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

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In the heartlands

What does visiting Wallasey, Pontypridd and Islington North reveal about Labour’s future?

Islington. It’s the idea, as much as the place itself, that the right hates: an enclave of wealthy people who have the temerity to vote against right-wing interests. The real Islington, and Jeremy Corbyn’s patch of it in particular, is not all like that. Although parts of his constituency do resemble the cliché of large townhouses and overpriced flat whites, Labour’s 78-year hold on the seat is founded not on the palatial houses around Highgate Hill but on the constituency’s many council estates.

It’s a place I know well. As a child, Islington North was the place next to the edge of the known world, or, as I would come to call it later in life, Barnet. After going to church in Bow, my mum and I would take the bus through it to choir practice, where I sang until my voice broke, in both senses of the word.

Today, austerity is making Islington North look more like its past. Not the Islington of my teenage years, but of my childhood: grimy streets and growing homelessness. Outside the Archway McDonald’s an elderly woman points out the evidence of last night’s clubbers and tells me that today’s teenagers are less considerate than I was or her grandson is. She’s wrong; I once vomited in that same street. But street-sweeping, particularly at night, has been one of the first things that councils have cut back on under constraints from decreasing local authority budgets.

As for homelessness, that, too, has come full circle. Tony Blair’s government was the first to count the number of people sleeping rough, and by the time Labour left office it had been reduced by two-thirds. In the six years since David Cameron first came to office, the homeless figure in England more than doubled from 1,768 estimated rough sleepers to more than 3,569 today. This is the world that Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters want to fight against. These are the effects of Conservative rule that make Labour activists yearn for an anti-austerity champion.

***

Demolishing the stereotypical views of Islington and elsewhere is vital if we are to understand the currents flowing through ­Labour. This summer, there have been three main characters in the soap opera (or farce) that has played out in the party – the beleaguered leader, Jeremy Corbyn, of Islington North; the leading rebel, Angela Eagle, whose constituency is in Wallasey; and finally, the eventual challenger, Owen Smith of Pontypridd. I visited all their constituencies in a whirlwind week in the hope that it would illuminate the leadership race and the wider challenges for left-wing politics in Britain.

In all three places, the easy assumptions about Corbyn’s appeal were complicated by the facts on the ground, but a common thread united them. Outside the Holloway Road Odeon, I heard it first: “Jeremy is a nice guy, but he’s not a leader.” The trouble was that even those who questioned Corbyn’s leadership had little faith in those challenging him.

On 4 July, during a meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party, Neil Kinnock talked about “the supermarket test”: how people in Tesco or Lidl would say “I want to vote Labour, but I can’t vote for Ed Miliband”. He urged Labour’s representatives in the Houses of Parliament to “apply the supermarket test for Jeremy Corbyn and see what answer you get”.

In reality, they had been applying it for months. That was the spur to the attempts in late June to oust Corbyn as Labour leader. For the 172 MPs who said they had no confidence in him – and the 41 per cent of Labour members who told YouGov that they thought Corbyn was doing either “fairly badly” or “very badly” – he is an obstacle on the road to saving Britain from the Tories. Idealism didn’t create a minimum wage, set up Sure Start centres, or bring in civil partnerships: assembling a broad enough coalition to elect a Labour government did.

The minority of MPs who support him, and the thousands of members who say they will vote for him again, feel differently. For them, Corbyn’s demise would feel like a capitulation. It would feel like ­accepting that neoliberalism, capitalism and austerity have won the day, that the role of the Labour Party is to ameliorate rather than oppose them.

When I visited Islington North, Labour’s leadership election was only just starting to get under way and Angela Eagle was still in contention. Her tough performances deputising for the leader at PMQs have made her popular at Westminster but that enthusiasm has not made it as far north as Islington. “To me, I can’t see Angela Eagle as a prime minister either,” said Mike, one of the regulars at the Coronet, a Wetherspoons on the Holloway Road. “What are they running her for?”

The same sentiment prevailed in Wallasey, the Wirral constituency that Eagle has represented since 1992. There, too, were a few pockets of Corbynmania. There was also a sense that Labour is heading for defeat as long as Corbyn remains in place – but little faith in Eagle’s ability to alter that trajectory.

