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.

Sunday, May 07, 2017

Compost and Global Warming


I’m not too sure about talking about compost to allotment holders – they will know all about the subject already. So I want to set the business in the context of global warming, the existential crisis facing humanity. Perhaps such an approach might give rise to some fresh thinking.
Let’s look at why we make compost. The two obvious things are
1.       To improve the soil
2.       To get rid of waste vegetable matter.
But there are a couple of other aspects I’d like to include:
3.       Biodiversity
4.       Global Warming
As you probably all know, the addition of organic matter to the soil improves fertility. Humus binds to clay particles and allows them to hang on to plant nutrient elements that would otherwise be leached out of the soil as rainwater drains through. The organic matter also provides food directly for mycorrhizal fungi. These are essential for many plants, helping in the breakdown of minerals to provide nutrients and in transporting nutrients through the soil, effectively acting as an extended root system.
The food we take from a veg plot is only a small part of the biomass that grows each year. We have to do something with the rest and we don’t want to lose the mineral matter it contains since this will be needed by the next year’s crop. Composting is an essential step in the cycle.
Let’s look closer at this cycle. Actually it’s more complicated than a simple circle so let’s take a system approach, looking at inputs and output to our veg plot. The output we actually want is the food we carry off and eat. This depletes our plot of the various elements it contains and have to be replaced by equivalent inputs.
After water, carbon is the main one, freely gained from the air by photosynthesis. Nitrogen comes next, also from the air but fixed with much greater difficulty. All the other elements are derived from the weathering of soil minerals, ultimately from the rocks below.  Some growers do a bit of cheating, they bring in nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous in the form of a bag of NPK fertiliser. This is just taking phosphate and potash from rocks elsewhere in the world and burning natural gas, methane, in the process required to fix nitrogen. This is ultimately unsustainable and organic permaculture seeks to avoid such inputs. If we get the soil right these inputs from afar are not needed and composting plays the key role here.
Let me say a bit about how I do the composting. Everybody’s situation is different and what suits me may not suit everybody. I’ve a large garden – six and a half acres in all – but much of it is growing trees or a meadow and doesn’t get involved in the composting business. I have a veg plot much the size of a standard allotment and some big areas of flower beds and lawns.
What goes into the compost? As far as I am concerned everything that was once alive is potential compost and that includes wood, eggshells, all food waste, lawn-mowings and anything else that once lived. I put kitchen waste into a plastic composting bin, along with a little garden waste and some lawn-mowings. Everything goes in, eggshells, meat and fish, orange peel and anything else you may have heard shouldn’t be composted! Using a bin keeps things that might be unsightly, tidy and stops rats and pheasants and foxes scattering the stuff about. Actually I have two such bins. When one is full I start the other and by the time that is full the first is done.

