Archive for August, 2011

Sustainability and some final thoughts

Saturday, August 27th, 2011

In the end, politics, economics and perhaps even environmentalism are practical matters dressed up as intellectual theory, following on from my previous blog on the theory behind sustainability.

Economics is good at analysing what happens at the point when things of value are exchanged, but is not much good at anything else.  Real economics cannot tell you how to sustain you or your family.  For example, were you have a budget of £100 to spend on your weekly shop, it cannot tell you what is the best way to spend that money on in terms of your health, or taste or what you have in your cupboards or what takes your fancy as you walk around the store.  It cannot tell you why you prefer one brand over another or why we buy olive oil from one country of origin over another, because none of us really make rational decisions based on utility, however neat a theory.  In fact, many of our decisions are decidedly irrational – for example, it is cheaper and quite easy to cook meals from scratch yet we buy, for example, fish pie or pancakes ready-made rather than make them ourselves.  A rational economist might say that we do this because we can use our labour or time more effectively elsewhere, but how many actually do redeploy that small amount of money or time rationally to optimise their wage earning potential – very few, methinks.

For me, I think the best way to think about sustainability is to think of families rather than economics, or at least money economics.  To keep a family going into the future, you first need to have children, which is rarely an economic decision, because under most cost-benefit analyses there is no rational economic justification in having children, but our desire to continue and sustain our genes into the future simply overrides and ignores any financial considerations.  Then you need to consider how you equip your children to sustain themselves in the future and the key things are to give them the capabilities to navigate their way through their own futures, with all its ups and downs, twists and turns.  So we educate them formally to enable them to open up their minds and get employment, and informally we teach them a moral code of what is good and bad and that hard work, honesty, fairness and good manners will get them pretty much anything they desire in time, or at least laziness, dishonesty, unfairness and bad manners will not get you far in life.  We might try and give them some seed capital to buy a home, but they may not get much financial support until they themselves have had a family and we can bequeath them something after death.  Finally, throughout all of this we nurture and love them as best we can.  And so it is in real life with economic sustainability, we must focus on the means of giving people the capabilities to navigate future generations through future uncertainties rather than get bogged down with numbers, which are but meaningless figures on a page or spreadsheet - one can create almost any set of numbers or scenarios that you desire to justify any position you want but to what useful end.

But while Governments, quangoes and international bodies like the World Bank or the United Nations can help with this in certain areas, they are not the best placed to act as custodians of economic sustainability.  Firstly, they have no long term perspective as their terms of office are short and their times of influence are probably even shorter.  Secondly, Governments are remarkably bad custodians of peoples’ money, even as they need that money as it is their lifeblood.  They tax and spend with impunity because they are dealing with other peoples’ money rather than their own.  Milton Friedman perhaps explained this best as he wrote in his book “Free To Choose” - ”There are four ways in which you can spend money.  You can spend your own money on yourself.  When you do that, why then you really watch out what you’re doing, and you try to get the most for your money.  Then you can spend your own money on somebody else. For example, I buy a birthday present for someone.  Well, then I’m not so careful about the content of the present, but I’m very careful about the cost.  Then, I can spend somebody else’s money on myself.  And if I spend somebody else’s money on myself, then I’m sure going to have a good lunch!  Finally, I can spend somebody else’s money on somebody else. And if I spend somebody else’s money on somebody else, I’m not concerned about how much it is, and I’m not concerned about what I get.   And that’s government.  And that’s close to 40% of our national income.”

These capacities of Government to tax and spend are the root of their power and without this ability to take and then distribute with seeming largesse, Governments are nothing.  Hence, sustainability becomes another self-justification for why Governments must tax and spend, even though individuals and private collectives may be better at optimising humankind’s response to sustainability.  This takes the environment out of sustainability and it simply becomes a matter of power and control over capital.  For me, economics and environmentalism are different ways of looking at resource allocation, where money has been hugely successful at getting people to organise themselves to do things they do not want to do for a cash reward and also to exploit the natural capital resources (but note per my previous blog that money does not buy happinness or well-being beyond $10,000, while people will do charity and community projects for little or no finacial reward).  Conversely, environmentalism explains that there are limits to the natural capital available and we must all be mindful of this.  They are different, but overlap where the externalities from the economy degrade nature and where natural capital is available for exploitation.  However, they are not the same thing and do not overlap at all times.  Hence, they are different ways of looking at the world we live in, and we must be careful in merging them together.

So we must keep sustainability away from economists, Governments and politicians and per Ostrom focus on personal and community selflessness over selfishness, and look to our children and future generations rather than just the here and now.  Similarly, I would argue money is economics, and that money and sustainability do not mix.  However, I expect politicians, economists and everyone to argue that they all mix perfectly happily together, so the future will be a great and wonderful place.

Is There Any Need For Sustainability?

Thursday, August 25th, 2011

I have recently read Tim Jackson’s “Prosperity Without Growth – Economics for a Finite Planet“.  It proposes that we refocus how we manage our economies to take into account the limits on the earth, but is rather vague exactly how we should do this – relying on less consumerism, more community-based activities and public ownership, but without answering the central question of how and who pays for all of these things.  He accepts that some of these things are already available and people are involved in community activities, but that they are small parts of society, yet he then brushes over the fact that these are currently a minority precisely because most people do not want to work in their allotment or do yoga.  This core structural issue is at the heart of the problem and is the hardest part to change – we are taxed so we must work, so there is insufficient time available to do many of those fulfilling things in life, so we must consume to make up for the time we do not have and chose a few hobbies for the little spare time we have to keep us sane, yet more public ownership and livelihoods simply increases the tax requirement etc etc.  However, what the book does usefully do is focus on the question itself, i.e. how to have sustainability and continue with a market economy and addresses the concerns posed by the classic book of Meadows et al of “The Limits To Growth”  from the 1970s in a new millennial context, without actually adding much to the basic concept that the earth has limits and while we are still within these boundaries today at some point not very far in the future growth in population and resource use because of economic growth will bring these constraints into play, which arguably is the same problem raised by Thomas Malthus in 1798.  Tim Jackson essentially says we must reduce economic growth, accepting that this runs counter to the way the economic discourse is built.  So what is the issue with sustainability and economics?

