Review of ‘Breathe: Tackling the Climate Emergency’ by Sadiq Khan
‘Breathe, said the wind
How can I breathe at a time like this,
when the air is full of the smoke
of burning tires, burning lives?’
Despite the frankly ridiculous tearing up of Sadiq Khan’s book ‘Breathe’ by Talk TV presenters on live television a few days ago, no stunt by them can get away from the central point in the book.
Air pollution is killing people in London, and around the world, and it doesn’t have to be like this.
Khan cleverly organises the book into the attitudes-or obstacles- to issues like air pollution that are viewed and displayed- from Fatalism and Apathy, through Deprioritisation and Hostility and Cost and bookends the text with the story of Ella Kissi-Debrah, who is the first person in the UK to have air pollution listed as a cause of death. Khan’s book argues how we can avoid any more deaths like this.
Make air cleaner to save lives
Khan makes the early point that the impact of air pollution is linked to social disparities. ‘But while we breathe, we don’t all breathe the same air.’ Although this book is obviously London based, the same impact is felt in other cities. ‘If you’re living in a more deprived area, you’re much more likely to experience the negative effects of air pollution.’ Owing to an accident of geography then, your life span may not be equal to someone else in another area of the same city, simply owing to air pollution levels alone- and the impact of this is worse for the young with their developing lungs. ‘It revealed that hundreds of the capital’s primary schools were in areas where pollution breached the EU’s legal limits. Of these, 83 per cent were considered ‘deprived’ schools where more than 40 per cent of the pupils were entitled to free school meals.’
The World Health Organisation recently described air pollution as being ‘one of the greatest environmental risks to health.’ Khan picks up this point in his book and notes that, ‘The nine million early deaths it causes each year makes air pollution a bigger killer than tobacco smoking. These deaths are disproportionately concentrated among the most disadvantaged people in society.’
Making the invisible visible
Khan openly admits that at times he had viewed climate change, as not the priority issue that he now views it. ‘Climate change had always seemed very far way- both geographically and temporally. It was a ‘tomorrow’ issue rather than a ‘today’ issue.’ He states that through education, as well as personal asthma concerns, he realised the extent of the problem. In essence, this is the crux of the book- identify an issue and then work with interested parties to eradicate that problem in order to help as many people as possible. ‘The climate crisis was an issue right here in London.’ Khan outlines the measures and campaigns that were issued to grow the understanding of Londoners to this issue of air pollution- from graphic campaigns depicting soot, stating, ‘If you could see London’s air, you’d want to clean it too.’ Interactive air-quality maps showing the levels of air pollution in London were also used in attempts to alter the perception issue that climate change is only a problem for ‘them’, ‘over there’, but rather it is a problem for us, here.
The world today is not the world of ten years ago.
Khan takes the time to outline that the climate crisis is not the divisive issue that populist figures would have us believe. Nor is it a ‘political issue.’ Those who have the power to act, to mitigate and to plan, may be the mayors, politicians and councils, but that in itself does not ‘politicise’ the scientific evidence, despite attempts by the current US Republican nominee, Ron DeSantis to ‘politicise the weather.’ As a public, we have to be grown up to spot and ignore these attempts to delay action that can save lives and Khan suggests that the evidence suggest that we are growing up as a society. ‘Voters care about climate more than they ever have before.’ ‘In 2021, 82 per cent of Londoners were concerned about climate change, with more than two-thirds saying their level of concern had risen in the last year. Yet when you read the news or turned on the TV, you could be forgiven for thinking that climate change was a divisive issue.’
Learning the lessons
Khan details in his book the impact of the global pandemic and the impact of coronavirus especially for people in London. He also looks at what lessons could be learned from a global mobilisation to a problem and how to lead people during this time. He makes the point that when faced with a global emergency, working out the priority is key. ‘Rightly, the focus becomes saving lives first, and saving the economy second.’ This does not sound like the worst motto for action to mitigate the climate emergency. Khan notes the actions that have been put in place in London to reduce air pollution- such as ULEZ, building the infrastructure for 15-minute cities and focusing on sustainable transport. He always assesses the impact of his climate policies and records that, ‘The proportion of bicycle and walking journeys had increased from 29 per cent pre-pandemic to an estimated 46 per cent post lockdown.’
Changing the language?
Khan acknowledges that a change of language could be a useful approach- he notes that ‘the solutions to air pollution and climate change are often the same.’ The impression that this creates, is that he does not appear to be too invested in what we call the problem, as long as we enact solutions to the issue. This echoes the recent words of actor and ex-Governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who, in an interview said, ‘So my thing is, let’s go and rephrase this and communicate differently about is and really tell people we’re talking about pollution. Pollution creates climate change and pollution kills.’
Khan rightly concludes that ‘There is so much more that we have to do.’ It’s beyond time to question why what has been successful in London cannot be rolled out across other major cities, so that we can be the generation who ensures that no more children die from air pollution in our country, because we have been too apathetic to solve the problem.
Review of ‘The Future of Geography’ by Tim Marshall
When did a spacecraft from Earth first land on the Moon?
Who owns the Moon?
How many people have walked on the Moon?
How many flags are there on the Moon?
What legal frameworks regulate space activity and who enforces these frameworks?
Tim Marshall returns in ‘The Future of Geography’, a prophetic vision of what the geopolitics of space could look like over the next 50 years, as countries and private companies compete to control power and access to humanity’s shared future. Marshall’s comprehensive style will be familiar to readers of his previous works, such as ‘Prisoners of Geography’ and ‘The Power of Geography’ and his insights and commentary on the dangers of astropolitics, could help us chart the new frontier of space.
Marshall structures the book highly effectively, paying homage to the scientists and thinking that has helped humanity get to this point in space exploration- then evaluating how each of the three main superpowers of the USA, Russia and China have progressed in their plans and what their ambitions might be- then finally exploring what tomorrow’s world might look like, as private companies and entrepreneurs race to put their stamp on the history books.
He acknowledges that ‘Space has shaped human life from our very beginning.’ He charts the human fascination with the stars from hunter-gatherer tribes to the Babylonians and Sumerians to the Greeks, Romans and the Golden Age of Islam. He tracks the development of scientific exploration through the familiar names of Copernicus, Giordano Bruno, Galileo Galilei, Newton and Einstein and emphasises that the knowledge of the past has been surprisingly accurate in its measurements of the Earth and its place in the stars. He focuses on Eratosthenes of Cyrene, who over 2000 years ago concluded, without the equipment available to use today, ‘that the Earth’s circumference was between 40,250 and 45,900 kilometres. The actual circumference is now usually accepted as 40,096 kilometres.’
Marshall describes how ‘‘Much of human endeavour has been driven by our desire to reach for the stars’ and that the last few decades have pushed humanity to the edgeof tantalising further discovery. ‘And the desire to find out, to know more- and even to go there ourselves- has proved irresistible.’ He also warns that we need to ensure that we do not take our current insular political conflicts with us- that we cannot repeat the mistakes of the past and that advancing into space is for all humanity and should not be controlled by a single entity or a loose, unstable partnership of organisations. ‘If we cannot find a way to move forward as one unified planet, there is an inevitable outcome; competition and possibly conflict played out in the new arena of space.’
‘Earth is the cradle of humanity.’
Marshall quotes the Russian scientist Tsiolkovsky, who said ‘Earth is the cradle of humanity, but one cannot stay in the cradle forever.’ Marshall explores in detail the decades following World War 2, when humanity took its first faltering steps into the cosmos. ‘We first crossed the border with space less than a century ago. But it was conflict on Earth that finally got us there. The technology that took us to the heavens came from the arms race of the Cold War.’ He notes the number of historical ‘firsts’ that the Russians had in their space progression, much to the Americans’ chagrin, and reminds his audience that Russia reached the moon first, albeit through a ‘hard-landing’, ‘Then in 1959 the Soviets had a hit, literally, when Luna 2 became the first spacecraft to reach the surface of the Moon.’ The Space Race that excited the 1960s, appeared to diminish soon after the successful landing, and notably, flag planting, of Apollo 11.Marshall comments that it was a historic global effort that helped Armstrong take that first step. ‘Armstrong is a colossal figure, but he knew he stood on the shoulders of giants such as Gagarin and Tsiolkovsky, Goddard, Oberth, Korolev, von Braun and, before them, the great scientists down the ages.’
There is almost a nostalgic tone from Marshall in this chapter, as if he feels that the late 1960s could have been the moment that fuelled space exploration in a momentous and significant way for the entirety of the Earth. He acknowledges the reasons for the Space Race coming to an end when it did, as budgets and political pressures became important, but also recognises that the Moon still has a hold on us all. ‘It’s estimated that about 110 billion humans have walked on the surface on Earth. Almost all of them will have gazed at the Moon in wonder. But only 12 have walked there.’
It is now over 50 years since humans have walked on the Moon, encouraging Marshall to explore the question- is it now time to go back?
‘Apollo 17 was the last, leaving on 14 December 1972, and since then no one has been back.’
Location, location, location
In a fascinating manner, Marshall outlines the reasons for countries and ‘space superpowers’ to go back to the Moon and indeed continue with space activity. He compares space geography to Earth geography and notes that if an interested party controls access, then they can control the power.
‘If a space superpower could dominate the exit points from Earth and the routes out from the atmosphere, it could prevent other nations from engaging in space travel. And if it dominates low Earth orbit, it could command the satellite belt and use it to control the world.’
Low Earth Orbit, from 160km- 2000km, is one of these key locations, owing to satellite engagement there. ‘Strategically, low Earth orbit is a potential ‘choke point’. ‘Low Earth orbit is an attractive piece of real estate because that’s where most satellites operate.’ He also identifies the 5 Lagrange points of our system as being another key tactical area. ‘The Lagrange points of the Earth-Sun system are advantageous positions to place satellites.’ Marshall indicates that space expansion has led to a crowded low Earth orbit zone. ‘It’s getting busy above Terra, and is destined to become more so. More than eighty countries have crossed the border and placed satellites in space.’
In terms of a return to the Moon, polar exploration may be the focus of future visits with mining of resources, particularly helium-3, being the motivation behind space investment. ‘Many countries have the incentive to go after them [metal oxides], especially those that don’t want to rely on China, which currently holds a third of the world’s known reserves.’
