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. 

Sunday, 6 December 2015

Evening lesson

Every night, The Girl and I do lessons together – she goes to regular Catholic school in the village, but in the evenings I tell her about things she’s not likely to learn elsewhere. Some nights we do systems theory, some nights we discuss Ancient Greece or Rome, some nights what’s growing in the garden, or just how she’s coping with growing up.

While I write out lessons on the bus in preparation, our conversation inevitably jumps from one subject to the next, taking us places we didn’t expect. Sometimes I try to get us back on track, but often I let the lesson wander – it shows her, and me, the connections that a conventional education, with its cleanly demarcated subjects, might overlook. And now that she's becoming an adolescent, inevitably exposed to the mass media, she's asking deeper questions.

The other night we started talking about how all living things are made of cells, but almost everything falls victim to viruses and other diseases. Viruses, I told her, infect living things, by slipping inside a cell, “hacking” its DNA and changing its programming – from a human blood cell doing its job, say, into a factory for more viruses. It’s a positive feedback loop, but it doesn’t go on forever; your body has antibodies and reactions that create negative feedback, and slow it down. We know it works most of the time, or we wouldn’t all be here.

Plus, not everyone gets a virus, or with the same intensity -- everyone’s DNA is different, and a particular virus will be able to infect one person’s DNA but not another’s. If one person is immune to that virus, they are likely to survive, and pass on their immunity to their children. So people keep adapting to be immune to the latest round of viruses, and viruses keep adapting to infect new people.
“Is it a Red Queen?” she asked.

Very good, I said – like predators and prey, each group keeps adapting to outpace the other, and they end up in the same place.

Of course, I said, it’s more complicated than that, because the viruses are not just adapting to infect people, but to not kill us off – a virus that quickly killed its host wouldn’t leave behind many descendants, either. That’s why viruses start off deadly when they first appear among humans – say, by crossing over from another kind of animal – and get milder as time goes on. And most things don’t die completely from disease, only partly.

“They only partly die?” she asked.

That’s only partly the cause, I said. Deer in a forest rarely just drop dead of some disease. But if they are sick, the disease weakens them, and they are too slow running from the wolf. An oak tree remains withstands storms for centuries, but once weakened by disease, a storm blows it down. Then she said something I didn’t expect.

“You said the same thing about human societies once,” she said. “Are they living things?”

That’s brilliant, I said – yes, they are complex systems, and they use energy, create waste, feed and grow, age and die, and sometimes even reproduce – like an animal, plant, mycellium colony or beehive. Complex systems rarely die because of any one thing; the Roman Empire saw a long stretch of plagues and internal conflicts, and only then fell to the Visigoths that they used to defeat. Same thing with the Incas and Spaniards, and any number of other examples.

“But human societies are different than all those other examples,” she said.

How so?

“Well, a liver cell can’t survive by itself, or a leaf, or even a bee. But humans can survive without a society.”

Ahhh, excellent point, I said. In our case, the components can survive without the whole, if they have the right mind-set and skills. Now, the next question – how do humans live without a civilisation?

“Like the people of the World Gone By,” she said. “In the wild.”

Exactly, I said – foraging, hunting, and generally the way we were for our first 100,000 years. That’s our species natural baseline, what our instincts pull us toward, and what we go back to under stress. Only when you have leftover energy, like from agriculture or a new resource, do tribes coalesce into nations, and some people have the extra time for things like technology or writing.

“My history books talk about people getting more civilised over time,” she said. “I don’t usually think about people going the other direction.”

But that happens all the time, I said – all over the world there are monuments from civilisations that no longer exist. Tribes in Europe took up farming for hundreds of years in the Bronze Age, then went back to foraging, then adopted farming again under the Romans, then were part of a giant organised empire, then fell back to being farmers and nomads again. You can see that here in Ireland –Celts, monks, Normans, and Victorians all ruled here, weakened and fell, and left behind their own giant stone monuments. Now it’s starting to look more and more like the USA. In fifty years it might look like something else.

You know how some living things can exist in more than one form – like slime moulds can exist as a disorganised film of cells, and then suddenly coalesce into a complex living animal, and then go back again? That’s how I think of humans – only our behaviour has a moral dimension that a slime mould’s doesn’t.

“I know our civilisation hasn’t been good for much of the world,” The Girl said. “We have oceans full of our plastic, places with poison air or water. People in tribes didn’t do those things.” It wasn’t necessarily that they were better, though, I said – just that they had less power. You wish you could live like that? I asked.

“Maybe,” she said. “I just see how much damage we’re doing with technology.”

If you lived like a Stone Age tribe, though, you’d have no books to read, I told her. War with your neighbours would be common, many marriages would start with a kidnapping, and death would often be violent. We evolved to live in tribes, so we act that way instinctively -- protective of our family, suspicious of outsiders, easily distracted, prone to violence, and inclined to follow strong leaders, for better or worse.

On the other hand, when people live at the height of a civilisation, as we do now, we get comfortable living alongside lots of strangers, we have specialised training in using technology, and we work lots of boring jobs to keep the system running. We have schools and libraries that primitive people didn’t have, and have all kinds of food and conveniences whenever we want -- but we also risk becoming completely dependent on the system, separated from Nature and unable to do anything for ourselves. It's better in some ways, worse in others. What I try to do – and encourage you to do – is to cultivate the best of both worlds.

“Can you be really tribal in certain ways and really civilised in others?” she asked.

Absolutely, I said – all these traits can exist in different combinations. People can use advanced technology and be violent to outsiders, for example. Or they can live close to Nature and be self-reliant, and still be very cultured.

"Is the latter the best of both worlds?” The Girl asked.

