The City of Freiburg in Germany has been nominated for an award for its use of long-term plan...
The City of Freiburg in Germany has been nominated for an award for its use of long-term plan...
Editor's note: Katharine Round is currently directing The Spirit Level do...
For resilience in communities, our village fete last weekend was good value. This Herefordshire village has a population of perhaps 80, and pretty well the full set of inhabitants turned up, starting with a three week old baby and ending with a batch of nonagenarians. The fete is invaluable in getting this scattered village to come together . The village that plays together, stays together - and although there are some stalwart prayers in Church of St Leonard, the prayers are outnumbered by the players.
The resilience emerged in the phlegmatic manner with which various raffle results were greeted. First, a husband won a bottle, then in the same draw, his wife did the same, then another member of the same family. The odds on this happening must have been long. Villagers only laughed. For sheer communal insouciance, the Big Raffle took the biscuit. I had just been moaning that in 20 years I had never won so much as a carton of Cadbury’s Roses. I was then asked to draw the winning ticket - from a great pile of tickets in a bin, much stirred and shook about. I put my hand in -- and the name on the winning ticket was my daughter Rachel. I was deeply embarrassed. Did the villagers revolt - or demand a rerun? Did they shout FIX! No, the village in its good humour and cohesion thought it was a just big joke. Rachel immediately donated her £100 prize to the Busoga Trust for its wells in Uganda.
This year the fete was held the week after the Hay Festival, perhaps as a bet that the weather would be better once the heavens realised that there were no metropolitans about meriting a good soaking. The gamble came off - perfect weather. In truth, much of the 2013 Festival had decent sunny days. One of the final events I attended was devoted to the brilliant war novel The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers, a machine gunner in the Iraq war, superbly interviewed by local writer Jenny Valentine. It’s not often you go to a Festival session in which the writer applauds the interlocutor. Another session had Dan Smith talking about the new edition of his The State of The World Atlas, that rich compendium of where-we-are-now data. Much of the info was sobering…many more people, much more drawing down of the earth’s resources, ghastly poverty with many in the world’s fifteen poorest countries living on less than $1.25 a day. There was some good cheer: there are more democracies about, 48 % of the world live in democracies, up from 43% in 2008. Smith showed a cartoon of a snail with a protest placard doing a victory sign - good things can happen slowly.
The really chilling stuff I found lay in the stats on inequality - and one audience reaction to them and in the way we are pushing at the earth’s boundaries and as Dan Smith characterised it “our most, more and never before path.” Inequality? Well, Dan Smith showed that a huge percentage of the world’s wealth is owned by 0.000016 per cent of its people. Interestingly, a man stood up to ask – what was wrong with inequality? Why assume that equal worlds are better worlds? Not a wholly foolish question perhaps, but would it have been asked a few decades ago, before Thatcher and Blair made hogging it respectable?
A good festival though - especially the green sessions.
It’s been a fertile couple of weeks for climate change controversy. I was delighted to hear Ed Davey, the Lib Dem minister at the Department for Energy and Climate Change, lay into the media and others for giving respectability to the idea that the climate change deniers have a case. He was right to stick to the BBC for putting him on Radio 4 with Nigel Lawson, the free-market financier/ex-minister and denier, saying to the BBC that the sceptics should not be given equal time in the name of balance.
The deniers were well characterised by Peter Forbes recently, reviewing Burning Issue in The Guardian recently. He equated the sceptics to the Church of Rome who took three centuries before getting round to admitting that Galileo was right. The sceptics are as dogged and stubborn, but their scepticism was more dangerous that Rome’s - and we don’t have the time.
I must praise also Will Hutton, in his column in The Observer on Sunday. He wrote perceptively: “What fires the sceptics’ passionate opposition is that preventing global warming will become the rationale for an extension of public initiative and government action, which by definition must be bad. Therefore, the science must be wrong.
“It is a wholesale inversion of the liberal society. The importance of limiting the state, reducing the scope of law and maximising individual choice with no compensating responsibilities defines how science should become interpreted and understood, even if it indubitably proves global weather patterns are changing.”
