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

Scotland’s Native Woodland

One of the things James Rebanks touches on in The Shepherd’s Life is the sustainability of his type of farming. In contrast to other methods promoted in this country which are essentially dependent on scale, Rebanks’ focuses on preserving historic practices; only keeping as many sheep as the grassland can take; and ultimately, protecting the productivity of the area for future generations. As is made so abundantly clear, his entire system is built on sustainability and longevity – it’s working with the land, not taking from it.

I thought of George Monbiot frequently as I read The Shepherd’s Life, and wondered (with some trepidation) how a conversation between the two of them might play out. It is certainly very easy to see the value in what both of them are saying. Sheep farming is a much loved part of our national heritage; the animals may hail from Mesopotamia originally, but it feels like a very British undertaking. It is certainly also true that most of us have an artificially sanitized idea of what farming (and consequently food production) entails, but I don’t think many would dispute the importance rural economies have to our sense of national identity. The dry stone walls; the shepherds’ crooks; the chalk grassland and rolling hills dotted with grazing animals – they are quintessentially British scenes. “Baa Baa Black Sheep” is probably the first song most of us learn to sign as children. Hundreds of thousands of us head to the countryside during public holidays to soak up that bucolic atmosphere. Which is, of course, in part why agri-environmental schemes have been established – to reward landowners who manage their land in such a way as to preserve its environmental, historic and cultural importance.

At the same time, and as George Monbiot argues, the scale of it has got to be better controlled. Huge swathes of our countryside are given over to sheep farming – the scale of which, arguably, causes critical soil erosion, the suppression of woodland and shrub growth (which exacerbates flooding), and the creation of something akin to a rural wasteland. As he put it so pithily in one article (link below), Sheep have reduced most of our uplands to bowling greens with contours. A lot of us love the bowling greens, but it must of course be true that our landscape would look very different if its uses changed.

He also has plenty to say about highland deer. Such as, for instance, the fact that fifty per cent of the private land in Scotland is in the hands of 432 people – many of whom use it for grouse moors and deer stalking. As a result an artificially high number of Scottish deer is maintained, grazing the land to the roots. Again it defines the landscape, and has a considerable impact on Scottish wildlife.

A survey of Scotland’s native woodland has been undertaken over the course of the past seven years by a group comprised of the Forestry Commission Scotland, Scotland Natural Heritage, Woodland Trust Scotland, and Scottish Land & Estates, amongst others. They have found plenty to be concerned about, including the fact that more than half of Scotland’s native woods are in an unsatisfactory condition, and that since the 1970s, more than 14% of Scotland’s irreplaceable ancient woodland has been lost. This is a major issue – not only in terms of the environmental impact (thinking particularly of biodiversity; carbon sequestration; flood protection; and clean air) but also economically, considering the importance of the national timber industry, and of course, the fact that Scotland’s stunning landscape is one of its major draws for tourists.

What’s fascinating about all of this is that it is not development which is predominantly to blame for the loss of woodland, as one might expect. Instead, the group have identified that the main problems are failed regeneration, climate change and overgrazing. Indeed, 86% of Scottish woods suffer high or medium damage as a result of grazing by herbivores.

As a result of this study, recommendations have been passed to the Scottish Government’s Biodiversity Strategy team, some of which appeared in the new Biodiversity Route Map to 2020. However, there still needs to be a commitment from the Government to embed these into official policy. The Woodland Trust is campaigning to ensure these recommendations are enshrined, and to ensure that six further, key actions are incorporated (including halting further loss, and the restoration of at least 15% of the degraded ancient woodland).

The Trust is asking anyone who lives in Scotland to get in touch with their MSP, to make sure that these recommendations are crystallised into policy. More information is available on their excellent website: http://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/get-involved/campaign-with-us/our-campaigns/save-scotlands-native-woodland/

And for the non-Scots among us, the Woodland Trust would also love to hear what you think about how to prioritise responses to this study: http://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/get-involved/campaign-with-us/our-campaigns/save-scotlands-native-woodland/tell-us-what-you-think

There are always going to be conflicts in the way in which we use our limited land resources; the best we can hope for, perhaps, is balance, and sense of communal responsibility. Which means that when we have an opportunity to make sure that governments actually implement positive change, we have to seize it.

