Read time: 21 mins

Transgressions Against the Earth

by Diana McCaulay
20 August 2020

2020, April: The internet is full of images of emptiness – highways without cars, streets without people, iconic places like the Taj Mahal without a specific type of traveller – the tourist. The skies are virtually empty of airplanes and their contrail signatures, and there are photographs of places which are not empty, but full of grounded planes, lined up, making varied designs when seen from above, wings almost touching. Cruise ships are in port. Passenger travel, whether by air or ship, has all but ceased.

According to the Pew Research Center in an article dated 1 April 2020, ‘At least nine-tenths (91%) of the world’s population, or 7.1 billion people, live in countries with restrictions on people arriving from other countries who are neither citizens nor residents, such as tourists, business travellers and new immigrants. Roughly 3 billion people, or 39%, live in countries with borders completely closed to non-citizens and non-residents.’

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, we humans have stopped travelling.

I am of a generation and economic class that travelled by air; that expected to travel – holidays abroad, work conferences, lectures, concerts, visits to family, even shopping trips. Born as I was on a small island, I have always wanted to know I could leave it. Not forever and not for long, but frequently.

For 27 years, I was a full-time environmental activist, and nothing made me more uncomfortable than articles about the necessity for restricting air travel in order to reduce the emissions causing global warming. I didn’t want to face it. Surely it was enough to be an activist, to advocate, to educate, to organise, to build an institution, to eat very little meat, to drive a small car, to live in a small-ish house on a small island, to waste little, to compost, to refuse single use packaging, to wear second hand clothes? Wasn’t it necessary for my work, my vocation, to participate in conferences, to meet and strategise with other like-minded people, to study and to learn, to see the places I fought to protect? Many members of my family and good friends had left Jamaica, including my only son – if I did not fly, and he did not fly, I would never see him in person again. No, I wasn’t ready for that. I pushed away what I framed as cognitive dissonance and feared was hypocrisy. There are no roads or railways off Jamaica, and I would never have the time for travel by sea.

What I could not face has happened.

2020, March: In response to the pandemic, the Jamaican government requested or mandated – it’s not completely clear which – that those over 65 should work from home, and I fell into that category. I returned from my part-time job, learned how to use Zoom, worried, half watched TV, scrolled through too much social media, and read. One of my lockdown books was The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert, and I was struck by the impact of human travel in the time we travelled on foot, horseback, by sail or oar. Even then, without most of our god-like technology, we destroyed things. Wanting distraction from the present, and not for the first time, I fixated on the forces that brought my ancestors to a Caribbean island.

2014, August: I spent three weeks at the Mitchell Library in Glasgow, Scotland, researching Scottish-Jamaican connections, courtesy of a fellowship called Trading Tales, sponsored by the British Council and the library. The personal family arrival story I’d been told throughout childhood was that my great-grandfather, John McCaulay, was a Baptist missionary. There was uncertainty about his nationality – Scots, said my father. Irish, said my great-grand aunt. Others asserted that surely a Scottish missionary in the 19th century would be Presbyterian. I did not know where or when he was born in Scotland (or Ireland) or when he came to Jamaica. There is a record of him as the Baptist Minister in Cave Valley in 1899; he drowned at sea in June 1905, and is buried in the Baptist church in the Jamaican town of Santa Cruz. I have a photograph of his grave, which he shares with his second wife, May Isabelle. I also knew the surname of his first wife, who might, or might not, have travelled with him from Scotland (or Ireland). The Mitchell Library has a wonderful genealogy section, so I began searching for my great-grandfather.

McCaulay is a common name in Scotland, spelled at least 15 different ways, and his first wife’s surname was Watt, also very common, so I was not immensely hopeful of finding ‘my’ John McCaulay. I sat there, entering the different spellings of McCaulay into a computer, in tandem with a wife named Watt, and the response came back: no record found, no record found, no record found. And then almost at the end of the possible permutations – there he was. John Mcauley, his name spelled differently to mine, 29-years-old, his occupation listed as ‘steamships fireman’, not missionary. He had married Mary Watt, 24, at the District of Kelvin in Glasgow, on August 5th, 1884.

