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Monday 22nd December 2014
The joys of chopping firewood (or better yet seeing it chopped)
Contributor: Jeremy Bugler

Trees are great scatterers of benisons. They give shade and fruit while they live, and habitats for countless creatures.  When they die, or we cut them down, they give their timber – and their firewood. 

One of the pleasures of living in the countryside, especially now in winter, is the burning of logs from familiar trees. A huge old cherry not far from our house failed entirely to come out in leaf two springs ago, so we had it felled, neatly to avoid other trees and greenhouses before it felled them. It had carried on its trunk two man-made features – a bat-box, put up by me, and a car horn. Attached by our predecessor on the farm, Edmund Wall.

Until the day he sold to us, Edmund slept in the bedroom in which he was born; on his bedside table a switch was mounted.   Running from the switch was a wire, going out of the window, across the yard to the old cherry. 

In the summer, when the cherries were ripe, the tree would be thick with birds eating their fill. But Edmund awoke in the early daylight, he would blast the car horn at intervals, scattering the plunderers. He was much more successful at getting a cherry crop than we have been.

When felled the cherry yielded a score of fine one-inch thick planks, some of which my old mate Dave is now making into a bookcase. But there was also a lot of firewood and we are now being kept warm in the evening by these wonderful logs, sawn and split by our peerless son-in-law Yann, with assistance from The Grandsons.

A huge ash tree has blown down in the Long Field and in a few days, Yann and The Grandsons will arrive.  The chainsaw will make short work of the tree and The Grandsons will ferry the blocks in the quad-bike trailer into a dry corner of the barn. After splitting, they’ll lie there for two years before we burn them.   It is immensely cheering to see this pile, a promise of future warmth.

Ash is said to burn wet or dry, but it’s much better after a couple of years seasoning.  Oak is not my favourite firewood; it tends to smoulder rather than blaze. We once bought in a pick-up load of oak, sold as seasoned, and had to dry the logs in the stove before they would burn at all.

Best burning wood of all, in my book, and even better than fruit wood, is hawthorn.  It blazes fiercely, lasts a long time and gives out a terrific heat.  Though I have to say that the greatest heat from wood I ever experienced was from a spar of pitch-pine we found washed up on a Pembrokeshire beach. The heat was so intense we almost had to leave the county, let alone the house.

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Talking of the fruit of trees, we are proud to have produced, from a four-and-a-half acre orchard, nearly £3,000 worth of organic cider apples, delivered to the peerless Dunkerton Cider Company - of Herefordshire, where else?

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A few months ago, a group us in Herefordshire were lucky enough to get a special visit from a man from the deep rainforest. We’ve been trying to set up a local group to get funds to protect an area of rainforest in Peru the size of the county (hence the  name of our project The Size of Herefordshire). Dilwyn Jenkins had come hot foot from the Peruvian Amazon where he had worked for great stretches of his life, especially with a tribe called the Ashaninka, helping them to protect their forests from loggers and miners.

A large genial man, he spoke rivetingly and inspiringly. People came away from hearing him saying they had new courage for the fight. So it was with utter dismay that I set my Kindle going yesterday, scanned the Guardian’s obituaries to read that Dilwyn had died unexpectedly at the age of 57. What a fearful loss, to his family, to Wales where he lived, to Peru and its forests and to the planet. His death will make us more determined than ever to get the Size of Herefordshire in the air.

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My eye was caught by a story in the New York Times last week, which had echoes of a South London disaster. The NYT story relates how farmers in the mid-west are now deploying combine harvesters with such sophisticated electronics – GPS data from satellites etc – that they cost half a million bucks.  A decade ago, a combine cost perhaps $65,000.

Such is the cost of the new combines that their technology is best maximised by growing crops at the largest possible scale, with easy-to-grow and easy-to-sell crops such as corn and soybeans.  In other words, the technology is dictating that the farmer grows mono-crops on a vast acreage. This is a certain sure recipe for disaster.  The Pest-Making God in the sky must be rubbing his hands.

The South London parallel lies in the Aylesbury Estate in Southwark, an enormous estate of slab blocks which became a short-hand for  urban social problems caused by lousy architecture.   As if the Aylesbury hadn’t enough to contend with, it was once even used by Blair for a policy launch.

