Diana Francis, a peace activist I hold in great respect, writes, “Many of us are hoping that good things can come from our experience of this pandemic, creating a kinder, gentler, more equitable society. Will this latest threat have brought us to the moment when decisive societal and political rethinking and action lead to the radical restructuring of our personal and collective lives?”
She goes on to say, “I have been encouraged by the many thoughtful articles published since the pandemic’s outbreak, suggesting kinder, more inclusive ways of living: new approaches to economics, new uses of technology, the rejection of consumerism and simpler, gentler lifestyles. The quiet streets and bird song have awoken old memories and a sense that all is not yet lost and that some sort of renewal could be possible.” (1)
Londoners were today given an indication that such renewal really is possible when the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, announced a major initiative to make much of central London car-free.
The Mayor’s Office stated, “Some streets will be converted to walking and cycling only, with others restricted to all traffic apart from buses, as part of the Mayor’s latest bold Streetspace measures. Streets between London Bridge and Shoreditch, Euston and Waterloo and Old Street and Holborn may be limited to buses, pedestrians and cyclists to help boost safe and sustainable travel as our city starts to gradually emerge from national Covid-19 restrictions. Access for emergency services and disabled people will be maintained, but deliveries on some streets may need to be made outside of congestion charging hours. Waterloo Bridge and London Bridge may be restricted to people walking, cycling and buses only, with pavements widened to enable people to safely travel between busy railway stations and their workplaces. TfL is looking into providing Zero Emission Capable taxis with access to both these bridges, and other areas where traffic is restricted.” (2)
What was Sadiq Khan’s motivation? It appears that he and his office saw what the rest of us saw: the stark contrast between the pollution in London prior to lockdown and the clean air after lockdown. “Following the Government announcement of coronavirus related travel restrictions, traffic levels on TfL roads fell by as much as 60 per cent and harmful nitrogen dioxide was down by around 50 per cent on some of London’s busiest roads.”
Now that traffic and pollution are starting to rise again does he believe that this is the moment when a different world is within our grasp? Has he reached out to grab it while he can?
His decision could finally reverse the long-term dominance of the car. Since the 1950s, the previously unstoppable rise in automobile ownership has made many of our cities almost unliveable, destroying streetscapes, scarring our built environment, creating uncrossable divides between communities, and drowning us all in pollution and noise. Suddenly, this is now seen to be the mistake that it surely was.
Even better news is that Sadiq Khan is not the only leader to be responding in this way to opportunity thrown up by coronavirus. Worldwide, from Milan to Montreal, from Bogota to Mexico, administrations are seizing the moment to improve the air quality and environment of their cities by encouraging pedestrians and cyclists and discouraging cars. (3)
Could it be that birdsong, clear skies and clean air will continue to be a feature of urban life even after Covid? Only if we stop using our cars and and get on the bus.
When we talk of species extinction we tend to think of this as something that happens a long way away from us, maybe in another continent, in the jungles of the Amazon or Asia. We also tend to think of species extinction as being the result of human encroachment – the combination of felling, burning, agriculture and urbanisation. While this picture is largely correct as far as it goes in many parts of the world, something just as frightening is happening much closer to home.
Our trees are dying. Not a few of them, somewhere else, but many of them, here, throughout our country. Many of our tree species are facing a wave of diseases that will have almost unimaginable consequences for our countryside. The list of tree diseases in Britain is now very, very long. The government website Gov.UK lists some two dozen, all of them serious (1). The most frightening thing of all is that many of these diseases are new – new to Europe not just to the UK.
The sad loss of the majestic English Elm
Some of us are old enough to remember the second wave of Dutch Elm disease. The first hit during the 1920s and burnt itself out. The second started in the 1970s and by the early 1980s, Elm trees had almost totally disappeared from the landscape. Some twenty million elms had been killed during a single decade. Now they are but a memory with only a few isolated examples remaining.
Anyone younger than forty is probably too young to remember how elms had once been a prominent feature of our landscape, their stately forms punctuated the hedgerows and fields, the galleons of the green. Appearing taller than other English deciduous trees, mainly due to the fact that they put their energy into vertical growth and spread their branches less widely than trees such as the oak or the ash, they reached a height of 30 metres.
