I wrote a blog post – a poem, really – about watching the planet from a distance. We sometimes think that what we have around us is of utmost importance, but it’s probably not, it’s just a jot in time.
Well, as I read the book, Against the Grain, and I see that civilisations fall almost as often as they spring up from the sweat of their subjects. I am feeling less attached to this one we are currently living in.
The history of our planet is basically people doing bad things to other people and species to keep themselves in the lap of luxury if at all possible.
The last century is an anomaly in giving any power (superficial though of course it is) to the common man (or woman, if she’s really lucky.)
If we see all the stuff written about past civilisations, all dug up from the ruins, often when those now living in those places have no idea about them, no memory, no stories, just some stones they might have found and used as foundations for their own houses, we see how fragile, how faint is the mark of these societies, really. They disappeared most of the time.
So what if we disappear too?
In the past, the people subjugated by these states didn’t all die – many or most escaped back to a former type of life, and were probably happier for it, definitely better off in terms of diet and health. So why lament the demise of the rulers?
I live in this world, of course. I am dependent upon it. If it were all to disappear tomorrow – as I said back on New Years Eve 1999, when we wondered if the Year 2000 bug would stop the world – then I’d be dead in a matter of months. I can’t just walk away from the status quo, go and grow beans and catch animals. I am attached to the technology for life, and though I teach my children about wildlife which might help them when the cities are destroyed, my daughter is equally diabetic and unless I learn how to distil insulin from dead deer and rabbits, we’ll be as dead as anyone else when the disaster hits.
But people will survive.
Some will walk away, south or north where the weather is better. Humanity will continue, just as it did after the collapse of other societies. Some people will remember how to live outside the shelter of our cities and society. Apart from the plastic everywhere, this small snapshot of history will become as forgotten as the rest.
Our descendants, if we have them, will build their cities on top of ours, like we have on others, so our buildings will be discovered accidentally some day like we find the remains of the Roman walls and medieval castles when we dig out subterranean car parks.
The beech trees will survive, shifting north and south, possibly all the way to Antarctica, where they once grew before during a time when the world had a similar atmospheric CO2level to today. Most of the other plants will probably struggle on, too, though much of the fauna will die out, to be replaced eventually in time by other species.
It’s a real fucking pity, a goddam waste, that we allow this to happen. It’s stupid, stupid, stupid, to quote some fuckwit from the annals of insurance fraud. The age of stupid, like the documentary.
We could keep the world looking the way we want it if we move our asses.
To allow it to change from how it suits us is like letting the house burn down because you’re too lazy to pick up a fire extinguisher.
I remember visiting Niagara Falls years ago, and being told that the quantity of water allowed to flow is much reduced not just to produce electricity, but to ensure that erosion doesn’t move the falls upstream – which would mean having to move the viewing platforms from where they are now. And that would be silly.
If that kind of sense was applied to our current problems, we would see a lot more action on the climate change front.
Our society might have a sea-change in our economic activities, but it will be unnoticeable on a grand scale, just like the difference between agriculture in England growing turnips in the 18thcentury is indistinguishable from growing grain in Egypt two thousand years ago.
But moving London, Alexandria, Miami and all those other seaside towns kilometres inland will be a major change that will be seen clearly in the archaeological record of our planet.
And because we won’t be around to explain it, they’ll be confused as fuck as to how stupid we were. Stupider than Easter Islanders.
Last Friday, as hundreds of thousands of kids stayed away from school to protest the inaction of the world’s politicians on tackling the imminent crisis of global climate breakdown, there were headlines that Greta Thunberg, the girl who inspired all those students, and a heap of adults into the bargain, was nominated to receive this year’s Nobel Peace Prize.
I believe, however, that the Nobel committee should not award her the prize.
I am not saying she does not deserve a Nobel Prize
But she should not get it now.
And I think she’d agree. Because Greta Thunberg doesn’t want a Nobel Peace Prize.
I will say straight off that I’ve never spoken to Greta Thunberg. I have no inside knowledge of her thoughts, hopes dreams or opinions.
But I think that if she ever reads this she’ll agree, at least with most of what I’m about to say.
She doesn’t want the Nobel Prize.
She wants climate action.
She is not sitting in the cold and rain of Stockholm every Friday dreaming of an accolade.
She didn’t decide to make her life harder and studies more difficult by staying out of school on Fridays but keeping up with her work by knuckling down on Saturdays instead because she thought it might get her some international fame and everyone would hail her as the salvation of, if not mankind, and the rest of the extant species on this planet, then at least our civilisation, as far as it’s worth saving.
