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new internationalist
issue 244 - June 1993

The ozone mirror
David Edwards looks through the ozone hole
– and sees a reflection of human society.

Illustration by CLIVE OFFLEY For a freelance writer on environmental issues, nothing is more bewildering – and irritating – than continually having to update articles on ozone depletion.

On ozone what? Ozone ‘depletion’. Correction: the ozone ‘hole’. Correction: the ozone ‘problem’. Correction: the ozone ‘crisis’. Correction: the ozone ‘catastrophe’. Correction: ‘the end of the world’.

Get the idea? Now, following a new report from the National Aeronautics Space Administration (NASA) I’m thinking that maybe I should change the ‘crisis’ to ‘catastrophe’. That would be the conservative option. Not that such semantic alterations are likely to make much difference; this job has given me ample opportunities to observe the human capacity to ignore the unpleasant but real.

Two years ago Dr Joe Farman – member of the Stratospheric Ozone Review Group and ‘discoverer’ of the ozone hole – reported that Europe had lost eight per cent of its stratospheric ozone and would lose at least 20 per cent by 1997. This surely would make people listen, I naively thought at the time.

Actually, very few people knew, understood or cared about the significance of his predictions. To me it seemed that an invisible, silent equivalent of a megatonne hydrogen bomb was slowly exploding over Northern Europe – and no-one wanted to know about it.

Then last year, having quickly written and submitted several articles relating to Mr Farman’s warnings, I found myself having to contact the editor of one publication to ask her to make profound last-minute changes to one of my articles. I was wrong, I told her. Everyone was wrong. We were way off – the NASA was now predicting 20-per-cent depletion in 1993!

This year! At first, I could not believe it. Someone was jumping on the alarmist bandwagon. I temporarily joined the side of the sceptics. But soon the implications of the new prediction began to sink in. The United Nations Environmental Policy Institute estimates that for every three-per-cent depletion of ozone there will be an additional 200,000 cases of skin cancer, mostly in Australia, Aotearoa/New Zealand, North America, Europe, Japan and the Soviet Republics. Each three per cent will also lead to 400,000 new cataract cases a year and many of those will go blind – especially in the Third World. Imagine what 20-per-cent depletion would do...

I knew that with this degree of depletion, skin would blister after just two hours of exposure to the sun. Plant life would be affected too: two-thirds of the 200 species tested at elevated levels of ultra-violet already showed adverse reaction. Severe ozone depletion could cut crop yields by a quarter to a half.

But come on! This was not the real world. This could not be happening in my lifetime. It was too serious. I had been writing about slowly evolving threats that might significantly harm future generations – not the imminent devastation of modern civilization.

Then NASA confirmed that the high prediction of 20 per cent depletion had already happened in January 1992 over Britain and Northern Europe. But this was the result of special circumstances – namely the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines. The exact nature of the chemical reactions were complicated but scientists thought the high quantity of volcanic dust particles at stratospheric level provided superb platforms for human-made chlorines to react with and destroy ozone during the cold weather. The result was a massive acceleration of short-term ozone depletion.

But this provided some comfort. After all, how often do volcanoes erupt on the scale of Mount Pinatubo? We can live with a few years short-term ‘special’ case depletion while CFCs, Halons and the rest are phased out. Life will go on – yes we have a problem, but a manageable, survivable one.

Unfortunately the articles are now having to be re-written all over again since NASA reported that the extreme levels of ozone depletion recorded in Britain and Europe in 1992 were the sole result of human-made industrial chemicals and the Mount Pinatubo effect was a red herring. That great hole over the Northern hemisphere was not a benign, ‘special case’ blemish but a malignant tumour. And the chemicals that feed its growth are still being produced and released into the stratosphere every day to start their five-year journey to the ozone layer, where they accumulate, destroy and can survive for many decades.

It makes me think of the early ozone researcher who, asked whether he’d had a good day at work, replied: ‘The work’s going great but it looks like the end of the world’.

So where will depletion end? Will it end? How much ozone are we going to have to try and live without? Nobody knows. When I saw Dr Joe Farman visibly shaken at a highly emotional press conference two years ago, he did not know, he had no clue that we were a few months, not a few years, away from 20-per-cent ozone depletion.

There is still no ban on CFCs and Halons. Our industries are still producing these chemicals, which once released into the atmosphere start their five-year journey to the ozone layer. Tour operators still promote holidays in the sun and on the ski slopes as though no-one had ever heard of skin cancer.

In the end the unrelenting destruction of the environment provides us with more clues about ourselves than it does about the questionable future of human race. To look into the darkness of the ozone hole and our failure to respond to it in any adequate way is to see modern society reflected in a mirror.

In that mirror we can see that we are not as free as we believed. What we receive as the truth is a version of reality depleted by the economic interests of those who only ever think of short-term gain.

David Edwards is a British freelance writer currently working for the Folk University in Sweden.

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