Tag Archives: climate change

Going green

Like Charlotte, like a lot of us, I am trying to be greener. Unfortunately when I bought my house a year ago, I did not pay attention to the poor public transport connections between where I live and where I work. Let’s put the rather embarrassing fact that I drive about 20,000 miles a year on one side. I am finally making practical changes to my lifestyle which make me feel virtuous, even though will make no practical difference to the future of the planet at all.

(1) Freecycling. http://www.freecycle.org – just the most wonderful idea. A true example of think global, act local. The website provides links to tens of thousands of yahoo email groups, and the idea is that stuff is offered for free locally. The chances are high that there is one in your town. So far I have got rid of two half bottles of Citroen hydraulic fluid (how else would one get rid of that?) a couple of tickets to Alton Towers and a clothes rail. When I told a colleague he muttered about people taking the good stuff and re-selling it on ebay, but – as with beggars – I’d rather be ripped off than not trust. A lack of trust erodes the soul. I get a huge amount of pleasure out of giving stuff away to be honest, and this is a cool route to a quick hit.

(2) Padded curtains. This comes under the energy efficiency section really. I am slowly making myself padded curtains for the doors, and curtains with thermal linings for the windows. I’m also putting up thermal roller blinds in the windows. If you are having curtains made, you should be able to order padded interlining and thermal linings, and making curtains really is not that difficult. You just need a large floor for cutting out and pinning, and the ability to sew in fairly straight lines.

(3) Woolly jumpers. This comes under the energy efficiency section too. Looking back on it, it astonished me that when I was elbow high my grandmother and my mother would change into long skirts in the evening. With my grandmother it was more understandable, a generational habit. My mother was younger so it was odder. These long skirts were not glamorous. They were home-made out of worsted or some other itchy wool and because they were itchy they were lined. When I asked my mother why she bothered, she said “but it gets cold in the evenings”. And indeed it did. Ice on the inside of the windows cold. So what I had assumed to be a legacy of pre-war standards was just a matter of thermal-efficiency. I draw my personal line at long skirts, but I do have sheepskin slippers and woolly jumpers and cardigans.

(4) Carbon Neutrality. This one really is papering over the cracks in one’s conscience. Essentially, you work out your carbon profile, and then pay a company to plant enough trees to ‘compensate’. The problem with this is that current experiments in forests in the US, Germany and Australia are challenging the received wisdom that trees reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and that most people won’t do it. I am sure there was a similar scheme run by the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages. Pardons? Indulgences? I need a medievalist to tell me. On the other hand, I like trees, so I regard it as a charitable gesture and hope for the best.

(5) Organic Veg box scheme. The internet was made to make it easy to find box schemes for organic veg. The reason for using small schemes is that they use veg from local farms, so you are improving your local economy, eating fresher food and reducing your food-miles. Do not be seduced by supermarket schemes. Their schemes just pimp out their existing vegetable section; and like most pimps, the supermarkets bully their suppliers and don’t care about food-miles. I rather like the randomness of not knowing what veg I will get next week, and the discipline of planning my meals around what I’ve got.

(6) Composting. My local council sells compost bins ‘worth’ £40 for six quid. With an offer like that it’d be rude not to. Mind you, one of my neighbours muttered darkly about smells, so I had to say “if it smells, we’ll get rid of it” – I did offer him the compost for his allotment, which made him marginally less gloomy about the whole thing.

(7) Recycling paper, glass, metal, plastic. Did you know you can recycle plastic milk- and drinks-bottles? Neither did I until our local kerbside recycling scheme started up. I recycled before, but at least my car is no longer full of carrier bags of tins and bottles waiting for me to take them to a supermarket recycling centre. The composting and recycling have reduced my rubbish to landfill by about 2/3rds, which is practical and pleasing.

(8) Public Transport. Having admitted that I drive some 20,000 miles annually, I do try to take the train or the bus when it is sensible. National Express is one of Britain’s unsung transport treasures. Trains too, are much easier to use now that we have the internet to plan journeys and book tickets, and there are some oddly useful routes, Birmingham to Brighton via Kensington and Gatwick for example. I still think that a rail journey should be significantly cheaper than the same journey by car, but that is another rant for another blog.

(9) Expensive stuff. Now we move into the realms of expensive stuff, like solar roof panels, lpg vehicle fuel, and domestic wind turbines. I haven’t done any of this, but it is interesting that B&Q are starting to sell this stuff (though in what sort of world can £2498 be described as “only”?) In the meantime it seems simplest just to give a list of links which kinder and greener people gave me when I was first investigating the subject.

