Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Good Lives – because it takes a village to raise a child

We’ve just run the fourth of the Good Lives weekends at Woodbrooke. We were looking at the broad areas of community and culture. A greener future must include, among many other factors, a re-created and re-enlivened localism. For sustainability, we need communities where most of what we need can be found within walking and cycling distance. This represents a huge shift from what the majority of us are accustomed to, and will require cultural transformation and revitalised, re-imagined communities. It will challenge many of our ideas of individual freedom and choice, and runs counter to all the trends in this country since the second world war. This weekend represented a small foray into this vast territory.

There’s a nice poster/postcard available on ‘How to Build a Community’.  The text on it reads:

Turn off your TV * Leave your house * Know your neighbors
Look up when you are walking * Greet people * Sit on your stoop
Plant flowers * Use your library * Play together
Buy from local merchants
Share what you have * help a lost dog * Take children to the park
Garden together * Support neighborhood schools
Fix it even if you didn't break it * Have pot lucks
Honor elders * Pick up litter * Read stories aloud
Dance in the street * Talk to the mail carrier * Listen to the birds
Put up a swing * Help carry something heavy * Barter for your goods
Start a tradition * Ask a question * Hire young people for odd jobs
Organize a block party * Bake extra and share
Ask for help when you need it * Open your shades
Sing together * Share your skills * Take back the night
Turn up the music * Turn down the music
Listen before you react to anger * Mediate a conflict
Seek to understand
Learn from new and uncomfortable angles
Know that no one is silent though many are not heard. Work to change this.

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Below are some of the exercises we did with the group – the questions might be interesting for individuals reading this blog to think about, or maybe even to use with groups of people.

Exercise 1: experiences of community and culture
(this will take about an hour depending on the size of the group; if the group members are not already all known to each other, allow extra time for introductions)

What you will need:
- Tables to work at, if members of your group are unable to sit on the floor – enough tables for people to work in groups of 3 or 4
- Flip chart paper and felt pens for each small group

Divide the group randomly into small groups of 4; sit one group at each table (or space on the floor) with flip chart paper and pens. If numbers don’t work exactly, make groups of 3s and 4s (5 is too big for this exercise). Allow 5 minutes for this.

Ask everyone to think about ‘community’ and ‘culture’: what do the words conjure up? Write down words or concepts that you associate with these. Allow 10-15 minutes for this, depending on how the ‘buzz’ in the room is feeling.

With people remaining in their groups, but turn to face centre, share – group by group – what’s on flip-chart sheets; stick the sheets up round the room. Allow 5-15 minutes for this, depending on the size of the group.

Now form new groups like this (allow 5 minutes):
- One person in each group to remain seated
- The other three stand up and move on round the room: one person goes to the next group round, one to the group after, and one to the group after that. If you have only three groups, two people remain seated.

In the new groups, ask: what experiences have you had in the past of different kinds of communities? Have you had experience of different cultures? (both positive and negative experiences). What have you learned? Share in your group (no need to write this). Allow 10 minutes for this.

Bring the whole group back to one circle for open sharing time (creative listening / worship sharing style – see Appendix) – allow 15-20 minutes for this, depending on the size of the group and how the sharing is going.

Exercise 2: mapping our own communities
(this will take about 1½ hrs, depending on the size of the group)

What you will need:
Ideally you need a piece of flipchart paper and assorted pens for each person. If you don’t have this available, you could tape four sheets of A4 paper together, on the back, to form a larger drawing and writing area. Crayons are ok if you don’t have enough felts. If you have people who can’t manage sitting on the floor, you will need some tables.

Get people seated comfortably with their paper and pens – explain that they’ll be working alone and then sharing in pairs, so sit near someone they can easily turn to when it comes to conversation time. (If numbers aren’t even, allow for one 3 for sharing). Then (after people are settled) explain how the session will work: you’ll be asking a series of prompting questions – people can write, draw, whatever, to create a representation of their own communities

Allow 10 minutes for all of this.