The point being made clearly in Marshall’s book is that an understanding of geopolitics and ‘astropolitics’ is required in space, as our expansion continues. ‘Many of us still think of space as ‘out there’ and ‘in the future.’ But it’s here and now- the border into the great beyond is well within our reach.’ More worryingly, Marshall highlights a key gap in enforcement of space activities– that the ‘laws’ we have, belong to, and were written for, a different time. ‘The ‘laws’ we currently have for activity in space are little better than guidelines. Technology and changing geopolitical realities have overtaken them. With an increasing number of space-based platforms for military and civilian uses- space is becoming a congested twenty-first century environment requiring twenty-first-century laws and agreements.
It is worth noting, however, that it is not a pessimistic picture that Marshall paints. He repeatedly makes the call for global cooperation as the method and vehicle through which, space exploration can continue in a positive manner. ‘The ISS is a symbol of what can achieved in space through cooperation.’ Without global cooperation, his fear is that ‘we may end up fighting over the geography of space, just as we have done over the geography of Earth.’
‘It is space and it needs space laws.’
Marshall continues the point that our current ‘space laws’ belong to another age. He identifies the Outer Space Treaty (1967), The Moon Agreement (1979) and The Artemis Accords (2020) and concludes that, ‘Existing space laws are horribly out of date and too vague for current conditions.’ The legal frameworks and agreements that we do have rely on countries signing up to them and some of the definitions are too loose and hazy to be effective. Perhaps they didn’t imagine a time when non-countries, in the form of private enterprise would be competing for ‘space rights’. Who could be in position to regulate the space activity of Musk’s SpaceX? Perhaps that should even now read ‘Who is regulating Musk’s space activity? To whom could parties appeal and protest? What would be effective sanctions for breaking agreements? ‘Laws and agreements are difficult enough on Earth, where there are clear boundaries and borders, and established precedents. What’s more, in space, it’s not in the interests of the big powers to give up their advantage.’
To emphasise this point, Marshall, explores hypotheticals that need addressing before they happen, not as a belated response after they happen. ‘The presence of corporate and private enterprise in space also raises all sorts of questions unrelated to military activity. Which of Earth’s laws would apply to their ventures- and how would they be enforced?’ Marshall underlines this serious and significant point by arguing that, ‘Technology has outpaced law. Without laws, geopolitics- and now astropolitics- is a jungle.’
There are also pressing issues which need international cooperation, such as the risks from solar flares, asteroids and space debris. ‘There are other, more immediately pressing issues that also require international collaboration. A big one is space debris.’ As Sangeetha Abdu Jyothi, from the University of California notes, ‘To the best of my knowledge, there are no global agreements or plans to deal with a large-scale solar storm.’ The recent DART- Double Asteroid Redirection Test- development, which spent $325 million to change the orbit of another planetary object was regarded as hugely momentous in its success- as well as being an undoubted bargain for the 8 billion inhabitants of planet Earth.
The Big Three
Marshall then dedicates a whole chapter to each of the Big 3 space superpowers of China, the USA and Russia and highlights their respective notable achievements and ambitions for space activity. ‘In 2019, the uncrewed Chang’e 4 became the first spacecraft to land on the far side of the moon.’ In perhaps, a now expected symbolic tradition, ‘…it planted the Chinese flag on the surface and began digging for rocks in a region it is considering using as a base.’ The USA, on the other hand, ‘plan to construct a Lunar Gateway Space Station near the Moon.’ Russia is developing a new system known as ‘Kalina’, which could focus laser beams to dazzle or ‘blind’ other orbiting satellites, in actions that might normally be seen in a James Bond movie.
There is a growing number of countries and companies, which are trying to elbow their way into the ‘New World’ of space exploration. ‘While China, the USA and Russia are the three main players in space, many others are looking to increase their presence.’ Jeff Bezos has founded ‘Blue Origin’, Richard Branson has Virgin Galactic and Elon Musk has Space X. In addition, there are a host of countries from France, Germany, Japan, Australia, India, the UK, Israel, Iran, India and the UAE, who are all vying for projects, partnerships and prestige in a crowded marketplace. And sadly, this is how space is now being viewed- not as a frontier of hope and expansion for the species, but as an opportunity to exploit and abuse resources. It appears that the lessons of the past have not been learned.
‘Nothing new under the sun’
‘Each time humanity has ventured into a new domain it has brought war with it. Space is no different and the potential battlefield is beginning to take shape.’ Marshall concludes in an even handed manner, by firstly acknowledging our history of conflict and war, ‘Given all recorded human history, it is unlikely that we will recognize our common humanity and work together in space to harvest its riches and then distribute them equally.’ At the same time, he accepts the inevitability of our next steps into space. ‘Humanity has not gone so far only to stand still now.’
By the mid 2030s- only a short 15 years away from now- we may see the first human landing on the planet Mars and it is worth a moment of imagination.
How many people across the world will watch this globally unifying event?
In 1969, we left a message on the Moon that ‘We came in peace for all mankind.’ What will our new message in the stars be? What language will it be in? Will it acknowledge and reflect our shared humanity and shared vision? Or will it reflect our conflicting natures?
‘We are now writing what will be history in space. We already have magnificent pioneers and amazing achievements. Where they went, and what they did, was incredibly hard.’
For their sakes, we have to follow.
Review of ‘Reconnection- Fixing Our Broken Relationship with Nature’, by Miles Richardson
In ‘Reconnection- Fixing Our Broken Relationship with Nature’, Miles Richardson charts the causes of nature decline in the UK and convincingly argues that a re-evaluation and a reset of this relationship will help give nature a chance.
Miles Richardson is Professor of Human Factors and Nature Connectedness at the University of Derby and has gained recognition for creating the ‘biodiversity stripes’- a visual which highlights and emphasises the dramatic decline of biodiversity that has been witnessed in recent decades.
Richardson begins this book with the logical position of querying that if the relationship with nature now is patently broken, then at what stage did that occur. He starts with familiar ground for many, who spent their childhoods outside. ‘We spent plenty of time outdoors, but did we have a close relationship with nature? Looking back, I don’t think so. Nature was the setting.’ He argues that there is an intrinsic element to modern day life that has widened the gulf between humans and that a reconnection is vital for both parties in the relationship. ‘There’s something about our modern lives that keeps us apart from nature. There is a real need for reconnection.’
Richardson then moves into a snapshot of the present picture of nature, especially in the UK, with a range of statistics that are meant to be paused over, but sadly fail to connect with the public. ‘69% of animals have been lost since 1970 and that humanity has overseen the loss of 83% of mammals.’ ‘Over two-thirds of the animal population has been wiped away in fifty years.’ These facts and knowledge do not seem to be helping with any break through, wide spread alarm over the human-nature relationship and Richardson argues that this is, in part, owing to the lack of an emotional attachment to nature. He states that, ‘The stark reality is that the UK has one of the worst records for biodiversity in the world.’ And follows that up with the engaging rhetorical starting point of, ‘Why is there a seemingly deep desire for nature yet little care for it?’ Richardson then closes his opening by suggesting that the relationship with nature was lost, when the perception of humanity as the dominant species became prevalent. When nature was viewed as a commodity by humans, this led to the unequal balance. ‘The global destruction of habitats and wildlife, together with the climate emergency, show that the human-nature relationship is broken. Nature is used and controlled by humans.’
Humans became the overlords of nature.
Richardson artfully charts the philosophical and linguistic narratives that have forged this disconnect from nature, especially in Western Europe, where nature is now viewed as the ‘other’- something not to be valued as having intrinsic value for its own sake, but to be stripped of resources and plundered for the benefit of the human species. He traces the rise of dominant ‘self’ philosophies and individualism, from Descartes and Bacon, suggesting that their viewpoint of human dominance over nature was pivotal in promoting scientific investigation of nature, which placed a bias in the favour of the observer over the observed. ‘Descartes wrote of science allowing humans to be masters and possessors of nature. Francis Bacon set a similar tone for scientific investigation, asserting that humans have power, command, dominion and rights over nature by divine request.’
Richardson’s focus is that this growing unequal balance in the relationship, exacerbated by the spread of empire and conquest, created the divergence of understanding of humanity’s place in the world. ‘The reality is that humanity exists embedded within nature.’ He supports this viewpoint by emphasising that nature is not a static object to be dissected and resourced, but rather life that needs to be recognised as equal. Nature itself is not defined in this book and I found this to be helpful, as the subjective identification and answer to ‘What is nature?’ can change dramatically depending on the audience of the question. Richardson contends that the relationship with whatever we understand nature to be is of more value than a narrow definition. ‘Relationships matter. Nature is embedded, interdependent and dynamic.’
These inherent questions of what is nature; how do we know when we are in nature; how do we value nature, and what do we value it for, resonate throughout the book. Richardson argues that as soon as nature is seen as separate and as the background setting to be used only when beneficial for humans, then our actions will continue to negatively impact nature. ‘If everyday speech and metaphors suggest that nature is an other, separate from humans, a resource to be controlled and exploited, this will inform our viewpoint and actions.’
It is a strong argument that when, ‘Humans celebrated their greatness and became addicted to individualism. Nature was diminished.’ Although nature was celebrated by artists and writers, the rise of the Industrial Revolution and the driving forces of capitalism and consumption, overwhelmed and dominated the language and narrative. ‘Wordsworth saw how the emerging modern age disconnected people from nature, people who then became egocentric. We celebrate the poets that resisted this vision of industrialisation, but their defeat is a story not often told.’
Time in nature
Despite this rise in technology and the growing distance with nature, including on a linguistic level- with words for nature dropping out of modern-day dictionaries, particularly ones for children, our cultural understanding of nature is one that can be regained. Richardson notes the cultural ‘othering’ and fear of nature that has its echoes in fairy tales and monsters. He balances this with the present modern fears of natural disasters and wildlife to suggest that ‘The power of negative cultural associations can also impact the positive emotions brought by interactions with the natural world.’
