Thursday, April 26, 2007

junkmailers against junkmailing

Another election, another heap of irritating electioneering.

Labour and LibDems round here are putting things through our letterboxes to tell us how hard they work for us, all of them slyly designed to look like they're regular and frequent newsletters. There's probably some central office template with pre-written stories about clearing graffiti and getting more police on the beat.

Fortunately, the Tories are on such a hiding to nothing round my way that they don't even field a candidate. But stepping into the void are the LibDems with this freesheet that, even among the blatant baby-kissing and condescending tone of pre-election news leaflets, is a real biscuit-taker.

Hyde Park Focus leaflet

Check that line at the bottom, 'working all year round - not just election time'.

Indeed, we do occasionally get Focus at other times. However, we don't get two issues in one month unless there's an election.

Nor have we ever seen a newsprint thing the LibDems delivered yesterday called the Leader. It was missing its strapline, 'not working all year round, just at election time'.

This being a student-heavy area, there are a lot of pizza and curry delivery businesses. My building only has 8 flats, yet we get between 30 and 80 leaflets a week through the door. They're a blight, to be sure.

So the LibDems tap into it with a 'No More Junk' bit in Focus, with a free card to put on your letterbox to say you don't want free flyers.

Putting free junkmail through your door with a card to say you don't want free junkmail through your door!

Are they as cynical and patronising as I think, or are they simply as stupid as they think their readership are?

Monday, April 23, 2007

food miles

Over at World Changing, this article attacks the concept of reducing food miles for environmental benefit. I posted a thing in the Comments but as it's a blurry issue for a lot of us, I thought I'd expand on it over here too.

World Changing's assault is clumsily argued, saying how the 'concept of food miles has become very trendy within the environmental movement'; as if people committed to acting responsibly were doing so for reasons of fashion rather than any more intelligent or honourable reason.

Apparently shipping New Zealand lamb to Europe is environmentally responsible according to, oh, New Zealand's Agricultural Minister.

Even if New Zealand lamb were so much less carbon intensive because of their farming methods, isn't that an argument for matching their farming methods rather than shipping their meat over here?

Another source cited is this BBC Green Room article.

our research suggests that when considering UK grown potatoes, 48% of all energy used during the potato's life cycle is expended in the kitchen

It's a fair point, but it is an additional consideration rather than one that refutes food miles. Would it be better if we expended more energy per potato just so the percentage used in the kitchen was less?

As if to prove the slantedness of the piece, the next paragraph says

Boiling potatoes is horrendously energy intensive, and this simple act dwarfs the energy consumed during their production and transport.

Even ignoring the fact that the heat from a cooker means your central heating works less hard, since when was 52% dwarfed by 48%?

Citing such sloppy sources, you just know where it's all going. Still, what of the charge that 'measuring the environmental impact of a foodstuff based on how many miles it travelled is misleading at best'?

There’s impact from fertilizer, pesticides, packaging and machinery, as well as the energy expended in actually cooking the food.

That doesn't mean that considering food miles is 'misleading'. It just means it isn't the only consideration. The same apple brought a long distance is undeniably more carbon intensive than if it were brought a short distance.

Certainly, packaging and the staggeringly fossil-intensive agrichemicals are an issue, but eating local organic stuff where you get the raw ingredient ticks most of the boxes.

But what about the jobs of people who presently supply us from overseas?

Kenyan farmers who’ve made the change from growing food for local export to food for global export... Economic advisers have been pushing rural farmers to plant “high value” crops for decades

Which economic advisers are they talking about, I wonder? Can we trust them to have the interests of poor farmers at heart? Can anyone say 'IMF'?

Whatever, yes, doing food for export puts more money in the hands of some Kenyan farmers. But why is money the measure for their wealth and welfare?

Much of the 'people who live on $1 a day' stuff ignores that some of the people we're talking about are subsistence farmers who are keeping and swapping seed and don't need to enter into the financial economy to be healthy and well fed.

Letting their agricultural traditions wither in exchange for growing luxury crops for export has made them dependent on Western consumer habits. Whether those habits are dictated by fashion or environmental necessities, it's globalisation that's screwed them, not fashion, nor eco-friendliness.

The demand for 'high value' crops is largely a demand for high-water crops. A bag of salad in the supermarket costing 99p takes around 50 litres of Kenyan water. It's an environmental disaster that is depriving people on surrounding lands of the ability to grow food to feed themselves.

