Hell & High Water
The challenge of climate change is a
challenge to ourselves
Part 1 - Climate Change
1 Nullius in Verba 13
Public debate and scientific consensus
2 Beyond Tipping Point 32
Scenarios of what climate change means
3 Devil’s Dilemmas 61
Technical options to mitigate climate change
4 Spirit of the Blitz 86
Is radical change possible within democracy?
Part 2 - The Human Condition
5 Pride and Ecocide 107
Hubris, violence and the destruction of nature
6 Dissociation of Sensibility 140
Emptiness and the loss of inner life
7 Colonised by Death 160
The consumer psychology of climate change
8 Journey into the Soul 180
Drawing hope from the jaws of despair
9 Towards Cultural Psychotherapy 210
Reclaiming that which gives life
INTRODUCTION (Pages 1-10)
(Click here to jump ahead to chapter summary)
Several years ago my widowed and slightly disabled mother moved from the retirement croft house on the Isle of Lewis to the nearby town of Stornoway. Now well into her seventies, she had acquired a cottage by the harbour thinking that ‘city life’ would make it easier to cope with the wild winter weather.
Tuesday, 11 January 2005 was a tempestuous day even in Govan - the shipbuilding area of Glasgow where I presently live with Vérène my wife. But further out west on the Outer Hebrides, a storm of unprecedented proportions had come in from the Atlantic. Late that evening my mother telephoned. She was coping, but her voice sounded wraith-like and terrified.
Wind speeds are measured on the Beaufort Scale. Francis Beaufort was an Irish admiral who had first gone to sea in 1787. His original scale went up to Hurricane Force 12. Each gradation related to sailing conditions, thus a Force 12, with sustained wind velocities of between 73 and 83 miles per hour, were those ‘to which she could show no canvas’, and which, over dry land, might cause ‘considerable and widespread damage to structures’. On that January night in 2005, winds of 120 mph (200 kph) were recorded near Stornoway. There was also a very high tide and so, combined with the storm surge of water piled up by the tempest, Stornoway’s lower-lying streets became inundated by the sea.
As I metaphorically held my mother’s hand over the phone, she described how waves were bursting over the defensive wall across the road. Shovel-loads of stones hailed against her bulging windows. She feared what might happen if the glass gave way. Salty rivulets percolated in around the windowsills and trickled down through the carpets. The whole street was impassably awash. Anybody venturing out would be at peril not just from the deluge, but also from roofing slates flying around like guillotine-edged banshees.
‘I’m exhausted,’ she told me. ‘My strength is almost gone. I’ve been up and down the stairs for the past two hours, mopping up as fast as it comes in. The emergency services sandbagged my front door, but they can hardly cope and say there’s nothing else they can do.’
The crisis subsided as the tide receded, but that night’s storm cost the islands millions of pounds in damage. I visited straight afterwards, and three boats were wrecked outside my mother’s house, cast up on the rocks almost to the road. In our village of Leurbost, close friends from school days were dealing with roofs ripped from off their weaving and black-smithing sheds. On a causeway joining South Uist to Benbecula, a family of five in two cars - thought to have been escaping from rising floodwaters inside their low-lying home -were swept away to death. It was the worst natural disaster and the most terrible storm within the islands’ living memory.
Scotland’s top politicians of the time immediately promised to repair not just ‘the infrastructure damage, but also to repair the confidence and the morale of the local community.’1 Three years later little has been done. The causeways remain dangerous, and the community feels passed by. I couldn’t help thinking that if this was the response to a small place at a time of high national prosperity, what would it be like if ‘extreme weather events’, as they’re called by the meteorologists, get much more common? The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans during August 2005 hardly inspires confidence. George Bush had recognised that full recovery may take 25 years and a $6 billion programme was set in place to patch up the flood defences.2 According to National Geographic News, this was completed to pre-Katrina standards within two years, ‘but the system is actually riddled with flaws, and a storm even weaker than Katrina could breach the levees.’3 One wonders what the chances are of Bush’s 25 years ever being reached without a repeat debacle. Already there is anecdotal evidence that the rich are thinking twice about rebuilding in such threatened areas. New Orleans was poor to start with, but as awareness of global warming spreads one can envision the emergence of neighbourhoods both there and elsewhere socially stratified by climate apartheid. The poor will only be able to afford property that is at risk. For the well-to-do, a house on the hill is coming to mean more than just status with a view.
