Response to Monbiot article — Solastalgia.

You may recall my sending round recently the article from the Guardian by George Monbiot that says that 2012 was the year we gave up on the future of the world. (I have included it again here at the bottom of this email to refresh your memory of its grim nature.)

One response to the original posting was from an ecologist friend of mine who has devoted his professional life to precisely these kinds of issues. I was struck by the moving nature of it and its laying bare of the underlying emotional and spiritual cost of the unserious nature of the response of the “official” world of our “leaders” to the plight of the planet and of all of us. I think it makes you realise that there’s a huge new problem arising out of the main problem’s not being dealt with.

This seems to me to be something we ought to have a 17 Group meeting about. I got my friend’s permission to send his personal email out anonymously to a wider audience and so here it is.

Dan O’Neill
The 17 Group

Pine Beetle destroying Canadian forest

Watching all the World’s great art burning would be easy compared to this… Part 1 Dan, I have a very good friend who is, like me, an ecologist. He is head of a department of forest science at a large university in Canada. He was telling me that students are dropping out of ecology studies, not because of lack of interest, but because what they learn is so frightening that they’re suffering depression.

The third year is referred to by the students as ‘the suicide year’, because those who finish it feel like topping themselves once they learn what desperate trouble the planet is in. People like me who have immersed themselves in study and appreciation of the natural world are all worn out from campaigning, and feel the most profound hopelessness. Solastalgia I think it has been called. It’s not just George that has been shouting about this- lots of people like me have been trying to make our voices heard. But the news is so bad that the collective response is to plug ears and whistle as loud as possible to drown out the bad news. People are refusing to be interested in the natural environment because to do so is to risk exposing oneself to the most profound sense of loss and hopelessness.

I went back to Canada (where I was born and grew up) recently, and drove from west to east. From the pacific to the prairie. I spent most of the time with tears running down my cheeks. I went looking for a glacier that I used to climb when I was young. I couldn’t find it. What was left of it was 14 km further up the valley. 14 km- can you imagine how much water that is? The rest of the glacier is expected to disappear completely in thirty years. Something like 20 million people depend upon it for water, let alone the forests, fish and wildlife. Driving through the mountains I was devastated as I crossed passes- I had to stop the car and get out to puke. What I saw was, as far as the eye could see in some valleys- nothing but dead trees. All of them dead, killed by pine beetles multiplying out of control because winters are no longer cold enough to control the beetles.

Imagine going to North Queensland and seeing all the tropical forest dead. That’s what it was like, in valley after valley. And the beetles have jumped species now, and are expected to sweep across northern Canada and denude the boreal forests. That’s just the pine species, but there is another pest spreading through the spruce forests, also brought about by warming climate. When I got to Alberta I didn’t dare drive north. If I had got anywhere near the Athabasca tar sands I would have taken myself off the nearest cliff. That place was all more or less pristine wilderness when I left Canada. Now it’s the largest industrial dump in the world.

They have some wonderful environmental measures in place at Athabasca- cannons are fired regularly to prevent any migratory birds from landing on any of the vast water bodies that were the ancestral stopovers for the migratory arctic fowl. If birds land in the water they are likely to be poisoned. The lakes that I left when I came to Australia were so pure you could see to bottoms when they were 60 ft deep, and all this surface water was safe to drink.

But the Canadian government has passed special legislation now that allows the pure waters of Canada to be used as special toxic waste dumps…. I could go on and on. I’m crushed by all this, and there are an awful lot of other ecologists like me. We keep going, trying to do our bit, but the fire is gone with the hope, and we seem to be just going through the motions of ‘doing what’s right’. With a few exceptions, all of us are getting old and there are almost no young people coming forward to take our places.

I guess I’d have to ask why would there be when old farts can’t point to anything significant that might give the young hope. I find it very hard to get up every day and convince myself that we are not teetering on the edge of destruction, and that we will all end up spiralling down into violence fighting over dwindling land, food and water. It already seems twee to be worried about the fate of Rusty Blackbirds or Numbats- We’re about to fry our own arses. These feelings come not from intellectualising, but from the most profound fear. The hot-wired fear of an animal whose entire place is being annihilated.
Sorry Dan, you sent me George’s piece; I read it, its nothing new to me but always like a knife in the guts. And I just had to get this off my chest. Apologies too for the somewhat muddled writing- sorrow is a poor stylist.

Part 2
The best way I can explain my ‘outburst’ (because that’s what it was) is to say that it was like a sudden outpouring at a funeral where someone has been struck down by something terrible, unexpected, and seemingly unjust. I keep these feelings ‘caged’ most of the time, otherwise it would be impossible to do anything constructive, or bring any happiness into the lives of people I associate with. I have no wish to be branded a grim reaper, but when I smile and laugh with people, these days it’s as if we’re standing in front of an avalanche- they are facing away from it, but I see it coming. The more I shout ‘look out’, the easier it is for others to reply “you’re always so negative”. People don’t want to turn around and see it coming. Who can blame them. If I were shouting ‘quick, duck under here and we’ll be okay..”, people might duck. But what I seem to be saying is just “ohmygodwe’redonefor”.

