Sunday, 7 February 2016

Facts and Truths

Like many parents, I’d like to home-school my daughter -- but have to work, and she needs her peers. So by day she goes to Catholic school in the village near us, with fine teachers and the children of our neighbours. In the evenings, though, we sit down for a different set of lessons, where I try to teach things most schools don’t.

Wednesdays we do logic, and week by week we’ve covered the Straw Man, emotional appeals, ad hominem attacks, circular arguments, post hoc ergo propter hoc, the bandwagon effect, arguments from hypocrisy, Ockham’s Razor, the Anthropic Principle, the Barnum Effect, false dichotomies, slippery slopes, hasty generalisations and non sequiturs.

Then I asked her to start applying these lessons, looking at advertisements and picking them apart. Now, a television announcer asks viewers at home if they want to make more money, she rolls her eyes and says, “Barnum Effect.” Now that my native USA is in the middle of its interminable coronation rituals, we’ll go over transcripts of speeches from various political groups, and cross out everything that uses cheap rhetorical tricks or logical fallacies.

In the same vein, we study the scientific method, something I wish every child learned these days. Of course we study “science” in the sense that most people use the word – that is, amazing things about the universe that researchers discovered by using science – so we’ve covered elements and electrons, carbon cycles and circadian rhythms, Batesian mimicry and Brownian movement. Just as importantly, though, I want her to know how to do science, to perform experiments and filter out flawed results.

Years ago I helped her learn the acronym WET-P; you wonder about something, you create experiments that will find what you’re looking for, you test your hypothesis, and you run the results by your peers to make sure you did everything right. We’ve talked about the placebo effect, we’ve used control groups, and we’ve removed the labels on the experiment containers to create double-blind testing. And the other night, we talked about the difference between Facts and Truths.

I don’t claim to follow Ontological Philosophy – I find most philosophical writing painful to read -- but I wish this basic division was taught to every school-child, saving society a lot of ideological confusion later on.

Facts, I told her, are things you can verify mathematically, chemically or physically – at least that’s the way we’re using the word. If you want to see if your hammer is made of iron, you can compare its volume to its weight, see if it conducts electricity or attracts a magnet, or test how it reacts to certain chemicals. When done rightly under the same conditions, those tests should yield the same results for everyone, whether Catholic or Muslim, Irish or Japanese, male or female. If someone says the hammer is made of peanut butter, that’s not a legitimate point of view – they’re wrong no matter how desperately they believe it.

If you measure the Earth as Aristarchus did, I told her – noon sunlight at certain locations, measured from the bottom of wells -- you’ll find the Earth is a sphere about 40,000 kilometres around. The meticulous, I told her, might get slightly different results if they measure top-to-bottom or around the equator, but if someone comes up with the result that the planet is four or four hundred or four million kilometres across, you can prove them wrong. The world is 4,500 million years old, it orbits the sun, which circles the Milky Way – these are all facts. Whether Kansas borders the sea or whether World War II took place – also facts.

“So what’s truth?” she asked.

Truths, I told her, are beliefs, values and attitudes – we can’t mathematically or chemically prove them, and we don’t need to. Your faith, your love for your family, your belief that a forest or a human has value -- those are all truths. Other people see things differently, and while you can try to persuade them to see things your way, or set an example for them to follow, you can’t show them a number that says they’re wrong.

Let’s say one person believes that animals evolve purely by random chance, and another person believes that animals evolve according to God’s plan. Both have truths they believe in, and since neither can be proven, neither is more scientific than the other. If someone says that animals never evolved, though, the evidence says otherwise.

“So truths might be true, but facts are definitely true?” she asked.

Facts don’t mean much by themselves; truths – our values and perspectives -- make sense of them. The facts are the bricks, and the truth is the building. On the other hand, facts are immovable – you have to accept facts and deal with them. “Or change them,” she said. “If it’s a fact that I have a hundred books, I can get more books.” Absolutely you can change certain facts, I said, but you have to accept what things are before you can change them.

“If you get enough facts together, do they make a truth?” she asked.

They might not fit together to make anything, I said, and not usually by themselves – and it’s up to us to make sense of them. You’ve probably seen science fiction stories where a computer learns so much it becomes sentient? Computers have a lot of dangers, but I’m not worried about that one, because all computers learn is data. A library has a lot of data too, I told her, but if it goes beyond a certain number of books, it doesn’t grow legs and walk away.

The examples I gave my daughter were quite tame, but I could think of many heated issues these days that would ease off if people applied this distinction. National Geographic magazine, for example, ran a cover story last year on “anti-science” beliefs, with a list of common examples on the cover -- “Climate change does not exist,” “The Moon landing was fake,” and “Vaccinations can lead to autism.” Fair enough; while they are not identical situations – we can’t know the future effects of climate change with the same certainty that we know the moon landing – they are all reasonably well-established.

To my dismay, though, they also included the line, “Genetically Modified Food is evil” – a disingenuous addition, as “evil” is a moral judgement. Genetic experimenters can splice insect genes into a berry or grow a human ear on a mouse for amusement; only we can decide whether they should. If a group of scientists proves their product is not toxic, that’s a fact; whether it’s morally righteous is up to us.

The same goes for a lot of culture-war debates in our society; both left and right are determined to see them as sides, and enforce them with the power of government. Keeping them separate – for schools and government to deal in facts, for example, and parents and churches to teach truths – would spare a lot of pointless anguish. Of course drawing those boundary lines can get complicated, but these days fewer and fewer people – on the left and right alike --- bother to draw them at all.

I didn’t unload all this on my 11-year-old, though – rather, we did a quiz to help her tell the difference– “John is two metres tall,” “John should stop littering,” and so on, and she had to tell me whether they were fact or truth.

“What about people who aren’t religious?” she asked. “Who just believe in science?”

Great question, I said – that’s a common misconception. Nobody can just believe in science, because science isn’t a belief; it’s the way you verify facts, nothing more or less.

Some people these days claim to reject all belief, accepting only scientific facts – but that’s impossible, because facts don’t make any sense outside of a larger story. Atheists usually have a very strong faith – in progress, or rationality, or the superiority of their group. Some Christian groups these days do the converse – making up their own facts to fit what they’d like to believe. One group claims their beliefs are facts, I told her, and the other tries to twist the facts to suit their beliefs. Both are determined to see facts and truth fight each other, rather than build on each other, and the world is worse for it.

“Surely some people’s beliefs are plainly wrong,” she said.

Some are monstrous, I said, and we have a duty to oppose them, whether by persuasion or example or taking up arms. Still, people usually have reasons for feeling the way they do, and it usually helps to see the world through their eyes rather than just dismissing them. Ultimately, everyone’s entitled to their own beliefs, I said – their religion, their ideology, their political party. They’re not entitled to their own facts.

