SeaChange: Reversing the Tide
- Extra Reading
The highly-acclaimed lecture/performance combines the knowledge of science and the wisdom of poetry. Between them actress Lisa Harrow and Roger Payne have numerous honours, fellowships, lifetime awards and even a knighthood.
Written and performed by Payne and Harrow, and including the poetry of Shakespeare, Shelley, Robert Frost and others, SeaChange offers an exposé of the consequences of humanity's current indifference to natural laws and urges us to make sustainable living our primary goal.
Financial support for this event was provided courtesy of the International Fund for Animal Welfare and Z/Yen Group.
SEA CHANGE: REVERSING THE TIDE
Roger Payne and Lisa Harrow
Good evening ladies and gentlemen. For those of you who don't know me, I am Michael Mainelli, I'm the Mercer School Memorial Professor of Commerce here at Gresham College, and it is my pleasure to welcome you to this evening's performance, SeaChange.
Seventeen years ago, scientist Roger Payne met actress Lisa Harrow in London's Trafalgar Square, where he had just opened a Greenpeace rally for whales, at which she was a celebrity speaker. He was there because he had co-discovered that whales sing songs; she was there because she had spent her career playing leading roles at the Royal Shakespeare Company and in London's West End and on television and film, with such actors as Judy Dench, John Hurt, Peter O'Toole and Patrick Stewart, Pierce Brosnan, Anthony Hopkins, and Glenda Jackson. Roger and Lisa were married just ten weeks after the day they met, having spent just two of those weeks in each other's company. Seventeen years later, they have joined their two disparate fields in this performance piece,SeaChange: Reversing the Tide. It has been created by both of them to help us understand why a life that is based on sustainable and restorative practices is a healthier life, both for us and the Earth.
Practical information on how to achieve such a life is available in Lisa's book, What Can I Do? which is an A-Z guide to internet sites offering information, resources and ideas for taking action to help the environment and ourselves.
But, ladies and gentlemen, may I present Roger and Lisa - SeaChange: Reversing the Tide.
We're finally out at sea again, with all our ties to land cast off. The last of it went under with the sun. The night surrounds us now, the sails softly pulling. The others lie asleep below. Only the stars up here to keep me company, on this mute and vacant sea. Though all is featureless and bare, I know that far beneath the waves lie unseen, unknown ocean glades, Where humpback whales glide and sing, all at their majestic, glacial pace, Great, gentle, cloud-like beings, drifting with currents too slow to sense. As we approach their range, our boat bows and curtsies in graceful, mazy arcs. I lean my back against the helm and watch the mast sweeping across vast fields of stars - infinite landlessness. I would not trade this hour for anything I know. Rock me gently, ocean. I'm coming home.
I was in love with the sea when I wrote that poem, and I fear that it has run like the pedal tone of an organ throughout my entire life. I was in Patagonia and it was ten years after Scott McVay and I had discovered that the spectacular sound, the sequences that are made by humpback whales, are actually songs, and after I had discovered that the lowest sounds in the songs of blue and fin whales can carry completely across oceans. I was living in Patagonia, on a remote, wild coast, to which I had taken my first family, and where we were living in the company of southern right whales, who filled our nights with the sounds of their breathing, but although we listened through hydrophones (those are underwater microphones), for hours every day, we only ever heard those whales make deep, guttural sounds. We never heard them sing songs, so I was sorely missing the wild compositions of their humpback whale brethren, and who fill the oceans with their singing every winter and spring.
The thing that had started me on my strange career as a whale biologist was listening to a brief recording of the single utterance of a northern right whale, the most endangered of all the whale species, the baleen whales. That single sound had about it a profound sadness, both mysterious and haunting. It was the most enigmatic, the most poignant sound that I had ever heard. It was the late 1960s. Humans were killing 33,000 whales each year, and it was clear that the biggest whale species were close to extinction. I had never seen a whale, except one while I was crossing the Atlantic, a single spirit spout far off in the distance, but because of that haunting sound of the northern right whale, it occurred to me that if I studied whales, I might be able to have some sort of effect on their fate. I wanted to listen to whales in the wild, and I knew that in order to hear them, I would need a silent boat. So I chartered a sailboat, borrowed a hydrophone, and set out to find a whale.
Up out of the dark waters pour wild arias, cantatas, magnificats, recitatives and requiems, whose boiling echoes are tumbling and cascading about the cathedral vaults of the sea, a seething, irrepressible falsetto, soprano, mezzo, baritone, contrabass of whale song, the wildest, most joyous music of all.
Of all of the Earth's enigmas, none is more unexpected than her whales: their unmatched grace and lightness of being, qualities that seem antithetical to such ponderous and improbable creatures, offer us a chance to take the measure of our insignificance. It is an all too rare experience for a hominid. And because of their hold on our imaginations, whales may just be able to get our attention enough to help us change our ways before we destroy the last remnants of nature. To live among them is to get a better understanding of how we fit into the natural world.
Off Stellwagen, off the Cape, the humpbacks rise, carrying their tonnage of barnacles and joy, they leap through the water. They nuzzle back under it, like children at play.
They sing too. And not for any reason you can't imagine.
