Saturday, 8 May 2010

South and north

We just got back from a week visiting Provence and the French Mediterranean coast, landscapes very warm and seductive:

This is the view from our hotel room, but I couldn't capture the fast swifts wheeling and screeching in that sky.

The Gorge of Verdon winds deep through the hills, the river so far below us it's hard to imagine how it ever ground away so much earth:
Green spring trees beside the bright blue water:

The French really do respect food; a Provence farm shop displayed its vegetables like artworks, colour-coordinated:

Flowered courgettes feel delicate and fleshy at once:

Back in Paris and the Jardin du Luxembourg is also in bloom, including these strange trees (I can't identify) with lilac-coloured foxglove-like flowers and some of last year's nuts still visible:

Politics of hope

The fabulous Caroline Lucas thanked the voters of Brighton Pavilion for choosing 'the politics of hope' on Thursday when she became Britain's first Green MP. She will enter Parliament as the sole female leader of a British political party. Congratulations to her and to all the people who campaigned for her. Here's a video of her acceptance speech, in which we get to see her tired, emotional and very happy face at the announcement:

During the campaign, from a quite distance, I felt sceptical that the Greens would make it into Westminster. I lived near Brighton in 2005 and campaigned door to door for Keith Taylor. The feeling that year was very optimistic, and Green supporters seemed to be everywhere. On the day the Greens got over 20% of the vote, which was great, but they still came third behind the Labour and the Tories, despite the fact that on the doorstep I never heard anyone support the Conservatives. Well, I learned a little scepticism. It's cheering to see something good come out of this election, despite the Tory majority. Caroline Lucas is a great spokeswoman for ecology and environment, and I'm looking forward to watching her take on Westminster.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Waking up again

This blog has been sleepy since Copenhagen, so I appreciated this video-call to recover from December's disaster. It's also a nice summary of politician-speak on climate change, a kind of antidote to the dreary General Election campaigning.

Saturday, 27 March 2010

Give the orangutan a break

Greenpeace are putting pressure on Nestle to stop using palm oil grown on land cleared of rainforest, especially in Indonesia where forest clearances are threatening the orangutan with extinction. Nestle has succeeded in banning Greenpeace's campaign video from Youtube, so the charity is asking us to spread it across the internet despite Nestle. So here it is, but first a warning - it's quite grisly and not to be watched if you're eating:

Nestle is the world's largest food and drink company so their actions have real impact. They use 320,000 tons of palm oil a year, and doubled their use of the product in the past three years. Much of it comes from plantations grown on cleared rainforests, accelerating climate change and driving extinctions. You can find a simple email to sign and send to Nestle here. In this case, I think sending an email is probably worth doing as the campaign is causing yet more bad publicity for Nestle, who could well follow the example set by Unilever and Kraft and cancel contracts with companies involved in forest clearances.

Palm oil production is driving the extinction of orangutans, one of the human species closest living relatives. Over 80% of their habitat has already been destroyed and it is estimated that the ape could go extinct in just ten years. They are particularly at risk because of their low reproductive rate; a female matures at ten to fifteen years old and can then give birth only every six to eight years. EDGE explains their vulnerability: 'Many of the remaining populations, particularly in Sumatra number fewer than 250 individuals. These small, isolated populations do not have the capacity to recover from population declines. A slight rise in female mortality rate of just 1-2% can drive a local population to extinction.'

Monday, 8 March 2010

Fontainebleau in March

We spent a long Sunday exploring the forest of Fontainebleau. Moving between areas of bright green Scots Pines and stretches of still bare Beeches and Oaks felt a little like passing backwards and forwards between spring and winter.
Vegetation struggled to break through the thick layers of fallen leaves and needles, but the leaves in the sunlight had their own colour and warmth.
The forest's character felt quite changeable, full of hidden pleasures, like these Silver Birches complementing the green Pines.
Curiously shaped rocks attract boulderers, and we saw some working across the sandstone, or hunting between the trees for challenges, with their mattresses strapped to their backs so that they could cushion the ground beneath their climbs.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

A thin city

At noon on the first Wednesday of every month air raid sirens boom across Paris. The first time I heard this back in November the sound took me by surprise. I looked into the street to see if anything was happening, but all the Montparnassians below me walked calmly on, so I shrugged it off too. Hearing the alarm today, it already sounded familiar. The siren tells you exactly where and when you are: Paris, first Wednesday, 12 noon. But that precise present is shadowed by the city’s past, and fears for the future. The alarms are a test, to ensure that the sirens still work and can be used to warn citizens of danger in the case of future catastrophes. They also recall the dangers Paris has already survived, violence that has taken place here.

