Another Bottom Line

A growing number of people appear to be interested in considering environmental issues when they make major decisions… but how do you consider the environment?

Legislators often get it wrong, or less right than they might. For example, when CFCs were banned because they were depleting the ozone layer, the replacement HCFCs were less damaging in this regard, but they were powerful greenhouse gases. Thus you might be spared a skin cancer of the kind we were all worrying about in the 1980s, but you (or you food supply) will be at increased risk from extreme weather events as the planet warms. Similarly, legislation promoted compact fluorescent lightbulbs because they save energy when compared to the incandescent kind, but (among a number of problems) they contain mercury: a horribly toxic material that we really don’t need any more of in our homes. All too often, you solve one problem, and introduce another.

CFL bulb

Compact Fluorescent Lamps: love them or loathe them?

Lead-free solder seeks to address the problem of toxicity, but the new material requires higher processing temperatures, and introduces reliability problems. Wind turbines provide a low-carbon energy source, but are said to harm the tourist trade and present a hazard to migrating birds…

Basically, you can’t improve matters unless you understand the ‘big picture’, and are prepared to tackle some difficult compromises. It’s always been about tradeoffs. Elkington [1994] showed us this with a call for ‘Triple Bottom Line’ (TBL) accounting, seeking solutions that are socially just, environmentally sound and commercially viable. Virtually all sustainability practitioners are familiar with the Venn Diagram representation of the TBL, and accept that sustainability is found only at the intersection of the three sets.

Triple Bottom Line (TBL)

The concept of the Triple Bottom Line, expressed as a Venn Diagram

This helps a little bit because we can see that in order to find solutions that meet all three requirements, we might need to make compromises. Large businesses address this need through their corporate social responsibility programmes; perhaps funding local development or improvement schemes in exchange for being allowed to do business in a certain place. In effect, they take a (small) hit on profitability in order to win hearts and minds through their handling of social or environmental issues.

The idea that wind turbines on hillsides are hurting the tourist trade because they spoil the view demands that we (or rather, our legislators) make a choice between low-carbon energy and the profitability of a local industry: weighing planet vs. profit. Not all tradeoffs cross the boundaries between TBL categories, however: the concern that our renewable, low-carbon energy source might chop visiting guillemots into a feathery pink mist is a planet vs. planet tradeoff. That makes things complicated.

What I have come to suspect is that we need a fourth bottom line. In this, I am not alone. In the context of land management, Williamson and Wallace [2007] added governance standards as a fourth dimension. In sustainable tourism, Tjolle [2008] split the ‘people’ dimension into social and cultural–ethical, and Hughey and Coleman [2007] applied the same subdivision in a study of local government. Mahoney and Potter [2004] also effectively subdivided ‘people’ when they specifically represented health impact assessments as a fourth category, while for Burke [2006], the fourth dimension was spirituality. Other practitioners have added yet more.

Me, though, I want to divide the ‘planet’ category into two. I believe that there are two kinds of environmental consideration: the local and the global. To call all environmental considerations ‘planet’ is to misunderstand the subtleties of the natural system that we are trying to defend through environmental accounting. My hypothetical “guillemots versus wind turbines” quandary shows a tradeoff that requires us to weigh how much we value local wildlife against the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that affect the whole world.

It’s difficult to draw a Venn Diagram with four sets. Strictly speaking, it’s impossible, because a Venn Diagram should use circles, and with four circles you don’t get all the necessary overlaps. If you use ellipses instead of circles it’s possible: you can see my proposed Quadruple Bottom Line diagram below.

Quadruple bottom line

Conceptual Venn Diagram for a Quadruple Bottom Line.

Pretty. But does it do much? Well, not on its own. It still requires inventive thinking from stakeholders if solutions are to be found… but humanity’s experience with lightbulbs, refrigerants, electronics, power generation and everything else suggests that we’re an inventive species. Coming up with solutions isn’t the problem; it’s in understanding the consequences that we stumble. Perhaps a system of Quadruple Bottom Line accounting will help.

As a first step, the diagram below attempts to categorise a variety of issues that a legislator might come up against.

Issues allocated to a quadruple bottom line

Initial categorisation of issues, using a Quadruple Bottom Line approach.

The ‘big problem’ is that while we’re very good at accounting when it relates to trade – where we have mechanisms such as the market, banking, audits and currency as a medium of exchange – the science of measuring harm, hurt or waste in a more general context is far less developed. How bad does the smell from a local business have to become before residents can demand recompense? How much is a species of butterfly worth? Is traffic congestion a worse problem than water shortages?

Clearly, the hard work has yet to be done.




