Insulate Britain: Notes from Back Home

My recent silence on this site is due to the Insulate Britain campaign. I haven’t been involved in it directly, but various friends and loved ones have, including my dear wife. So over the last couple of weeks I’ve not only been trying (not very successfully) to step up into the large hole my wife has left in the work of the farm and the household, but also wrestling mentally and emotionally with numerous issues thrown up by the campaign and events associated with it. In this post I’m again going to break out of my present blog cycle and offer some perspectives on all this. The campaign is ongoing and my head is still in turmoil, so what I offer here is raw in more than one sense.

First, a summary of the campaign. The main idea has been to stop traffic at several points on Britain’s busiest motorway, the M25 London orbital, with activists standing or sitting across the carriageway. If they’re arrested and removed by the police, the idea is to return to the motorway and blockade it again once released until the Government starts addressing their demands. If they’re remanded in custody, the idea is that new activists take their place and blockade again. And so on. Their demands, in a nutshell, are for the Government to take action to insulate all social housing in Britain by 2025 and all other housing by 2030. The logic is that this is among the easiest of ways to deliver decarbonization, and one to which the Government has already substantially committed but failed to follow through. Also that it’s socially progressive in tackling fuel poverty and the annual deaths caused by cold and unheated housing, and that it will create new green jobs.

I think it would be fair to say that the campaign hasn’t been universally popular. Originally, I’d planned to write a post that worked its way critically through the various objections to it, but I’m no longer inclined to do this for reasons I’ll recount below. I do, however, want to address a couple of the objections because there are responses to them that deserve a wider airing.

The first is the oft-repeated point that if climate change activists in the UK really want to make a difference they should go to China and lobby the government there. There are many possible counterarguments to this, but there’s one that’s especially relevant at this particular moment in history. UK activists don’t need to go to China right now, because ‘China’ will soon be coming to the UK to attend the COP26 international climate change conference. What will the Chinese delegation make of attempts by the government of the host country – one of the richest in the world, and one whose per capita consumption CO2 emissions are nearly 30% higher than China’s at present – to pressurize it to take more action on climate change when that government lags even on its own commitments to elementary emissions-reduction measures? If there’s a good time to block the M25 and demand action on insulation, this is it.

The second point is more generic. In falling over themselves to find reasons to condemn the campaign, the press and the legions of keyboard warriors on social media have tried on for size any number of stories of individual people harmed by the campaign in their journeys, and of the alleged hypocrisy of prominent activists in failing somehow or other to practice what they preach. Some of these stories have already proven spurious, while others are no doubt genuine.

But this illustrates the very problem with climate change action. I suspect there’s some Palaeolithic wiring in the human brain that makes us excel at empathizing with specific people and their stories grounded in the here and now, and makes us excel equally at taking people down a peg or two at the merest hint of airs and graces. Sadly, we’re not so good at imagining the narratives that will flow from larger statistical trends, pooled outcomes or probability distributions. The person who didn’t make it to their hospital appointment invites outraged sympathy. The possibility that on current emissions trends there may not be any hospitals to go to a few decades hence doesn’t make it through our narrative filters. Nor do the unnamed many who die each year in their homes with cold, as compared to the vociferous few filling column inches with anger.

That may change. Perhaps Insulate Britain and the numerous other people and organizations raising the alarm over climate change will erode those narrative filters and make the drastic actions on climate change that are necessary feasible. But I’m not seeing evidence for this currently, and we don’t have much time. So a sombre learning for me arising from the campaign – as if, secretly, I didn’t know it well enough already – is that there’s a level of public indifference to the climate emergency, a level of commitment to the status quo, that makes it hard to see how we’ll turn things around in time to escape catastrophe.

Maybe Insulate Britain can be viewed in this respect as the mirror image of the capitalist corporation. The corporation manipulates people by giving them something they want (like an internet connection or a water supply), while its true purpose is to use that convenience to extract value from people and put it in the hands of a few shareholders, where its concentrated power causes untold damage in the wider world. Insulate Britain, on the other hand, manipulates people by giving them something they don’t want (traffic jams), while its true purpose is to use that inconvenience to generate wellbeing for the population at large and spread collective benefit across society.

And yet the public seems to prefer being manipulated by corporations rather than climate pressure groups. True, headlines about ‘the hated mob of eco-anarchists’ are probably more a construction of media moguls representing said corporations than an accurate barometer of public opinion. When the stories of the individual activists emerge – so many of them older women who have given selflessly of themselves throughout their lives to their communities, churches, families and wider society – we might get a better sense of who the true ‘mob’ are and of what kind of voices are most worth listening to in society. Nevertheless, I fear that when the dust has settled and all is said and done, too many people will still oppose the disruption of the protest more than the far greater disruption worked by climate capitalism in ways that will ultimately redound to our collective ruin.

