Soil: the world’s forgotten environmental problem – by Jenny Jones

Jenny Jones is passionate about soil. She has spent 35 years working in Higher Education teaching and researching soil science.  She is Chair of the Northern Soils Network of the British Society of Soil Science and is an Honorary Research Fellow in soil science at Liverpool John Moores University.

Blog: https://oldbirder.wordpress.com/


What have you eaten today? Cereal?  Sandwiches? Fries? Chocolate? What are you wearing?  Have you been out exploring your natural world locally?  If your answer to any of these is ‘yes’ or if you have discovered that some of your clothing is made from wool or linen or other natural fibres, then I would ask you to shout a loud ‘thank you’ to soil.  I am deadly serious. If everyone realised how much we need and rely on soil, I might not have had to write this blog.

Soil serves us in so many ways, but we have become so distant from it that we now fail to appreciate its value. So, what does soil do and why am I passionate about it? I shall outline some of the many ways in which soil serves us and highlight how we might be running the risk of losing this critical resource.  I hope this will encourage you to feel passionate about it as well.

When I was a child I was fascinated by those small, independent shops that acclaimed themselves as ‘purveyors of fine food’, their boast being emphasised by gold, copperplate writing on their frontage. Soil really should lay claim to being the global purveyor of fine food.  It is the purveyor of all food.  A combination of the correct balance of nutrients, a good texture, reliable water supply and healthy soil organisms enables populations across the globe to have food, fuel and fibre for themselves and their animals.  That is, provided that we manage our soils carefully.

Fast forward to the year 2050 and this capacity to produce food becomes even more critical than it is today. It is estimated that, by then, the global population will have reached 9.6 billion.  In the last 50 years the per capita amount of arable land has reduced from 0.45ha to 0.25ha.  This means that the challenge for the future is one of a greater number of mouths needing feeding from a smaller land base.  So, future increases in agricultural output will have to come from increased productivity of existing agricultural land.  This means that those using the land will need to understand the nature and resilience of their soils intimately and will be required to manage their land to maximise their productivity without compromising their capacity to support future generations.  This is no small ask.

Here in the UK in recent months we have seen alarming scenes of flooded houses, businesses, streets, and fields. We have shared in the distress of people affected directly by these disasters.  We may have contributed to arguments about who is to blame and how we might prevent such events happening in future.  There now seems to be a greater imperative given the predicted outcomes of climate change.  Soil has a key role to play here yet, once again, this function has been ignored too often.  Soil can make an excellent contribution to flood regulation, water purification and reducing soil contamination.

Following the 2014 floods of the Somerset Levels an action plan was produced. High up in that plan was the goal to increase soil infiltration.  Infiltration is the ability of a soil to take up water.  Increasing that ability means that soils can hold on to water for longer before releasing it more steadily as surface water to drain into streams and rivers.  Combine careful management of soil water-holding capacity with judicious tree planting (particularly in the uplands) and you have a recipe for sustainable flood management of catchments.  Thankfully, this approach is now being considered more seriously in other parts of the country affected by flooding.

If I was to ask you to do a word association exercise with the phrase ‘climate change’ I am guessing that your answers might include ‘greenhouse gases’, ‘carbon dioxide’, ‘melting glaciers’, ‘flooding’, ‘unseasonable weather’ to name just a few possibilities. I wonder how many would include ‘soil’ in their answers.  Yet, soil has a major role to play in the impact of climate change.  It can both contribute to it and be affected by it.  Soil is the largest terrestrial store of carbon.  It contains more carbon than is contained in the atmosphere and terrestrial vegetation combined.  That’s a lot of carbon!  At the global scale, soils are a major component of the planet’s carbon cycle and can influence the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere.  There is growing concern for the permafrost soils of Alaska, Canada and Siberia.  These are perennially frozen soils which are found under 25% of the northern hemisphere.  Warming due to climate change is causing these areas to melt with the result that micro-organisms begin to break down the organic matter in the soil and release greenhouse gases.  Dr Sarah Chadburn of the University of Exeter summarises this process:

“Permafrost soils contain vast amounts of carbon, nearly twice as much as is currently in the atmosphere. As the permafrost thaws in a warming climate, the soil decomposes and releases carbon to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide and methane. These are greenhouse gases, and they warm the Earth even more. This leads to more permafrost thawing, more carbon release, and so the cycle continues.”

