When I’m in London, my friend Valerie and I meet at Daylesford in Pimlico for breakfast. She has herbal tea and scrambled eggs with smoked salmon; I have a double espresso and baked eggs. We like the vows of provenance bestowed on the food, the perfection of grey oak tables, the matte white of the dishes, the organic promises.
This week, we gaze at the ceiling, a sea of recessed lights that are gobbling up energy, and wonder if organic eggs offset the carbon extravagance of the glow. We don’t even want to think about the excavation of the Italian marble on the walls and floor. Beautiful as it is, it’s not on the list of produits régionaux and we try not to dwell on the energy-intensive journey it made to get here.
Our breakfasts have a pattern. She has a side order of toast and honey and laments her skinniness; I wistfully observe her long limbs and high cheekbones. I admire her agnès b. sweater, she urges me to move on from clogs. But today, we skip the small talk. This is breakfast after the Japanese tsunami has wreaked its terrible nuclear aftermath. This is a breakfast for questioning all the certainties of life.
Over the years, we have been an ersatz book club of two, mainly reading books by James Lovelock. We began with The Revenge of Gaia, in which the scientist writes of the urgency of planning a retreat from the unsustainable place we have reached through the inappropriate use of technology: ‘Like Napoleon in Moscow we have too many mouths to feed and resources that diminish daily while we make up our minds.’ His message is that the living Earth is old and not as strong as she was two billion years ago. That, with breathtaking insolence and for our own comfort and convenience, we have made an appalling mess of the planet.
It was gloomy stuff, but Prof Lovelock maintained he was not a pessimist and believed that, in the end, good would prevail. For tougher stuff, Valerie and I turned to the Astronomer Royal, Baron Rees of Ludlow. Valerie is Sam’s godmother, and, at his confirmation, the Bishop of London built a sermon around Lord Rees’s book Our Final Century. It seemed an odd choice, to warn young men at the beginning of their spiritual lives that the end of civilisation and the human race was not impossible, that the imminent shift in our climate would create a situation that could easily be described as Hell.
Alarming as they are, these apocalyptic volumes have not fundamentally changed the way we live. Valerie continues to travel in search of the rare and beautiful for her antique shop on the Fulham Road. I continue to run an energy-intensive farm and a business that requires people to travel miles in their cars in order to eat food that is produced within a five-mile radius.
At the back of our minds (perhaps) was the belief that there would be enormous changes at the last minute. Not the feeble offerings of insulated lofts and wind farms, but a cleaner world in which atomic energy would liberate the West from Middle Eastern potentates and save the Arctic from destruction. Even Prof Lovelock, in his last-and starkest book, The Vanishing Face of Gaia, A Final Warning, held out the belief that nuclear energy is the only way that catastrophic climate change could be halted.
The oracle business is a dicey one and, surrounded by attractive people who look like architects and film directors, life looks good on the Pimlico Road. But the miniscule trace of radiation detected in Glasgow yesterday, a souvenir from Fukushima, leads me to predict that nuclear energy won’t save us in the end. That all the uncertainties-earth tremors, disposal of radioactive waste, terrorists-will outweigh the yearning for this fossil-free solution to our insatiable appetite for light and warmth. As we say goodbye, we say what we always say. ‘Next time, we’ve got be more cheerful.’