The role of appreciation and respect in a sustainable society

19/08/2011 § Leave a comment

I had been intending to write a little about low power amateur radio this time, but events rather over took that ambition, and I found my thoughts turning to what we might do to defuse the awful situation that arose last week.

There has been a lot in the media about the recent riots, and like most I’ve followed it with a mixture of horror that it could have happened at all, sickened disgust at people behaving the way that they did, and incredulity at the stupidity of people who seemed to think that all the normal rules were suspended.

I’ve also been struck by peoples response to the behaviour, I can understand that witnessing people behaving that way is profoundly disturbing, and that it’s natural to react fairly violently to it, but surely anyone can see that to do so simply exacerbates the problem. By the same token, society has to signal to anyone that behaves that way that it is unacceptable, so something has to be done, and I suppose, given the nature of the crime and the publicity, that response has to be quick and severe enough to get the message across – that is the job of the courts, and I’m not really qualified to comment on it.

There has been a lot of talk about disaffected youth, failure to integrate various parts of the community and gangs. Prince Charles has spoken about gangs, and David Cameron talked about getting in people who specialise in dealing with gangs. I guess if you think about it, a gang is a collection of people who have banded together, and if you then ask why, it starts to reveal some of what we might be facing. That there is a feeling of disaffection is clearly a contributory factor, people have talked about respect, and in some cultures, there is the expectation that respect is a right – somewhere the essential message has been lost that respect is something that is earned, not just taken, but at the same time, society has evolved into something that has replaced genuine respect with superficial tokens.

How can we expect someone to understand the nuances of respect when we don’t equip them to appreciate the world that they live in. I was watching a programme on the television about George Mallory, who may, or may not have reached the summit of Everest in 1928. This was clearly a man to respect, a man it would have been an honour to have met regardless of whether he succeeded or not (I happen to think, or maybe just hope, that he probably did). If I were to take a cross section of a few of those people who rioted, the task of explaining to them why I have great respect for Mallory would be Herculean.  First of all, and perhaps most difficult, I would have to get them to care enough to pay attention, but then, think of the historical background that they would have to know to understand why it was important and what drove Edwardians and their successors to such tasks in the dying days of the Empire. I would have to explain the geography and geology of the region, the difficulties of actually getting there, the politics of crossing into Nepal or Tibet, and lastly, I would have to explain the physics of why climbing up a mountain over 29,000 feet high, using rudimentary oxygen equipment, modified by a 21 year old student, and dressed in gabardine made what they did achieve such a feat. All of that just to get to a point where I could say to someone that that is the reason why I have resect for this individual – I shouldn’t need to do that, we have schools, they are there to impart knowledge, I don’t expect them to teach everyone about George Mallory, but I do think that in a society as “advanced” as ours is, if we are to have any chance of developing, we need people who can understand the same sort of basic things that I can so that we can at least communicate at a common level – that is a fundamental requirement of a sustainable society.

Maybe, we need to do a couple of things, firstly, maybe we need to understand the difference between respect and appreciate – for the sake of argument, let’s assume that appreciation is a station on the way to respect, I appreciate what you do, and at some point, I will come to respect you for that ability … Secondly, maybe we need to change the way that we generate the expectation that anyone can be anything that they want, in truth, they can’t, there will always be the odd person who succeeds against the odds, and achieves what society currently values, media coverage and wealth, and yes, it is true, it could be you, but actually, even if you give it your best shot, and you are utterly ruthless, it is probably more likely that it won’t be. The education system MUST prepare people for the future, it ISN’T about making everyone a winner, it’s about ensuring that wherever you fall on the spectrum, you are equipped to the best of everyones ability to make the most of it and get back what you are prepared to put in – that is after all the basis of a fair transaction, and if society is to survive, the books must balance. To do that, it needs to explain to people that trinkets are not the only reason to get up in the morning.

That isn’t to say that I think people should be discouraged from dreaming and pursuing their ambitions, but I do think that those who are charged with managing anyone’s expectations should be a little more realistic, and I’m not talking about the big things in life, sometimes the smaller things are more important.

