Melons growing on fence.
We have learnt this week that more than a million people in the UK live in food deserts. These are poorer places where either a lack of transport or supermarkets or other food shops make the purchase of healthy food difficult to impossible. Its a strange but true fact that healthy food is more expensive than unhealthy processed food high in fat or sugar. That’s why so many low income individuals are obese and also why obesity is getting more and more common.
A variety of solutions have been proposed to this problem which to varying extents exists across the Western World. In the US supermarkets have been subsidised to move into low income neighbourhoods. In France and now the UK very low cost supermarkets have been setup that use food past its best by.
In Bristol though there are more holistic solutions. A local church ( The River Church) runs a not for profit cafe so people can get low cost healthier meals. The second idea is an urban farm combined with a shop to buy fresh produce just above the church. The two seem to be separate organisations. You can buy eggs, homemade jams and other preserves from its shop. Meanwhile the ( Hartcliffe Health & Environment Action Group) encourages people to grow food on allotments and sells fresh produce cheaper than the supermarkets. It also offer cooking lessons since people are becoming deskilled at cooking anything (true of both rich and poor).
Food is going to expensive in a post oil world. But there is a chance to solve environmental and social/health problems in one go. The lessons of these projects is there is no silver bullets to food deserts and different groups with different groups need to work together.
The other night I popped around the corner to the local maker space. I was after some wood to complete repairs to my garden shed which have taken me a large part of the summer. They didn’t have what I wanted but I spent some time there looking around and finding out what was going on.
The site is derelict and waiting for someone to build on it. In the meanwhile various groups have been allowed to use for low cost. There was a gardening project growing food in raised box beds although for some reason that has moved across the road to another waste area awaiting development.
On their website it says the following;
“The Forge is a pop-up community maker space in Edinburgh. Based in renovated shipping containers, it’s a place where people can come together to build, design, fix and learn. In a time when many people feel increasingly confused by the pace of technological change, the Forge exists to help us re-engage with how the things around us are made.”
I think this is true in this age of globalisation, eco concern and as our manufacturing has offshored people seem increasingly wanting to reconnect with making and repairing stuff. Sewing is another area of big interest. The project is setup for both woodworking and metalworking with a working forge. People there were making tools and even a geodesic dome made from fringe poster hoardings. The group encourage people to come along and show others what to do. (I’m not one of these experts). Its recently been set up as a community interest company and looks like its going from strength to strength. It better to repair and use bits of scrap wood to make useful stuff than throw it away. More details on the maker space can be found here.
The green party in England and Wales wants a new measure of wellbeing they have announced this week. Since GDP has captured economics in the modern age some people have been searching for a better measure of happiness and economic growth than this measure. As I blogged on last week endless economic growth is clearly impossible on a finite planet so something is going to have to give sometime.
Up until now the alternatives have been “happiness”. This is course subjective but a very long term study has found that people in Western societies have stopped getting happier over the last 30 years or so (not necessarily more miserable though). It does look like a certain level of materialism makes you happy but beyond a certain level of affluence there is no improvement in happiness levels. As the late great Spike Milligan said “Money can’t buy you happiness but it does bring you a more pleasant form of misery”.
The greens want a new measure of wellbeing to be to measure happiness by the use of a free time index. So the idea is how much free time you have after work commute etc. The idea is to shift away from the time/work obsessed culture to one of leisure, community and family. The greens support a 4 day week and a universal basic income. I broadly agree with the idea. There is evidence productivity would rise over a 4 day week and its a way of sharing the jobs out as automation arrives. My only caveats are it sounds a bit woolly and it depends what people do with their leisure time. As I blogged about in the last post its a bit difficult to do anything without damaging the environment.
We have just been on what could be described as an eco holiday. Train travel from within walking distance of our house to a ferry, camping (mainly) and return travel by train. No flying, low impact. Destination the Scilly Islands. What can we learn from our trip in eco terms? It was a very good holiday in other terms.
1) There is no such thing as an eco holiday. Whilst ours was as low carbon as possible there is no way you can do no damage to the environment. Even by staying at home. The aim should be to minimise damage rather than pretend its not happening.
2) Such a holiday does involve a degree of sacrifice. The train journey involved 12 hours of travel. A friend said why don’t you fly? I wish I could say that everything went smoothly but our train journeys out and coming home were a bit of a nightmare and took 14 hours. In addition as per usual it would have been cheaper to fly.
