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The problem with not being a bunny hugger

Photo by Michelle Mendieta Mean.

Shockingly, for a man usually so befitting of the respectability that the office of Prime Minister demands, Boris Johnson’s appearance at last week’s Leaders Summit on Climate was an utter shit show.

A BBC News article summarised what the PM had to say in his speech: “Tackling climate change is about ‘growth and jobs’ not ‘expensive bunny hugging’, Boris Johnson has said.”

Overall, several positive announcements came out of last week, both from the summit and elsewhere. Joe Biden pledged to bring down US emissions from a 2005 baseline by 50-52% by 2030, a world away from the four wasted years under President Trump. The EU also committed to a 55% cut in emissions from a 1990 baseline by 2030, although the EU Parliament had called for a 60% reduction.

Moreover, the UK government acted on the advice of the Climate Change Committee to cut emissions from a 1990 baseline by 78% by 2030, a significant step in the right direction, though I’m not sure I’d use the same description the BBC’s environment analyst, Roger Harrabin, used when he called the plans “radical”. What’s radical about following the advice of climate scientists and experts? In reality, it is the governments who around the world continue to act without the urgency, and not on the scale that the science demands, who are the ones acting radically, by putting our futures at risk and seemingly doing so without recognition or understanding of just how dangerous a game they’re playing.

Commitments and pledges aren’t worth the paper they’re written on unless followed up by serious government action however, underwritten by legislation, and driven by government funding, and that means from the smallest of local parish councils right up to state governments and regional bodies like the EU, with the UN playing its part in coordinating international action that addresses the global inequalities that shape contemporary global politics.

And so we must come back to Johnson’s growth and jobs vs. bunny hugging dichotomy, a typical Johnsonian deflection, which actually concocts a false and hypothetical opposition between two things in order to argue for the necessity of the sensible-sounding suggestion, and ridiculing the other.

It was the same with the James Dyson affair: when questioned about the appropriateness of his text exchanges with Dyson, the PM defended his actions by creating the dichotomy of either texting Dyson and securing the ventilators (which never came in the end anyway), or acting through proper channels and letting people die.

Of course, who would argue that letting people die would be the right choice. Yet this was never what the argument was about in the first place, and thus Johnson is able to continue lying and acting improperly without reprimand.

That being said, from the revelations this week about the PM arguing against a third lockdown by saying “let the bodies pile high in their thousands,” perhaps he actually is okay with doing both of those two options in his false dichotomy: texting Dyson about tax exemptions and letting people die.

Back to the growth and jobs vs. bunny hugging choice then, obviously this is a nonsense. The only thing Johnson actually gets right in his statement is that tackling the climate and ecological crises will bring millions of sustainable, long-term, skilled jobs around the world. From engineering wind turbines and designing electric vehicle batteries, to managing wetland restoration and reforesting land at risk of desertification, if we truly get a grip on tackling this great global challenge, then we can create a world in which genuinely meaningful, enjoyable and well-paid jobs are a realistic opportunity for everyone.

Yet growth and tackling the climate crisis are not, ultimately, compatible, and this is perhaps the most serious flaw in the current narrative surrounding climate change. The argument goes that with a few tweaks here and there, we can continue on the same over-consuming, wasteful, inherently unequal path, whilst avoiding the worse of what a 1.5- or 2.0-degree warning will bring.

As the Green Party MP Caroline Lucas has said time and time again though, you cannot have infinite growth on a finite planet.

Similarly, as the activist and author George Monbiot has pointed out, if an economy grows by a modest 3% a year, then within a quarter of a century, it will have doubled.

There are a whole host of economists and others working on this very issue – three that come to mind are Oxford’s Kate Raworth and her Doughnut Economics, Jason Hickel and his book, ‘Less is More’, and Tim Jackson with his book, ‘Post Growth’.

It is not just our fossil-fuel obsession which is driving us to climate breakdown, but, one layer higher than that, it is our fetishism of growth, our insatiable desire for more and more and more. This goes against everything the natural world teaches us; growth is never an exponential graph of continual expansion – a healthy ecosystem is not one that just continually grows, but rather climbs and falls in a sustainable pattern, a natural, healthy cycle which ensures long-term survival.

We mustn’t forget that our fossil-fuelled economy is not the disease but the symptom of this constant-growth model, which measures human wellbeing by how much a society produces, not taking into account what is being produced, or how. Hence war can lead to a GDP boom, hence deforestation, destructive fishing, and wetland-draining all build up the economy, rather than bring down our home.

The conclusion we should actually draw from all this is, unsurprisingly, the very opposite of what Johnson said: we must all be bunny huggers if we are to succeed in tackling the climate and ecological crises.

We must all be bunny huggers for this entails an understanding that we are not divorced from the natural world. That our fortunes are inherently tied to its fortunes, and not the other way round. Not hugging bunnies could in fact be the most expensive mistake we could ever make, for it means living in a society in which humanity is seen as not only above, but wholly extricated from, the very source of life itself.

And what’s more, the bunny huggers whom Johnson so derides, those eco-mavericks who were sounding the alarms half a century or more ago, the Rachel Carsons of this world, have at every point been proven right. If only we had followed the advice of those bunny huggers in the decades past, we wouldn’t be in the position we are in today.

Rather than seeing Johnson’s comments as laughable or throw-away-able therefore, they should be criticised as exemplifying the destructive attitude that ultimately must be transformed if we are to succeeding in preventing climate and ecological breakdown.

ACTION: I’m tempted to say hug a rabbit, though I’m not really sure that’s even achievable. Certainly, go out and see one if you can. But on a more serious note, do actually spend some time alone or with a close friend outdoors this week. Sit by a river or under a tree, listen to the birds at dawn (it’s Dawn Chorus Day on Sunday after all!) or watch a bee as it bumbles into your window. Feel yourself as not an observer of the natural world, but a participant in, a family member of the Earth, one of her children.

Pura vida,

Max.

Max Spokes

Max (he/him) was formerly Environment News Editor at The Oxford Blue, and now writes a weekly Climate Column. He is in his second year studying History and Politics at Balliol.