Watching the A level results coming out, and seeing that once again, “standards have risen”, I’m struck by the fact that that no-one seems to have realised that they haven’t – the more A levels, and A stars that are awarded, the less confidence anyone has in them being an indicator of how good someone is – we are using an elastic ruler, the more we stretch it, the less value it has. Thing is, no-one has told the kids who see a bright sparkly future ahead of them. Fine today as the teachers bask in the glow of satisfaction at having done even better (actually, I know a couple who know perfectly well that they can tweak the results however they want to)  but tomorrow, that same excited little face is going to have to face the reality of what is looming on the horizon, and it isn’t an endless parade of designer clothes, nice cars, a large expensive house, at least it isn’t for many.

At the bottom end of that scale, you get the person who hasn’t done as well, and faces the thought that they face even worse prospects already. Inevitably, that process becomes focussed in some parts of the community, and there you have it, the basis for a gang of disaffected people.

Is there a solution, I don’t know any better than anyone else, but it does occur to me that if we managed people s expectations earlier in life, and were a little less focussed on what we can possess and more on the process of understanding what we actually do have and can contribute to that process in the context of its importance, we could create an atmosphere where people actually appreciated what people did. If we could level the playing field a little so that as children grew up, they understood that we are all different, and we are all going to be good at different things, but that there is a place for all of us would be appreciated, and that they would be respected for it, designer bling, the toys that act as tokens to create envy to bolster sagging self esteem wouldn’t be quite so important.

I guess that gets me around to where I’ve been going in a sort of long winded rambling kind of a way, which is to start appreciating the artisan, to start recognising that someone who is a skilled individual is a skilled individual and not to discriminate between arbitrary skill sets – actually, why differentiate between someone who can manipulate a market and make a lot of money, and someone who can pick up a musical instrument, or someone who can take a piece of wood, or a piece of leather and create something beautiful, or utterly, and totally functional. The more that you think about it, the less sense it actually makes, until, eventually, it occurs that whilst there are arguments for supporting wealth creators, it is simply because eventually, all that they really do is create a process that allows others to consume mindlessly.

I’m not advocating a return to the stone age, or a time of bartering essentials, but what I am suggesting is that all of us can contribute to some of society’s ills but understanding what is important and why, and what our views might be costing our children and the damage that it is doing them. Let’s start telling those disaffected kids the truth – you will have a skill of some sort, people will appreciate you for practicing it, well mostly, I am struggling with Traffic Wardens in that context, but out of that appreciation comes respect. By all means dream, and work on that dream, you may accomplish it, the harder you work to do so, the more likely it is, but recognise that it might not happen, and if it doesn’t, actually, society won’t think any less of you for it because what you do now is important too.

If you’ve made it this far, look around you in your normal life, notice people like the road sweeper, and realise what the streets would be like without him, the dustman, the drain cleaner – think for a moment what your life would be like without those guys – I know they are never going to make Hello magazine, but are you so shallow that that matters to you ? Think instead what your life would be like without them, think about whether you appreciate what they do that makes your life a little easier, and recognise how wealthy you are – sure you work for someone, and provide a service, but you also have a million people working to make your life a little easier too. If you think that through, do you feel as though someone somewhere might appreciate what you do, and if they do that they might respect you for it a little, and could you manage to feel a little respect for the guy who is doing something that you’ve just realised is making your life a little better.

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Cheddar Gorge, Cheese, Lawrence and Natural Navigation

25/07/2011 § Leave a comment

It’s been a couple of weeks since I made an entry – that was because I was scheduled to go down to Somerset and pay Tim a visit at the low power homebuild rally that he hosts on his farm. For someone like me, it was something of a treat to be able to actually meet people whose writings and musings I had read for several years, and it was a chance to meet new people.

The trip proved inspirational for all sorts of reason as it happens, and in the end the radio was only a part of it. We started our weekend in the Cheddar Gorge for no other reason than my other half having visited it as a child years ago and wanting to see it again, but in the event, it proved so much more interesting.

