In an Ideal World …

November 16, 2022
Train pulling into Lockerbie station

‘… woman takes train to Edinburgh without any problems’ would not exactly be interesting even by the low bar for ‘interestingness’ set by this blog.

After all the contingency planning and general fretting, Saturday’s trip to Edinburgh was entirely trouble free – the train came in approximately 2 minutes late, and the return train left without a hitch, and I even got a coveted table seat in both directions. It was notable that every person who walked into the station while I was waiting (ahem about an extra half hour as I’d decided to get the early bus just to be sure) felt they had to ask the ticket lady if the Edinburgh train was actually running. But other than that (and the fact that two trains to Glasgow had been cancelled), the only evidence that this could be a difficult journey fraught with complication and delay, was in my own head. Had I done entirely no contingency planning and rolled into Bigtown a good half hour later after a leisurely coffee at home, it would have had absolutely no impact on the outcome. There’s a lesson there, but I’m not sure I’m ready to learn it.

Holding the Pedal on Parliament 'this machine fights climate change' banner

And then we marched, along with thousands of others (and then went to the pub, because marching and shouting is thirsty work).

I know from my own experience that it took a hell of a lot of planning and preparation by what was probably a team of unpaid volunteers to get all those people out on the streets in an orderly fashion. And I also know that lots of people had come quite a long way, and given up their Saturday, to be out there. So it’s kind of galling, but not surprising, that there was effectively zero coverage of it – compare and contrast with a small handful of people closing the M25 or dishing up some soup to an artwork. Whenever someone glues themselves to something inconvenient there’s a massive outcry at the use of such disruptive tactics, and angst that it’s not doing the cause any good. But then again, if asking politely and doing things the proper way doesn’t work, what are people going to do?

Don’t worry, I’m not about to start gluing myself to anything soon (if I were to take any more direct action, this would be much more my style). But I can see why people do.

Meanwhile, I am glad to see that the slogan I thought up (or rather stole from Woody Guthrie) last year for POP has taken on something of a life of its own, and has even popped up on a bike at COP:

Perhaps if it goes far enough it will end up having more impact than anything we’ve directly organised, legally or less officially. Either way, every little helps.

When the Going Gets Tough … the Tough

August 18, 2021

Go cycling?

cyclist riding under a bridge

I’m still processing the publication of the IPCC report on climate change which was very bad news indeed for those who quite like the planet the way it is (or perhaps the way it was a few decades ago before all the bits of it that weren’t on fire were flooding). None of this would have been any surprise to anyone who has been paying attention (although as the news has got worse in recent months, I’ve not been so much reading the latest climate science reports as peeking at them through my fingers from behind the sofa) but it is depressing to see it there in black and white.

I try and keep things light on here but the truth is, I feel a real grief about the state of the planet right now, and the brink of despair about our chances as a species of grasping at the absolute last straw this report offers. When I consider what needs to be done (everything, now, or as soon as humanly possible) and compare it to the timid steps (and backtracking even on those) of not just the Westminster government but even the supposedly more sensible Scottish one (let alone any of the individual local authorities), the resulting mental whiplash is dizzying.

As long term readers will know, my response to this is to throw myself into cycle campaigning – not necessarily because I think it is the answer (certainly not on its own), but because action feels like the best antidote to despair. In the longer term, this means blowing the starting whistle on our plans to Pedal on COP in November, as part of a wider mobilisation effort to encourage the world’s policy makers to make some actual policies.

And in the short term it means an evening ride out with a pal to recce a route in support of a local group who got sick of waiting for policy makers, in particular the coonsil, and have got a short cycle route joining two communities nearly off the ground by their own efforts.

Evening light catching a field of grass

There are worse ways to manage your climate angst. Although I could have done without the slow puncture that has heralded the start of the Puncture Season now that hedgecutting has resumed.