One reason why the Aylesbury was so badly designed was that Southwark architects deployed a type of system-building called 12-M Jespersen. This Danish idea deployed slab walling, dropped into place by vast cranes.   To get economies of scale, the cranes need long runs, so that their tracks did not have to be re-laid.  One of the Aylesbury’s blocks was the longest in Britain. A resident once said to me: “What gets me is that I can stand out here, looking at that block, and I can’t even make out where my flat is.”

It cost Southwark Council millions to pull the blocks down after only 30 years.  Jespersen, doubtless, was carting his kroners to the bank.

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Speaking of Blair, as sadly one is forced to from time to time, I wonder how much damage has been inflicted on Save The Children by the American branch awarding Blair a Global Legacy gong.  The boss of Save The Children  International was plainly shocked by the reaction in the UK, where many have seen the award as bizarre as Henry Kissinger, the illegal bomber of Cambodia,  picking  up the Nobel Peace Prize.  Jasmine Whitbread said “SCUS simply did not anticipate anything sensitive.  In the USA, Tony Blair is widely seen very positively for his contribution to international aid.” 

The gullibility of Americans amazes.  In much of the rest of the world, Tony Blair is widely seen very negatively for his contribution to international mayhem, and especially the slaughter of countless innocent children.

What I also find interesting is to learn how Save The Children UK turns out to be as stuffed with Blairites as a Christmas pudding is of raisins.  Its chief executive Justin Forsyth was a former Blair employee at in Downing Street and it turns out he played a key role in getting Blair the award, delivering the invitation.    Then there is Jonathan Powell, Blair’s former chief of staff and a facilitator of the Iraq War; he is on the Save The Children Board.  (I expect he was invited on by his old mate Justin).  Even the chair of the Trustees, Sir Alan Parker, is described as a colleague of Blair’s.

What’s going on?   It’s simple really:  just as corporations that plunder the environment adopt a few green policies as fig-leaves, greenwash – so politicians with blood on their hands take on charitable work as smoke-screen.  This time the smoke has blown clear.

What an awful error by Save The Children, which does good things and has many terrific employees. If I was Fiona Whitbread, or indeed a trustee of Save The Children UK, I would purge the Blairites. 

Wednesday 26th November 2014
Don't even think about it...
Contributor: Jeremy Bugler

One of the features of a consumer society is to invent wants we didn’t know we had and turn them into needs we feel we must have. I came across this in a new unexpected form the other day when taking one of our ancient collie dogs to the vets.  

Ben had developed a swelling on his upper jaw.  We dropped him into our vets, not a million miles from the Welsh Borders, for advice. The vet took a quick look at the animal and said “This might be a tumour.”  We replied to the effect that in that case, he’d need to be put down pronto.  “Well” said the vet, on a different tack, “I think you need a kidney and liver scan on Ben.”  Need? This was his jaw, not his digestive system.  We declined the scans and left the dog with the vet to look more closely at the jaw and see if he had a tooth infection.  We expected to pay for a jab.

When I came back to collect the hound, I was ushered into a state-of-the-art operating theatre, which a few years ago might have been used to carry out heart-and-lung transplants on a fee-paying plutocrat suffering the after-shocks of years of indulgence in Nice or Monte Carlo. Now it was being used for pets.  The vet put up on a screen an X-ray of Ben’s jaw.  But so what? Nothing came of having this X-ray.  The dog got his jab… and we got a bill for £212.00.  In a day or so, the swelling subsided.  It was a bee-sting.

We mused afterwards how pet treatment was out of control. Was this the effect of pet insurance? Or the depressingly familiar 21st century story of socially useful services being turned into businesses and the clients, now customers, being shaken down for what my old builder friend Gerald called dirty folding?  Whatever, pets are now being given advanced and expensive treatments developed for people and one is deemed hard-hearted if one revolts.  A good friend’s cat was injured in a feline-fight the other day.  She took it to her vets (a different one) and later collected the cat and a bill for £800.  For a moggie

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I have just finished the most important environmental book I have read in many years. "Don’t Even Think About It – Why Our Brains Are Wired To Ignore Climate Change" (Bloomsbury) addresses this extraordinary problem: how and why we are able to turn away from thinking and acting on climate change despite many of us knowing the horror coming down the tracks towards us.  The writer is George Marshall, the founder of the Climate Outreach and Information Network and author also of Carbon Detox, which he modestly describes as a slow-selling book on personal action on climate change.