Armed with his age and the names of his parents, I found his birth record – ‘my’ John McCaulay was born in Southend in Glasgow on March 20, 1855. His father was Stuart Mcauley, an agricultural labourer from County Antrim in Ireland and his mother was Betsey, nee McIver; he was born at 5am and he was Betsey’s first child. I had found the Irish connection too.

I called over the archivist and he congratulated me. ‘Likely they were fleeing famine, or some other economic disaster,’ he said, looking over my shoulder.

‘Is there any chance of tracing his Irish father?’

‘Unlikely,’ said the archivist. ‘See the X on the signature line? Illiterate. Probably no paper trail at all.’

‘What did a steamships’ fireman do?’

‘I don’t know specifically, probably shovel coal,’ the archivist said. ‘Atlantic travel by steamship was beginning. He could have learned that trade in Glasgow on the River Clyde. Maybe he became a missionary after he arrived in Jamaica.’

‘Where would he have left from for the West Indies?’ I said.

‘Probably Gourock,’ he said. ‘Or Greenock.’

I went to Gourock by train, and then to Dunoon by ferry, because I wanted to see the Firth of Clyde, which would have been the last thing my great grandfather saw before he left for the New World, if indeed he departed from Scotland.

It was cold that day on the ferry, but sometimes the sun came out between scudding clouds. I was with the Trinidadian writer, Lisa Allen Agostini, also participating in the fellowship, and although we agreed it was too cold for it, we sat on the top deck of the ferry. The Firth of Clyde was a sea with islands, broad and turbulent, not at all like Jamaican rivers. The mountains of the Highlands reared up, far away, blue and mauve, and in the foreground were lower, rounded green hills and the dark water of the river. What had moved my great-grandfather and his young wife to leave these misty, windswept hills for the primary colours of the Caribbean?

It was work, I decided. He had a skill and it took him across the Atlantic Ocean on a steamship. I wondered if he would have been one of the men to stoke the boilers, and if he was, how seasick he became, below in the hold.

2014, May: I began to learn about my mother’s ancestry via a New Zealand television show called DNA Detectives. The producers came to Jamaica with a cousin I had never heard of and handed me a one-page outline of a story which was entirely new. My mother’s family came to Jamaica sometime in the late 18th century. Her ancestor – and mine – was the sixth and youngest son of a Portuguese Sephardic Jew, who had left his native Portugal for Austria and then London; almost certainly he was a converso, one of the ‘New Christians’ who ostensibly relinquished his faith to avoid being tortured to death. In the file of papers shared by another New Zealand cousin, was a record of the auto da fe – trial by fire – of an unknown relative with the same surname. The son of this man was born in London and came to Jamaica to make his fortune, which was possible, even likely, due to the slave trade. My direct ancestor, David McLean, was the son of this Portuguese ancestor and an enslaved African woman, Nancy McLean, and according to the British Legacies of Slave Ownership Project, David McLean received 927 pounds 19 shillings and 9 pence for his ownership of 45 people at a place called Middleton in St. David (now St. Thomas). I have looked for, but not yet found, this place.

This is a complicated and tragic legacy.

Over the next few years, I joined a genealogy website and slowly filled in names, more than a thousand of them. My mother’s relatives had large families in Jamaica and many left the island in their turn, and in the age of the DNA test and the internet, I am now in contact with scores of distant relatives living in over 15 countries, including England, Scotland and Ireland. Some of us retraced our steps; perhaps even regarded that particular journey as going home. Maybe some were part of the Windrush generation, with the legal right to live in the United Kingdom conferred by the British Nationality Act of 1948. Almost half a million people travelled from the Caribbean to Britain between 1948 to 1970, mostly for work, or to join the first wave or parents and grandparents who settled in what they might have regarded as the mother country, where they struggled with the weather and the food and ubiquitous racism. Later, their status as British subjects was slowly eroded, and much later, in 2018, 80-odd members of the Windrush generation were deported to countries they no longer knew.

Back and forth still, across the Atlantic, at first by ship, and then by airplane.

