Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.
This is a Long Read.
In March of 2019, Nick and I celebrated 30 years of living the liveaboard life together – but, in fact, on the anniversary of the day that we joined forces and embarked, we were not actually living afloat; we were hanging out on a hillside in Iberia. We had left the boat and gone there in order to save the world.
Before I met him, Nick had already put a girdle around the Earth and had then crossed the Pacific and the Atlantic several times more, but after we met he decided to take a very much more relaxed approach to life. Thus it is that during our 30 years of cruising together we have not travelled far. Bumbling to and fro, from north to south and east to west, we have visited palm-fringed coral islands and calving glaciers; we have seen elephants and penguins, whales and phosphorescent plankton; we have raised three kids, wrecked a boat in a storm, built a new one, and rounded two of the three Great Capes – but, to be honest, anyone with the inclination could have done as much as this in the time available, and many of our friends have done far more. One friend has been five times round the world in not much more than four decades. Indeed, he went once around the world while we Mollymawks were faffing about, just getting from one side of South America to the other.
Considering how little Nick and I achieved in those three decades of living aboard and how few were the miles that we covered, I am astonished when I look back over the past twelve months and see how much we managed to pack in when we set aside the adventure and set out to save the world.
The problem is that during the past 30 years while Nick and I have been crawling about on the surface of the world, pretty much ignoring its other occupants, the place has been gradually falling into disrepair.
I think it was in ’88 that I first heard about Global Warming. Up until that time I’d been steadfastly keeping out of mainstream society simply because I abhorred it. From my infancy I had hated cars, partly on account of the noise and smell that they make but moreso because they need roads – and roads tear apart the countryside. When I grew a little bit older and learned about pollution, I also became a big fan of wind power and solar energy, and I tried to persuade my dad to put panels on the roof of our house – but all in vain. More than anything, however, from my earliest infancy I simply hated the entire ethic of modern life. As a teenager I tried to persuade my parents to sell their suburban house and buy a piece of land on a mountainside in Wales. There, we could subsist happily.
Derisive snorts greeted this suggestion and there was mention of subsiding rather than subsisting. I would hate it, I was told. I was far too lazy to live off the land.
My dad’s dad started out as a coal miner, just like his own dad before him, but the old man had risen from this deep, dark grave to become a shoemaker. And my dad had risen even further and got himself an office job. The next generation were now expected to go higher still. We must go to university and get degrees, and then we would be able to get wonderful jobs.
Terrific! Life reached ahead of me: I would work from nine to five, five days a week, so that I could earn enough money to pay the mortgage and keep on doing that job. Live to work to live to work to live to work to live… and then you die.
“What’s the point in that, Mum?”
“No point! It’s just the way it is! It’s just life.”
Not for me. I would sooner be dead than live that way.
Happily, I had one talent which I loved to use – I had been gifted with the ability to draw and paint – and so I was able, as I used to say, to mint my own money. When the mooring fees for my little boat were due, I would sell a couple of watercolours; when I needed a meal, someone would surely want an illustration; and when I wanted to fly to Canada and back, to spend a year back-packing, there were always businesses needing commercial artwork.
I was a drop-out living on the periphery of society, disdaining its bricks and mortar, mortgages, income tax, and highways, but feeding on its inhabitants. Well, what else can you do, eh?
And then I met someone who seemed to have managed to escape altogether from the ants’ nest.
I met Nick.
Nick had arrived at a similar outlook on life from an entirely different direction – and he had already got himself a boat suitable for crossing oceans, whereas my abode was ditch-crawler. Indeed, as I have said, Nick had already been crossing oceans for a decade. There was only one area in which I was ahead of this expert vagabond, and that was with regard to environmental concerns.
Having cast off the mooring lines and dropped all ties with the shore, when I met him Nick knew nothing about the problems facing the world. I can distinctly recall pointing out the map which was pinned to the wall of my studio: a map supplied by Greenpeace, detailing the way in which the oceans and the land would warm as the upper atmosphere became filled with carbon gases. This was all news to Nick; but unlike my parents – unlike pretty much anyone else I’d ever met – he didn’t need telling twice or having his arm twisted. After listening to my words he just said, “Well if we mustn’t run the engine any more to charge the batteries, we’ll have to buy a wind generator.”
