11 Jan 2010
Matters Arising From The Great Freeze of 2010
Been a fascinating few days here in the UK in terms of the weather. It was only a few weeks ago everyone was talking longingly about whether there was going to be a white Christmas, sending each other cards with pictures of snowy scenes, putting batteries in their rocking/singing snowmen things, and spraying fake, out of a can snow in their windows. It had been so long since we actually had a really actual snowy winter that thick snow has become the stuff of legend, banished to Doctor Who Christmas Specials and the top of Christmas cakes. Then it snowed, and boy did it snow, and almost immediately all the headlines were of ‘misery’ and ‘chaos’. One could forgive the snow for feeling somewhat unappreciated, like an old, much reminisced about old school friend, rediscovered through Facebook and invited to stay, who turns out to be hugely unpleasant. I have to say though, in spite of cancelled engagements, burst pipes and a very cold house, I’ll rather miss it when it’s gone.
Yesterday’s Independent listed some of the facts and figures associated with what it called ‘The Big Freeze 2010’:
- 57cm: the deepest snow in the UK, in the Pennines
- £75m: the weekly cost of repairing burst pipes
- £5,274,000: the extra car accident insurance claims every day
- 8,500: number of schools closed so far
- 2,000 number of businesses that could fail in the first quarter of 2010 because of the weather
- 322,731: number of extra potholes in the roads of England and Wales
- -22.3C: the lowest temperature recorded, in Altnaharra in Scotland, same temperature as the North Pole
The one that always gets to me is the one that the BBC starts rattling out within the first couple of days of snow. “£690m. The cost to the economy every day in lost production”. This is always presented as a disastrous thing. However, surely it is important to look at this in the context of the recently published ‘State of the World 2010 Report’, which this year argues that consumerism is ‘not viable’, and is incompatible tackling climate change. They write;
Preventing the collapse of human civilisation requires nothing less than a wholesale transformation of dominant cultural patterns. This transformation would reject consumerism… and establish in its place a new cultural framework centred on sustainability. From Earth’s perspective, the American of even the European way of life is simply not viable”.
In this light, the past week has been fascinating. The numbers of people in shops, non-food shops that is, fell by 28% on the same period last year. The numbers of cars on the road was hugely reduced. People stayed home. From a carbon perspective, most of this was, of course, balanced out by the fact that we used a record 162,325,000,000 KwH of gas and electricity over the last 6 weeks, so not much carbon saving there, but must we still always regard any temporary let-up in the frenzy of consumerism as ‘misery’? Might we not look back at the gap in our credit card bills, those 4 days where nothing was spent at all, with a sigh of relief, seeing it as a spending ‘holiday’?
It has fascinated me how people have adapted. As with many things, including energy descent and Transition, when change first arrives in our lives we are thrown, even if it was utterly predictable change like volatile fuel prices or the fact that even in a warming world, we will get the odd cold winter now and then. For the first couple of days it is an alien world, unfamiliar, rather exciting, and often, the source of some very real practical constraints.
As time passes though, we find new ways of doing things, reduce or alter our expectations, change arrangements and accept reality. We adapt, as we adapt throughout our lives to changing circumstances, we just have to do it in a shorter timeperiod. But this need not be about ‘misery’, we find out so much about ourselves in such situations, and about the degree of our own resilience, and that of those around us.
For me, four key lessons have crystallised over the past week;
1. Community Matters
Perhaps the key thing that Transition does is to rebuilt community networks that have become so eroded in recent years. We can have all of the virtual networks, the far-flung lists of email contacts, the rarely-actual-met ‘friends’ on Facebook, but when it freezes, and you need help with something, your actual, physical neighbours, and your community, become vital. I had two burst pipes, my plumbing skills are rudimentary, and call-out plumbers were in very short supply. My neighbours came round and helped out, fixing my pipes. Had I not known anyone on my street, or had I previously fallen out with them all, it would have been very tricky to know what to do. Whatever networks we can build in advance of situations like this, or the deeper changes that will accompany Transition, we should dedicate our energy to creating, in the most playful and engaging ways we can. When we need them we really need them.
2. Technology Matters
This was really driven home to me by an email I had from Matt Dunwell at Ragman’s Lane Farm, in the Forest of Dean.
Snow is flexing useful muscles for us out in the sticks here. Practical stuff, endurance stuff, and most importantly community stuff.