Scotland

Articles referred to:

http://www.monbiot.com/2014/05/19/highland-spring/

http://www.monbiot.com/2013/05/30/sheepwrecked/

http://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/blogs/woodland-trust/2015/09/save-scotlands-woods/

People’s March: 28 and 29 November 2015

The climate change conversation has taken on almost cartoonish proportions this week. In the red corner, we have Volkswagen – the car manufacturing behemoth which has admitted to cheating on US emissions tests, thereby producing engines which, according to the BBC, emitted nitrogen oxide pollutants up to 40 times above what is allowed in the US. They have totally screwed up admitted their US boss, but that doesn’t come close to addressing the outrage which has greeted the “diesel dupe”. It now looks as though this may be an endemic issue internationally, that diesel fuel isn’t the good-news story it has been disingenuously offered up as, and that – perhaps unsurprisingly – big business has been fiddling the system in order to avoid awkward environmental regulations. As George Monbiot put it so excellently:

Volkswagen’s rigging of its pollution tests is an assault on our lungs, our hearts, our brains. It is a classic example of externalisation: the dumping of costs that businesses should carry onto other people. The air that should have been filtered by its engines is filtered by our lungs instead. We have become the scrubbing devices it failed to install.

In the blue corner we have the Pope, who has just delivered an unusually political, wholly unambiguous message of support for environmentalists. In a speech given on the White House South Lawn, he talked about an environment devastated by man’s predatory relationship with nature; he quoted Rev Martin Luther King; he told his audience this could no longer be left as a problem for future generations. It was inspiring, timely and brilliant. An allegedly corrupt multinational v. a Pope who has placed the environment very high on his agenda; it’s like a surreal spaghetti western out there – and it really isn’t difficult to pick a team.

This flurry of activity is happening just a few short weeks before the COP21 Paris climate change talks in early December. As Pope Francis intimated in his speech yesterday, we really cannot underestimate the importance of that Conference – it will set the green political agenda for the coming years, and determine how we respond en mass to an urgent global threat.

It will, of course, be the politicians sitting around the table in December, arguing over targets, actions, and global commitments. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t all have our say. Whatever you think of the Conservative Party’s approach to environmentalism – which, for my money, languishes in the “woeful” category – we need to make sure that those delegates have the voices of their countrymen and women ringing in their ears when they make these decisions. They need to know how much we care, and that that they cannot fudge an outcome with something non-binding like the Copenhagen Accord. As Naomi Klein puts it in her extraordinary book, This Changes Everything:

Slavery wasn’t a crisis for British and American elites until abolitionism turned it into one. Racial discrimination wasn’t a crisis until the civil rights movement turned it into one. Sex discrimination wasn’t a crisis until feminism turned it into one. Apartheid wasn’t a crisis until the anti-apartheid movement turned it into one.

Climate change is already a crisis – now we need to demand that our politicians do something about it.

In Edinburgh and Cardiff on 28 November, and London and Belfast on 29 November, thousands of people will be turning out for the People’s March, to draw attention to the importance of achieving a strong international climate deal in anticipation of December’s Conference. The Woodland Trust will be there to march for woods and trees, along with the Climate Coalition. They are asking people to join them for what’s sure to be a brilliant day; let’s demonstrate how important this is, and prove that we will be holding our politicians accountable.

11378779_1038273019517394_375182861_n

Articles and blogs referred to:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-34324772

Smoke and Mirrors

http://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/blogs/woodland-trust/2015/09/march-with-us/

#EnoughisEnough: we need protection for our ancient woodland

This has not been a good week for conservationists – or indeed, anyone in England with an affection for where they live. The Government has announced new measures to fast-track fracking applications if local authorities don’t act quickly enough (i.e. make a decision within 16 week). In addition Greg Clark, the secretary of state for communities, will also have the right to ‘call in’ applications and decide on them himself. This follows a decision made by a local authority in Lancashire recently to reject a fracking application: evidently this wasn’t something the fracking industry, or a Prime Minister who promised to go “all out for shale”, wanted to hear. So they’re changing the rules.

