Can We, The Little People, Actually Do Anything About Climate Change?

Climate change has rocketed up the public agenda. Many citizens around the world now believe climate change to be the greatest threat to their country. People are worried not just about their children’s futures, but also their own, as the effects start to show themselves: heatwaves, hurricanes and floods are becoming ever more common, and can no longer be dismissed as natural trends. The age of denial is over; now the struggle between apathy and action is in full swing.

All of which raises the question of what we, the little people, can do about it. Most of us are not privy to government boardrooms, G7 summits or multinational executive boards. It’s easy to feel powerless, or to have some vague idea that we would have power if only we knew how to find it. It’s overwhelming. There is no panacea, no universal answer, no straightforward solutions. It’s all too easy to shrug our shoulders, tell ourselves that it’s human nature, that it’s inevitable, and try to get on with our lives without thinking about it too much. If anyone’s going to sort it out, it’s not going to be us.

And yet, we are constantly assured we can help make a difference: chirpy brochures vaunt the merits of recycling, of using public transport, of taking shorter showers. This ‘every little helps’ narrative has been merrily recited to us for decades, and yet things have only gotten worse. The root of the climate change problem remains intact and unthreatened by these efforts. We all recognise this to some degree, and a lot of people have grown very suspicious that there’s any merit behind this approach at all. Even if everybody in the entire world agreed to compartmentalise their rubbish, to purchase their very own bus pass and to shower at the speed of sound, we would still be in a fix. Fossil fuels would continue to burn. These little lifestyle changes only lessen our impact. That’s not enough.

So, if these ‘traditional’ measures are largely ineffective, do we hold power anywhere? In the Western world, our votes count towards electing some of the most powerful people on the planet; our consumption patterns govern the activities of the world’s most impactful companies, very much including the notorious top 100. In theory, our votes and our wallets can change the world.

Yet, when it comes down to it, we don’t feel that our vote counts for much, or that what we buy has much influence. And in many ways they don’t, not really. For starters, trends in supply and demand are often convoluted and easily distorted. This applies to politics just as much as economics and means that our hand is often forced. In elections, if we can only choose between a politician with a terrible climate policy or one with a simply bad climate policy, we will pick the latter, but that doesn’t mean we support bad climate policy. If we want to visit family overseas, we might like to take a plane running on renewable energy – if it existed. But it doesn’t, so we have to take the fossil fuel-burning airplane, but that doesn’t mean we support fossil fuels over renewables.

This is not always the case, and collective effort can influence things to some degree: just look at the rise in vegan products in supermarkets, or the growing call for a ‘Green New Deal’. Votes count, obviously, and we should do all we can to elect effective and responsible leaders, but they cannot be relied upon. We know consumption patterns influence mega-corporations, but it involves a lot of effort just to push a percentage point one way or another. The power of the free market is all well and good but relies on intrinsic assumptions – in particular that there are interchangeable potential choices, that everybody is well-informed, and that everyone acts in their own long-term self-interest – that are simply not true. We can’t depend on our consumption habits, or our votes for that matter, to change the world.  Sweeping solutions are unattainable. We need to start looking at what’s directly in front of us.

That means we need to start working more tactically. We know we need rapid and dramatic systemic change. Looking at when this happened in the past is always instructive: invariably, revolutionary moments involved civilian uprisings and mass protests. The suffragette and civil right movements are the most obvious examples. This is happening again: people are now taking to the streets, in the form of Extinction Rebellion and related movements. The sheer magnitude of so many people in unison demanding political action will generally lead to exactly that: political action. If a democratic government wants to appear to be on the side of the people, it has to at least give the impression that it’s listening to them. If this doesn’t come up to scratch, by the time the next elections roll around the incentive for the opposition to have a decent climate policy has increased dramatically.

Despite these promising trends, as individuals we can still feel a little lost. We know we need a new system, but very few of us have a clear idea of what shape it might take. But that’s alright – we know some key aspects that will be intrinsic parts of it, and that’s enough for most of us. The system will need to be regenerative, supportive and community-focused. If we pay attention to these aspects, we can tell when we’re heading in the right direction.

There are many ways we can progress towards this. Calling for changes to your local travel infrastructure, such as by advocating more cycle lanes or better public transport networks, is a key one – and has the added benefit of making your community a more pleasant and inclusive place to live. Encouraging local councils, educational institutions and other large bodies to divest from fossil fuels also helps usher in a different system approach. Simply raising the issue of climate change in your community, and most importantly promoting the ways in which people and local organisations can get involved, is another.

This is a completely different message to the ‘every little helps’ story that has been chugging away for so long. You might remain a small cog in a large machine, but small cogs are crucial. You’re not just mitigating impacts, not just making things a little less bad: you’re changing the structure on which society is built, even if it’s just your local corner of society. Every community holds individuals passionate about making the world – globally and locally – a better place. If these people all work on replacing the old, dangerous system with something new, something regenerative and inclusive, then we stand a chance.

So no one of us is going to ‘save the world’. There is no easy fix. But, on a world of over 7 billion people, there doesn’t have to be. It’s not ‘every little helps’ – that’s a perilous gateway to complacency – but as individuals we don’t have to bear the whole burden. This is why interlinked communities are important: we all can, and should, make a difference as part of a larger network, if we individually strategically focus on what is close and dear to us. These efforts add up, fast, and suddenly the whole of society looks different. That’s what counts.

Living Low-Carbon and Lazy: Can it be Done?

I tried going fully vegan. It was obviously the ‘right’ thing to do, for so many reasons. It started off well enough – I’d been veggie my whole life, so it wasn’t a huge step – but there were one or two downsides. For starters, I wasn’t fully comfortable with the whole ‘meat is murder’ entitled stereotype that seems to hang around like a bad smell.  Expecting friends or relatives to cater specially to my choices when they had invited me for dinner seemed a tad rude. And finally – and let’s face it, this is the big one – sometimes I just really wanted a pastry.

                None of these are huge things, and all could have been overcome with a bit of effort on my part. But it would have taken time, energy and thinking space to always be planning ahead, to be fielding endless questions (‘But don’t you miss cheese?’) and to never succumb to the temptation of a freshly baked croissant. I grappled with this for a while, and came to a conclusion: these little things meant that going all the way just didn’t seem worth it. My time and energy could be better spent elsewhere.

No such thing as a lazy vegan? Gaze upon the ingredients for a 10-min stir fry, with pasta instead of noodles because I couldn’t be bothered to go to the shop. Turned out fine.

No such thing as a lazy vegan? Gaze upon the ingredients for a 10-min stir fry, with pasta instead of noodles because I couldn’t be bothered to go to the shop. Turned out fine.

                But most of the changes I did make weren’t a big deal. Buying soy milk (or oat if I’m feeling fancy), easy; coating every sandwich with liberal quantities of hummus, sure thing; cooking up a tasty vegan stir fry, don’t mind if I do. These substitutes – the simple ones, for me anyhow – actually made up the majority of my non-vegan diet. Altogether, I’ve cut out probably about nine tenths of my animal product consumption. I guess I’m a 90% vegan, if I had to give myself a label. And that makes 90% of the difference.

