Category Archives: Adaptation

On Waging a Losing War with Nature

The obsidian scalpel

To mention nature is to invoke an infinite, mysterious, and supremely powerful universe, part of which is our own home-world. As story-telling mammals, it is easy for us to think of nature as our mother, and to describe our evolution as stages of growth or initiation. In this metaphor, we spent our childhood in the hard school of the Pleistocene era, under repeated stress from severe ice ages, and our adolescence in the less turbulent Holocene, in which we learned to think of nature, most of the time, as tolerant and generous.

But the Holocene is now ending, largely due to the impacts of our careless numbers, needs and technologies. The tolerance of nature – which once seemed, like the oceans, boundless – has run out. We might hope to be forgiven one day, but there is ample evidence that our mother is seriously angry with us. Worse, we suddenly realise that nature has many other children to look after, and that we are not as special as we had thought. Perhaps this unexpectedly steely-eyed mother will drag us to the altar, to face the obsidian scalpel of extinction that has ended so many of nature’s vast family before us?

But maybe not. We have no way of knowing what’s really going on or why, beyond the discoveries of scientists and the intuitions of mystics. But it does seem certain that we’re in for at least a thorough flogging, and our defensive gestures are far too feeble to do us much good. Nature cannot respond to appeal or negotiation, apparently cares nothing for inflicted suffering, and requires only compliance with her own laws. No, the only thing that might work is for us to understand our punishment, and to hope that we can guess how we are expected to behave in future, in case we get another chance.

And therein lies our hope or faith: we did learn, we did adapt, we are capable, we can survive. But first we must set aside the notion that we have powers that are greater than those wielded by nature herself. Powers we may have, for none of nature’s offspring are so quick to be clever, inventive and cooperative as we are when we need to be. The question is: can we understand how to use those skills to earn a survival niche, somewhere, in nature’s great coral reef, while nature grows back around and within us?

Origins and lessons of warfare

Much will be said about this, as the struggle unfolds. Meanwhile, we can contemplate some lessons from another rich metaphor: human warfare. This is an activity to which we are driven often, perhaps in line with behaviour inherent to one part of our evolutionary heritage as great apes – the ‘chimpanzee’ side with its tendency towards inter-group warfare, which stands in eternal tension with our more pacific ‘bonobo’ heritage. Thus we can imagine that humanity has been waging ‘war’ against nature for millennia, and that nature has now unleashed a ‘war’ against us.

But both are strange kinds of war, by human standards, being fought out by accident between adversaries who are largely unconscious (people) or entirely so (nature) of what they are doing and why. Moreover, it is between those who are grossly ego-inflated (people) and entirely ego-less (nature). And it is also absurdly one-sided according to any rational metric, leaving us with a losing war to endure and learn from, rather than a victory to attain.

Still, warfare is familiar to people, so there may be some concepts and experiences here that can point towards the terms of an eventual peace. In this spirit, I explore here a few lessons from A History of the World War 1914-1918, by B.H. Liddell Hart (Faber & Faber, London, 1930), and draw attention to what they might mean for us in our conflict with nature. I start in Table 1 by setting side by side the opening of Liddell Hart’s book and a statement by myself on the origins of the present climate and ecological emergency. My aim is to show that many years of barely-conscious effort were needed to prepare both the continent of Europe and the whole biosphere, respectively, to the point where a single spark could ignite calamity.

Table 1: Origins of a human war, and of war with nature, compared.

Origins of a human war (1930).

Origins of a losing war (2020).

“Fifty years were spent in the process of making Europe explosive. Five days were enough to detonate it. To study the manufacture of the explosive materials is within neither the scope nor the space of a short history of the World War.

“On the one side we should have to trace the influence of Prussia on the creation of the Reich, the political conceptions of Bismarck, the philosophical tendencies in Germany, and the economic situation – a medley of factors which transmuted Germany’s natural desire for commercial outlets, unhappily difficult to obtain, into a vision of world power.

“We should have to analyse that heterogenous relic of the Middle Ages known as Austria-Hungary, appreciate her complex racial problems, the artificiality of the governing institutions, the superficial ambitions which overlay a haunting fear of internal disruption and frantically sought to postpone the inevitable end.

