Hyacinth Project

Peak Oil

 Sahara Project

World Problems

 Therapy for the earth is a metaphor scientists are beginning to use. This may be better than considering the world problem (what the Club of Rome called the World Problematique) from only the human point of view. Perhaps the planet is not just our "home", or our "resource" but is an entity with its own value. And we are a part of it.

The British government has recently (1988) received a report of the economic costs of being green, or of taxing pollution. This is the accountant's metaphor, which is no doubt the way to speak to a government of money men, but perhaps a medical metaphor will make the problem seem more urgent to the rest of us. Talking about the money is only to discuss the way the problem impacts on the human activities but what is necessary is to think about the actions the collective human community must undertake on the earth. We must not be carried away with the visions of the "pricing" of the earth's functions into thinking this will do anything at all to solve the problem. All it can do is to help coordinate the human activities. The pricing may become part of the mechanism of a general policy of dealing with the problems. The adoption of prices must be a consequence of having decided what needs doing. Apart from any other defect, the "correct" cost of pollution can never be discovered. A determination to end pollution implies any price that makes the process impossible. We don't want the polluters to pay; we want them to stop.

 Curing a fevered planet

The Earth is sick. If the planet were a person we should say: she has a rising fever; there are toxins in the circulation; there are skin problems; possibly, there are parasites infesting the surface; there are breathing problems; there is a severely damaged skin.

A sick person needs therapy. Hence Geo-therapy, the new profession for curing the earth. What needs to be done? First, the fever. A normal human being in good health has a temperature of about 37. If this temperature deviates the medical advisers know there is something wrong. The Earth's temperature is believed (1) to have remained constant for hundreds of millions of years, probably ever since photosynthesis began. Now it is rising, much faster than has happened in recorded time and threatens to rise to a level above what present species are adapted to. The rate is too fast to allow the necessary adaptation in time. This is cause for concern and a sign of sickness. For the humans it means rising seas and the foreseeable need to move whole nations from flooded land or sudden dust bowls. Quite possibly it also means famine when the main food producing areas dry up.

But there are other signs of sickness. A healthy living earth has species of living beings which function like the organs of a person. Many of these species are disappearing. A human who loses the kidneys must either live attached to a kidney machine until death or receive a kidney from another human. If the earth loses a species the functions of that species may not be done any more. A species cannot be replaced. It is true there seem to be many back-up systems, but present conditions are putting them under strain. For the other species of the earth the temperature rise means loss or movement of habitats. If the change is rapid they may not be able to adapt or move and so may become extinct.

What is the role of the human species? Is it to be a parasite of the organism, or, more optimistically, the nervous system or even - we may speculate - the consciousness? If it is to be the nervous system or the consciousness we, the humans, had better start behaving as such. Even if we are only parasites we had better change our activities. It is an unsuccessful parasite which kills the host. For the parasite it is catastrophic if there is no other host to move to. Even if the parasite, like the malaria organism, only makes the host sick it is not a successful life as the host may reject the parasite. The best kind of parasite has adapted itself to help the host - what is called symbiosis, in which each benefits from the other. At present the humans are not behaving like this. At worst the humans may be like a cancer, multiplying uncontrollably until the host dies.

We had better therefore learn to keep the host in better condition in case she finds the equivalent of quinine to kill the parasites.

 The Symptoms

There is a fever. There are several causes brought about by humans: one of these is that the humans have been interfering with the temperature regulating devices: the stored carbon compounds in coal and oil; and the reflectivity of the surface of the earth, including the cloud cover. Unfortunately the coal and oil have been perceived as "fuels". Burning them is like killing a whale for its flotation regulator - the whale oil - or burning the house down to have roast pork. It is foolish to burn the temperature controller. We ought to leave the carbon where we found it, and help the earth to build up more of these reserves. The reflectivity has been altered by making deserts of former forests and grasslands.

"But we need the energy," people say. The answer must be: we don't need all the energy we use. And if it is a matter of the health of the earth there are other sources. "So, we shall use the radioactive substances," some people say. Well, if our first question must be: what is its effect on the Earth's well-being? we must say: Radioactivity will harm the earth. The various species, including ourselves, which are affected by the radioactivity will be harmed even more than by the rising temperature, because radioactivity can affect the basic genetic programs of all living things.

