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After COVID-19 passes, our future will depend on whether governments prevent or permit more environmental vandalism by large corporations

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Image: SD-Pictures/Pixabay

Recent photos taken by the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-5P satellite show an amazing improvement in Earth's atmosphere. The sharp reduction of carbon dioxide emissions from factories, motor vehicles, ships, planes and fossil fuels reveals a planetary surface whose clarity had been obscured by industrial pollutants.

This long-delayed abatement of global warming stems from the COVID-19 pandemic. It's a world-wide pestilence that could have been averted if humans had heeded the repeated warnings of scientists to stop contaminating the planet's water, soil and atmosphere. Mother Earth would then not have been compelled to take such extreme curative measures in self-defense.

The April issue of National Geographic offers two projected forecasts of the future that awaits humankind -- one from a pessimistic outlook and one from an optimistic outlook.

Having perused these two conflicting perspectives, I think they might better be described as either realistic or idealistic.

The pessimist's case -- titled "Why We Won't Avoid a Climate Catastrophe" -- is co-edited by Elizabeth Kolbert, a New Yorker staff writer and Pulitzer-winning author of The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History.

Many of the facts and figures she and other realists cite in this special National Geographic edition are listed below:

  • Today there are nearly eight billion people and some 1.5 billion vehicles on the planet. Over the past 50 years, global oil consumption has more than doubled, as has fossil-fuel power usage.

  • Carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for centuries. So, even if we were to start cutting emissions today, the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere and the extent of climate change would continue to increase.

  • At least 680 vertebrate species have gone extinct in the past 500 years, with the extinction rate accelerating faster in the past century. The wild populations of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians have shrunk, on average, by 60 per cent since 1970. There are now some three billion fewer birds in North America, and the biomass of flying insects has dropped to an alarming extent, by as much as 70 per cent in some countries.

  • The essential, interconnected web of life is getting increasingly frayed. Biodiversity is essential for human existence. About three-quarters of all food crops, for example, rely on pollinators -- birds, bats, and, in the vast majority of cases, on bees, ants and other insects. 

  • Humans took 92.5 million metric tons of fish from the oceans in 2017. Fishing fleets have increased in size and power, but, as a result of overfishing, they have to work five times as hard as they did in 1950 to catch the same amount of fish. This is an obvious indication that far fewer fish are now left to catch. 

  • The extent of marine plastic pollution threatens the viability of hundreds of species, including 86 per cent of marine turtles.

  • To feed, house, and provide energy for our surging population, we've appropriated ever more of the world's resources for ourselves. People have significantly altered three-quarters of the ice-free land on Earth. All around the globe, farming has become more intensive, and with it deforestation and the loss of more than 85 percent of the world's wetlands area.

  • The Arctic ice cap has shrunk by more than a million square miles, with rising sea levels already causing floods in low-lying regions like the Marshall Islands and the Maldives – and even in Florida, Virginia, and South Carolina in the United States.

  • Flooding, however, is just one of the unfortunate consequences of global warming. A warmer world is also racked by deeper droughts, fiercer storms, and larger and more intense forest fires. Fifty years ago, such mega-blazes were rare. Now there are dozens of enormous fires every year that consume 100,000 acres or more -- in Europe, the U.S., Australia, Canada, Siberia and elsewhere. Also steadily increasing are land degradation, coral bleaching, deadly heat waves, and the expansion of marine dead zones. 

The optimist's case -- titled "Why we'll succeed in saving the planet from climate change" -- is outlined by Kolbert's co-editor, Emma Marris, who argues that we already have the tools to feed a larger population, provide energy for everyone, reverse climate change and prevent most additional extinctions. Following are the highlights of her upbeat outlook:

"What gives me hope? ... The public desire for action is bursting forth on the streets. Last September, some six million people worldwide went on a ‘climate strike’ ... The electric crackle of cultural change is once again in the air.

"We cannot undo what we've done; we cannot go back in time. Change -- ecological, economic, social -- is inevitable ... We will change, too. Many of us will learn to see ourselves as one species among many -- a part of nature, not in opposition to it.

"Our biggest shared challenge is climate change. If it seems overwhelming, it's in part because we, as individuals, can't stop it. Even if we're perfect green consumers -- refusing to fly, reusing shopping bags, going vegan -- we're trapped in a system that makes it impossible to stop adding to the problem. 

"Living requires eating, getting to work, and staying warm enough in winter and cool enough in summer to work and sleep. For now, it's impossible to do these things in most places without emitting carbon. But change can happen faster than many people appreciate . . . With popular will and the right policies, we'll have no problem creating new energy and transportation infrastructures, goods made without toxins or carbon emissions, biodegradable plastic substitutes."

"You may have heard that we are in the sixth mass extinction . . . (But) new research suggests most species can be saved and wildlife restored to higher abundances with a combination of more parks and protected areas, restoration of some ecosystems, and a reduction in farmland. Agriculture currently uses a third of Earth’s land. But if we cut meat eating and food waste in half, increase crop yields, and trade food more efficiently, the researchers estimate, we could grow all the food we need on less land. That would create more space for other species."

Other contributors to the optimist's section acclaim the increase in renewable energy such as wind and solar power; the education of more people -- especially girls -- in under-developed nations; the alleged greater access to clean water, nutrition and electricity; and the many more people who are living longer.

