Friday 24 July 2020

Looking forward to a brighter future

Recently I met with a friend in Melbourne, Derbyshire. It is a beautiful market town and we met by the church and walked past Melbourne Hall and The Pool then followed the footpath signs across fields and through woods on a lovely walk, ending up back in Melbourne a few hours later.
The Pool Melbourne

We had a fabulous time, chatting all the way. It was 7th July 2020 and the coronavirus lockdown was starting to lift, but everyone was still being cautious. It was such a joy to be out with a friend again enjoying the English summer at its peak. Did I mention it was raining?

Melbourne Hall
By the time we had returned to Melbourne we were soaked and hungry, but the pubs and cafes were still closed. We bought some sandwiches and tea from a bakery and sheltered from the rain under the marketplace pavilion. ‘Pavilion’ is maybe not the best description but I am at a loss. There were 4 benches facing outwards from the stone centre, the marketcross built in 1889and a roof over us held up by wooden posts on each corner. We enjoyed sitting in the dry and watching the cars passing by, with a hot drink and some deep discussions, oblivious to the constant downpour.
The market cross
My friend told me about Professor Jem Bendell and ‘Deep Adaptation’. Bendell promotes the idea that we are already too far along the climate change route to prevent societal collapse, and that we should focus on enjoying the important things in life for the remaining years.

It doesn’t resonate with me. Rapid globalisation has created some big issues for the planet and I think most people recognise that in the core of their being without spending too much time on the over-whelming evidence supporting it, when they could be focusing on the solutions. I just don’t accept the ‘we are doomed’ conclusion, which isn’t new and has been pushed for the last 30 years or more. Plus define 'doomed', because it could be anywhere on a scale from a financial recession to extinction, and the most probable outcomes are somewhere between the two. 

There is plenty of evidence that indicates doom isn't upon us which I will touch on. I also feel that nothing positive will emerge from that kind of despair. People need hope and there is genuinely a lot to be hopeful for, though I may struggle to get it all in one post, so maybe this is the start of a new series of posts.

I read a few of Bendell’s blog posts and watched a couple of youtube videos. I was surprised that one of the proposals was that people concerned about climate change go through a stage of despair followed by a stage of prepping for collapse. I have been through those stages, but I always felt this was a complete anomaly in the UK. Even my friend sitting with me in the rain, who has supported the climate change movement for at least the last 15 years that I have known her, has not experienced that and we know no one else who has. If you have then please do get in touch either in response to this post or by private message to me. For me the stage after prepping is a deep understanding and knowing that there is a lot of hope and optimism for the future.

There is no disputing that there are some climate facts behind Bendell’s work, however I feel there are also some simplifications and a denial of progress and human nature, which skew his conclusion of collapse. There is a big difference between fact and theory or projections. Even with regard to facts they can look different dependent on what side of them you come from (your natural bias) and of course they can change with time. For instance the World population is a fact, but the figure changes daily. What I am saying is that nothing is fact and everything is in flux and in particular anything predicated on human behaviours and reactions. Experts struggle to predict next week’s weather, so looking further in the future is unreliable. Anything can happen today that could change everything tomorrow… and it frequently does.

What I didn’t like about this Deep Adaptation video on youtube is the comment below it that states:
As Dr. Bendell notes, there will be a tendency to want to reject his conclusions in Deep Adaptation since to accept them is so life changing in its repercussions.
You may also want to dismiss Deep Adaptation because you simply disagree with their conclusions, but with this sentence Bendell has dismissed every argument against his theory as coming from someone ‘in denial’. In addition he talks about the middle classes in his posts, and maybe he means that middle class society is collapsing and if it is hurray, because I am all for a classless society. However it does seem to overlook that it is the working class who are the collective power behind change (as well as being the least burden on the climate) and that there is a lot missing from this research if large parts of the population are overlooked.

