This Was England
Dry fields, flooded cities and denuded forests: what Britain’s new prince will inherit
A huge storm finally broke London’s heatwave last night; tropic lighting and hailstones the size of shotgun pellets that looked like a solid wall under the streetlights that turned the roads of south London into rivers. It has finally snapped two weeks of fever-hot temperatures that have turned the capital’s green spaces to deserts.
In lieu of personal conversations, we like to talk about the weather here. Other countries might include it at the end of their news broadcasts but here it is the news, splashed across the front pages of the tabloids at the first sign of a cold snap or a heatwave or the lead item on the BBC, whose newsreaders exhort their viewers to send in pictures of snow, rain or light fog. Just so now—until the imminent arrival of the heir to the throne trumped all news, everywhere.
We have been poaching in the thick air for days, and the ludicrous pageantry of the royal birth seemed slight and tame under the cannoning of the thunder. The new prince of Cambridge is the 41st in a direct line from Egbert, King of Wessex in the ninth century, an embodiment of the peculiar timelessness of British tradition and the country’s unquestioning acceptance of divinity and exceptionalism.
“I don’t mind if it’s any good,” an old friend said to me recently of a wedding service. “As long as they play Jerusalem, I’ll be happy.”
I suspect he was only half joking. Jerusalem is Englishness, a vague, self-satisfied sense of nostalgia that overrides reason; a 19th century paean to the land that still oddly resonates in the 21st and rejects what England, and the rest of Britain, is now, and what it looks like it might become, shorn of the natural symbols that have sustained both its romantic poets and its patriotic ones.
No matter what the soccer fans sing, England never had lions, but its life is in decline, facing future as a place with no oaks, no ash; a timeless capital besieged by the tide and a countryside dried out and unable to feed a country locked in post-industrial decline; brutal winters and a disappearing coastline. The threat of climate change and the overuse of ecosystem services should once and for all destroy the sense of British exceptionalism and invincibility that has sustained us far longer than it should.
But the society that replaced that agrarian paradise, the industrialised north of mills and mines has gone, beaten by globalisation; now its consumerist successor is also on the wane. For the last two decades we have become an economy that is dependent almost entirely on finance and retail, the former supplying the cheap credit spent on stack-em-up, sell-em-cheap clothing and food.
Just as we have got used to £2 T-shirts and having ripe bananas in the depths of the British winter, we have got used to cheap food, and we do not really care where it has come from. The relative disinterest that we, as a country, had showed in our supply chains was highlighted earlier this year when it transpired that some of the frozen ready meals we consume in vast quantities were not, in fact, made from the low-grade beef that we wanted, but instead some were as much as 100 percent horse.
So blasé have we been about our food, we chuck about 18 million tonnes into landfill every year, roughly split a third each between consumers, retailers and producers. Not for much longer.
The CEO of the UK’s biggest supermarket chain, Tesco, said in an interview, published on the weekend, that the age of cheap food is over, and he would know. One pound in every eight is spent in his stores.
The only argument amongst credible forecasters seems to be the magnitude of the rise in food prices, as the combined forces of rising global population, ecological stress and climate change drive an imbalance in the supply and demand relationships that keep food on the tables of wealthier nations like ours. Food inflation here has been running at 4 per cent this year, and given our stagnant wages and flat economic growth, that is a considerable hit.
For all the gnashing and wailing amongst the banking set, the truth is that every crisis hits the poorest hardest, hence why the high streets have been handed over to payday lenders, pawn shops and betting shops, all of which are surging in the new economy of desperation. Half a million people rely on food banks to get by.
Over the past five years we have seen the reversal of advances in standards of living that were hard won in the twentieth century, and it is only going to get worse.
While it is difficult to ascribe causes in a complex and connected global system, the roots of this local food crisis can be seen at home, with Britain as a microcosm of the failings of agriculture, consumerism and inaction on climate change.
The green and pleasant land is yellowing. Our farms are drying up. Much was made in the sceptical press about how temperature rises could make the UK more productive and growing seasons longer. But, just like the rest of the world, without water there is no hope of sustaining our agriculture, and we are running short.
Although it is almost impossible to attribute individual weather events to climate change, there is a growing volume of expert voices saying that the trends are clear. The bizarrely hot November in 2011, for example, was about 60 times more likely to happen because of long-term, global rises in temperature. The winter of 2012-13, which locked the country down for weeks on end, and seemed as though it would never break, was probably down to a shift in the Jet Stream, and some experts have posited that could be down to changes in sea temperature.
The Committee on Climate Change, which advises the government on its adaptation strategy, said that most of the country’s productive agriculture is currently in areas of water stress. Inefficient farming, together with long, intense summers, mean that by 2020 farmers could have shortfalls of half of the water they currently use. The rich topsoil of farmland in the East Anglian Fens is being blown away as dust, and “could largely disappear in a few decades,” its July 2013 report said.
As Lester Brown, the president of the Earth Policy Institute, wrote earlier this month, as a species we have created an artificial food bubble through the overuse of water resources. It is not just Yemen, Syria and Saudi Arabia running down their water clocks—we are too.
