Right Now, Divestment is a Great Climate Strategy

A lot has been written about campaigning for divestment from fossil fuels (for background see these excellent articles by Fred Pearce and Mark Gunther both at www.e360.Yale.edu ) but in this blog I try to take a planner’s point of view, and explore why it’s such a great campaign strategy at this point in the long-running climate issue.

With the November 2015 Paris Climate Summit fast approaching, success after success on University campuses is giving the climate movement ‘the Big Mo’ it lacked at Copenhagen.

These divestment campaigns have some direct impact on the economics of climate and energy but a much bigger one on the political weather, and so, on the context for that Paris meeting. To the credit of campaigners such as Bill McKibben and 350, key to their success is where they are being fought, and their vertical integration from ‘grass roots’ to global finance. Equally valuable, they should allow the leaders of NGO climate campaigns to keep their strategy options open for what comes after Paris.

1. Motivational Momentum

At least since 2013 commentators have pointed out that divestment campaigns – particularly on University and College campuses – have grown with ‘record breaking’ speed. That’s good but not as important as the fact that they provide a steady stream of visible and unambiguous successes.

Divestment is one small element in a much bigger virtuous web of positive feedback loops on climate and energy. That nexus includes falling costs of renewables, clean energy tech innovation, the growing impact of carbon risk analysis in markets, investment in renewables rather than fossil fuels, and the psychological-political benefits of renewable energy being perceived as real and normal but all this is very hard to communicate in tweets, sound-bites or media-moments.

Until there are some simple headline indicators that capture the degree of carbon dependency, or conversely how ‘renewable’ a company, country or portfolio is, and these can be reported as easily as major stock indexes, the true scale of the ongoing energy revolution will remain largely invisible except to those who go looking for it.

But even small victories on a college campus can be compelling because they show ‘popular opinion’ (mainly students) exercising a decisive pro-climate influence over big players in the energy system (the target fossil fuel companies whose shares get dumped). Divestment campaigns are creating model actions of what bigger players in societies should do and can do, by successfully taking them all the way from awareness, through alignment, to engagement and action.

They demonstrate that it is possible to cross that magical gap from where society is, to where society should be. They communicate well because they are not about saying but doing. Their discrete, limited scope sends a pure unequivocal meaning which is frustrating their critics.

Consequently they are populating the social and political mind space around ‘climate the issue’ with can-do successes, in which fossil fuel interests visibly lose. They are giving the ‘Big Mo’ to the pro-climate side in a way that was missing at Copenhagen, where all the talk of ‘a last chance’ and mobilisation of ‘protest’ readily decoded as desperation and powerlessness, incentivising people to ‘switch off’.

Like the Pope’s moral pronouncement, divestment victories can exert a positive influence on the forthcoming climate talks in Paris, and what comes before and after them, by creating a supportive context.

2. Fought On Our Ground

Many campaigns fail because campaigners try to fight on ground where the enemy is strong. Simply changing the theatre of conflict can often change the outcome.

These battles are being fought on ground that is largely beyond the influence of the opposition (i.e. oil, coal and gas industries). I realise that divestment campaigns are not just happening ‘on campus’ but the university ‘public’ (students) and the university ‘government’ (academics and administrators) is by and large more ‘progressive’ and much less prone to adopt climate sceptic positions than those of many other institutions.

Academic investment portfolios may be relatively small compared with other investments in fossil fuels but by being won, they help potentiate a domino effect, or salami slicing.

In the ‘domino’ case, winning one battle instrumentally helps bring about a subsequent success. For example Stanford University’s May 2014 decision to divest from coal could well have had some effect on California‘s State Pension Funds’ decision to do the same in June 2015.   It is likely that with their extensive networks of Alumni, many of whom they regularly pester with news updates, the divestment actions of Universities will also influence people whose student days are way behind them.

By ‘salami slicing’ I mean campaigns that remove one part of the problem first, often the most winnable, and then another part (eg Foundations), and so on, rather than attempting change across a broad front.  This was famously used in the end-game on anti-smoking campaigns, progressively eliminating the social space for smoking, starting with places where it was an issue of health and safety at work and where the threat came from secondary smoking.

Campaigners sometimes argue against starting from the most winnable targets. It is true that in some cases, winning a ‘local’ battle can rob a campaign of momentum if the engaged audience then feels satisfied and stops there. But whether or not this happens, depends upon the connectivity of the audiences and the system being influenced. Given the fact that many students are shortly going to disperse and launch themselves into careers, and that the causes they adopt at University often ‘stay with them’ for the rest of their lives, it seems more likely that involvement in a college divestment campaign will encourage people to support the same thing again later. This is a campaign strategy that may be building new resources and assets and growing campaign capital, rather than spending it.

  1. Exploiting A Tight Audience-Power Loop

A potential pitfall with ‘climate campaigns’ is that both the problem and the system by which it can be influenced, are effectively unbounded. Failure to find a bounded ‘case’ to work on, leaves campaigns vulnerable to being ‘framed out’ by opponents. For instance where a retailer under pressure redefines the issue as one of consumer choice.   Or for example where a local politician is asked to take action on a source of carbon emissions, and they are able to displace responsibility to a national level. Or where a national government can frame it upwards to ‘international negotiations’. This is why city-wide climate campaigns aimed at Mayors with city-wide powers, have often proved more effective than those aimed at national governments.

In this case the loop of responsibility between those in whose name the shares are held (the students), and the power to decide the content of the portfolio (lying with the university governing body), is a short and tight one. The administration and the ruling academics are usually on campus in the same place as the students. They see one another regularly, they can talk to one another, and it’s hard to avoid one another.   In many ways they also share very direct inter-dependencies, so there is a social incentive to reach agreement. Nobody else is much involved.   This is very different from the relationship between voters and a national government.

As a result, there isn’t much ‘long grass’ to kick the decision into. If campaign appeals are rejected (and it seems many are not being totally rejected), there is a good prospect that it is worth having another go (values expectancy).

The audience is also available. Students may work hard but they are consistently socially accessible and have the time for such campaigns in a way that many other people do not.

Even better, it’s not “their own” money that is being moved, in the sense that they can’t convert it to cash and spend it. It’s an investment in trust, designed to help everyone in the college community , not money that could be released for other purposes such as a holiday.

4. Vertical Integration

Some ‘climate campaigns’ are conceptualised, delivered and communicated solely at the personal behaviour or maybe street or community level.   While very satisfying to some, especially if applied to something we have heavily invested in (eg our house), to those driven by the ‘big picture’, this can seem disappointingly small beer. (Universities of course tend to be full of people who love big picture thinking and students tend to have few personal assets to which they can apply their values). Others succeed in embracing and communicating the big picture problem and big solution (eg via mass marches or twitter actions communicating slogans) but fall dispiritingly short when they come to action that delivers real world change.

