The Guardian, 28 March 2018:
Michael McCarthy is absolutely right to underline how little attention has been paid to the catastrophic loss of insect populations and farmland birds over the past 50 years, but this is part of a general trend that is accelerating.
The three main factors driving species loss are climate change, loss of habitat, and the introduction of alien species into vulnerable populations. The rate of loss for all species is currently 1,000 times higher than normal, with half of all amphibians, a third of all corals, a quarter of all mammals, a fifth of all plant species and a sixth of birds under threat of extinction.
Of course Homo sapiens is just another species that will disappear along with all the rest. If we lack the intelligence or the motivation to stop this process, we probably don’t deserve the description of sapiens.
Dr Robin Russell-Jones
Chair, Help Rescue The Planet
Financial Times, 23 February 2018:
Sir, George Whitesides (Letters February 21) states that the “Blue
Marble” image of Earth, taken from space in 1972, gave rise to the
modern environmental movement. This overlooks the campaign by
Stewart Brand in 1966 to force Nasa to release a rumoured colour photo
of Earth. The image was subsequently used on the covers of Brand’s
seminal Whole Earth Catalog that offered tools for ecological living and
was published from 1969 to 1972. Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth
were founded in 1971. The great value of space access is that it is now
possible, using hyperspectral technology, to measure from space the
carbon flux on areas of Earth. This will make global carbon pricing and
trading viable as it brings scientific integrity to carbon sequestration
claims. Carbon markets have failed previously due to political
intervention and inaccurate measurement. Soil and forests, as carbon
sinks, are our main hope for reducing atmospheric greenhouse gas levels.
Satellites can help.
Hastings, E Sussex, UK
Financial Times, 21 February 2018:
Robin Russell-Jones (Letters, February 16) is right to assert that solving
climate change will involve a variety of Earth-bound commitments. He is
wrong though to dismiss the improvement of access to space by private
companies as pointless and harmful. The relevance of space-based
technologies to climate change mitigation has been self-evident since the
“Blue Marble” image of Earth, taken in 1972 by the crew of Apollo 17,
helped give rise to the modern environmental movement. Since then our
knowledge and understanding of the causes and effects of climate change
on the planet, as well as how to better manage the consequences for its
inhabitants, have been immeasurably improved because of our presence
in space. The new commercial space companies such as Virgin Galactic
aim to bring space transportation into the 21st century with reusable
space craft, cutting the cost and environmental impact of launch and so
permitting innovative space-based solutions to a host of Earth-based
challenges — including that of climate change.
Chief Executive, Virgin Galactic
Financial Times, 15 February 2018:
Elon Musk’s ambition to populate the world with electric vehicles
running on solar-powered batteries is a vision we can admire, but
pretending that Mars provides some insurance policy against fouling up
our planet is delusional (Opinion, Feb 10). Richard Branson is another
entrepreneur whose obsession with space travel is combined with concern
about climate change; but not every problem is amenable to planetary
The solution to climate change is closer to home and requires a huge
investment in renewables and energy conservation, combined with a
carbon tax that reflects the damage that fossil fuels impose on human
health and our environment. Virgin Galactic or building colonies on Mars
are vainglorious projects with little purpose and a huge carbon footprint.
Dr Robin Russell-Jones
Chair, Help Rescue the Planet,
Richard Galustian in Gulf News, 18 December 2017:
In August, America withdrew from the Paris climate agreement, signed two years ago this month. Their reasoning was that President Donald Trump thought it was ‘a bad deal for America.’
The objective of about 200 countries that accepted the agreement was to prevent global temperatures during the 21st century from rising more than 3.6 degrees F (2.0 degrees C) above early 20th century temperatures with the hope of even a lower figure to 1.5 degrees C. For the survival of the planet, it is necessary to decrease, even halt the greenhouse emissions caused by burning of fossil fuels.
To achieve this, wealthy Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)countries agreed to provide $100 billion(Dh367 billion) a year by 2020, so that third world countries can be more climate friendly for the good of the world.
