Monday, 1 September 2014

Ashby Castle and Resilience

It has been the summer holidays and we have had our share of nice days out. Last week I visited Ashby Castle with my youngest daughter and her friends. You may be able to make them out at the top of the tower.

Ashby Castle is an English Heritage site. It is basically a ruin, but what remains is immensely fun for kids. There are the grassy slopes of a sunken garden and lake, which are great for rolling down or running around.

There are ruins with grand doorways and hidden stairways, brilliant for hide and seek or toy sword battles. The 6 storey tower with it's spiral staircase gives a grand view of the surrounding area too.

But absolutely the best feature is a secret underground passageway running from the base of the tower to the old kitchen cellars. It just gives an extra element of authenticity and fun to imaginative battle games to storm the castle.

Now some of the visitors will be wandering round with an audio guide, but we just spread out a picnic and let the kids imaginations run wild.

When my youngest daughter was about 2, we came with some friends - about 13 kids in total. The boys were all dressed up as knights and kings with swords and shields, and the younger girls as princesses. It was the most amazing day! It is such a shame that they have grown up.

This time was a much quieter affair and I sat looking at the walls of the tower. They are incredibly thick. The wall above is twice as thick as the doorway.

The tower was built in 1470 and designed to withstand attacks. The thick walls were a big investment of labour and resources, but the intention was to build something that was resilient and would last for generations. As it was, the tower was blown up in 1648, but it was so well built that the remaining half of the tower that you see above, has stood for another 360 years and could well last another 360 more.

I was sitting on a picnic blanket reading a section from Green Wizardry by John Michael Greer on 'Sustainability and Resilience'. His point was that efficiency is about getting the most from the least resources, whereas resilience is the opposite. Resilience is about having spare capacity or using extra resources to make things that are stronger, longer lasting, and can absorb shocks. In the case of Ashby Castle the time, energy and resources invested in those strong walls, was intended to protect the people inside and is the main reason that they are still standing for us to enjoy today.

Here is an example of some homes built in the last couple of years. To me they are so ugly. But they are very efficient. Look at the shape - they are almost square. This gives the biggest internal area for the smallest area of external walls. In other words it uses less bricks than a fancier shaped house. The ceilings inside are low to reduce unnecessary height and brickwork. And the roof has virtually no overhang to save on tiles, which would otherwise provide some shelter from rain to the brickwork and shade upper windows in hot weather. It is also a very shallow roof slope, again being efficient with materials, but not allowing for any deviation in the weather that could bring a heavy snowfall.

The buildings are 3 storeys high to minimise on the footprint, and in addition the garden is tiny, so being very efficient with land. Just in case you don't realise how short the garden is, I was walking along the path one day, when the occupant opened their back door and threw a burnt slice of toast over the back fence. Just a toast toss between backdoor and fence!

There was really no need to be so efficient with space in Loughborough. This is the edge of a small town, not a city centre, but then maybe it is better to squeeze all the ugly buildings in tightly so as not to spoil the view too much.

The council negotiated an 11 acre open park area as part of the development deal, which is great for me to walk my dog round, but it adjoins an existing park area of a similar size, and it is not widely known about. So these ugly houses have been built with virtually no space to grow their own food, dry their washing, or room for their kids play. Yet the open playing areas are too far from the houses and too empty of people to be safe from stranger danger, so it seems the kids stay at home instead.

There is no large lawn to mow for weekly exercise, or flowerbeds to attract bees and insects. No room for trees or ponds to encourage wildlife and back garden ecosystems. Yet the council, with their funds becoming tighter, now has the burden of an additional large open space with grass to cut, bins to empty and borders to maintain on a regular basis. There are no allotments in this ward either!

The really wasteful thing is that these houses probably won't be here at the turn of the next century, so it is a false sense of efficiency. It is not just because they seem flimsy compared to a large part of the UK's building stock which is built pre-1940. But because they are ugly, and who wants to maintain and care for an ugly house?

The homes below are cheap and cheerful houses from 100 years ago. Efficient terraced housing with small gardens. They were built to save space and be close to amenities, as people walked most places in those days. However the little attractive features, such as the decorative trim at the eaves, the curves around the windows and doors, and the symmetry all add to making them more appealing and helping them survive. The rooms have additional height to make them feel more spacious and the bay window makes them feel less 'square' and brings in more light. They may not have un underground tunnel, but were built with cellars.

