Gran Paradiso: A First Exploration Into Alpine Climate Change
I have always longed to visit the Alps. With the effects of climate change rapidly transforming the region, the desire to visit them intensified. After teaching a master class in filmmaking this past summer in Turin I finally got my chance to visit them for a few days—which will not be the last as the region, its customs, gastronomy & heritage inspire and concern me because they are all at grave risk due to the intensifying warming of the planet.
The quietness and sense of discovery I experienced while visiting these magnificent mountains was precious. I couldn't help but thank the mountain for giving me its space, vistas, air and light. The mountains felt alive to me—I could understand how ancient civilizations prayed to them, saw them as living organisms. And indeed, they are a kind of organism because so much life comes from the ecosystems they are the foundation of. Glacier ice is the largest reservoir of freshwater on earth, holding more water than all lakes, rivers, soils and plants combined. From the Alpine glaciers rivers below are filled; without them the great rivers in Italy would not make it the agriculturally rich place it is now.
Dante wrote in the The Inferno:
No green leaves in that forest, only black;
no branches straight and smooth, but knotted, gnarled;
no fruits were there, but briers bearing poison.
Although he was writing about those who committed suicide and were transformed into barren trees in the in the 7th ring of hell he could have just as easily been talking about the forest I walked though. In a way the forest is a form of suicide that we're committing against ourselves as we destroy the environment that we depend on to sustain us.
From Deutsche Welle:
There is already enough heat-trapping pollution in the air to melt nearly all the ice, even if greenhouse gas emissions are cut to zero immediately, said climate physicist Carl-Friedrich Schleussner, who works as a scientific advisor for the NGO Climate Analytics.
And: A few shards of ice will linger in high shady crags, but the powerful rivers of ice that carved the valleys as recently as 150 years ago will be gone.
History, culinary tradition and literature all intertwine with these paths. And with them such elemental pieces of our shared human heritage. The Alps are considered the crossroads of the western civilization were 8 countries intersect sharing responsibility for the health of these mountains. However we all share the responsibility for this place because what we do in our daily lives eventually will have an effect here.
Consider that in a typical home approximately 40% of a person’s CO2 emissions come from the kitchen. However by composting, investing in less polluting technologies such as more energy efficient appliances and LED lighting, purchasing your food from local producers (good for the farmer and a lovely experience for you) and wasting as little as possible by using the ends of carrots, onions, garlics for soups we waste less and also enrich our lives by bringing to life recipes that we didn’t know about before. But the important thing here is that these actions ultimately help preserve the places we love and the people we depend on to nurture us. To do anything else would be to cannibalize the very culinary traditions we love so much.
As noble an act as individual actions are, they are small drops when compared to the destruction being committed by industries and nations, such as current United States policy, that destroy the planet. However as an individual I know I have a choice and chose in my own life to live as responsibly as possible so that the things I love will be here for the next generation. And many are doing the same. The more of us who do this, together, do have a considerable impact on society and help define how we live.
At the time of this writing and on the first day of my travels into the mountains the United States president and those who enable him announced that they would start reinvesting in the outdated practice of digging holes in the ground to harness coal, the most polluting form of energy. As he and his party eviscerate the Environmental Protection Agency they also eviscerate all of the natural wonder that exists on this planet and the western traditions they claim they are the guardians of. Dante's descent into hell could read as a journey into the hell that this current American administration is transforming in the world into.
If the science says that our previous actions cannot be undone and will only accelerate what can be done? The cynical act would be to just consume more, live without regard to tomorrow, drive the most wasteful vehicles and be as selfish as possible. Basically take the attitude that if things are already burning then let it all burn to the ground. I believe there's another way.
My experiences form Fukushima following the meltdown return to me often. As they apply to the Alps, I am reminded of Tomoko Kobayashi from Odaka Town who rebuilt her family inn against all the odds after her town was shut because of the nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant. Although it was languishing within the exclusion zone, letting her inn fall into ruin was not an option—she knew if she did nothing the outcome was sure to lead to failure. On a global scale we are faced with the same choice: if we do nothing we’re absolutely going to fail. While the science predicts we are going to face hard times it’s not entirely hopeless. If we care about changing things around, then the only option is to give it a shot and perhaps in making better choices now they will lead to an entirely better way of life for us all in the future. Making better decisions for the future is to very much live in the present right now.
Two summers ago, I met a fisherman named Benebe along the Yucatan coast. In 1979 an oil spill wiped out nearly all of the mangrove trees that sustained the ecosystem he depended on. More than just a fisherman who took from the sea he loved the nature around him. Heartbroken he decided to plant one small mangrove embryo on the poisoned land. To his surprise it grew despite the heavy oil deposits. Scientists thought that it was an isolated incident, but Benebe continued. Since 1979 he’s planted more than 20,000 mangroves which now support the lives of turtles, fish, oysters, birds, alligators & many other forms of life.
I think about a wonderful young woman whose mother I am sadly no longer in touch with. I wonder if in her life time if she will have these summits to reach or will they erode to the point where nobody can experience them? What will become of her generation? I think they will have no other choice than to be a generation of Benebes: Seed planters that will regrow the forests we've slaughtered and tame the temperatures we've flared for much too long. Perhaps her generation, seeing no more grand glaciers, will sniff out and coax the last remaining ice out of their craggy niches and help regrow them to their healthy state.
A note on this trip and future plans: This trip was mainly a scouting one to familiarize myself with the region and the people who live there. It was also a test to see how I'd be able to adapt to the high altitude. (I will be filming in Peru the coming year and needed understand how my body would react to such heights.)
The broader project will explore the connection between land, food and the changing climate. I will look at how the ecosystems and the people who depend on them are affected, addressing also the choices we all urgently need to make as we enter into the Early Anthropocene. The Anthropocene is what many consider earth's current geological age. Anthropocene translates into the time that man made. Most geological ages last for thousands of years. This one might not last that long and be only a blip in existence if we warm the planet to the point that we all die off. While it might be an extremely fast age that seals our fate, it will be one that affects the planet for potentially billions of years. As it is the time that we are responsible for it means we can also change our destiny if we make the right choices.
To that end, we can make better choices in how we consume, cook and dispose of food. As someone who adores to cook this is of great concern to me. I will address this more extensively in coming posts, however if you're interested in seeing what chefs, restaurants and farmers are doing to address climate change here are a few places to look:
José Andrés & World Central Kitchen: Aside from being a dear friend, I have seen firsthand how he has transformed regions where trees were cut down for cooking purposes. He has transformed these places by providing clean stoves powered by the sun. A report I photographed and Food & Wine in Haiti, 2010.
ZeroFoodprint: ZeroFoodprint works with restaurants to help them drive down their foodprint by taking actions on operational efficiency, ingredients, and carbon offsets.
Slow Food: Another organization I've worked with for years. Slow Food's goal is to bring back sustainable ways of living, the core of which is how food is produced and consumed. About SLow Food: Slow Food is a global, grassroots organization, founded in 1989 to prevent the disappearance of local food cultures and traditions, counteract the rise of fast life and combat people’s dwindling interest in the food they eat, where it comes from and how our food choices affect the world around us.
Compost!: Quite simply I can't cook without it. Composting removes tons of CO2 from the environment because when you compost it means that it doesn't need to be transported to a landfill. In a compost heap the food scraps break down in an aerobic process which does not produce methane, another greenhouse trapping gas. The end result of the compost is that it becomes fertilizer which in-turn helps grow the food and plants we love.