On a recent Thursday, I attended three separate events in south Wales, each one with a different spin on sustainability and the future.
The first one took me to the tiny village of Tairgwaith in the Amman Valley for a Stories of Change workshop. You can read more about the great Stories of Change Project here but to summarise, the project explores how energy production is changing and how life changes with it. Tairgwaith resident, writer and poet Emily Hinshelwood has been running a series of five workshops with participants from the local community on Thursday afternoons, specifically as part of the Everyday Lives strand of the project. I’ve been aware of the project for some time and was excited to finally be finding out more about it and also to be visiting a part of Wales I had not been to before. So far my research has not ventured out much beyond urban contexts and I have found little opportunity to engage with more rural communities, where the legacy of coal mining is particularly keenly felt and has implications for stories about the past, present and future. This workshop was a chance for me to at least make a small inroad in this respect, and I grabbed it with both hands.
In this week’s workshop the group focussed on electrical appliances: the role they play in our lives, how life used to be before them, and how our use of appliances might change in the future. It was an absolute pleasure to take part – not only did it open my eyes to my own relationship with electric appliances (I realised, for example, that I have never lived in a house without a toaster, a washing machine, a radio or a hoover!), but I listened to the other participants reminisce about their lives before certain appliances became common place. More often than not this prompted hoots of laughter and delight in discovering shared memories – “put that meat on the cold slab in the pantry!” or “remember Di oil!” (the man who used to deliver fuel to the village in his van). The oldest member of the group, in his 80s, had spent 50 years of his life working in the open cast mine just a stone’s throw from where we were sitting and could remember the paraffin lamps they had used to light their houses.
Even more fascinating was how, prompted by Emily, the group reflected on the impact that the proliferation of electrical appliances had had on their lives. We had all brought in with us a list of all the appliances in our homes and the length of these lists, it emerged, provoked disbelief and, often, disdain, from their owners. One person attributed the hecticness of daily life to all these appliances and another commented that “our senses are bombarded by all these contraptions!”. The point of all this was to get us to think about, in a scenario where we might be required to reduce our consumption of fossil fuels, how our lives would change in the absence of some appliances – what would we give up first? How would we cope? There were varied opinions on this, ranging from the feeling that our lives would grind to a halt and anarchy would ensue (“there would be no need for World War Three!”), to people welcoming the opportunity to ban tumble driers or rid the world of electric fly-swatters.
Incidentally – Emily Hinshelwood is collecting contributions for a book on this subject and she’d love to hear people’s ideas for ‘endangered electrical applies’, in the style of a natural history text book (see my attempt below!). You can email her at email@example.com
Range: Worldwide, usually in urban areas
Habitat: Prefers to live on the sides of buildings in elevated, road-facing positions.
Size: Approximately 20cm x 20 cm.
The Security Light has a hard outer-shell and square edges, although some species are know to be rounded. The body is made up of a single segment which is connected to its host via a long chord inserted into the substrate. The organism gains energy and sustenance through this chord for the duration of it’s lifetime, unless sudden relocation should occur. During the daytime the organism is dormant (daytime activity is usually a sign of illness), only becoming active at night, during which time all species display a remarkable ability to illuminate themselves in response to movement in their proximity. Colour and intensity varies across species. It is thought that this is an adaptation which makes a symbiotic relationship with the host possible – in return for sustenance, the organism may be able to deter predators away from both itself and it’s host through it’s ability to self-illuminate. The Security Light is predominantly a solitary organism, although in unusual circumstances where habitats are particularly favourable several may be spotted in one street, and perhaps,even, on the same building.
The next event of the day was very much larger in its subject and scope. I hopped back on the bus and back to Swansea to attend a talk by Director of Environment and Sustainable Development at the Welsh Government, Matthew Quinn, about the new Well-Being of Future Generations Act. The Act is an important ‘contextual factor’ for my research, so I for one was relieved when it was passed in April this year! It will place a legal obligation on all public services in Wales to comply with a range of sustainability goals and principles. So, whereas the Stories of Change workshop was looking at how change happens through people’s relationships with appliances in a small community, this Act will use law to change the working practices of hundreds of services across a whole nation, aiming to improve not only environmental standards but also social, economic and cultural ones. It is hard to make law and legislation sound exciting, I know, but this Act, as Quinn stressed, is genuinely quite a big deal, being the first of its kind in the world and explicitly seeking to embed long-term thinking about the well-being of future generations in policy. It is also part of novel experiments around the world in the realm of ‘intergenerational solidarity’ in policy-making – that is, how the needs of future generations can be taken into account in international and national law for, in the UN’s words, “the achievement of sustainable development”. Watch this space!
From people, to government, and so to technology: the final event of the day was an evening lecture by Professor Phil Jones of Cardiff University, who has recently made the headlines by building, with his team, the Solcer House at Bridgend, credited as being Wales’s first low-cost energy ‘smart house’. The building is capable of exporting more energy to the grid than it uses, and can be built, in around 16 weeks, for about £120,000 – the same cost as your average social house build. The team have also been experimenting with retro-fitting houses so that energy consumption can be reduced by as much as 70%, and again at affordable prices. Professor Jones’s talk showed how this had all been achieved through a mixture of clever technology and taking a systems approach in everything that they do: making buildings work as a whole, not just individual parts. He also talked about what he calls the policy – practice gap: how there tends to be a lag behind political aspirations and implementation on the ground. In light of this, he urged society to take a bottom-up approach to green building, taking matters (and the technology) into our own hands if we want to see faster progress.
This day of coinciding events gave me a really interesting perspective on changes happening in Wales, and how people are thinking about the future from different perspectives. All three of these events had completely different audiences, different subject matters and proffered different future ‘solutions’ for addressing climate change and sustainability (from giving up electrical appliances, to legislation, to low-carbon technology). And yet they all have, broadly, the same aims in mind – reducing emissions of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere and improving the well being of current and future generations. I find this quite heartening, to think of these disparate and varied sectors of society working away to come up with equally varied suggestions for how to tackle the issues. Perhaps this is how change really happens – not through some huge, centrally orchestrated effort (although this, too, might be welcome!), but when lots of different people from a broad cross section of society, perhaps even in very uncoordinated and unconnected ways, start pushing towards similar goals.