Burke, R. (2006) Leadership and spirituality, Foresight, 8(6), pp. 14–25

Elkington, J. (1994) Towards the sustainable corporation: Win-win-win business strategies for sustainable development, California Management Review, Vol. 36, no. 2, pp. 90–100

Hughey, K.F.D. and Coleman, D.C. (2007). Adding another top and bottom line to Sustainability thinking in small to medium sized local authorities – application to a small New Zealand local authority. Proceedings of the 2007 ANZSEE Conference, 3–6 July 2007, Noosa Lakes, Queensland

Mahoney, M. and Potter, J-L. (2004) Integrating health impact assessment into the triple bottom line concept, Environmental Impact Assessment Review, Vol. 24, pp. 151–160

Tjolle, V. (2008) Your Quadruple Bottom Line: Sustainable Tourism Opportunity, SMILE Conference, 27 May 2008, Dublin, Ireland

Williamson, I.P. and Wallace, J. (2007) New Roles of Land Administration System, in proceedings of the International Workshop on Good Land Administration – Its Role in Economic Development, 27–29 June, 2007, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

An Evening with the Deep Greens

As a part of my efforts to gauge public opinion on sustainability topics, I follow a lot of groups and individuals on Twitter. (If you want to say hello, I tweet on @Capacified…) A recent announcement caught my interest, and led me to Burnley, Lancashire where Friends of the Earth were running a training and strategy event for people concerned about gas extraction via hydraulic fracturing, or ‘fracking’. I went along primarily as an observer: somebody from out of town, not a member of Friends of the Earth, and not entirely sure where I stand on shale gas extraction. On the one hand, it appears to offer a solution to the gloomy refrain of my adult life, that North Sea oil and gas are running out; on the other, I know that giving our present-day economy access to more fossil fuels could be analogous to buying an alcoholic a bottle of whisky.

The path to meeting these folks did not run entirely smoothly. When I followed the link to register my interest (using the Eventbrite service) it acknowledged my booking but generated a ticket that gave the date and address for a similar event in Preston, twelve days later and at a different time. Fortunately, I checked my facts, and went to the right one… although I waited by the front entrance while all the regulars knew to go around the back. Things are a little ad-hoc, it seems.

My ticket

Misleading ticket: check.

While my students would crucify me for such vagaries, this is actually kind of cool. Gaining admittance to the meeting felt like slipping into a prohibition era speakeasy, or contacting a resistance movement – which is basically what it is. I had passed the test, if test it was, and gained admission.

Ultimately, there were thirteen of us, who I will attempt to categorise (with apologies if I misrepresent anybody’s position, but this is how it seemed to me…) as two staffers from Friends of the Earth, nine ‘deep green’ citizens from various groups, a geologist who described himself as “ambivalent” on fracking, and your humble narrator. We all introduced ourselves. Nobody tried to lynch me or the geologist. So far, so good.

Now, people who care enough to give up their evening for campaigning tend to be the passionate ones. They’re vocal, and they don’t always follow the agenda. Organiser Tim Atkinson did a good job of keeping things more-or-less on topic, but it wasn’t always easy. People wanted to talk about the evils of fracking in general (with the exception of the geologist) and didn’t always follow instructions when asked to participate in activities. At one stage, a roleplaying exercise saw our group selecting and briefing a ‘local councillor’ who would meet with representatives from the other group, the anti-fracking campaigners. Our guy would talk about local employment, “keeping the lights on”, and so on… but few of the people on our side wanted to come up with any arguments in favour of the exploratory fracking that’s now taking place. This is understandable, but I feel that one should at least try to anticipate the likely arguments of the ‘bad guys’, even if you can’t condone their position.

There was an elephant in the room, too: that of party politics. There seemed to be a consensus between all present that the political left were inherently well-disposed to listen, understand and do the right thing. This is borne out by the fact that the Green Party of England and Wales are socialists in a big way, and allies of the anti-fracking movement. For example, Green Member of Parliament Dr Caroline Lucas was arrested during a protest against Cuadrilla Resources’ fracking operations in Sussex – and subsequently found not guilty. It should be noted, however, that the Green Party have a relatively minor influence in UK politics: Dr Lucas provides the only representation in the House of Commons.

The Arrest of Caroline Lucas, MP

Arrest of Caroline Lucas, August 2013 (The Times)

It’s true that the current Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition have granted licenses to drill for shale gas, but on a local level some Conservative councils have ruled against shale gas exploration on their patch. Fylde Borough Council’s development management committee decided to oppose an application the same day I met with the activists. Can a Conservative voter or public servant not be a ‘green’, at least as far as this issue is concerned? Will they always protect big business at the expense of citizens? I’m troubled by this “four legs good, two legs bad” simplifying of the political spectrum: when I think of all the environmental catastrophes of Soviet era heavy industry, it really doesn’t follow that socialism can always be equated with environmentally sound policy. Are the anti-frackers potentially turning away a lot of support because they combine the issue with a wider political one? I don’t know.

