Friday, 27 September 2013

Review of 'Blackout'

I recently watched Channel 4's drama 'Blackout', which I was tipped off about by a post by Jason Heppenstall on 22 Billion Energy Slaves. It is about Britain facing a week-long, nationwide power cut and how different people react to the impending shortages. The BBC aired a similarly themed programme in 2004 called 'If The Lights Go Out', which is also worth a watch (see end of post). It has more interviews with experts and less 'dramatisation' than Blackout. With Blackout I was left wondering if they had started with all the images of looting from 2011, and thought how can we knit this into a plot.

The prospect of facing blackouts in the UK is very real, as mentioned previously. I like to follow Mike Pepler's blog Peak Oil Update for a good summary of the situation in the UK - in short expect high prices and energy shortages. A power cut that encompasses the whole country for a week is a severe situation and beyond our current experience though. We have been rather lulled into a false sense of security over the past few decades, because power cuts haven't been particularly common or widespread, with the main cause being severe weather damage, although strikes have led to shortages in the past. At the same time our dependence on electricity has grown. Central heating systems are electrically controlled, wages are paid electronically, and communication is via mobiles and email which rely on power sources for the individual units and the networks. We used to just have a landline phone and the postman. Imagine that ;-)

It is the fear of violence, which switches most people off dealing with the possibility of prolonged power cuts. Whereas many aspects of power cuts could be prepared for at an individual and community level, the media projections of mass looting and rioting help to paralyse us.

Violence, especially random, anger-fuelled violence, is scary for me too. So a few years back I carried out some research. I'm no expert, but I read enough from different sources to convince me that people become more friendly and community-minded during a disaster, and looting is far less prevalent than you think. I researched Hurricane Katrina and the aftermath, which was an event that was still very fresh in my mind. To recap, in 2005 Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf coast of the US, devastating the area, and damaging the New Orleans flood defences. Of the 1.3 million population, it is thought that 80% evacuated, but many without transport were unable to leave the city. After the hurricane, residents of New Orleans that hadn't been evacuated were left for almost a week with no power, fresh water, food supplies or emergency assistance, whilst 80% of the city was still flooded.

I remember watching all the news reports along with the rest of the world, in utter disbelief that no one was going to help these people. Such was the concern around the world that aid was offered from countries such as Bangledesh, India, Venezuela and Russia, because no one wanted to see the continued suffering. (The UK offered emergency food rations, which were turned down by the US government because of concern about Mad Cow Disease.)

There is plenty of information about Hurricane Katrina and the aftermath, which is well worth a read, and shows the catalogue of failures. But when help arrived it was in the form of heavily armed military who were expecting to be having gun battles with hoards of looters and violent criminals. What they found were desperate people who didn't know what to do or where to get help, let alone be able to organise a violent protest. They were far more concerned with surviving and, as many of the stories show, helping others.

As for the looting, well there is a vast difference with looting to plunder and steal valuable luxury goods, like the scenes depicted in Blackout, and taking items necessary for survival such as bottled water, food and medicines. If you will die without water and no one is there to help you, then you would do what is necessary to survive. This isn't looting, this is survival, as the report 'Disaster Realities in the Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina: Revisiting the Looting Myth', by the Disaster Research Centre at the University of Delaware explains.

"Appropriating behavior involves a person taking property owned by another to use it for emergency purposes and, depending upon the item, with the intent of returning it at a later date. There were many reports of both looting and appropriating behavior occurring following the storm."

However they did not find the evidence of widespread looting that the media portrayed. The number of arrests for looting was still far less, than the average number of arrests for crime in a normal day. If there is a criminal element in society, then they may see an opportunity during disasters, but that doesn't add up to widespread looting. There were far more accounts noted of 'pro-social' behaviour, that is people trying to help others for no reward. It is distressing to see people in such a dire situation and the majority of people, anywhere in the world, respond by helping in any way they can.

Blackout, which is just depicting a severe power cut - no floods, storms, or immediate loss of life - appears to be over-exaggerating the public reaction in it's dramatisation, by comparison. Interestingly last week the spin doctor of former prime minister Gordon Brown was quoted as saying in an extract from his book, that when the extent of the financial crisis in 2008 became clear, Gordon Brown was discussing deployment of troops on streets to prevent panic. The events in Blackout, would have clearly provoked such a deployment very early on, but this was not scripted in.

