Tag Archives: climate change

Permaculture Ethics and Design

My observations are that the eco design methodology known as permaculture suffers in two fundamental ways: a confusing name and dogmatic application by inexperienced converts.

The name is the name – no changing it at this point – and there is no antidote for dogma. But for a general audience of readers I’d like to lay out the ethics and practice of permaculture using two concrete examples.

When engaging with permaculture as a design methodology, practicioners are bound to follow a basic set of ethics: care for the environment; care for people; share surplus resources. I appreciate this ethical code because it helps distinguish a permaculturist from anyone else who may be involved in the ‘sustainability movement’ such as an organic gardener, recycler, green builder, eco-activist.

This is not to say that a permaculturist cannot engage in all of these, but that anyone who practices one or more than these is not necessarily engaging with the permaculture ethics.

I also appreciate the ethics because they are an integral part of the design process. For example, the ‘pop-up curtain bank’ that recently opened in our community is a direct application of the permaculture ethics. Screen Shot 2016-08-10 at 7.38.32 am

Sharing surplus resources: Members of the community who have curtains they no longer require can drop them off and members of the community who need curtains can pick them up. Like any bank it accepts deposits and grants withdrawals.

Caring for people: It’s no secret that most of the housing in our city is substandard: cold and/or damp. These unhealthy homes are especially hard on children and seniors. Getting properly installed curtains, insulating blinds and window blankets into as many homes as possible helps make the occupants more comfortable and healthier.

Care for the earth: Improving the ‘thermal envelope’ of a home is the best way to save energy required for heating and cooling. Saving energy is generally considered good for the environment.

The other example I’ll share is a direct application of eco-design: imitating nature to develop or reestablish robust ecological systems. The latter of these is sometimes called ‘regenerative design’.

We are in the process of reestablishing a wetland on our farm and protecting streams from stock. Additionally, we are planting native trees and poplar poles on steep hillsides to prevent slips and erosion. Screen Shot 2016-08-06 at 7.54.04 am

All of this work is supported by Horizons Regional Council, which offers expert advice, low-cost poplar poles, and in some cases funding for fencing and plantings. I cannot speak highly enough of these programmes.

Forests and wetlands play important roles in moderating seasonal water flows across large land areas. In other words they store water high on the landscape during wet periods and release it slowly during dry periods. It works like a bank by accepting deposits and granting withdrawals.

Much of the farmland in our region suffers from extreme weather on both ends – wet and dry. Neither is good for stock, nor for farmers, nor for water quality, nor for anyone living downstream. The reasons are clear: not enough trees on hillsides and streamsides.

The solution is to build resilient waterways by imitating nature, or in other words engaging in eco design. Projects like ours are the most direct way that landowners and the wider community can address the extreme weather events associated with a volatile and changing climate.

The restoration work we are doing on our farm will help – to a tiny degree – everyone who lives and works downstream and downriver from us.

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So, in a nutshell, what this is all about is developing alternative banking systems – stream banks and curtain banks – and getting the community involved. This is what resilience is all about, and it is the heart and soul of permaculture design thinking.

If you are the least bit concerned about healthier homes and climate change, you too can get involved.

Please donate clean curtains and Roman blinds to the Curtain Bank before 5th August: 91 Guyton St.

Please donate native trees to the Kaitiaki Wetland Restoration by popping into the Wanganui Garden Centre before 17th August: 95 Gonville Ave.


Peace, Estwing

Going to the Poles

Our Australian neighbours have recently gone to the polls, and the UK’s infamous Brexit referendum is still playing out post voting. And of course the American polls open on 8th November for a historic decision whichever way it goes.

At Kaitiaki Farm we have gone to the poles in a very different way: poplar poles.

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For the second year in a row we have planted poplar poles to hold vulnerable slopes and prevent slips. Here are our interns, Kelly and Patrick, ramming poles last year.

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Poles are planted 600 mm to 700 mm deep and it is critical to pack the soil tightly around the base of each one.

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Here is a slip that occurred last winter during especially heavy rains. We had been on the land less than a year at that time. The slips were a wake up call. This slip now has 18 poplar poles in and around it.