I have relatives in Costa Rica and Panama, possibly descended from those who went to build the Panama Railroad (1849-1855) or the Panama Canal (1904-1914). According to Olive Senior’s book, Dying to Better Themselves – West Indians and the building of the Panama Canal, Caribbean peoples provided 60% of the workforce that built the canal. Senior: ‘the Panama man or Colon Man remains the mythical embodiment of the traveller of those times.’ In the years after the abolition of slavery, West Indians of African descent had only their labour to sell, and so they travelled for economic opportunities, and to participate in an epic engineering project to link two oceans, opening up pathways for trade and multitudes of other travellers. Many died from accidents, disease, snake bites or crocodile attack, or were simply never heard from again. The official death count regarding the American construction of the canal was 5,609 but this is widely accepted to be vastly underestimated. An early attempt by the French to build a canal resulted in about 20,000 deaths, and somewhere between 5,000 and 12,000 workers died laying the railway.

So far, I have found no African relatives in my genealogy search.

1937, April: My maternal uncle, Roy Harris, got his private pilot’s license in England, and this says much about my family’s privilege. He trained for the Royal Air Force (RAF) in Canada and got his RAF license in July 1940. During his training, he wrote to his mother, my grandmother, and my mother kept his affectionate, chatty letters. He was the captain of a Stirling aircraft that took off after midnight on June 6th, 1942 and was shot down that same night over Essen in Germany. He was 23. I think often about how my grandmother must have known she might never see her only son again, and how eagerly she must have waited for his letters, which would only have told her that he was alive three or four weeks earlier, and how much she must have dreaded the arrival of a telegram.

1976-1980: Many members of the Jamaican middle class migrated to the USA, Canada and the UK. It is contested whether the main driver was fear of communism, a crime wave which seemed targeted at uptowners, or the simple search for economic opportunity, which has animated so many other human journeys. Shipping containers became a new feature of uptown streets in Kingston as families packed up and left – parts of Miami became known as Kingston 21.

1500-1870: I came across a website which described the Atlantic slave trade as the largest maritime migration in history. I hated the phrase, which seemed to imply the slave trade was merely an artifact of history, with no impetus, no actors and no casualties. The word ‘migration’ means movement – movement of animals, movement of people. This particular movement resulted in the violent and brutal capture of some 12.5 million Africans, who were forcibly transported to labour on the plantations of the New World over a period of about 360 years. It’s not really known with any certainty how many died on the voyage – the infamous Middle Passage – or how many were worked or tortured to death. The journeys of uncounted millions were not by choice.

Now, in the time of Covid-19, as airplanes are grounded and ports are closed, except to cargo, I’m trying to work out what all this travelling has meant for humanity and for the planet. Movement has forged the human story of conquest, genocide, wars, crusades, human trafficking and slavery, engineering feats, the spread of diseases, ecocide, invasive plants and animals, the generation of enormous wealth and a steadily improving standard of living for most.

But not for everyone.

In The Sixth Extinction, Elizabeth Kolbert describes how large mammals – megafauna – did not survive the arrival of modern humans (in the evolutionary sense), whether they occupied islands or continents. Our shifting about has changed the face of the earth forever, to the point where many argue that we have entered a new geological epoch – the Anthropocene. Kolbert quotes Svante Paabo of the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology in the Neander Valley in modern day Germany: ‘It’s only fully modern humans who start this thing of venturing out on the ocean where you don’t see land. Part of that is technology, of course, you have to have ships to do it. But there is also, I like to think or say, some madness there. You know? How many people must have sailed out and vanished in the Pacific before you found Easter Island. I mean, it’s ridiculous. And why do you do that? Is it for the glory? For immortality? For curiosity? And now go to Mars. We never stop.’

Kolbert muses whether ‘Faustian restlessness’ might be one of the defining characteristics of modern humans, and whether, therefore, there is a gene for it. Paabo: ‘If we one day will know that some freak mutation made the human insanity and exploration thing possible, it will be amazing to think that it was this little inversion on this chromosome that made all this happen and changed the whole ecosystem of the planet and made us dominate everything. We are crazy in some way. What drives it?’

Was I crazy or pulled by my genes? My personal desire to travel was neither driven by desperate circumstances at home nor the push for wealth. To be outward bound simply lived in my imagination, in stories I had read about other places, in images of vistas I wanted to see for myself, in desires to see friends and family in person. And I have never been one to sit on an airplane with the blinds down, staring at one form of small screen or the other. Even after so many journeys by air, to be aloft, higher than the clouds, to watch the fiery line of dawn in the night sky from 30,000 feet above the earth still fills me with awe.

