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Fire and Ice: Jonathan Mingle's Parable for Humanity

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COURTESY OF JONATHAN MINGLE
  • courtesy of jonathan mingle

Jonathan Mingle writes in the prologue to his book Fire and Ice: Soot, Solidarity, and Survival on the Roof of the World that "The story of fire is the story of humanity." For our ancestors, burning wood meant heat, sustenance and often community. The hearth, Mingle reminds us, is where people have told stories from time immemorial, "as they watch the flames gutter and dance, finding solace, joy, and mystery in their glow."

Modern Vermonters still tell stories as they watch the flames crackle in the woodstove. It's a sight that, for many of us, represents both time-honored comfort and a step toward energy independence.

But there is another story about fire — one that the Vermont author details in his hefty, highly accessible work of environmental journalism, published last spring. It's the story of 3 billion people in the developing world who still burn solid fuel, not by choice but by necessity. It's the story of respiratory illness and early death, of shrinking glaciers, of imperiled Arctic sea ice. It's the story of the second-biggest contributor to climate change: "the most dangerous pollutant you've never heard of."

And it's the story of one small village — Kumik, in the Himalayan valley of Zanskar, India — where people are just trying to survive. For centuries, the Buddhist inhabitants of these 39 mud-brick homes on the verge of the great peaks irrigated their fields using a stream that flowed from the glacier above. In the summer of 2012, that stream ran dry.

Fire and Ice: Soot, Solidarity, and Survival on the Roof of the World by Jonathan Mingle, St. Martin's Press, 464 pages. $29.99
  • Fire and Ice: Soot, Solidarity, and Survival on the Roof of the World by Jonathan Mingle, St. Martin's Press, 464 pages. $29.99

Mingle first traveled to Kumik in 2008 to consult with the villagers on methods of passive solar heating, the subject of his master's thesis at the University of California, Berkeley. Over the years, he'd returned and made friends. Now he watched as Kumik's elders hashed out a plan to relocate their homes farther down the slope to a barren plain. They hoped it would become a new oasis, pending the construction of a canal from the nearby river.

What made that drastic step necessary? Mingle traces the disappearing act of Kumik's water supply to the slow retreat of its glacier. That, in turn, probably resulted from the same factor that shrank Swiss glaciers in the 19th century: industrial emissions. It's a familiar story, except that CO2 isn't the only culprit.

Just as important, scientists believe, is black carbon, commonly known as soot — a product of incomplete combustion that India's ubiquitous diesel engines belch in abundance. Kumik's dung-fueled hearths produce plenty of soot, too — and that's where the other, less-cozy story of fire begins.

"You spend time in these kitchens, you see the insane amounts of smoke people breathe in," Mingle says in an interview. He began researching the health effects of black carbon — which causes 4.3 million premature deaths per year worldwide — because "these people were my friends." But his research became like "pull[ing] the thread on the sweater, and you realize it's connected to everything else." (See the Vermont angle here.)

The eventual result of Mingle's more than three years of labor is a book that transports readers from Kumik to New York to Beijing to the drought-ridden Central Valley of California, and back. He drew on the expertise of climatologists and pollution experts; he hung out with entrepreneurs who make cleaner cookstoves or sell solar cellphone chargers door-to-door in rural India.

And everywhere Mingle found black carbon, which came to seem "like a tracer fluid," he says. "It demonstrates how the climate problem and public health and energy poverty are very much connected, and any solution to one of those issues has to take into account the other two."

COURTESY OF JONATHAN MINGLE
  • courtesy of jonathan mingle

At this juncture, readers may feel tempted to heave a mighty sigh. Isn't reducing CO2 emissions already a monumental task? Must we fret about all the soot in Asia and Africa, too? Or, as Mingle himself puts it early in his book: "Perhaps you're thinking: Another thing to worry about, on top of flesh-eating viruses, MRSA, people texting while driving, political polarization, West Nile virus and Lyme disease..."

But there is a good reason to dwell on the black carbon problem, he argues. Namely, we can solve it. We'd save lives by doing so. And, while carbon dioxide poses by far the greater long-term threat, scientists believe cleaning the atmosphere of soot could "buy us a decade or two" to figure out bigger environmental issues.

Over 400 pages, Mingle makes a persuasive case for solving soot. Fire and Ice comes with a glowing blurb from Ripton climate writer and activist Bill McKibben, cofounder of 350.org, who calls it "top-notch on-the-ground reporting." In an email exchange with Seven Days, McKibben elaborates, "Solving black carbon would be a small but important part of the climate change puzzle ... And the author does a remarkable job of showing the difficulties, and possibilities, of acting."

It's an appropriate endorsement, given that Mingle and McKibben have more in common than an eagerness to spark action on climate change. Both have a knack for using lively, particularistic storytelling to make science more accessible. In Fire and Ice, each heady discussion of figures and formulas is counterbalanced by vivid anecdotes of daily life. We follow Kumik's women to the fields to gather yak dung; we sample their celebratory barley wine. We watch as a gung-ho Chinese stove manufacturer urges Mingle to eat dog; we hear the author's grandfather's recollections of seeing New York convert from coal to gas and electricity.

Also like McKibben, Mingle has a knack for soundbites — especially to describe his villain. Black carbon is a "feedback-generating machine" and an "implicit test of our civilization's maturity." It's a threat we can perceive "right here ... right now." Understanding it is "a lot like real estate: it's all about location, location, location."

jonathan mingle - COURTESY OF JONATHAN MINGLE
  • courtesy of jonathan mingle
  • jonathan mingle

Mingle's own current location is Lincoln. Raised in Maryland and Virginia, he first came to Vermont in 2004 to intern at Yestermorrow Design/Build School in Waitsfield. "That's what got me hooked," says the 36-year-old writer, who has lived in the state "off and on" for the past decade, writing freelance for publications such as Slate and the Boston Globe.

