To Save First We Have To Spend

biodiversity, civilisation, climate, conservation, developing world, development, ecological economism, Ecology, environment, ethics, future, international development, land ownership, rainforest

“You can take the title to your house to the bank and borrow money. Why? Because the market puts value on a house. We need to see rainforest at that same value level,” he says. “Conservation has to be market-driven. The long-term benefits of a healthy forest are more valuable than the short-term profits from logging or mining.”

Dane Gobin, Iwokrama Forest Management, Guyana (Bloomberg, 2019)

For decades methods have been applied about how best to arrest the process of deforestation in the world’s tropical regions. Everyone from international development agencies to Hollywood greenies have gone all out, doing everything from berating, and even ostracizing governments in affected regions, to incentivising them with the promise of aid, legitimacy and investment if only they would quit the logging.

The argument to conserve biodiversity over the argument to develop economically has traditionally come down to a binary ethical one. Western voices have persistently pleaded on the basis that deforestation – whether it be for lumber, squatting, mining, or slash-and-burn farming of cash crops – is an immoral act that not only deprives countless millions of species of a roof over their heads, but also degrades the quality of soil, air and of the lives of every man, woman, and child in the wider world. The value, therefore, of each hardwood tree, each prowling jaguar, and each creeping vine is in and of itself incalculable – or at least with a value exceeding the sum parts of the commodities that loggers, farmers and miners seek when despoiling the rainforest in the first place. Western thinking goes thus: stay in your sprawling shanty towns; let nature be; allow only indigenes the right to dwell in biodiversity hotspots. But in a world of nearly 8 billion ambitious souls, most of whom live in what’s called the Global South where most of the real biodiversity lies broken against a backdrop of poverty, squalor and deep structural inequality, what then?

Making Borneo into one great National Park, or keeping the Amazon as a primordial world, is all well and fine, but does it really chime with our contemporary mood? Making nature exempt from commodification and monetary value was part of a conservation mindset popular during the heyday of the National Park system in the early to mid twentieth century (think the USA under Teddy Roosevelt). Let’s ring fence the beautiful places in perpetuity, which worked beautifully in wild places such as Yosemite. But today, given the mess we’re in what with a toxic blend of population pressure, degraded environment, and a model of capitalism espousing the greatest consumption for the greatest number to produce the greatest happiness, how durable is the view that wilderness should remain untouched? Isn’t it time to take other, more radical, measures to safeguard the last remaining wild places?

Look around and what becomes apparent is not that the old paradigm is changing. Moreover, it’s that it has to. Under the pressure of realpolitik, of shrinking public spaces, of expansive corporate reach, and of burgeoning populations hell bent on getting a slice of that consumer pie, closing off vast swathes of so-called virgin territory is creating a rift between governments and their people, and more importantly between the reality of the situation and the perception of how to solve it. If not, then how come the more that developing countries (as well as a few developed ones) have tightened their environmental laws over the past generation, the more incursions we see made by various players and the greater the overall dismantling of the biosphere within the primary forest? Within this paradox, political populists hostile to established models of conservation can stand on ceremony with the promise of making pots of money for everyone from what they see as their own – and not the planet’s – natural patrimony.

Seen by populist governments in heavily-populated developing countries as symptomatic of the Western tendency toward paternalism towards the regions these great powers used to rule, in some unpopular cases, such as Brazil and Indonesia, the world has seen in recent years a worrying acceleration in the acreage of virgin forest felled for lumber, cash crops, and the riches that lie beneath the forest floor. And what is the motive that belies this degradation we see in spite of decades of lobbying and campaigning for an end to wilful and unsanctioned deforestation? Why are things, in some sense, worse than anyone could have imagined even twenty years ago? Well, in the words of Ricardo Salles, the Brazilian Environment minister under Jair Bolsonaro’s polemic presidency, the reality goes a bit like this:

“We need to recognise that there are real subjects living in the Amazon,” Mr Salles said, referring to the 20m people living in the Amazon. “So we need to give a concrete response to them, and not simply saying that they cannot do anything in the area of the Amazon. That is not reasonable, it is not even feasible.” (Financial Times, 2019)

By promulgating the moral argument for making the Amazon one gigantic exclusion zone for the millions of restless, economically-challenged people living in its vast surrounds, it seems that no lasting progress can be made. The old model, backed by rich, industrialised countries, many of whom have already laid waste to their own primary forests, is turning out to be a dud. Their appeal to goodness based on the ethical presumption that ‘just because we did it to get rich, to develop our nation state, you shouldn’t necessarily follow’, is now clearly falling on deaf ears. Populism has fostered defiance among the developing states in the equatorial belt. The rising power of China as an ideological counterweight to the traditional Western hegemony is emboldening states, such as Brazil, to let ecocide reign so long as the conditions for human inequality persist. Alongside this, the vast improvements in global supply-chain logistics has smoothed the way for biodiversity loss to become one big concerted effort. Salles’ justification for this lawlessness rife on the fringes of the great Amazonian basin is clearly viewable in these terms. He elaborates the point:

‘That is why people go over to the illegal activities… because they don’t have a space to do something within the law.’

