• We're All Environmentalists Now

    In summer the dog days persist but it feels as though things have not been the same for a while now. And I don’t just mean the referendum. Protests continue, campaigners crack on but somehow, for my part, it’s as if other things are calling, some sense that all of this, certainly for now, is no longer for me. Partly that’s from necessity’s sake. Partly it’s that all the old issues are now well rehearsed, however current they remain. But they’re being increasingly taken up to a place and pitch and time beyond their inception, better for a wider audience, in no way reduced for being removed from those early warning signs which did so much to stir us all up.

    But maybe too, I’m coming to a fresh appraisal of just what the kind of change we need can look like and how old mantras serve to help or hinder this. For many it’s a question of staying engaged; ‘we have to be active’ the mentality goes, nothing means anything if it is not carved out from our efforts and stress. But what if it is this very act of exclusion - where activists are rendered some kind of high caste, doing the right thing for everyone’s sake, absolving wider society of all its sins, a minority acting so the rest of us don’t have to, tipping the scales without opening up – what if this mentality of expectation of the active and concerned is as much part of the problem as anything else?

    It would be easy to misunderstand such a sentiment. And it may seem perverse when there are no shortage of issues that must be contended or engaged with. Environmental concerns in particular present us with a kind of white heat. The urgency of the threat of irreparable harm builds up on our consciences. It’s all or nothing, now or never, an unparalleled cause for alarm. But my point is that we should respond to these things as a wider society and culture, not hold out the hope that a relatively small group of people, and especially any one person over anyone else, hold the key to our deliverance.

    Protest can be utilised, can become a kind of repository for a people’s wishes and concerns. If only Swampy rose again, the thinking seems to be, and rid us of the problems we all face. So many people abdicate their power in this way. There is some other agency still out there they believe, who stand to do what each of us would like to. Despite such mindsets, activism will always retain a great force. And while its role can set any given activist apart, it can also help galvanise so many others in its wake. Clearly, now, the need is as great as ever. But we should not let the power of a people be carried by only the ‘usual suspects’; buoyed or weary as they all may be.

    As far as all the issues go, nothing now can change our wishes or intent, except the knowledge that, however we respond, we must never lose sight of our humanity, whatever the scale of that which we face. And while those issues may still stay a current force, other ways to make our voices heard remain. Active hope is a close cousin of involvement. But art and prayer and daily choices as to how we lead our lives still have their place among seemingly more immediate currencies.

    I have no doubt that every one of us can make a difference, whether in our actions, our speech or simply our intent. At this point in time, the need to create such a difference is huge. But however we do it, we can all still engage with the things that we know to be true, things that may lift us above a given ‘us or them’ or ‘you and I’ or any other ‘other’ than a face of faceless corporate greed.

    In the meantime it may be enough just to walk, in fortitude or stubbornness, without expectation but with the knowledge that somehow, somewhere down the horizon we may get to a place more fitting for the real potential of these times. This may not be an easy thing that we can take for granted but it still sits as a promise, or even something more immediate, if we can only see it and will it and bring it to bear.

    Read more...

    0 comments

  • A New Landscape

    In the wake of the referendum, there are so many grounds for anger and concern that none of them need going-over here. But it may still be worth stating collective regret that this country voted against the tide of evidence, stability and prudence. We can ask valid questions as to what led us here, where we go from this point, how we go forward. There’s a sense too that we need to rise above fixations with minutia of events, where soundbites and the by-the-hour twists and turns of the news become a kind of sideshow to the fact that an entire nation is attempting to come to terms with what's happened, where forces that have been present for years have, as if overnight, bought us to a new landscape where questions of how and why and of confusion or anger or pain have congregated so we have listened, read and watched the media, searching for some kind of new security, or consolation, or sense.

