Only human

There’s a phrase going round in my head:
‘The world would be fine if we were all dead’
But surely that’s immoral?
Humans mean more than coral,
or fish, or bees,
or birds or trees…
‘God gave us all the species to use’
To use, perhaps, but abuse?
Life is a circle, you want a line – with an incline
You think that hoarding wealth is just fine.
Humanity has no wealth, no intrinsic worth
without every creature here on this Earth.

So let’s stop the killing,
the mining, the drilling.
The incessant, one-way take, take, take
has to become make and remake.
Time will heal but how much remains?
Tipping points loom, can we shake off our chains?
Can we see though the false stories,
abandon our categories, our laboratories, our territories?
Will we choose a better way to be
or will Nature impose change and watch us flee?
Shit happens.


Mandy Meikle is as surprised at this turn of events as anyone. Dedicated to Elvis McGonagall’s misanthropic rabbit!

Posted in Poems, Writing | 2 Comments

This book-writing malarkey

Yes, I’ve been bashing away at this book idea since August 2018 and on re-reading this section, I felt it might as well go on the blog. Comments welcome (I think!)

Ellie Harris looked at herself in the mirror as she combed what was left of her hair. She was 55 years old, tall, slim, with an air of refinement. Ellie had terminal cancer. She had initially been diagnosed in 2006 but responded well to treatment; she had been in remission from 2008 until last year, 2014.

Ellie had been active in green politics for thirty years or more but was always too self-doubting to be any kind of public figure; more comfortable behind the scenes, helping those with the strength of character to take an environmental message into finance-focused political arenas. The environment had long since been reduced to an accounting ‘externality’—not abusing it in some way costs shareholders money.

Ellie had no idea how to speak out for the environment effectively; one whiff of ‘you can’t have perpetual growth on a finite planet’ and few heard the rest of your message. She believed in her heart of hearts that business-as-usual powered by ‘clean, green alternatives’, which included nuclear power, ‘clean’ coal and fracked gas, was a delusion. No one could tell her how millions of tonnes of anything would be mined in a future without fossil fuels. How does one make a wind turbine without a well-oiled global industrial complex to supply and process raw materials, to manufacture parts, to deliver them around the world? Preparing for a future without fossil fuels should be preparing for a very different world—de-globalised and decentralised. And it means expecting a future with less stuff, not more. But that kind of talk won’t win you an election.

A reprieve from death changed her perspective, unsurprisingly, and she felt she had nothing to lose. For years, Ellie had been researching a whole host of environmental issues, hoping to find that all-important mix of reality and hope that would galvanise enough people to radically change how they, and by extension we, lived. We needed way more communities to live off-grid than currently do, and to live off the land. We will not solve the problem of waste by replacing plastic with anything plant-based—apart from the fact that mountains of compostable waste are not the answer, where are all these plants going to be grown and how many do we need? Whatever the topic, the conclusion always seemed to be the same—it is not that we live, but how we live. Everything that happens on Earth is a culmination of the current batch of human spirit and will. And how ‘we’, the sum of all human life on Earth, live is by taking and taking from nature with little regard for the damage we are doing, and even less gratitude for the gift of life we receive. Most troubling, the more of us there are, the less there is to go around.

The problem as Ellie saw it was how to decouple ‘progress’, whatever that means, from consumption. “I don’t care how hard it is”, she said to an audience of economics students during one of her earlier talks in Edinburgh, “we have to do it. Maybe it will take several generations, maybe we’ll procrastinate some more and our society will collapse around us, but some of us have to start now. Whether we like it or not, resource depletion and population growth mean we are facing a future of less. If we want to work towards maintaining great achievements like medicine, sanitation, and electricity then we have to wrench progress away from economic growth. Imagine how we might live if progress related to environmental repair and inner growth of human character, rather than debt and destruction.” Ellie felt for the economics students and wondered how they were processing the immediate aftermath of the global financial meltdown—it was October 2008.

ATM analogy
“The problem with ‘peak oil’ is that no one wants to take it seriously”, Ellie said to the sea of mostly young faces before her. “And because the media only seems concerned about high oil prices, a big number being inherently more interesting than a small one, it misses the point that as oil becomes harder to extract—a major component of the theory of peak oil—producers have to make more money per barrel to pay for the extra work done in getting it out of the ground and to market. Oil prices may well fall too low for producers, rather than rise too high for consumers, and oil companies may cease trading if prices remain too low for too long.” Ellie was trying to explain to these students of economics why the price of oil was an important indicator of economic health and both very low and very high oil prices should be seen as warnings of instability.

