Discard everything you own

I recently read Fumio Sasaki’s entertaining and enlightening account of his becoming a minimalist, titled ‘Goodbye, things’. Minimalism comes in many forms, meaning different things in music and visual art, for example. The type of minimalism Sasaki refers to has to do with the number of possessions a person owns, in opposition to materialism.

Material possessions can bring joy, such as a hand-crafted gift, a souvenir from a great holiday or a much-loved musical instrument. But they can also be a burden: all of those clothes at the back of the wardrobe you wore just once; the books that you will read some day; the mountain of CDs you bought before the days of Spotify and iTunes. Minimalism claims that the vast majority of things most people own bring little happiness, are completely unnecessary and simply act to clutter up their life. By greatly reducing the number of objects Sasaki owned, he claimed not only to have become freer, but was also led to give more attention to those few possessions which he really appreciated.

The impediment on one’s freedom brought by material possessions recently came to my attention upon moving house. Since I studied for my undergraduate in the nearest city to my home, I eventually took virtually all of my possessions with me, collecting more and more each time I visited my parents. When I started my postgraduate at the other end of the country, I took everything with me again. When I went through counting all the boxes and bags, I was shocked to find a total of 33 items. Reading Sasaski’s book, I realised there is no better time to shed one’s belongings than at the start of a new year.

I agree with the sentiment in ‘Goodbye, things’, although the particular brand of minimalism which Sasaki proposes is at times a little questionable. Firstly, it seems a central drive in Sasaki’s quest to minimise his possessions is the associated aesthetic. Additionally, in the name of completely de-cluttering one’s existence, he suggests removing all multiples and never stocking up on food or otherwise, to the extent that you  go shopping frequently, only own one pen and have to buy toilet paper in single rolls. This, I feel, is going a bit far and could end up being a wasteful, inefficient and more costly way to live. However there is certainly merit in only owning those things which are either truly needed or indeed loved. What is the point in having an item which does not fall into one of these categories?

Discarding possessions to achieve a higher state of being is no new concept. Buddhists are encouraged to discard their possessions, because the possession of material objects leads to attachment, which creates suffering. The less attachment one has to the material world, the freer one becomes. At the end of the day, regardless of your spiritual beliefs (or lack thereof), no material objects will still be in your possession after you die. On your deathbed, would you really regret spending less time on objects and more time on people and experiences? The converse would certainly be a regrettable life.

There appear to be a number of movements springing up around the notion of minimalism. In central London posters can be found with the slogan

“All you love is need.”

providing a cruel, twisted mirror of the original intention of The Beatles, 50 years on. The modern economy and (arguably) society is driven by the desire for material goods. If people stopped buying en masse, today’s financial system would no longer be able to function. As I have repeatedly illustrated in this blog, there are mountains of evidence that the environmental costs of the high capitalist era are enormous. The rate at which many natural resources are being consumed is far from sustainable. Minimalism is one, albeit relatively quiet, voice standing up saying “No, we don’t need that.”. A recent magazine article entitled ‘More is not better. Better is better.’ described the movement as follows.

“It is the simplest and most peaceful act of rebellion against a society that demands we should have more than we need.”


Zero waste minimalism?

As I have mentioned, the brand of minimalism Sasaki discusses is very focused on discarding. How could this ever fit in with an ethos of being waste free and reducing one’s impact on the planet? Just because you don’t want something any more doesn’t mean that no-one else will.

I recently discovered the app Freegle, which is run by volunteers and has a particularly active group in Reading, UK. The idea of Freegle is that users either advertise something they want to give away, or put up a request for something they want. I had an old box of guitar effects pedals, some of which were completely broken, along with other cables, knick knacks and plectrums. Who on earth would want all of this junk, with their state openly and honestly advertised? Ten requests came in within four hours and I found myself combing over the messages to see who seemed most deserving!

Other items you may wish to get money back for, of course. Items that are still ‘like new’ or which were very expensive. If you can’t get a refund or shift them on eBay then it turns out they weren’t worth so much after all. Give them to a charity shop, offer them up to friends, or give them a go on Freegle.

The first thing to get rid of (after actual rubbish) is anything you had forgotten you owned. What is the point in having something which you had completely forgotten about, sat there collecting dust? Better off giving it someone who will enjoy it and use it often. Then you can focus on what really matters to you.

Needless to say, items which no-one else would want can often be recycled. Put all those concert tickets you blue-tacked to your walls in your teens in the paper recycling. Throw all those old, over-worn clothes in a textile recycling bin. I put my two favourite t-shirts in the clothes recycling, due to their being suncream-stained after a summer holiday. Despite initially wondering whether this was a good idea, the action was surprisingly rewarding and I haven’t regretted it once.

Take what you want

Continuing the Christmas spirit of giving into the New Year, I thought I would offer up a number of the items I have decided to part with in this very blog piece. All items are available free of charge, in good condition and collection/postage/delivery can be arranged via emailing joe.wallwork@hotmail.co.uk.

Lot 1: Books

I have read all of these books and thoroughly recommend each and every one. Having taken the notes I wanted, they are better off getting read by someone else now. Some of them might have a couple of notes scribbled on, or page corners folded over.


  • ‘Goodbye Things’, Fumio Sasaki.
  • ‘Zen in Plain English’, Stephan Schumacher.
  • ‘The Universe Next Door’, Marcus Chown.
  • ‘The Fabric of Reality’, David Deutsch.
  • ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’. Milan Kundera.
  • ‘The Lonely City’, Olivia Liang.
  • ‘Red Azalea’, Anchee Min.
  • Lonely Planet Iceland.
  • ‘The Millennium Problems’, Keith Devlin.
  • ‘Flatland’, Edwin Abbott.
  • ‘Gödel, Escher, Bach’, Douglas Hofstadter.

Lot 2: Vinyl records

I went through a phase during my undergrad when I bought some decks and an enormous number of records, some of which I only listened to once.

  • ‘Feel it’, Mr Scruff.
  • ‘Samaris’, Samaris.
  • Foo Fighters greatest hits.
  • ‘Swim’, Caribou.


[Image sources: header image]

After the flood

Almost two years ago, on Boxing Day 2015, there was severe flooding across the North of England. Particularly affected were Cumbria, where families had to be rescued from their homes by boat, and Lancashire, where most of my family lives. They live in and around the Rossendale Valley, through which the River Irwell passes on its way south to Manchester. On that fateful day, the Irwell was running dangerously high, due to vast quantities of rainfall both falling from the skies and running off the hills.


Building barricades in Edenfield

I was staying with my dad, about halfway up the side of the valley, in Edenfield. As rain poured down on Boxing day, water gushed down the (recently resurfaced) track from the top of the hill and was in danger of going straight into numerous homes. Along with all the  neighbours we could extract from their Christmas festivities, we built a number of barricades to stem the flow. In some ways the experience was very rewarding, with the whole community pitching in to try and help their neighbours. Kids used brushes to sweep excess water into drains, whilst pensioners made cups of tea and homeowners supplied pieces of wood, stone and tarpaulin to build up the blockades.

After a few hours of dam building, we were successful in saving the nearby homes from any flooding. However, an ominous marker for people living in the bottom of the valley was presented by the sheer volume of water gushing downhill following one of our diversions, after the rain had stopped.


Groundwater seepage

The rain had actually stopped pouring for most of the afternoon. However, groundwater continued to rush out and down the hillsides and into the river, to the point where its outward approach along my grandma’s street, near the valley bottom, was visible in real time.

The council arrived in Irwell Vale to deliver what looked a little like red sand bags, but which were instead filled with chemicals which would absorb water rather than just block it. Each house was given half a dozen of these, apparently at a great financial cost to the council.


My grandma’s house after the clear-out job

As the flood waters rose, families either fled, were saved by boat or left trapped upstairs, as water levels rose to 3 feet or so. My grandma’s dog still hasn’t recovered from the experience of being trapped upstairs and seems somewhat traumatised by the event.

Flood waters receded again and left a truly awful state, with most furniture in need of removal, including a sad christmas tree. I came down to help with this clear out effort and found the expensive red bags provided by the council scattered around the garden almost uselessly. A few of them can be seen in the foreground of the photo opposite.

Why did the water raise so much higher than usual? Was it a freak event or the beginning of a new trend? There are a number of possible responses, which we shall now explore.


Response 1: Prepare better next time.

The river in Irwell Vale has burst its banks frequently in the past, but not usually to an extent that poses any risk to residents. The last time it caused a serious flood which led to widespread damage of homes was around 30 years previously. One might argue that this kind of ‘freak event’ only happens two or three times a century and so the residents should just shrug their shoulders, make repairs and remember to ‘be aware in a  couple of decades’. Sadly, this is not quite how probabilities work, so one should always be prepared for the next ‘once in 30 year’ event – it might happen tomorrow.

It was clear from the useless red bags that either the council’s effort to remedy the effects of flooding was far too little, too late, or that the forecasts they had only predicted shallow floodwaters. Indeed, flood forecasting is a fiendishly difficult exercise, with many complex interfering factors such as topography, road surfaces which keep water standing and forests which absorb water through the roots. In a valley bottom, the first hint of a flood should be taken seriously – perhaps more so than just attempting to block it on the doorsteps.


Response 2: Plan towns better in the future.


The doomed Waterside pub

More critically, one might argue that the issue was not severe rain per se, but the fact houses, businesses and public facilities were built near to or in some cases on the river. Further downstream, the slightly misnamed Waterside pub collapsed due to the Boxing Day floods. This restaurant and pub had stood atop a bridge in Summerseat for 200 years and as the river levels rose, cracks began to appear in its walls, which eventually led to the destruction of the building.

As hinted at in the previous response, a less extensive use of tarmac and concrete would help to alleviate the destructive force of floods, allowing water to begin to seep into the ground.


Response 3: Stop causing climate change.

This is perhaps the most abstract response to floods, but is used frequently by environmentalists. The terms ‘global warming’ and ‘climate change’ don’t necessarily imply on their own that flooding will become more likely as these processes continue to make their impact. The diagram below illustrates how a rise in global mean temperature implies an increased likelihood of  extreme heat. The two Gaussian ‘bell curves’ describe the probability of a certain temperature occurring in a particular climate. In the grey case, extreme cold and heat are unlikely, but still possible. These probabilities are ‘shifted upwards’ on the temperature scale under climate change, defining new ‘extremes’.

bell curve increase

Redefining of norms and extremes

A Met Office report claims the likelihood of extremely hot summers has increased tenfold. That is, a ‘very hot’ summer will now occur roughly once every 5 years, compared with once every 50 years in the 20th Century. The 2003 heatwave which killed thousands of Parisians could be a regular occurrence by 2050. Extreme heat records since the millennium are within the bounds of a climate model forced by anthropogenic warming. However they do not fit within the bounds of natural variability so frequently used as an alternative explanation for heightened temperatures, as illustrated below.


Model simulations of average summer temperature in Europe (black line) versus actual values (red). The left hand plot accounts for anthropogenic climate change, whilst the right allows only for natural variability.

As well as an increased likelihood of extreme heat, there is evidence to suggest ‘extreme weather’ such as flooding and hurricanes will also become more likely as a result of the altered state of the atmosphere. This is largely due to the fact that heightened temperatures mean an increased amount of water evaporating off the planet’s oceans. Many meteorologists claim the Boxing Day floods of 2015 were caused by the extreme weather brought by the periodic El Niño effect, magnified by climate change.