Sustainability is a key concern in the 21st century.  The Brundtland definition of sustainability is “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (WCED, 1987).  This can be further clarified as the concept that “the current generation does not have the right to consume or damage the environment or the planet in a way that gives its successor worse life chances that itself enjoyed” (House of Lords, 1999).  However, while the understanding of the environment has increased in the last 100 years, mainstream economics as used by policymakers remains based on ideas developed by Jeremy Bentham towards the end of the 18th century, as expanded by John Stuart Mill in the 19th century.  This raises the issue of whether economic analysis needs to change better to address sustainability in environmental policy response.

Mainstream economic analysis is based on utilitarianism.  This assumes that individuals are rational economic actors whose primary purpose is the self-interested pursuit of happiness, or utility, and that the best route to this end is through the purchase of those goods and services they want at rationally negotiated market prices.  Therefore, when considering welfare, policymakers should arguably consider the aggregate effect of these transactions in an economy, together with the market prices paid, and that their policies should ensure “the provision of the greatest happiness for the greatest number” (Bentham, 1789).  Furthermore, while acknowledging that some individuals may suffer or not reap the benefits of the market economy, “it is the price we pay for progress and the general good” (Galbraith, 1987).

The principal measurement used to inform policy is Gross Domestic Product (“GDP”), which is the value of the goods and services flowing through an economy over a period of time.  As consumption provides utility, GDP is a proxy for the aggregate happiness of individuals within an economy and Government policy should, therefore, provide the conditions for growth in GDP/capita.  Other economic methods that follow include cost-benefit analysis and discounting, both of which are used to evaluate the financial impacts of specific projects or policy areas.  However, as discussed below, the goal of sustainability in environmental policy is not adequately addressed by these economic tools.

While it is assumed that the more income consumers earn the more they can purchase in the market, so increasing their happiness, evidence by Richard Easterlin found that increases in happiness become slight or negligible beyond middle income levels (Easterlin, 1972 and 2001), while Gregg Easterbrook found that even though people’s objective well-being was increasing they continued to feel life was getting worse so their subjective well-being would stay unchanged or even fall.  Similarly, Amartya Sen focuses on the capabilities and freedoms of individuals to live the life they chose as being important to well-being (Sen, 1993, 1998 and 1999).  Therefore, what matters is what people are able to achieve or do, rather than the products or services that they consume, so learning at school or university is not a matter of utility but of what people may become from having studied even as governments seek to make it into a commercial contract through Student Loans or similar financial systems.  Economic development, therefore, occurs when there are more opportunities open for people to do things they value, rather than when GDP/capita or individual income has grown.  Whereas, unsustainability occurs when individuals become less capable of doing things over time, for example health deteriorates because of air pollution or toxic waste, or the opportunity to farm is reduced due to salinization of the soil or water shortages, or freedoms are curtailed, for example when decisions are made today that preclude choices being made by successor generations, such as decisions made in this generation that affect the environment over 100,000s if not millions of years, for example nuclear power and related nuclear waste dumps like that at Gorleben in Germany.  People will, also, do things for no financial reason, for example vote in elections, tend the plants in a public space or look after someone else’s children, so we are not solely economic beings even if politicians and sociologists wish to cast us as such; in fact I would argue we are human beings first and economic animals second, third or fourth.  So a economy focussing on the capability to flourish is better than one focussed on our ability to consume, i.e. a world according to Sen is better than one based on Bentham.

Traditional measures for well-being have targeted GDP growth.  However, GDP measures material throughput in an economy and does not provide useful information on sustainability.  For example, GDP is the aggregate of monetary transactions in a country, so it excludes bartering, free and unrecorded cash services such as voluntary work for charities, or domestic activities like cooking and housecleaning.  Furthermore, it is an income and expenditure statement rather than a balance sheet, so does not account for changes in the resources of a nation, whether these are physical like forestry and mineral reserves or intangible like education, health and landscape.  Finally, GDP is a snapshot in time of the activity of an economy in totality, so neither provides information about the future nor the equitable distribution of transactions through a society now or in the future.  Understanding the distribution of wealth in economies is important as poverty can be a driver for environmental degradation, and so sustainability.

Mainstream economic analysis, including GDP, does not properly consider the impact of livelihoods on the environment.  The activities of humans through work and consumption cause changes to the environment, which can be encapsulated in the impact equation: I = P x R x T, which is a rehash of Paul Ehrlich’s impact equation.  This summarises environmental impact (I) as resulting from the scale of resource use (R) consumed by a population (P) through using particular technologies (T).  Mainstream economics treats these impacts, or disutilities, as externalities or market failures either to be ignored or to be borne equally by the whole population and environment, because they do not have direct monetary values that are easily measured.  For example, packaging in the UK is transferred from manufacturer to individuals, then to the wider population and environment when it is sent to landfill, shifting the original environmental cost from the manufacturer to the environment, which must bear the sustainability burden, and the taxpayer, who finances the costs.  However, economics dominates political discourse, because money is power and power is money, so these externalities must be monetised and internalized into economic analysis before they can inform policymaking and bring sustainability onto the political agenda.

Finally, the most complex aspect of sustainability is time and how to evaluate future costs today.  Economists utilise financial models to provide policymakers with analyses of forecasted budget scenarios, so enabling assessments to be made of the impacts of “green” standards and taxes on the economy and the cost-benefit of specific political responses.  However, this sophistication hides the fact that forecasts are based on the past, with its uncertainties, discounted back by the relevant rate of time preference. Therefore, forecasting sometimes becomes a discussion over discount rates.  However, discounting creates an issue, being that the greater the risks and uncertainties involved the higher the discount rate, so the lower the current value of future costs.  This approach is, therefore, neither equitable nor appropriate for sustainability where the well-being of future generations should be considered equally to our own.  The societal discount rate for sustainability should tend towards zero (Anand & Sen, 2000) to prevent policymakers devaluing future uncertain, but large, impacts compared to current known, but smaller, environmental problems.

