Each month, editor Mark Goldthorpe adds new stories he’s discovered (most recent reads at the top for each month, rather than in order of original publication). This is the ClimateCultures monthly selection of Views from Elsewhere so far for 2021, with stories from: Aeon Magazine, Anthropocene Magazine, Atlas Obscura, BBC News, The Conversation, Edge Effects, Extinction Rebellion, Inkcap Journal, The Journal of Wild Culture, The Leverhulme Centre for Anthropocene Biodiversity, Literary Hub, Minding Nature, Psyche Magazine, Seasonalight, STEPS Centre Pathways to Sustainability.
- Who sues for the trees - and the air that we breathe?
For Anthropocene Magazine (8/7/21), Wayt Gibbs asks whether recent climate victories in the courtroom actually will lead to steeper emission cuts, and looks at the optimists' and pessimist's arguments. On the one hand, the pace of climate lawsuits has picked up dramatically, with activists achieving several dramatic wins in just the past year, and "historically, landmark rights cases have actually forced other parts of the government to change course". But companies and governments on the losing side in court almost always appeal, "postponing real change too far into the climate emergency", judges averse to radical change can turn cases into roadblocks to progress, and courts can take the view that cutting emissions requires international diplomacy, and their court rulings shouldn't interfere in that process.
Either way, "climate activists have filed hundreds of new cases — some on behalf of future generations — to focus judicial power on carbon emissions. And they have won surprising victories in the Netherlands, Germany, and Australia, reigniting hopes that judges will impose tough choices that other branches of government have avoided." Gibbs notes trends to keep track of:
"Better use of scientific evidence in climate lawsuits. ... [With reports that] 'most suits didn’t make full use of the scientific evidence available. Some provided no evidence of causality, and others lacked quantitative estimates of how climate change contributed to the events at issue.' With better scientific advisers, activists’ lawyers may win more and bigger cases."
Lawsuits to halt Norwegian oil drilling in the Barents Sea: "Greenpeace’s plea to revoke Norway’s Arctic oil leases was defeated three times in Norwegian courts but could get heard by the European Court of Human Rights... The case will test the idea that emissions-intensive development violates the rights of young people and those who stand to lose their livelihoods to global warming."
The German legislature’s response to a recent order from its court: "Winning a court case — even a landmark one — is less than half the battle. Legal strategies don’t actually work until they bend the trajectory of emissions toward zero."
- Monks Wood Wilderness: 60 years ago, scientists let a farm field rewild – here’s what happened
At The Conversation (22/7/21), Richard Broughton reports on a long-term study of natural rewilding in Cambridgeshire, UK, in an experiment that was set up in 1961 on a four-hectare arable field next to the Monks Wood Experimental Station. "After harvesting a final barley crop, the field was ploughed and then abandoned", and the station's then Director sugegsted "It might be interesting to watch what happens to this area if man does not interfere. Will it become a wood again, how long will it take, which species will be in it?"
Nature did its job. "A shrubland of thorn thickets emerged after the first ten to 15 years ... its seeds were dropped by thrushes and other berry-eating birds[and] this thicket protected seedlings of wind-blown common ash and field maple, but especially English oak." And with the thicket protecting the saplings from browsing rabbits, brown hares, muntjac deer and roe deer, these "trees eventually rose up and closed their canopy above the thicket, which became the woodland understorey. The result is a structurally complex woodland with multiple layers of tree and shrub vegetation, and accumulating deadwood as the habitat ages. This complexity offers niches for a wide variety of woodland wildlife, from fungi and invertebrates in the dead logs and branches, to song thrushes, garden warblers and nuthatches which nest in the ground layer, understorey and tree canopy."
The original field lay next to existing ancient woodland, providing the seeds and the animals that would disperse them. As Broughton points out, "there are many woods in the UK that could expand by allowing adjacent fields to return to nature." The UK has just 13% woodland cover, and only half of that is native woodland, which sustains a wide variety of indigenous species, the other half being non-native conifer plantations grown for timber.
