/ 6 November 2021

We danced our way to the Earth’s demise

Graphic Foxtrot Twitter
(John McCann/M&G)

If life is a foxtrot — slow, slow; quick-quick — we are in the quick-quick part, manoeuvring our way across the global dance floor, faster and faster, bumping into each other as we find our rhythm. Or, just as likely, colliding with each other as we lose our balance and plunge our part of the globe’s biodiversity into free fall.

My father used to say that it was the way of the world that when things that seemed to take forever to find form moved into the realm of the real, they did so with such speed that even the prepared were surprised.

It’s like death, he’d say. No matter how expected, it’s still a shock, a body blow, when it happens.

It’s how we’ve treated our sick planet for decades, ignoring the warning signals — and there have been many — only waking up to our dire plight now when management, not healing, of the Earth’s condition is possible. 

Well, it’s time to talk about “saving the planet” at the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) taking place in Scotland. 

Glasgow, famed for its Victorian and art nouveau architecture, is host to the biggest gathering of world leaders ever assembled on British soil over the next few days. 

Will there be a “generation-defining” agreement to pull back greenhouse gas emissions? Will we slow the pace of global heating — meeting the goals set in the Paris Agreement signed in 2015?

But most importantly, will the world’s leaders be there to lend support to the discussions and debates and make critical decisions that they will agree to implement?

Even Queen Elizabeth II has her doubts, evidenced by overheard remarks at the opening of the Welsh parliament a week before COP26 of her irritation with people who “talk but don’t do”.

She could be proved right: the heads of state of two of the biggest polluting nations, Russian president Vladimir Putin and Chinese president Xi Jinping are not at the summit.

The usual suspects — environmental activists Sir David Attenborough and scary teenager Greta Thunberg — are. 

This conference has been called humanity’s “best last chance” to get some sort of handle on climate change.

My dad used to say that we humans take a long time, “allowing” things before we act. He meant apartheid, but it has a wider context too. And so we have lived through an extended slow-slow phase and the Earth is now, if not terminally ill, definitely on life support.

Warning rumblings from early last century have included Silent Spring, Rachel Carson’s 1962 groundbreaking environmental science book describing the adverse environmental effects caused by the wide use of pesticides. Going 65 years back, lovely broadcaster, author and natural historian David Attenborough began recording the degradation of our planet.

I was moved to tears by his 2020 documentary Life on Our Planet where the 93-year-old introduced himself saying: “This is my witness statement.”

There was a touching finality in this quietly spoken warning from a man who has, as he says, witnessed the onset of a climate emergency that has largely been ignored, one that has speeded up exponentially in recent years.

His is a personal account of a life spent mapping out how humans have destroyed nature and are in the process of making our home uninhabitable for millions.

Attenborough has statistics to back him up. Since the 1950s, animal populations have more than halved. An astonishing 70% of birds on the planet are mostly chickens, bred for our consumption.

Sustainable farming and the health of our planet is something the Prince of Wales — who is lending his respected voice to COP26 — has been promoting since the 1980s. 

Forty years after he began the environmental conservation dance, his son Prince William has learnt the steps and added to the choreography. Together, they have moved finding solutions to the planet’s problems to the top of the agenda.

It is something of a relief that the royals have used their unique position to tackle the challenges presented by climate change. William has collaborated on what I suspect will be one of the most important cogs in the wheel of the environmental battle.

Enter The Earthshot Prize, one of the most prestigious global environment prizes in history designed to encourage change and help repair our planet over the next 10 years. 

The much belittled future monarch, Charles, has been a staunch champion for sustainable measures and systems that could help save the environment. He has preached, most often to deaf ears, about the global challenges of climate change, deforestation, pollution of our oceans. People thought him a little peculiar, this man who talked to plants.

To reduce his carbon footprint, the prince stopped eating meat and dairy for a few days a week, the principle being that eating fewer animal products is important to fight the climate crisis. 

Attenborough tells us that humans make up a third of the weight of mammals on Earth with 60% of animals being those that are raised for us to eat. Domestic animals require vast swathes of land and half of the fertile land on the planet is now farmland. Hence fewer cows, less methane, which, apparently, diffuses quickly and therefore creates a quicker warming effect than other greenhouse gases. 

Now, in the quick-quick phase that we are in, plant-based diets are being hailed as the way to go. 

Another man ahead of the curve was Al Gore, vice-president to the United States’ Bill Clinton.

He first moved onto my radar in my first year at Rhodes University in 1977 when the young congressman’s views on climate issues were quickly (but carelessly) adopted by me and my nerd-herd. 

Almost two decades later, in 1994 as vice-president, he launched the Globe programme, designed to educate children on the environmental challenges that would affect their future.

As the American correspondent for a Sunday newspaper in 1998, I wrote about Gore’s support of the Kyoto Protocol — which called for the global reduction of carbon emissions. It was hoped that countries within the United Nations would comply. Few did, including the US, which refused to ratify this critical protocol.

Now US President Joe Biden wants to pledge his country’s support in the fight against global warming, but his efforts appear to have been hamstrung by Congress.

If Biden had had his way, there’d be legislation that would fulfil an American promise to cut greenhouse gas emissions by more than half within the next nine years — when compared to levels recorded in 2005. He’d hoped to set an example for other countries to follow: throwing money — a lot of it — into clean energy for a start.

We’re a strange species, us humans. Like addicts, we ignore the obvious and laugh in the face of evidence that could kill us, that could wipe us out as a species.

And in this foxtrot dance we are in, things that started out slow-slow have become quick-quick with remarkable speed. 

It’s as though we all suddenly woke up — like women did when they screamed “enough” after centuries of sexual misconduct, giving birth to #MeToo.

The social #MeToo movement has highlighted sexual abuse and harassment, and shines a spotlight on those accused of sex crimes. Again it took years before this phrase — coined by Tarana Burke in 2006, to raise awareness of women who’d been abused — moved into regular use. It was only after actress Alyssa Milano’s 2017 tweet called Hollywood bigwig film producer Harvey Weinstein a sexual predator that it became a global term.

The world is ready for change. And we, most right thinking people, are ready to act for change.

Think how a series of pro-democracy protests and uprisings called the Arab Spring led to first free elections and toppled leaders in Tunisia and in Egypt. Once begun, the tide could not be turned.

It’s how I feel about joining the fight for the survival of our planet. Friends who once shrugged as they asked what single individuals can do, have changed their tune if only to recycle.

We can all play a role: limiting our diet of red meat and dairy products, lobbying our supermarkets to use less packaging, planting trees, recycling and building more energy efficient homes. 

We live on this planet — we’ve got skin in the game — so, I suppose, it’s up to us to make sure that the generations to come have a world to inhabit.

As Thunberg and teen environmental activists everywhere have been telling us, we owe it to them.

And so, we need to keep the quick-quick rhythm of our global dance going.