Wednesday, 16 December 2009

A future for work?

This week – just before most of us will be taking holiday over Christmas and New Year - I want to think a bit about the nature of work, and its future.

In The Guardian of 5 December, Ian Jack titled his column – with some deliberate provocation to Guardian readers – ‘Would you want your son to be a plumber?’. For any non-UK readers, I should explain the particular provocativeness of this: The Guardian is read very largely by educated middle-class readers who would probably expect their children to go to university. Furthermore, Guardian readers are pretty politically right-on and might well exclaim: ‘Why just my son? What about my daughter?’

Jack goes on to discuss our obsession with university education, and Britain’s lack of skilled manual labour. He writes:
‘At some point in the short history of out “post-industrial” complacency I now looks as though we got the future of work wrong . . . Many of the so-called “quality” jobs could easily migrate abroad . . . and could be sent down the wire . . . not every task can be virtualised . . . We still need plumbers, carpenters, electricians and motor mechanics. You can’t hammer a nail over the internet.’
Jack goes on to discuss a new book by Matthew Crawford (already out in the USA under the title Shop Class to Soulcraft – which doesn’t convey much to a European audience that doesn’t use the term ‘shop class’); due out in the UK in May 2010, published by Penguin, under the title The Case for Working with Your Hands: or why office work is bad for us and fixing things feels goodAn article by Matthew Crawford, The Case for Working with Your Hands’, is available on the New York Times website.

Manual trades have suffered a continuing loss of respect, and Britain is notorious in this respect. Engineers in Germany, for instance, have high status compared with their colleagues in Britain. Sociologists have researched and written about the effect this has on the men (and it still is largely men) who work in manual trades. I saw an example of this when I was having my solar hot water panels fitted (see blog post dated 2 December): the very skilled, knowledgeable and proficient plumber/heating engineer, who was leading the installation team, remarked (while we were talking about something to do with education): “Fat lot of good it’s done me – I’m still just a plumber.” The word ‘just’ here is telling.

Perhaps the most famous study of ‘ordinary people’ working was undertaken in the USA by Studs Terkel in his now-classic book Working (1974) (full title: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do). Repeatedly we read of people who don’t necessarily resent or dislike the actual work that they do, but they do resent the way they are treated, by the bosses and sometimes by the public – as units of labour, not as human beings. More recently, Richard Sennett has written movingly about The Hidden Injuries of Class - and of course perceptions of social class are inextricably bound up with the ways people earn their living. Most recently, Sennett has written about the importance, and the joy, of manual crafts in his book The Craftsman.

I think, in this context, of the local man that I employ from time to time as a ‘handyman’ or ‘odd job man’ – neither of these titles does the tiniest fraction of justice to his versatility, skill, inventiveness, knowledge and experience. Significantly, there is no available title to cover adequately what he does. He’s an educated man, who worked for years in ‘white collar’ jobs but, after several successive redundancies, decided to become self-employed. He’s one of those people who is ‘good with his hands’, and has always been able to make things and mend things, and has acquired a lifetime of useful experience and skill. Just a few examples: he erected the fence along the side of my garden, made the gate, and helped me plant the fruit trees;

he made the frame on the top of my shed to hold the troughs, which now have onions and garlic growing in them – in a tiny garden like mine, growing space can’t be wasted!

He made this multi-occupancy insect-overwintering palace for me - after I saw one at Pensthorpe Nature Reserveand came home with a photo, saying : ‘I want one of these’ !

He’s cleaned out gutters and fixed up water butts. Inside my house, he’s made shelves, insulated the loft, enlarged the loft-hatch and installed a drop-down ladder for access, fixed plumbing leaks, replaced taps . . . and a string of other bits and pieces that I can no longer recall. Why isn’t there a respectful job title for what he does?

In contrast, my brother is a silversmith/goldsmith – a respected title because he works with ‘precious metals’, and what he does is 'art' rather than 'utility'. But if you work with steel, you’re just a metal-basher. It happens that my brother can also make or fix anything, but he doesn’t earn his living doing that.

In her 1974 novel The Memoirs of a Survivor (made into a film in 1981), Doris Lessing writes of a future
a few years hence, when barbarism is what is normal, and each of us has to fight for survival - men, women, and even little children who are so brutalised by necessity they are more frightening than the ferocious adults. From her windows the narrator watches things fall apart, sees the migrating hordes seethe past in search of safety, the shelter, the good life that is always somewhere else - far from the anarchy of this emptying city where people huddle together in tribes for self-defense, where plants and animals are taking over deserted streets and houses.
One aspect of the story, almost incidental, is the way that the young people have learned how to fix things that are broken, to scavenge old equipment and build new things from the parts. But, looking at the story now, this isn’t incidental – as so often with Lessing, she articulates crucial issues before most of the rest of us have woken up to them.

