Friday, February 29, 2008

I have my standards!

You wouldn't believe the number of press releases or "will you mention my business" pleas that I get as a result of this blog. I just want to spell out my policy on this so it is transparent to PR companies and readers alike:

1. If I think a piece of info is of interest to the readers I will publish it. Most of the stuff I get I simply ignore.

2. If you have a product or service and you send me a sample, then I may review it and tell readers objectively what I think of it. I do not charge for this.

3. If you want to pay for advertising on the site, e-mail me and I'll quote you a rate. But it won't appear as an opinion piece, but as a banner or button so readers know what it is.

4. Don't bother begging or getting sulky with me - my word is final.

Ahhhh, good to get that off my chest.

As an example of point 1. above, CafeDirect have just e-mailled me to say their fairtrade coffee beat some major brands of non-fairtrade coffee in a Which? taste test. Well done.

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Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Train of thought...

I was on a Virgin Pendilino* Cross Country Voyager train yesterday, on my way back from a client meeting in Leeds. I went to the loo and then washed my hands like a good boy. These trains have those auto sinks where you have to wave blindly at unseen sensors to get water and operate the drier (for some reason the soap requires physical effort).

When I moved my paws under the drier it started up, but the water didn't stop... so... despite all that technology, the water pump was still pumping merrily to itself, wasting water and energy, and wetting the back of my left hand into the bargain.

Would it not be simple to cut the water pump as soon as the drier kicks in?

Just a thought.

It reminded me of my last job where the toilets were so narrow you couldn't get in or out without a 2 second blast from the drier. Clever design.

Sometimes I think we're going backwards.

*Update 1/3/08 - Note to self - never get your trains wrong... someone will notice!

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Monday, February 25, 2008

Weekly Tip #3: Buy a bike

...or dust down that old one at the back of the shed. You will cut your car use and fit exercise into your daily routine.

Get lights, a pannier, a decent lock and puncture repair kit. A cycle clip will allow you to cycle in civvies. Ask your local council if they do free cycle route maps.

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Friday, February 22, 2008

Spring is in the air...

... the solar panel occasionally kicking into life seems to have replaced the buds on the trees as the first sign that winter is coming to an end!

I do need it to heat up as my compost bin is almost completely full. This will only be a temporary problem as I have five pallets in my garden from the drystone wall, and I'm going to replace my single bay garden heap with a double bay model (which it originally was but the builders needed to cut it down to get scaffolding in some years ago, but that's another story).

The next big job in our garden is to lift the old concrete drive and replace it with a lawn. This is going against the current trend of concreting over front gardens to provide off street parking. This has been blamed for flooding problems as the water shoots off the surface into the drain and thus into rivers, rather than soaking into the soil and percolating through slowly.

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Wednesday, February 20, 2008

We might get FIT at last!

According to the Guardian, UK Energy Minister Malcolm Wicks has suggested that Feed In Tariffs (FITs) might be introduced in this country. A Feed-In Tariff gives a premium price for small scale renewable electricity generators who want to export energy to 'the Grid'. This has led to an explosion in solar PV panels in countries such as Germany.

At long blimmin' last! The UK's Low Carbon Buildings Programme of grants for microrenewables has been an unmitigated disaster and our current export arrangements couldn't make it any more difficult for the little guys.

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Monday, February 18, 2008

Weekly Tip #2: Bottle It Yourself

You might have seen the BBC headlines today proclaiming that bottled water has a carbon footprint 600 times that of tap water. Yes, six hundred times. Well the answer is simple: carry a bottle of tap water with you - buy one at a camping store.

When in a restaurant, no matter how posh, don't be afraid to ask for tap water. After all, if you're spending £25 on a £8 bottle of wine, they can hardly complain!

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Friday, February 15, 2008

Is it OK to profit from the very poor?

Slightly off topic, but I thought you might be interested:

One bright day in late 1999 I was travelling down the coast road south of Colombo in Sri Lanka. Between the road and the beach was a shanty town, crudely built shacks leaning against each other like late night drunks huddling for warmth.

"These guys must be really poor to live like this," I said to my companians (English & Sri Lankan), "but how come most of the shacks have a TV aerial?". Nobody could answer this conundrum.

Well, CK Prahakad can, in his amazing book Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid: Eradicating Poverty Through Profits. Prahalad is an Indian-American Prof of Business Studies and is one of the most highly regarded business thinkers in the world. His argument is that neither aid nor government can alleviate poverty in the Third Word - only a strong local economy get people out of poverty and keep them out.

The book blasts a number of myths about the poor right out of the water, for example:

1. The poor do have money, it is just spread very thinly and can come to any one individual in fits and starts. Cumulatively they have much more money than the rich in their countries.

2. Paradoxically, the poor pay more for their products and services than the rich in their countries - this poverty premium ranges from 20% in staples like rice up to 600% for credit.

3. The poor have a better repayment record on debts than the rich.

4. The poor readily take up technology, education or no education.

Combining these facts with some innovation on product and service development can create a win-win solution - combining low cost products, technology, access to information and cheap(er) credit can give the poor access to the goods and services they require and dodge the middle men and corrupt officials who try and rip them off. The book gives numerous examples of where this has worked: for example prosthetic feet retailing for $30 when the US equivalent costs $8000.