- Ecomimicry: the nature-inspired approach to design that could be the antidote to urban ‘blandscapes
At The Conversation (29/6/21) Stuart Connop and Caroline Nesh pick apart the all-too-common practice of 'blandscaping' our urban landscapes, designing green spaces with an entirely human focus, with just a few generic plant species that might look easy on the eye and provide a space to pause or just pass through, but have little value for biodiversity and deeper human engagement with place and nature.
"Like a tidal wave of uniformity, this approach sweeps biodiversity aside. Just as the monocultures created by intensive single-crop farming have threatened a huge range of plant and animal species, blandscapes render formerly diverse ecosystems identical by removing the variety of habitat features – including different soil types, complex plant structures, and unique hydrological patterns – that allow nature to flourish."
The starting point for this form of redevelopment, of course, is usually an even more unnatural expanse of grey concrete and disused buildings, so any 'greening' might look like an improvement (although post-industrial urban spaces often harbour much more diverse wildlife than the new blandscape will), but the authors point out the missed opportunity to adopt an ecomimicry approach, which "starts with reading the local landscape like a book. By getting to know how different parts of a regional ecosystem intertwine, urban designers can integrate the ecological functionality that already exists in the landscape – like an abundance of pollinators, natural flood defences and food – into what they build." The status quo aproach, of "throwing generic plants and soil into a landscape design," they suggest, "is a form of ecological cleansing."
- What does it mean to be a farmer in the twenty first century? Apart and a part.
Writing for Minding Nature (Spring 2021), Matthew Sanderson suggests that "to be a farmer in the twenty-first century is to participate actively, vitally, in the creation of a new story. It is to use one’s labor — body and mind and spirit — in the service of re-making a broken agri-business through the practice of agri-culture. What it means to be a farmer emerges from participation in this new story, with others, human and more-than-human."
The question that each of us faces - "Are you a part of the world or are you apart from the world?" - is, he says, "the basis of a new creation story" but is "rarely, if ever, acknowledged explicitly in our thoughts and actions," even though "all of us answer it routinely, even if tacitly, multiple times every day. The answer lurks in our deep story — the unquestioned narrative each of us constructs over the course of our life. The answer lurks in our sense of self, in our identity."
While collectively we have presumed we had the right answer, enacting it has brought us to the present crisis and "we know now what our ancestors could not have known or did not want to know. We now have the feedback, the evidence — human and ecological — to know our answer was wrong" and was based on a model, an assumption of dominion. In contrast, "to be a farmer in the twenty-first century means enacting community with the human and more-than-human world."
- The grand plan to rewild Somerleyton Estate – including the return of the lynx
Tomé Morrissy-Swan writes for Inkcap Journal (23/6/21) of the work of Hugh Somerleyton, current owner of Somerleyton Hall in Suffolk, to transform the estate from conventional to regenerative farming practices, rewilding 1,000 acres. "For two decades the influence of Knepp [in Sussex], the famous rewilding pioneer, on farmers and conservationists alike, has been huge. Here at Somerleyton Hall, a plan of similar scale, and potentially equal influence, is beginning to unfold."
Somerleyton, who inherited this estate in 2005, wanted to rewild it then but Natural England turned down his application. By 2016, however, he saw “the beginning of a sea change in attitude” - and his plans now encompass much bigger landscapes than this large estate, with Somerleyton and other ast Anglian farmers and conservationists forming WildEast, "to turn an area the size of Dorset over to nature."
Morrissy-Swan says that "Somerleyton makes no bones about the end goal, which he concedes will cause alarm: the reintroduction of predators like lynx. On a visit to Alladale in Scotland, where Paul Lister has long championed the wolf, the WildEast team were encouraged to dream big. 'We picked the lynx as a lowland wolf, as an object of WildEast. If we can get to a point where our landscape can support this and, more importantly, people can support this, that’s what success looks like.'"
