Particulart, or the art of knitting, chemistry, meditation and gentle protest

The politics

The first Particulart exhibition was a collaboration between Diana Moore and myself, running in the Exeter Real Food café from Monday 13th October to Saturday 29th November 2014. Particulart is all about knitting. It’s also all about the Exeter Incinerator, which was inaugurated on 16th October 2014, and about waste management strategy, and monitoring emissions, and the environment, and health, and transparency, and visual impact, and chemistry.

The Incinerator had already happened, and we couldn’t change that. But we want to make sure it is operated properly, and knitting and emitting particles was our way of telling other people about it and its potential impacts. Hence the timing of the exhibition, and the exhibition launch party the evening before the Incinerator’s inauguration.

As we were preparing the exhibition, Brooks Newmark, in his first major speech as the new minister for civil society, said: “We really want to try and keep charities and voluntary groups out of the realms of politics… The important thing charities should be doing is sticking to their knitting and doing the best they can to promote their agenda, which should be about helping others.” Mr Newmark, as well as being patronising, clearly doesn’t know his knitters very well. I expect there were a few tricoteuses cackling when his head metaphorically rolled into the basket three weeks later. We just laughed, tweeted the link, and carried on with our knitting and politics… although, broadly speaking, I did the knitting and exhibition and Diana did the politics and launch.

Diana composed a letter to Devon Council and Exeter City Councillors, inviting them to the exhibition launch and making a number of requests:

  • increased transparency to enable peace of mind on public health and the environment – that is, enhanced monitoring and public reporting of emissions
  • a commitment to waste reduction and recycling – including better information, and composting instead of incineration of food waste
  • increased transparency over the contract – including information about the cost to the tax payer, value for money, cost of operation, profit

We waited for their response, Diana wrote a press release and dealt with local media, and I continuing knitting and planning the exhibition hanging.

The Incinerator’s official name is the Marsh Barton Energy from Waste / Energy Recovery Facility, which makes it sound all nice and positive: all that waste just going to waste, and we can generate electricity and heat from it. But the beast needs feeding, and what if Devon County Council were fined if it couldn’t provide enough waste to operators Tiru and Viridor? The County Waste Manager states that “The [Exeter] plant has been sized to ensure that there will always be sufficient waste to feed it and as such there are no plans to have to restrict recycling to feed the plant or bring waste from further afield”, but also acknowledges the “concern that a degree of complacency [over recycling] may occur given Exeter’s waste would no longer be going to landfill but would be used to generate energy”. An incinerator is an incentive to generate more waste, rather than to reduce, reuse or recycle. And burning 1 tonne of waste generates on average about 1 tonne of carbon dioxide, so what if that electricity from waste displaced a lower-carbon alternative? And what if there were problems with its operation, so it emitted harmful, even toxic, pollution? Much of Exeter, not least Devon County Council’s offices, are downstream in a prevailing wind.

The artwork

Particulart comprised my 3D knitted representations of a series of particles that the Incinerator would inevitably emit, such as carbon dioxide, and that it shouldn’t emit, such as toxic dioxins and furans.

We also commissioned three new works from photographer Benjamin J Borley. The Incinerator is located on the corner of Grace Road South and Alphin Brook Road, on the edge of Marsh Barton Trading Estate next to the railway, Exeter Canal, and Riverside Valley Park. It all sounds as though it should be lovely and bucolic. But the Trading Estate certainly isn’t, and now the Valley Park is dominated by a hulking grey industrial armadillo. And the red light at the top of its chimney is visible from miles around, day and night – Sauron’s malevolent eye at the top of the Dark Tower of Barad-dûr.

In his studies, Ben beautifully captured the monolithic nature of the building, and its juxtaposition with the neighbouring green space. It stands both separate and other from its context, yet negatively impacts upon it. Ben used an infra-red filter in one photo, which turns vegetation a polluted pink. In another, the early light gives the Incinerator an almost radioactive glow. And in the final of the three studies we used, the building dwarfs the human scale of a team of local media.

By contrast, the knitted particles are homely, warm and comfortable, approachable, innocent, and non-threatening.

Each particle is made up of a number of atoms and bonds knitted in acrylic yarn. The design follows the ball and stick model and the CPK colour scheme used in chemistry. So carbon is black, mercury and other metals are grey, oxygen is red, hydrogen is white, nitrogen is blue, fluorine is light-green, chlorine is mid-green, bromine is dark green, and sulphur is yellow. I stuffed the atoms with those plastic bags that charities keep dropping through the letterbox, and stiffened the particles with coathanger wire.

The materials used are not natural and beautiful. The yarn is manufactured from oil not natural fibres. The plastic bags and wire are, well, plastic bags and wire. The carbon footprint of the particles, including yarn, bags and wire, is just over 5kg CO2, equivalent to a couple of burgers. However, as only a fraction of charity plastic bags are actually used to collect bric-a-brac, and it can be difficult to recycle wire coathangers, reusing them keeps a few at least out of the Incinerator.


Particulart encompasses the senses of sight, through Ben’s photos worth a thousand words, and of touch. Knitting epitomises the material relationship between human being and things. It references the handmade, and the clothing which sits next to the skin and expresses our personalities. Particulart takes both the maker and the audience on a journey from data and scientific thought to the more tactile areas of the brain. So it is not just about thinking, but about doing and experiencing, as life must be.

Like other old skills coming back into vogue, knitting is a model of thrift, of making and mending. Old knitted garments can be darned, or unravelled and made anew. Reuse and recycling is creative; incineration is destructive. And yet Particulart subverts craft and chemistry. The particles are not useful, unlike warm woolly jumpers, socks or tea cosies. Nor is a toxic dioxin cuddly, unlike its 3D knitted representation (at least before I stiffened it with wire for hanging).

Particulart is also countercultural. The making of it required a certain slowness, presence in the moment and attentiveness. There are no short cuts to knitting a particle. Each stitch must be stitched, sometimes more than once if I made a mistake! At times it became a meditative practice, each stitch a mantra akin to the ancient Christian prayer-word “Maranatha”, which occupied my surface rational brain and allowed contemplation in the depths. At other times, I found myself mulling over the issue. While the act of assembling data and information about the particles increased knowledge of the issue, the act of making led to a deeper care and concern about the issue, and attention to how the audience might understand the issue and respond to the exhibition.

