The singer songwriter, Billy Bragg, had a really good song in the eighties with a final line that went something like, ‘wearing badges is not enough in days like these’. In relation to climate change it often feels to me though like maybe some badges would be a start.
Much of eastern Germany, as well as parts of the Czech Republic and Hungary have been under water for several weeks now. Such floods are referred to here as a ‘jahrhunderte fluete’, suggesting a very rare perhaps once in a century calamity. Sadly many of these areas, particularly Sachsen, had the last one in 2002.
I believe I first came face to sticky face with climate change about ten years ago trying to snorkel next to the coral reefs in Eygpt’s Red Sea with my eight year old son. Some days it was pretty much impossible because of the hundreds, if not thousands of clumpy, squidgy white jellyfish and their clammy thin trailing tentacles, that one had to swim through. Non poisonous, we were assured, we still got a pink, knobbly rash on our skin later in the day. Such jellyfish thrive in warming waters and now the phenomenon is affecting large parts of the Mediterranean.
Yet, chatting with people here in Berlin acceptance that climate change is happening is surprisingly rare. Indeed I was asked by a young artist last Friday evening at our local cafe, didn’t I agree that climate change was the biggest con trick ever? After all, the earth has gone through many natural climatic changes, like the ice age or whatever happened when the dinosaurs checked out!
Well, not just the dinosaurs were wiped out by the climate when the meteorite hit but anything taller than hip height which would include all artists, with maybe the exception of a revived Toulouse Lautrec.
So I suggested it may of course be true (regardless of the 97% scientific consensus that it is man-made) that it is a natural climate catastrophe that’s developing, its just that that doesn’t make it any less of a catastrophe. Maybe it’s still worth at least thinking about if there’s anything we might be doing that might be adding to it!
Perhaps a badge would have helped, one of a painfully pink looking earth, smoke from it rising into the atmosphere. But, as Billy suggested, it might not be enough.
We could put our faith in sophisticated, market based solutions like carbon trading, executed by extremely bright, supremely self confident people on high tech investment trading floors and their making ‘dirty’, old technologies too expensive to keep running. But my faith in this was badly shaken when I met a senior executive of a leading New York based carbon trading company who told me he had no idea if climate change existed and as to whether carbon trading might make any difference he was also, very cheerily, clueless.
Maybe the media can help. But the ferociously well groomed, and ever younger, newsreaders here are as twinkly eyed and chummy as in England, and whilst they, just for a conspiratorial split second, raise their eyebrows in sympathetic exasperation at the vast areas of flooding and its accompanying destruction of homes and crops, they then hand over to the gob smackingly gorgeous Amazon of a weather presenter, and say…
‘Ok, there’s been all this rain, but at least the temperatures are going up…(moment’s pause for mock dramatic effect)…….yes?’
She says, relief and smiles all round in the studio, and despite myself, I’m smiling too.
So, I’m back to what a personal contribution to protecting the environment might be, other than wearing a badge…. that I don’t have. Well, it might be to keep the cat in. Easily done, and not as daft as it might seem. For here in Germany, as in England, the numbers of wild birds are falling dramatically. It could be climate change or, as with the ecologically even more important bees, it is suspected pesticides are playing a key part in the problem. And Europe has just voted to ban some of the suspected pesticides. The British government opposed the ban.
But its also believed that cats kill up to ten per cent of all birds in Germany. (I listen to the radio….a lot…) So I’m imagining grannies all over the country who, when asked by a neighbour why they haven’t seen Tiddles for a while reply…
‘Its a political thing. Bird numbers, you know…..it’s probably big agribusiness again, but until sparrow populations round here have stabilised he’s not going out. Hopefully he’ll be able to go out one day soon and savage birds again but no, not now, dear…’
In the same temporary, political spirit I’ve also become a vegetarian. Older readers may remember the seventies when you could announce such a move, and flares wearing people in a haze of incense would wearily reply from beneath a long and unkempt fringe..
‘Oh, yea,….. the grain drain?’
The grain drain being the use of agricultural land to grow crops for cattle that could be growing food for the one in eight of the world’s population who are still, right now, going hungry.
I’d started living by this decision as we travelled with German friends around Thueringen and particularly the beautiful historical city of Weimar a few weeks ago.
Weimar. Former home to Goethe,Schiller and Bach
But came up against the obvious problem that such a decision sounds terribly pious and people immediately feel they’re being guilt tripped. The german Social Psychologist, Harald Welzer, discusses the psychological mechanisms of this process in his new, brilliant book, Selbst Denken, or Think for Yourself.
It went like this….We were five, squashed into a Corsa and returning home…and then one of our German hosts pipes up…
‘I saw you had salad for lunch?’
They’d all had, with lip smacking enthusiam the delicious, local speciality Thuringen sausages…..
And I’m thinking I knew they wouldn’t let it lie…
Another asks just a little pointedly…
‘Why….?…. Are you not eating meat?’
‘Its a political thing, you know, (silence) ..grain drain….you know..(deeper silence)…..growing food for people rather than……(the non sound of words falling into an abyss…)’
And a third, with disbelief at the appalling, logical consequence..
‘So…. no sausage?’
Incomprehension, disappointment, unacknowledged Western guilt all round…disconsolately I looked out of the window at the emerald green rolling hills, thatched farmhouses, hills topped with castles and cows…..cows!!
‘And there’s too many cows!’ I blurt out…’ Farting too much!’
A moment’s consternation, then all round laughter and relief. Incidentally my wife is currently so enamoured of her native land that she reckons the german word for fart, ‘pupsen’, is funnier than ‘fart’. I call Shakespeare and Chaucer in fart’s defence but she invokes Goethe, and as we’d funnily enough just visited his house I felt an appreciative foreigner had to concede the point.
Anyway, the laughter was actually fine as I could still make the point that cattle farting really does make a huge contribution to global warming, and in that sense becoming a vegetarian is probably the single biggest personal contribution one can make to reducing the number of cows and their flatulence and your carbon footprint.
O f course, the people who have thought about all this stuff most, and are often name checked admiringly here in Germany too are the Transition Towns movement.
Looking at their kind of vision for the future, it seems to me like one that has in some ways been retrieved from the fifties, from an age before everything had obsolescence built in, when things could still be repaired rather than thrown away, and things were much more often borrowed, or in Liverpool slang ‘cadged’, and used by others too.
And thinking about time it occurred to me that every time, as I write at my desk, I want to know the time I check it on my smart phone which of course uses energy, and eventually, on recharging, produces just a tiny fraction more carbon.
So I went to find my father’s old clockwork pocket watch, a Sekonda, which I knew I’d seen somewhere…..and I found it, dusty and with the catch gone from the chain. It had not been carried or wound for twenty years.
And yes, it still ticks, and so long as I keep doing my bit, it’ll keep on ticking…
Old new technology near Apolda in Thueringen.