A Book Report

What should have been a bit of light reading during the holidays turned out to be less recreational and more like my day job, when I selected ‘Not Forgetting The Whale’ by John Ironmonger. I had no idea it would have so much to say about supply chain resilience.

Joe Haak is a city analyst, working for a department that specialises in short selling: profiting from the decline in a company’s share price. He leads a team developing a computer program that monitors the news media in order to predict the market consequences of reported events. It works remarkably well, allowing them to find many profitable ‘shorts’, but one of the bank’s partners demands that he use the software to discover something else:

How will civilisation end?

Over the course of several meetings with the doomsaying partner Lew Kaufmann, Joe learns that civilisation is surprisingly fragile… and that it all hinges upon effective supply chain management.

Have a look at this excerpt from the book:

“How do you feed a city of ten million people, Joe? How many lorry-loads of food do you need every day? How much fuel?’ He turned to the younger man. ‘How do you feed London? Who organises it all?”

“I don’t suppose anyone does.”

Lew Kaufmann was nodding. “Quite right. Nobody does. It works because of a hundred thousand supply chains. Because thousands of people in two hundred countries get up in the morning and do exactly what they did yesterday morning, and the morning before, planting and harvesting and packaging and transporting, flour and sugar and cocoa and coffee and a great long list of foods and fuels and machine parts and devices. We know this, don’t we, Joe? We know this because that is what we do, you and I. We follow the supply chains, looking for weaknesses.”

“We do,” Joe said.

“Have you ever been to a mega-city, Joe?” Kaufmann turned away from the window and sank back into his chair. He didn’t wait for an answer. “Of course you have. London is a mega-city now. Twelve million people, but we’re way down the list. There are twenty-five cities bigger than London now. Rio is bigger. Lagos is bigger. Tokyo has almost thirty-five million citizens. I once sat in a traffic jam in Jakarta trying to get to the airport. There are twenty-five million people in Jakarta, Joe. How many of them do you think keep a larder?”

“Not many, I should imagine.”

“No. I don’t suppose they do. There are half a billion people living in mega-cities now, and most of them live pretty hand to mouth. Even here in London. What happens, Joe, when the supply chains fail? What will happen when twenty million people in Guangzhou or Cairo or Tehran or Paris begin to starve?”

“I’ve never really thought about it.”

“Not many people do.” Kaufmann gave a long whistling sigh.

The troubling thing about this chain of reasoning is that I can’t actually find anything wrong with it.

In the book, the ‘perfect storm’, that disrupts our global supply chains and threatens to bring about a new dark age is a combination of two factors, a flu pandemic and a disruption in the oil supply. Kaufmann is particularly scathing about oil:

“It is the craziest thing in human history, Joe. We’ve built the greatest society that mankind has ever known – a global society. We communicate across continents, we think nothing of jumping on an airliner for a meeting in Zurich or Seattle or Shanghai. And yet all of this, everything we have created, rests upon a finite fluid resource that we’re busy burning away.”

It’s not just the expenditure of oil for jet fuel that bothers these men, modelling the end of the world: it’s the difficulties that agriculture faces, without oil. Farmers can’t grow food, they can’t harvest it, and whatever diminished quantity they manage to produce can’t be transported before it spoils.

Again, the logic is faultless. In fact the hardest thing to believe in the whole book is how sensible and cohesive the people in the story are. I suspect that elsewhere things will have been a lot uglier – but ‘Not Forgetting The Whale’ isn’t about that grim struggle. It’s a very gentle, British take on the ‘prepper’ mindset.

An array of ‘prepper’ tools

A ‘prepper’ toolkit. (What, nothing for use against zombies?)

Nonetheless, we are assured that anarchy ensues.

“… the instinct for survival won’t recognise that the man people are mugging in the street for his last litre of fuel is a driver distributing food. No one will stop to ask if the woman they just robbed of her last loaf is an engineer in a power plant.”

