A tide of change is sweeping the world, changing all before it. Where we will end up, no-one knows, but things will not be the same again, nor will Coronavirus – COVID 19 – go away in a few short weeks. Yet amidst all the fear lies a golden opportunity to reset the way we live, change the world economy and mitigate the worst of climate change. The outcome could be a better society and quality of life, but there are no certainties it will happen.
Fifteen or so years ago, I thought the world crisis would be about energy as we hit “peak oil” and supplies started to become more expensive. In July 2008 oil costs hit an all-time high of $147/barrel and was part of the cause of the recession of that time. Energy demand appeared to outstrip supply, although the surge may also have been brought about by speculative trading. According to the IEA, peak conventional oil production occurred in 2006; if so, this has since been masked by the production of unconventional oils and the rapid rise of solar and wind, which are now cheaper than coal. The crisis was postponed, then forgotten by the majority. Right now, in the midst of this C19 crisis, crude oil prices have fallen, in some cases to unparalleled lows. This will price fracking and shale oils out of the picture, but will damage the renewables market too.
In recent years, the climate has come into focus and a global outcry arisen at the lack of concerted government action. This outcry was 20 or 30 years too late, although it may have needed a generation who would actually look at the issue. The high level of action demanded to counter the climate catastrophe never materialised, instead it took a microscopic virus to galvanise the world into drastic action. The action, of course, was for self preservation against C19, yet has the (temporary) effect of being action against the world’s level of carbon emissions. Why we couldn’t see the need for such self preservation against an uninhabitable planet, I don’t know; a matter of scale, perhaps. If we live just nine meals from anarchy, then it implies we also don’t look much further ahead than that. At least governments can no longer argue that we can’t put in place climate solutions quickly; Coronavirus has blown that myth out of the water.
So the question is, what happens next, once C19 is “under control”? I believe that governments and business the world over, will try to kick-start the same old system, get the economy going again, and resume business as usual. Or try to. I don’t think that the C19 story will be over that easily; I’ve heard from people that know better than me that it likely to return in waves, or cycles, perhaps as often as three-monthly. Even if this only happened every few years, the economy would get hit and stall again, start up again, stall again. Governments will respond in one of two ways: totalitarianism, like China and populist regimes, or co-operation and people-centred policy like some more enlightened countries. Certainly, those with populist leaders appear to be heading into deep sh*t, like Brazil and the USA. Time will tell, we can but watch.
This on-going wave of multiple crisis will eventually cause a global rethink and a difficult switch to a circular economy. Resilience and just-in-time linear supply are not really compatible, as has been shown by recent events. So far we have been lucky in that the shortages on the shelves have not actually been production shortages but those caused by excessive demand, but the next wave of them may be as companies struggle to fulfill orders and deal with near-bankruptcy, staff and material shortages and transport problems. God only knows how this will play out in third-world countries.
We may never be able to travel the world again in the way we did before and that will be a good thing overall. Travel has become easy, cheap and taken for granted. As a result, I don’t think people actually appreciate the value of the experience and the environmental costs are high, not just in terms of aviation. Global hotel chains and the hospitality industry now sway on the brink. I speak here as one who loves travel, and I have often worked in the Middle-East. I was in Dubai in February, which seems surreal now; it may prove to be my last visit.
I read of the intentions of huge mega-projects in Saudi (for example), aiming to get right back on track as soon as possible, to build vast new resorts, even cities. Even if such things can now be afforded, I just cannot see tourism ever being quite the same again; the blind insistence in business-as-usual worries me a lot.
On the positive side, we may come to see travel as more of a land-based adventure. When I was twenty, I traveled (hitch-hiking) over land and sea from the UK to Tunisia; it took 16 days and was an amazing experience, better than the actual arrival at my destination and the short flight home was an anticlimax. Travel broadens the mind, but that cannot be said for a lot of tourism, where there is minimal contact with cultures and holidays become a voyeuristic selfie-fest.
