“They don’t make it anymore”

When Samuel Clemens wasn’t working as a Mississippi riverboat pilot, or writing novels under the pen name of Mark Twain, he was quite the humourist and philosopher.

“Buy land,” he advised: “they don’t make it anymore.”

It’s not entirely true: for centuries, mankind has been turning sections of the seabed, lakebeds and such into land that can be used by people. Without this practice, many rivers would be wider, the Netherlands would be 17% smaller, and much of Mexico City wouldn’t exist. ‘Land reclamation’ has been going on for centuries.

I’m not quite sure why it’s called reclamation, since the ‘re-’ part seems to imply that land was previously in existence, when clearly it wasn’t. Consider Samphire Hoe, a country park located at the base of Shakespeare Cliff near Dover – and made almost entirely from material excavated during the construction of the Channel Tunnel. Some 4.9 million cubic metres of material were deposited there, expanding the United Kingdom by thirty hectares.

In the South China Sea something similar is happening, although the building material isn’t left over from some other engineering project: it’s specifically being dredged up in order to construct artificial islands to bolster some extremely dubious territorial claims over a patch of sea.

While it isn’t true to say that “they don’t make it anymore”, new real estate certainly is expensive. Samphire Hoe came about because it’s basically a made-over spoil heap from a £4.65 billon project. The cost of the project by the People’s Republic of China in the Spratly Islands is unknown, but the adventure began with a naval battle at Johnson South Reef in 1988, in which seventy or more Vietnamese sailors were killed.

Land, it seems, always comes with a very high price.

Johnson South Reef

Artificial island under construction by the Chinese military at Johnson South Reef (Agence France-Presse)

At the same time, land elsewhere is disappearing. I have previously written about how Nauru is threatened by rising sea levels, and parts of the east coast of England seems to be melting away, too. Spurn Point, at the mouth of the Humber estuary, may soon become Spurn Island. In fact, during some extreme tides, it now does exactly that. The nearby port of Ravenspurn is long gone, and that’s a shame because it once played a significant part in history as the place where Henry Bolingbroke landed in 1399, on his way to defeat Richard II and become Henry IV, King of England.

Ravenspurn is far from the only settlement that Yorkshire has lost to the sea. Other curiously-named places include Hornsea Beck, Colden Parva, Ringborough, Monkwell, Waxhole, Owthorne by Sisterkirk, Old Withernsea, Out Newton, Dimlington, Old Kilnsea and many more… all places that you’ll now find only if you look below the chilly waters of the North Sea. The major east coast towns are protected by substantial engineering works, but that probably increases the rate at which less protected sections of coastline are washed away. Even the sturdy coastal fortifications that were built during the World Wars now lie broken and jumbled at mad angles, which doesn’t bode well for our attempts to resist coastal erosion, long-term.

Going, going... gone? Skipsea in the East Riding of Yorkshire.

Going, going… gone? Skipsea in the East Riding of Yorkshire.

“What is the price of holding back the sea?” That’s the question the BBC has been asking recently. The cash-strapped government requires that a pound spent on flood defence must bring at least £8 in economic benefit; a requirement easily demonstrated in a densely-populated area, but much harder to achieve where it’s farmland that is under threat – despite the fact that even a temporary seawater inundation would leave fields unfit to grow crops for years.

The cost of flood defence is expected to rise by 60%, to £200 million, by 2030. One possible strategy is that of managed retreat: instead of trying to defend every single farm, selected ones would be allowed to revert to salt marsh – which is what they were, centuries ago. This sacrifice (allowing the sea to re-reclaim them, if you will) offers a number of potential advantages, including shortening the overall length of the coastal defences, and allowing the outlying marshes to absorb much of the wave energy before it reaches the sea wall… but on our crowded island, we can’t really spare the loss of too much fertile farmland.

On the global scale, there’s about 0.02 km2 for each person – based upon a planetary land area of 149 million km2 and a current human population of 7.25 billion. We can’t actually have 0.02 km2 (4.94 acres) each, because that would leave no space at all for wilderness, and in any case some of the land area is buried under thick ice in Antarctica. Still more is covered with roads, businesses and your share of public buildings. Some of it is old mine workings, landfill sites, mountains and so on.

Basically, usable land is very precious.

In the UK, the land area per person is just 0.003 km2 (243,610km2 divided among 64.1 million people), so it should come as no surprise that we import 40% of our food. This is a figure that is rising, but the really surprising thing is that it isn’t already a lot higher. With climate change, coastal erosion, worldwide population increase and pressure on the water supply, there are significant food security challenges ahead.

