The Cob Oven Saga, part III

8 06 2014

This is a continuation of The Cob Oven Saga started a few days ago……

First cracks

First cracks

After a couple of days of dry weather (unlike nine years ago!), cracks began to appear on the outer surface of the inner clay/sand dome we built over the sand mould, telling us the time to remove the sand had finally come.  All that sand will now be used in the cob mix we will have to make for the outer shells  The cracks are nothing to worry about, because as you tamp the new wet cob on the outside you should largely fill those cracks, and that helps the two layers actually key together and eventually bond.  That’s the theory, and I’m sticking to it.

Sand removal

Sand removal

The amount of sand Alessandro removed was rather more than we remembered, as a 90 litre plastic rubbish bin was almost filled.  At first, a trowel was used to scrape the now remarkably compacted sand out, but in the end we used a brush to dislodge what was left to make sure we did not remove any clay.

The piece of metal sheeting we used to prop up the bottom of the sand mould easily came out through the door as well.  Some sand refused to come out, stuck to the top of the dome, but I figured it would soon enough fall down as the clay started drying, and to give it a little hurry along, I decided to light a candle in the middle of the oven.  A remarkable amount of heat comes off a candle, especially when it’s in an enclosed space like a cob oven.

A few days later – one has to be patient when building one of these – there were enough largish cracks appearing that we decided to build the first cob layer over the inner shell.  We did this with my old cement mixer I acquired from my friend Richard many years ago.  Having been left in the weather, it looked like a wreck already when I picked it up from his brother’s place way back in 2004… I even wondered at the time whether it was worth towing it all the way from Brisbane to Cooran, but when I plugged it in after lubricating all its gears, it seemed to work well enough.  I too left it in the weather for several years, and then gave it away to my mate Doug who used it when building his shed and house, who also left it outside.  So when the thought of using it again for this job came to me, I rang Doug to ask him if it still worked…. and it did!  When I went to pick it up, it even still looked just like the day I first set eyes on it.  Still a wreck!  I bet they don’t make them like this anymore….

First cob layer

First cob layer

By day’s end, the whole oven was covered in cob, and starting to look like the real thing….  quite handsome really.  After a couple of more days, I decided to light a small fire in it to speed up the drying.  Nothing too big and hot, just more substantial than mere candles.

IMG_0387

Third cob layer

More cracks appeared on the outer surface, and more cob was added, especially on top where most of the heat escapes….

Bigger fires have now been lit, as you can see by the blackened keystone due to the escaping smoke created when first lighting the fire.  I’m not sure if the smoky starts are caused by sub standard firewood or just the fact the fire is lit in an enclosed area… but I was surprised at how much smoke billowed out of it.  I then made a door with the bit of plywood I used to support the brick arch at the onset.  The handle is made of a cut off piece of broom handle, and the insulation on the inside of the door is left over from making Glenda’s Raku kiln.  Having used the door now, I think I might have to add another layer of fibre board over the insulation to stop it ‘fluffing off’, something I wasn’t expecting it to do as nothing of the kind occurred with the kiln.

Door in profile

Door in profile

IMG_0376

First firing

The good news is it will be ready in time for Glenda’s birthday, nine years late perhaps, but all good things are worth waiting for.  Once the cob is completely dry, which may take a few more firings, a layer of waterproof cement render will be added to ensure it will never collapse again!

I’m thinking of adding a wrought iron shelf to the front of the plinth, and maybe some nice hooks to hang hardware from; and Glenda is speaking of mosaics on the front to cover ‘the ugly concrete blocks’.. so who knows exactly how beautiful a work of art it is yet to become! One thing’s for sure, when it’s too hot to run the AGA, this little beauty will be lit for far more uses than pizzas…

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The Anthropocene: It’s Not All About Us

15 05 2014

heinbergA guest post from my friend Richard Heinberg, originally published as MuseLetter #264 in May 2014.  This is a long but important essay. I recommend a large cup of your favourite poison, and a biscuit or two….  Enjoy!

Download printable PDF version here (PDF, 126 KB)

 

Time to celebrate! Woo-hoo! It’s official: we humans have started a new geological epoch—the Anthropocene. Who’d have thought that just one species among millions might be capable of such an amazing accomplishment?

