Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Climate Carnivals

Here are photos of the banner I've made for tomorrow's protests.
The front:

The back:

I tried to make the message positive and covered the cardboard with some used wrapping paper, hoping that the image looks attractive enough to give a good (non-aggressive) impression of protesters in general and us in particular!

The press for tomorrow's G20 climate camp has been full of hype about confrontation that is most probably being spread to deter peaceful campaigners. For me the message about climate change is too urgent to allow those who would rather we quietly accepted their ways of running things to distract us. There will be lots of activity in London and disparate interest groups. Personally, I'm not with the anarchists so there are two events of interest:
The climate camp. This is a great forum for showing serious engagement with climate issues. Previous camps were really well run, based on beautifully democratic processes and including many well informed workshops and talks.
Campaign against Climate Change will be demonstrating outside the ExCel centre. This hasn't been well publicised but should send a clear message focussed on science that indicates we face emergency now.

I'm hoping to make it back on Thursday in time for a talk here in Oxford called Writing For Change that asks: Why has the artistic and particularly the written response to climate change been so muted? Is a new self-awareness going to be motivated more by fiction than by the writing of activists or is this not the role of the writer? 

Saturday, 28 March 2009

Will stopping climate change create utopia?

Earlier this week I went to a Transition Oxford workshop entitled Utopia or Apocalypse? It got me wondering about the role of these two concepts in thinking about the future and living in the present. Our workshop began by two people acting out personal visions of the future. A woman saw a world in which the few people left lived in a state of fear, monitored at all times through biochips. A man acted a scenario in which people lived in equality, shared resources and welcomed clean technologies. Curiously the two worlds could have been the same one since enforcing equality would for many produce a dystopia.

In the discussion these scenarios generated many people welcomed utopian visions as moments in which our imagination is allowed to play, to envisage alternative futures that may empower us to create those alternatives. Others were concerned that pushing stories about radical changes in the way we live would actually alienate many people who distrust change. A comment I found particularly useful suggested that instead of trying to construct a plan of what a complete successful society would look like we should try to imagine what our lives would be within a successful society and then try to live those lives.

While we do need to know what policies we’d like to see our government implement to fight climate change I’m suspicious about utopian thinking because of its potential to be oppressive and total. I would prefer us to have a clear idea of what the problem is (climate change), what causes the problems (dependency upon vanishing oil reserves etc.), and how we should solve them (contraction and convergence etc.). Happily, this message does not require me to sell anyone the ‘ideal’ of living in a yurt in Cornwall.

This is not just a pragmatic point that recognises campaigners need to compromise over ideals for the future on account of this issue’s urgency. Visions of utopia and apocalypse present an end to history. John Gray has shown how deeply embedded this idea is in religious thinking (especially in Judeo-Christian ideas about the Messianic age) and in totalitarian ideologies (Communism and Fascism). In Black Mass he argues that the concept of utopia is based upon a misconception about human nature: that we can bring history to an end because people are perfectible. This makes me wonder how deeply talking about utopia and apocalypse can galvanise us if they focus upon a finished state.

Maybe at best the appeal of dys/utopias as stories can make them a useful tool. I went to see The Age of Stupid again last night and its apocalyptic vision was just as powerful and moving the second time. But when it finished there was a question and answer session and the second question asked was ‘What can we do?’ Did the film really leave that unanswered? If so that may have been a response to the (lightly sketched) apocalyptic vision, which could feel disabling.

In fact there is no shortage of answers to the question ‘What can we do?’ Many clever people have written clever plans (examples here, here and here), and inside most of people know what they personally can do. The Age of Stupid is important because it expresses the urgency of the task faced right now and it might counter some of the apathy that easily takes hold in relation to climate change. But I felt the best thing about it is the way the documentary shows how modern lives are painfully entangled within systems destroying other people, the biosphere and ourselves. This implies that, rather than handing history over to the huge narratives (from apocalypse to economic growth), what matters is that we take possession of what’s happening now and our role within it. Slavery abolitionists, suffragettes, the Allied armies and civil rights activists did not create utopias. I increasingly suspect that focus was crucial to those successful campaigns and will be to the campaign against climate change.

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Listening out for cuckoos this April?

