Fires like Saddleworth Moor will become increasingly normal until we fight environmental collapse

Over the next 50 years, the UK is likely to experience increased fires, water shortages and an inability to produce food.

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England’s burning. The fires smouldering on Saddleworth Moor are a potent signal of the nation’s north-south divide given the relative silence of the national media. Yet the scale of destruction is also a premonition of our potential future unless we accelerate sustainability efforts: an environment on fire, with increasingly devastating feedback into human society.

There remains debate about the causes of the blaze, which at its peak covered an area of seven square miles, creating apocalyptic scenes on the edge of Greater Manchester. What is less in doubt is the likelihood of more devastating upland fires in future as climate change increases the regularity of extreme weather events.  As Guillermo Rein, professor of fire science at Imperial College London, put it, “climate change is expected to increase the fire frequency and severity of wildfire in Europe”, with northern Europe particularly vulnerable.

In other words, we are entering a period in which the extreme and abnormal becomes increasingly commonplace, but no less devastating for it. As if on cue, this week all-time heat records have been set all over the world, records that are unlikely to last long on current trajectories.

The likelihood of extreme weather events reflects deep and damaging changes in the UK’s underlying natural systems that sustain and enable life.  For example, due to population growth and climate change, our water system is under increasing pressure, to the extent that the Environment Agency is warning that most areas of the country will struggle to meet demand for water by 2050 unless action is taken to reduce use and increase supply.

Similarly, modern agricultural practices are having a devastating impact on soil fertility. Environment Secretary Michael Gove has warned that we are only 30 to 40 years away from a radical depletion of soil fertility, and with it our ability to produce food in the UK. Meanwhile, the global food system has destroyed a third of all arable land in the past 40 years and, at current rates, global top soil degradation has caused the UN to warn that there may only be 60 global harvests left.

The effects of erosion are already being felt today in the collapse of biodiversity in the UK. Indeed, the State of Nature 2016 report  described Britain as being “among the most nature-depleted countries in the world”, with up to 40 per cent of all species in moderate or steep decline. The scale of collapse is such that naturalist and Springwatch presenter Chris Packham has argued we are on the edge of an “ecological apocalypse”.

The UK is not an outlier. Globally we are currently living through an era of environmental collapse. Resources are being consumed at around 1.5 times the Earth’s ability to regenerate them. The continued reliance on carbon to power our economies means that we are highly unlikely to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, increasing the chance of severe climate disruption. Ours is the age of the sixth mass extinction – the last being the dinosaurs – with a nearly two-thirds fall in the population of the global wildlife population since the 1970s.  

Taken together, human action – overwhelmingly that of its wealthy citizens, both past and present, and extractive models of development - is rapidly eroding the planet’s ability to provide the resources needed to sustain and reproduce human and non-human life.  We have pushed environmental systems into “unsafe” operating spaces, threatening the conditions upon which life can occur and societies flourish. This has led scientists to suggest we live in a new age, the Anthropocence, in which (some) humans are the decisive, destructive influence on the natural world.

We need to realise that the we no longer live in a stable world. The Anthropocene has put an end to that. Instead, we are entering a permanent era of compounding environmental crises, in which ratcheting instability is the new normal. Risk in this new world is non-linear, compounding and systemic. And those who bear the brunt of change will be those with least responsibility for crises present and future.  

The scale and pace of environmental disruption brought about by human activity requires two concurrent responses, we at the IPPR will explore in a forthcoming project.

The first is nothing less than a global socioeconomic transformation that brings our impact to within safe limits over the lifetime of the millennial generation. This will require a politics committed to democratic negotiation of environmental challenges, capable of collective restraint where necessary, while mobilising for shared abundance where possible. It will need to be attentive to global and intergenerational equity, capable of remaking economic institutions at scale, and rooted in new models of production and consumption, ownership and governance.

The second is a concerted effort to ensure resilience to environmental shocks within and between nations as the impacts of environmental change begin to mount. Without resilient governments, markets and leaders, global cooperation could be threatened as countries turn inwards to protect themselves or lash outwards in order to gain advantage over resources. That’s what collapse looks like.

There is still time to act but the window is fast closing. Action will require hard honesty about the state of our planet and what is driving change – from the Lancashire moorlands to the biosphere as a whole. As James Baldwin wrote: “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”  Until we face up the scale of environmental collapse, we will remain waiting for the fire next time.

Mathew Lawrence is a senior research fellow at IPPR and tweets @dantonshead. He writes in a personal capacity.