Thursday, 26 August 2010

Earth overshoot day: 21 August 2010

Each year, Global Footprint Network calculates humanity’s Ecological Footprint. This is the amount of productive land and sea area required to produce the resources we consume, and absorb our waste, including CO2 emissions; this is compared with biocapacity, the ability of ecosystems to regenerate resources. A sustainable way of life for humanity would ensure that the resources we consume, both directly and indirectly, would not exceed the Earth's capacity to regenerate.

No surprise here: we regularly exceed this limit. Each year, we put the Earth into ecological deficit - we use more than the Earth can make - so we have a progressively degrading environment. We have been in 'overshoot' since the late 1980s.

Earth Overshoot Day (also known as 'ecological debt day'), a concept devised by UK-based New Economics Foundation, is calculated each year, from the most recently available complete data, which always lags three years behind, because of  the complexity of collecting and analysing all the information.

So the 2010 date is based on 2007 data, and projections are based on historical rates of growth in population and consumption, as well as the historical link between world GDP and resource demand.

Last year, Earth Overshoot Day was observed on September 25, 2009. This year's date, a month earlier in the year, is not due to a sudden change in human demand, though. Reporting this year's overshoot day, NEF posted on its website:
Ecological Debt Day comes a full month earlier than last year, reflecting not only greater consumption of resources on a global scale, despite the recession, but also improvements in data collection giving a more detailed analysis than ever before. The new research, for example, indicates that the world has less grazing land available than previously estimated.
Typically, the date changes by a few days year on year - but this time the big jump takes us to a more accurate baseline.

NEF adds:
A major part of the UK’s ecological footprint originates from our over consumption of fossil fuels, typified by some of the more bizarre goods that are both imported and exported. Last year:
  • We exported 131,000 tonnes of chewing gum to Spain and imported 125,00 tonnes back again
  • The UK exported 3,300 tonnes of soft toys to New Zealand, and then imported 2,400 tonnes back again.
  • We exported 43,000 tonnes of toffee to France while at the same time importing 39,000 tonnes from the French.
Global Footprint Network President, Mathis Wackernagel, said:
"We would expect our estimates of overshoot to be, if anything, conservative.We know we are far from living within the means of one planet. The good news is, much of the technology we have to begin to address this problem is available and it is open source: things like compact urban design, energy-efficient housing, ecological tax reform, removal of resource subsidies, safe and affordable family planning, bicycles, low-meat diets, and life-cycle costing."
The calculations can also look at different regions of the globe, or different countries, which will reach their local overshoot days at different times, as some regions of the world live off the resources of other regions. In a globalised market, almost nowhere is self-sufficient, but on aggregate some places are net exporters of resources and some are net importers.

For instance, Europe had used up its own fish stocks by June this year.

The global overshoot day also translates into 'how many planets' - 21 August is day 233 out of 365, giving us a ratio of about 1.6 planets being needed to support the human population. This overall average figure hides huge variation:

• United States - 4.6 Earths
• Canada - 3.4 Earths
• United Kingdom - 2.6 Earths
• Japan - 2.4 Earths
• German - 2.0 Earths
• Russi - 1.8 Earths
• Mexic - 1.6 Earths
• Costa Ric - 1.1 Earths
• India - 0.4 Earths

A ranking of the world's nations (not every country shown), based on 2002 figures, shows the highest footprint per person being in the United Arab Emirates, followed closely by the USA. At the bottom of the ranking are Senegal, Gambia, Nicaragua anbd Guatamala. Living at approximately one planet - what we all have to aim for - are Chile, Argentina, Romania, Uraguay and Brazil.

In 2009 it was calculated that the UK itself went into ecological debt on Easter Sunday.

United Nations business-as-usual projections show humanity requiring the equivalent resources of two planets by the early 2030s, around the time that children born today would be graduating from college. This would put Earth Overshoot Day on July 1, and means it would take two years for the planet to regenerate what we use in one year. Reaching this level ofecological deficit spending may turn out to be physically impossible (for details see Global Footprint Network and WWF’s Living Planet Report 2008).

