SUNDAY MAGAZINE

Snow, dykes and Scottish pines

Drumbeat of panic?: Green activists condemn inaction on the climate crisis.   | Photo Credit: PHOTO: AFP

SUPRABHA SESHAN

Vignettes from the diary of a climate change tourist.

Tthe vast panorama of the higher Alps that lines the northern horizon has very little white on it. I had been on this ridge 10 years ago. I had camped overnight to wake up to a glorious view: stark white snow peaks in a crystal blue sky.

I am on the last leg of my journey, sitting in a café on Bahnhoffstrasse in Zurich. After two months of travelling around Europe I realise I’ve been a climate-change tourist. A melee of images has been imprinted on my mind. I am at once bemused, alarmed and hugely fascinated by the drumbeat of panic that’s beginning to pound on the streets of Europe. But the subject is complex and the interpretation fraught. I’ll leave this to the experts. For now here are some snippets from a tramp abroad.

Celebrating wilderness



I am in Scotland at the Outsider Festival, the first midsummer environmental festival of its kind. I was told Crowded House and KT Turnstall would be playing, and that in the midst of Scottish wilderness at the 36,000 acre Rothiemurchus Estate, I would meet fun people representing key British environmental issues.

I am here on invitation by the British Council, to present a tropical approach to environmental action, more specifically, a way of life and work relating to plants, people and forests of the Western Ghats of India. I’ve brought a sari for the occasion but find myself instead padded in woollens and wellies. The point however is this, it’s pouring, flooding in fact, in various parts of Britain, but still, 10,000 people, have come to Rothiemurchus on a midsummer jaunt.

The two-day environment forum has brought some interesting personalities: Jeremy Leggett of Solar Century (formerly of Green Peace) whose columns in the Guardian I’ve read; Will Whitehorn of Virgin Galactic, space tourism expert (and spokesperson for Virgin’s CEO Richard Branson); Lord David Steel, founder of the Scottish Liberal Democratic Party and several others. During a panel discussion chaired by Kirsty Wark of BBC Scotland titled “Climate Change: can we walk our green talk?” I listen to Will Whitehorn make claims that space technology could be used to feed the world, and that the use of satellites has increased the world food supply by 15 per cent. The rest of the panel and the audience counterpoint this fiercely. I gag at the brazen idea of promoting space tourism to raise £250 million for a space technology project, at only $100,000 a trip.

End of the sessions, we tumble out to the muddy fields. Crowded House is playing. The music is good but my feet ache and I’m cold. The base beat builds in power. At 100 metres away from the music stage, my heart threatens to violently leap out. Forgotten what high decibel stuff does to the system. I wonder what the capercailies are feeling out there in the Caledonian wilderness.

Suddenly, I’m grabbed in the arm by Philippa Grant, wife of Johnnie Grant, the 10th Laird of Rothiemurchus, who says enthusiastically, but you must see the land. We pile into a Land Rover and I am whisked away through a mysterious land in the pouring rain. This is the stuff of Gaelic legend, of castles and lochs and desolate mountains and endless mist (with a rock festival thumping in its valley!).

The capercailie, a large reclusive ground nesting bird, has been reintroduced into the Rothiemurchus Forest, one of the largest remnants of pine woods that once covered most of Scotland. The Caledonian Pines we see are more than 100 years old, some as old as 300. There are osprey and red deer here. We drive on a trail through bog woodlands, rare habitats that formed over 5000 years on waterlogged peat. We see ancient and twisted juniper: relics of a bygone era. Compared to the 100 million year old tropical forests, these woodlands are mere infants; they arrived with the retreat of the ice under 10,000 years ago. Now less than one per cent of their original extent, the regeneration of the Caledonian woodland is a precious thing.

But like everywhere, the climate is changing. There is hardly any snow on the fells anymore. Maybe in the future, they will grow rice in Scotland. What are the implications for a cold climate when it warms? Surely not that bad, some people think. But imagine if tropical mosquitoes could breed year round in these bogs. Would we need to take anti-malarial pills before heading out here in the future? What if some new fungus attacked the Scots Pine? Or if broad-leaved trees moved north? Where will these magnificent woodlands go then? Into the North Sea?