That said, the resistance movement has achieved a great deal, despite its volunteer roots, limited budget and the immense funding of their rivals. In August this year a council consultation saw an unprecedented 14,000 objections to Cuadrilla’s plans. One thing that impressed me about the protesters I met was that nobody appeared to be there only to ensure that their own hillsides and waterways should be defended: although organised into local groups, the aim is national and even international.

“Not NIMBYs but NOMPs,” our facilitator told me: “Not On My Planet”.

Where fracking proposals have been defeated, I am told, activists transfer their support to campaigns in other counties. In the face of such opposition it seems that the energy companies can’t hope to emulate the rapid uptake seen in the USA. Instead, it’s going to be an uphill battle, of the kind that makes investors nervous. The British respond instinctively to the plucky underdog; it’s part of our national myth, going back to the days of the Spanish Armada; maybe further. The group aroused in me a sympathy of the kind that you get for the rebels in Star Wars (1977) in their rag-tag struggle against the brute force of the Empire.

Star Wars (Lucasfilm)

It really is just like this. Only with chocolate biscuits instead of lasers.

They’re real people, but they’re not ordinary people; ordinary people don’t understand the legislative landscape. Most folk couldn’t name their local councillors, nor tell you how to get an item onto the agenda at a public meeting. I suspect that the average ‘man in the street’ knows very little about the legal and civic processes of lobbying. I know I don’t: I’d have to think hard to remember the name of my MP, and I certainly couldn’t tell you who represents us in Europe. My own interests are centred upon establishing the sustainable supply chain by example – I want to make companies better because being less wasteful is more profitable. I regard legislation as flawed, in that it often solves the wrong problems, or gets derailed, or closes the stable door long after the horse has bolted. In this I think I share Jonathan Swift’s opinion of politicians:

“…that whoever could make two ears of corn, or two blades of grass, to grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before, would deserve better of mankind, and do more essential service to his country, than the whole race of politicians put together.”

– Jonathan Swift, ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ (1726)

There’s a dichotomy developing, as we see that ‘ordinary people’ have greatly increased ability to broadcast their thoughts, courtesy of the Internet… but a lot of the population seem to think that clicking ‘like’ on a Facebook page means they’ve done their bit. (This limited degree of involvement is called Slacktivism, and with good reason.) Apathy is a double-edged sword, though, because in an age when so few people take an interest in local affairs and politics, a small group can achieve a great deal. If a local councillor or Member of Parliament gets a hundred letters on a subject, it’s very influential. Such a postbag could be very persuasive, even though it might be achieved by mobilising a group of people attending just one large school or church. This was the key message of the training event: that each person should propagate the message, not simply taking part in events, but persuading others to take an interest.

By providing contact details for the relevant legislators, plus form letters for those who are struggling to express their concerns clearly, Friends of the Earth do what they can to make it easy for citizens to object.

Are those objections reasonable?
Are they based on good science?

I don’t know, yet. Some of the evidence against fracking – eloquently and passionately shared though it was – appeared to be only anecdotal. For example, I was told that a UK contractor was “caught fly-tipping used fracking fluid” – apparently they dumped a tanker-load or two into a canal? Well… that would be sensational. That would be a ‘smoking gun’, and the national newspapers would be all over it. And since used fracking fluid is a soup of unusual chemicals, often made mildly radioactive by its trip below ground, I’d expect to be able to prove that claim with ease, even weeks later.

For now, the only comment I can offer on that story is that Google doesn’t seem to want to share any such news item with me. Prove me wrong; send me the links I haven’t been able to find… but for now, I can’t endorse that particular part of the case against fracking. Meanwhile, in an effort to get some hard facts, a quick look on one of our library databases revealed 284 peer-reviewed academic papers that contain the word “fracking”.

It appears that I’m not going to be short of reading material for a while.

Another day, another bioplastic

The story so far: I’m making occasional efforts to follow recipes for simple stovetop bioplastics, found on the Internet. I’m hoping to learn enough about the possibilities to be able to find a simple, affordable one that can be made from abundant materials, and substituted for conventional oil-based materials.

Just imagine the benefits if a material could be identified that is renewable, and biodegradable. If processing was simple enough that anybody could set up a business to make the stuff, and if it was inexpensive enough to be used in packaging? We could make litter a thing of the past… and stave off the problems of oil depletion.