“Oil reserves aren’t worth squat if you can’t get your hands on the oil.” Ellie’s money analogy to explain flow rates worked for most students, not just economics students: “Imagine you won a competition. The prize is one million dollars in a bank account. The only stipulation is that you cannot withdraw more than £50 per day, each day, no leaving it for a few months and withdrawing a larger amount later. Still a pretty handy prize but not the same as having access to the whole million; it’s not the size of the resource but the flow rate that matters. How quickly does the oil flow to market? How quickly does the money flow into your hands? If you survive for 55 years, you’ll get your prize—and find out what £50 buys you in 55 years’ time. Now imagine you can only withdraw £10 per day.” After a short pause, Ellie moved on to her next slide. The analogy raises questions such as what can you do with £50, or £1, on any given day or how desperate for a small amount of money are you, and how far away is this ATM—how much work do you have to do for your daily fifty and is it worth it?

“There is a saying”, she continued, “that the Stone Age didn’t end because we ran out of stone. True; it ended because we found new, better materials to make tools from. Those people may then go on to say that the fossil fuel age won’t end because we run out of fossil fuels. That’s also true. We will never suck every last drop of fossil fuel from the Earth, although our behaviour in the early 21st century suggests that we are giving it a bloody good try.” A ripple of slightly nervous laughter moved through the auditorium. Ellie believed that humour was vital in most situations, although it did sometimes prove hard to judge where the audience was at with laughing in the face of oblivion.

“It is true because the point comes when it simply won’t be economically viable to do so. The important thing to note is that the Palaeolithic world was brimming with alternatives to stone, just waiting for a mind smart enough to use them. Here, today, as the glaciers melt and the soils erode, we live in a complex yet fragile global economic system, built up over millennia of relative climatic stability since the end of the last Ice Age. A system which uses more and more energy, even while claiming to have become cleaner and more efficient. There is no alternative. There are energy alternatives, plural, but nothing to replace the fossil fuels, especially oil, on a like-for-like basis. This is our problem”.

Solar question
Ellie’s next slide showed the cover of a book called ‘The party’s over: oil, war, and the fate of industrial societies’ by Richard Heinberg, written five years earlier. “You could start in worse places than this to gain a better understanding of the energy crisis”, she said. “But before we go on, are there any questions?” A hand went up.

“Isn’t it true that the Sun puts out enough energy in one hour to power the entire needs of the Earth for a year? So even if we are not very efficient at gathering it, surely there is more than enough solar energy to replace fossil fuels?” Ellie thought for a moment—she had not wanted to bore the economics students with too much on energy basics but maybe she should.

“That’s a good question and makes me realise that I haven’t really explained what energy is if, indeed, anyone can. So let me do that, then I’ll come back to your question.

“The best definition I know is that energy is the ability to do work, the ability to make change happen. Within any system devoid of energy, nothing happens. The First Law of Thermodynamics states that energy can neither be created nor destroyed—we can change energy from one form to another, say using sunlight to excite atoms and generate electricity in a solar cell, but we cannot create energy. The First Law dictates that the total quantity of energy in the Universe stays the same. The Second Law of Thermodynamics refers to the quality of energy: as energy is transferred or transformed, more and more of it is wasted, often as low-quality heat or maybe sound. Converting energy from one form to another is inherently inefficient as it always changes from high to low quality when work is performed; electricity is an example of a high-quality form of energy. In some cases, the amount of energy lost as heat can be as high as 90 percent of the total energy involved.

“So, to your question. There are many figures for the amount of energy reaching the Earth from the Sun and I agree, the Sun produces an incomprehensibly large-sounding amount of energy, but your question raises a few concerns. First, our industrial systems were built the way they were because we had access to the massive energy store we call fossil fuels: coal replaces wind and water for milling and turning, and replaces wood for heating; the wonder-substance oil was developed initially as a lighting fuel but its potential as a transport fuel to replace coal was quickly seen; and last but not least, not-really-that-clean gas is a fossil fuel with fewer carbon atoms per unit of released energy and, therefore, lower—not zero—CO2 emissions when it is burned. But gas has its problems too, mostly around transport; in some cases it is worth using the energy required to cool and liquefy gas for transportation. In other cases, the value of gas is so low that it is flared off—just an inconvenient by-product of the oil industry.

“The main reason this is important to you, economists of the future, is that our economy is as bound to energy as it is to the environment. Our economy is based on producing goods and services for others to purchase. So having a good, long think about what goods and services we will need in a future with less energy available to power our economy could dictate the success of your career.”

