Earth Hour is an annual event which celebrates a global network committed to creating a sustainable world. It’s organised by the World Wildlife Fund, and began as a ‘lights out’ event in Sydney, Australia in 2007.
The idea is for people, organisations and businesses to turn off all non-essential lights, and other electrical devices, for one hour. The hour begins at 8.30pm local time, so the effect ripples around the world. City landmarks, such as the Eiffel Tower and the Shard, participate now, as well as millions of individuals.
Some people organise whole events around the occasion, and one such is Earth Hour Chard where I was booked to talk about Resilience. Their first event had been a magnificent street fair, betrayed by a bitterly cold March wind. They’d hired the Guildhall this time, for a whole day’s programme of activities supported by a cafe, bar and numerous stalls.
I arrived early; the kids’ activities were in full swing. Everyone was busy, so after I unloaded and parked, I took a walk to the museum.
In a county of farming communities, Chard always stood out as a factory town. The textile industry was important, particularly machine made lace for net curtains and clothing. As outlined in the Resilience Handbook, the presence of machinery in the area encouraged a support network of craftspeople. These skills were then available to inventors.
It was in Chard, in 1848, that John Stringfellow’s Aerial Steam Carriage first showed that engine powered flight was possible. Other major advances credited to the town include the development of articulated artificial limbs and of X-ray photography. Today, it’s the home of the Henry vacuum cleaner.
I strolled down Fore Street, admiring the remaining old countryside architecture, the thatched houses and diamond pane windows, arriving back in time for the judging of the colouring in competition. I hastened over to the Phoenix Hotel; the talks were being held there while the Guildhall was set up for the evening event.
I’d decided to create a new talk, outlining how the Resilience Project came into being through a fusion of Transition’s Energy Descent Action Plan and local emergency planning, with decades of experience in living off-grid thrown in. Jason Hawkes covered ecological footprints and housing; Kate Handley talked on local food.
We packed up in time for the music; a selection of bands often seen at off-grid festivals, compèred by Tracey West, publisher extraordinaire. Simon West manned their Word Forest Organisation stall on the top floor, where the poetry slam was going on.
It was a very entertaining evening, networking and enjoying quality performances. We didn’t turn off the lights in the venue for Earth Hour – a health and safety issue – but at least the people attending had turned theirs off!
Although Chard is poorly served by public transport, it’s worth a visit. I found some charming hotels with reasonable prices, though in the event I stayed with one of the organisers. Check for parking, as this may be a local issue.
Sadly, the nearby Wildlife park at Cricket St Thomas has closed and is now on the Heritage at Risk register.
The Somerset Levels are flat, and barely above sea level. Most of the land is drained now, to form cattle pastures, but it used to be a mix of swamp, wet woodland and bog. The value of the latter is now becoming appreciated for its role in flood control. Towntree Farm is decades ahead of the game!
In the 1970s, farmer Chris Burnett began a visionary landscaping project on the family farm. Starting small, with a pond outside the farmhouse, he used the spoil to form a lawn, then landscaped a neighbouring field in a similar fashion.
The left over soil made pathways this time, and the pond soon attracted a breeding pair of swans. Encouraged by this, Chris dug out a seven and a half acre pond, specially designed for water birds. It’s quite shallow, which allows a good growth of reeds.
He planted the new high ground with trees and plants, both wild and cultivated. Once these became established, hundreds of migratory birds began to visit, and he has hopes of attracting a pair of cranes soon.
In 1987, ‘Capability’ Chris – as he had become known – was persuaded to open the 22 acre Nature Garden to the public. He celebrated this by making a ‘Peace Arch’ at the entrance from the car park, which is covered with climbing roses in summer.
Following the yellow arrows, the curious visitor traverses the winding paths. It’s not just the peaceful atmosphere and nature that bring people here, though. The trail is dotted with statues and sculptures, left to gradually merge with the wild.