  • The Low Carbon Buildings Programme – which makes the expensive stuff cheaper: “The low carbon buildings programme will provide grants for microgeneration technologies to householders, community organisations, schools, the public and not for profit sector and private businesses.”
  • The Centre of Exellence for New and Renewable Energy – A good source of information on the choices available for domestic generation – “NaREC is involved in developing the micro-generation technology. We are supporting items as diverse as roof parapet wind turbines, biomass combined heat and power, and systems to integrate renewable generation into homes at the build stage.”
  • The Centre for Alternative Technology – “We address every aspect of the average lifestyle – the key areas we work in are renewable energy, environmental building, energy efficiency, organic growing and alternative sewage systems.”
  • The Alternative Technnology Centre – slightly dippy-hippy organisation based in West Yorkshire (it runs courses on how to recycle plastics as a medium for crafts, art and technology) – “As an educational resource centre, we aim to make sustainability achievable and simply irresistible by working from a strong base within our local community to provide inspiration, accessible information and advice to improve the quality of life using sustainable means – economic, environmental and social.”
  • Micro-cars – This is so not suitable for me, given that 30% of my mileage is motorways, and another 50% is A roads: But the G-Wiz makes the Smart Car look big, clunky and gas-guzzling. To be honest though, shouldn’t you be using public transport, if you live in a place where this is a suitable vehicle?

Right, enough time indoors this morning! I am off outside to scrub up some reclaimed flooring blocks to use as the uprights in a bookcase. Sustainable forestry? Eat your heart out Ikea!

Channel hopping while Rome Burns

This post was drafted at the end of July after a two month spell of hot, dry weather. It has been sitting around since then, waiting to be posted but always being pipped by something else. By coincidence, I finally published it on the same day as the Stern Report, which blows my argument out of the water rather.

Is this it, do you think?I spent a lot of my early teenage years reading the apocalyptic Science Fiction of John Wyndham, in fact reading a lot of apocalyptic Science Fiction altogether, and pleasantly dramatic and terrifying stuff it was too. In the 1980s Ben Elton did a more modern version of the same thing.

And now here we are, where we all knew we would eventually arrive, though we all hoped that we’d somehow manage to change trains before we got here; on the verge of the apocalypse.

It’s ok, so long as you don’t look down.

  • War – check
  • Death – check
  • Famine – check
  • Pestilence – not quite,
    though Pratchett and Gaiman updated him quite brilliantly to Pollution, in which case – check.

You see, what none of the writers of apocalyptic SF got right was the tone of the times. They predicted mass hysteria in the face of global catastrophe in the style of a hapless citizenry fleeing invading Martians in Welles’ War of the Worlds, but we are mundane little creatures and no-one correctly predicted the banality of our current news reporting.

Orwell would have managed it. A lot of the dystopia in 1984 gets its power from the mundane banality of the world he describes, but he was looking at politics not climate change. If Orwell had been 15 years younger, and had an engineering or scientific background, he would have described just the sort of news reports we hear every day: Scientists say that we are on the verge of the 6th exinction, but first, the Cricket.

The cold wet August this year, September’s rush towards the autumnal equinox and October’s mild storminess means that most of us have forgotten just how hot and dry the summer was. However, I got an extra frisson of helplessness late in July when I heard something new on the radio: for the very first time I heard a prediction of a food-shortage in the West as a result of global warming. Un-nerving enough, you’d have thought, but the thing I found really disquietening was that it was not presented in those terms. As it turned out, normal service was resumed in August when it rained for most of the month. So that was all right then.

You see, in the news broadcast there was no drama at all. Blink, and you’d have missed it. It comprised the last two lines of this online report from the BBC on that most English of subjects the weather. It was entitled UK heatwave subsides for weekend which ends:

Current conditions combined with a cold and wet spring mean production of some crops has fallen by up to 40%.

Broad beans, potatoes, baby carrots and peas could be some of the produce in short supply over the next few weeks.

But remember that you read it here first, in those two lines about peas and baby carrots: maybe not this year, maybe not next, but there will be food shortages here in the West because of global warming. We are all doomed.

And next, Celebrity Love Idol.

Truth, stardust and comfort blankies

We should be able to do it now. We should be able rise above superstition, supposition and woolly thinking. We have arrived at the once-in-a-species chance to combine wisdom with knowledge and transcend both.

For the first time in our history we have the data. We really do know things. We have researchers and academics finding things out and publishing them as if their jobs depended on it.

We are also joining the gaps between these pieces of knowledge to some extent. Climatologists train as mathematicians and physicists first, but climatology also draws on the skills of botanists and archaeologists and palaeontologists and zoologists and lepidopterists and… well you get the idea. Not just climatology. Bristol University provides a taught Masters in Archaeology for the Screen Media. The list of connected specialities is huge.

And finally, we have methodologies. There were many seminal innovations in the 20th century: the internal combustion engine, flight, digital computing, penicillin, genocide, but the one without which none of the others would have had any effect is the development of methodologies. It was the development and application of manufacturing processes which enabled the Model T to roll out of the factories in Detroit in its hundreds of thousands. It was the development of a methodology for genocide which meant that six in every eight European Jews were killed in the 1940s.

The relevant methodologies though are the ones for generating information, for finding hard data and separating it out from theory, hypothesis and speculation. So, not only do we know stuff, we have reliable ways of sorting out true stuff and sifting out the plausible stuff, putative stuff, speculative stuff and down right wishful thing.