Some of my friends think that my life as a soil scientist must entail handling earthworms a lot of the time. This causes them to recoil in horror.  Well, I do handle them occasionally, but I don’t mind.  They are amazing creatures and are a visible reminder that soil is an ecosystem in its own right.  One quarter of global biodiversity is in the soil, but this does not attract the attention it deserves.  It is estimated that a spoonful of soil contains as many soil organisms as there are people on earth.  That’s approximately 7 billion organisms at current values.  Yet, once again, soil is a victim of poor PR.  Firstly, we cannot see most of these creatures so it is very easy to ignore them.  Secondly, we equate many of them with the ‘ugh’ factor thus diminishing their value.  Worms, mites, spiders, bacteria do not have the cuddly ‘aah’ factor yet their value is inestimable.  Over a century ago Charles Darwin extolled the value of the earthworm with its capacity to move soil around and so redistribute plant nutrients.  Soil biota is essential not only to healthy functioning of soil, but also to our survival.  The life in soil drives life on Earth.  Soil biodiversity is a huge biological engine driving processes which are essential for human survival.  Consequently, it is essential that we monitor soil organisms to ensure that species do not become extinct.  They are critical to the sustained functioning of soil.

Those of you reading this may gain much from interacting with nature whether that’s by just going for a walk, or watching birds, or immersing yourself in a favourite woodland, marshland or dune system. Let us not forget that our ecosystems and habitats are as they are because of the soils that underpin them.  My local patch is an estuarine marshland which provides excellent habitats for birds, insects and plants.  The nature of my patch is driven by the soils.  The marsh soils comprise silts and clays which hold on to water.  So, plants that colonise it need to have the tools to cope with waterlogged conditions.  The resulting reeds, rushes, and grasses provide habitat and food for species such as Reed buntings, Reed and Sedge warblers, finches and waders.  Thus, the biodiversity of my patch reflects the properties of the soil.

Soil is a storyteller. The tales that soils tell are not of myth or fable; they are narratives of what has happened to them or around them, both past and present.  Soils are superb archives that, under the right conditions, can provide insight into past environments.  How often do we hear stories of metal detectorists unearthing some historical hoard?  We are beguiled by the sight of Anglo-Saxon jewellery or coins or similar artefacts.  Their persistence within the soil has been aided by the qualities of that soil.  Its acidity or alkalinity, its wetness, its texture and its chemistry have all acted to preserve the ancient artefacts.  Soil also enables us to explore the environment further back in time by preserving the pollen produced by plants and trees.  Seeing pollen that has been in soils or peats for thousands of years is an enriching experience.  Much of what we know about the development of vegetation systems in the UK owes its origins to the analysis of pollen in soils and peats from around the country.  Similarly, the soils of ancient woodlands represent another valuable archive.  Ancient woodlands are ecosystems that are considered to date from 1600AD.  This means that the soils underlying these woods have been relatively undisturbed for 400 years.  Study of these soils alongside similar, disturbed soils can give us valuable insight into the impact of human activity.

Soil has been described as the skin of the earth. It is an extremely fragile skin.  We must conserve it, yet across the globe we hear increasingly dramatic stories of loss of this vital resource.  Last year the United Nations reported that most of the world’s soils are only in fair, poor, or very poor condition. And their condition is getting worse in far more cases than it is improving. It is said that soil degradation is the most critical environmental threat to humans, yet how many realise this. It is estimated that globally we have enough topsoil left for only 60 years of food production.  We are losing soil, through erosion, at the rate of 25-40 billion tonnes per year across the globe which is a loss of approximate 30 football fields per minute.  Some believe that soil erosion is second only to population growth as the biggest environmental problem the world faces.  We are throwing away the family silver.  We are throwing away our existence.

Key threats to soil across the world include: loss of organic matter and erosion, soil sealing, overgrazing, climate change, contamination (particularly with toxic metals), salinisation, acidification, compaction, inundation and landslide. All of these can conspire to reduce the capacity of soils to provide food, fuel and fibre.  Compacted or sealed soils interfere with the movement of water through soils resulting in flooding.  They also diminish soil biodiversity. We are still discovering the potential impacts of climate change on soils.  Some of these problems can be resolved relatively easily and quickly; others require more protracted changes to land management to restore soils to their productive best.  We can no longer ignore these threats.