- Life is an outlaw: a biologist challenges the central doctrine
In a Journal of Wild Culture interview with Whitney Smith and Chris Lowry (14/5/21), biologist Ignacio Chapela emphasises that, unlike maths and physics, biology is a messy science whose essence is diversity. "A very important problem today is our failure to fruitfully understand, interact and deal with a fundamental principle of biology: diversity. It's not only the fact that we're losing diversity, but that we're losing it because we lack the imagination and intellectual capacity as a culture to understand and to behave coherently in relation to this principle ... What moves biology is diversity, change, fluidity, the fact that nothing is set, and that there are no rules and no laws. The effort of trying to produce something equivalent to Newtonian physics in biology has failed over and over, and yet we stubbornly keep coming back and attempting to impose these laws of nature that don't exist onto nature that is crying back to us about how wrong we are."
Discussing the nature of imagination as the opening of one’s mind to possibilities we might not be used to, Chapela explains that "it's openness to the other. In my world as a biologist, which is the world of the living, I need to make a strong distinction between the living and the non-living. The world of the living is so diverse and different that it takes training of the human mind to recognize that there are other ways of being ... This is a process by which a biologist is trained, through the exploration of living systems, to keep the mind open. In our education systems we seem to be anti-prepared for the world of the living; we seem to be hell-bent on bringing it into bounds and resistant to the possibility of other ways of being and other ways of living."
Using an image of a field that evokes both the physical, earthy terrain and a shared discipline of enquiry, Chapela argues against a monolithic 'rule of the laws of nature' mentality: "a mentality that wants one answer to solve every problem, whereas I strongly believe in transformation that comes through answers that are small, localized, and time-specific. Detecting the appearance and maintenance of happiness through diversity is something that we are really good at detecting, really good at sensing it when it’s there and not there. When you walk into a field and you see people dealing with a field that is diverse, powerfully rooted in its history, and deep in the physical roots of the soil, that’s where there is an enormous amount of happiness — and it is very local."
- Move to net zero 'inevitably means more mining'
Jonathan Amos at BBC News (25/5/21) reports that, although in the longer term recycling key metals and minerals should be able to support demand created by a shift of technologies to deliver on 'net zero' carbon pledges, extraction rates will first have to be raised. "Governments around the world are busy setting targets to transform their economies so they no longer contribute warming gases to the atmosphere, or more correctly have a net zero contribution. This will mean phasing out the internal combustion engine and dramatically increasing renewable energy technologies, such as wind and solar."
Just meeting the UK goal for all new cars to go electric from 2030 means switching 31.5 million petrol and diesel vehicles over to a battery-electric fleet. This requires "twice the current annual world production of cobalt (used in battery electrodes), an entire year's world production of neodymium (to make electric motor magnets) and three-quarters of the world production of lithium (battery electrolyte)." Yes, those are world mining figures, needed for a UK target; and "replacing the estimated 1.4 billion internal combustion engine vehicles worldwide would need 40 times these quantities, and that's before the metal and mineral requirements of all the wind turbines and solar farms are considered."
Amos asks where and how this extra mining might be done - and then there is the question of lead times, with a decade or more between finding the resource, mining it, then turning it into batteries. With a degree of understatement, he observes: "These are not easy questions. Consider the rumpus presently about extending mining to the seafloor. Some car companies say they will not accept any product from the ocean because of the damage this might do to the marine environment."
- Degrowth and the Pluriverse: continued coloniality or intercultural revolution?
Writing for the STEPS Centre Pathways to Sustainability blog (5/5/21) Saurabh Arora and Andy Stirling look at the (growing) degrowth movement through the lens of topology - addressing what they see as a neglected aspect of the debate of how to reverse the seemingly inexorable drive for continued economic growth in the capitalist model.