Three of them rise to the surface near the bow of the boat, then dive deeply, their huge scarred flukes tipped to the air. We wait, not knowing just where it will happen; suddenly, they smash through the surface, someone begins shouting for joy, and you realise it is yourself, as they surge upward and you see for the first time how huge they are, as they breach, and dive, and breach again through the shining blue flowers of the split water and you see them for some unbelievable part of a moment against the sky - like nothing you have ever imagined - like the myth of the fifth morning galloping out of darkness, pouring heavenward, spinning; then
they crash back under those black silks and we all fall back together into that wet fire, you know what I mean.
The most massive animal that has ever lived in the history of the world is a blue whale, an animal that can grow to over 32 metres long and weigh more than 135 tons, a creature at least twice as massive as seismosaurus, the mightiest of the dinosaurs. The blue whale has a heart the size of a Volkswagen Beetle, with a main blood vessel the diameter of a large hub cap, wide enough for a child to crawl through, with lesser blood vessels big enough for a large sized trout to swim down without striking the artery walls with its tail. Under favourable conditions, it looks as though large whales may live upwards of 200 years, which may give them the oldest memories stored by any sophisticated brain on the planet.
For the first few weeks after giving birth to her 1.8 ton calf, a mother blue whale produces roughly 380 litres of milk each day, enabling her calf to gain over 115 kilos each day. Only two years later, her calf will be sexually mature, and it will be 25 meters long, will weigh 79 metric tons. A newborn calf cannot hold its breath as long as its mother can, and leaving it alone at the surface exposes it to a danger from predators. Sperm whale mothers have solved this problem by living in close-knit social groups, and where they take turns babysitting each other's youngest calves at the surface. It is a clear example of the value of living in communities and conforming to societal rules. After all, it takes a village to raise a sperm whale, and by such means and in such ways, things worked smoothly for whales and for 100 million other species as they came and went over 3.5 billion years, and then man showed up.
What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action, how like an angel! in apprehension, how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals!
And what has that nobility, that apprehension, those infinite faculties of man achieved? Well, it includes: conventional weapons, chemical weapons, nuclear weapons, biological weapons; international terrorism; numberless genocide; millions of people killed and displaced by thousands of wars; the rich getting richer, the poor poorer; globalisation homogenising cultures; the population explosion; the near total destruction of whales; the collapse of numerous fisheries; the wholesale destruction of coral reefs; the levelling of rainforests; the overwhelming pollution of land, of air, of water; soil exhaustion - dust bowls, falling aquifers, expanding deserts; rivers that no longer reach the sea; half of the world's five million lakes drying up; 60% of the Aral Sea gone; an expanding hole in the ozone layer; global warming; climate chaos; and the biggest species extinction rate in 60 million years.
When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be, I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water and the great heron feeds. I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
How did we get into this terrible mess? I believe that in major part it is because of a story that we tell ourselves: that Earth was created for us, and that the rest of life on Earth was created to serve us. It is a story based on an assumption that is probably as old as our species and which has been told, in one form or another, throughout our history.
In the beginning, God created the heaven and the Earth, and God created great whales and every living creature that moveth, which the waters brought forth abundantly after their kind, and God blessed them, saying 'Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters of the seas!' and God said, 'Let us make man in our image, after our likeness, and let him have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the fowl of the air and over the cattle and over all the Earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the Earth.' So God created man in his own image; in the image of God, created he him. Male and female, created he them, and God blessed them, and God said unto them, 'Be fruitful and multiply and replenish the Earth and subdue it.'
Almost all holy books promote the idea that we are special, from which it follows that we must therefore be exempt from the natural laws that all other species are forced to obey. One of the first natural laws that humans discovered also turned out to be one of the most consequential. It concerned the Sun.
Have you ever seen Anything in your life more wonderful
than the way the Sun, every morning, relaxed and easy, floats towards the horizon
and into the clouds or the hills, or the rumpled sea, and is gone - and how it slides again
out of the blackness, every morning, on the other side of the world, like a red flower
streaming upwards on its heavenly oils, say, on a morning in early summer, at its perfect, imperial distance?
The Sun rising, climbing to the zenith, and setting, is a totally convincing performance that fooled every person on Earth for thousands of years. It was obvious that the Earth stood still, while not just the Sun, but the Moon and the planets and the stars, all revolved around it. Humans believed that they stood on solid ground that lay at the centre of the universe, but in 1530, one person finally figured out the truth. A Polish scientist, Nicolaus Copernicus, caused a complete upheaval in Western thought by demonstrating that the Sun did not revolve around the Earth; it was the Earth that revolved around the Sun. Suddenly, it was clear that we do not lie at the centre of everything and that the universe does not revolve around us, for which the unwelcome, but unavoidable, conclusion is that man is not necessarily the star of the show, but just another pretty face among millions of other beguiling species and possible alternative universes.
And have you ever felt for anything such wild love - do you think there is anywhere, in any language, a word billowing enough for the pleasure
that fills you, as the sun reaches out, as it warms you
as you stand there, empty-handed - or have you too turned from this world -
or have you too gone crazy for power, for things?
