Things as they are

A Buddhist monk’s view of the climate emergency.

There comes a time when, after a very long period has passed, a seventh sun appears. This great earth and Sineru the king of mountains erupt in one burning mass of fire. And as they blaze and burn the flames are swept by the wind as far as the Brahmā realm. Sineru the king of mountains blazes and burns, crumbling as it’s overcome by the great fire. And meanwhile, mountain peaks a hundred leagues high, or two, three, four, or five hundred leagues high disintegrate as they burn. Who would ever imagine that this earth and Sineru, king of mountains, will burn and crumble and be no more, except for one who has seen the truth?
The Buddha, AN 7.66, The Seven Suns

As a Buddhist monk, I have practiced to see things as they are. To accept what is real and true, without rejecting what I do not like or embracing what I find amenable. I have also meditated for many years on deep compassion, on seeing the value of all life first and foremost, and respecting the role of humanity as carers and custodians. My relation with nature is not that of a farmer or a gatherer, a fisher or a miner. Although my spiritual life would not be possible without the material support of those who make use of the land, I don’t see the earth primarily as a source of food, income, or resources, but as a source of wonder and spiritual renewal. And so I have lived in forests for much of my life in search of peace. Now I live in the city, partly because I don’t know that the forest life in Australia has a future. There is a balance in all things, between the spiritual and the material, the forest and the city, the life of renunciation and the life of accumulation, and I fear that balance has been lost.

We humans are pretty efficient at filtering out things we don’t want to hear. Despite decades of messaging, it’s still possible to go through life not know anything much about our climate crisis. Few are really prepared to change, or for change. I’ve been involved in the environmental movement in one way or another since the early 1980s, and it is clear that, whatever our successes in other areas, we have failed on the big one. The scientists and engineers have done their jobs, but it hasn’t translated into the kind of change we need. How do we change so many people so far so fast, and implement that change in effective policy? The whole thing is so unprecedented, so vast, we just don’t know what will work. And it is sheer naivety to dismiss the possibility that there simply is no solution; that we are rushing headlong to our own self-created annihilation and will just keep on going. I don’t know, and I doubt anyone else does either. I do believe, though, that whatever happens, and whatever we do or don’t do about it, it is better to be informed than to be ignorant.

I am no expert, just a little piece of planet earth that has somehow managed to become sentient, and who has used some of that sentience to read about climate change. Over the years I have benefited from articles that gather up-to-date reports in one handy place. The first and most impactful for me was An introduction to global warming impacts: Hell and High Water, a 2009 article in ThinkProgress by Joe Romm. It’s ten years old, but still well worth reading. I thought I’d do something similar, so I could learn some more and maybe help some folks get up to speed. Many of these links were sourced from a scrappy post that went viral during the Australia bushfires of 2019/2020, The future is grim. I have tried to favor original sources, but a well-written media report is often more palatable than a scientific journal. There are over 350 articles linked here, loosely gathered by topic, but still it covers only a small portion of the climate news. And there is a recency bias, as I have focused on news over 2019–early 2020. If you want to keep up with events, The Guardian has the best mainstream coverage of the climate crisis.

This is a litany of facts, sprinkled with a little of my own commentary. Ignore my thoughts if you like, they are not important: the earth is. It can be quite distressing to learn about the state of our planet, so you probably want to read in moderation. The sky is still blue (in some places), there is still water to drink (if you’re lucky), and the air can be breathed (on a good day). Whatever the blessings that life gives you, enjoy them while you can. Mother Earth wants us to be happy. But she also wants us to, you know, stop shitting on her. So best do that then.

Global summary

No survey or summary can do justice to the harms inflicted on our living planet by human industrial activity. There are too many things, effects strange and unexpected, local conditions that no-one could have forseen. One thing we do know above all else: it’s bad and it’s getting worse.