A long line of ecologists, physicists and naturalists have been warning about our impending doom (still sounds like a cliché, but I feel it more) long before George Monbiot appeared. The predictions of many of them have been optimistic, or in the case of the Club of Rome, more or less spot on. People like me have been pointing at this for decades and shouting “look out”. Now it’s crunch time. The intensity of the sentiment “I told you so” has never been so crushing, but there is certainly no satisfaction in it.

Poor George. Like a lot of people he’s probably looking for a little hope to stop himself from becoming completely despondent. I don’t share his views, but I find it hard to condemn him. I can feel the desperation in his writing. Maybe George has adopted his quite absurd views about nuclear power as a way around the problem I and so many others have- how can you warn people about an impending catastrophe without pointing to something that can help?

So ecologists and conservationists try to keep positive and active. If I accept that Christian conservationists have something worthwhile to say, I won’t dismiss all of George’s ideas even if I think the ideas about nuclear power are crackpot.
As I have done for a very long time now, I struggle along with conservation projects. But the participants just get older and no young folk join. I fear what this means, and I miss the fire in the belly that young people could bring to the work. A community rather than a geriatric ward would be a better place to work.

Not content to just accept this, I speak to young people and try to involve them in discussions about this problem. But they’re different from the people of our generation that I’ve associated with. They haven’t bought into the enlightenment, and whole massive ecosystems will disappear (not just individual species) without them having the slightest inkling or feeling any sense of outrage.

If you tell them what’s happening they shrug- “so what” is the response that I keep hearing, and it keeps shocking me. Can they really be so different from me? Because we’re rich enough to buy our way out of feeling the consequences (for just a little while) we keep shopping and poking our gadgets (none of which have a complexity that comes anywhere near what is contained in a single tree or jellyfish). If a lake, or a forest or a river is useful to us, its utility might save it. Otherwise??

Where is the mass outrage at George’s polishing of the earth? I conclude that we love nothing except ourselves. Since we still imagine we can save ourselves, the general reaction to the loss of something great is mild nostalgia at best. I don’t expect people will give up anything, even the most simple thing, to protect something great, if there is the slightest human inconvenience- I’ve certainly given up on the idea that large numbers of people will take risks to protect anything. I couldn’t get the Anglican church to realign a 20 m section of a small road to protect a 400 year old tallowwood. They cut it, hauled it away and burned it. I know this is just an anecdote, but I see these constantly, and rarely see any ‘positive’ ones.

What of the good that’s achieved by the conservation projects people like me have been involved in? I used to cheer when ten-thousand trees were planted along a damaged creek. Now I plant the trees, but look across the valley and see, literally, millions being cleared at a single stroke and it’s hard to feel anything more than chronic pain. Do you know about a place called Bimblebox?

An Italian family gave up a huge property that supports virtually undisturbed desert uplands ecosystems, and donated it as a nature reserve to the people of Australia. They signed a legal document with the Qld government that conserved it in perpetuity. That was only a couple of years ago. But the property is about to be surrounded, then undermined, and ultimately totally consumed by one of Clive Palmer’s coal mines.

Unthinkable devastation to the already battered environment of the desert uplands, and the most disgusting treatment of the generous people who gave everything they had to save and share something they love. And they are not the only ones. When the bulldozers move in, they will be thrown off and will receive not one cent in compensation. Watch this issue. For ecologists with solastalgia, it will end up being either a line in the sand that is drawn and held, or some sort of final swansong.

I believe it’s also a window on the future. If you haven’t seen the film about Bimblebox (it’s about more than just the Bimblebox property) and you want a glimpse of what solastalgia looks like, go to Run the streaming version of the film, and for a quick look, pull the slider across to 20 minutes. I never thought I would see a farmer crying and saying he understands why the aborigines are so crushed about the destruction of their lands. Pull it along to 33:20 for something in our own backyard. At the town of Acland, on the Darling Downs, there is one resident left, Glen Beutel. Just listen to him. There is nothing more I can add.

Part 3
I guess this is another outburst, though I never intended this. Now that I’ve started, I’ll press on.

People like myself that have grown up immersing ourselves in nature are a shrinking minority. We are isolated, and frustration is a totally inadequate description of what we feel. Most people live in cities, and have minimal contact with the natural environment that we still depend upon. So while they ‘disagree’ with ‘greenies’, it’s something beyond an ill-informed opinion. Most people have no idea whatsoever what ecology, ecosystems, or biodiversity are. There is no familiarity on any level. I took a walk through the Dorrigo rainforests, thought to be some of the oldest on the planet, just a few weeks ago. It was only a two hour walk (ten minutes for most people). It would take me a couple of hours to tell you all the things I saw. But on the way out, I overheard a couple of people say that there was “nothing much to see”.