When, in the mid 17th century, astronomers began to use the eclipses of Jupiter’s moons to measure the time accurately (and thereby, to deduce their position upon the Earth) it caused a lot of maps to be redrawn. When King Louis XIV of France was first presented with a new, more accurate map of his nation, he is reported to have grumbled that he’d just lost more territory to his astronomers than to all his enemies.

You might have heard that “money is the root of all evil”, but surely land is at the root of everything, ever since our culture decided that land belongs to people, rather than the more ancient viewpoint that people belong to the land. From warfare between nations in search of Lebensraum to construction companies seeking a supply of sites suitable for development, it’s all about land. Even the most virtual of ‘Dot Com’ Internet businesses requires premises (or at least server rooms) somewhere, their staff must live somewhere and their equipment must be manufactured somewhere…

This is the real challenge: making use of something finite to provide for an indefinite future.

Buy land. They do still make it, but not nearly enough of it, and some of the old parts are disappearing. Choose the land you buy with care… and look after it.

Fracking: an Inside Story

(Part III in a series on ‘fracking’. See parts I and II here.)

While it arouses considerable loathing, fracking is in some senses an absolute gift to protestors. The slogans practically write themselves: ‘no fracking way’, ‘frack off’, ‘Lancashire’s not for Shale’, etc. In this regard the anti- brigade are shooting fish in a barrel. They also benefit from a home team advantage at public meetings, where their concerns about the quality of drinking water and the risk of earthquakes seems very reasonable, compared to the position of ‘big oil’.

"Get the frack out of Sussex"

I hope this gentleman is sufficiently clothed, but… um…?

Fracking has an interesting but hardly admirable pedigree. Consider the story of the three businessmen who, in 1864, formed the Dramatic Oil Company: they took out a lease on a property in Pennsylvania, hired staff and set about drilling an oil well. All did not run smoothly, but presently oil was struck and a modest amount was obtained. Seeking to increase the yield, the investors decided to ‘shoot’ the well – to detonate a large amount of gunpowder at depth in order to fracture the surrounding rock. That’s what you did back in 1864, hydraulic fracturing being unknown until 1949… but the blast ruined the well, and ended oil production at the site. This would be nothing but a tiny footnote in the history of the US oil industry, but for the identity of one of the three investors: John Wilkes Booth, who would soon assassinate President Abraham Lincoln. If he hadn’t lost the modern-day equivalent of $90,000 on his oil venture, perhaps he’d have stayed in Pennsylvania, and away from Ford’s Theater.

When gunpowder didn’t pack enough punch for the ‘shooting’ of oil and gas wells, there was nitroglycerin: a ‘torpedo’ containing perhaps a couple of hundred litres of the substance would be lowered down the well, and detonated. Nitroglycerin continued to be used until 1990. There were also three experiments in releasing gas from shale through the use of nuclear devices. First there was Project Gasbuggy (29 kilotons) in December 1967; then came Project Rulison (43 kilotons) and Project Rio Blanco (three devices at 33 kilotons each). Conducting twenty-seven nuclear tests between 1961 and 1973 for the purposes of demonstrating non-combat uses for nuclear explosives, Operation Plowshare certainly marks an interesting phase in US history… and one that I’m glad I didn’t have to witness. The three tests that were done for the purposes of fracking showed a very poor return on investment – and yielded a short-lived, radioactive gas supply that was never used commercially.

I learned about John Wilkes Booth’s history as an oil investor, and about atomic fracking, courtesy of John Midgley at a meeting of the Craven & Pendle Geological Society last week. His presentation ‘Fracking – a Geological Perspective’ contained much else besides, and our interest is in hydraulic fracturing rather than in more exotic, explosive solutions to wells running dry… but I enjoyed the history lesson all the same.

Now, I’ll attempt to reproduce more of what I learned from the speaker…

Mr Midgley’s stated aim was not to promote or condemn fracking, but to talk about “how it sits in the current energy landscape”, and as such it matched my hope to learn more about the science and engineering involved.

The speaker had a lot of experience in the industry, and had been fracking overseas more than 25 years ago. One example that he gave involved fracking with acids, to stimulate oil wells by dissolving carbonates, in the Middle East. As I have written before, not all fracking involves shale gas; in fact Mr Midgley reported that “you can frack any well” (and sometimes it happens unintentionally).

