Saturday 30 January 2010

Stored summer

The food year is like a battery: it gets charged in summer and we in the high latitudes need to live off that charge over winter. Over the last few decades we’ve been living off the sun in the Carboniferous instead, but now that fossil charge is running low, and we need to look at the ways in which we used to do this, and improve on them.

Patrick Whitefield, in his wonderful book The Earth care manual, argues that we would do well to get more of our nutrition from trees. And I can see why: my vigorous apple tree takes about a day of maintenance and harvest a year and produces roughly as much food as my vegetable garden, in which I spend about a day a week. (I admit this is not a fair comparison, amongst others because the apple tree wouldn’t have produced from year 1, but this should make less than a factor 2 difference.)

In late October my tomato plants died, so I was left with lots of green tomatoes. Since I’m trying to reduce my sugar consumption, and thus didn’t want to make chutney, I decided to try lacto fermentation. Lacto fermentation is most well known from Sauerkraut (using cabbage), but it’s also possible to use other vegetables. It’s very easy. You cut the tomatoes in slices, fill a glass jar to 2/3, dissolve 1.5% by weight of salt in enough water to just cover the tomatoes, optionally put a little oil on top (to limit the diffusion of oxygen), cover with a plastic bag and fill the bag with water. Wait at least a month before eating.

By the end of April the weather has warmed up enough that the apples go off, but there is still at least a month to go before the strawberries and raspberries are ripe. This also happens with the vegetables and is known as the hunger gap. One way to fill the hunger gap is with a pressure cooker. Please don’t recycle your glass pots with metal lids; give them to me.

Thursday 28 January 2010

Today I burned the marmalade

Today I burned the marmalade. I don't want to give the impression that I was actually making marmalade - the picture shows Angie doing that. My role was strictly the King Alfred one. But there's a bit of a backstory.

Have you ever started to become aware that there's an area of your life where there's a gap between how you know you ought to be living, and how you actually are living? I've felt that way about food for a while. I've worked on sustainable food issues for years now, and I've been aware for some of that time that our food system is fragile, and a big cause of climate change. And I've had a pretty clear list in my head for at least a year of the things we most need to change, starting with eating less meat and dairy, then supporting organic agriculture and reducing food miles and processing. I've also been uncomfortable - which of us isn't? - with our supermarket shopping habits. And my family and I have taken some big steps in those directions - we eat relatively little meat, for example, and Angie's always been good at cooking vegan food - but we've got a bit of a Tesco habit, and we bought a lot of dairy produce, and relatively little organic stuff because, we reasoned, we can't afford it. The carbon (or rather greenhouse gas) footprint of our food was probably already under a tonne a year per person, but we ought to be able to do much better than that.

A couple of weeks ago the disconnect came into my mind when I was in the Green Grocer, buying some bread. I looked around the shop and thought, this is the kind of food I want to eat. Why aren't we doing this?

But what gave us a big push was the Transition Circle meeting, which we had at our place here a week or two ago. Charlotte had drawn an oversized copy of her and Mark's shopping for the week, and it was all wholefood shops and organic growers. Elena talked with enthusiasm about her enjoyment of cooking. And Angie and I were both feeling how right this all felt.

Since then we've bought no meat, a lot less other dairy produce, and a lot of grains and pulses. Angie's been spending a lot of time on new and very delicious and healthy vegan food. And marmalade. We've broadened our sourcing a bit, although Tesco still figures too large - we're working on that.

I really hope we can get the Community-Supported Agriculture scheme going in Norwich soon. I also hope we can source local flour, oats and beans, and maybe think about a buying group for other wholefoods.

Wednesday 27 January 2010

In praise of slow travel

My family’s carbon emissions from transport are working out at about 0.9 tonnes per year per person – just scraping under the tonne-a-year target we talk about in Carbon Conversations. This is despite the fact that our car use is pretty typical for a family in the UK – about 15,000 miles per year between our two cars. So how come our carbon emissions are about half the UK average?

Part of the answer is that those car miles are shared between the five of us. I feel that’s a pretty fair approach, since I’ve kept a log of the journeys we make and the vast majority of them are ferrying the children around – to and from school, from after-school clubs, to visit their friends and so on. It does make me reflect that, when I was a child and a teenager, my parents did very little of this – I used buses and my bike much more than my own kids do, or I stayed home. I hope that, as our children get a bit older, we can encourage them in that direction.

When it’s just me travelling, I mostly use my bike or a bus. When I was working for East Anglia Food Link, I moved the office first from Watton (miles from where anyone lived) to Long Stratton (more central to where we lived). But Stratton still meant driving to work), so then I moved the office again, to Norwich, which I can reach by bike or bus. The exception is when I go into Norwich in the evenings, when there are no buses and I don’t feel very safe cycling, so I do drive.

I suspect the biggest reduction in our carbon footprint, however, has come from our changed approach to holidays. Until fairly recently, Angie and I used to fly on holiday most years. At first it was mostly Greece, and later Italy. Flying to Greece creates global warming equivalent to about 2.4 tonnes of CO2 per person, Italy about 1.5 tonnes. Or we might visit my family in Cork (0.8 tonnes), and sometimes we’d even do both in the same year (2.3 tonnes).

These days we have more of our holidays nearby. We’ve discovered parts of Norfolk that, even though I’ve lived here most of my life, I’ve never really appreciated before.

When we do go abroad, we’re experimenting with doing it by train or car. We visited Italy a couple of years ago by train. And when the children and I visited my family in West Cork last October, we went by car (0.075 tonnes of CO2 per person) and ferry. The journey took two days each way, and on the way there we stopped by with my aunt and uncle in south Wales. We’re now thinking about a car trip to the south of Italy in the spring – Angie’s supposed to be on a course there – allowing a week each way to drive slowly through France, Switzerland and Italy, calling in at places like Luzern, Venice and Verona on the way. Carbon emissions from the trip would add up to about a tonne between us, or 0.2 tonnes each, which is included in the total figure I gave above. (Cars make more carbon sense if they’re fully occupied – trains or coaches are better if just one or two people are travelling).

