Saturday, April 18, 2009

Response to NYT Article

My Dad sent me this article from the NYT. I found it interesting and applicable to my situation here so I thought I’d respond.

I’ll do a quick summary of the article. Soot from wood-burning stoves is the second-leading cause of climate change behind carbon dioxide emissions. The article claims that CO2 is responsible for 40% of climate change while soot is responsible for 18%. The article goes onto say that, “In fact, reducing black carbon is one of a number of relatively quick and simple climate fixes using existing technologies — often called “low hanging fruit” — that scientists say should be plucked immediately to avert the worst projected consequences of global warming.”

People in my village burn wood for a variety of purposes. In the winter, wood burning stoves heat houses. Throughout the year, they are used as the primary stove in the house. And people have bread ovens that burn wood to heat the oven.

As the article notes, in addition to being a cause of climate change, burning wood for heat in the home is a cause of respiratory illness. The article has a picture of an open fire that a woman is cooking over. Fortunately, stoves in my village are contained fires, which mitigates slightly the impact on the respiratory system. Nonetheless, it’s a problem. Another negative impact of wood burning stoves is deforestation.

So what to do?

Although the conclusion of the article talks about some cultural barriers to converting stoves, it seems to me that the thrust of the argument is: getting people off of wood-burning stoves is a relatively easy way of reducing climate change. It seems that their argument is that the cost of these conversions is low compared with reducing carbon dioxide emissions in more developed parts of the world.

While the actual cost of switching a stove may be low, the article misses a huge point. It dramatically underestimates the amount of human capital necessary to convince people to make conversions. Getting people to switch stoves in my 400-person village would be a huge accomplishment. Although it is a goal for my service, I don’t think that it will happen. The available alternatives all have significant obstacles that prevent them from being viable. Natural gas is too expensive. Solar cookers are too slow and wouldn’t cook food in a way that people are used to. But the biggest obstacle is that people are relatively satisfied with wood stoves and not concerned with preventing climate change.

If, after two years, I can’t make an impact in this arena in a village of 400, what hope do we have of convincing hundreds of millions of people all across the globe? This is NOT “low-hanging fruit.” It’s a cause worth fighting for, but it will not be easy. The climate change argument is not a reasonable one to make with people who are living day to day. In my village, the issue of deforestation is more pressing to people and that’s the argument that I make here. If converting stoves worldwide is a goal, than each individual community may need an argument that is specific for their situation in order to convince them. Furthermore, different cultures will need an individualized stove that suits their needs. As I said above, this will require large amounts of community-level development work in order to tackle appropriately.


All is well. I have gotten the money for my running water project and will be presenting the project to an auction of potential contractors on Monday. Hoping to have that project running smoothly by the time I leave for America. It’s very exciting.

I hope all is well. Looking forward to coming home.


DanDutcher said...

Duncan, you seem like a very motivated person, which is great because I'm going to be joining you in a little while. My name is Dan Dutcher and I am leaving for Anemzi in just one week to be working as the new Health volunteer. I am currently at amiss as to what I might need to prepare for my site. How did you enter the community? How did you decide on what the community really need versus what they think they need? I think all these things will come in time, but it never hurts to ask. I'm excited to run into you, I'll try to keep in touch.

Patricia McArdle said...

Hi Duncan,
I was a former health education volunteer in Paraguay. After Peace Corps I worked for three years in Morocco and loved it. I spent a year in Afghanistan (2005) where the people have cut down almost all of their remaining trees for cooking fires. The little kids pull bushes out of the ground for their mothers to cook with. When I left Afghanistan, I began promoting solar cookers as a volunteer. What we teach people to use is a combination of solar cooking during the day when there is endless free energy and fuel efficient wood stoves at night. Here's a comment I sent to CNN and BBC, which convinced them to rewrite their stories about the man in Kenya who claimed to have 'invented' the solar box cooker. FYI I cook tajine in my solar cooker in Arlington, Virginia and it tastes just like the tajine I used to eat in Morocco.

Those of us who have worked for years to promote awareness of solar cooking are thrilled at the prize won by Jon Bohmer for his solar cooker. The publicity it has generated will help raise the profile of this simple, powerful and renewable technology.

It is however, not a ‘new invention’.

The cardboard solar box cooker, for which Mr. Bohmer won $75,000 from the FT Climate Change Challenge is a variation on one of the many designs that have been freely available to the public for years on Solar Cookers International’s archive.

The archive website contains extensive data on the design, construction, dissemination and international use of solar cookers to reduce carbon emissions and deforestation.

After logging on to the SCI web archive, users can click on build a solar cooker. There they will find detailed plans for a variety of cardboard, wood, metal and plastic solar box cookers, solar panel cookers and solar parabolic cookers.

Solar cooker advocates like Mr. Bohmer who have been inspired by the many designs currently available often come up with new variations and post them to our website where they can be shared with the rest of the world.

The solar box cooker is the oldest type of solar cooker. It was first widely promoted by two American women who were among the founders of SCI in 1988. Our organization was initially know as Solar Box Cookers International. Another of SCI’s founders, Robert Metcalf has been traveling the world for decades teaching people how to build and use solar cookers not only for cooking but also for solar water pasteurization.

When refugee populations in Africa began expanding in the early 1990s and access to cooking fuel and clean water became a serious problem for these people, a more portable version of the cardboard box solar cooker was developed by Roger Bernard. Tens of thousands of these have been made and sold or given away.

The largest solar cooker project currently underway is in three Darfur refugee camps in Chad. The women in those camps have manufactured and distributed more than 30,000 cardboard and aluminum foil Cookits. Trips outside the camp to gather firewood have been reduced by 86%.

Almost all solar cooker projects, including the one in Chad are currently funded by small non-profits. There is little to no government funding available. And yet many governments continue to subsidize the purchase of bottled cooking gas by up to 50% and the charcoal trade is destroying the forests of Africa and south Asia. This must change.

maryellen said...

check out patricia at

love, ma

Franny said...

dunc, come home and stay longer

wide-eyed innocent said...

Hi, Duncan!

Just wanted to let you know that I linked to this post on my blog ( I thought you made some excellent points. Have you thought about sending this in to the NYTimes as a Letter to the Editor?


natalieeee is lost said...

bri and i were just talking about this. we looked up how to make solar ovens and are going to try to cook in them this summer :)