The Flooding In Yorkshire

In the years I’ve been writing this blog I’ve written about flooding several times. I think it’s a really important issue – and not just because I’m sat here in Somerset. The floods – this time the flooding in Yorkshire – we are seeing are important not just because of the misery and loss they bring. They’re also important because of what they signify and how we react to that.

Just to back up a bit. I’m coming at this from the increasingly consensual position that the flooding we are now experiencing in the UK has been a consequence of several factors, including – at the risk of stating the blindingly obvious – a lot of rain. We are experiencing more extreme weather events and, consequently, more related disasters. These are among the most obvious symptoms of climate change.

It’s F***ing Raining

It’s interesting that some people find this really hard to take, and that (at least most of) the naysayers seem to be of a particular political hue. In Australia, deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack called environmentalists “inner-city raving lunatics” for suggesting there was a link between climate change and the wildfires ravaging New South Wales and Queensland. Donald Trump blamed the Californian governor, a Democrat, for the terrible forest fires there saying he had done a “terrible job of forest management”. He took to Twitter: “Every year, as the fire’s (sic) rage & California burns, it is the same thing – and then he comes to the Federal Government for $$$ help. No more. Get your act together Governor,”

For too long the root cause of increasing extreme weather events has been “opinion” – like the anti-vaxxing scandal. Our news outlets have pandered to this. They would do well to remember:

If someone says it’s raining and another person says it’s dry, it’s not your job to quote them both. Your job is to look out the f***ing window and find out which is true.

Attributed to Will McAvoy, Newsroom

Lorraine Chase Did It

Some people continue to deny that the weather has changed at all. Some say it’s the EU’s fault. Others that “climate hoaxers” are seeding clouds over Luton Airport to cause flooding in Yorkshire. Cunning. Conspiracy theories and denial will ebb away as more and more people are impacted, you would think. Try telling the inhabitants of Abaco Bay that the hurricane that hit Barbados this year was just another hurricane.

The last to change their minds on this will be those who see this as some kind of issue pushed by a political opponent with an agenda. It. Is. Not.

The Wisdom of Crowds

Boris Johnson mopping up floodwater. Sort of.

What IS a political issue, of course, is the way we respond. As I have said before, our system of government is badly equipped to quickly produce the kind of long term and expensive answers that environmental problems demand. They are often complicated and nuanced. Many are unpopular – no-one wants to be told they will have to permanently abandon their house or farm. Solutions require politicians to cross tribal boundaries and give solid financial commitments. Obviously going to happen.

In the short term, more money might find its way to flood prevention – although the auguries aren’t good. Despite environmental concerns beginning to poll, the Environment Agency is now so under-funded it can’t help. Since 2013 the EA has lost nearly 20% of its staff. Houses continue to be built on flood plains willy nilly. Our built environment continues to include too many impermeable hard surfaces and not enough SuDS.

Moreover, there are anti-science forces at work here too, when it comes to methods of flood prevention. On news reports I hear over and over again that if rivers and ditches were properly dredged – “like they used to be” – then the problem would go away. Dredging simply isn’t the answer. It might help in some areas, but not if you get a month’s rainfall in 24 hours – and then more rain. Not if water pours off denuded hillsides. Not if the area you’re trying to protect – like the Somerset Levels – is 650 square kilometres with only around a 4m drop to sea level (currently!); the water has nowhere to go. Rivers aren’t downpipes in an efficient artificial drainage system. If you do dredge or build physical flood defences – at vast environmental and economic cost – you will just shunt the problem somewhere else. The flooding at Fishlake (a village in the Great Humberhead Levels – which used to be largely peat bog) was partly the consequence of the new flood defences at Sheffield, for example.

Hydrologists are big on other stuff. Slowing the flow of water from catchment areas. Managing those areas to absorb more rainfall and reduce runoff. Accepting and identifying where rivers will flood when they want to.*

It’s these evidence based solutions we need to get a move on with. We need to take this seriously (perhaps when London floods we will) and understand that what were 200 year weather events are the new normal. Quite apart from the human misery and social disintegration it brings, flooding also has a huge economic cost.

We need our politicians to stop bickering for a moment and take the lead on this. They need to dramatically increase funding for the EA and take some decisions which will be unpopular and expensive in the short term. We need to understand the landscape and change and adapt to it. There are some encouraging initiatives going on, but nothing of the kind of urgency and scale required. In the bigger picture, it might also be a start to reconstitute the Department For Climate Change.