The trick I’m just starting to learn is that slow travel means treating the journey as part of the experience. In the past I’ve tended to rush about, treating time spent in the car, train or bus as wasted time, just waiting to get to where I want to be. But when you’re cycling, or driving slowly through unfamiliar countries, the trick is to enjoy the view and take in the new places. And on the train or bus I use the time to read, which feels like a real treat (the only problem on the bus being that I keep nearly missing my stop because I’m too engrossed in my book).

So here’s my advice for holidaying: check out the pleasures of the UK first; and if you do decide to go abroad, take the time to really enjoy it!

Monday 25 January 2010

Reports from the front line

As I've recently joined a Carbon Conversations group as well as a Transition Circle, I've decided to use this week writing about my family's efforts to reduce our carbon footprint. Following the pattern of those groups I'm going to write about the energy we use at home today, and later about travel and food.

Carbon Conversations suggests that an initial target for many of us might be to get down to one tonne of carbon dioxide, person per year, in each of four areas - home energy, travel, food, and stuff. That's a similar target to the one many of us in the Transition Circles have set, which is to get below half the national average emissions. So as I go along I'll report on how we're doing against those targets. In the case of home energy we're currently keeping our emissions down to about 0.7 tonnes per person per year - so we've achieved that particular target, although of course we'll continue to see how much further we can go.

For most of us the two largest items in home energy use are space heating and water heating. I live with Angie and our three children in an old cottage (possibly 300 years old) in the countryside near Shotesham. When we first got here the heating was all by electric night storage heaters. A few years ago we replaced those with a big woodburner that heats radiators and also the hot water; and we also put in a solar panel to heat the hot water. The woodburner succeeds in keeping most of the house at about 14 degrees, and the living room at maybe 18 degrees. But that requires a lot of wood - we get a two-and-a-half cubic meter load every fortnight or so in the winter, except when I can scavenge wood locally. Stacking, moving and sometimes chopping the wood takes at least half an hour a day. But it's a pleasure to have a fire burning in the living room.

The solar panel has been a bit of a nightmare. The person who installed it, despite having many years' experience, made a complete hash of it, and proved unable to fix it. More recently Lee from Norfolk Solar has been doing his best to recover the situation, and we're waiting to see later this year how that's working out. I wish I'd got Lee to install it in the first place.

I've also done a great deal of work over the years to try to insulate the house while also making it drier. We put in double-glazed windows, which conserved heat but accentuated the damp problems - these old houses were built to inhale and exhale moisture. I've replaced old solid floors with new suspended ones, stripped paint off a damp wall and returned it to limewash, and added ventilation. I've had to learn a lot about damp and old buildings, and spent a lot of time just observing how the house behaves over the seasons. Finally it feels like the house is reasonably dry - which of course makes it more comfortable and reduces its need for heat.

Burning wood results in almost zero emissions - though it's a bit of a cheat in the sense that there's only enough wood around for a few of us to do it. So the emissions we do need to count are from the electricity we use. We've reduced this by about 25% over the last year or so, but we're still getting through a hefty 16kWh a day between the five of us. Since I joined the Transition Circle I've been working to find out where all that electricity is going - using an Owl-type monitor as well as a plug-in appliance monitor.

It turns out that the biggest energy user in the house is one I hadn't even thought about - a 100w electric towel rail in the bathroom. When we installed it years ago I thought 100w is nothing - just like a lightbulb. But now 100w is approximately the sum of all the lightbulbs in the house, and the thing is on 24 hours a day, using 2.4kWh a day. We've tried just turning it off, but in the winter at least that's a bit miserable. My next plan is to put it on a timeswitch.

The next biggest item is the fridge-freezer. Because we're in the middle of nowhere we probably need a freezer - the alternative might be more unplanned shopping trips. The next is probably cooking, and then (in the winter at least) the tumble drier. We try to dry things on the line when possible, but in wet and cold weather we've struggled to find an alternative to the drier that works for this family in this particular house. The fifth-biggest item is the electric shower - it uses about 1kWh for a short shower - so I've stopped showering and taken to washing (and washing my hair) at the sink instead. I've not had any complaints so far, but perhaps you're all just being polite.

How has all this been for us? Certainly it's taken a fair bit of effort, a willingness to do things like carrying in wood, or hanging out washing, rather than just accepting the convenience of central heating that just turns itself on and off effortlessly. Certainly there have been tensions, when family members have felt the house was too cold, or the water not hot when they wanted it. But for me it just feels like the natural and right way to go about it - I'd be uncomfortable if I wasn't making at least reasonable efforts to reduce unnecessary carbon emissions.

Sunday 24 January 2010


I calculated the average temperature in the region, and found that the coldest day of the year is around 23 January. Hurray! It made me feel like a party and since Christmas is celebrated 4 days after the shortest day, I thought it should be celebrated on 27 January and be called Cryomas. Anyone want to go for dinner?

The data are from NCEP reanalysis.

Friday 22 January 2010

The People In The Room

the people in the room the people in the street the people
hold everything dear

from Hold Everything Dear by Gareth Evans

We met at Tully and Angie's for our Strangers' Circle meeting last week and the subject was Food. What we ate, where we bought it and how we cooked it.

I baked a sourdough loaf for the supper. The flour was a mix: rye and spelt from Maple Farm in Suffolk and strong white untreated from Garboldisham mill in Norfolk, all organic. The bread was delicious. Tully and William tasted the strong white flour from the bag I'd brought with me to show everyone. "It's unlikely to be totally local," said Tully tactfully. And he is in the Bread, Beans, Oats group after all.

I'd assumed that everything was grown, harvested, milled and packed in Garboldisham. Doesn't it say that on the bag? Well no, not quite.

"I've just discovered you're easy to dupe," laughed Naomi.