My friend took from Bendell that collapse is inevitable, so stop worrying and spend the remaining years on things that have meaning for you. The perception being that Collapse means an end of life/ mass extinction event, rather than an end of a way of life such as a breakdown of current societal norms. Collapse represents fear, and just the word pulls the mind into a fear-driven frenzy where logic and reason jump ship and denial seems like a viable option. So let’s replace ‘Collapse’ with ‘Change’. There will be changes, there has to be changes in our society and history shows that there always have been changes.

Tobacco smoke is a killer, and in order to persuade people to quit smoking every packet has a disturbing image of the damage it has inflicted on some smokers. It looks pretty scary and if I were a smoker I would think that I was damned to die of some horrible lung disease or cancer before too long. The emphasis on the worst case scenario is aimed at scaring people into changing their smoking habit. For some people it makes the future look hopeless, so they may as well continue to enjoy smoking as they will be dead soon anyway. And yet we all know of someone who smoked until they were 80 with no sign of ill affect at all. How can that be? Maybe that future is not written in stone?

We are focusing on the worst case scenario for a smoker. That’s what we are doing with climate change too. This may scare us into changing our lifestyles or putting legislation in place and on the whole it has had that effect. However it can also cause people to become paralysed by fear or believe any efforts are futile. But there are other ways for positive change to come about and it is far better that we enjoy and embrace those changes because then they will be changes that are here to last.

I was given a book for Christmas “The Uninhabitable Earth – A story of the future” by David Wallace-Wells. It’s a shocking title but drew me in with the promise of an envisioned future. I only made it to page 44 and the weight of all the depressing, boring facts and figures that were being driven down to make you feel the full weight of hopelessness was enough. So I skipped to the back to see what the bright future might look like, but it was pretty much more of the same. Now if you have more stamina than me and have read this book in its entirety then please do enlighten me about the good parts that I have missed, or even shout up just to let me know you have not died of despair. I am a solutions person. I wanted to find someone who could envision the future for us and see the solutions - what is the use banging on about the same old stuff?

Wallace-Wells message is the equivalent of the stark image of lung cancer on a cigarette pack, I guess I have grown numb to it. Whereas the solutions such as banning smoking from public spaces worked just as well but without the fear factor. Providing solutions for people is a lot more empowering than just painting a bleak picture and leaving them paralysed. Obviously the fear factor is better for selling books…

Now I don’t deny that there is evidence that looks pretty bleak for the planet, but that evidence has been around for years. The Uninhabitable Earth has been compared to the Silent Spring by Rachel Carson published in 1962 and there has not been a silence regarding environmental damage in the years in between. I remember the mistake of bringing study material, Limits to Growth: The 30 Year Update, with me on holiday in 2006 and I sure felt the despair that Bendell talks about then!

The 30 year update was written in 2004 and the data used was from the years preceding that, and, well, things change. I think we only have to look at the growing proportion of renewables in the electricity grid in the UK to see that things change. Or the consistent tightening of energy efficiency targets in Building Regulations. Or the energy efficiency labels for cars, homes and white goods, with the commitments to phase out petrol cars completely. Standards are consistently being raised and maybe progress has started slow, but momentum is growing. The growth in globalisation completely over-shadowed the gains made until recently, and now there are more and more positive reports emerging. It’s clear that our perceptions and understandings of where we are need to change constantly and be open to the improvements we see, not just the devastation being caused.

There is definitely a delayed response in the updated facts being interpreted, understood and then disseminated and grasped by the wider community. Population growth is a good example of that and I would urge anyone who hasn’t yet seen the fantastic explanation by the late Hans Rosling back in 2013 to watch itEven though the facts and figures have moved on already and there was more good news about population growth slowing further in the news this week. The message is clear that population is still increasing, but it is no longer accelerating. The continuing growth is down to the increase in life expectancy of people already alive, and is no longer due to birth rate which has dropped considerably (see below).

