Fire and Ice: Soot, Solidarity, and Survival on the Roof of the World

FireAndIceBy Jonathan Mingle. St. Martin’s Press, 2015. 400 pages. $29.99/hardcover; $14.99/eBook.

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The village of Kumik, high in the Himalayas, is running out of water. With glaciers receding, the melt that the villagers counted on for thousands of years no longer reaches them. This is the heart of Jonathan Mingle’s book, Fire and Ice. Returning again and again to the people he’s come to know and love in this tiny agricultural community—who are now engaged in the monumental task of relocating as a unit to a barren site where a canal can be built to provide a more secure water supply—he explores the global forces that have created this situation.

He starts with the larger—and largely familiar—context of rising CO2 emissions. My attention was caught more fully when he turned to a second, less familiar factor in glacial melt: black carbon, or plain soot. It turns out that this fine particulate residue from incomplete combustion plays an even greater role than CO2 emissions in the melting of snow cap, and its reduction can have greater local and near-term impact.

After we in the West “polluted our way to prosperity,” then discovered the value of breathing clean air, we know what to do about soot. Current levels would be reduced dramatically by installing diesel particulate filters on all vehicles, eliminating the use of chunk coal, replacing traditional cookstoves with clean-burning biomass varieties, redesigning traditional brick kilns and coke ovens for greater efficiency, and banning the open burning of agricultural waste.

Yet knowing what to do is simpler than doing it. Nobody has figured out how to convert the millions of wood and dung burning stoves that keep the majority of the world alive. The technology for highly efficient biomass burners may be in place, but the challenges of affordability, access, and maintenance are formidable.

Mingle notes the enormous and overlooked health epidemic caused by breathing in soot, so clear in Kumik, where much of the very long cold winter is spent in small, smoky rooms. He suggests that nations such as China and India, unwilling to be blamed for following the lead of the West and polluting their own way to prosperity, may choose more easily to take on soot reduction for its public health benefits.

He lays out the problems in exhaustive, often repetitive detail, and is equally long-winded in his discussion of solutions. Simply stated, there are enormous opportunities to take localized action to reduce black carbon levels with near-term benefits of substantially slowing local snow melt. On the other hand, the challenges of mobilizing the resources and will to do so, particularly in the face of competing survival needs, are enormous as well.

Mingle is at his best in Kumik. Neither an anthropologist nor a romantic adventurer, he has come to know these people as a co-worker and a friend. It matters to him that their lives are deeply impacted by both local soot and global warming, and he helps it matter to us. But he also sees within them the shape of a solution, a spark lighting the way forward.

They are “inheritors of traditions born of painful trial and error over many centuries that have evolved to mitigate the considerable risks of life at 12,000 feet, in an arid, raw landscape . . . where the ligaments of survival are laid bare as in few places on Earth.” There’s a tradition of threatening to not share coals (if someone’s fire has gone out) or water (from the irrigation system) if somebody doesn’t live up to their community responsibilities. But with the arrival of modern technologies and the loosening of community ties, the tradition has lost much of its force. Still, it is impressive how much community cohesion remains, and how much people set aside individual pursuits to maintain community obligations.

There is a lesson here in accountability for those of us in highly individualized western societies. Our vision in the West of what is required for survival has become clouded. Neither what we need nor what we might lose is in focus for us, and we face the prospect of climate change with a combination of denial, arrogance, and fear. The people of Kumik, on the other hand, see clearly the central importance of land, water, and fuel, and are willing to work tirelessly and risk enormous upheaval to secure those things. Thus, “they can provide the rest of us with an object lesson in how to both mitigate and adapt. How to take responsibility, and then, how to take focused, patient strategic action. An ember of hope in a time of dark and imminent danger.”

They also know—deep in their bones—that they need each other. Mingle closes with a reflection on the mystery of what keeps his friend Stobdan so cheerful: “Ultimately I think that what explains his deep confidence is some sense of not being alone, his knowledge that he has the ultimate safety net: his neighbors there in the lifeboat with him, sailing into rough waters together, toward the light of some distant port.”

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