Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Doctor Who and the Vanishing Bees

Where have our bees gone? Honey bees, bumble bees... you name it, they're disappearing faster than Pooh Bear's honey. Now, I thought maybe there were some fairly simple explanations for this worrying phenomenon, like the damaging effects of Pestilential Pesticides or the loss of wildflowers due to intensive agriculture.

But I was wrong. I now know that the bees have gone off to their mother planet out in space because the Earth is about to be stolen by Daleks and hidden one second in the future along with twenty-six other planets so that Davros and his band of tinpot baddies can take over the universe.

It's a much more satisfying explanation altogether, and it fits the general Dr Who approach to our current eco-woes. What? you may be thinking. Surely Dr Who is just a fanciful adventure series - no one really believes that the bees are from outer space, do they? Do they? I don't know. But Dr Who has always reflected the fears of the age, and in this series the images of apocalypse (the stars going out, unknown terrors coming from the sky) seem to mirror our very real anxieties about climate change and its effects.

Dr Who is great. It's scary and fantastic. But the thing about the bees is keeping me awake at night. The disappearance of bees isn't part of some grand conspiracy of aggressive oversized saltpots. It's much closer to home than that. It's our problem, and one we could maybe solve if we put in the sort of time and effort it takes to make a TV series.

The trouble is, we're not going to get ten million people glued to the sofa of a Saturday evening for bees. Are we?

Thursday, 19 June 2008

Bristol Cycling City? Let's See...

Hot on the news that the city is planning to turn our Malago greenway into a high speed bus lane comes the announcement that this same city, ie Bristol, has been named the UK's first Cycling City. Lots of fanfare, promises and a fair amount of cash accompany this accolade, but what will it mean?

I posted some thoughts on the Guardian blog, and I hope my first attempt at a cyber-linkage-doodad will take you there with One Click. Sorry if it doesn't work.

Here's a snippet from How to Turn Your Parents Green:

Funky Bike Facts
- You can park 18 bikes in the same space as one car
- In motion, 30 bikes take up the same space as one car
- If 40,000 people needed to get across a bridge in one hour, by train they’d need two lanes, by bus four lanes, by car twelve lanes, but by bike only one lane.
- The bicycle is the only form of transport that doesn’t create barriers for pedestrians.
- Riding a bike makes you incredibly fit and healthy, as long as you don’t get splattered all over the road.

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

How Green is Rapid Transit?

Sorry, rather a dull title, but the subject is anything but... The thing is, we all want our cities to be Greener, and in transport terms that means getting people out of cars and onto buses, trains, bikes, scooters, heelies, flying carpets, etc. With rocketing oil prices even Groans are becoming quite keen on forms of transport that don't involve them shelling out for petrol that will soon cost as much as wine. Imagine - a wine-drinking car, tooling along with a tank full of claret...

So we're all agreed. Every city needs a good transport infrastructure, with affordable buses, trams or what have you whizzing in all directions.

But where do these vehicles go? In our city the roads are already horribly congested, so any new bus or tram or 20-person electric scooter will have to crawl along at the same speed as everyone else. So our elders and betters hired professional plan-makers (a species in no danger of extinction) to make some plans for new routes that would unroll across the city like so much red carpet, allowing buses, trams, etc, to zoom at will.

These highly-paid professionals looked at the map and found a network of ready made corridors, where there were few houses and few roads. Quite an achievement in a built-up 21st century city. They marked out nice new transport routes in coloured felt tip pen and went away to count their loot. Job done.

One of these proposed routes runs not a million miles from my house. It comes rushing out of the city centre, over a new bridge, across a busy shopping street, under a railway bridge and then along a stream called the Malago, using a route known to people round here as the Malago Greenway. I say along. In fact the stream will most probably disappear under the new road. The trees along the stream will be cut down. Oh, and the many uncounted, quiet, non-motorised people who walk, ride and play along this mile-long ribbon of green will have to find somewhere else to go instead.

Except that there isn't anywhere else. We're surrounded on all sides by busy roads and railways. What these planners have found and seized upon with glee are the only remaining paths people can follow at their own pace and under their own steam. Yes, these are also wildlife corridors - places where slow worms and bats eke out a meagre urban existence - but they are, first and foremost, human corridors. You can't measure the value of city children being able to walk to school beside a stream under the shade of big trees - no one's cutting four and a half minutes off their journey time or earning an extra £3.75 - but we all know deep down that this is important.

