Tragedy of the Commons

Our local supermarket is Waitrose.  I believe it is the largest of their branches in the UK.  They recently installed new barriers to the car park, which lead to an incident that demonstrates amply the tragedy of the commons.

It was a hazy early Saturday afternoon.  I’d normally do the weekly shop earlier in the day, but it had been more of a lazy start to the day that usual, you know how it goes, especially with three kids to deal with at the same time.  I’m afraid I do shop at Waitrose regularly, and I do drive a car to get there, and so it was that day.Berkhamsted Waitrose Car Park

It surprised me when approaching the car park that the usual lengthy queue was not present.  Where was everyone?  As I closed in on the new barriers, I started to see what was going on.

The car park was jammed full of cars.  Not just in the bays, but grid locked, engines humming, trying to find a space.  The staff were obviously having teething problems with the new barriers, which were up.  The barriers up, everyone had just driven in unthinking, and the chaos before me had ensued.

Not much point in ploughing on in, I thought.  I’ll wait here just outside the car park for a few cars to leave, to ease the situation.  Very sensible.  I switched my engine off.

A few minutes later, with no more cars adding to the mess in the car park, a few gaps in the traffic were starting to appear.  As had a small queue behind me.  I resolved to count five more cars out then I’d go in, and hope that the people behind me were awake enough not to all stream in in my wake.

I’d barely counted a couple of cars leaving before someone approached from behind.  An elderly gentleman leant down to my window.

“Are you having a problem?” he asked.  I explained about the faulty barriers, and my ploy to wait for the situation to ease before going in.  To be honest, I wasn’t surprised by his reaction – he started getting a little animated.  “There’s a queue behind you, you know!” he accurately pointed out.  I told him there should be a queue, if the barriers were working, and I’d wait a little longer.  He went back to his car in a huff.

Slightly to spite him, I waited for another five cars to leave (which was difficult to explain to the small enquiring voices from the back seat).  Found a space straight away.

What this little saga demonstrated to me was how blinkered and unthinking people can be in their daily lives, if all they do is concentrate on their own little piece of the overall jigsaw.  No wonder, I thought, that we are finding it so difficult to make the adjustments necessary to work together to reduce our impact on the future.

If we don’t realise that driving into a car park that is directly in front of us and is demonstrably over-full is a little on the stupid side, what chance have we got of realising that we are all collectively driving a massive wedge into our future and that of our children?

John Bell,

Ordinary bloke


I’m an idiot

On Friday last week I did my first media interview.  One of the two guys who formed TTB in the first place had been contacted by BBC Three Counties Radio as they were running a broadcast from Berkhamsted.  They’d found TTB on the web, and wanted to include us in their show.

Danny wasn’t available, and put them in touch with me.

Nick Coffer

DJ Nick Coffer

So I found myself in The Lamb, a real ale pub at the north end of the Berkhamsted high street, talking to a friend while DJ Nick Coffer and the BBC team were getting on with their broadcast.  My stint was to be 5 minutes long, and the rather attractive producer Emma was to call me over when my slot came up.  There were live bands playing to give a bit of atmosphere, and to promote the second Berkofest that will be held in September.

Emma waved me over, and I went up to the part of the pub where they were set up.  Nick was standing up at the bar had his headphones on and was holding a massive blue microphone.  He had his back to me, and was evidently talking to the main studio in Luton while some music was playing on the station (you couldn’t hear that in the pub).  I waited patiently for him to say hello before our interview, and took the opportunity to strike up a conversation with Emma about the radio business.

All of a sudden Nick turned round and started talking about TTB into his mic, getting some of the facts messed up, and without much warning I was live on air.  Once I’d jokingly cleared up his error, we got on to the serious business of describing TTB to the masses who listen to BBC local radio.

My first mistake was mentioning a low carbon future.  What is that, asks this stranger with a massive microphone.  He had now produced a pen to wave in the air occasionally while I was talking, for what purpose I could only guess.  I felt like I was playing lead violin while the conductor tried to correct my wayward tune.

