Skip to content. | Skip to navigation

Personal tools
You are here: Home Resources Publications Papers 3. Can lemmings change their course?

3. Can lemmings change their course?

by Gösta Lyngå

Change is not made without inconvenience, even from worse to better
Richard Hooker, 16th century

The common or European lemming is very prolific, and vast hordes periodically migrate from the mountains to the sea, destroying vegetation in their path
Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary

Change will come, by necessity or by design


1. The Problems

1.1 Symptoms

1.1.1 Global Warming

1.1.2 Desertification

1.1.3 Increased UV Radiation

1.2 Roots

1.2.1 Population Explosion

1.2.2 Greed

1.2.3 Economic Systems

1.3 Realisation and Denial

1.3.1 Reactions of People

1.3.2 The Scientific Community

1.3.3 The Economic Powers

1.3.4 The Democratic Systems

2. Powers in Society

2.1 Democracy and its Means

2.1.1 Strengths of Democratic Systems

2.1.2 Weaknesses of Democratic Systems

2.2 The role of Media

2.3 Humans

3. How to Obtain Change

3.1 Lobbying

3.1.1 Theory

3.1.2 Practice

3.2 Political Activity

3.2.1 Historical Overview

3.2.2 Direct Influence

3.2.3 Indirect Influence

3.3 Education

3.3.1 Young People

3.3.2 Mature People

4. Possible Scenarios

4.1 Extrapolations

4.2 The Pessimist’s View

4.3 The Optimist’s View

5. References



It is said that in the years of their migration lemmings will not stop nor turn in their suicidal march towards the sea and they all drown. Modern science tells us that this is not so - lemmings are not as stupid as that.

It seems that humanity is on an unsustainable course towards an unknown future. Does humanity have enough will and enough knowledge to make a fundamental change before it is too late, will a change be forced upon us or is an ecological catastrophe inevitable?

1. The Problems

Like many environmentalists, I have become quite convinced that a fundamental change is needed in the behaviour patterns and in the structure of our society to ensure survival of the ecological system and with that, humanity. This analysis is based on my own experience in politics as well as in society.

    I find it necessary to distinguish between the actual problems of our society and what I consider the symptoms of these problems. To be sure, effects like global warming or desertification are often taken as the problems to be accepted or attended to, rather than as symptoms resulting from the behaviour of the society.

    Thus, I maintain that if we want to find the roots of the problems we must study society and its behaviour. There we may find the system faults that we must attend to. Such an approach, radical in nature, is needed if the remedies are to be sustainable. The process would then be similar to that of preventive rather than curative medicine.

    1. Symptoms

    1. Global Warming

For many years scientists have pointed to the increase of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere as a potential danger because of the effects of global warming. At the same time there have been dissenting views claiming that the recent increase in global temperature are within the range of natural variation. The latter was the conclusion of IPCC (International Panel on Climate Change) in 1990. Environmentalists have generally taken the view that if the issue is in doubt one should follow the precautionary principle and act on the assumption that the danger is real.

In 1995 the IPCC could report that the rise in average global temperature during recent decades was the steepest for the last 10,000 years. The large panel of scientists also agreed that the balance of evidence suggests human influence on global warming. This authoritative report does not give any doubt as to the seriousness of the situation.

There are different ways of addressing the greenhouse effect. Energy saving, and alternative energy techniques, can contribute a lot to curbing global warming if due efforts are made. Transport policy can be driven by rational decisions of informed politicians rather than by the profit demands of the oil industry. Forestation can make a contribution by creating sinks for greenhouse gases, although it must be recognised that it is only the increase of forests which gives a net contribution as a sink for greenhouse gas. A mature forest is in balance and neutral to the greenhouse issue.

Efforts to combat climate change must be made on many fronts:

  • Scientists must learn much more about the atmosphere, the oceans and their interactions
  • Industry must develop and apply techniques that are environmentally friendly.
  • Politicians must support policies for lower emission of greenhouse gases.