“On the other side we should have to examine the strange mixture of ambition and idealism which swayed Russia’s policy, and the fear it generated beyond her frontiers. We should have to understand the constant alarms of fresh aggression which France had suffered since 1870 [and] study the regrowth of confidence which fortified her to resist further threats.

“Finally, we should have to trace Britain’s gradual movement from a policy of isolation into membership of the European system and her slow awakening to the reality of German feeling towards her.”

“Seventy years were spent in destabilising the biosphere, and now only a few days are enough to gestate storms, fires and epidemics that make life a misery for scores of millions at a time. Conditions have so ripened that these calamities and others are poised to unite in a devastating global riposte to humanity’s abuse of nature’s intricate living systems.

“To understand how these conditions arose, we should have to consider on the one hand American and Russian power at the end of Nazi Germany, their subsequent influence on their respective client states and non-aligned rivals and dependencies, including the UN, their proxy wars and arms races, and their competing visions for the regulation of human enterprise.

“We should have to note the proving of capitalism as the most efficient way to turn natural resources into surplus production, consumption, armaments, and pollution, the haunting fear among its owning classes of disruption by the externalities of social and environmental breakdown, and their frantic quest for eternal, super-normal profits.

“On the other side, we should have to examine the periodic growth and dissipation of ecological and social-equity movements since the late 1960s, but also a growing confidence among the neoliberal freemasonry in the permanence of their own power.

“Finally, we should have to trace the rise of social surveillance and control technologies that hold people against their will ever closer to the cutting edges of a doomed machine civilisation.”

Disaster overhang and transition

In the event, the ‘disaster overhang’ that had accumulated in Europe by 1914 took two world wars and 31 years to exhaust itself, like a forest fire that finally ran out of fuel after flaring and smouldering for decades. Similarly, it will take many decades to unravel and dissipate the poisonous overhang that threatens the current biosphere. Moreover, in the case of Europe a wholly new American-Russian hegemony was needed to stabilise the situation after 1945, combined with a post-war economic boom to replace imperialism as a source of elite profits, and social democracy to replace nationalism as a source of stable governance. These arrangements prevailed into the 2010s, followed by the start of a transition through chaos towards, one hopes, a more stable configuration based on new ideas of citizenship, governance, equity and sustainability. In mid-transition, however, as powerful forces both conscious and unconscious strive together with increasing violence, it is hard to foresee any particular outcome.

Practicalities of warfare

Table 2 explores three practical strategies that Liddell Hart considers key to military success:

  • elasticity in defence, against a locally-overwhelming onslaught that will exhaust itself in due course if the defenders can withdraw far enough while retaining their coherence;
  • duality in attack, where multiple blows from different directions can confuse and entangle the opponent as they try to respond to them; and
  • surprise in attack, where an action manages by some means to catch the opponent unprepared and vulnerable to shock and confusion.

Table 2: Some war-strategy concepts and their application to a losing war with nature.

Concepts and observations (1930 and 2020).

