Tag Archives: Environment

Put Your Eco Money Where Your Mouth Is

Wind turbines

When it comes to the environment, there is an awful lot of rhetoric about how ordinary consumers should take action to change the way businesses operate. By choosing green products or services, the hope is that the capitalist system will eventually reward green products. The companies that work with, rather than against, our fragile environment, will eventually make money.

This kind of incrementalism is noble, but it often seems ineffectual and weak. People have so many decisions to make every day about what to purchase, and the ‘green’ option is often the more expensive choice. In these austere times, it is naive to expect environmentally friendly products to prevail in the marketplace, by virtue of their sheer moral strength.

With this in mind, the Ecobond from Ecotricity is – if you will excuse the apt but unimaginative metaphor – a breath of fresh air. The company has green credentials (and a reassuring green logo, too) but the Ecobond is a straightforward financial proposition. Ecotricity is raising money to build a new tranche of wind farms, and is asking investors to contribute to the enterprise. They say they will pay 6% per year for four years on your investment, then return the capital to you at the end of the term.

I am not an energy analyst or a financial advisor, but in the short term, a business that makes money selling power to the UK national grid must surely be a reliable investment.

Update

I now recall that a couple of years ago I blogged about 1BOG (‘One Block Off The Grid’) in San Fransisco, a form of ‘For Profit Activism':

Its almost as if those people who are actually spending the money to make this work are participating in a leisure activity, rather than an everyday participation in a market that could sustain the local economy.

Does this apply to Ecobonds, I wonder?

#Flashride

Cycling home on Friday, I was unwittingly caught up in the London Cycling Campaign’s ‘Flashride’ across Blackfriars Bridge. They want the speed limit on the bridge to remain at 20mph but apparently the Mayor of London isn’t heeding the request, and it will become more dangerous for cyclists later this year.

In protest, several hundred cyclists rode together over the bridge, in full compliance with the Highway Code. I was able to take a little bit of footage of the happening.

Without wishing to boast or come across as some kind of syncophantic Mac fanboy, I must note how easy it was to capture and edit the footage. I was able to whip out my birthday iPad on the central reservation, take a couple of minutes of HD footage, and then cycle off down The Cut and homeward. It took all of ten minutes to edit the footage in iMovie and the longest part of the process was the HD upload to YouTube. The speed of ‘broadcast’ and ‘publication’ these days is truly revolutionary – causing a genuine shift in power away from elites.

Think local, act local?

Philip Blond’s interesting cover essay for this month’s Prospect, ‘Rise of the Red Tories’, advocates a new form of Conservatism for David Cameron, centred around the Tories’ new thinking on social issues (I’m going to be as radical a social reformer as Margaret Thatcher was an economic reformer says Cameron). Blond says the consensus that has emerged in British Politics – socially liberal-left, economically liberal-right – has failed on both fronts. The vice-versa, which would be a social conservatism alongside a leftist economy, seems a rather chilling prospect to my mind, but Blond thinks that an alternative could be to push through a full-blooded new localism which works to empower communities:

[Cameron] could start with four task: re-localising our banking system, developing local capital, helping normal people gain new assets and breaking up big business monopolies.

I suppose the emphasis on market forces (albeit at the local level) makes this a nominally right-wing policy, but with an emphasis on local, community ownership and assets, its not immediately clear to me why these ideas couldn’t be labelled left wing instead (indeed, I assume that confusion is why the article is illustrated with a graphic of Thatcher-as-Che). Yes, Conventional Wisdom would have it that a Labour Party under the Authoritarian Gordon Brown would not adopt such policies. But on the other hand, these ideas seem to be precisely the sort of wings that Hazel Blears’ Community Empowerment agenda requires, to get it off the pages of think-tank reports, and into actual communities.

Meanwhile, The Economist reports on ‘For-profit activism’, that is, harnessing the power of social networking to build-up buying power, to bend markets in favour of socially acceptable or environmentally friendly businesses.

Residents of San Francisco have been signing up enthusiastically for a new green-energy campaign called 1BOG. Short for “one block off the grid”, it aims to convince homeowners to switch to solar energy one block at a time, by organising them into buying clubs. Members get a discount on solar panels, and typically try to get their neighbours to sign up too. The city has also seen several recent examples of Carrotmobs—crowds of activists who buy everything in the winning shop in a contest between retailers to be the greenest.

As the article notes, we’ve seen these sorts of enterprises before, from the Body Shop, to Bono’s RED iPods, to Fair Trade Labelling, to the expensive soaps and hemp shirts you find in charity catalogues. Only this time, its local.