Indeed, there’s another sombre learning here in relation to policing issues. My sources inform me that Insulate Britain’s actions have by and large been policed well and with proportionate force by most of the officers in attendance, although if there ever is a day of climate judgement I believe that Officer No.3032 – aka The Slasher – will be destined for a warm place somewhere down below. But press and public calls for violent ‘zero tolerance’ policing or vigilante counter-action play into the hands of a generalized authoritarianism.

The lesson, I think, is to be careful what you wish for. If you’re successful in your call for greater police power to meet eco-protest with violence, then don’t be surprised if those same powers are used against you in the future, perhaps when you’re protesting at the lack of food or fuel in the shops. Indeed, the current fuel and food supply crisis – caused not by protestors, but by government policies or the lack of them – has already caused far more disruption than Insulate Britain. There is now a palpable air of government failure and the need for citizenries to step up, of the kind I discussed in A Small Farm Future. Wishing for greater physical force in the hands of governments against their citizenries isn’t a smart move in these circumstances.

While all this has been going on and my wife has been away, I’ve been at home, trying to tend the farm and the household as best I can in her absence. I’ve picked apples, made kraut, baked bread, fed the pigs and made porridge for my daughter in the morning before she’s gone to school. And as I did it, a man keeping the fires burning at home while his wife was out fighting for justice, I sometimes raised two mental fingers to the analysts who’ve accused me of advocating for ‘patriarchal’ farming models. Which perhaps is to say that I did it with too much male pride and with too little genuine love. An ego yearning to be heard elsewhere, in protest or in print. Another learning.

The nature of Insulate Britain’s campaign has of necessity been clandestine. I’ve found it difficult not being able to contact my wife, having to find out what she’s up to by following the national news, worrying about the dangers she’s exposed to – perhaps worrying overly, when the lack of news fills the darker spaces of the mind. And I haven’t supported every one of Insulate Britain’s actions, or its messaging. An action where protestors fanned dangerously across the motorway among relatively fast-moving traffic, and failed to own the error, was a particular low point for me. At such times, I’ve felt that Insulate Britain has lost the plot and has got too wrapped up in its own dramatic narrative. But for sure I’ve lost the plot myself at times in the last few weeks.

One reason I’ve lost the plot is that somehow the campaign has prompted me to feel climate change not so much any more as an issue I analyze from my study but as a knot in my stomach, a clenching in my heart. More than ever, I’ve experienced climate change as a grief that’s perturbed my normal mental functioning. And I’ve found it hard bearing that at home alone – in some ways perhaps a harder burden even than the activists working together at the sharp end – though I’ve been fortunate to have friends to share it with. It’s led me to question some of the ways I use my time and my writing, the online debates I engage with and the kind of intellectual arguments I get involved with. There are going to be people denying the existence of climate change or saying that we should redress it with next-generation nuclear energy or working-class revolutionary struggle until the waves close over their heads. I think I need to leave all that behind, resign from those arguments and find ways of embracing emotionally and practically the different course that so far I’ve only charted sketchily through the written word.

58 thoughts on “Insulate Britain: Notes from Back Home

  1. I’ve always been impressed with your ability to engage, and oppose others, with words, all the while not being convinced of the utility of the effort, myself. So take it with a grain of self-serving salt when I say that I think what you outline at the close of this piece is a wise course.

    Enjoy your regular posts, so do keep that up, Chris!

  2. Thank you for daring to put your thoughts out there I would be out there with your wife if I wasn’t living/working in France
    My partner expressed his opinion that the tactics of insulate Britain were wrong and I pointed out that a child had died because of air pollution due to traffic
    I am sickened that people in general don’t care about what is in France there is 3 months rain in some places in less than 24 hrs .most people won’t wake up untill it’s too late .
    Sending a hug to both of you

  3. Bravo Chris.

    First, I should echo Kathryn’s concern for your wife.
    And congratulations to her for taking her commitment to the streets.

    It is a hard business all around, and will only become more so, dealing with the climate changing and the public not wanting to change. I have no idea how much of the impasse is caused by our evolved behaviors rather than the insanity built into the capitalist system, but I take it as a good sign that you are less interested in making the arguments.

    You say “…climate change as a grief…” Yes, this exactly. I have long believed that grieving is the only effective avenue for an individual to take in the face of the climate emergency.
    Climate change is a direct result of actions driven by the fundamental ethos of industrialism, all of our powerful institutions are creations of that same ethos, and we are in the late stages where those institutions are fully corrupt. I don’t see any hope from those powerful enough to take sweeping actions.

    Averting climate change is literally impossible, since it has already started. Thus grieving. And grieving is much more persuasive than any intellectual argument or public annoyance, as you say, you feel it in the gut.
    I have no idea whether grieving is contagious, but perhaps it is, a little.

