“We cannot solve a problem with the same mindset that created it”

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Albert Einstein – quoted by Vandana Shiva in her book “Soil not Oil”

I had a faintly disturbing conversation with a retired farm worker at the wassail on Friday evening. There were two things he said that made me prick up my ears – firstly something to the effect “we are going to lose all our subsidies and get paid to plant trees” – I’ll come back to that one – but secondly he said that the farm he still helps out on has changed the approach to foot rot in sheep (very successfully apparently) and so they no longer trim the feet – there’s sound evidence that this increases lameness – but now spray infected feet and then inject the sheep with long acting antibiotic such as oxytetracycline which is apparently very successful.  I came away with the impression that this treatment was being administered prophylactically in the flock which is probably nice for the sheep but possibly not quite so nice for us humans if it helps create more resistant strains of bacteria.

It’s just another example of the mindset that’s got us into the environmental mess we’re in. The land on which the flock is kept is very wet and is drained by a network of rhynes, (ditches) that feed larger ditches and  and pumping stations.  The prolonged wet weather these last few months has left farmers unable to sow spring cereals and even moving flocks of sheep has been problematic. The solution, as is so depressingly frequent, has been to reach for a new technology.

The question of farm subsidies is crying out to be examined, but as my friend spoke I had a premonition that even in the entirely sensible ambition to plant more trees, big business will sweep into the field with new and even more expensive technology offering a one-stop solution to farmers that’s almost inevitably going to be indiscriminately applied and propped up with even more chemicals. Which is where the moss comes in.

Ever since the mid 20th century agribusiness has been treating the earth as a simple industrial input. Land is graded from the very best through to the marginal, and farmers, hill farmers for instance, have been heavily subsidised to keep sheep on land that’s not really suitable. During the past centuries peat bogs have been exploited for fuel and horticulture to the extent that 95% of them have simply disappeared. It’s now becoming clear that peatlands are performing an indispensable service to the earth by soaking up half a trillion of tonnes of carbon – the data is here – twice as much as is stored in all the forests combined. Yet peatlands only cover 3% of the land areas of the earth. It almost makes you want to weep that only fifty years ago Scottish peatland was being ploughed and drained and planted up with imported trees. I’m quoting here from Dave Gouson’s book “The Garden Jungle” –

Over the past 10,000 years, UK peatlands have quietly sequestered 5.5 billion tones of carbon – nearly forty times the 150 million tonnes of carbon stored in our woodlands.

– and we’re still digging them up to spread peat on our daffodils!

It also happens to be the case that peatlands grow proportionally faster during periods when the global temperature is rising. So here’s just one part of the puzzle that we need to solve, and we can solve not by buying into impressive new technological fixes but by doing almost nothing. We need to ban the extraction of peat altogether and we need to halt and then reverse the draining of peatland for agricultural use.  We need to allow them to flood again which will not only increase the amount of carbon being sequestered far more efficiently then tree planting can but will also hold vast quantities of water that would otherwise run off moors, mountainsides and hills filling rivers and flooding good land and towns downstream. Peatland holds the carbon in storage for as long as the bog exists.  Trees only sequester carbon while they’re actually growing and when they die and rot they release it back into the atmosphere again.  So tree planting can only be a temporary solution while we make all the other changes, the ones we haven’t made during the fifty years we’ve known about the problem! Inevitably this will impact farmers’ livelihoods, but the subsidies can be reapplied to the maintenance of peatlands and their vital impact on wildlife and biodiversity. So my friend was right in outline, but not – I sincerely hope – in detail. Yes of course we should massively increase tree planting as well, but in the right places, not just anywhere farmers can shove a couple of thousand saplings in and book their summer holidays on the subsidy.

So if my newly found interest in bryophytes – mosses, liverworts and the rest – seems a bit perverse or leftfield, it’s because these poorly understood branches of creation just might be in a position to help solve what no amount of cash, science, technology and PR has managed. George Monbiot is right in many of his diagnoses but some of his prescriptions are terrible, especially when he seems to have bought into the fantasy that technology can solve our problems. More nuclear power stations fuelling factories that produce gigatonnes of industrial seaweed and fungus gloop really aren’t the solution.  I’m not even sure if they’re part of the solution.

There’s no reason why you should know that our word martyr derives from the Greek verb ‘martureo’ – to bear witness; it used to be my job to know stuff like that! Each age has its own witnesses and it so happens that in our own time of turmoil, the environmental scientists, the botanists, mycologists, bryologists, ecologists, meteorologists, climatologists, organic gardeners and farmers, the young activists and all the others are the witnesses to what’s going on. It’s about the earth, the soil – and it’s no accident that organic allotments are between four and eleven times more productive than intensive farms. Is anybody listening?

Trouble with the bogs

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The Potwell Inn has moved briefly to a new location in Cornwall which is very beautiful but could be described as KB/sec land. More pictures tomorrow but the connection speed is agonisingly slow and whether this will ever appear I don’t yet know! I’m aware some readers would rather I confined myself to the sort of sourdough/allotment/wildlife topics that often feature in the blog.  I love writing them too, but there are some issues that haunt me and what follows is one of them.

On Monday we had the first of the Bath Natural History Society indoor meetings and heard Prof David Goode talk on “the ecology and conservation of bogs”. If you ever thought of a specialist talking about bogs might be a bit dry (couldn’t resist that one) then think again. In fact don’t just think again, grab a magnifer, take a trip to a bog somewhere near you and take a really close-up look at some mosses – they’re really beautiful, colourful, and it seems extremely important, especially at this moment of ecological crisis.