Whatever your views on fracking – whether you think the lack of knowledge about methane leakage and water pollution is a cause for concern, or whether you think it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread and should be exploited as quickly and comprehensively as possible – it’s difficult to ignore the fact that it has the potential to affect huge swathes of our countryside. As Naomi Klein argues so well, it has been relatively easy to ignore the fossil fuel industry to date because it’s “sacrifice zones” tend to be kept relatively out of sight. With fracking, though, the sacrifice zone is immense, and visible. This has prompted opposition from people motivated not only by environmental concern and an interest in local self-determinism, but also out of a simple, apolitical love of place. In essence, we are being forced to ask how much we are willing to sacrifice for the sake of the energy industry.

Whilst that debate continues, it would be easy to assume that the most beloved and beautiful parts of our countryside are protected by legislation. We all know about national parks, and have probably seen the letters SSSI here and there, even if we don’t understand exactly what they mean. You may even live near a popular area of woodland, and believe that it must be safe from development or extractivism – after all, “Jerusalem” is our unofficial national anthem. We define ourselves as being a “green and pleasant land.”

However that is palpably not the case. What little legislation we do have owes its existence to two EU Directives currently been reviewed (and potentially overhauled), and the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) as introduced by the Coalition Government, has proven itself to be utterly toothless. Yes, the NPPF states that “planning permission should be refused for development resulting in the loss or deterioration of irreplaceable habitats, including ancient woodland and the loss of aged or veteran trees found outside ancient woodland,” but what follows is the caveat “unless the need for, and benefits of, the development in that location clearly outweigh the loss”. As Eric Pickles demonstrated in March, what that means in practice is that a centuries’ old Kentish wood can be felled to make way for a quarry if a politician decides that’s an economically sound prospect. In reality, to borrow the Woodland Trust’s phrase, the NFFP is about as much use as a chocolate tea-pot: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pu3zT3oYJ-M

Ancient woodland is, by definition, a woodland which has existed continuously since 1600 – which is an extraordinary idea, and gives us a uniquely physical connection to our natural history. They are home to complex ecosystems which have developed over centuries, and are entirely irreplaceable as sites of historical and environmental interest. It now covers only 2% of the country;  Britain boasts less tree cover than any European country other than Malta, Ireland and the Netherlands (http://www.telegraph.co.uk). And it is dangerously vulnerable to attack: the Woodland Trust is currently aware over 600 woods currently under threat, which have nothing more than the NPPF to protect them.

Whether you’re interested in the cultural, environmental, and even poetic implications of woods which have survived for hundreds of years, it seems extraordinary to permit our Government to treat them in such a cavalier manner – for the sake of a quarry, or a petrol station. If Eric Pickles announced that he was going to tear down Blenheim or Hampton Court Palace to make room for a motorway, I imagine the nation would be fairly exercised by the prospect of its loss. We need to start thinking about our landscape, and our natural heritage, in comparable terms – particularly in the current environment, in which industries like fracking are being promoted so enthusiastically. The Government already has plans to let energy companies extract shale gas from beneath national parks; as it stands, ancient woodland barely has a chance.

And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything.
I would not change it.

 

As You Like It Act II.I

11259920_1629735063960627_242515811_n

24 July: our chance to protect European wildlife

As you may know, there has never been much specifically British legislation enacted to protect our natural habitats; for a nation which has such a cultural fascination with the English landscape, we don’t have many national laws in place which protect our wildlife. Arguably we shouldn’t need to pass Acts of Parliament in order to make us respect our countryside, but there it is – in the current climate, bolstering conservation with legislation is more important than ever.