    Keep up the good work.


  4. Along the lines of Brian’s comment above – I’ve also been impressed by the reasoned engagement afforded here. But I’m not sure I share a similar degree of doubt for the utility of the effort…

    For example, there is a book (even if it was not cited by the paper mentioned in the previous posting). There are years of thoughts poured out here, at, and in several other corners of the web. There are opponents of course – (I’d wonder whether there would be anything of worth here if there weren’t) – but there are also kindred spirits. At least a bit of utility there.

    And to the notion of resigning from arguments – I’d suggest choosing some and resigning others. A blanket retreat has all the hallmarks of surrender, of quitting the field and leaving it to the ‘other’. Yuk.

    There are only so many moments we are individually allotted, and we are not permitted to know in advance which of our choices will bear the most fruit. Changing course in the face of very slow advance seems reasonable. But changing course to full on retreat seems backwards to me.

    I believe a handful of Brits once offered a tune about not always getting what you want, but sometime you just might find… you get what you need. (there was a demonstration in there as well I believe 🙂 to get one’s fair share of abuse, no?)

    Perhaps what we need next is a catchy tune.

    • Clem,
      There was a British poet who moved to a small farm. He was accused of retreating from the world. “Retreat”, he said? “I’ve attacked”.
      Enjoy a different perspective, Chris.

  5. I must say that reading these lines made this proud and egotistical male feel more than a little uncomfortable about his own playing with words and his deep desire to think well of himself:

    “…Which perhaps is to say that I did it with too much male pride and with too little genuine love. An ego yearning to be heard elsewhere, in protest or in print.”

    This kind of honesty is why your readers love you, Chris. And I think it is why you should continue to do things with words. If you resign yourself from polemical pursuits, then that leaves a good deal of valuable work that has been done and good deal of important work that still needs doing. We have so much we need to to learn to prepare for an uncertain future — not just holistic management techniques in the apple orchard, but also how to go about cultivating the better angels of our nature.

    Polemics is not everything. Heffron and Heron will go their own way. I am much more interested in where you will be going next, Chris. Allow yourself time to discern the call, and try to be as patient and generous with yourself as you have been with others.

    “Out of the quarrel with others we make rhetoric; out of the quarrel with ourselves we make poetry.” (W.B. Yeats)

    • “…how to go about cultivating the better angels of our nature.

      Very nice. I’d always thought of Lincoln’s ‘better angels’ as some to be listened to. To be heeded. Imitated. Cultivating brings a fresh nuance. Very nice indeed.

  6. Particularly during raw and confounding times, I sometimes recall a line from Max Ehrmann’s Desiderata: “And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.”

