Monday, November 05, 2018

UK’s 25-Year Environment Plan - David Clayton

Guest post.
UK’s 25-Year Environment Plan:
Missing Dimensions and Historical Analogies

David Clayton,
Department of History, University of York[1]

Policy Recommendations:

·       Strengthen the incentives to divest from coal, gas and oil (including plastics) using holistic bespoke compensation packages that factor in adjustment costs borne by investors and workers.
·       Promote the transfer of carbon-neutral technologies overseas using the international aid budget.
·       Reduce personal consumption systematically using progressive taxes to internalise hidden environmental costs.

The Climate Catastrophe-Policy Mismatch
The UK government has a 25-Year Plan to improve the environment, a statement of intent. This essay argues that we must learn from historical analogies before reformulating and implementing UK environment policy. Let us address the current policy framework briefly before turning to history.

The government argues that future decision making by governments, producers and consumers should account for ‘natural capital’. It assumes that improved flows of information about the environmental consequences of human actions will even alter ‘small choices—which coffee to buy and in which kind of cup; whether to drive to work or take the train’.

The radical view on this initiative is that ‘putting a price on nature will only speed its destruction’ (Guardian, 16 May 2018). This is unfair. Improved knowledge of the environmental costs of systems of production and consumption will alter incentives and thus facilitate a transition to ‘clean growth’, but, the UK government’s market-enhancing strategy is cautious, based on voluntarism rather than compulsion.

Incrementalism would make sense if we had plenty of time to mitigate climate change. But the mainstream scientific community is of one voice: to avoid the risk of runaway warming we need to mitigate the worst effects of climate change NOW. The last World Economic Forum listed the four biggest risks to the world economy as extreme weather events, natural disasters, failure to halt climate change and water crises.

The UK’s ‘clean growth strategy’, announced in October 2017 before the 25-year Plan, aims to promote the uptake of carbon-neutral technologies by sharpening financial incentives. Leaving aside issues related to the scale of this intervention, this strategy is two-dimensional: it will be a necessary but insufficient condition for climate change mitigation.

What we need is a three-dimensional policy framework, which promotes:

1.)   Investment in clean energy:

That is:
·       the capture and storage of non-conventional less dense energy (and, if possible, any of their harmful by-products);
·       the creation of new national and international infrastructures to distribute intermittent flows of solar and wind.
·       AND, if we are thinking globally, as we must: the rapid transfer of clean energy technologies overseas;

2.)   Accelerated divestment from dirty energy

3.)   Drastic cuts in personal consumption

Let us derive some lessons from historical analogies drawn from contemporary British economic history to explore how we might implement this reformulated agenda.

1.)   Aiding the energy transitions overseas

In 2017 Prime Minister Teresa May stated that Britain had a ‘moral imperative’ to help poor countries overseas that ‘stand to lose the most’ due to manmade climate change (Guardian, 12 December). The UK government contributes to the International Climate Fund, which builds up the resilience of vulnerable communities overseas. It has also begun to use the overseas aid budget to help poor countries reduce their carbon emissions.

Is this action commensurate with the scale of the problem? The statistical evidence suggests not: only eight per cent of the aid budget is being spent on climate-change-related projects. There is a strong case to increase Britain’s commitment to international aid and to target expenditure on the energy transition overseas.

During this time of austerity, populists rally to damn overseas aid, and climate change projects have been signalled out as wasteful, of delivering ‘little benefit’ (Daily Telegraph, 12 March 2017). Let us cherry-pick a historical case to refute this argument.

The British aid budget was originally linked to an effort to improve and hold on to the British Empire. Using the export of capital (in the form of loans or grants) to compel people is wrong and ultimately self-defeating. But, under the right conditions, British colonial aid was helpful.

From 1945 an enlarged British aid budget was used to support colonial development, to build ports, roads, schools and hospitals, and, as recent research by Bowden, Clayton and Peirera has shown, it was even used to accelerate the take up of a luxury communication technology: the radio receiving set. In this particular case, British governments had a dubious motive: to control flows of information.

This particular story did not end well: British colonialism continued to be repressive, supported by colonial radio stations that were propagandist. But what matters from today’s perspective was that, economically, this policy worked. Irrespective of prevailing income levels, British colonies that received pump-priming funds to develop radio infrastructures experienced higher rates of take up of radio receiving sets. The aid budget on radio broadcasting paid for equipment and skilled labour vital for the uptake of advanced technologies.

India today needs to leapfrog a stage of development, going straight to solar and missing out coal-fuelled growth. Like all developing countries, India needs more energy to enable its masses to escape poverty: it needs ‘clean growth’. We should aim to create a post-colonial, Indo-UK partnership to facilitate the exchange of clean technologies.