Start asking the prompting questions below, leaving time between each for people to respond – keep an eye on the level of activity to judge when to move on. People will work at different rates, so you need a kind of average time. Allow enough time for people to have created a response, but not so much that they’ve finished and are getting bored – keep the pace moving.

- Where do you live? Talking here about your geographical local neighbourhood – ‘local’ meaning walking and cycling radius.
- What is it like? Eg: is it beautiful? Is there green space?
- Do you feel safe there?
- What facilities does it have?
- What is it like socially?
- What do you value about it?
- What does it lack (for you)?
(This is probably about 10-15 minutes)

Share with your partner – about 5 minutes

In the whole group (don’t ask people to move – just from where they’re sitting) – is there anything that anyone would like to share with the whole group? (not a go-round – just sharing as it comes) – write up key points on a flipchart if possible. Allow 5-10 minutes, depending on how much sharing is offered.

Return to working individually on their own sheets of pap

- What needs can be met locally?
- What do people have to go outside the area for?
- What do you choose to go outside for? (think about work, buying food, clothing, larger purchases; leisure and entertainment).
- What local resource are there? (think about shops, industry, farming).
- How much of your social/spiritual/cultural needs can be met locally?
(This is probably about 10-15 minutes)

Share with your partner – about 10 minutes
Pairs join to 4s to share issues arising – about 10 minutes

(if you don’t have an even number of pairs, there will have to be one 6; if it happened that you had a threesome, make sure that they end up in a 5 with a pair, not in a 7 with two pairs!)

Bring the group back together (this time physically move people into one circle) – is there anything that anyone would like to share with the whole group? (not a go-round – just sharing as it comes) – write up key points on a flipchart if possible. Allow 10-15 minutes, depending on how much sharing is offered.

Exercise 3: concerns about our communities
(This will take about 1½ hrs depending on the size of the group)

What you will need:
- Tables to work at, if members of your group are unable to sit on the floor – enough tables for people to work in groups of 3 or 4
- Flip chart paper and felt pens for each small group

Explain that this session is to look at concerns about our communities – concerns about aspects present or absent – and also to relate that to the wider national community/culture.

Split into small groups, 3s and 4s, according to the kind of place we live – eg: similar kinds of suburbs, or similar city centre areas; of if your group members are all very local, split into neighbourhood groups.

Write up some key ideas, prompt points, on a flip chart where everyone can see it, eg: safety, green space, beauty of environment, inter-generation interaction, friendliness, crime, litter, vandalism . . .

Allow about 10 minutes for all of this.

Discuss these issues in the small groups and record findings on flip charts
(about 15 minutes).

Everyone return to circle – each group share and stick up the flip chart sheets around the room.
(about 5-10 minutes, depending on the size of the group)

Working in the whole group in whole group: what about the bigger picture – national issues – list concerns and write up on a flip chart as they’re spoken.
(about 10 minutes, depending on the size of the group)

Draw the circle round to close it but make sure everyone can see the flip chart.
Using creative listening / worship sharing (see below):
- How much of this list are particularly Quakerly concerns?
- To what extent are our concerns from first-hand experience or from the media?
- How do people respond to the media – how do we apportion our energies? (eg: do we ‘keep up with the news’? or is that too dispiriting?)

Allow 20-25 minutes, depending on the size of the group

General discussion: if these are our concerns, what do we need from our communities? (what do we ourselves need? What do people in general need?) –in terms of practical issues, spiritual/inner fulfilment, other areas? (about 10 minutes, depending on the size of the group)

What about the good news? What is already happening that’s positive and creative? Is your local meeting involved in any of the ‘good news’ activities? (about 10 minutes, depending on the size of the group)

Exercise 4: our community and culture – imagining how it could be
(This can take anything from 1 to 2 hours depending on the size of the group, and on how long you want to let it run)

