Friday, 18 December 2009

Repair, reuse...

This morning I spent five minutes attacking a frying-pan with a hammer; this afternoon I spent two hours taking a bike wheel apart and putting it back together again. Repair and reuse.

The frying-pan had an increasingly large rise in the middle -- bad enough by now that you were guaranteed a patch of burnt-on stuff where the oil wouldn't sit. Not sure if the hammer solution will actually work, as I didn't get it all that flat, but it was getting to be unusable, so I can't have gone that far wrong. So that was the repair.

The bike wheel is suffering from a broken hub. I did take the hub apart to see if I could fix that, but the cup (definitely) and the bearing races (probably) are dented, so it's a bit past that stage. I did keep the bearings, though, in case they come in handy. What I figured I could do was to reuse the spokes, nipples (the bits that attach the spokes to the rim), and rim. So far, so good: took everything apart successfully, and have got the basic tensioning done. Next job is to true it properly and put the sprocket back on -- probably about another hour's work. And that was the reuse.

There's something very satisfying about fixing a broken thing, or about not wasting reusable parts. I doubt I've saved any money (when I account for my time) with the bike wheel, but the satisfaction is more than worth it even without the environmental advantages. And I trust my wheel-building over a factory wheel every time.

Plus I got to hit something with a hammer, which is always a pleasing experience.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Sustainability and self-judgement

The last week & a half, I have spent a certain amount of time over at Trafalgar Square, where a bunch of awesome people have been camping out for the duration of the Copenhagen talks. I've been going to and from, and doing some useful things, but I haven't been camping out, for a couple of reasons*.

What I've noticed is the amount of guilt I have about that decision and the way I want to justify or explain it to other people. I worry that the people camping out there -- many of whom I have a lot of respect for -- will be thinking less of me for that choice. (I should note that no one has in fact indicated, in word or deed, anything of the sort.)

But in truth, it's more about my own attitude. I don't entirely trust my own decision; part of me thinks that if I were really dedicated, or if I were stronger, or if... then I would be down there in my tent.

Which is nonsense. I am, in fact, competent to make decisions about my own abilities and what I can sustainably do. More to the point, it is OK for what I can sustainably do, and what other people can sustainably do, to be different. And just as I wouldn't (and don't) judge other people on what they feel able to do, other people are not in fact going to judge me (and if they did, then that would be a sign that perhaps they're not people I respect after all). In particular, my experience of Climate Camp is that there genuinely is an enormous amount of respect for everyone's individual comfort levels.

This ties in to two things I've been thinking about of late: my tendency to judge myself unduly harshly, and my ongoing concern about the judgements of others (rather than relying on my own beliefs). I think those things are perhaps more closely related than I believe them to be; my fears about the opinions of others reflecting my self-doubt.

I genuinely believe that sustainable communities need to recognise individual abilities and needs. And for that to work, it has to operate both internally and externally; after all, if you can't be fair and kind to yourself, then how can you let other people be fair and kind to you, or believe them when they are?

* Which I'm deliberately not specifying because as per above, I am trying to avoid the need to externally self-justify.

Friday, 11 December 2009

Letting go

Earlier this year, I spent five very awesome months living in Sydney, in a small flat with very few belongings. (You buy less when you know that everything you acquire has to either be got rid of or expensively shipped in a few months.) Returning to the UK in July, I was taken aback by how much stuff I have.

The sense of having so many things around me is overpowering, even stifling. I find myself thinking longingly of my nice, empty flat in Sydney. The washing-up has less chance to build up when you only have two plates. It never takes more than ten minutes to tidy everything away. It's easy to choose clothes (though I admit I was kind of bored by my half-a-dozen tops and three skirts by the time I left). There's just more space.

And yet I still find it hard to let things go. To get rid of a bookcase's worth of books took multiple passes. The book I removed from the shelves on the fourth pass was no more nor less valuable to me then than it was on the first pass, but it took me that long to wear down my attachment to the concreteness of it; to allow myself to let go.

This week, I've let go of a stack of Audax brevet cards (to the recycling), a dozen-odd festival programmes (posted to the John Johnson Collection), and some more clothes.

I also went through my craft drawers, and found a stack of "requires mending or altering" projects. One in particular, a top I knitted, made my heart sink. Currently it's a little too wide, the seams are lumpy, it's not the right length; and I can't even begin to work out how I'd alter it so it's enjoyable to wear.

For the last year -- more? -- I've been looking at it, and thinking those same thoughts, and then putting it back in the drawer, to lurk there and generate guilt. Because I knitted it, and so surely it's worth doing something with.

This time, I took a deep breath, asked myself honestly whether I was ever really going to fix it, or if I even really wanted to (do I need another top?), and acknowledged that the answer was no. So I took another deep breath and started to rip it out (I do still like the yarn!).

It feels so freeing. I enjoyed making that top; I learnt some things from doing it; but I don't actually wear it. So I'm letting it go, and the decision leaves me feeling lighter. That's worth remembering.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

COP15: more links

If you're in London, come down to Trafalgar Square to visit the Climate Camp COP OUT CAMP OUT activists. We'll be there until the end of the COP15 talks! I was down there yesterday and there's tea and biscuits. Extra sleeping bags, food, things to sit on, & so on would be appreciated by the campers. In particular, if anyone has a source of some kind of marquee or market stall that would stand up on its own (can't use pegs on Trafalgar Square...) that would be really, really useful as the kitchen marquee was only hired for the weekend & has gone away now.

COP OUT CAMP OUT protestors blockade the European Climate Exchange yesterday.

Climate Refugee Santas sing climate carols to those catching the last flight to Copenhagen before the talks start. Their photographer was arrested.

Download the Climate Justice Chronicle, being published every other day during the Copenhagen talks.

