Zoe Carter is a mother, writer and researcher of all aspects of Impact Capitalism and the 4th Industrial Revolution.
The other week, as I walked home from work, I saw a sign outside the Quaker Meeting House in Banbury, Oxfordshire and stopped to read it. My interest was caught by a photo of the beautiful copper beech tree in the Meeting House grounds which had recently been chopped down: towering above the stone wall of a short-cut to the local park, I’d known this tree since my childhood and was sad to see it go. The sign announced an upcoming event inspired by this tree, including a talk by a representative of ‘Earthwatch’, covering the ‘Tiny Forest’ programme. I was intrigued, and suspicious too, because Earthwatch sounded like yet another creepy ‘Big Green’ NGO, so I decided to do some investigating when I got home and see what I could discover. Dear reader, I was not disappointed! Now, a proper activist/writer would have attended the talk, listened, taken notes, and politely asked penetrating questions. But I’ve never been one to do things by the book; and besides, it was on May Day for chrissakes, and I’m a single mother with a vat of Bolognese sauce to cook, laundry to wash, a bike to fix, a dog to walk, and the finishing touches to put on my hand-crafted voodoo dolls ready for the teachers’ strike the next day. So I did a little sleuthing instead. Here’s what I found out.
Earthwatch Institute is an environmental charity founded in 1971 with offices of ‘affiliated charities’ in several cities around the world. (The Earthwatch Europe headquarters are in Oxford, UK.) It’s a ‘citizen-science’ organisation, whereby volunteers pay to join scientists on research expeditions. To go, volunteers must have had their covid jabs (proof of vaccination will be required) and Earthwatch strongly recommends you stay up-to-date with your vaccinations and get your boosters. (Earthwatch also ‘supports a mask-friendly environment’ and reminds all participants on all programmes to bring a supply of masks, for use whenever needed.)
Yes folks, Earthwatch is that type of grassroots environmental charity. The type whose ‘partners’ include BlackRock, Shell, HSBC, and American Express. (Because as Shell helpfully reminds us, ‘working with others in sustainability partnerships is the focus of UN Sustainable Development Goal 17’.) The type of grassroots environmental charity which is part of a consortium of twelve organisations benefiting from part of Horizon Europe’s EUR 95.5 billion budget (this budget includes ‘EUR 5.4 billion…particularly to support the green and digital recovery from the COVID crisis’) in a project called CHEERS.
CHEERS is a research project with the brief of ‘producing novel non-plant biomass feedstocks and bio-based products through upcycling and the cascading use of brewery side-streams.’ In other words, they are trying to find ways to turn waste from the Mahou San Miguel brewery from into ‘drinks’ for humans, ‘feed’ for livestock, ‘food’ for pets, and disinfectant and cosmetics, mainly by feeding the brewery-waste to insects or to microbes, and then using the insects and microbes to make said products. Joining Earthwatch in the CHEERS consortium is Proteinsecta, your go-to start-up for help setting up your very own insect farm, breeding beetles, crickets and cockroaches, for ‘flour’, production of animal feed and even human food.’
They’re not putting cockroaches into your drinks though…don’t be so paranoid! Actually, they’re using mealy-worms instead! Yes, good old mealy-worms, the larval stage of the yellow mealworm beetle (Tenebrio Molitor) will provide the ‘high-quality biomass’ needed to make the yummy ‘protein-rich’ smoothies. Other CHEERS consortium members include Thunder Foods, (warning: only click this link to view Thunder Foods website if close-up shots of teeming larvae and mealy-worm-sprinkled chocolate truffles won’t irrevocably put you off your dinner), and Symrise, a chemical company specialising in creating ‘delicious tastes for food and beverages,’ while a company called Ainia, with an interest in ‘future foods’ and ‘alternative protein products…in anticipation of the situation in 2050’ (do they know something we don’t?!) is in charge of making sure the masses accept these products.
