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Jonathan Cape (Jan 2022)

Joanna Pocock talks to Ben Rawlence about The Treeline:

Ben Rawlence is a writer, activist and educator. We first met in April at London’s Daunt Bookshop in Marylebone where we discussed his most recent book The Treeline. Our conversation continued on email and this interview is the result of our in-person discussion as well as our email exchange. Ben’s journey into writing came via a degree in Swahili at SOAS (University of London), followed by an MA in International Relations at the University of Chicago. He worked as a political consultant in Tanzania and the Seychelles before spending nearly a decade with Human Rights Watch’s Africa Division. During that time he wrote two books, Radio Congo and City of Thorns. In 2018 he co-founded Black Mountains College – an experimental tertiary education institution in Wales dedicated to teaching the skills and mindsets needed for action and adaptation on climate change.

Joanna Pocock: The Treeline takes us all around the northernmost reaches of the globe: Scotland, Scandinavia, Siberia, Alaska, Northern Canada and Greenland. The treeline works well as a metaphor and yet also stands as a stark monument to climate disruption. Can you tell me how you came to write about the treeline?

Ben Rawlence: I wanted to explore the future that awaits the world, the future that is already history for many people in the more climate-sensitive parts of the world. Not just the environmental impacts but the psychological ones, the emotional gymnastics required to make sense of a rapidly transforming world and the contradiction between how we live our lives and the changes we need to make to ensure a habitable planet.

JP: One of the many qualities embedded in your book is how you incorporate the people in your observations about the land. In these northern reaches many of the people you meet are indigenous. My question is this: how do you see us incorporating indigenous knowledge into our battle to preserve the earth?

BR: We have set the earth on a journey. We have unleashed incredible forces we do not know how to control. As one scientist says of the Russian permafrost: the sleeping bear is waking up. So our task is not about preserving only but adapting, too. And adaptation requires a whole set of very nuanced skills – of paying attention, listening, noticing, experimenting and respecting. Technology will not save us nor will money alone. Our reliance on the natural world for food, water, energy, materials, shelter and so on will be laid bare by the coming changes. This is a state of mind and a modus operandi that is familiar and, although diminished, not entirely lost to indigenous peoples. They are accustomed to fluctuations in natural cycles and to paying attention with deep ecological knowledge. To know what to plant where and when, and what the land is capable of as it changes will be a critical skill.

JP: At one point, you write, ‘we must learn to look and see with ancient eyes’. Do you think perhaps we might have to look to the past in order to face the future? How have we forgotten so much, and how can we help to remember what we once knew regarding the stewardship of land?

BR: We have forgotten so much, it is true, but the threads are still there of listening to the land, knowing what it holds when and where, and seeing our survival entangled with it. Farmers where I live in Wales know their fields in this way, even if they also pursue contradictory practices to conform to the dysfunctional market. It was within living memory – before World War Two – that a healthy system existed, before the Common Agricultural Policy and hydrocarbon agriculture decimated the complex multilayered food system we used to have and which had remained largely intact since the Middle Ages. And, it is important to stress, it is not primitive or atavistic knowledge in any way. Ecology is the most complex of sciences.

JP: Through your book we get to meet nomads, indigenous elders, reindeer herders, Russian scientists, all kinds of fascinating people. How did you manage to find such a wonderful array of voices and people to talk to about northern landscapes?

BR: I wasn’t consciously seeking them out, I was seeking the knowledge they hold. So through my quest to understand how the trees were responding to warming and what this might mean for humanity, I found so many compassionate and complex souls who had something to say about what they were seeing. It was humbling.

JP: In your chapter on the Canadian boreal forest you give us the terrifying statistic that the current rate of deforestation there is 1 per cent a year. This is worse than the deforestation in Brazil. But there is a thread of hope in this section. Can you tell me about the Anishinaabe fight to get the boreal forest designated as a world UNESCO site?

BR: It is an amazing story of despair metamorphosizing into repair. The community of Poplar River, a First Nations reservation, decided to heal many of the social problems they were facing with a ‘back to the land’ movement and inter-generational story-telling. That small step led to a collaboration with neighbouring reservations and a campaign to protect over 30,000 miles of pristine forest as their traditional area. While other communities are succumbing to pressure and bribes from logging companies, they have stood firm and have now put Pimachiowin Aki (‘the land that gives life’) beyond the reach of the loggers.

JP: You balance the needs of the humans with the non-humans so beautifully. You say at one point: ‘The age of extinction is not just a matter of animals and plants, but ethnicities, languages and cultures too – many have already gone.’

How can we as humans mark these losses, grieve them and try and prevent them?

BR: For me, the next step is setting up Black Mountains College and working to educate as many people as possible and crafting pathways to employment that offer training in future skills – the skills we will need when we can no longer rely on the fossil fuel infrastructure of global supply chains. Slow food, local provenance, appropriate technology and the awareness of how to fight for and drive systems change. People are feeling powerless; for those of us trained in political science or just with experience of activism, the job is to help others see themselves within the arc of the struggle. To be able to read power, see its vulnerabilities, and decide where best to apply oneself.

JP: Finally, I wanted to ask you what hope looks like for you?

BR: Hope is transient, ephemeral and different every day. For me, hope is the best possible outcome out of a daily set of options. I don’t hope for my present situation or standard of living to stay the same because I don’t take either of those things for granted. In politics you’re always hoping for the stars and accepting the moon. In Being Mortal Atul Gawande talks about ‘the ice-cream test’. When his ageing father discusses the point at which he’d like his son to turn off the life support machine, at first he says it should stay on so long as he can sit up, watch TV and eat ice cream, then it’s watch TV and eat ice cream and finally it’s just eat ice cream. The goalposts keep shifting. When people ask, “But where’s the hope?” the answer is it’s always there, because there is always a least bad option. If you can’t see the hope in a situation then you’re probably taking too much for granted.