World fertility rates (births per woman), The World Bank,  

Birth rate is a clear area where the actual changes have to be taken by individuals. Yes education and access to contraception are vital to enable that, but couples have chosen to move away from the large families of their parents and grandparents. Who would have thought it was possible to change that on a global scale?

The coronavirus pandemic predictions were bleak in the UK. Maybe they needed to be to prod our slow and bumbling government into action. However the 250,000 – 510,000 deaths predicted for the UK on the 16th March by Neil Ferguson's Imperial College team were based on the worst case scenario. That worst case scenario may have been fairly accurate based on the information available at the time and the assumptions made. Those assumptions can make an enormous difference. That’s why there will be several scenarios run for different assumptions. The worst case is the do nothing scenario, the best case is that all infections are tracked and everything is under control, which was equally as unlikely in the UK as the worst case, however not totally impossible.

It is the same with the impacts of climate change, there is a range of ‘likely’ outcomes based on how much or little action is taken to reduce carbon emissions and mitigate the impact. My concern is that human nature seems to be misunderstood in modelling and some of the positive changes happening now are overlooked.

Most of the constructs which govern our society and dictate the actions of the majority are beliefs, traditions or habits. For instance families were large because they were for our ancestors and our neighbours, because there was and still is a belief perpetuated by religion that contraception is bad and because people weren’t educated on the choices they had or choices weren’t widely available. The barriers that needed to be broken weren’t physical (although it all came down to a physical barrier at the basic level J).

Back to coronavirus, the decision of when to lockdown and how far to go, was a human one that made a significant difference on the overall impact of the virus. If you were calculating this based on monetary costs alone then you would not expect a lockdown to be implemented, because the economic risk was enormous and the probability of stopping the virus spreading seemed slim. Those most at risk were the weak and frail members, not the productive worker members of society. Boris Johnson certainly preferred the do nothing approach to start with, talking about ‘herd immunity’.

However this was out of kilter with the rest of human nature, which is to protect and care for loved ones. Many companies had already started to voluntarily shut down offices and ask their staff to work from home a few weeks prior to the government instigated lockdown. The pressure for the government to act on behalf of society was immense and of course they had to go with it. So who would you say made the decision in the end? Was it the politicians or was it forced by public opinion? Where does the power really lie?

Whilst there are some people who did not stick to the lockdown rules, the vast majority did. The vast majority have tried to take care of themselves, their loved ones and their community by following government advice, however confusing and pointless some of it seemed at times. This human effect has made a difference. This community response has shifted the outcome away from the worst case prediction. The power of this human response and its influence on decision-makers was under-rated. Similarly Bendell and others mistakenly believe that the natural instinct for humans is to protect only themselves at all costs, but it never has been. We are social animals.

When I read The 5 Stages of Collapse by Dmitry Orlov he discussed a tribe that had lost this community instinct to protect others. It was most disturbing to read of parents with no regard for their off-spring and the extreme conditions that had brought this shift in culture about. It is an anomaly that is so alien to our current culture. I can understand that writing in the age of Brexit the feeling of division and disdain for others was at its peak. However the lockdown has brought a blossoming of communities, just as social interaction and national pride were buoyant during the 2012 Olympics and Queen’s Jubilee celebrations. We can choose whether we foster and promote feelings of despair, isolation and fear of others OR encourage community spirit and camaraderie. I know which I prefer.

Another very positive change for the future is the new generation. My climate change fear years were during a time when the Baby Boomers were the dominant decision makers, with their focus on growth. Now 20 years later it is my generation that are taking up the reigns and the focus has moved more to sustainability and there has been a shift in gear. In 20 years’ time the decisions will be made by a new generation who have lived through lockdown, protested for Black Lives Matter and get their news from social media, rather than mainstream media. Growth at all costs will no longer be on the agenda. I could argue that we are already there, as for most of the world growth has been demoted and saving lives has become far more important when faced with a pandemic. Money is bailing out people and businesses not financial intuitions – that’s an incredible shift away from austerity.