  7. Not surprisingly perhaps, but from where I’m sitting Insulate Britain seemed to come out of nowhere, but it caught my eye as I have a soft spot for insulation, as for anything or anybody that stoically does its job, day in and day out.
    The figures for UK housing show that it emits around 14-15% of the nation’s C02, a not insubstantial amount but perhaps more crucially one that almost all of us are in touch with on a daily basis as box-dwellers, be it office or home. It would be great to eradicate fuel poverty, and yet – and I don’t wish to be a hairshirt here – I grew up in a house with single-glazed windows that occasionally grew miraculous frost patterns on the inner side of the pane in winter, when we were sent up the wooden hill to Bedfordshire with a hot water bottle and a dressing gown, as per the norm. At such times we would sit by an open coal fireplace when conditions inside became what we used to call “a bit parky”, and when it got really cold (drumroll, please), we’d actually light the fire. Perhaps this is why I still champion the hot water bottle, but please don’t think I wish to make light of anyone suffering the misery and discomfort of poor housing. I read that Insulate Britain aim to start with insulating social housing, which seems a good place to start.
    It was a real shame that the Tory Party under Cameron, if I’m not mistaken, launched then quietly walked away from their promise to make Britain’s houses more energy efficient, largely through quick-fix measures like adding loft insulation and the like. It seems like such a low-hanging fruit toward lowering emissions, but when I think about the typical UK house, I wonder if the job started to prove more difficult than it first appeared. For instance, almost as much heat is lost through the walls and through the floor as it is through the roof. But to insulate external walls on many UK houses would not be a straightforward task as most of them don’t have much overhang on the roof – to thicken the external brick wall substantially could well take the exterior surface beyond the roof soffit and even the guttering. (In Eastern Europe, over the past decade, external wall insulation has gone from typically 5cm of, usually, polystyrene, up to 10, 12, and occasionally 20cm of external insulation, and the codes for newbuilds and renovations with Govt. grants stipulate triple-glazing too. But here, most houses have sizeable eaves that allow the home owner to whack on 20cm of insulation without any undesirable knock-on effects). So maybe the task in the UK was not as easy as the politicians and their advisers envisaged. And the advisers probably numbered a few architects – the balmy army, if you will – who seem to have inculcated the idea that occupied buildings should hover around 21-22C internal temperature year-round, for true comfort. Perhaps they should, if being at home means hours seated before a screen, as it increasingly tends to, but this seems less important when being at home involves more physical tasks, as it used to do for the majority not so long ago, like bringing in fuel, hand-washing clothes, and busying around with dusters, Ewbank, mop or broom. Forgive me if that sounds at all pious, but I sometimes feel it’s as if the ultimate aim is to live forever in full comfort, and God help us if we get bored, and yet we only really feel the kind of purpose and meaning that dissolves the ennui, if we’re up against something, fighting for a cause, or trying to get the internet connection to work.
    But back to the Government… I’ve never put much faith in – or even wanted the intrusion – of having the powers that be do something on my behalf, naive as that no doubt sounds and to an extent, actually is. And so here I am, making my own external wall insulation from straws of parsnip tops and discarded lumber, figuring that 16cm of something has to be better than nothing (admittedly, we only have one mouldy corner to address). I figure I’m stacking the functions of giant bee hotel as insulation, and dream that a thermal camera might one day show a wall surface that looks like a humungous tower block for insects, some occupied and glowing warm, others awaiting occupation. Maybe come spring ours will be the only insulation that starts sounding like The Flight of the Bumblebee? Such DIY dreams! But enthusing about this to a friend who works for the WWF recently (World Wildlife Fund, not the wrestling federation) elicited the response “are you sure you want bees living so close to the house?” – a sadly all too common reply. Where’s the biophilia in that?
    I’ll close this particular rant-vignette back at the cool window pane, as next on the drawing board, in my feeble attempts to climate-proof the old abode, are external window shutters that must simultaneously insulate on winter nights (emergency blanket inner face), provide shade and reflect heat during summer days (aluminium beer cans arranged like fish scales on the external face), withstand the golfball hailstones of summer supercell storms (those alu cans again), and after all that labour, hopefully not get blown sky high by a tornado, hence the final design is a kind of hatch that one can batten down – I’m sure it’s been tried before.
    Good luck, Insulate Britain. Good luck everyone.

    • External shutters are great! I wish we had them here.

      A lot of under-insulated UK housing is owned by landlords who, not paying the energy bills, have little incentive to install double glazing or cavity wall insulation. Certainly my aim when adding what temporary insulation I can is to make the house a bit more comfortable with less energy use. A constant 21°C is really too warm for me indoors (especially for sleeping) but for elderly people who do feel the cold more, 18°C is often too cold. And of course there is more to thermal comfort than air temperature — cold walls and floors will make a space feel colder. This is why old stone churches are often lovely spaces to spend time in the heat of summer (and rather uncomfortable in winter no matter how much you try to heat the air).

      It doesn’t help that fashions have changed to the point where, at all times of year, people wear a lot less clothing than they used to; and a lot of it isn’t very warm. I take a different approach and dress in layers, as I did in my Canadian childhood. (Now if only I could keep the moths out of my woollens… sigh. Getting there.)

      • Plastic bags keep the moths from the woolens, in theory, however I always seem to discover a few new pinholes each winter.
        You’re right about surfaces affecting ambient temperature and the comfort in a space – it is a fairly complicated field, insulation, only made that bit trickier when applied as a retrofit. The caulk gun can be useful for draughts, although my armchair-bound grandmother, in an ‘elderly person’s’ complex, used to stuff her letterbox and the keyhole with rags and tissues, things she had to hand. Humble brags didn’t exist back then.

          • I thought you lived in a barrel.
            We caught a praying mantis laying her egg sac in the garden yesterday, a gooey material she pumps out like icing, which then sets to practically the same consistency as spray foam insulation.

          • Yup and I walk around in the daylight varying a lamp looking for a honest man

    • Biophilia – certain to be a welcome trait among those in the SFF. Makes me wonder how strong that character is among our better angels.

      • I think it’s always there, Clem, but maybe this modern world tamps it down in all kinds of ways. I’m always surprised and disappointed when media like The Guardian bangs the drum for the climate emergency, let’s the reader know it’s tweaking the language it will use to report about it, then runs an article on the latest iPhone, losing all credibility in my eyes. The valid concerns of fuel poverty chimed with a more recent modern worry I came across recently, termed ‘digital poverty’ – areas free of, or without, broadband coverage basically. All of which leads me to worry that we wish for so much going forward, all the while expecting emissions to start going down.
        I too hope Cordelia is back home safe. Bloody Classic FM caught my ear again last night, the newsreader chipping in that Boris Johnson apparently called the Insulate Britain protestors “irresponsible crusties”. Irresponsibility… Hmmm.

