Sunday, 9 June 2013

Can the past inform the future?

As I write this blog I am sitting by the side of a field, looking across a grassland landscape towards a steep chalk downland hill. This is the Vale of Pewsey and I'm in my element, watching grassland being cultivated by tractors from across the years. Passing me just now is a Ford 5000 with a wide arm cultivator attached. To my left a 1930's John Deere is chug-chugging up the hill, as is a little Dexta close behind pulling a 2 furrow plough. And to make my view even more special at the far end of the field to my right a pair of mighty steam engines are ploughing. Like sentinels they are positioned at the field headland and a steel cable pulls the plough back and forth, atop a gaggle of men acting as ballast. A sight not seen since the 1920's in the countryside but a reminder that farming is an ancient business, and the most important industry in the World. And my view shows that bridging the machinery gap from oxen, to horses, then steam engines, TVO and petrol tractors and finally to today’s mighty diesel behemoths, doesn't really matter. It is the act of farming does.

I'm at the Wiltshire Steam and Vintage Rally at Oare near Pewsey.  The weather is perfect, blue skies speckled with buzzards, swifts, a pair of red kite and behind me a yellowhammer singing for his ‘bit of cheese’ add to the romance of this being a time capsule of English life. And of course it is. In the far distance a threshing machine is threshing, men in dungarees with pitchforks are hard at it in the hot sun. Visitors to the show are watching, but I wonder what the children who stand in awe really think. Born in an age of mass technology, seeing a living breathing steam engine must feel like seeing a dinosaur again. Even for me born in 1964 steam is a novelty, but to a 10 year old boy used to i-pads and you-tube. This must seem a strange place to be on a June afternoon.

But let's not forget, it looks idyllic now. The sun, men well fed, for they are mostly men, enjoying what is a hobby. In the days when steam ruled farming, horses too, it was hard work but it seemed a simpler way of life, whereby human activity and the countryside around them were one and the same. Was it really all in harmony back then? Well I doubt it but the impact was generally localised.

As I watch the unfolding tractor dance from the past I cannot help thinking ahead 100 years.  What will the world be like for the grandchildren of those children at the far side of the field?  The short answer is we just don’t know. We can have a guess, we can theorise, and we can even state the obvious (as does the person stating theory as fact). But what we can be sure of is that what we think will happen, probably won’t. Did men worrying about the impending First World War in 1913 also worry about whether there is a mobile phone signal as they drive hundreds of miles to and from work in 2013. I bet your bottom dollar they didn’t.

 But, and it is a big but, the world’s population is now 7 billion and rising, and in my short 49 years on this planet it has doubled in size. People worry about the numbers of people on this planet. Should we? Well conservationists tell us we should. The dire state of the world’s wildlife is entirely man’s doing. And yes, there is no doubting man has raped and pillaged many a vast natural resource over time. But what is really relevant is the amount of stuff humans consume, not their absolute numbers.
The continent of Africa has the fastest growing mobile phone infrastructure in the World. Around the Atlantic coastline huge communication pipes have been installed, from Europe to the Cape. Multinationals are pouring money into Africa’s mobile and wi-fi infrastructure. Why? Well it’s where business sees growth, real growth. Most African’s now have access to fast reliable mobile networks, something I can only dream of in Wiltshire, just 70 miles from London. In 30 years, Africa has gone from a third world to an emerging first world continent in terms of technology. This is a good thing. Well yes it is, but …

Humans need three things to survive, food, oxygen, water. Farming provides the food, the natural world cleans up the air and provides oxygen and water comes from plastic bottles or a tap. Okay I know water comes from the natural world, but when was the last time you fetched water from a river to drink? Modern humans also need (but it is not essential) a fourth commodity – energy, and for my way of thinking the most important of all the energy sources at our disposal is electricity.

The doomsayers, of whom there are many as it keeps their research, lecture tours and book- signing pay packets well oiled, will tell us water wars are inevitable, food wars will wreak havoc across the world, but very few mention electricity. Oil is always mentioned, mainly as it will run out in a hundred years or so and then horror upon horror what would the presenters of Top Gear do for a living. Electricity however, or strictly speaking its guaranteed supply, is for me the biggest challenge. Why?

Well ignoring what we need to survive as a species, as a civilisation the entire world is now run via electricity. I’m writing this on a laptop which needs electricity to run, my car has electronics which make it work, TV, lighting, cooking, heating, the list is endless, and now we have rapidly increasing mobile technology to consider. We are paid electronically, we have access to vast resources on-line, our mobile networks rely on that current of charge along copper wires, satellites need electricity on earth for GPS position technology to function and we now even need electricity to dry our hands hygienically.