Let’s wait to stock up on party favours, though. After all, the Anthropocene could be rather bleak. The reason our epoch has acquired a new name is that future geologists will be able to spot a fundamental discontinuity in the rock strata that document our little slice of time in Earth’s multi-billion year pageant. This discontinuity will be traceable to the results of human presence. Think climate change, ocean acidification, and mass extinction.

Welcome to the Anthropocene: a world that may feature little in the way of multi-cellular ocean life other than jellyfish, and one whose continents might be dominated by a few generalist species able to quickly occupy new and temporary niches as habitats degrade (rats, crows, and cockroaches come to mind). We humans have started the Anthropocene, and we’ve proudly named it for ourselves, yet ironically we may not be around to enjoy much of it. The chain of impacts we have initiated could potentially last millions of years, but it’s a tossup whether there will be surviving human geologists to track and comment on it.

To be sure, there are celebrants of the Anthropocene who believe we’re just getting started, and that humans can and will shape this new epoch deliberately, intelligently, and durably. Mark Lynas, author of The God Species, contends the Anthropocene will require us to think and act differently, but that population, consumption, and the economy can continue to grow despite changes to the Earth system. Stewart Brand says we may no longer have a choice as to whether to utterly re-make the natural world; in his words, “We only have a choice of terraforming well. That’s the green project for this century.” In their book Love Your Monsters: Postenvironmentalism and the Anthropocene, Michael Schellenberger and Ted Nordhaus of the Breakthrough Institute say we can create a world where 10 billion humans achieve a standard of living allowing them to pursue their dreams, though this will only be possible if we embrace growth, modernization, and technological innovation. Similarly, Emma Marris (who admits to having spent almost no time in wilderness), argues in Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World that wilderness is gone forever, that we should all get used to the idea of the environment as human-constructed, and that this is potentially a good thing.

Is the Anthropocene the culmination of human folly or the commencement of human godhood? Will the emerging epoch be depleted and post-apocalyptic, or tastefully appointed by generations of tech-savvy ecosystem engineers? Environmental philosophers are currently engaged in what amounts to a heated debate about the limits of human agency. That discussion is especially engrossing because . . . it’s all about us!

*          *          *

The viability of the “we’re-in-charge-and-loving-it” version of the Anthropocene—let’s call it the Techno-Anthropocene—probably hinges on prospects for nuclear power. A concentrated, reliable energy source will be required for the maintenance and growth of industrial civilization, and just about everybody agrees that—whether or not we’re at the point of “peak oil”—fossil fuels won’t continue energizing civilization for centuries and millennia to come. Solar and wind are more environmentally benign sources, but they are diffuse and intermittent. Of society’s current non-fossil energy sources, only nuclear is concentrated, available on demand, and (arguably) capable of significant expansion. Thus it’s no accident that Techno-Anthropocene boosters such as Mark Lynas, Stewart Brand, Ted Nordhaus, and Michael Schellenberger are also big nuclear proponents.

But the prospects for current nuclear technology are not rosy. The devastating Fukushima meltdowns of 2011 scared off citizens and governments around the globe. Japan will be dealing with the radiation and health impacts for decades if not centuries, and the West Coast of the US is gearing up for an influx of radioactive ocean water and debris. There is still no good solution for storing the radioactive waste produced even when reactors are operating as planned. Nuclear power plants are expensive to build and typically suffer from hefty cost over-runs. The world supply of uranium is limited, and shortages are likely by mid-century even with no major expansion of power plants. And, atomic power plants are tied to nuclear weapons proliferation.

In 2012, The Economist magazine devoted a special issue to a report on nuclear energy; tellingly, the report was titled, “Nuclear Power: The Dream that Failed.” Its conclusion: the nuclear industry may be on the verge of expansion in just a few nations, principally China; elsewhere, it’s on life support.

None of this daunts Techno-Anthropocene proponents, who say new nuclear technology has the potential to fulfill the promises originally made for the current fleet of atomic power plants. The centerpiece of this new technology is the Integral Fast Reactor (IFR).

Unlike light water reactors (which comprise the vast majority of nuclear power plants in service today), IFRs would use sodium as a coolant. The IFR nuclear reaction features fast neutrons, and it more thoroughly consumes radioactive fuel, leaving less waste. Indeed, IFRs could use current radioactive waste as fuel. Also, they are alleged to offer greater operational safety and less risk of weapons proliferation.

