I am writing this from Islay, the most southern island of the Inner Hebrides. It is where my 91 year old mother lives and as usual we’ve spent most of the holiday here. At this time of year storms are normal, but last week’s gale force winds broke records and much else. Buildings did not fare too badly though as most were constructed over 150 years ago with big-weather resistance a specification.
No, it was the infrastructure of modern life that suffered massive damage - the electricity supply and communications systems went down for 3 ½ and 5 days respectively in our village, with many people further down the coast out for even longer. Mobile masts failed, digital signals to TV and radios stopped, petrol could not be pumped.
“Just like the old days” said one of our visitors. “Well no,” responded my husband. “In the old days we were geared to cope, nowadays we are not. We are more, not less vulnerable.” And he is right. Our kitchen fire has a back boiler providing hot water to baths and radiators. Many other people, however, being modern, have ‘gone electric’, sold on its cleanliness and convenience. And it is true that for years the power has never gone off for more than 12 hours at a stretch, which for those with a stash of candles and a gas camping stove is tolerable.
But a week! The electricity company reported around 100 problems over the Argyll and Bute region and tens of thousands of people without power. Here on Islay, teams of engineers and kit managed to get here, but with no mobile phones working could not communicate with the central power station. Consequently a great deal of dashing about was involved to coordinate the throwing of switches to test the cables. If this is what energy insecurity looks like it is rather frightening.
This lack of resilience in the way we live is not just technological. The failure to match growth in our dependence on electric power with appropriate investment in the resilience of the infrastructure is a political one. This incident has ratcheted up yet more discontent with those who have more control than competence over what we think matters to our destiny.
That makes our little island (pop. 3500) like many other places around the world. But we didn’t occupy, we acted. We are lucky to have a lot of non-tweet dependent social resilience. By word of the mouths of people like district nurses and postmen, candles and means of warmth got to those without, the hot-waterless were invited in for baths and plans laid for the most vulnerable to be brought into the local hotel if things got worse.
And we’re on the case of our technological resilience too. At the end of January The Islay Energy Trust will publish outline plans for the Islay Community Energy Cooperative (ICEC), exactly the sort of organisation Forum is arguing should be fully supported by the government’s Feed In Tariff scheme.
There are plenty of communities like ours getting ready to make the shift to a low-carbon future – and the fact that governments are dragging their feet is increasingly seen as scandalous.