In my first test, the casein plastic had been a disappointment… but who wants to make artefacts out of curdled milk, anyway? My next effort was with a starch-based bioplastic, consisting of cornflour, vinegar, gelatin and water. That’s two ingredients out of the kitchen cupboard, one from the tap, and one from my local pharmacy. Gelatin is the one you’re least likely to have on hand, although it’s inexpensive and renewable – a byproduct of soap manufacture, used in baking and the like. (You needn’t worry that going into the pharmacy and asking for gelatin is going to make them think you’re running a drug lab, or something…)

The ingredients were combined:

  • one tablespoon of cornstarch,
  • four tablespoons of water,
  • a teaspoon of glycerin, and
  • a teaspoon of vinegar.

(It’s said that varying the quantity of gelatin used affects the stiffness of the plastic… adding a variable to the already somewhat imprecise bioplastic recipes I’m finding…)

Everything was thoroughly mixed, while cold, and then stirred vigorously while heat was applied. (I added some food colouring at this point, just for fun.) You know it’s polymerising when it turns into a semi-translucent gel, and begins to form clumps. Presently, it starts to bubble, and it’s time to remove it from the heat. You’re left with a substance that only the special effects director in a science fiction movie could love.

And then? Then you pour it out of the pot, and spread it on a non-stick surface. Once again (as with the casein plastic) it’s time to play the waiting game: the plastic must dry.

Not cool, but dry. My disappointment with bioplastics looks set to continue, as the industrial applications for a plastic that has to dry like plaster seem somewhat limited… but that’s the way things are, at least with this particular material. In any case, I decided to try the material and report on what I got.

I’d made a double-sized batch, which may have been a mistake. I spread it out as best I could in a non-stick over tray, covering it to a depth of about 5mm. This thickness will have affected the drying time; after three days I still had clammy, weak bioplastic, with all the engineering properties of jelly.

Weak, flabby and cracking up... and my bioplastic’s not much use either.

Weak, flabby and cracking up… and my bioplastic’s not much use either.

At the same time, the material revealed its Achilles’ heel: it shrank as it dried, not just becoming a thinner deposit, but cracking like a lakebed in a drought. Some pieces curled up at the edges as they dried, too. Other people have had greater success with this material, producing large, thin sheets that resemble plastic bags. That’s not a bad idea, substituting for plastic bags with a biodegradable and renewable alternative… but it seems I will have to look elsewhere if I want to make three-dimensional products from bioplastic.

Thin deposit

Thin deposits of the material were soon dry, and proved surprisingly strong.

Eventually, the plastic became quite durable, although the random fractures from the drying phase will likely pose a problem if one is trying to make regular shapes, rather than just bioplastic ‘crisps’. (If you can think of a use for bioplastic crisps, let me know: I can supply them in quantity.)

Bioplastic crisps

Bioplastic crisps. Not manufacturing’s finest hour, to be honest.

A point is reached where this plastic loses its flexibility, and you’re left with rigid pieces that are about as durable as if you made them from Fimo… with the advantage of there being no oven baking stage, but on the downside having a long drying time, and the problem of cracking – both problems apparently absent when the plastic is made in very thin layers.

Now, having gone to all the trouble of making this bioplastic, naturally I set about making it rot away to nothing. In an indoor environment, the plastic seems to survive more or less indefinitely. Sustained contact with a small amount of moisture had the effect of washing some of my food colouring out of the plastic, but didn’t otherwise spoil it, while strong sunlight seems to have caused the plastic to fracture internally. Previously translucent sections developed fissures internally, looking like opaque flakes, and scabs of the material began to break away.

Degrading bioplastic

The material lasted indefinitely while indoors, but left outside for just a week, this piece is beginning to break up.

This rapid biodegredation is an intriguing possibility for a fast food container, or somesuch… although not with any manufacturing process I have yet been able to conceive of. (Maybe something like slip casting, as it’s used in pottery?)

Time will tell. If anybody has advice for amateur bioplastic hasckers such as me, the comments section is open…

University of Nottingham fire

After the steel age… the wood age?

With a headline beginning ‘Not so carbon neutral now!’ the Daily Mail reported the Friday evening fire that destroyed the Carbon Neutral Laboratory for Sustainable Chemistry, a £15m building under construction at the University of Nottingham. Sixty firefighters battled the fire, and although they kept it from spreading they were not able to save the building. I’m very sorry to hear of this misfortune for former colleagues, not least because of the role that the building was meant to serve.

In one sense the Daily Mail is wrong: being largely a wooden building, it was carbon neutral: carbon dioxide is absorbed from the atmosphere when trees grow, and they lock it away. Later, when the wood rots away, or when it’s burnt, the carbon is released back into the environment. The loss of the building is a great shame, but it does demonstrate carbon neutrality.

