Monday, 23 February 2009

Farm For The Future

At 5pm (in Wales) on Sunday 22nd February 2009 there was perhaps the most significant hour of broadcasting in British television history. In the Natural World's A Farm For The Future, it was explained that our current methods of food production, massively dependent on fossil fuels and purchased inputs is time limited. One day, unless we find another way of growing food or work out how to run tractors on moonshine and prayer, we will starve.

Its not even possible to return to pre-war levels of labour on farms as most of the skills have been lost and the old methods were essentially no more sustainable in the long term than the methods employed today.

The answer to our problem is Permaculture. This is not hippy gardening, this is a rigorously scientific process of food production based on natural ecosystems. The essentials of permaculture are observation, design, minimal inputs and reduced labour. For years I have been aware of exponents of Permaculture such as Chris Dixon and Patrick Whitefield making their case from the fringe. To see them at last on mainstream network television was very satisfying.

Whether Permaculture can feed Britain (as it has in Cuba) is a question yet to be answered, but one thing we know for sure: the way we farm today will not feed Britian. It can not. It relies heavily on fossil fuels, it mines the soil of carbon and nutrients so that these have to be bought in from industry, it breaks ecological webs and reduces biodiversity so that pests and disease organisms fill the vacant niches and in response, the land is sprayed with persistent toxins that enter the food chain.

The way we eat will have to change as well as the way we grow our food. We can not expect to have so much grain and wheat in future and will have to find alternative sources of carbohydrates. Rather than read my words, you'd be better off watching the programme on BBC i-player:

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

All That Glitters Is Not Sustaining

This morning on Radio Four, there was a report which told us that purchase of gold in the form of bars, coins, jewelry etc. had risen by around 80% as people sought a safer form of investment. Gold does not provide growth but it is secure. You can see why: it is an element forged by geological processes, enduring through the ages and never losing its lustre or malleability. But imagine now that you are an alien species observing earth. You'd understand that metals and minerals were precious but would you understand why these crazy homo sapiens value inert components of the earth's crust far more than they value the species and systems on its surface which are the basis of all human life? You can't eat gold, you can't use it to keep warm, you can't clothe yourself with it. Our pantheon of characters from myth, legend and fiction is populated by anti heroes who learnt to their cost the folly of valuing gold above all else. In this time of economic crisis when there is an opportunity to rethink our whole approach to the exchange, accumulation and calculation of wealth we risk making the mistakes of Midas and Bloefelt.

The systems ecologist and thinker Howard T Odum conceived with David Scienceman the concept of Emergy (spelled with an M). This is the available energy that was used in the work of making a product or any other manifestation of energy - i.e. any material, knowledge or service. Other thinkers have sought to refine similar concepts that generally refer to the embodied energy of a product or service. It seems sensible to calculate value on the basis of how much work has gone into creating something but Odum's methods explicitly link human systems to the embodied energy of natural systems. All human systems ultimately involve an input of free, natural forms of energy such as water, sunlight, soil, wood but in most industrial processes, this is supplemented by purchased inputs such as oil and gas or human labour. The more purchasing power a society or company has, the more purchased inputs it can use until natural free inputs become the limiting factor. By the law of diminishing returns, systems that rely on large amounts of purchased input are inefficient. What Odum does is to give us a common unit by which we can measure the embodied energy of everything and calculate value based on the work done in order to bring something into existence. Thus we recognise that natural inputs are not "free". Besides being limiting factors, they are themselves the products of work just as a Porshe is a product of work. So using Odum's methods, we should calculate the value of forests, watersheds and other ecosystems so that we can compare the value of gold, rainforests, information and Porshes on the basis of a common unit. Irrespective of common bloody sense, the limiting factors of life should then be valued higher and invested in appropriately.

Guyana's President, Bharrat Jagdeo, has offered to place the country's extensive rain forest under protection in return for money from the west. You can read more about the progress of this initiative here:

On BBC's Horizon last night, buried in a largely optimistic plea from physicist Brian Cox to invest in fusion power research, was a scene in which Brian and another scientist did a rough calculation on the rate of development needed to give up the world's dependency on oil and fossil fuels. It was predicated on an assumption that everyone in the world would get an equal share of energy to service their lifestyle which of course won't happen but given even the widest margin of error, their conclusions were numbing. For anyone who still thinks that we can continue living the way we are and meet all our energy needs from renewable sources, the conclusion was - it ain't gonna happen. Lets all hope for fusion power then. from

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

A single mobile phone charger for all phones, this is something like progress.

