How fences could save the planet

As politicians get bogged down in debating complicated strategies to fight climate change, Mark Stev

Nobody would blame you for being pessimistic about the future. After all, if you listen to the media (and, it seems, anybody over 25) we're all going to hell in the proverbial handcart, as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse - economic meltdown, climate change, terrorism and, who else, Simon Cowell - bear down on us.

But I have news. Some people are rather fed up of this narrative and are quietly getting on with solving the grand challenges our planet faces, using both new technologies and forgotten wisdom. Their mantra? "Cheer up, it might just happen." I've spent the past 18 months researching a book about these people.

One of them is Tony Lovell, an accountant from Australia, where farming has become synonymous with drought. A decade of low rainfall, heatwaves and wildfires has scorched much of the land. Australians call it "the Big Dry" and it means that when the rains come - as they are doing now on the eastern seaboard - water runs over the parched surface, resulting in devastating floods. Many farms survive on "drought assistance" handed out by the government. Rural suicide is depressingly common.

Lovell thinks he has the answer. At a climate-change conference in Manchester, I find him talking about a new method of farming. "This is a typical ranch in Mexico," he explains, showing an image of a terracotta dust bowl with bare, compacted soil. Then he puts up a second image of lush green vegetation. "This is the ranch next door. Same soil, same rainfall. These pictures were taken on the same day."

I am astounded - it seems too good to be true. Later, I ask his business partner, Bruce Ward, what caused the difference. "Management," he says. "Just management."

To find out more, we travel to New South Wales to a sheep farm owned by Tim and Karen Wright. The Big Dry isn't so big on their land - it looks more like Sussex than the images of the bush that we're used to seeing on TV. The couple have also tripled their sheep stock, with half the labour associated with herds the size of theirs. And yet, Tim says, the rainfall had been low for nine years. What is his secret?

Back to nature

Driving to another farm, Ward and Lovell show me. They point to a paddock by the side of the road that is almost totally bereft of vegetation. "Is that from lack of rain?" I ask. "Look down at the fence," says Lovell. And then I see it, and from that moment on, I see it everywhere we go. Outside the fence there is grass. Indeed, we are standing in it up to our knees. "Things can grow just fine here," says Ward. He bends down and grabs a lump of vegetation. It comes away in his hand. "This is dying, though. That's the other half of the problem."

Back in the car, Lovell tells a story. "If you go back in time, our grasslands were dominated by large herds of grazing animals - bison in America and wildebeest in Africa." There are still a few places where you can witness this. The Serengeti, for instance, is one of the few remaining natural grasslands on the planet and is home to huge migrating herds of wildebeest and zebras. There is no beginning or end to their journey, but a constant clockwise trek in search of water and fresh grass. Every year, two million animals cover 1,800 miles. The herds stay closely packed as a defence against predators.

“What happens is the herd eats the grass but then moves on, looking for the fresh stuff. In the Serengeti, that herd won't be back on the same ground for at least a year," Lovell says. "That's important," says Ward. "There's a natural relationship between grasses and grazing animals. The growing buds are at the base of the plant and they need sunlight. If the plant gets too tall it starts to kill itself by hiding those buds in its own shade. It can't photosynthesise." "That's why that grass came away in my hand," Lovell explains. "It's dead material. In nature, the herd would have come along, eaten the tops off the plants, exposing the growth buds, and moved on. By the time they came back, the grass would have regrown."

“The problem with the way we farm livestock is we don't let them roam," says Ward. "We split up big herds between separate paddocks and keep them there for way too long. With no predators, they can wander where they like in that space. The grass never gets a chance to grow back. An animal will have a go at it as soon as it starts sprouting."

“Why doesn't anybody notice this?" I ask. "Did you?" Lovell replies. It's a fair point.

The effect of such poor land management is a sharp decline in soil carbon levels across grasslands over the past 150 years, directly related to the loss of vegetation. Ward tells me that grass plants grow roughly the same amount of root matter as leaf matter. If the plant gets nibbled by a cow or sheep, it'll slough off a corresponding amount of root matter into the soil in minutes, enriching it with carbon.

