Four Stories to Change the World

Back in November I took screenshots of four stories from the internet in the same 24 hours. Record floods in Venice and Yorkshire, record snowfall in the USA, and the harbinger of the Australian bush fires that are still raging. These were drowned out by election excitement, hence the blog did not appear. What strikes me is there are headlines like this almost every day, often down in the 3rd or 4th story on the page. Yes we Brits love to talk about the weather, and there will be a record being broken somewhere on the planet for something most days of the week simply because it is a big place and so many things are being measured, but these stories are accumulating to become the narrative of the age.

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I was marooned on a train during those Yorkshire floods. It is not fake news.

Climate change has gone from being sci fi hokum to fringe science to debatable science to mainstream acceptance. Okay, it is a massively complex subject that very few people truly understand (including me) but scientific consensus diverges chiefly in the detail rather than the trajectory. Non-expert members of the public picking and choosing between the ever-changing models being developed produces arguments as useful as debating the colour of an orange.

Politicians are in a sticky place. Most are not as stupid and ill-informed as the public believes, and belief is a big part of the problem. People will say they do not ‘believe’ in climate change, but what they mean is that the idea does not fit with their world view. Few of us are equipped to understand the maths, critically review the last few hundred relevant academic papers or contribute to cutting-edge conferences. ‘Belief’ kicks in where there is no science, no hard facts, no experimental observation that can be repeated by others. It is the absence of science. Climate change is a fact, we have a good grasp of the many factors that can cause it, and have masses of proof that it has happened through the whole history of the planet; Ice Ages, Snowball Earth, climatic optimums and so forth.

So back to the Politicians. They have to listen to the people who keep them in power (the electorate, the Party, Big Oil or whoever) otherwise they will not be in power very long. My conscientious recycling will not save the planet, and nor will arbitrary government targets. Fighting climate change can only happen at governmental level, but it needs the will of the people to be behind it first. Governments cannot legislate against the public will – think of the failure of US Prohibition in the ‘20s. Once the government implements its new policies and targets we all have to do ‘our bit’. Policy, law, ethics, science, public acceptance and self-interest must all come together. If we look at the way smoking has been reduced in the West we have seen (a) scientific consensus on the harm it does (b) creeping anti-tobacco legislation by governments that listen (c) progressive price increases (d) health education promoting individual benefits (e) social stigma vs smoking (f) big tobacco losing the moral argument (g) alternative technology/income streams (vaping) (h) spin-off benefits to the economy (health expenditure/reducing premature death).

20191113_204111The Australian bush fires could ironically be good news, in that they should be the wake-up call to the world. It’s a big headline-grabbing climatic disaster – and I hate to say it ­– one that affects white people. Mark Lynas’ excellent book Six Degrees which I read in 2007 includes the projection that Australia could become uninhabitable with three degrees of global warming; we’re already on track for two. It is a salient lesson as Australia has the world’s second highest C02 footprint per capita (the UK comes 8th with just less than half the footprint). Their pilloried Prime Minister, if he survives the fire season, will be forced to confront the realities of climate change, even if Australia is not the sole author of its own crisis. Public self-interest in not being driven from their homes in terror will start to outweigh precious economic and personal freedom issues that dog green policies.

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So is anyone taking note other than earnest Swedish teenagers? The answer hopefully is yes. The big hyrocarbon companies are aware their stock values will tumble if human-driven global warming becomes too obvious to ignore. They must diversify or die, much as the tobacco companies started doing. Geopolitical thinkers know that the eternal crises of the Middle East will fade as we cease to be driven by oil; posturing by Iran or the Saudis will be of little global relevance and the West lose all excuse to interfere. This cannot have been lost on Pentagon strategists; the USA has already spent $5 trillion and 7,000 American lives on the Iraq conflict to no long-term benefit. Smart US politicians must also know this, even if not yet ready to speak it out loud.

Education (aka climate change propaganda) is making its mark and there is a growing tolerance for green legislation and acceptance of initiatives such as recycling as a normal part of life. Much of it in truth just involves being nice and taking life gently. Not being green is starting to be socially unacceptable; the big car, the long-haul holiday and the 16oz beef steak are losing their shine. One day they might become as naff as a fat cigar or a mink coat.

Just as thousands of scientists know there is a climate emergency underway, it has become worthwhile for thousands more to work on solutions; new technologies, new products, new opportunities, knowing there will be a market for the right inventions. The public is at last hungry for carbon-neutral solutions – so long as they can afford them. As soon as the costs of renewable energy approach that of hydrocarbons, the sharper businesses will seize the opportunities and use their promotional skills to pull the public with them, reap the profits and extinguish the hydrocarbon dinosaurs. People will act when self-interest kicks in at a much more tangible level than when aroused by a David Attenborough documentary. Politicians will have no reason not to listen. We need the activists, we need the idealists but ironically it could be big business, not neo-hippy protesters, that end up saving the planet.

 

The Elephant in the Shed

There’s an elephant in the room, but there is also one out in the garden and another in the shed. In fact I’m thinking of buying the field next door to accommodate more elephants. Very few people will notice them, because these are elephants we really don’t want to see, and want to tame even less.

The elephant is human population growth.

This spring I went to Cambodia, which suffered the most horrific conflict during the 1980s which killed up to a third of the population of six to seven million. A few decades later the figure has bounced up to 15 million. Tour guides proudly told us of the burgeoning industrialisation of an economy once almost entirely based on agriculture. Expecting to see the infamous jungle of ‘Nam movies, I mainly saw fields, fruit groves and rice paddies. Family size is falling with industrialisation, but the transition was stark. Farmers are cutting back the forest to create more land and I saw new roads leading to cleared wasteland and raised platforms designated for ‘new cities’ in flood-prone areas.