We have known for a very long time that we are not the centre of the universe, and yet we continued to behave as if we still believed we were. We disrupt complex natural systems without giving it a moment's thought. Consider the recent collapse of marine mammals in the eastern Aleutian Islands?
One of its four major causes was a chain of events that occurred after Japanese whaling had decimated the once plentiful large whales, on which the killer whales, the orcas, preyed. The orcas had to find other food sources, and they apparently switched to eating the relatively enormous, but quite uncommon, steller sea lions, but the steller sea lions began disappearing, forcing the orcas to switch to smaller prey - northern sea lions, and when the northern sea lion population folded, the orcas started eating still smaller marine mammals, the sea otters, and they had soon decimated them as well. Now, the principal prey of sea otters is sea urchins, and once the orcas had cleared out the otters, the sea urchins' population exploded and they ate the kelp forests down to their hold fasts, but kelp forests create places where the larval forms of the fish we like to eat like to eat, so once the kelp forests were gone, many of those fish species got eaten by predators before they had grown big enough to move out into the open ocean where human fishers know how to catch them. So North Pacific fisheries started to collapse. Local fishers sold their boats, closed their businesses, and declared bankruptcy. Forty years ago, no one predicted that whaling would cause a string of effects that would reach so far into the future that it would eventually contribute to limiting human access to one of the largest fisheries on Earth. Forty years ago, the whalers thought that they were simply killing whales, whereas what they were really doing was killing whales, stellar sea lions, northern sea lions, sea otters, and kelp forests, thereby decimating open ocean fisheries and helping to put 21st Century Alaskan fishers out of their business.
The complexity of nature can fool us every time.
In Borneo, a place of fecund life, a jungle realm, an insect paradise, the Diac peoples fought a losing fight. Malaria was killing them outright. Some world health experts ordered DDT, and soon the Diacs were mosquito-free, and even though such treatment was maligned, in record time, malaria declined. But, then began a series of mishaps: first, roofs began to rot and then collapse, and when the cause had finally been uncovered, the folks who had unravelled it discovered that services some insects gave for free had ceased to be because of DDT. It killed the wasps that were themselves the killers of Diacs' thatch-devouring caterpillars, an unacknowledged service that in fact had kept the thatch in Diacs' roofs intact. The World Health folks replaced the roofs with tin, but this step just increased the daily din, because each time the jungle rains beat down, the noise kept everyone awake in town, and geckos, which keep houses insect-free, now ate their insects laced with DDT, and, as it built up in the geckos' tissues, it gave the cats that ate the geckos issues. They could not rid themselves of DDT. They lacked the means to break it down, you see. So, as the poison built up in their flesh, it killed the cats, and that gave rats a fresh new lease on life, and that, in turn, released controls on plague and typhoid - both increased. So, now the Diacs faced a far worse crisis: the threat of plague and maybe even typhus. The World Health now could see, in crystal clear, that their good reputation's end was near, but hoping to restore that reputation, the World Health dispatched the oddest deputation: they parachuted 14,000 cats, abandoned, strays, plus full aristocrats, into the Diacs' homes to kill the rats. The Royal Air Force flew the special op. Its code name was 'the Borneo Cat Drop'! It did take place. It's not a made-up story. The Diacs say it caused a huge furore.
The moral of this tale is clear to see: before we launch some new discovery, we need to know that what we're setting free is sure to operate sustainability. I don't mean to serve just you and me; it must support all life's diversity. It needs to work for every flower and tree and frog and hog and humble bubble bee, for if we fail to test things carefully, the best of schemes will all too frequently cause hitherto undreamed-of tragedy, a fact that only serves to demonstrate that when things fail post-launch, it's much too late!
In truth, we haven't a clue as to how to manage complex ecosystems! We are pillars of ignorance, supporting a house of cards. We stumble around in the darkness of our ignorance, while dreaming grand delusional dreams of someday controlling it all. It's part of our tragic flaw: that we love nature, are utterly dependent on nature, and yet, we are destroying nature.
An owl winks in the shadows A lizard lifts on tiptoe, breathing hard A young male sparrow stretches up his neck, big head, watching -
The grasses are working in the sun. Turn it green. Turn it sweet, that we may eat. Grow our meat.
Brazil says, 'Sovereign use of Natural Resources.' Thirty thousand kinds of unknown plants. The living actual people of the jungle sold and tortured And a robot in a suit who pedals a delusion called 'Brazil? can speak for them?
The whales turn and glisten, plunge and sound and rise again, Hanging over subtly darkening deeps Flowing like breathing planets in the sparkling whorls of living light -
And Japan quibbles for words on what kind of whales they can kill? A once-great Buddhist nation dribbles methyl mercury like gonorrhoea in the sea.
Pere David's deer, the Elaphure, Lived in the marshes of the Yellow River Two thousand years ago - and lost its home to rice - The forests of Lo-Yang were logged and all the silt and Sand flowed down, and gone, by 1200 AD.