Further along the Malago flows through a poorer neighbourhood, and city officials are keen to point out that the new route will bring prosperity to its people. Will it? And at what price? Aren't the stream and surrounding greenery already giving people there a kind of prosperity?

The truth is that city officials and planners have goals and targets. They want to get certain numbers up and others down. They think in traffic volumes and journey times, and their thinking is constrained by ingrained beliefs: you can't interfere with motorists' freedom; bikes and pedestrians are always less important than cars; a piece of land that doesn't have a measurable economic output needs to have one.

So how Green is Rapid Transit? If it replaces cars on the same roads, it gets my vote. Otherwise, it's just another Groanish scheme designed to speed things up for no good reason.

Monday, 2 June 2008

Five Reasons to Build a Severn Barrage (Not)

Being opposed to things can become very dull. People who are Greenish or Reddish or a mixture of the two always seem to be anti-this and against that, fighting this development or opposing that policy, and frankly I've had enough. I want to be on board. I want to be on the team. I want to start saying Yes.

So how about the Severn Barrage? What's that? I hear you say. The Severn Barrage is basically a dam, which will stretch across the mouth of the river Severn between the Welsh city of Cardiff and the English coast about ten miles away. This particular stretch of the British coast has a huge tidal range (at most about 15m or, whatever it is, 45 feet between high and low tides), which means that hydroelectric turbines set into the dam will be able to generate 5% of the UK's electricity.

That sounds like a lot, doesn't it? In fact the whole idea sounds fabulously Green and lovely. I want to be a supporter. I really really want to say Yes to the Severn Barrage.

But I can't. I have to say, once again, NO! NO! NO! NO! NO! NO! NO! NO! NO! NO! NO! NO! NO! That's Nein, Non, er Nul Point.

It's a terrible idea. A monstrously Groanish, ghastly and despicable idea. Why? Oh dear, I'll have to add a (Not) to the title. I meant to have five Pros, but it looks like a fistful of Cons instead:

1. The people who want to build the Barrage aren't in it for the Green power. They're in it for the development potential upstream. With the tidal flow reduced the river will flood less and the water will be clearer, making it more conducive to watersports and luxury waterside apartment blocks. The Severn has never been a river that likes to stay within its banks - the Barrage will finally tame it.

2. At the moment the Severn Estuary is one of the world's most important stopover points for migratory wetland birds. At Slimbridge, a ways upriver from the proposed Barrage, the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust is like a motel and gas station for tired geese. Any reduciton in the river's tidal flow will have an impact on the birds, but no one knows exactly what it will be.

3. Migratory fish species are already declining around the rivers of Europe. The salmon and the eel were once both plentiful in the Severn, and their decline is at least partially because of ever more efficient flood defences. Weirs block the main stream and floodgates prevent water flowing from the main river into its tributaries. Since few people now make a living from the fishery there are few who care whether fish live or die. A barrage, even if navigable by fish, can only make the situation worse.

4. The Severn Bore is one of Britain's natural wonders. Formed by the incoming tide as it piles into the funnel-shaped estuary, the Bore is a wave up to six feet high, which travels miles upriver. Surfers travel from all over the world to ride on this most determined of rollers, and at present the unofficial world record for the longest single ride on a surfboard is held by a veteran Severn surfer Steve King. The barrage would of course kill the Bore.

5. There are alternatives. One is to build lagoons which will trap water as it flows out with the tide and use it to power turbines. These wouldn't block the river, which is good news for the river. However, this means developers or investors won't have the incentives outlined in (1) above, so it ain't likely to happen. Another option is to invest more money in developing free-standing tidal turbines - like wind turbines underwater. These have been developed on a shoestring (no, not literally) by some of the UK's amazing renewable energy boffins, and a couple of models are being tested right now. Will the inventors find UK investors? Or will they sell their fantastic ideas abroad, while we continue turning our beautiful island into a giant waterside housing development in which rivers are lifeless pools and wildlife clings for dear life to the tiny patches of SLOAP (Space Left Over After Planning)?

Nature is soft, not hard. Rivers like the Severn are supposed to change with the tides and seasons. The regular flooding has given the Severn vale the rich agricultural land farmers have valued for centuries, but now we are only interested in bricks and mortar - which are hard and don't respond well to immersion in brackish water. We've tunnelled and bridged the Severn. Now the engineers want to finish the job and dam it.