The Guardian reports on the mobile 'phone industry's intention to develop a single charger, a charger of chargers and plug amongst plugs that will rise above all other chargers and, well, charge phones. The specification is for a 50% reduction in energy consumption (why not 99?) and if I'm seeing the bigger picture correctly, we'd see reduced emissions from the manufacture, distribution and of course waste of chargers in the longer term. New phone? Well no need for a new charger in the future. Lost charger? Just buy the universal charger. This has to be seen as a progressive step, even if it doesn't take us towards renewable powered phones (Like this new Samsung offering), but that's another debate for another day. There's also the broader question of environmental sustainability regarding mobiles, which the Guardian article touches on.

Good stuff and from a market point of view, interesting: Mobile phones are marketed as lifestyle devices and consumers are sold each phone as a unique badge of identity (see the first cell phone ad here), a symbol of the consumers supposed business acumen, or need to connnect or love of music...whatever fits the market niche. So it's ironic that the manufacturers have stepped up to the plate with a paralell recognition that nobody really cares what their charger looks like. That said, you can expect a range of diamond encrusted universal chargers to emerge once those with the bent towards wasting money realise that they're subject to the same perfectly adequate technology as everybody else.

Anyway, I keep leaving my charegr in hotel rooms, so this new development at least increases the chances of me being able to borrow somebody elses when I next do this.

Monday, 16 February 2009

Shopocalyptic: Bird poo and life after the church of consumption.

The Reverend Billy is magnamamous in victory: Now that everybody has stopped shopping, the Reverend takes time out to explore the plus sides of 'life after shopping'. Yes the 'shopocalypse is at hand':

"And we Americans stand in the wreckage of miles of pavement, empty billboards, dead super malls… We want to change our church's name because our communities are bravely changing around us. Our neighborhoods and Main Streets, shuttered by the big boxes and their big banks, are now blossoming again. There are record start-ups each week, usually family businesses. People are meeting their neighbors and are trading with each other, skill-swapping and loaning tools. This last Christmas, indy shops out-performed chain stores. We shopped local. Local-a-lujah!

The question is, has this happened in the UK and has it really even happened Stateside? The Guardian (09/02/09) reckons business start-ups are at record low levels and we've certainly stopped shopping, or slowed down at least. I could find you some figures to back this up but I'll reference what I call the ' Cardiff-seagul-muck-relative-target-expansion-phenomena' instead.

This well established method for gauging retail sales relies on the layout of Cardiff's main shopping artery, Queen St. (see picture). Essentially, we have in Cardiff, the typical uk high street, what the NEF might call 'clone town Britain'  - with stores on both sides and save for the occasional bank or cafe, it is just shops - what else would we want in our city/town centres? We also have people, lots of people -  and these are a constant. You hear reporters say on news channels that 'shoppers are staying away from the highstreet' but as a city centre resident I can record the same steady flow of people down our highstreets on weekdays, if not weekends.

The reporters are right though, there's not many shoppers amongst them. How do I know this - do I have detailed figures on footfall? Pray no, I have the qualitative gold dust that is a marked increase in the number of people I've seen who've been Bird-Pooed. Yes, the trees that run down the centre of Queen St are home to Cardiff's charming seagul population and when people aren't shopping they stay nearer the middle of the road. Having been, literally, on the end of this stuff years ago when walking down Queen St, I know exactly how these people feel.

When it happened to me, my jumper was ruined, so I went to the nearest shop and asked for a carrier bag - they told me I had to buy something to get one. And standing, covered in white muck, aged 15ish, skint (with no access to infinite personal debt) and with my adolescent pride shaken, amongst friends, I said 'No thankyou' and went on with my day.

Lesson: No matter the consequences of not shopping (on debt, for the sake of it, as religion), no matter how much bird-poo lands on your face because you choose the middle-way on Queen St - don't feel guilty, because in your hour of need you may find you have to pay to take sanctuary in the church of consumption..

Friday, 6 February 2009

Calm Down Dear.... its more sustainable!

Hello, its Rhodri again. Having pondered the thermodynamic properties of recycled pens I found myself considering another relatively minor detail of a sustainable life: pasta. Actually, any boiled food would qualify for consideration. I read somewhere that food can be cooked slowly using less energy to produce the same result. I think I read it in Ecology Begins At Home by Archie Duncanson - a great little book with a great title. We are after all part of the human ecosystem within the greater global ecosystem and the same rules apply at all levels - we're back to thermodynamics. And why not? It is the foundation of the universe.

So, pasta and thermodynamics. Well the second law tells us that everything around us is inexorably decaying and breaking down into a less ordered state. Left to itself, pasta, with the help of microbes and weevils would break down into its constituent parts. By boiling it, we speed up a natural process of decay. We control the rate of decay for our own benefit to produce a more palatable and easily digestible stage of decay. Hammering pasta or vegetables with high heat does speed up the rate of decay and puts food on the table quicker but the gain is relatively small - how fast do you need your food? For an extra ten minutes of cooking time you can save energy, money and lower your carbon footprint. I now add ten minutes cooking time to all my boiling and actually turn off the gas once the water has boiled. The water stays sufficiently hot to cook the food without gas. Sitting in the hot water, cells break open, molecular bonds are severed, new molecules reconfigure - the laws of the universe apply at all times and at all levels.