Don’t Even Think About It sets out how the human brain has fundamental and universal cognitive wiring that that shapes the way we interpret threats and motivates us to act of them.  We are best equipped to anticipate threats from other humans, being terrifically skilled at identifying friends and enemies.  Faced with a threat from Isis, we leap to new forms of attack and defence. But climate change is not like such a relatively simple threat from Al-Bakr-Al Bhagdadi. It is, writes Marshall, “complex, unfamiliar, slow-moving and inter-generational. Of all the possible combinations of loss and gain, climate change contains the most challenging: requiring certain short-term loss in order to mitigate against an uncertain longer-term loss.” 

Marshall goes on, saying what’s worse, is that we all contribute to this problem by the C02 we put out. We are contributing to this ghastly problem for our children – yes 4 degrees and societal breakdown is only 60 years away.  “This moral challenge, combined with a sense of the relative powerlessness of individual action, helps mobilize a well-ingrained set of defence mechanisms that enables is to ignore the problem…

The book has full of rich anecdotes. There’s a hilarious one in which Marshall recalls a dinner party in which the guests, educated professional class, described their exotic holidays on the horizon - flying to New Zealand for Christmas (as some friends of mine are about to do) and so on.  Marshall interrupts to ask doesn’t anyone think of the global warming they are causing by these flights?  There’s a long embarrassed silence and then one lady says…  “Isn’t this spinach tart absolutely delicious.?

Don’t Even Think About It tells of how even communities which have been ravaged by extraordinary climatic events, like Hurricane Sandy, prefer to talk about almost any other subject than climate change.  But perhaps the greatest strength of the book is the way it shows how the human instinct for forming into groups and remaining loyal to those groups works against everyone coming together to take action on climate change.  So greens talk to greens, and deniers talk to deniers, each group slags off the other group, and no progress is made. George Marshall calls for a different kind of action, in which all groups agree at least to see climate change as a problem, and work together to try to solve it.  Well, it is worth a try.

For my part, I am flying for pleasure no more.

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One of the advantages of living on the Welsh Borders is that it is stuffed with good writers.  A Hollywood mogul was resistant to casting Robert Redford in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, saying “Throw a surfboard on a California beach and you’ll hit ten the same as him”  Well, on the Welsh Borders, you can throw a party and there’ll be ten good writers turning up for jollity.

One near-ish neighbour and good friend is the writer Matthew Engel.   He has just published Engel’s England  (Profile Books), an idiosyncratic  tour of all the counties of England, yes even Rutland. Matthew writes wonderfully but his eye is also a very individual one.   Fond of placing bets on horses, when he goes to Cheshire, for instance, much of the chapter is written around Chester races.   None the worse for that… he tells of the horse racing authorities having a special committee which vets the proffered names of horses coming under rules, to eliminate double entendres and private jokes, as in Wear The Fur Hat.  But they let through All Fur Hat, however, not knowing the phrase in some quarters is used to describe a certain kind of  extrovert woman and is followed by another… And No Knickers.

Matthew Engel’s writing is so witty and clever that one enjoys reading as much in reading about counties in which one has never set foot as counties where one has lived and worked.

Sunday 9th November 2014
Planetary Boundaries and Human Opportunities
Contributor: Stockholm Resilience Centre

Sunday 19th October 2014
Be bold, Ed: Soak the rich to feed the poor.
Contributor: Jeremy Bugler

A wild wind the other night blew down an ash tree on our farm which had become something of a landmark to us.   It was ailing when we first moved in, more than 20 years ago, shedding branches and each year having fewer leaves. It had lost a great slice of its trunk some time ago, heaven knows how.  The farmer before us had even poured concrete into its roots, presumably to stop up a fox den or badger set.  Yet for year after year it had hung on.  

So I was startled to walk into the Long Field and see it lying there, full length, a complete gonner.  I was also a little sad.  One of the beneficial acts we can do during our brief spin on the planet is to plant trees – directly or indirectly.  On a farm of course one has a lot of opportunities.   So we’ve planted 146 fruit trees to create an orchard, and a couple of dozen small leafed lime trees down the lane to the yard.   Every time we have laid a hedge, we’ve left a few strong plants to grow into hedgerow trees, field maples or spindle trees or indeed ash trees.  In our wood, we have cleared out some Sitka spruce to let the real trees, oaks and small-leaded limes, flourish.  In Uganda, our film company has financed quite a few acres of trees being planted on the banks of the Nile in places where rainforest trees were felled for crops.