                It’s an example of the law of diminishing returns. If you’re on the ‘path’ to veganism, some of the most straightforward changes you can make are also the ones that have the most impact. Making your regular grocery shop vegan is probably the simplest way to start. Energy invested: relatively low. Eco gains: pretty high, as that’s the majority of what you eat. Good stuff. But as you get closer to reaching ‘pure’ veganism, ironing out those very last little bits of eggs and dairy from your diet (the sandwich on the commute, your friend’s birthday cake, the odd morning-after pancakes) takes a lot of effort for relatively little gain. So why bother?

A quick Instagram search of #vegan: picture-perfect, high-effort meals (and the odd picture-perfect, high-effort person too).

A quick Instagram search of #vegan: picture-perfect, high-effort meals (and the odd picture-perfect, high-effort person too).

                It seemed strange to me that this wasn’t a more commonly seen thing. It doesn’t just go for diet; it goes for everything related to environmentalism. Social media is full of perky purists, be they zero waste, plastic free, vegan to the (plant-based) bone. “My waste-free life defines who I am!! It’s easy and you can do it too!!!” is the sort of Insta caption you might expect to come across. “If you’re not doing it perfectly, you might as well not bother,” is the resounding implicit message.

                This pushes aside all the low-effort, less absolutist changes that actually, if we all did them, would make a big difference. Social media doesn’t have much room for people with a ‘guess that’ll do’ sort of attitude. Which is a shame, because these low-effort changes are not small. Cutting out beef, for instance, makes a big difference even if you carry on eating other meats. Reusing bags does the same thing for plastic consumption (as long as you keep on reusing them). Turning your heating down a single degree can save a third of a tonne of carbon dioxide. Why don’t we shout about doing that sort of thing?

                In terms of effort, everybody going halfway will make a massively greater difference than half of us going the whole way.

A handy (imprecise) visualisation of approximate effort vs impact in cutting out (or minimising) animal products in your diet. If you’re strong-willed enough to cut out all of them, fantastic! But you can still make a decent difference by going part of the way.

A handy (imprecise) visualisation of approximate effort vs impact in cutting out (or minimising) animal products in your diet. If you’re strong-willed enough to cut out all of them, fantastic! But you can still make a decent difference by going part of the way.

                Making big lifestyle changes is not easy. Of course it’s not – anything that breaks habits, that makes you think more about daily decisions, carries an effort cost. This is why I have doubts that portraying these big changes as ‘easy’ or ‘simple’ is useful. I recently got into a (civilised) Twitter debate with a vegan society dude who claimed that veganism was ‘laughably easy’. Well, not for lots of people! Nobody would ever say that it’s ‘laughably easy’ to lose weight, for instance (unless you’re peddling a dodgy diet supplement); it would be patronising and dismissive. The same applies with veganism. Making any change to the way you live your life is rarely a walk in the park. We should recognise this, and congratulate people for the low-effort, high-impact changes – which in reality is the best we can practically hope for.

                Most people aren’t going to devote their lives to making the world a better place. They’ve got their own stuff to deal with. But that doesn’t mean they’ll do nothing. Even if they’re not leading the charge on societal change, they can proudly bring up the rear. Social media is becoming more diverse, in terms of the views and the levels of absolutism that make it to the limelight. More and more people are taking up the eco mantle, and the ‘militant’, ‘eccentric’ stereotypes that have alienated so many are beginning to fade as more ‘normal’ people get involved. 

We mustn’t fall into the old complacency trap: switching off the phone charger, patting each other on the back, and going off to the pub to celebrate a job well done. There are plenty of low-effort changes that yield low-impact gains. This is probably the reason why this whole way of thinking is not popular with environmental movements. But if we do some of these approachable, high-impact things I’ve mentioned, and talk about them to our friends and family, and – most importantly – encourage them to do the same, then maybe, one day, everybody will be on board. Not with jaws set in resolution and courage in their hearts, but with a shrug of the shoulders. Save the world? Guess we might as well.

Let's Pretend Climate Change Isn't Real

 “Yeah, but it won’t affect us.”

 “Yeah, but we’ll adapt.”

 “Yeah, but it won’t be that bad.”

 For many people, climate change just doesn’t appear to be a big issue. Unless you happen to have experienced a wildfire, a drought or a flood, it still seems quite far off. We can spend a lot of time talking through chains of cause and effect but if someone – be they a member of a public, a businessperson or a political figure – has decided for themselves that climate change isn’t a big deal, it can be pretty difficult to convince them otherwise.

 So maybe a different tactic is required. What if we just pretend climate change isn’t real? What if we pretend that sea levels aren’t rising, that oceans aren’t acidifying, that global temperature isn’t creeping upwards? This might seem perverse at first – the fundamental science is, after all, unequivocally robust – but as we have seen, people often just don’t respond to problems that don’t have an obvious or immediate effect. This explains a lot of life: it’s why we drink alcohol, eat cake, and spend way too much time on social media. People are great at discounting – that is to say, going for short-term gains even if they incur long-term losses. If we accept this as an unavoidable truth, the only way to prompt action is to focus on the short term. How could we make lives better – now?

 Imagine a world without climate change. Sounds pretty rosy already. Now think about some of the big things that currently concern us from a climate perspective: energy supply, transport, and food production. Would these still be talking about these in a climate change-free world?

 The short answer is yes, absolutely. The truth is, so many of actions we try to take to mitigate climate change also have other huge benefits, whether to people, the environment, or potentially even the economy. And – most importantly of all – these benefits can be realised practically immediately.


 Energy – Solar, So Good

 We all know burning fossil fuels is bad for the climate, but their impact doesn’t stop there. Oil extraction, for instance, is a messy process; just look at the havoc wreaked upon the Niger Delta. Oil spills are common, only making the news when they are especially catastrophic, such as the Deepwater Horizon incident of 2010. It’s also no secret that control over oil fields has driven conflicts for decades. Unlike climate change, we can directly attribute oil extraction as the driving cause of misery for thousands of people. We don’t have to bother with phrases like ‘a likely contributing factor’. It’s clear as day.

 It doesn’t take a genius to see that these impacts don’t apply for renewable energy. It would be silly to say there would be no environmental impact – solar panels take up space, wind turbines kill birds, et cetera – but these effects quickly become negligible when compared to the alternatives. We would all rather have a solar plant in our backyard than an oil field, that’s for certain.

 It’s also a lot more difficult to put a fence around sunlight or wind. With the right technology the energy they provide could be accessible to everyone. In fact, the sunniest parts of the world often overlap with some of the poorest. As the price of solar panels continues to fall, it is becoming more and more sensible to invest, even if you’re only interested in short-term gains. Solar panels tend to pay for themselves within a decade and after that continue to make profit for several decades more.

 Not only that, renewable energy could liberate countries from interference from oil-loving nations (*cough* USA *cough*) and reduce dependence on unstable trade agreements. The only thing standing in the way is old money: the trillions hoarded up by fossil fuel companies, that would far rather lobby for business-as-usual than see renewables begin to take the lead. But these are not unassailable barriers; by showing people the immediate benefits they could see from supporting renewables, the tide could turn.


 Transport – The Car Conundrum

   The age of the automobile has given us many benefits. Cars give us freedom, autonomy, and open up new experiences for us. But they have their downsides too, even if we have become adept at ignoring them. The transport sector is the fastest growing contributor to climate change, and this increase is mostly being driven (bu-dum) by cars.

 London is a nice case study of cars’ most pertinent short-term impact: air pollution. The UK’s capital is, by most accounts, a modern city. It is drowning in investment, has a diverse and talented workforce, and – most significantly – has a sophisticated public transport network. Many of its inhabitants have no need for a personal vehicle. Yet despite this, the effects of air pollution consistently kill thousands every year. This is principally from vehicle fumes.

