Gentle Decline 2/20: Abstracts & Activism
Observations on things people pay attention to, and things they're willing to change.
Dan Hon, in Things That Caught My Attention, wrote:
Look, what I’m also kind of saying is this: you can’t get people to change until and unless they want to change. If people see nothing wrong with a particular situation, if they’re not experiencing for example sufficient pain, or if they don’t see a sufficient reward, then they’re not going to do anything differently.
I want to think about this a bit in the context of climate chaos - both in trying to push it back by reducing emissions and in setting up to cope with the consequences of having not done so for some time. And by looking at it in the context of other situations where people did want to change.
[Gentle Decline is an occasional newsletter about climate crisis, and - more to the point - how to cope with it. You can support the newsletter via Patreon, Ko-fi, or by buying some of the seriously classy merchandise.]
Hon is writing in the context of user interface design, at the corporate level, where users don’t have much choice. The same reasoning can be applied to taking environmentally positive actions in a corporate context; if there’s no benefit and no easing of difficulty, companies and similar organisations simply won’t do a thing. They may say they’ll do things, or put some money into tree-planting or whatever, but that’s just publicity and marketing.
Meanwhile, I had a conversation with Gav, long-time correspondent and occasional contributor to Gentle Decline, at a barbecue last weekend (which is becoming like some sort of annual ritual by now), in which I was talking about lack of preparation for climate and other disasters, and he was being optimistic. Broadly, his point that was after some sort of local catastrophe happens, government will invest in preventing that particular event from happening again. His example for this is the flooding on the Dodder, and the anti-flood measures that have been put in the place there, for which he sent me pictures last year. Let me quote myself from that issue, though:
First is that Ballsbridge is a moderately wealthy area of Dublin, and it’s interesting to see that it has solid flood defences installed while other parts don’t, and the second is that these defences will only work against a flood slightly worse than that of 2011.
My broad position on this, though, is that there are more and different local-or-national disasters coming, that there are almost no preparations being made, and that even when there is an event, the preparations for the next one are usually barely adequate. Further, there will be points in time where there are too many such things happening to put in measures against all of them then.
My immediate go-to on this was COVID-19. We know as a society, more or less, how to handle a respiratory pandemic. What preparations are in place in Ireland to handle such an epidemic if (or when) a different one arrives? Have we organisational preparations for a strict lockdown for a couple of weeks? How about maintained stocks of masks, or plans to distribute vaccines? There is actually a document called a “Framework for Future COVID-19 Pandemic Response”, put together by NPHET in July 2020. It sets out a few core ideas, including that countermeasures should continue until such time as there are no more cases, and that “Rapid identification and contact tracing of new cases is central”. Of course, the pandemic is still under way and there’s a steady background of cases, but NPHET has been disbanded, there’re essentially zero ongoing countermeasures, and we gave up on contact tracing ages ago. So not only are we ignoring the preparations for a future outbreak, we’re fairly solidly ignoring the best ways to handle the current one.
Meanwhile, here’s a listing of the climate-related things that are already happening in Ireland: river flooding, coastal flooding, just-plain-downpour-flooding, rising sea level, wildfires, drought, larger-and-more-frequent storms, pollinator die-off, agricultural climate zone shifts, new disease prevalence, and good old basic air pollution (plus energy generation, although since that’s a direct economic problem, there’s been some movement on that). There are plenty of non-climate or only-peripherally-climate-related things going on too: a cost of living crisis, rising energy costs, massive housing issues, the arrival of refugees, knock-on effects from Brexit, attempts to spread TERF nonsense from the UK to here, and so forth.
Some of these are already fairly major issues, and there’s little enough being done about them. There was, for example, a flood in New Ross in Wexford recently. It’s clear what the causes are, and what we need to do to make towns and villages better able to handle these events - there’s a Social Democrats TD detailing it in that article. It’s not happening, though.
As noted above, there actually was something done about the Dodder flooding. That’s good! But at present, as far as I can see, it’s only enough to deal with a flood a little bigger than the one that happened before, and it’s pretty clear that bigger floods are very possible; heavy localised downpours are a feature of the Isles’ new weather patterns, and the Dodder catchment area is larger than most people think.
(Map taken from Streamscapes: The Dodder River Catchment)
Ideally, there would be a tree-planting program in the upstream parts of the catchment area, which runs up into the hills in South Dublin - hills which are currently bare of trees in many areas due to sheep and deer. Even fencing off some areas - which don’t even need to be in direct contact with the river - would allow some natural regeneration of tree cover. Areas with trees absorb water vastly better than places without, so even with heavy rainfall, less water would make it into the river, taking pressure off the flood defenses downstream. There is a plan underway to do some of this work with “raingardens”, but as far as I can see, it’s (again) only in the wealthy downstream areas.
