‘We could still prevent climate change’

Today New Scientist published seven reasons Climate Change is worse than we thought. It makes depressing reading. Most of us want to believe that humanity has the capacity to fix the problems we created and put our civilization on a sustainable footing; yet it is increasingly clear that our democratic, capitalist processes, so adept at producing economic growth, are completely incapable of meeting this challenge.

In theory, I think the human race could save its civilization, but we’d have to start now. We have newly appointed leaders in the US and China so maybe now’s our chance. Here’s my manifesto for what they’d need to do:

1. All human rights to remain respected at all times during this process, with the single exception of the temporary suspension of democratic processes.

2. For five years from today, the leaders of China, USA, EU, India and Brazil, African states and other countries as appropriate to form a united `climate cabinet’ to restructure the global economy on a sustainable footing. Democratic processes will be suspended for this period. Opposition to this process will be illegal, and persistent objectors may be humanely detained.

3. All fossil fuel supplies to be requisitioned by the climate cabinet and distributed as necessary until transition to a fossil-free economy is complete.

4. Armed forces to protect forests and other natural areas from black-market exploitation.

5. The global construction industry to be conscripted to:
a. convert global housing stock to be carbon neutral and electricity generating.
b. install desert solar panels and a network under-sea cables sufficient to meet global electricity needs.

6. Global food production to be requisitioned and fairly distributed by rationing. Individuals to be encouraged to supplement supplies by growing their own.

7. Global medical resources to be requisitioned to provide immediate and comprehensive contraception and family planning advice to every woman in the world.

8. A global `land army’ to implement a comprehensive programme of habitat restoration, tree planting etc.

9. Safe methods of carbon capture and storage to be implemented.

10. On 20 November 2022 existing constitutional law to be restored and all detainees released.

11. Capitalist economics will thereafter be allowed to develop the re-structured economy (for example, to complete the electrification of transport which will be required following the ban on fossil fuels), although certain regulations will remain in place including:
a. A global ban (cf. CFCs) on the burning of fossil fuels; their other uses to be carefully regulated.
b. Protected natural areas to remain unexploited.
A United Nations environmental police force to remain in place to enforce these regulations.

Well, you say, that will never happen! You will give me twenty good political and economic reasons why such a programme is unfeasible, impractical and impossible. You may be right: in that case I’d say we have perhaps ten to twenty years of this global civilization of ours left; in which case, seize the day, put your trust in God, and spend your pension.

By all means let us keep our faith in humanity, let’s discuss what we must do, and let’s work out how we can do it. But let’s do it honestly, using the facts at our command truthfully, and being honest about what a `massive global effort’ really means. The time for vague talk of `political will’ and `technological solutions soon to be developed’ is long past, and it would be a shame if we wasted the last years of our history in such discussions.

Put on Sackcloth

Fractal Time

Human beings are bad at judging scale. ‘I could just run up there,’ I think, contemplating the tempting green slope of a shapely mountain: an hour later, plodding over rock and heather, I realise how distorted my perspective was.

History is the same. Biologists, speaking of evolution and extinction of species; geologists, speaking of tectonic plates and the creation of rocks; astronomers, speaking of star formation, all construct chronologies which look very similar to the chronologies I, a historian, construct of the development of the New Town of Edinburgh: important events, long trends, and generalised details in between.

Yet the generalisations of one are the detailed chronology of another. Time (our various chronologies) and space (my underestimated mountain) tend to be structured fractally: the detail looks very similar to the big picture. The best way to understand this is to dive into the Mandelbrot set. The detail of this mathematically-defined shape is unlimited, and repetitive: the original lumpy shape keeps turning up in the infinitesimal threads which spun out of it:

If you want more control over your exploration of the Mandelbrot set, have a play with this interactive version

It’s a mathematical construct, but it’s also a deep insight into the way nature is constructed.

Important Events

While scientists and mathematicians have taught us a huge amount about these great timescales of Earth’s history — extinctions, tectonics, climate shifts — we have not experienced any of it.

