Transition Culture

An Evolving Exploration into the Head, Heart and Hands of Energy Descent

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11 Jan 2010

Matters Arising From The Great Freeze of 2010

snowBeen 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’?

snow2It 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

GreatBritain.A2010007.1150.1kmOne 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.

Categories: General, Resilience

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11 Jan 12:02pm

Very well put Rob.
We in Barcelona had no such luck with the snow, but I saw the pictures on the BBC weather website, which look amazing.
It’s great that you wrote those reflections, as it’s exactly what I’d been thinking about when I saw the pictures of the snowfall and spoke to my family back in England.
Good relations with neighbours and people in ones community -before the ‘collapse’ happens- is vital
…. especially in our case, as one is a plumber and another’s a carpenter, as I happily discovered the other day.
Maybe they’ll come in useful one of these days!!

Good luck with the pipes when it all melts… especially you guys at Ragman’s Lane!!!
Regards and happy transitioning, from Barcelona.

Ps. Maybe you can send us in Spain the water from the melt, so we can switch off the obsurdly destructive desalinisation plant on the beach our local council installed last year!!

11 Jan 1:40pm

Can I suggest “Taking Responsibility” as another item for your list? I don’t think it’s happening yet but it’s a skill that people need to develop.

One of my frustrations as a transplanted American is the expectation that the “council will take care of it.” Pavements have not been cleared in my town – only a few in front of shops. As the snow becomes packed into ice removal becomes more difficult, in fact, almost impossible. No one seems to have tools, or the ingenuity to use other substances in the place of grit.

I’ve seen numerous debates in the online papers about who is responsible for clearing all the snow and ice on the pavements. Supposedly “health and safety” dictates that no one should clear the snow on the pavement because of “liability issues.” Imagine the number of council employees who would be necessary to clear every single pavement in the United Kingdom! Imagine the council tax required!

I think people are unaware of how much American councils spend on snow removal. It’s a substantial part of every town’s budget. But American councils only clear the roads. Businesses take responsibility for their own car parks and pavements. Households take responsibility for their own walks, driveways and pavements. Young people make money going door to door offering to shovel snow. Some people buy snowplow attachments for their pickup trucks and make money clearing car parks. All decentralized solutions.

Unless you’re disabled or elderly, I think it’s downright unfriendly and unneighbourly to leave snow in front of your house.

11 Jan 1:56pm

don’t forget the ‘community collaboration opportunities’ – snowmen building for starters, and then I met a bunch of households who had agreed to clear the pavements themselves instead of sitting at home, separated and moaning.

Chris Rowland
11 Jan 3:04pm

The landscape has changed and there are fewer cars in the streets. In Lewes High Street people walked up the centre of the road and the few moving cars had to get out of the way. Neighbours helped each other to the shops, strangers talked to each other and I’ve been chopping wood outside my front door.

Is this what Transition looks like?

And we’ve had lots of calls about boiler scrappage at OVESCo.

11 Jan 3:36pm

I was in the far north of Scotland over the new year and the local supermarket (which seemed to be the hub of the community) ran out of bread and milk. Not because of panic buying but because the trucks couldn’t travel up the A9. It really struck me that a small town that would have been self sufficient in basic foods was so reliant on that road to the south

11 Jan 5:33pm

We had snow in Oklahoma City for Christmas — a white-out blizzard. The snow itself on Christmas was something that’s happened only six times in the past 106 years, and we got a record-busting 14 inches. After several years of very mild winters, I too am enjoying the snow immensely. As I watch it melt slowly and seep into the ground, I reminded that nature’s clock isn’t always humanity’s clock and that in itself is a gift.

Caroline Walker
11 Jan 7:03pm

Whilst I was working at Monkton Wyld Court we tried and failed to find a teacher who could run a course on building ceramic stoves. It was something we really wanted to do, and Matt’s message vindicates our enthusiasm for this technology.
Any one able to teach others how to build a ceramic stove, start advertising via the usual networks … bound to get takers, I should think.

This Great Freeze you’ve got going over there may turn out to be an excellent teaching moment with regards to climate change. If the theory about the Gulf Stream shutting down ever plays out, Europe and the British Isles will be a LOT colder than anything in living memory. This could be a fearful preview of what climate change may bring to your part of the world.

Jane Buttigieg
11 Jan 8:29pm

How about ‘play matters’? And we don’t play often enough, we adults. Here in a park in Bristol on Wednesday morning I saw adults excitedly shouting to each other to find things to make eyes and noses for snowmen, many of them couples without children. Also lots of adults were making makeshift sleds out of nothing more than sheets of plastic, and shouting with glee as they slid down the hills. How often do we see that in our nine hour day rat race?
I did hear one woman blaming it on climate change as her partner rolled the snow for their snowman’s head, and wonder to what extent Kate’s comment above will prove true.

