Category Archives: Cruising Across the Atlantic 2009

Talking Surface Travel with KPFA

I was on KPFA’s Terra Verde show hosted by Adam Greenfield last Friday. talking about surface travel, the Arco/BP protests, and what regular people can do in the face of environmental collapse.  Listen here:

http://kpfa.org/archive/id/62134

If anyone finds out what the past tense of ‘dive’ is, please let me know ;)

Amtrak to San Francisco: Community on the Rails

I got back to Union Station from my walk around Chicago with about 15 minutes to spare, and for the next 14 minutes struggled to liberate my luggage from the electronic lockers, which maddeningly refused to recognise my fingerprint.   At the very last moment as they were closing the gate, the locker popped opened. I dashed for the train, found a seat, and settled in for the next 48 hours, ready to update my blog and read David Byrne’s Bicycle Diaries cover to cover.

Of course things rarely work out the way you think they will.   After meeting my seat mate Alexei, a Russian-Canadian medical student from Pennsylvania, I walked around the train and met a number of other interesting people- people I ended up having long conversations with over the next couple of days.  And, as a result neglecting David Byrne and my laptop (as you might have guessed as this trip took place a month ago now!)

The Rocky Mountains

Nice Japanese guys we met, enjoying the view

Writing my Masters dissertation about the prerequisite conditions that humans need to develop healthy social networks has made me notice when these circumstances exist- and when they don’t.  In the midst of a red wine- fuelled late night conversation in the observation car with new friends, I realised (again) that long distance trains provide the ideal circumstances for community to flourish.   Such community as was never seen in the rushed, kerosene fuelled world of aviation.  From the cornfields west of Chicago, to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, we stared out the window and talked about what we saw.

It’s a slow ride, but the view is fascinating, and everyone seems to have the time to talk.  A woman named Amanda boarded the train in Denver- Alexei and I started to chat to her and the conversation inevitably turned to climate change (the coal trains rolling by must have had something to do with it).  It’s incredible that people still parrot the fossil fuel industry line on climate change, in spite of international scientific consensus.  I suspect that the emotional pain of accepting that we are currently destroying this beautiful planet is too great to bear.  Plus, the psychological mechanisms that perpetuate denial around our addictive relationships with energy are easily accessible- just switch on Fox “News”!!

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Other highlights of the trip included a staggering sunrise over the Nevada desert, crossing into California as an early season snowstorm hit the Sierras, and a nice chap from Tahoe sharing his special chocolate chip cookies with us.  Welcome to California!

Watching the wreckage of a freight train derailment that had occurred a few weeks back  (Glenwood Canyon, Colorado)

Fall colours- (Glenwood Canyon)

Sunrise over the Nevada Desert

An October Blizzard in the Sierra Nevada- welcome to California

Passing time watching DVD’s and offending everyone in the observation car with the naughty language in ‘Stepbrothers.’  I blame Kate, who got on at Reno and led us astray!

As we crossed the Bay Bridge with the City’s skyline in the background, reflecting off the puddles left by the recent storm, I realised how much I had missed San Francisco over the last three years, and how much I was going to appreciate re-acquainting.

Chicago

Downtown Chicago

I left the green shoots and corporate doublespeak behind in New York City, and hopped on the Lakeshore Limited to Chicago.   As you can see from the video below, a journey of contrasts- from the stunning Hudson River Valley to the industrial estates of Gary Indiana- sprawling complexes of chemical processing units- manufacturing bipolyphenals or engine lubricant or sink cleaner or twinkies or something you probably use every day.  So stop buying it already.  You don’t want to be be responsible for this mess believe me.   Note the school buses parked right at the end of the complex.

This very strange fountain was actually a video screen. I guess this is art or something

When foraging for wild food, consider downtown Chicago as your source for fresh (though slightly polluted) dino kale

Arrest- really? I mean I can understand maybe...a ticket, but arrest? Imagine putting your grandmother in cuffs cause she's afraid of the SUV's on the road. Maybe someone's grandma got mowed down by a cyclist on the pavement- er sidewalk. If only the response to car deaths were as forthright.

I thought I was back in the UK for a minute. They even got the patio heaters in there- very authentic!

A productive community garden growing out of a formerly vacant lot provided Chicagoans with an alternative to tasteless supermarket produce.

Our four wheeled friends were treated to prime residential space in these buildings- in fact the first 15 floors!

I found this crazy looking fungi in a planting strip in the Lincoln Park neighbourhood- showing that nature can thrive even in a large city- if given half a chance.

Walk 21: Pedestrian Blackjack Claptrap or Sustainable Transport Agenda?

