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.

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.
5 - “Climate change and trace gases,” James Hansen et al, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society
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 5 July 2015


Some families split over political parties or religious faith. Mine split over beetroot. Some relations insisted on having bowls of boiled beetroot at every major meal, while the beet-haters complained all the while. I joined the anti-beetroot faction in childhood after finding them bland and mealy, until in adulthood I discovered the many other things you could do with the vegetable.

 Now that the first beetroots are coming in our garden – and probably yours as well – we should revisit this long-maligned vegetable. It grows very well in most temperate climates, growing large over the summer and often remaining intact and quite edible even through the winter. Every part of it is edible -- leaves, stalks and roots -- and it comes in many varieties beyond the familiar red: yellow, pink, even striped. It makes good animal feed, sugar, wine, and a variety of dishes, including:

Savoury beetroot salad: In a large salad bowl, mix 20 ml of sesame oil and 20 ml of lemon juice, and add dashes of powdered ginger, cayenne pepper and light soy sauce. Chop up a fistful of chives, although scallions would also do – about 50g. Clean and grate a few medium-sized beetroots (500g) and add 100g of diced feta cheese. Mix the beetroot and cheese well and toss them with the sauce.

Beetroot leaves: Drizzle a bit of oil into a pan over medium heat, throw in a pat of butter and let it melt. Dice a large onion and stir it in. While the onion is sautéing, wash the leaves and chop them. When the onion pieces have turned golden brown, put the chopped leaves in the pan, pour in a cup of vegetable stock, and place a lid over the pan. Let it sautee for about five minutes or so and then check to see if it’s done. Add a sprinkling of lemon juice and a dash of paprika, or experiment with the spices you like. You could serve the leaves like spinach, as a side dish, or use it to fill a crepe or an omelette, or mix it with scrambled eggs.

Borscht: In this vegetarian version, first heat the oven to 250 degrees Centigrade. First peel about 500g of beetroots, slice them into cubes, drizzle a little olive oil over the cubes and toss them around until they are lightly coated in oil. Stretch aluminium foil over an oven tray, spread the cubed beetroot over the tray and put it in the oven for an hour. While that is roasting, take a large pot and drizzle the bottom with oil and butter.

Dice two large onions, put them in the pan and stir them around, and then do the same with about 100g of cabbage, three stalks of celery, two large carrots, and – just before the end – some garlic. Let them sautee until they are soft and lightly golden. Then pour in a litre of vegetable stock and add 10 ml of lemon juice, 10 ml of dark soy sauce and stir in. Finally, take the beetroots out of the oven and add them to the pot. I blitzed the soup with a mixer, but if you don’t have one you can just mash up the chunky bits. Then pour the borscht into bowls and put a dollop of sour cream in the middle, and sprinkle a bit of dill and chervil over the top.

There are all kinds of other possibilities. Try making beetroot chips instead of potato chips. Slice them thinly with a mandolin, cover them in oil, and set them on an oven pan until they become crisp, and then sprinkle them with seasoning and salt to make beetroot crisps.

 You can make pink mashers by mixing beetroot mash with potatoes. You can cut your beetroots into cubes, put them around a chicken in a pan, and roast them in the oven. You can dry them in a dehydrator or solar oven, and keep in jars on the shelf until you need to make soup. Come up with your own possibilities and share them; beetroot makes a great crop for winter nights, and we should start using it to make things most people actually like.

Saturday 13 June 2015

Things I learned from my first week as a beekeeper

First of all, everything you do will be wrong, at least according to someone, and that’s okay.

Take, for example, when you choose what kind of hive to get – by “hive,” I just mean the wooden box and the pieces inside, as you have to set that up before you put the bees in. All of those modern square hives come in two models, one smaller and one larger, and since every piece is made for a hive of one size or the other, beekeepers stick religiously stick with one model and swear by it. I picked the smaller version, thinking it would be easier to lift when laden with wax and honey – but when I told a local beekeeper, he talked to me about my decision in the delicate but grieving tones usually reserved for a terminal illness.