How to divest from dirty industries
A post-fossil fuel energy transition has to deliver energy-saving development at low social and environmental cost. Even without net subsidies, price shifts are encouraging investment funds to flow to renewables. We are hopefully already past peak coal. We need to accelerate this process, reaching peak dirty energy as soon as possible. This is important because of the problem of lock-in: unless these industries are shut down they will continue investing in what they are extremely good at—(i) sustaining dirty energy via innovation and (ii) PR to secure preferential policies and to sow confusion regarding climate change.

Divesting from dirty energy is a colossal task: it will require fundamental changes to systems of production which will certainly take generations to complete. Our current plans are completely inadequate, seeking to bolt renewables on to systems for fossil fuels.

Modern farming is a case in point. It is highly energy-inefficient and pollutes local and global ecologies. Let us cherry pick a metric by way of illustration: Bonneuil and Fressoz estimate that the number of calories obtained in food per calorie used in its production fell five-fold in Britain, 1826-1981. Older labour-intensive forms of production from the past may therefore provide practical tips about a future energy transition.

These are issues for agricultural and transport historians to delve into. Let us however consider another important issue: how to manage industrial decline.

The historical literature on divestment is thin, as historians focus on sunrise rather than sunset industries, but two contrasting cases from British economic history can be reverse engineered to provide general guidance on how to accelerate deindustrialisation at low social cost.

Case 1. The British cotton textile industry grew extraordinarily fast during the 19th century and experienced further investment booms in the early twentieth century. Capacity peaked in 1927. Thereafter the fundamental problem faced by the industry was how to reduce capacity in the face of a dramatic fall in demand caused by technological change (man-made fibres) and by globalisation (low-cost Asian production).

From the 1920s into the 1960s, as profit rates fell and market uncertainty rose, and as the industry lobbied for support, British governments used tax preferences on allowances and subsidies to encourage divestment and the modernisation of factories. As Higgins and Toms show the results were poor. Industrialists divested financially, by for example paying higher dividends to shareholders, but they did not prioritise the scrapping of plant.

The lessons from this case are that:
·       We must anticipate rent-seeking fossil fuel industries demanding preferential fiscal regimes. We might want therefore to ensure that compensation schemes for fossil fuel industries have a fixed start date, such as the signing of the Paris Accord.
·       We have to make the policy goal clear: is it to secure the modernisation of capacity (which will be needed for plastics) or is it the retirement of plant (as it must be for, say, oil refining)?
·       Government action has to be commensurate with the scale of the problem. In the case of the British cotton textile industry, from the 1930s to the 1960s, government initiatives were piecemeal, increasing uncertainty.
·       We need bespoke fiscal instruments for each industry that factor in the combined effects of tax and subsidies (and the expected responses of capital markets).

Case 2. The decline of coal production in Britain was slow, beginning c.1913, and nationalisation of the industry in 1947 did not halt this process. Indeed nationalisation allowed for a new moral economy of decline. During the 1950s and 1960s mine closures were negotiated between bosses and workers and miners gained assurances that they would be redeployed and that new industries would be relocated to areas that had been dependent on coal for generations. This holistic settlement, as detailed by Phillips, facilitated deindustrialisation at low social cost but it did not last long. Post-1973, the deindustrialisation of coalfields was achieved at high social cost: miners gained redundancy packages but local communities were hollowed out.

The lessons from this case are that:
·       To accelerate the decline of gas in particular, which employs thousands of workers, we need consensual political economies tailored to each industry that compensates redundant labourers with new jobs.  We need a “just transition” and one that those working in dirty industries accept.
·       Might we need therefore to consider the nationalisation of sunset industries, a mechanism by which the state kills off rather than saves declining industries?

Cutting Personal Consumption
High personal consumption reduces biodiversity and the macro-economic case to curb our spending on clothing and consumer durables is compelling because we need to transfer resources (via capital markets and via higher taxes) so that we can increase investment in post-fossil fuel technologies. The government’s plan is to improve the flow of information to embed environmental concerns within consumer decision making, but this is unlikely to deliver profound change NOW.

Ethical consumers demand that companies use ‘sustainable’ supply chains. And responsible companies signal that they have responded by labelling goods, inter alia, “fair trade”, palm oil free. This voluntary process will have a marginal effect on the transition to a post-fossil fuel future. Let us state some obvious problems with consumer-led behavioural change:

·       Most consumers prioritise non-environmental criteria (such as cheapness and fashionableness) over social and environmental ones;
·       Even environmentally-conscious consumers have poor proxies for making decisions: inter alia, the country of origin labels, ‘fair trade’ and ‘organic’ certification;
·       Voluntarism will never control the consumption of the hedonistic rich whose ostentatiousness saps the collective morale of the virtuous.

