Thursday 26 May 2011

On the road again, in the air

Greetings from sunny Santiago. That’s right, Chile. Yesterday I flew over the entire Pacific Ocean, and though I travel a lot, for my work, there’s a part of me that still feels that to travel that far, that fast, is kinda unnatural. I think that’s what jet lag is all about. I’m all for the wonders of jet travel but it is weird when you think about it: we file into an enclosed steel tube, watch a couple of movies, eat meals served on those little trays (so much packaging!), take a nap and look, here we are on the other side of the world, as if by magic.

I’m just about to fly on to Ecuador later today, where I’ll be spending the next couple of weeks, and will try to post when I can, otherwise when I get back. Already I’m feeling the difficulties of maintaining a “no impact” ethic while travelling – it’s as if you are suspended in an alternate universe where climate change doesn’t exist (or at least is of secondary importance to basic survival), drinking bottled water on the plane (because the tap water isn't drinkable), travelling even short distances in taxis (because you don’t know your way around)…

Although there are glimpses of an eco-sensibility here and there. For instance, the Best Western hotel I stayed in last night calls itself a “green hotel” – designed to maximize natural light and shade, glass “thermopanels” on the exterior, energy economisers (whatever they are) in each room…And I’m travelling in a group of six, so we’re taking taxis/minivans together where possible (car-pooling!).

Over and out, for now. Hasta luego (see you later)…

Thursday 19 May 2011

Deep into the future

Today I heard paleoclimatologist, ecologist and science journalist Curt Stager speak at the Sydney Writers Festival and got a glimpse of planet Earth 100,000 years from now. It was interesting, intelligent, inspiring and uplifting stuff. 

Why that far ahead? Stager says that most climate models look only as far as the end of this century, say 2100 AD, but it's possible to look further, and discover things that can inform us today. 

His main idea is that after global warming, there will be a "climate whiplash" when the trends we now see happening all over the world and will ultimately adapt to, will reverse. It's sobering, if not downright scary. But first: it was heartening that when Stager asked how many of us in the audience of about 200 believe climate change is real and human-caused, almost everybody shot their hands up. Yay. 

Here are 7 things I learned today:

1. We are currently in the Age of Humans or, as he called it, the Anthropocene Epoch – we’ve actually changed the world enough to warrant a new term acknowledging the impact human beings have had, and are having, on the planet. Scary. (He went on to list a few of our effects: extinctions, invasive species, farms and cities, pollutants and “trash”, reshaping of landscapes with dams and such, and, finally, greenhouse gas buildup). 

2. After global warming – when emissions, airborne carbon dioxide, temperature and sea levels will peak – there will be a “climate whiplash”. In other words, all these things won’t increase indefinitely. They will peak, and the planet will cool – which will also be challenging for humans.

3.  Some warming is inevitable, even if we take what he calls a “moderate” path within the next few decades, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere will peak at 550-600 parts per million (they are now about 393ppm). The oceans will soak up most of this extra CO2, but it will take more than 100,000 years for them to do that. If we take an “extreme” path, this recovery will take 500,000 years, or more.

4.  Human beings have already prevented the next Ice Age, which was predicted to kick in 50,000 years from now. (The next, next one will be in 130,000 years).

5.  Things are more serious than at any other time in the planet’s history because previously when ice ages came and went, animals and plants migrated to survive the changing world. Now, because we populate the landscape with farms and cities, they can’t do this. Also, ocean acidification is going to wipe out many, many marine ecosystems. Scary again.

6.   Human beings (and many other species) are survivors. If Stone Age man can survive catastrophic drought,  with his Stone Age technology, 17,000 years ago (as he did), we've got to have an advantage with all our 21st-century know-how. Stager believes people will live through the climate whiplash.

7.  "We are a force of nature," says Stager. "We will decide this climatic future by acting or by doing nothing. Either way, we are incredibly important in the grand sweep of human history and Earth’s history.”

So, really, I had no choice but to buy Stager's book – Deep Future: The next 100,000 years of life on Earth. He's also got a blog, Save the Carbon (he believes carbon should stay in the ground, for obvious reasons). Now to get reading...

The simple things in life

...really are the best. After not having an electricity-free night for a couple of weeks (has it really been that long?), we decided to have a winter night out - in the backyard. It was a beautifully still night, a couple of possums swung by to say hello (we have a possum-box in the tree next to the house after evicting them from the inside of our roof a few months ago) and we even lit a fire.

I know what you're thinking, because I'm thinking it too: burning wood = carbon in the atmosphere = high impact. But we had to dispose of some wood (and old chairs, without sending them to landfill) so we lit a fire. It's one of the things I most enjoyed about having a backyard, before the No Impact project. And there's the rub. How to do things you enjoy, and have a no-impact ethos at the same time.