Andrew Simms, policy director at NEF, and deviser of the concept of ecological debt day said:
"The banking crisis taught us the danger of a system that goads us to live beyond our means financially. A greater danger comes from a consumer culture and economic policy that pushes us to live beyond our means ecologically. From the 21st August, humanity will, in effect, start to overstretch and undermine its own life-support systems. While we tolerate huge changes to how we live in response to the crisis created by our reckless banking system, nothing is being done to prevent us going further into ecological debt. That's why we are calling for a 'Great Transition' to rebuild the economy, free us from the habits of over-consumption, and design a better system that can survive and thrive with the resources we have available."
For more about this, see Andrew's book, Ecological Debt: global warming and the wealth of nations, published by Pluto Press in 2009.

To calculate your own ecological footprint, there's a simple (so fairly rough-and-ready) version online, created by WWF.

Last year, the local climate change action group, in the town where I live, had an interactive exhibition and discussion space in a business fair held by and for local businesses. I spent about three hours there, helping visitors use this online calculator. The people who were ‘doing well’, being very close to ‘one planet living’  were the poor – people unemployed or on low incomes, with whole families living in small houses in what many of us would regard as overcrowded conditions. I was surprised at how low some of their footprints were, and it was another reminder that the environmental situation we find ourselves in is a consequence of affluence and luxury. I don’t regard my own home as luxurious, or my lifestyle as affluent – but on a global scale, they most certainly are.

If we have food to eat, clothes to wear, a roof over our heads and a bed to sleep in, we are better off than 75% of people on the planet. (Pachamama Alliance)
What do we have to do to approach one-planet living for ourselves? First and last: consume less - of everything.
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Thursday, 19 August 2010

Gardening at Woodbrooke - a second account

Last week, I posted Fran's account of being a Gardening Friend at Woodbrooke for three months. This week, I'm posting Jane's account of a different pattern of volunteering in the garden. Jane typically comes for two weeks at a time, two or three times a year, and has been doing this for some years now. The dates are fixed to suit her life and the working life of the garden. I asked Jane the same questions as those answered by Fran in last week's post.

My maternal grand-mother was a keen gardener and I suppose I very much wanted to be like her but didn’t do much about it until I was training as an occupational therapist (OT) and gardening was on the syllabus. I chose it as a special subject in my final year and on Saturdays during that year worked on a stall in York market selling cut flowers and pot plants for a nurseryman. I was often asked for advice and my stock reply was “Keep it moist”.

In my first OT job I got to know the gardener at one of the mental health units where I was working and he gave me a part of the garden to use with patients. We grew a good crop of potatoes with his help. At home we had an allotment at one stage and I tried to grow a few vegetables in the garden. Not long before I retired I had the chance to run a weekly group in the OT department’s garden, and after retiring I went back to work in the garden as a volunteer. This is when I really started learning more about gardening and more still when I moved and found voluntary work in a Green Gym, a community garden on an allotment site. Woodbrooke is probably the place where I’ve learnt the most as the garden is the largest in which I’ve worked, and contains such variety. Over the years, I’ve been here in every month of the year except August, apart from the winter months.

I was an attender at Quaker meetings for seven years before becoming a Friend in 1977. Earlier in the 1970s I had come to a weekend for attenders at Woodbrooke but think it must have been in wintertime – I don’t remember the garden at all! I must have known something about it from others who had been here, as I used to look with longing at the advertisements for Gardening Friends while I was working, feeling I did not have the time to come. I think it was in the first or second week of my retirement that I was here at last as a Gardening Friend. I continued coming, and in the last three years I have come three times a year, for two weeks at a time. It is especially satisfying the next time I come to see the progress of things I have sown or planted. I’ve done all sorts of other jobs – weeding (which I love), watering, digging, mulching, pruning, transplanting, harvesting, lifting and dividing, mowing, litter picking, haymaking, painting, stripping ivy off trees, tipping chalk into the lake from the boat (no longer done), chasing Canada geese, closing gaps in netting to keep squirrels out, introducing course members to tasks in the garden, talking to visitors and to intruders, putting things straight after vandalism and probably other things that haven’t come to mind.

