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

Motherhood, consumption and guilt part 2 (do not read this if you may be offended by my rage…)

Right, here goes (this is a long one).

I promised when I started writing this blog that it wasn’t going to be another whiny parenting blog about how hard everything is, and I think I’ve done pretty well to keep it proactive and positive when talking about parenting in conjunction with eco stuff.

Then I read this – and if you don’t want to see me getting cross and emotional, I suggest you shuffle off now and tune in again to the next post. Most of you who know me personally will be able to imagine why this would upset/annoy/infuriate me. I’m not even sure how coherently I’m going to be able to write about this, but I’m going to try – and if it turns out shit, I’ll leave it in the “drafts” folder and try something else tomorrow. (Turns out I left it in the drafts folder for nearly a week, kids.)

Some helpful scientists at Imperial College have highlighted the UK’s very low breast-feeding rates (34% of babies still receiving some breast milk at six months, following 81% initiation rate – stats here). They’ve calculated that if all mothers exclusively breast-fed for six months, as per the WHO guidelines, then the benefit to the environment would be the equivalent of taking 77,000 cars off the roads. “The Imperial team calculated that [this] would save between 95 and 153 KG of carbon dioxide per baby. […] The production of unnecessary infant and toddler formulas exacerbates environmental damage and should be a matter of increasing global concern.” The issues raised are the water footprint of milk powder, the methane output of milk-producing livestock, the paper and metal production and waste from formula packaging and transportation and marketing of “breastmilk substitutes”. Not to mention all the boiling of kettles to heat up formula milk.

I’ve read the full BMJ article and it’s bizarrely brief and poorly referenced, in my humble opinion. It’s simplistic and moralising, sure – but it also makes hugely flawed assumptions about the alleged low or zero carbon impact of breast feeding. What about the extra 500 calories per day you purportedly need to consume to breastfeed? That’s the very least additional input you would need, if it all goes simply. What about the nursing clothes, the pumps, the nursing covers, the nipple shields, the nipple cream? What about the trips to lactation consultants and midwives and health visitors when it’s not working out? What about the trips to A&E when it’s really not working out? What about the carbon footprint of looking after babies in intensive care units when it’s really, really not working out? (This is a thing, and there’s good evidence that it is increasing due to the militant promotion of breast feeding at all costs in hospitals allied to the Unicef Baby-Friendly Initiative).

The article suggests donor banks as a solution for when supplementation is needed – so at least it acknowledges that supplementation is sometimes needed – but what about the carbon footprint of setting up that network, pumping the milk, transporting it to where it’s needed in a timely manner and then refrigerating and reheating it?

MUCH has been written about the poor ethics of formula companies and I’m not denying that a lot of it is true – however, it can’t be ignored that one of the authors of this study is a director of the Hearts Milk Bank Foundation, so maybe just maybe might have something to gain by promoting donor milk? Maybe dodgy ethics are not just the province of Nestle?

Dr Amy Tuteur, an obstetrician, campaigner and author of “Push Back: Guilt in the Age of Natural Parenting”, refutes all this stuff much more eloquently than me here

“By refusing to consider the environmental impact of breastfeeding itself and the increased risk of hospitalization, Shenker et al. haven’t made the environmental case for breastfeeding. Unfortunately, they have shifted responsibility for addressing climate change from corporations (which could fix it) and instead blame mothers. Ultimately, [they] exert even more pressure on women. […] Recent research has noted how pressure to breastfeed has harmed women’s mental health.”

