Sunday, 4 March 2012

At the Watershed on the Last Day of Winter

The leap-year day's morning sun shone low and wan, but yes; surprisingly warm - record-breaking warm, in fact - on that windless morning last week above the town. I was between, on one side, the utterly deserted championship golf course at Hazlehead and, on the other, the scrubby edgeland which is made up of the not-quite urban, not-quite rural landscape to the immediate west. Horseriding centres, market-garden smallholdings, deep-infrastructure municipal reservoirs and pine-forested monoculture woods along with all the other usual edgeland ephemera form a patchwork of land use at the western edge of the town. A never-to-be completed network of paths for walkers, equestrians and mountain bikers waits to be discovered or ignored - relaid or allowed to overgrow into desuetude. 

Exploring edgelands like these, where the town frays into the country you might find a path you'd never noticed before. You might follow it through a forested area then between a field of scrubby grass with a magnificent white stallion on one side and on the other, the newly tilled soft rich black soil of this good earth, moist and shining in that warming sun. Your newly-discovered path might bring you to an area you recognise, ah yes, connecting round from a way you'd never come before. And you'd experience an odd mix of feelings. Satisfaction, yes - happy that you'd found a new route that joined up with paths you already knew. But a sadness too - the regret that comes with finally completing a collection, a closing in and rounding off of knowledge, the expiry of a mystery; is that all there is?

Exploring another path - you might find it not-quite-yet overgrown, but hard-enough going, gorse-barbs nipping your arms and legs. Was this an old farm-access road? Was it a drover's road? A tight avenue of mature trees and dry-stane dykes, the once-made now unmade road beneath your feet now grassy green with a desire-line muddy trail up the middle. Who's were the last feet to walk this way? When? And what for? Then the route just stops, cut dead by a recently-built embankment, upon which a commuter's dual-carrageway thunders; Evoque and Focus alike, Hi-Lux and Transit shouldered upon heroic-high revetment thirty feet above your extinguished desire line. You'd have no choice but to turn around and retrace your steps.

And on that anomalously-hot morning last week, that's where I was. Exploring the paths beyond Hazlehead and marvelling at the morning's dew - now sunshine-liberated steamy mist, atmospherically drifting between the pines and highlighting that low-slanting sunshine. Then, secreted somewhere in this liminal zone between the barely-used paths, deep in the small woods I found what I was looking for.

There I found nature's centred silence. A serene stretch of silver-surfaced shallow water amid the trees. These still waters spread wide; a labyrinthine mirror, serpentine between the pines. A seasonally-natural reservoir of the late autumn, winter and early spring months. Then to be exhausted; just-drying cracking mud or even dusty parched concrete-hard in the hottest of summers.

Pushing branches aside, there I stopped and stood by the edge of the still water. As my consciousness slowed and expanded, I began to perceive the sounds which are embedded in silence. A single bird sings to establish territory, or maybe to attract a mate. A sudden gentle breeze ruffles the treetop canopy, it sounds like a breath. Above - dewdrops on the pine-needles come together and surface tension overcomes the tendency to misty evaporation; gravity becomes the major motive force; a drop forms at the end of the needle gathering weight; and more and more, then poink! First one drip, then poit-poit! Two others drip from the branches into the water and make ripples that radiate, disturbing the mirror-perfect surface. Now I can hear, now I know, that this landscape is a waterscape is a soundscape, subtly it is dominated by the gently soft sound of the slowly running trickling gurgles of water flowing from the reservoir. The drips that plopped from the trees above, I knew would find their way to the sea in time; how would they get there?

I perceived that from this reservoir the winterbournes trickle out slickly, slowly propagating and shallowly leaching, following inevitable gravity - reaching down through the woods to the three watercourses which originate nearby. Water branches, like the bifurcations of the trees' branches above, radiating out through the sphagnum carpeted, cone-strewn winter-wet forest floor. This landscape is alive with sluggish silvery gurgles; some streams as wide as I am tall, some as thin as my wrist. A temporary and ever-changing dynamic wetland, the channels altering week to week - day to day. I stood perfect still, slowed my breaths and harkened, listening to the trickles of this three-way watershed. And I sent my thoughts out through the landscape, accompanying the waters on their journey to the sea. Down through finding folds in the landscape; rushing tumbling through gushing gorges and dens; sluggish broad floodplains; dead straight constrained in dug channels; sometimes in the open behind the terraced homes of west end; then covered in concrete culverts and brick-vaulted crypts, audible beneath manhole-covers in the town centre. 

Out from this secret reservoir, those flows which run to the south find their snaking way between the two municipal golf courses, and eventually become the water of Holburn then the Ferryhill Burn which empties into the big famous River Dee near Union Square's shopping complex car-park. And water which spills west from the watershed trickles to Countesswells and adds to the source of the Cults Burn, rushing spectacular and steep down the Den of Cults hanging valley, again into the Dee. But water which runs from here to the north and east forms seasonal streams which empty into the finger-pattern drainage ditches of the woods and become an ornamental stream which is wrangled to run picturesque through the plastic-wrapped-bouquet-strewn garden of remembrance at the City Crematorium, then to swoop down and beneath the Skene Road commuter route, emptying into the Den of Maidencraig and the Denburn, the nearly-river which gave our town its name.

My feet had gone on paths new and old, discovered and forgotten, and came to be standing at the three-way watershed on the last day of the season. The drop of water with its choice to make - to be made for it - from three options, three ways to go. A small change in initial conditions will lead to radically different results. I went to walk away through the trees back to the path, and as I looked at the sunlight shining through the mist between the trees, I realised that there was, of course, a fourth option, for some of the morning's dew had, as I had noticed earlier, formed that thin mist in the woods, now rising high to the sky, absorbed into the air, part of the atmosphere and away. Far, far away.

Saturday, 3 March 2012

Brand New Old Fashioned Modern Transport System of the Future from the Past

We have mentioned on several occasions the folly of hoping to solve traffic congestion problems by building more road capacity - that would be like trying to lose weight by letting your belt out. So we were pleased to see the major booster of a motorway project - Tom Smith, chairman of local business development quango ACSEF (Aberdeen City and Shire Economic Future) - at last admitting to the true motivation for proposing to build a new motorway. Appearing on local BBC news broadcast "Reporting Scotland" Mr Smith said "if it had not been for the [protestors' court] appeals, we would already be enjoying driving on this road".

Mr Smith was invited onto the TV programme because the most recent appeal by campaign group "Road Sense" to prevent the building of an orbital motorway around Aberdeen was rejected by Court of Session judges in Edinburgh on the 29th of February. This new road will be a "special category road" (which is to say, a motorway in all but name) and is known as the Aberdeen Western Peripheral Route (AWPR).

We found Mr Smith's "enjoying driving" statement refreshing, because - at last - there was no assertion that purpose of the AWPR was to reduce the congestion, pollution, noise or danger caused by motor traffic in Aberdeen. Nor was there any attempt to try to suggest that the £750m project would in some way save (or generate) money for Aberdeen and "safeguard the future" - all of which were the sort of rationalisations offered by him in previous years. No, now that a last barrier to the project going ahead has been removed, Mr Smith reveals what we already knew; this road is for people like him to enjoy driving upon. By this ill-guarded admission, Mr Smith has let slip something else which we already knew: that this road is a solipsistic solution only to itself and the demands of drivers to drive more, drive everywhere, drive always. In the view of Mr Smith and his fellow motorists, motor-traffic transportation is the desired outcome of providing infrastructure for motor-traffic transportation.

