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JNN Hostel, Vilnius. Lithuania

My coat has a detachable fur lining that I have detached and then re-attached several times since leaving Britain in February. I went away with it attached but then for a while in February it was quite warm and I had to detach it, though when I met Mr and Mrs KarmaBanque and we talked about environmental holocaust it was cold and rainy and I had it attached again. Bergen in Norway was not as cold as you might think it would be and so for a while there I was sans-lining, but not when I went North of the Arctic Circle in March, where it was around zero, but people said it would usually be 10 below at that time of year. There were then a few warmish days in Helsinki, but moving South to Tallinn it was cold and windy so the lining went back in. And then last week it was pretty warm here in Vilnius so the lining came out again, and some people were out in T-shirts, but then some people will be out in T-shirts whatever the weather, and if they’re women there will usually be a fleshy gap between their T-shirt and their skirt or jeans. And then a couple of days ago, when I went out on the evening of April 30th / morning of May 1st, having heard that Britain had just had the warmest April since records began in 1659, here in Vilnius it was snowing.

Cold weather here usually comes down from Russia. Warm weather comes from the West.

I’ve just downloaded some news from the web, realizing I’ve been a bit out of touch. A British weather man said it was too soon to say whether this April’s record breaking temperatures were linked to global warming, but if the records kept being broken for another ten years then it would seem that there was a link. By which time it would be too late to do anything about it – though he didn’t say that.

Another article I downloaded was about Lydd Airport, near Dungeoness, owned by a Saudi businessman. He wants to take advantage of cheap flights boom and increase passenger numbers by a factor of 100, from less than 5000 a year to half a million, and then to two million.

I discovered 10 Downing Street’s petitions website the other day and put my name to a few of them. The one I think should have been top in number of signatures was the one saying: “We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to Drop all plans for airport expansion and take steps to substantially
reduce airport capacity.”
And the one to scrap VAT on bicycles and bike parts is a good one and that one’s here –
But the one with the most signatures is the one asking the government to scrap inheritance tax, which must have been signed by a load of dead people. Or nearly dead people. Do they think they’re doing their descendants a favour by leaving them their estates? Perhaps they think that by leaving their descendants lots of money this will make up for the kind of environment they’re leaving them. Or perhaps they don’t really believe they’re really damaging the environment. They’re just turning up the thermostat a bit.

Listening to a conversation going on in the hostel I stayed in in Tallinn. A Norwegian woman mentioned global warming and an American talked about how he’d been harranged by an angry Swede at his country’s failure to sign the Kyoto protocol, to which he answered well, what’s the point if China and India don’t sign it? Then he said he didn’t think global warming would be a major catastrophe. There wouldn’t be loads of people dying.

Perhaps not a lot of Americans, nor a lot of Europeans, and even though there have been droughts in Australia probably not a lot of Australians either. The rich countries and their populations will be better able to deal with the changes to their environment, and their wealth will means that as food and water supplies diminish they will ensure they have more than their fare share. But people in poor countries…? (Or poor people in rich countries – New Orleans?) I haven’t heard much about the causes of the famine in Africa in the eighties that started the Live Aid campaign. At the time global warming wasn’t a phrase most people were familiar with, but I remember Africans at the time saying their crops had failed because the rains didn’t come. They were living in areas where there wasn’t much rain, but where what little there was was essential to their survival. James Lovelock in “The Revenge of Gaia” says the expansion of the deserts will be one of the effects of global warming. Less fertile land for growing crops means less food and so more famine. Or perhaps more chopping down forests to create farms in which case even you get even more global warming. Meaning even less food…….

Where the thermostat analogy breaks down is that with a thermostat you turn it up to a certain temperature and then when the temperature reaches the thermostat’s setting that’s it, it stops rising. A thermostat uses negative feedback. When the temperature drops below it’s setting the heating switches on, increasing the temperature, and when the temperature rises above it’s setting the heating turns off, allowing the temperature to fall. Me and the lining of my coat is like that, along with my sweating and shivering, all negative feedback mechanisms to keep my body temperature more or less constant. If I can’t keep my body temperature constant, like if I “have a temperature”, then I’m in. With the earth it’s seems we’re reaching that point. The negative feedback effects it used to use to regulate its temperature have either been destroyed or become ineffective in relation to positive feedback mechanisms. So rather than the increase in temperature settling down at some point a bit warmer than it is now these are mechanisms that will cause the rise in temperature to accelerate. For example, the melting of the polar ice caps. White reflects light and therefore reflects heat. Much of the heat of the sun striking the earth is reflected back into space by the ice caps. Smaller ice caps => less heat reflected => more warming => smaller ice caps => ….

That’s the trouble with a phrase like global warming. It sounds quite pleasant if you live in a generally cold country. (Britain will be like the Med – under water.) And it is mainly the people in generally cold countries who are causing global warming. Even if China’s emissions are about to overtake America’s, China still has about 5 times the population, so the carbon footprint of the average American is five times the size of that of the average Chinese person.