    The European question has lurked like a family grievance or embarrassing aunt in backbenched hinterlands, stoked with a sense of old scores. But while the racist incidents we’ve seen are alarming and must be decried and while the mood music of Farage’s campaign has been culpable in giving them a kind of tacit encouragement we shouldn’t be too quick to think that this is necessarily the way things will be from here on in. We have to listen to all those voices of disenchantment and dissent that led to the vote. Not white supremacists, or anti-evangelicals looking for an intolerant dawn. But all those who’ve felt aggrieved up and down the land by the perception of being left behind, who have felt outcast, forgotten, even oppressed by a distant Parliament whose politicians haven’t seemed to care about the underprivileged, about all those who haven’t had a voice.

    People of all calibres have been concerned by population pressure; a thing that for many, understandably, has remained something that cannot be named, for fear of what it could seem to permit. But it was that lack of engagement on admittedly a precarious issue that has played into the hands of those unafraid or unmindful enough to stir ugly sentiments up. In a land where immigration is high but still an economic advantage but where it has not been met with sufficient investment in schools and other vital services it’s no wonder that feelings have sometimes been strained. What’s tragic is that these stresses have been whipped up into antipathy by those with no claim on the truth but who were only too keen to stress that they possessed just this and that they did so in the face of denial from on high.

    A sober appraisal of this gives us the traction to challenge and dispel hatred wherever we find it, to begin to accept that we need a new national story, that out of this sorrowful, frightening mess we can look at the fact that we are presented with a new day and – if we can bring ourselves to understand what lead us here - we can somehow begin to find again the foundation this country was forged on; that we are a nation of immigrants from our earliest days, that inclusion is built into our blood, that tolerance is a watchword we should all hold close to our chests and seek to invoke wherever it is needed. That can only help instil a sense of greater inclusion for everybody living on these Isles. Nobody’s future here should be in doubt for a moment: it’s one of the more disturbing facets of the repercussions of the vote that this was called into question at all.

    Concerns over the democratic nature of the EU are valid too and, while it would have been better on balance that we stayed, we can accept that many holding those concerns often came from a much more informed place than an overview of standard, aggrieved UKip fodder might lead you to think. That our Sovereignty was in no immediate need of being rescued, that constitutional mechanisms were in place that would have allowed us to opt out of full federalisation should such a time have ever come does not negate that the EU as it stands has a huge democratic deficit and is in much need of reform. Many of those who recognised as much are not Little Englanders intent on isolation.

    The vote may have been colossal, reckless, mad. We will all have to deal with the result. But the feelings and forces that fed into it were often far from just opportunistic, maverick or uniformed. A globalised, free market world, who we are as a country, how we find a place in a new landscape; suddenly all these things, these tensions and stresses, dynamics and catalysts, new spheres and scope are open to question, to potential reform.

    We may have been startled, alarmed and grounds for anger are still justified. But we have to take stock of the place that we find ourselves in, go forward in a way where we know what we stand for but equally seek to somehow harness these monumental events to step back, to try and steer ourselves clear of continued division. We should engage with this new field in the knowledge that this seismic shift is not as black and white as it may at first seem, that we can use this opportunity sure that, where there is much to be determined, that can only serve to inform our next steps, whatever they are, on this fresh, still bewildering ground.

    Read more...

    0 comments

  • Beyond Tribes

    How suddenly old certainties are shaken. Of all the many things that stick in the throat about the recent referendum vote, perhaps the most telling is the degree to which seeing Cameron’s departure invoked a sense of sorrow and concern, given who may replace him in the Tory leadership. It’s as if the world was teaching us a lesson; ignoring the voice of so many experts, clamouring for some kind of new order, being in any way complacent about the possibility that a bunch of liars and buffoons could successfully stir up so much popular feeling willing to vote Leave despite all the warnings.

    That perhaps is the biggest lesson of the whole fiasco; that all those who felt marginalised by decades of de-industrialisation and globalisation were ignored despite the warnings given by UKIP’s growing popularity over these last several years. But it was about more than a rural or ageing or working class vote or even the will of so many who have felt forgotten or who were led to believe that leaving the EU would boost our standing as an independent nation.

