In the long run….

450px-Clock_of_the_Long_Now…we’re all dead, so goes the old joke.

I’ve found myself thinking of ‘the long run’ increasingly often over the last year, and I’m not sure why.  I think partially it’s due to having children around on a reasonably regular basis for the first time; I’ve found myself thinking more of the world that they will grow up in to, and how the activities of the human race in my lifetime will have influenced that world – for better or worse.  some of you may recognise the image on the left – it’s a picture of a model of the ‘Clock of the Long Now’ – a timepiece designed to keep reasonably accurate time for 10,000 years.  I like the idea of thinking that far ahead – whether it’s realistic or not is the question, I guess.

Years ago I remember reading that when the ‘big’ cathedrals were built – places like Notre Dame in Paris, or theBasilica di Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence – it was taken as a given that some of the people who started building the place would not live long enough to see it completed.  The Basilica, for example, took 170 years from inception to completion.  Imagine – a life expectancy of maybe 40 was pretty good going for those days, so it would be possible for 4 or 5 generations of a  family to work on the building, most of whom knew that they were committing their skills and lifetime to something they would never see completed.  And this in a time when the Black death was all over Europe.  I imagine that part of what drove people was faith; a belief that what happened in your life wasn’t the end of things, but just the beginning, and that building such edifices would help ensure your soul would be well received in Paradise!

Gardens are the same – many formal gardens literally take 100 years to mature to the vision that the garden designer envisaged.  And the owner of the land on which the garden was being built and who was paying for the garden would know that he was planning for the future, and leaving behind (and paying for) a legacy that he would never truly enjoy.  There’s a rather nice comment about the wisdom of a society that plants trees for the future in this blog entry from November.

It’s the combination of altruism and faith in the future that fascinates me; it is a combination of values that I think is lacking today.  We seem to have ended up in a culture of short-termism.  Which is incredibly ironic when we live so much longer than did our ancestors; maybe we’re just not so sure about our future prospects, or maybe it’s our Governments thinking in 4 year chunks.  But we don’t seem to have the faith to build for the future anymore.  I don’t really see anything being built that will first of all survive more than a century or so, and certainly nothing of the scale and majesty of your Duomos, Notre Dames or Towers of London. 

It’s a great irony that we might leave so little that survives more than a few centuries that our descendants of a thousand years hence (should we leave any behind) might regard the times we’re now living in in the same way that we regard the so-called ‘Dark Ages’.

After the Goldrush

There’s a song by Neil Young called ‘After the Goldrush’, which he wrote in the 1970s.  There’s a couple of lines in there which for the last 20 years have sounded increasingly like a warning:

“We got Mother Nature on the run, in the 1970s

Look at Mother Nature on the run, in the 1970s”

Well, 40 years later it looks increasingly like Mother Nature, somewhere along the way, stopped running, turned around, grabbed us by the nose and started kicking our sorry asses.  I have no doubt that this morning in Copenhagen there are some serious hangovers – probably not all alcohol fuelled.  There will be serious hangovers in the offices of those Governments, NGOs and other groups who’d hoped to get something legally binding and lasting from Copenhagen, rather than the half arsed fudge that we appear to have been delivered.

There’sa good piece from the BBC’s Environment spokesman, Richard Black, in which he suggests that the days of internationally agreed, ratified and binding steps towards climate control are over.  I have to say that I agree with him – we’ve had, off the top of my head, Kyoto, Bali and Rio – all of which have under-delivered and have been hailed as first steps on the way to something better.  I hate to be negative, but just how many first steps does this baby need?  And do we have enough time to allow a new set of first steps to take place every couple of years?