 That’s crazy. That alone – never mind the wider impacts on the climate – should be enough to stimulate action. And, lo and behold, it has done. The Ultra Low Emission Zone has been rolled out across the city, charging most vehicles for driving in central London. And it doesn’t end at just taxing cars: cycling is taking off on London, as access to bikes, cycle lanes and parking spots increases. So are plans to expand and streamline public transport systems.

 Such schemes largely have the support of the public, as they have been framed around improving citizens’ welfare, in particular the health of children. This is an important lesson. It makes these issues personal. People will support change if they will benefit now. It’s a big reason why action on climate change has floundered for so many years – it’s always in the future, somewhere else, somebody else. It’s not easy to visualise.

 Food – Taking Stock of Livestock

 And so we’re on to food production. We’re going to focus on a biggie: livestock. The livestock sector is responsible for about 14.5% of our greenhouse gas emissions. That’s an awful lot. Although there a number of reasons for this – gassy ruminants’ methane production featuring highly – they can be largely boiled down to a question of efficiency. In other words, it takes a whole lot more resources to make a chunk of beef as it does an equivalent amount of non-animal product. And naturally, this doesn’t just apply to climate change but to everything else: land use, water use, resource use.

 Livestock take up so much space. Over a quarter of our land is directly dedicated to them; a third of the crops we grow go to feed them. This land could be used for such better purposes. The crops could go to feed hungry people (if we sort out the logistics, anyway, which is totally possible). Forests could regrow, grasslands could be rejuvenated, wild species could begin to flourish again. We could easily feed the world – and feed them well, too – on far less land than we currently do if we just stopped eating such inefficient food.

 And then, of course, there’s the direct ethical question. ‘Meat is murder’, and all the rest of it. It’s doubtless the easy relatability that often makes this the most publicised reason to cut meat: reducing demand reduces the number of animals killed, end of. There are plenty of hardcore vegans to carry that particular flag so I won’t dwell on it, but would perhaps summarise it as this: a world with less pain is surely a better world. If you don’t agree with that, I would be very interested to hear your counter-argument.

 This only really applies to the developed world, by the way. If you have to eat meat to survive, you carry on. The industrialised nations are the ones driving demand, but also the ones most able to change. These positive changes are possible within a decade.

 But… Climate Change…

 The costs of transitioning to a carbon-neutral system are sobering. Yet it is silly to frame it simply as a climate change argument. Let’s face it, the chances of staying below 1.5°C are slim. We’re now just trying to make sure things are ‘the least bad’ for the future, and that’s quite a gloomy motivator. What we might have lost sight of is how to make peoples’ lives better in the here-and-now.

 Switching to renewables can make environmental catastrophes less likely, empower poorer nations, and also make canny investors a tidy profit. Shifting to clean travel options makes our cities more pleasant and can improve our health and wellbeing. Transitioning to a low- or no-meat diet would free up vast amounts of land and other resources. Even if these are merely bonuses compared to averting the worst of climate change, that’s not the point. They are things people can see, hear and touch. You don’t have to rely on predictions or data analysis. They are just obviously true.

 These things would all make life better now. It’s not just about ten, twenty, thirty years’ time. The changes suggested above could improve our wellbeing in a matter of months. In some ways – and bear with me here – climate change is an opportunity. It is an ‘umbrella issue’ nudging us to improve our lives in all sorts of little ways. It’s making us think about the things we take for granted, and whether those things are actually good for us after all. We could improve our lives now, whilst simultaneously guaranteeing our future. Two birds, one stone – why not? We just have to focus on the right bird.

A Climate For Change: Building the Momentum

Climate change is in the news. The fact that this is notable in itself is a travesty, but it’s promising that we seem to be there at last. People are on the streets, demanding not some abstract ‘peace and goodwill’ but rather their own future survival. People from across the political spectrum can get behind that. Without exaggeration it is a matter of life and death, and now that is being shouted from the rooftops. We have reached a crunch point, a decade or two too late perhaps, but we’re here now. There’s momentum, and it must be maintained.

                The danger now is that the powers-that-be say they’ve got the message, people accept this and relax, and then nothing really changes. Saying that change is needed is the starting point, but it’s not enough. The Extinction Rebellion placards in London and all around the world display slogans like, “Rebel for Life”, “End the Fossil Fuel Crisis Now”, and “System Change not Climate Change.” Yes! So true! But then we go home, we sit down, and the inevitable question pops up: how?

                The UK movement does have tangible demands: for the government to claim a climate emergency, for the nation to become carbon neutral by 2025, and for the formation of a Citizens’ Assembly. But even in the unlikely event that the government agrees to these demands, for the individuals left, there suddenly seems nothing left to do. But for environmental action to become prominent, it has to become habitual. Complacency is dangerous.

One option is to keep on doing what the eco-minded have traditionally focused on, but that hasn’t worked great so far. The time for separating recycling and switching off your phone charger and claiming you’ve ‘done your bit’ is over. The stats are in, and it’s clear that such token efforts will take us nowhere near the level of change that is needed. Yet for the average Westerner it remains startlingly easy to keep on doing what we’ve always done.

The truth is, people won’t change if the status quo remains cheaper, more convenient or socially acceptable, not unless climate change is literally knocking at their door, and by then it’ll be too late. We can humbly change ourselves and go vegan, forsake flying and all the rest of it, but we will remain a minority. This approach probably will change society to some degree, but only slowly. Sure, consumer power exists, but it’s not the mighty force that some seem to think. To make most people change their consumption habits, we have to present them with an attractive alternative, and that involves deep systemic change.

                But that’s not going to be easy. The capitalist system that we live in has become entrenched over decades, centuries even, and we have become wholly reliant upon it. It is also the system that has allowed us to develop, to innovate, to increase our life expectancies. It’s not all bad. But then, there is a fair amount of evidence that it keeps poor people poor, that it makes people unhappy, and that it positively encourages the accumulation of wealth and status at the expense of others, and – most of all – it doesn’t plan ahead.

                So it’s capitalism’s fault, right? That’s what’s caused this mess? Yes, more or less, but we have to offer a better alternative. We can’t just dismantle capitalism on our lunch break and improvise from there. Perhaps the biggest flaw in protests, in this century at least, is that they tend to focus on what we don’t want. We don’t want climate change, we don’t want to leave the EU, we don’t want to go to war with Iraq. It’s the same old story.

When we think about the protests that historically have made a difference, it’s those that imagine a positive future – not just the extirpation of a negative one – that made a true societal difference. Suffragettes, civil rights activists, the ones that envisaged a better society and also provided a game plan for how to achieve it, they were the ones that succeeded. “I have a dream,” said Martin Luther King. No mention of a nightmare. We can’t just fight against what we don’t like; we have to fight for something, too.

                So, what are the alternatives? What is this ‘better world order’ we dream of? This is the realm of political philosophers, many of whom have spent their life’s work envisaging a fair and sustainable society. Most systems that have been tried out have principally failed for the same reasons that capitalism has so far succeeded: human greed and prioritisation of short-term gains. The blueprint for a system that accounts for this apparently unavoidable selfishness, whilst somehow avoiding destruction and inequality, is hugely complex and I could not begin to cover it in this article. Sorry.

