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, Atlas Obscura, The Conversation, Edge Effects, Extinction Rebellion, The Leverhulme Centre for Anthropocene Biodiversity, Psyche Magazine, Seasonalight.
- 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."