In a way, I started In Tenerife before the website even existed. Back in 2005 I was trying to help and advise on an old Holiday Lettings website … I can’t even properly remember the name now but I think it was Holiday Lettings. Certainly it was before even the first of the several Tenerife Forums that have come and gone over the past couple of decades, and my involvement at the time was because of the break-up of one estate agency, the establishment of another, with off-plan buyers falling through the gap, feeling as though they’d been conned out of deposits that neither agency seemed able to trace. Then came In Tenerife itself, and then the global economic crisis, the illegal rentals furore, then Brexit, now Covid, and all this time the question of what kind of tourism we want here has rumbled on with political and commercial sectors talking the talk about a sustainable green future with environmentally friendly travel. Talk. Much talk. And all the while the climate issuing increasingly loud warnings that things are changing, not to our advantage.
The Amazon’s trees, those that still remain and aren’t actually burning, are now said to be releasing more CO2 into the atmosphere than oxygen, perhaps the main part of the planet’s lungs has been destroyed. The north Pacific seaboard of the USA has the largest blaze in America’s history – the Dixie fire – currently suffocating millions and defeating any attempts to control it. Huge swathes of Siberia are on fire where the permafrost is starting to melt releasing the even worse greenhouse gas methane, while the Greenland ice shelf is destabilizing along with coastal shelves in the other pole. Closer to home, Europe has this summer experienced fires called apocalyptic and historic. Here in Spain, ferocious blazes have needed the army to be called in to help fight them but the severe heatwave that affected Italy (particularly Sicily), Greece (much of the country), and Turkey has caused devastation. In the clearest example, moreover, of the chaotic nature of the climate emergency, houses and lives were being washed away in floods that turned streets into rapids through Belgium and Germany at virtually the same time as fires were causing Dantesque scenes in southern Europe that at times endangered our very cultural history with sites like Olympia in Greece saved by the skin of its teeth. This time.
And as people struggled to absorb those horrors, a major report was released on Monday 9 August by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) ahead of the COP26 summit in Glasgow in November. The authors are international climate scientists, scientists who are specifically specialists in climate, and their report tells us that the climate crisis is now a code red emergency, that it is unequivocally anthropogenic, and that major climate change is now widespread, rapid, and intensifying, inevitable and irreversible in any sort of timescale that humans can imagine. Maybe in terms of geological eras the planet might save itself but it would be despite us, and without us. The scientists say that we can try slamming everything into reverse but that would merely mitigate the effects and not stop them. We’ve gone too far, and scientists say overwhelmingly that “we don’t have 50 years” for any 50 year goal which seems to be the limit of most political vision. Many in the UK will have seen Patrick Vallance at covid press conferences: he is the British government’s Chief Scientific Adviser; he says that nothing short of complete social transformation will avert catastrophe, that we all have to do something, every one of us, along with a “renewed emphasis on science and innovation”. With every effort to do anything opposed by vested interests, idiocy and wilful ignorance, I think the possibility of “complete social transformation” is zero.
Worse, to compound the problems identified by the IPCC, scientists following the gulf stream over decades have announced in recent weeks that the destabilization they feared to see has already appeared, many decades before expected. That is indeed a theme of all science in this regard, that the former worst case scenarios are now looking like serious underestimates. As the climate changes, so the extremes are far more extreme than had been anticipated even by those slammed as criminal scaremongerers for raising alerts in professional, peer-reviewed research. The Gulf Stream is the popular name for the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC) carrying northwards warm currents near the surface of the Atlantic while deeper cold currents are carried south. It regulates the global energy balance, and makes parts of France and the south-west UK virtually sub-tropical at times. The sign that it is destabilizing far earlier than anticipated, a key forerunner to shutting down anticipates a catastrophic and irreversible change in weather systems and will turn currently temperate zones into ice fields; as British philosopher A.C. Grayling tweeted, the UK is on the same latitude as Hudson Bay, which is its climate without the gulf stream. One climate journalist said recently, “if AMOC shuts down, it’s sayonara, civilization”.
All these put local political issues, Brexit, for example, into perspective as ultimately just a silly and narrow domestic nationalism issue, the country sawing off its feet to try to stand taller, flawed logic from the start succeeding only in undermining its own national integrity. In the wider scheme of global environmental peril its main context is perhaps its pitiful timing, with scientists stressing the urgent need to reduce global footprints and trade locally and sustainably while reaching out around world networks to maximize the creation of innovation right at the moment that Brexit has resulted in a protectionist technological focus on the UK alone, global commerce that won’t be achievable for practical let alone political reasons, and the trashing of trade relations with a continent close enough to be reached by swimming.