Elasticity. “Then on the 16th [April 1917] the main withdrawal began, the German forces marching back unhurried to the new line called by them the ‘Siegfried’ and by the Allies the ‘Hindenburg’ line. A consummate manœuvre, if unnecessarily brutal in application, it showed that Ludendorff had the moral courage to give up territory if circumstances advised it. The British, confronted with a desert, were cautiously slow in pursuit, and their preparations for an attack on this front were thrown out of gear.” (p. 391). When nature attacks, she overwhelms or finds a way under or around any fixed defensive position, requiring humanity to give way, fall back, absorb and dissipate the energies of the advance until the thrust becomes manageable with the counter-measures and resources available on site. Thus we abandon floodplains and coastal zones to water, storm and salt, and resettle on the boundaries of new habitability, where we re-establish barriers and plantings that are shaped by the lessons learned in the withdrawal. At the margins of habitability we can dig in and stabilise the front for a while, and maybe push back a little over time.
Duality. “Now duality is the very essence of war, although curiously overlooked. Duality of objective enables the attacker to get the opponent on the horns of a dilemma, and, by mystifying him, to obtain the chance of surprising him, so that if the opponent concentrates in defence of one objective the attacker can seize the other. Only by this elasticity of aim can we truly attune ourselves to the uncertainty of war.” (p. 574). When nature attacks, she often does so in one dimension after another, or else in multiple dimensions at the same time. Water-born or mosquito-born diseases and waterlogged fields all follow floods, giving us hunger and sickness as well as demoralisation and discomfort. Our fields may be seared by drought, our old and young slain by heat, and everything we know burned to ash by fire. Then the top-soil and ash may be blown away, or scoured by sudden floods, destroying soil structure and fertility. Such combination blows are terribly effective, and are the frequent means by which nature forces us to abandon places where we have been comfortable for decades or centuries. Property values collapse, tumbleweeds roll across deserted highways, real estate crumbles into the sea, and the poor gather in cities far away, where the lights are still on. Having many lines of simultaneous attack bestows overwhelming advantages upon nature as an opponent. Counter-attack requires a capacity to understand each of the weapons used against us, and how they work in combination so that they can all be neutralised to the extent possible. A gradual restoration and reoccupation of the devastated area might then become feasible, but the peace-building response would be to try to understand fully what provoked the attack, and promise never to do it again.
Surprise. “This final year [1918], indeed, read in the light of previous years, affords fresh proof that surprise – or, more scientifically, the dislocation of the enemy’s mental balance – is essential to true success in every operation of war. A lesson oft repeated, oft ignored. At the bar of history any commander who risks the lives of his men without seeking this preliminary guarantee is condemned.” (p. 526). “Now, to cut an army’s lines of communication is to dislocate its physical organization. To close its lines of retreat is to dislocate its morale. And to destroy its lines of ‘inter-communication’ – by which orders and reports pass – is to dislocate it mentally, by breaking the essential connection between the brain and the body of an army.” (p. 555). When nature attacks, a complete failure of morale can result from the ‘dislocation of our mental balance’ through unanticipated impacts or threats in new places, and/or overwhelming force majeur  (the Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004 being a case in point), especially when each push reacts on and reinforces the others so there seems suddenly to be nowhere to turn and no hope of survival.
Blockade. “Helplessness induces hopelessness, and history attests that loss of hope and not loss of lives is what decides the issue of war. No historian would underrate the direct effect of the semi-starvation of the German people in causing the final collapse of the ‘home front’.” (p. 588). Now imagine nature causing a progressive breakdown in the opportunity to travel and trade, and in the supply of goods and services from beyond one’s immediate vicinity, and consider the decline in confidence, narrowing of imagination, and eventually the erosion of physical and social well-being from monotonous and inadequate diets. The 2010 eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland suspended air travel around Europe for a few days, while the 2020 coronavirus pandemic had far greater impacts on trade and transport, both being examples of natural ‘blockades’. It is not hard to imagine the dangers of social breakdown under the stresses of unfamiliar deprivations, as exploited by malign opportunists, nor the effectiveness of counter-measures that promote solidarity and the strengthening of society through education, networking, mutual aid, and fair rationing.

A false sense of security

In each case in Table 2, I have mentioned their implications for people in reacting to the supreme powers of nature, and finding ways to survive, minimise our losses, and buy time to seek a stable outcome, ideally through some kind of peace. I added blockade because this is a potent strategy for demoralising populations, can result from nature’s inhuman processes or her reaction to abuse, and because counter-measures can transform society and help to build peace. In all cases, the point is to consider what the situation would look like if nature was a human opponent, and what we as humans might do to protect and advance what we consider to be our own interests in the short or long term. The following might have been included as well, all of them with war-fighting and peace-building implications:

  • invention, including natural mutations among pathogens and pests, and the technological counter-measures that people design under pressure of necessity;
  • innovation, in war including the use of gas, tanks, submarines, aircraft, and guerrilla tactics, which can confer sudden advantages and help win battles;
  • learning from the past, where history and anthropology are rich sources of invention and innovation, and biology can teach us about the extraordinary creativity of nature in setting up and striking down survival strategies through evolutionary ‘arms races’; and
  • learning from each other, where networking with peoples experienced against certain threats can help naïve peoples obtain new ideas, again as a rich source of invention and innovation.