These analytical problems are highlighted in the Stern report on the economics of climate change.  Climate change occurs over the long-term and contains significant uncertainties in how it might operate over this time period in terms of scale, location and timing.  Arguably, it may impact future generations more than the current one, although as successors will have greater wealth and knowledge, they ought to be better able to finance and develop technology to ameliorate any disbenefits.  These issues create problems for policymakers regarding the equitable distribution of uncertain economic costs over generations and across future global populations, i.e. sustainability in terms of costs, capabilities and freedoms over time.  Stern used an utilitarian approach that focused on “the maximisation of the sum across individuals of social utilities of consumption”, cost-benefit analysis and GDP forecasts run over 200 years discounted back at 1.4%i (Stern, 2006b).  Critics of the report advocate rates of around 3-5½% (Dietz, 2008; Dasgupta, 2006; Nordhaus, 2007; Tol, 2006).  Under Stern, estimates of the costs of climate change were of losing “at least 5% of global GDP each year, now and forever” (Stern, 2006a), but by using the alternative rates the impact falls to 1.4-2.5%i.  Effectively, it becomes an ethical judgement over the value of equity between generations, or sustainability – discount rates close to zero place relatively higher values on future generations, while higher rates place lower values on successors.  Or to be brutal, it uses sophistication to hide the fact that the report hinges on the gut feeling of economists and politicians over what values to place on the financial numbers, as influenced by all the baggage of individual presumptions and political leanings in making these big leaps of faith.  I have no issue with making assumptions and running complex models, but the complexity of the modelling should not be used to hide that the report is but a finger in the air, albeit a very clever one!

Therefore, economic analysis needs to change to address these problems and so better inform policymakers about sustainability.  Here are some quick thoughts on ways that these issues can be addressed.

Firstly, policymakers need to consider a broader range of statistics beyond a narrow focus on GDP.  These indicators should include both financial and non-financial data and cover tangible and intangible assets and externalities of an economy, environmental quality and the well-being of the population.  For example, assets may include values for agricultural land, mineral reserves and woodland, together with estimates for education and health.  Sustainability indicators and externalities may comprise data on biodiversity, greenhouse gas emissions, soil fertility, air and water quality, and waste to landfill.  Well-being could comprise both objective and subjective measurements of well-being, targeting capabilities and freedoms as well as happiness.

In the UK, many of these are already compiled, for example net domestic product (GDP less depreciation) and greenhouse gas emissions, while a new well-being index will include environmental and sustainability measures from 2012.  For example, there is the Happiness Index, which shows the UK’s happiness declined by -10.7% from 1961 – 2005 and that of Australia grew by 21.3% over the same period, or the Human Development Index as developed by Haq and Sen, which currently ranks Australia top and the UK 22nd.  Although these statistics may be measured, sustainability perhaps needs to become central to policymaking.  For example, biodiversity indicators currently have warnings against breeding birds and plant diversity, yet these changes are not driving meaningful policy response (Defra, 2011).  The issue may be that there are too many measurements being compiled versus the relative clarity of GDP, therefore they could be reduced to a smaller number of indicators, for example ecological footprint provides a clear, measureable link between economic activity and environmental burden.  In addition, policymakers should include targets and responses for use when these limits are breached, for example greenhouse gas emissions’ targets are clear and measureable and so policy responses can be proportionate.

However, I fear that sustainability and the environment just do not rank up there against education, health and crime, for example.  This is perhaps because the questions are just too complex and the answers too difficult or wishy-washy for politicians to contemplate, so there is a need for politicians to focus on policy areas that can be addressed within the relatively short term of a political election cycle and are simple enough to be communicable to the media and electorate – a sort of knowledge elitism that goes along the lines of “that’s all a bit too difficult for you, the masses out there, just leave and trust us the politicians and our cronies to sort it out, because we know the best…there, there” with a gentle pat on the head.

Secondly, policymakers must address future uncertainties.  Utilitarianism is reductive and, using projections with suitable discount rates, provides clear choices for policymakers.  However, the environment is entangled and has many unintended consequences, so forecasts based on the past can result in incorrect predictions.  These complexities and uncertainties can cause relatively poor forecasting especially of sudden changes to environmental systems.  For example, policymakers neither predicted the collapse in the Canadian cod fisheries in 1991-1994 (NAFO, 2009) nor the credit crisis that began in 2007, both of which have resulted in significant economic and environmental changes.  No scientist predicted the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, or the Japanese tsunami of 2011 with its devastating human, environmental and economic consequences.  Or to abuse a quote from Harold Macmillan “Events, my dear boy, events” are what make rigid policies tricky.  Therefore, economic analysis should include the effects of high impact, low probability events on sustainability and consider using a precautionary approach to prepare for such eventualities, and even if the responses and policies of those in power does not go down those low probability routes, they should build in sufficient flex into our systems to be able to adjust to new information and haul back systems from potential collapse if and when needed.  We must be wary of committing to routes that are completely fixed in stone, forever, because in a Pythonesque way “noone expects the unexpected”.  Hence, even Rory McIlroy in his amazing golf at the Congressional in the 2011 US Open hit his second shot on the 18th in round two into the lake to give him his first dropped shots and a double bogey – you just never really know what might happen.  In fact, the answer to this issue for economics may be to look at ecosystems themselves and apply understandings of environmental knowledge to financial systems.  This is an approach that Andrew Haldane, the Bank of England Director For Financial Stability, is looking at with Robert May.  They are suggesting that complex systems can be more fragile than simple ones, i.e. the Amazonian rainforest is more prone to collapse than the African savannah or a big multidisciplinary bank is more likely to collapse than, say, a small mortgage and savings focused building society. 