The few laws we do have were essentially put in place to enact EU legislation – the Habitats Directive and Birds Directive, specifically, known collective as the EU Nature Directives. Collectively, these pieces of legislation underpin the concepts of protected sites and species protection, and provide a framework for human interaction with European wildlife. Without those laws, British wildlife would be extremely vulnerable.

The EU is currently going through a 12 week review process of the EU Nature Directives, with a view to assessing whether the legislation works and/or whether it is still relevant. There is a very real risk that this REFIT will result in changes being made to those laws – perhaps even resulting in their removal. As commercial interests continue to take precedence over environmental concerns, conservationists throughout Europe fear that the review could lead to a weakening of the protective framework – which could in turn prove to be the thin end of the wedge, leading to the watering down of other key pieces of European legislation. (There are concerns, for example, that changes could have a negative impact on national emissions ceilings.)

The laws aren’t flawless – George Monbiot has recently written a fascinating piece in the Guardian about this (George Monbiot – Nature Directives), which mentions that the protection of upland heather moors is irrational, for example – but notwithstanding these issues, conservationists and wildlife charities all agree on the crucial point that the laws must be protected. If there is not enough public support for them, the REFIT could very well sound the death knell for all the benefits these Directives have to offer.

The Commission is currently running a public consultation on the proposed changes, and we have until 24 July to respond. The Woodland Trust have lots of really helpful information on their website about how and why to respond – it is incredibly easy, and only takes a few minutes: Woods need EU

Many stakeholders will be banking on the fact that the British people don’t care enough to have their say. Please take a look, and respond if you can.

“Me dad planted that tree,” she said absently, pointing out through the old cracked window.
The great beech filled at least half the sky and shook shadows all over the house.
Its roots clutched the slope like a giant hand, holding the hill in place. Its trunk writhed with power, threw off veils of green dust, rose towering into the air, branched into a thousand shaded alleys, became a city for owls and squirrels.
Cider with Rosie, Laurie Lee, Vintage Classics; New Ed edition (1 Nov. 2002)

Further information:

https://www.naturealert.eu/en
https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/blogs/woodland-trust/2015/05/eu-wildlife-protection-fitness-check-raises-concerns/

“Feral” by George Monbiot

“Environmentalism in the twentieth century foresaw a silent spring, in which the further degradation of the biosphere seemed inevitable. Rewilding offers the hope of a raucous summer, in which, in some parts of the world at least, destructive processes are thrown into reverse.”

Despite it’s terrifying, bewildering subject matter, I found This Changes Everything to be a hopeful, deeply inspirational book. We cannot continue on our current path of destruction for much longer, but that imperative offers us a chance to be better, to reform our society, and to question the systems and hierarchies which have led us into this awful dilemma. Feral takes a similar sense of optimism and turns it into something wild, brave and again, completely necessary. It presents the destruction of our ecology as a thing not to be feared just because of what it means for our environment, but as something which is undermining the very fabric of what it is to be human. We were not made to live outside of nature, in countries which have been stripped bare of wildness – and to continue to do so promises not just natural disaster but also a life without richness.

“On that raw December day soon after I had arrived in Wales, I was struck by the smallness of this life. Somehow – I am not quite sure how it happened – I had found myself living a life in which loading the dishwasher presented an interesting challenge.”

They are very different books and I don’t want to conflate them for the sake of it, but whereas Naomi Klein offers a kind of macro-level consolation at the end of her book, a chance for Western society to reinvent itself, George Monbiot offers a kind of micro, intensely personal opportunity to change, and one which was very, very welcome to me.

Essentially (and please forgive my ropey science), George Monbiot approaches rewilding from two angles. The first is the literal rewilding of nature – the proposal that we reintroduce key species of plants and animals into local habitats which we have decimated through centuries of over-hunting, industrialisation and commercial farming, on the basis that rehabilitating trophic cascades will reinvigorate our ecosystem. And the second is the rewilding of human life – not abandoning civilisation, but rather injecting some excitement and surprise back into our lives by reintroducing us to nature.