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I was invited to present my research Driven to Excess, on motor traffic and neighbourhood social decay, at the Walk 21 conference in early October.   The conference was inspiring, if a little corporate.  In particular, the choice to invite a speaker from the Global Road Safety Partnership, an auto industry front group, rang alarm bells.    It was great though to be able to meet the people behind much of the research that I had read as part of my Transport Planning Masters program at UWE.   People like Daniel Sauter, who together with Marco Huettenmoser conducted research on the social impact of various speeds of traffic, an important addition to the literature.

Leinberger and Aspirational Housing

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Christopher Leinberger, a visiting fellow of the Brookings Institute, spoke about the emerging public preference for walkable urban environments compared to driveable suburban layouts.  He discussed the ‘walk score’ from 0-100 that real estate agents are increasingly using in the states to identify walkable residential neighbourhoods, where 0-20 represents the need to drive anywhere for your daily needs, and 100 represents walkable corner shop tree-lined urban utopia.  Apparently 1 walk score point now represents $500- $3000 in value on a new house.  And this insatiable demand for walkable urban housing units in the United States is forecast to increase by 56 million by 2025 (!!!).

Leinberger spoke about how television provides a glimpse into the kind of residential living that our culture desires.   In the 1950’s and 60’s it was all shows based in the suburbs- Leave it to Beaver, Brady Bunch, Addams Family etc.  People wanted a large yard and detached housing. That has largely been replaced by the dense urban ideal, represented by Seinfeld, Sex and the City, and (blech!) Friends.  The dwindling exurbs of California, foreclosed and emptying of people, are the outward manifestation of this aspiration.   Somewhere deep down, we can intuitively sense the type of urban planning that is killing us.

The American Love Affair Cools- Industry Responds

With the warming to dense, urban, walkable environments, there has been a corresponding cooling of the love affair with the automobile- particularly among the young generation- those born in the 80’s and 90’s.  If this is happening in LA, as reported in the LA Times, don’t doubt for a second that something significant is occurring.

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Good- then start manufacturing streetcars and bicycles!

All this combined with the recession has likely generated not a little bit of panic in the auto industry boardrooms.   Interestingly, Toyota has just launched its ‘beyond cars’ advertising campaign.   This is what car companies do when their focus groups start talking about bicycles….they try to convince us they’re not selling cars- they’re selling all the things that cars have taken from us, like “local lunches, social networks, safer kids, clean drinking water, etc.”  A page out of the official corporate greenwash manual to be sure.

“The Global Road Safety Partnership”

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The "Global Road Safety Partnership" at Walk 21

Speaking of a desperate industry, needing to associate itself with the walkable communities movement…..for the final plenary session, the conference organisers invited none other than former Daimler Chrysler employee Kathleen Elsig of the “Global Road Safety Partnership”, an organisation set up by the World Bank and car companies to influence the global road safety agenda.  Not too unlike the programs the tobacco industry funds to discourage teens from taking up smoking.   Lots of good pr allowing them to unload millions of cars onto roads in the global south that aren’t prepared for them.   As a result, millions of vulnerable road users will be maimed or killed every year so that Daimler Chrysler can make a buck.

Just to make sure I’m not getting all hot and bothered over nothing here, I did a search of the academic literature.  Something interesting came up in the respected academic journal Injury Prevention, entitled Car manufacturers and global road safety: a word frequency analysis of road safety documents- showing that the GRSP attempts to de-emphasize lower speeds and discussion of the safety of walkers and cyclists.

Here is an excerpt from the research:

“After the establishment of the GRSP, there were some concerns that car makers would be unlikely to promote initiatives that conflict with their commercial interests. Our analyses provide little reassurance in this respect. For example, whereas the World report emphasizes the importance of speed reduction, particularly to promote the safety of pedestrians, a recommendation that is based on strong evidence, the GRSP documents emphasize driver training and safety education campaigns, which is contrary to the available research evidence.

Compared to (the World Health Organisation’s) World report on road traffic injury prevention, the GRSP road safety documents were substantially less likely to use the words speed, speed limits, child restraint, pedestrian, public transport, walking, and cycling, but substantially more likely to use the words school, campaign, driver training, and billboard.

In other words, in response to a health crisis where 30,000 people get seriously injured every day, where mostly poor, mostly brown, mostly self-propelled people get hit by cars, the industry- through its front group the GRSP- advocates not for policies that are proven to keep children’s hearts beating in this hostile motor-filled world of ours, but for programs that are unlikely to affect car sales or the dominance of drivers on public roads.  Not to be dramatic about it or anything.  But to prevent the heartbreak of a parent just one time. One less car sold. Twenty seconds in the journey of a driver.  These things make a difference, but to the car industry the risk of allowing auto-hegemony to slip is apparently not worth it.  The GRSP has also been scrutinised by the always vigilant George Monbiot.

