Change Alley

information, opinion, conversation

Bags for Better Lives

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There’s been much rejoicing and back-slapping recently in the London Borough of Merton, satellite state of the People’s Republic of Suburbia. The Wimbledon Park area of Merton is set to be the first part of London to go plastic bag free with the launch of  Sustainable Merton’s Bags for Better Lives initiative.

As part of the project, volunteers have been knocking on every door and handing a fairly traded cotton shopping bag designed by the Bags for Better Lives team, and a second fairly traded cotton bag from The Co-operative’s Wimbledon Park food store, to every one of approximately 3,000 households in the ward. The volunteers are asking residents to use their new bags every time they go shopping and to support a ban on throw-away plastic bags. Says ‘The Guy From Sustainable Merton‘:

“Around 9,000 plastic bags are handed out by traders in Wimbledon Park each week. If the initiative achieves a 50% reduction in bags issued, about 234,000 fewer plastic bags will be used each year. If the reduction is 75% bag consumption will fall by 351,000. Traders’ annual spending on throw-away bags could be cut by £8,000-£12,000. Even if not every retailer abandons plastic bags immediately the environmental impact will still be significant.”

Great news, but why has it taken so long for an initiative like this to reach London? Many other countries around the world are years ahead of us:

  • Australia is calling for a phase-out to start by the end of 2008
  • Bangladesh banned all polythene bags in the capital Dhaka in 2002
  • Bhutan banned bags in 2002
  • China banned production of ultra-thin bags in January this year, and will ban their use in supermarkets and shops from June
  • Eritrea has had an outright ban since 2005, with fines for anyone imprting, producing, distributing or selling plastic bags.
  • France plans an outright ban by 2010
  • In India, six states have bans or are considering them. Mumbai banned bags in 2000 and Himachal Pradesh banned ultra-thin bags in 2003
  • Ireland imposed a plastic bag tax in 2002, reducing use by 90%
  • Italy imposed a levy in 1998, with an outright ban to be introduced by 2010
  • Kenya and Uganda banned thinner bags and imposed a levy on thicker ones in 2007
  • Papua New Guinea banned the import, manufacture and sale of plastic bags in 2004
  • Rwanda and Somalia banned bags in 2005
  • South Africa banned ultra-thin bags in 2003
  • Switzerland requires supermarkets to charge for bags
  • Taiwan banned bags in 2003
  • Tanzania banned their import and manufacture in 2006

Do you notice a trend here? It’s the developing nations who have introduced outright bans, while developed countries rely on taxes to discourage use, if they’re doing anything at all. The UK has traditionally used ‘encouragement’, or ‘discouragement’ depending on how you look at it, to reduce bag usage. Even in the face of mounting disquiet over the environmental problems caused by these unnecessary trinkets, the UK government’s ‘toughened’ stance involves putting pressure on retailers to follow Marks and Spencer’s lead and charge customers for bags.

Gordon Brown gives supermarkets one year to start charging for plastic bags … or else

M&S to roll-out charging for food carrier bags across UK – All profit donated to national environmental charity

Why does every environmental measure have to come down to money? Why does the UK government take such a determined stance on issues of personal liberty such as ID cards and detention without charge, yet show such timidity with regard to telling people how they should carry their shopping home? Why haven’t we got the courage to just say “These things are bad for the environment, they’re a waste of precious resources, they’re totally unnecessary, they’re banned”?

Or, as Sir Alan Sugar might say, “You’re a waste of space. You’re fired”.


Written by Pete Smith

May 11, 2008 at 10:00 am

Posted in Campaigns, Pollution, Waste

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The Patter Of Tiny Feet

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May 18-23 2008 is Walk to School Week. The Walk to School campaign asks parents, pupils and teachers to think about their journey to and from school and the many benefits of making it on foot. Walk to School is promoted jointly by ACTTravelwise and Living Streets, and is now in its 13th year, with each year’s campaign having its own theme. Previous years have focused on the benefits of walking on health and independence. This year’s theme will link with Noise Action Week, by exploring the links between noise and walking to school.

In addition, take a look at the Every Journey Matters website which contains games, quizzes, competitions and a host of facts about how children around the world get to school, as well as KS2 lesson plans on the theme of sustainable transport.

Written by Pete Smith

May 9, 2008 at 12:20 pm

Monsoon Britain

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monsoon britain

Prepare for more floods. Last summer was the second wettest on record and experts who have studied over 250 years’ worth of rainfall and river flow patterns say we must prepare for worse to come. Professor Stuart Lane, from Durham University’s new Institute of Hazard and Risk, says that after about 30 to 40 less eventful years, we seem to be entering a ‘flood-rich’ period. More flooding is likely over a number of decades.