*This is another example of how we have become removed from the natural landscape, by the way. We have forgotten this kind of stuff.

Conservation And Conservatism

There was an article in the Sunday Times this morning by Eric Kaufmann which partly articulated something which has been troubling me for a while. It starts:

If Greta Thunberg wants to beat climate change by 2030, she needs to convince conservatives and the middle-aged, not young, metropolitan liberals. This is possible only if environmentalism sheds its exclusive association with the liberal left...

And concludes:

…For conservatives, ecologists must underscore the threat climate change poses to local and national ways of life.

This is demonstrably true across western democracies. Failure to engage swathes of – important – people is disastrous for the environmental cause, particularly in these days of polarised, tribal politics.

Most Republicans don’t even believe climate change is man made, whereas 66% of Democrats worry about it a “great deal”. It’s as if it has become a political belief rather than a scientific fact – part of a left leaning political ideology. There are even some on the Right here who still think climate change is a hoax. It’s a conspiracy to stop people having a good time, or to advance some kind of obscure economic or political agenda.

Why has this happened?

Firstly, as the article points out, it’s the environmentalists’ fault. They don’t know how to connect with Conservative voters and opinion formers, who mock them. Their earnestness and apparent unworldliness make them easy targets. Greta Thunberg goes to America by boat and it looks gimmicky and eccentric. She goes to America by plane and she is attacked for her hypocrisy. She can’t win. There is – of course – often a good dose of hypocrisy for the Press to focus on when the rich and famous get involved.

Only Connect

This is all ironic, because there are core shared ideas between conservation and conservatism. The name is a clue. Buying local, preserving local landscapes and local distinctiveness… Climate change and biodiversity loss are now having local impacts here. But, instead, environmental commentators on the Left and Right alienate people not of the same political tribe.

Secondly, the environmentalists’ message is essentially misanthropic and anti-capitalist. To save the planet we have to be fewer and/or consume less, and more responsibly. We have to stop doing things. Stop flying, stop driving, stop using plastic, stop shooting birds, stop buying palm oil products…

Lastly, most of the proposed or actual responses to issues like climate change, biodiversity loss, pollution etc. include increased government oversight and/or intervention. And cost. Of this the Right is, understandably, suspicious – governments don’t have sparkling track records on this stuff.

What do I make of this? There’s much work to do. In the short term, I do hope the government will stay true to its conservative beliefs and treads carefully while negotiating post-Brexit trade deals. We must not sacrifice environmental ideals for short term economic / political gain.

Longer term, we must break down its exclusive link with the liberal left and understand how to link conservation and conservatism as well. Politicians may stumble into this because of the way the young vote. Environmentalists must find a way to work with people with power, whoever they are. Because they’re powerful/wealthy/landed doesn’t mean they’re automatically uncaring and aren’t receptive to ideas (some are, of course, and they need working on too!). They will not respond, however, if they are delivered in a political wrapper.

Responses to the crises we face should be pragmatic, ranging from the international and nationally led to the local and individual. We must reinforce local structures to enable this, and educate individuals to drive it.

The Green Blob Fights Back

I have avoided politics in my blog as much as I can over the last 10 years. So you can tell I’m pretty upset to break this cardinal rule. For the point of record, I’m one of the two thirds of people who feel that neither of the main parties represents my views. I’m that apparently currently invisible voter, a moderate. I’m a fan of various MPs from various parties. I admire the energy, honesty and bravery of people like Caroline Lucas, Sarah Wollaston, and Mary Creagh.

I have to spend a certain amount of time for work on social media, God help me. Apart from promoting the business, I also try and communicate good science and best practice to people. Sometimes a bit of a struggle, tbh! This also means keeping up with environmental policy. As it happens, this is an area where things might be looking up.

Happy Blob

I was suspicious of Michael Gove when he was appointed as DEFRA minister. What we’ve seen from him so far has been enormously encouraging, however. This week he has hired Tony Juniper – not a natural bedfellow politically – as head of Natural England. To an objective observer, this is a great appointment. He was the outstanding candidate for this currently besieged but potentially critical nonpolitical organisation. This is typical of Michael Gove’s approach; he seems to have taken on board a range of interesting ideas in a completely non-doctrinal way. Some I disagree with, many I don’t. Massive questions remain, but he’s coming up with some interesting stuff. I applaud him. It’s a far cry from Owen Paterson’s tirade against “the green blob”.