We’re in an interesting dilemma – governments and multi-national corporations with the power to make things happen abrogating their responsibility and apparently unable or unwilling to actually make decisions.  What we require now is leadership from our governments – one is forced to wonder whether the international ‘leadership’ from the US and UK that threw hundreds of billions of dollars in to the throats of the world banking community was actually leadership or whether it was our governments doing the bidding of their bosses in international finance.  And all this happens whilst the climate clock keeps ticking; a deadline that cannot be fudged or avoided by our children and grandchildren who will almost certainly live long enough to see the start of the major long term impacts of climate change and environmental collapse on this planet.

What can we, as individuals, do?  I’m a Libertarian; a believer in governments having the minimum possible involvement in our day to day lives.  I do, however, expect my government to take some responsibility at it’s level of power, and one thing that has emerged from Copenhagen and all the other failed international initiatives is that governments are unwilling to do anything for the long term benefits of this planet, mired as they are in the short term requirements of staying in power.  I’m therefore left painfully aware that climate change is going to happen, and that the best that we as individuals can do is, I believe, as follows:

  1. Work within your families and communities to do what you can to reduce your own environmental impact and encourage your communities to do the same.  Involvement in local environmental initiatives, and wider organisations such as the Transition Town network and the Permaculture Association can only help.
  2. Consume less – in terms of energy and resources.  Support the local economy at all levels – services, food, whatever.  Watch your food miles and the carbon footprint of what you eat.
  3. Put your elected representatives on the spot, and vote them out if they’re not delivering.

In all goldrushes throughout history, what’s left behind after it’s over is a mess.  Except this time, it’s the whole planet rather than a few hundred square miles of land.  What we can do to help put things right is very little, but it’s a start.     And at the very least when your grandkids ask what you did to try and make a difference, you can look ’em in the eye and say ‘I did all that was possible for me to do.’

I think that I shall never see…

oaktree…a thing as lovely as a tree, goes the poem.  We’ve been blessed this year by squirrels in our garden.  We live in a suburb of Sheffield with lots of trees which give a great playground for the squirrels, roosting places for birds, sources of sound effects when the wind blows through the leaves and variable satellite TV quality in the spring and summer when the leaves on a particular nearby tree get in the way of the incoming satellite TV signal!

We’re constantly reminded of the importance of trees to the environment – most of us are aware of the phrase ‘the lungs of the world’ when applied to the rain forests of South America and South East Asia.  Astonishingly enough, even though the world has been on a 40 Capstan Full Strength a day cigarette habit for the last 200 years, those lungs have managed to keep pushing enough Oxygen in to the environment and drawing enough CO2 out to keep the planet livable – quite a feat.

treeaerialWhen I was kid my main regret about our garden was the lack of a tree at the end of it.  It was a loooong garden, just right for a long-wire aerial to support my interest in short wave radio.  Unfortunately, there was no tree.  the traditional supports for a long wire aerial for short wave listening, as portrayed in numerous books, was a house at one end – check! – and a tree at the other.   Sadly, I had no tree, my parents objected to my plan of acquiring a telegraph pole and planting it at the end of the garden, and so my aerial stopped where the last washing line support pole was.   Ah well….

I love ’em.  One of my pleasures in the summer is to find a tree and sit under it – not too difficult an undertaking in Sheffield as we have lots of parks and also lots of trees scattered around the city centre.  When I was researching something the other day I came across a few nice quotes about trees, so thought – why not share them.  And here they are, and what they mean to me.

“The best friend on Earth of man is the tree. When we use the tree respectfully and economically,
we have one of the greatest resources of the Earth.” – Frank Lloyd Wright

A reminder that the ersources of this planet, though vast, are not large enough unless we do our bit in conserving them and replacing what we use.  And that trees are our our planetary lungs.  I like breathing – if you do too then start paying attention to the News when they report on yet another deforestation carried out in teh name of global capitalism.

