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Tuesday 13th November 2012
Ash to ashes...
Contributor: Jeremy Bugler

Nearly twenty years ago my wife and I bought a farm in Herefordshire.  Here we have lived ever since.  A few years after moving in, I was working in the kitchen garden when I came across an old galvanised bucket in a corner.  I tried to haul it out, and found it stuck.  Looking more closely, I saw that an ash tree seedling had settled in the bucket and had sent down a root, right through the base of the bucket and into the ground.  I was about to slice it in half with a spade when I paused, reflecting that such persistence deserved reward.  Instead, I dug it up carefully and planted it in the middle of a small field, fencing it around to keep the cattle and sheep off it.   Today it is a lovely ash tree of perfect shape, about 25 feet high and growing steadily.  

Sadly, not for very much longer.   The deadly ash fungus disease, Chalara fraxinea, has a firm foothold in England now and will be spreading westward at about 20 miles a year.  Perhaps in five years or so, our brave little ash tree will succumb.  Along  with it will go the many lovely ash trees growing in our hedgerows and the ashes in a 10 acre woodland at one end of the farm.  This woodland had been clear felled for its timber by our predecessor here, some 25 years ago.  He replanted it with commercial conifers.   We’ve had most of the conifers removed and for 15 years now have been letting the wood naturally regenerate.  Today there are many strong small-leaved limed trees shooting up from the old boles, many graceful birches  - and almost countless ash trees.  God, how we will miss them.

Across Britain, there are thought to be some 80 million ash trees, of which perhaps 10 per cent will be resistant to the fungus.  The change to our countryside will be grievous.  And why?  And why?

The fundamental answer is not just that UK governments and the Department of Agriculture were slow to act, though they undoubtedly were.   It is not that commercial nurseries were beyond stupid to go on importing ash seedlings when it was widely known that Chalara fraxinea had been storming through Europe for years, though the nurserymen undoubtedly were.  In fact, with the disease first reported in Poland in 1992, they seemed to have their heads deep in their compost heaps.

The real cause is the modern shibboleth: unrestricted trade and the free market.  The EU has regulations which makes it very difficult to forbid the import of timber or trees or tree products, and indeed when a British trade association requested a ban on ash seedlings being imported five years ago,  the Department of Agriculture did not reply and the Forestry Commission said such a ban was not possible.  Among the arguments deployed was the fungus was already in the UK, albeit in a non-toxic form.

In terms of resilience, governments everywhere need to learn fast that globalisation has changed the game.   Diseases of plants, as well as other living things, are being spread at extraordinary speed around the world;  given time, most species will learn to adapt to a new threat, but not at the pace that globalisation insists.  For myself, I would agree with the plantsman from Kew Gardens in London who asked for a complete ban on the importing of all seedlings, shrubs and trees.   The UK has an enormous amount of plants originally found in other parts of the world; we can forgo the few that we have not.

As this year draws to a close, I have a persistent feeling that the world has crossed a line.  It is a year in which harvests have plummeted, not least in the great corn belts of the United States, where crops were some 40 per cent down, and in Russia (27 per cent down).  It is a year in which we have seen one of the world’s great cities knocked flat for days by Hurricane Sandy.  The New York Times reports on November 11th that repairs to New York’s damaged power grids, transport networks and housing will take weeks if not months “ at staggering cost.”   The city is just waking up to what climate change means.   (One issue is that current regulations require fuel tanks for generators be sited in basements… which meant that nearly every building near the Hudson or East Rivers experienced power failures.)   And where New York struggles, so will many other of the world’s great cities, also situated on low-land near coasts.

The dying ash tree seems a symbol of a world stumbling into a new and hostile era.  What will it need to wake us up?   We have lost the elm tree already.  Now we are losing the ash.  Will we awake when the oak has gone?  The larch?

Wednesday 31st October 2012
Let the winds that rocked New York be those of change for US climate policy
Contributor: Jeremy Bugler


In the bad days of the late sixties, I made my first visit to New York, choosing a budget hotel.  As my taxi pulled up outside the Hotel Chuzzlewit, ambulance men were bringing out the body of a guest who had just jumped off the roof. Even in the face of suicide, the taxi driver could only wisecrack;  “Say, what a recommendation!   The guests would rather die than stay here.”  My reaction was of course horror and a feeling that this city was the ultimate in fragile.