Wild geese, hatched out in Siberia, head south over basins of the Yang, the Huang, what we call 'China? on flyways they have used a million years. Ah China, where are the tigers, the wild boars, the monkeys, like the snows of yesteryear
Gone in a mist, a flash, and the dry, hard ground Is parking space for fifty thousand trucks. Is man most precious of all things? - then let us love him and his brothers, all those fading living beings -
North America - Turtle Island, taken by invaders who wage war around the world, May ants, may abalone wolves, otters, elk Rise! and pull away their giving from the robot nations.
Solidarity. The people. Standing Tree People! Flying Bird People! Swimming Sea People! Four-legged, two-legged people! How can the head-heavy power-hungry politic scientist Government two-world Capitalist-Imperialist Third-world Communist paper-shuffling male non-farmer jet-set bureaucrats Speak for the green of the leaf? Speak for the soil?
(Ah Margaret Mead... do you sometimes dream of Samoa?) The robots argue how to parcel out our Mother Earth To last a little longer like vultures flapping Belching, gurgling, near a dying doe.
In yonder field a slain knight lies - We'll fly to him and eat his eyes with a down derry derry derry down down. An owl winks in the shadow A lizard lifts on tiptoe breathing hard The whales turn and glisten plunge and Sound, and rise again Flowing like breathing planets In the sparkling whorls Of living light.
The whalers' contribution to the collapse of the North Pacific ecosystem means that it now feeds us a pittance of what it once could, but today, we are over-taxing a much bigger ecosystem - the entire Earth.
A recent report by the National Academy of Sciences of the United States indicates that in the early 1980s the total area of biologically productive land, and water, that produces the resources humanity consumes, and the total area needed to assimilate the wastes that we generate, was no longer able to keep up with human demands, sustainably.
In the 25 years since then, our population has grown so much that in order to keep up with our demands, sustainably, we now need more arable land than the Earth has. We need 1.2 Earth equivalents. That is to say, this entire planet, plus an area equal to the agricultural areas of Europe and Australia. We need to ask ourselves where are we going to get as much arable land as there is in Europe in Australia. We are now practising the agricultural equivalent of deficit spending. Worldwide, about 80 million more people are born each year than die, so that by the end of each year, we have added to the population of the world 80 million more people than we had at the beginning of that same year. One way to think of it is this: since February of 2005, the Earth has received 305 million more mouths to feed than were here at that time.
Now, 305 million just happens to be the population of the United States, so the next time you fly across that country at over 500 mph and watch for six hours as the magnificent continent unrolls beneath you, consider the following: every city, every road, every farm, every tree, every place of business, every church, every house, to say nothing of every mountain range, valley, forest, open space, lake, river, national park, state park, beach, playing field, hospital, school, mall, stadium, theatre, together, they are what it takes to provide the quality of life shared by the 305 million people who live in that country. However, there is no such unutilised place into which the 305 million people can expand, who have been added to the world in the three years and nine months since February 2005 which, to somebody my age, seems like the day before yesterday. That means that all 305 million of today's children under four years of age cannot even hope to receive the advantages that you and I have lived our entire lives taking for granted. You and I are eating ever-faster into our children's inheritance - destroying their fisheries, pumping their aquifers dry, exhausting their topsoil, threatening their coastal cities with flooding, and so over-grazing their grasslands that we are bequeathing them deserts.
A people in the throes of national prosperity, who breath poisoned air, drink poisoned water, eat poisoned food, who take poisoned medicines to heal them of the poisons that they breath, drink and eat, such a people crave the further poison of official reassurance. It is not logical, but it is understandable perhaps, that they adore their president, who tells them that all is well, all is better than ever. The president reassures the farmer and his wife, who have exhausted themselves, exhausted their farm to pay for it, and have exhausted themselves to pay for it, and have not paid for it and have gone bankrupt, for the sake of the free market, foreign trade, and the prosperity of corporations; he consoles the Navajos, who have been exiled from their place of exile because the poor land contained something required for the national prosperity, after all; he consoles the young woman dying of cancer caused by a substance used in the normal course of national prosperity to make red apples redder; he consoles the couple in the Kentucky coalfields, who sit watching TV in their mobile home, on the mud of the floor of a mined out strip-mine; from his smile, they understand that the fortunate have a right to their fortunes, that the unfortunate have a right to their misfortunes, and that these are equal rights. The president smiles, with a disarming smile of a man who has seen God and found him a true American, not overbearingly smart. The president reassures the chairman of the board of the Humane Health for Profit Corporation of American, who knows, in his replaceable heart, that health, if it came, would bring financial ruin; he reassures the chairman of the board of the Victory and Honour for Profit Corporation of America, who has been awakened in the night by a dream of the calamity of peace.
We live in a world ruled by denial. The vast majority of politicians are not interested in tackling the hard problems, like global warming, or cleaning up the atmosphere or the oceans, or stemming the loss of topsoil, or that mother of all problems, the population explosion. Here is an example...
The highest point along all 1,500 miles of the East Coast of the United States, between Camden, Maine, and the Florida Keys, is a 135 metre high mountain of New York City trash, called Fresh Kills Landfill, known locally as Mount Trashmore. It was closed in 2001 because building it any higher would have interfered with air traffic! Now, that's a pretty good description of a problem that is out of control, but encouraging recycling of everything from candy wrappers to skyscrapers, or legislating that all food wastes should be composting, or in fact trying to pass any laws mandating zero waste, well, those are hard sells, so the people in control just close the dump and ship the ever-increasing volume of garbage elsewhere.
