Category Archives: Plane Dependence

Copenhagen, The Shame of a Generation? Not if This Generation has Anything to Say About It!

As our representatives at the Copenhagen Conference descend to a new low, drafting secret agreements that exclude the developing world,  there seems to be a new peak of energy, creativity and determination being demonstrated by people through art, music, film, and simply putting their bodies on the line to demand climate justice.  Check it out below.  Do send in more examples and I will add them.

By the way, what’s up with Canada?   My Canadian friends have begin talking about moving to the US in protest.  O dear.   It’s all about the tar sands it seems.

Survival of the Fattest

If one piece of art can sum up what is happening at Copenhagen, it’s the one above. Jens Galschiot’s sculpture Survival of the Fattest depicts the developed world, represented by an obese goddess of justice, tipping the scales of justice as she gets a free ride on the back of the developing world, represented by a thin African man.

The inscription reads: “I’m sitting on the back of a man. He is sinking under the burden. I would do anything to help him. Except stepping down from his back.”

The Story of Cap and Trade

Annie Leonard brings her simple, no nonsense, and populist style to the seemingly complex issue of cap and trade, which forms the basis of U.S. climate legislation, and is (dubiously) supported by a number of mainstream environmental organizations like the NRDC.  Find out “why you can’t solve a problem with the thinking that created it…”

Having a Good Time…

A great song and hilarious video by Theo Bard, addressing the entitlement of consumption.  Theo was arrested for blocking a coal train around the time he wrote this song.   I love it: “if you’re having a good time everything will be fine…”

Become the Bike Bloc

This lot has energy and a creative plan to harness human power to resist false solutions at Copenhagen.  Their mysterious large device, pioneered with Bristol cycle engineering prowess, is being assembled at an ultra secret location in Denmark to prepare for actions on the 16th.

The Great Climate Swoop

In October, hundreds of people converged on the Ratcliffe-on-Soar coal burning power station in Nottinghamshire, England with one single goal- to shut the mother down.  This is one of an increasing number of direct actions directed at the source of greenhouse gases.  I was speaking with a friend who was there, and he said he saw the mass action as having been successful, even though the plant remained operational.   “At least now it’s pretty clear that they can’t build a coal fired power station without spending millions of pounds on barbed wire and electric fences in order to defend it against their own people…”  Rumors are that there will be an attempt to reclaim the negotiations on Dec. 16th.  I wonder how fast the water cannons will come out.

I don’t believe in global warming

This is a good one- hits the nail on the head “If I believed in global warming then all I would think about is global warming.” (as opposed to more important things like sex, presumably) Welcome to Planet Earth circa 2010.

Polar Bear

Produced by Plane Stupid, this is clearly a response to those cuddly and friendly appeals by environmental organisations to ‘save the cute polar bears.’  This video reminds us that climate change caused by aviation means a grizzly and sad end to these beautiful creatures, as seen in tragic new photographs of a polar bear eating its own cub. (Warning this is reality.  And yes even more graphic than the video)

Rap News: Lord Monckton Rap Battles Al Gore

The Australian outfit Juice Media have created quite the stir with their spot on, tuned in rap news- the presenter Robert Foster lays down the lyrics: “it’s tempting to cry victim when the system tries to curb behaviors, but are we the victims, or are we the perpetrators?

Carbon Offsets or Car Ban, Off Streets? A Tussle over the Meaning of Green

In the days leading up to Copenhagen, it seems that everyone has been talking about false market based climate ‘solutions’ such as carbon offsetting and trading. A couple of weeks ago, I cycled over to the Green Festival in San Francisco, put on by the non-profits Global Exchange and Green America (formerly Co-op America), to find out why carbon offsetting continues to be promoted as a solution, despite evidence that it can actually worsen emissions, and provide psychological cover for carbon-heavy lifestyles.

With this in mind, I put on a suit and tie, bought a half dozen helium heart balloons, tied them onto the back of my bike and coasted into downtown, red balloons flailing wildly in the wind as I flew down the Post St. hill.  The romantic descent was only quelled somewhat by a sudden waft of urine as I navigated around garbage trucks through the Tenderloin.   Luckily the balloons were hard to miss, and (I hoped) would act as airbags in case of assault by four wheeled death monster– an idea actually in development according to the blog Copenhagenize.