So this, like all aspects of a sustainable life, is a way of working with nature. Nature's going to win anyway so you may as well work with it. I think it was the Victorians who were responsible for the British cuisine of limp, tasteless boiled food and they saw nature as something to be conquered and tamed. We are now paying the price for that way of thinking because nature can never be tamed. It may be hundreds of years going about it but in the end, nature (largely in the guise of the second law of thermodynamics) will have the last word. With that in mind, why boil vegetables anyway? Why not eat them raw? We have a perfectly good system for breaking down cells and molecules, its called the human digestive system. That's only a rhetorical question: I like hot, softened vegetables....... and raw pasta?! Well I did eat some once when I was a student but it was late at night and I was rather drunk.

Anyway, I was thinking about starting a slow food campaign until I discovered that there already is one. This lead me on to thinking about all the various sub tribes of sustainable living. I hope the number grows. It resembles other times of great social cultural change - the English Civil War with its Levellers, Diggers, Quakers and other sects and factions. Similarly in Russia in the twenties and both Europe and North America in the sixties. So we have the slow food movement aligned to Cittaslow which is itself basically trying to achieve the same thing as Transition Towns, and you have town councils, Agenda 21 groups, independent development trusts and eco-centres and hey - why not join the international Ecomunicipailty movement? What I hope we don't end up with is a fierce civil war in which peaceful little market towns become battle grounds until one faction with the most charismatic and ruthless leader emerges triumphant. That is the precedent set by history - Cromwell, Stalin, Hitler, Napoleon..... ? My tongue is in my cheek and my fingers crossed. Plurality is central to the sustainable development paradigm. Lets not forget that. Slow down, take the gas off and open your mind.

On the theme of historical parallels, could that be the twenty first version of Timothy Leary's famous mantra? I got first dibs if it is.

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Welsh creativity offers optimism in midst of economic downturn, say business leaders, politicians and experts

From /

Welsh creativity offers optimism in midst of economic downturn, say business leaders, politicians and experts
Business leaders, academics and politicians identify solutions they are confident can secure Wales' economic, social and environmental future in a series of essays launched today (4 February 2009).

The advent of the global financial crisis led Cynnal Cymru–Sustain Wales to challenge business leaders, politicians and sustainable development experts to consider how Wales should respond to the considerable challenges that the economic downturn presents.

Contributors to the 'Defining a Sustainable Economic Future for Wales' anthology express concern for the country's economy, ecology and society and question the compatibility of economic growth with a sustainable and equitable future.

In his essay, 'Not easy being green?' Owen Evans from Business in the Community writes:

"Whilst the private sector delivers the wealth and tax revenues that drive and support the Welsh economy, it is also responsible for 40% of carbon emissions and so is having to address two major issues – economic prosperity and minimising its impact on the environment."

Options proposed by the authors for creating a sustainable economic future emphasise Wales' natural resources and the creativity and innovation of its people.

Bill Thomas, general manager at Sharp Manufacturing UK, based near Wrexham, writes:

"On a planet that has an estimated 54 billion tonnes of oil equivalent in wind power and countless times that in solar capacity, Wales has the land and shorelines and innovative skills to complement this with biomass and tidal power."

Leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats, Kirsty Williams A.M., believes that the credit crunch creates an opportunity for change:

"It must be a catalyst for the development of a new green economy, which will stimulate our marketplace with jobs and businesses that benefit the environment.

"Going green is an economic opportunity."

Victoria Winckler from Wales' social justice think tank, the Bevan Foundation, shares that view. "The recession is an ideal time to re-skill and up-skill," she says.

As the impact of the financial situation is felt across Wales, it is timely that the Welsh Assembly Government's draft Green Jobs Strategy and the new Sustainable Development Scheme, 'One Wales: One Planet,' have been released for public consultation.

The Green Jobs Strategy aims to ensure that businesses in Wales have access to expert advice and technology, making their operations more efficient in an increasingly carbon constrained economy. The new Sustainable Development Scheme, One Wales: One Planet, aims to put sustainable development at the heart of all of the Government's policies.

Helen Nelson, Director of Cynnal Cymru-Sustain Wales, said:

"The damage and uncertainty caused by the economic crisis presents a need for us all to evaluate the way we live and do business.

"We hope the solutions presented in our essay series, from a broad range of contributors, will give pause for thought and make a contribution to Wales' transformation into a sustainable, equitable and prosperous country."