Let us be clear: we would be vociferous supporters of the AWPR if this major road-building programme were to be accompanied by a range of new-urbanism measures which would reduce traffic flows into and through the residential and central business/retail districts of Aberdeen - measures like suburban rail and trams, bus-only roads, pedestrianisation, bicycle infrastructure, parking restrictions and charges - just the kind of contemporary urban transport planning policy you see all across continental Europe, the Middle East and increasingly these days even in the cities of the USA. But, unfortunately, none of these measures is present in the planning of the AWPR, quite the reverse. Instead the AWPR will be complemented by multi-million pound radial access projects (including new inner-urban dual carriageway expressways) which will increase motor-traffic flows into central Aberdeen. We can't possibly support a scheme which will dramatically increase the proportion of space allocated exclusively to motor transport in and around Aberdeen. The results will be as predictable as they will be devastating to the liveability of our town.

More than once we have flexed our fingers typing rebuttals to the tired old "predict and provide" arguments for building ever-more motor traffic infrastructure - arguments which decades-long and worldwide experience have long-since discredited. And so then, flexing their politically-aspirant muscles, the business-community boosters of this orbital motorway project shifted their rhetoric onto the unfalsifiable ground of appeals to 'common sense' and populism. "Everyone knows" they said, "that the long-awaited Aberdeen Bypass is much needed, and the majority want it built." 
Check out the 'Common Sense' pro-motorway blog:
(The type of discourse displayed in the comments section of the "Common Sense" blog-post is an object lesson in the dangers of unleashing populism in the service of business interests. Have a read, but it's not for the faint-hearted.)

For the sake of balance, we're happy here to quote some of the opposing voices, which have not been offered a platform by our local mainstream media:

Stan Blackley, chief executive of Friends of the Earth Scotland:
The Scottish Government seems addicted to tarmac yet has set itself demanding targets to meet with regard to reducing Scotland's carbon emissions and tackling climate change. This new road will not help them in this regard, and goes to show that Scottish Ministers just aren't able to see the bigger picture. You can't cut carbon emissions and tackle climate change while simultaneously building massive new roads that create more traffic and development.

WWF Scotland director, Dr Richard Dixon:
It is deeply disappointing that the the court have thrown out this challenge from community campaigners trying to stop the Aberdeen Bypass. This scheme will trash local wildlife and increase climate change emissions as it generates new traffic. We call on Transport Minister Keith Brown to use the forthcoming budget to commit to ensuring that Scotland's transport sector plays its full part in tackling climate change.

Colin Howden director Transform Scotland, the national sustainable transport alliance:
The bypass will do nothing to address the key traffic congestion issue in Aberdeen. The real problem is car commuting into the city, especially during the morning rush hour - something that an orbital road will do nothing to address. The best way that this could be tackled would be to deliver commuter rail routes into the city. It is unfortunate that the Scottish Government seem unwilling to invest in public transport, and instead continues to subsidise car use. The only thing that this project will deliver is car-dependent commuter sprawl and out-of-town retail tin-sheds.

It's that "car-dependent" quote from Colin Howden of Transform Scotland which we think goes to the heart of the issues surrounding road-building projects like the AWPR. As we walk the streets of Aberdeen, we see the car-dependent all around us, and it perplexes us to see self-admittedly car dependent people correctly identify road-provoked urban sprawl as the cause of their dependence, and yet they call for the building of more, bigger, "upgraded" roads as a palliative. 

Only policies which lead to a shift in transport modes by a reduction in the use of motorcars (like roadspace reallocation away from use by motor-vehicles) will deliver a sustainable reduction in motor traffic congestion and its attendant externalities. Yet the old-fashioned motorists of Aberdeen stick to the old discredited roadbuilding polices of the 1960's. Like the people in the US midwest who Barack Obama ridiculed for clinging to their bibles and guns, the car-crazy folks of Aberdeen can't see over their dashboards; they want more, bigger and faster, "better" roads, "upgraded". It's embarrassing.

Those unfortunate addicts who seek the help of Alcoholics Anonymous are invited to consider why they do the same thing over and over again, yet expect different results. Were the extent of tasteless self indulgence, waste of natural resources, and disastrous externalities not so catastrophic it would be amusing to observe how closely aligned the rationalisation strategies of addicts and motorists are. We cannot be sure whether it is car dependency which leads to car addiction or vice versa, it's so difficult now to tell the difference. But what we can say is that the results are devastating.

Again, let's be clear - we are not anti-car. Cars are undoubtedly useful and I use a car when and where it's appropriate to do so - when and where there are no alternative transport modes available which would be less harmful to health, the urban environment, and the wider ecosystem. I have chosen a way of life which minimises my need to use personal motor transport - it was more than a decade ago when I stopped driving regularly. It was difficult - yes, but only for about a week. I soon became entranced by how quickly I became much, much fitter. I soon became enamoured by walking the urban environment, seeing things unmediated, feeling my range and freedom increase and engaging with the town I inhabited. In short, I began living in Aberdeen for the first time since I was a child. That's living in as opposed to merely inhabiting.

And now, on the rare occasions when I'm obliged by circumstance to drive, I feel the terrible oppression of claustrophobic restrictions. Queuing at traffic lights; one-way streets; speed limits; parking restrictions; inconsiderate fellow motorists; and all the other minor and major strictures which people have convinced themselves that they are happy to put up with daily - all the while tied to a chair in the tightly restricted space of a hot locked box full of plastic and metal and volatile refined hydrocarbons. Isolated from the outside environment. View restricted by glass screens, metal pillars, the rear-view mirror. Hearing restricted. Movement restricted. Personal space restricted. And we are expected to aspire to this? It was Voltaire who said "its difficult to free fools from the chains they so revere". It is clear that today, in this town, in this country, the motorcar is one of those chains. But, per Konkin "each individual can free himself, immediately". All that is required is an effort of will.

The magnitude of that effort of will would be less were our planners, politicians and the businessmen (who wield increasingly more and yet more power) to embrace the new urbanism movement which is sweeping the rest of the world. It's a source of great shame and embarrassment that - as our business tycoons here in Aberdeen gleefully look forward to "enjoying driving" on a new motorway - towns and cities in the United States - Portland in Oregon for instance - have implemented free (yes, free!) public rapid-transit systems while others, like San Francisco, are bulldozing up their urban dual-carriageways (or turning them into woonerf-style mixed use boulevards).

It's heartbreaking to see our town not only falling behind the new urbanism agenda, but so comprehensively repudiating it as to buy wholesale (and at great financial and external cost) into a transport system which was dreamed up sometime in the middle of the car-crazy 20th century - a time when it was thought that there were no limits growth and no limits to the pressure which could be put upon the planet's resources. A time when the devastating impact of high traffic levels on the liveability of urban centres had not yet been experienced. Today, of course, we know different.

Unfortunately, our local politicians, planners and business tycoons are embarrassingly forward at displaying their backwardness when it comes to their love of cars and driving. Their acknowledgement of neither the externalities of their plans nor the unsustainable implications of provoking continual exponential increase in distances traveled by hydrocarbon-powered personal motor vehicles makes us feel that we are the subject of a sick joke. The sickness of this joke is compounded by the fact that (with straight faces) they call this a "Modern Transport System". It is not; it is in fact quite demonstrably more than a little bit old-fashioned.

