Thursday, 28 June 2007

another planet?

If everyone in the world lived like me we'd need 1.9 planets.

One Point Nine! Almost a whole other planet. So I am using/consuming nearly twice as much as Earth can sustain. I've been greedy while thinking I wasn't!

Planet-based measurements certainly bring home the impact of your lifestyle. Yes, I've been playing with online carbon calculators... I also discovered my ecological footprint. It's around 3.2 global hectares. The UK average is 5.3. Worldwide there are only 1.8 biologically productive global hectares per person.

My carbon footprint is around 6.3-7.5 tonnes annually of carbon dioxide emissions (varies according to calculator). The UK average is 10.22 tonnes. But I've nothing to be smug about – when my car-driving travel pattern is used my total annual emissions rise to... 9.5 tonnes! Discovering this stunned me. Even upset me. I was sure I was doing way better than most – after all I work mostly from home and only used the car a few times a week. Of course living rurally means going anywhere will be quite a way, but even so...

Seem it's been a blessing to have had to give up driving for a year – I have been forced to make hard choices and changes in what I can and cannot do. For instance I didn't submit work this week for an exhibition at Cube 3 in Plymouth because it would have required four trips to the city (meaning four lifts in a car big enough to take my work). But that wasn't so much about carbon as time, expense, and the arranging of four separate lifts.

Breaking down the figures my electric/energy footprint is 3.2-3.6 tonnes (depending on the calculator used) made up of 3.48 tonnes heating, hot water and lighting and 0.38 appliances (national average 4.56 heating/hot water/lighting and 1.56 appliances).

My house/studio are all electric, and at the moment living by myself means I can't halve the heating aspect. My energy footprint is based on 100% non-renewable electricity even though I buy from Ecotricity. Less than 5% of electricity currently produced in the UK is from renewables, and although Ecotricity's tariff supplies me with 26% renewable it seems more appropriate to work within the national share of non-renewable – ie 95%. So I left it at 100%; some calculators already factor in the renewable. Apparently demand for green energy is outstripping supply... explains several new applications for wind farms around this windy moor.

My land-based travel is 0.6-0.7 tonnes (not driving) or 3.0-3.6 (driving) – isn't the difference stark! The national average for all travel is 4.1 tonnes. I haven't flown since 1999.

My industrial/consumption footprint is 2.5-2.9 tonnes - though being subjective are only rough guides, as the calculator websites admit. It depends how much new or second-hand stuff you buy, whether you repair before re-buying, how local your food is and so on. I haven't adjusted anything particularly in my favour, just made myself average. Around half of CO2 emissions come from industry and commerce to support our everyday lifestyle. Works out at five tonnes a person.

The government's target is for a 60% cut in CO2 emissions by 2050, to around 4 tonnes per person, and about 7 to 7.5 tonnes (26-32%) by 2020. But George Monbiot has concluded that for a 50/50 chance of avoiding more than two degrees of global warming we need an 80% cut in global emissions by 2050 with 91% per capita being the British share. The Tyndall Centre affirms this by demonstrating that "even a 30% chance of not exceeding the 2 degC threshold require[s] the UK to cut its total carbon emissions by 70% by 2030 and in the region of 90% by 2050."

Down to one tonne a head in the next 40 years? Three tonnes by 2030? Substantial doesn't begin to say it. But I believe we can get there!

So, where from here?

Alongside energy and water use tables I have started a travel table. And now that I have conversion figures courtesy of the Climate Outreach and Information Network (COIN) I can calculate my CO2 emissions alongside them. The SMMTCO2 website has given exact CO2 emissions for my car, a Peugeot 306 hatchback, of 176 grams per kilometre.

Heating is another important area to address. Batikking does require warmth – for waxing and when drying dyes. So do I to feel comfortable enough to work! Being too hot is a less of a problem, anyway I'm quite content with an electric fan (for now).

These are only the first steps towards calculating the carbon cost of making batik and making my practice sustainable. It's going to take more research to figure out specific costs and even more to discover externalised costs from industry and sourcing materials. I also need to consider offsetting my "excess" carbon – not to make me feel OK but as a constructive contribution to address my part in climate change.

