We think of it as the Scottish Enlightenment, those years in the 18th and 19th centuries when Scotland led the world in change. James Watt improved the steam engine, leading to more efficient production of coal and then railways; Adam Smith showed how capital worked and could be applied to transform industry; William Murdoch introduced coal gas for lighting, and James Young discovered and exploited mineral oil from the shale deposits in West Lothian, using it for light and even to power vehicles.
Charles Macintosh was an early user of organic chemicals derived from coal in making waterproof material and Andrew Carnegie from Fife went to Pennsylvania and exploited coal (and labourers) to revolutionise the steel industry. Both Joseph Lister and James Young Simpson used chemicals derived from coal in their studies of antisepsis and anaesthesia. Ever since, we in Scotland have benefitted from the use of coal, oil and natural gas; we have a heritage that few if any small nations can rival and of which we are largely proud. But…
The first hint of problems, side effects or unforeseen consequences, came from the nuisance of pollution and then of deaths associated with it. There is an irony in that the relatively few deaths from smog of people living alongside the river Meuse in Belgium in 1930 is regarded as more significant than the death toll of around 1,000 coal miners annually in UK mines from accidents, fires and inundation throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. Nevertheless, the Meuse smog and the London smog 22 years later showed that the whole population, not just workers, were at risk from fossil fuel, and this led to public health measures from the late 1950s to abate pollution in the UK. And now we have climate change, a truly existential threat to civilisation itself.
That irony at the centre of capitalism lies in the so-called invisible hand that translates the self-interest of the entrepreneur into benefit to all of humanity. Operation of that hand required, as all visible hands do, fuel for its energy. That fuel is provided by fossilised vegetable matter, oxygen in the air, water, minerals from the earth and, not least, the willing or enforced labour of workers – the Earth's natural resources. The last of these caught the attention of Marx and it is telling that in recent years many organisations have altered the names of their personnel departments to 'human resources', subconsciously reflecting the attitudes of Thatcherism.
The central problem of 21st-century capitalism is that everything is driven by profit, mainly for shareholders but increasingly, as in Adam Smith's time, other owners, and these parties have aggregated into massive self-interested organisations with little interest in the product or workers other than their efficiency in making that profit. Moreover, their wealth enables them to purchase political advantage, to lobby and to bribe in furtherance of their aims, which include minimising their taxes. And our financial systems ensure that if we have pensions or savings invested in banks or shares, we are complicit in this.
This modern corruption of capitalism, which abuses the Earth's resources as a free good and has distorted the natural cyclical way in which nature works, is now seen to have led to climate change. It is not by any means confined to what we regard as capitalist societies. Indeed, the abuse is universal across economies, be they the kleptocracy of Russia or the autocratic command economy of the Chinese Communist Party. The common factor in the failure of all these systems is mankind's self-interest, in which I am sorry to say we all share and from the consequences of which we are all now suffering. The invisible hand is now revealed to have been our hand all along. It holds the poison that threatens to kill off our civilisation and much of nature with it.
In all this, there is but one sign of comfort; we have recognised what the hand is doing and know how it works. Being responsible for causing climate change, we can still prevent its worst effects, but our generation is the last one to be able to do this. If we do not act collectively, the changes will not be reversible and will lead to a terrifying future with increasingly large parts of the world uninhabitable. I have in these articles indicated that we must all change our behaviour, and I have indicated some of the ways in which I am doing so myself. I profoundly hope that all who read this are considering ways in which you can change your and your families' lifestyles to reduce your carbon footprints. The more who become advocates for change, the more likely are our leaders to get the message, as we rely on them to do the really big things that are necessary.
These big things are easy to list but hard to achieve. In no order of priority, as all are necessary now, they include:
• Cessation of all fossil fuel exploration, extraction, and use.
• Development of clean energy generation and distribution networks worldwide.
• Cessation of deforestation and promotion of green agriculture.
• Development of carbon-neutral food production and distribution worldwide.
• Development of carbon-neutral transport systems.
• Development of systems of green finance.
• Development of biodegradable substitutes for plastics.
• Development of systems for removal of carbon dioxide and methane from the atmosphere.
• Application of measures to insulate houses and protect us from floods, storms, and heat.
• Improvement of methods of waste recycling.
• International agreement on re-settling and employment of refugees.
• International agreement on encouragement to limit family size.
When you look at this list, you may feel a sense of despair, but we must come to terms with the necessity of all these actions. More positively, you will notice that all provide huge opportunities for employment and enterprise. You may feel that there are no politicians who could possibly deal effectively with any of these issues, but there must be many who are aware of them. Our role, as citizens, is to encourage them to engage with the scientific community, as they are learning to do over COVID-19, and to put their countries and regions on a path to sustainability.
It is a bumpy, hazard-strewn path, but it is one we must walk together. Every individual country must act, and the richer must support the poorer. Similarly, every community within each country must do what it can, and every individual in each community.
All action to deal with these many related issues is dependent on two things that characterised the Enlightenment: ideas and entrepreneurship. I started with an example: Watt's ideas for improving the steam engine, coupled with Bolton's support, led in so many directions that the world changed. There are already positive indications of progress on all these required actions; none will be sufficient alone, and action is necessary on all of them for the world to change again. And change it must, and us with it. I shall discuss some of these in the weeks leading up to COP26.
Anthony Seaton is Emeritus Professor of Environmental and Occupational Medicine at Aberdeen University and Senior Consultant to the Edinburgh Institute of Occupational Medicine. The views expressed are his own