He was careful to distinguish between resources and reserves, and commented that the media often fail in this regard. Resources are estimates of the total quantity of oil and gas physically contained in a deposit, while reserves are the subset that can be extracted, subject to technological and economic constraints. Thus, we need to be careful with language when discussing the UK’s shale deposits.

So how big is this gas bonanza that we can anticipate? The shale deposits in the USA are massive, compared to ours. It’s a big country (obviously) with thick seams that are easy to access both physically and legally. Gas quality was also said to be better in the US. Basically, every attempt to prospect for shale gas in the UK has been a disappointment, and the UK has yet to see a single fracked gas well that is commercially viable. Between our less generous deposits and more difficult legislative environment (including far-reaching company liability) UK shale gas looks like something of a hardscrabble proposition.

The UK has three main areas where shale gas might be mined: the Weald basin in the south of England, the Bowland-Hodder formation in the North, and the Midland Valley in Scotland. In the same way that Murphy’s Law dictates that military operations inevitably take place at the intersection between two maps, each on a different scale, studies of the UK’s shale beds seldom use the same unit of measure, but Mr Midgley did his best to interpret the data for us, juggling “barrels” and “trillion cubic feet”. His assessment was that the Weald Basin wouldn’t be exploited because it’s relatively small and “too many policymakers live there”, and that the Bowland-Hodder formation (in what Lord Howell of Guildford called the “desolate north”) was the most promising of the remaining pair, for reasons of logistics, although it in no way resembled the attractiveness of the US gas fields.

Prospective shale gas fields

Anticipated shale gas in the Bowland Basin (BBC news)

Is it worth doing at all? Mr Midgley reported that fracked gas has a good calorific value and requires very little post-processing. In response to an audience question along the lines of “Should we leave it in the ground until later?” he felt that the time was right to commence fracking as it offered a supply of gas for approximately 50 years – if used to top up declining volumes from the North Sea and “keep the lights on” as politicians like to say. Thirty years, he felt, would be sufficient to buy time during which a new generation of nuclear plants could be constructed.

Amid these sometimes gloomy assessments, the audience learned a great deal about the business of drilling for oil and gas, such as how you steer a drill bit, and gauge its position below ground, and what you can and can’t do at the bottom of a very deep hole. We learned about the differences between biogenic and thermogenic methane (something it’s very important to understand before taking everything in Gasland at face value) and about the super-hard, super-expensive form of concrete that is used to line a bore, and how very difficult it is to control (and measure) the integrity of that bore. No apologist for the industry in this regard, Mr Midgley frankly admitted that over time, all wells will leak. He weighed this knowledge in terms of social need versus social impact.

shale gas pad drilling

The presenter scoffed at the idea of drilling ever being as precise as this…

I was interested to see Mr Midgley make reference to the Triple Bottom Line (Elkington, 1994) and the idea that an acceptable near-future energy mix must be socially just and environmentally bearable, as well as commercially sound. While many people have expressed concerns about the environmental pedigree of fracking, the speaker observed (based on his own career in the oil and gas industry) that much of Britain’s gas comes from nations with highly questionable politics and human rights. This is an interesting thought; we talk about “conflict diamonds” but there is no equivalent dialogue about “conflict gas” and we are quite happy to buy our energy from countries that aren’t democracies. All we tend to hear are the oft-voiced concerns that the present deteriorating relations between the EU and Vladimir Putin’s Russia might result in limitations being placed upon the gas supply from that country.

The audience, of course, consisted primarily of geologists. (Interestingly, the older ones tended to occupy the lower tiers of the auditorium: is this merely expedient, due to hearing loss, or do geologists instinctively mirror the formations that they study?) Anyway, there were some highly pertinent questions from the audience, including one about NORMs: Naturally Occurring Radioactive Materials. When you liberate something from below ground, you will often acquire a side-order of radiation. That’s troubling enough where gases such as radon tend to migrate out of the Earth’s crust over time and build up in your basement, but radiation is also a significant issue where fracking fluid is concerned. After the fracking operation, much of the liquid comes burping back out of the ground when you release the pressure, but what do you do with what the industry calls “produced water”? Of the 16,000 cubic metres of water invested in a well, you might expect to get 12,000 back… complete with chemicals such as salts, friction reducers, scale inhibitors, biocides, gelling agents… and a dose of radiation. While some of these things can be removed, Mr Midgley reported that the radioactivity of the fluid was not addressed on site – although it might be diluted, or used in an application where radioactivity is not considered to be an issue. (The example given was that if used in roadmaking, any contamination in the water will be moot since it will be mixed with a naturally radioactive shale material.)

