“O Wedding-Guest! This soul hath been
Alone on a wide wide sea:
So lonely ‘twas, that God Himself
Scarce seemed there to be”
In Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, a man on his way to the wedding celebration is stopped in his tracks by the mariner. He is then obliged to hear how a terrible curse had been visited on the story-teller, following his killing of the albatross. In an age when God’s omnipresence was a given, his apparent absence, as indicated in the verse above, must have conjured up a terrible void.
The albatross continues to evoke awe two centuries later, but now joins the list of species under threat – one more warning of the soul-destroying void we are rapidly creating. Dame Ellen McArthur’s contact with these birds in South Georgia helped to inspire her book Full Circle and her subsequent dedication to sustainable economics. The bird also features powerfully in David Attenborough’s Blue Planet 2. With a wingspan of up to 3.5 metres (in the case of the wandering albatross), their mating for life and spending months at sea cruising the Antarctic wind currents, they give rise to a wonder that maybe still borders on a sense of the sacred. A BBC follow up article reports how climate change and fishing methods have nearly halved wandering albatross numbers since the 1980’s.
Here is another story involving birds which says something about our cultural values.
Clint Eastwood’s film success ‘Sully’ tells of the ‘Miracle on the Hudson’ when Captain Chesley Sullenberger landed his stricken plane with phenomenal skill on the river, saving the lives of all on board and avoiding ground casualties. Eastwood, for dramatic effect, takes liberties with the crash investigation process, but in many respects the depiction has been deemed remarkably accurate. The point is made several times that New Yorkers in 2009 needed a hero and a story with a good outcome to lift their spirits. But the plane’s collision with a flock of geese, which could itself be regarded as symbolic, has a dark sequel. Thousands of Canada geese and their eggs were destroyed in the ensuing months, despite the argument that the strike involved migrant not resident birds. When other species are seen to threaten or inconvenience us, compete for habitat or food, we know who is likely to lose out. We do also create opportunities for other species, but our overall impact is beyond the capacity of most non-human life to regenerate or adapt.
The fact that domesticated animals now vastly outnumber those in the wild is not a straightforward matter from the perspective of human wellbeing, though it is hard not to see it as another aspect of the growing ecological void. The issue of animal sentience, long a concern for those interested in animal welfare, has recently hit the UK headlines in the context of post-Brexit regulations. This too links into the ethical and psychological question of whether we can allow ourselves to, or indeed afford not to, be open to both evidence and empathy over the experience of other creatures. Coleridge’s poem ends:
He went like one that hath been stunned,
And is of sense forlorn:
A sadder and a wiser man,
He rose the morrow morn.
“The System is Failing”
This claim seems to follow naturally and has wide applicability, but is in fact a quote from Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the internet. Olivia Solon in the Guardian recounts how Berners-Lee’s vision of information-sharing and collaboration is being supplanted by a reality belonging to “increasingly powerful digital gatekeepers whose algorithms can be weaponised by master manipulators”. This is hardly new, but his voice has a special authority amongst the growing chorus of concern about the susceptibility of social media to fake news, the decline of independent, fact-based journalism and the penchant of the Trump administration in particular to appoint poachers as gamekeepers. We must fight, Berners-Lee argues, to protect the internet as a public utility. In an increasingly complex and precarious world, juxtaposed with our susceptibility to irrational and deceitful messages, there has never been a greater need for objectively sound and emotionally (some would say spiritually) aware information.
Complexity and Contradiction
Referring back to ‘Sully’, Clint Eastwood likes stories about tortured heroes which offer the enjoyment of knowing who the heroes and villains are, what is reality, what is right action and what is wrong. The field of climate change seldom offers such clarity; even the blatant villains from a liberal or environmental view are heroes to many. Turning to climate prognosis: apparently sincere and knowledgeable people who share a knowledge and concern about climate change occupy a wide spectrum, from feedback catastrophists saying the die is cast and we have thirty years at best, to climate scientists arguing that double-digit annual emissions reductions are imperative, to those who see the solar revolution plus markets taking us fairly painlessly to where we need to be. One of CPA’s founding principles, aka difficult truths, is that the situation is indeed an emergency, one that cannot be addressed without material sacrifice as well as technical ingenuity. Are we capable of de-cluttering the skies for the sake of the goose and the albatross?
The best courses of action are equally contested, particularly around the nuclear vs renewables issue. Jim Hansen, arguably the world’s most prominent climate activist, like the late David MacKay, is convinced that renewables are not going to get us to where we need to be and that nuclear generation must expand rapidly. This is one of a string of collisions within the broad church of climate and ecological awareness, intersecting with the mega-collision between our culture of expansion, consumption and entitlement on the one hand and the fact of our finite and vulnerable Earth on the other.
These differences are unavoidable but unfortunately they can not only confuse and demoralise us but also feed the element of doubt that strengthens ‘soft denial’ – that capacity to know reality and yet keep it at a distance. Politics are a public arena for conflict and this is applies to the climate issue - even when the merchants of doubt are not to the fore. California governor Jerry Brown is presumably a hero to many in what could now be called the USA’s ‘climate resistance’, but to Hansen his policies are woefully inadequate.