The divestment campaigns have vertical integration, from the grass roots of the lawn outside the University Administration, to the world of international oil finance. It’s a force-multiplier and a strong cocktail of self-agency.

5. Keeping Options Open

Finally, at this juncture, divestment campaigns help keep open the window for NGO campaigners to decide which strategies to adopt after ‘Paris’.

The politics, social and economic dynamics of the ‘climate issue’ are currently in such rapid flux that it makes little sense for campaign groups to make hard and fast decisions now, about what to do with their very limited resources after Paris. In conditions of great uncertainty, or rather ‘incertitude’ where not all relevant probabilities can be known, an important test of a strategy is whether it will do any harm by closing off future options.

However big or numerous the disinvestment projects get, there is little danger that the effort will be wasted as a result of what happens in the next months, and they can probably neatly segue into whatever else needs to be done, and not just in the area of energy finance.

An obvious short-term target is divestment by the Catholic Church. Just what is that organisation really doing to act on the Pope’s Encyclical, either in terms of greening its own electricity or divesting from fossil fuels ? So far it seems to have been given an easy ride by media and campaigners suitably awe-struck by the very existence of the Encyclical. It’s pretty much a ‘banker’ that the actions of the Catholic Church will remain full of campaign potential beyond Paris.

Under-estimating What’s Possible

Likewise, the clearest risk for ‘Paris’ is probably that politicians do too little because they under-estimate what’s possible. As governments prepare for the big meeting, the climate “maths” and the climate-realities look worse than the official versions.   At the same time, country commitments, actual emission reductions and decarbonization are all going better than many expected. Conventional political wisdom had it that changing our energy system would be a slower, more gradual, costlier and more painful process. So, by working on out-dated assumptions, politicians and officials may under-estimate what can be done, and then decide to under-state the risk and urgency to fit, and so do too little to be effective.

In so far as divestment can help change this by giving a sense of opening political space, it’s a plus. Divestment campaigns achieve this through by-passing the political system but an even bigger prize will be if they also create a body of financially literate activists who can help fix the politics.

Dismantling The Old System

As analysts like Nick Mabey of E3G have pointed out, decarbonization is now affordable and becoming cheaper. Who today would create a new energy system from scratch, based on fossil fuels ? Renewable energy is now the generation system of choice, and introducing clean energy is not a technical or economic problem. It’s dismantling the old system that is now the issue, and that is mainly a political problem. More and more fossil fuel assets may be become stranded but the influence of the fossil lobby is entrenched.

In most governments it is probably still Finance Ministers who get to draw the red lines that limit climate commitments and who are most wedded to the fossil era. Many may have deep political and even personal links to the oil, gas or coal industry. Political donations are one factor but social commitments can be just as important, along with the almost inevitable lag in understanding a fast-changing reality.   Some, such as the UK’s George Osborne, are even extending tax breaks to the faltering fossil fuel industry and impeding renewables, in order to play short term party politics.

Ignore the Critics

I’ll try to look at possible strategic choices for climate campaigns post-Paris in another blog but meanwhile, one thought for the divestment campaigners: ignore your critics. As Mark Gunther notes, these critics tend to argue that divestment efforts would be better used elsewhere, such as on ‘positive engagement’ with oil companies. They also deride the sums divested as not even a ‘blip’ in global energy finance.

Such moral hazard arguments (“if you put your efforts elsewhere they’d be more effective”) are a frequent refrain when a campaign starts to make serious progress. Sometimes it is naieve but honestly believed. In other cases it is disingenuous.

In this case, some of the naieve critics wrongly imagine that the efficacy of the strategy depends upon the step by step arithmetic of money shifted, rather than (a) the social and psychological impact of undermining the social licence of fossil fuels, and (b) demonstrating the feasibility and popular mandate for a shift to clean energy. Others assume that those participating would want to participate in a hand-in-glove relationship with the oil industry, and be available to do so. Most of this category of critics are rationalistic ‘experts’ or academics who understand a lot about energy but little about politics or campaigns.

The disingenuous critics understand the strategy perfectly well but hope to disable it by discouraging its supporters, such as with this piece of propaganda in Forbes magazine.   Both lots should be watched but otherwise ignored.

Positive engagement with the fossil fuel industry will no doubt continue but the real opportunity for those companies to convert themselves into leaders in the new world of clean energy is long gone. They closed that window when they gave up their investments in renewables (eg Shell in 2009, BP in 2011-13). Their next big negotiation will be over the terms of their own demise.

So the time to talk to the fossil fuel industry will return but only once governments clearly show that they have entered the end game, and organise some sort of negotiation to progressively close down fossil fuels, including action to put geological carbon resources ‘beyond use’, as they say in arms talks. That’s something politicians really are needed for, and if they aren’t up to the job, we’ll have to find another way.

Chris Rose 2 August 2015 chris@campaignstrategy.co.uk

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Strange Happenings on a Small Island Off Europe

[This post has also been republished at The Ecologist]

Shakespeare’s The Tempest is a tale of strange happenings on an enchanted isle. It begins with a storm conjured by the magic of Prospero. His sorcery brings his enemies to him, and leaves them powerless. “At this hour” he tells his spirit-servant Ariel, “Lies at my mercy all mine enemies”.

Something similar, if less magical and more political, is happening right now in the strange little island of Britain. Here ‘green’ measures are being laid waste in the scorched-earth style once popular with England’s Norman Kings.

It’s not a would-be Duke of Milan who is calling the shots but George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer (Finance Minister). Osborne is a lifelong political animal, an aristocrat, and would-be next Conservative Prime Minister.  Osborne is also seen by many as the deceiving wizard behind the Conservatives recent election triumph. One critic has called him, a ‘magician’, and a ‘genius at politics’ who now, is riding ‘in his pomp’.

Powerless Enemies

Osborne’s political enemies really do lie powerless. The Conservatives came to power this May with a slim majority but there is no effective opposition. The Labour Party is leaderless, demoralized and punishing itself with an agonizing internal election which is further alienating the public.

The Conservative’s former coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats (the two parties were massively divided by values), were almost wiped out in the election. In Scotland, the Scottish National Party (SNP) won 50 British Parliamentary seats, while Labour lost 40 and the LibDems lost 10, leaving them with just one MP each ‘north of of the border’. As Labour and the SNP loathe one another, this helps rather than hinders Osborne. If and until there is another referendum (Scotland voted against independence in 2014), all that Scottish SNP support means little in practical terms. Finally, if Scotland splits away, the Conservatives are likely to be even more dominant in the rest of Britain.

Policies into Reverse

So Osborne finds himself unopposed and he is systematically putting Britain’s environmental protection policies into reverse.

