Good moon rising.

Back in September I had a dramatic drive back from Dumfries after the last Indy Ref meeting I spoke at. With a big full moon I drove down the Dalveen Pass with the lights off and the moonlight glinting off the Elvanwater.

On Friday morning I drove back from the general election count after Scotland said No to Tory austerity and a Labour party which has become riddled by Blairism and self-interest into a spectacular sunrise on the new order of the UK. Here’s the blog post I wrote for RIC D&G back in Sept.

Radical Independence Dumfries & Galloway

So today we reached the last RIC D&G meeting before Indy Ref. Lochside Social club on the edge of Dumfries, with myself, Willie MacDonald, Cat Boyd and Robin McAlpine on the panel. It’s been a long, rollercoast of a campaign the last 18 months or so since the first meeting I spoke at (also with Robin) and the first meeting to set up RIC D&G (also with Cat) which was almost a joke back then given the generally un-radical nature of Dumfriesshire.

Over those 18 months we’ve variously laughed, hugged, shoved leaflets through letterboxes, got jobs, got rained on, become unemployed, run stalls, moved house, held meetings, thrown water at each other (you wait till next year’s Biggar Gala Mr McAlpine!), canvassed, fished cars out of ditches (thanks Gannit!), and above all discovered that we were capable of more than we ever imagined! We’ve had long serious discussions about justice…

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Why Robin McAlpine is a zombie.

Naysayers of the Jimmy Reid foundation’s Common Weal ideas fear that they will drain the lifeblood out of Scotland. But that’s not why Reid’s Director Robin McAlpine is a zombie. It’s the annual Gala day in Robin’s home town of Biggar and this is a family day out. It’s the day in which town dresses up in the curtains and bedclothes, hitches decorated trailers behind tractors and processes through the streets in a boisterous, good humoured spectacle which normally ends up with a running battle involving water pistols and buckets of water.

The McAlpine clan is infamous for their floats which give current issues a political twist. Last year they donned horse head masks to highlight the horsemeat scandal. This year they’re zombies representing the brain dead attitude of South Lanarkshire Council to listening to communities’ views.

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The specific cause the outrage is the recent decision by South Lanarkshire’s planning committee to rubber stamp its own application to demolish the historic primary school building in the town and replace it with a car park. Although the sturdy Victorian building was removed from the Listed Building register by the council some years ago, it’s a much loved piece of local heritage, which is in reasonable condition structurally and could be used for a number of other purposes. A Facebook campaign to save the building attracted hundreds of supporters from around the world in a matter of days, and there were ninety five objections to the plans to demolish the building. In a move which smacks of secrecy and decisions already made only three of these objectors where notified of the planning committee meeting to determine the application and none were permitted to put their case. The process has been opaque and left the local community feeling ignored and powerless.

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But the wider point that team McAlpine are making is the lack of meaningful engagement between local government which neither listens to or serves communities. Instead it governs by faceless dictat from offices located miles away, with decisions made by people who neither know nor care what matters to communities, but are more concerned with meeting performances targets, hitting deadlines and assuring the quality of deliverables.

Rural areas like Clydesdale are fortunate that they have managed to maintain a real sense of community, where people join together for events like galas, look out of each other and work together to make things happen for everyone’s benefit. In some ways this is the Common Weal in action, but there is a feeling that this is happening despite government structures rather than because of them. That by trying to make one size fits all, off the shelf solutions applicable to all communities whatever their aspirations remote government is sucking the life out of communities. This what Robin McAlpine has become a zombie to protest about. This is what the Common Weal wants to change.

It’s time that the powers that be realised that the best people to decide what their communities need are the people who live there, and stopped regarding communities who want to do things differently as nuisances who have to be managed or handled carefully if the bureaucrats are to do what they have already decided to do. Its time that the people who care most should be the people who make the decisions. It’s about time that there was some love and understanding in decision making processes. It’s about time to put the local back in Local Authority. It’s about time to get rid of the grey and bring back local colour. That’s why Robin McAlpine is a zombie!

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Book Review: Cows Save the Planet

When I’m at work I do soil science-y stuff. I was asked to review the book Cows Save the Planet for the British Society of Soil Science’s newsletter The Auger. The book suggests that increasing livestock numbers might help soils to store carbon and so help to tackle climate change. This is a controversial hypothesis. My review of the book is below this pictures of some wee sleekit, cowrin’ timorous beasties!

