Monday, 30 May 2011

Peat-Free Compost

Should we be using Peat - an non-renewable resource - in our garden grow-bags and compost?

It is perhaps helpful to start at the beginning by expalining that peat is an organic material, formed as an accumulation of partially decayed vegetable matter, that forms in wetlands such as bogs, mires and swamps.

It has traditionally been used as a source of fuel (once dried) in many parts of the world but it's use in gardening dates from only the 1970s, when supplies of loam were suffering shortages and peat began to be used as an alternative.

Currently, the UK uses 3 million cubic metres of peat for horticulture every year (this is apparantly enough to fill 19,000 double decker buses, although BFTF prefers to convert this to a more conventional 1,200 olympic sized swimming pools).

According to DEFRA's 2010 "Consultation on reducing the horticultural use of peat in England" document,"extraction activities result in annual greenhouse gas emissions of at least 400,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) from UK extraction sites. This is equivalent to 100,000 cars on the road each year and does not take account of the peat that we import from overseas, principally from Ireland (which supplies 60% of our horticultural peat) and the Baltic States (8%)"

In addition the consulation also states that peat stocks contain over half of the UK's soil carbon (around 5.5 billion tonnes) by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and storing it as partially decomposed plants and mosses over many thousands of years. At the same time, their
cold and waterlogged conditions preserve valuable archaeological artefacts, with an
estimated 4200 archaeological sites in English lowland peatlands . . . and 1800 sites in upland peat habitats (for example, the Peak District). In lowland areas, like the Fens, peat soils are economically important for high-value arable and horticultural crop production, and in upland areas for livestock grazing and grouse shooting."

The Government has already made efforts to reduce the amount of peat used in soil improvers, and, since 1999, this has resulted in the amount of peat used reducing significantly, even as the total amount of the amount of soil improvers has increased by over 50%.

Some 30% of soil improvers sold to the "amateur garden market" are peat free and, overall, peat now comprises less than 10% of the volume of peat used annually.

The DEFRA consulation asks for views regarding a number of questions and options relating to a proposed elimination of peat from all soil improvers by 2030 at the latest.

A recent (26th May) Radio4 debate on the "You and yours" programme on Radio 4 this week hosted by the excellent Winifred Robinson (who is admirably Rottweiler-like in keeping the guests on-topic and focussed) looked at this topic with input from Mark Diacono, Head of Gardens at River Cottage and a supporter of "peat-free" gardening - and Tim Briercliffe, of the Horticultural Trade Association.

Mark Diacono presented pretty much the same arguements as those of the DEFRA paper, all of which seemed to make a lot of sense to BFTF. . . ,

Tim Briercliffe commented that the industry has spent over 100million pounds investing in alternative composts over the last 10 years but there has been little demand from the market (so far as BFTF can see, this does not seem to be supported by the data in the DEFRA report)

Tim also commented that, regarding peat-free soil improvers it was critical that the price "is the same because we have to produce sometihng. . . in a marketplace that is not particularly calling out for a change" (dear reader, BFTF would like to draw your attention to a RSPB survey of gardening experts which showed two thirds backing a phase out of peat by 2020, and also to the fact that B&Q, Aylett Nurseries, and Sainsburys are already committed towards a phase out of peat in their soil improvers).

At the risk of establishing a pattern, another of Tim's comments was that a proposed £1 per bag levy on soil improvers containing peat will just result in increased levels of peat coming in from overseas (is BFTF the only one thinking that the source of the peat is irrelevant if the levy is put on the bag at point of sale?)

Some of the emails from listeners were fascinating. In particular was a call from Landscape Gardener (and competition judge) Penny Bennett who mentioned that she had not used peat based products for decades and that if she was judging a competition, entries that did use peat were marked down significantly.

Another call that was interesting was from a listener who had stopped using peat-free soil improvers when she found out that Ireland had a number of peat powered power stations. "What's the point" was here perfectly reasonble conclusion. BFTF has to admit that this was very disconcerting to hear and has investigated further. . .

Bord Na Mona is the company that harvests peat for use in Eire's peat power stations. As of a 2001 report, some 4 million tons (not litres -as soil improver is measured) were being used per annum. According to Wikipedia, the level of peat depletion is such that most of the peat-fired power stations will be closed within 25 years. The amount of peat used as a percentage of total energy generation has been going down for several decades, and the government has set up schemes for the peat-fired power stations to use at least 30% biomass by 2015.

