Mortality and Climate Change

It’s commonplace to observe that climate catastrophism has many of the characteristics of an apocalyptic religion or doomsday cult. I’ve noted the weirdness of the authors of the Macmillan / Rapley epic “2071” – how Macmillan began an interview by stating that the world would be a better place if he had never been born, and how Rapley chose as the title the date at which his granddaughter would be the age he is now. I’m about the same age as Rapley and I know the funny things intimations of mortality can do to the mind. But all the same, you can’t help feeling these guys should be running an oddball cult on a mountain top somewhere, not influencing the energy policy of the planet.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-hJQ18S6aag

There’s an article at

http://theconversation.com/live-long-die-green-and-leave-a-biodegradable-corpse-37072  

which illustrates perfectly how climate change can become integrated into the innermost psychology of an intelligent educated person, affecting every aspect of their behaviour. For obvious reasons I refrained from commenting there. Instead I read it carefully several times, thinking about the mechanism by which so many Greek-educated citizens of the Roman Empire adopted the obscure religion of a sub-sect of an oppressed and despised race – a religion that overnight became the official creed of half the civilised world.

Once you’ve transformed a hypothesis about future temperature rise into an intimate part of your personality in this way, it’s easy to see how mere facts are not going to make a difference. I reproduce the article in full. Please be respectful in comments.

Live long, die green and leave a biodegradable corpse

by Robert John Young Professor of Wildlife Conservation at University of Salford

My mother died recently and at the funeral home I was asked if I had any ideas what kind of coffin she would like. For some reason I said something environmentally friendly. These words came out of my mouth more out of nervousness than anything previously discussed with my mother. Duly the undertaker showed us a catalogue of wicker coffins and we chose one made of banana leaves.

I often think of my carbon footprint – I have not owned a car in more than 15 years, for example – but I had never thought about my “green obligations” in death.

My mother may not have requested an environmentally friendly coffin, but she did state she wished to be cremated. Due to the lack of space in the UK around 80% of people request cremation – and if we think about green space being at a premium this makes ecological sense.

However the energy required to cremate a single person is equal to the energy they would use in a month if they were alive. In the UK this translates to a yearly energy consumption of a town of 16,000 people. In Asian countries where cremation is very popular there is considerable interest in using solar power to reduce such energy consumption.

Another problem with cremation is air pollution, which obviously depends on the filtering system being employed. Until recent times cremations were one of the major sources of mercury pollution in the UK due to the amalgam fillings in people’s teeth. A group of environmental NGOs recently called on the EU to curb mercury emissions from human cremation. Furthermore, the clothes worn and use of embalming fluids may also increase air pollution.

Humans have buried their dead for at least 100,000 years. Therefore, not wishing to throw the baby out with the bathwater, I looked into different burial options. A woodland burial initially appealed to me. However, I would only really approve of this if it resulted in the maintenance of a high-quality conservation area and wildlife refuge. And I wonder if it became popular enough if it could result in major reforestation of the UK. But bodies would still be rotting in the ground releasing globally warming methane gas.

Surely, there must be greener options than a standard burial or cremation? Coming from a family of fishermen I thought about burial at sea, as the fish could recycle my body quickly. But there are only three registered places in the UK and only around 50 such burials per year. As a biologist, I find the idea of becoming fish food strangely appealing. This is not a new idea: I remember reading of man who macabrely wished the meat from his body fed to the residents at Battersea Dogs Home. Not surprisingly this strange offer was declined.

As a conservationist the idea of recycling my body after death appeals: some Asian cultures have what are called sky burials, where a dead human body is laid out on a mountain top for scavenging animals such as birds of prey to feed on.

From a biological point of view I cannot see anything wrong with this, providing deceased people do not have contagious diseases. Burials in the ground are more to do with people not wishing the body disturbed by animals than hygiene considerations – hence being buried six feet. Unfortunately, as much as I like to imagine my deceased body on the top of Ben Nevis being recycled by golden eagles, I can never see it being allowed in the UK.

I suppose what really appeals to me is being fully recycled in a short time-frame. The problem is that cremation does not fully recycle the body and burials can take years for the recycling process to occur. Thus, if my body could be fully recycled quickly into the nutrient cycles, thereby allowing the burial plot to be constantly reused then I may have found a biologically acceptable method to dispose of my body when the time comes.

A company in Sweden has tested a concept of eco-burial on dead pigs (pigs are good models for the human body), whereby the animal is frozen in liquid nitrogen at -196℃, which makes the body become brittle and disintegrate. In the case of a human, the disintegrated body would be filtered for metals (such as tooth fillings) and then buried in a shallow grave.

In tests with pigs the remains become rich compost in six to twelve months. Plus this sort of eco-burial does not release greenhouse gases such as methane (from traditional burials) or carbon (from cremations) into the atmosphere. The only problem being it is still in development.

