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.

 

A Walk in the Woods

Never go back, they, say, but today I walked back to summers of 45 or 50 years ago. Our village is on a hilltop, with a steep wooded valley to the north. We called it ‘The Woods’ and half my childhood memories rest down there. Allowed to go with my friends once I’d hit seven, we’d be off for whole days in the summer. Sometimes we’d take jam sandwiches and an old pop bottle full of tap water, and once I got my dog he’d come too. My mix of friends would vary but it was very Famous Five.

I walked ‘backwards’ today, from my new house towards my old. I ignored the ‘Private Property’ sign with only a moment’s hesitation, as we’d done as kids and as the couple of dog walkers I met still clearly do. We would rarely go in the winter, as days are short up here, the main paths sticky with mud and the side-paths slippery with fallen leaves. Even in the summer, we’d come back with grubby hands and knees and Shep’s white paws and underparts were almost as black as the rest of him. We’d pick brambles out of his fur and he’d suffer to be cleaned up with old towels.

Playing explorers the woods was the closest we would come to living the life of the Swallows and Amazons. Sometimes we would be commandos behind enemy lines, giving us good excuse to hide from whoever came our way; a bully from school, an adult who might worry about what we were up to, or the legendary Warden who I think we saw maybe twice ever. Just like the Swallows we made maps and gave the places names. It was amusing to hear younger kids on the estate copying our names for this place or that when it became their turn to be seven years old and set free. Paedophiles hadn’t been invented back then of course, we just didn’t talk to strangers (and they were Nazi soldiers or Russian agents, anyway).

So on a cold December day with a weak afternoon sun, I came in through a little-used southern gate and got my bearings in an area of old sandstone quarries we seldom reached. Some had been too deep to climb into, and even looked dangerous to our most adventurous spirits. Coming out of the trees I came to the area we used to call The Rabbit, a stretch of bracken on a slope above the woods proper. Somewhere below was our usual objective, the Rock Pool. Its water used to be clear enough to drink just where it gushed from a spring. There had once, I recalled, been a path, but I had to climb gingerly down through the deep and wet leaves. If I found it, the pool had become little more than a set of muddy puddles choked by leaves and brambles. Beyond had been a place we called the Bracken Field, great for building dens, but I couldn’t see that at all. Nature is dynamic, and a lot can happen in 45 years.

Scrambling back up to The Rabbit I saw just one family heading towards the estates. The old path skirting the houses seemed to have gone, so I went down, deeper into the trees. On each trip we’d take a decision whether we had the hours needed to go deeper into the woods here, or stay high and go around the spring-heads to The Rabbit, or simply stay on the Tops so we didn’t have to go down The Big Hill. The sycamores and oaks seemed even taller now than I remembered, old friends meeting again, all finally grown up.

20191229_140859One stream cuts its way between the trees to ‘The Prehistoric Place’, a swampy area perfect for climbing across on fallen trunks and bathed in a magical green light; I wasn’t planning going anywhere near it in winter. So I turned towards ‘The Big Hill’, which no longer seemed as Big as it did when it was the last feature to climb at the end of a hot  day’s adventuring.

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At the top I looked for ‘The Steps’, now only just visible beneath brambles. This had once been a bald hill crest with a mysterious set of concrete steps leading nowhere that made an excellent seat to survey the valley below. I was told it was a searchlight position from the war, but never knew the truth.

 

On the flat ground beyond The Steps some of the kids called The Tops, I struggled to get my bearings amid the silver birches. This used to be the most charmless area of the woods, pitted by half-filled quarries, and we’d pass quickly through if we had time to go deeper. Old paths once cut deep into the sandy soil here, such as we could kick up clouds in the summer to make explosions, but were now all gone. A huge quarry used to dominate this area, part-filled with rusting cars, old tyres and fridges. If you’ve read Stig of the Dump you’ll get the idea. It was also easy to get into, allowing us to hunt for dinosaur fossils in the exposed cliffs (which of course we never found) and even dig our own caveman cave. One burned-out car in particular had no doors, and a yawning sunroof, so we could become a spacecraft or B-17 crew; pilot, navigator, top gunner and sometimes even a radio man or tail gunner. The quarry is long gone, filled to its brim, capped with hardcore and allowed to be reclaimed by nature. Scrubby trees, bracken and brambles prove how quickly they can conceal the work of man.

After an hour, I came out by the in-road, the way we used to enter past a ‘Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted’ sign and an ineffective swing gate, both of which had vanished into memory. Across from the gate was a new estate, expanding the village way beyond that we’d known. Ten times the traffic now coursed the Lane that Mum used to caution me about crossing.

How on earth we survived childhood without plunging down a quarry face, drowning as we bridged a stream or suffering multiple injuries falling from a tree I never knew. Like superheroes we just brushed ourselves down, cleaned our wounds with spit, dabbed nettle stings with dock leaves and whirled our socks around our heads in the hope they would dry before we got home. I read that children don’t do this anymore; perhaps the world has become too busy. I was never a brave child, but this was where my spirit of adventure was born. Reading Tolkien took me back to those woods, its paths leading who knows where and a time when there was “less noise and more green”. The mystery of The Steps was my first clue that the ground hid secrets of the past, awakening perhaps an interest in archaeology. And of course we made up stories as we adventured, sometimes writing them down or adapting them for whatever essay the teachers set us. Those summer days still inspire me. Walking the Woods of my memory is not the same as walking The Woods that now are, but today I did both.

An Eye for Nature

PLV 1Whilst working on a new thriller, and editing the one I ‘finished’ earlier, I have a new project to keep me out of mischief. I’m teaming up with artist Peter Le Vasseur to produce a book on his life and work. In particular the book will feature Peter’s later works with ecological and conservation themes.

PLV3Although Peter was born in Guernsey and returned here to live in the 70s, his formative years as an artist saw him enter the ‘sixties London art scene with clients including film stars, musicians and the aristocracy. The Beatles bought one of his earliest works, whilst he was experimenting with fantasy in what he calls his ‘Alice in Wonderland’ period. His early fantasies are still cropping up in London auctions, with his 1964 work Tattooed Sailor recently selling at Sotheby’s for many times its estimate.

 

Peter finally established his iconic style of highly detailed paintings of the natural world, generally packaged with a ‘message’, although for himself he claims not to be political. At times his work has a dark humour or carries ironic titles as it reflects the impact of the modern human world on both the environment and traditional societies.

This will be a high quality art book with the paintings as its main focus, so is going to need a significant amount of financial support to be produced. It would be particularly relevant to a large international organisation involved in environmental issues, or to a multinational with corporate social responsibility objectives which might like to sponsor a work it can give to its major clients.

I’m interested in ideas from you folks out there. Share with your contacts and see if we can find that sponsor. I can be contacted through this blog page.

For more of Peter’s work see www.peterlevasseur.com .

For those living in Guernsey, Peter currently has an exhibition of his works at the Coach House Gallery, and his large work The Tree of Life is on permanent display at Guernsey Museum where it was voted ‘The People’s Choice.’

 

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