So I called Adrian the miller the next day and told him I was part of a Transition group committed to bringing our personal carbon emissions down to half the national average by June and we'd been looking at food and was his strong white organic untreated flour local? It turns out that it isn't but that his supplier sources from as near as possible whenever possible and 70-80% of the wheat in the flour is British and much of that from Essex, Norfolk and Lincolnshire, where it is also milled. Was the rest Canadian (the flour makes very good bread)? No, but some came from Norway and Turkestan.

So what about my organic oats? A similar situation. I felt the twinge of disappointment you feel when cherished beliefs turn out to be untrue. Suddenly my totally sustainable low food miles bread and breakfast was looking less than one hundred percent perfect. But I wasn't going to diss the whole outfit just because of that. And I wasn't going to stop going to the local health store in Beccles where I like the people and want them to keep in business. So unless Garboldisham mill becomes a supermaket chain, I shall keep eating their oats.


"What's at the centre of permaculture?" asked Graham, pointing to a diagram of three overlapping circles.
"Life," I called out.
Mmmhh, kind of.
"The cosmos," said Jenny.
"The earth," that was Paul.
"Us," said Netta.
"That's right, it begins with you, said Graham."
"I said that right at the beginning," Gemma whispered to me. "No one heard me."

It used to be that permaculture started at one, our immediate environment, the 'end of your nose' as co-originator Bill Mollison says, and moved out from there in concentric circles. Then the zero was introduced and it began with the individual. Recently in some circles (sic) this has become zero zero or the group. For our final exercise last weekend we formed groups of four and began to design the library courtyard in Bungay based on what we'd learned in the last two days, together.

But beyond learning new skills and ways of doing things what are we all doing meeting up in these rooms? If real sustainability starts with us that means building sustainable relationships. It means we begin with the people in the room. The small changes we make, the small gestures that don't appear on flip charts or diagrams and yet mean everything. The moment when Gemma gave me the key to her house so I wouldn't have to wait around between the end of the day and supper there that evening, when Josiah shared his lunch with me (cheese sandwiches from bread he'd baked with Ellie's homemade damson chutney - delicious!) so I didn't have to go to the shops for it. The moment a smile takes.

Tonight all the bloggers on the TN blog are meeting up for our first 'blog-in'. I'm looking forward to going up with Charlotte on the train and seeing Jane who's picking us up with Andy at the station. And meeting everyone at John's house in Little Melton including his cat (and his woodburning stove!) and sharing supper. We're going to be talking about everything that happened in this blog since it first began four months ago. Zero Zero. Holding Everything Dear.

(And all the best to Tully who starts his first full blogging week on Monday).

William, Mark, Charlotte, Elena, Tully and Naomi in Shotesham, with 'Garboldisham' flour and Elena's Christmas cake, photo by Angie Wakeman

Gemma, Mark and Josiah in Bungay, photo by Nick Watts

Thursday 21 January 2010

Patterns in Nature - Permaculture 4

"Permaculture - designing sustainable human communities by following nature's patterns."

I found the quote in the middle of the sun on one of Graham's illustrations. It looked something like this.

Before designing living spaces, growing places, towns and cities, permaculture considers the patterns of nature. Last weekend as we considered the input and output of the industrial teabag and garden lemon balm, the process of engaging with a situation or piece of land (Survey, Assess, Design, Implement, Maintain, Evaulate and Tweak) and the fact there is no such place as away when it comes to rubbish ("our there is someone else's here"), we spent time looking at the natural shapes of the branch, the net, the spiral, the wave and the scatter.

We looked at photographs that matched these (lightning, sunflower, earlobe, moving water and dandelion seed head) and I noticed how the freestyle diagrams of permaculture also followed these patterns. Even our suggestions on the flip chart looked as though the wind had blown through them.

The whole weekend was like a whirlwind immersion into natural shapes and forms and how they relate to one another in the living world. Gone were the rigid straight lines, squares and closed-in boxes that form modern industrialised culture. Instead a vision of a very different urban environment began to emerge. From our courtyard with its planned grass roof and nasturtium pillar to the incredible edible cities Graham talks about on his website .

Permaculture lies at the heart of Transition for this reason. We can't get into synch with the planet without engaging in its energies and forms. Its colours, textures, diversity. When we do that, we'll know we've made it down the mountain.

Patterns from the edge: painted stones and weathered ex-house bricks from beaches and cliffs of Suffolk 2009 by Mark Watson

Wednesday 20 January 2010

On The Edge - Permaculture 3

I once lived in the high desert of southeast Arizona on the border with Mexico. I was writing, researching and living the relationship between people, plants and place in this hot, thorny country of mesquite and chaparral (creosote bush), wild sunflowers and ocotillo. What interested me most at the time were the wild plants and where they lived, what they did in terms of medicine and what their stories were.

So when I found myself living on a desert ranch with an adobe roundhouse, a wooden yurt and a strawbale all built by my herbalist friend Mimi and her husband in the 70s with their own hands, the mud under their feet and recycled wood, and no need for air conditioning, I just saw it all as part of my desert years.

But I didn't pay too much attention to this word permaculture that occasionally cropped up in the conversations. Mimi now lived in town and her husband had moved to another state, so permaculture seemed to belong to another time. She did sometimes mention his work as director of the Border Ecology Project (the Mexican-US border follows the course of the Rio Grande).

It was great to have a compost toilet and know that the water from your shower fed the cottonwood tree that sheltered the house. You could sit under its shade by the pond on hot days - and they were really hot in summer. The greenhouse in front of the straw bale was full of plants which kept things cool and added moisture. I learned that although the pepperweed (a wild brassica) seemed to be taking over the paths this year, it might be there as a response to an imbalance in the soil. We could leave it to see what happened next year. There was a bridge over the wash and a cattle grid but apart from that no fences between the ranch and the wild desert.

And though the buildings were weathered and in need of some repair, it was an amazing place to live. You felt really near the earth. And people who visited (including ourselves) would mend a window or repair a water pipe or paint the yurt. By the time I left Mimi and Francisco had started to dig the vegetable beds again in the rich deep soil around the house for planting chard and elephant garlic. Who knows, maybe they’d bring some guinea fowl down again and spend more time there.