Climate change as well sounds a bit lame, whereas environmental holocaust (used by KarmaBanque) I think is too loaded, though closer to the truth. The word holocaust has too much emotional resonance for a lot of people, and the use of that word could just become a distraction. Though they used to talk about nuclear holocaust and that was okay, though it never actually happened so maybe that will be in the back of people’s heads when they hear the term environmental holocaust. Like Christopher Walken playing Russian roulette in the Deer Hunter, once you’ve survived a couple of holocausts you don’t take warnings about the next one so seriously.

Or it could be a Freudian death drive kind of thing.

Perhaps there should be opinion polls asking people what we should call these things.

I listened to The Boycott Coca Cola Experience on KarmaBanque radio last Saturday, which was good. Not often you get to hear a song about gas and discussion of Darfur, corporate occupation and snooker on the same programme, but then I don’t often listen to the radio. Sitting in cafes I don’t like wearing headphones. I feel like I’m cutting myselff off too much when I do that, but in the back room of the Café de Paris almost everyone sits with a laptop and headphones, and often they’re talking to their laptops as well. (I’ve not started doing that yet, but did download Skype the other day.) There’s a good internet connection. It’s free, though someone here was talking about the internet company that provides the wifi for most of the local cafes and restaurants, Zebra, wanting to start charging people. They already are in one place I went to the other day, so I won’t be going back there again. (The same place where the waitress never brought me my change once.) I was talking to someone about how it is in England where there are a load of different wifi providers in different cafes and almost all of them expect people to pay quite high monthly rates, sometimes forcing you to sign up for a year, so then you have to keep going back to the same cafe or the same chain of cafes – unless you’re wealthy enough to be able to subscribe to a number of different service providers. It looks like things might go the same way here.

The weekend before last I went to a place called Paneriai, 10km outside Vilnius – 40p on the train. I got out at a deserted and closed station building, having to walk across the tracks to get to it. There were some run down tower blocks, with washing hanging out on the balconies and graffiti on the walls. Then a bit further up the road some wooden houses. Someone the other day was telling me that the wealth gap between Vilnius and the rest of the country is growing. I think the average salary in Lithuania is about £3000 a year, but I’ve been trying to rent a flat here for a month and finding they’re wanting almost London prices. Though I’m having to pay a bit over the odds because i only want a place for a month, it looks like I’ll have to pay £100 a week, and if I pay it I guess I become part of the reason why the gap between Vilnius and the rest of the country is growing. This is becoming a trendy city. Many flats advertize that they welcome stag parties. I was listening to some Irish property developers sitting in the Cafe de Paris the other day. One of them was talking about how he hasn’t been able to find decent furniture for his places here and is shipping (or flying) it over from Italy, and another was talking about philanthropy, wanting to give something back to the country.

I didn’t go to Paneriai to see the poverty though. I went because that’s possibly where the holocaust begin. It was a Nazi extermination camp. There’s a small museum there, but it was closed, and then there’s a memorial park. It’s about a 1km walk from the station, along a tree lined road. Someone who I think got off the train I was on was walking ahead of me but he turned off and went into what looked like a village of garden sheds. I couldn’t make out if they were for storage or whether people lived in them. There were no signposts and no one to ask so I wasn’t sure if I was going in the right direction, but after a while I got to a compound of white buildings that looked like a concentration camp. I thought that must be it, but there was a gate, some insignia, not Nazi but a bit fascistic looking, and some words but nothing in English, and it was all closed up and no one appeared to be around. I walked along the road a bit further and that was where I found the actual memorial. I just hadn’t been sure what I was heading for. In Lonely Planet it just recommends a visit to the place but doesn’t say much about what’s there.

Paneriai, Vilnius, Lithuania Paneriai, Vilnius, Lithuania Paneriai, Vilnius, Lithuania Paneriai, Vilnius, Lithuania Paneriai, Vilnius, Lithuania Paneriai, Vilnius, Lithuania Paneriai, Vilnius, Lithuania

Apparently the holes in the ground were initially dug by the Russians as fuel dumps when they were occupying Lithuania just before the Germans invaded. I think that’s partly why they chose this location. It would save them having to dig fresh holes.

It was only afterwards that I did a search on the internet and found the Wikipedia page (of course) and this US Government report, so when I was walking around I didn’t really know what I was looking at. Sometimes it’s better to go to places without knowing much. Sometimes not. I was the only one there. I walked around taking photos. Lots of photos. There was a light rain in the air, then as I stood at the rim of a large pit the sun came out briefly. The compound of white buildings was visible through the trees. I took photos, zooming in because I didn’t want to go up to the fence just in case there were people in there. I didn’t see anyone, but as I was leaving I did hear and then saw a dog. An alsatian I think. I was sure that must have been the concentration camp, though a search on the internet later, Googling in the name of the place, it turns out it’s the HQ of a company of military clothing manufacturers. Their website doesn’t mention whether the buildings of their HQ were once something else, but I guess it’s not the sort of thing you would put on the “About Us” page of your website.

The Wikipedia page says:

Out of 70,000 Jews living in Vilnius, only 7,000 would survive the war; the Jewish culture in Vilnius, one of the greatest in Europe, ceased to exist.

Timothy Snyder, The Reconstruction of Nations: Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus, 1569-1999, Yale University Press, ISBN 0-300-10586-X Google Books, p.84-89