Most of the solutions we need to transition to a low carbon sustainable lifestyle are already available. Many are underway and building up momentum. Just like the shift seen in  population growth, individual change is not only possible but is in motion. Your choices have made it so. As shown with lockdown, the people have immense power to instigate the changes needed and are already surging ahead of government legislation. 

Over the next few posts I will write you that positive future that I know to be true, with examples of low carbon successes.

Sunday 7 June 2020

The 4 day week

The whole world is protesting against racism in the wake of the death of George Floyd. You may think from my last post, that I am skirting around the subject and you are probably right. I empathise completely and I deplore violence and racism. But as my son points out, I have almost definitely said things that could be construed as racist in my life. For that I am sorry.

But this blog is always about action and moving forward. Its about finding solutions and taking small steps and promoting big ones. I know that I don’t have any of the answers. I see the protests and I don’t know where the solutions lie and how the change can come about. I am hoping to get a guest post from someone I trust to deal with this subject better than I can.

In the meanwhile I saw part of an interview with Russell Brand and Professor Kehinde Andrews, Professor of Black Studies at Birmingham City University. They were saying that part of the underlying problem is that there is a surplus of workers.

The idea was always that manual work would be automated and robots would become the cheap labour of the future, in order to make life easier for people. For example if machines can do the hard part of mining, then less people need to risk life and limb underground. It sounds like a good idea.

The intention was that people would then need to work less, would have more leisure time and could do more creative roles, but this is where it has all fallen down. Automation has been used to reduce the need for manual labour and the resulting surplus of workers has decreased wages for low skilled jobs. This has just led to widespread poverty. As the interview above has pointed out, this disproportionately affects Black and Minority communities the most.

We need a 4 day week. I am not the first to think or say this by a long shot. Apparently British economist John Maynard Keynes predicted back in the 1930s that a century later the average work week would be just 15 hours (Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren, John Maynard Keynes, 1930).

There is a lot to be said for a 4 day week, not least that it should create 25% more jobs. The video below highlights more of the benefits, such as less illness and more family time.

The benefits of a 4 day week don’t really materialise until the change is made by the majority. It also has to come hand in hand with a rise in the minimum wage. It seems to me like the highest earners in society are holding the purse strings too tightly to allow that to happen without a fair bit of persuasion.

Reading further through Keynes predictions, he sees a time when the pursuit of wealth over everything else will end. (I have included another extract from the same source below) I hope in this aspect he is right and that within the next 10 years (100 years since his prediction) it becomes a reality. Then at least we may have a more level playing field to deal with the issues of racial equality.  
There are changes in other spheres too which we must expect to come. When the accumulation of wealth is no longer of high social importance, there will be great changes in the code of morals. We shall be able to rid ourselves of many of the pseudo-moral principles which have hag-ridden us for two hundred years, by which we have exalted some of the most distasteful of human qualities into the position of the highest virtues. We shall be able to afford to dare to assess the money-motive at its true value. The love of money as a possession – as distinguished from the love of money as a means to the enjoyments and realities of life – will be recognised for what it is, a somewhat disgusting morbidity, one of those semi-criminal, semi-pathological propensities which one hands over with a shudder to the specialists in mental disease. All kinds of social customs and economic practices, affecting the distribution of wealth and of economic rewards and penalties, which we now maintain at all costs, however distasteful and unjust they may be in themselves, because they are tremendously useful in promoting the accumulation of capital, we shall then be free, at last, to discard. Of course there will still be many people with intense, unsatisfied purposiveness who will blindly pursue wealth – unless they can find some plausible substitute. But the rest of us will no longer be under any obligation to applaud and encourage them. For we shall inquire more curiously than is safe to-day into the true character of this “purposiveness” with which in varying degrees Nature has endowed almost all of us. For purposiveness means that we are more concerned with the remote future results of our actions than with their own quality or their immediate effects on our own environment.

Friday 5 June 2020

Women in Engineering - A new start?