The Conservative government has lifted a ban on bee-slaying neonicotinoid pesticides, and slashed support for wind, biomass and solar power, killed off its scheme for greening homes, cut incentives to chose cleaner cars, abandoned a plan for all new homes to be ‘zero carbon’, reversed a pledge to keep fracking out of nationally important nature sites, dropped plans for taxing environmental ‘bads’, announced it will start selling off its ‘green bank’, and is apparently casting around for more greenery to put to the axe.   It’s also supporting a ‘review’ of two key European wildlife laws, the Habitats Directive and the Birds Directive.

Why ? Mainly because it is pay-back time for the Conservative base, donors and business lobbies. Only a few of these changes were put to the electorate (unlike the economic policies of Osborne’s recent budget) but amongst some British Conservatives, especially activists, there is a visceral dislike of environmental protections. Osborne’s political co-pilot, Prime Minister David Cameron, famously called it the “green crap”.

Former Friends of the Earth Director Tony Juniper recently said ‘the last few months mark the worst period for environmental policy that I have seen in my 30 years’ work in this field’ and I’d agree. He attributes it to ‘an anti-environment ideology based on the view that ecological goals interfere with the market, increase costs and are against the interests of people’. Again I agree with Tony but only up to a point because in the UK, a lot of the simmering resentment of pro-environmental action is not really ideological in an intellectual sense but social.

Fox Hunting

Strange as it may seem to foreigners, in class-ridden Britain one of the social fault lines is between the feudal land-owning classes and those who aspire to support them, and the rest. Even odder, the two symbolic issues that divide these tribes are blood-sports, especially fox-hunting, and bizarrely, wind turbines. (There is also some evidence that they probably also divide over climate scepticism).

Controls on fox hunting were introduced by the Labour government under Tony Blair (who later regretted it). David Cameron has pledged to allow a Parliamentary vote on changing the law back, to the disadvantage of foxes. Both he and Osborne would be likely to vote to allow more hunting and both move in social circles which are much more pro-fox-hunting than the population at large. The government tried to do this in July but pulled back because, ironically, of opposition from the SNP (the details are complicated) and will probably try again in the autumn.

Not all Conservatives or Conservative MPs support fox-hunting. Within the Conservative Party it comes close to dividing ’modernisers’ from traditionalists (and retros, neo-traditionalists). Right-wing journalist Matthew D’Ancona recently described it as part of the Conservative’s ‘gruesome past’. But by this instinctive emotional logic, renewable energy and even energy efficiency can get bundled with opposition to hunting foxes with hounds: it is about “us” and “them”. The nearest parallel that I can imagine for American readers, and it is not a very precise one, is gun control: in some ways the fox hunting lobby is Britain’s NRA (National Rifle Association) but associated with the liberty to enjoy inherited, rural, landed privilege rather than notions of self-made individualism.

To give you an example, a farmer I know of is a tenant of a very large, very aristocratic land-owner of the hunting-and-shooting variety. The tenancy still requires that the landowner has right of access to ride over his farm and use his farmhouse one day a year. And it is exercised: I’m told the landowner and his friends turn up on horseback, unannounced, stick their muddy boots up on the kitchen table and eat and drink as long as they like. It’s “a laugh” but it asserts a very feudal order.

While both Cameron and Osborne were members of the elite hyper-rich Bullingdon Club at Oxford University famous for anti-social behaviour, drink and drugs, Cameron comes from the landed gentry and has a foxhunting background, while Osborne’s background is more ‘metropolitan’.

Osborne is not as ideological as some assume. He is a clever, radical and calculating politician most interested in winning. His bonfire of green measures (and there is little doubt that the Treasury is behind the long-knives) may make little rational sense. Onshore wind and solar are cheap, and efficient and unlike nuclear, quick to deploy. Investment in energy efficiency is most cost-effective of all, and cleaner cars save the NHS money. There is no evidence that the Birds and Habitats Directives are impairing economic growth. In short, as many economists point out, environmental regulation tends to boost rather than reduce economic performance.  The renewables industry and Britain’s many greener companies will be alarmed. Thoughtful greener Conservatives have expressed dismay and puzzlement at his actions.

But Osborne isn’t trying to appeal to the thinkers. He probably judges that a slash and burn of green policies makes short-term political sense on a dog-whistle basis. He is stealing UKIP’s clothes and positioning, and most of all, scoring points with Conservative Party loyalists, back-benchers and loyalists who he will need in future.  He is also probably enjoying the moment. The Conservative Party, if not Osborne himself, are a bit drunk on the power to do what feels good.  He must calculate that there is very little political risk: certainly not from opposition political parties, nor also from Britain’s environmental NGOs.  And he’s about to go on holiday.

International Implications

Most of the time Britain doesn’t matter much on the world stage but it does on climate change because of its finance of carbon, the communications influence of the BBC, and because it has so far stuck to Mrs Thatcher’s legacy of attempting international leadership.   There has even been a cross-party agreement on the need to decarbonize the UK. Will that survive ?

The Paris climate summit is on the near horizon. Most of the rest of the world seems to be heading towards more effective climate action. To mention but a few, the Pope has issued his powerful Encyclical calling for more action; French MPs have voted to halve energy use by 2050 and increase renewables to 32% by 2030, Barack Obama plans to train 75,000 solar workers, Hilary Clinton wants enough renewable energy to power all the homes in the US within a decade, and China says it will ‘it will “work hard” to peak emissions earlier’ than 2030 target.

We don’t yet know how Osborne’s onslaught will affect Britain’s climate policy commitments but they are likely to increase its carbon emissions. Just some of wind and solar cuts are estimated to add 2.9-7.3mt to UK CO2 pollution each year.

Domestic and European Implications: Dirty Man of Europe ?

Is Britain heading back to the dark old days when it was known as the Dirty Man of Europe ? It’s more than possible. Germany is tightening controls on neonicotinoid pesticides, while Britain relaxes them. Britain ranks 18th out of 22 European countries for beach cleanliness and is facing two legal actions for sewage spills. It wasn’t just dire performance on water and air pollution which won Britain that title in the 1980s and 1990s but a state of mind, and Osborne seems to be talking up an anti-environmental mantra.

Writing in the current ENDS Magazine, environmentalist and Peer Bryony Worthington notes:

‘When energy secretary Amber Rudd announced in parliament that the government would cut off subsidies for new onshore wind she name-checked Conservative MPs in her speech. They then stood up in turn and called out for more, attacking offshore wind and solar power, with some calling for an end to all forms of renewable energy.’

It isn’t hard to imagine that an anti-environment drumbeat from London could be echoed in other Member States where it seems expedient to do things like continuing to burn coal. That is exactly what the Conservative’s right wing competitors UKIP want to do. They are pledged to to repeal Britain’s Climate Change Act, scrap the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), end solar subsidies, burn more coal and roll back emissions regulations for power plants. UKIP won just one seat at the General Election but got 13.6% of votes, against the Conservatives 36.9% of the vote and 331 seats.

Here perhaps is some of Osborne’s motivation: to out-UKIP UKIP before the referendum on continued membership of the European Union and minimise the damage from an inevitable Conservative split over Europe.

