26 June 2007

Shit: We're All in it Together!

Amongst many excellent regular events that take place in Stroud are the coffee-house discussions, where, over biodynamic refreshments, we put the world to rights. The quality of the presentations is excellent and for people who think they know it all already (or is that just me?), it is amazing how much you learn every month.

This month's theme was water. The presentations were wide-ranging: water as a cause of war, a source of disease, a fascinating part of our local landscape. The most important message was that 'Water is an energy issue'. Some 5% of world energy is used in pumping our water . . . and sewage.

You can't talk water, it seems, without also talking dirty. We learned how it is fairly recently that we have used water as profligately as we do now, largely as a channel for taking our wastes out of sight and out of smelling distance, thus effectively removing them from our minds. But not from the environment, of course. For they remain just a short distance from us, in rivers and seas, decomposing and providing a friendly home to bacteria and viruses.

Yet just as I have had to learn on the farm that dung is our friend, so can we form a much closer relationship with our wastes. It emerged that many who were at the discussion already proudly fill piss-pots which they use as compost activators. Human 'solid waste' still seems hedged around with taboos, as I have felt impelled to head it round with quotation marks. It can provide excellent fertiliser when treated suitably.

The solutions to the problem of water and waste are very local indeed. The model appears to be to turn your home into a water recycling unit. By taking the rainwater from the roof and the barely soiled water pumped to your home and circulating them you can minimise the need to bring water in and send sewage out.

Why aren't more people doing this? The pressure of the market and of making profits appears to be the culprit again. It is at the points that water enters and leaves the home that profits can be made, hence the political pressure to keep us all tied into a vast, bureaucratic water system rather than playing our role as part of Nature's water cycle.

So, a lot was learned, although the content of the learning was perhaps something we already knew. The economic system Marx called capitalism is just not a very good way of organising things, and taking more responsibility and doing things on a smaller scale can usually work better. A simple, but important message that is being relearned through various more or less savoury media.

23 June 2007

A Rose by Any Other Name . . .

Notable local permaculture gardener Helen Pitel has been teaching us all how to 'Name that Plant!'. Today we reached the noble yet humble rose. Through its history we can trace the evolution of our own culture--our movement away from and back towards Nature.

The dog-rose is native to Britain. It is the small rather unimpressive pink flower, with five petals and yellow stamens that we see in our hedgerows. It is the same plant that yields beautiful orange-red hips in the autumn. Each one has ten times the Vitamin C content of an orange, hence their importance in the Hedgerow Harvest campaign of World War II.

By crossing this native species with Damask roses from the Middle East and musk roses from the Himalayas a huge range of sweet-scented flowers were created. Their seasonal habit of flowering only during June was soon conquered once the China roses were discovered. These flowered right through to the autumn, extending the rose season.

But during the twentieth century rose breeders strayed even further from Nature. By crossing tea roses from China with the existing crosses they achieved a mass of celebrity blooms. Many were named for human celebrities such as Elizabeth of Glamis (the Queen Mother), Princess Diana and Lilli Marlene. The hybrid tea is a rather obvious, in-your-face, sort of rose. It grows to a uniform height, has large bright flowers, but carries no scent, lacks reslience and is vulnerable to disease.

Helen drew our attention to the Peace cultivar, one of the most popular roses of the twentieth century. Ironically it was developed from stock sent from France to the USA during World War II, following the invasion of France by the Germans. You can see it growing around the war memorial in Nailsworth.

As the public's affection for the showy and artificial has declined, rose breeders are developing more natural, interesting and highly-scented blooms, known as English roses, which are also rich in oil. British monarchs have tradtionally been annointed with rose oil, but supplies had dwindled due to the popularity of the hybrid tea, and so the tradition had to be missed for this current Queen's coronation. Prince Charles is a keen rose gardener and is collecting the oil for his own coronation.

And just to prove that gardeners have a sense of humour, as well as a sense of cultural history, Helen told us a joke that gardeners have about the yellow rose the Lady Hillingdon rose--that she is no good in bed but great up against a wall.