Thirdly, economic analysis should focus on systems and processes rather than financial outcomes.  It is difficult, if not meaningless, to place monetary values on non-instrumental things such as a beautiful landscape or a glorious sunset, or as one of the Pevensey residents said “You can’t put nature on the stockmarket” (Burgess, 1998).  This creates a problem as to get sustainability into the economic discourse and so onto the political agenda, you must monetise it, but this reduces sustainability to choices based on financial values and cost-benefit analyses while excluding non-instrumental values.  An alternative approach is to focus on the systems within economies and how economic processes impact, or are affected by, the environment rather than on the financial outcomes.  For example, these interrelationships between the environment and the economy form the basis for the concepts of the commons and ecological footprints, both of which offer alternative economic models to utilitarianism. So while the original work on the tragedy of the commons by Garrett Hardin was depressing, work by Elinor Ostrom has shown how a decentralised system can manage the commons effectively, together with proposing a framework for how this collective approach can be applied to sustainability in social-environmental systems (Ostrom, 2009).  Therefore, economists could focus on how to provide individuals and communities with the capabilities and freedoms to understand how changes to the environment occur, as well as the tools and powers to respond to change collectively without Government intervention and without pursuing individual, rational goals that may be negative for the common good over the longer term, i.e. selflessness over selfishness.

I see this individualistic, decentralised approach as key to the future.  However, I worry that sustainability, ecological modernisation and the environment will be all used as excuses (or justification) for greater Government and “expert” meddling in peoples’ private and business lives whether through regulation or taxation.

In conclusion, mainstream economic analysis focuses on the maximisation of utility in a population through managing GDP over time.  However, a narrow focus on GDP does not properly address sustainability, because it focuses on consumption within an economy rather than good and bad changes to its asset base, it externalizes the environmental and societal costs of economic activity and it fails to consider the capabilities and freedoms of citizens now or in the future.  Changes are needed to include indicators of changes to intangible and tangible assets, the external costs of human activities and the well-being of individuals or even happiness.  Furthermore, a less monetary approach should be adopted that analyses the processes and systems within economies and how economies, societies and environments interact and can respond to changes in real-time and over longer timescales.

References

Anand, S. and Sen, A. K. (2000) Human development and economic sustainability, World Development, 28 (12): 2029 – 2049, Available from the Internet at http://www.fiepr.org.br/adr/uploadAddress/Anand_Human%20development%20and%20Economis%20sustainability.pdf (Accessed August 2011)

Bentham, J. (1789) An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, Mineola NY, Dover Publications (reprinted)

Burgess, J., Clark, J., and Harrison, C. M. (1998) Respondents’ evaluations of a CV survey: a case study based on an economic valutaion of The Wildlife Enhancement Scheme, Pevensey Levels in East Sussex, Area, 1998; 30.1, 19-27

Dagsupta, S. (2006) Comments on the Stern Review’s Economics of Climate Change, Available on the Internet from http://www.econ.cam.ac.uk/faculty/dasgupta/STERN.pdf (Accessed August 2011)

Defra (2011) UK biodiversity indicators, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, London, 20 May 2011, Available from the Internet at http://www.defra.gov.uk/news/files/2010/05/1905biodiversity.pdf (Accessed August 2011)

Dietz, S. (2008) A long-run target for climate policy: the Stern Review and its critics, Available on the Internet from http://personal.lse.ac.uk/dietzs/A%20long-run%20target%20for%20climate%20policy%20-%20the%20Stern%20Review%20and%20its%20critics.pdf (Accessed August 2011)

Easterlin, R. (1972) “Does economic growth improve the humans lot? Some empirical evidence” in David, D. and Reder, M. (eds) Nations and Households in Economic Growth, Stanford, Stanford University Press

Easterlin, R. (2001) Income and happiness: towards a unified theory, Economic Journal, 111: 465 – 484, Available on the Internet at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1468-0297.00646/abstract (Accessed August 2011)

Galbraith, J. K. (1987) A History of Economics, London, Penguin Books

House of Lords (1999) Management of Nuclear Waste, Select Committee on Science and Technology, Session 1998-99, Third Report, London, HMSO, Available from the Internet at http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld199899/ldselect/ldsctech/41/4101.htm (Accessed August 2011)

NAFO (2009) Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization, Canada, Available from the Internet at http://www.nafo.int/about/frames/about.html (Accessed August 2011)

Nordhaus, W. D. (2007) Critical assumptions in the Stern Review on Climate Change, Science, 12 July 2007. 317: 201 – 202, Available from the Internet at http://nordhaus.econ.yale.edu/nordhaus_stern_science.pdf (Accessed August 2011)

Ostrom, E. (2009) A general framework for analyzing sustainability of social-ecological systems, Science, 24 July 2009: 412 – 422, Available from the Internet at http://www.sciencemag.org/content/325/5939/419.abstract (Accessed August 2011)

Sen, A. K. (1993) “Capability and wellbeing” in Nussbaum, M. and Sen, A. K. (eds) The Quality of Life, Oxford, Oxford University Press, Available online from http://books.google.com/books?id=pJaz1471B68C&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false (Accessed August 2011)

Sen, A. K. (1998) “The Living Standard” in Crocker, D. and Linden, T. (eds) The Ethics of Consumption, New York, Rowman and Littlefield

Sen, A. K. (1999) Development as Freedom, Oxford, Oxford University Press, Available from the Internet at http://books.google.com/books?id=Qm8HtpFHYecC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false (Accessed August 2011)

Stern, N. (2006a) “Summary of Conclusions” in Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, vi – ix, Available from the Internet at http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/+/http://www.hm-treasury.gov.uk/media/3/2/Summary_of_Conclusions.pdf (Accessed August 2011)