However, I would note a fundamental difference. On the national level, the kind of eco-friendly, ethical capitalism has found a niche within the retail economy. It has become successful, and crucially, normalised. On the other hand, the Carrotmobs and 1BOG seem to be one-off gimmicks. Indeed, the latter only works because a large company subsidises it as part of a marketing campaign. Its almost as if those people who are actually spending the money to make this work are participating in a leisure activity, rather than an everyday participation in a market that could sustain the local economy. We won’t be able to herald the coming of a ‘new localism’ until this sort of thing can arise and sustain itself without being shepherded by a well-meaning entrepreneur, or subsidised as part of a pilot scheme. Its not clear from these examples that this is possible.

Southwark Rooftops

The rooftops of houses behind Waterloo East rail station, Southwark London.
The rooftops of houses behind Waterloo East rail station, Southwark London.

What did I tell ya? There’s the whole world at your feet. And who gets to see it but the birds, the stars and the chimney sweeps.

‘Bert’ (as played by Dick Van Dyke), Mary Poppins, 1964.

These Southwark Terraces are perhaps not as salubrious as 17 Cherry Tree Lane, but their rooftops are a perfect example of the secret world of London that Bert loves, the one above the rooftops.

A favourite part of my journey into London each morning, is that portion between London Bridge and Waterloo East station. Nowhere is the labyrinthian qualities of the city demonstrated better than in that mile long stretch of rail. The train snakes in between the buildings, above the workshops and Borough Market, and you get to look out onto a little piece of that chimney sweep world that is inaccessible from street level. It would be perfect for Parkour.

Its also a journey which perfectly illustrates how London is a human, organic city (this is something I’ve alluded to before):

I am entertained the thought of one set of people building something; then some other people extending it in a different archtectural style; and yet some more people knocking half the walls to reuse the space for something else. These mutated forms are what humanity has created as a collective, over centuries.

This is of course impossible in Second Life, which has no ruin value.  Via MK, I read that buildings in Second Life are being abandoned but do not decay, or worse, are being deleted wholesale without a trace.  A fundamental problem with the virtual world is that it doesn’t age like normal cities.  And what sort of city doesn’t have a history?

Against the Windfall Tax

Like Conor at the Liberal Conspiracy, I can’t really get behind this clamour for a windfall tax on oil companies. I would love to have a dig at Big Oil, but something grates.

Its not that I am like Tim Worstall, who has barrels of faith in the market to sort the problem out fairly. Oil extraction and distribution is a sort of cartel, not a free market. In any case, such a market takes time (maybe measured in decades or centuries) to do its ‘thing’, and in the meantime it is probable that excess profits will accumulate while everyone else is suffering from a recession.

No, my problem is that arguing for a windfall tax is surely another way of saying that you want to change the rules retrospectively.

Economists often argue that to change the rules, and to impose a windfall tax, simply breeds uncertainty in the market, and cause the oil companies to under-invest. Its an irritating argument against taxation, because it has an air of a threat about it: “don’t tax us, or we will mess up your economy”. In the case of a windfall tax, which everyone (even the oil companies) assumes will be a very rare occurrence, it is less believable than (say) the case of top-rate tax-payers. So I can see how the campaigners might discount this economic argument.

But leaving aside the economic risks that a windfall tax entails, surely changing the rules is simply wrong wrong wrong, no further discussion required? Imposing some kind of law (in this case, a tax law) retrospectively is the stuff of wild-eyed dictatorships, surely. Windfall taxes are short-cuts. An easy, lazy solution to a complex situation.

Play by the rules… and if you feel you must change the rules, do so only at the start of the game. If we percieve a problem with the way our country operates, its fine to legislate so that it doesn’t happen in the following tax year. Nationalise the oil companies if we must, or tax them at 99%. Whatever. Only this: we must to legislate for the future, not the past.

There’s a familiar saying, which goes something like “you can judge a society by the way it treats its most vulnerable”. Well, an alternative might be that we should judge ourselves by how we treat our most despised. The oil giants are certainly some of the most resented institutions in the country, but to subject them to anything other than the rule-of-law is not, I would suggest, cricket. Compass should leave the oil companies with this year’s profits, and get busy lobbying for a law that would redistribute future profits. That’s the right way a democracy should approach this problem.

Update 3rd September

The only counter argument that has piqued my interest has been that a large portion of the oil companies profits have arisen because of preferences in the system of allocating carbon credits via the European Emmissions Trading Scheme. However, while this is a definite argument for going after excess profits, I’m not sure it justifies doing so retrospectively, as a windfall tax would.

