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.

Wood

 

“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)

 

 

“Why Big Fierce Animals Are Rare” by Paul Colinvaux

My reading so far this year has taken me on a path through Patrick Leigh Fermor; Nick Wood; Laurie Lee; Naomi Klein; George Monbiot; and now Paul Colinvaux. It feels very much as though I have been approaching the science of conservationism and climate change backwards – the beautiful, nostalgic lyricism of PLF and Laurie Lee reminded me of just how much pleasure I take in being outside, walking through beautiful places. Naomi Klein jolted me into recognising how truly under threat that natural world is (not to mention our way of life), and George Monbiot stepped in when I was feeling helpless and nihilistic about it all, and introduced a much-needed sense of thrilling hope.

I’m sure that a lot of people have finished This Changes Everything and looked about them, frantically wondering what on earth they can do about it. I’ve spent the past few months trying to work out what to do with all of this new information. Should I try to learn about environmental law? Volunteer? Curb my consumerism (like some kind of activist Larry David)? So far, the answer has been an attempt to combine all of those things – and most recently, I’ve decided that I need to try to go back to first principles. If I really want to engage in this conversation, I know that I need to educate myself – it’s not enough just to agree with newspaper articles and books telling me that we need to divest/ avoid fracking/ stop exploiting fossil fuels/ rewild where possible as a way of injecting a bit of balance into our environment. I need to take my daydreaming, novel-loving brain and try to get it to understand something about the science.

I hope to study Biology A-level as soon as the new curriculum has settled down and its possible to do that via distance learning, and in the meantime, I’ve signed up to do an Environmental Studies A-level over the next two years (which seems like a really good idea now, but I’m sure will feel daft when I find myself in an exam hall next summer, clasping a sweaty fountain pen and trying to remember whatever silly mnemonic unlocks my revision notes). For now, a very clever scientist I know recommended Why Big Fierce Animals Are Rare, and I have absolutely loved it.

Colinvaux’s book is essentially a series of essays which answer questions like “Why the Sea is Blue”, and “Why There Are So Many Species”; one of which is the excellently named, “The Curious Incident of the Lake in the Now Time.” Each essay is a perfect little capsule of information, clearly explained, beautifully written, and never intimidating. Big animals are so rare, he tells us, because they are limited by the supply of energy which is able to flow from the sun, through the food chain and ultimately to our largest, rarest predators. The sea is blue because only blue light is able to make the journey from the surface to the depths and black, and because there are not enough plants to make it green. The territoriality of yellowhammer birds enables pairs to establish a kind of marriage contract, and the problem with burning fossil fuels is that we are releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere more quickly than the sea can absorb it. It is full of fascinating nuggets of information which are thoroughly and most entertainingly explained, and he ends with a compelling (if rather alarming) description of the evolution of mankind and the fall of empires.

One of things I found most intriguing about the book is that it was first published in 1980 – a time when climate change theories were still relatively nascent (at least in the public consciousness). What is so interesting, and in fact so frightening, is to read passages like this, and to realise that almost nothing has been done about it during my entire lifetime:

“We are embarked on the most colossal ecological experiment of all time; doubling the concentration in the atmosphere of an entire planet of one of its most important gases; and we really have little idea of what might happen.”

A hundred pages later, he talks about the Alaskan pipeline: “I happen to think that the Alaskan pipeline is a disaster to the American heritage, both for the aesthetic damage it does to the last wilderness and for the encouragement it gives to the continued misuse of fuel reserves.”

It is precisely the argument being rehearsed now over the Keystone Pipeline (although of course there is now a great deal more urgency, because we have done nothing to reduce our consumption of fossil fuels over the last thirty five years). I don’t mean to misrepresent Colinvaux here, or to invest these quotes with an agenda – he is not an environmental campaigner and presents these facts with an academic’s eye, not as a call to arms. (It would be fascinating to hear him speak on these subjects in 2015.) But it is so interesting for an amateur like me to find the roots of current, popular science in this collection of essays – I very much had Feral in mind when I was reading the chapter called “The Succession Affair”, for example.

Paul Colinvaux’s personality informs ever page, and the science is presented with compelling conviction; he must be a very inspiring teacher. If you have any interest in the natural world, then I cannot recommend this highly enough.

(Postscript: I loved Carolyn Scrace’s cover illustration for the Penguin 1990 edition. Perfect.)

“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