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11 Responses to Mortality and Climate Change

  1. James Leedam
    I read the comments, including yours, which links to your blog
    http://www.leedam.com/cremation-or-burial.html
    I find your arguments against cremation and traditional burial, and for “sustainable” natural burial, entirely convincing. Nobody likes cellophane, plastic flowers and mercury pollution.
    The problem comes from linking what should be a rational discussion about how to remember and be remembered in a non-religious society to a scientific debate about the dangers of greenhouse gases. If temperatures continue to refuse to rise in line with predictions, and people realise they’re being reduced to poverty, or prevented from emerging from poverty, by high energy prices and a policy of zero growth, then there will be a reaction against renewables, sustainability, and all things green that will sweep away all the benefits of a thoughtful, caring approach to our environment.

  2. alexjc38 says:

    I think it’s entirely possible a religious movement of sorts could emerge from climate catastrophism, given that in the wider scheme of things, environmentalism (in particular, deep ecology) has a distinctly mystical element within it. Here’s a rather interesting essay by someone called Mark A Schroll about the origins of ecopsychology, which has some pointers:
    http://www.ecopsychology.org/journal/ezine/ep_origins.html

    There are some particularly interesting quotes from psychologist Ralph Metzner, such as this one:

    “We have become painfully disconnected from the conscious knowing and perception of our participation mystique in the living processes of Earth. Our animistic, shamanistic ancestors had this awareness of symbiotic relatedness with the natural world. Through listening and reflecting on their ancient stories, we may be able to awaken the nature goddesses and gods slumbering in the inner recesses of the collective unconscious”.

    And this:

    “While I do not mean to suggest that we must all become pagans and worship the ancient gods again, I do believe that by reconnecting with the nature religion of our ancestors, we can recover something of the imaginal sensitivity and ecological spirituality that is the collective heritage of each of us. A tremendous spiritual revitalization can take place when we recognize the natural world and the divine world as intimately interwoven with each other. I see this as a kind of re-membering through which the dismemberment of human consciousness from Earth could be healed ”

    There’s also the fact that like Islam, environmentalism clearly has the potential to cover all aspects of human life, from ethics and the law to dietary preferences and yes, burial practices.

    However, to quote Mark A. Schroll, “ecopsychology and the deep ecology movement’s growth have been stunted because its message has had difficulty finding an audience.”

    Aye, there’s the rub…

  3. Alex
    Perhaps I’m experiencing some mysterious change of life, but just as I found myself agreeing with James Leedam about the merits of sustainable burial, I find that there’s much to sympathise with in Ralph Metzner’s idea of awakening the nature goddesses slumbering in the inner recesses of the collective unconscious. It certainly sounds like more fun than selective recycling.

  4. Geoff,
    My earlier response to the original article focussed on the environmental benefits of natural burial. There are many more good reasons to choose natural burial, including the greater ‘spiritual’ reward many experience from a close connection to nature. That is certainly the observation made by Ken West, the grandfather of the natural burial movement.
    Other more pragmatic benefits include the greater privacy, freedom and time available to families who choose this option. They often participate more fully, contribute more freely and experience closer support from a less inhibited group of friends and relatives.
    The open countryside also provides a place of peace and tranquillity, away from it all, to grieve, revive and refresh spirits. A healing landscape.
    To quote a woman who was helping to arrange the natural burial of her husband’s father this week “We’ve been to several funerals crematorium recently and they’ve all been shit! He wouldn’t have wanted any of that”. Blunt, but representative of so many people who discover that natural burial grounds offer a less him drum alternative. For many it’s about what they don’t want. No fuss, no palaver, no funeral being. Our mantra is ‘simple, natural, beautiful’ – if we achieve that, the more important matters successfully come to the fore.
    We are a small team, passionate about what we do, with a clear vision and strong commitment.

  5. Mooloo says:

    There are many more good reasons to choose natural burial, including the greater ‘spiritual’ reward many experience from a close connection to nature.

    And this is where the Green way of thinking makes me gag. Why should I want to be closer to nature?

    I want to be warm, well-fed, have a decent job, enjoy good health and communicate and learn from people all over the world. That requires that I spite Nature at every turn. I’m good with that.

    Until the Romantic revolution in Western Europe around the 1800s, people were pretty much agreed that Nature is a prick, and that we should tame it at every opportunity. Most of the world still think that, but the rich of the West have the time and money to re-deify Nature as something fluffy we should be near to. Precisely because they have so little actual connection. They no longer fear plagues and starvation; no longer observe carnivores eating herbivores as they go about their drudgery growing crops that only just feed them; no longer see that even sex in nature is a competitive act. They see some fluffy “greeness” and think it is good because they never look deeply at what actually is happening in it.

    At this point the Nature lovers assume that I am all about pillaging the environment. Quite the opposite. We should protect it because it inspires beauty and wonder. But that’s different from having a close spiritual connection. I think people should live in good architecture, surrounded by things of artistic merit too. But I don’t suggest we have to have a close spiritual connection to architecture and furniture.

    People posit a spiritual malaise in the Western world because we are separate from Nature. We should, instead, celebrate that we have risen above it. We should return to the state where we make Nature work for us, instead of trying to have us work for Nature.