“A plant is roughly 58 per cent carbon - from CO2 in the air," says Ward, "and while nearly all of the lost root matter will rot, returning that carbon to the atmosphere, it leaves behind a small amount of residue."

“It's only a small amount of the carbon that makes up the plant," says Lovell, "but a little bit of a bloody big amount soon adds up." He's not wrong. The UN estimates there are 3.5 billion hectares of agricultural grasslands on our planet. Increase the organic carbon content of their soils by just 1 per cent, and this would offset nearly 12 years of global CO2 emissions.

Rotating cows

Some worry about cattle belching methane (another potent greenhouse gas) into the atmosphere and call for us to relinquish meat-eating. But if what Ward and Lovell are saying is right, it's not that we have too many cattle, it's that we have too little grass. Working correctly together, animals and plants are a huge natural "carbon pump" that can take vast quantities of CO2 from the sky. As a bonus, richer soil is far more effective at retaining water, ending the destructive cycle of drought and flood.

What is more exciting is that almost any farmer can adopt the system. All you need is a few fences. Then you build lots of small paddocks, form your cattle into a big herd, and put them in each one for just a day or two.

So why isn't everyone doing it? "The problem is that farming's a traditional business," Ward explains. "Changing the way you farm is the same as saying that what your dad and your grandad did was wrong, which isn't easy when they're still living on the property."

That's why he and Lovell want Australia's government - and other governments - to pay farmers to increase soil carbon. "It's a carrot instead of a stick," Lovell says. "They can tell Dad the change is to bring money in."

It's a wonderful thought - that something as simple as a fence could save the world - and I remembered the words of another farmer I met on my trip, a typically salty Australian called Michael Coughlan. "The thing is, in Australia and America, we've absolutely pillaged our land. We've just fucked the whole thing. But I think we can turn it round really quickly."

“An Optimist's Guide to the Future" by Mark Stevenson is published by Profile Books (£12.99)

Three easy ways to make a difference

Send Klaus Lackner some money

This professor of geophysics at Columbia University has developed a carbon scrubber that removes CO2 from the sky cheaply and efficiently. Now, his team wants to create a commercial prototype - and it needs $20m to do it. Why not help him out by chipping in at giving.columbia.edu?

Create some charcoal

Charcoal has undergone a makeover in recent years. Creating it (and then burying it) is seen as one of the most promising ways to mitigate global warming.

By burning all agricultural waste such as corn and rice stalks, branch and leaf litter (as well as animal dung) in a "low-oxygen" environment to create charcoal, we could "halt the increase and actually decrease the level of atmospheric carbon by 0.7 gigatonnes a year", according to Johannes Lehmann, a soil science expert at Cornell University. The bonus is that charcoal in the soil tends to increase crop yields, too.

Cut your energy bill
Haven't got around to insulating the loft or buying any draft excluder? Energy efficiency is the quickest way to reduce your fossil fuel consumption. Your wallet will appreciate it, too. Just sticking some boards over the beams in your loft will make a difference. And you can use the lovely power tool you got for Christmas.
Mark Stevenson

This article first appeared in the 10 January 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Here comes the squeeze

DAVID YOUNG FOR NEW STATESMAN
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An English tragedy: how Boris, Dave and Brexit were formed by Eton college

It's said that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. Was Britain's relationship with Europe wrecked there?

The brief window in which it was cool to be an Etonian has closed. That period was marked not just by Etonian success and visibility – in politics, on the stage, in the media, even on the balcony of Buckingham Palace – but also by a new-found unabashedness in expressing pride at having attended King Henry VI’s Thames-side ­college, founded for 70 poor scholars in 1440. David Cameron summed it up when he said he was “not embarrassed” that he had gone to “a fantastic school . . . because I had a great education and I know what a great education means”.

All this was quite strange and ­perturbing to me, as an alumnus of an older era, the 1970s, when being an Etonian seemed decidedly uncool. When asked which school we had attended, my contemporaries and I muttered that we had been to a comprehensive near Slough. It was perturbing because I always had my doubts about Etonian confidence, or arrogance.

