Friday, 17 December 2010

Eco Dimension Day

Blog entries seem to be a little scarce of late, so I thought I'd do a quick report on an Eco Dimension Day I went along to on behalf of BFoE last week at Washwood Heath Technology College.

The Eco Dimension Day was the brainchild of Corinne Campbell, and the aim of the day was to raise awareness about environmental issues, such as recycling and sustainability, amongst the 11-13 year olds who attend the school. There were loads of activities lined up for the day, including re-using items to make clothes, cooking demonstrations and workshops, and animation classes. Before I arrived at the school I had no idea in which area Corinne wanted me to help out, and to be honest I was a little apprehensive, mainly as I didn't want to appear to not know my stuff in front of people half my age! After nervously sitting through an assembly (for the first time in about 10 years!), I was last to be assigned a task for the day. Luckily for me the group I was working with were looking at two of my favourite things: environmental issues and Lego. I was helping out a class who were given the difficult task of designing an "Eco Village".

The day kicked off with the students watching a few topical videos to get them thinking about what sort of ideas would need to be incorporated into the village to make it environmentally friendly and sustainable. They were then split into four groups and asked to brainstorm ideas for their village (on a side note, brainstorming these days is referred to as mind mapping, I'm so out of touch!). I was then asked to give a demonstration on renewable energy sources using a clever little model which incorporated wind, solar and hydroelectric power. It was then break time, and an exciting opportunity for me to see inside the staff room! Needless to say, once you're an adult the mysteries of the staff room are slightly less romantic than when I was a child. It in fact resembled the staff room of most places I've worked at, although they were giving out free tea, and by this point I was gasping.

After break, the students had until lunch time to design and make a model village out of Lego using the ideas they'd been discussing all morning. At first, most of the pupils set about making an ultimate village, with little regard for the environment, not believing their luck that they were allowed to play with Lego during school hours! After experiencing similar excitement, I thought I'd best interject and encourage them to think about practical issues, such as energy sources, food, farmland, and transport. Many of the pupils had areas set aside for wind farms and areas to grow fruit and vegetables. They also organised their village so everything was close by to reduce the need to use cars, and had various ideas to encourage cycling. Other ideas were not so green (one village had an enormous block of flats in the centre, possibly a first for a village?!), but the exercise certainly achieved its aim of getting the children to think about the way they live.

Next came lunch. I was unaware, but one of the perks of being a teacher is that you can push to the front of the line for a hot school dinner, so I was straight in with my healthy pizza and chips option to relive my school days further. The rest of the afternoon was taken up with an assembly where the pupils had the opportunity to display and talk about what they had been doing that day. All in all, the day was a huge success, and got everyone, both staff and students, thinking about environmental issues.

I was alarmed at how many of the students got a lift to school, even though some of them lived a mere ten minute walk away. In their defense, if offered a lift to school on a cold morning, I'm sure it's hard to refuse. However, this outlined to me that the onus lies on the parents in educating their children on the importance of being what is frequently termed "eco-friendly". The majority of the students had no idea why making short trips in a car was bad for the environment, and similarly why they should recycle and shouldn't be leaving electrical items on when not in use, to name but three. That's why this day was so important. Children need to be aware that their actions, however small, will make a difference, whether positively or negatively. So hopefully at the very least the pupils involved in the event will think about their actions and their lifestyle, as at the end of the day it will be them who will benefit from a green lifestyle in the future.

Monday, 29 November 2010

Grow Sites Update

Winter has now well and truly set in across Birmingham, but last week I braved the cold and went along to the third meeting of the Tenby Cottages Community Garden Group, or rather the Poplar Community Growing Space as it has now been renamed.

Preparations for the site, based in Lozells, are coming along in leaps and bounds, with the majority of the planned 20 raised beds now in place. CSV Environment, the organisation responsible for setting up the grow site, are hoping to have it completed before Christmas. I went along for a look myself today and took a few photos to give you a better idea of what the site is all about.

As you can see, despite the graffiti (which the organisers are looking into getting removed), this is a nice, well sized site, which will be perfect for the residents currently on the waiting list for a bed. The residents have been very organised in setting up the group, and have appointed people as Chair, Secretary and Treasurer already, so once the site is completed and the funding has arrived they will be ready to go.

All that is left to do is to secure a water supply, and install benches and a shed for communal tools. I for one am very excited to see the site in March at the start of the growing season, and hopefully I'll get to sample some of the produce at the end of the summer! Watch this space for further updates...

Elsewhere in food related news, there is seed swap at the Northfield Eco Centre on Thursday December 9th which is open to anyone interested in sharing, or indeed acquiring, all sorts of seeds. If you are interested be sure to book a place now with this link.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Ding Dong Definitely Don't Buy

Well, the holiday season is almost upon us. It's nearly time to drag the tree (complete with a bonus 12 months-worth of dust) out of the loft and to listen to the delightful chorus of... your significant other and your dad cursing between one another, as they search in vain for the faulty bulb in the fairy lights which is preventing them from switching on. I suspect that the cynics amongst you will say 'But Erica, there's another month to go until we can experience those simple joys!' On the contrary my friends; now is precisely the time to start thinking creatively about Christmas.

Did you know that every single Boxing Day, us Brits throw away an estimated 83 square kilometres of wrapping paper, and that 1 billion of those cards that you carefully picked out and hand-wrote end up in the bin? Yes, that's right. Your auntie Sue threw away your carefully chosen holographic, so-shiny-its-seizure-inducing Christmas card practically as soon as it came through her letterbox. Collectively, we produce an estimated 3 million tonnes of waste over the holidays. But there is a better way! There are a number of ways you can keep Christmas fun (in fact, make it even more fun) and make it healthier for the environment (as well as your pocket). All it requires is a bit of creativity. So, here are three fun, eco-friendly solutions to your Christmas woes.

1. Handmade Christmas
The Objective: Make your Christmas presents from scratch. You could paint a picture for a friend who's just moved house, or knit an iPod cozy for your significant other. If you think creatively about what your loved ones might want, you can get their present just right. You can also make your gifts out of recycled materials, such as a patchwork quilt constructed from much-loved but now too-worn to wear t-shirts. Handmade Christmas is the best way to give your friends and family something unique, personal and made just for them! What could be more heart-warming and Christmassy than that?

