As I am writing this I am sitting by a window looking out onto a garden of mown grass. A parakeet hangs off a bird feeder while it eats, and a grey squirrel scurries up a tree behind. The stream in my garden, once flowing and clear, lays stagnant in a concrete-lined pond. Extend this up to a planetary level, and with emissions already changing climatic zones, invasive species running riot, and the attack on biodiversity occuring at an industrial level, it is clear to see why some say the world cannot be seen as natural anymore. The future is looking evermore uncertain.
In the past decade, an estimated 21.6 million people annually were internally displaced by climate-related hazards worldwide, with this number only projected to grow. According to the British Geological Survey, humans move about 24 times more material around the surface of the planet than rivers move sediment to the oceans – 316 billion metric tons. The age-old European fetish of humans overcoming mother nature has in some sense, with ghastly consequences. It is therefore a significant characterisation of the proposed new epoch of geological time – the Anthropocene: a definitive characterisation of human dominance of the global system.
We are at a crossroads for humanity. We can overcome emissions, some argue, but removing them from the Earth and living in a sterilised planet free of wildlife. Or we could fundamentally change the way we love, making room for nature, and adapting consumption for a more harmonious planet and safeguarding biodiversity before it disappears altogether. Some call this determinist, and it is clear to see why. However, the current system we can see puts some people above the planet.
So why does it matter for us in the West? Surely we’re far removed from the negative impacts of climate change – one report by UKRI suggested “production in cool, wet upland areas may benefit from warmer and drier conditions” with longer growing seasons. Don’t most people have more present worries like the cost of living? But even here there will be consequences – 40C temperatures this summer has devastating effects on life – and obliterated any thought that the climate crisis is a future not present issue. The globalisation of the current era has enabled us Brits to enjoy exotic foods from all across the world – and our reliance on them is only getting stronger. Demand for food is rising globally and production needs to double by 2050 to keep up with demand.
This chronic pressure means the food system is increasingly vulnerable to acute shocks. For evidence of this see the global impacts of the Russian-occupation of Ukraine. Monoculture of staple crops leave them vulnerable to pests and diseases more prevalent in warmer temperatures. And growing water scarcity will mean that 2/3 of the World’s population under water stress conditions by 2025. For the UK, in summer 40% of food comes from dryland and subtropical regions. In winter that is 80% – based of FAOs 4 tenets of food security, it makes us highly vulnerable. UK agriculture may be decimated by the hypothesised shutdown of thermohaline ocean circulation, which enables the Gulf Stream, which keeps the UK relatively warmer – Edinburgh has the same latitude as Moscow. Harsher winters would be critical.
The UK has a historical impetus to act because as part of the ‘developed’ world, it is our problem to fix. Past emissions highlight European and North American roles in the present climate change. 23 rich, developed countries are responsible for half of all historical CO2 emissions, despite making up 12% of the population. More than 150 countries are responsible for the other half. Western attitudes towards nature are also part of the problem. The cultural symbolism of the UK’s patchwork quilt has ingrained ecological destruction into the national psyche.
In the former settler colonies of the Americas, Australia and New Zealand the marginalisation and attempted extermination of Indigenous cultures is perhaps one of the starkest examples of the Western assault on nature. The West sees nature as a resource, one to be exploited for economic value, and of little use otherwise. This negates the ecosystem services, climate regulation and those who live on a subsistence of the land. From wildfires in California worsened by excess fuel that is accumulating because of loss of indigenous land management to loss of species knowledge, the current policy is not working. Western schemes to ‘carbon offset’ and ‘conserve’ nature have removed people from their lands and actually worsened carbon drawdown productivity. The dichotomy of the ‘wilderness’ and ‘civilisation’ cannot and should not be applied to many regions.
Humans can live in harmony with nature; civilisation accelerated the decline of the ‘Green Sahara’ according to new research led by UCL they may have held back the onset of the Sahara desert by around 500 years. This is a complex relationship in many cases- following the arrival of Europeans to South America, the ensuing disease killed off half of the Amazon’s population, with the average temperature dropping by 0.15C in the late 1500s and early 1600s. This “Little Ice Age”, a time when the River Thames in London would regularly freeze over, snowstorms were common in Portugal and disrupted agriculture caused famines in several European countries. Even the current geological epoch – the interglacial Holocene – has been attributed to the advent of agriculture, or the extinction of the megafaunal species.
So what are the solutions and what is the best way forward? My Cherwell article with Canqi Li interviewing the Vice-Challelor showed that there is an appetite to work with fossil fuel companies to solve the problem. And removing emissions may have to be the bandaid to keep the lid on the crisis in the short term. But this cannot be the only way. The Oil industry and its assemblage have disproportionate impacts on the poorest and most climate-vulnerable countries, while the benefits are reserved for the richer West.
We don’t need any awareness raising – the time for that has been and gone. All the talk of buying and consuming ‘green’ with ‘green growth’ and ‘sustainable growth’ harbour shocking contradictions. There are those that believe that a whole transformation of the economic system is needed – a new alternative to present ‘capitalism’ or ‘neoliberalism’, however, this is unlikely given the entrenchment and contemporary power of those deemed winners in the current system.
Image credit: © Eric Sales / ABD / CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 IGO