In the run-up to COP21…

In his latest article, False Promise, George Monbiot has again explained something unnerving about climate change politics, shepherding the latest revelation from the world of scientific journals to a wider audience.

Essentially he unpacks the great fiction of western consumerism: the idea that we can, as he puts it, live like monarchs without compromising the Earth’s capacity to sustain us. Economists, he says, explain sustainable growth by using the phrases “relative” and “absolute” decoupling. The theory of decoupling – which has the ring of the celebrity divorce court about it – is that an economy can indeed grow without putting natural resources under increasing pressure; as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development puts it, the idea is to separate “environmental bads” from “economic goods.” It works by enabling capitalist expansion to continue whilst relying on greener methods – the bottom line being the fact that the exploitation must be slower than growth.

That makes sense to me. Whether or not capitalism itself is compatible with a sustainable future is a separate argument (and I am about to read a book about that very thing, called Climate Change, Capitalism, and Corporations), but I understand the theory.

The problem though, as George Monbiot explains it, is that we are measuring decoupling in the wrong way. At present, countries add together the raw materials they extract and the goods they import, and then subtract the goods they export – which gives them “domestic material consumption.” What this  formula ignores, though, is the fact that the imported goods are not in and of themselves truly representative of the resources which were expended to make them. In other words, we are outsourcing production of our goods, and forgetting to account for the raw materials and manufacturing process which went into creating them – rather than decoupling, we are passing the buck. It’s the environmental equivalent of saying that eating a chip from someone else’s plate doesn’t count.

Naomi Klein talks about something similar in This Changes Everything. International trade deals, based on fast-and-dirty, export led development, have underpinned our obsession with endless economic growth for decades. As a result, When China became the “workshop of the world” it also became the coal-spewing “chimney of the world.” By 2007, China was responsible for two thirds of the annual increase in global emissions. Some of that was the result of China’s own internal development…But a lot was directly tied to foreign trade: according to one study, between 2002 and 2008, 48 percent of China’s total emissions was related to producing goods for export.

The West can’t claim that it’s improving its practices if its simply retaining the same scale of the same kind of consumption, and simply outsourcing production to the East. Neither should it convince itself that the same rate of growth can be maintained sustainably if decoupling is based on a miscalculation. There is a doctrine in English law which says that you cannot seek to rely on an equitable defence unless you come to the court with “clean hands.” The same applies to sustainability. Our politicians cannot go to Paris with half-promises of improvement, if they consistently fail to address the underlying problem. It is not enough just to pass the pollution and extractivism around the world – we all need to come to the table with clean hands.

Works cited:

False Promise

This Changes Everything, by Naomi Klein (Penguin Books 2015)



Antibiotics and Ecocide: You Can’t Have Your Steak And Treat It

According to today’s papers, Chinese experts have found a gene that makes it possible for resistance to antibiotics to spread between different kinds of bacteria; the gene (MRC-1) enables a range of common bacteria to develop resistance to the last fully functional class of antibiotics, called polymyxins. This isn’t the first time that bacteria have developed resistance to polymyxins, apparently – the difference now, though, is that the mutation has occurred in such a way as to make it very easily transferable between species.

Professor Timothy Walsh, who collaborated on the study, has said: “All the key players are now in place to make the post-antibiotic world a reality. If MRC-1 becomes global, which is a case of when not if, and the gene aligns itself with other antibiotic resistance genes, which is inevitable, then we will have very likely reached the start of the post-antibiotic era.” It’s hard not to be terrified. As the BBC puts it, a world without antibiotics “could plunge medicine back into the dark ages.”

As I was trying to wrap my head around the enormity of this earlier, it struck me that the most frustrating aspect of these reports is the link to agriculture. In this case, the gene was discovered during a routine inspection of pig meat destined for market. It was then identified in a pig living on an intensive pig farm in Shanghai, and has since been found in 166 out of 804 animals tested across a variety of provinces in China. There are even suggestions that it has already spread to Laos and Malaysia. Experts believe that the resistance actually began in animals just like this, when the antibiotic was overused in farming – this link isn’t just evidence of the spread.