3) You can only go so far along this route. You are dependent on other people and how they behave. The campsite, the BandB and the pub/hotel as well as activities. Where they get their electricity/food from? How they recycle? All this is a bit difficult to judge in advance in most cases. Some research is possible but not down to nearly the last detail. That the campsite on St Agnes had solar panels on the roof of the toilet block was a pleasant surprise.
Last year we went on a pilgrimage walk that was nearer and involved less in the way of train travel but involved staying in BandB’s rather than camping. The two holidays probably had the same level of environmental impacts.
We need to talk about endless growth. George Monbiot wrote a typically provocative article this week looking at the idea of endless economic growth and the damage it would do to the planet.
I don’t agree with everything he writes but on this he is right. Endless growth is not possible on a finite planet. What precipitated this article was the OPEC annual report this week. This suggested that oil demand was going to rise until at least 2030 due to plastics and air travel. In addition electric cars would still be in a minority and not cut oil demand at all. US fracking would drive supply and not peak until the 2020’s.
What George pointed out was that its impossible to do anything without damaging the planet. So he gave the example of an electric car. This takes resources (and as he did not point out energy to make). The problem is both worse and in some ways more hopeful than he wrote.
On the worse side of the argument its not as simple as merely replacing one thing with another. So for example plastics with bioplastics. The bioplastics have to have some kind of resource to make them (probably plant material grown in a field). Even using waste plant material would we have enough and would this denude the countryside of compostable material?
On the positive side there are beginnings of moves afoot towards the circular economy which is the only possible solution towards this. We need to reuse everything we make and design we use in from the start (and great longevity and repair). In addition the oil price is moving up again which does at least make the alternatives far more economically viable. There are some solutions and we looked at these and the possible economics in our book.
Nevertheless we need to start having a conversation about a very difficult concept making do with less which is not a solution as such, but seems inevitable.
The George Monbiot article can be seen here.
Climate change is bad for crop yields. That much has been shown to be true his week. We have had a fantastic summer (now firmly over in this part of the Northern hemisphere). But crop and animal feed yields have been badly affected, not just in the UK but in many parts of the Northern hemisphere. Wheat yields could be well down in both Russia and the Ukraine as well as other places. The situation was complicated since the crop yield could be OK but the protein content affected. Almost every crop in the UK is said to be affected by the hot dry weather and not in positive way.
A number of years ago a right wing American think tank (I believe the American Enterprise Institute) ran an ad campaign along the lines of “they call it pollution we call it fertilizer” stating the scientifically illiterate idea that climate change would increase crop yields due to the increased CO2 levels increasing photosynthesis. Its complicated but this has been found to be untrue. In any case this ignores the other problems to do with climate change. That is the change in weather patterns not just temperatures. When you think about crops have to survive the following wind, sun and rain. The problem with climate change is that the same crops could have excess of the all the above in any one growing season. You can use classical breeding techniques, GM or CRISPAR-CAS9, but engineering resistance to all three will be tricky. So climate change is bad for crop yields. The above idea also ignore the effects of warmer weather on pests and diseases as well. Like many problems related to climate change what we do about this is another matter?
Does “no wind” matter at least in summer? Are our summers getting calmer? The UK’s renewable data has been released this week. It shows surprise surprise we had a calm summer with little wind. We had lots of hot still weather with lots of solar output. But this did not make up for the lack of wind. Most solar installations are small and most wind installations very large. This has been an exceptional summer. The question is with climate change will it become the norm? I don’t know. But with our having barely having scratched the surface of potential solar installations calm conditions in summer could be a benefit. One potential problem as we have covered before on this blog is what to do with excess power. The UK is building masses of new inter-connectors but will the rest of Europe want our power in summer? Possibly not. In principle climate could make the atmosphere more disordered meaning more wind (not always a good thing).
Does “no wind” matter? I’m sure that’s one question we should answer, the next question I would want to ask is solar output falling. I have raised this question before on this blog. Certainly my solar output seems to be in long term decline (just had a terrible August worst ever) which the great summer does not make up for. Again this fits in with climate change as you would expect more water vapour to end up in the atmosphere. What we need is plenty (but not excessive) wind in winter when there is little in the way of solar output.
