Environment – Sunday 4th October 2009

Posted on October 4, 2009


“The Seasonal Goods Aisle.” So named not due to the appropriateness of the stock but a reference to its longevity. While shopping earlier this year, my attention waned in tinned fruit and a gullable friend of mine made a break for it – trolley in tow. His eyes stood out like organ stops at the sight of a flat-pack garden shed reduced to £10. This low cost solution to his habitual hoarding seemingly outweighed the unsustainable, environmentally damaging material and the ‘dog-house chic’ of its brown plastic construction. The computer generated image of the execrable edifice on the front of the box would have been enough to prevent even the most unsophisticated Swedish furniture shop owner from stocking this particular product line. Which, I imagine, was the reason for its heavily discounted price.

The “Easy Shed” failed to live up to its name on both counts. Attempts to assemble the structure proved to be a case study on the difficulties of forming a joint using two different materials – the powder-coated supports were frustratingly difficult to slide onto the plastic panels, despite the use of the very best olive oil. A few shards of plastic in the digits later and with no more Elastoplast, the half-built walls were left stranded in the lawn – Tracey Emin style. Realising the shed came with no base, my friend asked me to accompany him to the garden centre to help carry sixteen paving stones (which cost many more times than his initial purchase). Two subsequent weekends of effort proved too much. The surviving plastic walls now cover holes in his garage roof and the metal supports bore a fine crop of runner beans. He occasionally finds a remnant or two stuck in the soles of his feet, providing an opportunity for me to compound my friend’s chagrin by reminding him that if something seems too good to be true, it usually is.

Cheap food, cheap clothing and cheap garden sheds are all produced by someone, somewhere and ultimately derived from our natural resources. It’s amazing that we still find it so easy to ignore the consequences of our consumption. This month, the Vicar is running a series of talks entitled ‘For the Beauty of the Earth’ focussing on the relationship between our civilisation and our planet; our shared faith perhaps providing a link between producers and consumers across the world that can be used as a platform for change.

Common sense tells us that any change will be hard-won; our consumer society is unlikely to compromise comfort for reasons of conscience, as a perplexed mechanical engineer friend of mine recalled recently over a pint after ‘handover’ day at a new school. His exasperation, he gushed, had been caused by an afternoon-long discussion with one teacher who complained that air conditioning had not been installed in her classroom. Attempting to explain the laws of Thermodynamics (where are all the physics teachers when you need them?) he informed her that over the course of a day, the heat generated by one teacher, two teaching assistants, thirty children, ten computers and a guinea pig would create a temperature difference of around four degrees Celsius between the classroom and the external environment. To equalise this mechanically would be too energy intensive and would cause the building to fail the target of 20% on-site renewable energy generation (the air conditioning increasing the total demand for power to a level where the amount of technology required to generate one fifth of it from renewable sources would be unaffordable). In short, he advised, she would (unfashionably) have to open a window or take off a layer of clothing when hot. I hear he is still extracting gold stars from the most unlikely places.

I suspect our hot teacher will strike a chord with many. I would be willing to wager that any bite-size changes we manage to make to our patterns of behaviour (whether inspired by faith or forced by guilt or necessity) will need to be pacified by new technology. As a result, I feel, we should do much more to encourage the development of our green economy and those who drive it.

‘John’ is an infectiously optimistic baby-boomer whose Heath Robinson exploits are enough to warm even my cynical sinews. Last year he developed an under-shower reservoir with heat-transfer fins to capture energy within the waste water and use it to heat his towel rail. A few weeks ago he introduced me to an amazing new material. ‘Pouring’ it out of a sample bottle and into my hand, he explained that Nanogel is the world’s least dense solid, formed from 95% air – yet somehow it retains its shape. It was an amazing experience, like touching a solid cloud. It is also the world’s best known thermal insulator and is being used by John and his team to create ‘net curtains of the future’ – to reduce heat loss through the windows of our ageing housing stock at a lower cost than triple-glazing.

His latest experiments are in water desalination and involve comparing the effect of different washing-up bowl linings on the amount of non-saline condensate collected in saucers floating upon salt water beneath a later of cling film and left in the sun (‘science bit’ over!) His studies began one windless day on board a boat off the Croatian coast – much to the irritation of his wife, who was overjoyed when he finally acquiesced to her calls to take a holiday and then found herself spending two weeks as his lab assistant. Based on a World Health Organisation recommended minimum of 1 cubic metre of water per person per day, John claims that if his washing-up bowl and its special lining was scaled up to a square kilometre, he could generate enough water for 500 people every twenty four hours. I feigned a stomach ulcer when offered some of the ‘fresh’ water as we poured over his cost-calculations. The economics of his approach are breathtaking – much cheaper than the $2 per cubic metre that it takes to purify brackish water today. He has even developed proposals to mix the waste salt with mud and create a new construction material.

Looking up from the spreadsheets, he anticipated my characteristic note of caution: “if it’s this simple, why has no-one done it before?” The straightforwardness of his scheme certainly seems too good to be true – but perhaps no more unlikely than the idea that we can go on exploiting the natural resources of our planet indefinitely – and there must be considerable commercial opportunities judging by the number of companies courting him for the rights.

I cannot claim any more than a schoolboy level of understanding of the science behind John’s many schemes, nor do I have firm evidence that any of them actually work – and yet somehow I believe that one day he will succeed. Sometimes if something seems too good to be true, it isn’t.