Thursday 24 December 2020

Fire and Ice

Finished December 14
Fire and Ice: Soot, Solidarity, and Survival on the Roof of the World by Jonathan Mingle

This book uses a small village in the Himalayas as a focal point for environmental concerns in a way that makes it even more relevant and personal. Mingle first met the people of the village of Kumik in the Zanskar valley of the Himalayan mountains of north west India in 2012 when he was asked for advice on how to build homes to take advantage of passive solar energy, something he has experience in. The village of Kumik is one of the oldest villages in this part of the world, and depends on water from the glacier above for both its daily life and its sustaining agriculture. But the water has been providing less and less over the years, with the glacier shrinking and most of the remaining meltoff going down the other side of the mountain to other villages. 
The village people have been looking at their options as the fields they plant each year decrease and men work at other jobs, away from the village more and more. They have decided to move the village to a new location, where they can arrange irrigation from a nearby river. They will be building a new village from scratch, and want to do it in a way that takes advantage of things like solar energy as much as they can.
Through Mingle, we see the intricacies of village life, how they depend on each other, and the long history of the social contract "chu len me len chaden" which has neighbours supporting each other with fire and water. Violators of the social system are cut off from both these necessities, putting them in the position of not being able to survive. 
We see his work and his interactions with the villages over a couple of years as they gradually build their new village, have many meetings and make many decisions, and work together for their future.
Mingle looks at why glaciers are shrinking and the role not only of carbon dioxide, but also of black carbon. Black carbon, often appearing as soot has many effects. Not only does it pollute existing glaciers and cause them to heat more and thus shrink more quickly, it also has huge effects on human health (and indeed the health of all living things). Thousands of people die every year due to its effects, all around the world. Black carbon's health effects are seen locally, while its environmental effects are global. Many of the world's poorer countries use cooking and heating fuel that contributes to the production of black carbon, not only through the type of fuel, but also through the way that it is burned, leaving unburned particulates in the nearby atmosphere, both in homes and in the air around communities. It is also an output from the use of diesel fuel, often used for generators in  remote communities, but also transportation around the world. Even in the more developed world, the use of wood burning stoves and heaters contributes to this pollutant. 
I learned that the colour of the flame is a strong indicator of the presence of black carbon as an output.The bluer the flame, the cleaner burning it is. That orange glow we admire is not a healthy sign. 
In many instances this is something that can be tackled even more easily than the issue of carbon dioxide (although that can't be ignored). Development and distribution of cleaner burning stoves and heaters needs investment and government support worldwide. The infrastructure and training to support maintenance of these new units is key as well. The use of local solar generators can be another tool for reducing black carbon. In the developed world, replacing wood stoves with pellet stoves can help this effort. 
I learned a lot from this book, and it gave me hope that we can work together to improve the lot of people, from this small village of hardworking people in the Himalayas to our own communities in cities and suburbs. This recent case of the role of this kind of pollution in the death of a young girl in London spoke to its impact in cities. 
Highly recommended.

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