Swiftly Encircling Gloom

Tim Radford

  • Promising The Earth by Robert Lamb
    Routledge, 204 pp, £35.00, September 1996, ISBN 0 415 14443 4

On the first day of Christmas, more bishops will be thinking about global warming than adultery, or so a survey by the Church of England General Synod reported in January … Strange, then, that we hear so little from the Church about the desecration of God’s earth. Perhaps your parish priest needs prompting?

Jonathon Porritt, Country Living,

December 1996

Priest: With sorrow for misusing and abusing the beauty and resources of the earth, we pray to the Lord.

All: Lord have mercy.

From the Litany of Contrition at a Catholic church in Sussex, December 1996

To build a roadway or a pavement or a house or a skyscraper you have to scrape away topsoil. This stuff is alive. Just a pinch, just a crumb of soil is home to 30,000 protozoa, 50,000 algae, 400,000 fungi and billions of bacteria. Under a square metre of pasture you would find some 50,000 small earthworms, 50,000 insects and mites, and about 12 million roundworms. Altogether, in a hectare of soil, you could expect there to be a tonne of earthworms, a tonne of arthropods, 150 kilograms of protozoa, 150 kg of algae, 1700 kg of bacteria and 2700 kg – 2.7 tonnes – of fungi. Such creatures ‘fix’ nitrogen so plants can grow. They decompose plants so that other plants can recycle and replace them. Without them there would be no plants at all, without plants there would be no oxygen, and without oxygen there would be no animal life of any kind, including human. It takes between two hundred and a thousand years to form even a few centimetres of top-soil. Even with good farming practices, it is eroded ten to twenty times faster than it is formed. A bulldozer can scrape the lot away in minutes. So anyone who stops a road from being made is a friend of the Earth.

There is a paradox, however. Knowledge of this kind depends on science, which in turn rests on mass education and mass communication, both of which depend on good roads built on several levels of graded hardcore and sealed permanently: sterile strips, even before they get another sterilisation with hot rubber and a fumigation with toxic exhausts, some of which have been released in the course of carrying timber to pulp mills, paper to printers and journals to readers. Awareness of nature is dependent on complicity in its destruction. Until you understand what is happening, you are not in a position to protest; but by that time you have already consumed rather a lot of the planet’s resources.

Friends of the Earth was born in California, but took root in Britain almost immediately, in an episode of very conspicuous consumption. The moment was late in 1970, at the Travellers’ Club in London, during a supper for 14 people. David Brower, the saint of eco-sanity from the Sierra Club in California, had just given a sermon, a hell-fire variant of the one geologists have used for a century or more: rocks are long, life is short, who do we think we are? Brower’s homily – which the Green Party used to introduce last month’s election broadcast – divided the history of the planet into Six Days of Creation, each 666 million years long. On this now familiar scale, dinosaurs appear at 4 p.m. on the last day and have disappeared by 9 p.m. Humans enter the story three minutes before midnight on the last day; Christ appears in the last fourth of a second, the Industrial Revolution begins in the last fortieth of a second. ‘We are surrounded by people,’ Brower is supposed to have said, ‘who think that what we have been doing for that one-fortieth of a second can go on indefinitely. They are considered normal but they are stark, raving mad.’ Brower was a formidable operator and his congregation already knew the theology: they just hadn’t joined the sect. ‘Before the evening was over,’ one witness testified, ‘we resolved to start Friends of the Earth UK right there.’ The bill for the evening was picked up by a retired Scottish businessman. It was for just under £100, ‘mostly for liquor’. In 1970 this sum would have decently fed, watered, clothed and housed three or four families for a week, and still left enough money over for green fees. That was the encouraging thing about FoE: its founders, activists and supporters all liked the good life. They didn’t spurn wine: they just wanted to recycle the bottles.

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