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Cows Save the Planet – Judith Schwartz

Judith Schwartz is an American journalist whose main interest is in alternative economics rather than soil science, and this shows in the book, both in the focus on American prairie agriculture and in some of the flaws in the science.

The book is aimed at a general audience, and aims to use light touch with the science while keeping the reader engaged with a human interest angle on the people who the author meets. This works reasonably well, although the lack of numbers and references is frustrating, and at times made me suspicious about some of the assertions. For example I tried to trace a study on the nutrient content of food from the UK Ministry of Health (sic) and could not locate it. Similarly the book refers to the numerous papers published by Australian soil campaigner Christine Jones, but none of these were from peer reviewed journals. That said it does make some interesting points about how we manage agricultural soils.

The main thesis of the book is that by storing more carbon in soils we can improve soil fertility, reduce the need for agrochemicals and retain water in soils setting up a virtuous circle which captures carbon and combats climate change. Certainly soil carbon is an important element of the carbon cycle, and soil carbon stocks should be maintained and where possible enhanced.

The cows referred to in the book’s title are supposed to save the planet by adding manure and breaking up impervious, dry clay surfaces increasing rainwater infiltration which in turn promotes plant growth which returns more carbon to the soil. However the numbers to back this up aren’t presented, so while there is anecdotal evidence that changes to grazing management and increased stocking levels might be beneficial for some degraded soils in hot dry regions with mineral soils the applicability of this to organic or organo-mineral UK soils which are cool and wet is less clear. On UK soils there is a risk of compaction, erosion and loss of soil structure where high stocking levels lead to over-grazing. The author almost completely ignores the effect which increased nitrogen inputs from manure and urine could have on nitrous oxide emissions and nitrate run-off as well as dismissing the increase in methane emissions which would occur from increased ruminant numbers.

At times Schwartz seems convinced that climate change can be tackled by increasing soil carbon stocks alone. However limits on the capacity of soils to increase carbon stocks are not considered. While soils can undoubtedly make a contribution to removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, at times the book strays close to climate denial suggesting that no other action is necessary and that we can continue with business as usual use of fossil fuels and expect soils to mop up all of the carbon dioxide released with no need for lifestyle and technological change.

Schwartz blames the agrochemical industry for soil degradation. It is certainly true that agricultural intensification has caused problems for soils. While  efforts to remedy this have focussed on supplementing major plant nutrients by adding synthetic fertilisers less attention has been given to trace nutrients and soil carbon. Another cause of soil degradation which gets less attention in the book is the transposition of European agricultural practices to parts of the world for which they were not developed for. Ploughing the prairies caused enormous damage to soils long before the advent of modern agrochemicals. We should recognise the diversity of global soils and be wary of treating imported soil management practices such as tillage reduction, use of cover crops, mob grazing or biochar addition as “magic bullets”.

The final chapter takes a look at economic context of soil management. Here Schwartz’s economics background comes to the fore, pointing out that economic growth has to be constrained by the ability of environmental resources to support it. She also discusses the economic benefits of managing soil well so that inputs of fertilisers and pesticides can be reduced, and how we could better value the contributions which soils make to the economy.

I came away from this book with mixed feelings about it. There are some flaws in it’s analysis, however it does make the case for better management of soils and for more value to be given to the services they provide, and that has to be a good thing.

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Howling

The house cried the day we left, wailing out its loneliness and the small tragedies of passing time. At first it spooked us, then we realised that it was the just the wind blowing through the open door and squeezing out through gaps around the ill-fitting u-PVC windows our stepmother had installed when she’d been offered a special, but probably not lower, price by a telephone salesman.

When our step-mother moved into a care home, family friends, the fake “aunties” of our childhood, expected my sister and I to find clearing the house upsetting. In fact the house that was our childhood home had left our lives more than two decades before when our widowed father remarried. We were in our early twenties then and had left home. Our father considered us independent, so felt no need to consult us on changes to the house. Deep down we still felt like children needing a secure haven. Each time we returned more had changed. Our step-mother imposed her taste: sterile beige in place the patterns my mother chose for their ability to mask the dirt a family brought in with their comings and goings; carefully arranged nicknacks in place of randomly placed clutter.

