New Internationalist

That Fatal Glow

Issue 198

new internationalist
issue 198 - August 1989

Illustration: Clive Offley
That fatal glow

George Fisher imagines a malignant
future under a deadly sun.

He secured his boots, hat and sleeves. Once he'd pulled on his gloves he checked one final time that not an inch of skin remained exposed. Squinting, he fastened the enormous wrap-around sun glasses that made him look like some sort of mutation, half man and half fly. And then he braced himself against the elements.

A chill pierced him as he walked quickly to the dark-windowed car, but he was far from cold. This was mid-summer. And he was in Sydney.

It was now 15 years since the 1995 Emergency Ozone Act had been declared by the Australian Government. SDEs (Solar Deaths by Exposure) had grown a massive ten per cent each year, and had outstripped AIDS and heart-attacks as the main cause of death since the mid-1990s.

At the age of 53, John was one of the lucky ones. He had been diagnosed as having a melanoma at the age of 20, a few years younger than many. The operation had been successful. And John had been scared into taking the problem of skin cancer seriously - unlike his friends, who thought their darker tans were adequate protection. Many of his peers were now dead and those who had survived the cycle of operations, skin grafts and amputations often wished for a speedier end.

Illustration: Clive Offley But they had grown up in an era of ecological naivete. The wise who had warned of increasing ozone depletion were as unwelcome as prophets in their home town. Sun-worship. or rather the conspicuous worship and consumption of leisure, was at that stage a major force in Australian life. As it was in Aotearoa, southern Europe and North America. And the lies being fed to such sun-worshippers by the advertising industry have become legendary.

In the early 1990s there was an international outcry over an aerosol-propellant labelling fraud - two of the world's largest manufacturers of such gases were convicted for wilfully misleading the public by using chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) under another name. But far greater damage had been caused by other uses of CFCs: in refrigerators, air-conditioners, fast-food containers and fire extinguishers. Such gases had been released into the atmosphere in increasing quantities since the 1930s. By the 1980s the damage was already well under way. The life-preserving ozone shield around the earth had been damaged beyond repair or full replenishment. This thin layer of ozone in the earth's stratosphere is the only protective barrier against ultra-violet radiation.

About that time John had put much of his savings into an advertising campaign of his own. On billboards throughout Australia John's warning read: 'The damage the sun does to this poster in six months, it will do to your skin in six minutes.' The peeling, fading, blistering posters were a great success. He fought off lawsuit after lawsuit - mostly by the manufacturers of swimwear and sun-tanning products.

'Golden', said John, was a loaded word. In those years a deep golden tan was the ultimate trophy of a life of leisure. Wasn't the colour really just a shade of dirty brown? Or was it because some people associated it with wealth and leisure? And what about 'bronzed' Aussies'? Did we feel so insecure in the world that we wanted everyone to see us as tough and statuesque? Tanning, argued John, is something you do to leather. Why do we want our skins to look like leather?

The Government had taken some token steps to prevent sun damage, requiring a cigarette-packet type warning on all outdoor equipment and beachwear: SUNLIGHT IS RADIATION. ALL RADIATION DAMAGE IS CUMULATIVE. But the image of the alluring suntan was for years too strong to allow its acceptance.

In the mid-1990s the horror of ozone depletion was more fully realised. The ozone layer over Antarctica had been reduced by more than 50 per cent. Similar thinning occurred in the northern hemisphere, extending southwards to cover Scandinavia, half of Canada and the USSR, and Britain from the Shetland Islands to the Midlands.

In the southern hemisphere, Aotearoa, most of Australia, and the southern parts of Africa and South America were now fully exposed to the sun's dangerous rays.

Until this stage there seemed to have been a bizarre suppression of the facts relating to the damage to human life. It took the massive crop losses of 1994 to shake up the governments and corporations. Solar scorching has since made extinct around 180 varieties of flora. And thousands of other varieties suffered seriously decreased growth and fertility cycles. The livestock industry also suffered from its unwillingness to act. Tens of thousands of cattle and sheep died from malignant, sun induced tumours in the early years alone. As has since been proved, ultra-violet radiation suppresses the immune system, permitting cancer to grow more rapidly and harming far more than the outward layer.

Massive damage was also caused to phytoplankton, a basic unit in the food chain. The combination of ozone-depletion and the 'greenhouse' effect continued to play havoc with weather patterns and climate throughout the globe. Hundreds of sensitive eco-systems were damaged beyond their tolerance for change.

Yet it wasn't until 1995 that the Australian Government banned the production, sale and possession of CFCs. Every air-conditioner in the nation was recalled, and those that couldn't be updated with safe compressant gases had to be sealed in a massive underground vault.

In the same year the construction of outdoor swimming pools was banned, and covered playgrounds replaced the open air variety which had claimed so many young lives through SDE. Life insurance companies introduced a 'sun exposure' escape clause to free them from the numerous claims, and medical benefit funds acted accordingly. Not surprisingly', the tourism industry collapsed throughout the whole southern Pacific region.

Love for the sun had turned to loathing in the 'sunburnt' country. Those who had listened too late carried within them the haunting uncertainty of latent skin cancers, ten or 15 years - at best - spent watching with remorse their fading tans.

George Fisher writes for the NI from Sydney, Australia.

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