The concept of the exhibition emerged with a certain slowness. It all began with a cup of tea and general chitchat in the Real Food café in March 2013. Diana floated the idea of knitting molecules to leave around Exeter. I was interested and immediately started investigating the emissions from incinerators, but it wasn’t until July that I started looking into chemistry models and knitting patterns. With Diana’s encouragement, I prototyped a carbon dioxide, which was too big and time-consuming to knit, so I experimented with reducing the pattern. In September, we met again to discuss a new idea of displaying the particles in a gallery before ’emitting’ them into the community, the latest on Incinerator launch dates, and avenues for publicity.

It is important that there were two of us involved from the beginning. Together we could take ideas for a walk, and find that we had voices which were saying “we can do something”, and that we could be voices. The writer Betsy Greer coined the portmanteau word ‘craftivism’ in 2003, and defined it as “a way of looking at life where voicing opinions through creativity makes your voice stronger, your compassion deeper & your quest for justice more infinite”. In knitting, Diana and I had found a gentle way of creating an opening to get our message heard.

Particulart thereafter became a means of opening out the conversation and creating a community of interest.

Diana joined the Incinerator’s Liaison Committee, as a local resident, and the conversation extended to the construction companies, their PR, councillors and other members of the committee. Diana was invited to the inauguration, and we invited the Committee to our launch, which led to one of the most positive responses we had to the exhibition. One of the subcontractors who attended the launch told us they were used to attending shouty aggressive protests, which did little beyond alienating people. Our gentle protest made him much more interested in engaging, and he liked the potential for educating the public too.

Diana and I talked to other knitters who wanted to participate, to our friends, to members of the Politics department at the University, and to other artists in Exeter, as well as to the Real Food store who kindly hosted the exhibition. Then there were the networks and conversations that happened and are still happening on social media, Twitter in particular. And last but not least there were the interactions arising from the exhibition and its making: between the maker and the made, between the particles and Ben’s photos, and between the exhibition and its audience.

Diana crocheted a basket of PM2.5 (tiny clumps of carbon which cause havoc in the lungs) for giving away to people at the exhibition launch and the Incinerator inauguration, and leaving on the tables in the café during the exhibition. They went far and wide from the launch, and were a big hit with Viridor staff at the inauguration. At the end of the exhibition, we found only one left in the café. Who knows where the others went, and what conversations they prompted.

Kaleider is an arts production studio in Exeter that produces some really interesting work arising from the question “What can we do together that we cannot do apart?” They make art that interrupts the dominant narratives in our society: “We want to make interruptive gifts; we want to create experiences where those dominant narratives are problematised for a moment; to provoke a moment of reflection; to tell a counter story; to design different narratives.” The art is about encounter, where the work meets the audience and ‘forces’ interaction in a joyful, playful and engaging way. I got to know Kaleider after the exhibition, but it seems to me that serendipitously by showing Particulart in a café we did something similar. In any case, producing “interruptive gifts” is a good aim for the future. Here are a few of the comments and tweets we received:

  • I do like a bit of #knitted art over coffee.
  • I was drinking my tea at Real Food, when I noticed a knitted particle on the table, then I realised I was surrounded by organic chemistry.
  • Had a sneak preview. Looks amazing. Do go along and see something you will never have seen before.

It also strikes me that engaging with Particulart required as much slowness as the making of it did. And therefore an independent café, where time is slowed and the audience is relaxed, is the ideal location for an encounter with a bunch of knitted chemistry with a message. Maybe its impact wasn’t instant, but perhaps in conversation and subsequent reflection it formed and refined and sunk in and was digested and will be long-lasting.


But is it art? Nowadays, the art of ideas jostles alongside the art that imitates the world. Although Particulart does represent the molecular building blocks of the world, it primarily reflects on the culture and society in which we live, exploring the issues and effects of consumerism and accountability: the production and treatment of waste, the interactions between humans and rest of our environment, and even the disjunction between science and the rest of culture.

In an episode of “What Do Artists Do All Day?” screened in November 2014, the Chapman Brothers said that in some of their work they were “trying to just ruin the assumption that art has some progressive motion to it. And we think that by doing things like flower arranging and knitting that in some ways we can undermine the heroic nature of making art. We can just turn it into something prosaic.” Their position supports the notion that knitting can be art, even if it is phrased somewhat pejoratively. But does it differ from the use of craft in activism? Perhaps other craftivism goes further in explaining its purpose, meaning and demands. We produced an interpretative board and website that outlined our requests, and this blog is overly explicative, but I think and hope the exhibition also allowed space for interpretation. Anyway, I suspect that question doesn’t matter because craftivism is art anyway.

Either way, some “real artists” (as I call them) in Exeter received Particulart as art, which is good enough for me. And Matt Harvey, the local Wondermentalist, also commented that the particle name “2,3,7,8-Tetrachlorodibenzo-para-dioxin” was poetry in its own right, which was an added bonus.

So now what?

Diana is continuing to hold Devon County Council to account. The set of Incinerator particles is available to other protest groups on loan. Except, that is, for my out-size prototype carbon dioxide, which we will one day soon give away via Free Art Friday. Maybe we could go into schools and teach pupils how to skpo and kfb as a means of introducing them (and their teachers) to the issues.

I am developing the Particulart concept further to encompass further issues and more chemistry. “A Stitch in Time” is on the subject of climate change, and is being exhibited in Bristol Cathedral during Lent 2015. This Wednesday, 25th February, I am giving a talk in Exeter (I have reused my title as the title of this blog) and I would like to do more speaking and writing about the concept and the issues.

But I will leave the last word to my favourite tweet: “I wish I could adequately describe how happy I am that knitted molecular chains are an actual thing.”


Where have we put our treasure?