She is doing all this to ensure she has a future.
That we all have a future.
A million dollars might be a nice thing to have to in your back pocket. It could help her go to Harvard or some other stupidly expensive college in countries where there is no free education – though I suspect very college on the planet will he happy to have Greta enrol, free of charge.
But even were she to keep it in her back pocket – and I’ve serious doubts about that – a million bucks is fuck all use in a world that has been shat upon by climate breakdown.
It’s hard to imagine what million dollars might buy to ensure survival in a world devastated by climate breakdown because we don’t know how that’s going to turn out. Perhaps she could buy farms in her native country and grow grapes, if anyone could afford wine, or perhaps melt water from Greenland will block the Gulf stream and Scandinavia will be as bad as Labrador is now for viniculture.
Nobody knows what’s in store.
We only know it would be different to how things are now.
But I digress.
Greta, and everyone following her example is hoping we have the same world we have now, complete with school exams, universities, functioning farms and forests to visit on the weekend.
None of this is certain, however, for the simple reason that our politicians are too busy sucking up to those so rich that they’ve already bought farmland in several northern countries, have already secured a clean water supply for their children and grandkids, and are ready to reap more money from our collective destruction that they’ve not done what they signed up to do – work for our collective good.
And until it is certain, this future we dream of nowadays where we get to live just like our parents did, living to retirement age, enjoying a few years of sitting in the garden, watching the flowers grow and the bees visit them, then Greta isn’t going to be satisfied with any accolade you could award her.
When she has done what she has sent out to do: ensured that her government and other governments do what they need to do, have promised to do – secure our collective survival – then I’m sure she will gladly accept the Prize.
Until then, it’s just a distraction, and, to be honest, it feels like a ploy, a bribe, a pat on the head and a “go along with you now and play, Greta, but well done for the effort, and sure we’ll look after things from here.”
Or am I wrong?
You know when you have that day that you just don’t want to work?
Okay, who the hell ever wants to work, right?
But really, when you just can’t motivate yourself to tackle the pile of stuff you have waiting to be attended to. Even though you’re sitting right there in the office, staring at it, with no other option than to sit there staring at it for the next few hours.
I’ve been feeling like that the last few days.
I can’t concentrate. Work (English and science classes, and the piles of paperwork that go with being a teacher in Spain) is just a sword of Damocles hanging over my head that I am wilfully ignoring.
Oh, I got to classes, talk to the kids, but I turn up and ask them what we were doing in the last class, or I rely on my colleagues to tell me what we are doing in our shared conversation classes, and get some kid to do the photocopies while I fill time.
Though the filling time I do is not just filling time.
I have been talking to my students about the Global Student Climate Strikes that are planned for tomorrow. I ask them if they’ve heard about #FridaysforFuture, about Greta Thunberg, about the student protests that have been happening across Europe in the last few months.
Most of them hadn’t heard of it.
I try to get them interested in it, get them to understand the stakes, the reasons they should join in.
Because I really think they should.
Because I can’t.
And that last sentence is a kind of lie.
But for years I’ve been following the climate change problem grow, like so many others, with a sense of foreboding, of frustration and helplessness/hopelessness that threatens to overwhelm.
And at the back of my mind here has been for a long time the suggestion that I should do something about it. Me. Get out and shout and scream and smash some faces in.
I was going to say smash windows, but I know that would be stupid. That kind of protest has the wrong effect. And I am not a smashing windows kind of guy.
But there are some faces that deserve to be punched.
We know who they are.
Those people who deserve to have their lives impacted by our anger, because our lives and the future of our children’s lives are impacted by their greed, their avarice, or their incompetence.
We all know that our world is being fucked over by a tiny number of individuals who could be overthrown if only we could find the collective gumption to do so.
I’m not a face-smashing kind of guy either.
I don’t know if it’s that I don’t like hurting people, even if they deserve it, or I’m worried that I’ll get my own face smashed back in return. But something prevents me from taking the extreme action that increasingly seems necessary to get any movement on this issue.
I’ve spent years teaching students about climate change, from back when it was called global warming. It’s just one of the things a biology teacher explains.
When I teach volcanoes there aren’t many examples to use. Mount Saint Helens, Hawaii. We still talk about Krakatoa.
Not with climate change.
Every time it comes up in the curriculum I have a new example to use to drive it home to students. Heat wave after hurricane, forest fires after floods after ice sheet breaking off….
Every year, I have to tell my students that nothing is getting done. That we aren’t doing what we did with the Ozone Hole and CFCs.