It is funny because even the 1950's council houses were solid and built to last, and they provided a reasonable garden. During a time when the country had a large war debt to pay off we were building with some resilience. At some point since then resilience has gone out the window. There is clearly a lack of balance between 'lean manufacturing' efficiency (otherwise known as cheap and cheerful 'Noddy' homes) and a need to build in resilience so that homes are fit for the future.

Friday, 29 August 2014

Growing community

Look at these amazing plants. Do you know what they are?

Chickpeas. Having only ever seen them dried or out of a tin before I was amazed when my allotment neighbour showed me his row of chickpeas and generously gave me an armful of plants. I rushed home with them to show my kids, who were suitably impressed.

They grow a bit like peas and have soft furry pods with one or two chickpeas in them. The chickpeas are sweet like peas if eaten raw, but my neighbour told me to roast them in their pods in the oven for the best taste. Roasted they have a lovely nutty flavour and you can sit popping them as a healthy snack. We are definitely going to try growing these next year.

Now I may wish that I had a bigger garden, and I can see that travelling to the allotment is effort and can put people off. But I would never have learnt about chickpeas without being exposed to the diverse and experienced gardeners at the allotment. And there are so many other benefits too.

Look at these onions I was given by another generous neighbour.

And these delicious baby beetroot.

I have been so lucky to receive plants, vegetables and advice from so many of them. Even when I have nothing to pick of my own, I never seem to go home empty-handed.

My runner beans were a disaster this year. The first plants I set out were devoured by slugs, then only half the beans I sowed grew and the rest were devoured by slugs, and finally I planted some I had bought from a carboot sale, which looked rather pale and they really struggled to do anything. I don't understand it, as runner beans are so hardy and I had a glut of them in my garden last year. Still we haven't been without, as the other allotmenteers have kindly shared their glut of beans. There are definitely benefits to gardening in a community.

And I have also been foraging. The blackberries started ripening this year whilst it was still shorts weather. This is a bit of a problem as you end up with legs covered in scratches, but I have still managed to pick plenty for the freezer. There are still plenty out there to pick if you want to get some free.

During dog walks I have collected cobnuts or hazelnuts as they are more commonly known. You can pick them early while they are still pale, if the squirrels are likely to get them, and they will turn brown as they dry out. But best to leave them as late as you can. I am just starting to collect enough elderberries to make a large batch of cough and cold syrup in preparation for winter.

My plot has given me some delicious potatoes, including this pink heart shaped one!

The raspberries are in full swing now and need regular picking.

We have had our first sweetcorn and tomatoes. Below a jungle of leaves there are also some large pumpkins and at least 4 huge shark fin melons. I have never cooked these before so this should be interesting.... :-) I have also been given a recipe for the pumpkin leaves, which I never knew were edible.

At home we have had plenty of cucumber, including the round crystal lemon ones. There have been peas, French beans, courgettes, tomatoes and calabrese broccoli. Only one green courgette plant survived, along with a yellow one and a round one. Still they produce plenty. We went away for 6 days and came back to a fridge full of courgettes that my eldest son had picked and still more on the plants!

We have eaten lots of lovely fresh, colourful and tasty meals this summer, and I have even got my most fussiest eater to eat courgettes and green beans! But the best bit has got to be shopping! Looking at the produce in the supermarket and thinking " I don't need potatoes, or onions, or raspberries or broccoli......just carrots!

Friday, 15 August 2014

Energy Reduction not Energy Efficiency

Energy companies earn money by selling us energy. The more wasteful we are, the more profits they make. So why would the government give them such a big role in the energy efficiency and renewable programmes in the UK? The energy companies goals are not a reduction in energy consumption. They don't encourage energy reduction but just focus on selective 'energy efficiency' measures. That may sound like the same thing but it isn't.

If you replace your old boiler with a more efficient one, the new boiler may be 20% more efficient. This means it uses 20% less fuel to produce the same amount of heat. It may sound like this will lead to a 20% reduction in energy consumption and heating bills, but research has shown that some of that saving is used to make our homes warmer. In other words reducing our heating bills encourages us to use more heat so that we have a warmer more comfortable home. There may still be a reduction in the overall heating energy used, but it is unlikely to be the full 20% that one might hope for.

Replacing an old fridge for a more efficient fridge will reduce electricity consumption, so long as you don't opt for a larger fridge than the one you had before (or keep the old fridge running in the garage as a spare). Buying a more efficient telly, which is then double the size is another false saving. Research has proven that energy efficiency measures do not significantly reduce our energy consumption. It just makes it cheaper, allowing us to use more.

