Tag Archives: Environment

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.

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Some tips to reduce mould in your house

In the interests of networking, an important part of resilience, I keep in touch with Green Wedmore. This is an active and effective community group out on the Levels. When I discovered they were involved with a plan to conduct an energy survey of the area, I was keen to join in. I’d qualified as an energy assessor some years ago, but the project which sponsored me fell through before I got any practical experience.

Last Saturday, we had an Energy Essentials Training day, presented by the lovely Lisa Evans of the Centre for Sustainable Energy in Bristol. Although I found a lot of the material familiar, it reminded me how important this information is to people.

Cold and damp are bad enough, but it’s the resulting mould that’s really unpleasant. It looks awful, stains clothes and ruins furniture. The spores of black mould can cause health problems; even touching it can provoke an allergic reaction.

Sometimes it’s not enough to wrap up warm. My daughter and her friends, in their new basement flat by the river, were faced with electric storage heaters. Not certain how they worked, and alarmed at the cost, they didn’t use them. Well insulated, the flat wasn’t particularly cold, but by December their walls and furniture were covered in mould!

black mould

You can search online for instructions if your new home has an unfamiliar heating system. If you’ve got a problem with damp, here’s a few tips…

If you have an empty room which you’re not heating, keep the door closed. Steam from the bathroom and kitchen doesn’t stay there, but wanders through the house looking for a cold surface to condense on. Move the furniture away from outside walls, and check behind it regularly. Narrow gaps and poor air circulation encourage mould; open the windows on sunny winter days.

After a shower, close the bathroom door and open a window, if you have one; let the water vapour escape. Otherwise, use extractor fans. They’re usually under 30 watts, so cheap to run. Make sure your tumble drier is vented to the outside.

Do you have a loft? If you go into the roof space, having found out about safety precautions first, there’s often a gap where the end of the roof meets the floor. Sometimes you can even see daylight through it. This gap is crucial to the overall ventilation of many houses. If it’s blocked by insulating material, you may get a problem with damp.

There’s lots more useful advice on the internet. Don’t just live with a dangerous condition like damp; do some research and find out what you can do about it!

People used to interact with their homes far more than many do today. Learn about yours – where does the power comes from, where does the water go? What’s your score in the Housing section of the Resilience Handbook? Which action should you do next?

Remember the free assessment PDF can be found at the end of the Learning Resilience page on this site.

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

Growing for Resilience

Now that the children have left for university and city life, the simplicity of the resilience kitchen shows through. I’ve been exploring this concept in depth recently, researching for my next book.

I’m exploring food resilience in a rapidly urbanising area. If the global food transport network became subject to frequent disruption, you might have to live on stored food supplemented by what you could grow within walking distance. Local farmers and growers would become an important part of your landscape again, in between the arrivals of imported foods at the declining supermarkets.

The erratic income of an author is well suited to such experiments. My colleague, Linda Benfield, and I acquired an allotment this year, in addition to our gardens. With the extra land, we’re quite well off for fresh vegetables now. Next season, we plan to grow wheat and tobacco!

We’re not small holders. We depend on local farms – we still have a few – for milk, eggs and meat. Potatoes, grains, sugar and spices come from the food co-operative; other supplies from the cash and carry. We can’t provide everything for our households from two gardens and an allotment, but we’re learning what else we need. A lifestyle more in tune with the unfolding seasons, more importance given to locally based food suppliers, more gardeners!

We’re resilience gardeners, cultivating survival skills, and every little helps!

potatos-in-tyre1

Buy the Resilience Handbook and support this project! Overseas customers will need to contact me directly, or buy through their local Amazon (sorry, it won’t be signed). Please let me know if you do, and leave a review if you enjoyed the book.

Happy Resilient New Year!

Resilience in Iceland

My trip to Iceland was a journey through the island’s past. I was well acquainted with the Sagas, set in the period just after Settlement, from about 900 to 1050 AD, which described a prosperous landscape. I knew that deforestation quickly became a problem and Icelanders avoided the fate of their relatives in Greenland by a very small margin.*

One of my first stops was the Settlement Exhibition in Reykjavik. This museum has been built over an excavated longhouse from the Saga days. Its inhabitants enjoyed Iron Age luxury in their spacious ‘hvoll’ surrounded by natural abundance.