In saying this however, he contrasts this view by examining the medical evidence to support the beneficial impacts of nature for humans. ‘Although many may feel disconnected from nature or not even think about it, research shows that humans are deeply embedded and interconnected with the rest of the natural world.’ Richardson cautiously welcomes the rise of prescriptions for connections with nature and supports this with the Edinburgh prescription pilot for nature. ‘In the pilot, five GP practices prescribed nature to 350 patients, and the results revealed that 91% of prescribers would continue to prescribe it, and 87% of patients would continue to use nature for wellbeing.’ He is at pains though to acknowledge that ‘using’ nature simply for wellbeing is another form of exploitation. He states bluntly that, ‘If we do need a dose of nature, we need it like we need a dose of air.’ A connection to nature should therefore happen when humans also feel healthy, as well as when under prescription. ‘Nature’s story is one of relationships. Nature should not have a ‘part-time role’ in our wellbeing.’
Nature wellbeing is about moments, not minutes
Richardson is also at pains to clarify that although time in nature can be a useful starting point, it is not the quantity of time that is the key component on building relationships, but on how that time is spent. ‘Yet time in nature may not involve active engagement with it. What matters is how that time is spent.’ Repeatedly, Richardson draws the comparisons with human relationships and connections and argues that relationships are difficult, but that the real world is all about building relationships. He draws on scientific research about neighbourhoods and communities with access to nature and those lacking access and concluded that ‘Presence of green space did not equate to use of green space’. This part of the book was interesting, as potentially this was ‘the quick-fix’ to build the human-nature relationship back up again. To make the human comparison again, simply having access to someone else may not mean that the relationship is a strong one, where both parties are understood and valued. Richardson argues that, ‘Bluntly, improving access isn’t fundamental to addressing climate warming and biodiversity loss; it can form a part of a new relationship with nature, but does not get to the root of the issue.’
The element of understanding nature, rather than simply using nature as the setting and backdrop for a different activity, was one carefully drawn out by Richardson. ‘Where science is about understanding nature, connection is nature better understood. This subtle distinction is important.’ He challenges his readers into stopping and pausing within nature, not ‘to do’, but ‘to be’. To notice the details and to listen. He promotes the view that‘Nature always has a story to tell’ and concludes that for the relationship to work, humans need to listen better.
How to create nature positive societies
Richardson poses the challenging question in the book, ‘Can humans ever truly live in harmony with the rest of nature?’ and acknowledges that, ‘Transformational societal change for a close relationship with nature is a challenge of the highest order.’ He answers both of these issues in the same way- that we simply have to try- as what we have been doing up to this point has only driven the wedge deeper at great cost. He states that ‘The climate and biodiversity crises cannot be solved without addressing the causal issue: how people relate to the wider natural world.’ He concludes by highlighting the problem of the shifting baseline syndrome, that creates the perception that the decline of nature is not really as severe as the objective stance demonstrates. He laments that, ‘A vibrant natural world has been lost…A lost right most don’t know they should have, which is why they settle for less.’ Richardson highlights that this has not been an accidental loss of nature, but rather one that has been done by design for human gratification. ‘Loss is normal, but this is not loss; they are not missing or misplaced. They have been decimated and taken from us, by us.’
To transform this horrific decline in nature and biodiversity, Richardson argues that several steps should be taken and that these could be amplified by powerful feedback cycles. ‘Realising we are part of nature and living that reality through seeking a closer relationship with it would lead to change.’ He argues that when ‘people take actions to create visible biodiversity, it boosts noticing nature which brings people closer to nature, which motivates actions for biodiversity.’ I enjoyed his cautious approach in describing this future relationship, as the intention and motive of those wishing to change the relationship needed to be part of the discussion. ‘When presented with a vision for the future, it is perhaps wise to ask whose worldview we are looking at and what intentions lie behind it.’
As humans, we once told stories about our place in the world. We can become better story-tellers, by changing our language to one of nature connectedness, which emphasis the reality of our place within nature, rather than human dominance. As Richardson clearly argues, ‘Reconnection is simply about being a human within the rest of nature.’
It is time to celebrate the meaning and joy of nature once again and to build a lifelong connection with nature, before we lose a central understanding of what is to be a human after all.
Review of ‘Not Too Late’ edited by Rebecca Solnit and Thelma Young Lutunatabua
‘Not Too Late’ is a collection of climate hope messages from climate scientists, organisers and activists, who challenge us to recognise that the future is yet to be decided and that our actions do matter. Solnit opens the collection in a powerful manner, stating the current state of affairs. ‘It is late. We are deep in an emergency. But it is not too late, because the emergency is not over. The outcome is not decided. We are deciding it now.’ She rightfully addresses climate despair versus climate hope in the opening chapter and acknowledges the importance of being aware of our emotions. ‘To hope is to accept despair as an emotion but not as an analysis. To recognize that what is unlikely is possible, just as what is likely is not inevitable.’ She quotes the playwright, Vaclav Havel, who commented: “Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well but the certainty that something is worth doing no matter how it turns out.”
Solnit concludes the opening chapter by reminding us that not all successes are visible and so therein lies the danger when we look for evidence for climate hope- the evidence may be invisible, but that does not mean that it does not exist. ‘Sometimes victory leaves nothing to see, the trees that weren’t cut down, or the drilling permits that weren’t issued.’
We are challenged to remember that we are simply the last in a line of courageous humans who have come before us to overcome incredible odds that seemed insurmountable- whether those be in the guise of slavery, pandemics, or migration.
‘We need to remember our own heroic nature, our capacity for courage, compassion and action, to remember those who came before us who took action against the odds and sometimes won.’
‘Change happens gradually, then suddenly’
This point of humans successfully overcoming the odds is reinforced by the climate scientist, Dr Joëlle Gergis, in her chapter on hope, where she comments, ‘What gives me hope is that human history is full of examples of people across the ages who have risen to face the great challenges of their time and have succeeded. Victory is not the arrival in some promised land; it is the series of imperfect victories along the way that edge us closer to building the critical mass that eventually shifts the status quo.’ She indicates that the ‘status quo’ of reliance on fossil fuels is at an end and welcomes everyone to the global movement to save as much as we can. ‘Change happens gradually, then suddenly. It’s never too late to be part of the social movement that will help heal our world.’ For Dr Gergis then, the alternative of doing nothing is not an acceptable one. ‘Are we really going to sit back, watch, and declare it all too late, that there is nothing worth saving? Is this really the best we can do?’
The scientific argument is also supported by one of the 2022 lead IPCC authors, Edward R. Carr, who insists that, ‘A climate-resilient future is still possible.’ He cautions though a drastic shift in mindset is now required. ‘This is a message of catastrophe, but it does demand we think transformationally.’
‘Nothing is inevitable’
Thelma Young Lutunatabua addresses the other major issues after climate despair- that of the conflict between individual action and responsibility and collective responsibility. Waiting to act only after other people act will delay any response and mitigation we are going to have to the climate crisis. Lutunatabua states: ‘The question shouldn’t be Will my actions be enough? But Will our actions be enough? This is a communal quest in which everyone can bring their talents, visions, desires, access- and if one person struggles, we can help each other up.’ The collective approach as a core theme is picked up by Mary Annaïse Heglar, who argues that, ‘What if your power in this fight lies not in what you can do as an individual but in your ability to be part of a collective?’ Heglar applauds and welcomes that climate is no longer a niche topic to be discussed in isolated groups, but is now globally mainstream, despite efforts from Big Oil to delay and confuse. ‘Climate is no longer niche. It’s mainstream. It’s about time.’
‘We Have The Solutions Now’
Dr Leah Cardamore Stokes outlines the continued efforts from the fossil fuel industry in continuing to thwart action that will alleviate the climate crisis, especially when the issue of alternative power sources is discussed. She points out that there has been a shift in strategy from the industry and that that this shift has been a self-serving one. ‘When denial became indefensible, the fossil fuel industry started singing a new song: the crisis can’t be solved. Delay paid them in cash. When we hear stories about the harms posed by clean energy technologies, we should take a beat and ask: who profits from telling this story? Too often, the fossil fuel industry is seeding propaganda to make us feel hopeless and defeated. If we delay, they profit.’
There are, of course, real issues and concerns that need to be addressed through climate hope and climate action, instead of listening to the fossil fuel industry playbook. Actions that can help give hope to those who are already suffering the ‘first and worst’ impacts of a warming world. Professor Farhana Sultana notes that climate reparations and loss and damage are still a contentious issue and that the financial support which could offer hope to struggling people on the ground, has not been there in sufficient amounts. ‘Colonialism haunts the past, present, and future through climate.
The debates around climate reparations remain contentious, as loss and damage acknowledgement has not been followed through with sufficient financial support.’ She urges that the global collective should focus on reparative climate equity.
‘Looking back From the Future’
‘Not Too Late’ then begins to shift its focus into powerful imaginative messages, which look back to how much progress we have made, as well as imagining what a climate resilient future might look like with global cooperation rather than discord.
As climate is all a form of time travel, these chapters and visions were illuminating in demonstrating that humans have an opportunity to take advantage of their ‘span’ on the planet to change it for good, rather than stamp their activity into the geological record through the Anthropocene.
As Dr Jacquelyn Gill questions: ‘What could we accomplish if we stood together and faced the danger? What if the future was better than the past? What if it was beautiful?’
Change can happen quickly and the span of fifty years outlined in the book illustrate this point wonderfully. Attitudes, innovation and behaviour can all transform, as what was once held up as ‘normal’, turns demonstrably unhealthy. Perhaps we can imagine a world where we state, as Mary Anne Hitt imagines:
‘It takes my breath away to write these words, but we did it.’
‘People often talk about the future as if it already exists’
We get to choose our future. We are the ones in control. We are the future creators. The future is not decided yet.
Finally, the words of Arundhati Roy are quoted perfectly in this book, “There is beauty yet in this brutal, damaged world of ours. Hidden, fierce, immense. We have to seek it out, nurture it, love it.’ Or if you prefer your messages to be more prosaic, but no less heartfelt, the words of Tolkien come to mind. ‘That there’s some good in this world Mr Frodo. And it’s worth fighting for.’