“Do I have to listen to everybody?” she said.

Everyone deserves a fair hearing, I told her, and everyone knows something you don’t – so treat them with the respect you would want for yourself. Be prepared, though, to question everything people say, and don’t let them talk you out of your principles.

“Those are two contradictory things,” she said.

Almost, I said. Balancing them is the real trick. I’ll walk you through it as long as you let me.

Sunday, 31 January 2016

Welcoming night

Recently an acquaintance of mine back in the USA posted some of the past election bumper stickers for a certain political official -- apparently an official who wanted to grant asylum to some refugees --  with the caption, "Anyone with one of THESE on their car gets a Syrian refugee to take care of!"

I don't get into electoral politics much on this blog, and I'm not naming or defending the official in question. Still, I felt I ought to respond. I wrote back:

Actually, I'm already volunteering with Syrian refugees -- I've been asking everyone in our church to donate their old clothes and toys, and the refugees are quite grateful for them -- they've been homeless and on the run from ISIS for two years, so they've reached rural Ireland with nothing but the clothes on their back.

The refugees I've met have been fantastic, and their kids are adorable. I brought up the possibility of having some of them stay at our house, but the Irish government is wisely putting them up in a motel that went belly-up during the crash.

So, way ahead of you.
Several of us from the area volunteered to spend time making the acquaintance of the refugees, and help them get used to their new country and culture; it's not much, but it's a start. This week, in the village the refugees are staying in, the local school-children put on a show for them -- Irish dancing and singing, and the refugees demonstrated their own music and moves. Everyone had a chance to mingle, kids played together, and we had a great time.

I won't say any more about it for now, as we agreed to give the refugees privacy; also for that reason, I'm not showing any photos. I don't show photos of people's faces very often on this blog anyway, wary of putting people online without their permission. I will, though, enclose a photo of the kids doing Irish dancing for the crowd, partly because their faces are blurred.

This blog doesn't usually deal with issues like this, but I expect to see more such refugee situations in the coming decades, and we'd better get used to it now. So far this is one of the greatest human catastrophes since World War II -- six million people have been forced to flee for their lives.  Most countries here have agreed to take in some refugees, but more are coming to our shores every day, and many mornings bring new reports of the bodies of drowned children washed up in the Mediterranean.

These are people who found a tiny and overcrowded raft, floating on the open ocean, safer than their homes. See what you can do where you live -- you probably can't do much, but you might be able to do a little.

Monday, 25 January 2016

Brassicas

Originally published in the Kildare Nationalist newspaper. 

Brassicas – the cruciferous vegetables of the cabbage family – made a long and fruitful journey from the scraggly sea kale of their ancestors; today they provide us with some of our healthiest, easiest and most versatile crops, bred for their leaves (cabbage, kale, bok choi), roots (kohlrabi), flowers (broccoli, cauliflower) seeds (mustard) and buds (Brussels sprouts).

Such crops particularly suit Ireland, as they like lots of sun and water but not too much warmth – our summers, in other words. Moreover, many of them continue to produce throughout the year, as our kale does. Thus, in our garden cabbages comprise about a third of our crop, and we’ve been gathering them in and using or preserving them for the last month.

One of the easiest ways of making cabbage, of course, is in colcannon: all you need is a cabbage, an onion, and a potato. Boil some potatoes until soft in the middle, and while they’re boiling dice some onions and chop up a cabbage – I dice my onions about a centimetre on the side and my cabbage about three centimetre chunks, so that the onions will cook faster, but it’s up to you.

Once the potatoes are boiled and out of the water you take a pan, coat the bottom with a thin layer of oil, put on medium heat and throw in the onions. Cook about a minute and then throw in the cabbage, and cook for a few minutes or until the onions are golden-brown and the cabbages cooked through. In the few minutes that they will take to cook, mash the potatoes.

Next, chop up about 20 grams of parsley, wash and chop finely, and throw into the pan to cook for a moment. Finally, add the mash and mix it all together for a meal rich in vitamins, mostly vegetables but with some potato to hold it together.

One of the best brassicas this time of year, of course, are Brussels sprouts, which in our garden have been less vulnerable to pests than other cabbages -- perhaps because they are raised above mud-level. We are just harvesting the last of ours, but you can harvest them any time from autumn to spring, making them ideal for keeping your family in fresh vegetables during the winter months.

Many people boil the goodness out of Brussels sprouts, so one of the best ways to cook them is to cut the larger ones in half, boil some water, set them in for exactly three minutes, and then add to the rest of the meal separately.

If you want a new way to cook Brussels sprouts that allows the best flavour and avoids overcooking, try this recipe I used on my own. You will need:
300g Brussels sprouts
200g leeks
50g beetroot
One strip of bacon
Five cloves of garlic
10g butter
Chinese five-spice powder
Vegetable stock cube

Boil some water, cut the large Brussels sprouts in half, and put them in for three minutes – you want to flash-boil them, take the boiling water out and put in a bit of cold water to stop the cooking process. Then you take a strip of rashers (bacon), cut it into pieces about a centimetre across, and fry them in a pan.

While that is frying, chop the leeks into one-centimetre pieces (make sure to wash them well first!) and slice some mushrooms half a centimetre across. Take 20g of beetroot and cut into cubes half a centimetre across. Finally, mince some garlic or chop it very finely. When the rasher pieces are cooked just enough to be edible but not yet firm, put in the mushrooms, leeks and beetroot. Sautee these together for a few minutes, then add the minced garlic and sautee for another minute or so.

Dissolve a vegetable stock cube in about 20 ml of boiling water, and mix well. Add that to the mix with about 10 ml of lemon juice, so the mixture begins to sautee for a minute. Add a dash of five-spice powder; it’s available at most supermarkets, a mix of star anise, cloves, cinnamon, pepper and fennel seeds. Finally, add the Brussels sprouts and mix it all together. The result should be savoury, garlicky, tangy and just a bit spicy.

The cabbage you don’t use, of course, you should preserve through the winter, and the classic way of preserving cabbage, though, is by pickling it, either through the European method of sauerkraut, or through its spicier Asian version of kim chee.

To make sauerkraut, find a cylindrical container and a lid slightly smaller across than the container, to that it can slide down the interior with little air in-between – the cabbage has to be squashed down in salt water away from oxygen, but air still has to escape. Alternately, you could use a mayonnaise or other glass jar, stuff with sauerkraut to the rim and leave the lid on, securely but not tightly. Finely shred a cabbage and put a few handfuls of the shredded cabbage in the container, and pound it down with something heavy like a rolling pin.