How long would it be before people really started running out of water and food? I think it would take far longer than is portrayed in Blackout. As soon as it is known that the power cut could potentially last more than a day or two, local councils can start public announcements, reminding people to stay at home, fill their bath tub with water, and check on their neighbours. I would guess that most people would have food to last a week. They may run out of fresh milk and bread, but pasta and tinned beans are in the back of most people's cupboards. Sanitation may become more of a problem, but if you have a garden then there is the option to dig a pit.

Blackout seemed to miss out that without mobiles and internet, people will still want to know what's going on, and the first thing most people would do is go out into the street and start talking to neighbours or passersby about the situation. People get advised to stay home in a powercut, so why wouldn't they? There may be gridlock on the roads initially, but people will soon stop travelling to work or shops if they are closed or empty.

"Based on expert advice and meticulous research, Blackout combines real user-generated footage, alongside fictional scenes, CCTV archive and news reports to build a terrifyingly realistic account of Britain being plunged into darkness." is how Channel 4 describe Blackout.

Terrifying yes., or at least only in some aspects. For instance it is only 3 hours drive from London to Sheffield and you could walk it in 53 hours according to google maps, but in Blackout they drove, and walked, and drove again for 7 days to get there. Why would all the motorways be clogged in a power cut? Motorways don't rely on traffic lights, and have a hard shoulder to pull in on, so without a mass exodus or evacuation, they should become empty within a day or two. There was little sign of community spirit and pro-social behaviour, other than an offer of a lift, a neighbour taking in some elderly neighbours in her high rise, and a ruluctant sharing of a barbeque to cook food. The 'survivalist' character lived with his family in isolation, no siblings or friends arrived to share the benefits of the diesel generator and he had no concern about what was going on outside his four walls. Had he knocked on his neighbours door and said our food has been stolen, he may have been given a few tins of something, or could even have bartered some of his petrol for a meal.

The characters in this dramatisation showed no ingenuity at all, and community spirit was thin on the ground. We live in a society where there are thousands of volunteers - people who do something useful for society for no financial reward. The evidence shows we are a generous nation when it comes to giving to charity to help people worse off than ourselves. Blackout seems so far from my experiences of people and human nature, that I wonder about the 'expert advice and meticulous research' that it is supposed to be based on.

Blackout is realistic that after a power cut you need cash to buy what is available from the shops that remain open, as card machines won't be working and banks would be closed. Shops may initially be very busy with people trying to hoard essentials like bottled water, batteries, candles and food. It is realistic that filling stations will be closed as they cannot pump fuel.  Mobile phone networks may be overloaded and only have backup power for a few days, but Blackout has missed the role of radios and landlines. Also, there was no suggestion of emergency shelters being setup, even though this is a common occurence after disasters have hit.

Can you see where personal preparation fits in to this? Just keeping some cash in the house for emergencies is beneficial. A bottle of unscented bleach means that you can sterilise water with just a couple of drops. A few candles and matches or torches and batteries to provide emergency lighting most householders would have available, just as a barbeque or camping stove to heat food is fairly common. A shovel to dig a pit or sturdy strong bin bags are not expensive items to have and a wind-up radio is also useful. Increasing your stored food and essential medicines, is not too much to ask, is it?

How far you want to take preparedness is down to what you personally feel the risks are. If you see a powercut as a set of challenges that we could be better prepared for, rather than the scary, collapse depicted in Blackout, then it's possible to overcome the paralysis and think through solutions to situations. Although I disagree with it's claim to be realistic, I am grateful for programmes like Blackout, for being thought-provoking, for reminding us of the risks and for keeping us on our toes :)

Monday, 23 September 2013

6 month roundup

Back in March, having read "Depletion and Abundance: Life on the New Home Front" by Sharon Astyk, I started comparing my lifestyle with the average American, and the average Brit, and looking at the possibility of reducing our consumption by 90%. Ploughing through the figures made me realise really how difficult a 90% reduction in anything was going to be. My assumption that compared to the Americans we consumed less, so we would have a massive headstart, only panned out to be a small headstart. Still it was worth looking at what could be achieved, and it prompted a change in habits.

