Months ago, my church decided that the theme for our annual nature-themed month in September would be ‘trees’, and I agreed to collate some resources for the clergy to help them write their sermons. Four days before the start of Creationtide (a global initiative linking the Orthodox ‘Creation Day’, Catholic St Francis Day, and Protestant Harvest Festival), I have found the opportunity to write it.
People often liken a forest to a cathedral; but to me it feels more like a congregation. One feels in company amongst trees. Their upright stance, their feet on the ground and their arms held up like charismatic Christians in song, their warm-cool bark, and the gesticulations of their branches, and winking and scowling expressions of their knots, all make them seem more like me than many a furry, four-legged mammal.
This sense of company goes back a long way: the Green Man is one of the oldest symbols in our churches, and surely the point is not whether it is ‘pagan’ or ‘Christian’, but that it represented the importance of a connection with the rest of nature at the heart of our spirituality — and I would argue it is no coincidence that our technological society has lost both at the same time.
Modern biologists tell us that our affinity with trees goes much further than accidental appearances. Trees can count, learn and remember. They send medicine to sick neighbours, keep leafless stumps alive with donations of sugar solutions, and warn of danger with electrical and chemical signals. Perhaps it is a subconscious sense of this sociability of trees that we feel in a forest?
Both the old myth and the new science have been challenged as fanciful anthropomorphism. It is right that the science is questioned — that’s how science works — but this does not mean that the sense of affinity should be written off.
The biggest myth of all is that humans and nature are separate. Any ecology must include human biology and behaviour (which we call ‘economics’ and ‘politics’). Any economy must factor in the sustenance of the entire biosphere.
This is the ‘spirituality’ from which my work as an advocate and policy developer for forestry and timber in the UK derives. This is the filter through which I interpret evidence, such as the fact that trees are the only effective carbon capture and storage technology that we possess; that timber is the only large-scale carbon-negative, renewable material we possess, and can replace almost all the steel, concrete, brick, plastic, and oil, in our civilization; that the UK has amongst the lowest tree cover in Europe; and that the UK is the second biggest net importer of timber products in the world: only China has a bigger reliance on the world’s forests.
This is what leads me to start asking questions, like What are your clothes made of? What is the room you are sitting in made of? What is in front of you? Did it begin in a forest, on a farm, in a mine, or in a quarry? How long will it last? What are you going to choose to buy next?
This is why my spirituality of trees, while it might start with losing my loneliness in the warm green company of the forest, never stays romantic for long, but appears in down-to-earth dreams of planting self-funding ‘commercial conservation forests’; or building ‘carbon sink city regions’ where the mass-timber buildings create giant a carbon sink harvested from large peri-urban forests; or carbon taxes that make concrete, plastic, and deforestation, things of the past.
And that unromantic spirituality derives from something spectacularly unfashionable: my Christian faith.
Christianity, in my view, is not mysterious at all. It simply (and not exclusively) teaches that the fundamental thing Love; that you and I, everything and everyone, is loveable and that knowing this makes us act in ways which make it true and life-enhancing. The ‘god’ to which Christians aim to devote their lives isn’t some extraneous existence; it is simply love. You can pick anything for your ‘god’, your rule of life: yourself, your country, your political beliefs, ‘reason’, or the Jedi Force if you like (although I doubt many people have genuinely lived their life by that). But we chose Love, and ‘this God is our God for ever and ever; who will be our guide even to our death.’ (1)
It is nature, not religion, which is full of mysteries: enough to awaken all the insatiable curiosity and wonder for which nature’s minds (not just human minds) have capacity.
My task, whether I’m going into a forest, or into a meeting about forestry policy, is to love myself, the people or trees in front of me, and all the world out there, unconditionally and equally and in no particular order. And, like a mycchorizal root network, the inspiration and the strength to set my mind, my time and my resources to the task, is there to be found in them — myself, the people, the trees, the world out there.
“That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season.” (2)
200 years ago this week, St John’s Church in Edinburgh was consecrated, on 19 March 1818.
This is interesting to me for two reasons. First because I have been a member of the choir of St John’s (which was founded at the same time) for almost a fifth of that time, and second because I have spent much of the past ten years researching the history of its foundation.
In its time, St John’s was truly groundbreaking. Its attention to the authentic detail of gothic architecture, and its revival of the rich Laudian traditions of liturgy, once so controversial, but unexpectedly so relevant to the romantics and industrialists of late-Enlightenment Edinburgh, were ahead of anything taking place in Anglican England, and in fact helped to inspire the Victorian revival of liturgy, architecture and rich spirituality there.
Having no church establishment to contend with, and a mainstream Calvinist tradition to contrast with, gave the founders of St John’s, Bishop Daniel Sandford, Sir William Forbes, and Colin Mackenzie WS, the freedom and the inspiration to create something extraordinary.
Sandford, Forbes and Mackenzie, the cleric, the banker and the lawyer, may seem an unlikely triumvirate to organise a spiritual revolution. But they were, in a way, simply the administrators of a much wider movement, shaped by people of all kinds of classes, genders and races, just as Walter Scott was simply the transcriber of the diverse voices and verses that populate his novels. These men had a cultural generosity which inevitably would lead to them giving away their power in society.
For Bishop Sandford this took the form of a passionate belief in universal education, for all boys and girls, until the kind of privilege of birth enjoyed by people like himself – unwarranted in the gospels and proved so fragile in the French Revolution – became unnecessary.
Over the coming year, St John’s will celebrate its bicentenary in many ways. Keep an eye on their facebook page for news of the lectures, exhibitions, concerts and special services they are planning, and I’ll be trying to keep up some historical tweeting on #StJohns200 (please join in!). Two particular highlights for me will be my Choir re-creating an 1818 matins on 6 May, and right at the end of the programme, I’m giving a lecture on Bishop Sandford and his successor Dean Ramsay on 21 January 2019.