In terms of the quantity of water expended to obtain gas, Mr Midgley dismissed it as “about half what’s used by a golf course in a year”. I’ve heard this analogy before: Brian Dunning reported something similar, although it would appear that a US golf course gets through more water. I think I’d like to know more, though: presumably the water sprinkled on a golf course is a reasonably wholesome runoff, and it remains a part of the water cycle; it doesn’t get locked away far below the water table. But do we even want to get used fracking water back? I simply don’t know. This article suggests we need to do more, though.

Not everything our speaker had to say was accurate, though, if I’m any judge. For example, in endorsing a nuclear future he dismissed wind turbines on the grounds that they “require more carbon than they sequester”, and said that the construction of solar panels was impractical because of the rare earths required for their construction.

With CO2 emissions for wind power ranging from 14 to 33 tonnes per GWh of energy produced (White, 2007), and a typical Energy Return on Investment of 16:1, this blanket dismissal of wind energy was simply wrong. The claim that solar panels require rare earths in their construction is likewise garbled: you might well raise a concern that manufacturing masses of wind turbines is going to require vast quantities of neodymium, the rare earth used in their magnets… but solar panels require silicon (which is relatively abundant, and not a rare earth). I don’t expect a person to be an expert in every field, but a speaker from the oil industry doesn’t do himself any favours when he stumbles like this in his assessment of alternative technologies.

Make of that what you will, but it was a very interesting and at times entertaining evening, and I’m glad to have attended. There were one or two things to be taken with a pinch of salt, but I was impressed with Mr Midgley’s frankness on key issues such as well integrity, and the short useful life of a well.



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

White, S. W. (2007) Net Energy Payback and CO2 Emissions from Three Midwestern Wind Farms: An Update, Natural Resources Research, Vol. 15, no. 4, pp. 271–281

Fracking by Numbers

Part II of a series on High Volume Well Stimulation, or ‘fracking’…

At a training and strategy event organised by Friends of the Earth (see Part I, here) I’d heard some of the concerns and objections to fracking, but I had yet to make up my mind on the subject. In fact, that’s still the case. On the one hand, the natural gas would be very useful to a nation that’s just beginning to suffer from quite a bad hangover as the party that was North Sea oil and gas winds down. Against this, it’s a fossil fuel energy source (so it’s finite, and a contributor to climate change) and the methods used for extraction are causing people anxiety for a number of reasons.

If I’m going to come down off the fence on this important issue, I’m going to need to base my decision on evidence, and good science. That has called for quite a bit of research.

One thing that I learned early on came as a surprise: that fracking appears to have been common in North Sea oil and gas extraction since the 1970s, and has been used onshore about 200 times in British oil and gas wells since the early 1980s. I should clarify that its use when going after shale gas is relatively recent.

Now, fracking can cause earthquakes. This particularly well-known ‘smoking gun’ in the case against fracking comes from two earthquakes that occurred in April and May of 2011, close to the Cuadrilla Resources’ Preese Hall drilling site near Blackpool, UK. They were of magnitude 2.3 and 1.5 respectively. To people who live in an area not known for its earthquakes, that sounds pretty scary. We know what an earthquake of magnitude 6.3 did to the beautiful city of Christchurch, New Zealand, in the same year. People (including the news media) need to understand, though, that the Richter magnitude scale is a base-10 logarithmic scale; thus a 4.0 wouldn’t be twice as bad as a 2.0, but a hundred times as bad. The two Blackpool earthquakes were tiny. (Cuadrilla’s Mark Miller was on the BBC in November 2011: see what you think of his assessment here.)

Independent newspaper: Blackpool earthquake

The Independent, June 1st 2011

A fact in favour of fracking is that the burning of natural gas has less potential to cause climate change, if the alternative is burning coal. I looked up DEFRA’s carbon dioxide conversion factors in an effort to get a definitive figure here. Using net calorific value in an effort to compare like with like I learned that the greenhouse gas emissions (expressed in kg CO2e per kWh, including the emissions resulting from extraction, transport, storage and so on) for natural gas are 0.22674 kg CO2e/kWh. In comparison, coal-fired electricity generation comes in at 0.39988 kg CO2e/kWh… which is to say 75% higher.