So, back to my title – what of the future of work? We must stop telling young people that a university education will necessarily fit them either to live or to earn their living. Sure, go to university if you’re passionate about something, and enjoy discovering more about it. But also, learn a useful trade. Some university courses teach useful skills – engineering in all its forms, human and veterinary medicine, agriculture and horticulture, soil and environmental sciences, for instance. But in a world where the combination of climate change and peak oil threaten the infrastructure we have come to rely on totally, there are practical skills which will serve our young people far better as they move into adulthood and middle age:
  • building, carpentry and woodworking, pottery, metalworking;
  • spinning and weaving, knitting and sewing;
  • animal husbandry;
  • growing food and cooking from scratch with raw ingredients, without a conventional oven;
  • handling heavy horses;
  • fixing things that are broken.
And there are ‘soft skills’ – conflict transformation, leadership, community-building; singing, dancing and playing a musical instrument, and being able to lead others in these recreations; care of elderly, sick and disabled people, and of very young children. The list could go on – the various BBC TV series on The Victorian Kitchen Garden, and The Victorian Kitchen, start to give an idea of the range of skills and change of attitudes that we need to start taking seriously.

Just for the joy of it, take a look at an article about, and website of, Robin Wood the only person in Britain (it is thought) still earning a living from turning wooden bowls on a traditional pole lathe.

I’m taking a 2-week break now, back on Wednesday or Thursday, 6 or 7 January.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

'Sustainable holidays' - European long-distance train travel

When I was a young child in primary school, the first thing we always had to do, on the first day back at school after a holiday, was write an account of 'what I did in the holidays'. Even then, when I was about 7 or 8 years old, I used to think that it was just a way for the teacher to keep us quiet and occupied while she got on with something else!

But now, here I am, not on the first day of term, and writing about my holiday. For some of you reading this, travelling across Europe by rail will be old hat - but for anyone still hooked on budget airlines and cheap short-haul flights, this is an encouragement to try something different.

To start with some facts and figures, you might want to look at QCEA's (Quaker Council on European Affairs) 'Ethical fact Sheet' on train vs plane. In summary, they point out that:
Flying is considerably worse for the environment not only in terms of CO2 emissions but also because of the effects they have due to the altitude they are released at. This is combined with the other greenhouse gases (GHG) that aviation release. Train travel is normally a greener option than flying. This is different however from saying it is green. For as long as train travel is dependent upon fossil fuels it will continue to contribute to climate change.
Further analysis of rail travel shows how its 'greenness' depends on the energy mix used to power it. I was travelling through France to Spain. Eurostar, for example, is estimated to emit 17.7g of CO2 per km, while British National Rail comes in at 60.2g CO2 per km. Electrified rail lines are as 'green' as their electricity supply. In France and Spain, the mix looks like this, compared to the UK:

Country   Nuclear    Renewables   Solid Fuels    Gas    Oil    Other
France      79%          11%                  4%                 4%      1%     1%
Spain        20%          17%                22%               30%      8%     3%
UK            19%            5%                38%               36%      1%     1%

The QCEA website uses Paris-Madrid return as an example for comparison - as that was one leg of my journey, this is very useful! Their flying estimates for CO2 emissions vary from 177kg through to 936kg, depending on carrier, class of travel, etc; with time taken, around 2 hours, plus travel to the airport and 2 hours check in time. The rail travel estimate is equates to approximately 15.6kg of CO2 - significantly less; though the time taken is, of course, significantly more. We took the sleeper train leaving Paris Austerlitz at 7.45 in the evening and arriving in Madrid Chamartin at 9.10 the next morning.

I haven't been on a long-haul flight since I returned from Harare in January 1986, after working in Zimbabwe for a year. And I haven't been on a short-haul flight since sometime in 1987 or 1988, when my then employer required me to fly from Birmingham to Edinburgh, and back, for a meeting. For about 25 years I have taken holidays almost exclusively in the UK, the only exceptions being a couple of trips across the North Sea, by boat, to visit friends in Denmark. So this holiday to Spain was a major change.