Are we hearing the makings of policy based on the precepts of what is known as ecological economics? This idea is not exactly hot off the press, but it is beginning to demand attention. With the UN’s Millennium Development Goals teetering on the brink, something has to give. And that, unfortunately, is policy attachment to the notion of deep ecology. As outlined previously in this article, building policy goals around a shared ethic that one can never put a price on nature, has proved a bridge too far, and this failure is seen in terms of unsustainable losses to tropical biodiversity in this century alone. Purists might baulk at the idea, but monetising a forest and all that’s in it might just be the one compelling way to make business, and all the rogues that dwell on its fringes, sit up and listen. Speak their language. It’s called cash. Easy to learn; tough to forget.

So, what does monetisation of nature mean in principle? According to Barbara Unmüßig of the Heinrich Boell Foundation, that conservation efforts can be bolstered and public sympathy heightened by revealing an economic contribution of nature and the services it can provide. This translates as tradable prices for ecosystem services. We can encapsulate these wider definitions into what I would term ‘natural capital/equity’. Measuring nature with economic indicators over a tradition of measuring nature, sui generis, against other ethical considerations still has a touch of the abstract to it. So, in short, ecological economism really boils down to saying, look, if you want this patch of forest you’ll have to show you truly value it by paying a high tariff for it. Ergo, those who would place such high stakes on their own economic future, and that of their corporate interests, would therefore place an enormous value on natural capital, to the extent that it would be safer in private hands (acting as a trust) than at the mercy of prohibitive legislation that invariably ends up breached by corrupt officials and short-term prospectors anyway.

If the past fifty years have amply shown that the world doesn’t quite agree on an absolute value placed on nature, it has always contrastingly shown that free market capitalism has been instrumental in placing absolute value on something so long as it can be considered commodity. No one quibbles with the price the market sets, after all. And this is where the problem lies: is it right to commodify nature? Does doing so lead to privatisation by other means? Where governments have failed, can the private sector, including the world’s investment bankers, step into the fray and actually flick the switch on ecological damage and destruction? In short, is it better to harvest a tropical hardwood than to fell it? For the tree, the answer is an unqualified yes. But for the guy who wants a quick hit of capital from the lumber, or he who desires the empty space left once the tree goes, what then? Even this radical idea (well, radical for our modern age) has its limitations. Without applying what Unmüßig terms the precautionary principle – the principle that the higher the risk to the natural environment, the greater the justification must be for a stakeholder to take such action – monetization of the natural world can all too easily slide into the kind of excessive commodification that drives Man to desire ownership and control over every tangible thing. We all know where that leads. And this instinct of tearing down only to build up, or to destroy in order to prosper, can only be moderated at the levels of governance and legislation. Which brings us back to the old ways of trying to combat ecocide.

Perhaps, there is a way, though. A new modus operandi where some ecosystems can thrive while we survive. And all in a more symbiotic, a more mutually-beneficial way. The Selva Maya is an area of tropical jungle spanning three countries: Mexico, Belize and Guatemala. A 150,000 sq km biodiversity hotspot containing no less than five species of big cat, La Selva Maya has recently been acquired at cost by conservation groups with money to put into something other than publicity and administration (Guardian, 22/04/21) Thanks to direct purchasing from the national government of Belize (i believe), this splodge of megadiverse, pristine forest finds itself now perpetually protected. Barring a constitutional catastrophe in Belize, nothing large-scale will ever again encroach on the fragile makeup of the forest. By any measure, what has happened here is a great thing for nature. And by extension, for the whole world. In purchasing the forest, conservation groups have clearly come out in the open, admitting that a monetary value – whatever it is – has been agreed with the previous custodians of the land. However, the arrangement seeks not to commodify what has been purchased, ironically, as a commodity. The contents of the forest will not be up for negotiation, or fair game for the highest bidder. No, that would miss the point.

