What's in a word?
Rosa and I have been having a real laugh during the floods crisis listening to the way people have taken up unfamiliar words with alacrity and real joy. The most prominent of these, and a word that was unknown to almost everybody up to a week ago, is 'bowser'. I can hear how this word rolls comfortably around a West Country mouth, having vague echoes of wurzel or cider and that lovely long complex vowel in the middle.
Since these squat, blue vessels have become a ubiquitous part of the landscape of Gloucestershire the word has colonised our communications. We have had bowser bulletins, bowser location reports, bowser wardens, bowser guards, and by the second weekend of the crisis we learned that people were already bowsered out! Whether this means fed up with using the bowsers or tired of the word I wasn't sure. Somewhat ironically, the word appears to have originally meant a tanker for petrol, rather than water, and was named after its designer, one Sylvanus Bowser from Fort Wayne, Indiana, who also invented the fuel pump.
The bowser has already generated its own folk myth: that of the unruly youths who pee into or pour bleach into them. This has led to the round-the-clock guarding of bowsers in some places: we have at least learned to value water. Some people reported that they had seen sacriligeous desecration with their own eyes but, as with the best urban myths, everybody thought it had happened in their community. It gave us a chance to feel stronger together as a community of people who respected our bowser and its valuable contents.
Other popular words during the crisis have been 'unprecedented' and, that word so beloved of Transitioners, 'resilience'. The word 'unprecedented' has been used by everybody from the prime minister to the police chief, whose possession of a doctorate and the name of 'brain' has been reassuring for us all, since he is the nerve-centre of the emergency effort. The need to label the crisis as 'unprecedented' (nobody says 'unpredicted' I note) is essential to divert blame. While justified it has also been frequently abused as in 'We've seen nothing like this since 1850: it's completely unprecedented'.
So what have we learned after a week that has seen us being supported by the Red Cross and with people receiving bottled water marked 'aid use only' handed out by the police? The first lesson is how much resilience we lack in terms of vital services such as electricity and water. Decentralisation and localisation of sources of energy and water will have to the be the first change that climate change conditions require.
People have been forced to learn the difference between white and grey water and have realised how profligately we waste drinking water, that has been produced and distributed using vast amounts of energy, to flush our toilets. Many people are now using water from their water butts for flushing the toilet and for washing. I wonder how many will install rainwater harvesting and grey water recycling systems once the crisis is past? The argument for this has been made clear.
We've learned that people are adaptable. Within a week many people had rigged up systems to drain and make available the rainwater falling on their roofs. In fact, rather than being challenged many people have delighted in being called upon to be ingenious and practical rather than just going shopping.
But what about the vulnerable who do not have the flexibility to respond creatively? It appears that they have been looked after by their neighbours, even if they did not know those neighbours before the water disappeared. We have learned that people are basically good and look after each other. Perhaps most importantly, we have learned that in a crisis the most important resource we have is each other.