“The word topology,” they suggest, “draws attention to the patterns of social relations – both among people (as mediated by discourses, institutions and practices) and more materially with ‘nature’ (as mediated through technologies, economies and ecologies). Just as a doughnut can be moulded into a cup without a change in topology, so the underlying patterns of socio-material relations don’t fundamentally change just by shifts in size and shape of the constituting elements.” As such, topology matters as much in the growth-degrowth debate as scale and informs an analysis of the structures of global extraction that continue the legacies of the colonial exploitation that capitalism is built upon. Expanding or contracting the flow of material through the world economy does not in itself change the topology - the relations between humans and with the rest of the living world - that make up our ‘world of many worlds’, our pluriverse of cultures and natures.
“After half a millennium of colonial destruction of the Earth’s pluriverse, it is long overdue that such distinctions be recognised. We strongly support the degrowth argument if it is restricted to extractive topologies associated with currently globalising forms of Modernity – constituted by (colonial) control of territories and peoples for pillage. But we call equally strongly for greater recognition of the importance of growth in other topologies – constituted by myriad other ways of living and knowing in the pluriverse. This means asking what kinds of transformations are necessary across Modern knowledges, cultures, institutions and economies, not just to degrow, but also to restructure the relations that are inexorably pillaging the pluriverse. How can alternative topologies of the pluriverse grow radically (rather than degrow) in the 21st century?”
The risk they perceive is that a degrowth movement focused on scale rather than topology - on prioritising modernity's homogenising tendencies over pluriversal differences - will continue along the underlying modernist path of overlooking, marginalising and discounting the other ways of living that still exist in the pluriverse. And in the Anthropocene, which some see as a mandate for the human species to actively manage what has so far been an unplanned experiment with the world’s physical systems, “it is clear to see that coloniality of Modernity goes beyond obsessions with growth. Where it is situated in a ‘one world world’ of a homogenised ‘humanity’, then it is not only ‘growth’ but also ‘degrowth’ that can perpetuate Modernist topologies of control… Degrowth might – for all the good intentions – become as colonial as growth.”
- On the literature of rewilding… and the need to rewild literature
Writing for Literary Hub (14/4/21), Phoebe Hamilton Jones looks across some of the recent fiction that has investigated rewilding, from Sarah Hall’s novel Wolf Border, Daisy Johnson’s Fen and Max Porter’s Lanny on the fiction front, and Richard Skelton’s genre-bending Beyond the Fell Wall - books that "point to the phenomenon of shifting baseline syndrome, the 'environmental generational amnesia' in which each generation accepts a lower threshold of biodiversity as the norm. "
Hamilton Jones describes how new stories and poetry "are now asking us to engage directly with both our primeval fears and with the growing momentum around rewilding the planet" - offering "compelling insights into abandoning landscapes to the unpredictable. Literature can persuasively affect how we encounter ourselves in the wild, how we shift our perspectives and reconsider our entanglements with other species. We recognize humans as one species among many. Rewilding is partly a philosophy, which is why literature’s imagination, attention and humility can be fertile ground."
At the same time, though, she identifies a tension within fictional rewilding: "What are the ethics of anthropomorphizing? Of voicing the non-human other? This is a tension that rewilding fiction rubs against. Can literature ever actually give agency to the wild by trying to write it? The wild always exceeds our attempts to plot it. These books suggest that we change our ways of thinking about nature as a static, conquerable theatrical backdrop."
- Writing needs to be offered as a gift to its audience
Interviewing Jay Griffiths for Extinction Rebellion (29/4/21) on the publication of her new book, Why Rebel, Tom Bullough asks "How do you square the urgency of the Climate and Ecological Emergency with books? Or, to put it another way, how do you square campaigning with art?" Griffiths replies: "Propaganda is rude. It implies the reader is an idiot. But it is not so: the reader can see propaganda coming a mile off. Propaganda makes a demand: pay me now. It comes as a loan shark seeking repayment. Writing needs to be offered as a gift to its audience, not a bill." But, she adds, "It does sometimes feel despairing that words are not enough, because my credo as a writer is that words are more than enough, that they carry the living and true world within them, and are transformative. But these are not times when writers have the luxury of ignoring reality."