Why was I doing such a thing on a sunny Saturday afternoon in November when I could have been out riding on beautiful Mt. Tamalpais overlooking the Pacific Ocean?  Screw nature.  Forget love.  I was heading to the Green Festival obsessed with profit.  Yes that’s right.  My mission was to gauge American consumer interest in an innovative new product created by 3 young entrepreneurs in the hills of mid Wales.

CheatNeutral.com, the company created by Christian Hunt, Alex Randall and Beth Stratford, promises to ‘offset’ your indiscretions by channeling your fee to another couple so as to “buy” their fidelity.   The idea is that the overall ‘heartbreak, pain, and jealousy in the atmosphere’ would thereby remain stable.   Romantic candlelit interludes and carnal pleasure fests alike- quantified and fed into the capitalist system, a privatisation of the most private areas of your life.

According to Operations Director Beth Stratford, Cheatneutral is one of a growing number of ‘guilt management tools’ now being marketed to assist in the rationalisation of a whole range of immoral and selfish acts.

But would San Francisco, the sex positive playground of the West, the home of the polyamorous burning man hipster, the Lusty Lady and the Barbary Coast take the bait, buy the snake oil and pay to break their partner’s heart?  Or would it click that carbon offsetting is a dangerous distraction from the changes in behaviour that are now essential if we are to avert a future catastrophic crumbling of civilisation?  Perhaps both.

Eager to find out, the new San Francisco marketing director for Cheatneutral.com strolled into the giant hall with hundreds of exhibitors flown in from around the country, thousands of attendees from the Bay Area and the vibe of a giant Whole Foods Market.  My mission: to separate the sneaky cheaters from the loyal and faithful- to see whether the Green festival is really green– or just greenwash.

I handed out Cheatneutral Flyers, and explained the valuable service that we offered.   Past stalls with hemp dresses, organic lotions, yerba mate beer, and assorted green sundry, I plied the trade, and neither the humour (nor the serious message) seemed to be lost on people, besides a few who started inquiring about prices and who I had to hurriedly explain that it was actually a joke.

Walking down the hallway, I ran into none other than Gavin Newsom the San Francisco mayor who has had his share of embarrassing extramarital affairs.   A moment like this only comes along every so often.  I strode up to him, his handlers visibly nervous at the approach of this suited man with a walrus moustache grasping a bunch of heart balloons.  “Mayor Newsom, I’d like to tell you about our company.   We’re Cheatneutral.com and we’re proud to be able to offset your sexual indiscretions for a small fee.”   He looked confused for a minute, then smiled broadly.  Apparently, he has been waiting for just such a service.  He accepted the flyer, then continued down the hall, the gallons of product in his coiffed hair leaving a slime in his wake that would rival the Exxon Valdez.

I approached the booth of a company called “Brighter Planet” who sell carbon offsets- even allowing you to earn them for every dollar you charge to your credit card!  Talk about missing the point.

Here are the chilling words from their website:

“At Brighter Planet, we’re proud to be pioneers of a new environmentalism: one that is accessible to everyone, fits easily with one’s lifestyle, and is fun to share. We invite you to sign up and join our growing community!”

I had a genial conversation with the guys from the company- one of them couldn’t stop laughing, while as soon as I started taking pictures he became very huffy and kicked me out of their booth.    I guess it’s hard to admit that you are making a living by lying to people, making them feel green when they’re really not.

The day ended with a rap and ride by Fossil Fool, with his phenomenal new pedal powered mobile sound system:

“Don’t be greenin’ it if you ain’t meanin’ it

Only hurts the movement for those who believe in it…”

The Low Down on Offsetting
Offsetting isn’t going to deliver us a stable climate any more than clicking your heels together and saying “there’s no place like home”.  Offsets and other carbon trading measures simply allow the global rich to continue their unequal, immoral, and selfish appropriation of the Earth’s atmosphere.  Offsetting and other false solutions to the climate crisis need to be stamped out and ridiculed at every opportunity.