Meanwhile, here is how Edinburgh’s newspaper of the day, the Caledonian Mercury, reported the consecration of St John’s:
“In our paper of Thursday we mentioned that St John’s Chapel was that day to be consecrated. — at the appointed hour a very great concourse of people attended to witnes this ceremony, which, from its novelty, was no less pleasing to our brethren of the Episcopalian persuasion than to those of the Established Church, a great many of whom were present. — The first, happy to find the dissentions which formerly separated them from their fellow citizens sinking rapidly into oblivion; the last, glad to hear testimony of their good will to all who labour in the vineyard.
We cannot allow this opportunity to escape without saying a few words on the satisfaction which we feel at the rapid progress which edifices of this description have made towards elegance and magnificence. — When we look back on that respectable, but very homely building, distinguished by the name of Peddie’s meeting house in Bristo Street; when we consider the former place of worship used by the Roman Catholics in Blackfriars Wynd, and the little chapel in which Bishop Sandford first administered to his flock, in Register Street, as well as many other places of public worship in various parts of the town, we cannot help feeling gratified in observing the improvements which have taken place within very few years. The Catholics were first to show the example. From a confined private room, as it might be called, they had the spirit to remove themselves to a large and commodious chapel, the front of which not only does credit to the architect, but is an ornament to the city. The next is the Methodist chapel in Nicholson’s Square, a plain, neat, and highly creditable building. Then follow the chapels of St Paul and St John, the one built for the accomodation of the Cowgatte Chapel congregation, the other for that of Charlotte Square Chapel.
These buildings are built in the Gothic style, and not only do great credit to the architects (Mr Elliot and Mr Burn) but to the meritorious exertions of the individuals who undertook the management of them. It is not our province to enter into any ritical or scientific examination of their merits, but taking them all in all, we consider both equally ornamental and advantageous to our city, and takng off from that sameness, with which our New Town has so frequently been accused. From all points St John’s Chapel is well seen — it is the first object that strikes the eye on enterng by the great roads leading from the north, south, east and west, and is, or perhaps must only say was, one of the most interesting objects from the new road over the Calton Hill. The interior corresponds with its exterior: the roof is of the stile of the florid Gothic of Henry the Seventh’s Chael, and the columns which support it are light and airy; no galleries are yet erected, in the hope that the congregation will be sufficiently accomodated in the body of the church. The windows above are glazed with orange coloured glass, the rest with softened glass, so as to admit the light, without being pervious to vision. The great window over the altar is not yet finished, and some alterations appear to be intended; a good deal of labour and expence has been bestowed in decorating the upper part with a representation of the Annunciation by Edington. The under part is ornamented with coats of arms, the effect of which we cannot praise, and think that good taste would have recommended the plain softened glass of the other window, with a simple border round each compartment. The organ is excellent, and very handsomely fitted up; and we were happy to find that the extent of the building was by no means beyond the extent of the Bishop’s voice, who was perfectly well heard in every part of the chapel.”
I’ve been thinking for ages about writing some articles about ecology and Christianity. But I’ve been so worried that the material about ecology for Christians would seem superstitious to the ecologists, and the material about Christianity for ecologists would seem heretical to the Christians, that I haven’t dared publish any of it. But all I really want to do is get people thinking, so on the basis that the most thought-provoking sermon is the awful, erroneous sermon, here is one about bees and Jesus. Follow the links for more information or source material.
Jesus, carpenter turned edgy stand-up comedian, told a silly story about a man with a plank in his eye, who patronisingly offered to take the speck of sawdust out of his colleague’s eye, despite the fact that he couldn’t see anything because he had a fucking great plank in his eye. (Luke 6.41-2)
I’ve thought about this a lot over the past year, ever since I read Dave Goulson’s book A Sting in the Tale in hospital, where as well as being cured of my physical ills I was enjoying an intense digital detox as my phone was broken and there was no WiFi. But what does Goulson’s tale of bumblebee adventures have to do with Jesus’s plank-man?
I’d always thought the pollinator crisis was about honeybee decline.
I didn’t know, in hospital, that a few weeks later I would begin working for Buglife, where my adventures with bumblebees would redouble. Not professionally, you understand: I’m only qualified to shuffle information and talk to people. But as soon as spring arrived, we would go out at lunchtime and start identifying things; and one of the easiest things to identify was bumblebees.
There are only six common sorts, and they wear distinctive strips like rugby players.
Red tailed bumblebees (all black with a red tail) and Common carder bees (brown or gingery) are easy. Buff tailed, White tailed and Garden look more similar and I never reliably distinguished them with their yellow-and-black stripes and a whitish tail. It took me a while to spot an Early bumblebee, black-and-yellow but with a gingery tail, and it felt like completing a collection when I did. And all before Pokemon Go even arrived.
There’s actually a seventh common sort now, the Tree bumblebee, with a ginger thorax, black abdomen and white tail, which has moved in rapidly from Europe. Whereas most bumblebees nest in burrows under grassy tussocks, like rabbits, Tree bumblebees nest high up, like Blue tits – in fact they often take over their nest boxes.
Plank-man wasn’t the only story Jesus told about not being able to see. You know the phrase, “the blind leading the blind”? That’s one of his. The context was his friends warning him that he was starting to annoy influential people, to which he replied, “Leave them, they are blind guides. If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.” (Matt 15.14)
I never said Jesus’ sense of humour was tasteful.
Bees have different roles within the colony, and I also learned a bit about distinguishing queens, workers and males. I knew before that queens are the huge ones, but I didn’t know workers could be tiny, tinier than you could imagine a bumblebee to be, little fluff-balls. Nor did I know that males generally have yellow faces, and never sting, although unlike my colleague Scott I haven’t yet been quite brave enough to test this by holding a yellow-faced bee for its portrait.