David Cameron promised to hold the referendum by 2017 but it could be as early as May 2016. Neither Cameron nor Osborne say they want to leave the EU but Osborne recently told the Daily Mail that UK membership should be based on ‘free trade’. The Mail explained that further Eurozone integration, which of course excludes Britain: ‘could provide an opportunity for the UK to start distancing itself from the EU and reset the terms of its membership’.

A common rightwing British view of Europe is of an interfering, socialist leaning superstate imposing rules and regulations. From this point of view, environmental regulation, renewable energy and ‘Europe’ are all rolled into one encumberance we are best shot of. Ditching environmental protection and policies associated with the EU, could therefore be part of a positioning exercise to “shoot UKIP’s fox” before the referendum. Or in a favourite phrase of the Conservative’s Australian election strategist Lynton Crosby, to “get the barnacles off the boat”.

Domestic: What Should Campaigners Do ?

Faced with the obvious threat to the Birds and Habitats Directive, 100 British NGOs got together earlier this year to ask people to respond to an EU consultation under the banner ‘Defend Nature’. 520,000 people responded, 100,000 from the UK. Not bad and three times higher than any other consultation response but it’s unlikely to have much affect on Operation Osborne. The European Commission responded that it ‘reaffirms support for EU role in protecting nature’ but what if that’s not what the UK Government wants to hear ?

Likewise on the day I’m writing this, a study found:The Birds Directive has had a “demonstrably positive impact” on threatened species, according to research by European wildlife NGO BirdLife International and Durham University’. But if the intended Osborne UKIP-sidelining meta-narrative is less-Europe-good, more-Europe-bad, then evidence that Europe works, just like the evidence that renewables or energy efficiency work, is simply not welcome.

Pro-European advocacy is unlikely to change the UK Government’s mind until after it has what it wants from the referendum, unless it is forced into a rethink by some external reality such as the need to negotiate with a political opponent, and that seems unlikely.

Instead campaigns need to build bottom up, and to be realistic. UKIP and his Conservative base aside, what or who do Osborne or Cameron care about ? What might have to happen for some of them to begin to doubt that throwing environmental protections and investments overboard, was such a great idea after all ?

The first objective probably cannot be to reverse Osborne’s changes but simply to sow doubt. After that might, eventually, come regret, shame, disownment, even disengagement.

What if, for example, the oil seed rape farmers who lobbied to use neonicotinoid pesticides found that they were losing markets for their products in favour of suppliers (from elsewhere in Europe ?) who could guarantee that their product had not been sprayed with the bee slaying neonicotinoids ?

What if the staff, friends, families, company directors and investors of renewable energy companies in Britain, were to make their feelings felt to Conservative MPs ? According to the Renewable Energy Association, there are over 100,000 people employed in the UK renewables sector (against about 150,000 full time farmers).

What if some of those 100,000 who took part in the EU Habitats and Birds Directives were also members of the Conservative Party or voted Conservative ? If they now had reason to invite their MP to see what protection means on the ground, it might help reframe the question as about our land and our nature rather than ‘Europe’.

What if George Osborne was to hear from the City that the smoke signals from his green bonfire were sending unhelpful messages about inward investment to the UK ?

What if the UK found itself dealing with a series of embarrassing court actions that spoke to the title ‘Dirty Man of Europe’ ? Or if tourists and Londonders started seriously worrying about the quality of the capital’s air ?

What if home-owners or businesses found themselves affected by changing weather and climate, and started to demand political action at a local level to keep us safe ? Fracking so far comes closest to this since it impinges on houses and potentially on property values but sea level rise and inland flooding also pose a threat which has yet to crystallise as a real political issue.

In the end all politics is local, geographically or personally, or both. “Issues” do not make campaigns, only topics that are debated. Campaigns need to start with a group, however small, of people with an unshakeable conviction that their case needs to be heard. They need to put something at stake, to make a difference that matters to someone.

This will mean campaigns that resonate with people that George Osborne cares about, for example his MPs, and that in turn depends on involving those who they care about – their voters not their critics. The failed attempt to sell-off some of England’s state-owned forests back in 2011 led to a ‘shires revolt’ which showed that a Conservative government can be vulnerable on an environmental issue.

In recent decades UK environmentalists have got used to operating in a relatively benign environment. Many UK NGOs are herbivorous beasts, browsers not bruisers, posing little or no political threat to any interest, political or corporate. Some have grown used to ‘satisficing’, looking after visitors to their sites and tending to their supporters.   Rarely do they really need to convince anyone outside their own ‘base’.

European funding for agri-environment schemes, the Landfill Tax, Lottery Funding, policies set through the EU on energy and climate, public-funded agencies working to monitor and enforce regulations, and the corporate-consumer-regulatory ratchet of sustainability have all reduced the requirement for NGOs to prove a need, or to demonstrate and mobilise a real-life constuituency. I hope I am wrong but this rather peaceful situation may be changing for the worse. Are Britain’s NGOs really ready for a fight ?

Chris Rose 29 7 15

 

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Is The Church Actually Going Green ?

Does anyone know which is the greenest Church ?

Is anyone measuring how renewable is the energy used by Churches themselves ?  Presumably Pope Francis would now be interested to know.  After all, an Encyclical is not much good if it’s not acted upon.

Various Popes have made ‘green’ utterances about ecology – John Paul II spoke of the ‘ecological crisis‘ and in 2008 Benedict XVI installed solar pv in the Vatican.

Pope Francis has made it pretty clear.  Catholics and the rest of us should be using renewable energy:

“We know that technology based on the use of highly polluting fossil fuels – especially coal, but also oil and, to a lesser degree, gas – needs to be progressively replaced without delay.”

“There is an urgent need to develop policies so that, in the next few years, the emission of carbon dioxide and other highly polluting gases can be drastically reduced, for example, substituting for fossil fuels and developing sources of renewable energy.”

“Worldwide there is minimal access to clean and renewable energy. There is still a need to develop adequate storage technologies. Some countries have made considerable progress, although it is far from constituting a significant proportion. Investments have also been made in means of production and transportation which consume less energy and require fewer raw materials, as well as in methods of construction and renovating buildings which improve their energy efficiency. But these good practices are still far from widespread.”

So how widespread are they in the Catholic Church itself ?  One hopes that somewhere in the Vatican, someone is keeping track of progress ?

Catholic Potential

It’s not as if this idea is wholly new, even in the Catholic Church.  In 2009 an academic study available online,  Solar Photovoltaic Energy for Mitigation of Climate Change: A Catalytic Application of Catholic Social Thought worked out the potential impact on developing the solar pv market in the US if the  20,842 Catholic Parishes in the Continental U.S. put solar pv on their roofs.

And there are plenty of Catholic, Christian and other Faith initiatives on the environment and even specifically on renewable energy.

