Our Planet Matters to Auntie

The BBC’s year-long project, ‘Our Planet Matters’ could be a great thing if it is a wide approach, and of the essence of the BBC’s educational mission.  It may just become a narrow propaganda piece.

The announced project is “a year-long series of special programming and coverage on climate change” with “a raft of news services and shows”. There is a false note there: real environmental issues worldwide cover a wide range of challenges, and of these climate change is the most minor. It is real, but nowhere near as important as pollution or the loss of habitats, for example.

The BBC has the resources to drag in all the wisdom of the world and create an unequalled examination of the many, complex issues within the field, but it mostly chooses a narrow, simplistic approach, for it is still at heart a part of the entertainment industry.

We respect the BBC because it can do wonders, and has David Attenborough; they can draw upon brilliant men and women; but it is part of the entertainment industry and the decisions and editing are made by those who are at a level with the Victorian music-hall.

I want Auntie to do its environment series and do it well.  This blog has carried articles on environment issues before and will do so again. Technology has reached a stage when the world can and should step into new ways of doing things that tread more lightly on the earth. In a timely way, Prince William no less has created the ‘Earthshot Prize’ to encourage solutions to the world’s pressing problems, and declared the coming years a decade of action to repair the Earth.  Excellent; and so we should.

What Prince William recognises in the framing of his prize is that ‘environment’ is a broad heading within which there are many practical issues crucial to our time: pollution of the air, land and oceans; lack of fresh water; biodiversity; and climate change. That is all good. For all that though, when I saw that announcement of a year-long BBC series, I knew that they will get it completely wrong. The press release says just “climate change”. Maybe that is just the PR people writing and ‘Our Planet Matters’ will look at the wider field, but I am not hopeful, by past experience.

The environment has been an issue since 1989 when Margaret Thatcher addressed the United Nations:

Of all the challenges faced by the world community in those four years, one has grown clearer than any other in both urgency and importance—I refer to the threat to our global environment. I shall take the opportunity of addressing the general assembly to speak on that subject alone.

Mrs Thatcher began a global movement, and she was not alone. The greatest philosopher of our age, Sir Roger Scruton, whose passing we mourned this week, wrote at length on issues of protecting the environment, and he realised that it is a very conservative concern:

It needs to be pressed as a conservative issue. It comes across in the mouths of radicals and socialists though, whose ideas would destroy the very things they are claiming to support. The conservative voice for the Earth came first and must be heard loudly. I am not confident of its breaking through he walls of New Broadcasting House, but Conservatives should not make the mistake of dismissing the whole field: just the unscientific mistakes that will be propagated.

Back to the BBC’s year of programming, it has started badly by linking the Australian bush-fires to global warming. They are two completely separate issues, and the worst fires are in the coolest parts of the continent.  That was lazy. They need to do better if this project is to fulfil its educational brief.  The fires are an environment issue, in a broad field, but it is not connected with global warming.

However, global warning is the posterboy of the green movement and everything seem reductible to it, to the exclusion of all else; well, that and waste plastic, which is actually more important.

(I recall in the 1980s the two big environmental scares were depletion of the ozone layer above the poles, and heavy-metal pollution from vehicles, which are both real, and completely unrelated. You still got people protesting to remove lead from petrol ‘to protect the ozone layer’.)

Start by asking who will want to push themselves forward to talk about environment issues to all the living-rooms of the nation.  Frightening isn’t it?

Even if it is a year on climate change, the next concern is what conclusions they imply. As has been recited in many other places, the simplistic solutions suggested by the extreme-green movement would lead to mass starvation and worse environmental degradation, and even if the venting of carbon dioxide into the air ceased at once, it would take two hundred years to bring the levels down. Will the BBC accept some subtlety into their broadcasting? We will see, but I am not hopeful.

The BBC started broadcasting in colour in 1967, but it only broadcasts opinions that are black and white.

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Between two fires

I do not want to write about the bushfires of Australia unless in a respectful or mournful way, and I do not want to write of those caught in them other than to praise fortitude, heroism, and to sit with those who have lost their homes and livelihoods, and I know that anything I say will be open hypocrisy as I have no intention of flying to Australia and doing anything to help (and if I did, I would just be getting under everyone’s feet). The Lucky Country does not feel like it at the moment.

It is a land the other side of the world, but to native Britons it is no more foreign than if it were a couple of counties away. We feel the heat, and thank God for providence for our own land that does not suffer in that way.