But these seven bumblebees are just the start. There are 24 UK species of bumblebee, and once you know the common ones you can tell when you’ve seen something more interesting. I spent a long time watching this Field cuckoo bumblebee and wondering what it was before another colleague Suzie enlightened me. Cuckoo bumblebees sneak into bumblebee nests, kill the queen, and let the workers raise their young.
Jesus was actually quite obsessed with blindness, so it’s not surprising there are so many stories of him healing physically blind people. Blindness is his central accusation against the religious teachers of the day, as in this extract from a tremendous rant:
“Woe to you, blind guides! You say, if anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing, but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple is bound by his oath. You fools! Which is greater, the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred? Woe to you, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices – mint, dill and cumin – but you have neglected the more important matters of the law – justice, mercy and faithfulness. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.” (Matthew 23.16-24)
I never said Jesus was restrained.
But these 24 bumblebees are still just the start. Pollinating insects include over 200 species of solitary bees, over 250 species of wasp, as well as flies, butterflies, moths and even beetles. There are reckoned to be 1500 species of wild pollinator in the UK.
And yet, how many times when we are talking or thinking about “pollinators” do we say, or mean, “honeybees”? British honeybees are not 1,500 species, they are one species, Apis mellifera.
It was domesticated perhaps 10,000 years ago, and is not a natural part of our ecosystem, any more than an Aberdeen terrier, Herdwick sheep or Orpington chicken. Equating honeybees with pollinators is as if you were trying to tell someone about the diversity of UK mammals: Wildcat, Red squirrel, Badger, Otter, Harvest-mouse, Pine marten, Water vole, Weasel, Dormouse — but they insist on referring to them all as “sheep”. Except it’s 15 times worse because there are only 101 species of mammal in the UK, not 1,500.
Jesus didn’t make up this stuff about blindness. He got it from reading the prophets, like Isaiah, raging about the lazy, corrupt religious teachers of his day:
Israel’s watchmen are blind,
they all lack knowledge;
They are dogs with mighty appetites;
they never have enough.
They are shepherds who lack understanding;
they seek their own gain. (Isaiah 56.9-11)
I never said Jesus was original.
But why does this matter? It’s very interesting, of course, to know about Common carder bees and how to distinguish groups of hoverflies by the loops on their wings, but is this not somewhat arcane knowledge, like my arcane ability to recite that passage from Isaiah about human and environmental restoration:
Then will the eyes of the blind be opened
and the ears of the deaf unstopped.
Then will the lame leap like a deer,
and the mute tongue shout for joy.
Water will gush forth in the wilderness
and streams in the desert.
The burning sand will become a pool,
the thirsty ground bubbling springs.
In the haunts where jackals once lay,
grass and reeds and papyrus will grow. (Isaiah 35.5-7)
It matters because we rely on pollinators to produce chocolate, strawberries, apples, tomatoes, carrots, cotton, peanuts, and much more: one in three mouthfuls of food, in fact.
And pollinators are under threat, from climate change, development (building houses and road etc), but most of all from intensive farming practices.
And when nature is under threat, its best defence is found in diversity. One pollinator which nests in sandy banks might go extinct, but one which nests in grass might survive. One whose grubs feed on thyme might go extinct, but one which feeds on dead-nettles might survive. A disease might wipe out one species, while another might be resistant. Nature is so complex, so full of factors we barely understand, that to rely on one species, honeybees, which did not even evolve to live here, is wilfully to blind ourselves to our own ignorance of what it is we are relying on.
We think we can march in and fix nature: “bees are declining! Start beekeeping! Hey we could be like Christian monks in the olden days!” when really we should be stepping back to let nature recover in its diversity. Over one summer, a 40-hive apiary will take enough pollen to feed four million wild bees; or in other words, four million wild bees, in all their resilient diversity, will starve: and if a disease were to come along that wiped out the honeybees, so will we.
The best blindness story about Jesus is the one where he heals a blind man, then the sceptical religious teachers come and investigate the healing. The blind man persists in calling a spade a spade, and the teachers insist he must be mistaken. It’s worth reading the whole story, (John 9) but it ends up with the teachers saying to Jesus, “What? Are we blind too?”, and Jesus saying, being blind does not make you culpable; but claiming you can see when you can’t makes you guilty.
Being a Christian does not mean being like Christian monks in the olden days: it means imitating Jesus.
The first step to imitating Jesus — along with forgetting about being tasteful, restrained, or original, and keeping your sense of humour — is taking the plank out of your eye: the plank of introverted obsession with human-made objects and human-made concerns and conventions, with which we have blocked out all knowledge of the rest of life.
The second step to imitating Jesus is to be a healer. I set up the Wild Reekie group to ‘discover and restore nature in Edinburgh’, which with the help of a little social media magic has resulted in over 150 people, mostly less knowledgeable about ecology than me (which isn’t saying much) coming to events to learn about it. We had lots of events over the summer looking at pollinators, and I had lots of fun passing on my newfound knowledge of the seven common bumblebees. But my favourite conversation was with the lady who wasn’t sure whether what she was looking at was a bee or a wasp.
“That one’s a hoverfly”, I said.
“Oh, so not very interesting,” she said.
“Not at all,” I said, “There are hundreds of species of hoverfly, they’re really interesting and very beautiful.”
“Oh — so they are interesting then!”
I don’t think she’ll ever see a hoverfly — or fail to see one — the same way again.
I didn’t even know how many species of hoverfly there are (283, according to the very good field guide); and my knowledge of why they’re interesting extends to a vague knowledge of a life cycle that begins with leathery things in muddy ponds.
But all it had taken to discover that they’re very beautiful — meaningful — important — in Christian terminology, sacred — was looking at them: something I never really did before I was cured of blindness, and took out the plank, that week in hospital.
I had an exciting meeting today with David Knott, curator of collections at the Botanics; my friend Dr Alan Elliott also at the Botanics; Henry Marsh, former head of English at the Edinburgh Academy and Glen Doll botanist of 40 years; and Tom Morton of Arc Architects who is going to build the new Blair House.
