New technologies are shaping our cities in ways that we have not seen before. IT systems ca...
New technologies are shaping our cities in ways that we have not seen before. IT systems ca...
TARU Leading Edge is a leading Indian Think Tank exploring issues of climate change resilienc...
Is there a more appropriate day to write a blog for Get Resilient than today… when we are digesting the news that 600 million people in India lost all electric power when their grids collapsed? The vast nation of India is served by only five electric grids - and three went down. Is there better proof that excessive centralisation reduces resilience?
From the very general, to the very particular. In fact, a single, particular tree growing in our garden. A few days ago, I marched off down to the tree with two grandsons, one bearing a tape measure and the other a notebook and pencil. Our job was to measure the girth of the tree, a Cedar of Lebanon that is fatter than the fattest City fat cat. We’d heard that the Woodland Trust is running a campaign to find and measure ancient trees. In truth, our cedar is not especially ancient, being planted around 1825, when the 19th century fashion for cedars was under way, but it is especially fat and the temptation to get the girth was too much.
Measuring the girth of a tree, we read, should be done at a height of 1.5 metres. We passed the tape around the tree, Matty disappearing from sight with it, passing it to Joe, who passed it to me. The reading came out at 7 metres 98 centimetres. This is bloody colossal, the arboreal equivalent of a Sumo wrestler gorging on steroids and Big Macs. To get an idea, look up Alan Mitchell.
In British tree terms, Alan Mitchell is The Authority. He almost single-handedly measured every notable tree in the British Isles, and knew his trees so well that he could wake up from a long car journey and know immediately where he was by looking out of the window, spot a tree and say … oh, yes, we are just outside Peasdown St. John. A veritable eccentric, he went around in all weathers in a thin shirt and trousers and sandals without socks, once meeting his doctor on a snow-covered pavement and having to work hard to convince him that there was no need to section him.
Well, in the early seventies, Alan Mitchell recorded the girth of the largest Cedar of Lebanon he had come across and listed in his incomparable A Field Guide to The Trees of Britain and Northern Europe. It was at Blenheim in Oxfordshire, and came out at 8 metres 20 centimetres. Only 22 centimetres larger than the one in our garden. With a bit of jiggling of our tape measure, I am sure we could have matched that.
Of course, most of this is vanity, a match for those two Olympic cyclists who the other day were seen measuring the circumference of their thighs. While it’s important that notable trees are protected, what matters most is the health and quantity of the trees. In his brilliant book A Short History of Progress, Ronald Wright notes that trees are the markers of healthy civilisations. Those that abuse their trees, fall and collapse much as the trees they have cut down. The prodigious tree felling of our time, with the razing of whole forests for growing soya and maize, is a marker of what will happen. Ronald Wright quotes W.H. Auden : “ A culture is no better than its woods” Wright goes on: “Civilisations have developed many techniques for making the earth produce more food – some sustainable, some not. The lesson I read in the past is this: that the health of land and water - and of woods, which are the keepers of water – can be the only lasting basis for any civilisation’s survival and success.”
So let us celebrate and preserve and plant more trees. The other day I was in the kitchen garden, administering to some outdoor tomatoes, which were looking at me accusingly, muttering softly but loud enough to hear: “what the hell are we doing here, plants that came from South America? Where do we end up? Sub-polar Herefordshire.” Depressed by this chatter, my spirits were then lifted when I heard a great humming filling the air. I tracked it to a large Spanish chestnut, in full flower, and covered with honey bees. The roles that trees play are myriad and marvellous.
Jeremy Bugler 2nd August 2012
Postscript: Since writing this blog, I’ve been directed to the Tree Register, which records ancient and notable trees in Britain and Ireland. Here I’ve just found that up near Dundee, at Gray House in Liff, there’s a sodding cedar with a girth of 11 metres 8 centimetres. Indeed, there’s one just across the county border from us (in sodding Shropshire at Rowton Castle) with 10 metres 27 centimetres. It turns out our cedar is nothing but a sapling. I feel now like I did when I was at school, buoyed up by winning cross country races but then entering a Surrey cross country event and seeing nothing but the backsides of runners disappearing into the mist before me.
This sad summer is putting our resilience skills to the test. Part of our family resilience is the kitchen garden; if there’s a strike of transport drivers and the vegetables don’t get through to the shops, then we comfort ourselves that we have a supply just ready to be taken by the back door.