This started off as “the mutually supportive network of environmental pressure groups, renewable energy companies and some public officials who keep each other well supplied with lavish funds, scare stories and green tape”. In certain quarters the green blob has come to include, apparently, the entire environmental lobby.

Interestingly, Michael Gove’s rapprochement with the extended blob has significantly irked some of his erstwhile allies.

I was moved to anger – and to write this – by a wildly intemperate and nonsensical article I stumbled across on Twitter: Michael Gove Has Sold Out Britain to the Green Blob. It was written by James Delingpole about Tony Juniper’s appointment.

Who is James Delingpole? He’s a kind of clever right wing shock jock of now depressingly familiar type, who drove me to cancel my subscription to The Spectator. He still writes for them, which irritatingly gives him a degree of credibility and – oddly – means he shares column inches with nice nature people Simon Barnes and Isabel Hardman. James is now editor of Breitbart in the UK, which is where the green blob article appeared. Occasionally you’ll see him on TV, where he performs with the kind of chutzpah you would imagine from a man who has raised £21,000 through a gofundme page to cure his Lyme disease, then sort his teeth out and buy his wife a holiday with anything left over.

I’m sorry about his illness*. Ironically, Lyme disease is on the rise because of global warming. “Ironically”, because James made his reputation as a “bad boy” climate change denier. He still has it in for renewables. The green blob.

Some of what he says I do have sympathy with. I have seen the solar industry up close, and there’s no doubt that it has had its fair share of charlatans and chancers. My business lost a lot of money from a horrendous bankruptcy in the U.S. involving criminal fraud. The subsidy system the government used here to catapult the UK into one of the world’s leading countries for renewable power was always going to be clunky, abused and inefficient. Government subsidies usually are. But it was a demonstrably effective means to an end.

James also dislikes the look of wind turbines, with which, again, I have some sympathy. It doesn’t exactly seem to be a big issue in the scheme of things but I imagine goes down well with his readers. He complains about birds and bats being chopped up. The green blob is actually destroying nature. In actual fact, perhaps counter-intuitively, the short term net gain to biodiversity from renewables has been significant. We have helped seed hundreds of acres of solar farms with wildflower meadows, planted with hedges and copses, etc. etc..

I really, really don’t agree at all with much else of what else he has to say, particularly in this Breitbart article. Nor the way he says it, which is patronising and offensive. I know it’s a living for him. I know it’s written to provoke and I shouldn’t get upset by it. But I do. It really poisons discourse in an area which should transcend dogma.

I don’t think James has much grasp of his subject matter generally. He has – a familiar bugbear – conflated climate change and other green issues. Tackling biodiversity loss, for example, while related, is a very different beast, requiring completely different responses from the green blob.

No matter.

What really gets me going is this kind of nonsense:

“Like most if not all Conservatives, I understand better than anyone the importance of conservation. Unfortunately, the cause of real environmentalism has long since been hijacked by hair-shirt ideologues in thrall to the religion of Gaia-worship, obsessed with (environmentally damaging) renewables, antipathetical to free markets or freedoms of any kind because essentially they’re all Malthusian misanthropes who want to bomb Western Industrial Civilisation back to the dark ages.”

Where to even start?

It has always been easy to label environmentalists as misanthropic and “antipathetical to free markets.” Is it any wonder that they have been in the past? I absolutely believe now that it’s possible to align our business customers’ commercial and ecological interests. We also work hard to get consumers to understand the actual costs and benefits of making the purchases they do. It’s a struggle but it’s possible with education. We’ll get there in the end, but this is relatively new ground and new thinking, of the kind Michael Gove seems to be promoting too.

No-one has a monopoly on wanting to conserve the planet. This isn’t an issue of competing ideologies. Nature isn’t just another political battleground. Conservatives no more understand the importance of conservation than Labour supporters.

I simply don’t accept the description of environmentalists as “hardcore left activists using environmentalism as a cloak for their ongoing mission to dismantle the capitalist system”. Yes, there are some, of course. My guess is there were more in the sixties. There are some left leaning campaign groups I’m wary of. And yes, of course there are “Gaia types” – more or less knowledgeable, but absolutely genuine.

Like the rest of the population, people interested in nature have their own political views. There are “watermelons”, as James would derisively describe them, and turquoise Tories. The overwhelming majority of environmental professionals I have met in the course of the last ten years have, however, been professional, objective, scientific.

