Tuesday, 15 October 2019

Hopeful Earth Youth Conference

Last week I had the pleasure of being invited to Ditcham Park School to be one of the speakers for their Hopeful Earth Youth Conference.  This brought together 10 local schools to start the conversation about how schools should respond to the global environmental crisis.  It was enabled by Mark Philips, Head of Seniors, but this was very much a student-led event.  I was immensely impressed with 4 students:  Zac Davidson (Head Boy), Sacha Fairweather (Head Girl), Nelly Bryan and Ben Vass who guided the whole event along and facilitated the workshop sessions.

The conference aimed to grasp the nettle of the current climate and ecological emergency.  These students will be in the thick of trying to rectify the problems we are leaving them.  They should be angry – to be honest, they should be angrier with my generation than they appeared to be!  But the conference was built around hope – not the vague hope of people just wishing things were different, but the progressive hope of people who are determined to act.

I was there to talk about rewilding.  It’s too late to stop climate change and we can no longer be comfortable just conserving what we have.  Nature must be rebuilt so it can respond to (and protect us from) climate change.  Rewilding is a great way of doing it. 

There was also a hugely inspirational talk from Philip Lymbery, CEO of Compassion in World Farming.  He expertly brought together compassionate farming systems with ecologically sustainability.  These farming systems should replace the exploitative farming that dominates today.  “You are able to take action three times a day” was one of his memorable take-home messages.  “Every time you eat you can determine what goes onto your plate” and the choices we make determine the agriculture we support.

Mary Skuodas of Bohunt School gave an excellent presentation with crisp advice to fellow students on how to engage in environmental matters in school.  Her delivery was so professional and clear that it was unbelievable that this was the first time she had given a presentation to such a large audience!

It was, however, Jack Harries, climate activist and filmmaker, who stole the show.  He simply told the story of how he had become involved in Extinction Rebellion (XR) and how he got himself arrested.  This was not a boastful story or one that he encouraged students to emulate, but the commitment, passion and overriding concern shone through. 

The BBC were there all day.  However, they came with the sole purpose of covering XR.  None of the subject matter was discussed. 

And herein lies a problem……. 

Many (indeed most) people agree with XR’s concerns.  But some disagree with the methods used.  Understandable.  But this follows decades of environmental organisations (such as the Sussex Wildlife Trust) frantically trying to get the media to take seriously, report on and encourage discussion on the over-riding issues of our time.  Throughout, the environment has been relegated to the “and finally” slot on the news.  It has been marginalised, trivialised, prettified and degraded - no matter how urgent, important, scientific or persuasive the case.  XR have concluded that the only way to get noticed and force discussion is through non-violent civil disobedience.

BBC have proved XR right. Jack’s presence gave the whole event a presence - good for him!  The rest of us were invisible.  Some may not like the methods used by XR, but the media coverage shows clearly that the only time they engage is when there is the threat of non-violent civil disobedience. 

This is a very worrying message to give our young people.  The media must change.  Engagement must be based on the quality of the case, not the threat of unrest.

Fortunately, the young people at the conference are a level-headed bunch.  The discussion was about what they can do individually and with their schools, looking sensibly at the subject matter.  A Hopeful Earth Pledge was drafted, recognising the scale of the problem and demanding action.  This includes asking schools to play more of a leadership role, to talk more about the emergency in their curriculum and to do more practical things to reduce carbon emissions, source food ethically and reduce plastic.  They also want an environment programme in their own School Development Plan (hopefully to include rewilding of school grounds?). 

In their own words “We pledge to act; to change; to hope.”  I suspect the order of those words was carefully thought about.

Let’s hope the BBC are as keen to report on this as they were to profile potential social unrest.

Tuesday, 24 September 2019

End of the road for Highways England

Highways England have, once again, served up the same tired old ideas for a bypass around Arundel.  Discussed for decades, there seems to have been little progress from a basic mind set that has been shown not to work over and over again.

A red route, a grey route, a purple route - as CPRE puts it, the options are every colour except green.