There is certainly plenty of truth in this argument, and a serious attempt to reduce the greenhouse effect would probably help to lessen the number of extreme events occurring across the world. A difficulty in it being widely believed is the fact anthropogenic climate change is hard enough to comprehend itself, let alone the way in which this could increase the amount of flooding across the world. Despite the value of the claims, I do not think temperature rise is the main factor leading to more frequent and more severe flooding across the UK in recent years. The real cause is much more tangible and potentially simpler to avoid.


Response 4: Reduce upland grazing and deforestation.

When pupils learn about the water cycle in Geography at school, they learn about how water evaporates off large bodies of water such as oceans, condenses to form clouds, falls down over land and runs back to the ocean in rivers and through the ground. Ideally, this process should take quite a long time in the part between precipitation and return to the sea. If rain falls and very rapidly reaches the sea, the volume of water flowing in rivers could vary wildly, from running dry to bursting their banks. What slows down the water cycle most is vegetation, namely trees and scrub.


The water cycle

Roots of trees spread far and take in almost incomprehensible volumes of water, providing a ‘sink term’ for the water levels in the ground, to use an expression used in mathematical modelling. When trees are uprooted and removed, this effect is reduced and water is able to flow more freely through the ground, towards the river. Worse still, if forest and scrub are replaced by grass (or tarmac!), water becomes less and less likely to soak into the ground in the first place, tending to just run off on the surface.

I recently read George Monbiot’s excellent book on rewilding, called ‘Feral’, which simultaneously horrifies, educates and inspires. In a chapter called ‘Sheepwrecked’, Monbiot takes aim at farming of those fluffy, white herbivores as one of the biggest problems faced in the UK today, nicknaming herds of sheep as ‘the white plague’. Contrary to common assumption, sheep were at no point ‘natural’ residents of these isles and were imported for farming about 2,000 years ago. Their ancestors hail from Mesopotamia, domesticated there around 10,000 BC. As such, the natural environment in the UK has not evolved any mechanisms to deal with such ruthlessly hungry, low standing and mountaineering livestock.

Sheep will eat more or less any plant that they encounter, be it grass, bushes or small trees. Since resident plants have little means of deterring them, they largely succeed in eating whatever they want. Monbiot lists the mounting evidence to support the claim that sheep farming is highly responsible for the degradation of the UK’s rural heritage. For instance, sheep farming has been listed as a reason for the decline of wildlife in Wales in 92% of cases. Wales is well known for its sheep and an enormous 79% of the country is marked as reserved for livestock farming, with just 3% reserved for crop-based agriculture. Sheep are not the only type of livestock farmed in Wales, but they are by far the most common. Despite this extreme skew of land resources towards the raising of sheep, Wales imports seven times more meat than it produces and makes rather little on what it does.

A fascinating concept Monbiot discusses in detail is what he calls ‘shifting baseline syndrome’: You might think that your natural environment has degraded since your childhood, and wish for it to return to that state. But little do you know, it was already in a state of degradation then! This effect means many people underestimate just how badly humans have ruined the countryside and it is nowhere more evident than in the UK.


Wast Water from Lingmell, Lake District

Despite its high population density, the UK boasts a number of large, popular natural parks and ‘wild’ areas – Snowdonia, Dartmoor, the Cairngorms, the Peak District, the Lake District. Whilst often staggeringly beautiful in their own ways (as seen above), none of these regions contains even a moderate amount of forest. All of these areas contain vast, open grasslands, scrub or bog, and all are grazed by sheep. Monbiot claims, with a large amount of scientific evidence, that the UK was covered in forest up until a thousand or so years ago. Personally, I have encountered very few forests in this country which couldn’t be crossed in an hour’s walking.

I am sat writing this piece at my mum’s house in the North East of Cumbria, which is often held as one of the UK’s most rural and ‘wild’ counties. Cumbria is not ‘wild’ in the sense of a natural environment. Cumbria is staggeringly barren and covered in sheep. Cumbria has arguably suffered worst from flooding in recent years… This is not to say that sheep farming is solely responsible for increased flooding, as I have discussed in the previous sections. However there is a strong, well-reasoned and inspiring argument that rewilding could provide at least part of the answer to the flooding problem, and I aim to look into it in detail in a future blog piece.



[Image sources: headerWaterside, bell curves, water cycle, Wast Water]


Has the Paris agreement been Trumped?


It came as no surprise when Donald Trump, President of the United States of America, announced earlier this year that he intends to pull his country out of the 2015 Paris agreement, joining just Syria and Nicaragua as countries unhappy with the deal’s terms. Since that time, both Syria and Nicaragua have now accepted the deal, leaving the US as the only nation not supporting the international agreement.

Although announcing rejection, Trump said he and his team would ‘begin negotiations to re-enter either the Paris accords or a really entirely new transaction, on terms that are fair to the US’. He went further to say

‘We will start to negotiate, and we will see if we can make a deal that’s fair. If we can, that’s great. If we can’t, that’s fine’.

I hope it is not only me who is shocked by the last sentence there. The president seems to be implying action on climate change is somehow optional, that it doesn’t really matter. Trump is well known for being sceptical of and misunderstanding climate science. In a speech last year to the Republican National Convention in the run up to his election, Trump managed to make an entire speech without mentioning climate change, whilst still managing to get his facts on the matter wrong. For instance, he said ‘Excessive regulation is costing our country as much as $2 trillion a year, and we will end it.’  The source of this statistic was the National Association of Manufacturers, which is known as being very much against regulations imposed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The estimate covers only the compliance cost, and does not mention any financial benefits of regulations, such as savings on sick days and health issues. Other studies found that the economic benefits of EPA regulations massively outweigh the costs.

On the face of it, Trump’s claim that the Paris climate agreement treats the US unfairly seems reasonable. For instance, the US emissions reduction pledge accounts for 20% of those global emissions to be cut by 2030, which poses a potential strain on a country so far not particularly geared up for lowering its fossil fuel usage. However, the lack of such an emission reduction in the form of a US regression to ‘business as usual’ scenario would warm the world by an extra 0.3ºC by 2100, according to the World Meteorological Organisation. That is a substantial obstacle to avoiding the 2ºC ceiling imposed by the Paris agreement, and this is to be expected since the US is the second largest polluter in the world.

That the 2ºC ceiling is even achievable under current circumstances has been thrown into serious doubt as of late, as I flagged in a recent blog post. Indeed, it has so often been the case in recent years that top-down attempts to act on climate change have failed miserably, and there is no clear evidence to suggest the Paris accords will not simply follow this trend. It is for these reasons, amongst many others, that I usually advocate bottom-up action as an alternative, and will continue to do so.

The US think tank ClimateInteractive claims if the pledges made in late 2015 are met, a total average warming of 3.3ºC will result by end of century. In this scenario, the US’ rejection implies a heightened total average warming of 3.6ºC. Either case would have dire consequences for millions of people across the world, meaning any replacement of the Paris agreement must only take a stronger stance on emission control. It is for this reason Italy, Germany and France issued a joint statement in response to Trump’s withdrawal, stating that the treaty is non-negotiable. Regardless of whether the remaining signatory countries who haven’t ratified the deal yet do so, or whether any country at all meets its target, it is important at least that there is a cap which is intended to be met. The presence of a cap provides a goal for governments to work towards, meaning at least some effort should be made to reach it. This is not to say any cap will do. I would argue much smaller and stricter emissions caps are required.



Despite all Trump’s talk, there is a chance he will never even get to withdraw from the Paris agreement at all. Sneakily, the small print of the Paris agreement dictates a time delay on exiting until 2020, which just so happens to be a US presidential year. In addition, Trump is coming under pressure from businesses, activists and even his own family to change his mind. His daughter, Ivanka, compels him to reconsider, alongside influential business leaders such as Elon Musk and Michael Bloomberg.

If one was disappointed that Exxon Mobil’s ex-CEO Rex Tillerson was given the position of Secretary of State in Trump’s cabinet,* one should now rejoice that shareholders of the oil giant have backed a motion requiring the company to reassess risks of climate change. The motion was supported by 62% of investors, including the Church of England. This comes as welcome news, especially since Exxon’s alleged concealment of information from shareholders regarding climate science in the past. Another business which has made a statement despite its deep involvement with the climate problem is General Electric. The chair and CEO Jeff Immelt recently said both that ‘climate change is real’ and that

‘industry must now lead’.

There seems to be an interesting variation on the top-down action theme arising. It seems is no longer about governments, but about companies and self-declared billionaire philanthropists. If politicians can’t be trusted to act in the interests of the environment (and, indeed, in the interests of their populace) then industries must step up to the plate, they say. How great that fossil-fuel-burning megacorporations suddenly care about the public and the natural world. How convenient for them that we should feel they are now acting altruistically on a matter which they have ignored for decades.

If you can’t tell, I am not convinced high polluting companies are going to change their tune quite so quickly. (What exactly does a oil company sell when its policy turns against the use of oil?) This is not to say I do not think industry plays a role in progress towards a green economy. Industry certainly must play a role, for instance in developing low emission, efficient vehicles, finding new ways to capture and store carbon dioxide and in encouraging lifestyles which have less of an impact on the planet. Due to limited resources of rare earth materials and fusion power still not being fully operational, amongst a plethora of other issues, there need be continued industrial involvement, alongside that of research establishments and universities, in taking steps forward.

An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power

Liberal poster boy Justin Trudeau and self-declared climate messiah Al Gore at COP21 in Paris.

Recently watching Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Sequel, I was interested to see just how much the political dimension of the climate problem was focused upon, and how rarely Gore considered the looming crisis through the prism of business or personal lifestyle. It is this aspect which is the common focus of environmental discussion, in particular the issue of green energy generation. This is despite the fact energy generation methods rarely enter the average person’s daily life, while transport choices, diet and waste habits certainly do.



Two years ago, I travelled to Paris with my partner Georgia for the COP21 conference at which the so-called Paris agreement was made. Travelling with Friends of the Earth, we were to attend a mass protest on the streets of the French capital to insist that real change be demanded – something which was very much lacking in previous congress conclusions. The slogan ‘Never trust a COP’ was visible on many signs and t-shirts to mark this.

Just a few weeks before the protest, the terrorist attacks of November 2015 shook the cityclimate-justice-peace (and world), and led to a banning of all major outdoor gatherings within the city. (Or, to be more precise, banning of all major political gatherings outdoors in the city, as I later discovered.**) This meant Friends of the Earth were forced to put on an indoor event where we made signs and banners and heard speeches from people we agreed with. The following day, they put on a ‘geolocation’ event as a major protest to mark the end of the conference and make clear the dissatisfaction of many activists. Along with thousands of other activists, we were given specific locations across Paris to rendezvous at a particular time and tweet photos of our protests. When overlaid onto a city map, our collective tweet locations spelt out the words ‘Climate, Justice, Peace’, as shown opposite.

As inspiring as it was to be part of such a mass, coordinated demonstration, the words were only really written over the Parisian map on the Twittersphere. At the end of the indoor event prior to our geolocation, the organisers suggested a few other events to go to in Paris during our stay. One in particular they stressed they were not at all involved in (for legal reasons), but was happening. This event was one of significant civil disobedience – thousands of protesters marching from the Arc de Triomphe to the Eiffel Tower against the crossing of red lines by governments and corporations affiliated with the COP. After two weeks of bureaucratic nonsense and cross-governmental back-patting, this was not a happy crowd. All but two countries had signed up to keeping average global warming below 2°C, despite staggering evidence suggesting doing so will require extreme measures unseen in political history… Needless to say, such measures are still far from even being considered for implementation in most of these countries.