We discussed how – without adding to budget or maintenance – we could design Blair House so as to grow some of the important shrubs, flowers, grasses, ferns, and mosses of Glen Doll on or around it.
My aim is to enable visitors to catch some of the excitement about Alpine catchfly, Woolly willow, Fragrant orchid, Silver ladies’ mantle or Blue sow-thistle which I catch when I talk to people like Henry, Alan or David.
Glen Doll is a nationally important habitat for species like these, but many of them can only be seen by scrambling up inaccessible cliffs, or hunting in remote corners of the plateau. Others are easy to walk to, but difficult to notice or identify without the help of an expert.
Blair House has the potential for providing an artificial cliff habitat, out of reach of grazing animals but within reach of people, to give a boost to the tiny populations of some of these plants, and to allow future generations of Glen Doll lovers to discover them.
I’m also talking to Tom about making sure we replace the essential accommodation for swallows, martens, and three species of bats which the old Blair House provided.
I’m hugely grateful to Alan, David and Henry for getting involved and I’m very much looking forward to working with them on what will be a far longer project than the building of the house. As David said, the most important requirement for a project of this sort is patience. The story of the Forfar Botanists which Alan has helped tell began over 200 years ago; the story of the Blair House Botanists starts here…
In a weak moment, I’ve made my first bet — and I need your help to win it.
I work in Buglife Scotland, the invertebrates conservation charity. I bet my boss I could find them 100 new members in a year – so I’m hoping you might fork out £2 a month and join them.
Yesterday was fairly typical day in the office:
Craig, the head, is speaking to Radio Scotland, defending the rare Fonseca Seed Fly which inhabits dunes near Dornoch, threatened by a golf course.
“If it were pandas or tigers, we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” he’s saying. “This species is found only in Scotland: we have an international moral responsibility for it — and we have to speak up for it, because it can’t speak up for itself”.
Scott, who’d probably rather be out on the 9000 year-old peat bog he is restoring, breaks off his day of wrestling spreadsheets to take me and David, the interns, for a lunchtime bug-hunt.
Buglife hosts lots of interns, and we emerge soaked in entomological expertise and enthusiasm. Both of us are tasked with passing that enthusiasm on to others: me to MSP Species Champions, and David to seemingly thousands of children.
Who knew that there are hundreds of species of micro-moth, of a dazzling array of beauty and cuteness? I thought they were just dusty things that ate one’s jumpers. I find different ones whenever I walk through long grass.
Who knew that Mayflies, those dangly things over rivers, come in over 50 British varieties: a fascinating and photogenic dancing creature, older than dinosaurs. Craig writes papers about them in his spare time.
But there’s one thing Buglife forget to speak up for: themselves. Almost without exception, when I tell people I work for Buglife, I’m met with blank looks.
This is not just a matter of modesty. Buglife is a member organisation. Having members gives it political clout — and when we are losing the environmental protection of the EU, when US investors are golf-coursing our dunes, when biodiversity is seemingly at the bottom of everyone’s political agendas — then having the weight of membership behind it is crucial.
Anyone who has followed Scottish and British party politics in the last few years knows how important membership is. Wildlife organisations are, in a sense, the political parties of non-human life: by joining them you lend them a great weight of endorsement.
Membership also means financial freedom. Membership funds provide the crucial core funding to pursue the unglamorous work that so often constitutes biodiversity protection. It’s hard enough for peat bogs and glow worms to compete with woodland and wildcat for funding and public awareness, never mind open mosaic habitat or the Manx Shearwater flea.
And so this was the soapbox I got up on one day in the office, when I bet Craig I could find 100 new members for Buglife in Scotland in a year.
A dinner is hanging on it.
More importantly my honour is hanging on it.
And much more importantly, 24,000 species, far more than are covered by any other conservation charity, are hanging on it (other invertebrate charities, covering the glamorous species such as butterflies and bumblebees, only cover around 1000 species). We have to speak up for them, because they can’t speak up for themselves.
So begins: the year of the Great Bug Hug.
So please join Buglife here. It will set you back £2 a month, somewhere between a bus ticket and a cup of coffee. It’s not all altruistic: you do get an excellent membership pack with invertebrate goodies.
And when you fill in the form, where it says, “Where did you hear about Buglife”, the answer is — Eleanor Harris.
And please tell your friends: on facebook, on twitter, in the pub, #BugHug — you know the stuff.
You can read about this estate, which belongs to the enterprising and controversial Paul Lister in this article by Cameron MacNeish. My main aim was to test Clifton’s book, newly published in pocket format, and to enjoy exploring one of my favourite habitats, ancient pinewood.
I’m increasingly of the view that one should explore Scottish habitats according to the weather:
If it’s a sunny, blustery day, go to see the peat bogs sparkle.
If it’s cool with high cloud, hike up the Munros to see the alpines.
If it’s hot and sultry, go to a white-sand beach for a swim.
And if it’s rainy, go to the forest, which will shelter you and also looks its best in the rain. Just one excellent reason Scotland’s forests should be restored to a much larger extent.
Caledonian pine forests feel biodiverse. They buzz and flutter with things, and there’s always the hope of Red squirrels and Crossbills: I had an unconfirmed glimpse of the latter, a departing flash of crimson.
The book was all a companion guide should be: properly pocket-sized with a shower-proof cover doubling as a marker, with easily followed directions (designed so you can explore by public transport – but we didn’t), and a clear description. Ideally one would have the delicious coffee-table edition waiting back home, with the full text on the cultural heritage of these pine forests: the pocket version merely hints at a ‘sad tale of the Clearances’.
So begins the challenge of Bain Bagging: visiting all the ancient woods of Scotland. There are 38 pine forest to collect, and then there is the companion volume of the Atlantic Rainforests, which are all over Britain and Ireland.