The answer to my Sri Lankan puzzle is an easy one - people in shanty towns know they have broken the law by being there so invest little or no money in their homes in case the bulldozers turn up all of a sudden. They invest their money instead in products that they can take with them.

Despite its leaden prose, I found this book a breath of fresh air: both inspirational and unsettling. For a long time I've thought that international aid does more harm than good. It destroys local markets in, say, food and clothing, encourages corrupt officials to keep the country in poverty to keep the gravy train running, is ineffective (or there would much less poverty by now) and is often used in a neo-colonial manner to buy influence. I've been looking for the alternative and this seems to be it. My liberal sensitivity will just have to stomach the idea of profiting from the poor...


Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Green Phone?

The news that Nokia have developed a greener phone using recycled metals and bio-materials poses an interesting question. Can a mobile ever be green?

All electronic devices require toxic materials, such as chromium, PVC, brominated flame retardants, lead, brominated flame retardants (PBB, PBDE), mercury, cadmium, nickel and lithium. Some of these are being phased out under the Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS), but not all. Mobile phones also contain Coltan which is mainly found in the (ironically named) Democratic Republic of Congo, a war zone. The Coltan boom has been accused of threatening mountain gorillas.

But the main environmental problem with phones is their tiny lifespan - reduced from a feasible 10 years to about a year by fashion and the relentless release of better and better models. I kept my last phone for about 4 years until the battery went on the blink and I used that as an excuse to upgrade. The current one has been with me 2 years, despite having a dodgy joystick since I got knocked off my bike a year ago. I'm resisting the call of the iPhone for a while longer. And don't be fooled by functionality - your phone might be an MP3 player, a camera, a diary etc, but that's only eco-friendly if it stops you buying a camera, an iPod separately (which I had already bought before my phone).

What to do? Leave it for as long as possible before upgrading. Or don't buy one at all!


Monday, February 11, 2008

Weekly Tip #1: The Power of Cold

The first of a series of weekly eco-living tips which you might find more useful than reading my rants against media numpties:

Use cold mornings to spot poorly insulated areas on your roof (ie where there is no frost). It is also a good time of year to search and destroy draughts ('cos you can feel 'em coming!).

Another tip next Monday!

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Friday, February 08, 2008

Is your town a Transition Town?

Transition Towns are those whose residents (or more precisely some of whose residents) have got together to produce an 'energy descent' plan to address the threats of both Peak Oil and Climate Change. Totnes was the first in the UK and they seem to be springing up all over. More details on the Transition Town website.

Totnes has a particular place in my heart as I spent a week at Schumacher College just outside the town learning and discussing sustainability with practitioners from around the world. It was such a dreamy, relaxing yet stimulating week that coming back to reality (or Totnes railway station) was a real shock. If you get a chance - go.

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Wednesday, February 06, 2008

What are you giving up for Lent?

Well the Church of England are calling for people to give up carbon rather than chocolate this year. In conjunction with tear fund, they've come up with a 40 day lo-carb diet, although some are a bit bizarre - day 1 is "remove a lightbulb" - that's all you need, lots of opportunities to electrocute yourself or your nearest & dearest!

Anyway, it's a nice idea and it is good to see such an influential body as the CoE stepping up to the crease. Now I'm a heathen, from a long line of heathens, but I've always thought that the eco-message should resonate with Christians - care of God's creation, that there are things more important than materialism and the whole environmental-justice side of things (poor people get more pollution - fact).

Unfortunately the most prominent/powerful god-botherer in the world is a money worshipping climate change sceptic who doesn't care about the planet as the apocalypse is on its way...

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Monday, February 04, 2008

A Word In Your Shell, Like

Interestingly we have the ex-Chairman of Shell, Mark Moody-Smith, calling for a ban on fuel guzzling cars this morning.

Depending on what mood I'm in, I either welcome this as a heavyweight intervention from someone in the know, or a blatant attempt to pass the buck from Big Oil to the motor industry. Whichever, I do think Sir M should probably have spent more time as Chairman stopping his company's flaring of gas in Nigeria - which produces more carbon emissions (unnecessarily) than all of the rest of sub-Saharan Africa's emissions put together. Now that would have made a difference...

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Friday, February 01, 2008

China bites back

Regular readers will know that a particular bugbear of mine is people pointing the finger at China over climate change when:

a. it is no surprise that they should have the highest emissions of any country - they've got a quarter of the world's population!

b. much of their economic boom is because we've outsourced our manufacturing industry to them to exploit cheap labour costs.

There's a great article in the Grauniad about the ordinary Chinese person's view on this, entitled: 'You buy our cheap goods. Don't blame us'. Couldn't put it better myself.

While China, like any developing country, has its issues (regulation of the treatment of our waste being one - our waste - see the connection again?) and I'm the first to condemn its human rights record, there are glimmers of hope that it will not fulfil the eco-bogey-man role written for it. It is certainly further along the eco-town route than we are (using British talent which is obviously wasted here) and when I took the train to Beijing I saw more domestic solar hot water systems than I ever have before and since.