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.

The environmental movement is what you decide it is. It contains people who want to save historic buildings and ban fox-hunting and have a better job with more money and a nicer house with a bigger garden and definitely not a motorway running past the rear hedge. It contains people who fear nuclear power, people worried that fossil fuels are producing greenhouse gases and people who don’t want windpower generators on the hills behind where they live. It contains people who won’t wear leather or wool or touch butter or milk and who drink carrot juice because they believe in the ‘natural’. (Carrot juice is sublimely unnatural. No other creature could or would drink it.) It contains people whose idea of the good life would be to sit in front of the television and watch Felicity Kendal in The Good Life. It contains people who read Country Living and worry about overpopulation and resource depletion and their pension funds and the way works of art are leaving Britain, but who don’t worry about the connection between these five things. It contains naturopaths and computer salesmen, alcoholics and people who will not drink tapwater, because it has chemicals in it. (Instead they drink mineral water, which has even more chemicals in it.) It contains members of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds who have worked very hard to buy expensive four-wheel drive vehicles so they can go across rough country to watch birds. It contains ‘deep greens’ who believe that man should take a lesson from the nomads, live in harmony with the rhythms of nature, consume resources sparingly, reduce the human population and do something about urban blight. It contains people who worry about the ozone layer, lead in petrol, and radioactive waste, people obsessed with recycling paper and people who like the Green Belt because it preserves property values. Pretty well everybody can be considered a friend of the Earth. Right now, one adult in ten in Britain is a member of an environmental organisation or charity. Six years ago, according to the Government’s survey of social trends, the figure was more like one in eight. Nowadays, it isn’t a very radical thing to be an environmentalist. But it was once.

Your environment is the bit that encloses you. Concern for it has a long history. The Luddites who smashed the first machines of the Industrial Revolution were worried about the environment – their bit of it. But the scientists who had begun to help change the world were nature-lovers, too: we can thank Hans Sloane not just for Sloane Square and milk chocolate, but for the Natural History Museum. Without Joseph Banks and Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace we would not understand how acutely dependent we are on nature’s goods and services, and it was the Swedish chemist and Nobel Prize-winner Svante Arrhenius who, a hundred years ago, first discussed the greenhouse effect. The ‘back to nature’ movement of the last century and the early years of this one was dependent on knowledge and material civilisation: to want to get in touch with nature, you had to have spent some time away from it, quite possibly in a library, reading about what you had missed. Environmentalism is a reactionary force, and it has in its time contained some appalling reactionaries. The Nazis were keen on wholegrain bread, and against artificial colourings and preservatives in food; the SS controlled 75 per cent of Germany’s mineral water production; Hitler’s doctor, Theodor Morell, held up the use of DDT in the Third Reich until 1943, on the grounds that it was a threat to health (this put him twenty years ahead of Rachel Carson, who published Silent Spring in 1962); the doctors who supported the ‘new German science of healing’ at a meeting in Nuremberg in May 1935 did so because they opposed what they called ‘alienation from nature’.

By the time David Brower turned up, a large segment of the Western world was ready for a practical and friendly philosophy prepared to make the best of technology and human habitation while still preserving the landscape and the creatures on it. In 1970 men on the Moon had sent back pictures of the Earth from space: pictures that set a lot of people thinking about the planet they called home. ‘It shrank to the size of a marble,’ said one of the Apollo astronauts, ‘the most beautiful marble you can imagine. That beautiful, warm, living object looked so fragile, so delicate, that if you touched it with a finger it would crumble and fall apart.’ The Club of Rome began to preach the terrible consequences of exponential growth, and in 1972 delivered the warning that most of the world’s non-renewable resources would be exhausted in a twinkling. All the oil and natural gas would be gone in fifty years, all the coal in a hundred and fifty. The more expensive metals – nickel, platinum, tin, zinc, cobalt and so on – would all be gone within a hundred years. The first ever UN Environment Conference had been held in 1971, and people were telling awful tales of the felling of rainforests, the march of deserts, the desolation of whale stocks.