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At the time of the slips we had ordered poles from Horizons Regional Council but had not planted them yet as the storm occurred in early winter. Kelly and Patrick and I planted the first 20 poles in late August. They take about seven years to develop a sufficient root mass to hold slopes, so the sooner they are in the ground the better.

Below is this year’s order of 30 poles that were delivered by Horizons a month ago. The three metre poles cost $7 each.

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They need to be soaked for a week first to ensure they take up plenty of water before planting.

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We planted nine poles as a wind break between two paddocks at the top of the property where it is relatively flat. Our intern, Weis, dug the holes by hand relatively easily. I put the poles in the ground last week.

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This weekend I hired a post hole borer to put in some new fences for our wetland restoration project, and took the opportunity to drill another 21 holes for the rest of the poplars.

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On Saturday I drilled 35 holes into heavy clay soil. I have not been so bone tired in a decade.

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It is not an easy thing to carry up and down hill all afternoon, but the borer got the job done and was back at the hire shop fully cleaned before 5:00 pm.

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Fifty poles and counting.

Peace, Estwing

Damned if we do -damned if we don’t: The case for resilience


Editor’s note: This has been published simultaneously on The Automatic Earth



Carbon double-bind

There appears to be increasing levels of anxiety among environmental activists around the world and in my own community. After all, temperature records are being set at a pace equaled only to that of Stephen Curry and LeBron James in the NBA Finals. A recent Google news headline said it all: “May is the 8th consecutive month to break global temperature records.”

In other words, October of last year set a record for the highest recorded global monthly temperature, and then it was bettered by November, which was bettered by December, January, and on through May. The hot streak is like that of Lance Armstrong’s Tour De France dominance, but we all know how that turned out in the end.

Making history – like the Irish rugby side in South Africa just over two weeks ago – is usually a time to celebrate. Setting a world record would normally mean jubilation – not so when it comes to climate.

Responses to temperature records range from sorrow, despair, anger, and even fury. Anyone with children or grandchildren (and even the childless) who believes in peer review and an overwhelming scientific consensus has every right to feel these emotions. So why do I feel only resignation?

We are so far down the track at this point that we are dammed if we do and dammed if we don’t. Remember the warnings 30 years ago that we needed 30 years to make the transition to a low carbon economy or else there would be dire consequences? Well, in case you weren’t paying attention, it didn’t happen.

While these warnings were being issued by scientists much of the world doubled down – Trump-like – on Ford Rangers, Toyota Tacomas, and other sport utility vehicles. The same appears to be happening now, with the added element that we are experiencing the dire consequences as scientists issue even more warnings and drivers buy even more ‘light trucks’. Forget Paris, the writing was on the wall at Copenhagen.

The bottom line is that most people will (and currently do) experience climate change as a quality of life issue, and quality of life is related to a certain extent on disposable income. Acting or not acting proactively or reactively on climate change is expensive and gets more expensive everyday.

If the international community ever takes collective action on climate change it will make individuals poorer because the cost of energy will rise significantly. If the international community fails to act, individuals will be made poorer because of the devastating effects of extreme weather events – like last year’s historic floods where I live as well as northern England, etc – shown to be on the increase over the last 40 years in hundreds of peer-reviewed papers with verifiable data.

And here is the worst part: most economies around the world rely on some combination of moderate climate and cheap fossil fuels. For example, our local economy is heavily dependent on agriculture and tourism, making it exceptionally vulnerable to both acting and not acting on climate change.

Drought hurts rural economies and extreme winds and rainfall can cost millions in crop damage as well as repairs to fencing, tracks and roads. As a result, both farmers and ratepayers have fewer dollars in their pockets to spend on new shoes, a night out, or a family trip. This is alongside living in a degraded environment post-disaster. The net result is a negative impact on quality of life: damned if we don’t.