As for “Eco charities which depend for their income on ramping up green hysteria” – this is laughable nonsense. The charities I work with spend a lot of their time doing the opposite. I’ve even objected in the past to phrases like “ecological apocalypse“; fundamentally true but presentationally unhelpful.

It would be really helpful if James switched to receive rather than broadcast mode for a bit, and moderated his language. Perhaps he could take up gardening. He can’t just characterise people who disagree with him as corrupt, feeble minded, lunatic or fanatical. Many of us are sensible, moderate and pretty well informed. Many of us feel deeply concerned about what we see going on around us. Many of us are trying in our own ways to do something about it.

We all share the same planet, and we all need to sit down like grownups to understand how best to conserve it. Not just how to make a few quid by shouting in the playground.

*If indeed he has it, which seems in doubt. Yes, the NHS does treat Lyme disease.

We Are 10!

Amazingly, Habitat Aid is 10 years old. It started off as what now looks like a lunatic plunge into the unknown. I’d had 30+years in the City and needed another career. I was a keen but strictly amateur naturalist and gardener/smallholder. I think people thought I was having a midlife crisis (probably) or that I’d made so much money it didn’t matter (weak laughter). We downsized dramatically. To the surprise of most the business has kept food on the table and, more importantly, done some good things. Anyway, our tenth anniversary has given me an excellent opportunity to go off on one…

Native planting
Hedge and copse scheme, Cambridgeshire
I wish I’d kept tabs on what we’ve given away to charities and community projects, how many acres of wildflower meadows or orchards we’ve had a hand in, or seed packets, or numbers of ponds, or miles of hedges. Wildflower meadows are now particularly dear to my heart. Largely unprotected, almost completely destroyed, our most diverse and attractive habitat. I think the biggest meadow site we’ve seeded is over a hundred acres. Wildly exciting.

Plan Bee seedsMost aspects of what we do have been very satisfying, not least helping our network of suppliers, many of whom have been with us since we started. We have made some modest progress in changing minds, like promoting local provenance meadow seed, for example. People have been very supportive, from David Attenborough to an appreciative pupil from a Primary school in County Durham (thank you for the letter, Lucy). Thanks everyone, not least my long suffering wife!

Wildflower meadow
Meadow Creation Project, North Somerset
This keeps me going; sometimes, as you can imagine, it can be difficult. I do wish we were having a wider impact. The business is still pretty modest, and we find it difficult to be heard. Projects are complicated and can go wrong (don’t tell!). People don’t pay much for plants and seed, and can find them baffling. Selling online seems to
Our social media efforts are improving!
be more and more difficult for small companies who don’t want to use Amazon. Social media audiences follow enthusiastic and luminous personalities. Folk have odd ideas. Things get weird very quickly. TBH I’m hopeless at it. One of the reasons we set up Habitat Aid was to get across sound information on how to try and improve our natural environment. Worthy but dull on Facebook. Hopeless.

Although we know more about what’s happening in our own back garden than we did 10 years ago, it’s still remarkably little. Some of the charities we support are working hard to change that, but we’re still blundering around in – at best – the twilight. Our understanding of what we’re doing to the natural environment here remains depressingly sketchy.

The conservation lobby is often at loggerheads with other interest groups. I’m delighted to see a new activism abroad, like the recent People’s Walk for Wildlife and various online petitions. I’m uncomfortable though about the confrontational element of some of this stuff, and the over-simplification and sensationalising (is that a word?) of complicated real world issues. For example, banning neonicotinoids on its own isn’t going to “save our bees”. Don’t get me wrong. I think banning them is a very good thing and was very overdue – but bees have other problems too. We continue to find out how many. We’re also finding out how many other impacts neonics have too. In the meantime farmers are flooding their oilseed rape fields with pyrethroid based pesticides instead. Specialist evidence based conservation charities really struggle to put across complicated messages without compromising them.”Personalities” or campaigning groups often eclipse them, too.

NGOs are, however, getting better at persuading people that wildlife friendly can also be people friendly. Most are also engaging better with the real world, although there are a couple of ivory towers out there which need to be bazooka-ed. It must be a concern to them, however, that their supporters continue to be overwhelmingly white middle class folk of a certain age, from outside urban areas. It’s a symptom of “nature deficit disorder”, I guess. There’s also shifting baseline syndrome to fight among the younger generation.