For instance in the US, for 15 years the California-based  Interfaith Power & Light (IPL) ‘has worked to turn people of all religious faiths onto the idea that addressing climate change by deploying renewable energy technologies’. Renewables ‘can not only deliver clean, affordable electrical power’, it says ‘but it can also address unemployment and spur socially beneficial development in communities nationwide’.

IPL works with 18,000 member congregations, and is running an online Solar Pledge campaign and can point to lots of examples of churches using renewables.  But does anyone have systematic data on progress ?  Now is the time for the bean counters of the Vatican and other faith institutions to do their ecological accounting with the same thoroughness that many devote to keeping track of their often vast financial resources.

Are The Germans The Real Leaders ?

It might come as no surprise if it turns out that the Germans, and maybe the non-Catholic Christians, are ahead of the game ?  Today (24 June 2015) it was reported by the website Power Technology that:

The Lutheran World Federation (LWF), a communion of Lutheran churches has decided not to invest in fossil fuels any further and has called on its member churches in Switzerland to do the same, in order to meet its climate commitment. 

As a part of its long-standing pledge to preserve environment, the federation has urged its members and associated institutions ‘to support energy efficiency and renewable energy companies’ instead.  The council intends to turn carbon neutral by 2050

More than 2,000 churches in Germany already have either photovoltaics or solar thermal.  Was this the first pv on a church building anywhere ?  Quite possibly.  In Germany of course, and as it makes clear, a Conservative project.

Which religions are most likely to convert words into action ?  I’m not a great expert in these matters but I do remember from working on the WWF Assisi Declarations in 1986 which brought together five of the world’s great religions and led to the ‘Network of Religions and Conservation’, that it was Islam not Christianity which seemed to find it easiest to convert theological commitments into practical action.  But let’s see.  Perhaps the Catholics will do something dramatic ?

Evangelicals or C of E ?

A friend of mine who is a prominently green Church of England Vicar, once told me that if you wanted actual action, it was not the C of E or the Buddhists to look to but the Evangelicals.  On the other hand even the fusty old Church of England has a good spattering of green projects underway, and its record on disinvestment from carbon is definitely improving, even if still a work in progress.

There are a growing number of ‘green churches‘ in England, and six dioceses partner with Ecotricity in energy projects   while ‘Shrinking the Footprint’ is the Church of England’s national environmental campaign aimed at helping the Church’s 44 dioceses and 16,000 churches reduce their carbon footprint.

St Silas Church Islington London ‘a lively church faithful to the Catholic tradition of the Church of England’ http://www.saint-silas.org.uk/ posted this video:

The US likewise has plenty of green pioneers in the Churches.  ‘In Stockton, Bishop Stephen Blaire announced that his diocese has joined forces with the Catholic Climate Covenant and Sungevity, a private firm specializing in solar power systems. The partnership allows Sungevity to offer new customers a $750 rebate while splitting an additional $750 between a participating parish, the diocesan Catholic Charities fund, and the Catholic Climate Covenant, which can then use the funds to assist other dioceses in doing the same’.

The Diocese of Honolulu and St. Mary’s Abbey in Massachusetts have also gone solar

 

Back in the UK, the non conformist Methodists The Hope in God’s Future report commits the Methodist Church to reducing its carbon footprint by 80% by 2050.

I’m not sure what the American Evangelists are actually doing but the Rev. Mitch Hescox Evangelical Environmental Network (EEN) pulls few punches in advocacy:

Using sleight-of-hand statistical mumbo-jumbo, deniers have tried to pull one over on the American people about the recent pace of global warming. Don’t be fooled. Global temperatures have continued their century’s long march upward, with 2014 being the latest exclamation point and 2015 projected to do the same. And with the heat comes extreme weather like the California drought, flooding and mudslides in Washington that killed 43, and the fact that Anchorage, Alaska was above freezing all of 2014.

So does that mean the doomsayers are right? The end is nigh, we’re already toast, as 2014 portends?

Not at all! That’s not the moment we are in.

Here’s some solar pv from a Church in Northern Ireland (Belfast Ulster Temple Church):

See also this Baptist green project in the UK.

Some churches have been leaders in disinvestment from high carbon energy. IPL notes  The following faith organizations have divested from fossil fuels:

Not Just Christians

It’s not just the Christians of course.  The Guardian reports that ‘more than 300 rabbis signed a letter calling on Jewish institutions and individuals to divest from “carbon Pharaohs” or coal-based electric power, and buy wind power instead’.

Actions Not Words

This blog is not a serious review, more a whimsical survey.  You could go on and on recording the variety of religious organizations using solar or otherwise going green, such as these from many faiths in Canada.

No doubt thanks to the Encyclical and faith-adovocacy projects such Our Voices,  inter-faith lobbying will be a big feature of the forthcoming Paris climate talks.

But actions speak louder than words, so if anyone has any actual data on which are the greenest churches, or greenest faiths, as measured in converting to renewable energy, I’d very much like to hear from you (or post a reply to this blog).

 

 

 

 

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Bring Back Nature Tables

GUEST BLOG by Melanie Oxley.   A chance meeting with walkers who couldn’t identify a wren prompted this call to bring back the Nature Table, once common in British schools.

nature table parkroyal sch

source:  http://parkroyalpre-school.org.uk/amazing-bugs-and-nature-tables/

Chris – Your campaign on peoples’ ignorance of wildlife has really got me thinking. It is true that through my voluntary work, I meet many more people than ever, who simply cannot identify common birds and flowers. Even the ecologists I work with need to go on identification course!

obs book birds

This was brought into sharp focus recently whilst I was bird-watching at Malham Tarn in the Yorkshire Dales. I was observing wheatears when a well turned-out couple in their 30’s asked what I was doing. I showed them the wheatear through binoculars and they seemed interested. After all they had come to one of the country’s famed beauty spots, presumably to enjoy wildlife. But then the guy said they had spotted a really noisy little bird with a short tail, so what was that? Rusty brown? I asked. OK, so they had never noticed a wren before and did not know its name. I was totally shocked about this, more so when I passed the unmistakable wren, but at least these people had noticed/reacted! At least they were there.

“The problem of no reaction”

I think the problem of no reaction does come from ignorance, which can only partly be blamed on our education system. It also comes from a failure to even notice, which comes from having our heads constantly filled thanks to mobiles and other devices. There is no space for noticing. People are shutting themselves off from the sights and sounds around them and instead either listen to their music or endlessly look at the responses to their comments. They are just not up to even noticing, let alone taking an interest.

How can this be fixed? Some apps are good, eg. bird song recognition and plant-finder, but for real immersion in nature, these devices should be left behind. Schools can help address this problem; for example, on Mondays each class could discuss what wildlife they spotted at the weekend. The nature-table needs to make a comeback too – Infant and Junior schools should be encouraged to bring in their findings and talk about them. They can be asked to take home and care for caterpillars in the school holidays, or keep a moss garden watered. This is definitely where my life-long interest was ignited. I loved the smell of the nature table!