The best analogy i can come up with for the money paid is that of a ransom. The right people now have the title deeds in their name, and presumably their business model is to leave the place the hell alone to simply be. If enough consortiums can come together to purchase small, affordable patches of rich biota, mainly rainforest, along the entire equator, then we might just begin to witness a joining of the dots until one day every last hectare that was bought by conservationists will start to outweigh the great green spaces on the map occupied by the industrialists, the agronomists, and the settlers, all content with one thing: to bleed nature for all she’s worth. By that point, capitalization of all natural ‘assets’ will be so valuable as to be out of the price league of every sinister corporation or corrupted government.

There is a faint whiff of Thatcherism in all this. In the early 1980s, with Britain exhausted and failing miserably, she encouraged affordable home ownership, and what transpired? Newly privately-owned homes across the kingdom didn’t get trashed; many actually ended up beautified where everyone become a vested stakeholder. The nature wars are reminiscent of her era. Whether humanity continues with the short-term strategy of raid and pillage until no booty is left, or the long-term one of benign ownership at a dollar price – monetising nature without commodifying her – we are, it seems, at a critical juncture. The race is on. It’s all to play for.

A Cri de Coeur From This Island Prison

Brexit, Britain, British Isles, civilisation, development, England, EU, europe, future, global polity, globalisation, Great Britain, Political Culture, Politics

Attention: All friends across Europe and the half of Britain dismayed by the madness of this government’s desire to impoverish all our lives in ways that go far beyond economics, I send you warm salutations and a heartfelt sorry. And to all those across our continent who – not already bored of this interminable farce – at this present moment must be shaking their heads in disbelief at the tragicomedy unfolding before their very eyes, I declare my undying apologies. I don’t know if sending out a message in a digital bottle will make any difference to the catastrophe we see emerging in this slo-mo act of national collective suicide. We’re suffocating out here on the perimeter under a cabinet of hands all of whom stroke their fat fingers against the trigger; a merry, posh-spoken band of English outlaws who press the barrel of their hostage gun not only against my temple but also against that of the millions of others on this island who want no part in this categorical error of proportions that will without doubt come to register in time on history’s seismograph. 1+1=3. Historical+Error=Brexit.

How can you begin to forgive us our trespasses? How can we begin to forgive ourselves for letting the country sink into this morass of festering sewage? How to undo this Gordian knot of tangled pride and stubbornness and delusion? How to eviscerate a political class of unenlightened, self-interested types who have for too long fed on the timidness and deference of a people whose claim to decency is undermined by the hostility and hubris implicit in a Brexit concept that has gone from bad to worse? Christ! They’re even talking of sending in the Royal Navy to apprehend French and Dutch fisherman who have, by common consent, for centuries fished these coastal waters? Even if such threats are hollow hyperbole, the mere mention of naval intervention – gunboats, can you believe? – is not just insulting to our European compatriots, it’s also downright dangerous. This debacle is now descending into collective madness, and all under the tutelage of a twit of a P.M. for whom this is all just a Bullingdon Club game of sophistry with tomfoolery thrown in – of who can win the debate while not essentially giving a shit about the debating point. In short, old Etonians are using the futures of sixty-seven million people here and countless millions on the continent as bystanders in their game of ‘who can sell a knuckle-headed notion like storming out of Europe, friendless, in a no-deal strop (aka Brexit)’ to a bunch of gullible fools’? If anyone can sell snake-oil to a populace that wasn’t even ill to begin with, Boris can. He’s an affable chap. He dreams of being Pliny the Elder when all around him Rome is being doused in petrol. He’s more chameleon than Pliny and he changes hue effortlessly to blend in wherever with whomever. To this ability he owes his success. Clever animals, chameleons. Trust in a chameleon to lead you out the forest and onto the hot sand. Yes, he’s a selfish oaf, but at least he’s our oaf. And he uses impressive words half the country cannot fathom the meaning of, which naturally gives him an even more elevated standing among lesser wordsmiths. He’s got gravitas while the rest of us have got gravy.

