Monthly Archives: November 2014

What I learned at Hinkley Point – or why a nuclear power station is not like a bicycle

By Erin Gill

Hinkley B nuclear powerstation

Hinkley B nuclear power station (Photo: Erin Gill).

People often have firm opinions about the merits – or otherwise – of nuclear power. I’m no exception. When I set out early one morning in Sept 2014 for a tour of Hinkley Point B nuclear power station in Somerset with members of the Power & Water network I felt certain that my views wouldn’t be altered by what I would see and hear. I was wrong.

I was excited about the visit to Hinkley Point – this would my first visit to an operational nuclear power station and I wanted to see whether my general understanding of how reactors work was accurate. As we drove out of Bristol toward the site I thought about the two reasons why I have long opposed nuclear power (in a rather passive way). First, there is the inherent risk of catastrophic failure. Second, there is the unresolved issue of what to do with nuclear power stations’ ongoing production of radioactive waste, including highly-radioactive spent fuel rods.

There are several other arguments against nuclear energy – including the possibility that radioactive emissions could be a factor in the increasing number of childhood cancers – but for me the two make-or-break issues have been the twin dangers of nuclear disaster and waste. I don’t think energy production needs to be so risky.

So I was unnerved to realise, after a fantastic tour of Hinkley Point B led by informative and intelligent EDF staff, that I now have a new – a third – reason to oppose nuclear energy. I had not expected my opposition to nuclear power to harden, but it had. The EDF tour was exemplary, but it couldn’t help but expose a central problem: that it takes far, far too much effort, by too many people, who must all be very, very careful all of the time – and whose actions must be triple-checked by others – to produce what is really not very much electricity for the nation.

I am not interested in presenting a detailed case about nuclear power’s lack of economic competitiveness. Others have done this very well. Instead, I simply want to express my astonishment at what I witnessed: the staggering and inescapable inefficiencies of nuclear power generation. It is such a dangerous form of electricity generation that everything takes place at a snail’s pace and every tiny action is monitored so many times…I really don’t know how people work there without going mad with the tedium. Surely, humanity no longer needs to make so much of an effort – whilst putting the health of people and the environment at so much risk – in the pursuit of such a paltry amount of power. We have better solutions now, some of which need the financial support that we are misguidedly giving to nuclear power (I’m thinking here of the construction of high-voltage direct current – HVDC – interconnector cables between the countries that border the North and Baltic Seas, so that spare electricity can be traded rather than wasted.)

 

A 1960s mainframe

Relying on nuclear power today is like using one of those gargantuan 1950s computers that take up half a university campus but are only capable of spitting out useful data once every few months. And building new nuclear reactors is like choosing to do this at a time when it’s possible to use a 4G smartphone at a cost of about £20/ month.

Any new method of power generation should become easier and more efficient with time, not less efficient and more risky. As Hinkley Point B nears its 50th year of operation, it seems little more than a hulking symbol on the Somerset shoreline of a technology that has failed to improve with time; a technology that limps along requiring more and more assistance with each passing year.

Of course, the new reactors at Hinkley Point C will – if they’re finally built – be somewhat more efficient, for a few years. (Until their cores develop cracks prompting nuclear safety authorities to demand lower generation rates.) But even a brand new nuclear power station cannot offer even a fraction of the efficiency gains and cost savings being achieved by photovoltaics and wind. In the past decade the power generation game has inexorably changed and nuclear no longer makes any sense as a ‘transitional’, low-carbon technology. It’s been left in the dust.

Let me offer an example of the inefficiency that nuclear power necessitates. Each of Hinkley Point B’s two reactors is served by an enormous machine used to remove spent fuel rods and replace them with fresh rods. These bespoke machines take a full eight hours to very carefully – ever so slowly – remove one set of highly-radioactive spent (ie. used-up) fuel rods and replace them. This essential process ensures the reactors are ‘fed’ with the uranium and graphite-rich rods required for the generation of electricity. The reactors can’t run without the rods.