“I’ve been in this courtyard so many times and never noticed the things I’ve noticed today,” said Josiah. And we all felt like that after the observation exercise at the Bungay library.

What was the observation exercise? Having time to observe before making any changes is pivotal to permaculture and it's recommended that you observe (or tune into, as I used to call it when I looked at desert plants) a site for at least a year before making any changes to it, so you can get a sense of the seasonal cycles, where the wind blows, where frost settles, which animals and plants are already living there. Graham used the nine ways of 'observing' based on Starhawk’s The Earth Path to get us asking ourselves questions about energy, flow, communities, patterns, edges and limits in the system as well as considering its past and future. We were encouraged to wonder how things were as they were and be still enough to notice what’s going on.

We each found a place outside to practice. I chose to observe 'edges', where one system meets another. This is where some of the most interesting things happen both in ecosystems and human communities. Edges are often the most fertile and diverse places.

I went into the library courtyard and heard birdsong, the first I'd noticed since the cold weather broke. I looked up and saw last year's birds' nests in the jasmine (which several of us mistook for a wisteria!) which twists up the wall and clambers over the pergola. Beyond the birdsnests the sky. So wild birds already make their homes there. We really were going to be 'working with nature', one of the principles we'd learnt that morning. It felt warmer (and drier) next to the jasmine than in other parts of the courtyard. Some way beyond the modern red brick walls rose the winter branches of some large, old trees, and suddenly I felt the library in context, as part of the living fabric of the earth, not just an isolated building amongst other buildings.

What then is the territory? It's wherever you find yourself - a desert garden in Arizona or a library courtyard in a market town in Suffolk.

Tuesday 19 January 2010

Introduction to Permaculture 2

I'm sitting here in the library on a cold and misty morning with writer's block caused by just how much there is to say about the permaculture weekend and how on earth do I say it? Okay, begin at the beginning and Start Small.

When Sustainable Bungay were offered the use of the library courtyard last year as a space to explore and demonstrate principles of Transition in practice, we thought this was a great opportunity to get together and learn some permaculture basics to give a structure to the work. The plan was for a 'living library', where we could grow food plants and herbs, have a wormery, rainwater harvesting and also as a community space anyone could get involved with and enjoy.

Josiah got in touch with author and teacher Graham Burnett of Southend-in-Transition (see for more info on his work), who agreed to come, and Nick organised the weekend. The class filled up, 15 including Graham, and off we went.

In the introductory go-round people gave diverse reasons for joining in with the weekend, though we were all united either by our engagement in Transition initiatives or a commitment to living more sustainably. I wanted to understand more about permaculture because it was permaculture teacher Rob Hopkins who started the Transition movement.

Graham gave us some background. Permaculture began in the 70s in Tasmania when Bill Mollison and his student David Holmgren researched how food systems could be sustainable in the face of environmental damage. It has now expanded to include all fields of human activity.

Then Graham did some mythbusting about what permaculture is and isn't:

It isn't 'gardening techniques'. It is a solutions-focused design system aimed at making and maintaining beneficial links and connections between human beings and our environment. Its ethics and principles can be applied to all kinds of situations.

It isn't a 'way out hippie cult'. It is firmly grounded in the world we can see around us and open to anybody with or without land.

But do we really see the world? And what is our territory? More tomorrow. Watch this space!

Pic: Graham Teaching by Josiah Meldrum, January 2010

Monday 18 January 2010

Poplar Trees and Permaculture

'What happened about those poplar trees on the corner in Reydon?' asked Penny. We were in the middle of an observation exercise in the Bungay Library courtyard. Fourteen of us were being introduced to Permaculture by Graham Burnett of Southend in Transition. It was a full-on weekend intensive and it's going to be my main theme this week.

"About half of them were cut down," I replied. And admitted I wasn't sure about the rest, which are still there, although there had been plans to take them all down.

At supper at Gemma's on Saturday evening, I discovered that Paul, a tree surgeon and active member of the Green Party, had gone to investigate the trees and recommended they be left standing. And as far as he knew the remaining six were going to stay.

That September Charlotte spoke out on behalf of the community of trees on Suffolk Radio. And I wrote a poem. Yesterday I showed the poem to Paul. He said I should publish it. So following on from Jon's poetry post on Friday, and given that part of the Permaculture ethos is what's called people care (along with earth care and fair shares), here it is:

Poplar Trees and Post Offices

Most people I spoke to wanted the local post offices to remain open;
People were invited by the Post Office to
Have Their Say
People wrote, many people wrote, keep the post offices open, they said;
Most of the post offices were closed.

A lot of people love the poplar trees on the corner.
The council decided they had reached the end of their lives
And to cut them down
The people were informed - by a letter posted on the trees.
Most people didn't know about the decision
Until the trees were being cut down.

A lot of us Had Our Say
The next letter posted on the trees was twice as long.
We were informed in councilspeak
That the rest of the trees were indeed to be murdered
(That's my word for it).
We were told
What was going to happen.

Populus shares the same root as people
I read this week in Man's Search For Meaning
By Viktor Frankl
The author's experience
In concentration camps
Of being told
That you are nothing, or worse than nothing -
A meaningless number without use or value
Other than to be used until you drop.

It's the way we are spoken to, told
"It must be done, there is no choice,
We are the experts
Your love counts for nothing
You don't know anything."

So Mr Expert, what do you know about the whisper of
The poplar leaves in the wind?
What do you know about the presence of the trees
On the corner
In the village where you don't live?

And People, Poplar Trees, Populus
What do you feel
About being spoken to like that?

from 'Knowing These Things How Do We Proceed?' (2008) by Mark Watson

Permaculture Ethics Chart by Mark Watson, January 2010
Black Poplar Buds by Josiah Meldrum, April 2009

Friday 15 January 2010

Something I liked

Found this online - it was written by an American poet called Adrienne Rich.

