Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Sunday, 16 September 2018

The Electric Car. It's Simple.

The electric car is the future. Mainly this is because it can run on renewable energy, doesn't pollute the air and doesn't require an increasingly scarce natural resource.

However here's another reason: it's simple. Here's how the reasoning goes.

Technology doesn't just become more complex over time. Instead it progresses to a certain point, then there is a quantum shift as something newer, simpler and more effective comes along. This then gets more and more complex until the cycle starts again. If you don't believe me consider these two technologies: steam engines and computers.

From superheaters to superconductors

The first steam engines were so simple you could make a model of one yourself with a tin can and a
few pipes. However by the time the golden age of steam was reached, a hundred odd years later, they were incredibly complex, with superheaters, turbopumps and complex chimneys (called 'ejectors') and so on. They were magnificent creations, but very expensive to maintain and getting them ready first thing in the morning took hours.

Then along came the diesel engine, which you just switched on when you wanted it, and they were history. Complex had given way to simple.

Computers took a similar trajectory. It's just about possible to understand Alan Turing's Colossus, but vacuum-tube computers then swiftly reached mind-boggling levels of complexity. By 1956 ENIAC had 20,000 vacuum tubes, 70,000 resistors and 5 million hand-soldered joints. It weighed in at over 30 tons. When one of those tubes went pop, which happened several times a day, it could take a quarter of an hour to find the fault. Then along came the transistor and simplicity was restored. They didn't stay simple for long, but that's another story.

Horse power

So what about personal transport? Well lets rewind a century and a bit to to the age of the horse. Now I like horses, but as a means of getting about they have their limitations. They need to to bred and reared and trained. They need to be fed and watered and stabled, even when not being used. They get sick and they get lame.

Then came the car. A rich man's toy at first, but by the time the Model T Ford came out in 1908 it was a viable alternative to the horse. Compared to the gee gee, the Model T came off the production line ready to roll, needed nothing when it wasn't being used, and was simple enough to be maintained by the local blacksmith-come-mechanic. It also ran on the simplest of roads.

Now fast forward 90 years to the present day, and take a look at what is now rolling off the production line. Under the bonnet you will find an array of overhead cam shafts, electronic ignitions, turbo chargers and so on. It's a machine that needs regular servicing by a trained mechanic and smooth roads. Like the steam trains of the 1930s, it's magnificent, but complicated.

By contrast, look at the engine on an electric car. It has about half a dozen moving parts. That's it. Simple.

Of course, there's the huge elephant in the room of the battery, a marvel of chemical engineering, but overall you can see the pattern. Like the steam train and the vacuum-tube computer, internal combustion engines have grown too complex.

It is time for simplicity again.

Saturday, 1 September 2018

Memories of Peter Melchett

c. Press Association
RIP Peter Mond, 4th Baron Melchett, and the only Peer of the Realm I’ve ever shared a police cell with.

The occasion was in July 1999. Peter, Executive Director of Greenpeace UK, had led a dawn raid on a field trial of  Genetically Modified maize growing near Lyng, in Norfolk. We’d destroyed a portion of the herbicide-resistant crop, but the arrival of the two farmers hosting the test site, one atop a large mechanical loader, had reduced Greenpeace’s own mechanical mower to scrap metal and led to tactical retreat by the activists. The subsequent arrival of the Norfolk Constabulary then ended our fun and led to Peter, myself, and 26 other Greenpeace staff and volunteers spending a night in the cells.

Refused bail by the police, we were taken the next day to Norwich magistrates court, where myself, actions coordinator Tim Hewke, and Peter briefly ended up in the same cell. Peter was first one of us to appear before the bench. When he returned to the cell we found out the verdict: he was being sent to Norwich prison. Exit one dis-chuffed ED.

c. Greenpeace
In the end it all worked out well. Fourteen months and two trials later we were all outside Norwich
Crown Court having been found not guilty of criminal damage by a unanimous jury in a verdict that put the boot into the government’s already faltering plans for introducing GM crops to the UK. The field trials would continue for another four years, but no commercial planting would follow. There would be no ‘green concrete’ in this country.

Peter’s tenure at Greenpeace UK came after one of the most acrimonious episodes in the organisation’s history. Greenpeace UK had been formed in 1977, and had shortly afterwards acquired what was to become Greenpeace’s most famous ship, the Rainbow Warrior. Seven years of piratical adventures followed. But although the group was effective, it took risks. In 1984 a hard-hitting press campaign against the fur industry went down very badly with Greenpeace International, who had a lot of allies who were Indigenous fur trappers. What exactly happened next is disputed by those involved, but the outcome was that Peter and three other people, who could all be considered cooler heads, were drafted onto the Greenpeace UK board, and the all existing board members all resigned.

c. Greenpeace
By 1989 Peter was Executive Director, and under his regime some sort of order was established in the chaotic Greenpeace office. Campaigns now proceeded in a planned way, with direct action complementing other methods. Old timers complained and initially it seemed Greenpeace UK was receiving less publicity than it had in its buccaneering early days, but the payoff came in 1995 with the occupation of the Brent Spar. 