And I still tell them that.
But now, at least I can tell them to do something. That what I can’t do because of my stupid fears and worries about what people will think if I do stand outside a parliament and hold a sign, or stand up in a parliament and shout at the stupid politicians for their having their noses up the arse of multinationals and vulture funds and fears of being arrested and having my bosses decide I’m not trustworthy enough to be in charge of minors, is right now being done by a young girl in Sweden, who doesn’t give a monkeys what the politicians, or hardly anyone else for that matter, might think about her, and the thousands of other children following her example across Europe.
Standing up and shouting bullshit. Like other kids in other countries for other reasons before them.
And I got some kids to listen. I got one to petition the school to get permission to strike tomorrow. I helped him a little – but just a little, because I can’t pretend this is my fight: I already failed to fight, to put my fists up, to roll up my sleeves, dammit – and he got the school behind him.
But the principal says he, nor any student, can have permission to strike because the strike is nothing to do with Education. Apparently in Spain you can strike if the government wants to change the law to take your PE class away, but not if the government wants to piss away your entire future.
I hope some of our kids do strike.
I hope the teachers and the administration of the school see the news tomorrow.
I hope to hell the news shows the strikes – the media aren’t too much into this, apart from doing their bit to get some face time with Greta.
And I hope next Friday more just walk out.
Because they don’t need permission from anyone to fight for their future.
But they’re not looking for it.
We already failed them.
We can now only make amends.
Where Should I Plant this Sapling?
They say a man plants
A tree, not for himself, but
For his descendants. Well,
I agree, and have seen
The benefits of a mulberry
Planted by a man I never met,
More than a century past.
As the sentinel starts to sag
I’ve saved a sapling from
Between its roots and would
Take the next step for my
Generation before it falls.
But where would it prosper?
I fear the weather
Will not favour the same spot
As its forefather for much longer
Than half its lifetime,
And ere it gives fullest fruits
Will stand in different clime.
So, where should I plant this sapling
In a changing world?
Where its roots can anchor the eroding soil
As farmers harvest down to the last?
On a slope so the children of this village
Can reach the lower limbs
To stain fingers and lips on
Summer afternoons, should
Any remain after rains have
Deserted the landscape?
In a ditch to take some advantage
Of rich dampness as the rest
Of fields blister in the sun?
Or on a high knoll to stay dry
While surrounding ground soaks
Under incessant thunderstorms,
Turning this aridness instead wet?
It seems a bet to hedge;
I should plant a score
From hill to shore.
I’m teaching Climate Change in my first-year classes at the moment.
No matter what the topic, I always like to use examples to make things clearer to the kids – references to things in their own lives. I often refer to TV programs, movies, songs.
However, some of my references are dated – movies made before they were born, which, while classics, haven’t always been seen. In my English SL class last week, when describing the meaning of “a the height of one’s career,” I used a TV presenter, who first shot to prominence on the Spanish equivalent of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? The show was called 50 for 15, referring to 50Million Pesetas – a currency that disappeared when the kids were toddlers.
But teaching Climate Change, I was struck by the fact that I don’t have to reach back very far to come up with an example of what I mean when I talk about the changes that are happening/ could happen in the future.
For example, California – it was burning a few weeks ago; latest news out of there is a terrible mudslide. Opposite types of natural disasters in a short timeframe.
Even here in this very city, though, the oscillations are becoming ever more obvious. And rapid.
I described how Spain was experiencing a drought late last year. Reservoirs were down to 10 or 20%. On the 3rd of January, I was in a jeans and a sweater, enjoying the sunshine. I was sent a video of a snake the same week.
This poor frog was squashed by a car just outside the village that night – what the hell was a frog doing out on Jan 3?
On the 5th, it started raining, then snowing.
I posted this photo on my facebook page, joking how I’d always wanted a garden with a little river flowing through it.
It was gushing out of the gully under the rocks you can see behind the fence in this photo.
And some of it was filling the groundwater so much that I’d springs popping up in the grass.
This looks like a cowpat, but it’s actually mud pushed out of the ground by the water flow.
Pamplona was covered in snow.
The aqueduct of Noain outside Pamplona.
The reservoirs refilled past 50% in a few days.
And now it’s mild again.
So the kids get it. They understand Climate Breakdown. They can hardly not when it is staring us in the face like the barrel of a shotgun.
Question is, what can they do about it?
Because the previous generation who knew about it haven’t been able to do very much, yet.
I just signed this pledge, to reduce the amount of meat I eat.
The organisers seem to be mostly concerned about the slaughter of so many animals to feed us gluttons.