Solnit notes that ‘People often talk about the future as if it already exists.’ But highlights that this is far from the case and that the actions of an individual, a community, a city, can send ripple effects into the world in a positive manner, creating more hope and helping people realise that it is ‘Not Too Late’ in the fight against the climate emergency. To despair and say that it is too late, is to give up on all that we value and hold dear, without a fight.
Mary Annaïse Heglar declared in 2022, “If you are worried that it’s too late to do anything about climate change and that we should all just give up, I have great news for you: that day is not coming in your lifetime. As long as you have breath in your body, you will have work to do.’
Review of ‘Invisible Friends- How Microbes Shape Our Lives and the World Around Us’ by Jake M. Robinson
‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’
Robinson opens his text by challenging his reader to be aware of the invisible world and to understand its long connection and relationship with humans. Microorganisms have existed on planet Earth for billions of years and will likely continue to do so long after humanity has been and gone. Many fascinating phenomena in our world often go unnoticed. The incredible diversity of the microscopic realm around us holds many secrets. He urges us to appreciate and wonder at an invisible world of microbes- a world where humans are not the dominant life form, but instead the short terms guests. With each human having a microbiome with an estimated 39 trillion microbial cells, we could, as Robinson suggests, describe ourselves as ‘walking ecosystems.’ He repeats that Microbes are essential features of our ecosystems, health, social structures, behaviour, food systems and cultures. And quotes Louis Pasteur when he echoes, ‘The role of the infinitely small in nature is infinitely great.’
This book is a fascinating exploration of the possibility of the microscopic world: from outlining the last microbiota-gut-brain axis research; to exploring forensic microbiology in potentially replacing if not complementing DNA in the legal and policing worlds; to describing microbiome-inspired green infrastructure; and finally turning attention to the level of connectedness that we need with nature.
We are all in this together. We are all connected through our invisible friends.
A loss of immunity?
Unfortunately, when we don’t have the collectivism mindset and instead forge ahead with an individualist mindset, we run the risk of not seeing what we have lost until it is too late. Robinson explores the hypothesis of microbes as ‘old friends’, without which, we run the risk of putting ourselves in danger. ‘It is the removal of natural biodiversity from our lives and the lack of interaction between ourselves and the microbes we co-evolved with that causes immune-system issues and inflammatory diseases like allergies.’ He acknowledges and warns against the dangers of misuse of antibiotics in treatment when immune systems are weakened and cautions that this could herald the rise of resistant strains. ‘Nowadays, many people’s immune systems seem to be weakening, and we turn to antibiotics for help.’ Robinson explores the environment factor and uses the ‘Glasgow Effect’ as supporting evidence of the social inequity in exposure to microbes. Researchers found a disparity of 18 years in life expectancy between two neighbouring regions of the city and considered a range of explanations. ‘Scientists have put together various hypotheses forward to explain this disparity, including land contamination by toxins, higher derelict land levels and poor housing quality and social support. All these phenomena could potentially drive inequities in exposure to microbes.’ With ‘nature prescriptions’ on the rise in the UK, an equal exposure and access to green space and ‘forest-bathing’, may be an under-researched and under-used strategy to advance health. ‘The opportunity to ‘bathe’ in friendly microbes and plant chemicals should be available to all.’
Sadly, in the UK, what most of do ‘bathe’ in, when we go to the coasts, is untreated sewage. Clear information is now in the public domain about the water industry and the lack of action from Government bodies to remedy the amount of sewage that is polluting the waterways around the UK. As Robinson identifies, ‘Another important source of antibiotic-resistance genes in our landscapes is sewage.’ He urges us to picture- worryingly not ‘imagine’- the current state of superbugs and the dangers thereof. ‘Just imagine the indomitable armada of antibiotic-resistant bacteria sailing in their fleets in unfathomable numbers through the pipes and into the rivers and seas when raw human sewage is discharged. This is the reality of the situation in the UK.’
‘We’re living in a microbial world.’
Robinson explores in a detailed manner how the psychobiotic revolution has happened and suggests that more research into microbe interactions may impact and alleviate suffering from diseases such as MS. He outlines the numerous pathways linking gut microbes to the brain and suggests that ‘the chemicals produced by microbes are critical players in gut-brain communication.’ A better understanding of this communication may have an impact on human behaviour and learning, as well as implications for treatment. ‘It has been shown that people with MS are more likely to have dysbiotic gut microbiomes, including a reduced number of microbial species, than control groups…
Continuing to study gut microbe interactions provides the hope of understanding more about how MS works- and, dare I say, with crossed fingers and toes, how it could potentially be alleviated.’
On a more philosophical note, Robinson also questions whether microbes could play a part in the debate surrounding human will. Could our microbes affect our perceptions, action and intuition by regulating our impulses? Should we consider this when debating the notions of free will and determinism? It is also worth considering that as humans we have approximately 30 trillion human cells balanced against approximately 39 trillion microbial cells- therefore, what does this relationship mean for an understanding of what it means to be human itself?
A world without microbes
Although Robinson doesn’t like the terms ‘good’ and ‘bad’ as he accepts that even pathogens are part of a normal functioning ecosystem, he takes the time to warn that biodiversity loss, especially that of tree-felling, could have dramatic impacts on our environment. Indeed, the ongoing degradation of ecosystems means that we are living in good times for ‘bad’ microbes, and bad times for ‘good’ microbes. Robinson outlines the vital importance and role that microbes have in our ecosystems. Microbes are the glue that holds our ecosystems together. He imagines a powerful vision of the loss of microbes, with the rapid domino effect that this would have. If microbes were wiped out, plants would no longer draw in vital nutrients and convert them into useful chemicals. They would rapidly lose all capacity to produce energy via photosynthesis, and would swiftly die. All other organisms that depend on plants to survive would soon be cursed with the same fate.
A cultural transformation.
Robinson urges that a cultural transformation is needed in how humans view, understand and relate to the microbial world. He suggests that the possibilities to learn from and work with this world would be hugely advantageous. He enthusiastically describes bioreceptive wall panels, green infrastructure and algae-powered buildings, as in Hamburg, Germany, as only the starting point of what a positive symbiotic relationship could mean. With air pollution becoming a rising concern in most countries and cities, Robinson suggests that a template mitigation method may already exist, ‘to reduce the impacts of city air pollution, the algae powered breathing pavilions produce breathable oxygen whilst purifying the local air.’ Robinson argues thatecological policies and behaviours could be better adapted, once we acknowledge that we live in an interrelated world. But once we acknowledge that we are essentially walking communities exchanging invisible life-forms with our environments, we can use ecological principles to help guide our social policy and behaviour.
He urges ‘that all forms of life-both the seen and the unseen-are in some way connected, ecologically, socially and evolutionarily.’ With this profound shift in mindset from humans, powerful methods of optimising restoration and regeneration policies can be implemented, which would have beneficial impact on humans. From a microbiome perspective, we need to understand how to optimise restoration strategies so that nature can do its thing and heal us. He quotes the doyenne of nature relationships, Robin Wall Kimmerer, to support his argument of a healthy positive relationship with nature. ‘We restore the land, and the land restores us.’
Shifts in architecture, restoration and lower levels of air pollution are only the start. Robinson also conjectures about a future where forensic microbiology may help a criminal justice system in identification of criminal behaviour. He reminds us of Locard’s exchange principle when he writes ‘We leave swathes of microbes behind on objects and surfaces’ and suggests that a better understanding of microbes may eventually replace DNA evidence. Each of us humanoids may be uniquely identified based on the microbial communities living in and on our bodies- our microbial ‘fingerprints’.
We live in an interrelated world
This is not a book written to shock the reader, or to make the reader aghast at the number of microbes on their eyelashes, or in every breath they take. Rather, it is a book to prompt the restoration of the symbiotic relationship between the visible and invisible worlds, as well as the awareness and appreciation of what is contained within our microbiomes. ‘Simply taking a mindful moment to think about this web of interconnectivity can be humbling, and acknowledging its existence and power can be transformative. Ultimately, all the nature you can see intimately depends on all the nature you can’t see.’
Understanding our connectedness with the invisible world can remind us to tread gently and change our behaviour, so that the smallest creatures on the planet can continue to thrive. We are visitors in their world. As Robinson concludes, we cannot do without them.
‘Microbes influence every corner of the world and every second of our lives.’
Review of ‘The Big Myth- How American Business Taught Us To Loathe Government And Love The Free Market’ by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway
What are your views of ‘Government’ and where do these come from?
How much should any government regulate industry, if at all?
With the fossil fuel giant Shell reporting their highest profits in 115 years of almost $40 billion this year, calls have intensified in the UK at least, for a bigger windfall tax on energy companies from the government.
When we observe how big businesses, and individual business owners behave today, wielding their power autocratically- surely it’s time to ask if this is really how we want business to behave. How can we hold them to account as they create mega-media conglomerates and monopolies?
Oreskes and Conway return in ‘The Big Myth- How American Business Taught Us To Loathe Government And Love The Free Market’ to reveal how the narrative and belief system of a ‘free market’ has dominated the American ideology- oftentimes in the face of evidence that leads to the opposition view. The meticulous, detailed, patient and thorough research that was the hallmark of ‘Merchants of Doubt’ is once again on display, as the authors evaluate ‘the history of a construction of a myth.’ The forensic unravelling of the dominant pro-business ideology is potentially more aimed at an American audience, with cultural and historical references throughout. The underlying moral however, has lessons for all countries, as the 21st century faces multiplying threats and the narrative continues as to where the solutions will come from. ‘Many people think climate change will be best addressed by technological innovation in the marketplace’
This book therefore, is not one which simply looks back to how a myth was constructed in one country throughout the 20th century, but rather a studious deconstruction of why we have thought of ‘government’ and ‘business’ in particular ways and who has benefitted from this conditioning.
The authors are keen to highlight that the presented false dichotomies of ‘Big Business’ or ‘Big Government’ are not the absolute choices that they appear to be. ‘Our choices are not confined to oppressive communism or heartless capitalism. To suggest that they are is a dangerous failure of vision.’
Understanding the insidious messaging and omnipresent integration propaganda that has existed, whether for the tobacco industry, the fossil fuel industry, or business interests can help with ‘pre-bunking’ the ‘The Big Myth’ that only one viewpoint can hold sway.