Let us consider radical policy reforms by drawing on the analogy between Climate Catastrophe and Total War.

In 1940, in preparation for Total War, the British government deployed two methods to cut back on personal consumption, a vital means of diverting resources to the production of goods needed to wage war: these were direct controls, in the form of planning and rationing, and indirect controls, in the form of prices manipulated by tax and regulatory changes.

Under planning and rationing, bureaucrats set consumer wants. Today, the case for using direct state controls over the whole economy is weak for political (as opposed to technical) reasons. No mainstream political party will advocate a carbon ration for citizens to ensure that Paris accord targets are met. But the case for extending planning and rationing selectively is strengthening. Let us cite two examples.

1.     In its 25 Year Plan, the UK government has committed to ensuring ‘interrupted water supply’ during periods of prolonged dry weather and droughts, which are predicated to occur because of climate change. The only way to do this equitably and efficiently will be by instituting water rations.

2.     Air travel is predicted to be the fastest growing source of UK and global emissions, and technologies to substitute the current stock of planes with electric ones will not alter the economics of air travel for generations. There is a case to give citizens an annual allowance for air travel.

Despite the UK’s long experience of healthcare rationing, restricting access to a wider range goods and services, especially those for which demand is rising, will be highly controversial and the rich and corrupt will seek to evade new regulations. Before introducing selective rationing, we need to learn from Roodhouse who shows that, underpinned by social norms regarding “fair shares”, rationing in 1940s Britain was successful because consumers and bureaucrats tolerated grey and black markets, creating flexible systems that delivered goods from petrol to potatoes at low social cost.

John Maynard Keynes, the liberal economist, argued in his text How to pay for the war, that the government had to increase direct and indirect taxes, including via compulsory saving schemes, as a way of diverting resources into war production and reducing inflationary pressures brought about by the war. Significantly, from our perspective, these ‘indirect controls’, continued into peacetime and smoothed the economic transition. The case for deploying such controls again to deal with the climate crisis is becoming compelling, and is on obvious way of implementing current government thinking on ‘natural capital’ accounting.  Let us highlight how two instruments used in the 1940s to substantiate this claim.

·       Between 1945 and 1951, the Labour government imposed progressive purchase taxes on luxury items of consumption. In the late 1940s, there were three bands, and the top one doubled prices! Could we reform Value Added Tax so that it is fit for a new purpose: internalizing the hidden environmental costs of consumption?
·       The government created ‘Utility’ products that economised on materials and which were cheap because they were exempt from purchase taxes. Should we create state-approved ‘carbon-neutral’ goods to internalize the high transaction costs faced by virtuous consumers wanting to be ‘green’ but having to choose between products claiming to be ‘natural’ and ‘ecological’? The UK’s new ‘Natural Capital Committee’ will generate more sophisticated measures than ‘carbon footprints’ to aid this intervention.
Even in the 1940s indirect controls were not comprehensive. They targeted luxuries but did cover items of consumption far more prevalent today, such as eating out and long-distance travel. To meet carbon reduction targets using indirect controls we would have to be much more radical than in the 1940s. Taxes would need to rise on a wide range of ‘high carbon’ footprint activities, inter alia, indoor swimming, playing golf, eating animal products and owning a carnivorous pet!

Preconditions for action
In 2016 and 2017 rhetoric about a ‘dementia’ tax and ‘taking back control’ had a large impact on electoral outcomes. Any proposal to tax Britain’s millions of pet owners and thousands of golfers would be similarly spun. Any political party advocating eco-austerity in the next four years would commit an act of electoral suicide. And the political analogy with 1940s austerity is not going to alter these calculations.

In 1951, the Labour party narrowly lost the General Election to a Conservative party promising to give power back to consumers. Conservative Party propaganda was effective because austerity Britain was dire for spenders. Despite high pent up demand due to war damage and depreciation, and despite rising incomes, real levels of consumption only increased five per cent from the late 1930s to the early 1950s.

The outcome of the 1951 election demonstrates the power of rhetoric. But the Conservative critique of Labour’s austerity was deeply unfair. By 1950, because of austerity, the economy was stable, on the road to a sustained recovery; the government had also revamped international aid and implemented a solution to endemic industrial unrest in the coal fields, nationalisation. Post World War I the transition from an economy geared to winning the war led to a deep economic recession in the early 1920s that culminated in serious social conflict, the General Strike of 1926.