So, there we are. Soil serves us in many ways, but in ignoring its importance we are putting the human race at risk.  December 5th is celebrated as World Soils Day annually.  December 5th 2015 marked the end of the United Nations International Year of Soils.  It saw the publication of a key report on the Status of World’s Soil Resources which outlined the state of soils around the world.  Some of its contents are depressing, but there is a voice of optimism that further loss of the soil resource can be avoided with sustainable soil management.  The Secretary General of the U.N. Ban Ki-moon urged everyone

Let us promote sustainable soil management rooted in proper soil governance and soil investments. Together, we can promote the cause of soils, a truly solid ground for life.”

Next time you tuck into a sandwich, bag of chips or chocolate bar, please spare a thought for the soil resource that provided these goods. We cannot be soil blind any longer.  Let us not forget that soil degradation is the most critical environmental threat to humans.  SOS – Save Our Soils!

 

Greenpeace and Seal Hunting – Necessary evil, or just another NGO corruption story? – By Dawood Qureshi

Dawood is a 16 year old naturalist and conservationist who also delves into the world of wildlife photography and filmmaking. He has, over the years, obtained a great interest and passion for wildlife writing and hopes to use this interest to further convey his experiences in the natural world and wildlife to other people in the hopes that they may develop an interest in the natural world as well.
A member of the RSPB and a regular volunteer for the wildlife trusts, Dawood enjoys birding and hopes to have a career in wildlife and conservation when he is older and at the moment is applying to be a trainee bird ringer and next year a bee keeper.
His blog can be found at  https://heartofwild16.wordpress.com/

For as long as I can remember I have been an avid follower of Greenpeace. What they have achieved in terms of the protection of wildlife and natural habitats has been absolutely fantastic, and I find that the campaigns that they carry out to be very well organised and extremely well thought out, resulting generally in success (something I believe is very precious in the world of conservation).

So imagine the utter shock and disbelief I had when I received word of the atrocities that people claimed they had supposedly allowed to continue; the clubbing and unnecessary cruel deaths of many hundreds of seals, photographs that I could scarcely look at due to the distress they caused me. The campaign certainly seemed legitimate and in the best interests of wildlife and the environment (can be accessed here: http://fb.me/76xbPqlOW).

I was greatly saddened at the picture I was now drawing of Greenpeace as an organisation in my mind – a corrupted NGO (None Governmental Organisation) once on the frontline of the peace and prosperity of the natural world, but constricted by the cables of greed and money, rubbing shoulders with power hungry governments and losing the care that it once had for the environment for want of money and influence.

But was I wrong? A glimmer of hope shone from a chink in the armour of doubt I had wrought for myself. Had I missed something? Greenpeace had so far resisted the corruption that can sadly happen to other NGO’s and organisations like it, and over the years they have proved time and time again that they always put wildlife and the environment first and not been lured by the temptations of money and influence; a great and much admired by me example being the way that they tackled the exploitation of oil in the Arctic and Alaska, which in my opinion they had handled magnificently. Was this just another campaign to smear the good reputation of an organisation whose only desire was to do good? I mean, the RSPB had also been the victim of such a campaign called ‘You forgot the birds’, and this turned out to be utter drivel. I needed some answers, and there was one place were I could get them…Greenpeace themselves.

I wrote to Greenpeace, in my message outlining all of my questions and thoughts on what people claimed they were doing and just simply asking why this might be so. This was the message I sent them:


“Hello Greenpeace

 My name is Dawood Qureshi, I am a young 16 year old naturalist and conservationist. I have been an avid supporter of yours for many years now and I dearly believed that the planet had hope because of the amazing efforts of you as a large and properly organised organisation taking care of the environment for the simple fact that you wish to take care of the environment and nature. But recently I have been alerted to particular facts such as your supporting of seal hunting; now I know that for indigenous people this is a way of life and therefore to support themselves they must carry this out. But surely this is only excusable to them, I mean nobody else in the entire world has got a viable reason to do this, and especially not the fashion trade! I was extremely upset and saddened by what has occurred here. But I am not condemning you, because I believe that I have not heard the entire story, and I also believe that you must have some kind of reason behind your decision. I recently read this transcript that I found on Facebook and to say the least I was utterly shocked – http://fb.me/76xbPqlOW – please read this and please answer this one question I have: why? Why is this happening now? Can the organisation no longer cope or do you just no longer care? Perhaps it is all just getting too much?. That said I still believe in you as an organisation who cares for and protects the environment and I’m just confused. So please enlighten me and just explain your view on this and what is the future for you as an organisation. Because frankly you were doing such a fantastic job before and acted as a top notch role model to many environmentalists around the globe, so please don’t let them and me down and just tell me why.

