Universities play an important role in society and have the responsibility to inform citizens and policy makers. They are pillars of authority and must therefore be at the forefront in the fight against the climate, ecological and social crises humanity is facing today. Fighting against the climate crisis, however, also means fighting for decolonizing the curriculum, and the UvA is not doing a particularly good job at it…
Listen to this episode of ‘Uni unravelled’ with Professor Smart. An episode full of shocking information that will make you speechless.
In the diversity report, non-Western refers to at least one parent being born in a ‘non-Western’ country.
BIPOC = Black Indigenous People of Colour
Concept of the Coloniality of power – minute 0.40
Anibal Quijano. Coloniality of Power and Eurocentrism in Latin America. International Sociology, 15:215–232, 2000.
Global North countries emitting more than Global South countries while holding less population – minute 1.34
Cumulatively, Europe and North America, holding less than 15% of the world population (Population), have emitted 62% of all carbon emissions (CO2 and Greenhouse Gas Emissions)
University of Amsterdam . (2019, May 28). UvA Diversity Document.
Amount of professors with non-Western nationality at the UvA – minute 05.16
Been, W., Rivas, V. A., Eskens, S., Klap, A., Kropsu, V., Mahmoud, Z., Millenaar, F., Martin, N. R., Yusuuf, R., & van der Zwan, R. (n.d.). Monitor equity, diversity & inclusion 2020. University of Amsterdam, Amsterdam Law School .
While Climate Change is without a doubt underrepresented in respect of its severity, it is not non-existent in our popular culture. Countless documentaries, movies, and books, both fiction and non-fiction, have been created containing themes of a changing climate and its implications for our existence. However, when I think about the thematization of climate change or other environmental issues in music, it appears that there is an absence compared to those other mediums. This is somewhat surprising given the role music has played as a platform for highlighting social and political issues in the past. Famous examples are the anti-Vietnam War protest songs of the late 1960s or, more recently, music against police violence as part of the BLM movement. But what role can music play for raising awareness of environmental issues?
Environmentalism in Music
To raise awareness for an issue, it is best if the method of outreach reaches the most amount of people. Unfortunately, climate change is not a popular theme in mainstream pop music, the genre with the largest reach. In many respects the music industry presents itself as a large contributor to climate change, for example through the large carbon footprint of concert tours. Even when there is a drive to raise awareness through organizing large-scale musical events, there is a mismatch between what these events are promoting and their ecological impact. A famous example is the Live Earth concert from 2007, organized by Al Gore, which had a carbon footprint of more than 3000 times the average Britons yearly emissions and was widely criticized as being hypocritical.
It is difficult to measure what effect events like Live Earth or songs that deal with environmental issues have on the awareness of the listeners. Nonetheless, it can play an important role in reminding us of the existential threat that we are facing. And just how the threat of climate change is constantly surrounding us so should it be represented in the media we consume. Therefore, I would like to highlight some of my favourite examples of how music can successfully portray environmental issues.
A Subjective Environmental Music Primer
From Beethoven´s Pastoral Symphony to John Denver´s Take Me Home, Country Roads, nature has always been a popular theme in music. So, it would make sense that the destruction of said popular theme is also given significant attention by musicians.
One of the first famous songs that takes up the issue of nature falling victim to human expansion is Joni Mitchell´s 1970 folk song “Big Yellow Taxi”. To the tune of a strumming acoustic guitar and backing percussions, Mitchell laments the irreversible damage done to the environment when humans “paved paradise and put up a parking lot”. The song also nicely showcases how music takes up the prominent issues of the time when Mitchell sings about the use of pesticide DDT, the subject of Rachel Carson´s famous environmentalist book “Silent Spring” which was released a few years prior.
Only a year later, Marvin Gaye releases arguably the greatest album of all time in What´s Going On, the story of a war veteran who returns to his hometown just to find it unrecognizable. It is not only a masterpiece from a purely musical perspective but is also one of the first pieces of music that thematize ecological issues. The song “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” describes the environmental devastation he encounters, from polluted skies to oceans contaminated with oil. The song reaches its climax in its final lines when Gaye asks us “What about this overcrowded land? How much more abuse from man can she stand?”.
With climate change becoming more of a known issue towards the end of the 20th century, its appearance in music also increases. The Pixies’ 1989 piece “Monkey Gone to Heaven” has the alternative rock band singing about the big environmental crises of the time. From polluted oceans to global warming (“everything is gonna burn”), and, very much in tune with the year 1989, the CFC-caused stratospheric ozone depletion (“there´s a hole in the sky”).
Moving closer to the present, more music starts to display increased awareness of climate change as the defining challenge of our time. Included in this is the portrayal of climate anxiety and environmental grief that many are experiencing. On the opening track “A Lot´s Gonna Change” from her 2019 album Titanic Rising, Weyes Blood interweaves the anxiety of being confronted by the uncertainties of adult life with the uncertainties of whether there will be a life to live. Images of “falling trees” and “high tide” double as metaphors for the crumbling of both the safety of your life as you know it and the natural world. The album ends in an instrumental version of the opening song played on strings. The piece is named “Nearer to Thee”, after the final song that the string quartet supposedly played during the sinking of the Titanic.
The closest thing to a contemporary mainstream song that thematizes climate change is Childish Gambino´s “Feel Like Summer”. Released in 2018, the song disguises itself as a straightforward, calm summer tune. However, below the soulful exterior, the lyrics convey an urgent message. The artist proclaims “Every day gets hotter than the one before. Running out of water, it’s about to go down”, and expresses his hope that the world will turn the corner and change for the better. While cleverly disguised, the underlying message´s subtle delivery runs the risk of being overlooked by the listener.
An approach that is a lot less melancholic or subtle than that of other artists is presented by the Australian progressive rock band King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard. In addition to having the greatest band name of all time, they are also very outspoken about climate change. 2017´s “Greenhouse Heat Death” utilizes pressing, psychedelic guitars to accompany panic-inducing lyrics like “Greenhouse, we will fry”. The band takes it a step further with their 2019 thrash metal inspired album Infest the Rats’ Nest, a concept album that tells an apocalyptic story of ecological collapse on Earth which leads the superrich to escape to Mars. The song “Planet B” includes in its lyrics a slogan that is often also seen on banners at climate protests: “There is no Planet B” the lead singer screams over the machine gun-like drums.
The polar opposite of KG&LW´s version of environmentalist music is given in Kutiman´s 2019 ambient jazz album Antarctica. This project was commissioned by Greenpeace to bring awareness to the issue of the melting iceshelfs on the eponymous continent. “Caustic”, a piece running for more than nine minutes, contains beautiful key loops that, towards the end of the piece, slowly dissolve and vanish. A much more calm and abstract representation of the climate crisis, the album makes for a very introspective listening experience.
Soundtrack for the Climate Crisis
To conclude, I would like to play my small, insignificant part in promoting environmental awareness through music by sharing a Spotify playlist containing the songs I mentioned in this blogpost. These are some of my personal favourites, so the list is very much limited by my music knowledge and taste. The playlist is collaborative, so if you have any songs that you like which portray environmental issues in any way, I would be very happy if you add them to the playlist.
Although the urgency of the climate crisis becomes clearer day by day, climate action stays behind. This has sparked a conversation around solar geoengineering among scientists. First proposed by Dutch Nobel prize laureate Paul Crutzen in 2007, solar geoengineering comprises altering Earth’s albedo to reflect more incoming solar radiation. This could lower global temperatures and thereby partly offset climate change, but not without risks of its own. Since Crutzen’s paper, theoretical research on the controversial topic grew steadily but crucial real-world data remained missing. To get such data, a recent project attempted to start field experiments this year, but instead led to critical questions regarding the inclusivity of geoengineering research and governance.
Research on solar geoengineering so far has only been done through simulations and small-scale experiments in the laboratory. While these methods have provided lots of information, they do not give a full picture and carry high uncertainties. Real-world data is simply necessary for proper assessment. Importantly, the most commonly suggested methods of solar geoengineering are based on the use of aerosols. There remains lots of uncertainty around aerosols within models however, making field experiments even more crucial to properly understand the mechanisms involved. This is why Harvard scientists started a project called the Stratospheric Controlled Perturbation Experiment (SCoPEx).
SCoPEx has the purpose of retrieving real-world data to improve modelling of solar geoengineering through several experiments. It focuses on aerosol microphysics and atmospheric chemistry; specifically, it aims to study the interactions of particles with background stratospheric air, and solar and infrared radiation. The first experiment of SCoPEx would consist of launching a high-altitude balloon in order to test whether it could carry equipment necessary for injecting aerosols into the stratosphere. This experiment was planned to take place in Kiruna, Sweden, in collaboration with the state-owned Swedish Space Corporation (SSC) in June. However, after protest from environmentalists, scientists, and Swedish citizens, it was cancelled.
Although the first experiment would not inject any aerosols into the stratosphere, subsequent experiments would include particle release flights. Because of this, environmental groups collectively wrote to Per Bolund, the Swedish minister for environment and climate, in order to appeal to governmental intervention to SSC’s involvement with SCoPEx. They argued that geoengineering is incompatible with the precautionary principle and thereby inconsistent with Sweden’s climate policy framework. Moreover, they believe that solar geoengineering is a “a technology with the potential for extreme consequences, and stands out as dangerous, unpredictable, and unmanageable. There is no justification for testing and experimenting with technology that seems to be too dangerous to ever be used.” Their open letter eventually led to the cancellation of the first SCoPEx experiment
However, the potential dangers they elaborate on in their letter are not new discoveries ; they have been widely discussed in the scientific community before. Harvard professor Frank Keutsch himself, who leads SCoPEx, shares the concerns brought up by the environmentalist groups. Nevertheless, he believes that climate change is too big of a problem to not at least consider geoengineering. In order to make the best assessment of its potential risks and benefits, proper research is necessary and small-scale experiments are required for this. The risks of climate change might exceed the risks posed by solar geoengineering; however, this would be impossible to know without research. Because of this, Keutsch argues that “the risk of not doing research on this outweighs the risk of doing this research.”
However, another letter, written by the Saami Council, poses a more critical question. The Saami are an indigenous minority group spread out over Scandinavia, and have been systematically oppressed by the Swedish government throughout history. For example, their lands have been used to build train tracks and coal factories despite opposition from the community, killing reindeer on which many Saami depend. In their open letter to the SCoPEx advisory committee, the Saami Council argues against the general idea of solar geoengineering, similarly to the environmentalist groups. Their stronger point however, lies in their critique on the lack of inclusivity in the decision-making process of SCoPEx.
The Saami Council brings up the fact that SCoPEx did not apply for permits from the Swedish government, nor engaged in any discussion with the Swedish research community, civil society and Saami people in Kiruna, despite the obvious controversy around geoengineering. Neither is there any Swedish representation within SCoPEx itself. Moreover, the Council criticizes the homogeneity of the Advisory Committee of SCoPEx, as members are appointed through Harvard University and do not include people from affected groups. Furthermore, the committee consists almost exclusively of US citizens. Unfortunately, this resembles the wider debate around solar geoengineering, as most research on the topic comes from American and European institutions.
While policy-making regarding climate action is often dominated by Western countries, climate change will carry most consequences for the Global South. This would also go for geoengineering, meaning that the Global South actually has the most to gain and lose from decisions around climate change and geoengineering. Adding onto that, due to the easy applicability and relatively inexpensive nature of solar geoengineering, democratic governance is predicted to become an issue if ever applied, worrying experts in the Global South about Western dominance even further. However, these experts are also vigilant of opponents in the Global North attempting to paternalistically convince peers in the South to reject geoengineering. Instead, they argue that the Global South should lead in the research and discussion around geoengineering.