On the other hand, tourism relies on inexpensive jet fuel and petrol to get the sightseers and thrill seekers to and around the world with enough dollars left over to slosh around local economies. Think about all of the service sector jobs that rely on tourism that in turn depend entirely on a continuous supply of cheap fuel. (This is not to mention peak oil and the lack of finance available to fund any long and expensive transition to an alternative energy world.) I’m told 70% of US jobs are in the service sector, most of which rely on inexpensive commuting and/or a highly mobile customer base.

Any significant approach to curbing carbon emissions in the short term will result in drastic increases to energy prices. The higher the cost of a trip from A to Z the less likely it is to be made. As a result, business owners and ratepayers at Z will have fewer dollars in their pockets to spend on new shoes, a night out, or a family vacation of their own. The net result is a negative impact on their quality of life: damned if we do.

I suppose it deserves repeating: most OECD economies and the quality of life they bring rely on both moderate climate and cheap fossil fuels, but these are mutually exclusive. Furthermore, regardless of emissions decisions made by the international community, we are already on track for decades of temperature records and extreme weather events that will cost billions if not trillions of dollars.

The response in many parts of the world has been to protest. That’s cool, but you cant’ protest a drought – the drought does not care. You can’t protest a flood – the flood does not care. And even if the protests are successful at influencing government policies – which I hope long-term they are – we are still on track for decades to climatic volatility and the massive price tags for clean up and repair.


Resilience is where it’s at

Go ahead and protest, people, but you better get your house in order at the same time, and that means build resilience in every way, shape and form.

Resilience is the name of the game, and I was impressed with Kyrie Irving’s post NBA game seven remarks that the Cleveland Cavaliers demonstrated great resilience as a team.

As I wrote for The Automatic Earth over a year ago, resilience is the new black. If you don’t get it you’re not paying attention.   http://www.theautomaticearth.com/2015/05/resilience-is-the-new-black/

This article received a wide range of responses from those with incomplete understandings of the situation as well as those in denial – both positions dangerous for their owners as well as friends and neighbours.

The double bind we find ourselves in by failing to address the issue three decades ago is a challenge to put it mildly. Smart communities recognize challenges and respond accordingly. The best response is to develop resilience in the following areas: ecological, equity, energy and economic.

The first two of these I call the “Pope Index” because Francis has identified climate change and wealth inequality as the greatest challenges facing humanity. Applying the Pope Index to decision-making is easy – simply ask yourself if decisions made in your community aggravate climates change and wealth inequality or alleviates them.

For the next two – energy and economic – I take more of a Last hours of ancient sunlight (credit, Thom Hartmann) perspective that I think is embraced by many practicing permaculturists. Ancient sunlight (fossil fuels) is on its way out and if we do not use some to build resilient infrastructure on our properties and in our communities it will all be burned by NASCAR, which in my opinion would be a shame.

As time passes, everything that is not resilient to high energy prices and extreme weather events will become economically unviable and approach worthlessness. On the other hand, investments of time, energy, and money in resilience will become more economically valuable as the years pass. Additionally, the knowledge, skills and experience gained while developing resilience are the ultimate in ‘job security’ for an increasingly volatile future.

If you know it and can do it and can teach it you’ll be sweet. If not, get onto it before it’s too late.


Peace, Estwing


When Water Flows Uphill

June brought an historic flood to our city. December was the driest on record.

Climate scientists have warned us to prepare for these types of extremes. They have certainly arrived around the world, and according to predictions will only increase in frequency and severity. No matter what happens post-Paris in terms of carbon emissions, the planet is already locked into decades of volatile weather.

What is your community doing about it? What are you doing about it?

On our farm we have designed to address both drought and flood simultaneously. Here is one small example of how I am directing water to flow ‘uphill’ and over a swale to where it will be most useful to the black boy peach trees and blueberry bushes planted along the swale. The higher and longer we can hold water on the property the better. But at the same time we direct water away from buildings made of wood and steel.

This little water diversion project starts on the huge roof of our multi-shed complex. I’ve changed the spouting and run it into a section of Novaflo. In winter the same piece of Novaflo carries the water away from and to the side of the buildings. But for the dry summer I have decided to run the water uphill.

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The weight of the water is so great that I’ve had to build a ‘splint’ to support the flexible pipe from the fence to the barrel.