19 June 2007

There's No Way Like the American Way

I spent a small but significant amount of time yesterday searching for a cost code to justify the spending of 60 pence. I mention this partly, I confess, to get the frustration and rage that caused me to scream in my office and cause consternation to my colleagues out of my system. But also to offer it as an example of how, in an era where the accountant is an unlikely king and accountability is espoused on all fronts, the petty is rigorously enforced whereas fraud on a grandiose scale is routinely ignored.

I am thinking, you will have guessed, of corporate fraud, of the type practised by Enron executives. Inflating the value of your stock by counting money you haven't received or even invoiced for yet. That particular techniques, known as counting 'unbilled receivables', was invented by the leading accountancy firm then called Arthur Anderson. Oil companies also engage in this creative accounting when, as Shell recently admitted it had done, they overestimate the value of their reserves, which, in oil companies terms, is the value of your company's assets and hence your stock.

It appears that the rule is, the more preposterous the fraud the more unlikely it is that we will notice. As Kierkegaard famously pointed out about Christianity, if you want to get a whole mass of believers you need to create a really big lie.

Which brings me to the money system: the biggest example of fraud that it is virtually impossible for us all to avoid. Galbraith pointed out that the gap between one financial collapse and the last is roughly equal to the length of time it takes those who suffered to forget about it. You can find it detailed in economics books, but who is daft enough to wade through those?

So, here is a brief quotation from Galbraith about how the last crash came about:

'Speculation begins when a price is going up and the presumptively wise expect a further increase. They buy and thus produce the inrease. More buy, and more and yet more are attracted. Each price increase affirms the good sense of those who have bought before. Those who doubt are reviled as creatures of defective imagination. The buying and the supporting mood continue until the available supply of mentally vulnerable, economically viable buyers is exhausted. Then come the changed views of the prospect, the rush to get out, the pressure now of creditors demanding repayment of the loans that financed purchase, thus forcing sale. In short, the crash.'

Sound familiar? I wouldn't be taking on too much debt if I were you. If you own bricks and mortar it is still yours after the crash. But if you own debt it will not be very much use to you.

15 June 2007

Humour is a carbon-free resource

I had an interesting experience yesterday at the ACRE conference on Rural Life, largely a bunch of rural development workers gathered together at Keele University. We had been invited to share the experiences of the Transition Towns, Rob Hopkins as an introductory plenary speaker and then both of us in workshop sessions.

As many will know, Rob is a great and very entertaining speaker. He started by telling a joke. He has worked in permaculture for many years and also eco-building. The use of local, natural building materials has inevitably led to an endless stream of jokes about the three little pigs, to which Rob's response is that the moral of the joke is not to avoid building with straw but to make sure you don't let pigs build your house!

The conference was encouraging from many points of view. The culture is changing and new lines of conflict are being drawn. There are fairly conventional people now coming to understand that it is the economic system and especially the growth addicition that is the underlying problem. One speaker who is part of the government's Academy for Sustainable Communities (don't ask!) took issue with Burberry's decision to move production to China (see blog of 31st January) which he concluded was bad for rural communities, bad for the environment, but good for profits.

Rob's presentation was full of humour. He quoted one proponent of the Peak Oil thesis who had suggested that using biofuels as a substitute for petroleum offers us the tempting prospect of 'starving to death in a traffic jam'. Some of the oral histories they have gathered in Totnes and the futuristic thinking from schoolkids, including a visionary episode of Top Gear from 2030 where the presenter compares the relative merits of different piggyback rides, had the crowd roaring.

Rob's own take on the need for shifting the economy in Totnes to a position with more local resilience was summed up in his analogy of a cake. We used to make the cake and import the icing and cherries; now we import the cake and only make the icing and cherries. He ended with a quotation from Vandana Shiva: 'the uncertainty of our times is no reason for the certainty of hopelessness'.

Humour emerged in the workshops too: a lady from the Peak District explaining local confusion over the concept of 'peak oil', and a chap from Derbyshire describing local planners as coming from the late Cretaceous and long overdue for a meteor strike. The conference was a tribute to human nature. To our ability to laugh in the face of disaster, to share hopes and fears and to respond to challenge with creativity and enthusiasm. No wonder the presentations about the Transition Towns went down so well.