    Perhaps a really telling version of events would run that so many people in this nation have felt so sorely let down by the ‘elites’ we are hearing so much about, their sense of being so out of touch, the way in which they have sometimes sought to railroad unpopular policies. In this telling you don’t need to talk to so many people before you come across a cynicism that stretches back at least to the expenses scandal and which colours so much of political opinion today. It was largely this sense of disillusionment with an establishment seen as venal and self serving that led many to vote with their instincts, which has given credence to those standing up for the ‘average working man’, for the dispossessed, to anyone only too willing to believe that current levels of immigration can in any case be easily stopped, where the apparently consequent strain on public services, houses and infrastructure was attributed to these levels, rather than anything to do with the austerity inflicted on this country these previous five years.

    It’s easy to simplify this argument, to say that all those voting out were too credulous regarding everything the Brexiteers said. But it was a debate largely sold by capitalising on fears, on the veracity of false securities, on the premise of ‘telling it how it is’ to all those feeling excluded or lost. We heard very little about the arguments that show how immigration is in many ways a benevolent aspect of a globalised economy, given that the vast majority of migrants make a substantial contribution to the economy as a whole. Perhaps it was the failure to deal with this issue head on that has got us to the place we now find ourselves in.

    As it is, we have to restore some sense of coherency to the country given such a monumental week. There may be avenues still to see off the worst of the damage and perhaps even introduce some kind of active hope into proceedings, given the prospect of another general election. But we have to acknowledge too that somehow we need to get on with the process of taking the country forward, however we voted, whatever we think. That calls not so much for a soul searching of the national psyche - however helpful that may be - but for a sense of a determination to stand up to the likes of Farage and Johnson and Gove at every turn, to build a broad coalition that represents the best of a moderate and inclusive nation, that seeks to maintain goodwill with everybody in the UK, to mitigate the effects of this decision with all avenues for future inclusitivity in Europe.

    It may not be clear what the way ahead is. But we can certainly all help to take forward a national narrative based on inclusion, to do something other than fall into cycles of recrimination, to help hold onto a vision of how we can be as a country that looks to the future, that does not lose itself in easy fantasies of Empire and a greatness built on isolation. Perhaps we have been watching what plays out when the only country in Europe that wasn’t overrun in World War Two collectively fails to challenge a popular fiction; that we have no history we must exonerate, that we can ignore that everything changed with the end of that war and a strong united Europe remains our best hope for a continued long-term peace. Churchill has been attributed as one of the founding fathers of a united Europe, something that Johnson should be familiar with. It’s anyone’s guess whether his distortions spring from expediency or from the belief he is actually serving his country.

    Read more...

    0 comments

  • Against the Invisible Hand

    By now we should all know the story inside out. The British government are determined to push through hydraulic fracturing. More and more people stand in their way. Take the recent decision in Ryedale for example; while the council there voted to approve exploratory drilling in the area, they had received 4,375 letters of complaint about the process, with only 36 in support. But democratic considerations have been thin on the ground from the start in the wooing of UK plc by shale gas. In the face of defeat, fracking companies have at times even played the hand of being victimized underdogs.

    It doesn’t take a genius to see that it’s an industry with a massive lobbying drive behind it, or to see that its dismissals of environmental concerns as scaremongering are duplicitous or prone to a criminal degree of neglect. What’s not commonly acknowledged though are the dubious grounds financially the industry rests on. As Howard Johns makes clear in his brilliant book ‘Energy Revolution’, fracked gas wells tend to decline in productivity by often more than 60% annually, a factor only exacerbated by a glut of supply. That means new wells have to be drilled at an increased rate to keep the shareholders happy. It’s a teetering system of postponed debt. One day it seems set to crash but American shale firms are keen to spread wide their maw in the hope of staving off such a day as long as possible.

