Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Learning about veg

A couple of weeks back my friend Marie, a teacher at the local primary school, asked me if I would come in and be "Gardener Judy". She teaches the 4 year olds, an age where they have lots of untamed energy and curiosity. 

I really surprised myself with how much veg I had grown that I could bring in and show, so I hosed down my wheelbarrow and filled it up.

The kids played pass the pumpkins, unwrapped a corn on the cob, smelled mint and tasted rocket (yuk!), pumpkin seeds and apple chips (yum!). There was awe at the big leeks, with the squiggly white roots at the bottom. Hopefully this will help the kids remember it is a leek.

They got to hold beetroot and parsnips, and saw the tiny seeds that they had grown from. And I left them with a bag of autumn onion sets so they could all go out and plant one in the school's raised beds.

I am grateful that the school let me use some of the photos, though not with any faces in. The kids were really attentive and it was great fun. Hopefully it will be a regular event from now on.

This is my first year with an allotment and what a big learning curve that has been! It isn't just about adapting to having more space and sowing a few seeds, but preparing for every pest and disease possible. This year I wasn't prepared, because in my sheltered garden at home I had never experienced blight, white fly, rust and countless others. Next year I will be planting hardened seedlings behind a fortress of protective netting.

I need to do a lot more planning too, so that I am ready to plant at the right time. Taking on the allotment in March meant I was diving straight in, whereas this year I want to make sure I am better prepared for spring.

The learning doesn't just stop with the plants. When you harvest them and bring them home, you have to know what to do with them so they don't get wasted. This may mean cooking for dinner or preparing for longer term storage, by freezing, de-hydrating or making jams and pickles.

At the beginning of the season I would bring home a lettuce or some stir-fry veg in a carrier bag and pop it in the fridge and half the time it wouldn't get used.

By summer I had worked out a better system. As soon as I got home I would wash the greens, spin them dry and pack them in re-sealable freezer bags. The freezer bags, although plastic and disposable, worked well because I can squeeze most of the air out and the leaves keep fresh for several days. This way people would grab a few leaves for a sandwich or stir-fry and nothing got wasted.

I have to mention my spinner at this point, because I picked it up from the car boot sale for 30p, and it is one of my best bargains. It is part of the 'Martha Stewart Collection', which means nothing to me, but it is clearly very well made and a joy to use. I can't understand why it's previous owners never used it, because everything in my house is now spun ;-)

I have a fair number of pumpkins, squash and sharks fin melon to store. I planned to put them out in the sun to harden the skins and to that aim assembled the mini greenhouse unit that I picked up in the sale. It was so much smaller than I imagined and very flimsy, that I decided it wouldn't take the weight of more than a couple of small squash. Instead my window sills have been full of squash, but now the radiators below the windows are coming on I need to move them to the garage. It will probably be cooler than 10 degrees C in there, but the house will be too warm.

The biggest pumpkin will be carved tomorrow ready for Halloween. Happy trick or treating :-)

Friday, 24 October 2014

Collapse and preparedness

Having taken care of the whole family, even the dog (?) through coughs that cling on for weeks and sap you of energy, it is now my turn. This means that I have a mountain of work backing up, the house is a mess, the garden and allotment untouched, minecraft is 'babysitting', dinner will be takeaway and.....I have had some time for reading :-)

Yesterday I read the latest post on The Archdruid Report. Don't be fooled by the light-hearted title 'A pink slip for the progress fairy', it is rather heavy, scary stuff, the kind that can make you feel depressed. If you have already read the likes of The Limits to Growth, then you are probably mentally/ emotionally prepared. Otherwise it may be a good one to skip.

To summarise, Mr Greer has studied history and proposes that all civilisations rise, then collapse slowly over the period of 100-300 years. The collapse isn't apocalyptic in the sense of a sudden catastrophic event ending everything. More that a succession of war, drought, disease, famine, flood and more war, interspersed with relatively peaceful periods, will define the downward slope, as it has for all previous civilisations.

It does look like we must be approaching the collapse stage, but Mr Greer is of the opinion that the Western civilisation started collapsing in 1914, with World War I, the Spanish flu pandemic, the Great Depression, World War II and the dissolution of the British Empire. The last 60 years in comparison have been a relatively stable period, where civilisation has been flourishing particularly well due to the exploitation of non-renewable energy resources. The second act is imminent though and could be triggered by a number of factors, such as an Ebola pandemic or financial crash.

The easy bit to predict is that our civilisation will decline, but predicting the details of how and when is impossible. So Mr Greer paints a fictional account of what the next 300 years might look like in his post, to better illustrate what he is talking about.