In the 1940s, austerity was in the national interest. Today, eco-austerity is also in the national interest, enabling us to deliver a reformulated three-dimensional 25-year plan.

The UK’s 25 Year Plan already commits us to taking ‘all possible action’ to mitigate climate change and so we must have a proper debate NOW about eco-austerity. Aided by the press and by mass political parties, we must seek answers to the following questions:
·       Can voters be persuaded to back reforms to VAT that might factor in ‘natural capital’ accounting?
·       How can the populist view on overseas aid be defeated?
·       To what extent and how should we bail out declining industries from the public purse?
·       How do we create a new just fiscal settlement? If we introduce higher taxes on consumption should we hike wealth taxes and lower income taxes, perhaps via a tax-free citizen’s income?

Bonneuil, Chrisophe and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, The Shock of the Anthropocene: the earth history and us, trans. David Fernach (London, 2017)
Bowden, S. ., D. Clayton and A. Pereira, ‘Extending Broadcast Technology in the British Colonies during the 1950s’, European Review of Economic History, 16, 1, pp. 23-50, 2012
Higgins, David, and Steven Toms, ‘Public subsidy and private divestment: the Lancashire cotton textile industry, c.1950-c.1965’, Business History, 42, 2000, 1,
HM Government, A Green Future: Our 25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment (2018)
Phillips, Jim, ‘The Moral Economy and Deindustrialisation in the Scottish Coalfields, 1947-1991’, International Labor and Working Class History, Ixxxiv, 201, pp. 99-115
Roodhouse, Mark, Black Market Britain: 1939-1955 (Oxford, 2013)

[1] The author is a member of Greenpeace but writes in a personal capacity. He acknowledges the valuable insights of Matt Carmichael, David Moon, Chris Prior and Mark Roodhouse on early drafts of this essay.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Plastic Economics

Economics 101

If supply is increased, price goes down.
If price goes down demand rises.
If demand rises production is stimulated.

Plastic stuff requires a supply of raw material (oil or recycled plastic).
If we recycle our plastic stuff we increase the supply of the raw material and the price of plastic will go down and demand will rise and production of plastic stuff will be stimulated. We end up with more plastic stuff.

If we send our used plastic for incineration the supply of raw material will be reduced and the price will rise. The higher price will stimulate production of oil. Increased supply will result in a drop in the price of the plastic’s raw material….

Oh my head hurts.

Let’s just not use plastic, at least for stuff that gets thrown away soon after first use.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

The Past is a Foreign Country

"The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there", said L. P. Hartley in The Co Between.

It may have been only six years ago but nobody had said 'Me Too' and organisations did not have the word 'safeguarding' as the title to a document attached to every action.

Now nobody wants to condone the actions of bad people who have done bad things but we need to be very cautious about judging folk by today's standards for their behaviour conducted in the past when different standards were the societal norm.

The Oxfam affair is particularly disturbing, not so much because their past internal governance did not meet today's standards, but because of the attack on their integrity by such a wide range of establishment players. The fact that it was sparked by Rod Liddle writing in The Times should, of itself, have sounded warning bells.

Two blog pieces from Richard Murphy make essential reading. Please read them:

11th February

12th February

Now an important thing to note, just a few days after Jacob Rees-Mogg launched his campaign of opposition to foreign aid, is that Oxfam, of all the big aid charities, has been to the fore in pointing out what is wrong with the world. And it does not make happy reading for many in the British establishment and the UK Government in particular, since their findings directly confront government policy.

Here are some examples:

Reward Work, Not Wealth: To end the inequality crisis, we must build an economy for ordinary working people, not the rich and powerful.

Safe but Not Settled: The impact of family separation on refugees in the UK

Write to Your MP:
Stop Uk Arms Sales Fuelling Sufferring in Yemen
Please do click the links and see what Oxfam have been up to.

There is plenty more: Oxfam publications.

Now is it really any wonder that the Oxfam is not the Government's favourite NGO? There must many people who would be very keen to see Oxfam's reputation trashed. A six-year old prostitution scandal, long dealt with by the sacking of the perpetrators, has given the real bad boys an opportunity to further their fell work.

Let us defend Oxfam. I'm off to the local shop to stock up on Divine chocolate.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Silent Winter - Where have all the birds gone?

For the last several years I've spent an hour of the last Sunday morning in January doing the Big Garden Bird Watch. This year the count has been the lowest ever. We've a pretty big plot, over six acres, and over the years the garden round the house has gradually spread into what 40 years ago was a barley field and is not a mosaic of trees, shrubberies, rough grass and flower meadow with ponds. The ecological diversity has increased immeasurably and its value as a wildlife haven has increased year by year over the thirty years we been here.

