Monday, January 11, 2016

Stormy Times: Climate Change and Instability as Predicted

In June 2008 the Community Climate Change Consortium for Ireland (C4I) produced a 118 page report entitled Ireland in a Warmer World: Scientific Predictions of the Irish Climate in the Twenty-First Century (supported and co-funded by Environmental Protection Agency, Sustainable Energy Ireland and the Higher Education Authority) which forecast “an increase in the frequency of very intense cyclones, and also increases in the extreme values of wind and precipitation associated with them. This implies an increased risk of storm damage and flooding in vulnerable Irish coastal areas.” The report also suggested that the “[d]emand for heating energy is likely to reduce significantly as the climate warms.”

Now in 2016, we are already seeing these predictions come true. There have been six storms already since the beginning of winter and a weather station in Donegal recorded its wettest day for any month since 1885 and its highest December temperature in 60 years. There has been unprecedented flooding in many parts of rural Ireland combined with severe winds.

Storm Frank (after Storms Abigail, Barney, Clodagh, Desmond, Eva) has “caused localised flooding, road blockages and led to thousands of homes being without power across Ireland.” 13,000 homes had their electricity cut off and in the south of the country there was 60mms (almost three inches) of rain. The towns Midleton and Bandon were the worst affected by extensive flooding “with some 90 properties affected in each of the towns.”

70 millimetres of rain and gusts of up to 120km/h have been recorded along the Atlantic coast and around the country ferry sailings have been cancelled, roads closed and rail services disrupted. The Office of Public Works (OPW) issued a report stating: “we remain in a severe flooding situation on the Shannon catchment and many of the above other catchments. Ongoing flood defence efforts (for example pumping) will have to continue for some time yet”.Drone footage of Enniscorthy after Storm Frank shows the disastrous levels of inundation suffered by the inhabitants of that town.

It seems that the frequency of storms hitting the UK and Ireland has led to the development of a project by the UK Met Office and the Irish Met Eireann “to name severe winter storms, much in the same way that hurricanes are named.” The press were giving unofficial names to the storms, sometimes given different names by different sources leading to confusion. Hence Storms Abigail, Barney, Clodagh, Desmond, Eva and Frank and we can look forward tostorms Gertrude, Henry, Imogen, Jake, Katie, Lawrence, Mary, Nigel, Orla, Phil, Rhonda, Steve, Tegan, Vernon, Wendy.

The C4I report also noted that “[s]ea levels are rising on average about 3.5 cm per decade around Ireland.” Coastal erosion, especially at high tides, is becoming apparent all around Ireland with dunes being eroded and cliff faces sliding into the sea (see photos of local examples).

Corballis Beach, Donabate (Photo: Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin, December, 2012).

The Donabate-Portrane cliff walk near Dublin. The constant heavy rain of the last few weeks combined with high tides has caused a drop of around three feet in this landslide. The rest could collapse any moment (Photo: Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin, January 2016).

A European Commission report (The Joint Research Centre’s (JRC) ‘Climate Impacts in Europe’ ) published in 2014warned that “[t]he impacts of river flooding will be most pronounced in Ireland and the UK if a business-as-usual model is adopted and global warming isn’t tackled” and, as has been noted in many discussions on Irish media recently, that “economic damage from winter storms will cause crippling bills.” According to Professor John Sweeney, who compiled UN reports on climate change, “Ireland’s wetter, and has a winter maximum rainfall, with more impermeable soils which tend to be waterlogged in winter,” and “[b]ecause we’re at the western side of Europe we also bear the brunt of storms from the Atlantic unlike the other countries which are less affected.”

However, on an even more urgent note, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has stated that “there is strong evidence that global sea level gradually rose in the 20th century and is currently rising at an increased rate, after a period of little change between AD 0 and AD 1900. Sea level is projected to rise at an even greater rate in this century. The two major causes of global sea level rise are thermal expansion of the oceans (water expands as it warms) and the loss of land-based ice due to increased melting.” If the rise in sea levels is not decelerated significantly then the result will be permanent inundation of large parts of coastal and low-lying areas of the country. Examples of the possible effects of rising global temperature levels on sea levels can be seen in the ‘Risk Zone’ maps of Climate Central.