If Covid for its part has shown us the limits of human power over social and physical frailties, however, it has also shown us some pretty impressive human ingenuity. We’re going to need it. In 2015-16 Israeli academic Yuval Noah Harari thought in Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow that human ingenuity could save us. Whatever it produces, however, will be very different from anything we have encountered to date, and it needs to be fast now. It is already manifest that tidal waves of humanity are displaced by war, famine, drought and bigotry, and yet denial of cause, and even of effect, is routine as vested interests continue to control a narrative of continued permanent growth. It is not sustainable.
That lack of sustainability has been known for half a century now, or at least predicted by an MIT study in 1972, The Limit to Growth, one of whose original researchers has co-authored an updated report. As it explains, “governments largely look to return economies to business-as-usual growth, despite loud warnings that continuing economic growth is incompatible with sustainability”. The researchers predict that this will lead to societal collapse, and their earlier predictions have been all too correct. Some think now that signs of societal collapse have already appeared, perhaps closer to home than is comfortable too. Things will change, indeed are changing, whether we like it or not, and that means we cannot avoid the question of what it means to be in this haven of these islands.
A recent study published in the journal Sustainability identified the five places on Earth best suited to survive what’s coming. Researchers called such places collapse lifeboats since they were likely to be able to avoid “the most egregious effects of societal collapses and are therefore able to maintain significant populations”. They have a rather familiar look about them. Ireland, Iceland, Tasmania, the UK, and above all New Zealand are all islands, all low density (the UK was included for its assumed ability to absorb shocks rather than population), and all have been singled out as the best collapse lifeboats but also as locations that will be a magnet for those in distress at social and environmental collapse in their own areas. The only question really is when the world’s population will get its chance to get aboard these lifeboats. The covid crisis has shown how inequality allows wealthy nations and individuals to elbow their way to the front of queues, and it will be the same with the climate emergency. Google chief Larry Page is already resident in New Zealand, and although the Canaries were not included in this list we fulfill the criteria, and with one particular advantage: we are in the latitude scientists consider will be a “sweet zone” as the previously temperate zones of the planet become unstable to the point of inhabitability.
We are a haven, and to survive we will need to find sustainable ways to do so, whether to feed ourselves, maintain our infrastructure, create an income, or defend ourselves from being overwhelmed by the planet’s tragedy and its masses on the move seeking sanctuary. Whatever we do it is clear that none of those new ways are going to be able to replicate previous ones. I’m an historian, and we look to the past to help analyse the present, as well as interpret the past through understanding the current. How we proceed from here, however, is the role of others, and we need to start talking about them because politics has failed, and personal action has limited power; as well as talking we need to start acting for ourselves because clearly we can expect no concerted or decisive action from political or commercial sectors.
So, where do we go from here? We need tourism as a major component of our income but the days of talking the talk and taking the easy money are over. Tourism for one thing has to change, and in one particular way: an end to mass tourism. We can no longer take the stance that at some point we will go upmarket. Up, down or sideways is immaterial now because what it must be is sustainable. Mass tourism can’t be just tolerated any longer but must be wholly opposed. Yes, there are financial interests at stake in maintaining the status quo, but unfortunately it is the planet that is now calling the tune making that unviable, not tourism ideology or snobbery, and business must diversify or lose everything along with all that will be lost by everyone in the end if we don’t make major changes towards sustainable, probably niche, tourism, and now.
In terms of what is grown here, we have world-beating wine and a niche market that will support it at least for some time. But what do we eat here? Our caprine and ovine dairy sector is superb. But while we grow bananas, tomatoes, and potatoes, every single year around half the potato crop is ditched because of “bichos” (bugs). The system is so embedded that each year the Cabildo issues notices around the island telling agriculturalists where the skips are to dump their infested crop. Such a practice seems ridiculous with the rich volcanic soil and climate we have here so agriculturalists need to find ways to support local and sustainable supplies. That is true of other goods and services as well, we need to think about being very local in our transactions, and maybe barter systems might have some traction. In addition, when considering alternatives, we could look at old farming skills to build on traditional practices in new ways to maximize productivity and variety. The no-plough regenerative methods, for example, that have been adopted in small vineyards have spread to olive groves and leading wine producers. This isn’t some kind of pastoral Arcadian fantasy. It’s happening right now in Andalusia where biodiversity is being promoted and profits created in a remarkably successful project.