Another research project which Earthwatch is involved in, called Iliad (another Horizon Europe funded project) is creating a digital twin of the ocean. It’s to help save the planet, OK? I thought it worth quoting at length from Iliad themselves:
‘Iliad capitalises on the explosion of new data provided by many different Earth observation sources, advanced computing infrastructures (cloud computing, HPC [high performance computing], Internet of Things, Big Data, social networking, and more) in an inclusive, virtual/augmented, and engaging fashion to address all Earth data challenges. It will contribute towards a sustainable ocean economy as defined by the Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the Ocean, a hub for global, multi-stakeholder co-operation…[u]tilising the advances in sensing and computing simulation technologies that enable collection and generation of massive data sets every second at different spatio-temporal scales, the Iliad DTO [Digital Twin of the Ocean] will explore data streaming through IoT domains, while fusing the collected spatio-temporal multi-scaled marine data with data from social media platforms and citizen science apps. Iliad DTO will employ AI techniques to exploit hidden patterns and parametric interrelations to reach an understanding of complex ocean processes…’
Now, if that doesn’t send shivers of existential horror up your spine, then (and do forgive my directness) you aren’t thinking correctly. I’d find it hard to fathom that anyone, after reading that, is able to kid themselves that the individuals (or, more accurately, the system) behind this statement give the slightest goddamn about the ocean (or the ‘blue economy’ as they call it) or Planet Earth generally. This has nothing to do with caring for the planet, and a great deal to do with nature being remade as an asset class for the financial markets (see also here). As mentioned earlier, one of Earthwatch’s partners is HSBC: they teamed up on Earthwatch’s Climate-Proof Cities Programme, to build ‘an understanding of the interdependencies between decisions on green and grey infrastructure, social cohesion and well-being, and citizen participation and responsibility.’ (Got that, folks? It isn’t really nature, it’s green infrastructure.) In 2020, HSBC Asset Management and ‘climate change investment and advisory firm’ Pollination, who have ‘strong relationships at the highest levels of government and the private sector…’ formed a joint venture called Climate Asset Management, aiming to become the world’s biggest asset management company dedicated to what they term ‘natural capital’ (i.e., nature). ‘US$2.8 trillion of climate finance has been invested in [the] past five years.’ They put it very simply: ‘Nature is capital.’ Interestingly, Climate Asset Management is one of three founding partners of the Natural Capital Investment Alliance, which was created by the new King of England, Charles III, in his former role as the Prince of Wales.
Following that informative detour, let’s return to ‘Tiny Forests,’ featured in the Earthwatch talk at the Quaker Meeting House. The Tiny Forest concept was created by Shubhendu Sharma, an engineer and ‘eco-entrepreneur’ from India, based on the woodland management method of Japanese botanist, the late Dr Akira Miyawaki. The basic idea is to plant about 600 trees native to the area, in a tennis-court-sized space. In 2015, the Institute for Nature Education and Sustainability (IVN), an organisation in the Netherlands which aims to create ‘nature-conscious behavioural change,’ invited Sharma to plant the first Tiny Forest in Europe. To date, 150 schools in the Netherlands have their own Tiny Forest. Earthwatch partnered with IVN and planted the first Tiny Forest in the UK in March 2020 with nearly 150 planted by the spring of 2023 and a target of establishing a total of 500 across the UK and Europe by 2030. In Glasgow, the first ‘Wee Forest’ was created ‘as a living legacy and celebration of COP26’ just prior to the city playing host to the COP26 conference in Autumn 2021. As noted on the Earthwatch website, Tiny Forests have ‘links to…environmental, social corporate governance (ESG)’ and are implemented by partnerships with local authorities and private-sector companies and established using volunteer labour from local residents, particularly children. Tiny Forests are perfect for green social prescribing, as ‘place-based greenspace intervention[s],’ for harvesting data points from the woodland itself, and harvesting social-emotional data from the human participants (‘volunteers spent 13,281 mindful minutes recording biodiversity. . .93% of participants surveyed felt refreshed and revitalised after spending time and doing activities at their Tiny Forest!’ etc). The concept would slot neatly into the ‘fifteen minute city’ model. Further, it wouldn’t be a huge stretch to imagine how useful the State could find Tiny Forests in the event of, ooh, I don’t know, a future lockdown, say; in much the same way that the ‘health walks’ which have popped up over the last few years saw a surge in use during the last lockdowns, when subjects were permitted to leave their houses only for an hour of exercise.
Do the people at the Friends Meeting House know the real nature of the organisation they invited to talk at their event? Do the attendees know? Would anyone care? While the Quakers’ links with ethical investment may have begun with the laudable aim of cutting ties with the slave trade, there are important questions to ask now about the current involvement of the Religious Society of Friends, and the involvement of other faith groups, with predatory impact investment.
It is truly sobering to realise that something as apparently wholesome and inspiring as your child’s primary school project, with the kids enjoying planting trees for their new ‘green classroom,’ might have an organisation like Earthwatch behind it. Ditto the interesting talk at the local community centre by a nice chap from the eco charity, which plants trees and helps bring the community together. (It makes me wonder about the ‘bug hotels’ suddenly appearing all over the place in my local area…who’s funding ‘em and what’s their game?)
We can’t just look at the surface level anymore. We can’t be taken in by swirly green leaf logos anymore. We need to take a close look at the signs we see along our path, even the inconspicuous, harmless-looking ones, lest we be misled, or miss something important. We must be willing to dig, to keep digging, and reveal what lies behind, what lies beneath. And we must try to look clear-eyed at what we uncover, and take appropriate action based on the truths we find.