The article's not in English, but I think the picture says it all. 'Reception centre' for climate activists arrested over the next couple of weeks.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

More carbon trading, and dodgy US subpoena

The Story of Cap & Trade. A short (just shy of 10 min), well-written and well-produced video explaining clearly why cap & trade isn't a solution to the carbon crisis. From the "Story of Stuff" people.

On a slightly different note, EFF discuss the subpoena issued by the US government to, which included an illegally-broad information-fishing expedition and a bogus gag order. Good work by Indymedia & the EFF in standing up to this.

And finally, another reminder to come along to COP OUT CAMP OUT this weekend, where you will very probably be able to see The Story of Cap & Trade on a bicycle-powered projector.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Land grabs in the developing world

An interesting (and infuriating) post on The Angry Black Woman about land grabs. Executive summary: 'investors', initially officials from richer countries apparently concerned about food security, latterly all sorts of other people just interested in the financial value, have been buying up land in the developing world, especially in Africa.

There's lots of useful resources and links from that post, but it doesn't really take a genius to recognise that this is unlikely to end well for the people living in those countries. It's the same as the biofuels issue: the rich buy up the land at the expense of those who live off it.

Even if you think that local people where the land is being bought are actually getting the money (which is, frankly, pretty monumentally unlikely), the economics of the situation (on an assumption of food scarcity, which is after all why the 'investment' is considered valuable) means that it's a bad deal. The money can't make up for the loss of the food -- because the cost of the food is going to be greater than the cost of the land (otherwise no money is made). Not only that, but the food is going to go first to richer countries who can afford to pay more.

Yet another way in which climate change and capitalism are screwing the poor of the world over first. Unfortunately it looks like it's going to be business as usual in Copenhagen; continuing to put financial interests over global wellbeing. If you're in the UK, the Wave march is this Saturday; after that there's the more radically-inclined Climate Camp COP OUT CAMP OUT event. Come along to push the idea that Copenhagen needs to produce radical results.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Corporate Watch on 10:10 as corporate greenwash

I've just read this report on 10:10 from Corporate Watch. They take a look at the usefulness of the project, and whether it is/is being used as corporate greenwash.

The big issue that I have with 10:10 is its focus on the individual. The big changes that we need to make aren't at an individual level; they're at a corporate and governmental level, and they're about making significant changes to the way that the world operates. In particular, to the way that capitalism operates*. 10:10 encourages the idea that climate change is an individual responsibility. And, sure, we do all need to change our habits, and that's not a bad thing. But it's not going to be enough; and a campaign like this risks encouraging people to think that they've done their bit now.

The Corporate Watch report points out that corporations are being encouraged to sign up as well (good), but that the level for them is 3%. Looking at the 10:10 website, what they're actually saying is that 10% is the target but 3% is enough (2nd para). Note that this isn't applied to individuals (although it is to organisations). I find this pretty dodgy; not only that, but that page talks first about "urging your staff, suppliers and customers to sign up to cut their own emissions by 10%" and only then about "doing everything you can to reduce your own operational emissions". This is a straightforward and massive cop-out, especially since (as above), it's businesses and corporations that are the ones that really need to make changes. E.On say they've signed up to 10:10, for fuck's sake, and I don't see on that page anything about them changing their processes. Or, I don't know, doing something about their coal-fired power stations.

Encouraging individual reductions is great. Letting companies off the hook before they even start is crap. Letting them sign up when all they're doing is talking to their customers is greenwash. Which is a shame, because 10:10 could be doing something stronger than that. Expecting -- and auditing -- an actual 10% cut in business emissions would be more like a real achievement.

* It's possible that what's needed is changes big enough that it might not really be 'capitalism' any more, but let's leave that aside for now.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Independence days

I came across the Independence Days challenge over on Casaubon's Book. I rather like the idea. So, how've I done in the last week?

1. Plant something. Beans and peas on the balcony. The ones I planted earlier in the month have come up now, as well.

2. Harvest something. Chard and volunteer leeks from the allotment; herbs from the balcony; I'll be harvesting some salad leaves from the balcony later today. (I should focus on doing this more often - no point in growing the damn stuff if I don't eat it.)

3. Preserve something. Green tomato chutney! From the green tomatoes on the balcony. Only a single jar this year, but it's tasty stuff.

4. Prep something. Hm. I finished knitting my gloves; that might count. I built a bit more of the cold-frame for the allotment.

5. Cook something. Learnt how to make soda bread! Which is very tasty.

6. Manage your reserves. This I am seriously not good at; although we've been filling up the freezer with food again, which is good.

7. Work on local food systems. Not doing much on this either. Although I'm considering the guerilla gardening situation... But then, I already knew that the whole community issue is the thing I'm worst at.

Better than I'd feared, though.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Time and sustainability

I worked out the other day that the various things I'm committed to (paid work, activism, food-growing, writing, other bits & pieces) add up to approximately a 50-hour week (that's excluding the 5 hours I work on Saturdays). Which... is a lot.

Then there's the things that keep showing up in my inbox, or on mailing lists, or in leaflets I see in Non-Commercial House or LARC. So many things that I would love to get involved in, and that would be valuable uses of my time. Except for where I already have no time left.

I know that activism has to be sustainable; that you need to look after yourself and avoid burnout. (It's also my experience that far too often, that's not seen as a priority -- that there can be an attitude whereby it's encouraged to run yourself into the ground for a cause. But that's for another post.) But there is so much that I could be doing, and I don't know how to choose or prioritise it.

The best I can do at the moment is to try to be honest about what I actually get something out of for myself (because you won't work well at something that you're doing reluctantly); and to watch my tendency to overcommit when I'm just trying things out. I keep reminding myself that it's OK to try things out, to work out where I want to spend my energies.