I’m looking forward to collecting more, if I’m lucky enough to get wet days…
The conference was opened with what Muriel Gray described as a hand-grenade from Raymond Henderson of agribusiness consultant Bidwells, who pointed out that in 2013-15, only 3000ha of productive forestry was planted in Scotland. Scotland is 8 million ha, so to increase forest cover from 18% to 19% requires three areas the size of Edinburgh. The target for new forest by 2022 is 100,000ha, or four Edinburghs. Stuart Goodall, head of Confor, pointed out that there is no point planting new land unless you are also re-stocking felled areas (if you have travelled through the Scottish countryside recently you will know a huge amount of felling is going on), and statistics on this are sketchy. Keep an eye on this: it is important.
The City of Edinburgh area (marked here) is 26,000ha.
Jo O’Hara, head of the Forestry Commission in Scotland, said that woodland creation is the hardest part of her job: there is such a legacy of the mistakes of the ’70s and ’80s, and even then, planting rates didn’t reach 16,000ha per year.
Jo O’Hara’s slide showing forestry planting (conifer in blue, broadleaved in red) by decade since the 1970s. The line at the top is 16,000ha.
There was good news too: Andrew Vaughan, a regional manager with Tillhill forestry company, provided an inspiring case-study of their new planting scheme at Jerrah above Menstrie in the Ochils. Jerrah resulted in 1.3 million trees of 16 species over 583 hectares, and two PhDs.
Raymond Henderson identified a major problem with the grant and regulatory system as the reason so little forest had been planted. Andrew Vaughan pointed out that to deliver planting targets will require many Jerrahs, and under current regulation this would require Environmental Impact Assessment documentation amounting to three Bibles. Tillhill is working on another scheme, Hawkhill: the new Forth Bridge will be built within the time it takes Hawkhill to go through the regulatory process.
This phrase was coined by Professor Sean Smith, Director of the Institute for Sustainable Construction at Napier. The representatives of the forestry industry in the room were delighted with it, so prepare to hear it more often. Andrew Heald, Technical Director of Confor, pointed out that Between 2008 (the start of the recession) and 2015, there was a 50% growth in Scottish forestry jobs.
Sean pointed out that a modern timber-frame house has energy bills one seventh of the Scottish average. Faced with the need to design for climate change, wood is capable of far more resilient constructions in the face of high winds than other materials. The fact that the new Edinburgh school wall which fell down in Storm Gertrude was brick was no coincidence.
Andrew Heald wanted to challenge the perception that Scottish timber is used to make toilet roll when it is mainly used in construction. Imagine growing a crop, he said, which needs no fertilizer or maintenance, grows on poor soil, for which demand’s set to double, which produces a construction material in a landscape which people want to go mountainbiking in – and does carbon capture and storage in the process. You wouldn’t go mountainbiking in a brickworks.
The panelists were in agreement that the forestry industry has learned from the regulatory mistakes of the past, and now must learn from the PR mistakes of the past. Jo O’Hara said that there are over 90 million visits a year to Scottish woodlands. Yet Andrew Heald pointed out that few of those 90 million come away with any idea that they have been in the midst of a £1bn industry, of green gold: many do not realise forests such as Glen Tress are productive at all.
Andrew Vaughan said that, according to the authorities, 100,000 people a year look over the Jerrah site from the top of Dumayat, but very few turn to look that way because they are all looking at the spectacular view of the Forth Valley. Yet the Jerrah scheme had to be redesigned so as not to be visible from Dumayat, or indeed to anyone looking at the Ochils by telescope from Edinburgh. He was making a point about the amount of design work required to satisfy regulations, but some of us environmentalists at the back muttered to each other that it was a shame the opportunity was not taken to re-educate people’s perceptions of the Scottish landscape, by allowing them a glimpse of a well-designed productive forest.
City trees: Princes Street Gardens on the way to the conference
The same point emerged from Sean Smith’s presentation: he showed new timber-frame houses replacing inefficient old ones on an estate in Fife, and celebrated the fact that despite their innovative building material they look like ‘traditional’ twentieth-century harled masonry. Is wood so ugly we really need to hide it away like this?
83% of Scots agree with the statement that a lot more trees should be planted. I was pleased Andrew Heald mentioned my project Wild Reekie, aimed at ordinary city types — those 83%, in fact — as an example of the kind of public engagement the forestry sector ought to be doing. It’s the kind of engagement I, as an environmentalist, also think we ought to be doing so I’m delighted to see a £1bn Scottish industry getting behind it.
Elizabeth Barron-Majerik, head of the Scottish School of Forestry, gave an important presentation on protecting the industry’s skills base, and reversing the declining knowledge of the sector amongst young people. She did exactly what I did when writing my Gender and Diversity report: google for ‘diversity in forestry’:
Google search for ‘diversity in Scottish forestry’
Whereas I had then tried another search term, Elizabeth used the recommendations she found for growing a diverse forest as analogies for growing a diverse forestry sector. For example, in a forest you plant closely and then thin it out: similarly, forestry education should aim to have a large intake, including many people who will never become foresters, who will take their knowledge and skills into other sectors. One of her recommendations I thought particularly interesting was to develop a forestry equivalent of STEM ambassadors going into schools.
This need for education was the theme of my Diversity and Gender report which people picked up in coffee-break conversations. One suggestion I liked was to revive the Guides forestry badges.
Sheep and Water
The conference gained a buzz from the fact that the importance of forestry in Scottish upland land-use has been high on the public agenda recently, both in terms of natural flood prevention, and of diversification for sheep farmers.
Andrew Vaughan talked about the potential of Jerrah for reducing flooding in Menstrie. Historic farming practices had created 96km of drainage ditches linking into the Menstrie Burn: no wonder it floods. It is obvious to anyone who has walked through a wood after rain and seen a raindrop hanging on every needle, that once a forest grows up to ‘canopy closure’, runoff from a heavy rainstorm will be enormously slowed. But long before that, the modern skills in designing drainage ditches to drain ‘uphill’, and into wetland areas rather straight into the river, should be a huge improvement on the previous improved grassland.