This was the referendum to end all referendums. Deeply flawed from the design stage, it was an in-out referendum. Winner takes all; loser either emigrates or slips benignly into stultifying acceptance. What an ingenious device of modern democracy to fill the public with lies, obfuscation and misinformation and expect them to take that rotten meat and cook it up into an informed decision. What should be a legally non-binding advisory upon which further rational decisions can be made by educated leaders of sound mind and limited ideology becomes an in-out ultimatum on a subject so beyond the ken of the vast majority that the only sensible thing to do is to delegate that complex question to those who would be pushed to even tell you how many states make up the EU far less what they’re called. The highest expression of populist idiocy and irresponsibility on the part of a defunct governing class is to give the plebeians the keys to the kingdom in the form of a referendum on a question most are not in an intellectual position to answer with anything more than base emotion. On monumental issues, a governing class do not serve democracy’s best interests by devolving responsibility onto impressionable souls. Where we stand near-broken now, those who served up Brexit on a plate to the hungry in the end served mainly themselves. Fact: on Referendum night what seems like decades ago, even though it was only four years, Google recorded a surge in UK-based searches on queries such as, what is the EU? How many countries form the EU? What are these countries? One can only presume such searches were frantically made en masse after votes had been cast in favour of getting out. Counter-intuitive (moronic?) as it seems, that’s what you do when you’ve no idea the whys and wherefores of your decision-making process: you ask the basic questions after you’ve magicked the answer from thin air with a swish of your wand. If only Sherlock Holmes had been around to show the country the true meaning of deductive reasoning. But he wasn’t and we now find ourselves sinking into irrelevance as a nation.

This tragedy, like all tragedies, has a basis, a beginning. The original sin was cast not by Johnson, but his old Eton pal, Dave ‘The Rave’ Cameron. This former P.M. now tainted forever by complacency in thinking that a people raised on a diet of right-wing tabloids would actually arrive at the same sage decision as your well-travelled self, David. Poor judgement mixed in with public school hubris. And you, Mr Cameron, would extend the courtesy of abrogating your decision-making powers to a populace so out of touch with the membership rules of a very important club that half don’t even know what it is they’re trying to get away from. And what can spending a year abroad in Germany tell you that the front page of the Sun or the Daily Mail cannot? Maybe it’s poetic justice that England leaves in disarray, as England never really had a clue what it was involved with to begin with. England, you were a punch-drunk boxer with heavily swollen eyes swaying in the ring corner while your trainers whispered sweet nothings in your ear. Those men hunched in your corner were reporters from The Sun, The Daily Star, The Mirror (pro-EU editors with anti-EU readership), The Telegraph, The Daily Mail, and the Daily Express. Their pantomime villain was the EU commission. Cue Boris Johnson, Brussels correspondent for the right-wing Telegraph: the spinner of tall tales from the engine room of continental power. No, England never really understood what Europe was about, though it undoubtedly will now that it has stormed off into the wilderness. What the sleaze-merchants at the tabloids didn’t tell you was that when you joined up to the European Economic Community you were heralded as the dirty man of Europe. You were near bankrupt, in hoc to the unions, and facing wave after wave of violent disintegration from Glasgow to Glamorgan. Twenty years later, you were helping to draft EU law. The country was cleaner. People were given workplace protections. Statutory holidays. Hitherto battered ecosystems started to recover. As Europe got greener and fairer, we followed wisely. Things started to work again. What was a stagnating, crumbling hulk of a former empire was now beginning to modernise as it moved inward to the centre of power and influence in a renovated, peaceful, and prosperous Europe. But that wasn’t good enough for the Brexit buccaneers and free-trade mercantilists in the Tory illuminati who thought they were being held back by EU processes and whose personal interests could be better served by, as they saw it, becoming unchained from EU transparency. And what better way to do it, than by telling lie after lie about the European Union, by stoking nationalism, and by protracting a sentimental obsession with the Second World War wherein the European Parliament of today were cast as the stereotypical figures of 1940: the French duplicitous, collaborating cowards; the Germans evil masterminds; the Italians pompous and ridiculous; the Greeks and Spanish lazy; the Slavs in the pocket of the Kremlin; the Scandinavians too bloody Scandinavian. The list goes on. If the aim was to convince a sceptical population stuck half way out into the ocean on their semi-detached raft called Britannia that the Germans won the war after all and with their French collaborators are now running the show under the guise of the Commission, the Parliament in Strasbourg, and the Court of Justice in Luxembourg, then Rees-Mogg, Gove, Johnson, et al did a sterling job. They bayed the mob and the mob swallowed it. Woe betide the mob. Nigel Farage doesn’t even feature because he’s an Estuary English-speaking nobody who will never assume the occult powers of a plum-in-the-mouth, true blue Brexiteer with a real $$$ stake in leaving. If anything, the vaudeville figure of Farage stands to lose from Brexit seeing that he no longer draws a MEP’s salary and cannot summon so much as an old man and his greyhound for his populist rallies.