My gut instinct is that what I'm doing at the moment isn't long-term sustainable; so I need to do something about it. But that doesn't help me work out what to drop whilst still feeling satisfied with how I'm spending my time. If anything, it's a constant battle not to take more things on. Tales of other people's experiences of managing this would be gratefully appreciated!

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Teas: thyme, dandelion root, and chickweed

The other week I harvested some dandelion roots and chickweed, to try out for their medicinal properties. I also tried thyme infusion. Here are the reports.

Thyme infusion

A couple of sprigs of fresh (or dried) thyme in a mug, fill with boiling water, cover, and leave for 5-10 min. Crushing the leaves a little beforehand makes a stronger infusion, I found. It's supposed to be a good decongestant.

It certainly tastes lovely (you can add a little honey, but I didn't bother), and both I (a little sniffly at the time) and my cold-ridden test subject found that it did at least temporarily seem to have a de-gunking effect. Cold-ridden test subject also said it made him feel calmer.

Would voluntarily drink again!

Dandelion root decoction

Since dandelion roots are quite tough, this required a decoction, which means that instead of just infusing in boiling water, one simmers it on the stove for a while -- in this case, I simmered a couple of smallish roots for about 15 min.

I was expecting bitterness, and was all set to add some honey, but in fact I found it quite pleasantly earthy, and not bitter at all. Certainly less bitter than strong black tea.

It's supposed to have general tonic effects, and in particular to be good for the liver and kidneys. I didn't particularly notice a diuretic effect, but I did feel a bit better after drinking it (I had a couple of glasses of wine the night before and was feeling just slightly under the weather). So might make a good hangover cure!

Would drink again but with less enthusiasm than the thyme.

Chickweed infusion

A small handful of dried chickweed; pour boiling water over, cover, and leave for 10-30 min. Supposed to be good for coughs and hoarseness. I didn't really have either symptom, but my throat's been a little scratchy of late.

Unlike the thyme tea, I had to strain this, as the chickweed didn't sink enough for me to drink around it. It doesn't taste of much at all, and it smells of wet greenery. Not unpleasant, but not actively pleasant, either. Maybe a slightly bittersweet aftertaste? (It does that strange thing whereby the thing itself doesn't taste of much but your mouth tastes sweet afterwards.)

I didn't particularly notice a soothing effect, although I did notice a slight degunking effect; but that can just be associated with drinking liquid of any sort. Plus it made my nose tickle.

Would try again if I had a cough or hoarse throat, but wouldn't drink for pleasure.

I've also poured oil over a jar of dried chickweed and put that in the sun for a couple of weeks, to try it as a healing oil for minor skin irritation.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

The Carbon Supermarket

You can download Kate Evans' latest cartoon, The Carbon Supermarket, from her website. It's a fantastic explanation of why carbon trading just doesn't work.

After seeing this I went looking through her archives, as well. I particularly liked this one about the Diggers, and this one about privacy rights, but they're all worth a read.

Update from my last post: that evening I went out to the AGM of the Friends of Galleywall Nature Reserve, a tiny nature reserve just down the road from me; and wound up volunteering as treasurer and to do a couple of other things to recruit volunteers. So if you're in S London & interested in local wildlife, let me know! There's an open morning coming up on the 12th December, as well.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Community and sustainability

I wouldn't entirely describe myself as anti-social; but I'm quite happy spending a fair amount of time on my own, and I can find it quite hard to go out and put myself in new social spaces.

I was interested to read this week two articles about community participation. As Belinda points out, in the long run if you're expecting a major change in our current society, community is a necessity rather than a luxury.

I absolutely agree with this in principle. In practice, I'm finding it harder to engage at that level than I'd like. I'm increasingly aware that part of the problem is that I feel unsupported. The various groups or community events that I aim to attend (e.g. the local nature reserve meeting tonight) are often also potentially interesting to the people I'm closest. But in practice, those people usually lack the time, energy, or social inclination to go along.

Now, that's not anyone's fault, and of course, it doesn't prevent me from going myself. But it does mean that every time I try to expand my social or community circles, I have to take myself away from my existing social links to do it, rather than being able to integrate them. That by itself makes the whole process harder.

It also means I'm always going to these things on my own. Which isn't usually a problem for me; I spent 10 months pottering around the world on my own, meeting people and going to things with no problems. But I didn't expect any social support then, because I had no existing social circle.

The only option (other than to give up!) is to keep looking for new opportunities, keep pushing myself to do this on my own, and to try to find the places where I feel comfortable and can make new friends and acquaintances. I think it's important to do all of that. I could just wish I found it a little easier.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

It's the little things

Minor changes or things I have done to reduce my environmental footprint recently:

  • Stopped using rubber gloves to do the washing up. Instead I made up some hand-cream (aqueous cream, a little almond oil, some aloe vera sap, and a few drops of lavender and frankincense essential oils) and put that in an old moisturiser jar by the sink.
  • Started using handkerchiefs rather than tissues.
  • Switched to (fair-trade) tealeaves rather than tea-bags. I have a per-cup teaball that makes this easier. Not particularly impressed with the quality of the Co-op's tealeaves, though.
  • Did not buy a dog-bed when we got Finlay; instead he sleeps on a pile of old blankets (and an old coat and jumper) that were too knackered to be of use for their intended purpose. Actually overnight he sleeps on the landing with no blanket at all; and half the time during the day he eschews both blanket piles in favour of sprawling all over the floor; but hey, that's his decision.
  • Patched my slightly-split rear bike tyre (from the inside, using a piece of another old tyre) rather than replacing what is otherwise a perfectly decent tyre. (Safety note: it's not a big split, nor is it on the sidewall, so it's not dangerous to ride on; it's just a place where punctures are more likely.)
  • Darned two holes in one of my nice thick black stockings. (This also affected by the fact that these are no longer available at all, so I need to keep them going for as long as possible!).
  • Bought a book I wanted (on woodworking by hand, which I want to try out) second-hand instead of new.