In low moods, when one thinks what the hell has one achieved in three scores plus ten, the clouds lift a little when one thinks of the trees we’ve planted, which will be growing long after we’re pushing up daisies.  Tree-planting: it is good for the soul.

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Interesting that new report which suggests that, contrary to accepted wisdom,  the world population will go on growing and won’t level out at 11 billion or so around the mid-century. The so-called Demographic Shift may turn out to be the Demographic Chimera. I have long been baffled as to why environmentalists have been so reluctant to fight to restrict population growth.  In many countries, the greatest scourge is the galloping population, outracing the social improvements governments try to make.  

For instance, when we have visited small villages in Uganda to see the new water sources provided by the Busoga Trust, we have been struck by villagers’ gratitude for clean water - which, yes, is the beginning of improvement - but also by those same villagers saying they now need another well, or two or three, because the village is growing so fast.   I have jocularly suggested that the Busoga Trust should provide free birth control with each well.   Perhaps I should make this proposition a serious one.  There is a huge unmet demand for birth control in these villages, from women who don’t want to spend their lives having and caring for children but want to be educated and to have careers.

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I was shocked to the core of my being to read that Lord Mandelson, who we once knew as “John Taylor’s researcher”, may be deprived of some of his income.   He is a board member of Sistema, a Russian conglomerate with its fingers in many pies.  Sadly its boss Vladimir Yevtushenkov has fallen foul of Putin and been arrested on money-laundering charges.    Sistema’s share price has fallen sharply.   This must put into doubt Mandelson’s fees as a board member.

There is no spectacle more pitiful than that of a New Labour scion being deprived of an income stream.  I suggest that a fund be created to compensate His Lordship, with the public invited to make subscriptions.

To those who say there are more worthy causes, such as the relief of the starving in South Sudan, I say - pain is relative and what human being can possibly suffer more anguish that a New Labour peer checking his bank balance and finding his riches depleted?

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There is much mocking of Ed Milliband at the moment.  True, he was appallingly unwise to deliver his conference speech without an autocue.  True, he was equally unwise to have Ed Balls as his shadow chancellor, a man so contaminated by his past that a skip of highly radioactive rubbish from Fukushima is pure tide-washed sand by comparison. True, he looks a little awkward and uncharismatic. 

But was that not also true of Clement Atlee, the greatest post-war prime minister?  Atlee was so unprepossessing that people cracked jokes such as “An empty taxi drew up outside Downing Street and Mr Atlee got out.”   Atlee was so little concerned about the pomp of office that he used to travel unaccompanied, third class, on railway journeys.   On one train trip, a passenger leaned forward and said to him: “Has anyone ever told you that you are the split image of Clement Atlee?”   The Prime Minister replied: “Frequently.”

The great aspect to Atlee was that he was serious about social change and that he was bold.  More boldness from Ed Milliband (an excellent climate change minister) and we will have the best Prime Minister this century.  (True, the hurdle is not set high.)   To connect with working people I suggest the following in the pre-election programme:

  • Promise to replace the minimum wage with the living wage on taking office.

  • Hugely increase the number of employment inspectors to ensure the living wage is enforced.

  • Tax rising progressively from 50 per cent on those earning more than £100,000;  60 per cent on £200,000; 70 per cent on £300,000.

Soak the rich? You bet.  Feed the poor? Oh yes.

Sunday 12th October 2014
Video: Boosting Bangkok's flood resilience with community-based technology
Contributor: Next City

In 2011, an historic flood devastated Bangkok. Hundreds died, and tens of billions of dollars were lost in economic damages. During and after the disaster, the combined efforts of thousands of residents formed the foundation of the city’s response. But while groups of citizens working in concert were able to deploy boats and organize shelters, one thing they couldn’t do on their own was distribute real-time data about the disaster. For that, they would need technology: a homegrown system that’s cheap, durable, and takes advantage of the city’s informal networks, perhaps its greatest strength in times of crisis.

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