The Surgeon is in good form, his shoulder mending, I am glad to report. He made an observation the other day which has stuck with me: “Each generation says that the wildlife was much richer in its childhood. That’s because we have been in a process of continual decline in variety and species and numbers for centuries.” Obvious enough when one thinks of it, but insightful too. So our children will tell their children of extra-ordinary phenomena - such as swifts screaming over the rooftops, and bumblebees pollinating bean plants and white butterflies troubling the cabbages. Well, we should enjoy all the more what we have, while we have it –and fight the harder to keep it. As The Surgeon would say.
The Hay Festival site this year has a few new grace notes for which its visitors must be deeply grateful. On the principle that nourishing and watering the bodies of the multitudes is at least as important as stimulating their minds, there are new feeding stations, not least a Tapas bar run by real Spaniards who serve up patatas bravas and pimientos de Padron unlike any others outside the Iberian Peninsula. There are also new coffee bars. The ice cream on site comes, as ever, from sheep’s milk, via the Shepherd’s company, who also run the most popular café in Hay Town. Shepherd’s is so enlightened that it has only the Guardian for free in the café. Want to read the Murdoch press? Go out and pay for it. Last weekend, there were huge ice cream queues as people cooled off from the sun.
The biggest crowds in 2013 seem to be drawn to the comedians, notably Dara O’Briain and Lee Mack, and the musicians, such as Noah and the Whale and Christy Moore, though some writers, usually TV-connected draw in crowds.
My most memorable Hay event some years ago illustrated this TV principle. It was the launch of a biography by Peter Falk, the battered rain-coated star of the long-running TV series Colombo, a haven of viewing for anyone who has had to turn to afternoon TV and gets pleasure from seeing the rich get their come-uppance. Falk’s biography And Just One More Thing.. was not especially expected to draw the crowds, but in the event every Colombo nut from all over Britain came to Hay and demonstrated the factor that makes festivals such as Hay big successes. People just come to see celebrities in the flesh.
When Peter Falk wandered onto the Hay stage, a thousand people stood up and yelled. Falk was visibly taken aback. The first question from the audience he fielded came from a fan who said: “I just want to say what a privilege it is to be breathing the same airspace as you.”. Falk had the presence of mind to respond: “Could you please repeat that question much, much louder? I didn’t quite catch it.”
Yet the Hay Festival does much unflashy and very valuable work. Notable this year have been a series of workshops sponsored by a company called Landmarc which describes itself as “the international provider of choice for integrated training and infrastructure solutions.” I am not sure what this means, but there you are. Landmarc’s workshops all had themes, such as developing the survival skills for a resilient future, a big issue if ever there was one.
The workshop I attended was entitled Creating a Net Positive Countryside - which meant essentially how do we create resilient eco-systems in the countryside.
There were large tables in the tent and the audience was invited to stop skulking in the back rows and sit at the tables and think up ideas. Landmarc has put aside £100,000 , to be invested in the 100 brightest ideas to come up from such sessions in the UK.
Landmarc speakers gave examples: one was Ten Jars, a project to get every schoolchild in Wales to grow from seed the contents of ten jars, to give away or sell. Another project was more fundamental: how to get people to stop wiping their backsides with wet wipes, which clog up sewage systems, being made of slow-rotting cloth.
At my own table, I found my fellow thinkers were much younger and more alert than I was. I found myself mumbling: “I have really come here for the free coffee”. But collectively we put our heads together.
At the end of a limited time, each table had to explain its best idea. One table suggested soil testing kits for each school in Wales, to teach pupils the importance of getting soil acidity right.
I thought our table’s idea was cleverer: we would develop an app which would allow every supermarket or farmer or horticulturalist to get in touch with their local food banks to deliver surplus food before it went off. Our table was praised by the co-ordinator.
Flushed with pride, I left the tent in search of patatas bravas and pimientos de Padron. While eating, I opened my Guardian and read a long article about food banks struggling to meet growing demand. Towards the end of the piece, I read that a not-for-profit outfit named Food AWARE ( their capitals) has a business model which tries to establish regular and sustainable supplies from supermarkets and farmers for local food banks. Our new idea turned to be not-new in the space of thirty minutes.