Timber remains one of the best materials for sustainable construction, as becomes clear if we compare it to a common alternative such as working in concrete, steel and glass. Each tonne of steel, delivered on a building site but not including subsequent construction activity, has typically required energy totalling 15,360 kWh. (For recycled steel, a lower figure of 10,240 kWh may be used.) Similarly, the glass involves energy consumption totalling 8,960 kWh per tonne. Got a concrete base? That’s 3,200 kWh per tonne… and so on. It’s simple to measure embodied energy, and calculate the amount of carbon embodied in a building. (These figures come from Craig White of White Design, the Bristol-based sustainable architecture firm.)

The energy consumption in harvesting, seasoning, shaping and delivering a tonne of timber to site is just 640 kWh; far better than for any other commonly-used material – and it’s better still when you consider embodied carbon. Using wood actually has a negative carbon footprint because when you build a structure from wood you ‘lock up’ carbon that was absorbed during the growth phase. Despite the fuel used in harvesting and processing, some 500kg of greenhouse gas emissions are reversed when a tonne of timber is used.

The science bit

Alert readers might think that 500kg of CO2 being captured in a tonne of timber seems wrong. It can’t contain all that carbon dioxide, can it? Not exactly… but remember the oxidisation part: carbon dioxide emissions weigh more than the original fuel because during combustion, each carbon atom in the fuel combines with two oxygen atoms in the air to make carbon dioxide. The addition of two oxygen atoms to each carbon atom forms CO2 which has an atomic weight of 44, whereas carbon alone has an atomic weight of just 12. Thus, a tonne of timber represents far more than a tonne of potential greenhouse gas emissions. Even when we allow for all the energy used to harvest and process the wood into an architectural material, we’re left with -500kg of CO2 so it’s a superbly sustainable choice – as long as we replenish the wood that we use.

Barring incidents, it’s reasonable to assume that most buildings constructed today will still exist by 2050, and that means any wood we can put into use in this way will contribute towards efforts to slow climate change. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has set a target of limiting atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide to 450 parts per million. At that level it’s said that we have a fifty-fifty chance of holding the global average temperature increase to 2°C by 2050. Everything about this is uncertain (we don’t have sufficient previous experience to go on) but reducing the quantity of greenhouse gases that we emit is bound to be a good idea, in principle.

Is low-carbon always ‘green’?

Making everything out of wood is not a perfect solution to the mess we find ourselves in. Renewable timber resources typically come from managed forests, and they’re monocultures: plantations with equally-spaced trees of a single species, all at the same age. That makes sense if you’re in the business of harvesting timber for profit, but having a crop like that on your doorstep isn’t the same as having ancient woodland. As far as biodiversity goes, a timber plantation is practically a desert: you aren’t going to find anything like the wildlife population that is sustained in native forest… but are we interested in preserving native forest life, or fighting climate change? They’re both good goals, but they’re both different.

Monoculture plantation


The spectre of climate change is a powerful argument in favour of greater commercial use of wood. Basically, you win twice: forests store 86% of the planet’s above-ground carbon, and 73% of the planet’s soil carbon (figures from Oregon Wild)… not merely while the trees live, but if harvested material is used sensibly, for decades to come –locked away in useful objects like buildings. Factor in that for any wood you build with, you’re using less concrete, steel and so on and you’re winning three different ways.

The transition away from concrete and steel isn’t going to be an easy one, and Britain doesn’t grow nearly enough wood. Things are getting better, though: ever since 1919 the nation’s forest cover has slowly increased. Wood is recognised as a strategic resource, and if you can’t get hold of enough wood for your sustainable building project, there’s always straw. A tonne of straw bales locks up 400kg of CO2 – in a ‘waste’ material that’s inexpensive, abundant, and has great thermal properties. (And if you prefer your building materials a little more engineered, have a look at Modcell for a straw-based prefabricated panel solution that puts ‘carbon-negative building’ within reach of ordinary businesses, not just those who are able to pay a premium for a ‘green’ image.)

Perhaps we are at the beginning of the Wood Age. It won’t always be simple, and there will be setbacks, but in terms of the architectural possibilities, the ‘green’ benefits and the cost savings, this is an exciting era. Meanwhile,  I don’t doubt the University of Nottingham will recover from the fire, and go on to achieve good things in sustainable chemistry. Commiserations and best wishes.

“Logistics is the ball and chain of armoured warfare”

Perhaps the kindest thing you could say about the M4 Sherman tank is that it was a tremendous improvement over its predecessors… but it still wasn’t a particularly good weapon.