Again, I can’t fault the logic. (I really have to write about the Tragedy of the Commons sometime…) Nothing in this world is worth any more than a person is prepared to pay for it, and what we are prepared to pay is dependent upon everything else still being in demand. I’ve seen farming areas where the principal crop is mustard: that’s fine while transport is working and trade can happen, but if trade is interrupted, you can’t exactly eat the mustard yourself, can you? (Well, not much of it…)

Mustard crop

Mustard. It’s what’s for dinner.

Economies of scale make money, but perhaps they’ve built a kind of fragility into 21st century supply chains, of a kind that we didn’t have to worry about years ago. Another threat, overshadowing that of running out of food, and even the global pandemic, is simply other people.

“Hell is other people,” as Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) observed. Hungry people: desperate people. And what will you do when they come calling?

Kaufmann and family head for the Azores on a yacht, while Joe seeks refuge (apparently at random) in the fictional village of St Piran, Cornwall, where he uses his life savings (and his knowledge of what’s about to happen) to build up a secret stockpile of foodstuffs, while the modern world collapses slowly, but inexorably.

Joe’s store of food is enough to provide for the village for several months, and the villagers use an excavator to block the single road into the village… but where do twelve million Londoners go? We don’t learn their fate, since this is a character-driven book about the people living in a small Cornish fishing village, and as such it works well.

It isn’t a textbook on supply chain resilience. That’s just a happy accident… but it makes one wonder just how perilous the situation could be. Truth through fiction – and reference to Thomas Hobbes’ (1651) ‘Leviathan’, with its discourse on the social contract, and the role of the state in preventing anarchy.

“… by the time you finish reading there might be a few more tins of beans in your cupboard than there were when you started,” wrote one reviewer at GoodReads.

Businesses know all about safety stocks, and maybe it’s time for us to bring the same thinking home. That “few more tins of beans” needn’t be a financial burden on the household, if bought in bulk and rotated properly. Money might actually be saved…

Or, there’s the alternative. Choosing to believe that “thousands of people in two hundred countries get up in the morning and do exactly what they did yesterday morning,” … every day, for the rest of your life.

Coca Cola "hotel"

A Gap in the Market

I’ve written before about Design for Logistics: how products themselves can ease or complicate their shipping, or the environmental impact of their packaging. I object to shipping large quantities of fresh air along with the product, and I suppose we all do, but not everything in the world nests together nicely for efficient shipping.

Once in a while, though, there comes along some holistic packaging design that’s so elegant as to take your breath away. If you haven’t already seen it, meet Kit Yamoyo: oral rehydration salts, zinc, soap and a leaflet of instructions for the care of a person with diarrhoea. The outer packaging also serves as measuring device and cup, and – here’s the clever part – it’s shaped to fit in between the bottles in a crate of Coca-Cola.

Inventor Simon Berry had observed that he could get a bottle of Coke just about anywhere, and yet far more important products such as basic medicines weren’t available. Wouldn’t it be possible to piggyback medicines onto the Coca-Cola supply chain? It was an idea that took twenty years and a lot of persistence to realise… but eventually it took off, as a result of social media.

“What about Coca Cola using their distribution channels (which are amazing in developing countries) to distribute rehydration salts? Maybe by dedicating one compartment in every 10 crates as ‘the life saving’ compartment?”

That was Simon Berry’s original Internet posting on the subject, back in 2008. Somewhere along the way, the idea was transmuted: instead of requiring the good folks at Coca-Cola to give up a fraction of their capacity in order to ship the rehydration salts, the innovative design meant that there would be no bottom line impact for purveyors of fizzy drinks. Everybody wins: it generates good press for the Coca-Cola Company (which makes a nice change from their product being criticised for being cheaper than milk)… and children don’t have to die for the want of a simple, cheap treatment.

Kit Yamoyos in a crate

Kit Yamoyos in situ, in a crate. (Photo: Colalife)

Although it’s the idea of fitting medicines into the space in a crate that brought the product and the newly-formed Colalife charity to the attention of the media, there are at least two other key components that make this grassroots supply chain work: micro-enterprise, and the use of mobile phones (specifically, SMS messages) to confirm delivery and make payments. Anybody could join in this distribution network – and earn money in the process. 

