Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Rosia Montana: Consumerism and its Disconnects

RMGC is part of a financial culture which is completely international. Its parent company, Gabriel Resources, is listed on the Toronto stock exchange, with offices in Barbados and Jersey � it’s no more ‘Canadian’ than I am Welsh. But as a matter of fact I am partly Welsh and this financial culture is one in which we are all involved, whether we think we are or not. In their hurry to defend ‘the local’, people sometimes object to the internationalism of big business per se. I argue that its internationalism is just what is right about it. It’s the greed of big business which is problematic, not its internationalism, which has valuable lessons, in Europe no less than elsewhere.

Even in a country like Britain where ‘Euro-Scepticism’ has been for many years a national pastime, most people agree that environmental issues are best dealt with at a European level. When EU governments recently brokered a deal to cut carbon emissions by 20% before 2020, or by 30% if other countries can be persuaded to join them, the chorus of derision which usually greets important new EU initiatives in Britain’s conservative press was notably absent. Europe’s size makes it able to play a global role as none of its member-states can do alone, whatever some of them might imagine on occasion.

And this is urgent. In February 2007 The Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (, made up of 600 of the most distinguished climate scientists on the planet, from 40 countries, published a report predicting that average temperatures will rise globally over the next century by 1.1° – 6.4° C, with a rise of 4° C likeliest. The melting of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice-sheets is likely to occur but we have alarmingly little idea of when or how fast. By the IPCC’s calculations it is more than 90% certain that the build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere which has set this process in motion is due to human activities since the Industrial Revolution, mainly the burning of hydrocarbons � i.e. oil and coal.

You will be asking what any of this has to do with Rosia Montana. If you see Rosia Montana as essentially a local issue, then it has nothing at all to do with it. Hence RMGC / McAleer’s very astute focus on the local effects of such projects. But understood as part of a profound transformation in the way people everywhere now view their environment, Rosia Montana’s significance goes well beyond its Romanian context. It is part of a paradigm shift going on the world over. Indeed, distinctions of East and West European start looking a bit provincial once you grasp the scale of this change.

That said, of course each culture responds to this, or doesn’t, in ways conditioned by its own experience. If it is true that Europe can only play a role here if it co-ordinates its efforts, so it must also be true that the member-states need to pool their thinking on this. The shadow of Chernobyl hung over the whole 1989 phenomenon and environmentalists played a central role in many of those revolutions, particularly in Hungary and East Germany. How has more recent experience affected environmentalists in the new accession states?

On receiving the Philadelphia Liberty Medal in 1994, the Czech playwright and President Vaclav Havel invoked Gaia theory (see below) as a paradigm for the post-Cold War world order. The US government, it seems, was not listening at the time. But Havel has turned out to be righter than even he could have known. The US government has since learned the hard way that a multi-polar interdependent world is what it will have to reckon with whether it wants to or not. I could quote another statesman at this point: ‘In the end, Americans will always do the right thing – after exploring all the alternatives.’ Winston Churchill, famously.

Might this not be the moment for a new kind of ecologically underwritten internationalism? Here perhaps in our immediate context would be a way out of those boorish habits of mutual defensiveness that Europeans have got into, east and west, since the Cold War. I don’t mean just a network of activists but a broader coalition of thoughtful, well-informed people from all over Europe, and reaching out of course well beyond Europe.

The country I know best is Britain so I will briefly describe here three of our best known, most distinctive thinkers in this area. One is a chemist and the inventor of Gaia theory, James Lovelock, one a philosopher, Mary Midgley, the third a campaigning journalist, George Monbiot. They don’t form any sort of conscious group and, as we’ll see, there is much they disagree on – politically and in other ways. But the environmental crisis is central to each of them.

During the early 1960’s James Lovelock was working for the North American Space Agency (NASA). He was helping to design instruments that might detect life on other planets, specifically on Mars. As a chemist he proposed that since any life-form would use the atmosphere, thereby altering its chemical composition, the analysis of a planet’s atmosphere might reveal whether or not life existed on it. In 1965 earth-based infra-red astronomy revealed that the atmosphere of Mars is almost completely made up of carbon dioxide and close to chemical equilibrium. He therefore concluded that the planet was dead.

A question now occurred to him about our own planet’s atmosphere. Since life began here, about three billion years ago, the sun’s radiation has grown steadily stronger. Yet the earth’s temperature has been maintained always within limits which made life on it possible. It suggested to him that there might exist some self-regulating mechanism for the whole planet which acted to keep the atmosphere in a dynamic equilibrium, thereby sustaining life on earth. His idea was seen at first as disreputable, hippy, unworthy of such a distinguished scientist, but he continued to refine and research his hypothesis.

A neighbour and friend of his, the novelist William Golding, suggested to him that he give his idea a name: Gaia, the Greek goddess of the earth. Lovelock’s book of that name appeared in 1979, after being turned down by many publishers. It created an immediate sensation and has remained central to the environmental debate ever since. His most recent book, The Revenge of Gaia<(Allen Lane, 2006) has updated the theory in accordance with the most recent research, most notably into ‘positive feed-back systems’. These model how a rise in temperature in turn damages the planet’s capacity to absorb that extra carbon dioxide which all our Chevrolets are producing. The gigantic blooms of plankton in the polar oceans reduce as those seas warm, so that the vast quantities of carbon they once took to the bottom of the sea with them when they died remain in the atmosphere, where fewer and fewer forests can absorb it through photosynthesis. Reduced ice-cover at the poles meanwhile reduces the amount of solar radiation which the planet can reflect back into space. He has likened our continued use of fossil fuels to the engineers at Chernobyl, who first disabled the safety systems and then turned up the heat. ‘It should have been no surprise that the reactor ran into rapid overheating and caught fire.’

Such, in outline, is the Gaia theory, and such is its discoverer’s gloomy view of our current predicament. But there is nothing ‘ideological’ about his pessimism. He is at heart a sober empiricist and the theory has undergone many modifications since it first occurred to the young Lovelock. It has been challenged, sometimes helpfully, by thinkers who find its name, and implied personification, misguided. He himself has always asserted that the mechanism he has termed Gaia in no way seeks to confer some New Age form of ‘consciousness’ on the planet, and he is notoriously unwelcoming to those who attempt to foist such notions on him.

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