A larch forest preventing rain reaching the ground.
Another great case-study, of the Eddleston Water Project, was presented by Hugh Chalmers of the Tweed Forum.
Who is my community?
There were presentations on community engagement from Rural Development Consultant Amanda Bryan and Fergus Tickell, chair of the Argyll Timber Transport Group which focused on the rural community. Yet to me, this is not addressing the 70% of us who live in the Central Belt — those of us who ‘want more forests’, ‘think Scottish timber is made into toilet paper’, and have a vague dislike of conifers. The divide between the populated, urban central belt and the rural north, west coast and south is so great in Scotland, and so important to forestry, that it needs to be identified and discussed.
With my ‘diversity’ hat on, I thought the rural-urban divide was particularly evident on the political panel. Andy Wightman (Green) is a candidate for the Lothians, but Claudia Beamish (Labour), Alex Fergusson (Conservative) and Jim Hume (Liberal Democrat) are all MSPs in the South Scotland region while Michael Russell (SNP) is MSP for nearby Argyll and Bute. They were also mostly members of the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee.
It was striking, and cheering for those of us who like consensus, how far the political panel were in agreement with each other and with the foresters. Michael Russell said the two top priorities for the next parliament should be reducing the bureaucracy involved in new planting schemes, and improving deer control. The other parties were generally in agreement. I was surprised that the only spontaneous applause from this rural industry was for the Green, Andy Wightman, who said that instead of having a Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs, Food and Environment, who claims to ‘represent farmers’, with an Environment Minister underneath, there should be a Cabinet Secretary for the Environment, with Agriculture and Forestry Ministers underneath.
But I did wonder, how many of the urban colleagues of that well-informed and consensual cross-party panel would understand or care about the timber industry, natural flood management, or ensuring planting or re-stocking targets are met? Was this a ‘forestry interest’ just talking to itself? It’s the politicians who have the strong links into the rest of society, and so this is my challenge to them: over the election period and in the next parliament, to get their central belt colleagues out into the woods with some of those forward-thinking foresters — or their party risks getting left behind at the place where £1bn industry meets environmental crisis.
Before you go, spend two minutes watching the new Confor video — and make sure you go into a wood next weekend…
The aim of Natural Capital is to engage business, which accounts for the majority of human exploitation of the environment, as a force for valuing and restoring it. It draws on many other ideas such as environmental footprinting and social enterprise. It is based in a recognition that many decades of “traditional environmentalism” — traditionally somewhat antagonistic to business — have demonstrably and spectacularly failed to change anything.
The World Forum on Natural Capital 2015, organised by Scottish Wildlife Trust, took place ten minutes from my house. I was there as a volunteer but managed to participate in almost the whole event, although some frantic last-minute registration meant I missed the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon who, according to all the reports I heard, skilfully name-checked such an incredible number of initiatives that everyone came out feeling special. There were plenty of Scottish participants including SNH; good news of new initiatives especially the launch of the Peatland Code which could have important impacts on the Scottish landscape; and a specific Scottish Natural Capital ‘stream’ of breakout meetings which I hope to hear a report from. I think, however, that the question someone asked about how North Sea Oil fits into Scottish Natural Capital accounting, which wasn’t answered, needs to keep being asked.
I hope that the sceptical environmentalists, of whom there were many present, were won over by the possibilities even if they remained healthily critical of the claims of specific businesses and governments. “In the sustainability sector we love reinventing the wheel and preaching to the converted”, said one speaker welcoming the hundreds of business participants. “Today we have a chance not to do that”. “I’m from a financial background,” said Michael Meehan, “and I’ve been working for this convergence with environmentalism all my life — as I know many people in the business community have”.
We learned about a proliferation of initiatives to turn the theory of Natural Capital into practice. The Inclusive Wealth Index, which combines produced capital, human capital and natural capital and demonstrates that most countries are experiencing serious economic decline; Natural Captains, a Dutch-based coalition of businesses committed to leadership in Natural Capital processes; and Cradle to Cradle, one of the tools they use to improve product design, are just three.
The fact that this multiplication of experiments makes the whole area impossibly confusing especially for smaller businesses was discussed, illustrated by the clip of Robin Williams playing a Soviet immigrant to the US having a melt-down trying to choose from a whole aisle of types of coffee. The launch of the consultation on the first draft of the Natural Capital Protocol was a key event of the Forum which aims to address this issue.
We heard inspiring case studies of state-scale approaches to Natural Capital policy making. A telling graph from Botswana (below) showed how water use in different sectors had been compared to GDP and employment: either agriculture (far left) is using far too much water, or its contribution to Botswana’s society is drastically undervalued, or perhaps both.
Pakistan, a country which is one of the smallest contributors to and one of the biggest victims of climate injustice to date, has used natural capital accounting to implement state-scale strategies for climate change resilience (below), including a project to (I could have cheered at this) plant a billion trees in five years. “Resilience” was one of the key words of the project: it is why biodiversity per se is the most valuable asset we have.
An example from Canada demonstrated how collaboration is required in public-sector policymaking as much as in business: from the mountain behind our town to the sea, said one speaker, a cubic metre of water passes through six different policy regions.
What struck me as the conference went on was how radical the thinking was within the business paradigm, that is, amongst CEOs, accountants, insurance underwriters, who had no intention of closing their operations down, getting out of the way, and waiting for some kind of experiment in social organisation to emerge. “Our challenge is not to monetarise nature but to naturalise the economy” was one phrase I noted down, which was my most-shared on twitter although someone pointed out it needed a good deal of unpacking to mean anything. “We must standardise our Natural Capital accounting in a few years, not the 150 years it took global financial reporting” was another. “It’s my firm belief”, said another, “we are building a better system, which takes genuine account of environmental and social as well as financial value”. “Our current economic models are as unscientific as the flat-earth movement”, said a fourth. “We can and must change our whole concept of money and value”. The urgent need for rapid, profound, fundamental change was everywhere, and the one concept which was completely absent was any possibility of “business as usual”.