I'd never heard of her before and know nothing about her. I don't know the context in which she wrote the poem, and have no context of my own to add.

But I liked it, so here it is.

My heart is moved by all I cannot save:
So much has been destroyed

I have to cast my lot with those
Who, age after age, perversely

With no extraordinary power
Reconstitute the world.

Wednesday 13 January 2010

Facts and the sphere of influence


Regular readers of my posts may have picked up by now that I’m someone who likes facts! My day job requires my team and I to sift through all the various sources of information available to us and work out a true picture of what’s happening. My day job is in IT, but the principles are exactly the same when applied to the world outside. We call it “following the FROG”, where (in reverse order), we discard Guesswork, Opinion and Rumour, and end up with capital-F Fact.

It seems to me that the world can be such a complicated place, where little events can accumulate and cause avalanches of large events. The classic butterfly effect where a butterfly flaps its wings on one side of the globe and causes a hurricane on the other. How can we, then, make sure that the changes we make in our lives actually lead to the outcomes we want? What are the facts on which we can base our decisions?

I spend quite a bit of time reading books, magazines and the websites and blogs of people I respect the opinion of, trying to get a feel for the truth as it's currently understood. Looking for the hard facts that inform our decision-making.

So I was very excited to find the above diagram, cited on Duncan Green’s Oxfam blog, but originally from a report by the famous Mckinsey & Company consultants with the grand name “Pathways to a Low Carbon Economy – version 2 of the Global Greenhouse Gas Abatement Cost Curve”. The whole report's worth reading but in essence if gives a view of what kinds of activities could take place in order to reduce greenhouse gases. What's interesting is that a great deal of really useful work actually either costs very little or actually saves money. A lot of bang for your buck, as they say.

Quite unintentionally, a theme seems to have emerged in my posts so far this week. On Monday I touched on the personal and individual decisions that we all make, sometimes without thinking, and how we need a new way of thinking to tackle a peak oil or climate changed world. Yesterday's snow led me to think of the kinds of decisions our local communities make and need to make in order to change the kind of environment we live in. The Mckinsey report widens that sphere of thought to the kinds of national and international actions that could make all the difference.

Whether we look at the personal, the local or the national and international spheres, we need new ways of thinking, new ways of engaging with others, and new ways of seeing ourselves and our place in the world. There will be a general election this year. Regardless of your political background, it's worth having some facts in your pocket to challenge any political party that comes canvassing on your street.

Tuesday 12 January 2010

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow...

Thank goodness the snow's starting to melt!

It's been so much fun - we've been sledging, made snowmen, and looked up at the sky and felt like we're in a huge snowglobe. And, like Helen last week, I've enjoyed that otherworldly sensation where everything is hushed by the snow, there are no cars or trucks on the roads and the worst of our urban architecture is softened by a white blanket.

But... take another look at the photo above. I took it this morning on the way in to work. The roads are gritted, salted and kept clear. The pavement that I walk to work on is, and has been for the last week or so, a total deathtrap. I've tried wearing work shoes, hiking boots and trainers and have still been sliding all over the place. Friends have been unluckier and have the bruises to prove it.

What does it say about our priorities as a community? Sure, you have to grit the roads - a sliding car is a lot more dangerous to driver and pedestrian than a sliding walker! So I'm not saying grit the pavements and leave the roads icy. But it does say something that our collective priority is to keep the cars moving and not worry too much about the individual on the pavement. Councils respond to the will of the people (or at least they should!); that's why local democracy is so important. I can complain to the council that they haven't gritted the pavements. Or I can help set the agenda for our elected representatives so that these kinds of things are considered as a matter of course in their decision-making. If we want our councils to put the needs of pedestrians ahead of the needs of drivers, in all sorts of ways, we need to make it clear to them that this is what we want.

Equally, I could do something about the pavements myself. Something immediate. I don't know why it didn't occur to me earlier, but when I get home tonight, if there's still ice on the pavement in front of the house, I'm going to get a shovel and clear it away. I'll take responsibility and do something for the community that lives on my street.

Monday 11 January 2010

What were we thinking?


“Will you please stop turning the kettle off!

Here is a picture of our lovely kettle. It glows in the dark. It has little red lights that come on when the kettle is boiling, and flash when it’s on “stay warm” mode. And best of all, it has a heated handle! So, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, I can avoid the horror of freezing my hands on the icy chill of the kettle handle when I want to make a cup of tea.

What on earth were they thinking when they designed this kettle? What on earth was I thinking when I bought it?

I bought this kettle six years ago, and I’d just seen the film “Solaris”. In “Solaris”, the George Clooney character has a number of lit-up appliances in the otherwise dark & brooding kitchen that so perfectly matches the tone of the film. Although I didn’t notice at the time, something about this must have lodged in my mind as being aspirational, and so when I went to buy a kettle, of all the kettles in the shop, I just had to have this one! (To be fair, I didn’t know about the heated handle at the time; that might have been a step too far.)

So, as a result, I now have a kettle that uses far more electricity than is really appropriate for a simple water-boiling device. Which is why, quite often, R puts the kettle on for a cup of tea, only to find some time later, that it hasn’t boiled as I’d turned the thing off at the mains to avoid wasting electricity. Hence the oft-heard frustrated plea “will you please stop turning the kettle off!”

The simple fact of the matter is that so many of the small decisions that we make every day are made against a backdrop of a different set of values than the set that makes more sense in a 21st Century carbon-conscious world. Our housing, job, transport and food systems were all designed in a different age, when environmental concerns were more local than global and global warming / climate change was less well understood. Making the right choices in our new century means that we need to think more, and make decisions on better information than before. We need to think through the obvious and work out the real cost.