Interestingly, unlike their Global North peers, experts in the Global South have already set up programs to increase public engagement. One example is the Solar Radiation Management Governance Initiative (SRMGI). This international, NGO-driven project seeks to expand the discussion around solar geoengineering through providing outreach workshops to diverse groups in various countries, providing a more transparent and inclusive debate. Doing so, it has provided a successful framework for public engagement, which could be adopted by SCoPEx in order to reach out to Swedish citizens. Fortunately, the SCoPEx Advisory Committee has recently declared their commitment to public engagement with Swedish and Indigenous communities, as well as to diversifying their committee members. Hopefully, they look at the great work done by their peers in the Global South to both adopt their methods, as well as hire them.
Overall, while the cancellation of the SCoPEx experiment hampers research, it has provided a critical review of the lack of diversity within geoengineering research and governance. Hopefully, through this situation, the research community will become more inclusive of the marginalized people that will be most affected by geoengineering. Although experimental research is necessary to make a proper assessment of the risks and benefits of geoengineering, there needs to be careful and open deliberation around the issue. Geoengineering already promises to become a difficult governance issue if ever applied, so decision-making around it should be transparent and inclusive from the very beginning in order to set the norm for democratic policymaking in the future.
After a series of headlines from mass shootings are directly linked to ecofascist ideologies, Amadeo Vebjorn and I will be retracing the origins of the history of ecofascism, how it is expanding now as a result of environmental collapse, and touching upon its dangers. Below you can find our podcast, alongside the tweet that we make reference to. Let us know your thoughts, and particularly whether or not it was known to you.
I glued myself to the street to get that slogan across. It’s the third demand of Extinction Rebellion (XR) and it’s about deliberative democracy. I’ve been a big fan of the concept ever since I read David van Reybrouck’s Tegen Verkiezingen. In the pamflet, he summarizes how giving political decision power to randomly assembled groups of citizens might resolve a lot of the issues that our current political system is facing. The idea is that deliberation is better than representation because a citizens assembly wouldn’t have to worry about being re-elected and would be better at finding democratic solutions to complex problems, because it is citizens making the decisions, instead of citizens being asked for their reduced opinion (choosing a party) once every few years. XR demands that the government sets up a citizens assembly that decides about the climate and ecological crises.
I am a staunch supporter of the idea, but have always had some doubt whether it is really going to be the Holy Grail of climate action. Didn’t we all receive the furious flyers in our mailbox, protesting the handful of windmills that the municipality wants to build? And didn’t farmers cause ten times as much disruption than XR ever has, after they had to diminish their livestock to protect our nature from asphyxiation? Yes, in a citizens assembly, people’s interests are more directly represented and people will also feel more represented, but will that create the support base for the radical change we need?
I found an argument to substantiate my concerns in an interview with Derk Loorbach, professor of socio-economic transitions at Erasmus University. He sees citizens assemblies as a “very necessary, but by definition also limited solution, because you continue to operate within the idea of a rational decision and policy-making model: you consult in a limited circle about a complex social issue and then come up with solutions that […] have to be implemented by someone else.” According to Loorbach, we should also look for democracy in the work that people do for the public good: “Work for initiatives like public gardens, energy cooperatives and car sharing initiatives”.
The interview made me think of my uncle Paul, who is working on collective plans in his neighbourhood to switch from natural gas to renewable heating. For this blog, I travelled to Arnhem, in the east of the country, to talk to him about his experiences. What I learned: we need more than just a citizens assembly, we need direct democracy on all levels of society.
Paul Vlaar used to be a community worker. His job was formed in the post-war era, when the government wanted to renew the cities by demolishing and changing old neighbourhoods. Soon, it turned out that this invoked a lot of opposition from the people living in the designated areas, making the plans unachievable. As a response, the job of community worker was created. Paul and his colleagues were tasked to go into problematic neighbourhoods and mobilize and organize the inhabitants, so that they could negotiate their own plans with the government and the housing companies.
Paul describes his old job as ‘voice giving’: “People, especially in low income and low education areas, have the idea that their input doesn’t matter. That the government decides everything and that they have nothing to say. It paralyzes them and makes them dig in their heels: When the government wants to renovate housing, they’ll refuse to get out.” Community workers would go into these neighbourhoods, get to know the inhabitants and help them with organising themselves. In Paul’s experience, this helped resolve the impasses: “As soon as there is the possibility of a conversation between the parties, the relationships change and more becomes possible.”
After his retirement, Paul used his experience to join a group of people from his area, which was developing plans to create a local, sustainable heat network. The group was inspired by Denmark, where a substantial amount of the electricity supply comes from local cooperatives. In such a cooperative, civilians collectively own their local energy production and the profits of the initial investments go back to the community. Paul and his group were some of the first ones in The Netherlands planning on setting a similar cooperative for heat.
They made extensive plans, organized well-visited meet-ups and even found a landowner who was willing to rent them land for solar heat panels. But when the costs turned out to be higher than expected, the municipality one-sidedly pulled out the plug of the project: “First, they had been presenting our work as their merit, but when things got a bit more tough, they were too scared of political consequences to even discuss solutions with us.”
The group is now working on a hopeful alternative to the initial plan, but Paul has also started working on a parallel project. He realized that in less prosperous neighbourhoods than his, initiatives like theirs might not naturally start. He saw the national government making plans for the energy transition, but knew from experience that such top-down plans won’t be successful if the people involved aren’t included in the decision making from the start. That is why he has started to lobby to revive his old profession, in the context of the energy transition.
He told me that when you read the government evaluation of the gas free neighbourhood programme, you notice they struggle to reach civilians and that they try to fix that by hiring a communications agency. Paul knows this won’t work: “The problem is that you need mutual trust, and it takes a few years to get that. When I visit government officials, I tell them: “You think that you want the best for a neighbourhood, but those local residents don’t see you as an ally, they see you as an opponent.”’ It’s not a message which they like to hear.
To get things done, Paul told me, the government needs to establish real relationships with civilians and include them in the decision making from an early stage. To make the transition from gas attractive for everyone, we should combine it with renovation of social housing. And all that time, national politics should keep its back straight: “When policy is constantly drifting,I notice much more resistance on the street.”
On the train back from Arnhem, I concluded that local democracy is the key to a smooth transition to renewable energy. We need to extend the idea of deliberative democracy to all scales of society, with a focus on the local. The government should be a facilitating one to its civilians, not a ruling one. “Top-down and bottom-up have to meet somewhere in the middle”, Paul told me.
But our problems, of course, don’t end when our houses no longer run on gas. We need to stop overconsumption, pollution, deforestation, growing inequality, and, while we’re at it, perhaps also the century long exploitation of the Global South. I believe that local, deliberative democracy is an essential first step to solve those problems. Whereas politicians are stuck in a field of forces which doesn’t allow them to take the necessary action, informed civilians would not be restricted to come to the right conclusions. (And here’s a crazy idea: maybe we could resolve the problem of companies being a slave to the market and their shareholders, by seizing the means of production and making companies democratic cooperatives.)
The idea of ‘a participation society’ has been talked about before in Dutch politics, but it should not be a hoax for a neoliberal agenda. We need to create a culture where government officials trust it’s civilians and vice versa. Where residents are locally engaged and where neighbourhoods have self-determination. This doesn’t mean that we should all be in hundreds of local committees. As a community worker, Paul used to work with a dozen residents consistently, but they would talk to the rest of the community to hear about their wishes and concerns. A culture of local direct democracy is about feeling represented and empowered, about all people being taken seriously.
I think that the ruling class, which prides itself on being democratic, actually has a fear of the opinions of the lower classes. The fight to change this might be the most important struggle of the 21st century. And the nice thing is that it doesn’t have to start with revolution. We are being educated to be a part of this ruling class, and we can start changing this culture in our institutions. We can make our schools, companies and clubs more democratic. This change in culture is the necessary first step towards the climate justice which we so desperately need.
Climate change has been relegated to the category of old news. Yes, we know it. We can no longer eat or fly, and the greatest sin we can commit as consumers is to bring yet another generation of over-consuming kids into the world. After three years of climate studies, I am beginning to wonder if there is even a single way out of this doom scenario. So let us look for something positive today; who will save us from Armageddon coming in the form of climate change? Already you hear many calls like the one from Sylvia Earle, in the Netflix documentary Seaspiracy, who points out that there is no panacea otherwise:
“no one can do everything, but everyone can do something and sometimes big ideas can make big differences.”
However, is it fair to put the burden of answering an issue of this magnitude on the individual? No, I certainly do not think so and yet many stakeholders make it sound that way. British Petroleum once invented your carbon footprint. This shows you that if everyone lives the way you do, we will never be able to keep the world going sustainably. So we are the problem, that might be true, but we individuals cannot solve it. So if the individual is not the solution, what is left for us?
Let us go through them. First of all, there is the sum total of the individuals addressed by Sylvia Earle, or the masses. A characteristic of this group is that we are slow to respond to change, even when the urgency is evident. We believe that there are surely others who will solve our problem. And if we react at all, it is often on the basis of the adage, too little, too late. After all, the masses are nothing more than the sum of all those individuals who, rather than saving the future for the next generation, are trying to make the best of today and who consider making it to the end of the month an achievement in itself. In itself, not a bad thought when you consider that economics as a science has always tried to convince us that taking care of yourself in the most optimal way leads to the most beneficial situation for the greater good. Unfortunately, this line of thinking does not work with problems that fall prey to the concept of the tragedy of the commons. In short, the masses only react when they actually see that stopping climate change is better for them. And that will only come about when we experience the direct consequences, meaning that it will always be too late.
Then we turn our gaze to the government and pretend for a moment that it is not us. Yes, the urgency is now felt very strongly and sometimes even imperatively, and some politicians have started to make the appropriate and desirable noise. Especially when individual citizens take up the gauntlet and force the same government through a lawsuit to hold them responsible for more measurements they agreed to take in order to create a small chance that the Paris climate objectives will be achieved. But real changes? Why should they, apart from some small activist groups, the population only demands limited change. And it is the silent majority of the population that holds the key to the next re-election for the politicians, for the aspired ticket to power. It is only logical that politicians appease the voters with half-measures that affect our wallets, preferably as little as possible. After all, you only have to promise that you will immediately abolish all coronation measures in our little country, and you will be rewarded with no less than eight seats in parliament. A more extensive election programme is not even necessary, let alone measures to save the climate. The result is that we end up with a government that is trying to save both the coal and the goat. Emissions regulations are slow to be adapted, and if they are implemented at all, it is often in a diluted to a form where it does more harm than good.
Okay, so the government does not seem to be an option either, at least not without first rallying the masses, and we just discussed that that might go too slow if at all. The latest trend in many opinion pieces is the appeals in which the arrows of hope are directed at the corporations. And especially the large, internationally operating corporates. The directors of these companies are urged to take responsibility and step away from the never-ending pursuit of shareholder value, once introduced by Milton Friedman. They must act in together and work towards a new world in which the interests of society, a sustainable and cyclical economy take centre stage and simulatinously taking responsibility for all harm done in the history of the company. Believe it or not, it also seems as if the corporates are actually responding to this call. Never before have so many annual reports been provided with a separate section on the sustainability policy pursued, and even separate sustainability annual reports see the light of day on a large scale. If you then zoom in on all this verbal violence, it turns out that it is mainly about window dressing, not deeds but words, so to speak. Sustainability labels are used all over the place, and their main purpose is to give a ‘feel good’ feeling to an ignorant and naive consumer who, in turn, wants to be disturbed as little as possible in his consumption pattern. Deeply radical transitions are still being held back by corporates, with outdated argument about the necessary value creation for shareholders still being put forward time and time again. And the few chairmen of the board who actually promise and strive for change are slaughtered by the shareholders in no time. Because making delicious desserts in an ecologically responsible way is fine, but our wallet comes first. Because if we do not do it, the competition will anyway.