Friday, 2 March 2012



A few months ago, we heard about urban regeneration in Christchurch, New Zealand. After last year's devastating earthquake it's regrettably necessary that a good deal of the city centre be demolished. What caught our attention in particular was news that, to accommodate retailers displaced from the "red-zone" where the demolition crews are working - a "pop up" mall was being installed, constructed from "upcycled" shipping containers. We'd heard about this sort of innovative approach to construction before, and we found it intriguing - full of possibilities. 

Double-deck containers in Biskek market
Throughout former-Soviet central asia (a major overland trade-route corresponding more-or-less to the trans-historic silk road) shipping containers are re-tasked - turned into domestic and retail accommodation, offices and storage, clinics and workshops, military emplacements and so forth. Any use you can think of for a cheap, readily available, robust, secure, resilient, transportable, modular, stackable, standardised box. Notably, shipping containers form the greater part of two of the largest organised regular markets in the world, located like bookends at either terminus of the silk road. The Seventh Kilometre Market in Odessa, Ukraine covers some 70 hectares (170 acres) and the Dordoy Bazaar in Biskek, Kyrgyzstan is about the same size.  

Similarly, but more darkly, you can see shipping containers regularly on the TV news, being used by NATO military as the modular components of blast shelters and barracks, and as detention centres for enemy combatants.

On a brighter note, we're heartened by NGO's use of shipping containers to provide humanitarian aid, most notably the work of Containers2Clinics in creating fully-equipped clinics which are sent to disaster zones and deprived areas all round the world. The C2C units are marvels of modularity -  full-service health clinics with examination and treatment rooms and labs - all within the ISO-standard 8ft x 20ft shipping container, ready to be deployed via the existing global freight network and infrastructure. 

The two things which link all these re-tasked uses of the ISO shipping container are necessity and availability. The necessity to provide a 'building' and the availability of a suitably cheap and fit solution. This is why we find it intriguing that this sort of cargotecture is now popping up in places which are not obviously subject to disaster or depravation. London's Boxpark shopping centre in Shoreditch, which opened last  Christmas is the site which first springs to mind. We can't help but think that there's a bit of posturing metropolitan post-apocalyptic chic going on there. But, on second thoughts and after a bit of research we find that you can buy a newly-built 8ft x 20ft ISO shipping container for USD $4000. Second hand - $1000 or less all the way down to free. These containers are piling up in the Anglosphere West (where we have trade deficits) for it is cheaper to obtain new-built containers for the shipping of goods from the far-east than it is to send empty containers back to the far-east. The result is that we now have a growing glut of cheap, available, transportable and demountable building materials, which already come in the shape of a room, or a shop unit, or a small workshop or lab or office orwhatever. We think it's a great pity that Buckminster Fuller did not live to see this day, for we're sure he would have felt vindicated by this proliferation of "livingry" (as he would have had it, notwithstanding the military stuff we mentioned). But we do feel that cargotecture is, in some way, indicative of disaster or liminal status, conflict or collapse. Perhaps, looking around Aberdeen, and seeing the proliferation of semi-permanent cargotecture deployments even here we might feel that there is some sort of slow-motion crisis going on, some kind of shift in status from permanency to flexibility - a frog-boiling, Zeno-paradox long emergency.

Throughout the latter part of the 20th century and this early part of the 21st, in the developed west we largely used breeze-block units as the primary architectural element of our (non-prestige) buildings - commercial, domestic and military, all made from the same standard concrete masonry unit. Artificial stone, as it were, made from the ashy residue of coal-fired electricity generation. It's convenient that, as we necessarily come to the end of the hydrocarbon era, an alternate building system presents itself.

And all that is solid melts into air...


A man in a small van pulls over to the nearside of the road and winds down the window - it looks as if he's about to ask me for directions. It's a painter and decorator's van, but the driver is wearing office clothes. Frowning, he leans over the passenger seat and shouts out of the open window:

>>Excuse me! Hey there!
>>Yes. What is it? Can I help you at all?
>>Why are you photographing that?
>>That's an interesting question. What's interesting about it is that you feel empowered to ask, and that you expect me to answer. So let me answer your question with another question: Why do you ask?
>>Look, I've asked you a question first, I want to know why you're photographing that.
>>OK, I'll ask you again: Why do you want to know? 
>>'Cos you're photographing it.
>>And how does that affect you? What concern is it of yours? Who are you to ask me about my actions? Again - why do you want to know?
>>Look, I want to know why you're photographing that. I'm being civil.
>>No you're not being civil at all - you're being weird. What I do in a public place is none of your business, and it's kind of bizarre that you should think it is. You're being intrusive and you are harassing me. Eff off.

Friday, 24 February 2012

Gaude Terminalia

Yesterday (23rd February) was Terminalia - the Roman festival of Terminus - god of boundary stones and border features and, by extension, god of edges and things on the edge. We're all about edges, so we honour Terminus. Here he is, depicted as a bust on top of a familiar-looking stela:


On Terminalia, Romans would make a sacrifice to to the god at the nearest boundary markers (called Termini). The sacrifice would be in the form of a cake, or some ground meal, flowers and fruit. No blood or flesh sacrifice was made, it being forbidden to stain a boundary marker with blood, for the point of having a physical landmark plain for all to see was to demonstrate that no force or violence should be shown when setting mutual boundaries.

So, we crossed out of Pitmuxton, over Great Western Road to Hammerton Stores (a grocer shop named for the Hammermen Guild, who were once the proprietors of the lands north of Pitmuxton) and got some stuff for the ritual. Crossing back into Pitmuxton, we made our sacrifice to Terminus on the nearest Termini.

Newly budded crocusses, fruit and a rowie. Concedo Nulli! Gaude Terminalia!

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Ferryhill Orbital Dérive

1. Holburn Junction

8.45 am at Holburn Junction, and the commuters in their motorcars stretch as far as perspective allows, gridlocked at the nexus-choice split-the-wind - Highland or Deeside? All the way from the Y-shaped fork junction to the right-turn to Royal Deeside at Great Western Road, the carriageway is bumper-bound stuck-still jammed with metal machines. One each to their cars - behind their windscreens, strapped to their chairs - the grim-faced commuters look as if they have just been bereaved, or have suffered some other form of intolerable injustice. But the pavements are empty and I am nearly alone as I walk towards the town centre. There is an unaccustomed hush; the usual speeding noise of the motorcars is temporarily stilled by the gridlock, the purring susurration of the idling engines is all I can hear. I feel like I am the last human being in a world of mechanisms.

Now I'm closer to the junction itself, and I can see the cause of the traffic jam. A bus-lane parker flashes his hazard lights (why?) as he just pops for a minute to an ATM or something, and in doing so renders the whole half-mile of bus lane worthless. A near-empty bus lurches out from the lane to pass the parked car, insisting its way into the stream of private motorists who do not want, oh they so do not want, to let it out. Staring straight ahead, they psychologically blank out the bus, trying to inch forward and deny it roadspace. The motor-bound expressions of the car-commuters change; the customary displays of glum ennui mutating to intolerant masks of fuming rage, indignant. Compounding their anger, the phasing of the Holburn Junction traffic lights has been changed since last I walked this way - it's a high frequency short phase now. Perhaps this is part of a traffic-management policy to discourage motorists from driving into the heart of the town centre, I don't know. One thing I do know - one thing which is plain to see - is that it has had effect on the driving style of the motorists as they approach accelerating towards the junction (not slowing down, as they should) and crashing on through the light controlled junction at amber, then red; two, three, five vehicles through at red, dropping a gear and flooring it, roaring over the junction as the pedestrian's green man shines out across the junction, beep-beep-beeping to no-one but me. It used to be that the green man meant it was safe to cross - but not now, not in this town. So the short-phasing of the traffic lights has had an effect on my behaviour too, because now I have to cross warily and looking and listening all around, as if there were no green-man pedestrian phase at all. 