Their analysis of the potential effects is spine-chilling: “Carbon emissions causing 4°C of warming — what business-as-usual points toward today — could lock in enough sea level rise to submerge land currently home to 470 to 760 million people, with unstoppable rise unfolding over centuries. At the same time, aggressive carbon cuts limiting warming to 2°C could bring the number as low as 130 million people.”
If major steps are not taken soon to solve these potential disasters then we will discover that our ‘sandbagging’ will eventually become an expression of regret rather than community cooperation in the face of adversity.

Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin is an Irish artist who has exhibited widely around Ireland. His work consists of paintings based on geopolitical themes, Irish history and cityscapes of Dublin. His critical writing based on cinema, art and politics along with research on a database of Realist and Social Realist art from around the world can be viewed country by country on his blog.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Sacred trees, Christmas trees and New Year trees: A vision for the future

Trees are a very important part of world culture and have been at the centre of ideological conflict for hundreds of years. Over this time they have taken the form of Sacred trees, Christmas trees and New Year trees. In the current debates over climate change, trees have an immensely important role to play on material and symbolical levels both now and in the future. With the rising awareness of climate change, climate resilience i.e. the ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change, has become the focus of groups from local community action to global treaties. The planting of trees is an important action that everyone from the local to the global can engage in. Trees act as carbon stores and carbon sinks, and on a cultural level they have been used to represent nature itself the world over.

As symbols, trees have been imbued with different meanings over time and I suggest here that they should continue to hold that central role as a prime symbol of our respect for nature, and not just at Christmas time but the whole year round in the form of a central community tree for adults and children alike. In an uncertain future, the absolute necessity of developing a society that harks back to much earlier forms of engagement with nature in a sustainable way will have to have a focal point. Trees as important symbols of our respect for nature have a long and elemental past.

The Tree of Life
From earliest times trees have had a profound effect on the human psyche:
“Human beings, observing the growth and death of trees, and the annual death and revival of their foliage, have often seen them as powerful symbols of growth, death and rebirth. Evergreen trees, which largely stay green throughout these cycles, are sometimes considered symbols of the eternal, immortality or fertility. The image of the Tree of life or world tree occurs in many mythologies.”

In Norse mythology the tree Yggdrasil, “with its branches reaching up into the sky, and roots deep into the earth, can be seen to dwell in three worlds - a link between heaven, the earth, and the underworld, uniting above and below. This great tree acts as an Axis mundi, supporting or holding up the cosmos, and providing a link between the heavens, earth and underworld.”

Yggdrasil, the World Ash (Norse)

Sacred Trees
However, both Christianity and Islam treated the worship of trees as idolatry and this led to sacred trees being destroyed in Europe and most of West Asia. An early representation of the ideological conflict between paganism (polytheistic beliefs) and Christianity (resulting in the cutting down of a sacred tree) can be seen in the manuscript illumination (illustration) of Saint Stephan of Perm cutting down a birch tree sacred to the Komi people as part of his proselytizing among them in the years after 1383.

Stefan of Perm takes an axe to a birch hung with pelts and cloths that is sacred to the Komi of Great Perm (a medieval Komi state in what is now the Perm Krai of the Russian Federation.)

Christian missionaries targeted sacred groves and sacred trees during the Christianization of the Germanic peoples. According to the 8th century Vita Bonifatii auctore Willibaldi, the Anglo-Saxon missionary Saint Boniface and his retinue cut down Donar's Oak (a sacred tree of the Germanic pagans) earlier the same century and then used the wood to build a church.

"Bonifacius" (1905) by Emil Doepler.

Christmas Trees
Over time the pagan world tree became christened as a Christmas tree. It was believed that evil influences were warded off by fir or spruce branches and “between December 25 and January 6, when evil spirits were feared most, green branches were hung, candles lit – and all these things were used as a means of defense. Later on, the trees themselves were used for the same purpose; and candles were hung on them. The church retained these old customs, and gave them a new meaning as a symbol of Christ.’(p20) While there are records of this practice dating from 1604 of a decorated fir tree in Strasbourg, it was in Germany that the Christmas tree took hold in the early 19th century. It then “became popular among the nobility and spread to royal courts as far as Russia.”