Climate change is already here; increased sea temperatures are moving rainfall in Ethiopia so lands are drying up and people are being starved off. How can we justify exacerbating that in the name of giving Kenyan farmers more money?

There is certainly more to carbon cost than distance - a UK government survey found that Kenyan roses flown to the UK were less carbon intensive than ones shipped over from an electrically lit and heated Dutch greenhouse.

But that's not an argument to buy Kenyan. It's an argument to buy neither Kenyan nor Dutch flowers and limit such serious carbon emissions to things a tad more essential. It's an argument to cut many carbon intensive practices instead of just aviation.

it's an argument to cut many aspects of our consumption as well as - not instead of - our food miles.

Friday, April 20, 2007

too profitable to care

The scale of Drax is astonishing. Despite being a company that just runs one power station, it makes enough money to be in the FTSE100.

Unsurprisingly, its carbon emissions are just as colossal. Most countries don’t emit as much CO2 as Drax's one site.

So, if anyone has a responsibility to get a grip on what’s going on, it’s Drax.

This week, the CEO of Drax, Dorothy Thompson, was asked about climate change. She replied

Well, I don't understand. I've read so much on it, but I still don't understand it.

Don’t understand it? It’s very clearly defined in general public perception. Walk down a street and throw a stone in the air, it’ll land on someone who can explain it to you pretty well.

I mean, if you look at the UK in the last five years, and our average temperatures, it's quite breathtaking. They've been very warm. But on the other hand, the Romans were growing grapes here and making wine.

Oh good grief. This is such a hackneyed and pathetic piece of denier's nonsense. Yes, there have always been natural fluctuations in the earth’s temperature. But that doesn’t mean we are not doing something to change it too.

Indeed, the deniers usually point out that volcanoes and whatnot give out loads of CO2. In doing so, they are accepting that CO2 is a greenhouse gas. In which case - unless they are suggesting that our CO2 emissions are a different kind of CO2 to volcanoes (the clue to that one is in the name 'CO2') - they are also accepting the anthropogenic element of climate change.

To say there have always been fluctuations therefore the current ones are nothing to do with us is like saying that because the temperature of your house varies from month to month it makes no difference to how hot it is if you turn the heating on full blast.

Oh, and the grapes thing? We still do grow grapes in Yorkshire.

But I sort of understand why she does this. George Marshall from COIN does an excellent blog, Climate Denial. It deals not with the direct politics or science of climate change, but with the psychology of denial.

People have a completely understandable urge to say 'it's not happening'. As that position becomes untenable, they move to either optimism or pessimism; 'I'm sure it won't be that bad, or we'll find a way to fix it in time', or 'it's too late now and there's nothing we can do'

Have you noticed how the very same people who were denying that climate change was happening are now readily accepting it but saying it's nothing to with us?

Jim Bliss noted this phenomenon about people who stick their fingers in their ears over peak oil,

Pessimism and optimism are not natural opposites. Rather they are both manifestations of a desire to deny reality.

In 1938 a realistic assessment of Europe would acknowledge the great likelihood of war in the near future, and it would not be pessimistic to recommend preparation. The pessimistic position is actually to argue that preparation is pointless because it is a foregone conclusion that fascism will triumph.

The optimistic position, in 1938, is that Hitler is going to be satisfied with what he's got up until now, and preparation for a conflict with fascism is completely unnecessary.

Both of these are denials of reality. And the realist is derided as a doom-monger by the optimist and as a wild-eyed loon by the pessimist. Both of whom wallow comfortably in their denial.

Really, if you were in charge of emitting more CO2 than anyone else in the UK, if this role was what you’d based your personal identity, security and circles of friends around, wouldn’t you find it difficult to face up to it?

Especially if, even if you did want to change it, you couldn’t?

Here we get to the central reason why our culture is so fucking insane. Technology isn’t made to help people. Food is not grown to feed people. Houses are not built to shelter people. Nothing is done to be sustainable, fair or wise. At least, not as the primary concern.

The first priority is to make money. Those other motivations, and any others, are secondary at best.

One of the few quotes so good - and so consistently in need of saying - that I have it memorised comes from Corporate Watch’s Corporate Law And Structures report. It has that Orwell-style blunt, straightforward intelligent language and harshness that feels like it should be exaggerating but is in fact just obliterating the bullshit and saying the plain truth.

For most people, economic values are secondary, and social and to a lesser extent environmental values come first: making money is good but only if it doesn’t conflict with believing it’s wrong to murder, steal or cut down virgin rainforest.