9 June 2007

The Just Price

I did a delightful piece of shopping today. I bought a mohair and wool shawl from a local trader at Nailsworth market. Ok, it was so hot that I could hardly bear to touch it, never mind try it on, but I know I will feel the benefit by October, and besides it was purple.

Having rushed back to my friends with my purchase I faced a difficult situation when Odi, who had recommended I buy it, commented on the excellent price of £5. This was the price she had been offered; I had paid £15. In fact I was prepared to offer £20.

I felt quite happy with the £15 I had paid, but realising that Odi had been offered only £5 made me ask various questions. In fact, I didn't feel I had been cheated. I felt that £15 was the right price. I wondered whether the trader had assessed the relative incomes of Odi and myself and decide the price to ask. Or whether she just thought Odi might be a better haggler--as she herself confirmed.

I never haggle. I decide what I am prepared to pay and if the price is too high I move on. If the price quoted is too low I feel a little uncomfortable but buy the thing if I want it. But I am beginning to think that haggling may be a way of balancing the needs of the buyer and the seller. So when we pay far over the odds for tat during our foreign holidays we may justify this as redistributing wealth, and the traders may have their suspicions that we have more money than sense amply confirmed.

So what is the meaning of a price in the global market? The price is fixed by all sorts of factors beyond our control and enforced by the corporate storeholder. It doesn't respond to the needs or situation of the buyer or seller, as might be enabled by haggling. And what is a bargain? Is it really any more than the exercise of their superior power by the person who has been allocated more money in the unjust global system?

In Medieval times the price of most goods was actually fixed in a pseudo-religious fashion. It was considered unGodly to charge too much for something. The guilds controlled production and they also controlled price. Most of the methods used to make money today, including buying when something is plentiful and selling when it is in shortage, or buying in one market and selling more expensively elsewhere were outlawed by the guild. If you committed these crimes or sins you were thrown out of the guild, which meant the end of your livelihood.

I know I'm going to enjoy wearing my shawl, but I'm still left wondering whether I would enjoy it more or less if I had paid £5 for it.

4 June 2007

What is trade really for?

If we think our way back to the earliest historical example of trade we can recall, the Vikings or the Hanseatic League, perhaps, the first thing you notice is that the trade was an exchange of exotic items that were not available in the locality. The Vikings brought Baltic amber to the Dark Age Britons, who sent back tin or gold in return. If the traders had had nothing we could not find at home we would not have involved ourselves with them. How simple life was in the happy days before capitalist exchange!

The early economists also theorised trade as an exchange of goods that could not be produced locally. In Ricardo’s theory British woollen goods are exchanged for Portuguese wine. The sleight of hand that underpins the ‘Trade is Good’ mantra is his theory of comparative advantage. It is clear that if you have a British climate, you cannot have an absolute advantage in the production of wine. There are inevitably going to be countries where the sun shines for more of the year whose citizens can produce better wine more cheaply. But what of the situation facing a country that is less efficient in the production of all goods than its neighbours? According to the theory of comparative advantage it will still gain from trade if it focuses on producing the goods it can produce most efficiently with its own resources.

The reason this is a sleight of hand is that there are assumptions built into the concept of ‘efficiency’ that are not politically neutral. For one, the trade that takes place is denominated in a currency, and that currency is owned and controlled by a nation-state which can therefore use it to gain advantage in the trade. This explains why the East Asian tigers and now China are benefiting far less from their trade with the USA than are that country’s citizens. It also explains why the USA is so keen to open up trade with the poor countries and persuade them that this is their best route out of poverty, rather than self-sufficiency.

The gains from trade, whatever one’s degree of productive efficiency, are determined by the terms of trade, which are always dependent on the relative levels of political or military power. The Vikings were traders, but they were also thieves. Some of their trading was always carried out in terms of offers people found it very difficult to refuse. The sorts of negotiation conducted today at the WTO are little different. The USA and EU use their political and military influence to achieve trade settlements that suit their interests, limiting the prices paid for the sorts of goods—raw materials and textiles—which the poorer countries have to offer.