Tuesday, October 28, 2008

De los Mayas al Polo Norte

"When I heard that all the ice at the Pole will have melted by 2012, I got goose-bumps," Guatemalan reporter and environmental campaigner Vida Amor de Paz told a compact audience at the Rainbow Cafe last week.

She'd come to La Antigua to preach about the impending global climate catastrophe, using what turned out to be a rather scratched up DVD copy of the documentary covering her trip to the North Pole in 2007.

Plan A had been to hitch a ride with a Russian ice-breaker, she explained, but when the owners pushed the embarcation date into the period of polar night, she had to turn to the scientists already at the Pole in an aged schooner called Tara.

This rather gnarly bunch responded negatively to her initial approaches, insinuating that she might be like those tiresome metiches from the Discovery Channel. But she sold them on the big idea behind her epic journey - that our man-made climate crisis today is an analogue of the one that brought Classic Maya civilisation to its knees, and that we would do well to take immediate heed of the Mayan 'cosmovision'; specifically the prophecies contained within the book of Chilam Balam of Chumayel.

This sacred text - written some 800 years after the Maya collapse commenced it has to be said; though De Paz in fact didn't - predicts a moderate sort of apocalypse for the astronomical milestone year of 2012: "A transformation of consciousness, after a 5000-year era of destruction."

Before setting off pa'l norte, she met up with Mayanists Richard Hansen and John Kermond who detailed the acceleration of ambition and excess which characterised the build-up to societal collapse in the ancient Mayan world. 1600 acres of forest had to be cleared in order to produce the plaster for a single pyramid at El Mirador, for example.

I have no problem with any of this, but I do think that her statement that the Maya had "lived in perfect harmony" with their environment for thousands of years is at best misleading, if not completely erroneous. Humans were a late arrival on this continent and there is considerable scientific evidence showing that their environmental impact from the outset - including mass extinctions - was typical of other major migrations of homo sapiens. But the myth of Native American 'sustainability' is a persistent one, and I can anyway see how it has provided with a handy narrative context for the moral tale being spun by many modern campaigners such as De Paz.

From the Petén she set off for Norway, where she was forced to wait at Longyearbyen until the team were sure that the ice at the Pole was thick enough for their Twin Otter to make a safe landing (1m).

Tara used to be called the Seamaster and belonged to NZ yachtsman-explorer Peter Blake, who was murdered by Amazonian pirates in 2001. It has been acquired by Etienne Bourgeois and continues Blake's legacy as the drifting home of the Tara-Damocles expedition, which has spent 2 years up in the Arctic pack-ice monitoring climate change.

De Paz found that facilities on the Tara were far more primitive than those advertised on the Russian ice-breaker. The toilet was a wooden hut positioned above a hole in the ice some 150m from the vessel...but at least there was sauna located aft.

The expedition cost $50,000 and was part funded by the Paul Mitchell haircare products company, who in return had their flag planted at the Pole next to the Guatemalan one that De Paz had also brought along with her. These formalities dealt with, De Paz settled into life on Tara, interviewing each crew member in turn, and filming their efforts to stave off the constant attacks from polar bears. (Their on-board chuchos were especially brave in this respect.)

The Arctic ice is melting so fast, her film claims, that the NW Passage is already viable in the summer months, and should it disappear completely, there would be an 80% increase in global heat levels, largely because the ocean absorbs the sun's energy while the ice reflects it. This is one statistic I'd like to check up on.

That the ice is thinning as never before is beyond question however. Today, a study by a team from UCL in London suggested that ice-thickness "plummeted" by as much as 49cm last winter, after a five-year period of comparative stability. The UCL data, which derives from satellite observations, predicts a final disappearance of the Arctic ice covering between 2030-2040 - a little later than convenient for the cosmovisionaries.

De los Mayas al Polo Norte will be shown on Canal 3 here in Guatemala at 8pm on November 24.

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