'Defining a Sustainable Economic Future for Wales' will be launched today (4 Feb) at an event in the Senedd, where some of the authors will take part in a panel debate on Wales' economic future. Former government minister, Sue Essex, will chair the debate. At the same event, an essay competition for university students will be launched on the same topic. The winner will receive free training and a year's membership from the Centre for Alternative Technology.

Download Defining a Sustainable Economic Future for Wales - Collected Essays.

Launch of sustainable ecomomy essays today

Defining a Sustainable Economic Future for Wales: Essay Launch and Panel Debate
We've challenged business leaders, politicians and SD practitioners to consider how Wales should respond to the global economic crisis. Join us at the Senedd on 4 Feb and hear the case for a sustainable economic future for Wales [read more].

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Monday, 2 February 2009

Cynnal Cymru Essay Series Launch, This Wednesday, Senedd 12pm.

We have a few spaces left at the launch of Cynnal Cymru - Sustain Wales' 'Defining a Sustainable Economic Future for Wales' essay series. We're having a panel debate, followed by some lunch and hot drinks, which by the looks of things will be needed.

12pm start, Senedd, Cardiff Bay, Media Briefing Room.
Panel: Julian Rosser, Oxfam; Morgan Parry, WWF; Victoria Winckler, Bevan Foundation; Bill Thomas, SHARP electronics - Chair, Sue Essex.

The essays, drawn from the worlds of politics, academia, business and Welsh civic society seek to offer solutions at a time of great uncertainty financially, economically and ecologically. They'll be on our website, from Wednesday afternoon, available to download in English or Welsh, at no cost.

email: for more information or to book.

Off track - why booking a euro-train couldn't be harder

So a third runway is given the go ahead and quite rightly we all cry 'what about trains?'. Well, what about them?

I love travelling by train. Aged 17 I set off, interrail ticket in hand, with 5 mates, to travel around Europe. With no plan we went city to city, consulting the Thomas Cook European train timetable as to our next move. We slept, ate and drank on trains and watched Europe go past our eyes as we did so. With the Interrail ticket, you can travel anywhere in Europe, as much as you want on most trains and even some ferries. We got as far as Ios, in Greece and somehow made it back. We resereved 6 berth cabins with nothing but our smelly feet and diligently filled in our tickets with each new journey.

We even blagged some free buses in France on the basis that SNCF was the bus company. We dodged paying supplements and went wherever we pleased. I did the same thing for the following few years, travelling to most European cities and all the way to Morrocco. Lots of other jeunes did the same and still do. Only once did my efforts to avoid paying a supplement backfire, on a train in Austria, the guard argued with us at length, something about 'first and second' - we assumed we were sat in first class, instead of second and moved to the end of the coach. The train split in two and we went to Graz, home of Arnie Schwarzenegger not Ljubjana, as planned.

So it was with great excitement that I sought to plan a summer rail journey over the weekend just gone. With plans for a trip to Budapest and some ramblinga round Hungary, I went to the RailEurope site, which promised :

Travelling around Europe by train is fast, affordable and fun. A huge European rail network enables you to choose from thousands of destinations – and it's so much less hassle than flying, too. By train you'll enjoy:

1. No tedious transfers – trains go straight to city centres
2. No long check-ins
3. An ever-changing view
4. No extra charges for baggage or flight duty
5. Travel with a clearer conscience – it's greener to go by train -
and I concur!

Online booking isn't working today, as you'll see if you click the link above - but it normally is, it's just that it's not that easy to book a train across Europe, even if you know your way around the train networks.

If you use the Rail Europe site you can try and book from, say, Cardiff to Budapest - this fails. Then you try London to Budapest, this fails. Then you try Paris to Budapest, this fails. Then you try Paris to Munich - success, but it only offers you the expensive train and I want the slow and cheaper one. The same happens if you try and book London-algeciras (spain for boats to Morrocco), you end up booking Paris to Madrid, only given the TGV option.

So here's what you do. You go on Ticketline and but Cardiff to London, Eurostar website for London to Paris, SNCF website for Paris to Munich, then DBahn website for Munich to Budapest. And the total cost for one person, return, cheapest tickets = 400quid+. It takes a day or so aswell. It's also worth noting that planning a rail journey like this requires alot of pen and paper and a reasonable knowledge of european trains. I know, for example that my bum will hurt as the above option includes no sleeper seats and even no reservations for some of the journey.

Or of course you could fly, in a few hours, for 150 quid, at the busiest time of year, booking via one website and taking a couple of minutes. I checked using Skyscanner, flying from Bristol.

Now, somehow, I'll find a way to travel by train but it just can't be like this, if we're to stop the runways being built we need to get the alternatives in shape. Pronto.