31 Oct 2007
Monty Don on Peak Oil and Gardening.
Monty Don is the presenter of BBC’s ‘Gardeners World’ programme, as well as a prolific writer on organic gardening, including the book ‘The Complete Gardener’. Recently he heard the talk I gave at the Prince of Wales’ Food and Farming Summer School, and was quite moved by it. The result, once the mental dust had settled, is the following article, which is an edited version of one that appears in this month’s Gardeners World magazine.
**Why Local is Best** by Monty Don.
I might be accused of bias, but I tend to think that gardeners are the nicest and best people there are. Find someone who cares for their plot and you’ll find a decent human being. But the simple truth is that gardeners guzzle gas. We might be organic, love and care for all the wildlife, and recycle all our waste into perfect compost, but most of us still leave an ugly footprint in our wake.
It’s not just about oil, but let’s start with that. Of course, there’s the petrol we use to fuel our lawn mowers, hedgecutters and so on. It may not amount to a great deal, but it’s the easiest to cut back on. There’s also the fuel we use scooting to and fro from garden centres, when in the past we took more cuttings, collected our own seeds or swapped divisions with our friends and neighbours within walking or cycling distance.
Then there are endless deliveries thanks to the internet, using a huge van to bring us a pair of gloves or a few packets of seeds. But even this is just the tip of the iceberg. All garden centres are supplied by a stream of lorries ferrying plants and materials around the motorway system from central warehouses and distributors. Most of the plants are produced using extra light and heat to keep the supply constant or even against the season. Many gardening products are flown in from overseas.
And if all that’s not enough, there are the plastics that we use in almost everything. All plastics, fertilisers and pesticides, polyesters, most packaging, even the ink you write your labels with – as well as the pen and the label itself of course – are made from oil. There are two reasons why this is not very clever. The first is that oil is running out, and the second is that its consumption is the key factor in climate change. Let me put my cards on the table. If you think that climate change is one of those whipped-up press scares, then stop reading now. I believe it to be the biggest crisis ever to have faced mankind. Yes, that is scary language, but we ought to be scared. Note that I say mankind, not ‘the planet’, as is fashionable. The planet will be fine. It won’t look much like it does now, but that’s because it will regulate itself in order to survive however it can, even if that is just on a bacterial and amoebic level. But human life as we know it will certainly change, and there is every chance it will disappear.
Who would have thought that gardening would come to this? But gardeners really can do something about it in a hands-on, direct way.
There is a new book about to be published by Rob Hopkins, called “The Transition Handbook: from oil dependency to local resilience”. It’s a brilliant exposure of how struggling to find alternative ways to keep on doing exactly what we’ve been doing for the past 50 years is absurd. He believes that this crisis is an opportunity to make the world a better place, with a higher quality of life for everyone.
The first point he makes is that we are reaching the peak of world oil production right now. Oil won’t dry up, but the cost of producing it will rise inexorably as it becomes harder and harder to get at. Biomass, hydro, solar and wind power are useful but can’t possibly replace our current consumption of oil. It would take 67 new nuclear power stations to do that. No, replacing oil is the wrong way to go about it. It’s like trying to lose weight by eating low-cal versions of your existing diet without altering your lifestyle. We must all consume less of everything now. Instead of using up diminishing resources, we must become resourceful.
This is easily said, but means some radical changes. Hopkins advocates developing oil-resilience – creating a lifestyle that can cope as well as possible with as little oil as possible. The less oil you need to garden with, the more resilient you are.
**Seek out alternatives**
The first thing to do is an oil audit. Look at your garden and write down all the things that use oil – every plant bought from a non-organic grower, which will have been raised with oil-based fertilisers; every plastic pot; every piece of plastic moulding; every plastic bag; your garden machinery. Some things are easy to replace.
At Berryfields we’ve been using pots and containers made from plant fibres – these biodegrade and are very good. And existing plastic pots can be reused until they fall apart. Seed trays can be made from wood – just as they always were. Push mowers and hand shears don’t just cut the grass and trim hedges as effectively as mechanical versions, but also give us all more exercise. We can make our own potting compost instead of buying it in. We can ask for – or insist on – recyclable packaging.
We are a consumer society, eager to be seen to spend money on the newest bit of kit and jettisoning it once there’s a slight problem with it or a newer model comes out. We must relearn to value objects, not for their newness but for their age, utility, simplicity and ability to last. But gardeners instinctively know how to do this. Where else do you see a collection of trusty old tools, repaired endlessly, but in a garden shed?
We just have to have the confidence to take it a step further. One of the ways we can do this is by helping each other. Local is the key. ‘Local’ will vary from person to person, but I define local as where you can walk or bicycle there and back in a day. Parish may be an old-fashioned concept, but it’s very apt. We all know what it means. We need to develop local garden clubs and societies. This will make it easy to share plants, equipment and skills. One man’s waste is another’s need. All of us produces an excess of something, be it cabbages, grass cuttings or nicotiana seed.
If we don’t share this locally then it’s waste. But it can almost certainly be bartered locally for something that we genuinely need.
We should set up local networks where you can advertise items that others would gratefully use, but which you’d otherwise throw away. As soon as a culture of care and longevity becomes established, people will hunt out good, reliable old tools and kit rather than be fobbed off with shiny new versions.
All of this means a radical rethink of how we live our lives. I must admit that I’m one of the worst culprits – I love gadgets and use machines a lot, and I’m always short of time, so tend to take the line of least resistance. No one needs to change more than I do. The garden centres, oil companies, horticultural industry and all those who depend on the current way of doing things to earn
a living won’t thank me for any of this. But we really have no choice.
It’s already too late. We can’t undo the harm already done, but we have to radically change the way we all live, and make the future a sustainable, resilient place for our children and grandchildren to live in. And that begins at home – in the garden.
**The November issue of Gardeners’ World Magazine is in newsagents until 22nd November. It is available by post by calling 0844 848 9717 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Find out more about Gardeners’ World at www.gardenersworld.com.**