Coming up next: knitting your way out of a climate catastrophe.

knitting in progress

How Many Polar Bears in Pairs

March 5, 2021

As we stumble towards our first anniversary in lockdown, I’m sure many* of you are wondering how one might organise a bicycle-related demonstration in the middle of a pandemic, or whether I’m enjoying a nice quiet spring this year…

Ha ha ha, of course not. Pandemic or no, the Scottish elections will soon be upon us. Currently the Scottish political world may be transfixed by Alex Salmond’s attempt to bring down Nicola Sturgeon (about which I have MUCH TO SAY but it’s probably best left for another forum) and no doubt the election proper will be dominated by constitutional issues, but Scotland is hosting the UN Climate Conference this year and we’ll be doing what we can to put active travel on the agenda. Scottish government transport policy has moved on slightly from ‘build a dual carriageway between every city’, but not much, and with a climate emergency looming we felt that there could be a bit more emphasis on the wonderfully elegant solution to sustainable transport that is the bicycle, and a bit less on ‘maybe electric cars will save us at some unspecified time in the future’.

And so … a pedalling polar bear, and an invitation to everyone to shine a light on active travel in any number of creative ways on April 24th. If nothing else, I’m looking forward to spending a month or so cycling around with a ‘This machine fights climate change’ sign on my bike.

Polar bear with bike captioned 'This machine fights climate change'

And because I wasn’t busy enough, we’ve also relaunched our election-focused active travel campaign as an inclusive streets campaign, because if you think cyclists have it hard, disabled people (some of whom are also cyclists of course) have it harder, and without the option to just dismount when the going gets tough. So we want to make sure they were included when we talked about active travel.

Walk, Wheel, Cycle, Vote logo

All this means that my poor garden will continue to get short changed again, although we are making progress on the fruit cage at least. It’s lucky that Gardeners’ Question Time keeps emphasising the need for us to have less tidy gardens. I consider myself ahead of the curve on that one.

Partially completed fruit cage

* or, more realistically, none.

Going Bananas

January 3, 2020

Among my Christmas gifts this year was a book from my wishlist – How Bad Are Bananas, something I’d been wanting to read since it came up at a wine-fuelled Big Climate Conversation* in October. It’s a little out of date, having been first published in 2010, but it’s still pretty topical given that the climate crisis isn’t going anywhere. It’s a fairly easy read, running through the carbon impacts of everything from which is better paper towels or dryers for drying your hands (answer: a Dyson airblade, strangely enough, although if you’re taking lots of flights and driving around in a 4×4 then don’t fret about how you’re drying your hands) to volcanoes and (sadly topically as Australia burns) forest fires.

As well as the carbon footprint of the individual items it covers it gives a few useful rules of thumb for everything else, which can basically be summed up as: don’t buy anything new if you can help it (for almost everything the bulk of its carbon footprint is in its manufacture, not its use), buy at the cheapest end of the market if you must buy something (all other things being equal, cheaper things will have been made with fewer inputs and hence less emissions), and buy British or European if you can (not just because of the transport emissions, but because European manufacturers tend to use cleaner energy to produce things).

All of this has provided fuel for thought for some unavoidable purchases we need to make for the house, but it’s also got me thinking about what we eat. Food has a huge carbon footprint, and it’s not exactly something you can buy secondhand. I’ve known for a while that we should probably be eating less dairy – and, much as I love Moo-I-5, having a dairy farm next door has just reinforced that – but I’ve struggled with the thought of giving up milk, butter and cheese, all of which I love. In the end, I realised that I’ve been thinking about it the wrong way. Just as you can benefit the environment by cutting down on how much you drive and cycling some journeys where it’s practical, even if you don’t give up your car, I could cut out some dairy products and cut my carbon emissions a bit, without going completely vegan. After trying various alternatives, I’ve discovered that oat milk is perfectly acceptable on cereal even if it’s rubbish in coffee. It also seems to have few of the environmental downsides of other plant milks – and at the back of my mind is the thought that oats are famously a traditional Scottish food so might actually be a feasible local alternative to dairy farming (I noticed that one of the local farms was growing oats last year). So we’re experimenting with replacing half the milk we buy with oat milk.