Has that exhausted our portfolio of lifesavers? I do not think so. There might be a positive side of our capitalist economic system that we not yet have explored. A side in which wealth accumulates and accumulates in a very small group of the super-rich, a group of super-rich that may have exactly the qualities needed to act directly and impactful! They can act swiftly as individuals without mobilising collectives, are not accountable to voters, do not need to circumvent regulations with corresponding interest groups, have almost infinite resources at their disposal and have absolutely no problems with intervening shareholders. In short, the ideal knights in shining armour. Fortunately for us, we are seeing the emergence of a small group within these super-rich who have now also embraced the need to change course in an attempt to mitigate the effects of climate change, hopefully they can be the quick change we need. This of course means that we will conveniently forget about the ethical dilemmas that arise from the fact that they have donned this shining armour by initially behaving like the classic and oh so successful highwayman of our time. After all, someone has to save our planet! The lesser of two evils, so to speak. But are we sure it is the lesser evil? Do we really want to put our future in the hands of so few individuals, won’t that make them even more powerful, even less controllable! Questions to which I do not know the answers.
So what positive message could we find in this blog? I would think that we are not yet without a chance, and that is quite something! Unfortunately, as ordinary citizens, we can contribute very little to the solution of the big giant, so we are left with little choice but to listen to the wise voice of Sylvia Earle, who continues her appeal with:
“That is what you can do right now. Look in the mirror, figure it out and go for it”.
And with this quote, I wish you all good luck with saving your piece of the world.
I want to make it clear, I am not speaking on behalf of the Turkana, Samburu, Rendille, or any other tribe. I am also aware that there are tensions between these groups and it would is misrepresentative to imply that all these groups share the same interests. I respect each group, their differences, traditions, cultures, and respective histories. I will do my best to include what tribe corresponds with which area and the individual problems posed by these projects.
Around the 1920s, what is now Kenya became a colony of the British empire. When they arrived in Northern Kenya, a arid semi-arid environment, they decided that there would be no economic benefits to investing in the area. So Northern Kenya was identified as the Northern Frontier District (NFD) and the local communities were left alone given they stayed within the grazing area allocated to them and paid their taxes. So, Northern Kenya remained relatively traditional. In fact, as a Kenyan all I have ever known about Northern Kenya was that it was dangerous because it shares the border with Somalia, that the Nilotic tribes there were largely pastoralists, and Lake Turkana was considered the ‘cradle of life’. Ironically, the image of the Samburu and the ‘cradle of life’ have long been associated with Kenya internationally but within Kenya the area has remained marginalised. The area remained excluded from ‘development’ due to the lack of interest from the government of Kenya (GoK), sparse investment in the area, associations with Somalia and threats posed by that, tribal conflicts, reputation as the ‘badlands’, and a lack of modernity in the area i.e. roads. In 2009, the president Uhuru Kenyatta was quoted saying: “The NFD was just an empty space on the map.” That is until a Dutch man had his tent blown away while camping near by the lake and realised the potential of the northern winds.
Lake Turkana Wind Project (LTWP)
The Lake Turkana Wind Project began in 2006 and was completed in 2017.
The Lake Turkana Project is the second largest investment project to ever take place in Kenya. It is also the largest scale wind farm on the African continent. Kenya is mainly powered by renewable energy sources. So it follows that the largest development project would be renewable energy. Moreover, the wind farm is a part of Vision 2030. A plan by the Kenyan government to make Kenya a middle-income country by the year 2030. A part of this process includes increasing access to electricity.
It covers 150,000 acres in the Lake Turkana area. The project aims to provide up to 18% of Kenyas electricity and play a large role in the expansion of access to electricity all over the country. The issue that has arisen with this project is that given the extensive cost to, and land taken from, the community there has been significant socio-economic costs incurred with the project. The most severe being to the Sarima village mainly inhabited by the Samburu and Rendille people.
Land in many parts of Africa is associated with wealth. It is culturally, spiritually, historically, and traditionally linked to the people of Kenya. This value placed on land by the community clashes with that of the consortium for the LTWP. Whereas, the LTWP has assigned economic value to the land, for the locals the value of land is holds more depth. It is about the resources that the land provides and the intrisnic value that it holds for the people that inhabit it.
The LTWP is largely a foreign project. The investors are mainly large European companies. Thus, there are different perspectives on land value to the different land owners or overseers. The GoK gave a 99 year (33 years renewable 2 times) lease to the LTWP and the wind farm was built on land that used to house the Sarima village. What complicates matters further is that majority of that land is a buffer zone around the wind project essentially empty land.
Centralisation of power over land in the President has resulted in politicisation of the process of accessing as well as owning land. By making sound proposals for reforming land management and outlining viable legal, institutional, and policy strategies Kenya can adopt land policies that would protect its residents.
One of the main contestations to the wind farm project is the forced relocation of the Sarima Village. The locals formed a group to protest this ‘colonial takeover’ of their land and to draw attention to the other impacts of this project on local communities.
Sarima Indigenous Peoples Land Forum (SIPLF)
It has been observed that international companies have taken advantage of weak legislation regarding communal lands. Prior to the lease, this land was ‘trust land’ held in a trust by local authorities. The approval of lease meant that LTWP could privatise their land meaning that they were not bound to compensating the people that had been dislocated by the LTWP. The local community did attempt to fight back taking a case to the nearest high court in Meru province, citing that the sale of the land and resettlement of the Sarima people was unlawful.
“This land is owned by indigenous pastoralists….as ancestral grazing land and cultural heritage site since 1920. In 2008, 150,000 acres of our community land was privatised and leased to LTWP for a period of 33 years. This was done without our knowledge and with no compensation in total disregard to the Kenyan Constitution and other laws.”
The locals also have found issue with their exclusion from the development project. These new processes involving territorial interests have been brought unforeseen complexities to the Lake Turkana area. For one, it has led to clashes between tribes over forced integration due to displacement. This has also exasperated tensions between tribes regarding hiring practices with some tribes feeling that one tribe was getting more jobs than other. Secondly, it has resulted in the influx of people from other areas of Kenya seeking work. This has led to a spike in criminal activity, prostitution, and an increase in HIV/AIDs. Lastly, despite promises to provide jobs to locals, the LTWP called for specialists and skilled workers both of which could not be found within the Lake Turkana region. This is all in the name of renewable energy development.
Another issue that was found is that when discussing the project is that there was a tendency to frame Turkana as ‘uninhabited’ or ‘uninhabitable’ by investors and surveyors. Even going so far as to compare the landscape to the moon. A complete erasure of the people living in the area. The information given to locals has been sparse. They have not experienced the promised or expected benefits brought from the project. What is worse is that it is framed as a positive change for Kenya. Meanwhile, the people that have been impacted by the project the most do not get most, if any, of these benefits. The power generated from the wind farm is transmitted to another part of Kenya. It does not do a anything for the area but take up space and provide limited jobs earning minimum pay. This framing of the project as positive and taking place in an uninhabited area has led to the disenfranchisement of an already marginalised group.
Unfortunately, in 2012 oil was discovered in Lake Turkana area. Ethiopia has also erected a dam that interrupts the river Omo, the main subsidiary of Lake Turkana. This area is facing a lot of external threats to their wellbeing and livelihoods. Majority of the people in Lake Turkana area are dependent on agriculture for their sustenance. These developments are threatening their well-being by encroaching on their land and attracting people to the area. Even though the projects have positive implications for the nation as a whole, all peoples and tribes should be protected. In order to avoid the same happening to other marginalised groups of Kenya, it would benefit the country to implement better land policy for communal and protective measures for marginalised groups.
Avery, Sean. (n.d.) What is the Future for Lake Turkana. African Studies Centre University of Oxford www.folt.com
Cormack, Z. & Kurewa, Abdikadir (2016). The changing value of land in northern Kenya: The case of Lake Turkana Wind Power. Accessed: May 21st 2021.
Mokveld, K. & Eljie, S. (2019) Final Energy Report for Kenya. The Netherlands Entreprise Agency.
Locham, R. Schilling, J. & Scheffran, J. (2018). A local to global perspective on oil and wind exploitation, resource governance and conflict in Northern Kenya. Conflict Security Development. 18: (571-600). DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/14678802.2018.1532642
Rock climber Alex Honnold is known to most by the Oscar-winning documentary ‘Free solo’, where he ascends a 2 kilometer high cliff with no safety gear whatsoever. He also considers himself ‘90% vegan’ and donates a third of his income every year to his own foundation, the Honnold Foundation, which strives to bring solar energy to impoverished communities.
Fellow rock climber Alex Megos, widely considered one of the best climbers in the world, created an ethically-produced t-shirt line with the slogan #carrotsforpower, in part to promote a more plant-based lifestyle. He donated 100% of proceeds in the first month to a non-profit focused on sustainable agriculture, and will continue to donate all of the proceeds to nonprofits. On his Instagram, he encourages people to only buy the shirt if they truly need a new shirt, encouraging people to live more simply and discouraging consumerism.
When I first started climbing, almost three years ago now, I was pleasantly surprised to see how all these top athletes, and to some extent non-professional climbers as well, were much more environmentally aware than I had seen in any other sport. This lead me to wonder, is this because their sport has them spend a lot of time in nature? And how does this extend to nature experiences in general increasing environmental awareness?
As it turns out, Megos’s and Honnold’s actions can be explained by their professions; research has shown repeatedly that individuals who are very specialized in one type of nature-based activity, such as birdwatching, fishing, and rock climbing, are more likely to undertake action to help the environment. Here, specialized means that these individuals are more experienced and skilled in the activity, spend more money on it, and consider it more important to their lifestyle than non-specialized recreationists. Honnold and Megos certainly fall in this category.
The likely reason that specialized recreationists put more effort into combatting climate change is that the activity that is so important to them depends on natural resources, so it is in their best interest to make sure these resources continue to exist.
Different types of nature experiences
However, specialization in a nature-based activity is not the only kind of interaction with nature that predicts a high investment in environmentalism. For example, studies show that those who feel like they have benefited more from time in nature, also show increased environmental behaviours. This can go even as far as nature experiences during bad weather causing less pro-environmental behaviour than those on sunny days.
The type of activity performed in nature also matters to environmental attitude. Researchers identify three types of nature-based activity:
Consumptive: Taking something from the natural environment for your own gain (e.g. fishing, hunting)
Mechanized: Using mechanized equipment to interact with nature (e.g. driving quads in a field)
Appreciative: Enjoying the natural environment without making any changes to it (e.g. hiking, birdwatching, climbing)
The research indicates that those who partake in appreciative activities are more likely to show pro-environmentalist behaviour, while mechanized or consumptive activities show low or even negative impact on pro-environmentalism. However, it is difficult to ascertain whether appreciative activities cause people to have a more pro-environmentalist attitude, or that those who already care a lot about climate change are more likely to partake in appreciative activities.