I’m beginning this list with a quote from the U.S. Army War College. I’m a life-long pacifist, and this is a nod to the fact that, although the environment has become a politically polarized issue, reality doesn’t care about our politics. Even the institutions most closely associated with the exertion of power, imbued with the ethos that they can bend circumstances to their will, must eventually face a reckoning. The U.S. military, quite apart from its humanitarian record, is one of history’s greatest CO₂ emitters. Yet they acknowledge that the environment is something beside which all their guns and bombs are powerless.

The state of the climate

Don’t be fooled by the details. Don’t be distracted by the latest news-of-the-day. The chart that matters is the one below: how much CO₂ is in the atmosphere. It is CO₂ that is the primary driver of global warming, and this one measure—the Scripps CO₂ program at Maunua Loa, maintained since 1958—is both crucially important in itself, and provides a proxy for the state of play.

It’s easy to be impressed by reports of new technologies, or a flatlining of emissions in some sectors. However, emissions are not just produced by industry or transport or the energy sector, but by melting tundra and burning forests as well. And they do not exist in a vacuum; the earth’s systems are dynamic, and carbon is being absorbed as it is being emitted. It’s complicated. Many factors are beyond our control, and many are subject to little-understood feedback effects.

The global atmospheric CO₂ reflects all the CO₂ put into the atmosphere from every source, as well as all the CO₂ that is removed. And as you can see, the news isn’t great: CO₂ continues to rise and even accelerate, the gentle upwards curve belying the idea that somehow we have it all under control.

The world is not ours. It belongs to no person, no nation, no corporation. It is our conceit telling us we have the right to control it, and our delusion pretending we have the means to bend it to our will. When we grok that, we have taken the first step towards wisdom.

Emissions: it’s not just power, cars, and planes

The basic CO₂ equation: emissions grow as absorption declines. Attention usually focuses on obvious things like energy production and transport, and while these are important, there are plenty of other sources of emissions both human and natural. Heavy industry, meat, construction, and the military all produce vast amounts of CO₂. Meanwhile, natural sources of CO₂ and methane appear dangerously close to irreversible tipping points, where climate disruption upsets the “normal” equilibrium, creating massive new surges of greenhouse gases.

Preventing climate collapse is a lot harder than just putting up some solar. The ultimate culprit is our industrialized economy. Setting aside the details of technology and policy, what industrial society does is harness the element of fire to transform matter on an unprecedented scale. So long as we follow this path, we will be forcing nature down a road she does not want to take. Smarter technologies may allay the trauma, but without a radical change of values I fear we will simply face a new crisis a few years down the road.

Current predictions

Prediction is an ancient art. 2,500 years ago, the Buddha spoke of a time when the waters would rise and drown the lands; of a time when the heat would grow out of control and nations would be devastated by an inferno of flame. Not that the Buddha claimed to see the future, but he understood cause and effect. The conditions that we take as normal are but a short chapter in the earth’s long story. The world we know evolved from complex interactions of nature that include human activity. And if human activity changes drastically, as it has done in the industrial era, one chapter may finish and another begin. Whether our story continues in the next chapter is as yet unclear.

Modern predictions are scarcely less dramatic, but considerably more precise. On the whole, scientific predictions since the 1970s have been fairly accurate. The IPCC reports are couched in a highly complex language of conditionality, reminding us that the future is not set in stone but is determined by the choices we make today. Arrived at via a painstaking process of consensus, which requires accommodating denialist governments from Saudi Arabia and Australia, the mainstream science has proven to be on the whole quite accurate. Meanwhile, some scientists, such as NASA’s James Hansen, argue that there is an overall bias towards conservatism in science, and the real picture is considerably more severe. Time will tell, I guess, so long as someone is left alive to read the instruments.

Current response

In a word, inadequate. Nations hold grand meetings at which they publicly proclaim their determination to fight climate change, while privately fighting among themselves for who gets to emit the most carbon. The basic metric is the “carbon budget”, a reductive term that reflects how totally our love and reverence for our living planet has been subsumed by economic rationalism. Increasing your “carbon budget” is a win, because you get to emit more, destroy more of the planet, and make more money. The end result of all this is that nations make pathetically small, non-binding commitments, then fail to keep them.

