Saturday, 26 October 2013

Permanence and trust

You don't see that many telephone boxes around now, they are becoming extinct since the advent of mobile phones, but I came across this one in a little village called Shirley in Derbyshire. It looks grand!

Can you see how the villagers have put it to good use? It is in the centre of the village, so they have put a noticeboard inside for the village events, and also use it as a 'book swap' store. You can help yourself to the books, as long as you leave the same number of books as you take. This system seems to be working very well, because all the shelves are full and the books look in very good condition, even the childrens books.

The phone box is left open, even though Shirley attracts lots of walkers and tourists. No doubt the villagers benefit from fresh books when the visitors have finished with their holiday reads :)
I commented on a blog recently, discussing Peak Oil and financial collapse. Some of the other responses felt that I was being naive, to think that my neighbours would be helpful in an emergency situation, or that I could trust anyone. They clearly have never experienced a place like Shirley, or most of the UK for that matter. I am of the opinion that Trust Breeds Trust. If you show someone trust and respect, then they will act in a trustworthy manner. It is a very simple principle that we all learn about trust from each other. It says a lot that many people in the UK don't think twice about leaving their doors unlocked in the daytime when they are at home.

Well this is beautiful Shirley, a lovely place for a country walk, and the Saracens Head pub, where you can get hot food and drink.

I had a conversation with one of the villagers, a complete stranger, whilst waiting for my friend to arrive. He was telling me the history of the village, which had records as far back as 1086, when it was owned by the de Ferrers family. Most of the hundreds of years in between the land was owned by descendants of the same family. The current Earl Ferrers now resides in Norfolk, and most of the land has been sold on.

It is fascinating how slowly things change, and how constant things are. This village has been around for a thousand years or so, with a church, pub and a few farms and houses, that may have been re-built in brick a few hundred years ago, but are essentially the same village. Invasions, wars, plagues and industrialisation have hardly changed it. It is amazing and it makes me wonder how much can really change in something as short as my lifetime?

Whilst walking, my friend Sonia asked, 'Do you really think that Peak Oil is still happening?'. Eight years ago we both firmly believed it was, but business as usual has dragged on so long now, and big stories of how fracking will save us fill the media, so I can understand why many people are questioning.

I have no doubts about Peak Oil happening, but looking at the permanence of Shirley the question on my mind is 'What would peak oil change?' Or even 'What would a financial collapse change?' The land is constant, the fields and woodlands will still stand, along with the stream flowing past the abandoned woodmill. The fields have cattle grazing, just as they would have over the last hundreds of years, and probably will for the next few hundred. We will still need to eat, there will still be farming. Maybe the village will sprout some cheap labourers cottages, the wood mill will be occupied once more and the countryside will have a growing population rather than a declining one, as more people are needed to work on the land.

I don't know how things will pan out, but talk of extinction, an epidemic of violence and people only looking out for themselves, seems completely alien in this land. I am looking at the evidence around me. I am talking to my neighbours, people I meet out walking or in shops, or just random strangers anywhere, and they are polite and helpful. Just try it in your neighbourhood as a bit of a social experiment - ask the time, pretend you are lost, or say you are looking for your cat or have lost you keys. I would love to hear how you get on.

We didn't recognise the route we were taking for our walk, so after asking 2 or 3 walkers, we accosted a gentleman on horseback to ask directions, and he was most helpful. He didn't really know where the footpath we were trying to find was, but he happily told us that the shoot was over for the day, so we were in no danger if we got lost!

Will Peak Oil or financial collapse change people's nature for the worse? Not in a place like Shirley.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Believe that you can do it

My good friend Carol visited me and generously brought with her bountiful vegetables and preserves all produced from her toil and hard work. She has been busy this year researching how much you can produce organically per acre, so everything has been weighed and carefully recorded. Doesn’t it look splendid?

Just to give you an idea of scale, here is a sweetheart cabbage from the supermarket on the left and the huge organic sweetheart cabbage from Carol on the right. Enough for four meals worth!