There were several things that struck me, amongst them, discovering that a skeleton found in the cave from what was probably a formalised burial that was carried out over 7000 years ago having sufficient DNA left for Brian Sykes of Oxford University to be able to sequence it and then to match it to 2 schoolchildren in the area, and a local history teacher, Adrian Targett. I suppose that we can infer from that people are perhaps not always as mobile as one might suppose which in turn gives great validity to making a small local effort to address the issues of the day when those of the world seem so large as to make any effort by a single individual pointless. Interesting too, that Sykes concludes that the people who were living in the cave evolved through the process being hunter gatherers and subsequently farmers. (1)

The skeleton in the cave pre-dated agriculture in Britain by at least 3000 years, so it was interesting to stand and look at the gorge wondering how it might have looked then, and even then, what effect man might have had on the landscape. So many of the so called un spoiled landscapes are probably anything but, and what exactly do we mean by “unspoiled” ? It is both sobering and in a way comforting to realise that our presence on the earth is only fleeting !!

I was also struck by getting an inside view of the process of the geology working with the climate. Essentially, the gorge was formed by periglacial meltwater floods some 1.2 million years ago. During warmer periods when liquid water flowed, it did so through the permeable limestone, carving out the cave system. Walking through the caves, one is struck by the deposits of carbonates and the almost river like structures where mineral rich water has dripped through the rock formations. In fact the geology is inevitably a great deal more complex and warrants time spent reading about it before visiting the complex which of course I didn’t do ….

Part of the cave system is used by a local cheese company, The Cheddar Gorge Cheese Company who open their production process up to anyone who would like to go and have a look. They are a small cheese making company who use a single source of milk from one farm that is not pasteurised. There are 3 people who actually make the cheese, it isn’t an industrial process, so when they test the milk, which they do every day because the fat content does vary, each of the makers will proceed according to his judgement, so each has a signature. The variation is small, but it is there. The process uses cloth around the cheese rather than plastic, keeping the moisture content rather lower as something like 1% of the weight of the cheese is lost to drying per month.

There is a version of the cheese that they mature inside the caves – I tasted it thinking that it was probably some sort of gimmick, but the difference was amazing – this was proper “old fashioned” cheese that tasted the way that I had almost forgotten that cheese should taste. I had a quick conversation with one of the cheese makers about the process and they attribute the quality of the cheese to the humidity, but there is more to it than that which I will follow up as the process intrigues me. (2)  From the point of view of the theme of the blog, I guess what fascinates me is that the process is intrinsically a simple one, and comes back to an earlier theme that has been developing and is based on appreciating the artisan for what he is, and recognising the value of the something that is NOT mass produced, is maybe a little more expensive, but is infinitely better. If I have whetted your appetite, you can buy the cheese on line which probably isn’t a good thing as I need to lose some weight !!

From Cheddar, I went on to the radio rally further down in Somerset, past a pub called “The Canal” which was really rather a surprise and inevitably there is a story around that too, but I’ll follow that up another day. Tim was the inspiration for the blog, so I was interested to actually meet him face to face, and to be able to see his farm. He was, of course, very busy with the rally, so there wasn’t much time to talk, another time Tim … Walking around the rally reinforced the thought process that inspired this, arrayed before me were essentially minimalist solutions to a particular problem. The majority of them hand crafted by people who were to a man, interesting and inspiring to talk with. Each a skilled and talented individual who had solved a problem his own way, in many cases re-using what he had, or re-purposing it. I was struck for example by the loop aerial made from a bicycle wheel, and a strip of metal sold as a decorative finish forming the tuning capacitor, it was simultaneously ingenious, functional and actually elegant to look at. There were radios that re-used parts from radios that had been discarded elsewhere, and people selling parts that had been stripped from radios that could no longer be utilised, destined to be incorporated into new devices.

I appreciate that this somewhat specialised, but the fundamental message remains that we can re-use, and should be looking to making the salvage of re-usable parts the norm much as parts of the building industry does. We need to do it differently, it shouldn’t be about re-using to make a feature of something, architectural features that become little more than an ornament – the re-use should be functional, it should be our first thought and obtaining something new only resorted to when re-use simply isn’t practical.
Of course we can’t live in an ideal world, but the key to making a difference is that we absorb attitudes and ideas the way we acquire favourite tools and it is just natural to use them. It shouldn’t be an effort to use them, or in the end, it will only be the hair shirt brigade who do so, they should become a natural part of the way that we live our lives. The tools may actually be very simple, walking for example, or using the stairs, good for everyone, all around win-win.