Anyway, Britain has recorded an unprecedented number of emigrants this year. The Brits are leaving their precious island home in droves. Most likely, they all want to go to Spain. Maybe they’ll recolonise India, a favourite ex-colony of theirs. Is it the rain that’s driving them away? Can’t be the government surely!

Sun stroke in Switzerland

I am on a high ridge in southern Switzerland with some friends, way above those great looping lakes of Ticcino. The vista is spectacular but I am troubled on two fronts today. The first is the heat: 39°. I get a mild sunstroke after six hours of walking. My friends are incredulous. Secondly, the vast panorama of the higher Alps that lines the northern horizon has very little white on it. I have been on this ridge 10 years ago. In fact I had camped overnight to wake up to a full sweep of stark white snow peaks in a crystal blue sky. Today, it is searingly hot and there is no snow on the mountains.

I hear the Swiss are experimenting with wrapping some glaciers in white plastic foil to insulate them against the rising summer temperatures. They are also building fibreglass caves so that tourists can still enjoy the experience of being inside a glacier. They even have ski lifts to several glaciers because they have receded by many kilometres and it’s a pain to walk so far. I’ve also heard that they are spraying artificial snow on popular ski runs like Zermatt (and 65 per cent of Austrian ski runs), because they need to have at least 20 centimetres of snow to ski.

There is no longer a guarantee that snow will fall in winter for elevations up to 2,000 metres. So they make the snow instead, with huge machines that convert water into snow with the help of bacteria that form the condensation nuclei. This, with the help of giant fans, is then sprayed out onto the mountain sides (costing millions of euros and a huge amount of electricity). Apparently the snow is nice and dense, which is great for skiing. Apparently it is terrible for the soil. And apparently, it needs to be kept cool by spreading tons of fertilizer on it (which will get washed eventually into the rivers which incidentally, have been successfully cleaned up). I hear the ski runs with real snow advertise themselves with signs declaring “we still have natural snow”.

But, a mere 20 cm of snow is quite dangerous for skiing, especially for the new breed of snow machines that operate on the slopes nowadays. Rocks and boulders and other “hindrances” could cripple a speeding skier. So the slopes have to be first bulldozed to get them smooth and even, before spreading the artificial snow. The ski resorts above Zermatt are now, I’m told, free of natural rock formations.

Soon they will make snow at 4°plus. Now that winters will rarely go into the minus, why not just make snow at higher temperatures, so that ski buffs can continue their winter sports?

I don’t ski but I do enjoy mountains, especially their flora. Plants are good indicators of climate change. I observed that tropical palms had spread into the Ticcino woods naturally. Once planted in Lugano gardens for ornamental reasons (because they could withstand the relatively mild Ticcino winters), now they can germinate on their own outdoors. This is perfect Borassus country now. They are getting their toehold in the Lower Alps and soon will sway above the chestnut canopy. The glaciers will have gone and there will be palms here instead.

Raise high the dykes

The Dutch are busy with their dykes. They are fattening them at the base and also raising them. I saw some dyke building when my ferry nosed into the harbour at Hoek van Holland. Way off in the distance was a great long fresh mud pile. Like the sloping rim of a giant plate.

Not only are they protecting themselves from sea-level rise but they are doing some internal earthwork too. They are widening their floodplains along the rivers and making more internal dykes. This is to contain the floodwater from further upstream in Germany and Switzerland. My friends in Randwyk will lose their view of the river from their upstairs windows. They will be dyked in soon.

The Dutch are thinking about their housing as well. One solution is to encourage people to have houseboats. They already have a long tradition of houseboats so this would be quite easy, requiring little technological change. The other is to build houses with some kind of a sliding mechanism, on poles. These can then rise and fall with the water level, like a yo-yo.