Following the end of the conference, climate scientist James Hansen was quoted in The Guardian as follows:

“It’s a fraud really, a fake,” he says, rubbing his head. “It’s just bullshit for them to say: ‘We’ll have a 2º C warming target and then try to do a little better every five years.’ It’s just worthless words. There is no action, just promises. As long as fossil fuels appear to be the cheapest fuels out there, they will be continued to be burned.”

In and amongst the negative summaries and comments, however, there were some positives. Jagoda Munic, chairperson of Friends of the Earth International said: 

“Instead of acting with ambition and urgency, our governments are acting in the interests of powerful lobbies and corporations, but people are taking back the power. History will not be made in the convention centre, but on the streets of Paris and round the globe. The climate justice movement is unstoppable and will continue to expand in 2016 and beyond. A handful of politicians will not stop the energy revolution.”

Two years on and another follow-up conference is here, this time held in Bonn: COP23. Will it just be a case of same-old, same-old? Or will Trump’s declaration of rejection cause delegates to make real, necessary progress on these important issues deciding the future of both the planet and humanity?



*: In a recent interview, Naomi Klein said, ‘In any other moment, the very fact that the CEO of Exxon Mobil is now the secretary of state would be the central scandal. Here we have a situation where there is so much else to concern us it is barely a footnote.’

**: The Paris christmas markets, amongst other non-political but potentially terrorist targetable gatherings still went ahead that year, throughout the ongoing ban on explicitly political events. Naomi Klein documents this in her book No is not enough, as an example of the Shock Doctrine, whereby political leaders use the panic surrounding a shocking event to sneakily push through unpopular laws and to gain political footing.


[Image sources: header, Trudeau & Goregeolocations]

One year, zero waste

IMG_2774One year ago, on 1st October 2016, I decided to go zero waste. This involves recycling and composting everything possible and only purchasing items with disposable packaging if absolutely necessary, as motivated by reducing one’s impact on the planet and encouraging a turn away from overconsumption. Any non-recyclable waste is kept to analyse just how zero waste you can manage to be. In the past year, I generated a grand total of just 519g of waste,* as shown on the right. Following my six month update, I have a few more tips and further steps, as I will describe now.




This isn’t what you think. This non-shampooing movement started in the US, where the word ‘poo’ doesn’t have the same toilet humour connotations as in the UK. Going No Poo is about cutting consumption, stopping doing something that can paradoxically degrade the quality of your hair and reducing the levels of chemicals being poured down drains and making their ways to nature water resources. In her book on the subject called Happy Hair, Lucy Aitken Read says,


“I am also sure that the No Poo community hold a significant place in the environmental movement. We are challenging an industry whose reliance on heavy packaging and damaging chemicals is draining the earth’s resources.”

My hair has only been washed once since February this year (when a trainee hairdresser forgot to wash with just water as I had requested) and I would like to think that my hair isn’t particularly greasy. (Please tell me if I have been misled!) I know a number of other people who do the same, all of whom stand by how unnecessary modern shampooing habits are.

Interestingly, when shampoo as we know it today was first created in the first half of the 20th Century, it was only recommended as being used once every 6-8 weeks. Commercial hair products generally aim to remove sebum, to which dirt sticks. As described in Happy Hair, sebum mixes with sweat on the scalp to create acids which protect the skin and impedes growth of harmful bacteria. Upon contact with water, sebum dissolves not only itself but also any dirt or grime in the hair, providing a natural cleaning process. When all sebum is removed through regular shampooing, the hair cuticle is exposed, leaving the hair itself open to potential damage.

Whilst it is certainly a good idea to regularly massage your scalp in a shower to remove dirt, along with some of the sebum, there is no real reason to strip it entirely of sebum using a commercial shampoo. Regular removal (every few days or even every day) of this natural substance is exactly the reason your hair keeps gets greasy in the first place, thereby continuing to spin the wheel of over-shampooing to get it back to a non-greasy state. Due to this, your first couple of weeks of being No Poo will leave you with pretty greasy hair. However, after this ‘transitional stage’, your hair will certainly thank you.

There are plenty of natural alternatives to shampoo from across the world which were used for many centuries, if you really insist on using a product, have particularly difficult hair or live in an area with very hard water. Aitken Read documents these comprehensively and notes that applying a mix of bicarbonate of soda and water once every six weeks does well to counteract the effects hard water can have on your hair, through neutralising pH balance. And the majority of these products are much cheaper than commercial shampoos – in some cases you may already have the ingredients you need in your kitchen cupboard.



Going zero waste is not just about using recyclable products instead of non-recyclable ones. The world has a serious addiction to using plastic bottles, using an alarming one million bottles per minute. There is not only the effort, resource depletion and considerable emissions related to the recycling process to be considered in evaluating the environmental cost of this habit, but also the significant use of fossil fuels in the making of plastics. Besides, drinking bottled water is expensive – in the UK it is usually more expensive than oil.** If you have a clean supply of drinking water, you could probably save a lot of money by just remembering to take your own flask or reusable bottle with you. If you absolutely have to use a plastic bottle, you should note that the lids aren’t typically recyclable in standard recycling bins. However they can be handed in in bulk, for example in Lush. In Portgual, plastic bottle lids are collected by schools and turned into wheelchair frames!





*: Disclaimers:

  • On two occasions this year I was abroad and without facilities to compost or recycle food waste. If you are being harsh you might claim I should have kept the apple cores and vegetable trimmings generated in a little bag and brought it home or something. I think customs might have been a bit confused.
  • The disposable packaging of anything given as a gift was not counted, in line with the ethos of freeganism.

**: A litre of bottled water bought from a high street shop or corner shop in the UK commonly costs over £1. The current price of oil per litre is around 33p (assuming a barrel of oil contains 159 litres). If you are savvy then perhaps you get your bottled water in multipacks from supermarkets, probably ending up paying less than 33p per litre. However even then you will end up paying significantly more than the approximately one sixth of a pence you would pay for a litre of tap water. Whoever decided to start selling bottled water in countries with clean drinking water must have been ridiculed at first, but (oh boy!) they are probably laughing now.


[Header image source]

One Planet Living

If everyone in the world lived as the average UK resident, three planets’ worth of natural resources would be required to support humanity. By no means is this a responsible example of sustainability. But any such negative statement is useless unless accompanied with a proposed better alternative. Are there countries on Earth which pose as a model society, whereby extrapolation of their consumption rates would give true sustainability?



Last month, a fellow MPE CDT student and I volunteered on a project with the Nuffield Foundation, which saw six maths students spend 2 weeks at Imperial College London during the summer between their A-level years. Together, we brainstormed some ideas about important aspects of mathematics (such as geometry, calculus and numerical methods) and important elements of Planet Earth (such as the atmosphere, oceans, flora and fauna).

Following their brainstorming, the students ranked by importance and urgency some related problems, such as predicting temperature rise due to climate change, analysing the way in which glacier melt leads to sea level rise and trying to estimate how many years’ worth of natural resources remain for humanity’s usage. In the end, the students decided they were most interested in the latter problem and set to work trying to figure out how they could use their mathematical abilities to tackle this problem and what the implications of their findings might mean.

The students decided to consider two developed countries (Japan and South Africa) and two developing countries (Cuba and Uganda), in order to see the range of impacts being made across the world. Assuming the birth rate and death rate of these countries to be constant, the students considered two simple models of population growth: the Malthus model and the Logistic model

The former model prescribes an exponential growth or exponential decline of population, with the rate of increase or decline determined by the birth rate and death rate.  For the logistic model, a so-called carrying capacity must be specified, beyond which a population could not be sustained by the planet whatsoever. Demographers estimate this value to be around 10 billion, which we are not so far away from at the present time. From these simple models, the students could make basic predictions of the future populations of the countries considered, and indeed, the world population if everyone gave birth and died at a constant rate.

As well as birth and death rate data, the students collected information regarding the biomass, coal, gas and oil stocks and consumption rates of their chosen countries. Using the previously estimated population curves, the students were able to approximate the associated usage of the four fuels. The latter three models are fairly simple, since a constant rate of consumption per citizen is assumed, and there is effectively no return rate of the fuel stocks. In the case of biomass, however, the students had to consider the fact that trees grow back over a few years, and so the resulting equations are a little more difficult to solve.


Having forecasted the diminishing of the fuel reserves, the students were able to go on to say how much CO2 would be released into the atmosphere by each country, estimate the consequent concentration in the atmosphere and provide a first approximation to the associated temperature increase to the planet. Here they made a major assumption that CO2 is not re-absorbed, which is of course not true in reality. However the project centred on making a first approximation to what is going on, so many simplifications must be made.


Rather than copying their results, I have considered similar calculations for four other countries which pose as markedly different examples in their approaches to environmental protection and resource consumption. Consider India, China, UK and USA. As can be seen in the map above, the One Planet Living initiative claims these countries fall into the categories of using less than 1, 1-2, 2-4 and more than 4 planets when their trends are projected onto the worldwide populace, respectively. That is, if the entire world were to behave in the same way as these countries in terms of population change and resource usage, the number of planets’ worth of resources needed would be as indicated. Python code is available for how I calculated these projections on GitHub.*


In the following plots, only the contributions of domestic coal, natural gas and oil are considered. As has been mentioned, the Nuffield project students also considered biomass, but they discovered that it is rather difficult to get data on the consumption thereof and the mass to CO2 conversion varies depending on the particular biomass fuel used. Of course, there are plenty of other resources (such as food, clean water and rare earth materials) and plenty of other sources of pollution (such as emissions from livestock, waste and aviation) which could be considered, but here we focus on the three main fossil fuels since they make contributions in both categories.

For an example of the predictions relating to one resource, if the whole world acted as the USA, the graph above indicates that oil reserves would drop dramatically, completely drying up after 70 years. Similar plots can be made for the other fuels, through which we can get a picture of the total resources used, and hence the total carbon emissions. Subject to a number of assumptions both stated here and neglected, the associated additional mean warming to the atmosphere would look as displayed in the plot below. From this plot, if the whole world acted as the UK or India in terms of its population change and fuel usage, we should expect an extra warming contribution of around 2°C after one century has passed. In the case of China, this would be more like 4°C and in the case of the USA 10°C.

temp_change_Malthus_g=OFF_trees=OFFThese are very rough estimates, as has already been mentioned, but there seems to be significant evidence to suggest that we shouldn’t only be concerned with using the resources of one planet, but also which resources we choose to use, and at what rate. This is especially true when taking into consideration that the international agreement made at COP21 aims to keep warming below 2°C above pre-industrial levels. UK Met Office research indicates the world has already warmed 1°C since then.

Calculations above were performed in the Malthusian case. In the case of the Logistic model, predictions are more conservative, due to the world population being unable to breach 10 billion. The resulting plot is indicated below. There the range of additional temperature increases is approximately 0.3-3°C. Even under this more conservative approach, it doesn’t look likely that we could meet the cumulative 2°C target in any case.

temp_change_Logistic_g=OFF_trees=OFFNot only are there some countries which use ‘more than one planet’ and some which use ‘less than one planet’, the average taken across all of humanity is currently actually about 1.6 planets. The interpretation of this claim is not that we are generating resources out of nothing or collecting them from space, but that we are consuming resources faster than they can regenerate naturally. Resources are being used at such an alarming rate, and the natural environment is being damaged so badly, that the regenerative ability of the planet has been significantly reduced.