But all these human responses carry the risk of creating a false sense of security. They all offer tactical advantages, allowing ‘battles’ to be won and giving hope of ‘victory’, but by so doing they can discourage the asking of strategic and policy questions like whether we should really be at war at all. In a human context, those who speculate that their side’s commitment to war makes no sense, are likely to be condemned for ‘treason’.

More questions than answers

The war has become history, and can be viewed in the perspective of history. For good it has deepened our sense of fellowship and community of interest, whether inside the nation or between nations. But, for good or bad, it has shattered our faith in idols, our hero-worshipping belief that great men are different clay from common men. Leaders are still necessary, perhaps more necessary, but our awakened realization of their common humanity is a safeguard against either expecting from them or trusting in them too much.” (page 587). This paragraph in the book’s Epilogue is deeply relevant to our own current experience of the coronavirus pandemic, which raises such major issues of public policy as:

  • whether a country is better off on its own or in a network of cooperating countries;
  • whether the institutions of unregulated capitalism are ever capable of solving unexpected problems with major social and environmental dimensions without massive state subsidy;
  • whether spontaneous local mutual aid is a durable source of resilience and social well-being, both in a stressed society and once the stress has passed;
  • where are the political constraints on lying and hero-worship among leaders who have been caught out advocating irrational and antisocial agendas at times of social crisis; and
  • what are the hall-marks of good and necessary leadership at these and other times?

The answers to these questions can perhaps encourage and enable us relinquish our war with nature as unwinnable, and to use the powers that we do possess to make a lasting peace.

© Julian Caldecott, 2020

Adapting to Climate Chaos

About the Adapting to Climate Chaos by Strengthening Ecological and Social Systems book project.

Chaos and adaptation. Defining adaptation only in terms of a planned response to gradual environmental change is clearly wrong in a world of tipping points and sudden, locally-experienced calamities – GLOFs, seawater-, freshwater, ice- and snow-storms and floods, dzuds, ice-melt, fires, heat-waves, new infectious diseases, land- and mud-slides, the collapse of wildlife populations, ecosystems and coastlines, etc., and all their infrastructural and socioeconomic impacts. Most of them are unpredictable chaotic hazards, but current adaptation investments typically involve planning and programming for predicted hazards.

Sources of bias. This technical emphasis on predicted hazards is partly because of the McNamara Fallacy (‘to measure is to understand, and only that which can be measured is important’) and partly due to the attractiveness of quick fixes under political pressure. We can devise effective and humane responses (such as resettlement) to environmental challenges that cannot be adapted to, and we can make some progress on understanding trends and changing probabilities at the macro level (which should lead to responses in the areas of insurance, water, soil and biodiversity conservation measures, and educational networking between experienced and naïve communities). But the nature of the strategic problem itself means that most adaptation efforts should actually be focused on the strengthening of ecological and social systems against chaotic hazards of all sorts (within reason according to location).

Strengthening systems. This requires us to understand what we mean by ‘strengthening’ and ‘systems’ if we are to evaluate progress on adaptation, and this is the focus of my book, Adapting to Climate Chaos by Strengthening Ecological and Social Systems, which has been commissioned by Cambridge University Press. In it, I’ll look at three dimensions of strength – resilience (the ability to bounce back from disturbance), resistance (the ability to withstand impacts), and flexibility (the ability to bend or adjust rather than break under strain). I’ll discuss the problems of anticipating chaotic change, and I’ll present evidence from evaluated aid programmes that the fragility of complex systems can be reduced by promoting public understanding of ecology, the sharing of knowledge, and locally-accountable leadership.

Aims of the book. Evidence will be taken from past actions that were not, or not necessarily, conceived with climate change in mind, to show what adaptation success looks like and how it can be designed and evaluated for. These topics have urgency since climate chaos, mass extinction and ecosystem breakdown are recognised features of our immediate future, and tipping points in major systems such as the Arctic and Amazon are imminent. In parallel with bringing GHG emissions under strict control, adaptation is also a priority, especially for those concerned with sustainable development. Simple engineering solutions are often not enough, and my aim is to describe effective new ways to make it easier for citizens, leaders and aid professionals to make replicable strategic choices that will always tend to strengthen ecosystems and societies.