Road building always comes up against the same logical problems which have been pointed out many times throughout history.  An Arundel bypass is no exception. 

We can be sure of two things with all these proposals. 

First, there will be significant environmental damage.  No amount of deflection or belittling the environmental impact, will avoid this fact.  At a time when we should be demanding the large-scale rebuilding of nature, we are presented with proposals that force us in the opposite direction.

Second, these proposals will drive up car use and congestion.  More roads will bring more cars; it is unavoidable.  This has been shown many times in independent reports and government studies alike.  Claims that a bypass will relieve congestion are pure fantasy.  Traffic might be able to roar around Arundel, only to get stuck at all the other pinch points around Sussex.  Imagine all those current traffic hot-spots; now imagine them with 10% or 20% or 30% more traffic! More roads, more congestion and then more roads – a treadmill of a flawed strategy that is doomed to fail.

With this, of course, comes increased greenhouse gas emissions.  At a time when we must reduce our emissions to zero we see a transport sector who can only come up with old-hat proposals that drive us ever more quickly in the opposite direction.

This approach was out of date 20 years ago, when last a road building bonanza was muted.  It is truly antiquated today.  We live in a time of climate and environment emergency.  We now no longer have the time to procrastinate over antiquated strategies.
Increased environmental damage, increased congestion, increased greenhouse gas emissions, reduced air quality and a devastated landscape is the polar opposite of what we should expect at a time of climate and environment emergency.  These Arundel bypass options are more than a set of bad road proposals.  This is a failed transport strategy.  They represent a strategy that is in disarray showing that the governance structures for delivering sensible policy to drive society forward are simply not inplace. 

A fundamental institutional review is long overdue.  The Department for Transport / Highways England are working to the wrong agenda being focused only on a list of damaging road proposals.  They should be disbanded and a new, more strategic body established.  This must develop and implement the societal changes required to provide access to services and needs in ways that reduce transport and enhance the environment.  The undoubted skills of highways engineers, managers, planners, and others should be re-deployed in an access agenda that is fit for the 21st Century.  As a first step such a body should move quickly to reduce car use by at least 20%.

Failed transport strategy, however, is only the tip of the iceberg.  What we need is a fundamental re-assessment of our settlement and consumption patterns, so we have resource and access approaches that fit within environmental and climate limits.  The time for procrastination and excuses is over.

Thursday, 4 July 2019

The shortest environment book!

I remember, quite a few years ago, there was a competition on Radio 4 for a novel to be written in 6 words.  A novel in just SIX words!?  This was staggering – how could a story be told in 6 words?

The winner, however, was amazing.  So amazing that I (who hardly ever reads a novel) can still remember it.  It read:
“For sale, baby shoes, never worn”

In just 6 words a whole story unfolded.  The author laid out a picture of family, hope, despair, poverty and resignation.  Incredible!

I started thinking…….  Can I write the environmental story in 6 words?  Can I capture our current environmental predicament so succinctly?  I had a go:

“The absolutely essential
   is completely impossible”

Maybe a feeble attempt against the novel that won the prize but in my mind, these 6 words are at the heart of environmental cause and conflict.  Maybe the fact that I am now going to explain myself means that it’s not going to win any prizes!

The absolutely essential is clear.  An end to fossil fuel use, large-scale restoration of nature across the globe, equitable distribution and sustainable management of the earth’s finite resources, an economic system based on sustainability rather than growth.  And so on, and so on.  These things are essential, otherwise civilisation is time-limited.  Anyone opposing these lives in a dream world.  Others, however, would be equally certain that this is idealistic nonsense.  These things are completely impossible, even if we had all the time in the world.  Simply mentioning these necessities opens one up to claims of living in La La Land (I speak from experience!).  These absolutely essential things are completely impossible to achieve.

This is where we are….
The problem is .... both sides are right!  A paradox of  an “irresistible force against the immovable object”.  

Are we going to do the absolutely essential, or be defeated by the completely impossible?

This is the scale of the task we’re up against, captured in just 6 words!