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Can never have too much baling twine!

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As the barrel fills, the pressure forces water through the hose fitted to the bottom of the side. The hose will eventually be covered by stone as it crosses the road.

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Then it climbs over the swale to the small pond dug behind it.

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I checked it this morning after a small 5 mm shower last night. The bottom of the pond was very damp and the end of the hose was full of water.

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Here is a reverse angle showing the water’s pathway up and over the swale. In winter the swale keeps water flowing down the hillside away from the buildings. But by the end of this dry December the ponds were dry and the small fruit trees were drying out. I was spending a lot of time watering them with a hose and decided that this project was to jump to the head of the line.

This hugelkultur swale was built one year ago and is already thriving compared with the worn out paddock around it.

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My belief is that it’s fine and good and important to talk about cutting emissions and embracing non-carbon based energy sources. But it is equally important to prepare ourselves and our communities for the extremes of both wet and dry. Good design moderates them both for the better. To me it’s all about designing and building resilient systems. This is just one small example on one small farm in the corner of the world. It was made in a morning by materials laying around the place at no cost.

What do you think you can achieve at your place?


Peace, Estwing

Things May Not Be As They Appear

Editor’s Note: This is another weekly column in the Wanganui Chronicle.


Timing is everything and you can’t judge a book by its cover. It seems we’re constantly reminded of these lessons. I’ll share some examples this week.

First of all, I faced these truisms late last week when I tried to push the garlic season by digging some bulbs for the Saturday market. On the surface they looked huge – stems thick and green. My hopes were high as I gently lifted the first few from the rich, dark soil only to be disappointed that what emerged did not match what was visible from above.

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Yes, I was pushing the season by two to three weeks, but the stems were already so big I thought… Reminds me of another saying: Good things come to those who wait. Like fine wine, the World’s Best Garlic will not be rushed. The flavour is as good as ever, but more time will fill out the cloves. It won’t be back at the market until next week.

Another example of the importance of timing is how global climate scientists managed to manipulate the weather to cause devastating floods in England, southern Norway and India to coincide exactly with the COP 21 climate change talks in Paris. It’s obvious that climate scientists caused the massive rainfalls in England and India because they dumped the same amount – 341 millimeters – in both locations. This is exactly the type of lazy science we have come to expect from the likes of NASA, NOAA, NIWA, and the IPCC.

At least we can rely on India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and his press office, for giving it to us straight on the flooding. What most people don’t realize is that Modi made a special trip to Whanganui in June to assess the extent of our own flooding as shown in the accompanying photo.

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In the age of Photoshop, many things may not be as they appear.

But seriously, how’s this for timing: the region of Cumbria, England has experienced three record floods in a decade. After the 2009 flooding, residents were told they had experienced a once in a lifetime rain event. Nek minit, Storm Desmond with over a foot of rain in a day. Water levels were half a metre higher than the 2005 flood.

By these measures, Whanganui could experience flooding 50 centimetres higher than this year as soon as 2021. Although there is low probability of this happening, it is not out of the realm of possibility. Cumbria has set a precedent, and even if we stopped burning carbon today there are already decades of extreme weather events loaded into the atmospheric system just waiting for the right time.

England’s Environment Secretary Liz Truss said the increasing frequency of extreme rainfall is “consistent with the trends we’re seeing in terms of climate change.”

Throughout Cumbria, 45 million pounds have been spent on flood defences over the last decade. They were all overtopped, although Floods Minister Rory Stewart claims they slowed the water and allowed more time for evacuations to take place. Timing is everything.

Based on most everything coming across the wires on the environment, economy and society, the only constant we can count on is increasing volatility. As I have written time and time again, the best way to respond to volatility is with resilience, and a particular form characteristic of eco design that I call “pre-silience.”

A simple way to describe pre-silience is a stitch in time saves nine. All this means is that a timely effort now will prevent more work later. For example, a small hole in a shirt can be repaired with one stitch if caught early, but will require many stitches if allowed to tear and grow larger.