    • Simon.
      I’m with you on that one.

      My daughter came into the kitchen complaining about how cold it was.

      The soon thermostat was saying it was 18 degrees Celsius!!!!!

      I told her that I used to have ice form on the inside of my single glazed bedroom window, when I was her age.

      She wasn’t impressed 🙂

      • John,
        I obviously have no idea how your heat is paid for, but if your daughter were to see the connection between cost and comfort in real terms (how much work would be necessary to pay to warm the the room to say… 21C) she might be a tad more impressed.
        And if you have a fireplace – and the kit to cut and split firewood… all I’m saying is a little first hand experience can help to open a youngster’s eyes.

        • I was thinking how impressed she might be by the incredible patterns that frost can make, until the sun comes round.
          Since we had children I’ve monitored indoor temperature and humidity quite assiduously, particularly in winter. Eastern European houses tend to be soporifically toasty in winter, though the baby instruction manuals frequently cite a temperature range of 16C (60f) to 21-ish as perfectly fine and healthy for a baby’s sleeping room. It can get very cold here on winter nights, occasionally we’ve had a sliver of rime internally on a double-glazed window, but what doesn’t kill you makes you colder.

        • She’s pretty switched on really. I can’t complain about her engagement with current affairs andclimate issues.

          I’m sure my grandparents looked at me and thought that I didn’t know how lucky I was.

          I guess we want our kids to have a better/more comfortable/more opportunities life than we had. She has never experienced ice on the inside of her windows because I had the means to prevent it.

          I’ve never washed clothes by hand.

          It’s just that we are all realising that these “advances” come at a price.

          • The ‘better/more comfortable/more opportunities life’ is a political meme out here (as elsewhere) – it was just what the Hungarian Prime Minister was banging on about on the state-owned-and-controlled radio the other day. I don’t see it playing out that way myself, nor do I see it as particularly desirable if it means an endless attempt at escalation towards more this, better that. That might sound mean, but I think that’s exactly the treadmill we have to step off of by repeating ‘stop, enough’. The alternative is business as usual. But then I’ve been fortunate enough to feel my comfort and opportunities were all fine enough. Roping my wife in to this conversation for some clarity, she adds the thought ‘of course you want the best for your own kids, but that doesn’t mean your own life wasn’t good enough’. And for us there are anomalies too; we both grew up with hot running water on tap. Our kids don’t have that all the time, but the trade-off is we are resilient in other ways in that we have a well (and I’m working on this with a rainwater cistern for when the well gets low during droughts). I’ll be happy if our kids know, or even just have memories of, growing food, foraging, and being delighted by and loving the natural world, and also making useful stuff, often repurposing ‘junk’. So far, so good. What they do when they’re older is up to them.
            I was also thinking back to your thoughts about superstition replacing knowledge. Being in a small village with a large proportion of old people, gardeners all, their thoughts revolving around the changing climate tend to hone in on the aircraft overhead, the suspicion of ‘con trails’, and the effect of all the rockets being sent up into space, rather than anything we do ourselves back on Earth. As they used to say on the X-Files, the truth is out there!

          • I have lived in a house with ice on the inside of my bedroom windows in winter, and I lived for a year and a half with only access to hand-washing for my clothes. I still don’t use a dryer, though there are times in the rainy parts of winter that I wish I could.

            In the event of a complete loss of electricity, converting our washing machine (or someone else’s discarded one) to a pedal-operated version would definitely be on my list. Even as a city dweller I know people
            within walking distance with the skills and hand tools to do this. It wouldn’t be among my top priorities, which would include weaning myself off the use of the chest freezer… but my point is that there are ways to increase comfort and convenience without burning fossil fuels.

          • Hi Simon.

            I’ve been thinking of superstition and if I’m honest, I am susceptible to it as much as the next person.
            It’s all around us even in our scientific world.
            We humans like to impart meaning and significance into inanimate objects. Lucky charms, wedding rings, jewellery etc. Or specific places.
            We have our rituals, both religious and non-religious. (State opening of Parliament springs to mind) I guess it’s part of what makes us human and why people are susceptible to conspiracy theories, bogus medical cures and all manner of Hocus Pocus.

          • (To your latest post): I agree. And it’s perhaps not possible or even desirable to lose our connection to our aboriginal selves, even though various forms of that connection might appear increasingly ripe for ridicule in this day and age. Without it we are diminished as human beings.

  8. Hi Chris – don’t have as much time to hang out here as I once did but wanted to acknowledge your wife’s courage and commitment and wish her well. I think the Insulate Britain protests are the most intelligent evolution of this sort of direct action. I had a brief conversation with Roger Hallam on a bridge in London in 2018 where we mused about the fuel protests in 2000 as a useful model.