It was the house we grew up in, but we had been filtered out of it. When we visited we laughed at the faux Grecian statues in the garden we had played in and made a game of re-arranging the ornaments when no-one was looking. But this was just bravado. Sometimes I woke at night dreaming that my mother was wandering round the house asking why they had thrown out all of her things. I couldn’t answer her.

As we cleared the house, we found few remains of our past. What we kept was mostly everyday items too useful to bin: envelopes, loo cleaner, teabags. Now and again we discovered small items that made us stop: my baby teeth in a matchbox in the bureau drawer, notepads of my sister’s drawings, postcards sent by our grandparents from holidays in a lost world. The past drawing us back like quicksand.

In the end closing the door for the last time stopped the howling. It was the key which finally located home, not in my step-mother’s house but in the house where my own family is growing up.

Bothy Nightmares

Back in the early 1990s a guy who may or may not have been called Bob used to frequent bothies in the Highlands and write poems in the bothy logbooks. They were always apocalyptic scenes of destruction “Vietnam Nightmares” “Russian Nightmares”, “American Nightmares” and so on.

I met “Bob” once at Suardalen Bothy near Glenelg. I don’t know his life history, but he stayed in Glasgow, and seemed to spend much of his time visiting various bothies. He wasn’t a mountaineer, but he liked potter around, looking at “eagles”(which may or may not have been buzzards), fishing (not very successfully) and enjoying being away from the city. He reminded me of a pit pony retired to the countryside. He could be tracked around bothies by his distinctive poems.

Bob was probably in his mid 50s. I guess he might have been retired, but I think its more likely he was out of work given the state of industrial Scotland at the time, or perhaps he’d come out of the army. I don’t know. Anyway, he’s one of those characters who made an impression, so I thought he deserved a poem of his own.

Sourlies---Duncan-McCallum

You came out here from the city sprawl
Anonymous tenement crowds
To find yourself
Some space and blue sky.
To look for eagles .
To soar
Above the now-cold furnaces,
Abandoned pits,
Smoky hard men’s bars
And faintly piss-damp closes.

You joined the flotsam in the hard floored hall
Far from the centre, with no jobs,
The queue snaking between contempt and indifference
Signed on and took the Giro cash.
Bought a ticket to Dalwhinnie or Corrour or Achnasheen,
Who would bother to check you’re “actively seeking work?”
Who would care
In the cold, dark no-name streets?

You walked, walked in the mizzling rain
Over the hill.
Buckles jingling on the threadbare canvas bag.
Its load of tins and whisky gouge your back,
Old leaky boots squelch the morasse,
Towards another time
When Papa and Aunty May
Cut the stooks in pre-war twilight fields
While you chased the mice from the last stand.

And then the Bothy,
The last of the shieling
Within a tumbled wall.
A clump of daffodils by the door,
Abandoned rhubarb erupting from ground
Where once there was more tenderness and care.
Inside, bag on the bare counter,
Primus on the boil, you stoke the fire,
And stare into the flames;

Smoke and the burning buildings,
Screaming children and droning planes.
Nightmares.
Bombs and bodies.
Vietnam, Russia, America
Nightmares fill the notebook
Strong, square capitals on the ruled page.
Here with the eagles and the deer
Monarch of the Glen, you find humanity again.

The Blog Tour

This post is part of a Blog Tour which is a sort of online chain letter where people answer questions about their writing process. Biggar based poet and philosopher Andrew McCallum got me interested in taking part, and posted his entry last week. I only started mucking about writing stuff fairly recently, so please refer to the proper writers like Andrew and Pauline who’s following me if you want to find out who real writers do it!  Also apologies for being a day late posting this – I think it should have gone up yesterday!

Anyway, here are my musings!

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 What am I working on?

I’ve got a few more ideas for blogs on environmental politics in Scotland. Plus I’d like to do a blog about a couple of Victorian scrap books which I was given that belonged to two of my great grandmothers, and how their relative permanence compares to the ephemeral online world we have today. Plus I’ve got a few more poem ideas I’m fiddling about with.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I’m not sure that I have a genre! I’m pretty new to writing anything so I’m mucking about trying different things. I guess with the more overtly political stuff I’m trying to start from common experiences and move in, whereas the more everyday stuff seems to get infused with a bit of a political slant. But then politics should be about everyday life and everyday life is about politics (although not necessarily party politics) whether we recognise that or not.

