Friday, 24 May 2013

Character building

I was sitting at my desk, when I heard a crash and a flock of birds flew past my window. Hurrah I thought, they are chopping trees down in the woods. Now mostly I am against trees getting felled, but in this instance I was very glad.

The trees in question were sycamore, which are rather unloved in the UK, because they are non-native and quite invasive. Behind my house is a small woods, just a copse really. Very small, but still very pleasant to walk through and brimming with life. Small patches of bluebells and snow drops have started to appear the last few years, and there are foxes, badgers, woodpeckers and owls, despite it being over-run with nettles.

Last year I noticed that some of the sycamore were dying. A black dusty mould covered their trunks, the bark fell off and they died. Apparently this is aptly named Sooty Bark Disease. Last summer I spotted 6 dying or dead trees and reported it to the local council. Last week my youngest daughter counted at least 17 trees that are now infected.

The wood is made up of 2 sides. One side has many older trees predominantly oak, with other species mixed in. The side nearest us is almost all Ash with a few sycamore in one corner. Last year we found out that Ash Dieback disease had been found in numerous locations around the UK. Danish experts have said that there is no way of preventing the spread and that over 90% of the Ash trees will get infected and die. There is no sign of this disease yet in this small public woodland, but I fear it will come.

These diseases are strongly linked to climate change. The weather has been abnormally dry, then abnormally wet, then abnormally cold. How are trees that are rooted in the ground to adapt to such rapid changes to the norm? Like us they are stressed, and stress makes things more prone to disease.

So it was relief for me to hear the diseased trees being felled, because it may help stop the spread to healthy trees. By cutting away the dead wood there is now a clearing where the light shines in and something new can grow. I am going to be very sad when Ash dieback reaches our woods, and it will be horrifying to see all the trees cleared, but it isn’t the end of the woods. The other plants and creatures will adapt.

We have failed to mitigate climate change, or address the rapidly approaching resource depletion, so far. Some of the blogs I wander through talk about extinction, game over and the human race as a cancer. I can’t think of it like that, because we are part of the whole and the whole is beautiful. Ok so the future looks a bit bleak, but it has at other times too. Can you imagine how it must have felt to be French in 1940, when your soldiers had been defeated, and the German forces occupied the country? What hope was there for France or the future? How likely would it have seemed that other countries could or would join forces and be able to defeat the invaders? Yet they did.

There is a really remarkable story that I was reminded of again recently. It is called the Coconut Revolution and is the amazing story of how some indigenous people on the Island of Bougainville stood up to the might of the copper mines that were ruining their homes and ecosystems. Cut off from supplies they had to be ingenious and resourceful to survive.


I believe that the future is not set in stone, it is really up to us and the choices we make that will determine the outcome. There are always going to be hard times that we need to work through. I guess the older generation would call it character building J

Sunday, 19 May 2013


This week 400ppm of carbon dioxide was recorded in the atmosphere in Hawaii. That is 400 parts of carbon dioxide per million parts of air. It doesn’t sound much, but it’s a lot. In case you missed it...
It is a very, very big deal. It is a whole 50ppm more than the target to stabilise the climate at only 2 degrees temperature rise. We have left that target way behind now. There is no going back. We have already committed ourselves, and all the living creatures on the planet to go past a 2 degree rise in average global temperatures.

So it is Sunday today. Are you still going to stand in front of the telly and iron a basket of clothes? Are you still going to fill up the car with petrol, ready to run the kids to school? Are you still going to boil enough water for 4 cups of tea when you only want 1 cup?

Doing all these things, purely because you always have done these things, is continuing with business as usual. Buying an energy efficient kettle or a smaller car just won’t cut it. We don’t need to save 10% here or there by being more efficient. We need to save 75%, by cleaning out the kettle and then only ever using 1 cup of water to make 1 cup of tea. And if there is no excess water, there will be no excess lime scale. We need to save 100% of the energy by choosing not to ever iron our clothes again. You will be surprised by how few people will notice, and virtually no one will say anything. We need to save 100% by walking or cycling, not for leisure, but to replace the journeys we would otherwise make in the car. This may need us to re-organise routines, plan out safe routes or buy all weather gear, but is it impossible?

If 400ppm does not motivate you, then watch the absolutely brilliant film ‘Chasing Ice’ and see the effects that ‘business as usual’ has had on the glaciers over the last few years.

I have spent more than 10 years working to reduce energy consumption, in various different roles. It clearly hasn’t worked. It has actually been documented that energy efficiency doesn’t work. For example, we build houses that are insulated better to make them more energy efficient. It is true that the new houses use less energy than an older house of the same size. But on average there are fewer people living in each house, so there are more houses. The result is that overall energy consumption continues to increase.