Following my article on fracking for Third Way, Operation Noah asked me to write a short piece for its Bright Now blog on divestment from fossil fuels. Here it is…

In a Resurgence article based on his latest book The Energy of Nations, Jeremy Leggett gives the history of four systemic risks in energy markets: climate change and the need to keep fossil fuels in the ground; the resulting carbon bubble in capital markets; corporate losses in US shale gas and oil production, which means the ‘boom’ may just be a bubble; and peak production of affordable oil.

Expanding on the second risk, he writes: ‘Over the next 10 years, spending [by the world’s 200 biggest gas and oil companies on expanding and developing their reserves] could exceed US$6 trillion, if things stay as they are. This is one very big bet the policymakers will do nothing about climate change. In the last year, key investors have balked at that bet. Major insurers and pension funds have curbed their investment in coal and oil.’ State pension funds in Norway and Sweden have said they would ‘withdraw from all fossil-fuel investments, for fear of assets being stranded’. Australian coal investments are under huge pressure, as China develops legislation to ban coal use. ‘Investors arguing that capital expenditure was too high and dividends were too low forced Shell to cancel all Arctic drilling in 2014.’ And hence, ‘Investors may increasingly be setting up future emissions reductions by default [for climate policymakers].’

So divestment makes sense in two ways: it works, and every divestment, however small, adds to the momentum; and it makes financial sense to join the World Council of Churches, the British Medical Association and the University of Glasgow and pull out before the crash!

It is not as though alternative investments aren’t available. I recently wrote an article for Third Way magazine about fracking, in which I argued ‘Even a cursory comparison with the renewables sector clearly shows that fracking is a distraction … A second “dash for gas” would lock the UK into a high-carbon future, and would divert investment away from cleaner renewables now.’ For individuals, the Which? Ethical Investments Guide and provide independent information on green and ethical money, including investments, banking, pensions and insurance. And for those looking for a social return on their investment, there are plenty of opportunities to invest in community energy schemes – from Abingdon Hydro via REPOWERBalcombe to Zouch Solar, which I may have made up!

Some of the responses on Twitter to Glasgow University’s announcement are interesting. A couple argue that divesting is ‘futile symbolism’ unless the University also stops using fossil fuels, and I think they partly have a point.

In my fracking article, I concluded that the UK government’s keenness to promote fracking is about money and power: ‘[George] Osborne is hoping for a repeat of the North Sea oil bonanza, and there are strong links between the government and the fracking industry.’ But I also had to acknowledge our own culpability. ‘There is a disconnect between public opinion of fracking “in my back yard”, and our energy-hungry lifestyles … We are addicted to energy, and take it for granted.’

Money equals power, and giving the fossil fuel companies our money, whether as investment or payment for energy, means giving them power. I am happy to say that I bank with Co-op, buy my energy from Good Energy, and am at present car-free. But as a participant in the UK economy, I am still locked in to fossil fuels, and spending money on almost anything means oil production and carbon emissions.

The Christian Climate Action group asks What Would Jesus Divest?* But I asked ‘[W]here have we put our treasure, and thereby our heart?’ (Matthew 6:19-21) Do we see ourselves deep-down as consumers and individuals, or citizens and neighbours and members of the body of Christ seeking God’s Kingdom? After all, the treasure hidden in the field (Matthew 13:44) is not a pocket of shale gas to be exploited, but rather, as R. S. Thomas suggested in The Bright Field, ‘the eternity that awaits you’ … or perhaps we might say it is a ‘Bright Now’.

* It would perhaps be more accurate to ask what would the women providing for Jesus divest? See Luke 8:1-3.


BBC Bias

With reference to the stories in the Guardian and Independent about how the BBC is refusing to include the Green Party in the general election TV leader debates, here’s the complaint I made to the BBC…

The BBC has already been showing an extreme and (given the party’s rhetoric and policies) worrying bias towards UKIP. Now it is also displaying an extreme illogic in its inclusion of UKIP and the LibDems but exclusion of the Green Party in the general election TV leader debates. How is it possible to argue this based on the 2010 General Election results, when UKIP had a grand total of zero MPs, and on polling since, given that the Greens have overtaken the LibDems?

It is notable that UKIP support is concentrated in the parts of the country with the least immigration, which might indicate that immigration is no big deal where it has happened. I wish I had the words to express how dismayed I am at the way the BBC is giving a platform to UKIP. Its policies are deeply damaging to women, to our relationship with the rest of Europe, and to the future habitability of our planet. On the other hand, the Greens must be doing and saying something right, if they have the establishment so worried!

And here’s the amazingly quick response, which even at 8pm-ish appears to be tailored and not just automated. Good to know the licence fee goes towards a large phalanx of complaint-responders…

Dear Ms  Bryden

Thank you for contacting us about the proposed format for the 2015 General Election debates. We have received a wide range of feedback from supporters of different political parties across the UK. In order to use our TV licence fee resources efficiently, this response aims to answer the key concerns, but we apologise in advance if it doesn’t address your specific points in the manner you would prefer.

The BBC is working with other broadcasters to try and make election debates happen in 2015 and we believe we have set out a fair and realistic formula. Twenty two million people saw some of the debates in 2010. They were very successful in engaging the electorate, especially first time voters and the broadcasters would like them to happen again at next year’s general election. We are also putting forward our own proposals for other debates across the UK.

Ensuring impartiality during an election campaign is a priority and judgements about debates, and other programmes, are taken on the basis of objective editorial assessments of a number of factors, including the levels of past and current electoral support for each party.

Although UKIP did not win a seat in the 2010 general election, they polled more than three times as many votes as the Green Party, which did win a seat. In the 2014 European elections, UKIP topped the poll, beating all the Westminster parties in terms of seats (24) and share of the vote (more than 27% – up more than 10% on 2009). The Greens won three seats in the European election, with just under 8% of the vote (a small drop since 2009).

UKIP have also performed strongly in local government elections in England for the past two years and have more councillors than the Greens. Before their victory in Clacton, UKIP had come second in every Westminster by-election for the last two years – the Greens’ best performance was around 4%.

We also take account of opinion polls, when there is a robust and consistent trend: UKIP have been regularly polling in the mid-teens for more than two years, well ahead, for instance, of the Liberal Democrats and around 10 percentage points ahead of the Greens.