This eight-hour operation is risky, thanks to the highly radioactive nature of the spent fuel rods, and EDF’s staff are rightly proud of the care they take to ensure everything goes smoothly. After this painstaking procedure is completed, the rods are even more carefully transported to a cooling pond for temporary storage. Eventually, each of these spent fuel rods is tenderly transported by road and rail from Somerset to Cumbria, where they are stored in facilities that are acknowledged by all parties involved in the nuclear industry as seriously inadequate. One day the UK will build an underground storage facility – in granite – to house these spent fuel rods for thousands of years, but until this ‘deep geological storage facility’ is constructed we keep them in cooling ponds at Sellafield, where they pose a risk to local environmental and human health. This is not an opinion, this is a fact.

But I don’t want to focus on the the very real safety concerns about nuclear power. I want to draw attention to how inefficient and painstaking it all is. All the effort by so many people at Hinkley Point B and for what? For an average annual rate of electricity generation below 500MW per reactor. It’s enough to make a person weep. More than half a century of nuclear power generation in the UK and this is what we get?

I was relieved to learn during the Hinkley tour that safety is not taken lightly there. In fact, every three years, all operations cease for a three full months to allow for a comprehensive check of the station’s physical state and processes, known as a statutory outage. During this period approximately 9,000 people spend time onsite as part of these checks. That is a staggering number. In addition to the hundreds of staff employed during normal operations to cosset these two reactors so that they can each generate at a rate below 500MW, there are 9,000 extra people every three years just to make sure it’s still safe. This makes no sense. Almost every new regular-sized offshore wind farm being built off the UK coast will have a capacity approaching 500MW. The turbines need maintenance and repair, but they don’t need anywhere near the numbers of people that nuclear power stations need. Larger wind farms due to be built over the next decade will produce more than double the projected 3,200MW output of Hinkley Point C. As an example, Dogger Bank offshore wind farm, to be built in phases more than 100km off Yorkshire, will have a capacity greater than 7,000MW when complete.

 

A bicycle brain

I could go on, but I won’t. Opinions about nuclear power have become so polarised that I doubt anything I write will ever influence the views of someone who has already decided that nuclear power is a ‘good thing’. So I’ll end by admitting that I am a cyclist and that cycling has possibly influenced my views on industrial efficiency. I cycle to and from work most days and so I ‘know’ in a visceral, physical sense what real efficiency feels like. One of the oddest and loveliest things about the bicycle is that it is the most efficient form of human-designed transportation that exists to date. It’s true, look it up. The bicycle requires a surprisingly modest exertion of somatic energy in exchange for the production of enough power to travel at a speed of between 10-15mph.

No other machine invented by humans comes close to the efficiency of the bicycle – and those of us who cycle gradually realise this. If it looks like a breeze for us, that’s because it is a breeze (except when we’re going up hill)!

As I see it, nuclear power stations are the antithesis of the bicycle. They are the equivalent of a hulking military tank inching forward, built using vast quantities of finite resources, fuelled by even more irreplaceable materials, and manned by an enormous team of people who carefully keep the whole thing from blowing up. I am grateful to every single person who works at Hinkley Point B for keeping the reactors there functioning as well as they can. But I am truly mystified as to why the UK government is so committed to building yet another inherently inefficient (and, yes, dangerous) hulk on the Somerset coast. The energy generation equivalent of the nimble bicycle is available – in the form of a number of renewable technologies that are fast becoming commoditised and whose costs are tumbling. Even better, they generate electricity without the risk of poisoning the land and/or the people.

 

From One Big River to Another: Local Musicians Muse on Life, Death and Rebirth (?) on the Tees and Tyne

By Peter Coates

I’ve just revisited an e-mail that Jill Payne sent the project team a few days before we met up in Newcastle earlier this year. She reminded us that Chris Rea’s song ‘Steel River’ echoes the sentiments of Jimmy Nail’s lament to the working Tyne, ‘Big River’. (I remember seeing Rea in concert in Newcastle City Hall circa. 1974, when he was the support act for Lindisfarne at one of their famous Christmas concerts.) In fact, Rea anticipated Nail’s emotional mood by a decade: whereas ‘Big River’ was released in 1995, ‘Steel River was the opening track on the 1985 album, ‘Shamrock Diaries’ (though its best-known track is arguably the second, ‘Stainsby Girls’).