Both aspects of the rewilding proposition are fascinating. I am not much of a scientist, but George Monbiot has a wonderful talent for making the natural world accessible without compromising on any of the detail. I had not, for instance, realized the sheep are not native to the British Isles, and that the rolling heathland which we so associate with our national mythology is the result of centuries of over-grazing. We assume that the countryside of our childhood was the golden age, the way it is meant to be – but even Laurie Lee’s bucolic England is not our island’s true state. By filling Britain with Mesopotamian sheep and artificially large numbers of deer (for hunting purposes), we are stunting the growth of our native trees and flowers and encouraging monoculture. More than that, we magnify the results of the climate change by removing our habitats’ natural defences. In the 1990s, for example, and driven by a mania for tidiness, authorities ploughed huge amounts of money into removing untidy wooden “blockages” from the tributaries of the River Wye. Not only were these nests of branches – which had taken years to accumulate – prime habitat for numerous species, but they also moderated the flow of the river. When the nests were removed, flooding increased. Our desire to control natural systems we don’t understand is a dangerous thing.

His exploration of the impact this is having on the human psyche is also deeply moving. In one chapter, Monbiot links the increased number of sightings of big cats in the UK in recent years with a kind of unspoken yearning for the wild: “As our lives have become tamer and more predictable, as the abundance and diversity of nature have declined, as our physical challenges have diminished to the point at which the greatest trial of strength and ingenuity we face is opening a badly designed packet of nuts, could these imaginary creatures have brought us something we miss?” It is the same impulse which makes us revel in the journeys of people like Patrick Leigh Fermor, Nick Hunt or Cheryl Strayed – we feel as though they are stepping back into another world, a time of pilgrimages and Odysseys, in which heroes battled against the wildness in both nature and man and became legends.

In a kind of very, very pale imitation, the most wonderful holiday I’ve ever had with Neil is when we walked the Cotswold Way – one hundred and one miles in just over five days. It rained for most of the walk, our packs were heavy, my ankles were so badly bruised from my boots that I limped for the second half of the journey, but I can honestly say it was one of the happiest weeks of my life. All that mattered was the rhythm of walking, and finding places to sleep and eat. By the end I was almost meditating, completely free of any thoughts of the job which made my so unhappy, simply concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other and marvelling at the beauty of the countryside when the sun finally came out. There are no wolves in the tea-rooms of Painswick – but it felt natural and like a mini-wilderness. If I can feel that good after a few days of walking in South England, only imagine how exhilarating it would be to live in the kind of world Monbiot wants us to return to.

Having reached the end of Feral, I find myself in the same dilemma I was in when I finished This Changes Everything – what now? What can I do other than just nod my head in whole-hearted agreement and pray for change? I’m still trying to work that out – any suggestions very welcome! – but at the very least I can start to look about me more, and try to engage with the natural world around me. Learn about the area of Oxfordshire I live in. Try to look at this beautiful part of England not just in romantic appreciation but with a more knowledgeable eye. For now, I would absolutely recommend Feral – it is riotous, full of life and imagination, and absolutely fascinating.

Polly Higgins and Samantha Power

My copy of Polly Higgins’ “Eradicating Ecocide” has now arrived, and it is next on my pile of things to read. In anticipation, I have been exploring the “Eradicating Ecocide” website, and reading about the proposed law – which in brief (i) proposes that ecocide should be considered to be a crime against peace, and (ii) creates an international duty of care to prevent the risk or realization of damage to ecosystems. The idea of legislating for this has apparently been around for decades now, and Polly Higgins’ draft law has been with the UN since 2010. So far, no decision appears to have been made.

In making these early explorations, I was reminded of Samantha Power’s gripping book, “A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide”, which in part charts the tireless campaign of an individual called Raphael Lemkin to make genocide a crime. Though Lemkin (who himself had lost 49 relatives in the Holocaust) first created the word “genocide” in 1943, and though the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide became law in 1951, the US did not ratify the Convention until 1988. As Power explains so vividly, the US prevaricated over the issue for more than forty years, and displayed a continued reluctance to take action when it was needed (including, very famously, over the heinous crimes committed in Cambodia).