The ostrich-eye view

However we have not outgrown our comfort blankie. We prefer the warm cosiness of superstition and woolly thinking to the hard realities which face us and – and this is the really unforgivable thing – we tell ourselves we are looking at the evidence and drawing our own conclusions. We are doing nothing of the sort. We lie.

There are examples of this all the time. I once heard a taxi driver saying “75% of all cars on the road are red: if you think about it, it’s true”. The fact that he had failed to look through his windscreen and see that three in four cars are not in fact red was worrying enough. But the fact that he thought he had gone through a verification step pushed me off my mental cliff. What on earth did he think he was doing when he ‘thought about it’? What did ‘thinking about it’ mean to him?

This happens in commercial environments too. I recently distracted a meeting for five minutes by trying to understand if the statement “20% of balls are blue” meant “20 balls in every 100 are blue”, or if it meant “each ball is pie-bald and has a blue patch covering 20% of it”. Eventually the person I was asking the question of snarled “it’s just an expression” and I had to bite my tongue not to reply “no it’s not an expression, it’s a number”. I paraphrase, but I still say he was talking bollocks.

It is this intellectual laziness and moral cowardice that enables intelligent, educated and otherwise thoughtful people to believe in medieavalisms such as astrology or crystal healing or spiritualism or tarot cards. It’s incredibly simple to demonstrate astrology – just run the thing backwards. Collect data on people’s personalities and the events of their lives, and get an astrologer to tell you where the stars were when each person was born. You could limit them to a specific year if you felt generous. If astrology works, you should be able to run it backwards as well as forwards. You could take the same approach for tarot readings. If homoeopathy has more than just the placebo effect, then it should be demonstrable. It isn’t, and one has to conclude that it doesn’t.

Actually, homoeopathy is a case in point. The less a person engages with the methods and concepts of evidence based-medicine, or experimental and evidence-based science for that matter, the more likely they are to accept homoeopathy on trust. (Mind you, the only evidence I have for this is anecdotal and my argument is deductive – but this proves my point – we can now validate and categorise both the data we use and the conclusions we draw from it). What is worrying though is that the reasonably well-educated and predominantly middle class patients of homoeopaths believe that their faith in homoeopathy is worth as much or more than the evidence-based practice of medicine, despite the fact that medical science actually is curing more people year on year and this information is readily available. There’s none so blind as those who won’t see.

Stepping up to the line

By contrast, one of the most fascinating programmes on British radio at the moment is In our Time with Melvyn Bragg. Lord Bragg made his name in literature, humanities and the arts; he is nobody’s fool and no kind of intellectual slouch. However, he struggles with some pretty simple mathematical and scientific concepts whenever the subject is outside his own cultured fields. Fair play to him, he tackles the subjects and tackles them well. But it is astonishing to hear someone as polymathic as Bragg flounder in the midst of really very simple science. And then one realises just how innumerate and scientifically illiterate even the most educated and cultured of us are and – even more worryingly – that this is not seen as any kind of problem.

Almost half a century ago C P Snow argued that someone who does not understand the second law of thermodynamics is as uneducated and uncultured as someone who hasn’t read Shakespeare. He also says “if I had asked an even simpler question — such as, What do you mean by mass, or acceleration, which is the scientific equivalent of saying, Can you read? — not more than one in ten of the highly educated would have felt that I was speaking the same language.”

The madness of crowds

On top of that, we don’t get it. We all feel entitled to an opinion in this democratic age. Like the taxi driver, we do not realise that we cannot think. We all feel that our opinion on – for example – evolution is as valid as the next person, even if the next person is a geneticist or an anthropologist or a palaeontologist and we aren’t. In fairness, the failure is in our education system where people are encouraged to ‘think for themselves’ without being taught how to think critically or being given the basic tools of analysis. This is the downside of democracy. We dumb down to our lowest common denominator. I am not going to argue against democracy: as Amyarta Sen points out, it is the only demonstrable safeguard against famine for a start.

Looking further up the slippery pole, we glimpse our leaders, chosen by us mainly from graduates who studied humanities or social science or business or law. It is not just that they are ignorant. The thing that gives me the great big hairy heebee-jeebies is that they believe that they are ‘informed’ and that being intelligent is enough. They do not accept that some subjects are too technical, too specialised or just plain too hard for the lay person, no matter how intelligent, to grasp, and that some things simply cannot be paraphrased. We are being led by people who just don’t get it, and who don’t actually know that there is stuff to get.

However, I do believe that responsible government requires our winsome elected leaders take and act on the professional advice of specialists even if we don’t like it. Interestingly Thatcher was the political leader in the 1980s most alert to the challenges of climate change. She was a scientist and understood the methodology, even if it had been decades since she’d actually done any chemistry.

Our bad

We are failing the great moral test of our times and retreating into the comfort of a new mediaevalism, surrounding ourselves with ideology and doctrine and the warm and righteous certainties of fundamentalism. We have the chance to rise above all this, to step into reality and claim our inheritance as intelligent and wise children of the stars.

Instead we are sitting in the dust, looking for comfort by casting runes, and that will bring about the ruin us all.