Carol is one of those inspirational people that we all need to meet and hear about, because she is the living evidence that you can do anything if you believe that you can. We first met at the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) whilst studying, and if you ever get the chance to visit CAT then I would thoroughly recommend it. For me it was life changing J Carol was also inspired by one of the course modules on green building materials, particularly building with strawbales. She decided she could do that and she did.

Now Carol’s previous occupation was as an accountant, so it was a bit of a change to jump into building houses. Her family are farmers and clearly have a very positive attitude of just getting on and doing things. Even so it took an incredible amount of time to get planning permission to build a straw bale cottage as a holiday home, on their land. Not content to just wait 2 years for the planners, Carol built the strawbale cabin above. It was built on a mobile home chassis, so was classed as a temporary building. You can see how the build progressed here. Both the cabin and the cottage are available for holidays or quiet retreats, so if you fancy a break in the Yorkshire countryside, only 20 minutes from historic York this is an ecologically friendly place to stay.

Carol has trained, advised and inspired countless others to build ecologically and using local materials such as strawbales, in addition to the valuable research she carried out on the thermal performance of strawbale buildings. Her son continues building strawbale homes for people, but Carol has now seen another urgent area where research and action is required. 
The UK is a net food importer and is currently unable to grow sufficient food to feed the population. With Peak Oil set to increase the cost of transportation and chemical fertilisers, Carol wanted to investigate how much food we can produce organically, but struggled to find anyone willing to fund this research. Undeterred she has taken it upon herself, setting aside some land and devoting her time and energy to growing a whole range of vegetables.  She has been carefully analysing the results, so her report can contribute to planning for a future with less oil, where more of the food we eat needs to be grown locally and sustainably.

If we continue with business as usual the future looks pretty bleak, so we have nothing to lose from trying something different or new. Next time you have an idea or an opportunity to do something positive, don't listen to the naysayers who tell you that you can't. Think about Carol and remember that you can do anything that you want to do, even build a house or change the future of farming, if you believe that you can J

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Energy on my mind

I visited the home of Dr Tina Holt recently. I have mentioned previously that Tina has retrofitted her old draughty home to Passive House standards and additionally added solar PV panels on the roof to generate electricity. I should have taken some pictures, but the video below shows the improvements in progress. The super-insulated home needs very little heating and the income generated by Feed-In-Tariffs from the solar panels is enough to cover the energy bills for electricity, hot water, heating and cooking. Energy is now free for Tina!

So with Tina’s overall energy costs at zero, it seemed prudent to look ahead and project my energy costs over the next few years, especially as one of the big energy providers in the UK has just increased their prices by 8%, just in time for winter.

I have records of energy consumption and cost for the last 13 years, and combining the data for gas and electricity the average annual price rise has been 14% a year. This is not based on an average home or average supplier price rises, but on my actual energy bills. This means the price to some extent is dependent on me switching suppliers regularly to get the best deal, which is not always the case, as I have spent the last 2 years on a very green tariff, which is not the cheapest. In the graph below I have fixed my energy consumption at the 5 year average of a combined 19,765kWh, so that I can just compare the price. The graph shows the actual combined gas and electricity price I paid up until 2012, where there is a full year of data, and then from this point onwards the graph splits into 2 projections up to 2020. The lowest projection is based on an 8% increase each year, which is lower than my average. The second projection is for a 14% increase each year, which assumes that prices will rise at a similar rate to the last 13 years. Personally I see prices spiking at potentially higher amounts, but these scenarios are enough to demonstrate the issue.

With an annual increase of 8%, my energy bills will have nearly doubled by 2020, from £1,398 to £2,588. At an average 14% increase it nearly triples to £3,989. This means that I need to reduce my energy consumption by 65%, just to break even. I am certainly not predicting that my wages will increase at the same rate, so I need to take action to reduce my consumption.