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At the very least, a mistake on the part of the Walk 21 conference organisers to invite her.  At the worst, a dangerous willingness to provide a platform to a group that lobbies against peer-reviewed evidence, putting millions of brown, voiceless people in harm’s way just to sell a few more million set of wheels.  Hardly the kind of image the conference needs as it tries to include the majority world, while inducing a new generation of expense account consultants, city planners, and starry-eyed urbanists to shell out for 2010 and fly thousands of miles to pat each other on the back and eat fancy corporate-funded hors d’oeuvres.

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Kathleen Elsig

When it came time for questions, I gulped down a sushi roll, walked up to the microphone and asked, “Ms. Elsig, do you think an effective strategy in the fight against the global road safety pandemic would be to sell fewer cars?” A muttering rippled through the hundreds in the audience- how would a representative of the auto industry answer this one? She answered, “well that’s a loaded question…..hah hah hem hah….local communities should develop their own sustainable transport plans blah blah….”   So thank you, Ms. Elsig I’ll take that as a yes.  Nice to know we have you on the record on that matter….

Steve Heminger Maintaining Tremendous Carbon
Steve-Heminger

A ghost from my Bay Area bicycle advocacy days, Steve Heminger, Executive Director of the San Francisco Bay Area Metropolitan Transportation Commission (the MTC), gave the plenary talk on the Thursday about how (NEWSFLASH!) carbon is an important consideration for transportation planning in Northern California (41% of CO2 emissions are from transport in the Bay Area, compared with 14% globally) .   And something about how pedestrian planning was about people stepping in doggie doo, and how cars run over not only the poo but the dog as well.  Subsequent chuckles of semi-comprehension from the audience.  (Did he just make a joke about dead pets?  Cringeworthy…)

Steve showed a pie chart of how the Bay Area spent its transportation funds, with more than 80% going to maintenance and operations, and how the burden of maintaining the region’s highway system grows more onerous each year.   Of course it’s not helping our carbon emissions that 10% of the region’s federal funding goes toward expanding those highways, placing a progressively greater burden on planning agencies.

He went on to moan a bit about how the carbon reductions for the transport sector seemed insurmountable, but boasting about how the Bay Area was at least beginning to worry about the problem.  Yes but, continuing to expand the system that we desperately need to begin to wind down would make it more difficult, wouldn’t it Steve?   There was the sense from his talk that all was fine and dandy with our current transport system, if only we could deal with those pesky carbon emissions.

So, I hear now from sources in the Bay Area, that under the leadership of Heminger, the MTC has scuttled its climate protection initiative that would have funnelled money into non-motorized projects and re-channelled it into Heminger’s dirty little baby- a ‘freeway performance initiative.’

So much for bold leadership in a time of crisis.

This is really a reflection of the ideological position held by the elected officials that make up the MTC- that Earth’s atmosphere is a troublesome burden better put off for another day- kinda like the US/ UK attitude toward the Copenhagen conference.   The truth of course, as many people are realising on their own- is that climate presents us with an opportunity to really kick the fossil fuel habit once and for all- and the dangerous, polluted, noisy, and anti-social streets that result from it.  Real green shoots, signs of spring, not corporate false-solution offset it to another day empty greenwash.

It’s not our current government’s fault that the decision was made decades ago to give the green light to personal motoring, but it is their cowardice to admit we were wrong that is hurtling us ever closer- making it more and more likely ever day that the eventual outcome will be catastrophic- perhaps terminal- for our human species.

A good reason to walk in the street I’d say….

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The Greenwash:

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-From Toyota’s “Beyond Cars” Greenwashing Campaign

The Reality:

“The street is quite anonymous- we only know our immediate neighbours”

“Our 4-year old girl has a constant cough and we limit the amount of time she spends outside…..we’re constantly breathing in pollution”

-From my research in Bristol with residents of Muller Rd (21,000 cars/ day)

Spring in New York

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Washington Square Park (from an NYU stairwell)

After disembarking from the cruise ship and all its excesses, I spent a couple of days in Brooklyn, four days in Vermont and New Hampshire, and then returned to the East Village in Manhattan for four days of the Walk 21 Conference at NYU.

You might be asking yourself, Spring?   Isn’t it Fall?  And yes you would be right.  But before you accuse me of getting my seasons horribly muddled, let me explain.   When I arrived, there was the sense that something new was afoot in New York City.  That the long, frigid, and hostile winter of relentless and dehumanising domination of motor traffic in our public spaces was slowly beginning to thaw.  The warming climate itself contributing to a reawakening of the appreciation of pubic space, and with it, a new possibility of self-propelled transport through the densest urban environment in the richest nation on Earth.