I was vaguely aware of the controversy surrounding the use of antibiotics in farming, but I certainly didn’t understand either the detail or the scale of the issue. There have, it seems, been campaigns for some time to try force the farming industry to use different antibiotics to those used by humans – although so far they seem to have been unsuccessful. In 2014, for example, following the WHO’s finding that “Antibiotic resistance–when bacteria change so antibiotics no longer work in people who need them to treat infections–is now a major threat to public health”, vets and MPs urged the government and drugs companies to develop antibiotics specifically for animals. Today’s reports show just how frightening it can be when calls like that are ignored. China is one of the world’s largest users of colistin in agriculture – colistin being the antibiotic the bacteria have become resistant to – but this is very much an international problem. Europe still uses colistin widely in its agriculture – according to the Soil Association, 45% of all antibiotics used in the UK are used in farming – and although it is regulated in the EU, there are parts of the world where there is no regulation, or where it simply isn’t enforced.

The antibiotics, as I understand it, are added to the animals’ food and water in order to ward of illness and to boost growth. According to EU law, the animals don’t actually need to be ill to be treated – the antibiotics can simply be used as a preventative measure. Farmers’ unions have argued that the use is absolutely necessary to sustain industrial scale farming – and that without antibiotics, farms would have to raise their hygiene standards to be better than hospitals in order to enable enough animals to survive. Opponents to the practice, however, insist that this is leading us ever closer to a post-antibiotic era.

Although this is obviously a very different issue to climate change, there are clear similarities. Industrial scale agriculture is a major contributor to the damage we are doing to the natural world. Huge swathes of forest are cleared to make way for agriculture, bulldozing through carbon sequestration and threatening the long-term health of the soil; the gases produced by the feeding, digestion and transportation of farm animals are together one of the most significant contributors to greenhouse gas emissions; leaked fertilisers pollute sea and river water, killing wildlife and de-oxygenating the water; and extraordinary quantities of water are needed to keep operations like this running. It is, ultimately, unsustainable.

Like the antibiotics crisis, this is very much an issue of scale: the bottom line is that we consume huge amounts of meat. According to Greenpeace, “if all wild terrestrial mammals climbed on the biomass scale together, the worlds cattle would still outweigh them by 16 times.” That’s barely comprehensible – which is perhaps part of the problem. Statistics are like that are incredibly alarming for a moment, but the reality is that we still head to the supermarket after work to find shelves fully stocked with polythene-wrapped meat. It’s difficult to equate the sausages in your basket with an antibiotic apocalypse, or the beef mince with devastating deforestation. When you start to look at these problems in the round, though, the need to find a solution seems blindingly obvious.

The thing I find particularly humbling about campaigns regarding meat consumption is that we are not even being asked to make huge changes to our lives. Campaigns like “Take Extinction Off Your Plate” ask you to try just having one meat-free night a week. Just one. “If every American eliminated meat just one night a week, the emissions savings would be like taking 30 million to 40 million cars off the road for a year.” Personal health aside – and as we’ve all been told recently, there are apparently many benefits to reducing meat consumption – this is such a small sacrifice to make to address these fundamental crises. I’m not a vegetarian and have no intention of becoming one, but surely I can have pasta a couple of nights a week without losing the will to live. And if I thought the next bout of cystitis might kill me, I think I’d be OK with passing on a burger or two. It seems so basic – if there was less demand for meat, farmers surely wouldn’t be under such pressure to pump their livestock full of the kinds of antibiotics which should be preserved for human medicine, and we could begin to address the catastrophic damage this is doing to the environment.  Two birds, one stone – and I can still have the occasional steak.

I’ve elided two issues here, and obviously our diets alone can’t solve the world’s problems. One would hope that this discovery in China will lead to widespread shift in industry practice and tighter regulation of the use of antibiotics, and millions of us will be following the Climate Change Conference in Paris in a couple of weeks, willing our politicians to start setting a programme for change. But there has to be an element of personal responsibility here too, and global education. I’m as guilty of this as anyone, but we must stop viewing the resources we depend on as unlimited and unassailable. Water isn’t limitless; soil can’t regenerate indefinitely; our environment can only withstand a limited increase in temperature; and the medicines we have relied on so heavily for less than a century are no longer invincible.


Articles cited:

Time to Take Extinction Off Our Plates

“Grief is the Thing with Feathers” by Max Porter

A book about grief, published by Faber, part-grafted onto the mythology of Ted Hughes “Crow” – I was very excited indeed when my copy of Grief is the Thing with Feathers finally arrived. Since I first bought a copy of The Birthday Letters when I was about fifteen, desperately lost in the poetry section of a bookshop, trying to look knowledgeable and seizing an ice-blue collection I’d never heard of, I have loved Ted Hughes. I’ve spent hours poring over those poems; I wrote about him in my finals when everything else eluded me; and now, as I’m finally beginning to take a real interest in the natural world, his are the words which accompany me. Max Porter, though, is a next-level Hughes fan. I may have a picture postcard of Ted Hughes pinned to my wall at work, but he has taken Hughes’ “crow” and turned him into a puckish, violent, sentimental guardian in his debut novel, leading a young family through the first throes of hopeless grief and back into the light.