As Oreskes and Conway conclude, ‘The big myth’s expiration date is long past due. Our futures depend on rejecting it.’
How did so many Americans come to have so much faith in markets and so little faith in government?
Oreskes and Conway open the book by identifying the starting place for ‘market fundamentalism’ in the late 19th century, as a burgeoning USA was beginning to assert its identity. ‘Market fundamentalism is a quasi-religious belief that the best way to address our needs- whether economic or otherwise- is to let markets do their thing, and not rely on government.’
‘The market’ became this entity, almost in its own right, that existed nebulously outside of regulation, where ‘economic freedom’ could rule and any regulation of the marketplace ‘would be the first step on a slippery slope to socialism, communism or worse.’ However, the authors suggest that, ‘”The Market” doesn’t exist outside of society, but is part of society and like society’s other parts, must be subject to law and regulation.’
In Chapter 1 then, the authors explore that expressing any type of freedom is always a balance of competing rights. They scrutinise the impact of Amendments to the Constitution and how this balance of protection of citizens could be balanced with capitalist growth. They are also at pains to emphasise the importance of the opening of the Constitution, ‘We the People of the United States’, to highlight the omission of the capitalist focus, therefore opening the question to, where, when and why, did this narrative take hold.
As Oreskes and Conway find, ‘Americans in the early twentieth century were largely suspicious of “Big Business” and saw the government as their ally. By the later decades of the century, this had flipped.’ It is true to note as well that Governments tend not to spend their financial budgets on advertising and promoting their own narratives and ideology, whereas companies and businesses ringfence large amounts of their budgets for the promotion of a free market economy. It is also true to stress the importance of the ‘Tripod of Freedom’, which emerged as a claim that free enterprise was an inseparable part of American identity. ‘The myth of the Tripod of Freedom, the claim that America was founded on three basic, interdependent principles: representative democracy, political freedom and free enterprise. Free enterprise appears in neither the Declaration of Independence nor the constitution.’
Experts for hire
Oreskes and Conway begin by exploring how this narrative started to change in the opening decades of the 20th century and how the electrical industry, and more particularly the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), which ‘insisted that the federal government should stay out of its way and not regulate the workplace.’ The power of industry and financial backing of industry for advertising campaigns and favourable editorials alongside industry backed ‘studies’ that demonstrated whatever the industry wanted them to demonstrate began to reach hundreds of thousands of consumers. Almost 100 years on, we can see the same playbook being used by fossil fuel companies and advocates to delay the full emergence of the renewable energy industry. Language began to be artfully used to create opposites. That ‘liberal’ now meant ‘anti-American’, or ‘anti-whatever convenient label’ that could be used, including the dreaded label of being a ‘socialist’, forgetting perhaps the Constitution words, ‘to promote the general welfare.’. These campaigns from the National Electric Light Association as well, ‘foreshadowed later efforts by the tobacco industry to fight the facts about their products and influence scientific researchers and educators to promote their point of view.’ And ‘helped to construct a key plank in the platform of American market fundamentalism and a key factor in the big myth of the Free Market.
This messaging came to a crashing halt on October 29, 1929, when the New York Stock Exchange collapsed and the scale of market failure could be clearly evidenced.
Despite the New Deal offering security, business interests regrouped and spent the decade following creating ‘the proposition that any compromise to economic freedom would inevitably lead to despotism- and that political and economic freedom were therefore inseparable- would become one of the fundamental tenets of market fundamentalism’s big myths… Freedom would be defined above all as economic freedom.
This created the necessary cultural semantic echo between ‘inseparable’ and ‘indivisible’- which, in turn, meant that business could now attack any government activity into the marketplace as a ‘threat to freedom, a threat to the American way of life.’ With radio being hugely important as a means of communication and reaching over 80% of American families by the end of the 1930s, a new platform for propaganda could be used continuously and invisibly. ‘Capitalism was about freedom, NAM would insist, and the survival of American democracy was at stake.’
Modes of communication
Oreskes and Conway analyse in depth popular media of the following decades- evaluating the impact the binary rhetoric that was promoted by religious Christian Libertarians of Government or God- or ‘You are either with us, or against us,’ had in promoting absolutes. Absolutes which led to the American people finding it difficult to have constructive conversations about identity, or how they had been led astray.
Influential film directors and writers, from Frank Capra’s ‘It’s a Wonderful Life, to Wilder’s ‘Little House’ books began to counter and promote the interests of business respectively. ‘During the 1940s and ‘50s, libertarian moviemakers and their allies in business deployed censorship, intimidation, and overt propaganda to change the tone of America’s screens and disseminate the myth of the free market.’
‘The era of Big government is over.’
As the final decades of the 20th century arrived, the messaging of the Big Myth of the ‘magic of the marketplace’ was completed by Ronald Reagan. ‘In the 1920s, Americans had hated “Big Business”; Reagan would persuade us to hate “Big Government.” Reagan’s repeated insistence of ‘the magic of the marketplace’- in reality, an empty clichéd phrase- became his catch phrase. A repeated message repeated daily and with the backing of industry can prove very effective at convincing people not to look beyond the words and look for the evidence instead- even when the public are being negatively impacted directly. This was a strategy that Donald Trump would later employ with deadly consequences during both his presidential campaign and during the Covid pandemic.
“Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”- Ronald Reagan.
In 1996, when Bill Clinton declared “the era of Big Government is over”, business must have rejoiced. What is often forgotten though is that ‘Clinton governed from the center-left, defending Social Security and Medicare.’
Oreskes and Conway begin to conclude ‘The Big Myth’ by drawing attention to the continued market failures to regulate itself, by highlighting the Enron implosion and by exploring the lack of business support for climate action, which hinders business progress.
‘The fossil fuel industry’s economic interests in preventing climate action have always been obvious; less understood is how it camouflaged those interests. No one ever said “I am denying climate change to protect corporate profits.” They said that they were protecting jobs, protecting the economy, and protecting free markets from government “encroachment”. They said they were fighting for capitalism and freedom.’
The response to the Covid pandemic is also highlighted as a market failure, as the authors comment that, ‘The Covid-19 pandemic has shown us how expensive overreliance on the “free” market can be.’ They also conclude that ‘the Covid-19 crisis has made crystal clear why some problems demand substantive governmental solutions, and why many of them can’t just be temporary.’
The era of ‘Big Business’ is over?
The authors caution that a century of programming and conditioning that loving the free market and loathing of Government ‘is not easily undone.’ They warn that‘The Big Myth has a tenacious hold. Polls show that in many domains. Americans trust the private sector more that they trust “The Government.” This continued hostility and lack of trust allows for the rhetoric that any Government can’t be trusted, even in the face of existential threats like climate change. The true costs of the ‘free’ market may be becoming more visible, despite business interests to the contrary.
‘Five hundred thousand dead from opioids, over a million dead from Covid-19, massive inequality, rampant anxiety and unhappiness, and the well-being of us all threatened by climate change: these are the true costs of the “free” market.’
As Oreskes and Conway conclude,
‘Government is not the solution to all our problems, but it is the solution to many of our biggest ones.’
Review of ‘The Lost Rainforests of Britain’ by Guy Shrubsole
‘The Lost Rainforests of Britain’ by Guy Shrubsole charts the author’s awakening to the ‘lost worlds’ of Britain and reflects the dedicated and personal journey that he made to appreciate and love the temperate rainforests that once dominated Britain.
Although Shrubsole notes early in his text that ‘Few people realise that Britain harbours fragments of a globally rare habitat: temperate rainforest’, my feeling is that this awareness is expanding and growing- more so in recent months, with more and more of these texts breaking into the public awareness. Education, appreciation and love of the rainforests and the natural world are all core concepts explored in the book.
‘So much has been lost; so little remains.’
The, at best, indifferent attitude to the protection of temperate rainforests in Britain over the centuries has led to a devasting decline in their existence. The transactional relationship and exploitation of nature for our own resources has reinforced the dangerous belief that humanity stands proudly above the other species of this planet and that this planet is in some way ‘ours’, to do with as we please.
Shrubsole notes that although Britain lies in a ‘bioclimatic zone’, which lends itself to the promotion of temperate rainforests, of about 11 million acres of Britain or a ‘staggering 20 per cent of the country’, the existence of rainforests remains solely in isolated pockets- mainly on the western coastal areas. ‘Over the millenia, we’ve destroyed our rainforests, so that now only tiny fragments and relics remain. We’re so unfamiliar with these enchanting places, we’ve forgotten they exist.’ Shrubsole is not afraid to pin the blame on humanity’s actions, ‘But we didn’t just lose our rainforests through some tragic accident. We actively destroyed them.’ It is important to appreciate the intentional nature of the actions which led to this reduction of temperate rainforest. The two culprits examined in depth in this book are the overgrazing done by sheep and deer, as well as the unchecked proliferation of rhododendron. He comments that, ‘Out of the 74,000 acres of temperate rainforest left in Scotland, around 40 per cent is estimated to be infested with rhododendron.’
‘Britain was once a rainforest nation. But we lost most of our rainforests.’
Although the physical evidence of rainforests is now reduced, Shrubsole champions movements and pressure groups whose focus is the rewilding of the country, to recover what has been lost. ‘A habitat that once flourished over perhaps a fifth of Britain has been reduced to scattered fragments covering less than 1 per cent of the country.’ He convincingly argues that the cultural memory of a landscape covered with rainforests is still there, if we know the clues to conduct an effective search, but for the majority, this is something that has been forgotten. ‘This loss of cultural memory, this great forgetting that we once had rainforests, is almost as heartbreaking as the loss of the forests themselves.’
In order to find these clues, he fully analyses a number of place names, through linguistic archaeology, from Celtic and Viking origins, to demonstrate that names on maps can hold the key to the past. This was a really exciting part of the text for me, one which I thoroughly enjoyed- that the memory of what our landscape was once like, can still be found in plain sight through place names, is a fascinating area to explore. Although Shrubsole acknowledges clearly that, ‘The awful truth is that we destroyed them,’ he alsosimultaneously argues that can also be the agents of restoration. ‘If we are to stand any chance of restoring our lost rainforests, we first need to remember we once had them.’