It’s true, that 56 billion animals are treated fairly shittily every year. But that’s not quite my main motivation…
I want to reduce global climate change impacts.
I watched this video from the satirical character, Jonathon Pie, the other day, about how people are upset that the British Govt don’t think animals are sentient, when of course everyone loves their dogs so much they dress them up in shiny winter jackets nowadays. He was taking the piss because most of the same people don’t give a toss about the environment or wildlife.
And he’s right.
But hey, if people stop eating meat because they can’t stomach the idea of a cute little piggy getting stuck with a knife and hearing that death squeal, well, that’s all to the good.
At this stage of the game, motivation does not matter. Only the end result.
Just like making petrol very expensive in Europe makes the emissions here not quite so fucking outlandish as in America.
So in order to save the planet’s bacon, as it were, we need to reduce meat consumption, and we can either make it expensive – like cigarettes- and/or make it unpalatable – also like cigarettes.
So how do we do the latter?
We put labels on meat that explicitly say, “Did you know that this pig (photo of cute pig) went through this (photo of bloody gutted corpse) to make this tasty ham?”
Perhaps followed by the sentence – “If you are okway with this, then go right ahead and enjoy the tasty meat…”
This will put off quite a few people.
Myself excluded, of course. I always have the actual animal in mind when I’m eating them. I’ve seen dead animals, seen animals die, had a hand in that death myself. That doesn’t make me a bad person, it just makes me a realist. It’s the folk who haven’t seen, and worse, don’t want to see, or even think about, the death that went before the packaging and purchase, who are the problem here.
It is not often their fault, though – the supermarkets and food companies have purposefully separated the nastiness from the tastiness. Who sees the butcher at work in their supermarket?
In Spain, you can still see dead rabbits, fur on, in the butcher’s counter, along with pig heads, baby pigs, chickens hanging with heads and legs on. That’s the way it should be.
But that doesn’t mean we aren’t fed a pile of shite at the same time.
This advert is running on Spanish TV at the moment. Watch it. It’s 20 seconds.
I have eaten this ham. It’s nice enough. But eff me, what the hell is that ad all about?
There’s not even a shot of the farm, never mind the pig.
Associating a cooked ham with strawberries, or mother’s milk is far from fucking natural, folks, let’s just make that clear.
Natural is seeing the animal on the farm. Natural is seeing it being butchered.
If you don’t want to see the latter, then no problem – just stay away from meat.
And we’ll all be happy – except the food companies.
The Rains Return
The sky weeps;
Hills soak to refill rills.
Upon the porch, we sit still.
The rain – snow in the high ground – has finally returned to much of Spain, bringing some relief to the drought we’ve been experiencing this year.
The spring that supplies our village in the Valdorba is still flowing at a trickle, though. It will take much more rain to raise the water table and refill the reservoirs.
the spring last week above, the same spring in September below…
But everyone has been happy to see the rain, despite the need for umbrellas instead of sunglasses.
This is a photo of one of the beaches in San Sebastian, aka Donostia, taken when I was there last week.
I sat on the beach and wrote this poem.
Donostia, December 2017
On the breakwater, as tide rises,
Shielding eyes to see gleaming mountain
Snowmelt trickle by.
We shouldn’t be able to see the mountain from the beach at this time of year, for the blanket of cloud that normally shrouds the city.
But what is normal anymore?
Anyway, I wrote a few poems that afternoon. It reminded me of another poem I wrote a few weeks ago, which describes a little of why I’ve written so little recently, and posted less.
But maybe we’ll get back to normal sometime soon…
Words Come Forth
They say our words won’t be kept down;
They bubble up, under pressure, like lava
Pushing through a fissure,
Bursting forth if they can’t flow.
But instead, they are drawn
Under empty sky,
Sucked out by silence,
Pulled forth by the vacuum
Of open space,
Giving them a place to emerge
Timidly into tranquilly
Like deer from the thicket at twilight.
This is what drought looks like.
Spain is currently going through a water crisis, with reservoirs drying up all over the country. It’s been on the news a lot this autumn.
Sometimes you see stuff on the news and you just go back to your business and you try not to think too much about it. Like you do with wars and the other stuff that our politicians mess up – the Dakota oil spill being a prime example.
But if you look around you can see local examples of things going very wrong.
Last weekend we went to Ezcaray, a small town in La Rioja that lives off tourism – especially skiing in winter. The skiing hasn’t opened yet. It might not open for very much this year, nor for very long in the future.