Pros: Making things is fun and the gift you give will be totally one-of-a-kind.
Cons: It takes TIME, so start thinking and then get crafty ASAP!

2. Charity Christmas
The Objective: All gifts bought must come from a charity shop. Ideally there should be some sort of price limit set (£5 per gift is usually about right), but how you set that is up to you. In my family, my mom gives a prize-present for the best (most funny, perfect or unique) gift given. When she let slip that this year's prize was going to be a goat I dimly asked “Ooh, could we have chickens instead? Free free-range eggs!”. It turns out that she meant a goat to be given to an African family, which is much more fitting for Christmas which is, after all, about caring for each other.

Pros: The money you spend will go to charity, it will cost you less and requires ingenuity.
Cons: Charity Christmas is becoming more and more popular, so make sure you start browsing early. You don't want to start looking on Christmas Eve when all of the good stuff will already be sitting, wrapped, under someone else's tree.

3. Recycled Christmas
The Objective: All gift-wrapping must be done with creatively collected recycled (and preferably recyclable) materials. I don't mean buying new rolls of paper made from recycled material, I mean ribbon made from pairs of laddered tights or newspaper upon which you've stamped, drawn or painted a pretty, festive design. It doesn't matter if the wrapping doesn't sit flush or isn't immaculately folded; you can really get creative with wrapping presents this way and your household clutter will be getting a final hurrah. All in all, you will lose far less waste and gain a free-reign to get creative this Christmas.

Pros: You're creating less rubbish and having more fun with your gift-wrapping (and opening)!
Cons: Make sure you don't go cutting up your mom's curtains for ribbon; she won't thank you for that.

It seems that every year there is an increasing number of people bemoaning the degeneration of Christmas. Along with the festive joy there is a feeling of sadness, that it has become something only worthy of celebration for those in the retail industry. Richard Wilkinson, co-author of the book 'The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better' thinks that materialism is not about the gifts that we buy and give, but more about what those things say about us to the person receiving. Wilkinson explains that “It's not material self-interest, it's that we're so sensitive. We experience ourselves through each other's eyes - and that's the reason for the labels and the clothes and the cars”. The fact is that those who love you don't care how much money you have to spend on their gift; what matters to them is what that gift means. Handmade, Charity and Recycled Christmas are all things which bring Christmas back to the people; where we can stop frivolously spending and consuming (often beyond our means) and really show our loved-ones how much they mean to us.


“Cutting Down on Christmas Waste”:

“Throwing Away Christmas Rubbish will cost 78m”:

“Equality and the Good Life: Interview with Richard Wilkinson”

Take Action! (Here's some inspiration to get you started):
“A Community for Crafts and DIY Projects”

“Sew, cast, carve, solder, sketch, cut, go!”

“Recycle Now: Furoshiki Japanese Wrapping”

Erica Bromage

Monday, 8 November 2010

What the Green Movement Gets Right

It is of course no surprise to anyone in the environmental movement when Channel 4 gets things wrong about us – after previous inflammatory documentaries like Against Nature and The Great Global Warming Swindle, very few can have expected much from What the Green Movement Got Wrong (shown last Thursday, and available online here). We weren't disappointed, and while it sometimes feels a bit like beating your head against a brick wall, it's worth discussing some of the problems with the positions taken in the film.

The main target of my ire was the section on genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which seemed to be based on two questionable assumptions – firstly, that we need genetically modified food to feed the world; and secondly, that the environmentalist argument against GMOs is simply the 'precautionary principle' – that if there's even a slight amount of unknowability about the consequences of GMOs, we shouldn't go ahead with them. The programme's conclusion was that 'the greens' should simply grow up and accept the risks involved in using new technology to provide food for the world's population.

In reality, much of the opposition to GMOs today comes not from a fear of what might go wrong, so much as a knowledge of what does go wrong when GM crops are introduced, taken from the experience of those countries that have invested heavily in GMOs – most notably the US and South American states like Brazil and Argentina. The US is by far the world's biggest producer of GM crops by volume, while almost half the crops grown in Argentina are genetically modified, and a similar amount is grown in Brazil (all of these details can be found in the 2009 version of Friends of the Earth's excellent annual report Who Benefits From GM Crops?). These countries, which have already plunged into the GM experiment, provide numerous examples of why environmentalists are really so anti-GM.

From a climate justice perspective the problem is not just one of uncertain science, but of corporate power and the rights of the poor, the powerless, and the indigenous. A full list of the social and environmental problems caused by GMOs would take up far more space than a single blog post, but a quick run-down would have to include:

  • Genetically modified food technologies are concentrated almost entirely in the hands of five multinational corporations, and of those, Monsanto is responsible for 80% of the total area of farmland planted with GM crops worldwide. Giving this much power over the control of our food supply to just a few companies would be misguided even if the likes of Monsanto were model corporate citizens. But they're not. Like other corporations, Monsanto and their biotech colleagues care exclusively about profit, which is why they have been accused of developing 'terminator' GM technology to ensure the seeds they sell are sterile – this means that farmers are unable to save seeds from the crops they grow, and have to go back to Monsanto on a yearly basis to buy more.

  • GM crops encourage intensive pesticide use, as they are often genetically modified to be highly resistant to herbicides and pesticides. They can then be machine sprayed (taking away pest and weed control jobs that would otherwise have been performed by local farmers) indiscriminately with these chemicals, which are often produced by the same biotech companies, further strengthening their oligopoly on the market. As well as the health issues for people living near to large GM plantations, this is encouraging resistance to herbicides amongst the very plants it is supposed to kill (Who Benefits From GM Crops 2009, pp. 25-27).

  • They also lead to deforestation and land grabbing in South America, where 200,000 hectares of native forest are disappearing in Argentina each year, and social movements like La Via Campesina have documented the struggles of peasant and indigenous communities who have been displaced from their land and persecuted for resisting the encroachment of GM crops (Who Benefits From GM Crops 2010, p. 23).