But this year, where are the birds?

I walked across the field at first light to the village shop and saw overhead perhaps 150 pigeons and 36 black-headed gulls on the football pitch. There were a couple of dozen of each of jackdaws and rooks flapping about the house and tall trees in the garden. But when I went for my one hour wander round the garden later in the morning I was struck by the stillness. I was expecting something like this as I have noticed that the rate at which the peanuts and mixed seed in my bird feeders has gone down more slowly this winter than in previous years. It's been a mild winter here; the lowest temperature I've recorded has been -1°C and there's plenty of natural bird food about so I've not been to concerned.

So what I saw was:

1 Great Spotted Woodpecker
1 Magpie
3 Blackbired
6 Great tits
2 Chaffinch
2 Wren
2 Robin
1 Pheasant

What I heard were 3 or 4 curlew.

But the significant thing was what wasn't there:

Greenfinch, once our commonest small bird but not been around much for a few years
Blue tits, once more common than great tits
Tree Sparrow, once commoner than house sparrow
House Sparrow, we had three pairs nesting last spring but not here this morning
Dunnock, there's usually been a few about but not today

Sunday, January 14, 2018

The Keeling Schadenfreude Game

This graph shows the increase in atmospheric CO2 since 1958. It's probably the best proxy measurement of how we are changing the Earth's climate. The higher number, the warmer we are going to get.

and over the last two years.

It goes up in the northern winter and then drops back in the summer as the great northern boreal forests do their photosynthesis. The increase from one year to the next is our bit from burning fossil carbon in the coal, oil and gas. It's been going up by a couple of ppm per year with the rate increasing slightly. About half the CO2 is absorbed by the oceans, making the water more acid, and the rest stays in the air, mostly for centuries and millennia.  If we are to avoid global warming and ocean acidification we must stop the increase, reverse it and reduce back to the 300 level. Our current activity continues to increase it.

Now here's the Keeling's Schadenfreude Game.

You have to guess what the peak CO2 concentration will be in May 2018.  We'll use the weekly average figure from the data supplied by Scrips from the Mauna Lao observatory, where Charles Keeling first made his observations.

Here are some numbers to help guide your guess, the peaks for the last half dozen years:

Mauna Loa data from Scrips :

Date of maximum

Increase from previous year
12/05/2012 397.28
25/05/2013 400.22 2.94
31/05/2014 402.12 1.9
23/05/2015 403.85 1.73  (La Niña)
28/05/2016 407.92 4.07  (El Niño)
20/05/2017 410.18 2.26

What will the 2018 figure in this record be?

Give your forecast to 2 decimal places.

For the record, I'm guessing 412.74 

See if you can get closer. Send us your guess by posting in the comments below or posting it on facebook in the Climate Geek Group or send a tweet, using #KeelingGame to 
Biff Vernon #FBPE @transitionlouth

The Winner will be announced at the end of May.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Microfibre ocean pollution

There's been some talk about plastics in the ocean recently, particularly in the wake of Blue Planet 2.
Most of the talk has been about the big bits of plastic we can see. Much was made about a report that showed that most of the plastic in the oceans had been washed there from 10 rivers, mostly in Asia and Africa.

I happened to be in Glasgow last week and tried to enjoy the cityscape over the River Clyde. Here's my holiday snap:

All that plastic, and much much more out of camera view. I don't suppose the City Council or other body will see to its prompt removal so it will be all washed to the ocean with the next flood. On a per capita basis, the good citizens of Glasgow (and doubtless the rest of Britain) are probably more responsible for ocean pollution than those who live on the banks of the Ganges.

This week the Government launched its 25 Year Environment Plan. Download the 151 page document here.

There is no mention in that report of microfibres.


Is it an issue that doesn't fit the government's political agenda? Not an issue that the public are concerned about so little political capital to be gained? Is the problem just too hard to find a solution to?

'Out of sight, out of mind' has long been a phrase used by people pressing for better sewage treatment and great progress in this area over recent decades, but microfibres are even further out of sight. How many people realise that the fibres released from a domestic wash can be counted in millions?

Could it even be that the civil servants who wrote the plan and who wrote Mrs May's speech are unaware of the issue? It's hardly credible; there has been plenty written about the problem.

You've not seen much? Oh, let me help; here's my results from a quick search on the Internet. Happy reading.