This graph shows marine extinction intensity through time: the coloured letters at the top are geological era, the figures at the bottom millions of years. The spike marking the end of the ‘K’ era (Cretaceous) and the beginning of ‘Pg’ (Paleogene) is the disappearance of the dinosaurs, 65.5 million years ago. Our genus Homo evolved 2.3 million years ago, the last tenth of the 50-0 division on the graph. Homo Sapiens around 250 thousand years ago, the last twohundredth of that last division. You would have to zoom a long way into that graph, as you zoomed into the Mandelbrot Set, to find the significant events of my history research — or the significant events on your facebook timeline. Yet, like the Mandelbrot set, they’re all on one line: the History of the Earth.

You will quickly perceive that it is statistically very unlikely for a human being to witness a mass extinction event. All the generations of humanity that ever lived are encompassed in that smudge at the end of the graph, where the extinction rate happens to be very low. The typical human need not fear that the earth they inhabit will be disrupted by events from the bigger chronologies.

Stastistically unlikely. Yet we are not dropped at random into the timeline of human history: we are at the end of it, living it forwards; and the scientific consensus is that a mass extinction event, caused by human activity, is likely to occur in our lifetimes:

We now face losing marine species and entire marine ecosystems, such as coral reefs, within a single generation. Unless action is taken now, the consequences of our activities are at high risk of causing, through the combined effects of climate change, overexploitation, pollution and habitat loss, the next globally significant extinction event in the ocean. It is notable that the occurrence of muliple high intensity stressors has been a pre-requisite for all the five global extinction events of the past 600 million years. (Summary of the conclusions and recommendations of the international Earth system expert workshop on ocean stresses and impacts, 20 June 2011)

Ocean biodiversity may seem rather abstract to us land-based creatures, but it is the indicator biologists use to measure the health of life on earth, on which we clearly depend for our survival. Have you ever been faced with the question ‘Where will my next meal come from?’ I am lucky enough that I never have: perhaps you have, but in generally it will be an unusual situation for readers of this blog. Our civilization is based on the highly efficient farming of animals and crops, requiring a stable climate, a reliable water supply, pollinating insects, genetic diversity, oil, mined phosphates — all of which are critically under threat, running short, or (in the case of oil) compounding the problem.

This Financial Times article explores the disastrous consequences of the unseasonable drought in the US for food prices; while the wet weather in Britain threatens disastrous levels of disease. If such unstable weather patterns become, as is predicted, typical of higher carbon-dioxide levels in the atmosphere, then it is easy to see how yields will fall, the question ‘where will our next meal come from?’ will occupy more and more political and personal attention, and ‘there is no next meal’ will be the final answer for more and more of the poorest on this planet — not in future generations, but in forthcoming decades.

What did you have planned for future decades? I was planning to write great books, travel more, sing, form deep friendships and have exciting love affairs. I’m in my prime, healthy, educated, and ready to live life to the full. I want to keep my human timeline safely within the unimportant detail of the biological and geological timelines. I am not interested in an apocalypse.

But… but… I can’t live other than by this maxim:

The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to /see/ something, and tell what it /saw/ in a plain way. Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think, but thousands can think for one who can see. To see clearly is poetry, prophecy and religion — all in one. (John Ruskin, Modern Painters, pt.4 ch.16 para.28)

All I can do is tell what I see.

