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Making containers for the ‘balcony growing stuff project’ while Beautiful Wife plays with the boys and some friends. After taking the picture I decided they were having far more fun so I went to join them.
Note Bakfiets in use as a hiding place.
Travelling from Stuttgart to Freiburg is a bit like going on a bear hunt: The Black Forest is in the way, and we can’t go under it, we can’t go over it, and if we go through it, it’ll take half a day because the railways all go north to south, so we have to go around it and down the Rhine valley, which takes almost as long. So when I found myself with the Xtracycle in the outer suburbs of Freiburg and utterly unable to find the venue for the Permaculture course I was attending, I’d already been sitting on various trains since the small hours.
I asked for directions from a local* and they pointed beyond the town where a pine forest rose into the clouds like the gates of Mordor. “You see that hotel up there?” They asked as said clouds parted to show a building perched high up on the hillside. “Well, the road you want starts there.”
One long, winding climb later I was up in the clouds and surprised to note that my legs hadn’t fallen off, so all those hills around Stuttgart have obviously done me some good. I could still have done with some sleep before starting the course, but we had eighteen hours of lectures to get through before Sunday afternoon so what I got was shovel-loads of information about how we’re living like someone paying off debts with credit cards, and in urgent need of a reset of priorities, along with a drastic reduction in energy consumption. As agriculture uses more energy (often supplied by oil) to grow food than we get from eating it, this is a problem even for weirdo car-free types like us.
Permaculture is a sort of toolbox for a more sustainable lifestyle, which plugs into natural cycles that are already there instead of relying on oil. By the end of the four weekends we’ll have had 72 hours of this and we’ll be all set to design our own permaculture farms, gardens, or in my case balcony. I can also try and carve a niche out as a permaculture designer which is arguably a bit academic in the absence of clients or land, but all my rambling here about bicycles and simple living is a part of a bigger goal for our family to live more sustainably and start a small scale arts centre. The Permaculture training means that when we do manage to get (access to) some land, we’ll be a tiny bit more ready.
Hopefully; in theory.
*I know blokes should never do this, but it was that or ride around Freiburg for a week.
I’d be happy to admit I’m pretty badly organised, but I’d only be adding my voice to the chorus. This makes me highly grateful for people like Disgruntled reminding me to order seeds if I plan to grow anything this season. After the success of the mini carrots and the
leuttices lettuces last year* I’m getting a lot more ambitious with a grand master plan involving home-made earthboxes, mini pots for smaller things, a comfrey/worm bin down in a corner of the back courtyard that the letting agent says I can use, and maybe even some kind of cold frame to extend the season. It’s not exactly a permaculture farm, but you have to start somewhere.
Real gardeners, who actually have a garden, now start making spreadsheets on Excel. I wrote a list on the back of an envelope because that’s what I usually end up doing anyway whenever I try and use computers for data.
This years attempt will include (subject to advice and reading permaculture books)
Comfrey for composting**
And hopefully Tomatoes, which I’m mildly addicted to.
I’ll also try for some of the herbs we use a lot of. I’d like to grow some beans but they seem to have seriously expansionist tendencies and we have to hang the washing somewhere.
If a native speaker can advise me what the German is for “Those metal brackets you use to hold window boxes in”, I’ll get a few of those too…
*Continued inability to spell ‘Lettuce’ first time notwithstanding.
** I was tempted to grow spinach for this as I can’t think of a better use for it, but I refrained.
Observant readers will have probably noticed that the bike repair apprenticeship I was applying for didn’t work out. This was partly because the shop had a bad summer (it rained through August) and partly because of the inflexibility of the trade guilds.
This was… somewhat disappointing.
Mind you, when you don’t know what you’re going to do, you can try anything. So we started looking around, and after much research we found the discipline of Permaculture.
Permaculture started in the seventies, and originally the word was a fusion of the words ‘Permanent and Agriculture’. The basic idea is that if you design your farm/garden/line of buckets on the balcony carefully, you can recreate a small ecosystem where plants and insects can work together and help each other to grow, without needing extra energy from oil. You just help it along a bit, and make sure some of these plants are edible. Over the years the name has developed since to mean ‘Permanent’ and ‘Culture’. It’s been described as a ‘toolbox’ which connects many of the skills we need for sustainable living.
