Climate change: who really is to blame?

A historical perspective


Text Robin Lamplough Images Supplied

It is a remarkable fact that Greta Thunberg, a Scandinavian teenager with a condition that makes her forthright to the point of rudeness, was named Time magazine’s ‘Person of the Year’ for 2019. Her message, after all, was not a new one. Many eminent scientists have been warning of the threat of climate change for years. But their message fell largely on deaf ears.

I have been generally aware of the concern expressed but I must confess that I was very short on detail. So when our editor told me of the central theme of the next Echo, I was at something of a loss. Fortunately, I am married to a biologist, and Jean helped me to sort out in my mind the basic details of the problem.

As I understand it, for many years (in fact, over two centuries, since the Industrial Revolution) human activity has, on a large scale, been discharging into the atmosphere large concentrations of carbon dioxide. In addition, methane gas (once known as marsh gas) is discharged by off-shore oil-rigs. Further, the population shift from rural areas to cities has led to a large-scale demand for fresh meat. This has meant huge concentrations of slaughter stock producing large volumes of methane.

For a while, however, the negative effects of these activities were masked by the natural safety valve provided by rain forests, especially along the Amazon river in South America. These forests daily absorb carbon dioxide and, through a process known as photosynthesis, discharge into the atmosphere large quantities of oxygen. Increased logging in these forests, however, has reduced that natural process of photosynthesis, thus increasing the concentration of carbon dioxide in the air and helping to create the ‘greenhouse effect’ which is central to global warming.

But what is the driving force behind all these ominous changes? It is the dramatic increase in the world’s population. Medical science has enabled doctors to prolong life and to control diseases which had, in earlier times, been fatal. It was the political economist, Thomas Malthus, who in the 19th century, argued that for purely mathematical reasons, the human capacity to produce food would never exceed the number of people available to consume it.

Other instances

There have been, of course, other instances in history of significant climate change. It is believed to have caused the demise of the woolly mammoth. The British Stone Age settlement at Skara Brae, in the Orkneys, is thought by many archaeologists to have been abandoned because of encroaching beach sand. The movement, too, of Bantu-speaking people from Cameroon, down the Rift Valley and into southern Africa, may have been driven by occurrences of the same phenomenon. They were, in other words, human responses to regional changes in climate. But the key word there is ‘regional’. The present problem, by contrast, has been driven purely by human activity and has created universal climate change. The story goes back further than you might think.

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London Smog 1952

Photo: Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

It is no secret that London has long been known colloquially as ‘The Big Smoke’; or that Edinburgh is similarly labelled ‘Auld Reekie’ (Translation for Sassenachs – Old Smoky).

These names arose not only because of industry but because every respectable household had a coal cellar, a stove and a fireplace, as well as at least one chimney, with the inevitably concomitant social ills. (Did you ever read, or have read to you, the 1863 children’s classic, The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley?) The English smoke problem came to a head in December 1952, when a combination of weather factors led London to be closed in for five days by a mixture of smoke and fog. A new word was coined: ‘smog’.

By the time the immediate crisis was over, thousands of Londoners had died, although estimates of the total numbers vary widely. This led Parliament to pass the Clean Air Act in 1956. And, across the Atlantic, the authorities were confronting the same phenomenon. How much soot landed on New York skyscrapers in a day in the mid-sixties? I remember a writer for Time magazine working out a figure in tons. The U.S. Congress passed a Clean Air Act in 1963, with a follow-up in 1970. Meanwhile, in 1962, American marine biologist, Rachel Carson had published Silent Spring, drawing attention to the dangers to nature posed by the extensive use of chemical insecticides.

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Deforestation in the Amazon

Photo: Source

But on whom can we pin the blame for the present scourge of climate change? Is it only the unscrupulous businessmen in search of a good and quick return? Or do we need to look further afield than that? The science of psychology teaches that one in three people are natural risk-takers. We may suppose that entrepreneurs fall by definition into this category. So the capitalists who seek large profit by exploiting the Amazon forests are easy to understand. But it is too easy to attribute the problem to human greed alone. Human greed invariably exploits human need. And the men who find employment as loggers in the rainforests surely fall into this category. This pattern of human behaviour is one with which we are well acquainted in our own lives, in our own region. Think of the amazamazama (‘those who keep on trying’). They illegally enter abandoned mine workings in search of fragments of precious metal left behind. Or consider those who poach rhino, elephant and abalone. These men engage in such activities to provide for their families, or to live at a more lavish level between excursions. If we do not take such people into account, we are in danger of a serious misjudgment. They are as much the victims of human greed as any.


The fundamental truth, however, is that almost every individual has an inborn drive, whether for selfish or unselfish reasons, to endeavour to improve his or her situation. I am descended, on both sides, from people who, between the 18th century and the early 20th century, chose to leave Europe or Britain. Perhaps some of them were natural risk-takers. But the purpose of all of them was to explore the advantages to them and to their families of living in southern Africa.

This article was part way to completion when it was rudely elbowed aside by a more urgent priority, the national lockdown arising from Covid-19. As a result, Jean and I have spent much time on our sun-deck, enjoying the views while watching and listening to the birds, all totally oblivious to the present human dilemma.