For our power needs, the move away from fossil fuels is already underway. The old refinery in Santa Cruz is already being dismantled and there is increasing focus on renewable and sustainable energy with Tenerife alone having almost its whole east coast dedicated to wind farms and the Technology and Renewable Energy Institute (ITER). Even remote mountain villages are seeing their old halogen street lights replaced by solar powered ones and if we have any sort of power within easy reach here it’s sun and sea! Clearly public transport will be important too, and Titsa here is already trialling the first 100% electric bus on urban lines in Santa Cruz and La Laguna. Private vehicles will probably still be used, though, and in that respect there are some doubts being raised about whether it’s electric cars that are the future because there will remain a need to generate that electricity and the Tenerife Cabildo is itself starting to make noises and some clear headway towards at least investigating hydrogen potential. Representatives of a Californian company investigating sustainable ways of transforming our transportation systems and home lives to use the very latest technology are already in Tenerife. The world they envisage is turning science fiction into science fact, future fantasy into current reality, and they are doing it in Hawaii, where similarities with conditions in the Canary Islands are unmistakeable.
And of course, if we are a lifeboat, we need to be prepared for when we are ourselves in danger of capsizing, either through extreme and chaotic weather which won’t leave us untouched, or because we are forced to defend ourselves from others who are desperate. We will want to help, and we will do so, but help and natural resources are not inexhaustible and there needs to be an open and honest discussion about what that situation will actually look like and how it will function in the real world where the climate emergency will be complicated by increasing personal desperation and humanity’s already existing prejudices, whether racial, religious, social or economic. The boxer Mike Tyson once said that everyone has a plan until they’re punched in the face. Well, after decades of shadow boxing our own environment, it has now punched us in the face and we didn’t even have a plan. We need one now.
Obviously it is entirely natural to yearn to get back to normal, to carry on with our lives as before, but we have no option but to accept that those possibilities have gone. We have no choice now but to recognize that things have changed so fundamentally that in modern jargon, humanity has jumped the shark. Over the past several decades it has become increasingly clear that politics and the system of nation states have already failed us all. Very few realise, perhaps, how recent the idea of a country actually is, or the history behind its development as a model of governance. History suggests, indeed shows clearly, that it’s something that is unilkely to survive in even the medium term, and no-one is really looking long term for our solutions any more. Equal in failure to politics and constitutionalism, we have seen the media’s inability across the board to report anything of consequence, simply providing guff and filler to massage the emotional tics of their readers and hide the massive vested interests behind their own editorial stances. Just to take the Brexit example as a case in point, the public read and watch that all is well while the specialist press – the dedicated journals of the music and especially food and haulage industries being prime examples – is reporting wholesale failure without that message cutting through the noise of media distractions.
We can’t rely on the media for confirmed information and politics will always jump on a bandwagon. Here in Spain, some are expecting the right-wing populist party VOX, well-known for denying any aspect of the climate emergency, to start warning about the threat of global warming so as to present itself as the protector of the European people from just that. The shift in stance would be purely for electoral advantage, that which had been presented as a non-existent threat would become one that suited the party’s purposes, allowing it to present its opposition to immigration as something for, rather than against, humanity. Would that cut through? Are we so post truth now that we wouldn’t even see the lack of logic that protection was needed from something previously claimed to be a lie? If we do not act for ourselves now we will be overtaken by events. We are not a bandwagon but a lifeboat, and we need to start a conversation today about what we can do for ourselves here in the Canaries and, hopefully, those beyond these shores.
Let’s start talking but when I say conversation I do not mean debate. The science is clear that we are heading towards chaos and catastrophe. There is no room in this conversation for those who still think science is a matter of belief, and whose half hour on YouTube has convinced them scientific proof is a hoax. This conversation has to shut out the noise of ignorance and be conducted among those who can and do understand, and who therefore can and will do something. There is simply no time, let alone room, any longer for anti-fact, post-truth reality-challenged denial, and hopefully the conversation will bring together those who are already coming up with inspirational ideas and actions to find a way to show our best face to the future, whatever form that future may take. Even if this effort goes nowhere, or has the most microscopic effect, all any of us can do is our own personal bit in our haven here in the Canary Islands and for my part, I hope that this website, which will be perfectly open to guest posts for ideas and action, can form my own contribution from my own haven here in Tenerife. The future starts here and now. It has to.