Humanity’s Endgame, or New Beginning?

I was struck by the juxtaposition of two book reviews in the recent edition of Paradigm Explorer – magazine of the Scientific and Medical Network.

uninhabitable earthFirst, David Lorimer reviews The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace Wells, a book that suggests that our institutions and leaders are simply not up to the task of addressing the challenges of climate breakdown. Humanity is basically not an intelligent species en masse and will go down the pan.

planet remadeThis is followed by Paul Kieniewicz’s review of The Planet Remade – How Geoengineering Could Change the World, by Oliver Morton. This sort of accepts the premise of the previous book, except suggests that humanity will increasingly resort to geoengineering to try to alleviate the resulting problems. Of course, geoengineering is a largely unknown, untested and inherently unpredictable.

At the end of the day, neither of these mindsets seems likely to do more than scare us, which is perhaps what is needed, in addition to the positive work being done by Extinction Rebellion and many others.

The problem is enormous, almost beyond comprehension, and involves every living person. The only way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time. If the majority of people did their little bit every day, always making the carbon-reducing, climate stabilising, non-polluting choices – so that individuals, communities, businesses, corporations, towns and cities, regions, national governments, international institutions were all moving in the same direction, we would soon realise that we were solving the problem.

We just have to give up caring about money more than people and nature, and about power and fighting more than peace and cooperation. Nothing less than total transformation of our politics and economics!

When did this ever happen before? Well, after WW2 there was a recognition of the need for change and the establishment of institutions to improve cooperation (UN, EU) and reduce the chance of wars, and to establish improved living standards for peoples. The game of sovereignty and ‘interests’ of nation states and powerful individuals has since undermined all this. It has to stop, or the ‘interests’ of the big boys will destroy us all.

Insectageddon

With great eloquence, George Monbiot pursues the theme of loss of insects covered in my previous post) and puts it in context with other ongoing global disasters, such as depletion/ acidification of soil/ seas, and climate change. His piece in The Guardian is well worth reading.

Our natural world is under unprecedented attack by the huge number of people seeking a lifestyle it cannot support – unprecedented except for great natural disasters such as large meteorite hits. The situation cries out for action at all levels – personal, business, corporation, local, regional, national, super-regional, continental, global. Yet we seem to be stymied by current vested interests and our own boiling-frog-like inertia.

Brexit is in a sense totally irrelevant to these problems, although we could use it to drive rapid change in the right direction in the UK. But don’t hold your breath if you keep voting the Tories into power – their radical wing appear to have nothing to offer this situation.

Featured bee image by USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab from Beltsville, Maryland, USA – Apis mellifera, via Wikimedia Commons

Deadly Whites

I’m reading an outline in the excellent Watkins Mind Body Spirit magazine, of the book The Seven Deadly Whites by Karl Eliot-Gough. It’s all been known for a long time actually, but good to see it restated.

The basic premise is that the modern diet full of refined and processed foods is responsible for the modern ‘diseases of civilisation’: diabetes, heart conditions, obesity, cancer, dementia,…

Refined flour, white rice, refined sugar essentially had their nutritious ingredients removed. Too many polyunsaturated fats, too much salt and milk products are also unhealthy. Processed foods are full of them all. The body is just not receiving the nutrition it needs. Hence the diseases of civilisation.

Easy processed foods were a great innovation and provide great convenience to modern living. But beware the cost of not intimately knowing what you eat.

Of course, there are many other factors – pollution and pesticides in much of the food, the depletion of intensively farmed soils, insufficient fresh vegetables,… So this is certainly not the only game in town.

Now, if we all had a healthy and unpolluted diet, what would then be the relative cost of our NHS? Rather less, methinks.

Oh, I think the seventh white is the white lies that it’s all healthy.

Lead by idiots

Lead is a poison. It interferes with a variety of body processes and is toxic to many organs and tissues… It interferes with the development of the nervous system and is therefore particularly toxic to the young (Wikipedia). This applies to animals, birds and humans – hence over many years we have moved away from allowing lead in water, petrol, paint, etc.

In 1983 a UK Royal Commission on environmental pollution recommended the phasing out of lead shot for shooting game because of the effects on wildlife and humans. This has never been fully acted upon. Non-toxic shot has been used in Denmark since 1996.

The Wildlife and Wetland Trust estimates that

  • 50,000-100,000 wildfowl die each winter in the UK from lead poisoning,
  • 6,000 tons of lead ammunition are deposited in the UK countryside every year,
  • 1 in 4 deaths of Bewick’s swans are due to lead poisoning.