Do I think any of these have a major impact on my carbon footprint? No. But I do think that making small daily-life changes is part of making larger changes; that it helps to remind you to think about sustainability. One of the main things I'm working on at the moment is simply not buying things; reducing my footprint by reducing my consumption. (Hence the second-hand book; and on realising that I really do need some specific warm clothing for cycle-instructing purposes over the winter, I went hunting & found the organic fair-trade version of that.) That's a daily decision, but it's not really one you can point at.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Link roundup

Various links I've collected over the last couple of weeks:

Thursday, 29 October 2009

We are weeds, vegetation...

Yesterday I went down the allotment to harvest weeds.*

Specifically, I dug up a bunch of dandelion roots, and gathered a handful of what I suspected was (and now am sure is) chickweed.  I've been reading this fantastic herbalism zine, which told me that both of these are medicinally useful.

Dandelion root can be used to stimulate the liver, gallbladder, and kidneys; or just as a general tonic containing lots of minerals (including iron, potassium, and calcium, all particularly useful if you're vegan).  To preserve it, dry the roots (wash them and leave them somewhere dark; if you split larger roots down the middle they'll dry faster), and store them in a sealed container in a cool, dark place.  To use it, make a decoction by putting 1oz of root and 1pt of water in a pan and simmering until the water has reduced by 50%.  Strain and drink.

Chickweed is good as an infusion of dried herb for coughs and hoarseness; and as an infused oil to treat minor skin problems (burns, rashes, itching, dryness).  Alternatively you can just eat the leaves as a salad leaf.  I tried my sample plants after I'd IDed them, and found it quite tasty.  To dry it, it's best to hang it somewhere dark and warm (but spread on a windowsill is fine if that's the easiest option for you).  To make an infusion, pour boiling water over the dried herb, cover, and leave for 10-30 min.  To make an infused oil, macerate the dried herb in olive oil, place in a warm sunny window for 2 weeks, strain, and bottle in a dark glass bottle.  (You can make a stronger oil by adding more herbs and leaving for another fortnight.)

I can't yet report back on how these work (or taste!) as I'm still in the drying stage.  I'll update in a couple of weeks.

The best bit about all of this is that these are not plants which I have any trouble at all in growing.  Currently the chickweed is popping up all over the squash bed as the squash dies down.  I'm incredibly pleased to find out that there's something useful (beyond just chucking it in the compost heap) that I can do with it. 

Next task: try to establish whether any of my other weeds are useful.  Sadly I'm not sure we have any yarrow. 

* I planted some broad beans and early dwarf peas, as well -- we have an Aphid Problem which means that the only chance to get any actual broad beans is to get the plants up and producing in the spring before the aphids have woken up.  Which in turn means overwintering them.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

What counts as work?

At the Anarchist Bookfair at the weekend I picked up a book called Making Stuff and Doing Things.  Among the collection of useful bits and pieces was an article by CrimethInc about getting active.  Point 2 -- spend less to work less! -- really spoke to me.  That's what I'm trying to do at the moment: reduce my costs so I don't have to work full-time and have more time to do the things that I want to do.

This raises questions about what counts as 'work'.  I don't get paid for the time I put in at the allotment (which at least in theory frees up cash as I don't have to spend so much on food), and I enjoy it; but it's physically tough (especially today as I spent yet another hour hacking away at the Blackberry Tangle).  I've just started a (paid) part-time job teaching cycling; something which I enjoy enough and think is important enough that in the past I've done it for free.  I do various volunteer things that don't attract payment but are certainly 'work' in another sense (I do some sysadmin work, which in the past I've been paid for, for free at the moment). 

Feeding into this is perhaps the idea that 'women's work' tends to be undervalued.  Growing things, making things, handcrafts, helping others, teaching... often, these things are not defined as 'work'.  Unless you make money at it, anyway, in which case it may qualify as work.  Of course, it's still more likely to be taken seriously if you're male.

I find myself wanting to broaden the idea of 'work', and to blur the boundaries between that and 'play'.  The CrimethInc article above is fundamentally saying something a lot like that: take yourself out of the traditional paid-labour market (as far as is possible), and support yourself by doing other sorts of work.  Support yourself directly rather than with paid labour.  Work out how to make that sustainable.  Create an alternative that doesn't fit into that old joke about work being the unpleasant things you're paid to do.  

That's my sort of anarchism.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

350 reasons why carbon trading won't work

Rising Tide have just launched a new campaign: 350 reasons why carbon trading won't work.  Well worth a read.

The theory behind carbon trading is that it encourages innovation and carbon reduction funded by the market.  The argument goes like this.  Imagine that you have a carbon limit of 100 units (for the sake of the argument, it doesn't matter what your units are).  Company A and Company B both currently emit 110 units.  Company A, however, can easily reduce their carbon output; Company B would really struggle a lot to do so.  If all you do is charge for carbon output above 100, then A will reduce to 100, and B will reduce to maybe 105 (because they can't reduce any further that quickly): total 205.

Under carbon trading, the argument goes, A will reduce further, because suddenly a reduction below 100 units will be worth something.  Because they still have some easy wins, they reduce to 90 units, and sell their extra 10 units of permits to Company B.  Company B don't bother reducing at all, because it's cheaper just to buy permits, so they still output 110 units: total 200 units.  Hurrah, that is less than 205 units, carbon trading wins!

What strikes me is that carbon trading assumes that the problem with the first scenario (i.e. why it doesn't maximise the reduction) is to do with the lack of a market mechanism.  My suggestion would be that it is instead to do with where the limit is set.  What happens if we set the limit at 0, and companies have to pay for all carbon output?  Company A will (at least) reduce to that 90 that was their easy win.  Company B will reduce to the 105 that was all they could manage initially.  Total output: 195. 

