Together We Can

A conversation over breakfast at a church weekend turned to electric vehicles. I made the point that I do these days, that if we simply replace current vehicle use with electric vehicles, we’ll have to burn a lot of fossil fuels to provide that much electricity and so electric vehicles may not make much difference to the bigger climate change picture. So we moved on to how different expectations of how we use transport could make the difference.

Someone mentioned that in the early days of Fidel Castro in Cuba and the US trade embargo, the cars they had were seen as belonging to the nation. If you were driving and someone hailed you, you were expected to pull over and drive them where they wanted to go. It wasn’t your car, it was our car. That’s one thought: sharing resources as things we hold in common for the common good.

Trucks platoonedAnother thought we discussed is how technology might enable more sharing. By the end of this year, the UK government intends to have trialled ‘platooning’ three semi-autonomous trucks together, driven by just one driver in the lead truck. Similar trials have taken place in the US and on continental Europe. Driverless vehicles platooned like this can drive safely very close together, potentially hugely increasing the capacity of existing roads and thereby avoiding the environmental destruction caused by building new roads. Couple up driverless technology to planning and logistics systems overseeing the needs of business – where and when the goods in the trucks need to be – and road haulage could be even more fuel-efficient. That could be linked up to weather forecasting systems so that the logistics could be planned around the likely availability of renewable energy.

Something similar could be put into place with cars and the transport of people. A ride-hailing app could be linked up to the availability of transport. So if I want to go from my house to town in 15 minutes time, I just tap that into my phone and the system would tell me the best option, whether a bus or a car share with someone driving that way anyway, and hook me up with the driver. Or it could tell me that the pool car parked nearby is available for me, and on my way I could pick up a neighbour or two. With driverless technology, the pool car could pick us all up, drop us off and either park or pick up other people and later another vehicle would take me home. The same app could tell me that I can’t go in 15 minutes time, but 10 or 20 are possible. With longer journeys, platooning could provide the same energy and planning efficiencies as with freight transport.

This was just a breakfast conversation, pooling as much ignorance as knowledge and enthusiasm. The technology may or may not help us, and in any case the gate-keeper on the road to lower-impact transport is our attitude. The choice to hold resources in common for the common good entails sacrificing the comfort and convenience we’ve gotten used to, for example driving my car where I want and when I want, without needing to consider the needs and wants of anyone else.

It did make me think, though, that so much of my environmental campaigning has focussed on individual action: changes I can make to my energy use and my other consumer choices, and the collective angle is no more than the combination of many individual actions. What if more consideration were given to the social dimension of climate action, giving primary attention to how we interact with each other? Building a stronger sense of belonging together in community may enable greater reductions in human impact on the environment than if we go it alone, and becoming less isolated may make us happier, too. In the society that emerges after the collapse of this one, the whole will be greater than the sum of its parts and we will have learned that a good life is only possible through a choice to serve the common good.

Imagine you’re sitting at that breakfast table. What would you say? What do you think?


Just one cornetto

Mrs Mabbsonsea recently had a Significant Birthday, so a couple of weeks before Easter, we went to Venice.  What a fantastic place!  As Mrs M would tell you, I had resisted going there for 22 years.  Silly me.  I wouldn’t mind going again, actually.  Here are some photos:

Canal sceneA canal (um….)

Doges palace and S MarcoDoge’s Palace with San Marco behind

Salute at sunsetGrand Canal at sunset, with Santa Maria della Salute in the background.

L in BuranoMrs M sipping my drink in the piazza in Burano

We came back to freezing cold England.  I know we’re to blame for the bad weather due to all the carbon emissions we caused by flying to Venice.  But here we are in April, and it’s still snowing.  I have seed potatoes chitting in the shed and seeds waiting to be sown, and I can’t do anything in the garden other than a bit of pruning.

The gardening advice on the radio the other day was to hope.  The man said don’t be impatient – the best thing to do is to hope.  The interviewer said we should all hope together, which sounds like quite a good idea in general.  I have a motto on a Greenpeace shirt that says “The optimism of the action is better than the pessimism of the thought”.  Everyone acting in hope might get us somewhere.   Last Saturday, the environment editor of The Independent, Michael McCarthy, wrote a valedictory column on his retirement.  While he struck a pessimistic note, he said that his pessimism was not unmitigated, because of the many green campaigners who have fought hard to save the Earth.  He calls them the redeemers of humankind.  That may be going too far, but we do have to hope together in practical action … like not flying to Venice.  Next time, I promise I will go by train.





Alex’s Energy Saving Tips

These are tiny drops in the ocean.  But seeing TV pictures of the flooding in Queensland the other night, and the warnings of yet more flooding here in the UK, makes me feel we all need to pull together to counter the madness of growth-addicted, consumer culture.  It’s all feeling rather apocalyptic, and I’d hoped that we’d have more time.

Feel free to contradict me or to add your own tips.



It feels strange to talk about saving water in a flooded country.  But drinkable tap water uses energy (586 kWh per million litres) to produce, and treating the sewage takes a further 634 kWh per million litres (2006 data for UK – couldn’t find more recent figures without wasting more energy – I read somewhere that two searches on Google use the same amount of energy as boiling enough water for a cup of tea).   Water treatment impacts the environment in other ways, too, so we should save water, even in the floods.