Lastly there’s the commercial sector. Retailers sell lots of THINGS to try replace degraded habitat. Bee boxes, bird boxes, hedgehog boxes, bat boxes, dormice boxes, hibernacula, bird feeders, even bumblebee colonies.* This all just widens people’s disconnectedness with nature. Together with the over-simplification of key messages they are encouraged to think that nature is easily and cheaply replaceable. They’re not looking at it either. Our efforts to get people to take pleasure in the small things – a new butterfly in the garden, a new plant in the meadow – generally fall on deaf ears. I still run into far too much greenwash in the corporate sector at large. Perhaps naively I think this is often down to ignorance.

I’ve become increasingly suspicious of government, although encouraged by the Blue Planet effect. This means that – for the first time ever – the environment will win votes. Best of all, it might win votes among the under 25s. This realisation just might drive a good environmental deal post Brexit, although as this will mean short term cost and higher food prices the jury is still firmly out. At the least, we should get improved biosecurity and wave goodbye to the Common Agricultural Policy.

Rainbow over Alfred's TowerThis is apparently my 362nd blog. There does now seem to be a wider understanding that something is needed to reverse what Chris Packham calls an “ecological apocalypse” here. There are more active efforts being made to that end, like rewilding. Much hasn’t changed over the previous 361 blogs, though. We still worry about animals like hedgehogs much more than we do about the drivers behind their decline. These are common to many, many other species. Biodiversity loss is still the Cinderella of the Green movement, which is much more concerned about energy and sustainability. We still spend peanuts on it, least of all on the poor souls slaving away in this area – or in horticulture generally, come to that.

I’m still convinced that the way to improve biodiversity here is by recreating and rejoining (as best we can) destroyed and splintered natural habitats. This not only means huge changes to the way we use and value land here, but also getting people to see the benefits of habitat creation. It can be beautiful and wildly exciting (sorry! – Ed.).

*Plants and seed sellers often pile ’em high and sell ’em cheap. “Wildflower seed” in particular could be anything from anywhere and often fails. Retailers seem to sometimes actively encourage people’s confusion; between actual and other sorts of “meadows”, and the provenance of plants, for example.

Things Fall Apart

From time to time I used to suffer from what doctors call “anxiety” – I guess a form of mild depression, which I’ve learnt how to manage over the years. I’m now feeling something rather different and rather more alarming; a sense of foreboding.

We’re in one of our favourite places – Italy – for a few days. I’m writing on a sunny terrace with glorious views of violet hills, against a soundtrack of sparrows. There are clouds of butterflies about and – later this evening – a mob of unruly swifts will close the day.

We have lost all these things at home.

We have the odd swift, the odd sparrow. A hot dry summer will be good for our beleaguered butterflies, and I can hear people saying now that they seem to have turned the corner where they are, etc. etc.. Nature friendly farmers tell me how much they’re doing for wildlife. Enthusiasts click on online campaigns. The numbers remain pretty awful though. Biodiversity has collapsed in the UK and many species numbers are still in sharp decline. The short story is that there is still no concrete strategy in place to reverse this.

I’m sure, too, that many will say that the recent weather – all over the world – is just weather, and nothing to do with global warming. In any event, people still don’t care enough about global warming to even list it in their top 10 concerns at the ballot box. As one who has canvassed with spectacularly poor results around Langport in the Somerset Levels this is something I know at first hand. The U.S. Administration, of course, doesn’t even acknowledge climate change exists.

My concern about these two things – mass extinctions and catastrophic climate change – have, to be honest, marked me out as a bit odd among my friends. Even more bizarre for them has been my trying in a practical way to do something about them in the UK over the last 10 years.

This has been very depressing. It’s not too much of a stretch to see people’s lack of reaction to the rise of populism (is this the right label?) as similar. Right wing extremists are murdering our MPs, elements of the Press are calling the senior judiciary and our Prime Minister “traitors”. Both Left and Right are polarised; it’s a type of politics familiar from the Europe of the interwar years. The current struggle in politics is not between Left and Right; it’s between the Centre and extremists. Our political class is manifestly failing us – not just in the UK, of course – and destroying public confidence in our institutions. Doubly concerning, this is coming at a terrible time to deal with the consequences of climate change, which will fuel extreme political views.

Why do I have to be an eccentric / snowflake if I am doing things about stopping climate change, mass extinctions and neo-fascists/Stalinists?