The next limiting factor
“Yes, oil’s liquid nature makes it much easier to transport by tanker or pipeline than coal or gas, but oil is also a raw material, which many forget about. We are not changing our electricity grid to work on renewable energy. All renewables, in my opinion, should be part of a decentralised grid. Who funds such a massive change of our energy infrastructure and wouldn’t they then own what they had paid for? Ideas like that scare me more than the lights going out because our cultural values remain stuck in the dark ages of kings and peasants. Only today, the peasants think they have rights to things like heating and light. We have to understand that the modern world we live in came about thanks to cheap, abundant oil. The days of cheap, abundant oil are over, whether we like it or not, so what happens to our world?”

Once Ellie got started, she found it hard to be brief; she remembered well how difficult it was to first comprehend our world without fossil fuels. If we really knew the timeline, what would we do and when? Our modern world needs the energy from oil and Ellie could not imagine how an orderly, organised, chosen transition away from fossil fuels could ever take place. Humans survived for over a million years without access to fossil fuels—many still do today— so obviously it is possible. But from where we are today, is it probable? As the song says, ‘If I hadn’t seen such riches, I could live with being poor’. That’s a lot of people choosing to live with less—or being otherwise compelled to live with less.

“So”, Ellie continued, “that brings us on to the second concern about assuming that the Sun can provide for all of our needs: our ‘needs’ are what, exactly? We need clothes, yes, but do we need fashion? We need to be able to travel to buy food and to work but do we need private cars at all, let alone one each? But these industries provide employment; all production provides employment for someone, somewhere. It might not be a good job, but that’s another story.

“Because oil was so cheap and abundant, and access to seemingly unlimited energy so exhilarating, we built a world we thought would never end. Now it is ending, wealth is diminishing because our energy supply is diminishing. We would not be turning to unconventional fossil fuels like tar sands and we would not be fracking the land to release tightly-bound oil and gas if we had options. The good stuff, the cheap, low-sulphur, easy-to-access ‘conventional’ oil—the Goldilocks oil— is getting harder to find. It takes more work, more energy input, per barrel of useful energy out, as I said in relation to the price of oil. But it’s more palatable to look to the politics, which are always there but may obscure what’s really going on. A couple of years ago, George W. Bush’s State of the Union speech was all about the US becoming energy-independent of the Saudis—. Yeah, that’s also another story. I’m telling you, Google some of this stuff—join the dots and question everything, especially your own assumptions!

“And finally, as we don’t have all night,” Ellie continued, “even if we did solve the problem of how to make the Sun’s energy usable by our infrastructure to sustain how we live today, what is the next limiting factor—fertile soil, fresh water, clean air? It takes more than just electricity to grow crops, manufacture plastics and solar cells, power every dump-truck in the world, and all the planes and all the shipping. The reason people like me seem to give renewable energy an undeservedly hard time is because there is a severe lack of information about the gaps. We hear lots about forthcoming battery technology, and new catalysts, which I have no doubt are possible, at a cost. A cost which will no doubt fall as demand rises, up to a point. But too few people are willing to say that we cannot live as we do today. The areas of land and sea necessary simply are not available to build the turbines, solar farms and other renewable devices we would need. But to admit that would be to admit that we were wrong about our way of life.”

Cubic mile of oil
In the last five minutes of her allotted time, Ellie said, “Last year, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers created a wonderful graphic to try to explain some of the enormous and confusing numbers associated with energy—there are a range of units all requiring modifiers such as millions, billions and trillions. So think of it this way: in 2006, the world produced around 26.9 billion barrels of crude oil and condensate, which some bright spark noticed was equivalent to just over one cubic mile of oil. While that might still be a hard-to-grasp unit, you all know what a mile is and you all know what a cube is—that’s a lot of oil! But the scary bit is that to replace the energy within one cubic mile of oil would require 50 years’ production from any one of these options: four Three Gorges dams; 52 nuclear power plants; 104 coal-fired power plants; 32,850 wind turbines; or over 91 million solar panels. That’s each year for fifty years to supply the energy contained within the oil we used in just one year. I don’t know how accurate those figures are, nor how renewable technology will advance in the future, but it certainly helps to explain why oil will be so hard to replace without a serious shift in our way of thinking. If it was up to me, these figures would be emblazoned on cereal packets and billboards!