Events like the Hebridean storm and Hurricane Katrina have forced billions of people around the world to start asking questions about climate change. The idea that the Earth is kept warm by a ‘greenhouse effect’ is nothing new. It was first put forward in 1824 by the French physicist, Joseph Fourier. The possibility that burning carbon-based fuels like coal and oil could ramp this up into global warming was first advanced by the Nobel Prize-winning Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius. He made some surprisingly accurate calculations as far back as 1896.4 Throughout the twentieth century the volume of both carbon emissions to the atmosphere and scientific data about them grew exponentially, but it has only been over the past couple of decades that concern harboured by specialists has broken through into public consciousness. Few things shift consciousness like the fear of death or material loss. And when disasters start to hit home, even those whose lives were previously cocooned from the natural world begin to ask questions; questions like:
1. Is the climate undergoing dangerous change?
2. If so, is that change caused by human impact?
3. And if so, can we mitigate the causes and, where necessary, adapt to consequences?
The problem with reactions to specific events like both of the 2005 storms we have been discussing is that there can be no direct proof that they were ‘caused’ by global warming. The world’s weather systems and the variables that make it up are immensely complex. There can only be greater or lesser degrees of probability that any given extreme event is driven by climatic change. After all, every generation will, by definition, suffer its ‘worst storm ever’ at some point in people’s lives. One or two bizarre anecdotes possibly puffed up by the world’s mass media don’t make for a scientific case that the foundations of the known world have come unstuck. To build a robust body of evidence requires many such anecdotes, accurately measured so as to start comprising a body of data that can distinguish long-term climate change from short-term climate variability and, especially in Britain, from mere weather! As it happens, recent data does suggest that the incidence and severity of Atlantic storms is on the rise. In a paper, ‘Heightened Tropical Cyclone Activity in the North Atlantic: Natural Variability or Climate Trend?’, a team of American scientists found that ‘about twice as many Atlantic hurricanes form each year on average than a century ago’. They conclude that this is consistent with the theory that warmer sea surface temperatures associated with global climate change is pumping extra energy into weather systems and thereby upping the ante.5
Other data also supports the ‘folk memory’ of many old people that I grew up amongst on the Isle of Lewis. I must ask my reader to excuse me if I often draw on Scottish examples in this book. It’s a question of needing to dig from where I stand, but I hope that the examples I choose will be seen to have far wider relevance in principle. The old Hebridean folks often said that the balance of nature was being upset. They maintained that winters were warmer than they had been early in the twentieth century, and the summers wetter. You can no longer take short cuts safely across frozen lochs in today’s winters, and oats will rarely ripen properly. Sure enough, weather station records for the west of Scotland confirm this folk perception. The figures show that between 1914 and 2004, average temperatures did indeed rise by half a degree. Rain, snow, mist and whatever else counts as ‘precipitation’ rose over the same period by 9.5%. The statistics can be presented with even greater drama if one looks at the data set for 1961-2004. Here the west Scottish temperature increased by fully one degree, and precipitation by a whopping 23.3% - a disproportionately high share of which falls in winter.6
There is now a very wide scientific consensus that data like this, drawn from many parts of the world and reflecting a broad range of climate variables, suggests that significant change really is happening to the planet. As the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (the IPCC) uncompromisingly put it in their November 2007 report: ‘Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, as is now evident from observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice, and rising global average sea level.’7
We will see later that the vast majority of experts not in the pay of oil companies believe that the primary cause of this warming is carbon emission caused by the burning of fossil fuels. But the implications for our Western way of life - for what it would take to reduce and stop it - are, shall we say, thought provoking. George Monbiot’s Heat: How to Stop the Planet Burning is an analysis described by Sir John Houghton, former head of the Met Office, the British weather forecasting service, as ‘the best book I know. .. broad, balanced and practical’. I have known George for many years and have every confidence in the accuracy of his appraisal. He sums it up in these words:
Other assessments fall into a similar ballpark. For example, Al Gore, whose documentary An Inconvenient Truth became an unexpected box office hit, considers that the rich world must cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 90% by 2050. In a detailed study for Friends of the Earth and the Cooperative Bank, Manchester University’s Tyndall Centre prescribes a 90% reduction by 2050, but with the majority of this, 70%, needing to be achieved by 2030.9 To stabilise carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere close to current levels the IPCC’s 2007 report states that global emissions would need to fall almost immediately by 50-85%, but this would still result in a temperature rise above pre-industrial levels of 2.0-2.4ºC and a 0.4-1.4-metre sea-level rise.10 But the IPCC’s small print contains a worrying qualification. Their forecasts are based on older models that incorporated ‘the sea-level rise component from thermal expansion only’. In other words, the melting of glaciers is not included. As we will see, data has only recently become available suggesting that the icecaps are melting at rates not previously anticipated. There is always an ‘inevitable outdatedness’ with scientific reports that synthesise vast amounts of published data. We will therefore need to wait until the IPCC’s next report in several years’ time for a more comprehensive prognosis.