What you will need:
- You can work on the floor if everyone is able to, otherwise you will need a large table – large enough for everyone to be able to get round it at once. Depending on the size of the group, you might need to put twp trestle tables together.
- Using half a dozen or so (depending on the size of the group) sheets of flip chart paper, join them edge to edge with tape to make one large sheet of paper that will cover the whole of the table (or cover a suitable area of floor); after you’ve taped the sheets, turn the whole thing over so the taped side is underneath. If you don’t have access to flip chart paper, you might be able to persuade your local butchers shop to let you have some sheets of their meat-wrapping paper; or you could buy a roll of cheap wallpaper lining – two lengths of this, taped side by side, will work.
- You will need a supply of collage material eg: coloured magazines, bits of yarn and cloth, scraps of coloured wrapping or tissue paper, bits of shells, buttons, fir cones, seed pods . . . anything you can lay your hands on! Ask members of the group all to bring materials
- You will then need glue sticks (at least half as many glue sticks as there are people in the group) plus lots of crayons, felt pens of different thicknesses and colours, coloured pencils; if you’re in a space where it’s ok to use paint and water, then that’s also good, but most places aren’t suitable.

Set the room up ahead of the group starting time.

Explain that this session is to imagine the kind of community and culture we would ideally like to live in – let our imaginations be free. We can use words, images, abstract shapes, colours, patterns, pictures . . . whatever fees right for us. We’re all going to work together on the same big sheet of paper – we have to accommodate to each other in terms of how we’re going to do that, and discover as we go along how that’s going to work.

Then let people work for 30-45 minutes, depending on the size of the group and how it’s going – judge the right end point by the level of engaged activity in the room: stop while there’s still some buzz around, and most people are still focussed on what they’re doing, but maybe one or two people are starting to look as though they’ve stopped. Give a 5 minutes warning before stopping, so people can finish off what they’re doing.

Stop the activity, bring people to sit down and reflect:
- what was it like doing this exercise?
- what role did you take, what kinds of interactions did you find yourself in?
- are these your usual patterns?
- if not, how was it different?
(Allow 15-20 minutes for this, depending on the size of the group)

Invite people to stand or walk around and look at what’s been created together. Invite sharing: What is it saying to you? What did you try to put into it? What has been created?
(Allow 20-25 minutes for this, depending on the size of the group)

Bring the group back to a seated circle and invite general discussion:
- What are the issues arising for you?
- What would it feel like to live like this?
- What would be the benefits now?
(Allow 15-20 minutes for this, depending on the size of the group)

Session 5: examples of community

What you will need:
DVD player and suitable DVDs. The two we used were:
The Turning Point Film: a return to community
(available to purchase from http://www.theturningpointfilm.co.uk/ )
Witness (barn-raising scene) - this is a commercial movie, starring Harrison Ford, obtainable from your local video rental store or from Amazon (for example) for purchase.

Equally suitable would be The Power of Community: how Cuba survived Peak Oil, or In Transition: from oil dependence to local resilience. Both of these may be bought from the Green Shopping Catalogue

Show the DVD(s), followed by general discussion:
- what are the issues arising, for you?
- is this model of community appealing to you, or not? Why is that?
- how does community affect us – in terms chores, behaviour, etc?
- what holds communities together (eg: religious/spiritual)?

Exercise 6: taking it all back home – first steps, allies and coalitions, support and accountability
(this will take between 90 minutes and 2 hours, depending on the size of the group)

What you will need:
Paper and pen for each person

Introduce the session: we’re thinking about our ideal and the actual – the ‘actual’ being both our own local geographic community and our local Quaker community.

Form small groups of 3 or 4 (could be just a pair; not more than 4) by geography – ie: make groups with the people who live nearest to you.

Sit down in your groups with a sheet of paper and a pen for each person.

(Allow 5 minutes for all of this so far)

Share in group, in general conversation:
- what have you taken from this series of exercises?
- what would you like, as a consequence, to start doing, stop doing, do differently?
Allow about 20 minutes for this – more if the conversation is still animated after this time.

