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?



January 26, 2012

I’ve long been a proponent of the theory that regularly cycling – indeed regularly getting drenched and frozen on a bike – does wonders for the old immune system. This is partly borne out by the fact that since I’ve moved up here and regularly got drenched and frozen on the bike, I’ve barely had a cold, or at least not one that’s got beyond a day or so. So when the neighbour – as thanks for looking after his cat – brought back a stinking cold from Australia, the other half duly succumbed but I wasn’t worried. I even nobly headed out for the paper on some pretty ropey days to save the other half the drive and to top up my immune system in case it needed it. The problem was, having begun to believe my own propaganda, I’d mistaken ‘less liable to getting colds’ for ‘my superpower is not catching cold’. And yep. The day before I’m due to be in London for high-powered ambassadorial meetings I have come down with what promises to be a stinker…

I’m not going to let it stop me, though. I’ve spent the last year, one way or another, trying to make the case for decent cycling infrastructure in this country. Far too often, it feels like the very people who should be helping are the ones that hold us back. Never mind the Mr. Toads who hate cyclists – or the hardened vehicular cyclists who feel comfortable mixing with fast traffic and can’t see why everybody else should do so too – they were never going to support us in the first place. No, the real grief seems to come from the people who are nominally supportive of the idea of proper cycle infrastructure but who always seem to come up with a reason why it won’t work here and we should stop wasting everybody’s time asking for it. And the one that comes up time and time again is the ‘crap cycle lane’ argument. You know the one. Because half the time the facilities that get put in for cyclists are derisory, baffling, and occasionally downright dangerous then, so the argument goes, if you ask for cycling infrastructure – particularly separate cycle tracks as they have in the Netherlands – then you’ll just get more of the same. And worse – you’ll be MADE to cycle in them. Ergo, safest not to ask for anything at all and just keep on taking the lane, accelerating up to 20mph to get round multi-lane roundabouts, dicing with lorries 20cm from your wheel – and occasionally taking a cycle tour to the Netherlands to enjoy their superior cycling facilities with your family (who won’t cycle in the UK, for some reason, even though statistically it’s extremely safe) while reminding yourself why it is that such things would not work in the UK due to the fact that we’ve got different laws of physics from those crazy Dutch people.

Oh no, wait, hang on…

What’s really different here from the Netherlands is not the laws of physics but a failure of the imagination. We look at the crap we’ve got and we can’t imagine any different. We look at the amazing facilities the Dutch have and we can’t imagine how we would ever get there given the complete lack of will to create that sort of thing in the UK, and so we give up. We fight our inch-by-inch battles for an ASL here or a bit of shared path there or half a foot wider lanes along the potholed margins of our roads until we’ve forgotten we ever had a vision of something that wasn’t just not crap, but was actually a bit fantastic. And when somebody else comes along, all starry eyed and excited about their holiday in Amsterdam we snarl at them and remind them that it’s never going to happen here and besides who wants to cycle on those lousy Dutch bike lanes with their horrible smooth surfaces and their over-generous width when we’ve got the thrills and spills of a potholed roundabout to tackle…

What we’re trying to do this weekend is to close the gap between the UK reality and the vision that we want to achieve. We’re not trying to change the laws of physics – but we are trying to chip away at the laws of human nature. Which might be a lot harder, but it’s worth a shot. I’m looking forward to it, cold and all. I’m just sorry in advance that I’m going to give everyone my lurgy.

Big Society

February 24, 2011

A letter arrives from the charity where I’ve been volunteering on and off since we arrived here, announcing the end of its volunteer service due to lack of funding. To be honest, they weren’t the best organised outfit I’ve ever volunteered for (though neither were they the worst) but what they managed to do they did well, and it seems to be part of a worrying trend – the local conservation volunteering coordinator doesn’t look as though he’s having his contract renewed either. He was Mr Health’n’Safety gorn mad, and rather over fond of his paperwork (in fact I more or less stopped volunteering for him over a slight difference of opinion about whether asking volunteers to fill in time sheets was a justifiable use of dead trees or not) but you couldn’t fault his energy or his commitment to his job.

