house of happy

Life adventures in prose and verse. Explorations of places, people and words. Stories and fun.

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Six Degrees of Dread

A BBC headline this morning declared that “Global Warming is 'Irreversible'”. Another added that “Emperor Penguins Face Extinction”. A lot was written about our many woes (oil and money, food prices, storms, refugees, wars)... It was surreal to see this unfold, lifted straight out of the very pages I've been reading – Mark Lynas' “Six Degrees”.

I heard a brief description of this book on the radio sometime after its publication in 2007. I remember the beginning of a head ache (too little sleep?), my hand shaking a little (too much coffee?) as I wrote the title and the rousing message “buy this today” on the back of a newspaper (promptly lost).

Bookshops didn't have it. Newsagents had never heard of it. “The book about the impact of global warming on the planet, degree by degree” - I explained with superb scientific flair.

This, I am sure, distinguished me from the pie-eating teenage mutants buying an "idiot-proof" diet book (could it be the one sub-titled "from pig to twig"???) and the teacher-type asking for “What the Swedish Butler Saw” - but it got the same reaction from the shop assistant. The same polite smile frozen in place (and finger poised on the weirdo-alert security button under the desk)... “hmm, let's see”, some tapping on the computer, and “nope, it's not here” (unlike the diet and the butler, both widely available).

Once purchased (Amazon had it), “Six Degrees” sat on a shelf, under a bed, in a box, then another shelf in Portugal. This is because, and BE warned, it takes great courage to pick up this book. You know, even before the foreword, that you are in for a bumpy ride, some seriously scary stuff and a lot of heartbreak. I feel the same about seeing "Titanic".

The book describes, detail by desperate detail, what happens to Planet Earth as the average global temperature goes up one degree... two... three... up to six. Beyond six, it doesn't matter anymore. In fact, beyond TWO degrees we lose all control: we will by then have effectively pushed Mother Earth downhill into a fiery furnace.

The fact that the planet is warming fast is not an unreasonable galactic event or some cruel twist of fate, but the direct result of the way humans have been living for the past two centuries.

It seems that intelligent life on the planet has painstakingly trapped itself into a system that requires a lot of cheap energy to function. This energy comes from burning the planet's fossil fuel stores. In the process noxious clouds of greenhouse gases are dispatched into the atmosphere. This in turn has the effect of warming our world into extinction.

You turn off the cheap energy tap and society unravels. You keep going, belching carbon, and you're lucky if some obscure protozoa is left behind to welcome back the dinosaurs.

How intelligent does this sound? And how much of a choice does it give us now? And how many of us even KNOW that this is going on? And would “knowing” be enough to push us into “doing” something about it? Would scientific facts, the early symptoms of mass extinction make you cancel a flight, turn off the tumble drier, eat fewer pork chops?

I've been telling people about this book, and generally ranting on the topic. In response, sympathetic nods, rabid political rants, surely-it's-not-so-bad assurances or a deflated “oh yeah..” where the “yeah” stretches into a yawn, while the hand reaches for the remote control.

At the very least, I tell people, reading this book will explain the rules to a new game we're about to play, a game we really, REALLY don't want to lose.

First, we'll all have tickets to a geographic lottery. Many thrills and surprises await. Some regions will become deserts. Coastlines and island nations will vanish in a gentle but ample assault of the sea. Whole areas will be levelled by hurricanes. Massive loss of animal species and flora. Less food and water. Untold suffering, both slow and brutal. Migration, despair on an unimaginable scale, wars. Loss of any sense of what's happening, or for how long.

It is also a guessing game. How much time have we got before it begins? If not ourselves, then will it be our children who wake up in a desert, who wilt away or whirl up into Oz, still in their square houses, still in their best red shoes??...

Perhaps it is a race too. Do we manage to stop the ticking bomb in time? Before the ice caps melt? Before the Amazon vanishes? Do we manage to put in any kind of a fight at all? By the sounds of it, if we don't then we'll find ourselves sliding into ever-gaping orbits of horror, aggrieved and unrepentant: “oh but I recycled... I changed all my light bulbs”. Oh poor, doomed, deluded species.

