Soot, Solidarity and Survival: A Conversation with Jonathan Mingle

Author Jonathan Mingle discusses his new book, Fire & Ice, the powerful particle, black carbon, and climate change around the world.

Kumik is a high altitude village located in India's northern Ladakh region. High above the village this melting glacier provides the people who live here with their only water source.
Kumik is a high altitude village located in India's northern Ladakh region. High above the village, this melting glacier on Sultan Largo mountain provides the people who live here with their only source of water. (Image courtesy of Jonathan Mingle)

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In Fire & Ice: Soot, Solidarity and Survival on the Roof of the World, author Jonathan Mingle tells a powerful story about the village of Kumik in northern India, whose inhabitants are forced to relocate and rebuild their homes and lives as their only water sourcea stream fed by disappearing glacier and snowfieldsdries up. Mingle explores how black carbon, comprised of tiny light-absorbing particles produced by burning fuels like diesel, coal, wood and dung, is fueling climate change, creating a global health crisis and forcing people around the world to fight for their own survival. 

Have you always been interested in reporting on black carbon, or have your environmental interests evolved over time?

They have definitely evolved, but one of the reasons I wanted to tell the story of black carbon is that it’s like a tracer. It’s this visible element in the atmospheric system, but it’s also in daily life. It gets in your face. It’s visible in a way that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases aren’t.

In addition, I was drawn to the intersection that black carbon represents between health, the economy and climate. That seemed like a compelling story to me.

Most people have never heard of black carbon. How do you explain it to them?

I tend to tell people who have never heard of black carbon that it’s basically the stuff that makes soot dark. It’s these ultra-fine particles that are produced by inefficient fires. Burning agricultural waste, or burning coal inefficiently, or burning kerosene for lighting—any fossil fuel or biofuel burned incompletely is going to produce some amount of black carbon.

Black carbon becomes suspended in the atmosphere, and, like any dark-colored object, it absorbs light and turns it into heat. When it gets deposited on snow or ice it also reduces the amount of light that’s reflected off of a glacier or snowfield, which then accelerates melting. Those two mechanisms add up to a significant amount of warming, and that’s what makes this the second biggest contributor to climate change after carbon dioxide.

When the particles are inhaled, they can penetrate deep into your lungs and even travel through your bloodstream to major organs and your brain, doing lots of damage. It adds up to a major global health burden.

Black carbon, together with other products of incomplete combustion and air pollutants, kills more than 7 million people a year, according to the 2012 Global Burden of Disease study. 4.3 million people die prematurely because of exposure to household air pollution; 3.5 million people die prematurely every year from exposure to outdoor air pollution. Black carbon is a major component of that pollution.

Why has it been relatively overlooked?

It goes all the way back to the Middle Ages when many cultures had proverbs along the lines of, “If you want fire, you have to endure the smoke.” But we live in an age when there are a lot of solutions to cleaning up black carbon and other air pollutants. It’s no longer the case that, if you want the benefits of fire, you have to endure the smoke.

Unfortunately, the people most directly affected by black carbon are somewhat on the periphery. Household air pollution alone kills more people every year than malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS combined. Not a lot of people know that, and when you tell them, they’re kind of astonished.

How did you get the idea to write Fire & Ice?

There were a few moments. In grad school, I attended a lecture about the public health impacts around the world associated with smoke produced during cooking, and how black carbon is not only a major component of this household air pollution but also a major contributor to climate change.

In 2003, I visited the Ladakh region of northern India for the first time. I went as a volunteer teacher with a local educational organization, and I happened to work with another local organization that promoted passive solar heating and solar power. Ladakh is a very cold place, but it’s also very sunny.

In 2008, I was doing some fieldwork with some local organizations in Ladakh. A friend of mine told me there was a gentleman who was looking for me, and he wanted advice on how to design his home so that it would be heated by solar energy. We met, and I asked him, “Why are you building a new home?” He explained that he’s from a village that’s experiencing a really terrible drought that had gone on for quite a while, and that the whole village was relocating. That struck me as an incredible story—the resilience of these people in the face of this slow motion catastrophe—a story that deserves a wider audience.

