An Old Man and a Young Girl
It’s Davos 2020. A posh ski resort where the politicians and CEOs show up and try to pretend they’re concerned about the planet. But the carbon footprint they’ve made just getting there tells a different story. This year they’ve been given free snowshoes in the hope that they’ll walk between the venues. Perhaps Trump will give it a go? After all he’s just said that “I’m a big believer in the environment. The environment to me is very important.” But he followed it up with a disclaimer. Don’t pay any attention to the doom-and-gloom sayers, he added. It’s all fake news. Apparently, everything is just fine.
In spite of the hopeless task of convincing neo-liberal capitalists they have to give it all up, some important speeches are being made. Already the major figures in the climate change debate are making their voices heard – particularly David Attenborough and Greta Thunberg. “The moment of crisis has come,” Attenborough said, unambiguously, a few days ago. Thunberg reminded the politicians and bankers that they have failed lamentably since the first climate change conference more than 30 years ago. Since then, “No political ideology or economic structure has managed to tackle the climate and environmental emergency and create a cohesive and sustainable world. Because that world, in case you hadn’t noticed, is currently on fire.”
It takes an old man and a young girl to tell us the unpalatable facts about the state of the world we live on. The former can tell the truth because he no longer has anything to lose – his career is behind him, his standing in environmental science is unassailable. The second because she has all her life in front of her and everything to lose by not speaking out. She is risking everything for the future that older generations have compromised – perhaps irrevocably.
The beautiful, natural world that existed when I was born no longer exists. For me that is shocking, because I’m not that old. The environment around the small farm I grew up on was teeming with wildlife – more than 50% of which is now extinct or seriously endangered by human activity. Moths, butterflies, bees, doves, sparrows, nightingales, corn-crakes, snow hares, otters – I grew up taking their presence for granted. Further afield there were wildernesses where you could wander and imagine that there was no other human on the planet. Now even these are shrunk to a fraction of their size and altered beyond recognition by human activity. This is not just me being nostalgic or a bit alarmist. In a new programme on the BBC Attenborough warns of "irreversible damage to the natural world and the collapse of our societies".
The satellites circling the globe tell us the truth. Forests are vanishing at the rate of thousands of acres every day. Vanishing ice is raising ocean levels across the planet, currently at increments of a couple of centimetres, but the rate is increasing. In Louisiana land is being lost to the sea at the rate of a football field every 45 minutes. In New Zealand a legal case has just admitted that some Pacific islands will not exist in as little as a decade. You can’t turn on the TV without a ‘natural’ disaster caused by fire, rain or wind – sometimes all three. And each disaster comes at a humanitarian as well as an economic cost.
But we carry on our unsustainable lives as usual. Sadly, a keep-cup and a reusable shopping bag won’t keep catastrophe at bay. We have to look at a fundamental restructuring of the way we live. It’s a matter of time – optimists say we have a decade, other scientists say a few years – before we will be forced to abandon our wasteful, destructive lifestyles and relive the privations of a third world economic crisis, as governments become less able to fund reconstruction or relocation.
If we want to live like the inhabitants of Winter Fell in a 21st century version of Game of Thrones, we are heading in the right direction.
The stark message that Davos should be addressing is that most of the planet is on track to become an arid, storm-ravaged waste land. The survivors will be fighting over whatever is left habitable. And how are we going to breathe an atmosphere saturated by carbon dioxide, methane and the smoke of burning forests?
No one is coming to save us. We have to do it ourselves. And we can start by listening to the voices crying truth in the wilderness of fake news – David Attenborough and Greta Thunberg. We don’t all have to be activists, but we do have to take action and make our governments aware that the natural world matters, because it’s the only one we have.