Across England the jokes are told about hosepipe bans in the rain are told with the same kind of resigned ignorance as the ones about “bloody global warming” during one of our cold springs. “Since records began” is another catchphrase that has joined the ironic canon, but last autumn was the wettest on records and this spring the coldest. Wheat production fell by a third, and rather than being a net exporter of wheat, Britain imported 2.5 million tonnes. We think of ourselves as self-sufficient in food, in a “Dig for Victory” kind of way, but we are not. We import around 40 percent of our food consumption.
Around 60 percent of species in the UK show signs of decline. The encroachment of infrastructure and urbanisation means that only 25 percent of habitats are large and contiguous—rather they are fragmented and fragile islands of biodiversity.
Britain’s peatlands, which are a carbon sink and absorb water that otherwise would flow down in the kind of floods that, year after year, seem to visit rural communities, are dying too, overgrazed or burned to bring up heather for commercial shooting. Climate change could drive declines between a half and two-thirds of what’s left.
Wild honeybees are almost extinct, and the uncharacteristic weather killed off a third of the already depleted hives in England. Ash dieback, Chalara fraxinea, has infected hundreds of woodlands, killing and damaging ancient and new trees; Acute Oak Decline is doing the same to oak trees.
The impacts of biodiversity loss on the ability of the land to continue to produce could be—will be—profound and incredibly difficult to reverse.
Supermarkets themselves have to take a considerable amount of responsibility for the decline of the countryside. The three or four major chains dominate food sales and have an unassailable ability to dictate the market price of agricultural commodities. They are routinely accused of forcing producers into near penury. It is their role in driving the demand that forces farmers to find more efficiencies, more economies and take less care over their impact on the land. The stewards of the countryside are barely able to make ends meet.
And it is not just the countryside under threat. Go far enough up the Thames, past the City, then East again, past the gentrified docks of Wapping, and seven shining structures jut out of the water, each swept back and shaped like a gutted jet engine. These are London’s giant flood defences, the Thames Barrier. When they were built in the 1980s they were designed to prevent all but a 1,000 year flood. Now, on “business as usual” estimates of sea level rise, the chance of tidal events of that magnitude are predicted to be ten times as likely—meaning that the chance of them happening each year is about one percent. This is assuming things do not get worse, and sea level rise does not accelerate.
It is almost ironic that we have been told that we will be one of the few that will benefit from climate change, both in its effects and in the global efforts to mitigate it.
We have been undergoing decades of post-industrial decline, as the boarded-up shop fronts of our Northern towns testify. But successive governments have told us that there will be a new boom coming from renewables—manufacturing and installing the turbines and barrages that will turn us into a green paradise, the majestic windfarms replacing William Blake’s dark satanic mills.
There has been talk that the UK could become “The Saudi Arabia of offshore wind”, and when the Prime Minister opens the world’s largest offshore wind farm, it almost looks conceivable. And yet a toxic combination of lobbying, public pressure of the type we call “Nimbyism”—”Not In My Back Yard”—and the waxing and waning interest of financiers and government have led to an underinvestment across the board. As the influential Institute for Public Policy Research thinktank said in July, the lack of clarity in policy, procurement and the failure to support innovation and skills in the sector mean that putting money behind the industry is risky at best. Only about a third of the parts used to build windmills are made locally, the rest is imported.
Although we are quite good at the nonsense solution that is carbon capture and storage, the technology that led to the oxymoron “clean coal”, we have, in the parlance of the market, no competitive advantage in manufacturing the parts for the energy that we are best placed to use. And if the economics do not immediately stack up, if not that many jobs will be created, the likelihood is that what little government enthusiasm there was will die away.
We have an automobile industry that, while still holding out for the electric car, is still rooted in the past, every announcement of new investment more like a stay of execution than a brave new future.
We are failing our air pollution targets, burning through our coal allowance because coal, right now is cheap—thanks America—and we are looking, potentially at decades of our own low-cost shale gas—thanks again America, that was your idea. For a while in this government, the UK had a climate change “sceptic” as its energy minister. Between nine and 11 percent of our energy is generated by renewables, depending on the season, but the vast majority is gas and coal, with nuclear—around 19 percent—making up the total.
For a country concerned about climate change, we are practically doing very little to stop it. And yet we are already feeling the impacts, and feeling them acutely. Individually we are paying more for food, and despite the “good” weather, our retail-based economy is going to suffer badly. In cold winters, we are paying more for fuel, if we can afford it at all, increasing the burden on the healthcare system that is already terminally strained of resources. Our transport systems are strained by extreme weather; our industry is looking neither particularly innovative nor productive.
Worse still, the hard-won culture of social welfare—already under threat by massive cuts to government spending—will be battered. It is the poor who suffer from the impacts of climate change—not just the distant poor in the tropics—the lower income families who struggle to put food on the table as it is, who will be denied access to basic commodities and opportunities that they believed were their rights; trapped on an island still hung up on the creation myth of the Blitz, failing to defend its shores or its farms from the damage wrought by the industrial revolution it helped to create, and that helped to create it. Bloody global warming.