A WWT briefing reports research in the UK as showing that a high proportion of game sold for human consumption had lead concentrations exceeding the European Union Maximum Levels. The shooters are actually poisoning themselves and their families!

Apparently, the UK Food Standards Agency considers it acceptable to ingest lead from game birds, but not more than once a week. Really? And it appears to be considered acceptable to mass poison wildlife.

This seems crazy – a disaster for wildlife conservation and a disaster for human health.

What can you do? Well at least join and support the efforts of the Wildlife and Wetland Trust.

Featured image of Bewick’s Swan courtesy of Adrian Pingstone and Wikimedia Commons

 

Mother Nature Bats Last

This Changes Everything

Review of the book by Naomi Klein

this_changes_everythingIt took me a long time to read Naomi Klein’s latest book, published in 2014. Basically, a lot of the material was so depressing that I could only take in so much at a time, and yet it was also deeply encouraging. Naomi Kline has been a leading writer and activist on climate change and the problems of capitalism for many years, and this book shines light in all the dark places she has come across, and that is a lot of places.

Here we see close up the waters of the gulf and Mississippi delta degraded by the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster; we follow the pipeline, fracking and tar oil battles and spills across the US and Canada; we witness the horrific social and environmental degradation and corruption in the Niger delta, and so on and on… We see how democratic politics has been undermined across the world by the corporate interests intent on continuing this plunder.

Diagnosis

Why has climate change “never received the crisis treatment from our leaders, despite the fact that it carries the risk of destroying lives on a vastly greater scale than collapsed banks or collapsed buildings”?

Klein’s diagnosis is clear:

“A destabilized climate is the cost of deregulated, global capitalism, its unintended, yet unavoidable consequence…”

Essentially she suggests that the neoliberal consensus with its three pillars  — privatization of the public sphere, deregulation of the corporate sector, and the lowering of taxes, paid for with cuts to public spending — is incompatible with the actions necessary to bring emissions to safe levels. Corporate interests have systematically exploited this situation, funding the movement of climate change denial and ramming through policies that enrich a small elite. The situation has also been the excuse for crackdowns on civil liberties and human rights violations.

Politicians and regulators have not been up to the job, even “systematically failing to conduct basic research, and silencing experts who are properly tasked to investigate health and environmental concerns”, so that they can suggest that all is well with the oil industry. “The failure of our political leaders to even attempt to ensure a safe future for us represents a crisis of legitimacy of almost unfathomable proportions.”

Children

At some point Klein became aware that what suffered most from chemical overload in the environment was the foetus and the young, and the worst effects of disasters such as Deepwater Horizon may be felt many years later because it was the young fauna that were most affected. There are moving parallels in the book with her own experiences of failing and then succeeding in having her own child.

“More than three quarters of the mass-produced chemicals in the United States have never been tested for their impacts on fetuses or children…  it was only once humans came up with the lethal concept of the earth as an inert machine and man its engineer, that some began to forget the duty to protect and promote the natural cycles of regeneration on which we all depend.”

Hope

But there are also signs of hope. Klein describes how indigenous movements have marshalled across North America and elsewhere to successfully resist the depradation of their lands. She invents the concept of Blockadia to describe these bottom-up initiatives to block further extraction of fossil fuels.

“What is clear is that fighting a giant extractive industry on your own can seem impossible, especially in a remote, sparsely populated location. But being part of a continent-wide, even global, movement that has the industry surrounded is a very different story… Blockadia is turning the tables, insisting that it is up to industry to prove that its methods are safe…”

Fossil fuels have always required what Klein calls ‘sacrifice zones’, such as the Niger delta or the Alberta tar sands, where the unfortunate inhabitants of particular areas are sacrificed so that others may have their fuels. Most people, including the middle classes, were not affected.

But “… the extractive industries have broken that unspoken bargain… the sacrifice zones have gotten a great deal larger, swallowing ever more territory and putting many people who thought they were safe at risk… Fracking, tar sands pipelines, coal trains, and export terminals are being proposed in many parts of the world where a clear majority of the population has made its opposition unmistakable…”

This is mobilising people as never before, and governments need to respond.

“… if governments are unwilling to live up to their international (and domestic) responsibilities, then movements of people have to step into that leadership vacuum and find ways to change the power equation.”

Liberation movements

Klein finds positive evidence in the liberation movements of the past few centuries. The situation on fossil fuels is very similar to that before slavery was abolished – the vested financial interests were eventually forced to change, or bought off.

A similar level of change was achieved by the labor movement in the aftermath of the Great Depression— the massive wave of unionization that forced owners to share more wealth with their workers, and helped create a context for social programs like Social Security and unemployment insurance [this is a US perspective].