The company I work for is being shut down, and I am waiting to hear whether there is a position available for me within the parent company, or if I will be made redundant. There will be plenty of you out there who have experienced or are experiencing the same situation right now.

I am grateful, because it was a lovely company to work for and they were very good to me. I felt able to express my views and enjoyed working with the rest of the team. It had a good balance of trust and respect, even though we were frequently under pressure to deliver projects. However the journey of life continues onward to new opportunities and experiences.

I am announcing my news to everyone quickly because the standard response is “Oh I’m sorry you are redundant”, “How dreadful”, “That’s tough because it will be impossible to find a job right now”. All these negative responses I have put in a box and sealed shut, so they can’t poison my thoughts or decisions. Will I ever meet anyone who says “Wow that’s exciting!”, “You are free to discover a new adventure”, “There are so many options, what will you choose to do next?”

Hmmm….what will I choose to do next?

I have spent the last 2 months on Furlough, which means being paid 80% of my wages to stay at home and not work. If it wasn’t for the current circumstances this would have been bliss. I have enjoyed getting the garden and house back in order after a year of it being virtually untouched. Having time to meditate, cycle and enjoy the sunshine and my family. I have even had time to watch some interesting series like Chernobyl, The Durrells and Afterlife. Life has been rather full on, so time to breathe and reflect has been very welcome.

My garden is coming along nicely
Even so, I know that this is not an option that I am happy doing long term. I get bored easily and am always happier with a challenge or mental stimulation. I need to find that balance where I can do some mentally intense work but still have time for gardening and family in between. Working from home cuts out hours of commute a week and really facilitates getting a good work life balance, so will be something I wish to continue. Having managed so well on 80% of my income, I am also wondering whether a 4 day week may be a viable option. It is slightly tempting to sell up and live somewhere by the coast or travel in a campervan, but my youngest daughter still has one more year at school, so those dreams will have to wait for now. Which means I am looking for a new job locally.

I am an engineer and a woman. The UK has one of the worst rates in Europe for employing women engineers. Women make up 51% of the population, yet less than 10% of engineering professionals are women according to the Statistics on Women In Engineering (WES, Jan 2018) as shown in their graph below. This is the lowest in Europe, whereas Latvia, Bulgaria and Cyprus lead with nearly 30%.

In my current workplace 4 out of 9 technical staff are women and it made for a good mix. In other engineering roles I was always the only one. The chances of finding new work for a company with any other female engineers is fairly slim. That red band at the bottom of the graph above is spread rather thinly. What is the problem with that?

What this large blue expanse translates to in the workplace is that you don’t fit in. You have to fight to get your views heard, and you are last on the list to be asked what you think about any issue. You will be overlooked for key projects where there is an opportunity to shine, even when you are the only volunteer stepping forward. And if you can’t shine it’s a hard slog to progress up the ladder. You will never be the “blue-eyed boy” on a fast track for promotion. It is far more likely that you will earn less than your colleagues for doing the same work and be regularly overlooked despite your competence.

20 years ago as the only female engineering manager in a team of 70 engineers that was me. The most memorable incident was in a meeting with the Operations Manager, Principal Engineer, and all the other engineering managers. Earlier in the day, I had inducted some contractors that were working for Pat the Site Services Manager, because he was busy. Now they had finished their work and needed their permits signing off before they could leave. I saw them through the glass walled meeting room as they walked past a few times trying to find Pat. Pat was often in the bowels of the factory where no phone signal would ever find him. I ducked down in my seat to try and avoid being seen, but they spotted me. They tapped on the door and then stuck a head round. The Operations Manager stopped mid-flow. “We just need Pat’s secretary to sign off our permits please”. The rest of the room cracked up with hysterical laughter, as I jumped up and tried to escape whilst glowering my worst scowl at these bloody contractors. Only the Operations Manager wasn't laughing. “She is not a secretary, she is one of our engineering managers!”, he managed to get out before I had reached the door, grabbed the contractors and marched off down the corridor. As if a secretary would be able to sign off safety permits! Duh! But to them it was a natural assumption that any woman was there to do admin, as they had never met a female engineer before.