The highlight I think was mowing the labyrinth. I couldn’t stop looking at it afterwards.
I’ve made plenty of mistakes – I’m better at mulching and more careful with pruning now – and had a few mishaps, including losing the padlock for the boat in the lake.

The routine duty of walking round the grounds has been a special time for me and I saw a tawny owl for the first time on one of these walks. Spotting a kingfisher has been a particular thrill.

After a day’s work I love to take the boat out and drift on the lake. I don’t regard myself as a knowledgeable gardener but I do recognise most weeds and I think I’m good at following instructions, provided that I remember them. I have difficulty remembering plant names, even when I’ve been told them numerous times – I should keep a notebook! I always come away with new knowledge and experience and ever-increasing delight in being and working in the now so familiar grounds of Woodbrooke. I regard being a Gardening Friend as an enormous privilege.

I could continue at length about the experience of living at Woodbrooke and being part of its community. I’ve especially enjoyed getting to know fellow volunteers in the garden – it is a delight to see the local ones again each time I come, the Friends in Residence and people who use Woodbrooke regularly for study, many of whom have coincided with me on several visits. As for Woodbrooke staff, it is a source of great pleasure to feel I am known to most of them now. Their welcome, friendliness and helpfulness means a lot to me. It feels really good to be included in staff meetings and very interesting to have this insight into how Woodbrooke works. I’m proud to wear the oval badge! [That's the name badge worn by staff, Friends-in- Residence and gardening volunteers - as distinct from the rectangular badge given to guests on arrival.]

It’s quite easy not to feel any need to go outside the little world of Woodbrooke. For a start it seems a pity to miss any of the meals… On visits in the last two years I’ve tried to be a bit more adventurous and at weekends have been to Bournville, the Barber Institute, the Museum and Art Gallery, the Back to Backs, the Botanical Gardens, the Winterborne Garden, the Lickey Hills and further afield to Lichfield and Stratford-upon-Avon. Each time I’ve been here I’ve been to circle dancing in Kings Heath on a Thursday evening. I’ve only been on courses twice. The more I hear from course members about their experiences the more I feel I should be taking the opportunity to participate but I am torn between this and wanting the opportunity to just be at Woodbrooke without the intensity of being on a course.

What are the other aspects of the experience which are important to me? I value the call to silence at mealtimes and the reminder that gives me of all I have to be thankful for: not just the food and fellowship but also the opportunity to be in a place ‘where worship has been valid’ and to contribute to something which reflects my own interests and concerns. I love Woodbrooke’s diversity, its woodland and trees, its conservation areas, its lake, its wildlife, its walled garden and the fact that it is managed organically. Above all I value the trust placed in me, that what I do in the garden never goes unnoticed but is appreciated and provides either a learning experience or a source of encouragement.

Many people discovering I’m a Gardening Friend say “I’d like to do that” but I would not encourage every one of them to apply! I think some are fine weather gardeners but it does rain at Woodbrooke. As well as many delightful jobs there are those that are wet, dirty, heavy, back-breaking or simply tedious. Only if your heart is in it and you really enjoy most of these as well is it for you.

Beside the knowledge I take away with me there is the inspiration of working with someone of vision. I have seen how the garden constantly continues to change and develop under Steve Lock’s care – how his many experiments have worked, how his grasping of this and that “window of opportunity” (I think of this as one of his favourite phrases) has paid off. Despite my lack of expertise I feel my own suggestions are sought and valued too.
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Thanks to Jane for her reflections on being a Gardening Friend.

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If you are reader from outside the UK, please remember to post your comment in English - I won't post anything if I don't know what it says!

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Gardening at Woodbrooke

I've posted here before about Woodbrooke's gardens and grounds - our gardener, Steve Lock took me around the garden and talked about his work. That resulted in two earlier posts, one generally about the site and Steve's approach to gardening; and one about the fruit and vegetables in the walled garden.

Double-click on any photo to see an enlarged version, and then click the back arrow to return to the blog.

