Saturday, March 28, 2020

The Terrapause – Could every day be a Sunday?

Never mind the colourful language, just do it!

It was Thursday when I started writing this, but because we are in lockdown to prevent the spread of Coronavirus, it felt like a Sunday.  The streets were quiet, the noisy renovators had shut down, the sky was clear and you could hear the birds sing. It was certainly a lot more pleasant and got me thinking, economics aside, what good things could we glean from this experience. Certainly our emissions will be down, without having to resort to accounting tricks. Another big bonus is the extra couple of hours people will gain by not having to commute every day. Oldest son has been pondering whether future geologists will find a clean layer in ice cores from the Coronavirus Period like the carbon layer from the K-T Cretaceous Extinction Event.  It also shows how quickly society can adapt when it is a matter of life and death.

In the meantime, people are discovering both the joys and the limitations of working from home and being able to adjust their schedules more to their circumstances. Even having remote collaboration and social contact with co -workers and friends is possible with arrangements like Zoom, though our  66th ranked internet is feeling  the strain. Largely free of the tyranny of the time clock, people may well find that their productivity increases. Early experiments by Google and others with sleep pods, recreational facilities and the like, have shown promise along with ‘hot desking’ - meaning many workers use the same space at different times, suggesting the need for less office space, savings on cleaners, heating and other amenities usually supplied by workplaces.

Of course not all jobs lend themselves to more relaxed hours especially those with a customer service component or requiring a physical presence, but staggered hours would take the heat off peak hour traffic, reducing congestion and the need for ever more roads. Not having to attend the office or schools in person most of the time would do so as well. 

As far as schools go, the present situation will give online learning an enormous boost. For many children this will be a boon – the too smart ones and the slower ones, both of whom could now work at their own pace, and for most students basic skills such as maths and grammar and general practice could be acquired in a systematic and orderly fashion, [see for example Khan Academy re Maths], though teachers would still be needed for more subjective tasks such as analysing arguments in an essay. However, freed from routine teaching, marking and supervision or simply maintaining order in open classrooms, teachers could concentrate on other important tasks such as helping where students are having difficulty.  

Schools themselves would also still have important roles including providing a place for those children who lack support or facilities at home or whose parents have to work. [It's hard to focus on studies at home if your parents are fighting or listening to the footy, or your siblings are throwing spitballs].  Schools are also an important locus for the socialisation of children, where they learn to get along with others, make friends, hear a variety of opinions, learn to work collaboratively and in teams, and we wouldn’t want to miss the occasional sports carnival, concert or mass assembly, but do we really need to have fleets of SUVs all trying to park simultaneously, or roads chock- a -block at ‘school hour?’ I don’t think so. 

The Finnish model offers a way forward. Children attend approximately half the day and have no homework. The rest of the time they are encouraged to pursue interests, hobbies and sport and to discover things for themselves, particularly the things they would like to do. While China now outranks Finland in terms of educational outcomes, I believe the Finish model which lead the pack  for many years, still produces more well –rounded adults as well “achieving equality and excellence.” Perhaps the lower achievement rate reflects the cutting of  €1.5 Billion from the Finnish education budget between 2011 – 2018, but I’m not going to explore that further just now. 

Other ways we could reduce the need for transportation (aside from using electric cars to reduce noise and emissions) are having fast, reliable and preferably free public transportation.  Over a hundred cities have successfully implemented same, though we don’t hear much about them. When Aubagne in France adopted free public transport, usage increased by 135.8%. In Tallinn in Estonia, it increased 14% and was mainly among young people, the unemployed, the elderly, stay at home parents and others on low incomes, for whom public transport represented a much larger share of their earnings. [Most of this information comes from various articles in Curbed].

The problem in my state is, that roadworks come out of the state and federal budgets, but mass transit falls to the lot of usually cash strapped local councils. We should scrap this anomaly and see public transport as a public good for all – less pollution, less noise etc. as well as equalising opportunity for those stuck in outer suburbs. Despite similar jurisdictional squabbles, American mayors are starting to take the lead. Private transport is the major source of US emissions.

Getting people to use public transport is another matter.  Here inclement weather combined with infrequent service does not encourage usage and it doesn’t help that there are very few bus shelters and not even a seat in most places.  I think our state could do much better here.
While ride -sharing seems like an obvious choice to reduce congestion and traffic, this has not proved to be the case in New York City, according to Tatiana Schlossberg [“inconspicuous consumption,” (2019:226)] where 60% of trips would not have been taken, had other means – subway, bicycle etc. had to have been used. Furthermore, most Uber type services require not only a solo trip by the driver to the pick -up point, but the driver then usually has to drive back empty after dropping his passenger off, so in terms of emissions in the case of non -electric or use of non -renewable energy,  and congestion, there have been a slight increases, not a reductions.

In the long term, non -polluting workplaces should be located much closer to our homes or vice versa, to obviate the need to travel altogether and schools too. I have been banging on about this for years, ever since I saw the city of Våsterås in Sweden in the 1970s.  Built around a power station complex (a nuclear one, alas, but ignoring that for a moment) it had modern workers’ flats within walking distance of work and these were equipped with shops, a gym and a sauna. Round about were playing fields, parklands, bicycle and walking tracks and best of all, a wild space where nature reigned. Seven to ten Km away many workers had weekend shacks. The one I visited had no power and was situated in a natural setting on a lake where we enjoyed saunas and barbecues. A perfect getaway - accessible by car, bike or on foot, without too much time being lost in traffic and transit.