Prof. Lane, who publishes his research in the current edition of the academic journal Geography, set out to examine the wet summer of 2007 in the light of climate change. His work shows that some of the links made between the summer 2007 floods and climate change were wrong. Our current predictions of climate change for summer should result in weather patterns that were the exact opposite of what actually happened in 2007.

In looking at longer rainfall and river flow records, Prof. Lane shows that we have forgotten just how normal flooding in the UK is. Seasonal rainfall and river flow patterns dating back to 1753 suggest fluctuations between very wet and very dry periods, each lasting for a few years at a time, but also very long periods of a few decades that can be particularly wet or particularly dry.

In terms of river flooding, the period since the early 1960s and until the late 1990s appears to be relatively flood free, especially when compared with some periods in the late 19th century and early 20th Century. As a result of analysing rainfall and river flow patterns, Prof. Lane believes that the UK is entering a flood rich period that we haven’t seen for a number of decades.

“We entered a generally flood-poor period in the 1960s, earlier in some parts of the country, later in others. This does not mean there was no flooding, just that there was much less than before the 1960s and what we are seeing now. This has lowered our own awareness of flood risk in the UK. This has made it easier to go on building on floodplains. It has also helped us to believe that we can manage flooding without too much cost, simply because there was not that much flooding to manage.

“We have also not been good at recognising just how flood-prone we can be. More than three-quarters of our flood records start in the flood-poor period that begins in the 1960s. This matters because we set our flood protection in terms of return periods – the average number of years between floods of a given size. We have probably under-estimated the frequency of flooding, which is now happening, as it did before the 1960s, much more often that we are used to.

“The problem is that many of our decisions over what development to allow and what defences to build rely upon a good estimate of these return periods. The government estimates that 2.1 million properties and 5 million people are at risk of flooding. In his review of the summer floods Sir Michael Pitt was wise to say that flooding should be given the same priority as terrorism.

“We are now having to learn to live with levels of flooding that are beyond most people’s living memory, something that most of us have forgotten how to do.”

Durham University news release

Institute of Hazard and Risk Research web site

Written by Pete Smith

May 9, 2008 at 10:51 am

What Do We Do Now?

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Boris Johnson
“Crikey! When they offered me the candidacy, nobody said I might actually win!”

I went to bed last night not knowing who London’s next Mayor would be, but still nursing a faint hope that all those transferable second votes would come galloping over the hill like the 7th Cavalry to save the day. I woke up to discover that my nightmares were real, and Boris Johnson is now running London for at least the next four years.

It would be hilarious if it wasn’t deadly serious. In charge of a multi-billion pound budget we now have a buffoon who by all accounts can’t run a bath. Taxpayers will be paying £137k a year to a man who, it is universally accepted, will be completely dependent on the quality of the team he assembles to do the job for him.

What worries me about this election is the way that Boris won so convincingly without the slightest trace of a coherent policy on anything. Londoners have dumped a highly competent public servant with a proven track record of controlling a huge organisation, and replaced him with a celebrity journalist chat show host who was sacked from the Shadow Cabinet. Not even the Conservatives’ first choice for mayoral candidate, Boris has been subjected to steady criticism from the Tory press:

“Never before having had the opportunity to observe Boris trying to conduct himself seriously and responsibly, I have to confess that his various attempts to do so last week were deeply disappointing. He just can’t do it. The harder he tried, the more insincere, incoherent, evasive and even puerile he looked and sounded, even enabling the liberal candidate to score points. Take away the gags and jokes and nothing much is left….”

Peregrine Worsthorne, in online journal The First Post

“One of Mr Johnson’s failings is a belief that the public is there to serve him, not vice versa. He has given much pleasure to millions over the years, but will that cause the Underground to work better, the Metropolitan Police to catch more criminals, or business to thrive in London? Or would a Johnson mayoralty be yet one more chapter in an epic of charlatanry – perhaps, since it is so serious a job with potentially no hiding place, the last chapter?

“Oddly enough, given how acute he is, that won’t persuade him to do it properly. The guiding theme of his life is the charm of doing nothing properly. His sins themselves are charming in that they are the sort of failings that upset the Edwardians, and few others since. He is pushy, he is thoughtless, he is indiscreet about his private life. None of this matters much to anyone these days, which is why he has gone so far in spite of them, and tomorrow may go further still.

“Lynton Crosby, the Australian public relations genius who has kept Mr Johnson out of trouble during his campaign, returns home after it. Then what? Who will guide the unguided missile? Who will support the figurehead? Who will ensure he turns up on time, or at all? How will they be accountable?”