It is often stated that what makes our species unique is language, rational thought, and the making and using of tools. However, the more we learn about these abilities in non-humans, the more the gap between 'us' and 'them' narrows. Surely one of our species' most unique features is its limitless capacity for denial, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that we are wrong. That is what really makes our species unique.
I met a traveller from an antique land Who said: two vast and trunkless legs of stone Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand, Half-sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command Tell that its sculptor well those passions read Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things, The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed. And on the pedestal, these words appear: 'My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings: Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!' Nothing beside remains. Round the decay Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, The lone and level sands stretch far away.
In February of 2005, Tony Blair, anxious for an update on how fast global warming was proceeding, convened a gathering of climate specialists. These are four of the points he heard.
One, the Western Antarctic ice sheet was starting to break up, a process which, when complete, will raise sea levels five metres. Just four years earlier, the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change, the IPCC, that most trusted of world bodies, charged with the task of assessing climate change, had said that this ice sheet would be stable for 1,000 years, or at the very least until the end of this century.
Two, there was now good evidence that, long before the end of this century, the Earth's temperature would have risen enough to cause the Greenland ice cap to start melting. In fact, it has already started, and glaciers are moving seawards far faster than predicted, a process which, when complete, will raise sea levels a further six metres.
Three, the Earth's temperature is rising faster than previously thought. By the end of the century, the rise will be between 1.5 and 5.5 degrees Centigrade. Now, even the lowest estimate of those two is enough to trigger major floods, enduring droughts, and weather of record-breaking violence, thereby resulting in crop failures, along with mass migrations of people, and animals. Of course, if the upper estimate turns out to be closer to the mark, then we can expect to see civilisation stressed in ways that we would rather not think about.
Four, much of the carbon dioxide produced by burning fossil fuels dissolves in sea water, creating carbonic acid, which makes the sea slightly more acidic, but many species of marine organisms, from plankton to shellfish, have evolved to live in slightly alkaline waters. Should the seas become acidic enough to cause plankton populations to crash, the complex food chains supporting all life in the seas will crash. That is because all economically important ocean food pyramids are entirely dependent on plankton. If plankton dies, the whole pyramid dies. No phytoplankton, no zooplankton; no zooplankton, no fish; no fish, no whales, or seals or seabird, or the 1.4 billion humans who depend on fish as their primary source of animal protein. It is all very well to worry about losing whales, but if our actions result in the destruction of plankton, that's the whole ballgame! Nothing will make it unscathed.
It's possible that things will not get better than they are now or have been known to be. It is possible that we are past the middle now. It is possible that we have crossed the great water, without knowing it, and stand now on the other side - yes, I think we have crossed it. Now, we are being given tickets, and they are not tickets to the show we had been thinking of but to a different show, clearly inferior. Check again, it is our own name on the envelope... the tickets are to that other show...
It is possible that we will walk out of the darkened hall without waiting for the last act - people do, some people do... but it is probable that we will stay seated in our narrow seats all through the tedious denouement to the unsurprising end, riveted, as it were, spellbound by our own imperfect lives, because they are lives, and because they are ours...
When Tony Blair's global warming conference ended, Mike McCarthy and Paul Brown, the Environmental Editors for the British newspapers The Independent and The Guardian, travelled back together by train from Exeter to London. As Mike McCarthy later wrote:
We spent our time working out what it meant, working towards the inescapable conclusion. It was the inevitability of what was going to happen I think, that for the first time struck us with real force, that whatever flapping, floundering efforts humankind eventually makes to try to stop it all, the great ice sheets will melt, the seas will turn acid, and the land will burn. By the time we reached London, we knew what the conclusion was. I said, 'The Earth is finished.' Paul said, 'It is, yes.' We both shook our heads and gave that half-laugh that's sparked by incredulity. So many environmental scare stories over the years... I never dreamed of such a one as this...
And that was almost four years ago. There have been more recent reports by the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change, and they have consistently concluded that the situation is worse than Blair's conference had indicated. Why is it that every time there's an update of a bad situation that it's always worse than the initial estimate?!
One consistent factor is a pressure that all scientists live under: we must always play down our conclusion; we must never over-estimate them. You see this situation most clearly when all of the scientists in any meeting sign off on a report, and you notice that the wording has become so watered down, it's hard to see why anyone thought that it was important to have the meeting in the first place.
The IPCC says that we have no more than ten years to turn around global warming, but given that most of our problems are orders of magnitude more serious than any of the solutions proposed by our politicians, it seems that such a timeframe is probably awfully short.
Al Gore doesn't agree. He has pointed out that, every hour of every day, America sends $291 million overseas to buy oil - that's about £190 million sterling - every hour, of every day, all year long. In Gore's words, 'We are borrowing money from China to buy oil from the Persian Gulf so we can burn it in ways that destroy the planet. They build new skyscrapers and we lose jobs.' However, if we spent that money building solar arrays and windmills, we would be building competitive industries and creating new jobs at home. Gore has challenged America to 'commit to producing 100% of electricity from renewable energy and truly clean carbon-free sources within ten years,' a goal that Gore says is achievable, affordable and transformative.
