Friday 30 January 2009

School lunches

School lunches have become a hot issue in the last few years; celebrity chefs in both England and America have protested the unhealthy, processed meals and pushed for reforms. That’s a great thing – but even better, why not show children how to make their own food?

A number of teachers around the world have found great success doing just that. Zenobia Barlow, director of the Center for Ecological Literacy in the U.S., helped a school turn its garden into an allotment. In doing so, the school has turned almost every class into a field trip, and every school dinner into a nutritious, organically-homegrown feast.

School gardens, or field trips to existing allotments, accomplish many things at once. They show children where meals come from – this farmer, this field, as opposed to a plastic package. They demonstrate that they have the power to create, and that negligence has consequences, that some things cannot be hurried or improved upon.

They create a living laboratory of biology, chemistry and economics; holding a fat worm makes a lesson real to a child in a way that no video can. Gardens also create exercise and entertainment for children who have been sitting behind desks for hours.

Time spent with nature is a vital part of growing up, and one that fewer young people experience as the countryside is built up and they spend more of their time watching television. One recent study suggested that the recent rise of problems like attention-deficit disorder is due to “nature-deficit disorder,” the lack of natural stimulation – climbing trees, jumping over streams -- in children’s lives.

Perhaps most of all, a garden makes the best food around. Nutritionists have shown that vegetables lose vitamins and taste from the moment they are picked, and gardens provide children with healthy food much of the year. Whether you are minding children, teaching, or just parenting, consider making gardening a part of your child’s daily education.

Saturday 24 January 2009

Carbury Castle

A friend of mine from America visited a few years ago, when we were still new to the area, and wanted to see the head of the River Boyne. We drove all over the tiny capillaries of Irish back roads, triangulating the source of the river, and along the way we came upon Carbury Castle.

Eventually we found a nearby manor, on whose grounds, we were told, the river began. We knocked on the giant door and were greeted by an elderly gentleman, who had lived there his entire life and was the last of his lineage. He was blind now, we realized, but could point in the right direction, and we stayed for a while to talk to him about the history of the place.

He told us about his boyhood there in the Edwardian era -- at 86, he was actually older than the independent nation of Ireland -- when he and other boys rolled hoops and held picnics on the hillsides. He told us about the Normans who first built Carbury Castle, and the warlords who ruled the area in medieval times -- one, he said, invited all the local lords to a feast and killed them in treachery, as in the opening of Braveheart.

We followed his finger to the place where the Boyne began -- a river named after the goddess Boyne, often depicted standing in water. My friend and I came upon it and she promptly fell in, standing knee-deep in the spring.

Thursday 15 January 2009

Landing, bailing and crashing

In his column – one of the few I read every day – the admirable Rod Dreher links to this Wall Street Journal article, and notes that the U.S. may go the way of the British Empire. I was going to post a comment, but my writing became too long for that, so I will expand here.

I am a patriot – if an expatriate one – and I don’t want my country to collapse, but there are worse options than going the way of the British.

U.S. government and business communities have made some bad choices. Money and investment have become ever-further removed from the realm of tangible infrastructure. The government has become the world’s largest importer of energy in exchange for accumulating the world’s largest debt, while sinking to the bottom of the West in health care, education and services. The United States government currently runs hundreds of overseas bases and spends more on the military than the other 194 countries of the world combined, and while many Americans have died keeping the government in that position, it has not made us a richer or better people. U.S. residents’ food increasingly comes from vast centralized businesses and their goods from the Third World, circulating in fleets of trucks that rumble past vacant lots and vacant factories.

Before I left my home country, long before the Wall Street turbulence, I saw a society increasingly strained and fragile: towns with crumbling buildings and boarded-up storefronts, friends and relations working several jobs to get by. That said, the country is still fabulously wealthy compared to most populations in most eras, many Americans are decent and intelligent, the country has been through worse, and collapse – in the Zombie Apocalypse sense -- is not inevitable.

The United States will not remain the world’s dominant military force when the sun goes nova a few billion years from now, so at some point we will “fall,” in the same way that a plane, held aloft by a massive infusion of temporary power, must fall. The stratosphere is not that iron’s natural home. We are already falling fast, but there might be other options than crashing.

The more mainstream environmentalists and peak oil activists are lobbying governments and corporations to take the massive initiatives needed to avert an energy and ecological collapse -- in other words, to land the plane. Many in the Green movement -- crunchy cons, "back-to-the-landers," the original Green Party, people taking the "Benedict Option," whatever you call them -- are taking parachutes and giving them to their fellow passengers. In our case -- and here's where the plane metaphor breaks down -- we need both, and will benefit from a combination.

Personally, I wouldn’t mind the U.S. “fall” in the way that British empire has since the Second World War – letting go of its colonies, often gradually and peacefully, leaving them largely prosperous and amicable. Their empire continued undeterred after my own country’s rebellion in the 1700s, but I wonder if they learned a great deal from the Irish rebellion, and especially from Gandhi’s courteously iron resistance. That may explain the way they dealt with Cyprus, South Africa, Rhodesia, the Carribbean, Canada, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand.

These countries all have vastly different circumstances and histories, of course, but they tend to be roughly better off than neighbours of comparable population and history -- even troubled Zimbabwe has a literacy rate of 90 percent, which according to this might be better than the U.S. Many British perceive their country to be a better place now, and speak of the loss of their empire with gentle humour rather than bitterness.