Ok, so that - at least in outline - is the issue. The next question is what should be do about it - to find out an (not "the") answer, get clicky here:


UPDATE : 27 June 2011
Having sent out some emails, NSB received the following responses : DEFRA : Responded saying that the results of the consultation were on the website. (They can be found here). The results have been incorporated into a White Paper "The Natural Choice" (can be found here). The key aims are :
Phase out for government and public sector by 2015 (currently 1% of peat market)
Voluntary phase out target of 2020 for amateur gardeners (currently 69% of peat market)
Voluntary phase out target of 2030 for commercial growers (currently 30% of peat market)
Task Force to be set up to advise on how best to overcome barriers to reducing peat use.
The long timescales for amateur gardeners and commercial growers are disappointing, particularly given that peat has only been used as a soil improver since the 1970's and that no levy is being put on peat to recognise its value in flood prevention, as a carbon store etc.

Local Council : They sent a very informative reply stating that they were trialling partly and fully peat free composts and aimed to meet the governments target of eliminating its use by 2015.
Further Information:
DEFRA Consulation report

World Peat Energy Notes

RSPB proposal for a levy on Soil improvers

RSPB Survey of Gardening Experts

Bord Na Moma 2001 introduction

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Framing the Debate

Framing – What is it?
Framing is an aspect of argument which takes advantage of the fact that words evoke frames (such as images or other information). Even negating a frame results in invoking it, thus telling someone not to think of an elephant results in them. . . thinking of an elephant.

Linguist and Cognitive Scientist George Lakoff , who teaches at Berkely, California (and has a distinctly Democrat leaning political view point), uses this exact example as the title of his book , “Don’t think of an elephant!” (Pub: Chelsea Green) and gives the practical example of Richard Nixon who, during the Watergate crisis, memorably said “I am not a crook” at which point everybody thought of him as a crook !

Lakoff describes this as a key aspect of framing- When arguing, do not use the language of the other side- it will use a frame and that frame won’t be the one that you want.

Another example given is that of the phrase “tax relief” used by George W Bush. Lakoff considers the framing for the word “relief” and comments that “For there to be relief, there must be an affliction, an afflicted party, and a reliever who removes the affliction, and is therefore a hero. And if people try to stop the hero, those people are villains for trying to prevent “

Furthermore, “A conservative on TV uses two words, like tax relief. And the progressive has to go into a paragraph-long discussion on his own view. The conservative can appeal to an established frame, that taxation is an affliction or burden, which allows for the two-word phrase “tax relief”. But there is no established frame on the other side. You can talk about it, but it takes some doing because there is no established frame, no fixed idea already out there.”

Perhaps, if the Democratic party had been airing adverts for years to construct their frame, it would now be easier for them to argue their case. Lakoff gives an example of the kind of ad that might have put across a different perspective on taxes, ““Our parents invested in the future, ours as well as theirs, through their lives. They invested their tax money in the interstate highway , the internet, the scientific and medical establishments, our communications system, our airline system the space program. They invested in the future, and we are reaping the tax benefits, the benefits from the taxes they have paid. Today we have assets – highways, schools and colleges, the Internet, airlines that come from the wise investments they made.”

Or the following :
“Taxation is paying your dues, paying your membership. If you join a country club or a community centre, you pay fees. . . otherwise (it) won’t be maintained and will fall apart. People who avoid taxes, like corporations that move to Bermuda are not paying their dues to this country. It is patriotic to be a taxpayer. It is traitorous to desert our country and not pay your dues”

Lakoff comments that if you are faced with an opponent who is being disingenuous, you should point out what their real goal is and then reframe. For example, suppose he starts touting smaller government. Point out the conservatives don’t really want smaller government. They don’t want to eliminate the military, or the FBI, or the Treasury and Commerce departments, or the nine-tenths of the courts that support corporate law. It is big government that they like. What they really want to do away with is social programmes – programs that invest in people, to help people help themselves. Such a position contradicts the values the country was founded on – the idea of a community where people pull together to help each other.”

In a nutshell, Lakoff recommends the following four guidelines for political debate:
Show respect, Respond by reframing, Think and talk at the level of values, Say what you believe

Capacity Building
Lakoff describes how the differing priorities of the conservative and liberal political groups has resulted in the conservatives dominating the media. He comments that “In the right’s hierarchy of moral values, the top value is preserving and defending the moral system itself. If that is your main goal, what do you do? You build infrastructure. You buy up media in advance. You do things like give fellowships to right wing law students to help them through law school”.

