Gentle Decline 2/25: Tabs & Thanks
In which there is a variety of stuff, suitable to the early part of the year, and in which tabs are closed.
Hello! This issue has, again, some positive news, some commentary on news items where I want to close the browser tab, and some reader questions from Anton and Gretchen. I’m experimenting with section headers; feedback is welcome.
[Gentle Decline is an occasional newsletter about climate crisis, and - more to the point - how to cope with it. All issues are free! You can support the newsletter via Patreon (where there’s sometimes further discussion about particular points), Ko-fi, or by buying some of the seriously classy merchandise, including the new Plant More Trees t-shirt.]
There are bison in England again; the Kunming-Montreal Global biodiversity framework has been agreed on by most of the world; renewable power is accelerating fast. There’s thinking on non-private infrastructure & city planning. And Toyota is working on upgrading older cars to be more eco-friendly.
In vindication of my long-held ideas about such things, Bloomberg reports “There’s […] longer-term need for UK supply chains to become more resilient, through onshoring and climate-change mitigation”. And at the same time, they’re reporting that there’s not enough of that shortening happening, which isn’t surprising. As far as I can see from both news coverage and direct experience with clients, a lot of business owners are really hoping that supply chain management is going to go back to the reasonably easy and straightforward way it was in 2019, and avoiding thinking about any other possibilities.
I’ve a pile of thinking backed up - for years, in some cases - around the concept of private ownership of land, and the effects of enclosure in the Isles. It’s not really a concern with regard to climate changes (well, it is, but short of a global revolution and/or the arrival of a worldwide non-capitalist economic system, nothing’s going to change it), so it’s rarely come up here. One of the essays often quoted in support of globalisation (and thereby privatisation, and the supply lines I spend so much time thinking about) is “The Tragedy of the Commons”, which basically holds that resources not in private ownership will inevitably be overused and destroyed. However, I discovered recently that the guy who wrote it (who was also a fairly enthusiastic eugenicist) later retracted it, having been shown considerable evidence against it. I want to go back in time a couple of decades and provide my younger self with that particular datum; it would have made a satisfying difference in a good few online arguments. I suspect now that commons lands would be a lot more resistant to environmental degradation.
One of the principal measurements of economic difficulty - ignoring nonsense like GDP and average income and so on, which are skewed by financial instruments and wealthy people - is the price of food. There’s an argument to be made that the availability of food was a strong factor in almost every revolution and rebellion in history; well fed people mostly don’t rebel. Well, worldwide food prices have hit an all-time high. Some of that is down to effects of COVID and the war in Ukraine, but a lot of it has climate chaos as a root cause.
Ireland has about 300 wind farms, so more turbines than anyone can easily total up - but well more than two thousand, by a very conservative count. 189 of those are offshore, near Arklow. Would you like to know how many offhsore wind turbines the US has? Seven. Numbers like that absolutely astonish me, still.
There’ve been a good few questions in various media over the last few weeks. Thank you! Some I’m getting to here, others will take some more research to answer. Some are just out of scope for this newsletter: while I am massively in favour of biodiversity efforts, I don’t know enough about them to contribute anything useful, and I really can’t say much about the preservation of particular species. Mostly my attitude there comes down to: plant more trees, let some areas go wild, and nature will provide its own bio-diversity. More questions are always welcome, though, from the most basic to the most finicky, and I’m usually happy to respond to challenges of my thinking, too.
Anton asks: Will we ever get to a stage where people (slash legislators/consumers/even manufacturers) say "enough is enough. We don't have a perfect mousetrap, but the one we have is kinda good enough." Question prompted by this (which is a link to somebody’s account of buying a wifi enabled kettle to see if it returns a HTTP status 418, which is about the nerdiest thing I’ve typed in months and that’s saying something).
Ok, so. Evidence suggests that the gadgetiest gadget on Gadgetday in the Land of Gadgets will still have a market, because people love intricacy and complexity and so forth. Check out Gothic Boxwood Miniatures, for instance, for a historical example. So consumers are not going to stop this. Manufacturers sell to consumers, so they’re not going to stop it. And legislators respond only to votes (somewhat), which come from consumers, and money (mostly) which comes from manufacturers. So, in essence, no.