There is ‘unfinished business’ with most of the powerful liberation movements of the past two centuries, from civil rights to feminism to indigenous sovereignty, which are very much related to the climate movement.

Klein suggests that “… climate change can be the force— the grand push— that will bring together all of these still living movements.”

Unwinnable battle

Finally, we are reminded that humankind cannot win the battle against nature that it has appeared to be engaged in. The solutions must involve working in sympathy with nature:

“The notion that we could separate ourselves from nature, that we did not need to be in perpetual partnership with the earth around us, is, after all, a relatively new concept, even in the West.”

At the end of the day, “Mother Nature bats last.”

Should you read it?

This book is certainly not easy to read, and you may not agree with some of Klein’s analysis – many will see her anti-corporate position as too extreme. But you will be better prepared for the battles to come – a generational change in values is no easy task.

 

 

House Plants

spider_plant
A current version of our Spider Plant

We have always had house plants since we first set up house together in Bishop’s Stortford in 1967. Our landlady gave us a Spider Plant, which in a sense is still going strong – not the original roots, but the plantlets from the original one, creating new plants every year or two. This is definitely one of the easiest plants to grow – quite a huge amount in a year if well fed, watered and potted on – and it is very tolerant of the occasional unintended drought! It throws out stems with small flowers and then tiny plantlets which grow nourished by the parent plant until they achieve contact with the soil – or until you transplant them.

We always had a theory, which I think was shared quite widely in 70s and 80s UK, that house plants were good for the house environment, both visually and air-wise. Garden centres used to have great masses of them for sale.

Over the years we had all sorts, even a huge Swiss Cheese Plant that lasted several decades, eventually growing as high as the ceiling and starting to take root in the walls and carpet. Eventually this long-standing friend had to be sacrificed, it was struggling and too big to pot on. But it is quite amazing how long plants will last with fairly minimal attention.

We tended our son’s university Yucca through a growth spurt. It was outgrowing our house, but fortunately he moved into a flat in Edinburgh with high ceilings, and the two of us could just manage to transport it there, filling our campervan to the limit.

As the years went by, I think people got busier and had less time for house plants, perhaps less of a feel for connection with nature with all those electronic distractions. The sections in the garden centres have seemed much smaller over recent years, although now I sense a revival.

And now the evidence is in. A recent programme from the BBC series Trust Me I’m a Doctor showed new research that established that house plants are very good at reducing the levels of chemical pollution produced by household cleaning and freshening products – they just absorb the nasty chemicals from the air. So there’s a good healthy reason to maintain house plants.

They are also visually attractive and keep us just that little bit more attuned to nature and her seasons. And of course, they sequester carbon dioxide from the air, so in a very tiny way contribute to the battle against global warming (I suspect not trivial if multiplied by the number of households in the world!).

A Tale of Renewal

We first went through Winnington, near Northwich, Cheshire, in 1970 in our first car – a split-windscreen Morris Minor affectionately called ‘Creeping Moses’. I have a vivid memory of the grey ash that covered everything in Winnington – bushes, trees, terraced houses – in the vicinity of the enormous Imperial Chemical Industries chemical works with huge industrial buildings and smoking stacks. It was like an abandoned land at the end of some SciFi catastrophe.

It was only a few miles from our destination of Marbury Country Park, a former country house and WW2 prison camp which had even then become quite a pleasant park between Budworth Mere and the Trent and Mersey Canal. It was bordered by a huge stretch of lightly used industrial land belonging to ICI, spanning several miles between Winnington and another huge ICI factory at Lostock Gralam. Apart from the country park, this was definitely an area to avoid.

Over the intervening years, things have changed. The great ICI conglomerate was broken up and much of the chemical work has, I believe, moved elsewhere (perhaps that pollution is now in China?).

anderton_boat_lift
Anderton Boat Lift

The boat lift at nearby Anderton, linking the canal with the much lower River Weaver, was refurbished in 2002 and made into a visitor attraction, complete with cafe and boat trips. As part of the Mersey Forest initiative, Anderton Country Park and Northwich Community Woodlands were established on the former ICI land linking the two sites – now fully connected with Marbury giving a much larger country park, and also linked by footpath to central Northwich.