In fact, under carbon trading, Company A may be discouraged from reducing as far as they can -- because if they reduce too far, then their permits will reduce in value (supply/demand)*.  Under a more draconian limit system, they have the absolute encouragement to reduce as far as possible.

Of course, this means that the operating costs of all non-carbon-neutral companies will rise, possibly by quite a lot.  Which in turn presumably means that the cost of whatever product or service they're providing will rise.  From where I'm standing, that's a further positive outcome.  Currently, carbon output costs: it just doesn't cost the polluters.  It costs everyone (and disproportionately, it costs the poor), just indirectly.  Currently, polluting companies are treated as if they have a right to pollute, which is (very) slowly being curtailed.  Let's turn it around, and make them actually pay for their polluting activities.

Yes, that will have a knock-on economic effect.  Some companies may even go out of business, if it turns out that when customers are asked to pay the true cost of their goods, that those goods aren't worth it.  Again: that doesn't sound to me like a bad thing.  That implies that currently, the rest of the world is subsidising something which the purchasers themselves don't actually value enough to pay for in full.**

Let's start valuing our environment properly.  Carbon trading is just a way of putting that off -- quite probably until it's too late.

* This is basically what has already happened: too many permits were issued at the start of the scheme, so permit costs are through the floor and no one has any encouragement to make any reductions at all.  This might have something to do with the fact that the basis on which numbers of permits were issued was calculated from numbers provided by.... the polluting companies themselves.  Um.
** OK, maybe some of those goods or services will have a social value such that they shouldn't be let go under.  In which case, governments may wish to subsidise them.  But again, let's do that openly and explicitly, and without invisibly handing value from the world as a whole over to private shareholders.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Allotment plans for the next few weeks

I'm feeling a little unfocussed about a lot of things right at the moment.  For the food-growing, at least, one solution to this is to make a list of what I need to do before the end of November.

  • Planting:
    • broad beans, meteor pea, early dwarf pea.  Probably one lot of each this week, and another lot in a fortnight.
    • more kale and mustard greens; the germination rate for the last lot was a little low.  In fact I may start these off inside, then move to the balcony, then plant out in the cold frame on the allotment. 
  • Harvesting
    • more raspberries!
    • dig up the rest of the damn potatoes.
    • sweetcorn and squashes.
  • Tidying up:
    • finish cutting back the blackberry.
    • cut back the autumn rasps, once they're actually finished (still going at the moment!).
    • check for any seed that can be saved.
  • Infrastructure: 
    • build the cold frame for the mustard greens and kale.  I want to at least start this this weekend.
    • get more planks down for the raised beds.
    • finish deconstructing the pallets so they're out of the way.
    • dig over the compost heap, incorporating some of the blackberry cuttings.
    • amalgamate the extra compost heap (mostly consisting of blackberry cuttings...) into one location.
    • go out to collect leaves from the park for mulching down (needs to happen soon; easiest way to do this would be to use one of my old compost bags & take it round the park when I go round with the dog!).
  • Planning:
    • keep reading the Permaculture Book and actually take some notes.

  • Planting:
    • ? another batch of salad veg?  Don't have any more room in the cold frame though!
    • maybe some meteor peas.
  • Harvesting:
    • keep eating the salad leaves.
    • dig up the potatoes.
  • Tidying up:
    • sort out all the old pots and work out where they should go.
    • work out where to put the salad veg cold frame that isn't "on top of the wormery".
    • bring the basil inside.
    • take up the dead peas.
  • Planning:
    • the best thing I could do this month, I think, is establish a routine of checking up on the balcony daily.
    • decide what to do about the wormery - the answer probably is "dig some worms out of the allotment compost heap and relocate them".

Ha, turns out that that's quite a lot of things to be going on with.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Climate Change - take action this weekend!

At a loose end this weekend?  Based in the UK? 

Come on down to Nottingham and close down a power station for the weekend!  There's something for everyone, whatever your direct action comfort level, from the Footsteps to the Future march to the Bike Bloc Critical Mass and the Take Back The Power bloc's get-to-the-control-room mission. 

And to prove that this sort of direct action does work: we've already stopped Kingsnorth, and BAA have shelved plans for the third runway at Heathrow.  Come and help make a difference!

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Positive goals

I read Little Light's post on dangerous (hopeful) thinking today, and found it resonating strongly with my own attitudes.

The activism I try to embody is positive: it seeks solutions, a world that we want to see.  This is one of the things that I like about Climate Camp: it's not just about protesting and trying to stop bad things, it's about trying to build good things.  Providing alternatives; sharing skills and knowledge; building communities.  I take part in protest-oriented direct action, but I put more energy into promoting cycling, trying to get better at growing my own food, finding carbon-cheap ways to operate my life (and then promoting those).  For me, being the change you want to see in the world is vitally important. 

Having said that, the comments at the bottom by shah8 are also important: if we think only of the end and not of the means (or of how the end is operated), then we risk simply ending up with another set of wrongs to replace the ones we have.  For me, the way to avoid this is to treat your hopes and aims holistically.  It's not OK to achieve one thing by sacrificing something else important. 

Of course, the problem then becomes: are all your aims compatible?  Can they be treated holistically?  If not, do you need to rethink them so that they can?  Sometimes it is legitimate to sacrifice one thing for another.  I'd love for it to be possible for everyone in the world to have the same range of choice and luxury as those who are well-off in the developed world, without causing poverty and environmental destruction.  That's not possible, so instead what I want to move towards is everyone being able to survive with some level of comfort, in a sustainable and non-poverty-generating way.  (Which is of course an unpopular concept in the developed world, entailing as it does a lower standard of living for us.  Myself included.)