The same can be seen with TV’s. They may be more efficient for the equivalent size, however we have bigger TVs and more of them. And so on with fridges getting bigger, electric lighting providing brighter rooms, washing machines used more frequently, and the addition of electronic devices that didn’t even exist 10 – 20 years ago. Shops follow the same rules. They have significantly grown in size and number and have increased use of lighting, heating and cooling, compared to the traditional grocer’s shop of 50 years ago. All efficiency savings with cars is dwarfed by the increase in the number of cars and the amount of journeys driven.

The way to reduce our energy consumption and carbon emissions is by changing our lifestyles. This means questioning why we do the things we do, not just doing them because we always have. 100 years ago ironing was necessary. Washing clothes in soap, left materials feeling rough and hard, and ironing would help to soften them. This really isn’t the case now, ironing is purely aesthetic. It is a luxury that we can no longer afford, along with many others.

There is a triple win from doing these things, that is we win in at least 3 ways for each of them. Let’s start with boiling the kettle. Just boiling one cup of water for one cup of tea, is far quicker than waiting for 3 or 4 cups to boil, so saves time. Less lime scale accumulates as there is less water boiled, and the water doesn’t remain in the kettle and get boiled again and again, so the water is fresher. And of course the biggest win, it saves energy, which reduces energy bills and cuts the carbon emissions. It is actually a bigger win than this because the peak loads in the electricity generating system tend to occur when everyone puts the kettle on, either when they get in from work on a cold winters evening or when the adverts come on in a football match or the X factor final. Large gas or coal power stations will be kept idling ready to meet that sudden peak in demand. If we can reduce that demand by just boiling 1 cup of water for 1 cup of tea, then this will reduce the stress on the electricity grid and save even more energy. It’s not rocket science, but it could have a significant impact if we all got it right, and it is so easy to do.

With the help of my eldest son and a good friend a few years back, we produced a rather homemade advert to explain why you should stop ironing, which you can watch here.

Benefits of walking and cycling include improving fitness, reducing congestion so that other traffic flows freely and more efficiently, and directly reducing the miles driven and the amount of fuel used, which saves money and carbon emissions. There are other benefits too, which could even include reducing oil wars, if everyone does their bit.

Simone deHoogh says that there is so little that we can change in a day or a week, but so much that we can achieve in a year. These words are very appropriate because tiny little changes in our habits or our mindset make little difference over a week, but over a year the accumulation of small actions can have a far bigger impact.

400ppm is scary. Nobody can deny that the prospect of climate change is really scary. It is way beyond our control. But business as usual is only going to make things worse. Any changes we can make now will help. We don’t know what the future holds, but we do know that what we do now can make a difference.
Do something. Even if it seems small, such as not over-filling the kettle, or sharing lifts with a colleague, or unplugging all the TV paraphernalia before bed, or ditching the hands free phone for a traditional phone, or tucking the curtains behind the radiator at night, or not chatting with the front door wide open, or switching the heating off when you leave the house, or having a quicker shower, or asking to work from home, or not leaving the TV on in the background, or hanging washing outside to dry, or finding out about your local transition group.

Make the little changes and the bigger changes will follow.

Thursday, 16 May 2013


I wanted to let people know about an amazing bunch of people who are trying to change the world for the better. A bunch of British architects and town planners are cycling across America and back to London. The project is called Portland to Portland (p2p) and the purpose is to explore the provision for cycling infrastructure in different cities and come up with solutions to present to the World Cycling summit. On the way they will be raising awareness for cycling and raising money for charity.

You can track their progress and find out more here. They started at Portland in Oregon, and will be passing through Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Chicago, Columbus, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, New York, Dublin, Oxford, ending in July at Portland Place in London. You can join them for part of the ride, or just give them a wave.

I enjoy cycling, but like many people, I get put off by the traffic, well.... that and the weather. On a day out in London with my kids, we did look at the Boris Bikes and I contemplated that we could visit far more places on bike than walking. Then I looked at the London traffic and returned to my senses. If it was just me I may have had a go, but with kids, who may have taken their cycling proficiency but were not experienced with traffic, then no. I did notice that cycling down the mall to Buckingham Palace and on towards Hyde Park looked lovely. Not only is there a lovely wide road, a pedestrian path and a cycle path, but also a horse path too and they were all rather empty.

