Many hearts will have been cast down by the death last week of the last male Northern White rhino.
Will this sad event spur efforts to arrest the loss of wildlife in Africa and around the Earth? By some reckonings, Earth has lost half of its wild animals in the past 40 years. Such statistics and accompanying warnings are now daily fare, from ‘charismatic megafauna’ to insect populations, particularly pollinators.
There was bound to be a range of reactions and non-reactions to the Sudan story. A few voices decry what they see as sentimental responses to the loss of megafauna. Amongst those who are distressed by the news, some search for consolation. Speculation about IVF and surrogacy pulling the species back from beyond the brink will raise a few hopes, both for the Northern White itself and our own capacity for rescue and redemption. Many will have reflected despairingly on this latest example of humankind’s destruction of wildlife. Then there are those many more who, in their bubbles of daily survival at one extreme or imagined autonomy at the other, will take little if any note. But action doesn’t need everybody, just enough of us.
The best that could happen would be if the outrageous poignancy of the Northern White’s disappearance became a tipping point. There could be few better emotional spurs than the obliteration of this sub-species of an animal, so big and with such attitude, that has stomped our planet for 50 million years. A sense of outrage can be a step on a path of determined action, and there are few more blatant outrages than the slaughter of these beasts for trophies or a bogus aphrodisiac. Maybe Sudan will be to animal extinctions what David Attenborough has been to the scourge of plastic pollution. And as WWF points out, there is some encouragement to be drawn from the story of the Southern White, which has gone from near extinction in the late 19th century to 20,000 today.
Burning the Library of Life
Just a week before Sudan’s demise, the Guardian published an article by Damien Carrington What is biodiversity and why does it matter to us? It is a great overview, both hard-hitting and wide ranging. He reinforces what Tony Juniper and so many others have said about our dependence on Nature. He also alludes to the Stockholm Resilience Centre’s diagnosis that biodiversity loss is the single greatest threat to a safe operating space for humanity. The speed of decline still has the power to shock. We probably need frequent reminders just because it is so rapid and so appalling. It is part of the great acceleration mentioned in the February newsletter. Like Clive Hamilton in Defiant Earth, Carrington quotes the ghastly statistic that 97% by weight of land vertebrates are now humans or their livestock. We are witnessing and perpetrating a biological annihilation.
Under the heading ‘What can be done?’ Carrington proffers a few thoughts, again contributing to a pool of ideas, such as the approach to conservation championed by George Monbiot in his book Feral, wherein wildlife and trees are permitted to recolonise land that is being farmed uneconomically and harmfully. However regrettable our apparent inability is to see intrinsic worth in the natural world, and however blatant the distorting lens when we talk of ‘natural capital’ and the monetising of ‘ecosystem services’, Carrington follows Juniper (What has Nature Ever Done for Us?) down this line. The underlying rationale, the lens in question, is that enlightened self-interest is better than no enlightenment at all. But it is a version of self-interest that adopts the capitalist paradigm as applied to life on our planet. Carrington acknowledges this, both in his recognition of biodiversity’s intrinsic value and in his phrase “if money is a measure” when speaking of ecosystem services.
Bleak as the global picture is, Carrington gives an instance of enlightened self-interest at work: “Over the last 20 years, New York has spent $2bn protecting the natural watershed that supplies the city with clean water. It has worked so well that 90% of the water needs no filtering: building a water treatment plant instead would have cost $10bn.” There are other such stories, including the spectacularly eco-friendly Veta La Palma fish farm in Spain’s marshlands. These stories need rapidly to become the norm rather than beacons.
Carrington’s memorable phrase “burning the library of life” may come from a wish to bridge anthropocentric and ecocentric perspectives, when addressing our assault on Nature. He talks of destroying both biodiversity’s “natural works of art” and the means (still barely understood) through which we benefit from its mind-boggling complexity. The library burning metaphor certainly conveys humankind’s vandalism of the natural world. It connects too with the scornful dismissal of knowledge, particularly that of our dependence, inter-connectedness and sense of responsibility. It is a dismissal that is toxic, infectious and deeply dangerous. Sally Weintrobe, in her exploration of ‘The Culture of Uncare’, has done much to uncover this.
Even if we have trouble avoiding palm oil in our purchases, most of us can probably join the dots between this product, sterile monoculture, rainforest destruction, the plight of orangutans and plumes of smoke thousands of miles long, with carbon emissions from Indonesia surpassing even those of the USA. What may be a little more dissonant for us progressives is the notion that Brexit and disengagement from the Common Agricultural Policy could be a golden opportunity to make our farming practices more ecologically sound. More familiar in this newsletter are the warnings that freedom from European regulations will empower radical conservatives in the UK to do their worst. But as the Greens have been saying for years, the CAP is in many ways a dreadful system – rewarding rich landowners simply for what they own and encouraging some of the most environmentally destructive practices.
Patrick Barkham advances this point in his article EU in ‘state of denial’ over destructive impact of farming on wildlife. Michael McCarthy, also in the Guardian, makes similar points. Governments of all colours and farmers too have been making mistakes for centuries and as a general rule, the further from Nature we go, the bigger the mistakes. As landscape designer Kim Wilkie comments (Financial Times 24th March) “The secret is in the soil. Think of soil as a biological community of living organisms rather than a chemical supply depot and the whole approach to farming changes.”
