Late August and the weather has changed; storms in from the sea blowing away the warm, sleepy air of mid-summer, freshness coming in with the rain. The strength of the gales, the intensity of the rain, the unpredictability of the heat-waves, unsettles me.
In the heart of lockdown back in June I had sleepless nights listening to the wind around the house, remembering the sea breaking over the harbour wall on mid-summer’s day in the same way it does in November. Sleepless because what is happening is exactly what has been predicted for years. It is what I have written in countless preambles to reports and articles ‘climate change is expected to increase the intensity and frequency of extreme weather events such as droughts and flooding while making such events more unpredictable.’
It is fine to say these things, fine to understand intellectually what is coming, but to begin to see it happening is different – to realise that I might have to watch the very fabric of the natural world I am part of tear itself apart. To understand what that will mean for millions of the poorest people in the world, what it will mean for the plants, birds and animals I have spent so much of my life studying, to imagine their suffering in the sound of the wind and the drum of monsoon rain on ground hardened by drought.
Back in June I, and many others, had had a hope – my hope was that as people were forced out into their local countryside by the lockdown they would come to understand and value it more strongly, that the experience of life without cars would change how they felt about walking and cycling. That they wouldn’t want to go back to how it was. The big thing on social media was that this was a point of change, the chance to re-set.
Two months later and the cars are back on the road, the lockdown walkers have left the paths and fields and woods behind them, the economy has re-booted. The only differences are that many who in March were financially stable are now in debt, and that the gap between rich and poor has widened again.
Despite all the photos of dolphins in the canals of Venice, of mountains visible from the once smog-ridden cities of India, of wildlife in the hearts of our towns, despite all the talk of a new start, we have, after all, just gone back to how it was before. Yes, the centre of Aberystwyth might be closed to traffic so that it can finally become a real communal space, yes, a few more people have made links to local food suppliers that they might retain. But even Covid has not shaken us awake.
On reflection, perhaps it never could have. We have homes and towns and infrastructure that lock-in car use and that are designed to suit a globalised economy. In this structure, which we have gathered around us like the logs of a funeral pyre, people in their everyday lives are forced back to their cars and into the supermarkets for cheap food, are forced to work at jobs that provide no value except profit for the owners.
Within this structure, the cost and effort and inconvenience of cycling and walking, of buying local and building supportive communities, of reducing our environmental footprints, are huge barriers. Many don’t have the financial means to overcome them, many who do run out of the energy to keep fighting.
Efforts to do things differently can only produce real change if they go beyond alterations to our intentions and behaviour. What we build and produce, where, how and from what we make it, must alter radically – from homes and infrastructure to the goods we use every day. Our vision must be focused on the human scale, on the walker or the cyclist, on community, on resilience to long-term change, on working with and for nature – for its sake and for our own sake. And how we organise ourselves to make such changes must empower the weakest and the most marginalised and share both the rewards and challenges of change equitably.
In contrast, the way forward according to our government, is to double-down, to buy more without changing the system, to build more homes in places without services, to build more roads – to do more and more of the same. And this is where the blame lies – with the elites who have led us down this path even though they know where it must lead. With people whose focus and drive is their own wealth and power, who have no empathy or care for human beings, never mind for the natural world.
For generations, the people at the top have directed and driven the ordinary woman and man to work away their lives perpetuating and building a system that is crushing them. They have learned to deflect the anger and frustration that builds up onto minorities and immigrants. They have learned how to dissipate it when their own role in various horrors is revealed, by promising everything and then quietly dropping every promise. Do you remember Grenfell?
The elites bear the blame, but the only way to alter things is to act ourselves – to find a way, bottom-up, to force the changes that we need. Those at the top will not make those changes for us. Yes, some of them – millionaires and billionaires – will dress themselves up as our saviours. But they do it only to manipulate us, to use their position to further weight the scales in their own favour, to stymie change, to turn us against the only power – learning, knowledge and understanding – that could threaten their rule if the ordinary woman and man embraced it.
The most powerful would like us to distrust science. They would like us to reject any education that goes beyond the minimum needed to get a job. They would like us to fight each other instead of them. They would like us to react instinctively to every stimulus they provide. They would like us to be consumed by the treadmill of survival and ‘getting on’, with poverty below us as a looming void. They would like our eyes down to the ground, not looking forwards or around us.
It is unfair to have to struggle against all of this for changes which their billions could bring about with ease, but if we don’t then the storms and the droughts, the gales and the floods, the disease and the food shortages, the inequality and the suffering, will grow until they overwhelm us. Change has to be more than virtual, transformation has to be more than a stream of personal epiphanies whose promises wilt almost as soon as they’ve been shared online. The terrors which face us are concrete and real, and our response to them must be too.