Simon Heffer, in the Daily Telegraph

Ken Livingstone may not have been perfect; who is? However, over the last eight years he has proved himself a highly competent, imaginative and principled leader of one of the world’s great cities. Only in comparison with a professional showman like Boris would Ken lose out in the personality stakes. To quote Peregrine Worsthorne again:

“Last week was also the first time I observed much of him on TV, and I was worryingly impressed. For unlike Boris he showed that he could be both witty and serious at the same time.”

As an environmentalist of sorts, the ‘green’ thing matters to me. I’ve heard nothing from Boris on these matters apart from a vague, uncosted, statement of intent to replace the ‘bendy bus’ with a new Routemaster, and even vaguer promises to ‘work with’ local authorities on improving recycling. Ken Livingstone , on the other hand, has a long track record on environmental issues. Friends of the Earth rated Ken the greenest candidate in the Mayoral election, giving him nine out of ten. Said FoE Director Tony Juniper:

“He is one of the few British politicians to have shown genuine leadership on green issues and put London at the forefront of efforts to tackle climate change. His manifesto is full of exciting plans to go even further. Of the three main candidates for London Mayor, Ken Livingstone is the greenest.”

As George Bernard Shaw said, “Democracy is a device that ensures we shall be governed no better than we deserve.” In spite of using local elections to beat up a national government for policies outside local control, Londoners still deserve better than Boris. I keep coming back to a quotation from H.L. Mencken: “Every decent man is ashamed of the government he lives under”. Now I consider myself a pretty decent bloke, and I suspect under the buffoonery and bluster Boris is too. In answering my original question, “What do we do now?”, all I can do, apart from fleeing London, is try to shame Boris into doing the very best job he can for the city that elected him.

Written by Pete Smith

May 3, 2008 at 12:09 pm

See, It Can Be Done

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Energy crunch forces Juneau to conservePhoto Seanna O’Sullivan/AP

Those of us who have despaired of the industrialised nations’ ability to wean themselves off their addiction to energy should take heart. Juneau, the capital of Alaska, is suffering an energy ‘crunch’ after avalanches knocked over transmission towers and severed high-voltage power lines between the city and the hydro-electric dam at Snettisham. Faced with a five-fold increase in electricity bills after switching to backup diesel generators, Juneau’s 30,000 citizens are cutting back on energy use in any way they can.

Stores, though open, went partially dark. Neon signs were switched off and vending machines unplugged. At home, residents of this former Gold Rush town began living a little bit like pioneers, dusting the snow off the grill, stringing clotheslines in the backyard and flicking off their TV sets. Within a week, electrical usage across town was down as much as 30 percent.

Energy conservation is a hard sell in much of the U.S., but Juneau has proved that people will change their ways if the financial incentives are big enough.

“Turn off, turn down, unplug,” said Sarah Lewis, chairwoman of the Juneau Commission on Sustainability. “That’s what everyone is doing and being vigilant about and commenting when others are not.”

So now we know how to achieve those swingeing energy cuts we need; take out the power lines and make people confront reality. Now where did I put that Semtex?

Read the full story here.

Written by Pete Smith

May 1, 2008 at 11:18 am

Posted in Energy

Tagged with , , , , ,

Peak Food

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'Peak Everything' Richard HeinbergRichard Heinberg is an American writer who is probably best known for his work on Peak Oil, the proposition that global oil production has reached, or is about to reach, a maximum from which the only way is down. The cocktail of declining output and rapidly growing demand has dire consequences for all aspects of our economies that rely on plentiful supplies of cheap energy. If you seriously think there’s any component of our way of life that’s immune to Peak Oil, you might consider a change of medication.

In his 2007 book ‘Peak Everything: Waking Up To The Century Of Decline In Earth’s Resources‘, Heinberg widens his scope to embrace not just energy, but other crucial areas such as agriculture, water, population and climate stability. In a chapter entitled ’50 Million Farmers’, he postulates that the era of abundant, cheap food is ending, and discusses four key factors that will reacquaint the well-fed West with the old spectre of famine. Although written from an American perspective, this analysis is relevant to all developed economies.

Looming fuel shortages

Agriculture accounts for about 17% of the US annual energy budget; it is the single largest consumer of petroleum products as compared to other industries.
“About 1500 litres of oil equivalents are required to feed each American each year.
“Every calorie of food produced requires, on average, ten calories of fossil fuel inputs.”

A shortage of farmers

“The average age of American farmers is over 55 and approaching 60.
“The proportion of principal farm operators younger than 35 has dropped from 15.9% in 1982 to 5.8% in 2002.”