Britain is a land full of myths surrounding trees and nature. Through the works of Tolkien, modern generations have been introduced to living trees, who have underestimated power. We are also privileged enough to have the Welsh text of ‘The Mabinogion’ to be our guide. We forget that we are also a land which has been a fusion of cultures for centuries. The Norse influence- also to be found in place names- continues to be present in modern life in the UK, with days of the week named after Norse Gods, as well as their central belief of the Yggdrasil- the tree of life. In Christian mythology, trees also figure significantly- with many homes and churches decorated with wooden crosses, symbols of the possibility of a new life. Alongside this iconography, we also see the image of the Green Man, once more hidden in plain sight. Shrubsole celebrates that this connection still exists and when discussing mythologies, argues that the power of an old story told anew may well be essential in our present world, beset with various crises. ‘It’s that these stories contain a deep love of place, infusing the real world with sacred meaning. In a time of ecological crisis, that’s a story we badly need to relearn.’
‘I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees. I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues.’
One story which we could well to ‘relearn’ might be that of Dr Seuss’s ‘The Lorax’. For various generations, the loss of nature through the actions of capitalist industrialists, has been a memorable story. We are moved by the empty countryside and far-reaching ecological damage. We are left with the hopeful message that, ‘“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, Nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”’
It is clear that Shrubsole ‘cares a whole awful lot’. From the dedication in mapping the possible rainforest zones, to the simple delight that a sighting of a lichen can bring, it is clear that a connection with nature is enriching. Shrubsole comments, ‘Temperate rainforests are full of gifts for those who visit them.’ He contends that visits to rainforests can be affirming, ‘You’ll return from a visit to a British rainforest soaked from head to toe, but feeling all the more alive for it.’
However, Shrubsole also highlights that access to the countryside and to Britain’s temperate rainforests can be problematic at best. ‘But if you want to see much of the English countryside, you need to trespass. We still only have a Right to Roam over 8 per cent of England; over the other 92 per cent, the law of trespass still reigns supreme.’ In January 2023 in England, access to the countryside was further limited when a ban on wild camping on Dartmoor was imposed. This now means that there is no place in England and Wales to legally wild camp. There is an irony that humans are now being excluded from nature, when before exclusion fences limited wildlife from damaging saplings and allowed the regrowth of nature.
When access is granted- or circumvented- Shrubsole describes a temperate rainforest world that is ‘both familiar and strangely alien.’ His enjoyment comes from the observation of the tiny details of these rainforest ecosystems- details which are lost when the re-introduction of large animals make for better publicity. ‘It feels to me that we need to become much more interested in the minutia of the natural world around us. The little things are just as important as the charismatic megafauna.’
Our Once and Future Home
‘The Lost Rainforests of Britain’ then is a book which both reflects on the past and looks hopefully forwards. Shrubsole argues passionately that ‘We have a moral obligation to try and repair the damage caused by our ancestors.’ Perhaps we could extend this further into a moral obligation to our descendants to restore temperate rainforests, even if it takes centuries. Shrubsole is cautious about the ingrained, simple narrative of tree plantations, arguing that a dynamic ecosystem is one that can be self-regulating and self-renewing, full of species to appreciate and marvel at. ‘Our temperate rainforests support an abundance of life. They teem with hundreds of species of lichen, many of which are deemed by ecologists to be of international importance.’
He closes the book optimistically, highlighting that given a small chance, nature can renew itself, as it has done through time. ‘[I]t demonstrates how quickly woodland can naturally regenerate when it’s given half a chance.’ Granting nature a chance is a common refrain in ecological books and Shrubsole argues that it can be easy to forget that ‘life finds a way.’ ‘We can also overlook the gradual resurgence of nature, and forget its powers of renewal.’
He does not advocate that humans should just step back entirely and let nature take its course, but instead advocates for community engagement and a new form of ‘social commons’, which allows rainforests and humans to work together, perhaps in the most symbiotic manner that has ever been attempted. ‘But to have any hope of success, rainforest restoration has to be done with people at its heart. If we’re to bring back our lost rainforests, it’ll prove impossible to do so without the active engagement of the communities who live in and around them.’
‘A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they shall never sit.’
Review of ‘The Darkness Manifesto’ by Johan Eklöf
It would be difficult to write a review of ‘The Darkness Manifesto’ while trying to avoid the lyric of ‘Hello darkness, my old friend’, so let me get this out of the way at the start. Thankfully, Eklöf also acknowledges this familiar relationship, when he writes, ‘The night is quite simply our friend- we rest in darkness, in its stillness and subtle beauty. There’s still life in the darkness of night, so let us take back the night, let us seize it. Carpe noctem’
‘The Darkness Manifesto’ is a thorough examination of the dangerous impact that light pollution is having on eco-systems and biodiversity around the world and is a call to arms, or ‘a stirring manifesto for natural darkness.’ Eklöf defines light pollution as ‘a collective term used for light that can be regarded as superfluous but still has a great impact on our lives and ecosystems.’ And argues that humans have blurred the boundary between night and day with their spreading glow of artificial light to such an extent that nature is being confounded and disorientated.
Eklöf argues that darkness should not be regarded simply as an absence of light, but that ‘it is my absolute view that darkness has an independent worth.’ That there is a balanced interplay between these two states, ‘Because without light, no darkness, and without darkness, no light.’
At the same time, however, he acknowledges the emotional attachments that we have to darkness and comments that, ‘To be afraid of the dark lies in our genetic, as well as our cultural heritage.’ He argues that light has always represented safety to humans, as we navigate a darkness that is not our natural world, but rather one in which we are simply visitors.
‘All the light we cannot see’
With the ever-spreading ‘skyglow’ from cities, humans are creating a world where artificial light blocks out the natural wonder of the stars. Eklöf explores the Bortle scale- a scale which assesses how much a night sky is affected by light pollution. He states that, ‘In the very best of night skies, rated as a stage one or two on the Bortle scale, up to six thousand stars or other objects can be seen with the naked eye.’ Despite this majesty, he also identifies that we see but a fraction of the night sky. ‘Only one out of five people in Europe can see the Milky Way on a daily basis, and in North America and Europe, nearly everyone, 99 per cent, lives under a sky affected by artificial light. Few people know real darkness or what a starry sky looks like.’ It is therefore not an accident that astro-tourism is increasing as a hobby and people are actively seeking out the darkness to connect to areas where artificial light does not block out the sky. ‘Dark Sky’ parks and remote areas, far from the urban sprawl are more popular and are increasing in their number. Could it be that we have recognised- on some level at least- that we have lost our connection to our place in the skies and are aiming to restore this marvel, wonder and awe? ‘Out of all the stars we humans ought to be able to see with the naked eye, for most of us only a fragment, half a per cent, remains. The rest have been absorbed by artificial light, disappeared behind a smokescreen of human activity. They are there, but not for us to see.’
Impact on the natural world
The spread of light pollution has not only inhibited our view of the stars, but has had a catastrophic impact on biodiversity and marine life. In recent years, we have had repeated messages of the massive decline of insect life and Eklöf does not shy away from blaming humans. ‘Today, about 40 per cent of all insect species are threatened with extinction …shows that we’re moving towards the earth’s sixth mass extinction. And humanity is the cause.’ He does accept though that there could be a multitude of reasons for the huge decline in biodiversity, but aims to raise awareness of the impact of artificial, or human created, light. ‘The number of insects is decreasing. The reasons for insect death are many, from urbanisation and global warming to insecticides, large-scale farming, monoculture and disappearing forests. Probably all these factors play a role. But to everyone who’s ever seen an insect react to light, it is obvious that light pollution is a major cause.’ With half of the insects on the planet being nocturnal, Eklöf urges that there needs to be a re-balancing of priorities between species and that human wishes should not be paramount. ‘The more attention on the impact of light in ecological systems and our own well-being, the closer we’ll get to reconciling society’s need for light with nature’s need for darkness.’ As animals and insects feel safe in the darkness and seek its protection, it seems that humans are attempting to drown it out entirely in light, as we feel safe in the light instead. Eklöf draws attention to our religious mythology that light triumphed over darkness where chaos and uncertainty reigned and uses the Christian origin story in Genesis as an example of the historical and cultural acceptance and need that darkness must be conquered. ‘Human beings have extended their day, and at the same time have forced out the night’s inhabitants.’ We have done this to such an extent that we have changed our planet’s appearance from space- an understanding that we only recognised in the late 20th century. ‘Humanity’s desire to illuminate the world makes the earth, viewed from space, glow in the night.’
Artificial light as a disruptor
The impact of human created light sources on marine and terrestrial life is one which is thankfully the area of more academic study. Recent studies by the University of Plymouth have focused on the impact of artificial light sources and how they are a danger for marine ecosystems. The journal Science Direct, has been blunter in their assessment and concluded that ‘Light pollution is a global threat to biodiversity.’ Eklöf recounts in his book the dangers encountered by turtles which were confused and disorientated by man-made light and instead of heading directly to the ocean, began to make their way towards human habitation instead, as they ‘trusted their instinct to follow the light.’ As a result, their natural instinct was destroyed by the light from humans, ‘It can displace 200 million years of instinct in an instant.’ Eklöf also highlights the plight of wallabies being born up to a month later owing to artificial light from a naval base and commented that ‘Nature was again disrupted by man-made light.’
Eklöf argues in ‘The Darkness Manifesto’ that we are far from understanding marine life and that the darkness of the oceans is an alien world for humans. ‘Ocean life is several hundred million years older than terrestrial life and still not fully explored.’ He celebrates the darkness of the ocean, ‘The dark and unknown deep ocean is a world completely different from our own, and there, darkness is the norm and light only comes for short visits.’ He also highlights marine animals that use echo-location, such as sperm whales, ‘whose clicking sounds are sent through the oceans at an incredible 230 decibels’- levels which are life threatening for humans. (A rocket launch has been measured at 180 decibels) He outlines that military forces such as the US navy are keen to understand more about bio-luminescence and how potentially this natural bio-light could be used to track unknown vessels in the ocean. There is much to learn from the ocean, but if we continue to pollute it through artificial light, this learning could be lost. Eklöf concludes this section of the book by commenting, ‘We are a long way from thoroughly understanding the chemistry created by darkness in the creatures of the natural world.’
