Category Archives: Sustainability

Damage Limitation

Certain seagulls, who lay single eggs on cliff faces, prefer larger eggs to smaller. This can be observed by providing gulls with false eggs to nurture. They will reject their own egg in favour of one so large that the bird looks ridiculous trying to cover it.

There wasn’t any need to programme an upper limit into this genetically controlled behaviour. There were other limits on the size of egg likely to be laid, and no other birds of that size used this precarious habitat.

Humans are social creatures. Alone, we are poorly equipped for survival compared to other animals. Small family groups are also vulnerable, due to the long periods of child care required. In general, the larger the group, the better. Genetically controlled behaviour leads humans to feel more comfortable as part of a large group; other limiting factors controlled group size.

Most isolated humans would feel impelled to join a group, the larger the better. Advertisers, religions and political parties exploit this impulse to the hilt. Join our label, be part of our congregation, follow our leader!

Such unfeasibly large groups must sever their relationship with the land which supports them, such that other instincts like resource conflict seem irrelevant. These instincts do not go away, however, but simmer deep in the subconscious, informing behaviours which seem incomprehensible on the surface.

Competition for territory comes mainly from members of your own species, who require exactly the same resources as you. An expanding tribe would eventually encounter the borders of another group. Conflict might ensue, each group against the ‘other’.

In modern times, this was played out in destructive wars between nations. Now that it is far too dangerous to fully indulge this, different ways of identifying the ‘other’ are employed by primitive instincts trying to surface. In the absence of clear group markers, this leads to confused behaviours.

These instincts, around the potential of resource scarcity and the need to defend a ‘territory’ which cannot be defined, need to be brought into the open and dealt with honestly. We have indeed exceeded the carrying capacity of the entire planet, by a good long way, and urgently need to manage ourselves down from that while we can still prop up the process with non-renewable resources.

There’s no point looking at Science for answers. Science put the solution on the table back in the Sixties – efficient, cheap family planning. If we’d prioritised resilience over economic growth in the Seventies, Britain would be in far less trouble now. We may even have achieved the Age of Leisure as depicted in old science fiction novels, instead of having to work harder than medieval peasants.

However, it’s better to cry over split milk than to try and put it back in the bottle. Although it’s past time for an easy answer, there is a way forward. Start at ground level, resist the allure of labels, and consider what you couldn’t do without. Food, water and electricity are a good start.

Grow a resilient, sustainable civilisation underneath the worn out ways; the old will fall away like a broken eggshell as the new emerges.

I’ve done my bit by writing ‘The Resilience Handbook – How to Survive in the 21st Century’….now you need to read it!

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April Diary 2017

It’s been an early, dry Spring in most of England this year. Here in our southwest corner, the rhubarb is thin and the potatoes slow to come up. On the positive side, the slugs are discouraged and the seedlings are getting a good start. Watering them is a daily chore now.

Well watered rhubarb in a pot
Well watered rhubarb in a pot

Having failed to negotiate a supply of wheat seeds – it’s hard to buy a small handful – I planted some old gleanings I found in the seed box. They seem to be coming up, but look exactly like grass just now. If the experiment doesn’t work, I’ll dig over and plant out squashes, or grow a catch crop of cress.

We managed to subdue most of the really wild quarter of our new Resilience Allotment while the soil was still soft. To clear the established perennial weeds – couch grass, bindweed, dandelion and horsetail – we turned the matted turf over to a spade’s depth, pulling the exposed roots out by hand as we broke up the clumps. These went to the tip for recycling, as they can sprout again from fragments.

The rough bit of the allotment before digging
The rough bit is on the left
The weed roots we are removing
The weed roots we are removing

A layer of leaf mould covered with cardboard sheets was laid on the sections we dug over, topped with another layer of leaf mould. Holes were cut in the card and our vegetables planted through it, in a handful of compost. The thick mulch will discourage the weeds – though we haven’t seen the last of them – and give our plants a head start.

The leaf mould was free, from a huge pile dumped in the allotment car park. It’s not ideal; in this dry weather it starts to blow away, and I worry that the potatoes may not like it.

“Do not dig your potatoes up to see if they are growing” – a modern Zen saying!

There was an urgent need for a weed suppressant though, and the leaf mould was available in large amounts. Resilience gardening is about making use of local resources, in a very permaculture-like fashion.