 Thank you.

Dawood”


Greenpeace replied back with what I believed to be a rather short answer, but in it they addressed some of the points that had been made in my message and also provided some links to sites that expanded on their views, I personally thought the message was, albeit rather vague (although they have stated that I can get in touch with more questions), relevant and explained their approach. Here is what they wrote back:

“Hi Dawood , thanks for getting in touch.


Greenpeace is completely against the killing of seals by big businesses hunting for profit. We’ve fought for years against the commercial sealing industry in Canada and we’ll continue to oppose it.
But this industrial slaughter is a world away from the traditional practices of Indigenous Peoples, which go back thousands of years. Many Indigenous communities in the far north rely on seals for food, warmth and their own livelihoods. We believe that these traditions and their rights must be protected.
I hope this addresses your concerns, but if not please get back to us with any other questions you might have. If you want to learn more, here’s a blog to explain our stance better: http://www.greenpeace.org/denmark/da/nyheder/blog/where-does-greenpeace-stand-on-sealing/blog/55358/


But I was still rather confused; I mean, if it was all so simple, then others far more experienced than I was must have written to Greenpeace and received the same sort of answer; so why were they still angry. Had I not seen the entire picture? Had a piece of this elaborate puzzle just not been revealed to me?. Again I needed answers, so I wrote to someone who I personally believe to be one of the best (if not the best) wildlife campaigners and speakers of this day and age, in the hope that, with his years of experience with dealing with organisations such as these and speaking out against many an organisation for the benefit of wildlife, I might gain some insight. Here’s what I wrote to him:

Hello Dominic Dyer


I have previously read certain posts and articles that stated that Greenpeace was promoting the killing and hunting of seals, I was greatly upset by this claim as I have stood loyally by Greenpeace for many years and was extremely impressed by their efforts to halt the exploitation of the arctic for oil. In light of this I sent them a message explaining my stance and questions in order to greatly understand this turn of events, here is the message I sent them: 

 – Hello Greenpeace


My name is Dawood Qureshi, I am a young 16 year old naturalist and conservationist. I have been an avid supporter of yours for
many years now and I dearly believed that the planet had hope because of the amazing efforts of you as a large and properly organised organisation taking care of the environment for the simple fact that you wish to take care of the environment and nature. But recently I have been alerted to particular facts such as your supporting of seal hunting; now I know that for indigenous people this is a way of life and therefore to support themselves they must carry this out. But surely this is only excusable to them, I mean nobody else in the entire world has got a viable reason to do this, and especially not the fashion trade! I was extremely upset and saddened by what has occurred here. But I am not condemning you, because I believe that I have not heard the entire story, and I also believe that you must have some kind of reason behind your decision. I recently read this transcript that I found on Facebook and to say the least I was utterly shocked – http://fb.me/76xbPqlOW – please read this and please answer this one question I have: why? Why is this happening now? Can the organisation no longer cope or do you just no longer care? Perhaps it is all just getting too much?. That said I still believe in you as an organisation who cares for and protects the environment and I’m just confused. So please enlighten me and just explain your view on this and what is the future for you as an organisation. Because frankly you were doing such a fantastic job before and acted as a top notch role model to many environmentalists around the globe, so please don’t let them and me down and just tell me why.


Thank you.


Dawood –


As a result of this message they then wrote back with what I considered to be a rather short but adequate (to some extent) answer, here it is: 


– Hi Dawood , thanks for getting in touch.