    As I say I’ve had less time to follow the discussions here – I wish I could say I was busy enacting a small farm future but 10 acres sold here last week made almost 200k so that’s not in my future any time soon – in fact I fear my young children face some sort of neo-feudal type future. Instead l’m retraining in the hope of being a little more useful as we slide down the back of Hubbert’s Peak. Quite how we adapt to such uncertain futures is a deep and disturbing question – our country’s current messes only show how dependent we all are on fragile systems over which we have no control and within which we are deeply embedded. But that does suggest vulnerabilities that action can exploit.

    So more power to your wife and those protesting with her.


    (Written on a phone so apologies for typos)

  9. Thanks for the comments and good wishes. Sometimes life unexpectedly dumps your arse on the canvas and, though the cliche may not always be true, I think for me this will be a case of what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger, once I’ve unravelled the lessons from it.

    I won’t plunge into the detailed discussion about insulation, but I’d venture a wider inference from it. There’s a bullishness in contemporary society based on a notion, always sketched very generally, that technological solutions to contemporary problems will allow ‘us’ to continue living much as ‘we’ now do. But, as per Simon’s comments, when you start getting into the details, even low-hanging fruit like beefing up the insulation of housing in the UK starts to look challenging. Perhaps that provides a reality check for the chances of decarbonising the entire global economy over the next few decades under ‘business as usual’ assumptions … or under any other ones, for that matter.

    IB’s focus on insulation is in some ways arbitrary. I see it as calling a bluff. If the government responds adequately to this minimal decarbonisation requirement – well, that’s a good start. If it doesn’t, it shows the emperor has no clothes. But I fear that too many people remain as hoodwinked as the emperor.

    • Our landlord was going to install double glazing in our house in 2020, but then there was a pandemic, and now we’re hoping it can get done in summer 2022, supply chains allowing.

      Insulating all homes to a high standard is complicated, but I think there’s also still a lot of low-hanging fruit where political change — change to the way we order our society — could make a huge difference. Lowering speed limits is an even better example of this.

      But forty years of neoliberalism and striving for financial profitability (sold as “efficiency”) at the cost of resilience means that the changes we should have been making in the last few decades have been deferred and postponed and now we have a global supply network mess that means the low-hanging fruit just got quite a bit harder to reach. I’m not a computer programmer but I understand what we’re dealing with as a kind of technical debt. (For non-techies, it’s a bit like trying to cook in a kitchen with dull knives, a single electric ring, a tiny hand sink and only cold water, which you have to fetch from outside. It absolutely can be done, but everything is going to take longer, and you might be better sharpening your knives and installing a bigger sink with a tap.)

      I remain convinced that technology per se is not going away, and that much of the technology we associate with modernity will continue to exist in some form, and that new technologies for our new context will be developed. But I also believe all of this will become very much more expensive; my vision of the likely future is not a techno-utopia, and definitely not business as usual. The longer we strive for business as usual, the more difficult that likely future gets. It’s pretty clear the powerful will keep striving for exactly that, though. I don’t think I can do anything to stop them, though I remain grateful for others’ attempts to do so or simply to point out the absurdity of how we currently live.

      One of the things I value in reading and commenting in this space is that even when I disagree with other commenters, we are generally operating on the shared assumption that some kind of low-energy, locally-based, labour-intensive future is on the cards. None of us can predict the future with 100% accuracy (and I think it’s when we try that we disagree the most), but we all know that business as usual isn’t sustainable and we are trying, all in our own ways, to prepare for that.

      When many people I meet in person see my allotment and church garden work as a nice but irrelevant and incomprehensible hobby, rather than a (small) part of a meaningful contribution to something more urgent and more important, it’s a real balm to come here and find people engaging seriously with the questions of what else we might do and how else we might get from here to where we need to be. It helps me to know I am not mad. And it does affect my practice: I’ll be sowing winter wheat this year largely as a result of encouragement here, to name just one example. It might go terribly of course, but that’s why I will also be saving some of my seed for a spring sowing…

      • Hey Kathryn,
        Winter wheat sown in the spring will not produce grain here. England might be different but you may need spring wheat.

        • I’m not actually sure whether the wheat I have is spring or winter! I know it’s a heritage landrace though. We’ll see what happens… on the scale I’m working at, I can afford to mess up a bit.

      • Business as usual hmmmm , just a little info , there are no universal joints for truck propeller shaft in the USA , they are a consumable they last around 5 years depending on a lot of things , as they fail transport dies, tyres are getting difficult especially for heavy duty pick up’s , filters , brake parts and a host of other over the counter parts are thin on the ground or unobtainable , canibilisation is a growing business , just in time is becoming just too late .

        • Good point – business as usual, like nostalgia, is not what it used to be. Similar supply chain/raw material issues across the bicycle industry too, which in this case started months before the pandemic.