This summer’s Nuffield Project was not the first time I considered mathematical problems related to One Planet Living. On Open Data Day in March this year, I attended a hackathon at the European Centre for Medium-range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF) in Reading. There, a team of us attempted to create an app which enables the user to calculate their carbon footprint and thereby to find out whether or not their contribution is greater or smaller than the average for their country of origin. Whilst in the Nuffield Project we only had time to consider fuel usage, in this project only road, rail, bus and aviation transportation was taken into consideration.

Sadly, the app we worked on in the hackathon never came to a particularly user friendly stage, due to tight time constraints and a lack of app developing experience. However, the Bioregional initiative provides a calculator for finding out how many planets would be required to sustain a planet of Yous, covering far more aspects than we could ever have hoped to consider. Even if you produce zero waste, cycle everywhere and never fly or drive, it is fiendishly difficult to become a One Planet Citizen. My output is shown below, and I clearly have some progress to make.

Screen Shot 2017-09-23 at 09.23.36.png

The different coloured sections on the bottom bar correspond to energy generation, transport, food, goods, government, capital assets and servicesrespectively. I’m not going to start making excuses for why the calculator tells me I use more than one planet, but I will just make a few comments on its output:

  • Notice that at least 28% of my footprint is purely due to the government, dispelling the myth that individuals can tackle climate change, resource conservation and ecology deprivation completely on their own. Authorities have to make an effort, too.
  • Goods, food and services have extra footprint included because there is a large implicit contribution in supply chains. This factor points out that businesses have an environmental responsibility, as well as governments. Personal impact in this case can be reduced by shopping at second hand shops, charity shops and local markets.
  • Finally, it is difficult to improve on the energy contribution if you live in rented accommodation, since it is up to your landlord to install things like loft insulation, condensing boilers, cavity wall insulation and solar panels. However, if you get on with them you could maybe consider suggesting these.



Last month I attended a symposium of talks at Imperial College entitled ‘Balancing sustainability and development: cities in the 21st century’ on the need to adapt future cities to the omnicrisis of issues faced by present and future citizens, such as overpopulation, rising temperatures, inequality, resource scarcity and overstressed infrastructures. The symposium was opened by a talk by David Thorpe, author of ‘The One Planet Life: a Blueprint for Low Impact Living’. He claims the world’s ‘biocapacity’ was breached in the early 1970’s and since then we have been running on ‘borrowed time’. The World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) lists nine ‘planetary boundaries’, four of which have already been passed: climate change, biosphere integrity, soil quality and nitrate pollution.

slide.5planetintroThorpe claims, with the present population, the only way to ‘get back on track’ is for the entire world to have a ecological footprint as in Central Africa. This does not, imply the reduction in living standards one might expect for more privileged citizens, as in the West. For instance, whilst research by the One Planet Living initiative indicates that residents of the USA use ‘two more planets’ worth of resources than the average European (see diagram opposite), there are many metrics by which one might claim Europeans are better off than Americans.** Does all that extra resource and carbon impact really make for a happier, more fulfilled life? Who says the UK couldn’t reduce its impact and maintain the same quality of life or, indeed, improve it?

Thorpe works on a One Planet Living initiative in Wales, where the word ‘sustainability’ has been made equivalent to the ‘well-being of future generations’. His motto,

“if it gets measured, it gets saved”

motivates the reduction of ecological footprint in line with closer control on consumption levels and methods. Thorpe’s thinking recently influenced a public advice spreadsheet available on the Welsh government website. In principle, the creation of a One Planet society is not an enormous undertaking. All that is required is some careful planning of how waste is to be dealt with, how electricity is to be generated and which materials are to be used for construction and packaging (if any). What is difficult, on the other hand, is converting a currently damaging society to a One Planet one.

Model cities do exist. Thorpe points to Freiburg, Germany, which has been heralded by many as a leading example, through its restrictions on polluting traffic, energy saving schemes and use of efficient technology. Perhaps unexpectedly, China also provides an example in terms of its recent efforts to develop vertical farming, which requires less space, water and effort and can bring impressively increased yields of staple foods.

One conclusion of the symposium was that there are very real limits to growth, to quote the Club of Rome (1972). This is something discussed by John Burnside in his once-three-weekly Nature column in New Statesman this January. There he pointed out the inherent contradictions between the growth modern countries are fixated on and the very clear bounds enforced by the forces of nature. That we can continue as we have in the past decades indefinitely and with little to no consequence for the residents (human and otherwise) of this planet is an utter lie.

Can you take up the One Planet challenge? In a way it is the least you can do.


[Originally posted on Why it rained today]



*: References for resource consumption data used:

**: In a New York Review of Books article, Europe vs. America, Tony Judt points to the following statistics:

  • “[T]he EU has 87 prisoners per 100,000 people; America has 685.”
  • “[A]ccording to the OECD a typical employed American put in 1,877 hours in 2000, compared to 1,562 for his or her French counterpart.”
  • “Whereas Swedes get more than thirty paid days off work per year and even the Brits get an average of twenty-three, Americans can hope for something between four and ten, depending on where they live.”
  • “45 million Americans have no health insurance at all.”

[Image sources: headermap, plots (and Python code), calculatorplanets]

There are many, many substances which may be considered as a pollutant of local air, from chemical byproducts, to aerosols from dirty industry, to car exhaust fumes. Three of the main ones which significantly impact air quality are ozone, particulate matter (PM) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2). Concentration of the latter is the usual metric by which a city’s local pollution is measured, and mainly results from emissions of diesel fuelled vehicles. Limits on NO2 levels were set for EU countries in 2010, in accordance with recommendations of the World Health Organisation (WHO). NO2 is limited annually, such that only a certain number of breachings of the recommended maximal concentration are allowed per year.


A number of locations in the UK, including Brixton Road, London, exceeded the yearly recommended maximum within the first four days of this year. To raise awareness of this sorry state of affairs, a number of grey plaques have been put up in the most polluted parts of the capital, also including Putney High Street and Oxford Street. Like the blue heritage site plaques which they mimic, these signs indicate a hidden element to the location which the visitor finds themselves, which they may have otherwise been unaware of, only in this case the aspect is present, not past. Don’t be tricked into thinking that the problem is just localised to ‘hot spots’, and that living somewhere else in the city will save your health. As of 2012, 78% of London’s main roads exceeded EU imposed NO2 limits, with the City of London, Westminster, Kensington and Chelsea, Camden and Hammersmith and Fulham failing at 100% of measurement sites.

Levels of pollution in London are dangerously high, but at least some attention is being paid and some effort is being made to tackle it. Other mega-cities have it worse. For instance, the WHO guideline for seafront presence of PM2.5* is 25 micrograms (μg) per cubic metre, but readings in Beijing have reached as high as 671μg. Further, the US government has so far failed to recognise WHO recommendations, only considering 250μg or greater as a hazardous amount.

Cities such as Beijing are often singled out as far more polluted than European cities. Whilst this is true, the opinion may well be skewed further in this direction by the much more visible pollution there, sometimes called the ‘brown cloud’. I visited Beijing for over a week in 2010 and didn’t see the sun for the entire time, just a bright spot in the sky where it lurked behind the smog. Smog such as is common in Asian megacities is typically the result of dirty industry. Since the UK started on the road to de-industrialisation, and began importing goods made by dirty industry instead (mainly from China), air pollution has become much less visible and, arguably, trickier to deal with.

In the UK, the main problem is no longer brown smog from industry, but NO2 from diesel vehicles. In the first 11 years of the century, London saw the proportion of diesel cars registered increase from 6.9% to 21.7%, partly under encouragement from the governments of the time, with some sadly misinformed environmental recommendations.



Particulates of size PM10 and smaller are the big issue in terms of public health. They can get into our airways and from there settle in the lungs, causing potential complications. In 2010, a London Assembly report claimed up to 9% of deaths in London are caused by man-made airborne particles. Such statistics are understandably difficult to establish, since pronouncing a person as ‘dead by air pollution’ can never really be a clear judgement – there are too many other intervening factors. Analogously, a person could smoke their whole lives and never get lung cancer, whilst someone else could smoke a single cigarette which results in a chance mutation leading them to develop cancer. Nonetheless, recent estimates suggest that somewhere in the range of 4,000-10,000 Londoners and 23,500-40,000 UK citizens on the whole die every year from poor air quality. With statistics like these, there can be no reasonable argument that air pollution does not pose a very serious problem, despite the fact it often seems so invisible and intangible.

And it’s not just humans who are affected by air pollution. Paradoxically, British wildflowers actually thrive in poor quality soil, with few nutrients, such as nitrogen. However the large quantities of nitrogen finding its way into British roadsides via the compounds of NO2 emissions has enabled weeds such as Cows Parsley to thrive, outdoing the more attractive wildflowers.

Recent, horrific terrorist attacks in the UK have lead to the deaths of tens of people and have rightly been met with large displays of public solidarity. Whilst these were truly devastating events, the numbers of victims are minuscule compared with the thousands of early deaths due to air pollution every year. Why are discussions of air pollution so much less vocal? That there is no direct perpetrator cannot excuse air pollution. Modern life dictates that we all play a part, meaning it is up to us to choose how much of an effort we make to try and clean up our act.



Recent governments have made pretty poor attempts to tackle air pollution so far, although somewhat better ones than their approaches to the wider climate change problem. In the current short-termist political paradigm, whereby parties rarely make any plans that go beyond the 5 years to the next election, it makes sense that politicians do more to try and stop harm to citizens’ health in the immediate future, than to make efforts toward even tricker problems like tackling mega-polluting corporations or working towards worldwide emissions reductions.

Missed opportunities include George Osbourne blocking the creation of clean air zones during his time on the front benches. Following this, and upon his election as Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan labelled government plans as “woefully inadequate”. In February he released figures which showed NO2 limits breached near to 800 London schools, precisely where pollution should be cracked down on the most. It is often argued younger people are most at risk of health problems resulting from poor air quality, since their respiratory systems are not yet fully formed. Khan said on the matter,

“Toxic air causes more than 9,000 early deaths a year in London, as well as stunting the growth of children’s lungs, causing dementia and strokes.”

The problem is surely made worse by parents who drive their kids to school and wait in the car nearby with the engine on.

Finally, the government is beginning to establish some real policy on tackling air pollution, with a pledge to ban all new sales of petrol and diesel vehicles by 2040. However many environmentalists, including the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas, have said that these efforts go nowhere near far enough, and will come into place far too late. Hopefully more effective policies will be implemented soon.

A common theme running through this blog is that matters of climate change often need taking into public hands, at least initially, when governments and companies fail to act responsibly. There isn’t time to just sit around and hope things get changed from the top down.

The surest way to reduce your personal impact on local air quality involve commuting by bicycle, on foot or using public transport (although preferably not a mode of transport with heavy diesel fumes, such as older style buses). If you absolutely must have a car, either opt for an electric one or be aware of manufacturers such as Vauxhall, Renault and Fiat who find loopholes which enable them to make cars which emit ten times the legal limit. Whilst electric cars do a very good job of reducing local air pollution, there are still implicit C02 emissions, since the UK national grid relies heavily on fossil fuels. Additionally, there are small leaks of local air pollutants, such as from the wearing of brakes. However hopefully these issues will be addressed in the coming years and electric cars will creep closer to being zero carbon.

