Pudding lane until recently was always one of those places that conjured up pleasant images of bread and cakes. It has become famed for housing the bakery that started the Great Fire of London in 1666. Surprising then to find that the origins of the pudding had nothing to do with such pleasant cuisine but instead referred to the containers used to take raw sewage and offal out to the dung boats on the River Thames.
Over many centuries the river was treated as a glorified sewer, causing all sorts of ill health – including regular outbreaks of cholera. Only in1858, following what became known as the Great Stink, when politicians in Parliament got the full odour coming off the river, was the decision taken to act. Engineer Joseph Bazalgette was commissioned to establish a sewer system that took the waste elsewhere and cleansed the river.
This story of the Thames illustrates how human beings can know the damage that is being done by their activities but continue regardless, waiting till things hit epidemic proportions before they act.
The equivalent of the poisoned Thames today is the climate crisis. Human beings know that the lifestyles of today cannot be sustained. Carbon emissions are destroying the planet. Biodiversity is being destroyed at an incredible rate. Pollution kills 9,500 a year in London – 50,000 countrywide each year.
These are things that most of us know but continue on regardless, literally consuming the world’s resources with little regard for our fellow human beings, let alone future generations. The economic model pursued worldwide is predicated on using stuff up and throwing it away.
Now, we have reached the Great Stink/Cholera outbreak level of awareness. People are aware and beginning to act but still too slowly.
The recent report of the International Panel on Climate Change gave 12 years for the world to make sure that global warming does not go above 1.5 degrees. Otherwise catastrophy beckons. To date there has been little real action taken on the ground. Scientists believe we are still headed toward 3 degree plus warming, with current practices.
Voices are beginning to be raised calling for action. The Extinction Rebellion protests have brought home to many people the size of the threat. The warnings of the danger are coming thick and fast, from David Attenborough to the governor of the Bank of England Mark Carney.
Awareness is rising but action is needed. This is a climate emergency. The world has moved past the point where a bit of recycling, less driving and hoping that a scientific quick fix will emerge to solve the problem are enough. There now needs to be fundamental change in the way we all live.
We need to look to reuse and recycle not just throw away. Buy what you need to eat and drink, not three times as much then throw half of it away. Drive and fly less, cycle and walk more. Eat less meat, better still go vegetarian. Cut out plastic. These are all things we can do as individuals.
Beyond the individual, people need to come together in community to counter the climate threat. In Wanstead, we have introduced the Environmental Charter, seeking to create a cleaner greener environment. So far the community has reacted positively. More and more people are coming out on the litter picks. Schools have come up with all sorts of imaginative ideas, around growing food and cutting their carbon footprints. Business is beginning to understand that its responsibilities to the local community extend beyond the doorway of the buildings they occupy.
Redbridge council is backing the idea as well. There are plans for better cycling and walking facilities around Wanstead. Biodiversity is being extended, with support for the work of the community gardeners and Wild Wanstead. Pollution is being addressed with exclusion zones around schools established. Council leader Jas Athwal also recently announced a car free day in Redbridge.
The council though sees the need to go further, recognising that there is a climate emergency. Wanstead Village councillor Jo Blackman and myself will bring a motion calling for the council to recognise the climate emergency. The motion will call for very real action to be taken to achieve carbon neutrality by 2030 and be carbon free by 2050. The motion will call for a green audit of council services. Commitments to ensure that all future buildings will be zero carbon. On transport there will be an aspiration to embrace the mini-holland culture that gives priority to walking, cycling and use of public transport to get around. Single use plastics will be banned from council premises, with this ethos being promoted on the high streets of Redbridge.
There will also be a commitment to a more proactive attitude to biodiversity, encouraging tree plantings, wild areas, wild flower planting, green walls and roofs and community. gardens
This motion will really put the urgent nature of the need to address the climate emergency on the council agenda. There will then be the challenge to ensure that the commitment is fulfilled in the actions of the council. A job for councillors and officers.
These are all encouraging signs of the urgent nature of the climate crisis being recognised and acted upon in Redbridge. But maybe to finish, it is time to return to the Thames.
The great river may now be clean. The puddings of sewage are no longer taken out and dumped. However, the Thames is also being affected by global warming, as sea levels rise. The Thames Barrier that was opened in 1982 to protect London and control water flow was shut four times in the 1980s, in more recent decades it has closed more than 75 times. Failure to act on climate change will see water levels continue to rise – then the Thames could once again become a real danger to us all.