“OK, back to oil prices. In the case where they are too low for producers, the possibility of collapse arises. This really is the ‘C-word’! Many early economies seem to have collapsed as they reached resource limits but they were primitive and not as smart as we are. Or so we tell ourselves. While always open to misinterpretation, historically, collapse seems to come along during times of growing wealth disparity, inadequate wages for non-elite workers, failing governments, debt defaults, resource wars, and epidemics. Sound familiar? The collapse of Easter Island society in the early 18th century is like a miniature version of western society today. Mainstream culture might acknowledge that environmentally-speaking, we have to use less energy but economically that would be suicide if we took it too far, so screw the environment. We see the problem, but take no action in the hopes that we really are so smart now that our society simply could not collapse. I doubt the last Easter Islanders were that arrogant but being thousands of miles from anywhere, they really had nowhere else to go. We do have options but we need to rework our blind belief in the economy to reflect reality—that the environment sustains each and every one of us. What has to happen before we start thinking things like ‘environmentally-speaking, continuing with growth economics is suicidal, so screw the economy!’?”

One thing Ellie appreciated about being invited to speak was considering the context of the audience. Ellie felt she was pretty good on energy and environment, but on the third axis—economy—she felt like a total novice. But she relished the challenge of introducing the basic issues of sustainability to other groups of people in a context they can relate to. To talk about topics like diminishing returns requires a special kind of audience. But it is an important message as diminishing returns can be thought of as growing inefficiency, and the concept applies to diminishing returns on investment as well as on energy use.

“The problem with paying higher prices for what is equivalent to growing inefficiency can be hidden for a while, if the economy is growing rapidly enough. And here’s the key…our economy is unlikely to grow rapidly for some time. We are facing the most challenging financial crisis since the Great Depression. The free market is quite clearly not an infallible, self-correcting mechanism where ‘free’ competition gives rise to perfect knowledge that leads inexorably towards equilibrium, as some of you may have been taught. Rather, markets are made up of people and people suffer from bias and misconception, which invalidates any model saying otherwise. Economists have not embraced this view, largely because it threatens to undermine the myth that economics is a purely objective science. It’s a social science at best.” Ellie did not know of the billions of dollars, pounds and euros soon to be quantitatively eased out of the crumbling financial system in an attempt to patch the system up enough to continue with ‘business as usual’.

“As I’m sure you know, a growing economy can hide a multitude of sins. Paying back debt with interest is easy, if a worker finds his wages growing. Once the economy stops growing, wage disparity becomes a huge problem, it becomes impossible to repay debt with interest, young people’s standards of living are lower than those of their parents, investments do not appear to be worthwhile without government subsidies, businesses find that economies of scale no longer work to their advantage and pension promises become overwhelming, compared to the wages of young people. All of these things will happen if this credit crash does not shake us out of our complacency.”

That’s all for now, folks!

Mandy Meikle edits the Reforesting Scotland Journal and can make a decent pot of soup. She never wanted children but if she could have guaranteed producing one like Greta Thunberg, she might have given it a go!

Posted in Book | 3 Comments

Scared new world

We are living through a time when we can see with our own eyes, if we choose to look, that we are running out of resources. Our air is dirty, our water laden with chemicals, our soils a shadow of their former microbe-rich selves, our mines yielding more dirt and less precious metal per bucket and, most importantly, our fossil fuels sapped of energy. I doubt many reading this see themselves as part of the problem but we all are, to some extent. We swallowed the lies of the advertisers, turned into mindless consumers of stuff we didn’t need. People were sold a dream of plenty just at the point when nature started to succumb to our greed. But we didn’t see it until it was too late.

We saw the Earth as a vast resource, even when reduced by telecommunications and air-travel. How could human beings ever harm the Earth? But we did and most of us had no idea what we were doing. We grew up in a world of ‘rights’—the right to clean water, wholesome food, education, freedom from pain, freedom of speech, the right to vote and take part in our democracy. But there are no rights if those rights are not afforded us by others. Who are those others? Who knows.

In 2018, the UK had a positively Mediterranean summer; even Scotland hit 30oC and beyond. Social media was alight with stories of fear about the future. But, as before, the media machine rolled on to the next story once the mercury dropped again. A few months passed and it was the tenth anniversary of Lehman Bros. filing for bankruptcy, and the global financial collapse that followed. Again, fears were expressed with numerous plays and interviews about the collapse, whether it had changed the world of finance (no) and whether such a thing could happen again (yes).

We have always been afraid of something—abject poverty in the days before the welfare state; Communists and nuclear war once there was a welfare state; and today we have a whole basket of boogeymen—terrorists, immigrants, the left, the right, the bankers, the state, the corporations—take your pick! Yet the real threats we face are more likely to be hunger and disease because we are turning soils to sand, refusing to invest in social infrastructure such as health care and sanitation while we still can and, it has to be said, we are becoming more numerous and more demanding of dwindling resources.