 

Apocalypse

A mass extinction event, within a generation and caused by us. It could not have been predicted two hundred years ago, when the man I envy most in history, Henry Cockburn, could write this from his house here in Edinburgh:

My hope is in the ultimate force of truth, reason and common interest. By these I hope for a union of all wise and good men in the common cause… till by the correction of evils or abuses, even the lower orders may be interested in the preservation of their privileges and more acknowledged rights… International rights and intercourse growing and more respected every day! The press making the world one audience, capable of receiving at once whatever instruction wisdom may have to give, or whatever feeling virtue may have to inspire! Our sons may see the fulfilment of these glorious things. Happy are we who have been permitted to ‘scent the morning air’. (Henry Cockburn to Sir Thomas Dick Lauder, 30 December 1830)

Who amongst us writes about the life of the generations ahead of us? What would we write if we did? We are too terrified to acknowledge our terror. Most of us scramble to participate in collective events to reassure us that the global community is OK: the Jubilee, the Tour de France, the Olympics, Harry Potter, Fifty Shades of Grey. The courageous and dedicated, ready to face their fears and find solutions, scorn such escapism and pour the best of their resources and abilities into solving the global economic crisis and into seeking ways to direct the Arab Spring towards flourishing democracy. The wise and enlightened work to remedy the lingering injustices that corrupt our societies: gun crime, homophobia, oppression of women, child poverty, financial scandal. The sensible disengage from the global perspective altogether and seek to live harmlessly on our little spot on earth: with real friends, a vegetable garden, creative interests. The environmentalists continue to talk in terms of solving the problem: successful conservation efforts, achievable international agreements, little actions you can take which add up to global solutions. It is the only way they know to ‘sell’ their message; but increasingly the ‘achievable solutions’ are so blatantly unachievable that they are merely an extra screen to help them shield them from the truth. Here’s a great example, by myself a few years ago, depicting a ‘green’ lifestyle:

Living in an Age of Mass Extinction

It is likely that (unless we are killed off early in the process) the rest of our lives will be spent watching the collapse of life on earth, and the collapse of human civilization. It’s fairly likely the adaptable Homo Sapiens will survive the experience, just as Inca genes probably survive somewhere in the population of South America, but I’m certain that almost all our culture won’t. To me this is a spiritual problem. I can deal with my own mortality — knowing that the things which made my life worth living don’t die with me: love, poetry, music, larks, literature, laughter, Christmas, harebells, history conferences, discussions about the meaning of life which last until two in the morning. It’s that reassurance that I’ve been denied.

What I see terrifies me.

For a start, it’s a very lonely experience, because no-one else is talking about this. Am I in fact wrong and insane? — a far less terrifying prospect than the possibility of being right. But suppose I’m not insane? Suppose I’m talking sense, and you’ve read this and followed my thought process. Now you are terrified too. Here we are, enlightened, rational, educated, sensible people, starting to think in terms akin to the more ridiculous of history’s religious apocalyptic movements, terrified.

What do we do?

Well — I’m not sure. I have tried to see things clearly, and I’ve tried to tell you what I’ve seen. The two responses I’ve generally had when discussing this are either ‘I don’t think it’s as bad as you make out’, and ‘right then, let’s work out how to fix this’. If you are inclined to give the first response, I would like you do a bit of research and back it up by evidence please, as my argument is. If you’re inclined to give the second, I’d suggest we’re too late: we can’t fix it, because we are seeing the beginning of consequences of damage already done.

It is noticeable how the advice of the scientific community has moved from ‘averting dangerous climate change’ to ‘adapting to climate change’. This is one perhaps valid approach, which will appeal to all of you who need to be doing something active, and I suggest you start your studies at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, who have recently published a special report on this topic.

However, I am pessimistic about the possibility of action. All the important indicators — burning fossil fuel, global population growth, biodiversity loss — continue to accellerate. The fact that oil companies are likely to start drilling in areas made accessible by the retreat of Arctic ice due to climate change is symptomatic of how we are not changing. The global consensus and transformation of priorities required at every level of policymaking and personal decision making is too enormous. We imagine that it is fairly easy to bring the world to one mind, because the world all collectively said ‘Ahhh!’ when Will and Kate got married. But that is a very different thing from being prepared to change our lifestyle completely. If you are for action, are you prepared to lead the way? Reduce your environmental footprint to 15 hectares?