What started out on the part of David Cameron as a concession to a tumescent Tory party to avoid a parliamentary civil war, turned into an offer to take a question lingering long on our pursed lips to the people. As soon as that platform went public, a campaign of disinformation could commence unhindered. What did the rump of England know anyway about affairs of state? Hell, most didn’t know where the European Court of Justice was, far less what its purpose was. All they knew and all they were happy to know was that these foreigners were presiding over our lives and that we, as Englishman, don’t take kindly to being told what we can and cannot do, unless of course our upper-classes (who are Norman French and Hanoverian German anyway) are the ones to do the dictating as they always have. No, we can’t really think for ourselves but better if that thinking is done for us by one of our own, albeit a rich, land-owning toff we never have dealings with, than by a Eurocrat talking a funny tongue. If most actually took the trouble to be better informed they would have realised that what is decided beyond these shores is a lot more impactful on our daily lives than we care to think. Example: who writes the software in your mobile phone that rewires your brain on a neural level? A foreigner. Who or what influences share/commodity prices? Who decides the value of your avocados? And which administration influences UK foreign policy? All emanate from abroad, Brexit or no Brexit. What’s more, if in your La-La Land of Milk & Honey you took all foreign influence away you’d end up another North Korea or Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. Worst still you’d end up with Tories governing your lives to suit their own greedy, acquisitive interests even more stridently than you do now where at least what comes down from Brussels, Strasbourg or Luxembourg has at least some mitigating effect on Tory misrule. As if all that wasn’t bad enough, Johnson is lofted to the pinnacle of party power not by popular election but by the 90,000 fawning members that make up the Conservative Party. Not content with winning those old fuddy-duddies over, with his unelected mandate he takes the reins on the government in a bloodless coup d’etat, giving him airtime to tell more whopping lies when he is not shirking public duties. With that he proceeds to scale the Red Wall – meaning he wins previously un-winnable seats in the North and Midlands. All in, the jester takes the whole court hostage. From a blasé ‘Easiest Free Trade Deal in History’ to a trite ‘Get Brexit Done’ bit of sloganeering we have degenerated from the promise of a frictionless agreement to the point of teetering on a cliff edge without having the balls to fall off. Predictably, even the language of state has gone from somewhat cordial to bellicose. When in doubt, call in the Royal Navy. Talk about making an enemy of yourself when there were never any grounds to. Not a single flimsy reason.

How has it come to this? What gives this rogue government and the destructive forces that put them there the right to tear my life away from a position of favour, unfettered travel, and an identity closely tied to progressive European politics to this sorry state of affairs? I was born Scottish and you made me British. I was born European and you took that away from me, too. Thanks England, for poisoning half a century of close relations and mutual benefits with the best club anyone could hope to be a member of in a world of clubs and powerful blocs.

Desculpes, désolé, mi dispiace, es tut mir leid. I’m sorry Europe, but these revolutionaries in London do not speak for me with their half-baked plans. My advice to you is to shine your bright light into our fading corner. Don’t give up on us before we give up on ourselves.

The Year is 2020, So Where is the Vision?

Britain, conservation, crisis, desert, developing world, development, earth, environment, ethics, EU, Fishing, forest, future, global polity, globalisation, history, human development, Libertarianism, Life, natural philosophy, natural world, nature, neglect, Ocean, People, Planet Earth, Political Culture, Politics, Poverty, revolution, Society, Socioeconomics, third world, thoughts, trees, Uncategorized

Humanity bumbling along, governing bodies staring longingly into their former selves à la Dorian Grey and his cloaked mirror, and so-called policies as ham-fisted as a fist full of, erm, ham. Yes, the list just rolls on and on in this the only year in history dedicated to a field of vision deemed as clear and perspicacious as you can get. Oh, the irony of it all! We might be languishing in the year of our landlord, 2020, but we as a race do not enjoy the accompanying 20/20 vision that makes a bleary-eyed rookie into a hawk-eyed fighter pilot.