Greenpeace is completely against the killing of seals by big businesses hunting for profit. We’ve fought for years against the commercial sealing industry in Canada and we’ll continue to oppose it.
But this industrial slaughter is a world away from the traditional practices of Indigenous Peoples, which go back thousands of years. Many Indigenous communities in the far north rely on seals for food, warmth and their own livelihoods. We believe that these traditions and their rights must be protected.
I hope this addresses your concerns, but if not please get back to us with any other questions you might have. If you want to learn more, here’s a blog to explain our stance better: http://www.greenpeace.org/denmark/da/nyheder/blog/where-does-greenpeace-stand-on-sealing/blog/55358/


After reading this I understood to some extent what and why they are doing what they are doing, but it seems that you are still unhappy about their stance, and I assume that, due to your campaigning for wildlife job and background, you must have received this kind of answer from them already; so in light of this I would really appreciate your opinion on their answer and what they are doing and why you think that they should be condemned for their practices. 


Thank you and all the best, 


Dawood”


Dominic Dyer was kind enough (as was Greenpeace) to provide me with an answer, which I thought to be short but to the point and made me understand to an extent what was going on, here’s what he wrote back:


“The problem with the Greenpeace position is that it fails to address the connection between seal hunting by local communities and the production of seal clothing by these communities for sale to wider markets for commercial gain. This is not about a small number of people eating seal meat and dressing in seal pelts to survive in the Arctic that’s no longer necessary for local communities in places like Greenland & Northern Canada. What this is an opening for those that argue that seals should be seen as a valuable commodity to be exploited & killed for commercial benefit despite the cruelty & wider environmental issues concerned. It has enraged many Greenpeace supporters and is seen as another compromise too far by a large environmental NGO, that was once on the front line of wildlife protection.”


A valuable argument has been made here, one that, due to this being my attempt at a mostly unbiased post, I will leave you to think about. But again I need to represent both sides of the argument, so again I wrote to Greenpeace with Dominic’s response and also more of my questions; here is the part that I wrote (I also sent Dominic’s response above as part of this) (note: this is a response to what Greenpeace wrote to me as their first response near the top of the page) :


“Hello Greenpeace 


Thank you for your answer, I understand now to an extent what you are doing and why, but I still don’t understand why in the link I sent you people are claiming that your Arctic director considers seal products to be sustainable for other people, surely they should only be available to the indigenous tribes?

I would also like to ask about the claims he has made that wearing deal products is ok and the fact that he blatantly wears seal products and brags about it? 

Many of the claims made in the link I sent are quite shocking and I am just asking if they are fabricated or true?
Thank you. 


Dawood”


Thus again Greenpeace answered cordially, and I have to say that their argument must also be taken into account as this is also valuable, here is what they wrote back:


“OK I would say that there has definitely been a lack of clarity surrounding what exactly he said. He was not indicating that anyone can take part in the commercialisation of seals, but rather that only indigenous people can, in defence of their right to self-actualise and retain their cultural identity. 


There are massive skews in the argument in the link you shared. I think that there are a few kernels of truth, but then things are exaggerated and massively so. For example, this idea that indigenous people’s hunt is some sort of publicity stunt. It’s not true, it is true that industry attempted to cosy up to indigenous people. 

What is more interesting is that they were roundly rebuffed once the unsustainability of what they were doing was clear. I’m afraid I can’t spend more time on this reponse. But get back to me with more questions, by all means”


So as you can see, both sides have made their case, and both seem to be reasonable and valuable arguments (although those who know me will know what side I lean towards!), but is this crime that Greenpeace is being accused of true? Are more and more massive organisations like this being sucked into the black hole of greed? Where has the beauty of standing out and being different gone? Are naturalists being lost?, running as part of the herd, blind to the danger until it is too late?. So many questions, and yet so little answers.

We end here on a quote from the man himself:

More people are becoming disillusioned with big NGO’s like WWF & Greenpeace the growth of social & digital media & access to smart phones is changing the face of wildlife protection. People will no longer just sign up to a direct debit & trust a big NGO to save the wildlife & planet for them. They are now forming campaign groups for marching campaigning lobbying etc & in many ways achieving more than the over sized NGOs with their corporate structures & risk averse policies aimed at keeping on the right side of governments & corporate sponsors. They are losing the confidence of the public & influence & will soon start losing income too”


– Dominic Dyer, Wildlife Protection Campaigner

But the question worth asking; is he right?.

Not saving the world at COP 21 – By Alex Scrivener

Alex Scrivener is the policy officer for Global Justice Now, which gave permission for this article to be republished.


