Article 50

Can you remember what it was like to read the morning’s headlines with anything other than dismay? The past few months have been truly grim – Brexit, Heathrow’s new runway; species extinction; Trump, the gang’s all there, making every new day feel slightly more precarious than the last. It’s difficult not to feel entirely defeated. After all, what can one person do in the face of such escalating madness? Take for example, this choice headline:

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The paper then decided to add the following detail to their coverage: “The judges who blocked Brexit: One founded a EUROPEAN law group, another charged the taxpayer millions for advice and the third is an openly gay ex-Olympic fencer.” “Openly gay”? When did voices like this become a legitimate part of our national dialogue? Where do we even start to un-do some of the damage caused by this sort of journalism?

This week, despite stiff competition from the past couple of months, has been particularly bleak. To recap:

(1)    A remarkable woman called Gina Miller took the government to court over Article 50. To be clear, her case had absolutely nothing to do with reversing the referendum on 23 June – yes she voted remain, but this was, and is, a question of constitutional law rather than politics.

Her argument is that Theresa May cannot trigger Article 50 (which sets Brexit into motion) by relying on Crown Prerogative (a centuries’ old right which essentially gives “the Crown”, acting through the Prime Minister, the right to by-pass Parliament). Instead, she ought to take the decision to Parliament – on the grounds that triggering Article 50 will remove some of the rights we currently enjoy as a result of a piece of UK legislation (the European Communities Act 1972).

The fact that the referendum ended with a victory for the Leavers should be irrelevant in this context – to quote AV Dicey:

“The judges know nothing about any will of the people except in so far as that will is expressed by an Act of Parliament.”

The judges ruled in Miller favour – not because they are part of a metropolitan elite trying to thwart Nigel Farage, but because this is a well-established rule of constitutional law. And it is an absolutely fundamental one – we fought a civil war over this. No King, Queen, or, as it is in 2016, Prime Minister, can go rogue and make crucial decisions about rights conferred by legislation without first taking that debate to Parliament. This is not a fascist state. Our leaders are held accountable by our MPs. And ironically, as lots of people have already pointed out, Parliamentary Sovereignty was precisely what the Leavers claimed to be fighting for.

For her pains, Gina Miller has been subjected to a barrage of racist and misogynistic abuse. I know the UK isn’t alone in being home to some pretty vile trolls, but what’s so particularly sickening about all of this is that that response has been legitimised – by the palpable silence of our Prime Minister, and by the conscious intervention of the right-wing press. Grim.

(2)    Gina Miller wasn’t the only victim of the Great British Public this week. Lest we forget, the Daily Mail chose to run that headline the day after the ruling was handed down by the High Court.

Leaving the bizarre personal attacks on the judges aside, the point is that they have done nothing other than uphold the law. They’re not trying to frustrate the sinking of the Titanic (heaven forbid) – instead, they are protecting a rule at the heart of our largely unwritten constitution.

Liz Truss eventually made some half-arsed comments about the ruling which fell far too short of calling articles like this out, and after a long silence Theresa May offered some mealy-mouthed comments about the freedom of the press whilst deciding to take the case to the Supreme Court.

That doesn’t just demonstrate a disappointing lack of leadership, it’s genuinely quite frightening: as Dominic Grieve said yesterday, the government’s response (or lack thereof) to the sorts of articles which incite a hatred of our judiciary is chillingly reminiscent of Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.  That’s an extraordinary thing to try to comprehend.

And Liz. Mate. The only things you’re responsible for as Lord Chancellor are protecting the rule of law and standing up for the judiciary. You’ve essentially just become the political equivalent of the Dinosaur Supervisor in Jurassic Park.

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(3)    And then of course, there’s the assertion made by the Mail et al that this judgment is the work of the “metropolitan elite”. Ah, the elite – the right’s target-du-jour. According to sections of Fleet Street, UKIP and parts of the Tory party, anyone who opposes Brexit is an elitist traitor ignoring “the People.” And for good measure we’re also guilty of tearing the country apart with our “Remoaner” resistance to Hard-Brexit.

Of course there’s some truth to the fact that university graduates generally fell into the Remain camp, and that by definition, the country’s most senior judges are at the top of their tree. But the hyperbole of the demagogue is an extraordinary thing.