All the garden waste, except woody material, just goes onto a big pile. When the pile is big enough, maybe half a year’s worth, I start a new pile. Some folk are very keen to ensure that their compost reaches a high temperature and adding lawn-mowings usually heats things up quickly. The advantages are that composting goes faster and weed seeds are killed.
My experience is that however hot things get there are always parts that stay cool and weed enough weed seeds survive to make that objective never realised. It might in an industrial scale system but for domestic purposes expecting one’s compost heat to kill all the weeds seeds is to invite inevitable disappointment.
As for speed of composting, yes, that’s useful but I don’t get too hung up about that. It will rot eventually whatever you do and maybe we should extend the slow-food movement to slow-composting. Anyway, I’ve got plenty of space so there’s room for two heaps and a third if the first isn’t ready soon enough. If you are limited for space then speed may be more important and getting the optimum mixture of high-nitrogen waste such as lawn-mowings with coarser material, keeping the compost damp and neither too wet nor dry, and periodically turning it over, will all help to speed things along.
What of the woody material? This takes much longer to rot and while you don’t get much, if any, from a veg plot (fruit bush cuttings are about it), our garden certainly produces a great deal as we have a lot of trees and shrubs. Anything getting on for an inch thick goes to the woodpile and, when dry, will heat our house, but we still have masses of smaller woody stuff. We never have bonfires. Instead we just pile it up and if it takes several years to rot then so be it. Because I have plenty of space I don’t much mind if heaps of dead plant material are left lying about for a long time. I actually welcome this.
A few years ago I joined the fashion and made a bug hotel – a box with lots of hollow sticks for the wild solitary bees to nest in. We certainly have plenty of these bees but the hotel never got used, and the reason is pretty obvious. We have great heaps of slowly decaying sticks that produce veritable cities for the bugs and bees; why would they want an extra facility?
A large heap of woody material, slowly decomposing, is a biological factory producing biodiversity. Starting with the bacteria, algae and fungi, through the myriad of small creatures, the pile anchors the food chain all the way up to the badgers and buzzards. Yes it provides a hiding place for slugs and snails but it does the same for hedgehogs. That’s what the organic permaculture approach to food-growing is all about.
And so we come to the elephant in all our rooms, global warming. This, being the existential crisis facing humanity, ought to be the thing that dominates everything we do. The biggest factor is our habit of burning fossil carbon and so adding the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide to the air. The obvious solutions are to stop burning carbon and also to use photosynthesis to remove the CO2 already emitted and store the carbon. This is where the allotment holders can play their part. What we should try to do is maximise the amount of carbon stored on our plots.

Those piles of dead sticks are our contribution to global warming mitigation. The bonfire destroys all the good work. If we can get an extra tonne of carbon stored on our plot, whether in organic matter incorporated in the soil or woody stuff in heaps, that’s a tonne knocked off our carbon footprint. Every little helps.

Friday, May 05, 2017

Improving Air Quality in UK

Today, having been so ordered by the courts, the government has published its approach to Air Quality.

Here's the document:

And here's the consultation form:

It's all a bit rubbish but I filled it in anyway. Here are my responses to the main questions.

7. How satisfied are you that the proposed measures set out in this consultation will address the problem of nitrogen dioxide as quickly as possible?

We have two problems:
1. Air pollution leading to immediate adverse health effects
2. Greenhouse gas emissions leading to catastrophic global warming.
The solution to both problems must lie in the rapid removal of technologies that burn oil.
The proposed measures address neither the scale nor the urgency of either problem.

8. What do you consider to be the most appropriate way for local authorities in England to determine the arrangements for a Clean Air Zone, and the measures that should apply within it? What factors should local authorities consider when assessing impacts on businesses?

The concept of a 'Clean Air Zone' only addresses the issue of concentrated local pollution and has no bearing on global warming.
It is for national government to create the conditions in which the use of the internal combustion engine is ended.
Meanwhile, local authorities can create traffic-free zones in town centres and promote alternatives such as public electric mass transit systems.

9. How can government best target any funding to support local communities to cut air pollution? What options should the Government consider further, and what criteria should it use to assess them? Are there other measures which could be implemented at a local level, represent value for money, and that could have a direct and rapid impact on air quality? 

Central government funding should be provided to local authorities to carry out programme described in Q8 above.
The use of the phrase "value for money" is worrisome. What price is government attaching to the immediate health of its citizens and the long term survival of humanity?
Government should outlaw the supply and purchase of new vehicles with internal combustion engines and provide funding for the motor industry and its supply chain to change to electric vehicle production and provide funding to the renewable energy electricity generation industry to be able to cope with the increased demand.

10. How best can governments work with local communities to monitor local interventions and evaluate their impact?

If Government were committed to an evidence-based approach to policy, then the evidence of local pollution's direct health effects and the long term global warming effect would be taken seriously. There is no evidence in this consultation that this is the case.
Government should enable local communities to live without burning fossil carbon, the monitoring and evaluation of which is a trivial task compared with implementation.

11. Which vehicles should be prioritised for government-funded retrofit schemes?

'Retrofit' is not a useful concept. Internal combustion engines have to be removed and replaced with vehicles that do not pollute the air.