Rea hails from Middlesbrough and his river is the Tees, but the scenario and message are identical – a stark and painful contrast between the thriving industry on its banks in the 1960s, when Rea was growing up there, and the late 1980s, when a post-industrial river was clean enough for salmon to return but meaningless to those who once worked in the steel mills (the industrial and chemical sector whose thirst for water lay behind the decision to dam the North branch of the Tyne in 1974, but which was largely moribund by the time Kielder reservoir and dam were opened by the Queen in 1982). Here’s the third and final verse of ‘Steel River’ that Jill pasted into her e-mail.

They say that salmon swim in steel river
They say it’s good to see them back again
I know it hurts to see what really happened
I know one salmon ain’t no good to them
They were born and raised to serve their steel mother
It was all they taught and all they ever knew
And they believed that she would keep their children
Even though not a single word was true
Say goodbye steel river.

‘Pure magic’, reads one of the comments that accompanies the version of ‘Steel River’ posted on YouTube, ‘makes me proud to come from Teesside…listening to this takes me back to the days when we were a thriving industry, the world needed Middlesbrough’s steel to exist’. ‘This song says it all’, comments another viewer (62,136 views to date): ‘it tears my heart out’. ‘It is physically impossible for anyone born in these environs not to cry when local boy Chris Rea’s paean to this lost world…strikes up on the jukebox or radio’, reflects Daniel Gray (Hatters, Railwaymen and Knitters: Travels Through England’s Football Provinces [Bloomsbury,2013, 18).

Most of the other comments strike more or less the same note. But there’s one that’s a bit different, a bit less lachrymose, and a bit more hopeful: ‘This [song] is an inspiration for every Briton who can recall that the country was once great. Let’s get back to making lots of stuff out of steel – but perhaps we can clean it up just a tad better than before. Salmon is still compatible with steel-making’.

River Tees

River Tees looking towards Middlesbrough. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Jill Payne collaborates with artist Eloise Govier for Bristol Bright Night

On 26 September, project team member Jill Payne collaborated with the Bath-based contemporary fine artist Eloise Govier in the creation of a large-scale public art installation in the water spaces of Bristol’s Millennium Square. The installation, Ticker-Tape: Waterscape, formed part of the Bristol Bright Night event hosted by the At-Bristol Science Centre and was designed to challenge viewers’ perceptions of energy production in the landscape. Visitors were encouraged to walk around the artwork, a floating sculpture of 500 fluorescent bricks accompanied by a 5-minute visual soundscape broadcast on the BBC Big Screen overhead, and discuss their perspectives on art and energy landscapes with Eloise and Jill. Jill also provided an accompanying public lecture at the nearby Watershed.

Ticker-Tape: Waterscape is part of a series of Ticker-Tape installations created by Eloise Govier to spotlight and generate discussion on areas of contention in the public domain. Ticker-Tape was launched in April 2013 and has been executed in various sites across Europe, ranging from the Welsh/English border to a UNESCO-protected modernist housing estate in what was formerly East Berlin.

Bristol Bright Night is part of the annual ‘Researchers’ Night’ programme, an EU Commission-funded project that aims to engage publics across Europe in celebrating the latest and most stimulating research at a local and international level.

Art Installation

Ticker-Tape: Waterscape, Bristol’s Millennium Square (photo: Alex Dowson/Eloise Govier)

Wasting Millions… of Stories, Insights and Experiences? An Inspiring Workshop on Academia, Environments and Engaging with the Public(s)

By Leona Skelton

David Matless, a Professor of Cultural Geography at the University of Nottingham, highlighted an important story from the history of academic public engagement in his presentation at the University of East Anglia’s ‘Environment(s) in Public(s)?’ workshop on 3rd November 2014. It was a story from 1911, the year in which the renowned Arthur Tansley, a Botanist and pioneer in the science of Ecology and a lecturer at the University of Cambridge, embarked on an in-depth study of river valleys and species in the Norfolk Broads. He and his academic team purposely ignored a group which they referred to pejoratively as ‘local workers’ in their quest to understand this particular environment. This led them to exclude most of the members of the local naturalist societies and clubs, who, of course, understood their local environment very intimately indeed. The story ended happily, however, as the academics did a U-turn, eventually including the ‘local workers’ in their project, after admitting that their knowledge was both valuable and useful to their study.