Because according to that logic, the 48% of people who voted to remain in the EU are all part of some kind of “elite”. Now I don’t know about you, but if I got VIP tickets to something I’d be pretty hacked off to find sixteen million people coming along with me.  We’re not an elite, we’re almost half the people who turned out to vote – more than that, if you consider the proportion of Leave voters who (i) weren’t actually voting to send the UK hurtling back into the 1950s and/or (ii) think it’s important to respect the constitution. Not to mention the fact that the people actually calling us elitists are:

(I)                  Paul Dacre, Editor of the Daily Mail and landowner – who’s received £460,000 in EU agricultural subsidies since 2011

(II)                Nigel Farage who, back in 2009, was reported to have received £2m of taxpayers’ money in expenses and allowances as a member of the European Parliament

(III)              Arron Banks, the businessman and Donald Trump apologist who apparently pumped over £7 million into the Leave campaign

They might not be in the same intellectual league as the judges they’re vilifying so enthusiastically, but wealth like that looks pretty elite to me.

Ultimately, if the Prime Minister genuinely thinks she has any hope of reuniting a country wracked with division, suspicion, disappointment and economic uncertainty, she might want to rein this nonsense in. We need to be talking to one another to understand our differences, not sneering at the distraught group of Brits who lost the referendum and undermining the judiciary for good measure.

(4)    In the meantime, the natural world continues to get a hammering. While our newspapers are filled with endless political train-wrecks, stories about us being on track to lose two-thirds of wild animals by 2020 get relegated to the back pages. We need to be focussing on implementing the Paris climate deal; addressing the fact that scientists think we’re living through the Sixth Extinction; finding renewable energy solutions rather than burning through fossil fuels. If the nation’s attention is devoted to averting constitutional disaster, and if every new right-wing development compels us to extricate ourselves still further from global cooperation, then how in the world are we supposed to work together as an international community to sort these problems out for the next generation? The fall-out from Brexit is a disaster not only because of what it’s doing to our sense of national identity but because it’s preventing us from engaging in the issues that truly matter.

For now, I’m not sure what to do. I suppose staying engaged is the key – even if it’s deeply depressing – so that we’re ready to work towards a solution once this toxicity has abated. And in the meantime, as my Dad always used to say, don’t let the bastards grind you down.

Harnessing the rage

The essential problem with becoming more political over the past couple of years is that I’ve genuinely started to lose the faith. I know that the best way to change people’s minds is to be positive and upbeat but honestly, after a couple of gins, I tend to veer into bleak (and no doubt extremely tedious) territory at the moment. The more you read about climate change, the environment, and the loss of biodiversity, the more it becomes apparent that our government is doing virtually nothing to avert catastrophe. Smug digs at Caroline Lucas aside, Theresa May’s government is doing what my dad would have called the square root of FA. Ratifying the Paris Climate Change is easy – anyone with a lady bic has got that bit covered – but actually doing something to help contain this problem seems to be utterly beyond Westminster.

I’ve been chewing over this for some time now, and here’s my analysis in all it’s world-weary glory: our current Conservative Government is incapable of prioritising anything over money.

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Now I’m really not having a dig at anyone who votes Tory – I’m the only leftie in my family, for a start, and I do get it, to an extent. I appreciate that a society needs economic stability in order to thrive – but my god, this bunch uses that justification to cover a multitude of sins. Here are just a few of their policies that have been keeping me up at night.

(1)    Austerity: I’m no expert in economics (which by Michael Gove’s standards should fast-track me to the Treasury) but it’s abundantly clear that this policy is something of a clusterfudge. Leaving deficits to one side, how can it be justifiable to penalise the poorest and most vulnerable through endless cuts to public services, whilst continuing to offer tax breaks to big business and the fossil fuel industry? How is it reasonable or sustainable to promote a policy which is going so far as to breach international human rights – hammering, in particular, women, young people, ethnic minorities and disabled people? Why are we surprised when the “post-fact” promises peddled during the EU referendum nudged struggling communities into voting against their own interests? And then there’s nasty old climate change to think about – cutting funding for first responders and flood defences isn’t ideal when we can reasonably expect some pretty extreme weather in the coming years. It’s pretty diabolical.