I should not speak of events of which I have no real knowledge or people, cousins, who do. But then we come to the point of my writing anything at all, on anything, and that is for the insight that events give into the heart of man, and what to do about it. Those fires are illuminating some ugly sides in man that we recognise amongst ourselves.

There have always been bushfires in Australia, since before Captain Cook; before even the Aborigines arrived. This year (by the accounts I have heard) seems the worst in living memory.

There are fierce arguments going on amongst Australians. We can put aside the Twitterstorms calling for the Prime Minister to be sacked – presumably they think he is responsible somehow for the fires, governments being omnipotent of course.  No, the argument is over detached cause.

Everything bad is caused by manmade global warming, according to some, and in Australia that is being pressed hard in the glow of the flames. On the other side are those denying any link to warming or climate change. That deaf-to-each-other polarisation is very familiar to those of us in living Britain over the last three and a half years. In reality, neither side has the whole truth, and neither are they the only sides there are, much as they would like to shut all others out. In the meantime, homes and farms are burning. The heroes are not shouting into the air on Twitter or ABC or in Canberra, but hefting their hoses deep in the glowing bush.

The BBC recently ran a piece in order to demolish a conspiracy theory on the denial side, namely that the fires are caused by hundreds of arsonists – and some have claimed it is even arsonists paid by the green lobby. (I believe it is only a small fringe who go that far, though these days you cannot tell.) The BBC piece was along the lines “this is a mad, fake-news conspiracy; so the climate change theory is the whole truth”.  It is not though.

This is not a binary issue: it is not one thing or another, the exclusion of one meaning embracing the other.  Both sides are a bit right and mainly wrong. It is not one-cause-and-no-other and not truth against falsehood, but a complex process of countless factors in the continent’s environment leaning on the probability of wildfire, for it and against it, until the incendiary factors prevail. In some of these the green lobby are right – but on others their actions may have caused the extent of the fires.

The green lobby being partly responsible is a dangerous thing to assert in an atmosphere where a side is deemed always right or always wrong. Here it is an inescapable conclusion though. They have not set fires (whatever the conspiracy theorists claim), they have not forced policy that has dried the climate, and they have warned that the actions of mankind can cause global changes, and in this there is nothing but praise – but if in the pursuit of guarding the environment one environmentalist or a group has forced a change in forestry practices which allowed fires to spread further and faster, then he or they might as well have set the fires.

I am in no position to say whether Greens have stopped back-burning of undergrowth, as always used to be done to prevent fires spreading: they have been accused of it even by the Prime Minister, but maybe it is an effect we are familiar with here: no one gives the order, but someone who is not in power gives out a strong impression that causes local officials to change their practices without being told to. I am not there though and cannot tell.

As to the arson theory, that one has been exploded, surely? Not quite: there have been arsonists. Why, beggars belief, except in the twisted recesses of the heart of man – to set a fire is to exercise power, which is a fundamental motivation. There have been very few, mercifully, but they have been some, so that idea cannot dismissed as 100% wrong.

Looking at the natural environment as the greens tell it: yes, Australia has been drying for decades. It has always been dry, but last year was exceptional – the driest on record across much of the continent, and the previous year was dangerously dry too. Two years without ran turned the forests into a tinderbox. That is not a win for the global warming theory though: if it were the gradual increase in world temperature this drying would be a pattern, but just eight and nine years ago much of Australia was the wettest on record. It runs in cycles, not a progression.

In any case if this were a smooth increase across the whole world it would just mean a southward shift in weather patterns, but this is all across Australia. Australia has been warming – but only by about 1 °C since the War, and that makes not a blind bit of difference to the combustibility of woodland. The drying climate does, but that has not been consistent, and may be nothing to do with manmade effects. There are manmade effects on the environment, but this does not look like one: the patterns are not consistent with it.

(Neither is it Australia’s own dynamic position – the continent has been moving northwards at 2¾ inches a year – but even 16 feet since the war will not change the climate.)

The arguments will continue, long after the fires have died down and long after the rains have come at last. Both sides will be right and be wrong, and neither will concede anything to the other.

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One small step for the Isle of Man

I was bemused recently by the fuss over the naming of a planetoid in the Kuiper Belt. The name chosen for that celestial body, ‘Arrokoth’ means ‘sky’ in the Algonquian language (that is to say the ancient speech of the Powhatan/Algonquian tribes of America, not the acerbic tongue of Dorothy Parker and her Algonquin Round Table). It is a good name, as I said at the time, and my bemusement was just over the treatment of the old holding name, “Ultima Thule”.