Families can be encouraged by teachers to ignite interest by all sitting down together to watch Spring/Summer/Autumn/Winter-watch when on, 8-9pm, with mobiles off (not on silent). Teachers will also have to watch it of course! This can be discussed the following day, perhaps at assembly.

The Wildlife Trusts could play a much larger part in getting information to children through schools (some do, I know). Badger and bat watching are great ways to get them interested – they are usually so excited to be out in the dark, I bet for that hour or so, children forget all about the technology available to them.

Families need to be encouraged to supply the information to children through books – Eye-spy and Observers (still going?) instead of apps, also cheap binoculars instead of games. All these things require only a little thought and a bit of imagination.

obs book wren

“quite unmistakeable” said The Observers’ book of Birds – but perhaps not ?

Melanie Oxley works for The Ecology Consultancy as a copywriter. Her voluntary work includes Friends of Clapham Common, Friends of Petersfield Heath and the Western Riverside Environmental Fund (WREF).

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Getting The Message Right – article in UNA Climate 2020

Here’s an article by Chris Rose from the UNA report ‘Climate 2020: Facing the Future’.

2020 cover

“I doubt that they teach much about
cognitive psychology, advertising, marketing
or politics at weather school. Things
like heuristics, framing and values. Not
surprisingly, the climatologists have proved
fabulously ill-equipped to deliver effective
climate communications”.

p1 UNA article

p2 UNA article

p 3 UNA article

 

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The changing times of climate change politics

This blog is re-posted from Tom Burke’s blog at E3G and was originally published in Green Business.  If you want to understand what’s really going on in the climate and energy arena, this is a very good place to start. 

tb

The politics of climate change is changing. Astonished listeners at a recent conference in Paris heard the Saudi oil minister, Ali al-Naimi, announce ‘one of these days we are not going to need fossil fuels’. He went on to make it clear he was thinking in terms of decades not centuries. Then he said, ‘I believe solar will be more economic than fossil fuels.’

This cannot have been comforting listening for oil industry moguls already disturbed by the accelerating momentum of the global divestment campaign. Just how disturbed they have become is clear from the report that Shell, BP, Statoil and Eni are about to announce the formation of new industry body. Its purpose will be to get the industry speaking the same language.

They have always deeply believed that governments would promise much and deliver little on climate change. Now they are beginning to wonder.

This follows a series of speeches from oil industry leaders around the world on the theme of getting their voice ‘heard by members of government, by civil society and the general public’. The idea that their voice is not already being heard, loud, clear and often, by governments is laughable. So what can they possibly mean? A seam of doubt is starting to run through the industry’s innermost councils. They have always deeply believed that governments would promise much and deliver little on climate change. Now they are beginning to wonder. They have also believed deeply in their dominance of energy markets. That belief, too, now looks under threat.

Governments are fickle friends at the best of times. The early politics of climate change were driven by scientific knowledge. By 1992 governments at the Earth Summit in Rio agreed there was a problem. Then they quickly put off taking effective action. By 2008 action was unavoidable. Something really would have to be done. The two degree ‘threshold’ of danger was accepted by global leaders.

At Copenhagen politicians looked closely for the first time at what avoiding danger would mean for their economies. They baulked again. By this time the dry analyses of science had been given dramatic political life by validating events. Most people in most countries now believe that human beings are changing the climate.

Experience has now replaced knowledge as the primary political driver of climate action. As Harold Macmillan replied when asked what he feared most, ‘Events, dear boy, events’. Or, as we might say in these more vernacular times, ‘Stuff happens’. ‘Stuff’ is now happening to the climate.

Politicians are skilled at ducking the facts. Events are more difficult. It is just beginning to occur to oil industry leaders that governments may do more than they expected. Not enough to solve the problem, perhaps, but a lot more than would be comfortable for them.

Unilever Paul Polman Paul Polman of Unilever

Furthermore, other voices are beginning to compete for the ear of government. Unilever’s Paul Polman told a recent conference that extreme weather had already pushed up his costs by £316 million. The dominant business voice in the climate debate, however, remains that of the fossil fuels industries and their customers.

This leaves governments facing a choice between today’s winners (oil companies) or tomorrow’s possible winners ( renewables and efficiency). For governments this is a no brainer. You back today’s winners. Polman’s intervention implies that this comfortable asymmetry may come to an end.

The real costs of climate change are already falling on tens of thousands of businesses around the world. But they are not being captured. The high level aggregates used by economists to estimate these costs conceal more than they reveal. They significantly underestimate the impact of a changing climate on business. As global temperature climbs inexorably beyond 1°C towards 2°C over the next decade these other business voices will grow louder.

Tomorrow’s winners are becoming today’s winners far more rapidly than anyone forecast

This will present governments with a different political equation. The choice will be today’s losers (the non-fossil businesses) plus tomorrow’s possible winners or today’s winners. This equation does not resolve so favourably for the oil industry. In any case, they may not be winners for as long as they think.

Tomorrow’s winners are becoming today’s winners far more rapidly than anyone forecast. Deutsche Bank recently published a report on solar,  pointing out that it is now at grid parity in more than 50% of countries. They are not alone. Citi has announced the establishment of a $100 billion fund to invest in renewables. The fossil fuel consultancy, Wood McKenzie pointed out that solar farms were already displacing gas-fired generation in the US. Renewables compete directly with gas putting the oil companies’ balance sheets under further stress.

Climate events on the one hand and accelerating deployment of renewables on the other now threaten the political support the industry has assumed. Governments will not abandon the oil industry. They rely too much on it for taxes and dividends. But the industry fears they will bend too far. The point of raising their public voice is not to tell governments things they already know. Its real purpose is to muddy the waters of public debate to reduce the danger that governments will act soon enough to keep the climate safe.

 

 

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It’s A Prospector World

Surveys of 15 countries representing the majority of the global population, show that it’s a predominantly Prospector world.  (To understand more about the ‘three worlds’ of these three ‘Maslow Groups’ see my book What Makes People Tick: The Three Hidden Worlds of Settlers, Prospectors and Pioneers, opposite).

Taken together, the 15 countries make up 59.3% of the global population (they are Kenya, China, India, South Africa, Russia, Thailand, Philippines, Mexico, Indonesia, Turkey, Brazil, Argentina, Japan, UK, Australia and the US) .  Each survey included over 2000 people, nationally representative for age and sex, and was fielded by GMI. The surveys were conducted by CDSM (Cultural Dynamics Strategy and Marketing) between 2011 and 2015 as part of a larger study with Campaign Strategy for Greenpeace.

world pop chart

The average proportion of Prospectors (Outer Directed) across the 15 samples is 55%.  An average 20% are Settlers (Security Driven) and 25% are Pioneers (Inner Directed).

