Compelled to Rebel

I’ve worked in the environment sector for a long time and, increasingly, in the world of sustainability. I advise and coach organizations to assess their environmental impact by working with people to reconsider current approaches in their work and change their behaviors. We’ve done good work with many, many more great results by others and yet still, the emissions keep on rising.

This month, I’ve responded to a UK Government consultation about ‘Biodiversity Net Gain. This is how the government intends to ensure property developers mitigate the harm caused by building on natural habitats through the valuation and exchange of ‘biodiversity units’, in turn creating ‘habitat banks’. It was dull, yet critical. Our UK environment desperately needs an injection of funding to return to the richness and diversity of wildlife I experienced throughout my childhood.

In the Photo: British wildlife is suffering from a host of factors. Photo Credit: Photo by Ambitious Creative Co. – Rick Barrett

That language, which I apply in my professional career, has fundamentally changed. In the last decade or so, the environmental sector has been subsumed by the application of economic theory, which is the value of and payment for ecosystem services.  In the UK, austerity-based Government policies have seen a rapid decline in public-sector funding with a subsequent fire-sale of land and community assets. Business cases for the maintenance of parks and green spaces must be developed, then assessed and justified against other public-sector projects. We need to unlock environmental investment opportunities, maximize ‘green growth’, create and develop ‘natural capital’.  Even the amazing green space volunteers who I represent, I talk to and about in terms of their ‘added-value’, encouraging them to log their time and numbers, monetizing their enjoyment.

In the Photo: How much are they worth compared to natural wildlife? Photo Credit: Benjamin Grull

The arguments for this approach are stoked with this language too. If we don’t value our environment in terms that economists understand, it will not be properly protected. We have to show returns on investment. We have to show asset value. However, research shows that by using this language in relation to our natural world, we erode the values that we’re trying to engender. We have monetised the damage caused by climate change; past, present and future calculations represented by a dollar-sign and some big numbers. We have exploited resources until scarcity forces unimaginable market-values. We wastefully scar our planet and decimate its species, whilst efficiently mechanizing food and resource extraction systems. Western-style consumption is inevitable in a world flooded with pointless choice and the marketing of fear and self-dissatisfaction.

None of this is working. None of this is right. The loss of our living world, in my lifetime, beggars belief. Framing this loss in economic terms does not do justice to my grief. I am bereft. I am lost.

In the Photo: The author laments the loss of woodlands, one of the many habitats under threat. Photo Credit: Vini Low

I am standing in woodland after rain. The earthy, fungal pungency fills my lungs and I inhale and exhale deeply, deeper and slower. Water drips from the canopy releasing more fragrance. It is quiet, the birds speak rarely, the woods are still. My footsteps make the leaves and twigs shuffle and crack. I lift my feet high to step on and over thick brambles guarding the forest floor, pushing deeper into the center of the woods. I steady myself on a tree, it’s rough, gnarly bark softened by moss, its inhabitants move inside. The trees open into a circular glade. Long ago someone must have planted this thicket. Twelve formidable oak trees stand firm, reaching up into the clear sky with delicate patternations crisscrossing in silhouette, naked limbs swaying gently. I sit in the centre and plunge my hands into the sticky, wet ground. The earth feels good, it smells good. I can feel life here and long stories.

In the Photo: UK coastlines are under threat too. Photo Credit: Jobair Jaber

I am by the sea. It is late, the light is leaving for today and the lights of towns twinkle, marking the coastline. The wind is strong and salty, I can taste it when I breathe. I walk closer to the waves, my footsteps crunch over pebbles towards the edge of the ocean. Seagulls play in the wind, calling to the impending storm and soaring on its strength. The water, whipped up by the wind, breaks, and pounds the shore, crashing pebbles. Breakers glow white against the black sea, constantly moving towards me, drawing me to them. I am at the edge where loud waves break and foam around my feet. There is no prediction here, the chaos of water played out at small scale, bold and ignorant of man. I stay a long time, until I’m too cold, hypnotized by the rhythms and salt, breathing with the sea.

I am seven years old and have now been by the pond for several hours. I’ve not yet finished my mission of clearing the duck-weed with a tea strainer, but I’ve made good progress. All manner of bugs and insects have been my companions. Dragonflies with astonishing eyes, no longer bothered by my presence, perform aerial acrobatics, zipping and hovering. Their beauty belies their voraciousness. Water snails creep about in the cool water whilst water boatmen race on the surface. Frogs come and say hello, belly-flopping into the water when I reach for them, eyes watching me from the surface as they float in their world. Birds dart about in the bushes, merrily chatting and hurrying, their songs accompanying my activity. I’m in my element. When I finally go to eat, I have a sunburnt back and I smell of the pond.

In the Photo: Ponds, no matter how small, can provide important refugia. Photo Credit: Jared Evans

I am bereft. I am lost. I have hit a wall and I cry. My tears exhausted, I am angry. I am raging against this loss. My summer garden is now quiet, the odd bumblebee buzzes and I rejoice in its presence. I soak in the beauty of what’s left; spiders, woodlice, slugs, snails, ants, and flies. I am lost and I am angry.

8th October 2018, the starkest warning yet from the UN about climate change is announced and ignored. I can’t remember exactly where I see it, but I see it. A new group, angry too, grieving and lost like me, the Extinction Rebellion. I watch the video of Gail Bradbrook. This is important, so I read and research. My Mum and husband hear my thoughts about civil disobedience and how I might be arrested. Eyes roll. I think of those indigenous communities who have long fought and died to protect their environments and homes. I go with my friend, from Worthing Climate Action Network to London, Parliament Square on the 31st October 2018. The protest that ensues is fun and determined, peaceful and rejuvenating. We halt the traffic for a few hours and make our way home. The Extinction Rebellion is born.

This movement is now growing rapidly. Social media is solidifying groups across the world. This is the antithesis to COP(out)24. As I move through Christmas and the new year, surrounded by the latest must-have crap toys – yes, we really are happy to destroy our planet so rich western children can have a unicorn that poos glitter-slime – there is at least, some hope. In addition, a political movement, which understands how a different approach to economics, one that supports social and environmental outcomes, is also growing. So, bring on 2019! I and many others are fired up. We’ll keep talking to people and working with organizations to create and deliver change but I’m also feeling disruptive. It’s now or never.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own, not those of Cover Photo Credit: Extinction Rebellion
About the Author /

Michelle is a Director of a sustainability consultancy, FuturEcoLogic Ltd, artist and activist. Her experience ranges from national-level policy, strategic interventions in large complex organisations to working with communities designing and developing spaces and projects. She is an active volunteer and happiest when she has muddy hands.

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