Victims of the Shoah, named at the Paris Museum of the Shoah (source)

You can barely walk down a street in this area without encountering a memorial, especially to people killed during the German occupation of 1940-44. On my way to our post office yesterday, for example, I passed a primary school with a plaque above the main door dedicated to the Jewish children taken from that school to the camps. The long unknown history of the house we live in troubles me in a way that of the Victorian house I grew up in never did. I remember that this city has endured revolutions and invasions, that it tests its sirens because of real experience.

Last year I blogged about Mircea Cantor’s Monument for the end of the world, a sculpture that tries to ‘commemorate’ a future event. I asked whether cities should build monuments not just to events in their past, but to think about lives to come. In a very dark way, the Paris sirens do this.

France is currently recovering from a natural disaster – the weekend’s storm killed over 50 people in France and swollen tides flooded towns along the Atlantic coast.

La-Faute-sur-Mer on Monday

In the capital we woke to strong winds but no damage. Today the sun is shining brightly, it’s March, spring does finally feel close, and the siren has come and gone. The alarm might be a signal of time’s continuity, its regularity, or perhaps it signals time’s rips, traumas and tears.

Sunday, 28 February 2010

A place of safety

Reading Mark Lynas’s terrifying and vivid depiction of the future on a hotter planet, Six Degrees, one of the most moving moments for me was the dedication to his wife and son ‘in the hope that most of the predictions here need not come true’. The book describes the expected food crises, extinctions and water shortages, and it culminates in an inferno of methane eruptions and stagnant, poisonous oceans. To dedicate such a narrative to your child makes sense – Lynas works to prevent such a future – but it must also have been a very painful thing to do.

I’ve been considering what children hear and think about climate change while reading Kate Thompson’s The White Horse Trick, a young adult novel set at the end of this century in Ireland crippled and dying in the ravaged climate. Dystopia has a strong presence in children’s fiction, and young readers deal with those stories in a similar way to adults: they help us to work through the terror of imagining all the logical consequences of the way we live, from the relative security of a safer present. I was impressed by Thompson’s handling of the issue. She respects her readers’ intelligence and resilience enough to confront us with the full horror of what climate change might mean. Warlords exploit and brutalise the valleys and coasts around the Burren, and the future appears so hopeless that there’s no arguing when one character declares, ‘It’s all over for the human race.’ Yet Thompson also provides a place of safety for the reader. Ireland is paralleled by Tir na n’Óg, a timeless kingdom inhabited by fairies. Just as various bedraggled human refugees cross over to this land, Tir na n’Óg also balances the reader’s experience of ecological and social collapse. The White Horse Trick is the third in a trilogy and Tir na n’Óg is well known from Irish folklore, so Thompson did not invent the land for this purpose, but she uses it deftly.

I did wonder if a refuge like this could be cheating, letting us off the hook. In particular, it allows Thompson to juxtapose human time with geological time, the millennia over which the earth’s ecosystems might recover from what we’ve done to them. This recalls arguments made by people who have run out of ways to deny climate change’s reality, so declare that the earth will survive even if humans don’t, as though the suffering in between doesn’t matter. But in Thompson’s book the suffering does matter, so the effect of her reassurance is different. I found that having access to a place of safety while reading about climate change allowed me to experience a greater range of emotions than I usually have when reading about this subject. It was a surprise. Perhaps I’d come to feel that anger, sorrow and despair are the only legitimate emotions for the subject to provoke, but in a children’s book that wouldn’t feel right. As an adult, it was oddly refreshing to face the collapse of human society from this novel’s fantastical perspective.