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Fast & Slow

Where were you when the climate changed?


Although it wasn’t really like that, was it? Perhaps you didn’t even notice at the time. Sure, there were probably more disaster stories on the news, weather events of unprecedented severity and record streaks of the hottest years on record, but who could really say one way or the other? Records were relatively new in the geological timeline. And stuff’s happening all the time. Like electric bills, 2-for-1 offers, and football. The Facts of Life. Were they Gaia’s facts too? Hard to say, now. Funny thing about the ‘bystander effect', isn’t it? We always figured someone else would clean up the mess. Something we might have discussed over a glass of wine, once. Christ, I miss wine. Do you remember pubs? Swimming pools? Skiing? Summer berries in February? Come to think of it, they didn’t taste of much. But it was nice to have the option.



15 years ago Europe’s late summer of 2003 blazed into the record books with its soaring July-August temperatures; 29,000 dead.[1] Significant crop shortfalls, droughts and forest fires in Europe were echoed across North America, Australia and many African states.


By 2013, the last 16 years had been the hottest on record, with 2010 at the top of the pyre. Records were also consistently being broken by the unprecedented severity and regularity of extreme weather events: 2005’s Category 5 Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast of the US, displacing more than 2 million US citizens from their homes; in 2011 the biggest earthquake to ever hit Japan precipitated Fukushima’s spiralling nuclear nightmare. 5 years ago the UN estimated that climate change was causing 300,000 deaths a year worldwide, with the least-advantaged being hardest hit.[2]


This year, the creeping auburn of our hemisphere’s autumn echoes a burning summer. Europe, North America, and even the Arctic circle in flames. Severe droughts in some places, torrential rains in others. And these global chickens are coming home to roost: although thankfully not life-threatening, here in rainy Cheshire we experienced an extended and unexpected water crisis, and local farmers say they haven’t seen conditions this bad since the ‘70s. Locally the price of hay has gone up by 50% as livestock farmers struggle to find the grass for winter feed, and supermarket aisles are likely to reflect the depleted harvests, just as late February's Beast from the East virtually emptied the shelves of this year's organic British apples (although the non-organic market might not show this for over a year). Elsewhere, people starve.


Today, 2010’s heavyweight global temperature average ranks only 5th in the hottest years ever recorded, and 2018's imminent IPCC report is a desperate call to action.


The climate is changing.


Human activity is adding carbon to the atmosphere. More C02 (and other greenhouse gases) in the atmosphere results in an increase in the greenhouse effect. As an average taken across the whole planet across centuries, it is warming. Human activity is warming the planet. Human activity from within the world-dominating cultural paradigm of unbridled consumption, infinite growth, and anthropocentrism. Our culture is warming the planet to destabilising levels, and this is already having lethal consequences which only show signs of increasing.


We have a choice to make: to adapt, or to ignore.


This is a story of fast and slow. Fast: a virus’s population exploding. Slow: the death of the host organism. Fast: severing a cultural lineage. Slow: the accrual of generations of wisdom. Fast: ploughing the land. Slow: the spread of mycorrhizal networks and other soil life. Bridges are fast to burn, slow to rebuild. Relationships can be ruined with one bad decision; trust takes years to reestablish. The oldest tree in the world has been growing for 9,500 years; it could be destroyed in minutes.


The growing global crisis is a complex, multifaceted hydra that will require a whole range of herculean responses – international, national and local; fast and slow. Collectively we need to rapidly decrease our global carbon emissions, effect a radical shift towards much greater energy efficiency, and move our energy sources away from fossil fuels and nuclear.[3] We also need to protect our natural resources, farm much more regeneratively, and stop the wholesale destruction of species and ecosystems. Fast. This means petitioning government, writing to MPs, non-violent marches to change the political conversation, protesting against myopic policies, supporting worthwhile conservation projects, as well as changing our consumption habits. It means informing ourselves, assessing our values, and acting upon them. This isn't about guilt-trips and succumbing to the overwhelming immensity of the problem – here at Beech Hill we have a very long way to go to become carbon neutral, and continue to grapple with the cognitive dissonances and qualified successes of a permaculture project in a 1913 single-glazed mansion – but about engaging with these questions, getting in touch with what's life-giving, taking responsibility, and living differently. What can you do? Where does your 'deep gladness meet the world's deep need'? [4]


In reality it’s not just about atmospheric gas quotients and the human landscape. Even more fundamental is the paradigm-shifting work to rebalance our relationship with the land, with the more-than-human sphere, with those shadowy parts of our own psyche. And this is slow work.