Rather than turning this into a travelogue, I won’t bore you with the rest of the trip other than to mention a visit to Clouds Hill Cottage, once the refuge of Colonel T. E. Lawrence who has always fascinated me. If you are ever in that neck of the woods, or in Poole, or Lulworth Cove, it’s actually quite close, and worth a visit. Whilst there, I picked up a second hand copy of what is considered to be more or less the definitive biography of the man, “Lawrence of Arabia”, by Jeremy Wilson. (3)  Wilson quotes Lawrence where he speaks of “an economy of beauty which is wonderful. England is fat – obese” (4) Elsewhere, he quotes Lawrence speaking of “chewing bread as the Bedouins do, when there is need”. Whilst Lawrence was clearly a remarkable man who took pride in going with out that which many of us regard as essential, food and sleep, he does have a point that maybe we should consider in the greater scheme of things and perhaps think about why we do some of the things that we do and that perhaps we should pay more attention to our inner selves than simply doing as we do simply because we always have.

There is a rather splendid man running a course that might interest anyone for whom that strikes a resonance. The course is actually called “The Natural Navigator” (5), and is run by Tristan Gooley who is more than well qualified to do so, but I’ll let you go and see why. Tristan describes his course as “a general introduction to natural navigation. It is ideal for those who enjoy the outdoors, including: walkers, sailors, pilots, explorers, travellers, map-lovers, expedition members, adventurers and those curious about the world around us”. In reality, if you attend the course and start to practice what he teaches, you get something far more profound from it. As you learn to start looking for the clues that tell you where you are facing, and then start to simply unconsciously become aware of them, what actually happens is that you start paying a great deal more attention to your surroundings than you did. The course isn’t some sort of miraculous awakening, you will have to work at it long after attending, but if you do, you will start to re-connect in a way that I suspect our earlier ancestors did, and start to appreciate your environment in a profoundly different way. I guess that that brings us neatly back to the man who owned the skeleton in the cave, and who, I suspect in the nicest possible way, could probably have taught Tristan a thing or two, but what a privilege it would be to be party to a conversation between them. I have a wonderful vision of our ancient hunter gatherer, poring over Tristan’s book (6) whilst Tristan feverishly takes notes on techniques that he hasn’t seen before.

1. Sykes, Brian, The Seven Daughters of Eve, (Corgi 2002), chap. 12.
2. http://www.cheddargorgecheeseco.co.uk/index.html, last visited 25.07.11
3. Jeremy Wilson, Lawrence of Arabia: The Authorised Biography of T.E. Lawrence, 1989, ISBN 0-689-11934-8.
4. Jeremy Wilson, Lawrence of Arabia: The Concise Edition of the Authorised Biography of T.E. Lawrence, 1991, ISBN 0-7493 -1213-0. p77
5. http://www.naturalnavigator.com/, last visited 25.07.11
6. Tristan Gooley, The Natural Navigator, 2010, Virgin Books, ISBN- 10: 9781905264940

The last mile problem

30/06/2011 § Leave a comment

Sitting in the car park outside a major supermarket the other day, I found myself ruminating on the whole process of “delivering goods” at the consumer level, and one step above it. What struck me, as I watched an endless succession of cars coming and going, was the well known and documented “last mile problem”.

I think the term started out in the telecommunications industry, it referred to the final leg of the connectivity, and was seen as the expensive part of the process because, particularly in rural communities, it meant a lot of resource went into supplying just one consumer. These days, the term is also being applied to delivering goods to customers, but it has much the same meaning, and the problem is much the same.

If you take the retailer I was sitting outside, they operate a Just In Time system, so have a significant number of articulated lorries serving the premises, but whilst significant, it isn’t actually that big – what does clog the system up is the cars that take a tiny proportion of that lorry load, and take it home. We are making the problem worse with big, out of town shopping areas by concentrating all the shopping facilities in a single area that is far from ideal:

  • It seems rare for the centre to be served by adequate public transport;
  • The centre is usually sited where there is space, by definition, this isn’t where people live because that has taken up the available space;
  • What is available is limited by nature of the building and nature of the site, so no “little shops”, only major players, and,
  • They are utterly soul-less, so the experience is bleak, you park, walk a long way to a large cavernous store, buy and leave.