For the corporate ‘environmentalist’, profit is absolute, social and environmental values are relative: their first aim is to make as much money as possible, but given two ways to make that money they choose the one that requires the least murder, blatant theft or environmental destruction. Then they pat themselves on the back for being so responsible.

It always felt like a great piece of anti-capitalist writing. But check this, from Dorothy Thompson, CEO of a FTSE100 company;

There's a word we sometimes use: we see ourselves as responsible. If you're faced with two decisions, and one's going to make you a lot of money but give no environmental benefit, and one's going to make the same amount of money but result in an environmental benefit, it's very clear which one you go for.

Holy fucking moly! It's not just the same point, it's almost the same phrasing as Corporate Watch's hardline anti-capitalist polemic!

Being a good journalist, her interviewer asked the obvious next question. Would it be conceivable for Drax to take the eco-friendly decision if it meant a fall in profitability?

No, because my shareholders wouldn't support it. They invest in us for profit.

So there you have it. No equivocation, from the very top rank of the largest coal-fired power station, a facility whose sole activity is environmentally destructive. It couldn’t be more clear-cut and baldly put.

They will not and cannot ever act responsibly unless it is also profitable. Given that much in the way of responsibility involves a reduction in consumption, it cannot be profitable. Thus, the whole corporate-capitalist way of working cannot solve the crisis, and indeed is utterly suicidal.

The World Health Organisation conservatively estimates that, already, 150,000 people a year are dying from the effects of climate change and the number will drastically increase.

But, bound by the overriding need for profit rather than justice, sustainability or even survival, Dorothy Thompson thinks it's worth carrying on.

As the recently deceased and much mourned Kurt Vonnegut recommended, we should carve an epitaph in big letters in a wall of the Grand Canyon for the flying-saucer people to find; We could have saved it but we were too cheap.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

climate ba-stewards

Despite the terrifying predictions about climate change, despite the new IPCC report giving, for the first time, empirical data that shows the previous predictions were right, I'm still hopeful.

The radical social change needed is within our grasp. A deep and clear awareness is endemic. Direct action of a sort unseen a year ago is going off all over, blockading runways and just today another coal-fired power station was occupied.

The deniers are shrinking in number and being seen as the desperate and dishonest bastards that they are. The last great pillar of denial, ExxonMobil, has withdrawn funding from denialist organisations.

And in many ways we're outrunning the opposition. The new denials - saying that there's some easy fix like biofuels or carbon offsets - are being discredited even before they take hold.

So it's with particular anger I discover a new Christian offsetting organisation, Climate Stewards.

I've written here and elsewhere about why offsets are a fraud. But there are degrees of fraudulence.

Nobody can deny that low-energy light bulbs do, as the name implies, use less energy than incandescents. So an offsetting firm dishing those out - whatever we think about offsetting as a whole - is doing a better job than one that plants trees, an activity which cannot be called an offset.

To quickly explain: Burning fossil fuels adds CO2 to the atmosphere. Trees absorb it as they grow, then inevitably die and rot or burn, releasing that carbon. As Oliver Rackham said, planting trees to offset carbon emission is like responding to rising sea levels by drinking more water. Which is why most offsetting firms use energy efficiency projects these days.

Climate Stewards go with the cheaper, vaguer and utterly dishonest tree option however. They do concede 'there are risks such as fire and decay'.

Gotta love that choice of word, 'risks'. As if petrification or varnishing is likely to happen to most of their trees.

but beyond that, there is a simple and, when you think about it, very obvious reason why all offsetting is nonsense.

Your emissions happen now. A ton saved today is very different to a ton saved over a few years. The emission is doing damage in the time between emission and absorption. If we keep offsetting a day's emissions over a period of years, we can never catch up.

So, if it is to be a real offset, it'd have to save the emissions in the same timeframe as they're released.

If we want to offset a return flight from London-Malaga, we could give Climate Care money to dish out low-energy light bulbs in poor areas of South Africa. To offset 0.75 tonnes in the two hours of our actual emission, that'd be about 70,000 low-energy light bulbs. That's about £120,000 for the offsets.

When someone comes to me with a receipt of that kind for their flight, then we'll start talking about the injustice of letting the rich do whatever they can pay for.

Incidentally, for the London-Malaga flight, Climate Care reckon the emissions are only 0.38 tonnes and ask for £2.81 to cover the offsets. Which I estimate would buy the planting of just under half a sapling.