Then sprinkle some salt onto the cabbage – about 50 g to the kilo – and repeat the process with another few handfuls until your container is full. Then fill the container with water until it just covers the top of the cabbage/salt mix. Put the lid on and place the container someplace warm to ferment. The cabbage should begin to ferment right away, and gradually fill with water that escapes from the cabbage. It will gradually turn from cabbage to sauerkraut over about a month, but you can dig in at any point, eat some and put the rest back. Just make sure to keep the cabbage away from oxygen.

Kim chee works in much the same way, but soaking the cabbage overnight in a salt brine – I use 50g of salt per kilo of cabbage – and the next morning draining it.

Then you rinse it and mix in a spicy paste, often with slivers of carrots or radishes, before pounding it into jars and leaving a lid on loosely.
My paste contained 10g ginger, 50g garlic, 20g hot pepper flakes, and 20g fish sauce for two kilos of cabbage.

With no electricity or technology, sauerkraut and kim chee allow you to have vitamin-rich vegetables all through the winter, straight from the pantry, until next year’s garden comes alive again.

Top photo: Red cabbage from our garden

Bottom photo: My kim chee.

Sunday, 17 January 2016

Fumbling Toward Independence

Some blogs focus on single-word subjects like knitting or superheroes. This one wanders a bit; one week I might write about our neighbours here in rural Ireland, the next about our garden, then about old black-and-white movies or reading with my daughter. All of it, though, deals with our attempts to discover an older and better way of living, and learn the values and skills that were normal before everything became cheap, fast and easily discarded.

I’m not saying the modern world doesn’t have its advantages – obviously, I keep a blog, and you’re somewhere far away reading it. I can also buy armfuls of inexpensive food, speed down the road in a metal box and download more cat pictures in an hour than I could look through in a lifetime. It comes with a price, however: having these things means burning through resources at jaw-dropping speed, using the world’s land, sea and air as an open sewer into which we can flush all the wastes. A different kind of waste comes out of the mass media, which loudspeakers and ubiquitous screens make increasingly difficult to escape.

Nor can the pros and cons of our society be easily separated. The glowing screens that allow us to talk across a planet also distract us from talking to each other, and the easy commuting means more jobs moved to places you have to commute to. The cheap food allows more Westerners to die from obesity rather than hunger, and people in poorer countries to multiply until there are now many more hungry people than a century ago. I’m not saying the technological and social benefits aren’t important, or debating whether they are “worth it;” I simply don’t assume that fixing our problems automatically means doing more of what we’re already doing.

Thus, I study the past to see what worked better. Our elderly neighbours grew up without electricity, cars or mass media, and I see how different their village culture was from our own frantic and lonely society. I read diaries and letters from a century of two ago, and see a complexity of thought and language that gives college students trouble today. The writers – in colonial America, Victorian Britain or 20th-century Ireland -- might have been farmers, but they often grew up reading the same classics as their forebears -- Hesiod and Sophocles, Livy and Marcus Aurelius, Aquinas and Dante. Now I’m reading these works one by one, and teaching what bits I can to my daughter. For that matter, I’m learning how to genuinely read again, and not just scan text on a screen.

We try to learn the ways people used to provide for their own basic needs rather than relying entirely on companies and governments, so we built a chicken coop, got bees, grow a garden, and learned to forage wild plants and mushrooms. We have make our own pickles, sauerkraut, beer, bread, wine and jam, and have taken courses in tree grafting, oven building, blacksmithing, wood carving, and so on. We fail a lot, but we have fun learning.

Sometimes, though, I hear from someone who doesn’t just want to gain ideas for their own cooking or home-schooling, but wants to escape to a new life. They tell me about their meaningless office job, their tedious commute, the destruction of the landscape and the horrors of the news feed. They have read my blog, seen the pictures, and they want to find a place just like this. I sympathise and write back, but that usually means disillusioning them.

See, everyone starts with some common misapprehensions. Firstly, many people seem to crave a sudden and absolute abandonment of the daily grind, the way others fantasise about the Zombie Apocalypse or the Rapture. Their descriptions seem to resemble what we usually see in advertisements, where someone runs joyfully out of their cubicle throwing papers, their old life falls away like petals, and they stage-dive into The Environment. In reality, almost no one simply moves to the country and starts over, or if they do, succeeds for very long.

People generally need homes, food, sterilised water, heat and other necessities, and will sooner or later need medical assistance. Most of us these days are used to driving a car, having electricity, broadband, and mobile phone reception, and many other amenities we never think about, because we have never been without them. Every new convenience has a price, not just for the machine itself, but for maintenance, power, and the infrastructure to make it work for you.

As I write this, our heat pump is out again, and we’re stoking the fireplace in a cold house – things usually pick the depth of winter to break down, and so far the electricity, plumbing, boiler and septic tank have also had problems. It sounds self-evident, but the more of the modern world you take with you, the less you will be getting away from the modern world, and the more you get away from everything, the more you have to do without.

Me, I work one of those office jobs in Dublin, and my wife works another. Our daily commute on the bus is worse than most – three hours a day – but that’s where I write for newspapers and magazines, something that doesn’t pay a living wage anymore. I have four hours a day when I’m not at my job, on the bus or asleep, and that’s my time to do all the chores, give lessons to my daughter, take care of a garden and animals, and practice all those crafts I named a few paragraphs ago. We live more independently each year, but it takes time and work, and it’s a life lived inside the cracks of a boring normal one.

It also involved some chance, something we rarely take into account when judging the choices of others. It so happened that my wife’s family had land here, so we moved, accepting the cost of living far from friends and family, along with the benefits of owning land and having neighbours to learn from. Other people ask me how they can do the same as we did, but their life comes with a different set of fortunes and hazards that we didn't face.

Secondly, many want to wash their hands of the world’s idiots and go it alone -- the “self” in self-sufficient. We like growing and making more of our own belongings, but we would like to be less isolated, if anything – modern people live lonely enough lives as it is. Look at a city and you see millions of people alone in their cars, absorbed in screens and cocooned in a bubble of smart-phones and earbuds, unaccustomed to making mental or physical space for anyone else. In such isolated states we grow ever-more self-absorbed, and fantasise about being even freer from the oppressive proximity of our fellow man.

I say we are “learning to be more self-sufficient” or some such phrase, in the same way that one can learn to be healthier or kinder, but total self-sufficiency is barely possible and not necessarily desirable. Hermits were historically rare and willing to tolerate hardship, and while we read inspiring accounts of their lives, we don’t hear from all the ones who weren’t inspired or didn’t survive.