(2)    Fracking: Let’s take a moment to remember that the EU Referendum was run on the promise of giving power back to the people – cocking a snook at those nasty Brussels bureaucrats and making sure that if we want flammable flags, then dammit we shall have them. You could almost hear Henry V’s rousing speech running through Boris’ head as he whanged on about independence day. It was all very Last Night of the Proms. And yet…the Government doesn’t really believe in giving power to local communities. Not when there’s a risk of us exercising our right to make a decision they don’t particularly like. Take fracking, for instance. When Lancashire County Council decided to reject a fracking application last year, the Government responded by changing the rules. Now any decision regarding fracking can be made by the government, if they consider the application to be in the national interest – which, given that they’re the party going “all out for shale”, casts serious doubt on the idea that an application will ever be turned down. So much for people power, chaps – when they want our opinion, they’ll give it to us.

(3)    Subsidies: Most of us are agreed that climate change is, in the words of Harrison Ford, a clear and present danger. In principle, I think it’s fair to say the majority of us have also made the connection between burning fossil fuels and global warming – apart from Donald Trump, who thinks it’s a Chinese conspiracy. Essentially if we’re to have any hope of keeping the temperature increase below  2°c, we have to stop now. This is not a drill. In fact, in most cases it is a drill, because our energy policy seems to be frack in national parks like your life depended on it.

Which brings us to the issue of subsidies. Not only are our leaders failing to support the renewable energy sector – subsidies for green energy were slashed last year – but they are actively propping up coal. The Paris Deal becomes depressingly theoretical when you read George Monbiot’s comment that ,“In Britain for example, tax rebates for North Sea oil and gas companies are so generous that over the next five years the government is likely to give them around £5 billion more than it receives in revenues. There are similar tax breaks for fracking companies – but not, of course, for renewable energy.” A child could identify the problem with this set-up: it’s short-sighted, hypocritical, and essentially driven by the fact that there is no chance of a right-wing government alienating insanely wealthy fossil fuel companies. The stakes literally couldn’t be any higher, and all they’re concerned about is the bottom line.

(4)    Hinkley Point: Now I don’t have any particular beef with nuclear power. My dad worked on a nuclear submarine, for heaven’s sake, so joining the CND isn’t really an option in my house. There are huge questions to be answered about how we store nuclear waste safely, but in principle this is surely something that needs to be explored if we’re going to wean ourselves off coal and oil. Hinkley, however, does yank my chain, for the simple reason that this is being presented as a green solution by the government when (i) see points 2 and 3 above: what’s the point of promoting this whilst hamstringing other forms of green energy (ii) it’s going to cost a fortune and the technology, by all accounts, is the equivalent of trying to “build a cathedral within a cathedral” and (iii) it seems likely that it’ll take a good ten years for this plant to be generating energy when we need to tackle our energy crisis now. Not in 2020. It’s hardly the silver bullet.

(5)    Bake Off: As if the summer couldn’t get any worse, now the Tories have stolen cake. Cake. What’s next?! Christmas?!                                                                                                        

So here’s my dilemma: is it possible to talk about all that in an up-beat way? How can I evolve from teeth-gnashing into charm? Is there a more effective way to convince people than to collar them at parties and scream that we’re doomed? If there is, I haven’t found it – and  I suspect that my rage is as ineffectual as it is exhausting. Any tips most welcome – and in the meantime, it’s best to avoid me during cocktail hour.

 

 

Brexit: this is not a drill

Waking up to the referendum result on Friday morning is something I’ll never forget. It may well sound melodramatic but I felt genuinely heartbreak, and a vacuum replacing the cautious optimism and hope that had been there the night before. Of course there was the knee-jerk reaction too, the tears and the anguish over the fact that I no longer felt “English”. After three days, I can appreciate that grandiose statements about identity politics possibly aren’t helpful, but the feeling still hasn’t subsided. My values and political beliefs are based on the idea of global cooperation, and the idea that I will, over the course of the next two years, lose first my European identity and then my Britishness, fills me with deep sadness. My darling Dad used to say we were internationalists – he’d cheer a foreign team playing against the English if it would make for a better game of rugby – and I don’t think I’d appreciated until Friday how much that had influenced me.