From a sustainability point of view: striving for a positive goal is arguably more personally sustainable in the long term than simply fighting a negative.  Sometimes it is necessary to put energy into fighting a negative; but having a positive vision of what you want to see instead, and trying to include at least some positive movement in your negative action (community-building is always a good one), will tend to help you hang on in there for the long haul.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Freecycle, free shops, and letting things go

There's a couple of obvious advantages to using Freecycle (or Freegle, which is the new UK-based version).  Giving a home to things you don't want or need any more, rather than throwing them away.   Getting hold of things second-hand -- and free! -- rather than having to buy new and generate more waste.  (I got a stairgate from Freecycle recently when we acquired a new dog.) 

But I've found that it also helps with the process of deciding whether you really need to keep something at all.  I've been trying of late to move away from a policy of "keep it just in case".  As a policy, that leads to stacks of belongings festering in corners; reducing the space available for you and for the things that you genuinely do want and use.

Freecycle lets me have the attitude that if I need something at an unspecified later date, I'll be able to get hold of it again at that point.  If I send out into the wild the stack of paint trays and rollers that have been in the bottom of a cupboard for 5 years, then should I ever need them again, I'll be able to find another set.

Of course, that particular set of paint trays may never be in circulation again.  But the more stuff there is circulating in the free and second-hand un-market, the more likely it is that the stuff you need will be there when you need it. 

I've started to see "keeping things just in case" as a form of wastage.  It means that a useful thing isn't in use, so when someone else needs it, they have to buy another one.  As opposed to using the one sitting unused in my cupboard.   In a similar vein, I share a bike trailer and various power tools with other people: they're expensive things that we don't all need at once so why own multiple versions?  I can treat Freecycle and free shops as something a bit like a large and less trackable version of a lending library.  End result: less stuff in the world and in my house.

Monday, 5 October 2009

Cheese, lentils, and carbon

I've been vegan for about 8 years now.  Primarily this was an animal welfare decision, but as I've become more climate-change conscious, I've also become aware of the fact that vegan foods are lower-carbon than meat or dairy.

More recently, I've been considering the issue of local eating and sustainability.  You can't (sadly) easily grow in the UK the pulses I use for most of my protein (lentils, chickpeas, kidney beans, soya beans (tofu)1).  So that's all being shipped in from -- I don't even know where, to be honest.  Somewhere Else.  On the other hand, I can get 'local' (within 100 miles) cheese or milk down the road at Borough Market.  Would that be better in terms of carbon footprint?

Probably not, it turns out.  The study described there was conducted in the US, but the figures won't be far off for the UK.  Food miles turned out to be only a small part (around 11%, with only 4% being the producer-retailer leg) of the carbon footprint of any given food.  Most of it was in the production stage, and both red meat and dairy are high-carbon-producers.

The graph they have at that link is irritatingly uninformative, as it doesn't (seem to) allow for quantities of consumption.  (Broadly speaking, what is interesting isn't what percentage of food-related greenhouse gas emissions are related to red meat, but how that compares with the percentage of red meat that is eaten with food.  If the Average Diet is 30% red meat and red meat produces 30% of the carbon output, that's probably fine.)  However, the fact that a 21-23% shift away from red meat towards chicken and fish would cut as much carbon as buying all-local would indicates that the carbon footprint difference between red meat/dairy, and pulses, is genuinely significant.

I then managed to locate a chart showing the carbon cost of various foods.  It doesn't include pulses but they'll be somewhere down there with the carrots: very obvious that the carbon footprint is tiny compared to cheese.  

Of course, there's another factor: if you're eating for protein, how much protein do you get for your carbon?  Turns out that the protein content of cheese and pulses is close-enough to the same.  Around 100g protein per pound of cheese (exact rate depends on what cheese); 115g/lb lentils, 102g/lb (raw) kidney beans; an impressive 166g/lb for (raw) soya beans2.  So the high carbon cost of cheese isn't compensated for by higher protein content (although it is higher-calorie).  Milk is low-carbon; but it's also low-protein (15g/lb or so). 

So I don't have a good climate-related excuse to start eating cheese again, which is a shame!  The figures might be a bit different if I had my own goat/cow, on otherwise not agriculturally useful land, and was making my own cheese, but unfortunately I don't think I can fit a ruminant of any sort on the balcony.

Here's another couple of links for further reading, if you're interested:
  • The carbon footprint of cheese (theory only, no numbers).  This is less accurate if you're buying organic artisan cheese from a proper dairy, but there's still a lot of CO2-emitting there which doesn't apply to pulses (and it's accepted that it's more efficient to put the pulses straight into the humans rather than detouring them via a cow). 
  • An assessment of the carbon cost of a cheeseburger (headline conclusion: the US cheeseburger consumption is responsible for the same sort of quantity of carbon as is the US SUV habit).

1. If you want to try soya beans in the UK, try Elena -- the yield isn't great though for any pulses of this sort
2. 1lb of soya beans would make about 2 medium-sized blocks of tofu.  Not sure exactly the weight of that, but there's not enough difference to seriously screw up the figures.  Soya beans before being made into tofu are not particularly tasty.

Friday, 2 October 2009


After realising just how much tissue paper I was going through with my cyclist's sniffle1, even if it does then go in the compost, I've made the decision to switch to handkerchiefs. 

I had one cotton one kicking around in my box-of-fabric-bits, but also ordered a box of 8 organic cotton flannel hankies which arrived yesterday.  Conclusion: nice and soft (more so than the old regular cotton one), although if I had a full-on cold I'm not sure if they'd be as soothing as the disposable aloe vera ones.  (I can however try applying actual aloe vera in this instance, from the very healthy plant in the living-room.)  The advantage of cotton though is that it softens with use and washing. 

(I have a discount code for these people now which I'm free to hand on -- let me know if you want to use it.)