  6. Mooloo,

    As a species on this planet, having a connection with nature is unavoidable. If we are going to “make nature work for us” then we need to understand, value and do some work to protect nature in return. Our Western lifestyles are becoming separate from Nature, but in no way have we risen above it. Our relationship with nature will never be one way; it is a reciprocal relationship in which we have to make discerning choices on our use of the environment so that it can continue to accommodate us.

    One such choice is made at the time of a funeral. Death is an absolute and the decision of what to do with our mortal remains will have to be made – if not by you then by someone else. (So why not make the decision yourself rather than leave it to chance.)

    As the table posted by James Leedam shows, conventional options are environmentally, socially and economically unsustainable.

    Choosing an alternative, such as natural burial might have an air of cultishness to it. Solemn, black funerals have been in vogue since the Victorian era and contemporary alternatives in comparison seem somewhat colourful. Just like electric cars and solar panels, natural burial is a step into uncharted territory. But it is wrong to put these modern and discerning choices under a hippy or cult banner, the range of people making this choice is vast and the reasons for them doing so differ enormously.

    Yes ‘green’ funerals and natural burials offer a more sustainable option, but as stated before, they also offer a chance to do things your way. For some it will be about being outdoors and close to nature. But for others it’s about not being confined to a 20 minute slot, not having to wear black, not having to involve religious elements – it’s about making arrangements to suit the person who has died. It is an empowering choice.

  7. Daniel Lane
    I spend much of my time on this blog being extremely rude about “Greens”. The reason for reproducing Robert John Young’s article here was so that I (or anyone else) could say what they thought without offence to the memory of the author’s mother.
    Like many atheists, I acknowledge that ceremony and ritual have a place in human activity, and that the renunciation of religious belief therefore has a cost. That people like James Leedam try to fill that gap seems to me wholly reasonable. Robert John Young’s comments on the naffness of modern substitutes for religious ceremony also seemed to me very sensible. What bothers me is that by linking his concerns to the question of methane and our posthumous carbon footprint, he has dragged what should be a rational question of ethics and aesthetics into the sacred precincts of science and government policy.
    [For those that don’t know me, that last point is heavily ironical]
    I agree with Mooloo about our relation to Nature, though alternative points of view don’t make me gag – not unless they’re forced down my throat. And that’s what’s happening with the Green Agenda, thanks to Climate Science.
    I was going to say “thanks to Global Warming Hysteria”, but it’s worse than that. It’s not about a passing fad, an intellectual fashion which will be replaced in time by another. It’s about a policy to dictate how we fuel our energy needs over the next century. This is wrong, stupid, insane. We don’t know how to produce cheap useful energy from sunlight or wind, as we don’t know what the temperature will be in 2050 or next month.
    I would not be permitted to make this point under Robert John Young’s article at at the Conversation, so this exchange couldn’t take place there.

  8. Mooloo says:

    Daniel,

    I don’t have an issue with natural burials. As humans we have to have a ceremony to mark someone’s passing, and they are as good as any. Sure beats anything involving embalming.

    I would argue that cremation is far and away the most sustainable way to remove bodies though, simply due to the amount of people involved if we all moved to burial. Sure, we might need heavy metal scrubbers on the furnace flue, but that’s no longer even remotely a problem. (If aerial mercury is a problem, then why is shallow burying it OK?) Like most things,even death, industrial solutions are the cheapest and most efficient solutions.

    As a species on this planet, having a connection with nature is unavoidable.

    There is no such thing as “nature”. It’s a human construct. As a species on the planet we are bound by some limits of biology, but that’s it, just as we work with the geology we are given.

    I don’t want or need any connection with smallpox. I would pray, if I was religious, for the utter extermination of thousands of similar species — starting with dental caries, since it costs me a small fortune. I’d even take quite some persuading that we should suffer the mosquito to live.

    Protecting and improving our lived environment is important, but I don’t want possible options vetoed, solely on the basis that they are not “natural”.

  9. johanna says:

    “As the table posted by James Leedam shows, conventional options are environmentally, socially and economically unsustainable.”
    ————————————————————————————–
    I don’t agree. Let’s look at them one by one.

    1. Evironmentally “unsustainable”.
    As Mooloo points out, there is absolutely no reason why emissions from crematoria cannot be treated to preserve air quality. And really, the notion that just because cremation has (allegedly) a “footprint” the same as if the person had lived a month longer verges on the macabre. We are not talking about building Great Pyramids for each person here. Certainly, there are space constraints on burials, but as the author himself points out, burial is not a popular option these days. As cemetery space becomes scarcer and more expensive, that trend is unlikely to change.

    2. Socially “unsustainable”.
    I am afraid I don’t understand what this even means.

    3. Economically “unsustainable”.
    As above, if burials become too expensive, people choose other options – most of them do that already. I’m not aware of any particular price-push forces on cremations.

    I don’t mind how people’s mortal remains are disposed of, as long as public health is not endangered. And it’s good to discuss these issues calmly and rationally. But I must agree with Geoff that trying to co-opt it into that vague and misty netherworld called “sustainability” is a bridge too far.

  10. The article at the Conversation which provoked this article is the most read article in the “Energy and Environment “section. As Johanna says, it’s macabre. Does “sustainability” have some special meaning for the highly educated atheists who read the Convesation?

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