In the above, I have mentioned the impact of government and council policies on the air pollution problem. Whilst these are certainly important factors, today’s capitalist world dictates that businesses are arguably more impactful. Businesses have the power not to flout regulations. Businesses have the power to make greener lifestyles cheaper. Businesses have the power to reduce their emissions. But they will only do these things if the consumer has interest in them. By opting for responsibly sourced produce, by asking these things of companies and by choosing energy efficient technologies, steps are made towards them taking interest.


If you are worried about air pollution and happy to compromise on style a little, it is probably worth your wearing an air-filtering mask, such as those made by Totobobo. Doing so fulfils two purposes: cleaning the air which you breathe and raising awareness that others should consider doing so, too. A range of air pollution masks are available on the market, from flimsy paper ones to World War II gas mask style things. Reviews suggest the thin paper masks don’t actually do very much at all, only blocking the very largest particulates from being inhaled. On the other hand, the more heavy duty masks are very cumbersome and make a short cycle an unnecessarily difficult task.

I wear an intermediate type mask on my cycle commute which is light, but which claims to block out 96% of harmful particulates. I find that after just 2 weeks the filters become dark grey and are in need of changing, as shown in the photo above. Images like this shatter the invisibility nature of air pollution and can be quite shocking, when you think how much is being breathed in otherwise.



*: PMx refers to particulate matter of less than x micrometres in diameter.

[Image sources: header, plaque]

London’s choking

Fly less, it won’t cost the Earth

Research recently conducted at Lund University, Sweden, investigated the effectiveness of various approaches to reducing personal contribution to climate change, including common approaches such as recycling and using energy efficient light bulbs, alongside more extreme life choices like having fewer children or getting rid of your car. As the diagram shows, these latter two options fall into the top three most effective means of reducing one’s carbon footprint, followed by avoiding long distance flights. These could all be perceived as somewhat restrictive life decisions, albeit on different levels.


Supposing you take the third recommendation and choose to be greener by minimising your long distance flying, a strategy might be to go on holidays closer to home, say on the European continent. Here I argue that avoiding flights and opting for rail when travelling in Europe is not only feasible, but doesn’t have to break the bank and makes for a vastly more interesting journey.

The main reason I haven’t written any blog posts in the past month or so is that I have been on a couple of holidays. Firstly, I went to Barcelona for a long weekend and then a couple of weeks later I went for a week in Portugal and a week in France. All of these trips I managed to do without flying, travelling mainly by rail, with a few bus journeys thrown in here and there. For instance, after embarking from London on the Eurostar, my journey through France, Spain and Portugal was all possible on an Interrail ticket, going from Paris to the Spanish border and then to the Algarve via Lisbon. Having given up flying in 2015, I have so far had very little issue getting to European destinations from the UK. In September I will also be attending a conference in Germany, travelling exclusively by train.

Many counter arguments to avoiding air travel are fundamentally short-termist: “I need to get to such-a-place as quickly as possible, and minimum cost and discomfort to myself”, regardless of the impacts the journey might cause. Flying may be all well and good for the traveller, but what about the effects on the environment (and future of the human race)?

The IPCC claims that air travel accounts for around 3.5% of global environmental damage, and warns that this could rise significantly if current trends continue. Numerous reports have warned that airspaces are becoming increasingly packed near major cities. London has a particularly bad problem, as is illustrated by this terrifying video (partly because of the accompanying minimalist music). This week a record 8,800 flights entered or left UK airspace. I recall earlier this year when one weekend I cycled from London to Reading, stopping near halfway in a park not far from Heathrow for a packed lunch. During the 15 minutes I sat there, I counted (and at one point lost count) at least 12 planes coming in to land on just one runway.

Rail travel poses an alternative to air because of the sheer number of people transportable by a train, and the relatively low typical carbon emissions. The carbon footprint statistics come out as significantly less than those corresponding to taking a plane. For instance, travelling from London to Paris by Eurostar is approximately 91% less carbon intensive than making the same journey through the air. The only modes of transport greener than that would be to cycle, walk or ride the distance on horseback.



For a UK citizen to start a European journey without flying, there is an essential element of channel crossing. By Eurostar, this can be done pretty cheaply, if booked far enough in advance. Travelling to Paris or Brussels takes just over two hours and can cost as little as £60 for a return. That seriously rivals air travel both in terms of cost and time duration, once a couple of hours have been spent getting to the (usually) out-of-city airport, checking in, going through security and wandering aimlessly around the departure lounge. For the Eurostar there is no such faff: St. Pancras is at the heart of London’s transport network, checkin and security takes a maximum of 10 minutes and there is no problem with taking your own food or drink through. There is no first class on Eurostar, but I always feel like the whole train feels like first class: it is both spacious and aesthetically sleek.



Of course, time efficiency is less evident the longer the journey over land. My journey from London to Southern Portugal was admittedly rather long, taking over 24 hours because I took a sleeper train from the Pyrénées to Lisbon. However central European journeys tend to be much shorter. It is possible, for instance, to travel from Rome to Venice, Madrid to Barcelona or Vienna to Budapest in 3 hours or less. But at the end of the day, a long journey is only really an issue if you need to be somewhere quickly or if you don’t enjoy the travel experience. So perhaps it is more an issue of outlook on travel, considering it as part of the holiday, or as a component of leisure time within your business trip, rather than just the means by which to get somewhere. I certainly find train travel far more relaxing and interesting than getting a cramped, stressful flight.

Alongside considerations of travel duration, one may want to consider reliability of the transport provider to be on time. Here train travel comes out on top, too. In particular, European high speed trains and Eurostars arrive and depart on time 90-95% of the time, whilst short-haul flights often have reliability as low as 65-70%.

If you are lucky enough to be under 27, five days of unlimited European train travel (within a period of 15 days) currently costs just £188 on an Interrail Global Pass*. The standard adult ticket isn’t too much more, currently costing £243. Of course, a return flight between European cities with a budget airline like Easyjet or Ryanair is often vastly cheaper than this, on the order of £50 or so. However, as anyone who has used these providers will know, there are always further fees for seat reservation, baggage and, of course, getting to the airport. Further, when considering a trip with more and more destinations, the Interrail ticket becomes better and better value than flying. Last summer I travelled to Brussels, Hamburg, Copenhagen, Malmö, Prenzlau and Berlin on a total travel budget less than £250. Thus, to get better value out of your rail ticket, it may well be the case that you end up visiting more places and getting more out of your trip, too.

If you want to be more specific in your travels and only explore one country at a time, Interrail offer numerous single country passes. For example, a one month Italy-only pass can cost as little as £82. Reasonably priced rail tickets are also available to single destinations, with useful European online booking services provided by trainline.eu and voyages-sncf.com. Further, travel planning suggestions for a comfortable and efficient are provided enthusiastically by the Man in Seat 61. As can be quoted from the site,

“Train travel is a more rewarding, low-stress alternative to flying, which brings us closer to the countries we visit and reduces our contribution to climate change.  It’s time to rediscover the pleasure, romance & adventure of travel by train or ship.”



I am aware some readers may not live in Europe, or may wish to travel outside of the continent without flying. I don’t claim to know too much about the possibilities in this regard and my only experience thereof is catching a sleeper train from Beijing to Xi’an in 2010. However I have been looking into possible means of travelling to Asia by rail at some point in the future. The best option is probably to go on the Trans-Siberian railway, which advertises luxury journeys, but which also offers a route from Moscow to Beijing which takes 6 days and costs around £500 each way. If you are intending to travel for over a month, this could be a good option and is within the price range of some intercontinental flights. Bear in mind that £500 does include board as well, so perhaps isn’t as expensive as it might first seem. Best of all, what a journey it would be, through vast expanses of Russia.


Again, the Man in Seat 61 comes to the rescue, suggesting various routes you might have previously thought near impossible without air travel. These include travelling from London to Australia, Southern Africa and the USA. If you are willing to integrate the journey into your holiday, it seems the possibilities are truly endless. Stop flying and start considering the alternatives, for the sake of the planet and for your own enjoyment.



*: Somewhat misleadingly, the Interrail Global Pass does not cover worldwide rail travel. It just refers to the majority of European countries which participate.


[Image sources: header, choices, departures]

Summary of the UK parties on climate change

If you somehow haven’t heard, the UK has an election coming up… But what are the stances of the parties on action on climate change? Is the Green Party the only party with responsible views and pledges, or do any of the bigger parties have promising green policies? In particular, do Labour or the Conservatives really care about environmental issues?

In a recent Observer article entitled ‘Our undecided voters: who will they back?’, Raheela Shah, 21, from Tooting is quoted as deciding not to vote Labour this time and instead of backing the Greens.* She said

“I’m pretty attracted to the Greens as I think the environment is often overlooked; it would be good if more parties focused on it.”

Climate change isn’t something we can continue to postpone. In 5 years time, given insufficient action, we will be significantly further along the path which will see global mean temperatures rising at least 2°C above the pre-industrial average. It is not good enough to postpone a vote for the environment until the next election. This has never been more the case, with Donald Trump extricating the United States from the 2015 Paris agreement.

Will voting for the Green Party make a significant enough difference? Is Raheela’s approach the best to take, with so little time to act to stop or, failing that, mitigate the damage climate change will inevitably cause? Here I will attempt to establish how committed the major parties are to tackling the grandest of problems posed by climate change, and the plethora of related issues. In each case, parties are graded on a greenscale, from climate-championing bright green, through ineffective grey-browns to dangerous reds.


Ratings will be based on the following ten categories. In each category, 1 point will be awarded for a good policy, 0 points for a mediocre policy and -1 points for a damaging policy, with half-points available.**

  1. Zero carbon target (ambition; feasibility)
  2. Renewable energy (support for)
  3. Fracking, oil, coal and nuclear (opposition or reasonability of argument)
  4. Energy efficient homes (policies)
  5. Air pollution (level of concern; policies to tackle)
  6. Sustainable transport and airport expansion (support for; expense)
  7. Education, research and development (into e.g. carbon capture and storage)
  8. International agreements (e.g. Paris accord) and post-Brexit environmental regulations
  9. Lifestyle encouragement (e.g. cycling; vegetarianism)
  10. Green belts, national parks and conservation.

[Disclaimer: I have tried as best as I can to leave my own personal politics out of this piece. However (as a human being) I cannot guarantee absolute objectivity. 😉 ]


The Tories currently being in power means we have the clearest view of what they actually think and how they plan to act. A particularly memorable event was when Theresa May abolished the Department for Energy and Climate Change, sidelining the issues. This left them to be addressed by Andrea Leadsom, who was at the time unsure whether climate change is even real. The previous Prime Minister, David Cameron, didn’t have any problem scrapping a solar power incentives scheme just days after signing the COP21 agreement.

Putting recent history aside, the Conservative manifesto claims they will “meet [their] climate change commitments… as cheaply as possible”. In addition, they support having sources of “reliable, cheap and clean power”. In a political debate at the University of Bath broadcast on the Radio 4 Today Programme on 15th May, a Conservative representative argued the party seeks environmental rules and regulations “which fit us” post-Brexit. All seems pretty reasonable so far, albeit being focused on local rather than global aspects.

However, the Tories also plan to “halt the spread of onshore wind farms”, will “develop the shale industry in Britain” and will “continue to support the development of North Sea oil and gas”. It is now a well-established fact that wind power is the cheapest form of electricity generation available in the UK. Evidence also suggests that fracking (of shale gas) is a very risky activity indeed, with numerous environmental issues on local and global scales, affecting both public health and countryside beauty. Needless to say, oil is one of the dirtiest fossil fuels.