I thought that was really bad until I discovered Climate Stewards. They say it's only 0.143 tons and want a mere £1.43 to offset it.

The thing that really gets me about Climate Stewards though is their Christian approach.

They say

A fundamental part of being a Christian is the responsibility towards God’s gift of creation for this and future generations. Caring for the whole environment includes addressing the accompanying issues of poverty, justice and equity.

Aviation is simply unsustainable. Most people will never fly out of straightforward poverty. And if they did fly, the climate couldn't take it.

I've yet to find anyone who flies who doesn't emit way above a sustainable amount. So, are they paying to offset in the timeframe? No, nobody can afford that. In which case, they are being inequitable and unjust.

They are saying that humanity should emit within safe limits but they're going to take someone else's share without asking. Or they are saying we should all be allowed to emit what our money allows us to.

We certainly do need to address equity and justice. It means changing a lot about how we live. It can be done whilst still keeping warm and eating well. But personal car use has to pretty much disappear, and aviation is the one industry for which there is no alternative, it has to be all but eradicated. (Sounds really extreme, sure; but find me the sustainable aviation solution).

Until then, things that keep us flying whilst paying to plant a fraction of a sapling are things that bring catastrophic climate change closer.

Climate Stewards don't just do even less than other offsetters - saying activities emit less, need less money to offset them, and put the funds into schemes that do not and cannot work. They claim to be doing more, 'addressing the accompanying issues of poverty, justice and equity'. This makes them even worse than the others, the lowest of the lot.

And as they keep give plane users a clean conscience, keeping them flying at the expense of the climate, who bears the brunt? Last week we were told.

The IPCC report predicts that billions of people will face water scarcity and hundreds of millions are likely to go hungry, mainly in the poorest regions least to blame for spewing the fossil fuel pollution that scientists believe are driving up temperatures.

IPCC chairman Rajendra Pachauri expanded, 'it's the poorest of the poor in the world, and this includes poor people even in prosperous societies, who are going to be the worst hit'.

If, as he claims, the Abrahamic god is a vengeant god with a hell for those who commit misdeeds then he surely has a corner in Richard Nixon's room waiting for Climate Stewards.

They are our enemy every bit as much as the coal-fired power stations and the oil companies.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

ken livingstone can relax

As I've told Badgerers way back, Mike Read - 80s smug DJ, stalker of Jill out of Strawberry Switchblade and writer of shit musicals - has a special place in my heart.

So imagine how amazed I was to discover he wants to be Tory candidate for Mayor of London.

I've done a post about it over at The Sharpener, pop pickers, called Ken Livingstone Can Relax.

[No comments on this post: the place to leave them is over on The Sharpener]

Monday, April 02, 2007

from deep in a beaver's arse

If you idly flick through a copy of the Animal Free Shopper you learn that amongst the other things a good vegan should avoid is a substance called castoreum. It's a fixative in perfumes and a flavouring in chewing gum. It's made from the anal sex gland of beavers.

Surely the compiler of the Animal Free Shopper left their desk for a while and a prankster just put that one in for a laugh.

But no. I've checked and it exists. It's an anal sex gland in the sense of it being a sex gland in the anus, rather than a gland for anal sex.

someone pulled these out of a beaver's arse

Appropriately enough for such black magic sounding ingredients, one contemporary perfume that uses it is Magie Noire. What chewing gum uses it? It'd certainly give a whole new meaning to 'Juicy Fruit'.

It all sounds unbelievable, but then again people think I'm making it up when I tell them the hormones for contraceptive pills come from the urine of pregnant horses kept in abominable conditions on special farms.

According to Wikipedia, not only is castoreum real but

until the 1700s, castoreum was used to treat many different ailments, including headache, fever, and hysteria. The Romans believed the fumes produced by burning castoreum could induce an abortion; Paracelsus thought it could be used in the treatment of epilepsy; and medieval beekeepers used it to increase honey production.

Whose idea was all that?

'Hmm this chewing gum's missing a certain tang. It's nice and all, but I wish it tasted a bit more like a beaver's arse'.

'This perfume evaporates a bit quickly, but hey, what can you do? Ooh, here's a thought; hold this beaver firmly and squeeze its bum all over my pulse points will you?'

Where do they get a reliable source of castoreum from? Are there farms somewhere out there? Are people breeding beavers than attacking them from behind with an apple corer?

go away, my arse is my own private kingdom

[beaver picture courtesy of the good people at Great Plains Nature Center]