The Americans were ill-prepared when the Second World War broke out. The US Army budget for tank research in 1939, for example, was just $85,000. The state of the art in American tanks at the time was the M2 Medium Tank, a comical, ungainly thing that was festooned with machine guns. Fortunately, it was never permitted into combat. Including the somewhat improved M2A1, just 112 were made.

The M3 was a stop-gap measure, with design commencing when the Blitzkrieg of 1940 taught the free world some hard lessons about mechanised warfare. It wasn’t a very good tank either, retaining the very high profile of its predecessor, and the rivets that bounced around on the inside of the vehicle with lethal effect even when the armour kept out an enemy shell.

With the M4, at last, came a turret capable of mounting a reasonably powerful gun, and better armour… but it was a compromise design, selected for its simplicity. Features of the M3 chassis and hull were retained, including the Continental R975 engine, which had always been an odd choice as it was originally an aero engine. Worst of all, the M4 Sherman still had a high profile, and was slab-sided at a time when most nations were starting to slope their armour to deflect shells.

Outmatched… and flammable

Early Sherman tanks acquired a reputation for burning when hit. The Germans called it the Tommycooker; British crews called it the Ronson, which was a reference to a popular cigarette lighter (slogan: lights up the first time, every time). General Patton had to forbid his troops from piling sandbags on their tanks in an effort to improve their protection, as the increased weight was causing breakdowns.

It really wasn’t a very good armoured fighting vehicle. It proved useful in North Africa in 1942, but by the time the fight moved to mainland Europe, advances in German tank design rendered it obsolescent. Still, the Western Allies chose to concentrate on producing the M4 in volume, rather than seeking to make a change.

Opposing the M4 Sherman, the greatest threat came from the tanks that the Germans introduced from 1943, largely as a result of experience gained in the conflict in Russia. A quick idea of the mismatch between the contenders can be seen from their weights: the Sherman weighed a little over 30 tonnes, whereas the Panther, Tiger and Tiger II came in at 45, 54 and 68 tonnes respectively. In just about every respect, these later German tanks outclassed the Western Allies’ equipment. They often had to accept losses of five to one, and Cooper [1988] describes how the Third Armoured Division arrived in Normandy with 232 M4s, but ultimately suffered 648 lost in combat, with another 700 knocked out but returned to service after repair – an overall loss rate of 580%. One can only imagine the bravery of men who had to go into battle in the face of such wastage.

Destroyed M4

This Sherman has burst open – the result of an ammunition explosion.

The Germans had developed some very good tanks, but this brings us to the quote that is the title for today’s artcle: “Logistics is the ball and chain of armoured warfare.” Heinz Guderian wrote the book on armoured warfare, quite literally: his 1936 work ‘Achtung – Panzer!’ was the blueprint for the combined arms operations that were to follow.

Where the German Approach Failed

The later German tanks were brilliantly engineered, although Overy (1995) says that the constant “improving” of designs made logistics, field repair and training much more difficult. Among others, Ferdinand Porsche was involved: that’s Porsche, as in sports cars… and designer of what would later become the Volkswagen Beetle. (And if you’re shocked that a major European brand came to prominence under the Nazi regime, it’s probably best not to inquire too closely about Hugo Boss, official supplier of uniforms to the SS…) Porsche constructed about a hundred tank chassis, but ultimately contributed little more than the name, Tiger: his design proved too complicated and the rival Henschel version was accepted. Even this had problems, however, including a tendency for the cleverly interleaved roadwheels to become gummed up by ice.

Tiger II

The Tiger II wouldn’t have looked out of place on a battlefield decades later.

The Tigers were too heavy for most small bridges, so they had to be waterproofed and fitted with equipment to permit fording. They were too wide to fit on railway cars, in an age when this was the normal way to transport tanks. Tigers had to be supplied with a special set of ‘transport tracks’: if travelling by rail the outermost set of roadwheels would be removed, and the special tracks fitted, to reduce the vehicle’s width by 400mm – because getting stuck in a railway tunnel is always embarrassing. Then there’s the fuel consumption of these 54- and 68-tonne monsters, at a time when the Germans were losing access to the oilfields they had occupied.

Above all there was the disruption to German industry, caused by Allied bombing. Tiger tanks were hard to make. After producing 1,347 Tiger tanks, production switched to the fearsome Tiger II. 1,500 were ordered, but only 492 were ever completed, due to Allied bombing. Meanwhile those smaller, lighter Shermans were easily shipped over the Atlantic (or sent elsewhere) and into the fight. The Americans built almost fifty thousand M4 Shermans, keeping forces supplied with spares and replacements in a way that the Nazis never could be. Furthermore, they were supported by P.L.U.T.O., the “Pipe-Lines Under The Ocean” that supplied the European theatre with hundreds and eventually thousands of tonnes of fuel per day. Numerous Tigers were abandoned due to mechanical breakdowns, or simply running out of fuel.