Words can also conceal, diminish. Language, Griffiths suggests, "buckles in this heat: at the level of such death and damage, it seems that language is often forced towards the big abstractions: ‘doom’, ‘crisis’, ‘collective insanity’ etc. And yet paradoxically those big abstractions do not carry the tender meaning and significance that actually touches people. That is one of the reasons why I ask in this book a primary question: what do you love? Who, or what, gives your life meaning? And from that question flows the Everything."
"We have made cliches of so many things, so glibly and so readily, that the possibility of the collapse of civilizations becomes just an over-used and therefore lifeless term. I think the very fact that these phrases move so quickly into cliche in fact illustrates a very basic thing: the majority of us still do not fully, imaginatively, inhabit these truths."
- Climate scientists: concept of net zero is a dangerous trap
On Earth Day, three eminent climate scientists write for The Conversation (22/4/21) about their fears for the direction governments have built into their domestic and global efforts to combat climate change, charting the rise of 'Net Zero' as the core concept that is now being promoted above all else. "Collectively we three authors of this article must have spent more than 80 years thinking about climate change," say Bob Watson (the former head of the IPCC), Wolfgang Knorr and James Dyson - before admitting: "Why has it taken us so long to speak out about the obvious dangers of the concept of net zero? In our defence, the premise of net zero is deceptively simple – and we admit that it deceived us." Net zero, they suggest "is a great idea, in principle. Unfortunately, in practice it helps perpetuate a belief in technological salvation and diminishes the sense of urgency surrounding the need to curb emissions now. We have arrived at the painful realisation that the idea of net zero has licensed a recklessly cavalier 'burn now, pay later' approach which has seen carbon emissions continue to soar. It has also hastened the destruction of the natural world by increasing deforestation today, and greatly increases the risk of further devastation in the future."
Charting the steps to net zero goals, alongside technologies that have "removed the need for deep critical thinking", an "implicit promise ... that market-based approaches will always work" and that new, 'breakthrough' technologies for capturing and storing carbon can push back the time when deep emission cuts will actually be needed, the three authors add their own perspectives:
"Over the years, doubt has developed into dread. This gnawing sense that we have made a terrible mistake. There are now times when I freely admit to a sense of panic. How did we get this so wrong?" - James Dyke, senior lecturer in global systems, University of Exeter.
"It came to me as a real shock that I must have contributed personally to the net zero trap ... stating that any remaining carbon dioxide emissions by human activities would have to be 'balanced by an artificial sink'." - Wolfgang Knorr, physical geography & ecosystem science, Lund University.
"The most recent assessments clearly show we are failing to meet any of the agreed targets for limiting climate change or loss of biodiversity. I am ashamed of our repeated failures." - Robert Watson, emeritus professor in environmental sciences, University of East Anglia.
"The time has come to voice our fears and be honest with wider society. Current net zero policies will not keep warming to within 1.5°C because they were never intended to. They were and still are driven by a need to protect business as usual, not the climate. If we want to keep people safe then large and sustained cuts to carbon emissions need to happen now. That is the very simple acid test that must be applied to all climate policies. The time for wishful thinking is over."
- Mapping the Planetary: Five Questions for Dipesh Chakrabarty
In a piece for Edge Effects (30/3/21), Doron Darnov brings together some of the questions to Dipesh Chakrabarty at a workshop in a series 'Alien Earth: Introduction to Planetary Humanities'. Chakrabarty, who has posed crucial interventions in the environmental humanities, especially on the ways that climate change asks us to rethink the project of studying history, proposes an important distinction between the 'globe' - as a construct of human thinking and action - and the 'planet' - as one among many planetary bodies - as well as on the role of affect and the ways 'planetarity' asks us to challenge Eurocentric views of human history. Here is a very short selection from Chakrabarty's answers: for more, and for the questions, do read the full piece.
"The planet that is the 'Earth system' is only a construction, an abstract entity: you can’t visualize it. If you read any basic book on Earth System Science, you’ll find very diagrammatic images of how the planet works as a system. So the actual entity is not visualizable in the way our eyes would see it, whereas Blue Marble [photograph] is how we would see Earth if you were an astronaut up in space. So, something that presents itself to our eyes as a self-made form, as it were, as a spherical thing 'out there,' is a culminating point of 'the globe.'"