Instead of cursing the ‘snow’ all around, (as my inner cynic urges me to do), I decided to spend some time taking a closer look at the ‘green shoots’ where New York has decided that- oi vey- perhaps it went overboard in accommodating motor vehicles and that there may be social (and economic) value in remaking sterile asphalt dead zones into thriving social spaces.   There’s been a lot written about what New York City has been doing over the last couple years, so I won’t belabour the point, but it was really exciting to see firsthand.

Broadway

The Greening of Broadway

The Greening of Broadway

All along Broadway, the NYC Dept. of Transportation (DOT) has transformed former motor space using an inexpensive surface treatment of pebbledash and green paint to reclaim former car territory.  Beach chairs and tables are interspersed with new plants and trees.   Amazing how effective this is.  It shows how well trained we are most of the time, yielding space to cars just because it’s asphalt colored and has white and yellow lines on it.  Drivers also behave well in this new order- very rarely do their tires seem to stray onto these new areas, even when not protected by bollards.  Good drivers- you get a pat on the head, and a biscuit!

Street Life on Broadway

Street Life on Broadway

Times Square

It's about time!

It's about time!

The pedestrianisation of Times Square has perhaps received more coverage than any of the other improvements and somehow the city managed to make the new space just as gaudy as the flashing billboards surrounding the square.  Using the same design as used along Broadway- except the large dots are red instead of green, the effect is appropriately amusement park themed.

This same formula has been followed in a number of NYC neighbourhoods, generating quite an international buzz, which Mayor Bloomberg and the NYC DOT commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, as well as the campaign groups Transportation Alternatives and the Limewire mogul Mark Gorton funded Livable Streets Initiative can take appropriate degrees of credit.  Really though, it was the people of New York- the grassroots- who demanded action, and once it began, resoundingly voted with their feet.  According to the DOT, as soon as the chairs were installed, there was a rush of people who came to sit in them.  Citizens enjoying the new public space:  reading, chatting, drawing, or just watching the world go by.   Clearly New Yorkers have been deprived of adequate open space for too long and a huge latent demand has built up, beginning to be satisfied by the courageous and timely transport planning at the DOT.  Healthy Cities- 1  Carmageddon- 0

Ninth Avenue Bike Lanes

A bike lane my mom would ride

A bike lane my mom would ride

The 9th Ave. bike lanes are another example of where New York is re-allocating space from cars to green modes of transportation.  Though I didn’t get a chance to ride them, I did observe how they work and they have indeed transformed the look and feel of this formerly motor dominated street.   They’ve prioritised cycling, made crossings shorter for pedestrians, and softened the streetscape with new plantings.  I was skeptical of how left turning cars would interact with cyclists, but this seems to have been addressed through the use of dedicated signal phases, as has been done- after much lobbying- in San Francisco where Masonic crosses the Panhandle Path.

The High Line

Getting above it all on the High Line...

Getting above it all on the High Line...

Another reclamation of public space- in this case from abandoned railroad to pedestrian- has occurred in the Chelsea district, where an elevated rail line has begun a transformation into a walking path and native species oasis.  It really is great to see this project come to fruition.  When I worked for the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy in San Francisco at the beginning of the decade, I received a call one morning.  “Hi this is Ed Norton, and I’m interested in getting involved in the High Line project in New York.”   I said, ‘Oh hi.’  He said, “Yeah this is Edward Norton the actor…”  I said (totally ignorant of who he was), ‘ok well you can contact our east coast office at this number….”   Sorry Ed- I hadn’t seen Fight Club yet and didn’t know who you were.   Anyway, thanks for your support of the project.  No doubt the involvement of celebrities like you was instrumental in making the project happen.

And now for the feature presentation...the street!

And now for the feature presentation...the street!

As part of the project NYC Parks in cooperation with the Friends of the High Line have built what appears to be an amphitheater with wooden benches where people can sit and gaze at the traffic going by below.  Not exactly thrilling, unless you are an urban studies nerd like me, though it seems to be a popular place to sit and relax.

Reclining chairs along the High Line lead to socializing

Reclining chairs along the High Line lead to socializing

Further on, there are wooden benches that were built to roll sideways on the old rails until they realized that people could get their fingers pinched.  So they fixed the wheels in place.  Oh health and safety, don’t we love thy inconsistent application?   Do they know the thousands of metal boxes rolling around the city can result in worse things than pinched fingers?  Perhaps they could apply the same treatment to them as well.  Denver boots all around!

Industrial heritage.....green future

Industrial heritage.....green future

The plan is to extend the conversion of the High Line, creating a mile and a half traffic free walking artery above the noise, danger and fumes of the street.   A glimpse of what the streets below could become one day…

On the Level Blog approves....

On the Level Blog approves....

I love NY!

I love NY!