Humans are social animals, and tend to need company – and many tasks require a group of people cooperating anyway. Even Thoreau, who wrote so beautifully about living in the woods, lived near town and had a mother to do cooking and laundry. The mythology of the self-sufficient man came about in our own era by people who lived with the surplus of fossil fuels.

In our case, we built a house for our extended family, three generations under a roof, and that means more compromises – I’d love to raise a daughter without a television, for example, but it’s not just my house, so we just limit her time and monitor what she sees. I’d love to home-school her here, instead of just after-school lessons, but she needs kids her own age and I have to pay bills. People who try for this kind of life must not be too infatuated with the purity of their vision – the more ambitious it is, the less it can be done alone. Conversely, the more people you have with you – assuming you’re not a dictator -- the more everyone has to compromise.

Thirdly, I find, people’s yearning to get away from it all rarely comes with a map or plan to get there, for “there” is often not a place but an imagined state. In this world, though, everywhere is somewhere, and in this day of internet and airports no place is very far from anywhere else.

The rural Ireland many Americans picture was disappearing even when I first visited 16 years ago, and the country has changed far more in the time we’ve lived here. It lives on in the elderly people around us, but they are disappearing one by one. I take photos of the thatched homes and horse carriages because they are beautiful and represent the focus of the blog, but I don’t show photos of other things that are also near us: McDonalds and malls, pornography and tabloids. Our local area includes people who are said to deal drugs, drivers who cut you off and teens who spray graffiti on 300-year-old bridges. Wherever you go, people will be human, and some will be unpleasant.

Even out here, my daughter absorbs celebrity gossip and pop fads by adolescent osmosis, and we have to negotiate like any middle-aged father and tween daughter: You can listen to Adele, but not Nicki Minaj (how do you even know who that is?) and you have to sing old songs with me later. You can watch a television programme, but read part of a book after that, and then we’ll play cards. She doesn’t need to grow up innocent of the internet and pop culture, but she can know how to live without them.

I hear from people who embrace a new and harder life mainly as a big rude gesture to their old one. Some seem to imagine themselves sitting on a mountain of tin cans and guns waiting for The Big One, and will one day stand on the rubble above the pleading hands of the sheeple who wouldn’t listen. Other, more empathetic souls seem to mourn our species’ path of destruction, and want to do penance for the sins of others. Either way, they seek a new life not for its own sake, but out of an imagined revenge on the people around them, and I don’t see such impulses cultivating a healthy community. Moreover, if that kind of enforced austerity really worked, dieters would lose weight, and they don’t.

A more independent life need not be a distant redoubt to purchase but a state to accomplish, and getting there should ideally be done in small steps, with the support of friends, and be reasonably fun and not overly complicated. Take food, for example: when my 11-year-old makes herself egg drop soup, grabbing eggs from the coop and herbs from the garden, she is saving money that might have gone to buy pre-packaged meals, and saving the energy that would have gone to grow, ship and process them. She learns to do things herself, bonds with other kids who cook, and can use this as a stepping stone to learn other things. To make egg drop soup yourself, you don’t need to move to another country, or start a farm, or stock up on cilantro and balsamic vinegar, and your creations don’t need to look like those of those television chefs who trained for decades and don’t display all their mistakes.

Or take growing a garden: Growing your own garden won’t provide all your food, but it doesn’t have to – just the vitamin-rich vegetables that are costly to ship and expensive to buy, while cheap grain and staples can be purchased. Other skills are the same way, whether they involve growing a hedgerow, weaving baskets, nailing a shed together, making jam, fermenting kim chee, playing chess, singing, or keeping animals in the shed. To actually live a somewhat self-sufficient life you need a lifetime of skills, and learning them takes a lifetime. Luckily, you have one, or at least part of one left.

Such activities can be fun, allow your family to eat when someone loses their job, gives you barter material in case something happens to money, offers an opportunity to talk to neighbours, cost little to learn, and have almost no disadvantages. What they won’t do is change everything … because nothing will.

You see, almost no one ever genuinely starts a new life; they might try, but they are bringing themselves along for the ride, and they remain who they are. The life you want will not be a location to which you can drive, but a state you can work to attain. You will not be able to change anything but yourself and your surroundings, and then only in tiny increments, and often nothing seems to change ... until one day, you look behind you at the path you've taken, and you see how strange the rest of the world appears in the distance. 

Thursday, 31 December 2015

Weather that reminds us to give thanks

As many times as I’ve seen the wind whistle across our land in the Bog of Allen, I’ve never before felt as nervous as I have today, as the giant trees around our property are bending alarmingly in the gale. Our cement house has actually groaned in the intense wind, which blew down a tree across our driveway recently and ripped our greenhouse door apart.

Our heat pump gave out and the house is cold, the road to our house has patches of water so wide it is almost impassable, and our chickens are barely able to step out of the coop without being blown down. We do have a shed-full of wood for the fire, along with a pile of turf from the bog -- but there’s been nothing but rain, and that soaks the turf and slows down the chopping. I’m supposed to be at work in Dublin right now, but our car broke down and the bus never showed up. Thankfully, our internet and phone works, so I could post this. Basically, though, it’s not my best morning.

Then again, I’m thankful we don’t live on the streets of Kilkenny yesterday, as the swelling river burst through the streets, smashing open the doors to pubs and businesses. I’m pleased that we have electricity, as thousands of people here in Ireland were left without it after recent storms. I’m thankful we did not have to abandon our homes over Christmas, or come home to a devastated neighbourhood. I’m thankful we were not on one of the flights that had to be cancelled, or on the roads that were completely impassable.

I have friends in the UK, where 2,000-year-old towns – founded by Romans – have seen their roads become canals. This has been the wettest December on record there, in a country where records tend to go back a ways – 341 millimetres of rain in one single day in Cumbria. More than 5,000 homes were flooded in Cumbria and Lancashire counties alone, and tens of thousands of homes lost electricity, and many local buildings looked like they had been bombed by the Blitz – including a 200-year-old pub whose interior was hollowed out by the rushing waters. Thankfully, local people are pitching in heroically to save as many homes and businesses as they can --- including many Syrian refugees, repaying the favour done to them when they were allowed to settle nearby.

I grew up where the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, two of the largest rivers in the world, come together, and those rivers are wide and dangerous at the best of times. In 1993, though, I remember an unprecedented flood that eliminated entire towns and put large areas underwater. I interviewed former residents holding their mayoral elections in what were essentially refugee camps, to be mayor of a community rather than a physical town. I remember driving down a road until it stopped, seeing nothing but water all around and a church steeple poking out of the water in the distance.