Trees grow slowly, and most apex species even must grow slowly, if they are to live their fullest, healthiest lives. The lone Beech that is planted in an open field surges fast and broad toward the heavens, but grows recklessly with sun-drunk leaves and porous fibres in its trunk – vulnerable to the wind’s caprices and the creeping fungal fingers of death. The Beech that germinates beneath its mother in full shade grows slowly, perhaps spending decades as an apparently stunted, shrubby specimen – but grows tightly, nurtured, supported and well-prepared for its time in the sun, with dense wood and strong roots that will in turn support the next generation.[5]


The answer is not in simply replacing fossil fuels so that we can live exactly as we have been living. We've been down that road before. Where once murdered-whale oil lit our houses and greased our wheels and drove those wondrous creatures nearly to extinction, now we drain the black marrow of the land with even more deleterious effects; the voracious, untethered appetite is the same. Likewise it is not enough to fell trees here and replant them over there on a rolling 1:1 basis. A young tree is the not the same as an old one. Not all ecosystems are equal. Primary growth forest offers a richness, complexity and depth of relationships that a continually-harvested plantation – or even secondary growth forest – lacks, and which will take years, decades, centuries or more to develop.[6] But develop they will, if allowed to do so, if not driven to the grim finality of extinction. Many indigenous cultures worldwide recognise this, recognise the sacredness of the land and our kinship with it, the sacredness of the big trees and headwaters and web of beings that nurture the whole; recognise that we have much to learn from the world around us, a world overflowing with meaning and mystery. The natural way is towards greater biodiversity, greater complexity, and greater resilience; a dynamic balance that is continually unfolding, never fixed. Every part a part of the whole, no part apart from the totality. A totality that we simply cannot understand in its mysterious and awesome fullness, and certainly not through our scientific-materialist mode of reduction, fragmentation, isolation, and pseudo-objective analysis. Empirically-falsifiable, discriminating human knowledge is the not the only knowledge, and in fact our evangelising adherence to it has been instrumental in the unbalancing of the world. Fast: stopping the plunder and destruction of ancient ecosystems, cultures, and ways of knowing. Slow: humbly opening ourselves up to their rhythms, learning their secrets.


We are finally learning the limits to our consumptive, egotistical, dominant cultural mode of life, and it turns out the lessons are old ones. There is no growth without decay, no life without death, no part in isolation from the whole. We ourselves are the universe unfolding, and we ourselves have the capacity to respond – will we choose a life that’s larger, more meaningful and even more mysterious than we can possibly imagine? Or will we keep choosing our little lives, fearful, fragmented, and filled with craving?


There is so much richness and beauty and wonder in the world. A world we have not inherited from our grandparents but only borrowed from our grandchildren.


What will you do now?


What will you do with 'your one wild and precious life'? [7]




[1] P. Squarzoni, Climate changed: a personal journey through the science (Abrams, 2014), p.90; https://www.britannica.com/event/European-heat-wave-of-2003

[2] Squarzoni, p,89.

[3] Ibid.,; http://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar5/wg1/WG1AR5_SPM_FINAL.pdf

[4] F. Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC (Harper Collins, 1993)

[5] P. Wohlleben, The Hidden Life of Trees: The International Bestseller – What They Feel, How They Communicate (William Collins, 2017)

[6] Ibid.

[7] M. Oliver, 'The Summer Day', House of light (Beacon Press, 1992)

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