The boss of SSE was interviewed about the recent price rise and was asked why costs are being passed on to customers rather than being absorbed by a drop in profits, at a time when many companies have had to take a hit on their profits. His response was that their profit was only 5%, which was 'fair'. What he failed to point out is that this is as much as the government take as tax. More to the point though is that the big six energy companies in the UK made a profit of £3.74 billion in 2012. If the energy prices double by 2020 and the energy companies are still taking a 5% profit they could be getting a staggering £7.5 billion a year.

It just goes to show how we can be hoodwinked. It means so much more to know the actual amount of money not just how much their share is. Do we think they deserve 5% of the profit? I mean have they run the companies wisely, by investing in renewables and new infrastructure? Hell no! OK, so they have done a very good job at keeping the lights on so far, but this winter we will be at the greatest risk of blackouts and shortages for many years, and that is through lack of investment and forward thinking over 10 to 15 years or more.

The energy companies are also digging their own graves though. As prices rise people reduce their consumption, either by investing in energy efficiency and renewables or by cutting back their energy usage to the bare basics out of necessity. So the increase in energy company profits will not be rising as significantly. In addition the cost of investing in new power stations or wind farms is rising, because of the increase in energy and resource costs, so there is no benefit to dragging your feet. On the same breath if they let the lights go out there are penalties and fees, on top of the lack of income whilst electricity isn’t flowing. 

There is plenty of evidence to show that Tina really has the right idea. Super-insulate your house, to reduce your need for energy as much as you can. Make it the best that you can afford to, and look for cheap options if money is tight, such as thick curtains, window quilts, thick underlay underneath carpets and sealing up draughts. There is ECO funding available to help people who have uninsulated solid walls, and for those who are 'vulnerable' or on low income. The Green Deal can also provide a loan for some of the improvements, but this is a loan paid back through energy bills and bears interest. A good place to start is with the Energy Savings Trust.
Then consider renewable energy to reduce your exposure to buying energy and protect you from price spikes. Even if you get the solar PV installed for free and the installer gets the benefits of the Feed-In-Tariff payments (in the UK), you will still be reducing your electricity bill by using the free renewable energy during the day. Similarly the Renewable Heat Incentive will soon benefit a switch to biomass or solar hot water, by providing payments for the energy generated.

Be aware though that the insulation will protect you and keep you warm in a power cut, but solar PV panels will not in the UK, if you are grid connected. If renewable energy is still feeding into the grid there could be a danger to engineers working on power lines, so all grid-connected renewable energy automatically switches off in a powercut. If you are not grid-connected then you won’t receive the financial benefit of the FITs.

Plans on saving 65% or more of our energy consumption start today! I’ll keep you posted J

Thursday, 10 October 2013

I've peaked!

This month is my Birthday, and I am officially at my 'Peak' age. Below is the card I received from my mother. Thanks mum!

Funnily enough I felt more disturbed by the colourful message I received from google. I don't recall filling in my date of birth, let alone giving permission for them to use it in their sneaky clever marketing ploys! Are there no privacy laws left?

But really, is down hill that bad? Getting up to this point is such hard work. I mean we have to learn everything from scratch, from tying shoe laces to strange social cues. Then we are climbing a ladder, trying to pass exams, get a career, buy a home, raise a family and juggle all manner of urgent issues to keep life ticking over. Maybe free-wheeling down the otherside is going to be the fun bit!? It may lead to a time when I actually get to sit and enjoy my garden, or read a book, or not have to work for money - now wouldn't that be bliss?

What about Peak Oil? Should we be scared to be at the peak looking down? There are so many different opinions on this, ranging from 'technology will provide a solution' to 'we are facing the extinction of man', that it can be bewildering and scary to contemplate. One thing is certain though, oil is becoming harder and more expensive to extract, and prices are going to continue rising.

Oil prices are linked to recession. Almost all productive activity in our economy is reliant on oil, from ploughing a field, to building a house, to trading round the world. When oil prices increase it has a knock on effect on everything else. If you want to find out more about this rather than take my word for it, try reading 'Oil supply limits and the Continuing Financial Crisis' by Gail Tverberg on her blog Our Finite World.