I started talking to villagers about why they thought this drought was happening. They knew its proximate cause was the retreat of their glacier and permanent snowfields, which is the only source of water in that part of the world.

These conversations led to this black carbon detective story where I was trying to understand just exactly what kind of risks it poses to people’s lives, and what are the solutions.

You make a great comparison between Kumik and other areas in the world like California’s Central Valley that rely heavily on snow melt to irrigate agriculture.

I wanted to suggest Kumik as a microcosm of sorts for these dynamics that are playing out on a global scale. Roughly a third of Californians’ water comes from snowpack in the Sierra Nevada. Without that frozen reservoir, agriculture would be severely limited in the Central Valley. The only reason people survive in Kumik is because of the frozen reservoirs on the top of the mountain. When the summer comes along and melts it, they have water to irrigate their crops.

The difference is that in a place like Kumik you see what you’re depending on very clearly. They just look out the window in late winter at the snow, and they can roughly gauge how much to plant. In California, you see officials scrambling to figure out if this is the new normal. The people in Kumik saw the writing on the wall a while ago, and they realized that they didn’t have the luxury of delaying or debating.

There are also parallels that run in the other direction. There are solutions that have been developed in places like California, which has done so much to clean up its air and reduce vehicle emissions and the health risks associated with it. We can take those lessons and accelerate the transition to cleaner energy, and the health benefits alone will make it overwhelmingly worth it.

Clean cooking and heating stoves greatly reduce soot. Why are they so important on a personal health level, to women in particular, and on the global level?

I think there’s an emerging awareness about clean cookstoves that offers huge opportunities for saving lives, saving money, and for making a serious dent in slowing global warming. Clean cookstoves deserve more policymaker attention and more resources because almost 3 billion people, about forty percent of all humanity, still cook with soot-producing fuels—basically the way humans were cooking a hundred thousand years ago.

By promoting clean stoves, you help women—who are overwhelmingly the people gathering the fuel and doing the cooking in rural areas of the developing world. You help them save time, which they can apply to more productive ends, and you reduce their toxic exposure, ideally.

What are some of the barriers preventing these clean fuel technologies from becoming widespread?

Probably the hardest part of this problem are the behavioral and cultural aspects, as well as building and sustaining the marketplace.

A huge problem is that many people, especially in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, don’t have access to regular electricity. So they use kerosene lamps, and kerosene is just a terrible way to provide light for a lot of reasons, one being that, for many people, kerosene costs a significant part of their income. Another problem is that it’s dangerous. Children will poison themselves by drinking kerosene. Kerosene lamps are also easy to tip over, resulting in terrible burns and homes burning down. To top it off, what comes out of that flame is 99% or more black carbon.

There are alternatives that are slowly spreading, like solar lamps. Mera Gao Power has put together solar microgrids in villages that have never had electricity. They offer people a few LED lights in their house and a mobile phone charger. But these kinds of ventures are really starved for finance. And if kerosene weren’t subsidized by the government in India, these technologies would spread much more quickly.

Luckily, we finally have designers and entrepreneurs who are tackling this problem in a user-centered way. That is a very promising development. I think these solutions are gaining traction in development circles because they’re win-win-win.

What lessons can people in the Western world learn from those in Kumik as we face our own climate problems?

There’s this real sense of facing adversity in Kumik with humor and a cheerful stoicism. When I first encountered that, I thought, ‘Wow, this is such a sad situation. Why do these people seem to be having such a good time?’ And I think the ultimate answer is that they know they aren’t doing it alone. The only way to survive in a tough place like Kumik is by working together.

Back before they had access to any modern tools for lighting fires, people had to keep their fires going. It can get down to negative 40 degrees there, so the only solution if the fire went out was to go next door to your neighbor and get hot coals from their stove to carry home. In their culture, this is called the “fire connection.”

I think that idea is so powerful, carrying embers from hearth to hearth. They have this clear understanding that their fortunes are linked. They will thrive—or not—based on how much they cooperate.

Click here to learn more about Earthjustice’s work on black carbon.

As a communications strategist, Miranda covers Earthjustice’s Mid-Pacific and California regional offices. She has campaigned to defend public water resources in North America and is a graduate of the Master’s in Global Studies program at the University of California, Santa Barbara where her research focused on climate change.