I’ve been a regular volunteer all of my adult life, since I first spent a summer peeling potatoes at a homeless shelter in Washington DC in the middle of the crack epidemic. Drug-crazed knife-wielding vagrants notwithstanding, this process has only got harder every time I’ve moved somewhere new and trotted down to the local volunteer service to see what use they could make of my time. I’m pretty certain that my nineteen-year-old self would not have persisted with filling in a three-page application form and providing two references, which is about the minimum required for a wannabe volunteer these days (and I’m fairly certain she would also have told anyone who asked where they could stuff their timesheets so some things don’t change). I can sort of see why charities have professionalised their volunteering operations, or tried to, but I can’t say it’s led to much of an improvement in my experience. The best volunteering I’ve done has always been with groups that were entirely volunteer-run themselves. And they’re not dependent on time-limited project funding to provide an officer who ends up justifying their job description by thinking up new and exciting kinds of paperwork for people to fill in.

So when it comes to the Big Society, I’m actually pretty conflicted. Obviously I would never want my volunteering to come at the expense at someone’s real job – much as I’d love to pretend to be a librarian (all those books! And rubber stamps!) I’m buggered if I’m going to give up my time doing someone else’s job badly for free so some cheese-paring councillor can claim the front line has not been affected – but I can see the attraction of groups of like-minded citizens getting together and just doing something that needs to be done without there needing to be a whole lot of paperwork first. But while that works well for litter picking and tree planting and things like that, you can’t just march into vulnerable people’s lives and start doing good at them without some sort of structure in place. And I really can’t see how we’re all going to fill in the holes being left by the cuts through our own uncoordinated efforts. Somewhere between anarchy and bureaucracy there must be a happy medium. It’s just I don’t know where it lies, and I suspect David Cameron et al have no idea either.

But never mind all that, on a happier note I saw some blue skies and a flying chicken today. I was beginning to believe that the first was as implausible as the second…

This one’s for Steve

July 29, 2008

There’s a stretch of A Road between us and Notso Bigtown. Not one of your nationally important, single digit A Roads – it doesn’t have any dual carriageway, for example, or even any Little Chefs. But it’s big enough: proper white lines, multi-lane roundabouts, crawler lanes, speed cameras, big lorries, snack vans and more lay-bys than you can shake a stick at. As of a few months ago – about the time we arrived – they had some major roadworks on that stretch, strained mightily & brought forth a gnat: a bike lane. Not much of a bike lane, admittedly. For a start it runs from one arbitrary point in the middle of nowhere to another not terribly far away arbitrary point in the middle of nowhere. For another start, it’s shared with any pedestrians there might happen to be, my least favourite sort of bike lane. And for a third start, it’s only on one side of the road so that any bikes actually using it westbound are forced to ride against the traffic – never fun in the hours of darkness, and dangerous if any cars want to turn across the lane, although at least the shortness of the bike lane means that at least is not going to happen. But hey, it’s a bike lane and even if it was only built because the powers that be had targets for putting in so many kms of bike lane and no targets for putting them anywhere actually useful, it’s the only bike lane that A road’s got if you don’t count the (I swear to God) nine-inch wide red-tarmacked extravaganza that runs through Papershop Village. Which I don’t

And that, my friends, is why it was an extremely bad place for twat tourist family to park their twat tourist car and get out their twat picnic table and start having a picnic. You’d think after passing about nineteen dozen of them, they’d have known what a lay-by looked like by now, and that the picture of the bike and it being a bit narrow might have tipped them off, but no. That’s holiday makers for you, I’m afraid. Leave your brains behind.

Looks like the tourist season is in full swing up here in the middle of nowhere. And I don’t think I’m going to like it one bit…