November 2017
September 2017
March 2017
June 2016
January 2013
September 2011

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Now Is a Moment

Someone asked a serious question: "Why aren't more people actually embarrassed or ashamed about their personal contribution to our deteriorating atmosphere? Instead, high carbon activities like flying are typically celebrated on social media."
One of the greatest pieces of poetry in the English literature is The Prelude. (Greatest as in longest and some folk subjectively think it's great in other respects.) It was written by a young bloke called Wordsworth and was the based on a trip he made to Italy and back. He lived before planes were invented so flying wasn't an option and he wasn't, at the time, rich enough to afford one of those methane-belching horse-drawn carriages, so he and his mate Coleridge, went on foot, with a sailing boat across the Channel. After his return he lived a rich and fulfilling life, mostly in the Lake District, where he continued to spend much of his time walking. His lifetime carbon footprint must have been negligible, well within the carrying capacity of the planet, his tree-planting and gardening activities probably sequestering as much carbon as he burnt in his fireplace.

Wordsworth's life was not only rich and fulfilled but also he left us the legacy of his work that should inspire and enrich our lives.

Two centuries on and with so much more knowledge and understanding, we should have the wit and wisdom to be able to live a zero-carbon lifestyle. With the recent catastrophic flooding in several countries around the world, now is the moment when we should shout with renewed vigour that everything has to change, including, or even especially, ourselves.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Gate (fragments)

Oak, old and new. 2017
Re-assemblage of fragments of old garden gate, honouring the skill and life of an unknown village carpenter from a previous century, and the complexity of the human networks that touched this wood. With a speculation on the future.

The industrial revolution crept up slowly to the Lincolnshire Marsh, electricity making it to some parts only after the 1953 flood.  Long before that a village craftsman made a gate. Just an ordinary garden gate, from oak, using only hand tools and with no nails or screws, just held together with pegged mortice and tenon joints. The gate served its purpose for many decades, perhaps a century. It must have been a satisfying job when completed and the customer pleased to receive it, the work of a skilled man fulfilling a valued role.
Inevitably time took its toll and the gate gradually fell into disrepair. By 1990 its post had rotted through and for the next twenty years it filled a gap but had to be lifted and replaced rather than swung on its hinges. Eventually its joints gave out; the gate fell apart and was consigned to the firewood pile.
Fragments survived, their shape and the remains of pegged tenons in their mortices, catching the eye. Here was a reminder of a long forgotten craftsman’s work. Could, should, these fragments be preserved to honour the unknown labour and skill therein embodied?
The gate’s history stretches back into time. A century or more before the carpentry began someone must have sown an acorn and planted and nurtured a young oak sapling. It may have been local. There are plantations along the Marsh edge at the foot of the Lincolnshire Wolds, perhaps remnants of ancient forest but felled and replanted many times over the centuries. Or the timber may have travelled from the Baltic. A trade bringing Russian oak to Boston was ongoing in medieval times and continues to this day. Perhaps these wood fragments come from timber first cut by a water-powered sawmill in some Baltic state. The boards would then have been transhipped in coasters arriving at Saltfleet or to Tetney for onward transport on the Louth Navigation.
Wherever the timber was grown and felled, converted to boards and delivered to the gate-maker, that wood must have touched many people’s lives, foresters, shipbuilders, sailors, carriers, merchants and all the people who service their needs. The vast network of the political economy of a continent through time is linked to a few fragments of wood.
And so the oak boards arrived at the village carpenters workshop. He may have left them, ‘in stick’, to dry out, the boards separated by half-inch thick sticks to allow the wind to pass through the stack. Imagine the conversations round a kitchen table discussing whether to order a new gate from the village carpenter. The purchase of such a thing would not have been trivial and the buyer may, justifiably, have expected the gate to outlive him. How often can we say that about the things we buy now?
The gate did indeed outlast both its maker and owner. When I first came to it, 1987, its original post had already been replaced by a new timber, repurposed from elsewhere. But the gate itself was fragile, crumbling and the hinges rusted. After a few more years it was propped open, the gap in the garden wall not really needing to be closed. Perhaps the gate was put there just for the sake of appearance or maybe the enclosure had been home for a pig.
After thirty years in my possession the gate was finally consigned to the firewood pile, but the circle of the peg-end on a broken joint caught my eye. Three pieces were laid to one side. These are now presented as an homage to the man who made the gate and all the people, unknown and unknowable, whose lives were touched by these pieces of wood.
What of their future? I shall keep them safe as long as I am able and then one day other hands may discard them, or, a little hope, perhaps by naming the fragments as a sculpture, a work of art, they will be kept for longer. What is the chance that, in perhaps half a millennium, when global warming has caused sea level to rise sufficiently for the Lincolnshire Marsh to be abandoned to the Greater North Sea, Gate (fragments) will survive in some museum of older days?

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Wage Growth

On 3rd July 2017 the Office of Manpower Services published a report, Wage Growth in Pay Review Body Occupations.

