Lockdown, day 19 – some reflections

Photo by Regina Calvo on Unsplash

Dear reader, it’s been nearly a month since my last post. And what a month it’s been.

I stopped writing, stopped even thinking about this blog – partly because the cognitive load of making sense of this crisis, plus the mental load of keeping a household fed, entertained and vaguely sane, has been more than sufficient to occupy my thoughts. But also, I kind of thought that no one would want to be reading about recycling and plastic-free switches and all that stuff, when what we are facing is so alien, so scary. And I didn’t want to write anymore about the pandemic itself, because let’s face it, there’s enough column inches/miles being generated every minute of the day to keep us all immersed in news and views 24 hours a day.

But. I woke up a couple of days ago and had this gut-wrenching feeling. What’s going on now is practice for the consequences of the climate crisis and the impact it’s going to have on humanity. Practice, and a warning. Bear with me on this.

We are seeing increasingly alarming numbers of excess deaths every day due to Covid-19 (I’m resisting the urge to get political here and talk about my views on the Government’s response and support to the NHS. Really resisting.) But we know that the climate crisis is already causing excess deaths. By excess deaths, what I mean is the number of deaths over and above those that would have happened anyway, within the normal expected mortality rate for that population. This is also known as mortality displacement. The World Health Organisation estimate that between 2030 and 2050, there will be an additional 250,000 more deaths per year due to climate change – heat stress, malnutrition, malaria and diarrhea among the likely causes.

We’ve had 104,775 deaths so far from Covid-19 (by the time you click that link, it will be more). Let’s let that sink in. Two and half times as many deaths, every year, as we’ve had so far from Covid-19, due to climate change. At the very least.

People are already dying of heat stress in bush fire regions, and of heat stroke during heat waves in cities across the world. 900 people died in England alone due to heat waves in 2019. By 2100, 75% of people around the world will be exposed to heatwaves severe enough to cause death. 2100. Many of our kids will still be alive in 2100. Flooding causes disease to spread more easily, including diarrhea which can be particularly fatal among small children. Rising temperatures will lead to the expansion of mosquito habitat, increasing cases of malaria. Other species will move closer to domestic habitats, increasing the incidence in humans of other diseases such as Q fever which is spread by bats. This is already happening in Australia and the Pacific regions. And guess what, it’s hitting the poor and the vulnerable hardest (or first, maybe).

Maybe this seems scary, and far away, both geographically and chronologically. But there’s other elements of the Covid-19 crisis that should be getting us thinking.

We’ve become accustomed to being able to get whatever food we want, whenever we want. I had a tantrum last week because I wanted a specific Marks and Spencer ready meal as our weekend treat (pancetta carbonara, since you ask). Seriously. Not only is it wrapped in hard-to-recycle plastic, but it’s made of a load of imported or out-of-season ingredients including processed meat and dairy. A problematic “treat” indeed. But I’ve become accustomed to being able to have it whenever I want. Anyone been trying to get flour recently? I haven’t totally fact checked this, but apparently flour mills in the UK are still producing as normal, or on increased output, but can’t get enough packaging from China to meet the demand for package sizes suitable for domestic customers (as opposed to much bigger bags for catering companies, bakeries and other commercial customers). Our food chain is entirely dependent on global transport infrastructure and the enormous carbon footprint that entails.

The shortages have been annoying, anxiety-inducing, catastrophic for some. It’s going to be worse, much worse, in a few decades time. Studies have shown that the impact of climate change could cause a 35% drop in global fruit and vegetable yields and an 18% reduction in US corn production, as well as significantly impacting fisheries and meat production. Coupled with a predicted global population increase of 3.4 billion people by 2050, this spells a massive change in the way we live.

All this, without even going into the economic effects, impact on human rights, increasing gulf between rich and poor and likely social breakdown.

Uplifting stuff. Sorry if I’ve added to your lockdown blues. But I feel like this message is critical. Especially if you’re feeling powerless at the moment. There’s not much we can do about the current crisis – except follow the advice to stay at home as much as possible, practice social distancing when not possible (and think about who you’re going to vote for next time, folks – also how we can exert pressure on to expose this government’s criminal negligence, and maybe what kind of a massive protest we can pull off when it’s all over. Sorry, couldn’t resist after all).

Greta, for course, puts it better than me:

There is a lot of talk about returning to normal after Covid-19. But normal was a crisis.

https://twitter.com/gretathunberg/status/1243579208724557824?lang=en

So, with all this spare time we have (LOLZ – I know some people have loads, and are doing lots of nice jigsaws and yoga, but some are working, looking after children, trying not to starve, etc. Anyhow – there’s opportunity for us all to refocus…)

Let’s get back to the Everyday Radical mission – what can we do to fix this shit? Cos back to normal is not an option for humanity.

