“We will open the gates of our city to those who deserve to enter, a city of smokestacks, pipe lines, orchards, markets and inviolate homes. With the sign of the dollar as our symbol, the sign of free trade and free minds, we will move to reclaim this country once more from the impotent savages who never discovered its nature, its meaning, its splendor.”-John Galt, in Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
This mind set was reinforced in the 20th century by the writings of Ayn Rand and continues in the 21st century. For example, following the financial crisis of 2008, her thought, perhaps the world’s most popular purveyor of the myth of the market, has seen something of a resurgence. There are influential political leaders, speaker of the House Paul Ryan being one of them, who brag about the fact that they grew up on a steady diet of Ayn Rand. In fact, sales of her novel Atlas Shrugged (1957) went through the roof as American business leaders struggled to hang on to their vanishing dream. The dystopian story’s mysterious protagonist, John Galt, along with other captains of American industry, decide to go on strike to protest government regulation, bringing the country to a standstill. The core of the novel is Galt’s 70-page speech, wherein Rand’s entire philosophy is laid out. In it, she denounces the Christian morality of love of one’s neighbor, calling it a “morality of sacrifice,” (quite similar to the “slave morality” of Nietzsche) while championing a “morality of life” based upon egoism and the sovereignty of the individual rational mind over the human community and the raw materials of nature.
Former chair of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan, who joined Rand’s circle in the early fifties, helped her do research for Atlas Shrugged. In early 2010, Greenspan was asked if the financial crisis signaled an indictment of Rand’s free-market ideology. His answer is instructive: “Not at all…There is no alternative to competitive markets if you want to have economic growth and higher standards of living in a democratic society…If you merely look at history since the Enlightenment…when all of those ideas surfaced and became applicable in public policy, we’ve had an explosion of economic growth, especially in developing countries, where hundreds of millions of people have been pulled out of extreme poverty and starvation…”
Greenspan and Ryan, and Rand are of course right about the explosion of economic growth resulting from global capitalism, but they appear blind to the eco-social costs of this growth. Half of the world’s 2.2 billion children currently live in poverty, almost a billion people lack access to safe water supplies, about 25 million acres of crop land are lost every year due to soil erosion, and 50% of the world’s non-human species may be extinct by the end of the 21st century. Further, global climate change resulting from “free market” industrial capitalism is threatening to make all these injustices far worse, in addition to other consequences.
As for past injustices, Rand’s celebration of the genocide of the native population (she calls them “impotent savages”) that once called Turtle Island home is a telling reminder that capitalism has always been wed to colonialism. In order to achieve perpetual growth, capitalist markets had to continually expand into untapped territories, there exploiting the labor and land of conquered peoples to turn a profit back at home. Today, what is exported, for profits, are not only the goods but the labor force. No wonder there are so many unhappy campers in the labor class who are now following a billionaire madman called Trump who has promised theme the moon in the well and is soon to be their president, and alas, my president too. From Rand’s and Ryan’s perspective, such exploitation was perfectly justified, since indigenous populations are not made up of free individuals, having no concept of rights or property ownership. Nor does Gaia or any of Her non-human creatures deserve the respect of properly rational individuals, since, following Lockean theories of property ownership, their value is inferior until produced for consumption in the human marketplace. The laws of the market seem to be opposed to the Laws of the Creator.
In short, the accumulation of wealth has come to replace Wisdom as the most important aspiration in human life. Money has become the source of all value and meaning. “No one can serve two masters…You cannot serve both God and money” says the wisdom of the Christian gospel. Not the beautification and celebration of Gaia and Her creatures in the Name of God, but the production and consumption of Her resources in the name of the dollar is now the normal, “the good” way of life. There is an ontological chasm separating questions of meaning and morality from those of mechanism and motion.