12. What type of environmental and other information should be made available to help consumers choose which cars to buy?

Since all new vehicles should be zero-emissions in use this question should focus on the carbon emissions embedded in manufacture and in electricity generation.

13. How could the Government further support innovative technological solutions and localised measures to improve air quality?

The whole energy and transport industries should be put onto a 'war-footing' to make the entire sector fossil fuel free  as fast as technically possible irrespective of short term expenditure.

14. Do you have any other comments on the draft UK Air Quality Plan for tackling nitrogen dioxide?

Do not pretend that there is anything 'evidence-based' about current policy-making when so little is being done to address the problem.

15 Overall, how satisfied are you with our online consultation tool?

Loaded questions which have prejudged assumptions built in. These will direct most responders to give a false account.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Trump and the Azolla Event

Azolla filiculoides

About 50 million years ago, at a time known as the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), atmospheric carbon dioxide levels were much higher than today, probably mostly because there had been a lot of volcanoes erupting over periods of many thousands of years. Consequently, average global temperatures were much higher; there was no ice at either pole and tropical vegetation spread over what is now the Arctic.

Then the CO2 levels dropped and temperatures declined.

Where did the carbon go?

The Arctic Ocean was all but cut off from the rest of the world's oceans as the gap between Norway and Greenland had not opened up. With large rivers and a much higher rainfall adding fresh water to the Arctic Ocean it seems likely that the water became stratified, the denser salt-water below and a layer of fresh water floating above. Over an area of perhaps four million square kilometers, a tiny little floating fern called Azolla could grow and spread across the surface.

Azolla can grow very fast, drawing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. As the plants died their remains sank to the bottom into an anoxic environment where the carbon remained and was buried. Over a period of almost a million years countless trillions of Azolla plants sequestered enough carbon to reduce the atmospheric CO2 content by perhaps 80%, ending the intense greenhouse effect and allowing a cooler climate to return.

Azolla forms a symbiotic relationship with the cyanobacterium Anabaena azollae, which fixes atmospheric nitrogen, giving the plant access to this essential nutrient. Given sufficient phosphates, it romps away, doubling its mass every few days. In south-east Asia it has been traditionally cultivated in rice paddies, leaving a nitrogen-rich mulch when the fields are drained.

In Britain it is regarded as a non-native invasive species but the adverse effects, if any, are not very serious. See Non Native Species Secretariat. Of course in these days of xenophobia and distrust of all things foreign, there is a prejudice against all non-native species that goes way beyond the rational, and anyway, Azolla grew in the British Isles before the last Ice Age cleared it out. It just didn't make it back till Victorian plant collectors and gardeners re-introduced it.

But really we should regard Azolla as the plant that, more than any other species, saved planet Earth from a Venusian fate of runaway greenhouse heating, returning the global climates to a state in which the human species could evolve. Perhaps we owe it one.

And what of Trump? The President's recent action to allow drilling for oil and gas in the Arctic is particularly crass. The Azolla beds form part of the source rock for the hydrocarbons that he thinks should be extracted and burnt, undoing all the good work that this little fern did for us 49 million years ago.

The Azolla Foundation provides much more information and links to the literature.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

My letter to EU President Tusk

The e-mail that I just sent to

To: His Excellency Mr Doald Tusk
The President, Council of the European Union
Rue de la Loi/Wetstraat 175
B-1048 Brussels

29 March 2017

Dear Mr Tusk,

Notice of Individual A50 dissent

I refer to the Treaty on European Union as amended by the Treaty of Lisbon signed on 13 December 2007 in Lisbon.

I am informed that notice has been given to the European Council by the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, pursuant to Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon, of the intention of the British government to withdraw the United Kingdom (the “UK”) from the European Union (the “EU”).

As a British national and citizen of the EU, I hereby notify the Council of my dissent from and objections to this act of the British government. For the avoidance of doubt, I do not consent to being deprived of my European Citizenship or the rights conferred by that citizenship. Further, quite apart from not having my consent, I contend that, contrary to its claim, the British government does not have a democratic mandate from the people of the UK to leave the EU and accordingly I object to and contest the validity of its notice served under Article 50.2.