As the path meanders, bordered by ditches, you can see inaccessible alcoves. Further on, the twists and turns suddenly bring you out into that very clearing!
There are benches made of stone slabs, or of dozens of horseshoes welded together.
I don’t know what the huge dead flowers behind this chair are; I’ll have to return later in the year and see them growing. Their leaves are the size of umbrellas!
The decaying greenhouse lends an apocalyptic air to the place, along with the greening statues.
I’m definitely coming back in the summer for a picnic in those shady groves! If you’d like to visit Towntree Farm, and marvel at how much difference one man can make, there are instructions here.
Compared to a grass pasture of the same size, the Nature Garden clearly holds a lot more water. This is restrained by the natural features re-created here, protecting land further downstream during times of flood.
The Towntree Farm project has always been a hobby, laid out simply for the delight in nature. Using permaculture and forest gardening principles, other such gardens could justify their existence with some financial return.
We left the Grand Dynasty Culture Hotel and drove through the choking smog of the morning rush hour to Xi’an airport. We had a lot of turbulence on the flight to Beijing, but landed safely and were whisked off for more sightseeing.
It was much colder here; the ‘maybe later’ marketeers sold fur-lined Mao hats and warm gloves. Tired from the flight, it was difficult to properly appreciate the beautiful Summer Palace.
The Dragon Boats were moored for the winter; in the summer season, these rowed out on the lake. Once, the entire court used to sail between the Palace and the Forbidden City.
Although our own camera batteries were nearly done, we did feature in a lot of photos. Despite the crowds, there were very few Westerners here, and we were a centre of covert attention every time we stopped.
We crossed the Palace grounds at a brisk walk from East Gate to North Gate along painted cloisters (restored after the Opium Wars of 1860) used by the Empress Cixi. She was the widow of the Emperor, and ruled for 48 years until her death in 1906 at the age of 73. Her son predeceased her.
The sun set behind hills on our way to the hotel. Autumn had been and gone here, the leaves already fallen; it seems quite abrupt.
We were in a Mercure hotel, out on the fifth ring road of seven. Security was high; there was great confusion in the lifts before everyone realised you had to swipe your room card before you could select a floor!
The next day was to be a long trip to the Great Wall, which was apparently even colder than the city. Linda needed a hat and gloves; we were both out of camera batteries. There was rumoured to be a supermarket just opposite the hotel; we were highly motivated to go out and look for it.
Careful to pick up a ‘please take me home’ card from the hotel reception, and take a photo of the entrance, we set off. There was nothing but a large empty courtyard behind the buildings directly opposite; we headed for the road and turned left, away from the hotel.
Most of the high rise surrounding us were decorated with coloured lights, so it was quite easy to identify landmarks. At the next intersection, we risked another perilous crossing – you have to watch out for cars turning into your road, even when pedestrian lights show green. The cycles and scooters are in a world of their own when it comes to traffic control, but they travel quite slowly.
Spotting a Pizza Hut in the distance, we made for that, and found a large shopping mall tucked away behind it. Our quest for a cheap hat led us deep inside, past the designer outlets, right to the far end. Here, we found a Carrefour sign and an escalator down to the strangest supermarket I’ve ever seen!
Camera batteries and gloves secured, we turned our attention to food. The mystery vegetables served at dinner were displayed in heaps; so much fresh meat was out that it was a wonder what they did with it at closing time. Bread and a profusion of little cakes were supplied by an in-store bakery; there was a selection of chocolate and biscuits, some of which were actually familiar.
Back at the hotel bar, we heard the tales from our fellow adventurers. Some people had found the supermarket; many had missed it and found other places; nobody got entirely lost!
In China, the culture is to buy rather than rent. A boy’s family must be able to purchase a property and pay for the wedding, or no girl will marry him. The families like to plant trees for their children in order to make furniture for their new home. Although Ikea is an important source, one or two pieces should be traditionally crafted to ensure a long marriage.