Water 2020: new edition, new problems, new solutions

As water crises multiply, and mass extinction and climate chaos escalate, we have the sense that nature is serving us a very clear warning and that something major has to change, or else. To respond requires that our adaptive skills are informed by ecology and applied effectively. The key issue is whether we can adjust our ways of life to make it in our new global environment. Building an informed awareness of water, and the life it bears in every drop, has to be a key starting point. Public involvement in the environmental struggle is now worldwide, transforming political agendas everywhere. Science, spirit and community are working together to release energy for change and justice at a scale seldom seen before. The channelling of this energy into ecological restoration and renewal of our relationships with nature and with each other is the great task of everyone alive today or soon to be born. It is time to make Peace with Nature.”  (Water: Life in Every Drop, pbk ISBN 9781843199632, hbk ISBN 9781843199649.

More of the same but worse, plus chaos

As large swathes of England are flooded and much of Australia burns, the 2020 edition of Water: Life in Every Drop introduces key ideas of water ecology and sustainable development. These ideas are essentially unchanged since 2008, and stories I tell and their implications for our relationship with water remain true. The need is now even stronger for ecological thinking to shape our laws and constitutions. I have weeded the book for anything that seems misleading on current reading, and in the process I updated it. Lake Baikal in Siberia is now more threatened by pollution, for example, and there are many more people living around Lake Naivasha in Kenya. These reflect general trajectories, as does the rising power of China, but for water, ecosystems and climate the position can be summarised as ‘more of the same but worse, plus chaos’.

Meanwhile, many forebodings have been fulfilled. The consequences of global heating are hard to anticipate in detail as they involve turbulent systems, but some predictions are spot on. Many thousands of wild species are sliding into extinction each year, the sea is rising, atmospheric and oceanic currents are wobbling, multi-year droughts are grinding down large parts of Australia, North America and southern Africa, heatwaves are killing people in Europe and India, and lethal wildfires are raging with unheard-of ferocity in unexpected places. Every new year is breaking records for mean global surface temperature, and savage storms are taking heat and water from warmer oceans and slamming into unprepared coastlines. And all this follows with precision the expected path of a biosphere newly-loaded with greenhouse gases released by the actions of humanity.

It was recognised in 2016 that human impacts mean that we are now living in a transition to a new geological era, the Anthropocene, which will be clearly visible in future sedimentary deposits that are rich in plastics and poor in fossil species. The Anthropocene succeeds the gentler Holocene, which followed the end of the Ice Ages 11,700 years ago. Our cities and farming systems depend on Holocene conditions, so there is now real concern that humanity will die out during this transition, along with most other life forms. We have the sense that nature is serving us a very clear warning and that something major has to change, or else. And we’re also running out of time. The melting of the Arctic Summer sea ice, which for decades has been absorbing surplus solar heat trapped on Earth by an enhanced greenhouse effect, is a particularly worrying trend that seems to be heading for zero in about 2030. After that, all bets are off.

Local water, local heroes, 2020

But we should remember that there are thousands of brilliant efforts by small groups all over the world — an aquifer or catchment restored here, a neighbourhood preparing against disaster there — multiplying everywhere but invisible to big government. These grass-roots actions must be validated and supported, networked and replicated, until they condense into a new Zeitgeist in which we all suddenly realise that of course we must pay attention to ecology, of course we must protect the web of life, and ask ourselves why else would we have minds, spirits and communities?

And meanwhile, we should also remember:

  • that there are thousands of cities and hundreds of states and provinces that are getting on with ecologically-positive action regardless of what their national governments are doing;
  • that some small countries are declaring ‘peace with nature’ and halting or reversing deforestation, extinction, and greenhouse gas emissions, with Costa Rica, Nepal, Bhutan, New Zealand, Iceland, East Timor and Portugal all springing to mind;
  • that many corporations now see their assets as dangerously exposed to ecological risks, with their managers, shareholders and regulators struggling to forge new rules, often encouraged by potent divestment campaigns; and
  • that since 2018 the Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion movements have been putting enormous constructive, non-violent pressure on governments across the world, forcing a re-think of human priorities and laws in the face of impending ecological collapse.

