Many people could probably recognise the stereotype of British people always talking about the weather. One idea for where this stereotype comes from is the tendency of weather to change quite rapidly in the UK, so that as a conversation topic, it always offers something to talk about (1). In recent years, weather patterns have been changing rapidly across the globe (see for example 2), meaning that we are all now talking about the weather. In the UK in the last few months there have been a few developments which could show imaginative responses to climate change, and which are perhaps encouraging for the wider global landscape.
UK to achieve ‘net-zero carbon emissions’ by 2050
At the beginning of this month, departing UK Prime Minister Theresa May passed a statutory amendment to the UK Climate Change Act 2008, making it obligatory by law for the UK to achieve “net-zero carbon emissions” by 2050 (3).
The target initially set by the Climate Change Act was for the UK to cut emissions by 80% by 2050, but this new amendment, which, since it is statutory, did not have to be signed by MPs but was passed straight into law by the Prime Minister, gives a much stricter goal (3). Now all British industries are obliged to reduce their emissions to the point where they do not produce any carbon emissions at all by 2050, or, if they do produce carbon, all of this has to be ‘offset’ in order to achieve ‘net-zero’ (3).
In many ways, the new law marks a historic change in governmental attitudes towards climate change, and, since the target seems difficult to reach with current societal practices, could be the catalyst for a radical change in British society towards more resilient energy, food and transportation solutions. The law also includes an international provision “to ensure other nations were taking similarly ambitious action” (4), suggesting that British companies will aim to cut not only those emissions actually created in the UK, but also those connected to British business elsewhere.
There a few different ways that the target could be achieved, some of which could be seen as environmentally questionable. For example, the law includes carbon offsetting as part of reaching the goal, which means that the UK does not necessarily have to cut their own carbon emissions, as long as they pay for the carbon to be ‘offset’ elsewhere. This option has met with “disappointment” from environmental groups such as Greenpeace UK, who point out that it would “shift the burden to developing nations” (3), and whose chief scientist Doug Parr was quoted as saying “This type of offsetting has a history of failure.” (4) (5).
The new law seems part of the UK parliament’s approval last month of a motion to declare an ‘environmental and climate emergency’ in the UK (6). The decision was reported as being “the first country” to make such a public statement (see for example 7, 8), perhaps highlighting the importance of the declaration in setting a precedent for other governments to follow.
The motion itself is ‘non-binding’(6), meaning that the government is not obliged to take any action on it. Like the ‘zero-net emissions’ law, it was put forward without a vote (6). Both of these actions could be seen as a sign that the UK government and parliament view the issue of climate change as so important that they feel it necessary to introduce laws and motions without waiting for democratic approval. From an environmental perspective this means that environmental protection practices will probably go into action more swiftly than if democratic approval was received.
The motion and the new law were apparently influenced, at least in part, by the number of climate-related protests which have been going on in the UK over the past few months (6), with the recently-founded group Extinction Rebellion (9) taking credit for many of them.
However, such measures also show that the government and parliament are willing to take steps which do not require public approval. This is, of course, nothing new; but perhaps a sign that those living within such systems should also be taking matters into our own hands and implementing the changes which we feel are necessary, without waiting for institutional approval.
Rebelling against extinction
Extinction Rebellion is a group engaged in “peaceful civil disobedience”(9) in order to try to gain government and media attention on the issue of climate change. They began in London in December 2018, and their actions include supergluing themselves to the gates of Buckingham Palace (9) as well as to the bullet-proof protective window in the viewing gallery of the UK parliament (the latter while almost – but not quite – naked) (10), and they also “dug a hole [in Parliament Square in London] to bury a coffin representing our future”(9).
Is rebellion energy-efficient?
Such actions are clearly reactionary; relying, as they do, on the idea that in order for change to happen, the government, monarchy and media need to pay attention. In this sense Extinction Rebellion’s methods are quite energy inefficient; from a permaculture perspective, they are mainly taking action against one system, rather than putting energy into creating a holistic or regenerative alternative. Their claim to know, as it says on their website, “The Truth” (11) about climate change is also not very holistic or resilient, since it limits their perspective to one viewpoint and has the potential to alienate, as well as being difficult to adapt to changing situations.
However, in the six months since Extinction Rebellion have begun, the fact that they have gained such widespread media attention (see for example 10, 12) and international support (see for example 13, 14), as well as responses from the UK government, shows that many people are paying attention to their message, and perhaps such reactionary tactics are necessary in order to highlight this issue to a greater number of people.
The group’s principles and values also include “we need a regenerative culture”, “we are a non-violent network” and “we are based on autonomy and decentralisation” (9), showing that, though their methods may differ from those of most permaculture practitioners, the movement is, at least theoretically, similar to that of permaculture.
