Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Kitchen of the Future: Fire (Part 2 of 3, Rocket Stoves)

If fate had been kind my grandmother might have been a pioneer feminist lawyer, but when her mother died in 1919 she quit school to raise her younger brother and sister. She was just 11 and didn’t know how to take care of a household, so she presented herself to two older women who lived together near by (Widows? Spinster? Lesbians? I would love to know) and asked them to teach her to cook.

I learned to cook using gas or electric stoves, a toaster ovens and a microwaves - not to mention all the food processors and what-what (1981: bamboo sushi-roller mats, used once) that filled my family's kitchens. My grandmother learned to cook on a wood fire. Additionally she did the family’s laundry by layering the clothes with lye and ash and boiling it on the kitchen stove. Three billion people still cook and do laundry over a wood, coal, dung, or other solid fuel fire. Cooking this way is not benign; cook fires (especially indoor cooking, which the majority of these fires are) lead to birth defects, early deaths, deforestation and huge amounts of pollution.

In his book Collapse Jared Diamond looks at the historical difference between Haiti and the Dominican Republic (The two nations share a single island, but very different histories and fates). The D.R. is not a wealthy country but Diamond points out that in comparison to Haitians (and this is before the quake) Dominicans are relatively wealthy. In his judgment, the most crucial difference is that for thirty years the D.R.’s El Jeffe, Trujillo (a rightwing devil) protected forests from being cleared; Haiti’s political elite (just as devilish) did not.

The forests of Haiti were cut down to make charcoal for cook fires (once cleared the land kept clear for subsistence agriculture). The deforestation exposes the Haitians to floods, mudslides, crop failure, and in the case of the recent earthquake, they do not have the material reserves to absorb the trauma. The story Diamond tells of Rwanda is similar. The 3 billion cook stoves around the world are a rolling ecological, and therefore political disaster.

Burkhard Bilger’s “Hearth Surgery” for New Yorker Magazine this past December profiles Stove Camp; a group that is trying to make the perfect stove: useful, durable, clean burning and CHEAP. In terms of the poorest of the poor, these guys are building the Kitchen of the Future, a goal that has been eluding the development community for over thirty years. Accordeing to the article they are getting close, the grail is something they call a Rocket Stove.

The problem has become pressing because it is no longer contained within the borders of countries like Haiti and Rwanda. Bilger writes that, “The average cooking fire produces as much carbon dioxide as a car and a great deal more soot, or black carbon—a substance seven hundred times a warming… Given that cooking fires each release on or two thousand grams of soot in a year, and that three billion people rely on them, cleaning up those fires may be the fastest, cheapest way to cool the planet.”

(Part 3 will be a futurist-fire-bomb, I promise.)

End of Part II, to be continued..

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