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.

Saturday, 31 May 2014

Waking up to shortages

There have been two articles recently that have demonstrated that more and more people are becoming aware of the looming energy crisis. The first was in the Chartered Institute of Building Services Engineers (CIBSE) Journal called 'When The Lights Go Out' by Bill Wright (May 2014, page 34). It focuses on the national issue in the UK of a shortage of electricity generation. It is clear that since privatisation in 1990 there has been an under-investment in new power generation. Now we are in a situation where power stations are reaching the end of their useful lives or will not meet tighter EU pollution regulations so have been shutdown, without new power stations coming online to replace them.

Ofgem (the gas and electricity regulatory body in the UK) have been warning of this for some time and I have written about it previously here. Writing for a commercial market, Bill explains the impact of even a short period of power cuts and encourages engineers to be prepared by having backup diesel generators and uninterruptible power supplies (UPS). Articles like this help to plant seeds in peoples minds and as it is aimed specifically at engineers who are responsible for implementing these backup measures, it will hopefully lead to better preparedness. It would take a major power cut or severe warnings from government to result in full-scale preparedness, but it is still a sign that concern is building.

It is the peak demand times when we are at the greatest risk of power cuts, other than from storm damage or severe weather. On a very cold winters evening, around 4 to 5pm, when many people are getting home from work and switching on heating, ovens, kettles etc., is the peak demand in the UK. In warmer parts of the world the peak demand comes in extreme hot weather, from air-conditioning use, but air-conditioning is uncommon in homes in the UK.

The UK's electricity network has been so robust, that power cuts are extremely rare. The last blackout I experienced was in 1987 from the Great Storm, and the blackouts since then have been mainly localised from extreme weather events. The next major power cut may come as a shock to many. Very few people have a back-up system or are off-grid. If you have solar PV panels that are linked in to the electricity grid they will be off in a powercut too, so would not provide a safety net.

The main thing that individuals can do to be prepared is to monitor and reduce their energy consumption at all times, but especially during the peak times. It is also prudent to have working torches with spare batteries or candles and matches on hand. I like head torches, because they leave your hands free and I also use mine instead of a bedside light. I have modelled one for you below, and they do look rather silly, but are so practical for jobs, such as changing light bulbs, that they are a worthy investment. You can give them as gifts to friends and family too.

If your heating is from a gas-fired boiler system, the controls will be electric, so it may be worthwhile ensuring you have some back up heating that doesn't need an electric ignition to start it. This is harder to do unless you have a wood stove, but having a gas hob and hot water bottles you can fill is a start. If you have a cordless telephone these won't work without electricity, so have a traditional landline phone with a cord just in case. You can pick these up cheaply from carboot sales or charity shops. Keeping some spare cash, including coins could be useful too as cash machines and credit cards won't be working in a powercut. Some rural areas may also lose water supply in a powercut, so storing bottles of drinking water may also be necessary.

When electricity is tight, it will force a reduction in consumption. In peak demand periods energy companies buy more electricity from Europe at a premium, so increasing prices. Power cuts will add pressure for further investment in electricity generation, so again increasing prices. Whichever way you cut it, prices will go up, making renewable energy systems more attractive and encouraging businesses and homeowners to seriously reduce their energy consumption. High energy prices have a significant effect on reducing consumption.

The other article was on the BBC News website entitled UK 'Needs More Home-grown Energy', based on a report by the Global Sustainability Institute.

"In just over five years Britain will have run out of oil, coal and gas, researchers have warned."

This again isn't anything new, but who else remembers being told that there was enough gas to last until 2030 and 200 years worth of coal at current consumption? Well countless UK mines have been closed, leaving no option but to rely on imports. UK oil production peaked in 1999 and UK gas production peaked soon afterwards in 2001. They now contribute an ever decreasing percentage of our annual consumption, with UK produced gas providing less than 50% of our total gas consumption for 2013. Rising imports may well have contributed to the increasing prices we have seen.

The report also goes on to claim that Russia has 50 years of oil, more than 100 years of gas and 500 years of coal left based on current consumption levels. As with most fossil fuel predictions you have to be aware that they are based upon current levels of consumption. If countries like the UK are increasingly running out of gas and oil, and are being left with little alternative than to turn to Russia to supply them, then the Russian exports may well increase. If you take into account that this week has also seen Russia sign a deal to supply gas to China for the next 10 years, you can see that the level of consumption is not static. If production increases then the fossil fuels will be used up far more quickly.