This historic story is hugely relevant in the light of recent academic research funding objectives, encouraging academics to beat their own imaginative, successful and above all useful ‘pathways to impact’, ensuring that their research has a real use and benefit for wider society, and rightly so. Environmental historians are approaching this objective not as a one-way process, but as an opportunity for symbiosis. Following the albeit redrafted example of Tansley, to inform their research, many are successfully utilising the often very deep knowledge, experience and understanding of those who live, and have long lived, in particular environments, who face particular local environmental challenges as part of their daily lives. They are conducting oral history interviews and attending meetings of local history groups, wildlife charities and local sporting and outdoor pursuit clubs and societies, as well as ensuring that such research delivers benefits on the ground in the environments under their study by contributing to future policies or leaving beneficial educational or recreational legacies behind. Ruth Tittensor’s From Peat Bog to Conifer Forest: An Oral History of Whitelee, its Construction and Landscape (2009) is a good example of an environmental history which has been enriched by direct engagement and participation of experienced local people in its creation.

The two concepts of 1) locals contributing to academics’ publications and 2) academics providing pathways to beneficial impact in local communities are not mutually exclusive. Very often, the process of involving the public in academic research can produce benefits in their own right. Creating a volume of oral history interviews, which provide a snapshot of local life, the environment and locals’ projections for their future provides a legacy, which benefits the community at large as well as facilitating increased academic understanding through publication.

The purpose of the workshop held at the University of East Anglia (UEA), and hosted jointly by 3S: Science, Society and Sustainability (which is a research group at UEA), Science in Public and the Broads Authority, was to interrogate the question of whether or not academics should tailor their approach to public engagement more specifically to multiple and separate publics with which they aim to engage rather than simply to the whole public. For example, should busy farmers, a canoeing club and a Parish Council be amalgamated into one homogenous group called ‘the public’, which incorporates all non-academics, or rather given special consideration as respective publics with different needs, different capabilities for contribution and potentially different sensitivities? The argument is further complicated by the issue of different environments; even within one country, a sheep farmer living in an upland location might require a different approach to an arable farmer in East Anglia, for example. The general consensus was that more detailed consideration should be given to the particular needs and expectations of the groups we approach for public engagement through our academic studies and that it is indeed useful to imagine ‘publics’ rather than the ‘public’.

The issue of scale was also raised, in relation to climate change, highlighting the propensity for people to force change at local, regional and even national scales, compared to the general disinclination of the majority to invest in forcing global change. Globally, the goal is too big, and, as Angela Cassidy pointed out in her paper on ‘Animals, People and Places: Connecting Public Debates about how we Live in a Changing World’, using the image of a polar bear, which is remote to the majority of the world’s population, is probably far less effective than using more immediately relevant images of a flooded village or a family and their pets in distress. The workshop was grounded within quite a small scale by its focus on the environment surrounding the University of East Anglia, the city of Norwich, the rivers, farms, broads and coast of the East of England, but the questions which the workshop raised could be applied to many other different environments on a far wider scale, and they are relevant to all academics working with environments, including environmental geographers, environmental historians, ecologists, artists and environmental scientists.

Ultimately, academics can think imaginatively, not in desperation as salesmen and women under the pressure of punitive targets, and not from above as benefactors who kindly impart their infinitely superior knowledge, but rather as inspiring positive forces in local communities, who approach the publics with whom they intend to engage as equals, offering to give as much as or even more than they take. Working with practitioners, businesses, museums, engineers, councillors and charities can speed up the process of public engagement for academics, but such collaborations can also enhance such professionals’ own work by introducing exciting, interesting and beneficial elements from our academic research to their projects and schemes which would otherwise have not occurred to them. Alexandra Johnson, Curator at the London Science Museum, explained how she worked with artists to create an exhibition called ‘The Rubbish Collection’, which showcased to the public in a creative and visually attractive style all of the items of rubbish which were disposed of by the museum over a period of thirty days. Despite the widely held perception among some of the public that waste-disposal and recycling is a boring and overkilled topic, they were inspired by the exhibition because of the imaginative and visually stimulating manner in which the issue was conveyed. Environmental historians, too, can design imaginative, innovative and ultimately useful ways in which to introduce the benefit of hindsight – the mistakes, successes, issues and debates of the past – to contribute to present-day challenges.