The relaxation of the one-child policy, dating from 1979, allows only children to have a second child without the usual massive fine. This is to help with elderly care, though youngsters employed by private companies are reluctant to take it up as they fear losing their jobs. Generally both parents must work, but childcare and schools are good.
We’d turned down the morning call, so we slept in till 7 am, missing the 6.30 Tai Chi class again. After a hasty breakfast, we were in the lobby by 7.45 ready for the inclusive trip up the Shen Nong Stream.
We sailed up this tributary in a smaller ship, passing through amazing wooded gorges with caves and the strange hanging coffins. These were usually carved from a single log and placed in caves or crevices in the cliff faces. They date back to the Stone Age and no-one knows why or how the people did this; it would have been a very difficult task.
Other cultural artefacts and lifestyles are submerged now the Three Gorges Dam has raised the water level here by 90 metres. Our tributary was once a fast mountain stream, hurtling over rocky rapids. Now it’s much deeper and slower, but the banks are still teeming with invisible wild life. Panda (cotton) bamboo grows there, but the panda range is now further south. Huge swallow nests hung from cave roofs; when the boat engine quietened, we could hear other birds singing. Once we saw a small flock in the treetops, but mainly they kept out of sight.
We pulled in at a jetty and transferred to small wooden boats. A man on the bank demonstrated how these boats used to be towed upstream when the river level was lower. The boatman sang us a traditional song from his drowned culture. Then we encouraged them to race the other boats, singing them sea shanties till we came in first!
Back on the ship I had to fix my camera – it turned out that the White Elephant batteries we’d bought locally could run out rather abruptly with no warning – so I was late down for lunch. I had to take dessert up to the coffee lounge to admire the Wu and Qutang Gorges as we passed through them. There was a standing stone sacred to the Goddess at the entrance, and dragons in the hills.
After this, we moored for the White Emperor City tour (optional extra, well worth it). We teamed up with the Bavarians (also here on an RSD tour) to make up numbers, and had a very knowledgeable and well educated young Chinese lady as our guide.
Running the gauntlet of the ‘maybe later’ market, we discovered that each stop had a different speciality, probably for the internal tourist trade. We were swiftly guided past the water gate, a Post Office kiosk and statues of famous poets.
We cut through a large indoor market full of exotic foodstuffs. I longed to try some of the huge range of dried mushrooms or take some of the exotic nuts home to identify them, but of course it was impossible. There are severe restrictions on casually transporting vegetable matter across continents, in case they harbour insect pests which can devastate crops. Finally, we crossed a long bridge, chilled by a stiff breeze, and into the White Emperor City.
Researching these tours had warned me of over 700 steps to climb; the information was out of date, as the inundation had reduced these to 346. The sedans, bamboo chair litters, were still available to hire for the climb; they now cost 100 yuan rather than 10 yuan. We didn’t use them.
‘You don’t mind a walk,’ suggested our guide firmly.
The first sixty stairs brought us to Loyalty Square, celebrating Zhuge Liang, a prime minister of old renowned for his honesty and wise counsel. There was a stupendous view of the ‘Entrance to the Three Gorges’, a very strategic site in ancient times. A huge rock there, an ancient landmark, had to be blown up after the first of the three inundation stages; submerged, it would have been a shipping hazard.
We climbed many more steps to the summit, passing an archery range. Visitors shot arrows at straw men to celebrate ‘Taking arrows from the enemy using straw men’. This was a famous strategy of Zhuge Liang, as featured in the film ‘Red Cliff’.
On the far side of the ornate painted gate at the top of the stairs was a huge dragon statue. The founder of the city, Gongsun Shu (or someone else), saw a white dragon rising from a well (or in the form of a cloud). The white dragon was considered a good omen for founding a city there anyway, and it remained untouched during the warlike period which followed.
Inside the buildings was a large tableau, with very expressive figures, depicting the story of ‘Handing over the Orphans’ where Liu Bei (a hero of ‘Red Cliff’) calls Zhuge Liang out of retirement to look after his two young sons.
