Category Archives: Environment

Climate change: the people of Sheffield understand we need system change and reduced inequality

I very much enjoyed last week hearing a report of the preliminary findings of the INTERSECTION University of Sheffield Faculty of Social Sciences research programme, on which I was invited to respond.

It surveyed people on their views on climate change, particularly as related to intergenerational justice, is Sheffield, and also in cities in Uganda and China.

This session focused on the Sheffield results. Respondents, in my view rightly, did not blame older generations for climate change, pointing out that the science was not clear enough, or sufficiently promulgated, for people to have known the impact of their actions. They said that governments and industry were chiefly responsible for sustainable practices. “Some blame pliticians and business leaders for policy failure, corruption and lack of foresight.”

The researchers indicated disappointment that, beyond recycling, most people were not explicitly changing their personal behaviour to tackle climate change. We didn’t have an analysis of the respondents’ socio-economic status, but assuming it was broadly representative, that’s not unreasonable.

Most people get, at least on an instinctive level, that they through small personal action aren’t going to make a significant difference.

In there is the understanding that we need transformational system change to tackle climate change.

There was indeed a hint that the need for system change was evident to respondents. When asked who they blamed for climate change “the rich” came high on the list – at sixty three per cent, and respondents also thought that the rich would be among those most impacted.

There’s an understanding the reasons why economic and environmental justice are inextricably linked – those who will have to most cut their consumption are those consuming the most, broadly the rich.

It was good to hear strong support for the plastic bag charge and microbead ban.  There was strong desire for similar measures – good news for proposals for a charge on disposable coffee cups.

In the international work, it was interesting to hear how theatre in Uganda was helping to spread the word about the damage done by deforestation and promoting alternative more climate-friendly fuels – a reminder of the importance of the arts in social change. (Yes the arts that our government is consistently downgrading in our education system.

In the small group discussion after the presentations, we discussed how fear makes people consume, and how empowered people are less likely to consume. So much of our current consumption is a product of insecurity and fear.

Image from the Visual Minutes record of the Global Greens Congress in Liverpool last week.

Well done Friends of the Earth for getting the air pollution message out

Today the Guardian reported that despite all of the publicity, most Britons are still unaware of the poor quality of the air that they breathe.

That’s one reason why it is great that Friends of the Earth is encouraging members and supporters to install simple tubes that measure the level of nitrogen dioxide in the air in their communities in a citizen science project that will spread awareness and knowledge.

There are quite a few up around Sheffield, some at sites like Hillsborough Corner (below) where you might expect poor quality air, others in parts of the city generally thought of us “cleaner”, although some of those might shock local residents when the results come in.

Building awareness of the issue is one reason by Sheffield Green Party is running the Let Sheffield Breathe campaign. It includes a petition calling on the council to adopt a new air pollution strategy. (It adopted one in 2012, which aimed to cut pollution levels in the city to below European levels, which failed, and since then there’s not been a coordinated attempt to take action.

It is also disappointing that when five cities (Birmingham, Leeds, Nottingham, Derby and Southampton) were chosen to be Clean Air Zones (with associated funding), Sheffield was not among them – we must lobby hard to be added to the list.

National demonstration supports Lancashire anti-fracking campaign

On Saturday I crossed the ancient boundary between Lancashire and Yorkshire, one of many people who came from around the country to support the ongoing campaign to prevent planned fracking at Preston New Road.

More than 700 people gathered at the site, and the signs and messages made two key points.

First, that the people of Lancashire, in the form of their elected county council, said “no” to fracking. I was outside the council chamber as that hearing went on, and you could hear the strain in the councillors’ voices (the hearing was broadcast to the crowd), with huge pressure being applied by David Cameron and George Osborne showing fervent support for the frackers, but the councillors instead listened to their voters. Then London overturned that decision.

The second key message was that there is an obvious, far better alternative – investment in renewable energy and energy conservation.

It was great to catch up with Tina Rothery, one of the longtime stalwarts of the anti-fracking campaign.

She was wearing her “Nana’s” apron – and it is grandmothers (and some “honorary” grandmothers among whom I’m proud to number myself) who are at the forefront of this campaign. One had this simple message:

But I liked this simple placard, which got across a lot in three words. The frackers proclaim that their industry will create jobs, what they don’t account for is the jobs that will be lost in other industries if they are allowed to go ahead – or the alternative (and far greater in number and quality jobs) that could be created with renewable energy and energy conservation.