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And images like this? That isn’t helping. I’m not ready for twee platitudes, gallows humour, being told to “keep calm and carry on” and that I ought to respect this democratic result and somehow live with the consequences. The Leavers in Westminster are claiming that they now have a “clear mandate” to extricate us from the EU, and social media is telling me that I ought to make the best of it.

No. I reject that absolutely. This was an advisory referendum, and the results are a confusion of prejudices, divisions and misinformation. 48% of the portion of people who voted want to remain. That is a significant chunk of the British population, particularly when you consider that Scotland was so pro-Europe (and that they were told to remain in Britain during the independence referendum in part because it guaranteed them EU membership). 75% of 18-24 year olds wanted to stay in the EU. Lord knows what British teenagers think – the generation which will inherit the consequences of this decision – because they weren’t asked. That doesn’t offer a clear mandate as far as I’m concerned, and neither does it smack of democracy.

Would I think the same if the 48/52 split had gone the other way? I don’t know, and I appreciate that there’s a level of arrogance in assuming Remainers should have the right to unpick this because they believe it’s the wrong decision. (Although for the record, it’s deeply frustrating to read world-weary articles about the sudden hysteria of the “leftie intelligentsia”. Really? The 48% aren’t even allowed a few days to grieve this nightmare scenario without snide mockery? Given that I’ve been bombarded with nonsensical Leave propaganda for months, that seems a little rich.) I know that for some there were genuine, rational, heartfelt reasons to Leave, buried in the mire of Nigel Farage’s 1930s manifesto.  And where those arguments can be made I’ll try to have the humility to respect them. I know that for a lot of people, Leave offered a way to rebel against a status quo which has failed them. That some voters were genuinely – rightly – disgusted by the prospect of the TTIP deal and the seemingly inevitable privatisation of the NHS. The EU, in its current form, is in urgent need of reform. But I also don’t believe that the majority of Leave voters could actually give you a clear, justifiable reason for wanting to go, based on something other than Boris’ absurd references to “Independence Day”, and Farage’s xenophobic scare-mongering. And the point is that when Cameron decided to hand this over to the public (in itself a ridiculous and irresponsible decision), it became incumbent on everyone who put a cross in the “Leave” box to be able to justify themselves with something other than sound-bites. When every financial, environmental and political expert is saying that Brexit could destabilise not just our British future but the future of the European project as a whole, you’d better have a damn good reason for wanting to go the other way. And if you don’t, then I think it’s fair to accept that the Remainers will be pretty hacked off with you for a while.

The environmental consequences of all of this are also utterly bleak. After COP21 in December last year, it seemed as though we were actually on the cusp of a unified, global response to climate change. Brexit will almost certainly de-rail that. Instead of helping to build a harmonised, EU-wide initiative to develop green technology and phase out fossil fuels, Britain has decided to go it alone. Which may not be so terrifying if we had a better track record, but we could soon find ourselves at the mercy of a Conservative government which fracks in national parks and slashes subsidies for the green sector. Lord knows what will happen to the EU legislation which underpins our already-inadequate national environmental framework. We’ve lost the right to sit at the TTIP negotiating table, and to block a treaty which would give corporations the right to sue European governments if environmental legislation threatens their bottom line. And instead of asking the EU to focus on climate change now, urgently, recognising it as the existential threat it truly is, we’ve ensured that the next couple of years will be taken up by protracted exit-negotiations and economic uncertainty. We’re wasting time, and turning our backs on the very idea of international cooperation and global leadership. “One just hopes that collaboration on these issues, conservation issues, will transcend political divisions,” David Attenborough said, post-referendum. Collaboration now seems wholly unlikely from where I’m sitting. So yes, I am frightened, and disgusted – and don’t you dare accuse me of self-righteous hysteria, or try to placate me by mauling A.A. Milne.

For now, I can’t just sit back and bask in the glow of democracy at work, just because a couple of old Etonians decided to play a game of chicken in Westminster. History is unlikely to look kindly on the last few months, and I don’t want to reflect on this period in the years to come and remember my apathy. There’s a time to be angry. This is it.Brexit(Image taken from: https://www.socialeurope.eu/2016/03/why-there-will-be-no-brexit/)

Lower Thames Crossing

After reading This Changes Everything I decided I had to hit the books when  it comes to environmentalism – with the result that I’m studying for an Environmental Studies A-Level over the next couple of years. I’ve got my first exams in May, which is an odd thought – it’s been a good thirteen years since I sat in the gym at school doing the last lot – but I’ve absolutely loved feeling as though I’m starting to get a proper grip on the science behind the statistics. It’s given me the confidence to talk about environmentalism more freely, and every time I sit down to do my homework (with the aid of white wine, these days…)  it is forcefully hammered home to me how cavalier we are in the way we treat our natural environment.