We got rid of the boat’s fridge, because it needed the power of the engine, and we became scrupulous about turning off the lights to save the power garnered by our new generator, sited at the masthead. I had always regarded motoring as a cop-out – a keen sailor himself, my dad had raised me to believe that the use of the engine betrayed an inability to handle the boat properly under sail – but according to the new regime, motoring now became utterly taboo. Since Nick was a mechanic, the beast in the bilge was his cherished friend, but even so, its use was now reserved exclusively for tight corners and emergencys.
When we started a family, our children grew up with the same attitudes as we, for they were taught to read from books such as The Lorax. They understood that the world is fragile and that we have to take care of it. Nor was this knowledge only theoretical, for the kids wore second-hand clothes and played with toys made by their parents or bought from native craftsmen. (Caesar, for his fourth birthday, had a ‘talking drum’ from Senegal; and Xoë, at a similar age, had a rag doll.) Come to that, most of the materials which went into the construction of our new boat were second-hand. The basic hull, much of the steel which we added to it, the wood for the floors and worktops, the stainless for the water tanks, the sails, the booms, the rigging wire, the loo… all of this kit had been ‘pre-loved’ before we incorporated it into our new home.
By this time I had given up eating or cooking meat, but Nick was still carnivorous whenever he could be. Then we learned that the vegetarian diet is not only kinder to animals but also to the planet – and how could an intelligent man keep on eating beef after he understood that its price is the rainforest? Nick became as committed as his wife and children to a meat-free diet. And eventually, when we heard about a cow’s methane output, and when we realised that dairy farming is actually just as cruel as the beef industry, we shuffled towards veganism.
So there we were – a family of nutters, if you like. If you’re someone who still adheres to the usual mores and means of Western society then we must have appeared quite weird, for we were a family living not so much ‘off-grid’ as right off the map. We had pruned things right back so that we could walk lightly on the Earth.
But meanwhile, the Earth continued to fall apart. Because dropping out is not enough.
What more could we have done?
Well, we could have written about the need to reduce consumption (of just about everything) – and we did do a little of this, aiming to ‘lead by example’; but I’m not sure that anyone was listening to us.
We could also, perhaps, have climbed oil refinery chimneys and hung out banners – but eco-terrorism is not very compatible with raising children; and, to be frank, it’s not something which has had much effect. For three decades and more, committed members of Greenpeace have been scaling chimneys, throwing themselves in front of ships, and disrupting oil rigs – and yet life has gone on exactly as if they hadn’t put their lives and their freedom on the line. Their acts have been commended by those of us who cherish the natural world; and the world’s tycoons and other ‘captains of industry’ have continued to drive us onward, regardless, towards their infinite goal of ever-expanding profit.
It was about forty years ago that environmentalists pointed out that you can’t actually have infinitely expanding profit on a finite planet, because the only way to create a profit is to steal part of Nature and transform it into a saleable commodity. Yet nobody paid them any heed, and economic growth is still the cornerstone of the system which drives our world.
It was about ten years ago that the climate scientists told us that we absolutely must not let the global temperature rise by more than 2° and so we absolutely must reduce our carbon emissions. Yet it was always obvious that emissions would keep on increasing and the climate would keep on warming, because it was always obvious that the world’s political leaders are in thrall to Big Business; and Big Business bows down only to Growth.
I used to think, “It can’t really be true – all this pollution, and all this warming; it can’t really matter – because if it mattered, our governments would be screaming about it. They’d be passing laws to stop it from happening.”
However, this fancy supposes that someone, somewhere, is in charge. It supposes that someone – or some set of individuals – actually has the ability to apply the brakes and stop the train from hitting the barriers.
The mighty USA could apply the brakes – but, as we all know, the USA is actually feeding the fire and her leaders have no intention whatsoever of stopping the runaway train. Meanwhile, Russia might actually benefit from global warming if it makes Siberia habitable – so there’s no good looking for help there – and the Chinese are still building up their economy, and using the fires of commerce to do so; so they aren’t about to intervene.
That just leaves the EU. The EU is a set of powerful someones, and just as the Great British empire had the power to stamp out slavery, and did so, in the first half of the 19th century, so the EU could pass laws which would make it illegal to pump out CO2 and trash the planet. The EU could make ecocide illegal.
The EU could save us.
But they haven’t done. They haven’t moved a muscle because, until very recently, they haven’t been taking the emergency seriously.
Ten years ago I gave up hoping that we could halt global warming and save the environment. I gave up hoping that there would be a place for our children to grow old and raise their own children and grandchildren. I gave up believing that there would still be fish in the sea and birds in the air in fifty years time. And the despair which these thoughts provoked in me, ten years ago, was crushing. I fought on, with feeble actions and paltry words; but I fought, knowing that my fight was like that of a butterfly battling a gale.