While reserving my position on whether the British government has complied with the requirements of Article 50.1, the basis for my opposition to its notice of intention to withdraw is that the referendum, which is the source of the mandate claimed by the British government, was fundamentally flawed as set out below.

I contend that the result of the referendum should be treated as void (notwithstanding that it was non-binding in any event) for the following reasons (inter alia):

(a) During the months prior to the referendum, voters were subjected to an onslaught of misrepresentations by those campaigning and in the British news and social media, much of which took the form of distortions of facts that were calculated to mislead readers. As a result, the majority of voters were either uninformed or wrongly informed about the pertinent issues and by no stretch of the imagination could the referendum result truthfully be described as a democratic exercise in informed choice;

(b) Only 37.5% of those eligible to vote, voted in favour of leaving the EU (17.4 million persons);

(c) Several million British nationals who arguably should have been eligible to vote, were excluded from doing so. Those excluded comprised, amongst others (i) the entire 16-18 age group, although the same group were able to vote in the recent Scottish referendum on independence; (ii) non-UK EU member state nationals resident in the UK, although nationals of Commonwealth nations and Eire resident in the UK were able to vote; and (iii) British nationals who had been resident outside the UK for more than 15 years, including those residing in the EU; and

(d) In spite of a large body of evidence that in the 9 months since the referendum was held a sizeable fraction of those who voted to leave the EU have changed their minds as the issues have crystallised, the British government refused a second referendum before giving notice to the Council.

In conclusion, I humbly request that my objection to being forcibly deprived of my European Citizenship and corresponding rights is noted and acted upon by the Council. Further, I request that the Council note my grounds for objecting to the British government's notice of intention to leave the EU and take them into account in its response to that notice.

Please be good enough to acknowledge this communication.