These arguments are forcefully made in the 2013 documentary, “Pandora’s Promise,” produced and directed by Robert Stone. The film asserts that IFRs are our best tool to mitigate anthropogenic global warming, and it goes on to claim there has been a deliberate attempt by misguided bureaucrats to sabotage the development of IFR reactors.

However, critics of the film say these claims are overblown and that fast-reactor technology is highly problematic. Earlier versions of the fast breeder reactor (of which IFR is a version) were commercial failures and safety disasters. Proponents of the Integral Fast Reactor, say the critics, overlook its exorbitant development and deployment costs and continued proliferation risks. IFR theoretically “transmutes,” rather than eliminates, radioactive waste. Yet the technology is decades away from widespread implementation, and its use of liquid sodium as a coolant can lead to fires and explosions.

David Biello, writing in Scientific American, concludes that, “To date, fast neutron reactors have consumed six decades and $100 billion of global effort but remain ‘wishful thinking.’”

Even if advocates of IFR reactors are correct, there is one giant practical reason they may not power the Anthropocene: we likely won’t see the benefit from them soon enough to make much of a difference. The challenges of climate change and fossil fuel depletion require action now, not decades hence.

Assuming enough investment capital, and assuming a future in which we have decades in which to improve existing technologies, IFR reactors might indeed show significant advantages over current light water reactors (only many years of experience can tell for sure). But we don’t have the luxury of limitless investment capital, and we don’t have decades in which to work out the bugs and build out this complex, unproven technology.

The Economist’s verdict stands: “[N]uclear power will continue to be a creature of politics not economics, with any growth a function of political will or a side-effect of protecting electrical utilities from open competition. . . . Nuclear power will not go away, but its role may never be more than marginal.”

*          *          *

Defying risk of redundancy, I will hammer home the point: cheap, abundant energy is the prerequisite for the Techno-Anthropocene. We can only deal with the challenges of resource depletion and overpopulation by employing more energy. Running out of fresh water? Just build desalination plants (that use lots of energy). Degrading topsoil in order to produce enough grain to feed ten billion people? Just build millions of hydroponic greenhouses (that need lots of energy for their construction and operation). As we mine deeper deposits of metals and minerals and refine lower-grade ores, we’ll require more energy. Energy efficiency gains may help us do more with each increment of power, but a growing population and rising per-capita consumption rates will more than overcome those gains (as they have consistently done in recent decades). Any way you look at it, if we are to maintain industrial society’s current growth trajectory we will need more energy, we will need it soon, and our energy sources will have to meet certain criteria—for example, they will need to emit no carbon while at the same time being economically viable.

These essential criteria can be boiled down to four words: quantity, quality, price, and timing. Nuclear fusion could theoretically provide energy in large amounts, but not soon. The same is true of cold fusion (even if—and it’s a big if—the process can be confirmed to actually work and can be scaled up). Biofuels offer a very low energy return on the energy invested in producing them (a deal-breaking quality issue). Ocean thermal and wave power may serve coastal cities, but again the technology needs to be proven and scaled up. Coal with carbon capture and storage is economically uncompetitive with other sources of electricity. Solar and wind are getting cheaper, but they’re intermittent and tend to undermine commercial utility companies’ business models. While our list of potential energy sources is long, none of these sources is ready to be plugged quickly into our existing system to provide energy in the quantity, and at the price, that the economy needs in order to continue growing.

This means that humanity’s near future will almost certainly be energy-constrained. And that, in turn, will ensure—rather than engineering nature on an ever-greater scale—we will still be depending on ecosystems that are largely beyond our control.

As a species, we’ve gained an impressive degree of influence over our environment by deliberately simplifying ecosystems so they will support more humans, but fewer other species. Our principal strategy in this project has been agriculture—primarily a form of agriculture that focuses on a few annual grain crops. We’ve commandeered up to 50 percent of the primary biological productivity of our planet, mostly through farming and forestry. Doing this has had overwhelmingly negative impacts on non-domesticated plants and animals. The subsequent loss of biodiversity is increasingly compromising humanity’s prospects, because we depend upon countless ecosystem services (such as pollination and oxygen regeneration)—services we do not organize or control, and for which we do not pay.