"When people ask the question 'can there be life on other planets?' they conceptually project to other planets some of the things they see on this planet as providing for the basis of life, so in that sense the Earth System is inherently interplanetary in that it both draws on the experience of this planet and other planets as well as projects science onto other planets. But the globe, as I keep saying, is what humans have made - through the expansion of Europe, through empire-building, through colonization, through capitalism."
"I learned from Earth System Science that what they call 'the modern atmosphere of the planet' has been more or less in this state for about three hundred seventy-five million years, which means it was not made with us in mind. Earth System Science does for me what Indigenous philosophers also do: not make humans special, not make the story completely anthropocentric. I think there’s something to be learned from Indigenous people, which is that they’ve actually lived for much longer than modern societies have, with their outlook, by not creating a society-nature distinction."
"One aspect of the debate on geoengineering - whether humans should spray aerosols in the stratosphere to reflect some of the sunlight back - is something scientists themselves point out: that with scattered light, the sky will be permanently white. Do you want to live with white skies? You can’t imagine human action on climate change without affect."
"Scale is absolutely important, both of space and time, in the way that power structures are organized. And there is a question of affect for individual human beings, because we make decisions roughly within the time-horizons of our own lives, and at most we think of the next generation, if we can afford to. That completely decides the kind of actions we can take against problems that may actually unfold over thousands of years beyond the human scale. And for me, that is an intrinsic part of the predicament we’re in."
- Flumilightenment – The Great Mental and Emotional Convergence
Writing at her Seasonalight blog (22/3/21), Ginny Battson reminds us that habitually, through the words, phrases and headlines we experience every day, "We are drip-fed news about the non-descript environment as if it were: External to us – somewhere 'out there'; a choice, option, preference, or hobby; something that others make a fuss about because they don’t have to worry about daily traumas such as racism, all other kinds of prejudices, conflicts, ill-health, paying the rent."
Part of the problem here is the very word 'environment' - and 'environmentalism' as some kind of 'niche' activity. "We must now DROP the term 'environmentalism' for the sake of saving life itself. Fluminism is the reality." Ginny uses the word fluminism to express how the physical reality we share with all other living forms and the planet's underlying processes is all flow: "All is flow, and all life forms (even in death) are integral to all. Nothing is truly separate in the realm of reality. What has been separated is our mental and emotional state of being. And continuing to use separate language perpetuates planetary catastrophe."
Ginny's championing of flow extends far beyond the living web of all organisms to the material and energetic realms that pervade and underpin life itself, and it is this kind of imaginative grasp of reality that she calls for in a new enlightenment. "Sometimes, our imaginations are able to envision, though the crisis of imagination right now is profound. Sometimes, we may even think we feel it (I call this sanguimund – bloodearth). I want us to be able to protect it all (I call this praximund – processearth)."
"I hope this makes you feel alert and empowered," she concludes. "You need to be."
- Observing nature in your backyard is not dull but radically significant
For Aeon's Psyche Magazine (3/3/21), Yadvinder Malhi relates an experience that some of us have been fortunate to have even during this time of Covid19, although many have been denied: "solace and refuge in local nature over this year of pandemic and lockdown. When able to escape from Zoom calls and cabin fever, I’ve wandered and exercised in my local floodplain meadow of the Thames. I’ve used books and apps to teach myself new natural history skills, such as identifying birds from their songs, or learning the more obscure local plants. I’ve found comfort and fascination in becoming more aware of this community of beings around me."
For Yadvinder, this complements formal research as an ecosystem scientist - but also contrasts with it, as his role there has been in helping to see "the big picture, synthesising insights across these diverse sites, taking advantage of a common scientific methodology that enables rigorous comparison." Inspired by English 18th-century naturalist Gilbert White's famous attention to the very local in his highly influential book, The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne, he came to appreciate the immense value of White's approach "as a counterpoint to planet-spanning snapshots. White wrote in detail about such things as plants, birds and worms, patiently observing the flowering times of plants, the migration patterns of birds, even the hibernation routines of his pet tortoise Timothy, purely for the joy of understanding them."