It is possible that the right to repair movement will be part of a change from the current culture of cheaply produced buy-replacement-instead-of-repair goods. And once you need to repair this nonsense, you’ll find you didn’t much need it in the first place. But that will require a fairly major change, and the reappearance of people who can repair stuff.
Also, it’s worth considering that many (not all) of these weird internet-enabled or wifi-connecting devices do make sense if you’re disabled. Voice activated lights are an absolute boon for anyone who has movement issues, or who hasn’t the dexterity to work a light switch. A lot of wifi devices fall into that category, really, although I don’t think the wifi kettle does.
But mostly I think that changes in this come down to Anton’s second question:
What happens when we pass peak oil production and plastics start to become more expensive or have more limited availability? I'm thinking particularly in terms of food wrapping and preservation, where they're ubiquitous. Are there alternatives in development (I'm aware of plant starch drinking cups and the like) that will be able to scale? Because the problem with growing plant alternatives is they take up land used for food production...
Eventually, we’ll need use something else. Less packaging is one solution. Re-usable packaging (glass and very recycleable cans) is a second string. But anything that’s not glass or metal is going to have to be plant or animal-based (or both: waxed cloth), and yes, those do take up agricultural room. Re-usable packaging will probably make an appearance for the first time in a few decades. But when it comes down to it, we managed to sell food to each other for a few thousand years without plastic (including shipping over considerable distances), and we can do it again.
For hard plastics, we can replace them with other materials. Wood, glass, and metal are the foremost, and it’s worth noting that very high-end goods are still (or again) in these materials. I haven’t a lot of plastic in the kitchen anymore, and I’m gradually elimiating what’s there. Honestly, putting plastic utensils in contact with cast iron pans makes me uncomfortable anyway. Wooden laptops and desktops are already a thing. Early radios and televisions had wooden cases; there’s very little stopping that from happening again. I guarantee you some hipster out there has replaced the plastic casing on their TV with pallet wood.
Many of these things are inherently re-usable. Timber that goes into a table now could make the casing on a computer of some kind in 60 years’ time (indeed, there’s a useful business model for someone in buying up badly damaged antique furniture for that right now), which could become the casing for whatever a phone then is 20 years later, and eventually be used as kindling. Most metals can be melted down and re-used. Glass certainly can; it’s one of the most recyclable materials out there.
And glass (and other) containers can just be straight up re-used, which is honestly the most useful approach. There are zero-waste shops already in existence, like this one in Rathmines.
Gretchen asks: what’s currently in your emergency food store?
I’ve established a decent habit of having the emergency food store as just the normal day-to-day supply of food, only a bit “deeper”. This means that first, the emergency stuff is the same stuff as we normally use, and second, it doesn’t go out of date. Apparently there have been issues with some prepper types buying up loads of protein bars and canned meat, only to find they can’t stand them. And obviously food going out of date is a problem. So my current approach is essentially to have a pantry (virtually; the current layout of the house doesn’t allow for a single storage place, although I have plans for that) which has more of some stuff in it than average. And I’ve just replenished some bits of it which had run a bit lower over the holidays.
Things that more-than-average currently includes: pasta, in a few forms (about twenty assorted-size packs). Rice (Tilda basmati, a few kilos). Tinned tomatoes, beans, lentils, chickpeas, anchovies, tuna, and an assortment of other stuff. Some jams and chutneys and such. A selection of the herbs and spices I actively use (my stash of Middle Eastern and medieval herbs and spices probably counts here too, but many of them are things you wouldn’t often use, like mustard seeds or betel leaf). Flour and sugar (currently in need of some replenishment), and some other baking goods. Tea. Coffee.
Basically, there’s enough there to provide adequate food for about two weeks. We’ll probably be a bit bored by the end of it, but won’t be reduced to fried Spam.
That’s probably enough for one issue. As discussed on Patreon (link is visible to everyone, not just subscribers), I’m looking to publish a bit more regularly this year, so expect to hear from me again in about two weeks’ time, day-job allowing.