Ihave grown vegetables since the late sixties, when I had an allotment on a hillside in Dulwich, South London. From my patch, I could straighten my back from hoeing and see all of London spread out below me. It took me a long time to learn to grow vegetables reliably. In my first year, my leeks were so small that Harry, a retired bus engineer and my neighbour on the next-door allotment, looked at my crop and warned me: “Mind they don’t get stuck between your teeth.” I learned slowly from Harry and others, and from a wonderful manual The Vegetable Garden Displayed, published by the Royal Horticultural Society, which was illustrated with photos of tall men in waistcoats and long leather boots double-digging grassland. They looked at as if they were being forced by Stalinists to dig their own graves.
Over the years, our vegetable plots, in one place or another, have supplied most of the family’s veg. We have had runner bean crops so profuse that we have given away carrier bags full to near neighbours. In Herefordshire where we live now, we have done particularly well with cauliflowers, sometimes the size of basket-balls.
But not this sad summer. This is worst year in the kitchen garden I have ever known. The runner beans are sparse, only a few struggling up the poles. The normally profuse peas are pitiful, not so much mange tout as mange bugger-all. The courgettes and squash and marrows sit there shivering. The tomatoes are cropping but half as well as par. Only the brassicas and potatoes are true to form.
It is a small comfort to know that I am not alone. My Herefordshire friends who grown vegetables have similar experiences. And it is not hard to know why. There has been very little sun. There have been months of rain fir to launch an Ark, washing out the nutrients in the soil and chilling it severely.
And of course, the experiences of gardeners are being shared by farmers. Pea crops in Lincolnshire are said to be down by up to 50 per cent, with many fields under water. Some of Herefordshire’s potato farmers have had to dig up rotting crops. Stuart, who runs the best fruit and veg shop in Hay-on-Wye, told me last week that the first runner beans he saw in the market were blotched and misshapen.
As with Britain’s farmers, so with many of the world’s. The United States has been experiencing oven-like temperatures of around 44 degrees C in many of its corn growing states. The US Department of Agriculture has declared states of natural disaster in over a thousand counties, in 26 States. Harvests in Russian and Kazakhstan are also being blighted by dreadful weather.
Faint silver-lining: some of American’s legions of climate change sceptics must be having second thoughts. One day that must impact, surely, on American policy-makers. To my mind the key insight is this: this period of our history is discontinuous with periods of history before it, because of man-made emissions. Of course there were bad summers in the past, and mini ice-ages, but those are irrelevant and no sources of comfort.
In terms of resilience, there are many approaches for farming and gardening, from drought-resistant strains to low-light crops. No space here to list these. In the microcosm that is my vegetable garden, I think I will have to use more cloches and to try different crops, perhaps reverting to old British staples like swedes that don’t mind cold soil. (When I talked about swedes to my admirable French son-in-law, he said, yes, he believed that they were once eaten by humans in France, though that was in the war.) I have noticed that Nicky Daw, my veg growing friend in Hay, has done much better than I have with courgettes through using a mini-tunnel. It is kept off most of the rain and kept the soil a few degrees warmer. Herefordshire’s strawberry growers may have to use clear polythene tunnels, to let in more light.
Whatever specific measures we take to enhance resilience, them most important thing is that we remain willing to adapt. Understanding that change will, inevitably, occur and being prepared to change our practices is vital. Maybe next year I will reserve a small plot to try out different varieties of my staple crops and record which ones do best, my own, rather literal test-bed.
Perhaps though too the resilience lessons will need to be as much psychological as technical. I have been struck again this last week by the example of the Japanese (also suffering an appalling wet summer, incidentally). The report into the Fukushima disaster by a parliamentary committee was exemplary in its courage. It labelled the disaster as `Made in Japan’, “its fundamental causes to be found in the ingrained conventions of Japanese culture: our reflexive obedience; our reluctance to question authority; our devotion to `sticking with the programme’; our groupism and our insularity.”
But the other aspect of the Japanese that most impressed observers in the wake of the Fukushima disaster was their social resilience, their refusal to panic, their ability to continue to work together rather than resort to devil-take-the-hindmost looting and rush for the exits that followed Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Above all, the Japanese impressed through their stoicism - the attitude expressed by an elderly lady who had lost her home and said only to reporters; “That is how these things are.”