Wallasey is of less long-standing Labour vintage than Islington North. It remained steadfastly Conservative even between 1945 and 1966, and Eagle first won the seat in 1992. Although she is now in possession of a 16,000-vote majority, her neighbour Margaret Greenwood took Wirral West seat back from the Conservatives by a margin of only 400 votes. Tory strategists still eye the Wirral hungrily.

Wallasey is home to New Brighton, the seaside resort commemorated in Martin Parr’s 1985 series The Last Resort. A popular tourist destination for most of the first half of the 20th century, New Brighton was hurt by tidal changes in the River Mersey, which stripped most of its sand, and by the closure of its pier, but it remains a favoured destination for retirees and day trippers. In times past, Liverpool families that did well for themselves crossed the Mersey, bought a home – and promptly started to vote Tory. Wallasey, and the Wirral as a whole, is still where Scousers who have made it good set up their homes, but nowadays their politics usually survives the river crossing unscathed.

Yet there is still a vestigial sympathy for Conservatism in the leafier parts of Victoria Road and Seabank Road, one that is largely absent from Islington North. Perhaps Theresa May’s diligence in dealing with families affected by the Hillsborough disaster, which was mentioned frequently when I asked people for their opinion of the new Prime Minister, is sufficiently well regarded here that it is beginning to erode the Thatcherite taint still hanging over the Tory rosette on Merseyside.

However, it is not just Labour politics that is proving increasingly capable of weathering the journey across the Mersey. In Westminster, the chatter is that Militant – driven out of Labour in the 1980s, though most of its members continued to live and work on Merseyside – is back as a force in the city’s constituencies, and that many of its members have moved out and retired to New Brighton. Their influence is blamed for the series of damaging stories that slipped out of Wallasey in the days after Eagle declared her candidacy.

“There’s a reason why they’re so good at getting themselves on the national news and in the papers,” one MP tells me. “It’s that they’ve done all this before.”

***

The perception that Eagle “lost control” of her local party, as well as a disastrous campaign launch, led to support from fellow MPs ebbing away from her. It went instead to Owen Smith, the MP for Pontypridd, a little-known figure outside Westminster, but one who has long been talked of as a possible Labour leader inside it.

Smith’s great strength, at least according to some of his backers, is that he is a blank canvas. Certainly, as with Corbyn in Islington, there was a widespread perception in Wallasey that Eagle was not cast from the material from which leaders are made. Smith at least had the advantage of introducing himself to voters on his own terms.

His slim hopes of defeating Corbyn rest on two planks. First, the idea that a fresh face might yet convince wavering members that he could win a general election. A vote for him rather than Corbyn can therefore be seen as a vote against the Conservatives. Second, he is willing to call for a second European referendum. Among Labour Party activists, who backed staying in the European Union by 90/10 per cent, that is a compelling offer.

In Islington and Wallasey, both of which voted Remain (and both of which still have  houses flying the flag of the European Union when I visit), that message also has wider appeal. But in Smith’s own seat, a second referendum is a tougher sell. The Valleys voted to leave by a near-identical margin to the country at large. No one to whom I spoke was enthused about replaying the referendum.

Smith’s status as a “blank slate” will only be useful if he manages to write something appealing on it over the course of this summer. It is also possible he could just remain largely unknown and undefined.

Travelling around the country, I became accustomed to explaining who he is. Even at my hotel in Cardiff, which borders his constituency, the name “Owen Smith” was met with blank looks.

Unfortunately, the habit proved hard to break once I was in Pontypridd, resulting in an awkward scene in the back of a taxi. “I know who my MP is,” my driver said angrily, before launching into a lengthy diatribe about the arrogance of London-based journalists and a London-led Labour Party. The accent had changed, the setting was more confrontational, but the story remained the same as in Islington and Wallasey: he was convinced of neither Jeremy Corbyn’s nor Angela Eagle’s ability to fight and win an election. “That voice? In a room with Putin?” he said of Eagle. Then he said something unexpected. “But I’ll tell you what – they need a change from Jeremy Corbyn – and why not Owen Smith?”

“Why not Owen Smith?” As much as they might wish to deny it, that is the message with which Corbyn’s critics will try to take back control of the Labour Party. It is a message that feels unlikely to move or inspire. As I catch the train back to London, I reflect that those who want to convince Labour activists to give up Jeremy Corbyn – and what they feel he represents – need to offer them something compelling in return. No one puts “Vote for the lesser of two evils” on a banner.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics. 

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue