our obsession with ownership, and our tendency to nimbyism, both derive from the fact that there are things about environment that we truly value even though they are not routinely assigned a dollar value, and, if they are, turn out to be far beyond the capacity of practically any of us to pay. What I do not know is whether the environments I value most highly are similar to those valued by people who have lived under very different circumstances to me. However, this detail aside, I think it is clear that there are elements in our environment that all people value, even though ownership of these is either not possible, or not affordable. There really is a place for the Commons, and moves to carve it up and sell it off reward a few lucky purchasers while reducing general quality of life.
What I just called our obsession with ownership is itself a relatively recent phenomenon. In older cultures the landscape was shared and ownership was limited to tangible possessions including, sometimes, our houses. Where landscapes were owned, they were owned by the nobility, who, being noble, felt a certain responsibility to look after the peasants who lived on their land. In Europe, the early evolution of our modern materialistic consumer society brought increasing formalization of rights of residency, and ownership of ‘real property’ (I do not know why land is more real than a painting by Leonardo da Vinci) became possible, and routine. Part of the ‘clash’ in the meeting of European explorers with native peoples in distant lands was due to their different understandings of ownership, coupled with the Europeans’ convenient view that ‘savages’ lacking written law, did not ‘own’ anything anyway. After colonization, gifts or sale of plots of undeveloped land by the Crown, or later by government, became a chief way of placing people on the land and building the agrarian society. (In Hawaii, this colonization and usurpation process was achieved peacefully by European/American missionaries who married into noble Hawaiian families and inherited their land away from them.) In any event, throughout the advanced world, people now routinely own land, and, in some jurisdictions, the minerals below it and the air above it. Land which is not owned by individuals is owned by the state.
There is another thread to this story that also impacts the Commons. We have always disposed of items we do not want by removing them from our immediate premises. Some 2000 years ago, in China, we invented the flush toilet, and began the practice of using water to transport certain of our unwanted items away from us. Disposing of material waste by dumping it on public land, and of floatable or soluble waste by washing it downhill in sewers has been going on a long time, and it has been an approach which has served us well. Until we became numerous, living in high densities, and had to do something to process the waste before discarding it. However, even the best tertiary treatment sewage plant ultimately dumps waste downstream, and while recycling can keep materials in use through multiple cycles, ultimately the products we consume end up being incinerated, or dumped in landfills, in water bodies, or by the side of the road.
These threads collide. We value the Commons which is the environment that surrounds us but is not owned by us, but we use it as the repository of waste products, despoiling it in the process. However there is one more thread to this story. Because we live in societies in which items of value are owned, we conceive un-owned items lying about on the landscape as free for the taking. This governs our attitudes to all natural resources, particularly those on crown or government land, and even underlies the laws governing salvage at sea. And so we have the Commons. It is valued passionately for the quality of life it affords in sunsets, mountaintops, star-lit skies, and endless open beaches, and perhaps also for the oxygen, food and water it provides us and for its capacity to process many of our waste products making them ecologically useful again. But it is treated as available, at no cost, for any use including the dumping of wastes and the harvesting of natural resources.
Sunset – free to enjoy, what is it really worth to us?
Every natural resource industry, fisheries, forestry, mining, has begun as a case of individuals obtaining raw materials to feed, clothe, house or in other ways sustain his or her family or tribe. Items, whether fish, fur, timber or minerals, were gathered from the environment, used, and subsequently returned as wastes to the environment. Commercialization meant that greater quantities were being harvested and more wastes returned, but, without exception, every natural resource industry commenced with the attitude that there was a right to gather items from the environment and a right to return wastes to it. Globally there has been a long struggle within every natural resource industry, as its growth led to excess harvest and/or excess wastes being dumped. In fisheries, for example, there are regulations governing right to enter the industry, regulations on amount, size range, where, and/or when during the year at which to catch, and policing mechanisms to keep participants reasonably honest. This process of developing regulations has not been easy. Many fisheries have crashed forever, while the industry struggles to learn how to bring sanity to its interactions with the ocean. We still do not adequately value the fish swimming free, nor the cost of unsustainable harvest or of pollution of waterways, and even where we can calculate these values and costs, we struggle to invent mechanisms that will require the industry to pay these costs while accounting for values received as fish are landed.