You’re doing what?

The other change we’re trying to make, which might surprise some people, is to eat more seasonally. You might have thought we already ate pretty seasonally, given all the gardening I do, but we certainly don’t grow enough to provide all the veg we eat. We’d never buy anything that had been airfreighted in – no Kenyan green beans or Peruvian asparagus for us – but we do eat things that have probably been grown in heated Dutch greenhouses or trucked in refrigerated lorries from Spain. Those little mini peppers that suddenly appeared in the shops a year or so ago, for example, have become a bit of a staple on our shopping list, and we’ve never really thought about when they might be ‘in season’. Fortunately the book has a handy list of what’s in season in the UK month by month and we’re attempting to stick to that for our fresh produce as well as what we grow already. This will also mean we’re ahead of the game when Brexit starts to really bite – I hope you all like leeks and kale. The one thing I won’t be doing, despite the fact that they’re really not bad at all, is eating bananas, because despite being a cyclist, I really cannot stand the things.

weed free leeks

Set down in black and white like this, against the unfolding reality of what’s happening with the climate, it does feel a bit feeble – like attempting to bail out the sinking Titanic with a thimble – but it’s added to my existing commitments to cycle everywhere I can (and campaign for better conditions for everyone), put on extra jumpers rather than turn up the heating, and buy as little new stuff as I can get away with, without risking arrest for vagrancy.

What are your new year’s resolutions, if any?

* We ran one for the Women’s Cycle Forum in Glasgow and I seem to have neglected to blog about it, which is a shame because it turns out that when you get a load of stroppy cycling women together and add a couple of bottles of wine, the suggestions quickly move past ‘topping up loft insulation’ to ‘smashing capitalism’ (and the patriarchy).

101 Uses for a Brompton: Giving evidence

February 9, 2017

Brompton at Parliament

“Brompton bike, Brompton bike, where have you been?”

“I’ve been to London Edinburgh to visit the Queen Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee”

“Brompton bike, Brompton bike, what did you there?*”

“Banged on about bikes as much as I could to try and counter the narrative that electric cars would save us all, mostly”

Possibly, catching mice would have been as effective, but I tried. The evidence we submitted is here, if you’re a real glutton for punishment.

*Oh okay, the Brompton just stayed outside while I gave evidence. But it did it in style

Surely Some Mistake

February 1, 2017

Chatting with a friend this evening, I realised that for the last few weeks I have been increasingly tied up with what I can only describe as ‘work shaped activities’ – things which have every quality that you would normally associate with doing for a job, apart from the bit where money arrives in your bank account in return for it. So I have been to meetings (some of which involved cake, but most of which did not), I have written up notes, read and sent countless emails, taken Skype calls, created Excel spreadsheets, updated websites, met deadlines, circulated agendas, updated my wall planner* and written reports. With footnotes. And references.

All of this has left distressingly little time for the things I quit my actual job to have time to do like garden, ride my bike (except to meetings), play with the new house and generally enjoy myself.** It also leaves me with the slightly scary prospect of giving evidence to a committee next week in the Scottish Parliament about cycling and climate change, which is both exciting, in a way, and also deeply worrying. I mean, it’s great that they’re asking Pedal on Parliament to give evidence, and are taking us seriously in matters of policy. But on the other hand, there’s a voice in my head wondering what on earth I think I personally am doing opining on these matters. There’s a whole government apparatus out there which should be perfectly capable of reading a few policy documents and sets of statistics, throwing together a spreadsheet and working out a few figures, with footnotes, and references. But then when I read what the government apparatus had actually come up with on the subject …

Draft Climate Change Plan snippet

er, what?

… I realised that even someone who can’t even keep their wall planner stuck to their wall could do a better job than that. So it might as well be me.