Following the prosperity of the early days came the Little Ice Age which began in the 1300s and lasted nearly six centuries. The trees cut for firewood, building and smelting iron didn’t grow back. The topsoil was lost and barley cultivation ceased. The fjords filled with ice; the fishing boats rotted on the strand with no wood for repairs.

There wasn’t even enough firewood to boil seawater for salt, essential for preserving food through the long winters. Luckily cows were able to survive, presumably living on seaweed and lichens like the people, and there was plenty of whey left over from butter making. The Icelanders expanded traditional techniques of preserving meat in lactic acid.

There was no clay for making pots, no iron to repair pans. People used the volcanic springs to steam food wrapped in cloth, dug pits in hot sand. Icelandic cuisine became desperately inventive.

The climate change was compounded by hostile political conditions and by the Black Death in 1402. The population fell from 60,000 to 20,000. Then there was the Skaftáreldar eruption in 1783, which poisoned large areas of grassland.

As Europe began to prosper again, there was a market for the fine woollen goods from Iceland – the sheep had survived too, and just as well as there were no fibre crops for cloth or ropes. Finally permitted to prosper from their own trade, the Icelanders invested in boats. Their fishing fleet was revived; technology trickled in from the Industrial Revolution.

Then electricity was invented! Icelanders swiftly caught on to the potential of renewable and volcanic energies. Huge greenhouses now provide all the vegetables they need for domestic consumption, and extensive reforestation is progressing. Recycling is taken seriously. So is trashing the countryside with off road vehicles.

You’ll find a great respect for the land among Icelanders. It nearly killed them. If you visit this paragon of resilience, don’t pretend you know what you’re doing. Hire locals to show you around, especially in winter!

 

*There’s a poignant description of the fate of one group of Greenland Vikings in ‘Collapse’ by Jared Diamond.  This is one of the recommended books in the Resilience Handbook…reading is a good activity in the winter!

There’s still time to order a signed copy of the Resilience Handbook before Xmas – email me after you’ve placed your order if you want it signed to another name!

October Diary 2016

It’s about time for another diary post, since it’s been a busy week here in Somerset.

Thursday was the Community Food Forum, an annual event organised by Feed Avalon. Around forty people gathered this year – its third – to network and exchange ideas. It was great to see projects like Plotgate, a community supported agriculture venture near Barton St David, developing from their initial fund raising to a successful business!

There seems to be a steady increase of interest in growing food, with new sectors engaging every year. This time there were people who work with mental health, where its therapeutic benefits are being recognised.

Saturday saw the Glastonbury Town Council hold a public consultation on possible uses for a splendid old building they have just acquired for the community. It would be ideal for a practical crafts centre; I’d like to see that combined with an ‘eco-college’ like Dartington Hall in Devon. We could explore local materials for textiles and ceramics – Somerset having a lot of wool and clay.

edible flower baskets in Glastonbury
edible flower baskets in Glastonbury

In the evening, I went to the energy evening hosted by Green Wedmore. The purpose of the presentation and following debate was to explore future energy options for the local area. The range of these on the table was impressive. Not only solar, wind and hydropower, but also biomass from the surrounding RSPB nature reserves and anaerobic digestion using farm waste.

Vince Cable, former business secretary, gave the introduction and Pete Capener from Bath and West Community Energy provided an inspiring talk on how the renewables industry is adapting to a hostile government. I chatted to a long-serving member of the parish council, who’d recently had an impressive 16Kw array installed on the roofs of her farm buildings – using panels built in Wrexham. We snacked on excellent smoked trout vol au vents from the nearby aqua farm. The people of Wedmore intend to take quality with them into their sustainable future!

Someone had brought a particularly backward article just published in the Times. After spending much of the last forty years off grid, I view people who harp on about ‘the lights going out’ with the same astonishment as I’d view a flat-earther. Lights are easy. Washing machines, even freezers, are well within the scope of a modern personal renewables system without mains backup.

Tumble driers now, you could have a point.  It’s not such a rousing battle cry though – ‘without nuclear power, you might have to actually hang your clothes out to dry!’