I have the exquisite pain of no heating at the farm, having installed a biomass system with a titanic budget, which has decided to break just as we start our three month residential permaculture course. Having decided to get the best German boiler money could buy I now realise that actually no one has a clue about fitting and running this stuff. Its still the right way to go, but it will take a good few years of mugs like me to pioneer systems like these before they are safe to be let loose on an unsuspecting public.
Hey ho. Now it has been bust for ten days (first they thought it was the electric motor on the flue (£400), now they they think its the circuit board that controls the whole boiler (£800)), all the pipework that is meant to be super insulated to carry hot water to outlying buildings has frozen solid. We have finally got the boiler working, but are now faced with the task of thawing superinsulated pipes that have frozen whilst the ambient temperature slips to –15C. The task of turning this all around is interrupted every 40 mins when we have to tow another student onto the farm with a tractor that is running with no cooling system, as the anti freeze froze in the tractor engine and frayed the fan belt as it passed over the water pump. Meanwhile the entire shower block has frozen solid promising all sorts of water sports when the terrifying halogen heaters that we have hired start making an impact.
How precarious it all is. I had the strange experience of passing the engineer for the boiler, (who has practically taken up residence at Ragmans) whilst I was servicing Reinharts Ceramic Stove. I had a bucket of clay dug from the pond that I had mixed with a bit of sharp sand. I had the chimey off swept and replaced in about 20 minutes. The ceramic stove is what is making the whole course possible at this stage. He was standing over a box of capaciters, probes, and electric spare parts, on the phone to the wholesaler in Lincoln, who was trying to source parts from Austria while the airports were closing down all around.
Beautifully put. I am always instinctively drawn to technology that I can understand, and which is as straightforward as possible. Austrian biomass boiler or ceramic stove? I’d take the ceramic stove every time. The way that snow focuses the mind on thinking within smaller circles than we would normally think of is very useful practice. In the same way that volatile fuel prices lessen the range over which we can travel, and distances that we previously drove every day to work become unfeasibly vast when covered in snow, this practice at thinking about what is actually close to hand is very useful.
3. Flexibility Matters
The £690m per day figure for how much British industry loses when it snows highlights another problem. To what extent do we have flexibility? Can some of those people easily work at home? What degree of flexibility is built into the business, so that if unexpected events mean they have to close for a week, that doesn’t mean the end of the business? Of course kids are good at flexibility. “What, no school, cool, let’s go sledging”. Harder of course for adults, especially those doing essential work, but in the same way that as communities we need ‘Plan B’s for the inevitable end of the Age of Cheap Oil, we need the ability to design for the kind of flexibility that more resilient businesses, and communities, have. The kind of weather we had over the last week makes people think on their toes, a skill we need to cultivate.
4. Beauty and Quiet Matter
One of my favourite things is standing in a quiet place listening to snow falling. In the whole media drama about snowy mayhem engulfing the nation, not much was said about how absolutely beautiful it can be, not just the snow itself, but the light that can accompany it. The first day after it snowed, I slipped and slithered into Totnes, and the light that morning, with the pale yellow sun and the rich lilac shadows that it cast in the snow, was exquisite to behold.
In our desparation to keep business as usual going in the face of the inevitable, it is easy to forget to walk to this highest point where you are and see how it looks covered in snow. In that cold, clear air, you can probably see further than you usually can, and it is so rarely like this that it is tragic not to miss it. It looks, sounds, smells, and feels very different. If snow forces us to stop and observe, that is also something very useful, an opportunity rather than a crisis. This picture (see left) of the snow-covered Earth from space, is also a thing of great beauty.
So, the snow looks like it might be starting to thaw out, at least where I live. Yes it has been a pain in the arse, it has affected my childrens’ education (well, they had 3 days off, hardly going to condemn them to a life of profound stupidity), I have had two burst pipes that made a right old mess, I have had to change arrangements, and it has been uncomfortable at times. Yet during it, I have felt more alive, more alert, moved by the beauty of what is going on around me. Adversity can inspire adaptability in a surprisingly short period of time. I have deepened my relationships with neighbours, am more familiar with my plumbing (my house’s plumbing that is…). Any change or challenge can either force us to bemoan our lot, or to adapt and look at the opportunities inherent within the new situation. As the snow starts to slowly melt, I, for one, am missing it already.