I’ve called it a novel, but I’m not sure that’s necessarily accurate. The slim volume is really a hybrid of prose fiction; poetry; fable; essay; and a kind of sparse, talking-head dialogue. Divided into three short sections, Grief is the Thing with Feathers begins just after the death of a young mother. Her husband is left in their London home with their two young sons, trying to write a book about Hughes whilst also coping with the agony of loss and the perversity of everyday life continuing around him. Into this chaos marches Crow – the embodiment of Hughes’ vision, a foul carrion bird determined to carry the family through their grief: I won’t leave until you don’t need me anymore, Crow promises. He is a brutal, hilarious, sentimental creation, nursing the boys through their sorrow like a perversion of Mary Poppins, and haunting their father like a kind of tender poltergeist.

Porter has made it clear that his book is inspired by rather than wedded to Hughes’ Crow, and you don’t need any familiarity with the poems to appreciate Grief is the Thing with Feathers. Perhaps it adds to the mythology, though to know that Crow was first conceived as Hughes’ visceral response to Plath’s suicide,  and that, like Porter’s Crow, he lives in the shades of death, fable, guilt and love, searching for something female. He gripped her hard so that life/ Should not drag her from that moment/ He wanted all future to cease….

The story is told from the three perspectives of “Dad”, “Boys” and “Crow”, and their voices intertwine as the strange family navigate loss together. It is at once grounded in a shockingly funny, jet-black comedy, and also drifting in a kind of timeless semi-psychosis. Which makes it feel vital, and incredibly real – because grief is fragmenting and can make you lose your grip on reality, but it also lives in the every day. The practical shock that she won’t ever use (make-up turmeric, hairbrush, thesaurus) and that She will never finish (Patricia Highsmith novel, peanut butter, lip balm) is as shocking as the dream-like passage in which the boys sprint downstairs to open the door to a demon who feeds on grief, chambers of the baffled  baby hearts filled with yearning. And the comedy – mainly supplied by Crow – is perfect. Crow, we learn, likes history books, is composing a memoir, and has nightmares about singing like a blackbird. In one passage, as Dad tries to articulate the depth of his loss (concluding that The whole city is my missing her), Crow accuses him of sounding like a fridge magnet. It’s how, eventually, we recover – finding the ability to laugh at ourselves as we make ourselves ridiculous, even in the depths of despair.

It is essentially a cruel, violent process. No-one is spared here. Crow tells Dad that if his wife were a ghost, she certainly wouldn’t be wailing in the cupboards and corners of this house, or mooching about bemoaning the loss of her motherhood – no, she would have side-stepped her husband to find herself in the golden days of her childhood. In one fairy-tale re-imagining of their plight, the porcine King (Dad) tells his unruly Princes (the Boys) that their mother was certainly not the friend-of-a-friend I called Queen. The boys fight and bleed and mock their father, Crow weeps and is cooked alive. Grief is wild and uncontrollable. The family, though, are also resilient and gentle with one another, until hopelessness is replaced by long-term grief – which they will carry all their lives, but which is manageable, and will not stop them rediscovering joy. Finally, when Crow eventually takes his leave, you feel as though you can hear their mother’s voice, just for a moment, in his tender parting advice. Horror is eventually replaced by kindness, and the worst is behind them.

It’s an exquisite, agonising, wonderfully funny book, staring grief in the eye with an ego-less intelligence and humanity. There is even a cameo from Hughes himself. I couldn’t have hoped for anything more.

Crow_(poem)Grief is the thing with feathers

“Tisala” by Richard Seward Newton

One of my favourite passages in Wildwood is the description of the language of jackdaws. Deakin says that one of the books that inspired him as a child was Konrad Lorenz’s King Solomon’s Ring, and that in his favourite chapter, Lorenz begins to learn the language of jackdaws. The cry “kiaw”, he says, is uttered by dominant jackdaws to urge the flock homewards. When a marten broke into the aviary at Lorenz’s home and killed all but one of the jackdaws, the lone survivor sat all day on the weathervane and sang. The dominant theme of her song, repeated over and over, was “Kiaw,” “Come back, oh, come back.” It was a song of heartbreak.