There are (some, at least!) bright, well meaning people in parliament, of different political persuasions, who need to completely refocus their agendas. We ALL have to get involved. In a hurry.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

W.B.Yeats

Green Brexit Greenwash – and Some More Cheerful News

I have read a great deal about the government’s plans for the environment – a Green Brexit. I have heard Michael Gove speak about it, earlier this year. I read my notes from that Conference over the weekend, to make sure I wasn’t suffering from sudden onset early Alzheimers.

Yes, he did indeed promise  a “global gold standard” in “strengthened environmental protection measures”. He explicitly outlined the need for an environmental regulator “with teeth”, backed by legislation.  This Green Brexit was all somewhat unexpected but, on the face of it, rather exciting.

It turns out that after all these were – well – not promises. I’m not sure what they were. They actually… er… didn’t represent government policy, but were aspirations, whatever on earth that means. The government has announced plans for a new regulatory body for the environment which is purely advisory. It cannot prosecute. What the hell use is this? It’s like having a court which can’t send offenders to jail. Gove has apparently caved in to pressure from the Treasury, who have always seen green regulation as a form of tax on business. Hideously regressive thinking.

Even if this plan is overturned in the Lords – and the signs are encouraging that it might be – I found this news profoundly depressing. Firstly, the Green Brexit landscape Gove has been talking about – aspirationally – will involve significant short term cost, for the tax payer and the consumer (for long term gain). If the Treasury baulks at the first step in this process, what chance does this vision have of coming to fruition?  It has got two hopes, and Bob has just left the building.

Second off, Michael Gove presented his plans for the environment post Brexit as POLICY. It clearly wasn’t, and he is no position to deliver them.

Thirdly, this kind of thing massively undermines public trust in the political process. It seems to happen repeatedly these days. People are fed up with being treated with this sort of contempt. Too many of our politicians don’t seem to understand this, including, it seems, Michael Gove.

*Sigh*

Moving on to more positive news.

One of the reasons I haven’t written much recently is because I’ve been holding down two jobs. One for Habitat Aid, which pays the bills, and the other as a flag waver for the estimable Bumblebee Conservation Trust, for whom I’m a trustee. I’ve got a bit of a thing about bees generally, and I’m a big fan of the Trust for a variety of reasons. I’ve supported them through the business for 10 years now, and watched them do some really good things.

Cheerful News
Photo: Stephen Vaughan

Anyway, I have been organising some events to raise their profile and some money for a new long term investment fund. We’ve been talking about the project to save the Shrill carder bee too. These evenings have gone really well – due to the enthusiasm of the BBCT folk, those involved at the venues, the people who turned up and, most of all, those who signed the cheques.  We’ve had nice fuzzy noises from some great and good who couldn’t make the evenings but want to help. It has been tremendously heart warming and encouraging. Thank you all.

 

 

Blacksmithing

I like a bit of craft. I’ve been on dry stone walling and hedge laying courses, and afterwards really enjoyed trying to impersonate someone who knew what they were doing. I suppose I had the same kind of idea in mind when I signed up to a blacksmithing course in Devon over the weekend.

Blacksmithing 2
Blacksmith Manns

Earlier Manns were blacksmiths in the East End for at least three generations in the 19th century. I wondered if it might be a genetic thing. It turns out it’s not. Even if they were twice as naturally talented as I am at it, they would still have been as hopelessly impoverished as they were.

Predictably, for someone whose last formal instruction in this kind of thing was being banned from doing O Level woodwork, I was pretty er… average. It turns out you don’t just heat lumps of metal up and give them a good bashing. There’s measuring and precision involved in blacksmithing, for a start. Then artistic interpretation. All things I am comfortably an E for.

Having said that, I had a lovely time, made some twirly and functional artefacts, and was made to feel like someone who could make a very good blacksmith if only I had the time. My delightful fellow students all looked like they would make very good blacksmiths.

BlacksmithingOur teacher was John Bellamy, a bluff but kind and patient Northerner. This makes sense; I always thought Moria was somewhere under Yorkshire. John wouldn’t mind me describing him as apparently completely physically square. He would be more embarrassed to be described as one of the country’s leading blacksmiths.

These crafts are fascinating – they are a real bridge to our common past. Medieval apprentices would have been taught to use the same tools as my great great grandfather used in Cable Street, and which I now have a passing acquaintance with. I’ve laid hedges in the style used hereabouts since – goodness knows – the Iron Age? We too often lose that sense of continuity .