* Except that it has now fallen off the wall and is now a floor planner

** I am, however, making time to do some writing, thanks to taking my own advice regarding procrastination. Well, so far this week, anyway…

Head for the Hills

July 25, 2015

Apologies for what will be an entirely off-topic rant – and on a Saturday morning too – but I woke up with this going more-or-less fully formed around my head at some ungodly hour and I thought I might as well inflict it on everyone else.

Last night I caught a snippet of Amber Rudd’s speech about the government’s climate change policy and it left me feeling a bit sick. She dressed it up in lots of rhetoric about green growth – no climate-change denier she – but that makes it no better, frankly. According to this government, the cost of green policies has got out of hand and they’re just rebalancing things because the UK is doing too much and the rest of the world isn’t doing enough.

This is crap. It’s fundamentally economically illiterate too. Choosing your climate change policy isn’t like choosing between fairtrade and non-fairtrade bananas in the supermarket and deciding that, while it would be nice to help the poor farmers and all, in the end the household budget can’t afford that extra 20p. It’s like choosing whether you’ll pay the bare minimum of your credit card bill now, or enough that it doesn’t get out of hand later. As the Stern report made clear years and years ago, climate change charges compound interest and it charges it at loan shark rates. And when it finally comes for its bill, it won’t come with a court order for bankruptcy, but a baseball bat, the kind with nails hammered through it.

Think about steel mills. They’ve been complaining that energy costs are too high in the UK. So they can do two things – they can go running to the government and threaten to move elsewhere and get their bills down – or they can start to invest in things like more efficient steel-prduction, or even start generating their own electricity (perhaps recycling some of the heat generated in making steel). Lobbying for lower energy costs means we can all carry on as normal pretending we’re not doomed until suddenly we are. Learning to live with them, ahead of the competition, means we might just still be able to produce steel when things get really tough. You can bet that the German steel producers are doing just that. Meanwhile UK producers have probably got the message that only a fool would invest in that sort of thing because the government is quite open to being lobbied over energy prices.

What bugs me is that Amber Rudd dresses all this in the language of caring. Take fuel bills. Amber Rudd wants green policies but not at the expense of high fuel bills for households. But if this government really cared about household bills, they wouldn’t have quietly scrapped the requirements for new houses to be energy neutral or scrapping their (admittedly not very effective) Green Deal without replacing it with something that actually worked. You don’t help people by knocking off a few pounds from their bill now – at the cost of strangling investment in sustainable energy – but condemning them to live in damp draughty houses for ever more, oh and their fuel bills are still high because we didn’t invest in sustainable generation before it was too late. You lay out the cash to get existing houses insulated, and build the new ones right from the start so that we’re not adding to the problem in the future. Compound interest, remember?

No, actually, what really bugs me (apart from the fact that we’re all doomed) is that it’s not even us who will properly pay the price in our lifetimes. Yes, London will get a bit hot and there will be a bit of flooding, and crops will fail, but frankly we live on a cool wet island and if any country will be able to weather a bit of climate change, it’s the UK. The people who will pay are the people who are already paying and who have no resources to weather the coming storm. And if you think a few thousand refugees at Calais is a problem now, you’ve not seen anything yet. It’s only when the planet starts to properly cook that we’ll start to suffer. And by then it will be too late.

I do try to live my life as if riding a bicycle, growing my own vegetables and putting on a jumper instead of turning up the heat might actually save the planet. It makes me feel better and it’s hardly a sacrifice, apart from when I can’t get any more jumpers on and it’s still freezing. But occasionally the background drumbeat of coming disaster breaks through and I can’t ignore the fact that we’re on a road that will lead us all to perdition, and it’s going to take a bit more than a few cycle paths to change that. In the last few years, it has seemed as if governments recognised this and were going to act – if not enough to prevent the temperature rising by a few degrees, then at least enough to stop the earth from turning into Venus. China, for instance, and maybe even the US. Not this government though. It seems determined to join in a race for the bottom instead – and why then should countries like China do anything different. It was almost better when they were climate change deniers, because that made a sort of sense. This is just pure madness. It makes me want to go and stand in Oxford St with a placard saying The End of the World is Nigh. Because what else can anyone do?

