Stacked peat turf in Connemara. Photo: Tim Graham/Rex
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Getting bogged down: why we all need to fight the peat wars

94 percent of our peat bogs have been destroyed. Saving them is a vital step in securing our planet's future.

Late last year, under cover of Christmas, the Scottish government continued its push to locate 103 large wind turbines on precious peatlands in Shetland. No climate scientist in the world would advocate the opening up of peatland for any purpose at all – peat bogs sequester four times as much carbon as forests – but with a small environmental group, Sustainable Shetland, pitted against a large development company and its own government, many fear that this project could go ahead.

Windfarms are regarded by many – especially deep ecologists – as a dubious source of energy (being intermittent, they must be backed up by fossil fuels, which suits the energy companies very well). We have known for decades that the destruction of peatland leads not only to habitat loss, but also to the release of vast quantities of greenhouse gases. In Britain, this is a huge problem: 94 per cent of our raised peat bogs have been destroyed over the past few centuries, first for agricultural and forestry “improvements”, then to supply the garden trade – even though good alternatives are easily available.

As the researchers William J Sutherland and John D Reynolds noted in 1997, “If developed countries are unable to protect such an important habitat from such a trivial threat, then one wonders how we can solve more pressing problems of exploitation elsewhere.”

Worldwide, enormous areas of peatland are still being lost to agricultural development, drainage schemes, overgrazing, and exploitation-based infrastructure development projects such as roads, electricity pylons, telephone masts and gas pipelines.

All this might be forgivable if we did not, like gardeners, have viable alternatives to the destruction. From a climate viewpoint, we know that any further disturbance of peatlands must be avoided: an estimated two billion tonnes of carbon-dioxide emissions is reported annually. So why do we continue to locate windfarms on wild peatland – and why did the Royal Horticultural Society have to repeat its warning, just months ago, that gardeners were still piling up significant amounts of peat in their potting sheds?

One reason, clearly, is that our politicians simply do not have the will to act, because their electoral campaigns and post-government executive careers are underwritten by some of the worst polluters and resource pirates on the planet. Some of our NGOs are in the same boat; infiltrated by moneymen and lobbyists playing to entrenched ideological positions, many have lost sight of their original purpose. All of which goes to underline what many of us already suspect: that it is up to us citizens to intervene – not as voters, but as consumers.

The very designation we resist most is the key to our power. Besides boycotts of environmentally destructive products (eating less meat and processed foods would slow forest and peatland destruction), we can learn to love the dark and switch off the superfluous lighting that surrounds us, returning (as Jun’ichiro Tanizaki outlines in his celebrated essay “In Praise of Shadows”), to the special pleasures of a less glaring world.

If we could learn to enjoy a less floodlit, less air-conditioned, less overheated world, we could prevent the further loss of peatlands to the highly suspect fossil-fuel/wind-turbine paradigm, and a few improvements to our diet would slow the losses to industrial agriculture. Meanwhile, we could do even more good as we cultivate our (organic, bee-friendly) gardens, by withdrawing consumer support from those corporations that, in spite of the warnings of the past 20 years, continue to supply peat products that degrade the thing gardeners are supposed to love most: the natural world. 

This article first appeared in the 23 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Christianity in the Middle East

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Everyone's forgotten the one issue that united the Labour party

There was a time when Ed Miliband spoke at Momentum rallies.

To label the row over the EU at Thursday’s Labour leadership hustings "fireworks" would be to endow it with more beauty than it deserves. Owen Smith’s dogged condemnation of John McDonnell’s absence from a Remain rally – only for Corbyn to point out that his absence was for medical reasons – ought to go down as a cringing new low point in the campaign. 

Not so long ago, we were all friends. In the course of the EU referendum, almost all of the protagonists in the current debacle spoke alongside each other and praised one another’s efforts. At a local level, party activists of all stripes joined forces. Two days before polling day, Momentum activists helped organise an impromptu rally. Ed Miliband was the headline speaker, and was cheered on. 

If you take the simple version of the debate, Labour’s schism on the EU appears as an aberration of the usual dynamics of left and right in the party. Labour's left is supposedly cheering a position which avoids advocating what it believes in (Remain), because it would lose votes. Meanwhile, the right claims to be dying in a ditch for its principles - no matter what the consequences for Labour’s support in Leave-voting heartlands.

Smith wants to oppose Brexit, even after the vote, on the basis of using every available procedural mechanism. He would whip MPs against the invocation of Article 50, refuse to implement it in government, and run on a manifesto of staying in the EU. For the die-hard Europhiles on the left – and I count myself among these, having run the Another Europe is Possible campaign during the referendum – there ought to be no contest as to who to support. On a result that is so damaging to people’s lives and so rooted in prejudice, how could we ever accept that there is such a thing as a "final word"? 

And yet, on the basic principles that lie behind a progressive version of EU membership, such as freedom of movement, Smith seems to contradict himself. Right at the outset of the Labour leadership, Smith took to Newsnight to express his view – typical of many politicians moulded in the era of New Labour – that Labour needed to “listen” to the views Leave voters by simply adopting them, regardless of whether or not they were right. There were, he said, “too many” immigrants in some parts of the country. 

Unlike Smith, Corbyn has not made his post-Brexit policy a headline feature of the campaign, and it is less widely understood. But it is clear, via the five "red lines" outlined by John McDonnell at the end of June:

  1. full access to the single market
  2. membership of the European investment bank
  3. access to trading rights for financial services sector
  4. full residency rights for all EU nationals in the UK and all UK nationals in the EU, and
  5. the enshrinement of EU protections for workers. 

Without these five conditions being met, Labour would presumably not support the invocation of Article 50. So if, as seems likely, a Conservative government would never meet these five conditions, would there be any real difference in how a Corbyn leadership would handle the situation? 

The fight over the legacy of the referendum is theatrical at times. The mutual mistrust last week played out on the stage in front of a mass televised audience. Some Corbyn supporters jeered Smith as he made the case for another referendum. Smith accused Corbyn of not even voting for Remain, and wouldn’t let it go. But, deep down, the division is really about a difference of emphasis. 

It speaks to a deeper truth about the future of Britain in Europe. During the referendum, the establishment case for Remain floundered because it refused to make the case that unemployment and declining public services were the result of austerity, not immigrants. Being spearheaded by Conservatives, it couldn’t. It fell to the left to offer the ideological counter attack that was needed – and we failed to reach enough people. 

As a result, what we got was a popular mandate for petty racism and a potentially long-term shift to the right in British politics, endangering a whole raft of workplace and legal protections along the way. Now that it has happened, anyone who really hopes to overcome either Brexit, or the meaning of Brexit, has to address the core attitudes and debates at their root. Then as now, it is only clear left-wing ideas – free from any attempt to triangulate towards anti-migrant sentiment– that can have any hope of success. 

The real dividing lines in Labour are not about the EU. If they were, the Eurosceptic Frank Field would not be backing Smith. For all that it may be convenient to deny it, Europe was once, briefly, the issue that united the Labour Party. One day, the issues at stake in the referendum may do so again – but only if Labour consolidates itself around a strategy for convincing people of ideas, rather than simply reaching for procedural levers.