Father and son with their dog collecting a tree in the forest, painting by Franz Krüger (1797–1857)

The Russian Revolution
In Russia the tradition of installing and decorating a Yolka (tr: spruce tree) for Christmas was very popular but fell into disfavor (as a  tradition originating in Germany - Russia's enemy during World War I) and was subsequently banned by the Synod in 1916. After the Russian Revolution in 1917 Christmas celebrations and other religious holidays were prohibited under the Marxist-Leninist policy of state atheism in the Soviet Union.

A 1931 edition of the Soviet magazine Bezbozhnik, distributed by the League of Militant Atheists, depicting an Orthodox Christian priest being forbidden to cut down a tree for Christmas

New Year's trees
Although the Christmas tree was banned people continued the tradition with New Year trees which eventually gained acceptance in 1935: “The New Year tree was encouraged in the USSR after the famous letter by Pavel Postyshev, published in Pravda on 28 December 1935, in which he asked for trees to be installed in schools, children's homes, Young Pioneer Palaces, children's clubs, children's theaters and cinemas.” They remain an essential part of the Russian New Year traditions when Grandfather Frost, like Santa Claus, brings presents for children to put under the tree or to distribute them directly to the children on New Year's morning performances.

Trees in public places
In many public places around the world Christmas trees are displayed prominently since the early 20th century. The lighting up of the tree has become a public event signaling the beginning of the Christmas season. This is now usual even in small towns whereby a large fir is chopped down and displayed prominently in a central part of the town or village. While fir trees are now grown expressly for sale and display, in the past the cutting down of whole trees (maien or meyen) was forbidden: “Because of the pagan origin, and the depletion of the forest, there were numerous regulations that forbid, or put restrictions on, the cutting down of fir greens throughout the Christmas season.”(p20)

​Bringing Home the Tree by Norman Rockwell. 12/18/1920.
Not cutting down trees
However if we look at the origins of sacred trees the important point was that they were not to be cut down, as respect for nature took precedence. The cutting down and destruction of so many trees today has become an important part in the commercialization of Christmas. However, growing a tree in the centre of villages, towns and cities as the focal point of our relationship with nature could be a year round celebration for adults and children and another aspect of the call for climate resilience policies the world over. The tree could then be decorated at Christmas or New Year. The decorations can be removed from the tree afterwards, allowing it to become a focal point for other festivities throughout the year. The educational value of this strategy for children would also be as an object lesson in the importance of sustainability and conservation. 

Celebrating nature by chopping down the material reality of nature in the form of a tree every year is a contradiction in terms and could be remedied by encouraging people to grow trees or buying potted fir trees instead. Our ancestors from all over the world knew the importance of the balance of nature and tried to keep that balance through rites and prayers before the sacred trees. Now, in an era of climate change, rapidly becoming climate chaos, it is incumbent on us more than ever to develop a new appreciation and respect for nature and especially for trees as a primary symbol of that relationship.

Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin is an Irish artist who has exhibited widely around Ireland. His work consists of paintings based on cityscapes of Dublin, Irish history and geopolitical themes. His critical writing based on cinema, art and politics along with research on a database of Realist and Social Realist art from around the world can be viewed country by country on his blog.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Ireland: Obesity, the “Western Diet” and the Global Food Challenge

Ireland: Obesity, the “Western Diet” and the Global Food Challenge

Recent reports have suggested that Ireland is set to become the most obese country in Europe.
Estimates of obesity, projected out to 2030, are part of the World Health Organisation’s Modelling Obesity Project and were presented at the European Congress on Obesity in Prague, Czech Republic during May 2015. The figures for Ireland have huge implications for the seriously financially-squeezed Irish health system:
In terms of obesity alone, the estimates show a big jump for women in the Irish Republic, soaring from 23 per cent to 57 per cent. The proportion of obese Irish men was expected to increase from 26 per cent to 48 per cent, while the figure for those either overweight or obese rises from 74 per cent to 89 per cent.
According to a combination of statistics from WHO, OECD and Eurostat Ireland is third in obesity levels in Europe after Hungary and Great Britain.


