LONG before it was dubbed “the Second City of the Empire” – a league position no bona fide Glaswegian could ever accept – and derided as “no mean city”, Glasgow was a “dear green place”. It was a well-earned title, thanks in no small part to the plentiful rain that fell upon it and its verdant environs. Writing in the early part of the 18th century, Daniel Defoe, an English spy, was impressed by what he saw. He declared it “the cleanest and beautifullest, and best built city in Britain,” before adding woundingly, “London excepted”.

Sadly, this did not pertain for long. Few cities were more changed by the industrial revolution than Glasgow. Decade by decade its population swelled exponentially and where once the air was clear and sweet it was now noxious and mingin. Without much thought given to the consequences of unchecked manufacture and with even less for how it might impact on future generations, Glasgow embraced ‘progress’ and the modern world with rapacious zeal.

Not that it was exceptional. The most cursory reading of history shows that human beings are more enamoured of the short term than the long. This is especially true of politicians and business people whose overarching aim is to keep voters sweet and tills ringing. By and large this has allowed us, at least in the West, to live relatively comfortable lives. Or at least, it has until now.

As we have been constantly reminded throughout COP26, things have changed utterly and perhaps irreversibly. Today there is general acceptance that unless we get our collective act together “wur doomed”. As we stand at “a minute before midnight”, clinging to power and piling on profit seem suddenly to be futile.

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One of most cheering aspects of COP26 is the alacrity with which governments and corporations appear to have realised that the planet is in a pickle and that something major must be done to avoid catastrophe. To those who have believed this to be the case for many years and who were pilloried as joyless fruitcakes or tree huggers, the irony is painful. The many and influential climate change refusniks, the 20th-century cousins of flat earthers, employed every ruse in their armoury to maintain the status quo, building yet more motorways and runways, thwarting attempts to curtail emissions and insisting that there are no alternatives to oil, gas and coal.

Who knows what they actually believed. What we do know is that countless of those who were in positions to make a difference either ignored the alarm calls or questioned whether there was actually anything to worry about. Who can forget the opprobrium heaped upon Prince Charles when he had the temerity to point out what is now blindingly obvious.

Many of the deniers, it must be acknowledged, were in the media, spreading fake news, relaying specious ‘research’ and, in the case of Professor Philip Jones, the renowned climate scientist, vilifying someone who sought to alert us all to the danger of global warming.

One hopes, of course, that pledges made in Glasgow this November will be upheld and lead to material change. Pardon me, though, if I remain cynical and suspicious. Our own governments, in London and Edinburgh, often talk the talk but, as Greta Thunberg rightly said, the language in which it is said often amounts to no more than “blah blah blah”.

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Thunberg, too, has been the subject of much bile. But she has shown that she is the one who is talking sense while her detractors look increasingly ignorant, irrelevant and isolated. If only she could afford the luxury of a last laugh.

What COP26 has surely demonstrated is that we cannot rely on governments and industry, and their labradoodles in the media, for the truth about what the future might hold. More than ever we need Extinction Rebellion and Greenpeace, experts and scientists, enlightened individuals and visionary youngsters.

Everyone knows in their heart where things have got out of kilter. There are too many planes in the sky, too many cars on the road, too much consumption and not enough conservation. We build rather than plant, fell rather than nurture, dump rather than recycle.

Mired in habit, we have taken a path that if not redirected might lead to cancellation of our tenancy of the earth. Turkeys may be savvy enough not to vote for Christmas but for too long we have not learned anything from them.

It is time to change all that. Where better to start than here in Glasgow where, as Anton Muscatelli, Principal of Glasgow University, recently highlighted, there is an opportunity to demonstrate to the world how economic and environmental priorities are not mutually exclusive. The Clyde, on whose banks much of the city’s wealth originated, is already a base for cutting-edge innovation, which will help encourage the productivity which in turn can provide the resources to fund climate change research.

This is all well and good. But while Professor Muscatelli is right to champion his own institution, the hydra-headed nature of the crisis facing us requires the involvement not of one agency but many. Glasgow University could, however, host SCOP2022 and every year thereafter until it was deemed unnecessary. It would be forum not just for institutions but also for enlightened and creative individuals to demonstrate how best we might live in the place of which we are merely custodians. An annual prize for the best idea might help to concentrate minds and spur imaginations.

By coincidence, I have been rereading Archie Hind’s novel The Dear Green Place. It was published in 1966 when Glasgow was going through one of its less fêted periods. The title was ironic because the city was suffering from industrial blight, typified by the state of the Molendinar Burn, which was clogged with “two centuries of refuse”. What was once a byword for enterprise had become a cesspit.

In playgrounds, children sang: “This is the tree that never grew,/This is the bird that never flew,/This is the fish that never swam...” But trees do now grow in Glasgow and birds nest in them and fish swim in the Clyde. If there’s a will, things can change, and for the better.

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