Sunday, February 05, 2017

Anarchism - from David Fleming's Lean Logic

Anarchism.  “Anarchism”, from the Greek an and arches, means “no chief” – hence “no rule”, but there is more than one way of interpreting this, and it has been anarchism’s big problem that people tend to settle on the wrong one – the idea of anarchy as mere chaos.  It was in this sense that John Milton used it – as the state of affairs...
Where eldest Night                   
And Chaos, ancestors of Nature, hold
Eternal anarchy amidst the noise
Of endless wars, and by confusion stand;
For hot, cold, moist and dry, four champions fierce,
Strive here for mast'ry.                                                   (Paradise Lost, book ii, lines 894-899)
Secondly, there is the main body of anarchist literature.  We cannot really speak of “mainstream” anarchism, because anarchist writers, as you might expect, have tended to disagree with each other.  But there is a fundamental proposition in common: governments have a poor, even catastrophic, record, guided by almost any motive other than the interests of the people to whom they are in principle responsible.  If governments could somehow be persuaded or forced to back off, the people could make a far better job of things.
There are some famous names in this literature, and they deserve a mention: [i]
o  William Godwin (1756-1836)  argued that the guide to our actions should be reason, the logic of the Enlightenment.  Once people have a rational understanding of their duties, there is no need for such sensibilities as honour, generosity, gratitude, promises, or even affections; nor for such limitations on individual judgment as marriage, orchestras or the theatre, nor, of course, for government.  He did admit that this enlightened deference to reason would not be easy to achieve; it would require ceaseless vigilance and self-examination, he supposed, but beyond that, there were no suggestions about how it was to be done, and Godwin’s rule of logic lives on in the literature both as perhaps the most heroic of all statements of the perfect society, a fantasy with remarkable staying power, for here we are considering it two centuries later.[ii]
o  Max Stirner (1806-1856) took individualism as far as it would go: no state, government, private property, religion, family, ethics, love or associations beyond what individuals happen to want, when they want it. [iii]
o  Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) looked to the Gospels for the peace and love, which is all that is needed, he claimed, to sustain society without governments, laws, police, armies and private property. [iv]
o  Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865) was an early, and strong supporter of localisation: the best safeguard of liberty and justice lies in food producers and craftsmen working together in cooperatives. [v]
o  Michael Bakunin (1814-1876) looked to the violent overthrow of the state, and its replacement as a bottom-up federation of trade-unions (anarcho-syndicalism).[vi]
o  Peter Kropotkin (1842-1921) developed his advocacy of the abolition of private property and communal living in an extended and valuable discussion of land, biodynamic farming, decentralised urban planning, technology and the history of effective local action.[vii]
Matthew Arnold’s orderly anarchism
For Matthew Arnold (1822-1888), the cohesive principle is a common culture.  By “culture” what he had in mind was the very highest standards, “a pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world.” [viii]  Later critics picked him up on this: culture is not limited to the best; it is, less ambitiously, the common story and tradition of a *community – but Arnold’s point holds: the way in which a community can preserve itself from anarchy (in its chaotic, Miltonian sense), is to build a community which is interesting enough to recognise itself as a particular place with its own identity, loyalties and obligation.  The outcome, as Arnold put it (the above sentence fills in the logic which Arnold does not spell out) is that a community learns “to like what right reason ordains.”[ix]
The common factor for most of these (but not Matthew Arnold, box) is the desire to see the end of government, and the most explicit statement of this is Bakunin’s anarcho-syndicalism, which sees trade unions as the spearhead of revolution, destroying both the government and the capitalism that sustains it.  In this way, the strengths of traditional anarchism’s positive visions and insights were impaired by the tendency to focus on one ideal solution – an ideology in its own right – as the magic pain that had to be endured first, before anarchism itself could have a chance.  A broader, more real vision was suggested by Alexander Herzen (1812-1870), who warned of the consequences of *abstraction, and insisted, instead, on the case for focusing on the local, the feasible, the practical, tangible, the proven – on the freedom to make and care for the particular place.  It was this grounded vision which, a century later, was taken up by Colin Ward.[x]
For Ward, anarchy (or, perhaps less confrontationally, “anarchism”) is the study of organisation – of rule of a particular kind: self-rule, the orderly habits and interactions that come into being with the formation and maintenance of human groups.  Anarchism, as Ward explains,
is about the ways in which people organise themselves, [xi] 
Anarchists are people who make a social and political philosophy out of the natural and spontaneous tendency of humans to associate together for their mutual benefit. [xii]
As Ward points out, the reality underlying this is undeniable: the speed, efficiency and *imagination with which people bring order to a situation which has potential for chaos is revealed whenever a group of people are aligned, in the sense of having a common interests and a common purpose.  It applies, for instance, at times of protest – at Climate Camp in the United Kingdom in 2008, for instance, and in the uprisings in Budapest in 1956 and in Prague in 1968, when good order and altruism were as solid as the commitment to sustain the revolutions.  During the Hungarian uprising, it was the custom in Budapest... 
... to put big boxes on street corners, and just a script over them, “This is for the wounded and for the families of the dead”.  They were set out in the morning and by noon they were full of money.[xiii]
Happenings like these are exceptional, of course.  In due course the revolutions are either suppressed or successful, and things go back to normal, and yet they have something to tell us which could be useful.  Among the students of revolution who have noticed the remarkably competent groupings and councils that come into being if given a chance, Hannah Arendt writes ... 
Each time they appeared, they sprang up as the spontaneous organs of the people, not only outside of all revolutionary parties but entirely unexpected by them and their leaders.  They were utterly neglected by statesmen, historians, political theorists and, most importantly, by the revolutionary tradition itself.  [Even sympathetic historians] regarded them as nothing more than essentially temporary organs in the revolutionary struggle for liberation; that is to say, they failed to understand to what extent the council system confronted them with an entirely new form of government, with a new public space for freedom. [xiv]  
The emphasis here is on what can be done in practice (a bottom-up way of thinking), rather than on ambitions about having to do a lot of demolition first. 
On the other hand, the state’s natural reflex is to make things difficult, even without intending to do so.  The essential freedoms and resources which enable local action are eroded by governments, and, in some cases, such as education, their elimination is comprehensive.  And in terms of sheer practical possibility, too, the option of effective local community is becoming more remote: it is harder to make practical sense of things, for instance, in a locality which has lost its post office, hospital, school, surgery, shops, abattoir, railway station, local trades, church, magistrates court, probation services and local presence in farmland, and where it is difficult to decide on a collective celebration, owing to (amongst other things) prohibitions on grounds of health and safety, the fees and lead-times needed for an entertainments licence, and the sense that there is no cultural expression which does not exclude or offend many or most of the people living there.  
And yet, anarchism, in the cool, practical, local sense intended by Colin Ward, recognises that we innate community-builders ought to concentrate on what we can positively do.  We have a talent for order, and the inherited culture and accomplishments of the modern world are mainly the product of this talent.  The history of social inventions, the institutions and social capital that give us existence as a recognisable and living society, is the history of anarchism in this sense.  Medicine – the science and the institutions – were the product of voluntary persistence, backed by charitable donations, as were the schools and universities.  The whole of our inheritance of education was invented and made to happen by citizens, investing their time and talent in schools and colleges, in teaching as a creative skill in its own right, in sustaining diversity, and in increasing access.  Even such fundamentals as insurance against accident, sickness and loss of income – arranged through the friendly societies, and owned by their members – were voluntary enterprises and, from their start in the eighteenth century to their displacement by a state system in 1911, they had expanded their reach to almost universal coverage of working people.  The organic movement began as a citizens’ inspiration, developing its authority and its scientific standing by using its freedom to decide for itself.[xv] 
The weak point in that capacity for invention – in the spontaneous order that is the primary aim and accomplishment of anarchism – is that it is exposed to the distrust and jealously of centralising governments.  If it works, it tends to be taken over, and the spontaneous order tends to die. 
Anarchism has had its moments.  There are insights there that are relevant to a future of insolvent government, a deeply diminished economy, and no alternative for communities other than to invent everything for themselves, including the meaning of community.  Lean Logic will borrow from it, and will mix it with other lines of enquiry which most anarchists would have been horrified by.  But, then, anarchists have always had trouble with their allies.[xvi]