There is a certain amount of freedom to be gained from cycling when you are young. I have a friend who loves cycling and her children are both confident and competent at riding anywhere. She also has an amazing bike with a cart on the front, which she can load with shopping or more often kids. When they were a bit smaller, she could fit 4 or 5 kids in the cart, and they all loved it! I remember seeing similar contraptions in Amsterdam outside a school, where a lady lifted half a dozen kids in and cycled away!

This is my problem at the moment, I am the taxi mum, and it is difficult to find a way round this. My youngest son is now starting to bike himself to school, but as it has hailed and rained all week we have not got off to a good start. He is probably tough enough to get a bit wet and sit in wet clothes at school all day, but I’m not tough enough to make him. My dad didn't like to give me lifts as a teenager. To be honest I could get most places on my own and enjoyed the independence, but there were a few places where I couldn’t get by bus and it involved long walks. I can vividly remember having to walk in driving wind and rain, with large lorries splashing past me, dressed in a denim jacket with a useless umbrella. I spent all day sodden and cold, and then walked home miserable in the rain again. I’m sure everyone in the UK remembers numerous such experiences.

I didn’t bike much because there were no cycle paths then and the traffic was dire, so I am grateful for how much things have improved. There are now cycle paths, and some rather less enticing cycle lanes, which seem to be just a line painted along the side of the existing narrow road, that drivers just ignore. There are also a lot more speed restrictions, sometimes enforced with speed cameras or speed bumps. The whole thing is still rather disjointed, so that you will still have to bike along a busy section of road to get from the cycle path to the pedestrianised town centre, but it is definitely improving.

There is the temptation to think that when petrol gets too expensive for people to drive anymore, then is the time to start cycling happily on traffic free roads. The problem is that it is too late then. Every journey is adding to the pollution. This week readings passed 400ppm of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere at the measuring station in Hawai. That is pretty scary seeing as the target was to stabilise at 350ppm to prevent severe temperature rises and runaway climate change. We really have been dragging our feet with our heads in the sand.

So we need to give a massive thank you for all the geniuses who contributed to designing and perfecting the bicycle – the most energy efficient way to travel, powered by renewable human energy, and pedal into the future!

Saturday, 11 May 2013

Cutting back on stuff

So, I have been talking about reducing the ‘stuff’ that we consume for the last few posts. You can see the list of stuff for the month of April here. I would encourage anyone reading this to try recording all the stuff they buy or are given for a month, and how much they spend. I think you will be surprised at the amount of small items that may otherwise go unnoticed. The question for me is, could I cut this list by 90%?

There are some things that would be really easy to not buy. For instance, I purchased the fibre plant pots, partly because I was impatient for empty loo rolls to become available, and partly because I was trying to grow sweet corn for the first time and the packet suggested using fibre pots because they don’t like having their roots disturbed. To be honest I am not impressed with them and regret buying so many. (The sweet corn are not looking impressed either :-( ) The plastic seed propagator I also didn’t like, because when I tried to get the modules out as a tidy cube, ready to plant on, the compost just crumbled away, offering no protection to the root. What did I do wrong? Plant label tags, seemed like a good idea, because I am normally too lazy to mark where my row of seeds are, making it difficult to weed, but really with a little fore-thought I could have saved wooden lolly sticks. Part of this spend is experimental and also I got caught up in the panic of having a late spring.

I have stepped my gardening up a notch this year, and gardening stuff was 20% of my spend for the month. Some of the items I bought can go on being used year after year, like the seed tray and water sprayer, so really this is an investment in a new venture. I did in addition use a whole host of pots, plastic tubs, egg boxes, leftover seeds, seeds that came free with other stuff and saved potatoes, so the vast majority of what I have used has been free.

The dwarf apricot tree, is rather expensive and also a bit of a risk in our climate. My view is that if I am going to invest in a long-term exercise like growing trees, then I need to give myself the best start possible. I am quite happy to buy 10 pak choi plants from the market for £1, but if I am going to dedicate part of my garden to a tree for the next 10 to 20 years, then I would rather buy it from somewhere I trust. I purchased a cheap ‘dwarf’ plum tree from the local DIY store four years ago. It certainly isn’t dwarf, has only had plums on last year, and then every plum had a maggot in it. This spring there has been no blossom, so it is going to get the chop.

Looking at all the compost and mulch, and how expensive it has become, I am going to put a lot more effort in with my own compost. Currently I have a shop bought compost bin, which seems to act more like a wormery. I bought it to reduce the rubbish that I discard, and for that purpose it is excellent. I can load it with 10L of vegetable peelings a week and the magic worms just make it disappear. When it comes to emptying out the ‘compost’, it is just one wet mass of worms and twigs that sticks to my fork. Once the worms wriggle away there is little ‘compost’ left. I think I need to have an open compost bin allowing more air in, so will be knocking something up this summer with some scrap wood or just reverting to having a pile of compost.

