We are going green

Tear up that grass, hew down that tree, for we are going green.  Burn the bushes, spray weed-killer, for we are going green. Mix sand and quicklime, pummel stones to fine gravel, fill the air with fumes as we mix and pour the concrete, for we are going green.

The new electric car needs a charger and a driveway on which to charge it, so that front garden, though we loved it, must go. There is no space for lawns, herbaceous borders, hedging, in the new, green household.

We are of course of the comfortable Middle Class in our regulation Metro-Land home, we who understand how important these things are, as they are, and everyone must conform for their own good as well as that of the planet. Everyone who has a driveway will have a charger, and those who have none must concrete their front gardens.

I do not wish to recall the time I lived in a terrace house and parked on the road, as it might make me think about how I could have plugged the car in then. Presumably in streets up and down the land we will see cables strung across the pavement like a seething mass of snakes, and pedestrians will have to find another way by.

As for those who live in flats, are the cables long enough, or will the car have to dangle from a seventh floor window?

There are those who are fortunately enough to rent garages of course, and such a person may install his charger there, until the council terminates his lease to build flats on the land instead, which will be a fine sight to see, standing tall (with cars dangling out of its windows).

We, however, when the concrete dries, are going green.

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A less preachy BBC: praise be

I read that a new David Attenborough series is coming to the Beeb, which is always a great event: Green Planet. The name may strike dread into the hearts of those used to throwing bricks at the screen whenever another lecture on climate change is delivered, but it is a description of the subject, plant-life (just as Blue Planet was about the seas, not the worldwide success of Thatcherism).

We should still worry. Sir David’s more recent outing in Our Planet was one big lecture on how naughty we all are, with facts skewed and altered to fit the narrative of climate change being behind everything. (It isn’t; only some things.) That series was sponsored by a campaigning organisation and was so blatant that even the BBC rejected it. That sort of thing does not enhance the reputation of the broadcaster, nor the narrator.

This time we are promised a production that is more positive and less preachy. That will be a welcome change.

Mankind does tread upon the face of the Earth with giant boots, ill-regarding what is underfoot. An occasional reminder is welcome and it may help more of us in a solipsistic, screen-dominated society to appreciate what is there and to wish to care for it. However being told that all plastic bags are evil because one ended up in the stomach of a cute porpoise is untruthful and economically damaging (unless you actually throw your bags in the sea, in which case you deserve all those curses).

We can look beneath our big feet and appreciate the wonders of nature and that may be the better way to start mending it. Even in the concrete jungle there are persistent weeds breaking through the tarmac and through any flaw in the concrete, and that is a reminder of how limited is man’s dominion over the Earth in the face of nature. I think how hard it is to get a particular plant to grow in a particular spot in my garden, and then I see a burst of herb-Robert growing out exuberantly between the salt-scoured stones of a harbour wall in the Arctic Ocean and realise that nature is stronger and stranger than we could imagine.

The positive message we are promised in Green Planet is an active one: not just ‘look how beautiful’ but ‘this is what you can do personally’. That is only a bit preachy, but in an encouraging way. When the message is ‘write to politicians as they are all to blame’ or ‘every light left on drowns a polar bear’ that is displacement activity and discrediting science, but a personal positive with a to-do list that will actually have an improving effect, however small; that it exactly what the BBC should be doing.

It is the positive and practical message which Prince William has adopted in framing his ‘EarthShot Prize’, and that goes beyond the headline-grabber of ‘global warming’ to wider issues that are more important.

Yes, do show us the clumsy tread of mankind: we can see how the perennial floods in Bengal are worsened by the loss of forests upstream, or how the Communists poisoned the Aral Sea and turned Ethiopia into desert, and yes, we can see that corrupt practices in some countries leaves plastic waste dumped in the Pacific Ocean, but there is nothing realistically we can do but pray. We can however plant plants, and bee-friendly plants. Anyone can then get out in the country and learn to use their feet while they take in the glories of creation. That way you stop relying so much on electricity and heating and plastic comfort, and to tread more lightsome upon the face of the Earth.

Maybe that normalisation of a natural life will inspire those creative entrepreneurs who are popping up with greater frequency to find that less wasteful techniques are more profitable, as did the later Victorian mill-owners when they used fuel more efficiently and found that workers are more productive when not being poisoned and wool sells better when not smeared with soot.

If it is as we are promised, I can have high hopes for Green Planet. Seeing and understanding nature is the best way to appreciate it, and starting to become part of nature and to nurture it is a very positive message. Getting yet another lecture about how global warming is responsible for everything from shrinking fish stocks to Liverpool losing the cup makes me want to go out and batter a seal cub.

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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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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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