Ending Overshoot
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Ending Overshoot

Keep the Tech Genie in the Bottle

This week two stories in the press got me thinking about how we, as a species, prioritise growth and ease of production above protection of the ecosystem of this planet, on which all life relies for existence.

One of the stories, from the BBC, is about Polychlorinated byphenyls (PCBs) which were used widely in electrical equipment like capacitors & transformers, and in paints, plastics & rubber products until the 1980s. The production of these human-made chemicals was banned by United States federal law in 1978 (UK banned them in 1981), and by the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants in 2001. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), then rendered PCBs as definite carcinogens in humans — they are toxic to humans as well as many other organic lifeforms.

There is no doubt that the creation of PCBs made manufacturing, production and use of many products much easier &, as a result, life was made easier (& more profitable) for many people on a planet of increasing numbers and consumption. But ever since they were banned our oceans have remained polluted with a substance that seems beyond us to remove or recover, & we are detecting a build up of PCBs in whales, dolphins and porpoises.

Beached Harbour Porpoise in distress

The BBC story tells us that “Scientists say harbour porpoises exposed to PCBs had shrunken testicles, suggesting an effect on sperm count and fertility.” threatening the long term survival of the species. “The situation is much more dire for killer whales.” The article goes on to say, “They say that while these are preliminary findings, more must be done to clean up the oceans.” Well, maybe it should, but it seems clear that this particular genie is well and truly ‘out of the bottle’ — an extensive search of available literature on PCB clean-up indicates that we don’t have any practical, scalable, cost-effective way to remove PCPs from the planet’s oceans.

So seeing this fine example of human endeavour to boost growth, that has resulted in environmental disaster (not to mention a number of lawsuits) and for which we have no practical clean-up solution, one might think that if we spot another ‘edgy’ human-made chemical, Neonicotinoids (for example), we’d think twice about the wisdom of continuing to use it? But, once again in our drive to support ever more humans consuming ever more products (in this case cheap & easy access to food) we seem unable to kick the habit of tech solutions and the blind use of chemical compounds that we can clearly see are doing harm.

Sugar Beet in a French Field

According to Nature magazine, “Neonicotinoids are widely-used pesticides implicated in the decline of bees, known to have sub-lethal effects on bees’ foraging and colony performance.” and in April 2018, the European Union agreed a ban on all outdoor uses of the neonicotinoids.

But since then, in 2020 the French government has lifted the ban, for the next 3 years, to “help save its sugar beet industry”. Sugar beet crops in France were ravaged by aphids in 2020 with widespread yield losses reported. And this week the UK has also granted “emergency approval to use Syngenta neonicotinoid insecticide on sugar beet seeds”. In this case, the species that we are prepared to drive towards extinction is one that pollinates the plants that provide us directly with food or that provide our farmed animals with food. Are we really this mad as a species?

And so we let yet another genie out of the bottle & we leave it out there: one of the many that we have released before and one of the many that we will no doubt release in the future.

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Things we need to know and do to chart a sustainable course to a beautiful future. Our pursuit of perpetual growth is a dead end for civilization. It’s time for a new chapter.

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Jem Randles

Jem Randles

Campaigner on environmental issues, the impact of human population & consumption, for 30+ years. Associated with World Population Balance & Population Counts.

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