Be a starling in 2017

Exactly a year  ago I wrote a post using the quote from John Taylor below (you can see his original post on Facebook here). As I wrote then, it summarises exactly and succinctly my outlook and the outlook I try to encourage in others…

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Be a starling

I work as a Climate Change Advisor in Suffolk, UK. It fascinates me how people react to documentaries and films on climate change, and what motivates people to act. I’ve seen a lot of messages saying that it is all too much and it makes them depressed. Something that helped me was an analogy I first heard from Systems and Feedback Thinker, David Wasdell. The point he made and that I want to emphasise is this. How we define a problem determines how we react to it. Climate change, we are told is a BIG problem. A favourite analogy among politicians and commenters is that it is like an oil tanker. It is a vast problem with it’s own inertia and a long turning circle. The trouble is, this image creates a psychological disconnect when it comes to individual action. How is me changing a light bulb going to turn this ship around?
But this is not how I see climate change. For me, it is like a murmuration of starlings. It looks big, but look closer and you will see it is really made up of thousands and thousands of smaller individual actions and choices. It is how I heat my house, the type of car you drive, the air conditioning in that office on my street, on everyone’s street. There is no single control room driving this ship, Climate Change is an emergent property of all our individual actions.
And compared to an oil tanker, change in a flock is agile and swift. Yes, please care about the bigger picture, but if you act in the areas that you directly influence, you have the power to be the bird that turns. So do something in your life today, and be proud and tell people about it. The birds around you will see and follow suit, and soon that change will ripple through out the whole flock. If you think of climate change like this, a global response can begin with you.

 

John Taylor @coppicejt

So, re-reading it today, I thought I’d share some of those “individual actions” that all make a difference. I wandered around the house this morning a took these six photographs of some of the little things that I do…

All the above have helped to reduce the amount of packaging, especially plastic packaging, that I am responsible for, as well as reducing the volume of goods transported around the country. All of these things are now part of my everyday life, and not something that I think much about, but each one makes a difference and helps in environmental terms. Every choice you make in life is important – you are important – so do your bit and shout about it from the rooftops (oh and follow John on Twitter).

Thanks again to John for allowing me to share his words.

Not a trifling amount

I keep seeing stories in the (not-so-mainstream) media about food waste. Apparently 30-40% of all food produced globally is never eaten because it is “spoiled after harvest and during transportation, or thrown away by shops and consumers” (The Guardian, April, 2016). And this is something that individuals are, to a significant extent, responsible for. According to Climate Central “The USDA estimates 35 percent of turkey meat cooked at Thanksgiving gets wasted.” If you want to see some more detailed facts and figures for the US, there’s a fascinating report from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) that’s well worth a read. There are high production losses worldwide, but consumer waste is significant in North America, Oceania and Europe, as can be seen from this graph form the World Economic Forum:which-regions-waste-the-most-food_1024

Obviously, the less food that is wasted, the more people can be fed, but the issue goes much deeper than this: waste food in landfill releases methane – a greenhouse gas with a much greater impact than carbon dioxide; the land used for agriculture is land not supporting native vegetation, and thus adversely affecting biodiversity; crops require water, so if we are wasting crops we are wasting water. If you want to read more, I recommend the FAO report Food wastage footprint: Impacts on natural resources.

Because food waste is something that we are almost all responsible for to some extent, it’s a problem that we can all do something about. And it’s a win-win situation – save the planet and save money.

So, when I made a disastrous batch of cupcakes last week, rather than compost them, I made a trifle…

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trifle before the whipped cream was added

This also helped to use some of the abundance of eggs that we have. I think Mr Snail is hoping for many more cake failures, since he loves trifle. See, avoiding food waste can be fun!

Do things!

So you are depressed about the politicians in your country and their environmental credentials? I’m not just talking about the US now… things aren’t any better in Australia, the UK or much of Europe. Well, in that case take control. YOU can make a difference and here’s how:

Don’t want fracking and all the associated pollution and greenhouse gas emissions? Then make sure your energy supplier doesn’t support this. In the UK the Big 6 all support fracking, but there are plenty of smaller, green suppliers who don’t, so give your business to them.

Worried about greenhouse gas emissions from transportation? Optimise the use of your car – never drive for a single purpose, always try achieve several goals on each journey. And, if you can, walk, cycle or use public transport instead. Buy local – locally produced goods have not been transported long distances, plus you are keeping your money in your community.

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Our milk is produced using wind to power the milking parlour and refrigeration

Concerned that our governments aren’t providing enough support for renewable energy? Support it yourself – switch energy suppliers, buy a solar charger, install solar panels/a wind turbine, investigate community energy projects, buy from companies who use renewables.

Want to see a reduction in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere? Plant a tree (or ten), sow some seeds, get an allotment, dig up your lawn and plant vegetables, share your surplus plants and produce, take some cuttings.

Don’t think that it is expensive to take action – use your money wisely, value the resources you have and make the most of them and never, ever believe anyone who tells you that you can’t make a difference through your actions and choices.