If ‘the masses’ share a common fear, then those ‘in control’ have to be seen to protect us from that fear. It used to be the priests, guiding us away from damnation and towards eternal life. Then came the industrialists, providing jobs and guiding us away from a life of peasantry working the land. Then the philanthropists, guiding us away from slums and workhouses and towards a bright new future of education and equity. Then the socialists, guiding us away from greed and towards cooperation. What do we have today, after decades of the latest lie—individualism? Trump, tax havens, AI, Amazon and Uber! Is it any wonder that so many people are isolated, lonely and depressed?

As I’ve said elsewhere, our problem is that we won’t accept that nature simply cannot keep giving what we think we need. How can we pull millions of people out of poverty, giving them access to clean water, green energy, decent food and sanitation while consuming less? How can we decouple progress from consumption?

Too few can bring themselves to see a future without copious amounts of energy to throw at problems; too few appreciate the signs of nature failing as species die out; too few recoil at the need by so many here in the UK for payday loans and food banks. Come on people, if we live in the so-called ‘rich’ world, what’s going on? Well, what’s going on is the beginning of a new era, a scared new world, if you will, where more and more people lose the things they took for granted—and all the while, the truly rich get truly richer.

I am fully aware that it is a rare individual who can take in a story of less, of suffering, a story without hope. But I feel time is too short for platitudes like making poverty history, for false optimism like electric cars and asteroid mining. We’re in the shit and we need people to accept that so they will prepare for what’s coming. While no one knows what the future holds, if you look around and pay attention, you can hazard a guess and it’s no land of plenty.

Mandy Meikle is aware that the ‘cheery pessimist’ ain’t so cheery these days. Well, you try getting your head around global economics! I originally wrote this as a possible Foreword for an improbable book, then realised it might stop people from reading said book, should it ever materialise!

Posted in Growth, net energy, Truth | 7 Comments

Factfulness: the need to eradicate inequality, not poverty

It must seem as if I listen to BBC Radio 4 all day long. I don’t, honest, but I freely confess to it being my main source of daily info, and being such a good source of stories from academia, many issues raised have ended up in this blog. Today is no different.

A recent ‘Book of the Week’ was Factfulness: Ten reasons we’re wrong about the world – and why things are better than you think by Prof. Hans Rosling. Prof. Rosling has given a number of popular TED talks explaining the statistics behind global health and economics. Before his death in 2017, Rosling spent years asking global audiences simple questions about basic trends. How widespread is extreme poverty? What is life expectancy today? How many children in the world have been vaccinated? He quizzed everyone from medics and lecturers, to bankers, political decision makers, and Nobel Laureates. As Prof. Rosling explains, the results were always the same:

Everyone seems to get the world not only devastatingly wrong, but systematically wrong. By which I mean, that these test results are worse than random.
They are worse than the results I would get if the people answering my questions
had no knowledge at all“.

Identifying key evolutionary instincts that prevent us from seeing the world as it really is, Rosling asks us to fundamentally shift our view of the world. Sounds like my kinda guy! In his 2006 TED talk, Prof. Rosling points out the dangers of using ‘average data’ due to the differences within countries. It is nonsensical, for example, to discuss strategies for universal access to HIV care in Africa, which lumps the top quintile (20 per cent) of South Africa with the lowest quintile of Niger. The improvements in global health and wellbeing must be considered in much more detail than is possible from even ‘regional’ data. Why is this detailed data so often hidden behind a paywall and/or obscured by incomprehensibility? Publically-funded research data should be available for all. Enter Gapminder, an independent Swedish foundation with no political, religious or economic affiliations, co-founded by Hans Rosling to ‘liberate data’. According to its website, Gapminder is a fact tank, not a think tank. Gapminder fights devastating misconceptions about global development, produces free teaching resources and promotes a fact-based worldview everyone can understand. All good stuff, and timely.

Prof. Rosling isn’t clinically optimistic and uses pollution and waste as examples of situations which are much worse than we think. I don’t know how he rated the looming crisis from future energy constraints, or the depletion of our soils and other ecosystems but listening to Prof. Rosling talk about progress reminded me how important it is to decouple progress from consumption. This is one of the key areas which we seem incapable of dealing with. If progress requires poor people to (rightly) consume more natural resources than they do at present, and if we accept that we are reaching limits to both renewable and non-renewable resources due to our rate of consumption, then who will consume less and what are they going to do without?