China have been exploring the possibilities of fracking. I'm not sure that they would have signed this new deal with Russia if there was any real prospect of fracking meeting their energy requirements. The US have been fracking for a while, but they are still gas importers according to Gail Tverberg in her post The Absurdity of US Natural Gas Exports. The UK government thinks fracking will fill our gap for natural gas, but I think they are deluded. At best it may delay the very real prospect of running out of UK-drilled gas, but at a very high price financially and environmentally.

Russia has some of the remotest landscapes, making drilling for gas or oil, and transporting it long distances, relatively expensive. This could be why they have more fossil fuels remaining than other countries, as when prices were low it was not cost effective to produce. There are clear signs that the highly militarised countries, that are addicted to fossil fuels, are preparing for a power struggle to ensure they have control over the remaining fossil fuel resources.

It would be really good to not be so dependent on fossil fuels right now. Making simple lifestyle changes now, before we are forced by circumstances to make lifestyle changes under pressure, is a good idea. John Michael Greer a leading Peak Oil writer and blogger has used the phrase "Collapse now and avoid the rush" to describe this idea, and he gives a good justification for it. I prefer to think of it as Downshifting. The point is that it is harder to prepare and make changes when everyone is in the same boat and trying to do the same. It is far better to put plans into action now.

"To give yourself a new life, you've gotta give the other one away." (words of a Sara Bareilles song, December) That is what Barry (who's ecohome I discussed in the last post) has done. He has chosen to turn his back on the pursuit of money and some of life's luxuries, like running water and a car, and created a new life where he can manage fairly well without them. What part of our business-as-usual lifestyles would you be prepared to give away?

Friday, 23 May 2014

Barry's ecohome

I spent the Open Homes weekend helping out at Barry's house. It was the most gorgeous weather and we sat at picnic tables in the garden drinking tea and chatting about all number of green issues.

Barry has been very pro-active about reducing his environmental impact for a number of years. He is very practical with technology and DIY so has implemented many of his own solutions, but at the same time he has embraced lifestyle changes to reduce his consumption further. I have been aiming for a 90% reduction compared to the average American, but Barry has in many areas already achieved this, if not surpassed it. Here is how he has done it.

Barry has sold his car and travels everywhere by bicycle, by bus or on foot. He couldn't manage this living in a rural location, but being close to the centre of a small town means that there are shops, the library, the market and bus stops all close by.

Barry doesn't pay any water rates because he is completely off the mains. He collects rainwater from the roof of his house and workshops, and uses various simple methods to filter it, including brush bristles in the guttering to trap the leaves. He also has his own well with a manual pump. Barry decided a manual pump would be safer than fitting an electric pump in case of a power shortage, so Saturday morning involves the light exercise of pumping water to fill a stainless steel drum, which is then enough drinking water for a week. He uses the traditional method of a silver spoon in the bottom of the well to kill bacteria as it slowly corrodes. Barry will drink the rainwater once boiled for tea and it is also diverted to the upstairs bathroom. The toilets are compost loos, so they don't waste water or create a waste stream.

Which nicely brings me on to other waste. Barry composts all his kitchen and garden waste and finds ingenious ways to re-use most things. There are 4 compost bins around the site and the resulting fertility is spread on the garden. One of the compost bins is made from the back end of an old car! (Sorry I forgot to take a photo!) I love this idea! It is stood on end so the car boot is at the top to load compost into. Old beer cans have been welded together to make an original downpipe. Old bike tyres make a surprisingly comfy toilet seat, for a compost toilet made of old washing machine parts, plastic bins and large plant pots.

Barry doesn't like seeing things go to waste and rather than buying things new, can pick up and salvage things that people may throw away in skips. We were sitting on folding picnic benches rescued from a supermarket skip. Barry regularly collects food from the local supermarket skip too. Often things like fruit is thrown away because it is past it's 'display until' date, even though it is still in perfect condition. He also grows fruit and vegetables in his garden.

Barry heats his home using a woodburning stove. His garden is large enough to have plenty of tall trees around the edges, which he trims for firewood, providing a free heating fuel. It also supplies the heat for cooking in winter too.

The main house was built in the 1800's and as such has hard to treat cavity walls. Look at the small gap between the bricks above, which makes it very difficult to add any insulation. The house is in a conservation area, (which means it is very difficult to get approval to change any of the external features of the building) so external wall insulation is not an option.

Barry has chosen to insulate the walls internally. These old terraced houses are pretty small inside by current standards, so internal insulation will reduce the space even more. Small homes are a lot cheaper to keep warm though.