This ancient city is also famous for poetry, though the displays were being packed away for the evening. Our guide managed to show us how bamboo, pomegranate and plum were often used to decorate scrolls. Their survival over winter made these plants symbols of endurance.
We also learned that the purpose of the high thresholds – which we’d assumed were some sort of flood control – was to keep zombies out! The walking dead in China can’t bend their knees.
In addition, you had to bow your head as you entered a room, to watch your step, so automatically kowtowed. It was important to step right over and not set foot on the lip of the threshold.
Returning down a different set of steps as the light began to fade, we passed through the closing market, and the evening street food vendors just setting up, to the ship.
The whole point of an adventure is that you don’t know what will happen. However, you rather hope it will be enjoyable, so it’s worth doing some research before you go.
Use the Resources section of the Resilience Wheel as the framework for a check list of things you really ought to know. It’d look something like this:-
Energy – do I need an adapter to use the local electricity?
Food – what food hygiene advice is there? Is there anything I shouldn’t eat? Will I encounter problems with my food allergies?
Water – can I drink the tap water? If not, why not? Does it just taste salty, as in Malta, or should I avoid getting any in my mouth while showering, as in China?
Housing – look at reviews for the places you plan to stay
Transport – use Google maps to check out your route, check Trip Advisor for reviews
Waste – do I need to be prepared for squat toilets? (yes, in China! Although there were one or two pedestal toilets available at all our stops, there was a longer queue for these)
Communication – can I make or receive calls from home? Use the internet? (download WeChat to your phone before you leave; you can then message people outside China who also have this app. Google, Facebook and Twitter are all unavailable there at the time of writing)
Environment – what hazards might I encounter? Should I get vaccinations, bring special equipment?
Clothing – what sort of weather can I expect? (If you need heavy clothes, bring your second best, then you can sacrifice then at the end of the trip to make flight space for souvenirs)
No matter how much I prepare for an adventure, there’s always more to learn about the places I’ve been. I enjoy reading up about them back at home; my colleague and I have developed a taste for Chinese films and dramas, especially historical ones unfolding against the landscapes we just travelled through!
Things haven’t felt as hectic as they’ve clearly been, for here is the evidence in my long gap between posts!
I joined the local parish council to work on the Emergency Plan for the area. While exploring emergency routes on my bicycle, I found this milk vending machine at a farm gate!
My fridge broke, I replaced it from a local independent store where there are people who can fix it if it goes wrong. Score a ten in the Resilience Assessment!
I celebrated by freezing some of my home made elderflower cordial – diluted – into ice cubes with flower petals and mint leaves.
It’s still all about food and growing. Someone dropped out of the Resilience Allotment project, so we lost a third of our growing area. Maybe it was too much to manage, as the new hedge in the field needs a lot of attention.
We’re continuing with the cardboard mulch, which is working well so far. The perennial weeds can’t get through it easily; eventually the trees will shade them out. Note the edges of the holes around the saplings are pushed downwards, to channel water to their roots.
‘Recipes for Resilience’ occupies a lot of my desk time. I’m working my way through the final selection of recipes. Some recipes I’ve never tried before, but they illustrate important techniques in preserving, which you may need come the Zombie Apocalypse or even a few months of international trade disruption.
I thought I’d try dehydrating strawberries. The internet confidently assured me that, on a low oven, this process could be accomplished in two hours, after which you could powder them into a jar.
It was a chilly summer evening, so I decided to do this instead of turning the heating on. I set my cooker, which runs on bottled gas, on to less than gas mark 1, propped the door slightly open and put the strawberries in.
The greaseproof paper was crucial, as they leaked puddles of juice, which then began to scorch. I moved them on to a clean piece twice, which was tricky as they were very soggy at this stage.
After four hours, I had not very much of something which looked like it might keep for a few weeks, but certainly couldn’t be powdered. All those strawberries came down to one large tablespoonful.