Cruise Ship on the Hudson

Lady Liberty

Lady Liberty

We woke up at six am, rolled groggily out of bed and headed up to the deck, where a line of tourists were snapping madly at the Statue of Liberty. The lady herself was bathed in the pale morning light, welcoming our huddled, shivering masses to the states.  As we headed upriver on the Hudson toward the Manhattan Cruise Terminal at 51st St. familiar landmarks came into view- the hole left by the destruction of the World Trade Center, the New Yorker building, and the familiar centers of Manhattan: Midtown and Downtown.  We had arrived!

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Dawn over Manhattan

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Looking back on downtown…..only 30 minutes to go before we disembark!

Halifax, Nova Scotia

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Hanging out on Spring Garden Rd. a studenty area in Halifax

I’m back in California now, dreadfully behind on the blog entries.  I’ll be updating these over the course of the next week or so….

Unfortunately the winds were too high for the harbormaster in St. John’s to allow a big cruise ship to pull into the narrow harbour entrance, so we missed Newfoundland, somewhere I’ve wanted to visit since I saw the Shipping News with Kevin Spacey.  Lovely and bleak.  Oh well, something to look forward to I suppose.

Instead of one day in St. John’s and one day in Halifax, we had two days and one night in Halifax.  When we stepped off the ship, it was immediately obvious we were back in North America.  The low density built environment, wide streets, the small green street signs, and huge hulking SUV’s that have apparently emerged under the rock of high gasoline prices, all welcomed us back to the most profligate part of our planet.

I had been in touch with Ecology Action, an environmental lobby organisation for Nova Scotia, and they invited me to come and present my research, Driven to Excess, at one of their lunchtime events.   About 17 of us squeezed into Ecology Action’s small kitchen, including a Halifax councilmember and a number of transport policy staff from local government.   They told me that my research will help them make the case for improvements to transit and non-motorized facilities in the province, which was nice to hear.

Thanks again to Jen Powley at Ecology Action for hosting me and good luck reforming Halifax transport policy!

Presenting my research at Ecology Action

Presenting my research at Ecology Action

The Not-so-Shiny Jewel: An Investigation into the Environmental Impacts of the Cruise Industry

An endangered fin whale was impaled on the bow of a Princess cruise ship in Vancouver in July, raising the issue of the tragic impacts of large ships on marine mammals

An endangered fin whale was impaled on the bow of a Princess cruise ship in Vancouver in July, highlighting the damage that large ships cause to marine mammals

Norwegian Cruise Lines tried to charge me $55 for the “Behind the Scenes” tour of the Jewel, but when I mentioned that I wrote a ‘travel blog’, they made an exception and let me join the tour free of charge.

The tour included meeting the captain on the bridge, touring the laundry room, garbage and recycling area, theatre, galley, and food storage facilities and gave me a deeper insight into the inner workings of the ship.  Even though I’m sure they made sure everything was ‘ship shape’ in advance, I was still able to discover some things about the cruise industry that weren’t so pure.

I cover this stuff on my blog not just to take a swipe at Norwegian Cruise Lines, but to increase pressure on the entire industry to prioritise environmental considerations in their operations.   Similar coverage has led to improvements in discharges at sea and recycling among other things.

To be fair to NCL, according to Friends of the Earth’s Cruise Ship Environmental Report Card the company rates among the most environmentally friendly cruise lines, getting a “B-” overall.  Of course this grade is relative, and it is staggering to think that most cruise lines perform worse than the Jewel, given what I saw and heard during my 11 days at sea.

During the tour I had a chance to interview the captain and the environmental officer on board about issues such as whale strikes and carbon emissions, two of the many unsavory aspects of the cruise industry.  Indeed I detected not a little bit of discomfort when I brought up these touchy subjects.

The Captain had some interesting opinions on climate change...

The Captain had some interesting opinions on climate change...

First up was a chance to meet the captain on the bridge.   After a presentation of the instrument and navigation equipment, we had a chance to ask questions.    I asked, “Captain, surely you are aware of the recent unfortunate incident where a cruise ship arrived in Vancouver harbour with a dead endangered whale impaled on its bow.   What do you do to avoid killing or injuring marine mammals while at sea?”  He admitted that radar was powerless to detect whales, and a visual scan of the sea, together with last minute attempts at course changes were all they could do to avoid the carnage.  You can imagine it’s not easy to change the course of a massive ship, and he acknowledged whale strikes were probably quite common and “really unfortunate.”  Even aside from the discharges, emissions, and waste inherent in cruising, there is no doubt that, unseen beneath the waves, the hull of a cruise ship the size of the Jewel is striking and its propellers are mutilating a large number of whales, porpoises, and other marine life. If fishing fleets are equipped with sonar to detect schools of fish, I don’t see why cruise ships can’t use the same technology to detect marine mammals and avoid them.