Over the last few months, attempts have been made to present COP 21, the ‘landmark’ Paris climate summit to be held in December as an opportunity to ‘save the world’. The people behind these appeals appear to believe that if only we had a big enough petition or an impressive enough march, the political elite might be persuaded to use the Paris COP to take serious action on climate change.

This may sound harmless, if a bit naïve, but the rush to endow the Paris summit with such importance is not just a recipe for disappointment. This message, disproportionately voiced by big organisations based in the global north, also risks drowning out the voices that really need to be heard: those of the biggest victims of climate change who disproportionately live in the global south.

For many years, the UN process and the annual COP summits were a source of hope for campaigners in the global south. After all, the UN is on paper, far more democratic than the alternatives such as the World Bank where voting rights are heavily skewed in favour of a few rich industrialised countries. And the UN process did produce what is, to date, for all its serious flaws, the only legally binding climate change treaty we’ve got: the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.

But as the years since Kyoto have turned into decades, it’s become clear that the UN process has failed to deliver. Ultimately, Canada, Australia and Japan joined the USA in ignoring Kyoto and pursuing business as usual. The EU only succeeded in meeting emissions targets by effectively fiddling the numbers through using dodgy carbon trading schemes and the collapse of the industrial sector in East-Central Europe.

A defunct process

The UN process, far from being the democratic alternative, is becoming more like the hated World Bank, with powerful countries using underhand negotiating tactics and their vastly superior resources to railroad their agenda through. They are assisted in this by the ever stronger presence of corporate lobbyists, who have been remarkably successful in diverting attention away from their own unsustainable business practices and towards false solutions. The influence of the fossil fuel sector reached its apogee at the Warsaw COP in 2013, where the coal industry held a conference on the sidelines of the climate summit singing the praises of the completely fictitious ‘clean coal’. Poland’s environment minister was sacked half way through the summit because he was too slow to promote fracking in the country.

And it’s not only fossil fuel companies whose influence is growing. The financial sector has gained a stronger role in the disbursement of climate finance. The UK government, ever in thrall to the interests of the City, has been the leading force in pushing for the UN Green Climate Fund’s Private Sector Facility to channel more money through financial intermediaries and corporate fund managers. The agribusiness lobby is active in promoting schemes like the Global Alliance for Climate Smart Agriculture, which aims to present these companies’ unsustainable intensive industrial methods as some sort of solution to climate change.

This toxic combination of naïve hope, power politics and corporate lobbying means that while there is plenty of hype, every year very little happens at climate summits, as the big emitters succeed in kicking the can down the road.

Dangerous Delusions

So, let’s be clear. There is very little chance of a deal in Paris that will make a significant difference to the climate crisis. The talks will follow the same pattern we see every year: two weeks of deadlock and backroom talks excluding critical voices, followed by a last minute compromise deal that ‘saves’ the summit at the expense of actually taking any action. The need to sign a deal that includes hardline climate laggards like the US, Canada and Australia will mean an unambitious agreement that countries of the global south (with the partial exception of big emerging economies like India) will have almost no influence over. Those NGOs who whip their supporters into a frenzy (and take their donations) encourage their constituencies to believe they can put pressure on governments to come up with a deal. The same NGOS then feel compelled to pretend that the pressure has worked and progress has been made.

Paris is not going to save the world. And those who pretend that it will are deluded at best, and downright dangerous at worst. Dangerous because while we continue to waste time hoping for a miracle in Paris, the resulting inaction risks becoming a death sentence for a number of countries, especially small island nations like Kiribati which will disappear under rising sea levels. Other countries will see falling crop yields and rising drought, which promise to kill millions of people.

What’s the alternative?

So what’s the alternative? It’s a question with no easy answer. Merely retreating into a subcultural activist comfort zone and pretending that going on the occasional march is going to change things is not the way forward. Conversely, engaging with the process in the hope of avoiding the worst possible outcomes at the summit risks reinforcing the narrative of the two-weeks-to-save-the-world brigade. Ultimately, aspects of both of these approaches remain necessary, but they are not enough.

Part of the answer lies in reframing the debate as it’s currently perceived among the general public. Climate change is still widely seen as being about polar bears and the environment and it still has a reputation as being a middle class concern. To change this, there is a need for new ideas to solidify the idea that climate change is about global justice. There must be a greater willingness to listen to a range of voices from the global south.