Rangy, bearded and dynamic, Mingle seems to have hundreds of facts about his subject on the tip of his tongue. A past Middlebury fellow in environmental journalism, he spent three years teaching high schoolers in Zanskar with Vermont Intercultural Semesters. These days, he works part-time in Boston and plans to return to Kumik this summer.

Mingle describes his book like this: "It's like a polemic wrapped around a love letter to this place." We had some questions for him about both aspects of Fire and Ice.

SEVEN DAYS: What are some changes or conversations that you would like to see come out of the book?

JONATHAN MINGLE: The first thing is just more awareness. When I give readings and I tell people that 3 billion people depend on solid fuels like wood and dung and charcoal, crop waste, coal ... people are pretty surprised by that. It's 40 percent of humanity burning stuff the way we were burning stuff thousands of years ago. Likewise, when I tell people that 4.3 million people die every year from household air pollution exposure ... they're like, "Wow, how come I didn't know that?"

In the larger sense, it's easy to find despair-inducing stories about climate change; they're the vast majority of the stories out there. I wanted to tell a more hopeful story about what is possible. We know how to solve this; we know how to reduce soot emissions, and it always pays for itself many times over. If you talk to the people who study this for a living, they are optimistic. They see it as a ray of light in an otherwise dark landscape.

SD: In the book, you cite [prominent climatologist and climate change activist] James Hansen and his work on black carbon. Hansen has said that we need to leave fossil fuels in the ground if we want to survive. How do we reconcile that with giving people new, clean gas cookstoves?

JM: There is more controversy on that piece of the problem. If you ask someone like [household pollution expert] Kirk Smith at Berkeley, how do we solve this problem, that 3 billion people are still breathing in insane quantities of smoke every day, his answer is, "Well, get them gas and electricity."

There's some in the cookstove community who don't like that advocacy for propane, 'cause it's a fossil fuel. There are companies trying to come up with a better stove that burns wood as cleanly as gas. They're not close yet to achieving that cleanliness.

The [International Energy Agency]and other groups have analyzed, what if everyone who doesn't currently have access to it had propane and burned it for cooking? It would be a pretty negligible increase in oil demand and emissions. That's not what's driving the problem.

[So] I understand that concern, but to me it seems a little strange to ask more than 4 million people dying per year 'cause they don't have access to this stuff to make this sacrifice so we can keep having our gas fireplaces.

SD: The book makes me want to ask: What can I do?

JM: I've had a lot of people ask me that at readings. There's this theme in the book — it's a cultural practice in Zanskar: the idea of the "water connection, fire connection." [Before the era of matches and roads], if your fire went out, you had a serious problem. Your only option was, you could go next door and ask your neighbor for some of their hot coals. You'd live for another day. And then, when their fire goes out, they'll ask you for the same.

That, to me, reflects centuries of trying to live in this really difficult environment, and this deep cultural insight that's come out of that: The only way you survive in a place like that is by working together. In a way, black carbon's just a case study of that. It's a way of focusing on the only deep solution I see to that question, which is solidarity.

At the macro-scale, with a problem like black carbon, what would that look like? I guess it would look like finance and technology guidance and transfer. We've lived through the sooty excesses of our own development. We can help them do that.

There is this bill that, like a lot of bills in Congress, is not going anywhere, but had bipartisan support, called the Super Pollutants Act. It would direct the federal government to up its game on tackling the super-pollutants like black carbon, with a big focus on helping other countries reduce their emissions.

There are platforms that let you lend money to support solar micro-grids in northern India or Tanzania. If you're like, "Well, I have a little bit of money to invest, how could I support the alternative to burning this stuff?," there are avenues to do that on a peer-to-peer level.

SD: Bill McKibben told me that he sees the black carbon problem as a "small piece" of the whole global-warming puzzle. Would you characterize it that way?

JM: I think he's right in the sense that if you go out on a long enough time horizon, black carbon doesn't look that important next to carbon dioxide. Black carbon per unit of mass is a more potent warming agent than carbon dioxide, but there's not as much of it in the atmosphere, and it settles down so quickly [in one to two weeks].

The important part of black carbon's contribution to climate change is, it can push these systems over these tipping thresholds. Himalayan glaciers. The Arctic sea ice. The South Asian monsoon. It even reduces crop yields. So, yes, it has this global impact on a short time scale. But, to me more importantly, it's disrupting these systems on which a lot of people depend.

SD: Have you been back to Kumik to see how things are going now?

JM: I went back in 2014, toward the end of the process of writing the book, and I'm in touch by phone and email. It's very much a work in progress. Just as the drought is a slow-motion catastrophe, the process of building a new village and moving in is a slow-motion process.

They're going to keep building; they'll have to dig out that canal again. It's like Sisyphus. But in that, it kind of presages the climate-altered world we're all going to live in.

SD: So Kumik serves as a sort of parable for the rest of us?

JM: It's a parable, and it's a complicated one. It's not a utopia. It looks like a postcard, but you go there and, like any village in the world, there are people who don't like each other, and they have resentments and old, simmering fights. But they cooperate because they have to. There's no alternative.

You gotta be careful not to over-romanticize the traditional way of life there. They're just like us; it's just that their culture has evolved in recognition of the limits of survival. It's like a lifeboat. Everyone's got to be on the same page.

There's this kind of stoic-cheerfulness quality [to the villagers] that can be really addictive. You want to spend time around them, because they're fun to be around. When the chips are down, that's when they're having the most fun.

For me, there's a profound lesson in that, because we're gonna need that [attitude] in spades. It sounds pretty kumbaya, but I don't think it is. It's pretty terrifying, actually.


The original print version of this article was headlined "Feeling the Burn"

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