Not to worry, said some. Solutions would be found. We were on the edge of a new frontier. Hard-headed professors and Economist leader-writers foresaw colonies of people not only living and working but loving and giving birth in orbiting space stations. One seer, Gerard O’Neill of Princeton, imagined settlements of ten thousand people or more in each of the great, slowly-wheeling colonies, exploiting the energy of the Sun and the mineral resources of the Moon and the asteroids. He couldn’t say precisely when: ‘I consider it unlikely that the first community in space will be established before 1990, and also unlikely that it will be delayed for another 15 years, to the year 2005.’ Others looked down and saw only the swiftly encircling crud. They saw pollution in the cities and desolation in the countryside and a swelling mountain of festering litter at every street corner. They saw the end, even for the most renewable resources. One of these was Robert Lamb, who in 1979 published a book called World without Tree. ‘A survey of current evidence,’ he wrote, ‘shows that trees could be so scarce in a mere thirty years’ time that they would already be struggling to fulfil their purpose in the global environment.’

Friends of the Earth chose Lamb, an ‘independent writer and research er’, to tell their story for them to mark the 25th anniversary of their incorporation. ‘Independent’ does not mean non-partisan. FoE had friends everywhere from the start, and then, with a few campaigns of dash am style, proceeded to gain more. It had – it has almost always had – the press on its side. This is because FoE stands up for the in nocent against the corporate bully, against the Establishment and for the underprivileged, which is where most newspapermen like to think they are too. FoE staged jokes, and good ones. When Schweppes announced that, from then on, its tonic bottles would no longer be returnable, FoE drew itself to Britain’s attention by staging a bottle-dumping outside the firm’s London offices. It made the news pages everywhere. One FoE poster showed an upturned broken bottle and bore the legend ‘Don’t Let Them Schh … on Britain.’ The nest of radicals quartered at 9 Poland Street, Soho, had middleclass Britain on its side.

Before Schweppes took its decision thrifty families handed empty bottles to children, who took them back to the shopkeeper for a penny or two and they got used again. After Schweppes made its announcement, FoE became nationally famous and widely supported, but nobody ever went round knocking on doors saying: ‘Got any empty bottles, Mister?’ The campaign didn’t restore the notion of the returnable bottle, but it didn’t harm FoE. What made it easy to love Friends of the Earth was that its infantry never looked like a jacquerie. Greenpeace also has its roots in the early Seventies, and, at bottom, it has the same aims as FoE, but its methods are different. They prefer a bit of derring-do: one of 1978’s; jollier books, To save a Whale: The Voyages of Greenpeace, by Robert Hunter and Rex Weyler, told of the pursuit, in an eighty-foot halibut seiner, of the Russian whale fleets. It is all there in the photographs: the ship’s cook Walrus Oakenbough playing a flute; cetologist Paul Spong on his bunk, consulting the I Ching, and so on. But it also showed pictures of the crew in motorised rubber dinghies playing chicken with the whale-chasers, quite literally saving whale lives by getting between the harpoon and the whale. Lamb’s book instead has pictures of young people holding up placards saying ‘Who Needs Sperm Oil?’; of a bus with a David Bowie poster on the front because FoE persuaded Ziggy Stardust himself to dedicate a performance to Save the Whale. FoE also took out quarter-page adverts in the Times, signed by famous people. One veteran recalls: ‘We got a call from Peter Scott to say: “Why haven’t you asked HRH to sign it?” That was a day! We knew we had arrived in that field at least.’

It seems fair to say that someone who is pleased to be endorsed by the Duke of Edinburgh is no revolutionary. FoE activists wanted to rebuild society peacefully. Pete Wilkinson, among others, impressed by the global famine that many saw coming, persuaded the GLC to hand over some of its 17,000 acres of unused land to provide allotments for the 25,000 Londoners on the waiting-list. ‘We suggested everyone should use every spare bit of space we’d got to produce food, locally-grown produce,’ Wilkinson said, ‘and it would also get city folk back on the land.’ Wilkinson spent a week running off, on a Roneo duplicator, the 98-page FoE Save the Whale manual, but then left and went to Greenpeace: the manual was ‘a tour de force in terms of its analysis of whaling issues. But when later on I heard all these stories about Greenpeace out there in their boats in the Atlantic, I thought Christ, yes, that’s the way to go.’ FoE people from time to time became saddened by the fact that reason seldom won the day: it failed to win, for instance, the battle of Windscale/Sellafield. But FoE’s caution did not destroy its appeal. One great favourite with the press at the time was Walter Patterson, a Canadian-born eco-writer with a degree in nuclear physics, and the capacity to puncture, with a three-sentence letter to a newspaper, or a paragraph of asides in a book, the empty claims of many nuclear industry spokesmen (see, for example, the London Review for 29 October 1987). The real science, one felt, came from the opposition. In April 1986, on the day Chernobyl went up, there were two simultaneous reactions on the part of the London media. One was ‘What’s an RBMK?’ and the other was ‘Where’s Walt?’ By that time he, too, had left FoE.