Stern, N. (2006b) “Part 1: Climate Change – Our Approach” in Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change , Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 23 – 40, Available from the Internet at http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20070701080805/http://hm-treasury.gov.uk/media/5/9/Part_I_Introduction_group.pdf (Accessed August 2011)

Stern, N. and Taylor, C. (2007) Climate change: risk, ethics and the Stern Review, Science, 317: 203-204

Tol, R. S. J, and Yohe, G. W. (2006) A review of the Stern Review, World Economics, 7 (4): 233 – 250,

WCED (1987) Our Common Future, The World Commission on Environment and Development, Oxford, Oxford University Press

Another Poem By Yeats – The Second Coming

Wednesday, August 24th, 2011

Another poem by Yeats, The Second Coming, was written in 1919 after the First World War and is a slightly depressing poem.  While about war – whether the First World War or the earlier Prussian War - it hints at the destructive power of humanity whether through war, environmental change, mining or “economic development” and that befalls the earth is largely of humanity’s making as it no longer has any innocence of the fate of the planet, with much of the world moulded and shaped by our hands into a Garden of Eden or a place of financial or environmental disaster depending on your viewpoint.  But the key is that there will be no saviour or silver bullet to come from “somewhere in sands of the desert” and humanity must address its own hubris when the limits to the earth are breached.  This leads on to the idea of sustainability, that much abused and misused word.   

    THE SECOND COMING

    Turning and turning in the widening gyre
    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.

    Surely some revelation is at hand;
    Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
    The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
    When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
    Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
    A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
    A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
    Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
    Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

    The darkness drops again but now I know
    That twenty centuries of stony sleep
    Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
    And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
    Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

St Wilfrid’s Procession In Ripon (30 July 2011)

Thursday, August 11th, 2011

Today was the annual St Wilfrid Procession through Ripon.  This celebrates our city’s patron saint, St Wilfrid, who was one of the great northern saints and important people of early Northumbria.  He is very unlike the ascetic Irish (Celtic) saints that characterised the religious communities of Lindisfarne – St Aidan and St Cuthbert – preferring the lavish lifestyle of the Roman Catholic Church and brought the rule of Benedict to Northumbria and had a telling influence on the Synod of Whitby in 664, arguing for Rome over the Celtic tradition.

For Ripon, St Wilfrid provides a sense of pride, for here his relics are kept.  The procession is a fun day that allows the community an excuse to do some dressing up, drink a few pints and have a jolly church service later.  The Anglican and Roman Catholic churches join in the procession, but for most of us it is a few hours of fun during the gloom that is enveloping our world.  It reminds me that community is more important than anything else, and that our community is local not national, centred on Ripon, Harrogate and York, where the turbulence of the stockmarkets, bond markets and events in the big cities seem another world away, even if we will suffer the consequences of changes that these will all impose upon us.

Some photos will tell the story of the day (and there are more on my Flickr site):

St Wilfrid And The Wakeman Wait For The Horse

St Wilfrid And The Wakeman Wait For The Horse

Stars In Their Eyes - Red Triangle & Evolve

Stars In Their Eyes - Red Triangle & Evolve

Calendar Girls - Ripon Belles

Calendar Girls - Ripon Belles

Spare Tyres, It's The Pits! - Next Generation

Spare Tyres, It's The Pits! - Next Generation

Clown On Go Cart On North Street

Clown On Go Cart On North Street

Aldborough Agricultural Show (24 July 2011)

Tuesday, August 9th, 2011

After a couple of weeks away, we return home to glorious weather; blue skies and really hot.  Normally, we are still away this weekend, so we generally miss the local show – the Aldborough and Boroughbridge Agricultural Show – which is gentle like the North Yorkshire Show and without the crowds and hurly burly of the Great Yorkshire Show.  It is held in fields between Langthorne and Newby Hall.  It is a gentle rural affair, full of that classic English charm of craft and bakery competitions in the main tent, and the serious stuff of horse competitions and the fun of cattle, sheep and dog shows.  Then, there are the cake stands, beer stands, hog roast, WI tea rooms and bouncy castles for the children.  We went for 1 hour and returned 4 hours later, having met lots of friends and generally had a good time.

My favourite things were the shire horses, the parades of cattle and vintage tractors, all so lovingly kept chugging along.  Here are some pictures that tell the day much better than words can describe:

Shire Horse At Aldborough And Boroughbridge Agricultural Show

Shire Horse At Aldborough And Boroughbridge Agricultural Show

Parade Of Vintage Tractors

Parade Of Vintage Tractors

Stockman Snoozing By His Prize Cattle

Stockman Snoozing By His Prize Cattle

Prize Winning Fodder Beet

Prize Winning Fodder Beet

Pots Of Jam At Aldborough And Boroughbridge Show

Pots Of Jam At Aldborough And Boroughbridge Show

Prize Winning Onion Sets

Prize Winning Onion Sets

Last Walks Along Northumbrian Coast For This Year (22/23 July 2011)

Monday, August 8th, 2011
Arctic Terns Nesting On Beadnell Bay

Arctic Terns Nesting On Beadnell Bay

My mother and I walked along Beadnell Bay towards the nesting turns.  The tide was in and the light from the falling sun was gorgeous.  The shore breeze was fairly strong and the waves were beating against the shore, roiling with the power from the winds.  There was a haze on the water from the crashing waves that glowed in the dying embers of the sun.  Black headed gulls patrolled the shoreline, very so often bobbing off as a wave overtook them.  Then the noise of the terns cut through the roar of the waves as we approached the nesting area.  A warden patrolled his little kingdom.  My mum walked back over the dunes, while I watched the parent Arctic terns continuously bringing along little offerings of glistening fish for their chicks.  The industry and effort was amazing and how they find their chicks in the cacophony is unbelievable.  A group of terns chased away a heron that had got too close. 