In traditional Buddhist cultures I have seen how elders are honored with love as our mothers and fathers. Caring for them is a privilege that can scarcely begin to repay the debt of gratitude we owe. I wonder what the international process would look like if, instead of treating our planet as a resource to be spent, and complaining about the burden of caring for her, we honored her as our Mother, and took loving care of her with joy in our hearts.

Effects on Nature

Nature is us; we are a part of nature. This truth has been self-evident to me my entire adult life. But as the wonderful Koyaanisqatsi showed us many years ago, our lives are out of balance. We think we can consume without thought and never suffer the consequences. Nature, vast and abundant as she is, has her limits, and we are breaking them.

The animals are dying; except cows, sheep, chickens, and pigs

Humans are animals, and it has become increasingly difficult to point to a specific biological feature that sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. One thing indisputably unique about us, however, is our creation of industrial society and our employment of that to bend nature to our will. The good news is, not all humans have felt such a separation from our animal brothers and sisters. I was once told by Ken Colbung, an aboriginal elder of the Nyoonga people, that he was vegetarian because his people would never kill an animal unless it was necessary to survive. Times have changed; for us to survive, it is necessary not to kill, but to stop killing animals. But it seems most of us have not got the memo yet.

The oceans: heating, rising, and dying

In the psychology of Carl Jung, the ocean is the great symbol of the unconscious. And as so often, the metaphors employed by the mind reflect a much more concrete material reality. We only see the shining surface of the seas and remain largely ignorant of what happens underneath. Yet most life lives in the seas, and they will be at the forefront of our survival or annihilation. Staggering under the multiple impacts of heating, acidification, pollution, and overfishing, the dread specter of desertified oceans looms.

The future of water: floods and drought

There is no simple way to predict changes in our rainfall and water supplies. Sometimes dryer, sometimes wetter; but at all times, greater unpredictability, harsher extremes, and less time to recover or find balance. That means a harder life for all farmers, for emergency services, and for all of us who depend on them.

In a Singapore apartment one morning, I had the chance to discuss Singapore’s climate change response with a senior civil engineer. As Singapore is a relatively rational society, there is none of the denialist nonsense to deal with, and lots of ambitious ideas planned or proposed. The apartment, like many that morning, was flooded after heavy rains. That wasn’t supposed to happen, I was told. They were designed for a hundred year flood, and now it’s every three or four years. It highlighted the uncertainty of ambitious engineering plans in an uncertain future. Raise coastal roads by a meter (but won’t sea level will rise more than that?) Build a floating airport (will anyone still be flying?)

The real adaption is not to heat or sea level or fire, but to chaos.

Toxic air and chaotic weather

There is nothing more fundamental, nothing we take more for granted, than the air we breath. Millions of people live in places where this most immediate of needs is polluted and degraded. Not only will air continue to get worse in the future, air pollution creates chronic, widespread health effects across the whole population, exacerbating the impact of other threats.

Breathing is the foundation of meditation. The breath that enters us brings life and ease, reminding us that we are still alive. How are we to sooth our anxieties in meditation when we know, in the back of our minds, that every breath is filling us with poison?

The planet is on fire

In January 2020 I returned from the fires of Northern California to the devastation of eastern Australia. I have seen over the Blue Mountains, peak after peak, valley after valley, everything black and burned, with nothing remaining but silence and ashes and death.

Australia after the fires

Though I have read the science, I guess I somehow assumed that climate change would be gradual, that there would be a certain genteel studiedness to it all. The science sounds so civilized. But fire is not civilized.

Perhaps we have been looking at it all wrong. The ancient Indo-European peoples did not study fire as a science, but worshiped it as a God. For a while, He deigned to help us, to smelt our metals and drive our industry. But we forgot our prayers and imagined that we had become the master, bending fire to our will. Fools, the lot of us.