Liquefied natural gas (LNG), tankered in from elsewhere, is associated with emissions of 0.27750 kg CO2e/kWh, which argues that using locally-produced gas is the better choice, all other things being equal. What a shame that DEFRA currently make no distinction between gas obtained by conventional and unconventional means. I believe that gas produced via a fracking operation would have a somewhat greater carbon footprint, given the technology involved and the energy that must be invested before gas flows; more CO2e per kWh out. Exactly what the figure might be, I have not been able to determine, but if fracking takes off in the UK I bet that a future edition of the DEFRA conversion factors will include it – and I very much doubt that it will approach the climate change potential of coal. (We know that with cheap shale gas edging out coal in the USA, that country’s greenhouse gas emissions have fallen – something that Kyoto, Copenhagen, Cancún, Durban, Doha and all the other talks failed to do.)

A problem with any calculation based purely on greenhouse gases released, of course, is that it says nothing about other issues related to gas exploration such as traffic congestion, impacts on the tourist trade, water consumption, concerns about toxicity, etc.


Gasland, a 2010 independent documentary, prompted a lot of dialogue about fracking… but it’s no less biased than the industry’s own efforts. Who do you believe?

“Once you frack, you can’t go back,” one of the activists I met had warned me. To hydraulically fracture a shale bed you use a fluid that’s perhaps 90% water, with the bulk of the remainder being proppants (the material injected to hold fractures open; originally sand, but sometimes something more exotic such as sintered bauxite or zirconia silicate), and certain chemicals. It’s typically the chemicals that have the activists up in arms, and it’s true that there have been a bewildering number of different ones employed in the USA – although those available for use in the UK are significantly reduced by legislation. It seems that exactly which chemicals are used, and what happens to them afterwards, will be a major determinant in the acceptance (or not) of fracking in the UK.

That’s about as much as I had learned before yesterday. Last night I attended a talk by John Midgley of Energy Geoscience International Ltd., hosted by the Craven & Pendle Geological Society, and learned some interesting things about the history and science of fracking – which I’ll share in part III.

Racking, Stacking and Packing them in

With the headline ‘Six vehicles fit into one standard container’ an article in SHD Logistics brought to my attention a novel method for securing vehicles during shipment. It’s really not a bad idea, making better use of the space available with standardised ‘racking pods’ that can be fitted inside a 40′ container to raise vehicles above floor level, such that up to twice as many can be squeezed in. Previously, loading in this way would have been a much slower process, using wood to form the necessary supports.

CCS storage approach

Means of fitting multiple vehicles in a shipping container (Consolidated Car Shipping)

This kind of ingenuity made me think of the Chevrolet Vega. Regardless of what you think of rust-prone 1970s subcompacts (it might have been named after the brightest part of the constellation of Lyra, but the Vega was far from stellar…) we have to take a moment to admire the manufacturer’s vision.

At a time when Geoffrey Boothroyd and Peter Dewhurst still had a lot of work to do to convince the world of the merits of design for manufacture, the humble Vega was a lightyear ahead in design for logistics.

Like most cars made in the USA, the Vega would be distributed by rail… but where a conventional tri-level ‘autorack’ car transporter could have carried fifteen or at most eighteen (very short) vehicles, General Motors and the Southern Pacific Transportation Company designed a special wagon, called ‘Vert-A-Pac’, that could hold thirty cars… by shipping them all in a nose-down configuration.

A conventional car transporter, with fifteen vehicles aboard.

A conventional car transporter, with fifteen vehicles on board.

Chevrolet Vegas and Vert-A-Pac transporters.

Chevrolet Vegas and Vert-A-Pac transporters.

The Vega had special clamping points on the floor pan to hold it in place, and was designed so that fluids (coolant, fuel, screen wash, oil, and battery acid) would not drain away when it was held in that position. Upon unloading at the closest railhead, the Vega was ready to be driven straight to the dealership. With over two million Vegas being made from 1970–1977, the cost savings must have been considerable.

How’s that for a distribution strategy? No other cars ever used the system, though, so all the Vert-A-Pac railway wagons returned to more conventional uses when production ended. Nowadays, no vehicle achieves the efficient packing density of the Vega… at least, not until the end of its useful life.

Car cubes

The Berlin Wall, twenty-five years on…

On Sunday, churchgoers remembered the dead of two world wars and other conflicts, but Sunday also marked the 25th anniversary of the ‘fall’ of the Berlin Wall (although it wouldn’t actually be demolished for months). According to the German Democratic Republic, an “Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart”, the Wall became an emblem of the Cold War; a physical manifestation of Winston Churchill’s “iron curtain” and an ultimately doomed reaction to the flood of people emigrating westwards, choosing not to live under communism.