If we do not begin to work together for the wellbeing of each other, the planet's surge of life may well be done with. Before Isis, Ishtar and Inanna, before Genesis and the pharaohs, before Diana, before Lilith, the kings and emperors, the enslavers, before boundaries and nations, when the adversarial mode had not yet come to be, before Hammurabi even, when there were no fences and no sacrifices, there was an air on this Earth that sang of being together, joined in wellness, and there was no school for gladiators. All this before history began? We today, trapped as we are in the roles of adversaries, us against them, light against the dark, all the history from the days of the Nile, through Troy, the Crusades, Vietnam, and now Iraq, have been forced by circumstance into the tragedies of greed, of exclusion, even descending into the heart of the atom to acquire the power to blow the planet up! If we do not begin to work together for the wellbeing of each other, the planet's surge of life may well be done with. If there is to be a future beyond our histories, we must craft it with care, with the willingness of being together, working together, without the fences and the eagerness of taking.
In all the heavens, there are stars more luminous even than our Sun, and since Ptolemy, Galileo, and Hubble, we have all looked up to them to find a place more beautiful than ours, more verdant, elegant, and full of the possibility of peace, and no such has ever been found! We do have the future in our hands and hearts, and were we to acknowledge the feminine again, the tapestry would indeed be more luminous than the Milky Way, or even all the lights of Broadway on the Eastern Coast of those so-called United States. We now must begin to work together for the wellbeing of each other, or else the planet's surge of life may well be done with, as even the seas of Mars.
And that's the whole point: the whole point of what we have to say here tonight, the whole point of why each one of us needs to live life with the realisation that it is urgent that we all help solve the problems humanity has created. It is why we must work together and why despair is not an option. We need to take concepts such as conservation and sustainable living seriously, must realise that these are not idle pastimes dabbled in by tree-huggers and delusionally optimistic greenies, but are names for new fronts in a war in which we should be engaging our main resources, for if we lose this war, we will devastate not just our lives but civilisation itself, and cause history to reclassify World Wars I and II, along with terrorism, as only 'minor disturbances'.
To make such a major shift in thinking, we must start by forgetting our hopes that leadership will come from the top - top-down has not worked. We need to build from the bottom-up, and I do not mean just from grassroots. I mean from deeper down, from the truths that nourish those roots and support our civilisation. The kinds of discoveries that have survived the crucible of scientific examination are examples of such truths. Great advances often come not from finding some new way of doing something, but from ceasing to do things that do not work.
Our view of our place in nature doesn't work. It fails to understand that all life on Earth is connected, and that when it is disconnected, it dies out and we die out. It is that failure of understanding that has put us in this pickle. We need to see ourselves as being a part of nature, not above nature. We must look to the needs of more than just our species, thereby creating a revolution in living restoratively and sustainably, a revolution that will reverse that what we do that lays waste to the world, a revolution that may just save our species from ourselves.
This new revolution is already underway - in industry, architecture, health, transportation, education, agriculture, and new forms of energy. It is driven by three simple truths: that many of humanity's worst problems are solvable; that many solutions are simple; and that existing scientific knowledge is strong enough to let us get on with implementing many such solutions. These three truths are based on reason, not on faith or zeal or political or economic expediency, which is to say that all three are founded on natural laws. The laws that control everything in the universe are called natural laws. Natural laws are inherent truths, not matters for debate. Scientists didn't invent them; they simply discovered that they were there all along, underlying everything, but unrecognised by us. Unfortunately, there are still people who treat natural laws as opinions and therefore subject to negotiation, but as author Bill McKibben puts it, 'The laws of Congress and the laws of physics have grown increasingly divergent, and the laws of physics are not likely to yield.' Natural laws include such simple truths as these...
One, the lives of every species, ours included, depend on the lives of many other species.
Two, any species that lives in a closed system has limits on its population and therefore cannot continue to increase indefinitely, no matter how clever its engineers and inventors may be. Just to be clear about this, although the Earth receives energy from the Sun and debris from space, it is otherwise a closed system.
Three, when a species grows to dominate its world entirely, it becomes, by definition, a plague species, whereupon the resources that support it collapse, taking that species with them.
There are hundreds of other natural laws, but just for the record, we who live in the developed world are currently out of step with the three I just mentioned. The monolithic indifference of natural laws to human preferences is total. Natural laws will never adapt to our desires, not even once! It is we who must adapt to natural laws - always, every time, no exceptions. We must learn to adapt even our most holy of holies, the economy, to natural laws, and must never forget, as so many have pointed out long before me, that the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of nature, which nature can, and will, shutdown whenever the economy gets too far out of line.
And let us not underestimate natural laws: they are brutally inflexible, and have demonstrated their supreme power by exerting absolute control over millions of species for billions of years. Our desire to have things run differently offers the same resistance to natural laws that a grape offers to a steamroller. No matter how long we live, no matter what we do to secure that living, the most important life choice that we and our leaders will ever make is the choice between action and inaction on the environment.