It was called the 500-year-flood, as it was only supposed to happen that often. Then they saw a similar flood in 2008 and again this year. I have family who live along the rivers, patrolling the levees and preparing for the worst. I’m seeing images of homes ripped from their foundations, wild brown waters rushing through neighbourhoods, and towns along the river that survived previous floods fear they might have to abandon their homes for the last time.

A freak storm in the North Pole – which after all, only a thousand miles or so from us in Ireland – has pushed the temperature above freezing. The North Pole, which is supposed to remain below freezing all summer, is above freezing on New Year’s Eve.

I wrote a few weeks ago about how we are seeing more and more changes in the weather, but that it’s difficult to prove it’s connected to climate change. What we do know is that scientists predicted this sort of thing – unusual weather, going to extremes, at odd times of year – more and more often, and it’s happening all over the world.

When I see references to climate change on my social media feed, though, they tend to fall into the language of many activists and reporters --- the language of Hollywood catastrophes. Climate change becomes something imminent, perhaps happening The Day After Tomorrow. It becomes global, something that everyone pays attention to. It becomes total and dramatic, even exciting, as in a thousand disaster movies. Most of all, when this hypothetical thing hits, it will be undeniable. And this thing called “climate change,” we’re told, will “hit” – a word that implies something sudden and dramatic – very soon, so we have only a short time left to “stop it.” The clock is ticking. It’s all up to us now.

 I’m going to be harsh here: I suspect that we talk about climate change this way because we’re social primates with instincts primarily focused on our own status and not global abstract problems. Our better angels – our logical analysis of problems, our compassionate desire to help others – are forever warped by the gravitational pull of our primate drive to make ourselves look good within our social group.

Let's say you anticipate an imminent disaster, whether climate change or anything else. Of course you would feel a bond with other believers, and feel like an elite blessed with special knowledge. You would feel frustrated by the majority that don't seem to care about the disaster about to befall them. You have a reason for getting up in the morning, because we have become one of the heroes of the greatest story ever told. The urgency of the ticking clock allows us to ignore many smaller needs and considerations, perhaps including other people.

In short, it's tempting to become just like any number of other political groups these days -- angry, insular, and impotent. It's easy to be sucked into the trap of complaining about the "sheeple" that have been Brainwashed by the Mainstream Media -- something I hear from ecological friends, gun owners, conspiracy theorists and many other groups. It's seductive to simply read posts online or "like" them on social media, becoming the ecological equivalent of armchair generals or Monday-morning coaches. Finally, it's tempting to continue to anticipate the day everything will "hit," and people were forced to acknowledge you were right. 

But climate change isn’t a global tragedy happening someday; it’s a million small tragedies now, and more tomorrow. There is no turning it around at this point – only coping with what is to come. No clock is ticking, and there will never be a starting point, any more than the Industrial Revolution or the Decline of Rome had a starting point.

What we can do is anticipate the crises that are likely to occur in your local area in the next few decades, and prepare. You can help make sure the buses run on time, no matter the weather, and perhaps create your own unofficial bus / carpool service with a neighbour’s SUV or van. You can stock up supplies for the next emergency, and prepare for when your power goes out. You can make sure all your elderly neighbours are well, and keep visiting them. You can make sure that your office remains flexible with people who are stranded or unable to get to work, and that those people are not deprived of their livelihood.

You can set up child-minding arrangements in your neighbourhood, creating a “tree” of people who can watch children on short notice when the need arises. If you have access to land, you can cover it with fast-growing trees that will keep supplying your neighbours with firewood. You can gather with neighbours to help them rebuild, even if you don’t like them. You can let cousins or friends stay with you, and always have spare food and supplies ready and a plan to put into effect as soon as the need arises.

You can think of it as being a Londoner during the Blitz or a movie hero preparing the townspeople for a disaster, if that helps you. You need to actually help, though, and not expect to be thanked – and understand that, unlike most movie disasters, this one won’t build to a climax and be “all over,” but will crop up again frequently in our lifetimes. Your neighbours might not know about your service, but they don’t need to – they will be warm, dry and fed.

And we can realise how great things are right now. I just came in from chopping wood and wrote this by the fire. I have a day filled with small problems that need to be dealt with eventually, but for the moment, I’m in a warm and dry home with electricity and broadband, a pantry full of food and a family. We leave troubled days like these better people and feeling blessed.

Monday, 21 December 2015

The Mother Night

If you grew up in North America, whether in the Arizona desert or the Florida swamps, you probably spent December adorning your home with ancient symbols of Northern European winter. Not everyone put up miniatures of the Nativity, but most decorate with plastic replicas of Christmas trees, Santa, Yule logs, reindeer, holly, ivy and mistletoe – most of which we had never seen in real life.

Once we moved to rural Ireland, though, they began to make sense, like jigsaw pieces when the full picture becomes clear. The reindeer were from Nordic countries, of course, and Santa is a composite of characters from many countries, but the others were used in Britain and Ireland for many generations, and we soon saw why.

You see, a rarely-mentioned fact about these islands is that we are less than a thousand miles from the Arctic Circle. We don’t think of Ireland as being so far north, as the Atlantic current comes straight up from the Bahamas and bathes the island in comparatively warm water. “Warm” is not an intuitive way to describe the ocean around here – when it splashes over the rocks, it doesn’t feel like the Caribbean – but it is warmer than other waters so far north, and it keeps the island just above freezing most of the winter. For comparison, at this same latitude in North America you could once find polar bears.

At Midsummer – the longest day of the year – you can walk around in twilight after 11 pm and before 4 am. Until we moved here, I never understood the title of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, his play in which lovers change their allegiances several times in a night. The longest day is the shortest night, so the title emphasizes how quickly love can turn – in a “Midsummer Night,” the equivalent of a “New York Minute.”

Winter brings the opposite, with nights as black as tar for seventeen hours at a stretch. They seem longer, for even the daylight hours rarely see the sun, but only a dim grey glow from behind the dark clouds. Green forests turn ashen and skeletal in the hours of twilight before the darkness descends again. Before electricity – which only reached parts of rural Ireland in the 1970s – flames provided the only light.

Generations now have grown up with streetlights outside and houselights a flick away, and can little comprehend the unsettling power of long darkness. No wonder every culture in the North had a word for it. The ancient Irish built circles of standing stones, and according to some theories to see the first morning light after the solstice. To the Norse it was Yule, and to Saxons it was the Mother Night.