Business will travel less and go virtual, both nationally and especially, internationally. A lot of meetings that I used to travel to London for are now virtual and will probably remain so afterwards; as with many conferences and seminars.
One good thing that has been emerging over the last few weeks has been the reprieve of nature from the effects of pollution. Images of murky waters turning clear, wild animals wandering empty streets, clear air over smog-riddled urban centres, empty roads, quiet skies. It’s as if the world was acting in concert to mitigate climate change. Again, it’s showing up the lie that we can’t act faster to bring carbon under control; which is the larger threat to our survival? We act from a place of fear to an imminent medical emergency, whilst barely moving on the slow-motion tsunami that is on the horizon.
If we take the principles of Gaia, or just think in terms of natural systems, C19 could be the planet – Nature – giving us a really big shake up. It seems that these viruses (there are many, many more) are emerging from an over-intensive contact and abuse of nature, specifically in the harvesting of wild animals for meat. Gaian principles might well expect to re-balance an out-of-kilter system, for we humans have become a cancer in our destructive habits and for all our consciousness, we act without thought or regard to the consequences. Nature would do far better without us, something we should keep in mind.
On the positive side, there is much effort to bring about the emergence of regenerative agriculture, socially responsible business, environmentally beneficial ways of living and reduced consumption and pollution. These are nice – and essential – ideas but you only have to look at how Trump is wiping out environmental protections, how big business is maneuvering for the come-back and how China is commissioning vast new coal-powered energy capacity to see this is not likely to go well.
What MAY force through the necessary changes of behavior, is going through the cycle of pandemic-recovery-pandemic that I outlined at the beginning; the old system needs to be shaken and broken up thoroughly before the new can emerge. Unfortunately, we are in for a pretty rough ride.
Better buckle up, and see how we can all adapt and prepare.
This is the first of a four-part article, links to the others are at the end.
These articles are all a part of the same thought progress, which has been brewing for some time and started with an article I wrote two years ago, in March 2018. I think this is an important subject, and hope that you’ll agree and read them…
Whenever I am in the UAE, I find time to visit various parks and gardens; on my latest trip to Dubai (February 2020), I went to see Al Ittihad park, a well-kept secret in the spine of the Palm Jumeirah, underneath the monorail, which was designed using native and naturalized plants of the UAE. It also, the blurb said, promised everything was labeled, so ideal for a crash course in local flora. The park was interesting but unfortunately all the labels had gone, and it was being maintained in the manner of all landscapes; incorrectly, especially so for native planting.
Of equal or greater value, however, are
simple walks around the back-streets and suburbs of a city and I find empty
brownfield sites, awaiting development, often offer the best insights as to
what will actually grow in an arid region, if things are left to their own
devices. It’s more than you’d think, and
it’s not all native. I’ve written about
this before, in this article and I’m building here on my earlier observations.
The world is gripped in fear of biological invasion, currently of Coronovirus but I’m talking here of the floral kind. Globally, there is a growing passion for conservation, restoration of what was, of what we think of as native and right. We seem to think that in taking this approach, we are setting right the wrongs we have done; nothing could be further from the truth. Fortunately, Nature doesn’t share that passion and is busy dispersing its flora and fauna around the place, wherever and however it can. That it uses humans as vectors for that dispersal, is obvious, if you just look upon it from a wider perspective. Perhaps Nature knows something that we humans are trying hard to ignore; that the climate is changing, the rules of life are shifting, that ecologies need to adapt to the new conditions.
I think we humans are both arrogant and ignorant when we say, “that plant doesn’t belong here, we must get rid of it”. Plants that arrive and succeed are the pioneers of a new, adapting ecology; yes, they are aggressive, yes, they grow without restraint and colonize -usually – disturbed ground, yes, some make monocultures. Like all pioneer species they are fast, competitive and relatively short-lived. But they establish life and the conditions for the next species of successional plants to come along. All parts of the world are, or soon will be, under such huge environmental stress that we must actively embrace change and nurture these new ecologies. We cannot live in a world without complex ecology, nor can we hold back the change, so we have to go with it.