Jonathon Porritt, once a director of FoE, called it ‘a microcosm of the whole environment movement in the UK’ – which may also be a way of saying FoE was a mess of good intentions. Environmental causes are pretty complicated. Porritt discovered this during one of FoE’s less adroit ‘Think Globally, Act Locally’ campaigns. FoE took up the cause of the Greenland white-fronted goose, one of Europe’s rarest birds, which roosts in the winter at Duich Moss on the island of Islay, a site protected under both UK and European wildlife law. ‘The decision by the Secretary of State for Scotland, George Younger, to allow planning permission to cut peat for flavouring the distinctively smoky Islay malt whiskies was a conservation scandal that could not be ignored,’ Lamb writes. Porritt, then director, sent people in from outside to blockade the bulldozers, and turned up himself with the botanist David Bellamy, intending to lecture the locals on their folly. Instead, they had to go into hiding, and for their own safety were eventually escorted off I slay by the police. ‘Whisky or Wildlife’, the headline on the leaflets produced for an Islay public meeting, isn’t much of a choice, even if you don’t depend on a Western Isles distillery for your living.

Peat is a useful commercial product, and digging it up is big business. On the other hand, the acid waters and boggy soils of the peatlands are a habitat for species which can survive nowhere else. FoE and practically every other thinking conservation organisation has been conducting a campaign against the use of peat, the stuff that gardeners put around roses in the fond belief that they are doing something natural and green. The message is that peat is best left where nature put it. Islay was only one flashpoint in the war of peat attrition: it was triggered by the Nature Conservancy Council, which, as government-appointed stewards of wildlife, really did have the right to campaign on behalf of the Greenland white-fronted goose. Shortly afterwards, the NCC’s own goose was cooked. European Commission lawyers arrived, and not for the first or last time, told the UK it was breaking both its own laws and those it had agreed with its European partners by not providing a habitat for the white-fronted species. The Secretary of State for the Environment took what at the time seemed a spiteful decision to dismember the authority into three separate agencies (English Nature, Scottish Natural Heritage and the Countryside Council for Wales) to make conservation ‘more sensitive to local sensibilities’. In fact, the local sensibilities on Islay were Scottish Malt Distillers, owned by Guinness, who withdrew their application to dig up Duich Moss, and got their peat from somewhere else instead. But in 1992, the new English Nature allowed Fisons to put the bulldozers into prime peatbog on a number of sites, all of them designated Sites of Special Scientific Interest and therefore, in theory, to be protected. So who won that round?

Sites of Special Scientific Interest in Britain are disappearing at about the same percentage rate as rainforest in the Amazon. Schweppes still doesn’t take bottles back, but there are recycling bins at the end of every street, and ministers of the environment in every government. Bodies like Greenpeace and FoE and the World Wide Fund for Nature are, whether they like it or not, part of the Establishment. Everybody pays lip service to the notion of the environment, including the churches. The impetus that began with FoE is now a powerful force, but the problems are even more overwhelming. Since 1970, the population growth and economic expansion even of the poorer nations have pushed the planet into a period of global warming which could have unprecedented consequences. Since 1970, the planet’s population has grown by more than two billion, double the increase over the preceding 25 years.

Put like that, it doesn’t seem appropriate to think of 25th-birthday congratulations – even for FoE. Crops now cover 10 per cent of the land, and humans consume about 10 per cent of all the carbon ‘fixed’ from the Earth’s atmosphere. A team of scholars studying the water cycle has come to the gloomy conclusion that humans have already hijacked a quarter of all the evapotranspiration on the planet. The other ten million or a hundred million species on the planet have to scramble for the rest. The naturalist Edward O. Wilson now puts extinctions at the rate of 27,000 a year in the tropical forests alone. That means that every hour of every day, three forest species steal away into oblivion. US scientists in 1995 suggested that, worldwide, 75 billion tons of topsoil is lost annually by erosion, and with it all the nutrients, the humus, the protozoa and algae and earthworms and nematodes and arthropods that make complex life on Earth possible. Anyone who thinks this sort of consumption can go on indefinitely is indeed stark raving mad.