With COP21; world leaders like Obama and Trudeau taking the lead when it comes to talking about the importance of combating climate change; and high profile protests over Arctic drilling and fracking, its seems as though more and more people are taking notice. But it’s still very high level – we know something needs to change, but it’s hard to know what we can do – and all the while, local decisions are made every day which incrementally chip away at our wildlife and natural habitats.

Things slip under the radar. There may be public consultations about proposed developments, for example, but who actually hears about them? Take the recent EU Refit  – without the brilliantly coordinated work of charities like the Woodland Trust and RSPB, how would the average person have been aware they were being given an opportunity to voice an opinion on something they may  care deeply about? It can feel obscure, buried beneath layers of bureaucracy. Which is why it’s so important to participate when you get a chance; and the Woodland Trust is championing just such a chance at the moment.

Highway England have recently floated five proposals with a view to building  a new tunnel under the River Thames linking Essex and Kent. As the Trust has pointed out, three of those proposals involve cutting a swathe through areas of ancient woodland – with the worst offending proposal affecting eight woods in total. If you think that ancient woods are, by definition, areas which have been continuously wooded since 1600 AD, knocking them down for the sake of a road is not a decision to be taken lightly; nor is it something to be imposed on an area if the public don’t support it.

There’s a disconnect, somewhere, in the way we treat our woods. On the one hand we know that they’re vital carbon sinks; that they’re greatly valued for the way in which they shape our landscape; that they’re hugely important when it comes to offering a habitat for native flora and fauna; and that they have a key role to play when it comes to flood management. And yet on the other, we’re distressingly ready to lop them down if there’s money to be made, or if it suits our program of modernization or urban expansion.

There’s a public consultation running until 24 March, which gives us a chance to defend the woods affected by Highway England’s plans: the Woodland Trust has lots of helpful information on its website, making responding as easy as possible. I’m definitely going to be adding my penny’s worth – because these are the local skirmishes we can win, one at a time. And as a pragmatist, it’s just as important to sustain these local victories as it is to participate in the sweeping, international movements.

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Brexit

Over the course of the weekend, David Cameron announced that there will be a referendum regarding the UK’s EU membership held on 23 June 2016. After his recent late-night negotiations in Brussels, the PM’s obviously hoping that he’s done enough to convince the on-the-fencers to stay in the union – people campaigning for the Brexit are unlikely to change their minds at this stage, and the pro-EUers are probably pretty settled in their views too. It’s all those people in the middle, who aren’t really sure what all this is about and whether they care, that will make the difference.

I’ve talked about this with various friends recently, and the general consensus seems to be that this conversation is confusing, complicated, and really difficult to get a handle on. The Scottish referendum was pretty straightforward – either they want to be British or they don’t – and although there were obviously layers of economic and political arguments, it felt like much more of an emotional decision. I’d never really thought about the implications of what it means to be English and a Brit before, but when it came to it I found the idea of us going our different ways really distressing. Partly because of the history – there’s so much Britain has done as a combined unit we can be proud of – and partly because the idea of us all becoming more insular seems crazy to me. I know my grasp of the details of the Brexit debate is still pretty ropey, but it’d take a lot to convince me that an individualistic mind-set makes sense in 2016.  Still, unlike being Scottish or English (particularly during rugby season) I get the sense that for most of us, being “European” doesn’t necessarily mean a great deal day to day. It’s such an intangible thing. Being British is part of my identity – being European can often just feel like geography.