For some years I had thought, vaguely, that it would be nice to see the Alhambra sometime (if you'd like a more accessible introduction to the Alhambra, without wading through the official website's booking information etc, there's a good entry for the Alhambra on Wikipedia). Then I read Philippa Gregory’s novel The Constant Princess, about Katherine of Aragon, including a substantial first section about Katherine’s childhood in Spain, living in army camps as she accompanied her parents, Ferdinand and Isabella, during the Christian reconquest. And of course the novel includes the taking of the Alhambra, the triumphant ride in, and then a long description of life lived in the palace. At this point I decided that I really wanted to see this place!

As I don't fly, I started investigating rail travel, my first port of call being, of course, the ever-useful 'Man in Seat Sixty-one'. It became rapidly clear that the most economic (and lowest carbon) option was to occupy a seat/bed in a 4-berth compartment on the Paris-Madrid sleeper. However, I was clear that I didn't want to share such a confined space with strangers, so I set about finding three friends who wanted to go too! We met up in London, took the Eurostar to Paris, the sleeper train to Madrid, had the inside of a day in Madrid (where we took a bus tour of the city and had a nice meal), then took the local train to Granada. Part way through the holiday, two of us went on to visit Cordoba, while two remained in Granada. We met up again on the train coming home.

As the journey wasn't entirely straightforward, and none of us had experienced web-booking of European trains before, we decided to use a travel agent specialising in rail travel. Recommended to us by green-travelling Friends in Wales, we booked through Ffestiniog Travel, who offered us an excellent service, obtained the seniors' discounts for the three of us who qualified, and gave us peace of mind. We booked the hotels ourselves.
Our whole intinerary looked like this:

23rd November:  dep London St Pancras 1404, arr Paris Nord 1726, dep Paris Austerlitz 1945
24th November:  arr Madrid Chamartin 0910, dep Madrid Atocha 1705, arr Granada 2141
29th November:  2 passengers only dep Granada 0945, arr Cordoba 1212
2nd December:   2 passengers only dep Granada 0945, 2 passengers join train Cordoba 1213, arr Madrid Atocha 1429, dep Madrid Chamartin 1900
3rd December:   arr Paris Austerlitz 0827, dep Paris Nord 1013, arr London St Pancras 1128

Spain itself was interesting in terms of sustainability issues. Granada has on average about 320 days of sunshine per year, so - very sensibly - there is lots of solar technology in evidence, both solar hot water and photo-voltaics on roofs and flat areas of ground. Spain overall is a leader in the application of solar technology, including electricity plants that work by concentrating solar power by mirrors, to generate steam to drive turbines. The most sophisticated of these plants also store solar heat by melting a vast bulk of salt - this can then release its heat at night, when there is no sun, to make the electricty generation continuous.

At a more personal level, we saw lots of low-energy lightbulbs, including (with visual incongruity) stick-type compact fluorescent bulbs in old-fashioned lanterns converted from oil-lamps to electricity, in many of the old Moorish courtyards in Cordoba:

We also took a bus trip up into the Sierra Nevada, to the 'white villages'. Among beautiful mountain scenery we saw many wind-turbines under construction - in locations that would, in the UK, provoke howls of protest about 'spoiling the view'. Personally, I don't consider the view 'spoiled' and I think Spain has a better attitude in this respect than we find in the UK.

Sorry this is a rather blurry image - shot taken through the window of a moving bus!
One last matter to add: if you have special dietary needs, whether through physiological need or ethical choice, Spain isn't the easiest of places to get fed. If you're any combination of vegetarian, vegan, wheat-intolerant, or coeliac, and are planning to travel to Andalusia, please feel free to contact me (email on profile page) and I can offer some pre-travel advice.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Solar hot water panels - one person's experience

A more personal topic this week – I’m going to tell you about having my solar hot water system installed (it all happened in the 2nd week of November). And there’s a reason for telling you about it: there’s lots of good research showing that we are far more likely to do something that seems challenging if someone we know (or know about via a trusted route) has done that same thing. Personal contact has more influence than impersonal information in printed form (for more on this, see below).

This is really good news, of course – it means that the ‘green’ things we do, and are seen to do, have influence on others because it makes something unfamiliar or daunting seem possible and accessible. In fact, the firm I employed to do the work came by just such a route: recommended to me by a F/friend who is a few months ahead of me with all this; and as soon as this work is finished, I’m going round to see her next project – solar electricity (also my next project) – and talk to her about the firm she used for that.

For some readers, all this will be nothing new – but I hope it’s encouraging for others who haven’t ventured this far yet. And just to be topical – on November 11th (the 3rd day of the work being done) The Guardian had a front-page story headed, ‘Green home makeover will cost up to £15,000, says climate watchdog chief’!