                But what we can think about is where to start. We need to change things fast, or we’ll run out of time. But we also need to change things slow, or we’ll create chaos which will naturally create resistance. There’s a fine balance. Sowing the seeds of anarchy will only alienate the masses – it’s not the way forward. Nor is just gently encouraging people to think about cycling to work or maybe stop eating quite so much beef. So where to begin?

                Politicians are the sticking point currently. The science is unequivocal, so are the policy thinktanks. Yet for a variety of reasons – vested interests, following the path of least resistance and just plain old ignorance – this doesn’t often filter through into actual political decisions. Instead they just more-or-less carry on as they always have done. Generally, the response to this is a few gripey articles in some newspaper, a half-hearted petition and maybe – if you’re lucky – a quick debate in Parliament before deciding to carry on as normal anyway.

                This can change. The school climate marches and the Extinction Rebellion protests are a symptom of the times, a sign that people are frustrated and hungry for something brighter. More and more people are realising that politicians are consistently breaking climate targets (which in themselves are way too conservative) with no repercussions. Now, the repercussions are here: us.

                We can’t just tell governments to stop doing things. People know a lot more about the negative effects of climate change than they do about the positive ways we could address them. This includes politicians. We need examples of positive action.

What about campaigns for generously subsidising renewables? For environmental taxes on fossil fuels and the polluting corporations (or at least stop subsiding them)? For being more ambitious with our legally binding national carbon budget? These all remain under the wing the capitalist system, but they’re getting closer to the edges and don’t make politicians freak out so much. It’s a bit trickier to think of catchy slogans for these issues, but with a bit of thought I’m sure we can manage. Tax rhymes with fracks, after all.

                Pessimism comes easily. It’s simpler, even (whisper it) more stimulating, to imagine a dark future; think about the number of fictional dystopias compared to utopias. Optimism, substantiated by feasible solutions, is a lot more challenging to envisage, especially in the short term. How could next year be better than this one? What about next month? Focusing on the bigger picture is all well and good but we need to have a clear path of how to get there.

                Now it’s time for the next step, to begin this process of change. We must provide positive incentives to make people change the way they live. We are extremely fortunate to live in a democracy which, despite its flaws, isn’t altogether separate from the will of the people. By telling politicians clearly what is needed to ensure our future, we can get this message across. We have a voice; we must not squander it.

Extinction Rebellion in Oxford Circus, London

Extinction Rebellion in Oxford Circus, London

The Peccary Perturbation

Between ten in the morning and two in the afternoon, the Costa Rican rainforest is at its brightest. Any earlier or later, and the angle of the sun means that the light cannot hope to penetrate the dense canopy. Everything that loves the sun comes out in this short window, and that included my quarry: butterflies.

I was surveying the butterfly populations found within the rainforest, comparing undisturbed areas to those where people had been meddling. Today was an undisturbed day. I was venturing relatively deep into the forest behind the lodge, following the narrow paths to a place where people rarely went – perfect for butterflies, and a host of other wildlife besides.

Butterfly identification is not always an easy business, especially when the several hundred non-poisonous species are all doing their very best to look like the several hundred actually poisonous ones. When I had started the study I began by catching them in a net – a Frankensteinian creation comprising a leaf skimmer and a laundry bag – but had quickly abandoned this for a number of reasons.

Firstly, crashing through the undergrowth with net in tow after every uncooperative but very nimble butterfly soon proved exhausting, not to mention undignified. Secondly, on the rare occasion I had caught them, I would become paralytically afraid that I would inadvertently damage their delicate bodies. I’ve never been able to harm things without feeling physically ill, not even the most insistent mosquito. It’s a serious character flaw. I’m working on it – I can pull up weeds now – but it’s slow progress.

In any case, I’d forsaken the net in favour of my camera. It was the fanciest camera I had ever owned, but that wasn’t saying much. My friend who had sold it to me described it as ‘a camera for idiots’. It suited me perfectly. It had enough zoom that I could get lots of lovely photographs of butterflies, and spend a happy hour afterwards matching them to the pictures in the field guide. And the best bit was, it was in the name of science.

a particular favourite - spot the head end

a particular favourite - spot the head end

The only other equipment I needed was a long tape measure. My transect length was 200m: I would walk along at a slow and steady pace, letting out the tape behind me, and photographing any butterfly that flitted into my proximity. As fieldwork goes, it’s difficult to get any more idyllic.

So I set off, tape measure in one hand, camera in the other. Toucans were calling in the trees; agoutis, a sort of cat-sized rodent, scurried in the underbrush; in the distance, a troop of howler monkeys laid testimony to their name. It was another wonderful day in the jungle.

When I reached the section of path I was interested in, I took some preliminary photos of vegetation density and canopy cover, tied the end of the tape measure round a sapling, and began to walk. Soon I was snapping away with my camera. The butterflies were being unusually obliging, landing close by, displaying all their characteristic features for the camera. It was going well.

About fifty metres in, I became aware of a pervasive smell in the air. It is best described as reminiscent of rotting onions, a smell I knew well, having had a glamorous childhood growing up not far from an onion packing facility. But here, it didn’t mean that the onion lorry driver had taken the corner too fast again; it meant peccaries.

Peccaries, called ‘chanchos’ in Costa Rica, are a pig-like animal that roam the forest in large herds, foraging for roots, fruit, and pretty much anything else they can lay their snouts on. There are two-types that live in Costa Rica: white-lipped, and collared. The collared peccaries are considered the gentler species because they don’t exhibit the unfortunate habit of disembowelling people every now and then, unlike their psychotic cousins. It was these ‘gentle’ ones that inhabited the forests around the lodge, so I wasn’t worried. There was nothing to fear.

As I continued up the path, I could hear them grunting up ahead. I knew their vision was bad, but I was fairly certain they would hear or smell me coming and quickly make themselves scarce.  The foliage was too thick to see them, but from their noises I estimated there were at least a dozen, maybe more. But they were still a little way away.

Then the bush immediately to my left gave off an almighty noise and began to shake. They had not heard me coming, and now they were freaked. The noise they made was not the squeal of a pig, but a piercing chatter. I took a few steps back. I thought about pressing on anyway, but I was unsure that my tape measure would stand up as an effective defence against an agitated chancho, even if they weren’t of the eviscerating persuasion. Maybe it was best if I came back later.

I hurried back down the path, glancing over my shoulder every now and then. They weren’t following. My nerves, already a little frazzled, were thoroughly reduced to shreds when a big branch crashed to the ground only metres from me. I looked up: an unapologetic wrinkled little face looked down. It was a troop of capuchin monkeys, foraging in the canopy above me. They probably hadn’t been trying to murder me, but I hadn’t trusted them ever since one had peed on me from a great height. I noticed they had a companion: a white hawk was following behind, feasting on the insects that the monkeys had flushed out. A lovely little symbiotic relationship. It was a nice reminder that nature is pretty cool sometimes.

white-faced capuchin

white-faced capuchin

An hour later, I was heading back. Those butterflies weren’t going to survey themselves, after all. This time, I had brought an extra tool with me: a machete. Given my crippling aversion to violence, I had no idea what I planned to do with it – maybe I could use the flat of the blade to give a charging peccary a stern rap on the head? – but it made me feel safer nonetheless.

This time the peccaries didn’t seem to be about, and I relaxed a little. I had covered over three quarters of the transect when I sensed movement; and then, within a moment, they were all around me. They were rushing frenziedly in a circle, a circle that seemed to be ever-tightening with me at the centre.