I'm not sure if having a small fire in the backyard emits more or less CO2 than having all the lights on in the house, and I'm going to look into that, but in the meantime, sitting on a couple of rickety cane chairs (which were spared the flames), with beeswax candles burning nearby and the possums, and cooking veggie burgers on the gas barbecue, felt simple and good. Like something I would have done with my family as a kid. And apart from the fire, it was a low-impact evening.

It's all about balance, and transparency. I'm not as close to living a no-impact live as I'd like to be, but while I'm on this mission I'd like to be as honest as I can about what I'm doing (and not doing). How about you? It's confession time. What high-impact things would you rather not live without?

Thursday 12 May 2011

Paperbark Camp-ing

Picture a tent. Unzip the front flaps and inside there's...a queen-sized bed, made up with eco-linen and a wool doona (Australian for "duvet"), draped in a white mosquito net. Underfoot, a hardwood floor. Behind the bed, an ensuite with a hot shower and a claw-footed bath, open to the surrounding bush.

Last weekend we treated ourselves to a much-needed eco-escape at the lovely Paperbark Camp at Jervis Bay, three hours’ drive south of Sydney. Don't get me wrong, I love pitching my own tent, and making dinner on a portable stove but, with winter drawing near, we thought it'd be nice to try out a camping experience that's a bit more cosy...

Our tent: Kookaburra
Inspired by safari-style tented camps in Africa, Paperbark’s owners Irena and Jeremy Hutchings pioneered the whole “luxury tented camp” experience in 1998. There’s even a rumour that a British writer coined the term “glamping” (short for "glamorous camping") after visiting Paperbark a few years ago. Not that the Hutchings family (son Ben now manages the place) cares about any of that. Which is a good thing: it's still a small, but wonderfully comfortable, bush camp.

Arrived just on dark on Friday night (after having a surf on the way down, at a little seaside town rather uninvitingly named Crookhaven), and settled into one of Paperbark’s 12 tents. Ben told us not to leave any food in our tent overnight – because of small marsupials called antechinus, and possums (returning to our tent later, we did indeed find a young possum on the verandah, a teabag in its paws). There are kangaroos and wallabies around too. And birds galore. In fact that’s one of the best things about Paperbark: waking up to the bird life.

Saturday morning started with a cacophony of kookaburras, followed by all sorts of tweets (the real kind) and a bird that sounded like a typewriter (there I go thinking about work again).

The other "best" thing about Paperbark is its location. Jervis Bay is one of the beauty spots of the NSW coast and still as low-key as when I used to camp there with my family as a kid. 

Dolphin off the port bow!
Saturday morning, we rode a couple of Paperbark’s bikes (trying to minimise driving) to the nearby township of Huskisson for a Dolphin Watch cruise, aboard an 11m catamaran-yacht called "Discover". It's too early in the season to see whales (which sometimes come into the bay) but we did see plenty of the 85 resident bottlenose dolphins: porpoising around our bows (see the video clip here), feeding on a reef off Hyams Beach (rumoured to have the whitest sand in the world) and swimming around us. We swam too, from boat to beach (the water's still 21 degrees, in May!) and rolled in the sand, which is as fine as icing sugar, before returning to the cat for an on-deck hot shower. Mmmm. 

The Gunyah
Back at Paperbark that night, we sat around a campfire before dinner in the fairy-lit restaurant, The Gunyah (Aboriginal for "bush hut"). The chef features organic and local produce wherever possible and that night we had kingfish caught in the bay, local oysters and kangaroo (if you’re not Australian and/or think it's odd to eat one of our national emblems, kangaroo meat has a smaller environmental footprint than beef.) 

Canoeing Currambene Creek
It was pretty chilly in the tent overnight - I can see why they close over winter - though Paperbark's thoughtful staff issued us with a hot water bottle each before we retired. Mmmm again.

Sunday morning we woke at first light and took one of the camp's cheerily orange canoes for a paddle on the creek. So peaceful. Mist rose from the mirror-smooth water, that reflected the world back at itself. Dewdrops sparkled on the banks. The morning’s golden light filtered through tall gum trees. A kingfisher with blue wings flitted down from the branch of a paperbark tree. 

Mel, and her van, post-paddle
Then, breakfast (the best home-made muesli I have ever tasted, followed by locally smoked salmon with poached eggs). Then, back in Huskisson, where we met up with happy Mel from Jervis Bay Stand Up Paddle and rented a couple of paddleboards. The swell was so big over the weekend that there were waves in the bay, which we surfed on the SUPs, for almost three hours. I've never had so much fun getting so much exercise. Surprisingly, given that it was a sunny Sunday morning, there were only half a dozen other surfers and paddleboarders out there, all easy-going and chatty and fine about sharing their waves with a couple of city slickers. 

Home-time came too soon, but two days of aquatic adventures – surfing, sailing, swimming, canoeing and paddleboarding – and the chance to "glamp" was pure, natural heaven.