So whilst the Conservatives claim to want to aim the trajectory of the UK towards a cleaner, safer and cheaper future, they are in fact promising exactly the opposite. At best, they will very slightly reduce the status quo emissions, but this is unlikely to be in line with their 2015 pledge to “push for a strong global climate deal later this year… that keeps [2°C]… firmly in reach”. In addition, the infamous ‘three Brexiteers’ are hardly examples of politicians who seek environmental justice. Tellingly, the Conservative manifesto starts with a section entitled ‘Five Great Problems’; none of these problems is climate change, or any related issue apparently…

I have previously written about nuclear power as a potential means of tackling the climate change problem, at least in theory. There I wrote about how there are various types of nuclear power generation, with some vastly cheaper, safer and more efficient than others. The “significant expansion in new nuclear” which the Conservcameron-edatives promise in their manifesto is of an oudated, overly expensive and sub-optimally safe type, the leading case in point being Hinkley Point C. In my opinion, reactors of this type are not the answer to any of our problems and therefore conclude that the Tories are not looking particularly hopeful as far as this blog piece is aware.

Regardless of the manifesto promises, the government has changed its outlook on clean energy forms and gas, providing some hope that a Conservative victory wouldn’t mean a total climate disaster. The main criticism I have, however, is the total lack of any visible commitment this government has had to tackling the climate change problem in the past seven years.

Shade: Stale and Stinky mouldy brown bread


It is more difficult to analyse the Labour party’s policies, since a government such as the hypothetical one run by Jeremy Corbyn isn’t something which has been seen in UK history. Corbyn has gained popularity mainly by appealing to young people, for whom climate change poses even more of a problem than older generations. As such, if he is to be successful, it is imperative that he address environmental issues, at least to a greater level than the Conservatives have done so far. In this way, the Labour manifesto states that “tackling climate change is an economic necessity and the most important thing we must do for our children, our grandchildren and future generations”.

Additionally, Labour plans to set an ambitious “legal target to remove carbon2CC8865700000578-3250138-image-m-65_1443283338398 from our electricity supply by 2030″. One way in which they would attempt to achieve this is through creating “a million additional green jobs” over the next decade, thereby also addressing the UK’s unemployment issues.

How Labour aims to reach the target is not quite crystal clear. Labour would “ban fracking because it would lock us into an energy infrastructure based on fossil fuels”, a sensible argument which is undeniably better than the hap-hazard implementation of the risky approach supported by the current government. Further, Labour recognises the inefficiency and instability of old fashioned nuclear reactors, with the “UK [having] the world’s oldest nuclear industry”. They insist newer-style nuclear must however remain part of the mix, highlighting the “considerable opportunities for nuclear power and decommissioning both internationally and domestically”.

Labour recognise the need to drive an environmental revolution via localising our energy resources. The manifesto rightly states that  “a clean economy of the future is the most important thing we must do for our children, our grandchildren and future generations…Renewable energy projects…can help create manufacturing and energy jobs”.

On the topic of airport expansion, Labour supports expansion of Heathrow airport, but promises to “balance the need for growth and the environmental impact”. Labour is, however, in support of the £40bn+ controversial HS2 rail project, which many, many people regard as an unnecessary vanity project. Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London, has been made a great stand for tackling local air pollution since his election, and has a lot of ideas for tackling London’s horrendous NO2 issue.

I hope both that Khan manages to bring his ideas to fruition and that Labour’s many promising policies in this area are things which really would be put into practice by a Labour government.

Shade:  Jeremy Corbyn’s prize marrow green


Tim Farron, leader of the Liberal Democrats, caused much disruption on Wednesday’s BBC election debate. In the debate, he said

“If it is simply for hair shirt, muesli-eating Guardian readers to solve climate change, it ain’t going to solve the problem. We’re all stuffed… we can make ourselves energy self-sufficient in renewable energy”.

Why exactly Farron decided to turn on Guardian readers, who are amongst the likeliest groups to vote for his party, is a mystery. That said, this statement does express the view of the Lib Dems that “climate change, one of the greatest challenges of our age, is by its nature global”, as it reads in their manifesto.

The Lib Dems’ zero carbon target is somewhat less ambitious (but arguably more realistic than) Labour’s. In their manifesto, they claim they would “pass a Zero Carbon Britain Act… to bring net… emissions to zero by 2050.” In addition, they propose to set an “indicative target” for 2030, by which 60% of UK electricity should be obtained from renewable sources. In my opinion it is unlikely that, even if such pledges were met, emission levels would be reduced in sufficient time. Perhaps the sense of urgency Farron purveyed in the TV debate should be better reflected in environmental policy.

Like Labour and the Conservatives, the Lib Dems accept that “new nuclear power stations can play a role in electricity supply” with the proviso that “concerns about safety, disposal of waste and cost are adequately addressed”. Further, they support an increase in research and development for tidal, CCS, storage and “ultra-low emission vehicles”, each of which hold enormous potential. Providing somewhat of a cocktail of electricity generation techniques, the manifesto proposes to “use biomass primarily for heating and small-scale power generation”.

Of course, the Lib Dem’s campaign in the run-up to this general election has been greatly focused on their firm belief that the UK should remain within the European Union, despite the referendum result, which gave toast-tweets-fbsupport to the opposite. They claim that “[i]f the UK were to leave the EU… our voice would not be heard in climate change negotiations”. As such, the Liberal Democrats throw the environment in as another bargaining chip in the Brexit debate.

Shade: Guardian reader’s avocado toast green



It seems the UK Independence Party has achieved its sole purpose of driving the country out of the EU (with very little real accountability). Shortly after Nigel Farage proclaimed 24th May “Independence Day”,*** UKIP supported May’s scrapping of the Department for Energy and Climate Change.

bus-300x300In a statement of further dislike for top-down action on climate change, their manifesto reads, “The Climate Change Act is doing untold damage. UKIP will repeal it.”. Further UKIP would “withdraw taxpayer and consumer subsidies for new wind turbines and solar photovoltaic arrays” and claims that, for cheap energy security, “coal must be part of the solution”.

I hope that I do not need to summarise how dangerous such an approach to the environment could be, and leave UKIP to summarise itself: according to their 2015 manifesto it is

“time to get fracking”.

Shade: “£350m for the NHS” Vote Leave bus red

As an English citizen, the environmental policies of the Scottish National Party, Plaid Crymu or Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland are not things I have looked into in great detail and so I will only discuss them briefly here.

In contrast to the UK government’s current approach, the SNP and Plaid Crymu would “continue to support a moratorium on fracking” and “continue to oppose opencase mining”, respectively. Plaid Crymu also continues “to oppose the building of nuclear power plants in new locations” and “will not support the creation of a major new UK airport to the east of London”.

Whilst the SNP seeks “to maximise support for offshore wind… [and] press for onshore wind to continue to receive support”, they also continue to support investment in the oil and gas industries, mainly due to job protection. Plaid Crymu makes an appeal in their manifesto to recognise “the impacts of climate change upon poverty”, something which is rarely brought up by the other parties.

Pivoting to their respective countries, the SNP “will call on… the UK… to adopt Scotland’s ambitious carbon reduction targets”, whilst Plaid Crymu seeks to improve public transport in order to “reduce carbon emissions and safeguard Wales against future fuel shortages”.

It seems climate change is not on the agenda of the DUP, with  very little mention being made in their public statements and documentation.

Shade: mixed paint, with some separation of  layers


The Green Party’s raison d’être is to speak up for environmental issues. As such, one would hope that they provide an excellent, well thought out and considerate approach to action on climate change. Indeed, they state “climate change is the greatest challenge of our time” and claim that “only the Greens are determined to tackle it”.

Like Labour, the Greens hold an ambitious zero carbon target, with the belief that the UK should reduce emissions to 10% of 1990 levels by 2030. Further, the magreen-party-rednifesto insists all coal-fired power stations should be closed “by 2023 at the very latest”.

I have previously written about how energy sources such as nuclear power are neglected in the environmental movement and that tribalism directs attention more towards renewables, which do themselves hold carbon costs and have other associated ethical issues. The Greens “oppose nuclear power… [which] poses unacceptable risks”. However, the party supports the potential use of CCS on existing gas and biomass plants, but “only as a transitional technology”. To me, this seems a sensible, cost-effective approach. I agree most with the Greens in the sense that rather than putting too much emphasis on the mode of electricity generation,

“Renewables can supply all the energy we need… if we manage our demand”.

As such, it is cutting the need which has the greatest importance – an approach very much in-tune with this blog.

The list of policies towards action on climate change (expectedly) goes on for the Greens, including the provision of cheaper public transport, encouragement of walking, cycling and electric vehicles and research, promotion and support of “farming methods that reduce greenhouse gas emissions”.

Shade: Green Party logo green


As far as this analysis is concerned, the Green Party provides the clear best approach to tackling the problem of climate change, in terms of ambition, effectiveness of approach and cost-efficiency. Of course, neither is climate change the only thing on the voter’s mind, nor is a vote for the Green Party necessarily going to help their approach to the environment become adopted on a country-wide scale. This is especially true now that Corbyn has rejected the possibility of any (official) sort of progressive alliance.

As promised, I have tried to keep the analysis centred upon the policies and approaches of the political parties, meaning the above sections do not take into account the other policies, such as on education, the NHS or on national security. Instead of looking to my own personal views for a conclusion, I will instead look to the polls and seat predictions. By multiplying the numerical green scale value by the average poll over the past three weeks, or by the forecast vote share, we may determine an evidence-based assessment not just of how to make a green vote, but how to make it count. Due to the first past the post system, some parties receive much more support than their seat numbers account for. Included in the table is the number of votes per seat in 2015, along with an associated scale factor for the seatscore. This amplifies the impact of UKIP, for example, who won just one seat but has an enormous effect on national politics and attitudes. The seat scalar is approximately the factor of votes more than the Conservatives required per seat.

The 11 greenscale values range from -10 to 10, with -10 being reddest and 10 being greenest. The poll ranges as of 3rd June, green scale ratings and consequent rating are tabulated below.

                      Conservatives        Labour        Liberal Democrats         UKIP               Green

Poll average               44%                    35%                         8%                            4%                       2%

Seat estimate          359                     220                              7                                1                            1

Green scale                0.5                         7                                6                              -1.5                      10

Pollscore                0.22                      2.45                       0.48                          -0.06                         0.2

Votes / seat         34,244                40,290                 301,986               3,881,129         1,157,613

Seat scalar                 1                          1                              10                             100                          50

Seatscore                0.28                     2.43                        0.66                       -0.23                      0.79

Overall                   0.25                     2.44                         0.57                            -0.15                        0.50

Take from this analysis what you will, and please let me know if you think I could measure how far your vote will go towards action on climate change using a better metric. The following table summarises the findings of this article.

Pure greenscale rank                          Weighted rank

  1.                                 Green                                                      Labour
  2.                                Labour                                                    Lib Dem
  3.                               Lib Dem                                                     Green
  4.                         Conservative                                      Conservative
  5.                                  UKIP                                                          UKIP

The former column is the idealist, non-tactical-voting recommended order of preference, while the latter is the tactical-voter’s recommendation. Happy voting!


* : In the latest edition of this series, Shah has now reconfirmed her faith in Labour, saying they have “proved themselves”.

** : For a full table of my numerical ratings, see this table. For the main source of much of my research, see Carbon Brief’s handy manifesto evaluation. For polices which are unmentioned, I referred to the 2015 evaluation, amongst other sources.