Mosses aren’t just a bunch of plants, they create their own ecosystems by acidifying and adding phenolic compounds to the water they’re growing in and so create exactly the kind of anaerobic conditions which prevent rotting, thereby preserving Tollund Man and millions of tons of carbon in perpetual storage without the intervention of a single yet-to-be-made invention. Even better they have a bunch of structural but dead cells called hyaline cells which resemble tiny bladders that can store up to 26 times their dry weight in water. All of which means that blanket bog is better at storing carbon than the Amazon rain forests, good news because the UK has 13% of the world’s blanket bogs.

At this point, and in fairness to Prof David Goode, I should say that the message I took away from his excellent talk and the way in which I’m going to develop it, is entirely my responsibility.

While we are pleased to sign petitions aimed at foreign dictators and multinational companies who are enabling the destruction of the Amazon rainforests are we guarding our own precious home-grown carbon stores – the blanket  bogs of the UK?

Well sadly we’re not.

When you drain a bog – possibly by abstracting water to drain it for farming, or in order to create a better environment for commercial grouse shooting, it begins to die.  It dies even quicker when the blanket bog is deliberately drained and burned so a very few extremely wealthy people can get to shoot wild birds. We less privileged mortals are only just beginning to turn away from using peat in our gardens, so you can’t reduce this problem entirely to wealth and privilege.

On grouse moors the bogs themselves are degraded and depleted whilst any creature remotely threatening the grouse is trapped, poisoned or shot. The upshot only adds to the catastrophic loss of wildlife on these habitats, while the depletion of the massive water storage capacity of the bogs results in more run-off into rivers and dangerous flooding downstream.  In addition, as the bog conditions disappear all that stored carbon as well as methane is released back into the atmosphere to wind up the ratchet of the same global heating that is already helping to dry out bogland across the world. Peat extraction has the same effect, and I was astonished to learn that in the past it has been burnt as a fuel in power stations.

So here is a terrifying figure.  The earth’s remaining area of near natural peatland stores more than 550 gigatonnes of carbon, representing 42% of all soil carbon.  The hotter the earth gets the more of this carbon is going to be released into the atmosphere, along with millions of tonnes of methane from the melting permafrost.

Some people are advocating planting trees to stabilize the climate but this is something of a scientific mirage because a tree only stores carbon during the period it’s growing. Let’s imagine for the sake of argument we planted 100 million trees tomorrow.  For the next 25 or perhaps 50 years they would take carbon out of the atmosphere but once they die, or are felled, we would have to use the timber as a building material to preserve its carbon storing integrity, or bury it deep in the earth under controlled conditions.  I suppose eventually (over geological time, that is), it would turn into coal which would at least be stable as long as we left it there in the ground. But any talk of bio-fuels or renewable energy based on burning wood or plant material is a chimera because without yet-to-be-invented methods of carbon capture, these supposed renewable fuels are as dangerous as any other hydrocarbon fuel.

Let’s get real about this. There is no way that we can avert the related disasters of global heating and species extinction and keep living the way we do. I’m fascinated at the psychological mechanisms we unwittingly deploy to ignore the warnings.  I wrote recently about the psychology of grieving which, I think, plays a part. There’s also the fact that we don’t experience directly or immediately the effects of our behaviour. It took decades for cigarette smoking to reduce because hardly anyone died immediately of lung cancer.  The same goes for drinking too much; it’s most insidious property is its plausible deniability.  People rarely die of asthma attacks right alongside the queuing traffic jams  on London Road (Bath) and its all too easy to think something like “my little car won’t make much difference”.

But there’s another way of looking at our behaviour, and that’s our attitude to moral wrongs. Let’s suppose there’s a crowd of people in a room with a table in the centre on which stands a bowl of sweets with a notice that reads “please don’t take the sweets”. In a crowd, where wrongdong is hard to get away with without invoking peer disapproval, we’re more inclined to do the right thing.  But imagine that same crowd of people passing through the room one at a time with no-one observing them. I’d wager that more than a few sweets would disappear. Social disapproval is a powerful force for behavioural change, and so if we really want to stop people buying those enormous 3 litre gas guzzlers  we need to express our disapproval. Nobody wears a real mink coat these days expecting a round of applause. That’s not to argue that a voluntary code will be sufficient. In the end, our strategies for dealing with this crisis will have to be enshrined in law, because the current beneficiaries of ‘the way we do things round here’ are not going to give up their privileges without a fight. By adopting the principle of making the polluter pay and only subsidising activities that bring definable public goods, our present unsustainable and dangerous lifestyle would have to change.

The impact of neo-liberalism isn’t confined to financial markets, it’s insinuated itself into our cultural bloodstream to the point where we can’t think straight about the environment. Somehow, flying across the Atlantic in an aeroplane or feeding fillet steak to your dog is regarded as a ‘freedom’ whereas breathing fresh air, drinking unpolluted water, listening to a turtle dove, having a roof over your head and a rewarding job with a modest but sufficient income is a burden on society.

So – just now, bogland has absolutely no rights, but if it disappears we disappear too. So I’m not trying to enter the hideously technical argument as to whether any non-sentient being can have rights.  My argument is simpler and suggests that my rights, our rights as flourishing human beings are contingent upon the flourishing of the biosphere. That’s not a lump of sphagnum moss at the top of this post, it’s a life support system!

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Storm passing over Mount’s Bay. St Michaels Mount is just visible in the centre