Our own project, ‘The Power and the Water: Reconnecting Pasts with Futures’, aims to reconnect severed, but important, links between historic and present problems in the development of the UK’s energy and water infrastructure. In my own project, I have learnt as much, and in some cases even more, from attending the Clean Tyne Project’s Steering Committee or riding downriver on their debris-collection vessel, from talking to local volunteers working at the Low Light Heritage Centre, or to the volunteers of the Tyne Rivers Trust’s Riverwatch at their 10th Anniversary celebrations, or by taking a tour of Howdon wastewater treatment works with Northumbrian Water, a tour of the Port of Tyne facilities or an art walk to the Dunston Staiths. All of these experiences have provided insights into the problems faced throughout the Tyne catchment today, which inform and enrich my archival research into the problems of the Tyne’s past, which in turn can and will (very soon) inform and enrich those present day institutions’, charities’ and authorities’ approaches to improving future Tyne policies.

Rubbish from Tyne

Power & Water project leader, Peter Coates, rejuvenated after observing the work of the Clean Tyne Project aboard their debris-collection vessel, the ‘Clearwater’ (Photo: M. Dudley)

The workshop at UEA was a success precisely because of the diversity of its attendees. A journalist, a museum curator, an ecologist, the director of the Norfolk Broads Authority, environmental historians, scientists and geographers, chemists and members of the public. We achieved a great deal in one day through face-to-face and direct communication. It certainly boosted my own conception and attitudes towards public engagement. Academics are doing really well in their efforts to include publics in and to improve the experiences of publics through their research, but they can and should always try to do better. For every ten stories, insights and first-hand experiences we incorporate into our research, there are millions more which we have not heard and will not incorporate, and which are arguably being wasted. Perhaps technology will provide an even larger opportunity to capture and analyse this important source of information in the future, in the way that citizen science projects have been developed recently on scales which were unthinkable fifteen years ago. Until then, we are wasting millions… millions of stories, millions of insights and millions of experiences.

 

Links

http://www.3s.uea.ac.uk/

http://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/visitmuseum/Plan_your_visit/exhibitions/rubbish_collection.aspx

http://tyneriverstrust.org/what-we-do-2/community-engagement/riverwatch/

http://www.citizensciencealliance.org/

http://www.cultivatinginnovation.org/blog

http://www.erica.demon.co.uk/EH/reviews/72_Chaplin.pdf

http://scienceinpublic.org/

 

Who killed the Lathkill? (or, when is a river is no longer a river?)

By Peter Coates

In Alaska, environmentalists are currently fighting a proposed coal mine in the watershed of the Chuitna River, 45 miles southwest of Anchorage. This strip mine will not only destroy salmon spawning grounds. It will literally remove 11 miles of the Chuitna’s Middle Creek tributary by mining through and therefore dewatering it. If the project goes ahead, there will be no mystery about why Middle Creek disappeared.

In the former lead mining areas of Derbyshire’s Peak District, there’s a disappearing river too. But there’s also a sense of mystery about its strange behaviour. One of the Key Stage 2 activities that the Lathkill Education Service attached to the Lathkill Dale National Nature Reserve runs for local schools is ‘why the river disappears – solve the mystery of the disappearing River Lathkill through this investigation of the geology and wildlife of the area’ [1] (‘kill’, incidentally, means ‘creek’, ‘stream’ or ‘channel’ in old Middle Dutch, and was a name attached in the seventeenth century to creeks and streams across what became the northeastern United States – as in Kill Van Kull, Bronx Kill and Schuylkill River). Natural England, which manages the Lathkill Dale reserve – one of five reserves that make up the Derbyshire Dales National Nature Reserve – also refers to the Lathkill’s ‘vanishing act’. As Natural England proceeds to explain, the upper river’s disappearance is part of the legacy of the two lead mines (established in 1740 and 1797 respectively) that operated in Lathkill Dale until the mid-nineteenth century: ‘the soughs are responsible for causing the river to dry out today’ [2]. ‘Where has the river gone? is also the question posed on the interpretative board that Natural England has erected at the bottom of the ladder that leads to the mine shaft under Bateman’s House (an engine house converted into a dwelling for the mine agent and his family, though empty since the 1840s).