A project that I started to look at the humble carrier bag started me thinking about the path that has been taken to get to it, albeit perhaps through slightly rose-tinted spectacles.  Not so very long ago, every community was a business opportunity for anyone who wanted to set up a store of some sort. All you had to do was spot the need and provide it. The obvious and most common example was food – every few streets or so, someone sold various foodstuffs, and people shopped for them. They bought their supplies daily, so there was less to carry, a basket sufficed, and the load was light enough for a bicycle or to carry the short distance home.

A lot of what was sold was local, so the process supported a local community which was reasonably responsive to local needs – perhaps not quite the way that we think of it now, but it supplied what was needed, and people could shop using a basket.  That all changed in 1951 when Express Dairies opened what is considered to be the first Supermarket in Streatham with 2500 square feet of space and 3 checkout lanes. 1

The rest is history, it only took a decade or so for Tesco, Sainsburys, Asda and Morrisons to take over with literally thousands of imitators. Now, our intrepid shopper bought more than would fit in a shopping basket, so carrier bags were needed, and because you bought more, it was more difficult and heavy to carry, so it became more convenient to use a car. That bought with it the need for car parks, land in town centres was at a premium, so we finished up where we are now with all that has gone wrong with the process.

There are many arguments in favour of supermarkets, but everyone of them has a compelling counter argument:

  • You have more choice
    – well, yes you do to a degree, but with such a small number dominating the market, it seems to me that when I want choice, I go somewhere else.
  • They’re convenient
    – really ? What’s convenient about getting in the car, driving 10 miles, hiking miles across a vast car park, discovering that the supermarket has most, not all that I wanted, queuing hours to get out – well, you get the picture …
  • They’re cheaper
    – no, I don’t think that they are, and where you do buy something cheaply, say milk, you simply pay another price, for example, it is widely predicted that in the UK, it is only a matter of time before we rely on French milk because all our dairy farmers have gone out of business. Do we want that, a countryside without a cow to be seen …

I could go on, but the arguments are well rehearsed, and anyway, what started me thinking about supermarkets was the last mile problem, and what the low power environmentalist could, or should, be doing.

I’ve always maintained that to solve a problem, you need to define it, and in the definition will lay the solution – the approach works too, try it … Take a problem, think about it and write down exactly what the problem is, but be careful to make sure that that is exactly what you define. A really useful tool here is the word “why”. You may have to deconstruct the problem into a lot of other little problems, but little problems are easier to deal with than big ones and eventually you will either find that you have solved all the little problems, or more likely, most of them. At that point, whatever you have left is actually your problem and you can either solve that, or just go around it and do it differently.

For me, the last mile problem in this instance is that a lot of energy is being wasted moving small amounts of supplies inefficiently. I think there are a number of solutions that present themselves, the first is to simply not make the journey, shop locally and support your community. Walk or cycle to the shops, the exercise will be good for you, but if you have to get too much to carry, use the car and keep the journey short, or better still, use public transport.

The second solution is to let the supermarket deliver, I know that there are already too many vans on the road, but if you use them and their delivery service, at least the load that is carried is bigger, and the “last mile” becomes a few hundred yards because they will also deliver to people close to you.

This is also a good time to start looking at your local food network – I’ll talk more about it later, but essentially, you might well be surprised at just what is available that is either locally grown produce, or perhaps if you live in a reasonably diverse community, something that is perhaps a little out of the ordinary and interesting. Better still, it might only be a walk, or a cycle ride away and might just make for a more interesting way of shopping than that awful carpark, and cavernous hall of non-choice.

  1. Gregory, H., (2001-11-03). “It’s a super anniversary: it’s 50 years since the first full size self-service supermarket was unveiled in the UK”. The Grocer. http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_hb5245/is_7528_224/ai_n28873842/ Retrieved 26.06.2011.

Why not take responsibility for something when it fails … ?

26/06/2011 § Leave a comment

Two key themes struck me re-reading what I’d written, one was the need to take responsibility, and the fact that actually, despite appearances, we can, and the second which echoes another “grassroots” movement, the movement to make things “Open”.

The two are actually closely tied, I suggested that we could take responsibility for what had been utilised in our names by the manufacturers by not just discarding it. To do that we need to encourage objects, things, “stuff” as something other than what they are. A desirable object, say an iPad, a new car, clothing becomes a new thing, and then gradually, it becomes something that is just “there”, gradually through a sort of process of social entropy, becoming old and perhaps being used less until, eventually, it is simply discarded. We may make the gesture of re-cycling it, but that may well be of questionable value given that much of what we offer for re-cycling is simply assessed on its commercial value, and if it has none, it’s discarded.