Meanwhile, the smart consumer is considering the benefits of making their own electricity…..

solar power regulator

The best way to start this process is by looking at the devices you use already, and finding out how much electricity they use.  In the Energy chapter of the Resilience Handbook, task eight asks ‘can you calculate how much of your home could run on a supply of 2 kilowatts?’  This level of supply is not only possible with a personal solar array, but designed to use a small ‘suitcase’ generator as emergency backup. ( More power requires a larger, noisier generator.)

Once you know the answer to this question, you’ve got a much better idea what local energy can do for you – it’s more resilient than a centralised power supply!

For more information about food and energy resilience, read ‘The Resilience Handbook – How to survive in the 21st century’

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.

‘What do you see as the other main threats to our current way of life?’

I had to prepare for a radio interview about the Resilience Handbook. The presenter gave me an outline of the questions he’d like to ask.

‘How worried are you about the way Britain is largely dependent on other countries for our food and fuel?

Very worried. It was one of the main driving factors in going to all the trouble of writing a book to explain what to do about it.

‘What do you see as the other main threats to our current way of life?’

Well, where does one start? Pandemics, economic instability, pollution…. all very threatening, but not quite what I was searching for. We already have the technology, the intelligence to climb out of this hole and start creating a better way of life, resilient against these and other threats. We’re just not doing it. Then I realised.

Our main threat is apathy.

Environmentalists argue with politicians, scientists with religious leaders, and year after year nothing is done. The endless economic growth promised seems to have turned cancerous. Resource wars are flaring up.

However serious the situation is, however impossible a solution seems, we arrived here slowly, one piece of shopping at a time. We need to take back our power and make new choices. While we still have access to fossil fuel energy, we can use it to rebuild a resilient culture. There’s no time to lose.

Even within a busy lifestyle, there’s room for these choices. You slump exhausted before the TV after a long day’s work. You make tea. Where did the milk come from? Can you have it delivered? Buy it from a corner shop? Explore the options. Just with the milk.

If you could buy milk direct from a local farm, in glass bottles, even that one tiny choice adds to the resilience of your area. More money stays in the local economy. Less plastic waste is created. If everyone in Somerset recycled just one more plastic bottle a week (that is, in many cases, recycle from the bathroom too), in one year it would save energy equivalent to one quarter of the output of the proposed Hinkley C nuclear reactor. How much more is saved by not buying the plastic in the first place!

the resilience wheel

Read the Resilience Handbook and find out how everyone can do their bit for community resilience, from organising an off grid power supply to helping out in a litter pick. Learn to change your own lifestyle for one less energy hungry and more relaxed. Pay more attention to your food – you are what you eat. Go on adventures. Become resilient.

One person can make all the difference.

Malta – Transport and Trees

We thought we had come well prepared for the challenge of hiring a car in a strange country after arriving late at night. We’d printed out a full list of Google directions to the hotel at the far end of Malta. Luckily my colleague, Linda Benfield, had also bought a map at Bristol Airport.  It was a very valuable last minute purchase!

The directions relied on street names. We found one later, sixteen feet up a wall in inch high letters, some of which were missing. Navigation was a challenge even with the Marco Polo map. Signage seemed optional, the names of towns changed as you got nearer and EU funding had inspired a proliferation of new roundabouts. There was even an extra tunnel to the ones depicted!

Hedgehog sign
Beware of the hedgehogs!

Being resilient, we had a torch to do map reading with, and made it to the hotel. The ‘Riviera’ sign lights up blue at night and is something of a landmark as you drive the the hairpin bends of Marfa Ridge. There was no need to worry about Reception closing, as a coach full of German tourists had just arrived.

Discovering it only took ten minutes to go from really close to our sought after destination in central Mdina, to being confused on Route One at the northern edge of the island was a revelation, and explained why we spent the first few days visiting sites at random as we stumbled across them. We were simply expecting too much distance.

Malta is a small island with a long history. Everyone knows their way around. If you’re able-bodied, there’s an excellent bus service – without, alas, the iconic yellow buses, which were stood down in 2011. Walking is a good option too. Some of the important Neolithic sites can only be accessed on foot. Remember the summer sun can be merciless in this open landscape; take water and a hat.

Land here has been cultivated for centuries and deforestation is a problem. On their arrival in 1529, the Knights of St John – soon to be the Knights of Malta – reported ‘an island without trees.’

