Category Archives: Local

‘System Change Now!’ … What?

Gavin Newsom, Governor of California, announces lawsuit against 5 big oil companies, 17th Sept 2023

The book I wrote over the last couple of years was called ‘System Change Now!’ and I’m currently running a monthly discussion group with the title ‘Exploring System Change’. What exactly do I, and the millions of others seeking system change, mean?

As is all too apparent the climate is changing and extreme weather events are becoming ever more extreme, and ever more common. Countless species of plants and animals are becoming extinct or are in worrying decline. Many aspects of human health and wellbeing are deteriorating due to increasing pollution, poverty and stress. None of it has to be this way. Everything could be turned around, but that implies a scale of change inconceivable under present political and economic systems. So, those political and economic systems can and must be changed.

Changing global political and economic systems will not happen through a single manifesto or violent revolution, but it is already happening in myriad ways that interconnect into a complex ecosystem of change making.

For decades big oil has known about the likely climate impacts of burning oil, and has systematically lied to us all about it. Their objective was to keep profits rolling in, whatever the terrible consequences might be. They funded, and continue to fund, think tanks that have dominated our media and our politics, and therefore our investments and our infrastructure. They have deliberately attacked climate scientists and delayed action to reduce emissions and have prevented any meaningful debate about leaving the remaining fossil fuels in the ground. At long last this is being challenged as Californian governor Gavin Newsom has filed a lawsuit against Exxon Mobil, Shell, Chevron, ConocoPhillips and BP. Much more climate litigation will follow.

Simultaneously the whole cleantech and renewable energy sector is making massive strides forwards. Now quitting all fossil fuels and moving the entire global economy over to 100% renewables for everything, (electricity, heating, cooling, transport and industry) looks both economically and ecologically the most sensible thing to do, and do as fast as humanly possible.

In last week’s discussion group Nick Sherwood cited the old adage ‘Think Global: Act Local’. I find it endlessly fascinating to read and to think about these changing global possibilities, but our ability to act is severely limited on this global stage. Haydn, connecting into the group via livestreamed social media, wanted to know about the very local issue of why Hereford is so car-centric, and provision of walking and cycling infrastructure, and of public transport, is so poor. Of course decades of politicians and planners influenced by the lobbying power of big oil has not helped. But this can be turned around. We have countless examples of cities around the world that have massively reduced car use and promoted active travel, better public transport and localized services. Dutch and Danish cities have long since led on this, but Paris is now rapidly moving in this direction. Hand in hand with this often goes to desire to improve air quality and clean-up rivers and waterways, all resulting in major gains in terms of human health and wellbeing.

The interconnection between the local and the global is well demonstrated by this example. To help improve life in Hereford we need to learn from the cities that have made this transition away from cars and pollution and toward more human-friendly urban spaces. We need to debate the possibilities, and Professor John Whitelegg with be leading such a discussion, focused on the adoption of a 20mph speed limit, at De Koffie Pot, Left Bank, Hereford, 7.00pm tomorrow evening (Weds 20th Sept). We also need better politicians, and helping Ellie Chowns of the Green Party beat the Tory Bill Wiggin at the upcoming General Election would greatly help matters, as would Diana Toynbee unseating Jesse Norman. These are all small steps in a vast and global movement seeking to change our systems; our systems of transport planning, of politics, and of pretty much everything else.

The Wye, Reimagined!

Extinction Rebellion activists hold a vigil for the River Wye, Saturday 19th Dec 2020

The River Wye, like so many of Britain’s rivers is in a sorry state. It is suffering from decades of damage caused by poor farming practices. Phosphate pollution is a major issue stemming from intensive poultry units, excessive use of artificial fertilizers and old and poorly functioning sewage works and septic tanks. Excessive ploughing is leading to soil erosion after heavy rain. Maize, unsustainably grown for bio-digesters, is especially vulnerable to soil erosion. These are just some of the problems affecting the Wye catchment area. Herefordshire Wildlife Trust’s Andrew Nixon gives his list of what is wrong here. Helen Stace, the Trust’s director, writes about a recent act of ecosystem vandalism by a local farmer on the River Lugg. Investigative journalist Nicola Cutcher writes about pollution on the Llynfi, a Welsh tributary of the Wye. Yesterday Extinction Rebellion held a vigil on the old bridge in Hereford to draw public attention to the crisis affecting our rivers. George Monbiot, Franny Armstrong and Nicola Cutcher are crowdfunding for what I am sure will be a fascinating live documentary to be called Rivercide.