Let’s now take a brief look at pagan nature religions. Some see them as a protest against the modern separation of nature and the sacred, against the separation of matter from spirit, sometimes called “gnostic” religion. In nature religions, by contrast, nature is neither fallen nor a prison from which one needs to escape; it is perceived as both sacred and interconnected; it has intrinsic value apart from its utility as a resource for human beings. By interconnected they mean that our being is determined by our ecology, by the cultural environment shared with all other living beings. We are immersed in a web of life which is our true community. In contemporary politics this is the ideology or the underlying philosophy of the so called Green Parties. It is alleged that this awareness existed in ancient times, but has been all but forgotten within modernity.
The protest by ecosophists or nature religionists, supposedly has to do with the perceived disconnect of man from nature, leading to the de-sacralization of nature in thought and deed. Healing the rift, so the argument goes, will require a profound shift in our collective consciousness, a feat to be accomplished by the priests of this new religion. Some deep ecologists call it “the chthonic imperative” while some call it “the re-enhancement of the world,” and others call it “the realization of one’s ecological Self,” as distinguished from one’s “ego-self.” This reconnection with nature may take place through education, even academic education, or the ritual worship of Mother Earth, and other practices.
Some common attributes that can be listed as shared by most ancient and modern nature religions are: immanence or focus on this world and its embodied physical existence, focus on the immanent dimension of the sacred, its accessibility to all humans, the emphasis of experience over belief, on living in harmony in the natural world, on the teaching of spiritual truths found in natural cycles and nature processes, on the treatment of birth, death and sexuality as sacraments (the worship of Pan, the god of nature is another throwback), on relationship over mastery, on the tendency to ignore sacred texts and institutionalized religious hierarchies, on pantheism, on the affirmation of life in its totality, on Mother Earth as a goddess (Gaia), on deep ecology, on neo-animism and bio-regionalism, on eco-feminism, eco-psychology, eco-philosophy and eco-theology.
But despite all this, modern science continues to reorient humanity’s understanding of and relation to earth and the larger universe by way of positivism. Only science has the “enlightened” answers to the problems of modern life. What is lost sight of is that those problems quite often were produced by an the abuses and extremisms of science that says that progress is inevitable and what comes at the end is always the best. It it? Look around.
The discoveries of modern science have fundamentally altered our conception of how the universe evolved thus far and how it will evolve in the future. Left unasked by the scientific perspective is the age old question of why the universe was created and why it continues to unfold creatively. Some assume that the universe is eternal and that in itself settles the matter. The very question asked by Heidegger in Being and Time (why is there something rather than nothing?) is meaningless. To be sure, the issue of the eternity of the universe preoccupied the likes of Aristotle and his medieval admirers Averroes and Aquinas, and is far from resolved philosophically.
Be that as it may, the ancients of Athens and Jerusalem and later Meso-America, perceived an eternal intelligence or Wisdom to be at work shaping the course of the visible cosmos. They believed her fruit was better than the choicest gold or silver. The universe could not have created itself and given itself a goal and an end. They sought a way of life in concert with this universal cosmic intelligence (nous) responsible for creating and sustaining all temporal things. Further, they assumed that their portrayal of an ordered cosmos helped to create one, and their liturgies somehow maintained it.
Moderns, in contrast, have become alienated from their origin in and forgetful of their responsibility toward the Wisdom of creation. Science, in the modern age, has lost sight of Wisdom and the moral vision she provides. There has been an attempt to replace philosophy, which literally means love of wisdom, with positivism or the idolization of the pre-eminence of science. Science has wed itself to the instrumentalism of market-driven technology, with an ever-accumulating body of specialized knowledge and the earthshaking power it makes possible. Even when mistakes are acknowledged, they are imputed to lack of precision, not lack of wisdom. Man-made models of nature have come to obscure modern humanity’s vision of the glory of creation. The Socratic “knowledge is virtue” has been replaced by the Baconian “knowledge is power.”
Economics, now considered a positive science and therefore beyond the pay grade of philosophers and theologians, was once defined as the science of morality. It stands today, rather awkwardly, at the helm of our techno-capitalist civilization. We now have, not philosopher-priests, but capital-engineers who rule over the contemporary geopolitical arena. The question arises here: is economic “science” just the purveyor of an oppressive upper class ideology? The answer may be yes, given that ecology, is widely dismissed by many conservatives as a front for socialism. Many dismiss global warming as socialist propaganda. The sense of the purpose of life has been banished from reasoned political discourse and has been replaced by tweeting and texting. We now have a tweeter, incapable of rational, wise, moderate common sense discourse, as president of the US. Next we will see democracy going down the toilet and good old fascism returning together with racism and xenophobia. The signs are there.