And then, two things happened.
Firstly, about a year ago, other people finally started to take global warming really, really seriously. To talk about it was no longer a fringe thing, and other people no longer rolled their eyes when we spoke of not using the engine or not eating meat.
Secondly – at about the same time – we inherited a sum of money.
Suddenly it began to seem as if the people of the world might all come together to save us all from annihilation. And suddenly it began to seem as if we might actually be able to do something practical, ourselves, to help in the fight.
And that’s why this past year has been a busy one.
First, we sailed all the way from the southern half of South America up to the equator.
Then, having halved the distance to Europe, we found a safe place to leave our floating home, and we hopped on a plane, and – yes, at the cost of a ton of CO2 – we transported our anatomies to the far side of the big blue pond.
Having seldom flown in the past – having relied upon the wind to ferry us about – we suddenly find ourselves out of step with the rest of the ‘green’ community. Just as the world is waking up to the fact that flying is a sin, we find ourselves needing to fly! The logic is simple: Being aware, now, that our drop-out lifestyle is not cutting it, we have the choice either of continuing to drift aimlessly towards the climate apocalypse or of investing some effort in trying to avert the catastrophe; and that effort needs to occur where it will have the best result. So it’s a case of ‘nothing ventured, nothing gained’.
(In an effort to undo some of the damage wrought by flying and driving, we pay a voluntary carbon tax in the form of donations to international tree-planting organisations such as Trees For The Future. In further mitigation I must point out that, despite having flown all the way across the Atlantic, my carbon footprint for this past year was still somewhat less than that of a vegan who drives to work, and it was considerably less than the footprint of someone who eats beef once a week.)
Having arrived in Europe, we embarked at once on our project of saving the world:
Step one – Buy some land, with this new money, and cover it with trees
Step two – Fight Brexit
Step three – Join Extinction Rebellion and sit in the road
Plant trees – because trees are the answer.
They’re not the whole answer – if we are to stand any chance of keeping the global temperature from rising then we will have to reduce carbon gas emissions radically – but even if we do this, we’re still going to need millions of trees to mop up the CO2 that’s already overloading the atmosphere. We’re going to need millions of trees to replace the ones going up in smoke in Amazonia, Australia, Indonesia and Africa. And we’re going to need millions more, besides.
I had my first taste of tree planting at the age of thirteen when my dad came home from work with a poster. On the poster was printed a stylised drawing of an oak and the words, Plant a Tree in ’73. In keeping with the spirit of this venture, Dad had approached the council and asked them to plant a line of trees along a particular stretch of road which lacked even hedges; but the council had dismissed the idea and had even refused to give permission for my father to do the job himself. Typically obedient to even the pettiest laws, on this occasion Dad was not to be naysayed. He raised several score of sapling oak and ash and other trees, and then, one day, he invited me to join him in a tree-planting venture.
To be honest, I thought the whole thing was a ridiculous waste of time. I mean, trees take decades to grow – right? So we were never going to see these things in their full glory. Still, I was always open to any excuse to escape from the chore of doing my homework, and so I went along with Dad and was an accessory to the crime. I also have a dim recollection of our going back, from time to time, with jerrycans full of water.
Well, the years rolled by – and then one day I happened to be passing along that same road, where the fields used to hide behind nothing more than wire fences, and to my astonishment I found that the verge was now lined with an avenue of trees. Ruddy great trees, too!
“Where the heck did they come from?”
To paraphrase the oft-quoted line, the best time to plant a tree is when you’re thirteen, but the next best time is now.
Ever since I saw that avenue of spreading oaks and hawthorns I’ve been rather more enthusiastic about the idea of tree planting, but I must confess that I haven’t been anywhere near so effective as I should have been. It’s actually quite hard for an itinerant to plant trees, because unless you stick around and water them, sapling trees tend to die. So, I’ve done the Johnny Appleseed thing, of tossing acorns and conkers into suitable hedges and tossing avocados and mango stones onto tropical verges, but this year was almost the first one since ’73 when I’ve actually dug holes and planted saplings. And, to be honest, so far we’ve only planted a dozen.