Away from the water, we have all seen examples of nature flowering at ‘the wrong time’ and Eklöf suggests that artificial light plays an important role in causing this. He also warns of the domino impact on the food chain when late flowerings or no flowerings occur. ‘At the start of spring, artificial light can accelerate the awakening of the trees, making the buds open prematurely.’
‘Normally they [bird’s foot trefoil] attract large numbers of aphids, but a late flowering or the absence of flowering can decimate entire populations of aphids, which in turn affects green lacewings, damselflies, ladybirds, hoverflies…the domino effect begins, and the ecosystem is disrupted.’
‘The easiest environmental problem to solve’
With humans increasingly suffering from sleeping issues as their circadian rhythms move to an unnatural alignment, Eklöf concludes that there is much that we could do to solve the impact of human sources of light pollution. ‘Light pollution is really the easiest of all the environmental problems to solve, at least technically.’ He acknowledges that the public may find it difficult at first to accept increased darkness, but welcomes moves by councils such as in Germany, where landmarks are no longer lit in darkness. ‘Light and illuminated environments mean safety for many people, so it may be difficult to accept the increased presence of darkness.’
With the growing popularity of the annual ‘Earth Hour’, where individuals, communities and businesses are encouraged to turn off non-essential lights for one hour, Eklöf hopes that our attitudes towards the darkness may turn to one of welcome and for health benefits. ‘Perception of time changes in the dark; the clock seems to slow down and disappear. There’s long been talk of light therapy for us northerners in the winter. But the fact is that even dark therapy is starting to become a concept.’
Eklöf concludes his book, both with a warning that time is running out, but also with a list of easy steps to begin to change our cultural relationship with darkness. ‘The question is how much time we have to act. Many of the animals that live under the protection of darkness are on the verge of extinction and with them their invaluable services: pollinating insects, pest-hunting bats. Meanwhile, we humans have ever-worsening sleep and plants are ageing prematurely.’
‘The lights don’t always have to be on; there is more to be found in the dark than we think.’
Review of ‘An Irish Atlantic Rainforest’ by Eoghan Daltun
‘Our species is fully responsible for what is now befalling all non-human life on Earth.’
As scientists presently decide which place will formally mark the start of the Anthropocene, Daltun’s ‘An Irish Atlantic Rainforest’ reminds us that, as humans, we have incredible potential to transform the world for the good or the ill.
Unusually for my reviews, this one begins at the end of Daltun’s journey and the end of the text, where he concluded with his key argument, ‘Quite simply, it is profoundly immoral for us to think and act as if the entire planet were ours alone, and that we don’t have to leave enough wild spaces for the millions of other species that have just as much right to exist as we do.’ The realisation and humble acceptance that our species is just one of the millions which are lucky enough to exist on the planet and not the most essential one, is a central message of the book.
My journey to this book was via ‘Losing Eden’ by Lucy Jones, ‘The Insect Crisis’ by Oliver Milman and ‘Silent Earth’ by Dave Goulson, so it was comforting and reassuring to read similar messages breaking through to a wider audience. On one hand, ‘An Irish Atlantic Rainforest’ is not a ‘climate’ book- and yet, it is. For me, it was about the change in perspective that is needed to live as a part of nature and to respect nature as a living entity.
Nature existed for millions of years, both before and without humans, and will undoubtedly do so again. Despite our existence on the planet, being in geological terms the blink of an eye, our destructive influence on the world has been marked and noticed. Daltun makes the point, early in the text that a connection with this geological timeframe is a vital one. ‘I was beginning to perceive the landscape around me and under me in ecological and geological terms and time frames, rather than just those structured around the narrow window of time that is a human life.’ Through the tactile touching of the soil and strata comes a realisation of our true place in the world and the understanding that by changing our nature of stamping artificiality on the world, we could give nature a chance. ‘Our task is mainly just to stand back and let that happen: no small thing for a species whose success thus far has been so firmly predicated on the control and manipulation of environments.’
Daltun argues that by stepping back and letting go of trying to ‘tame the wilderness’, we can be blessed with blooming ecological diversity and life. ‘We need to learn to be able to let go- and then enjoy nature come flooding back in and do its thing.’
In truth, the ‘narrative’ aspect of this book, could be seen as potentially clichéd. A family moves from the city to the country and they have their eyes open to the beauty of nature and they aim to protect an area of land and ensure that an ‘Atlantic rainforest’ can breathe again. This would be a very trite reading of the book and one that attempts to minimise the deep, almost genetic memory and connection that we have when we encounter nature.
Daltun connects with a growing zeitgeist– that of experiencing awe when faced with nature and the environment. He states ‘I was in complete awe of the place.’ and describes an encounter with a sparrowhawk, which ‘left me literally ‘enraptored’, and close to tears. It felt like a very personal welcome from another world, and in a sense perhaps it was.’ There are moments in our lives when we do experience awe and wonder and are transformed by it, as we realise that our eyes and minds cannot process what we are experiencing. If you have seen the Grand Canyon, this may be the closest example that I can think of here. You may be able to intellectually cope with its formation over millions of years, but on an emotional front, it is much harder to embrace and fathom. Without these transcendental moments in our lives, we miss out on a connection. For Daltun, it is the proximity to forests which is the focus of the book, ‘In the forest, ecological time, which is only truly measured in scales stretching far beyond our own lives, potentially comes into view, if not quite within full grasp of the mind.’ He acknowledges the healing properties of nature- and notes that forest bathing is medically prescribed. Whenever I felt as if I was carrying the weight of the whole world on my shoulders, within a few steps into the woods I would feel that start to lift, often in the most indescribably powerful way.’ He continues to explore the transformative power of the connection of nature almost as a rebirth, ‘After spending time in the woods, I leave as a different person, recharged to my very core.’
Nature must be permitted to come back
This book is filled with words that try and capture the elusiveness of his journey. Daltun writes about ‘rewilding’ and ‘reverting’ and ‘renewing’ and ‘returning’ and ‘rejuvenation’, as the limits of language make it difficult to describe what the preservation of the temperate rainforest becomes. Preservation itself isn’t the right word- as it suggests interference. What Daltun describes, is almost a preservation through inaction.
He repeatedly acknowledges that he is not promoting a return to some Golden Age, but rather to create opportunities for ‘land sparing’- ‘The real objective is not to back to the past, but forward: to complex, vibrant ecosystems that actually work by themselves and are therefore more resilient in the face of climate breakdown and other shocks coming down the line. As has been said before, the aim of rewilding isn’t to turn the ecological clock back in time, but to allow it to actually start ticking again.’
We are all ecologists now
Daltun intersperses his book with images of human interaction with nature and in this, there is a similarity to the photographer Jonk’s work in ‘Naturalia’, where he visits abandoned human sites around the world, where nature has reclaimed the land and buildings. There is a humbling, haunting beauty in both the images of Jonk and the natural world described by Daltun. ‘How nature can return- and does best- when left alone.’
The practice of humans not leaving nature alone, but instead introducing non-native species creates significant issues for Daltun, as it threatens self-regulating eco-systems. He argues, ‘It may surprise many people to learn that invasive exotic (non-native) species are recognised by ecologists as the second biggest driver of global species extinction.’ He also points out that introducing non-native plants, or larger mammals can have unintended consequences for other elements of the food chain. ‘There is strong evidence that the increasing prevalence of non-native plant species is a major factor driving the current sharp decline of insect populations across the world.’
Good intentions aren’t enough
Daltun explores in depth the complex issues that are created when humans try to interfere, sometimes with good intentions, with what they view as deficits in nature. Perhaps not understanding that if something is not there in the eco- system, then nature has probably not put it there for a reason. He bemoans the introduction of goats and sika deer, ‘Often described by ecologists as ‘desert makers’, they are responsible for helping to push native species across the planet into extinction, with fragile island ecosystems especially vulnerable.’ He supports this point by emphasising that when human activity has impacted the eco-system already, any more interference can prove costly, ‘The most crucial thing to understand about invasive species is that they tend to make most headway in ecosystems which are already heavily compromised by human activities.’
Daltun takes time to unpick the dialogue between farmers, governments and environmentalists, and explores the challenges and cooperation that is possible between these groups. His target appears to be the Government more, which tries to impose and limit nature, while at the same time allowing invasive species to damage what and threaten what remains. ‘That such a situation has been allowed to persist for so long- both sike deer and rhododendron were already recognised as serious problems by the mid-1970s- is a monumental national disgrace.’
The dangers of monoculture plantations are analysed fully in the text- ‘However, despite all the arguments in favour of treating the land gently, there is a rapid and relentless homogenisation taking place throughout the length and breadth of the Irish countryside, with flat monocultural banality the ideal always strived for.’
There is also a warning that easy political soundbite solutions should always be viewed with caution, especially the ideology that if we just plant enough trees, all will be well. ‘Tree-planting is not synonymous with conservation; it is an admission that conservation has failed.’- Oliver Rackham
Daltun suggests instead that a flourishing, diverse, self-reliant ecosystem is thebetter solution- not just for a political term, but for the generations to come. ‘Nature must be permitted to come back. Society needs it; our rapidly disappearing wildlife desperately needs it.’
Our relationship with nature is a broken one, but it can be repaired.
It is important to note that Daltun does not finish his journey with an arrogant flourish of ‘Look what I achieved and you can too, if you work hard enough.’ In truth, there is no end point to the natural rainforest journey- just perhaps a different steward and guardian at some point. The connections and awareness of time that nature allows is more vital, as is a deep gratitude. Of his own experience, Daltun writes, ‘Restoring a wild natural ecosystem- or, more accurately, removing some of the man-made impediments that were preventing it from restoring itself- has brought deep joy, fulfilment and meaning.’
For more people to experience this deep joy and meaning, he argues that a dramatic cultural shift is required- to one of awe and to one of wonder. ‘Since culture is such a key driver of human behaviour, a profound transformation in our cultural relationship with forests and other natural ecosystems, to one of respect, and indeed reverence, is vital.’