Then you need to decide where to put this wrong hive, and your spot will also be, according to someone, wrong. Most books, for example, recommend placing your hive where it will be warm and dry, protected from wind and rain. Those books were not written for people in Ireland. Who live in a bog in Ireland.

Thus, we make do -- I chose a place in a corner of our woodland, facing the bog-land and its fields of wildflowers, but wove trimmed stalks of elder between tree stumps to form a wattle-fence around part of it, sheltering it from our fierce winds.

Next you need to fill the hive with wooden frames, those rectangular slices of honeycomb that beekeepers remove to get the honey. Most hives come with slides of wax to help get the bees started, and you have to slip the wax into each wooden frame and secure them in place with wire or nails. When you have done this for all ten slides and put them into the hive one by one, you lift the hive off the shelf, set it down gently. Then you listen to the sound of several wax slides come crashing down, and do it right the second time.

You will also need a smoker – basically a cross between a watering can and an accordion -- to slow the bees down before you open up their home. Despite being the smallest animal we’ve domesticated, they are the only ones we have to sedate before approaching.

The bees will need sugar-water to get them started, before they figure out where all the flowers are in relation to their new home. This is easy to make on the kitchen stove – a kilogram of sugar per litre of water – and most hives, like ours, have a feeder attached. You don’t need to feed them continually – that would rather take away from the point of getting honey – but it does help them through the early days and again through the winter months.

You also need a bee suit, a one-piece outfit which will seem to consist mostly of zippers. Do try to seal all the zippers completely, or the neighbourhood children will see a strange, white-clad figure flailing and dancing the hokey-pokey out of the forest.

Now comes the intimidating bit: you need to buy bees and put them into your new home. You will probably do this by buying a swarm nucleus, or “nuc,” a mini-hive filled with a queen and skeleton crew of her staff to get a hive started. Whereas a full hive will have ten to twenty frames of honeycomb, a nuc will have four or five, which you remove and place in your hive. The rest of your hive will be filled with empty frames – empty but for those wax slides you put in – ready for the bees to use as they expand their population.

 Remember those two basic models of hive I mentioned earlier? Since the honeycombed frames of the nuc have to be removed and placed in your hive, the nuc’s frames must be cut the same size as your hive’s. This is why beekeepers stick with only one model – I had to find someone else with the same kind of hives, who was also ready to sell nucs.

Eventually I found an old beekeeper in the Wicklow Mountains of Ireland, and drove out to his farm. He cheerfully plopped into my arms a wooden box, secured all around with duct tape and with a wire mesh at the top, and right under the mesh, a swarm of bees writhing like a single organism.

 “How long will they be safe in there?” I asked, looking up at the threatening sky.

“Oh, they’ll be okay for a few days,” he said, “Just make sure they don’t get cold and are kept out of the wind and rain.”

The freezing sideways rain began on my way home over the mountains, each bump further shaking the box in the back seat, which buzzed ever more irritably with each bounce. If you must drive over mountain passes in near-zero visibility, I learned, it’s better not to hear an angry swarm of bees behind you, box or no box.

When I got home it was still lashing rain, and I learned that most bee suits are not waterproof. Nonetheless, I did set up the nuc next to the hive, their entrances parallel. Bees have amazing sense of direction, but they don’t use landmarks like we or most mammals do; they use the position of the sun and moon to create a kind of GPS. With it they can track and find the positions of hundreds of thousands of flowers each day and communicate them to the other bees – an amazing skill far beyond our abilities – but everything hinges on having the right starting point. Move the hive twenty metres to the left, and they are like cars following Google directions from a slightly wrong street – everything will turn out very badly.

Through the next few days of rain I sprayed sugar-water through their mesh to keep them fed, until the sun came out and I was ready to don the bee suit, smoke the bees and put their honeycombs in the proper hive. That was Plan A. After smoking the nuc well and removing the duct tape, I realised that the box was actually held together with screws that would require some tools and tugging to remove – Plan B.