    It’s doubly ironic then that even Lord Browne, Cuadrilla’s chairman and one time key advisor to the government, stated that widespread production of shale gas in the UK would make little difference to our gas prices, given the way the European market is rigged. Predictions of a shale surge leading to lower prices have also been shot down by David Kennedy, one time Chief Executive of The Committee on Climate Change. Kennedy cited “fundamental economics", stating “there isn't enough shale gas in the UK and in Europe to change the European market price.” Such information can only make it all the more galling when looking at decisions such as that taken in Yorkshire. But Wednesday’s vote in Scotland to ban the process there helps go to show that concerns over the industry are anything but parochial, or in any way ill-informed. Those raising their voices from their concerns include scientists and diplomats as well as those who have never before been particularly politically active but who are now pulling out all available stops given the scale of the threat.

    Many pro-shale PR men may actually believe what they’re paid to attest to, just as many MP’s seem only too keen to subscribe to the narrative; that fracking is safe, that regulation in the UK is tough enough to see off the ‘problems’ incurred in other parts of the world and that even if mistakes or accidents occur the need is greater than the risk and the process should be pushed through whatever the thoughts of the hippies and nimbies and hacks.

    People like to kick off against or quietly deride anything that smacks too heavily of alarmism. But given that so many assurances are being made on the basis of the rigour of a regulatory framework that at best has been cut to the quick (and which may well be inadequate in the face of the scale of proposed drilling), can there be any surprise if people are so desperately concerned? It’s clear that the industry, to be very favourable, carries huge risks. And to any rational mind taking stock of the situation those risks are only too real and disturbing. It’s obvious too that much of the more damning evidence has been suppressed by non-disclosure orders in the U.S. The distressing nature of such knowledge only commends those whose reaction has been so painstaking and measured.

    Have we learned anything at all from America, from the fact that the governor of New York State enforced a moratorium on the process, citing “serious health risks”, or the concerns raised by the British Medical Association as well as Breast Cancer UK? Do we really need to rehearse the incidents of poisoning or the contamination of wells and hidden waterways that may never be cleaned, as if the absence of these things would excuse the light and noise pollution, the visual impact of thousands of rigs, the water stress, the access roads, the trucks?

    The alarm bells are there for a reason. They’ve been ringing for years now; in the media, the corridors of power, in our minds. Fracking’s opponents know too that the current regime in Westminster seem set on imposing this process, whoever stands in the way, however many laws they have to change, whatever scraps of remaining integrity they stand to lose in the process. It is crystal clear that, with this current government at least, the hunt for easy money overrides everything else.

    If the regions are belittled or treated as subject, are viewed as being easily dismissed, Cameron can only be set to discover what can happen when hubris meets a groundswell of dissent. But this isn't simply a fight against an established elite, however much that may present an easy narrative. We're up against something much closer to home. It's fight against a mentality that says we can have it both ways, that we can address climate change while procuring dirty gas, that we can thrive as a country if we are prepared to ignore that we are simultaneously laying the country to waste. It’s a fight against complacency towards the invisible hand of industrialism where we are trained to ignore that which we all take for granted. We have the resources and skills for the energy revolution that is happening all over the world which Johns describes so well. But we also need to rethink the way in which we use energy, as individuals but also in terms of the physical systems which characterise so much of the way in which our current society works.

    However we look at it, our birds are coming home to roost. For some that may mean trying to push through a process here that already is having an impact on beleaguered, half-forgotten countries where no one complains, or has a voice. For some it is a question of a hard heartened apparently realpolitik where people will eventually be grateful if they could only see the benefits and stop whingeing.

    For many more though it’s a wake up call of unprecedented proportions, where extremity offers us choices, where potential ecological havoc can only make us see all the clearer that there’s never been a better time to do away with business as usual. Fracking’s touted place as a bridging fuel is more than discounted by fugitive methane alone. The process is a death throw of the world of fossil fuels, a world that has offered so much but at a price that only becomes clearer by the day. We have a choice as to whether we go down with it or stand in an acknowledgement of the currency of necessary change. The stakes simply couldn’t be higher.

    Read more...

    0 comments

  • Human Tides

    Spring is here in England, a time of love and bloodyminded hope. But we know that away from the riversides, down from the hills, past the rows of the serial houses in their parallel and seemingly never-ending lines, only just over the thin band of sea, thousands of people are still enduring truly miserable conditions, holding out for the dream of some kind of better life, or simply driven by an instinct to survive.