The closing of this window can be dated precisely to the early hours of the morning of 24 June. At that moment, it became clear that David Cameron had taken an insouciant, arrogant and disastrous gamble, in the interests of maintaining Conservative Party unity, by calling an unnecessary referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union that he believed he was sure to
win. The window closed even more tightly a week later, when Boris Johnson, having helped to lead the Leave campaign, suddenly declared that he was no longer standing for the Tory leadership – the glittering prize for which he had apparently abandoned his principles and betrayed his friends.

If the Battle of Waterloo had been won on the playing fields of Eton, it now appeared that Britain’s relationship with Europe, and even its continued integrity as a nation, had been wrecked there. It was no surprise that there should be a turning against Eton, with gleeful opinion pieces from the left-leaning commentariat mocking everything from Tom Hiddleston’s backside to the commitment to public service of one of our ablest MPs, Jesse Norman.

I find this reaction as shallow as the ­excessive pride that preceded it. Maybe that is not surprising, as I both love and feel dissatisfied, even disappointed, by the school where I spent five years of my boyhood and then two and a half years teaching English literature as a young adult. The feeling of let-down is more than personal. Eton has something to answer for, at a national level. A few years ago, I wrote these words: “I’ve often wondered whether this famous Eton confidence could be skin-deep: certainly people such as Boris Johnson and David Cameron do not lack chutzpah, but the confidence to believe you deserve the high position does not necessarily mean you possess the other talents – humility, for instance, and the ability to listen to others – needed to honour it.” Now the 11 Eton pupils who managed to secure an interview with Vladimir Putin have trumped even Cameron and Johnson
in the chutzpah department, but not necessarily added lustre to their alma mater.

I had a chance to reassess the ambivalence I feel about Eton, and to reflect on the role that this ancient and eccentric place has played in our national crisis, when I attended a reunion at my old school just three days after the dark night of 23 June.

This was not a reunion of old boys but a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Eton English department, an institution for which I feel affection and profound gratitude. As a boy, I was inspired not only to read voraciously and widely – the novels of Thomas Hardy, Henry James, Dickens, William Faulkner; the poetry of Coleridge, Wordsworth, Emily Dickinson, T S Eliot, Charles Causley, Louis MacNeice, Henry Vaughan; Shakespeare at his most intense – but also to analyse, think and feel simultaneously. Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country and Dickens’s Hard Times opened my eyes to conditions as far from my comfortable Home Counties upbringing as you could imagine, to the realities of racial segregation and working-class ­deprivation; opened my heart, too, I hope.
I was being challenged to reflect on my privilege, even be discomfited by it – not just blindly perpetuate it.

For those reasons, I was honoured to be invited back to teach, initially for just a year, in the department that had given me so much mind-and-soul nourishment. I was not the most confident or organised of teachers, but pupils I bumped into years later said they had enjoyed and gained something from classes in which discipline was not always the tightest. A debate I set up to discuss the miners’ strike turned into a riot. Above all, I enjoyed directing motivated and talented boys in productions of Journey’s End and Death of a Salesman which moved audiences.

***

Inspiration, warmth and a streak of anarchy are, perhaps, not the qualities you associate with Eton. But they were present in the English department, which started as a sort of anti-establishment challenge to the hegemony of classics. Angus Graham-Campbell, my laconic head of department, summed up the department’s signature virtues as scholarship, exuberance and irreverence.

The English department was not exactly typical of Eton as a whole. It was, I suppose, the haven for sensitive and artistic souls, for subversives and mavericks. Eton had other, for me less attractive, sides. I particularly disliked Pop, the self-elected club of prefects who strutted their stuff and lorded it over underlings in brightly embroidered waistcoats – the club to which Boris Johnson (but not David Cameron) belonged. This was more Game of Thrones than “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock”.