The race is on, this much is clear – before we can get going, we need to understand what is at stake. We are not extinction-proof, but continue to act with that supremely arrogant assumption. We are the cancer sufferer who still smokes thirty a day because he feels immortal. For a chance at survival, we have a lot to learn, and some things to give up. We need to find our way back to simpler lives.

With this in mind, I'll be planting onions and cabbage. As soon as the weather improves.

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

A Taste of Old Times

It's been a while, but I'm back. Let me recount.

My holiday from writing started over a month ago (first it was a relief, then a creeping cramp, growing and gnawing, and now a numbness I struggle to overcome. To do so I've so far tried coffee, lists, and compulsive cooking. Nothing worked, but at least the family got a few good meals).

But now we're moving, we're off. Sparked by the memory, this time last month, of sitting at my parents' table with a dozen people I've known all my life, all there to celebrate dad's 80th birthday. A few relatives, some old friends. They arrived early, wearing their best clothes. The women smiled, warm in cashmere shawls, the men smelled of wonderful cologne.

In the hallway, they shouted greetings and laughed out loud, shaking their umbrellas, stuffing their scarves into the sleeves of their winter coats. The men bent and kissed the ladies' hands with effortless gallantry.

Their faces still red from the cold, they stood and chatted around the laden dinner table, unsure about seating, alert and excited and full of news. Someone brought hot brandy with spices, and the noise level jumped up another notch.

Mum worried about the food, dad made a big speech. We cried. An aunt broke the gloom with a joke. We laughed. Absent children and grandchildren were mentioned, praised, discussed. Photo albums came out. An uncle stood up stiffly and solemnly for another speech. We cried again, then laughed again. Wine glasses clinked, were emptied and refilled.

I know this kind of dinner so well. In my childhood it was repeated with reverent regularity. Umbrellas, winter coats, hand kissing. Eating and crying over sentimental words. Buoyant and silent in turns, sharing pictures and stories, towards the end bursting into song.

Mum fussing over food. I remember one time we had a poet visiting. In the late afternoon, overcome by emotion and a particularly fine vintage, he stood up and recited some of his best verse. With tears in his eyes he roared about his love, he murmured about delicate peach blossom... “My peach compote!!!” - mum shrieked and dashed out with a clatter of dishes to bring a forgotten delicacy from the fridge.

My aunt remembers even more. How they used to play cards late into the night, then fall asleep on sofas and start again in the morning. “How young we were” - she ends with a sigh, a sip, a sob, and another silence.

It strikes me then, how extraordinary this day is. I am back on a shrinking island of humanity, a fading ritual, key to a distinct and vanishing world. Shrinking because so many of us have grown up, moved on, changed. Vanishing, because those who still inhabit that world are older and fewer every day.

Romania itself has changed more than I can admit or understand. I have been away too long, I come home only for a week or two at a time, I feel at home even less. My family, my parents' friends are the same, warmly and reassuringly so, even as the world outside tilts towards the weird and the scary.

These days, just watching the news leaves me shaking. Just driving a few kilometres into town takes hours. Just looking around requires either ample courage or total lack of care. Loud and messy politics, greed, stress, stray dogs, stray people. Smog stretches from chimney to chimney and then tightly around people's chests.

Of course, it is only a brief impression. There's clearly much more, beauty and brilliance and kindness I fail to see. Time is always too little, and I venture out less. Instead, I turn to the people round this table, now a little tipsy and tired. They rest in smiling silence, replete. A small song starts in a corner and is picked up by a few shaky voices.

In a short while they will be getting ready to go. A few more minutes of happy commotion and chattering in the hallway, silk scarves falling out of sleeves, boots zipped up, faded lipstick and fading strength in every hug and the lingering lemon slap of Turkish cologne. We shall close the front door behind them and stand together in silence, regarding the chaos of crumbles and wine stains on the table, and underneath the sleeping dog.