The essence of our problem is this: the side effects of our growth binge are compounding rapidly and threaten a crisis in which the artificial support systems we’ve built over past decades (food, transport, and financial systems, among others)—as well as nature’s wild systems, on which we still also depend—could all crash more or less simultaneously.

If we’ve reached a point of diminishing returns and potential crisis with regard to our current strategy of constant population/consumption growth and ecosystem takeover, then it would seem that a change of direction is necessary and inevitable. If we were smart, rather than attempting to dream up ways of further re-engineering natural systems in untested (and probably unaffordable) ways, we would be limiting and ameliorating the environmental impacts of our global industrial system while reducing our population and overall consumption levels.

If we don’t proactively limit population and consumption, nature will eventually do it for us, and likely by very unpleasant means (famine, plague, and perhaps war). Similarly, we can rein in consumption simply by continuing to deplete resources until they become unaffordable.

Governments are probably incapable of leading a strategic retreat in our war on nature, as they are systemically hooked on economic growth. But there may be another path forward. Perhaps citizens and communities can initiate a change of direction. Back in the 1970s, as the first energy shocks hit home and the environmental movement flourished, ecological thinkers began tackling the question: what are the most biologically regenerative, least harmful ways of meeting basic human needs? Two of these thinkers, Australians David Holmgren and Bill Mollison, came up with a system they called Permaculture. According to Mollison, “Permaculture is a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labour; and of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single-product system.”  Today there are thousands of Permaculture practitioners throughout the world, and Permaculture Design courses are frequently on offer in almost every country.

Permaculture principles

Other ecologists didn’t aim to create an overarching system, but merely engaged in piecemeal research on practices that might lead to a more sustainable mode of food production—practices that include intercropping, mulching, and composting. One ambitious agricultural scientist, Wes Jackson of the Land Institute in Salina Kansas, has spent the past four decades breeding perennial grain crops (he points out that our current annual grains are responsible for the vast bulk of soil erosion, to the tune of 25 billion tons per year).

Meanwhile, community resilience efforts have sprung up in thousands of towns and cities around the world—including the Transition Initiatives, which are propelled by a compelling, flexible, grassroots organizing model and a vision of a future in which life is better without fossil fuels.

Population Media Center is working to ensure we don’t get to ten billion humans by enlisting creative artists in countries with high population growth rates (which are usually also among the world’s poorest nations) to produce radio and television soap operas featuring strong female characters who successfully confront issues related to family planning. This strategy has been shown to be the most cost-effective and humane means of reducing high birth rates in these nations.

What else can be done? Substitute labour for fuel. Localize food systems. Capture atmospheric carbon in soil and biomass. Replant forests and restore ecosytems. Recycle and re-use. Manufacture more durable goods. Rethink economics to deliver human satisfaction without endless growth. There are organizations throughout the world working to further each of these goals, usually with little or no government support. Taken together, they could lead us to an entirely different Anthropocene.

Call it the Lean-Green Anthropocene.

*          *          *

The Techno-Anthropocene has an Achilles heel: energy (more specifically, the failings of nuclear power). The Lean-Green Anthropocene has one as well: human nature.

It’s hard to convince people to voluntarily reduce consumption and curb reproduction. That’s not because humans are unusually pushy, greedy creatures; all living organisms tend to maximize their population size and rate of collective energy use. Inject a colony of bacteria into a suitable growth medium in a petri dish and watch what happens. Hummingbirds, mice, leopards, oarfish, redwood trees, or giraffes: in each instance the principle remains inviolate—every species maximizes population and energy consumption within nature’s limits. Systems ecologist Howard T. Odum called this rule the Maximum Power Principle: throughout nature, “system designs develop and prevail that maximize power intake, energy transformation, and those uses that reinforce production and efficiency.”

In addition to our innate propensity to maximize population and consumption, we humans also have difficulty making sacrifices in the present in order to reduce future costs. We’re genetically hardwired to respond to immediate threats with fight-or-flight responses, while distant hazards matter much less to us. It’s not that we don’t think about the future at all; rather, we unconsciously apply a discount rate based on the amount of time likely to elapse before a menace has to be faced.