Discussion with a friend gave rise to the question "but if you have to boil or boil-wash them is it actually environmentally better?".  After due consideration I can't really see the need to boil them: I don't do that with any other piece of clothing that I might get bits of bodily fluids on (& we've just acquired a dog: I'm not about to boil any clothing that gets dog-slobber on it either), and I don't see that hankies would be that much more germ-laden as a rule.  As & when I actually get a cold I'll probably rinse & maybe soak in hot water before I chuck them in the wash. 

(Amnesty also do fair-trade organic hankies if you want to try those.)

This Times article (scroll down) discusses the environmental benefits of hankies: the average European tissue usage is 13kg per person per year, which is kind of boggling.  I'm even more pleased now that I've ditched the disposables.

1. Going fast and/or cold weather makes your eyes water, which makes your nose run.  There's a reason why bike gloves all have that little soft absorbent patch on the back of the thumb.  In fact my sniffle doesn't seem to be entirely cycling-induced, either; most annoying.

Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Cold frame from scrap (pt 2)

Last week I finished my small cold frame for the balcony.

It took very little extra work, in fact: I just had to cut an appropriately-sized chunk off one of the 2m2 pieces of polycarbonate I brought home on my bike trailer a fortnight ago:

(Another demonstration of the truth of my long-held belief that you can transport pretty much anything with a bike.  Six miles -- albeit quite slow ones -- from Dulwich to Bermondsey and I didn't have to stop and retie it even once.  I was very pleased.   NB: the polycarb wasn't touching the ground at the end when the trailer (a Carry Freedom Large -- fantastic piece of kit) was properly attached to the bike.)

The jigsaw went through the polycarb with no bother at all, and I taped the edges up with gaffer tape.  To get some air into the frame,  I'm using part of one of the planks I cut up for the slanted top: the polycarb lid just rests on it at the back.  I haven't bothered to make hinges; I'll rethink that if the lid doesn't stay put.

Next plans: slightly bigger cold-frame for the table of herbs outside on the balcony, and much bigger one for the allotment.  Currently in the allotment there are three rows of various sorts of greens under mini-cloches (cut the top off a one-litre juice bottle), so the cold frame needs to be built before they outgrow the cloches.

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Carbon tracking: travel

Continuing on my thoughts about my carbon footprint: travel. 

A significant chunk of the UK average 5.4 tonnes of carbon is car and plane travel. I don't own a car, and I don't intend to fly again, so that's good for my footprint. Almost all of my practical daily travel is by bike, which has next-to-zero carbon; but I do take trains.

Rather to my horror, CRAG don't include train (or tube) travel in their conversion factors table. Train data is surprisingly hard to find online (or I'm not looking right), but the splendid Seat61 site has a useful page which gives London to Edinburgh (return) as 24kg of CO2 (= 0.024 tonnes). (The Eurostar to Paris is 22kg return.) Resurgence give 0.1kg/mile for train travel. London-Edinburgh is around 700mi return, so that would be 70kg (0.07 tonnes) which... is rather out of whack with the Seat61 value. Hm.

For now, I'm going to work with the Resurgence value, because I'd rather overestimate than underestimate the cost.

So I'm going to start actually tracking my train travel (distances will be based on Google Maps and thus a little approximate). In September:
  • London to Southampton rtn: 160 mi.
  • London to Aberdeen rtn: 1060 mi.
  • Bermondsey to Battersea Park rtn: 8 mi.
Total 1228 mi = 122.8kg (0.123 tonnes).

No tube or bus travel this month. 

(In the interests of honesty, I should add that I also spent some time in a car on both of the long trips: in Aberdeen in particular there was a fair amount of mileage, although largely as extra passenger rather than cause-of-journey. However, for now I'm going to ignore social trips in other people's cars, as these were.)

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Carbon tracking: goals

I have been considering the matter of personal carbon footprint: what mine is, and what I should be aiming for. The many and varied online carbon calculators are a useful starting point, but they're really a little vague. I want to make the effort to track and calculate my carbon emissions more accurately.

First question: what should I be aiming for? The Institute for Public Policy Research have been talking about personal carbon trading/rationing, but unfortunately their review is pay-to-read so I don't know if they've talked about specific levels, and if they have, what those levels are.  The Carbon Rationing Action Groups network have a bit more information. Their figures give 5.4 tonnes of carbon per person as the UK emissions average, and 0.5 tonnes as a globally sustainable level.

Looking at their footprinting basic info, I'm a bit unclear on whether those figures are purely personal, or whether they include the societal per-capita output. But let's assume that it's the personal, and treat that 0.5 tonnes as what I should be aiming for.

0.5 tonnes is very, very low. I'm very aware that, living the developed-world lifestyle that I do, cutting down that far would be incredibly tough, and I don't expect, being honest, to get anywhere close. However.   It is good to quantify, and to have that figure in mind.

Second question: where, approximately, am I at at the moment? The government calculator is again fairly vague, but estimates my current usage* as follows:
  • 1.85 tonnes for heating and lighting.
  • 0.33 tonnes for electrical appliances.
  • 0.3 tonnes for travel (I put in an estimate of 2 x 600mi return trips and 6 x 160 mi return trips by train per year; all other travel by bike).
Total: 2.48 tonnes.

The two major omissions from this are food consumption, and general consumption; and indeed, that site gives the UK national average as 4.46 tonnes, so they're obviously missing that bit out. (I also think the travel is probably an under-estimate on my part.) The heating/lighting may be per-house rather than per-person.  It'll do as a rough starting point.

So my aim now is to track things a bit more accurately than those estimates do, and to make reductions. I'll be posting more shortly about the various sections of footprint and my thoughts on accuracy, problems, tracking, and potential cuts. You will note that although on that basis I'm well below the UK average, I'm still way above that sustainable 0.5 tonne level.

In the "change is possible" spirit of this blog: it's important to remember that the difficulty of cutting down to 0.5 tonnes doesn't mean that it is in any way pointless to make reductions. However, it's also important to bear in mind that personal reductions are only part of this: we need to be looking at and campaigning for societal and structural change as well.