Perhaps the first lesson in logistics that Berlin and the Cold War can teach us comes from a study of the Berlin Airlift, which had begun in June 1948, and went on until May 1949. Soviet forces halted rail, autobahn and water traffic into the western-occupied zones of the city, and also cut off electricity supplies and the like. Although very difficult to justify in commercial terms, holding the city became an important early test of the western Allies’ resolve, and it was decided to resupply the city by air. This really was doing the impossible, typically airlifting in five thousand or more tonnes of supplies, day after day, often in vile weather. In total, 278,228 flights into Berlin were undertaken. In the French sector a new airport was constructed in less than three months – largely by the Germans themselves and with little in the way of equipment. All this activity sent a clear message to the Soviet Union, and eventually a negotiated settlement was reached, such that the airlift could end – after 101 lives had been lost.

With West Berlin set to remain in the hands of the Western allies for the foreseeable future, another problem had to be addressed. By 1961, 3.5 million East Germans had left the country – which is to say, 20% of the population. Emigration was typically chosen by the young and the well-educated, and this represented not only a “brain drain” for the communist bloc, but also a considerable loss of face. By 1958 up to 90% of those fleeing East Germany were doing so via Berlin, where the border remained highly porous. The response was to construct the wall, beginning on August 13th 1961, to completely enclose the part of the city occupied by the Western powers.

The wall is built

Initially, the ‘wall’ was a wire fence, and in fact most of it would not become a wall until 1965. Its final form – the one we saw protesters climbing on and hammering at with sledgehammers in 1989 – was constructed from 1975 to 1980 and required some 45,000 sections of reinforced concrete (plus watchtowers, guard dogs, and the like). Additional complications came from cordoning off a city that was crossed by railway lines: many key East German railway lines passed through West Berlin, so a new railway line, the Außenring or ‘outer ring’ had to be constructed before the city could be quarantined. Below ground, the subway network presented additional complications. Some lines fell entirely within the West, and were simple enough to operate. Others entirely within the East, likewise (although East Berlin subway maps did not acknowledge the existence of other lines). Three Western lines crossed into the East, and these caused difficulties. Some stations fell into disuse: West Berliners could gaze out of the windows of their trains as they rolled slowly through dimly lit and heavily guarded stations where they never stopped; small wonder that these came to be known as Geisterbahnhöfe – ghost stations. In all, sixteen stations were wholly or partially closed as a result of the Cold War. Track maintenance was difficult to arrange, and a train breakdown required that stranded passengers were escorted out by the border police.

Barbed wire at Potsdamer Platz, 1963

Potsdamer Platz, 1963

We could also talk about the division of the sewer network. The amount of effort invested in dividing a city was simply staggering – as was the ingenuity shown by escapees.


Another lesson in logistics comes from Ralph Kabisch, Joachim Neumann and their fellows. The pair were studying civil engineering in West Berlin, but like a lot of people they had friends and relatives stranded in the east. In 1964 the team dug a tunnel into East Berlin, ultimately allowing 57 people to flee to the West. Working from a disused bakery, the entrance of which could be seen from guard towers on the eastern side, the students had to be careful that they weren’t seen coming and going too often, so as to arouse suspicion. This meant that they had to live at the dig site for weeks on end – and find a means to store or dispose of some two hundred cubic metres of soil, all dug out with hand tools, in silence.

During the years that the wall was in place, some 5,000 people succeeded in escaping to West Berlin, although fewer than 300 of them used tunnels. Others used fake passports, secret compartments in cars, a zip wire… In 1979 the Strelczyk and Wetzel families used a home-made hot air balloon, their exploit later being made into a Disney film, ‘Night Crossing’. In 1961 a train driver smashed his train through the wall to make good his escape. Some of his passengers chose to return to East Germany; most didn’t.

Conrad Schumann, Berlin

Hans Conrad Schumann famously fled to the West while the Wall was still under construction.

In the 28 years that the Wall stood, at least 136 people lost their lives in escape attempts – children among them. Ultimately, like a modern-day Maginot Line, the Berlin Wall was rendered useless because it was outflanked: in the summer of 1989 Hungary became the new route for escape when the border with Austria ceased to be policed. 13,000 East German tourists in Hungary chose escape to Austria, and still more sought refuge in the West German embassy in Budapest. The East German government stopped any more citizens visiting Hungary… and Czechoslovakia became the new route for exodus, followed by Romania.

