environmental point of no return?

Inspired by a tweet by the excellent @ruthvalerio yesterday, I want to address an issue that many people are mulling over.

Have we now reached a ‘point of no return’ in terms of the environment? Have we done such aggregious damage to the systems and materials of our world that it will never recover?

This is a complex question, and one which I am not really qualified to answer (not going to let a little thing like that stop me though).

Firstly let’s be clear, things will never be the same as they were. We cannot regain the world we had 100 years ago, 1000 years ago, or 1000,000 years ago. That world does not exist – it is gone, we cannot recreate it. The reality is that we have dug, drilled, exploded and concreted our way to a whole new kind of existance. So this is where we start from.

Secondly we have to recognise that the world we live in, is an eco system. We have to look at it from a macro perspective, and when we do we see a very large, complex system which we are all dependant upon, but which will almost certainly outlast each of us and has amazing ability to cope with the most attrocious treatment.

Thirdly we need to accept that way we live now is not sustainable. We are heavily dependent upon fossil fuels which we have expended incredible amounts of money upon extracting from the earth. If we are to talk about tipping point, or points of no return, then I think its fair to say that we’ve gone past such a point with oil. If we continue to treat oil like a cheap resource, then we are in trouble. The fact is that we all need to readdress our consumption patterns – our waste – and our philosophy of ‘stuff’.

Lets be clear, there are serious people talking about digging up landfill sites to get to buried caches of plastic because we’re running so short of resources. People in the waste management sector recognise the massive clanger we’ve collectively dropped, and are trying to do something about it.

But if we continue to live the way we are now, there is little point in them doing so. The only way we can change things (and I think we can change things) is to collectively choose to live differently. I think that in certain circles there are encouraging signs in this.

I’m encouraged that there is a growth within society of people looking at alternative ways of living a mainstream life. It is now acceptable in the mainstream to talk about co-housing, responsible food consumption, and so on. More people are eating less meat, more people are choosing to share accomodation rather than heat empty houses. These are good things, and I hope they become more mainstream as they really do have an impact on our environmental footprint.

However, these things alone, just like ensuring you do your recycling, are not enough. They are really only a sticking plaster on a severed limb.

The only thing that is going to reattach that limb is surgery, and that needs to come from two directions.

1) Massive and immediate remedial action needs to take place – substantial amounts of investment needs to be made into safeguarding precious resources and addressing ecological damage. Cooperative action needs to happen now to stop destruction of forests, to halt degradation of sea beds, and to put an end to greater exploitation of fossil fuel resources. The government in the Uk has recently trumpeted about a new oil field north of Scotland – (phew – more cheap petrol, what a relief!) No – stop this insanity! Halt that investment, let petrol prices go up to reflect the reality of this precious resource, that’s what will make people use less oil. Invest instead in renewable resources, and (gulp) nuclear power too – although it grieves me to say it.

2) At the same time as fixing the damage, we need to change our lifestyles. We have an addiction to stuff, and that needs to be broken. We have an addiction to oil and that needs to be broken. We have an addiction to imagining that we are the only people in the world that matter – and that really really really needs to be broken.  There are various things which need to happen to make these changes real – price increases for sure are going to be important – petrol prices will make people seek alternative forms of transport, I predict it and I also see it around me already. The western consumer mentality needs to be broken too, but that will be a harder nut to crack.

My prescription for that would be the most simple thing of all, and also the hardest.

We need to learn to love.

If we can learn to love, love those who are near and those who are further away, we might be able to pull back from the brink of ecological devastation. The world as an eco system has amazing capacity for self healing, but while we continue to ignore each other and the world around us, it is not getting the chance to do so.

If we can learn to love one another, then there is a chance. We will become less selfish, care more about the needs of others, recognise the need for self sacrifice in the interests of the greater good.

What will happen if we dont do that? Well there is a very good chance that the world as an eco system will find another way to survive, and my prediction on that is that it will involve a lot of death. Large scale desertification will occur, wars will be fought over food and water (in small ways they already are in fact) just as they have over oil.