My Supply Chain Management students are already acquainted with Kit Yamoyo: I even made it the subject of one of their exam questions, last year. From a supply chain perspective, I wrote, critically discuss the approach taken, whereby the charity works with microbusinesses rather than simply giving the product away.

Students were divided on this point: some felt that a charity in possession of a life-saving treatment ought to be giving it away… and that’s the kind of aid model that I grew up with, back in the days of Bob Geldof. With a few wealthy sponsors and the assistance of the government, you probably could shift an awful lot of rehydration salts. You could just pitch the things out of the back of low-flying army transport ’plane, or something… but the purpose here wasn’t to deliver a life-saving product once: it was to change the economics of basic medicines fundamentally and permanently. With the ‘AidPod’ as a commercial product (albeit as inexpensive as possible) it gets treated differently. Stocking it at a sensible level is incentivised: tracking, and avoiding spoilage and pilfering becomes everybody’s concern. Manufacturing more ‘AidPods’ becomes something that companies want to do… and at some point between now and 2020, the whole venture becomes commercially sustainable.

Kit Yamoyo packaging

Like many really great ideas, it seems obvious afterwards. (Photo: Colalife)

Funny thing is, having created an award-winning package, Colalife are largely turning away from that design: a survey revealed that only 8% of retailers made use of crates of Coke to carry the kits. (Elsewhere in their published stats, Colalife report that they found just 4% of kits actually went into a Coca-Cola crate.)

In an effort to drive down the cost of Kit Yamoyo still further, a regular plastic ‘jar’ like the kind of thing you and I get peanut butter in has been tried… with the clever packets that fill the voids in drinks crates not entirely being phased out, but becoming rarer in the future.

“It was the space in the market, not the space in the crates that was important,” Colalife say. The Colalife website reports that approximately 60,000 Kit Yamoyos have been sold to date. Academics estimate that three lives have been saved per thousand kits used: if that’s correct, well… do the maths. While I was trying (and failing) to persuade the fishing industry to use crates made out of Pykrete, the Colalife team were saving dozens of lives – and they’re still ramping up the operation.

Let’s finish with what might be a particularly relevant message for our new MSc Supply Chain students in Botswana, Malawi, and Zambia:

“You can get any commodity/service to anywhere in the world by creating & sustaining demand & making it profitable to supply that demand.” – Simon Berry (Twitter: @51m0n)

Packaging Peculiarity: the Edible Cup

How do you address the twin problems of green image and the need to do something quirky in order to generate a buzz on the Internet?

If you’re KFC (or Kentucky Fried Chicken, for people my age) you introduce the edible coffee cup: a concoction made from biscuit, rice paper and temperature-resistant white chocolate. Finish your coffee, and you can chow down on the cup. And why not? A hundred and ten years ago, ice cream retail underwent a similar revolution when it was discovered that customers didn’t need to be given a bowl and a spoon, merely a conical wafer.

2015: enter the ‘Scoff-ee cup’ – and for once the UK doesn’t need to wait for something the USA had first. Quite the opposite, as the cups are planned for trials in the UK first. (Is my island now considered to serve as a testbed for Uncle Sam? That marks an interesting development in itself… or perhaps we’re simply less litigious over here.)

As for the cups themselves, they’re still under development. At this time I can’t tell you about the flavour, nor how many calories the cup is expected to deliver. What we do know is some of the aromas that freaky experimental foodie consultancy The Robin Collective have proposed for the cups, including coconut sun cream, freshly cut grass, and wild flowers. That coffee should actually smell like coffee is out, it seems. Given that the whole exercise is largely a gimmick conducted in order to announce that KFC will be selling Seattle Best Coffee (a Starbucks brand) this seems like something of a mixed message.

