We’re almost halfway though the year, and what a weird year it is! I always thought 2020 would be significant, but for different reasons.
Take a breather and make time to reflect. Turn problems into opportunities. I’m going to use this opportunity to review some relevant resolutions and my reading list.
At the end of 2019 I made some resolutions. And without putting too fine a point on it, I think I’ve smashed it.
I committed to no more than two meals a week containing meat, and at least two vegan meals a week (in addition to breakfasts). I’ve definitely succeeded.
I’ve gone virtually vegetarian and hardly ever eat meat now. It was surprising to me how easy this was. I hadn’t fully internalised that meat is an acquired taste and when you stop eating it you stop wanting it.
For Lent I also stopped eating cheese. This was harder but I managed the full term. I also cut down on other dairy, embracing oat milk, coconut yoghurt and fully plant-based “buttery” spreads. I’m eating some cheese again but only if it’s a key part of a dish. I don’t just blindly put it on things now.
I committed to no ICE driving in our local town (unless the load is too big to carry by foot/bike) and no more than one flight each per year. Lockdown has certainly helped with transport commitments but I’ve still resisted driving in town, despite how unattractive public transport and shopping now is.
I’m using my bike a lot and my panniers/rack can carry a surprisingly large volume and weight. I bought the bike and its bags second hand over a decade ago for around £100, so it’s been a great investment.
I haven’t flown in over a year and our recent holidays have been by rail and road. I don’t miss airports at all (they are awful places) and we get a free extra day of annual leave by not flying. You don’t lose out on time and the journey becomes part of the holiday too, win-win.
It’s encouraging to see more people walking and cycling. Let us remember how pleasant the air smelled, and how quiet the roads and skies were as we design our recovery, as this will determine our future.
Air pollution kills and also makes you more vulnerable to respiratory diseases. Let’s keep monitoring it and make sure we don’t regress.
Remote work works. Who actually enjoys commuting anyway? I much prefer the extra hour in bed and time to cook a healthy meal in the evening.
Not satisfied with meeting my commitments I’ve been taking things further.
We’ve been with Octopus Energy for many years now and are on their greenest fixed tariff. Switching energy suppliers is seamless and takes minutes (and you can even get £50 free credit with this referral link).
People often criticise the green energy market and there are certainly some problems. However, I find these are normally just excuses for people’s own laziness and apathy. They could have easily switched suppliers in the time it takes to make the argument.
The electricity market is not perfect, but then nothing is. The question to ask when evaluating anything is not “is it perfect?” but “is this better than the current situation?”. When the current situation is civilisation ending then it’s hard to be worse.
So shut up, switch to a green provider and then work at making it even better. It’s just a stepping stone and we will solve this crisis with many improvements and system change, not a magic bullet. I’m not going to listen to you complain if you’re not even willing to take the first small step.
Running Out Of Time
There is a strong inverse correlation between the day-ahead price of electricity and its carbon intensity2. This is obvious if you think about it, as renewables are cheap and literally come out of the sky for free.
It is now cheaper (in some locations and if there is a genuinely free market) to build brand new solar generation than run existing coal stations. Soon this will even be the case in Northern Europe3.
In the future, people will think we were fools, not just for dumping millions of accumulated years of locked-up solar energy into the atmosphere and oceans in just a few decades, but for being duped into paying a monthly subscription for something that you can get for free. What a con job the fossil fuel firms have pulled on us!
The other benefit of more local and distributed generation is less need for transmission, which means fewer electricity pylons. If anyone ever complains about the look of wind turbines, ask them if they prefer pylons and wires.
A crucial technology for time-shifting non-flexible loads is storage. I predict that home batteries (and V2G EVs) will become far more ubiquitous and more disruptive than even home generation. The only thing better than charging for free is being paid to charge.
In addition to learning more about energy systems, I’ve also resolved to learn more about the wider problems with nature and justice. I appreciate that, as an affluent young white guy in particular, it is pretty tough to truly understand the issues faced by other communities, but I’ve been trying by listening to many various insightful podcasts and reading a diverse range of books.
Following on from my previous reading list, here are my recent reviews.
The Body: A Guide for Occupants by Bill Bryson is a very interesting read and as good as his previous A Short History of Nearly Everything. Where units are given in imperial (e.g. pounds) they are also given in metric (e.g. kg), which makes it easy to relate to whatever is being described.
He also presciently predicts our present predicament when covering disease (such as flu pandemics) and antibiotic resistance. He also explains how the UK National Health Service has tragically fallen to among one of the the worst in the industrialised world due to the past decade of underfunding.
A timely reminder that you pay for things whether you invest in them or not. Either a smaller amount upfront or a huge cost down the line, when you need to shut down the rest of the economy because we can’t cope. The climate crisis will teach us an even bigger lesson if we are not extremely careful.
The Uninhabitable Earth
The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells is quite depressing so I took it slowly. It gets better towards the end, particularly the paperback afterword, so it’s worth persevering.
It can be hard to read, and not just due to the content. The sentences are long and the words complex. It has a high reading age and it’s often hard to parse the meaning. Sometimes it leads you down the garden path and the meaning changes towards the end of a sentence.
Long Walk to Freedom
Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela is, as the name suggests, long. However, it is well worth the effort and full of insight. The chapters are short so it’s easy to tackle in small bites.
Mandela talks of forgiving people, unless they are dishonest. It’s the system that is at fault and often not individuals. He saw the opportunities in his “splendid isolation”, which is currently quite relevant.