In those earlier posts, I mentioned our gardening volunteers, without whom our gardens and grounds wouldn't be the wonderful places they are.

Gardening volunteers come in three 'varieties'! There are some local Friends, living in Birmingham, who come in to help perhaps one day a week. Then there are Friends from further away, who come for maybe a couple of weeks, once or twice a year. And then are the longer-term Gardening Friends who come for several months, covering the main growing season, and live with us, giving 25 hours a week of work, and participating in the life of Woodbrooke.

I thought it would be interesting to know more about some of these volunteer gardeners who are so vital to the life of our 10-acre site.

First of all, I asked Fran, who was one of our longer-term volunteers for about three months earlier this year. Fran is third from the left in this photo.

How did you first become interested in gardening? How did you learn what you know at the moment?

I've always loved plants, so much so that I have two botany degrees! However, academic learning has little to do with horticulture. Until becoming a Gardening Friend, I'd only ever tended plants for experiments or my own herbs and container plants.

What particularly interests you?

Everything I learned in my three months at Woodbrooke genuinely interested me. Probably the most eye-opening was the organic management, which most people might equate with worse-for-wear fruit and veg. Woodbrooke is Birmingham's largest organically managed garden which no one, who's seen it in all its splendour, would ever call worse-for-wear! The compost comes from kitchen scraps and gardening waste, the wormeries and comfrey composting produce all fertilisers, and the autumn leaves get raked up to become the next spring's leaf mould for mulching. Even the weekly grass cuttings get used to mulch the herbaceous borders. No visitor leaves without some inspiration on how they could manage their own gardens more organically.

What did you know about Quakers and Woodbrooke before you came here?

My mother grew up in Germany during World War Two. Among many her many horrific memories were also heartening ones of Quaker care packages arriving from America with gingham dresses, tinned fruit, and – luxuries of luxuries – bubblegum! I myself grew up in Canada, and in school learned more about Quakers through history lessons on the abolition of slavery and the Underground Railway. When I later moved to England, I volunteered as a healer for the National Federation of Spiritual Healers. They rent rooms in Quaker Meeting Houses throughout the UK to run their free spiritual healing clinics. We were always made to feel very welcome, and I attended some meetings for worship out of curiousity.

How did you hear about the Gardening Friend position?

I work as a freelance writer, and decided to take a creative sabbatical this year to concentrate on my own work. When I asked around for suggestions of peaceful and inspiring live-in positions, two friends (who don't know one another) suggested Woodbrooke. One was my friend Mohammed, an Environmental Science PhD student who'd attended a conference at Woodbrooke last year. He cheekily said that if it was peaceful enough for Gandhi (who was once a guest), chances are it would be peaceful enough for me! The other was my friend Alison Leonard, who teaches some courses at Woodbrooke and whose fiction and non-fiction books can be found in its library.

What made you think you'd like to come here?

I couldn't resist the synchronicity of both Mohammed's and Alison's independent suggestions and had a look at Woodbrooke's website. I was really taken by the photographs of the grounds and the wide range of exciting courses. When I applied last November, I genuinely didn't think I had a chance of being accepted as I figured there would be zillions of applicants and that – understandably – applications from Quakers would be preferred. I was more than happy to be proven wrong when I was offered an interview in January!

Can you say something about your general experience as Gardening Friend here?

It was rich, rich experience both for the actual gardening and everything besides. As a Gardening Friend, I was eligible to attend any courses with spare places. I sat in on three, all of which were thought-provoking and deeply moving. Although most of the students were Quakers, my 'outsider's view' was welcomed during discussions and I made some wonderful friends that I'm still in contact with.

Herbs growing in the walled garden

Being in residence also meant I ate all my meals on site. The food is d-e-l-i-c-i-o-u-s, and it was a real kick seeing the herbs and produce we gardeners delivered in the morning already being served at lunchtime.

I also relished the 101 conversations swirling about the place, depending on what courses were taking place. On any given day, I'd chat about everything from Shakespeare's plays, to living up a tree for a year, to Quaker missionaries in Burundi, to the current one million children prisoners in the world, to the latest World Cup updates, to the latest UK child protection laws, to research into the ministry of truth, to what was happening on the Archers.