Anyway, you finish your drink, and then you get to eat the biscuity cup. To my mind, this is a bit backwards: if I’ve just eaten a chocolate biscuit and some rice paper, I’d be looking for a drink to wash it down. But maybe that’s just a fiendishly clever way to drum up repeat business.

Cardboard and biscuit-based coffee cups compared

Om nom.

In terms of sustainability, an edible cup is probably worse than a cardboard one (never mind the health effects; I’m thinking of the embodied water in materials such as chocolate) but at least it’s biodegradable. An edible cup won’t end up floating around in the ocean for decades like a plastic one.

The cups that have been shown to-date are thick-walled and that means they won’t nest at all well, so a consignment of cups will be bulky, leading to expensive and more carbon-intensive transportation… but the real job of this cup is to provide viral advertising – just like the silly stories of a drone-based delivery system that Amazon generated so much hype with, shortly before Christmas 2013.

Of course the Internet is fickle, and you never know if your innovation will go viral, or if it’ll just be mocked. For Amazon, a particularly classy piece of mockery comes from Audi, with their new advert for the A6…  and for KFC, there’s a piece in The Onion. Also, an honourable mention must go to Sαrαh Dαvis of Georgia Southern University (twitter: @sarahkate678) who wrote the following:

“KFC is now making a coffee cup that will be edible…. No word yet on when they’ll make their chicken edible.”

Almost Nothing is Infinite

In 1866, in southern Ontario, a flock of birds is reported to have flown overhead. What was unusual was that it took some fourteen hours for the flock to pass overhead: it was estimated to contain 3.5 billion birds and if so, those birds would have been among the most populous bird species on Earth.

Just half a century later, there were none at all.

It’s a hundred years since the very last passenger pigeon, a female called Martha, died at the Cincinnati Zoo. From being so numerous as to inspire awe in the middle of the 19th century, to being extinct in the early 20th: in the space of a human lifetime, a seemingly endless resource was used up, and would never be seen again.

Martha, the last Passenger Pigeon


Pigeon meat wasn’t a great delicacy, but it was plentiful and cheap: it had become a staple food for the poor, and in some places for slaves. One might draw parallels with salmon, which was once a poor man’s fish: in the Colonial period, servants had clauses in their contracts to limit the frequency with which they could be fed salmon. Only a decline in fish stocks made it into a luxury.

Passenger pigeons were ludicrously easy to kill. They roosted together in large groups, and could be collected by lighting a sulphurous fire beneath them. When on the wing, a shot from a blunderbuss would bring down a score of them or more; even a thrown stick could bring them down. They were netted, lured with alcohol-soaked grain, and killed in half a dozen other ways. They were smoked, salted, pickled and hauled off into the cities by the new railways. Other passenger pigeons were simply used for fattening hogs, where they fell.

Hunting the Passenger Pigeon, 1875

Hunting the passenger pigeon, 1875

Legislative efforts to protect dwindling flocks had begun as early as 1857, but laws were only spottily enforced, and generally came too late to make a difference. Passenger pigeons appear to have been highly social, needing to roost together in large groups for successful breeding to take place. Thus, while hunters didn’t kill the very last of the birds, they had set them irrevocably on the path to extinction.

This is what we do; we consume resources, and we aren’t necessarily logical about it. Like a spendthrift who eats into their bank deposit, rather than living off the interest it generates, for a time one can live well… and then you break the system, and it doesn’t give you anything anymore.

This behaviour isn’t unique to North America; closer to home we might examine the decline in the North Sea fishing industry where herring, “the silver darlings” used to provide work for tens of thousands – and nutrition for millions.

There was a time when there were 30,000 vessels engaged in fishing for herring on the east coast of the UK alone. The sea provided an apparently endless bounty, and people made the most of it. As technology improved, however, an imbalance arose: the 20th century would see the widespread adoption of engines, radio, sonar, nylon nets… all of which made going after the fish a simpler, safer and more productive business. None of this is to be despised, but in an increasingly one-sided contest, the herring all but disappeared – with consequences for the people whose income depended upon them.