The Last Days of the Wall

With East Germany all but bankrupt and citizens hungry for freedom, General Secretary Erich Honecker was forced to resign, and his successor Egon Krenz failed to assert any real control over a deteriorating situation that saw tens of thousands of people gathering at checkpoints, demanding the right to cross into West Berlin. Sensing the new political reality, those in authority had become reluctant to use deadly force, and the only alternative was to open the way, allowing the East Berliners to visit the other half of their city for the first time in decades.

Berlin Wall, Brandenburg Gate, and protesters

November 10th, 1989: citizens of Berlin stand together atop the wall, near the Brandenburg Gate.

If the events surrounding West Berlin’s segregation and its survival as an independent enclave required Herculean efforts, the greatest was still to come, with German reunification. How do you fuse together an economic powerhouse and the remnants of an uncompetitive command economy where businesses close, where trained staff abandon their jobs in favour of more lucrative employment in the west, and where markets and sources of supply in neighbouring eastern bloc countries are also in transition? In fact, change came very quickly. The Coca-Cola Company was investing in East Germany by April 1990, and the other brands we associate with the west weren’t far behind. (The 2003 film ‘Good Bye Lenin!’ conveys some of the powerlessness that many ‘Ossis’ must have felt, as everything changed.) On the positive side, with the Wall and the “death strip” on its Eastern side no longer required, it gave the city an unusual bounty of prime real estate, right through the middle.

It’s so easy to perform a PEST or PESTLE analysis, and make pronouncements about the political environment and the likely consequences for businesses and transport networks, but Germany post-1945 shows that shifts in the political landscape – even those resisted by powerful governments – can change things with astonishing rapidity.

Other People

It’s been eleven years since I was last in New Zealand, almost to the day, but I’ve never forgotten a person that I met one morning, not far from Kaikoura. We shared a joke, and the joke was on me.

My new friend wasn’t in the least bothered that he didn’t have any arms or legs; nor that he didn’t have any money. But then, you see, he was a dusky dolphin. He seemed amused by my clumsy swimming, although it was the ‘music’ I was making that first got his attention. I was humming Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture through my snorkel, although why I chose that particular tune, I don’t recall. In any event, we struck a deal: I kept on humming, and he stared at me, and circled around me, permitting photographs. With apparently effortless flicks of his tail, my new friend accelerated, until I was spinning like a top, trying to keep him in my viewfinder… at which point he swam faster still, and I just about tied myself in knots. This, it was very obvious, was the desired outcome, and my host seemed delighted to have taught me a thing or two about swimming. After perhaps ten minutes, he headed off at what seemed an impossible speed, and I retired to the dive boat, tired but happy.

Dusky dolphin

Dusky dolphin (Lagenorhynchus obscurus)

As a result of that encounter, I’ve come to feel that dolphins are people. They don’t have thumbs, or a language we can understand, but that doesn’t matter. They’re people who happen to live in the sea. Sadly, the relatives of these people are hunted by some of our kind – principally in Japanese waters – and their bodies are used for fertilizer, pet food and human consumption.

It simply won’t do. Where a creature has the cognitive ability to feel as wide a range of emotions as scientists have observed in dolphins, drive hunting (forcing a pod of dolphins into shallow water where they can be killed with knives and spears) is obviously inhumane. It’s no more defensible than eating French people, or making Fertiliser out of Danish people. I don’t care if they represent a renewable resource… not all things exist to be consumed.

Four years ago, I saw two children misbehaving. Their body language telegraphed the fact that they were up to no good, to the point where the phrase “as thick as thieves” might have been coined just for them. It just so happens that these young people were covered in orange fur – but people they were, unmistakably.

The duo hunkered down to look at something that they had stolen… and it turned out to be a pocket knife. The younger of the two looked on, fascinated, while his playmate quite deliberately opened the knife, and tried it out. It took quite a while for us to convince a sceptical keeper that we really had seen the duo playing with a knife, but eventually he went in and retrieved it, by swapping it for a piece of fruit. Before that, though, I had watched a process of experimentation that could leave me in no doubt that we aren’t the only intelligent species on land: we’re merely the dominant faction.