Now the Isle of Man has gone one better: a star and a planet have been named in the Manx language.

In case we forget the Manx language, it is a part of daily life on the Isle of Man. It is dead as a mother tongue, but it is so recognised as a part of the island’s vital heritage that the language is learnt in school, and bilingual signs have sprung up all over the island, and some ne foundations use Manx first – the island’s coastal path is the “Raad ny Follian“, not “Way of the Gull” (which is what the name means). Manx is a Gaelic language, influenced by the Old Norse of the islands’ old rulers, but its spelling is taken from English, giving it more of an earthy look. With such a unique language in such a unique island, the loss of its own tongue is a wrench and it is worth preserving, even if it is no longer spoken at home.

As the BBC report, a star formerly known as WASP-13 is to be named ‘Gloas’, which is Manx for ‘to shine’, and its planet WASP-13b is ‘Cruinlagh’, which is Manx for ‘to orbit’. (Quite why Max has a distinct world for ‘orbit’ when even English has had to borrow from Latin is not clear, but that is as it is.)

The Beeb also report that Gloas “was first observed in 1997, is 1.5 times bigger than the Sun and is visible with the naked eye from the British Isles”. If it is visible to the naked eye, how was it observed only in 1997 then? When I first wrote this post I wondered aloud if the science reporter were on holiday, but I have since been corrected by student astronomer who points out that the number of visible stars in the night sky is innumerable, and many are ‘hidden’ in clusters or nebulae, and so only a fraction which have been individually observed and named. It is pleasing to add another to the list.

Innumerable as the celestial bodies may be, a star in the firmament is now a testimony to one of the dying native languages of the British Isles.

The names were chosen in a public competition. Thank goodness we got those we did and not “Starry McStarface”.

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Lost amongst the trees

Casting a blanket over the shivering earth, ticking the sky, turning bleak land into a rich, shaded world: the woodland fills with life, and fills us with life.

The forest that once covered Europe is mainly lost, but enough stands to give a glimpse of the old continental blanket. The woodlands of Britain are largely plantations, but on the downs are ancient woodlands, and wherever land has been abandoned the trees come to reclaim their own.

It was written (and I cannot find where) that at a deep, cultural level the Germanic peoples and Mediterranean peoples are divided in their views of the forest – to the Germans it is a place of wonder, of joy and liberation, of regained youth; but for the Mediterranean peoples, descended from the culture of Rome, the forest is a dark, threatening place, the place in which the untamed tribes burst from the trees to slaughter Varrus and his legions. I do not know how true that is, but I do know that for Britons the woods bear a wonder not found in anything else.

Before there were farms and society there were the woods. Hobbes observes of man close to the state of nature:

For as there were Plants of Corn and Wine in small quantity dispersed in the Fields and Woods, before men knew their vertue, or made use of them for their nourishment, or planted them apart in Fields, and Vineyards; in which time they fed on Akorns, and drank Water:

Now all the political parties are talking of planting trees. That spoils it somehow. A million? Four million? Two billion in twenty years (clearly Diane has been at the figures: taking a four-month growing season and an average 8 hours of daylight, working a six-day week, that is 8.5 trees every second without ceasing and a staggering acreage and cost). It also depends on what sort of trees they are: in terms of growth and coverage a birch is worth a fraction of a percentage of an oak, and an oak a small percentage of a redwood.

I cannot tell if planting trees will make even the smallest difference to the changes in the world’s climate, heresy as that must sound to those who prefer soundbite to science, but they are more than drinkers of carbon dioxide, and spillers of it after they fall. They bind the soil, drain the ground and change the local climate, and they make a home for the tiny creatures which serve the rest of the land.

In Bengal, three hundred million people live in floodplains, and since the upstream forests were felled, the land has been drowned too many times to count. It flooded before the forests were felled in Bihar, but the intensity has only worsened. Plant your million trees in Bihar.

I wrote before of how the trees are beginning to heal Ethiopia – when the were lost the land dried and the thin soils blew away, and the people starved. Now small patches of forest are bringing the life back, and the bees to pollinate the plants which will grow again, and the moisture for field and pasture.

Even at home the landscape has been transformed by trees. Samuel Johnson described Scotland as largely treeless, and asked the lairds he visited why they did not create plantations, as their southern neighbours did. Defoe said he barely saw a tree between Berwick and Dunbar. Today Johnson or Defoe would not recognise the Middle Shires, wreathed as their are in woodlands, and the Highlands too. The forestry plantations were a despair to Highland landowners once as they swallowed grazing land, but between the plantations the land is now richer and the flocks are doing very well.