Personally, I don’t bother repairing shirts because at the present time they are cheap and abundant from op shops, but I do spend hour upon hour stitching up houses and land. That is to say making both more robust and resilient. I’ve always been attracted to old homes and marginalized land. Repairing both is fun and rewarding work.

Unfortunately, the concept of resilience has yet to arrive in our community to any significant extent, but I believe its time will come. It’s just discouraging that until then so many unrecoverable resources will be misdirected and monies misspent. I’m told that “a stitch in time saves nine” is an anagram for “this is meant as incentive.” But I’m not so sure.

Find the Hoax: Climate Change, Clean Diesel, Household PV Panels

Editor’s Note: Here is another weekly column in the Wanganui Chronicle.


Before I remove myself from the conversation, I’d like to wrap up my part in the discussion of climate change with a couple of key points. For decades we have known that the two largest impacts that individual people have on the environment are driving and eating meat. Compared with these, choosing paper or plastic bags at the checkout counter, or recycling your toothbrush are essentially meaningless. A friend recently called it “polishing the silver on the Titanic.”

Whatever happens at COP 21 in Paris over the next fortnight, I don’t see how drastic changes can be made to transportation or diets within a timeframe that will be meaningful for the next couple of decades. There are two reasons for this.

First or all, any transition would take a long time when we consider the number of cars in the world and the increasing demand for animal-based diets. Second, there is so much carbon in the atmosphere already that even if we stopped releasing it tomorrow the effects of elevated levels of greenhouse gases would persist for decades. We are already locked in a certain amount of warming. Think of it as carbon momentum. This is true whether you drive a Holden or a Prius or take the bus or ride a bike.

The best available data analised by the best scientists show that over the last half century there has been a measurable increase in the number and severity of extreme weather events. In other words, scientists made predictions, collected data, and proved the predictions to be accurate.

In 1969, the lead track of The Rolling Stones album Let It Bleed said it all:

Oh, a storm is threat’ning; My very life today; If I don’t get some shelter; Oh yeah, I’m gonna fade away

The floods is threat’ning; My very life today; Gimme, gimme shelter; Or I’m gonna fade away Screen Shot 2015-11-27 at 10.15.59 am

Weather volatility hurts agricultural economies and costs municipalities near large water bodies. This is true whether you drive a Holden or a Prius or take the bus or ride a bike.

On a final point, climate change has a disproportionate impact on the poor because those with disposable income can buy themselves out of many effects of climate change – in the short term.

Another thing that some people with disposable income do is buy certain ‘green’ products that allow them to maintain their lifestyles but to placate their carbon conscience. One example is “clean diesel” such as Volkswagen’s range of fine German automobiles.

In case you missed it, the latest chapter in the VW fraud story is that the carbon emissions and fuel consumption ratings on 800,000 vehicles were falsely reported to make them look better than they are, including the company’s own green tick of excellence called BlueMotion. Germany’s own Spiegel magazine call the claims “a fraudulent lie.”

Another example of where claims and actual numbers do not add up is solar electric power, also known as photovoltaic or PV. A paper published this year by the Electric Power Engineering Centre at the University of Canterbury concluded that the potential reduction in carbon emissions from PV in New Zealand was minimal, and that many PV panels have a carbon footprint 10 times greater over their lifespan than wind turbines or geothermal energy. These findings suggest it would be better for the environment to simply buy power from a company that provides 100% renewable electricity than to put solar panels on your roof.

Financially, there is only a small sliver of New Zealand households for which PV is a sound investment. Another paper by the Electric Power Engineering Centre found that the only households that get a good return are those with high daytime power use and that do not need to borrow money to purchase the panels. In other words, people who are paying cash and are at home during the day using lots of power.

Dr. Allan Miller, co-author of the study, gave the examples of a large family home with a heated swimming pool or a retired couple running heaters during the day, but only if they do not need to take out loans. The study also emphasised what we have known for many decades: investments should be made in energy efficiency and conservation before even considering solar electricity.