COIN lists and ranks a range of carbon calculators. I used's, COIN's own,'s,'s and, not listed there, the UK government's new one, ActOnCO2. It is so over-designed it looks like carbon emissions don't need to be taken seriously. Why does everything have to be entertainment these days? But dig deep enough and you find a methodology paper which gives more specific information – I congratulate DEFRA for this openness, and for asking for feedback.

Monday, 18 June 2007

talk talk

I feel bad for not posting more pictures. It's difficult when I don't have relevant ones – I didn't take my camera away with me. Nor my sketchbook. I decided not to as I was travelling light. But... here is the invitation to the Batik Transitions exhibition at the Museum of East Asian Art in Bath – bit crumpled after being in my pocket for the day. Great exhibition - stunning traditional and contemporary batik.

Where I had an interesting conversation too. A lady whose passion in life was doves had found my postcard "Tradition of February 14th" (see Robin, another opportunity for a pic) and, after hearing I was in the museum, found me and asked why it didn't include doves. Apparently her late husband, another fanatic, had written books about them. She continued his work through involvement with a newsletter for a society devoted to doves (memory bit hazy). She was always on the lookout for pictures to include, so if I ever did make one...

Had I been driving (=rushing), I'd have left the museum already and we wouldn't have met. Or if we had I would have felt rushed and not able to linger over such a conversation.

Which leads nicely in to the second conversation referred to in my previous post. Wandering around Bath choosing where to have breakfast I settled for a coffee shop chain selling fairtrade coffee with tables outside. The coffee was welcome but the croissant cold. A man sat at the next table and began talking. The manner of conversation sticks in mind as much as our conversation itself.... it was straight out of a Graham Greene novel. He was a journalist. I imagined him stopping there each morning with a cuppa, watching the world going by, greeting and sometimes chatting with passing locals. Waiting for a lead into the next story. And I was a new face, so worth enquiring about. I wondered if I'd pinched 'his' table.

What did we talk about? The media's influence over people (he had recently not-renewed-contract with the local paper because of its increasing reliance on headlining negative non-news to increase sales), merits of museum trends towards interpretation over simple display and label of many more items, positive life without television and childhoods outdoors mucking around in nature, similarities between all political parties these days and equivalent lack of democratic respect, and the local council's disregard for its residents and their much-loved public building it was demolishing. It is always encouraging to find similar thinking elsewhere in person and not just 'anonymously' through the internet or campaign groups. It may not be a revolution that's coming, but change in the next few decades surely will be revolutionary, and it is comforting to know others are stepping outside 'the system' to seek positive change... especially someone with the influential skills of a journo!

It surprised me to hear a businessman acknowledge the changes we are facing over the next twenty years will be greater than any he has seen in his lifetime (of 50+ years, at a guess). This was on the train back to Plymouth, a Saltash businessman absorbed in his laptop with mouse at arms length across the table. We began chatting at Exeter. You know how sometimes conversations lead to you saying something that makes you jump aside and look amazedly at your statement wondering where it came from, whilst also recognising it's what you knew all along. I proclaimed:

"the only thing that matters from now on is knowing how to live off the land".

I think those without this knowledge and the ways of nature won't survive. I'm not in the survivors camp... yet.

Our statements emerged during discussions of the nature of art, its role in the future uncertain world – with some unexpected parallels to our earlier London Olympics logo conversation.

While considering the merits or not of the logo, the media's influence again popped up – how it will have shaped many people's opinions even before seeing the logo. Our conclusion was to have more faith in Wolff Olins (a highly respected design group even when I was a minnow design student), that over five years the logo might well evolve into something (in my opinion) more appropriate. But I didn't and don't believe that just an intellectual approach (ie rationalisation of what, why, when, who, where etc) is enough - if it doesn't feel right. Feelings and instinct should have more respect and be listened to.