Where the reality struggles to meet the rhetoric: Port of Halifax

Where the reality struggles to meet the rhetoric: Port of Halifax

I also asked the Captain about carbon emissions, about the fact that the Jewel emits more than one tonne of carbon into the atmosphere every minute. His answers were very revealing.   I asked him what NCL was doing to reduce this major climate impact, and he replied “that it was up to the oil companies to produce fuel with less carbon” and “the government should reduce taxes on fuel” which- to anyone who understands the nature of the climate crisis- represents a significant and dangerous misunderstanding of the nature of the problem.   Clearly he was confusing carbon dioxide with carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide or particulate pollution.  The only thing that would help reduce emissions of carbon dioxide would be to use less fuel, to make the engines and on board energy use more efficient.  Or perhaps use natural gas to power the engines, though they were not built to burn CH4.  And of course lowering taxes on fuel would just reduce any incentive to conserve.

A floating Las Vegas, courtesy of cheap bunker oil...

A floating Las Vegas, courtesy of cheap bunker oil...

The waste of energy on board is staggering.  When in port at Halifax, we were walking back to the ship at night and the Jewel was lit up like a Christmas tree, her smokestacks belching burnt bunker fuel smoke, doing nothing good for the lungs of the residents of Halifax nor the global climate.  Some ports have now installed electrical hook ups so that cruise ships need not run their engines for power while at port, but of course the emissions are just being transferred from the ship’s engines to a power plant, most likely in some deprived neighborhood nearby.

It’s scary that ignorance of the nature of climate change still permeates senior staff of companies like NCL.  In the year 2009 there is no excuse for this.

It’s not just energy that is wasted aboard cruise ships.  According to the environmental officer on board, the Jewel disposes over 2500 gallons of food overboard per day- more than one gallon of food waste per day going to “feed the fishes” as their glib environmental program proclaims.

Roughly one gallon of food per day is tossed overboard for every passenger aboard the Jewel, an incredible waste

Roughly one gallon of food per day is tossed overboard for every passenger aboard the Jewel, an incredible waste

Most of this doesn’t come from plate scrapings but from the inherent waste from ‘freestyle’ buffet dining.  After four hours, everything is thrown away.   This lack of respect for the true value of food is only possible because of bargain basement oil making food production artificially cheap.  The whole enterprise is based on cheap oil and unconstrained carbon emissions.  NCL, like many other industries, has its head buried in the sand, and is particularly vulnerable to rises in oil prices and limits on carbon.  It not only serves the environment for passenger ship companies to make significant changes in their operations to reduce waste, it’s also sensible from an economic perspective.

As far as solid waste is concerned, it appears that NCL does a decent job recycling the ‘easy’ stuff like cans and bottles, but chooses to incinerate quite a bit that could be recycled, like cardboard and paper- even 10% of plastic waste, which leads to some pretty nasty emissions like dioxins.

The chemicals produced on board are pretty shocking too.   They have a huge photography business on board the ship, with staffers snapping photos of you many times during the cruise.  All of these shots are printed out and displayed for sale, whether you buy them or not.   According to the photo staff, only about 2% of the photos are ever bought, with 98% being thrown away.   This causes a huge amount of unnecessary photochemical and paper waste.

When Leah and I were standing in the queue to disembark at Lerwick, we overheard a woman who mentioned that there was a bad smell coming from her drain.   She had reported this to the staff, who came and poured a large amount of bleach in a vain attempt to eliminate the smell.  The outlet of the sinks goes to the grey water systems, and it is very likely that chlorine bleach is making its way directly into the ocean.  I asked the environmental officer about this incident and ‘whether it was NCL policy to dump bleach down the drains.’  He said no it wasn’t and that he would investigate.

Is it the 'end of the line' for seafood within a generation or two if we continue on as we are?

Is it the 'end of the line' for seafood within a generation or two if we continue on as we are?

There is no doubt that our poisoned, over-fished oceans are in serious trouble.  I keep meaning to see the film “End of the Line,” a wake up call about this growing crisis.  According to the film, the oceans will essentially be devoid of most edible fish within about forty years if we continue overfishing and abusing our oceans.  NCL claims to ‘meet or beat’ environmental regulations, but clearly the reality is failing to meet the rhetoric.

The tactics that NCL (and most other cruise lines) use to extract money from their passengers are pretty revolting. It was clear that they depend heavily on the extras charged on board: drinks, gambling, specialty restaurants, shore excursions, and bingo.   Especially Bingo.   A Dutch guy who I met calculated that they take in about $10,000 from retirees hoping to win big, but award only 4 prizes of $250.  A tidy profit of nearly $9000 per game.