The English elm often stood solitary or in small groves and was once the home of choice to rooks (2). Rookeries were found wherever elms stood in a cluster, as they once did on the edge of almost every English village. Then they were as English as cricket on the green. No more. The elms have gone and so too, to a large extent, have the rooks. While they have found other trees in which to build their nests, the colossal rookeries of yesteryear are very much a thing of the past. Elms survive today largely as a hedgerow shrub.
When I was young, a fairly large rookery was housed in a small cluster of elms that stood within earshot of my bedroom. Every morning I was greeted with the raucous squabbling of these delightfully cantankerous corvids. As sunset approached, this performance was repeated, slowly subsiding into a round of gentle cawing as they settled down for the night. Despite their quarrelsome manner, I always found there to be something cheerful and amusing in how the rooks conducted themselves. And while the elms are sadly no more, rooks have remained one of my favourite bird species. The sight of these large bare-billed black birds feeding in a fallow field during winter seems to me to be a scene that could stretch back into eternity.
The slow death of the Common Ash
Many of us have heard of Ash dieback caused by the fungus Hymenoscyphus fraxineus, more properly known as Chalara ash dieback. The disease attacks one of our most common and loved native trees, Fraxinus excelsior, a tree which can otherwise reach 35 metres in height and 400 years in age. There are thought to be some 90-150 million mature ash trees in Britain, and as many as 2.2 billion trees in total, when saplings are included (3).
The disease is of Asian origin and was first reported in Europe in Poland in 1992, where it quickly had devastating consequences. The first symptoms are the weakening, drooping and discolouration of leaves and shoots, followed by premature leaf fall. Stricken trees subsequently develop black lesions in their trunks and bark. Once present, Chalara ash dieback stunts growth and weakens the heart of the tree, making it vulnerable to attack by other tree diseases. This almost invariably results in death, sooner or later (4).
Unfortunately, the disease spreads easily, the spores of the fungus travelling on the soles of shoes or car tyres. The spores can be carried as much as 10 miles or more on the wind. As a result of its ease of transmission, Chalara ash dieback has spread rapidly throughout Europe. It was first identified in England in 2012. However, scientists now believe it had reached the UK as early as 2006, but had gone unreported.
It is expected that the disease will kill somewhere between 95% and 99% of all UK ash trees (5). There is no cure. Because the tree is so widespread, from southern England all the way up to Scotland, this disease will change the appearance of the British landscape even more than the loss of the elm. While few trees will survive in the long term, some have proved resistant to the fungus. This has given rise to some hope and the formation of the Living Ash Project (6)(7).
Why we have a tsunami of tree diseases
Ash dieback is just one unexpected and unfortunate outcome of the absence of proper plant quarantine facilities in the UK. As we have seen with human disease, there is little or no attempt to enforce controls at our borders. This is even more the case when it comes to controlling plant imports. Trade is all in our globalised world.
As a result, Chalara ash dieback is one of more than half a dozen new deadly tree diseases, all of which have arrived on these shores in recent years. I list the main notifiable diseases by the date when they were first identified in Britain:
1993 Phytophthora of alder: Lethal to the alder tree; it came here from Germany and France; 20% of all trees are already infected.
2000 Horse chestnut bleeding: This is a type of canker caused by two different pathogens – one from the US, the other from the Himalayas. Lethal.
2002 Ramorum disease: Arrived from Asia and affects 150 species. Larch are particularly susceptible, resulting in browning of the needles and needle drop, followed by sudden larch death. Stands of larch across Britain and Europe are now permanently brown all year around. They are being felled and have little or no value as wood.
2007 Phytophthora of juniper: Arrived from Argentina. Causes dieback and eventual tree death.
2009 Massaria disease: Arrived from Europe. Affects the plane tree, including the London plane, leading to branch loss, weakening them and making them unsafe. Councils are forced to resort to felling to protect the public.
2010 Phytophthora lateralis: From North America. Kills the evergreen Lawson cypress.
2011 Neonectria canker of Abies: From Europe. This disease causes crown dieback and weakens the wood. Affects 13 species of fir as well, it appears, as some spruce and the western hemlock.
2011 Sweet chestnut blight: Say goodbye to the sweet chestnut tree. This arrived from the US via Europe. It is estimated that it has already killed 3.5 billion trees in the US during the twentieth century.
By now, if you’re like me, you are no doubt feeling distressed that we could ever have permitted this slow moving disaster to gradually overwhelm our woodlands. Sadly, there might be worse to come.