A showcase of our planet
As half-naked protesters’ sticky fingers are pulled from palatial gates and politicians commit to cleaner air, British documentary maker and narrator Sir David Attenborough has put his voice to a new documentary series, ‘Our Planet’, which is available now on Netflix (15). Attenborough, who is now 93 years old (16), has long been recognised in the UK as a leading authority on the natural world; for example, he has received 32 honorary degrees from British universities (17).
All of his documentaries can be seen to be encouraging viewers to care for the natural world, since they generally highlight the absolute beauty, magnificence and wonders of the other humans, plants and animals who share our planet. This newest series, however, is very clearly created in order to highlight the damage which has already occurred to our planet due to factors such as deforestation and melting of ice caps (15).
The series is very encouraging in that throughout every episode, Attenborough reiterates the idea that our whole planet is connected; even parts of the world which seem far away from us are affected by our actions, and even ecosystems which seem unrelated, such as the ocean and the desert, are actually intimately linked through the myriad connections of the global biosphere (15). As such the series can be seen to be bringing holistic, ecological thinking to a wider audience; Netflix was reported as saying they expected 25 million households to watch the series within the first month of viewing (18).
Despite this, there are some aspects of the documentary series which perhaps need to be addressed if we really are to create change within our human ecosystem in order to live more in harmony with the wider ecosystem. Though the script often refers to the holistic nature of the world, it also still frequently makes a distinction between “humans” and “the natural world”. For example, in episode 1 Attenborough says the series “will reveal what must be preserved if we are to ensure a future where humans and nature can thrive” (15).
Though this could be seen as a small point, separating ourselves from the rest of nature is what helps us to destroy the world in the first place, since we do not recognise it as part of us (see for example 19). If we are to begin caring for those remaining ecosystems of our planet in a more holistic way, it seems essential that we start by recognising – through our language and our actions – that we are all part of the same ecosystem.
The series was produced in collaboration with the Worldwide Fund for Wildlife (WWF) (20) and attached to the show is a website (21) where you can “find out how our planet can thrive again” (15). Again, this is encouraging as it is giving concerned viewers practical steps they can follow. The website’s advice, such as “five steps to save the planet”(22), seems quite oversimplistic, however; most environmentally-conscious viewers have probably already heard the steps given, and since they are presented in an advice-giving format with no extra information or sources, they do not provide much empowerment to the viewers.
For example, the tip “choose a planet-based diet where possible”. Large-scale intensive monoculture soya production for those following vegan diets can be just as habitat destroying as meat or dairy agriculture (see for example 23); so such advice seems quite misguided. In spite of this, the very fact that a high-budget TV series is trying to encourage viewers to be more aware of their own environmental impact seems like a positive sign, and hopefully the very lack of information given on the website will encourage visitors to start doing their own research.
UK in unique position?
From the things discussed in this article, it seems clear that environmental protection is a key issue in the UK right now. In many ways, the UK can be seen as being in a unique position for a complete change of society.
As Oxford University’s Professor Dieter Helm pointed out, “From the UK’s end, doing this unilaterally, we have to be very careful that we don’t simply say: ‘we’re going to reduce the emissions from our cars and our power stations here in Britain, but we’re going to carry on importing those emissions from overseas.” (4)
Since the UK currently imports around 80% of its food (4), the target could be relatively easily reached if the “importing of emissions” was ignored. In order to truly meet the target on a holistic scale, however, it seems clear that the country will have to make some large changes in food production. Since there are already many holistic and regenerative organisations in the UK such as the Permaculture Association UK (24) and the Campaign for Real Farming (25), connections could very easily be made.
Inspiration to take forward
This article has focussed on actions taking place in the UK, and if you are currently living in that country it seems an exciting time to be a part of the practical creation of a more holistic and regenerative society. As well as this, they can serve as an inspiration for our collective global regenerative culture.
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- Russell, R, 2018. ‘Climate Change and Extreme Weather: Science is Proving the Link”. Deutsche Welle, 11/4/18. https://www.dw.com/en/climate-change-and-extreme-weather-science-is-proving-the-link/a-43323706 – retrieved 30/6/19
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- Elgot, J, 2019. “Semi-naked climate protesters disrupt Brexit debate”. The Guardian, 1/4/19. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/apr/01/semi-naked-climate-protesters-disrupt-brexit-debate – retrieved 30/6/19
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- Shellenberger, M, 2019. “Why Climate Activists Threaten Endangered Species with Extinction”. Forbes, 26/6/19. https://www.forbes.com/sites/michaelshellenberger/2019/06/26/why-climate-activists-threaten-endangered-species-with-extinction/#1ad6b78723aa – retrieved 30/6/19
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