And it is from these little assumptions, casual remarks and minor actions that inequality grows into a problem. It is parents that tell their friends that their daughter is a scientist because it sounds better than an engineer. It is the apprentices who are taught and influenced by male engineers, so any prejudices are perpetuated. It is the free calendars of half-naked women, sent as a ‘perk’ from the supplier, that hang in the engineering stores and engineers workshop – because only engineers aka men ever enter these areas. There is nothing that makes your position more uncomfortable than standing in front of the storeman to discuss delivery dates for essential parts, with the engineers behind discussing their favourite features from the latest pinup. (Well apart from a boss who stares at your breasts while he talks to you.) Why would this be fit for any workplace when your mind should be on work? It does not build respect for the female workforce. And for that matter it doesn’t build respect for male engineers either.

20 years later and you would hope the situation has changed, but really it hasn’t. Progress is as flat as the red band in the above graph. There is an equal opportunities policy now, but it just states the obvious – that you shouldn’t treat people differently because of gender, race, disability, age, sexual orientation etc. In my view it does little to stop discrimination, especially as most discrimination is subtle, underlying or hidden.

For instance how do women engineers know what the equivalent male engineer is earning? It’s not general knowledge and I have asked male colleagues previously and none of them will reveal their salary. So statistically we know men are being paid more but on an individual basis how do you prove it? If it is kept hidden then how will it ever be addressed? Maybe all women engineers should raise a grievance about their pay without any evidence, because pure probability says they would have a case? It may not be very palatable but what are the options to resolve this without some transparency?

Even the sexy calendars – if there are no women engineers in the workshop to see and question this practice will anyone else make a fuss? Apparently not, because I know in some places this still goes on.

And if you feel like you have been overlooked for a project, or you get given all the less technical jobs, such as going to the Continuous Improvement meetings, investigating grievances, or overseeing the work experience kids, then it is really hard to pinpoint that as discrimination. These little things then get you side-lined – it looks like you are not really technical, not a real engineer because you never do any of the technical stuff. Can you see how this leads down a slippery slope that means you get overlooked for promotion?

If engineering courses are all taught by men, classes are full of boys and you would be the only girl, you have to have a lot of determination and confidence to continue with engineering. And very few girls have the role model of a mum, aunt or grandmother engineer. Very little has changed in 20 years and the only way it will is with gender quotas or specific schemes aimed at bringing women into the industry. Retaining them with equal pay, good promotion opportunities, flexible hours, respect, and valuing their contribution needs to happen now.

The Fawcett Society produced the Sex and Power Index which reveals that men dominate in every sector in the UK, not just engineering.
     The Index reveals that women make up just:  
       ·         6% of FTSE 100 CEOs
·         16.7% Supreme Court Justices
·         17.6% of national newspaper editors
·         26% of cabinet ministers
32% of MPs
If the positions of power are dominated by men then you would think it would be up to them to change things. That’s not how change normally comes about though, because they are fairly happy or even oblivious to the status quo. Its women who need to re-write the script, by being aware and challenging situations. Its women who need to shine a light on their experiences. It’s the men they work with who can become more alert to the issues and support women in engineering roles. Sometimes it is hard for people to see that it is all the little things – like calling you “love”, that add to the full picture. By raising awareness in a non-confrontational way when something is unacceptable we can hopefully change attitudes. What do you think?

It is tiresome still facing the same prejudices 20 years down the road. I am asking myself if I can be bothered with working as an engineer still. But then if not me, with the experience to work through these issues and the strength to try and change them, then who? The new generation have a high expectation of being treated fairly, and being recruited and promoted on their merit, as they should. Let’s not let them down.

Women make up 51% of the UK population - we are the majority! If we can't be a loud enough voice for equality and change for women, then how much harder is it for minority groups to be heard?