 When people live in small and self-sufficient groups where everyone helps each other out, I said, their communities can often sustain a learned culture on very little energy and through some difficult times. Monks in the Dark Ages or Irish villages in the war years saw empires collapse around them and went on like nothing happened – civilised, educated, independent, and close-knit. They kept their culture and their faith, and stress just made them stronger.

But if a culture breaks down – if people lose any sense that they are responsible for each other, or they lose the rituals or values that kept them together – then they become more tribal in all the worst ways. They stop helping each other, and so are less able to get through tough times. Instead, people start fighting each other.

Then she said something I didn’t see coming. “Is that what’s happening in the USA?” she asked. How do you mean? I asked.

The Girl knows the USA through visits and reputation; she’s proud of being American by birth, and when we visited this summer, she loved seeing her first baseball game or seeing the sights. At the same time, she knows about last year’s riots in Ferguson, near where I grew up, and she’s heard news of the almost daily mass shootings. When we drove through St. Louis she saw the many green and pleasant neighbourhoods, of families that go back generations and neighbours who look out for each other. But she also saw neighbourhoods where the houses lacked windows, and were decorated with bullet-holes and graffiti. In my hometown, you can cross a few blocks and be in a different world.

In some of my articles on Ferguson, I pointed out that riots and unrest were growing across the country, and not relegated to poor or troubled neighbourhoods. Surveys show Americans spending less and less time with family or neighbours and more and more time in front of screens, listening to media that caters to their own pet conspiracy theories. Americans are growing more paranoid and polarised, less willing to engage in public life. In most traditional societies, and in the USA a few decades ago, public safety and decency were once monitored by neighbours, enforced by social pressure and shame; today people rely on heavily armed police, or stockpile weapons themselves.

Yes, I told her – my native country is still a great place in many ways, with many wonderful people in it – but its culture is quite troubled these days. When people are riled up like Americans are right now, when their society is weakened by some kind of cultural stress, a single act can blow things up. It doesn’t have to mean some kind of total collapse, but it can be a step in that direction.

“It’s like a reaction,” she said “A what-do-you-call-it…” Catalyst? I said “No, like a something reaction,” she said.

 A chain reaction, I replied – you’re right. And the thing that sets it off is called a catalyst – it’s what starts the reaction in chemistry. When people know and can trust each other, they can weather a lot of storms – but when everyone is already on edge, a violent act can set people off against each other.

Remember that Twilight Zone episode I showed you, called “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street?” The aliens started rumours to make people afraid, then made strange things happen to make everyone panic. Then they didn’t need to invade – the neighbours just attacked each other. That can happen when a society, or any complex system, is under stress – they can collapse from something they would have ordinarily shaken off.

Keep in mind, I added, that it's nowhere near that bad there right now, and most people there are too good to let that happen. There are always tensions in every time and place, and most of the time they amount to nothing.

Then she said something else unexpected. “That chain reaction -- is that like what happened in Paris?” she asked. She had heard about the terrorist shootings, and had been asking about it.

That’s what someone was trying to do, I said – first, tell me what you know about the attacks. I asked her what she knew about the attacks first, and she knew the basics -- Muslim terrorists, the shootings, and the worldwide outpouring of grief.

“Do they know who did it, or why?” she asked.

Yes, they believe it was that group called ISIS, or Daesh, I said – but most terrorists work in about the same way, by trying to terrorise. I understand there is tension between most French and the Muslim minority, and it sounds like the terrorists were trying to scare people there, too, and turn them against each other.

“What do they gain from this?” she asked.

If you're thinking about that, I said, that means you’re already ahead of most people talking about this. Most people just drop words like “hate,” and stop there. But everyone, even people you don’t like, has a strategy and motivations.

“What do you think they want?” She said.

Well, I don’t have any way of knowing for sure, but I can hazard a guess. Let’s say there are ten thousand people in ISIS, and a billion Muslims in the world – that means that 99.999% of all Muslims aren’t part of ISIS. And there are two billion Christians, some of them living peacefully alongside Muslims. Got it so far?

“I understand,” she said, getting out her pencil and paper.

Well, let’s say a Muslim group wants to do something like what those aliens did on “Maple Street.” Let’s say they set off a bomb, or start a panic, and get people scared and angry. Let’s say a few people overreact and hurt Muslims – just a few, like 1 per cent. And of the Muslims that get hurt, 99 per cent forgive or deal with it, but one per cent join a terrorist group.

 “Right,” she said, trying to work out the numbers.

Well, I said, the terrorists have just increased their ranks tenfold.

“And they can scare other people, and it’s a positive feedback loop,” she said.

Exactly. It’s just a hypothesis, of course.

 “What a cold, dark game,” my daughter said, and then looked up in a moment of inspiration. “They’re being a virus – trying to turn people from helping their neighbours to helping the terrorists.”

I know, I said. But most people avoid such traps. 

“How?”

Well, I said, they realise that their risk of being killed by terrorists is basically zero. If you were in Paris, on that day, it would still be basically zero. They have no power over you, unless you let yourself get scared.

The other good news is that there have always been people doing things like this somewhere, trying to scare people – but it never works very much for long, or we wouldn’t be here. Reasoning people in healthy communities are less likely to panic or turn on each other – they can think for themselves, realise there’s nothing to be scared of, talk to others, negotiate alliances and so on.

“They create negative feedback,” she observed. “They’re like antibodies.”

Yep, I said -- our better angels. And it works most of the time, or otherwise we wouldn’t still be here. How do you feel about that?

“How can I help?” she asked, and I smiled.

Set an example for your friends, I said, and keep learning. And relax -- you’re doing fine.

We’re doing fine,” she said. “We're lucky.”

Yes, we are. Now into bed.

“Love you, Daddy.”






















Top photo: Carbury Castle, near our home.

Bottom photo: Our house at night. 

All conversations with The Girl transcribed with her permission.