Rural landscapes are divided into tiny vegetable plots, there is neither space nor water for many large trees. Although it was only 20 C in January, the impact of the summer heat was baked into the very stones.

The contrast with Buskett Forest Gardens was startling. Here, we found open water, running streams, cool and damp air. This reforestation project dates back to its use as a hunting preserve by the Knights in the 1600s. It’s now a Natura 2000 site. Native tree species from Malta’s once extensive forests support a variety of rare wildlife, including many migratory birds.

Buskett Forest Gardens, Malta 2016
Open water in the forest

On Sundays, as we discovered, many Maltese families come here for picnics, and the car park becomes very full. We were hoping to find the famous cart tracks and caves, which were surely just at the top of that hill, but couldn’t find the way. Perhaps it was signposted from the other side of the plateau. I recommend hiring a guide!

 

 

 

Adventures on the Resilience Trail

There was so much going on at the Food Sovereignty Gathering, that there was little time for me to explore the Hebden Bridge area properly. I’d taken a chance mentioning it in the Resilience Handbook (p86) on reputation alone, and wasn’t disappointed.

The Archimedes screw at Hebdon Bridge Mill
The Archimedes screw at Hebdon Bridge

The movement itself turned out to be too concerned with international affairs to really connect with the firmly local criteria of resilience. I met some interesting people and had many productive discussions however.

In among the demanding schedule were visits to the key features I wanted to see: the Incredible Farm and the Aquagarden in Todmorden, of which more another time.

aquagarden at Todmorden and Incredible Farm

The Gathering was quite tiring and I needed Tuesday to unwind. Our hostel, being on the Pennine Way, had a great interest in rambling, with a collection of useful maps.

I explored the Hebdon Bridge Loop of the Pennine Way in the company of Helena Paul (author of ‘Hungry Corporations‘). It was an eerie, misty day but the trail was well marked and we wandered up and down the landscape, often on paved ways which must have taken a lot of work.

 

sylvia plath grave at heptonstall

We called at Sylvia Plath Hughes‘ grave in Heptonstall; a place of pilgrimage for her admirers, who are accustomed to leave pens as gifts. It turned out to be the poetess’ birthday, and we learned the history of the site from a fellow author there. Nibbling on Himalyan Balsam seeds, we followed the maze of paths, challenging bullocks for right of way, pausing by the washing pools to look for dippers, and back along the river with its decaying industrial remains.

 

 

 

Off the next day through the nightmare of Manchester outer ring road, a four lane dual highway crawling along in second gear amid a fume of exhausts. This country overcrowded? You bet. The Peak District looks like a rock in a crusher. Arrived with relief at the Anglesey Outdoors hostel with its early morning kayakers. Rather them than me in those waves!

I drove along the coast and visited Copper Mountain instead. The mining operation which reduced this hill to a pile of toxic rubble ceased 150 years ago. All that grows in the sparse acid soil is heather, the only sound of life the occasional apocalyptic crow. It takes two hours to walk around the edge of this tortured landscape, among the rocks drenched with warped and twisted bands of colour, the heaps of pink scree.

copper mountain anglesey

Somewhere in the world this process is destroying another place of former natural beauty. The Internet – an enthusiastic user of copper – comes with a price.

Onwards and decidedly upwards along the west coast of Wales to the Centre for Alternative Technology. I’d been offline since Hebden, so failed to organise a meeting, but the Resilience Handbook I left was well received. I bought a ticket – valid for a whole year! – and explored this iconic establishment for the first time.

It has developed and expanded over the years to a full scale educational facility with over a hundred staff. The fascinating exhibits, set in a lovely natural landscape, cover the whole spectrum of resources from energy provision to waste disposal. I certainly need a return visit to take it all in!

centre for alternative technology fruit trees and solar panels

I spent the night at the Corris Hostel just down the road, where the hostel manager organised a cook out in the forested garden. The visiting party of young singers fom Liverpool were entranced, even abandoning their smartphones to fry sausages and toast marshmallows!

The final stage of my travels took me via Swansea,, to supply the nascent Resilience Project there with Handbooks, and so home to a welcome bath.

By using hostels and public transport, a single traveller can take an adventure break very cheaply. Families could pool transport and stay off season in a holiday camp. So it might rain? Adapt. Learn resilience.  Everybody needs adventures.