    • Go steady Chris.

      I hope your wife is ok. It must be scary to experience or have loved ones experience, the brunt of State violence. I’ve been on a few demos in the past but have never been “kettled”, put in a headlock or thrown in the back of a wagon.

      I too feel a sense of grief.
      I swing from detached, objective observation of the state of the world, to being totally overwhelmed and anxious.

      I find this blog a useful tonic to the dark days. Like Kathryn says, we may not all agree on the finer points, but we all share a similar perspective.

      Just to put my thoughts out there, is a help for me. It might be dumping my fears on the rest of you guys but I appreciate/value being able to do it. Makes me realise I’m not alone in my thoughts.
      I’ve stopped talking to friends about climate change/breakdown.
      I sense that no-one really wants to engage with it on anything but a superficial level. It’s just too hard for people to think about, when for lots of people, the day to day stuff is hard enough to deal with already.
      Maybe I’m just a masochistic for engaging:)?

      I think that’s why IB will find it hard to cut through. By blocking roads, it just makes people’s already strained lives even more difficult. And at the end of the day, insulation isn’t going to stop the epoch changing events from happening.
      Not that they shouldn’t do what they are doing. For some people, it’s gluing themselves to a road, for others it commenting on a blog. We all find difference ways to express our frustrations.

      The blog also introduces me to ideas I have never come across before. SFF was a revelation to me, though as I have mentioned before, it scared the shit out of me!!!!!! Your analysis of where we are and where we are heading, was the most compelling I have read to date. It crystallized some nebulous thoughts I had been having for some time now.
      I understand if regularly blogging is draining for you Chris, but I for one, am always interested in reading your thoughts.

  10. Why not do what was done after the70’s oil crisis and reduce the motorway speed limit to 60 and other roads to 50

    Not only do you reduce carbon emissions but NOx as well. In are it will reduce accidents and hence pressure on the NHS.

    It will also tend to discourage people from driving.

    Simple, can be done now and in post Covid Britain has a lot to recommend it.

    • Well that’s far too simple, might make a difference, can’t be postponed to some unspecified future date (at least 2 election cycles in the future please) and it doesn’t cost anything so there’s no money to be made – sorry John its just not going to happen!

  11. If someone’s heart is breaking from the state of the world, I suggest they allow it to break, feel it fully, and take it where it leads. Grieve, mourn, and get past it by going through it. This can lead to transformation.

    • I was talking to the postwoman the other day when her black cat came fussing round my legs. Black cats are seen as omens of bad luck out here. A lovely cat, and while stroking its head I noticed she’d only got one eye.
      She’s only got one eye – what happened? I asked.
      Oh, it was when we had that hailstorm – she disappeared for three days and when she came home, she’d only got one eye.

      That’s since made me think about what kind of livestock to keep, and how, if at all.

      Another time, while doing the washing-up, my daughter, who was playing nearby, slammed her body against a glass door behind me and the metal buckle on her belt made a loud noise against the glass, at which my whole body tensed, unexpectedly. I realised later it was because the sound it made was exactly like a ball of ice hitting the window at 50mph. This surprised me as I didn’t think I was the kind of person who’d be traumatised, albeit slightly, by such things as weird weather. Whatever! It obviously left its mark.

      One upshot, I believe, to all this unwelcome volatility we are experiencing now worldwide, through various weather events, is that from among those survivors who were previously blasé or even climate change deniers will form a new cohort of people who may help the push for systemic change. Could be.

      Personally, I think I’ve done with my mourning for the world, but who knows? Grief can come in waves. If anything has transformed in me it’s that I’m now simply seeing the future – future survival, really – as a challenge to rise to, even though that’s only manifesting itself at the moment in trying to physically protect where we cook, sleep and eat with various extra layers, a bit like donning several overcoats to keep out the cold, keep the world at bay. Perhaps it’d be more sagacious to not even bother. Either way, by and by I suspect my keen focus on home and immediate family might later dilate or bleed more into the wider world, with a cheerful heart. But I never push these things. I just accept them and let them work out, though I’ve learnt to steer well clear of Tom Waits’ ballads at the lowest ebbs.

  12. Well, that certainly is raw. And, I suspect that you have taken some of the sharp edges off for us. I don’t know what you are going through, but thanks for being there at the sharp end, thinking about it and writing.

    As far as people who don’t believe in climate change, them. I’m out of sympathy for them They are the same dim bulbs braying that vaccines and masks are an affront to their freedom!. If something bad happens to them, the waves close over their heads, etc. well, tough shit. If you re deliberately stupid, you are welcome to it. I can’t save you.

    Engaging with people who see that the world is different is important. Writing and inviting everyone to have a go at criticizing your work is very brave. Maybe you will find a worthwhile idea that you had not considered. Certainly the things that come up in your posts and the comments are new to me. Keep up the hard work.

