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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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear