Thursday, March 07, 2019

Spanish reveries

Reichardia tingitana

I'm in Spain for a couple of days… and it's a delight to be here in March, when it's perfect walking weather, the acacias are glowing and people are friendly and fresh with spring hopes.

As ever, I'm trying to improve my Spanish by reading a book by Benito Pérez Galdós. I suddenly began to wonder why the author's name on the spine is Pérez Galdós, but in the editor's introduction he is just referred to as Galdós. And I thought, it really is time I got to grips with Spanish names and how they work.

A very fascinating topic, comprehensively explained by Wikipedia.

An author or other famous person is normally referred to by the first of their two surnames, which was once invariably, and still usually is, the one inherited from their father. (Thus if I ever apply for Spanish citizenship, my name will be registered as Michael Peverett Gulliksson.) Thus Cervantes, Unamuno, Goya, Calderón, Albéniz, Franco …. But some Spanish surnames are extremely common: Pérez is is one of them. If the first surname is one of these, the second (or mother's) may be preferred: thus Galdós, also Lorca, Picasso…  But when this is the case, the author is still indexed under the first surname: García Lorca under G, Pérez Galdós under P. And since libraries like to arrange their books in alphabetical order, that's the form used on the spines.

I learnt something else too that's relevant to the heroine Soledad (the book in question is Siete de julio, one of the 46 Episodios nacionales). Many Spanish girls are given forenames of different devotional images of the Virgin Mary:  Maria de Los Dolores, Maria de la Luz, Maria de la Soledad etc . In everyday use these names are shortened to the suffix: Dolores, Luz, Soledad… Family and close friends also make use of a wealth of traditional nicknames: in this case Solita, Solilla, Sola, which all appear in the opening pages of the novel.

Reichardia tingitana

In the apartment I found Peter Hughes’ Allotment Architecture (2013). Evidently I left it here a few years ago, thus happily escaping the vicious purges of my books in England (i.e. whenever I feel suffocated by possessions).

As is perhaps understandable, I'm viewing it through a Brexit lens. Peter is a poet from a non-elite background, a native of “peripheral Britain” (basically E Anglia, well away from the metropolitan centres), and his poetry is deeply in touch with local life -- not the romanticized version, but as it actually exists for most peripherals today. But at the same time his poetry keeps engaging with European material. In obvious ways: e.g. the last of the five sequences here is simply called, and is about, Berlioz. And his subsequent book was a transformation of Petrarch. You can't get much more European than Berlioz and Petrarch. I seem to remember that Peter Riley complained that Hughes traduces Petrarch, reduces him to a demotic (and very British) laddishness. I'm probably misrepresenting PR. Anyway, while this is too reductive as a reading of Peter's poetry, I do think it's a very good starting point for a reading. For isn't this precisely the point? Couldn't we see this as one of his central concerns: What has Europe to do with us, and we with Europe? Why the glaring and comic disparities, what does that mean, and how can we negotiate it? Concerns that, to say the least, seem timely.

      miserable simplicities
recline under the fingers
   whispering September
      plane leaves along the banks
           of the Seine cannot be heard
               from here unlike the fight
                                  across the street
                              & the piano lesson
                      that neither teacher
nor student attend

(Behoven 19)

The title conceals "Beethoven", regularly evoked in the poems of this sequence. But when poem 12 ends with the line

O Vienna!

it's not of the composer we're thinking, but of Midge Ure's moustache.

Well, pretty much every book I read seems to be about Brexit these days. The aforementioned Siete de julio, for example, portraying a complete meltdown of  government and institutions, an era of febrile conspiracy theories and furious opinions...

Peter's zone of operation, you might object, is better expressed not as Europe vs King's Lynn, but as high culture vs low. (Where "vs" is a flippant way of referring to a problematic relationship, rather than to outright opposition.) But I'd contend that the two pairs of contrasts aren't finally distinguishable. The sphere of high culture and the sphere of the international are intimately linked (by education, not least). In contrast to both is the local experience of our peripheral lives, with its desolating yet often salutary deflations, its loathing of pretension and outsiders and deviance, its willed ignorance, its nurturing horizon, its  instincts and intuitions, its corrective if inadequate appeal to the mere evidence of our senses.

As one of the caravan sites boasts:

      traditionalists from all walks of life
              will relish the narrow range of
             cultural references visible here

(Site Guide, site 15)

We're both mocking, but not altogether mocking either. There's something out here
(for our locality is just as much an "out here" as  it is a prison)... There's something out here that matters, something neglected and essential...

the rogue gnocchi of Abergavenny
pursued us through cold nights of restless sleep
& later formed a cash-in-hand band for
weddings or birthdays & passing your SATs
the only real security was speed
but with the second-hand Fiesta hitched
to a home-made marine-ply caravan
we couldn't underestimate the risks
the alcoholic SAS man swore
if we kept on the move around Norfolk
we would confuse everyone including
ourselves & that is certainly working
imagining the place where we started
we still don't know penguins have solid bones

(Lynn Deeps, 6)

[Yes. They do.]

Since I was last in Spain I've significantly reduced my meat intake -- basically because I'm fairly horrified by industrial meat production, and also because it seems a pretty pain-free way to reduce my carbon footprint. I suppose I've gone from being about 70% meat-free to about 95%. (I still eat fish.) Anyhow, this has made me more aware of the Spanish word "vegetal"... It means something with lots of vegetables in it... e.g. a lot of salad in a sandwich. It doesn't mean "suitable for vegetarians" and a sandwich vegetal probably contains eggs and tuna and may well contain chicken or ham. I quite like the Spanish assumption that a meat eater might want to eat something with a lot of vegetables.

Reichardia tingitana

Reichardia tingitana

Reichardia tingitana

Reichardia tingitana

Another book I found at the apartment: Torbjörn Säfve's molza, älskaren, a 1988 historical novel (set in the Renaissance papal society of Raphael and Michelangelo). I was delighted to find that all that reading of the Swedish news service SVT nyheter is paying off; I can almost read this. Säfve is a Norrbotten novelist, recipient of e.g. a Rubus arcticus award in 1997. He sounds a fascinatingly individual author of whom I'd like to learn much more. Many of his books are about boxing. He's an Islamic convert (Sufism), and there can't be too many of those in Norrbotten. (I believe special rules apply to the observance of summer Ramadans in places where the sun never goes down.) One of his other books is about the Sufi master Ibn 'Arabi.

Some sort of exotic succulent, Cala lo Ferris
When I'm not thinking about Brexit I'm thinking about climate change. (The topics are not altogether unconnected, but I won't get into that now.)

More specifically, I've been thinking about how I as an individual should best direct my efforts to reduce my personal carbon footprint.

[Carbon footprint: I'm using this familiar expression to mean our total personal contribution to global warming. I'm aware that not all greenhouse gases contain carbon. There are probably other objections of which I'm not so aware. But this isn't a technical discussion, and for present purposes “carbon footprint” will do.]

Of course I'm not just talking about myself. I'm talking about people like me, environmentally concerned westerners with a pretty average lifestyle, involving most of these: loved ones, family, friends, a heated home, clothes, a vehicle, a job, a vice or two, going to cafes, a meal out once or twice a week, visits and events, the odd trip abroad, and so on.

Most of these aspects of our daily lives contribute to our carbon footprint. As I've touched on in a couple of recent posts, to live is to pollute. As human beings we have an inbuilt drive to dominate and exploit our environment, not just to survive but to make our mark, to realize our potential: to build prosperity and security for our families, to have many children, to invest our capital, to use our muscles and powers of invention to better ourselves. For our remote ancestors that meant hunting wild beasts or cultivating a bit of ground or shaping wood into outbuildings. These days our individual impact on nature is less directly visible, but our drives haven't really changed. When we shop.for clothes, or bomb down the motorway in our car, or buy a meal, or put in a new kitchen, or head for a new holiday destination, or discover there's going to be a baby, we usually experience a level of exhilaration. We are really living! We feel fulfilled.

So reducing our personal carbon footprint usually involves sacrifice.

That's not such a big deal. Humans are good at sacrifice when it's for something they care about. A mother will throw herself in front of a car to save her child, without even thinking. But that's a rather dramatic example. What about courtesy? We stand aside to let someone through, we apologise for delaying them, we say thank-you when someone tells us the way to reception. We do these things because we think courtesy is important, it makes the world go round. And as a matter of fact it's only when we were children that we thought of them as sacrifices, though they are. Humans readily internalize sacrifice, and those who live almost entirely for others are often unaware of it.

Sacrifice needn't be a problem. But, coming back to reducing our carbon footprint, there are some important corollaries. The mother who shields her child and the courteous person who stands aside with a smile both know exactly what to do. This carbon footprint thing is trickier. We know about lots of things that it would be good to do, but what should be our priorities? A sacrifice ought to be an informed one. How sad it would be to learn too late that we had toiled and scrimped and denied ourselves over many years to achieve some reduction, and it had  made hardly any difference, and all the time we'd been neglecting another course of action that would have been far more effective?

Given that this question of priority is of such urgent concern to so many of us, you would suppose that the information we need is widely publicized. But that hasn't really been my experience. The media is interested in publicizing new ideas for reducing our carbon footprint, especially contentious ones, but is far less interested in context and in describing the overall picture; the sort of information that changes more slowly and is therefore less newsworthy. And public agencies tend to promote messages that are relevant to their own sector and their objectives; it's not their business to look at our lifestyles as a whole.

The upshot is, it's easy to find advice, but not so easy to find guidance.

Take a hypothetical example. A rather ridiculous one, maybe, but it'll do.

We've all seen the advice, by government and advisory bodies and green groups and even energy suppliers, to turn off unnecessary lights in our homes. Suppose my friend Carter took this on board in a big way, is scrupulous to a fault about turning off every light in the house except for in the rooms where  someone is actually sitting. (Or perhaps, like the old tip in Viz, Carter turns off all the lights and walks around the house wearing a miner's helmet?) Anyway, Carter is habituated to this devoted attention to detail. It's an important expression of Carter's values. Lights today use much less energy than twenty years ago when Carter began darkening the landing -- How much less? Carter doesn't know. It so happens that Carter's supplier now uses electricity from 80% renewable sources, but Carter doesn't know that either.  And now suppose that all this time Carter’s been running the gas central heating on max, likes to feel cosy but is often rather warm and sluggish and dehydrated and has trouble sleeping? Well, what Carter did deserves the respect that any sacrifice deserves, it was certainly better than doing nothing -- but not very much better. Carter saved some light bulbs from being consumed, and it was good for Carter's soul. But with fuller information and guidance, Carter might have sacrificed less and achieved a whole lot more.

So, how can we avoid doing a Carter? What kind of information do we need?

It would be helpful, I think, to see an analysis of the annual carbon footprint of the average household, with the percentage contribution of e.g. car use, flight journeys, electricity, heating, food consumption, internet usage, and new purchases such as a smartphone, a new car, a second-hand car, a kitchen refit... That kind of thing. No-one can make our decisions for us, but this sort of breakdown might suggest where we should focus.

Without that ability to assess different behaviours in terms of their carbon footprint, crusades such as Carter's are just articles of faith. Most of us, I suppose, adopt a more multi-pronged strategy. We try to be environmentally responsible in every way we can, so long as it isn't too inconvenient. Perhaps we adopt the Peverett rule, referred to earlier in regard to eating meat (Don't sweat the last 5%). We who have worked in offices are familiar with many another cliché expressing the same anti-perfectionist idea: low-hanging fruit, easy wins, the 80:20 rule...

I'm not one of those who despair of the planet and say it's too late to do anything -- how could I think that, walking among these Spanish flowers? This despair is an instance of the emotional fallacy of taint: to see something that's been damaged as something that's been ruined. But still, the sea ice is melting, it's a perilous situation. It merits a more concerted response than articles of faith and rules of thumb.

Here's another scenario, a real-world one this time. Tomorrow I'm driving down to stay with my mum and dad, about 150 miles away. The advice is clear: I ought to take public transport. That would take much longer, it would be less convenient, and it would cost more, so I won't. But if I had the information to quantify how much it would reduce my carbon footprint, I might reconsider my approach: not just for this one journey, but for similar ones in the future.

And such questions arise frequently, on small things as well as big. At a cafe, should I use the electronic hand-dryer or the paper towel... or wipe my hands on my jeans?

We recently posted about compostable cardboard cups. Is it better -- strictly as regards global warming -- to compost the cups, or to recycle the cardboard, or to bury them in landfill?

So how can such alternatives be quantified? Evidently, we need a common unit. It's time to stop asking questions and do some reading up.

Starting, not with human actions, but at the other end, when gases enter the atmosphere, there is a unit called GWP (global warming potential). But this doesn't relate to any specific quantity of CO2; it's a way of comparing identical quantities of different kinds of greenhouse gas. CO2 has, by definition, a GWP of 1. Methane's GWP is much higher (though to make it more complicated, just how much higher depends on the chosen time period). The GWP is used to express all GHG emissions using the same unit:

Metric tons of CO2 equivalent. (aka MtCO2e)

In the UK, this was 8.45 per capita in 2013. Australia 25.06, USA was 19.9, Finland 11.69, China 8.49, Sweden 5.29, India 2.28. World average 6.27.
[Source: .]

UK GHG emissions, breakdown by sector (2017):

Transport 27%
Energy supply 24%
Business 17%
Residential 15%
Agriculture 10%
Waste Management 4%
Other 2%

[Source: .]

The US EPA (2018) says:

"A typical passenger vehicle emits about 4.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year. This number can vary based on a vehicle’s fuel, fuel economy, and the number of miles driven per year."

That's based on 22mpg (4.839mpl) and driving 11,500 miles per year. [Most UK vehicles will be more fuel-efficient.  My own vehicle is far from efficient but it's still 7.7mpl.]

[Source: .]



A couple of asides. Some people don't like the implication that a very high proportion of emissions are the result of ordinary people doing things. Here's Seema Syeda in the Guardian;

"Less widely known, however, is that responsibility for the crisis is unequal too. In recent years we have been sold a lie: that ordinary people are to blame for the climate crisis. It’s our spending and our consumption habits that have created the mess we’re in, we are told, not the bankers, oil companies and a rich elite. ... At the pinnacle of this system stands the fossil fuel industry. A report last year showed that just 100 companies have been responsible for over 70% of the world’s carbon emissions since 1988. The fossil fuel industry has wrecked the planet...."

No doubt the FFI is deeply responsible for promoting consumption of its products and for lobbying governments to maintain FF consumption as central. It has worked hard to discredit or neutralize information harmful to its profits. Those are bad things. But Syeda's use of the word "responsible" tends to convey the entirely false impression that the producers themselves are the emitters (if they were, they'd have nothing left to sell us). The vast bulk of emissions arise from the lifestyle decisions of citizens. There are people out there trying to influence us, but no-one can take away our responsibility for our decisions. We stop buying oil, BP ceases to exist. We have the power.

Individual decisions are not insignificant. For example, Sweden's meat consumption after rising for many years has now dropped for two years in a row and this is expected to continue. It is attributed to citizens choosing to eat less meat. Not to other factors that might produce the same results, such as supply issues, high prices, an economic squeeze, or new legislation. Just individual decisions. And that's a lot less emissions.


That's not to say that politics isn't important. In 2018 US emissions increased by 3.4%, after declining for 20 years. The Trump effect, of course. As nations feel the pinch, there's  a wave of ugly kickbacks. Global imperatives come to be seen as the enemy.

Which brings me to my second aside.  Some people say that it's more important to focus on consciousness-raising and activism than on rubbing away at our individual carbon footprint. That's true, in theory. If you can persuade ten or a hundred people to reduce their emissions by 30%, that's better for the planet than only reducing your own emissions by 30%, or even 95%.  But few of us can measure our personal effectiveness in that way. When people change what they do, how often is it the result of one outside voice and that voice alone?

Besides, it's better to be congruent. You are a better persuader if you are taking action yourself, in your own life.

Pallenis maritima (syn. Asteriscus maritimus)

Pallenis maritima (syn. Asteriscus maritimus)

Plantago lagopus, Gynandriris sisyrinchium, and unopened flower of Asteriscus maritimus

Some sort of Acacia... retinoides maybe
Fagonia cretica

Lotus creticus

I was defeated by this one. On sand. Flowers generally like e.g. a Bird's-foot Trefoil (Lotus), but the 5-part leaves don't resemble anything in my book (Blamey/Grey-Wilson).

Later... It's Lotus creticus. Admittedly it would have helped if I'd noticed the headnote to Lotus, which describes the 5-part leaves. What was less clear from the book is that the dark-tipped keel (diagnostic for L. creticus) only becomes visible in the later stages of flowering. Also, the leaflets on these plants were quite sharply pointed, not at all like the obcordate leaflets in Blamey's illustration.

Lotus creticus

Lotus creticus

Zoom in on the picture above to see the pods, the fresh flowers (with keel not yet protruding), and one or two fading flowers where the dark-tipped keel is visible.

Medicago littoralis

I had to get out the Blackeye clip-on macro lens for this one (it's another yellow coastal prostrate legume, like the previous species, but it's tiny in comparison. I'll go for Medicago littoralis, on the basis of the sharply toothed stipules.

The macro lens has such a narrow depth of field that it's not much good with swollen shapes (such as pea flowers). It's better with flat things, like leaves.

Medicago littoralis

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