I had a go at describing that, and I was then asked what we are doing in Berkhamsted.  For some reason, probably nerves, the question slightly threw me.  I half thought he meant what are we doing wrong in Berkhamsted that was causing problems.  I realise with hindsight he actually wanted to know what we are doing in TTB.  So I started talking about austerity and peak oil.  “We are finding ingenious ways to get oil out of the ground” I said to describe peak oil.  Listening back to the show later it seemed very much that I was inadvertently suggesting that the transition movement in Canada were good at boiling sand and bitumen to get the oil out.

We moved on, or rather Nick did.  Next question was a difficult one – “What’s the worst case of what could happen, for the people in Berkhamsted?”.  What could I say?  I said that the worst case I’d heard of was the oceans boiling away, but I didn’t think that would happen.  Of course I don’t.  But I said it in the heat of the moment (no pun intended).  With a bit of time bought I then described another possible outcome, where extreme weather gets worse, commodity prices go up and life generally gets more difficult.

At home later I thought – that doesn’t sound too bad really, as a worst case.  Why would anyone want to change their lives particularly with that as a worst case?  I’d avoided talking about mass migrations, food and water wars, mass extinctions, global starvation because I didn’t want to alarm.  I would have said these things if I had felt confident.  It has crystalized my opinion that without an accessible and trusted place for people to go to and to refer to in conversation or writing about the size and seriousness of the climate change issue, we are always going to be running up hill.

What is it that makes me think this issue is serious enough to spend a lot of my life dedicated to fighting it?  I was worried about abrupt tipping points and boiling oceans a few months ago, but no longer think that is likely.  When it comes down to it I am worried that we are seriously tampering with something that we don’t really understand, and what we do know is that we have pushed the climate system into a new and wholly man-made position, from which it will not recover.  The longer we continue burning, the less we know about the consequences, the more damage we do.

It scares the hell out of me.  But I imagine to others “we’re permanently damaging the climate” sounds quite benign.

Back to the disastrous radio broadcast, I did at least finish with a flourish, coining a new phrase “Fair Future”, which I compared with Fairtrade.  With Fairtrade you are being fair to others on the other side of the planet – with Fair Future you are being fair to the inhabitants of the future.  They may seem distance, but actually they are the people you packed off the school this morning.

The show is available to listen to for people in the UK on BBC iPlayer for the rest of this week.  Fast forward to about 1 hour 14 mins into the programme to hear the whole thing in gory detail.

John Bell,

Ordinary bloke

What have I been up to?


Berkhamsted Castle – we could make more of this

It’s been a while since I have given a real update as to what I’m actually doing, which is remiss of me.  I’m going to change the balance of my posts so there are more about what I’m up to and fewer that sound more academic.

So, what have I been doing?  I’ve spent some of my time working on the strategy of Transition Town Berkhamsted (TTB), which is still a work in progress and needs the others involved to give their pennyworth before it is made official.  I’ve also been networking with organisations and individuals involved in the area, to discuss my ideas and help refine them.  I’m getting somewhere with that.  And of course I’ve been researching a little for the posts and responses to comments.

Berkhamsted is a commuter town, with a predominantly right-wing political outlook.  It is also quite large, with a population of 16000.  Unfortunately all of those things lead to it not having a great sense of community.  This makes it that much more difficult for the town to move forward in a meaningful way into the uncertain future.  We need to strike the balance between talking and engaging with local organisations, such as schools, and us taking the initiative, rolling our sleeves up and getting on with it.  There is some debate about that.  When the strategy is sorted I’ll put some more up about it on here.

The other difficultly in making a difference at a local level is the overall sense of apathy and denial on the issue of climate change, which is why I also want to work at a national level to help us overcome that temporary obstacle.  I say temporary because it is inevitable that nature will let us know in no uncertain terms that it doesn’t care whether we believe or not in climate change: it will just get on with dealing out the consequences.

My self-appointed job is to help us realise what we need to do before nature rubs it in our face, by which time it will be too late.  The idea is that we put together the toolkit required – credible information about the reality of climate change, plus information and support for people wanting to take action at home or in their towns or wider.  Then to launch it all with a big fanfare and bring the issue back square up front.  I certainly am not going to do that myself, and it is encouraging to find that a lot of organisations are already working closely together.

I’ll be posting more often from now on, so will explain more in a few days.

Please do let me know what you think.

John Bell,

Ordinary bloke