My fear is that the country will crash as Spain did after briefly, if only theoretically, owning virtually the entire planet. Spain clung to its fortresses and oppressed populations, straining its capacities, running up debts, and losing its possessions one by one after centuries of bloodshed, until it was among the poorest of Western nations. Much of the population of the Western Hemisphere was left with a legacy of poverty and violence, speaking Spanish and carrying the Y-chromosomes of the tiny country that they look back on with rancour.

Tuesday 6 January 2009


In the early 1970s, country singer John Prine wrote one of my favourite songs, "Paradise," about a boyhood in the Appalachian Mountains -- and, years later, finding that the mountains had been destroyed.

It wasn't fiction. The practice has never received much media attention in the last four decades, but coal companies have destroyed some of oldest mountains in the world in one of America's two great ranges. I don't mean they stripped the trees off the mountain slopes. I mean some of the mountains themselves are now gone and the land flat.

For a hundred years, companies mined coal by sending men down dangerous shafts, resulting in labour battles so fierce they involved periodic Wild-West gunfights. In the 1970s they discovered a quicker way – literally blasting away mountains and, with “the world’s largest shovel,” as Prine's song put it, pushing the rubble into the once-forested valleys.

According to Alan Weisman’s book The World Without Us, more than 1,000 miles of mountain streams -- the distance from New York to Chicago and Ireland to Africa -- have now been buried under the rubble, and will be deeply contaminated by the time they bubble up again.

You would think one of America’s two great mountain ranges would be somewhat protected, or that there would be some fuss about destroying so many of them, but this act – one of the most extreme ever committed by our species – rarely receives any media attention.

Late last year, Tennessee builder Howard Switzer wrote in a prophetic letter to the Knoxville newspaper, “[m]any might think this is the price we must pay to keep lights on in the U.S., but actually the coal from under those mountain tops is going mostly to China."

“That’s right, we are allowing the destruction of our mountains so that China can pollute its air,” said the longtime conservationist, who specializes in building homes out of straw bales.

Switzer ran for governor of Tennessee last election as a third-party candidate, but was unable to generate much attention to this issue. Then this happened:

The sludge that ripped eight homes off their foundations was referred to as ash, but it is not the wood ash that is good for the soil when dug in. It is the chemical remains of mining, filled with lead, arsenic and thallium – extremely poisonous elements banned from most uses. You can remember them by the murder mystery in which they were used as a poison (Thallium: Agatha Christie's The Pale Horse. Arsenic: Arsenic and Old Lace).

Initial reports -- which, judging from Internet sites, seemed to receive scant coverage in America -- stated that 1.8 million cubic yards of this Oobleck flooded over what used to be forest. The news turned out to be wrong – it was three times that. A billion gallons. The largest such disaster in U.S. history. According to the journalists reaching for visual aids, that is enough ash to fill 450,000 dump trucks. So, a lot.

According to the Louisville Courier-Journal, “[t]he sludge has flowed into the Emory River, a tributary of the Tennessee River, which provides drinking water to millions of people downstream in Tennessee, Alabama and Kentucky.” Thankfully, poison levels have not gone very high for people downstream, and I wonder how many unsung heroes at the filtration plant really deserve a vacation at this point.

I found two passages particularly revealing. First, according to the Associated Press: “This is not the first time that the coal ash containment ponds have breached at the Kingston Fossil plant. There have been two in recent years, one in 2003 and in 2006. Danny Collins, the manager of the Rockwood Municipal Airport, said that he'd noticed a green ooze coming from the retention wall of the waste pond for the last year and a half.”

And this one from the Louisville Courier: “The spill has reignited the national debate over whether federal standards should be established to store and dispose of the waste left from burning coal.” At present, there are no federal rules for storing and disposing this toxic waste.

After the event Switzer wrote another letter to list-serves far and wide, saying that: “Coal kills … It is estimated that over 64 million Americans breathe air that has so much particle pollution that it puts their health at risk ... Besides the microscopic particles linked to asthma and heart disease there are other health affects as well, not to mention the forest killing acid rain. Coal-fired power plants are the largest single man-made source of mercury pollution in the U.S., the largest contributor of hazardous air pollutants overall ... Coal kills far more people than terrorism."

Switzer didn’t note the big problem with coal – there is enough of it to tip the climate, rapidly spreading deserts across the world. Coal is dangerous not only because there is so much more of it, but because it is much less efficient than oil or gas, so much more of it must be mined and burned to release the same amount of energy. As oil grows scarce, nations will be tempted to turn to coal, which would stretch our fossil-fuel credit a little longer at a much higher interest rate.

How can I write about this on the Internet, when the electricity you and I are using may have come from coal? Because we can get electricity from many sources, and turning vast areas of the Earth into desert is not necessary to post on the Internet. Because none of us ever got to vote where our power comes from --- most of us are never told, and if we knew, would vote differently. Because we must talk to each other as well, or nothing will happen.

Because I, and many other people, are cutting our usage and realizing how much can go -- and by trimming the waste now, we can make sure we can blog with little impact, just as by trimming the hundreds of kilos of junk mail, we can make sure there are enough trees left to enjoy a good book.
Top photo: Appalachian stream, public domain. Bottom photo: Courtesy of Associated Press.