How about Cork City, which floods with amazing regularity? Turns out that Cork City Council removed the Flood Management page from their website (you can still see a blank page if you use the right search terms), and have instead a “River Basin Management” page, which punts responsibility to the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government’s River Basin Management Plan for 2018-2021 without adding anything. Indeed, the best I can find on the website is an October 2019 article entitled “Statement in relation to the Dockland flood defences”, which contains the rather defensive sub-header “Consideration of flood risk is a key part of Cork City Council’s plan for the successful delivery of Docklands, and assertions to the contrary are entirely without basis.” Further, “Given that Save Cork City objected to the plan to include flood protection as part of this project, it is incredible that they would now assert that there is no flood protection.” So as far as I can make out, there is very little happening, and when it does happen, local residents and businesses try to stop it (see also Clontarf’s amazing protest which resulted in a sea wall being reduced in height).
We’re not planting trees for flood management, or even constructing meaningful flood defences in vulnerable places. We’re not digging firebreaks for wildfire control, engaging in controlled burns, or removing invasive and flammable rhododendron. We’re not doing anything about large-scale irrigation plans for drought. We’re doing absolutely nothing about sea-level rise, and enthusiastically building new developments near sea level. We have just barely addressed pollinator die-off by not cutting motorway verges as much, but there are still plenty of farmers and local councils cutting back hedges and mowing green spaces “to tidy them up” and the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan is being pushed back on in various places (though to be fair, it’s having some solid success where it’s allowed to go ahead). Agricultural climate zone shifts are being ignored. We’re not handling the current pandemic as we know we should, let alone looking at new diseases (malaria will probably arrive in Europe again fairly soon), and measures against air pollution are still being opposed.
Any and all of these issues can be addressed now, in advance of them becoming problematic. And in the circumstances where one of them arises at a time, it’s entirely viable to fix them as they arise (assuming that people stop opposing the fixes). The trouble is going to come when we’re dealing with two, three, or more of them at once, they’re worse than they were at the time of planning, and possibly when we’re operating in the context of energy shortages (whether due to the war in Ukraine or a future lack of fossil fuels or just very increased energy use). That’s the point at which budgets and headcount run out, and something is left un-dealt-with.
Obviously, making preparations for these issues now will be cheaper, safer, and more efficient than dealing with them after disasters have already happened. But that’s not happening. This seems to be because the public (to some degree) and the authorities (very much so) seem to think that climate change and preparation for it are still very abstract. And you can’t expect people to get behind an abstract idea with actual money and effort.
Except… you absolutely can. Take the concept of nationalism. It’s an abstract - countries have no real existence beyond a concept of lines on a map. They don’t line up with language use, with religion, with anything except historical accident. Yet there are plenty of people who are fanatically devoted to their country, to the point of violence when it’s slighted, let alone threatened. People invest thoroughly unreasonable amounts of money and effort in nationalism, to no particular effect - what effect could there be? I could also point to religion, which has caused a truly ludicrous number of wars, and where people voluntarily gave up one-tenth of their income every year to the Catholic church for centuries. Religion, admittedly, has more justification than nationalism, since at least its believers think there is an outcome of saving their souls. But in either case, it’s an abstract behind which people have historically put incredible amounts of thought and expenditure.
In particular, people fight hard for change in both of these contexts. Revolutions and rebellions (at least since the 18th century) have very often been on nationalist lines, and religious wars - between sects of one religion, for the most part - ripped Europe apart for centuries.
I’m still working up a theory on why environmentalism or, in the case of my own specific interests here, forward planning for climate chaos, don’t get the same kind of backing. My current target is the media, where environmental concerns are still presented with a vague air of “look at these hippies”, except where the actual disaster hits. Even then it was very rare up to quite recently for climate to be mentioned in the context of flooding or wildfires. In terms of making plans, American style bunker-and-gun preppers do us no favours, of course. And some of the more right-wing press will hit both sides of an event from the wrong angle. When this is how people encounter the concepts, over and over again, it’s not surprising that they’re apathetic about doing anything about the problems - they’re either trivial or inevitable, and sometimes a kind of quantum superposition of both.
More thinking on this stuff as I get a bit more to grips with it, and maybe even some practical outcomes.
In entirely other news, I’m restructuring my Patreon. Previously, Patreon patrons got some occasional extra information about my newsletters, and at a certain level a sonnet every month (usually sent out in batches of four or six). However, not everyone likes sonnets, and I’d much rather channel the extra information into the newsletters. There’ve also been a few remarks from people that I don’t write about myself much in social media, and they don’t know what’s going on in my life. Several people pointed to other writers’ Patreons and newsletters, where they basically give such updates. So I’m going to change things up a bit. Hereafter, the base level of the Patreon will get updates about what’s happening, what things I’m working on, and a general life update, at what I hope will be a steady frequency. The higher tiers will get some (more) pictures, of gardens, wild things, AI-generated images, or cats. Your patronage will be very welcome, and suggestions of other benefits will be at least considered!