* I didn't put in figures for my actual activities over the last year, because I am already fully aware that travelling as much as I have done this year, even low-carbon travelling, is outrageously carbon-costly. I'm interested in an estimate for what I'm consuming whilst back in the UK, so that I can move on from here.

Friday, 18 September 2009

Greenery for the winter: cold frame from scrap (pt1)

In my ongoing quest to reduce food miles by growing more greenery I have spent an hour or so building a small cold frame for the balcony.  It's not quite finished yet (I have a huge piece of clear polycarbonate that I need to saw into pieces so I can use part of it for the cold frame top), but the frame itself now exists.

The best bit is that it's made from 100% reclaimed bits.  The base is a wine box that I got from my parents (sadly by the time it reached me it was empty of wine).

The part of the top that gives it a slope (so it'll catch the sun better) is made from planks reclaimed from a pallet. The pallet was part of a very small pile of wood left after Climate Camp, part of which I took home*.  I saved the nails as I took them out when dismantling the pallet, and enough of them were straightish that I could use them for this project. The measuring, sawing to size (including sawing the diagonals), and nailing together took under an hour: much quicker than I'd expected.

I was going to use a couple of pieces of dowel to hold the two sections together, but it seems pretty stable without. An old compost bag is providing a lining. 

The picture shows it on the balcony in its temporary "on top of the wormery" location.  (I need to rearrange the balcony space a bit.) The pots have rocket and bronze arrowhead lettuce seeds in: the hope is that the cold frame will keep the plants going over the winter & I'll be able to keep having salads.  We shall see!

Part 2: cutting the top and finishing the cold frame.

* Technically doop took them home, as he was the one towing the bike trailer all the way down Blackheath Hill with 30kg or so of wood on it.

Monday, 14 September 2009

Staying associated: Kenya, climate change, and action

Last week I read this Guardian article on the effects of climate change in Kenya.  It's upsetting, and angering, and it left me with a feeling of empty helplessness.  As I read the final paragraphs, I felt my ability to engage with the issues sliding away, beaten down by a layer of "well, shit, this is just too bad, too awful, for me to do anything".

"Best not to think about it," my self-protection told me.

I'm sure this wasn't the aim of the writer.  But it is often the risk with this sort of disaster story.  Faced with however-many hundred words of bleak doom, the easiest reaction is dissociation.  Thinking about it is too miserable; there's nothing in it to indicate that there's anything that you as an individual can do; so the self-protective response is disengagement.

Which isn't helpful: to those affected by climate change, to us (so far only minimally affected if at all), to anyone.  To counter that, here's some things that you can do about this, and about other climate change disaster stories.
  • Change your own consumption habits.  There may be a limit to the impact that you all by yourself can have, but it's not just about you all by yourself.  It's about many people - everyone - changing their habits, and that is one of the things that must happen for us to have any hope of minimising the changes in the climate.  Check out 10:10 as a possible starting point.
  • Campaign for other, bigger changes: Climate Camp (the Great Climate Swoop is upcoming in October!), Climate Rush, Plane Stupid...  Direct action really can make a difference, and the more people are involved, the greater the likelihood that we'll have an impact.
  • To help people in Kenya (and other affected areas) more directly: Farm Africa are working in Kenya, promoting projects that empower local communities to manage their own resources and increase their own resistance to water (and other) problems.  
  • The charity Concern are also working in this area. 
It's important not just to throw money at the problem (however good the charity in question is) and forget about it: that's another form of disengagement. To halt climate change (and thus to make real long-term changes for those worst hit by it), we all need to act.  You yourself can make a difference.  We can react to distressing news like this, not with helpless dissociation, but with action. That's the only way we can make the future better.

Monday, 7 September 2009

Bikes and public transport

And the first proper post is a very practical one.  I spend a lot of time cycling, and when I go longer distances by train, I like to take my bike with me.  This can on occasion be a screaming nuisance.  Broadly speaking, local trains don't require booking (and will usually have some variety of bike-space, of greater or less usability), but long-distance/Intercity trains do require booking.  Booking these days is free, but most of the online ticket sites don't have a bike-booking option, which means either booking in person, booking by phone, or phoning up after you've bought the actual tickets (which can be... complicated, depending on who you speak to).

But!  There is good news amidst the confusion.  National Express East Coast have an online ticket-booking service which does allow you to book your bike on when you book your ticket.  They sell tickets for all trains, not just the ones they run, and the system, whilst Javascripty, is actually very usable.*  Highly recommended when you and your bike want to get somewhere.

Whilst on the subject of bikes and public transport, two questions:
1. Is there a good reason why the old-fashioned guard's van (with lots of room for bikes and other bulky objects) can't be brought back on modern trains?
2. Whilst in San Francisco a few months ago, I noticed that MUNI buses have bike-racks on the front (explanatory video also available).  This is a genuinely awesome thing.  I find myself wondering: are these things fittable post-hoc?  Could London's buses (and other UK buses) be fitted with them? 

* I can't comment on disability-usability issues - would be interested to know if anyone else can. 

An introduction

Of late, I have found myself wanting to write about a certain class of thing.  About the ways in which the world isn't the place I want it to be; about the ways in which individuals can act to change that.  Right now I'm spending a lot of time thinking about environmental issues and climate change, but that broadens out very quickly, into considering the structural problems which have led us to the difficult and dangerous situation we are in today, and where we might want to be instead.

This blog is a space for practical tips: on cycling, and gardening, and reducing your own impact on the planet.  It's a space for thinking about the issues: what is the deal with carbon trading?  It's a space for thinking and talking about structural alternatives: how do we as a society make decisions, act collectively, talk to one another, and how else (how better) might these things be done?  It's time to empower ourselves, through knowledge and skills, to create the changes we want to see in the world.