The Sceptical Green
Addressed to Environmental Concern Orkney
I am a sceptic. By this I do not mean that I disbelieve indiscriminately everything I am told but that I think it prudent to question everything I am told - some things, of course, to be questioned far more searchingly than others. Many things, on examination, turn out to be believable - with varying degrees of probability; cast-iron certainty is but rarely achievable.
by Eric Stockton
by Eric Stockton
It is an essential part of the sceptical life stance to emphasise the need to question basic assumptions for, IF these prove to be feet of clay THEN data interpreted in their light may, in the event, be misinterpreted and conclusions reached, even logically, from dubious assumptions will, themselves be dubious too.
The cautious sceptic thinks in IF … THEN patterns. The over-eager believer thinks from THESE THINGS ARE SELF-EVIDENT to therefore THESE CONCLUSIONS ARE UNSINKABLE.
What has all this to with ‘greenery’?
It has everything to do with it!
An assumption made more or less intuitively by humankind, from millions of years ago until recently, has been that the biosphere is inexhaustible and indestructible. Practically, this has been acted upon … as take what you fancy and dump as you please. Sixty years ago - when I was a schoolboy - there were the beginnings of a public awareness that this easy assumption might be dangerous.
Two instances of this questioning came then to my notice; Dean W R Inge (of St Paul’s, London) said “when there are only two of you go forth and people the earth is good advice; when there are two thousand million of you - that’s a different matter”. TWO BILLION … that we should be so lucky - we now have FIVE BILLION and more.
The other questioning voices that came to my boyish bookish notice were those of Jacks and Whyte who wrote a telling indictment of practices leading to desertification in their classic book The Rape of the Earth.
Nonetheless the assumption I spelt out is still part of the thinking of many people and, especially, of politicians trawling for votes (or for continuing public obedience - depending upon how ‘democratic’ they are).
I am a card carrying green - not because I agree, necessarily, with all Green Party policies but because the GP is the only one explicitly to recognise that we cannot survive on the basis of plundering and dumping. That is sufficient reason for being in the GP and could serve as the sole reason.
What, in contemporary ‘greenery’, is there to be sceptical about? I claim to identify two main areas: 1) the need to have in mind a realistic time-scale; 2) the need to establish hard fact - to try to distinguish between what practices ARE green from those that merely FEEL green.
Under 1) we greens tend to accuse the ‘grey’ parties of short-termism and the accusation is warranted; they scarcely look beyond the Parliamentary term of about five years. But we too tend to make the same mistake but in a different way; we tend to suggest that the particular environmental concern that is uppermost in our minds at any given moment is such that, unheeded, it will cause collapse of the life-support systems almost at once. Such short-term panic is rarely warranted. What we can say, perhaps, is that our species has taken upwards of a million years to reach the present time and, if we go on behaving as we do, the environment will be wrecked in a thousand years - our future may be as short as one one-thousandth part of our past. That is a sobering thought.
A thousand years is way beyond politics; it is almost beyond history but environmentally, evolutionarily, cosmically - it is but a moment.
Greens are properly concerned with the next generation and we are not alone in this; we are perhaps alone in caring about the thirtieth generation from now.
Under 2) we might consider questioning some green ‘heart warmers’ - recycling and bio-degradable plastic.
RECYCLING: This practice is obviously environmentally thrifty - green - in principle but a knowledge of basic physics may help us to view it sceptically and avoid pitfalls. The Second Law of Thermodynamics is to the effect that, in material systems, there is naturally a spontaneous tendency for order to change to chaos and that such spontaneous changes are not spontaneously reversible - although, in many cases, they can be reversed by appropriate input of energy.
If I allow a wine glass to drop several feet on to a hard floor then the (orderly) glass breaks into a (chaotic) heap of pieces. There is no way in which I can merely allow the fragments to reunite in the form of a wine glass and return to the position from which I let it fall. I can however, given the equipment and the skill, melt the pieces together and mould them to form a wine glass and then I can lift it to its original position. I can reverse the process but only by applying energy to melt the fragments and a little more energy to lift the reformed wine glass to where it was. Is this ‘recycling’ exercise worth while, environmentally?
Yes - BOTH if energy is available in a green manner AND the raw material (glass in this case) is replaceable only at great environmental cost. IF the answer to either question is firmly negative THEN recycling is ‘ungreen’.
BIO-DEGRADABLE PLASTIC: Some time ago there was press coverage of the development of a plastic that would rot in rubbish dumps to form carbon dioxide and water. This was regarded as a green breakthrough. When you come to think about it, it is nothing of the sort.
The plastic would produce just as much carbon dioxide escaping into the atmosphere whether it were to rot slowly or to be burnt quickly. IF the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere is to be kept down (with the intention of countering the greenhouse effect) THEN rotting the stuff is neither greener nor less green than burning it. The biodegradability would offer no advantage over burning so far as the greenhouse effect is at issue.
The carbon atoms in the plastic were, for untold millions of years, ‘locked up’ as coal or petroleum. The best thing to do is to keep them ‘locked up’ as non-degradable plastic - which, logically, might best be buried in abandoned coal mines or perhaps put to uses we might consider?
I have said enough to suggest that what is, or is not, green cannot be determined by other than factual study, case by case. Feeling green is simply not good enough. Perhaps in discussion we might ponder the advantages of low energy light bulbs?