The founding fathers, children of the Enlightenment, must surely be turning in their graves. One prophet of this state of affairs was the poet William Blake who acutely perceived this chasm between the Wisdom of Creation wisdom and a modern extreme rationalism that has become a monster devouring its makers as a sort of dragon or Frankenstein monster.
Let’s now look at ecology, and consequently ecosophy, is another fundamental scientific reorientation, a revolution in self and cultural understanding that matches, if not exceeds, in importance the sixteenth-century Copernican astronomical revolution. Unfortunately, the influence of ecological science on public policy has been superficial, leading only to slightly more efficient light bulbs and hybrid gas-electric automobiles. So long as ecology remains narrowly scientific in the secular sense, concerned with how and not why, it can penetrate no deeper into humanity’s dysfunctional cosmo-political orientation. “Home,” in the individualized techno-capitalist context, means now my home or your home; Gaia–our home–has receded into the neglected background of human life.
To be sure, this eco-social crisis of our age has its roots in the rupture between religion and science, as well as liberal arts and science; especially the science of economics. In order to reunite the how with the why, humanity must remember its proper relation to creation and its Creator. Ecosophy, I would suggest, is the fruit of such memory, the wisdom of home that, when watered, grows as a great tree from the soil of every earthly soul. Ecosophy brings economics back to its roots in moral science and theology, and enchants ecological science so as to renew humanity’s connection to a living creation. But it cannot be just a resurgence of the paganism of old. The Christian religion is an especially important well to explore in relation to the contemporary eco-social crisis, since modern Western science and technology were born out of its cultural matrix.
Secularity, in other words, can itself be understood by a Christian as an inevitable moment in the historical unfolding of Christ’s incarnation, just as the Renaissance was. The Renaissance cannot be understood as a mere resurgence of Greco-Roman civilization. Without historically situating modern Western civilization in the context of Christianity, secularity is all too easily misunderstood and identified with being modern and progressive, which eventually become inevitable and whose denial puts one at risk of being branded a medieval obscurantist.
As radical a break with the past as it may appear to be, Enlightenment secularism is evidently not best characterized as the rise of individual rationality above commonly held myths, nor as the firm grasp of scientific truths and technological powers that can replace religious delusions and magical incantations. The evidence of the inadequacy of such a triumphant characterization of modernity is legion: the isolated modern consumer is ruled over by perhaps the most deceitful, destructive, and oppressive myth of all, the myth of the market as above examined via Rand and Greenspan.
Secular philosophy’s failure to engage the market-driven metaphysics of techno-capitalism for fear of trespassing into theology has allowed the “science” of capitalist economics to upstage the Wisdom of creation. Any hope of finding orientation in these chaotic times depends upon a renaissance of the poetic science as expressed philosophically by a Giambattista Vico. The human, as the imago dei, is tasked with the renewal and maintenance of the creation covenant. Genesis 1:28 calls us not so much to “subdue” and to “dominate,” but “to harness or to bind” heaven and earth, to “maintain the bonds of creation.” As the children of Wisdom, we are called upon by our Creator to be co-creators with Her in all our deeds and all our speech. To be made in the image of God is to be God’s poet, the namer and storyteller of creation.
So there are definitely two competing visions, that of the life of the market versus that of the miracle of life. The life of the market is that of ruthless competition, the struggle for existence between selfish animals, who come from dust and to dust return. The miracle of life is that of spiritual communion, the joy of co-creation amongst loving angels. The former is a morality rooted in the shallow pleasures of private accumulation, while the latter calls humanity to participate in the renewal of all creation.