Annie Leymarie
11 Jan 9:58pm

Perhaps what I love most about snow is seeing the footprints of animals. I become acutely aware of the presence of my four-legged and winged neighbours – their homes, their challenges, their pursuits. And as I watch in awe this display of the web of life, I pray that we transitioners may always remember other species in our plans and dreams.

12 Jan 10:37am

That was well put regarding the loss of so many £m of business. I also wonder about the businesses that are not prepared for any sort of interruption of normal trading. I wonder how long it will be before someone moans about the extra bank holiday for the Queen’s diamond jubilee instead of using it as an opportunity to celebrate as a nation (okay so not everyone is a royalist but any excuse for a party). I wonder if those businesses are also busy preparing themselves for flooding for when the snow melts?

I for one will also be relishing the snow, the beauty of it as it glistens in the sun and we here in Latvia may have another three months of it yet, if it is anything like last year when it only disappeared in April.

Steve Last
12 Jan 1:45pm

Sub Zero Resilience?

Waking up to five inches of snow on Wednesday morning, I didn’t leave my immediate neighbourhood for 48 hours. I was lucky not to have to travel anywhere as my work was closed due to the ‘adverse weather conditions’.

This is one of those times when mother nature has thrown down the challenge and invited us to dance. For me, it has demonstrated our quite flimsy ability to deal with the weather when things don’t go exactly to plan. It got me thinking about our resilience to events such as this, especially as I watched cars slipping on the ice near the A24.

Later in the day, I was helping my neighbours clear snow off the roads and helping check on elderly residents. I count myself fortunate to live in a road where the neighbours do chat to each other regularly and are happy to spend the time of day doing it, but this was real community effort. Around a dozen of us with shovels laughing and joking as we moved the snow to create cleared paths and drives. We were even given homemade cakes by the daughter of one neighbour as we were working.

This felt like what I’d often imagined transition to a low energy future might be something like: virtually no cars (except the ones we all stood and watched as they tried in vain to move on the compacted snow/ice), people working together on a common purpose, and a feeling of having to do things for ourselves and coming up with practical solutions not involving fossil fuels. And of course, there was the quiet . . .

There was the other side too. Cars left abandoned on the roadsides. Shops running out of essentials because people were panic buying bread and milk. Dramatic news weather reports. The idea of everything grinding to a halt without our personal transport.

What did I do? My own household’s resilience isn’t that as good as it could be. I couldn’t claim any great ability to withstand the prospect of ‘Freezing Britain’ for more than about a week. But, I had flour in my kitchen to make a loaf of bread, powdered milk for a cup of tea, and a pile of logs ready to use on the fire. I put my feet up, enjoyed my extra days off and wrote this as a blog for the Transition Town Worthing website!

12 Jan 6:19pm

Events like this really connect with me in the sense of our resilience these days. I think such disruptions are a useful wakeup to people about how resilient they are. Me and my wife live within a few miles of work and I got thro’ the snow on a mountain bike (great fun!) with a 2 seater trailer with my kids. We enjoyed walks in the snow looking at animal tracks and saw new wildlife. Our condensing boilers’ outflow pipe froze solid so we had no heating or hot water for a night. Our wood burning stove kept one room toasty warm – glad I’d renovated it last year. In fixing the boilder I learned a bit about the system which made me more confident (but condensing boilers are worrying complex technology). Plus our 3 year old loved going to bed with a hot water bottle – we have to do it every night now! But the cold made me more committed to fit external wall insulation this year – it won’t be cheap but it’ll reduce our energy usage.

13 Jan 3:48pm

Dear Rob,
I liked very much the section “Beauty and quiet matters”. In our too busy lives we miss many opportunities to observe what is around us. An interruption of “business as usual” can be beneficial, even if it is due to an obstacle.
I also think that adversities do make most of us more alive.


13 Jan 10:19pm

It was great. People actually got togther to help the community! The parents and the teachers at my daughters school got together to dig the school out, I actually heard the words “conserve” and “precious” used in it’s proper context ( re: a ton of grit that one of the parents got from somewhere as a favour )My neighbour dug out an elderly man’s drive for him, people loaned each other scrapers and shovels, they smiled! I do hope the Gulf stream theory is true!

Wendy Anne Flanagan
28 Jan 4:52pm

Energy and transport and community spirit saw us through the very cold testing time, thank God, though some passed away in tragic situations or suffered injuries. We all learnt important lessons about personal safety and plumbed inner resources. Some raised consciousness no doubt happened.
Yet so many freezing cold animals such as cats, dogs, sheep and others without merciful insulating
footware and weather protective clothing faced it all too.
I am so thankful the Transition Culture in essence has inclusive vision and ongoing awareness of the whole global sustainable picture
from which we might share and learn.
From Wendy