You’re an Activist, Big Wow

Nature & the Environment, Politics & Public Debate

At the dawn of the new year the British media decided that the SoCalGas leak in Aliso Canyon LA qualified as big enough news to permit a moderate level of broadcasting. The stories that followed focused almost solely on the evacuation of thousands of local residents who suffered from nausea, vomiting, nosebleeds and various other ailments, due to high levels of air-bound pollutants. Unquestionably, this widespread degradation of well-being was alone worthy of headline news. Yet, nearly all of the reports were overly anthropocentric and failed to paint a full picture of the disaster.

In response, alongside a multitude of others fully aware of the media’s inability (or sheer reluctance) to properly inform, I wrote to the BBC and engaged with social media to educate people on the wider scope of problems related to the leak, concerning global warming.

(To note some key points, the leak officially lasted 110 days – though probably began well before it was reported  spewing up to 1,300 metric tonnes of methane into the atmosphere per day. In total, upwards of 96,000 metric tonnes are predicted to have been emitted between October 23rd and February 11th. Is that a lot? Most definitely. Whilst methane escapes the atmosphere faster than CO2, the damage it causes to the climate in the meantime is, for it’s first two decades at least, 84 times more calamitous. Comparatively speaking, the amount of methane released equates to roughly 8,000,000 metric tonnes of CO2, or the burning of 900,000,000 gallons of gasoline).

Subsequently the BBC expanded their story, stating that activists held the leak to be comparable, in terms of environmental damage, to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010.  

At the time I took this rather personally. I felt slightly disenchanted. It wasn’t the lack of calculated journalism that peeved me the most. Instead, I found myself somewhat insulted by this notion of activism, but I couldn’t quite figure out why. Was I an activist?

Having mulled over it for some considerable time here’s what I have come to believe: Activism is heavily weighted down with negative connotations. It has an image problem. When imagining the stereotypical activist one pictures an eccentric, badly-dressed hippy-like character with contentious and overbearing social qualities. A vegan, clad in hand-me-downs. A militant idealist. An inconvenience on daily living. Big wow. Tell me something I don’t know.

But, and maybe only subconsciously, most people don’t want to be affiliated with that image. Affiliations with activists or persons with alternative ideals tend to impede upon our aspirations. That’s because the truths that they reveal can be extremely threatening and touch the core of how we understand and navigate the world. Moreover, affiliations can mould the way in which the world understands us. You see, opportunities are gained as a consequence of the impressions we inspire. Creating good impressions generates opportunities. The converse diminishes them. 

So, ultimately, I was insulted because of an unnecessary fear. I was subconsciously afraid of affiliation. That fear caused me to hold an unconscious bias. A prejudice, I believe, no sufficiently moral person ought to have.

There may appear to be a simple cure for this unwanted affiliation: Stop campaigning. Stop promoting ideals. Or, in my case, stop attempting to inform people on the full extent of damages caused by the SoCalGas leak and other such issues. Ultimately, stop being an activist. But no one should ever let their fear of unwanted affiliation negate their moral beliefs. For that’s all activism is. In its purest form, activism just is acting to promote a world consistent with ones moral beliefs. So if you fail to champion your morals through fear of being affiliated with those associated with a stereotype which conflicts with your ulterior desires, whom at the same time share your moral beliefs, you are a hypocrite unto yourself. You favour your ulterior desires over your morals. Your life is, by your own account of right and wrong, immoral.

Hence, we ought not to avoid activism simply because of the stereotypes it carries. Activism comes in many forms. It’s performed by all types of people. The stereotypes are just that – stereotypes. We ought to make activism what we want it to be. Give it the image we want it to have. Dare to challenge the stereotype. And don’t let unwanted affiliations deter us from promoting what’s right.

Am I an activist? I suppose I am. But shame on those who aren’t.

A.C. Stark

 

 

Ramble On

Nature & the Environment

The UK produces somewhere in the region of 500 million metric tonnes of carbon emissions annually. Mature, dense forests are amongst the most effective carbon capture and storage sinks that we know. Paul Lister, the heir to the MFI fortune, having already planted over 800,000 trees, intends to reforest and rewild some 50,000 acres of Scottish highlands. These facts speak for themselves. Regardless of what you think about Paul Lister – madman, businessman or philanthropist – what he is doing is nothing short of exceptional. Though, for some reason a naive group of ramblers tend to disagree.

Now, we’ve heard it all before, the incessant humdrum tones of free-thinking, liberals badgering on about the importance of tackling global warming. As they tell us again and again the same old hypotheses of what’ll happen if we fail to take it seriously, it’s easy to switch off. It’s not that we don’t believe them. It’s not that we don’t care. It’s that we feel un-empowered, entirely incapable of contributing toward any significant change. The fact that the UK has approximately 220,000 farmland holdings which cover roughly 71% of the land mass, underscores the issue. With a population approaching 65 million, this equates to roughly 0.34% of the population controlling what we do with the vast majority of our countryside (and country!).