Is there enough action on climate change? In the third of my posts on what I think are the world’s most pressing environmental challenges. Climate change is the last but certainly not least of these. In 2015 I cycled to Paris to lobby the world’s governments. The agreement was much better than we hoped or prayed for. Nevertheless is it enough? It commits countries to do something, but not in a legally binding way. Countries have pledged cuts but these cuts would not keep the temperature rise by 2050 to below 2°C. They would lead to an increase in global temperatures. There would also not be enough of government action. We really need governments to regulate and the private sector to innovate.
On the positive side renewable energy costs/electric vehicle costs and battery costs continue to fall. Governments other than the US remain officially committed. Growth of wind and solar continues apace. Institutional investors continue to divest from fossil fuels, most recently the Church of England. The European oil companies have pledged cuts in carbon emissions. (Perhaps these last two sentences are somehow related). Electric cars sales are growing very strongly in Europe.
The problem is governments are too cowardly to act. Targets are always a long way off. At the moment the Scottish Government is musing whether to pledge a 100% reduction by 2050 or a 90% reduction in emissions. They are tempted by the lower one but lobbying including from my church is going on.
Is there enough action on climate change? Not at the moment. If you care then lobby politicians in your country and continue to make changes to your lifestyle. All our futures depend on it.
Looking at plastics, the second of our big environmental problems. The first thing to say is the problem is an enormous one. Its really not possible to go anywhere without seeing plastic waste. The plastics problem falls into two parts. Firstly the plastics themselves which for the most part due to their linear molecular structure are not biodegradable. At least only over the very long term (1000 years or so give or take) although weather and UV light breaks them into small pieces – unfortunately. The second problem with plastics is the plasticisers added to give the plastics specific properties such as softness, hardness etc. These smaller molecules leach into the environment and could be having biological effects on us and animals. We have all seen pictures of animals (particularly sea life) with plastic wrapped around them or having swallowed plastics. The really bad news is that microscopic plastic particles are in the food chain and we are eating them.
The good news is that there is a real political will to tackle this problem. Increasingly governments are banning or taxing plastics of various sorts. Since certainly in the UK you cannot go anywhere without seeing plastic litter, its a bit difficult for politicians to deny the problem exists. Technology is catching up.
I worked in the same building as a company developing a “plastic” wrapping material from shellfish that is biodegradable. Other companies are developing bioplastics and there is news that bacteria have been discovered that will break down some plastics. Scientists have also discovered some ways of chemically degrading some plastics to make new raw plastic materials. At the same time other companies and individuals as I covered on this site have worked out ways of using plastic in road building (it even prevents pot holes). Some big food retailers have pledged to get rid of all plastic on their own brand labels. I buy chocolate that comes with an inner rapper that looks like plastic but is biodegradable cellulose. There is company near me that makes completely biodegradable cups. I think in 5 years time we will at the very least have a lot less plastic packaging of all sorts and a large number plastic free isles in supermarkets at the same time big strides will have been made into recycling plastic better.
The really big problem is not so much of how not to create more getting into the environment, but to recover what is already out there. The big bits (anything you can see) in theory could be recovered although the task is on a vast scale (people are working on this). Recovering the microscope plastics is in the realms of science fiction. That is why we need to all try to prevent any more getting out there – fast
Is a healthy diet sustainable? Listening to the radio this morning there is a new diet and health study out that suggests diets (such as the Aitkins) that substitute protein and fat for carbohydrates may not be good for you. There is no doubt that excessive sugar consumption is not good for you. Whilst the lipid hypothesis for the causes of coronary heart disease is being questioned by many substitution of carbs by meat protein will certainly have detrimental effects even by if by just skewing your metabolic balance.
There is of course a general sustainability question regarding meat. It produces a lot of carbon emissions as I have blogged on before. In addition in the future we will struggle to produce enough meat globally to allow everyone to eat a “Western diet”. The solution is as the report alluded to above is to eat pulses, nuts, fruit and vegetables. Along with oils such as olive oils. This allows a reasonable intake of protein (lentils are closest in level to meat) whilst definitely not having associations with heart disease. You do however need a source of B vitamins (especially B12). There is one final thing to add a widely varied diet with a varied intake of fruits, vegetables and some meat has a very positive effect on your microbiome (bowel health) which is recognised now to have a whole series of effects on your general health.
Is a healthy diet sustainable though? Eating a healthy diet requires eating a varied food intake from around the world. Diets such as the Fife diet rely on the opposite. This is still something I’m exploring.