It made sense, then, to devote the shortest day of the year to celebration, knowing that a new solar year is being born. It made sense to bring in the few plants that remained green and cheerful even in winter, like holly, ivy, the less-remembered rosemary – and in Nordic countries, a decorated evergreen. It made sense for everyone to gather in church and sing together, and then for everyone to leave and visit each other’s homes, their lanterns ploughing through the dark roads, as they went from house to house singing and toasting each house in turn.

Christmas, Easter, Pentecost and other holidays from the Christian calendar came to us from a very different culture and landscape, the desert lands to the far south and east. Once adopted by peoples of the long darkness, though, they were transformed. Whenever Christ was actually born, the obvious time to celebrate his birth was when -- after a long and harrowing plunge into the abyss -- the world seems to exhale, the days are born and grow again, and another year of life, with all its possibilities, appears before us.

Originally published in 2013.

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Getting the most out of Christmas

Most of us, even if we can’t remember yesterday’s lunch or tomorrow’s appointments, recall the glorious feeling of opening up that first gift on Christmas morning. So here’s a question: how many second gifts do you remember from your Christmas mornings? How many third or fourth gifts?

Amy Dacyczyn, author of “The Tightwad Gazette,” made an interesting observation about children on Christmas morning: the first present is magical, she said, but the fourth or fifth means far less, and by distracting the child, destroys the magic of the first present. Moreover, by the time the child receives the fifth present, they are anticipating the sixth, and will be angry and disappointed when it doesn’t arrive.

We notice it most in children, but we all do this to an extent. Find out you’re getting a bonus from your company, and you might feel a sense of triumph – or these days, relief that you’ll be able to pay your bills. Find out you’re getting a second bonus, and you’ll be pleased … but not as pleased as before. Just like the gifts on Christmas morning, two surprises are not twice as pleasurable as one.

We feel obliged to give our children some of the same magic that we experienced, and these days, when both parents often work, some families seem to use Christmas as a way to make up for their lack of time spent together the rest of the year. Most of all, many parents want to give their child something more than they had, in the Ireland of 20 or 30 years ago. Thus, many parents shower their children with gifts, not realising that their children might actually get less pleasure out of ten gifts than one.

Most of our holidays have become cause for indulgence; to eat too much, drink too much and spend too much, while seeming to get less and less pleasure from the same activities. Some television pundits even talk as though overspending was a moral obligation, tracking the sales figures like telethon hosts.

Writing in Slate magazine a few years ago, economist Joel Waldfogel demolishes the idea that Christmas spending saves the economy. Let’s say, he said, that you describe the cost of a gift as the store value plus the pleasure of receiving it as a gift – say, an extra 20 euros. If your gran gives you a 50-euro Christmas jumper that you love and would have bought for yourself anyway, you receive more value from it as a gift. But most of us don’t love all our Christmas gifts, so even with the dubious pleasure of receiving a gift, products cost more and have less value when they are given as gifts. Moreover, that assumes a constant and substantial value from getting it as a gift – and as we have seen, that value diminishes with each new gift.

Finally, remember that we often buy on credit these days, so each gift costs perhaps 20 per cent more than it would have if we had just bought it outright. What about holiday rituals like Christmas songs, old movies and decorations – can’t we enjoy those? Of course, but you’re not obliged to listen to the same songs so often that you become sick of them. I suspect that sense of obligation to spend money, coupled with the metastasizing of this holy day into a spending season, fuels the annual avalanche of “Christmas” movies, toys and other things to buy, most of which are forgotten the next year.

Does this sound like the attitude of a Scrooge? Before you say yes, remember that Scrooge opposed the spirit of Christmas, and took no pleasure in the joyous gatherings of family and friends. I’m saying the exact opposite; I want to see people enjoy Christmas again, as most of us remember doing when we spent little money and much time together.

The older people around us in Ireland, who grew up without the trappings of modern culture, remember when Christmas was precious because it was an event, not a season. We can't completely go back to those days, but we can confine our Christmas season to a small number of days, concentrating the songs, decorations and merriment into that brief window before it gets old. A week or so before Christmas, when we decorate our tree and begin singing carols, it means something, and this year’s golden moments mix with memories of the ones before.

Sunday, 13 December 2015

The latest chapter

Six years ago, I wrote about an unusual series of floods across Ireland; rivers that ordinarily crept gently under towns began crawling up the high stone walls that bind them, and spreading over the fields of many farmers. Other floods damaged towns across the Irish Sea in England – wiping out bridges that had stood for hundreds of years, creating a state of emergency as rural communities were isolated by floodwaters.

I remember riding my daily bus to Dublin that day, crossing a town where a stone bridge crosses a deep rift through the middle of town. At the bottom of the trench lies the River Liffey, surrounded by thickets of trees and brush on either side; in rainy seasons, though, the river expands to the town walls on either side. During the 2009 floods, however, the river did not just reach the stone walls – they climbed them, higher and higher each day, until the raging waters lapped dangerously close to the roads at the top of the wall. It was Ireland’s worst flood in 800 years.

In the end, of course, it passed, after killing several people, cutting off water supplies (ironically) for up to ten days in places, and straining the national budget already hit hard by the 2008 crash and a year away from pleading for a bailout.

Two-and-a-half years later, though, we got a summer that never was – months of incessant rain, until the locals gathered in the local pub had to speak up over the hammering on the roof. “I can’t remember a year like this. Ever,” one old man in our pub told me, in the tweed jacket and flat cap. He had lived all his 67 years in our village, and was born into an era before electricity and cars appeared here. “I talked to my neighbour down the road today – he’s 85 years old, and he said he’d never seen a year like this. He thought 1947 was a bad year, but it was nothing like this.”

Everyone here said the same: farmers, neighbours, bus drivers and shop ladies. As useful as it is to read the record-breaking weather numbers, it also helps to talk to people who have spent much of their time outdoors for decades and ask them how the air feels. In the end, of course, it passed, and we sighed in relief – we cut the grass that had grown higher than our heads, to wet to be mown, gleaned what we could from the garden, and life went back to normal.

Now, in 2015, water levels on the Shannon are expected to reach 2009 levels, according to the Irish Independent. In the town of Athlone, the river burst its banks and flooded through homes, bringing raw sewage with it – I’m told people got around town by rowboat. On Irish television, our weather lady’s apocalyptic report has gone viral. 

The canal along our home has not done the same, but the lashing rain has been near-constant here. Our power went off a few times, and our heat pump is not working, meaning that we need to burn a lot more firewood and peat – but that too is wet, and must dry over the fire before it can burn in it. In other words, it’s an interesting Christmas again.

It will end, of course, and some people will have to move, other people will have to rebuild, and most people will forget, and go back to imagining themselves to be in control.