With the exception of a few diseases, humanity doesn’t actively seek to bring about extinction. Quite the opposite; few people want a profitable industry to disappear, nor to have to live without the things that industry used to provide… yet species can be taken to the brink – and beyond.

The role of government in all this is interesting, from the weak, non-interventionist stance seen in the case of the passenger pigeon, to the much more hands-on involvement in the North Sea. There, the government had to execute a complete U-turn. Once, good governance involved providing assistance to ensure a healthy domestic fishing industry. This would involve subsidy, infrastructure development, and marine research geared towards understanding migration patterns and reporting these to fishermen, in order to improve the catch. Only later, with fish stocks in crisis, would good governance mean placing restrictions on the size of the fishing fleet and the equipment that could be used, the establishment of quotas, and reductions in the number of days when the fishing fleet could put to sea. In this context, marine research finally came to recognise the finite nature of fish stocks, and the fragile nature of the ecosystem – and it was very nearly too late.

Eventually, fishing activity had to be suspended, for years, as the graph below shows. Only a complete moratorium on fishing for North Sea herring saved them.

Quantity of herring landed [Toresen and Østvedt, 2000]

Quantity of herring landed [Toresen and Østvedt, 2000]

As a great example of the government’s former role in promoting fishing, Caller Herrin’ was a 1947 information film from the Scottish Home Department, named after the traditional cry to advertise fresh herring. It provides a fascinating window on the past, allowing us to learn a new unit of measure: the cran (enough fish to fill a box of about 170 litres capacity), and enjoy the moment towards the end of part 1 where, it seems, four crew are required to land a single basket of herring… despite the obvious time-pressure with no refrigeration in sight.

The people shown in the film, and their jobs, seem strange and alien. We might as well be watching a documentary about the people of Papua New Guinea for all that we have in common with these ancestors. I’ve never eaten a kipper. How does an industry change so much, within living memory?

While it’s true that the Scottish fishing fleet was renewed with government assistance in the aftermath of the Second World War, things had already changed a great deal. The traditional export markets in Germany, Russia and Eastern Europe were largely depressed, or newly inaccessible. The Scottish fishing fleet would soon be transformed again, to go after whitefish, often farther afield and in colder waters. Difficult times (and the Anglo-Icelandic Cod War) were ahead, but that isn’t a direct consequence of the decline of the herring: in fact, British exports of herring had peaked in 1907, long before the inept “management” of fish stocks under the Common Fisheries Policy, which only began in 1970.

Meanwhile, although no commercially exploited fish species has gone the way of the passenger pigeon, Thurstan et al (2010) reported that British fish catches had declined by 94% in a little over a century.

Now, politicians are responsible for the fate of the remaining stocks, to a degree unimaginable not long ago, when species such as herring were still thought of as simply existing in the wild – and being so numerous as to be effectively infinite and in no need of stewardship.

Perhaps we might have said:

“No ordinary destruction can lessen them, or be missed from the myriads that are yearly produced.”

…except that particular quote comes from a century earlier, and the report of a select committee of the Senate of Ohio, in 1857… in response to the first bill that was proposed in order to protect the passenger pigeon.



Thurstan, R.H. Brockington, S., Roberts, C.M. (2010). The effects of 118 years of industrial fishing on British bottom trawl fisheries, Nature Communications 1 (15): 1

Toresen, R. & Østvedt, O.J. (2000) Variation in Abundance of Norwegian Spring-Spawning Herring (Clupea harengus, Clupeidae) throughout the 20th Century and the Influence of Climactic Fluctuations, Fish and Fisheries 1, 231-256

Basket Case

For almost seventy years, British statisticians have used a “basket of goods” to help them calculate inflation. It’s a collection of commonplace items that a family might expect to buy: studying the price of the same items month after month allows a like-for-like comparison, but while it’s interesting to track inflation and see how it affects ordinary families, it’s also instructive to take a long view and see how the contents of the basket have changed over the years.