Put simply, carbon heavy behavior like excessive consumption, driving and flying need to become so socially repugnant that if you choose to engage in them you will lose your friends and everyone will hate you.  Period.  Full Stop.  It cannot be overstated the dramatic and tectonic- yet potentially sudden changes that this will require.

Guys who speed around in fancy cars must be deprived of the sex that presumably results from this primal macho display.  Nothing like starving Africans and flooded homes to extinguish a girl’s appetite.  But don’t worry we at Cheatneutral will compensate you for your flaccid moments with our Offset Project Program.™

Joking aside, bottom line is that we need to make this into a battle for individual hearts and minds- and that inevitably means behaviour shift as well.   For too long we have been afraid of confronting each other’s oil addictions, discouraged by green organisations petrified of “offending the motorist” or being seen as too marginal.

Yet a major intervention, with all the family and friends round, sitting us down, smiling, and telling us that things can’t go on like this, is now what we desperately need.  That for our own lives and happiness we should move back into the neighbourhood where we live, stop working so much so we can buy stuff we don’t need, get acquainted with our neighbours and ride a bicycle.  Doesn’t sound that bad to me.

A climate friendly world would be a better world- but not for corporate greed (photo: Ecotopia)

The implications of the science are far more radical and marginal (by today’s standards) than even the most rabid hairshirt hippie ever dreamed up in a haze of cannabis laced idealism.  Yet, it doesn’t seem to be translating into personal limits.

We need to put the science of climate change first- not our heavily ad-influenced assumptions about personal mobility and Victorian attitudes about our relationship with the natural world.  Let’s figure out how much damage we’ve done, what it’s going to take to limit the worst of it, how much carbon all six billion of us can safely continue to emit, and restructure our societies to allow that to happen.

I’m talking- if not cold turkey- then a pretty cool bird.   Using fuel simply to meet basic human needs, and to assemble infrastructure we will need over the long term, before the resource becomes unaffordable and out of reach.  A pre-planned soft landing, lifting our heads out of the thick tar sands of oil addiction and see the forest for the trees (don’t get excited Green America- trees won’t offset the Alberta tar sands!).

As I understand the science there may not be even enough atmospheric space left for the global south to meet their basic needs like food, water, clothing and shelter and for us in the North to meet our own, without taking unacceptable risks to our safety (sorry, Donald Trump, your flight to the Bahamas is not a basic need).

The battle is not so much political or economic as moral.   We are not powerless automatons, a society destined to perish in our own effluent just because some asshole in a suit wants to sell us the latest product.   Presumably we all have free will and determine our own course in life- the effects of propaganda aside.

If we don’t buy their shit, and don’t buy into their insane growth-at-any-cost worldview, then their climate-wrecking machine will grind to a halt just as surely as a car without oil will sputter.

Anyone who’s been watching ongoing international climate negotiations can say it with confidence.   Copenhagen will not yield a safe, sensible plan for climate stability.  Governments and the corporations propping them up cannot be trusted it seems with such a basic function as protecting life on planet Earth.

It’s time to drop the pretense that the plane and the car aren’t selfish symbols of a 20th century level of unprecedented personal mobility that we can no longer afford- personally, culturally, or globally.  We can no more neutralise the billions of tons of carbon that we are responsible for ejecting into the atmosphere as offset that selfish and ill-advised cheat that tore apart our lover’s heart.  Love is not for sale.   Neither is the atmosphere.

The credit for the title of this post goes to Zach Houston, who I found in a corner typing poems for people on an old manual typewriter at the Green Festival.  Cheatneutral inspired a poem:

the car ban off streets
will be the only true
beauty is not even
having to travel
because we can
already be
there by
thinking
green
growth can
some how
hold out
against
predatory
marketeering
of sarcastic
surface fix
for sale:
nature, used

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.

Marina-Sail-Boat

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.

P1200045

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.

“Modally Agnostic”

westminster-b.jpg

Yesterday I attended the unfortunately named “Driving Change” seminar at London’s City Hall, a “half day seminar exploring solutions to traffic congestion in London.” Jacqui Wilkinson, head of sustainable travel initiatives at the Department for Transport, spoke about all the trial cycling and walking initiatives they are pursuing (important programs to be sure, but which put together amount to only about the cost of one mile of motorway construction). In other words, crumbs off the table of the petrol fueled banquet.