  • GM crops are not even being used primarily for the noble purpose of feeding the starving, because it remains much more profitable to sell them as biofuels or animal feed for the benefit of the wealthy and well-fed. Significant amounts of existing GM crops are being grown as animal feed or biofuels – up to 90% in the case of GM soya beans – while there are no commercially available GM varieties of crops like rice, wheat, potatoes and fruit and veg that could feed people rather than animals and engines. Research into these strains of GMOs is simply not profitable enough for the companies in control. (Who Benefits From GM Crops 2010, p. 6)

Perhaps the most important thing though, is that the film's supposedly 'eco-pragmatist' thesis – that regardless of all the other problems they cause, we need to support GMOs if we are to feed the world – is faulty in itself. We are already capable of growing and distributing enough food to feed all the people on this planet, without the need for technological 'miracles' like GMOs – the EU itself is famous for the huge amounts of surplus food its agricultural subsidies have created. What we need is the political will to grow food rather than feed, and to put people before profit. It's this that environmentalists and other social movements around the world are calling for under the banner of social and climate justice, whatever Channel 4 thinks.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Dream scheme Longbridge?

Confused by the big roadworks scheme on Bristol Road South A38 at Longbridge ? Birmingham City Council planning application explains all. Documents in 2008/02787/PA explain how the vision of a new Longbridge, a process in which public involvement was invited, is translated into bulldozers on the ground.

One drawing in the pack, ‘Proposed Highway Works Phasing’, helpfully explains the land ownership serving the Longbridge site. Serving the site, or cutting through it, is a railway formation that from Longbridge Station to Bristol Road South is owned by English, Welsh, and Scottish Railway (owner of a fleet of freight trains). The railway, that would in some cases be seen as an asset, is part of the Longbridge to Frankley railway. The potential railway sits alongside the construction training college as assets earmarked for removal.

The gain from the pain is planned to be a better road alignment; a smooth curve with traffic signals at the junction rather than the current roundabout that has sent many a visiting motorist towards Lickey Hills rather than the M5. The planned new junction sets up the start of the Longbridge to M42 route (a route that has failed to gain approval) and firmly places the Longbridge Vision as one where continuing and expanding road transport is a given.

The scheme, in its enthusiasm, bypasses itself by having a new two-ended road to and from Bristol Road South; one end lies opposite the much widened Longbridge Lane.

Developer of the site, St Modwen, are going through a stormy time with Birmingham City Council. In May, City Planning Committee chairman, Councillor Peter Douglas Osborn, accused St Modwen of behaving in a cavalier fashion when trying to force through the ‘Longbridge Tombway’, an underground access to the proposed shopping centre. The Tombway was described by city planners as off-putting to pedestrians. Stung by criticism St Modwen grudgingly dropped the idea (Birmingham Post May 20th).

Ripping on with the project in a changed economic environment might raise the hackles of the Taxpayers Alliance. From the money spent, there might be a good outcome in the fantasy tarmac league, but a physical asset that is worthless or even a liability. The Longbridge site, given breathing space, might be devalued by having a road across it whereas it might otherwise be a new manufacturing site or a new home for Pinewood Studios.

To top and tail the sorry story, the developer had been expected to pay some of the infrastructure costs (a £35m contribution) but opted out (Property Week, 31 March 2009). The public foots the bill.

This then is the reality of Birmingham: an authority laying off staff and struggling for money, relentlessly pushing ahead with a project that may well be obsolete. The elected and employed people making up Birmingham City Council have a great deal of talent and that is needed now – Longbridge needs a rethink.

John Hall

Thursday, 4 November 2010

One Week (and One Day) To Go!

I thought I'd post just a quick (gentle) reminder to anyone who hasn't contacted their local MP yet regarding next Friday's Sustainable Livestock Bill. For those of you who are unaware of the bill, which calls for the improvement in sustainability of all processes associated with livestock, more information can be found here.

Basically, we need you to get in contact with your MP and get them to commit to attending Parliament on the 12th of November to vote for the bill. There are three ways to do this. Firstly, you can write to your MP. Friends of the Earth have created a draft letter which you can email, post or fax to your MP after entering a few details of your own, and this can be accessed here.

Secondly, you can call your MP. Once again, Friends of the Earth have created a video to guide you through what to say, and that can be seen here.

Finally, you can request a face to face meeting with your local MP, which is a great way to ensure you will speak to them directly (and to use your best powers of persuasion!).

I will be reporting back after next Friday on whether the bill was successful or not, so that leaves a week to get your MP to commit to attending! I'll be keeping my fingers crossed...

Don't forget to Join the Moovement!

Monday, 25 October 2010

Cancun Calling

The latest round of climate talks, held in Tianjin in northern China at the beginning of October, ended in as much disarray as a group of diplomats and bureaucrats could realistically achieve. The same arguments that have previously plagued climate negotiations reared their heads again, with the US pointing the finger at China for not accepting binding emissions targets, while others claimed that slow US action on clean energy and emissions reductions is more to blame. Things went so badly that scheduled talks on deforestation didn't even begin, and some of the diplomats in attendance “openly wondered whether continuing the UNFCCC process was even politically worthwhile.

This is all part of the build up to the big event of the year – the 16th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or, as it's more snappily known, COP16. COP15, held last year in Copenhagen, was widely reported on at the time due to the host of famous faces that made appearances during the negotiations – including Barack Obama, Gordon Brown, and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao – and, of course, the huge demonstrations from climate activists that accompanied them. But by the end of the two weeks, little had been achieved beyond the huge emissions of all the delegates flying to Denmark, and those of us concerned with climate justice went home disappointed.

This year's event, taking place between 29th November and 10th December, has so far proved a lot more low-key, not least because of the difficulties of campaigners getting to, and demonstrating in, Mexico, where the event will be held in the glamorous seaside resort of Cancun. Nevertheless, campaigners around the world, including Birmingham Friends of the Earth will be continuing to make demands of their own governments and world leaders.

Our demands include, of course, serious reductions in domestic emissions. There is an increasing view that global temperature rises need to be kept below 1.5 degrees if we are to save the Pacific islands, and other low-lying nations, from catastrophic flooding. The EU is currently committed to just 20% emissions reductions – this needs to rise to at least 40%, and preferably more. Equally important, however, is that these reductions must be made domestically, rather than through 'outsourcing' our emissions reductions to poorer nations.