Sun Going Down Over Beadnell Bay

Sun Going Down Over Beadnell Bay

Sunset At Beadnell Bay

Sunset At Beadnell Bay

I turned and walked back along the beach.

The next morning was really windy and the waves were violently crashing on the shore.  Sophie and I walked south to Football Hole Cove where I had wanted to swim.  The waves were far too big, concentrated into the smaller bay.  We paddled in the waves and felt the strong undercurrent trying to pull us out to sea.  We walked back along the shore, skirting round the dead seal that was giving off a strongly putrid odour. 

I felt refreshed and pleased to have rediscovered this coastline, where I spent many a happy (if cold) holiday when much, much younger.

Luncheon at The Ship Inn In Craster (22 July 2011)

Sunday, August 7th, 2011

The day was dry, but overcast with a strong wind from the sea to shore.  We stayed put and walked over the dunes to Low Newton and The Ship Inn

The Ship Inn Low Newton

The Ship Inn Low Newton

It is a small village pub, nestled in the corner of white painted small houses.  It is a small pub with bare stone walls and lots of warm dark wood.  There are a few tables in side and even fewer tables outside on the pavement and on the green, but you can sit and eat on the green.  They brew their own beers on site – Emblestones, Newton Stout, Shop Hop and Whitehorses – with Whitehorses the preferred tipple amongst our family.  Or you can have a range of soft drinks from Fentimans etc.

We ordered a range of different meals from the simple pub menu – toasties, tomato & basil soup.  But the key for me is the local seafood or the cheese from Doddington Dairy near Wooler or local ham.  The seafood includes local kippers (£5.95), kipper paté (£5.35) or fishcake (£7.95) from Swallow Fish in Seafoods, or hand picked crab from Newton Haven beach, collected by the husband of one of the ladies that works at the pub, so not just local food but mega-local food from the water outside.

I had crab sandwiches (£6.75) and a crab & salad stottie (£8.75), both of which were delicious: fresh, rich and gently tasting of the sea.  These simple treats were exquisite, showing that simple is best, made without adornment.  For puddings, we ate apple crumble made on site.  The key to the food at The Ship Inn is fresh, local food, made without flashy, unnecessary & poncy overchefing that you often get in “gastropubs”.  I would walk for miles to find an oasis of what is brilliant about Northumberland, England and the world and this is one of those gems.  This is a credit to the sea and I raise a cheer to Christine Forsyth – thank you.

PS: you can eat an evening meal but you must book well in advance as you eat indoors and there is serious demand for the food.  As a word of warning though – it is cash only, so no cards!

Two Fish Shops – Craster And Seahouses (19 & 20 July 2011)

Saturday, August 6th, 2011
Robson Home Of The Craster Kipper

Robson Home Of The Craster Kipper

On the way back from Alnwick, we went to Craster and to L. Robson & Sons Ltd, who have been smoking herrings for kippers there for over 130 years.  It is an unprepossessing little sea village, with a small harbour that feels lost and drab.  There is only a little bit of sand and a few sad looking boats.  It is a good base for a walk along the coast towards the grand ruin of Dunstanburgh Castle and buying some fish, but not worth a visit on its own.  Robsons is a functional shop, the restaurant was closed and the service cursory, but the fish has a good reputation far and wide, and you can buy online at www.kipper.co.uk or by mail order (01665 576 223).  Kippers are £5.75/kg.

In contrast, Seahouses has managed to make the transition from a busy fishing harbour in the era of herring through to a tourist place much more smoothly.  It is a larger harbour, plus has the benefit of the Farne Islands and Holy Island closer to, enabling the ecotourists to come for birds, seals and the occasional dolphin, Minke whale and orcas.  Still, it is a much quieter harbour than I can remember from when young.  Then, all the edges of the harbour would be full of moored fishing boats, where now you have a handful of fishing boats and many more pleasure boats taking trips to the islands.

I remember coming down to the harbour to choose fish, crabs and lobster freshly landed and direct from the boats, where now signs say “No Landing Of Shellfish”.  The only hint at the former times are lobster pots and a fish van from Eyemouth with its incongruous saltire on its side.  The piers and harbour had more of a hubbub then and lots of busyness, but progress moves us ever forwards to a better place, supposedly.  I remember sitting at the end of the pier with legs dangling over the edge, surrounded by other kids, fishing with rod or just line; the joy of catching a pollock or when fishing from the shore a flattie, then the sweet and sour taste of food legitimately hunted and brought home to table.  In Seahouses, MacKays has changed from a shop with wet fish counter into a palace for plastic seaside geegaws and kiss-me-quick hats, as well as body boards and wet suits, called the Farne Island Gift Shop (be careful as it is cash only).

Swallow Fish In Seahouses , Northumberland

Swallow Fish In Seahouses , Northumberland

In Seahouses, you must rootle out Swallow Fish that is hidden above the harbour in South Street – it is hard to find down a potholed, little road.  Here they still smoke on site from fish that is landed in the harbour (probably only crab and lobster); you can sometimes see their van waiting patiently on the quayside.  My uncle used to get his salmon smoked here.  The Wilkin family have been smoking fish here since 1843 and claim to have invented the kipper, making this the oldest smokehouse in Northumberland.  The shop is a lovely warm and small space, unchanged from my memories as if you step from 2011 into someone’s warm front parlour in the 1960s or 1910s.  The service was warm and helpful in that quiet, reserved Northumbrian manner.  I bought dressed crab and kippers, normal and deboned.  Don’t buy the deboned as the shape is a fillet and feels wrong for a kipper, plus only the backbone has been removed and all the smaller bones are still there.  You can buy other fish products, plus live crab, crab claws, crab meat and lobster.  Swallow Fish is available in Fenwick Food Hall in Newcastle or by mail order or over the phone (01665 721 052) or www.swallowfish.co.uk.  Dearer than Craster at £8.25/kg, but worth it.  And what I love about their website is the section where you can meet their fishermen, which includes 2 of the Glad Tidings fleet as used for trips to the Farnes.