A recent BBC News magazine item did precisely this, as the annual process of reviewing what goes into a standard basket is a great way to understand the eating habits of the nation. In reality, the basket monitors all kinds of things such as televisions, cars and rail travel… but the BBC concentrated upon the food element. (I hope the podcast is available where you live; it’s quite good.) It makes for an interesting walk down memory lane for those of us who remember Smash (instant mashed potato), tinned peas, Ski yoghurt and Monster Munch.

Smash instant mashed potato

Fifty percent free! Fifty percent more… bland mashed potato. Great.

Nostalgia is fun, but a lot more can be learned from a study of the changes to the basket. It shows how much our lifestyles have changed in three generations, and it says a lot about how much the supply chain for foods has had to adapt as well.

A number of key themes were identified in the broadcast, including the rise (and perhaps fall) of the supermarket: the ‘one stop shop’ for everything was unknown back in 1947 when studies began, when shopping would have involved visits to the butcher, the baker, the greengrocer, and the fishmonger. Then shops got big and moved out of town (accompanied by a rise in car ownership) but since working hours became longer, the notion of the “weekly shop” has been eroded, replaced by “grab and go” visits to miniature supermarket outlets found at railway stations, petrol stations and the like. Home deliveries are nothing new, but the Internet is another disruptive factor.

With somewhat less time being spent on the preparation of meals, and the move to more frequent, smaller shopping trips, the way in which our food is presented has changed as well. Instead of stocking up for long periods of time, customers are increasingly likely to be buying something to eat that evening, with consequences for the way in which food is processed, packaged, transported and displayed.

We’re less interested in dried, frozen or canned goods, and more likely to opt for equivalents that are chilled or sold at ambient temperature. Bad news if you own a canning factory; good news if your facility supplies ready-to-eat lettuce leaves. All of this is reflected in the notional “basket”, once new types qualify by achieving significant sales over a reasonable period of of time. Smash, for example, was invented in the 1960s but didn’t make it into the basket until 1974… where it remained until 1987 when it was replaced because customers had become more likely to choose frozen oven chips.

In addition to being increasingly money-rich and time-poor, Britons are becoming more adventurous in what they eat. Bell peppers were unknown to shoppers at the beginning of the study; can you imagine life without the humble capsicum now? Internationalisation has seen us embracing new vegetables, fruits and spices – some of them used in new ways, and others imported along with more-or-less authentic recipes. Another significant shift has been to move away from simply accepting the seasonality of produce, instead relying upon international trade to deliver things at times when they wouldn’t grow in the UK; cut flowers from Colombia, baby corn from Zambia and so on… something that would have been unthinkable before the jet engine slashed the price of fast airfreight.

Frozen fish fillets in box

Ah, the wonderfully non-specific “fish” (a sign that stocks are in decline…) but frozen food is out; chilled is cool.

The BBC chose to focus upon the food items in the “basket of goods” because whatever else happens in society and the economy, we still need to eat. Thus, despite the study beginning when post-war rationing was still firmly in place, a degree of continuity was achieved. Look closely, though, and almost everything has changed: the foods we consume, their sources, the methods of preparation, the retail outlet, the packaging… and at every step, the supply chain has transformed right along with it.


They call us consumers, but there are an awful lot of things that you buy but don’t consume. After you’ve finished a bottle of wine or a jar of antipasti, you’re left with a container that weighs around half of the weight of the original product. Is this an efficient delivery system for our food and drink?

Glassrite was a project within the Waste Resources Action Programme (WRAP) that aimed to reduce glass wastage, and carbon emissions.

glass half full

Have a look at this…

Is the glass half full, or half empty? If you’re an engineer, the right answer is that the glass is twice as big as it needs to be. In a government-funded landscape that features plenty of talking shops but precious little in the the way of action, Glassrite stands out, offering (among other things) a tool to encourage those who buy glass containers to choose lightweight ones: it’s a simple online directory of producers, where you specify capacity, style, closure type, colour, etc., and then get to choose between the various suppliers, seeing the weight of the empty bottle or jar. Lighter bottles means less embodied material and energy, and additional energy saved in transportation.