By paying for cuts in poorer nations and claiming them as our own we are replicating the pattern of power that our polluting, industrial societies are based on – that poor nations, peoples and lands exist primarily for the use of rich ones. This also puts the responsibility for solving climate change on the nations which have the least responsibility for causing it. We need to face up to the consequences of our huge historic emissions and make real cuts in our own country.

Big emissions reductions would not actually be too difficult for our energy-wasting society, and Friends of the Earth and the Stockholm Environment Institute have shown how 40% cuts in Europe's CO2 emissions could be made quickly and (relatively) easily. The only thing missing is the political will to put these ideas into practice.

A second issue is that governments in the rich world need to provide real help to poor countries to adapt to the effects of climate change and develop their own clean, green economies. Friends of the Earth is calling for a Global Climate Fund to be set up which will be under the control of the UNFCCC, while developed nations would like to see the fund run by the discredited World Bank. The World Bank has a long history of imposing damaging neoliberal 'shock doctrine' policies on developing nations as conditions for receiving loans, and to put it in charge of climate funds would not inspire any confidence in those who have been damaged by its past actions.

Finally, the developed nations need to help developing nations address the huge emissions caused by deforestation and forest degradation, while also ensuring that the rights of local communities and indigenous people are respected. Existing forest policies have often ignored the ways in which indigenous people and small communities use forests sustainably, for food, medicine and fuel, and this needs to be addressed to ensure that these people are not locked out of using their own lands, which they have looked after for centuries, or even millennia.

In the past few months David Cameron has talked about how his new government will be 'the greenest ever'. It's time for him to live up to those words by making the UK negotiating team show real leadership in Cancun.

Friday, 22 October 2010

Birmingham Jump Two Places in the Sustainable Cities Index

This week the forum for the future released their Sustainable Cities Index. The index, which has been running since 2007, tracks the progress on sustainability of Britain’s 20 largest cities. In 2007/8 Birmingham sat one place from the foot of the table in 19th place, however, last year it jumped two places to 17th place. Continuing with these improvements, Birmingham has jumped a further two places to rank in 15th place this year.

Positions are decided on the measurement of 13 indicators in three broad baskets: Environmental impact, quality of life, and future proofing. Birmingham was awarded its lowest score for quality of life, where it finished 19th. A high unemployment rate, low level of education and lack of green flag or green pennant awards were the major contributing factors. Other low scoring areas were air quality, household waste and local food.

Improvements could be made in these areas by investment in recycling schemes, which would lower the amount of household waste and create more jobs which would follow with more training and improve education. Currently, Birmingham sends most of its commercial waste to the Tysley incinerator, which has been a long term concern of Birmingham FOE because much of the waste sent here could be recycled. Although the council have alluded to changing the system with a Total Waste Strategy, there are no plans to remove the incinerator but instead plans may include utilising the heat generated.

The Big City Plan put forward by the council contains plans for more allotment spaces, but this is an area which needs a large amount of work. Things are already being done, however, for more information see this article.

Air quality should be a major concern for Birmingham, finishing 17th in the category. Major improvements could be made with changes toward low carbon transport, something that the council is planning on, ensuring that all Council vehicles will be electric or powered by liquefied gas by 2015. Although this would help in decreasing the air pollution in the city, it wouldn't have much impact on carbon emissions overall, so more work needs to be done to reduce the number of individual single occupancy cars on Birmingham's roads.

However, Birmingham performed best in future proofing climate change, finishing joint 4th and leaping 15 places. Scoring 21 points of an available 27, on the basis of the Climate Change Action Plan (our response here). Although Birmingham has scored highly for the councils plans, there is still a difference between a plan and action.

Newcastle finished top of this years rankings for the second year running, with forum for the future commending their ambition, “aiming to become a world class hub of science and innovation”. However, key to their success in the rankings was their actions. Birmingham isn't lacking ambition with the Big City Plan and Climate Change Action Plan, and if it can follow through with its plans then major advancements will be seen throughout the categories.

The breakdown of Birmingham's performance in the forum for the future Sustainable Cities Index can be found here.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

The Tenby Cottages Community Garden Group

Monday night (October 18th) saw the first meeting of the Tenby Cottages Community Garden Group, a community group based in Lozells who are planning on turning waste ground into a community growing space. The project was proposed by Friends of the Earth’s Tom Pointon, and has now been taken on by Sarah Royal of CSV Environment, and I was lucky enough to be in attendance for this first meeting.

The idea of the project is to convert an area of waste ground into a community grow site, where local residents can grow their own fruit and vegetables. The area chosen was once home to a set of cottages (the Tenby Cottages, of course), which were knocked down some years ago as part of a redevelopment scheme by the local council. As yet, however, nothing has been proposed for the site by the council, and thus Tom saw the opportunity to create something positive. Up until recently, the site, located just off Poplar Avenue in Lozells, has been the victim of fly tipping. However, work has been conducted in the past few months by CSV Environment, and the site has been flattened and covered in bark chippings ready to be transformed.

A grow site is an area of disused land (often in an area that attracts anti-social behaviour), which has been transformed to become a place where local residents are allocated a grow bed in which to grow their own food. It is different from an allotment because residents do not pay rent on the site, and everything grown must be for personal consumption. Each resident who holds a grow bed there is given a key to the site, so it is secure at all times. Projects such as this already exist across Birmingham, namely the GEML Project (Grow It, Eat It, Move It, Live It) which has had great success in Ladywood, and the Concrete to Coriander Project.

The meeting was largely an introductory session, allowing local residents to come and voice their opinions on the running of the site to Sarah Royal and Cynthia Cupido, who works for Birmingham City Council Housing. The originally proposed plans had 30 grow beds, measuring 1 metre by 2 metres, laid out in a fairly uniform pattern. However, residents seemed to prefer the idea of less beds and more space for benches to make the site more sociable. There was even talk of a barbeque area being built so residents would be able to eat their produce on site! Also on the site there will be composting bins, where locals will be able to bring their organic waste, as well as a shed in which to keep communal tools.