Coming up next: The No Fracking Way walk, which will be carrying some soil from near the fracking site in Kirby Misperton to Preston New Rd. As organiser Clrr Andrew Cooper said: “As soil from Yorkshire is deposited at the fracking site in Lancashire we’ll emphasise that the assault on the environment at one site is an assault on us all.” (I’m planning on joining the final day.)

Trees to save in Dore: Vernon Oak and the Chatsworth Road limes

On Valentine’s Day there was a gathering in Dore, with red hearts, fervent messages of love, and original artworks.

The subject was shared among scores of people: Vernon Oak, a magnificent 150-year-old oak tree, much valued by the community, which could have another 150 years of prime life. That’s if it isn’t cut down by private contractor Amey with the support of Sheffield Council and (because it will certainly take that) South Yorkshire Police.

I joined Green councillor Alison Teal in a visit there, where we heard from locals how the council’s own independent tree panel had recommended it be saved, but the council has ruled that Vernon is to be cut down anyway.

Around the corner in Chatworth Road is a magnificent line of lime trees, which locals reported are packed with bees when in flower. They’re on a wide road, with big pavements on both sides, yet more than half are scheduled for the chainsaw, despite the fact that their impact seems insignificant, and easily covered by “engineering solutions” such as half-width kerbstones to accommodate roots.

This is yet one more part of Sheffield where the services provided by trees to the benefit of human health – cutting air pollution, combatting flooding, providing a healthy environment – are under threat, as the profit of a private company is put before the public good.

It’s a very obvious demonstration of the failure of the model of providing public services through contracts with for-profit providers. What’s happening here is also what’s happening to our NHS, just rather less visibly.

 

Yes: feminism and environmentalism are essential partners

Reflecting a speech I gave at the Women’s Environmental Network Forum, January 26, 2017

I was asked to speak a little about my personal political history, so I begin with chronologically the first part of my politics: feminism. That started at age five, when I was told “Because you’re a girl, you’re not allowed to have a bicycle.” That was a product of the thought processes of my aspirational working class grandmother, who thought it wasn’t ‘ladylike’.

I didn’t know the word feminism then, and it wasn’t until I accidentally encountered the novel The Women’s Room at about age 16 that I realised other people thought as I did.

My other key political strand came later, in my university years, as I studied agricultural science, and came to understand that Australian farming, using methods transplanted from the other side of the world, was mining the soils, destroying them. In that lay the foundation of my environmentalism.

But it would be decades before I started to see the links between the two sides of my politics.

One element that they share is that feminists and environmentalists seem to keep having to fight the same battles again and again. For feminism, this was brought into focus for me by one of British feminism grande dames, Sheila Rowbotham, in 2010, when I heard her say: “We’ve learned now that you can go backwards. In the Seventies we assumed once you made a gain it would stay there. … It is much harder to argue for equality in a situation where equality is not respected.” As we’ve found now fighting for a ban on companies forcing female staff to wear high heels.

Preparing for tonight, I was struck by the parallels with the latest report from the Committee on Climate Change’s latest report, sneaked out by the government. The Climate Change Act was hailed as a great victory, and it was a success, but not one whose continuation was assured.

The problem is that when we fight battles on individual issues, once that issue is apparently won, the momentum, the energy, heads off in new directions, and the system reverts to status quo settings.

This reminds me of many years ago when I founded the blog Carnival of Feminists. I was also at the time a regular host of the Britblog roundup, a political blogging carnival. I had a lot of trouble getting the (mostly male) hosts of that to see feminism as part of politics, but I also had some problems getting the feminist bloggers to conclude the same.

What we’ve not really grasped in many parts of feminism and environmentalism is that what we are doing is, must be, has to be, politics.

We can’t just lobby politicians – we have to be politicians. In other words, we have to stop electing the wrong people and hoping they’ll do the right things.

What’s increasingly clear now if that the problems identified by feminism and the problems seen by environmentalism are joined up – they are part of a system, a model, that’s broken – that’s based on an economic system that’s trashing the planet while society tramples all over the rights of women, failing to treat them with the most basic respect.