Keen to study the habits of the commuting motorists, I go into the Starbucks coffee shop which has a picture window panorama of the junction. Sipping away on my americano, the repetitive spectacle of the red-light-jumpers soon pales. This town has an intractable traffic problem, along with the attendant externalities of pollution, dirt, noise, dust, ill-health and on and on. The traffic problem persists despite strategically placed park-and-ride facilities on the periphery of the town (the extensive carparks and shuttle buses remain stubbornly empty), despite high fuel prices ("high oil prices are GOOD for Aberdeen"), despite a "cycling action plan" and despite the new urbanism which is sweeping the developed world's towns, recognising that town centres are places for people, not machines. Despite all these things, traffic volumes in Aberdeen continue to rise; 20% up in the last 3 years, apparently. It starts to snow outside.

I go up to the counter and select a panini-thing. The twenty-something girl barista has an American accent and an over-pleasant, so-familiar-it's-nearly-flirtatious manner. But something in her eyes tells me it's from a script which she repeats over and over and over through her shift. She sing-song-says she'll bring my sandwich over once she's toasted it. I go back to my seat in the window and start to leaf through a magazine. I can't concentrate and my attention wanders. I scan the coffeeshop and its patrons. The place and the people remind me of something, but I can't quite put my finger on it. Not quite deja-vu - more a similarity of category. It eludes me. 

Several suited and booted young salesey types, (I'll bet it says "Sales Executive" on their business cards). Sitting each one alone, one by one they lever open their laptops and check their e-mail. And there elderly couple conversing animatedly in sign-language appear to have come in just to get out of the snow, which has now turned into a pathetically damp sleet. Another anodyne group of be-suited folk arrive and settle in for what, amazingly, appears to be a full-blown meeting - something in their manner, their clothing, their pens and pads, makes me think they're lawyers or accountants or surveyors or suchlike. The most junior of them is taking minutes and making sure that everyone got the coffee they wanted. I notice that the deaf couple haven't bought anything, and they're sitting propped on the arms of sofas near the front of the cafe. Their BSL discussion becomes more and more animated - they're silently arguing. Not wanting to intrude on private grief, I look away. A squat casually-dressed woman with scaped-back hair; she's wearing trainers and has both a small rucksack and a big holdall. She holds her mug in one fist and pours over a thick soft old novel which she keeps open with a beefy forearm. A tall slender middle-aged man in active-looking beige clothing (he looks like a geography teacher - the sort who takes his guitar on field-trips) guddles in his tote-bag and confounds my preconceptions by fishing out a copy of The Sun tabloid. By now, the deaf couple have reached an impasse in their squabble and they sit, not looking at each other, arms crossed, chins jutted, brows knitted.

My sandwich arrives, and I notice that the sleet has stopped. Aching-blue between the parting clouds, the sky shoots a barrage of winter-low golden sunlight to glance off the slick wet tarmac and paving stones, up into my face. Blue sky and golden light in our february-grey town - a delight. Wish I'd brought my sunglasses. And with that thought I recognise what the place reminded me of - it's an airport departure lounge, it's a hotel foyer, it's a nowhere un-destination - where we go while we're waiting to go somewhere else. When we want to go somewhere else.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

The Charm Agenda, Charm Offensive, Offensive Charm

A whole month after our "Final Thought" about the planning debacle surrounding Aberdeen's only town-centre green space - Union Terrace Gardens - events conspire to make liars of us, and we're obliged to offer yet more "final thoughts".


I was leafing through the most recent edition of Tyler Brûlé's Monocle "cultural briefing" magazine the other day. (Yeah, yeah, I know.) But we very much like Tyler's takes on urbanism, on transport and on modernism (in architecture and design). Since he turned the 'lifestyle' magazine market inside out when he launched Wallpaper in 1996, his editorial push has been characterised by a purity of vision and a earnest championing of good taste and human scale urban design - quality, authenticity and integrity in urbanism. Looking at his magazines, you might think that postmodernism never happened.

The most recent edition of Monocle points out that, as we're getting accustomed to having tough economic forecasts thrust in front of us, and as politicians and mass-media pundits struggle to begin to think about how they might approach - as they eventually must - the necessity of starting to condition the general public to the fact that a return to economic growth may not actually be possible - certain brands, businesses, regions and people seem not to be merely surviving, but rather thriving despite the economic crisis. The magazine devotes an editorial and an entire globetrotting section with travelogues (dérives) and essays (polemics) all turned to the examination of that special quality which allows some to float easily to the top to enjoy the oxygen of prosperity while others sink in the stifling mire of economic depression. Tyler's travel writers, photographers, philosophers, and graphic artists are flung to the four corners of the earth and return to identify this fundamental ingredient of resilient success. They conclude that this vital essence is charm.
It's a set of attributes got by doing things based on human feelings and not because a focus group says it sounds good or the numbers seem to add up when you pile them on to an Excel sheet. The reason we think this word [charm] is key in 2012 is because it adds the DNA for longevity into brands, business and neighbourhoods
Honesty, integrity, simplicity … are other words that help all manner of firms thrive, but oddly, they never seem to make it past the door of a business school. That's because these things can't be taught; you have to genuinely possess these qualities.
Charm is unquantifiable, which is why management consultants and MBA graduates overlook it. Decisions about the future of a town, building or business that are made in the boardroom don't consider the importance or charm. … And yet charm is arguably the most important factor for securing repeat business, which in today's financial climate is invaluable.
Charm is fragile too - it's not something you can buy (think Dubai), it takes time to nurture and requires safeguarding because, once lost, it's near impossible to reinstate.
So you can see that this resonates with today's urban planning tumult in Aberdeen. Since the intervention of oil-tycoon Sir Ian Wood in 2008 caused the collapse of the project to build the Northern Light (a contemporary art centre) in favour of his own vanity-stroking City Square Project (as was), the discourse in Aberdeen has been characterised by a singular lack of charm. Accusation and counter-accusation have flown in an increasingly polarised debate as the polity is subjected to the spectacle of a process which has been distressingly divisive. Misdirection, misinformation, sock-puppetry, DPR, website hacking, vexatious allegations, character assassinations and other dirty tricks have all been rumoured to have been used by one side or the other or both. Allegedly. We have been disappointed but unsurprised to see a lack of balance in the local press, who have continued to act as editorial mouthpieces for the boosters of CO2-supremo Sir Ian Wood's project, their pro-development articles hitting their own front pages with predictably metronomic regularity. But then, we've long since aired our disappointment about how our Aberdeen newspapers are operated.