“A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.” – Traditional Greek Proverb

I love this.  It’s long termism – something wonderful to witness in a society, especially today when our leaders’ view of the long term is the day of the next General Election.  There are several similar ideas to this in different cultures.  The story goes that when a famous French official told his gardener to plant a tree, the gardener turned around and told his master that the tree wouldn’t reach maturity for 100 years.  The Lord of the Manor suggested that there was no time to waste and suggested that his gardener planted the tree immediately!  A Chinese proverb says ‘The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago.  The second best time is now.’  We’re so used to instant gratification – perhaps we should all plant a tree to learn what it is like to be patient.  Short termism will kill us all yet.

 “People who will not sustain trees will soon live in a world which cannot sustain people. “ – Bryce Nelson

 Depressingly true.  As I mentioned above, we need trees to act as the lungs of the world, and to be honest, as we don’t seem able to curtail our desire to consume, we had better keep these lungs healthy.   I have no doubt that somewhere in the world there are very wealthy people planning biodomes in to which they and their families and minions will be able to retreat when the planet can no longer easily sustain life.   I have a sneaking suspicion that these people are also the ones who have pillaged the planet dry in the last 100 years.  If the day ever comes when these guys do run in to their bolt holes, might I suggest that we concrete the doors shut and paint the windows black?

Enjoy the trees.  Preserve them – maybe think about artificial trees this Christmas?  When buying wooden items, use wood from sustainable sources.  Recycle your paper. Let’s keep breathing!

The Bus Book – w/c 10th March – On Walden Pond (continued)

As you can see I didn’t do an exceptional amount of commuting last week, and Walden remained the Bus Book for this week as well.

As I’ve progressed through it I’ve come to the conclusion that whilst I admire his ideas, I don’t think Thoreau would necessarily be a fun guy to spend an evening in the pub with.  I get the feeling from what he says that he was something of an aesthete.  I wonder if the ‘hair shirt’ attitude of some of today’s ‘extreme greens’ partially originated from here.  Sort of along the lines of if you’re enjoying it it can’t be truly environmentally friendly.

His description of the pond in winter is masterful, with a keen observational eye which brought the whole place to life in my mind’s eye.

I took a look at the Pond as it is today via the website here and also checked out a map from Google, below.  The map is movable – just hold the left mouse button down and move the mouse around.

View Larger Map

Even back then he was within a couple of miles of town – I suppose the invention of the car and the widespread use of bikes, etc. would today mean you had to be maybe 10-15 miles outside of the nearest village to get the same degree of isolation.

One final observation – in the ‘Spring’ section there is a amsterful description of the patterns made by sand in thaw-water flows, as well as the similarities between natural shapes – leaves, snowflakes, etc.  Given my interest in fractal mathematics it was hard to ignore the fact that had he been a mathematician Thoreau may had discovered fractals 100 years early!

Anyway…good book, worth a read…just don’t expect to find an easy read!

The Bus Book w/c 3rd March – On Walden Pond

One of the long term running gags in our family is that given half a chance I would either run off to live in the woods or become a hermit in a Monastery.  Well, I spotted this story recently that made me seriously consider it…

Here’s a guy who did it for almost 2 years – Henry David Thoreau, in the mid 1840s, spent time alone at Walden Pond, a couple of miles outside Concorde, Massachusetts, in a house he built himself.  There he studied his surrounding, wrote and further formulated the philosophies that eventually became part of the American Transcendentalist movement later in the century.

Part natural history study, part philosophy, the book has become a rallying point and source of inspiration for generations of American environmentalists.  For further information, see the entry on Wiki.

Last week was spent more at home than recently – so my bus based reading took a hit.  For that reason I’m only half way through the book.  The writing style is occasionally difficult – especially for those of us not well versed in the slang and culture of the mid-19th Century USA – but it is a passionately written and insightful book.

I’m enjoying it – I’m not able to read it in long chunks, but read a little, chew it over, savour it – think on it and then move on.  Perhaps that’s the way this book should be read.

It’s a fine book, thought provoking and empowering.  It’s also set me thinking about Bill McKibben’s ‘the End of Nature’ – perhaps I should dig that out soon.