In Tisala, Richard Seward Newton attempts to portray something like this on a massive scale. A young biologist called David finds himself alone on a remote Scottish island, supposedly studying the local deer population for his PhD. One evening when he is rowing around his island, he notices a disturbance in the water nearby. He assumes it’s a shoal of fish, and then, when he sees the curve of a huge back, perhaps a basking shark. It is only when he catches a flash of blue slate that he realises he is looking at a blue whale. In a frenzy of excitement David greets the whale, which circles around his small boat in curiosity. The pair meet again the next night, and the night after that, until it becomes clear that the whale is trying to communicate with David. After months of trying and with the use of scientific equipment, the pair finally manage to strike up a conversation which shapes the rest of their lives.

The idea is a fascinating one; and as a history of one of the more brutal, unsustainable methods used by humans to exploit the natural world, I can’t think that Tisala has many rivals. The author’s knowledge of the whaling industry over the centuries is vast, and related in a very accessible, devastating way. Interwoven with this is the whale, Tisala’s, own story – a narration of how the world he knew has been destroyed by centuries of relentlessly cruel hunting, and his quest to save his species from extinction. Like the jackdaws, Tisala is anthropomorphized, and clearly experiences profound grief. In particular, he is bewildered by the fact that what he calls the genocide of his species was in part motivated by the need to provide whalebone for hats and corsets, and latterly, to make cheap food for cattle. And David can find no justification.

From a philosophical and historical point of view, the novel has a lot to recommend it. I had had a vague knowledge of whaling (gleaned mostly from Moby Dick…) and understood from occasional news articles that, much like EU fishing quotas, the IWC struggled with enforceability. I learnt a great deal more here, though; and I can appreciate the value of trying to look at human behaviour through the lens of another species.

That being said, I did have a number of reservations. First, I think there is a danger in over-sentimentalising and anthropormorphising animals as a way of persuading humans not to harm them. It may well be that cetaceans grieve as profoundly as we do, and it is almost certainly true that most of us at least have almost no understanding of the language, emotional intelligence and societal structures of other species. That, though, cannot be the main argument for preserving biodiversity. Although it’s beguiling, it seems dangerous to rank species relative to how like humans they are – the reduction in the number of Antarctic krill is no less worthy of our attention, for example. The catastrophic destruction of whale populations as a direct result of human activity is shameful and very easy to feel enraged by, and to mourn – I cried plenty during reading this book – but we shouldn’t just conserve wildlife because its destruction is distressing. There is a moment in the book when Tisala accuses humans of destroying miracles you do not even see. It’s a very quotable line, and one that resonated. Of course we should question the ethics of the ways in which we treat the natural world – but surely we will have a better chance of protecting it if we stop using human characteristics as a yardstick to measure a species’ value by.

I also really struggled to connect with the human characters in the novel. Tisala, with his rumbling laugh and keen intelligence, is beautifully drawn, and I’d say the novel’s real success. David, though, occasionally makes odd, inexplicable missteps – early on, for example, he describes the marital successes of various types of girl in a bizarrely sexist way: the timid, plainer and conventional girls are given a chance at parties to establish their often kind and competent qualities, which enable them to win a husband; but woe betide the girls who, having played the game too long or with too much looseness, choosiness or pride, remained unmarried…and on party nights [would] apply more make-up with creeping apprehension. I couldn’t quite believe it. In the context of this vast novel it’s perhaps unfair of me to focus on such a fleeting moment – but it’s alienating, and is the sort of sweeping, slightly unthinking language which bought me up short, and meant I struggled to empathise with David. Essentially there are times when the language just lost its fluency, and seemed unnatural.

For me, it was also far too long. It’s such an interesting idea, but I felt as though it could have been pared down to its core components – Tisala, whaling, and the need for humans to reconsider the way they treat the natural world. A great deal of the book is given over to David and Tisala’s extended conversations on education, and population size, and warfare, for example – and I can appreciate why, as Tisala functions almost like an aquatic Montaigne, holding a mirror up to human life. For me, though, there was just too much – I couldn’t switch between the brutal, compelling story of Tisala’s family to these esoteric conversations; and in the effort of trying to do so, I lost the story’s rhythm.

Overall, I’m pleased I found Tisala. It talks about things I’m very interested in in an inventive and thoughtful way; it never quite captivated me, and from time to time the style or an opinion jarred, but as an impassioned record of a brutal industry, it is a very interesting book.