 

 

 

Common Ground

Common Ground is a wonderfully slippery fish. It’s a charity founded by Sue Clifford and Angela King, which according to its unique website “seek(s) imaginative ways to engage people with their local environment”. We’ve supported it for many years, and I very much share its philosophy and aims. I guess finding Common Ground was one of the reasons I had my conversion from City bloke to whatever the hell it is I do now.

Common GroundWhat do they do? All sorts. Art installations, practical guides, events… I first bumped into them in the early 2000s, when we set up an Apple Day in an old cider orchard in our village. Everyone gathered and harvested the apples, tea was taken, then the apples pressed and bottled to support the village church and hall.

It was Common Ground who started Apple Day and the idea of community orchards. They also worked hard to revive local varieties of fruit trees, but particularly apple trees. This fell neatly into Sue and Angela’s central objective. They want to get communities to understand and promote “local distinctiveness” through art and custom, landscape and architecture, history and environment.
Common GroundBang on message for Habitat Aid. We promote exactly the same values. I wish I had the imagination to come up with the kind of innovative ways Common Ground have done to promote them.

These days, you might associate this kind of philosophy with a small island mentality. Not at all with Common Ground. Their message is absolutely inclusive, promoting localism within a global community. The two can co-exist. And Common Ground have got things done, rather than just talk about them. Books, projects, artwork, landscape work – over a 35 year history they have produced a really significant and eclectic body of work. You can see their influence across a whole range of apparently unconnected areas, in urban and rural settings.

I heard Sue speak yesterday evening. Although these days they have handed the running of the charity on, her and Angela’s enthusiasm and clarity of purpose is undimmed. Thanks both.

The Tragedy of the Commons

To get a break from Donald Trump at Davos I’ve been learning about the “tragedy of the commons”. It’s an idea coined in the 19th century and revived by ecologist Garrett Hardin fifty years ago.

The concept originally referred to the over-grazing of common land. Farmers’ rational self-interest inevitably lead to their putting too much livestock on commons. Which were then trashed. The animals then starved. While society believes in the freedom of the commons, individuals will pursue their own best short term interests. These are contrary to the common good. In the long term, everyone loses.

Depressing stuff, and of course applicable in all sorts of areas.  There’s fossil fuels, deforestation, traffic congestion, antibiotic use in animals, over-fishing, etc etc etc. More recently, social media has, inevitably, faced the same problem.

The interesting thing is that now – for the first time in human history – we are beginning to understand this principle. And when we understand the environmental consequences of our actions we can change our own lifestyles to mitigate or negate them. We can vote for politicians who use stick and carrot to get people and corporates to act for the common good.

By definition, though, it’s a tough ask in a democracy. Mr Trump is living proof of that.

 

Green Crap Redux

David Cameron’s “green crap” moment was deeply depressing. Not just because of the policy change it indicated, but because it suggested the electorate didn’t care about it. The environment had never been a vote winner, and here in 2013 was proof the Conservatives realised it still wasn’t. Now it looks as if green crap is coming back, with a vengeance.

Green Crap
Thanks for everything, Dave.

Michael Gove’s startling speech on farm subsidies post Brexit was met with a cautious but universal welcome from the environmental lobby. Today we had the government’s 25 year environmental plan. There’s lots in it which is bang on in terms of aspiration, but as the Conservative chair of  the Environment Committee commented, desperately short on detail.

It begs far more questions than it answers, and its credibility, given the government’s track record in funding the Environment Agency, energy, pollution, etc. etc., is – well, let’s just say the jury is out. Theresa May’s own voting record is hardly suggestive of hidden eco-credentials. In fact, it’s a shocker.

There’s no joined up thinking in the plan either. Plastic waste in our oceans is a secondary threat after acidification and climate change – an area where UK policy has disintegrated.

In future times, if genuine, I suspect the government’s Damascene conversion will seem absurdly modest and overdue. On the other hand, it may just be political opportunism. Whichever, it is, however, a watershed moment.

It’s important because senior ministers suddenly seem to think the environment is a vote winner.* Let’s connect with millennials in an area where Labour, too, have been weak. Let’s convert all those millions of young Blue Planet watchers into turquoise Tories. Hugging a husky in 2006 looked like naive, off-script green wash. I have canvassed on environmental issues on the Somerset Levels. Even there – perhaps amazingly – issues like climate change didn’t seem to matter very much.

Today’s plan may or may not be green wash, but it’s calculated and very much on script. That’s what’s exciting about it.

*Credit for this seems to go to Conservative think tank Bright Blue.