The adventures of Tim Peake have set me rummaging in an old blog post inspired by an earlier space mission. It’s both interesting and depressing to see how little has changed in the ten years since I wrote it. And that ‘Last Look at Earth’ becomes more symbolically potent as our awareness of climate change grows while the means to tackle it remains uncertain.
“Ours is the last generation with the opportunity to tackle our over dependency on fossil fuels if we are to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.” Professor Stephen Blackmore, former Regius Keeper of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh
A fresh lemon was a source of wonder to the space crew. When the shuttle brought new food supplies from earth, US astronauts on the 1997 Mir space mission looked first for the fruit. But they did not eat it straight away. For quite a long time, according to one crew member, they passed a lemon from one to another simply holding it, enjoying the way it felt in their hands and breathing in the familiar smell. “The smell of earth.”
A television documentary about our quest to conquer the heavens raised occasional glimpses of hell. Separated from the grounding force of earth’s gravity, the weightless human body begins to wither. Muscles shrink, bones crumble and something similar seems to happen to the soul.
So began a feature article I wrote in 2001 about wildlife in the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. I was searching for a powerful metaphor to bring home why we need plants and gardens instead of covering the surface of the UK with so much concrete: many of us never need to set foot on the natural earth on our way from home to work to shop – to drop. In those days, as contributing editor to the Botanics magazine, my journalistic language tended to be punchier than the more measured sentences of the botanists.
Not any more.
I returned to the Botanics [in 2006] to help write a new edition of the guidebook to the Edinburgh garden. This time my colleague, editor Anna Levin, and I did not need to punch up the story. In meeting after meeting with heads of department in horticulture, science and education we faced the same facts. Planet Earth is in trouble and not just from climate change. Within 50 years we stand to lose up to a third of all plants which is seriously bad news for all wildlife including the human kind.
What exactly does that mean and why does it matter? After all, quite a few of us will be dead by then anyway. But unless we start to change what we are doing to the planet, our children and grandchildren will certainly discover what it means when climate change combines with a mass extinction of species hardwired into the human DNA.
In our meetings, Anna and I listened to respected and respectable scientists (the kind that used to begin every sentence with cautious phrases like ‘the evidence suggests’) outlining worst-case scenarios with no prevarication.
What happens when rising sea levels flood Fife? What will life in Scotland be like when temperatures rise by 5 degrees? Already, the Botanics has started to move plants which are no longer happy in the changing climate of Edinburgh – the Garden is lucky to have other sites across Scotland better suited to rhododendrons. So far birds and butterflies have similar options to move further north or higher up the mountain.
But in other places climate change is already destroying the ability of species to reproduce themselves. “It is no longer enough simply to stop cutting down the rainforest,” we were told, “In certain places seeds are no longer germinating because of climate change.” The forests of the future may not grow at all unless we take action to slow the pace and cut the impact of climate change.
This is not easy stuff to include in a guide designed to welcome people to a place of tranquillity. We can’t simply say, “enjoy your view from the Garden bench, it won’t last long” but we have tried to get across the message that gardens and plants matter much more than many of us realise.
There are good physical reasons for keeping our environment alive. As Steve Blackmore, Regius Keeper of RBGE [now chair of Botanic Gardens Conservation International ] put it in one of his forewords to the Botanics magazine:
“Ours is the last generation with the opportunity to tackle our over dependency on fossil fuels…if we are to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.”
But there may be a more fundamental reason why we need plants and gardens. Ian Edwards, the head of RBGE’s public programme, believes that our fundamental need for contact with natural elements is not fully recognised. We need to be among ‘plants, rocks, water, sunshine, shade… the rustling of leaves, the fluttering of birds’. To Ian it is one of the reasons humans have always sought to create gardens.
In other words, we all need to rediscover the smell of the earth.
PS: The above was written in 2006, almost ten years ago. What will Tim Peake have to tell us when he returns to Earth?