In our opinion, the distasteful aspects of this process which will in effect privatise commonly-held land, were inevitable. When carbon-bigwig Sir Ian Wood first announced his intention to outbid the creative and performing arts community in Aberdeen he set our teeth on edge by going on record and saying:
Eighty percent of the people who spend time in [my] square will have no interest in the arts.
So breathtaking an expression and expectation of philistinism, both patronising and dismissive, used by the emission-king Sir Ian Wood as a justification for why his scheme would be preferred by the people of Aberdeen over the Northern Light scheme, was inevitably seen by the creative arts community - both producers and consumers with curator-types in between - as an opening pre-emptive strike in a dirty war for the soul (both metaphysical and urban-physical) of our town. Thus was the wind sown, and now we reap the whirlwind as the time has arrived and the people of Aberdeen are now making a decision on whether or not the park gets bulldozed. A postal referendum is in progress at this time. What emission-monger Sir Ian Wood first called "The City Square Project" has been re-branded "The City Garden Project". You can see what they did there.


One of the many aspects which has characterised the moneymen's push to foist their debt-creating real-estate land-grab and building project on the people of Aberdeen is the use of pubic relations (PR) consultancies who are involved in projecting a presence (we think that's the kind of thing these sorts of people tend to say) for the City Square Garden Project. Posters, flyers, web, social media, radio, tv and print. It's all been very slick and impressive. If you think that a corporate branding and impression management (as they say) exercise can ever be impressive, that is. Many people do in these hyperreal times, more's the pity.

A couple of weeks ago, I asked one of the social media manifestation aspects of the City Square Garden Project a straightforward enough genuine question. Here's what I asked:
One of the things which is a perennial spectacle in Aberdeen, in the city centre, is the sunset gathering of starlings - vectoring in from all directions and amorphously flocking in the sky above Union Street. The spectacular flock (numbering tens of thousands of birds) swoops around the city centre, gathering strength of numbers as subsidiary flocks join, before groups break off and dive beneath Union Bridge to roost.
The RSPB and the BTO (British Trust for Ornithology) state that: "starling numbers have fallen by 66 per cent in Britain since the mid-1970s. Because of this decline in numbers, the starling is red listed as a bird of high conservation concern." 
And the RSPB also note that the Countryside Act (1981) makes it illegal to intentionally kill, injure or take a starling, or to take, damage or destroy an active nest or its contents. They say that preventing the birds from gaining access to their nests may also be viewed as illegal by the courts. And indeed, the provisions of the Scottish Nature Conservation Act (which supersedes and modifies the Countryside Act) are more stringent yet when it comes to bird habitat protection, making it an explicit offence to: "obstruct or prevent any wild bird from using its nest". How can this be avoided by the plans as proposed? 
How will the project circumvent the provisions of the Countryside Act and the Scottish Nature Conservation Act? How will the promotors of the project deal with this issue? Has the City Garden Project been in touch with the RSPB and the BTO?  If they have not already contacted the RSPB/BTO, why not?
The response from the City Square Garden Project's social media manifestation:
We love the birds too and want to see them remain in the city centre. What is exciting about the new gardens is the fact that new eco-systems and habitats will be created by the larger gardens with a greater diversity of plants and wildlife. 

Ugh. Firstly, when I read that, I had the feeling that I'd been mugged. It's that superficial charm of the PR "handling" thing that they do by the numbers; that thing that's straight out of the first year media studies playbook where they 1. gushingly agree ("yes we love birds too, see - we're just like you!") - then 2. deflect by issuing handwaving boilerplate ("the new thing will be EVEN BETTER"); all without addressing the serious and genuine specific concerns I'd expressed. At the time of writing, I've seen no genuine response to my questions from the City Square Gardens Project PR people. 

The thing about charm is, it cannot be faked. We can all tell when a corporate entity has a "workshopped vision" rather than a genuine opinion. We are used to the cant of the scripted interactions we must suffer with call centres and checkout till operators. We can even now detect when the script has been drafted in order to appear unscripted. It's wearing, it's tiring, it's disheartening. We live now in an age of flesh-robots consulting decision-tree boilerplate scripts. Where are the real people? What are their genuine opinions? It's doubly disheartening to realise that the real people promoting this real-estate venture (in this case, emission-king Sir Ian Wood and a group of 50 anonymous(ish) - certainly faceless - businesspeople who are bankrolling the PR initiative) reckon themselves to be so lacking in genuine charm that they must retain a PR consultancy to generate a continual outgushing of superficial charm boilerplate in order to deflect public attention away from them, and away from key questions and problems with the project. I suppose, at least, we should congratulate the group of fifty anonymous(ish) businesspeople for their self-knowledge. 


A correspondent pointed us towards the blog of local(ish) PR practitioner Ken McEwan, in which the PR-man contends that  - unless the people of Aberdeen consent to carbon-mogul Sir Ian Wood's real-estate development scheme which would destroy Aberdeen's only town centre green space - there will be no further investment of any kind in Aberdeen. When he asserts: "This is an all or nothing package" he's kind-of saying "Vote Yes to the comprehensive redevelopment of Union Terrace Gardens or the rest of the city gets it!" 

Of course, the PR-man avoids any use of the words "loan" or "debt", choosing to use the words "investment" and "funding" instead. But leaving that aside, and also leaving aside the arguable thrust of the "all or nothing" assertion, what we find most enlightening is the posture that this PR-man is happy to be seen to be taking. To us, it seems that he appears to be revelling in creating the impression of a kind of civic-development blackmail. Aren't these PR-types charming?


When we last wrote about this subject, we got a bit of criticism for our use of language like "emission-king" and "pollution-mogul" when describing carbon-baron Sir Ian Wood. Some people thought we ran the risk of undermining the work of the various voluntary groups who are working to retain Union Terrace Gardens. We responded by saying that we would happily consent to the destruction of Union Terrace Gardens were the pre-eminent CO2-magnate Sir Ian Wood to renounce his role in the extraction of oil and gas and denounce the oil industry for the atmosphere-threatening activity which it demonstrably is. We said that we were not interested in coalitions, particularly when membership of a coalition might compromise our principles. It's a matter of perspective - for what use will a small city centre park be should the thermohaline circulation system collapse? How will Union Terrace Gardens in their current form help the hundreds of millions of people who will be displaced from low-lying coastal regions as sea levels rise? When ever will the many hundreds of thousands who will be killed in resource-wars to come be able to enjoy the peace and tranquility of a sunken garden in a provincial northern town? 

So we were saddened when the major grouping of volunteers which is working to retain Union Terrace Gardens announced that they have received the beneficent backing of oil-tycoon Jimmy Reid (yes, another one, another tycoon). We wrote about the intransigence of these pollution-millionaires before, in the context of the financial collapse of the potentially atmosphere-saving carbon capture and storage pilot plant at Longannet power station. 

In a press release, carbon-grandee Jimmy Reid, publicity-friendly MD and Chairman of Balmoral Group said:
I and many of my business contemporaries, are committed to establishing a fund which will help bring the gardens back to their former glory. Without destroying our heritage, and without putting Aberdeen City further into debt, it would not be difficult to breathe fresh life into the park. Improved access, new planting, cleaning and restoration, park wardens and live events could all be relatively easily and cost effectively achieved.

We were sickened by the sycophancy which Jimmy Milne's announcement provoked from some members of the groups who want to retain Union Terrace Gardens. And we were troubled by this talk of a fund set up by faceless businesspeople to run a public park. But, again, these are side issues. More important to us is that we certainly don't want our activism (such as it is) to be co-opted weight-of-numbers-wise (as it runs the risk of being) in support of the consent-manufacturing activities of the pollution-magnates and their climate-jeopardising activities, whatever their views on the direction of urbanism, new or old. Such are the dangers of coalition membership. Which oil-tycoon do you prefer? We prefer neither.