What kinds of things did you do?

My mornings were spent in the garden, doing routine duties like watering, picking up litter, harvesting herbs and produce, collecting the kitchen scraps for the composting, and chasing the Canada geese off the lawn. Steve Lock, the Head Gardener who manages the volunteers, would then give everyone individual tasks. These ranged from sowing, to planting, to pruning, to weeding. Alongside longer-term residencies like mine, there are also several volunteers who come help for a week or fortnight and others who live locally and come in a day a week. In my own time, I wrote or visited Birmingham's sites. As Britain's second largest city, there's plenty to see and do on days off. I especially enjoyed walking the canal into town.

What were the high and low points for you?

The highest point was the staff and fellow volunteers, no doubt about it. As a Gardening Friend, I was invited to attend staff meetings and was always impressed by the genuine regard everyone has for each other. I wish more workplaces could be that considerate and thoughtful. Whether I was gardening or off-duty, I always enjoyed a laugh with the FiRs (Friends in Residence, who volunteer indoors) and the members of the gardening, house-keeping, administration, and catering staff. The only low point was feeling a bit 'peopled out' by my third month. At the start, the coming-and-going of students made for interesting conversations; towards the end, it could feel too much of a good thing and I sometimes retreated to the Quiet Table.

I suppose I should add falling in the lake on Open Garden Day, but that was more comic than low! Let's just say I'd recommend anyone reading this to either enjoy the lake from the shore or in the rowboat.

As a gardener, what do you think you gave and what did you gain?

My three months at Woodbrooke gave me an insight to many aspects of gardening – from hardening off seedlings, to harvesting herbs and produce, to mulching with both leaves and grass cuttings, to woodland management, to organic pest control, to hot and cool composting, to fertilising with comfrey. At the end of my residency, Steve presented me with the 'ministry of blue skies' - understandably, things could sometimes get tense in the run-up to Open Garden Day and he felt my playfulness helped keep things light. And this summer was possibly the hottest in recent years, so I spent much time with a watering can in hand.

Looking back at the whole period, what will you take away with you from your time here?

Many new friends, much knowledge about everything under the sun from gardening to spirituality, and a deeper appreciation for the Quaker way of life.

What would you say to someone thinking about applying to be Gardening Friend in the future?

Don't worry about knowing much about gardening and prepare to be stretched! As Steve said at my interview, he's looking for people who are open and willing to give things a go.
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Thanks to Fran for her reflections on being a Gardening Friend.
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If you want to post a comment, and are having technical difficulties, you can email your comment to me at  and I can post it for you.

If you are reader from outside the UK, please remember to post your comment in English - I won't post anything if I don't know what it says!

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Thinking about the future - mapping our local resources

Back in June we held a Good Lives weekend (subtitled  '. . . because we can't eat money'), looking at future access to resources, food in particular. Leading up to the specific focus on food we did a broader mapping exercise, thinking about the locality where we live. I thought it might be of interest to others, either individuals or groups.

Below is a facilitator's crib sheet to run this with a group. This is about a 90-minute session for a group of about a dozen – it will be a bit shorter for a smaller group, a bit longer for a larger one.

What you will need:
  • assorted paper, felt pens, etc. People have different preferences for how they like to work, so it’s good if you can have available A4, A3 and flip-chart paper, various thick and thin felt pens, possibly also crayons or coloured pencils; if you want to make this into a more creative session, you could add collage materials, glue sticks, etc
  • a few maps or road atlases. If you are working with a group all from the same locality, you might like to photocopy the relevant double page spread from a standard 1:25000 (1" to 4 miles) road atlas. If you have people from a bigger range, a few road atlases available for people to look at will be helpful
What this exercise is doing: [allow 10-15 minutes to introduce the whole exercise, and for people to get their materials, ask any questions, etc]

The idea is to focus on your own locality, and take a 25 mile (40 kilometer) radius around where you live. This can be done impressionistically, or – if you’re using photocopies – some people might like to draw a circle on the map. The 25 mile distance is chosen because it’s about the limit of what can be done without fossil-fuelled transport. It’s a stretch, and you probably wouldn’t want to cycle (or horse-ride) a 50 mile round trip in a day, or even a 25 mile one-way trip too often – but it’s just about do-able when needed, and you could think about accessing resources in that area.