The story I keep coming back to is one which has had little relevance in our enlightened civilization: the ancient Jewish story of Jonah* (Please refer to footnotes if you are troubled by the religious turn in this article) Once all that whale saga is out of the way, the story continues in the bald narrative characteristic of old texts:

Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh. He began by going a day’s journey into the city, proclaiming, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth. 

When Jonah’s warning reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. This is the proclamation he issued in Nineveh: 

“By the decree of the king and his nobles: 

Do not let people or animals, herds or flocks, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. But let people and animals be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.” 

When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.

The fictional people and King of Nineveh faced catastrophe, just as we do. The important thing to realise is that they knew they were completely powerless to stop it — just as we are — and being powerless was just as horrible and terrifying for them as it is for us. Jonah told them ‘Nineveh will be overthrown’, not ‘Unless you change your ways, Nineveh will be overthrown’. They didn’t dress in sackcloth and fast because they thought it would work, but because faced with the knowledge of their certain imminent extinction due to their own fault, repentence and mourning was the only possible response. And once they had stopped everything they were doing, and truthfully faced the enormity of the disaster they had brought upon themselves, they unexpectedly found a glimmer of hope.

We don’t really do mourning and repentance in our culture: we do action and fixing — but that is how the Nineveh is depicted too. They weren’t fasting at the drop of a hat, like the godly commonwealth of seventeenth century Scotland: they were much more like us. Mourning and repentance wasn’t ‘their thing’, but faced with Jonah’s news, they couldn’t do anything else.

Mourning and repentance is my response to this situation, which sounds like more completely counter-cultural lunacy than saying that environmental disaster is upon us. ‘Don’t beat yourself up with guilt, but look forward, become the person you wish to be!’ my religious traditions tell me, as they campaign optimistically for gay marriage and women bishops. No, I reply: you have two thousand or more years of tradition behind you, but you have forgotten it, and live in the paradigm of the beautiful new humanist myth of the happy Henry Cockburn: ‘My hope is in the ultimate force of truth, reason and common interest… Our sons may see the fulfilment of these glorious things…’

In fact, ‘our activities are at high risk of causing the next globally significant extinction event‘. I think we need to mourn, I think we need to repent: I think doing so will mess up our lives monumentally (Sackcloth??), but I think our lives are going to get messed up soon anyway. And then once we’ve stopped, and mourned, and repented, then I think we need to ask, how do we live well in the face of environmental catastrophe? Most writing about ethics we hear is consequentialist: ‘The US must tackle gun laws because 32 people are murdered with a gun each day’. More foolishly, much that masquerades as virtuous and grand is about pride: ‘We are proud to be Scottish’, for example. Consequentialism and pride, which form so much of our ordinary moral compass, are meaningless in the face of environmental catastrophe.

Yet things like compassion, generosity, hospitality, humility, mercy — the more curious and inexplicable virtues, the ones which appear in stories of the guillotine or the gas chamber — they seem to ring more true to me than they ever did as I contemplated enjoying my prime like an enlightened Jean Brodie. When the destruction of all our loves and hopes and longings is just a blip buried deep in the fractal timeline of the universe, I think I want to know that humanity encountered the catastrophe in a way that gave it a little transcendence.

Put on sackcloth.

And when the last and dreadful hour
This crumbling pageant shall devour
The trumpet shall be heard on high,
The dead shall live, the living die,
And music shall untune the sky.
John Dryden, 1687.

Notes

* The non-religious amongst you needn’t worry that all that miraculous whale business seems unlikely: whereas some Biblical characters like Jeremiah are semi-historical, I don’t think Jonah was ever intended to have been thought real: they are like Thomas a Becket and Robin Hood in our own history: one real, but surrounded by legend, the other fictional, but highlighting important aspects of the society which dreamed him up. If you don’t like ‘God’ please interpret the word in as unreligious a way as you like: my own understanding of ‘God’ is more of a ‘collective life force’ — the sum of the consciousness of biosphere and civilization — and therefore facing just as bleak a future as the rest of us. ‘God’ as I understand the word does have a sort of mysterious transcendence which we encounter in our more spiritual moments, but no ‘external existence’. I’m not sure if that explanation will put off my religious or secular readers more quickly — but I would remind you that we are facing imminent catastrophe, and this is not the time or place for arguing about definitions of ‘God’. ‘Let everyone stop and think clearly about what we are facing: who knows, maybe by doing this we will start to find a way through’ might be a secular rephrasing of the King of Nineveh’s command.