signage Bateman’s House

‘Where has the river gone?, interpretative signage, Bateman’s House (photo: Peter Coates)

Who (or what) has been messing about with the Lathkill? Our project team meeting in Derbyshire in early October provided the opportunity to find out. Our schedule included a field trip to Lathkill Dale, one of the key sites for Carry’s and Georgina’s study of the area’s soughs – underground channels forged to drain water from the area’s lead mines. Our walk began down in the dale at a point where our guide, John Barnatt, an archaeologist with the Peak District National Park Authority, could stand with his back to the (at the time) water-less Lathkill River, whose peculiar annual lifecycle we now began to piece together.

Field trip

John Barnatt of the Peak District National Park Authority, with his colleague, Sarah Whitelaw (in red), and members of the project team, including (to Sarah’s immediate right) sough investigators Georgina Endfield and Carry van Lieshout (Photo: Peter Coates)

The Lathkill River is not exactly unique, though. It’s normal for streams running through limestone strata riddled with a network of natural caves to flow underground in summer or periods of drought when water levels are low. But this seasonal tendency is accentuated by the construction of soughs that lowered the water table and created a network of diversionary channels that can capture river water.

For some, the river’s seasonal disappearance is a problem to be resolved. (This interest group includes anglers: the Lathkill brown trout is a renowned quarry that merits inclusion in James Prosek’s definitive compendium, Trout of the World [2003], in which Prosek quotes the comment [1653] of a friend of Izaak Walton, James Cotton, that the Lathkill ‘breeds the reddest and the best Trouts in England’ [3].) Because of what Natural England refers to on its Bateman’s House signage as the ‘dramatic’ impact on the river and its wildlife, the managing agency is ‘currently exploring means of sealing the riverbed’ so that the water does not drain off into Magpie Sough. Whether this waterproofing remedy will be sufficient in itself to restore a perennial flow to the Lathkill is now increasingly debated, however. Since some of the river’s water travels through Magpie Sough, plans now focus on the establishment of some sort of blockage in the sough in addition to sealing the riverbed – and this blocking proposal is a major source of controversy (many thanks, Carry, for bringing this latest development to my attention).

Bridge

A (fluvio-centric) view from under the bridge across to Bateman’s House (Photo: Peter Coates).

But has the river really disappeared? And what do those who want to ‘improve’ the sometimes dry river want to restore? A living river? An attractive recreational resource for anglers? Rather than dwell on the seasonal absence of water or the fortunes of fish (during dry spells, trout can be trapped by receding water levels and this entails relocation), we might want to think about attaching a new story to the Lathkill, a story that diverts attention to the seasonal presence of a riverbed carpeted lush vegetation, for example. For me – as an outsider visiting for the first time and someone who has no stake in the debate – the problem is not so much the seasonal disappearance of the river’s water, but our generic expectations of what a river should be. After all, though the Lathkill’s liquid content may vanish on a regular basis, its form and overall function remain the same. This replacement narrative tailored to this particular body of water might begin by reclassifying the Lathkill as an intermittent stream. This would elevate it to the respectable international company of a distinctive type of watercourse that includes the arroyo seco ([seasonally] dry stream) of southwestern North America. This would also underscore its status as a different river rather than a lesser one (compared, that is, to a ‘proper’ river). And if the privilege of re-naming the intermittent stream that flows through Lathkill Dale were mine, I would not hesitate to call it the Mossy Cobbled Bottom Kill.

It is a shame that the cause of preservation is often reduced to a clash between the attributes of cultural heritage and those of natural heritage, with the respective interests of History and Nature being advanced by ‘the archaeologists’ and ‘the historians’ and the one hand and ‘the ecologists’ on the other. Environmental historians, it seems to me, are well positioned to reconcile these two often warring positions.