The BBC has since responded to a letter from the Green Party, which expressed disappointment at the proposals unveiled by the UK’s four leading broadcasters for election debates next year. You can read the response in full at:

In Scotland, the BBC is proposing a debate, in peak time on BBC One, involving the leaders of the SNP, Scottish Labour, the Scottish Conservative and Scottish Liberal Democrat parties. We are proposing a similar format of debate on BBC One from Wales, involving the leaders of Plaid Cymru, Labour, the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats and UKIP. We have written to the parties to begin discussions about our proposals and we will ensure impartiality during the Election in Scotland and Wales. Full details of our content will be released over the coming months once they are finalised.

We hope this goes some way in addressing your concerns, thanks again for taking the time to contact us.

Kind Regards
BBC Complaints

To which I responded…

The implication is that the Green Party is the only party in Britain with an MP and local councillors and MEPs and polling over 5%, but no leader voice in any televised debate.

Also, I wondered whether you could respond to my comments about the BBC giving a platform to UKIP and ignoring the Green Party, which must at least partially be a factor in what you describe in your letter: “UKIP has demonstrated a substantial increase in electoral support since 2014 across a range of elections along with a consistent and robust trend across a full range of opinion polls; the Green party has not demonstrated any comparable increase in support in either elections or opinion polls”.

And they immediately came back with a repeat of their previous response, so it wasn’t tailored after all, and the licence fee is only going towards an algorithm. Rumbled!

And here’s where you too can make a complaint.


What the frack?

Published in Third Way, October 2014

Third Way

Depending who you ask, hydraulic fracturing – fracking – is either a panacea for our energy crisis or an environmental apocalypse in waiting. Clare Bryden drills through the propaganda in search of some answers.

Fracking has been a controversial news story since the protests at Balcombe in West Sussex against test drilling by Cuadrilla Resources in August 2013. In July this year, it knocked even the Middle East from the top of the news agenda when the Government announced the 14th Landward Licensing Round, opening up half of the UK to shale oil and gas exploration.1

Notably, it had refused to rule out fracking in National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and World Heritage Sites. New planning rules, also announced, stipulate that licences would be granted in these areas only in ‘exceptional circumstances’ if ‘it can be demonstrated they are in the public interest’, and give the Communities Secretary Eric Pickles the right to overturn planning decisions. But environmental campaigners are a suspicious group, and took the view that the rules allow Pickles the automatic right to overrule local authorities who reject an application, thereby actually making it easier for developers.

Here as elsewhere, much heat was generated – but what is the truth of the matter? Is fracking good or bad?


Gas production in the North Sea is in decline, and to continue to meet demand, it needs to be supplemented with imports of natural gas or shipped-in liquefied natural gas (LNG), or with alternative sources.

Shale oil and gas is tightly locked into very finegrained rock. ‘Fracking’ is a short-hand for hydraulic fracturing of the rock. The technique was developed in the US, where it has boosted oil production and driven down gas prices. It involves drilling a well vertically down, then horizontally into the shale layer. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is injected into the rock at high pressure, creating fissures, and allowing the oil or gas to flow out through the well.

The British Geological Survey (BGS) has identified abundant potential reserves of shale oil and gas across swathes of the UK, especially the north of England, the Midland Valley of Scotland, and the Weald Basin in southern England.2 Assuming that 10 per cent can be extracted, shale gas could meet the UK’s gas needs for more than 40 years. But there’s the rub. As the BGS notes, its estimate ‘represents the gas that we think is present, but not the gas that might be possible to extract… [which] depends on the economic, geological and social factors that will prevail at each operation.’


From thousands of wells in the US, companies have not extracted more than 5 per cent.3 US technology has been found not to work on Polish geology, even though Poland was thought in Europe to be the most likely to replicate the US success.4 The UK shale gas industry is in its infancy, and there is no reliable understanding of the geological factors without a programme of drilling and testing.

Again, even in the US, the economics do not necessarily stack up. Drilling is expensive, and because yields from shale wells typically halve in four months,5 ever more wells must be drilled just to maintain production. According to Jeremy Leggett, ‘Oil and gas companies drilling American shale today spend a collective dollar and a half for every dollar of oil and gas income’.6

Leggett also comments drily on the social factors: ‘Anyone who knows the extent of necessary industrialisation at a fracking sweet spot in America, and who also knows the sentiments of rural England, knows that it will be impossible to replicate the American shale boom in the UK.’ Which brings us back to the impacts of fracking on the environment.


An environmental report produced for the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), as part of its consultation on licensing proposals, considered the effects of ‘between 30 and 120 well pads being developed (each having between 6-24 wells and occupying up to 3 hectare of land per pad)’.7 It is difficult to conceive a well pad development the size of three Trafalgar Squares not having an impact on the countryside.

About one-tenth of the area now open for licensing is covered by the National Park or other protections. The rules covering the remainder of the country are unchanged. But I would argue that any local landscape and green space has value and needs conserving. Landscape is formative, the land is our heritage. Why else would we be so protective of our ‘backyard’, and the issue be so emotive?

Beneath our backyard, two minor earthquakes near Blackpool in April and May 2011 were seized on by campaigners as indicative of the dangers of fracking. A DECC report co-authored by the BGS concluded that test drilling by Cuadrilla was responsible and that further small earthquakes cannot be ruled out, but that the risk is low and structural damage extremely unlikely.8


Of greater concern is water, both the amount required for production and the risk of pollution and contamination of fresh water aquifers. Globally, fresh water is a more valuable resource than oil or gas. It is essential for life.

Each fracking well requires between 10,000 and 30,000 cubic metres of water. Over a decade of operation, this is equivalent to the amount needed to run a small coal-fired power station for just 12 hours. Even when multiplied up by hundreds of wells, the figures are therefore not exceptional. Nevertheless, water companies are required to produce a long-term water resource plan with contingency reserves in case of a drought, and will assess the amount of water available before providing it to fracking operators.9

The operators must declare the chemicals used in drilling and fracking to the environmental regulator, which assesses them for hazards on a case-by-case basis. Some of the water may return to the surface as flowback fluid, and the operator must dispose of this safely. Movement of flowback fluid by tanker may be an issue on local roads.