It’s important to say that the venture into solar panels comes after having done all the cheaper and easier things: double glazing, cavity-wall and loft insulation, changing all the light bulbs; and replacing my end-of-its-useful-life central heating unit with a more modern and efficient one.

My house is a central terrace house facing almost exactly east-west (the back of the house actually faces west-to-west-south-west), so I don’t have a south facing roof. So I have a ‘split’ system, with two panels facing west and one panel on the front eastwards facing roof. If a house like mine had a south facing roof, I would only have two panels, so the third panel compensates for the less-than-perfect orientation.

The heating in my house is gas-fired ducted warm air, so there’s no gas input to any hot water – up until now my hot water has come entirely from an electric immersion heater. This has been my single biggest use of electricity, and makes the financial return from solar hot water panels quite significant, in addition to their ‘green’ credentials. This also means that my installation was slightly simpler than one which would have to be plumbed into a boiler that heated both the house and the hot water.

The new system still has an immersion heater, which I can use for ‘top up’ if and when necessary – but even then it will be heating water that is already warmed to some degree, so will be much more energy efficient. My old copper tank has been replaced by a stainless steel pressurised tank that comes with much more efficient insulation than before; and because it’s pressurised, I’ll be able to run a shower directly off the solar-heated water in the tank, instead of needing either a pump or an electrically heated shower.

The whole process took 5 days, Monday to Friday.
Monday: scaffolding erected, preparatory electrical work done, and new tank in place, though not plumbed in – so I was one night without hot water. The only reason for this was that the equipment suppliers were very late with their delivery (mid-afternoon instead of early morning). The plumbers were frustrated at not being able to get on. If the delivery had come in time, I would have been without hot water for only a few hours during the first day of the work – so the whole process isn’t hugely disruptive. When the guys went home at the end of the first day, the panels were left propped against the wall in my front hall and my cats were deeply curious!
Tuesday: new tank now plumbed and wired in and checked over; expansion tank installed in the loft out of the way (this is a safety feature because the hot water is now in a pressurised tank), and immersion-heated water is on tap again. I realise that I have to get used to the hot water now issuing from the taps at a similar pressure to the mains cold water – after 30-odd years of being accustomed to the hot water flowing at much less pressure. Various brackets and batons are fitted on the outside and inside of the roof ready for the panels.
Wednesday: more preparatory work on the roof, inside the loft, and in the house – piping, structural supports and wiring.
Thursday: clear morning, heavy rain forecast for the afternoon, so time to get the panels on the roof – all the hi-tech comes down to men with ropes! Extra workers arrive to provide more muscle (two men at the top with the ropes, two men on the ladder supporting the panel) – one panel goes up at the front and two at the back, and they’re bolted onto the brackets. Then there’s more piping to be done, and connecting up the different elements of the system. At the end of the day the system is tested under air pressure (hard work with a hand-pump) to ensure that there are no leaks, and that the safety valve releases at the required pressure.
Friday: Filling the panels and pipes with the heat-retaining fluid (similar to antifreeze that goes in a car radiator) connecting everything up, testing it, finishing off.

The scaffolding was supposed to be taken down on Friday afternoon, but it poured with rain and they didn't come - it was all removed early the following week.

The system works like this: the pipes feed down from the roof and into the bottom of the tank, where they form a coil (there’s no contact between the heated fluid and the hot water you actually use) – it’s a heat-exchanger. The sun heats the fluid in the panels, a sensor determines the temperature difference between the panel and the tank and sets a pump in motion; because I have east and west facing panels, they operate independently (because they will be at different temperatures from each other, depending on the time of day). With a south-facing roof there would be one sensor and one pump. An information and control unit tells me what is happening, if I want to know – but it’s perfectly possible to ignore it, and just use the hot water. On a bright but chilly day in mid November, the day after the installation was completed, the panels were reaching 30 deg C – not the full heat of normal domestic hot water, but a good way towards it, reducing the electricity needed.

If you have a gas-fired hot water radiator heating system, that also heats your hot water, then the solar-heated hot water would be plumbed into that system, meaning that, in winter, your boiler would have to work much less hard because it would be working on pre-warmed water. In summer, you’d get your hot water from the solar panels, with whatever you already have as back-up/top-up if needed. There have been some firms jumping on the bandwagon of solar heating and fitting cheap systems that disconnect your hot water from your central heating – this is because to do the gas work they would have to be Corgi registered, and they aren’t. The company that fitted my system has found itself doing lots of remedial work in the wake of ‘cowboy’ installers. So, please be encouraged by my experience, and think about this for your home. But find a reputable firm – if you don’t know anyone who’s had this work done, and who could recommend an installer, always ask a company if you can speak to someone they’ve worked for – if they’re good, they’ll have access to satisfied customers more than happy to speak to you. So if they won’t offer this, go elsewhere.