Now each person take some time alone, writing down responses to:
- what will be your first steps – one thing you can do
- who will be your allies?
- with whom can you form coalitions?
- what is achievable?
- what are the obstacles?
- what help will you need?
- how will you know if you’ve succeeded?
(Feed the questions in with pauses between; as you go through, write each question up so that people can read it to be reminded, in case they’re still thinking about the previous question when you speak; allow about 15 minutes for this)

Share your plans in your small group. Set up a buddy arrangement to support each other and also to offer accountability. Fix how that will work – who will contact whom? How will you be in touch?(Allow about 10-15 minutes for this)

In a go-round share one thing you’d like everyone to know about your next step.

Creative Listening / Worship Sharing
(adapted with thanks from Friends General Conference Advancement and Outreach)

Worship sharing is a kind of guided meditation. By focusing on a particular question, it helps us to explore our own experience and share with each other more deeply than we would in normal conversation. It seeks to draw us into sacred space, where we can take down our usual defences, and encounter each other in ‘that which is eternal.

The guidelines for worship sharing have been evolving among Friends for the past half century, drawing on a number of different sources. They can be summarised as follows:

1. The convener or leader should define a question as the focus for sharing which is simple, open ended, and oriented toward individual experience. It might be a question about the spiritual journey; or it might be related to an issue that is exercising or dividing the meeting; it might relate to a book you have been reading together. The question should be chosen prayerfully, to meet the particular needs of the group at that time. There are no stock questions.

2. The convener then explains the basic rules for sharing:
o Reach as deeply as you can into the sacred centre of your life.
o Speak out of the silence, and leave a period of silence between speakers.
o Speak from your own experience, about your own experience. Concentrate on feelings and changes rather than on thoughts or theories.
o Do not respond to what anyone else has said, either to praise or to refute.
o Listen carefully and deeply to what is spoken. Expect to speak only once, until everyone has had a chance to speak.
o Respect the confidentiality of what is shared.

3. Some leaders feel that going around the circle makes it easier for everyone to speak. Others prefer to ask people to speak as they are ready. Explain which practice you would like to follow. In either case, participants should know that they have the option of ‘passing’ or not speaking.

4. Allow at least half an hour for a group of five or six to share their responses to a single question, and at least an hour for a larger group. If you have more than a dozen people, it would be better to divide into smaller groups to make sure that everyone has a chance to participate.

5. Enter into worshipful silence, and begin.

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If you want to post a comment here, and are having technical difficulties, you can email your comment to me at Good.Lives@woodbrooke.org.uk and I can post it for you.

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The next Good Lives weekend (. . . because there is such a thing as society) will be 9-11 April. We’ll be looking at societal structures and processes, with a particular focus on Spiral Dynamics as a tool for helping us to think about society, structures, and the kinds of leadership we're going to need in a future shaped by peak oil and climate change.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping.

You may recall that, immediately after 9/11, in the shock of the aftermath, George Bush went on American TV to urge US citizens to go shopping, to keep the US economy going. The whole thrust of a perpetually ‘growing’ economy must not be allowed to be put at risk.

The BBC is currently running a TV series, called The Virtual Revolutionabout the virtual world and electronic communications – and where it has all got us to. The third programme, ‘The Cost of Free’broadcast on 14 February, was particularly looking at e-commerce. The rapidity with we have become accustomed to this is extraordinary, given the initial ‘free’ ideology of the Web, which excluded commercial applications. Back in its early days, Google was an academic search engine . . . and then it worked out how to make money: ‘Adwords’.

As one speaker on the programme put it: the ‘product’ produced by Google is not the information displayed on your screen; the ‘product’ is your eyes looking at that information, and your hands on the mouse or keyboard responding to it. Every time we use Google to search, every time we put personal information on Twitter or Facebook, every time we send an email via googlemail, every time we make a purchase online, we supply raw data to the vast e-machinery that tracks our every move and preference. When we go to Amazon and look at a book, the page tells us, ‘we have recommendations for you . . .’ or ‘other people who bought this book also bought . . .’

