Wednesday 18 January 2012

Creature Comforts

I’m currently reading ‘At Home’ by Bill Bryson and enjoying learning all sorts of quirky details about how most of us came to live in relative comfort. Apparently crude oil was first extracted from the ground, in the 1850’s, in order to produce paraffin for lighting and the petroleum fraction was considered worthless and discarded. How times have changed!

A lot of the book is about how the exploitation of energy sources have made our lives comfortable – a concept that we now take for granted but the word ‘comfort’ only assumed its current meaning in 1770 (when it was used in a letter by Horace Walpole). Until then most people had no expectation of being comfortable and in medieval houses people literally huddled together around a single open hearth with no chimney. The exploitation of coal led to heat, steam for engines to power the industrial revolution, gas for lighting and ultimately to electricity and all the labour saving devices that we now depend on.

A biomass boiler
Apparently, if you ask people what they want from life, a common reply is ‘to be comfortable’. So given how recently it is that the working family has achieved a comfortable life, you would think that we would all be motivated to preserve the resources that sustain our comfortable lives. We are now planning to build many thousands of new houses around Norwich and I would hope that planning for a world no longer supplied with cheap oil, would be a priority – but I don’t see it happening. Many of the technologies that could keep us warm in the future (such as anaerobic digesters and biomass fuelled heat and power plants) need to be designed into new communities when they are built – it is much harder to retrofit. And don’t get me started on the need for cycle paths and transport!

I really don’t understand why people who are now in their teens and twenties are not demanding new homes to be designed for the energy deficient future that we all know is coming. Councils are largely run by the middle aged or older – who put in a huge amount of voluntary effort but subconsciously don't expect to be around when energy has become painfully expensive. Young people need to take action now if they want to enjoy the same levels of comfort in their older years. Some of us can keep warm cheaply today by scavenging wood but you can’t keep a whole city warm that way.

An unplanned consequence of the discovery of oil, was that cheap paraffin destroyed the market for whale oil and saved sperm whales from extinction. Predicting the future supply and demand for energy is never straightforward but we have to try harder to be less dependent on finite resources!


  1. "Many of the technologies that could keep us warm in the future need to be designed into new communities when they are built – it is much harder to retrofit."

    So true, John!

  2. I'd like to make it clear that it was not my intention to denigrate the efforts of hard working, middle aged councilors (a category that includes myself) but to regret the lack of input from the people who will be living in the houses 60+ years from now. If you take 60 as the average age of Parish Councilors, the majority can't expect to live much beyond the scheduled completion dates of the developments now being planned. Whereas it is likely that someone who is 20 today can expect to live at least another 65 years.

    Even at public meetings, the age profile is very much weighted towards the top!

  3. Does TN have links with local schools? Perhaps if forward-thinking councillors were to give talks about what they do, to inform and get younger people excited about becoming involved?

  4. I do attend meetings of the School Council (which is made up of elected children) at the Village School, wearing my PC Chair hat and I tell the children what is going on in the village and ask them about issues that they want to raise. I'm working on getting older teens involved in village affairs.

    I totally agree that we have to convince young people that they can influence local government - they are the ones that are going to have live with our decisions!