The miracle of life can be understood through an ecosophic perception of the sacramentality of creation as a Theilard de Chardin or Thomas Berry understood it. Consider Gaia’s relationship with the Sun, that most generous of celestial beings. The Sun sacrifices its own body to give away vast quantities of energy to Gaia without any expectation of return. Not a single quantum of energy could be transacted between living beings upon the surface of earth without the Sun’s primordial generosity. This is as true of the monetary transactions of the human economy as it is of the ecological transactions of soil and plants. Life is a gift, not an earning, a celebration of divine surplus, not a competition amidst material scarcity.
Contrary to Rand’s racist ideology, the native populations of pre-conquest America understood the meaning of the Sun’s splendor deeply enough to ritually organize their lives on earth to reflect the same patterns it was performing in heaven. Extravagant potlatch celebrations were held in honor of births, weddings, funerals, and other rites of passage. Natives would gather together for great feasts gifted by wealthy families, and to sing and dance in honor of their divine ancestors. These ceremonies provide evidence that not barter, as classical economists assume, but gifting was the earliest form of exchange. Potlatch celebrations were outlawed by both Canadian and US governments in the late 19th century, and remained so until 1951. As modernity unfolded, traditional sacraments were increasingly considered to be culturally constructed symbolic performances, rather than theurgic events opening an economy between creature and Creator. Skepticism of inherited norms and revealed truths steadily increased as individuals turned to their own reason and values for guidance concerning ultimate matters.
Weber famously argued that it was the downplaying of communal ritual among the Protestant laity that first made possible the disenchantment of the world, the formation of the private modern subject, and the subsequent rise of techno-scientific capitalism. God, even if not quite dead, had all but fled the realms of space and time. Free of the sacred places and liturgical calendars of traditional sacramental religion, the modern individual no longer mirrored the celestial economy of angels, but remade the earth in his own fallen image.
Reintroducing theologically grounded and ecologically sensitive morality into the norms of the marketplace will require an initially painful reorientation of modern human life, the crucifixion of the old to make way for the new. In order to come into alignment with the Wisdom of creation so as to participate in God’s ongoing artistry, everything from our scientific understanding of life and energy to the time-anxiety underlying our socio-economic commitment to work must be re-imagined.
In order to imagine, and to co-create, the Great Economy of the Kingdom, it is first necessary to free ourselves from the anxieties of the world of working. This, I submit, is best outlined in Franciscan spirituality which advocates enjoying and praising nature rather than the exploitation and the rape of nature. Anxiety makes the problems of the market apparent to us, but uncovering their solution requires that we release ourselves from its world-distorting grip. Unlike the anti-religion of the market ruling over the world of working, wherein “time is money” as Ben Franklin famously quipped, Christianity calls us to observe the birds of the air and the lilies of the field living without toil: “And who of you by being worried can add a single hour to his life?” Time needs to be found to smell the roses.
Play, like the perception of Wisdom, opens up a non-ordinary reality, allowing us to transcend the everyday world of work. The idea is not to transcend work entirely, but to recognize its relativity in regard to all the other experiential realities that are engaged with during a full 24-hour cycle of earth’s rotation (sleep, dreams, etc.), or the full span of a mortal life (birth, love, near death, death, spiritual vision, etc.). Work will always be necessary for survival, but the question remains: why survive? If not to play, then for what? We are back to the question of the purpose of the universe.
Ritual performance, and the creative efflorescence it encourages, is at the existential core of our lives, and indeed is the beating heart at the center of creation. We might sometimes reflect and recall that the purpose of all our science, technology, industry, manufacturing, commerce, and finance is celebration, planetary celebration. That is what moves the stars through the heavens and the earth through its seasons, as Dante intuits at the end of his journey in The Divine Comedy. The final norm of judgment concerning the success or failure of our technologies is the extent to which they enable us to participate more fully in this grand festival.