2020, May: Every day, there are new statistics about the economic implications of the collapse of air travel – by the time you read this, whatever I quote will be outdated. A report from the International Civil Aviation Organization dated 30 April 2020 estimated an unprecedented 44% – 80% reduction in passenger air travel in 2020. The revenue fall-off January to March 2020 is estimated at US$50 billion. Airports will lose 45% of their revenue, estimated at US$76 billion. As for international tourism, a decline of US$300 billion to $450 billion in tourism receipts was expected. The reduction in trade was projected at between 13% and 32%.

Here in Jamaica, where tourism is our major economic activity and earner of foreign exchange, tourism minister, the Hon. Edmund Bartlett revealed in April that 75% of the people who work in tourism have already been laid off. For the heavily tourism-dependent Caribbean, Minister Bartlett estimated that 2.4 million workers were adversely affected by Covid-19 and the region is likely to lose over US$62 billion on foreign exchange earnings this year.

The World Tourism Organization estimated declines of between 58% and 78% in international tourist arrivals in 2020, but much depends on the duration of travel restrictions. Somewhere between 100 and 120 million tourism jobs could be at risk. From the report: ‘This is by far the worst result in the historical series of international tourism since 1950 and would put an abrupt end to a ten-year period of sustained growth since the 2009 financial crisis.’

I live online now. And I start to see other images – of dolphins (inaccurate) and jellyfish (probably true) in the canals of Venice, of clearing skies in cities long obscured by air pollution, of mountain vistas long hidden, of animals in city streets. Nature is recovering, people post, conflating other environmental issues like air and water pollution with so-called greenhouse gas emissions.

Is staying home what the planet needs?

1896: Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius was the first to propose a connection between the carbon dioxide emissions caused by industrial activity and rising temperatures – the so called ‘greenhouse effect.’ He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1903.

2015, December: The Conference of the Parties (COP 24) to the United Nations Convention on Climate Change hammered out the Paris Agreement to avoid dangerous climate change by limiting global warming to well below 2 degrees Centigrade and ‘pursuing efforts’ to limit it to 1.5 degrees C. The Caribbean influenced this subsidiary target by its ‘1.5 to Stay Alive’ campaign, but I never believed any serious effort would be made for a ‘subsidiary’ target.

2016, November: The Paris Agreement entered into force on 4 November 2016, with 190 member countries.

2017, June: The US President, Donald Trump, indicated his intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement. The earliest date this can take effect is 4 November 2020, one day after the US election.

2019, August: Teenage climate activist, Greta Thunberg, left Plymouth for New York on a racing yacht to attend the UN Climate Action Summit in New York and the COP 25 meeting of the UN Climate Change convention, to be held in Santiago, Chile. Thunberg would not fly, due to the impact of greenhouse gas emissions, especially carbon dioxide, on climate. This reinforced the rise of ‘flight shaming’ – and in her native Sweden, air travel frequency fell. Thunberg is a descendant of Svante Arrhenius.

2019, November: Due to protests in Chile, COP 25 was moved to Madrid, Spain and Greta Thunberg posted a message on social media, seeking a carbon neutral ride back to Europe.

Riley Whitelum and his wife, Elayna Caraus, who had been sailing around the world aboard their catamaran offered to take her. Thunberg and her father set sail from Hampton, Virginia for Lisbon, Portugal and attended COP 25, as well as led her signature ‘Fridays for Future’ protests. At that point, greenhouse gas emissions were still rising, estimated at an increase of about 4% since 2015.

2019, November: The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) warned that global emissions must fall by an estimated 7.6% annually between 2020 and 2030, in order to meet the 1.5 degrees Centigrade target. G20 nations account for 78 per cent of all emissions, said UNEP, but 15 G20 members had not, at that point, committed to a timeline for net-zero emissions.

2020, April: COP 26, due to take place in Glasgow, Scotland in November 2020, was postponed to an unstated date in 2021 due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Here we are. Flying has all but ceased, the cruise ships are in port, traffic jams could be a thing of the past, economic activity is significantly reduced  – surely now there will be a big drop in greenhouse gas emissions, and we will say, yes, now we see, now we know what needs to be done to make sure the earth does not heat up too much, to meet the goals of the Paris Accord, to maintain a inhabitable planet. Surely, if nothing else, this unprecedented crisis has at least delivered a steep reduction in greenhouse gas emissions?