Let’s start with the only thing that really matters, and no it’s not us. Dorian Grey’s older self would be disappointed to hear that admission. That thing I speak of is the world around us. Let’s face it, it’s the only world we’ll ever have and the only living one within about, let’s say for argument’s sake, ten light years, or 58 trillion 590 billion kilometres, if you’re claiming on mileage. Wilderness, as most of us are aware, is being co-opted for agronomy and industry to serve a human population that is beginning to resemble an infestation or worst still a bacterial culture gone rogue in a planet-sized petri dish. This is happening at a rate for which there is no excuse. We are eating ourselves out of house and home and the only ones not seeing that are those with their craw stuffed full of nature’s bounty, as well as unschooled ignoramuses, for which there are many even if the the doyens of political correctness admonish us for calling out all the provincial thinkers in our swelled ranks. We have known for much of my own lifetime about the concomitant risks in taming the wild places: what is lost cannot be recovered in a timeframe that humans understand. Every Tom, Dick and Harry, however hard of hearing, must know that extinction is forever. We’ve known the phrase slash and burn for decades and, encoded in it, all its barbaric implications. Even though the debate has taken on new and violent terms of reference, eco-vandalism is going on in spite of our knowledge of it and complicity in it. All the while it seems the more dire the prognostications, the more wanton our behaviour and the more debased our greed for the things that have kept the world hitherto in balance. I have lost track of the number of times I hear the term ‘sixth extinction’. Now if that were insufficient to jolt us into redefining the boundaries by which the human race exploits the natural world, i do not know therefore what is sufficient. The more the mainstream media reports on how we’re approaching a tipping point, a point of no return, the more the average family’s material needs appear to multiply. While global population ploughs upward to an 11-digit figure, our celebrity culture boasts of its procreative prowess by inviting the media to snapshot their opulent lives in rural Sussex with six children in tow. Why make the implicit link between many offspring and material success in the knowledge that this is a false correlation? I mean, throughout most of history large families have more often than not been synonymous with extreme poverty, and not opulence. A Prime Minister of Great Britain with six offspring (that we know of), chaired with the task of finding a common voice to bring down the human impact? Gimme a break. What kind of vision is that coming from the stuttering mouth of yet another high-flying free-market mercantilist libertarian who believes in the greatest markets for the greatest numbers?

While the correlation between modern industry and atmospheric-changing carbon emissions has been better made, we continue to miss the point. If you want to trace the problem back to its genesis, jump not onto the bandwagon of climate change. Look again, use that 20-20 vision and you’ll see that Attenborough has been whispering truth: it all comes back to global human population. It’s out of control and from it everything flows. Rampant human overpopulation is the taproot down which a pestilent tree of Man grows. Wild habitat is stolen to tend the needs of a burgeoning population (in Africa and Asia) who all aspire to live as postwar Americans have. Forest goes tree after tree, species after species. We know all this. We know that nothing hosts biodiversity better than a forest found 20 degrees either side of the equator. We know the secrets to finding cures for human ailments lies within their mind-blowing array of biota. We know that to have space to grow row after endless row of oil palm trees to produce better soap and all manner of packet food to feed ever-growing numbers of hungry mouths and to wash evermore grubby little faces, we first have to collapse an ecosystem perfectly evolved to provided a pyramidical shelter for every manner of creature, plant and fungus from here to kingdom come. We know that without canopy cover the thin, reedy soils of the tropics turn infertile, into dust under the blazing sun. So why do we, as a race, persist in laying the groundwork to seed our own miserable demise? Why clear-fell whole countries only to fatten cattle for their mass slaughter to give some Lazy Joe a nutrition-depleted, ready-made burger? Not content with turning the complex machinery of nature into a monocultural wasteland where even the public are forbidden to go, we’re even ramping up operations on livestock farms to expand the export market for meat into a China that’s seen the largest middle-class in history emerge within the past thirty years. Even their tastes are changing to embrace a completely cruel and unsustainable world. Bye bye Taoism. The only consolation we can draw is that 800 million Hindus refuse point blank to jump on the cattle train, not that Mother India is a shining beacon of environmental custodianship.

Living in 2020 without the corresponding vision is not totally unlike the proverbial overflowing bucket of liquified manure that spills out to all quarters. It’s not just the disappearance of tropical and sub-tropical forest, nor the disappearance of broadleaf temperate forest that we in Europe have mourned for a thousand years. It’s everything, everywhere. The human cancer has gone metastatic. Desert is growing everywhere between latitude 20 and 30 north and south, yet we turn a blind eye for most of us do not live in a desert, nor have so much as stepped in one. Grasslands have already been co-opted, but that’s old news now since Buffalo Bill Hickok shot six million bison on the Great Plains as a way of spitefully starving the Sioux. Ice is going, yet while we mourn its melting we overlook that if it were advancing – as it has dozens of times in the past two million years – we wouldn’t find it so brilliant white or cute. As for the oceans, well, not only have we gone from trawler to factory ship as if to underscore the intensification of the end for all who partake in the feast of misery, we continue to sully the waters around our coasts and then some more. We’ve created a floating mat of congealed plastics that swirl around in the North Pacific and is reckoned to be the size of big ol’ Texas. A remarkable feat of human ingenuity if you ask me. Only outdone by the crass stupidity of knowing that fish stocks (even the term ‘stocks’ implies monetary value and property for humans) are near exhausted, so how about we build trawlers the size of small passenger liners with hooked lines trailing off the stern, some long enough to reach the moon and back, which was in all fairness the last decent thing we ever did to get one over on nature. Scrape the seabed for a catch that justifies the distances the fleets (mainly Chinese) will go in order to bring home the ocean’s bacon. They know the damage wrought by this crude method, but do they care? They must know that hardwired into their rapacious business model is the reality that what they’re doing is finite and temporary and smacks of the kind of short-term strategic planning that is no planning at all. Rather, the dragnet of modern fishing fleets represents another instance of short-sightedness that can never equate to the far, crystal clear vision that 20-20 provides.