Well, the day after Hurricane Sandy landed on the US Eastern Seaboard, how did New York City measure up in terms of fragility, or indeed resilience?   From what I can tell, reading the New York Times online and many readers comments, from watching the news shows, there are elements of surprise.    So far, there has been little looting or social unrest, in this city which has deep divisions.   There have been countless incidences of citizens helping each other out, acts of selflessness and bravery. An off-duty police officer led seven people to safety in the attic of a flooded house and then drowned when he went to check the basement.   Perhaps the great spread of the storm, causing mayhem over several states and not discriminating between uptown New Yorkers and Lower Eastsiders, led everyone to feel they really were all in it together with this one.

What is less surprising is learning  that the hardware of New York and other cities hit by the hurricane was much less resilient.  Built only a few feet above sea-level, New York is desperately vulnerable to storms and flood tides.   So in the great city, much of the subway system flooded and the mass transport on which the city depends closed down.  The subway system experienced the worst disaster in its 108 year history, with tunnels flooded and electrical systems soaked.  These will take days to pump out and dry out.  The tunnels linking Manhattan to other parts of the city had no flood gates, and so flooded.  Special corps of US Army engineers are having to be called in to help.

More than this, many of the buildings proved unresilient.  Mark Jones, a young Brit who moved to NYC last year and lives near Madison Square Gardens says in a BBC post what it was like to find out that an apartment on the 49th floor was not a good port in a storm:  no water in the taps because the pumps were out (many if not most American houses do not have water tanks in the roof: good against frost and cold, not so clever if the power goes down); no power and thus no lifts working.  The street level is 49 storeys down – and worse, 49 storeys up, many Americans must be marooned in their high-rises.

Well, if a high tide and a storm surge overwhelmed the Thames Barrier, London could expect much the same - with the difference perhaps that it has few people living in tower blocks depending on lifts.  But I am sure much of the London Underground would be the London Underwater.

The problem for New York is that it has no flood barriers worth speaking off.  The New York Times reports today that for nearly a decade, scientists have told city and state officials that “the city faces certain peril: rising sea levels, more frequent flooding and extreme weather patterns.”   State Governor Andrew M. Cuomo said the day after the storm that the state should consider levees and storm surge barriers.  “We are only a few feet above sea level.  As soon as you breach the sides of Manhattan, you now have a whole infrastructure under city that fills – the subway system, the foundations for buildings” and indeed the World Trade Centre site.

New Yorkers are now facing bills of perhaps $10 billion to build flood barriers - costly but cheaper than more floodings.

One small blessing may mean that many in the world take climate change seriously at last.   The water around New York rose at about an inch a decade in the last century, but is now predicted to rise at about six inches per decade - or two feet by the mid-century.   “Look, the city is extremely vulnerable to damaging storm surges just for its geography, and climate change is increasing that risk” said Ben Strauss yesterday.  Mr Strauss is director of the seal level programme at the research group Climate Central in Princeton, New Jersey.  He went on: “Three of the top 10 highest floods at the Battery since 1900 happened in the last two and half years.  If that’s not a wakeup call to take this seriously, I don’t know what is.”

The email responses of Americans to the New York Times’ top story on the storm are full of enlightenment. “These weather patterns are becoming the norm and it’s only going to get worse” says one “The only hope of stopping the momentum and repairing even some of the damage is if WE KEEP THE FOSSIL FUELS IN THE GROUND. ALL OF THEM” (His caps.)   

Another writes: “Good people, taxes buy civilisation.  Taxes buy FEMA and all the agencies associated with (sorting out) this disaster…. I hope this proves a lesson for the right-wing voter.”

Finally, one emailer posits the hope that after “the 100 year storm, the worst crops in 50 years and the hottest year”, the US climate change doubters can be routed.   One can hope indeed. 

Friday 26th October 2012
Forget the single currency, monetary diversification is needed for resilience
Contributor: Will Bugler

"Our relationship with money is like a fish's relationship with water. Fish are borne in water, live in water, die in water... and have no clue what water is."

The words of Bernard Lietaer, author of The Future of Money and an international expert in the design and implementation of currency systems. Watch his wonderful lecture at Pop Tech to learn more about how monetary diversity can increase resilience and act as a catalyst for positve social change.

Friday 12th October 2012
Work together to stay together - resilience lessons from Inishturk
Contributor: Jeremy Bugler

Browsing the paper the other day, I came across an item which gave me pause.   An island off the west coast of Ireland is up for sale.   It is described as a millionaire’s paradise, complete with luxury mansion, stables and so on. It is yours for £2.85 million.  It is called Inishturk Beg.   Beg is the key word  - meaning small in Gaelic.   There is a true Inishturk, a much larger island not very far away off Co.Mayo, and for some time Inishturk has made me ask what makes a society tough, enduring – resilient.   Why does one social structure crumble at the early signs of pressure, and another stay resolute?