Final question – what did it all cost? Well, my east-west system cost more than a south-facing system would have done. I don’t know how my hot-water-only-system compares with panels integrated into the central heating. I paid about £6,500. I didn’t go for the government grants because I wanted to do this on my timescale, without any bureaucratic delays. Also, be aware that the system of registering contractors who can apply these government grant discounts keeps on changing. Every time they change the system, the firms have to register from scratch all over again – and every time this happens, they have to pay another fee to the government, in order to be listed, and it isn’t a small amount. So this has a disproportionate effect on smaller, local, family-run firms, such as the company who did my installation. It happened that they were in the ‘gap’ between one registration and the next when I approached them – but they came highly recommended, I had a specific time-window when the work could be done, so I went ahead with them, and no grant. I was fortunate to be in a position to be able to afford this – my mother’s death earlier this year meant that I had some capital sitting in the bank. At the moment, interest rates are so low, that the return on my capital has been increased significantly by putting it on the roof! What I will save in electricity to my immersion heater outweighs the paltry interest I would have earned. So it’s financially sound as well as green.

Below is a photo sequence showing my installation from start to finish. The company has more photos of other installations they’ve done on their website. For an account of someone starting from scratch on a green makeover, in an older and more difficult house than mine, here’s Madeleine Bunting writing in the The Guardian in September 2009.

The single panel to go on the front (east facing) side of the house, on the ground being prepared for hauling.

Half way up . . .

made it!

and fixed to the waiting brackets

a similar process at the back of the house, but this time there are two panels to go up

the whole team with both panels in place

the front view with the scaffolding gone

and the back similarly

The new tank - the lagged black tubes on the left are the insulated pipes carrying the glycol from the roof panels to the coil in the bottom of the tank. On the wall to the right is the control/information unit.

Here it is in close-up telling me that on a cold, dull November afternoon, the panels at the back of the house are at 19.4 deg C; and (below) the heat at the coil has reached 21.1 deg C

The last picture - here (up in the loft, and out of the way) are the pumps, pressure valves, expansion tanks, and other safety features:

I said, at the start of this article, I’d write a bit more about how we influence others by what we do. Coincidentally, in the same week I was having the work done, New Scientist carried an article about this very phenomenon. The reference for the paper edition is:
David Rand and Martin Nowak, ‘Name and shame’, New Scientist, 14 November 2009 (issue no.2734), pp.28-29.

The online version is: ‘How reputation could save the Earth’, 15 November 2009. Unless you are a subscriber, the link will only enable you to see the opening section of the article.

Early on, the authors write:
‘Environmental problems are difficult to solve because Earth is a "public good". Even though we would all be better off if everyone reduced their environmental impact, it is not in anyone's individual interest to do so. This leads to the famous "tragedy of the commons", in which public resources are overexploited and everyone suffers.’
And later:
‘Experiments have shown [. . .] that the benefit of earning a good name outweighs the costs of doing your part for the greater good, and even selfish people can be motivated to care. It is worth contributing in order to protect your standing in the community.
Out in the real world, these experiments suggest a way to help make people reduce their impact on the environment. If information about each of our environmental footprints was made public, concern for maintaining a good reputation could impact behaviour. Would you want your neighbours, friends, or colleagues to think of you as a free rider, harming the environment while benefiting from the restraint of others?
[This serves] a dual purpose. First, [it allows] those who contribute to reap benefits through reputation, helping to compensate them for the costs they incur. Secondly, when people display their commitment to conservation, it reinforces the norm of participation and increases the pressure on free riders. If you know that all of your neighbours are paying extra for green energy or volunteering on a conservation project, that makes you all the more inclined to do so yourself.
[. . .] In a world where each of us was accountable to everybody else for the environmental damage we cause, there would be strong incentives to reduce the energy we use, the carbon dioxide we emit and the pollution we create. In such a world, we might be able to avert a global tragedy of the commons.’
For another 'take' on this whole theme, on a wider canvas, you might like to look at a speech given by Archbishop Rowan Williams, 'Human Well-Being and Economic Decision-Making', on 16 November, to a conference organised by the TUC and The Guardian. He ends with a new version of 'the 3 Rs': revive, reflect, resist.