My story – very briefly, because after two years I’m bored to death of thinking and talking about it – is that I really wanted to breastfeed, in part due to environmental reasons, but I had no idea that it could be just not possible, because no one tells you that at antenatal classes. Every healthcare professional you meet tells you that it’s incredibly rare not to be able to breastfeed at all, and gives you a bunch of dramatic statistics (less than 1%? 2%? 5%?), all based on flawed and dated studies, of the percentage of women with insufficient milk supply to keep a baby alive. No sensible stats on babies who can’t latch, due to tongue tie or other reasons. No estimate of how many of them would have died from “failure to thrive” before formula came along. Anyway, in short – I had tons of milk but my son couldn’t latch due to the “worst tongue tie we’ve seen in 20 years”, according to the very expensive lactation consultants who snipped his tongue tie, twice, to no avail. I pumped for six weeks but in all honesty it made me housebound and virtually suicidal and I had to stop for the good of everyone in our household, including our son – it’s better to cuddle your baby and feed them formula, than have to leave them to cry while you pump “liquid gold”, in my considered opinion.

Anyway. I’m not anti-breastfeeding, of course, and if we had another baby, I would try again – but I wouldn’t allow myself to be bullied into misery if it didn’t work out. There are so many issues here around breast feeding support, education, cultural issues, bodily autonomy (some women just don’t fucking want to, and that’s ok too in this day and age, surely?) And I don’t doubt that there is some validity in the environmental argument – formula is a manufactured product which by definition is going to have an adverse footprint.

The reasons why women don’t breastfeed are complex, and I don’t disagree that it would be good for many reasons if breastfeeding rates in the UK were higher. But stuff like the BMJ article does not help.

There is major stigma around formula feeding as it is – and if you deny this, ask any mum you know who bottle fed in public, this is the real lived experience. I got stares, tuts and criticism, implications that I hadn’t tried hard enough, didn’t love my baby as much as breast feeding mums did, made the choice to formula feed for my own convenience rather than his well-being. There’s a perception that formula feeding mums are lazy (“aren’t you feeding him yourself?”), a bit thick and manipulated by evil formula companies’ advertising. This is not helped by the inconclusive but widely-touted studies on the impact of breastfeeding on the baby’s IQ. Many of the positive outcomes of breastfeeding have been demonstrated in babies where the mothers intended to breastfeed but weren’t able to, showing that a lot of the advantages are impossible to separate out from the demographic factors of privilege and socio-economic status. Anyway, have a look at Fed is Best if you’re interested in this stuff, or follow Dr Amy Tuteur on Twitter.

My point, finally, is that guilt-tripping mothers about using formula on environmental grounds (based on many flawed assumptions) helps neither the environment nor women’s mental health. A large proportion of mothers who’ve made that choice already probably feel shit about it, and they can’t just unmake it and relactate (although hardcore La Leche types would tell you that they could, I expect). Maybe the environmental argument might influence some pregnant women who are on the fence, but I doubt it very much.

What the BMJ position does is to further heap on the guilt and shame to mothers for all that’s wrong in our society, and the planet. It’s our fault that there’s a childhood obesity endemic, especially working mothers. If we go back to work early we’re neglecting our children and outsourcing their care to strangers, to their emotional detriment. If we stay at home, we’re setting a poor example and being bad feminists. We buy them too many plastic toys. We shouldn’t be having children anyway as the Earth is over-populated.

Actually, this is all just distraction. This is the problem – 20 global firms causing one third of all carbon emissions. And I hate to say it, but the majority of the key decision-makers in these organisations will be men. I don’t want to turn this into a gender blame game, but there are a few critical issues here.

  • We can’t fix this by giving up plastic or becoming vegan at an individual level, any more than we can fix this by not using formula for our babies. We can only fix this by manifest change in the way our societies and economies function – and that’s what XR are trying to achieve this week. Love them or hate them, at least they’re doing something.
  • Globally, men have more power than women to make these big changes. Is it right? No. Is it true? Yes. So we need to stop blaming women for everything we don’t like in society.
  • Women actually have huge power in the domestic sphere in terms of purchasing decisions – this is where we can make a big collective impact, in refusing single use plastic, reusing as much as possible, choosing green transport options for our families and teaching our kids about conservation and environmental issues.

Sorry, this is a long one today, but it’s from my heart and I think it’s important. As always, I would love to hear your thoughts, especially if you disagree with me.

“In all debates, let truth be thy aim, not victory, or an unjust interest.”
― William Penn