Swallow Fish Kippers - filleted or normal

Swallow Fish Kippers - filleted and normal

Our tasting notes from 12 of us:

  • Swallow Fish: lightly smoked taste with succulent meaty flesh and nice level of oil.  Really good example of kipper that have no artificial colours or smoke flavour.
  • Robson & Son Craster Kippers: more smoky and saltier in flavour than the Swallow Fish kippers.  Good taste and delicious meat with no artificial colours or smoke flavours.

Overall, Swallow Fish was our preferred kipper, but Craster Kippers are way ahead of other high street kippers, so go for either.  Some time back I reviewed Loch Fyne and Marrbury Smokehouse Kippers, which are good, but still not as good as Swallow Fish or Robson of Craster Kippers.

Wet weather day in Alnwick (20 July 2011)

Saturday, August 6th, 2011

A dreich, gray day.  What to do: the girls went to Alnwick swimming pool and had a great time.  My parents went to Paxton House north of the River Tweed near Berwick.  We went to Alnwick to Alnwick Castle.

I had not been to Alnwick Castle for years and not with the current Duke of Northumberland.  It is very different with much more effort put into looking after visitors, but a bit too much like the synthetic niceness of National Trust.  Like everything remembered from childhood, it is much smaller.  Alnwick Castle is full of impressive state rooms, glistering with bling accumulated over 100s of years of wealth and power, such as the amazing library; I liked the document demanding the beheading of the 7th Earl of Northumberland for treason in the Rising of The Northern Earls in 1569 and later beatified for his adherence to his faith.  But overall the internal rooms left me flat and gave me museum feet.  I think it is that otherworldliness that is accentuated by the rope barriers that say to us “Do not cross the line; Do not touch” – this is not for the likes of you.  Interesting, a curiosity. 

Alnwick Castle On A Dreich Day

Alnwick Castle On A Dreich Day

However, from outside, I like the shape and colours of the keep, walls and towers that gel with ingrained ideas of how castles should look.  This is something much more familiar and comfortable, even if it may be have been made normal through films and documentaries rather than reality, so a sanitised history without the smells and hardships. 

Wizard Teaching Broomstick Flying

Wizard Teaching Broomstick Flying

Then there were the childrens’ activities  – broomstick flying lessons (some of Harry Potter was filmed here for example the initial lessons in the first film where Harry Potter discovers his skill in flying) and the dragon’s quest where you go through rooms of skeletons, riddles and tasks, plus mirrors to complete a letter puzzle.  This was fun.

We had lunch in the cafe.  I had a dry and indifferent falafel wrap, some tea and an indulgent caramel shortbread, Sophie sweet potato soup and Jay bacon and mozzarella ciabatta and a Mars bar.  We huddled outside under the parasols that dripped with the incessant rain as we tried to find a dry patch to chomp on our food.

It is all quite expensive, but the entry fee does for two visits, so we will return to see the gardens in less inclement weather (see below).

After this, we went back into town to Barter Books which is in the old railway station.  This is a glorious space and was really busy because of the weather.  Look up and think of its old status, imagine the passengers and trains that passed through.  If you love books as we do, this is a brilliant place, cosy and loving like a friendly library and full of all manner of books in chaotic order.  Fiction by authors long forgotten, art, religion, local history, natural history, childrens’ books etc etc.  This is living breathing space where you can smell than familiar fustiness of old books, comforting, and you can open them and touch them and buy them.  Jay bought an old Beano, a book on Torres and stats on the Olympics from 2000, and I bought a couple of volumes of Hodgson’s “History of Northumberland”, indulging my interest in our family tree and local history.  This is a place we could spend a whole day without getting tired, plus willingly spending a small fortune.  Then you can grab a bite to eat and have a drink in the old waiting rooms: the tea is good and the tray bakes to die for, where I would recommend the Malteser & rice crispie chocolate or the one with fudge, and all good value.  Finally, I love the model trains that run around the track above your head, lovingly and impishly harking back to its former state, and the mural of famous writers. 

This is my history brought to life, living & breathing, rather than the facts, figures and details of distant figures of national politics and the news, people with whom I have no connection: neither I with them, nor vice versa.

Later (23/7/2011): we came to Alnwick Castle on a warmer day to look at the water garden and walled garden.  While the kids enjoyed getting wet in the fountains, it was more municipal than inspirational – not worth a visit on its own, but just about okay if you go around the castle as well.  Overall a bit on the dear side, but very popular and interesting from an historical perspective.

Alnwick Water Garden

Alnwick Water Garden

Two trips to the Farne Islands (18 & 19 July 2011)

Thursday, August 4th, 2011
View To Inner Farne Island

View To Inner Farne Island

Ticket Sheds For Trips To Farne and Holy Islands

Ticket Sheds For Trips To Farne and Holy Islands

Jay was desperate to go and see the puffins on the Farne Islands, so he insisted we went on Monday with its ominous, dark and brooding clouds.  Sure enough it began to drizzle as we drove out of High Newton-by-the-Sea.  We booked our tickets at Billy Shiels Boat Trips; we Steenbergs have always gone with Billy Shiels, while my Steenberg cousins now go with Serenity Tours.  The round trip with landing on Inner Farne cost £35 for 2 adults (£13 each), 1 child (£9 each) and various harbour fees.  There is free entry onto the Farnes as we are National Trust members but otherwise this costs extra; they generally have a good joining deal going so it is a good time to renew any lapsed memberships.  The National Trust look after the islands with quite a large number of wardens on the islands, protecting the chicks and seal pups.