Through all this the box was wobbled around a lot more, causing the bees to get quite agitated when the smoke wore off. Plan C was to smoke them again, until the burning material in the smoker suddenly ran out; Plan D, to stuff more in and re-light it, failed when the lighter jammed.

Plan E, finally, worked -- for my daughter to run in, get matches, run to a nearby stone, leave the matches and run the other direction while I, trailing a cloud of bees, retrieved the matches, ran back, lit the smoker, and finally calmed the bees down while I moved them. Last I checked, they were settling in fine.

Perhaps the most important thing to learn, though, goes beyond beekeeping. Many of us are trying to learn a lot of new skills, often with little proper training and limited supplies. Everything you do will be wrong, at least compared to the ideal scenarios of how-to books and videos. Don't worry about it: you'll learn as you go, and most of the time, you'll come out okay in the end.

Photo courtesy of Wikicommons.

Saturday 6 June 2015

Making Charcoal

Growing up I knew charcoal as the square briquettes people bought in bags and poured into the barbecue grill once a summer. Like everything else in our lives it came from a store, chemically treated and wrapped in plastic, with no sense that it could be made naturally at home.

Charcoal is simply wood that has been burned with little oxygen, either by being heated but sealed away from oxygen or, more commonly, setting it on fire and then cutting it off from the air, keeping the wood from burning completely into ash. Most other substances in the wood are driven off, leaving a porous shape of almost pure carbon, lightweight and easy to transport.

It can purify water by soaking up impurities, as in many kitchen sink filters, and treat poison victims when crushed and drunk in a fluid. It can be added to soap for abrasion, crushed to make ink or paint or mixed with minerals to make gunpowder. It allows people to burn fires hotter than wood, enabling people to melt quartz into glass or make iron malleable. It was charcoal that allowed Rennaissance craftsmen to grind glass into lenses, allowing elderly people to continue reading and writing, and doubling humans' intellectual lifetime. It was charcoal that allowed people to work iron into swords and ploughshares, buildings and infrastructure; other metals can be hammered by hand, but only with charcoal fires could the Bronze Age become the Iron Age.

Perhaps charcoal's most surprising use, one that gained a burst of attention in recent years, involves trapping carbon from the atmosphere. Vast regions of the Amazon have a distinctive and fertile soil called “black earth,” or terra preta, and recently archaeologists realised that this soil was not a naturally occurring phenomenon, but had been cultivated over millennia. What’s more, they began to realise that much of the sparsely inhabited Amazon rainforest was once densely populated with humans, continually enriching the soil as they farmed.

Like many primitive societies, they burned land to clear it for farming or hunting, but unlike many others they turned some of the wood into charcoal and then worked it back into the soil, creating an unusually rich and fertile ground; according to a 2006 article in Nature, bio-char – the charcoal folded into the earth to make terra preta -- is three times richer in nitrogen and phosphorous than ordinary soil and 20 times richer in carbon.

According to researcher Bruno Glaser at the University of Bayreuth, Germany, a hectare of meter-deep terra preta can hold 250 tonnes of carbon, as opposed to 100 tonnes of carbon in unimproved soils. In addition, the bio-char itself increases soil fertility, which allows farmers to grow more plants, which allows more bio-char to be added to the soil. Johannes Lehman, author of Amazonian Dark Earths, claims that combining bio-char and bio-fuels could draw down 9.5 billion tones per year, equal to all our current fossil fuel emissions.

Whether or not such people are correct, the technique has drawn admirers like climate scientists James Lovelock and Tim Flannery. As I mentioned last week, climate change is hitting people around the world, yet we struggle to reduce our pollution even a little, and our goal of a zero-carbon world seems ever more hopeless. If such techniques would work in more temperate climates -- that is, if the carbon trapped by charcoal far exceeds the carbon expended to grow it, and can be trapped on a human timescale -- then everyone in the world would possess the skills to become, not just carbon-neutral, but carbon-negative.