What we actually need to do is see that object in a different light, to perhaps understand it a little better so that we know if it can be re-used, and what for, we should be able to appreciate its value to someone who can re-cycle it in a meaningful way. It doesn’t have to be meaningful in a sense of it being commercially valuable, rather it should be re-used in a way that continues to make use of it without consuming more resources. I would expect that in most cases, that use would closely mimic the original purpose of the device. It’s hard to see how a liquid crystal display panel could be used for much else, but there are people who think out of the box, people who take old, discarded lap tops and convert them to be photo display frames, and the value that they add is at least two-fold. As well as re-purposing something discarded, they have used their own skill to construct something that might well be unique. As a society, we have always had an appreciation of something that we call “art”, often that has come to mean something that is unique, handmade and in its’ own way, beautiful.

So what’s the problem ? I don’t know, but I do wonder if perhaps we have become seduced into being consumers. I can’t think of a Western Government that isn’t predicated on wealth through economy, and that economy being based on growth. Is it such a leap therefore to think that what has actually happened is that the final stage of us being encouraged to consume, and the ultimate moment of consummation of the act of buying is the pleasure of ripping open pristine packaging from something that is “new” rather than the pleasure of seeing something that is getting a new lease of life, appreciating the ingenuity that has gone into it being available to us to use.

The cynic in me says that manufacturers have managed to brainwash us into that final moment of fulfilment, the moment when we have our hands on the packaging and are opening it. Another part of me says that I’m being harsh, people are better than that, but are they – the constant, depressing stream of repeated imagery on television, magazine advertisements, billboards and posters designed to do nothing but make us utterly familiar with a particular brand suggests otherwise. Maybe we need to think about how we’re being so casually influenced and actively reject it, maybe we need to think a little harder about what’s actually IN the package and what it really cost.

That brings me to the second theme that occurred to me:

If what we bought were a little more open, perhaps we wouldn’t need to buy so much so often and we could consume a little less. We should be rejecting something that is held together by security screws, quite apart from it being a waste of time and materials (I bought a set of 32 heads to undo security fasteners for £2.99 the other day), it denies the right of ownership – I paid for it, you transferred ownership to me, why can I not get into see how it works, why it works, how you made it. I want to be able to see how I can repair it if it breaks and I want to modify it to suit me.

This is the sort of response that we should expecting from people that make things that they expect us to buy …

http://blog.makezine.com/archive/2011/06/makey-awards-2011-nominee-02-panavise-most-repair-friendly.html

If it’s electronic, provide a circuit diagram, part numbers, a manual that shows an exploded view. The point is, we want to be able to repair it rather than simply discarding it, and if it is beyond repair, some of us at least want to know what’s in there that we can re-use.

Taking the idea a step further, what about establishing a centre in the towns and villages, or a spot in a community where a communities collective wisdom could gather, it could be run commercially, or voluntarily, but a place where people who were mechanically or electronically adept could exercise their skills usefully repairing things for folk who weren’t sure how to, or hadn’t got the tools. It isn’t a huge stretch of the imagination to re-invent workshops where you could hire time and tools, and have an expert on hand who could offer a helping hand if needed, and knew enough to tell you that it couldn’t be repaired, but did contain re-cyclable parts that could be donated to help other people repair something ….

Such facilities exist in the US, though few and far between, and we are approaching a time when people feel more motivated, partly because “times are tight” and partly because at last, people are starting to recognise the need to consume less.

Another Carrington Event

22/06/2011 § Leave a comment

Interesting to see in the news today that NASA are talking about another Carrington Event, named after Carrington and Hodgson, two English astronomers who observed a massive solar flare on the 28th of August 1859, that presaged a massive solar storm on the 1st and 2nd of September with Aurora seen as far south as the Caribbean.
This happened at a time when the only electronic communication was the telegraph which was comprehensively disrupted; operators variously reported equipment arcing and sparking, working when disconnected from its power source, and in some instances, catching fire.
The flare occurred at a time when the sun was starting to go into the same relatively quiet period that is predicted to be happening at the moment, so there’s some concern that another similar event could perhaps occur again. If it did, the consequences to the human race, at least the technologically advanced parts would be far more serious this time.
http://science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/2011/22jun_swef2011/
References
“The 1859 Solar Superstorm”. Scientific American (www.sciam.com). July 29, 2008. Last accessed 22nd June 2011