The meaning of the world and the order of the cosmos must be enacted, or imaginally bodied forth. The human imagination, the Seal of creation, does not receive the world’s meaning ready-made, but must participate in its making: The meaning of earthly life soon dissolves unless we are willing to play, to make imaginally present what would not otherwise be so. Imagination is the soul’s temple, the holy of holies within which immanence and transcendence meet and give birth to worlds worth living in. It needs to be added to rationality, so that one can live a full human life. In this way, everyday is made holy, and all our work becomes a form of worship. Religion, science, art, and indeed, culture in general, are all born out of playfulness. Humans may not be the only creatures who play, but surely only we take play seriously enough to die for it. Perhaps Socrates had something like that in mind when he said that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”
Contrary to this vision of creation rooted in play, biologists since Darwin have tended to understand evolution primarily as a vicious competitive “struggle for existence” amidst scarcity, where only the fittest survive. Energy is not compulsive work, but “Eternal Delight.” Nor is God’s ongoing creative artistry tyrannical or compulsive, but Genesis’ acts of creation must be read in concert with the wisdom of Proverbs and the passion of the Gospels. God did not create the world out of nothing, but beget it and suffered it with Wisdom. Lacking such an ecosophic perception of the true nature of reality has left modern humanity ignorant of why Gaia is the way She is. This ignorance hardly stopped us from learning how many of Her seemingly isolated parts worked, and how we might manipulate them for our own profit. Cunning power became our knowledge conceived as power.
As a St. Francis clearly perceived, as a mystic with no academic degrees, the Great Economy is in our midst and it does not reside in accumulated wealth and knowledge. It resides in Wisdom which is also all around. If the heart be reached, not through reason, but through imagination, then healing humanity’s eco-social wound must begin there, with the heart and with the imagination. Enlightenment conceptions of the “state of nature” must be entirely re-envisioned, e.g., Gaia’s values becoming the soil out of which the human soul imagines its own values. To be made in the image of God is not merely to be capable of thinking His plan after Him, but to be co-creator with Christ of the Kingdom, on earth, as it is in heaven.
In conclusion, I wish to suggest that ecosophy should not be a mere throw-back to pagan “nature worship” as a way to reconnect to the sacred (fine in itself), but it should go beyond; it should be the culmination of a genuine Christian Franciscan spirituality which remembers God’s creation and through nature finds the way to a new imaginative journey such as the one begun by Dante “in the middle of the journey of our lives” which ends, in the last line of the Divine Comedy, with “the love that moves the sun and the other stars.”
Increasing Frequency of Cyclones and Flooding Portends Worse Problems
Sixteen years ago on August 29th, hurricane Katrina struck the Louisiana coast causing widespread damage that was estimated at $125 billion. This year, by a remarkable coincidence, hurricane Ida hit on the same date, again August 29th. The weather service holds the end of August though the beginning of September as the period with the highest likelihood of tropical cyclones hitting the Louisiana coast. In light of this, perhaps the coincidence is not quite as uncanny.
While not as large as Katrina, hurricane Ida was more powerful with winds in excess of 150 miles per hour. That is in line with climate scientists who now believe extreme weather events will tend to increase in both severity and frequency unless something is done about global warming.
Another example has been the heat wave last June in the Pacific Northwest in which hundreds of people died. Canada set an all-time-high temperature record of 49.6 degrees Celsius in the village of Lytton. The chance of all this happening without human-induced global warming is about 1 in a 1000. However, the warming makes the event 150 times more likely.
Following Ida was hurricane Larry. Also powerful, it formed in the Atlantic but luckily for the Atlantic coast chose a path straight north. These recurring extreme weather events have caught the attention of scientists. Thus Myhre from the Center for Climate Research in Norway and his coauthors find a strong increase in frequency and confirm previously established intensity. They collected data for Europe over a three-decade period (1951-1980) and repeated the process for 1984-2013. This historical data also allowed them to develop climate models for the future, and, as one might imagine, the future is not rosy.
Expanding their horizon, the authors note that historical and future changes in Europe follow a similar pattern. This does not hold when including the US, Japan and Australia which are likely to experience bigger changes. Given intensity and frequency going hand in hand and also that the study considered natural variability alone, we can only dread the inclusion of human forcing through climate drivers like greenhouse gases.
For coastal residents, sea level rise adds to the hazard. Worse, it is now a problem for people several miles inland. In South Florida, drainage canals are used to return water to the ocean after storm and flooding events; the difficulty now lies in rising sea levels that hinder the efficiency of the drainage canals.