Two boys sheltering in the ocean from fires

The poles are melting

At once one of the most visible signs of altered climate, and one of the most distant from most peoples’ lives, images of the melting poles are at the forefront of media coverage. The poles are intimately linked with our lives through multiple mechanisms: plankton, sea currents, weather patterns, sea level, CO₂ release, biodiversity, and even disease. It is only a few short years until the Arctic ice will vanish, changing the very picture of earth from space, while accelerating warming as the reflective advantage of ice is lost. But it is the Antarctic ice that is an even bigger threat.

Soil is vanishing

Desiccated by drought, washed away by flood, burned by fire, poisoned by pesticides, churned up by machines: how little respect we show our Mother Earth. Just a slim layer of topsoil provides most of our nutrition and supports most surface life on earth, yet we treat it with contempt, living as if tomorrow will never come.

It’s getting hot

Isn’t it supposed to be global “warming”? Then how come it’s so hot! While writing this article, it peaked at 46°C in western Sydney where I live. It’s too much.

Effects on humanity

It is easy to get hold of information about the material effects of our collapsing ecosystems. But I am a monk, and I wonder about our humanity. What does it mean for us as human beings, to realize the true enormity of what we have done? Will we ever be ready to take responsibility for our choices, our greed and complacency? Who are we that would do such a thing?

Food: hunger on the rise again

There are few sights more heartbreaking than the image of a starving human being. Living in a developed nation knowing only abundance, it is in starvation that we see the true meaning of inequality. It’s such a fine line between abundance and despair. My home state of Western Australia grows 50% of Australia’s wheat in the marginal and arid wheatbelt east of the Darling Range, where even a small fluctuation in the weather can spell disaster for the farmers.

Health and well-being: no-one is immune

The wealthy can afford to buy face masks and air purifiers, to seek medical aid and treatment when they need it. All these things are denied to the poor, not to speak of the homeless, relentlessly exposed to the elements. Yet even the richest, at the end of the day, must breathe the same air as the rest of us. We have taken so much from our children: clean water, pure air, benign sun. Women today are struggling with the impossible choice of whether to have children in a world facing collapse. Yet perhaps the worst thing we have taken from our children is their choice. If they survive, what will they be thinking when it comes time for them to have have their own children?

A decaying ecosystem drives war and conflict

Progressives and activists tend to assume the best of people. We like to think that as things get worse, people will wake up and make positive changes. And sure, that’s not all wrong. But it’s not all right, either. It’s also true that when the pressure is on, people close ranks, arm themselves, and see others less as friends and more as threats. We are going see increasingly extreme acts of violence, both state-sanctioned and personal, as our faith in civilized institutions fades away.

People forced from their homes with nowhere to go

When I was in Vienna several years ago, it so happened that a former prime minister of Australia was visiting Europe, touting Australia’s vicious and criminal treatment of asylum seekers as an example for the world. What was interesting for me to see was the support he got from the Nazis. Not the “internet troll” kind of Nazi, but your actual jackboot-wearing, Mein Kampf-reading, holocaust-enthusiast Nazis. They thought Australia’s asylum seeker policies are great. I take this as a warning: how depraved the acts of a supposedly civilized nation may become in the face of a minuscule trickle of poor, brown people on boats.

I believe that the movement of people will be the tip of the spear. The numbers will go from the thousands to the millions, and from the millions to the hundreds of millions. And no-one has an answer to the one basic question: where will they all go?

The political right has been telling us for years that the movement of people is an imminent threat to our nation and our way of life. You can’t have a nation if you can’t defend your borders, they say. They’re lying, of course. The historical movement of people into developed countries poses no such threat, and indeed is strongly associated with economic and cultural growth.

Yet there is a point at which the lie becomes the truth. The water runs dry, the cities break down, and a nation cannot survive. That day may be mere decades away. As compassionate progressives, our impulse is to embrace the lost and the disadvantaged in the belief that helping those in need is both moral and practical. But we are yet to face our day of reckoning. What are we going to do when the dark fantasies of the right become our reality? What are we going to do when it is time to open the doors of our homes? And what karma will we carry when our turn comes to seek shelter in the home of another?