Reducing my impact in the food category, has involved increasing my home grown produce, shopping more locally and trying to avoid excess packaging. Free food has been available from growing more produce in my garden, helping at the Transition community allotment and sharing the harvest, and gifts or exchanges from family and friends. Along with my normal food foraging forays, I have been introduced to food rescued from supermarket skips. One bad pear in a bag of 6, results in the whole bag being thrown away. I am certainly learning and improving in this area, and there is far more potential for reducing the impact of our food than I had originally thought. Having only a small garden and little spare time have not been the limiting factors that I had expected. The image above shows all the free food from last weekend :)

Certainly on the 'stuff' level we have really achieved quite a big change. Looking back at the 'One Month Stuff' project, I can see several items that I have found ways to obtain for free. Some of it requires a bit of time and effort, or an exchange of goods with others, which is very sociable and can lead to making new friends. The local car boot sale has been a great source of low cost secondhand goods, and I have even managed to get myself clothes from there, which have quickly become my comfortable favourites. Cheaper and more fun than ebay! No fur or fringes like Macklemore yet :) I have never been one to rummage, but I am learning new tricks and really enjoying it too.

New stuff for the kids is a difficult area to tackle. Recently there have been new shoes, clothes and sports equipment, as it is the start of a new school year. Overall, questioning whether things are really necessary and if they can be bought more ethically elsewhere has been an easy habit to pick up. If I have to buy new, then there may still be ethical options, but they tend to have a higher pricetag, like this georgeous handcrafted cherry wood chopping board that I bought from the local Woodfair event. (Ok - impulse buy!)

Recycled waste has dropped by a third and non recyclable waste has reduced further. The recycled waste savings are partly business, with a reduction in cardboard scraps. Changing from liquid soap to bars of soap, and buying more goods from the market has cut packaging too. We only have about 2 carrier bags of non-recyclable waste each week, which is pretty good for a large family and 2 businesses. More food scraps and cardboard is now going into the compost bin. I was wondering if old cotton rags can be composted too, as I really can't put them in the textile recycling. Does anyone know?

My hubby has also been very good at repairing broken goods this month, such as replacing an iphone screen, which has saved on getting new stuff and reduced waste. He didn't even have any random parts or odd screws leftover at the end ;) What a pro!

Transport, though I never got round to comparing the figures, did show some improvement for a while over the summer. My youngest son started biking to school and tennis club, and I was walking to school with my youngest daughter. It seemed great, but then my son went over his handlebars...on two occasions! No serious injuries luckily, but I'm a bit concerned about a third time. The walking has been cut back too as it seems a bit cruel walking to school and back without bringing Lottie our dog, who is stuck at home.

Sitting in the car reading my book whilst my daughter is at dance lessons, halves the travelling back and forth, and we also give lifts to 3 other girls, reducing our share of emissions. But then add in the additional trips driving to the carboot sale, farm shop, weekly market, and community allotment, which are all further away, so I doubt there has been any reduction in driving habits over the last 6 months. Still, with no daily commute and most facilities close at hand we were already below the average mileage. Just a lot still to do to reach the 90% target.

Energy is my hot topic, and I was gobsmacked that the electricity company reduced our direct debit payments by 10%! Electricity consumption is so difficult to cut back on. All efficiency measures tend to be wiped out by the increase in number or size of gadgets. For instance, 15 years ago we had one landline phone that wasn't plugged in, but now everyone in the house has their own mobile too. I checked my energy data and we have only seen a 3% reduction in electricty consumption over the last year. This is dismal, especially since I was expecting savings whilst my eldest daughter was at Uni. The graph below shows the actual energy consumption as the red line, and the green columns show the cost. (The big column in 2009 shows how energy companies increase the price of your tariff
if you don't compare and switch every 2 years!)

We have been making small improvements, like disconnecting the modem at night, (although I always forget to plug it back in in the morning and wonder why there are no emails) switching off the landing light and having a very efficient nightlight (the kids bedroom is right in front of the stairs, so if they get up at night they could fall - safety before efficiency!) and more recently replacing some of the lights for LEDs. We have tried LEDs before and the light was so bad that we ended up taking them out again. The light from LEDs has improved greatly over the last couple of years, and these ones in our office should pay for themselves in about 2.5 years. Thank goodness, because they are awfully expensive to buy compared to standard lamps. Hopefully we will see reductions in consumption longer term.

Gas consumption for heating has increased, mainly due to the long winter. Adjusting for degree days the consumption would be about the same as the trend for the last few years, so there still would have been no reduction in consumption had the winter been milder. Actual annual consumption is shown below by the dark blue line, whilst the columns show the actual cost.