Childhood nature experiences
A more robust approach to measure the impact of nature experiences on environmental attitudes is to compare how experiences in childhood affect attitudes and behaviour in adulthood. One longitudinal study concluded that one of the main predictors of pro-environmental behaviours was time spent outdoors during childhood. This held true even when controlling for other variables such as parents’ attitude towards climate change.
However, the type of interaction with nature again makes a big difference to environmental attitude later in life. Specifically, a distinction between ‘wild’ and ‘domesticated’ nature experiences can be made. Nancy Wells, a Cornell University environmental psychologist, concluded in her research that:
“Although domesticated nature activities — caring for plants and gardens — also have a positive relationship to adult environment attitudes, their effects aren’t as strong as participating in such wild nature activities as camping, playing in the woods, hiking, walking, fishing and hunting,”
Furthermore, participating in environmental education programs, such as the boy or girl scouts, seemed to have no effect on adult environmental attitude.
These conclusions suggest that letting children explore nature in the way they wish to, without having to listen to environmental education or follow instructions on how to garden, is very beneficial to fostering a pro-environmental attitude.
How can we use this information?
Knowing what we know now about experiences with nature and environmentalism, one might ask how we can use this to foster a more environmentally-aware mindset.
Most importantly, we know childhood experiences have a significant impact on adult environment attitudes, and we know that ‘wild’ nature experiences are most beneficial for this. Therefore, increasing wild nature activities with children, and letting children explore nature on their own, are strategies that are likely to increase environmental awareness when these children grow up. Environmental education, where given, should ideally flow from childrens’ own curiosity, instead of being direct instructions or planned lessons.
But the effect of these strategies will not be seen until years later, when the children grow up. What can we do to increase pro-environmental attitudes and behaviours in adults right now?
As seen in rock climbers, being specialised in a nature-based activity can help. However, not everyone wants to be a highly specialised nature-based recreationist, so this might be difficult to realise.
We also learned that the type of experience matters, and that encouraging appreciative nature experiences may help. One study done by Stanford University gives further insight: they used VR to simulate a nature experience, and after letting participants appreciate the environment for a bit, they asked them to cut down a tree. Participants who had to cut down the virtual tree had a measurable change in pro-environmental behaviours, which researchers think will last for a long time. In contrast, those who had simply read about tree cutting barely changed their behaviour at all.
This study showed that even in adulthood, nature experiences (or virtual nature experiences), can lead to an increase in pro-environmentalist behaviour. In this case, people first performed an appreciative activity, and then had to destroy the environment with their own hands. It would be interesting to explore how this type of set-up could be implemented further.
In conclusion, encouraging adults and children to go out and appreciate nature will lead them to care much more about what climate change is doing to that nature. So I hereby encourage you to go out and hike, climb, and forage with all of your friends and family, to enjoy nature and perhaps convince some to do more to stop climate change from destroying it.
There is no doubt that climate change is a problem. Neither can we deny that our oceans are massively threatened. But the truth is, proving these facts with science is not always sufficient to motivate change. In fact, it seldom is sufficient. Because change requires more. Change requires policymakers to act. And that, in turn, often requires public pressure. Which requires awareness. Now, this is quite simplified, but you get the point: in order for change to happen, we cannot approach climate change or biodiversity loss from one single perspective or discipline. Environmental issues in particular have gained momentum as political and social issues, requiring action from the sciences, from policymakers, from the public, and the creatives. And when the scientists and creatives start working together, then complex issues can be communicated to the general public, to the non-scientists and non-conservationists that maybe can’t quite grasp the extent of the issues we are facing. The threats that the ocean and its rich biodiversity are facing.
Out of sight, out of mind is an issue putting the successful conservation and protection of the marine biome at risk. We know, and the science is clear about this, that we are on the best way to losing 90 % of all coral reefs by 2050 (IPCC 2019). Yet issues like that are hard to grasp because most of us don’t see corals bleaching or kelp forests disappearing. We are not connected to these ecosystems. So how do we communicate science without creating a feeling of hopelessness? How do we get people to understand the urgency of these threats, and how do we get the general public excited about ocean conservation? Filmmakers and other creatives have the ability to take us on a journey, to expose us to new perspectives, and so visual storytelling started being recognized as a great and powerful tool to communicate science in an engaging way.
The notion of impact and strategic impact documentaries
The term documentary was coined by the British film producer John Grierson in the 1930s. Grierson recognized the potential of activist filmmaking and documentaries to “influence the ideas and actions of people in ways once reserved for church and school”. Filmmakers can reach an audience that allows them to present and communicate issues in an effective, touching, and urgent way, advocating for behavioral and political change. And strategies have been developed to impact the audience intentionally rather than coincidentally. This is where strategic impact documentaries come into play.
These five dimensions of impact were developed by The Fledgling Fund to assess the impact of a documentary. The framework emphasizes the importance of storytelling at the core of strategic impact documentaries. A compelling story can be measured by looking at festival acceptance, awards, reviews, sales, and more. It is the first step of community engagement. Storytelling is important because it enables us to dive into another world for a while. It allows us to go freediving in the Great African Seaforest and scuba diving in the Great Barrier Reef.
Awareness – the next building block – is important for individual change. How many people is your documentary reaching? How diverse is its audience? What does the press write about it?
Engagement is proactive feedback from the audience – response letters, Take Action Campaigns, discussions and dialogues initiated.
Stronger movement – as the outreach of a documentary is growing, organizations and institutions may advocate the film and collaborate. You see, the film is gaining momentum and, ideally, has the capacity to initiate policy discussion.
Social change in form of policy and behavioral change – the last and ultimate goal. Look at the example of Chasing Coral, a documentary that was just the start of a series of petitions, educational programs, and partnerships. Take a look at their Year One & Beyond update here to get an idea of the five dimensions of change in action!
Two must-watch examples
Character-driven documentaries like My Octopus Teacher and Chasing Coral are great examples of strategic impact documentaries addressing some of the threats our oceans are facing. You see this man, Craig Foster, going freediving with an octopus every day, following the animal’s life cycle and building an emotional connection. And suddenly you have an image in your head, an idea about the kelp forest and its inhabitants. Or you follow Jeff Orlowski and his team manually recording major bleaching events spending 700 + hours underwater. Suddenly you can see corals bleaching and disappearing. Both documentaries use storytelling as a tool to generate empathy and motivate the audience to support the protection of the ocean, in one way or another. Both documentaries manage to get a broad audience excited about the underwater world. “If a film does not connect with its audience and generate empathy, it is very unlikely to gain the traction that an impact campaign requires to make change.”, writes media and impact strategist Patricia Finneran. And both documentaries have seen great success, winning numerous documentary and audience awards. Not to forget that My Octopus Teacher won the Oscar for best documentary this year.
“We tell stories that connect people to the wild, motivating them to become part of the regeneration of our planet.”
Sea Change Project
Impact documentaries such as Chasing Coral, My Octopus Teacher, A Plastic Ocean, and the most recently released and widely discussed documentary Seaspiracy help to create a narrative around environmental issues. The challenge then remains to measure the impact. Film prices are great, but they don’t help to fight ocean pollution. Not directly. But great exposure to a wide audience creates momentum and awareness. People start talking about these issues. Partnerships with national and international organizations can be built. A discourse is created which goes beyond the creative work of filmmaking. The five dimensions of change. Look at the example of Chasing Coral: filmmakers and producers worked alongside well-known scientist, including Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg who is a leading scientist involved in the reports by the IPCC, and Dr. John ‘Charlie’ Veron, who is essentially known as the “Godfather of Corals” as he discovered 20 percent of the world’s known coral species. The main cast Richard Vevers founded The Ocean Agency, an organization that uses creativity and partnerships with large companies such as Google to get issues out there (did you know that you can go on a virtual dive on Google Earth? Thank Richard and his team for ‘Underwater Street View’). Craig Foster, main cast in My Octopus Teacher, and Ross Frylinck founded the Sea Change Trust, an organization that is involved in research, work on increasing marine protected areas (MPAs) in South Africa, and which aims at reconnecting people to the wild through visual storytelling. In both cases, strategic impact documentaries have significantly increased the outreach of the NGOs and essentially helped to bridge the gap between science and the public.
As NFTs become more and more popular, their carbon footprint grows. Their blockchain technology consumes huge amounts of energy, but a lot of people are unaware of the scale of this issue.
About a month ago, the first ever tweet of Twitter’s founder, Jack Dorsey, was sold for 2.9 million dollars. You might wonder, why would someone pay so much money for a tweet? But also, how is it even possible for a tweet to be sold? Two other examples of similar sales are NBA-licensed clips of Lebron James selling for 208.000 dollars and a digital mosaic by the artist Beeple selling for a whopping 69.3 million dollars at the first digital-only art auction at auction house Christie’s. How is it possible for these digital items to be sold for so much money? And why is their sale such an environmental issue? The key are non-fungible tokens (NFTs).
What are NFTs?
NFTs are unique digital certificates that state who has ownership over certain digital items. These items can include basically anything digital, for example drawings and songs, but also animated GIFs, items in a video game, or tweets. NFTs can either be unique one-offs or limited edition copies, comparable to a painting versus collectable trading cards in real life. They are used in the CryptoArt market and their sales have surged over the past year, perhaps in part due to the Covid19 pandemic.
One of the interesting things about the phenomenon of CryptoArt is that, unlike with physical art, everyone can own the exact same item. For example, anyone can download a GIF and use it, whereas only one person can own an actual Rembrandt (others might decorate their walls with a poster or picture of it). NFTs are a way to create scarcity in the digital art world, like the one we know for the physical one, and allows for ownership to be claimed.
Similar to cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, CryptoArt NFTs make use of blockchain technology. The consensus algorithm used for Bitcoin, Ethereum (popular for CryptoArt NFTs) and some other cryptocurrencies is Proof-of-Work (PoW). This algorithm is designed to be inefficient and computation intensive, as a way to make the process more secure. This leads to the big problem related to NFTs, which is their enormous energy consumption.
NFTs’ huge carbon footprint
Very little was known about the energy consumption and related carbon footprint of NFTs. A technology artist called Memo Akten started investigating and found that absolutely no information was given anywhere regarding this topic. Since he believed this lack of transparency was unacceptable if more people were to learn about the environmental issues surrounding NFTs, he wrote an article and created the website cryptoart.wtf. There, he calculates and shows the carbon footprint of CryptoArt NFTs as a result of PoW-based blockchain methods. Akten took the website down a month ago, according to a message by him because the information it provided was being used for abuse as harassment. But in his article, he gives an overview of his findings. He analyzed about 80000 transactions relating to roughly 18000 NFTs on the CryptoArt NFT market site SuperRare. Many more CryptoArt NFT platforms exist, and SuperRare only trades unique one-off NFTs, not limited edition copies. These editions have even bigger carbon footprints, since the same artwork is sold multiple times and thus more NFT transactions take place. Anyway, let’s take a look at the numbers for the transactions on SuperRare.
As can be seen from these figures, one single-edition NFT consumes 340 kWh of energy and emits 211 kg of CO2. This is equivalent to, amongst others, an EU resident’s electricity consumption for a whole month. The footprint of all the 18159 NFTs on SuperRare that Akten investigated together is more than 6 GWh, and more than 3.8 Mt CO2, equivalent to an EU resident’s electricity consumption for two thousand years.
Important to mention is that these numbers only include the energy consumed by using a PoW-based blockchain. The energy consumptions of the production of the actual artwork, of storing the work online, of the website itself, and of the computers used during the whole process are not included. And as I mentioned before, this is only one of many NFT CryptoArt platforms and one that only sells unique one-off NFTs, not the even more energy-consuming editions.