He elaborates on this by pointing out that “The right wing think tanks get large block grants and endowments. Millions at a time. . . These institutions build human capital for the future. . . the interns are building lifetime networks. . . These are social networks that will pay dividends for years and years. The conservatives who built the think tanks are not dumb people.”

In contrast, progressive foundations focus on providing direct services to people in need and are focused on providing the most help for the most people – and on ensuring that no money is wasted.

The Conservative Mindset
Lakoff describes the conservative mindset as being the “strict father model” which views the world as a place where people compete to succeed and where there are winners and losers. Critically, this mindset believes that, if people are disciplined and pursue their self-interest in this land of opportunity, they will become prosperous and self-reliant.

When translated to government social programmes, this mindset believes that “It is immoral to give people things they have not earned, because they will then not develop discipline and will become dependent and immoral. . .if there are a lot of progressives in Congress who think that there should be social programmes, and if you believe that social programmes are immoral, how do you stop these immoral people. It is quite simple, what you have to do is to reward the good people - the ones whose prosperity reveals their discipline and hence their capacity for morality – with a tax cut, and make it big enough so that there is not enough money left for social programmes. By this logic, the deficit is a good thing. As Grover Norquist says “It starves the beast”’

Activating Models
Most people have both “strict father” and “nurturant” models to some degree. Thus, liberals are able to understand a John Wayne movie, whilst conservatives are able to understand a program like the Cosby Show. In addition, many people have different models in different aspects of their lives, for example “Reagan knew that blue-collar workers who were nurturant in their union politics were often strict fathers at home. He used political metaphors that were based on the home and family , and got them to extend their strict father way of thinking from the home to politics.”

An example of how this is done is given in the form of Frank Luntz, a conservative language expert. One of Luntz’s recent books of language guidlelines commented that the science was increasingly going against the conservative position on global warming, but that this could be countered by using the right language. “People who support environmentalist positions like certain words. They like the words “healthy”, “clean”, “safe” because these words fit frames that describe what the environment means to them. Therefore, says Luntz, use the words healthy, clean and safe whenever possible, even when talking about coal or nuclear power plants”

It’s the values, stupid !
Many politicians believe that if they just tell people the facts, then people will act according to their best interest and vote for them.

Yet, this is not what happens. For example ”In the 2000 election, Gore kept saying that Bush’s tax cuts would go only to the top 1% and he thought that everyone else would follow their self-interest and support him. But poor conservatives still opposed him.”

Cognitive scientists such as Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky have shown , that people do not necessarily vote in their self-interest. Instead, they often vote their identity, or values, or who they identify with.

Foreign Policy
Regarding the “collateral damage” the has come with Us military adventures since 9/11, Lakoff comments that ““The argument the killing civilians in retaliation would make us as bad as them works for liberals, not for conservatives. The idealistic claim of the Bush administration that is the they intend to wipe out all terrorism. What is not mentioned is that the United States has systematically promoted a terrorism of its own and has trained terrorists, from the contras to the mujahideen, the Honduran death squads and the Indonesian military. Will the US government stop training terrorists? Of course not. It will deny that it does so. Is this duplicity? Not in terms of conservative morality and its view of good versus evil and “lesser evils (such as collateral damage and support for dictators)”. Indeed, Newt Gingritch has commented on the Fox network that “Retribution is Justice”.

Lakoff further describes the Iraq invasion as being viewed by the Bush administration as an invasion that “furthers our self-interest in controlling the flow of oil from the world’s second largest known reserve, and in being in the position to control the flow of oil from central asia. This would guarantee energy domination over a significant part of the world. The United States could control oil sales around the world. And in the absence of alternative fuel development, whoever controls the worldwide distribution of oil controls politics and economics”
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Thought it might be worth mentioning one of the most powerful examples of framing that BFTF has ever heard...

It comes from the Submarine Thriller "Crinson Tide" starring Gene Hackman and Denzel Washington, who play the Captain and Lt Commander respectively.

At one point they are having a formal dinner with the other officers and Washington is being quite cagey with some of his answers to questions, which provokes Hackman into saying the followng line :

"I don't mean to suggest that you're indecisive, Mr. Hunter. Not at all. Just, uh... complicated."

And, of course, what pops up in the viewers mind, despite Hackmans protestations, is that Hackman views Washington as being "indecisive".

Awesome.