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, And sorry I could not travel both And be one traveller, long I stood And looked down one as far as I could To where it bent in the undergrowth.
Then took the other, as just as fair, And having perhaps the better claim Because it was grassy and wanted wear; Though as for that the passing there Had worn them really about the same.
And both, that morning equally lay In leaves no step had trodden black. Oh, I kept the first for another day! Yet knowing how way leads onto way, I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh Somewhere, ages and ages hence: Two roads diverged in a wood, and I - I took the one less travelled by, And that has made all the difference.
Think of the differences we could make in our lives if we decided that nature really mattered and started to recycle, reuse and replenish the natural resources on which our lives depend. Accepted wisdom though states that living sustainably is prohibitively expensive, but those who believe this claim are apparently not aware of the new industrial revolution in sustainable, restorative methods that is already making some of those who are using such methods seriously rich!
Interface is the biggest manufacturer of carpet tiles on Earth. A few years back, founder and chairman, Ray Anderson, decided to make his company's top priority the closed loop, carbon-neutral manufacturing of all of his carpets. His co-workers thought he'd gone round the bend, but he pointed out that seeing what was around the bend was his job, and he was right.
By employing super-efficient processes, Interface has already reduced its contaminated water output by 40%, its smokestack discharges by 50%, and its greenhouse gas emissions by 60%. Their fossil fuel use has dropped by 45%, while their sales have risen 49%. They have cut their water use by a third, and lowered what they discard in landfills by 80%. All of this has saved Interface £210 million in the last 12 years. In fact, it's where a third of their operating profits have come from, and, because these sustainable practices have been such a successful strategy, Interface now has a consulting service to help other businesses employ these same principles.
In the past fifteen years, the energy efficiency gains that Dupont has instituted while vigorously pursuing lower greenhouse gas emissions has saved that company £1.9 billion.
The moral of the Interface and the Dupont stories is clear: the decision to work towards sustainability and carbon neutrality can be highly beneficial to the bottom line.
A medical investigation in California revealed that the release of silica into the air whenever rice fields were burned caused lung disease in people living downwind of these fields. Thirty percent of the rice growers responded by flooding instead of burning their fields after each harvest, a practice that cured the problem.
It also attracted thousands of migrating ducks that dropped in to glean the rice from the flooded fields. These new seasonal wetlands started producing minnows, worms, and insects, all of which ducks love, so the ducks worked overtime fertilising and aerating the fields, which, along with the decomposing rice stubble, rebuilt the soil, and soon, duck hunters appeared, and that gave the rice farmers a new industry.
The natural fertilisers from the ducks also gave the farmers higher crop yields and more revenues, plus further savings from having to buy less synthetic fertilisers.
And as their crop yields and net incomes rose, these farmers began to think of rice production more as a by-product to their new, more lucrative, water management and wildlife habitat businesses.
A 72 year old Fijian ecologist, George Chan, came up with a way of using solid wastes from the beer-making process to produce food, fuel and fertiliser, all of which added to the beer-makers' profits. The environmental entrepreneur Gunter Pauli has spread this model across the globe.
The first step in Chan's process was to grow edible mushrooms on the brewery waste.
The mushrooms convert the lignins in that waste into high quality carbohydrates that cattle can eat. The wastes are also rich in protein, and are fed to earthworms. A ton of waste produces 125 kilos of earthworms.
The earthworms are then fed to chickens. Manure from the cattle and chickens are put into a digester, which produces a biogas, rich in methane, which runs an engine that spins a generator that makes electricity that can be sold. The digested wastes are put into ponds, where they fertilise floating gardens for seven species of edible fish, as well as tomatoes and flowers.
The facilities where all this takes place surround the brewery, which minimises the cost of the infrastructure, energy, waste disposal, and transportation.
And because the breweries are built close to the population centres, the markets for the electricity, mushrooms, beef, chickens, eggs, fish, tomatoes, and flowers are all local, and the raw materials for making these products are free because they used to be thrown into the dump.
The entire installation produces seven times as much product as a traditional brewery, and creates as four times as many jobs...
...without producing more wastes...
...and in the process makes a serious profit for the brewers...
...who of course also sell beer!
One of the points we all need to be clear about is that learning to live sustainably is not about depravation, discomfort and belt-tightening. It is about learning how to do things differently, smarter and better, a process that's exciting, challenging, and rewarding, and that makes for much more interesting lives.
For example, don't think that if you live sustainably that you'll have to be content with driving some feeble, spiritless car. Lisa and I have a Honda hybrid that has a future no one ever mentions: when the light changes, its electric motor enables you to beat any car from a standing start. That's because, even in its wildest dreams, no gas engine even fantasised about having the kind of torque that an electric motor of equal horsepower has, and if you fancy drag-racing, once flywheel cars - those are likely to be the most efficient of future cars - hit the market, there will be no one alive who can handle the acceleration that a flywheel car will offer! Today's most powerful drag-racer, running on the hottest synthetic fuel, will seem like some a tortoise mired in mud next to a car powered by a flywheel.