We are all going to need to top up on supplies of stoicism for the future – whether one is a gardener looking at a bedraggled row of lettuces, a farmer digging out water-logged or parched crops - or a shopper, being offered a choice between roots and cabbages.
Over the last couple of years the world has been experiencing weather in its extremes. Hottest, wettest, driest, windyest, coldest, severe climatic events have been coming thick and fast and every continent has been affected. This 'extreme weather snapshot' for the last week in June shows just how unsettled things are becoming. The need for resilience is ever increasing.
Asking the question `How resilient are our banks?’ is, in this week of all weeks, like asking 'How resistant to storms is a roof tiled with post-it notes?’ or 'How great is the fire-power of the Swiss Naval Fleet?” . In the past seven days, our banks have shown that their IT systems are fragile and that some of their staff have been carrying out immoral and possibly illegal transactions.
Two incidents from my past illustrate what’s happened to the resilience factor in banks. When at Trinity College, Dublin in the early sixties, students often had bank accounts at the impressive Bank of Ireland headquarters, houses in the pre-independence Houses of Parliament building on College Green. It was made clear to lads such as me that overdrafts were not on. I lived at that time on a grant of £350 a year, not bad by some standards, but I had acquired a taste for betting on horses and good living that was costing me. The old slow-horses-and-fast-women situation. One day, I had gone overdrawn by about £13.00. That morning, there was a knock on the door of my college rooms and there before me stood a messenger from the Bank of Ireland. He was impressive to look at, with a red waistcoat, and a black top hat.
The messenger told me politely, “Mr Bugler, sorry. You are over-drawn on your account. The Bank of Ireland runs on the principle that you bank with us, not we with you. Please place monies into your account without delay. No more cheques will be honoured until that has taken place.” Now that kind of banking was cautious but also resilient. It was certainly not run on the modern principle of encouraging customers to run up debts and make money out of them. That mode of banking animal came along later.
It was certainly there when I got off the Holyhead ferry in Dublin Port around 2000. I got a taxi from the terminal and quickly got into chat with taxi driver. In my student youth, if I was ever in taxi, the conversation frequently would be about horse racing and which animal was likely to win the Lincoln or the Hennessey. This time, the conversation was on broadly similar lines, but the tax-driver insisted instead on giving me share tips. “A dickie-bird has told me” he said confidentially, “the shares of the Anglo-Irish bank will soon go up through the roof.”
Anglo-Irish of course was one of those banks which proved when the crash came in 2008 to have nothing in the vaults but some old cheque stubs and a case of Harp lager. It had loaned out enormous sums to property developers and was a skint as they were. Its shares went down through the drains.
Anglo-Irish and other banks - such as the British Royal Bank of Scotland and HBOS and indeed my old bank on College Green, the Bank of Ireland – proved very unresilient. All banks run on the principle of loaning out more than they have, but resilient banking should require that banks have very high capital reserves, should things go wrong.
The IT breakdowns at Nat West, RBS and the Ulster Bank point to other frailties in modern banking. The RBS group, composing these three banks, is plainly too large to be resilient. If the IT breakdown had occurred when the banks were separate entities, then the customers of the only one bank would have been hit. Moral: centralisation often reduces resilience.
Driving for maximum efficiency also reduces resilience. The RBS IT team at the centre of the disaster has recently lost half its UK staff in a drive to cut costs, with some work outsourced to India. The team that processes money transfers over-night, known as the “batch-scheduling team” had been cut from 60 people to 30. Plainly, when the bank’s batch processing software was updated, something went wrong and there were not enough back-up staff to rescue it. No one wants inefficiency, which can also bring down companies, but excessive drives for efficiency would seem to be the enemies of resilience.
Lastly, resilience calls for professional standards and honesty among employees of banks. It would be unfair to describe the Barclays traders who fiddled the LIBOR rate as barrow-boys. Unfair to barrow-boys. It’s obviously vital for the safe working of modern banking that rates such as the LIBOR can be relied upon. Yet Barclays - and very possibly other banks in the UK – have used it as a form of income generation. Again, the resilience message would be that drive to maximise profits can be very counter-productive.
Rather than employing its traders to gamble with derivatives, Barclays customers would be better served if it hired some top-hatted messengers, with or without red waistcoats, to bring the errant back into line.