 

Be a starling

Yesterday I read a post on Facebook (you can see the original here) that I want to share with you. This, written by John Taylor, summarises exactly and succinctly what I feel and the message that I try to get across…

imgp1009

Be a starling

I work as a Climate Change Advisor in Suffolk, UK. It fascinates me how people react to documentaries and films on climate change, and what motivates people to act. I’ve seen a lot of messages saying that it is all too much and it makes them depressed. Something that helped me was an analogy I first heard from Systems and Feedback Thinker, David Wasdell. The point he made and that I want to emphasise is this. How we define a problem determines how we react to it. Climate change, we are told is a BIG problem. A favourite analogy among politicians and commenters is that it is like an oil tanker. It is a vast problem with it’s own inertia and a long turning circle. The trouble is, this image creates a psychological disconnect when it comes to individual action. How is me changing a light bulb going to turn this ship around?
But this is not how I see climate change. For me, it is like a murmuration of starlings. It looks big, but look closer and you will see it is really made up of thousands and thousands of smaller individual actions and choices. It is how I heat my house, the type of car you drive, the air conditioning in that office on my street, on everyone’s street. There is no single control room driving this ship, Climate Change is an emergent property of all our individual actions.
And compared to an oil tanker, change in a flock is agile and swift. Yes, please care about the bigger picture, but if you act in the areas that you directly influence, you have the power to be the bird that turns. So do something in your life today, and be proud and tell people about it. The birds around you will see and follow suit, and soon that change will ripple through out the whole flock. If you think of climate change like this, a global response can begin with you.

 

John Taylor @coppicejt

Every choice you make in life is important – you are important – so do your bit and shout about it from the rooftops (oh and follow John on Twitter).

Thanks to John for allowing me to share his words.

So, let’s get creative

At the beginning of this week, the IPCC issued its latest report on climate change. There is now overwhelming scientific evidence that human beings are having a significant effect on the earth’s climate as a result of various greenhouse gasses. We can all expect the effects to become more noticeable over time. What are we to do? The key is reducing our use of fossil fuels (and thus greenhouse gas emissions) and this is something that we can all contribute to.

Chris Field, co-chair of the IPCC working group says this:

We definitely face challenges, but understanding those challenges and tackling them creatively can make climate-change adaptation an important way to help build a more vibrant world in the near-term and beyond.

And that’s what we need to do, to be creative and to understand that we can each take a little bit of responsibility and make a difference. Over the nearly two years that I have been writing this blog, I’ve discussed all sorts of small steps that I (and others) have taken to lead a life that is a little bit greener and, therefore, contributes a little bit less to climate change and destruction of the planet in other ways.

So, I thought that now would be a good time to list some of the creative things that I’ve been doing that help…

First, in our house, we try to mend things rather than throwing them away as soon as something goes wrong. So, this is our solar-powered wind-up radio in its current (much repaired) incarnation:

Solar, wind-up radio in its latest incarnation... still going strong

Our eco-radio

And (much as I dislike it) I do darn things:

And the finished job... not too bad and it should last a while longer

Darned slipper sock

Recently, the base plate on our old Dyson vacuum clearer broke, but we managed to get a replacement secondhand one, so that should survive a bit longer:

Mr Snail attaching the new base plate onto our original DC01

Mr Snail attaching the new base plate onto our original DC01

Second, we try to cut down our food miles by growing our own (remember we only have a little garden behind a modern bungalow):

Some of the outputs

All from our garden

and by buying from local producers like:

All produce comes from the farm

Blaen Camel farm shop

A busy market day

Lampeter people’s market

Beautiful restoration inside the mill

The local water mill

And preserving food so that we don’t waste any surplus:

Potted up and coolng

Storing the apple harvest

We have reduced our use of petrochemicals and fossil fuels by using products that contain natural ingredients:

No need to think about shampoo for a while now

Buying natural and in bulk

Increasing our use of renewables:

Our solar panels

Our solar panels

A roaring success for boiling water!

Boiling water using wood from our willow hedge

Cutting down on the heating bills:

Curtains on a track or rail

Curtains provide good insulation

I love the colours in this yarn

Stylish ways to keep warm

Fingerless mittens in action

Fingerless mittens in action for warm hands

And reducing our use of plastics:

The finished bag

Homemade cotton shopping bag from scrap fabric

We’ve also enjoyed some repurposing:

Esme emerging from the 'woodland' laying box

An old cat litter tray now used as a laying box

Potatoes growing in old dumpy bags

Potatoes growing in old dumpy bags

Five varieties of Capsicums sown

Toilet roll middles as biodegradable pots

Curtains will probably be a more stylish option for insulation!

Curtains would probably be a more stylish option for insulation, but oven mitts did the trick temporarily!

And just, generally getting creative with waste:

Hexipuffs for a quilt... made from sock wool oddments

Hexipuffs for a quilt… made from sock wool oddments

A camping toilet, for discreet and civilised nitrogen collection.