2. Desertification

The global decrease of arable land (see for instance Robertson, 1990) is one of the saddest symptoms of our society’s lack of consideration for the environment. It is particularly sad because it essentially hits those least able to cope with it. It is in overpopulated areas of Africa and Asia that the earth yields less and less protein and that death because of malnutrition is prevalent. Even though aid organisations understand the problems and stretch their resources to mitigate them, present trade patterns tend to increase the poverty gap in the world. It becomes even more common for poor people to overuse the soil in order to survive rather than to plan for long term yields. Desertification is a result of such practices.

        The global deterioration of arable land is a clear example of the fact that environmental policy is fundamental to equity policy. It is the poor people that suffer most from land degradation; the poor people that can only afford to live where the environment is degraded.

    3. Increased UV Radiation

Another consequence of the disregard of modern society for the environment is the thinning of the ozone layer caused by gases containing chlorine. These will reduce the ozone in the higher atmosphere and thus make it more transparent to ultraviolet radiation. Since the increased hole in the ozone layer was discovered and its relation to releases of CFCs established, there have been goal oriented international agreements. The Montreal Protocol of 1987 is a heartening example of how global collaboration can develop in the face of a very serious situation.

2. Roots
    1. Population Explosion

        Most of the threats to the environment described above become more serious the more people that live and consume on the earth. At the time of the hunter-gatherers it was possible for a tribe to exhaust the resources of one area and then move to another giving the exhausted area time to recuperate. The movement of nomadic people was necessary as well as possible. Since that period the population density on the earth has increased by a very large factor. There are essentially no virgin areas left and the increasing population movement is towards areas that are already inhabited, often densely inhabited.

        The days of the "green revolution" in agriculture brought a temporary respite as more intensive use of the fertile area could increase harvests considerably. This contributed to a marked increase in the quality of life for millions but it was also accompanied by increase in population. When the use of fertile ground reached saturation - in some cases the soil had been over-used - population was still in excess of food supplies.

        When starvation, sickness and early death are realities, it is both pointless and cruel to talk to people about making sacrifices so that future generations can have a better life. And yet, the misery will only be compounded if all efforts are spent in giving aid during catastrophes rather than planning to prevent future misery.

        The continued population growth is a fundamental cause of the environmental threats of today.

    2. Greed

        The quest for economic advantage is a driving force in the present economic system. This applies to countries and companies as well as to individuals. Trade is based on situations where two trading partners each gain an advantage from the exchange of goods or services. Much of today’s standard of living is based on development powered by the quest for profit.

        However, the trading market is also a fundamental cause of the environmental threats of today. The main reason for this is that nature has no clout in the market place. Nobody gets seriously penalised for causing environmental damage. There is a persistent belief that the environment will recuperate in time, and in the past this has largely been true since human activities only have been able to inflict minor damage to nature. Those days are past - modern consumption patterns and modern industrial methods are of such magnitude that irreversible damage will occur if market forces are allowed to dominate.

        It is important to analyse to what extent different economic systems cause environmental problems, and to investigate methods of correcting the mistakes already made.

    3. Economic Systems

      The way countries and the world evolve is highly dependent on the economic systems. Economics must take the responsibility for poor development as well as credit for what is good development. I would like to make a few comments on how economic systems have influenced the environment during recent decades.

      1. The failure of centrally planned economies

          The centrally planned economy of the former Soviet Union has failed its mission in a number of ways. Sandra Postel (1990) gives an example of where grand scale planning seems on its way to create a catastrophic situation for people and for the economy.

          In Uzbekistan the Aral Sea was surrounded by desert or semi-desert until its water was used to irrigate cotton plantations. Great economic growth was experienced as a result of "the white gold", the population in the irrigated areas grew spectacularly as workers were needed and as the area became richer. The state became the Soviet Union’s main supplier of cotton and one of the world’s largest producers. As a consequence the consumption of water from the Aral Sea has increased from about 40 km3 per year in the 1960s to about 100 km3 per year, while the surface area has decreased from 70 km2 to 40 km2 (Sandra Postel, 1990). Major efforts must now be made to counteract what is threatening to become an untenable situation. Salinity is also a major problem around the Aral Sea as in most of the world’s irrigation areas.

          It would be wrong to claim that unwise planning is only present in Soviet type economies. The problem is rather that the large scale of the planning makes the consequences far-reaching.