MGs average 15 csworld av 15 cy pie

Above: ‘global’ population by Maslow Group – it’s mostly a Prospector World

As has been discussed in previous Three Worlds blogs, the predominance of Prospectors in many societies has important implications for campaigners, most of whom (especially in developed countries) tend to be Pioneers and to make intuitive Pioneer-type assumptions about other people.  Pioneers have a high sense of self agency, like complexity and debating issues, and some disapprove of people for being aspirational, even for wanting to have fun.  But that’s the way most of the world is and for their ’causes’ to have mass appeal they need to communicate them in ways that offer success, fun, looking good and achieving the best, and positive action rather than self-denial, if they are to attract what in most countries is ‘the mainstream’.

MGs bar chart 15 countries by Prospector

Above: proportions of Maslow Groups in 15 countries (ranked by Prospector).

The CDSM model splits out four distinct Values Modes within the Maslow Groups, each with a distinct motivational profile.  (See home page links to explanations of the Values Modes).

The survey results and global averages of the Values Modes are shown below:

Global 15 cy VMs table

global VM avs bar chart

Across the sample average, the two largest Values Modes are the GD Golden Dreamers and the NP Now People, both Prospector.  The former have recently transitioned from Settler World and are still quite conventional in their aspirations, although they are very motivated to find a quick route to acquiring the symbols of success.  The latter are much more confident and more interested in what Pioneers are doing, and exert the greatest influence over the other Prospector Values Modes, including the GDs.  The Now People are the arbiters of fashion.

Now People tend to look favourably on many ‘good causes’ but are often put off from engaging by the way that campaign groups try to approach or treat them.  Pioneer campaigners may even inadvertently drive Prospectors out of their own organizations by trying to make them more ‘worthy’, when it is often these people they need the most in order to engage the public.

The third largest Values Mode is the TX Transcenders.   This Values Mode tends to dominate amongst those actually taking action on ‘good causes’, especially where they are ‘global’ or challenging.  It is the Values Mode with the highest sense of self agency, and has greatest potential to act as a bridge for Pioneer ideas to the Prospectors but this is not always realized.

This is the first time these data have been published in this form and it is believed to be the only survey of its kind.

There is only one European country in the series above and CDSM plans to conduct a survey of more European countries in the next twelve months.  For more on that and for any methodological enquiries, contact Pat Dade at CDSM.

Thanks to CDSM and Greenpeace for permission to use these data.

Chris Rose

Want to know your own Maslow Group and Values Mode ? take the free CDSM online survey

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Make Hay not Verge Rage

Is Verge Rage breaking out in East Anglia ?  BBC’s Look East is tweeting about people in dispute over whether to cut flowery road verges for ‘safety reasons’ or to let them grow tall and flower for wildlife and beauty.

verge rage

Part of the problem and part of the solution is better management, which would mean more but smaller flowers and grasses. In short, cut the verges for hay rather than gang-mowing them, which stifles and kills off most flowers under a mulch of decaying veg’, and encourages a tall rank growth of a few grasses and one or two plants like cow parsley.

As I discussed last May in a blog Blander Britain. No primroses at Primrose Corner,  sadly most roadside verges contain far fewer flowers than they once did, because they are over-fertilized by both modern farm fertilizer pollution and gang mowing.

A change in County Council management policy could help resolve this problem and avoid it descending into Verge Rage.  So if you are on the verge of raging against overgrown verges, please think instead about asking for this win-win solution.  ‘Old fashioned’  hay cutting means allowing plants to grow, flower and set seed which is great for natural diversity, and then (most important), lifting and taking away the cut vegetation.  Each year this is done, reduces the rank vegetation, allowing smaller flowers to multiply and live side by side, supporting more insects and other wildlife, and even reducing the overall need to cut verges.

Modern machinery such as ‘forage harvesters‘ is used to do this on nature reserves.  It does not need large scale hay making equipment, just a bit of imagination and organizing.  From a conservation point of view, verges are incredibly important as they are some of the very few ‘natural’ spots left in our intensively farmed countryside.

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Warnings of the Splatometer: the New Desert

wendlebury converted to barley ed sGUEST BLOG by Phil Rothwell (philrothwell41@gmail.com)

Phil Rothwell is now a consultant biologist who worked for many years for the RSPB, Environment Agency and other organisations.  His story reminds us of how dangerous it is if campaigners simply adjust their ambitions to a ‘new baseline’.

Chris – your mention of the Splatometer used by the RSPB to inject a bit of citizen science into the agriculture and conservation debate brought back a flood of memories of agriculture campaigns and debates in the 1990s.  Unfortunately, it seems we may not have heeded the grim findings of that simple campaign device.

It was Karen Rothwell (my wife, and then Head of Marketing at RSPB), who organised a number of focus groups to test opinion and seek triggers help us energise  and popularise the CAP reform campaign that we in RSPB ran at the time.  We wanted to find a way to motivate the public to think abut the impact of cheap food and agricultural management on wildlife.

The focus groups were really insightful and helped a great deal. But one participant stood out in capturing, in a sentence, a very graphic example of his experience of the countryside.  He was in his sixties and from High Wycombe.  He professed to have been a cyclist all his life.   He said that biggest difference between cycling in his youth, and cycling in the 1990s was that he could now cycle through country lanes with his mouth open and not have to swallow or spit out insects as he recalled doing 50 years previously.

This insight triggered memories in all of us old enough to remember when petrol was 4 gallons to £1, and any trip out in the car required regular stops to wipe insect debris from the wind-screen.  In those days (the 1960s), petrol stations kept scrapers and  squeegees in buckets of water next to the pumps for that specific purpose.

The ‘splatometer’ was invented by the RSPB research team as a way of gathering data and raising awareness of  one of the impacts of changes in agricultural practice over time.

The insect splattered windscreen or lack of it became a bit of a symbol of the declining abundance of our wildlife, alongside the skylark and grey partridge.

This was powerfully reinforced by a trip that we took to look at farming in Poland and Eastern Germany.  Not only were we struck by the diversity and richness of the agricultural landscape, and the variety of habitats that folded around the farmscape but the insect splattered windscreens in the region brought back the memories of past travel, and the truth our High Wycombe cyclist reminded us of.

A a couple of well traveled birdwatchers, who had driven across the continent from the Channel, also reported that you could almost measure the increasing intensity of insect strike as they drove through Holland to Germany and on to Poland.  Stops to clean the windscreen came with increasing frequency the further east you went.

Pondering on this today, it is clear that an insect less windscreen has become the new norm and for anyone under 40, a countryside without insects is situation normal, just as it is usual not to see skylarks or any other agricultural wildlife.  It’s been mostly  lost along the way.

