Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Nerves of Steel

Nerves of Steel

Yesterday I went to hell. On a train.

I witnessed the birth of steel plate of the type that will be used to build B9 Ships.

In a dark, dangerous, filthy, oily, searing hot, screaming loud cathedral of a place. Molten steel rolled at shocking speed, emitting tornadoes of steam. Standing in full protective gear on a gantry above red-hot steel plate - an image burned into my psyche forever. A truly extraordinary experience.

And yet day in day out guys in full woollen suits (wool being the best fire retardant material - thanks sheep!) operate, perform and deliver in that dehumanised inferno. Making the steel that never satiates our lust for stuff.

Steel Plant

The safety gear gave me a weird sense of detachment - hard hat, glasses, ear plugs, gloves, boots. I was there, but only partially so. Maybe that’s how a steel worker survives that place.

Much of the steel made in Scunthorpe is used in infrastructural projects. Train lines, ship building, bridge supports, bomb proof barriers. And yet walking from my hotel to the plant in the morning the infrastructure in sunny (and it was) Scunny was collapsing. The ‘pavements’ were off-road hiking courses. Empty houses, deserted streets.

In 1972 26 000 people were employed in Scunny. Now it’s 4000 as a result of the Basic Oxygen Steelmaking (BOS) process which maximises economic efficiency.

How do 22000 people evaporate? The wonderful man, Ron Wilkins (get to his Open Garden this weekend if you can), our guide, has worked at Scunny for more than 40 years. At the outset of his career most of his family worked at the plant. Now it’s only him. His kids live elsewhere, where they can find work. Our communities break down.

Approaching the Tata Steel site I was struck by the scale. I learned that the Romans had established a mine on this site. Geography had gifted the place and just down t’road in Yorkshire in the Wolds limestone could be mined to make steel. The process became commercialised in 1860 - by relations of David Cameron.

Now it’s epic. A site with a 15 mile boundary enclosing mountains of steaming slag, piles of virgin ore, heaps of scrap for reprocessing (the content of B9 Ships’ steel plate at the outset will be 20% recycled), caterpillar trucks the size of houses, cooling towers and furnaces and rolling mills as far as the eye could see.

The good people we met do what they can - within the constraints of a profit-only paradigm - to re-use and recycle. Carbon monoxide is reused to produce energy. 1 million trees have been planted. Kingfishers flash across reclaimed mines and water sources. Dust is swept up (on an epic scale) and ore deposits re-used. A project to make the site energy self-sustaining was shelved because of the economic downturn.

The people we met at Tata Steel are proud - rightly so - of what they make and the human endeavour and ingenuity they deploy every hour to produce this great stuff.

We talked of them helping us build the flagships of the future, of bringing that abundance of human ingenuity to bear on the mega-problems facing our world today through collaboration and a re-engineered intention.

It is simply not possible to get 100% recycled steel to build B9 fossil fuel free ships today. But we can embark on an urgent journey together to make it possible before it’s too late. And there growing on the slag was part of the answer. Vipers Bugloss reclaiming the land. In that most hostile of environments. How do they do it? Adapt. Those plants ...nerves of steel!

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Flags of Convenience - the cost of cheap

I lean back in my camping chair surveying the spread of crabs and lobster, salads, new potatoes, strawberries ...on the table before me and declare triumphantly, “Everything on this table came from this one tiny island.”

My husband mutters (for what else do husbands do?) staring pointedly at my glass, “Well, not quite everything, dear.”

The conversation rapidly descends into a take on Monty Python’s “what did the Romans ever do for us?”

“OK,” I concede, “everything except the wine.”

“And the lemons, olive oil in the dressing, the salt, the pepper, the bread...”

“Ah-ha” I shriek “the bread was made on Bryher.”

“But the flour wasn’t grown here.”

Note to self: If I get my time again don’t marry a pedant.

The following morning I watch the supply ship the Lyonesse Lady discharge her very mixed cargo of milk, butter, peaches, organic Yeo Valley yoghurts, Ecover washing up liquid, BBQ coal, wet suit accessories, tent water proofer ....I amble gratefully to the tiny, over flowing shop so I can get provisions for my familiar (almost all imported) breakfast. Still, I half-mutter to myself about the extortionate prices.

I recognise the little flag of convenience I have fixed in my consciousness. Sustainability isn’t actually as easy as I’d like to imagine. I tune my awareness to our holiday island’s dependency on shipping. How much of what we take for granted is carried by hardy seafarers across lumpy seas day in, day out.

Days later a ferocious Atlantic gale hits the island and takes the roof canopy off our tent. It’s a rude awakening. Our running repairs are good but this storm beats a bit of recycled guy rope and waterproofer and we sleep (or don’t) in wet sleeping bags. I cry and want to go home.

But we can’t. This storm is immense there is no link to the mainland.

It is time to wake up to our global dependency on shipping. 90% of world trade is moved by sea. Take a moment. Become aware. Food, energy, manufactured goods - everything gets here by sea.

The newly appointed CEO of Maerskline, Soren Skou said recently, “We have a huge challenge on oil prices; for that reason alone freight rates have to come up." He also said he intended to introduce ‘slow steaming’ (slowing ships down to reduce fuel costs) across the Maersk fleet, which has the net effect of reducing overall capacity. In short - less stuff at higher prices.

The International Chamber of Shipping is keen to stress how cheap and efficient global shipping is. After our collective sleepwalk into the Sub Prime Mortgage Dream I’ve become deeply suspicious about being told I can have it all.

How can shipping be so ‘cost-effective’?

It isn’t being gained through technological innovations and efficiencies deployed as a response to climate change legislation. Last week the International Maritime Organisation procrastinated - again - on making any real decision on significantly reducing emissions from shipping.

We all know which way oil prices are going and that fuel is an ever increasing proportion of operational costs of the ships delivering our stuff. How, then, can shipping manage the other operational costs so effectively? The flag of convenience - allowing a merchant ship to register in a sovereign state different to that of its owner - allows owners to avoid regulations covering health and safety, enabling them to employ ‘cost effective’ crews in sub-standard working conditions. This is pretty convenient for us because we’re looking the other way (muttering about rising prices.)

The storm’s going to hit. The combined impact of inevitable climate change legislation and rising oil prices will lead to rapidly reduced capacity within shipping and ever increasing cost. The things we take for granted will be scarcer. Fear roots itself in scarcity. Civil unrest is a very real potential outcome.

I’ve been told often enough I’m not living in the ‘real world’ when I urge that we explore the potential for renewable energy on ships.

Mitigating against volatility in fuel costs by deploying - free, clean - wind for up to 60% of journey time; breaking our dependency on fossils by powering an off-the-shelf Rolls-Royce engine with waste derived bio-gas for the remainder of the time seems like a real world solution for a real world already badly constrained by unpredictable liquid fossil fuel supply that is only set to get worse.

Putting 55m high sailing rigs on 21st century ships is going to make you look. We want you to look.

When we stabilise operational costs we can pay proper wages for dangerous and difficult work and make doubly sure on safety.

As a society we can no longer look away pretending it won’t happen to us. It is already happening. We need to start the transition.

This is what convenience in the 21st century looks like - the conveniences we’ve all become dependent upon - of being able to heat our homes (on imported energy) and have a cup of (imported) tea whilst staying in touch on our (imported) computers as we go in to an uncertain future.

Footnote: An interesting example of the real cost of cheap - the Deepwater Horizon rig was flagged in the Marshall Islands.