A similar story can be told for forestry. The forests of southern Europe were largely gone before appropriate policies were developed, and in much of the developing world, forest practices remain unsustainable while forest industries benefit from keeping these costs and benefits external.
And so I end at mining – an industry that used to leave small holes in the ground, but now terra-forms areas of landscape approaching the size of small countries. Large-scale mining is dirty business, and it is a dirty business built on the value of ‘mineral reserves’. Reserves are those unmined supplies of the mineral product that have become ‘owned’ by the mining company through the peculiarly simple process of ‘discovering’ them. Once the claim is staked, reserves become assets of the company, assets against which it can borrow for the funds necessary to dig them up and sell them off. Naturally, it is to the benefit of every mining company to accumulate a healthy portfolio of reserves, and to do the mining and processing as cheaply as possible. While commercial mining has typically generated piles of mining waste, heavy metal pollution of waterways, and large tailings ponds full of water that is too toxic for even a mining company to release, modern large-scale, open-pit mining also scars the ground in ways that would be unimaginable to the old gold miner of yesteryear. Why clean up the mess; the land does not really belong to anybody.
Syncrude tar sands operation. Photo © David Dodge, Pembina Institute
Resource industries, like any industrial activity, also use energy, and large-scale resource industries use more energy. Sometimes they use so much energy that the discard of wastes into the atmosphere becomes even more important than the discard of other wastes onto the land and waterways. And nowhere is this more true than in Canada’s tar sands mining operations in Alberta. Scenes of the devastation around these open-pit operations shout out loudly, “We are plundering the environment, despoiling it with our wastes, and even poisoning the atmosphere above”. Sure, Canada’s tar sands operations contribute only a tiny amount to the global emissions of CO2, but they deliver an amount per barrel of oil that far exceeds that of any other form of oil production on this planet. They also are polluting the Athabasca River drainage and the moon-scape they leave behind with a number of heavy metals that have known carcinogenic properties in ecosystems. The cost of this pollution is being borne by Canadians, particularly those who live downstream, and the cost of the CO2 releases is being borne by the world. The multinational oil corporations do not pay for the reserves they have discovered, and they do not pay for the pollution they cause. They take their profits off-shore, and will continue to prosper until our thirst for oil ends.
Canada has no need for the tar-sands oil – we are self-sufficient in oil without it. Canada could be self-sufficient in energy without using any fossil fuels (as could any country), and certainly could prosper without this messy industry. It’s only the multi-national oil corporations that need this industry, and they will do everything they can to promote it, to expand it, to keep extracting until the last of the tar-sands oil has been extracted and sold. And they can afford to keep our government happy with a few tax dollars, royalty checks, or short-term jobs. Just as big tobacco waged a long war to keep the truth about cigarettes hushed up, they are investing in a long campaign to keep the public confused about climate risks, and believing in the essential Canadian-ness of their plundering. Paddling my canoe on a quiet lake, I find it hard to see their actions as particularly Canadian.
The next time you enjoy a starry sky, or an open vista, ask yourself if you value the natural world. Ask if you value those parts of the natural world that you do not own. Ask whether it is worth our while, collectively, to fight to preserve this wonderful, natural world that sustains our lives. And then ask whether it is well past time for us to stand up to fight for an approach to the Commons that is based on its recognized value for all of us, rather than one that sees the Commons as a larder to be pilfered for private gain. As I said in several previous posts, Keystone XL and Northern Gateway are just symbols – symbols of the power of Big Oil to plunder the planet at no cost to itself, while governments hang about like so many lap dogs.
Why does the USA have to lead Canada’s fight against building pipelines from the tar sands?
Photo © Tar Sands Action