It is safe to say the environmental costs of NFTs are huge.
So what can be done?
In another article by Memo Akten, he lists ways for CryptoArt to become more sustainable. Firstly, he mentions that he hopes platforms such as Ethereum will themselves become more transparent and provide their users with more information about the sustainability issues surrounding NFTs. Secondly, he encourages artists to take their business to platforms that provide sustainable alternatives. Currently, these platforms are still smaller and thus elicit less sales, but as demand for more sustainable platforms increases, they can be developed further and grow.
The key to these more sustainable platforms is that they use a different blockchain algorithm than PoW. One example is the Proof-of-Stake (PoS) algorithm, which can cut energy consumption by more than a hundredfold. Ethereum is working on moving from a PoW to a PoS system, which would require only one percent of the energy currently consumed. This sounds like hopeful news, but since announcing their idea several years ago, the company has been vague on when the change will actually be implemented.
Right now, it is very important to raise awareness about the environmental burden of NFTs, since too many people are unaware of the environmental impact their NFT sale has.
All in all, NFTs are a crazy phenomenon whose recent surge in sales is very bad news for the climate, and more people need to know about their huge carbon footprint. I think this tweet by Limericking sums it up quite nicely (but please do not try to buy it).
The new documentary Seaspiracy – a witty contraction of sea and conspiracy – was released March 24 on Netflix and tells the story of the destructive impact of commercial fishing on the oceans. It is the successor of Cowspiracy, that brought to light the destructive impact of livestock farming on the environment and how environmental organizations deal with that information. Seaspiracy has been a major success already, even though its makers shared on Instragram that they had expected that it “would just live somewhere in the dark corners of the Netflix universe only to be found by the most passionate ocean warriors and environmentalists!” Nothing could be further from the truth: Seaspiracy reached Netflix’ Top Ten in over 30 countries. But there is also a lot of criticism from for example scientists and NGOs. To what extent is Seaspiracy truthful and what is the meaning of this fierce criticism?
In the documentary we follow Filmmaker Ali Tabrizi, whose romantic childhood image of the oceans gets completely destroyed as he discovers the impact of massive commercialized fishing on marine ecosystems and biodiversity. The film centres around a few major topics, which are plastic debris (mostly fisher nets), overfishing, dolphin and whale hunting and the disbelief of accredited institutions and agencies such as the Marine Stewardship Council and the Earth Island Institute. Its main message? Sustainable fishing is impossible.
It is thus no wonder that Seaspiracy provided some food for thought. Many on Twitter promised to change their lifestyle and eating habits after seeing it, including famous cyclist Chris Froom and reality star Kourtney Kardashian who shared an Instagram story with millions of followers. However, there was also a different voice quickly: Isn’t Seaspiracy too eager to convey an activist message at the expense of statistics and rebuttal? Or is this critique just a frenetic attempt by the fishing industry to save its image? Let’s dive deeper into the criticism received.
Christina Hicks, an environmental social scientist at Lancaster University, was not exactly pleased when she saw herself again in the much-discussed film. She wrote on Twitter:
“Unnerving to discover your cameo in a film slamming an industry you love & have committed your career to. (…) Yes there are issues but also progress & fish remain critical to food & nutrition security in many vulnerable geographies.”
She didn’t wish to further elaborate, but she does make a valid point: research has shown that in order to combat malnutrition and hunger around the world, the consumption of nutrient dense foods needs to increase in low- and middle-income countries. Animal-based food is known to contain many micronutrients, such as vitamin B-12, proteins, calcium, iron and zinc and fish is the dominant animal source food in these vulnerable countries. A ban on fishing would pose a great risk to their food security and increase global inequalities as richer countries have the means to afford the production and consumption of substitutes.
Another disappointed party is the International Marine Mammal Project (IMMP), part of the Earth Island Institute, which is responsible for adhering to the Dolphin Safe Label. The label should guarantee dolphin-free tuna fishing but was labelled false by the creators of the documentary. Mark Palmer, executive at the IMMP, accuses Seaspiracy of taking his comments out of context: because he could not promise that no dolphin was ever killed in any tuna fishery, the label was dismissed by them as meaningless, even though, according to David Phillips, director of the IMMP, the label has reduced Dolphin-kill levels by more than 95%. So, how do they prevent dolphins getting killed in tuna hunting? According to their website, it means that during the entire fishing trip, there is no deliberate encircling of dolphin pods and the chances of dolphins getting killed accidentally are very small. They also guarantee government observers on all tuna vessels to monitor fishing behaviour. Regardless, there are still 80,000 cetaceans that get killed as by-catch in the Indian Ocean only, every year. And then we haven’t discussed the sharp decline in tuna species yet. It is thus fair to say that the creators of Seaspiracy have hastily drawn conclusions about the Dolphin safe label, which does not appear to be useless, but it remains a fact that tuna fishery still causes (severe) damage to both the tuna and the cetacean population.
Lets’ talk some numbers now. A third point of criticism raised is that Seaspiracy uses incorrect data and is interpreting statistics in a wrongful way. For example, a shocking claim that is brought forward is that our oceans will be empty by the year 2048. However, this was an outdated estimation from 2006 by ecologist Boris Worm who later withdrew his claim and instead worked together with several scientists on a paper analyzing how to rebuild fisheries. You may wonder if there are more accurate numbers available about the depletion of our oceans. Our global fish production is estimated to surpass 200 Mt by the year of 2029, which would be a 14% increase relative to base years 2017-2019. Furthermore, according to UNESCO, if nothing changes, over 50% of all marine species will have gone nearly extinct by the year 2100. A study from 2019 estimated that 37% of our oceans need strong protection in order to preserve biodiversity, ensure connectivity and avoid ecosystem collapse. However, only 2% is currently under this type of high protection. All of this indicates a major gap between what is being done and what is deemed necessary.
Recently, however, a study found that we should actually be able to completely revitalize our oceans by 2050. This is hopeful, but it will for sure require a major effort and that brings us to the main question raised: is sustainable fishing really impossible or could there be a balance between flourishing marine life and commercial fishery?
This is an intricate question and the answer will depend on who you ask, but it would be only fair to conclude that in its current form whereby exotic species are available in enormous numbers worldwide will never be or become sustainable. Sustainable fishing will mean a return to old-fashioned local fishing, catching only what is immediately consumed, not using gigantic and destructive fishing nets, and leaving large mammals and deep-water ecosystems alone. In that sense, we can learn a lot from indigenous communities who have developed sophisticated fishing practices while respecting nature and its ecological boundaries. For many, this will be experienced as a step back: de-globalization, degrowth and fewer choices. That is exactly one of the pain points of the documentary and also partly explains why many organizations immediately stand up to undermine it. Let’s make a little comparison to climate change.
Why then is Seaspiracy so uncomfortable? Perhaps because it was relatively unknown to some people, so the scale at which destruction takes place may come as a surprise. More importantly however, is the direct link between your individual fish consumption and ocean destruction. The terrifying images in the documentary immediately evoke a feeling of guilt, because you know: every fish you consume is caught in this way and is therefore part of the problem. This documentary is very concrete, and the solution they provide is simple: no longer eat fish as long as current fishery practices are not sustainable.
A few months earlier, the new documentary by David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet had also been released on Netflix. It also clearly shows the destructive effect of the human consumer society on the earth’s ecosystems. Still, I doubt that the film had the same guilt effect on people like Seaspiracy, precisely because of what I wrote above: climate change sometimes feels like a ‘bigger than me’ problem, but your fish consumption is not.
It is therefore unfortunate that the creators have occasionally been in a hurry and omitted certain critical details, but that does not detract from the general message: our current commercial fishery is unsustainable and if we are to continue like this, we will do irreversible damage to our oceans. This message is not new. We have been closing our eyes for it, but it’s time to act on it.
What once used to be a green, rich, and biodiverse ecosystem, with an abundance of fishing and farming resources, is now a victim of ecocide. This is the reality of the Niger Delta, a region which is facing irreversible environmental damage to its flora and fauna, and whose local communities have lost basic human rights, such as health and access to food and clear water.
Who is responsible for this?
For over half a century, the Niger Delta has been environmentally abused by the petroleum industry, with a reported annual average of 2300 cubic meters of oil spills – although the World Bank claims that the real estimate is as much as 10 times higher.
Among some of the most catastrophic events in the region are the 2008 oil spills in the villages of Oruma and Goi, where multinational Royal Dutch Shell was the operator of the leaking pipelines.
With the support of Friends of the Earth Netherlands and Amnesty International, local Nigerian fishermen and farmers were able to file a lawsuit against Shell, holding it accountable for the damages caused to their ecosystem, farms, and community.
However, Shell claimed that it is not responsible for the petroleum spills. These were a result of one of the innumerous Nigerail oil thefts, through which local communities bring petroleum to the many illegal oil refineries. In fact, it is estimated that almost 30% of oil spill accidents are caused by failures in engaging in this business.
In addition, Shell claimed to have supported the Nigerian community in sufficient clean up interventions and monetary compensations.
Shell’s commitment to a more sustainable energy system and a net-zero emissions business by 2050 supports this hypothesis, in that it shows their willingness to have a positive impact on the environment.
After 13 years…
… The Dutch appeals court has ruled that the Nigerian branch of multinational Royal Dutch Shell is responsible for the 2008 oils spills and must compensate for the damages caused, as well as install a leakage detection system in the Nigerian Delta pipelines.
Should Shell really be held accountable? Is there enough proof of sabotage of the 2008 accident? What makes this court ruling a historical one?
Listen to our podcast to find out more…
Or, if you prefer, read our infographic to quicklyget informed about the topic…
According to a 2019 paper published in Science, the world still has space for 0.9 billion hectares worth of trees. These trees, once matured, could store up to 752 billion tons of CO2. “Global tree restoration is our most effective climate change solution to date”, the authors claimed. Many scientists later criticized the number, but it’s not just this paper that heralds reforestation as the solution to climate change. The idea can be found in a proliferation of academic publications, in environmental policy by governments around the world, in the many, many tree planting charities that currently exist – basically, everywhere. However, reforestation is not the idealsolution to climate change many make it out to be.
Reforestation has become incredibly popular among western people. It seems as if all of a sudden, the west has awoken to the restorative power of nature – something the rest of the world has arguably been aware of for a long time. Organizations like Trees For All, One Tree Planted, Justdiggit, or Treesisters, all European or North American organizations, hail reforestation as the salvation for our planet and are aggressively planting trees in the hopes of minimizing our damage.
This idea is not new, however. Reforestation has long been an obsession of western environmental governance. For over two centuries, the idea has reigned environmental policy throughout the world, and has been hailed as a solution for soil erosion, loss of biodiversity and most recently climate change.
The practice of tree planting as a form of environmental governance can be traced back to 19th century France, according to a 2018 paper by Diana Davis and Paul Robbins. Targets of around 30% tree cover, the minimum assumed for European civilization, were built into French environmental policy and exported globally.
“Tree planting is a practice never innocent of its imperial history”
Davis and Robbins argue that tree planting is a practice “never innocent of its imperial history”. In other words, reforestation as an environmental policy tool – or as they call it, arboreal biopolitics – is a practice closely interlinked with colonialism. Besides the obvious incredibly harmful consequences of colonialism, like genocide, widespread oppression and erasure of culture, colonialism has also created a general disregard and contempt for indigenous knowledge. This has often hurt nature as colonists attempted to install environmental practices from home but failed to take into account that these practices are not apt for each and every ecosystem. The systematic exclusion of indigenous knowledge is also dangerous in the mitigation of climate change, as this is a vital part of effective mitigation.
