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Letters from Downunder

Tipping Points

Submitted by Lindsay, Melbourne Australia!

Finally, he paid the debt of nature - Robert Fabyan, 1516

(3/11) We had a few friends in for dinner the other night. We’d anticipated a pleasant evening, and it would have been just that – except I managed to wreck it. I’d been presented with a very nice bottle of merlot, (a local 96 vintage, one of the best in the world), which I poured into the waiting glasses for us to drink before dinner. Lots of bonhomie, but I was not paying sufficient attention as I reached for my drink. I somehow managed to knock it over - very neatly as the glass didn’t break - but the contents not only coloured the tablecloth, but the frock worn by one of the ladies, my face and my wife’s voice.

It took a good half hour for things to return to a degree of normality, but much longer for me to stop feeling like a complete idiot. Now a glass of wine is one thing, no one hurt, no lasting damage, nothing that could not be fixed, but many things do not work out so well. Take, for instance, phosphates.

Phosphorous is essential for life, both plants and animals, and applying superphosphate to soils is one of the important ways of increasing grain production, helping to feed our increasing populations. Other phosphates enhance the ability of soap powder to wash clothes. Viola! A new industry is born. More phosphates, more food, cleaner clothes. Everyone’s happy until the consequences are revealed. Streams polluted, algal blooms reducing oxygen levels to zero, no more fish, just lots of slime. Manufacturers finance studies to show it is not their fault, consumers stay happy, and the only worries come from that new band of idiots called environmentalists. A little pressure by lobbyists on the government and those pests go away quietly.

But the streams and waterways do not recover. Stop the pollution and nothing happens, because the tipping point has been passed. In other words, the point of no return has been reached and the streams are dead. There is no going back to clean waterways, so eventually excess use of this chemical is prohibited. The environmentalists have made their point. Nature eventually forms new streams, and manufacturers find new sources of profit growth.

Chlorofluorocarbons, known as CFC’s, are another case of science not knowing, or at least not determining, the consequences of their research. Marvellous for propelling those wonderfully convenient sprays called aerosols, and for bathing transformers in heat absorbing liquid, they did their damage out of sight, way up in the upper reaches of the atmosphere, where they destroyed ozone at an alarming rate. Oops! Ozone, it was then discovered, keeps humanity safe from an excess of ultraviolet radiation, which would cook us quickly if allowed in unchecked. So a hole in the ozone layer developed over the Antarctic, where most of the CFC molecules became concentrated, which has now produced the highest rates of skin cancer in the world for residents of Australia. (We’re now leaders in its diagnosis and treatment. Necessity again). The planet was at risk, so the use of these chemicals was banned worldwide. This time, good news – the hole is slowly diminishing after about 15 years of growth.

What of atmospheric carbon dioxide levels? Well, they reached their tipping point about five years ago, and they are still going up. We are bombarded daily with trivial solutions –earth watch day, how many black balloons and so on, the cost of carbon trading – while we wallow in the profits of our resources boom. Can the atmosphere be repaired? Maybe – but we probably won’t be around to find out. The time involved for any reversal is now too short. CFC’s were controlled in time, but CO2 is ubiquitous.

Of course, it’s not just the environment that has tipping points. Nations, cultures, political systems and regimes do too. Egypt is a current example, but others abound. Repressive regimes suppress their citizens in order to maintain power, while democracy is supposed to be a bulwark against totalitarianism - but when the will of the people living in a democracy is subverted to the will of the few, it surely ceases to be democratic. A plutocratic trend is apparent, especially in America, with the ‘frog in water being heated’ being a true analogy. That’s the one where the frog is reasonably comfortable at the beginning, but doesn’t try to get out until it’s too late, and the water’s boiling. On the other hand, some things can be returned to normal without any difficulty. Pass me another bucket of sand, please, I just spilt mine.

Social tipping points result in bloodshed and mayhem, but the nation keeps on, albeit in a modified form. The planet will also go on, irrespective of what we do to it. But it isn’t the planet that needs to survive, it’s the human race. And yes, it will go on, no question about that. Also in a modified form.

Perhaps we’ll develop plant genes, breathe in higher levels of carbon dioxide, and do our own photosynthesis. "How are the buds today, Mrs. Plant?" Bio geneticists, please note.

We’ll certainly have paid our debt to nature by then, won’t we.

Tipping my hat to reality,

From Down under,


Read Past Down Under Columns by Lindsay Coker