What this all goes to show is that no matter what we do, our community is likely to experience increasingly volatile weather in the coming decades and that many well meaning but ill-informed people are investing in the wrong things. As I wrote in last week’s column, quality matters immensely in the sustainability movement, and so does using the best available data. Unless we are able to leave dogma behind we will never move forward.


Peace, Estwing

Smart, Fearless, Tireless and Resilient: Key Lessons from Sport

Editor’s note: This is another weekly column in the Wanganui Chronicle.


With a few swipes of the thumb, I set the alarm on the “smart phone” for 4:30 and went to bed only slightly less excited than a child on Christmas Eve.

At 5:30 the next morning, my daughter stood in the doorway of the master bedroom saying, “’Scuse me mama and papa.” I opened my eyes, checked the time, and jumped out of bed.

“Come on,” I said scooping her up like a loose ball bouncing on the pitch, “We’re going for an adventure.”

It was halftime by the time we reached Stellar, and we had to park two blocks away. As we walked toward the nightclub turned morning club on this special occasion, I realized with sudden horror that Verti and I were both wearing green tops. Hopefully everyone would be watching the large screen televisions and not notice our hasty wardrobe choices.

For the most part that was true. All eyes were on the game as the Wallabies clawed their way back from an 18-point deficit following the sin binning of Ben Smith. The tension was palpable for a few tense minutes, until…

The bar erupted as Dan Carter’s sublime drop goal turned the tide, followed by his long distance penalty kick and Beauden Barrett’s thrilling chase of fullback Smith’s kick.

By seven o’clock in the morning I had experienced nearly the full range of human emotion. It was wonderful. And that is the point of it all, isn’t it? Being fully human.

The debate about humanity and technology has existed for well over a century. One of my favourite stories as a child was that of John Henry, “a steel-driving man.” The popular American folk tale has been told in song by Johnny Cash, Woodie Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Van Morrison, Jerry Lee Lewis, Harry Belafonte, Bruce Springsteen, and many others. Screen Shot 2015-11-13 at 10.51.17 am

As the legend goes, John Henry’s prowess as a hammerer was pitted against a steam driven hammer in a race of man against machine. At the end of the 35-minute race, according to americanfolklore.net,

“John Henry held up his hammers in triumph! The men shouted and cheered. The noise was so loud, it took a moment for the men to realize that John Henry was tottering. Exhausted, the mighty man crashed to the ground, the hammer’s rolling from his grasp. The crowd went silent as the foreman rushed to his side. But it was too late. A blood vessel had burst in his brain. The greatest driller in the C&O Railroad was dead.

After his race against David Pocock for the try line, Beauden Barrett was anything but dead. On the contrary, in that moment he and his teammates expressed the ultimate feeling of being fully alive. Here were 15 men running and jumping and tackling and kicking and celebrating. Here were 15 men being fully human. Screen Shot 2015-11-13 at 10.58.03 am

I have always believed that we are most fully human when we engage our brains and bodies and emotions at the same time. That’s what’s so great about sport.

In my opinion, what makes the All Blacks the best is that they create an unparalleled synergy on the field, and that they can bounce back from adversity and find a way to win.

Ben Smith has been my favourite AB since I first picked a favourite. The World Cup final only confirmed it. Along with being smart, fearless, and tireless, he showed true resilience after receiving a yellow card. Within a second of the infraction his hands were in the air acknowledging the mistake. After the TMO review, he accepted the card with a nod.

Returning to the field, Smith’s performance was brilliant, setting up Barrett’s try with a phenomenal kick after picking up a turnover from the attacking Wallabies. At the end of the game, I was pleased to see that he was the one kicking into touch.

As the crowd inside Stellar erupted again, Verti and I made our way out onto a quiet street that was underwater on another Sunday morning just four months earlier.

Like sport, climate change is less about technology and more about humanity. People, not solar panels, will be what tackles this immense foe. Teamwork will be essential for victory. Resilience is critical.

At the end of the day, it’s about people. And even at the beginning of the day, as my daughter reminded me, we can’t always rely on technology for what’s most important.


Peace, Estwing


Sidebar: Who are the leaders on climate change in our community?

Please send me stories of local people stepping up and making a difference.