How did it get so bad?

It’s not just a failure of public policy or private lifestyle. It’s a failure of morality. We have become adept at deflecting responsibility. Greg Hunt, the former Australian Minister for the Environment and architect of our failed “Direct Action” policy, justified his approach by arguing that if we implemented a carbon tax, China would never follow suit. Well, I’m not sure how closely China has modeled its environment policy after the literal world’s worst, but my guess is, not much.

We’ve become used to such statements. The rich and the powerful, when in the mood to admit that climate change is real, say there’s nothing they can do, as we only make such a small contribution. This line has become so normal it’s easy to forget that it is the very definition of immorality. Our moral life is based on the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It assumes that our good actions will be mirrored by those we affect. The inaction urged by the right is the exact opposite: do unto others and make sure they never, ever, ever do unto you.

Climate change disproportionately impacts the poor and the disadvantaged. For this reason, activists have made the case that action is an urgent moral necessity. I have come to believe that this strategy was a mistake. The suffering of the poor is not a bug, it’s a feature. The rich built the system, and they built it to externalize the costs of wealth and power so that someone else has to pay. Preferably someone poor, brown, and over there.

There was a memorable article in my local paper, the West Australian, back in the 80s. For the first time, a big American motivational speaker came to little old Perth, and inspired thousands with his message of wealth and ambition. And the last part, he urged, at the end, when you have your big house and all the things you want, you need to do one more thing. Get in your new Mercedes and drive back to the poor suburb you came from. Drive slowly down the streets, and know to yourself, “I made it, and you didn’t.”

Consider how economics works. Purchasing power is relative, so a “dollar” means nothing but a conventional power to purchase things. Let’s say we have a rich man with $100 and a poor woman with $1. The rich man has 100 times the purchasing power of the poor woman. How is the rich man to get richer? He can double his purchasing power by earning another $100. But that’s hard! You know what’s easy? Taking 50c from a poor woman. Now the rich man has $100.50, and the poor woman has just 50c. The rich man has doubled his purchasing power, and is exactly as well off as if he’d made $100 himself. What a win! Of course, this is an unrealistic scenario. In reality, the richest have not $100, but over $100,000,000,000, while millions of the poor would think themselves lucky to have a whole dollar.

It’s really hard to imagine what that kind of money means, but let’s try. For most people, the most significant financial investment they make is in a home, if they are lucky enough to be able to afford one. In a wealthy city like Sydney, the median house price is around $1,000,000, and normally it takes decades of hard work to pay off the loans. Someone who can actually own their house outright is considered fairly well-off. It’s a bit different for the super-rich. Assuming a modest 20% return on their capital, one of the world’s richest men could buy a house in Sydney every twenty minutes for a year, and still end up richer than they started.

It’s not just that the rich are greedy. It’s that wealth only has meaning when someone else is poor. If everyone was a billionaire, money would be worthless. And having a beachfront mansion is great, but how can you really enjoy it if the hoi polloi just waltz on in? Inequality is not an accidental byproduct of wealth, it is what creates wealth.

When faced with the suffering of the poor and the powerless, do we really believe the excuses of the rich, that this as a regrettable but unavoidable fact of the world as it must be? Or is this, rather, the world that they have built for themselves because they wanted it that way? Is it possible that the suffering of others is, in fact, the point?

The End of the World or the end of the month?

I live by choice in a working-class neighborhood among hard-working people who happen to be mostly immigrants. Haul a box of tomatoes, dig a trench, serve a roti. As a monk I have the privilege to be supported by equally hard-working donors, affording me the time to practice, to study, to write, and to teach. I get to stand aside and watch as they get on with their lives. I know that they all just want to be happy, to make money, to start a family and enjoy life. Nothing wrong with that. But I also know that none of that will be possible once the climate collapse starts to bite.