[i].              Note that Ted Honderich (1995), The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, is a helpful first reference on anarchy and its main thinkers (though it omits Colin Ward).
[ii].             William Godwin (1793), An Enquiry Concerting Political Justice and its Influence on Modern Morals and Happiness; William Godwin (1794), Caleb Williams.  For an accessible summary of Godwin’s anarchist thought, see Roy Porter (2000), Enlightenment, pp 455-459.
[iii].            Peter Marshall (2010), Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism, pp 220-234.
[iv].           Ibid, pp 362-384.
[v].            Ibid, pp 234-263.
[vi].           Ibid, pp 263-309.
[vii].          See Peter Kropotkin (1899), Fields, Factories and Workshops especially in the (1974) edition by Colin Ward.  See also Kropotkin’s The Conquest of Bread and Mutual Aid.  [Publication details to follow]
[viii].         Matthew Arnold (1869), Culture And Anarchy, p 6.
[ix].           Ibid, p 82.
[x].            For more detail on Alexander Herzen see Abstraction.
[xi].           Colin Ward (1985), Anarchy in Action p 4.
[xii].          Ibid, p 15.
[xiii].         BBC sound archive cited in Ward (1985), p 34.
[xiv].         Hannah Arendt (1965), On Revolution, pp 260, 267, 252-253, check. 
[xv].          A major influence on Ward’s thinking was Percival Goodman and Paul Goodman (1947, 1960), Communitas: Means of Livelihood and Ways of Life, at it remains a core text of the anarchist literature, especially in the context of land use and planning.  For brief histories of the evolution of medicine, education and social security in the United Kingdom, see James Bartholemew (2004), The Welfare State We’re In.
[xvi].         See also José Peréz Adán (1992), Reformist Anarchism.