I am proud to say that my total onboard bill came to the tidy sum of $0.   I figure I probably cost NCL money.   So, if that’s true, according to Chris Hutt’s comment on my earlier post about being responsible for carbon emissions in direct proportion to how much profit a company makes off of you, does that mean I have a negative carbon footprint?

The 1100 staff aboard the Jewel are paid slave wages and have virtually no job security

The 1100 staff aboard the Jewel are paid slave wages and have virtually no job security

According to the Dutch guy who spoke confidentially with several of the staff, the junior stewards make only about $500/ month (less than $6000/ year) including tips, work at least ten hours per day, and have to share a small cabin with 3 others.   Most are from the Philippines.   Once they finish 10 months with NCL, they have to go to a different company.   This is a fairly obvious way to avoid their employees unionising and demanding better pay and working conditions.   Most cruise ships, including the Jewel, are based in the Bahamas because of the country’s lax labor and environmental standards.

A metaphor for the cruise industry: an apple that we got from the 'Chocaholic Buffet' was beautifully dipped in chocolate, but when we cut it open it was rotten inside.

A metaphor for the cruise industry? An apple that we got from the 'Chocaholic Buffet' was beautifully dipped in chocolate, but when we cut it open it was rotten inside.

Overall, we were more nauseated on board the ship from the conspicuous consumption, waste, and the overt sense of entitlement from many of the passengers than we were from the rough seas.  Yet there remains the possibility of a future of ocean travel that places sustainability at the forefront, that recognizes the growing demand for alternatives to aviation, and provides a higher quality of travel experience, based on respect for local cultures, the ocean environment, and the proud history of seagoing.

It is this promise of a different kind of transatlantic voyage that will keep me using boats to get across the Atlantic, even if they’re not perfect environmentally, to speak out where I see abuse, and encourage others to ramp up pressure on the industry, to bring about the kind of low carbon, high quality voyages that we deserve.

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Passengers Aboard the Jewel

The Garden Cafe, colloquially known as the "Feeding Trough"

The Garden Cafe, colloquially known as the "Feeding Trough"

I’ve met some interesting people on board over the past few days, several of whom are using the cruise ship as ‘alternative transport’ across the Atlantic.  Of course they are vastly outnumbered by Americans who flew to Heathrow specifically for a cruise experience, but still it’s interesting to hear their stories.  I’ve asked the cruise director, a rather cheesy Canadian named Darin, if I can host a discussion on the 29th of people who don’t fly for various reasons which he has termed, rather uncontroversially, “Fear of Flying.”

Here are some of the people I’ve met over the course of the last ten days at sea:

Jo Jo from Nashville I met during lunch in the buffet.  She was frustrated that she can’t walk to the shops where she lives- she says she waits until she’s really hungry to get into her car and suffer through the terrible Nashville gridlock just to get to the supermarket.  She mentioned that there was a nice cycle path by the river in Nashville, but it didn’t go anywhere near where she lives.   She was scared to cycle in her neighbourhood because of a few speeding drivers.  She wants to live somewhere with a higher quality of life, where she can walk to the shops but says it’s too expensive to move to a place like Portland.  She wishes politicians in Nashville would do something about the traffic and lack of transportation options.

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Grant expressing his feelings about the NCL Jewel

Grant from Vancouver who was afraid of flying after a nasty experience in an airplane flying through a typhoon over Taiwan.  He’s accompanied by his Swiss girlfriend Sophie, a goldsmith who lives with him in Vancouver.  A couple of years back he took a cargo ship from Sydney to Los Angeles, which he said was ‘painfully boring.’  He left the cruise ship early in Halifax because he ‘just couldn’t take it any more.’

Leah and I with Klaus and Eve, rare 'kindred spirits' on the Cruise

Leah and I with Klaus and Eve, rare 'kindred spirits' on the Cruise

Klaus, a German living in London with his English wife Eve. He is a refugee from the City, London’s financial district, and disgusted at the excesses that led to last year’s crash.  He was appalled with his friends for suggesting that Ian Tomlinson ‘deserved what he got’ when he was killed at the hands of the Metropolitan Police on April 1st during the G20 protests.   They live in Greenwich, visited the Climate Camp on Black Heath in August, and were really inspired by what they saw.  They were on our bike tour in Reykjavik and we’ve been hanging out with them since then.   They even came to my Driven to Excess presentation in Halifax.

Hannah (also from Nashville) is staying in one of the Jewel’s massive suites with her parents, country music stars. Apparently they go cruising several times a year, and they’ve adapted well to life on a cruise ship, not bad when you have your own private hot tub in your stateroom.