Crossing the line: the most in-focus picture I took

Crossing the line: the most in-focus picture I took

I remembered hearing somewhere that climbing into a tree, even only a couple of feet of the ground, is your best bet in such a situation. I looked around frantically: every tree was either as straight and true as a Roman column or festooned in poisonous thorns. Sometimes the jungle was an asshole.

A peccary burst from cover ahead of me onto the path. Who on earth had described them as ‘medium-sized’? This one looked big enough to take out a jaguar. Its tusks were as thick as my thumb. I gripped the machete harder, steeling myself. It looked at me with its little piggy eyes; its snout quivered.

And then it turned, and with the whole herd in tow, vanished back into the forest. It seemed they had sussed me out and decided that I was not a threat. They were right, of course. I exhaled, wiped my forehead, and got on with the last fifty metres. I lifted my camera as a butterfly alighted on a leaf before me. Despite my focus being irretrievably lost, the camera had no trouble in finding its own. Designed for idiots, I thought. I was very grateful.

Climate Change: Avoiding the Pit of Despair

I think about the state of the world a lot. From the moment I wake up the changing climate is on my mind; by the time I’m in the shower it’s the impending global water crisis; once I’m munching on muesli (with soy milk, I hasten to add), I’m mulling over the rampant destruction of biodiversity. This might sound like an exaggeration. It’s not.

A little while ago, it struck me that this pattern of thinking probably wasn’t doing wonders for my own mental wellbeing. This hadn’t occurred to me before. It seemed silly, even selfish, to spare a thought for one’s own mental health when there was a looming global catastrophe to think about. I’m sure I’m not the only one.

There’s a general consensus, especially among my generation, that the world is going down the chute. And this is being realistic, not pessimistic. The overwhelming majority of scientific models that predict the world’s future throw up some pretty sobering results. This is not a good feeling.

When we think about the effects of climate change, they might still seem distant, somewhere far off in time or space. Apart from the odd weirdly warm winter’s day, we haven’t seen much of the effects ourselves yet in our closeted Western existence. But that isn’t entirely true – climate change does affect us. It affects the conversations we have, the actions we take, the way we think.

I’m talking about the change in state of mind: it makes many people feel less satisfied, more troubled, more guilty. It seems a bit perverse to put this effect on a level platform with floods, wildfires and drought, but for us personally, at this time and this place, it is this side of climate change that affects us most deeply. And that makes it worth considering.

At this stage it is worth dividing up the rationale behind this mentality into two main parts. The first: climate change, along with a cavalcade of related environmental disasters, is rapidly making the world a worse place. This is undeniably true. The second: that we – you – are personally to blame for this. If only you had turned off the heating, if only you hadn’t got on that plane, if only you hadn’t existed, then we might stand a chance. I take issue with this second statement, but we’ll come to that later. For the moment, let’s stick with the concrete facts, and how they make us feel.

What are the benchmarks of a successful society? People write books on this sort of thing, but when it comes down it, we mostly agree its about wellbeing. Whether this wellbeing should be spread evenly amongst the population or should be concentrated on the most ‘deserving’ is a divisive matter of political philosophy, but the core ideal remains the same. We want to live in a society that makes us feel comfortable, safe and happy. But we are forward-thinking creatures, and even if our current state is comfortable and safe, our happiness also relies upon having some guarantee of future comfort or safety. Not only that, we are also strangely empathetic; for many of us, our happiness also relies on other people’s comfort and safety, even those of people we will never meet. How can happiness be achievable when we are all painfully aware that the world is becoming a less comfortable, a less safe, a less survivable place?

But the strange thing is, most people do cope, despite knowing that the future might be dark. How is that possible? Why isn’t there panic in the streets? The simple answer is that it’s a psychological defence mechanism. The distress and anxiety caused by thinking about climate change are deeply un-useful for day-to-day existence, both on an evolutionary and societal level. By minimising the scale of the problem, becoming desensitised, or even just avoiding thinking about it, we can keep our mental health in check.

This is reinforced by those around us – the so-called bystander effect. Everybody else is going about their lives as normal, therefore, it is sensible that I do too. Some schools of thought even go so far as suggesting that climate denial is simply an extension of this defence mechanism: regardless of evidence, denying the problem exists is a sure-fire way of avoiding personal distress.

But the pessimism seeps through. For young people, the effects are especially hard-hitting. One Australian study found that 44% of schoolchildren were nervous about the impact of climate change, and a quarter even believed that the world would come to an end before they were much older. Growing up thinking you have no future will inevitably do bad things to your mental health.

The recent school strikes for climate are a clear indication of how far this message has reached. What kind of society has been created when a million children feel they have no future? That is a million children that are deeply unhappy about the state of the world they have been brought into.

One astute comparison to our current situation is to the mentalities at the height of the Cold War. When nuclear Armageddon seemed imminent, it was noted that great numbers of schoolchildren lost motivation in their classes. The reason? Simply because it seemed increasingly unlikely that they would ever make it to adulthood anyway.

But there is one difference between then and now, an important difference. We do not have to be buffeted about helplessly in the political maelstrom; we have the power, as consumers, as voters, as voices. Or so we are told.

Even if we say we can drive positive change, do we actually mean it? Although I allegedly ‘do my bit’, cycling to work, living off hummus and writing the occasional sketchy blog post, I continue to suspect that it’s all a small drop in a vast and rapidly acidifying ocean. Can we ever hope to pay off the ‘Debt of Existence’ we accumulate simply by living in our comfy Western world? Our cumulative carbon footprint racks up fast, after all – like student loans but even more terrifying.

This is where climate change becomes a personal experience, and where the train of thought that we embark upon might lead us into the hinterlands of despair. But it’s worth taking a step back and thinking about the bigger picture from both sides: not just the scale of the problem, but the potential of the solution.

This brings us nicely on to guilt, and what to do about it. The press has a very bizarre rhetoric when it comes to climate change. Simultaneously, it’s All Your Fault but there’s also Nothing You Can Do. This is a paradox and realising that is the first step to thinking about climate change in a more positive way. You can either be helpless or guilty, but not both. I personally think we are neither.

100 companies are responsible for over 70% of global emissions; that is where the accusing finger should be pointed. This concentrates the blame, and that makes the problem easier to solve. We can focus our efforts.

Worry is a useless emotion. So is panic, so is apathy.  Simply knowing this is not enough to reform your mental state, of course, but it’s a cornerstone. True distress comes from a feeling of helplessness, but by making positive choices that also help us think more positively, we can remould this anxiety into something useful.

If going vegan makes you feel empowered, healthy and moral, then absolutely go for it. If it just makes you crave cheese and feel weak, then channel your energy somewhere else – switch to green energy, start jogging to work, lobby a politician or corporation. Some of these might sound like your idea of hell, but some might sound just a little exciting. Go for the latter. Most of us aren’t superhuman enough to do all of them, but that’s because, after all, we’re not superhuman – we’re just human.

Our planet is in trouble, desperate trouble, but feeling bad about it doesn’t help anybody, especially yourself. You will not solve the problem. Nor will I. It is not our burden to bear. That is something that needs accepting. But the actions we take mean we can be parts of the solution, even very small parts, and that will still make the world a better place – in the future, but also in the present.

We are rallying against a common foe, and that brings cohesion, unity, community. These are important things. Doing something is better than nothing, and it will make you feel better, both now and when you look back from whatever future we end up with. Even if the future looks gloomy, the present is alright, all things considered. And - who knows - a brighter present might just lead to a brighter future.