It’s been a few years since the phrase ‘Make Millionaires History’ popped into my head. It’s quite simple, really—the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (2000 to 2015) led to the Make Poverty History campaign, a global movement to end extreme poverty. It is hard to gauge the effectiveness of that particular campaign as the percentage of the global population living in extreme poverty has been decreasing for decades, over most of the 20th century according to one of Prof. Rosling’s Gapminder graphics. Looking at ‘income’ shows that 70.4 per cent of the global population was living in extreme poverty in 1900, this falls to 61.3 per cent by 1945, continues falling to reach 50 per cent sometime between 1977 and 1978, had reached 41.7 per cent by 1990, 32.3 per cent by 2000, 14.7 per cent in 2010 and 11.6 per cent by 2015, the latest year available. It’s probably worth pointing out that Gapminder uses various sources (e.g. OECD, International Labour Organization, World Bank) for its data; the UN says that the global poverty rate decreased from 28 per cent in 1999 to 11 per cent in 2013—close enough.

Call me a cynic but I’d guess these falling figures for extreme poverty have more to do with globalisation than any moral awakening, but perhaps Make Poverty History pushed an open door even wider. No one sane could argue against ‘making poverty history’ but I think we need some factfulness here too. In 2016, the UN’s Millennium Development Goals were replaced by the Sustainable Development Goals which consist of 17 laudable yet improbable outcomes to be achieved by 2030, the first being to “End poverty in all its forms everywhere”. Ending poverty will mean different things to different people and depending where you live, you may earn considerably more than $1.90/day and still live in extreme poverty. How is poverty to be ended ‘in all its forms’? And more importantly, can we decouple progress from consumption? How can we pull millions of people out of poverty, giving them access to clean water, green energy, decent food and sanitation while consuming less? Make Millionaires History looks to a day when there are no millionaires, not due to some calamitous civil uprising or economic crash, but because we made a radical shift from trying to eradicate poverty to eradicating inequality. Sadly there’s a lot to consider, discuss and fall out about before such an outrageous statement will not be seen as some left-wing threat to ‘our way of life’ but as a wake-up call about our way of life.

Mandy Meikle edits the Reforesting Scotland Journal.

Posted in Growth, Truth | Leave a comment

It’s just a matter of opinion

“Every tool is a weapon – if you hold it right.”
Ani DiFranco [1]

I love this quote from American musician and poet, Ani DiFranco, because it captures one of our greatest failings: not understanding that we all see the world in different ways. I once repeated it to some guy who had made some comment and he became quite dismissive, saying ‘that’s nonsense’ so quickly that I’m not convinced he was even listening to me. I forget the setting and the context, I just remember thinking it was an odd response to such a general, and astute, comment. Education, which was the focus of DiFranco’s lyrics, is a tool for passing on knowledge, but the values of the teacher [2] will determine whether that process is positive or negative. As will the society within which the education takes place. Imagine how awful it must be for the thousands of girls around the world, who had access to education, who saw a big world and an even bigger picture, yet a few years later, things have changed. Gossamer democracy has been blasted away by the latest sect with power, and they usually undermine women’s rights to some degree.

So in this last regular post, I need to put gods and religion aside to have a think about opinions, that force against reason which can make it so much harder to agree a new human story. We hate ‘going backwards’; we are all about going forwards. Forwards into what, though? As I said in the last post, we have to make the ultimate 21st century sacrifice and consume less stuff. And we need to find incentives other than cost, as that simply creates division; ‘haves and have nots’. Our new story would have people wowing at the smallest house [3] on the block; no one would coo over some luxurious car or house or boat; people who rarely put their wheelie bins out would be admired rather than castigated as being ‘weird’, and perhaps asked about how they have reduced their waste… Yeah, and it’s my fantasy so leave it alone!

Sadly, back in reality, we are consuming more and more. In May 2017, freelance writer Christopher Ketcham wrote an article [4] in the Pacific Standard on the fallacy of endless economic growth. It’s a good place to begin for anyone who hasn’t really questioned our current economic situation. Since the late 1960s, visionary academics and industrialists have been trying to raise awareness of our over-consumption—the limits to growth—yet, “Even in the midst of substantial innovation, today’s global economy has become more profligate and more wasteful, using more materials per unit of GDP than it did 20 years ago.” That’s because we so rarely reduce consumption; we’ll swap one product for another, sure, but there has to be something for sale.