There is a fine set of well-maintained footpaths criss-crossing the entire area, and we find it ideal for a Sunday walk, as do many dog walkers and cyclists. The area is still home to old industrial pipes, some apparently still in use, but they do not intrude. The only problem I could find was the succession of dog waste bags that have been attached to or thrown into bushes, rather than the provided bins – now what is that all about?

newmans flash
Neumann’s Flash
crested_grebe
Crested Grebe

The settlement ponds have become nature reserves for birds, with bird watching hides. On our visit yesterday we saw swans, coots, tufted ducks, moorhens, shelducks, crested grebes, a buzzard and the ubiqitous canada geese, mallard and gulls, also a clacking of rooks. Only a grebe came close enough to capture on our small travel zoom camera. Neumann’s Flash is usually a good place to see hundreds of lapwing, flying in formation with those lazy flapping wings, but yesterday we were restricted to a token flyby of around twenty.

What a transformation of this area over 45 years from industrial wasteland to a haven for wildlife and recreation. It does show what can be done, and we should never despair at the depradations done to our environment. It will recover, but slowly, and I suspect that the biodiversity of this area is still somewhat limited – at least in terms of butterflies, bees, hoverflies and the like. But nothing can recover the lives that were undoubtedly blighted by that pervasive pollution.

It was interesting to drive home through Winnington. The grey ash is long gone. The (now) Brunner Mond chemical works are still there. Some of the old industrial buildings are obviously derelict but still standing, some are in process of being dismantled, and new housing estates are rapidly expanding into the area being freed up. There is even a garden centre. This area truly is being renewed, bit by bit.

Crazy world?

crazyIn my blog profile I say it’s a crazy world we live in. Why?

Where to start?

We live under threat of nuclear annihilation, yet few people have any concern or give any priority to reducing this threat. It didn’t go away after Reagan’s deal with Gorbachev, and new nuclear powers have emerged.

We face a catastrophic change of earth’s climate through global warming, caused by our own carbon emissions. Since Rio 1992 and earlier we have had global discussions on this, yet nothing has been allowed to interfere with the rapid economic/technological/debt expansion that has caused this. We have pious words from Paris 2015, yet are hell-bent on economic expansion and refuse to take necessary actions such as taxing carbon fuels or controlling them at source. Indeed, we still subsidise carbon fuels to a much greater degree than renewables. We are still chopping down trees at a rapid rate, reducing yet more the protections provided by forests and their sequestered carbon.

We have allowed the transfer of resources from poor to rich to continue unabated for many years. Inequality means that life is a struggle for many of the poorest, and the middle class that ensured 70-ish years of stability in the West is being eroded. The erosion of tax base means that resources are being taken away from the public sphere through ‘austerity’ policies.

The globalisation programme over the past 30 years or so has ensured this hollowing out of the centre, moving jobs and pollution to poorer countries of the earth. Yes it enables Western economies to continue to expand, but at what price? The development of expanded free trade areas (TTIP etc) aims to continue and accelerate this process. The crazy competition of low-tax countries and tax havens has greatly reduced the moneys paid by global corporations into the treasuries of the countries in which they operate – so they have competitive advantage against local small/medium businesses – a long term catastrophic change.

The financial crash of 2008 was never fully followed through. Few were punished and many prospered at the subsequent expense of the people. It is arguable that lessons were not learned and the system has reverted to something quite like it was before. The system does not work in the interests of all, and the opportunity should be taken to change it before the next crash – eg measures such as publically created money, tobin taxes, land taxes, basic income, etc.

Religious fundamentalism again stalks the earth, as in the middle ages. Despite major advances in education it continues to gain traction with the credulous and those who will always rise up in times of confllict. Religions themselves seem largely divorced from the inner spiritual experience of many in the modern world.

It is apparent that democracy has a much-flawed implementation in many places, notably the USA where big money and corporations seemingly have overwhelming traction on the political process. In other countries it is often the fig leaf for maintaining a ruling clique in power.

Science has made great advances, which have been translated into wonderful technologies which dazzle us all. The internet gives the potential to revolutionise the way we live our lives. Yet we become more vulnerable to misuse of the technology, such as cyber crime and cyber wars, and to the cracks which we had not foreseen in the world we have created, such as the adaptation and emergence of new forms of bugs and diseases resistant to modern antibiotics and other treatments.

There has long been a ‘war on drugs’ that have millions of users, providing fertile ground for criminal enterprises with massive rewards. This so-called war manifestly failed many years ago. As for the ‘war on terror’, how was that nonsensical idea ever invented?

The spectre of species extinction haunts the earth – particularly the large mammals, birds and sea creatures that remain after the depradations since the European expansions spread across the earth. It is accelerating.

The seas and the soils are becoming increasingly contaminated by plastics and chemicals whose effects in many cases will be long lasting threats to living organisms. The ‘precautionary principle’ appears to be insufficiently applied and often bypassed in the exploitation of new innovations.