My new 2010 calendar proudly bears an “eco-friendly” sticker as it’s recyclable and uses 100% soy-based ink. Great stuff. Unless that soya is derived from crops grown on rainforest-cleared land. We just don’t know. And possibly those who made the design decisions may well have swapped one “bad” thing for just another “bad” thing, but just in a different place. We can’t just move the symptoms of our poor choices round and round endlessly; we need to address the causes. We need to start thinking in different ways, asking more questions, and making decisions on better information, and with different outcomes in mind. A new paradigm for a new decade.

So I could throw away my kettle and get a new, triple-A rated “eco-kettle”, but actually, the carbon cost of making and shipping a new kettle (probably from China) to Norwich would vastly outweigh the cost of just turning my bright, shining, ever-warm kettle off at the wall after each use.

So long as I can make sure the rest of my family know that that’s what I’ve done before they start thinking about a nice cuppa!

Sunday 10 January 2010

Sign up, join in

The Transition Norwich blog has been up and running for just over three months now, and has gone from strength to strength. We've had lots of writers covering lots of topics, and lots of excellent comments recently as more and more people discover the blog.

Over the last week or so, we've been having a lot of discussion behind the scenes about how to make the blog more accessible (technically, rather than in terms of content!) and so we've added a couple of little "widgets" (in blog-speak) to help people keep up with what's happening.

The first is the Followers widget, which you can see on the right hand side. You can sign up as a "follower", see who else follows the blog, and also invite your friends, so they can become part of the Transition community.

The second is the RSS feed, again on the right hand side. This allows you to have TN blog content sent directly to a little window on your home or work PC (probably best to check if your work computer supports RSS feeds, some don't!) So you don't have to keep coming back to the main website to see if there's a new post.

The TN blog is a community blog - if there's something you'd like to see more of, let us know.

Friday 8 January 2010

how does transition feel? - a bit like a snowy day

Because of the snow, we cannot rely on cars so it makes us change how we behave. Its like an experiment in transition life. No-one expects you to drive so its easier to say no to commitments that involve a car.

I always think if you compare transition to environmentalism its like selling religion by talking about love and forgiveness instead of hell and damnation. So with transition instead of ' the end of the world is nigh!' you have 'look how great transition feels?'

This picture shows how living the transition life could feel.
Today, nobody could get into work because of the snow so we read reports and accessed email from the home. Then we had breakfast in the Denmark Cafe then walked round the park with the dogs. After they were worn out we collected a free bone from the butchers and bought a jar of blackberry jam for £1. They fell asleep in front of the fire while we continued working. Then we went to Annas farm stores to collect more food for dinner.
' I could never live like that' i hear you say. And you are probably right as we have very flexible jobs and no children but
only a few years ago we both worked full-time and spent all our spare time spending money and life seemed pointless and we never seemed to have enough stuff.
Now we can live in the moment which is very cheap!
that's the end of my weeks blog. I hope you enjoyed it.

Ebay Snowflake jumper - £15
gloves knitted by mother - free

souvenir hat from Russia - free
clothes swapping Caterpillar Boots - free
snowball - models own

Saving the planet and looking geeky - priceless

Thursday 7 January 2010

the only green in the village

Last year I had a vision in a transition meeting that the area around Sewell park (by Blyth Jex School and the Whalebone pub) could be like a village. This would mean that people would shop locally and recognize people in the street and generally it would be a happier, greener place to live. Since that vision a number of things have happened;

  • The florist said she felt the area becoming more greener and has started wrapping her flowers in bio-degradable material
  • The owner of a successful independent cafe in Norwich is looking to open a new place in the area
  • someone put up a directional sign between the pub and the church and this led to the 'carols in the pub event'
  • The local NR3 group, reskillers, and the congregation of Christchurch new catton ran a Green Christmas fair ( opposite the pub/church sign) - see previous blog
  • the Norwich wellbeing group that meet in Sewell are looking at doing some research in the area on community wellbeing

So next time you have a vision or a dream, don't dismiss it and think you have eaten too much cheese. Watch it grow and work towards it.

The title of this blog comes from little Britain, the only gay in the village, and of course the joke was around the fact that the village was full of gay people but he thought he was alone! I have realized that there are loads of like minded people on my doorstep and I don't have to drive to a meeting to meet them. I can just walk about and find them in the park, pub, greengrocers, butchers, need i go on?

the carols in the pub story: Dec 2009 14%3A30%3A41%3A177

Wednesday 6 January 2010

How to knit a snowflake

This year I decided not to buy any new stuff for presents or at least as little as possible. So for a friend of mine I knitted this facecloth ( or dishcloth) with bamboo yarn. I got the pattern off a website which has loads of patterns. This one is a snowflake which like all snowflakes is completely unique but that is because there is a mistake!

How many times can you recycle an hpde bottle top?

I thought you might like this story about milk bottle tops. As you may know you can recycle plastic for cash. And if you are doing it for charity it is amazing how enthusiastic everybody is. One woman made her son drink only skimmed milk because she thought that only green lids were being collected. I heard that rethink was collecting them for a local school so as the rethink drop-in lies within my imaginary village ( more of that tomorrow) I decided to get all the church people and people from where i work to collect them. Someone ( lets call him Brian) was bringing me loads to my work and I soon had whole bagfuls which I then took to the drop-in. After a few months I was at the drop-in with a bag of milk bottle tops when one of the staff said ' Oh lovely, Brian will be pleased, he takes them up to a lady on St Stephens road'. This lady was, of course, me and I since found out that this was not true but for a moment I wondered how many times we had circled them round!
I have, by the way, stopped collecting them for now but if anyone is taking a journey down to Portsmouth and fancies delivering some bin liners full of tops then contact me.

Monday 4 January 2010

and lo! a star appeared on the roundabout by the puppet theatre....
as it is coming to epiphany I thought you might like to see a photo of this star made from foil takeaway containers on the inner ring road....

Play the 'how to be greener game'

I was thinking if my attempts to be greener were a board game what would today look like?