Even after our apocalyptic summer of fire, nothing much has changed. There’s little action on the streets and no revolution in the air. People have a way of setting aside the long game to focus on the present. I don’t know, maybe they’ve got it right.

Governments in denial: public servants serve the corporations

Growing up in Australia, it’s traditional to, on the one hand, laugh about how all politicians are liars and scumbags, while at the same time be proud of our democracy. That’s changing. The sense I get today is an almost total collapse of faith in government and the very idea of public service. And no wonder. Ten years ago Kevin Rudd, our then Prime Minister, proclaimed that climate change was “the great moral challenge of our generation”. He then proceeded to fail that challenge, massively and systematically. The Australian government has been particularly terrible, but few are the governments around the world who have really taken change seriously. We let our politics be bought by the fossil fuel industry, and they bargained away our future for the sake of a few miserable coins.

The heinous lies of the oil companies

What I don’t understand, seriously, is how they get away with it. How can it possibly be legal for companies to just lie and lie and lie about matters of the utmost importance?

The rich did this and they will leave us to die

While their workers struggle day-to-day to pay the bills, the rich have plenty of time to contemplate the big picture. Sometimes they decide to help, so we see the “good billionaires” make splashy public displays of their charity, as if we are supposed to forget that they got rich by crushing competition, exploiting workers, and dodging taxes. Yes, I’m looking at you, Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos.

What the rich keep hidden, for the most part, are their escape plans. When they have ruined the world they aim to live on as immortal lords of the wasteland.

But how much worse is the lifestyle of the rich, really? Let’s do some math! The top 1% emit as much carbon as the bottom 50%. According to Picketty et al. the global 1% emit about 200 tonnes of greenhouse gases annually. That’s a lot! Some studies have produced a lower figure, while others are higher. Let’s take Picketty’s figure. The “carbon budget” to stay under 2°C global warming sits currently at 1,000,000,000,000 tonnes. At current rates it will be used up in 25 years. If everyone emitted as much CO₂ as much as the 1%, we’d reach that target in 8 months. If everyone emitted as much as Bill Gates—over 10,000 times as much as a “normal” person—that 1,600 tonnes per person would slurp up the budget in less than a month. 2°C heating is a lot though. If we wanted to keep heating under a more sane (but still bad) 1.5°C, 8 billion Bill Gates would gobble the world’s carbon budget in a week.

Forgive me if I am skeptical that these people are going to save the world.

The suppression of activists

Anyone who tries to save the world can expect to face regular vilification and attacks on social media and the like. But attacks often get physical, too, as governments and corporations stop at nothing to protect their right to destroy the world. These people are the true heroes and I am in awe of them. They have put their lives on the line for the sake of others.

Preparing for things to get worse

It’s not just the billionaires. From gun-toting good ol’ boys to formal U.N. policy, the world is little by little sliding from denial that there is a problem to getting ready to live with it. Increasingly, policy skips right over the whole “maybe better stop the bad thing from happening?” part of the process.

The failed promise of carbon policy

We have wasted decades debating the non-topic of whether climate change is real. We held these conversations in good faith, assuming that those who denied the science merely needed some sympathy and persuasion. It seems we were wrong. Meanwhile, the actual topic we should have been discussing is how to stop it. At its most basic: how can we leave as much fossil fuel in the ground as possible? But we have hardly even begun this conversation. Having become accustomed to accepting scraps from the table, we watch as sane policy is watered down in theory and drained away in practice.

Systemic breakdown

Everything is interconnected. In spiritual circles, we see this truism as a positive affirmation grounding our compassion in understanding. But we tend to forget that the world is not all good, and the bad things are interconnected, too. Political scientists have begun talking about “weaponized interdependence”. The whole world we know is a dynamic system of unfathomable complexity. Systems, it is true, have a lot of built-in resilience. They can adapt to change in remarkable ways. Yet any system has its limits. Push it too far, too fast, in too many different ways, and you’ll exceed the limits of adaption. Everything falls apart.