          Another demonstration of attitudes to planning and responsibility in the former Soviet Union was made to me when in 1990 I visited Ignalina in Lithuania, a nuclear power station of the same type as that in Chernobyl. The Russian director was an expert on electricity generation and well prepared to point out to visitors that a serious accident could not happen in Ignalina. However, on my question about the handling of the nuclear wastes he showed complete ignorance: "The wastes are transported to other parts of the Soviet Union where they are taken care of by competent people". Planning in which people with major responsibility only know part of the process is surely dangerous planning.

      2. The problems inherent in western "free market" economies

          The economic policies in the western industrialist countries have involved less and less government control during recent decades. The control has gradually been transferred to market forces and in turn to the stronger players on that market be they industry groups or multinational companies. What was meant to be a free market has become a market controlled by unelected financial tycoons.

          It is possible for community groups to exert influence in this set-up but only as long as economic pressure can be brought to bear. Consumer organisations are able get their voices heard; trade unions also belong to those players that have some influence. What has been developing is then a system that can have some regard for non-monetary considerations but only as long as these can be backed up by economic pressure. This is the main reason why environmental considerations are not sufficiently heeded.

          Environmental groups may be listened to by political parties because they contain votes. They have less clout with market forces because neither nature nor its defenders can pay in ready cash.

          There are numerous examples of the failure of the market economy to control environmental hazards. Possibly the most typical is the pollution of the seas through dumping of oil. Ships’ oil tanks have to be cleaned and if that is done in port, the cost will be high. If it is done at sea, nobody is visibly disadvantaged and the process is free. The damage to the ecosystem of the sea is not counted and in the distant past it was also relatively light.

          Nowadays quite serious damage has become obvious and attempts are being made to end the sea dumping by legal means - the market economy will not do the job and control is needed.

      3. Systems appropriate to our time

In the choice of an ideal economic system it is clear that both the large scale controlled economy of the former Soviet Union and the western "free market" system contain severe disadvantages for the environment and ultimately for the survival of species on the earth.

There is a need for an economic system that includes

  • environmental accounting so that the squandering of resources and the pollution of common assets are recognised as loss in the balance; and
  • some mechanism that is capable of putting the brakes on when irreversible changes such as the loss of a species or the change of climate, are seen to be occurring.

It is gratifying that models are appearing that address at least the first of these points (see particularly Daley and Cobb, 1989).

It is also of great value that some big industries have taken up several points of sustainability following the lead by Carl-Henrik RobËrt in The Natural Step.

3. Realisation and Denial
    1. Reactions of People

        Let me first make clear that I believe that each human is a responsible being who would wish to act in the interest of the common good. If people realised the magnitude of the environmental problems they would also put highest priority on combating them.

        The question is then whether people in general realise that the threats posed to our environment are real and that they will cause fundamental threats to human survival? I think not - their reactions do not indicate any deep sense of urgency. Environmental concerns seem rather to be matters of having nice parks, attracting tourism with beautiful views and being able to drink the water. These are all worth-while goals, but not fundamental requirements for survival of the species.

        While people in general do not realise the magnitude of the problems that confront society, neither do they deny that these might exist. It is just that in every-day life most people are concerned with more tangible issues which occupy their time and their attention.

    2. The Scientific Community

        The scientific community is nearest to the problems, so can detect and monitor dangerous trends earlier than the community as a whole. However, it is vital that the integrity of the scientific method is upheld by the scientists and respected by the community. On the one hand, unfounded doomsday prognoses harm the reputation of the scientific method and will cause genuine warnings to be ignored. On the other hand, when scientists are funded by powers with vested interest to down-play issues, then the scientific method will also be received with scepticism.

        It is in the nature of scientific presentation that caveats and cautious wordings abound. By the inexperienced reader this is often taken as an indication that the result might not be correct. However, the uncertainty of a scientific conclusion must always be seen against the background of the uncertainty of alternative propositions. Politicians as well as individuals usually select the action which is most likely to lead to the desired result even if that particular action has a certain degree of uncertainty.