  • lay in bed and be 'in the moment' with your partner and two dogs - move forward two spaces
  • lay in bed too long and have to take the car to work - move back two spaces
  • put on all second hand clothes and feel awesome - gain one green and one wellbeing point
  • decide to print out document rather than read on computer - back one space
  • save paper by printing on both sides of paper- move forward one space
  • twenty minutes later you still have not worked out how to do it so have to print 118 pages - back to start
  • say Happy New Year to everyone in the building and create nice atmosphere - gain wellbeing point
  • join in complaining about another member of staff - lose wellbeing point
  • take down Christmas tree and pack away carefully so new decorations do not have to be bought next year - win 3 green points
  • break button on rather tight clothes swapping trousers while bending down to put away tree - miss a go while attending clothes repair class
  • arrange afternoon appointment so you can walk to it, meet 3 people you know on the way - gain 1 fitness point and 2 wellbeing points
  • write amusing blog entry and feel rather pleased with self - move to final place and win game

how many environmentalists does it take to change a lightbulb?

I don’t know the answer to this joke but I would love to hear any endings you may have!

I did come up with one joke ‘ did you hear about the hypochondriac environmentalist who thought is was an omen when his bag for life broke before he got home from the shop’

But seriously I was thinking that the whole giving up oil dependence thing can be terribly depressing so my blog will look at the creative and funny side of becoming greener.

One thing I do find funny is the ‘greener than thou’ phenomenon. It seems we are such a competitive society that we are even are competitive about downsizing! The truth is that there will always be someone with a smaller carbon footprint that you and always someone with a bigger one. I myself am green enough for some of my friends to find me weird but still feel like a gas guzzling city type when confronted with people that have made amazing changes to their lives. Yet what is important is that everybody is doing what they can. I used to be a strict vegetarian and people were constantly asking ‘ are your shoes leather?’ as though this would cancel out all the animals you have not eaten. Environmentally speaking then every action you make has an effect. It doesn’t matter if you try to walk everywhere but still take the car sometimes, the fact is you have changed your behaviour in some way.

The image by the way is a solstice dressing on Mousehold heath. I hope one day to meet the maker as I have been photographing it for two years. I found out her name is Lesley and she teaches yoga. Maybe next year I will join in the dressing if she will let me. It show one of the things you notice when you walk places.

Saturday 2 January 2010

Wood burners - a way of life

Jane blogged that she is thinking about getting a wood burner; I was going to email some notes to her but I thought that I would blog them so that others can add comments about their own experiences. I have tried to give an idea of what living with a wood burner is like – I have not covered building regs, chimney design etc. It is a complex subject and badly installed wood burners can cause fires and carbon monoxide poisoning – so take expert advice before installing one. There is a technical discussion taking place at
The most common mistake is to get too large a stove. Wood burners work best if they are burning dry wood vigorously – smouldering wood leads to tarred up chimneys (eventually chimney fires) and smoke that will annoy the neighbours. A large wood burner can emit more than 6kw which would rapidly turn the average living room into an oven. I have a small (4kw) stove and that keeps most of a 4 bed 1970’s house pretty warm, even on freezing day, burning just one small log at a time.

My first stove was a 1980 Hunter. I now realize that it was not a very good stove! It had double doors that did not fit tightly so it was not possible to control the burning rate by use of the air inlet controls, you had to use a flue damper and this had to be opened every time the doors were opened – otherwise the room filled with smoke. It was lined with stove bricks and had a second skin designed to give convected heat. This had the safety advantage of not having such a hot surface (we had young children) but meant that no useful heat was produced for about an hour! (Even with a radiant type of stove it will take 20 minutes from first lighting before you get useful heat). There was no airwash system so the glass in the doors was always black.

I also had a multifuel (wood, coal, peat, dried dung etc) boiler – basically a large water jacket with a firebox in the middle. This was connected to the central heating and the air inlet was regulated by the water temperature. The main problem was that it would blaze away when the pump was running but once the pump stopped the air inlet would shut down and starve the hot fire of air until enough air seeped in to cause a backdraft (see – this caused the top plate of the boiler to lift an inch into the air and emit a flash of flame with a loud ‘whooossh’, which upset the cat dreadfully. All wood burners will do something similar – though not as dramatically! There will be a ‘whoosh’ and some foul smelling smoke will puff out into the room. The boiler worked OK provided that you were there all the time to keep an eye on it.

There are two stoves in my current house – an extended 1970s dormer bungalow, as well insulated as I can manage and with many south facing windows. Externally the stoves are similar sizes and both would be described as small – about 4kw. However there are significant differences due to their construction.

One stove is an Aarrow mulifuel stove, it came with the house and is probably 30 years old but still in very good condition. It has an adjustable grate that can be closed to burn wood or opened to burn coal (wood burns best on a bed of ash, so always leave some in the stove, coal needs air to be drawn through the grate). The stove is lined with fire bricks and has a single glass door with an air inlet above which keeps the glass very clean. The stove works well but because of the grate and brick lining the firebox is small and I have to cut the wood up small and feed the stove every hour with hardwood or more frequently with softwood. The stove is in my office so I can look after it easily. The room is about 4m * 4m and I have to keep the door wide open to the rest of the house or I would cook in minutes, event with the stove on tickover. A lot of heat goes up the stairs, so on a cold day my office is about 23c, the upstairs rooms about 22c and the other downstairs rooms about 20c. The lip to the firebox is low and ash and hot embers fall out most times that I open the door, so I need at least a 35cm hearth. All wood will emit sparks (pine is worst) and some sparks will occur when the door is open. So I have holes in several fleeces and marks on the carpets. Natural fibres are less likely to burn, man made fibres melt as soon as a spark lands. A spark once shot across the room and it was some time before I found it smouldering behind a chair! The ashpan under the grate is no use when burning wood. The stove is connected to a metal flue that goes through a cupboard in the bedroom above and out through the roof. It is a cheap Spanish make and is OK but I’m surprised how hot the outside gets.

