In 1972 a book called The Gods Themselves was published. Some parts had already appeared in a science fiction magazine Galaxy and then appeared linked as a single novel. In the first part there is a passage that was probably inconsequential at that time, in fact almost inconspicuous:
‘It is a mistake’ (…) ‘to suppose that the public wants the environment protected or their lives saved and that they will be grateful to any idealist who will fight for such ends. What the public wants is their own individual comfort. We know that well enough from our experience in the environmental crisis of the twentieth century. Once it was well known that cigarettes increased the incidence of lung cancer, the obvious remedy was to stop smoking, but the desired remedy was a cigarette that did not encourage cancer. When it became clear that the internal combustion engine was polluting the atmosphere dangerously, the obvious remedy was to abandon such engines, and the desired remedy was to develop non polluting engines.’
These words were written half a century ago by one of the greatest science fiction authors of his time, perhaps ever, Isaac Asimov. He was not only a science fiction author but a scientist, the professor of biochemistry at Boston University. He was very much ahead of his time; for instance, he proposed computer aided learning, which would enable people to use computers to search for information on subjects they were interested in and make learning more appealing, since people would have greater freedom to choose what to learn with knowledge more widely available. We take that for granted now.
He may well have known about what Tim Berners-Lee was working on at CERN that was released to the world as the WWW in 1989, but he died in 1992 before its full potential was realised. In other words, he was a visionary scientist. He was by no means the only one, but the passage above tells us that what became headline making news recently is nothing new. The urgency, we are told, is upon us but international politicians appear not to be taking seriously enough with some of the largest global corporations still no more engaged than vague promises whilst still massively investing in fossil fuels, perhaps one last massive push before they do change strategy, but one, scientists say, probably already too late.
Despite Asimov’s words being fiction, as a biochemist he would have known a great deal about the environmental movement. It arose from concerns in the late 19 century about protection of the natural environment in Europe, wilderness in the USA and longstanding concern about consequences of pollution on health during the Industrial Revolution into the modern industrial world. Evidence suggests that as far back as the Roman period there was concern about problems such as air and water pollution related to the impact of environmental changes on human life. Pollution is linked to the spread of pandemics such as bubonic plague and smallpox in Europe between the late 14 and the mid 16 centuries. Plague, the ‘Black Death’, hit Europe in 1347 from Asia, claiming an estimated 20 million lives across Europe in four years. Smallpox was endemic to Europe, Asia and Arabia for centuries, a persistent menace killing 75% people infected, paling in comparison to the devastation of native populations in the New World that arrived in the 15 century with European invaders. Indigenous peoples in Latin and North America had zero natural immunity to smallpox that killed tens of millions; in fact, between 90 and 95% of them were wiped out in one century. Is the present pandemic unique? No.
Environmental organisations formed in late 19 to mid 20 centuries were mainly lobbying groups concerned with conservation, wildlife protection and pollution arising from industry and urbanisation. In the 1960s, they adopted political expression through ‘green’ political movements, becoming activist nongovernmental organisations and political parties. Some international agreements were in force by the 1960s, particularly after the 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, then changing nature of public debate reflected in organisation of the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development (the Earth Summit) in Rio de Janeiro. Global warming was not high on the agenda but it was part of those major meetings. Many more meetings have occurred since; Cop26, the twenty-sixth UN Climate Change Conference, one of them. Emphasis has changed from broader environmental concerns to climate change; however all of the other environmental issues remain and, to a great extent, are impacted by global warming.
Despite the extent of concern at present, the question remains how we have waited so long and whether it is not already too late? To wind up Cop26, hundreds of representatives of global civil society walked out of the convention centre in Glasgow on the final morning of the summit in protest carrying blood red ribbons to represent the critical red lines already crossed by negotiations. They condemned the legitimacy and goals of the twelve day summit then walked out to join protesters gathered on the streets. Asimov saw some of this coming, it has taken a very long time to do something about it but promises that promise too little and getting close to too late have resolved nothing.
Featured image by Markus Spiske on Pexels.