To come back to my brownfield sites, on
my previous article, linked above, I encountered the following trees growing on
a brownfield site in Abu Dhabi:
From recent observations in Dubai I can
add the following trees:
Plus the Prosopis and Ficus from the above list.
From the looks of it, this site was
more recently cleared than the Abu Dhabi one, and trees appeared to be no more
than 2-3 years old.
There were also a range of groundcovers
and grasses growing; I haven’t been able to ID them all, but some I saw
Such plants are equally important in
building new ecologies, and a big part of the whole. There are of course, a huge range of native
or adaptive plants not represented here, which would nonetheless grow, given
These observations might be interesting, but how useful are they? If we think of conventional, irrigated landscapes, perhaps not very useful at all; we know and use many of the trees already. Where this becomes interesting, is in that they self-seed and establish without any human intervention. If we could master the art of this, then such landscapes we would nurture and manage, with occasional thinning, removals, perhaps some sucessional seeding or planting. Imagine this on a large scale, in peri-urban locations, alongside roads, at intersections, instead of the over-watered ornamentation we see now throughout the UAE. We then save the ornate for the urban parks, streets and gardens.
Could this be the basis for a new approach to creating landscapes and if so, how would we do it?
The world is finally, at the last minute, waking up to the impending effects and consequences of climate change. In the scramble to work out what we must do (apart from the obvious cessation of burning fossil fuels), one thing, one factor is looming large: we need to put carbon back into the soil, where it can be stored indefinitely, and we need to reforest the Earth. Much of this is in the agricultural realm but there is a huge amount that can – and must – be done within the landscape and horticultural sectors.
Horticulture has a MISSION, it just doesn’t realise it yet
At the centre of this is good soil husbandry, something that we have largely forgotten about. Modern agriculture bypasses all need of soil health by chemically feeding crops; no need for microbes, nutrients, humus, mycelium or earthworms. Chemical fertilisers and herbicides bypass the lot. Most of our soils now are depleted to the point of useless by chemical farming, exacerbated by the tradition of ploughing, which causes erosion from rain and enables much of the soil carbon to move back into the atmosphere.
So whilst we need current global models of food production to transform into regenerative agriculture and agroforestry, we also need to look at our urban landscapes and gardens, and create a new design ethic, a new paradigm, even. I can’t deal here with agriculture but I have been thinking long and hard on what the landscape and horticulture trades need to do; fortunately, I believe there is a lot that we can do.
We need to envelope our existing horticulture trade within ecology, to create an “environmental horticulture” You could also call it ecological, resilience or regenerative horticulture. We (those of us in the trade) know that as a profession, the training of both horticulture (growing) and landscape (doing) are in decline. Horticultural colleges have shrinking budgets and often get the less ambitious or capable students; after all, who is inspired by the prospect of strimming verges or hedge-trimming another unloved carparking lot? Yet last year’s report by the Ornamental Horticulture Roundtable Group valued horticulture at £24.2 billion in GDP in 2017. That’s not inconsequential, yet it goes unrecognised. Fortunately, there is a way to make it much more enticing to prospective students.
Horticulture has a MISSION, it just doesn’t realise it yet. That mission is to adapt our urban landscapes and gardens to cope with climate change, to mitigate temperatures, water flows, to grow biomass and regenerate soils back to health. Healthy soil is the foundation of life, of all life, including our own. Good soil holds fertility, water and carbon. Yet who amongst us now knows much of soil science? Who designs landscapes as ecologies, as “novel ecosystems”, who chooses plants because they have these abilities, not just for pretty flowers? Who designs plantings for their biomass harvest, for creating mulches to feed the soil?