What made us sit up and take notice is that there are lots of people running theatres within the movement. As our dream is a community theatre, this seems a sensible way to go: rightly or wrongly I’ll feel a lot more confident taking further steps when we’ve got a little training. With a family, just jumping in the deep end doesn’t seem such a good idea as it did when I was a fresh 20 year old.
So, next year I’ll be taking the Xtracycle off on the train for four weekends in Vauban, the sustainable part of Freiburg-im-Breisgau that featured in this blog before, to go and find out how to do all this, which I’ll naturally blog about. So far impressions of the course and people running same are pretty good. I’ve even been offered a safe, covered parking space for the Xtracycle.
As Freiburg is one of the most cycle-friendly cities in Germany this should also give me lots of opportunities to whine about how bog-awful Ostfildern/Stuttgart are in comparison.
Deutsche Bahn and the city of Stuttgart are getting into some trouble with their latest pet project, ‘Stuttgart 21′. Their plan is to rebuild the station in the centre of Stuttgart from the current terminus-like station with all trains coming from the north and reversing, to a shiny new underground through station on an east-west axis. The brains behind this scheme have decided that this will bring all kinds of advantages and is essential to make Stuttgart a major connection in the growing pan-European high speed network. And incidentally free up a huge amount of real estate in a very congested city centre. Not that this has anything to do with it.
At some point in the process someone working late one night in a parallel universe where trains are never delayed, came up with the equation that because Stuttgart has a 16 platform terminus at the moment, if you make it a through station, then it only needs eight platforms. This sounds like a POSAD: A Politically over-simplified Accountants Dream. Such an equation works wonders when trying to get a figure past a private sector budget sheet, “It can be so much smaller and cheaper for the same effect” but in the real world where points have a habit of failing and even German-built trains have been known to break down, we could well rue the day that we decided not to allow for a bit of slack in the system. British readers will think of Birmingham New Street at this point. And that’s assuming everything stays the same. Which is a very unusual business case: invest €X billion (I’ll come to the cost in a bit) to maintain the current traffic levels. Isn’t it just possible that after pouring billions into the railways of Europe to make a high speed network, there may be a couple more people travelling by train, especially with jet fuel prices going into the stratosphere? It’s going to be very entertaining to see how exactly an underground station gets the equivalent of a second runway.
And then there’s the cost. The federal rail authority has estimated this will all cost about €2,9 billion. A fair bit. Then in mid 2008 Martin Vieregg, a transport consultant from Munich, threw a spanner in the works by claiming the costs would be between €6,9 – 8,7 billion when we take into account rising energy and material costs. Which is a fair bit more, and that that was before oil prices went up and the economy dropped. Vieregg recently torpedoed the Munich Airport maglev project by showing how high the costs could run on that pet project, so he’s no small fry. DB’s response was along the lines of “er… no it won’t”, but they would say that wouldn’t they? Now the State Government quietly increased estimates to €5,08bn, and added a risk fund of €1,45bn, just in case. €5,08 + €1,45= €6,53bn. (Figures from “Stuttgart 21 wird teurer.” Süddeutsche Zeitung, 19./20. Juli 2008, page 6) And the State already has interest payments on debts of 80 million a year. Not including a few hundred million for little things like a junction near the airport that was seemingly forgotten first time around. Oops.
Okay, but once it’s built, it’s built, and on a good (failure free) day everything will run like a Swiss watch. Except that another metaphorical tool of your choice has already been launched at the delicate clockwork by one Dr. V. Jung in 2005 who noticed that the whole concept is based on the idea that trains will only stop for two minutes. Anyone who has watched, or even been near to a 15 coach train when several hundred people are trying to get off, and several hundred more are getting on, can probably see the problem with this. We’re back in parallel universe territory then, or there will be a ban on wheelchairs and luggage.
The alternative- leaving the existing station as it is, would allow for more flexibility, absorb more growth in rail services, and probably cost about a third of the total, even including the high-speed link between here and Ulm. It’s been thrown out -so far- because it doesn’t serve the airport as directly from the centre. Assuming the airport doesn’t have grass growing between the slabs by then, this would seem sensible. At least it would if the Stuttgart 21 plan allowed for more than one fast train in three serving it, or if the airport station was actually planned to be in the airport, like the S-bahn station is.