As I see it, art's intrinsic value is lost today because of the disconnection most people have with art. The oblivion to it. Yet music on the radio is accessible to everyone despite different tastes (sometimes too accessible, thinking about thumpity thump car stereos). But which came first, the loss of purpose or the disconnectedness?

The Saltash businessman feels it is partly because other media have taken art's place (eg television) but it's also about education, that young people these days don't learn to retain knowledge or facts because they are otherwise so easily accessible eg through the internet. At a simple level, you could compare learning times tables with use of a calculator, and certainly I was one of the last generations to learn maths without calculators.

But I feel the cause of disconnectedness from art is deeper-rooted and longer-lived, not just a young person thing but a whole society thing. In traditional societies designs had meaning and spiritual significance, and were respected as part of everyday life and culture. Perhaps they were the media of the day, influencing people in the way modern media does now. But traditional art wasn't and isn't about sensationalism, fashion and sales but about customs, values and knowledge, how society should be, how the natural world is, and spiritual interaction with the natural world. Knowledge gleaned through generations and handed down in art form. Yet traditional art has evolved over time without losing its meaning. So what happened to ours?

Has the written and read word replaced this former visual language? Much more information can be given and taken through reading than could be incorporated into a design (I think!). But is knowledge understood and retained in the same way as it might with a familiar design or pattern? Can the read and written word initiate physical, emotional responses like art can?* In the same way calculator use has obscured mental arithmetic, has reading and writing obscured visual ability? If this is true, the Saltash businessman would be right in blaming education – whether the traditional 3r's (reading writing 'rithmetic) or current literacy and numeracy policy initiatives.

Art has a societal role... it is community art. But community art in Britain is close to commodified. Sometimes government policies are being delivered or targets met – varying from year to year and government to government. Sometimes community art is just a means for artists to earn a living through projects instigated and funded by agencies outside the very communities. Sometimes community art is brilliant but it still doesn't have the reach of traditional art. Art for the community surely is more attitude than career...

I still haven't found the answers, but both conversations opened up new ways of looking at the dilemma. And reminded me of the value of slow travel, slow life – the value of having time for other people and other places, of time to contemplate. Does slow art have these same values, is slow art akin to traditional art?

*Not confusing the read/written word with the spoken/sung word, or wanting to upset poets!

Monday, 11 June 2007

slow travel, slow talk

Three strangers, three conversations. Had I driven (as would have been my former inclination as everything could be visited (ie "done") in a day) then I would never have met these people, never would have had such interesting and stimulating exchanges with them. But as I travelled slowly, walking or by train (other than lifts to and from home, and one to a railway station), taking two days, there was time, and so I did. Taking it slow and being away also made it a mini-holiday and back home I feel energised and invigorated...

I went to Slimbridge, Britain's first wetland nature reserve last week. I travelled on to Bath to see the Batik Transitions exhibition at the Museum of East Asian Art, staying overnight in Bath Youth Hostel. Here is the first conversation, I will post the others later.

Conversation One
After being dropped at Slimbridge village by my lift, I enjoyed a pleasant half-hour's walk from the centre past cows moving field and a working canal lock-bridge. Just before the centre a sign invites you to view and read about their reed bed filtration system. All their waste water and sewage is filtered through several stages including gravels and different plant groupings. All the nasty bits for us are food for bacteria that live in the reeds root network. Clean water eventually flows out into a wildlife pond, proof it works! Adam Joseph Lewis Centre at Oberlin College both incorporates a reed bed system in their building and explains its workings well.

Last year I researched wax removal processes*, including disposal of both used wax and the cleaning agent (in my case, boiling water). It included the effects of disposal via the sewer, which I contrasted with direct disposal into the ground. But disposal via reedbed filtering hadn't crossed my mind so I seized this moment to learn more (had I been driving I would have already left, because of the intention of "doing" Bath in the same day). After a phone conversation or two, a WWT specialist met me and kindly gave some outline advice for my situation.