You may have noticed that these days Google has moved beyond the sponsored advertisements at the top of your results page, and on the sidebar. Even as you start to type in your search terms, it is now anticipating what you might be looking for and offering you sample answers. These are based on statistical analysis, and if you click on one of the offered search strings, you will also get targeted adverts that have been paid for by auction – the highest relevant bidder gets the best slots. That’s how Google makes its money – and lots of it. It now has a near-monopoly on internet advertising. Is this how we want out personal data and our information controlled?

The speaker quoted above also said:
‘the more I respond to what is offered, the more I accept proffered suggestions to help me deal with the vast excess of information, the more I become like someone who is like me . . . I become more prototypical . . . I become less myself.’
Of course, we are offered tailored advertisements that are more likely to result in a sale, more likely to seduce us into consuming more, more likely to tempt us with products and services we might otherwise never even have known about. And all these searches, all this data-gathering, all this analysis . . . they all rely on many, many huge banks of energy-hungry servers, using electricity round the clock, emitting a great deal of CO2 into the atmosphere (the current estimate is that the sum total of all the servers running the internet and its services is roughly equal, in terms of carbon emissions, to the global airline industry).

Google’s original mission statement was ‘First do no harm’; and yet, in order to make money out of the research and development that produced such a step change in internet searching, it has ended up joining in the general harm caused by our global overconsumption. Our ‘environmental footprint’ – the overall impact we have on the planet – is a wider issue than our carbon footprint. It’s this that gives the result in terms of ‘how many planets’ we need. In 2006 (published in 2009), for instance, humanity’s global footprint was 1.4 planets. This figure is recalculated annually, but always lags about 3 years behind because of the time it takes to gather and collate all the data. In 2006, the averaged UK footprint was about 3.4 planets – this average figure hides regional differences.

If you want to know your own environmental footprint, there are various online calculators that will help you. The simplest (and crudest) that will give you a broad ball-park figure may be found at the World Wildlife FundThey also have an interesting report on the ecological footprint of British city-dwellers. A much more detailed, pencil-and-paper, calculator may be downloaded from the Living Witness Project – but you have to do all the calculation work yourself!

Another way of thinking about our overall ecological impact is to frame it as an annual income/expenditure budget – each year the earth produces a certain amount of resources that we consume. If we consume more than that in a year, we go into ecological debt. We go into debt every year, and the date has been getting earlier each year – it’s called Earth Overshoot Day. Humanity’s first Earth Overshoot Day was 31 December, 1986. This day has gradually moved forward over the years, and now our rate of overshoot stands at 40 percent more than the planet can renewably supply. In 2009 the date was 25th September. If we keep going into debt every year, starting every new year with an increasing deficit, this only leads in one direction.

A very useful resource is Pat Murphy’s book Plan C: community survival strategies for peak oil and climate change. Pat Murphy, the executive director of The Community Solution, co-wrote and co-produced the award-winning documentary The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil.  ‘Plan A’ is ‘business as usual’ – nuclear energy and non-conventional fossil fuels, often combined with denial of anthropogenic climate change. ‘Plan B’ is ‘clean green energy’ – this is business as usual by other means, also known as the ‘technology will save us’ option, preserving consumer values. ‘Plan D’ is ‘human die off’ – or, at least, drastic population reduction by highly unpleasant means – often espoused by people who believe that it’s already too late. So, ‘Plan C’ is ‘curtailment and community’ – we need to reduce our consumption by vast amounts, and we need relocalisation and local community action to enable us to do that. Murphy includes a chapter on ‘Kicking the Media Habit’, removing ourselves from the temptations and seductions of advertising.

Interestingly there has now (15 February) been a call from the thinktank Compass to ban all advertising in public spaces, and Jackie Ashley has used her Monday column in The Guardian to comment on it.