When super-storm Sandy hit New York last autumn one person I know who was there said people were rushing about desperately trying to find somewhere to charge up their i-phones. So I asked the question of someone working on new technology at Oxford University this week, “It’s all well and good Africa developing the most modern mobile network in the World, but what happens if the electricity is shut off”. And my answer, after a short silence “That’s a really good question, and do you know what, I’ve not really thought about that”.  

Well I have because earlier this year I had a long phone call with Southern Electric’s head of domestic supply. The reason was that our Wiltshire village here was taken off the grid as the existing infrastructure could no longer cope with the demand. The quickest way to fix it was to take us off the grid and replace all the overhead cables. Three HGVs turned up containing industrial sized generators and for 4 weeks the village kept functioning via these massive (and very noisy) diesel generators. Daily maintenance was needed as they failed occasionally and on one occasion for 12 hours until a replacement came from Bristol. It was January!

We were in darkness; candles are romantic only for a few hours. We had no heating (the oil central heating pump didn’t work of course) and no hot water, as the emersion heater is, err well yes electric. No access to a telephone as modern phones need power and our mobiles were on low battery. No Internet, no access to money via on-line banking, no TV, no radio, no cooking (though I had bought a gas stove for camping which came in handy). Okay it was only for twelve hours, but in those 12 hours I realised how quickly the veneer of civilisation can stop.

Southern Electric’s engineer was quite frank with me. He said that the UK infrastructure is failing and the demand for electricity now outstrips supply for 80% of the time. Just 10 years ago, peak demand was 7am to 9am and 5pm to 9pm a day. Today the peak is continuous between 4am to 12 midnight and the non-peak is fast disappearing. The reason is on-line needs, home working, mobile phones, and every household having 200% more electrical goods than 10 years ago and so on. Home working is an interesting one he added. Rural areas have seen a 500% rise in electricity demand due to people working from home in areas normally supplied by overhead low capacity wires. As more people escape the rat race and work from home in their rural idyll, the thing that actually allows them to do this – the supply on demand of electricity - is in dire shape.

So Africa, I have a solution to your rapidly increasing need for electricity and guaranteed supply. As a world we should work together and fund, for the common good, the building of the biggest solar power and heat storage facility on the planet in Africa. The Sahara Desert is the obvious place. It is vast; nothing can live there because it is a desert. Deserts have two constants, heat during the day, and unbroken sunshine. I suggest then that the United Nations, the World Bank and major industry look seriously at this. I’m not an engineer but I’m sure this technology already exists.

The Sahara desert covers an area of over 3 million square miles. If it could be transformed into a supersized solar power generator this could, in my view, be a win-win situation. Apart from generating colossal amounts of electricity via solar power in a sustainable way, piped seawater heated by the high daytime temperatures and pumped to homes at night could be another energy saving benefit. Given the Sahara’s geographical situation in the ‘middle’ of the Old World, electricity could be fed to all of Africa, Europe and the Middle East. The demand for electricity could potentially help end conflict as every end user would need to maintain the Sahara so we could guarantee supply across countries. Solar panels could also reflect sunlight back out into space, helping climate change by reducing the heat cell effect. Similarly a vast ‘shadow’ would cover the Sahara sand underneath the panels which could reduce land temperature. This huge level of solar electricity generation would see less fossil fuel being burnt to create electricity the traditional way; and what is now a vast hot desert devoid of life could become the beating heart of a sizable proportion of the world.

Am I dreaming in cloud cuckoo land? Well maybe. But I believe it is these pan-global projects and human ingenuity that will move us forward. We have to think bigger than national boundaries. We need to allow inventors and true ground breaking thinkers to put their ideas into plan. We also have to co-operate as a Global Village and pool our intellectual resources to think big. Solution is the way ahead, not discussion.  It’s interesting how watching steam engines and old tractors made me think about the world’s demand for electricity. But that is what the past does, it informs our future.

We were all taught at school that James Watt invented steam power after watching his kettle boil, as millions of others had done before him, it is a myth. Steam had been used for hundreds of years as a mode of power, albeit with limited success. But it was Watt who thought about steam and thought good engineering can harness this more efficiently. He thought big, and the rest is history.
I truly believe it will be an inspired James Watt of the 22nd Century who will find a positive solution to many of today’s doom-saying scientists and commentators saying that the End of the World is Nigh because there are too many people on the planet.

Humanity at its best can provide  the solution via the power of imagination.

Based on ideas formulated while working on the upcoming BBC Radio 4 series, Shared Planet, due to begin broadcasting on Tuesday 11th June 2013 at 11.00 hrs;

And a link to a the blog of Mary Colwell one of the other producers on Shared Planet;