In setting out how White's example begins to chart a journey that can "change our self-understanding, recognising that humans are embedded in a wider natural world" - but a journey that remains incomplete - Yadvinder reminds us that "To see humanity as but one member of a community of animal and plant ‘nations’ is intrinsic to many indigenous world views, including those of Europe. However, this way of seeing retreated in prominence in medieval Europe, and was further diminished by the elevation of the power of reason in the Enlightenment, which enhanced a sense of human superiority over Nature. White’s empathy with the inner lives of other species, married with the emerging scientific values of meticulous observation, record-keeping and quantification, was something new. His observations and writings made a quiet, patient beginning to a revolution that would eventually shake the foundations of our understanding of humanity’s place in the natural world." Radically significant, indeed.
- How a secret Cold War project led to signs of ancient life - and a new warning about the future
Gemma Tarlach relates for Atlas Obscura (15/3/21) how the rediscovery of a lost Arctic sample has rewritten the history of Greenland's ice sheet - with implications for our global future. The core of subglacial sediment and rock was taken from below a mile of ice in 1966 at an American research base in Greenland that had served as cover for a secret military project to build hundreds of miles of tunnels about into the ice to store nuclear missiles within striking range of the Soviet Union. "Since being pulled from beneath the ice sheet, the sample had been separated from the rest of the core, had criss-crossed the Atlantic, was lost, and then rediscovered. But it had never been analyzed."
When Andrew Christ was washing the sample for analysis he found peculiar black specks floating in the water. "'Oh my god, these are plants,' he remembers exclaiming. 'I went full-on mad scientist.'" The new evidence suggested Greenland had been ice-free in the past million years, although it had long been "thought that Greenland’s ice sheet, more than two miles thick in places, was essentially permanent, and had blanketed the island for more than two million years. The subglacial sample confirms the massive ice sheet can probably melt far more easily than most models suggest, which would dump enough water into the oceans to raise sea levels by up to 20 feet, all but wiping major cities such as London and Boston off the map."
With Earth’s polar regions warming much faster than the rest of the planet, “the Greenland Ice Sheet can disappear,” says a climatologist William Colgan: “It is remarkably climate-sensitive.”
The scientists will study material to learn more about the plant material it preserved, "which is unique, since massive ice deposits usually destroy organic material. The next phase of research, already underway, includes searching for traces of DNA that could be used to determine the species present, and even reconstruct the entire ecosystem."
- Eco-fusion is the new normal, as native and non-native species mix together
Writing for The Conversation (18/2/21), Ian Rotherham and Peter Bridgewater remind that, while many invasive species cause major problems, "the idea that all 'alien' species are inherently bad, and that invasions can be always effectively controlled, is mistaken." Furthermore, as "ecological novelty is now the order of the day, we must adapt both our ideas and our actions to this new reality."
Species of plant and animal, of course, have always moved around the globe and this has lead to processes of 'recombining' within local ecosystems - "eco-fusion or ecological hybridisation" - to establish new or novel mixes of native and non-native species. Such hybrid ecosystems are increasingly common "as the natural world is disrupted by air pollution and climate change, and more land is cleared for buildings or agriculture the numbers and types of fusion ecosystems are increasing." But the researchers warn that "in this context of change, our perceptions and decisions about which species to conserve and which to cull are less objective than we might assume."
They call for a more pragmatic approach to what counts as 'nature'. "In the tumultuous world of the Anthropocene, major changes to environmental conditions such as the climate, globalisation and human numbers, mean that both supposed native and non-native species will continue to interact and evolve."
- An Evergreen and Pleasant Land?