From the deck, about 25 km to the east, we see the sprawl of Gateway. On a clear day, we can look beyond that to the Indian Ocean, a waterway that has played a significant part in the history of this province. Along that coast, some two thousand years ago, sailed parties of Indonesian explorers in search of somewhere to settle. Finally, they decided upon the island of Madagascar. Multi-disciplined UCLA professor of geography, Jared Diamond, in his 1998 Pulitzer Prize-winning Guns, Germs and Steel (1997), numbers this migration among the great folk movements of human history. In this book, he argues that geography, rather than race or intelligence influences the futures of human societies.

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Sweet potato

Photo: Amber Shidler

On their way, these intrepid explorers left behind a variety of useful crops. One of them was the sweet potato (Ipomoeia batata), shown by historical novelist, Dalene Matthee in Kringe in ‘n Bos/Circles in the Forest, to have been the staple diet of the white foresters inland of Knysna. And the first exploratory mission to Natal by a Voortrekker party in 1834, named the Berea ridge ‘Patathoogte’, because they found the plants growing on that height, above Port Natal.

The Indonesian explorers brought also the plant we know in KZN as amadumbi. I have seen them for sale in Mozambique produce markets, labelled ‘Chinese potatoes’. In addition, these travellers brought to Natal the edible banana, long believed to be indigenous to the region. (The wild banana, Strelitzia nicolai, is indigenous but its fruit is inedible). Older readers will remember when the provincial rugby side was known as the Banana Boys. Some of those readers may also have invested money with the Natal Building Society, whose logo was the golden banana and the slogan ‘Get your slice’.

But that is not the end of the story. In the 16th century, the Portuguese explorer, Vasco da Gama, sailed up the Natal coast. It was he who gave the region its name, because the venturers observed Christmas Day somewhere off the coast of Pondoland. Da Gama was motivated by his king’s ambition to discover a route to the Spice Islands.

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Vasco da Gama’s trip to India opened up a new Spice Route

Spicy food

Ever since the Crusades, many centuries earlier, people in Europe had had a taste for spicy food. But Muslim merchants held the monopoly and sold only to traders from Venice. When da Gama sailed home, he had lost half his crew and several ships. But he had brought back enough spices to break the Arab-Venetian monopoly. Portuguese traders established a base at Goa and learned to cross the Indian Ocean on useful currents, as well as to follow other opposite currents on their way home. These voyages of discovery furnish further evidence of men driven by the pursuit of wealth, which (we have suggested) is an inescapable factor in the present crisis of climate change. And, of course, in the 19th century, a British naval survey along the same coast brought to Natal its first white settlers, in search of the ivory that was essential for billiard balls and piano keys. And the slaughter of Natal elephants began.

Interestingly, Jared Diamond, whose Guns, Germs and Steel, I referred to earlier, published two sequels in 2019. The first, Collapse, examines the role of ecological disasters in human history. The third title, Upheaval, examines how human societies respond to major threats like climate change. He argues that nations need a special and clearly plotted program for dealing with matters that clearly endanger their futures. From clinical psychotherapy, Diamond borrows the concept of crisis therapy. In order to deal with a patient’s personal trauma or tragedy: the loss of a loved one, the breakdown of a relationship, or a career setback, for example, professionals try to devise a logical and developmental process to deal with the problem and its consequences. This process starts with an honest facing up to the reality of the crisis, then moves to a thorough and realistic examination of various procedures designed to alleviate it. At its root, lies the importance of plotting a way forward, without violating core values. On the possibility of successfully applying these principles to the danger of climate change, Diamond is ‘cautiously optimistic’ that the world will eventually find ways of tackling the problem.

Perhaps this helps to explain the anomaly I noted at the start of this article. The problem of climate change, although it had received attention from many scientists, was only brought to the notice of many of us ordinary folk through the statements of young Greta Thunberg.

So who can we justly blame for the current crisis of climate change? Ancient folk wisdom rightly insists that every act of pointing a finger involves three more fingers pointing back at the accuser. And I have to acknowledge its truth in the present dilemma. More than fifty years ago, I left the heat of Durban to move up the highway. And I did this to take up a position which I judged to be advantageous in my career. But, because it was out of reach of public transport, I had to make the move in my car: my fossil-fuel consuming, clean air polluting vehicle, although at the time few people had seen its dangers.

And now, in retirement, we live still in the same region, transmogrified into Ethekwini’s Outer West. But for shopping trips and social visits we still depend on a vehicle which discharges into the sky the carbon monoxide which contributes to climate change. And all the shops we visit are daily or weekly supplied by far larger vehicles which do even more harm to our long-punished atmosphere.

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Plastic in our oceans

And, as if that were not enough, as Sir David Attenborough has so cogently pointed out, even if the problem of climate change is brought under some control, the challenge of discarded plastics in the world oceans poses an even greater threat to our common future. Can I really take the moral high ground and blame other people for their neglect of our environment? I think not. Where do you stand?

Good news

The good news, however, is that Mother Earth is remarkably forgiving. This has been dramatically demonstrated world-wide in the present Covid-19 crisis. In the coastal scrub of the Cape, there was recently reported a sighting of the secretive and solitary grysbok, a doe with a single fawn. And in the same region, a group of penguins was snapped exploring a deserted city street. In our own province, a delighted photographer captured an antelope frolicking in the surf off Umhlanga. Scenes like these are being recorded and reported all over the world. But is has taken the extreme human fear of a deadly virus to awaken them.

About the author

Robin taught History for many years at Kearsney College. Since 2004 Jean and he have lived in a hillside complex at Waterfall, daily enjoying the quiet, the views and the wildlife. Robin is also a regular contributor of historical articles to a number of magazines.