There is no doubt that there is a link between levels of obesity and what is known as the Western pattern diet. The Western diet has been characterised ‘by high intakes of red meat, sugary desserts, high-fat foods, and refined grains. It also typically contains high-fat dairy products, high-sugar drinks, and higher intakes of processed meat.’ However, there is a certain smugness in the mainstream media which points at fast food restaurants as the source of all food evils in society yet on a recent visit to a ‘good’ restaurant in Dublin I noticed that at least 80% of the clientele were overweight and about 20% were grossly overweight.
Yet, in all fairness, it is almost impossible to avoid fatty foods when you go to these restaurants because the ‘vegetarian’ section of the menu can be just as rich as the carnivore sections, for example, salads with salad cream and oil, ‘creamy’ mash made with cream and butter, ‘Mediterranean’ roasted vegetables roasted in oil, grilled aubergine covered in oil and mozzarella etc.

There is also the global cost of the Western diet with the increased demand for red meat and meat products. According to the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations):
Meat consumption in developing countries has been continuously increasing from a modest average annual per capita consumption of 10 kg in the 1960s to 26 kg in 2000 and will reach 37 kg around the year 2030 according to FAO projections. This forecast suggests that in a few decades, developing countries’ consumption of meat will move towards that of developed countries where meat consumption remains stagnant at a high level.
It is estimated that the 70 billion farm animals raised globally contribute to 51% of all anthropogenic greenhouse emissions found in our atmosphere. According to ScienceDirect, agriculture globally ‘accounts for 92% of the global freshwater footprint; 29% of the water in agriculture is directly or indirectly used for animal production’ and according to Livestock Exchange ‘Livestock systems occupy 45% of the global surface area’. The FAO also states that ‘almost 50 percent of the grains produced in the world are fed to livestock, yet there remain about 800 million people suffering from hunger and malnutrition mostly in the developing countries.’
Richard Oppenlander notes, in his book Food Choice and Sustainability: Why Buying Local, Eating Less Meat, and Taking Baby Steps Won’t Work, that:
One cow will provide 300 pounds of meat, which results in 120 pounds per 1 acre of land used in one year. For reference, an organic vegetable farm […] produces on average 5,000 to 10,000 pounds per 1 acre of food, such as tomatoes, fast-growing greens, and herbs that are infinitely healthier for us to consume. (pps 85-86)
In Ireland, a government fact sheet on agriculture shows that 81% of agricultural area is devoted to pasture, hay and grass silage (3.63 million hectares), 11% to rough grazing (0.47 million hectares) and 8% to crops, fruit and horticulture production (0.38 million hectares).’ In other words, 92% of all agricultural land goes towards the raising and feeding of cattle and 8% to plant-based food.
As Oppenlander also notes:
Of the four leading causes of death and disease in the U.S. today, animal products and animal protein are implicated in all four – coronary heart disease, cancer, cerebrovascular disease, and diabetes, as well as their precursors, hypertension and obesity. (p.256)
The research work of biochemists, doctors and surgeons (such as T. Colin Campbell, Caldwell Esselstyn, John McDougall, Neal Barnard etc) into the relationship between nutrition and disease has been met with industry opposition yet they have provided clear evidence of vastly improved health with dietary change away from the Western diet pattern. Their collective pursuance of a whole food, plant-based diet leads the way to a more enlightened understanding of diet and food production.
Countries like Ireland have a huge investment in cattle and dairy production but a new mindset will have to be developed both by farmers and consumers alike. It has often been said that Ireland has ‘forty shades of green’ yet in reality there is only one shade – the colour of grass – and this needs to be changed to a landscape of multi-varied crops instead.

If people change their dietary habits (in clear knowledge of the relationship between their diet and their overall health), then farmers will also be able to gradually move away from meat production and towards more tillage with huge benefits to our collective health and the environment.

• For a collection of resources compiled by the author on the whole food, plant-based diet, food and food production documentaries, etc. see here.

Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin is an Irish artist who has exhibited widely around Ireland. His work consists of paintings based on cityscapes of Dublin, Irish history and geopolitical themes. His critical writing based on cinema, art and politics along with research on a database of Realist and Social Realist art from around the world can be viewed country by country on his blog. Read other articles by Caoimhghin, or visit Caoimhghin's website.