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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How the Standing Rock fight will continue

Bureaucratic ability to hold corporate interest account will be more necessary now than ever.

Fireworks lit up the sky in rural North Dakota on Sunday night, as protestors celebrated at what is being widely hailed as a major victory for rights activism.

After months spent encamped in tee-pees and tents on the banks of the Canonball river, supporters of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe finally received the news they’d been waiting for: the US Army Corps has not issued the Dakota Access pipeline with the permit it requires to drill under Lake Oahe.

“We […] commend with the utmost gratitude the courage it took on the part of President Obama, the Army Corps, the Department of Justice and the Department of the Interior to take steps to correct the course of history and to do the right thing" said a statement released by the Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s chairman, Dave Archambault II.

With the camp’s epic setting, social-media fame, and echoes of wider injustice towards Native Americans, the movement has already earned a place in the history books. You can almost hear the Hollywood scriptwriters tapping away.

But as the smoke settles and the snow thickens around the thinning campsite, what will be Standing Rock’s lasting legacy?

I’ve written before about the solidarity, social justice and environmental awareness that I think make this anti-pipeline movement such an important symbol for the world today.

But perhaps its most influential consequence may also be its least glamorous: an insistence on a fully-functioning and accountable bureaucratic process.

According to a statement from the US Army’s Assistant Secretary of Civil Words, the Dakota Access project must “explore alternate routes”, through the aid of “an Environmental Impact Statement with full public input and analysis”.

This emphasis on consultation and review is not big-statement politics from the Obama administration. In fact it is a far cry from his outright rejection of the Keystone Pipeline project in 2015. Yet it may set an even more enduring example.

The use of presidential power to reject Keystone, was justified on the grounds that America needed to maintain its reputation as a “global leader” on climate change. This certainly sent a clear message to the world that support from Canadian tar-sands oil deposits was environmentally unacceptable.

But it also failed to close the issue. TransCanada, the company behind Keystone, has remained “committed” to the project and has embroiled the government in a lengthy legal challenge. Unsurprisingly, they now hope to “convince” Donald Trump to overturn Obama’s position.

In contrast, the apparently modest nature of the government’s response to Dakota Access Pipeline may yet prove environmental justice’s biggest boon. It may even help Trump-proof the environment.

“Although we have had continuing discussion and exchanges of new information with the Standing Rock Sioux and Dakota Access, it’s clear that there’s more work to do”, said the Jo-Ellen Darcy, the Army’s Assistant Secretary for Civil Works.

Back in July, the same Army Corps of Engineers (which has jurisdiction over domestic pipelines crossing major waterways) waved through an environmental assessment prepared by the pipeline’s developer and approved the project. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe subsequently complained that the threat to its water supply and cultural heritage had not been duly considered. This month’s about-turn is thus vital recognition of the importance of careful and extensive public consultation. And if ever such recognition was needed it is now.

Not only does Donald Trump have a financial tie to the Energy Transfer Partners but the wider oil and gas industry also invested millions into other Republican candidate nominees. On top of this, Trump has already announced that Myron Ebell, a well known climate sceptic, will be in charge of leading the transition team for the Environmental Protection Agency.

Maintaining the level of scrutiny finally granted for Standing Rock may not be easy under the new administration. Jennifer Baker, an attorney who has worked with tribes in South Dakota on pipeline issues for several years, fears that the ground gained may not last long. But while the camp at Standing Rock may be disbanding, the movement is not.

This Friday, the three tribes who have sued the Corps (the Yankont, Cheyenne River, and Standing Rock Sioux Tribes) will head to a hearing before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, seeking to increase pressure on the government to comply with both domestic and international law as it pertains to human rights and indigenous soveriegnty. 

What the anti-pipeline struggle has shown - and will continue to show - is that a fully accountable and transparent bureaucratic process could yet become the environment's best line of defence. That – and hope.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.