Why do I write what I do?

I used to write poems from my teens into my early twenties, then stopped for a combination of reasons. At work I write a lot of technical scientific stuff, and I’ve been hankering after writing something a bit more lyrical and free-flowing for a while, but haven’t had time.

About a year ago a friend took me on a tour of Cockenzie Power station in East Lothian just before the demolition teams moved in which was very poignant and gave me a kick up the backside to record this. Since then I’ve written a few more blogs and poems inspired by fairly random things that have happened in the real world or online. Scottish politics seems to creep into quite a few of them, mainly ‘cos its an interesting time for Scotland just now, and somehow or other I seem to have got sucked it. I’m not really a politician – I’m a mum who’s concerned about climate change and likes to have a good debate! Call it a mid-life crisis if you like!

How does your writing process work? 

I think it would be flattering to call it a process!

A lot of the stuff starts with something which happens which kicks off some ideas or strong feelings. If they spark off some word play that’s good, especially for poems. Some of the political posts stem from stuff I’ve been asked to speak about or give quotes on. I’ve found that t’internet is great for being able to do wee bits of background research quickly.

My big problem is finding time to write, although if I switched off Facebook I’d probably do better. Work is also but of an obstruction! Anyway having a bit of time between getting an idea and writing about it gives a bit of time to turn ideas round and examine them. I’ve started jotting down things I intend to write about, but don’t seem to be getting much off the list!

I like the idea of writing with pen and paper ‘cos I spend too much time in front of screens, but although I’ve tried I generally end up writing on the laptop ‘cos its easier to edit. Still, one poem I’m playing seems to be working in a notebook (but another have become two pages of crossing out!)

I probably need to re-read and edit more, but just getting stuff written in the first place is a bit of an achievement!

Anyway, thanks for getting this far!

NEXT WEEK

Pauline Lynch– Trainspotting actor Pauline Lynch is now a mother, playwright and novelist. Her blog is wide-ranging and sporadic, or perhaps unfocused and neglected – but always worth a look.
Simon Brooke blogs as The Fool on the Hill. Like the first little pig he lives in a house he built for himself of straw, and his power comes from the sun and the wind.

If anyone else would like to volunteer to join the Blog Tour next week please let me know and I’ll add you!

Climate change, the universe and everything

This post has its origins in a Facebook exchange, which had got rather long even before I editted it to add more, so I decided that it had better become a blogpost. It might not be the most lyrical post I’ve ever done, it lacks wimsey  or political edge, but it’s given me an entertaining evening pondering the place of scepticism in  science (which is what I do when I’m not ranting about politics, knitting or post industrial Scotland) and in society more widely.

The post was provoked by a comment on a link I posted on how much credence should be given to climate denial. The comment was

“scepticism is the order of the day. Ambiguity, doubt and ‘knowledgeable ignorance’ or ‘unbelief’ is the foundation of autonomous, free enquiry (σκέψις, skepsis) into the nature of the universe and the human relation to it. We’re in Hume and Feyerabend territory here. Science – today’s certainties – is no more exempt from freethinking than religion – yesterday’s certainties – was. According to Chomsky, this is why schools don’t teach or nurture critical thinking: their social function is to produce compliance and orthodoxy.”

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Now, before this descends into the name calling which all too often goes with the climate change/climate denial debate, I’ll point out that I don’t think that the poster was particularly disputing the idea that climate is changing –  it was more of a call for people to wake up and start questioning everything. Which is a good thing.  Picking apart who is elling us what; what we really know and what we’ve just accepted is very empowering. We need critical thinking, but is that what climate “sceptics” are doing?

But in the context of climate change can questioning everything be dangerous? Does it give licence to those who for various reasons want to carry on with business as usual while the overwhelming majority of climate scientists believe that we are facing a serious problem? The answer lies in how well we ask the questions; our assessment of the answers and how we act on them. Questioning and sceptical assessment is not something  which is generally encouraged.  Look at the “big picture” on any issue you like but don’t let it get so big that you question the status quo!