Billy Shiels Glad Tidings Boat

Billy Shiels Glad Tidings Boat

We were late for the sailing, so had to charge down to the end of the pier as Glad Tidings was about to leave.  All Billy Shiels boats are named Glad Tidings and range from the original few which are open boats to the large Glad Tidings V, which is for the non-landing tour and is mainly covered.  We sailed on Glad Tidings III which is also partly covered but not so large.  The North Sea was quite choppy and we rolled with the waves, which I find quite exhilarating, but Jay was far less keen about.  By now it was windy, raining and the waves were getting up.

At this time of year, there were still kittiwakes with their nests perched on ledges on the cliff faces, plus a few guillemots and razorbills still either on ledges or strutting on the top of rock stacks jutting out of the sea.  Most of these can be found on the dramatic Pinnacles off Staple Island and if you come in May – June these are chocka with these auks.  As you drive past, you can see the black silhouettes of shags and fewer cormorants, breaking the skyline; often these can be see with their strange bat-like posture of holding out their wings to dry in the wind or sun as they do not have any oil on their feathers, so must hang them out literally to dry.  In the water, you will often see their snake-like heads poking out of the sea as they drift and fish along the island edges and further out to sea.  Puffins congregated on the cliff tops, huddling together against the wind that buffeted against the rocks, while kittiwakes seemed to move tighter into the nooks upon the crags where they nested. [Many more photos of birds at http://www.flickr.com/photos/steenbergs/sets/72157624111478125/]

Puffins On Wall On Inner Farne

Puffins On Wall On Inner Farne

Arctic Tern Coming In To Land

Arctic Tern Coming In To Land

Puffin A'flying

Puffin A'flying

Then, you drive further out to Longstone Island and the lighthouse that is famed for Grace Darling.  Famously, on 7th September 1838, Grace Darling and her father rowed out twice to Big Harcar to rescue nine survivors from the paddle steamer, the SS Forfarshire, which had run aground.  Their amazing daring made her a national heroine.  I do find it odd that you are still told all this in spite of exciting waters – some of the boats did not go out today and there were certainly few takers for the tour on the Monday!  I remember many a trip out when a child in rough waters – once we went out with my aunt and cousin from Germany when the waves were vast to the eyes of a small child, then the boatman asked us to haul a tarpaulin over us for protection from the spray.  However, whenever someone moved water coursed all over the unlucky person at the end, plus passengers were being sick over the edge.  But we got to shore safely in spite of what seemed a scary trip.

We were so wet through, with frozen hands and wet feet that we took shelter in the Pinnacle Bazaar and bought some cut-price trousers and changed into these there and then.  Oh the joy of being dry!  We nipped next door to the Pinnacle Fish & Chip Shop and sat to eat cod and chips with mushy peas (£6.25) with a warming mug of tea, with scampi and chips (£7.95) for Jay with a cup of water.  Slowly life came back into frozen hands, feet and stomach.  The batter was light, the fish fresh and succulent, the peas just right and the tea spot on.  The hunger was talking, but it was still a delicious lunch.  Afterwards, the rain had abated and we had ice creams from Coxons opposite – a 99 for me (£1.75) and a Refresher for Jay – or you can get ice creams at Pinnacles which tasted suspiciously similar to those at Coxons but cheaper at £1.20 for a 99.  Through rose tinted spectacles, this could even have been summer.

Pinnacle Fish & Chips

Pinnacle Fish & Chips

Coxons Ice Cream

Coxons Ice Cream

On Tuesday, the day was different: no wind and a blue sky.  We decided to go again and enjoy a dry trip to the Farnes.  This time the crossing was faster and smooth, but on the downside all the boats were out so there were more grockles like us and the birds were out on the water, so on Inner Farne there were less birds onshore. 

We watched the puffins bob on the water, then either skim across the water as our boat (Glad Tidings IV) approached or break the water clumsily, running on the surface then taking flight like torpedoes flapping furiously in the air.  Puffins are the little comedians of the seabird world, with oversized feet that waddled along like clowns whacky-quacky shoes and they fly with a style that Charlie Chaplin would have approved of.  Shags and cormorants floated closer to the islands, darting under water every so often to catch a fish.  Gannets flew past in small flocks of 5 or 6, with large wings moving in slow motion elegant against the skyline, so different from the puffins.  A few guillemots patrolled the top of the stacks, while kittiwakes every clung to ledges.  [Many more photos of birds at http://www.flickr.com/photos/steenbergs/sets/72157624111478125/]

Kittiwakes On Ledges At Inner Farne

Kittiwakes On Ledges At Inner Farne

Off all the islands, but especially Northern Hares and Wamses, grey seals lazed on wrack covered rocks.  Every so often they barked at each other and a few would waddle, then slide into the water, switching from overweight clumsiness on land to fleet swimmers in the sea, poking their curious and mischievous heads out of the water, watching us looking at them.

Grey Seal At Farne Islands

Grey Seal At Farne Islands

Then again to Inner Farne where you could enjoy the puffins again and watch the Arctic terns and their acrobatic flying and gaze at their elegant shapes.  Mothers protected nest by dive bombing and screeching a nasal kee-arr.  We enjoyed the view which shows the importance of this area to early Northumbrian power: Lindisfarne and the Celtic Christian church to the North on Lindisfarne, then the rock that was the base of Northern thanes, jarls and kings of Bamburgh Castle and the holy retreat of Inner Farne, with Dunstanburgh Castle to the South.  And of course the Inner Farne was the refuge for St Cuthbert, the most important Northern Saint, and where St Aidan came for contemplation every Easter (the Celtic Easter).

Back in Seahouses, we ate fish & chips at Lewis’ where we have eaten for many years.  The batter was light, but the fish less fresh, though the chips were good.  The peas came whole rather than mushed and my tea was forgotten.  Good but not as good as Pinnacles, which was not helped by a sign saying fresh crab sandwiches outside that were not available – we were told tomorrow, but I think it was the never reached mañana.  I did not try Neptune which is the other choice, but my sister went with her family and said it was excellent.

Lewis's Fish Restaurant

Lewis's Fish Restaurant, Seahouses