So what’s next? Once the residents have decided on the layout of the site, CSV Environment will get to work on making the raised grow beds for the site. The council will be investigating whether or not they are able to get a water supply to the site, to prevent any inevitable injuries caused by lugging huge tanks of water back and forth from home! It is then up to the residents to organise themselves into a constitution community group. This will give them access to funding which otherwise would not be available, particularly from “Awards for All”. Despite there not being a huge turnout for the first meeting, the residents who did attend were all enthusiastic about the project, and were keen to get more people involved. There was also talk of trying to get the local schools involved. If a local school was allocated one or two beds, the children there would be able to learn how to grow their own food, and the importance of doing so. It would also be beneficial to get local shopkeepers and businesses on board, as well as local councillors, to support the project.

I was very impressed with the enthusiasm of everyone involved at the meeting.
Sarah in particular was very passionate about getting the site up and running. I think grow sites are a great way of transforming a local eyesore into something which the community can be proud of and ultimately benefit from. Hopefully everything at the Tenby Cottages site will be ready by March next year, just in time for the new growing season! Keep your eyes peeled for pictures in the coming months as the site starts to take shape.

Digital age - sustainable technology?

This week, I attended a conference on making Birmingham smarter and more sustainable through the use of technology.

It was a 2-day event called Beyond 2010, but after the first morning, I decided just to attend a couple of seminars, as they were the only parts that were really relevant enough to my line of work. I'd like to believe that technology could play a larger part in transforming our cities for a low carbon future, but I'm afraid that a lot of it just seems to be intended to driver further consumption, which is completely unsustainable.

Much of the first seminar I went to was rather over my head, as people from companies including BT talked about the ways of increasing broadband speed and getting more people online. Part of why I went to the event was that I have been asked to look at the big city plan in terms of the smart living agenda bits, so I thought this might help me to understand what local authorities need to do to enable private companies to provide the digital infrastructure needed.

The next seminar was chaired by Keith Budden from BeBirmingham Environmental Partnership and was more about what I wanted to get from the event. Firstly, Chris Lane from centro tried to persuade us that even if bus services are pretty awful and overly expensive (after all the subsidies are removed by government), so long as people can look up when the next one is on their smart phone, we'll all want to use them. I can't say I agree with him.

This presentation from Gerald Santucci was one of the more insightful, with lots of stuff about what European cities are doing, although I'm still not totally sure what the Internet of Things is.

At the end we came to the Q&A session and I totally stumped almost everyone on the panel with my question about consumption and how digital technology can be sustainable when it seems to be based around the very unsustainable planned obsolesence principle that has been prevalent in the motor industry. Keith Budden as chair agreed that newspapers could not be produced for everyone in the world, so it is even harder with hi-tech consumer goods.

The materials needed for producing some of the smart phones and other high-tech gadgets are mined in the poorest areas of Africa and other unstable parts of the world (as can be seen here). It seems to me that we won't be able to manufacture all the stuff we need to continue consuming with not only oil running out, but other precious commodities too.

Am I wrong, or is technology really a sustainable solution that will not only help transform people's behaviour, but make cities operate more efficiently?

Monday, 11 October 2010

10:10:10 Parties, Folk music and Marrows the size of Texas

Without fear of sounding a) dull or b) pathetic I've found post grad life to b something akin to say a spaghetti western (with some minor alterations here and there). Tumble weed blowing down a lonely street – a metaphor for your social life, quick fire show downs whereby its your CV your snatching from your holster and what feels like time in the sheriff's office when it comes to living back at home with the family...

You see what the academics don't tell you is the three years spent obtaining that much desired 2:1 doesn't necessarily guarantee you a six figure salary, or a life of idle contentment. So desperate to construct a life you'd be happy with you find solace in other ventures (whilst working minimum wage jobs to scrape together the pennies for travel)!

Enter Birmingham Friends of the Earth and my time spent there as a volunteer. For those of you who feel watching your younger brother count as volunteering allow me to elaborate. For me its entailed Tuesday mornings spent manning reception and attending meetings/craft groups for various campaigns. Side effects have included a puffed up chest, a bounce in my step and feelings of euphoria.

Recently I got bestowed the honour of organising an event for 10/10/10 a global action day spearheaded by Over 7000 events occurred in 188 different countries aimed at raising awareness of the climate change crisis. Did you know for instance that currently carbon dioxide emissions are a 390ppm (parts per million) when the safe limit of co2 in the atmosphere is actually a lowly 350ppm (now you see where the figure 350 comes into it)! All over the world communities gathered on Sunday 10th October, to demonstrate their commitment in being part of the solution by hosting work parties and other such events.

After much deliberation here at BFOE we decided to organise a carbon neutral party, not only a great way of raising awareness but also and outlandish excuse to eat our body weight in home made cakes and party like its 1969.

Organising this event has been very much a labour of love, from lugging boxes of locally produced apple juice across Birmingham; to dragging buckets of water to fill a pond (only to discover it leaked...), to practically stalking musicians in order to get performers- the operative has been 'busyness.' Quite honestly I've loved every minute, especially when my much agonised over vegan cakes worked out and I had a full running order of performers.

And would you believe it – not only did everyone turn up, the buffet table was full and the musicians were great, we were even lucky enough to have a day of that supposed 'Indian Summer' we were promised! Dedicated volunteers (too many wonderful people to name but you know who you are), all turned up to transform our dilapidated back garden into a, I quote '...New York style secret garden party...' complete with our very own wish tree. The acts I'm happy to report surpassed everyone's expectations they weren't just good – they were phenomenal. We were treated to the gentle melodies of The 'Ammer & Chain' Black-country Folk Club, along with humour from John the story teller, operatic singing by Lizzie Nunns, rootsy blues stomps from The Brave Sons of Elijah Perry, poignant songs from the lovely Dan Shaw and tribal drumming (that got everyone dancing) from Choconut. Hey we even had magic tricks from the enigmatic Matt!

Being a fan of the hippie fraternity I was pleased to see that we had a great number of the hemp wearing lovelies all of whom bought local/home made food, Aldo being responsible for bringing the marrow the size of Texas (which by the way was delicious)! I know I'm biased but it really did feel like the event embodied the heart of what community means. An assortment of people from all walks of life, sharing in local produce and creating a little happiness through art and conversation.