What I found most interesting, because I hear the environmental viewpoints all the time, were the contributions from the business side. The ones I noted included these. Natural Capital assets are great assets to have because if maintained properly they maintain their value, never depreciating or having to be replaced. The average life of a business is less than ten years, so the biggest sector to be engaged to create change in 20 or 40 years are businesses not yet started. (I heard a practical way to address this capacity-building issue in another session: get sustainability tools into MBAs.) “I bet he’s a pretty hard-nosed businessman though”, said my forester friend Simon as we discussed Peter Bakker of the CEO-led World Business Council for Sustainable Development. “That thing he said: ‘you can come and talk to me about anything, but you have to tell me which of the Sustainable Development Goals it relates to first'”.
Also inspiring were the large-scale examples of rapid ecosystem restoration. An experiment in creating “no-take” marine zones (initially to the chagrin of local fishermen) showed that it only took three years for fishermen to start increasing their income as the regeneration of fish in the no-take zone spilled out into neighbouring areas. The National Geographic Pristine Seas project is preserving the last remaining unexploited marine ecosystems as priceless examples of how the seas should be, yielding surprising scientific discoveries for example that the biomass of top predators (like sharks) is greater than everything else — as if the African plains had two lions for every wildebeest. “One of the most important stories I’ve ever covered”, said film-maker John Liu (below), describing such transformations in China and Mali, “is that it is possible to restore degraded ecosystems”.
One of the points made in the closing plenary was that these extraordinary stories of nature’s restoration, which inspire people to participate in ‘doing their bit’ are far too rarely told compared to disaster stories which cause people to give up.
What do I hope the Forum will achieve? One small hope of mine is it might provoke the venue, the Edinburgh International Conference Centre, to consider its natural capital management – especially if the Forum takes place there for the third time in 2017. I walk through its environs almost every day and always imagine what it could be like if the piazzas were ‘de-paved’, with more trees, wild-flower beds and flowering shrubs humming with pollinators and birds and soaking up the perpetual puddles which block my path.
I also noticed the EICC lights were halogen, tangibly warming the rooms beneath: when we calculated the energy savings of switching from halogen to LED’s at St John’s Church just around the corner, we found the payback time was so short that the replacement was made instantly. I did, however, love the EICC’s classy tap-water dispensers which I hope appear at all conferences not just sustainability ones — although as someone pointed out, you could make havoc with a bottle of vodka…
I had one reflection as a historian. Most references to “the current system”, our capitalist economy, seemed to assume that it was the problem, an unprecedented new curse creating an unprecedented new crisis. This was the implication of the speaker from the Netherlands, when he put up an image (below) of the charter of the first (Dutch) commercial company in 1606, commenting that this model of business which separates money and ideals was no longer sufficient.
But one speaker gave a different narrative. Every civilisation in human history has met with the fate we face: they over-reached their natural resources and collapsed. The only unprecedented thing about our predicament is that our civilisation is planetary. People nodded sagely at both these narratives, but they conflict. Moreover, the second narrative (which I find much more historically satisfactory) challenges the oft-repeated idea that “traditional cultures” can provide alternative models of human existence we can use. They are not civilisations; and whether we like it or not, we are. Our challenge is to be the first civilisation in history not to destroy itself.
I put this to Nicky Chambers in the final coffee break, and she said, “As a biologist, I’d go further: the challenge is, can we do better than yeast?” The environmental crisis is not just a crisis of civilisation: it is a crisis of humanity. We are at the point where we prove whether we are, or aren’t, in any way more intelligent or moral than yeast, eating up its food source until it runs out and dies. At the World Forum on Natural Capital, every mind was focused on demonstrating that we are.
I hope to hear more reflections, plans, and outcomes of the World Forum on Natural Capital. “I insist you go out of these doors as a leader”, said Jonny Hughes in the final plenary. If the 500+ delegates (not to mention us volunteers) took that insistence to heart, armed with the information and connections we made in the last two days — well, I always said I believed in miracles.
I thought I was well-informed about Scottish fishing issues, a subject I first encountered in long “Church and Nation” reports at the Church of Scotland General Assembly, agonising about the state of Scottish coastal parishes. Earlier this year I discovered the excellent visitor interpretation at FSC Millport, which highlights the impact of scallop dredging on the delicate ecosystems of the Firth of Clyde estuary, and lets you practice sustainable hand-diving of scuttling scallops in big Belfast sinks.
However, I felt much better briefed after the Landward special, which discusses the similar conflict between trawlers and creelers fishing prawns off the west coast of Scotland. It is in-depth and impartial, exploring the interrelations between sustainability, economics and human communities.
The most important thing I learned was that in the nineteenth century a three-mile limit on trawling in inshore waters was established to conserve fisheries, regulation removed by the Thatcher government in 1984.
It also made me look again at a picture on my wall, painted around 1980 by my grandmother Margaret Jackson who was inspired by the Scottish artist Lowry.
It depicts a Scottish fishing community, although it is not on the west coast, but North Berwick, on the east. It’s based on a real scene, although there is not a little dash of fantasy. I believe that may be myself, being pushed in a buggy by my mum in red trousers.
Although the harbour is busy, the fishing industry seems to be struggling. One of the fishermen has retired to take tourist excursions to the Bass Rock. The boat in the foreground, which seems to be a trawler, has caught some rare bycatch. The little boats on the right, which look busy and businesslike, are perhaps creelers, enjoying the last few years of protected fishing.
Perhaps this fantasy scene of pipe-bands and mermaids does not add much to our understanding of the “prawn wars”. But, painted at a crucial moment in the history of Scottish fishing, it captures the entanglement of economics, employment, environment, tourism, history, and romance which form the human ecosystem of the Scottish coast.