This is, I think, the first time in my lifetime that all the world’s major powers are in crisis simultaneously: U.S.A., Russia, India (Modi and Kashmir), China (Hong Kong, coronavirus), E.U. (Brexit, rise of far-right), Indonesia (unrest). What we have to understand is that this is not a blip, it’s not a period of instability or transitional crisis like the Cold War or the collapse of the Soviet Union. It’s the manifestation of multiple, long-term processes, none of which are turning corners any time soon.

Climate is not the only crisis

When it comes to apocalypse, we’re spoiled for choice. Climate crisis is far from the only imminent and existential threat we face. The various other crises are invariably worsened by climate collapse, if only because they compete for the world’s attention and resources.

It is hard, maybe impossible, to understand the full ramifications of climate change. To pile so many more things on top, it’s all so much. If you feel overwhelmed, congratulations, you’re starting to get to grips with the truth. Just remember: you’re not alone. There are plenty of people who care. Get out there and find your tribe.


Our planet was once covered in unfathomably vast forests, towering giants sheltering an astonishing variety of wildlife. Old-growth forests preserve a massive biodiversity and are a highly effective carbon sink. But they are gone now or on their way to going. Who is there to lament their passing?


Slavery has been a scourge of mankind for millenia, and it is not obviously related to climate change. But the recent experience of the Rohingya has shown that when people are driven from their homes, they become far more vulnerable to human trafficking and slavers. Thus, even in the absence of total social breakdown, climate change will make slavery worse.


As I am writing this, 10% of the world’s population is under some form of quarantine or restriction due to the COVID-19 Coronavirus outbreak originating at Wuhan. This has been getting a lot of press, so I won’t cover it. But it is important to remember that it is just one of a series of new and virulent outbreaks. We have not addressed the core problems, so there will be more to come.

The exhaustion of the earth’s minerals

Everything that we manufacture comes from somewhere. Everything has a cost. People seem to think that solar energy or electric cars are “good” for the environment. They’re not. They’re actually really bad. The materials for solar cells have to be mined, transported, processed, transported again, manufactured, transported again, assembled, transported again, and installed. When they are running they create heat and support the purchase of lots of other things that also harm the environment: lights, TVs, computers, and so on. Then when their life is over, they must be transported yet again to recycling or landfill, where they are full of toxic crap. Ditto electric cars.

The point is, while they are bad, they are somewhat less bad than the fossil-fuel alternative. Solar and other renewables (and nuclear) have a lifetime CO₂ impact roughly 10% that of coal (gas is half-way between). So building electric cars doesn’t help the environment: taking petrol cars off the road does. In most cases, rather than fancy high-tech solutions it’s far more effective to develop public transport and pedestrian-friendly cities. But it’s just not so sexy, is it? No-one launches a bus into space.


Some environmentalists believe pollution to be a bigger crisis than global warming. Since the skies of England were darkened by coal, or the rains of Europe became acid, we have lived with the realization that our environment is not infinite; that if we keep on dumping stuff, it will have an effect sooner or later. In certain cases we have shown a willingness to put effort into restoring once-lost beauty—the cleanup of the river Thames comes to mind—but on the whole the story pollution tells is of a species all too willing to make a mess and expect someone else to clean it up.

Nuclear war

Once regarded as the most urgent threat humanity had ever seen, the threat of nuclear war receded from public consciousnesses with the end of the cold war. But the nukes remain. And as we teeter into greater instability and chaos, the likelihood that they will be used is growing.

I have a friend who works in nuclear disarmament. We joke that he’s one of the few people whose work would be regarded as a success if we stay alive long enough to be killed by climate change.

What are we to do?

You know, of course. You have known all along. But sometimes it’s nice to be reminded, so here are some tips.

And finally, don’t trust anyone who’s touting some new and shiny solution. The wisdom we need is as old as the hills, as rich as the forests, and as deep as the ocean.

The solution is simplicity itself.

Further reading