True, there is some variation in future-anticipating behavior among individual humans. A small percentage of the population may change behavior now to reduce risks to forthcoming generations, while the great majority is less likely to do so. If that small percentage could oversee our collective future planning, we might have much less to worry about. But that’s tough to arrange in democracies, where people, politicians, corporations, and even nonprofit organizations get ahead by promising immediate rewards, usually in the form of more economic growth. If none of these can organize a proactive response to long-range threats like climate change, the actions of a few individuals and communities may not be so effective at mitigating the hazard.

This pessimistic expectation is borne out by experience. The general outlines of the 21st century ecological crisis have been apparent since the 1970s. Yet not much has actually been accomplished through efforts to avert that crisis. It is possible to point to hundreds, thousands, perhaps even millions of imaginative, courageous programs to reduce, recycle, and reuse—yet the overall trajectory of industrial civilization remains relatively unchanged.

*          *          *

Human nature may not permit the Lean-Greens’ message to altogether avert ecological crisis, but that doesn’t mean the message is pointless. To understand how it could have longer-term usefulness despite our tendency toward short-term thinking, it’s helpful to step back and look at how societies’ relationship with the environment tends to evolve.

The emblematic ecological crises of the Anthropocene (runaway climate change and ocean acidification, among others) are recent, but humans have been altering our environment one way or another for a long time. Indeed, there is controversy among geologists over when the Anthropocene began: some say it started with the industrial revolution, others tag it at the beginning of agriculture some 10,000 years ago, while still others tie it to the emergence of modern humans thousands of years earlier.

Humans have become world-changers as a result of two primary advantages: we have dexterous hands that enable us to make and use tools, and we have language, which helps us coordinate our actions over time and space. As soon as both were in place, we started using them to take over ecosystems. Paleoanthropologists can date the arrival of humans to Europe, Asia, Australia, the Pacific Islands, and the Americas by noting the timing of extinctions of large prey species. The list of animals probably eradicated by early humans is long, and includes (in Europe) several species of elephants and rhinos; (in Australia) giant wombats, kangaroos, and lizards; and (in the Americas) horses, mammoths, and giant deer.

People have also been deliberately re-engineering ecosystems for tens of thousands of years, principally by using fire to alter landscapes so they will produce more food for humans. Agriculture was a huge boost to our ability to produce more food on less land, and therefore to grow our population. Farming yielded storable food surpluses, which led to cities—the basis of civilization. It was in these urban social cauldrons that writing, money, and mathematics emerged.

If agriculture nudged the human project forward, fossil-fueled industrialism turbocharged it. In just the past two centuries, population and energy consumption have increased by over 800 percent. Our impact on the biosphere has more than kept pace.

The industrialization of agriculture reduced the need for farm labour. This enabled—or forced—billions to move to cities. As more people came to live in urban centres, they found themselves increasingly cut off from wild nature and ever more completely engaged with words, images, symbols, and tools.

There’s a term for the human tendency to look at the biosphere, maybe even the universe, as though it’s all about us: anthropocentrism. Up to a point, this is an understandable and even inevitable propensity. Every person, after all, is the centre of her own universe, the star of his own movie; why should our species as a whole be less egocentric? Other animals are similarly obsessed with their own kind: regardless of who furnishes the kibbles, dogs are obsessively interested in other dogs. But there are healthy and unhealthy degrees of individual and species self-centeredness. When individual human self-absorption becomes blatantly destructive we call it narcissism. Can a whole species be overly self-absorbed? Hunter-gatherers were certainly interested in their own survival, but many indigenous forager peoples thought of themselves as part of a larger community of life, with a responsibility to maintain the web of existence. Today we think more “pragmatically” (as an economist might put it), as we bulldoze, deforest, overfish, and deplete our way to world domination.

However, history does not portray a steady ramp-up of human hubris and alienation from nature. Periodically humans were slapped down. Famine, resource conflicts, and disease decimated populations that were previously growing. Civilizations rose, then fell. Financial manias led to crashes. Boomtowns became ghost towns.

Ecological slap-downs probably occurred with relatively great frequency in pre-agricultural times, when humans depended more directly on nature’s variable productivity of wild foods. The Aboriginals of Australia and the Native Americans—who are often regarded as exemplar intuitive ecologists due to their traditions and rituals restraining population growth, protecting prey species, and affirming humanity’s place within the larger ecosystem—were probably just applying lessons from bitter experience. It’s only when we humans get slapped down hard a few times that we start to appreciate other species’ importance, restrain our greed, and learn to live in relative harmony with our surroundings.

