Part 1. Ukraine
Four weeks after the invasion started, a “Digest” about the war in Ukraine feels like an oxymoron. The terrible attrition of people and places grinds on; atrocities against the Ukrainian people mount daily.
Even if a conclusion to the fighting were in sight, it is a situation full of contradictory ingredients that are hard to assimilate. Ukrainian towns and cities are relentlessly pulverised and people are suffering horribly. All the while pundits tell us that “Putin has lost.” But heroic Ukrainian achievements against the Russian forces are no guarantee of success in the country’s fight for autonomy and territorial integrity. In fact the civilian population is being punished for those very successes on the battlefield. Imperialism is back, with such crude ruthlessness and so elaborately covered in our media that we are both shocked awake and shocked into a nightmare.
As Climate Psychologists we may not have bought into rosy post-cold war notions about the virtue or security of the “free world” – on the contrary we are versed in the destructiveness of neoliberalism and assaults on truth. But that does not protect us from deep shock at such intense brutality. It is also a moment in some way reminiscent of the climate movement’s disillusionment and grief following COP 15, Copenhagen 2009.
It is not a psychologically valid option just to double down on our cherished projects. Nor does it invalidate our preferred actions (like the work I describe below) to know that they are calming, or an antidote to guilt. But we do need to take stock of a fresh wave of profound losses and heightened anxiety. And in the present complex upheaval we also need our capacity for not knowing.
Good may come out of the imperative of ending energy dependence on Russia, financing its war machine. But the losses are inevitable: the human and environmental destruction wrought by war, its huge carbon footprint, the resources and energy that will need to go into reconstruction, disrupted and more costly food supplies, extensive re-armament in Europe, deepening geopolitical hostility, albeit with a more strongly united West. And the apocalyptic spectre of nuclear conflict has once again reared its head. Meanwhile, extractive and exploitative economics remain undented.
Stopping at Nothing – an Ecosystemic and Medical Metaphor
All living, growing things need restraint and containment. This is either inbuilt as with healthy cells or organisms adapted to a specific niche, or it is provided by the ecosystem, as with viral infection of overshoot species. Homo Colossus - so named in Michael Dowd’s Collapse in a Nutshell, clearly lacks effective restraint. This systemic malignancy was already taking us to the brink, but is personified by Putin. There is talk of a Nuremburg-type tribunal, but inter-governmental restraints have so far been as ineffective in the face of his brand of evil as they have been with the wider devastation of peoples and planet.
A Fossil Fuel War?
Svitlana Krakovska’s argument that “This is a fossil fuel war” is an important piece of the picture. The article may serve as a reminder of February’s latest and most disturbing IPPC report – referred to by António Gutteres as “an atlas of human suffering and an indictment of failed climate leadership”. One question now is whether moves to end Europe’s dependence on Russian fossil fuels will accelerate decarbonisation of our economies or merely prompt a re-shuffling of the supply cards, aka the deckchairs.
Illustrating the twists and turns of the subject is the fact that Russia is a key supplier of materials essential to green technology, such as copper and nickel. The country also produces over one third of the world’s uranium.
A Toxic Legacy
Hatred is both part of the human emotional repertoire and as dangerous in its way as plutonium. The historian and author Yuval Noah Harari made this impassioned but vain plea for an early end to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. He foresees hatred of Russia corroding generations to come.
Individually and collectively, we have the task of facing new dangers and uncertainties, while attending as best we can to our needs and those of a damaged world.
Part 2. Tending and Attending
The war is affecting all our minds, whether we let it in or try to shut it out. One feeling that’s around is of holding Ukraine in our hearts - a forlorn but redemptive sense that we can at least do this, as well as offering money or shelter.
What follows is a local story, but with elements of wider connection. It describes a flourishing voluntary project which is grounded in awareness of our responsibility for the land around us. It also strengthens community and inter-generational bonds. The world is torn apart but we, the fortunate, can at least do whatever is in our power to preserve and protect.
Sally Gillespie’s book Climate Crisis and Consciousness stresses the benefits of communities formed around facets of Earth awareness. Reimagining the Levels (RtL), the project described below, bears out her point. We cannot be sure what difference we will make, but we know what we can do. Despite the hard physical work involved, our actions have drawn in more people than some of us thought likely.
Photo Credit: Carrie Skinner
RtL was sparked by the devastating floods on the Somerset Levels in the Winter of 2013-14. Our main activity in the past four years has been tree-planting. There are several reasons for this: scepticism about the economics and efficacy of hard engineering solutions to flooding, the skills and experience of the team, the formation (as a local authority response to the floods) of the Somerset Rivers Authority (SRA), the fact that the county’s sparse tree cover is a direct contributor to flooding and finally, the diverse benefits of tree-planting.
In case they need listing, these benefits include carbon sequestration, water absorption, improvement of soil and air, provision of shade and windbreak, food and habitat for wildlife, vegan food production (often on agriculturally marginal land) and zero-or low-carbon materials. Woodland enhances us and the whole living world.
I am part of a multi-disciplinary team of ten people which has conceived and developed the project. The timing has been good – SRA and the Woodland Trust have made grants towards trees, materials and an employed co-ordinator; landowners and Parishes have come forward with suitable land and the Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group has played a key support role. A farmer and team member has lent us part of a field to fence off as a tree nursery – where the many varieties of saplings are heeled in before collection or delivery to the planting locations. Planting is planned, supervised and carried out by our organising group, with teams mustered by the landowner and a network of RtL volunteers.
RtL planted around 20,000 trees in the Winter of 2020-21 and is on course for 40,000 in the 2021-22 season just ending. We replenish, extend or create new woodland and hedgerows.
Species choice is tailored to several factors, including diversity as an insurance against the vagaries of climate. Challenges have been dealt with as they occur. A family of voles chewing the tree roots at the nursery caused a ripple of consternation. The nature-based response was to deter them with garlic and mint. We aim to instal an owl box to compensate for some of the homelessness caused by converting barns to human homes.
The outdoor nature of the work has meant that Covid-19 hasn’t interrupted us greatly. We re-schedule when the weather is really bad. The work calls for mindfulness and can evoke it too. A chilly blast one Sunday had my eyes watering and nose running. A twinge of longing for my warm house was countered by recalling TV reports of Mariupol citizens traumatised by shelling, huddled in the dark and cold and drinking from puddles, beside the unburied dead.
One site serviced by Rtl is a primary school where the children have been helping to plant a hedge. During a stint there in March a distracted, restless atmosphere was noticeable. A ten-year old boy, seeing a plane overhead, declared that it was Russians coming to bomb us. My colleague assured him that the Russians were not allowed to bomb us. Another boy commented “But we can bomb anyone we want.” Asked if the war was being discussed in school, the reply was that everyone’s talking about it.
I was left musing over what picture the children were getting from the media, what seepage of anxiety or shock they were receiving from the adults. Were omnipotent delusions part of their own immaturity or something they were picking up? How unreal was it all to their young minds? And how well is any of us doing, as the horror of things happening in and to our world collides with our daily lives?
Adrian Tait: a psychoanalytic psychotherapist, author, co-founder of CPA and, for over ten years, co-ordinator of a Transition network on the Somerset Levels. He remains active in hands-on, ecologically informed work.
Lead Image: Anthony Gross 1940