Fitting Flying into the Eco-Conscience

It’s not often talked about, but there is a shameful secret amongst the environmentally enlightened. The very same people that conscientiously recycle, that cut meat from their diet, that put on a jumper instead of turning up the heating, often remain unwilling to change one significant part of their lives: flying. I myself am as guiltily as anybody. But there’s good reason. The world is more accessible than ever before and – let’s face it – we love it. Never has it been easier (or cheaper) to hop on a plane and find yourself somewhere exotic within a matter of hours. That’s incredible. Only a hundred years ago this level of global mobility seemed a barely-conceivable pipe dream. Now, if you are fortunate enough to be a relatively well-off Westerner, the world truly is your oyster. Yet there remains a hefty environmental cost to all this flying about, and although we don’t like to talk about it, it cannot just be brushed under the carpet.

Flying is bad for the climate. Very bad. There’s no escaping that fact. For the typical Westerner, one transatlantic return flight adds about as much to your carbon footprint as a year’s worth of driving. Aviation is said to be responsible for 2-2.5% of global CO2 emissions, which might not sound like that much, but there other factors to take into account. For a start, it’s only the privileged few that do fly: less than a fifth of people will ever step on a plane and under 3% will fly regularly, and it is therefore this fraction that are principally responsible for some mighty emissions. Secondly, there’s the altitude, meaning the greenhouse gases emitted go straight into the stratosphere where they have the biggest warming effect. And thirdly, burning jet fuel pumps out a whole range of other noxious things, nitrogen oxides most notably, which all in all means that aviation’s contribution to global warming is twice what might be expected by going off CO2 emissions alone.

This guilty knowledge is what leads to the “flyers’ dilemma”. How can you identify as eco-conscious yet still step on a plane without addressing this huge elephant in the cabin? Of course, cognitive dissonance is the easiest solution; in other words, just don’t think about it too much. Some people justify it to themselves by changing other aspects of their lifestyle to ‘compensate’, but this still doesn’t solve the problem. The trouble is, the end result of flying – ending up in another country – is generally a good thing, a little segment of life that we really enjoy. If you’re a tourist, you experience a different culture and hopefully contribute to the local economy (if you do tourism right, anyway); if you have relatives who live abroad, it’s a chance to reconnect with family; and if you’re travelling for business or politics, it’s a great way to build international relationships.

In fact, aviation is so moreish that some people have even tried to classify frequent flying as an addiction, drawing attention to the telltale symptoms of guilt, suppression and denial. We love to travel, and there is no denying that tourism has been a huge boon to the economies of many countries. Ironically, it’s often these countries that benefit the most from tourism that are also the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. But are there any alternatives – can we keep the good and get rid of the bad?

Not really, is the short answer. But that doesn’t mean we should shrug our shoulders and give up. We’ll come onto the future of air travel shortly, but first let’s consider a possible work-around. We could try giving up planes altogether and use other modes of transport for our international travel, taking journeys by rail, road or sea. This inevitably involves sophisticated transport infrastructure, which is a big investment for any nation. The train-heavy EU is well on the way to cracking it, but even there it often remains cheaper, faster and more convenient to fly. There are some mighty political and economic barriers to overcome to change this, not least the aviation industry’s strong resistance to tax. And, of course, many places are simply only accessible by plane, unless you fancy spending a claustrophobic month or two on a cargo ship or trying your luck tiptoeing across a war zone. There are the few adventurous martyrs that manage to continent-hop whilst refusing to step on a plane, but to be able to do that well you generally need a fair amount of time and money, not to mention excellent forward planning, some serious bravado and a penchant for foreign languages. It’s not for everyone.

So, travelling by land or sea is useful to some extent, but it can never replace air travel. Nothing really comes close. Yet lots of industries are changing – as renewable energy becomes more and more widespread, the advent of ‘clean’ electric vehicles, appliances and produce is here. Are aircraft getting in on the action? Well, it’s very difficult to make an electric passenger plane, principally because the batteries that would be needed are just way too heavy. People are working on finding a way to efficiently store energy, and there’ll be a revolution in all kinds of sectors if they are ever successful, but that day hasn’t come yet - and might not anytime soon. As with anything, crossing our fingers and hoping some technological breakthrough will save us from our woes is a very risky tactic.

What about other renewable energy sources? Biofuel is the most promising by far for the industry, and there are some airlines testing it out, although it currently remains substantially more expensive than traditional kerosene-based fuel. Biofuel’s ‘renewable’ status is also sketchy to say the least, as growing the crops to make the fuel takes up land that might otherwise be used for food or be left alone as a natural landscape. One promising solution is using waste products from forestry or agriculture, or even by growing microalgae. So there is definitely scope for improvement, but it would be naive to expect that sort of change any time soon.

Or, we might redefine air travel completely. People are talking about changing the way passenger jets are built entirely, drawing inspiration from the ‘flying wing’ aircraft found in the military and in sci-fi flicks. Another potential innovation is the rebirth of propeller aircraft, which would go a bit slower than current turbofan planes but would emit only half the amount of CO2. These are all promising, and if you happen to have a lot of money you’re looking to invest in a worthy cause, maybe get involved – but if you’re just a regular schmuck like most of us, all of this isn’t much use for debating whether you take the family/spouse/dog abroad next year or not.

There is one thing we haven’t talked about yet. Over the last decade, there has been a widespread response to this well-justified sense of guilt, and it has come in the form of carbon offsetting. It’s a simple concept: you go about your CO2-releasing business as usual, and just pay somebody to ‘offset’ these emissions by planting trees, developing renewables or investing in better waste disposal, to name a few. As well as tackling carbon emissions, it often has other positive side-effects: alleviating poverty, encouraging sustainable development, and safeguarding biodiversity are some good ones. It’s a nice idea, and people got very excited when the concept first started to take off in the aviation industry. One optimistic study from a decade ago calculated that voluntary carbon offsetting could pump over £26 billion of funds into mitigating climate change every year. Unfortunately, that was based on what people said they would be willing to do; in reality, not so many people were on board, as people as a rule want their holidays to be as cheap as possible. And who can blame them – a decent trip is a chunky financial investment for most.

There’s also a more ingrained problem with carbon offsetting. Ultimately, it’s treating the symptoms rather than the root of the problem. It’s been likened to the Catholic ‘indulgences’ of the Middle Ages, where the wealthy could pay the church to ‘cleanse’ them of their sins, without ever having to take any personal responsibility for their hijinks with the lord of the manor next door. The point is, it allows – even encourages – the maintenance of the status quo and does little to bring about the systematic change we so dearly need. That being said, there is no alternative at this moment in time; so it’s not a solution, but it’s a ‘better than nothing’ patch for the time being.

So what to do? Simply not fly, and forget about all those countries on your bucket list? That’s a big ask, and although some admirable people are prepared to do it, the truth is that the majority of us just won’t make the sacrifice. And that’s just amongst the eco-conscious; for the general population, who have few qualms about flying at all, this behavioural change is never going to happen of its own accord, so it seems barely worth our time and energy to try and push it.