In addition I pay the council £15 a year for a brown wheelie bin for garden waste, which they collect every 2 weeks and then I buy cheap sacks of compost from them. This makes no sense does it? Pay to take it away and pay to get it back! I’m not sure I have the space to compost everything, but I will certainly be looking to reduce the amount that goes in my brown bin from now on.

I missed the Transition seed swap this year, but I will make sure I attend next year and will also do their workshop on seed saving, which should help reduce the seeds that I buy. I think I will always need to buy some grit to dig into the soil, whenever I reclaim a new area of my garden for growing. It is such heavy clay soil and really poor drainage. Does anyone know of a free alternative?

If all goes well, then next year’s spend on the garden front could be significantly reduced, to just garden gloves, grit, half the compost, a few packets of seeds and some baby plants, costing about £23 and saving 75%. What I like about this is that I have determined the skills I need to learn to take the next step towards sustainability in the garden.

The largest chunk of spending for April was on kids clothes and shoes. Out of the 8 clothes that I bought for my youngest daughter last month 2 were made in Sri Lanka, 2 in Cambodia, 1 in Portugal, 1 in Tunisia and 2 in Bangladesh, where the tragedy of the collapsed garment factory is still unfolding, and over 1,000 people have lost their lives. (You may wish to support the People Tree’s Rag Rage petition to get compensation for the Bangladeshi workers and improve health and safety conditions.)

Four or five years ago my oldest daughter saw a documentary on TV showing young boys, the same age as her little brother, working long hours sewing sequins on clothes. These clothes were then sold in one of the discount chain stores in our town. It was upsetting and we gathered up all the clothes that we had bought from that store and gave them all to charity. I have tried to buy at least some ethical clothes since then, but it is difficult. Does anyone know where I can find fair-trade school trousers for instance?
My youngest daughter gets a lot of hand-me-down clothes and we hardly ever buy new clothes for her, as we did this month. She was so thrilled with her new clothes that I felt somewhat guilty. She does normally enjoy getting given clothes too. This week I have written to the clothing retailer to ask about their ethics. I am sure they will tell me that their clothes are made in reputable factories, but at least my letter might add to the pressure to improve working conditions.
Transition Town Totnes have produced a LocalEconomic blueprint for their town, which really explains the importance of buying local and keeping money and jobs in the local community. The main output of Loughborough used to be hosiery and garment making, but it has all gone now. I will hunt around and see what locally made clothing I can find. Meanwhile I have a plan to make the hand-me-down clothes more appealing. Firstly I will make sure I wash everything before I even show it to the kids. That way, the clothes won’t smell differently, or of other people. Next I will do some measuring against existing clothes, so I know what is likely to fit and what should be put away until later. My kids get fed up of trying things on quite quickly, so this may save some rejections. Thirdly I will make more effort to repair and make good any items that I can, and even re-use material to make something else.

I already wear clothes until they are worn out, and buy ethically where I can. But I can’t stop my kids from growing! This area of my spending, which is 55% of the month’s spend, is going to be tough to crack, unless I can start making clothes again....

As for the other 25% of my one month spend, they are oddballs really. For instance the laundry basket should last me another 10 years, before it needs replacing. (I did have dreams of making one out of wicker though, before my husband just went out and bought a plastic one!) The old peg rack only got broken because the dog was stealing socks from it, so we have moved it out of her reach. The dog only needed an injection because she broke her leg a couple of months back, so hopefully that won’t be needed again. I buy half a dozen books a year at most, and mainly second hand. I am given books and I pass on my books after I have read them, which feels sustainable to me. The DVD is a one off and I will pass it on now I have watched it. There will always be sports equipment though. I have no plan for how to reduce this area of spending, I will just have to keep an eye on it.

I realise now that it would have been helpful if I could have tracked where all my stuff came from. This is because everything that is made outside the UK is never included as part of the UK’s carbon emissions. When we talk of China’s emissions rising, a large part of that is down to producing products for people in other countries. Our government sees it as China’s problem and takes no responsibility for the overseas coal-fired power stations that provide the energy for the goods that we ultimately consume. (You could also say the same about worker conditions and ethics, which are also out of sight and out of mind!)

If you have any more ideas of where I can cut back on stuff, then let me know.