Which prompts the question: Are the Lean-Green Anthropocene prophets our species’ early warning system whose function is to avert catastrophe—or are they merely ahead of their time, pre-adapting to an ecological slap-down that is foreseeable but not yet fully upon us?

*          *          *

Throughout history, humans appear to have lived under two distinct regimes: boom times and dark ages. Boom times occurred in prehistory whenever people arrived in a new habitat to discover an abundance of large prey animals. Booms were also associated with the exploitation of new energy resources (especially coal and oil) and the expansions of great cities—from Uruk, Mohenjo-daro, Rome, Chang’an, Angkor Wat, Tenochtitlan, Venice, and London, all the way to Miami and Dubai. Boom-time behaviour is risk-seeking, confident to the point of arrogance, expansive, and experimental.

Historians use the term dark ages to refer to times when urban centres lose most of their population. Think Europe in the fifth through the fifteenth centuries, the Near East after the Bronze Age collapse around 1200 BCE, Cambodia between 1450 and 1863 CE, or Central America after the Mayan collapse of 900 CE. Dark-age behaviour is conservative and risk-averse. It has echoes in the attitudes of indigenous peoples who have lived in one place long enough to have confronted environmental limits again and again. Dark-age people haven’t skirted the Maximum Power Principle; they’ve just learned (from necessity) to pursue it with more modest strategies.

Needless to say, dark ages have their (ahem) dark side. In the early phases of such periods large numbers of people typically die from famine, also from war or other forms of violence. Dark ages are times of forgetting, when technologies and cultural achievements are often lost. Writing, money, mathematics, and astronomy can all disappear.

Still, these times are not uniformly gloomy. During the European Dark Ages, slavery nearly disappeared as new farming methods and better breeds of horses and oxen made forced human labour less economic. People who previously would have been bound in slavery became either free workers or, at worst, serfs. The latter couldn’t pick up and move without their lord’s permission, but generally enjoyed far more latitude than slaves. At the same time, the rise of Christianity brought new organized charitable activities and institutions, including hospices, hospitals, and shelters for the poor.

Today nearly everyone in the industrialized world has adopted boom-time behaviour. We are encouraged to do so by ceaseless advertising messages and by governmental cheerleaders of the growth economy. After all, we have just lived through the biggest boom in all human history—why not expect more of the same? The only significant slap-downs in recent cultural memory were the Great Depression and a couple of World Wars; in comparison with ecological bottlenecks in ancient eras these were minor affairs; further, they were relatively brief and played out three or more generations ago. For most of us now, dark-age behaviour seems quaint, pointless, and pessimistic.

It would be perverse to wish for a Great Slap-Down. Only a sociopath would welcome massive, widespread human suffering. At the same time, it is impossible to ignore these twin facts: our species’ population-consumption fiesta is killing the planet, and we’re not likely to end the party voluntarily.

Will we avert or face a Great Slap-Down? We’re already seeing initial signs of trouble ahead in extreme weather events, high oil and food prices, and increasing geopolitical tensions. Sadly, it seems that every effort will be made to keep the party going as long as possible. Even amid unmistakable signs of economic contraction, most people will still require time to adapt behaviourally. Moreover, a slap-down likely won’t be sudden and complete, but may unfold in stages. After each mini-slap we’ll hear claims from boom-time diehards that a techno-utopian takeoff has merely been delayed, and that economic expansion will resume if only we will follow this or that leader or political program.

But if urban centres feel the crunch, and if widespread Techno-utopian expectations are dashed, we can expect to see evidence of profound psychological disruption. Gradually, more and more people will conclude—again, as a result of hard experience—that nature isn’t here just for us. Whether this realization emerges from extreme weather, plagues, or resource scarcity, it will lead an ever-expanding share of the populace grudgingly to pay more attention to forces beyond human control.