An increasing scarcity of fresh water

“Over 80% of water consumed [in the US] goes toward agriculture.”

Global Climate Change

” ‘Global warming’ …. implies only that the world’s average temperature will be increasing by a couple of degrees or more over the next few decades. The much greater problem for farmers is destabilization of weather patterns. We face not just a warmer climate, but climate chaos: droughts, floods, and stronger storms … unpredictable weather of all kinds. Farmers depend on relatively consistent seasonal patterns of rain and sun, cold and heat; a clmate shift can spell the end of farmers’ ability to grow a crop in a given region, and even a single freak storm can destroy an entire year’s production.”

Heinberg rejects 21st Century techno-fixes such as GM crops, on the grounds that they are still heavily dependent on a fuel-fed industrial system. He believes that we must de-industrialise agriculture, reducing fossil fuel inputs, increasing labour inputs and reducing transport, with the emphasis on production for local consumption. Citing examples such as Cuba’s ‘Special Period’, WW2 Victory Gardens (the equivalent of British allotments) and the Permaculture movement, he argues it is possible in principle for industrial economies to move to smaller-scale food production systems that don’t depend on fossil fuel inputs.

But we need more farmers. This implies people who aren’t afraid of hard physical work and who don’t mind getting their hands dirty. I just wonder if, collectively, we’re up to the task.

Written by Pete Smith

April 29, 2008 at 10:06 am

We Regret To Inform You…

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This post contains in its entirety an article by Sharon Astyk at The Silver Bear Cafe. I don’t usually do this, but I can’t improve on the original, and just posting a link wouldn’t do it justice either.

We Regret to Inform You…
Sharon Astyk

When climate change and peak oil thinkers run out of other things to worry about, there’s always the endless, inevitable debates about whether we are facing a “fast crash” or a “slow grind.” And I admit, I’m worried about my fellow environmentalists – because I think they are about to lose their favorite distraction. When no one was looking, we got an answer. Fast crash wins. And we’re in it now.

Wait a minute, you argue – that’s not right. If we were in a fast crash we’d be well on our way to living in a Kunstler novel. But we’ve still got cars, we’ve got food, things are slowing down, but at worst this looks like a slow grind – but the crazy lady at the blog is saying fast crash?!?!?

Before you argue with me (and you are both welcome and encouraged to), I’d like to post something a bit out of my usual style – it is simply a description of what has happened with food and energy in the last year – that’s all it is. Then tell me what you think – because it wasn’t until I began to write this introduction to the present food situation that I suddenly was struck by the fact that even a fast crash doesn’t always look fast when you live it – new normals arise and it turns out we assimilate faster than we panic.

So here we are – the “We regret to inform you that what you have imagined to be “civilization” is now falling apart” post. See if it strikes you the way it struck me.

I would also note two things. The first is that the general political consensus is that neither the food nor energy crisis will do anything but grow more acute anytime soon – we’re really in the early stages. And that this only covers the first 4 months of 2008.

In early 2008, the world’s food and energy train came off the rails. What was startling was that it didn’t happen either gradually or in a linear way – instead, things simply fell apart at an astounding rate, faster than anyone could have predicted without being accused of lunacy.

It started with biofuels and growing meat consumption rates. They drove the price of staple grains up at astounding rates. In 2007, overall inflation for food was at 18%, which created a new class of hungry, but that was just the tip of the iceberg. In 2008, the month to month inflation was higher than 2007’s annual inflation. At that rate, the price of food overall was set to double every other year. Rice, the staple of almost half the world’s population rose 147%, while wheat grew 25% in just one day. Price rises were inequitable (as was everything else) so while rice prices rose 30% in rich world nations like the US, Haitian rice prices rose 300%.

Haiti was an early canary in the hunger coal mine. Desperately poor, by early 2008, tens of thousands of impoverished Haitians were priced entirely out of the market for rice and other staples, and were reduced to eating “cookies” made of nutrient rich mud, vegetable shortening and salt to quiet their hunger pangs. Women stood on the street, offering their children to any reasonably well fed passerby, saying “Please, pick, take one and feed them.” Thousands of Haitians marched on Port Au Prince, yelling, “We’re hungry.” And indeed, the Haitian government was complicit, allowing food relief to rot on the wharves. But Haiti was just the start.

After riots over long bread lines threatened to destabilize Egypt, the Egyptian government set the army to baking bread for the hungry. Forty nations either stopped exporting grains or raised tariffs to make costs prohibitive. Food prices rose precipitiously as importing nations began to struggle to meet rising hunger. The UN warned that 33 nations were in danger of destabilizing, and the list included major powers including Pakistan, Mexico, North Korea India, Egypt and South Africa. Many of these hold nuclear weapons.