For those of us wanting to deepen our understanding of land use and climate change this is the subject of one of the talks by Nikki Jones for Bristol Energy Co-op. The series is titled Climate Change and Energy and is wide ranging. Here too our capacity [and, visibly, Jones’s too] to tolerate dissonance is tested. Toward the end of her land use talk she mentions the controversy over the mob grazing technique, so passionately advocated by Allan Savory and endorsed by others including Patrick Holden (ex Soil Association). These and other exponents claim to have proved that artificial simulation of how ruminants feed in the wild results in a dramatic restoration of soil fertility and carbon uptake by impoverished ground. George Monbiot dismisses this as the latest excuse of the meat-eaters. It appears to be a genuine controversy, unlike the bogus ones which serve to mask climate denial.
Global Grief, Hope and Myth
Psychological and cultural questions emerge in the paragraphs above, more as a subtext than as the main subject. But in Climate Psychology these perspectives are central, not peripheral. So now for two items which place our individual and cultural psyches – specifically our incapacity in the area of loss and grief – at the centre of the problem.
Conversations with CPA members and other like-minded folk overseas continue to enrich Climate Psychology and have been a frequent informant of this newsletter. Anthony Wilson in Ontario recently drew attention to the teachings of Stephen Jenkinson, author of Die Wise and Come of Age, also founder of The Orphan Wisdom School. He has opened up a powerful line of thought based on his work with terminally ill people and he has applied this learning to grief and blocked grief about our dying planet. His memorable one-liners include: “Death is the cradle of your love of life”, “Grief is not a feeling; grief is a skill” and “You don’t require hope to proceed; you require grief to proceed.” The last of these assertions resonates with Lesley Head in her book Hope and Grief in the Anthropocene. The Radical Hope theme continues to unfold. Returning to Jenkinson, one of his key ideas is that grief must be distinguished from self-hatred, which he sees as a prevalent and corrosive feature of our times.
Abundant material is available simply by googling Stephen Jenkinson’s name. A ten minute extract of his thoughts on grief and climate change is available under the Orphan Wisdom theme.
Turning to Sydney Australia, and Jungian psychotherapist Sally Gillespie – Sally has a longstanding link with CPA and is a member of Melbourne-based partner organisation Psychology for a Safe Climate. She was recently interviewed by Bonnie Bright, a leading light in the Depth Psychology Alliance, with which the CPA – N. America network has a valued link. The interview forms part of a symposium organised by Bonnie. In this interview Sally explores the challenge of grief, both within our culture as a whole and more specifically regarding our grief at its destructiveness. Her inclusion, near the end of the interview, of how we relate to the animal kingdom, gives it another strong link with the themes of this month’s newsletter. See below for a chance to experience Sally’s work first hand.
Another Date for your Diary
CPA UK is fortunate to have Sally Gillespie and colleague Jonathan Marshall available in June to offer their workshop Mythos – The Anthropocene in Stories, Symbols and Creative Imagination. This will be in London on Sunday 10th June, the day after our members day, already publicised. CPA plans to offer a package deal for the two events. Like the members day, we are planning to hold the workshop at The Guild of Psychotherapists headquarters in Southwark. Further details and booking instructions will follow shortly.
Dawning Reality in Denialist Cultures
After previous false dawns, we need to be careful about suggesting that climate denialism is succumbing to the pressure of reality, but new and powerful pressures are nevertheless evident. In California, utilities are being forced to cite climate change as a defence in the face of legal actions claiming that they did not do enough to protect their infrastructure against fire risk. The article’s author notes with interest the fact that not only are the large corporations involved daring to mention climate change, but also that their financial survival depends on it. He goes further, suggesting that these utilities should join the cities of San Francisco and Portland in suing fossil fuel companies for not acting responsibility on their knowledge of the science.
In Australia, where views on climate change are also highly polarised, farmers are realising that their backs are against the wall and are showing signs of organising. Carol Ride in Melbourne has drawn our attention the work of Farmers for Climate Action. Another example of enlightened self-interest at work.
Students Leading the Way – Again
Student action on USA gun law, mentioned previously, has grown to the point where an estimated million people joined the 24/3 ‘March for our Lives’. Here in the UK, Cardiff University students went on hunger strike in protest against the university’s failure to divest from fossil fuels.
The February newsletter referred extensively to Clive Hamilton’s book Defiant Earth. Chris Robertson has now posted a review of the book on our website. The review nicely captures the thrust of the book and highlights some of the philosophical issues raised in it.
CPA Chapter in new book published by Social Liberal Forum
The idea of ‘climate psychology’ is beginning to take hold in the wider culture. Recently the Social Liberal Forum approached CPA to write about climate psychology for a ‘Big Ideas’ book. Organised into three sections - New Economics, Welfare Society and Climate Change - “Four Go In Search of Big Ideas” offers a series of green tinged and participatory policies, particularly in its section on climate change which includes some radical but practical ideas from Ed Davey MP (the former Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change) as well a chapter on climate psychology written by CPA’s Paul Hoggett and Chris Robertson the thrust of which is well captured in the following extract: “Climate change is not a problem waiting to be solved. It is a paradigmatic challenge to an economic system driven by fossil fuels and consuming lifestyles. At the deepest level the psychological/cultural problem lies in the belief that as a species we are different and special to other species, that nature is a resource for us to use.” This essay will be featured on the CPA website shortly.
On behalf of the Executive Committee
Editorial support from Chris Robertson and Paul Hoggett
Photo: El Pejeta Conservancy