Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Burns' Qualities of Greatness: Sensitivity

Wee, sleekit, cowran, tim'rous beastie,
O, what a panic's in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty,
                Wi' bickering brattle!
I wad be laith to rin an' chase thee,
                Wi' murd'ring pattle!

I'm truly sorry Man's dominion
Has broken Nature's social union,
An' justifies that ill opinion
                Which makes thee startle,
At me, thy poor earth-born companion,
                An' fellow-mortal!

What a terrific poem this is. It's called: 'To a Mouse' and was written in 1785, the year after Burns' father died and his brother Gilbert and he had moved to Mossgiel to begin farming together. It was also the year his younger brother John died. The poem is subtitled 'On turning her up in a nest, with the plough, November 1785'. Burns writes in the poem of how his plough has destroyed the mouse's home which has cost it 'monie a weary nibble' and notes how 'the best laid schemes o' Mice an' Men gang aft agley' (the best laid plans of mice and men often go astray). The poem ends:

Still thou are blest, compared wi' me!
The present only toucheth thee;
But, Och!  I backward cast my e'e
                On prospects drear!
An' forward, tho' I canna see,
                I guess an' fear!

The irony of these lines is that while man's intelligence had given him dominion over the animals, it has also given him the ability to look backwards at history and to look forward into the future. Thus, while Burns is able to look back at his hard life, and looking forward sees only more of the same, the mouse for her part retains an innocent and stout heart.

For Burns there is nothing 'fake' in his fears for the future. As a poet he is undiscovered. He has yet to publish his first book. He has no real reason not to think he will be ploughing fields until, one day, he drops into a grave he has more or less dug for himself, as his father has just done. That's why he guesses an' fears.

But that's the fact. We have to guess, and largely, we fear. These lines have a lot of resonance for me this evening. It cannot be a coincidence that on this evening, the 25th January, official Burns night, I have just been to a talk entitled: 'Climatic changes due to human activities'.

The talk was presented by a French researcher who has been working on climatic models since the early 1990s. That's to say, he has a lot of experience. He showed how the four main greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, CFC and water vapour) trap solar energy that would otherwise simply be reflected from the earth and cause climatic warming. He then showed that CO2 is the most important greenhouse gas and that experimental data prove that CO2 levels have increased in the atmosphere.

But how much have they increased? Measurements of CO2 in ice cores show that between 1000 AD and 1800 AD (around the time Robert Burns died) the level of CO2 in the atmosphere was roughly constant at 280 ppm. Between 1800 and 1960 the CO2 concentration increased from 280 ppm to 320 ppm (an addition of 40ppm) and from 1960 to today they have increased from 320 to 360 ppm. It doesn't take a genius to work out that the increase in atmospheric CO2 is increasing at a faster and faster rate. The reasons are related to the burning of fossil fuels and are obvious: increasing population, more and more travel, better standards of living, multicar families and rapid development of previously latent economies, notably in Asia and China.

Increases in global average temperatures are more subtle and are subject to perturbations due to volcanic and solar activity, however, it seems that from about the beginning of the 1990s the models of temperature change based on no greenhouse effects and the observed data started to part company. That is to say, a trend of increasing temperature was established. During this period there has been an increase in average temperature of between 0.5 to 1 degree centigrade.

That doesn't sound like very much, but in reality it is very rapid. Ten thousand years ago we were in an ice age and the global average temperature was 6-8 degrees cooler. To have changed 1 degree in twenty years means, if we extrapolate using climatic models, that substantial changes are going to happen over the next 100 years if things continue as they are. What do the models predict? Anything from increases of 1 degree in the most optimistic case to 6 degrees in the worst case.

What would it mean to have a global average temperature 6 degrees warmer? Well, we could kiss goodbye to ice ages for one thing. Ice caps everywhere would melt, sea levels would rise enormously, rivers would run dry. Equatorial regions would get enormous rainfall. Everywhere else would be like a desert.

I have some idea of what it would be like from visiting Egypt in September (lying in bed flaked out from heat stroke) and from living through the 'canicule' when my family first moved to France in July and August 2003. The canicule was a heat wave which killed large numbers of elderly people in Europe. Perhaps 15000 in France, thousands more in Germany and Italy where the numbers are less well established. Every evening I stepped out of the air conditioned office was like walking into a fiery oven. We couldn't sleep upstairs in our bedroom because it was too hot so we moved downstairs.

Our removal men had the unfortunate task of moving our furniture in the heat and couldn't work for periods of more than 20 minutes at a time without then taking long breaks. They each drank about ten litres of water during the day. Rather stupidly they wouldn't stop work and begin again early in the morning when it was cooler since they had an agreed 'work to rule'. Our French garden suffered greatly: two out of our five trees died and had to be cut down and two of the remaining ones are still looking threatened. Our hedge has since suffered some sort of bad blight perhaps due to environmental stress and in the newspaper there have been reports of the felling of Marie-Antoinette's oak tree which was huge and several hundred years old. Killed by the extremely dry conditions, along with many others.

So, how would our 2003 canicule compare to the model predictions for 2100? Well, it would be a freak low temperature year.

Robert Burns didn't know of any of this, but when he turned a mouse out of its nest with his plough, he sensed that he had transgressed. He was sensitive to the wrong he had done a fellow-mortal.

I'm truly sorry Man's dominion
Has broken Nature's social union,
An' justifies that ill opinion...

We, unlike the mouse, have the ability to look into the future and imagine what that future might hold. We have to act. There is something YOU can do. Have a look here for a list of energy saving activities which you can act upon. The most important thing is to think about this issue and to try to imagine how this could effect you, your children and everything living on the planet, not in some inscrutable and distant future, but now. If we don't, even in twenty or thirty years time, in our own life times, canicule years may already have become the norm.

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