I appreciate, of course, that new international laws must be scrutinised with the greatest of care before they are implemented – but as I think back on Power’s words, the sluggishness of Western countries over the issue of climate change seems to have many parallels with the way in which acts of genocide were handled during the last century. In both cases, unjustified delays had the potential to lead to catastrophe.

Power ultimately closes her book with the following – which I think I ought to keep in mind as I begin to read Higgins’ work.

George Bernard Shaw once wrote, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world. The unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” After a century of doing so little to prevent, suppress, and punish genocide, Americans must join and thereby legitimate the ranks of the unreasonable.

“This Changes Everything” by Naomi Klein

“…History knocked on your door, did you answer?”

That’s a good question, for all of us.

Naomi Klein introduces “This Changes Everything” by saying that for many years she simply ignored climate change. It was too daunting, too complex, someone else’s problem – the environmentalists would deal with it. It was during a meeting with Bolivia’s ambassador to the World Trade Organisation in 2009. however, that something clicked for her – huge swathes of the world’s population were suffering as a result of a problem they had not contributed to. She realized that it was irresponsible to look away, and that the only way this vast global issue would be escalated in to a crisis was if ordinary people started treating it like one: “Slavery wasn’t a crisis for British and American elites until abolitionism turned it into one. Racial discrimination wasn’t a crisis until the civil rights movement turned it into one. Sex discrimination wasn’t a crisis until feminism turned it into one. Apartheid wasn’t a crisis until the anti-apartheid movement turned it into one.”

I’ve been absolutely guilty of treating climate change with this kind of denial and, whether deliberately or not, I have been looking away. Of course I’d see the pieces in the newspaper about how much coal has been burned in my lifetime, or the UN’s latest paper on the impact of our dependence on fossil fuel – occasionally I’d even read the article, and panic, and donate some money to Greenpeace. But I’d very soon comfort myself with the idea that the campaigners were dealing with it, and the vague notion that our governments couldn’t really let us reach a point where the damage was irreversible or permanent – if we can put a man on the moon, then we must be able to find a way to deal with all the carbon in the atmosphere before it’s too late. Two pages into this book, though, and I knew I couldn’t carry on like that. Notwithstanding Klein’s highly accessible style, I suspect the force of my reaction was in large part due to the fact that this is the first book I have ever read on the subject. Newspaper headlines, with their justifiably terrifying statistics and screaming warnings, are sometimes too overwhelming to focus on for sustained periods of time. “This Changes Everything,” though is calm and steady – it drip-feeds facts with Klein’s intensely personal and intelligent voice, so that the effect is cumulative rather than simply being paralysing. And something about that snapped me out of my apathy – I think it would literally be impossible to read this book and fail to be hit between the eyes by its message.

So, the facts. I cannot even begin to do justice to the force and detail of Klein’s argument here, but in essence what I took away was this. At the UN Climate Summit in 2009, a controversial decision was made to set a global warming safe-limit of 2-degrees Celsius. We will without doubt reach that limit in the coming years, and the consequences will be dramatic. However, as Klein says, even the 2-degrees limit currently looks like a utopian dream. Governments all across the world are failing to legislate for this, or to take the kind of dramatic action which might make the 2-degrees level attainable. Instead, because of our insatiably consumerist way of life and the West’s comprehensive failure to tackle this issue head-on, it looks as though we are heading towards a four or even six-degree rise by the end of the century. Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research has said that a four-degrees rise “is incompatible with any reasonable characterization of an organized, equitable and civilised global community.” In other words, the world our grandchildren will inherit will look dramatically different to the one we are living in now.