Eton, above all, was intensely male, intensely hierarchical and intensely competitive. Like Boris, I was a King’s Scholar; successors of the original 70 poor scholars, we lived apart from other Etonians in ancient quarters close to the 15th-century chapel, wore gowns and competed more for academic honours than for social kudos. Like Boris, I won the Newcastle Scholarship in classics and divinity, a strange 19th-century leftover that involved composing verses in Greek iambics, reading the Gospel of Matthew and the Acts of the Apostles in Greek and answering a paper on the doctrine of the Atonement – all in the term before A-levels.

I was proud of my academic achievements. But having had a chance to reflect on the Etonian male culture of competition from the outside, and then seeing it from a different angle when I went back to teach there, I began to doubt how healthy it was. I realised that coming top of the form and winning prizes had mattered far too much to me. It had even affected my choice of A-levels; I was good at classics and felt fairly confident of being the biggest fish in that smallish pond, rather than swimming in the broader waters of history and modern languages. Surely what mattered was finding yourself, your passion and your vocation?

I was artistically minded and Eton provided wonderful opportunities in drama (the groundwork was being laid for the flowering of acting talent we have seen recently) and music; but “creative writing” and painting, encouraged up to the age of 14, were suddenly put away as childish things when you reached adolescence (this, mind you, is not unique to Eton). From the age of 15, I never even considered choosing to go to music, art or drama school rather than taking the well-worn path to an Oxbridge scholarship. Achieving that seemed to be the pinnacle of Etonian success, and the only thing my worldly housemaster ever cared about.

Certainly no one talked much about happiness or emotional health. Eton’s pastoral care seemed close to non-existent. I kept my unhappiness to myself, with unhelpful consequences. For four of my contemporaries in college, who committed suicide in their late teens or twenties, the consequen­ces were more dire.

This may be sounding too much like a personal lament, or a reprise of Cyril Connolly’s theory of permanent adolescence in Enemies of Promise. I found my way eventually to what I wanted to be and do (it involved a lot of psychotherapy and a wonderfully liberating year in Barcelona). But I think my criticisms of Eton have a bearing on our national tragedy.

The atmosphere at the Eton English department celebration a few weeks ago did not lack the appropriate exuberance and irreverence, and the setting in the provost’s garden, surrounded with sculptures by Rodin, Jacob Epstein and Henry Moore, was exquisitely beautiful. Yet I could not help sensing the unquiet ghosts of Dave and Boris stalking the corridors behind us. I imagined them locked in an immature male rivalry that has ended up inflicting incalculable damage on a nation. Now Dave has decided to quit the political stage, leaving rather little in the way of legacy behind him.

Perhaps Boris, the King’s Scholar, could not forgive Dave for winning the ultimate prize. However, in taking revenge, he found himself hoist with his own petard, before somehow managing to emerge with a lesser prize, which some see as a ­poisoned chalice.

It all made me think of that supremely pointless sport, the Eton wall game. I played once or twice before giving up, repelled by the sheer unpleasantness of being ground into either brick or mud, and the tedium of a game in which the last goal had been scored in 1909. As a Colleger, though, I supported our team of brainboxes, drawn from the 70 scholars to play against the brawn of the Oppidans (the rest of the school, 1,200 of them). No doubting that it was antler-to-antler stuff, or like the contests of male musk oxen that knock each other senseless.

Eton remains archaic in its attitude towards women. It is still a boys-only boarding school (though a small number of girls, mainly the daughters of teachers, have been pupils there), and the staff are overwhelmingly male. Being largely cut off from women and girls for much of your boyhood and adolescence does not seem to me an ideal recipe for emotional health, or for regarding women as equals.

The school that has educated 19 prime ministers may provide a brilliant academic education and countless other opportunities, but it can leave its pupils emotionally floundering behind a façade of polish and charm. The effects of that emotional impoverishment can be far-reaching indeed. I am encouraged that the new headmaster, Simon Henderson, has signalled a change of tone at Eton, with more stress on “emotional intelligence” and “mental health”. That change is long overdue.

Harry Eyres is the author of “Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet”, published by Bloomsbury

This article first appeared in the 15 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The fall of the golden generation