The message is a profound one; we must continue to make our voices heard if we are to be the change we wish to see in this world. I feel that 10/10/10 although carrying a poignant message, focused rather better on the positive, that our environment is in dire straits but there are many good people out there who genuinely care and who are prepared to be part of the solution.

Now if you don't mind I've got several months worth of sleep to catch up on and enough cake to last until next Christmas!

Until next time comrades...

Wishing you peace, good karma and all that jazz

Sophia Hobbs

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Low Cost and Low Carbon Transport session at the Conservative party conference fringe

Yesterday I went along to the Climate Clinic at Baskerville House to hear the secretary of state for transport, Philip Hammond, answering questions on how we can deliver low carbon transport at low cost (the age of austerity is mentioned everywhere at the moment).

I was hoping to hear something about what's happening to transport funding ahead of the Comprehensive Spending Review to give us an indication of what to expect and how the government will achieve cost savings and to be able to put a question the Philip Hammond myself, but neither of those happened.

I was pleased that the transport secretary does make all the right statements about the need to reduce carbon emissions, even if he doesn't seem to get all the issues, just yet. What I would definitely disagree with him on, is the idea of economic growth and carbon savings not being incompatible. Consumption seems to be so linked to economic growth and consumption = using levels of resources which are environmentally unsustainable on the whole. Also, the government has someone looking at reducing the need to travel as their remit, but this doesn't seem to be in evidence from a lot of the schemes that are going ahead; regional airport expansion, High Speed Rail etc. There still seems to be too much of a feeling that large transport schemes that encourage people to travel more are essential to a good economy.

Philip Hammond is very careful to say that he is “not anti-car, but anti-carbon” and sensibly said some things about which mode of transport was more suitable for which journeys. We agree that in rural areas, there is not always an alternative to the car and it would be very difficult to create an affordable one with such a lack of dense housing. However, there needs to be a lot more ambition in getting people out of cars for those journeys in urban areas, such as Birmingham, where the roads are totally clogged up and many areas have so many cars parked all over the pavements that it makes it hard for pedestrians to walk along them.

He stressed the importance of “greening the grid” for electric vehicles to play a full role as low carbon vehicles, but did admit that we can't make the change quickly enough with technology alone. Quite how he plans to go about achieving the necessary level of behaviour change is still unclear, though.

On land use planning, he said that we need to ensure that we build the homes people want (ones with gardens), not loads of 2-bed flats which nobody wants to live in, as has been the case. Doing this intelligently, and “without restricting people” is part of the solution according to Mr Hammond.

He also spoke about buses needing to change their image (and the people who introduced the meeting had stuff about marketing them for the greener journeys campaign), smart-ticketing across different transport modes and the need for innovative local solutions that are suitable for each area, rather than nationally decided policy.

The other speakers then had a turn – Sir Moir Lockhead from First Group talked more about buses and how they are friends with cars and want to have space for them in the roads, too. He also patted the industry on the back for offering 1million free tickets to people as part of a drive getting people onto buses. No mention was made of the potential cuts to the Bus Service Operators Grant and whether that will stay.

Next up was Edmund King of the AA, who was actually very sensible in what he was saying and quite positive and gave some good stats. He said that 90% of motorists said they would take steps to reduce their environmental impact, 70% of the people who lift-share say they do it for environmental reasons, but more people want incentives for doing it, such as exclusive parking spaces for lift-sharers. He also said that the scrappage scheme had meant 90% of the people switching to smaller, cleaner cars – is that true? He also emphasised the benefits of eco-driving which can reduce the amount of fuel used by 20% and gave the fact that 86% of journeys in the UK are made by car at the moment – another one I'm not sure of – is that true?

Doug Parr from Greenpeace was next and he said that transport is fundamentally different from other forms of carbon reduction because people really feel it in their everyday activity, unlike insulation, changing light bulbs, energy generation etc. he also spoke about oil and the dangers of extracting deep sea oil, as we've seen from the Gulf, and that we should be leaving it in the ground now to avert more environmental catastrophes in colder waters, such as the Arctic and off the coast of Scotland. Another good statistic that he gave is that there is £19 of benefit for every pound spent on walking and cycling initiatives – unrivalled by any other transport investment. I wanted to ask a question of Philip Hammond on this and why the government didn't invest more in it in that case, but wasn't able to do so.

Questions from the floor were asked on various issues while Mr Hammond was still there, including ones on biofuels, hydrogen vehicles, freight facilities for rail and nuclear power. I really wanted to get a question in on HS2 before Philip Hammond left, but the chair, just wouldn't come to me. He left at 7pm, after which there was time for my question, which was “If this is all about low carbon and low cost, why is everyone still talking about building high speed rail, which will not save any carbon and will cost a huge amount of money?”. The chair said “oh controversial question”, yet none of the panel who were left disagreed with me, so it doesn't seem that anyone but top politicians and a few business people really think it's a good idea.

Edmund King said he couldn't understand the reasoning behind it (maybe they'd rashly promised it when rejecting Heathrow) and spoke to me afterwards saying how convenient and easy he found the train for travelling between cities with no need for it to be any faster. Doug Parr was reluctant to rule it out but all the reservations that he gave are ones that the current plans do not meet and where on earth the funding for the transport infrastructure to link in other modes of transport as well as building HS2 is going to come from, nobody seems to have the answer.

Unless we are making the power supply truly green and the rest of the transport system geared to getting people door-to-door, we cannot support HS2 taking people between interchange stations based at airports – that is not low carbon or low cost.

Joe Peacock

Monday, 4 October 2010

Fix the Food Chain: Lobbying MPs to support us

The next few weeks provide an exciting yet critical time for our Fix the Food Chain Campaign. The second reading of the sustainable livestock bill is on 12th November and as this date draws ever closer, we hope to have persuaded enough of our local MPs to help us make a difference to worldwide farming.

Friends of the earth have been campaigning for this for over a year now – see these reports of local and national action:

It is a very exciting yet challenging time, as we lobby our MPs to get one key message through – that we will not stand for unfair, unethical and unsustainable farming. We have this one opportunity to make a huge difference to the farming methods used, not only for the good of the Earth, but for the good of native people, who currently cannot fight against huge corporations that take their land. With irresponsible capitalism comes the wrong mentality: huge corporations care not for the damage they cause to the world, but for the quickest and cheapest way to make more money.