The big new killers on the block
Containing plant diseases should be a whole lot easier than containing human ones. Plants don’t run, nor do they walk (8). If we wish to, we can prevent things going from bad to worse by adopting proper plant quarantine procedures as the Australians have done for decades (9). Our trees needn’t die in such vast numbers (though, sadly, it might already be too late to save the ash).
There is urgent need to act. The tree diseases on our doorstep are the most frightening yet. And probably the most serious of all is that of Xyella fastidiosa. The photograph above is of an Italian olive grove devastated by this disease.
According to Forest Research, “Xylella is a plant disease which can affect several species of broadleaf trees widely grown in the UK, such as oak, elm and plane, as well as a wide range of other commercially grown plants. Among them are grape, citrus, coffee, olive, almond and blueberry species, and many herbaceous plant species.”(10) I am not looking forward to doing without coffee, wine, or citrus fruit; and this list is just the tip of the iceberg. While it includes some of Xyella’s commercially more valuable victims, it misses off most of the garden plants that will disappear if it arrives on these shores. Currently, some 560 plant species are known to be vulnerable to Xyella!
The disease reached Europe from America, being first detected in Italy in 2013. It has since made its way slowly northwards, spreading to Spain and France which are struggling to contain it. Germany, on the other hand, was successful in eliminating an outbreak in 2018.
The bacterial disease blocks the movement of water and nutrients (through the xylem) in the host plant, thereby causing severe damage and frequently killing the plant. It affects different species with varying degrees of lethality. The disease has already led to the destruction of tens of thousands of olive trees. I find this particularly sad. Olive trees are known to live for well over 2,000 years and are some of the oldest living organisms on the planet (11).
However scary a prospect for our gardens and countryside, Xyella is not the end of the story. Further horrors that have yet to reach our shores await our trees. Some are already knocking at our door:
Conifer root rot: This has already destroyed 25% of Norway spruce trees throughout Scandinavia.
Pitch canker of pine: It arrived in Europe from North America. The disease affects spruce trees as well as pine. It reduces timber growth and causes widespread tree death. It is present in Portugal and Spain and is considered eradicated from France and Italy.
Plane tree wilt: This is widespread in Europe. It kills slowly, taking up to 7 years to finish off its host.
Oak tree wilt: The name is misleading. The fungal disease can kill oak trees in just a few years. If it ever came here, it could do immense damage to our two native species of oaks, which are already are already under severe stress from threats such as acute oak decline, chronic oak dieback, and oak processionally moth.
This post focuses on the new tree diseases brought to Britain and Europe from other countries. Take pitch canker of pine. This disease is prevalent in southeastern USA, as well as coastal Monterey and California. It is thought that it might have originated in Mexico, however, and is also found in Chile and Haiti. From the Americas, as well as Europe, it has also spread to South Africa and several countries in Asia, including Japan, Korea and possibly Iraq. In addition to the felling of the great jungles of South America and Asia, the unrestricted trade of recent decades has had some unexpected and terrible consequences for the world’s trees.
Is our number one carbon sink sunk?
People everywhere are calling for the planting of millions (or trillions) of more trees to act as carbon sinks. More trees mean less free-floating CO2 and this slows the warming of atmosphere. Trees do a great job of this. Roughly speaking, a 40 year-old tree has absorbed about one ton of CO2. A 2001 study lists the following species of trees as being especially good at storing and absorbing CO2: the common horse-chestnut, black walnut, American sweetgum, Ponderosa pine, red pine, white pine, London plane, Hispaniolan pine, Douglas fir, scarlet oak, red oak, Virginia live oak, and bald cypress (12). Do you notice something? That’s right, there’s a very worrying overlap with the list of species we’ve just been talking about. This is not good news.
Australia treats the spread of tree diseases as an issue of Biosecurity. Their government website states, “Imported live plant material can introduce foreign plant pests and diseases that could be harmful to Australia’s environment, agriculture and economy. To protect against this risk, the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment sets conditions for the import of all live plant material to Australia.” That they mean business is flagged right at the top of the website, where this message is highlighted: “Notice to import industry: changes to import requirements to protect against Xylella. The Australian Government is strengthening the import requirements for a number of plant species to safeguard Australia against the bacterial plant pathogen Xylella (Xylella fastidiosa)”(13).