We’re thinking about the deleterious effects of peak oil, climate change, or other events (eg: volcanic ash) on transport, infrastructure, supply chains, energy and water supplies, etc.

So, within your 25 mile radius, think about: [and you might like to draw this up on a flipchart – see example below]
  • Food: Growing vegetables, grain, fruit? Good grazing for livestock? Availability of land? Local expertise? Fishing available?
  • Water: Rivers – clean or polluted? Canals? Lakes or reservoirs – accessible? With fish in?
  • Timber: large trees for building? Smaller trees for coppicing? Wood for fuel? Land to plant more trees to ensure a sustainable supply?
  • Other building materials: clay (for bricks), stone, sand, gravel? [NB: gravel and sand are also good for water filtration]
  • Energy production: are there open spaces with enough wind for turbines? Is there sloping south-facing ground (that can be spared from food production) for solar panels? If you have rivers, are there weirs? Could the rivers have dams? Are there old mill-races that could be restored to full functioning? Are there places where water-wheels could be installed to create power? What about roofs of buildings?
  • Materials processing and manufacturing: are there industrial premises that could be converted to usable workshops? Can a source of power be made available to them?
  • Transport: Are any rivers or canals navigable? Do people have boats? Can anyone make them? Is there a good network usable by cycles? Is there any local expertise in horse-drawn carts? Are there heavy horses to pull canal barges – and anyone who knows about handling them? Does anyone have donkeys and know about using them to carry loads?
  • Available labour: and crossing all of these, what is the population demographic in your area? Is there enough, and the right kind, of labour available? What is the age profile?
Allow about 30 minutes for people to complete their mapping – you can judge by the activity level in the room whether to stop earlier or allow a little bit longer. In any case, about 5 minutes before stopping, give people a ‘just 5 more minutes’ warning.

If you have a group of up to about 8 (10 at a push), then you can share the results of this in a whole group go-round. This will be particularly good if everyone is from roughly the same area, as ideas can be pooled.

For a bigger group, this will take a long time, and it’s better to share in 4s first. If you have people from a wide area, try to group the 4s so that people living in similar types of area are together (if possible). Allow about 20 minutes in the 4s. Then bring the group back together and ask if there’s anything particular that it would be helpful to share with the whole group. Allow not more than 10 minutes for this.

If you have time, you might at this point like to ask one further question for reflection, not necessarily for answering now: what about the ‘social capital’ of your area? Is it a community-minded place? Are there local groups and organisations that mean you have structures and networks of people that already know how to work together, to organise things, to make things happen . . . and to take other people along with them, not put backs up?

double-click on this image to see it enlarged, and then click 'back' to return to the blog

If anyone tries this out - either alone or with a group - I'd be really interested to know how it goes. Please email me (as below).

Other resources around this topic that you might like to look at include:
- Incredible Edible Todmorden
- Canalside Community Food (Leamington Spa)
- Hazelhurst Community Supported Co-operative (Sheffield)
- Can Britain Feed Itself and the Livestock Permaculture Model (from Transition Totnes)
- Can Britain Feed Itself? (from The Land - the source from which the article above was drawn); this article covers many of the other resource questions included in this mapping exercise.

And if we needed any other incentive to grow local even before we have to, a recent Guardian article, from the financial pages, detailed how hedge funds are gambling with food stocks and food prices.
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If you want to post a comment, and are having technical difficulties, you can email your comment to me at  and I can post it for you.

If you are reader from outside the UK, please remember to post your comment in English - I won't post anything if I don't know what it says!
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The next Good Lives weekends will be:
29-31 October 2010: Good Lives - because everyone's worth it (on beliefs and values)
19-21 February 2011: Good Lives - because there isn't a technical fix for everything (on science and technology)