By getting MPs to support this Bill, we can make a huge difference not only to the global ecosystem, through the cutting of greenhouse gases and reductions in deforestation, but also to the native people who rely on this land for their livelihoods, as they have for generations and who want to see an end to the poisoning of their water and soil. By promoting locally grown feed and sustainable agricultural jobs in this country, we can show the benefits of this system and these huge corporations, as well as political leaders, will see that things need to change. Although this is just a beginning, it will show that people are prepared to take a stand and make food an environmental issue, and Friends of the Earth are there at the forefront of this action.

As November 12th gets closer, it is imperative that we act to influence and lobby our MPs to attend the second reading of the Sustainable Livestock Bill, and to successfully use our resources to ensure MPs understand that there is not only a need for change, but a desire for change.

To find out what more you can do, contact or just speak to your MP urgently to put the case in your own words.

Sam James

Monday, 20 September 2010

Conference reflections - big society

On the opening evening of our national conference this year, we had two speakers; Ken Livingstone who provided us with few surprises and a fairly safe speech for that audience and Phillip Blond, who is the architect of David Cameron's big society idea and one of the most provocative speakers you could wish to hear.

Now provocative doesn't necessarily mean good and a lot of the time people were just tearing their hair out at the stuff he was coming out with, such as re-legalising hunting as a way of ensuring conservation of the countryside and the fact that Tories have always been caring with the rights of those working the land very well looked after through history (sorry don't remember the exact details, but it was dismissed by some knowledgeable friends, anyway). I should watch it again to remind myself as the links to both talks and the Q&A session are available here.

However, some of the things he was saying were actually quite sensible - about talking to people about the areas around them and ensuring they feel they can have an effect on those things they care about. The trouble is that he didn't seemed to have a clue that this is what FoE is all about anyway and thought that we were just another environmental campaigns organisation who only ever talk about climate change in the big scary international sense and don't talk to people about local environmental justice.

The other problem I had with what he was saying was that in all the talk of rolling back the state and creating local control, he also acknowledged the need to get away from the big business model, but there was nothing to suggest how this could be achieved unless by state regulation. It's all very well talking about mutuals and cooperatives, with local suppliers helping each other, but when they're constantly faced with poorly regulated, incredibly wealthy multinational companies as competition, it is very hard for them to succeed.

This can be seen with the demise of local shops and smaller businesses all over the country and especially the terrible state of the farming industry being dictated to by supermarkets. A really important test of whether the green measures we take will lead to a better, fairer society will be whether there is a proper Green New Deal with sustainable local jobs created, or whether big business will steamroller in and take all the profits, while employing people on short-term contracts and then discarding them as soon as possible.

If the Big Society just means cutting the state, putting millions of people out of work and expecting business or volunteers to take over all of this socially valuable work that is currently done by public servants, it will not create any kind of just or sustainable society. If, however, it is done as a reshaping of the way we value control over business practices to ensure justice and freedom from exploitation, with curbs on the power of corporations and a move to more cooperative and mutually beneficial models of business, that is something many of us would sign up to.

Birmingham Friends of the Earth has always done the volunteering part of the big society, because we recognise the value you get from interacting with people and making a difference to your surroundings. What we want from government is support in that for all third sector organisations who do amazing work around the country, not funding cuts and also a recognition that the real power is financial not political. That means the first priority to creating a just society where people will want to take part is to use state power to create those business conditions that favour local small-scale enterprise and to ensure that the most polluting, unsustainable industries do not leave all of us to pick up the bill in future generations.

Joe Peacock

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Birmingham Canal Canter 2010

I had been wondering why so few of our volunteers were up for entering this event, but now realise what a serious undertaking walking 26 miles is.

The idea for The Canal Canter came up last year as a way for Birmingham FoE to raise money and give the Heart of England LDWA some extra volunteers to make it run smoothly on the day and help in promoting the event.

Organiser Dave Powell said that he wanted people to see parts of Birmingham that they never normally do and see a whole different side of the city and he certainly achieved that on this walk. The first half of it was an absolute pleasure with a real variety of different places to walk through and a heart full of optimism, but the second half was much harder to appreciate as the legs began to give way and the novelty of canal towpaths began to fade.

We started at the Alexander stadium (home of the Birchfield Harriers) in the North of the city, where the first challenge was to get up onto the canal towpath through the nettles and very steep slope. For the first few miles, underfoot was grassy and rough with not enough room to walk side by side a lot of the time. We passed under some big roads, including spaghetti junction which the council once had a mad scheme to light up so it was visible from space) where the noise was incongruous with the pretty green surrounding down by the canal.

Then we made our way down through town (spotting herons and some amazing black and white ducks on the way - sorry no pics) to the Ackers where breakfast was being served by BFoE volunteers (porridge or toast with tea, coffee or cold drinks).

(Aldo, Mary and Ben in the kitchen with Roxanne and Beth serving drinks outside)

At this stage everyone was still fairly bunched up and the runners (who started an hour after us walkers) were just going past. I did the walk with my dad and we decided not to stop for too long there to keep the momentum going - we started pretty briskly and were feeling fine, so we left before quite a few people at this stage.

The next part of the walk was the one I enjoyed most, as I was still feeling fine and we went through some absolutely lovely green spaces. Firstly, the grounds of the Ackers were a joy to go through and I would recommend that a place for a walk for anyone in the area. Then we headed down through the Shire Country park (Tolkien land) past Sarehole Mill and down to Billesley's wonderful green spaces (the seven wonders of Billesley) where BFoE successfully helped local residents defeat a planning application for an access road through one of the parks last year.

All along this section of the walk there were loads of sloes and other berries that would be of interest to those who like mapping where food grows in the city, such as Abundance Brum. We are doing an event on 2nd October called Edible Birmingham to look at sustainable local food, too.

Lunch was at the Horseshoe pub on the Alcester Rd where we had sandwiches and pieces of pineapple with squash (I don't think I've drunk as much squash as I did on this day for years).