It is a big project which is underway, and has involved moving out while the work is completed. The roof and floors are not being neglected either with insulation board due to be fitted between the rafters and a thick layer of insulation added to the floor. It will be down to the details of the joints to ensure good air tightness.

The windows have been upgraded for double glazing at the side and rear of the building, but the front windows need to retain their original wooden appearance. Barry will be installing secondary glazing internally and is looking into the best way to seal it. On the front door Barry has opted to have a deep reveal to act as a barrier to draughts too.

Barry has solar hot water provided by evacuated tubes, which he had removed for maintenance. You can just make out the unit below the window, with one tube still attached. He saved money by buying the parts and building the system himself. Electricity is also from solar energy. Barry has a large array of PV panels for his workshop roof, as they are not allowed on the South facing house roof, due to the conservation status. These panels feed into a series of batteries and are off grid. This means that when the sun shines they will charge the batteries, giving Barry a low voltage supply of electricity, even in the event of a power cut.

Barry does have a mains electricity supply which he can use if required, but generally he can manage with a low voltage supply. He would like to have a small wind turbine too on the main house, but again that is prohibited.

Barry uses his mains electricity wisely. For instance he will boil the kettle when he wakes in the morning, whilst the electricity is still on the night rate. He heats enough for 4 cups of tea and pours it into a thermos flask to last him the whole day. He also manages without a fridge by storing chilled goods in a container of cold water in the coolest north west corner of the house. Small regular shopping or 'skip-diving' trips also help to reduce the need for chilled food storage. By using the computers and internet access at the library he also avoids many of the standby devices that drain electricity.

The Open Homes visitors had plenty of questions for Barry and he was in his element talking about his ideas and green issues. It is very interesting to see how with a lot of ingenuity and a change of attitudes, it is possible to become more self-sufficient and live a sustainable and ecologically friendly lifestyle.

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Up to my neck in it

I have been having fun on my allotment!

I had a tractor trailer full of manure delivered at 7:30am on Monday morning. It was an enormous pile and I just couldn't stop grinning all day as I spread it! The timing was crucial, so that I had a couple of hours to try to make it look smaller before the other plot holders showed up. My plot is plot number 1, everyone passes me as they come in the gate. There is nowhere to hide!

Is it looking smaller yet? This patch of my allotment had not been dug or weeded. I just laid a layer of cardboard over the weeds and spread a good 6 inches of muck over the top. I still had too much left, so then I spread it further over the area that I had already dug. Now one half of my plot is almost all covered with manure and the other side has been traditionally dug.

The other allotmenteers must think I'm crazy. There have been murmurings of "That will never work", "You won't be able to grow anything for 6 months" and "You won't get away with it". There is a notion that the manure will 'burn' the plants, but as I have seen this method in action on the Transition Community Allotment and with my good friend Carol at My Journey Into Food Production I am not so worried. I am following the No Dig method of Charles Dowding. I have watched a couple of his videos and put my trust in him.

Actually for me it just feels right. My plot had sunk a good 6 inches from the plot next door, possibly from the nutrients being taken out with every harvest and not replenished. Also when I dug a row of the soil for potatoes I only saw 2 worms! In my garden at home I find worms in every spadefull! It really did feel like a Birthday present for my plot and the party was a soft, sticky, squidgy and exhausting one! I hope the worms enjoy it ;-)

I kept a small pile of manure to spread round the fruit bushes. I even exchanged 2 barrowful's for 2 freshly picked little gem lettuce, so it was an easy salad to make for dinner. The next day I stomped it all down, which neatened it up. Then I planted some sweetcorn right in the middle. That will shock the pants off some of my neighbours ;-)

The other allotmenteers are a friendly and generous bunch. I have been given sweetcorn, cabbage, cauliflower and broccoli seedlings, unusual roots to plant like Oca and Yakon, posts for my bean frame, herbs and fresh Tatsoi and Chinese greens to eat, with further offers of garlic, spinach and a jostaberry bush. They are happy to give you a tour of their plots and show you the delicacies they are growing. It is amazing the full extent of varieties that can be grown, not just the basic fruit and veg you would find in the supermarket.

Every veg grown counts at reducing my impact. It is grown with virtually no fossil fuel use, no chemical fertilisers, only transported a mile to my home, there is no packaging made to hold it, it hasn't been rinsed in bleach or left on a shelf for weeks while the nutrients degrade, and there is no exchange of money to any corporations in order for me to eat it. Jason Heppenstall at 22 Billion Energy Slaves seems to have been thinking similar thoughts this week too. Growing your own veggies goes a long way towards living a 90% lifestyle.