Low Power Radio as a model for future of the Human Race

21/06/2011 § Leave a comment

I’m really not that confident that the human race has what it takes to survive a great deal longer, but I do think that there is a model evolving that shows us the way:

Quite by chance, I fell into conversation with someone who writes a newsletter that I subscribe to, he’s a farmer who shares my interest in low power amateur radio. Tim farms, and designs radios for amateurs as a sideline, mostly working with a community that call low power comms “QRP”, the abbreviation that Morse code operators of days gone by would use to indicate that they were reducing power. As we talked, it occurred to me that the QRP movement is a good metaphor for the way that we should live our lives in a world that isn’t threatened by destruction through its own profligacy.

As an Environmentalist, I find the amateur radio QRP movement very inspiring. Over the last few years, I’ve watched radio amateurs go from being very capable and competent artisans 1 (and I use that word very carefully) who could turn their hand to building or repairing their radios. They were capable of adapting what they had to hand, often improving it, re-using parts and sharing knowledge and components with other amateurs, but time and technology has seen them change to a completely different sort of individual.  Arguably, this different, later version are still technically very competent, but they are people who buy expensive equipment and who wouldn’t dream of opening it up, it’s simply too expensive, too complex and anyway, is in keeping with the way that technology is evolving. Unlike earlier equipment, it isn’t repairable or adaptable.

In some ways, this is a metaphor for the society that we in the West live in, it doesn’t just apply to radios, think for a moment about your car, your lawn mower, the majority of your appliances – you don’t repair them anymore, for the most part, they can’t be repaired.

Through the good offices of a band of enthusiasts who have embraced what technology has handed them to allow them to communicate with others, a sort of “grass roots” movement is slowly developing.  A new version of the old fashioned amateur is evolving, and perhaps more heartening, the movement isn’t confined to radio amateurs. There are people from all sorts of walks of life taking pride in being Artisans, and they are celebrated as such. The term is an honour, the badge of someone who can turn their hand to repairing and perhaps re-purposing, but most important of all, taking back the responsibility for the way that resources are used from the manufacturer. People who do more for less, use greatly reduced component counts, every part there for a purpose, simplicity a virtue and performance not compromised, or better still, appropriate. These are people who have adopted QRP as a philosophy, or people who have looked at technology, and seen its limitations, or simply tinkerers and “Makers”2.

From my perspective as someone who is concerned about the Environment, these are the people who are setting the blueprint for the way that society is going to have to live. We have all heard the arguments about Carbon Dioxide and climate change, and we all stand in a slightly different place, but in truth, that really isn’t the issue. The real issue that we all need to address is consumption, we use too much of everything, we have forgotten how to adapt, repair and re-use the way that the QRP movement, does.

Society has to recognise that we can no longer simply rely on technology, we have to start re-learning the process of using our ingenuity, to use fewer resources because they are all limited and therefore precious, so we should be squeezing every last drop from them. We have to learn to start our own “junk-box” of parts that might be useful one day, and how to utilise it in everyday life.

It occurs to me that maybe these people, the QRP enthusiasts, and the Makers,  are the brave new pioneers, teaching society how it SHOULD be living from the bottom up, demonstrating what can be achieved without the burden of what isn’t needed. They have the courage to experiment and fail because they know that trying something that doesn’t work is a successful experiment demonstrating what won’t work and why. They have the social responsibility to re-use and to share parts, components, and most importantly of all, knowledge. I think that they might be helping to write the blueprint for a new society, and doing the experiments that prove it can, and must work, and maybe most powerfully of all, using the Internet, and in the case of the QRP movement, radio, which ignores all the usual boundaries and constraints, so that their philosophy can be shared to reproduce and grow as new ideas.

  1. Artisan: A worker in a skilled trade, especially one that makes things by hand,
    Angus Stevenson, (ed.) (2010), Oxford Dictionary of English, Third Edition, Oxford, Oxford University Press
  2. Makers: www.makezine.com, last accessed 18th June 2011