She then said something that was extraordinary, considering the UK government’s urgent statements about climate change. Considering the fact that cars and planes are the fastest growing sources of carbon dioxide in the UK. Considering the potential for public transport, cycling and walking to reduce this atmospheric dumping.

She said that when it comes to transport, the UK government is “modally agnostic” — meaning that they treat all travel modes equally. Wouldn’t do to express a preference in favour of non-motorized modes and public transport. You might offend drivers and frequent flyers, god forbid. No matter if the capital is threatened with inundation from rising sea levels in part due to our incessant and increasing flying and driving.  Modal agnosticism in the face of climate chaos, it seems to me, is giving up the battle before we’ve even started fighting.

I was beginning to despair for the future of the country and its capital on the Thames, when a man named Christian Wolmar gave an upbeat speech in which he decried making lists of transport improvements and instead called for an overall vision in transport planning, and tore to pieces the government’s “modal agnosticism.” Thank god for people like him.

I tried to ask a question after the session, but they didn’t call on me, so I went up to Jacqui afterwards at the reception, and asked her about the wisdom of “modal agnosticism”: “When the scientific evidence for human induced climate change is now cemented, how can we continue to pretend that the rapid growth in driving and flying are acceptable? The government is certainly not agnostic on the issue of cigarette smoking and lung cancer.” She replied, “well changes in attitude take time– it took 40 years for action to be taken on smoking.” I replied, “yes but we don’t have 40 years to deal with this issue….” I was met with uncomfortable looks all around. This is the achilles heal of their transport policy, the elephant in the room.

This government is clearly unable to show any kind of real leadership on this issue, instead content to offer crumbs, platitudes, and excuses for real action. By hiding behind a veil of “modal agnosticism” while pretending to be leaders on the issue of climate change, they are guilty of a dangerous kind of doublespeak- paying lip service to the greener modes and action on climate change while mollycoddling widespread denial about the true nature of global warming, and allowing our fossil fueled habits to continue unchecked.

We need leadership and we need a new vision for transport, one that represents a radical departure from the old stale 20th century petrol dependent status quo. If that means the government getting a little religion around the issue of the climate, and promoting car and plane-free lifestyles, then hallelujah- bring it on! I wouldn’t hold your breath though. The likes of British Airways and Shell will ensure that the corporate profits keep rolling in as long as possible come hell or high water….

It’s Up to Old Blighty

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Two weeks ago, the NASA scientist James Hansen released a statement calling upon the UK and Germany to reject planned coal fired power plants as these countries have a “historic responsibility” to combat climate change. According to his calculations, the UK has the highest per capita contribution to CO2 emissions already in the atmosphere (as you can see in the chart above).

That’s right Britons- especially rich Britons- are you paying attention? We are responsible for more excess carbon molecules in the air than the US or China or India or anyone else on the planet. We started this mess with the Manchester factories of the industrial revolution, and their mechanized mass production based on coal, and some of us have become extraordinarily- almost ridiculously- wealthy in the process. We now have a moral duty to be a world leader in the transition away from fossil fuels- yet we are planning new coal mines like the one in Wales planned to extract 10m tons of coal over the next 17 years, motorway widenings, and a third runway at Heathrow airport. From the capitalist growth economy perspective, there are truly no limits.

If we continue along this path, future generations will not think of the double decker bus, cute red phoneboxes, or the Beatles when they think of the UK- they will think of the worst climate criminals on the face of the planet, too blinded by our own avarice to change our ways- hooking the world on a dirty energy habit, and refusing to cut down ourselves even when serious problems are on the horizon.

This is one possible scenario- and a depressing one surely- but there is another storyline- one of a rapid awakening, a transition to a less consumer oriented culture, renewable energy, local communities and food production, cities where you can breathe again and cycling and walking is prioritized. We can make it happen, but the people have to lead. If the English lead, surely the citizens of other countries will sit up and take notice and want a piece of what we’ve got. And that’s an export we can all live with.