Friday 28 September 2012

Let's hold on to our fossil fuels - we may need them yet!

Much print, digital text, and air (some of it hot) has been expended on the issue of oil, gas and other fossil fuels. We have carbon capture and carbon trading. We have protocols such as Kyoto and attempts at improving them such as the Copenhagen conference (generally considered a fiasco). We have those who toe the line and those (now subject to an almost religious intolerance) who are seen as, or identify themselves as, sceptics.

 “Global warming” may or may not be caused, or exacerbated, by human use of fossil fuels. Evidence from recent centuries (the short-term view, you might say) appears to be conclusive. Carbon dioxide and temperature levels started to rise at almost exactly the same time that the Industrial Revolution began in Europe. But paleoclimatologists (taking the long-term view) seem less certain. Of the two measures, the former appears more significant, in that carbon dioxide is now at an all-time atmospheric high, where temperature is less easy to determine from proxies. There is good evidence that the so-called Holocene Climatic Optimum of around eight thousand years ago involved temperatures higher than those we have today, and it seems very likely that temperatures about 120 kya (thousand years ago), when tropical animals roamed southern England not long before the onset of the last Ice Age, were at least 2̊C higher than today. There is also the possibility that global warming has been caused by increased solar activity, which occurred during the same 150-year time period. That activity has now largely died away, giving us an excellent opportunity to see whether temperatures now fall, or whether (with carbon dioxide levels continuing high) they continue to rise at the same rate as before. Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere should, if the Gaia system of checks and balances were working properly, be lowered by the absorption of CO2 by the oceans, and the fact that the oceans are presently CO2 saturated may have something to do with the horrendous abuse of the marine environment that has occurred over much the same period as industrial pollution of the atmosphere and soil, so could be a factor too.

 Until very recently (in historical terms – I mean, less than 50 years ago), scientists were convinced that long-term solar system rhythms meant that we would soon be faced with a renewed icy period comparable to the Pleistocene. Those rhythms still exist, and presumably would reinstate themselves if we managed to lower carbon dioxe levels sufficiently –  so the question we should  be asking ourselves is whether our (very short-term, in geological time terms) use of fossil fuels is likely to raise carbon dioxide levels sufficiently to offset the solar system rhythms and continue the upward movement in temperatures.

 But that raises another question. If fossil fuel use raises carbon dioxide levels, and those levels prevent us entering another Ice Age, is this a good or a bad thing? On the one hand, burning fossil fuels might be all that is preventing the onset of another Pleistocene-type episode. In which case, perhaps we shouldn’t be quite so worried about it, because if we stop burning them, the Ice Age tendency may reassert itself. And whilst the prospect of warming, with rising sea levels and possibly more chaotic and extreme climatic conditions, is bad enough, it’s nothing to what we shall face if we are assailed by another Ice Age, in which drought as well as cold, and probably violently fluctuating weather conditions to boot, if the climatic proxy evidence from the Pleistocene is correct!
But on the other hand if it gets really cold, we shall need some fuel to warm our benighted cities and probably to provide greenhouse heating for the food plants that won’t grow nearly so well outside. Which fuel shall we use? Solar will probably be helpful, as there will be more sunshine and fewer clouds, and there may be violent storms with winds and waves we might utilize for power. But surely, surely, the best, most concentrated form of fuel that past ages has bequeathed us is our much-demonised oil, gas and coal. Let’s conserve them – not because using them is going to force the Earth into a global warming spiral, or not only because of that possibility, but because we may need them in the future. If we squander them now, at a period of warmth and optimal growing conditions, our children or their descendants will curse us. And with good reason.

Tuesday 18 September 2012

On French and British national anthems

I heard a wonderful story some years ago about two Englishmen who lived in France – rural France, in the Saintes area – in the 1990s. They were enjoying coverage of an England–France rugby match during the Five Nations series in the local tavern where they were known and on the whole accepted. Unfortunately, our Englishmen made the mistake of crowing too soon – for much of the match England was in the lead, and they were, of course, cock-a-hoop about this. But in the end the French came with a late surge and won the match. This was a mite embarrassing for our Englishmen, one can imagine, and it was made worse by the action of one of the French fans who had been drinking in the tavern at the same time. He swaggered over to their table, leaned down and thrust his face close to that of one of the Englishmen, eyeballing him at close range.

            “Hah!” he exclaimed, in basic English, with a strong French accent. “That for Agincourt.”

            Now the Englishman dined out on the story in grand style, seeing this as evidence of the pettiness of the French and their inability to understand the essential camaraderie of sport. But when you look at the words of the French national anthem, the Marseillaise, dating of course from the days of the French revolution, but still sung with fervour, before rugby matches and on the occasion of French victory in the Olympics for example, it all makes a bit more sense. The Marseillaise is, not to put too fine a point on it, rather a paranoid confection. Not only do we have the warlike and rousing refrain “Aux armes, citoyens!” calling all French people to fight for their country, but this call is based on the conviction that the enemy is at the gate, threatening the people and all they care for. The interesting thing is not so much the adoption of the Marseillaise in the first place, at a time when the threat was real and most of Europe was at war or about to be at war with revolutionary France, but that they still sing it, unexpurgated, full of xenophobism and fury. Why is that, I wonder?