A 1990s trip to a see Suffolk farm with the farmer and his father, sticks in my mind.  The older man who had passed management of the farm on to his son some years earlier.  As we stood in the middle of a wheat field looking a dry, hard soil, with cracks in it that you could lose a 12 inch ruler down, the young farmer said that he failed to understand the fuss.  The land as far as he was concerned, had always been like this, and for him a skylark- free field was normal and always been so.   It was his father who corrected him and confessed that much had changed, the soil seemed less alive and the farm had changed its cropping patterns significantly.  He recalled that when his father had passed the farm on to him there were lapwings and skylarks in the same fields.   There were also sheep and cows and pasture, now all long-gone as the once mixed farm had given way to a winter- sown monoculture.

Thus the new desert has become the new norm.

Notably, at this time the NFU (National Farmers Union)  tried to have the start date for the (now annual) farmland bird population surveys brought forward to reflect the new reality, and so conveniently lose the declines of the 1960s on the way.  A practical example of how shifts in perception to reflect new and impoverished norms can come about.

(See also in a similar vein, No Alarm, No Reaction. No reaction, no action.)

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The Great Thinning and The Moth Snowstorm

Book Review of The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy, Michael McCarthy, pub John Murray, May 2015 (reviewer: Chris Rose)

“it’s the loss of abundance itself I mourn … people over the age of fifty can remember springtime lapwings crying and swooping over every field, corn buntings alert on each hedge and telegraph wire, swallow aerobatics in every farmyard and clouds of finches on the autumn stubbles; they remember nettle beds swarming with small tortoiseshell and peacock caterpillars, the sparking pointillist palette of the hay meadows, ditches crawling and croaking with frogs and toads and even in the suburbs, song-bird speckled lawns and congregations of house martins in their dashing navy-blue elegance … but most vividly of all, some of them remember the moth snowstorm” (p 100)

moth snowstorm pic

All campaigners for Nature should read The Moth Snowstorm.  The title refers to an experience which few young people have ever known, if they live in a country subject to industrial farm chemicals.  It’s both a warning and a benchmark: it should help re-set our ambition to safeguard Nature where it remains, and shows the abundance and quality of Nature that we should recover, where it has been lost.

It used to be that people had to stop their cars at night to clean the windscreen of squashed ‘bugs’. Likewise moths used to gather around lights at night or beat their wings on the windows of lit rooms. Now that is rarely seen by most children in a country like the UK.  It still happens in the movies.

‘The Moth Snowstorm’ refers to the way that at night on a dark road, you sometimes saw so many moths caught in car headlights that it resembled driving into a snowstorm.  No longer.

As Michael McCarthy recounts, this ‘Great Thinning’ of nature took place gradually, and hardly anyone noticed how bad it was, or at least nobody counted it.

I was a Countryside Campaigner in the early 1980s, and we were fighting the outright ripping-up of old meadows and ancient woods by farmers backed by government subsidies. Then as a Pesticides Campaigner, I could see that the countryside was bathed in poisons that had to be damaging but there were no surveys to draw on.  Next our most pressing concerns became tropical deforestation, ozone depletion, acid rain and climate change: such happy days.  As a result I have several of what my partner calls ‘the Suicide Bookshelves’.

McCarthy has not written one of those doom laden prophecies but as he says, it was not until around the turn of the century, when scientists at Rothamstead Research Station in Hertfordshire published data from a long running survey, that it became obvious that something horrible was happening. That survey showed 80 species of moths had declined 70 percent or more between 1968 and 2002, and 20 of these had declined by over 90 percent.

Since then we have become aware that this is all part of the same massive decline in insects that includes bees, butterflies and many other creatures. The main cause is undoubtedly pesticides (including herbicides which kill ‘weeds’ that insects, and thus birds, depend upon). Could factors like car pollution play a part ? Possibly, though there is no data I know of but we know for sure that insecticides kill insects (and though most people don’t realize it, so do many herbicides, fungicides and other -cides).

In 2004, in perhaps it’s best ever public engagement project, the RSPB ran a ‘splatometer’ survey. 40,000 people British drove around with a cardboard grid on their car number plate on a routine journey in June, and recorded the number of insects killed and distance traveled. The result was an average one dead insect every 8km. A similar project in the Netherlands found one insect every 5km. That’s a long way to fly for a mouthful if you are an insect eating bird trying to feed the family.

‘Rare’  Becoming the New ‘Common’

Thus many birds, flowers and insects still described in book as ‘common’ are now ‘scarce’ or ‘rare’. Indeed, ‘Rare’ is becoming the new ‘Common’, and if allowed to continue, Nature as our parents knew it, is finished. Like Nightingales: declined over 90% since the late 1960s, and even Song Thrushes, declined 51% from 1980 – 2009.

McCarthy’s book should be a wake-up call for anyone who cares about Nature, and a warning for those in European countries like the Baltic States where an inadvertent side-effect of decades under Communism meant the onslaught of agrochemicals was delayed, and more nature survives, or for brave little Slovenia which is something of a European role model in restricting farm chemicals. Even more, should it ring alarm bells in the less developed world, the current big market for the agro-chemical companies selling substances like Neonicotinoids.

Environmental Journalist

Michael McCarthy is a working class boy from Birkenhead, the town across the River Mersey from Liverpool. There he discovered wildlife and wildness, and this book is part autobiography, peppered with references to the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and contemporary events like the ‘Earthrise’ photo taken from Apollo 8, that marked the emergence of environmentalism, and indirectly led to M J McCarthy, a leading environmental journalist at The Times and The Independent.

The sub-title is ‘Nature and Joy’ and McCarthy describes how at the age of fifteen, at a very troubled time of his life, he encountered Joy through discovering nature. It is he says, ‘a wholly appropriate name for the sudden passionate happiness which the natural world can occasionally trigger in us, which may well be the most serious business of all’.

bluebells foxley wide

‘Each time I stopped at the gate, “I said to myself I know what is in there …” 

It was a blue.

It was a blue that shocked you.

It was a blue that made you giddy.

It was a blue that flowed like smoke over the woodland floor …’ (p159)

Three Books

If I have a criticism of this book it is that he has rolled three into one, and thus not had time to develop any of them to their full potential.

The McCarthy autobiography would be all the more interesting if there was more ‘inside track’ from his decades around the news system and politics.

The idea – and that is an inadequate term – of ‘Joy’ as a launch experience or launch-pad for campaigning for Nature, he has a good go at but is a big idea in itself that could be explored much further.

Finally, ‘The Great Thinning’ would not be so depressing or so ‘over-50’ for those under 50, if there was more on what can be done, and is being done.

The remarkable 3,500 acre re-wilding project at Knepp for example, described in a recent Ecologist article.

But McCarthy has done conservation and the environment movement a favour by writing this book, which deserves to be widely read, and acted upon.

traditional norfolk hay meadow at fritton common - Copy

(above: Fritton Common, Norfolk in 2014 – a traditional hay meadow – these used to cover much of England)

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