The other stove is Yeoman Exmoor. This a fairly cheap stove that only burns wood and is unlined, so the firebox and door are much bigger – it takes bigger logs and can be loaded with 3 times the wood that the Aarrow will take – hardwood embers will still be glowing in the morning. The design is good, the door is airtight and the three air controls all work well. It has air inlets at the base of the fire bed that make it easy to get a fire going – less effort than puffing! Much less ash falls out. Once the fire is lit the air controls have to be adjusted so that the fire is burning brightly but not too vigorously – otherwise things get very hot! The air adjustment is quite delicate and has to be adjusted as the chimney (brick with clay pot liner) warms up. The adjustment will be effected by wind and temperature outside. I have to use the poker point from time to time to stop the tertiary air inlets from getting blocked.

Because this stove has no brick lining it emits a lot of radiant heat – anything within 2m gets very hot. The rendering behind and beside the stove is cracked. Both my stoves are next to internal brick walls, these heat up and transmit heat to the next room – they can stay warm for a day after the stove has gone out. A lot of modern houses have stud partition walls – these would need protection from the heat.

Some ash gets out when you open the stove door and some gets into the air when you clean out the stove. Some dirt drops of the wood that I bring in to burn. Spiders and hibernating wasps make their homes in the wood and these escape into the house. After cutting and chopping wood I am covered in sawdust! Owning a wood burner leads to more housework!

Wood smoke does smell – your neighbours may or may not find it pleasant! The picture shows the 2 flues on my house and our neighbour’s chimney. There are no houses opposite or behind us. We smell his woodburner when in our garden and I’m sure that he smells ours – depending on wind direction.

Wood is best felled in the winter when there is little sap and then needs to dry out for the summer before it is dry enough to burn. It is best to split the wood before it dries out – this also helps it dry better. The picture shows a heap of oak that I rescued recently – this should last us most of next winter (I run a business from home so have to use some oil in the morning to get the office warm enough for the staff – or I could get up very early and light the stove). We light a fire every day and use about 6 dustbins of kindling – mainly twigs pruned from trees in the garden. This all takes a lot of storage space!

Don’t try and split wood with a felling axe – you need a wedge shaped axe like in the picture, this one has a step in the blade to stop it sticking and is asymmetrical so that it twists in the wood. Or you can buy wood ready split and dried – make sure it has been cut small enough for your stove. Ash from the fire can be spread thinly around the garden as a nutrient but too much makes the soil ‘sticky’.

Owning a wood burner is a lot more work than having a gas boiler in a cupboard. If you enjoy the process of collecting and preparing your own fuel and you are methodical enough to make sure that the stove is burning properly then you will enjoy the process. If you find it all a chore then it could be an expensive/dangerous white elephant. I suggest that before buying a stove you visit a friend who owns one and spend an afternoon splitting and stacking wood, cleaning out the ash, lighting the fire and tending to it.

Please add your own comments.

Friday 1 January 2010

Resolution 5: Think differently. Think inclusive; think diversity.

Looking back over the last year, I've made good progress. I've cut my energy use dramatically; I've bought a bike, which I use all the time; I've acquired an allotment strip; I've bought very little stuff.... mostly books. So, more of the same steady progress - or do I need, in consultant-speak, a paradigm shift?

My last resolution is the most difficult. I have to think in radically different ways about my everyday life. It’s easy to carry on thinking along much the same lines and doing things in much the same way as I always have, essentially tweaking and making small steady improvements. It’s not easy to challenge the way things work – really challenge them – but that’s what I need to do if I’m going to achieve big changes, along with everyone else.

The good news is that people are changing the way they think about the Transition issues of peak oil etc. I was with good friends last night, seeing in the new year and the new decade. All of us are making resolutions to do more to combat climate change. We all recognise that we can’t go on with the way things are. None of these friends happens to be in any environmentally aware movement, but we are all starting to do something about it. Even today’s Guardian devoted the whole of its G2 supplement to taking action on climate change.

The bad news is that in Transition we are still not reaching out to the enormously diverse population of the city. I was very struck by just how diverse it is, when taking part in the Lord Mayor’s procession this summer. You could see a complete cross-section of the city – young, old, affluent, not so well off, healthy, frail (some very frail indeed) and a huge range of different ethnic groups.

In our Transition groups most of us are white, middle class and well educated. Even those of us who have less in the bank than is comfortable still have plenty of other resources to fall back on – skills, experience, family and friends.

But according to a powerful article I read recently in the OneLife column in the EDP, (Ian Sinclair: Norwich: a segregated city) Norwich is a divided city. He was writing in December 2004, but things have got much worse since then. There are lots of people living in poverty, for whom it’s really difficult to make changes. They simply don’t have the money and many don’t have the skills to do things differently. How sympathetic are we to their plight? All of us in Transition, some of the time, could be accused of being a teeny bit self-righteous about the need to change and our personal progress.

And at the other end of the spectrum there are, of course, those wealthy types who make a huge dent in the efforts to reverse the damage we’ve done. I travelled with one of them the other day. He was calling his wife to make arrangements to be picked up from the station: ”Which car are you in, darling?” How do we get through to them? We don’t need to feel sympathetic to these guys, of course! But we do need to find ways to change their ruinous habits.

My prediction for the coming year is that we’ll see new beginnings: the shift to a more sensible way of life. Look back across the past decade: who would have forecast that recycling of household waste would become mainstream? Or that Eddie Stobart's freight business would switch from road to rail to please eco-conscious customers? A couple of headlines in the weekend’s papers are encouraging:

  • Britain turns its back on personal loans and borrowing (savings at 10 year high in shift away from borrowing)
  • After the pud, it’s the wacky races (on the resurgence of community-spirited fun).

Let’s hope for headlines like these (only fantasy now, but could be real):

  • Supermarket giant T**** goes bust
  • Massive investment in new rail infrastructure across East Anglia
  • Queen opens new community workshops in Norwich’s old Woolworth building

I'll end on another Churchill quote:

"Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning."

Happy New Year to you all!

Pix: Lake, taken today at Blickling Hall

Plus that famous wartime poster...