**I’m addressing religions not to the exclusion of the non-religious, but because their purpose is to proclaim the truth and advise on how to act accordingly, and that’s what I’m attempting to do too; and because it’s a constituency I’m familiar with, who are likely to form a large proportion of my readership, and who might be most likely to understand what I’m getting at.

Creationtide: Year of Forests

Here are the Intercessions I wrote for St John’s Church on the first Sunday of Creationtide (which runs from now until 10 October), marking International Year of Forests. You’re welcome to make use of these in your church or other contexts: please leave a comment to let me know.

Father, root of our being; Jesus, apple tree in us,
Spirit, oxygen in us: One tree of life, our salvation, hear us.

Root of existence, life from whom all life has sprung, now ground us.
Fashion humanity new in your ancient image: gardeners
nurturing, cherishing, planting the woods of the future. Fill it a-
gain with mercy, compassion, humility, grace, love, justice. As
spring in the earth brings forth her bud, bring forth your righteousness
over the nations.  Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.

Tree of life among us, laden with fruit and green, of the
stem of Jesse, nourish your Church that we may be fruitful.
Drive out with heaven’s abundance the idol of wealth that cheats us with
scarcity, makes us efficient with greed and careless of justice:
Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.

Oxygen, life-breath, stirring, sustaining, rekindling hope now,
heal our brothers and sisters in need, despair or in sickness.
So as the natural tree by light makes the poisoned air healthy, for
fears by your grace all-divine we receive back hope. In the silence we
breathe them to you ……………………………………………………………………
………………………………………………….Lord in your mercy Hear our prayer.

Father, root of our being, ground us,
Jesus, apple tree with us, redeem us,
Spirit, again photosynthesised here to sustain us,
Make us planters of trees and proclaimers of you.

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Rocks, stars, and souls

Today the Guardian reported that “Greenhouse gas emissions increased by a record amount last year, to the highest carbon output in history, putting hopes of holding global warming to safe levels all but out of reach, according to unpublished estimates from the International Energy Agency.” The complete article is well worth reading.

What are the practical implications of this? It means things are very bad indeed. It means that the people whose knowledge we trust the most, sensible scientists, reaching the most balanced conclusions, are making predictions which make the preachings of the crazier apocolyptic religions appear mild. It means your grandchildren’s lives will almost certainly be badly blighted. Your own life probably will be too.

What are the moral implications of this? It is that we (you and I) are collectively colluding in a holocaust many times worse than that of Nazi Germany. Like the people of Nazi Germany, we did not consciously choose it, but we bear the guilt nevertheless. Unlike them, we have no wicked leader to blame: it is a truly collective crime. It is a horror so enormous that almost the only option is to ignore it: the courage required to face it is, I think, almost too great for human strength. People say to me, ‘If you feel so strongly, why don’t you spend all your time protesting and stuff?’ The answer is, because I don’t have the strength. It would literally send me mad, and that would be messy.

What are the spiritual implications of this? Belief-systems promise happiness. Evangelical Christianity promises heaven when you die if you put your faith in Jesus. Secular liberal democracy promises happiness through freedom and prosperity. The liberal Christianity I have grown up in promises happiness through the promotion social justice, ‘God’s kingdom on earth’. All of these belief systems had much that was valuable in them. But the situation we face today shows all these belief-systems are now utterly bankrupt. If there is a ‘heaven’, our utter failure to even to face what our ‘sins’ are, let alone ‘repent’ of them or ‘turn to Christ’ ensures none of us will be going there. The secular utopia of liberal democracy has failed, because its own prophets, the scientists, are warning that the future holds not wealth and freedom, but poverty and war. The liberal Christianity, which preached that with God’s help we could build a fairer, more sustainable world, has proved itself to be the biggest pie in the sky of all. God hasn’t helped (I leave it to you to decide why!) and we were too weak.