Lathkill River

The Mossy Cobbled Bottom Kill, aka Lathkill River (Photo: Peter Coagtes).

linear pasture

The Lathkill, even when drained of its liquid content, is anything but dry. On the damp day of our visit, I got soaked from my boots to above my knees walking down its lush linear pasture (Photo: Peter Coates

Notes

[1] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/derbyshires-national-nature-reserves/derbyshires-national-nature-reserves

[2] Natural England, Derbyshire Dales National Nature Reserve (2010), p. 3.

[3] James Prosek, ‘Trout of the World’, Field and Stream, October 2003, p. 77.

 

Reflections on the ground and the grid: framing infrastructure and connectivity

By Paul Warde

In a collection of autobiographical interviews, Stepping Stones, Seamus Heaney refers at one moment to ‘no longer being part of the ground, but part of the grid’. He was thinking about the changes in farming since his childhood, brought up as the eldest son of a cattle trader and smallholder in County Derry. It’s one of those comments that we can instinctively understand, and we know Heaney as perhaps the pre-eminent poet of the ground: of the bog bodies, the ‘narrow ground’ of Irish sectarianism, of his farming childhood.

And yet… what is the difference being evoked here: between ‘the grid’ and ‘the ground’? Heaney did not grow up on some kind of subsistence holding. His father may have largely plied the fairs and farms of Derry, but the cattle he traded were destined for British markets and he also sometimes took the ferry across the North Channel. Many of the objects and machines that Heaney writes about do not belong to some ur-world of ancient farming practice, but came with mechanization and are the output of late nineteenth and twentieth century factories. Having once worked at the Ulster Folk Museum I am familiar with this stuff myself, having a particular fondness for the planes made by Alexander Mathieson & Son at their Saracen Works in Glasgow until 1966 (my grandfather had a set of their tools for his cabinetmaking). It’s hard to imagine that my grandchildren will view anything I get from Screwfix today in the same light. The tools of two or three generations ago were factory-made, smelted and wrought in a coal-fired world that wrecked people’s lungs, dissolved our buildings, choked plantlife and acidified watercourses. And yet, retrospectively, they seem to belong to a somehow more human world, as things that still extended our capacities rather than supplanted us. And in that, them having a poetics is entirely justified. Is there a poetics of the mobile phone or the microwave? Or is this a blinkered view of past technology, and connections lost – the conceit of every generation confronted with the shock of the new?

So what’s the difference between the ground and the grid? In some ways, it seems to me that project The power and the water turns around this distinction: examining both the reasons why we recognise it, but also its complications. Our connections with the basic utilities for life – and by extension nature itself – have been repeatedly re-wrought since the Industrial Revolution. How, and with what consequences? When did this process begin, is it continuous or episodic, and how are certain ‘expected connections’ hard-wired into us during this process? The difference between a world of ground and grid can’t just lie in new connections with outside markets, or the use of technological aids or external power sources; steam power has been around for three centuries, for example. Commerce, on a greater or lesser scale, for much longer. For Heaney there was certainly, I think, an issue of the value of weightiness, living on the land but also where tools and machines were things that could be propelled by hand or that the hand can know. Even when fired by coal we feel their work partakes of our life. And indeed isn’t coal, which you have to shovel into an engine or a boiler, still open-handed ground in all its mineral certainty? All qualities that the grid, the tablet and mobile phone don’t have, even if somewhere down the wires is a power station immolating a million tons of coal dust. Heaney’s poetic objects are freighted: their mass can breach time, whether back to an ancient Danish bog, or the yard – the haggard – of an off-the-grid farm in the 1940s. In Heaney, even souls have body: an extraordinary lightness, and yet still belong to that material world that weighs into us. In contrast, the grid is somehow completely intangible. A nothing.