That’s not to say there’s nothing we can do. Let’s do our very best to put pressure on policy makers and help usher in changes to the system, whether that’s renewable fuels, better transport infrastructure on the ground, or simply educating about the effects of aviation and moving away from treating frequent flying as a societal norm. When we do fly, we can make sure it’s worth it: by going less frequently and for longer periods of time, by injecting cash into the local economy rather than package deals, and by integrating into the local culture in a meaningful but responsible way. Carbon offsetting (with a bit of research) is definitely worth it at the moment, as long as we don’t become complacent and accept it as a permanent solution. We have spent a century developing a system to our tastes, but it hasn’t looked very far into the future. Now is the time to do that. Our flying habits, ignored for so long, are an excellent place to build a brighter – but hopefully no less adventurous – future for everybody. The sky’s the limit.

The Nate Escape

It was raining when I arrived in Costa Rica. The rain engulfed everything; only the glimmer of headlights and the sound of car horns could penetrate the downpour. The presence, or absence, of anything else was left to the imagination.

“Mucho lluvia,” I said assertively to the taxi driver as he wound his way through the sodden streets of San Jose. This was my second time in Costa Rica, and I’d been hitting Duolingo hard in preparation. The green owl had informed me I was 52% fluent, which had done wonders for my linguistic ego.

“You are English?” the taxi driver replied, in English.

“Sí,” I replied, a little affronted. I had thought my pronunciation had been spot on.

It didn’t take long to get to the hostel.

“Mucho lluvia,” I said to the guy behind the counter.

“Do you have your reservation?” he answered in annoyingly perfect English. Nobody wanted to talk to me about the rain.

Jetlag caught up fast as soon as I sat on the bed. Well, it was 6pm, and the outside world was too damp and dark to venture out again. Might as well call it a night.

I did a spot of retrospective internet translation just before turning off the light. It was ‘mucha lluvia’, it turned out. I’d forgotten my gendered articles like a fool.

I got to the bus station bright and early the next morning. The rain had eased off to be replaced with a fearsome wind, sweeping debris from the kerbs more efficiently than any street cleaner.

There weren’t many people around at the depot, which was odd. I approached the person at the ticket office.

“Una balleta para Golfito, por favor,” I said. “One ticket for Golfito, please.”

“No hay autobuses hoy,” she replied. I took a moment to process – embarrassingly, it caught me by surprise that she hadn’t answered in English. No buses today? At all? Maybe I’d misunderstood.

“¿Cuándo es el autobus?” I asked. “When is the bus?”

She stared at me.

“No hay ninguno. La tormenta, ¿sabes?”

I was lost. ‘Tormenta’ was a new word to me, but it didn’t sound very friendly.

“Pero, er… quiero una balleta.” “I want a ticket.”

She gave a frustrated gesture. “¡No hay ninguno! ¡Nada! ¿Entiende?”

I did not ‘entiende’, but I felt I was getting the gist. Seemed like perhaps there weren’t any buses running today.

“¿Mañana?” I asked hopefully. “Tomorrow?”

She shrugged and muttered something that I couldn’t catch. I suspected it wasn’t especially polite.

the view over san jose, capital of costa rica

the view over san jose, capital of costa rica


With little else to do, I sought out breakfast. It was whilst I was munching on a cinnamon roll in a cafe that I glanced at a TV set in the corner of the room. The news showed roads running with mucky water, mudslides, flattened trees. The words ‘TORMENTA’ and ‘HURACAN NATE’ scrolled at the bottom of the screen beneath dripping reporters.

It was beginning to click. There was some serious weather going on, and looked like the roads might not be at their most passable. As if on cue, as I left the cafe it began to rain again. In Costa Rica, rain does not start with a little drizzle and gradually build; it’s more like suddenly turning on a power shower. Despite my raincoat I was drenched within minutes. It was going to be a soggy sort of day.

Once I had retreated to the hostel and was back in the blessed realm of WiFi, I brought myself more up to speed. Hurricane Nate had passed through the country the day I had landed, and had not been subtle about it. Even though San Jose suffered barely a scratch, I later learned that it had been the costliest natural disaster in Costa Rican history. How lucky I was, in retrospect, and how ungrateful; moping about a disaster that had taken livelihoods and lives, and to me was only an inconvenience. Yet in the moment I was ignorant of this, and was only looking out for number one. Hindsight is a wonderful thing.

The next morning, the woman at the bus station gave me much the same answer as the day before. It did not put me in a good mood. I had places to be. I could hear the ecolodge calling: the incredible and intricate rainforest, the wonderful beach, and most of all people I cared about that I had not seen in a long time. To have travelled halfway across the world and be stuck here felt very frustrating.

It was when I was in the hostel dorm venting to a fellow stranded traveller by the name of Dorian that an opportunity presented itself. Dorian was Costa Rican, but had been visiting family in Mexico and was now trying to get home. His cousin was going to pick him up that night and take him home to the city of San Isidro, which was a lot closer to where I wanted to be. Apparently the roads were sufficiently clear now that cars could pass, even if buses could not. There would be space in the car, if I wanted a lift?

I very much did want a lift. This seemed ideal. The only catch was a 1am start, and the drive would take a good four hours, but hey, I was jet-lagged anyway. And Dorian seemed like a lovely guy.

At 3am, I, Dorian, and two Costa Rican women to whom he had also apparently offered a lift were standing on the kerb. Having dutifully set my alarm the night before, I had been awake for two hours for no good reason and was a bit grumpy already. Then our lift turned up.

Dorian and his cousin – and Dorian’s cousin’s friend, who had for some unknown reason come along for the ride – greeted each other jubilantly. My attention, however, settled on the car. It was a small four-seater hatchback and there were six of us, with bulky bags in tow. There was no way we would all fit.

“We will, we will,” said Dorian dismissively when I voiced my doubts. “Easy.”

We did all fit, sort of. Me, Dorian and the two women ended up crammed into the two back seats. It was not comfortable, and it was certainly not safe. This was a stupid idea, I told myself. But I really did want to get to the ecolodge. I could grin and bear it for four hours.

Once we were all in, we roared away from the kerb. The streets of San Jose are not hugely welcoming in the small hours of the morning: we drove past huddles of hooded men, packs of feral dogs, and pairs of short-skirted women invariably accompanied by a huge tattooed pimp. At one point we had to come to a screeching stop as a skeletal-thin, wild-eyed man staggered across the road.

Then before we had got anywhere close to leaving the city, we stopped at a gas station. I could see the dials on the dashboard; we did not need fuel. Dorian’s cousin’s friend – they had all told me their names, but in my sleep-deprived state I had forgotten then immediately – got out of the car and vanished.

“¿Qué pasa?” I asked Dorian. “What’s happening?” The scary junkie had only been one street away and I was nervous.

“Cervezas,” he grunted in reply.

Dorian’s cousin’s friend returned shortly with two twelve-packs of Imperial, Costa Rica’s favourite beer, in his arms.

“¡Cervezaaas!” he said with great delight and handed them round. I felt I might need my wits about me, so I politely declined. The driver had no such reservations. As the alcohol began to flow freely, we tore off into the night once more.

The direct route to the south of the country was still impassable, so we were taking the coastal route. It would take a bit longer, but not too much, said Dorian with great optimism. Despite having driven all this way already, Dorian’s cousin and Dorian’s cousin’s friend were in great spirits, undoubtedly aided by the tinnies. We left the city limits and sped down the highway towards the Pacific coast.

“Vale, Jacob,” said Dorian’s cousin, catching my eye in the rear-view mirror. Uh-oh. Small talk.

“¿Tiene una novia?” he asked.

No. I didn’t have a girlfriend.