Writing for The Leverhulme Centre for Anthropocene Biodiversity (4/2/21), Pete Yeo takes inspiration from the famous lines of William Blake - immortalised in the hymn Jerusalem - "And did those feet in ancient time / Walk upon England's mountains green: / And was the holy Lamb of God / On England's pleasant pastures seen!" - to contemplate the changes in Britain's vegetation as a result of our changing climate.
"Whilst Blake’s ‘green and pleasant land’ clearly featured ‘pastures’, then as now England’s natural, spontaneous vegetation tends towards verdant yet deciduous forest. This has not always been the case; not so long ago in the geological past the climate was too frigid for most plants, whilst further back in time it has been decidedly subtropical. These warmer epochs witnessed the prominence of evergreen woody species, such as those constituting so-called laurel forest. Climate change is now inviting such vegetation back with profound consequences for our relationship with the land and its always evolving ecosystems."
After periods of Ice Age glaciation, which removed cold-sensitive tree cover, rising temperatures once again permitted some species to colonise or recolonise northward - "though these were descendants that had learnt to cope with cooler, drier conditions. English natives holly and ivy are both examples (to which we can add the conifer yew), whilst other laurel forest relicts such as cherry laurel, holm oak and rhododendron were able to make it to the British Isles during one or other of the warmer interglacial periods..."
And now the rediversification of European forests is underway in response to human-induced changes. "Admittedly, this is not simply due to our warming climate and reducing frosts that now allow seed-set and dispersal. The process has been facilitated by our global society, our love of trade and, especially, horticulture. This ecological mixing was likely inevitable at some point due to larger Earth cycles yet it all represents a great acceleration of evolutionary processes, and brings novel tensions. We are where we are, however. Whilst throw-back winters may occasionally slow evergreen progress, sufficient warming is already locked-in, however good our efforts at emission mitigation. This invites us to adapt and welcome laurel forest species, and to reconcile ecological and cultural tensions as far as possible, without need for Blake’s ‘chariot of fire’."
Pete's article has also been reposted at the website set up by ClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe for Finding Blake, the project 'reimagining William Blake for the 21st century'; the site has also featured posts from ClimateCultures members James Murray-White, Clare Crossman and Salli Hipkiss.
- The peace of wild things
Aeon Magazine (11/1/21) shares a moment of contemplation that will strike a chord with many of us during the start of our second year with the Covid19 pandemic and its lockdowns. In this very short animated film by UK animators Katy Wang and Charlotte Ager, American poet, farmer and environmental activist Wendell Berry reads his short poem, The Peace of Wild Things.
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
- Mary Wollstonecraft as environmental prophet
Bee Rowlatt shares with Extinction Rebellion (21/1/21) her "piercing moment of realisation" of climate crisis - and the story of how she later followed in the wake of Enlightenment philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft's own journey to a prophetic insight in 1795 - retracing it in her book In Search of Mary. For Rowlatt it was "a humble example, when I noticed that sparrows, my scruffy childhood favourites, had vanished from London. For so long they cheerfully dotted the urban landscape, hopping and scrapping around. Surely sparrows had the least to fear from humans – they were common and therefore insignificant ... And then they were gone."
For Wollstonecraft, it was "on rough seas off the coast of Norway. She was on a mysterious treasure hunt, in the teeth of the French revolutionary wars, travelling with her baby, and a broken heart." Wollstonecraft's account of these travels, Letters from Norway "is a desperate and doomed love letter, gathering force from her powerful responses to the wild landscapes. And there in the midst of that rollercoaster journey, on a wobbly boat and surrounded by strangers, she is suddenly struck by compassion for future generations in jeopardy" when she foresees the whole planet overpopulated and subjected to humanity's activities, even "'these bleak shores. Imagination went still farther, and pictured the state of man when the earth could no longer support him. ... 'Where was he to fly to from universal famine? Do not smile: I really became distressed for these fellow creatures, yet unborn.'”
Howlatt testifies to the powerful personal impact of moments of imagainative experience and suggests that "as the climate crisis deepens, it matters that we observe moments like this, and mark their arrival. It is the awakening to human fragility, and to the role we play in our own demise."