If we continue on the path of treating nature as expendable and as a resource for us to enjoy, then we will continue to be the ‘planetary killers’ as E.O. Wilson describes us. Daltun concludes by arguing that our priorities need to dramatically altered. ‘The human economy is always placed first in our order of priorities…while the natural world is actually treated as expendable…it should be the diametric opposite.’
Without this cultural shift, we could be jeopardising our own future. ‘It is not an exaggeration to say that our own very survival as a species will ultimately largely hinge on whether we can do so- or not.’
‘The essence of nature is wholeness’- Douglas Chadwick
In reading this text, I thought about the journey of the author from Italy, to South Africa to Ireland. I thought about his work as a sculptor and wondered if Michelangelo’s quotation of ‘I saw the Angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.’ could be applied to Daltun’s transformation. I felt there was a spiritual part to this book, which wasn’t based on a religion, but on a discovery- that the work of preserving and setting nature free, changed Daltun more than it changed nature. When he writes, ‘I was privileged to be witness to the most stunning, magical transformation of the land inside,’ it seemed as if nature had transformed the writer as well.
What happens to us when we lose the magic of connecting with nature and choose to not allow ourselves to be transformed?
Will our rooms refuse to transform into forests as in ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ by Maurice Sendak?
And will we always be missing a part of the wholeness that could enrich our lives?
Review of ‘Losing Eden’ by Lucy Jones
With a title like ‘Losing Eden’, one might be forgiven that this book was going to be filled with religious allusions, where capitalism acts as the serpent deceiving mankind, until we lose that which was most precious to us. Jones goes beyond this simple interpretation and instead offers a cautious, scientific evaluation of our changing relationship with the natural world and the impact of lost knowledge.
She bookends the text cleverly with an imagined conversation across the generations regarding nature, with the warning coming from the older generation that, ‘Why did nature end? We didn’t love it enough and we forgot it could give us peace.’ Jones makes the repeated point that there is a wealth of knowledge retained in older generations about the names of plants, trees and wildlife that is being lost in the modern world with the focus and attention on ‘indoors’. ‘As fewer children connect with nature, it will follow, he argues, that if they become parents, their children will in turn have a more tenuous connection with the natural world.’ This is an early point for readers to engage with, as they may well recognised their inability to answer a child’s question about the type of plant in a park, or flower in a garden, or type of beetle.
Using apps on smartphones to identify species may be useful, but there is a huge gulf between information and knowledge and Jones points to several examples where children are being better equipped to experience the natural world. This is counter-pointed by the statistics on the loss of the natural world in a short time frame, ‘In Britain, half of our ancient woodland has disappeared in the last eighty years…Over just the last fifty years the populations of mammals, birds, reptiles and fish have fallen by 60 per cent worldwide.’
These numbers may be difficult for us to imagine and connect with and process. What follows as our response is also touched on by Jones- do we shrug apathetically, or do we begin anew to protect what remains- whether this is through protest action to protect trees from being felled, or simply by taking a long walk in nature, to refresh and renew. ‘Perhaps we are noticing this all the more now, as we are in danger of losing the living world as we have known it, and with it, potentially part of ourselves.’
Jones begins by exploring the increased urbanisation of humanity and the dangers to self and identity that come with this. ‘What does it mean, then, to live in a city, as the vast majority of us do? By 2050, 68 per cent of the world’s population will live in urban areas.’ The distance that this creates and disconnect that is increased by this, Jones suggests, endangers our identity as natural beings, no higher or greater than other species, but as an inter-connected part. ‘If we lose our relationship with the natural world, we may, in some way, be losing a part of ourselves and a profound psychic experience that we all need.’ Jones makes this point more simply by saying ‘Without contact with the natural world, we become impoverished’ and warnsthat humanity may not notice this loss of nature, as artificiality takes over our lives. ‘Could we be sleepwalking into a time when the natural world is reduced to its bare minimum?’
Simulating nature does not give the same connection to humans and can indeed add to the contamination of the planet. ‘Will plastic trees and simulated virtual reality gardens be enough for future humans? Are we so desensitized that we are losing the thirst for a relationship with the natural world? And is the absence of this connection causing us harm, whether consciously or not?’
What impresses me most about this book, is that Jones openly asks questions and then takes the time to point to academic studies that explore the topic and reveal conclusions- in essence, Jones was prepared to be wrong, but looked at the facts and scientific evaluation and was led by this.
A wonderful moment in this text, is when Jones reminds us of moments that are special to us- when we experience the smell of petrichor- and asks why humans have this level of sensitivity- how it would be useful for us in our modern lives.
Nature is not a luxury
Jones then begins to support her arguments more fully by highlighting that ‘Nature is not a luxury: its presence or absence creates and causes different health outcomes for different groups of people. There is a direct benefit from being near nature on our mental health.’ She notes the 2013 RSPB report which ‘concluded that four out of five children did not have an adequate connection with the natural world.’ The comparison with the time spent outdoors with prison inmates, was particularly shocking for readers, ‘Three-quarters of children (aged five to twelve) in the UK now spend less time outdoors than prison inmates, who require, according to UN guidelines, at least one hour of exercise in the open air every day.’ It is worth expanding this out more that the UN offers the guidance that prisoners should have at least one hour in the open air every day, yet the majority of children in the UK spend less time outdoors than prisoners.
Jones takes the time to explore and evaluate the benefits on ecotherapy projects around the world, perhaps most famously the practice of forest bathing, though she warns that increased biodiversity loss can reduce this opportunity even further. ’Ecotherapy projects are currently on the rise in the West, from wildness therapy and pilgrimage walks to woodland therapy sessions and gardening groups.’
A walk in the woods has never hurt us, but we have so much to gain from it- yet our mythology is filled with horrors lurking in the woods- fear usually comes from a position of ignorance.
‘Biodiversity loss will deplete the natural environments where some humans go to seek restoration and thus the extent and quality of that restorative effect will shrink.’
Time to feel awe
Jones highlights that a means of experiencing awe in our world and indeed our recognition that we are experiencing awe, comes from our connections with nature. ‘Many experiences of awe in the modern world still come from an encounter with nature, despite our disconnection.’ This has a particular resonance with me from a teaching perspective. There is a poem that is taught at GCSE level called ‘Extract from The Prelude’ by Wordsworth that students have to learn and engage with. Every year, this is the hardest poem to teach and learn, as students cannot understand how an individual can experience awe in the face of the power of nature. For me, this is the reason why this poem must be retained, so that this lesson is taught, and not removed owing to its difficulty. It is also encouraging that a new GCSE of Natural History will start to be taught in schools in the next few years. Teaching the knowledge that might otherwise be lost is a huge step in the right direction.
Jones also argues and emphasises that building connections with nature can enhance our connections with other humans. ‘Awe, then, can shift us away from pure self- interest to be interested in others. It can help us bond and relate to each other. It can turn off the self, the day-to-day concerns, to propel us into focusing on something bigger and hard to comprehend.’
Again, Jones warns that in our modern urban environments, we are intentionally reducing our opportunities to allow nature to thrive and as a result, endangering our heath. ‘We choose to bask in screens instead of mirror-calm lakes, burbling streams and above, starlings, swallows and buzzards.’
With light pollution hiding the stars, and artificial light affecting our sleep, the increased popularity of Dark Skies visits and experiences has grown. It does appear that humans are beginning to recognise on an unconscious level perhaps that there is something missing in our lives and that that gap needs to be filled. ‘We are losing the benefit of natural sounds, then, and natural smells and also natural light, which has serious consequences for psychological health.’
Access to nature
Jones then explores the imbalance between access to nature and open spaces. She asks who owns the land who it is used for. She analyses who has access to private gardens and green areas and whether economic deprivation causes health impacts. ‘Children who live in deprived areas are nine times less likely to have access to nature, through green space and places to play, than children in affluent areas, who may also have access to private gardens.’
Jones argues that a connection with the natural world should not be an accident of birth, or a by-product of wealth, but that nature should be recognised as a vital human right. ‘And it makes the case that, no matter the circumstances of birth, a connection with the natural world, the opportunity to walk barefoot on grass, to plant seeds in the soil, to hear birdong or touch the bark of an ancient oak, should be a fundamental human right.’ With more natural elements such as rivers gaining legal protection around the world, it is hoped that the recognition of nature as an individual rather than as an object to be used as a resource, will continue to expand.
The wild places
Jones begins to close the text by passionately arguing that gratitude for the ‘wild places’ will help us connect with our spiritual selves and that spirituality through nature has always helped us cope with life itself. ‘Faith, religion, spirituality have all helped people cope with death. If a connection with nature can offer transcendence, can it also help us at the end of our lives?’
She connects life and death well and points out that we have lost sight of the natural element of these elements of life. ‘It appears that through our disconnection from the natural world, we are also more separated from death and disease, and therefore less able to cope with them.’
She recognises that in the birth of her child that this was the beginning of a journey that would also end in a death and that this understanding enhances the transitory moments in a life. ‘I had given birth to a life, to my great love, but also a death at some point.’ With the Christmas season just finishing and the natural element of the ‘death’ of the dark days and the return of the light, I am reminded of the T.S. Eliot poem ‘The Journey of the Magi’,
‘Were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.’
A new story
Jones finishes by correctly asking how we can change our current behaviour and renew the lost relationship with nature in our daily lives. ‘How can we collectively fall in love again with nature? How can we think about the relationship differently? By knowing and noticing the other beings who live around us for a start.’ I would argue that a return and a reset are needed more than something ‘new’ and this is perhaps my only disagreement with the book. ‘So it is time for a new story, a new myth, a change of mindset, attitude and behaviour. If we feel it, we must be galvanized by our ecological grief.’
Jones closes her arguments by returning to the narrative between the generations, but this time the knowledge has been passed on and lessons have been learned. The disconnect has been bridged and rebuilt and human lives have been enriched. We all have something to learn.
‘If we are disconnected from the natural world, we are missing out on nourishment for our minds.’
To notice the small world and to choose to create the time in the natural world, will help us see the big picture of the world that is not ours, but which we are living in, along with other species. A reflective moment to recognise that we can lose ourselves in time will help us all.
‘To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.’