Residents as far away as 20 miles inland have noticed water coming up their driveway, a new and frightening portend of the future. The South Florida Water Management District oversees the canals. It raises and lowers the gates controlling flow to the ocean or vice versa. Thus they can open the gates to release flood water from storms to the ocean.
The problem now is that the ocean level in the Atlantic during some storms is higher than the water level inland so they cannot open the gates — that would simply bring in more water.
All of these happenings are clearly not a happy future prospect … unless we take global warming seriously and act soon.
Human activity the common link between disasters around the world
Disasters such as cyclones, floods, and droughts are more connected than we might think, and human activity is the common thread, a UN report released on Wednesday reveals.
The study from the UN University, the academic and research arm of the UN, looks at 10 different disasters that occurred in 2020 and 2021, and finds that, even though they occurred in very different locations and do not initially appear to have much in common, they are, in fact, interconnected.
A consequence of human influence
The study builds on the ground-breaking Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment released on 9 August, and based on improved data on historic heating, which showed that human influence has warmed the climate at a rate that is unprecedented in at least the last 2,000 years. António Guterres, the UN Secretary-General described the IPCC assessment as a “code red for humanity”.
Over the 2020-2021 period covered by the UN University, several record-breaking disasters took place, including the COVID-19 pandemic, a cold wave which crippled the US state of Texas, wildfires which destroyed almost 5 million acres of Amazon rainforest, and 9 heavy storms in Viet Nam – in the span of only 7 weeks.
Whilst these disasters occurred thousands of miles apart, the study shows how they are related to one another, and can have consequences for people living in distant places.
An example of this is the recent heatwave in the Arctic and cold wave in Texas. In 2020, the Arctic experienced unusually high air temperatures, and the second-lowest amount of sea ice cover on record.
This warm air destabilized the polar vortex, a spinning mass of cold air above the North Pole, allowing colder air to move southward into North America, contributing to the sub-zero temperatures in Texas, during which the power grid froze up, and 210 people died.
COVID and the Cyclone
Another example of the connections between disasters included in the study and the pandemic, is Cyclone Amphan, which struck the border region of India and Bangladesh.
In an area where almost 50 per cent of the population is living under the poverty line, the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns left many people without any way to make a living, including migrant workers who were forced to return to their home areas and were housed in cyclone shelters while under quarantine.
When the region was hit by Cyclone Amphan, many people, concerned over social distancing, hygiene and privacy, avoided the shelters and decided to weather the storm in unsecure locations. In the aftermath, there was a spike in COVID-19 cases, compounding the 100 fatalities directly caused by Amphan, which also caused damage in excess of 13 billion USD and displaced 4.9 million people.
The new report identifies three root causes that affected most of the events in the analysis: human-induced greenhouse gas emissions, insufficient disaster risk management, and undervaluing environmental costs and benefits in decision-making.
The first of these, human induced greenhouse gas emissions, is identified as one of the reasons why Texas experienced freezing temperatures, but these emissions also contribute to the formation of super cyclones such as Cyclone Amphan, on the other side of the world.
Insufficient disaster risk management, notes the study, was one of the reasons why Texas experienced such high losses of life and excessive infrastructure damage during the cold snap, and also contributed to the high losses caused by the Central Viet Nam floods.
The report also shows how the record rate of deforestation in the Amazon is linked to the high global demand for meat: this demand has led to an increase in the need for soy, which is used as animal feed for poultry. As a result, tracts of forest are being cut down.
“What we can learn from this report is that disasters we see happening around the world are much more interconnected than we may realize, and they are also connected to individual behaviour”, says one of the report’s authors, UNU scientist Jack O’Connor. “Our actions have consequences, for all of us,”
Solutions also linked
However, Mr. O’Connor is adamant that, just as the problems are interlinked, so are the solutions.
The report shows that cutting harmful greenhouse gas emissions can positively affect the outcome of many different types of disasters, prevent a further increase in the frequency and severity of hazards, and protect biodiversity and ecosystems.
