Wednesday 29 April 2009

Just in case

Sometimes people accurately sketch a vision of the future based on facts and reason, and sometimes they pose a hypothetical wild card that proves eerily prescient. James Howard Kunstler has done both in the last few years – his 2005 book The Long Emergency predicted volatile oil prices, a busting house bubble and bank collapses, but in his fictional 2008 follow-up World Made By Hand he threw in an additional insult – a lethal “Mexican Flu.”

As creepy as the parallels are, it’s important to separate Kunstler’s dire fiction – and the public’s looming sense of dread – from a range of likely outcomes to this outbreak. In two weeks this virus has apparently killed 150 people, and while each of those deaths are tragic and the numbers will no doubt increase, keep in mind that ordinary flu already kills as many as half a million people every year worldwide.

Remember that officials or the media may or may not be overreacting to the swine flu. New diseases crop up all the time, and most are not serious. Most of the serious ones – SARS, Ebola – are contained quickly, and do not become pandemics. Even in the middle of a pandemic, most people do not get sick. Most people who get sick from a pandemic get better. This might become very serious, or not, but the risk of death to any of us is statistically low – except in the long run.

Certainly news of this flu hits an already weary world. The elite media has too little, too late covered the planet’s limits to growth, the peaking of oil, the changing of the climate and the growing fragility of the economy, so many people must see the events of the last few years – oil price swings, bank collapses, Third-World famines, foreclosures – as a bizarre confluence of unexplainable catastrophes. A new disease is likely to push some already stressed and ordinarily clear-headed people into thoughts of Nostradamus, the imminent Rapture or the alleged Mayan 2012 whatever.

So really, really don’t panic. This is especially true for parents – kids soak up the stress around them, and it doesn’t do them any good. Talk to them calmly and sanguinely about what to do in an emergency, making it into a game. Tonight I praised my four-year-old for blowing her nose, and cheerfully went over the things that help keep us from getting sick – washing our hands, covering our mouths when we cough, eating our vegetables and so on. She loves knowing the answers to quiz questions, so in the coming weeks, we’ll make a fun game of what to do when other people get sick.

Of course we might all have to keep our children home from school, wear face masks or cancel travel plans. I had hoped to bring my daughter to America this year to see my family – we don’t fly much, so every trip is a major event – and I planned to book tickets this week. Now I’ll be putting that off a little while to see what the swine flu does – European governments are warning against nonessential travel right now, and I want to make sure we can visit Missouri and still get back to Ireland.

Do try to think about what a worst-case scenario might be like, based on historical accounts of times when this has happened before. Hypothetically, what happens if you have to stay home from work for a while? What happens if the kids have to stay home? If the supermarkets are emptied? If the hospitals are overburdened? If the water is turned off?

Keep a few months’ worth of stored food, and have something growing in your yard or on your land that is edible. What foods you stock up will depend on your situation – we have dried beans and pasta in the house, but will be stocking up the shed with vermin-proof tin cans. We will also keep sealed containers of sugar, flour, oil, vinegar and spices, which would help us make dishes with stored and foraged food. Stock up on medicine, soap, toothpaste, bandages and blankets. Have stores of potable water, just in case.

Think about how you would sterilize water from wells, rain, canals, streams or lakes. If the water is cloudy, you could strain it through a water filter. If it is clear, you can kill micro-organisms with an ultraviolet filter. A few drops of bleach in a liter of water helps kill germs, although I’d prefer to boil it and avoid the chemicals.

Check on elderly neighbours, and make sure they are okay – flu could hit them hard. Some might not leave the house as much as they used to, so this might be a good time to offer to make suppers for them. Keep in mind you might be the only person in your community who is preparing, so you will be the distribution point for the neighbourhood – be prepared to be a leader. If you don’t have the kind of personality that orders other people around, all the better – those are the kind of people who usually take charge, and we see the results in the world around us.

Collect information on what to do if hospitals are full, either for the flu or for anything else that might happen – one very good book on the subject is Where There Is No Doctor: A Village Health Care Handbook by Jane Maxwell, Carol Thuman and David Werner. It is reportedly used by WHO and UNICEF for their workers in the Third World, and deals with everything from injuries to childbirth.

Brush up on traditional treatments – comfrey for headaches, plasters to aid breathing. They won’t cure the flu, but neither will antibiotics.

Whatever happens with swine flu, there will be many more outbreaks in the future – modern medicine has blessed us with a lifespan and health far beyond most people in most places, but we are still mortal, and our modern lifestyles are likely to create new diseases faster. The world’s population has increased from two billion to seven billion in a single lifetime, mostly in the Third World where health care and sanitary conditions are subhuman. Air travel has increased exponentially, so diseases that took centuries to travel across the medieval world now spread from Mexico to New Zealand in less than a day. Our food has been increasingly mass-produced in ways that breed disease – rightly or wrongly, villagers near the disease’s apparent ground zero reportedly blame a nearby U.S. hog “factory.” Companies that mass-produce meat overuse antibiotics to paper over their grotesque practices, allowing diseases to more quickly evolve a resistance to them.