A discussion about the absence of vision in the year where the two words best eclipse, cannot be foreclosed without mention of political will and leadership. It does not require radical insight to see that leadership around the world is characterized by a near collapse in the manner of vision needed to see the living Earth through the 21st century without any more bodily desecration than is strictly needed to lead a low-impact life. Leaders are followers. Whom they follow is up for argument, but you can bet that the pursuit of profit and unenlightened self-interest lies right behind them. Britain and the U.S. are grotesque examples of nations who have known visionary leadership in their illustrious pasts and who have now descended into a near-existential breakdown because the current crop of leaders are singularly lacking in the kind of millennial vision that sees a hundred years ahead, and not the next hundred days, fearing the imminence of their own destruction, which is the lot of the modern politician. Where are the leaders that the world in crisis demands? Where are the new wave of articulate young voices? Where is the unity of purpose in it all? Of course, worshipping the making of capital and looking to those early 21st century capitalists as pedigree for the type of leadership our damaged world needs is going to end badly. The credo of unlimited economic growth built upon the conquest of nature (as espoused by Adam Smith back in 1776) is a dangerous one, setting a course for yet more planetary destruction by a species whose boots have gotten too big for their feet, whose eyes have grown too large and covetous for their sockets, but whose vision has dimmed. Contrary to the saucer-sized eyes they think is needed for a bigger, bolder vision, they’re missing the whole point: its smaller, less covetous eyes we need, but eyes that penetrate the darkness we currently find ourselves lost in.

(Nothing but) Flowers

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Does art imitate life, or life art?

In days of Covid-19, when the sight of Piccadilly Circus derelict at 3pm could easily be mistaken for 3am midsummer in Murmansk with the sun already up (or more’s the point, having never actually gone down, situated as it is above the Arctic Circle), you know the face of the planet is a strange and beautiful – if deeply troubled – place in need of accounting for. To do that, what better way than to trove through the annals of music to find lyrics that somehow chime with our topsy-turvy vision of Twenty-Twenty.  

How pop music anticipated the short upside of the long lockdown.

Two classic numbers spring to mind as expressions of a world both blighted by the giant bovver boot of human success, and lifted from the dark shadow of its crushing conquest. To know them, we first need to know their context (both allude strongly to making/unmaking the world in our own human image) plus the order in which they arrived on the scene. 

The first song imagines paradise lost to human development and is really an ironic take on how when somewhere magical is discovered by the few it is soon descended upon by the many until that magic melts away before the axe, the pick, the shovel and the steamroller. Let’s face up, before the current pandemic, paradise was being lost at a rate of knots. Virgin lands were being deflowered faster than their chastity could stand. But this trend had a precedent. This was all laid out with depressing familiarity in the imagery conjured up in Joni Mitchell’s 1970 masterpiece, Big Yellow Taxi. She saw the tide changing even back then. Joni must’ve read Rachel Carson’s 1962 groundbreaker, Silent Spring. She, among the enlightened few, flocked to Laurel Canyon, in the hills outside L.A., when it was relatively untouched. By 1970 her lyrics were prescient enough to foreshadow an era when the faraway magic tree was starting to get laden with nest builders. In short, when the visionary few woke up to us killing the goose that laid the golden egg. 

She sings,

Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
‘Til it’s gone
They paved paradise
Put up a parking lot.

This was 1970. By then California’s redwoods had taken about as much pummelling as they could without going extinct in their native habitat. Federal protection would soon ensue to safeguard the remaining 5% of coastal redwoods left in the wild. Things were by no means great, ecologically-speaking. But the world contained far fewer people than today, and far more biodiversity in still unchecked corners of the globe. Joni saw the writing on the wall. For her, it was going to be ugly, but not without the delicious tang of irony.

They took all the trees
Put them in a tree museum
And they charged all the people
A dollar and a half to see ’em.

The rapid human (& by extension commercial) development of Southern California, and in particular Laurel Canyon, was cause for concern, even then. It was in every sense yet another paradise in the process of being lost. You didn’t have to go back to Milton in the 1600’s to realise this. Nor even to the loss of Eden in the Old Testament. In fact, it was happening all around her and her hippie acolytes. So much so that she saw fit to pen the words to one of the great songs of popular music.