End Times

November 4, 2014

Fresh green leaves emerging on beech hedges, flowers flowering away in my garden, foxgloves blossoming in the hedgerows…

beech hedge coming into leaf flowers in November Foxglove blossoming
It’s November, people, November… Just what is going on?


Slightly Depressing

October 13, 2009

I was busy over the weekend with an event that brought me into contact with the local council’s team working on a project to reduce car trips into Bigtown. They were all lovely and (adjusted for being the council) switched on and enthusiastic about making Bigtown more bicycle friendly. But one comment caught me up a little short. ‘Bigtown’s cycling rates are already quite high,’ one of them said. ‘So given that our target is reducing car journeys, we’re not sure whether there’s enough scope to do that through cycling.’

Of course, that’s ‘quite high’ in the sense that you’re likely to see a cyclist every time you go into the town. Maybe even two or three. Some of them will even be running errands rather than beetling along in lycra. Many people also have bikes they take out occasionally for rides on the tops of their cars. That’s not ‘quite high’ in any sense that this man would recognise. Or this one. Or this one. Coupled with a recent report from the Committee on Climate Change on Britain’s low carbon future which manages to mention cycling just 3 times in its 65-page section on transport, it’s made me realise that I’ve been living in a bit of a bike bubble recently. I’ve found a nice corner of the internet where cycling is the answer, what was the question? As I don’t get out all that much, it was a salutary experience for me to get back into the real world where cycling is not seriously considered to be the answer to anything, let alone something as important as climate change.

I suppose I’ve been a bit naive. Britain is so car dominated, outside a few urban pockets, that it’s going to take more than a few petitions and campaigns and blogs that preach mostly to the converted to bring about the sort of cultural change that’s needed before we get the sort of cycling rates that might make a different to our overall carbon emissions. Oh well. It’s still fun, even if it isn’t going to save the planet after all…

10 out of 10?

September 3, 2009

So I’m swithering (and many thanks to Mrs UHDD for reminding me of this excellent word) about signing up to 10:10. It’s not that I don’t think it’s a good idea – both to reduce emissions in general, and to use it as a way of pressuring the politicians – it’s just that I’ve long been averse to making commitments I don’t know I can keep. We’re in a difficult situation out here in the middle of nowhere. No gas, so we heat our house with oil. Not much in the way of buses, so we’re stuck with using the car for journeys where the bike is not practical. A lovely, damp, and not-very-insulated rented stone cottage. A local economy that consists entirely of methane-belching cattle and sheep, so ‘eat local’ means, more or less, ‘go carnivorous’. Moving up here has probably doubled the carbon footprint we had in London.

And we’ve more or less done all the easy things. I really can’t keep the heating down any further than we had it last winter and survive – even with thermals and layers upon layers of jumpers it was miserably cold most of the time. We’ve got the most energy efficient fridge and freezer we could buy, and the most energy-efficient washing machine we could afford. We wash all our clothes at 30C, and I regard use of the (condensing) dryer to be a personal defeat, one that I suffer at most once a month. I cycle where I can, and we’ve got a diesel car that is currently averaging 68.8 mpg and we haven’t flown anywhere for two years, although that’s going to prove hard to maintain given that the other half’s entire family lives across the pond. We stumble around in the half-dimness shed by our energy-efficient bulbs and never leave anything on standby. I’m beginning to think our best bet would be to spend the next four months smelting aluminium and taking short haul flights to Glasgow, so we can set a reasonable baseline to reduce from.

So I’m torn. On the one hand, I want to stand up and be counted. On the other hand, I don’t want to stand up and be counted with my fingers crossed behind my back. I’m tending at the moment just to sign up, start tracking our energy usage, and hope that by doing so I can see where we’re wasting and make more changes – but what about everybody else? What are you doing? And what handy hints and tips to make savings have I missed?