I remember well living in Missouri during the Flood of '93, when hundreds of people worked to build a wall of sandbags between the river and Jefferson City. I remember driving with a friend through wooded country and having to stop the car suddenly when the trees ended -- there was water almost to the horizon, with telephone poles and electrical towers poking through here and there.

I visited my old state in 2008, when highways across the floodplain were closed, covered either by the second 500-year flood in 15 years or by animals driven out of their habitat by the waters. In Missouri the river settlements and levees may only have been a few decades old, and people could chalk up a flood like that of '93 to the chaotic river's cycle. Here, though, towns date to the Middle Ages, if not to Roman or Celtic times, and the walls lining the rivers were set at their heights long ago and for a reason.

When modern people try to gauge whether climate change is real, they run into several problems. We no longer live with a sense of our surroundings as our ancestors did, but spend much of our time in a bubble of regulated temperature and lighting. Even when we allow ourselves to feel the elements, we do so for a narrow sliver of time; until recently most people only lived to forty years or so, and while we have almost doubled that figure lately, our lives still flicker on and off quickly compared to those trees or turtles.

We have been able to stretch our understanding far beyond our own lives, though, thanks to a million or so un-thanked researchers each testing bits of the past: pockets of prehistoric air trapped in ice, pollen grains in lake mud, bones and branches and beetle wings, and bits of carbon left behind when an errant subatomic particle jumped its atomic ship. In short, experts of all kinds, of dozens of faiths and countries, have come up with a story of the past – and in broad strokes it all fits like a particularly horrific jigsaw.

The story they tell us is not that carbon dioxide traps the heat of the sun like greenhouse panes – that was known around the time of the US Civil War. Nor is it the fact that our industry and modern machines are flooding the air with carbon dioxide and will change the climate – that has been predicted for more than a century.

 Such information even entered into pop culture long ago. I have on my shelf a book that once came free with Life magazine in 1955 called The World We Live In – it was to promote science among young Americans in an age when both Life and science education were commonplace and uncontroversial. (1) It casually states that pollution from cars and factories had boosted CO2 levels by 10 per cent -- those were the days! -- and that the world would get much hotter in the years ahead. At the time, saying that humans would someday walk on the moon would have been more contentious.

While it did not appear the most urgent issue at the time, references to carbon emissions remained in the mainstream; in 1965, for example, President Lyndon Johnson said in a presidential speech that “this generation has altered the composition of the atmosphere on a global scale through … a steady increase in carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels.” (2)

In the 1980s, when a growing body of data caused scientists to escalate their warnings, Time magazine devoted cover stories to the issue, and in 1990 George Bush – the first one – said that “we all know that human activities are changing the atmosphere in unexpected and in unprecedented ways,” although he balked at most changes to deal with the problem. (3) Such pronouncements stood on a small but sufficient body of evidence – enough to convict, as it were. The world’s experts had the ice-core and balloon-test equivalents of witnesses, motive and fingerprints, and world authorities listened, from the United Nations to Pope John Paul II.

Over the next twenty years, though, three things happened. First, the evidence multiplied to many times what it was before, both because we got better studies, clearer samples and so on, and because the phenomenon itself continued, offering more looming tragedy to study. Instead of just the witnesses, motive and confession, we now also had the equivalent of DNA evidence, forensics evidence, a signed confession and video footage of the crime. You had the accused changing their plea to “guilty.” You had the ghost of the murder victim rising from the dead to point a finger at the accused. You had the accused killer holding press conferences announcing exactly how they committed the murder. In short, we went from 99 per cent certain to 100 per cent.

The second was that, as evidence of the crisis increased, support for fixing it decreased, until elites and media pundits – a minority in Europe, a majority in the USA – claimed the massive changes around them were a hoax, a secret conspiracy of scientists of many nations and faiths, their own eyes, and in some cases, themselves from a few years earlier. The argument usually ran like this:
1.) the weather was not changing,
2.) the cause of the change was unknown,
3.) we had nothing to do with the change,
4.) the change would turn out better for us, and
5.) the weather was not changing.

For the last two decades most environmental activists have continued fighting the good fight, although usually claiming – as with most issues -- that “we” have only x number of years to stop climate change “or it will be too late.” The number of years seemed to vary, for every new season and study seemed to force a re-evaluation, and the “too late” part rang hollow, for climate change has no starting point and nowhere to put a countdown.

A third thing changed, though – more people realised that global warming wouldn’t necessarily bring warmth, but chaos. Not a steady progression in a single, if sometimes inconvenient direction, nor a Hollywood apocalypse to which we could count down. It would mean sudden swings to extremes that we could not predict and for which we could never prepare. Even more disturbingly, this might be a return to the normal state of climate.

To understand this, it helps to understand that ice ages were not, as some people imagine, a planet covered in ice. The world probably did see something like that 700 million years ago, a Snowball Earth that might have forced the then-planet of germs to organise into bodies as fortresses against the elements. Since then, though, the planet has been what we would consider tropical, as in every dinosaur illustration you’ve ever seen. Only a few million years ago did the world begin to see ice, and even then it has swung between two moderate states. Every ten thousand years or so the planet gets cooler and the ice caps expand down to Spain and Kentucky – the ice age part -- and then they retreat to the small caps we know today.

The cooler stretches sound extreme to us because they covered today’s Western and prosperous nations where so many of us live, but remember that even now, most humans live elsewhere, and we didn’t just lose potential land. Places like Chihuahua or the Sudan might have been more habitable than today, and the Caribbean and Indonesia would turn from island chains to vast rainforests; in terms of habitable space, we might gain as much in an Ice Age as we would lose.

It also helps to understand that humans did not merely endure weather, as we once thought, but changed it long before we discovered the fuel potential of fossils. US histories once imagined Native Americans wandering sparsely around a virgin wilderness in loincloths, while European histories rarely mentioned the hot and cold periods that had such power over European culture for hundreds of years. A detailed history of Britain, for example, might have mentioned the “frost fairs” on the River Thames, without explaining why the Thames no longer freezes.

Over the last couple of decades, though, researchers began to fit various pieces together --as chronicled in books like William Ruddiman’s Plows, Plagues and Petroleum and Charles Mann’s 1493 – and concluded that humans have been changing the climate since the end of the last ice age. We imagine humans doing this in modern farming nations like Britain and China, but ancient humans farmed almost everywhere they settled; in what is now Arkansas and Nigeria, New Guinea and the Amazon. By cutting down most of the world’s trees, humans sent a constant trickle of carbon dioxide into the sky and prevented it from coming back, and that subtle shift, say some researchers put off the ice age that would otherwise have been coming back right about now.

