Today is the latest strike for the climate organised by the Fridays For Future movement. I’m with you all the way, young people! It’s heartening that the scions of the 21st-century are putting the effort in to disrupt the dysfunctional structures they have inherited.
Although I’ve always stepped lightly on the earth and been interested in environmental issues, I am feeling an increasing sense of urgency about it all, particularly when it comes to using fossil fuels.
Why are we still so reliant on these polluting and limited resources?!
I remember asking myself this question in the last century. Climate change was on the agenda but it was still quite niche. Yet it was always obvious to me that burning natural resources was not sustainable. Even apart from the greenhouse gases released that are going to make our planet uninhabitable, oil, gas and coal will run out one day. DUH!
Yet here we are 20 years after the millennium, and we’re still discussing it, procrastinating, setting targets for some distant date in the future, then moving the goalposts when we get there.
Honestly, I think we’re too slow and we’re too late. We had an opportunity in the 1970s – there was the oil crisis and momentum from the late 60s. It seems to me there was impetus for change in the air (e.g. feminism), and environmentalism was even slightly mainstream (ever see The Good Life?). Imagine how advanced, cheap and easy alternative energy generation would be now if it had received the same kind of investment and attention as computing!
What a missed opportunity. And now we’re fucked. If I spend any time really thinking about it, I get very angry.
Still, that doesn’t mean we should admit defeat and do nothing. We have to stop using fossil fuels NOW. And I mean stop, not offset with various carbon capture schemes. Net carbon emissions is meaningless greenwash. We need zero emissions, clean and sustainable sources of energy.
Essentially, we have to change our attitude to our planet. It’s not just somewhere we’re staying for a bit for us to trash, like old-school rock stars in a hotel room. Humanity is integral to the Earth; the Earth is integral to us. We are a part of the ecosystem, not outside it. I’ve come across a couple of things recently that really embody this idea…
Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Knowledge, Scientific Wisdom, and the Teachings of Plants
Robin Wall Kimmerer, 2014
This is an absolute treasure of a book, “a braid of stories meant to heal our relationship with the world.” It makes me want to wander through a lush forest, lie down in a wild meadow, and plunge my hands into some moist soil. To set up a smallholding and live a life connected with the earth. Listening to the audiobook with her soothing, modulated voice, the author takes me to the myriad places she describes and — connecting scientific knowledge with personal experience and ancestral stories — gently convinces me of the truth of her worldview.
Professor Wall Kimmerer is a plant ecologist and a native American (Potawatomi Nation). She interweaves so much valuable wisdom into these pages, it’s hard to summarise it all. The essence of it, perhaps, is that we must treat Nature as our equal – plants are our fellow beings on this planet, we should learn from them, be respectful of them, and be grateful of the gifts the planet offers us, reciprocating when we can.
We are integral to the planetary ecosystem, part of a web that connects us to our environment and our community. The natural world needs us like we need it. A finely balanced co-dependence. Yet we lack humility. We’ve come to think of ourselves as masters of everything and in so doing, have ruined our home and are destroying ourselves.
Bringing the voice on my tablet/the words on the page right into my day-to-day reality, last month I joined my good friend Beth (she had recommended this book to me) ‘at’ Milwaukee Public Museum for a talk by the author (all via Zoom –a pandemic benefit!). It was worth being awake at 2am for: I am more in love with Wall Kimmerer’s philosophy than ever.
Her hour-long lecture, which went so fast (zoomed by?), built on the ideas she talks about in the book. She particularly stressed the idea of a ‘Grammar of Animacy’: changing how we talk about the natural world from an impersonal and inanimate ‘it’ to a language that shows respect for a fellow living being. Through this, and learning about our plant friends, we can change our relationship with our environment. And we desperately need to.
Matt Wolf, USA, 2020
This new documentary film explores the Biosphere 2 project of the early 1990s. I first heard of Biosphere 2 in the Nice Try! Utopian podcast a couple of years ago – the project built an enormous structure in the Arizona desert and filled it with plants and wildlife representative of the Earth, complete with an ocean environment, a rainforest, and a desert. The aim was to see if it was possible to recreate our ecosystem, useful for when we need to colonise Mars, or the Moon, or whatever. It’s a little bit Elon Musk (a billionaire backer did fund it all).
From 1991–93, eight people lived sealed inside the biosphere, to see how a man-made closed system could work. As it happened, they weren’t able to be completely self-sustaining, unable to grow enough food and needing an injection of oxygen as the atmosphere became too laden with carbon dioxide (sound familiar?!).
So by many metrics, the project failed. The media circus surrounding it certainly reported it that way. There was a split in the relationships of the people involved. The research the Biospherians did and the data they collected was seen as unscientific (unrepeatable with no controls). And then it was all lost anyway, as the original management team were replaced and the records lost or destroyed.
But it’s the story of this original management team that I found most fascinating. Coming together in San Francisco at the end of the 1960s, this group of young idealists were stereotypical commune hippies. They did theatre, they did happenings. They had a visionary, charistmatic, polymath leader. But they also had money and business acumen, were interested in everything, and what really astonished me was how ambitious they were and what they managed to achieve.
They built a (still going) self-sufficient ranch in New Mexico (❤️where else?), where they lived together, worked the land, built a Buckmister Fuller dome, ran ecology and craft projects, and used theatre to philosophise about life. Then, with more global ambitions, they decided to build a ship! They learned shipbuilding skills, built a large ocean-worthy boat called the Heroclitus, then sailed around the world establishing ecology projects (what you can do with the backing of a Texas oil billionaire).
To ensure the involvement of some of the key figures in this story, this film has quite a positive take on what happened. Indeed, look into it a bit more deeply and other interpretations are available.
Yet I admire so much their energy and vision. To conceive Biosphere 2 and then do it is impressive in itself. It doesn’t matter that the original closed-system experiment didn’t go as planned – they learned valuable lessons and the structure still stands, used for research by the University of Arizona. To characterise it as a failure seems to me to be cynical scoffing at a radical approach, a bit of schadenfraude at some kooky non-conformists.
Something that shone through very clearly from the film was that the Earth is a delicately balanced system, and humans a vital part. One of the Biospherians said that when they first got locked in, she became acutely aware of how much her survival directly depended on the environment and her relationship with it.
All this is very inspirational. Writing about ecology and ecosystems makes me really want to DO something! On an individual level, I already do what I can: recycling, being careful with my energy use, not eating meat, growing plants, and generally being conscious of my impact on the natural environment.
But I am aware that joining together with others would amplify my power. So today on Global Climate Strike day, I contribute this blog piece and I’m going to spend some time looking into how else I could make an impact. Please do join me.
Main image found at globalclimatestrike.net