We can’t win by picking off small issues – we need system change, a transformation to move towards a society and economy that works for the common good within the environmental limits of our one fragile planet.

And here’s where I think a concept that comes from agriculture can help us see more broadly what we need: agroecology. I wrote about it recently after returning from the climate talks in Marrakesh.

It’s a concept of farming and land management that aims to work with each plant, animal and microbes natural strengths, to support and go around its weakness, to create a natural environment in which every species can thrive and flourish, not overstretched, not be a cow pumped with hormones to produce heroic quantities of milk, or a soil treated like a cake mix whose ingredients can be fiddled at will.

It might just be a useful way for feminists to think about the kind of society that we need, one in which everyone has access to light, and air, to space and time, to the opportunity to flourish without undue demands and pressures.

It’s one more way in which we can join up feminism and environmentalism.

Bad news: three more peaceful Sheffield tree protectors charged

I was very disappointed to hear the news that three people, who were roused from their beds in the early hours of the morning on a cold November morning in November, who stood in their night clothes to peacefully defend the trees in their street, have after months of uncertainty, been charged for their non-violent action.

The Rustlings Road Amey/council/South Yorkshire Police action achieved notoriety around the world.

The Green Party understands that sometimes nonviolent direct action is necessary when authorities decline to listen to democratic voices. These brave actions have already highlighted an inappropriate official action and led to the council climb down.

The Green Party will continue to offer support to the now five people charged for peacefully defending their communities and our democratic rights.

A protest is planned at 9am on January 26, outside Sheffield Magistrates’ Court. Sheffield Green Party will be there.

Smithy Wood – not the site for a motorway services!

On Sunday I found a very productive – if muddy – way to spend the morning, in the beautiful Smithy Wood.

The idea that this ancient woodland (and the bell pits that are remnants of mining dating back to the 1400s) might be levelled for a motorway services really is ridiculous.

fungi on a tree

A wide range of biodiversity

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A very old, twisty hawthorn

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The beauties of nature

Happily the Woodland Trust is backing a campaign to save it.

Spending the time plucking plastic drinks bottles out of puddles and extracting them from the middle of brambles really did provide time to focus on the urgent need for replacing these single-use plastics with a bottle deposit scheme – and moving to complete end single-use plastics. (One good thing, I suspect there would have been a lot more carrier bags a couple of years ago – there were very few, and a lot of those were clearly old.)

rubbish bag

One of the many rubbish bags we collected

Oddest thing I picked up – a car muffler. I don’t know what kind of car it was from, but it was very heavy!

Responding to populism: we need more politics in energy, not less

I write for The Ecologist:

“It’s a pall that hangs over almost every meeting in every sector of society at the moment: the rise of the populist right. And it was certainly hanging in the air at the University of Exeter Energy Policy Group conference in London this week. …

One speaker from the floor summed it up very well: “we need more politics in energy policy, not less.”

Amy Mount from the Green Alliance suggested that the answer to ‘post-truth’ politics was more transparency.”

More

Agroecology and “climate smart” agriculture: there’s one way forward

Looking at sustainable farming practices with Shopshire Wildlife Trust

Looking at sustainable farming practices with Shopshire Wildlife Trust

Just published on the Ecologist, I reflect on the discussions I joined at the climate talks in Marrakesh.

I started with some context: “there is currently plenty of food in the world. The fact that 800 million people regularly go to bed hungry is a failure of distribution, not production. But the world’s population is growing, and production is under threat from the damage being done by the industrial agriculture that’s trashing our soils, drawing down fossil water supplies and polluting our rivers and oceans. Adaptation means ensuring there’s enough food to go around in future in our changing climate. That’s a huge ask.”

I conclude: “agroecology is the only possible approach: climate change is only one of many pressing environmental issues that threaten our future and that of the Earth as a balanced ecosystem. Agroecology addresses such diverse problems as biodiversity loss, soil degradation, pollution of our rivers and oceans. And it can create huge numbers of jobs, sustain small businesses, and offer far greater food security.

Understandably, there was at COP a lot of talk about the development of agroecology for the Global South, where food security is the most obviously pressing issue. But I’m interested in how we can develop this in the UK – where we also need to think hard about food security – given that we import 40% of our food, and 75% of our fruit and vegetables, which are particularly critical for health.”