I just spent the last week’s nap times categorising 700+ articles, notes and ideas for blog posts. My paid work has disappeared. Let’s DO THIS.

P.S. It’s hot. Don’t forget to turn your central heating off.

Coronavirus – Gaia’s revenge?

Photo by CDC on Unsplash

Anyone out there panicking? Eating copious amounts of raw garlic? Fighting in the aisles of the supermarket for the last loo roll? Clearly there is some major panic buying going on – today, Tesco have announced rationing of basic shopping items, Costco are rationing toilet roll and it seems you can’t buy hand sanitiser anywhere. I was going to write “for love nor money” there, but I’ve actually given away some of my substantial (and accidentally accrued) stash for love this week, and it seems that £15 will get you a 60ml travel bottle of hand gel on eBay today… tomorrow, that will probably cost £20…

Honestly I have no idea what level of anxiety and fear is warranted, really. The WHO seem to be taking things pretty seriously; the Director General says this must be “top priority for every country”, with “early, aggressive measures”, to stop transmission and save lives, but expresses concern that “in some countries, the level of political will does not match the level of the threat we face.” Of course Trump is not concerned at all, Boris seems to have disappeared over the last couple of days and our (very) new chancellor says the NHS will get everything it needs (like usual?), so it’s all cool. Plus it’s just like a bad cold, anyway.

I’m not an infectious diseases expert, any more than I’m an expert in climate science, so my opinion on how scary this may or may not actually get is largely irrelevant. But I am an over-thinker of the highest order, so of course this has all got me thinking.

What if the planet has just had enough of all these humans?

I read this excellent blog piece earlier in the week, which outlines how, whilst coronavirus is not directly caused by climate change, there are various factors at play on a warming planet which make infectious diseases more likely to emerge and spread throughout humanity. Covid-19 is a zootonic virus, originating from animals. The impact that humans are having on the planet, for example through deforestation and global heating, is changing animals’ migratory patterns and bringing them into closer contact with humans, thus increasing the risk of transmission of these diseases. This article explains the science better than I can, and this one outlines other elements of climate change which are compounding factors in the spread of infectious diseases.

So it seems that Earth is unprepared for increasing disease pandemics. Which is bad news, because it could get a lot worse, as melting permafrosts could release ancient viruses and bacteria that humans haven’t been exposed to for thousands of years.

And we may well have evolved into a society which is too selfish to contain these diseases. Will people obey instructions to self-isolate or adhere to advice to practice social distancing? Or will people be unwilling to sacrifice their freedoms for the greater good? You and I, dear reader, may be fairly fit and healthy people in our prime (or perhaps not!), but the elderly, infirm and people with compromised immune systems need to be protected.

Probably controversial bit from the above article below, which struck a chord with me:

“Doing whatever is necessary to stop the virus spreading is, much like vaccinating your kids against measles, not just about protecting your own interests but putting the wellbeing of the herd first. The trouble is that we all know what has happened to vaccination levels across the west, as a minority of parents seemingly decided the herd was someone else’s problem.”

Will people stay off work, keep their kids at home (and my god the thought of two weeks housebound with a two year old makes me shudder)? Or have we all had enough of experts?

Is there a silver lining? Is it even appropriate or moral to talk about this, when people are dying? Well. Maybe there is. There’s been a dramatic reduction in emissions over China due to the economic slowdown and travel restrictions put in place to try to control the epidemic. Whether this will be negated by a subsequent increase in production at a later date, as a form of bounce back, is of course unknown. There’s also been huge numbers of flights cancelled – great if you live in the flight path, like us. It may of course go both ways, though – locally, I noticed this week awful traffic jams across Blackheath, even worse than normal, but virtually empty buses – so maybe people are driving rather than risking proximity to others on public transport.

Anyway, back to my original thought for this post, inspiring the title. The Gaia hypothesis is not something I know much about – I have had this book in my “to read” pile for about a decade. Maybe this will spur me on to finally read it. The basic idea is that the planet, Mother Earth, is a synergistic, self-regulating and complex system that helps to maintain and perpetuate the conditions for life on the planet. So perhaps Gaia has had enough of the parasitic human race and is ready to cull some of us? Perhaps the emergence of these viruses is the planet’s way of protecting herself from the damage being done unto her.

Of course, like climate change itself, these pandemics will disproportionately affect the poor and vulnerable once they take hold. (Lots of memes are going around at the moment saying that the only reason the rich care about coronavirus is because the economic impact will affect them, whereas they don’t care about global poverty, starvation, all the other deaths from cancer, suicide etc. I think this is a bit of a simplistic red herring, personally, but I haven’t fully thought it through).

And the numbers pale into insignificance when we compare them to the number of deaths we KNOW will be caused by global heating in the coming decades. This is a social and global (in)justice issue too, of course.