Remnants of colonialism remain in more environmental policy than we might think. Think for instance of nature conservation. Kenyan ecologist Mordecai Ogada argues that conservation of African nature is actually a new form of colonialism, because the rules from the colonial era still apply: “keep black people away from nature, so that white people can enjoy it.” According to Ogada, nature conservation is run by whites, often in ways that don’t necessarily benefit the local people. Protected areas, for example, often set up by outsiders, can displace the people that live there, limit movement for shepherds and their herds (which in turn can lead to overgrazing) and force wild animals into villages, creating conflict with the people living there.
“Many of the problems in the drylands stem from trying to change them, through high-intensive capital investments and technology, into something they are not, like gardens of Eden“
The preference for forested areas, traceable back to Europe, has had very real and tangible consequences. For instance, since colonial times, misconceptions about drylands and disregard for Indigenous knowledge have negatively impacted endemic populations and local biodiversity through the planting of trees where they do not naturally occur. According to dryland expert Ced Hesse, “many of the problems in the drylands stem from trying to change them, through high-intensive capital investments and technology, into something they are not, like gardens of Eden”. This happened in Kenya’s Baringo County, where the mathenge was introduced in the 1980s. The woody shrub was promoted by both the Kenyan government and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization to restore degraded drylands. But after the El Nino rains of 1997, the mathenge spread fast, outcompeting local species and lowering the water table. Overall, the introduction of the mathenge caused more issues than it solved.
In India, decades of failed forestry policy, originally introduced under British reign, have left its mark on the country. Although the aim of these policies was to ameliorate the effects of climate change and improve the livelihoods of its people, historically such policies have actually led to quite the opposite, namely the disinheriting of forest-rooted populations, but also the invasion of exotic species and the advancement of governmental power at the expensive of local people. Despite these less than desirable results, both re- and afforestation (planting trees where they did not occur beforehand) continue to dictate Indian environmental governance. In 2011, the government launched their most ambitious project yet, with the objective of covering close to a third of the country with trees.
Then, there is also the issue of misplaced attention. Through a focus on reforestation of the Earth as an effective solution to climate change, we risk deflecting attention from what is arguably the real issue: a system that values consumption and capital higher than nature. It allows us to continue our unsustainable consumption and lifestyles while exploitation and overharvesting continue to wreak havoc upon the planet. It also allows large businesses to continue their often environmentally unfriendly practices with an eased conscience. Planting trees can help, but they will never be a substitute to reducing fossil fuel emissions.
However, if done well, reforestation efforts can be a powerful tool to mitigating climate change. More nuanced estimates of the carbon sink potential of trees are closer to 3 – 18 billion of tonnes of CO2 per year, or 11 – 15 billion for all nature-based climate solutions.
And there are more advantages to planting trees. For instance, in dry tropical regions, planting trees can cause a shift in weather patterns, leading to more rainfall and therefore more plant growth and carbon sequestration. Trees can also reduce air pollution, reduce heating, and provide reserves for wildlife. Overall, if done right, reforestation can help solve many issues the planet is currently facing – but, again, only if it’s done right.
I hear the wind whistling in my ears while the first rays of the morning sun fall upon my skin. The tiny water droplets left by the night slowly fading away. While the sun rises over the mountains I feel my senses come alive.
We are giving it all up.
Ever since the first human being walked this earth, humans have used non-human nature as a resource. At first, our behaviour was much like that of other animals. Eating and using whatever materials the environment provided with an eye on survival. Now that our species have existed for around 200.000 years, most have started treating non-human nature as if it were our property. Human property to use, to exploit, and to mistreat. In David Attenborough’s documentary, a life on our planet,he explains that humans have changed our ecosystems to such an extent that we currently make up one third of the total weight of mammals on earth. Among the other mammals, around 60% are raised to feed humans and “the rest – from mice to whales – make up just 4%”. We have truly conquered the world. Yet, an important thing to note is that we are not all equally responsible for this domination of nature. Research by Oxfam (figure 1) has shown that when analysing carbon emissions from 1990 to 2015, the world’s richest 10% are responsible for 52% of the total carbon emissions. This is in stark contrast with the poorest 50% that are responsible for just 7% of the emitted carbon. Rather than saying that all humans are the cause of environmental destruction, we can safely say that – as a result of their consumption pattern – the rich are to blame. An important issue in this consumption pattern is the misvaluation of nature.
A tree has no value until it is cut, a chicken has no value until it is doomed, a shell has no value until it is decomposed. Nature has no value. In our society, nature is considered valuable only once it has been transformed into a resource for human use. Global wealth is calculated on the basis of our gross domestic product, the value of all goods and services produced within a country. This value does not reflect the impact of production on the environment. As a result, a country’s wealth will only grow by increasingly damaging the web of life of which humans are part. Last month, António Guterres, the secretary general of the United Nations, urged that “we need to transform how we view and value nature. We must reflect nature’s true value in all our policies, plans and economic systems.”. He stated this while presenting a newly approved approach to calculate the wealth of a country. This new method, the System of Environment Economic Accounting (SEEA), will help include the value of ecosystems when they are thriving rather than when they are exploited. The ecosystem services, the human benefits of keeping the ecosystem intact, will thus be included when using the SEEA to measure a country’s wealth.
The misty morning rain tapping on the window. Now that the lightning and thunder of the night moved away. The animals that attempted to stay warm, huddled together in their shelters, are emerging into the light. As I see a squirrel leave the hollow tree behind the house, I feel my senses come alive.
We are giving it all up.
Moving from the use of GDP to the use of the SEEA is a step in the right direction. Yet, nature has even more to offer than ecosystem services. In light of this I would like you to ask yourself whether you have ever experienced the joy of being in pristine nature? Not a city park, not a protected nature reserve, but actual pristine nature. Unfortunately, I can answer that question for you. No. That is, as Rachel Nuwer writes, if you were to define pristine nature as truly untouched by any human influence. Our human species has truly conquered the planet. When considering the value of nature for humans, the lack of pristine nature is not such a big problem. As Richard Hobbs points out, non-pristine places are often more accessible, giving them a higher value. Yet, this is if you were to value of nature only in light of human benefit. Most other organisms (i.e. non-human organisms) would much prefer to live in pristine nature than to live in an ever shrinking forest or a fenced park. Apart from that, we should realise that the earth will exist long after our species has gone extinct. Valuing the environment is not just in the interest of non-human nature. It is key if we would like to preserve our place on this planet. Our mistreatment of nature is posing a threat to the enjoyment of our self-created human rights. The human rights to life and health are at risk as toxic waste pollution makes for a lack of potable water, as people are being killed by landslides resulting from soil degradation, and as harvests fail as a result of the desertification. Apart from the direct effects environmental problems have on our human existence, they will also affect our mental and physical wellbeing. Being in nature nourishes our bodies by reducing stress. The feeling nature is able to give is of much higher value than just the instrumental, resource value. Nature has an intrinsic value, independent of human needs, which cannot be monetised.
Waves crashing on the shore, washing over the sand and rocks. Seabirds squeal, making the sounds of the ocean feel like a whisper from afar. Sand brushes against my cheek and I feel my senses come alive.
We are giving it all up.
Nature has the ability to make your senses come alive. It will never be possible to put a price on this sensation. Neither will it be possible to put a price on nature, including the human species, in its own right. In a wealthy country, nature would thrive. Thus, a wealthy country would have ecosystems that provide services not just to humans, but to all that is part of the earth system. For a country to become wealthy, they would put a stop to environmentally degrading consumption. I call for wealth to be measured by the health of a country’s web of life, as nature really does not have to be exploited to be valued.
Beaches looking like landfill sites. Children growing up in smog filled cities without ever having seen a bright, blue sky. Oceans and lakes turning into dead zones. A disbalanced food chain in the Amazon Rainforest as jaguars lose their life or their home.
A week ago, the BBC published an article about rapidly disappearing Posidonia seagrass in the Mediterranean. In a time in which news outlets seem to report every other week about another species becoming endangered or extinct, the news of the Posidonia seagrass might seem like just another little reminder that the 6th mass extinction might be on its way but not much more than that. However, the article reveals some shocking news: a hectare of Posidonia seagrass can capture 15 times more CO2 than a hectare of the Amazon forest.
Why are leaders and policymakers barely talking about this carbon sink when discussing solutions for the climate crisis? It seems like they are hung up on technical solutions. These Prometheans believe that the technological abilities of humans are endless and that they can use these technologies to advance humanity and alter the environment if needed. They want to decrease CO2 emissions by technological solutions such as setting new efficiency standards for refrigerators, subsidising electric car use and replacing fossil fuels with nuclear energy. However, with countries failing to reduce their CO2 emissions and governments failing to come up and comply with strong treaties and conventions on CO2 reductions, policymakers and scientist also try to find solutions elsewhere. But it is not the natural world they are looking into.
One field that has been receiving more and more attention is geoengineering, the ultimate Promethean solution. The idea seems simple: if we cannot reduce our emissions, we have to find a way to minimise the impact of the emissions on earth. One form of geoengineering is carbon dioxide removal from the atmosphere. By removing carbon from the atmosphere, the carbon molecules cannot exert their greenhouse gas effect and no warming will occur. If enough carbon is removed, the CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere will lower, and global warming will decline. However, carbon removal has some disadvantages. It is very costly, and most countries won’t be too eager to pay for it. Additionally, the carbon has to be stored somewhere, and no one wants to live on a CO2 field, which could kill you if it leaks. Due to carbon capture and storage’s disadvantages, it has not been used on a large scale, and many debates arise on whether it can be used as a solution for the climate crisis.
So, while this technical carbon sink does not seem like an ideal solution, the many natural carbon sinks that already exist seem to be forgotten by policymakers.
When policymakers do address natural carbon sinks, trees seem the only ones they know. Many governments and policymakers call for reforestation and even all Dutch parties but one vouch for it. However, other leaders, like the Brazilian president Bolsonaro, do not see the added value and (illegal) logging still continues. While the rate of deforestation has gone down over the last years, overall, the number of forest areas still declines every year.
Other natural carbon sinks, such as Posidonia seagrass, receive less attention. While the EU has some protected areas for the seagrass, the hectares of seagrass have decreased and are still being damaged today. Especially anchors can severely damage seagrass. For a single anchor, it can take 1000 years for the seagrass to be fully restored. However, it is often still allowed to anchor in the protected areas, and if regulations are present, they are often ignored. With increasing temperatures, the remaining seagrass will have an even harder time surviving as it cannot withstand temperatures above 28 °C. While policymakers are focused on technical carbon sinks, this carbon sink is overlooked and slowly lost.
Another example of an carbon sink that deserves recognition is mangroves. Mangroves are a habitat for many organisms and can take up as an ecosystem on average 956 t C per hectare, which is almost four times more than the 241 t C per hectare uptake of rain forests. Mangrove ecosystems also emit CO2, for example, through respiration. Mangroves are a net carbon sink and worldwide take up 90 Tg C per year, which is as much carbon as some small countries emit. With increasing temperatures, mangroves could spread to temperate areas, which could increase their carbon uptake. However, some researchers expect that in colder climates, the ecosystem’s uptake could be lower. While mangroves are valuable as they are a carbon sink, protect coastlines and prevent erosion, they are, unfortunately, often cut down for their wood or to make room for agriculture and aquaculture. It is estimated that 30-50% of mangroves have been lost over the last 50 years. Policymakers are thus losing a valuable solution for the climate crisis.