How I got to the COP climate talks in Marrakesh from London by train

Guided by the invaluable Man in Seat Sixty One, I booked my tickets for the journey to Marrakesh a couple of months in advance, which kept the costs down.

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The trip started with a simple Eurostar hop to Paris, then I left Paris Gare de Lyon in the early afternoon for the long but comfortable and relaxed run to Barcelona.I’m working on a book, so the power point by the seat (European plug of course) came in very handy, and glancing up from my work to see the countryside rolling by was very pleasant, as was the chance to get up and stretch my legs whenever I wanted.

I was pleased to find a number of other Britons travelling to Barcelona by train, and I swapped coffee runs with a lovely couple travelling for their daughter’s wedding in the Spanish city. They’d chosen train for its reliability – they’d had some bad times with flights being hopelessly delayed and cancelled, and this was one journey they wanted certainty on.

I overnighted in Barcelona at the one star but surprisingly good Hotel Transit (budget accommodation has improved a great deal since my backpacker days), and the next morning had only a short stroll from the hotel for the 8.30am train.

That whizzed me in high comfort on to Antequera-Santa Ana, where there was time for a quick lunch in the station cafe before boarding the local train to Algeciras. The views along the way were spectacular – the snow-capped Pyrennes, great stretches of olive trees standing strong in apparent desert, and as long as I didn’t glance at the speed indicator I wouldn’t have had any idea I was travelling at 300kh/h. Announcements were in a range of languages, but there was no difficulty in understanding the necessary details. If I got an orange juice when I was trying to order pineapple, that was undoubtedly my own fault in trying to speak Spanish – English would have worked fine.

This was a local, slow train – and one with a great many British accents (this is just inland from Malaga) – but there was still a power point at every seat and plenty of room between the comfortable seats.

Arriving at Algeciras, it was a five-minute stroll to the port. You could see the sea from the train station, and from there I walked straight on to the bus transfer to Tarifa, the port for the fast catamaran across the Med, which took only an hour. It was a sober thought as I stood looking at the sea I was about to cross in air-conditioned comfort, the same sea where so many thousands have lost their lives in a desperate bid for safe European refuge.

But I was soon in Tangier, and settling into the wonderful, economical, comfortably aged grandeur of the Continental Hotel. I’d arrived at 9pm and could theoretically have caught the 9.55pm sleeper to Morocco that night, but I chose to take 24 hours of holiday in the comfortable, relatively untouristy streets of Tangier.

I was able to buy my ticket at the train station next day, left my bags at a hotel nearby, and took the day to explore, before settling into my comfortable £28 couchette – sharing with three Moroccan women – a bargain.

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All up, the trip cost about £200 – the most ridiculous bargain being Paris-Barcelona for 33 euros. It was a great way to travel, and provided excellent work time.

By contrast, my journey home on BA (forced by a long-booked appointment) was a tale of cramped misery. I was probably cutting it fine in arriving at the airport 90 minutes before the flight, then on a fully booked plane I spent four hours packed into sardine conditions. The gentleman beside me had his elbow in my ribs the whole way, he had nowhere else to put it, ditto his knees in my space. I’m seldom glad of being only 1.6 metres – this time I was, for the man on the other side also was in “my” space, for want of any alternative. I didn’t move for four hours – I couldn’t without causing widespread disruption. I couldn’t even reach the bag under the seat in front of me, while my other carry-on bag was travelling in business, for want of any space in the cattle cabin. I didn’t get any work done, and when I arrived at Gatwick, train delays meant it took 2.5 hours to get to King’s Cross station – as long as from there to Paris. It “only” cost £80 – some of the worst £80 I’d ever spent.

Of course there’s no justification for this travel mode costing less – and it doesn’t, if you count the externalised costs of greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution, noise pollution and taxes avoided. (For aviation is avoiding taxes under worldwide regulations brought in when it was fledgling industry governments wanted to encourage).

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And there’s no single rail ticket to Marrakesh – why not? Without the invaluable contribution of an individual’s website, it would be hard to organise. Governments could do so much more to encourage this mode of travel – if only they had the will.