To bring the fever down we have to stop burning the carbon stores and look for other sources of energy. We possess immense cleverness with physics. It is already possible, if we wish, to derive all the energy we need from the natural input of the sun, the gravitational pull of the moon and the internal heat of the earth. There are many ways of doing this without giving off any carbon. We can use wind. In most parts of the world the heat of the sun can provide much of the low grade heat we need. In many parts of the world there is enough sunlight to make electricity. We can make use of the temperature difference between the hot surface of the sea and the cold depths - OTEC. We have means of collecting energy and distributing it without making use of the Earth's stored carbon reserves. Solar and wind electricity can be used to make hydrogen from water. The hydrogen can be transported through our existing pipelines and others like them. Hydrogen can be used for many of the purposes we now use oil and natural gas for. All these processes exist in experimental form.

These systems may seem to cost more than pumping oil out of the ground. We can't be sure because only some of the necessary research has been done. In any case geotherapists must think of the cost of things in new ways. The cost to the planet of a solar-hydrogen system is much less than the cost of burning the stored carbon. The long-term cost of the carbon system to humans is also high. When the carbon stores have been worked out the human market cost will be higher than they are now and we shall have to use the other systems then in any case. In fact economics must become a branch of ecology - the so-called "externalities" must all be accounted for properly.

Yes, we can't have a hydrogen system tomorrow, but therapy for the planet requires that we get on with introducing it as soon as possible. The fever will continue to rise until some time after we start the remedial treatment.

 Our stealing the carbon stores is not the only cause of the fever, though it's over half of the cause. We are letting into the air many gases which should not be there. Several chemicals which are produced by no other species - compounds of carbon, fluorine and chlorine, for example - are causing about 7 percent of the problem (and they are causing another problem - removing the protective "skin" of ultra-violet light absorbers from the outer edge of the atmosphere). Another 20 percent is the gases which are produced by our growing the food we like. We have too many cows. The meat and milk which give westerners their early heart attacks come from cows which produce methane in their rumens and belch it out. This methane is causing 18 percent of the world's fever. Well, it's not all from cows and other animals. Quite a lot is from the artificial "swamps" which are used to grow rice in. Before the arrival of humans in large numbers swamps probably occupied a smaller area of the Earth's surface, and cows and other ruminants were much rarer.

To show how interlinked things are, many of the cows are living on land which used to be covered in trees. Cutting the trees down has put carbon into the air and caused part of the fever. So our desire for the meat of the cattle is causing fever twice over. And the same land often encourages termites which are suspected of adding to the methane.

Another part of the fever comes from the products of our machines. As we burn the coal and oil in power stations and cars, nitrogen oxides are formed. Some nitrogen oxides are also produced by our agricultural processes. Before human agriculture the bacteria in the soil were all balanced into creating and destroying nitrogen oxides and the various processes of the atmosphere could use them up. Now there are too many of these gases, and they are growing in quantity. One of these gases, N2O, contributes about 4 percent of the fever and some other effects as well. But incomplete combustion in petrol and diesel engines also stimulates the formation of ozone, not high up where it should be, but low down where it is dangerous to life. This contributes about 15 percent of all the fever.

Each of these gases lasts for different times in the atmosphere. Thus the CFCs will take at least a century before they are broken down in the stratosphere and will continue to increase there even after their production stops, as dumps release the trapped gases. Methane on the other hand lasts for about 8 years and would hence decrease rapidly if we could reduce the production.

The information now available should tell the geotherapists where we have to set to work: that we have to change our habits considerably, and quickly. Some kinds of agriculture can reduce the amount of nitrogen oxides and methane given off from the soil. Changing the source of our energy will also help. Strictly controlling the emissions of industry is essential.

 Putting it back

But therapy also means putting the carbon back where we found it. Planting trees on the land which used to be forested will help store much of the carbon and take it out of the air. If the timber is then used for long-lived constructions it will be stored even after the tree is dead. This suggests that, provided more trees are planted, we should use wood for building and furniture much more than at present.