Lots more useful data, analysis and opinion is available in the Worldwatch Institute’s 2010 report, which focuses on consumerism and a transition to sustainability: State of the World 2010: transforming cultures from consumerism to sustainability. One of the contributing authors, Gary Gardner, has a chapter on ‘Engaging Religions to Shape Worldviews’ in which he writes:

“It is difficult to find religious initiatives that promote simpler living or that help congregants challenge the consumerist orientation of most modern economies.” (p.26)
Among Quakers we certainly claim to espouse ‘simplicity’, but I wonder how much we really do to help each other, and others, to resist? Gardner goes on to suggest that a 'mindful’ approach to consumption
“would also address directly one of the greatest modern threats to religions and to spiritual health: the insidious message that the purpose of human life is to consume and that consumption is the path to happiness.” (p.27)
- this in spite of the fact that there is already plenty of research that shows with great clarity that increased consumption does not make us happier. George Monbiot’s commentary on this covers a number of these issues in his inimitable style!

And if you haven’t yet come across Annie Leonard’s wonderful animated film, The Story of Stuff, do watch it online, and spread the word about it.

Reviewers have pointed to these same themes in the movie Avatar - humans exploiting an Edenic forest world for commercial gain, and ruining it in the process. Writing in The Guardian, Adam Roberts sees in the film a clear echo (‘plagiarism’, he calls it) of Ursula le Guin’s 1976 novel The World for World is Forest. Long out of print, this moving and insightful novel is, belatedly, due for reissue in July this year.

Al Gore, in his latest book, Our Choice: a plan to solve the climate crisis, has a large-typeface bold quote that says: ‘Virtually every Pavlovian trigger discovered in the human brain is now pulled by advertisers’. However, this is nothing new, unfortunately – it’s just that electronic media make it more pervasive now: Vance Packard published The Hidden Persuaders in 1957. It sold more than 1 million copies, and that was in the days when you had to walk down the street to a real-world physical bookstore in order to buy it! Packard explores the use of consumer motivational research and other psychological techniques, including depth psychology and subliminal tactics, by advertisers to manipulate expectations and induce desire for products, particularly in the American postwar era. Excerpts are available online.

This brings us back to Gary Gardner’s suggestion – the practice of mindfulness, in our whole life, including in relation to our patterns and habits of consumption. To take this seriously becomes a profoundly subversive act. The triggers that the advertisers so cleverly use can only work because we live so much of our lives unawarely, ‘on autopilot’ – ‘asleep’ as the Buddhists would say: we need to ‘wake up’. The diligent practice of mindfulness constitutes that ‘waking up’ – it undermines the automatic dimensions of behaviour, makes us more alert to unconscious patterning. Daily prayer or meditation, undertaken regularly and faithfully, is one of our important tools in refashioning our unsustainable way of life.

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If you want to post a comment, but are having technical difficulties, you can email your comment to me at   Good.Lives@woodbrooke.org.uk    and I can post it for you.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Installing solar electricity

Back before Christmas (see posting dated 2 December 2009) I wrote about having solar hot water panels fitted to my roof. At the time they were installed to one side, not centrally, to leave space for solar electricity panels to be added later. Well, that’s now been done – my panels were installed last week. The whole job took two and a half days, excluding the erection/dismantling  of the scaffolding.

As before, because my house is east-west oriented, I’ve had to have two sets of panels, and thus two control mechanisms. This adds to the initial cost of course, and the estimate is that I will get 85-90% efficiency compared with a south-facing roof installation. The design of the system is dependent on the amount of roof available, so I have ended up with six panels at the front and six at the back.

The company I used was JHS Power Solutions Ltd.  The case study currently up on their website is my friend Caroline, who lives just across the allotments from me, and who recommended this company to me. She has 10 panels facing south, giving roughly the same generating capacity as my 12 panels split east-west. I have Sanyo panels, with an estimated annual yield of 2064 kWh. The total cost of an installation varies with the number of panels fitted, and the fact that mine is an east-west system added about £800 to the overall cost because of needing two control systems.