This is a quick post to link to a great article by Mike McCarthy in The Independent about the disappearance of the cuckoo and other summer migrants from our woods in spring and summer. According to surveys by the British Trust for Ornithology and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds between 1994 and 2007, 37 per cent of our cuckoos disappeared. Add to this:
41 per cent of our swifts
47 per cent of our yellow wagtails
54 per cent of our pied flycatchers
59 per cent of our spotted flycatchers
60 per cent of our nightingales
66 per cent of our turtle doves
67 per cent of our wood warblers
All these birds are summer visitors and their problems seem to be caused by two major factors: pesticide use is causing huge declines in insect numbers along their migration routes while climate change is bringing insects out earlier so the birds are not in the right places to eat them at the right times, i.e. the earth's meteorological and ecological rhythms are shifting out of balance. 

McCarthy points out the cultural role these birds have played in England, something I'm often reminded of as when asked about my research area about one in three people respond to hearing I work on medieval song by saying, 'Oh, like 'Sumer is icumen in''. As is obviously well known this thirteenth-century song welcomes spring with the cuckoo's song and other natural raucousness:

Sumer is icumen in,
Lhude sing cuccu!
Groweth sed and bloweþ med
And springeth þe wode nu,
Sing cuccu!
Awe bleteth after lomb,
Lhouþ after calue cu.
Bulluc sterteth, bucke uerteth,
Murie sing cuccu!
Cuccu, cuccu, wel singes þu cuccu;
Ne swik thu nauer nu.
Sing cuccu nu. Sing cuccu.
Sing cuccu. Sing cuccu nu!

McCarthy concludes: 'here we have one of the world's profoundest motions, a living announcement of spring, coming to an end. We have grown used to wildlife losses, but it will be far more than the loss of a species to say goodbye to the cuckoo, and to bid farewell to its fellow summer visitors, as we are now on course to do sooner rather than later. It will be something so momentous in its implications that perhaps it is better not to think it through.'

I expect, however, he does want us to think through those implications.

Monday, 23 March 2009

Wytham Woods in March

I went to Wytham Woods today hoping to see the hazel catkins. Some were still on the trees but I was too late – most lay on the ground and I only saw a few female flowers (tiny dark-red spines poking out from green buds). Hazels live in the semi-ancient part of the woods, once coppiced.

The way these trees grow in bundles gives the underwood a tangled appearance with a special beauty. The beech plantations are younger and more ordered. Last year’s leaves cover the ground giving it a lovely copper colour.

Today was quite windy and over in the Great Wood I filmed these sycamores swaying and clattering against each other. The trees looked especially animate (even entish) in these gusts.

Primroses flowered throughout the woods, taking their turn before the bluebells. Primroses always live in ‘guilds’ (a set of plant or animal species that share an ecological niche), especially with anemones, violets and bluebells. 
In Woodlands Oliver Rackham raises a question about this ecological pattern: ‘Why do guilds exist? Why does one best-adapted species – dog’s mercury, bramble, bracken – not always out-compete the others and take over the site? … Are guilds chance groupings of plants that happen to grow in the same environment, or are they plant ‘communities’ in a real sense, with mechanisms of integration between species?’ It might be assumed that we already know the answers to a question like this but instead the deeper into woodlands you look the more questions emerge.  

Friday, 20 March 2009

Save the Frogs

The red kite conservation programme posted about below is a reminder of how well efforts to protect threatened species can work. Amphibians are currently in special need of such care and their cause is being promoted by Save the Frogs Day (April 28th). The campaign tries to draw attention to the fact that amphibians are the most threatened group of animals on earth: nearly one-third of the world’s 6,435 amphibian species are threatened with extinction and at least 150 species have completely disappeared since 1979. This is the beginning of a mass extinction unmatched for this group in the fossil record.

Save the Frogs point out that amphibians play an important role in ecosystems, for example by cleaning waterways (as tadpoles) and eating pest species like mosquitoes that spread disease. It might help us to care more about amphibians to know that approximately 10% of Nobel prizes in physiology and medicine have resulted from investigations that used amphibians. These animals are often spoken of as important bio-indicators: their moist skins make them sensitive to environmental change and (according to Save the Frogs again) ‘their disappearance signifies the Earth’s environment is out of balance and portends potential negative consequences for humans’.