Ev-eon

ev-eon

I’m enjoying this idea for saving the planet while still burning tons of coal:

By capturing the CO2 before it is released into the atmosphere and piping it through natural spring water from Kent’s Kingsnorth hills, we are able to create carbonated drinking water.

More of this sort of thing on the ev-eon website.

Day Light

A street lamp ablaze at 3pm

This is a street light in Embankment Gardens, at 3.45pm on Saturday. It is fully switched on and drawing electricity, despite the clear blue skies and impeccable visibility that one might associate with a mid-summer mid-afternoon.

There must be a cheap piece of technology that solves this inefficiency. The logo on the public bins says City of Westminster Council, so I assume they’re responsible. I wonder who I should write to?

Some people may argue that excess streetlighting is barely an issue when London has so many other problems, such as gun crime and poverty. To be clear, I’m not whining from a climate change point-of-view, so much as the general administration of the thing. How can we have confidence in local authorities to tackle the more complex social problems, if they cannot tell the difference between day and night?

An alternative to Live Earth

A further problem with Live Earth is the much publicised waste of energy used to power the event. The Arctic Monkeys recently spoke out against the ‘hypocrisy’:

“It’s a bit patronising for us 21 year olds to try to start to change the world,” said Arctic Monkeys drummer Matt Helders … “Especially when we’re using enough power for 10 houses just for (stage) lighting. It’d be a bit hypocritical,” he told AFP in an interview before a concert in Paris.

Large parts of the band’s hometown of Sheffield were flooded at the end of last month after a deluge of mid-summer rain that some blamed on global warming. Two people were killed.

But the band wonder why anyone would be interested in the opinion of rock stars on a complex scientific issue like climate change.

“Someone asked us to give a quote about what was happening in Sheffield and it’s like ‘who cares what we think about what’s happening’?” added Helders. “There’s more important people who can have an opinion. Why does it make us have an opinion because we’re in a band?”

Much of the Live Earth message is about changing our lifestyles, to cut down on planet spoling emissions. As well as reducing power consumption, we should reduce our carbon footprint by travelling by car and plane less, on foot and bicycle more, and through the purchase of locally produced goods with fewer ‘food miles’. Why, then, was the Live Earth event not concieved with these ideas in mind? Instead of highly centralised concerts, with artistes imported from all over the world, the Live Earth brand should have been used to promote dozens, if not hundreds, of more parochial concerts. Big Name bands could curate a gig in their home town, discovering the latest talent via MySpace and the recommendations from the local scene – an easy ask for the Arctic Monkeys, say. These big name bands would, of course, headline the gig, and the crowds that they attract would be able to walk to and from the venue. Beer would be supplied from the local pubs – and it would be the local economy that recieved a financial boost.

Instead of a distant and mythological Al Gore, local politicians could re-engage with their electorate by explaining what the council is doing to recycle, and on what day the blue bins are being collected. Instead of a Jonathan Ross and Kate Silverton overload, local radio journalists could host the concert, and perhaps inspire some of the community cohesion that many towns lack.

The Live Earth website, instead of being a promotional tool for Madonna and Bon Jovi, could instead carry YouTube clips from thousands of concerts from all over the world. The most popular, as voted for by the Internet viewing audience, would be broadcast on network TV. Sure, these would probably be mostly the big acts (the Sheffield gig for the Arctic Monkeys, the St Andrews gig for KT Tunstall), but this method would undoubtedly throw up some interesting, idiosyncratic acts with a little local flavour, which nevertheless prove popular with Internet users. Some exposure for these artists would be welcome change from the smooth-edges required of any musician who wants to go ‘mainstream’.

Such an approach would also mean than millions more people could actively participate in the event, rather than passively via the TV as some of us have done this weekend. This would still inspire a collective memory, even though individual recollections would depend on which concert you went to see. The question “Where were you for Live Earth?” would not be about which pub you chose to sit in to watch the TV, but about what bands you saw and which friends you went with – an altogether more interesting question, and one that could travel the world.

Ethical Courtships

Valentine’s Day is behind us for another year. I wonder how many hits Be My Anti-Valentine received this time?

The good news for reluctant romantics, is that there may be valid excuses for failing to buy that romantic gift. Flowers have a huge carbon-footprint, since they have usually been cultivated in European ‘hot-houses’ or flown in from Africa. Diamonds fuel civil wars… and the chocolate industry abuses workers on its cocoa-plantations.

Despite all this, the absence of a present on Valentine’s Day will probably not impress your lover. If you refrain from purchasing some over-wrapped gift on ethical grounds, then they will expect something home-made instead.

There may be no other alternative but to write your own sonnet.