It’s also about low maintenance. While I’m concentrating on the allotment, the original Resilience Garden is ticking over nicely. The leeks and purple sprouting broccoli are finishing now, the kale going to seed, and the new peas coming up. The wild garlic is getting a bit ragged, but other salad leaves are coming up fast. The remaining small piece of lawn takes me more effort to maintain than the vegetable patch does.

You can learn the basics of starting a Resilience Garden from the Handbook...the best way to learn is to try things out. Even a windowsill pot of herbs is worth doing!

Why do you need the Resilience Handbook?

The answer is in the subtitle – ‘How to survive in the 21st century’.

Even in a quiet little island like Britain, there are more episodes of ferocious weather now than we were used to in the last century. Flooding is a growing problem. What can you do about it?

Read the Emergency Planning section of the book, keep it handy to consult if you suddenly have to evacuate your house. It’ll tell you what to do, remind you to turn off your utilities, how to pack a grab bag.

Contents of a typical grab bag
Contents of a typical grab bag

You may not be directly affected by flooding, but the damage to the economy is shared by all. What can you do to help the long-term situation?

Rain comes from the sky, but flooding happens on land. Meetings of experts discuss useful management strategies, but the people responsible for the land have to implement them, Most of these are farmers, already struggling to make a living.

If they were able to sell to you, the consumer, without having to be routed through a supermarket chain…they’d have more money. Enough, perhaps, to consider engaging with flood relief; to invest in growing willow, in reforesting the hillsides.

Learn to make willow fencing!
Learn to make willow fencing!

The Resilience Handbook outlines a number of practical steps you can take to support community resilience at every level. It’s a call to action, not an invitation to more debate. Read through it, then keep it to hand as a reference book. Much of what it says won’t be clear to you until you begin to fulfill the set tasks.

Ignore the sneering quitters who tell you your personal buying choices mean nothing in the bigger picture. Supermarkets didn’t spring out of thin air. They evolved as a response to these choices. You can choose to return to a more resilient, locally based economy. Both processes are achieved one piece of shopping at a time.

It’s not just about food and its effect on the landscape. Every time you wash your clothes carefully, so that they last longer, you’re doing your bit for a sustainable community. Less waste means less landfill space. A culture where clothes are respected and cared for encourages a market for quality products. Well made clothes can be repaired or altered by local businesses, not thrown away.

local craft shop
Shops like this often take in sewing jobs

Every little helps, as they say. With the Resilience Handbook you can keep track of your efforts, see how tiny changes lead to bigger ones, learn what really is important and know that you’re doing as much as you can to secure it.

An Interesting Meeting

I attended an Avalon Community Energy meeting on Monday. We were admiring the new solar panels they’d arranged to be installed at a local school. Despite the continual obstacles thrown in the path of this worthy project by central government, everyone was civil to the visiting MP.

He made a short speech, indicating more sympathy for renewables than we were accustomed to hear. He regretted that taxpayers’ money had to be spent along lines informed by good business practice; later he deplored the competitiveness between various renewables providers. If business models could run a country, politics would never have happened in the first place.

The he said something really startling. We were moving away from centralised power distribution, he said. We could be building the last generation of large power stations.

Moving towards local control of the power supply is a key pillar of resilience. As control cannot be achieved without generation, renewables represent the only way forward for resilient communities. Sourcing energy in this way also leads to a more distributed network with fantastic resilience. Emergency heating, lighting and cooking facilities could be maintained in every household! Large scale power cuts would be a thing of the past.

Moving away from centralised power generation wasn’t anywhere near the top of my ‘Realistic Things to Achieve’ list. It was just a vague pipe dream, an ‘if only people would realise the importance’ idea, facing decades of struggle even to get on the agenda!

Energy groups such as ACE need to move in from the pioneer fringes and occupy the centre ground for communities to take advantage of this unexpected trend. To seize opportunity, an organised group has to be in place, poised and ready, with a sound business plan backed by an informed community. Is there such a group in your area? If not, why not?

Take back your power.

waterwheel-1

The Resilience Handbook outlines how you can form a community group in your area. More information can be found through the links on this page.

It can be a very slow process, getting a community to work together. Encourage yourself with a resilience plan; find out more in the Handbook

Adventures at the Green Gathering

Wow! What a great festival!

I love off grid events – without the diesel generators churning away, the sound levels are gentler, the lights less glaring. The whole atmosphere is more relaxed. It fits into the splendid natural setting of Piercefield Park like a hand into a glove.