This research report, by Alex Bryson of UCL and John Forth of NIESR, describes earnings growth among Pay Review Body (PRB) occupations. It compares that growth to earnings growth in comparable non-PRB occupations.

"Averaging across all 353 occupations in the UK’s Standard Occupational Classification, there was a decline of 5.8% in median real gross hourly occupational earnings between 2005 and 2015."

The drop would have been greater had the time period measured been 2007 - 2017, the years from 2005 to the unravelling of the banking system a couple of years later being a period of strong wage growth. Many individual experiences are far from the median.

Had the successive governments been honest and told the public that the 2007-8 financial crisis would lead to such a substantial drop in income for such a substantial proportion of the public one can but speculate what might have happened.

In the wake of the crisis most people were unaffected. We could no longer shop in Woolworths or several other familiar high street shops, but these changes could, at least in part, be blamed on other factors such as on-line shopping. Unemployment rates did not rise suddenly; instead there was a reduction in overtime working, cuts in regular hours and more part-time working. Again the picture was muddied by the growth of zero-hours contracts and the gig-economy. House building came to a sudden slowdown but the effects, in rising house prices as QE money found a safe haven in bricks and mortar, was not felt immediately and then only by that sector of the population involved in house purchases.

Although some people's lives were drastically affected, for the population as a whole the financial crisis had little obvious effect on day-to-day living. The governments, under both Gordon Brown and David Cameron, did a good job of burying the bad news. It is only now, a decade on, that we see just what an economic catastrophe it was for the majority of the population. The distractions of the EU referendum have further compounded the issue. While the financial crisis was global in extent, a very different situation is found elsewhere. Comparative data from other European countries shows that the last seven years of Tory governance has involved a dreadful mishandling of the economy.

The failures of the banking system and of our government have been successfully hidden from the British population.

Anyway, here's the report, published yesterday, with no government fanfare. They probably don't want you to read it.

Wage Growth in Pay Review Body Occupations.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Campaign by Carol Ann Duffy


In which her body was a question mark querying her lies;
her mouth a ballot-box that bit the hand that fed.
Her eyes? They swivelled for a jackpot win.
Her heart was a stolen purse;
her rhetoric an vicarage, the windows smashed.
Then her feet grew sharp stilettos, awkward.
Then she had balls, believe it.
When she woke, her nose was bloody, difficult.
The furious young ran towards her through the fields of wheat.

Carol Ann Duffy

About her

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Victoria Atkins Breaks Election Law (again)

In the 2015 general election the Conservative Party candidate and her agent broke the electoral law. I described it all HERE

Victoria Atkins was, nevertheless, elected as MP for Louth and Horncastle.

To place a poster on the highway, and that means the publicly owned land including all the verge between tarmac and fence line, is a breach of electoral law and this is clearly explained in the documentation that the candidate, Victoria Atkins, and her agent will have received when her nomination was submitted.

Despite this, and despite knowing what happened in 2015, the photograph below suggests she's done it again.

Has this candidate again shown no respect for the law?

Partney Road, Spilsby, Lincolnshire.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Skunk Cabbage and Monty Don

Almost four years ago I wrote a little piece about Himalayan Balsam. It's here:
It's Himalayan Balsam flowering season again.

Last night Monty Don, on BBC2's Gardeners' World, told us all about the terrible scourge overwhelming us that is Skunk Cabbage, Lysichiton americanus. I wondered just what harm, exactly, was this rather spectacular plant doing. So I did, as one does, a bit of Googling.

Photo: Kfediuk

First up was this from an RSPB site (what more responsible body than the RSPB, I thought).
Skunk Cabbage - Lysichiton americanus
Stephen Corcoran, biodiversity officer at the Cairngorms National Park Authority, said: “The Cairngorms National Park is one of the most important areas for biodiversity in the UK with a fascinating range of native plants and animals. We want to keep this a special place and it is vital that we all help to prevent non-native species from becoming established. This is because some non-native plants and animals can threaten the National Park’s biodiversity by out-breeding or out-growing our native plants and animals. These non-native species can spread diseases and result in significant economic impacts on our agriculture, forestry and fisheries. I recommend that you choose native plants or plants suggested in Plantlife’s “A guide to plants you can use in place of invasive non-natives” leaflet available on their website ( in your garden. By making this choice you will help to prevent the spread of invasive plants like skunk cabbage.”

