This essay first appeared in The Precariat, a newspaper published by the organisers of Planet B festival and distributed in Peterborough in July 2017.
The sun is out, the sky is a cloudless blue and the kids around me on the train are talking football. On mornings like this, it’s hard to hold onto the sense that we are in trouble, let alone that this trouble might be deep enough to derail our whole way of living.
Even the numbers involved are underwhelming: two degrees of warming by the end of the century, three degrees, four… We’ve heard all the warnings, and still it is hard to equate these numbers with disaster, when they are smaller than the variations on the weather map from one day to the next.
The year before last, I got a Facebook message from a Sami woman, a reindeer herder whose family follows the animals north each summer across the mountains from Sweden to Norway. A few days later, we were sitting drinking coffee in a meeting room in Stockholm. She talked about a journey to fix up her uncle’s cabin in early May, travelling on a winter road, the kind of road that runs across a frozen river. The river is always frozen until the third week of May — you can count on it — but this time, when they get there, it already thawed. There’s no getting across. Further north, the same summer, they come to a mountain where they always store food in the ice of a glacier, but this year the glacier is gone. In July, the temperature stays over thirty for three straight weeks as the reindeer huddle, miserable in the heat. This is not the future, not a warning about what happens if we fail: this is how things are, already. If your life is bound to the seasons, you don’t need charts or projections to know that something is going badly wrong.
Our lives are bound to other things. Where we live, you can change seasons almost as easily as channels on the TV. Summer or winter are only ever an air ticket away. We see strawberries in Tesco in December and the strangeness of this hardly registers. Our liberation from the constraints of the seasons is assumed to be progress, but it might be wiser to call it an illusion. All that food in the supermarket is coming from places where the seasons still count. We still live off soil and sun and rain. There is no question of going ‘back to the land’, because we never left: we just stretched the chains that link us to it so far, we lost sense of what lies at the other end.
For now, a sharp tug on the supply chain means an unwelcome bulge in our grocery bills, a corner to cut somewhere else in the household budget. Elsewhere, the consequences cut deeper. The Arab Spring started when Tunisian police confiscated the fruit stall of street-trader Mohamed Bouazizi. He burned himself to death in a desperate protest against corruption, but the waves of protest that followed across North Africa and the Middle East were fuelled by years of sharply rising food prices. The brutal war in Syria came on the heels of five years of drought. This is how climate change arrives, not as a clean case of cause and effect, but tangled up with the cruelties of dictators and the profits made from commodity market speculation, washing up in boats on package holiday coastlines.
I don’t mean this as a call to guilt or despair. If you write about climate change, there’s a pressure to be upbeat, to talk about changing lightbulbs and the falling cost of solar panels. Not long ago, Britain went a day without burning coal for the first time since the Industrial Revolution. These things are also part of the story. I want to tell you, too, about all the knowledge that is barely on the maps we were given at school. Like how, even today, only 30% of the world’s food is produced within the agro-industrial system, while half of it is grown by peasant farmers, people who still have one foot in ways of making life work that are older than the fossil fuel economy. A Somerset farmer has three Syrian teenagers sent to him on a scheme: the first morning, they clear a weedy patch of land in no time, then one lad picks up a handful of soil and squeezes it in his hand. ‘Good humus,’ he says. Those already living with the consequences of climate change are not simply victims, they may yet be carriers of badly-needed knowledge in the tight times ahead.
So yeah, I don’t want to doom you out. I just think we owe ourselves a little sobriety, a willingness to look hard at where we find ourselves and get a sense of what may be at stake. That last bit is tricky: one moment, we’re urged to ‘Save the Planet’ — like the stars of a superhero movie — and the next, we’re looking at a poster behind the Marks & Spencer’s checkout that says, ‘Plan A: Because there is no Plan B.’ And the more times you look at that poster, the more you have to ask, ‘No Plan B for who?’ For M&S and Tesco and strawberries in December and holidays in the Greek islands — or for liveable human existence? Or is that not a distinction we’re willing to consider?
Don’t get me wrong: I’ll be stopping in at the supermarket when I pick up my son from nursery this afternoon. It’s just that my dad can remember when the supermarkets arrived: my gran would ride half way across Birmingham and back on the buses to claim the free frozen chicken you got on opening day. I can’t pretend the convenience doesn’t suit me. But if we’re really saying the future of our 4.5 billion-year-old planet is in doubt, then I’m not sure it’s wise to stake everything on getting to hang onto a way of doing things that’s been around for less than a lifetime.