In my post about forests I questioned the rhetoric of ‘saving’ forests since they can’t actually be ‘saved’ – we can only avoid cutting them down. The same applies to ‘saving’ frogs. It is a clear slogan, sounds quite funny and is emotive at the same time. Perhaps what we’re really talking about is stopping killing frogs but this does sound rather negative and aggressive. If the campaign said ‘stop killing frogs’ this would puzzle many who would (reasonably?) feel that they don’t kill frogs.  At least ‘save’ suggests that frogs are something we should cherish. Still, I’m uncomfortable with it and would be interested to hear other views on this question. Religious language is often used within the conservation movement – is that something we should embrace as powerful or reject as misleading?

Back to the campaign for now: what is killing frogs and how can we ‘save’ them? Amphibians are affected by pollution, pesticides, habitat destruction, climate change, invasive species, infectious diseases, and over-harvesting for the pet, food and bait trades’. Habitat destruction is key, as is the spread of the chytrid fungus (often spread by human activity, especially along roads and other trade routes). Climate change appears to be strengthening the virulence of this disease. Here is the campaign’s list of what we should do:

This list is a little eccentric. Don’t eat frog’s legs and drive slower? They do give a fuller list on their website with lots of reasonable explanations and suggestions. Apparently Europeans alone consumed roughly 120 million frogs per year in the 1990's. So I’m not greatly empowered by this list since I've never eaten frog, don’t drive, don’t have a pond and don’t plan to become a herpetologist (which sounds a bit unpleasant). Here are my three suggestions for stopping killing frogs:

-   support campaigns to stop deforestation

-   work to keep climate change below 2C

-   spread the word about Save the Frogs day

Red kites

Every few days a pair of red kites circle over our house above the gardens and the park next to us. I’ve been trying to take a photograph of them but haven’t yet been successful in catching them close enough. This photo from the internet shows the bird’s red-brown stomach and the fingery feathers at their wing-ends. During the late nineteen century and the twentieth century these birds were brought close to extinction by poisoning but a reintroduction programme began in the 1980s. By 2003 there were around 625-675 breeding pairs in Britain. They have probably come into the edges of this urban area from the nearby Chilterns. The birds have an impressively majestic flight and are an encouraging reminder of the success of recent conservation efforts. 

Monday, 16 March 2009

The Age of Stupid

I went to the Age of Stupid premier yesterday, a documentary-film about climate change that asks, why is the human race committing suicide? Pete Postlethwaite acts an archivist in the year 2055 looking back at footage from 2008 to understand why at the start of the 21st century, when we knew what the consequences would be, we did not act to stop climate change. A series of documentaries are at the heart of the film: a young woman in Nigeria whose village has been polluted by Shell’s oil drilling, refugees from Iraq selling our discarded shoes in Jordan, an oil company geologist whose home was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, a businessman setting up a low-cost airline in India. The stories are presented without narration (we don’t hear any interviewers) but the contradictions in the individuals’ lives are powerfully felt. The geologist calls himself an ecologist. The Iraqi children whose father was killed in the war play shoot-out games in the street.


The footage from Nigeria was perhaps the most devastating. We see a ruined building that Shell had promised to build into a health centre in a village near their oil wells, but left to collapse as the villagers die of cholera and typhus; the polluted lake that no longer feeds the population as the fish have been killed by spilled oil; and pipes continually burning off gas right beside the people’s homes. This gas is trapped with the oil and could be used to produce energy for Nigeria but the companies aren’t willing to pay for the infrastructure (they aren’t interested in paying for Africans to have electricity) so they simply burn it off. The gas flares in Nigeria burn the equivalent to 25% of UK gas consumption. Gas flaring in Nigeria contributes more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere than all other sources in sub-Saharan Africa combined, and yet it contributes nothing to the country’s economy. Instead it damages the people’s health by spreading asthma and bronchitis.


Unfortunately the film is full of stories such as this, justifying the title. It’s powerful and humane with a vital message. It also avoids calming us with token gestures like light bulbs and recycling – the makers know we need serious action by governments and corporations, and that probably means large scale public protest is more important than lifestyle choices. One disappointment for me was that the film was promoted as drama to a significant extent through the emphasis on Postlethwaite’s role as the future archivist. His part in the film is really just a device for the documentary footage and there is in fact very little about the future and nothing of the archivist’s story. This is understandable when today’s experiences are so devastating, but it does mean the film is another documentary rather than a narrative exactly. This will affect how people react. Some will find documentary, with its truth value, more powerful but we have already seen other similar films. The Age of Stupid is the best climate change documentary so far, but there’s still a clear need for drama. Personally, I became serious about this issue after reading Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake. It's hard to understand why today’s mainstream novelists, directors and artists are not putting everything into this subject

Friday, 13 March 2009

Are forests doomed?