The future, if we can but imagine it …

This is all great stuff, and because this re-thinking was starting when I wrote this book I began Chapter 10 with a visit to the year 2085: ‘The biosphere, having been saved…’ While it is easy to be discouraged if you look only at big governments and the big picture, hope is to be found hidden in the undergrowth where local actions, local heroes, and small countries are the green shoots that will one day replace the deadly old system. In the process, we’ll have to accept that the rules of ecology apply to everyone, always and everywhere, but that we have the intelligence, compassion, will and freedom needed to rebuild a world that is good for everyone — born and unborn, weak and strong, human and non-human.

Physics, astronomy, evolution, governance

There are other challenges for the imagination here. They include background themes, such as the astonishing physical chemistry of water itself (Chapter 1) and the presence of water on Earth and elsewhere in the solar system and beyond (Chapter 2). Also, the origins of the ‘tree of life’ (Chapter 2), and the influence of human adaptation to coastal environments, in which foraging in water helped to shape our minds and bodies (Chapter 3). And the EU’s Water Framework Directive (Chapter 9), which is now seen as part of a global drive towards green ‘experimentalist’ governance, where local heroes meet, teach and make friends with national and international institutions.

Ocean plastics and acidification, wildlife collapse, water shortage

Meanwhile, some topics in the book have been publicised and popularised to the point of common knowledge and general interest. They include the following.

  • Plastic in the oceans (Chapter 4) is choking, entangling and poisoning sea life, and is an inevitable consequence of making non-biodegradable materials for everyday use by everyone in an exploding population on a small planet. To solve it we will have to phase out the use of such plastics through effective regulation and/or taxation, while also cleaning up the debris.
  • Acidification of the oceans (Chapter 2) is eroding the web of aquatic life that sustains most of the biosphere and is an inevitable consequence of burning fossil fuels into carbon dioxide, which dissolves in water to make carbonic acid. The current rate looks set to make the oceans more acidic than they have been for 65 million years. To solve this, we will have to phase out the burning of fossil fuels through effective regulation and/or taxation, while also cleaning up the air by capturing the greenhouse gases that have already been released.
  • Collapse of wildlife numbers and diversity (Chapters 2, 4 and 9), by more than half since the 1970s, is an inevitable consequence of feeding and enriching humans by replacing most natural ecosystems with artificial ones and then spraying poisons over everything. To solve it we will have to deploy environmental education, community ecosystem ownership and benefit sharing, payment for ecosystem services, ecological restoration, organic farming and other effective arrangements in millions of locations, while also protecting natural ecosystems and wildlife populations through effective regulation, and systematically closing down and cleaning up all sources of agricultural, industrial and urban pollution.
  • Critical shortage of fresh water in urban areas (Chapters 6, 8 and 9) is an inevitable consequence of not paying attention to where water comes from, not managing catchments properly, and not charging users enough to pay for these things (while also, often, being an inevitable consequence of rising sea levels and drought induced by global heating). To solve it we will have to establish ecosystem protection, ecological service payments and restoration arrangements in upstream locations, while investing in public water systems that guarantee adequate water for all at affordable cost, solving the climate change problem if we can, and managing humanely the evacuation of unviable cities where we have to.

Learning to survive

Some of the changes that face us during the birth of the Anthropocene may well be manageable, but only if our adaptive skills can be informed by ecology and applied effectively. The key issue is whether we can adjust our ways of life to make it in our new global environment. Building an informed awareness of water, and the life it bears in every drop, has to be a key starting point.

© Julian Caldecott

Praise for Water: Life in Every Drop:

