In the past 50 years, hundreds of millions of people have celebrated “Earth Day”. Under pressure from the COVID-19 pandemic, we now have fewer chances to rejoice through song, dance, official reunions or public outdoor gatherings, but also the opportunity, within this imposed isolation, to ponder the profound relationship between man and nature more deeply.
The attempt to understand this relationship underpins the ancestral myths of Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas. We named planets, oceans and even time itself after Graeco-Latin mythology, all the while forgetting that the relationship between Terra-Gaea (the earth), Uranus (the sky), Kronos (time) and Okeanos (the seas) also begat monsters and titans that could not be controlled: just as Man will never be able to control volcanic or seismic activity, glaciation, isostatic movements or global atmospheric phenomena. In a time-frame measured in billions of years, in which the entire history of mankind covers an infinitesimal speck, each piece of land inhabited by humans has at one point been a seabed, or otherwise encrusted by glaciers, covered by jungle or rendered a desert. We cannot avoid the phenomena linked to Hazard Geology, but if we could understand them, we might be able to counteract their negative effects and more intelligently use them for the present and future benefit of mankind.
My experience as a researcher of earth sciences, a civic activist and statesman means I also have a duty to draw attention to the dangers posed by scientific-technological projects in geoengineering, of which the latest is the Stratospheric Controlled Perturbation Experiment (SCOPEx), undertaken by a team of researchers at the prestigious Harvard University. SCOPEx, funded by the Fund for Innovative Climate and Energy Research (FICER) which is financed by Bill Gates, aims to analyse aerosols with potential applications in solar geoengineering. Recently, the testing area was moved by a private company, without the approval of the Swedish government, from Texas to an area of northern Sweden that is in dire need of sunlight and not of its artificial diminution.
The project was blocked by an open letter that highlighted the risk that those promoting such geoengineering experiments may unilaterally assume the power to take decisions of enormous potential impact, to the extent that an assumption of citizens’ democratic responsibility becomes both justified and entirely necessary. Just like an artificial intelligence out of society’s moral control that serves only to enhance company profit margins, so too could geoengineering, through its brutal interventions in nature, potentially gravely affect the natural equilibrium in the long term.
It would be a tragedy if the phrase of `Man defeating Nature` launched by the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century would now see a perverse resurrection owed to the arrogance of 21st-century multinational companies, under the guise of combating “global warming”. “Mother Nature” must not be defeated, but rather safeguarded with love and respect, in the common interest of all mankind.
The reaction of civil society to global warming has generated positive effects, not limited to improving air quality through expanding green belts or to the replacement of fossil fuels with carbon-neutral energy sources. It also forced governments to stimulate companies to develop large-scale applications to unlock solar, wind or tidal energy potential, which will improve the lives of people all across the globe.
In 2013, I gave a speech in Ottawa during the General Assembly of the Club of Rome, on the topic of the “Governance of the Commons”. The “Commons” is a concept that refers to natural resources (air, water and land) that are communally used and accessible to all members of society. At the time, I highlighted the need that any exploitation of mineral resources must not adversely affect the surrounding environment, and must moreover ensure the protection of natural domains that must be preserved as common goods, both of the citizens at a national level, and of broader mankind as a whole.
The fears over the potential colonization of abyssal seabeds prompted the UN General Assembly to declare the mineral resources found at the bottoms of oceans “a common heritage of mankind”, that must only be used “for the benefit of humanity as a whole”. The UN Convention assigns an oversight body, the International Seabed Authority (ISA), to preside over the rights of the sea and administer the mineral resources found in the deepest oceans.
In 2014, the World Ocean Summit, organized by National Geographic in partnership with The Economist, examined 19 entities currently holding exploration contracts approved by the ISA. The Committee for the Global Ocean, jointly led by Jose Maria Figueres, former President of Costa Rica, and David Miliband, former Foreign Secretary of the UK, adopted a negative position towards these contracts. A petition addressed to the Secretary General of the ISA, calling on them, as custodians of the global ocean heritage, to prioritize oceanic conservation efforts, gathered over one million signatures from all across the globe in a matter of days.
In the 1970s, when the concept of “global tectonics” brought together volcanology, sedimentology and structural geology, I warned my students that “global tectonics” does not merely refer to the study of the entire surface of the Earth, but that it more importantly implies “a global rethinking” of different phenomena.
In a similar vein, today, when we speak of “globalization” we must not limit our scope to expanding commercial relations and social networks of communication throughout the globe in the never-ending search for profit, but rather also consider a holistic approach to natural and social phenomena.
The earth, the sky and the oceans must be protected and utilized in the broad interest of all people, everywhere.