Green Gathering 2016 vista from crafts area

The weather was fabulous, with plenty of shady places under trees or in cool venues to shelter from the hot sun. At night, gaily illuminated cafes, bars and venues were strung on curving lines of coloured festoon lights.

Green Gathering 2016 floating lotus venue

If you were inclined to learn resilience skills, there were abundant workshops teaching everything from archery to willow weaving.

boar oven GG16

Steward Control at the Green Gathering was the last job I did before retiring from event work to promote resilience. Some of the volunteers remembered the trial version of the Resilience Handbook which they were issued with back then! Training event stewards to cope with camping out – often for the first time – provided valuable material for the final version.

The splendid Laura now manages the stewards, but my colleague Linda Benfield is still a director of our company, and also of the Green Gathering itself. We created the Resilience Wheel concept together some years ago.

the resilience wheel

We were struggling to write an energy questionnaire for Glastonbury, for a Transition Town funding bid. The problem was the huge disparity in energy awareness from house to house, and how to reflect this in a meaningful sense. At the same time, we were involved with the Town Council’s emergency planning committee.

The two projects started to overlap; we began to see the issues around putting these plans into practice, the multiple factors, the many variables. The number of things that should be in place and weren’t. Surrounded by flow charts and spider diagrams, we had a sudden insight and reinvented the wheel!

Anyone can find their place on it. All your efforts towards a sustainable lifestyle – that would be one which isn’t going to vanish in a puff of fossil fuel smoke – feed into one central goal. Resilience. You can’t do without it.

The Resilience Wheel isn’t just a picture. It’s a tool. You have to pick it up and use it.

International Downshifting Week

This week, April 20th – 26th, is International Downshifting Week.

“InterNational Downshifting Week is a non-profit awareness campaign designed to help you slow down your pace, lean towards the green and get a better handle on the work/life balance in favour of life.

It was founded in 2003 by contented downshifter Tracey West, who believes a little downshifting can have a powerful impact on your physical health, your mental well-being, your relationships with colleagues, family and friends; it can even improve your sex life.”

Find out more here.

 

Willows and Flooding

The Somerset Levels have grown willow since prehistoric times; the remains of a basket were found by the Glastonbury Lake Village. Willow trees are plentiful in marshlands as they can thrive in waterlogged soils. Their long flexible shoots have many uses, including furniture, fencing and fish traps.

Traditional methods of pruning, or pollarding, cut the tree back to its main trunk. A shock of long straight withies springs out from the cut, and can be harvested. The trees are quite tall and have a distinctive knobby shape. Pollarded trees need to be maintained, which is difficult when the trimmings have no value.

Many modern willow beds are coppiced. The growth is cut back, even to ground level, every couple of years. Material which could be used for craft products is burned as biomass fuel. Willow beds established by grant funding have no budget for upkeep.

The Levels grew nearly 40 square kilometres of willow in 1930, but this has declined to a mere 1.4, mainly due to replacing basketry with disposable bags and packaging. Garden furniture is made from imported, oil based plastic and most people would struggle to recognise a fish trap.

Planting willow around the banks of rivers stabilises them, and can be extended into a buffer zone. This would aid the retention of water in a managed flood plain, protecting urban land further downstream. Willow is particularly good at removing toxins from contaminated land. It could be planted straight after a major flood, but it won’t be, as no-one can earn a living from it.

The decline of willow production needs to be reversed by creating a market.

The storms that often accompany flooding have wreaked havoc on garden fencing. Tall solid panels which resist the wind have fallen in heaps. Woven willow fencing allows the light and air through, while affording privacy.

Order some from a local willow craftsperson. It will be more expensive than cheap imported products. If you have a garden and a fence, though, it makes sense to support the farmers upstream who are preventing them flooding. Think about what else you could replace with locally sourced willow.

Alternatively, find a project which needs help with coppicing and negotiate your own materials.  Carymoor Environment Trust in Somerset have a volunteers’ day every Tuesday.

willow crafts

 

What is ‘Transition’?

The Transition movement takes a positive attitude to the changes we will need to make in order to cope with the end of cheap oil.

With the price of fuel, you may not feel that oil is cheap in any real sense, but for operating machinery, running factories and processing other natural resources the power of fossil fuel was incredible compared to that of manual labour. After centuries of runaway technological growth, we are finally arriving at the point where advanced machine design and renewable energy sources can replace the use of oil, and just in time as it is becoming harder to obtain.

