Archive for August, 2007

This thinning road (or, more precisely, field)

Friday, August 24, 2007

Here’s a puzzle. According to the head of China’s state meteorological administration, an additional 10 million hectares (247m. acres) of land will be required to produce food to feed its increased population by 2030. Currently, however, China uses this amount of land for agriculture, AND their available land is rapidly decreasing owing to urbanisation – and, no doubt, owing to an increase in carnivorous diets that comes with increased wealth. PLUS, global warming is expected to reduce China’s harvest by ten percent by 2030. So where are they going to get their food from, and who will produce it? Talk about this thinning road! (Story from India’s Economic Times, courtesy of Desmog blog.)

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The news headlines in ten years

Thursday, August 23, 2007
  • New AIDS cases fall to zero
  • US imports its last barrel of oil
  • Israelis and Palestinians celebrate ten years of peaceful coexistence
  • Snows return to Kilimanjaro

– from a talk given by one of eBay’s co-founders, Jeff Skoll, for whom the above speculative headlines help to focus his current activities and collaborations. He tells the story about setting up the film production company, Participant Productions, to serve the public interest. They’ve been doing alright so far, having produced Syriana, Good Night and Good Luck, and An Inconvenient Truth. Personally I’m looking forward to the film, due to be released this year in the US, of the Kite Runner, the novel, about a boy growing up in Afghanistan.

Corporate donations in politics

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Talking USA politics – in the US House of Representatives,

[…] the 189 representatives that voted with big oil received on average four times more in oil company campaign donations than those that voted in favour of the new clean energy bill. The 189 reps. received $109,277 on average from oil companies while their colleagues in favor of ending the $16 billion in subsidies to oil and gas received an average of $26,277.

– from Desmog blog. You can find the breakdown of stats here, in a table of the Yes votes in favour of the clean(er) energy bill, the No votes against, and concomitant donations.

The call of the wild

Thursday, August 23, 2007

There’s a chill outside, heralding the sudden end of summer, a chill that made me put on an extra layer yesterday. What should be balmy, lazy, outdoors weather is better associated with the last days of October. It’s also raining, and gutters have been overflowing and spattering water onto the concrete paving below. I’m working from home today, which is cosy, so I won’t complain – but I could. And yet, there was a sound earlier, against the background combustion hum of London, that I found reassuring.

The sound reminded me of a favourite poem, by the American poet Mary Oliver, which surprises me just how well it manages to put things into perspective every time I read it –

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles in the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

The sound I heard outside my bedroom window was the rasping honks of geese flying directly over my roof; I live on the top floor, so they seemed especially close. They may not be departing for a warmer clime just yet – they may just be practising – and if they are going, it’s untimely. But I found the geese reassuring because they signify the wider world breaking into (my consciousness of what I too-often experience as) a wholly human domain – the city – and being near.

St Peter’s Hall

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

I‘m pleased with this picture taken last weekend in Suffolk, which I think could almost be a painting. The building in the background turned out to be the location of St Peter’s Brewery. The sixteenth century hall was built from the stones of a nearby monastery dissolved by Henry VIII in the English Reformation. The hall’s agricultural buildings are now used for the brewery, founded in 1996, which takes water from its own 100-metre deep well to produce 200 barrels per week and a range of organic beers, most of which are exported.

Shrink my horizon

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

A documentary filmmaker, Nick Angel, put himself on a four-week information diet consisting solely of the UK’s Daily Mail as the source of his news – rather him than me – in the same vein as Morgan Spurlock did with hamburgers:

In Super Size Me, Morgan Spurlock called on nutritionists, dieticians and assorted doctors to chart the physical effects of eating nothing but McDonalds for a month. My own means of gauging the effects of a Daily Mail diet were more subjective. Once, when a helicopter flew overhead, I reflexively thought “surveillance society”. But it wasn’t so much specific issues, as a general shrinking of horizons. The Mail has almost no foreign news – sometimes not even one story from the rest of the world – and my own interest waned correspondingly.