So far, so good. Very good in fact: the Glassrite project reduced the amount of glass used in bottles by 27,048 tonnes, simply through promoting the use of lightweight ones. Additional savings came through increasing the recycled glass content in UK wine bottles by 44,295 tonnes, but they didn’t stop there.

(If you’re a “wine snob” you might want to stop reading, but I thought this was interesting…)

Why send wine bottles across oceans? Why not just send the wine? Eliminate all that faffing about with fragile, heavy glass bottles that don’t fill the space in a shipping container at all well, and let the importer worry about final presentation.

Bulk importation of wine became the goal, with bottling taking place close to market. That allows the importer to do all kinds of interesting new things with branding, and it also reduces the landed cost of the new, highly commoditised wine. (Just don’t tell the customer that their favourite wine wasn’t lovingly bottled at source, but crossed the oceans sloshing around inside a huge bladder…)

containerised bulk wine

Wine, and bladder… a match made in heaven?

If your small boutique vineyard can’t deliver wine by the bladder-load, palletised alternatives are available in 275 and 330 gallon sizes (1,041 or 1,249 litres). Of course, they occupy the same amount of container space when returned empty, which is a shame. Maybe we can export cider in return, or something.

Palletised 275 gallon Intermediate Bulk Container

Palletised 275 gallon Intermediate Bulk Container

The Glassrite project increased the bulk importation of wine by the equivalent of 190 million bottles; all bottled right here in the UK. By 2012 the South Africans were crying foul: it seems the practice had cost 700 jobs among people who formerly packaged wine, and there was talk of a retaliation with the bulk import of whisky. I can’t see that working myself… but it’s interesting to see how importers can drive down the price of a commodity in the name of reduced carbon emissions – causing job losses in the process.

I say let’s take things a bit further, and instead of bulk importation in shipping containers let’s put pipelines in place. A least-distance surface journey from Australia to the UK would be around 20,000 km, but you would only need to pump the wine gently such that it flows at a leisurely 1km per hour and it would have aged by a perfect 2 years by the time it arrives. (And since France is so much closer, Beaujolais Nouveau is no problem either.)

Obviously, pipes could have sections lined with oak, in order to yield the right level of tannins, for optimum flavour. (The oak sections of the pipe would be in places where it crosses land, for ease of replacement, since the oak would need to be renewed over time: you don’t get those flavours for free, you know!) For closer nations whose wine we consume, you’d simply vary the pumping rate to achieve the desired ageing.

Of course, you’d need one pipe for each variety, which is costly, but that’s a one-off setup cost. Think of all the drums, barrels and bottles that would be saved! Another regrettable cost is that at any given time (assuming a 25mm diameter pipe) you’ve got almost ten million litres of inventory tied up for two years… but that’s not much worse than sticking it in a bonded warehouse.

Shiraz Cabernet? No problem... you could achieve blending at the point of use, like they do with post-mix bar dispensers...

Shiraz Cabernet? No problem… you could achieve blending at the point of use, like they do with post-mix bar dispensers…

One hazard of the new wine pipeline is that of theft: unscrupulous people could steal some of the commodity as it crossed their land, and there is a precedent for this. In the grounds of Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, beer was brewed and then brought into the house itself through an underground pipe. (Specifications: 75mm diameter, 323m length, gravity-fed.) During landscaping work in the early 20th century it was discovered that the gardeners had added a branch to the pipe where it crossed the Rose Garden, so they could take a little for themselves.

The audacity of those gardeners is today commemorated by the craft beer Gardener’s Tap – available from the Chatsworth farm shop.

Gardener’s Tap beer

Gardener’s Tap

Now, no doubt there are other challenges and hazards associated with the wine pipeline, – and also other possibilities. (Toothpaste on tap in the home? Tomato ketchup?) At this point, sadly, we had to abandon any further speculation because the pub was about to close.

“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.