    We all of us know they are there, just as we all know of the numbers of refugees in Europe, of the cruel dynamics of distant wars and unrest. It’s wrong to think that people are simply not aware or bury their minds through not caring. It’s more like a kind of white heat of the knowledge of the massive human need. But even when we face up to the scale of the problem, we know we have a duty for the refugees. Shunting them out of public sight, spending resources on fences and ‘keeping them out’ is surely a rough denial of this charge. We must still respect and enshrine the need for human dignity and be clear that places of refuge in Europe should at the very least live up to the standards required of the most basic refugee camps. We should all push for a greater drive to address the situation, to make life better for the people so close to our shores, to accommodate those that we can.

    That conditions at the camps at Calais and Dover are a searing indictment of Europe’s ability to provide what should be a given is equally a token of the burden on us all. We can’t afford to look away or hope the problem will just disappear without sufficient engagement on our part. Perhaps too we are aware that in this age of climate change, wars for resources and tensions in the Middle East - some of which go back for a century in the face of the great Western-led carve up of traditional borders, as well as more recent colossal mistakes - we will have to learn to come to some kind of greater provision for the mass movement of people. For as much as the challenge is daunting, it is the global South, as Caroline Moorehead wrote recently, that is facing the larger part of this crisis. It may well even be that this wave of immigration could be part of the answer to the West’s problem of a top-heavy and aging population.

    What’s clear is that old certainties and clinging to a sense of former order do not address the realities of the times we are in. If that seems in any way a stretch we must still be informed by our wishes for compassion and a decent provision for those who have placed themselves at our mercy. We cannot revert to what has been termed a new brutality. We must find ourselves fit for these extraordinary events.

    Perhaps that’s why the recent Dubs amendment has caught so much of the public mood; from the sense that for some children at least we can make a real difference in the face of what can seem insurmountable odds. The numbers remain undefined and it’s down to us all to now make our voices heard amidst local authorities who carry the responsibility to find homes and places for these children, whose drive will determine the numbers we all can take in. It may seem a small thing given the scale of the challenge but it is at least a start and a sign of what can be done when people engage with the issue - however tawdry the political process itself may at other times seem.

    We all of us know of the almost intolerable burden of seeing, reading and hearing about the refugees, of the silent press of an invisible force of expectation, of the will and the need to do something in the face of almost incomprehensible statistics. We all need to know how to go on. Perhaps our best hope is to never forget all those over the sea, to never let ourselves think this is someone else’s problem, that the migrants are driven by forces that do not concern us, that humanity is still somehow tiered and we can afford to push away the pixilated numbers on our screens.

    These times should be a wake up call such as we have not seen since the end of the Second World War. That era, marked with such uncertainty but also a resurgent human spirit ought to be able to help to spur us on. We can still have our dreams of what humanity can look like and are being called upon to demonstrate them now. The Dubs amendment may be a drop in the ocean but it’s one that still shows what we can do. Let’s build upon it for the sake of all those unaccompanied children in Europe and further afield, whose fate stands as such a stark accusation and which scours us all with the knowledge of the need we have to act.

    Read more...

    0 comments

branchlines

The posts here originally grew from a website that was set up to advertise a book that describes things a long time ago. That book was always intended to address more than any single issue, even if it encompassed that as well.

At its broadest, I hoped it could help express how things can be when anyone of us acts on behalf of the environment, of their community, of our collective future itself. It was informed by far more than simply the times it describes; it was an attempt to articulate a feeling that has carried on and grown and means more than just a narrow 'us and them'.

I'm mainly working on other writing at the moment but thought there was probably something to be said for keeping these posts online while the issues they deal with remain relevant. I hope you find something on these pages that proves of interest or use as we all rise to meet the new times.

You are viewing the text version of this site.

To view the full version please install the Adobe Flash Player and ensure your web browser has JavaScript enabled.

Need help? check the requirements page.


Get Flash Player