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Navigating a Recovery from Carbon Addiction

By sheer coincidence (or perhaps divine intervention) the “Navigating the American Carbon World” Conference — a schmooze-fest of oil executives, bankers, offset dealers, and green(wash) groups flown in to- essentially- carve up and sell the sky, perpetuating our addiction to fossil fuels- is- at this moment sharing the San Francisco Marriott Marquis with (are you ready for this?)—– the annual meeting of the American Society of Addiction Medicine.

So, at the protest today organized by the Mobilization for Climate Justice- West , we thought, why not merge the conferences? Get the psychiatrists to treat the carbon trading carbon addicts. The real victims, the ones in denial, who believe we can just ‘offset’ the damage like a papal indulgence to guilty pleasures- and we know where that leads.

White man sell sky

Denial- a common symptom of addiction- is widespread. We bury our heads in the sand against the looming climate devastation and energy crash- Can our system’s habit be treated by the latest in addiction therapy before it’s too late? Right now we’ve got the top addiction experts in the world sharing the same hotel as the Shell executives, the Bank of Americas that fund them, and the Terrapasses who pardon the sin– there’s really never been a better opportunity to admit we have a problem and enter recovery.

So we’ve created a public open letter to the American Society for Addiction Medicine, calling upon them to treat our friends the fossil fuel addicts at the carbon trading conference.  Sign our letter today!   We’ve never needed a shrink like we do today.

The Panel discussing how corporations can green(wash) themselves.

So last night at a cocktail party at 111 Minna for conference attendees put on by Brighter Planet, an offset company looking to open up west coast markets, I posed the question to Patty, the Executive Director of Brighter Planet who was on the panel…

“given that the carbon trading and offsetting industry are increasingly in disrepute over a number of scandals and abuses, such as the multi-million euro carbon trade scam uncovered on Tuesday by the Spanish authorities and given that James Hansen, one of the world’s most respected atmospheric scientists is now saying that carbon trading and offsets ‘are designed to perpetuate business-as-usual and squander the precious time needed to prevent the crossing of disastrous ‘tipping points’.’

Given all that, what is Brighter Planet doing to transition away from the sale of offsets?”

They didn’t like that question. I mean they REALLY didn’t like that question. The moderator tried to rip the microphone out of my hands, and got all flustered.

The nonplussed

Much hostility from the audience, including the drunk carbon traders on the floor who were rudely yelling over the panel discussion. This guy Trevor from Barclays capital became agitated and walked away when I offered to sell him “Cheatneutral infidelity offsets.” Maybe he has guilt issues around his fossil fuel cheating. Who knows.

Then today during the MCJ Demo on the first day of the conference, people unfurled a large banner in the middle of 4th St., temporarily blocking traffic, gave speeches and street theatre,  and disrupted the conference a number of times inside including an announcement on a live mic at the luncheon that “history will spit” on those who delay emissions reductions.

Anyway, no doubt more fun tomorrow at the Offset This! protest outside the Marriott Marquis- 4th and Market- at 8am tomorrow (friday).   We’re headed for climate chaos, and we have a message for the bankers, oil executives, greenwash groups, and politicians who profit from delaying the inevitable weaning:

The Sky is NOT FOR SALE.



Goodbye Chris, and Thank You

My good friend Chris Hutt died on Saturday.  He lived in Bristol and was a hero for cycling and the environment, dedicating huge chunks of his time to improving our streets and trying to turn the tide of increasing motorization.      We are all fortunate that he started the Green Bristol Blog in May 2008, so we have two years of his detailed thoughts and analysis recorded.  As he wrote in his first post, “At the very least (the blog is) no more than a personal record of my thoughts and deeds, recorded for my dotage so that I can see that I was once a literate and rational person (or so I now think) and of course something for posterity, to show the future world that I once existed and thought.”  His blog became the go to place for transport campaigners and politicians alike as the caliber of discourse around transport issues was so high.   As a politician, you ignored his blog at your peril.

He was one of those rare human beings who lived for the truth.  He tirelessly and selflessly worked on his own time to improve our public streets and pathways.  He was not stifled or led astray by corporate smoke and mirrors- in fact he had become quite disillusioned about what Sustrans- the organization he helped start- had become in recent years, and he provided a lot of background for my article about the organization last year.

He realized that what we were up against was not just bad policies, but something more deeply rooted- he coined the term on his blog last month, “Institutional Motorism – a deep rooted prejudice in favour of motorised traffic at the expense even of the safety, let alone the convenience, of those that dare to travel on foot or bicycle.”  May the memory of his life inspire us to dig this fetid beast up by the root and replace it with something more beautiful, kind and humane.

I met Chris by chance the week I moved to Bristol in 2006 when he was sitting outside the YHA Hostel by the harbourside, where he liked to sit and watch the world go by.   In the last year I was in Bristol, we had grown quite close and we often had long talks about transport, morality and politics.  He thought the world of me, and I of him.  I’d often come upon him riding his pink bike on the Bristol Bath path, and we would have good natured races- after he almost beat me last summer, he said, “not bad for an old man, eh?”  He was always so kind to me, and to others, but you could tell that the injustice of the world hurt him deeply- he saw clearly that the people who are doing the most to preserve the world as we know it- those getting around by bike and foot- are also those who are suffering the worst impacts of our car dependent system.

A part of me thinks he was aware that he was not long for this world- the fervor with which he campaigned for a sane and humane transport system has been terribly important for the development of Bristol’s livable streets movement, but it was not personally sustainable.  As he wrote to me a month before his death, “I’ve been blogging/campaigning more or less non-stop for a year and a half and haven’t had a decent holiday for years. I know Bristol is just a drop in the ocean of humanity but it’s the drop where I can have some influence so I feel obliged to do what I can.”

Sadly, we won’t be reading any further posts on the Green Bristol Blog, but we can honour his memory by ensuring that the Bristol and Bath pathway that he was partly responsible for creating (and defending in recent years), is protected from development and diesel fumes forever.  Step up, Bristol City Council.

Chris, may you cycle forever on continuous, sunny cycle paths through the fields with clean air, and look down at your friends carrying on the good work that you did.  We already miss you so much.

Evo to America: “Live Well, Don’t Live Better”



This quote is from one of the best, most thorough and well-researched pieces I have read about the deep roots of the crisis that we now face, and how tinkering will not solve anything.   Seriously, grab a cup of coffee, take a deep breath and sit down and read this:

What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know About Capitalism

“Living better is to exploit human beings. It’s plundering natural resources. It’s egoism and individualism.  Therefore, in those promises of capitalism, there is no solidarity or complementarity. There’s no reciprocity.  So that’s why we’re trying to think about other ways of living lives and living well, not living better.  Living better is always at someone else’s expense. Living better is at the expense of destroying the environment.”

-Bolivian President Evo Morales, Copenhagen, December, 2009

Home

This is a film about a family living peacefully in the countryside.  Then one day a freeway opens right by their home.   The family, previously relatively happy and contented with their rural existence, slowly starts to go crazy as the impacts of the cars on their lives become apparent.
Heard amazing things.  Can’t wait to see it.  I believe UK release was August 7th and I guess it should be released in the States shortly?

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.

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.