Just as humans are now shaping the future of Earth, Earth will shape the future of humanity. Amid rapid environmental and social change, the message of the Lean-Greens will gain more obvious relevance. That message may not save the polar bears (though ecosystem protection programs deserve every kind of support), but it might make the inevitable transition to a new species-wide behavioral mode a lot easier. It may lead to a dark age that’s less dark than it would otherwise be, one in which more of our cultural and scientific achievements are preserved. A great deal may depend on the intensity and success of the efforts of the small proportion of the population who are currently open to Lean-Green thinking—success in acquiring skills, in developing institutions, and in communicating a compelling vision of a desirable and sustainable post-boom society.

In the end, the deepest insight of the Anthropocene will probably be a very simple one: we live in a world of millions of interdependent species with which we have co-evolved. We sunder this web of life at our peril. The Earth’s story is fascinating, rich in detail, and continually self-revealing. And it’s not all about us.





How do we establish AGW’s complicity in the latest disaster?

24 10 2013

As everyone reading this blog will know, Climate Change has been blamed for making the current fires in NSW “unprecedented”.  Nutjobs like Andrew Bolt were quick to fire from the hip attacking the ABC with statements like:

The ABC is furiously promoting the NSW fires as “unprecedented” and evidence of the global warming that actually paused 15 years ago.

This morning Fran Kelly, host of ABC Radio National Breakfast, claimed there had never been bushfires in October and implicated global warming:

The issue, some people say, is we’ve always dealt with fire, but not necessarily in October.

In fact, of 48 major bushfires in NSW between 1926 and 2006, 11 occurred in October or earlier

THAT list, conveniently stops in 2006.  During the period 1926 to 2006 there were 90 Human fatalities.  I say convenient, because the Black Saturday bushfires, a series of bushfires that ignited or were burning across Victoria on and around Saturday, 7 February 2009, three years after that list ends, killed 173 people and injured 414.  So it alone killed more people that died in all bushfires combined in the previous seventy years.  Furthermore, even back in 2009, Climate Change was also being linked to that terrible tragedy:

Professor David Bowman, an expert in forest ecology and bushfire management at the University of Tasmania in Hobart, says the research is useful because it confirms scientifically what we already know.

“It does open up some pretty intense political issues,” he says. “You’ve got to ask the question: why are people living in these areas if these disasters are only going to keep happening? Why do peri-urban communities exist?” Population growth in bushland areas and more frequent bushfire weather predicted with climate change are expected to create major challenges for protecting homes in the future.

It’s neither easy, nor helpful, making comparisons with what occurred a long time in the past…….. because everything changes.

On 6th of February, 1851 – “Black Thursday” – the largest Australian bushfire in European recorded history burnt an bushfire_victoria_house_safetyarea of approximately 5 million hectares (12.5 million acres), reputedly a quarter of Victoria.  The areas affected include Portland, Plenty Ranges, Westernport, the Wimmera and Dandenong districts.  Approximately 12 lives, one million sheep and thousands of cattle were lost.  The elevation of Port Phillip district into the colony of Victoria, was on the 1st of July 1851.

I found this particular fire mentioned as “proof” that Australia had major events well before Climate Change became an issue.  Yes, a quarter of Victoria may have burned in 1851…… but it was in February, not October…  and who was there to fight it?  How many trained fire fighters were there?  Where were the helicopters?  Do we even have data on temperature and wind speeds during that event…??

There’s no way of knowing of course, but I suspect that in precisely the same conditions today, there’s no way 5 million hectares would be allowed to burn……

Today, having sacked leading scientists at the Climate Commission, Environment Minister Greg Hunt announced he turned to Wikipedia for evidence that the devastating bushfires in NSW are not connected with our changing climate.

angry abbott

Prime Moronster

Hunt says that they have always been with us and have nothing to do with climate.  Indeed, they have always been with us but he ignores the increasing frequency of these fires, and is nothing but a lie by omission and unfitting of an Environment Minister…….

When pointing to Australia’s history of bushfires, Abbott also rattled off a list of historical events, and the dates were: 1851, 1939, 1968, 1983, 1994, 2003, and 2009 and now.  Ignoring, for a moment that none of those other fires were in October, take a look at the gaps between those events……..  80 years, 29 years, 14 years, 11 years, nine years, six years, and four years. Am I the only one detecting dumbing down…?

The deniers are out in force, but I think the time has come when people are starting to wake up to the fact we are heading for even worse situations.  How much longer before the likes of Bolt and Hunt are tried for treason?