The crisis didn’t stop among the already-poor, however. An article in The Economist reported that the crisis extended well into the middle class – Joanna Sheeran, director of the World Food Project explained, “For the middle classes,…it means cutting out medical care. For those on $2 a day, it means cutting out meat and taking the children out of school. For those on $1 a day, it means cutting out meat and vegetables and eating only cereals. And for those on 50 cents a day, it means total disaster.”

Up to 100 million people who had managed to raise their incomes above $2 a day found themselves inexorably drawn back to the world poverty level, while millions of those who called themselves “middle class” began, slowly, to realize that they were no such thing. Reports noted that many of the supposed middle class in rich world nations were actually the working poor who had overextended their credit to keep up appearances. And the appearances – and credit access – were fraying

In 2007, a major American newspaper reported the growing problem of seasonal malnutrition affecting poor children in the Northern US – the rising price of heating oil meant that lower class families were struggling to put on the table. Hungry, low weight children were unable to maintain their body temperature in chilly houses, and a vicious circle of illness, hunger and desperation ensued. Malnutrition bellies began to be regularly seen by pediatricians treating the urban poor in cold climates.

Shortages were a chronic problem in the poor world, but by early spring of 2008, they began to arrive in the rich world – despite Japan’s deep pockets, a shortage of butter and wheat reminded the rich world of its dependence on food import. Many of the supply problems were due to climate change and energy issues, as Australian dairy farmers struggled with high grain prices and the extended drought that destroyed their pastures.

Following up on anecdotal reports of limits at bulk warehouse stores, in late April of 2008 rationing went official. Many Costco stores were limiting purchases of flour, rice, cooking oil and other staples to avoid shortages – and the stores tracked purchases electronically to prevent customers from visiting other Costco stores. This was the first example of food rationing, but probably not the last – at least one financial analyst was predicting corn shortages in the fall of 2008.

The energy train and the food train were inextricably linked, and indeed directly (as the costs of diesel rose rapidly) and indirectly (rising energy costs created the biofuels boom) drove the food crisis. They were linked in other, complex ways as well – the housing collapse that threatened to plunge Europe and the US into a major depression was in part due to the high costs of commuting from suburban infrastructure. Exurban housing collapsed hardest, while housing closer to cities remained desirable – for a while.

While the food crisis in the poor world made headlines, the energy crisis there went almost unnoticed. More and more poorer nations simply could not afford to import oil and other fossil fuels, and began slowly but steadily to lose the benefits of fossil fuels. Nations suffered shortages of gas, electricity and coal. Tajikistan, experiencing a record cold winter found itself with inadequate supplies of heating oil and a humanitarian crisis. South African coal supplies were so short that electricity generation dropped back to intermittency.

Industrial agriculture, described as “the process of turning oil into food” began to struggle to keep yields up to match growing demand. Yield increases fell back steadily, with more and more investment of energy (and higher costs for poor farmers trying to keep yields up). Yield increases, which had been at 6% annually from the 1960s through the 1990s fell to 1-2%, against rapidly rising demand. Climate change threatened to further reduce yields in already stressed poor nations – Bangladesh struggled with repeated climate change linked flooding, the Sahelian African countries with growing drought, China with desertification.

All future indications were that both food and energy supplies would fail to keep up with demand. Unchecked (the only kind we’ve got) climate change is expected to reduce rice yields by up to 30%, and food production in the already starving Sahel is expected to be reduced by half. GMOs, touted as a solution, have yet to produce even slightly higher yields. Arable land is disappearing under growth, while aquifers are heavily depleted – 30% of the world’s grain production comes from irrigated land that is expected to lose its water supply in the next decades.

Meanwhile the costs of fossil fueled agriculture skyrocketed, with potash rising by 300% in less than a year. What should have been a boom for farmers was actually the beginning of an increasingly precarious spiral of high prices, high indebtedness and market volatility. Agricultural indebtedness rose dramatically.

Meanwhile, the ability of nations to transport food supplies began to be called into question. Early trucker protests were intermittent and largely ineffective, but real predictions of diesel shortages and a shortage of refining capacity made it a real possibility that food might not reach store shelves.

And so how does the story end? If you were reading this in a history book, what ending would you expect to see? Because just because the crash doesn’t quite read like a post apocalyptic novel doesn’t mean that we aren’t the new Po-Apoc (like Po-Mo, only darker) generation.



I wish I’d written this.

Written by Pete Smith

April 28, 2008 at 9:34 am