  • A brilliant overview of an enormous subject’ – Steven Poole, The Guardian.
  • ‘Should be read far, wide and as soon as possible . . . it does an excellent job of promoting a rational, effective, trans-ideological approach to environmental decision making’ – Miguel Mendonça, Resurgence.
  • Caldecott keeps a masterly hand on the reins of what is a vast topic . . . With laudable dexterity, [he] moves from the very small to the very large, from the interactions of atomic particles to the role water plays in the biosphere’ – The Ecologist.
  • ‘A prophetic read’ – Edward P. Echlin, ecological theologian and author of The Cosmic Circle.
  • ‘Includes a lucid presentation of the Aquatic Ape Theory . . . The book shows that we can avoid disaster if we come to our senses and give Gaia a helping hand’ – Elaine Morgan, evolutionary anthropologist and author of The Descent of Woman and The Scars of Evolution.
  • ‘What could be more important than water? This book looks at every aspect of water from its chemistry and mystery to its central role in the ecology of EVERY LIVING THING. And yet, it’s a riveting read, full of fascinating stories from an author who actually knows what he’s talking about. So many of these environmental books are written by journalists with no real grounding in the subject. But Julian Caldecott is an ecologist with decades of field experience which enrich this work. He’s been there, done it, seen it and best of all, has put into practice ways of solving local water crises of every hue. Give it to all your friends and relations  – they’ll love you for providing a good read and you’ll glow with the pleasure of sharing knowledge on the big issue of the coming decade.’ – ‘Smartyhands’ on Amazon.
  • ‘I’ve just finished reading Water by Julian Caldecott. There’s a long waiting list to read it after me, but it goes deeply into marine pollution, of course. One point he makes is that visitors (tourists) to the coast need to take care of the environment they’re visiting. Earlier in the book there’s a good summary of what a Biosphere is, which I sent to the members of our Grabouw Beautiful committee. Highly recommended!’ – Andy Selfe, Whale Coast Conservation (Cape Town).
  • Water by Julian Caldecott is a brilliant, beautifully written book which I found very informative and initially depressing, but it finished on a positive note with a clear message of hope.’ – Henrik Chart, Land, Sea & Islands Centre, Arisaig (Scotland).

The perfectible future

It is clean-up time. The year is 2085 and the biosphere is being saved. The ‘hot storms’ that began in the first quarter of the century built understanding that nature is supreme and merciless in responding to ecological damage, that humanity was violating absolute ecological rules, and that ecological science and spiritual insight could guide us to safety if we paid attention and worked together. A ‘salvage corps’ of young people was mobilised in the 2020s to protect and restore ecological and social harmony worldwide, through hard, intelligent, cooperative work in all environments. The Zeitgeist flipped in the 2030s, and country after country began a constitutional process to declare Peace with Nature, to place ecological law above human law, and to commit to slashing and reversing GHG emissions, protecting and restoring ecosystems, and harmonising society and ecology around true sustainability.

Once the causes of imbalance and extinction had been decisively rejected by a new wave of leaders, trust grew in nature, spirit and human ingenuity to restore the biosphere. The oceans had stored a lot of energy while in the greenhouse, and sea levels are still rising, rainfall patterns remain distorted, and wild storms still pound coastal areas. But there’s a sense of hope even so. Soft engineering, new building codes, and the relocation of populations has allowed for some adaptation, and most people are now reasonably safe. As locally accountable management of ecosystems became the norm, and communities learned from one another about what to require of their leaders, these ideas came to be expressed in a host of different ways, grafted onto a range of religions and philosophies of life. The practical results were incredibly diverse, and this was the whole point of local people seeking and gaining the power to make their own choices, putting their own ecological ethics into practice in their own way.

© Julian Caldecott

Getting ready for climate change

Climate change affects everything, everywhere, but differently wherever you are. It has an overall direction because (to simplify a bit) it has one underlying cause – the trapping of extra heat from the sun on earth by human pollution.  This makes for Spring getting earlier, warm-weather wildlife in colder places, high tides getting higher, and ice melting in the poles and mountains. But in any place, like your own neighbourhood, it’s much more unpredictable.  It’s about nasty surprises coming faster and faster: a flash-flood here, a mud-slide there, grinding drought, blasts of cold, searing heat, rising food prices, malaria cases, dying trees, raging fires, choking smoke … and that’s just on Tuesdays.  The point is that as the world changes, we can’t know exactly what will happen. But we do know that we can’t engineer or buy our way out of it, not for long.  Clearly we should have been trying harder to avoid the problem ever since the 1970s and 1980s, when we knew for sure that it was a problem.  But we didn’t, and it’s now too late, and we can blame our idiot leaders for that. So is there anything useful that we can actually do now?