“The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong” (Ecclesiastes, IX. 11)… but logistics, you can’t argue with.




Cooper, B.Y. (1988) Death Traps: The Survival of an American Armoured Division in World War II, New York: Presidio/Ballantyne Books

Guderian, H. (1999) Achtung Panzer!: The Development of Tank Warfare (Duffy, C. translator), London: Cassell Military

Overy, R. (1995) Why the Allies Won, London: Pimlico


A nine cent radio

I tend to think of environmental issues as being the major challenge for my generation. We could waste some effort cursing the earlier generations that brought us to this point (CFCs, desperate overpopulation, resource depletion and so on…) but earlier generations had their hands full with problems of their own, such as coping with the Great Depression, and defending themselves against fascism.

Some people were aware of the problems ahead, though – including Victor Papanek, a designer and educator born in 1923. Here’s what he had to say about his line of work:

“There are professions more harmful than industrial design, but only a very few… by creating whole new species of permanent garbage to clutter up the landscape, and by choosing materials and processes that pollute the air we breathe, designers have become a dangerous breed.”

That’s a promising start, but Papanek didn’t just wring his hands about the state of the world: he set about making it a better place. He designed a taxi with disabled access in mind, an innovative method for dispersing seeds… and a radio that cost just nine cents to make. If you wanted to communicate information such as a weather warning or advice on disease control to isolated communities where literacy was still uncommon, radio was a great solution – if people could afford to own and operate one.

Papanek (and his former student, George Seegers) started work on an accessible radio in 1962. By modern standards, not a very good radio: in fact, it wouldn’t work nowadays because it didn’t have any sort of tuner and would pick up every frequency at once. That didn’t matter because the places where it was meant to be deployed only had a single, state broadcaster. Above all, it was simple, and cheap. The body of the radio was a used food tin. Similarly, the earth wire terminated with a used nail. Most unusual of all, the power source… was a candle. Much of the can was filled with wax, and a wick, while a simple thermocouple located above provided just enough power to operate a single transistor, with sound coming from an earpiece. Everything, including a hand-woven copper wire antenna, was stowed inside the can for delivery.

Papanek’s nine cent radio

This isn’t a prototype… this is the real thing.

By the time the radio was ready for mass production (more properly, cottage industry production in the target countries) in 1966, the cost had been driven down to nine cents. (Nobody claimed royalties on the design, and manufacture was done at cost.) In 2014 money, the radio cost maybe $0.65 … still impressive, despite the intervening half century during which the cost of electronic components has dropped through the floor. On a couple of occasions I’ve received a radio ‘free’ with some other purchase, but I’m still absolutely blown away by the nine cent version.

Most of all, it’s tremendously well aligned with the realities of the infrastructure of its era, when solar panels were something that only appeared on spacecraft, and when batteries were short-lived, heavy, toxic and expensive. Papanek’s radio simply met a need, very elegantly, and the fact that he was an industrial designer is evidence of his humility, given that the end product was just about the ugliest device ever. Papanek’s 1971 book, Design for the Real World is aptly titled, because the real world is not as we might wish it to be.

In the UK we venerate Trevor Baylis, and rightly so: he’s a superb engineer. (If you’re trying to remember who he is… the “clockwork radio guy”*.) After a very difficult time securing any interest in the idea, the BBC introduced him to the world and the Freeplay radio eventually appeared in 1996 – thirty years after Papanek and Seegers completed their work. It’s a much better radio – infinitely so — but it’s a also much more complex device. Perhaps that’s a sign of how far we’ve come in a short time; that society can support the widespread use of a radio that isn’t merely for maintaining a listening watch for important public information, but for enjoying sport, entertainment, and the arts.

Victor Papanek

Victor Papanek, 1923 – 1998 (Papanek Foundation)

For an encore, Papanek worked with a team that produced a television set for use in developing countries. It was ready by 1970… and cost nine dollars.


* Nowadays, the ‘clockwork’ aspect of Freeplay devices has been replaced by a simpler hand crank mechanism where the user turns a geared dynamo directly rather than winding a spring, but they continue to serve in several applications that would otherwise require batteries.

iPhone 6 mockups

iPhone 6: trouble ahead?

Apple has sent out the invitations for a September 9th media event that is widely anticipated to be the debut of the iPhone 6. They’re either geniuses at viral marketing, or completely hopeless at keeping secrets… but either way, we already know quite a lot about what they’re planning. Pictures of alleged components and assemblies have been circulating for months.