There are plenty more things I could talk about, like the likely curtailment of rural services to places well away from Stuttgart to channel funds into this project, or concerns about groundwater in the city, or the partial demolition of the station building and total demolition of the station approaches, both of which are (were, as the demolition teams moved into the station recently) theoretically protected historical structures, or the way a lot of the discussions have been held behind closed doors, which is hardly surprising given the circumstances.
I’ll keep you posted. I had hoped this would gradually be exposed for the wasteful scheme it is, and would be quietly forgotten in the coming economic shake-up. However, although the sheer lunacy has been exposed, the politicians (who increasingly seem to be inhabiting the aforementioned parallel universe) are continuing to insist that the scheme should continue, and the building companies are already marking our cleared land ready to be sold off in small parcels at a huge profit.
Not that this has anything to do with it, of course.
The carrot harvest from the mayonnaise buckets. Considering that I did just about everything wrong, I’m pretty happy with how things came out. They taste good too. I didn’t carry them on the bike because even I’d be pushed to find an excuse to cycle from the back balcony to the kitchen. Especially on the second floor.
I’m wondering about some kind of Permaculture course to avoid making the same mistakes again. Does Anyone else have experience of one of these?
Electric cars have become the next big thing in Germany, partly in response to the problem of Peak Oil. There’s a huge amount of money going into a new infrastructure, and much investment in advertising about PR about how these are the eco-friendly, low impact future of personal transport.
Like Hydrogen was a few years ago.
Anyway, I came across this web page from a German power company which makes a few interesting statements, such as:
“Did you know that…
…The total CO2 output of an E-car from energy production to using the energy in driving, is 50% better than a normal car, on average?
… E-cars have already reached a range of 150km (Just under 100 miles) and in the near future will soon reach 350km?
And the the jewel in the crown:
… Even if 25 percent of the German car fleet was E-cars, electricity consumption in Germany would only increase by 4%?
That’s a selection fromn this page (In German)
That 4% somehow stuck out. It looks a bit like a “€0.99” price tag, designed to look less than it is, and to reassure us that all is well: it’s business as usual and we only need to get an electric car to join the magical expedition to electrically powered Nirvarna, and don’t look too closely or you may notice that we’re not even taking buses or large goods vehicles into account. And this is only one in four cars, so what will the other three use?
But lets follow the rabbit hole. How much is 4% of German energy usage? Based on this English language report, which uses figures from 2007, German power demand is an average of 122.3 gigawatts. A 4% increase on that is a mere 4.892 gigawatts giving a total demand of just under 127.2 gigawatts if we swap 1 in 4 cars to pure electricity. Great, let’s all go and get an electric car.
Except that on page 27 of the same report, something else crops up. What with phasing out nuclear, shutting down aging power stations, the inevitable delay in building new power stations and a possible shortage of skills and parts to make these power stations come on stream, Germany is going to have a shortfall of 45-50 gigawatts in the next ten years. Add the 4.8 gigawatts for those extra electric cars and…
Not so good then.
So why is our Government pouring billions into keeping this unpleasant, antisocial, and downright dangerous transport form going? Because Germany has too many big powerful car companies to let it die.
When I was a small person, (or at least shorter than I am now), summer evenings meant raspberry picking from the giant bush in our garden. At first it was easy: I’d go to the nearest corner of the bush, and pick the nicest fattest raspberries in reach. Of course those were soon gone so I’d move along further from the house, picking as I went. After those were picked I’d start looking under leaves or down by the roots, and eventually either my mum would have to come along or I’d fetch a step and we’d work on the higher parts of the bush. At first this would give us loads of raspberries, and then gradually we’d find less and less, and we’d be standing on tiptoe on a box to get those. The Last Raspberries -the ones on the highest branches- were impossible to get at without a step ladder so we’d leave them for the birds.