“Ah.” He mulled over this for a moment.

“¿Tiene un novio?”

Nope, no boyfriend either.

“Soy solo,” I said. “I’m alone.” This brought great hilarity. I wished I was alone, I thought bitterly, as my leg room reluctantly yielded another inch to my companions.

It did not take long for Dorian to fall asleep, which I thought was pretty amazing given our cramped conditions. Dorian was built like a rugby player, both in strength and width, and although he was perfectly affable when awake, it seemed that sleep brought out his violent side. He started getting aggressive as soon as his eyes closed. I battled against him to no avail as he unconsciously fought for extra room, finding myself pushed forwards until I ended up more-or-less sitting in the footwell. Only three hours to go, I told myself.

Panorama: capturing the magnificent pacific ocean, the trusty four-seater, and some high-concept artwork

Panorama: capturing the magnificent pacific ocean, the trusty four-seater, and some high-concept artwork

Three hours later, we were about halfway. On the bright side (quite literally), dawn was approaching. As the sun rose above the forest to our left, it slowly illuminated the Pacific ocean to our right, bestowing a shimmering crimson tint onto every wave. A trio of brown pelicans flapped languidly away from us, the tips of their wings almost brushing the water’s surface. The sky was a delicate shade of tangerine. There was no denying it. The scene was beautiful.

“Nuestro país es el más bello del mundo,” said Dorian’s cousin proudly. “Our country is the most beautiful in the world.” There was a fair chance that he was absolutely right.

Then we stopped in a lay-by and the three men shovelled the now-considerable collection of empty beer cans out of the car and onto the verge. I wondered if now was the time to plug the virtues of recycling. I looked around; there was no sign of civilisation as far as the eye could see, apart from this tiny car and its boisterous inhabitants. Probably not the time.

Not much later (an hour and a half later), we turned off the coastal road towards the interior. We were passing the odd settlement now, a farmhouse here or a little hamlet there. There were even sometimes people by the road, an invitation – especially if they were a cyclist or, even more excitingly, female – for Dorian’s cousin to lean on the horn and shout something rude out the window. I sensed the two women sitting next to me grow tenser. We were all hoping that the city of San Isidro wasn’t far away.

Then, as the road began to gather gradient, we became aware of an unsettling sound. It was soon accompanied by an acrid odour and a thin plume of smoke issuing from beneath the bonnet. Dorian’s cousin swore softly and we pulled over.

We all gathered round the open bonnet and pretended to know things about mechanics. Dorian’s cousin’s friend gave one component an experimental twist, resulting in a jet of boiling water spurting past his ear. We all took a collective step back.

I couldn’t understand much of the discussion so I wandered away to look at our surroundings. We had stopped by a big dilapidated barn which looked like it might have been some kind of venue at one point. A noticeboard displayed some tattered posters; the most recent, an advert for a beginner’s class in Tai Chi, was scheduled for two years ago. I became aware that the discussion behind me was getting heated. Dorian saw me looking worried and came over.

“They do not want to pay,” he said to me. The two women were arguing emphatically with Dorian’s cousin and Dorian’s cousin’s friend.

“Pay for what?” I asked.

“The car. We wait until it is cool and it will work, I think, but it will need repairs. You can pay fifty dollars?”

I winced. I had not budgeted for this.

“I am sorry,” said Dorian. He did seem genuinely apologetic. The cynical part of my mind suddenly wondered if this had all been a scam; but no, it would have been a ridiculously elaborate scheme just to dupe a naive foreigner. Not even a hardened con artist would willingly subject themselves to such prolonged discomfort.

I grudgingly coughed up and once the engine had cooled, we carried on, slowly and cautiously. The mood in the car was now decidedly frigid. I silently pleaded that we would get there soon.

The traffic began to build as we approached the river that wrapped around the city, and I noticed Dorian’s cousin looking increasingly concerned. When we rounded a corner, the problem became clear: the bridge was out. The storm had seen to that.

Fortunately there was another bridge over the river, but it was about a mile downstream, made of wood, and with a width of about eight feet.. The road to get to it was a single dirt track past a row of small houses. It must have usually been a very secluded spot, but now it was filled with crawling traffic and clouds of exhaust fumes. Every yard contained a frenzied dog barking wildly, and plenty of the irritated drivers were shouting back.

Eventually, just after nine o’clock in the morning, we made it across the bridge. We dropped the two women off on a street corner, where they grabbed their bags and left without a word. I wasn’t complaining; Dorian and I now had an entire seat each to ourselves. It felt like luxury.

The hurricane hadn’t hugely affected the roads this far south, so my plan was to catch a bus towards my destination. The three men took me to the bus station, and Dorian even came in with me to help me get a ticket. After talking briefly with the woman behind the counter, he came back looking glum. I had missed the last bus of the day by ten minutes.

Deflated, I walked back to the car. Dorian immediately hatched a new plan: the three of them knew a motel in the area, and they were going to get a room just to freshen up before reuniting with their family, so why didn’t I take the room after that – for free?

It sounded good to me, so I got back in the car. We arrived at the motel, which was the definition of seedy, and it soon turned out they had raised their prices. I would need to contribute thirty dollars. I died a little inside, but I was too tired to argue, so I handed over the money.

I waited in the windowless motel room with the three men as they each had a leisurely shower. They were in no hurry, and kept on trying their best to cajole me into conversation. How they still seemed lucid was beyond me. I had stayed awake with nerves and discomfort for the entire journey and could barely form a sentence in English, let alone Spanish. I certainly didn’t feel 52% fluent.

Eventually they were ready to leave. I tried to hide my relief. I felt I owed them a proper goodbye – we had been through a lot together, after all – so I went down to their car with them. It was at the point that I was leaning in the rear window to shake Dorian’s hand, that Dorian’s cousin’s friend pressed down on the accelerator and ran over my foot.

For the first time, I was grateful for the car’s tiny size. Somehow, I barely felt a thing. My foot was not even bruised. The three men were horrified and deeply apologetic, but for once everything was alright. When I finally managed to communicate that I was not hurt at all, they finally waved goodbye and were gone.

What an awful journey, I thought to myself as I flopped onto the motel bed. Although, I reflected, it might make a good story. Maybe I would write it into a blog someday.

sipping pineapple juice whilst contemplating golfito harbour

sipping pineapple juice whilst contemplating golfito harbour


The next morning, I was at the bus station way before the bus was due to leave. I was taking no chances. From there the journey went uncannily smoothly. The bus driver overcharged me an outrageous amount, but money had taken on a sort of abstract quality by then. I hardly remember the journey from then onward, but it started raining at some point, and by the time I had arrived in Golfito it had developed a grim persistent quality. The rain was not stopping any time soon.

I knew this town well. The only way to get to the ecolodge from here was a twenty-minute boat journey along the coast, but the weather was not looking up to it. I headed to a bar I knew on the shore, and messaged my friends at the ecolodge. It was as I feared; sending the boat out in this weather would be unwise. It looked like I would be spending a night in another extortionately priced hotel.

I bought a pineapple juice and glumly looked out over the sea. It was grey, more reminiscent of the Norfolk coast in February than the tropical paradise I remembered. But then – I saw something through the rain, something on the water and getting closer. At first, just a slightly darker grey smudge; then, becoming larger, becoming more distinct, I could tell what it was. I downed my pineapple juice and grabbed my bags. My friends had come to get me, and it was all going to be alright.