    3. The Economic Powers
      1. Gannia, a hypothetical example

        To understand how economic powers react to environmental threats, it is helpful to create an example concerning an industry that produces gannia, an imaginary substance that sells very well because of its beneficial properties. However, gannia is suspected by some environmentalists to cause damage to trees. One particular company is conscientious and directs research into the matter. The result is that gannia is found to cause some damage in the short term and may cause a lot of long-term damage. The company, which is quite dependent on gannia production for its economic survival will then devote funds to

        1/ combat the short term damage and

        2/ conduct an advertising campaign telling the public about this.

        One attends to the more obvious short-term effects while marginalising the long-term effects. Environmentalists have neither the resources to investigate the matter further, nor the funds to conduct a campaign, which would be based on scant data anyway.

        Who is Responsible?

        So the gannia production continues. The workers of the industry are not responsible. Neither do they want to pursue an issue that may put their jobs at stake. The researchers are not responsible; they have given all their data to the decision makers and they are also loyal employees of the firm. The decision makers would fail in their duty to run the company efficiently if they highlighted a result that may not be correct. The board of directors have the duty to the share holders to make the investments safe and profitable. The share holders are more interested in the behaviour of the share prices than the actual product sold by the company.

        Through down-playing the interests of nature and through marginalisation of possible long-term effects of a product, the economic environment has caused another threat to the common good.

        There are encouraging signs that these effects of the economic system are not inevitable. Serious attempts to include the costing of externalities are being made, mostly on the initiative of governments but some actually on the initiative of the industry itself. It is important that these are recognised by the public and that pressure is brought to bear to favour goods produced with environmental concern.

    4. The Democratic Systems

There can be no doubt that the political entities have access to as reliable data as exist concerning today’s environmental problems, also those whose effects are of a long-term character. In an ideal world the responsible powers would assess the seriousness of the threats and if it is warranted take remedial actions. However, what is healthy in the long term sometimes requires bitter pills to be swallowed at an early stage. Politicians do not prescribe such pills if they perceive that the views of the electorate are dictated by immediate effects gains or losses rather than those of the long term.

The lack of radical environmental policies cannot be blamed on any particular politician. It is a legitimate aim of politicians to stay in power. If a party loses government owing to reforms that appear harsh but would, in the long term, be beneficial, then all that will happen is that another party will be elected on the promise to reverse those reforms and we are no better off.

I consider such reactions of honest politicians legitimate and I also subscribe to a democratic system in which the citizens choose what government they are to be ruled by. The conclusion is that the citizens, who have the power, also must be well informed about the short and long term threats to the sustainability of our civilisation. I firmly believe that informed citizens are capable of making choices that benefit future generations even if that involves loss of comfort for the present generation. In a society with enlightened citizens, an enlightened government will be elected.

1. Democracy and its Means

    1. Strengths of Democratic Systems

      Most of my readers will, like myself, consider democracy to be the only viable way of running society. It is in democracies that the social reforms have been implemented that make life tolerable for the majority of people. The freedom of information, opinion, speech, travel and writing are so natural to us that we sometimes forget that it is our democratic system that allows us this quality of life.

      Surely, we would expect the democratic system also to be capable of successfully confronting today’s environmental problems. It was with that fundamental belief that I served a term as a Green member of the Swedish Parliament.

    2. Weaknesses of Democratic Systems

      Unfortunately, the democratic system can be misused by the manipulation of people so that their opinions are no longer unbiased and their votes serve the purposes of the manipulator rather than the common good of the community.

      Such manipulation has greater possibility of succeeding the less informed people are and the less they bother about the democratic process. The cynical opinion that politicians are in the job for their own profit is extremely dangerous in this respect; also, it is as a rule based on a false presumption. I have the personal experience that most politicians act honestly according to their own ideology - however wrong I may consider their opinions and decisions to be.

      Lack of Representation

      The rationale for a representative democracy is that everybody can get his or her voice heard via the representatives. This is largely realised in countries which have proportional election systems. Different countries have different thresholds, usually 2-5%, below which votes are not translated into a party’s representation in Parliament, but above that the party numbers are proportional to the numbers of voters.