Humans are clever creatures, we’ll find ways of allowing ourselves to continue our hyper consumer lifestyles, but it will be at a big cost – payable in blood. That or, we collectively begin to change our ways – and start to behave as if we really give a toss. We need to learn to love, need to turn away from selfishness, need to collectively repent. Either that or face the prospect of terrible loss of life, and a great deal of blood on our hands.

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Electric dreams

Ok, despite my anti-consumer credentials, I must admit that I have become a small time fan of electric vehicles.

I have become more convinced over recent months that electric cars, vans and motorcycles are an important part of a cleaner, greener future. I dont mean that we should all just jump in to electric vehicles to do the school run – there needs to be more walking and cycling generally, and better use of public transport.

One of the things I like about living where I do, is that many people dont have cars, they cant afford them. So they make better use of bikes and legs, and of buses too. I often see the kind of sights I used to only associate with trips to India and other developing nations – incongruous loads balanced precariously on push bikes. I’ve seen all kinds of things carried on handlebars and cross bars, including more than one passenger, bags of compost, vacuum cleaners and in one memorable case, a large road sign.

But reality is that we cant expect to do everything by bike or on foot, it’s simply not going to happen – and in many places we can’t always rely on public transport either.

So realistically there needs to be a ‘mixed economy’ of transport solutions – for us that involves public transport (we took the train from Grimsby to the south of France this year – great way to travel and amazingly cheap in comparison with car or train) and also some car hire (for longish car journeys where train or bus travel doesnt work for one of various reasons).

That’s why I’m basically in favour of electric  vehicles, be they motorbikes which you can charge up in your house by plugging them into to your mains supply (8p per charge, up to 30 miles range, 25mph all the way, ideal for a commute) or larger vehicles.

Certainly at the moment there are various problems with the electric vehicle industry, they are basically cost, range, speed, charging, and power generation, but I think these are on their way to being tackled.

Cost – the new cars are out for around £15,000 – £30,000 which is a lot, but as things progress prices will come down for sure. You can buy an electric scooter/motorbike for less than £1000.  Prices are bound to level out as other factors are sorted out and demand increases.

Range – the cars will go about 100 miles on a full charge, which isnt far enough for many people, although with average journeys being somewhat less than 20 miles, its surely enough for many of us. The scooters will go for about 30 miles, which is plenty for getting around town. The likelihood is that solutions will be presented before too long in the shape of places where you can simply swap out your battery, just as if you were filling up with petrol. That and better battery technology should mean range becomes less of a problem.

Speed – the electric scooters on the road are generally not getting up to 30mph, topping out about 25mph; the cars with their bigger batteries are apparently hitting 85mph+ which is pretty impressive. To be honest a push bike around town will go at about 25mph tops for a person of average fitness, wheras the scooter doesnt require any level of fitness – and will maintain its speed for the whole journey (except going up hill). So, this thing of speed is not really an issue, its simply a matter or perception and expectation.

The elephant in the room is power generation, if we’re just burning coal to power these electric vehicles then they are basically powered by fossil fuels – so what’s the difference? In the first place these vehicles are technologically advanced, and use less power than a conventional car, so in the first place they are estimate to equate in terms of emissions to the most fuel efficient of petrol/diesel cars. In the second place, the UK is rapidly developing its renewable energy sources, and before too long there should adequate to good supplies of wind power, enough to allow us to run electric vehicles at considerably less carbon cost.

The big question for me is about tax – at the moment electric scooters are tax exempt, and electric cars are considerably cheaper to tax than their petrol counterparts. But if there’s a big shift, the government are going to need to raise their vehicle tax revenue some how, and a considerable amount of the cost savings one can gain from running an electric vehicle will be cut back. There is also an issue of second hand vehicles, unless the batteries are standardised, and one is able to swap them in and out as per the above – people arent going to be keen on buying a second hand electric car as they will know the battery is likely to be pretty ropey.