The risk of methane in drinking water is one of the most sensitive questions over fracking. The videos of people lighting the water coming out of their taps are somewhat unsettling.

According to mapping by the BGS and the Environment Agency, almost all the shale gas resource in England and Wales lies beneath at least one aquifer. An independent review by the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering considered the most likely cause of contamination to be faulty wells drilled through aquifers, and recommended well examination by independent specialists. It also found that the risk of fractures reaching overlying aquifers is very low if extraction takes place at depths of many hundreds of metres.10 The Environment Agency says it will refuse permission to developments if they are too close to supplies of drinking water.11

So far, then, it seems that the visual impact of fracking on the landscape is likely to be unacceptable. The local environmental risks should be manageable if robust regulation is introduced and enforced, although this is a big ‘if’, as ministers have rejected calls in the UK for specific regulation and defeated EU proposals.12


But what of the carbon footprint of shale gas, and can it, as claimed, be a bridge to a low-carbon future?

To have an even chance of keep global warming below 2°C, and avoid dangerous climate change, world carbon emissions must peak before 2020 then steadily decline. The total amount of carbon we can afford to emit is very small compared with the carbon content of coal, oil and gas reserves still in the ground. Countries, companies and individuals are therefore looking for low or zero-carbon alternatives.13

The UK has so far managed to meet its carbon targets largely through a ‘dash for gas’ replacing coal in electricity generation. DECC expects a second dash in the next few years, the share of renewables to increase steadily to 40 per cent by 2030, and new nuclear stations and coal and gas-fired power stations fitted with carbon capture and storage to come online from about 2025.14 So the government argues that shale gas could be an important bridge to help secure energy supplies until renewable energy capacity increases, while being a cleaner replacement for coal in the generation mix.


Anti-fracking campaigners point to a Cornell University study which found high methane leakage from fracking wells, giving shale gas a higher greenhouse gas footprint than coal. However, DECC’s chief scientific adviser considers this study to be an outlier. If adequately regulated – again, note the ‘if’ – local emissions should be only a small proportion of the shale gas footprint, which is similar to conventional gas, lower than LNG and significantly lower than coal.15

It seems clearer that UK shale gas cannot be considered a bridging fuel because of timescales. The chief executive of Cuadrilla has said it would take two or three years to drill enough test wells to determine whether commercial extraction is viable, and large-scale production would be unlikely to start for several years.16 Other commentators look to China, where the barriers to the industry are relatively low but significant production is still eight to ten years away, and consider timescales of fifteen to 20 years to be more realistic.17


Even a cursory comparison with the renewables sector clearly shows that fracking is a distraction. A 2009 report by National Grid found that biogas, produced predominantly from waste, had the potential to supply 5-18 per cent of total UK gas demand by 2020.18 The most optimistic forecast expects shale gas to fulfil at most 5 per cent of gas demand by 2030.19 In terms of contribution to electricity generation – and gas is far too versatile a fuel to be wasted in this way – Germany has already shown that renewable capacity is capable of expanding rapidly.

Even in the UK, renewable electricity capacity grew by 27 per cent in 2013 and renewables contributed 15 per cent to generation, while heat from renewable sources grew by 19 per cent.20 The Government is now trying to limit subsidies paid to solar farms, because they are growing too rapidly.21

Business and Energy Minister Matthew Hancock claimed in July that shale gas will bring jobs and growth, which is supported by the Institute of Directors’ estimate that it could attract annual investment of £3.7 billion and support up to 74,000 jobs.22 But according to research by the Renewable Energy Association, launched by the then Climate Change Minister Greg Barker, the UK renewables industry was already worth £12.5 billion and supported 110,000 jobs in 2010/11, with 400,000 in total required to meet the UK’s renewables targets in 2020.23


A second ‘dash for gas’ would lock the UK into a high-carbon future, and would divert investment away from cleaner renewables now. It would also lock the UK into an future of uncertain gas prices and supplies on global markets, as DECC expects the UK will need to import 70 per cent of consumption by 2025.24 That figure dwarfs the 5 per cent maximum contribution by shale gas, and almost mocks Hancock’s claim that shale gas has the potential to provide us with greater energy security.

Moreover, as the chair of Cuadrilla Lord Browne pointed out: ‘We are part of a well-connected European gas market and, unless it is a gigantic amount of gas, it is not going to have material impact on price.’25 So much for the insistence by David Cameron and George Osborne that shale gas would drive energy prices down and reduce household energy bills to the benefit of the fuel poor.

Instead of rhetoric on shale gas, what the UK needs is a truly sustainable energy policy that challenges the status quo; that is underpinned by conservation and decarbonisation; that invests in energy efficiency; that makes as sparing and smart use of fossil fuels and nuclear as possible; that seriously considers the potential of decentralised electricity grids, and invests in demand side management and storage alongside increased ‘home grown’ renewable generation; and that seriously considers the potential of renewable biofuels, consistent with sustainable food and waste policies.


Why, then, is the UK Government so keen to promote fracking, when the Scottish Government has recently supported residents’ rights to oppose it26 and many countries in Europe have banned it?

The Government has announced an extraordinary range of financial incentives to fracking companies, local councils and communities: a 30 per cent tax rate for onshore shale gas production, well below the top rate of 62 per cent on new North Sea oil operations;27 altering planning fees to account for only the above-ground area, rather than the entire area of underground drilling;28 allowing local councils to keep 100 per cent of business rates from fracking operations rather than 50 per cent;29 payments to local councils and communities of £100,000 per site and 1 per cent of revenues from any successful wells.30

It is also making protest more difficult, rushing through planning reforms which mean that homeowners will no longer be individually notified of a planning application for drilling or fracking beneath their home,31 and changing trespass laws, so that companies are granted access to run pipes through land below 300m from the surface.32


Yet it knows that public support for fracking is weak. DECC’s latest survey of attitudes towards its priorities found that 80 per cent supported renewable energy and 59 per cent would be happy to have a large scale renewable energy development in their area, whilst only 29 per cent supported shale gas extraction. The survey did not ask respondents whether they would be happy to have a fracking development in their area.33

Nor will the Government’s refusal to rule out fracking in National Parks and AONBs endear it to its backbench MPs in rural constituencies.

