Saturday, 9 March 2013

My Tortuous Route to the OU

About ten years ago I realised that climate change was a real and looming problem. I started reading, and occasionally writing, on the subject, linking global warming with peak oil as two sides of the same problematic coin. Our dependence on fossil fuels was and is clearly the overarching problem, and that dependence stems from our addiction to an unsustainable way of life. The unsustainability arises from our love of all things material and luxurious and our complete disregard for either seasonality or geography when it comes to shopping for food.

And it is an unfortunate fact that despite the continuing decline in oil production worldwide, it will be possible to continue to find and use fossil fuel for a long time to come, albeit at incalculable cost both environmentally and financially – until we finally poison our planet with a surfeit of CO2.

No matter how we address these issues, no solution to the greenhouse gas problem can work unless our consumption of fossil fuel is very substantially reduced. We can produce bio fuels and burn wood in our power stations, but we are still adding to the CO2 in our atmosphere, even while persuading ourselves that it is in a more sustainable way. We can invest in true renewable energy sources like solar, wind and tidal power, but without an unswerving determination to dramatically reduce our energy consumption, we will not stop the rise in our global temperature with many resultant disasters.

One of the most significant sources of greenhouse gas emissions is the fossil-fuel-intense way in which our food is produced and distributed. We could be talking about developing countries where vast tracts of land are rendered unproductive by unsophisticated subsistence farming methods, leading to the burning of forest or the draining of precious wetlands to liberate new land for agriculture. Equally we could be talking about major agribusinesses which destroy the soil (releasing CO2) by using heavily mechanised monoculture methods with the over-use of carbon-based fertilisers and pesticides, and the inherent fuel use associated with both farm machinery and crop transport and distribution.

Over the years I have continued to read and learn, and have come to understand that globally our means of food production and distribution are in a very bad way indeed. Recently the fact that horsemeat has been found in cheap ready meals where it was not supposed to be, has only served to reinforce my concerns regarding food production.

The more I learned, the greater was the effect on my own life. I dispensed with prepared meals some years ago. I started to make my own bread (having read about the ‘baking aids’ which are added to factory bread in the interests of a quick bake), I dramatically reduced my consumption of meat and am still edging towards vegetarianism! I started to incorporate different types of beans and pulses into my cooking. And recently, in the interests of saving CO2 emissions, I discovered a source of UK produced dried peas and beans, which should enable me to stop buying imported produce altogether.

A few years ago I stripped my garden of ornamental plants, bought a greenhouse and started to pay serious attention to growing my own food. I watched on-line video clips on all aspects of domestic food production, forest gardens, no-dig gardening, organic food and so on. In the course of conversations with like-minded friends, I discovered the concept of aquaponics as an efficient means of food production. I had finally arrived at a point in my life when I decided to rethink my entire future.

I proceeded to use up my limited savings to renovate my cottage before putting it on the market. I anticipate a time, not many years hence, when food becomes very much more expensive than it is now, through escalating production and transport costs, and I intend to use some of the released equity from the sale of my house to set up an aquaponics greenhouse, with the hope that I can keep my family supplied with the majority of their vegetable requirements, as well as some home-grown fish.

As yet my house has not sold, and I am getting frustrated with the wait! But it has occurred to me that there is a lack of balance in my search for answers. For all my reading about food production and distribution, I have realised that my knowledge on food consumption is pretty sparse. What should we eat? What shouldn’t we eat? How do vegetarians and vegans give themselves a rich, varied and tasty diet? And can they do it without relying on imported staples like soya (which is almost all genetically modified)? I know someone who remains very fit and healthy despite not only being vegan, but not eating any cooked food at all!

I decided I should try to correct these gaps in my knowledge, and so trawled through the Open University website for an appropriate course. Thus I discovered a short 21 week course on nutrition which is about to be conducted for the very last time, due to funding cuts! I spent some weeks thinking about it, taking into account my age at over 70; considering whether I was still up to the studying; whether my noticeably deteriorating memory is an insurmountable problem; whether my two-finger keyboard skills are equal to the task; wondering what happens if I have to move house part way through the course; and wondering if I could justify the expenditure.

Given a very positive level of encouragement from my family, I decided to register for the course and now eagerly await the arrival of the material. And, to occupy my mind in the interim, I have just taken delivery of Andrew Simms’ new book ‘Cancel the Apocalypse’, so that I can continue to search for reasons for optimism about the future of our planet!

Saturday, 2 March 2013

Full of Sound and Fury, signifying what exactly?!