*** : The claim that the UK could have a so-called independence day is frankly disgusting. Take a look at this map of countries who have gained independence from the UK.

[Images: headerCameronmarrowavo toastbusmelon]

Are you imprisoned in Plato’s cave?

For the past 6 months I have been tutoring an A-level student in religious studies  (focusing on philosophy and ethics). This course seeks to give an introduction to the fundamentals of religious and moral philosophy, in the latter case considering applications of ethical theories to real world dilemmas such as in medical ethics, war and peace and environmental issues. My tutee had her AS-level philosophy exam last week, and during revision classes we discussed some interesting connections between a concept in classical philosophy and a variety of issues in the world of today. Some of these connections I feel are rather poignant for modern society and the environmental movement.

No introductory course in philosophy would be complete without discussing Plato’s famous allegory of the cave. While Plato originally intended the story to provide an analogy describing how closed many people’s minds were to (his version of) greater philosophical truth, there have been many alternative interpretations.* A notable one in recent years is the Wachowski Brothers’ (now the Wachowski Sisters‘) 1999 blockbuster The Matrix, in which the material world as we understand it is in fact just a highly elaborate computer simulation whose purpose is to keep our minds constantly busy whilst armies of machines harvest our biological energy to fuel their war on the real version of humanity.


Plato dreamt up his cave allegory in his book The Republic, which arguably paved the way for much of what we now know as modern Western society. The rather twisted setup of the story involves a small group of life-long prisoners, imprisoned in a mountainside cave. These prisoners have been shackled down by their limbs and neck for their entire existence, with their only experience of the world being that which is projected onto the wall of the cave in front of them by puppeteers (whose motives are highly questionable), using a fire burning behind their backs.  Plato said the prisoners’ most prized hobby is to name the shadow images which pass by on the wall. They do this without knowing that the horse which they name is in fact a rather low-order approximation to a real horse.


One day, a single prisoner is let free from his shackles. Turning around, his darkness-adjusted eyes are blinded by the light of the fire which had been the origin of all things he had seen, and he stumbles through the mouth of the cave and outdoors. Upon reaching the mouth of the cave, the escapee is again blinded by the light of the sun, realising his entire life has been a lie – that there was so much more to existence than he could have ever dreamed previously.

Plato speculates as to what the further movements of the prisoner might be, but the most important point is that the prisoner feels compelled to return to his former inmates in order to tell them just what they are missing. Upon returning to the dark cave, the others think him mad and do not believe a word he says. How on earth could there be anything else in the world, when they have everything they could ever want or need? Besides, the first prisoner’s skill in naming the shadow puppets has by this point been drastically reduced, his eyes again needing to readjust to the darkness. Plato goes further: the prisoners say that, if they were able, they would kill their old companion, for his ridiculous claims.

There are, by construction, plenty of parallels here with the narrative of The Matrix. Keanu Reeves’ character Neo, the chosen one, is the prisoner who escapes from the bonds which he hadn’t even realise he was wearing. Through Morphius’ guidance, he learns what existence truly is. Along with his new companions, Neo aims to free all those humans who have been captured and brainwashed into this grand computer simulation. As in Plato’s tale, anyone brave enough to fight against the matrix will be met with much resistance and likely be killed. However in this case the aggressors will not be former inmates, but rather, agents of the matrix – for the cave analogy, the puppeteers.


Another allegory is very much closer to home, and yet still shares the same essence of the matrix analogy, in that it centres around a so-called virtual reality. As I discussed in a previous piece, smartphones now form an intrinsic part of many, many people’s daily existence. Some estimates claim the average US citizen spends a shocking 5 hours staring at the screens of mobile devices every day. Even if such estimates are exaggerated, it is clear that an enormous chunk of the average person’s day is spent on apps and websites, almost none of which even existed at the turn of the millennium.

Both the prisoner who spends their existence staring at shadows and the technology user who spends their time looking at a screen are trading off their three dimensional existence for a two dimensional one, giving this particular analogy a special relevance. The difference here is that the former does not realise they have actually made a trade, while the smartphone user becomes willingly imprisoned.


Recent work has been done looking into the impacts of the five major social media on mental health. Youtube was the only medium to come out of this analysis as having a positive effect, while Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook and Twitter were held to have an overall detrimental impact on their users’ mental health. In some cases, survey respondents reported these media as linked to anxiety, loneliness and a lack of self-confidence. There is mounting evidence to suggest that spending one’s time on social media is unhealthy, but the user is drawn back again and again, often implicitly, by the associated dopamine hit, deeply ingrained habits and that particularly 21st century phenomenon fear of missing out.

The aspect of being ‘blinded by the light’ is certainly applicable, with those who give up their technological burdens reporting their deep sense of relief.** However the aggression element of Plato’s cave allegory is probably not so present here, with there being general feelings of agreement toward anyone who speaks out about the evils of social media. However, when a person quits using (or never owned) a mobile phone or laptop, the response from others will often be a comment on how annoying it will be to try and get hold of them, or a question about how they will manage under such old fashioned pretences.


If you were wondering why this post is included in a blog which focuses on positive approaches to tackling the problems posed by climate change, the following shows where the relevance lies.

Emitting carbon dioxide is not something we can opt out of. By the very fact of our existence, we are polluters of the Earth’s atmosphere, breathing in oxygen and breathing out this greenhouse gas. In addition, we are (mostly) born into societies which are driven by fossil fuels. As I have previously argued, we still haven’t found any means of electricity generation, mass agriculture or transportation which are completely independent of fossil fuel usage, even if some approaches need them far less than others. In a world where long-distance travel, 24 hour lighting and instant communication form a ubiquitous part of daily life, it is almost unavoidable to inherit a large carbon footprint just by going about in the world. To see this for yourself, I would highly recommend calculating your carbon footprint using the helpful quiz provided by the One Planet Living initiative.

Many, many people are, of course, aware of the fact of their polluting. The (mainly psychological) issue lies in the corresponding ‘disconnect’, which I have mentioned in the past. Beyond awareness is, rather than the philosophical enlightenment Plato eludes to, a distinct change in lifestyle. Your carbon emission can be vastly reduced by a collection of small changes to everyday life, such as cycling rather than driving, changing electricity provider, eating less meat, generating less waste and turning electrical devices off when you’re not using them. These steps, taken separately, provide no enormous disruption to your daily routines. Taken together, they pave the path towards a less carbon-intensive lifestyle.

On the face of it, you may think the aggression part of the allegory does not appear here, since it isn’t often you hear of anyone killing someone for their attitudes towards environmental issues. This may be the case, but aggression is certainly present in the face of environmentalists. Consider the small group of protesters who stood up against the government overturning its banning in their home county of Lancashire. One a day in January, this commendable group’s peaceful outcry at a Cuadrilla site was met with physical aggression by construction workers, who pushed them into a road using fencing.


The aspect of oppression is also present, with many governments being well aware of their large carbon footprints, and yet doing very little to cut their emissions, at the expense of worse-off people both abroad and at home, both in present and future. Further, renewables schemes and green incentives are scrapped by those in power bowing to the almighty Pound, with former UK Prime Minister David Cameron scrapping a programme giving homeowners renewables incentives just days after signing the COP21 international agreement in Paris. In today’s London, renowned educational establishments such as the British Library and Natural History Museum regularly have exhibitions which are sponsored by fossil fuel giants. I was particularly shocked when the Science Museum put on its Wonderlab exhibition, which sought to teach children about the science of climate change (amongst other things) and yet drew its funding from the Norwegian company Statoil.

Perhaps the connection to Plato’s cave is not as immediately clear as in the case of The Matrix, since most of us are at least partially aware of the damage we are inflicting upon the planet. However consider the case of pushing climate change combatting lifestyle changes to the extreme. It is certainly the case that if you give up eating animal products completely, stop flying in planes and don’t generate any disposable waste at all, you will receive plenty of resistance from people around you; expect to be labelled as ‘being ridiculous’ or ‘idealist’.

Upon giving up flying, you will undoubtedly hear comments such as ‘if you don’t book that seat then the plane will still fly anyway’. Upon quitting meat, you will surely hear ‘if you stop eating meat then this won’t stop any pigs, cows or chickens being killed’. Upon going zero waste you will hear ‘There is still waste involved in the production of those so-called waste-free products you are consuming’.

Of course the world isn’t going to stop turning because one person stands up and says it isn’t right – no one ever expected it would and that is not the point. Environmental organisations such as Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace have attempted many times to try and arrange for action on climate change to come about from the top down, for governments to change their electricity generation methods, cap their emissions and encourage more environmentally friendly lifestyles. Sadly, little effect progress has been made in this direction, with many environmental policies being expensive, sub-optimal and unattractive. Consider, for example, the attitude of UKIP’s Paul Nuttall towards green levies and environmental regulations: the country would be more prosperous without them. In a free market capitalist world, the state being willing to impose any sort of environmental regulations on businesses or citizens seems unlikely.***

Considering the failure of most attempts at top-down action on climate change, it is increasingly apparent that solutions to the climate crisis must have grassroots, bottom-up origins. Bottom-up environmentalism means lifestyle change and coordination of local groups and organisations. It means fundraising events, outreach activities and general word-spreading. The hope is that eventually top-down action will become a necessary response to mass public demand, but for now my personal belief is that the best bet on tackling climate change is to do everything within your own power to reduce your emissions and encourage others to join you in doing so.

There is a way out of climate oppression by the so-called elite class. You may have heard some refer to it using the word revolution.


* : As well as those mentioned and discussed here, there are some other awakenings to which Plato’s famous story could be applied. Firstly, in modern day North Korea, learning of the ‘outside world’ and speaking of this to fellow citizens is considered utmost treason. An application which is relevant to the RS course I am tutoring is, for Christians, the transfiguration of Jesus, following which his disciples were labelled as mad for their ‘seeing the light’ and their dedication of their lives to Jesus. Further, Simon Amstell’s mockumentary Carnage hints at non-veganism (also known as carnism) as a Platonic cave imprisonment.

** : I will be giving up my second hand iPhone 5 and returning to the world of the so-called dumb phone when my SIM contract expires in September. I’ll let you know how it goes.

***: Having said that, the UK seems to be heading away from the small state associated with free market capitalism. Both the Conservative and Labour Party manifestos are much more communitarian than the politics of the past couple of decades, both making a clean break from Tony Blair’s neoliberalism. This is not to say, however, that either party is planning to make real efforts to protect the environment.

[Images: headercave, matrix, fracking]

Nuclear power: the ongoing green controversy


Just over six years ago an earthquake off the coast of Tohoku measuring a whopping 9 on the Richter scale sparked the largest tsunami ever recorded to hit Japan. It struck the coast at Fukushima, causing much destruction, including 15,894 lost lives and major damage to public and private property. The tsunami and earthquake also played large parts in causing the meltdown of Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Although the meltdown event itself caused no deaths, the radiative aftermath is still being felt across the Pacific ocean and there is still plenty of nuclear waste to be disposed of on site, largely in black bin bags. Earlier this year, robots were sent in to commence the clean-up operation, only to have their circuits fried before being able to start work.

Many people, even in Japan, are unaware just how bad the disaster (and its associated fallout) at Fukushima were. In the present day, nearby residents have been told it is safe to live where radioactivity recordings of 20 milliSieverts per year have been made. Compare this with the notorious Chernobyl disaster, where readings of 1-5 milliSieverts per year led to evacuations. Clearly, it is greatly desirable to avoid such disasters in the future.