There’s nothing new under the sun, indeed - nor under the softly falling rain of the Welsh borders.
We're excited about the release of the new documentary 'The Spirit Level' based on the fantastic book of the same name. If you are concerned about building a resilient society, then this is a must watch. You can pre-buy your copy at http://www.thespiritleveldocumentary.com . Every penny goes into the production. Catch a glimpse of the trailer:
The lively market town on the Welsh borders, Hay-on-Wye, is once again hosting its annual festival, the most successful festival not devoted just to music in Britain. I was once wandering around Hay, a few years ago now, with the wonderful writer and friend Richard Boston. He looked at the populace and said; “This town is full of lunatics.” I disagreed: “Nonsense. It’s just a lively market town on the Welsh borders.” Then around the corner came a man dressed in a Roman toga. “I rest my case” said Richard.
This year’s festival includes some lunatics but the sane and sensible are far more evident. One of the persistent strengths of the festival is its interest in environment issues. This year, as before, an excellent green programme has been put together by Andy Fryers; the Hay-on-Earth programme has in fact been running for seven years now.
The highlight green event so far has been Nicholas Stern giving the British Academy lecture. Six years ago, Lord Stern was also at the Festival, also talking about climate change and his landmark report which showed how the costs of not doing anything to mitigate climate change far exceeded the costs of action.
Now he was back again, looking trimmer and younger if anything, which was more than can be said for the globe. Fascinatingly, he set out what had changed in the six years. There had been less political progress, but more technological progress than he and others had foreseen. The Arctic ice was melting much faster than people had predicted. He gave short shrift to those deniers who argue that the slower rise in global surface temperatures this century give cause for comfort. El Nino, a weak cycle of solar activity, rise of temperatures in the deep oceans and the effects of aerosols have held global surface temperatures steady - but this will not last, sadly.
He was intriguing about the green leadership being shown by China, which is taking climate change very seriously, as well it might with most of its population living around its shores. Stern put this enlightenment partly down to the fact that many in the Chinese leadership have engineering degrees, mostly from Tsinghua University. They understand and accept the science of climate change. In the US, on the other hand, there was good local progress but Congress was a roadblock. “The Republican Party has declared war on the laws of physics” he said.
Nick Stern’s view is that we are headed for temperature rises of 3.5 to 4 degrees well within a hundred years, unless serious in-roads are made to reduce the 50 billion tons of CO2 being emitted. We need this down to 20 billion in 40 years.
Meanwhile David Cameron is surrounding himself with deniers and firing civil servants working on climate change adaptation.
One woman stood to say…”Many people now are afraid…” We are right to be.
The opening green session of the Festival featured the environmental lawyer Polly Higgins, who spoke about her work to get the international crime of Ecocide accepted as an amendment to the Rome Statute of the UN. It would outlaw dangerous industrial activity and would create a legal enforcement mechanism which could result in people who cause such damage, from CEOs to Ministers, being prosecuted. The most impressive Polly Higgins said that it was possible this crime could be in place by 2020 - one of the most cheering statements of the day. I have never liked lawyers so much.
The session was also enlivened by Molly Scott Cato, a professor of economics and leading Green party member. She’d just come back from Brazil - on a cargo ship. It took only eight days to cross the Atlantic. That’s the sort of speed I like.
Molly Scott Cato dealt briskly with the usual wind farm objector, shooting down his points like a Mustang fighter. No, wind turbines in the right place were beautiful. No, they did not take 20 years to pay off the energy used to build them (it’s now about 10 months.) The key, she thought, to making wind farms popular was to follow the Danish example - where most wind farms are owned not by private speculators but by co-operatives, giving reduced energy bills to local people.
I walked out of this session in a much better temper than I bore in with me.
I would wager that with 20 years it will, in some countries, be a criminal offence to deny that climate change caused by man’s activities is occurring.