I can only conclude that it is about money and power. Osborne is hoping for a repeat of the North Sea oil bonanza, and there are strong links between the Government and the fracking industry. Campaigners have named five non-executive directors working within government departments who have fracking interests, including the Cuadrilla chair Lord Browne,34 and six members of the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee which published a report on ‘The Economic Impact on UK Energy Policy of Shale Gas and Oil’.35 The new chair of the Environment Agency has also had links to the fracking industry.36

All interests are declared and there is no suggestion of any wrongdoing, nor do any of the five non-execs sit in DECC, but it is no wonder that the anti-fracking action camps at Balcombe and elsewhere are called ‘Reclaim the Power’.


Alastair McIntosh in ‘Soil and Soul’ describes a model for activism of naming the Powers, unmasking the Powers and engaging the Powers. All power ultimately comes from God, but expressed through human agency is fallen. Naming the Powers makes the invisible visible. Unmasking the Powers exposes their effects on life, for example their sanctioning of violence. Only then should the Powers be engaged, not through meeting violence with violence, because that is legitimising the Powers, but by challenging and redeeming the Powers.

We must hold our Government to account, reminding them that we live in a democracy and they work for us. One obvious way is to use our vote next year. We can also write to our local councils, MPs or members of the Lords. But we should not assume that the Powers are all in Government and have already been named and unmasked. We are also culpable.

There is a disconnect between public opinion of fracking ‘in my back yard’, and our energy-hungry lifestyles. One of the more helpful contributions to the fracking debate has come from the Bishop of Chichester, who questioned whether our present consumption of energy is justifiable (not simply sustainable), and how we can demand much less from the earth and still live rich and fulfilled lives.37


We are addicted to energy, and take it for granted. We think nothing of driving miles to leisure activities, and are ignorant of what happens when we flick on a light switch. We are quite happy, if we consider it at all, for our energy to be extracted overseas or generated on the other side of the country. In this respect, I admire a farmer who is willing to lease land for fracking and put up with the visual impact, noise and inconvenience.

Our relationship with energy is at odds with our other relationships: with God and creation; with our neighbour affected by the impacts of energy production or climate change, including future generations; and with our own souls. Living within constraints can be a well-spring of creativity – think of the beauty encapsulated by the strict form of sonnets and sonatas – and we damage ourselves when we live without compassion, mindfulness or simplicity.

I have already mentioned money as a Government motivator. But where have we put our treasure, and thereby our heart? If it is invested in fossil fuels, is it time we followed the example of the World Council of Churches and disinvested?38 We need to be wary too of placing a monetary value on the environment or community. The fracking protests at Balcombe divided the village and caused great bitterness. That could well happen elsewhere. But is a community worth £100,000 plus 1 per cent of revenues?


Thankfully, Balcombe has become an example of an alternative way. It has started a community energy project, raising money through personal savings and share issues to install solar panels and generate enough electricity for the village. The project is helping to bring healing to the community, offering a visible reminder of what lies behind that light switch, and demonstrating that ordinary people can have a choice about how they source their energy.







6 Resurgence, Jul-Aug 2014.



9 [link no longer active]































#BAD14 #Inequality

Today is Blog Action Day, and in 2014 the theme is Inequality. I’m afraid I’m going to cheat, and post stuff I’ve written earlier. Some is a bit dated (anyone remember Michael Gove?), but I think the core message is still relevant…

It’s the equality, stupid

Published in the Church Times, 27 July 2012

YOU wait ages for a story on welfare statistics, and then, on 14 June, three come along together.

First to arrive was the publication of the latest Happy Planet Index, bringing the good news that people in the UK are better off than others in the European Union or G8 countries, based on the perceived level of happiness, life expectancy, and environmental factors – but worse off than those in many developing countries.

Then came mixed news from the Institute of Fiscal Studies’ annual report Living Standards, Poverty and Inequality in the UK, which found a sharp fall in incomes in 2010-11, but also an improvement in equality across all income levels.

And tagging along behind were announcements from the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith, on child poverty. At present, the Child Poverty Act 2010 defines child poverty as children living in households that earn less than 60 per cent of median income. The UK does not suffer the squalor and starvation of previous centuries; so using a measure of relative poverty reflects levels of social exclusion: whether these children are excluded from the average family’s ordinary living-patterns and activities (Comment, 15 June). But Mr Duncan Smith wants to change the way in which child poverty is measured.

He argued that the problems of worklessness, welfare dependency, addiction, educational failure, debt, and family breakdown are causes of child poverty. On the other hand, the thesis of The Spirit Level, by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett (Penguin, 2010), is that these are symptoms of inequality, and therefore it is important to retain a relative measure of child poverty, and to have policies that tackle this.

Professor Wilkinson and Professor Pickett studied rich countries, and the differences in inequality between them. They found that a smaller gap between rich and poor in terms of income equality means a happier, healthier, and more successful population (Comment, 26 March 2009).

There is no relation between income per head and social well-being in rich countries; so more economic growth will not necessarily lead to a happier or healthier population. But, if the UK were more equal, we would be better off as a population. The rich would not lose out in order to benefit the poor. The 99 per cent would benefit – perhaps, even, the 100 per cent – although poorer people would gain the most.

As well as varying from country to country, inequality also varies over time, and it can be influenced by government policy. Britain became more equal during the World Wars, as the Government saw that making people feel they were sharing the burden was a way to gain popular support for the war effort.

During the mid-1980s and early ’90s, inequality grew rapidly, almost certainly reflecting the neo-liberal economic policies of the Thatcher and Major Governments.

Professor Wilkinson and Professor Pickett argue that it would not take a revolution to reduce income inequality. All the data in The Spirit Level come from rich developed market democracies, and the analysis is only of the differences between them.

