Blog post for Commune Festival and Save Our Stour Space. Part of Hackney Tours commitment to exploring sustainable travel and continuing a three centuries-old Hackney history of holding things up to the light that need to change…
Everything is ultimately connected, even if this linkage is often hidden from us or not immediately obvious (‘indirect causation’). So it was no surprise to see some Wick warehouse folk down at Extinction Rebellion, helping focus attention on a pressing issue that makes Brexit look like a minor admin’ issue.
At an Extinction Rebellion workshop recently at Grow Hackney, an activist told me that we only have 60 years of topsoil left because we’ve decimated it with intensive farming. This must surely be hyperbole, I thought? The very stuff we actually grow our food in had barely half a century left in it? It couldn’t be?
Something as fundamental as that would be on everyone’s lips surely? While he was talking, I checked it out on my phone. I found articles like this on Scientific American:
‘…About a third of the world’s soil has already been degraded…
…The causes of soil destruction include chemical-heavy farming techniques, deforestation which increases erosion, and global warming. The earth under our feet is too often ignored by policymakers, experts said.
“Soils are the basis of life,” said Semedo, FAO’s deputy director general of natural resources. “Ninety five percent of our food comes from the soil.”‘
Bizarrely, a basic web search revealed you can find the UN findings reported on sites like the Scientific American but in only one British newspaper, The Guardian?
And here in Britain? It was worse. Only 30-40 years of topsoil is left in the UK if we carry on at the same rate. And again, only reported here in a couple of papers, if the search ranking was correct. Who was saying this? Another activist? An ‘out there’ prophet of doom?
It was environment secretary Michael Gove, a serving government minister. And yet something so hugely and fundamentally important was ignored by the media. Suddenly the hydroponic farm shop in Dalston featured on Hackney Tours’ experimental sustainability walks with 6heads seemed a lot more relevant…
If you think Extinction Rebellion is just about emissions, think again. It’s about systemic issues. It’s about clothes made by kids, oil from war zones and the externalised costs of shipping we don’t pay and all the other the other facets of a system that is based on continuous growth, regardless of long term human or environmental cost.
I was taking photographs for my sustainability project Container Cult – watching a long container train rumble through Hackney Wick full of stuff from Asia – when the intuitive connection I’d made between the changes in Hackney Wick and broader environmental concerns solidified.
The Hackney Wick warehouses had traditionally seen people living communally, sharing resources not just mentally – as a village looking after and supporting its inhabitants – but materially too. 10,000 new homes were due eventually around the 2012 Olympic site. Like the new blocks coming up in Hackney Wick, they wouldn’t be sharing resources. They’d all have their own washing machine, cooker, microwave etc. Small highly-priced spaces, jammed with stuff.
That train was full of this stuff: white goods carried all the way from the other side of the world in vast container ships. Ships capable of carrying 20,000 x 20ft containers at a time, each 2.2t of steel and covered in litres and litres of heavy duty marine paint before there’s even anything inside them.
Currently they’re free to pump out highly-polluting exhaust fumes for weeks at a time in international waters as they constantly tramp the oceans, with the tacit approval of governments. And, of us. Because they only supply as long as we demand.
Hackney Wick was changing, because of the logic of capitalism. Not because of the affordable housing that London needs, but because there was a business opportunity here: changing industrial land use to residential is where the big bucks are. Not without risk though, as the recent pollution scandal on Wallis Road had made the risks of brownfield redevelopment clear. And longer term residents remembered the controversial orange layer underneath the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.
The creative village that had thrived here was slowly but surely being squeezed out. The sky was disappearing and its place were high blocks of flats that none of the existing community could afford even if they’d wanted to live conventionally, in the atomised way of today where we don’t even know our neighbours, never mind support their creative endeavours while fostering their wellbeing.
Some of us have been here for a decade or longer and remember the marketing spiels that promised to keep the best of the old Wick and integrate it into the new. But like the social housing quotas on modern developments or some of the other Olympic promises made under the banner of ‘convergence’, this pledge seems to be being discreetly dropped. There are PhDs to be written about where the money really goes on so-called mega projects.
An estate agent wrote in the property supplement of a certain London lifestyle freesheet – the one that can’t decide if it hates Theresa May (Brexit) or Jeremy Corbyn (financial regulation) more – how they showed a Canary Wharf investor around five (FIVE) flats they might want to buy as a personal investment in the new Hackney Wick. While people sleep in bins in London (volunteering with Hackney Winter Night Shelter is an eye-opener), others create ‘property portfolios’ where the fundamentals of life like a room over your head is someone else’s financial product.
It’s all connected. It’s all part of the same machine, relying on ignorance and passivity: money quietly making even more money behind the scenes; hidden-at-sea systems that bring clothes made by kids from the other side of the world; oil from war zones and polluted banana republics where on-side dictators keep the black stuff flowing cheaply while living the high life; contradictions that see the government recommend redeveloping the Thames Estuary whilst acknowledging the same area could all be under water by 2050; the pricing out of existing community in artistic ‘hotspots’ only to hire people to build new community on top; corporations that have more power than countries and companies that have more power than councils; the obsession with endless growth and maximising profit; the platitudes about making a space for everyone and bringing people with us and then quietly leaving them behind…
So as the remnants of ‘the Wick that was’ respond collectively (see below) to the latest threat to the Fish Island community hub of Stour Space, Extinction Rebellion reminds us that we are not passive. We can consume less. We can shop discriminately. We can speak up. We can ask who cities like London are really for. And we can ask what the real costs are of endless growth…?
Ooh! Heavy, right? Look, most of us know this anyway. But there are things we can do. Like get involved and make things happen. Check this out. Come on my walk at 1.30pm (honestly, it won’t be doom and gloom, there are still lots of great things happening), donate to the fundraiser and spend some money at the bar. See you there, 27th & 28th April.
Save Stour Space Time Out feature here.
See you 1.30pm at Hackney Wick Overground station for an UPBEAT walk that finishes at Stour Space for the art auction. It’s not a revolution if you can’t dance to it. Please bring £10 to donate to Save Stour Space. We can do it.