Of course, what sustains modern grids and infrastructure is far from intangible: it has a massive ecological footprint, it involves enormous quantities of concrete and minerals. And yet, in everyday life, in the life we take in hand, it’s not there. You can certainly feel the power when you stand next to an enormous transformer field, or the connector at Hinkley B nuclear plant that conveys the electricity from the power station’s dynamos out to the grid: the largest plug you will ever see. But how many people have ever seen these things? Of course, we can ask the same of a river. It is not hard, standing at a river’s mouth, to think of the soft stream in the hills which becomes the mighty Tyne. But how many people think of this when they turn on a tap or run the washing machine? Did industrialisation and deindustrialisation respectively bring people closer to, or distance them from their rivers – in the case of the Tyne a flow whose notions of greatness we attach to it are surely connected with the mining and heavy industry that stood along it? These questions can, perhaps, be answered as matters of fact and knowledge: what do you think are the sources of the water and power you use? But they are also part of our imaginative infrastructure, or put another way, a kind of structure of insight that everyday life drills into us.

These questions put me in mind of Melanie Challenger’s 2013 book On Extinction, in which she begins looking out her window over heathland in Cornwall, and pondering the death of the tin mining industry. A book you might expect to be about species – and that takes us from Cornwall to Antarctica to northern Canada and back to good old Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire – is as much an inner journey, understanding extinction as being about what we choose to remember. We all and everything will be extinct; in that sense, extinction is completely unremarkable; it’s just death. So to think about extinction is a choice of words, a way of talking about the past and relating to it in the present. This seems interesting to me as a way of thinking about the changes that encompass our industrial heritage: the soughs of Derbyshire and the lost shipyards of the Tyne – to the environmental impact of industrialisation, and what rewilding might mean in the future. Are there distinct or common ways of grappling with extinction that are, so to speak, connected to our habitual connections and associated expectations?

In 1979 the art historian Rosalind Krauss wrote an essay on grids in modernist painting, describing an aesthetic that was ‘flattened, geometricized, ordered… antinatural, antimimetic, antireal. It is what art looks like when it turns its back on nature’. For Krauss, the modernist grid mimicked the logic of modernist society, producing a valueless, purely functional and exchangeable (or interchangeable) space. This argument puts me in mind of Robert Sacks’ book on Human territoriality, and J.C.Scott’s famous Seeing like a state. Scott essentially reverses Krauss’s thinking to argue that modernist infrastructure was in many ways an aesthetic choice imposed on the world, rather than the aesthetics being a response to mass production and industrial society. But all these treatises have something in common: they associate modernity, the grid, with the abolition of place. Modernity brings about a state of connections that are so complete and effortless their effects are to disconnect, leaving people with an unsavoury sense of dependence on forces that you cannot influence (you cannot even pray to them, or give libations and sacrifices). In fact, a state of being that may be enabling, yet disempowering.

Of course connections to grids – electrical, water and other – were often and still are seen as hugely welcome, markers of civilization – that word still certainly being used in interwar Britain – and opportunity: Here the grid has both ‘a vigorous free spirit and a propensity to control’ in the words of another art historian, Hannah Higgins. So it could be that rather than imposing some order on history, we will find ourselves writing the history of paradoxes.

Ground is what we feel beneath our feet: it steadies us, is as irreducible as nature (irreducibility being the very definition of nature according to Kant). Grid in contrast is at once rigid and boundless, entirely abstract. But such antimonies aren’t necessarily between hand and network, natural and artificial, or say, face-to-face relations and impersonality. At least, maybe the history that moves us from a world that seems more grounded to one that appears, Matrix-like, to emanate from the logic of the grid itself, is not so much a descriptive history of ‘material flows’ and their consequences, but a history of how we have imagined the (literally) unsettling experience of changes to our environments. Confronted with actual locations these oppositions – ground/grid, personal/impersonal, real/abstract – become ways to describe aspects of the experience, not a way we can absolutely categorise places. Indeed ‘The environment’ for me is a way of describing that very awkwardness; a word that describes everything outside yet connects it, in an act of solipsism, to ourselves; a way of talking about nature that makes it ‘of us’, and that connects it to abstraction. But it’s not something that we generally feel. Can you feel the environment in your bones, or wherever you do the feeling thing? As we currently think about the concept, I doubt it. The age of ‘environment’ is not age of connection, but more of a sensibility that we have got ahead of ourselves; something that demands policy, although for uncertain ends. It is, perhaps, the perfect idiom for what some of us now call the Anthropocene, time strung between the ground and the grid.