Most striking of all, a few days before the end of the experiment I realised that I had stopped worrying about global warming. For the Mail, it barely exists an issue – and certainly not as something to frighten us with – and this, surely, is the secret of the paper’s success. Phantom menaces are given prominence over real ones. The anger it stirs requires no action, no moral or intellectual effort, but simply confirms existing prejudices. By painting the world as a dystopia, we cling to our own cosy certainties.

He cites the advice given by a sub-editor to a former Mail journalist:

The ideal Daily Mail story should leave you hating someone or something.

A faultless business plan

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Extracts from George Monbiot’s reflections on the Camp for Climate Action next to Heathrow airport (emphasis mine):

There are plenty of people at the Heathrow climate camp who say they are campaigning on behalf of their children. But when Alf Pereira spoke on Sunday outside the church in Harmondsworth, we knew he meant it. His daughter died of bronchial problems, caused, he believes, by pollution from the airport. She was buried in the graveyard behind us. He fears that if a third runway is built, the developers will disinter her.

Until this week, Mr Pereira’s voice was drowned by the roar of jet engines. The people of the villages around the airport have been campaigning for years against the threat of expansion, but no one in power has listened. Both the government and the airports operator BAA appear determined to evict the living and raise the dead.

[…] Camping in the fields north of the airport this week, I found that I fell asleep promptly at 11, when the flights mostly cease, and woke – despite my wax ear plugs – promptly at 6, when they resume. My throat swelled and my eyes itched, and I am sure that my headache was not just the result of a few too many bottles of Pitfield’s Eco Warrior. Even if we were to put climate change to one side, who can honestly claim that new runways, for all their economic benefits, improve the quality of our lives? A pall of skull-scraping misery hangs over the catchment of every major airport. But the business plan cannot be faulted: the more hellish our lives become, the more we seek to escape from them.

[…] We haven’t prevented runaway climate change by camping beside Heathrow and surrounding the offices of BAA, nor did we expect to do so. But we have made it harder for Alf Pereira and the other unheard people to be swept aside, and harder for the government to forget that its plan for perpetual growth in corporate utopia is also a plan for the destruction of life on earth.

Putting renewables into perspective

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

This short video from Greenpeace puts into perspective why renewable energies have been slow in becoming established in the UK…

This is far more constructive than the Angry Kid video. That said, it doesn’t raise – I know I’m being demanding here – the spectre of the implications for electricity generation if we all start driving electric vehicles. (But some innovations could radically transform our predicament, for example, vehicle-to-grid generation, or even road surfaces that act as solar panels and that could meet a whole country’s electricity needs.) Thanks to Marten Meynell for the link.

The mounting pressure

Monday, August 20, 2007

Yesterday’s editorial in the Guardian about how, in contrast to lobbying against the tobacco industry, …

… the long grind does not work for environmental activists. Put simply, the greens believe – and most scientific evidence backs them up – that inaction now will cost lives later. That time limit, and the enormous possible consequences of failure, applies to few other causes; it is surely right to police the climate campers more seriously and sympathetically, rather than simply as a mob out to create havoc. This may make for noisier politics, a cacophonous democracy, but that would not necessarily be a bad thing. The UK is at least better in this regard than the US, where eco-terrorism is judged by the FBI to be the biggest single domestic terrorist threat, along with animal-rights campaigns. Last month, when a Hummer in Washington was vandalised and scrawled with the words “for the environ”, not only did local police turn up; so did the FBI, who declared that the criminals were terrorists, facing 20 years in jail.

[…] Some veteran greens have reminisced over the past week about Swampy-style activism, but that is to ignore the big political shift that has happened since 1996. Then, the Tories talked of “the great car economy”, now nearly all politicians will at least pay lip service to green issues. The challenge is to push them further. […]

As one commentator aptly put it in response:

So the FBI threatens a custodial sentence of 20 years for those who vandalize gas-guzzling vehicles. That’s almost exactly twice the average custodial sentence for those convicted of rape in the U.S. We must conclude that, for Americans, their motor vehicles are twice as valuable as their women.