Lefties (I stress that I still consider myself one!) give me little hope either. The fact is that most of the ones I know can’t name the most common trees in the places where they live. People are forgetting how to look and experience. Ecologists have a term for this, and there has been quite a bit written about “the extinction of experience”. You won’t love something that you know nothing about, and you won’t fight to protect something unless you love it. Like most of us, I’ve been involved in union issues in the workplace and all kinds of social issues. Lefty that I might be, I find it increasingly hard to get excited about maintaining a 38 hr week when we’re threatened with Australia’s water boiling off into space.

As a scientist, I’ve long ago stopped believing the destruction of the planet is a scientific problem. (Science will have to be a tool if we are to repair or save anything). Odd to hear a scientist say so, I guess, but the problem is a spiritual one. People live lives that preclude developing love for anything other than themselves. Or maybe I could put it another way. If self includes the individual and the individual’s place, the places that we occupy are becoming smaller and smaller. For me it comes back to this: I cease to exist if nature is redefined as something I am not a part of. I have no place in a world where nature is a film or a theme park.

I’m not clever- I can construct an argument, but not off the cuff. I’m not too quick on my feet. Anyway I feel the time for discussions is long since over. I’ve participated in so many of them and conclude that one needs to feel something first, then discuss what to do. Discussions these days always seem to start by asking “why should we be interested in the environment?” I’ve had to address that question in quite a few university lectures, as a guest. I’ve concluded that if you have to ask that question, intellectual discussion will achieve nothing practical. I’ve been told quite a few times that I have some sort of ability to inspire people with my love of the natural world. If I have, then it means more to me than explaining science. I observe myself that when I begin discussing the natural world as a scientist, from an intellectual point of view, the selfish or the greedy can easily bog the discussion down by insisting that there is no discussion without proving that there is a such thing as ‘nature”, or the ‘natural environment’, and demanding that the definitions be spelled out.

Though I am not clever I think I can often resolve these definitions by inspiring people. Maybe I can even inspire people to learn to look just enough to start loving a little? I have plenty of emotion; but too bad I am not a philosopher, or even a good writer. If I were, I might be more convincing. If you want me to facilitate an academic discussion, I will probably be a disappointment. If you want me to try and show people something of what I (and others like me) can see, I might succeed. There would be others, too, who might create some heartfelt understanding.

Have a look at the photos attached. The first one shows one valley with a large pine-beetle die-off. It’s certainly awful. Now look at the second image, which is a map of British Columbia (most is, or was, forest) to see the extent of the pine-beetle die-off. Note that the red shows current active infestations. See how they are creeping north? But it doesn’t stop there- the GREY AREAS SHOW PREVIOUS FOREST DIE-OFF. Have a look at a map of Canada to see how big British Columbia is. Now you have some idea of how much forest is affected, just by pine beetle. Now you know why I stopped to puke. I still find it amazing that I ever made it back to Australia.

Part 4.
Ecologists and committed environmentalists (who have lifelong experience as naturalists) are well aware of the collective despair and growing paralysis amongst our lot. For some I would say it is bordering on pathological. Others, I think, just keep trying to do what we once thought would help, but without the belief that our actions will have any lasting or significant effect. It was always the hope of achieving some fundamental change that kindled the fire in the belly for most of us.

I sense that there are people who ‘sympathise’ with what is being done to our world, and those that ’empathise’. Many thoughtful people that I know fall into the first category. If you drive through a valley of half dead trees, they may or may not notice a problem. One can point out the devastation and explain to them how it happened. They will understand at an intellectual level, and recognise that the death of so much vegetation must be a ‘bad thing’. I belong in the second group (along with a lot of others): Even before we get to that dead forest, we can FEEL that something is wrong. The signs will be in the landscape. When we reach it, we feel part of the devastation. It doesn’t need to be presented or explained. It’s not something that has happened to someone or something else- it’s something that has happened to us and our place. Perhaps something like the landscape is an extension of our selves. I’m waxing lyrical I guess, but there really is a difference between people who understand destruction, and those who FEEL and understand it.

You might think that from my description of this reaction that the empathisers would only feel the devastation in an environment they are intimate with. But I haven’t found this to be so. I can go to a new place and almost instantly have an empathetic reaction to a damaged landscape. An ecologist I know said of this: “It would be a lot easier if I didn’t know anything about this stuff- I drive through farming country and I see damage and increasing decline, where everyone else seems to see a nice green rural landscape. They come away happy. I come away sad.”