Spot the difference


The whole spectacle of this fight for the future of a small park has split opinion in this town. It has marginalised the creative sector, it has damaged the arts and it has polarised discourse. It has served as a window-dressing diversion away from the necessity to build a truly sustainable industrial future for Aberdeen based upon the exploitation of renewable energy sources. The atmosphere of hostility and distrust is poisonous to the enjoyment of this town for its own sake, something which is one of the avowed aims of the whole OtherAberdeen blog. And now the polity of the whole town has been manoeuvred into the false dilemma of being forced to endorse either the vision of one oil-tycoon or the other. We feel a need to distance ourselves from this spectacle, for sometimes the grapes really are sour.

Monday, 13 February 2012


Growing up in Aberdeen, the young mind can't help but be fascinated by the under-ground (or rather, under-road) aspects of the town. Beneath large parts of Union Street, Bridge Street, The Castlegate, Market Street, Holburn Street, Bon-Accord Street and, of course, Rosemount Viaduct exist vaulted caverns which shoulder the carriageway above. The vaults beneath the Holburn and Bon Accord viaducts provide coal-cellars for the tenements which flank the structures; coal-chute covers sometimes still visible embedded in granite flagstones, anomalous amongst the concrete pavingstones. And I can especially remember being in a store-room/workshop beneath Union Street at some point during the mid-1970's. I can't remember for sure why I was there, something to do with a TV repair, but I do specifically remember the shop proprietor making great play of the fact that we were under the road. The shop premises was an electrical retailer (a local enterprise called "Alexanders") in the unit now occupied by that Anne Summers low-rent lingerie outlet. On Bridge Street, there was a sports goods shop (I can't remember the name) which had premises on both sides of the road, linked through the vault under the road. I remember a very narrow steep boxy staircase. One-at-a-time please.

A while ago, we touched on the subject a little:

Viaducts like these exist all over Europe in formerly hilly town centres with which the Victorians had their vainglorious way. Notably Edinburgh has its many viaducts and bridges with vaulted caverns below, and those vaults are put to work as entertainment venues, pop-up pubs, knocking shops, ghost-tour backdrops, etc.  Similarly, London's Oxford street is, in part, raised above the former natural topography. In parts, entire pre-Victorian streetscapes are preserved below vaults, notably the Georgian shopping street which has been preserved almost in its entirety below the Selfridges department store. We understand that this living psychogeographical fossil (for what else can we call it?) has been from time to time used as a film-set. Back home, we have heard claims of secret access, of strange artifacts and of old cottages and the like existing below the vaulted stonework of Aberdeen's viaducts, but we treat these claims with scepticism. We know that, notwithstanding the odd restaurant and nightclub, the vaults of Aberdeen are most commonly used as underground carparks, and commercial storage. However, we would love to learn of more exotic uses, of secrets forgotten, of stories waiting to be told. We would so love be proven wrong. 

I was passing the door to the vaults beneath Market Street one day last week. By being on foot and keeping eyes open, you can increase your chances of being in the right place at the right time. A new air extraction system was being installed in the vaults, I chatted a bit to the HVAC guys, and they let me in...

Friday, 10 February 2012

Dog in Manger Throws Toys out of Pram

Do you remember this one?

Updated today with this:

And, all the more extraordinarily, with this:

News also reaches us via The Herald of a letter which Donald Trump has written to Alex Salmond MSP, Scotland's First Minister.

Trump Declares War on Scotland

In a withering letter, he tells Mr Salmond that by encouraging the construction of offshore wind farms, "you will single-handedly have done more damage to Scotland than any event in Scottish history" 
Later, in a radio interview, he said that included wars. 
Mr Trump has been fighting against 11 off-shore turbines which he claims would spoil the views from his new championship golf course at Balmedie. He has already declared no more work will be done on his planned hotel, 950 holiday homes and 500 houses until the fate of the wind farm is decided. He has also demanded a public inquiry, and a decision is expected within four months. 
However, in his letter to the First Minister, Mr Trump paints a wider canvas: "You seem hell bent on destroying Scotland's coastline and, therefore, Scotland itself". He says he could never support this "insanity". 
"As a matter of fact I have just authorised a member of my staff to allocate a substantial amount of money to launch an international campaign to fight your plan to surround Scotland's coast with many thousands of wind turbines – it will be like looking through the bars of a prison and the Scottish citizens will be the prisoners," the letter adds. 
Mr Trump says tourists would not suffer because there would not be any coming to Scotland because of the wind farm policy. 
He questions the economic wisdom of Scottish ministers laying such store in wind energy: "For the record, taxing your citizens to subsidise wind projects owned by foreign energy companies will destroy your country and its economy. Jobs will not be created in Scotland because these ugly monstrosities known as turbines are manufactured in other countries such as China. These countries, who so benefit from your billions of pounds in payments, are laughing at you." 
You'll see that the article points out that Donald Trump promises to finance an "international campaign" against windfarm developments all over Scotland. Extraordinary.

Being residents of Aberdeen, Scottish, interested in energy policy, interested in planning issues, etc as we are, these outbursts seem almost comical in their hyperbole to us.  But then we realise that we, perhaps, are not the intended audience of Donald Trump's polemics. Nor, perhaps, are the political figures to whom he has nominally addressed these paroxysms. No, the intended audience of Donald Trump's outpourings might be exclusively made up of his existing stakeholders. Last summer, blaming the global downturn, Donald Trump pulled back from his originally promised development of a "high class" [sic] golf resort with five star hotel, condominiums, luxury villas and the like. Now Donald Trump finds himself with a development which some have suggested that he cannot finance, and from which it has been said that he cannot profit.

The BBC sought a response from the Scottish Government, and got this choice quote:

Scottish waters are estimated to have as much as a quarter of Europe's potential offshore wind energy. A recent study suggests that harnessing just a third of the practical resource off our coast by 2050 would enable us to generate enough electricity to power Scotland seven times over. 
Adding to this, Niall Stewart, who is Chief Executive of Scottish Renewables said:
Who is Donald Trump to tell Scotland what is good for our economy and our environment? Offshore wind is already attracting billions of pounds of investment and supporting hundreds of jobs across Scotland. 
That Donald Trump has chosen to try to stand in the way of this juggernaut - picking a fight which (surely even he knows well) he cannot win, might be seen on the face of it to be ill-judged and foolhardy. Particularly perplexing is that Donald Trump chooses to pick an unnecessary fight, for, as Niall Stuart also points out - there is absolutely no reason whatsoever why these developments cannot exist side by side. 

When these facts are appreciated, some people might conclude the following: that Donald Trump's outbursts over the last few days are not intended to influence Scottish Government energy policy; the statements are not intended to win hearts and minds in Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire; they are not aimed at "saving Scotland" as Donald Trump asserts; and nor are they intended to promote his golf course. Those same sceptics might believe that these polemics are, rather, aimed at saving face. Sceptics as they are, they might be tempted to think that, confronted with what could be seen as the prospect of failure at Menie - instead of accepting responsibility for what might be seen as an ill-judged investment and own up to what could be understood as management failures; rather than draw attention to his financial situation or just admit that, as some might say, he appears to be beaten - Donald Trump must find an external reason outwith his control; something to blame. Those same sceptics might be tempted to say that he needs a scapegoat by which to deflect the attention of his investors, backers, fans, boosters and other key stakeholders away from what might be interpreted as his burgeoning personal and corporate failure in Aberdeenshire.