There is a little snow on the hills, but with the warm weather that we are still having in November, it is probably melting. Not that you can notice it downhill.
This is the river. It’s more like a dry canyon from somewhere down in the south, like Almeria, than a mountain river in the north.
When you search Ezcaray in google maps, this is the photo that pops up.
It’s kind of different to the one up the top of this page. Or the following one.
We were told that this is usually a waterfall. It has a fish ladder, which you can see under the cage on the left, for all the use that can be made of it this year. There are no fish in evidence in that pool, the only drop of water visible in a hundred metres. Directly upstream it’s completely dry. Just a few drops seep through the rocks. A few hundred metres upstream we saw a few small rivulets coming through the stones. But there can be little life there – not even mayfly or caddis fly – to sustain a river ecosystem.
The local council wants to put a dam upstream, we heard. The locals are fighting to save their river. A sign hung in a village said, “Water is life, save the river Oca.” I wonder if keeping the construction at bay will be enough to save it.
The cranes started passing over Pamplona yesterday evening.
They were chased by the rain that came in overnight. The first in weeks.
Autumn has thus officially started.
And hopefully also this means the end of the fire season for this year.
While Ireland braced for an almost unheard of hurricane in the North Atlantic, in northern Spain and Portugal, forest fires were killing even more people than Ophelia killed.
There were dozens burning over the weekend and until Tuesday, when the rains helped to finally extinguish them.
Unlike hurricanes, though, which are terrible, and indirectly related to man’s activities, these forest fires were only wild in the sense of the untamed destruction they could wreak. They were not natural. They were man made, purposefully started, and repeatedly so.
After so many deaths, there are now questions being asked of politicians as to how these arsonists can be stopped. Spanish news has little else, other that the Catalan situation – politics and fraud, even football has been put in the background by the terrible scenes of people trying to escape burning villages only having to turn back as the roads are flanked with flames, and others park inside a motorway tunnel to wait rescue, or let the fires pass overhead.
Because these fires have been a part of summer in places like Galicia for years. As soon as the weather dries, huge tracts of forests go up there. All directly caused by humans and usually set intentionally, with a few the result of stupidity and neglect.
The people of Portugal are naturally outraged, after a summer of huge fires has been followed by an autumn death toll almost as terrible, with dozens of people claimed by the flames.
The perpetrators must be caught and jailed for their murders, but also, the politicians and police, if it is the case, must be held responsible for letting this situation get to this state. Why have these people not been caught for their previous fires? – because there’s no way these conflagrations were started by first-time arsonists.
Why do people go out of their way to set fires, driving along highways in the middle of the night with fireworks tied to helium balloons?
It’s clear they have nothing better to do, and they’re assholes of the highest calibre, but there must be some other, external, motivation for most of the fires. What is it? Why has it not been identified years ago and why has it not been removed?
There are forests that could burn just as badly and even more easily in other parts of Spain, so why are there not so many fires elsewhere? Galicia has 40% of all fires in the country, and half the area burnt every year for the last decade.
Surely the arsonists are spread out in a broader swath across the country. Or is there something about the mind-set of Galicians that makes them excessively prone to arson?
The gorse fires and heather fires we have seen in Ireland in recent years were all set intentionally for financial gain – the current agricultural subsidy system means that farmers make more money if there land is considered in use, even if it’s not.
Ultimately, stopping them will require a change in the EU farming subsidy system to allow land go fallow without farmers losing money.
Is there a financial motivation in Galicia and Portugal for setting huge fires?
According to Ecologists in Action, this is only the cause of a small proportion of the fires set.
What other factors are in play?
The use of fire for farming practices is permitted much more freely than elsewhere.
In most of Spain it is not permitted to light fires in camping and picnic areas and other recreational areas during times of fire risk. Not so in Galicia.
Vehicles are also allowed onto forest paths in Galicia during the summer, which is prohibited elsewhere.
AND they allow fireworks in village festivals during the summer, which is just asking for trouble.
But as I said, the summer is over.
The cranes, luckily, don’t stay long in Spain during their migration.
When they passed before on their way north I wrote this poem. Hopefully it will ease the depression of these fires. Watching the birds certainly lifts the spirit.
The Great Migration
I’ve not yet seen the Serengeti,
Nor the caribou upon the artic plains
But up above my house in the hills,
I’ve been privileged to witness
The cranes migrating, calling
Eyes aloft to observe their long
Strings streaked across the sky
Huge wing beats by the thousands,
And can’t but wonder where
Those numbers bide in other times,
(Amazed such spaces yet exist)
And where they will find abode
In other climes.