I enjoyed the small details of his life as well as the big issues. His passion for gardening, that he hardly drinks and can’t take his alcohol, and how he highly values time in nature and exercise.
He describes his diet, e.g. there is a section on trying to source unrefined brown rice. It’s worth noting that he lived until the ripe old age of 95. He was born before the end of the first world war and I remember the huge numbers of people paying their respects when he died in 2013. I was walking past his statue on the South Bank in London every day at the time.
When he was released 30 years ago the world had changed and shrunk. He talks about seeing the new plastic pollution, and how television and education can be used as a weapon or tool (not necessarily for good).
He is humble and fully acknowledges that the freedom fight was a team effort and that he just happened to become the poster for it. He calls out many of his colleagues who he thinks did more than him, particularly the white activists who were not only fighting injustice but also their own communities. People like Denis Goldberg, who sadly died two weeks ago.
It is a tragic shame that our current crop of elected leaders don’t even come close in terms of the integrity, empathy and compassion of this great man.
The Future We Choose
The Future We Choose by Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac (links to buy online) is a great read and relatively short. I read the UK version and my only criticism is the confusing US units (e.g. pounds of clothes is confusing as it is also the currency in the UK). This is odd as neither of the authors are from the US. There are ten actions to take that are described in the book:
- Let Go of the Old World
- Face Your Grief but Hold a Vision of the Future
- Defend the Truth
- See Yourself as a Citizen – Not as a Consumer
- Move Beyond Fossil Fuels
- Reforest the Earth
- Invest in a Clean Economy
- Use Technology Responsibly
- Build Gender Equality
- Engage in Politics
There is also a good TED talk that follows up on the topics. A key concept to remember is that the climate crisis will be orders of magnitude worse than the current pandemic, if we don’t take action now. Crucially, action is both the path and the goal. What we choose to do is both the world we want to create and the way to create it. Taking action gives meaning, purpose and happiness.
There is a free beautifully illustrated picture book called What Happened When We All Stopped by one of the authors. You can watch an animated and narrated video version too.
Falter by Bill McKibben is very good but the first parts are not exactly happy bedtime reading. Again, it takes a US view and temperatures are often in Fahrenheit, which is confusing considering the Paris Agreement defines goals in Celsius and is often referenced.
It’s an easier and much better read than The Uninhabitable Earth. The later sections in particular are excellent and super interesting if you’re into tech.
I don’t strongly subscribe to any particular political ideology or ethos. I’m an engineer and think in terms of solutions and systems. It seems to me that the continued survival of human civilisation should be a universally accepted value and so intrinsically apolitical. However, I do agree with Bill that the current Thatcherite flavour of free market capitalism is doing a poor job of protecting us from the sad fate a small number of selfish corporations and individuals are inflicting upon us.
My current book is Unbowed by Wangari Maathai. I’m not far into it but it looks promising.
I have previously heard some great insights from her that really get to the root of our problems. One of these is that our biggest issues are fundamentally not the climate crisis, ecosystem collapse, biodiversity loss and mass extinction but human greed, selfishness and apathy.
This is almost the very definition of corruption. We have a huge poverty of courage and an integrity deficit.
You have probably witnessed this during lockdown. While most people are good and honest there are some selfish individuals who don’t follow the rules and so endanger the rest of us. Fortunately, if the majority do the right thing then these sad souls will have an insignificant influence, apart from the loss of their social credit if they ever need to cash it in.
It’s all well and good applauding key workers but a better way to appreciate them would be to respect the rules that are there to protect us all, and if you truly value them then you can advocate for sufficient funding. Maybe we could start with that promised extra £200m a week (at least an additional £10 billion every single year).
We need to shift and nurture a culture of doing the right thing, even when it isn’t easy. We need to encourage and inspire confidence, and other positive character traits such as generosity, kindness and passionate action.
Although it is everyone’s problem and everybody must be part of the solution, that doesn’t mean that all are equally to blame. A surprisingly small number of corporations and individuals are far more culpable that most others.
However, blaming doesn’t help and a far more productive use of our time and energy is to do positive things. Everyone needs to come along for the ride and play their part. If you are not willing to do your bit then who do you propose should do it for you instead?
- LibreOffice is a free, powerful, open source and cross-platform office suite. Download it for Linux, macOS or Windows. ↩
- Source: Balancing Mechanism Reporting Service and Sheffield University Solar via Drax Electric Insights and Carbon Intensity API (National Grid ESO, EDF, University of Oxford and WWF). ↩
- Source: Solar’s Future is Insanely Cheap (2020) – Ramez Naam. “This incredible pace of solar cost decline, with average prices in sunny parts of the world down to a penny or two by 2030 or 2035, is just remarkable. Building new solar would routinely be cheaper than operating already built fossil fuel plants, even in the world of ultra-cheap natural gas we live in now.” “Even in places like Northern Europe, by the later 2030s we’d see solar costs below the operating cost of fossil fuels, providing cheap electricity in summer months with their very long days in the high latitudes. These prices would be disruptive to a large fraction of already operating fossil fuel power plants – particularly coal power plants, that are far less able to ramp their power flexibly to follow solar’s day-night cycle.” N.B. Hidden fossil fuel subsidies disrupt the free market where renewables are cheaper. “In a purely open market, these incredibly low prices would drive the world’s remaining coal plants into bankruptcy, and steal some of the most profitable operating hours even from cheap natural gas plants.” ↩