The original Monbiot article to which the above is a response:
2012: the year we did our best to abandon the natural world George Monbiot
The Guardian, Monday 31 December 2012 18.30 GMT

It was the year of living dangerously. In 2012 governments turned their backs on the living planet, demonstrating that no chronic problem, however grave, will take priority over an immediate concern, however trivial. I believe there has been no worse year for the natural world in the past half-century.
Three weeks before the minimum occurred, the melting of the Arctic’s sea ice broke the previous record. Remnants of the global megafauna – such as rhinos and bluefin tuna – were shoved violently towards extinction. Novel tree diseases raged across continents. Bird and insect numbers continued to plummet, coral reefs retreated, marine life dwindled. And those charged with protecting us and the world in which we live pretended that none of it was happening.

Their indifference was distilled into a great collective shrug at the Earth Summit in June. The first summit, 20 years before, was supposed to have heralded a new age of environmental responsibility. During that time, thanks largely to the empowerment of corporations and the ultra-rich, the square root of nothing has been achieved. Far from mobilising to address this, in 2012 the leaders of some of the world’s most powerful governments – the US, the UK, Germany and Russia – didn’t even bother to turn up.

But they did send their representatives to sabotage it. The Obama administration even sought to reverse commitments made by George Bush Sr in 1992. The final declaration was a parody of inaction. While the 190 countries that signed it expressed “deep concern” about the world’s escalating crises, they agreed no new targets, dates or commitments, with one exception. Sixteen times they committed themselves to “sustained growth”, a term they used interchangeably with its polar opposite, “sustainability”.

The climate meeting in Doha at the end of the year produced a similar combination of inanity and contradiction. Governments have now begun to concede, without evincing any great concern, that they will miss their target of no more than 2C of global warming this century. Instead we’re on track for between four and six degrees. To prevent climate breakdown, coal burning should be in steep decline. Far from it: the International Energy Agency reports that global use of the most carbon-dense fossil fuel is climbing by about 200m tonnes a year. This helps to explain why global emissions are rising so fast.
Our leaders now treat climate change as a guilty secret. Even after the devastation of Hurricane Sandy and the record droughts and wildfires that savaged the US, the two main presidential contenders refused to mention the subject, except for one throwaway sentence each. Has an issue this big ever received as little attention in a presidential race?

The same failures surround the other forces of destruction. In 2012 European governments flunked their proposed reform of the Common Agricultural Policy, which is perfectly designed to maximise environmental damage. The farm subsidies it provides are conditional on farmers destroying the vegetation (which also means the other wildlife) on their land. We pay €55bn a year to trash the natural world.

This contributes to what I have come to see as a great global polishing: a rubbing away of ecosystems and natural structures by the intensification of farming, fishing, mining and other industries. Looking back on this year a few decades hence, this destruction will seem vastly more significant than any of the stories with which the media is obsessed. Like governments, media companies have abandoned the living world.

In the UK in 2012, the vandals were given the keys to the art gallery. Environmental policy is now in the hands of people – such as George Osborne, Owen Paterson, Richard Benyon and Eric Pickles – who have no more feeling for the natural world than the Puritans had for fine art. They are busy defacing the old masters and smashing the ancient sculptures.

They have lit a bonfire of environmental regulations, hobbled bodies such as Natural England and the Environment Agency and ensured that the countryside becomes even more of an exclusive playground for the ultra-rich, unhampered by effective restraints on the burning of grouse moors, the use of lead shot, the killing of birds of prey and the spraying of pesticides that are wiping out our bees and other invertebrates.

Pine Beetle expanding

In the same spirit, the government has reduced the list of possible marine conservation zones from 127 to 31. Even these 31 will be protected in name only: the fishing industry will still be allowed to rampage through them. A fortnight ago, the UK lobbied successfully for quotas of several overexploited fish species to be raised, while pouring scorn on the scientific evidence that shows this is madness.

George Osborne has done the same thing to the UK’s climate change policies. Though even the big power companies oppose him, he is seeking to scrap or delay our targets for cutting carbon emissions and to ensure that we remain hooked on natural gas as our primary source of power. The green investment bank which was supposed to have funded the transition to new technologies is the only state bank in Europe that is forbidden to borrow. It might as well not be there at all.

If there is hope, it lies with the people. Opinion polls show that voters do not support their governments’ inaction. Even a majority of Conservatives believe that the UK should generate most of its electricity from renewables by 2030. In the US, 80% of people polled now say that climate change will be a serious problem for their country if nothing is done about it: a substantial rise since 2009. The problem is that most people are not prepared to act on these beliefs. Citizens, as well as governments and the media, have turned their faces away from humanity’s greatest problem.
To avoid another terrible year like 2012, we must translate these passive concerns into a mass mobilisation. Groups such as show how it might be done. If this annus horribilis tells us anything, it is that action, in the absence of such mobilisation, is simply not going to happen. Governments care only as much as their citizens force them to care. Nothing changes unless we change.


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