Australia is clearly prepared to go to great lengths to prevent the spread of Xyella and other deadly tree diseases. The question is, why aren’t we?
(8) The one exception, of course, is that of the Triffids, in John Wyndham’s post-apocalyptic science fiction novel, The Day of the Triffids (1951). Once plants started walking, humans were in deep trouble.
(11) Let me be clear, there are many other contenders for this title, including the humble yew tree, an example of which, growing in a churchyard in Wales, is thought to be somewhere between 4,000 and 5,000 years old. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Llangernyw_Yew
With a number of countries already contemplating easing the lockdown (see my post of April 22), The Netherlands is first off the block in considering degrowth when thinking about what our society should look like once the Covid-19 has eased.
Degrowth is a political and environment movement that advocates moving away from our obsession with GDP, downscaling production and consumption to focus on our real needs as a society. This changed focus would reorient our activity as human beings, giving greater importance to relationships and community, our families, art, and general wellbeing. Business and commerce would become just one part of life, not its sole goal. The objective of degrowth is to produce a future that is both environmentally sustainable and generally much more satisfying for people than today’s rat race. Restored World is aligned with this movement.
The proposals of 170 Dutch academics are wide-ranging and address fundamental issues of our collective future, building on some of the green shoots we have seen the early signs of in the UK and elsewhere in Europe – the need for greater self-sufficiency, a basic income for all, sustainable agriculture, less travel, and the cancellation of debt.
Fortunately for me, as I speak not a word of Dutch, Jason Hickel, an inspirational academic in his own right, has provided a summary of their inspiring objectives in translation (1). I quote at length:
“This is remarkable: 170 Dutch academics put together a 5-point manifesto for economic change after the C19 crisis, building on #degrowth principles. It has gone viral in Dutch media. In this thread I’ll summarize the points in English.” (2)
1) Shift from an economy focused on aggregate GDP growth to differentiate among sectors that can grow and need investment (critical public sectors, and clean energy, education, health) and sectors that need to radically degrow (oil, gas, mining, advertising, etc).
2) Build an economic framework focused on redistribution, which establishes a universal basic income (see my post of April 22), a universal social policy system, a strong progressive taxation of income, profits and wealth, reduced working hours and job sharing, and recognizes care work.
3) Transform farming towards regenerative agriculture based on biodiversity conservation, sustainable and mostly local and vegetarian food production, as well as fair agricultural employment conditions and wages.
4) Reduce consumption and travel, with a drastic shift from luxury and wasteful consumption and travel to basic, necessary, sustainable and satisfying consumption and travel.
5) Debt cancellation, especially for workers and small business owners and for countries in the global south (both from richer countries and international financial institutions).
The Dutch aren’t alone in thinking we need a very different way of life if we are to address the Climate Emergency. This necessarily entails a completely different way of thinking about our purpose. I have found the thinking of Tim Jackson useful in this area. His book, Prosperity Without Growth is described by Yanis Varoufakis as “essential reading” (3). He argues that the Problem with Growth, in driving and determining all our actions, is the gorilla in the room (see my post of April 20). We ignore it at our peril.
(1) Dr. Jason Hickel is an economic anthropologist, author, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. He is a Senior Lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London. He serves on the Labour Party task force on international development, the Statistical Advisory Panel for the Human Development Report 2020, the advisory board of the Green New Deal for Europe, and on the Lancet Commission on Reparations and Redistributive Justice. His most recent book, The Divide: A Brief Guide to Global Inequality and its Solutions, was published by Penguin Random House in 2017.
(2) For those of you who read Dutch (I know there are some who subscribe to this blog): https://www.trouw.nl/duurzaamheid-natuur/manifest-van-170-wetenschappers-het-is-een-blunder-als-we-niet-groener-uit-de-coronacrisis-komen~b12864df/
(3) Tim Jackson, Prosperity without Growth: Foundations for the Economy of Tomorrow, second edition, Routledge, 2017.
Leaders are defined in times of crisis it is said. During this pandemic, leaders have been in desperately short supply.
One notable exception is President Emmanuel Macron.
Until now, I have been no great fan. Nor have the French. His popularity rating dropped to around 30%, due largely to his handling of the gilet jaunes protests in Paris. His response to the Covid-19 pandemic has ensured that his popularity is now recovering, rapidly.