The added complexity is that this has all become apparent at a time when our capitalist economy is at its zenith. Through the free-trade impetus of the 1980s, Western politicians have created a web of trade treaties which prioritise international commerce above everything else. In one stunning example of the impact this is having on the green movement, Klein explains that in 2010, Ontario tried to kick start its own green program (described by Al Gore as the “single best energy program on the North American continent”) by legislating in such a way as to give local co-ops and indigenous communities a chance to benefit from the manufacture of items like solar panels. Essentially, Ontario tried to combine its green revolution with a bid to rejuvenate its faltering manufacturing sector, and the program was going brilliantly until the EU and Japan challenged Ontario’s new legislation, saying that they considered the local content requirement of the initiative to be in violation of World Trade Organization Rules. Ultimately this meant that a promising new green energy initiative was scuppered, because Europe and Japan thought it was more important to make some money from the program than to allow the province to galvanise the initiative by empowering local manufacturers. It is the very definition of a Pyrrhic victory.

Free trade aside, the fossil fuel industry is also now so obscenely wealthy that it has immense political clout – in 2013 in the US alone, “the oil and gas industry spent just under $400,000 a day lobbying government and congress officials, and the industry doled out a record $73 million in federal campaign and political donations during the 2012 election cycle…” How are local (and very often poor) communities at the raw end of the new mania for fracking supposed to tackle that? (Indeed, one of the things Klein does so well is to demonstrate how this is absolutely transcends politics, and not just because of the scale of the problem. Of course, many of the environmentalists’ solutions (like those set out by the UK’s Green Party) are traditionally “left wing.” However to my mind this is also the essence of the traditional conservative ideal of self-determination – why on earth should an oil company be able to frack in the village you love if the entire community is opposed to it?)

So – now that I am finally looking, it is obvious how far-reaching and omnipresent this issue is. Since I started reading this book a couple of weeks ago: I have discovered that students, alumni and academics at both Oxford and Cambridge are currently campaigning for the universities’ endowment funds to divest from fossil fuel; UK Oil and Gas has found what it thinks amounts to 158 million barrels of oil per square mile in Surrey; Shell has won a temporary restraining order which bars Greenpeace and its activists from boarding, barricading or interfering with the movement of the drillship Noble Discoverer, the drilling rig Polar Pioneer or the heavy-lift vessel Blue Marlin; and I have found out that a hugely inspirational lawyer called Polly Higgins has proposed an Ecocide Law into the United Nations. There is even an article on the BBC website this evening saying that in 50 years time, “The classic fish and chips enjoyed by previous generations could be replaced by the likes of sardines and squid, according to a study published in the journal Nature Climate Change.” The effects of climate change are everywhere, yet as the major political parties slug it out in anticipation of the election in a few weeks’ time, the lack of engagement with the problem is palpable.

Naomi Klein’s message is that it is down to communities to tackle this now. Governments have failed us, eccentric billionaire philanthropists have not delivered their promised solutions, and the fossil fuel industry shows no signs of slowing down. Cultural shifts throughout the ages have been driven by the determination of grass-roots movements – as Klein says, abolitionists, feminists, and civil rights activists kick-started the revolutions which have changed the shape of our societies. That is what is needed now, and I intend to participate in any way I can. Not just because the statistics are frightening, but because, as Klein says so beautifully, the possible upside of the climate change nightmare is that it may just prompt society to adjust some of the enormous inequalities which have fuelled the problem for the past three hundred years.

I started reading “Walking the Woods and the Water” earlier today – Nick Hunt’s modern day recreation of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s extraordinary journey across Europe. On p.13, Hunt writes, “The glimpse I had of Rotterdam was almost as brief as Paddy’s own – he walked on at once, pausing only for eggs and schnapps – but the continuity between our two cities was absolutely severed. The Rotterdam of the Middle Ages has been blasted into the realms of fairytales, and the new reality of McDonald’s and Lush, Starbucks and Vodafone had rushed to fill the vacuum. The destruction seemed less an act of war than apocalyptic town planning, a Europe-wide sweep of medieval clutter to clear the way for the consumer age.” Whether or not you feel an instinctive political interest in climate change and the culture which is apparently feeding it, that kind of language must cut to the quick of anyone who has luxuriated in the descriptions of PLF; Laurie Lee; Stella Gibbons; Gerald Durrell….So much of our literary history is bound up in the charms of the natural world. How can we fail to protect that inheritance now?

This Changes Everything