Super-insulating the house has got to be the best solution to reduce the need for heating. That way not only do you substantially reduce heating costs, but in the event of a supply failure you are better prepared to survive without heating. Dr Tina Holt is our local hero, for retro-fitting her 1930's house to passive house standards and promoting the work as part of the Hobbs report for Transition West Bridgford. It may be far more appealing to consider a new home built from scratch, but it is perfectly possible to retofit if you pay attention to the details. It certainly has the potential to give a significant proportion of the energy saving we are looking for.

What is quite clear is that these relatively small incremental steps can only take me so far towards a 90% reduction in carbon emissions, and a far more significant change is required to get anywhere near the 90% target. This could come about by moving to somewhere with more land and a woodburner, leading us to become more self-sufficient for food and heating, as Sharon Astyk has. Or by retro-fitting our current home, so it is super-insulated, with solar water heating and PV for electricity generation. These are the voluntary options, but there is also the possibility of rocketing fuel prices or financial collapse putting us in a position where we are forced to go without some of the luxuries we are accustomed to. If energy prices are high do you choose to keep your fridge running or watch x-factor? Do you heat your home or have a hot bath? Many people round the World live without any of these luxuries in the first place.

Personally I prefer the voluntary options don't you? Reducing my consumption levels now, may help to cushion the shock of changes that are coming. Even the small changes are adaptions that bring us closer.

It is so nice writing a good news post and sharing achievements, but I am warning you now that this isn't going to continue. It is a wonderful distraction to discuss my garden or secondhand bargains, but it is not the reason that I started this blog.

We are on the brink of massive changes and upheavals, peak everything from peak energy and peak debt to peak pensioners, climate change altering everything we thought we knew about seasons and weather patterns, and the massively unfair distribution of wealth sparking social discontent. Although we feel as if changes happen slowly and incrementally, history has been much more a series of necessary rapid adaptions to a sudden change in circumstances. It's scary and challenging and there is plenty to discuss in future posts to help become better prepared.

Friday, 6 September 2013

Every small step

I bet you thought that I had abandoned my blog? Not to worry, just had a very busy few weeks J

Last night I finally made it to the Transition Group meeting, having missed all their lovely summer activities on the community allotment. There has been gardening workshops, apple pressings, potato harvests... local people can find out more on their website. I finished cooking dinner just in time to dash off, whilst the rest of the family got to sit down and tuck in. Still, I was rewarded with a bag of freshly dug potatoes and a jar of Mulberry preserve.

The path to the allotment had big juicy blackberries growing down both sides, which served as a reminder that I need to get a move on and do some foraging. Blackberries, elderberries, bullaces, cobnuts and apples are all ripe for the picking now. Normally I would be out walking daily with Lottie, taking different routes and coming home with tubs and bags full of free food. But poor Lottie has a limp and is confined to the house until she recovers. I was hoping she would be better by now, as going for foraging walks is not the same without her L

On the free food note, I have had my most successful bean growing year ever! It is such fun being able to give them away to family, friends and neighbours. In return my neighbours have given me a recipe for green bean chutney, a jar of greengage jam, a large bunch of lavender and a promise of apples, which rather shames my bean offering. I am glad they appreciated them though. I have been known to dash round the neighbours with a large Baked Alaska to give away. (I made 2 for a large party of teenage girls who then all ate the daintiest slices!) It went down like a ticking time bomb!

We foraged loads of cherries this year, so I borrowed the Transition Groups de-hydrator to dry them. Now I have some dried cherries to add to my porridge. I will try de-hydrating courgettes next. De-hydrated runner beans seem a bit dubious though!

I have been avoiding shops and would be doing so well at reducing the ‘stuff’ entering our home if I hadn’t made several trips to the car-boot sale this summer. After buying jars, tins and baskets, I managed to find wetsuits, clothes and large feather cushions all for a few pounds. Some things are brand new with the labels still attached – so I am helping to clear other peoples ‘stuff’ conscience. The worse bit is that most of the items that aren’t bought will end up in landfill, which is why it is so important to think before you buy anything.

My food cupboards have now been transformed from all plastic containers to nearly all glass. I still find it difficult to throw the plastic tubs in the recycling, because surely it is better for me to re-use them instead? Stopping buying plastic is so hard though. Even at the market some of the stall-holders are so quick that they have your produce in a carrier bag before you can open your mouth. Hand soap has been a success – no more hygienic squirty bottle soap in our house. Its bars of soap wrapped in cardboard. Not so easy to replace shampoo, toothpaste, or cotton wool buds though!

Every small step in the right direction is taking me closer to a more sustainable future J