A reed bed filtration system would probably be impractical due to scale. Scale of my practice more than scale of space needed for filtering! The system would need to be regularly "fed" waste water to stay active/alive, so including household waste water/sewage would make sense. Umm, what about when I go away, say for two weeks? Yes, not advised, it's long enough to starve the reed bed. I pondered collective action as a solution but feel in my street only one household might consider it without thinking it weird. For now, anyway. Who knows about the future?

Every reed bed system needs to be designed precisely for the potential waste it receives, so my hypothetical one would need to take dyes into account as well as waxy water. Chemical dyes and natural dyes – I am still considering switching to natural dyes. Procions would need more than a casual conversation to analyse but I feel in the doses I use they would break down sufficiently and harmlessly (in the early 1990s I sought advice on their disposal via mains sewage from someone working for the then National Rivers Authority and a housemate working for Severn Trent Water authority; both OKd them). Natural dyes also might affect micro-organisms within the reed bed – they are essentially chemicals too. But what was made apparent during the talk was incompatibility of inorganic materials to reed bed systems – such as metal mordants used to fix natural dyes.

I have read and heard from time to time that chemical dyes are (or can be) more environmentally friendly than natural dyes simply because of the mordants used for fixing most natural dyes. I really doooo need to look into this properly... and the carbon cost of both. I also have an inkling that wood ash or just plain wood can be used for fixing. Indigo wouldn't have the same concerns, not requiring a mordant. Not to say it wouldn't introduce other problems.

But the biggest problem to adopting a reed bed system at my studio and house would be location location location... the garden slopes uphill from the back of the house. Aaagh! Completely the wrong direction! But a point to consider for when I move...

* The wax removal article needs a bit of amending before being posted here, I will try to do this soon.

Friday, 8 June 2007

all in the mind

Those following my postings will know I was struggling last week to draw clean wax lines but had practised and practised to refind the ability. Last Thursday was crunch time for waxing a commission. I had a terrible time all day, all skills gone to pot again. My mind was all over the place, forever drifting to the upcoming weekend and family visits and planning for a trip away the next week. I couldn't concentrate and it was preventing good craftsmanship. And I'd been up late blogging – late nights a good waxer do not make, a point made in the last post! So early evening I popped off to bed and slept for an hour, waking up refreshed and focused. Off I went and waxed such gorgeous lines I could cry! Even the grouping I'd been finding extra-problematic came out... well... how I'd expect a seasoned batikker to make them! Sadly though one line worries me, well two really, and a third ends not quite perfectly. But I think I am getting too perfectionist, too honed in on exactness that the spontaneous feel of art, batik, drawing might get lost. Niggly, but not wiggly, lines are fine.

The dyeing and final waxing stage will be next week. This is where real stress and worry comes in! Wax without dye can be boiled out and re-started. When dye meets cloth it starts fixing and can't be removed (assuming fix has been put in dye or cloth). So once the dye is there there is only one way forward... only one chance to get it right. I will post pics when it's finished. It's too scary beforehand...

In life I believe everything is a learning experience, everything happens for a reason and everything happens for the best. These pearls of wisdom came from an aged step-great-aunt I used to visit as a student and young graphic designer in London. In the 1920s she'd been an actress touring India with a theatre group, and as I saw it had that kind of rational positive approach to life and its ups and downs that I later found Indians and other Asians to have.

So... what am I learning from this commission? Simplicity and complications... the title of my last post. My own approach to batik has become complex, multi-layered and wrapped up in technique. The textural achievements are pretty wonderful, if I say so myself, but are they really necessary? The old saying "less is more" couldn't be more relevant.

But, as came up in the comments section of this blog on happiness, you cannot have, know, or experience one extreme without having, knowing or experiencing the other. (And there is no blanket extremes but much grey in between areas.) There may well be further to explore in the realms of complex batik, but I feel I have gone far enough that way to know that "more" can be achieved with "less".

In terms of sustainability less also seems to suggest more. Less wax, less energy, less water, less dye... less time taken (=less financial cost). It is not to say less effort though, as to reduce to just that which is needed often requires as much – or more - understanding of design and process as a complex procedure and quite possibly greater skills.

Aaagh. I see. Early nights are here to stay.