If all this sounds apocalyptic, keep those second and third paragraphs in mind – this flu might not require any of these preparations. But most of them apply to most crises – they are Long Emergency insurance, just as we might have health and fire insurance. They don’t make us immortal or protect us from any future, but they allow us to get on with life happily, as ready as we can be for the crisis – or the panic – next time.

Photo: Girls wearing masks in Helena, Montana during the 1918 flu, courtesy of "Helena As She Was" web site,

Tuesday 14 April 2009


Hear the word “farmland,” and you think of rows of crops – the same crops for acres of tilled flat land, a foot or two high, sown every spring and harvested every fall. This is what most farms look like today – tractors, straight lines, production maximized for efficiency.

Most of our food comes from farms like this, so perhaps we shouldn’t complain. But this model has its own limitations. Every year seeds must be saved, land tilled, weeds pulled and pests eradicated, so farming has been a laborious business. Each harvest yields a glut of food that must be preserved or processed to last the rest of the year. Farmland tends to be monoculture, scoured of trees and the cornucopia of plants and animals found in the wild.

Producing food this way works best on a grand scale, so farms have become ever larger, further removed from the experience of most people. Such methods require fossil fuels to run the tractors, make the pesticides and process the harvest into Cheesy Poofs. Farmers have been forced to find more and more creative ways to fend off the pests and diseases that evolve past our defences.

A glut of certain foods means the excess must be put to use somewhere else in the human economy, usually somewhere less healthy. Michael Pollan recently noted, for example, that most of Americans’ diet is actually corn -- grain fed to cattle for McDonalds, the sweetener in soda, the dextrose, starch, corn oil and many other foods.

And, while this is a side issue for the hungry, most farmland is not very pleasant to look at. Many people would fantasize a walk through the woods; few dream of walking through sorghum fields.

There is another approach, however: Permaculture, developed in the 1970s by Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren to replicate some of Nature’s diversity, but using plants and animals people can eat. Permaculturists generally prefer perennials, plants that do not need to be sown and harvested over and over, and strive to create a self-sustaining landscape that requires a minimum of maintenance.

Permaculture uses many different species together, treating them not as individual products but as components of a living system; for example, one plant might gain from nutrients its neighbour produces, or one plant might produce a scent that wards pests off the others.

The details depend on the climate and natural flora, but a good example is the forest garden. A permaculture grower might plant trees that produce nuts – according to Holmgren, a forest of walnut trees can produce as much food as the same acreage of wheat. Under the trees one can grow shade-loving plants, to create another layer of crops in the understory. Vines that produce berries can be trained to run up trunks and fences. Instead of simple fences or ornamental hedges, permaculturists prefer to use hedgerows that yield still more fruits, berries and edible leaves.

One of permaculture’s most basic principles is that gardens should require a minimum of input and generate no waste – vitals like water and nutrients should be used and re-used within the system. For example, Holmgren recommends keeping chickens inside a greenhouse if the weather is not too hot: the chickens keep warm inside, and in turn help keep the greenhouse warm with their body heat. They scratch through the soil, eat the young weeds and pests and their manure fertilizes the ground.

Mollison uses another example from his own land, when he needed more fertilizer: he planted berries across his roof, which not only provided food, beauty, shade and insulation, but attracted flocks of birds – which promptly fertilized everything in sight.

Saturday 11 April 2009


David Zax wrote a piece recently in Slate magazine praising the movie Waterworld, saying that the $200 million action movie was an “eco-parable whose message was ahead of its time.” He notes that the world in the film was water because the ice caps had melted, that the cities had been submerged, that the story pits a sail-boating urine-recycler Kevin Costner against gas-guzzling “smokers” who worship the captain of the Exxon Valdez.

I don’t disagree that this waste of $200 million had an ecological message – that was well known at the time, and obvious from seeing the movie. No, I object to the now-commonplace assumption that climate change is a recently-discovered issue -- that films about climate change from the 1990s are prophetic, because no one had any idea.

Nonsense. John Tyndall, an early scientist from County Carlow south of us, first proved the greenhouse effect around the time of the American Civil War. The Swedish scientist Arrhenius proposed a hundred years ago that emissions from our fossil fuel use would cause the world’s climate to heat up.

I mentioned previously my 1955 copy of The World We Live In, which states casually that our cars and factories would create a hotter world. Ten years later, on Feb. 8, 1965, U.S. president Lyndon Johnson included the problem of climate change in an address to Congress for the first time. Nine years later, climate change was part of the background of the film Soylent Green.

We can applaud the people who have brought climate change into the media’s radar in recent years, but let’s not say they discovered the issue. If climatologists are right and the weather grows increasingly freakish in the years ahead, we will hear messages like this a lot, just as we will with oil shortages and the current economic collapse. It's not our fault. No one knew this would happen.

It's almost never true.

Wednesday 8 April 2009

The Girl

Tonight, after a long day at work and on the bus, I got home to a four-year-old that had, apparently, eaten a wheelbarrow of sugar-coated espresso beans. After being bounced on repeatedly, playing games and giving many piggyback rides, I said, "This child is bouncing like a rubber ball." I turned to the Girl. "Why is that, sweetie?"

"Because that what childs are supposed to do," she said earnestly.

A fair point.