All this is about what is wrong, with just a little about some of the small things that could be done to mitigate the damage. I want us to now re-imagine the whole Wye catchment differently. We could utterly transform the whole ecosystem, producing more food while also massively benefiting wildlife. Here’s how.

Protecting and rebuilding soil is of critical importance, and the scope for solving multiple problems is immense. Gabe Brown, a farmer from North Dakota, has been a pioneer in regenerative agriculture. He has five principles of soil health: ‘no-till or minimal tillage, keeping the ground covered, diversity in plant and animal species, keeping living roots in the soil as much as possible, and the importance of integrating animals.’ By applying these principles he has managed to increase his soil organic matter from 1.9% in 1991 to 6.1%, so increasing the rate at which water can percolate down into the soil from half an inch per hour in 1991 to eight inches per hour now. This increase in permeability massively reduces risks of both flooding and drought. The raised level of organic matter also increases fertility while sequestering carbon. Imagine if all farmland in the Wye catchment adopted these methods.

We could go further, as agroforestry pioneer Martin Wolfe demonstrated at Wakelyns farm over the last 25 years. Now several others are developing the most amazing farms utilizing agroforestry alley cropping. Outstanding among them is George Young of Fobbing in Essex. He is planting rows of the most extraordinary variety of fruit and nut trees, with a great diversity of nutrient rich grains and legumes grown in the alleys and is now integrating red pole cattle into the system. He, like most regenerative farmers, is gradually reducing all his chemical inputs and slowly converting to organic systems.

If we return to reimaging the Wye catchment where the entire area was converting to systems of organic agroforestry, with a very much greater diversity of trees and bushes, arable crops and livestock all integrated into each acre. As we did so we could close down all intensive poultry units and replace or repair all malfunctioning sewage works and septic tanks. We would then have massively reduced the risks of flooding and of drought, of pollution and of soil erosion. We could of course go further still. Many areas would benefit from rewilding. Some farms might want to follow the extraordinary example of rewilding set by Isabella Tree and Charlie Burrell at Knepp farm in Sussex. The reintroduction beavers would have a very positive effect, acting to slow the river, reduce erosion and create a wonderful network of habitats for more species to colonize. The Wye could once again have the biodiversity and health it had hundreds of years ago, and it could simultaneously produce more and better food than it ever has.

Muddle… or Decisive Action?

Students lobbying Councilors to declare a Climate Emergency

Students lobbying Councilors to declare a Climate Emergency

Last Friday Herefordshire Council unanimously declared a Climate Emergency. It was an inspiring day. About a hundred of us old environmental activists were outside the Shirehall when along came about one hundred and seventy young students who had marched chanting from the collages, down Aylestone Hill and through High Town. Our councillors had seldom, if ever, seen so much support for a motion to be passed. Yesterday the same council approved their own Transport Package, which essentially commits them to spending vast sums of money on road building and peanuts for walking, cycling and public transport. This, of course, is exactly the kind of policy that shows they are not serious about the Climate Emergency that they themselves had declared just a few days earlier. It reflects the muddled thinking of governments around the World, who continue to give billions in subsidies to keep the old fossil fuel industries going, while at the same time professing to be concerned about climate change, ecological breakdown and appalling air quality. It is why more and more people are taking to the streets globally, with groups like Extinction Rebellion and School Strike for Climate Action, demanding immediate and decisive action.

This coming Friday, 15th March, there will be a global school strike for climate action. As of this morning 1209 actions in 92 countries have been announced, and many more are being added each day. I follow many of the organisers on Twitter, and these young people, some only ten years old, are so powerful and eloquent speakers. They put most of our elected politicians to shame.

We need to make policy and investment decisions fit to the physical realities of the ecological crisis. Take road building. While our local council’s top priority seems to be to build ever more roads George Monbiot suggests a target of reducing car use by 90% over the next decade. Halting the manufacture, sale and use of fossil fuel cars, lorries and buses is a political decision. As I have repeatedly argued on this blog battery electric and hydrogen fuel cell alternatives already exist, and having most of the cars in car sharing clubs rather than private ownership we can further decrease the damage they do and the space they take up. If we are serious about action on climate change, or children’s health, or the liveability of our cities, then we have to make planning policy decisions in the understanding that the era of the privately owned motor car is over.