Unfortunately for us, our farmers are encouraged to keep their land in ‘good agricultural and environmental condition’ (GAEC) in order to receive full government subsidies. Which, skipping all the technicalities, requires keeping the land clear of any foliage to enable grazing, water flow, land conversions, etc. Whilst many farmers argue for the necessity of vast grazing pastures, the evidence is heavily stacked against them (see George Monbiot’s Feral or his blog for details). Ultimately, this means that taxpayers, the un-empowered majority, are paying farmers to destroy the land. We finance a subversion of landscapes which are, or could quite easily become, effective carbon capture and storage sinks. In turn, we create broad, bare and lifeless areas, uninhabitable to the majority of our native fauna.

This is why we switch off. When presented with the facts about global warming, most would agree that creating carbon-absorbing landscapes should be at the top of our priorities. Mitigating the inevitability of widespread population crises, the consequence of a world torn apart by extreme weather systems, with food and resource shortages and inexorable political mismanagement, is clearly in everyone’s interest (mine, yours, all systems, states and businesses, even ramblers; everyone’s!). Yet, it appears we’re doing quite the opposite. Far from mitigating, we’re proliferating, and it feels almost impossible for us to do anything otherwise.

And that’s why Paul Lister’s plans are admirable and why the ramblers ought to retract their condemnation of his work: Lister is going against the grain. He is doing what the disenfranchised would do, had they the power. He’s building something that serves the interests of everyone. He’s building a carbon storage sink, and we ought to encourage more people in comparable positions to do the same.

In an attempt to avoid appearing entirely biased I will concede that the subject of the ramblers discontent truly is an issue, albeit one of far less magnitude. Lister’s vision of rewilding his Alladale Estate is controversial for a variety of reasons. Not least being his plan to fence off the entire area, which currently spans 23,000 acres. Not only would this cut off a number of public footpaths (potentially contravening The Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000) but having recently applied for a zoo licence, some believe Lister intends on creating a lucrative paradise for native fauna, simulating private South African wildlife reserves which allow access exclusively to those wealthy enough to pay a hefty premium. So, those who disregard Lister’s plans do so for reasons of law, liberty or equality.

I tend to sympathise with these arguments. I think it’d be an incredible feet if were able to ramble on throughout a rewilded highlands. Just imagine walking through a vast densely packed forest with trees as thick as coaches are long, exploring natural marshlands, rivers and lakes, following the tracks of elk or wolves even, watching nuthatches break nuts upon the trunks of trees older than our great-great-great… great grandfathers, or sea eagles plummeting through the canopies; imagine being able to appreciate the true honesty of a healthy and diverse natural woodland. That being said, tackling global warming clearly supersedes any desires we have to explore an enchanted wood or quell issues of liberty and equality. It’s not that liberty and equality are unimportant – far from it! It’s that when sacrifices are necessary, we mustn’t sacrifice our chances of escaping the event horizon of global warming.

I’m not entirely sure what Lister’s bigger plans are. I’m also undecided as to whether he yet deserves the title of philanthropist. But I do know that his rewilding projects are extremely commendable and serve to preserve something much greater than a mere walkway.

Quit rambling, ramblers.

A.C. Stark

 

Back in Their Day (Shifting Baseline)

Nature & the Environment

Shifting Baseline Syndrome: The problem that what a generation perceives as the norm is determined by what they witnessed during their formative years; And that generation after generation we tend to think that only a little damage is being done to our ecosystems (and thus care only a little), when in actual fact the damage is immense.

There was once a time when fishermen didn’t have to scour the oceans for days in order to break even. Schools of fish would span for literally miles. The fish, by living longer, were bigger. Much bigger. The same goes for nearly all land and ocean dwelling species. The countryside was once abundant with life, with herds of hundreds, flocks of starling that could blot out the sun, birds of prey nearly everywhere, land mammals, insects, beavers, weasels all rich in number. The country was an unmanaged garden of colour and beauty. Nowadays, a ‘pleasant country walk’ consists of walking through a dilapidated wasteland. But how were we to know this? To us it just seems a little less green than we remember.

As we age, we find ourselves rehearsing the lines of our parents. ‘Back in my day…’ we say and then might kick ourselves upon realising the re-enactment. For whatever reason, more often than not, the discovery perturbs our thoughts, deflecting us away from considering the consequences of whether or not the words we echo are as true as those of our antecessors. Instead we brood upon the value of our independence, discontent at the idea that we are trapped within the confines of a personality moulded by those who raised us. But what if our parents were right? What if the land was greener, more abundant back in their day?

And remember, our parents were children once too. The day they imparted their wisdom upon us they probably experienced the same sense of uneasiness and for the same reasons. See, the children inherit the leading role. The cast is always changing but the script remains the same. By our skewed sense of was, reality turns to myth, the natural world perishes evermore. But back in their day it was greener than even we remember.

Ultimately, we all need to stop shifting the baseline.

A.C. Stark