      In Australia as in some other countries with a British tradition, each electorate is represented by a single member of Parliament. This system is based on the principle that the representative has the interest of the whole electorate as highest priority. However, with the development of a party-political system that idea has become perverted. Once in Parliament the member is required to vote according to the party line rather than according to an unbiased evaluation of what is good for the particular electorate. The voters for the second largest party in the electorate do not get representation; smaller parties with nation-wide support get no hearing at all. A party with a primary vote of 10% would with fair representation send 14-15 members to the House of Representatives. It sends none at all, a grossly undemocratic state of affairs.

      Since politics is now conducted in parties with different ideologies rather than as a negotiation between different regions of the nation, it is the parties that need to be adequately represented. The introduction of a proportional election system is an urgent reform.

      The role of Media

      The strongest forces able to manipulate opinion are the very forces that we must most rely upon for free and unbiased information, namely the free press, radio and television.

      Media provide channels for expression of opinion as well as reporting news items. What is presented in editorials, letters to editors and advertisements is expected to be opinionated and the reader usually recognises the bias and filters the information accordingly. Not so with news items, which are usually believed on their face value. Most media workers try to present news items as objectively as possible, but they necessarily introduce a bias when selecting some items to be presented and some to be left out. This is a major problem and it becomes even worse when journalists are being guided in their selection by editors, newspaper directors and owners.

      Clearly, neither journalists nor media owners have been elected democratically, so that when they misuse their power of opinion forming, this is an undemocratic process - and one that the community has only feeble defence against.


    Believing in the democratic process, I think it is vital that responsible citizens make informed choices. In fact, we have no alternative but to trust human nature, and it is my firm conviction that such a trust is correctly placed. What is important, however, is that people are correctly informed, not subjected to coercion from powers with a vested interest.

1. Lobbying
    1. Theory

      The traditional functioning of society is that a representative parliamentarian is responsible for taking care of the concerns of his/her electorate. The procedure is then for a concerned group to describe the problems, give relevant knowledge and express to the parliamentarian what the group considers should be done about the problem. Having brought the attention of decision makers to a certain issue it is assumed that they are doing their best to solve the problem.

    2. Practice

      Lobbying is an ideal way of correcting minor slips that may be very important for the individual but that can easily be corrected without great expense to society.

      However, when it comes to major policy issues and important economic priorities such as those required for essential ecological reforms, lobbying activities will not be strong enough. Political parties are seldom intimidated by the lobbyists, nor should they be. Decision makers have no duty towards lobbyists.

2. Political Activity
    1. Historical Overview

      Since a couple of decades ago, it has become clear to many environmentalists that direct influence is needed, on the floor of the decision making chambers. The first green party in the world to be formed and to have an elected representative was the United Tasmania Group in 1972. The West German Green party (Die Gr¸ne) was formed in 1977 and the Green Party of Sweden (Milj–partiet de Gr–na) in 1981. The Australian Greens were formed in 1992 as a confederation of autonomous state parties. Ecological parties are now present in almost 100 of the world’s countries.

    2. Direct Influence

      The question often put to elected Greens, particularly after their terms of office "What did you achieve?" usually gets a somewhat evasive answer. Not many bills have been successful; the older parties have not often lent their support to the newcomers. Another reason for limited direct successes is that Greens tend to put their views straight and not do a lot of negotiating around them. Since the needs of ecological balance are huge and demand radical actions, the old parties mostly refute the bills put forward by the Greens. If Greens had been less radical and presented a watered down programme, one might have gained support for some of it, but in that case the green movement would have lost its momentum and its justification.

      It must be admitted that green bills are usually defeated if they attack major problems of the society; only if they concern minor issues will older and bigger parties support them (and in that case often to get a green tinge to be used at the next election).

    3. Indirect Influence

      The main influence is of indirect character. In a number of cases I have found my bills defeated and after a year or so seen the same ideas re-emerge in bills from larger parties. The aims of those bills are often quite genuine - the larger party would like to show that it cares about the environment or social equity, whichever is concerned. Such a bill will naturally get green support and may then be passed.