But no. At first quarter 2020, According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), carbon emissions in 2020 are projected to fall by about 8% compared to 2019, even though the global economy is experiencing an unprecedented downturn. Mind you, such a reduction would be the largest ever, six times larger than the previous record one in 2009 due to the financial crisis, and twice as large as the combined total of all previous reductions since the end of World War II.

Put another way, we’re still emitting over 90% of emissions, without air travel and other forms of transport, and with much of the world’s economy in steep decline.

It’s not entirely surprising. The IEA estimates transportation accounts for about 20 per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions. Even if all travel were carbon neutral on electric vehicles and trains and battery powered airplanes, 80 percent of emissions would continue.

So where are all those emissions coming from? We’re still generating and using electricity, whether we are at home or at work, and despite the growth of renewable energy capacity globally (which, before the Covid-19 crisis, was projected to grow by 50% between 2019 and 2014), roughly 80% of energy demand is still being met by fossil fuels.

2020, April: The IEA released a Global Energy Review, based on the assumption that the Covid-19 lockdowns would ease in the coming months and there would be a gradual economic recovery. Still, IEA estimated that global energy demand will fall 6% in 2020 – which sounded small, until I read in the report that it is the equivalent of losing the entire energy demand of India, the world’s third largest energy consumer. Advanced economies like the US and the European Union are expected to see the biggest declines.

The Global Energy Review went on: ‘At the same time, lockdown measures are driving a major shift towards low-carbon sources of electricity including wind, solar PV, hydropower and nuclear. After overtaking coal for the first time ever in 2019, low-carbon sources are set to extend their lead this year to reach 40% of global electricity generation – 6 percentage points ahead of coal. Electricity generation from wind and solar PV (photovoltaics) continues to increase in 2020, lifted by new projects that were completed in 2019 and early 2020.’

The IEA projected that renewables are set to be the only energy source that will grow in 2020, albeit at a slower rate than previously.

But there’s no escaping this: 2020 might well deliver an annual reduction in emissions of 8%, with all the associated human misery we are now seeing, but we would need to do this every year until 2050 to avoid the most dangerous effects of climate change. Emissions must be cut to net-zero – in other words, those still flowing into the atmosphere equal the reductions. If we fail to do that, the planet will continue to warm up.

I’m struck by how much human economies need travel – human societies have always traded with each other. The economy needs travel and travel needs the economy. Dr Fatih Birol, the IEA Executive Director, said the decline in global emissions is, ‘…absolutely nothing to cheer. But governments can learn from that experience by putting clean energy technologies – renewables, efficiency, batteries, hydrogen and carbon capture – at the heart of their plans for economic recovery. Investing in those areas can create jobs, make economies more competitive and steer the world towards a more resilient and cleaner energy future.’ So it’s really not so much about any individual’s air travel, but major restructuring and redesign of how we live our lives.

2020, June: The Atlantic hurricane season began. It is projected to be ‘above average’ with 16 named storms. And 2020 is on track to be the warmest year ever recorded, ironically assisted by the clearer skies, because air pollution has the effect of reflecting the sun’s rays.

There is – there could be – a path forward. A path where planes fly and ships leave safe harbour and the standard of living held out by the enormous advances of human civilization could be extended to more people without the destruction of the atmosphere and the annihilation of the other life forms with which we share the planet. And it’s not only about energy use, it’s about rethinking how and where we build, the design of cities and tourist resorts, the handling of waste and where is it, exactly, we’re going to refuse to destroy. The Arctic? The Amazon? The Great Barrier Reef? Given the extraordinary opportunity presented by the Covid-19 pandemic, it will soon be clear which path we’ll choose.

About the Author

Diana McCaulay

Diana McCaulay is a Jamaican environmental activist and award-winning writer. She is the founder and Chair of the Jamaica Environment Trust and has written four novels – Dog-Heart, Huracan (Peepal Tree Press), Gone to Drift (Papillote Press and HarperCollins) and White Liver Gal (self published). Both Dog-Heart and Huracan were short listed for the Saroyan […]