And the Paris summit is a great opportunity to do this. It is one of the few times where activists from both global south and north will get together in sufficient numbers for this sort of cross-fertilisation of ideas. Of course, there are a large range of opinions within the climate movement in the global south, just as there are in the global north. But generally speaking among activists from the global south, there is a much clearer vision of climate justice as something that involves challenging power relations and addressing the economic underpinnings of the climate crisis. We could do with a lot more of that here, where environmental campaigning is all too often focussed on exhorting individuals to make ethical choices (usually to give stuff up), a message that doesn’t appeal to the poorer sections of society who after years of austerity have had quite enough of doing without things like heating. The narrative needs to be about systemic change and creating a world that is at once more equal, more ecologically sustainable and one in which the majority of people are better off than they are now.

Some of this more positive vision can be seen in the calls for green jobs and there are a lot of people who have been campaigning for global climate justice for years. But Paris is an opportunity for this alternative to gain more mainstream attention and acceptance. The radical, globally aware part of the climate change movement must win this battle of the story against some of the big players pushing the well-meaning but ultimately damaging narrative of false hope in Paris. There is hope to be had in Paris, but it lies outside the security fences and conference centres of Le Bourget.

Feeling Festive: An Environmentalist’s Approach to Christmas – By Ecology Liz

Personally I’m not a big fan of Christmas.  It’s stressful, expensive, and you are often given presents you don’t want.  As an environmentalist, I also view Christmas for its environmental impacts – it is one of the (if not THE) most wasteful and environmentally irresponsible times of year.

Sprouts: a very common Christmas food - but how many end up in the bin?

Sprouts: a very common Christmas food – but how many end up in the bin?

Extra food is wasted, when families overestimate the amount they need, or are simply lured in by festive packaging.  Gifts and cracker tat are often destined for the back of a cupboard or landfill.  Wrapping paper is excitedly ripped apart and thrown straight in the bin, along with all the cards and broken or unwanted decorations after Christmas.  All the new toys and gadgets we receive (even if we have a functional one already) require extra batteries and electricity, as do all the fairy lights that light up our homes and towns for months.

Our attempts (often met with failure) to have the “perfect Christmas” result in deforestation, extra waste in landfill, added air pollution plus many other impacts, as well as leaving us often out of pocket and with a guilty conscience.

For the last few years I’ve spent Christmas with family on the other side of the country.  Like with many (most?) families, little consideration is given to the environmental consequences of comfort and convenience.  However I still try to reduce the impacts as much as possible:

  • Although there is very little I want or need for Christmas, writing a list of it will hopefully reduce the number of unwanted gifts I receive. I’ve learnt from experience that “not wanting anything” or even “wanting nothing” do not go down well.
  • At home our tree is artificial, but is good quality and has lasted several years (and will probably last many more years to come). We don’t colour-theme our decorations so that we can use them all every year instead of needing to buy new ones.
  • Presents to immediate family are often given in homemade gift bags (made from a pair of old pyjama trousers), which can then be reused.
  • I try to save as much used wrapping paper as possible (I tend to open presents carefully anyway instead of ripping into them) so that it can be reused next year.
  • I save unwanted cracker tat that would otherwise be binned, so that it can be used for party prizes etc. (I help out with several kids clubs)
  • Unwanted gifts I’m given are either re-gifted to people with more use for them, or sold in car boot sales. This way they can hopefully get some use instead of just hanging around in my overfull cupboards.
  • I send e-cards I’ve made instead of real cards where possible. If I send these early enough, the people who receive them know that I don’t need a real card in return.
  • When the living room is empty, or empty but for me, I turn the tree lights off.
  • This year I am trying to give fewer presents, and only things that I think will be appreciated. Admittedly I often get pressurised into buying presents on an “it will do” basis through not knowing what people actually want. Maybe I could give everyone a box of re-usable gift bags…

Obviously, because I don’t live on my own, and am not organising the family Christmas, I can’t make all the changes I’d like to.  There are many better or alternative solutions to the problems found above – for example you could make your own Christmas crackers, and only put in gifts that you know the person will have a use for.  However as an individual these are good steps in the right direction – steps that we could all take.

How will you be making your Christmas more eco-friendly this year?