Are there any glimmers of comfort? Well — if you take the perspective of geological time, the catastrophic climate change and mass extinction of the 21st century will be a very minor event. If you take the perspective of the universe, the events on one small planet is equally trivial. And if you look candidly at your own life or any other individual’s, with their days and years, joys and sorrows, there are in fact a million things which add or subtract to its happiness other than health, wealth or security, and the one certainty is that it will come to an end.

But if you value your soul, if the poor derided citizens of Nazi Germany have taught us anything, don’t hide. Most of us don’t want to be heroes or villains, we want to be ordinary members of the chorus, living little quiet lives (I want to write history books and novels, and sing and draw. The last thing I want to be is an environmental campaigner. For one thing, I’m dreadful at it.) But living quietly isn’t an option: not to be a hero, is to be a villain, like all those other villains of history who kept quiet in the face of gas chambers, guillotines, African slavery, or whatever it was. So screw up your courage, and find your way to be heroic.

Open your eyes. Find out the facts and face the reality of our situation. Look at the rocks and look at the stars. Understand what happiness really is. Act accordingly.

Ruskin’s Moss

Walking between amongst the stone walls and old trees of the Lake District this weekend I was trying to recall John Ruskin’s description of moss. I think it’s the most beautiful piece of descriptive writing I’ve ever found, so here it is, so I have it to hand when I have time to illustrate it, or learn it by heart: 

Mosses– Meek creatures! the first mercy of the earth, veiling with hushed softness its dintless rocks; creatures full of pity, covering with strange and tender honour the scarred disgrace of ruin, laying quiet finger on the trembling stones to teach them rest. No words, that I know of, will say what these mosses are. None are delicate enough, none perfect enough, none rich enough. How is one to tell of the rounded bosses of furred and beaming green, — the starred divisions of rubied bloom, fine-filmed, as if the rock spirits could spin porphyry as we do glass, — the traceries of intricate silver, and fringes of amber, lustrous, arborescent, burnished through every fibre into fitful brightness and glossy traverses of silken change, yet all subdued and pensive, and framed for simplest, sweetest offices of grace? They will not be gathered, like the flowers, for chaplet, or love-token; but of these the wild bird will make its nest, and the wearied child his pillow.

And as the earth’s first mercy, so they are its last gift to us: when all other service is vain, from plant and tree, the soft mosses and gray lichen take up their watch by the headstone. The woods, the blossoms, the gift-bearing grasses, have done their parts for a time; but these do service for ever. Trees for the builder’s yard, flowers for the bride’s chamber, corn for the granary, moss for the grave.  — John Ruskin, Frondes Agrestes 59.

The St John’s Garden

newsign4

St John’s Church at the West End of Edinburgh have just completed a major project to improve and open up their historic and beautiful graveyard. They asked me to provide an illustration for a new interpretative sign. It’s the cherry on the cake of all the work of tree-felling, planting, path-building and monument restoration which has been going on in the background.

graveyard-panel-smallMy illustration was beautifully put together with the information on the history and facilities of the site by graphic designer Peter Blood from The Osprey Company, www.ospreyco.com, who provided the signboard itself. If you want a sign, we’ve made a good team and would love to work together again!

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The sign was unveiled at a special ceremony with the Bishop of Edinburgh (the guy in the pink frock…) The unveiling is being done by historian Angus Mitchell, who knows more about the people buried in the churchyard than anyone. (I’m hot on his heels, however, because the people in the graveyard are some of the subject of my history PhD which you can read about here).

The sign is on the Terrace down the steps from Lothian Road — drop in and have a look if you’re in Edinburgh!

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