(welcome food in the pub's garden)

At this stage we were still going fine (12.8 miles) and after an 8.30am start left the pub at 12.40 full of hope and thinking "this long distance walking's a good thing - perhaps we'll do more". The next section was almost all along the canal and we got some interesting views of different boats moored along there - they have very odd names, including one called "John Thomas"! I'll let you make your own jokes about that.

Despite it only being 5.6 miles to the next stop for cakes at Maple Bank, this part went a lot slower than the previous section as our legs tired and the variation in things to look at along the route was not so great. We went alongside the railway line through Bournville, Selly Oak, over a section where they were digging under the canal to build a relief road by the Hospital and there were lots of cyclists zooming along with no manners to say excuse me or thank you when you needed to get out of the way. As a cyclist myself, I always thanks people for getting out of the way on a shared space with pedestrians and heard a lot of walkers moaning about these rude people. It doesn't take much, so come on cyclists, please.

We made it but were very sore at the cake stop (18.4 miles) and I took my boots off to see if there were actually any blisters as my feet were hurting every step by then. Also, we knew the last bit was 8 miles - the longest of any of the 4 sections! If it hadn't been for the sponsorship I'd been given, it would have been easy to give up then and save myself the agony of the last bit. I wanted the sense of achievement, but I really didn't want to let people down even more.

Foot-sore we set off towards the city centre. This was not the nicest bit because there were so many people that we had to dodge around and wait for as we went past the Mailbox, the ghastly Cube, Brindley Place and the NIA. If you've never been to Birmingham before this might have been interesting to see, but for those of us who live here, these crowded places are normally avoided if you're doing a walk.

From there we headed back up towards Spaghetti Junction again trying to talk about something else other than how much our feet hurt, but this was pretty hard now, especially when there were lots of ups and downs (the most painful things for tired legs). It also started raining to compound our joy and make the cobbled down-slopes of the little bridges even harder to manage.

We grabbed a quick drink and a sandwich at Spaghetti with 3 miles to go and then headed off along the uneven muddy part we'd already done (going the other way when we set off in the morning). Gritted teeth and determination (along with knowing there was no other way out by then) go us to the finish, somehow. I'm not sure I remember ever having so much pain in my legs or feet before (apart from when injured during football - but that's a different pain).

[My dad and me with our certificates for finishing]
I'm glad that I did it and that I've helped raise money for Birmingham FoE. If you'd like to add a bit more to my total for this, there's still time if you go to this link.

Next year they are planning to do it again and I think that as we got very nearly 200 people doing it this year, that's a great idea. However, for the less experienced walkers (most of our volunteers) I'd like to suggest that there's a shorter walk as well as the marathon-length one. If we start at Ackers (as I believe is planned), it'll be a lot nicer and provide more options, including a possible short children's nature walk - any volunteers to help organise that?

Most of all, though, I'd encourage people to get out and explore different parts of Birmingham now. It's a great city with lots to see and some great places to visit on foot, bike or by public transport.

Joe Peacock

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Conference reflections - biodiversity

One of the sessions I went to at FoE's national conference this year was on "biodiversity in decline", which I felt to be a really important topic that I'd never properly got to grips with. We all know that chopping down rainforest is bad and get the pictures of large mammals thrown at us all the time, but how do we make sure that all the links are there to maintain a biodiverse natural system all over the world, so our eco-systems don't collapse and the land remains fertile enough to support life as we know it?

To start off with we were bombarded with acronyms, as understanding them is part of every bit of campaigning on environmental matters, it seems. Go on then, do you know what TEEB is? How about REDD, NEA or LSC? Once you've learnt the shorthand (or read up on what they are), it does make it easier to talk about these things more quickly, honest.
This is the International Year of Biodiversity, in case you didn't know, and, unfortunately, it's also the year by which the UK had promised to halt biodiversity loss and will acknowledge failure to meet these targets (as mentioned here by the government minister).

So, what did I learn? Well largely that it's an incredibly difficult subject and that no one measure is going to solve this on its own (I guess that's not a shock to anyone, is it?). Is the answer to try and give trees or habitat an economic value in order for them to be offered protection in our market-driven world? That certainly seems to be where a lot of people see salvation for nature, but how can you put a value on something that is so obviously invaluable? Also, in many places land rights are a very tricky subject and laws are not representing the rights of indiginous people sufficiently. However, starting a conversation on how valuable these things are must be a good thing in itself in terms of stimulating more action on protecting and promoting natural habitat.

The Stern report had a huge effect in creating a different view on the value of acting on climate change and although there was some coverage of the report on The Economics of Eco-Systems and Biodiversity (that's the TEEB I mentioned earlier), it hasn't caught on quite as much as some were hoping.

What is most difficult is the whole international financing of protecting forests and focusing purely on deforestation as a carbon emissions issue (that's the REDD I mentioned earlier). Forests are people's homes and trees are worth a lot over a long period of time, both to people and to the planet, which short-term financial models are unable to deal with. Some of the carbon markets seem to benefit the countries that have been deforesting quickest the most by paying them more, whereas the ones which haven't started get less because you're not stopping them from doing it if they're already being good - that makes them think they should start planning to chop it down to get their slice of the cake!

There is a government consultation happening now on the natural environment white paper and everyone should be having a look at that to ensure it's as good as possible. Too much emphasis has been put on protecting small pockets of land in isolation (this is called fragmentation) rather than the whole of the landscape (LSC and NEA both got into this bit). Friends of the Earth are responding to the consultation as are a lot of other environmental NGOs, but it would be good for the responses to come from as wide a range of individuals as possible so that it's not just a few organisations looking at it.

Our campaign on Fixing the Food Chain would help to solve some of the deforestation issues in South America that are caused by factory farms here being reliant on soy feed (often GM) that is grown in that region. Even if we can get the sustainable livestock bill through parliament, there is still much work to do to halt the alarming decline in biodiversity throughout the world on land and in the seas.

Markets and the need for continued economic growth will never show the same concern for the natural environment as people do and from all the things I heard from members of FoE all over the world, what is needed is justice, equity and more of the passion for the environment shown at the peoples' conference in Cochabamba earlier this year. In this country we need to take a lead and show that we can halt the decline in habitat and species loss here, putting in place the kind of policies that can be successfully replicated all over the world.

Joe Peacock