The vast increase in the number of young people who have become social and environmental activists -- notably climate change protester Greta Thunberg -- have helped give green policies a higher priority for many governments and political parties.   

Three formidable barriers 

Although the uprise in planet-saving activism is to be applauded and encouraged, the prospect that it can actually prod the world's economic and political leaders to join such a global save-the-planet crusade remains highly unlikely. Their acclaim for the activists has been strictly verbal, with no sign that it will ever be transmuted into corporate and political activism. There are three major impediments to their becoming genuine green activists.

1. Capitalism  

The uncontrolled form of capitalism that now girdles the globe and contaminates the climate is firmly committed to a voracious economic system that, left unchecked, will eventually (and sooner rather than than later) destroy civilization as we know it. This is an obvious and uncontestable reality.

Do the business barons who pursue this economic frenzy know what they are doing? Most of them surely do. They're not stupid. But even though they are aware they are driving a runaway economic express to the abyss, they can't stop it on their own. Their legal charters and corporate mandates make the maximization of profits and shareholder dividends their one and only objective. This fixation trumps everything else, regardless of the ultimate catastrophic consequences.

Any CEO who deliberately incurred a shrinkage of profits for equitable or ethical reasons would be turfed out of office by his board of directors and major shareholders. Otherwise, in such a competitive arena, the company would soon be taken over by a more ruthless competitor. 

In any case, the primacy of profit-making is enshrined in the laws that cover business operations. That was made clear in the Peoples Department Stores Inc. (Trustee of) v. Wise case in 2004, when Canada's Supreme Court ruled that directors and officers "owe their fiduciary obligations to the corporation, and the corporations' interests are not to be confused with the interests of the creditors or those of any other stakeholder."

And there you have it. Any CEO or board of directors so reckless as to deviate from the pursuit of profits for any other reason -- for the benefit of workers, consumers, society as a whole, or even the planet -- would promptly be sued under this ruling, or have the company exposed to a hostile takeover. 

Further compounding this legal barrier is the stark reality that capitalism could not survive the creation of a pollution-free world. It's an economic system that depends on the perpetual burning of fossil fuels, the ongoing extraction of non-renewable resources and a ruthless distribution of wealth that enriches a privileged few and impoverishes more than half the planet's inhabitants.

In short, the preservation of capitalism as the world's predominant economic system is incompatible with the attainment of a clean and viable climate.   

2. The servility of governments

There was a time, long ago, when governments controlled and limited corporations' activities, even confining each of them to a specific industry and operating under strict rules and regulations. They were not permitted to own newspapers, magazines or, later, radio and television networks. They were also banned from involvement in politics and education.

How times have changed! The escalating power of large corporations over the past 150 years, along with the rise of conservative neoliberalism and free trade, has freed them from virtually all political constraints. So dominant have they become -- financially, globally and politically -- that their relationship with governments has been reversed. 

Instead of governments controlling them, they now control most governments, whose leaders now would never dare challenge rampant corporate profiteering and the widespread poverty and inequality it inflicts on billions of people. Even worse are the devastating effects of pollution and global warming that it heaps on the environment.  

3. Time    

Ecologists began sounding the alarm about excessive economic growth and global warming back in the 1950s. Had the world's political leaders listened to them then -- before they were converted into capitalist flunkies -- and promptly implemented the necessary preventive and precautionary measures, the current environmental crisis could have been averted.

But, apart from holding a series of "climate summits" whose ineffectual pledges to curb global warming were never intended to be seriously acted upon, the world's political leaders remained idle while the cohorts of capitalism kept running amok.

Their pollution of the planet has been allayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has significantly reduced the operation of their toxic-emitting factories, farms, fossil fuels and deforestation. But when the pestilence passes, as it eventually will after several more months of anguish, deprivation and fatalities, how many will learn from this painful lesson and mend their environmentally damaging ways?

Certainly not the owners and investors of the big corporations. They will resume their planet-wrecking as quickly as they are permitted to do so. The environmental activists, on the other hand, can be counted on to regroup and reactivate their planet-saving campaign, and with the support of many additional thousands of people who now see the urgency of preventing further global warming.

But time is fast running out. There may be only another decade or so left before the tipping-point is reached, beyond which additional rescue efforts become futile. Still, that doesn't mean all hope is lost. Although corporate officials and investors can never be swayed, the possibility remains, however faint, that elected politicians enlightened by the pandemic will finally shed their subservience to capitalism. And then quickly strip the corporations of their power to destroy humankind's future.

A fantasy? Maybe. But, unless the world's political leaders put an end to capitalist rule, capitalist rule will put an end to most of the world's inhabitants. 

Let's hope our political leaders can be prevailed upon to make the right choice.

Ed Finn grew up in Corner Brook, Newfoundland, where he worked as a printer's apprentice, reporter, columnist and editor of that city's daily newspaper, the Western Star. His career as a journalist included 14 years as a labour relations columnist for the Toronto Star. He was part of the world of politics between 1959 and 1962, serving as the first provincial leader of the NDP in Newfoundland. He worked closely with Tommy Douglas for some years and helped defend and promote medicare legislation in Saskatchewan.

Image: SD-Pictures/Pixabay

Editor's note, April 7, 2020: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that photos showing improvements in Earth's atmosphere since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak were taken by "astronauts in the orbiting space station." In fact, reports indicate such photos were taken by the European Space Agency via satelite. The story has been corrected.

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