Recent global environmental issues are rising to the top of the political agenda with levels of air pollution levels at an all-time high not least are the cause of horrendous widespread fires across California, and the accelerating contamination of our all our oceans and the marine food chain by plastic. Fortunately there is a growing ground swell of global public and political awareness of environmental issues.
Carbon dioxide does not only causes global warming, it also dissolves in the oceans to form carbonic acid which inhibits the ability of organisms to produce shells or to form coral. Coral reefs are immensely complex and fragile ecosystems that are now under attack on two fronts: increasing acidity is dissolving their structure, and higher temperatures cause bleaching.
Mass extinction events have occurred on five previous occasions in the history of our planet and all but one was accompanied by the complete disappearance of coral reefs.
We are witnessing the same process happening again in this century. I spoke to one of the UK’s foremost environmental activists, Dr Robin Russell-Jones who was formerly Chair of CLEAR, the Campaign for Lead Free Air, and who has been campaigning on environmental issues for the past 40 years.
He has recently published a fascinating book called The Gilgamesh Gene which analyses the mind-set of rulers throughout the ages and their attitude to the environment. The book provides a very interesting historical background into origins of humanity’s reckless approach to the environment; so Trump doesn’t stand alone in his ignorance.
“I conceived and drafted most of the book before Trump was elected president” Dr Russell-Jones says, “but his approach to the environment is emblematic of rulers throughout history who have viewed the natural environment as something to be plundered for their own benefit and glorification. Rather than being protected for the common good, it is seen as a capital resource that is there to be conquered and exploited, and it’s only value is perceived as its market price, or the amount of oil and gas it contains.”
To understand how much this approach is hard wired into the DNA of western politicians, and increasingly most world leaders, Dr Russell-Jones analyses the oldest story in recorded history, The Epic of Gilgamesh.
The central theme of the epic is ecological. Gilgamesh ruled the ancient Mesopotamian city of Uruk in 2750 BC. During the previous millennium, Uruk had used up most of its local resources and had initiated a process of expansion which involved trading with neighbouring states for items such as lapis lazuli and cedarwood. Within the cedar forest lurked Humbaba, a monstrous creature ordained to guard the cedar trees against loggers. Gilgamesh and his friend Enkidu set off to kill Humbaba. Gilgamesh decapitates him, and our heroes then cut down the forest and float down the Euphrates on a raft of cedar logs with the head of Humbaba as proof of their victory. So Gilgamesh is not only the world’s first logger, he is also one of the world’s first trophy hunters; but his vainglorious endeavour comes at a price. Enkidu is cursed by Humbaba before he dies, and soon after their triumphant return, Enkidu sickens and dies.
Gilgamesh then sets off on a quest for immortality, and most of the commentaries on ‘the Epic’ concentrate on the futility of such an endeavour. But to Dr Russell-Jones, the more important aspect of this event are the environmental consequences. The only rationale offered by Gilgamesh for his reckless behaviour was to establish his reputation in perpetuity. I will do this so I can “stamp my name on the minds of men forever”. In other words he was an egotistical king with the same childish need for praise and adulation as Trump; though in many ways Trump’s narcissism is even more extreme. The only conclusion one can draw, says Dr Russell-Jones is that celebrity trumps the environment every time and from then on, the natural world came to be seen as something to be exploited, if necessary by force, and even if it entails the sacrifice of our dearest and most important friend, nature.
Nowadays the ancient cedar forests in the Levant have all but disappeared. One wonders what further irreversible damage to the natural world will be wreaked by the current president of the US not to mention his lack of foreign policy strategies that could help destroy the planet before our fragile globe environmentally implodes so to speak.
The hope is the Trump administration will change its mind in 2018 when presented with all the overwhelmingly evidence that the planet is in danger.
Richard Galustian is a business and security analyst who has lived in Libya since 2011
The Guardian, 18 October 2017:
There have been many attempts throughout history to preserve the cedars of Lebanon, including a decree against logging by the Roman Emperor Hadrian, but Aysin and Ali Büyüknohutçu are the first to have been murdered since Gilgamesh, a king in ancient Mesopotamia, slew the mythical guardian of the cedar forest, Humbaba, in 2750BC (Murders are a warning, say Turkish activists, 18 October).
