ECO-ELDER – my younger self?

New Scientist Essay Prize Winner 1974

 Among the lovely Stroud group of environmental activists I now get called an ‘elder’, which is rather sweet. Sometimes people ask me how long I have supported these eco movements and when I reply since the early 1970s they look surprised like as if I am pre-history!

 So here I am going to out my younger self, with a posting of my teenage claim to fame, albeit a very brief one.

 In 1974 I won first prize in a New Scientist essay competition for schoolchildren titled ‘Why Worry About Future Energy Needs?’ I went up to London to receive my prize from Graeme Garden, comedian in the Goodies BBC TV show which was very popular then.

I received a flurry of publicity, including an interview on the BBC World Service, national papers and I was due to appear on BBC1 ‘Tomorrow’s World’, but coverage of the plane crash that week at Paris which killed 346 people knocked me off my slot.

 We had just come through the 1973 oil crisis, prompted by the OPEC(Organisation of Oil Exporting Countries) nations hiking up their prices. This was compounded with the 1974 miner’s strike and the three day week, leaving the nation gripped by fuel scarcity worries and in the dark with candles. So the essay title was very topical. For a brief moment our collective minds were focussed on where our energy comes from.

My essay, posted here in photos below, makes me cringe with embarrassment for it’s general oversimplification, and rather trite arguments about population growth. But it does include a lot of environmental points about sustainability which are now well known. My timescale was wrong, mainly because of new discoveries of oil and gas, and energy efficiency savings.

I have to remind myself that I was only 15 years old, and I lived in small rural town where it was quite hard to get information. I was very lucky that an enlightened school librarian was a closet green, and ordered books for me to read including Silent Spring (Carson), Only One Earth (Ward), Small is Beautiful (Schumacher), and Limits to Growth, a detailed doomsday fantasy. Other than books, it was TV, Radio, newspapers, and magazines as information sources. Sending off a self addressed stamped envelope to organisations like Friends of the Earth and the Conservation Society  were the only other ways to get outside ideas. I used to regularly read my father’s encyclopedia, as a way to discover new topics; there was no Google for browsing back then!

My mood in 1974 was one of fossil fuel anxiety. My research and reading had persueded me that the there were real ecological constraints to continued economic and population growth. I was convinced that by now, or 2020, fossil fuels would have run out and life as we know it would have come to an end. I felt pretty much like a lone voice, no-one else really cared, or believed me; my parents thought I was ridiculously pessimistic. Of course I was wrong in so many ways.

I hadn’t heard of carbon footprints or global warming then, although I now know that the basic scientific facts were known at the time. I was describing what we would now call ‘Peak Oil’ and carbon descent, both of which are real. We had virtually no ‘green vocabulary’ in 1974; the only word in use was ‘alternative’ and the study of environmental science was in its infancy. So I was seen as an alternative technology oddball teenager!

That teenage eco-warrior faded away during the late 1970s and 80s. My degree was Agricultural Science, which was back in the heyday of the CAP(Common Agricultural Policy) when we were producing mountains of grain and lakes of milk. It was a course in full-on chemical farming techniques, driven by a system based on subsidies paid to farmers for their yields. When I graduated in 1980 I would have liked to work in organic farming, but the sector then was so small that it barely existed – pretty much just a few carrot growers in Pembrokeshire.

I found my green voice again in the 1990s, and started teaching organic gardening and Permaculture. And now I’m supporting Extinction Rebellion calling for urgent action on our climate change emergency. It is originated by innovative, brave and enthusiastic organisers and I am so glad they all have the energy and determination to take this on.

In 1974 I could not have anticipated that in 45 years time we would be facing up worldwide to the consequences of global warming, caused by burning fossil fuels. Everyone who has got children should be concerned about it and joining calls for action.

I am not an Extinction Rebellion arrestable person : I am just happy to join in, sit on my camp chair at protests with a Thermos of tea,  and  be one of the ‘elders’!

Helen Johnson receives prize from Graeme Garden


Before it snowed I was still working on bringing up hay from the field which we had scythed in August. The thick  hay pile we left under the silver birch tree has already partially rotted down to something like ready made compost. It is full of life and I can see that it has been well picked over by the badgers who have been eating the worms in it.

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Winter in my garden – I wonder where the snakes are hiding now?

I am adopting the Ruth Stout method of gardening with hay. She bought her hay supplies from a farmer. In our case we have two thirds of an acre of old hay meadow, really rich in wildlife: it needs cutting every year and the hay removed to keep fertility low and encourage wild flowers. So we have started a perfectly integrated Permaculture system here whereby the hay from the field is going to provide the fertility for growing our vegetables.

In the kitchen garden I went out to get vegetables before it snowed. I dug up leeks from under their thick blanket of hay mulch, and I find they have done terribly well. They were decimated by leek moths in the summer and I did the drastic thing of cutting them all back to almost ground level with a knife. Then I mulched them with thick hay and wonderfully they have recovered.

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My leeks – under a blanket of hay and snow.

And I made soup this weekend from one of my Golden Hubbard winter squashes. It made thirty portions of delicious soup, combined with home grown leeks and some sweet potatoes from the CoOp.

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My squash larder in December. (I gave some of them away as Christmas presents.)

And sitting on the floor in front of our wood burner, all nice and cosy, eating squash soup I feel like I have landed in heaven.

2012-11-16 09.57.08Wood burner heaven!