Small things

Posted on July 14, 2012


“For each of our actions there are only consequences.”

James Lovelock

Today it rains and it has been this way for three months. It is cold too. Millions of singular raindrops combining into one great deluge that never seems to end.

Of course, if you live in the UK, you will already know this. Know too that the Met Office tells us June was the wettest on record, with total rainfall of 145.3mm – twice as much as normally expected. It was also the second dullest June ever.

Earlier in the year, April was the wettest on record, and so far, July is following the pattern of torrential rain, flood warnings, cold. Here in Devon, it has rained so much that in the first ten days we have already had three times the amount normally expected for the whole month.

So what is the cause of all this unseasonal weather? And what does it mean?

The cause is easier to answer. The rain and cold due to a shift in the direction of a jet stream which usually passes to the north of the UK. This year, it has shifted south of the country, bringing low pressure to every part of our nation. Meaning that, a whole mass of cloud, and rain, that used to cross harmlessly over Scotland’s head, is now falling on our ours.

So we know it is raining, and we know why it is raining, but what of it? Does it matter?

There has been a wide range of comment on the impact the bad weather is having, and other writers are far better at expressing it than I. Here is what they say.

“the last three months have been a truly lousy time for us – but for birds, it has been nothing short of catastrophic. Across much of the country the 2012 breeding season has just been rained off, like a cricket match is rained off, except that a cricket match is one day and the breeding season is 90.

Reports are starting to come in now of breeding failures in everything from swifts to barn owls, from reed warblers to kestrels, and Dr Dave Leech, the head of the nest records monitoring scheme for the British Trust for Ornithology, and the man who probably knows more about it than anybody else, comments: “This has been the worst breeding season I have ever experienced in my life.”

Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy. The Independent.

“The wet weather this spring and early summer has made life really hard for our butterflies and things could get worse unless conditions improve. Our butterflies were already struggling – almost three-quarters of UK species have decreased in numbers during the last 10 years. These falls are worrying because butterflies are important indicator species for our environment.”

Sir David Attenborough

What is striking is that the impact of the bad weather is falling hardest on the small things. The insects, bees, butterflies and birds. Some may ask does this matter? Should we care about what goes on at this low level of the environment? And in a way their response is not surprising. After all, small things do not generate the same intense focus as large-scale natural distress.

A Tsunami, or earthquake, is big news. Impacting people and the environment in terrible ways on massive scales. Via the media, we see it all in real-time, and we want to do something about it. But this should not blind us to the small things. The inch by inch, bird by bird, destruction of the world around us.

In my bird box lay two tiny blue tits. Quiet perfectly formed and quiet dead. Having watched their cycle of life, from nest-building, to feeding, it is a sad sight to see. It is though, one repeated across the country. In such wet conditions the parents can not keep their nests warm enough to heat their young. The rain bringing a second problem, decimating the small insects upon which the young birds rely for food.

One dead tit may not an ecological disaster make, nor two. But thousands will. And the same goes for butterflies, and bees. And this does matter. For each species, however small, plays an important role in our ecosystem, from pest control to pollination.

Fifty years ago Rachel Carson wrote her ecological wake up call, Silent Spring. In the haunting opening chapter she described the disastrous outcome of the loss of wildlife to our world.

“There was a strange stillness. The birds, for example — where had they gone? Many people spoke of them, puzzled and disturbed. The feeding stations in the backyards were deserted. The few birds seen anywhere were moribund; they trembled violently and could not fly. It was spring without voices.

Rachel Carson. Silent Spring.

Her enemy was the pesticides which protected crops but killed birds, leaving a spring without song. I wonder what she would say about our current plight? Would she agree with the climate scientists, who inform us this shift in our weather is the result of man-made changes to our environment.

Changes, that have resulted in two key features of our current weather plight. Namely, the melting of Arctic Ice fields and the increase in air humidity over the North Atlantic. Their combined effect having the power to shift entire jet streams, and bring record downpours.

If so, what would she suggest we do? And I do mean us, me and you, For if climate change, a far better description than rigid global warming, is the cause of our freak weather systems, then it can not only be the fault of airlines, oil companies, and governments. No, that is too big and too lazy.

The real impact will be as the result of small things. Just as a single raindrop is harmless, but millions a flood, our single, small actions, build up over time to make global change a realty, and dead birds a fact. The real catalyst being the time you drove your car to the shops, just ten minutes walk from your door. The new television set you brought to replace your still functioning old one. Want over need.

So maybe, like the weather, it is time for a change. For lots of small things to get together, and by making small changes, be the start of a far bigger change to come. I’m in, how about you?