So yes, I do think electric vehicles are part of the solution to our transport needs, and I think we need to invest time and money into developing them – they arent the panacea, they wont cure all ills, but they are part of the solution for sure.

Then, perhaps, we will indeed be together, forever in electric dreams.

should I care-less about going car-less?

Can we manage to live without a car?

Every month Kel and I have a ‘beginning of the month meeting’ – at a local coffee shop, where we discuss issues to do with our work and life in general. Top of the agenda at that meeting today, was the question of the car.

For a long time we’ve discussed the idea of going car-less. We’ve never quite plucked up the nerve to go for it, despite our supposed green credentials. There have always been too many cons opposing the pros – however I think the likelihood that petrol will soon reach £1.30 a litre, aligned with the need for a new cam-belt, the loud scraping noise we hear whenever we go over a bump, the need for a full service and the impressive  and growing collection of dents which adorn each and every surface of the car, from the roof to the bonnet, and each and every door  – have tipped the balance.

I’m half excited, half worried about the idea of getting rid of the car, concerned about the practicalities of doing the things we are used to doing with a car, but pleased at the idea of getting rid of the main thing which impacts upon our carbon footprint.

Realistically, the car is a burden, not just on the environment, but a financial burden too – we pay £100 per month just on insurance, plus tax, fuel, repairs – it adds up to a lot of money, and we scarcely use it, I think we make approximately three journeys a week, which means that if we pay roughly £40 per week on the car, we are paying approximately £12 per journey. Equivalent (return) bus journeys are about £2.50 per adult – the occasional taxi ride would be quite pricey, but pretty unusual. I personally do most of my around town commuting by bike anyway. Longer journeys will be more of a challenge, particularly with rail travel costs rising, but I think the savings we accrue should allow for a hire car when absolutely necessary.

It feels somehow like a backward step – and yet a step forward at the same time, I’m sure lots of other people manage very well without a car, its just not something I feel comfortable with yet. So, if you have any special tips or reccomendations about going car-less, please do share, and when we do make that final decision – which will have to be soon – I’ll share the details here. So that’s something for you to look forward too…

More low-tech madness

At the risk of provoking a similar kind of outburst as the post about humanure (poo) I am yet again inspired to link you – dear reader to the ineffable Low-Tech magazine, who this time have provided a lengthy treatment of the ‘Velomobile’.

There’s a velomobile user local to me, who rockets along the main road every day in his supercool recumbent. What worries me about him is that he is not very visible. As someone who has been hit by a car while riding a large, brightly coloured mountain bike, I am concerned that drivers are less likely to see the velomobile, and that they are at ‘crushing’ level – rather than bonnet ‘bashing’ level. In otherwords I’m concerned the car would actually go right over the velomobile, rather than sending the rider over the bonnet – the former seems to me to be a nastier way to go.

But that said, I’m very impressed by the energy saving stats, apparently it uses three to four times less energy- nice! Cruising speed of 25mph doesnt sound massively faster than my cruising speed, but I guess the issue is how long it can be sustained for.

On the other hand, one of the things I love about bikes is the ability to dodge traffic, to get round slow cars, to blast away at junctions and so on, I feel this would be less possible in a velomobile.

But if you are looking for a replacement to the car for a daily commute (I only have to commute to the spare room) then this looks like a good option.

Worth a read anyway, especially if you’re interested in bikes – my real burning question is not really answered: can you do stunts in them? Answers on a postcard please.

Daddy, what did you do in the bike wars?

I got this wound, my deary… when a car (remember them? They burned oil!) hit me and knocked me flying! Ah yes I remember it well, funnily enough it happened on almost exactly the same spot as the great seedling massacre of 2009…

“That must have made typing awkward daddy!”

It certainly did, and gardening, and cycling!

“Any other injuries?”

Yeah… rather embaressingly…

Not all glamour those bike war days…