Thank you, Landward, for making the picture so much more interesting.
He bringeth the wind out of his treasuries. Psalm 135 v.7
I have an innate suspicion of novel environmental technologies. Too often they seem to be an excuse for inaction: nuclear fusion or carbon capture and storage lurk just around the corner, their concepts inexplicable to the educated general reader (me), giving us the small excuse we need to fail to plant trees, to fail to insulate our loft.
So when in a Friends of the Earth debate yesterday Paul Allen, head of Zero Carbon Britain mentioned something called “syngas” as a key component of his proposal for a Zero Carbon Edinburgh, I was not going to take it on trust.
The concept is simple: on a windy Scottish day when electricity from turbines threatens to overwhelm the grid (the mountainous blue ‘surplus’ in the graphic below), switch on a syngas plant; use the electricity to convert water and carbon dioxide into methane; and fill up the nation’s gas holders. Even I understand the chemistry of that. A similar process can also make liquid vehicle fuel.
It sounded too simple. Why isn’t it being done already? A couple of us in the audience pressed him, but the debate was heading in a different direction. So today, with the help of the Centre for Environmental Change and Human Resilience in Dundee, I did a bit of investigation.
Perhaps it’s too inefficient? Perhaps a whole windfarm in a gale would only heat one boiler in a draughty Victorian villa? But no, Wikipedia helpfully informs me, the conversion rate is 50-60% efficiency, far greater than the “efficient” gas turbine power stations, which achieve less than 40% making the conversion in the other direction.
That wasted electricity could create significant quantities of gas, from atmospheric CO2.
So why does every big wind farm not have a power-to-gas facility, so that instead of seeing half their turbines switched off on a windy day so as not to overload the grid, we would see a gas holder filling up?
The brain-sprain for traditional energy economics is: electricity is inefficient and expensive, fossil gas is inexpensive and efficient, so who in their right mind would take hard-won electricity and turn it into gas? We use gas to make electricity! It’s like spinning gold into straw! But this is the economics of the fossil economy.
In the climate change economy, the fossil gas must stay in the ground, at any cost. And in the renewables economy, heaps of electricity is free: that big blue surplus. It’s wasted; is is not even created: the wind turbine stands idle.
But once this brain-sprain is overcome there is a more specific economic barrier. Feed-in tariffs have been vital in creating investment in renewables infrastructure. They have worked by guaranteeing a steady income to renewables generators even when the grid doesn’t need it. This has been great for investment in renewables, but when power-to-gas came on the scene, there was no incentive for wind farmers to invest in such technology, because you were still paid for keeping your turbine switched off.
Make the feed-in tariff for large new wind-farms contingent on including a power-to-gas facility, and the economic problem is solved.
But it takes more than technological and economic theory to get a new environmental technology working. There’s the politics.
People object enough to wind farms. Think what they’ll say if they become wind farms with gas holders!
People come to expect subsidies. What will investors do if they have new conditions attached?
Yet what are the alternatives? Will fracking fossil gas, to generate electricity when the wind is not blowing, be more politically popular? I am delighted to say it will not, and I will be as opposed as anyone. The fossil carbon must stay in the ground. Incentivising North Sea Oil? This has iconic Scottish status, but as an energy source it is just as finite, and more importantly just as environmentally disastrous.
On the contrary, doesn’t the possibility of developing a power-to-gas and offshore wind offer a superb opportunity to transform the north of Scotland from an oil dinosaur into a world-leading renewables powerhouse? Aberdeen a granite rival to Dubai in embracing new, sustainable energy technologies? Much of the expertise and infrastructure used in the north sea oil industry — such as platforms, and getting to them — are transferable.
The political barriers are small. The political advantages of power-to-gas in a renewables economy — for economic boost, for an iconic Scottish industry, for social justice for the oil workforce, for the environment — are so enormous that I don’t know whether the Conservatives, SNP, Labour or Greens should be most excited by it.
By far the biggest barrier to environmental change is the cultural one. Nobody has yet found an ethical way to change a society’s behaviour. Yet this is where power-to-gas is the biggest winner.
The big problem with many renewables scenarios is they involve transformation of our personal infrastructure: electric heating, electric cars, smart-grids that charge us a premium for doing our laundry on non-windy days. If our aim is a speedy transition to zero carbon Edinburgh, or Scotland, or Britain, what hope do we have of persuading everyone to replace their central heating, buy a different type of car, when we cannot even get the nation’s lofts properly insulated?
But with power-to-gas this is not necessary. Our old friend, gas (ah, that nice blue flame), comes into our boilers and our cookers via a carbon-neutral cycle, synthesised by the power of wind. Our transport can still run, not on acres of valuable land intensively farmed for biofuel, but on fuel synthesised by wind. Our heritage streets can be lit with gaslight, if we like.
And for that matter — it’s easy to forget this sometimes occurs around here — it also works with solar, on those days when we aren’t using any electricity at all because we are all outside, basking.
I am no expert. I only heard of power-to-gas yesterday. There may well be important disadvantages or barriers to using surplus renewable electricity to synthesise methane from water and carbon dioxide, which I have not discovered. I would be grateful to hear if you know of them, so that I can update this article.
But there are also times when, in the cataclysm of lobbying, interests, campaigns, partial views, it is simply that no-one has yet put together the jigsaw of technology, economics, politics and culture together to see the workable policy.
I’ve tried to put that jigsaw together. This article gives some more detail on the technology and the economic issues. The zero-carbon Britain project would be the people to contact for further advice.
My aim is simply to inspire policymakers, investors, you noisy lot in our little Scottish public sphere, to investigate it further, and see where it might go.
Treasuries for the Wind? The old Granton gasworks, Edinburgh, drawn by Ian Lutton (http://www.grantonhistory.org/industry/gas_works.htm)