Although the action was planned in a bit of a hurry, and led at sea by Jon Castle, a veteran of the early days of the Rainbow Warrior, it was also the culmination of more than a decade of campaigning to end the dumping at sea of first nuclear, then toxic chemical waste. The UK government publicly called on Shell to continue with plans to sink the rig at sea, offering the use of the Special Boat Service to evict the Greenpeace campaigners. When they caved in Prime Minister John Major was left red faced. It was a major victory for Peter and the Greenpeace UK team. More campaigns against the oil industry followed, but it was another issue, nearer to home, that really captured Peter’s imagination.

Peter had grown up in Norfolk, on his father’s farm at Ringstead, near Hunstanton. He told me about
shoots that had happened when he was a child, when up to 5000 pairs of partridges would be shot in one day. However as time went by the numbers diminished, although nobody knew why. Peter remembered finding a nest of dead partridge chicks. He was told they had drowned in heavy rain, but this wasn’t the real reason they died. In 1966 Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring came out, and was available in the UK the next year. The book alerted the world to the dangers of pesticides on wildlife. Once he had read it Peter knew what had killed the chicks, and why his father's shoots now yielded far fewer victims.

But before Peter could wager his war against industrial agriculture, he had a brief career in conventional politics with the Labour Party. He served in the Northern Ireland Office during the dark times of The Troubles, an experience which left him with an aversion to whiskey and a love of the Belfast punk band Stiff Little Fingers. His time in politics also showed him where the real power in government was. Whilst sitting on a committee discussing energy Jack Cunningham MP breezed into the room, announced that any talk about nuclear power was off limits, and breezed out again. Peter left politics shortly after Labour lost power, moving first to the Ramblers Association and then Greenpeace.

Peter's time with Greenpeace UK had many highlights, but it is ironic that whilst it was mainly characterised by giving the organisation order and stability, he is most likely to be remembered for one of its most reckless adventures, the raid on that field in Lyng.

c. Greenpeace
Greenpeace started campaigning against Genetically Modified crops shortly after the dust settled on the Brent Spar affair, but it was after New Labour's election that the campaign really hotted up. Greenpeace was up against giant biotech companies and their champions in government, led by none other than 'GM' Jack Cunningham MP. A successful campaign followed, much of it planned in collaboration with Friends of the Earth. One that wasn't though was the Lyng raid.

I don't know exactly what Friends of the Earth Executive Director Charles Secrett thought when he opened his papers on 28 July 1999 and found that Peter had been sent to prison for attempting to destroy 6 acres of GM maize. The gist of it I believe was that this was a reckless and unnecessary move in a campaign that they thought was, at that point, almost won.

Those of us who'd volunteered for the action had no doubts about it, although we were very surprised when we got to the field to see the Executive Director there fixing the Greenpeace mower to the tractor. However even within the organisation, which was renowned for more extreme actions than your average NGO, there were doubts about the destruction of private property as a tactic. 

The five weeks we spent in court gave Peter the platform he wanted to lay into the
c. Greenpeace
government's support for even more intensive farming. The jury that unanimously acquitted him - and me - dealt a critical blow to the biotech giants that they have still not recovered from. Even Friends of the Earth agreed it all worked out well in the end.

So why did he do it? Undoubtedly those poor, dead partridge chicks played their part. As did his father's farm at Ringstead, just a few miles from Lyng, which Peter had inherited and made organic. This was personal. 

As a lowly local groups volunteer I'd never met Peter before I unloaded from the van in that field in Norfolk. However during the time we spent in Norwich I got some idea of the type of person he was. Greenpeace people work hard and play hard. Whilst involuntary guests in Norwich we all drank plenty and engaged in increasingly silly pastimes to relieve the boredom. Except Peter. His contribution to the entertainment was a lecture on the history of his farm, plus a field trip out there meet his organic cows. 

To say he never switched off though would be completely wrong. His farm was clearly his escape from work at Canonbury Villas. There were no aristocratic pretensions about Peter. He was usually scruffy and his house was a mess, with books taking up almost every available space. In some of the pictures from the Lyng action you can see he's the only one of us who didn't put his boiler suit on properly before we started. However in his sense of duty he was the equal of any knight of the realm. At the office, on the farm or just with his fellow accused, he always had the gravitas of the one in charge. 

Or almost always. One night during the trial we had a quiz night which we called Have I Got Evidence For You. Peter's team won easily, and Peter himself proved unbeatable at the Greenpeace version of Just A Minute. Then there was his retirement party. To say the teetotal Peter was 'as giddy as a schoolboy' would be the understate of the year. It was a great evening.

Peter never wanted his peerage. Although he couldn't actually get rid of it, he made sure the title died with him. Instead he wanted to earn respect, and I think he did. After the Lyng trial was over he sent us all a postcard of Courtyard Farm with the words "Proud to stand with you".  We were all proud to stand with him too. He will be missed.


Pagan, Peer and Priest in GM Crops Raid!

Courtyard Farm