That’s something I’m seriously beginning to challenge, though – because I genuinely believe our greatest hope for a fair, functioning, and environmentally stable world lies in being part of something bigger than ourselves. The island mentality just won’t cut it any more. Yes, I’m always going to get tribal about the Six Nations, the superiority of English ale, British rain, our humour, our countryside – I love my home. And yes, the EU is too bureaucratic, it’s deeply irritating when they interfere with what we eat and drink, and – let’s face it – the UK could enter Eric Clapton in the Eurovision song contest and still get a mauling. The EU has plenty of flaws, and homogenisation isn’t appealing. But that’s not what this is about – this referendum has to be about finding a shared ideology, not cultural differences. We live in a world of globalised capitalism, where markets are king, corporations influence politics and where free trade agreements like TTIP go so far as to give companies the right to sue national governments for adopting environmental policies which threaten their bottom line. We can’t look at political responsibility in terms of ever decreasing circles whilst also living with “capitalism sans frontieres”. There are no checks and balances in that model – no political bodies with the scope to curb the activity of international companies. If the markets are global, then surely the playbook has to be too.

We’re already facing an existential crisis as a species; if we don’t tackle climate change head-on and with incredible dedication over the coming years, then everything is going to alter irreparably. And we’re not going to be able to do that unless we coordinate, and feel a sense of global responsibility. At the risk of sounding corny, we have to become citizens of the world – international corporations sure as hell won’t save us (much as they might like us to believe otherwise), and in the UK we definitely can’t rely on our own government to step up to the plate; not with their appalling environmental record. As I’ve said before, the few environmental laws we have were essentially put in place to enact EU legislation. Without those two key Directives, British wildlife would be extremely vulnerable. The EU may be flawed, but it’s the greatest defence our countryside has.

Ultimately, and notwithstanding all the other reasons I believe in the union, it’s because I love the English countryside so much that I’m going to vote to stay in. Yes it’s imperfect, but committed international activism and enforceable environmental legislation are the best chances we’ve all got to protect our corner of the world (and at the same time, everyone else’s). If we peel off and stick our heads in the rapidly-heating sand then arguments about migrant benefits really will look parochial in no time at all; the months after COP21 literally couldn’t be a worse time to promote an “every man for himself” mentality. Brexit

Tree Charter

In 1217 King Henry III sealed the Charter of the Forest, a companion document to 1215’s Magna Carta. In the reign of King John (signatory to the Magna Carta and notorious Robin Hood villain) roughly a third of the country was made up by the royal forests, and there had traditionally been brutal punishments for “forest offences” (like poaching, or hunting protected deer). The Charter of the Forest redressed some of those inequalities by establishing a right of common access, thereby enshrining the rights of people to farm, forage and use the land to support their livestock. In essence the Charter achieved two significant things: first, like the Magna Carta, it recognised the fundamental rights of the common man; and secondly, it acknowledged that critical relationship between the English and their woodland.

As the centuries have rolled by our landscape has been stripped of much of its woodland by industry, farming, an increase in the population and most recently, the effects of climate change. As I have mentioned previously, it now covers less than 2% of the country;  indeed Britain boasts less tree cover than any European country other than Malta, Ireland and the Netherlands. And our trees are constantly under threat from new pressures – like fracking, and the toothless National Planning Policy Framework, which gives politicians the right to cut through swathes of ancient woodland if they consider it to be economically expedient.

Which means that our remaining trees have become even more precious, and vulnerable, and deserve urgent protection. We need to remember that woods have always formed an integral part of our landscape, nature, infrastructure and folklore. From the totem-like pine poles at Stonehenge to Tolkein’s Ents, they are our symbols of the sacred and magical; our place of refuge; our resources; and, perhaps most important of all, our bastions of biodiversity. What is very clear, however, is that we cannot assume that our woods will be preserved indefinitely unless we take action.

It is very welcome news, then, to hear that the Woodland Trust is leading a call to establish a new Charter for Trees, Woods and People, with a view to building on that thirteenth century legacy. The Charter itself will be drafted in 2017; for now, the Trust is asking “people across the UK to reflect on the role of trees and woods in their lives, their history, and their culture. By sharing stories of real trees and real lives in communities we will build a national story of trees and woods – showing how important they are to people today and what role communities want them to play in our future.” 