I have read Mr Greer's The Long Descent before, so was acquainted with his general collapse scenario, but had not read before his interpretation of the years 1914 - 1954. It sort of makes sense to me. Those years were hard times and the British Empire didn't survive in tact. I had the impression that we came through those years, but under a burden of war debt, scarred by bombing, with aging machinery and infrastructure, and it was an enormous struggle trying to build things back up again.

The BBC have a great population graphic for the UK, which shows the impact of the World Wars and Spanish flu on the population. I also find it amazing that the birth rate in 2011 is still lower than in 1911. The increase in UK population is a result of a lower death rate, meaning people are living longer. The average age of the population in 1911 was 25, whereas in 2011 it is 40. That means that half the population of the UK is 40 or over.

But if the years from 1914 to 1954 were the first stages of collapse then most people survived. It was really just a partial collapse. Things could have been a lot worse. In fact we learnt lessons about looking after each other, so the years following saw the birth of the National Health Service. Even during WWII lessons had been learnt from WWI, in that rationing was introduced quickly and changes were made to improve the prospects for the poorest during tough times. Looking after the health and basic needs of the poor are the reason we have such a low death rate now.

But here's the thing, most people weren't expecting any of it. We get on with our day-to-day lives and do the best we can. Some days are happy, some sad, but they end and the next day arrives. We aren't supposed to know what is around the corner, otherwise how do we find the courage to face it? What Mr Greer is really saying is that the death rate is going to increase somehow, because our civilisation is out of balance. It is a natural cycle of events beyond our control.

It does seem that many more people in the US are concerned about collapse and are being prepared and stockpiling. Whereas in the UK it seems we are oblivious to a possible collapse. Or maybe we see it, but are too conscious of social protocols and what other people think to act. Or else just more laid back about it - what will be, will be. Which is it do you think?

This brings me onto Wendy's recent posts on her blog Surviving the Suburbs. She has been talking about useful lists. Lists of things we should probably have at hand in order to be prepared for the worst. Now don't freak out at me, but weapons is one of the things on the list. This is normally the point where us Brits decide it is all extremist doomsday scenario stuff and switch to more polite conversation. The trouble is that almost everything else on these lists makes sense. It is handy to have a torch or headlamp in case of a blackout or even just blowing a fuse. And if you have a torch then spare batteries are helpful, especially if you don't use that torch very often. Common sense right?

And whilst I have this cough, the prospect of running out of loo roll or sugar, really doesn't appeal, because I would rather not have to shop this week if I can get away with it. Wouldn't it be nice to know that you had a small stockpile of some of the essential items stored away just in case? Last year there was a major water leak in my area around Christmas, which caused havoc for some families. It would be a good reason to keep at least a few gallons of water in the garage to tide you over. Does this seem extreme?

What about phone numbers? Do you know the numbers of your friends and family or will they all be lost if you damage your mobile? And do you keep spare cash at home, just in case you run out and need some desperately? And does your car always have at least half a tank of fuel, a blanket, first aid kit and bottle of water handy?

The thing is, you don't have to believe in a doomsday scenario, but labelling prepping as extremist and not even considering it, means that some of the practical stuff doesn't get discussed. Some people aren't prepared for even basic emergencies like the boiler breaking down, let alone a major power cut which is a real threat this winter.

It relates to the post a few weeks back about resilience. It may be frugal and efficient to only buy the items you need this week, but it is far more resilient if you have a cupboard full of tins, rice and pasta to fall back on when something unexpected happens. Even more resilient if you have some seeds and know how to make use of them.

How far do you go to be prepared?

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Energy switch

I have just started the process of switching my energy supplier again for gas and electricity. It should be a much quicker process now. Although nothing has happened for the last 2 weeks, because there is a 14 day cooling off period!

From the graph above you can see why I am switching. My current fixed price contract (annual cost shown in blue) was coming to an end and if I did nothing I would be moved onto the 'standard price' contract (in red) which would increase my bills by £251 a year (based on my actual consumption for the last year).

My current supplier is also offering a special deal. If I move to their 'Fix & Save 2' rate (in green) I will save £132 they say, but they mean I will make a saving compared to the standard rate, rather than my current rate. Actually it will still cost me £119 extra and I will be tied in for a year with a penalty for switching. Not really a saving after all then.

Although all the information I needed to work out the true cost was provided by my supplier, it would be easy to just assume that I was really going to save money and sign up. These energy companies can be tricky, although this is still an improvement. Previously you wouldn't realise the rate had increased until you had received a few higher bills.

MSE have a nifty tool The Cheap Energy Club that sends out alerts when there are cheaper energy deals that you can switch to. I have found it very easy to use. By comparing, I have switched to a deal called 'Blue' ( purple) that works out only £22 more than my existing rate, but I will get £30 cashback on top. My new deal is not the cheapest available, but it has given me a fixed rate for 2 years, with no penalty to leave it.