But we would never say such things about a man and organisation we respect as much as we do. We daren't.

The necessity for Scotland to have future prosperity based upon an energy supply which does not jeopardise the atmosphere appears, the sceptic might conclude, to offer Donald Trump just that way out.

So, if the sceptics are proven right, who are we to stand in the way of what could be understood to be Donald Trump's face-saving exit strategy? But if and when he does go, we will miss such entertaining spectacle as he has provided for the last five years! 

Haste ye back!

That's Entertainment!

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Attitudes to Surveillance in Public Places

Followers of Road Rage News will not be unfamiliar with this classic which has gone viral in the last few days, having first been picked up by the magnificent Bristol Traffic blog, then mainstream media outlets the Guardian and Telegraph. A business motorist was caught on camera verbally abusing a man who filmed her car blocking a busy road. She threatens to tell the police that he assaulted her.

The YouTube user, intrigued by a truly frightful example of arrogant motoring started filming on his vidphone. The motorist jumps out of her car, and starts pursuing the pedestrian down the street.
"You've been filming me. Gimme that phone - now! You've been filming me - it's illegal! It's illegal! Who the fuck do you think you are, filming me? I'm trying to get to my place of work - how dare you fat little lump?  
I want to know who you are, I want to know where you live or where you work."
She also threatens him with a fraudulent vexatious allegation (of assault) and a man (thought to be the motorist's husband) harangues and intimidatingly menaces the YouTube user.

Leaving to one side the appallingly ignorant and arrogant driving style of the business motorist who is the subject of the video and also leaving aside the harassment and intimidation she and her husband visited upon the pedestrian, what intrigues all the more is the attitude to surveillance in public places.

If Bath is anything like Aberdeen, everyone is almost always and everywhere in the town centre subject to video (and, increasingly, audio - oh, and tracking) surveillance. This surveillance is operated by civil authorities and, again - increasingly, by private security firms. As the driver of a high-ish end Audi, the business motorist who is the subject of the viral movie will doubtless be fully loaded with sat-nav and an anti-theft tracking device. All the information streams from these surveillance data gathering systems are transmitted to people (or AI expert-system statistical analysis and pattern recognition algorithms) in remote locations with unknowable proclivities and uncertain future outcomes. All of this our society has become accustomed to; if it bothers us at all, it does so only marginally. Yet, when the business motorist in the video spots that she is being filmed by a member of the public who is in plain view, who's face she can see and whom she can engage in conversation - she goes APESHIT. Why is that?

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

The Energy Trap, The Bubble Market, The Capital Trap

Nearly a year ago, at the premier of filmmaker Fraser Denholm's documentary feature "Run Down Aberdeen", an open floor discussion with the audience followed the screening. During that discussion, local list Labour MSP Lewis Macdonald was heard to say that "high oil prices are good for Aberdeen". As, since the mid 1970's, the Aberdeen economy has become increasingly dependent upon the extraction of fossil fuels from the petroleum fields beneath the raging swells of the central and northern North Sea, for an MSP to make such a statement would seem to be - well - just common sense. Wouldn't it?

But, whenever we're confronted with something which appears to be common sense, as psychogeographers, we're apt to try to have a good look around the back. We're on the same page as grand old man of letters W. Somerset Maugham on this one:
"Common-sense appears to be only another name for the thoughtlessness of the unthinking. It is made of the prejudices of childhood, the idiosyncrasies of individual character and the opinion of the newspapers."
So, what of this common sense claim that high oil prices are good for our town? As an opener, we'd draw attention to our old blog-post "D is for Dutch Disease", in which we examined the inimical effect on our local economy of this over-reliance on the one business sector with particular reference to the resource-extractive aspect of that sector:

The A to Z of Aberdeen, D is for The Dutch Disease
The Dutch Disease is a concept in economics which explains how the development of a natural resource extraction business sector (like oil and gas) and its associated economic boom can over-balance an economy, causing decline in non-extractive value-adding sectors - particularly the manufacturing sector, but also in agriculture. The pathology of the Dutch Disease is accompanied by moral decline in the personal sphere (affluenza) and turpitude in the public sector (government) as it becomes entangled with big-money business interests. Hmm... sounds familiar? 
Since we wrote that, there have been an number of developments. And other than the bland "good for Aberdeen" assertion, we collectively must ask what high oil prices mean: what is the cause; and what is the effect going forward (as they say)?



Recognition of evidence that global oil production is reaching (or has already reached) the "undulating plateau" at it's historic peak is now no longer the domain of the tin-foil hatters. Today this recognition comes, not from the usual-suspect voice-in-the-wilderness Peak Oiler blogosphere (The Oil Drum, The Energy Bulletin, The Post Carbon Institute and such), but from the likes of the US military, Shell Oil, and the White House.


United States Joint Forces Command
Joint Operating Environment
>>>>>>> 2012, surplus oil production capacity could entirely disappear, and as early as 2015, the shortfall in output could reach nearly 10 [million barrels per day]. 


Shell Oil
"Signals and Signposts"

We believe that the world is entering an era of volatile transitions and intensified economic cycles. 
Supply will struggle to keep pace with demand. By the end of the coming decade, growth in the production of easily accessible oil and gas will not match the projected rate of demand growth. 


Le Monde
Washington considers a decline of world oil production as of 2011

The Obama administration of Energy supports the … hypothesis of an "undulating plateau". Lauren Mayne, responsible for liquid fuel prospects at the DoE, explains : "Once maximum world oil production is reached, that level will be approximately maintained for several years thereafter, creating an undulating plateau. After this plateau period, production will experience a decline." 
Concern about the future availability of energy dense fuel sources, which will be required to create a transitional and then a sustainable energy infrastructure are beginning to be expressed in academic circles.


Do The Math
The Energy Trap

Our reaction to a diminishing flow of fossil fuel energy in the short-term will determine whether we transition to a sustainable but technological existence or allow ourselves to collapse. One stumbling block in particular has me worried. I call it The Energy Trap. 
In brief, the idea is that once we enter a decline phase in fossil fuel availability—first in petroleum—our growth-based economic system will struggle to cope with a contraction of its very lifeblood. Fuel prices will skyrocket, some individuals and exporting nations will react by hoarding, and energy scarcity will quickly become the new norm. The invisible hand of the market will slap us silly demanding a new energy infrastructure based on non-fossil solutions. But here’s the rub. The construction of that shiny new infrastructure requires not just money, but…energy. And that’s the very commodity in short supply. Will we really be willing to sacrifice additional energy in the short term—effectively steepening the decline—for a long-term energy plan? It’s a trap!



New Scientist
Carbon bubble could threaten markets… maybe

After the dot-com bubble and the property bubble, prepare for the carbon bubble. Entrepreneurs meeting in the Maldives last week warned that shaky assumptions about future fossil-fuel use are buoying financial markets and that the collapse of this "carbon bubble" could trigger another crash one day.
"There is this suicidal river of capital flowing into fossil fuels," says Jeremy Leggett, a green entrepreneur ... based in London. "Let's get the risk acknowledged."
According to some studies, in order to have a chance of limiting global warming to 2 °C, humans cannot pump more than another 570 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere before 2050. Yet a report by energy-industry initiative Carbon Tracker, commissioned by Leggett and others, found that the proven fossil-fuel reserves of companies and countries would add up to 2800 Gt if burned for their energy.
That means up to 80 per cent of known reserves may have to be left in the ground if governments decide to limit total future emissions to 570 Gt.
Leggett's point, though, is that the carbon bubble is a risk that investors are overlooking. Pension funds, for instance, continue to put their money into gas, oil and coal companies without taking account of it.