Blue sky thinking: 5 things to know about air pollution
Around 90 per cent of people go through their daily lives breathing harmful polluted air, which has been described by the United Nations as the most important health issue of our time. To mark the first International Day of Clean Air for blue skies, on 7 September, UN News explains how bad it is and what is being done to tackle it.
1) Air pollution kills millions and harms the environment
It may have dropped from the top of news headlines in recent months, but air pollution remains a lethal danger to many: it precipitates conditions including heart disease, lung disease, lung cancer and strokes, and is estimated to cause one in nine of all premature deaths, around seven million every year.
Air pollution is also harming also harms our natural environment. It decreases the oxygen supply in our oceans, makes it harder for plants to grow, and contributes to climate change.
Yet, despite the damage it causes, there are worrying signs that air pollution is not seen as a priority in many countries: in the first ever assessment of air quality laws, released on 2 September by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), it was revealed that around 43 per cent of countries lack a legal definition for air pollution, and almost a third of them have yet to adopt legally mandated outdoor air quality standards.
2) The main causes
Five types of human activity are responsible for most air pollution: agriculture, transport, industry, waste and households.
Agricultural processes and livestock produce methane, an extremely powerful greenhouse gas, and a cause of asthma and other respiratory illnesses. Methane is also a by-product of waste burning, which emits other polluting toxins, which end up entering the food chain. Meanwhile industries release large amounts of carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, particulate matter and chemicals.
Transport continues to be responsible for the premature deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, despite the global phase out of dangerous leaded fuel at the end of August. This milestone was lauded by senior UN officials, including the Secretary-General, who said that it would prevent around one million premature deaths each year. However, vehicles continue to spew fine particulate matter, ozone, black carbon and nitrogen dioxide into the atmosphere; it’s estimated that treating health conditions caused by air pollution costs approximately $1 trillion per year globally.
Whilst it may not come as a great shock to learn that these activities are harmful to health and the environment, some people may be surprised to hear that households are responsible for around 4.3 million deaths each year. This is because many households burn open fires and use inefficient stoves inside homes, belching out toxic particulate matter, carbon monoxide, lead and mercury.
3) This is an urgent issue
The reason that the UN is ringing alarm bells about this issue now, is that the evidence of the effects of air pollution on humans is mounting. In recent years exposure to air pollution has been found to contribute to an increased risk of diabetes, dementia, impaired cognitive development and lower intelligence levels.
On top of this, we have known for years that it is linked to cardiovascular and respiratory disease.
Concern about this type of pollution dovetails with increased global action to tackle the climate crisis: this is an environmental issue as well as a health issue, and actions to clean up the skies would go a long way to reducing global warming. Other harmful environmental effects include depleted soil and waterways, endangered freshwater sources and lower crop yields.
4) Improving air quality is a responsibility of government and private sector
On International Day of Clean Air for blue skies, the UN is calling on governments to do more to cut air pollution and improve air quality.
Specific actions they could take include implementing integrated air quality and climate change policies; phasing out petrol and diesel cars; and committing to reduce emissions from the waste sector.
Businesses can also make a difference, by pledging to reduce and eventually eliminate waste; switching to low-emission or electric vehicles for their transport fleets; and find ways to cut emissions of air pollutants from their facilities and supply chains.
5)…and it is our responsibility, as well
At an individual level, as the harmful cost of household activities shows, a lot can be achieved if we change our behaviour.
Simple actions can include using public transportation, cycling or walking; reducing household waste and composting; eating less meat by switching to a plant-based diet; and conserving energy.
The Website for the International Day contains more ideas of actions that we can take, and how we can encourage our communities and cities to make changes that would contribute to cleaner skies: these include organizing tree-planting activities, raising awareness with events and exhibitions, and committing to expanding green open spaces.
How clean is your air?
You may well be wondering exactly how clean or dirty the air around you is right now. If so, take a look at a UNEP website which shows how exposed we are to air pollution, wherever we live.
The site indicates that more than five billion people, or around 70 per cent of the global population, are breathing air that is above the pollution limits recommended by the World Health Organization.
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