To cut carbon emissions and thereby mitigate the lead cause of global warming means changing our lifestyles, increasing efficiency of existing fossil fuel uses, or moving to non-carbon energy sources such as nuclear or renewables. In Heat, George Monbiot examines British energy use sector by sector. He shows that the necessary changes could be made to stack up, but his findings would have radical implications for how our society is structured. For example, with transportation there would need to be a virtual end to air travel and a heavy curtailment of car use. Even high-speed trains are not efficient enough. George considers that only a massive expansion of bus routes could deliver what is needed. I can almost feel my readers groan! But this is precisely what makes some of George’s words so deeply important. It begs the question as to whether the way we look at this whole issue needs to shift ground. He writes:
So here is the real challenge of climate change. It whisks us up in a whirlwind and throws us down against. . . ourselves. That is why the central thesis of this book is that climate change cannot be tackled by technical, economic and political measures alone. Those things are all important, but in addition and perhaps most important of all, we have to look at ourselves. We have to address not only the outer world of atmospheric science, economic imperatives, and realms of political possibility, but also the inner world of psychology and, I will suggest, spirituality. The bottom line and top priority is that we must get to grips with the roots of life and what gives it meaning.
In attempting so to do I want to stand, if I may, on the shoulders of people like George Monbiot. I will largely take the findings of Heat and similarly carefully researched texts as a given. There is no point in writing yet another book about climate change when I am not a climate scientist. As such, the shorter part of this book, Part 1, will merely give a summary of the science and the politics. In Chapter 1, I explore the difficulty of knowing what to think about a complex scientific debate with conflicting media voices. Chapter 2 looks at global climate change scenarios and includes a short case study of Scotland. Chapter 3 summarises the technical options to mitigate climate change. And most dismally of all, Chapter 4 looks at why our hedonistic democracy is so impotent in making changes that, actually, need to start within each one of us.
Thus far my material is not distinctive and readers who are already well-versed in climate change debates may wish to skip or just skim over Part 1. In Part 2, my contribution attempts something different from the usual take on global warming. My thesis is that the most galling aspect of the problem is driven not by fundamental human needs, but by manipulated wants that find expression in consumerism. To mitigate climate change and even to adapt to its consequences without losing our humanity, there needs to be a radical reactivation of our inner lives. That is not something that we can achieve entirely on our own. It also requires change across society - perhaps even what I describe as ‘cultural psychotherapy’.
Part 2 of the book therefore explores the history of and the prognosis for the human condition as it relates to environmental impact. In Chapter 5, I show that the ancient world of the Sumerians, Hebrews, Greeks and Romans displays an astonishing perspective on how the human condition reflects itself in the condition of the Earth. The ancients equated hubris or excessive pride with violence and so, with the destruction of nature. Their moral analysis fits even better to our present day condition than it did to their own.
Chapter 6 suggests that as modernity took root in the West, culturally embedded violence damaged our capacity to develop and sustain a rich inner life. Rather than evolving a healthy balance between our inner and outer lives, Western societies have been turned inside out. It shows especially in the faces of some politicians and celebrities. Our outer lives are hyperactive and there’s a corresponding emptiness, even a deathly nihilism, at the core.
Chapter 7 argues that this deficiency of inner anchoring has rendered us vulnerable to colonisation by marketing that has pushed consumerism by generating wants. As we lost touch with inner sensibility our psyches - our totality in body, mind and spirit - became open to hijacking by carefully honed tools of motivational manipulation. Inner climate affects outer climate because inner hubris drives outer hubris in a spiral of mindless economic frenzy. As Leonard Cohen puts it:
Things are going to slide, slide in all directions
Won’t be nothing
Nothing you can measure anymore
The blizzard, the blizzard of the world
has crossed the threshold
and it has overturned
the order of the soul12
Chapter 8 suggests that if we want to tackle the deep drivers of consumerism and so tackle the roots of climate change, we need to call back the soul. This means setting aside delusions of mere optimism about the future and blind faith in technical fixes, yet paradoxically, deepening our capacity for hope. It means finding the courage to face death and open the heart to love. It means being prepared to be surprised by potential depths of being of which we might previously have been unaware.
Lastly, in Chapter 9 I tentatively suggest twelve steps by which we might work to re-ground the human condition in what it can mean to be most deeply, and beautifully, human. This means working towards a psychotherapy of the soul - a deep healing of what has gone wrong or never properly developed - that is not just individual, but cultural.
My readers should know that I am painfully aware, as will be explored further in the Afterword, that this is an uncomfortable and also an unfinishable book. It may disappoint, for I have no easy or adequate remedies for global warming. While I try to be careful not to play up people’s fears (and some would say I play them down too much), I cannot say that I am optimistic about saving some of the things that are most familiar and loveable in this world. And yet, my position borders on the perverse. I perversely hold out hope for humanity, not in spite of global warming, but precisely because it confronts us with a wake-up call to consciousness. Answering that call of the wild to the wild within us all invites outer action matched by inner transformation. This book takes an exploratory walk on that wild side.
5 June 2008