It's not our intention here to examine the alarming geopolitical implications of this onrushing environmental degradation and energy supply bottleneck, chewy and crunchy though that will be. And, let us be clear, global oil production figures have never been higher. However, North Sea oil production is well past its peak, and is falling rapidly.



While the oil price per barrel in US dollars peaked at near $150 during 2008 and then fell sharply, the price of North Sea oil has 'recovered' (as they say) and is today trading at $110. And in the intervening period, fluctuations in currency exchange rates have meant that, when expressed in Pounds Sterling or Euros, oil has never ever traded at a higher price. The combination of this all-time record high price along with both record global demand and falling UK output is an unfortunate triple-confluence of global trends for our provincial town. The implications of this co-incidence for the sustainability of high levels of economic activity and employment in our town are troubling, for - as oil reserves diminish - the grinding certainties of geological happenstance and the imperatives of the profit motive insist that it is the more difficult, more expensive to reach reserves which are tapped last - and the cheaper-to-exploit resources are those which are extracted first. The high oil price, for this 'province' (as they say) hastens the day when those easier reserves are gone, and all that remains is the difficult stuff - the reserves which require a high market price for oil before the return on investment realises the cost of exploitation.  (Monetary costs only, that is. There are, of course, many externalities.) But worse even than that, the current excessively high return on investment acts like black hole for capital - sucking in investment which, as the necessity to stabilise and reduce carbon-dependency in our energy supply begins to bite, would be better reallocated towards putting our energy supply on a sustainable, renewable, decarbonised foundation.

Recently, news reports have pointed towards investment growth in support of a burgeoning renewable energy sector; Inverness, Perth, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Orkney all beneficiaries. Alas, little of that investment is directed towards Aberdeen, distracted as our local capital and skill base is towards the glittering prizes of riches wrung from the high-value fossil fuels lying in the convoluted strata kilometres beneath the seabed.


The Courier
Enterprise area status a boost for Dundee's renewable energy hopes

Dundee's fledgling renewables sector has been given a major boost by being declared as one of Scotland's new enterprise areas.
It is hoped the dock's new status will encourage companies such as utilities giant SSE to progress plans to make Dundee a key focus of their North Sea renewables plans. The Perth-based company signed a memorandum of understanding with Dundee City Council, Forth Ports and Scottish Enterprise to explore options for a new manufacturing plant to be established at Dundee Port to service the offshore wind sector.
Any such development would create hundreds of jobs directly and in the associated supply chain. 

But here in Aberdeen the energy trap is compounded by the fossil-fuel-powered capital trap as investment disappears over the event-horizon of record oil prices into the black hole of non-renewable hydrocarbon extraction. And on the streets of our town, excessive pay rates in that extractive sector are visibly disappearing down the sink-sector drain of conspicuous consumption and a grotesquely distended housing bubble. Aspiration (as commonly understood) is all to often demonstrably mistaken for acquisition, and affluence is mistaken for wealth as late-stage consumerism mounts its final stand in the shopping malls of our inconsequential northern provincial town.


The Scotsman
Scots can cash in on £375bn oil bonanza

SCOTLAND’S North Sea oil and gas industry can deliver a £376 billion bonanza over the next 40 years and secure Aberdeen as “one of the global energy capitals” of the future, according to a report published today
The PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) study said the oil boom was there for the taking if government and industry leaders can “grasp the many opportunities”. 
Mark Higginson, senior partner at PwC in Aberdeen, said: “We have a remarkable – and potentially unrepeatable – opportunity to position the city as an international energy centre of excellence… However, this isn’t simply going to fall to Aberdeen by right. We need to shape our own destiny and the journey must start now, with everyone focused on a single, definitive strategy that embraces core objectives of maximising oil reserves, exploiting the new frontier areas west of Shetland and the Arctic, becoming a talent magnet and more effectively serving the needs of industry...” 
The study, titled Northern Lights: a strategic vision of Aberdeen as a world-class energy capital, advised stakeholders to collaborate more to build on the city’s long track record in oil and gas, without which there was a risk that the opportunities within reach may slip away.

Aberdeen City Council
Alternative Energy Strategy for Council Owned Public Buildings


Whilst each project to develop alternative energy technologies will require detailed analysis and evaluation before being progressed, this strategy will provide the overall context in which future projects will be developed. 

May 2011 Version 4Appendix 2: Overview of Available TechnologiesThis strategy will consider a number of alternative energy technologies some of which are outlined below. It should be noted that for Council owned public buildings planning permission for alternative energy technologies is not required unless the equipment is valued over £100,000. 

[our emphasis]


Time and again we are frustrated when we see clean, sustainable energy sources, which are available to exploit in abundance all over and around Scotland, referred to by Aberdeen's people and businesses as "alternative energy". The use of that phrase "alternative energy" is telling. It tells you everything you might want to know about the people and businesses that use it. Rather than use words like "sustainable" or "renewable" or "clean" when discussing non-polluting energy sources they instead label these sources of energy as "alternative". In the UK, the use of that word has pejorative connotations, usually to do with "alternative" lifestyles like strict veganism, communal living, far-left political beliefs or religious cults or other hippy-dippy stuff which is to be mistrusted, feared, scorned and therefore belittled whenever possible. By using this kind of language the people and businesses of Aberdeen show that their default position associates clean energy sources with questionable fringe actives and beliefs which are to be scorned. This sets the context in which they frame their discourse and actions, for language is never neutral.

And thus we despair that it's becoming increasingly unlikely that significant capital will be reallocated away from the atmosphere-threatening hydrocarbon industry to build a sustainable local economy based upon clean energy sources here in time to secure the vaunted title "Global Energy Capital" [sic] which local business development companies claim for our town. For the one-way-bet certainty afforded by an oil-price which, despite globally defective demand; despite recession or depression, remains proudly above the psychologically significant $100 per barrel mark is a huge distraction to capital, which (as we have all seen since 2008) always discounts the future.

Flashing like the urgent "HOLD NOW" buttons of a slot machine stuck on a jackpot payout, this ton-high oil price militates against any thought of significant reallocation of capital crossing the minds of the oil companies and their executives here. The certain play of continued and renewed investment in the oil-bearing strata beneath the seas of the UK's continental shelf satisfies the needs of capital oh so much more than adequately. Why would capital (the need to increase itself being its primary reason for existing - integral to its true definition) redeploy away from so certain a one-way bet into something a just little more risky?

The tickers tick up on global heat budget, CO2 concentration, social inequality, species extinction, deforestation, ocean acidification, resource depletion and political instability and conflict. But the ticker also ticks up - ever up - on the free-market price of a barrel of oil. That same ticker begins to look like a countdown to the deadline for establishing a sustainable economic future for Aberdeen. The high oil price an obstruction, a distraction. It's in the way of the future.

Local labour politician Lewis Macdonald stated at the screening of 'Run Down Aberdeen' that "high oil prices are good for Aberdeen". Politicians, it seems, also discount the future.

Unfortunately, we have to live there.