When I look at a tree that’s lived for hundreds of years, surviving storms, frosts, and human intervention, it is a very visceral reminder of our history– English oaks gave us the gall ink which recorded the words of our nation’s authors and poets for hundreds of years; the willow gave us the cricket bat; our woods built our ships and our churches. Most importantly, though, when a piece of ancient woodland is destroyed we lose not only a link to that past, but also a vital piece of our natural world – because trees are, above all, habitats. At a time when climate change is already causing such damage, it’s crucial that we re-establish our connection with these parts of our countryside and articulate the things that are important to us. Taking part in the formation of this Charter seems like an excellent place to start – and we can start by adding our own stories to the Tree Charter website, explaining what trees mean to us:  https://treecharter.uk/

“From Field to Fork: Food Ethics for Everyone” by Paul B. Thompson

The books I’ve read over the past year – particularly in relation to climate change – have undoubtedly made me question the choices I make about food. I can’t claim to have become a vegetarian, but I am eating a lot less meat, and choosing meat-free options where I can. The more I read about the ways in which we farm and consume meat in the west, the more convinced I am that change is unavoidable. We simply don’t need to eat meat every day – particularly low-quality, intensively farmed stuff which has been pumped full of antibiotics – and the longer we ignore the ethical conundrums which accompany our dietary choices, the harder it will be for us to cope with the consequences. 2015 has been the year in which the world’s leaders made their pledges at COP21; in which fires raged through Indonesia, in part as a result of the management of palm oil plantations; in which scientists discovered a gene which has developed resistance to colistin, a crisis created by the ways in which we farm meat; and in which floods have raged (and are still raging) through the UK, arguably exacerbated by the fact that our landscape has been stripped of trees for the purposes of farming. We are obviously affecting nature through our actions, in many cases with tragic results – and a great deal of this is linked to what we eat.

I have to say that I don’t relish the idea of eating less meat. I’ve always been a very willing carnivore; the emotional aspects of eating animals have never really perturbed me, and I love the culture of it – not to mention the taste. Black pudding in a fry up; the pork pies at a picnic; scratchings in the pub….there is a social bond created by sharing these foods, and it isn’t something I want to eschew. For me, the decision is wholly linked to the environmental and scientific impact of the quantity of meat we consume. We can’t maintain this rate of deforestation; methane production; and antibiotic abuse, and still hope to live within functioning ecosystems.

I was hoping that From Field to Fork: Food Ethics for Everyone would be an interesting exploration of the kinds of issues I’ve already been starting to think about: unfortunately, though, I couldn’t take to it, and upon reflection think that I’m not its target audience. It did raise some new ideas for me: whether GM foods can be ethically justified because of their ability to feed the poorest communities; whether obesity results from personal choice or genetic predisposition caused by the diets of our grandparents; and the key role that literature has played in exposing the least ethical practices within the food industry (such as, for example, Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath.) For me, it was too full of academic jargon, and simply too inaccessible for someone without a background in ethics – the “everyone” part of the title is perhaps a bit misleading. I also prefer something with a clear, emphatic argument – as in This Changes Everything and Climate Change, Capitalism and Corporations, both of which are impassionate and wholly engaging. This is more of a neutral exploration of various ethical issues, which, unfortunately, when combined with the language, wasn’t enough to keep my attention. For someone with the right background, I’m sure this would be an excellent book. For a layman, though, it’s not very easy going.

From Field to Form

“Climate Change, Capitalism and Corporations” by Christopher Wright and Daniel Nyberg

It is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.*

Internet shopping; social media; consumerism; celebrity TV shows; fast food; cheap air travel…they have all been a part of our lives for so long that it’s increasingly difficult to remember a time when this wasn’t our landscape. Perhaps that’s partly why it seems to be so impossible to ingest the realities of climate change, and what it means for our society – our hyper-materialism has thrived for decades, and scaling back now seems incomprehensible. Things will change – they are changing already – and experts are telling us in unison that we cannot keep consuming natural resources at the same rate. Still, though, action remains elusive.   

Climate Change, Capitalism and Corporations is a brilliantly accessible analysis of the realities of the Anthropocene, and the barriers corporations erect to prevent us from making critically urgent societal changes. In a world which is visibly and dramatically altering as a result of man-made climate change, capitalism remains supported by its trio of carefully constructed, mythical pillars: the idea that we can continue to grow our economies whilst still addressing the climate change crisis; that omnipotent corporations will in fact save us from climate change through technology; and that corporations are essentially citizens of our societies, with a human moral code. As far as corporations are concerned, then, and supported by this mythic infrastructure, climate change need not interrupt “business as usual”.