No doubt the business that Forrest Gump once called “some kind of fruit company” has been busy, and no doubt the latest pieces of pocket-candy will achieve sales in the tens of millions, within days. The iPhone is Apple’s biggest moneymaker, and I have written before about the difficulties that they face in this once-a-year chance to shine… but CEO Tim Cook is equal to the task if anybody is. He’s a supply chain guy. He’s no Steve Jobs (he doesn’t say “boom!” nearly enough during his keynotes for one thing) but the less glamorous task of managing the whole network is what’s needed, if all those iPhones and iWatches are to reach the faithful in a timely manner.

When the initial surge of September madness has died down a little, I hope that the supply chain guy will be able to think long-term, because there may be trouble ahead… in the shape of a post-transition metallic element with the atomic number 49.

If that was sufficient to identify it to you then congratulations: you’re a chemistry nerd.

The material in question is indium, and in particular I’m interested in indium tin oxide (ITO), which has the highly desirable properties of being transparent in thin layers, highly conductive and impervious to water. These have made it a feature of all kinds of modern gadgets including liquid crystal or plasma displays, some solar panels, strain gauges and the heated cockpit windows of airliners.

Sputter a thin film of ITO onto a transparent substrate such as glass, plastic or sapphire, and you’ve got the makings of a touch-sensitive screen; the interface for all the various smartphones – some of which were out before the iPhone, but none achieving similar market penetration. Since the iPhone’s debut in 2007, displays have been getting bigger, and ‘touchier’. Flat-screen monitors and televisions have also grown, and it’s become the norm to own a tablet as well as a regular computer and a mobile phone. All this adds up to an insatiable demand for ITO.

iPhones getting bigger

Manufacturers can keep on trying to spread ITO more thinly, but screens are getting larger. (iPhone 6 mockups: Martin Hajek)

The US Geological Survey puts global indium reserves at about 16,000 tonnes: a sobering thought when you consider that the equivalent figure for economically accessible gold is put at 52,000 tonnes – despite the fact that we’ve been digging the stuff up since the late stone age. Indium was only discovered in 1863, and it looks like it’ll all be mined out within twenty years. Less, if demand continues to grow.

It’s not Apple’s fault. Their designers are simply specifying the most appropriate material now available. Nothing else works quite so well, so this is what their screen manufacturers use… but some are predicting that supplies of indium will run out, and soon.

Given that the amount of ITO used per iPhone or iPad is tiny, a price increase isn’t a particularly strong disincentive. Within the era of the iPhone, Indium has fluctuated between $60/kg to over $900/kg… yet the increase didn’t stop Apple, LG, Sony, Samsung or anybody else using it.

Economists say that any commodity will find its own level: as prices increase, substitutes become more cost-effective, and old mines (you typically find indium in the tailings of a zinc mine) can be reopened. Recycling also becomes more attractive.

Well, maybe. Recycling isn’t really working for mobile devices, though. They don’t take up much space in the home, and there’s always the worry that sensitive personal data might be recovered from one… so we tend not to give them away. Also, they’re expensive: when you remember paying maybe $600 for a gadget just two years before, it’s hard to accept a $50 trade-in for it. Instead, we tend to put our old phone in a drawer (“as a spare”), or give it to the kids. We put our smaller, older television in the guest room, and so on. Hoarding these items is an impulse that’s hard to resist.

Even if you did give up an old phone and it went for recycling, it’s a fiddling small gadget with some nasty toxic chemicals in it. It’s a difficult job to sift through all that, just to extract a thin smear of ITO, a fortieth of a gram of gold and so on. Basically, recycling isn’t going to give us enough ITO for each successive generation of bigger, better mobiles.

If you can’t use ITO… what are you left with? There’s silver nanowires (which are a bit fiddly, at a 10,000th the thickness of a human hair… but the technology seems to be coming along nicely). There are high hopes for graphene and its relative, carbon nanotubes… someday. Graphene still has a long way to go, to reach the mature, commercial-scale technology that Apple would be looking for. There are substitutes such as aluminum-doped Zinc Oxide and gallium-doped Zinc Oxide… but they’re poor substitutes. There doesn’t appear to be anything that makes touch screens as reliable and responsive as ITO, that’s ready for immediate, widespread use.


Graphene. These flakes may offer a solution… one day.

The logical solution is to stay with ITO, for now… but that won’t always be an option.

I’m hoping that the new toys Apple reveals next year won’t simply be faster, or fractionally thinner. If a company with cash reserves of something like $150 billion can’t find a way to break the deadlock and acquire a viable alternative to ITO, then things are grim indeed. Look after your next smartphone; it may be a long while before a better one comes along.