These natural carbon sinks are not only being forgotten by policymakers, but they are also being destroyed. While policymakers praise new technological fixes, the solutions that are already out there are shifted aside. Ecomodernist take this to the next level. They do not only see technology as the holy grail, but they think humanity should be based on it. Their solution to the climate crisis is for humans to live in densely populated cities where food is produced with highly efficient agricultural practices that barely need any land. Humans will only use a bit of the earth surface, and nature can take over the rest. For them, the dependence on ecosystem services and resources is the core cause of the need for nature conservation. Ecomodernist even go as far as to say:
“People may choose to have some services — like water purification and flood protection — provided for by natural systems, such as forested watersheds, reefs, marshes, and wetlands, even if those natural systems are more expensive than simply building water treatment plants, seawalls, and levees.” (p.27)
For me, this quote shows how Prometheans and ecomodernist are blinded by their faith in technology. Why would we need to develop technologies if what we are creating is already provided to us by nature? Besides, technology also has some downsides that they seem to overlook. It might not be able to solve all problems and often comes at a cost. Additionally, the more advanced the technology becomes, the fewer people can understand it and decide on its use. The Prometheans will find themselves in a vicious circle by erasing the negative side-effects of existing technology with new and more advanced technology.
While we might find ourselves unable to solve the climate crisis with natural solutions alone, policymakers should be aware of the natural solutions present and strive to protect them before it is too late.
*Disclaimer: For the sake of the argument, I speak of gender in very binary terms in this blogpost. However, I fully recognize all other forms of gender (expressions) that exist on the gender spectrum.
This week, the parliamentary elections took place in the Netherlands. With the general shift further to the right, the third re-election of Mark Rutte as prime minister and the defeat of the green left, one cannot speak of a ‘win’ for the environment. However, small win was made by the ‘Party for the Animals’ (Partij voor de Dieren or PvdD), the party with the most radical standpoints on the climate crisis in the Dutch parliament, which landed its own record number of six parliamentary seats during this week’s elections. This party stands out from the others for its strong emphasis on animal wellbeing, environmental conservation and its campaign against livestock farming. Yet, it is also an exception to the rule for the fact that, for many years, this party has been the only party with a female leader and with a majorly female constituency (which it both still has).
Although I find it remarkable that the FvdD mostly attracts female voters, it also does not surprise me. Even within my own ‘progressive bubble’ I can observe a similar ‘pattern’. It is most obvious in the fact that, in this bubble, most environmentally conscious vegetarians and vegans I know are female. This ‘disparity’ between female and male vegans and vegetarians is found studies in the Netherlands, where 5.9 percent of all women eats vegetarian compared to 1.8 percent of all men, and in the United States where a study showed that 79 percent of all vegans are female.
The question that naturally rises here is: Why is this the case? Are more women vegetarian or vegan because there is something ‘feminine’ about environmental consciousness or does it work the other way around?
The logic of dualisms
The questions above can be approached by using ecofeminist critiques on the logic of dualism. According to these critiques, the logic of dualism has an effect on the construction of what is ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ as well as on the relationship between humans and nature. An important figure in this context is Val Plumwood, who has argued that, in western culture, humans exist in a dualistic relationship with nature. Or in other words this means that, in western culture, humans and nature are seen as separate from each other. According to Plumwood, this dualism, in which humans exist outside of nature, has resulted in the damage humans are causing to the environment.
Plumwood, and other (eco)feminists with her, recognize a similar dualism between the female and male relationship, which also relates to the human (or culture)/ nature dualism. They argue that the logic of dualisms is used as a mean for the patriarchal oppression of both women and nature. In the female/ male dualism, women are constructed as being closer to nature and ascribed the characteristics that belong to nature, such as being caring and nurturing. Men, on the other hand are constructed as relating more to culture and are ascribed characteristics that are outside of nature, such as being rational. The nature/ human or the nature/ culture and the female/ male dualism mutually reinforce each other and produce a hierarchy in which men and culture are superior to women and nature.
Ecofeminists have pointed to the importance of language in this context and criticize how, through language, several aspects of nature are ‘feminized’. This is, for example evident in the expressions of ‘mother earth’ or ‘mother nature’, but also words like ‘chick’ or ‘bitch’ that ‘animalise’ women.
Real man vs #soyboy
According to (eco)feminists, the logic of dualisms thus constructs a binary opposition of what is ‘feminine’ and what is ‘masculine’. It produces truth about specific behaviours to belong to masculinity and femininity. These assumptions of truth in the female/ male binary are very much present in society, for example in patterns of consumption. This is also a result of the fact that capitalist marketing strategies have instrumentalized the logic of these dualisms. In particular the assumption that ‘real men eat meat’ –that has a prominent place in mainstream media and marketing– represents accurately the interplay between the human/ nature and female/ male dualisms, because it connects masculinity (real men) to the domination of nature (eating meat). On the other hand, dietary products such as vegetables or meat substitutes are constructed to relate to femininity or non-masculinity in this dualism. This is for example evident in the insult ‘#soyboy’ that, according to the urban dictionary, refers to “A male who lacks any masculinity whatsoever”.
Individual or systemic change?
The difference between the number of female and male vegans and/ or vegetarians is often related to these (eco)feminist critiques on dualisms and binary gender opposition. A plant-based diet after all implies a certain connection with nature that, in the logic of dualism, relates to femininity. I also think that, to some extent, the predominantly female support for the ideals of Dutch ‘Party for the Animals’, can be explained by the use of these ecofeminist arguments.
This has made me think of the question of individual versus systemic change. I believe that only through systemic change, such as the transformation of governments industries, real differences can be made. Yet, ecofeminist critique shows that differences are not only made through the adaptation of certain practices, but also about the unlearning of certain ideas. Therefore, I am convinced that individual change is crucial for breaking through existing stigmas around meat consumption in particular and around environmental activism in general, that stand in the way of the making of large-scale change.
“I want you to act as if your house is on fire because it is”. Powerful metaphor, huh? Greta Thunberg’s speeches are full of them. It is part of the reason why her discourses are so powerful; she doesn’t just use the language of science, she uses the language of humans: stories.
This summer, I (Inés) read We are The Weather. In this book, Jonathan Safran Foer makes a clear distinction between knowing the science and threat of the climate crisis on the one hand, and believing the science and the threat of on the other. The latter is much harder, and most of us are not there yet, which is, along with systemic and technical reasons, why we are not acting like our house is on fire.
So, what does it take to believe in the existential threat that climate change poses for much of humanity? According to psychology and linguistics research, the answer to the question is stories. For those of us who are in the position to make or demand radical changes, it is usually not the vast amount of evidence that is the tipping point for our devotion to climate justice, but a story that somehow affects what we deeply care about.
Stories can be narratives that we have in our head without even realising. Even someone that does not put too much thought into climate action or environmental degradation has a story on what they have come to believe is the cause and the possible solution(s) to the crisis.
“Humans need to grow and innovate. We need resources from the Earth. The earth was not expecting such a powerful species like us so it doesn’t know how to respond.” “European colonialism set the tone for a resource-based economy that exploits and undervalues natural resources. Neocolonialism and, as a consequence, the spread of our economic system, has made this the global norm.” “There is an injustice of power and wealth that leads to overconsumption.” “We are only capable of acting on imminent threats. If a problem is 30 years ahead, it is impossible to mobilize society for it.” “Population growth has gotten out of hand. We are a plague on Earth.” “Fossil fuels were never meant to exit the ground! Why did we not harness the power of sun and wind from the beginning!” “The polar bears are losing their homes” “E = σ T4”
“We here at X commit to being carbon neutral by 2050” “We ought to rewild our land” “Natural Climate Solutions + Decarbonize our economy” “We need to reduce our carbon emissions” “They need to reduce their carbon emissions” “Renewables, renewables, renewables” “Reduce, reuse, recycle” “This will be hard, there will be a lot of struggle, but we are the types of people that will solve this”. “We need to rethink democracy, give the power back to the people! Citizens Assembly.” “It is too late, we should start investing in R&D for adaptation strategies and simply get used to the idea that our world will change.” “We have to change our language and stories!”
Table 1: Very non exhaustive (and somewhat droll) list of possible internalized narratives that we have come across with relating to the origin and solutions of the climate crisis.
Of course, narratives do not have to be true to be believed and they do not usually stand alone. Despite David Attenborough claiming that “we are a plague on Earth” (The Independent, 2013), I doubt that that is his single story on the causes of global weirding. Similarly, while Bill Gates says that “it’s our power to invent that makes me hopeful” does not mean he is unaware of the futility of an eternal-growth paradigm for our environment (Bill Gates, 2021). But, considering that most people get the vast majority of information about carbon pollution from mainstream media, which usually approaches it very superficially (greenhouse effect + human CO2 = warmer), it is understandable that the story of the cause and the solution of the problem remains shallow and singular.
So far, we have (annoyingly) used five different terms to describe “climate change”. Have you noticed? We’re not the only ones sick and tired of “Climate Change” though! The Guardian officially updated its style guide in 2019 to stop using the 1975 coined term “climate change” by NASA (The Guardian, 2019). On the one hand, we completely stand behind their choice, as it is an outdated term that can quickly downplay the menace of the issue. It implies that the climate will change, but a) it is an extremely spare and factual way to describe the violent ways in which this socio-ecological event will unfold and b) it doesn’t all the human and non-human systems that will be touched by it. On the other hand, however, words can become politicized, and groups of people can feel excluded from a narrative if they are unable to follow what is being spoken about. A journalist on a discussion panel in Spanish television (EFE Verde, 2019) even said that it was risky to use climate emergency as elders could misunderstand it as an immediate emergency and believe that they have to “evacuate their homes” (maybe taking Greta’s metaphor a bit too literally).
“Climate change … is no longer considered to accurately reflect the seriousness of the situation; use climate emergency, crisis or breakdown instead.”
Still, regardless of the exact term they use, it will come as no surprise that the media has a big role to play in science communication (unfortunately). Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder have determined that media can influence policy and public understanding of the environment. Both of these things can also affect human behaviour. So the language they use is indeed important.
Climate Outreach, a European specialist in climate change communication, put together a handbook for IPCC authors to suggest effective ways to communicate climate change. Their main principles are:
Be a confident communicator
Talk about the real world, not abstract ideas.
Connect with what matters to your audience
Tell a human story
Lead with what you know
Use the most effective visual communication
While we are on the topic of science and the IPCC, I (Moeka) want to share some insights I had during my Climate Sciences: Past and Present class last fall semester. I noticed that climate science is and has been extremely European and North American centred excluding a lot of Asia, middle eastern, African, Central and South American regions and countries. Despite an abundance of paleoclimate proxies existing all around the world, most data collection points were in these two continents. The data and science bias could partly result in a bias towards western-centered climate movements. At the global climate march that took place in Tokyo in 2019, people there chanted (Funazaki, 2019):
As you may notice, half of their chants are in English. They probably just imported the chants from European or English-speaking countries without translating them. Given that most of Japanese people do not have a high level of English, the language they use would not have as strong a power as they would in English-speaking countries. I strongly believe that they should make a Japanese version of chants so that it becomes more powerful in the Japanese society.
Nowadays, since English is the lingua franca of (climate) science or/and climate movement (e.g. Fridays for Futures, Greta’s speech), most discoveries and concepts are crowned with an English word. By creating new words, we create new ways of seeing the world, because language has a power in itself. It is thus important that climate science concepts (e.g tipping points,Representative Concentration Pathways) and climate movement related words are given their own words in each language.