Pathetic. Yes, I know! Utterly pathetic. Didn’t the Chinese army plant a million trees in just one day? That’s the way to do it, of course. We will never be able to get enough trees planted unless we drive our governments to organise massive tree planting schemes. But alongside this, we can all do our own bit, for our own little bits will add up to millions of trees. We be many. So let’s get out there and do it!
Still, it isn’t as easy as one would wish. First you have to buy the land (which, in our case, has not proved easy), or you have to get the permission of the owner.
Then you might have to prepare the land (and we will certainly have to do a lot of preparation, because our land is steep, stoney, fire-damaged land whose soil has washed away).
Then, unless you have a ton of money to throw around, you also have to raise the saplings yourself.
Besides the dozen saplings aforementioned, which we bought from a nursery and installed in the ground in various places, this past year I’ve also planted some fifty bay berries, thirty acorns, and a handful of yew berries – each one in its own ample pot – and I hope that next time we’re in Europe there will be two-score or more of new saplings ready to go into the ground.
All the while that we were tracing the owner of the land which had taken our fancy and were negotiating for its purchase, one other thing was also taking up our time, and that was the fight against Brexit.
What’s Brexit got to do with saving the world?
Well, as I say, the EU is the one organisation which has the potential to apply the brakes to Western civilisation and pass the laws which will help us to wriggle out of this hole. Britain’s departure from the trading bloc weakens its power; and Britain’s departure also signals the immense probability that the nation will tear up environmental protections and delve headlong into the cesspit of untrammelled free-market Capitalism.
So, much as we don’t enjoy that kind of thing, we dutifully joined the anti-Brexit marches and waved our banners.
The fight against Brexit was emotionally draining, but the thing that took up the most time during this past year was the third part of our project: Extinction Rebellion.
Some time just before Christmas of 2018 there was a strange ‘drone strike’ – or rather, a disruptive drone sighting – at Gatwick airport, and I was probably the person who started the rumour that XR were responsible. Well, I was one of the people anyway. It seemed to me that it surely must be XR – and what a brilliant strategy!
But no. XR disclaimed the deed. “When we do something, you’ll know it’s us,” said the founders of the organisation. “We will stand by our actions.”
XR are the new Greenpeace, for Greenpeace themselves have gone to seed. They travel the world in a state-of-the-art sailing ship; and on the occasion when we met it, the sailing ship was motoring downwind.
XR is the new grass-roots socio-environmental movement – and funnily enough, the people most active in XR are the ones who used to wear Greenpeace T-shirts and try to persuade their parents to buy recycled loo-roll and solar panels. Yes, it’s us lot again! It’s the hippies and the punks! To be fair, the London and Bristol and Brighton divisions of XR seem to consist largely of students and other young people, but amongst the group that Nick and I tried to set up in our home town, and amongst the little group that we eventually joined in the adjacent town, our kids were the only under-thirties. Most of the team were in their sixties.
Come to that, Caesar and Roxanne didn’t really want to be involved in XR, either.
“Why not? C’mon! It’s you we’re doing this for! Don’t you want the planet still to be habitable when you’re our age?”
“It’s too late. We’re stuffed.”
Regardless of the fact that they felt it to be rather pointless, Caesar and Roxanne helped to print XR T-shirts, and they posted posters around the town, and they did their bit when asked to ‘die’ with the rest of the crowd in a symbolic demonstration of humanity’s fate. Caesar even had a go at explaining things to passers-by. The action was taking place in a coastal town which will begin to go under the waves when the sea-level has risen by just half a metre (expected by 2050), and thus it had an immediacy which is often lacking from climate protests. Still, there were plenty of sceptics. When informed by one loutish fellow that global warming was just a hoax, Caesar was able to say, “It’s not, you know. I’ve seen it; I’ve seen what it’s doing to the glaciers in Antarctica and in South America.” However, the best comment of the day came from a man who wanted to bad-mouth Greta Thunberg.
“Sailing across the Atlantic!” he said. “I mean, I ask you! It’s just bloody silly. It’s impossible! No one can cross the Atlantic in a sailing boat!”
“Yes, they can. Lots of people do it.”
“Not in a sailing boat!”
“Yes, in sailing boats. Thousands of people do it every year. I’ve done it myself, several times.”
The man opened and closed his mouth like a fish out of water, and then, as he fled, he said, “And then there’s Brexit!”
We had no difficulty in guessing which way he voted on that one.