But a transformation is still required, and the authors outline two direct ways of reducing income inequality: first, reduce differences in pay before tax (as happens in Japan) – for example, by minimum-pay policies, strong trade unions, employee representation on boards, and through a public ethic intolerant of the bonus culture; and, second, redistribution by taxes and benefits (as happens in Sweden), not least through more stringent action to prevent tax-avoidance.

Other policies can have indirect influence, including education policies and the management of the national economy. There is a huge volume of evidence available to policy-makers, which they need to filter. The danger is that some evidence is played down, in order to avoid challenging the status quo.

ON THE day that Professor Bob Holman wrote about how Christians need to lead the battle for equality in Britain (Comment, 21 October 2011), St Paul’s Cathedral closed its doors to the public for the first time since the Second World War, amid fears that the Occupy demonstration posed a risk to health and safety. That, and the subsequent eviction of the camp, reflected negatively on the Church.

But Occupy has also been criticised for a perceived lack of clarity in its demands. Policy is a complex area, and dangerous to simplify. The gift of The Spirit Level is that it enables concentration on one area: reduce inequality, and see substantial improvements in murder rates, mental illness, obesity, imprisonment, teenage births, and levels of trust.

Occupy, the Church, and any organisation or individual could evaluate all government policy in terms of one question: what effect would this policy have on income equality? This question would act as a common cause, and bring clarity to the engagement.

For example, what effect would replacing GCSEs with exams akin to O levels and CSEs have on income equality? I would want to investigate whether lower-income children would be less likely to take O levels, while recruiters would prefer candidates with O levels, and hence inequality would increase indirectly.

As policy is so complex, often the indirect effects on inequality are not obvious. It is important, therefore, to enlist experts in each field and discuss, listen, and learn. Nevertheless, the Child Poverty Act puts the onus on government ministers, such as the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, to show how their policies in education, health, and social services are governed by the goal of poverty-reduction.

So, even without all the answers, we can still put the equality question to our representatives and policy-makers, and ask them to ensure that the aim of reducing income inequality underpins all policy discussions.

The website WriteToThem has information about how to contact your MP, MEP, member of devolved administration, or local councillor. You can also follow a link to TheyWorkForYou, to find out more about your MP’s interests. It helps to know whether they have spoken on an issue and how they have voted in the past, in order to target and personalise your communication.

Whichever method we choose, let us work together as the 100 per cent towards the equality and benefit of the 100 per cent.;;;

Peril of eating all the pie

Review of Joseph E. Stiglitz. The Price of Inequality. London: Allen Lane.
Published in the Church Times, 12 October 2012

“IT MAY be true that ‘the poor always ye have with you,’ ” writes the 2001 winner of the Nobel Prize for Economics, “but that doesn’t mean that there have to be so many poor, or that they should suffer so much.”

The first half of The Price of Inequality is utterly compelling. Focusing on the United States, Professor Stiglitz stacks up the evidence for growing inequality of wages, total income, and wealth, and the sharp acceleration during the Great Recession, since 2008. The bottom and middle are now worse off than in 2000, while income growth has been primarily at the top one per cent. He also, importantly, busts the great American myth of equality of opportunity (related to both income mobility and lifetime earnings), often used somehow to justify inequality.

Market forces have shaped inequality; government policies have shaped those market forces (much of the inequality that exists is the result of government policy); and the one per cent have used their power to shape policy to their own ends. The wealthy often do not so much create wealth as take wealth away from others through rent-seeking – not just in the US. Recall, for example, HMRC’s waiver of Vodafone’s potential £7-billion tax bill.

The US and other widely un-equal countries are paying a high price for this inequality. Their economies are inefficient in their use of resources, and are neither stable nor sustainable in the long term. Further, the US is staring into the abyss of a breakdown in social cohesion and trust. Democracy it-self is in peril, warped, as it has been, from one person, one vote, into one dollar, one vote. Yet, despite everything, through its ownership of the media, the one per cent has succeeded in shaping public perception, and convinced the 99 per cent that they are all in it together.

At this point, and in his description of the battle fought over the laws and regulations that govern the economy, Professor Stiglitz starts to flag. But he picks up again when he returns to economics, and the battles over fiscal policy (tax and expenditure) and monetary policy (interest rates and inflation).

In his discussion of the policies that may or may not pull the US and European economies out of the Great Recession, I find three key messages: austerity doesn’t work (George Osborne, take note); progressive taxation – that is, shifting the burden from the poor to the rich – will stimulate demand and growth, as well as reduce inequality; and addressing unemployment should be prioritised over fighting inflation.

In the final chapter, Professor Stiglitz summarises his multiple solutions to inequality and its causes, but, given the power of one per cent, he has to ask: “Is there hope?” Only, it seems, if the one per cent learn before it is too late that their welfare is bound up with the way the 99 per cent live.



So BP has been found “grossly negligent” in the lead-up to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and fined billions of dollars. In response to the original event, and other oil-related events past and imagined, I wrote a series of haikus. Not saying they’re any good, but here they are.

The Sea Empress holed.
Crude oil slicking north and south
Tarred the spring feathers.

Heat-waves in Europe
Slaughtered old and young alike –
Bring on climate change!

Katrina Mark II:
Deepwater Horizon spills
Poisonous record.

North Sea in winter.
OPEC spikes the markets and
Ignites Armagedd-


Sign of the Nazarene

Many of my Facebook friends have changed their profile picture to the Arabic letter N. It stands for ‘Nazarene’, or Christian. ISIS is drawing it on the houses of Christians in Iraq, to indicate who to target… much like the Nazi treatment of Jews.

The Islamic militants of ISIS have committed horrific acts: cutting a child in half, as described by Andrew White*, and the burying alive of 500 Yazidi women and children. It has been described as ethnic cleansing and genocide.

So why haven’t I changed my profile picture? After all, I did post this article of five things you can ACTUALLY do to help, and the fifth is to raise awareness on social media.

Initially, a few weeks ago, it was due to technical problems uploading the image. Then I was distracted. Now the worst interpretation is that it is vanity over not wanting to be seen as a johnny-come-lately.