One interview has turned me around too. It was conducted by the Financial Times on Friday 17th April. What follows are extracts (1). My intention is to illustrate why I think he has become a European leader worth listening to.
Macron starts in his interview from the same place where this blog and website start from: “We all face the profound need to invent something new, because that is all we can do,” he says. “I don’t know if we are at the beginning or the middle of this crisis — no one knows,” he says. “There is lots of uncertainty and that should make us very humble.”
“I think it’s a profound anthropological shock,” he says of the crisis. “We have stopped half the planet to save lives, there are no precedents for that in our history.” This is where many would stop. But what Macron said next made me sit up and take notice:
“But it will change the nature of globalisation, with which we have lived for the past 40 years . . . We had the impression there were no more borders. It was all about faster and faster circulation and accumulation,” he says. “There were real successes. It got rid of totalitarians, there was the fall of the Berlin Wall 30 years ago and with ups and downs it brought hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. But particularly in recent years it increased inequalities in developed countries. And it was clear that this kind of globalisation was reaching the end of its cycle, it was undermining democracy.” Recognition from a European leader of what many of its citizens have long been saying.
Macron then went on to talk of the future of the European Union. What he says is of interest, in that it is clear that he now sees it in different light. “We are at a moment of truth, which is to decide whether the European Union is a political project or just a market project. I think it’s a political project . . . We need financial transfers and solidarity, if only so that Europe holds on,” he says. In other words, the richer countries need to support the poorer ones during this crisis, which, until now, they have been failing to do.
Critical for me, however, is when Macron turns to the broader lessons that we can draw from the pandemic: the Climate Crisis will kill, here, just as the pandemic has.
People have come to understand, Macron says, “that no one hesitates to make very profound, brutal choices when it’s a matter of saving lives. It’s the same for climate risk,” he says. “Great pandemics of respiratory distress syndromes like those we are living through now used to seem very far away, because they always stopped in Asia. Well, climate risk seems very far away because it affects Africa and the Pacific. But when it reaches you, it’s wake-up time.”
Wow! What a declaration of intent. One that is spot on too. Thank goodness someone in leadership finally seems to have understood what it will take to save the planet, and us.
That he has, is underlined in the final part of his interview. Macron likened the fear of suffocation that comes with Covid-19 to the effects of air pollution. “When we get out of this crisis people will no longer accept breathing dirty air,” he says. “People will say . . . ‘I do not agree with the choices of societies where I’ll breathe such air, where my baby will have bronchitis because of it. And remember you stopped everything for this Covid thing but now you want to make me breathe bad air!’”
Macron would get my vote, if I had one. I hope the French see it the same way.
(1) Sadly, you have to be a subscriber to read the full written interview or watch its video recording.
We are a critical juncture for humanity. The climate crisis and species extinction are the number one existential challenge. To date, we have singularly failed to deal with what this means for us as a species, collectively, nationally, globally.
Now this very real threat has been almost sidelined by the overwhelming impact of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which has swept away everything we thought solid, indisputable and true. Its impact has undermined many of our institutions, ways of life, and our assumptions about how things are done that we, like much of the world, have held dear for the past forty years or more.
Business as usual
It is most unlikely that we can simply “go back to the way things were before the outbreak” even if we wish to do so. Governments have extended their powers in unprecedented ways, democracy has been put on hold, debt is increasing at a previously unimaginable rate, a myriad businesses have already vanished for good, and the global system of trade and exchange is undermined. There will be no return tomorrow morning to “business as usual” – too much has already been broken.
And this is only just the beginning . . .
The sad truth is that many, many more people will die before this pandemic is over. It may be several years before we find a cure or a means of fully containing the virus. Years! This stretches the imagination.
While the media is talking of a vaccine being produced in a year to eighteen months using new technologies (1), we know it can take as much as ten years or more to develop a vaccine that can fully immunise us against viral infections (2). In other words, we will somehow have to keep going for a long, long time while simultaneously trying to contain the spread of Covid-19. And people will continue to die all around the world. This a horrifying prospect.
Already, trust is now at its most fragile. The dimensions of this tragedy mean the goodwill is sorely tested between individuals, communities, institutions and countries. Yet, if we are to survive in this strange world, let alone thrive, we will all need to find new and better ways to cooperate with each other and to share our resources and innovations. This is the challenge . . .