The Guardian published an article on Wednesday about a recent study by the Hadley Centre presenting new evidence that the Amazon rainforest will be destroyed by climate change:

'It found that a 2C rise above pre-industrial levels, widely considered the best case global warming scenario and the target for ambitious international plans to curb emissions, would still see 20-40% of the Amazon die off within 100 years. A 3C rise would see 75% of the forest destroyed by drought over the following century, while a 4C rise would kill 85%.'

Models predicting these changes have been around a while but increased data has now enabled more accurate numerical predictions. There are already warning signs that the Amazon is failing. The forest generates part of its own rainfall (by recycling the water released as the trees perspire), but in 2005 the system failed, creating the most severe drought on record in Amazonian Brazil. (I read about this in Thomas Lovejoy’s chapter in State of the World 2009.)


It is vital not to leap from increased understanding about the Amazon’s future to indifference about deforestation. The destruction of biomass (principally tropical forests) accounts for about a fifth of the annual increase in greenhouse gas emissions. According to Lovejoy this is why Indonesia and Brazil are the third and fourth largest CO2 emitting nations in the world, despite low fossil fuel use. Deforestation accelerates climate change so it should be one of the first areas we tackle in trying to prevent a 2C rise in temperatures.


A doomed forest is still worth protecting. The increased temperatures our actions are bringing about will force ecosystems to change and species to migrate. Unfortunately we have extensively altered many landscapes, which will too often make this process nearly impossible. We need to address how we live within landscapes, as Lovejoy argues:

 ‘Natural connections urgently need to be re-established in landscapes to facilitate the dispersal of individual species as they follow the conditions they need to survive. Basically, the opposite of the current situation of patches of nature in human-dominated landscapes needs to be created, so that human needs and aspirations are embedded in a natural matrix.’

This applies everywhere, not solely in the tropics. Personally, I find this an exciting vision. The news today is dark (here, here and here) and I don’t think it’s appropriate to react simply by giving ourselves reasons to be cheerful but I hope people won’t read about the fact that climate change ‘will’ destroy the Amazon and start to feel that protecting it no longer matters.


Part of the problem is in our rhetoric. Campaign groups often talk about ‘SAVING’ the rainforest or ‘STOPPING’ climate change. Forests cannot really be saved. We can avoid destroying them while we live, but how long will they remain after that? We never know. A little bit like a surgeon who ‘saves’ a life: the operation she performs will not mean the patient lives for ever, but that scarcely matters, does it? We probably can’t 'stop' climate change, but we can take responsibility for our actions and start making better local and global ways of living.


A little sunlight on a grey day here in Oxford.

Monday, 9 March 2009


Do we inherently value life? One way of thinking about this is to compare the appeal of a garden filled with flowers, butterflies and birdsong with one covered in paving-slabs. Children are often excited by animals and many families include a cat or dog for no obviously rational reason. Yet at the same time we appear to be content to exploit, deplete and destroy other life forms, from the massive destruction of rainforests to smaller, more local attacks.


The renowned naturalist and writer Edward Wilson suggests that humans possess an ‘innate tendency to focus on life and lifelike processes.’ He argues that this ‘biophilia’ was essential to our evolutionary success because in order to find a meal or escape a predator our remote ancestors simply had to be alert to the presence of other animals and plants in the landscapes around them: ‘the brain appears to have kept its old capacities, its channelled quickness. We stay alert and alive in the vanished forests of the world.’


A ‘tendency to focus on life’ is not the same as valuing life, so we might object that our ‘biophilia’ has its origins in an evolutionary drive to exploit other species or to compete with them. Wilson’s argument is subtle. He proposes that we endlessly seek to balance two ideals: nature and machine. Since the industrial revolution the balance has slipped and we begin to fear we have moved too far towards the machine. He wonders whether the presence of other life forms around us will prove to be essential to the health of our civilisations because they played such a vital role in the development of our brains. Much of Biophilia shows us the powerful encounters with nature he has experienced as a biologist, from discovering the way an ant nest functions as a super-organism to using molecular biology to enrich our understanding of our own bodies.


Wilson advocates the value of ecological diversity. His more recent The Future of Life presents the desperate situation we are in today as our current actions are set to bring about the extinction of 90% of all species through habitat destruction and climate change. The problem is urgent: how can we transform our innate interest in life into an active movement to protect life?