When large numbers of farmers suddenly stop farming and the forests return, the effects can be seen in global weather. After Genghis Khan killed tens of millions of farmers, the climate noticeably cooled, as it did after the Black Death cut the European population by a third. When Europeans first reached the Americas, they brought ten thousand years’ worth of diseases to which Natives had no exposure, and an estimated 95 per cent of the population died, turning what had been a densely populated landscape into an empty land. And once again, the forests grew back, and the resulting Little Ice Age iced over the Thames – and much of Europe – for the next 300 years.

The fact that we started changing the climate long ago, though, shouldn’t make us take the current crisis less seriously; rather, it should serve as a cautionary tale. If medieval farmers could do this much by burning trees, releasing the sunlight and carbon drawn down from the last century, how much more are we doing by unleashing hundreds of millions of years? What we are doing, in fact, is flooding the air with the atmosphere of forests that existed before dinosaurs, from when a dimmer sun shone over a thicker atmosphere and giant insects under a fern-tree canopy. When we drive, fly, and use engines of any kind, mixing our own air with that of an alien planet.

This brings us to an additional problem, one that we are only slowly beginning to realise. When the climate changed in the past – say, at the end of the ice age – it did so far more quickly than we realised, perhaps in a few generations. Climate change does not creep along slowly over generations, but swings from one state to another wildly, and the last several thousand years have been comparatively mild and moderate. We have lived in a stretch of green and pleasant land not just as long as any individual can remember, but as long as there was recorded history.

It seems a long time to us, but it’s a blink in geological time, merely a summer in the ice-age oscillation. Humans have had modern brains for perhaps ten times longer than that, and have walked upright perhaps 400 times longer. In this ten-millennia stretch of warm and stable temperatures, though, we have gone from our normal foraging to fields of crops, to cities, world wars and plastics, and multiplied our numbers perhaps 7,000 times above normal. Now that we have manipulated carbon dioxide levels as much as any ice age – just in the opposite direction – we might return to a wildly oscillating climate.

In Elizabeth Kolbert’s excellent 2002 article “Ice Memory,” climatologist J. P. Steffens -- who studies ice cores from his base on the frozen wastes of Greenland-- says our frenzied growth in this one era could only happen because we have been fortunate enough to have a period of calm in the storm.

“Why didn't human beings make civilisation fifty thousand years ago?" he asked. "You know that they had just as big brains as we have today. When you put it in a climatic framework, you can say, 'Well, it was the ice age. And also this ice age was so climatically unstable that each time you had the beginning of a culture they had to move. Then comes the present interglacial — ten thousand years of very stable climate. The perfect conditions for agriculture. If you look at it, it's amazing. Civilisations in Persia, in China, and in India start at the same time, maybe six thousand years ago. They all developed writing and they all developed religion and they all built cities, all at the same time, because the climate was stable. I think that if the climate would have been stable fifty thousand years ago it would have started then. But they had no chance.'” (4)

Climatologist James Hansen echoed the same sentiment a few years later. “… civilization developed, and constructed extensive infrastructure, during a period of unusual climate stability, the Holocene, now almost 12 000 years in duration,” he said. “That period is about to end.” (5)

Of course, all these statements were made before the most potentially serious sign of the future -- bubbles of methane released from melting ice -- were seen frothing up from under the Arctic at an alarming rate. Most of the change so far has been from carbon dioxide; methane is dozens of times worse. It’s a realisation with breath-taking implications for the whole idea of climate change. Rather than a steady climb upwards, easy to predict, track and prove, we could face a chaotic series of extremes in all directions, depending on where we are.

Convincing people that the climate is changing presents an obvious difficulty; since climate is simply the average of thousands of days of weather, any of which is unpredictable in itself, change is difficult to see except by careful noticing over time. Even then such changes could be determined if the change was steady and predictable; if the temperatures, wherever you are, were to rise one degree per decade, then after a decade or two the world could have taken readings and had an answer before televisions were invented. When the change means wilder swings, though, predicting the effects of climate change becomes even more difficult, as does convincing people.

No one could ever blame climate change for any one weather event, any more than one could ever blame tobacco companies for any one smoker’s lung cancer. You could, however, look broadly at the number of smokers who die of lung cancer, and compare them with the number of non-smokers, and you can calculate a certain per cent increase in the risk of cancer. In the same way, we can look at a typical climate and calculate what we are seeing that is unusual, as groups of experts occasionally do at NASA and other places – and show that, yes, the baseline normal of the planet is changing.

As our towns and fields here flood, the world has signed a new climate agreement, and while I can praise the people who worked so hard for this, I don’t assume it will change human nature, or reverse what has been done so far. Part of the problem might be our expectations -- when activists push for agreements like this, too often they invoke visions of a Hollywood apocalypse familiar from generations of bad movies. Then, they say, we have only X number of years to “stop” climate change before it “hits” – all language that evokes Hollywood disasters.

The reality might look more like what we are seeing -- a few houses flooded that were never before. Towns slowly retreating from some rivers and most seashores. Christmas season a bit "worse" and more traditional than they used to be. I would venture that the Long Emergency might take lifetimes, long stretches of normal life punctuated by moments of crisis.

I'm not that concerned about Manhattan flooding, a fear that Al Gore brought up in his Nobel-Peace-Prize-winning Powerpoint presentation – Manhattan is not more important than a hundred other towns and cities in my native USA. I’m more concerned that crop failure would become commonplace, until even fewer young men want to become farmers, or that farms become too great a risk for financiers, or that even homesteaders don't know what to plant this year.

It’s entirely possible that, a hundred years from now, in the relocated population centres and capitals, one political faction might still be insisting that nothing has changed, while the other keeps insisting we have only ten years left.

If I had to hazard a bet, I would bet that the next few decades will look like the last few years here – a minor disaster that destroys a few people’s lives, raises insurance rates, releases and spreads various kinds of waste, passes the problem onto Team Taxpayer. And everyone will go back to their lives, believing themselves to be in control.

1 - The World We Live In, Page 71.
2 – Lyndon Johnson, Feb. 8.1965
3 – George H.W. Bush’s address to the IPCC, Feb. 5, 1990.
4 – Steffens quoted in Elizabeth Kolbert’s article “Ice Memory” in New Yorker magazine, January 6, 2002.
http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2002/01/07/020107fa_FACT
5 - “Climate change and trace gases,” James Hansen et al, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society
http://rsta.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/365/1856/1925.full
6 - Hansen, J., Mki. Sato, and R. Ruedy, 2012: Perception of climate change. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci.
Parts of this article were taken from my articles "Days of Future Past" and "And the Waters Prevailed," the first two times this happened.