It is likely that the Epic of Gilgamesh was written to warn against assaults on the natural world, but ancient cedar forests in Lebanon have nevertheless been decimated, not least by the British military when constructing a railway from Haifa to Tripoli, and Cedrus libani is now classified as a near-threatened species. The best-preserved trees are now found in the Taurus mountains of southern Turkey, and it is for these forests that the couple gave their lives. Turkey no longer has an independent judiciary, and there is a menacing link between nationalistic leaders and disregard for the environment. Trump’s attitude to climate change is just as dangerous as Turkish hitmen who murder environmental activists.
Dr Robin Russell-Jones
Author, The Gilgamesh Gene
What was it that initially separated us from other primates?
What was different about Homo sapiens 30,000 years ago that predicated our survival and the demise of our closest rivals, the Neanderthals?
Why are we obsessed with the notion that GDP is the only possible measure of progress?
If we are able to predict our own demise, why can we not do anything to stop it?
The Gilgamesh Gene is about the human condition, and in particular what it is in our make-up that has brought us, along with most other species on earth, to the brink of extinction. Ultimately it is a question about human psychology. The author draws on the ancient Epic of Gilgamesh to shed light on our predicament and offer a way out.
The epic is the oldest narrative in existence: it tells the story of a vainglorious king, Gilgamesh, who ruled the city of Uruk in Sumer about 2750 BC. He wished to leave a lasting memory of his feats by building great palaces out of cedar wood, killing the mythical guardian of the cedar forests so that he could “stamp his fame on the minds of men forever”. Dr Russell-Jones compares the different versions of the legend and traces their influence through Bronze Age civilisations to traditions that still dominate human thinking and world affairs today.
The Gilgamesh Gene incorporates the key scientific data that underlies the science of global warming, the decline of coral reefs, and the extreme vulnerability of ecosystems everywhere to global changes in the atmosphere and the oceans. His book is a warning that humanity’s demise is imminent, unless precautions are taken.
An interview on Bill Buckley’s BBC Radio Berkshire programme with The Gilgamesh Gene author, Dr Robin Russell-Jones. Originally aired on Mon 25 Sept. (c) BBC
The Guardian, 6 March 2016:
Dieselgate has been described as one of the greatest public health scandals in living memory; and last week researchers at MIT estimated an extra 1,200 deaths from the use of VW’s defeat devices just in Germany. The equivalent figure for the EU is around 5,000. Yet there is no indication that the chancellor has any plans to protect the public from the reckless and illegal policies adopted by car manufacturers (Opinion, 6 March). If the government increased fuel duty and vehicle excise duty for diesel cars, then the monies could be used to invest in non-polluting technologies, and the UK could become a world leader in clean energy and green transport. Instead we have an administration that rivals President Trump in its addiction to fossil fuels.
Dr Robin Russell-Jones
Ex-chair, Campaign for Lead Free Air, Stoke Poges, Buckinghamshire
The Guardian, 19 February 2017:
Air pollution is not just a London problem (Editorial, 17 February). Of the 43 zones currently monitored in the UK, 38 fail EU standards for NO2, so any strategy has to be nationwide and not left to individual councils.
The most likely government response is an extension of clean air zones, but there are serious doubts as to whether this will improve public health. First, designating certain areas as clean does nothing to reduce total emissions; it merely diverts them elsewhere. Second, the health effects of NO2 and particulates are without threshold, so reducing levels below an arbitrary limit may make sense politically, but will have little effect biologically. Third, the projected improvement in air quality is predicated upon new vehicles producing less NO2 in line with stricter EU vehicle emission tests, but we already know that emissions of NO2 “on the road” are four to five times greater than in laboratory tests, a discrepancy that even applies to the latest Euro 6 engines. Finally, studies of London schoolchildren showed no improvement in lung function after three years living in a low-emission zone.
As your leader proposes, we are in urgent need of a new Clean Air Act that hastens the demise of diesel and other highly polluting technologies, something the government could and should have championed more than 20 years ago.
Dr Robin Russell-Jones
Former chair CLEAR, Campaign for Lead Free Air, Stoke Poges, Buckinghamshire