Moving on to Vietnam, the jungle was mainly absent too. Paddies and farms stretched along the banks of the Mekong. At over 90 million, ‘Nam has 2.5 times the population it had at the start of what they call ‘The American War’ despite the widespread slaughter and economic destruction. Whilst Cambodia still has a more traditional feel, Vietnam is on the path to looking like everywhere else: skyscrapers, billboards, traffic junctions, shopping malls and take-aways. At each major junction in Saigon (as most locals still call it), a phalanx of motorbikes eight wide and ten deep awaits the changing of the lights. They set off in a roar, weaving between each other in a great shoal. My thought was; ‘Whatever happens when all these people get cars?’

The tourist sites were heaving. Used to the ‘busy’ days in Guernsey when we were lucky to get 3 or 400 people turning up at the Castle I was in a whole different world. Hordes poured into the semi-abandoned jungle-clad ruin of Ta Prohm. Some 15,000 per day go into the Angkor Wat complex,  mostly Chinese, Koreans and a few Australians. Most will have flown.

Racking up my air miles, knowing I’m doing more damage to the climate than those motorcyclists, I looked out of my airliner window in the small hours, down into the darkness of the ‘stans from a few miles up. Or it should have been darkness, based on how blank all the atlases of that region look. Instead there were city lights, glittering as orange jewels, scattered in all directions. The world felt scarily full at that moment.

I came back to the interminable Brexit debate, and we know ‘Leave’ was in large part fuelled by fears over immigration. Those fears were bumped up by the exodus from Syria and Libya and other war-torn regions. We might imagine these wars are about one religious sect fighting another because they wear the wrong colour hat on Fridays, but like most wars resources are the root cause. Land is in short supply, fertile land is even scarcer and fresh water is at a premium across great swathes of the world. Bloody squabbles erupt over oil, diamonds, copper and so forth. Fuel is running out and shortages are likely to spark even more conflicts. ‘Rare earth’ metals on which much modern technology such as my smartphone relies are becoming rarer.

Millions are now living on mountains, volcano slopes, in swamps, in deserts, below sea-level, on tiny islands, in arctic regions and where jungle used to be. These areas could not naturally sustain more than a handful of human bands, yet we are building cities. Who is surprised when these areas are devastated by wildfires/ cyclones/ floods/ famine/ drought? Humans are not supposed to live there.

Nobody knows what the ‘carrying capacity’ of the Earth is but at 7.7 billion people and rising we may find out the hard way. It certainly cannot sustain 7.7 billion Americans, and who is to deny all those people the standard of consumption the Americans enjoy?

Environmentalists for the most part don’t want to talk about population. It smacks of poor-shaming and lets the resource-guzzling West off the hook. The UN doesn’t want to talk about it either; why should the West have it so good and not everyone else? Government control of population smacks of authoritarianism; it offends liberals, libertarians and ultra-conservatives alike, whilst the left would rather blame capitalism for the world’s problems. Birth control of any form also offends numerous religious groups.

Last year the world hosted an extra 82 million people, that’s an additional 160,000 more per day. It’s more than died in the whole Second World War and it would take a pandemic on the scale of the Spanish Flu or Black Death to significantly knock it back. Most growth is in the poorer regions of the world already groaning under the weight of numbers and environmental degradation. Their cities are choking with pollution.

foffIt is not surprising millions want to move to Europe or America, and it is unsurprising that Europeans and people who have already made it to America don’t want their already overcrowded lands crowding even more. I saw a t-shirt on sale in South Dakota reading ‘Fuck off, We’re Full’. You can buy them on Amazon, car stickers too. Trump and his ilk use unpleasant language, but they articulate the fears of their electorate.

 

Migration is part of the human story, it has happened since the dawn of time. It has brought marriage and trade, the exchange of ideas and culture and it has brought prosperity to many. It has also brought war, exploitation, slavery, discrimination, disease, resource-raiding and extermination. Opposing migration is commonly decried as racist, a denial of human rights and a policy of the far right. Left-leaning Greens don’t have an anti-immigration/population control stance, yet population growth undermines efforts to consume less and preserve wild places. The net 270,000 people coming into the UK in 2018 is equivalent to a new city with the footprint of Newcastle, and even if they are poor when they arrive we can’t ban them from one day owning Range Rovers, flying to Florida or eating beef.

Across Europe we have seen the rise of ‘populist’ candidates with simplistic messages and ‘far right’ anti-immigration parties in a mood that smacks of the 1930s. A major problem is that Liberals and centre/right democrats have vacated the debate as too hot to handle. It is easier to attack the Alt-Right on the basis of their rhetoric than on the uncomfortable problems provoking it, so pragmatic discussion is almost non-existent.

No-Blade-Of-Grass-poster-468x330We are in very scary, apocalyptic movie territory; No Blade of Grass and Interstellar both play on the results of global crop failures. The crazy world of Mad Max fights over water and oil. As a teenager I was chilled by the overpopulated world of Soylent Green and J G Ballard’s Billenium.

History has shown us that people under environmental stress do not sit still and die. The Migration Period saw peoples from the east moving west in successive waves; Huns, Goths, Vandals, Franks and Saxons. Even the names of these groups still carry echoes of the violence that followed. Illegal immigrants by definition are breaking laws, and criminal gangs are exploiting desperate people from the south prepared to risk their lives for a new home in the north.

The displacement of five million people from Syria is a new factor destabilising the European order, fuelling Brexit, which and in turn threatens the break-up of the United Kingdom. What if 50 million desperate people were on the move? If the climate change Cassandras are even close to being right, a billion could be displaced by rising seas and expanding deserts. No country is going to want them, but who is going to stop them? Unless rational people start to address the difficult issues, irrational people will be left to take the initiative.

We’re going to need a bigger shed.

 

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