Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Cuts and Culprits

In the run up to Copenhagen the Guardian has published this comparison of different nations’ contributions to climate change from which I’ve learnt that the per capita carbon emissions in the UK are 9.3 tonnes compared with 6.4 tonnes in France. The main reason for this difference is that France gets 80% of its energy from nuclear power, though possibly local food habits and the popularity of holidays inside the ‘Hexagon’ help marginally. The figure is heartening to me because there’s no significant difference in quality of life between the two countries. Neither lack for luxury. Francophiles and Anglophiles could argue this both ways but really the differences are trivial (the French do have very excellent bread and fresh vegetables, but personally I find this hard to weigh against the watery tea and lack of good cheddar). The statistics show that it would be possible to cut UK emissions by a third without any pain or loss at all by shifting energy generation away from fossil fuels.*

As well as useful information these national figures offer dubious entertainment – it’s very tempting to search out the bad guys. Most obviously, the USA’s 19.9 tonnes per capita annual emissions are quite shocking. But even the USA could point to worse culprits: they’re drinking oil in Bahrain (41 tonnes), Qatar (70.6 tonnes) and UAE (38.5 tonnes), and who can say what’s going on in the Virgin Islands (150 tonnes). Some of the discrepancies are caused by population size so it’s useful – and chilling – to remember that British has the 8th highest total carbon emissions of all countries (France is 16th).

The figures aren’t helpful if they're a temptation to evade individual responsibility by pointing to other nations or thinking in relative rather than absolute terms about emissions. We know that the earth can sustain no more than 1 tonne of annual carbon emissions from each of us.** But national statistics are helpful in giving some indication of whether a nation’s actions match their words during the rhetoric storm we can expect from Copenhagen.***

* Many environmentalists would argue that the French merely displace the problem since nuclear power creates its own dangerous pollution. There’s a very useful assessment of the UK energy situation in Sustainable Energy Without The Hot Air.

** George Marshall’s Carbon Detox is still my favourite guide to reaching this target.

*** If you’re in the UK, don’t forget the march in London on Saturday December 5th, from 12 noon to call for strong action against climate change at the UN meeting. (I have to be in the UK that week so will be there. Please do get in touch if you’d like to join me; I will have my British mobile.)

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Icarus and the fox

Outside St Sulpice today I enjoyed these sculptures, inspired by books and stories:

Icare (Icarus), by Robert Aupetit

Le Corbeau et le Reynard (The Crow and the Fox), by Florence de Ponthaud-Neyrat

(The sculpture is inspired by another cautionary tale, here.)

'Le grand livre du temps' (The big book of time) by NISA
('Monocycle', Ilio Signore)

It seemed to me that all these sculptures have an element of the precarious in them: Icarus launching towards the dim November sun, the fox and crow sketched in driftwood, the pages in the book fragmenting, and this unicyclist wildly wheeling around. But that fragility is combined with humour, lightness, and joy of living.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

My paper boat

I came across this beautiful short video about climate change on the One Minute to Save the World competition website:

There are about a thousand eco-films on the site, where you can vote for your favourite. I love the unspoken emotion of this film by Arun Boses.

UPDATE, 19 January 2010
My Paper Boat went on to win the competition. Congratulations Arun Boses!

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Home in other words

Living in a foreign country gets me thinking about words. A few days ago I saw Marilyn Robinson’s novel Home in a bookshop, translated as Chez Nous. In French it’s customary to use this phrase, ‘at ours’ or ‘at x’s’, to mean home. You can also use the word for house, la maison, but there isn’t an exact translation for ‘home’. Hebrew also doesn’t have a word for ‘home’ in the English sense. You just use the word for ‘house’/‘building’. Robinson’s heart-breaking and perfectly written novel conveys some of the emotions, beliefs and memories with which we layer the word ‘home’. For me ‘our place’ has none of those (though perhaps it might for a native French speaker). I’m willing to call our current flat ‘ours’, but it isn’t ‘home’.

The word ‘ecology’ has its root in the Greek word for ‘home’, oikos. This means we could translate ‘ecology’ as something like home-saying, or maybe home-knowing. I love this word. It’s slightly painful to see oikos also co-opted into ‘economy’, but that’s another matter. Eco-critics and greens in general often object to the word ‘environment’ because it means something that surrounds us and prefer ‘ecology’ for suggesting connection and shared being between ourselves and the natural world. I find it tempting to describe myself as an ‘ecologist’ rather than an ‘environmentalist’ for this reason, but to do so might be a bit pretentious and deceptive, as though I were pretending to be a scientist. Here in France there’s no problem: all greens are called écologistes.

So here’s a thought from French post-modernist Jean-François Lyotard, who argues that ecology is ‘not an environment at all, but a relation with something that is inscribed at the origin in all minds… ‘ecology’ means the discourse of the secluded, of the thing that has not become public, that has not become communicational, that has not become systematic, and that can never become any of these things. This presupposes that there is a relation of language with the logos, which is not centred on optimal performance and which is not obsessed by it, but which is preoccupied, in the full sense of ‘pre-occupied’, with listening to and seeking for what is secluded, oikeion. This discourse is called ‘literature’, ‘art’, or ‘writing’ in general.’