I have a Flying Dutchwoman for a friend in Amsterdam. Her main occupation is to hang in the air from buildings, roofs, kites and cranes to create beautiful shapes in striking clothes. One day she’s a mermaid, another day a Carmen. Her second task is to toss seed balls into alleys, vacant plots, pavement cracks and industrial areas. These seed balls contain a variety of seeds of native species in some compost and manure. They land in a crack in a pavement, or under a graffiti filled brick wall, and germinate. She wants to diversify the urban landscape and bring back wildlife and natural beauty. Moreover, resurgent vegetation will help to sink excess water flow when it happens.

Decline of the West

I go to Germany on a whim, on the trail of Oswald Spengler, a man I’ve been intrigued by for some years now. He lived from 1880-1936 and it seems, didn’t move from his armchair. Yet he spun the most interesting ideas on the subject of history. His book, Der Untergang des Abendlandes or The Decline of the West, catapulted him to fame. To notoriety actually. Many controversies ensued. He dismissed the Weimar republic as a “mere business enterprise” and predicted a new Caesarism. He described Zivilization as a final declining phase of a culture, an age of empire and megalopolis signifying severance from the roots, a disproportionate development of artefact. He called his work “a philosophy of fate”. The Nazi regime declared him a magician and a sadist. I find a bust of his in a museum in Berlin. Spengler is in good company. Next to him is Alfred Wegener, who first proposed the theory of continental drift.

I travel from Berlin to Bayreuth (home of Wagner), then the Frankische Alps (with its extraordinary limestone formations) and finally to the idyllic Black Forest, to stay with friends who run a beautiful guesthouse called Haus Sonne. Everything here is organic, solar or wind powered. Christian and Eva travel only by public transport. They walk and cycle big distances.

Christian leads me on an amazing walk at breakneck speed through the Black Forest. I learn some crazy things on a steep ridge overlooking the Rhine graben. Christian planted an avocado seed recently. The European climatic zones are shifting northwards so he may be able to grow tropical fruit trees. The Black Forest is now in a “changing weather zone”. The steady high pressures of July and August are now replaced by extreme fluctuations. This week, we’ve seen both floods and heat waves. Fifteen years ago, the idea of February without snow, was absurd. Now February arrives without snow.

We walk to Schonau, Germany’s ecological capital, where most houses sport solar rooves and most heating is done with woodchips or sawdust pressed into bricks. But still more fuel is needed. Local farmers want to convert vast areas of the countryside to bio-fuel from wheat, rye and vegetable production (though they prefer to import palm oil cheaply from Indonesia where the rainforest is being cleared for this). The incentive for food production is currently low, whereas excitement builds over the possibilities for bio-fuel. Rapeseed, grasses, fast growing trees: all GM. The fertilizer and chemical companies are thrilled.

While 80 per cent of energy employees in Germany work in renewables now, there is scepticism among people like Christian who have been sounding the alarm bell since the 1980s. He says: here we are, a society with more knowledge at its fingertips than ever before, with still the same old consciousness. What is the difference between consumerism and ethical consumerism? None, none at all.

Homeward Bound

My feelings about Europe remain ambivalent. I feel lost here, even when I enjoy myself. This time I can’t help feeling I’m in a wild burlesque. I’ve lost sight of the real and entered a dream. Clearly I’m fully implicated, involved.

Like yesterday, when I walked the Zurich streets with 800,000 others at the Techno-festival, I was enormously entertained. What a laugh! What a glorious (but deafening) spectacle. Illusion piled upon illusion. I was sure saturation point was reached, a planetary dead end, begging for collapse. It would be nice if collapse, while it happens, could be a festive occasion with transvestites and dread-heads leading the way. But I think rather, it’s going to be a long haul, a slow one. We’ll be stretched to our human and earthly limits. There’s bound to be pain. How much and to whom remain to be seen.

Something Einstein said nags me: a problem cannot be solved by the mind that created it.

Can this climate crisis be solved by the modern industrial mind and its following? Somehow, I doubt it.

E-mail: >jungler@gmail.com

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