Friday, 21 March 2014

Book Review: Surviving the Apocalypse in the Suburbs

I have just finished reading a book, as I have strained my knee, so I'm supposed to be 'resting'. Remarkably I have been sickness free all winter, so I have had little opportunity for reading and this book has been on the go for at least 6 months. It is called 'Surviving the Apocalypse in the Suburbs' by Wendy Brown. and I feel it is well worth a quick review.

"Let's pretend that we know that in 21 days life as we know it will come to an end. It does not mean that life will cease to exist, and it does not mean that humans will be obliterated from the Earth. What it means is that all the things we have come to expect, all of the luxuries we enjoy, all the accoutrements of modern life that are part of our day-to-day existence will be harder to get or just no longer available."

To me this is a really useful exercise, because we don't know what the future holds. Major events often happen too quickly for us to take stock and prepare. Thinking and preparing now can stand us in good stead for all kinds of eventualities.

I know it seems unlikely that anything drastic will happen here in Britain, but just think back to some of the events that our grandparents lived through. World War II and rationing, the North Sea Flood of 1953, the Big Freeze of 1963, the 3 Day Week of 1974, the Winter of Discontent in 1978/79, and the Fuel protests in 2000, to name a few. Technology may have advanced, but if anything that makes us even more exposed and vulnerable to loss of power or shortages. For instance do you know the phone numbers for your family, friends or doctor if you can't charge your mobile?

In her book, Wendy takes a day at a time and looks at the priorities that you may need to think about in order to be better prepared for eventualities. Starting with Day 1 looking at Shelter, she works through subsequent 'days' discussing water, food, cooking and so on, all the way to Day 21, which is about transportation. Some of it is common sense, but it is still good to hear again, because it makes you wonder why you haven't done anything to improve that aspect or be better prepared. For instance I know that in a power cut my boiler doesn't work because the controls rely on electricity, so what could I do about it? Wendy offers lots of solutions from the perspective that shortages are likely to be a long term problem for us in the future.

Wendy is clearly very knowledgeable about many aspects of what we call 'self-sufficiency'. I have certainly learnt more from her book about keeping animals, alternative healthcare and how to make my own vinegar. The only are where I disagree with her ideas is about wind turbines though, which I feel she dismisses rather too easily, based on them needing high-tech equipment to manufacture and maintain them. Wendy seems to have missed the potential for small scale wind turbines to provide useful mechanical energy or electricity. Many parts of the UK are still scattered with old windmills, that were used for milling wheat into flour, and have been recorded at least as far back as 1250. This is surely testament that we can harness the wind without the need for fossil fuels and modern day technology. The first wind turbine that was installed 30 years ago at The Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales was made with wood and canvas sails. In strong winds someone had to climb up and furl the sails to prevent damage, but it was still a viable low tech solution.

Wendy also sees solar PV as lasting only 10 years, but with no moving parts they are expected to last at least 30 years. They probably aren't much of an option in Maine where Wendy lives, as summers are short, but in the UK and Europe prices have been dropping with government subsidies and these could potentially provide a partial alternative source of electricity for the next 30 years.

On the whole 'Surviving the Apocalypse in the Suburbs' is a very easy to read book, with lots of good tips. It isn't very apocalyptic, so no zombie hordes or nuclear meltdowns, which suits me fine. There is the tiniest mention of guns in the chapter on security, but Wendy also points out that having a loud dog is the best security measure. I have yet to find a British 'preparedness' book, but I think that having read a few other American ones, Wendy's book is the best substitute. It is a calm and sensible evaluation of everything you may need to consider. Whether you decide to read the book or not, it is well worth thinking what you would do if you knew you only had 21 days to prepare.

Sunday, 16 March 2014


Having recently evaluated my annual mileage, I have been thinking a lot about distances. Yes I am talking about how far it is from one point to another, such as the distance from your home to work, or the distance the apples have travelled to end up in your fruit bowl.

When I buy apples I can stand there for several minutes peering at labels and evaluating the distances. Sometimes there will be coxes apples from the UK, but this is much less likely out of season. Then I will be sifting through the apples mainly from China, USA and New Zealand to try and find some that are from somewhere more local, like France or Holland.