    I hope Cordelia is safe. All the best to you both and thanks for what you do..


  13. Thanks once again for the good wishes regarding my fragile mental state! I won’t pick out individual names, but it’s good to get some affirmation back from the Small Farm Future community and to hear that this space likewise provides something of value to others.

    I’m beginning to recover a little balance. I’m not yet sure quite what the implications of this episode are. I think probably just a slightly reduced output on this blog as I give greater priority to some other things, and a greater effort to focus my writing positively around creating renewable, local, ecocentric, agrarian societies rather than negatively against the various strains of denialism and business as usualism spanning the capitalist, ecomodernist and Marxist firmament that I feel I’ve spent too much of my time engaging with.

    Anyway, back to the Small Farm Future blog cycle next time…

  14. Long time reader, but first time commenting here. As a fence-sitter, hesitating to join the XR protests, I find what your wife is doing brave.

    In general, I find the discussion here quite interesting, especially as a city-dweller, with no skin in the game of farming/horticulture. It even inspires me to try to get into these adventures. However, I have no knowledge or skill. I think this is one of the major barriers for majority of people.

    Best wishes

    • Hi Ravi

      I live in a city too.

      One of the nice things about horticulture is that you can start small: sprouting some seeds or growing herbs on a windowsill, or maybe tomatoes in pots on a balcony if you have space. There are plenty of books out there on indoor gardening and balcony gardening. If you have a bit more space or enthusiasm, there’s quite a lot out there on small scale home gardening, too.

      As for skill, well, that comes with practice. I’ll probably never reach the skill levels my grandparents had — they started much earlier — but I’m well ahead of many of my neighbours.

      The best thing is probably to find some local gardening groups and get stuck in. Them you’re creating community as well as building your own knowledge base and skills…

      • Maybe the best thing for a city-dweller to do is to find their nearest allotments, try to rent one and learn from people there.

        I learned the basics of horticulture from my parents when a child 50-60 yrs ago so I was lucky. However, I find growing annual vegetables a PITA because of the time needed. As some garden writers have pointed out, by comparison, fruit almost grows itself. (Yet the UK is more self-sufficient in vegetables than fruit.)

        If I could find people to swap with, I’d happily trade fruit for vegetables … or for free-range eggs. When it comes to food production, everyone probably has a particular skill or interest.

        • Hi Kathryn and Norman,

          Thanks for the suggestions. Gardening in a community set up sounds interesting. I will try to follow them up.

          Best wishes

    • Ah Ravi – you can’t wait for knowledge or skill before starting – both arise with doing. The best thing anyone ever said to me when I was young was: “The man who never made a mistake never made anything”. Now past 50 I am still joyfully f****** things up 😉

      • As for gardening and working in the fields I have to agree with Bruce… jump in, scrape a knuckle once or twice. You’ll be amazed how quickly you pick things up.

        Having someone knowledgeable to work along side of is precious if you can find it… but don’t pass up opportunities if this is the only issue holding you back.

        I can imagine there are a couple occupations where serious study and guidance are needed — running a nuclear reactor comes to mind. But working with plants is far more forgiving. Few ever mind if you kill a plant through some mistake. So “dig” in…

        (sorry, my soil science buddies made me say that)…

  15. Thanks again for further comments – and for the new commenters too. Good tip there from Simon about Tom Waits. I probably shouldn’t have had Bone Machine on repeat play during the protests 🙂

    Appreciate your offer of making this space more supportive, Kathryn. In general, I couldn’t ask for more constructive and good faith engagement than I get on this site. Alas, the wider picture seems more problematic…

  16. To Diogenese10 and Clem, above: Thanks for the ‘Desperate for Tires’ Reuters link, it’s an interesting report.
    Clem’s mention of less-offensive tech got me thinking of tires/tyres, as I’d heard Michelin and Continental are both trying to green up their products using more recycled PET plastic content, and Finnish firm Nokian have been attempting for years to bring more ‘sustainable’ tyres to market – again, with recycled PET and the use of canola oil (this in its winter tyre range as it improves grip, and tread wear) among other R&D. Swap out the ‘more offensive’ diesel tractor for a purportedly modern electric version, and the latter would be heavier due to the batteries, resulting in more tyre wear (microplastic pollution), which is probably why John Deere are currently marketing an electric micro tractor or a larger beast with massive ‘tank tread’ type tyres, presumably to keep soil compaction to a minimum. In this context at least, Kermit was right: it ain’t easy being green.

    • Tractors increase yield per worker, but do they actually increase yield per hectare compared to, say, a horse-drawn plough or even horticulture by hand?

  17. Pingback: It’s not too late, but it’s over: how COP26 changes everything - Resilience

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