Young orangutan with knife

Young orangutan with knife

Young orangutan with knife

The keeper later admitted that the pair were always stealing things, and had evolved a form of currency: if they stole something large such as a broom and you wanted it back, you’d better give them a lot of fruit: a miserly offer would result in the broom being dismantled and returned piecemeal, with a single banana perhaps only getting you a handful of bristles…

We happen to be the current front-runners in the race to evolve, but if we could give the other people a sporting chance and leave them in peace for a few million years, who knows what they might become? We ought to consider our role to be one of stewardship; not owners but just looking after things for a while… but it’s not working out that way: the oceans are becoming increasingly polluted and the Sumatran orangutan is listed as ‘critically endangered’ today, due to poaching and an illegal pet trade… plus habitat destruction caused by palm oil plantations – a $40bn industry, and a material that’s used in the manufacture of far too many foods and cosmetics.

It’s called “waste” for a reason…

Back in the days when I worked in a furniture factory, there was a sarcastic but surprisingly effective sign in the workplace:

“When the floor is full please use the bins provided.”

overflowing bins

It’s a scene that could be found in just about any city, nowadays – at least at times. Technology offers alternatives, such as the Envac system of urban waste collection which uses vacuum tubes rather like a giant version of those pipe systems that you used to see speeding capsules around within department stores and hospitals. Very nice… but it seems likely that the cost of such a major infrastructure project will confine it to airports and showpiece communities for a long time to come.

I’ve seen a lot of litter in the last few weeks, on my travels in Southern Africa. The character of that litter varies from one country to another, and I can only assume that’s because the prevailing economic conditions in different places make for a different pattern of recycling. In Malawi, for example, you see very few plastic bottles, although the shreds of old plastic bags are seen everywhere amid the crops. (In Rwanda, shops can no longer give you a plastic bag, but this rule hasn’t been adopted elsewhere, yet.)

I have to make assumptions here (since a literature search has revealed almost nothing about the economics of recycling in Malawi) but presumably plastic bottles are sufficiently valuable to be worth collecting. One tiny piece of evidence was found:

“The next day is warm as we drive towards Lilongwe, the country’s capital. Blandina drains her water, winds down the window and tosses the plastic bottle from the car. I give a disapproving frown and glance back to see a child give chase as it cartwheels over the road. “I’m recycling,” says my genial guide. “He’ll use it for mango juice.” Beyond the safari tents and sundowners, Malawi’s poverty plays out at the roadside.”

– Phillips (2012)

If plastic bottles are worth collecting in Lilongwe, it seems they aren’t in Lusaka – so the wealthier city actually has a worse litter problem. Many empty lots in the city seem to have acquired a colourful stratum of them (although as I write this, the long-awaited rain has just arrived, so perhaps that will move much of the waste on, via the drains). I fully accept that I’m part of the problem, because my delicate British constitution means I’ve been consuming vast quantities of bottled water (plus Carlsberg ‘Green’ or Mosi lager by night, but that’s another story…)

In both Malawi and Zambia, the tax base is very narrow, and the governments have other, more pressing needs than worrying about litter. “Will Malawi cities, towns ever be sustainably clean?” asks the Nyasa Times (Ngwira, 2014) and that’s the real challenge: not an expensive burst of activity, but a lasting shift to a different way of doing things.

Waste plastic is actually a very valuable resource. A thermal depolymerisation process could be fed waste plastic (including the lower-value plastic bags and films) plus old tyres, biomass and a wide range of other things, yielding sufficient gas to run the process while also producing light crude oil of considerable value.

For that matter, one might ask why we don’t do more thermal depolymerisation in the UK…

Waste-to-oil requires investment, of course… but do you want to live in a world where it doesn’t happen?

Have a look at this ancient piece of pottery from the early Bronze Age, which is to say around 4,000 years ago. It was found in a burial mound where an unknown young man was sent on his journey into the next world, perhaps with an alcoholic drink…


Early Bronze Age beaker.

Nowadays, it can be seen in the Hull and East Riding Museum, and it is artefacts such as this one that gave us our name for these ancestors: the Beaker People. Once a culture that covered virtually all of Europe, I understand.

And it makes me wonder…

Four thousand years from now, will we be known as the Garbage People?



Ngwira, S. (2014) ‘Will Malawi cities, towns ever be sustainably clean?’, Nyasa Times, August 16th [available online, accessed 4/11/2014]

Phillips, A. (2012) ‘All creatures great and small in Malawi’, The Independent on Sunday, July 15th [available online, accessed 4/11/2014]