Caesar and Roxanne were not around for the second XR action in London, because he had gone to work in Antarctica on a sailing yacht and she had just started university. So, for the first time in 28 years their parents were alone; and alone we went, with half a million others, to stand in the road outside Downing Street. It was Nick’s 64th birthday and he wore a sandwich-board, one side of which was emblazoned with a slightly corrupted version of the song. It said, “When you get older, losing your hair, when you’re 64, will the world still be habitable?”
The other side of the board said, “The End of the World is Nigh – unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot.”
Several people wished Nick a happy birthday, and quite a few sang the song with us; but they were all already members of the choir. The government, in their ivory tower, ignored us. I think that was the day that Boris Johnson called us crusties. None of us had (or has) any idea what a crusty is, but the next day we were all wearing badges with I’m a Proud Crusty written on them.
Eventually, the police were successful in moving us all along. Friends who had camped in Whitehall had their tents trampled and torn down, and those who were willing were arrested and then freed and then – eventually – acquitted; because it turned out that the arrests had been illegally made.
A few days later we all took part in an enormous funeral procession, mourning the death of the ecosystem; and a while later, some of us undertook a week-long ‘hunger strike’, eating nothing and drinking only water. Some of the participants sat outside Parliament with placards – but London had returned to normal and no one paid them any mind.
Did we achieve anything with our protests?
Yes. We got the world to sit up and take notice, and we got three of the four political parties in Britain to come up with very ‘green’ manifestos in which they promised to do all sorts of wonderful things, such as planting millions of trees. But, alas, we did not exact any such promise from the Tories – and, as such, we have not yet achieved enough.
From there on, it was all downhill. We yelped with dismay when the Lib-Dems gave Boris Johnson the election that he craved; and we groaned and felt real physical pain when the Tories got the majority that they sought. This win spells the end for Britain’s membership of the EU, but worse still, it spells doom for the environment.
Of course, the whole thing was down to the gutter-press, who brainwashed the dim-witted. And of course, the whole thing was very fishy. (A one percent increase in the vote share buys a hundred more seats…? And what about those postal votes, eh? Why were they opened before the election day? And how can it be said that the people voted for Brexit when only 43% of the electorate chose the Tories and 53% of the voters put their cross next to anti-Brexit parties?)
Still, the whole thing was also very predictable – and, seeing this, by the time it happened we had already fled from the crumbling ruins of the kingdom. Britain might leave the EU, but we’re jolly well not going to. We’ve planted trees in the EU, and we’ve planted our hearts and our feet there, too.
But as a matter of fact, by the time Boris Johnson lied and cheated his way through to something which his propaganda machine called ‘a landslide victory’, Nick and I were not even in Europe. We were back on the boat. A few days later, we embarked over the trackless ocean.
Over an empty ocean.
Over a blue desert.
A week out, we passed a fishing boat and spoke to the captain. He was returning home with a thousand tons of tuna – a cargo worth a million dollars to the ship’s owners – but it had taken him three months to round up this catch, whereas, he said, it used to take less than one. The fisherman also told us that the catching of a ton of tuna involves five tons of ‘by-catch’; which is to say that, for the 1,000 ton treasure that he and his crew had amassed, they had also trashed and removed from the web of life 5,000 tons of other sentient beings.
If dolphins and turtles and fish have a religion, you can bet that Homo sapiens is its dark, evil force.
Surely, the powerful people who could save this world know what they are doing? The men who could pass the laws which would save the ocean and the rainforest know full well what needs to happen – so why aren’t they doing anything? Bolsonaro and Johnson and the rest of them are ignoring the crisis despite the fact that they know what’s coming our way. It doesn’t make sense, does it? Unless…
Unless they’re buying a rocket-ship and heading off to Mars!
We have not given up hope. We have not given up trying to do our little bit to help to save the world. We will be back to prepare the land and plant those trees, and we will be back to wave our banners with XR. We recommend that you do, too – because however well equipped and seaworthy your boat is, you can’t sail to Mars. Fighting to save the world that we have is the only option.
This article was written before the coronavirus outbreak became a pandemic. I need hardly point out that those of us who have our own wind-driven, international transport are at a considerable advantage at the moment. We can sail away from the black-spot areas, and if the authorities in our new venue throw us out, we are equipped to move on. Mind you, we may not want to move on… And we can’t really escape. At the end of the day, we ‘yotties’ are still stuck on the same planet as everyone else; so let’s not forget that the current crisis is temporary, whereas the one we’re hurtling towards will be far more far reaching and it would be permanent.
The end really is nigh – unless we DO SOMETHING to stop the train.