Successful decoupling (which I mentioned a couple of weeks ago) is shown here to be illusory. Capitalism, the authors say, depends on compound economic growth and, as such, the entire model is based on identifying a hierarchy of resources – humans and carbon are essential, whereas other species are expendable. In order to continue in this vein, and whilst society gradually begins to respond to the threat of climate change, corporations have hijacked the highly emotive dialogue around the crisis with stunning results: rather than being a reason to reduce consumption, climate change is being sold to us as  an “opportunity for growth.” It is, in the minds of corporate managers, a quantifiable risk, which is something to be commoditised, controlled, and converted into profit.

As they continue to try to shape public discourse on climate change, major car manufacturers and fossil fuel companies have spent the past few years refining their brands to buy themselves social legitimacy, whilst in the background, creating “an echo chamber of climate change denial” by engaging with the right-wing media, and funding incredibly damaging campaigns. In one section, for example, the authors note that, In 2012, the Heartland Institute, which is funded by the fossil fuel industry, even ran a billboard campaign associating those who believe in climate change with mass murderers, juxtaposing a mugshot of Unabomber Ted Kaczinsky with the tag line: “I still believe in global warming. Do you?” It’s an outrageous, and so far highly successful, hypocrisy.

There are so many fascinating arguments here. In the context of an issue which can seem overwhelming, I particularly liked how the authors focused on the impact this conversation has on individuals – especially those who hold sustainability roles within corporations. In order to function both as an employee and an agent of change, managers cling on to their rational business arguments: specifically, the fact that a greener economy creates exciting space for growth. “Green” arguments are stripped of legitimacy in the board room, but if a sustainability manager can show that recycling is good for business, then she has a chance of effecting change. At home, the same individuals may be passionate advocates for environmentalism, but at work, their arguments need to be tempered by this apparent rationality and corporate loyalty. Wearing these different hats is exhausting, and it also leaves individuals with a lack of identity coherence. We are “meaning-seeking” creatures and like to be able to view ourselves as having integrity. Until acting to curb climate change is recognised in and of itself as being for the public good, without corporate carve-outs, there may be a limit on the number of people who manage successfully to work a response to the crisis into their own personal narratives – which is precisely what is needed.

It is also intriguing and hugely frustrating, that, as Nyberg and Wright say, we happily grant corporations a civic status – they are legal “people” with rights and obligations, and by implication, a supposed moral duty to abide by our societal ethics – but that nature has been denied the same respect. When Christopher Stone argued in Should Trees Have Standing that entities such as forests, oceans and rivers, along with the natural environment as a whole, should be safeguarded through inclusion in the civic sphere, the claim failed because rights for natural objects proved too strange. In short, conferring rights on the ocean seems eccentric, whereas turning companies into “people” is uncontroversial. I was relieved, then, that the authors go on to reference a tribunal in New Zealand which recently recognised a river as a legal entity, echoing analogous initiatives in Bolivia and Ecuador, where constitutional amendments have included specific rights for the environment.” It is entirely ludicrous to confer such a civic personality upon finance-driven corporate structures whilst withholding the same rights from the natural resources we depend upon; particularly when free trade agreements like TTIP  go so far as to give companies the right to sue national governments for adopting environmental policies which threaten their bottom line. Ecocide should surely be made an international crime without any more delay.

This is a brilliant book, clearly and engagingly written, offering fascinating perspectives on a terrifying crisis. For anyone who has already read This Changes Everything, this is a perfect follow-up – and like Naomi Klein, the authors end here with a road-map for change; albeit one which acknowledges how much damage we have already done: Extreme weather events, record heat, the melting Arctic, and acidifying oceans lay bare the folly of advocating “solutions” in the strictest sense. There will be no silver bullet. There will be no heroic, cure-all act of salvation. Our only hope is damage limitation.

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:

http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2014/jul/07/reduce-antibiotics-farm-animals-resistant-bacteria

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-34857015

http://www.theguardian.com/science/2015/nov/18/antibiotic-defences-against-serious-diseases-under-threat-experts-warn

http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/may/19/antibiotic-resistance-farm-animals-threatened-uk-cuts

http://www.takeextinctionoffyourplate.com/how_to.html#steps

http://www.soilassociation.org/antibiotics

http://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/releases/2014/amr-report/en/

Time to Take Extinction Off Our Plates