What can one say of the Middle East, which appears to be in chaos to such an extent that the disastrous Israel-Palestine impasse is now but a sideshow.

We have a United Nations that is dysfunctional, in that it is powerless whenever so-called Great Powers, aka known as members of the Security Council, disagree. There is no effective system of global governance.

The consumer society. Well I could go on and on about this. Too many cgoods, too much stuff. Too much to do. Focus on the surface, while ignoring the essence and what really matters…

I could go on…

So, crazy world or not?

I rest my case.

The heart of capitalism?

I am standing on the footpath that threads around a large field in Cheshire. It looks like flattened mud, with rows and row of small young plants, maybe winter wheat? I feel desolate at the barren scene – no variation, no birds, no insects, just that vast cloying mud.

Confined-animal-feeding-operation
Combined animal feeding operation

I am being driven through eastern Texas. We pass seemingly endless cowsheds, enclosures, corrals of cows. Arid flattened earth, not a blade of green to be seen anywhere. A nothing environment for an unlucky cow to live what can hardly be called a cow’s life. My heart cannot grasp the enormity of what is being done here.

I read the story of DDT and Rachel Carson, and how the world stepped back from the brink of massive destruction of natural beings. And now I read again of the new DDT, neonicotinoids, which are being extensively used without due precaution. Not only the bees our life depends on, but other insects, the birds that feed on them, and the thousands of organisms of the very soil itself are being massacred. Ignorance on a grand scale in the name of money. I weep internally.

I drive through the northern French countryside. More huge fields, thanks to the Common Agricultural Policy. Yet there is not a hedgerow in sight, so few insects and birds. I grieve for the lost opportunity to maintain the threads of nature.

I observe in my own Cheshire garden the decimation of populations of bees, butterflies, hoverflies, some bird species over less than half a lifetime. My heart tells me something is amiss with the web of life, and it is something to do with the way we farm and the chemicals we use.

And yet through all this there are signs of hope. Part fields of wild flowers in southern France – lost but now re-established. Land set aside for wildlife. Campaigns to keep and extend old forests. The organic and small farm movements. The national parks, scientific areas, conservation movements etc etc. In the hearts of many the connection with nature is still strong.

Does not the problem lie in our hearts? If we cannot feel that empathy with the whole living world, as we do for example with our pets, what hope is there for us? Industrial agriculture with its related chemicals appears to be largely about the pursuit of money at the expense of the natural world. Land ownership should imply stewardship of nature on that land, which means maintaining the connections of nature and should not allow them to be destroyed.

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the currently manifested capitalist system, that has money as its supreme value, lies at the root of the problem. If decisions are taken based on what makes the most money, rather than what the heart says is right, then does that not inevitably lead to the increasingly denatured world we see before us?

[Of course, similar problems are evident in totalitarian countries, which are either part of or have aped the capitalist money system.]

Featured image of Confined Animal Feeding Operation, from Wikimedia Commons

Disgusting rubbish

cullen park rubbish point“Whoever did that it’s disgusting.”

 6-year-old grandaughter was quite clear about what she felt about the rubbish we came across in an otherwise rather attractive area in Cullen Park, Houston.

A stream winds its way through tangled woodland; along the bank a worn path follows the meanders, ideal for young explorations. But then we came across odd plastic bottles and other rubbish, which had accumulated in one particular area, probably as a result of earlier flooding.

cullen park rubbishHer reaction shows the world view at age 6. The beautiful world she is exploring despoiled by human action in leaving rubbish around. Due to the possible effects of flooding it is not clear that the rubbish was actually put in that place, but it seems pretty sure that it was deposited somewhere it should not have been,

This is not particularly a US problem. In Europe you frequently see rubbish that has been left in parks, on verges, thrown out of car windows, fly-tipped, and so on. Some countries are worse than others, but this is not the place to name names.

The situation at sea is perhaps worse. The accumulation of plastic rubbish in the Pacific Ocean is of legendary proportions – the great pacific garbage patch. Many fish and seabirds now have small particles of plastic in their gut as a result. Many die. All of that rubbish was caused to go into the sea by some deckhand, some person in authority, some private individual etc.  The problem of human rubbish is just enormous.

Plastic rubbish lasts so long in the environment that this is a problem for my grandchild’s generation that is getting worse and worse. Why are we not all fired by that same reaction? It is disgusting.

Her last words on the subject show the total unacceptability of what we and our governments appear to accept as unavoidable:

“I’m not happy with the people who did that”.

It is just not acceptable. All rubbish needs to be recycled.