In this respect, I don’t believe it’s necessary – or right, in fact – to work with native plants only. What is native? What was native? What was here 11,700 years ago when the last glacial period ended and the glaciers retreated? Flora and fauna move around the globe all the time, they are opportunistic, not fixed permanently into some tightly integrated ecosystem. We know there is no “ecological climax”, no ultimate ecosystem for any given place. As temperatures rise, climate zones are now shifting away from the equator quicker than Nature can keep up, although it’ll get there eventually. Maybe we help nature, rather than interfere when we bring in exotic plants that naturalise. Maybe those plants are the start of new ecologies that will adapt to the rapid changes that this climate emergency is bringing us. If plants do well, we need to understand how to enhance and build new ecologies with them. This is how we adapt, how we survive and how we rectify the damage we have done as a species; not by returning to some pristine “before” (which doesn’t exist) but by assisting Nature to heal and adapt. The Earth will do this all by itself, and has done so many times. It doesn’t mind if it takes thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of years to adapt. But we do; we can’t wait that long.
So horticulture needs to stop growing pansies in peat with unrecyclable plastic trays and start sorting out which plants really matter for our future; which ones contribute to new and existing ecologies, which ones are good for biomass, which ones contribute to soil health, which ones give us ecosystem services. We should not enhance one environment at the expense of another.
What’s needed is a very-near future profession of trained eco-warriors, soil saviours, tree patriots and landscape lovers. It needs people who understand soil, who know how to design and use sensors, data and the internet of things, people who see what’s coming and how to mitigate and reverse negative effects, people who really know how to design and install green infrastructure and future automated robotic maintenance systems. Our landscapes can grow food in amongst all the beauty, with urban food forests. We need new knowledge built on old and we need passion, commitment. A wise government would fund this for the returns will be numerous.
This is the enlightenment, that out of dire stress and trouble, we could really learn how to value, connect with and protect this crazy, beautiful world within which we live. Or we can do nothing and watch it all go to hell. I know which I’ll be doing.
In my previous post I talked about a regenerative planting methodology for urban landscapes, in which I suggested you would manage, rather than maintain your planting areas. So how exactly do you you do this? Both involve work and the difference is a subtle but important one, in both attitude and application. Think urban forester rather than garden pruner. The picture above illustrates this perfectly, so let me explain.
It shows two hazels in my garden, both planted as young bare-root trees in the winter of 07/08. The one on the left was coppiced down to the ground in the winter of 12/13, the other has been pruned to keep a structure of older wood, with all suckering growth removed annually. What is the difference? The coppiced hazel has been less work overall and has not been touched since it was coppiced, the pruned tree has been pruned annually, which was not great amount of work but this is just one tree. If there were a hundred, it would be a different matter. The main difference is that the pruned tree has catkins, the coppiced tree does not, but I think this is a difference of genetics, rather than pruning technique, as they have always been like that. The shape of the pruned tree is also wider in its spread and will become gnarled as it gets older.
So in terms of management, if you go the coppice route you do nothing much to the trees except coppice them every 4-5 years. I would suggest that 50% of the trees are coppiced so that not all structure is removed at once. Notice that the growth of the coppiced hazel is straighter, making for a productive yield of canes and poles that can be used in the local community. Other trees that can be coppiced include sweet chestnut, lime, alder, ash, willow and hornbeam. Birch and oak will coppice, but from young trees only. Willows and dogwoods grown as bushes for their winter colour can be coppiced or “copparded” (inbetween coppice and pollard) to around 300-600mm every two years to keep the winter stem colours strong.
Salix elaeagnos (foreground)
By adopting such techniques in our larger masses of urban street planting and parks, we would deliver a more biodiverse, beautiful and biophilic interaction for all concerned. It would also cost less both to establish and possibly to maintain, than traditional planting. The above willow is beautiful and graceful, yet I have seen it all too often used in municipal car-parks and reduced to a-n-other shrub that is caressed all to frequently with the indifference of a hedgetrimmer.
Time to re-wild our inner selves, and our urban landscapes. We can do so much better than the average landscape we see in our towns and cities.