Can anyone stop climate change?

Perhaps the delegates at COP26 are asking all the wrong questions

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November 11, 2021

The cherry tree in the front garden of the big house was a venerable thing. From its size and the age of the rambling property in which it stood I’d guess it was a century old at least. It had seen out the age of empire, seen Hitler’s bombs rain down on South London, and looked on as the tower blocks of the nearby 1950s housing estate grew from the rubble. And every spring its blossom, white on the left side, pink on the right — the result, I always assumed, of some Victorian horticulturist’s clever graft — had signalled the end of harsh weather, and the birth of milder seasons.

Then, last year, it gave up. By February the buds which had begun to swell along the branches turned brown and desiccated, like abandoned chrysalises. After the blossom failed, a few leaves unfurled, then dropped early. On a gusty day last spring, a main branch fell, cleaving the privet hedge below it in two.

As the gardener charged with pruning that tree — having shaped its canopy and enjoyed its blossom for a decade — I felt bereft, in that pull-yourself-together way one might experience at the demise of an aged pet. But I’m not sure I was mourning the tree so much as lamenting what it symbolised.

“Of course the trees are dying,” I thought, when I arrived at work to see that bough nestling in the hedge. It was just more fodder for my personal spiral of climate anxiety.

Any gardener will tell you that one of the great pleasures of the pursuit, whether amateur of professional, is the sense of connection it engenders between you and the seasons. Stewarding a patch of ground from spring to winter and back again plugs you into something ineluctable and constant.

In the decade or so that I have been doing it for a living, I’ve come to understand why people often talk of gardening in therapeutic terms. Once stricken with Seasonal Affective Disorder when the clocks go back, I now reconcile myself to winter as a necessary stage in the wheel. Most of what we do at this time of year involves “putting things to bed”, chopping back the wilted summer growth. But this isn’t death so much as dormancy, a prelude to inevitable rejuvenation. Spring rolls around like a gift. Whatever clamorous stupidities might be afflicting the human story, the garden, this earth, moves to organic rhythms deeply etched in time. Gardening, then, becomes an act of self-reassurance.

At least, that is how it used to feel. As the years pass, the drumbeat of alarm around climate change has begun to shake the foundations of this happy psychological refuge. The meteorological cues which dictate the behaviour of our garden plants and wildlife have gone haywire. The energy that plants expend on negotiating weather patterns for which they haven’t evolved is making them more vulnerable to blights and pests. The first frosts land later, which means the window for the spread of fungus and foliar pathogens has widened. There are fewer insects, meaning less pollination. There is, too, just a general tenor of capriciousness — the sense that conditions are less hospitable, more violent, and incrementally less predictable. The rain falls in torrential bursts. The summer sun feels that bit too harsh. The garden’s cheering constancy has been fatally disrupted.

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At a practical level, this demands certain adjustments. The wealthy homeowners who comprise the majority of our client base, fluent in western guilt and self-exonerating gestures, are starting to think about ways to make their gardens more environmentally friendly. Add some wildflowers for the bees. Let the grass grow longer, acknowledging the writer Michael Pollan’s colourful assertion that “a lawn is nature under totalitarian rule”. Like many landscaping firms, we wait impatiently for the performance of battery-run tools to catch up with our current petrol-driven machinery, and calculate how much to increase our rates by to cover the outlay (around three grand, in case you’re wondering). These transitions are fine and good. Gardeners, like people generally, are an adaptable species.

What is less easy to process, however, is the impact this horticultural uncertainty might be having on our wellbeing. It is increasingly clear that the kind of discourse we have seen around COP26 in Glasgow is precipitating an epidemic of “eco-anxiety”, especially among the young. That this anxiety is prompting me and others to draw alarming extrapolations upon witnessing the struggles going on in our herbaceous borders reveals something profound about the impact of climate change — not so much the terrifying existential threat of it, but the proximate emotional cost.

Of course, we continue to take solace in whatever mitigation we can find. I can’t be the only person who found a guilty, and frankly perverse, respite in the recent study which claimed that the UK ranks among the five countries best placed to ride out “societal collapse”. (Hooray?) Maybe, we think to ourselves, maybe my little corner will escape the worst of it. Perhaps my kids will be OK.

Meanwhile, and perhaps ironically, growing awareness of our unsustainable relationship with nature has only increased our recognition that communing with nature is good for us. Such old wisdom, as no end of recent self-discovery memoirs detail, has come to be seen as an antidote to the artifice and alienation of the western lifestyle.

But anyone who spends a lot of time among the shrubbery will tell you that what we are faced with, at minimum, is a world so discombobulated, so shorn of its old certainties, that contentment itself becomes forfeit. A world in which gardening — the uncomplicated pleasure of cultivating a plant from bulb to flower, stem to trunk — becomes freighted with the very temporal and political concerns that its practitioners are trying to escape.

On the spectrum of climate change’s ramifications, this might seem like trifling stuff. Amending a planting scheme because the flowers aren’t unfurling at the expected time in the calendar is self-evidently not in the same league as a million-hectare wildfire, or a hundred contiguous miles of coral bleaching. And I’m the first to admit, as someone inclined to believe that climate change is every bit as bad as its most adamant Cassandras claim, that this reflex is toxic for the soul. In this way, it is a microcosmic analogue of the apophenia we now see pervading so much of our political culture.

For the climate change denier, this tendency to connect the dots in support of pre-existing convictions can mean that the sight of some snow appears as categorical proof of the great global warming con. Conversely, for the accepter, it becomes tempting to see evidence of accelerating catastrophe in every incongruous sunburst and drop of rain. Corroboration has largely been supplanted by intuition. Gripped with this tendency, the skeleton of a once-bountiful cherry tree becomes a portent of doom.

The truth is that I don’t know whether it was climate change that did for the old cherry or whether it is simply a tree whose time has come. But the owners have opted to leave it standing in the vain hope it will reanimate next year. It stands there now, a shadow of its former self. I’d swear it is trying to tell me something.