The Eurozone is worried! Beppe Grillo has certainly stirred the pot. In the Italian election his ‘movement’ grabbed a quarter of the votes, propelling 160 or so non-politicians into politics. I believe the most pertinent question we should all be asking (and it is relevant to all of us) is why did the voters vote this way? Perhaps after the antics of Berlusconi (including passing laws specifically designed to exempt him from prosecution) and then coping with his rather grey successor who they never voted for, and who subjected them to austerity and mass unemployment, they took the view that to go through all that for the sake of some European intangible ideal was not what they wanted. Perhaps their frustration with the day-to-day political merry-go-round finally got the better of them. Perhaps they want to try something different!

Could this be the glimmer of the beginning of a shift away from the conventional growth-obsessed thinking of ‘the usual suspects’, and towards a carefully controlled steady state economy?

There has been plenty of corruption in Italy’s politics for years – but take a look at the politics of the rest of the world. We in the UK are always so smug about our ‘mother of parliaments’ image, but really we are no better than the others. Although ‘corruption’ is a word generally applied to the dishonest use of money or power in government, I would apply it more widely; to include, for example, politicians who misrepresent their motives and ambitions. We have had the Iraq war, clearly fought on a false premise, ‘cash for questions’, the expenses scandals, Chris Huhne’s ill-judged antics, all of which have caused us to question the integrity of our politicians. And now the accusations against Lord Rennard – concerning which we are still being ‘spun’ a dilution of the facts.

In the USA, the public are continuously misled on a grand scale – their Iraq war (again on false premises), the subjugation of their politics to Big Oil, Big Agriculture, Big Pharma, the NRA and other groupings (including religious ones) who continue to mislead on food safety, energy, sustainability, climate change, environmental issues and the manipulation of their tax dollars to favour those who least need help but who chase power and wealth.

The level of corruption in the African countries, Spain, Greece, South American nations and most others is a phenomenon we are frequently alerted to by the media – and certainly the media themselves are not above scrutiny.

Some more fanciful commentators have drawn a parallel between Grillo’s Five Star movement and the so-called Arab spring, suggesting that Beppe Grillo’s arrival on the political scene heralds the start of a Europe-wide anti-political movement. But in fact this trend became internationally visible a while back with the Occupy movement, although the anti-globalisation protests predated that. Because the Governments in Europe and the USA are in favour of free speech (at least superficially), the Occupy movement has a harder row to till; such movements thrive on opposition.

But consider for a moment the bye-election in Eastleigh, Hampshire, the seat vacated by the disgraced former Minister Huhne. More than a quarter of the vote went to UKIP. Why? I presume some people voted for UKIP for their stand on European membership and immigration. But that is a less convincing suggestion since David Cameron announced his intention to hold a referendum on Europe, which could potentially address both those issues. Very few people, I would suggest, are in sympathy with most of the other UKIP policies, such as their antipathy towards any kind of green agenda, so we must assume that it is another example of ‘a plague on both your houses’. (Interestingly, in a post-election poll in Eastleigh, most of the ex-Tory voters admitted that at a general election they would return to the Tory fold.)

However our UK parliamentary system does not readily lend itself to a ‘Grillo’ situation, especially since the complete mismanagement of the referendum on our voting system. (A good example of a question constructed to achieve the desired result!)

Perhaps our politics need some kind of purge. To many, our political systems in Europe are not fit for purpose any more. There are too many laws and restrictions, a proportion of them increasingly unenforceable and seemingly pointless, and many of them apparently designed to protect us from ourselves! Taxes take an increasing proportion of earnings to pay for top-heavy administrations and projects which most individuals see as irrelevant to their lives.

So what does Mister Average Voter want? Disillusionment with the well trodden political path taken by every party when in power, notwithstanding election promises or political colour, leaves him bewildered, bored and disinterested. Despite the rose-tinted publicity material spread through constituencies at election time, politicians just don’t have the charisma, imagination or will to do anything new. No matter what they say, we know that there will be no substantive change to the way our Country is governed, only, perhaps, a new and more polished way of presenting it.

We could do with a Grillo to break the mould. Beppe Grillo has stated that his movement will not support any political grouping, but will act as an opposition party. To avoid instability and political break-down, the right and the left will be forced to work together. The potential ramifications of failure are huge throughout Europe, and particularly the Eurozone. After all Italy is not Iceland. The Icelandic Government takes credit for turning its back on its own banks (in response to a referendum vote on the matter), and allowing them to fail, despite protestations from Europe. The new prosperity in Iceland shows the virtue of that course of action. If Italy did the same (and exited the Euro) that would really give us all a good shaking. Perhaps that is just what we all need! There would certainly be plenty of misery, but perhaps it would be relatively short lived, and might free us from the chains of our present form of democracy, allowing us as individuals to relearn how to rely more on ourselves and our communities, and less on the State. Then we could start voting for what we want, instead of voting against what we perceive to be the marginally worse option!