Nature’s New Year (2)

December 31, 2020

Part 2 of my long-read essay on thoughts about the new year: new years in general and this one in particular.

In part 1 I suggested that solstice, Christmas and civil New Year are three alternative dates on which we mark the same event. They have been separated across 11 days (in some years, 12) simply because of the way historical treatments exaggerated the uncertainties of celestial measurement in ancient times.

But the idea that the natural turning of the year occurs at a defined moment is misleading. Where I live, at 53°35’N in Yorkshire, the solstice may take place at the same time as everywhere else on the planet (in 2020, this was mid-morning on 21 December), but here, nature’s new year began eight days before that. The sun set earlier on 13 December than on any other day of the year, and from the next afternoon until 21 June 2021, the nights will continue to draw out. Meanwhile, imperceptibly, the mornings continued to draw in until 29 December. These asymmetrical changes are happening faster at the end of the day than at the beginning, so the net effect, by 21 December, was for overall daylight time to increase, even though the mornings grew darker for another eight days.

The only one of these dates that is common to all parts of the globe is the day of solstice itself. In Devon, for example, the earliest sunset came on 12 December, and the latest sunrise occurred on 30th.

In these northern lands, the turn of the year was once marked by the tradition of asking small and not so small favours, sometimes in return for payment. The first historic record comes from near here, in the estate accounts for 1443 of Sir Robert Waterton of Methley, West Yorkshire. Waterton paid out twelvepence and eightpence respectively for “large hogmanays” and “small hogmanays”. The accounts are in Latin, apart than the word hagnonayse. The -se ending suggests a Middle English plural version of a Norse word, perhaps as an Anglo-Norman word in England, arriving separately from Viking lands into Scotland, where Hogmanay is as important as ever.

In Part 1 I borrowed from my colleague Martin Harper’s review of the positives we can take from the year past. As I think about the year ahead for the UK, I also find myself looking back, and thinking globally. For much of the second half of 2020, developments in the USA threatened to overshadow everything. Partisan politics is not my bag, but when the President of the USA and his party are pathologically anti-environment, I make an exception. The weeks before the 3 November election were dark days, and I started to research and write an article with the title A second Trump term would be game over for the planet.

The conservation and environmental community had built up the highest hopes for 2020, projected to be the planet’s Super Year. In fact, all was supposed to unfold during a Super Quarter – the three months between October and December in which world leaders were to gather in Kunming, China to set ambitious goals for the world’s biodiversity and in Glasgow for the Climate Summit.

Sandwiched between these dates was the American election. We have to be thankful that Covid decoupled these events from that absurd circus, and they will instead take place later, perhaps a year behind schedule.

The prospect of a Trump administration that cannot distinguish between wilderness and waste actively undermining other countries’ ambitions for biodiversity was truly frightening. That the Glasgow climate talks – key to delivering the ambitions of the Paris Accord – were to have gone ahead at the very moment the USA formally ceased to be a signatory would have cast a choking pall over the proceedings. That Biden’s campaign headlined his determination to rejoin the Accord on Day 1 of his Presidency united most of the world’s environmentalists against Trump, regardless of whatever else they may have thought of the two candidates.

In the end, I got as far as researching a list of anti-environment measures Trump’s administration has taken, and setting them out – more than 100 of them – in black and white affected me so much that I could not write the article. If you can bear it, this Guardian article and this one in the New York Times detail the shocking extent of the man’s naturophobia. So the best news for 2021 and beyond came two months before the turning of the year: Trump is out.

Despite the Kunming Biodiversity conference being delayed, a summit of sorts was held at which 77 national leaders pledged to reverse biodiversity loss by 2030. Of course, Trump wasn’t one of them but President-elect Biden has made his own pledge and will bring the USA into line.

The UK left the EU on the New Year midnight hour, or 11 pm UK time. Here in Yorkshire the snow that fell three days earlier lay still, shining under the full moon (and the fireworks) and making it the lightest evening since summer. The ink was finally drying on the Brexit deal, otherwise known as the Trade and cooperation agreement between the European Union and the European Atomic Energy Community, of the one part, and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, of the other part. My former RSPB colleague Mark Avery noticed ten words in the 1246-page document that suggested this may not be great news for nature.  His blog is definitely worth a read, and especially the debate that plays out in the comments that follow. I suspect he has reason to be fearful.

2020 began strangely and got stranger. In Davos-Klosters, Switzerland, the World Economic Forum held its 50th annual meeting, three weeks after authorities in China had informed the World Health Organisation of a cluster of viral pneumonia cases of unknown cause in Wuhan. As the Forum opened on 21 January, there were 278 confirmed cases, all but four of them in China.

The 3,000 delegates gathered to review issues of global concern, which, for most of those fifty years have coalesced around the gravitational pull of global capital: wealth management, capital markets, and conventional threats such as international conflict. The 2020 theme in full was Stakeholders for a Cohesive and Sustainable World and included several hours’ worth of presentations and debate on the topic How to Save the Planet.

Ahead of the meeting, the WEF published a briefing titled Biodiversity Loss Puts Our Food Supplies and Medical Care at Risk – It Must Be Stopped. The Forum’s annual Global Risks Report noted that the current rate of biodiversity loss has critical implications for humanity, including the collapse of food and health systems.

Within weeks, that last scenario was suddenly real. Like some rare astrological alignment, a conjunction of the three great planetary concerns – economic, human and ecological well-being – were revealed to be to be a single, interconnected matter. In July the World Economic Forum published a 111-page report calling for a critical shift towards nature-positive models in the three most damaging economic systems: food, land and ocean use; infrastructure and the built environment; mining and energy. Globally, a $2.7 trillion investment each year to 2030 would create 400 million jobs and $10 trillion a year in long-term business value, it said.

After three years’ research and writing, I finished my latest book during lockdown. The final words were squeezed in at the last minute, and squeezed as much hope as I could muster out of a dire situation. It was a strange thing to write, for these strangest of times: the hope that the world will recover from Covid by following the advice of the world’s 1000 most ruthless capitalists.

Personally, 2021 will see the publication of my next book, Leopard Moon Rising, a multi-arts collaboration project Into Light, and the final year of Back from the Brink, after which I retire from the RSPB after 38 years! Well, at least as a paid employee. Happy Hagnonay from Yorkshire!

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