So I was cheered by my trip to Twitter yesterday as I found not one, but two recent cases where opinion in the legal system seemed to be on the ‘right’ side rather than the President’s. First [5], a federal court in Montana ruled against a U.S. Interior Department plan to open more than 15 million acres of public land and mineral rights to fossil fuel extraction, concluding that the government failed to adequately consider how the oil, gas and coal development would affect the climate and other environmental resources. Has any government ever adequately considered such a thing? This follows on from a case in August 2017, where a federal judge stopped Signal Peak Energy from expanding a 176 million-ton mine in central Montana because the Interior Department did not comprehensively account for climate impacts. Hope in Montana then, minutes later, I saw that a Boston judge had acquitted [6] 13 anti-pipeline protesters on the grounds that the climate crisis made it necessary for them to commit civil disobedience. Precedents Day!

Dare we hope that this is the beginning of society refusing to obey the dwindling number of climate deniers [7]—let’s hope so as while they may be small in number, they are being appointed to increasingly powerful positions, certainly in the US. Opinion or fact? Have a look at Trump’s climate science doubters [8] and decide for yourself!


Mandy Meikle edits the Reforesting Scotland Journal [9] and is gutted that WordPress link function has vanished again! But delighted to have managed this challenge of writing once a week for five months. I’m not sure what use it has served, but I’ll be back in April. The world’s too darn interesting at the moment!

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God spaketh, but why? Part 16: Sacrifice

This series of posts began with a look at differing values, using as examples the sacrifices made to the gods by the indigenous Muisca and the ancient Greeks. The Muisca, who lived high in the Andes, in what is now Colombia, and thrived between 600AD and European contact, consigned highly-wrought gold figurines to Lake Guatavita forever, while the Greeks’ gifts for the goddess Athena, dating from around 400BC, could be borrowed back—the goddess doubling up as a ‘lender of last resort’. The Muisca sought to appease their gods and restore balance by “surrendering forever things so glimmeringly attractive”; on the other hand, the ‘civilised’ Greeks created an intimate connection between the temple of a goddess and the finance of the state. While both practises can be identified as being sacrificial, we can see that the values of these two cultures differ considerably.

The word ‘sacrifice’ has several meanings and can be open to misinterpretation. Fortunately, BBC Radio 4 came to the rescue last week with an episode of Thinking Allowed, which explored the various meanings of the term. According to Terry Eagleton, Professor of Literature at the University of Lancaster, sacrifice literally means ‘to make sacred’ but the word ‘sacred’ in Latin is deeply ambiguous, meaning either blessed or cursed. Prof. Eagleton continues, “We’re dealing with powers that are either deeply destructive or creative”, like nature itself, methinks. As they clung on to life during glaciations and volcanic winters, the first self-aware humans must have wrestled with the duality of nature as life-giving and life-destroying, and our religions and beliefs reflect that to this day. We attempt to control nature to our advantage when it is there for all, we take more than we need yet we don’t share it fairly amongst our own, and while destroying ecosystems we strive to cheat death ourselves; we have moved from a circular cycle of life to a linear path with who knows what at the end.

What I liked about the Muisca story is that they “forego the pleasure of admiring a glittering thing of beauty”. This is a ‘sacrifice’ both to their gods and in the secular sense of ‘giving up something of value for the sake of other considerations’. Making holy relics for all to wonder at, artefacts celebrating kings and priests as much as gods, doesn’t cut it for me. As for slaughtering others, that probably had more to do with conquest and keeping order than any attempt to appease the gods. Prof. Eagleton’s latest book is called Radical sacrifice, and “tries to make some modern and humane sense of the concept of sacrifice”, arguing that sacrifice is not about self-denial or self-dispossession as an end in itself, it is about “a kind of giving which results in a fuller, richer life”. Sounds familiar!

The more I read about human history and politics, the more I appreciate books like The hidden life of trees, by forester Peter Wohlleben. In a chapter called ‘A question of character’, the author talks about the choices a tree can make as its environment changes. For example, if a tree falls down, a gap is created in the canopy allowing light to flood down to the forest floor. Some trees ‘decide’ to capture this new light by branching lower down the trunk than is usual. This strategy works fine for as long as there is sufficient light, but eventually the gap will close once more and our ambitious tree is left with leaves in darkness. A tree cannot just shed an unwanted branch, it can only let it die and wait for fungi to do the removal work. The wound left when a small branch (up to an inch in diameter) rots and falls off takes just a few years to heal. If the branch is large when it finally succumbs, the resulting wound can remain open and susceptible to deep infection for decades. Even trees gamble! All species assess their environment and do what they do—sometimes it pays off, sometimes it doesn’t. But we’re supposed to be smart, so why can’t we see that how we live has to change?