I first heard word of Inishturk in early sixties when I was stuck on one of the neighbouring islands for days during a storm.   Stuck with me was the peripatetic doctor for the islands, anxious to get back to his home in Louisburgh and furious that the hotel bar had run so low that there was only bottled beer to drink.   He told me that the people of “Turk” were different from the other islanders around  - “they’re hardy fellows, all right”.   There were 19 families on the island, he said, and 18 were called O’Toole.

Ten years later, my family took to holidaying on one of the other islands not far from Inishturk and a marvel for visitors it was.  Warm people,  lovely shell strewn beaches and clear water.  But this island was in trouble in some ways.  Like some of the communities in the west of Ireland, its people received unemployment benefit, whether they were unemployed or not, to keep them above the breadline.  This dole appeared to sap the spirit of some of the islanders, who gave up farming their difficult plots or the hard life of earning a living from fishing.  Some spent long hours in the harbour bar.  It was in this bar that I heard people talk about Inishturk.   They were gluttons for work, the drinkers said, forgetting how to live well.  “Work, work, work – that’s all there is on Turk” I remember one man saying.

My wife and I were intrigued and resolved one year to get to Inishturk.  To do that we had to hire a fishing boat  - Inishturk then only had a very occasional boat from the mainland.

Arriving at the small and difficult harbour in Turk, we were immediately aware of a something remarkable in the island’s appearance.  Unlike its neighbours, every building we could see was brightly painted.   The roofs were all in good repair. The fields were all tilled and growing crops of potatoes, hay and vegetables.

We walked up to the small grocery-cum-bar, and again were made aware of difference.   The bar had almost no drink available.  Indeed, all the man behind the bar could offer was gin and blackcurrant, which I duly ordered.   Sue, being averse to alcohol, asked for a straight blackcurrant.  She received the memorable reply: “I am sorry, my dear, but we need the blackcurrant for the gin.  There isn’t another boat for some days and we have to have something to flavour the gin.  Can I offer you a glass of water?”  Now that was a man who knew his values.  However, it was also plain that the bar had few customers.

We learned more about Inishturk as we walked about the island.  It had only 80 people living there but the population was stable.  The islanders loved their island with a passion.    One woman, tending her red geraniums outside her cottage, declared to us: “This is the finest, grandest place in the world.”  Plainly, she was not about to leave for the mainland.  We walked on around the island, finding neat potato plots growing on the smallest places.

We haven’t been back to Inishturk for 40 years and its website shows that it is a different place today.  It has three smart-looking small hotels  - before there were none -  a new pier to make landings safer, and a regular boat service, twice a day in summer.  I have no idea how tough the islanders are today but plainly it has a wider economy and it looks a grand place for holidays.

The question remains in my mind: what was it in the seventies that made Inishturk such a hard-working, effective, cheerful, and functioning community, whereas other islands around were the opposite?   Inishturk islanders presumably received state support like their neighbours but something stopped them from relying on it.  They too were cut off from the mainland and its pleasures  - only much more cut off.  The islanders had no distractions:  this was the obverse of the consumer society.  But then that was true of its neighbours.

The only real clue we got is from someone who said that the island had a terrific priest with a powerful personality who imbued the island with a sense of purpose.  He told them, we learned, that they lived in a paradise  - forget the wider world – but that this paradise had to be maintained by work.  In this way, the island that prayed and worked together, stayed together.

As a veteran atheist, I am not about to write a paen to the power of prayer, though work is a different matter.  Rather, to think that resilient communities need strong leadership and a sense of common purpose, a co-operative spirit.  The neo-liberal ideal there is no such thing as society, that nations flourish best when individuals pursue their wants in ways unfettered by the state, the ideal now held up to us by the Republicans in the US and the Tea Party Tories in the UK, is the very definition of the unresilient community.  Inishturk held the key to resilience. 

Monday 8th October 2012
Positive transformation in the wake of disaster
Contributor: Will Bugler

David Gershon talks about social creativity through the lens of emergency preparedness in New York City after 9-11. Using results from his project All Together Now he describes how city-wide fear of another disaster was transformed into a positive vision of emergency preparedness based on shared experience, common goals, and neighbourliness.

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