A camping toilet, for discreet and civilised nitrogen collection

Apple scraps, fermenting naturally as you can see from the bubbles on the surface

Apple scraps, fermenting naturally to make vinegar

And, of course, sharing

The route to so many interesting people.

… by blogging…

... but what is my teaching worth?

… teaching…

Brooklyn Blackout Cake - too fiddly to make every day!

… and, of course, over coffee and cake…

More water

I have been thinking a lot about water recently. I think about it as it falls from the sky (most days); I think about it as it flows off the field behind us, through our garden and into our next-door-neighbour’s garden; I think about it as I slosh through the mud to round-up the very soggy chickens (I’m thinking of trading them in for some ducks); and I think about it whenever I do the washing and have to dry it indoors.

In the UK, flooding seems to have been something of a theme of 2012, and the year-end is no different. Travel has been severely disrupted in the past few days as a result of flooding and landslides and not helped by a couple of fires associated with railway lines! Earlier in the year I wrote about the severe flooding in Aberystwyth and surrounding areas and discussed the issues associated with this, including building on floodplains and the impact of upland land use.

The recent flooding is particularly acute because the ground, having been exposed to months of wet weather, is saturated. This means that any water which does fall doesn’t soak into the soil, but immediately flows over the surface, quickly reaching streams, rivers and drains, thus potentially causing flash floods. So we could reduce this problem in the long-term both by having more tress in the landscape – to intercept water and slow down the rate that it reaches the soil – and by having soils that have a greater capacity to hold water.

It is the latter that I have been pondering over the past couple of days. Because our garden receives so much run-off from the field behind, we have had to build raised beds to prevent our vegetables drowning and we’ve had to raise the level of the area where the chicken enclosure is to prevent the chickens dissolving! The latter we achieved by using recycled plastic boards to enclose an area of about 11m2 that used to be lawn and filling it with wood chip. The wood chip now needs topping up (a job for the new year) as it has started to settle and rot down. We noticed earlier in the week that it was starting to get puddles on the top of it – despite still being about 10 cm higher than the natural surface of the garden. So, yesterday I decided to loosen it with a fork to improve the drainage a bit. And what did I discover? That what we have now is soil! Despite the wet conditions, the area is teaming with earth worms. We have inadvertently created a brilliant composting system – carbon from the wood chip and nitrogen (plus lots of other nutrients) from the chicken poo. I’m really quite excited about how efficient it has been… and how much water it is holding. I’m seriously thinking of setting part of it aside to grow potatoes next year!

Soil

The soil is an important resource for managing water in the landscape

The ingredients for a good soil – that is fertile and acts like a sponge – are right there in my back garden, so why aren’t they right there in the surrounding countryside? Well, the problem seems to be this balance between carbon and nitrogen. Soil micro-organisms need both, and if we upset the balance, we cause problems. Gardening books warn us not to dig wood chips into the soil because they will ‘rob’ it of nitrogen. In fact, what happens is that wood chip contains loads of carbon but not much nitrogen. Micro-organisms need nitrogen if they are to make use of all this ‘feast’ or carbon and, being really efficient critters, they scavenge nutrients much quicker than plants and so they grab all the nitrogen they can, leaving the soil somewhat depleted. If we are gardening, we avoid this either by composting our wood chip along with things that are nitrogen rich (like chicken poo, or kitchen waste) or by simply using it as a mulch on the surface, where it breaks down much more slowly.

This sort of problem does not occur in modern agriculture… quite the reverse, in fact. Many farmers these days apply inorganic (chemical) fertilizer to their land. This is usually either just nitrogen (N), or a combination of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium (NPK). So the thing that is missing in this case is carbon. In soils, the carbon is present in organic matter, so when nitrogen is boosted by fertiliser application, the micro-organisms start to break down the organic matter like mad. And here’s the rub… the organic matter is the stuff that makes the soil act like a sponge. So, our modern farming methods deplete the soil of organic matter (regularly because fertiliser is usually applied every year). Taking a crop off removes the plant material that would, in nature, mostly be returned to the soil thus boosting organic matter. So, with modern agriculture, we end up with soils that water flows through or washes away (thus exacerbating the situation).

Things are improving in some ways – for instance, we no longer burn stubble after cereal production, instead we plough it back into the soil, thus returning some carbon. And lots of organic farming techniques value incorporation of organic matter into the soil, but we need these practices to be much more widespread if we are to reduce the potential for flooding. According to Toby Hemenway, good quality soil can hold about a quarter of its volume of water, so if your soil is 30cm deep, it can soak up 7.5cm of rain…. isn’t that astonishing? OK, you are not going to be starting from a completely dry soil, but what if the soil in your garden could hold that amount of water: acting as a ‘water battery’ and storing that water for when you need it, whist slowing its movement through the land during periods of heavy rain? So, good soil is not just beneficial in wet places, it’s great for dry places too!

As climate change leads to there being more energy in our weather systems, we are likely to get more extreme weather – wetter and drier. By developing good soils, we can buffer the negative effects of these changes and make everyone’s lives more secure in terms of food security and safety from natural disasters… all through thinking enhancing the health of our soils.

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