If this series is going to draw one conclusion about our new narrative, then it’s that we have to make the ultimate 21st century sacrifice and consume less. The very thing we are programmed by the ad men to do, we must resist. We have to forgo those things we now consider essential: holidays, eating out, fancy gadgets—all those things our grandparents never dreamed of. This modern society we live in has been created by a few people, using wealth from the exploitation of natural resources from around the world with little heed to those who already lived there. I’m not saying give it all up at once; that would wreak economic havoc even if it was possible. But have a think and pick off some low-hanging fruit. If descent meat is too pricy, or you’re not that keen on meat anyway, go veggie. Love meat? Go veggie for one or two meals a week. This isn’t some faddy diet, it’s a lifestyle choice. Just think about what you consume and what you waste and reduce it, gradually over time. Set targets, if that helps. Try doing without something you really don’t want to (like a day without TV?) and you might find it isn’t as bad as you thought. What will your sacrifice be?

Mandy Meikle edits the Reforesting Scotland Journal, Spring 2018 issue just out! And one more post before end March to complete my 5-month challenge…

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God spaketh, but why? Part 15: Which story?

This series of blog posts considers how the dominant story of controlling nature came to be and how we might change the story again, to one more likely to persist into a viable future for all species. It was Yuval Noah Harari and his captivating book, Sapiens: a brief history of humankind (2011) which brought a lot of disparate thoughts together. Nations, money, human rights and religions are all stories we create to make sense of the world around us, and to maintain social order.

Maintaining social order has been a vital part of human civilisation. It was achieved in the past more through fear (of God, execution or some other suffering) than today’s manipulation of our desires: follow the rules and you can afford comfort, convenience and exercise your right to be happy. The internet means that everyone’s ‘story’ is out there, in the ether, creating followers and trolls alike. But we don’t seem able to view our own beliefs in any kind of wider context of what science and/or different cultures tell us. More and more, if people disagree with us, they are just dismissed as wrong. I can well imagine a young person from anywhere in the Middle East becoming quite upset as they learn what ‘the west’ has done to their country in the past. Yet, we don’t discuss why ‘terrorists’ believe what they do; we don’t talk about why the US is deemed by some as the ‘great Satan’ because to do so might be seen as an admission of guilt.

We are social beings, and have been since before our species, Homo sapiens, evolved. Yet ‘progress’ blunders on, polluting the environment regardless of who or what lives there, ‘gentrifying’ poor areas rather than pulling poor communities out of poverty, boldly venturing into space again while here on Earth we are creating a technological, energy-hungry future with rarely a nod to the problems of replacing fossil fuels as our main source of energy. Our oceans are full of plastics and have been for decades, but thankfully someone who people listen to, Sir David Attenborough, has now pointed out the horrors plastic wreaks on the lives of others. Plastics were invented less than a century ago, yet their footprint already reaches everywhere. And they are made from oil, let’s not forget. Why doesn’t the campaign to reduce plastic waste become a campaign to reduce our need for plastics altogether? Remember that there is more to plastics than packaging and poly bags. Need an artificial limb or a pacemaker? You’ll need plastic. But there is such resistance to questioning how we live and what we see as being ‘right’ or ‘true’. I don’t claim to have any answers but I do know that without people, ecosystems  would get along just fine. Without ecosystems, nothing survives. I really cannot work out why we don’t get that.

This is a crazy time to be alive, and it’s tricky keeping up with the various ‘narratives’ out there. Trump’s going to nuke North Korea. Oh, now the Winter Olympics have brought North and South Korea together, and Trump is going to meet his arch nemesis. Phew, Armageddon averted! But wait, in England the Russians are at it again, this time in Salisbury (Salisbury of all places!), striking terror into, well Teresa May anyway. Diplomats, or are they spies, scatter. Meanwhile, back in the US, Trump has fired Rex Tillerson, who is just the latest in a long line of senior officials who have quit, been fired, or eased out by the White House. I felt I knew what was going on in the days of W; just follow the oil. But these Trumpean times have me well and truly baffled.

I think I’ll end this post with a couple of quotes from acclaimed novelist, Ursula Le Guin who died recently. The news I was watching played a clip of Ursula accepting the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters in 2014. She spoke of the need to see ‘other ways of being’.

We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings! Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art and very often in our art – the art of words.”

In her 1974 book, The Dispossessed, she said, “You cannot buy the revolution. You cannot make the revolution. You can only be the revolution. It is in your spirit, or it is nowhere.”

So, for now, I write.

Mandy Meikle edits the Reforesting Scotland Journal and was sad to hear of Stephen Hawking’s death this morning. There are some excellent quotes from him here.

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