When we know that we are going to be attacked, but we don’t know by what or when, all we can do is to make ourselves stronger.  This also applies to getting ready for climate change.  We live within, and utterly depend upon, ecological and social systems, and it is these that we must strengthen.  Ecological systems are all the soils, fields, woodlands, parks, streams, rivers, oceans, beaches and underground waters, along with all the living things in them whether cultivated or wild, that give us our food, water, safety and sense of belonging, wonder and joy in the living world.  Ecological systems are what break down in most of the nasty surprises that come with climate change – the flash-floods, land-slides, fires, storm-surges, droughts, food shortages and new diseases.  We have often weakened these systems due to lack of care, by building things in the wrong places, cutting down too many trees, growing the wrong crops, pumping up too much ground-water for irrigation, and polluting, draining or diverting waterways.  A lot of this is local and affects local ecosystems, so we can do something about it locally, mainly by paying attention to the ways of nature – studying and thinking about ecology, and acting accordingly by teaching others, planting things, understanding what’s going on, and campaigning against the things that other people do which threaten us.  Since everywhere is a local ecosystem, these are obvious ways to become stronger.

But we also live in social systems.  These are made up of all those friends, neighbours, acquaintances, employers, employees, shop-keepers, teachers, council workers and everyone else with whom we have anything to do in living our lives.  Some of these are local and many others are distant, and we can only do so much to affect the distant ones – this is where government and politics and economic policies come in, and we have little power over them.  We have some power, though, and we could vote, lobby, campaign, march and otherwise join together to promote a stronger large-scale social system.  This usually means calling for a fairer and more sustainable society, through green social democracy in our cities, regions, nations and continents. But this is hard work, and it is easy to get worn down when other people keep on voting for appalling politicians or stupid causes.  But local social systems are very much within our own range of action, and we can strengthen them against climate change.

So what does this mean? The answer is residents’ associations.  Lots of them, starting with where you live.  As an example of what I mean, in 2010 a residents’ association known as HERA was set up in my neighbourhood in Bath, a town in south-western England.  This was at the initiative of two individuals, Don and Thelma Grimes, but others soon saw the advantages.  These included added impact in lobbying the city council for improved services or to deal with issues like over-hanging branches, parking permits, or road gritting in icy weather.  It was soon became clear that the council took HERA much more seriously than it took individuals, especially once we had registered and appointed officers.  We hold an open meeting every few weeks and some kind of HERA event every six months, whether a street party, or a social in a local pub or garden, which give us all an opportunity to help in planning, and to contribute food, equipment or services.  These occasions are great fun.  We also exchanged email addresses and phone numbers to create a network of people who had an interest in spreading news, like warnings about burst water pipes and burglaries, or notices of fireworks parties, funerals, planning-permission appeals, or litter collections in local parks.

In the process, vulnerable individuals were identified and the group was made aware of who would need to be checked on in the event of power cuts or extreme weather, and some funds were pooled to allow road salt to be stored in the sheds of able-bodied members against severe winter conditions on the local hill.  We also did an inventory of all the skills and services available among HERA members (of which there are many!), and the findings circulated locally. Over a few years, with almost no investment, a neighbourhood has turned from a scattering of strangers into a group that is capable of discussing risks and opportunities, acting collectively to protect and advance its own interests, and sharing information about its own capabilities. Among the topics and activities that HERA has spontaneously discussed or acted on were setting up a memorial nature reserve (for Don), rehabilitating a local park so that it earned ‘Green Flag’ recognition from government, the issue of people replacing their front gardens on a local hill with parking spaces, because of its effects on water run-off and flash-flooding downhill, and – through its membership of a city-wide federation of residents’ associations – the problem of air pollution in the city as a whole.

The key point is that my neighbourhood before HERA was weak and vulnerable to whatever nasty surprises the world held in store.  With HERA it is quite a bit stronger, and could easily grow stronger still, in response to challenges that arise, whatever they are.  All it would take for HERA to become a local ‘climate change adaptation group’, for example, would be to agree some roles and do some training.  And exactly the same can be said about any group of people anywhere, whether they cling to the slopes of high mountains, the shores of wild seas, or the fringes of harsh deserts.  The implication is that strengthening millions of small groups across the world is an effective way to build humanity’s capacity to adapt to climate change, and that anyone can start doing it, just by talking to each other.  After that, the sky’s the limit in terms of the groups networking, sharing lessons, and building the strength that we all need as dangers multiply in a changing world.

© Julian Caldecott