We who care about the health of the planet, social justice and combatting poverty, live in a time of betrayal and rage. There is no need to rehearse yet again the manifest lunacy of Brexit, Trump and the rising tide of hyper-nationalism in India, but a few reminders wont hurt.
The US, via Trump, has walked away from the Paris accord, while its government scraps with Russia on mining in the Arctic. Violence against women remains an epidemic while a bunch of fundamentalist religionists try to control our reproductive systems, even calling us ‘hosts’ when pregnant. (Yes, the shades of Gilead are inescapable.) Britain plunges into unwonted self-destruction on the back of lies so huge they needed a big red bus to carry them, and its commentators continue to peddle contradictory fantasies and blame anyone but themselves. Meantime, oceans rise, swelling with our own poisonous detritus and the atmosphere approaches thermal runaway.
The savage pessimism of such times is alleviated by some optimistic signals: the American leaders signing their cities and states up to the principles of Paris; Macron and Trudeau’s elections and successes; Wales and Scotland supporting the reproductive rights of the women of Northern Ireland; the rescue of some of the girls of Chibok. Perhaps the most hopeful of all is the rise of indigenous peoples and self-organised communities, and of women – the growth of resistance.
A core feature of the rise of the authoritarian alt-right and some of the left-leaning opposition is an obsession with purity. The fixation on ethnicity and borders, the cult of the hero-leader (note that none of them are heroines), the requirement to toe the line. Many better analysts than me have noted these tendencies in American and UK politics: it is also true in the left attacks on Hillary Clinton, the personality cult of Corbyn, the criticisms of Macron’s labour proposals as if a better alternative had been available.
I am reminded of Ax Preston, the rock and roll hero of Gwyneth Jones quintet Bold as Love. He works to defend the heritage of the Enlightenment, the civil liberties fights of the 20th century, the poorest people mired in despair, and the English environment, from anarchy and rage. Much of the time he fails. His credo is that in protecting the good and working for the better, solutions will and must be, partial, compromised f**ked-up and temporary. Yet those solutions are necessary.
As environmentalists, advocates for the planet, we have different areas of action. Here in Sea Dragon making our #exxpeditionroundbritain, we are centrally concerned with plastic pollution, its pervasive and unmapped effects on our oceans and our bodies. As I write, other crew members are sieving the water trawled from Loch Ness and even here finding eye-visible scraps, in addition to the larger debris we’ve seen here.
Scientists and advocates elsewhere are working on air pollution, climate change, sea level rise, glacial melt, species extinction, deforestation – other parts of the jigsaw of impending change. Richard Heinberg, on postcarbon.org this week, reminds us we must think holistically and globally, even as we act within our local professions and geographies.
We must take our opportunities for the partial and the compromised. At the moment, we’ve been unable to source non-vinyl sources of window stickers for the Plastic Clever campaign run by the wonderful Meek Family. So we have to tolerate this horrible material with its disadvantages if we want cafes to promote their willingness to refill your metal water bottle for free. At the same time, we are challenging product designers to come up with better solutions for the long term.
One way of looking at this is to remember that we fight the battles best suited to our skills, location and histories. In the more privileged parts of the UK we might be supporting refugees, protecting newts, fighting for justice, working in hospitals, reporting the truth, bringing up children. All of them are necessary but very few of us can do them all.
Whether we talk about governments, businesses, researchers or our own private lives, we must find ways to tolerate the compromised and the partial. Maybe you cannot cycle to work every day, but if you made it once a fortnight, you’ve reduced your commuting emissions by a whacking 10%. That’s really worth having. Perhaps you can wait a day or so for your new order and use the mail, not a prime same-day delivery, thus reducing the congestion on your street. You can buy a reusable water bottle and fill it from the tap, and refuse a straw in your G&T. A little is better, much better, than nothing.
(The picture below, courtesy of Deborah Maw shows plastic nurdles picked up in our Firth of Forth trawl on our way in to Edinburgh. Nurdles are plastic pellets pre-formation into usable items.)
Footnote: this short essay was originally written as an update from an eXXpedition crew member and posted on their site as such. Some of their followers found it a bit rich so, as a Community Interest Company, eXXpedition decided to remove it. That is their choice. I stand by what I have said, and the importance of linking together the manifold different struggles concerning the health of the planet, our societies and our bodies.
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