Living restoratively can take even the simplest, least noticed, most boring things and make them fascinating. Take the ugly flat roofs that you find in cities - add sod, native grasses, wild flowers, and maybe even vegetables, plus a few bushes and fruit trees, and you get a green roof. It's a delightful space in which to spend time!
But, such a roof accomplishes much more! It improves the air quality, keeps the building warmer in winter and cooler in summer - saves hugely on air-conditioning costs. It lowers the heat island effect of the city by lowering the city's ambient temperature. It adds oxygen to the air, and ameliorates the problem of the storm water run-off, and creates a unique habitat for birds of many species, a replacement of the habitat that was lost when the building was built. Create enough green roofs and you make an archipelago of green islands that ground predators cannot reach, a priceless, secure habitat for rare wildlife, which is losing out to development on the ground, where it's also vulnerable to cats, rats, and other predators.
Green roofs are being created throughout the United States and the world. My favourite example of a green roof is the 42,000 square metre sod roof on the Ford Motor Company's Rouge River Plant in Dearborn, Michigan. That plant was once the largest integrated industrial facility in the world. It was Ground Zero for the first industrial revolution and employed 100,000 workers, but during my lifetime, it became a decaying industrial wasteland.
However, recently, William Clay Ford Junior, Henry Ford's great-grandson, decided on a £1.25 billion renovation.
Visionary architect William McDonough sold the idea of a green roof to the Ford trustees by pointing out that their books showed that the conventional engineering approaches they were already using to comply with the Clean Water Act on this property had cost Ford £30 million, whereas McDonough's sod roof would cost them only 8 million...
Thus saving Ford £22 million on day one...
... Which, with the then popular Ford Taurus at a 4% profit margin, would be the equivalent of an order for £562 million? Needless to say, board approval was very speedy! When the roof was built, killdeer started nesting on it at once. If only the Ford Motor Company Board of Trustees had had the courage to follow William Clay Ford Junior's green instincts in designing cars, perhaps his company's woes, and his replacement, would never have taken place.
The stench of rotting food emanating from the huge rubbish collecting bins on the Nightingale estate in Hackney, East London, and the rats bustling about those bins, was the final straw for Councillor Cam Matheson. He decided that composting was the answer. It would not only remove food from the waste stream, but would also starve out the rats. His research led him to a rat-proof composter called the 'Rocket', which could turn food waste into compost in just two weeks, and he began a three-year battle to cut through the red tape that blocked municipal composting.
Then there was the problem that most of the residents of the Nightingale Estate had no interest in separating their rubbish - it was much easier just to throw it all away - but when Cam asked them if they wanted to get rid of the rats, over 700 households joined the scheme. And the result? The rats are gone, there is less waste going to the landfill, everyone gets free compost for their household plants, and the local parks and gardens are flourishing. One man's persistence with a simple, sustainable solution for a chronic problem that was blighting his neighbourhood has demonstrated that change is possible. As Cam has said, 'Today, the Nightingale Estate; tomorrow, the world!'
There are actually hundreds of other examples in which robust, sustainable, restorative practices are working smoothly, but until very recently, the mainstream media has kept a near-total silence on this new industrial revolution in sustainable practices. Instead, most of the news that they feed us is totally trivial. It concerns matters of no importance whatever in terms of a broader scheme of things; none of it would pass the 500 year test. That's because, 500 years from now, only the historians among our great, great, or many greats, grandchildren will care which were the blue states and which were the red states, or whether the economy soared or tanked, or whether a country called the United States even is still around by then. But there is one thing that our distant descendants will care about what you and I did, way back then in the 21stCentury, and that is what steps we took that enabled them to lead healthy lives in a healthy world?
From which it follows that no decision that any government makes today, in any capital, of any country, is as important, fractionally as important, as when that same government takes even a small step towards keeping the environment healthy.
But if we expect governments to lead the way, we must also do our part, and because the stakes are now so high, higher than they have ever been, our present predicament is actually the most singular opportunity for greatness ever offered to any generation in any civilisation.
And if we don't seize this opportunity? What will our children make of our generation, that led this planet and its beauty go to waste?
Twenty-eight years ago, on the off, off-chance that some other space-faring civilisation might someday encounter them, some songs of humpback whales I had recorded were included on a golden record that was put aboard each of the Voyager spacecraft. Two billion years will pass before micro-meteorites have destroyed those records enough to render them unplayable, making it a good bet that they are carrying the longest lasting of all human messages.
When Voyager I was six billion kilometres from Earth, its cameras were turned around to look back over its shoulder so as to film the entire solar system. In the resulting image, the Earth occupies one-eighth of one pixel. It is shown as a pale blue dot, illuminated by what appears to be a sunbeam, but the sunbeam was not some divine indication of Earth's specialness, it was simply a reflection from the spacecraft itself.
Look at that dot... That's here. That's home. That's us. On it, everyone you love, everyone you know, every human being you've ever heard of, every human being that ever was, lived out their lives... The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilisation, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother, father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader... every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there, on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam...
©Roger Payne and Lisa Harrow, Gresham College, 18 November 2008
This event was on Wed, 19 Nov 2008
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