The Cricket on the Hearth

We love fire. Our ancestors probably loved and used fire even before our mutation to homo sapiens. Now we’ve come to an impassable truth. Our fires have released so much gas that the benign climate which has supported our species for several thousand years is about to go wild. Our hospitable, kindly Earth is about to grow very unkind to homo sapiens – and most other species besides.
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Everyone knows this (though many conveniently forget), but still we cannot relinquish the fire. Instead, we call for negative emissions – for fantasies of carbon-eating soils – and even for paying (with money!) for carbon emitting behaviours, so that consciences are salved. Salved conscience can continue to jet the globe and drive to the retail park. Carbon trading schemes, carbon offsets and true-cost accounting are convenient pretences that the physical Earth will respond to inner sophistries of the human brain. Unfortunately, the natural world does not register money – or dispensation certificates (purchased pardons, or indulgencies). It receives no intelligence of those things
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As I’ve mentioned in previous articles, money and dispensation rackets are almost entirely in the hands of the powers, while the consumption, which causes climate change is in the hands of all of us. Of course, while elites personally consume the most and so are the most destructive group, nevertheless, we little people are far more numerous and are not powerless. A great mass of consumption is ours. Not only that, mercantile elites exist by our consent – by particular purchases which make them rich – and also by mercantile connections to the ballot. It’s an ancient truth that I can become rich, only if you become poor – that is by your acceptance of poverty. The wealth of other elites (and poverty for others) also exists by enclosure, or inherited enclosure.
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Here’s something – gross domestic product could be renamed gross domestic climate change. And still more – our current consensus politics, in which we select from just two, or three marketed “packages”, could be renamed consensus for elites, consensus for poverty and consensus for climate change.
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Anyway, to return to fire, the perfume of Ash logs (from fallen branches and wind-felled trees) delightfully suffuses our farm house. I must add that this is another tale of elites, though of a different kind. Through the sixties and seventies, it was almost a badge of honour for green, rural households to wear that same perfume. Now, it is almost universally accepted that burning wood is natural and virtuous – that forests re-grow – that CO.2 released in combustion will be re-absorbed in the subsequent re-growth of trees. Those that know me, will also know that I don’t think that CO.2 can be re-absorbed by regularly-felled, “judiciously-managed” forest – or arable fields. How could anyone? – yet most do so, perhaps coerced by convenience, or by lazy “research institutes” largely composed of green, “alternative” elites like me.
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Putting aside climate change, a perfumed hearth for everyone on Earth will very soon strip the whole Earth of trees. I’ll not bore you with historical (and guessed archaeological) population statistics. You’ll know that once upon a time, communities could gather at firesides to eat and tell their tales. You’ll know that later, Seventeenth Century England had utterly stripped the last of her trees for fuel and for timber. Tree cover was a fraction of today’s. Economic collapse was inevitable.

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In 1600 the Western demand for timber was utterly unsustainable and utterly destructive. Bitter, murderous Winters were certain – but coal – vast amounts of it – came to the rescue. After the mass use of coal, forest cover expanded again. Since 1600 the human population of England has multiplied by 14.8 times, Wales (for me) by 8.83 and the world as a whole by 13.1.  Now today, and for such populations,  biomass energy is heralded by the UK government, the European Union, the USA, the IPCC, and the Paris Accord as the answer to anthropogenic climate change! The bulk of England’s so called, green energy is imported from Canadian and South American Forests. The three Drax power stations in Yorkshire, alone and annually consume timber equivalent to three times the total annual (for all uses) timber production of the UK.
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Yes. My scented Ash logs are another tale of elites. Are those elites, people like me, who have been delightfully privileged to scent their homes in that way? Certainly, a fire, here or there, from fallen branches and judiciously-managed trees can do little harm – our ancestors have enjoyed fire, with little consequence, far into pre-history. Yet we know that by 1600, leaving climate change aside, wood fire for everyone had become impossible. Today we know, still leaving climate change aside, that wood fire for everyone is utterly, utterly crazy – unless we claim the elite privilege.
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UK government disagrees – it wants wood fire for heating Everyman’s home (heavily grant-aided) and for generating her electricity (also heavily grant-aided). Both are promoted as a part of UK climate-change targets. Still worse, using the yet untried BECCS (carbon capture and storage from burnt biomass), it targets negative emissions!

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Here’s a proposition – burning coal emits the same CO.2 as burning biomass, but by using coal we free biomass to live breathe and photosynthesise. Burning biomass simultaneously burns both potential photosynthesis and potential cyclic biomass – it reduces both the mass of bio and its capacity to regenerate. We cannot avoid the proposition that burning biomass is considerably more dangerous than burning coal.
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If we think of cultural transition as a series of steps, it follows that with regards to climate change, the first of all steps must be to stop burning biomass. The second step will be to remove coal – the third and fourth, to remove oil and gas.
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Thinking of gas, fermentation is an essential part of natural systems – breaking complex proteins into the simple minerals necessary for the regrowth of new proteins – that is, plants, animals and so back to fungi and so on, again. Whatever people do, those fermentation gases will continue to rise. We may gather those gases and burn them without additional harm – or greenhouse effect. It seems attractively like a return to hunter/gathering. Heat generated in fermentation can also be used without harm. Those gases and that heat will always be present – use them or not.
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As Joshua Msika has suggested, we can build simple houses above aerobic compost pits (with some obvious inputs). Anaerobic digestion for cooking, heating and (limited) transport/industrial gas is plainly beneficial and can be both self-determined on the smallest scale and also as a larger community/parish project.
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The purpose of this article is to call privilege from its high horse (and high horse power). It is to confess my guilt – I’ve claimed the status of Ash perfume. Similarly, I’ve friends who boast green virtue in heavily-subsidised wood-chip boilers. Come down. Confess.
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Energy had seemed limitless. Now it is not. Carbon taxes, offsets and so on will fail. They make the poor, still poorer in both money and opportunity and have no effect on the rich, highest users. We need energy rationing and fair distribution (such as Cap & Share, Feasta, or Energy & a Common Purpose, David Fleming) and we need common ownership – that is, commons rights, which define common obligation. Let the Earth dictate, not time-warped “alternative” land settlers of the early Seventies, such as myself. After all, such people may have often declared, “Listen to the trees!” – while piling on another fashionable log of Ash, Oak, or Thorn. Sadly, many of us have mutated into leaders of environmental research institutes, or organic farmers and cannot shake off those life-forming delusions.
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Living well on less has always been the primary route to happiness. The less starts first, with all burnt biomass, then with all burnt fossil mass and then with transition to… Well, unless we end the burning of both living mass and fossil mass, there’s not a hope of realising any of the rest. There will be no quiet contemplation, or then a song, or a tale shared in good company with the cricket of the hearth.

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