The infrastructure, and to some extent the lifestyle, created around fossil fuels needs to change. The Transition network is dedicated to supporting this process. Totnes, in Devon, became the first ‘Transition Town’ in 2006, and many others have followed.

A Transition Initiative looks at forming an energy descent action plan for their area, exploring how local resources can be used in a more sustainable model, and outlining the path of this transition. As life with lower energy consumption is inevitable, it is best to plan for it and Transition maintains that the increase in quality of life will more than compensate for any inconvenience.

The Transition movement has local branches all over the country. Transition is ‘an invitation to join the hundreds of communities around the world who are taking the steps towards making a nourishing and abundant future a reality’

Rob Hopkins, The Transition Handbook

 

What is Resilience?

It’s not easy to explain or define ‘resilience’ even though it is becoming the new buzz word. Simply described, it is the ability to cope well with change. It can be applied to materials, ecosystems or entire planets, but here we are dealing with resilience in people, in communities and in cultures.

Resilience is a concept with depth, one that exists and develops through time, like loyalty and responsibility. It implies a knowledge of what is valuable, what must continue, where to strive to repair and regenerate, what should not be discarded.

Change can come in many forms. The fossil fuel bonanza of recent centuries has enabled people to become detached from each other and pursue their individual desires without reference to local resources or communities. As a consequence, these communities and resources are no longer available to support us through the next major change as this cheap and abundant – but not renewable – fuel begins to run out.

‘Peak oil’ is the term used to describe the point where new fossil fuel discoveries no longer compensate for the steadily decreasing production of existing oil fields and coal mines. It does not mean the end of fossil fuel. There is still time to adapt to a sustainable lifestyle, a change which will be driven by the increasing cost of energy as this source becomes more scarce.

Resilience and sustainability are closely linked. As an unsustainable practice is doomed to eventual failure, it is not a resilient practice either. Sustainability tends to start at the luxury end of the market and work downwards while resilience focusses on need and works upwards.

Sustainability asks “could you involve less air miles when choosing which food to buy?”

Resilience asks less comfortable questions such as “how much food can you access within walking distance of your home?”

Think about that last question. In what circumstances would it become important? Is your local food supply enough to sustain you and the people in your area? For how long?

You fill up your car, you drive to the supermarket, you buy food. The whole process takes hours at most. Growing food takes months, requires land, needs work. Waiting until a global situation outside your control disrupts the fragile transport network upon which we depend will be too late.

Our lifestyle is far from resilient and we need to act now to correct this. We must take control of the process of change and turn it to our advantage.

The Hemp Twine Project – Part One

One of my planned projects involves encouraging the sale of hemp twine to promote the local economy in Somerset. Everyone needs string. Hemp was once a major crop here, supplying huge quantities of rope for the Bristol shipping trade.

You can still see some of the long sheds where the ropes used to be twisted together from fibres.

Accordingly, after my summer adventures in the field, I set about ordering some hemp twine. Reluctant to create yet another customer profile for a possible single purchase, I called my chosen supplier and spoke to a friendly chap from the north of England.

I deplored the price of hemp twine, given the ease and low cost of hemp cultivation. He told me the sad tale of the decline of the natural fibre rope making industry faced with competition from oil based plastics. The hemp I was buying came from Egypt. Could I believe that unscrupulous sellers even tried to pass off jute fibre as hemp?

Uncomfortably aware that, although my grandfather would certainly have known the difference, I could be thus hoodwinked all day long, I moved the subject to purse nets. The hemp twine – the largest and cheapest reel I had found – was destined to make and repair these nets, commonly used for catching rabbits.

Alas, there was a sad story there too. Modern lads take no care of their hunting gear, but are content to stuff wet and muddy nets into a plastic sack at the end of a day. Left in this condition, even the spectacular ability of hemp to resist rot is overcome. Cheap imported plastic nets, however, can be abused endlessly.

Lads – do you realise that your careless lazy habits are having this impact? Take a minute or ten just to rinse out your nets and hang them up to dry before opening that can and slumping in front of the TV! Buy hemp purse nets or better still have some pride in your craft and make your own. There are instructions on the internet.

Hemp can and should be widely grown in this country. As well as fibre to replace imported oil based plastics, it yields nutritious seeds ideal for livestock feed. All it lacks is a market. Hundreds of new jobs could be created.

See how it’s all connected?

Start paying attention.