            Much is made of the Last Night of the Proms, and even of the mention of the Queen being ‘victorious’ in the British national anthem. These are sometimes said to exemplify the gung-ho imperialism still underpinning our national life. But when you remember that the vitriolic second verse of the national anthem has been quietly dropped (I haven’t heard it sung in years), and that in the third the Queen is reminded that she is to ‘defend our laws’ as a condition that we continue to wish her to reign over us, you have quite a different picture. Not to mention the fact that the most heartfelt community singing at the Last Night of the Proms, and the place of honour at the end of proceedings, is reserved for Jerusalem, which is essentially, for all Blake’s warlike language, a pledge for civil struggle, for social justice.

            I mention these differences as observations. I have no idea at all what significance (if any) they have. But I do just wonder whether, if the French were to decide to dump the Marseillaise in favour of a more peaceful song, Europe might be more ready to believe in their commitment to a united Europe. I haven’t studied the words of the national anthems of other European countries, and perhaps it would be an interesting piece of research. How much do the sentiments of a national anthem affect the attitudes of the people of a country towards their neighbours, and towards the wider world where there may well be enemies? Is it something that we should consider more carefully?

Wednesday 12 September 2012

The bricolage culinary arts and the bricoleur life

I recently learnt the true meaning of the word “bricolage” via an excellent book on qualitative research that I have been indexing for Wiley-Blackwell. In this volume a semi-humorous example was given of a bricoleur chef who produces great culinary masterpieces from whatever she happens to find in the family fridge (I couldn’t help wondering whether the author knew such a chef, perhaps in her own family). Now this really appealed to me, because I am that kind of cook. I rarely remember to plan meals much in advance or look up recipes – I might just decide to get some meat out of the freezer during the afternoon with the idea of cooking it that evening, but often I forget, so we do eat quite a few non-meat meals in our household, unless it’s cold meat that I can reheat from frozen, or a quick-unfreeze meat such as mince. My cooking is most often driven by the leftovers in the fridge from the properly thought-out meals I may just have managed to prepare over the weekend. Indeed, I am so allergic to using recipes that my husband, giving me a small recipe book for a birthday or Christmas in our early years together, wrote an adaptation of the Nunc Dimittis for the occasion, on the fly-leaf, beginning: “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, from according with thy recipes; for mine eye has perceived an improvement ….”
            Recently my 11-year-old daughter had a barbecue for her birthday, with four of her friends invited round to share it. The barbecue had to be cooked inside, with grill, frying pan and oven, because of the appalling weather we in the UK have endured for far too much of this summer, but it tasted pretty good and everyone enjoyed it. However, owing to two of her friends having cried off within a day or two of the event, I had bought too much meat and made the mistake of cooking most of it, partly because I had already frozen it and didn’t want it to hang around raw in the fridge, and partly in the belief that 11-year-olds are always hungry. To their credit, most of the participants ate well, but even so, we had a number of beefburgers, lamb grills and a portion of chicken breast left over in the fridge, and there are only three of us in the family to eat them up. So I had a wonderful time creating curries, rice dishes and even a lasagne out of these various leftovers, ably abetted by my husband, who always cooks on a Saturday night and made a beautiful beef casserole as his contribution to the culinary bricolage.
            But it occurs to me that actually the best kind of life, or at least the sort of life that I would feel most fulfilled to be living, is also a bricoleur life. After all, along the journey of life we all have a number of different experiences, good and bad, painful and joyous, and these are like leftovers in our fridge. We can leave them there to moulder and go rotten, or we can take them out and make something of them. If you have suffered some terrible trauma, then you will be able to have true sympathy with someone else who has suffered that trauma. Sympathy can be so very superficial, and it may seem quite miraculous to discover someone who really knows, for example, what grief a stillbirth is, if you have suffered one yourself. If, on the other hand, you have had the joy of seeing a child grow up into a mature, sensitive citizen living a life completely independent of your own but nevertheless appreciative of her upbringing and her relationship with you, then you can encourage those parents who are still battling with teenage rebellion or toddler tantrums. As a writer, I continually find that my fiction writing in particular is informed by this bricolage effect, often unconsciously. Readers say to me “How did you know it feels like that?” and when I think about it I can see that even though I have not experienced that particular emotion, I have walked with friends who have, or I have learned enough through those emotions that I have experienced to imagine my way into a slightly different one for the purposes of a novel.
            Nothing needs to be wasted, neither in the fridge nor in the experiences of our lives. Even the things that hurt can be faced and brought into new and fruitful relationship with our present situation, or used to help or sympathise with someone else. And all the little skills we have picked up, life skills and people skills as well as technical and physical ones, can be brought into play creatively in making our and our near-and-dear’s life happier, better and more effective. Let’s use them.