Although the dried fruit was chewy rather than crunchy, the taste was quite intense. It was more like a fruit leather than something dehydrated.
It’s not usual to make fruit leathers out of summer fruits – you wouldn’t want to have the oven on all day when these are in season. If you were getting some of your electricity from solar power, though, it would pay to buy a dehydrator. You could preserve your strawberries free of both cost and sugar!
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.
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
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!
So…Britain voted to leave the European Union, and what sore losers the Remainers are turning out to be. Despite claiming the compassion corner, the vitriolic hate spewing out from many would do credit to any xenophobe.
In the countryside people are still stunned that their concerns have finally been noticed by city folk. They shouldn’t relax. Already there is talk of ‘not really leaving’ and murmurs of ‘punishing the rebels’.
While this acrimonious debate rages, we’re all still buying food, clothes and gadgets. It’s never been so important to target your spending at British products. Money spent in the country stays in the country and enriches it. Our economy needs that boost from ground level right now.
If you shop in a supermarket, take a little longer and read labels. Find out what we actually make here. Try going for ingredients rather than ready-meals of dubious provenance. Spend a few pence extra to buy local vegetables, meat and dairy. The country of origin is on all packaging.
So is the name of the supplier. When you get home, go online and check out the firms which make your favourite foods. Can you buy a similar product made in Britain? What about clothes? Gadgets and services? Every little helps, they say, and it does.
Seventeen million people voted to leave the EU. If each of them made the effort to spend an extra £10 with locally owned businesses this week, it would add up to well over 2% of the entire weekly turnover of the retail sector. Joined by remainers and non-voters, just a tenner a week each adds up to 6% of this turnover – close on £500 million.
It wasn’t just the European Union who encouraged multinationals to mop up small independent businesses. Your consumer choices also helped shape this situation, and they can act to change it.
Take back your power – bring in strategic spending!
This link takes you straight to me at my desk, where I sign the book and send it off. All the money goes straight into my account to be spent in local shops. If you prefer familiar labels, you can buy it at Amazon, where I eventually get some kind of pittance. Your choices certainly matter to me!
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!
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.
Today most people in Britain live in cities, in an environment constructed by other people, surrounded by things made by people.
It’s easy to become detached from the underlying reality, to feel that complaining about something on social media is radical problem solving behaviour. That if things aren’t going your way, somewhere there is another human being who is responsible for this, who needs to be goaded into doing something about it.
There is. It’s you.
The modern world is so vast and complex that it defies understanding and control. The authority figures you set up and love to hate have no more idea how to cope than you do. Often their core skill is in clawing their way to the pole position in a group.
You put them there.
By abdicating your continuing responsibility to participate in this understanding and control, you keep them there. Struggling to satisfy the needs of millions, while fending off predatory interests from outside. Nobody can succeed in this role.
Their only hope is to simplify everything. Let food be produced by huge farming industries, processed by a single firm, distributed through a vast network owned by one person. Then all the people they need to talk to can meet in one room. There is the comforting illusion of being in control of the situation.
If you’re happy to be painted grey, to fit in a box, to be collateral damage in someone else’s movie, then that’s fine. That’s where it’s all going; just keep calm and carry on.
Or start paying attention.
You can deplore the effect of supermarkets on the local economy – did you vigourously oppose their planning applications? – but are you still using them? Convenience is a word with a lot to answer for. Go exploring for alternatives. Make food an adventure!
When a chain store closes, is your community poised to replace it with a locally owned co-operative? Would people spend their money there to keep it going, to keep wealth in the area? If not, why the hell not?
It’s difficult and complicated to work this out. Food is only one of the factors you need to consider when reclaiming your responsibility. I wrote the Resilience Handbook to show you how to make a really good beginning to this process. It’s packed with information which you can research in more depth – almost every paragraph unfolds into a whole article, a speech, a coherent argument. The key feature though is the call to action, gaining the practical knowledge you need to develop by doing things.