Natural rubber is a uniquely tough, flexible and highly waterproof material. It puts tyres on our vehicles, soles on our shoes, it makes seals for engines and refrigerators, insulates wires and other electrical components. It is used in condoms and clothing, sports balls and the humble elastic bands. Over the past year it has played a pivotal role in the pandemic in personal protective equipment worn by doctors and nurses around the world.
In fact, rubber is deemed to be a commodity of such global importance that it is included on the EU’s list of critical raw materials.
Unfortunately, there are signs the world might be running out of natural rubber. Disease, climate change and plunging global prices have put the world’s rubber supplies into jeopardy. It has led scientists to search for a solution before it’s too late.
Frank Swain discusses concerns associated with running out of natural rubber and the various alternatives.
“We have enough dandelion seed to put in 40 hectares (0.15 sq miles) of vertical farm, and 3,000 hectares (11.6 sq miles) of guayule, but we need the funds to do it,” says Cornish. “We need some of those billionaires to get involved. I am determined to get this established before I die. We’ve got to get it to work. The consequences to the developed world if the crop fails are unthinkable.”
What are the practices which will leave the world better than it is now? What are the aspects of our environment that we wish to encourage, compared to those we want to avoid? How can we ensure that the things we like become the norm by the time our grandchildren arrive?
Don’t get firewood from the fruit-bearing trees. Strip the bark from the poisonous ones.
Alex Hern discusses Charles C. Mann’s book on Americas before Columbus. He reflects on the impact of smallpox, as well as the misunderstanding of how the Amazonians learnt to live with nature, rather than strip it back.
Mann suggests, the Europeans were wrong. They had quite literally failed to see the forest for the trees. The environment laden with fruit, vegetables and calories wasn’t something that happened to people: it was the result of people. The lush, dense rainforest, so alien to Europeans hacking through it with machetes, was not actually a tabula rasa, any more than the American northwest. It was, instead, the result of an independent invention of agriculture – and an agriculture quite unlike any other in the world.
Human civilization has a waste problem, and it’s likely to get worse as population levels grow and a consumerist mentality becomes the global norm. But there are many clever, practical ways to deal with waste, including bioremediation – a nature-inspired approach.
While it is interesting to dig into the science of this and learn about photosynthesis, and study the exchange of gasses, and what happens to carbon in the process, it’s also wonderful to marvel at the idea of what’s happening: Trees grow and get their size out of the air.
David, you might be interested in Colin Tudge’s book The Secret Life of Trees, as well as Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate. Maria Popova has an interesting write-up.
When it comes to the transitions towards zero carbon, heating is a promising target. Cutting edge technology could make the ingoing energy more renewable and less wasteful. And more broadly, these designs are about tailoring heating systems to the environment around them, from pulling ambient heat from the sewers below, to taking note of the precise angle of the sun in the winter sky.
Rather than pitting our heating systems against the environment, they can be redesigned to make the most of it.
Laura Cole investigates alternatives required to reach zero emmissions. These initiatives include utilising renewable heating and cooling from sewers and houses. This is something also explored by Richelle Hunt and Warwick Long in the Conversation Hour with the work being done at Cape Paterson.
The idea of giving personhood to nature has been slowly gaining adherents. Environmentalists have prodded governments and courts to award rights to lakes, hills, rivers, and even individual species of plants. The New Zealand parliament has given legal rights to the Whanganui River, while Colombia has made the Páramo de Pisba region in the Andes—threatened for years by mining—a “subject of rights.” About three dozen towns across the US are passing Toledo-style bills, and the Florida Democratic Party lists the rights of nature in its party platform.
Clive Thompson suggests that with all the talk of innovation and change, maybe what we really need is to given nature legal rights.
The climate crisis is fully main stage, with California burning and Florida drowning. If we’re going to forestall worse to come, we need innovation not just in tech—more clean energy, resilient cities, genetically modified crops that need less fertilizer—but in law, the rule sets that architect our behavior.
Plenty of clever techniques to demolish exist. Some start at the base and work up, others in reverse.
The 40-storey Akasaka Prince Hotel in Tokyo was slowly demolished in 2012-13 using a technique where a cap was built on top of the building.
It was stripped floor by floor as the cap was lowered, so all the dust, mess and debris was contained and removed with no effect on the environment.
Buildings are wrapped in scaffold and protective fabric then literally dismantled in the reverse order to which they were built. In the process building waste can be recycled and reused rather than dumped.
Reverse building involves removing the glass, then the frames, taking off the wall cladding, then scraping away at the concrete and steel frames bit by bit.
Concrete is removed to expose the steel reinforcing bars, which are then separately removed and recycled. In the process unwanted material can be uncovered, like asbestos, which needs particular care in handling.
Norman Day discusses the process of un-building where outdated skyscrapers are progressively broken down and recycled.
The CSIRO (2016) outlined balloons as being in the top three most harmful pollutants threatening marine wildlife. Every day, balloons are released or accidentally escape from outdoor events where they almost definitely end up in waterways and oceans and can be mistaken by animals for food.
Vince Beiser digs into the world of sand. Interestingly, it is used in a number of different contexts, from the increase of land to the creation of glass. Also the mining of the resource is having both an environmental impact on rivers and people forced to work.
You sort your recycling, leave it to be collected – and then what? From councils burning the lot to foreign landfill sites overflowing with British rubbish, Oliver Franklin-Wallis reports on a global waste crisis
Clive Thompson discusses the power of big data to support making clearer decisions around climate change. In the New Dark Age, James Bridle argues that there is a certain irony associated with using technology to solve the problems of technology.
Thinking about climate change is degraded by climate change itself, just as communications networks are undermined by the softening ground, just as our ability to debate and act on entangled environmental and technological change is diminished by our inability to conceptualise complex systems. And yet at the heart of our current crisis is the hyperobject of the network: the internet and the modes of life and ways of thinking it weaves together (Page 79)
In Central Australia, one of the largest and most pristine river systems on the planet is flooding.
Dominique Schwartz reports on the water currently filling Lake Eyre. What is unique about this is that it is all just nature. Although locals fought an attempt in 1995 to introduce large-scale irrigated cotton farming on the Cooper, there has not been any other attempts. It makes me wonder about rewilding and letting things take their cause.
Studying the demise of historic civilisations can tell us about the risk we face today, says collapse expert Luke Kemp. Worryingly, the signs are worsening.
In an article a part of a new BBC Future series about the long view of humanity, Luke Kemp unpacks the historical reasons that have contributed to the fall of past empires. These reasons include climate change, inequality, increasing complexity and demand on the environment. Although Kemp suggests there are reasons to be optimistic, he also warns that the connected nature of today’s civilization has made for a rungless ladder where any fall has the potential to be fatal.
Think of civilisation as a poorly-built ladder. As you climb, each step that you used falls away. A fall from a height of just a few rungs is fine. Yet the higher you climb, the larger the fall. Eventually, once you reach a sufficient height, any drop from the ladder is fatal.
With the proliferation of nuclear weapons, we may have already reached this point of civilisational “terminal velocity”. Any collapse – any fall from the ladder – risks being permanent. Nuclear war in itself could result in an existential risk: either the extinction of our species, or a permanent catapult back to the Stone Age.