If I had arranged to have the water and electricity panels fitted at the same time, I could probably have saved £800 or so in scaffolding costs – but that had to be balanced against time and convenience in fitting the work around the rest of life. The total cost of this work was about £15,000, of which I will get £2,500 back as a grant from the government’s Low Carbon Buildings scheme. I didn’t claim a grant for my solar hot water – if I had done, I would have received £400 for that and only £2,100 for the solar electricity; there’s £2,500 in total available to each household. I didn't need to obtain planning permission because my house isn't a listed building and I don't live in a conservation area.

The final result looks like this at the front:

And like this at the back:

The electrical connections are fixed under the roof tiles, and the tile replaced:

Long brackets are fixed to support the panels:

The panels are fixed on:

And then the brackets are trimmed to fit:

Getting these panels up onto the roof was much easier than lifting the solar hot water panels – that took four men, two ladders and ropes! These are much lighter and can be carried up by one person:

Each array of six panels is wired up in series, producing direct current (DC). Our houses are wired up to work on 240v alternating current (AC) so the power from the panels passes through an inverter to convert it to AC at the correct voltage for the house. The east-west orientation means that the front and back panels will be producing different voltages, so each has to have its own inverter. These are installed up in the loft, out of the way, alongside an isolation switch – if an electrician were working on something in the house, the solar power would have to switched off, as well as the mains power.

The inverters are very clever boxes of sophisticated electronic tricks that manage the interaction between the solar power and the mains electricity grid – ‘renewable’ this may be, but low-tech it ain’t! The displays on the boxes give readouts of electricity being generated at the moment, and total electricity generated since they were commissioned.

There’s another control system in the front porch, alongside the meter and fuse box – plus another isolator. The readout here shows total electricity generated (both arrays amalgamated) as here the two outputs are combined and fed into the house or the grid:

The solar power generated is used first in the house. If the house needs, in total, more power than the panels are generating at that moment, then the balance is drawn in from the grid; if the house need less, the excess is exported to the grid. You are paid for everything you generate, even if you use it yourself; and from 1 April this year, there will be a ‘feed-in tarriff’ which means that this payment will be raised to provide an incentive for householders to install solar or wind power. You will receive more per kWh for what you generate than you pay per kWh for what you consume from the grid. These payments are handled via your electricity company.

Although most people aren’t motivated first to do this for financial reasons, the new arrangements certainly change the financial equation so that it really does pay to be green. The Guardian’s ‘Money’ supplement last Saturday carried a major article by Miles Brignall, ‘The brightest investment?’ arguing that there is now enough financial benefit to make this a positive option on those grounds alone, as the average pay-back time will be reduced to only 10 years.

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If you are trying to post a comment and are having technical difficulties, you can email your comment to me at Good.Lives@woodbrooke.org.uk and I can post it for you.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Challenging ideas in Stewart Brand's new book

Stewart Brand has been popping up all over the British media in the last few weeks. He has a new book out, and is promoting not only his book, but the ideas that he wants to make widely known.

Anyone old enough to recall the 1960s counter-culture may remember The Whole Earth Catalog. Stewart Brand was the person behind this venture – a vast compendium of information and ideas covering self-sufficiency, alternative technologies, community living and libertarian politics. It was published annually from 1968 to 1972, and occasionally thereafter. The last one was a special millennium edition. In pre-World Wide Web days, it was the nearest thing possible (if you were interested in those issues) to the kind of information sourcing we now all take for granted. In fact, Steve Jobs (of Apple Inc.) described the Catalog as the conceptual forerunner of the World Wide Web.

The new book, Whole Earth Discipline: an ecopragmatist manifesto (London: Atlantic Books, 2010) is positioned, and titled, to be a kind of supplement to the Catalog series.