But when I take the time to reflect on the events and actions in my mind’s eye, it is not for the suffering of the Iraqi Christians – terrible as it is – that my heart cries out. It is for the perpetrators.

I imagine a young man, with little education, desperate to belong, to fit in, to be respected. His only role models are the teachers who are brainwashing him. He has learnt about ‘them’ and ‘us’, to follow orders, to hate ‘them’, to enjoy killing and inflicting pain on ‘them’. And with every child that he kills, or family that he buries alive, his soul is shriveling. Empathy, compassion, and an understanding of his own humanity becomes further out of reach. He is losing himself. He is dying inside.

I cannot imagine doing what he has done, but then I have led a completely different, privileged life – educated, middle class, living in rich western country, a democracy with the rule of law, respect for minorities and human rights. Who knows how I might act if Britain descended into chaos? I have to believe that I share a common humanity with my imagined young man. There is the potential in me for doing harm, and there is the potential in him for doing good.

Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount: “pray for those who persecute you”. And he prayed for the soldiers who crucified him: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing”.

Many people are praying for the persecuted, fewer for the persecutors. My brothers and sisters in Christ are being persecuted, and many of them will I am sure feel unable to pray for their persecutors, even though I am equally sure that many of the persecutors do not truly know what they are doing. So I suppose that in taking that upon myself, I am bearing some of their burden in some small way.

All of which is why I usually find myself praying for the perpetrators in any crime at least as much as the victims, and why it is the members of ISIS and similar groups who I am trying to hold in my heart before God.

And why I haven’t changed my profile picture… because for me it would be identifying with an ‘us’ against a ‘them’, and perpetuating ‘us-ness’ and ‘them-ness’. I choose instead to identify with, appeal to, and pray for our common humanity.

* Canon Andrew White is known as the ‘Vicar of Baghdad’, and I am in awe of him.


Devon County Twouncillors

Following my post on Exeter City Twouncillors, here’s another listing the Devon County Councillors – sorry only those in Exeter for the time being.

Here’s my Devon County Twitter list, to which you can subscribe to follow the conversation in Exeter, and all councillors’ contact details on the Devon County Council website.

Councillor Division Political party Twitter handle
Andrew Leadbetter St Loyes & Topsham Conservative  
Percy Prowse Duryard & Pennsylvania Conservative  
Andy Hannan Priory & St Leonard’s Labour @andyhannan
Emma Morse Pinhoe & Mincinglake Labour @CllrEmmaMorse
Jill Owen St David’s & St James Labour  
Olwen Foggin Heavitree & Whipton Barton Labour @olwenfoggin
Richard Westlake Newtown & Polsloe Labour @WestlakeRichard
Rob Hannaford Exwick & St Thomas Labour @RobMHannaford *
Roy Hill Alphington & Cowick Labour  

* Hasn’t tweeted yet – please encourage!



Exeter City Twouncillors

I have been impressed in recent weeks at the usefulness of Twitter in engaging with councillors and other movers and shakers in and around Exeter City Council. Within limits, though, as you’ll be able to see from the list below arranged by political party. (Please let me know if I’ve missed any.) It’s a shame that few of the @ExeterTories are individually on Twitter, not least because two of them are the councillors in my ward. Maybe it’s a policy, but they and their ‘constituents’ are missing out.

@TweetyHall aimed to  “Getting councillors out of the Town Hall and onto the Tweets”. On its [now defunct] website it said “We are passionately committed to local democracy and see Twitter as one key way to connect local residents with views and opinions on their local area with the people empowered to help them do something about it. TweetyHall helps join the dots.” Sounds good to me… Who’s doing this now?

Here’s my Exeter City Twitter list, to which you can subscribe to follow the conversation, and all councillors’ contact details on the Exeter City Council website.

Councillor Political party Ward Twitter handle
Andrew Leadbetter Conservative St Loyes  
David Henson Conservative St Loyes  
Jake Donovan Conservative Pennsylvania @CllrJakeDonovan
John Winterbottom Conservative St Leonards  
Lee Mottram Conservative Duryard @parklanegarden
Margaret Baldwin Conservative Topsham  
Norman Shiel Conservative St Leonards  
Percy Prowse Conservative Duryard  
Rob Newby Conservative Topsham  
Tyna Crow Conservative Heavitree @tynacrow
Yolonda Henson Conservative Polsloe  
Catherine Dawson Labour Mincinglake @cllrdawson
Gill Tippins Labour Priory @GillTippins
Greg Sheldon Labour Heavitree @CllrGregSheldon
Heather Morris Labour Cowick @CLLRMORRIS
Ian Martin Labour Mincinglake @ian0martin
Keith Owen Labour St James  
Lesley Robson Labour Priory @CllrRobson
Marcel Choules Labour Priory  
Margaret Clark Labour Alphington  
Moira Macdonald Labour Pinhoe @neBhasikoro
Ollie Pearson Labour Exwick @olliepearson
Paul Bull Labour Cowick @Paul4Cowick
Peter Edwards Labour Whipton Barton @CllrPeteEdwards *
Philip Bialyk Labour Exwick @philbialyk
Rachel Lyons Labour Polsloe  
Rachel Sutton Labour Exwick @CllrSutton
Richard Branston Labour Newtown  
Rob Crew Labour Alphington @Rob4Alphington
Rob Hannaford Labour St Thomas @RobMHannaford *
Roger Spackman Labour Newtown @cllrspackman
Rosie Denham Labour Whipton Barton @rosiedenham
Sarah Laws Labour St Davids  
Simon Bowkett Labour Pinhoe @Simon_Bowkett
Tony Wardle Labour Whipton Barton  
Adrian Fullam Liberal Democrats St Thomas @AdrianFullam
Kevin Mitchell Liberal Democrats St James  
Rod Ruffle Liberal Democrats Alphington  
Stella Brock Liberal Democrats St Davids @StellaBrock8 *
Tim Payne Liberal Democrats Pennsylvania  

* Hasn’t tweeted yet – please encourage!

Updated: Added a few I’d missed that didn’t come up in Twitter search, including the three Conservatives.