Who told us about climate change?

Just a few miles from where I live in San Francisco, the effects of climate change are obvious to everyone. This winter’s record El Nino has brought rain storms that have eroded beach communities along the Pacific. This photo from the San Francisco Chronicle Pacifica_2016shows how some of the homes in the city of Pacifica are teetering on the edge of a cliff over the ocean. Scientists are predicting that climate change will bring stronger and harsher El Nino storms in years to come because of the warming oceans caused in large part by human activity. Anyone who reads newspapers or watches news on TV know that this is true, yet somehow many of the Republican candidates who want to lead the country cannot seem to accept the facts.

Climate change is an undeniable fact, yet we still get candidates saying things like this: “If you look to the satellite data in the last 18 years there has been zero recorded warming. Now the global warming alarmists, that’s a problem for their theories. Their computer models show massive warming the satellite says it ain’t happening. We’ve discovered that NOAA, the federal government agencies are cooking the books,” Ted Cruz is quoted as saying that in 2015. Why do some politicians find it so difficult to accept scientific facts?

It’s not as though the idea of climate change hasn’t been discussed for years. The medieval idea that the world is unchanging and that human beings have no influence on it was challenged more than 200 years ago by Alexander von Humboldt, one of the

Humboldt and Goethe
Alexander von Humboldt with Goethe and other friends.

greatest scientists the world has ever known, although much of his work has been forgotten.

Born in 1769, Humboldt traveled to South America in 1800 to explore nature and culture in the Spanish colonies there. When he saw the changes that Europeans has brought to the country by cutting down forests and cultivating lands, he developed his theories of how men affect climate. “When forests are destroyed, as they are everywhere in America by the European planters, …the springs are dried up or become less abundant.”  He noted how this allowed the soil to be washed away during heavy rains, causing erosion and a loss of fertile soil

Knowledge is a slow-growing plant, but Humboldt was one of those people who planted ideas that have blossomed during the centuries since he started his explorations. One of the other ideas that he developed in South America was a hatred of slavery, because he saw the cruelty of the European practice of enslaving native peoples. Slowly many of his Humboldt in his libraryideas have been accepted by mainstream thinkers. Slavery has disappeared in much of the modern world.  Let’s hope that more of the climate change deniers will continue to think about the questions and ideas that he raised.

We are lucky this year to have a new biography of Alexander von Humboldt available. Andrea Wulf, has explored Humboldt’s life and ideas in The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in seeing how scientific ideas have developed over the years and learning more about the people who have given us our modern view of the world.  


What will you have for lunch?

In the New York Times recently, Bettina Elias Siegel reports on the state of school lunches in France as shown in Michael Moore’s new documentary film Where to Invade Next. To many of us who have watched children’s reactions to food over the years, it is surprising to learn that in a village in Normandy, French school children Juliet Corsonare served “scallops, lamb skewers and a cheese course” for lunch. That sounds like a gourmet’s dream, but of course if this meal were served in an American school there would have to be many other options—what about the vegetarian children? or the ones who are allergic to fish? Or cheese? Most American children have learned to be picky and opinionated about food before they even start school. Siegel (and the film) contrast the French school with a typical American high school where the students choose pizza, French fries, and other unhealthy meals for lunch, washed down with sugary soft drinks.

Siegel makes many good points in her article pointing out that Americans are unwilling to support the infrastructure that would allow children to be given healthy, locally-sourced food for their school lunches. Americans have opted out of paying any but the lowest taxes possible to support children’s needs, in the expectation that competition among corporations will somehow provide the best options for school meals. Are we really surprised that this hasn’t worked? Instead of an array of healthy foods, most school districts yield to the economic necessity of presenting children with the cheap, highly-processed foods they have learned to enjoy. Perhaps the time has come when we should teach our children to prepare their own school lunches. They might surprise us.

Over the years, a number of reformers have tried to help Americans learn how to cook healthier, inexpensive food to feed their families. Back in 1883, when America was suffering through one of its worst depressions and many people were unemployed, a woman named Juliet Corson decided she could help people cope with poor wages by teaching them to cook. Born in 1841, Juliet leaned to cope with poverty when her stepmother kicked her out of the house and told her to earn her own living. Juliet became a librarian at the Working Woman’s Library and found out how difficult it was to feed a family on small wages. She started giving cooking lessons to women and then to children in New York City and soon began writing books about cooking and household management.

Her most successful book was called, believe it or not—Fifteen-Cent Dinners for Workingmen’s Families—and she gave away an edition of 50,000 copies; it was even reprinted in a daily newspaper. The menus suggested were wholesome with easily available ingredients. The book suggested meals such as rice and milk for breakfast and corned beef and cabbage for dinner. It included tips for choosing meat and vegetables at the market. Many Juliet_15 cent dinnersreaders were delighted with the worked and thanked Corson profusely, but, as always, not everyone was pleased. Some union leaders objected to its distribution on the grounds that if the bosses thought workers could feed their families so cheaply, there was no need to raise wages. It seems as though you can’t win when you give advice about what people should eat.

Juliet Corson had a successful career as a writer and lecturer and she started the New York Cooking School, one of the first successful cooking schools in the country. Although she charged her middle-class students for their lessons, she always provided free lessons to those who could not afford to pay. She was a pioneer introducing the teaching of cooking into the public schools in America and Canada. Nonetheless, she died in poverty at the age of 57 in 1897, and the teaching of choosing food and cooking has almost disappeared from American schools. Perhaps it is time to revive the idea.


Five things to hope for in 2016


The year ahead does not look as though it is going to be a wonderful one, but every day we are moving toward spring. The days are getting longer (at least in the Northern Hemisphere) and we may find 2016 will turn out better than we had hoped. Here are five things, big and small, I like to think will happen:

  1. El Nino rains will end the drought in California so that people will be able to irrigate their crops, even the smallest rural community will have water to drink, and our reservoirs will be full again.
  2. Whatever is ailing the honeybees that fertilize our crops will recede and the bees will return to do their vital task for all the almonds and fruits and garden plants.
  3. The campaign for the 2016 election will become more sensible. Candidates will talk to voters as if they are intelligent human beings. And if we all work on it—we may get the largest turnout in years for a presidential election.
  4. The San Francisco Giants will wake up, look around them and realize this is an even-numbered year, so they will go ahead and win the World Series.
  5. Despite our changing climate, the planet Earth will hold up for at least another year so that many of us will be able to welcome in 2017 in twelve months time.