What firefighters say about climate change

24 10 2013

The Conversation

Author

Michael Howes

Senior Lecturer in Sustainability and Environmental Policy at Griffith University

Originally published at https://theconversation.com/what-firefighters-say-about-climate-change-19381

You do not find many climate change sceptics on the end of [fire] hoses anymore… They are dealing with increasing numbers of fires, increasing rainfall events, increasing storm events. – A senior Victorian fire officer, interviewed in 2012 for a recent National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility report.

There have been fierce arguments this week about whether it’s opportunistic to discuss climate change in connection to the devastating New South Wales fires. Amid all the bluster, it’s surprising that we’ve heard so little from one group of experts: frontline emergency service workers, including the firefighters risking their lives for the rest of us.

Yet if you do ask for their opinion – as we did for a study released in June this year – many, like the senior fire officer quoted above, are not reluctant to talk about climate change. In fact, quite a few of the emergency workers and planners we interviewed said we should be talking about it more, if our communities are to be better prepared for disasters like the one unfolding in NSW right now.

Prepare for the worst, hope for the best

In 2012-13, I led a joint research team from Griffith and RMIT to prepare a report for the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility (NCCARF) on disaster risk management and climate change.

To do so, we compared the emergency responses to Victoria’s 2009 Black Saturday bushfires, the 2011 Perth hills bushfires, and the 2011 Brisbane floods.

We started by comparing the official inquiry reports into these events to the relevant research on disaster risk management. This was followed up by interviews with 22 experts from Perth, Melbourne and Brisbane, including nine fire officers, five emergency services workers, and eight assorted planners or policy officers. The proposals that emerged were then reviewed at a set of workshops.

One of the most interesting things we found in talking to the emergency service workers was an overwhelming acceptance and concern that climate change was already affecting Australia, based on their personal experiences with disasters.

As a Western Australian fire officer told our research team, we need to “get the scientists, who have a lot to share about climate change and climate change adaptation, talking to the operational people” – a suggestion backed by many of our interviewees.

Preventing future emergencies

Our report was not the first time that firefighters and other emergency workers have spoken out about climate change.

For instance, earlier this year it was reported that the United Firefighters Union released research by the National Institute of Economic and Industry Research that found almost 2 million Australians were relying largely on volunteer fire brigades to protect them and A$500 billion in assets.

The same article referred to research from the Centre for Australian Weather and Climate Research, a collaboration between the CSIRO and Bureau of Meteorology, on how the fire season across much of south-eastern Australia appeared to be going on for longer.

In November 2009, 25 firefighters, paramedics, police, military and emergency services workers spent nearly a month running 6000 kilometres from Cooktown in Queensland to Adelaide and back to Melbourne, speaking to communities along the way about their concerns about climate change. Many of them had worked in the Black Saturday firestorm, in which 173 people died, as well as the record-breaking heatwave beforehand that health experts estimated killed more than twice as many people as the fires.

In the same year, the United Firefighters Union’s national secretary wrote to then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd:

On behalf of more than 13,000 firefighters and support staff in Australia, I write this open letter to request a review of Australia’s fire risk… As we battle blazes here in Victoria, firefighters are busy rescuing people from floods in Queensland. Without a massive turnaround in policies, aside from the tragic loss of life and property, we will be asking firefighters to put themselves at an unacceptable risk.

Firefighters know that it is better to prevent an emergency than to have to rescue people from it, and we urge state and federal governments to follow scientific advice and keep firefighters and the community safe by halving the country’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2020.

Lessons to be learnt

So what can we learn from listening to firefighters and other emergency services workers about how to be better prepared for future disasters?

Our study’s main aim was to come up with a set of practical changes based on those expert views on how to better integrate climate change adaptation into disaster management programs.

One suggestion was to set up a permanent fund, based on the success of Landcare. Anyone from government or the community might form a group and bid for money to tackle a particular issue, such as replanting local wetlands to reduce the impacts of flooding.

Another proposal was to set aside some local government funding to set up community resilience grants. Residents would be able to apply to their local council to fund projects, such as creating a network of people ready to assist elderly neighbours in times of bushfires or floods. Locals could even vote in town hall meetings on which proposals their council should fund.

Whatever we do, if we want to handle disasters better in the future, our frontline emergency workers have plenty of ideas to offer – if we’re ready to listen to what they say.