I think we can expect that oil prices will rise to a new record high, which will cause another recession. Some people feel that we are only months away from this happening. Tom Therramus in his post 'Oil Price Volatility on the Way?' suggests that based on the last 10 years the price spikes have had an average of 33 months between them. It is 30 months since the last price spike, so we don't have long to wait to see if he is right.

Governments and financial institutions have not really recovered from the last major financial disruption, and if anything are even more burdened with debt, which is certainly true of the UK, so it seems very likely that there will be more financial wrecks. Whether there is a full global financial meltdown at that point I don't know, but there is likely to be more countries and banks collapsing. If you have savings then I hope you paid attention to what happened in Cyprus. There is so much to say about financial collapse that I will come back to it in another post.

Demand for oil slows down during a recession, so normally oil prices would drop back again. This is why many predict a rollercoaster of highs and lows for oil prices. But I'm not so sure, because at some point the World will wake up to the fact that oil is getting scarce. In these circumstances I wonder whether most countries would put their own needs first and and hold back on selling any surplus until they can extort the best price.

Ok, it is a pretty bleak predicament.... if you are hooked on oil. The best preparation we can make for ourselves and our communities is to reduce our oil dependence fast. That is not just about driving less, it is about adapting our lifestyles to a new reality. One where we don't depend on plastic wrapped 'stuff' imported from the other side of the World.

There are many people around the world who live without oil and all it's 'luxuries', and the rest of us are going to find out what that is like quite soon. I can see that there could be some benefits to life without oil, for rural communities who know how to feed themselves and can enjoy a simple life. I hope they get a better deal without all the oil-fuelled deforestation, and exploitation for resources and cheap goods. Peak oil writers often depict a future of oil wars, but as you need oil and money to fight the war, and war depletes both even faster, I can see a future where wars will peter out. It is really food and water that is central to our lives, along with shelter, basic healthcare and community.

Just as for me, where the attractive side of the slope has slipped away, and crazy eyebrow hairs and wrinkles are what I can look forward to, the otherside of the Peak Oil slope can look rather ugly on the surface too. It's not all as bad as it seems though, because the last 40 years has been about learning and developing. Beneath the superficial view on the surface, there are hidden depths of knowledge and wisdom. Suddenly reaching the peak may be a bit of a shock and need a period of adjustment, but we can adapt to a reduction in oil consumption.

The population is likely to take a hit, but that's another story too. I may have to face that my half-way point was probably ten years ago, because with severely reduced oil-supported healthcare, life expectancy may drop. Dmitry Orlov talks of a shortened life expectancy caused by the financial crisis and break up of the former Soviet Union in his book 'Reinventing Collapse: The Soviet Experience and American Prospects', where diseases spread from the overcrowded prisons and there were middle-aged suicides when people found their lives in ruin. It seems much more likely to me that life expectancy will drop as an impact of the stress of loss of savings, earnings and security, combined with reductions in healthcare and spread of disease, rather than from wars or riots. The BBC ran a news story recently about how birthrate is decreasing in Europe, especially in Southern areas like Spain, because people don't want to have children without financial security.

So here I am trying frantically to unlearn the habits and expectations that have been drilled in to me for the best part of 40 years. I'm training myself to enjoy walking in the countryside rather than getting excited by a cheap flight to Barcelona. I'm learning to grow my own produce for excellent seasonal flavours, rather than buying the flown in exotic foods. I am finding that more choice of clothes only means it takes longer to choose what to wear (Thank you Jo for that insight), and that there is more fun and bargains to be had buying secondhand at the carboot sale, without having exploited factory workers and poisoned cotton farmers on my conscience.

This is downshifting. This is changing down a gear ready for a steep descent. It isn't living in fear, it is being realistic about what the future may hold. This is not hiding away in a bunker, but moving forward with your eyes wide open and your brain engaged. Different people will be coming from a different starting point, but the important thing is to think through the possible scenarios and see how you could be better prepared to face them.