      I feel this is a legitimate way in which we can affect change as a minor party. We may not get the credit for our proposals, perhaps not gain political advantage at the next election. However, our objective is to save the society from impending disasters rather than to create another establishment similar to those of the older parties.

3. Education
    1. Young People

      Assuming that political activity is the logical way to obtain change given our democratic system, it is essential that the education system provides a knowledge basis for everybody to make a fair assessment of the problems threatening the society. It is also during the formative years that people can be taught to stand up for their opinions and resist persuasion by pressure groups. The responsibility for the future of the world rests heavily with the young people and with the education system.

    2. Mature People

    People of middle age and older that are now in charge of the development have been educated at a time when ecological problems were not well known and at a time when the illusion of limitless resources was prevalent. For them to act in an ecologically responsible way, a change of mind-set is essential. It is thus urgent that information about the roots of the environmental problems, not just the symptoms are disseminated. This then is the major task of community organisations.

It is legitimate to speculate about the future even if predictions are likely to be grossly in error. Such speculations are important for casting their light on the present. By going from a hypothetical scenario to an existing situation one will get the necessary perspective.

1. Extrapolations

There have been numerous extrapolations of present trends into the future:

  • James Robertson (1990) suggests that the amount of arable land in the world may be decreased by one third by the turn of the century
  • Lester R. Brown (1995) writes that China is projected to add another 490 million people from 1990 to 2030 turning that country into a major importer of grain as well as oil
  • Brian Fleay (1995) envisages severe world-wide oil shortage effects early next decade

It is not easy to shrug off these warnings as based on suspect material - they are not. In fact, it is easier to believe that the denials are based on short term self-interest. What really will happen in the future will only be known when it is too late to apply some of the measures for prevention of an ecological and economic catastrophe.

2. The Pessimist’s View

      It does not require a great amount of observation to notice that a number of ecological catastrophes have happened and are happening. The starvation of millions in Africa is deeply connected with land mismanagement; the desertification round the Aral Sea is caused by an unsustainable irrigation level.

      Some of the most devastating catastrophes have taken place in cultures and economies that are different from ours and the conclusion has often been that these events could not possibly happen in a modern, industrialised part of the world. It is surmised that scientific discoveries and technical innovations are all that is needed to cope with the problems as they arise. It is believed that the economic and political systems will protect us.

      There can be no doubt about the tremendous growth of scientific knowledge and technical ability in our society. The issue is rather how these assets are utilised. With the reigning economic system there is an implied priority for short term gains over long term sustainability. This will cause on-going, potential disasters, such as those that in all likelihood will be caused by global warming, to be disregarded in favour of support for economic growth, international competitiveness of industry and increased use of natural resources.

      On balance, I find it quite likely that if present trends and priorities are maintained there will be increasingly serious ecological catastrophes in industrial countries. They will also be ever more difficult to hide from the general public and perhaps, after such catastrophic events, there may be a better ground for ecological reforms.

3. The Optimist’s View

The one reason for optimism is the positive nature of humans. If a person knows what is the right thing to do, there is an innate desire also to do the right thing. I believe that this also applies to attitudes towards the common good.

The future would look quite bright if people actually understood the reasons for less consumption and for lower population levels - in Australia as well as in the world at large. Their actions and their lifestyle would then be altered to support a sustainable future - in the face of the protesting economic market forces.

Thus, knowledge and understanding are what can give us a chance of survival.


Brown, Lester R. (1995) In "State of the World 1995" by Lester R. Brown et al. World Watch Institute, Chapter 1. Earthscans Publications Ltd, London

Daley, Hermann E. and Cobb, John B. (1989) For the Common Good: Redirecting the Economy Toward Community, the Environment and a Sustainable Future. Beacon Press, Boston

Fleay, Brian (1995) Decline of the age of oil, Pluto Press, Annandale, NSW, Australia

Pearce, David, Markandya, Annil and Barbier, Edward B. (1989) Blueprint for a green economy. Earthscans Publications Ltd, London

Postel, Sandra (1990), In "State of the World 1990" by Lester R. Brown et al. World Watch Institute, Chapter 3. Earthscans Publications Ltd, London

Robertson, James (1990) Future Wealth. Cassell Publishers Ltd, London

Back to Top