Even with renewable energy there isn't always the savings. People who have PV panels installed can sometimes feel that their electricity is free, so become less careful with their energy consumption. In the UK they generate a relatively small amount of electricity, and very little in winter when the days are short and overcast. Yet there are cases of people ripping out their gas heating boiler and replacing it for electric heating, thinking that free energy from the sun will be enough to heat their homes in winter. Lack of understanding of technology can be a major factor.
Of all the energy efficiency measures, insulating the walls and roof of your home have to come out as the most effective. They are simple as people can understand the logic of wrapping your home in a blanket to keep it warm, and it can be retrofitted to existing homes. The insulation can last for 40 years or more without need for maintenance, and it still works during a power cut. It doesn't require the owner to change their habits either, they still put the heating on when they feel cold and turn it off when they are warm enough.

There has been a lot of energy efficiency drives in the UK since the 1980's, so we really should have reduced our energy consumption significantly since then, right? The graph below shows "Total primary energy consumption, unadjusted and temperature corrected, UK (1970 to 2013)" and is taken from Energy Consumption in the UK (2014) report, from Department of Energy and Climate Change. It includes energy used for transport, heating, generating electricity and manufacturing goods.

Energy consumption really doesn't seem to have been going down since the 1980's. In fact it is only since the recent recession hit that there has been any significant signs of energy reduction. The government tend to use the year 2000 as the base year, so compared to that energy consumption in 2013 has reduced by 12%, but if we compare to 1980 it is still an increase.

I realise that this is against a background of a growing population, but at the same time we have shipped many of our industries abroad. The energy consumed to produce clothes, furniture, electronic gadgets and cuddly toys, is some other country's problem now, namely China's. Take a look at the graph above taken from ChinaFAQs (originally from the US EIA) which shows that industry, the grey area on the graph, is by far China's largest energy consumption and their domestic use, shown in green, is still very small. The column on the right shows the equivalent energy breakdown in the USA. China may now be the World's biggest energy consumer, but the largest part of that is manufacturing goods for the West. China has 19% of the Worlds population whereas the USA has 4%, making their energy consumption look rather modest. A chunk of that grey area on the graph is for making products that end up in the UK. If we could account for that, then our energy consumption would clearly still be rising.

And if we think about the goods, we can see another trend. Instead of having just one landline phone per household, people generally have several handsets on their landlines, and a mobile phone for every family member. No longer do kids have one cherished toy but multiple fads. The volume of 'stuff' we have has been increasing.

Also international flights generally aren't included in the government transport figures. There was always a disagreement over what to include, so conveniently nothing was included. For example, if a British tourist flies to Sri Lanka with Singapore airlines and stops at Athens en route, do you include just the leg of the journey originating in the UK which ends at Athens, or all the way to Sri Lanka but not the return journey which would be Sri Lanka's problem, or the whole journey both ways, or none of the journey because it is with a non-British company?

Energy efficiency hasn't made a dent on world energy trends either, as seen in the graph above from Gail Tverlberg's blog Our Finite World. What does make a difference is high energy prices or recession, which lowers our ability to afford to pay for energy. One way to reduce energy consumption without the hardship of a recession or the pain of high energy prices is by introducing energy rationing. You can bet that the energy companies won't be supporting that one ;-) Fossil fuels are becoming harder to find and more expensive to extract and if we don't start rationing supplies ourselves, then nature will do it for us and in a way that is not fair and rather ugly.

What I found when I looked at the energy consumption in schools for my work, was that the new schools that were well-insulated with highly efficient systems were not necessarily the lowest energy consumers. They were designed with bright lighting that looked as good as daylight (so people didn't think to switch it off) and had extra technology in every classroom. However the schools that had a penny-pinching caretaker, generally one that is a bit fierce and grumpy so that the teachers would rather wear a jumper than ask him to turn the heating up, generally had lower energy bills. The new school would have a fancy metering system that no one understood or needed regular input from a support desk, whereas the caretaker would traditionally walk round and read the meters himself.

What I am saying is that if you want to really reduce your energy consumption it helps to have a frugal mindset. Think about the energy you are using and the cost - financial and environmental, personal and global - and then make wise energy choices. It is vital to know how much energy you use each year and how much it is costing. The best thing that energy companies could do to reduce energy consumption for very little money, would be to make their bills simple and clear. Instead they hide the facts behind monthly direct debits or fancy tariffs. They should show people a graph of their energy consumption compared to the year before or better still compared to the average for their neighbourhood. Then we might start to see some real energy reductions.

Monday, 7 July 2014

Blame the strawberries!

What a busy month! The sunshine is here and the schools will soon be out for the summer(Leicestershire are normally the first and break up on Friday).