Stephen Corcoran doesn't really tell us exactly what harm it does vaguely alludes to threats to biodiversity, spread of disease and economic impacts. He gives no references to scientific research.
So I checked the Non Native Species Secretariat(NNSS). This is the responsible government-sponsored organisation and ought to know best. Here's what they say about disease:
In GB gardens, skunk cabbage is generally free of diseases

Or did Corcoran mean diseases affecting people?  The NNSS again:
Health and Social Impact: None known.

Ah well, what about the "significant economic impacts on our agriculture, forestry and fisheries" of which Corcoran write.

Economic Impact: None known.
Now far be it from me to suggest that the RSPB is just making stuff up, but if what they say is not backed up by the responsible government body then they ought, at least, to provide references to the evidence that backs up their assertions.

Of course for the NNSS to have L. americanus on their list there must, surely, be some problem. But what is it? They say it's been grown in gardens since 1901 and escaped by 1947. They give the 'species status' as "Widespread (c.400 hectads) but not generally common. It is apparently increasing in lowland and semi-upland Britain except for the English Midlands and drier parts of Eastern England." I'm not sure that 'apparently is a useful scientific term, but this statement does not suggest imminent skunk cabbage armageddon.
So let's see how the NNSS describes what environmental impact can be attributed to this invasive:
Sanderson (2013) reported a significant decrease in numbers of associates within two riverine woodlands invaded by Lysichiton americanus in the New Forest, Hampshire, UK. Reports of it having similar adverse impacts on swamp communities in Germany require confirmation for naturally-spreading populations, as at the most affected site it had been deliberately planted in many different locations by a gardener.
That Sanderson (2013) looks like a reference to science though the NNSS does not actually provide a proper publication source. Google Scholar, however, finds it in milliseconds. And it turns out that it is not a reference to a paper published in a recognised peer-reviewed scientific journal but is, rather, a report of a study conducted by N A Sanderson BSc MSc for Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust. Here it is.
I'm tempted to point out the various flaws which, had this report been submitted for peer-review in the hope of publication, an independent reviewer might have sent it back for revision, but let's not go there. It is worth noting that the report was commissioned by the Wildlife Trust for The New Forest Non-Native Plants Project. Now this is a project which jumps in to its task on the back of some major assumptions. This from the NNSS again:
The New Forest Non-Native Plants Project was established in May 2009 to stop the spread of invasive non-native plants in the New Forest area, particularly in wetland habitats and along rivers and streams.
The Project aims to:
identify where these plants are a problem;
arrange for control work to be carried out by volunteers and contractors;
commission research into control methods;
raise awareness of the need to control these plants and to prevent them spreading into our countryside.
So there we have it, the project has decided before it starts that there is a problem. The first aim is not to established scientifically rigorous evidence for whether or not there is a problem. The existence of a problem is already settled and the project just has to locate it and deal with it, whatever it is.
And just to get the emotional framing established they present a picture with a scary sign, not exactly the radiation symbol or other standard hazard warning sign, but the message is clear.

But surely the good folk of the Wildlife Trust and the NNSS are not making it all up for no good reason; there must be a problem. For sure, where L. americanus grows it, like any plant, native or not, must have displaced something else. It grows rapidly with large leave that can shade out smaller plants so where it gets established it can form mono-species stands. But this only happens in quite restricted areas since it requires very wet, boggy land. There is no way that it is going to spread away from the bogs. So we came to the issue of biodiversity. Other things being equal, adding a species to a habitat increases biodiversity. A decrease only occurs if it replaces and excludes the existing species. And we really should think about the area we are talking about. If an invasive species establishes a stand that excludes others over a few square metres or tens of square metres that might not indicate a lowering of biodiversity, if the pre-existing plants are thriving in their own stand a little way off.  That is, after all, how many native plants operate. Think nettles or great willow herb.
What we need is evidence that the establishment of L. americana has put in jeopardy the existence of other species in the overall area of study.  It may have done but I've not found the evidence reported in the scientific literature and so think it is best not to jump to conclusions.
Biodiversity is, of course, not just about the plants, but involves the whole ecosystem. Where is the study that describes which insects benefit from L. americana, if any? Certainly the smell of the Skunk Cabbage is popularly considered to attract flies and beetles. What is the ecosystem-wide impact of the introduction of such an attractive (to beetles) new addition?

Scientific knowledge is always provisional, nothing is ever proven, and it may be that the escape of an invasive species is deleterious to the environment, but very often it is not. There may be a bit of elbowing and shuffling around before a new dynamic sort of stability is achieved but do let us avoid jumping to conclusions on the basis of hearsay and prejudice and ensure that our policies and actions are evidence-based.

P.S. Legislation: American skunk cabbage is not actually listed under Schedule 9 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act in England and Wales (2010) as an offence to plant or otherwise cause to grow in the wild.