Time to bring back the Monkey Wrench Gang.

Friday, 23 May 2008

Sunshade World? No! No! No!

Now and again people send me press releases they think I'll find interesting, but this one made me want to run upstairs and hide under the bed. Actually, to start with I thought this report, from a respected university not a million miles from my door, must be an April Fool that had got lost somewhere in the www. It began:

Sunshade World - a global warming solution?

I read on, and it became clear that this was no joke. Instead, a team of scientists had just devoted hatfuls of time and energy to creating computer models designed to help us understand what the world would be like if a giant sunshade were placed between us and the sun. Apparently such a scheme could be put in place in 25 years or so for so many trillions of pounds, so obviously we need to know what it will be like.

The good news is that, compared to the 'sky falling in' doom-monger's scenarios of runaway climate change, life under the sunshade would be quite pleasant. A bit less ice at the poles than at present. Rather drier in the topics. Possible catastrophic effects on plankton with potential global repercussions.

As I read and digested this, I tried to imagine these scientists going about their work, chatting over coffee and comparing notes, then I thought about all the other scientists all over the world who spend their time modelling futures and extrapolating data, which then gets turned into fabulous stories by the media and so makes its way into our tiny brains, where we try and come to terms with it.

And no doubt somebody, somewhere, is busy monitoring all these scientists, studying their carbon footprints and coming up with ingenious ways to make their future-mongering more efficient. And these people also issue reports telling the world how vitally important their work has been in cutting the climate impact of the climate impact studiers. And after a while someone says, you know, this Sunshade World really sounds pretty good, and then we're all in trouble.

You know what they say: if you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem.

Wednesday, 21 May 2008

Turning the Parents Green? It's Eco Child's Play!

Thanks to Jennifer Lance for this thoughtful review on ecochildsplay.com:


Funny to think of Jennifer sitting in the wilds of northern California, in her off-grid, self-built house, surrounded by kids running about and playing American versions of the universal child games, reading this odd little book. Which was written, incidentally, in a south Bristol terrace built a year before Victoria died, with a view over the trees and rooftops and lots of sky in the window. In the summer evenings a sound like a cow snorting tells us a hot air balloon is overhead, the pilot turning on the burner to get that balloon over our hill.

It isn't what you'd call wilderness round here. Our wildlife is as urban as we are: the frogs in the pond and the swifts in the sky are city-dwellers, so are the herring gulls which started moving in when the Clean Air Acts were passed forty-odd years ago. The gulls are big, aggressive and unafraid, and they love it here. No one has any idea what to do about them, though the city has tried some strange and wonderful ideas, such as stealing the eggs and replacing them with fakes. They've tried introducing predators like peregrine falcons to scare them away, but the gulls are used to predators and don't take any notice. They've tried culling them, but more just arrive to take the vacant rooftop apartments.

We're entwined with nature, even here in the city, and all of our actions will have consequences we could never imagine.

Thursday, 15 May 2008

Bin Tax: Pay the Kids not the City

We might not like the idea, but it won't be long before we're all paying for our rubbish to be taken away.* Of course we already pay for this service through local taxes, but new technology will soon enable rubbish collectors to weigh our bins and charge accordingly.

So what to do? Have a tantrum? Or become better binners? As readers of How to Turn Your Parents Green will know, most of the stuff we throw away can be recycled, so it's mostly just a question of doing this properly. If you sign up to the Glorious Green Charter included free with every copy of the book, you can put your kids in charge of monitoring bin usage. They will fine you for misdemeanours such as chucking drink cans in the wheelie bin** but these pennies will seem like money well spent when the real Rubbish Inspectors come to call.

Let's face it: kids like detail. They like yucky stuff. They're perfect for the job.

The book also provides handy tips on how to avoid creating rubbish in the first place, so why not save a few bob*** and peruse a copy? (preferably one you've purchased beforehand)

* Note for American reader(s): rubbish = garbage or trash; bin = trashcan; potato = potarto (should we call the whole thing off?)
** Trash can on wheels. Can perform 'a wheelie' but this isn't necessarily a good idea
*** No Robert here: 'bob' is an arcane word for 'shilling', a now obsolete bit of British currency