There are other places where carbon can be taken from the air. Coral reefs in the sea are made by many species which can convert carbon into limestone. (Some of our industry burns limestone and sends carbon from it into the air: this too should be controlled). The coral reefs can be encouraged by keeping the sea clean around them and not putting sewage or silt into the sea. The sewage which we and our farm animals produce should go back to the land where it belongs instead of poisoning the sea. Silt makes the water turbid which inhibits coral formation. Changing agricultural practices would tend to reduce the nitrogen oxides coming off the soil (at least 4 percent of the problem). And energy in the form of methane can be extracted from the domestic and animal wastes before they become fertiliser. Another way of storing carbon would be to create long-lived polymers for building roads and other constructions with. These polymers could be produced from the photosynthesis of such carbon sources as the exhaust gases of coal burning power stations.

There are large areas of desert which could grow plants - and which did so before humans sent unsuitable grazing animals on to the land. Geotherapy must see to it that these deserts are restored to health by having a plant cover. Some of these deserts too could be the sites for large scale solar power to take the place of the plundered carbon "fuels".

The Earth's fever is so severe that the expense of producing fresh water from the sea in order to grow carbon-absorbing trees in the deserts may be worth doing, at least for a century or so. OTEC would be a means.

Some of the geotherapy would be good for humans too. The very carbon and nitrogen oxide-emitting cars which poison the earth also poison us. Getting rid of them and replacing them with hydrogen-powered vehicles and electric trains or battery vehicles will help bring down the fever, and will reduce the cancers and other lung diseases they cause to humans. Some car-makers have apparently decided that they have about 40 years before they need to convert to hydrogen. That means they have decided to retire and die before anything is done. The urgent need for Geotherapy suggests we should give them a deadline of ten years, or sooner. Hydrogen buses and cars already exist in Sweden and Germany. What is needed is to make them reliable and cheap enough to use and to discourage, by suitable taxes, the carbon-fuelled types.

All this (and many other actions) will cost the humans money - or rather the work represented by money. Can we afford it? Under the discipline of ecological economics these costs are the long neglected payment for the "externalities" which were foolishly ignored in the past. At present the military like to tell us we need to have expensive defence against other humans. It is becoming commonplace to point out that each new "Stealth" bomber costs the human world (not just the American taxpayer) 500 million dollars worth of scientific and engineering skills and scarce metals. But this purely symbolic object has no useful effect on either the earth or human society. Like a totem pole it is there for magic. We don't need it, nor any of the other expensive military objects the earth is full of.

Even the most dogmatic free market, business-as-usual, governments do not leave "defence" to the market. Geotherapy cannot be left to the market either, even if the market is guided by the accountants' estimates of the costs of pollution and environmental damage. If the "defence" industries and budgets could be diverted into building new energy systems, forest planting, and other large-scale therapeutic activities we should probably find we had the resources and human energy to do the work. We might also hope that the boondoggling corruption which accompanies these industries would lessen. A useful by-product would be to lift the psychological climate of fear in which several generations of people have lived since the Second World War.

Looking after the planet is a much more serious task than the pretence of the human cold war. Who knows what deep wells of creativity would be released if the fear were removed? [written before the fall of the Berlin Wall - as we know now - 2008 - new fears took the place of the Cold War opponents] Therapy for the planet would be real useful work in a way that producing military and civilian toys can never be. Millions secretly hate the work they do to produce useless or dangerous products. Much cynicism would vanish if they knew they were helping to bring down the planet's fever.


But even these actions will not be enough. Almost all of the problems are made worse by the increased numbers of people - especially in the industrial societies. Remember the methane from rice paddies? This is one source of fever-producing gases we can't get rid of, and methane (some of it from cows) is 18 percent of the problem (though research may one day enable us to reduce the methane output of rice paddies). Billions live on rice as their main diet and it can't be replaced. Somehow we have to begin to stop the rise in numbers of humans and begin a fall in numbers as fast as we safely can by having fewer children. How can this be done? Does it imply a fascist jack-booted inspectorate forbidding women from giving birth? This has already been tried in different forms in China and India (the Mrs Gandhi emergency period). Compulsion without education doesn't work. In China the birth rate has gone up again after the compulsion was relaxed. What is needed is universal awareness of the dangers of further expansion. (And all the financial and social incentives which can be devised, especially education of women to do other things.) Some European countries, such as Germany, already have a falling population. This should be welcomed.