So could we use this as a warning, and work together as a global community to manage this crisis, learning lessons for the future challenges that face our species? We could look at how the panic surrounding coronavirus is causing people to change their habits, reduce their consumption, stop flying – and examine how to replicate these push factors to bring about behavioural change to reduce the impact of humanity on the planet.

Or we could implode into greed and individualism, get distracted from climate change and make it worse by manufacturing billions of plastic bottles of hand gel, which will end up in the ocean.

Buckle up, folks. Only time will tell.

Photo by Lucrezia Carnelos on Unsplash

Some thoughts about China – part 1

I love Chinese food. So much. When I was growing up, from the age of about 8, going to our local Chinese for the Chef’s Special meal was my birthday treat every year. My Grandma usually used to come with us, and I think she never really could believe, as someone who lived through rationing, quite how much food there was. Crispy duck is my absolute favourite.

But it’s pretty hard to tell whether any of the meat at one’s local Chinese is remotely ethical – I’m pretty sure it’s not – and I can’t even bear to do any research on duck farming, as I know the findings will be grim. So as part of our attempts to eat less meat in general, and more ethically sourced when we do, we decided on Friday night to give vegetarian Chinese takeaway a go.

We had vegetable spring rolls, mushroom rice and vegetable chow mein – all good. And tofu satay – oh dear. Spoungy, soggy tofu, sauce a bit too spicy for me, sad and slightly slimy vegetables. Also we had prawn crackers – I thought they were vegetarian, like prawn cocktail crisps, but a bit of retrospective research showed me that they do in fact contain prawns. So that was a bit of a vegetarian fail.

Overall, it felt like a worthwhile experiment, and there are plenty of other veggie options on the menu to try next time, but I wouldn’t be repeating the tofu experience.

I also encouraged (forced, actually) my long-suffering husband to take some tubs with us that we’ve saved from previous takeaways. I’ve seen people posting on plastic-free groups about taking their own tubs to takeaways and it seems like a great idea – except that I’m too socially awkward to have this conversation myself, so I delegated it to my heroic husband.

The man at the takeaway was initially reluctant to use our own tubs, until he realised they’d originally come from his shop, even though one had “Mum’s mince” written on it in faded Sharpie. Obviously they use the specific sizing of the small and large tubs to measure portion sizes, so he didn’t want to fill up a random Tupperware with chow mein, which is completely fair enough. Once that was cleared up, he was happy with it. But then gave us the spring rolls in a polystyrene carton and the whole lot in a plastic bag. Next time we will take a tub for the rolls and our own bag, but it’s baby steps…

I would have found the whole interaction totally excruciating (although I can probably manage it next time now that the precedent has been set), but my husband chirpily made a little joke to another lady waiting for her food, that he was “saving the world, one takeaway tub at a time”.

And here’s the brilliant bit – she replied (direct quote, credit to random lady on Shooters Hill Road):

“I salute you, really I do. It’s people like you who are going to save the world for my grandchildren”.

So lovely and such a deserved reward for braving the awkward conversation. It gave me some food for thought (see what I did there?) – maybe next time she will bring her own tubs, tell her family about the funny man in the takeaway and give other people the same idea. And maybe the takeaway owner might start to offer a discount if you bring your own tubs back (saves him buying new ones?), or he might think more about packaging and start using compostable or cardboard cartons instead? And the virtuous cycle continues.

But then I saw something else which made me feel a bit deflated:

“Of course I’d like to save the planet from global warming/pollution etc etc & admire extinction rebellion & those protesting, and everyday people who live their lives fully sustainable & carbon neutral etc etc – but even if the whole UK, or even Europe – became BETTER than carbon neutral, vegan & fully sustainable isn’t that a drop in the ocean when you factor in the carbon output & pollution from huge countries like China/Russia/USA/India etc? Of course we individually should do what’s right regardless – I’ve got no problem with that – but isn’t it a bit of a waste of time when there’s some huge bohemoths pumping out gazillions of shiz into the atmosphere elsewhere?”

Anon Facebook post

This post was followed by some really good discussion, including the impact of the military, the impact of “our” (“developed countries” demand on these countries’ goods, the move towards renewable energy in some countries vs. the return towards greater dependency on fossil fuel in others, and the interesting differences when you compare a country’s total emissions and the emissions per capita for its residents.

Anyway, it got me thinking a lot more – which is why this is Part 1 of the post and I will write more about this in a couple of days once I’ve done some more reading on the issues raised. For sure, we’re not going to actually save the world one takeaway tub at a time, so maybe we should just relax and enjoy it, stop worrying, eat the cheese and the unethically-reared meat and chuck the packet in the river? Of course we’re not going to do that – I do believe that every little helps, or at least stops it getting worse. But is there any way we can influence government policies, especially in other countries? Is it too late? It’s complicated, for sure.

What do you think?

More soon.