Hey, farmer, farmer
Put away the DDT now
Give me spots on my apples
But leave me the birds and the bees.

The birds needed their trees, but the trees were being shipped to the museum. And the bees needed the flowers to pollinate, but the flowers were sprayed with deadly insecticide. And so, the modern narrative was written. The context was nature’s loss for human gain, albeit temporary. The story of us was bittersweet. Our rampaging success came at a cost to everything that was hitherto worth living for. The garden of Eden was once again imperilled, and didn’t Joni express it every bit as well as a biblical prophet.

The second classic number from 1988, Talking Heads’ (Nothing but) Flowers, also laments loss – yes, those buckled blades of grass under the giant bovver boot of human progress that Joni decries – but this time in a different way. Human development for Joni amounted to stealing the pristine from under her nose as Laurel Canyon fills up with infrastructure that follows in the wake of other dream-seekers like herself. Where she accuses her fellow pioneers of stripping away at the fabric of pure nature in their onrush to exist in a state untouched by civilisation (in other words, by radical actions involving having to degrade nature so they could live it, which defeats the whole point of conservation), (Nothing But) Flowers laments the loss of what we brought to the world by changing it from natural to synthetic. The lyrics deliver a shot from the bows that, contrary to the selfish act of taking from nature to become more natural, mother nature (triggered by events untold in the Talking Heads song) has now reclaimed all things natural from her wayward child. His message is clear: we didn’t gain anything in losing our hold on the world. Roads without cars might well feel like a pleasant dream when cars on roads are all that is. But when all the cars are gone and the road is uprooted? Is that not just as lamentable as a world sans les animaux? Beware what you wish for is a sentiment that rattles through each verse.  

From the age of the dinosaurs
Cars have run on gasoline
Where, where have they gone?
Now, it’s nothing but flowers.

Whereas Joni’s brand new parking lot paved paradise, Talking Heads’ frontman David Byrne sings,

Once there were parking lots
Now it’s a peaceful oasis.

His parking lot has become overgrown in the absence of cars by the creeping dominion of natural regrowth. We have, in essence, gone full circle. However, this oasis is not all it is cracked up to be. Byrne soon tires of this state of nature, dreaming instead of,

 …cherry pies,
Candy bars, and chocolate chip cookies.  

One would be forgiven for thinking that where

…There was a factory
Now there are mountains and rivers…

can only be good. But no. Byrne proves to be no such primitivist. He wants his Dairy Queen, Honky Tonk and 7-Eleven back. Joni saw real estate supplanting the wild fields and trees, a town sprung up where once there were flowers. Byrne envisions the opposite.

This used to be real estate
Now it’s only fields and trees
Where, where is the town?
Now, it’s nothing but flowers.

Disabusing us of this idyllic state of post-civilisation, catching rattlesnakes for dinner is not a tempting prospect once civilisation has collapsed. In a nod to the 17th century English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, David Byrne sees savagery as the state of nature. Thus, sovereignty has to be restored lest we descend into the the very thing we’ve tried to get way from throughout our painful history. For Joni Mitchell, the romanticism is straight out of a Gaugin painting of Tahitian women. Noble savagery, all swished with colour. For David Byrne, this post-apocalyptic bloom might as well be algal. For Joni, the optimal state of existence is what you might term prelapsarian, that is to say, straight from the Garden of Eden before the flood. Humans are the harbingers of apocalypse for her. Everything they do to commodify their world ends up being worse than the purity of what it replaced.

As Byrne sings toward the end verses:

We used to microwave
Now we just eat nuts and berries.

Don’t leave me stranded here
I can’t get used to this lifestyle

Both these splendid tunes are musical museum pieces for good reason. You or I couldn’t sit down and write them in an afternoon. But in spite of their substantive differences, both numbers are really just two sides of the same coin. Both deal with before and after. Both lament loss. Both pivot around this idea of the aftermath of a profound transition felt by everyone. In this regard, one can thread them to the current state of lockdown being experienced around the world. As has become all too apparent that everyone is feeling a different vibe to the recent halting of practically all human activity in the face of a deadly virus, we may well ask: is it time for a prequel to these songs? This time, in lieu of loss, the unnamed songwriter can wax lyrical about how we unpaved paradise, took down a parking lot. Of how we took all the museums, put them in a massive tree. Or, this was going to be real estate, but it was decided the best buildings are trees. Or, please leave me stranded here, I could get used to this lockdown. 

Leave something for the birds and the bees. Leave something for us and those of us to come.