The last few weeks are always packed with sports days, drama performances, musical soirees, summer fairs, prize-giving, induction days and leaving parties. Whilst keeping up with all the kids activities, I have also been desperately trying to get ahead with work, so that I have more free time in the holidays. So by 9pm I am then left deciding whether to go to the allotment and water the plants or write my blog. Sorry, but the allotment won - mainly because of all the ripe strawberries that needed picking :-)

I inherited a strawberry patch on my allotment, which is the area enclosed with netting supported by plastic bottles and canes. The plastic bottles for the frame were a good idea from one of notsogreenfingers posts. There were so many strawberries to pick at once that I couldn't keep up. The problem is that there are no rows or paths in the patch, so picking them feels like playing a game of twister, bent over double, trying to carefully place my feet so that I don't squash them!

The strawberries only lasted a few weeks, in which time we had strawberries and cream or Eton mess most days.


For the first time ever I made 5 jars of strawberry jam (thanks to a really simple recipe from notjustgreenfingers again). It looked so amazing as I cooked it that I had to take photos! I also had enough strawberries to freeze 4 punnets and gave another 6 punnets to friends and neighbours.

Now the raspberries in my garden are in full swing, and there are a few at the allotment too, along with redcurrants, blueberries and blackcurrants that are just ripening. They are not great at the allotment, because I have neglected the fruit bushes which are now competing with the weeds, but hopefully I will get on top of the weeds over the summer.

Above is as far as I got with weeding the raspberry canes in the spring. The picture below gives an idea of how overgrown they are now, just on the right of the photo.

I have realised that I need a completely different approach to the allotment than I do with my garden. I have a small, sheltered growing space in my garden, so I only need to grow a few plants to fill it. If I sow just a few seeds most of them will grow and mature, so that I have plenty. Plus I am out there several times a day and it is easy to spot if something needs attention or to pull the odd weed as it grows. On the other hand the allotment plot gives me 4 times the space in a big, open allotment area, where pests, diseases and weeds spread easily. Young plants don't stand much of a chance. Even if you try to protect them from the pigeons and slugs that will devour any fresh green shoots.

I need to change my way of thinking from just sowing a few, to planting double of everything. Where I would sow 2 runner beans to a pole, I need to sow 4, just to ensure something survives, and then have backups growing at home in pots just in case. I still have too many bare spaces, so I need to become better at planning so that all my soil is covered in plants, leaving less opportunities for weeds to take over. And I need more propagating space at home as I haven't grown enough. I am kind of working these things out the hard way.

There have been so many things to write about over the last month, and no time. I spotted this article back in June which is worth a discussion. I have another Eco-house to write about, books to discuss and news on my PV panels. Hopefully I will catch up soon. In the meantime I hope you are enjoying a summer of strawberries ;-)

Monday, 9 June 2014

Inequality and carbon emissions

I recently watched this short clip of an interview with Christine Lagarde of the IMF on the BBC News website, and it has been in my thoughts ever since.

Surprisingly, as the IMF are champions for austerity measures, which inevitably squeeze the poorest members of the population the most, Christine Lagarde is making a point about inequality.

"...Inequality is rising and, to the extent that inequality is not particularly supportive of sustainable growth, it's an issue...."

'Sustainable' and 'Growth' really should not be used in the same sentence, because as George Monbiot recently pointed out in his post The Impossibility of Growth, growth cannot just continue indefinitely. I believe she means 'Continuous Growth', which is a very far cry from anything remotely sustainable..... but I digress.

"....Over the last 30 years, inequality has risen significantly. For instance the top 1% has increased its share of wealth in 24 out of 26 advanced economies. And if you take some of the Oxfam numbers for instance, the numbers are quite striking actually. If you take the 85 wealthiest people in the World, they can all fit in a double-decker bus right, well they have more amongst themselves than half the population of the World, the poorest half of course, but that is 3.5 billion people...."

There is so much about this that is sooooooooo wrong. Where do I even start?

Just for a moment put aside the fact that Christine Lagarde is listening to and taking note of reports from Oxfam, which seems quite a positive development. And forget the ridiculous notion of anyone with that much wealth stepping foot on a common London bus. Let's just stick to the key message, that 85 people have as much wealth as 3.5 billion people.

3.5 billion people is a lot to comprehend. It is more than the total population of Europe, Africa and the Americas put together. That is a lot of people. Many of them have very little, over 1 billion are barely subsisting on $1 a day.