Elizabeth, an art student who’s been studying in Edinburgh, returning home to Massachusetts, who chose to take the Jewel so that she could carry her large number of canvasses that would have been costly to bring aboard an aircraft.

Wishing safe and pleasant travels to all those we met on board the Jewel!

Iceland: Revolutions and Rainbows

Thingvellir Natl Park- 30 miles from Reykjavik  (Photo: Leah Arnold)

Thingvellir Natl Park- 30 miles from Reykjavik (Photo: Leah Arnold)

Leah and I have been really looking forward to visiting Iceland, the highlight of our transatlantic trip.   This morning we cruised up the channel to Reykjavik harbour, lined with snow dusted mountains.  When we arrived at the port, I stubbornly refused to get on a bus into the City Centre, unapologetic pedestrian that I am, resulting in an hour long walk through the industrial port area, then through a series of public housing towers, and finally along a street with forlorn looking banks.  Later we found out that this was now referred to by Icelanders as the Avenue of broken dreams.

The informative 'Free' Reykjavik Bicycle Tour (photo Leah Arnold)

The informative 'Free' Reykjavik Bicycle Tour (photo Leah Arnold)

We met Stefan and Ursula of the ‘Free’ Reykjavik Bike Tour in the city centre, who we had been in touch with via e-mail beforehand.  They just started the business several months ago, and rely on tips to make money from the venture, which they report has been extremely popular.   We were driven to the bike shed, where eight of us were matched with bikes for the tour, and then set off, following Stefan like ducklings along the pavement (riding on the sidewalk is permitted in Iceland).  I have never seen such courteous behaviour from drivers.   They stopped for us even when we didn’t have right of way at junctions.  We rode through the city, which was somewhat bleak, but with the characteristic clean lines of Scandinavian architecture.

Exploring Reykjavik's Cycle Paths

Exploring Reykjavik's Cycle Paths

We stopped by Iceland’s parliament building, the site of the recent ‘pots and pans revolution’.   Growing out of the financial crisis that hit Iceland particularly hard, one man had enough.  Hordur Torfason was so upset with the irresponsible behaviour by the banks and the inability of the government to protect Icelanders’ savings that he rented a flat bed truck and speakers, showing up every Saturday to protest outside the parliament.  Over the following weeks, the protest grew from a dozen people to hundreds and eventually to thousands.   In January, with a crowd of citizens banging pots and pans together so that government officials inside the parliament could no longer ignore their demands, riot police lined the parliament building.  It got heated as police used pepper spray to keep the crowd back. One teenager threw a brick and hit an officer in the face.  Instead of descending into violence, many in the crowd turned around to protect the officers from any further projectiles.

Bjork's House!!!

Bjork's House!!!

Elections were held, and a coalition of social democrats and the left green party came into power.  The old finance minister was sacked.   Stefan reported that the heads of government departments weren’t particularly qualified or experienced in the areas which they governed- they just happened to have wealth and influence.  Certainly sounds familiar…

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Rainbow over falls in Thingvellir (photo by Leah Arnold)

Stefan told us that there were only 700 police (including office staff) for the whole island’s population of 400,000, and not always enough of them to deal with violent crime and theft.  He said that since the recession started, there has been an 80% increase in burglaries and a huge increase in the drug trade, particularly indoor marijuana growing operations.

Iceland’s incredible natural resources have not escaped the notice of the multinational corporations, and Stefan said that he has seen a significant degradation in the natural areas of the island over the past decade.   Particularly threatening has been the spread of aluminium smelters by such corporations as Rio Tinto.  He said there was an ongoing tension between the tourist industry who wanted to preserve these wilderness areas (albeit for tourists to fly in) and the multinationals who sought to rape the land for extraction and profit.  The pressure to allow further exploitation has mounted with the desperation caused by the financial crisis.  Perhaps this is part of the plan.

An organisation known as Saving Iceland is dedicated to stopping this destruction and preserving Iceland for future generations, using peaceful direct action. Somehow, Stefan reported, there always seemed to be enough police to act as security guards for the corporations, an increasing trend internationally as evidenced by the collusion between police and Eon energy company documented by the Guardian.

Woolly-feeted Ptarmigan!! (photo by Leah Arnold)

Woolly-feeted Ptarmigan!! (photo by Leah Arnold)

After the bike tour, we convinced Stefan to drive us out to Thingvellir National Park, where people walked from all over the island in 930 to establish the first Icelandic parliament.   The volcanic landscape was unlike anything I’d ever seen- just breathtaking.  We were lucky enough to witness rainbows above the landscape and when we arrived at the visitor’s centre, we were greeted by ptarmigans with woolly feet, a very odd looking bird indeed.  After a brief visit to a waterfall, Stefan dropped us back at the ship, and we bid farewell to this fascinating island in the mid Atlantic.