What are the chances that energy prices won't be rising over the next 2 years given that:
  1. There is a possibility of electricity shortages this winter, due to unplanned shutdowns on a couple of nuclear power stations and a few other unforeseen closures.
  2. Gas production in the UK is at it's lowest point, having peaked in 2000, and supplies only 50% of our gas consumption.
  3. Relations with Russia, the main gas supplier for Europe, are a touch frosty. Because we buy in a global market, any restrictions or price increases will affect wholesale prices throughout Europe, whether or not our gas is coming directly from Russia.
  4. Prices have been increasing by significantly more than inflation for the last 10 years.
  5. The current government has made no progress on tackling the huge profits that the energy companies make, though they have succeeded in significantly reducing the uptake of energy efficiency measures. Large scale take up of energy efficiency measures may lead to reduced demand, however high energy prices also reduce demand. The difference is that high prices hit the poor hardest and can lead to them being unable to afford to keep their homes warm, where as energy efficiency measures such as insulation means that keeping your home warm uses less energy and costs less.
For energy prices to remain stable over the next 2 years we would need very mild winters across Europe, an end to sanctions with Russia and no growth in demand for energy. Just looking at the last point, if the economy is growing, then energy consumption is increasing. This is because economic growth is about building more houses, expanding factory output, and increasing consumer spending on 'stuff' that is made with energy. No growth in energy consumption quite simply means no economic growth. That's not a popular suggestion (even less so than making up with Russia), hence why energy prices are almost guaranteed to rise over the next 2 years.

But wait......oil prices have been falling significantly, which signifies a drop in demand for oil. This could be one of the first indications that recession is starting to bite again (supported by the dive in share prices), so maybe no energy growth is a possibility?

Whatever happens, checking whether you can reduce your energy bills now, installing energy efficiency measures and taking advantage of subsidized or free solar panels will prepare you for the coming winter and help reduce costs.

Monday, 13 October 2014

World carbon emissions out of control

I am writing another post that has been triggered by a news article, only this time it is about climate change. The headline 'China's per capita carbon emissions overtake EU's' came as a bit of a shock.

'While the per capita average for the world as a whole is 5 tonnes of carbon dioxide, China is now producing 7.2 tonnes per person, to the EU's 6.8 tonnes. The US is still far ahead on 16.5 tonnes per person.'

I was always led to believe that it was China's 1 tonne footprint, based on less consumer goods, lower energy consumption and higher bicycle usage, that we were meant to aspire to.  The chart below taken from Shrink That Footprint shows how things stood back in 2001.

In 2001 the carbon footprint for the whole world was 4 tonnes per person per year, so over the last 12 years, despite knowing that carbon emissions are causing catastrophic climate change, the world's footprint has increased to 5 tonnes per person. The actual carbon emissions are even worse than this, because there are an additional 1 billion people in the world now, who are all emitting 5 tonnes each too.

Why wasn't this the headline? World carbon emissions are still increasing wildly. Any pretence that carbon emissions are under control let alone decreasing is a farce!

So how could China's per capita carbon emissions overtake the EU, from such humble beginnings? That is an enormous change from 1.7 tonnes per person in 2001 to 7.2 tonnes in 2013.  I have mentioned previously, a large part of the increase in carbon emissions is a result of the shift in manufacturing industries from the West to China. So the largest increase in their emissions is from burning coal, to power factories, that are producing cheap goods for us.

Also emissions in the EU have decreased slightly, but that is mainly the other side of manufacturing industries moving to China and taking the energy consumption with them.

It is such a bad idea. Labour is cheaper in China because there is a lower standard of living and less regulations to protect the workers. So instead of keeping jobs in the EU, where there is a minimum wage, sick pay, holiday pay, paid maternity leave, strict health and safety rules, regulations on pollution and pressure to reduce carbon emissions, companies have cut costs so that we can have more 'stuff' at a lower price.

Personally, I don't want more 'stuff' and when I do really need to buy something new, I aim to buy local products or EU as a minimum, so that I know no one has been exploited making it and my money helps to support local industries. This may mean paying higher prices, but that will just mean that I can't buy so much stuff. It also reduces shipping all round the world and hidden carbon emissions.

What the above article really made me question is why have I been basing my personal carbon reductions on 90% of the average American, when they are clearly the biggest carbon emitters. Using the formula that Sharon Astyk used in the Riot for Austerity, was relatively easy to understand and follow so it had some appeal, but in all honesty I personally wanted quite a generous starting point, to make my target easier. Making a 90% reduction seemed......overwhelming. Now I feel like not making a 90% reduction is overwhelming!

So from now on I am going to frame things differently, and continue to significantly reduce my carbon emissions.