We have an electronic nervous system which links the whole planet. If, instead of using it as propaganda to sell people things they don't need, or tell them lies about the rulers, it were used to tell them the truth about the sickness of the earth much could be done. There are many human cultural habits which hinder the achievement of a human population restraint. These have to be countered with information. Religious organisations which pretend to ancient authority which forbids such restraint, such as some Christian and Muslim sects, must be shown to have no right to condemn the human inhabitants of the planet to a terrible future. (Neither Jesus, Mohammed nor Buddha can be shown to have had any views about limiting population, or indeed about contraceptives, whatever their self-appointed present-day spokesmen may say.)

The future of humanity, if geotherapy is not undertaken, is clear. We can expect the death by disease and starvation, and perhaps in war, of several thousand million. If the population rises, as is sometimes forecast, to 10,000 million from its present 6,000 million, we can expect something like 9,000 million to die in some unprecedented catastrophe - perhaps as soon as this 21st century. The survivors would live a miserable life in a devastated planet, surrounded by the rotting ruins we are helping to build. The cause of this collapse is that the natural support systems provided by the other species will break down. The present fever is only a mild symptom of what might happen.

There is no need at present to propose a target for the human population. As with the case of the fever the only thing we need propose is that the direction must change. The increase must be stopped and a gentle fall initiated. After some decades a target can be announced. Undoubtedly it would take the form of a series of targets for different bioregions - the number of people each ecological area can support without long-term damage.

Humans think in terms of a lifetime; the planet's timespan is different. No doubt the planet would recover in a few hundred thousand years. New species might evolve over a million years or so. But there is no need to allow this disaster to happen. A smaller population living a sustainable life in symbiosis with the other species is quite possible if we take the necessary steps and change our demands on the Earth's living systems.


There are two new visions needed. One is that there are no more nations, able to live a life independent of the others. There is one human community trying to find its place as a part of the earth, to live in symbiosis with the other species which make up the organs of the earth.

The other is the vision of the earth from space, as a single living entity, but the only one of its kind in our solar system. Viewed from the moon, the earth's fragile atmosphere can be seen to connect us all. One plume of smoke rising from a power station (or volcano in Mexico) can affect the humans and living systems in every other part of the planet.

Living with the damage

The damage we have already done will continue to get worse for several decades after geotherapy begins (and it hasn't begun yet). We must be prepared for serious changes of climate and food-growing areas. As well as the geotherapy proposed here there will have to be First Aid teams to deal with the disruption. Teams of ecologists will have to help the groups of plants and animals move if their habitats move due to climate change. The changes are likely to be too fast to allow them safely to do it on their own. A significant proportion of the human community will need to be trained in this kind of work. Observations from space will be needed to chart the changes. Many branches of the human community will have to change their cultural habits, and even their homelands. International diplomacy based on planetary coordination will have to arrange this with as little violence as possible. We don't have experience of deliberate cultural change so we don't know how the necessary changes can come about. Most human cultural groups need to change radically.

But none of this can come about by the secret or benign action of an elite group working in the background. Only the realisation of the problem by a mass of people can make it possible. The professionals need the willing cooperation of an informed world public. Thus, dissemination of information is a vital part of the work. Countries such as Britain with a degraded popular press need to improve their education systems so that people will not want to be lied to.

Would geotherapy work, in the sense of preventing the disaster? It is not possible to be sure yet, and medical workers know there are always uncertainties. But delays in starting treatment certainly make the problem worse.

Information on gases and methods from: Richard Grantham Approaches to correcting the Global Greenhouse Effect by Managing Tropical Ecosystems (In Press for Tropical Ecology Dec. 1989)

 (1) See James Lovelock - Gaia

See Scientists' Responsibility For Survival Of The Human Species By Van Rensselaer Potter and Richard Grantham



Richard Grantham on Geotherapy

Thomas Goreau

Blogsopot on Geotherapy

(C) E.G.Matthews (1989)

Last revised 2/05/12

wimtalk AT

Originally written for Resurgence Magazine

Geotherapy Index

Biogas Index


Return to the top

Since 19/04/11

eXTReMe Tracker