COP 23 – Bonn
It is hard to know whether ‘mixed bag’ or not being able to see the wood from the trees is a better metaphor for the outcome at Bonn. Two summaries are Carbonbrief’s ‘Three need-to-knows’ and Matt McGrath’s ‘Small Steps Forward’ for the BBC. Contributing to the confused and contested picture was the absurdity of the official USA delegation arguing for clean fossil fuels. It was challenged by the Michael Bloomberg – Jerry Brown contingent speaking up for the states, cities and businesses striving to honour the Paris accord. Lest we see all resistance to climate action emanating from the USA, there was wider disarray over coal, with Germany amongst those nations opposing the coalition for a rapid end to coal-burning, but the country’s negotiator nevertheless foreseeing an end to this energy source in the 2030’s.
Adding to the uncertainty has been the collapse last week of Germany’s post-election coalition talks, sparking the comment by FDP leader Christian Linder: “The four discussion partners have no common vision for modernisation of the country or a common basis of trust.” Immigration and climate change have emerged as the two most divisive issues. It’s easy to imagine that the link between the two is a psychological no-go area for many.
China continues to claim climate leadership, which prompts many questions, like which model of government is most conducive to the task of rapid decarbonisation. Hansen, in an interview at Bonn, said that China might lead the way on carbon pricing. The country has centralised levers of power, severe climate and environmental pressures, a huge renewable investment programme and an increasing appetite for prominence on the world stage. But the image created of an authoritarian route to rapid decarbonisation is undermined by China’s interventions in Australia. A recent discussion between the writer and Carol Ride of Psychology for a Safe Climate in Melbourne started with the withdrawal by Allen & Unwin of Clive Hamilton’s latest book: Silent Invasion – How China is turning Australia into a Puppet State. This led briefly into the thought that suppression of free speech and manipulation of it are both growing phenomena, but then Carol returned to China’s economic influence down under. She commented:
“The Chinese certainly offer a complex contribution to world affairs. They are mooted to fund the Adani mine now that all 4 banks here have said no after pressure from activists. That would certainly be a contradiction to being the saviours with renewables and a carbon tax….”
The Adani project includes plans for the world’s largest coal port at Abbott Point, which would impact both wetlands and coral reef, on top of its climate insanity. It is deeply controversial and probably Australia’s largest conflict ever between carbon-fuelled business-as-usual and environmental concern.
Meanwhile, back in the UK
Chancellor of the Exchequer Phillip Hammond delivered a budget in which he actually mentioned the need to preserve a habitable planet for future generations, but concrete measures to back this up were hard to spot. The idea of ending the long-suppressed level of fuel duty had long since been dropped to appease the Conservative base and press; North Sea Oil receives continued support and renewables none.
The leaked ‘Paradise Papers’ detailing offshore tax havens may have looked like a golden opportunity for the government to make good on its pledges regarding tax avoidance, but there has been nothing to encourage that hope. Those who read Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything may recall that action on tax havens and laundered money was put forward as one of the essential measures for funding the public programs necessary for decarbonisation.
The UK Chancellor is more climate aware than his predecessor, but disavowal and political expediency continue to rule the day.
Too Little, Too Late
This was the prediction in the 2008 Transition Handbook the on the prospect of government-led action on climate. Can anyone doubt its accuracy? There are things (like carbon pricing) that only governments can do but a lot of determined work has to happen in civil society before serious regulatory action becomes feasible.
The role of the business sector mentioned above and its capacity to implement rapid change has been considered in a previous newsletter. Investment and the investment climate is a critical public sector – private sector interface. Fiona Harvey reports that, according to the International Finance Corporation (a subsidiary of the World Bank) a trillion dollars of investment has already been channelled into measures to reduce climate change. The ‘mixed economy’ principle of state and private co-operation, just stated, applies here. And once again, the picture is contradictory. The incumbent advantage still lies with the fossil fuel companies, which enjoy $325bn per annum in subsidies. The development charity Christian Aid has called upon the World Bank to cease their investments in dirty energy. The world, for now, continues to go in two opposing directions at once. Bill McKibben’s warning that if we are winning slowly we’ll lose should be ringing in our ears.
It follows from the arguments in this newsletter (and all previous ones) that understanding, facing and living lives in response to Earth’s climate and ecological emergency poses an immense challenge. It’s not surprising that so many people shrug their shoulders, avoid the subject, wring their hands or settle for token gestures. Somewhere at the heart of it all are two linked questions: how do I relate to all this and what choices am I prepared to consider? These questions inform our event in Oxford this weekend Agency in Individual and Collective Change. There is still a small handful of places left for this low-cost event which draws on a wide range of experience and approaches. Please book immediately if you haven’t yet done so and want to come.
Jonathan Friedland talks about the role of widespread resentment in determining both Brexit and the 2016 US election votes. CPA’s February conference in Bath Staying with the Trouble explores the psychology of resentment and its exploitation, which should help to deepen the recent socio-political commentary on the subject.
Two of the factors in CPA’s contribution are its international reach and its capacity to help forge links and pool intellectual resources amongst a wide range of professionals who are engaged in climate awareness and climate action. In North America, mental health professionals have a key role, covering a range of issues - from the traumatic impacts of extreme weather to building a ‘defence toolkit’ for activists facing establishment efforts to brand them as terrorists. CPA Scotland has a high proportion of sustainability professionals, seeking both to enhance that country’s relatively high climate awareness and to provide mutual support and stimulus in the urgent task of increasing and applying it.
On behalf of the Executive Committee
Editorial support from Chris Robertson and Paul Hoggett
Photo: ©BAS British Antarctic Survey