Hans Rosling used a wealth chart shown above in the documentary Don't Panic - The Facts About Population which I have discussed previously here. The 7 people depicted along the bottom of the chart represent the 7 billion people in the world and above it shows the distribution of the wealth. More than 1 billion on the left of the chart are below the extreme poverty line, barely able to feed themselves or afford shoes. The 1 billion on the right can afford cars and even to travel by aeroplane and earn an average $100 a day.

Chances are if you are reading this then you are in the right hand side of the graph. $100 dollars a day is around £60 at the current exchange rate. To put that in perspective, the minimum wage for over 21's in the UK is £6.31 an hour, so for an 8 hour day that would be £50. For those that are unemployed and depending on income support the minimum they would receive is £56.80 a week, which is just £11 a day or $18 a day (calculated with a 5 day working week for comparison).

£11 will buy very little in the UK and would not be enough to afford to run a car, probably not even a moped, but certainly a basic bike. In the UK we have a safety net intended to mean that everyone can feed themselves, but as this minimum has not been rising enough to match inflation over the years there have been reports of hungry children in schools and people having to choose between eating or keeping warm. The government has combatted this with winter fuel payments to help cover heating costs, free insulation and boilers for those on benefits, and is now introducing free school meals for all children under 8. And of course we have free healthcare for everyone.

Hans Roslings graph needs to be extended on the right hand side if we want to show where the richest 85 people would be. Past the $1,000 mark which signifies the top 1% in the US, and on past $10,000 and $100,000 a day mark. We still haven't reached the 1,645 billionaires in the World (according to Forbes magazine) let alone the top 85, who are around the $1,000,000 a day mark. Bill Gates, currently the Worlds richest man again, earns an estimated £8.8 million or $14.8 million a day, so is past the $10,000,000 mark! Now we can see what Christine Lagarde means about inequality.

Why can't we afford to provide a safety net to cover the basic human needs for the people in the rest of the world? It doesn't look like there isn't enough wealth, just that we don't like sharing it fairly. Maybe we need a Greed Tax? What do you think?

In Switzerland they took a vote recently on whether to limit the pay of the top executives to no more than 12 times that of the lowest paid worker in their company. This is a very clever idea, because it would stop wages at the top getting out of control without first increasing the wages at the bottom. Unfortunately, this did not get enough votes to be approved. If minimum wage in the UK is £50 a day, then the maximum earnings of the highest paid individual in the company could not exceed £600 a day on this system, without having to increase wages at the bottom. £600 a day is a bit more than the Prime Minister currently earns, but on the scale above it doesn't seem a lot does it?

Equality is really important for a healthy society and I would thoroughly recommend reading The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett as an eye-opening introduction to the effects of inequality.

For me there is another reason why understanding the disparity of wealth is important. When we look at reducing carbon emissions or fossil fuel consumption which side of Hans Rosling's graph should we be focusing on? The poorest billion who only use as much wood as they can collect themselves, or the richest billion who can afford large houses filled with 'stuff', and travel long distances for pleasure?

The more money we have available to spend on consumer goods, fast cars, flights abroad and large houses, the more fossil fuels we use and carbon emissions we create. I found this Wikipedia list showing the global difference between vehicle ownership and it indicates how different the oil consumption will be. The US has 797 motor vehicles per 1,000 people and the UK has 519. Whereas China only has 183 motor vehicles per thousand people, India 41 and Bangladesh just 3 (2010).

I am a supporter of carbon rationing for this reason. Rationing carbon would mean that everyone gets a share or a quota of 'carbon emissions' or energy each year, in the form of a plastic credit card. Every time you fill up your car with fuel, pay your energy bills or buy goods from a store, you swipe your carbon card too and are using up your carbon quota. If it was important for you to fly half way round the World to visit family, then you would either have to reduce your carbon emissions in other areas or buy quotas from someone who hasn't used theirs.

This won't stop the rich from travelling, as they could invest in a fleet of electric vehicles running on renewable energy or just buy more quotas. But buying more quotas acts as a tax on energy consumption, above a certain level. It focuses attention on reducing energy consumption, and helps people see their actual consumption levels in perspective. The quotas would have to start off at a fair amount and then reduce each year in order to reach reduction targets.

There would be grumbles at first, especially among the more affluent, but this is a very fair system and potentially could provide an extra income stream for those who are frugal with their energy consumption. The scheme promoted in the UK is called "Tradable Energy Quotas" and was endorsed by David and Ed Milliband when they were Secretary of State for the Environment. There is no hope of TEQs re-emerging under the current government, but maybe after the next election they will be back on the agenda.