One approach to the problem is to upgrade the early-warning systems for an approaching tsunami to make them much more efficient. As my MRes project for MPE CDT I am currently researching how adaptive meshes can be used to improve the efficiency of computations in the numerical modelling of tsunamis, with the Tohoku tsunami as a case study.

Another possible solution is for Japan to review its usage of nuclear power in its energy grid in light of the country’s vulnerability to extreme weather events. This is indeed something which has been done by the Japanese government since the event. However, the problems posed by climate change are making it increasingly important that the world turns away from fossil fuels and toward lower CO2 emitting options.

Provided nuclear power plants can be managed such that meltdowns are highly improbable, many argue we should not abandon this relatively ‘clean’ alternative to fossil fuels, which has the potential to generate vast amounts of electricity.  Nonetheless, much of the environmental movement rejects nuclear power, usually with the opinion it is just too risky. This was something I found particularly clear during the events surrounding COP21 in Paris, 2015, when I accidentally upset quite a few people by showing support for nuclear power.

This controversial issue strikes a strongly dividing line between environmentalists and I am determined to get to the bottom of what exactly drives this. I recognise that this subject is far too vast to be covered in one blog piece and so my intention is merely to start a discussion and see what the possible alternatives might be.


There are two ways to extract energy from atoms: split them or fuse them. Nuclear fission corresponds to the former, and is the mode of electricity generation used in plants world over. In a highly controlled, contained atmosphere, heavy atoms such as those of uranium or thorium are split, leading to an enormous amount of atomic energy being released, resulting in extremely high temperatures.

Just as when heat is released from burning coal, gas, oil and biomass fuels, the high temperatures due to nuclear reactions are used to boil water, resulting in steam rising therefrom and turning the turbines which would be turned manually by wind or water in the case of most renewable sources. Thus, the only immediate byproduct of nuclear power is harmless water vapour. But surely some radioactivity somehow ‘leaks’ out of the plant? In fact, a traditional coal-burning plant emits more radioactive materials than a modern nuclear power plant.


After a year or so has elapsed, another byproduct must be removed from the reactor, however: nuclear waste. These byproducts include radioactive isotopes cesium-137, strontium-90 and iodine-131, and are potentially very harmful to humans. Despite this, the nuclear industry is generally very thorough in its safe handling of waste, transporting it in thick, coated containers.

One major proponent of a turn to nuclear power in the face of climate change is James Lovelock, who can be quoted as requesting for the UK government to agree to store a large proportion (but small quantity) of its nuclear waste in a lead-lined box in his back garden (for no price, except the delivery), which he would happily tend to flowers nearby and pose for photos with. The government declined his offer. An alternative fate for nuclear waste stems from recent developments concerning the recycling of nuclear waste, potentially creating simplified waste forms. One possible approach is provided by the newly developed integral fast reactor, which could meet the UK’s energy needs for 500 years through consumption of its nuclear waste stockpile.

The second type of nuclear energy generation, fusion, is a magical world-provider, future-ensurer, climate-change-trivialiser… the power of a star inside a power plant. The process fuses low mass atoms such as hydrogen, under extreme temperatures, to create heavier ones, releasing untold amounts of energy in the process. Unlike fission, this type of energy generation contributes zero nuclear waste, meaning it is both perfectly ‘clean’, and cheap to fuel. There isn’t even any need to go mining for exotic elements, since hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe.

The issue with fusion, however, is a developmental one. The fact the process requires reactors to be able to reach, and sustain, temperatures on the order of millions of degrees Celsius is not something we can crack easily. Stars are able to contain such unbelievable heat because of their gigantic gravitational field, holding their plasmic entrails within. On Earth, however, we would need to achieve containment within a solid casing. Materials science hasn’t, so far, been able to find anything which could feasibly do this. As such, we aren’t currently able to maintain fusion for more than a few seconds, and the joke goes that our achieving nuclear fusion on a sustainable, useful level is ‘always 20 years away’ from fruition. Perhaps it will indeed turn out to be too good to be true, but surely the only way to ever have the ability to control this dream energy source is through continued investment in the nuclear sector.


Pro-nuclear arguments are largely utilitarian: supporters accept that terrible meltdown events might very occasionally happen, thereby causing environmental damage and severe health risks, but also hold that these concerns are vastly outweighed by the amount of clean electricity generated, as compared with the corresponding greenhouse emissions of fossil fuels which themselves have climate-catastrophic strings attached.

In Lovelock’s book ‘The Revenge of Gaia’, he tabulates the fatalities of workers and public due to different energy-producing industries from 1970 to 1992. The resulting deaths per terawatt year (which is possibly the most utilitarian metric conceivable) of the coal industry is 342, natural gas industry is 85 and hydroelectric industry is 883. The nuclear industry, by contrast, corresponds to only 8 deaths per terawatt year. Some have even argued that, had Japan never adopted nuclear power as a fuel source, many more deaths would have occurred from coal power sources than were caused by the Fukushima event.

Despite the fact nuclear power is extremely efficient, producing vast amounts of electricity from tiny amounts of fuel, we may derive from the fatality statistics that nuclear accidents rarely lead to many deaths. What is not accounted for in this data is the fact that a nuclear meltdown can cause environmental and health-related damage long after the event. Later deaths and severe illnesses can not always be so easily correlated with one particular disaster event. This is an intrinsically difficult thing to quantify, since many, many things in our daily lives are radioactive on some level, from smoke detectors, to rocks… even food.


The word clean perhaps isn’t something that immediately springs to mind when someone mentions nuclear power. 20th and 21st century TV and film have more often than not portrayed nuclear power as a ‘dirty’ form of energy – think Mr. Burns’ nuclear power plant in the Simpsons, giving rise to three-eyed fish. However, many studies suggest not just that the nuclear fission process as a whole yields very low greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, but also that nuclear waste is not so much of an issue, when handled properly.

A graph displayed in my previous blog piece illustrates the results of one study which found nuclear power to be less carbon intensive than solar power. That piece also explored the murky origins of rare earth materials found in modern technologies, including renewable power sources, suggesting that there are both ethical issues and shortages. As one might imagine, the mining of uranium isn’t the most ethically responsible either. Upon my accidental upset of a group of environmentalists at COP21, I heard the story of one woman who had spent a lot of time visiting African communities which have been ravaged by the nuclear industry coming in, getting local residents to mine for uranium and going off to generate vast amounts of electricity for the West, leaving very little for the communities to benefit from.


History shows us that competition frequently leads to technological innovation. The space race lead to the invention or development of long distance communication, Velcro, water filters, MRI and CAT scanners. Today, the capitalist system means profit drives tech companies to make wickedly fast, portable, energy-efficient computers, be able to transport an item from warehouse to doorstep in a matter of hours and develop incredibly powerful apps that can, err… make the user have the face of a dog or age by 50 years in live motion. In the same way, warfare has been a major driver of innovation, especially in the fact that nuclear power is only an option for us today because nuclear weapons were brought into existence in 1945.


In ‘The Revenge of Gaia’, Lovelock remarks that two of the central fears in the ‘pampered and cosseted developed world’ are cancer and nuclear war, neither of which were in the forefront of people’s minds in times when life expectancy was lower and technology less developed. It is interesting that humanity pushes forward into uncharted territory through innovation and soon becomes utmost afraid of these new things it discovers and invents there (respectively).

The reason for Lovelock’s comment is that, in fearing the horrors of cancer, we should beware of placing too much emphasis on the aftermath of past weapon deployment. The impact of the nuclear bombs dropped in tests and on Japan over the 20th century on the likelihood of our developing cancer is in fact negligible. Following nuclear tests leading to and during the Cold War, enough radioactive material has been carried across the globe by atmospheric and oceanic currents that radioactive substances such as strontium-90 can be found of the teeth of any person on the planet born after 1963. Tests conducted between 1945 and 1980 alone had a total yield of approximately 510 megatons, with atmospheric testing alone accounting for 428 megatons. That is, more than 29,000 times the size of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Fear not, however, as the quantities of these substances found in your teeth are so small, and pose such a small risk to your health, that you should be more worried about the radioactivity of certain rocks when on holiday in Wales or Cornwall.

Putting aside, for now, any discussion of the objective morality of possession and potential usage of nuclear weapons, surely now that nuclear fission exists, we could pursue its development without military intentions. An important development in this vein is the discovery of nuclear fuels which cannot be used in missiles. Thorium-based fission uses fuels which are not only much more abundant in the earth’s crust, but crucially un-weaponisable. Great! Now we can build extremely efficient energy sources, even in unstable countries, without worry. Sadly, it hasn’t panned out quite like that. Investment in thorium-based nuclear fission is minuscule. I suspect the reason why is exactly the reason you might think it is so good: you can’t make missiles out of it.

That competition drives innovation so clearly highlights a big issue within the climate change problem: it is difficult to derive any notion of competition from acting in a ‘green’ way. In my opinion, it is crucial that we find ways to make tackling climate change a desirable thing for businesses to do. Kevin Synnott, contributor to this blog, has come up with some good ideas in this direction, many of which are linked intrinsically to climate science communication.


I hope you would agree from what I have discussed above that, in principle, implementation of nuclear power on a large scale might well prove to be an effective means of combatting climate change. This is not to say that all nuclear developments are necessarily a good thing.


In the UK, the government, along with the energy provider EDF Energy and others, are making plans to plough vast sums of taxpayer money into a nuclear facility in Somerset, called Hinkley Point C. This is not the best type of reactor we could build right now and, frankly, its development involves a real waste of potential. The planned reactor is of an outdated, overly-expensive and relatively inefficient 1980’s model. Money would be much better spent on a more up-to-date model, but long-standing funding ties are blocking this from coming into being. There is even evidence to suggest this particular reactor might be unbuildable, as with uncompleted projects of the same type in Olkiluoto, Finland, and Flamanville, Normandy.

As George Monbiot has argued in a recent article, whilst nuclear power provides a path towards a green future, so-called white elephant projects such as Hinkley Point C are not the answer. They give nuclear power a bad name, through expense and risk, and continuation of waste contribution.

As one goes through the list of possible energy sources open before us – fossil fuels, wind power, solar power, biomass-burning, nuclear fission… – it is difficult not to feel a sense that they all have flaws which cannot be ignored, be they ethical, economic, environmental, or some combination thereof. But this makes perfect sense! As Milton Friedman famously said,

“There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.”

The idea that we can generate electricity to turn the wheels of human civilisation with absolutely zero cost to the Earth or to ourselves is, when you think about it, rather ridiculous. Assuming that we insist on continuing to have a sustained provision of electricity for our usage, the question is not how to get this for free, but how to obtain it by means which inflict least destruction and which ensure the brightest possible future.

We can debate all day long about whether nuclear power or renewables provide the best solution to the grandest of problems faced by climate change, but in reality the best, clearest approach is the way of reduction. This opinion on energy is gaining traction, with even Peter Wilby of New Statesman showing support in his column last week. Reducing energy requirements not only lessens demand and the consequent emissions, but also means less new infrastructure is needed, less money is spent on both personal and governmental levels, and a simpler, more fulfilling life could be lived by all.

Does that sound like a better world to you? Cutting waste, reducing energy demands and being aware of product origins really isn’t that hard. I whole-heartedly recommend at least trying all three.

[Further myth-busting: here]

[Image sources: header image, fission diagram, fishbomb test, Hinkley C]