Don’t use the hot tap for small quantities.  By the time it’s run hot, you’ve poured a load of water down the drain.  Of course, you could catch that water in a bowl and tip it into a water-butt for watering the vegetables – but in this perpetual rainy season, my water-butts are full.  (My brother-in-law fills buckets from the water-butt and uses that to flush the toilet.  Deep green.)  For washing up (Dishwasher? Do you know what those chemicals do to nature?), boil water in the kettle and add to cold water in a bowl.  The breakfast washing up is my job, which often includes cups and bowls from the night before (teenagers – always eating), and I use between 3 and 4 litres of water.  On the subject of washing up, use washable cloths (made from fairtrade, organic cotton) rather than disposable sponges.

In the shower, once you’ve wetted yourself, switch off the shower while you put on shampoo/soap.  This is hard to do in our unheated shower room during winter, but I’ll bet it saves a lot of water (and hot water, too).

Make sure your kettle can boil as little as a cupful of water.  After you’ve used the kettle, refill it.  If you don’t know how much water you’ll want to boil next time, just put a cupful in.  The residual heat in the kettle will take the chill off the water and so less electricity will be needed when you boil it later.

Defrost food in the room.  Thinking ahead saves using the microwave.

Eat less processed food.  For example, a lot of energy is used in making breakfast cereals, when compared to porridge/oatmeal or muesli.

Follow my Grandpa’s three dictums for a healthy life: eat plenty of good food, get plenty of fresh air and get plenty of exercise.  Hospitals are very energy-hungry places, with their overheating, air-conditioning and huge amount of disposable equipment.   Best to avoid them by staying healthy.

Don’t use the car unless you absolutely have to.  Planning ahead saves urgency.  Rain is not an excuse – if the Good Lord had meant us to drive a short journey just because it’s raining, He wouldn’t have given us Gore-Tex.

Only turn the heating up when everyone’s wearing 2 sweaters and a scarf and is still cold.  Although, apparently, this is the behaviour of a Mean Dad.

Avoid as much plastic packaging as possible.  This is very hard to do, but it’s such a lot of waste.  It’s harmful to animal and plant life in landfill or in the rivers and seas.  It uses a lot of oil and energy to manufacture, and recycling it also uses energy and isn’t brilliant environmentally either.  Plastic water bottles are easily avoided – use a washable metal flask.  Getting milk and fruit juice in glass bottles from the milkman saves some plastic cartons.  Supermarket meat, vegetable and fruit packaging can be avoided by buying those things in better places, like farmers markets or small shops.  But as most dry goods come in non-recyclable plastic wrappers, this is a hard tip to practice.  Bring back weigh and save shops!

Eat seasonal food, as locally grown as possible, and preferably organically grown, too.   Thinking about what’s in season helps connect us to the natural world and its rhythms.  I’m not very good at this one – I’m not so bad with veg, but I do like my daily banana and apple.  At this time of year in England, you need to learn to appreciate turnips, although thanks to Barcombe Nurseries (see links), we do get a good variety of local (and therefore seasonal) organic produce.

Don’t eat meat.  If you have to, eat much less and make sure it’s kindly reared (kind to the animal and the land) on a local farm.  I should probably also eat much less dairy produce, although the pulses I eat are not locally grown – I’m not sure which is better in terms of energy consumption.

Well, that’s just a few thoughts off the cuff.  Even if the drops in the ocean are too small to mitigate climate change, at least we will be doing the right thing; plus we will be demonstrating that alternatives to mega-consumption are possible, and we’ll be better prepared for when everyone has to live like this.  I think it’s better than merrily living in denial, anyway.

Shoreham power stn


(Shoreham Power Station, Sussex)

Out with the old, in with the new

This past week I had to say goodbye to two faithful old companions.

The first was my fault.  At Easter, I took my lovely 6-string guitar out into the driving rain to play at an early morning outdoor service.  It’s never been the same since, and in particular, won’t keep tune.  So, after 25 years of pleasure and pain and every emotion in between, and nine months of umming and ahhing, I’ve replaced it.   I feel like a traitor.  That old guitar has been brilliant.  It’s seen me through some hard times, and accompanied me through many good times.   Sometimes I’ve thrashed it as hard as I could while splattering it with tears and finger-blood.   Other times it was sweet and gentle.  It just took what I gave and was always ready for more.   Until I got it soaked, idiot that I am.

My trusty bike was simply old and worn out.  I’ve tried hard to keep it going, but it got to the stage where it was making less and less sense to keep spending money on it.   It’s been a faithful workhorse over fifteen years, for nine of which it was my only means of private transport.  It carried all three children (mostly not at the same time), groceries, books, timber, small trees … and me, of course, for miles and miles and miles.

Happy memories.

Their successors have a lot to live up to.

It’s amazing how attached I have become to a wooden box and an arrangement of steel tubing.


Life in the bike lane


Life in the bike lane …

… take it at your own pace.

… stop and admire the scenery.

… stop and chat to an old friend (or make a new friend).

… see the world from a different level.

… slightly separate yet at the same time part of the general flow.

… the sun on your face, the wind in your hair and the blood in your veins.

… free.