Still, as mentioned 1,000 times throughout this blog, good local climate change communication does not only involve translating scientific jargon to the common people. If you are interested in the science of localizing climate change communication, environmental subjects, environmental news etc., may we introduce you to the fascinating field of Ecolinguism? Researchers in this field explore how language can change how we relate to nature in addition to translating the narratives of isolated and small communities that are extremely affected by climate change but yet, their voice often goes unheard of. Through doing this, they hope to protect not only their language from extinction but also their culture and population (Huang, 2016; UNESCO, 2019).
For a habitable future, we need a reinvention of economics, politics and society. This, we believe, is only possible with a reinvention of culture, and what is culture if not powerful stories we tell?
Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect.
(Attributed to) Chief Seattle, leader of the Suquamish and Duwamish Native American Tribes.
Can think of the instance(s) when you started believing and not merely understanding the threat of the climate crisis? Let us know in the comments!
In a recent letter from the Dutch Minister of Economic Affairs and Climate Policy to the Speaker of the Dutch House of Representatives about gas extraction in the Waddenzee, the Minister addresses the issue of sea level rise. The Minister states that the Representative Concentration Pathway 4.5 scenario (RCP4.5) would already take into account more sea level rise than the Paris agreement, as the Paris agreement is comparable to RCP2.6, which would be equivalent to a warming of less than 2 degrees Celsius by the year 2100. Then the minister says that the highest scenario, RCP8.5, has been critiqued in a recent Nature article because RCP8.5 assumes that no climate measures have been taken. What the article says is that RCP8.5 has been widely used as a “business as usual” scenario, while it was actually intended as a way “to explore a high-risk future”. But does this mean that we should throw out the scenario depicted by RCP8.5?
What is RCP8.5?
The RCP8.5 scenario is part of a set of four pathways (RPC 2.6, 4.5, 6 & 8.5) that were developed as a basis for climate modelling experiments. Before RCP, there were other scenarios such as the IS92 scenarios and the SRES scenarios that were used as common sets of scenarios in the scientific community to ease communication between researchers. But then new scenarios were needed. Scenarios that would use more detailed information and that would be able to explore the different impacts from climate policies while also still exploring the impacts of using no climate policies. And thus RCP was created.
The four RCP scenarios all represent a scenario with a different radiative forcing level by the year 2100, namely 8.5, 6, 4.5 and 2.6 W/m2. As said before, a radiative forcing level of 2.6 would be equivalent to a warming of less than 2 degrees Celsius. The highest scenario, with a radiative forcing of 8.5 W/m2, would be equivalent to a warming of 5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. Now the real important thing to remember here is that these are 4 scenarios with a certain radiative forcing as outcome, I will come back on this later.
So what is the problem?
Lately, there has been criticism on the emissions scenario that was used to create RCP8.5 because of the assumptions it makes around high future emissions and because it assumes that there is a considerable increase in coal use. But they are cutting corners, as it is not as important where the CO2 emissions are actually coming from, but what they sum up to be.
As said before, RCP8.5 stands for a certain scenario that has as outcome a radiative forcing of 8.5 W/m2 by the year 2100. But the RCP scenario is not the only way to get to a radiative forcing of 8.5 W/m2, around 40 scenarios with a similar forcing level exist in the energy modelling literature. Thus, it should not matter that we do not use as much coal as was used in the RCP8.5 scenario, as there are other things that could generate the CO2 emissions necessary for a radiative forcing of 8.5 W/m2. And then there is also the fact that there are large uncertainties in carbon cycle feedbacks. Even low emissions could potentially lead to a higher forcing than was previously assumed. As models improve, such as the CMIP6 models that incorporate thawing permafrost, there may be an increase in the magnitude of the carbon cycle feedbacks.
I believe that RCP8.5 should not be left out when looking at possible climate change scenarios, as it is not a representation of a final scenario, but more of what would happen if a certain amount of greenhouse gasses is released into the atmosphere that creates a radiative forcing of 8.5 W/m2. Which just so happened to be represented by burning a lot of coal in the original RCP report, but could also be represented by previously not included factors such as thawing permafrost.
The COVID-19 pandemic is a health and economic crisis with the death toll in the UK surpassing 30,000 (BBC, 2020) and still rising. We are still in the eye of the storm, and no one knows when these restrictions on our lives can safely be eased, but what can be said is the changes that have been made during this crisis seemed verging on impossible pre-corona. Over the past couple of months – during a lockdown never previously seen – planes, trains, cars and people have been grounded and their movement ceased. This undoubtedly caused huge financial strain on the respective owners, and resulted in some industries becoming nationalised and others pleading for massive bailouts. The crisis has been a catalyst in greening aviation and rail, and encouraging zero emission personal travel by persuading people to walk and cycle.
This is a crucial political moment, and one we must understand to utilise it’s full power over the most polluting industries.
If not now, when?
Aviation companies have long avoided calls to restrict their carbon pollution as governments protect them to remain competitive – the sector largely avoided fuel tax in most countries and got a free ride in emission reduction and contribution to public revenue (Watts, 2020). During this crisis the sector has been hit hard which has led to many aviation companies appealing for taxpayer support – according to the Greenpeace, Transport & Environment, and Carbon Market Watch tracker, European governments have currently agreed €12.7bn in bailouts (Carbon Market Watch, 2020).
If public funds are to be used to bailout one of the most polluting sectors in the world, the public should see some rewards in the form of environmental benefits. We now have the power to reduce the emissions of the sector, prevent frequent flyer levies and significantly reduce the number of short flights which currently compete with rail journeys. As demonstrated by France when they set strong environmental conditions for the bailout to slash domestic flights and commit to becoming the “greenest airline in the world” (Cirium, 2020).
In the railway sector, decisions previously thought impossible under current Prime Minister Boris Johnson have been made. The crisis has seen the UK partially renationalise the railways – passenger rail has been taken over by the government, only rail freight remains in commercial hands (Department for Transport, 2020). This could be crucial in the move towards a sustainable future, done in conjunction with reduced domestic and intra-continental flights it can make rail journeys undeniably the best choice for short-duration travel.
Another positive change for the environmental movement is the encouragement of walking or cycling to work. In the UK over the past decade, the attempts to get people making the healthier choice has been minimal, with widespread anecdotal evidence showing that council’s around the UK have installed cycle lanes as short as 2m and then totalled multiple of these up to achieve targets. Moreover, the on-going pandemic and fear over a second wave has led to the installation of safe walking and cycle routes becoming a top priority in the plan to ease lockdown and keep citizens safe. This crisis is pushing funding towards greener ways to travel with a £250m investment in cycling infrastructure announced, and an additional National Cycling Plan to be released in June with a Cycling and Walking commissioner (Stone, 2020). The pandemic has increased the speed and efficacy of greener policies which environmentalists have been proponents of and pushed for over the past decade, and whether or not these policies are passed to reduce our emissions, indirectly or directly it will green our transport system.
This quote from Milton Friedman seems very apt:
“Only a crisis, actual or perceived, produces real change.When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable” (Milton Friedman, no date).
These ideas are lying around because environmentalists and scientists have pushed for climate change to be on the agenda for many years, and creating a greener transport system to reduce emissions is a top priority. This crisis is the catalyst that puts these greener practices into our transport sector. I believe it is a coincidental silver lining that measures vital to suppressing the corona virus cases will also re-structure our transport system in a greener way. These changes are healthier for people – in and out of a pandemic – and healthier for our environment.
People do not often consider cities to be an ecosystem. Yet when I saw a hedgehog rummage around the streets of city-center Amsterdam I realised that that really is what a city is, not unlike a dune area or a forest. A collection of flora and fauna delicately balanced and living off each other and with each other. A city is, perhaps, an entirely man-made ecosystem, in which we have control over even the smallest of details. Is it, then, not strange that we treat a city vastly different from a forest. Plants and trees have value and so do animals, not only for recreation, but also for productivity and regulation of extremes. All around the world we are noticing that urban areas are struggling with pests, heatwaves and floods. It is widely accepted by policymakers that vegetation, greenery and parks will counteract many of these problems. There is, however, difficulty in this as building more parks takes up a lot of space and would require tearing down many (monumental) residential buildings. For cities like Amsterdam, however, there could be an easy solution. It should become common policy in Dutch cities that 60% of back- and front-yards should be covered in vegetation. There are a number of great advantages to such a “tile taxing”, I will discuss these concisely.
Decreasing urban heat islands
Urban heat islands are caused by the heat uptake retention of concrete and other building materials to a much greater extent than for example water or vegetation. These urban heat islands account for sometimes up to a few degrees extra warming in certain areas of cities, causing higher risk of strokes and other health hazards, especially to the vulnerable parts of the population such as the elderly, disabled and young children. Parks have been shown to decrease the urban heat island effect and even a singular tree already makes a difference. They do this not only by providing shade, which is a more minor factor than one may expect, but also by less heat uptake and increased heat regulation through evaporation of moisture that was present in the vegetation. If tiles would be replaced by vegetation in all backyards it would create a similar effect.
Retention basins for Heavy rainfall and drought
Flooding due to heavy rainfall already occurs a few times each year and in future climate scenarios this will only become worse. Weather extremes will become more frequent and both drought and heavy precipitation events will become less exception and more the rule each summer. This leads to great challenges in future city planning where heavier precipitation events may cause serious harm to infrastructure and people if flooding would occur regularly. One effective way to counteract flooding is to build retention basins. Retention basins are designated areas that can absorb water and delay the time it takes the water to reach the sewage system. Something that functions brilliantly as retention basins are parks and vegetation covered gardens. The plants ensure more initial evapotranspiration, causing a lower influx of rainwater and delay the time it takes the water to reach the surface. Once the water has arrived here it is partly soaked up by the soil and retained there. This process greatly reduces the stress on the sewage system and damages on infrastructure due to flooding. In case of drought quite the opposite occurs where the foliage cover reduces evapotranspiration causing more water to be retained in the soil. As well as the vegetation providing the cooling mentioned earlier.
Biodiversity is often relatively low in cities. However, indigenous species such as hedgehogs, hares and foxes, as well as smaller species such as frogs, toads and newt could easily return to urban areas if larger portions were covered in vegetation. Not to mention insects (notably bees) and birds. This would not only help control pests such as mosquitoes, flies and mice but would also increase overall human happiness. As it has been shown that being exposed to nature increases happiness in people.
Discussion and conclusion
Apart from the aforementioned reasons to ensure more greenery in urban gardens some other things include improved production, as company buildings next to parks are shown to be 10% more productive than those not exposed to vegetation. And increased real estate prices, since property in greener (yet otherwise identical) areas is more valuable.
Arguments against tile taxing would be that it would be too time consuming for some hard-working people to take care of a green garden and that tiling a garden reduces maintenance cost and time. Solutions to this can be found however, both in community- and municipality-provided aid. The possibility of exemption in case of inability and education on low-effort green gardens that require little maintenance, but function nonetheless.
Tile Taxing would reap a great many benefits and aid in climate-proofing cities for the future. While keeping a garden green and flourishing may require some effort of people who do not have the time or do not wish to put in the effort, it is of great importance to cities to ensure that there is enough vegetation cover. And solutions to this problem can easily be found through aid, exemption or education. While there are still some practical issues that need to be resolved such as the occasion of smaller backyards that are used as storage for bikes or other materials, solutions to this are easily introduced.
KWR 2014: Risico’s van klimaatverandering voor de drinkwatersector