If a tree grows all its natural life, drinking the rich carbon dioxide about it, all that carbon dioxide is released again when it falls and decays – the net gain is nothing. A strong oak though may not fall for a thousand years, and a redwood for three thousand. Active forestry cuts the wood before it decays. Living among trees is a give-and-take and the best course it not always the natural course. We should tread lightly in places, but we should tread.

Maybe plant a tree for Christmas, in Ethiopia or Bihar? Do not do vain virtue-signalling though. Virtue action, by all means.

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Ethiopia, mending paradise

It is hard to express how beautiful Ethiopia can be, and how harsh, and the two are complementary here. If we can think only of the hellish picture of famine, we do not know the land at all. It is as if all of Africa were compressed in one corner, with its lush forest, bare desert, grassland, and vertical mountains.  Here antelopes, giraffes and zebras leap across the plains, and lions, cheetahs and unique wolves hunt; here eagles and vultures soar from peaks above scorched land seeking the living and the dead, and beyond them verdant forests echo with joyous monkeys. In the waters crocodiles wait. Camels ply ancient trading roads in the desert. Here too are the unique churches of the Ethiopians, some carved whole and in one piece out of the living rock.

We know little about the land except the snatches we hear and see, and those do not do justice to this bewildering land.

When Napier was dispatched to Abyssinia (to punish the Emperor Theodore for his misdeeds) it was an unknown land and the expedition was in all received opinion doomed to disaster as no army could march in order through a trackless land where every advance was blocked by a razor-edged mountain range, and he was assured he could not even land his boats without their being sunk by herds of hippopotamus. What he found was a harsh, wilderness land indeed, but one of beauty and ancient culture through which he advanced to his task without loss.

He would find a great change today:  the former Communist government ravaged the land in the name of progress, and recovery is slow. Seeing the sights of Biblical famine in the 1980s you would disbelieve Adam Smith’s observation that “a famine has never arisen from any other cause but the violence of government attempting, by improper means, to remedy the inconveniencies of a dearth”; but Smith was recounting recent history in Europe and not the unforgiving capriciousness of the African climate.  Still, here in Ethiopia it was human stupidity and malice which caused it.

There will always be poor seasons, drought and locusts, and misgovernment, and the latter is deadly. The Emperor was overthrown for reacting too slowly to a famine, but a year’s dearth was as nothing compared with what the Communists did. Their disruption of farm life and collectivisations did as they have done throughout the world – starved the people, and no worse famine has been seen in that land. Felling the forests denuded the land and left dust. Worst of all the afflicted places was Tigray, once the cultural heartland of the nation. It is struggling to recover even now, but there is hope.

If anyone is tempted to believe that humanity, crawling small upon the face of a vast Earth is incapable of destroying the climate and ecological system, he should look on Ethiopia. Forest were felled to produce fields for crops but just produced dust as the light soil blew away in the winds. The trees held it together, and made a home for wildlife. The trees made their own local climate which allowed man and beast to live – but when the trees were gone, the land died.

Now there is regrowth. The BBC’s Justin Rowlett recently reported on an effort to regrow destroyed forests in Tigray, in the north of Ethiopia. The land is transformed and the bees are returning. (African bees, he found, and as I could have told him, are more aggressive and sting more violently than softy European bees – even elephants are afraid of African bees.) Without bees to pollinate plants, life struggles, so their return presages rebirth.

Worldwide forest are being felled, and we have the luxury here in Britain to be aghast at this, safe in the knowledge that we have already felled our islands’ own lush forests for farmland, millennia ago. There has been new plantation though – the Forestry Commission for a hundred years now has been busy filling with trees areas once bare – Daniel Defoe or Samuel Johnson who described trees moorland in the north would not recognise the lush pine forests there now, and it was done not from some care for the environment let alone ideas about climate change (not back in 1919) but because the Government needed wood. That is the key to success: a practical motive and a plan for sustainable forestry following over generations.

In America forestry is massive business, but the more successful forest plantations are those which plant as much as they fell, looking two hundred years ahead. If we know that our children will benefit, we care for the future, but if all our effort is taxed away at the end, we have no motive for sustainability.

In the meantime though, Ethiopia is making steps to recover Eden where once there was Gehenna. That is far, far more practical than marches and petitions. The efforts in Ethiopia to replant the lost forests and restore life, efforts carried out by Ethiopians to benefit their generations to come, are worth the praises of the world.

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