May 1st was an unusual May Day in our neck of the Herefordshire woods. For one thing, the trees were bare, not a leaf emerged, a greatly discomforting sight. The grass was growing at last, the sheep had something to eat, but while some of the hedgerows were in leaf, the trees were stark, Shakespeare’s `bare ruined choirs’ indeed.
The night before, my wife said, with reason, that this is what our springs will look like if the Gulf Stream packs it in. The blood draining from my brain, I was saved, perversely, on May Day itself by a farmer talking on Farming Today. He said that the EU ban on the bee-destroying neonicitinoids would force him to use even more destructive insecticides on his oil seed rape. Amazingly, the Farming Today presenter did not call for the BBC security guards to escort him from the building nor even challenge him. This is a farmer growing a crop with little social value, much of oil seed rape being used for bio-diesel. To my mind, he is rather like a car thief complaining that if car security gets any better, he will be forced to turn to house-breaking.
The answer for the farmer here is simple: don’t grow oil seed rape here, if the only way you can do it is destroy the insects on which we all depend.
Having come to this conclusion, I felt much better and leaped out of bed to make the tea.
One of the pleasures of growing one’s own vegetables is choosing the varieties, reading the seed catalogues and their fulsome promises. I choose some varieties just by their names alone. Years ago there was a runner bean on sale called As Long As Your Arm. I always bought it. Today, Simpson’s sell a lettuce with the delightful name La Grosse Blonde Paresseuse - The Fat Lazy Blonde. She is well-named, for she sprawls around the garden in an idle way. This year, I have planted the Blonde in the heated greenhouse, and boy, how she is loving it. She lies back, soaking up the heat, getting fatter as even you watch her.
At a lunch party the other day, I was shocked when a good friend remarked that she didn’t eat meat “except chicken, because chickens are stupid.” As the keeper of a 14 strong flock, I took mild offence. Our chickens display many signs of intelligence. On arriving at the farm, they quickly learn its geography and the shortest routes to the barn, to the bird-feeders, to the sheltering hedges. We have one chicken who specialises in laying her eggs in secret places, where she hopes we can’t find them. As she approaches her secret place, she feigns nonchalance, scratches her back, examines her claws, all the while watching me out of the corner of her eye. As soon as I turn my back on her, she’s vanished, fooled me once again. Often I cannot find her laying places. I think this shows intelligence.
Interesting contrasts in reactions to the news last week that for the first time in human history C02 concentrations have passed 400 ppm. The Independent reported that several senior civil servants with responsibility for climate change have either resigned or been moved, while the Prime Minister is increasingly surrounded with climate change deniers. I call this the “Pull the Blankets over the Head” response.
More intelligently, there is growing interest in climate change adaptation - accepting that it is happening and getting ready, as much as we can, for it. This is what the Get Resilient website has been devoted to pursuing. More power to its elbow.
For a good summary on where we are in climate change politics and realities, I can recommend the current issue of The London Review of Books, where Thomas Jones writes an excellent piece.
At a good party in London last weekend, a cheerful cove engages us in conversation with the novel ploy: “Don’t you think the Blairs have been terribly badly treated? They have four policemen around their house day and night and they can’t go out without protection?”
New Labour, of course, had its heart the core belief than any problem, however toxic or complex, can be spun. The Iraq War, most notably, was spun, not just with the Dodgy Dossier, or Tony Blair’s mendacious assurances to the House of Commons on WMD, but also with the carefully managed inquiries, the selection of the friendly judge (Lord Hutton) or the sympathetic panel (Chilcott). Even now it goes on. Lord Gus O’Donnell, the former cabinet secretary, has refused Chilcott permission to publish the communications between Blair and George Bush about the war. He’s done this, he says, because publication would damage Anglo-US relations. This factor weighed more heavily with him than the public’s right to be fully informed about what led the UK to go to that disastrous war in which many Britons and countless Iraqis died. (Lord Gus, who the hell pays yours wages? Your pension? The US State Department?)
One after-effect New Labour have not been able to spin away is the public disgust with Tony Blair. That is why he has to be smuggled into buildings, surrounded by over-size security gorillas. Just for once, spin has not been able to work for New Labour.