In 1979 Audre Lorde agreed to take part in a New York University Institute for the Humanities panel at the Second Sex Conference. The essay ‘The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House’was composed from comments at that conference and posed the question ‘What does it mean when the tools of a racist patriarchy are used to examine the fruits of that same patriarchy?’ – the answer is that ‘only the most narrow perimeters of change are possible and allowable’. This powerful, provocative and insightful metaphor continues to shape discourse around gender, sexuality, power and race, but I believe it is also relevant to the current ecological crisis and the motives of a number of environmental campaigners who last week published an open letter and website advocating ‘Natural Climate Solutions’.
On the 3rdApril in The Guardian newspaper a number of distinguished and respected individuals including the activist Greta Thunberg, author Philip Pullman, CEO of Friends of the Earth Craig Bennett and the journalist George Monbiot called on governments ‘to support natural climate solutions with an urgent programme of research, funding and political commitment’. The same day Monbiot wrote for The Guardianin more detail about ‘natural climate solutions’, juxtaposing the current preferred method of ‘bio-energy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS)’ with the restoration of living systems to draw carbon from the atmosphere in an increasingly futile attempt to keep temperature increase to below 1.5C. Monbiot explains that by protecting and restoring natural forests, allowing native trees to repopulate, and restoring peat and wetlands nature could provide a plentiful source of natural solutions to draw carbon from the air.
A visit to the Natural Climate Solutions website reaffirms and extends these elucidations. The website is coherently divided into chapters detailing how a particular natural entity can provide a way to capture and store carbon. The first three chapters deal with ‘Reforestation’, ‘Forest Protection’ and ‘Other forest carbon solutions’; the point is made that of ‘the millions of hectares of land that have been deforested, much of it provides little or no food production, but would provide good opportunities for cost-effective reforestation’, meaning carbon dioxide could be stored without any disruption to food production. It is also suggested that improvements in forest management could allow trees to store more carbon if logging was reduced and harvest cycles were extended and if timber plantation rotations were also prolonged.
Natural climate solutions appear logical, cost-effective, and non-hazardous to the rest of the natural world and humans; so why is there such a reluctance to embrace these methods? One major reason is economic factors, a point acknowledged on the Natural Climate Solutions website. Whilst discussing reforestation it is suggested that creating financial incentives to plant trees by creating ‘new markets for more sustainable timber and forest products’, could make the prospect more attractive. Restoring wetlands is also noted to be expensive and ‘a relatively high-cost pathway’, especially in the US. But can we afford to continue making decisions solely on economic factors, as a cost will inevitably be paid elsewhere.
There are several studies which, with some caution, suggest that geoengineering could combat climate change by releasing sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere. This will essentially mimic the effect of a volcano, pumping gas into the sky that will turn into aerosols which reflect part of the sun’s heat. This would be a temporary measure however not a solution, as it would not combat the continual accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere or the acidification of the oceans and could potentially interfere with rainfall and storm patterns.
Ultimately, we are at crisis point, and the utilisation of scientific intervention in the form of BECCS or the release of sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere is reminiscent of using the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house. The ecological crisis emerged through the anthropocentric burning of fossil fuels, deforestation and the appropriation of land for agriculture and it seems illogical that the crisis will be averted by utilising the same tools which were implicit in its destruction. Natural climate solutions may be slow, steady and expensive, but perhaps the master should allow the natural world to use its own tools to right the human wrong, maybe then the required perimeters of change that are drastically and urgently required will occur.