So returning to science should we question everything? Well, yes, but some things are more open to doubt than others. So at the scale of the universe that we operate at gravity makes things fall to the floor; plants need light and water to grow; ice melts when it’s heated etc. These are well known phenomena and the theories behind why they are as they are have stood up to challenge. We tell stories to explain what we see (but we may not see everything e.g we miss effects at the very large, very small or very distant levels). Sometimes they’re wrong (the earth is not sitting on a turtle), sometimes they’re reasonable given the state of knowledge at the time but later proved wrong, which shows the value of sceptism e.g the phlogiston theory or the idea of four humours governing mood and personality etc. When theories relate to observations which we can make ourselves we should test them ourselves.

When the observations are made by someone else then we have to view everything through a “reliability filter”. This is where the scientific peer review process is useful and also where conspiracy theories abound. This is where science can start to get subjective (and it inevitably does because it’s carried out by people). Do we believe the observer? Are they seeing what they think they see? Are they lying? Has the instrument screwed up? Are the investigators shoe-horning their observations into an established theory when they fit something else better? Are we giving credence too easily to a “big name”? Being aware of the subjectivity and asking the questions is something which  science educators tend not to encourage. In science and even more in wider society we don’t like mould-breakers and iconoclasts.

So yes, there is scope for questioning even the most established theories, but those questions must lead to testable hypotheses otherwise they’re just speculation. Speculation can be fun (there are some good sci fi plots in it as well as the basis of various myths, and some plain weirdness) or it can be harmless and possibly constructive e.g mulling over whether there might be parallel universes (which can produce some elegant theories from philosophers and mathematicians, but nothing which can be proved in the physical world very easily at the moment), and lots of conspiracy theories, but a limited amount of activity which is likely to shed any new light on anything.  But ill informed or badly executed scepticism can be at best a distraction and at worst dangerous. In other cases scepticism can make room for alternative view points given our current state of knowledge.

I don’t know how dowsing works, but have been somewhat gobsmacked to find that I can detect buried pipes and cables with a couple of metal rods – this shouldn’t happen, but it does. I don’t know how, but it does. I can see no basis by which homeopathy can work but some people are convinced: is this just a result of subjectivity or misplaced cause and effect? Or is there something happening which we don’t understand? (At the moment I think subjectivity, placebo effects and the persuasion of snake oil salesmen probably explain homeopathy, but I could be proved wrong in time). In both of these examples the consequences of the alternative theories are not terribly serious.

Whether speculation is a problem or not depends on the consequences and on the motivations of those who indulge in it. With climate change the consequences are extremely serious, and the motivation of the “sceptics” sometimes extremely murky. The basis of climate change theory is well established and fairly easily testable. The idea that some gases such as carbon dioxide absorb heat has been established for over a century and Arrhenius published a theory on how this might affect global temperatures in 1896.

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As far as I’m aware none of the climate “sceptics” have questioned this theory or produced any observations to disprove it. Therefore the point stands that increasing levels of CO2 and other gases are almost certain to lead to heat trapped in the earth’s atmosphere and so in increase in average global temperatures.

What the climate “sceptics” tend to question is the measurements and the effects of increasing greenhouse gases. Humans can’t directly detect increasing greenhouse gases or small temperature increases over long periods, so we do have to be aware of possible bias in the measurement and reporting. In the case of greenhouse gas concentrations I am not aware of any evidence that they are falling on decadal timescales (they do fluctuated seasonally which is expected as leaves fall from trees and regrow). So while I can question the answer to the question, the evidence that we have is that there is nothing wrong with the measurements which have been made in different places and in different ways over a reasonable period.

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We can question why this increase is happening, but we know that humans are acting in ways which are likely to emit greenhouse gases, and do little that removes them. Other factors are involved, but so far nothing has been suggested which could plausibly cause the change in atmospheric and oceananic CO2 concentrations we have seen. We need to wake up and do something about this. Urgently!

Finally climate “sceptics” and many scientists can question what the effect of these changes in greenhouse gas concentration will be on the world’s weather. This is where is gets really complicated and there is lots of scope of debate and many genuine unknowns because the interaction between land, atmosphere, oceans, biosphere, the sun, and clouds etc is complicated. It takes a lot of measurement and computing power to get at this. Perhaps even Deep Thought. The answer may be 42 – but probably not as climate change is only part of the question! And as Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy points out the answer is only the lead-in to the next question!

HINT next question might be what is motivating the climate “sceptics”?