To  do any of these things, however, we first need to gain experience making charcoal at home. My daughter and I tried three ways of making charcoal, with varying degrees of success. Since charcoal can be created when wood is inside a heated and sealed container, I put two metal buckets together, one upside-down and atop the other, and inside I placed one or more pieces of wood. The crack of space between the two buckets I plastered with clay, and around them I started a fire of some of our rotting lumber. (Never burn treated lumber for charcoal or even in a fireplace; it has chemicals that can be poisonous when inhaled, and I would not want to drink water that has been filtered through its charcoal.)

I tried to make small amounts of charcoal, one at a time, but it never worked. If the clay plaster held, the logs inside were merely singed, and if part of the plaster fell off – as happened more frequently – the fire caught inside until I was left with only a few small pieces of charcoal and a lot of ash.

For the second method I took a page from County Waterford farmer and author John Seymour and dug a trench, lit a fire in it, tossed in some logs and covered it with corrugated iron sheeting. Then I packed the cracks tightly with clay and plants to seal in the oxygen, and uncovered it a few days later. This worked better, as I did get some charcoal out of it, but the amount was still tiny.

The best method, I found, was the one charcoal burners used from ancient times until just the last century. I stacked logs in a triangular pattern and leaned more upright pieces of wood around them, until I had a small and dense ring of wood about a metre high. Then I filled the interior of the triangle with tinder and kindling – sawdust, mulch, twigs, anything that would light easily and create an intense heat that would burn the rest of the wood.

Then I covered the wood with recently-cleared weeds, spread clay over the weeds, and shovelled earth over those, until I had a mound open at the very top, with a “chimney” that looked down into the tinder-filled space between the logs. 

Next came the big moment – I lit a fire-starter and dropped it down the middle, and within moments had a raging fire inside the mound. I covered the top of the mound with strips of weeds and shovelled more earth on top – the weeds and roots served to block the entrance, so that I wasn’t simply shovelling loose earth into the hole and putting out the fire.

The result was a strangely smoking hill, and when it smoked too much when it cracked and too much oxygen got in. When a hole or crack formed, I plastered more mud and earth over that part – carefully, for the escaping steam can get quite hot – until the leak was stopped.

Two days later, I broke it open, and began fishing out the charcoal, and got about five kilos from an estimated 36 kilos of wood. Most text say the charcoal can be as much as 60 per cent of the wood by volume and 25 per cent by weight. I probably got less charcoal because I let it burn through the night; I had to spend part of the day building it and light it in the evening, as the constant threat of rain here meant I couldn’t leave it overnight. Charcoal-burners, though, were said to watch their mound for hours until the smoke turned from white to blue, indicating they were beginning to burn charcoal, before putting the fire out to maximise the amount of charcoal from a single burn.

With more careful measurements, amateur scientists around the world could try such techniques on some kind of fast-growing wood, like willow, and see if we could do with terra preta in temperate climates what Amazonian tribes did in the rainforest. On paper, it looks like it should work: willow can yield ten tonnes to the acre, the charcoal would retain a quarter of that mass of the wood, and should remain stable in the soil for decades while new tonnes are grown. All this, though, is theory, and we won’t know unless we experiment.

Whether terra preta turns out to help the climate or not, however, charcoal helped create everything in the modern world, from glass (eyeglasses, greenhouses, microscopes and telescopes) to steel (ploughshares, swords and most modern structures) to any number of other useful innovations. Whatever happens in the future, this is one skill we want to preserve. 

Originally published in 2012. 
Top photo: A piece of the charcoal we made. 
Second photo: Our pile of wood. 
Third photo: That same pile of wood covered in weeds and earth, with a fire lit down the chimney. 
Fourth photo: The pile entirely covered in earth, with the fire still going inside. 
Bottom photo: our inventory of charcoal, with a lemon for scale.