The UK is fairly densely populated, certainly compared to the rest of Europe, so it may be little wonder that we are not currently self-sufficient in food. However there has always been trade with our European neighbours, notably France, Holland and Spain for food. The distance across the English Channel to France is just 21 miles, and from London to Paris is 213 miles as the crow flies (or 282 miles by road and ferry/tunnel). This is about the same distance as it is from New York to Washington DC, yet they are within the same country. Does this distance still count as local for us, whether it is in another state or a neighbouring country?

New York to Los Angeles is 2,448 miles direct (or 2,790 miles driving), which is more than 10 times the distance from London to Paris or Amsterdam. It's still in the USA though, so is it local for New Yorkers? Where do you think the equivalent distance from London would take you? To Rome? Or Moscow? Cairo? Further than that! It's 2,201 miles (2,854 driving) from London to Damascus in Syria, but Syria doesn't feel local to me. Yet during the course of a year my husband and I drive enough miles to get to Syria and back four times (including our business miles).

What can I take from this? I definitely do too much driving, even though the distances I travel are short and very local. But the main point is that this is our global economy. The apples in our shops can quite easily have travelled further in their short lifespan than I do in a year. Half way round the world even. I can also appreciate that it is our European neighbours, even though they may speak a different language, who are our closest allies and are best placed to supply us with food in times when oil for transport is expensive or scarce.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Spring weather

It definitely feels like spring now, and already I am feeling behind in the garden.

The crocuses have been glorious this year and already the first daffodil is ready to open. It has been a mild, though very wet and windy, winter - completely different from last year!

If you look at the projections for how climate change is expected to affect the UK, this winter is the kind of winter that they are predicting more of. In short milder wetter winters, and less occasions of snow.

However there was an interesting article recently on the BBC website about the reduction in solar activity. They believe there is a 20% chance that within 40 years Europe will have entered a period similar to the Maunder Minimum, an event during the late 1600's when the temperature was below average and River Thames froze over every year. They are not predicting global cooling, more that the jet stream over Europe is likely to be affected by the lack of solar activity, plunging it into some very cold winters, a bit like those experienced by the US and Canada this year..... all interesting stuff!

On to more frugal issues. Now what do you think this is?

It is my first ever homemade cider vinegar! All thanks to Wendy Brown's tips in her book Surviving the Apocalypse in the Surburbs. It is so very easy to make. Just fill a jar with apple peelings and cores, cover with water and leave it in a warm cupboard for a month. Cover the top with a cheese cloth or muslin to keep out dust or flies. A layer of scum forms on top, but that's fine. Ok so the cupboard smells of mouldy apples for a little while, but the resulting vinegar is mild and fruity, and will be great for salad dressings. (It could be stronger if I left it for longer.)

I wanted to be more organised with my veg growing this year. I ordered some seeds nice and early and also took advantage of the Transition Loughborough Seed Swap event. These are some of the seeds that I picked up for free, including sweetpeas, squash, kohlrabi, oregano and some beautifully coloured peas/beans. What I liked about the seed swap is you could just pick up a few seeds to try, and given how small my garden is, that is a very good thing!

The Transition team had also been along to the Chesterfield Transition Potato Day and here are 2 of the varieties they brought back to share. I can't for the life of me remember what they were called, but the knobbly ones are salad potatoes. Last year my potatoes were a disaster, so this year I am going to stick to growing just these four spuds in sacks or pots instead.

I had started planning out what to plant, where and when to plant them, the first seeds to be sowed in February. But the last couple of weeks have been very busy with work and now it is already March and still nothing has been started. Do some of you more experienced gardeners feel like spring is a complete race against time too?

The good news is that the little apricot tree that I planted last year has survived the winter and is ready to break out in lovely pink blossoms :-) It doesn't seem to have grown much though.... although it is supposed to be a dwarf variety. I thought the wall would shelter it a bit, but maybe I have planted it too close...hmm. I would love to hear how your garden plans are going?