Stewart Brand is a serious environmentalist, and has been for many years, long before the term ‘environmentalist’ was in use. He’s got a significant track record of creative ideas and has influenced many fields of environmental, ‘alternative’ and counter-culture endeavour. He’s a combination of the visionary and the practical activist. You can find more about him on Wikipedia or browse his own account of himself on his own website.

I remember the Whole Earth Catalog series, but hadn’t recalled his name in association with them until I came across his 1999 book, The Clock of the Long Now: time and responsibility (paperback published in Britain by Basic Books, 2000). This was written as part of a bigger project, The Long Now Foundation addressing humanity’s ‘pathologically short attention span’. In the approach to the millennium, the whole public mood was that the year 2000 was the ‘end’ of something. One of the devices Brand uses in his book, to shift our thinking, is to write the years either side of the millennium as 01999 and 02000. So now we are in the year 02010. The idea of a ‘long now’ is to restore both a human-scale and cosmological sense of ‘now’, rather than the accelerated, technology-driven sense of ‘now’ that is so pervasive. In geological terms, ‘now’ is a million years, or so – a mere geological eye-blink.

Following this, Brand’s new book seeks to address the critical environmental issues now facing us, and does so in challenging and uncomfortable ways. In sum, he wants to see the environmental movement, world-wide, cease to be led by romanticism and start to be led by science and engineering – hence the ‘ecopragmatist’ in the title. Speaking on Radio 4’s Start the Week on 1 February, he said,
Ask any public figure, ‘What have you been wrong about, and how did that change your views?’
He says he was wrong about nuclear power, joining James Lovelock and others in warning that we will have to find ways of coming to terms with nuclear as the base-load provider for our power grids. He points out that the amount of waste attributable to one person’s lifetime use of nuclear-generated electricity is actually very small – and compare that with the amount of carbon dioxide produced from fossil-fuel generation. The major problem, he says, is how we stop the use of coal – the worst of all options. He also cites various calculations, produced for different countries, about the use of renewables for the baseload of power generation – there just isn’t enough land area for wind turbines or solar panels (even if we drastically reduce our usage). For the UK situation, see Without Hot Air.

He also thinks we (in Europe, especially) need to overcome our opposition to genetically modified seeds; and we need to stop our opposition to their use in Africa. They don’t have to come along with the whole package of monoculture prairie-style farming. As climate change rapidly alters the growing conditions in major food-producing regions of the world, we are going to need new varieties of staple food crops that can cope with the changing patterns of rainfall and temperature. He points out that many of the Amish have embraced GM seeds! The Amish are very interesting in their attitude to modern technology. They evaluate everything on the basis of both utility and impact on the life of the community. So they continue their traditional ways of farming, but use GM seed, which they just regard as better seeds. Brand suggests that what we need to adopt widely is organic farming, but with GM seeds where they offer an advantage.

These two are examples of using science and engineering as the drivers for our decision-making.

He also advocates more city-living, and discusses seriously the creativity and environmental soundness of many of what we normally regard as terrible slums around major developing-world cities. City dwellers generally use far less energy than non-city dwellers – localism, meaning walking and cycling for all your daily needs, is far more possible in city environments. In developing nations, as poor people move to cities, they encounter more opportunities to move out of poverty, have smaller families, use less energy and raw materials – and the eco-systems of the rural areas recover. These are challenging views, but his arguments are seriously researched and backed-up with data, and need to be considered, not dismissed out of hand.

And as if this were not already enough in the way of challenges, he has also re-evaluated his libertarian politics. He is now clear that climate change requires social and technological change, decision-making and enforcement on large scales that only powerful governments can provide. For instance, voluntary self-restraint and market forces are not going to keep coal in the ground – only governments can forbid mining, or use taxation to make coal too expensive to use.

You can hear Stewart Brand on Start the Week; you can hear a lecture he gave in the US (scroll down to the video frame); you can hear his talk given on 19 January at the RSA in London (listen online or download an MP3 file). And you can read a review article on the book.

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