Wednesday, 24 February 2010

A brown haze at sunset ~ and a forest fire

When I got up this morning I was unable to see the surrounding hills as they were concealed in a pall of wood smoke: yesterday a fire in the Mt Allan forestry plantation north west of here took hold and continued to burn voraciously during the night; still air trapped the smoke. It was a sobering sight as well as a constraint. Usually when I get up I open lots of windows to let in the zest of early morning air which freshens me as well as the house. Not so this morning.  Even with doors and windows shut the smell of smoke crept in. By early afternoon a light breeze from the east had shifted smoke out of the area, but the fire raged on consuming hundreds of hectares of trees growing on terrain too inaccessible to combat at ground level.  Only aircraft dumping water and fire retardant could make a difference. It is likely to be some days yet before it can be brought under control. 

Today as the sun was setting smoke drifted back over:

However, within half an hour our patch of the sky had largely cleared:

How fortunate we are: we go about our daily lives largely without having to exert ourselves to remedy such disasters - others are getting on with the job. And although we may be astonished at the cost of their efforts we won't have any direct responsibility either for footing the bill or working out who is responsible.  The amount spent on extinguishing this fire will be colossal but others will battle out how the cost is to be met.  We will probably watch a bulletin about it on the news while we are comfortably consuming a more than adequate meal; we are likely to tut-tut over the plight of various groups and individuals who will have suffered as a result, but it won't affect us particularly. The fire will be put out, and the skies will clear and everything will be pretty much back to normal. Lucky us!

In many parts of the world this simply isn't the case - the money and resources may not be there to tackle such crises, and pollution issuing forth from far more toxic sources often on an on-going basis with very serious consequences to whole societies. 

But before we judge others for their incompetence or poverty, consider this passage written by a contributor to a private correspondence club in England: The writer, here identified only by her nom de plume, Amelia, relates her experience in London of the Great Smog of December 1952:
..."Crossing the Common I could see only two yards ahead, and it was strange to move in such a shrunken world... Everything one touched was filmed with grime and I had an impressive Hitler moustache from breathing in all the choky stuff... The fog had closed in again thicker than ever. It seemed to press upon one and was quite difficult to breathe.  Street lamps threw only a feeble glimmer in their own immediate neighbourhood and between them was quite a stretch of inky darkness, I had to keep one hand on the wall or I would have lost my way... [In the office at work] I do the dusting and Hoovering every morning... Even though I'd cleaned all outside surfaces my fingers were black by lunchtime and so were everyone else's. The grime had got into every drawer and cupboard."
These abbreviated excerpts appear in the fascinating book "Can any mother help me?" (pages 113-117) which I have written about elsewhere.
Londoners were accustomed to 'pea-souper' smog, but this episode was unusually severe. It was caused by a combination of intense cold, the burning of coal and an air inversion. It lasted five days and is said to have caused 12,000 deaths - an extreme number by any standards. It prompted Clean Air legislation which required the phasing out of coal burning by both householders and factories. 

This is not long ago and in some parts of the world coal-fired power stations are still being built. Our planetary atmosphere is getting more clogged with toxic pollutants by the hour and we need to do all we can to work towards containing and reducing it.  

I remember when the Christchurch City Council passed tough legislation prohibiting open fires and requiring the upgrading of many old double-burning heating stoves.  While it was unfortunate that the changeover coincided with a power shortage the difference was immediate and has been permanent.  Civic affairs in Christchurch tend to be debated hotly over very long periods of time so it's surprising that this issue was dealt with so decisively.  It was definitely a firm step in the right direction.  

We need to support these kinds of moves both in our own country and in countries with whom we trade and have diplomatic relations. This is likely to involve us paying more for those goods which are at present produced in economies in which environmental regulations are largely absent and workers pay and conditions poor. Cheap commodities are not just a result of variations in exchange rates: producing goods in a manner that is respectful of the environment often adds to the cost, as does paying workers a fair share of the profits made from what they produce. We may love the cheap price tag but if it comes with this other cost - of the degradation not just of human life but of the world we live in, then the buyer shares that responsibility, make no mistake about it.

I want everyone on the planet to be able to enjoy the same wonderfully fresh air and glorious skies that I do.  It should be our birthright.

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