The reason I’m delighting you all with this anecdote is that I keep coming across very intelligent people far more learned than I, who are suggesting that the Deepwater Horizon rig was trying to do the oil equivalent of getting The Last Raspberries: just as you don’t get a ladder and start at the top of a raspberry bush when there’s lots of raspberries at eye-level, you don’t drill through 13 000 feet of rock under 5000 vertical feet of ocean when there’s lots of oil to be found in your back yard, or friendly governments willing to sell it to you. Their conclusion: we aren’t running out of oil: but what’s left is very hard to get at.
This is ‘Peak Oil Theory’. A quick look at the Wikipedia page reveals this dates back to 1956 when M.King Hubbert noticed that oil fields reach a peak when about half the oil is removed, and start to decline pretty quickly. He also noticed that oil producing regions follow the same pattern. After the peak, it gets harder and harder to get the last half of the oil out: you need more and more energy for less return.
Hubbert suggested that worldwide oil discovery would peak then decrease every year, and this would be followed by a peak in production, and that we’d have to look further up the raspberry bush, I mean further out under the earth to keep digging out more oil. Hubbert then accurately predicted American peak production would be in the early 1970s,. He also said global peak production would be about forty years later (Work it out: 1970 plus forty makes…)
More and more people have been suggesting that Hubbert’s sums add up better than the oil industries, and as many of these people can talk about things like “pro-capita oil drilling and consumption on a macro scale using inverted twanging theory in Russia during 1977” and understand it, I’m guessing they know what they are talking about. Fortunately some of them are also able to speak in normal sentences. See here, here (TED video, 20min). Academic types can look at a very long video here.
The oil industry of course, says Peak Oil won’t happen for gosh, ages yet: it’s all lies from unwashed environmentalists trying to scare us, but the International Energy Agency (hardly yurt-dwelling hippy types) “World energy outlook 2009” suggested that demand will become greater than supply by 2020, while those well-known tree-huggers at Lloyds Insurers recently published a report with Chatham house on ‘energy security’. Their main point: assuming oil wil last forever we will land us in big trouble, very soon. The US Defence Ministry have been making worried noises as well, although you never know: some of them may have a yurt or two.
So could change be coming, and soon? please add your thoughts, links to anything I may have missed etc. Especially if you think I’m dead wrong.
There’s an unusual amount of back-slapping at the moment in the hallowed halls of Ostfildern’s local government: the newest part of the town has been included in a video about sustainable development to be shown as part of the ‘Germany’ stand on the Expo exhibition in Beijing. Apparently it’s a ‘showcase town’. Wow, and I get to live here: well, in the next village, anyway.
Baden-Württemberg (a federal state of Germany) is desperate to look ecologically progressive, which is pretty hard to achieve when you’re landed with the main factories for Audi, Mercedes, Porsche, and Smart, so they are trying to show a different picture in Beijing, showing off their new kind of sustainable town, with wonderful high-density development, new insulation and heating with wood pellets using hyper-efficient furnaces. It’s so ecologically sound that the designers won a prize, and it’s part of a European-wide research project. Yes folks, just by living here you are green, green, green.
Until you try to go somewhere, that is.
Unfortunately no-one told the transport planners this was supposed to be a green development. Actually, no-one told them it wasn’t 1960 any more.
I know what you’re going to say: you can’t just close a road and expect people to suddenly change how they travel. Except that before 1992 this whole area was a military base used by the US Government, closed off, surrounded by barbed wire and technically part of America. Between 1951 and 1992 these roads didn’t exist, and we somehow survived.
Here’s the town centre, which has some public transport links at least.
These routes run north-south and east-west through the former base, and together they make a superb new route to drive your Audi, Mercedes, Porsche, and Smart to the Autobahn to the fast road into Stuttgart in the Neckar valley. If you’re commuting (by car) to many large employers around Stuttgart, it’s a great place to live because you’re linked into this fast, effecient road network. And you get to live in ‘sustainable’ housing where cars are controlled and you can go cycling on the weekend, because then you don’t mind wriggling around the back roads and waiting a while at pedestrian crossings.
It would have been so easy to make the town pedestrian friendly and keep cars at bay, but of course that would slow down the Audi, Mercedes, Porsche, and Smart drivers, and we can’t have that. Better to tinker around the edges with flashy technology and keep the myth of ‘business as usual’ going, than risk doing something that might upset the motorists.