Thursday, 9 May 2013

One month stuff analysis

After the relief of finally getting my One month spend list posted I can do some analysis.

What I wanted to determine is whether tracking the money we spent gives an indication of the amount of stuff we have consumed. In a rough and ready kind of way, I feel it does. Second hand and re-used items are free or cost less, so increasing the re-use of items rather than buying new would show a drop in money spent, which is good. What is missed by just tracking money, is whether a product is local or fair-trade. Local products are likely to be more environmentally friendly especially if they are made with local resources, and in the UK this also means that they are fair-trade. We have a minimum wage and a welfare system which provides healthcare and education for all, so it is far less likely that people have been exploited to make these products.

As fair-trade and some local products can be more expensive than cheaply produced imports, for tracking purposes it could look as if you are buying more stuff, rather than trying to be more ethical. But as the aim is to track stuff and reduce resource use, fair-trade and local products are still consuming materials, so their contribution should count. Also I haven’t bought any fair-trade goods in April, so their effect on my spend over the year is likely to be fairly small. The local products I have bought such as the pak choi plants, were from the local market and far cheaper than purchasing from a store, so there is not always a premium for local goods.

The other issue is whether the purchase is necessary and useful. I can see several areas where I could avoid some of my purchases and will discuss these further. However as far as tracking is concerned, unnecessary stuff will end up as waste, so maybe monitoring waste would give a fairer picture of this. (Don’t worry I am not going to keep a photo journal of my rubbish J)
So given that using money spent is a fair enough method of tracking stuff, what does the UK’s spend on stuff look like?

The Household final consumption expenditure in the UK for 2012 was £973,393 million (around $1,512 billion) (Office for National Statistics, Statistical bulletin: Consumer Trends Q4 2012). With a population of 63 million in the UK, that makes £15,406 per person ($23,945). This seemed rather high, and looking at the detail includes food, energy, vehicles and housing costs. Splitting it down to just ‘Household goods and services’, ‘Recreation and culture’, and ‘Clothing and footwear’, which more or less covers all the items I have included in my list, it comes to an average of £3,283.94 ($5,104.56) per person per year.

Sharon Astyk had a target of reducing consumption by 90% of the average for the US, so for comparison I have looked for figures from the US, and found the total Personal Consumption Expenditure is £7,237 billion ($11,249 billion) (US department of commerce: Bureau of Economic Analysis, National Income and Product Accounts Tables, Table2.3.5. Personal Consumption Expenditures by Major Type of Product). Using a population of 307million (The United States Census Bureau, The 2012 Statistical Abstract, Population) that gives £23,575 ($36,643 per person). Breaking it down, the categories don’t quite match with the UK, but the best fit is using ‘Furnishings’, ‘Recreational goods and vehicles’, ‘other durable goods’(jewellery, luggage, phones), ‘Clothing and footwear’ and ‘Recreation services’. It comes to an average of £3,370 ($5239) per person.

I was surprised that this was so similar to the UK figure, but then we have VAT to pay on all our purchases, which is currently 20%. A quick look on a comparison site shows that consumer goods are on average 25% more expensive in the UK. This has really mucked up my figures! The point is though, that even if we do consume 25% less stuff in the UK than people in the US, we would still need to reduce our consumption by 86% to reach the same target. So while we may feel that we are less extravagant, there is really no room for complacency because we are still significant consumers.
Based on a monthly spend of £442 ($684) for 5 people, our annual average individual spend would be £1,060 ($1648), that is far below the average, but it is not very accurate. I mean just imagine the fridge broke down in April, it could have doubled my spend for the month. I really need to collect a full years worth of data to have a better idea and see if we can make reductions. Hopefully the UK average figures above will give other people something to compare their spend against in any case.

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

One month stuff

In the previous post, I promised a photo journal of all the stuff we have purchased over the month of April, and finally it is complete. Sorry that it has taken me so long to post this. I didn’t start at the beginning of April and had to do some head-scratching to work out what we had already bought. Even when I thought I was on the ball, items kept slipping past me unrecorded.  
It is a long list for just 1 month and is the total for 5 people including gifts and services, but excluding food, toiletries and business purchases. I like data in tables, but my blog doesn’t, so you may need to click on the link if you want to read the descriptions.


I was pretty surprised to see the amount of stuff we have accumulated in just one month. Total spend on stuff for the month was £442 ($684), grouped into 30 photos, but actually closer to 50 individual items. Let me know what you think – does it seem excessive or meagre? I can definitely see some areas where I can reduce on stuff, but 90% less is going to be a tough target. I will do some analysis in the next post.