I was also impressed with Copenhagen’s bicycle access, but given both our weather and the hilliness of our city, I don’t think we are quite ready for this either, particularly if we don’t achieve greater separation for vehicular traffic. I was absolutely terrified while trying to cycle the narrow winding arterial road to university, where neither you nor oncoming cars could see what lay around the corner.  If there is infrastructure building to be done, as well as bike tracks I would include one decent ring road, so log trucks and north –south traffic that has no intention of shopping or stopping for a coffee doesn’t need to drive through the centre of the city, which would make it safer and more pleasant all around.

As for the countryside, what a pity we have let so much of our railway infrastructure die. It’s a great way to keep cars off the road, provided again that trains are frequent and cheap, and provided they run on renewable energy, which Tasmania could easily have done. The whole idea of user pays for sparsely settled places like Tasmania is wrong. It is what we gain for our money, especially now that we are concerned about our carbon footprint. What would it cost to add one passenger carriage to the freight trains which we still have? Think of the beautiful scenery as you travel under the Western Tiers or on the way to Mount Field. Both would bring new life and employment to rural towns. Take the cost from the unemployment budget. At the very least make the passenger train that still runs between Queenstown and Strahan (also amazing scenery) a lot cheaper. After all it doesn’t cost more to run a train for many as it does for one. Or better still make it free for Tasmanians as some popular tourist destinations as Mona have done. That way we could tell family and friends about it and possibly take them along. Visitation by family and friends is still the largest tourism component in Tasmania, so please think about it Heritage Railways. Tasmanians would love to come, but most can’t afford the $150 or so after travelling across the state, especially with our inflated petrol prices.

If it’s one thing the Terrapause could do, is allow us to stop and think about what we really need and how we could do things better. I would set that as a challenge for everyone who is grounded over the next few weeks and months and how we could still have a thriving tourist industry without having to add to our emissions.
 Amen and keep safe!

By the way, it's Earth Hour Tonight 8.30 - 9.30 pm (Saturday if you live elsewhere), so turn your lights off to show support.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

I Love FOGO - an advance in domestic green waste recycling

Bit sick of Coronavirus news, so today I am going to talk about rubbish, household food waste to be precise. Not that people aren't being wonderfully creative about being locked down or in social isolation - daughter and her neighbours meet on their respective decks in the evening and 'share' a convivial glass of wine while maintaining a safe distance. Oldest son and partner are doing date night at home all dressed up with food from their favourite restaurant and with their friends around via Facetime, but while other issues  may have taken a backseat, they have not gone away, so here goes.

Three years ago, when everyone was starting to become concerned about the amount of food waste being produced by domestic households which is responsible for around 30% of landfill and 34% of the emissions produced by consumers, our council started working hard to reduce it in accordance with the National Waste Policy of 2018 and the UN Guidelines for Sustainable Development in order to achieve zero waste by 2030.

With the same aim, I first acquired a Green Bin.  Unfortunately, I soon found out that this was only for things like lawn clippings and garden waste of which I had very little, not household green waste.  I then bought a Bokashi, which are used by Japanese households to deal with food scraps and sort of ferments them. This was wasn’t too bad, but you had to cut everything up into very small pieces and hard things like fruit stones, egg shells and chicken bones couldn’t be put in because they take too long to break down. It also required a rather expensive accelerator and, not having much garden, I soon ran out of flower pots in which to put the sauerkraut - like residue and it would still end up in  the general household bin, though much reduced in volume.[The resulting liquid can also be used as garden fertiliser in case you are interested]. 

This year, the council  introduced FOGO, a small white lidded bin for your kitchen bench which accepts all organic matter including the egg shells and bones as well as paper towels, compostable plates, cutlery and vegetable trays.* The white bin is then emptied into the big green bin. Ours only needs to go out every four or five weeks (I keep smelly stuff like chicken bones in the freezer until it’s ready to go).  After the green waste leaves the house, it is commercially composted and sold. This service costs an extra $50 per year on the rates, but this is working out very well for us. 

FOGO -The Benchtop Bin Part
Our usual household rubbish bin – minus the recycling, cabbage leaves, potato peels and carrot tops, now only goes out every four weeks and even then is usually only a quarter full.  Extrapolated across the whole city, this must save on a huge amount of landfill, as well as providing enrichment for impoverished soils. I expect that large nurseries, public parks and landscapers buy the resulting compost and possibly also market gardens. It would be ideal for planting all those trees which we are going to need, so it’s a much better arrangement all around which every council should consider.  

Things which you can now compost
Going Further

For those of you who still have small local shops and markets, it is unthinkable that people would buy more than they need and then throw so much away, but the problem lies largely in the way that our food supply and distribution works.  It is grown far away, brought to the cities by large supermarket operators and then distributed via only a few major outlets, necessitating a single weekly shop, usually in another suburb some distance away. With all the commuting we must do already, people who work simply do not have time to scour the countryside looking for  growers as well.  Of course, menu planning and a detailed shopping list might help a bit, but this rarely works in practice – some goods are on special or what you want is not to hand. This means you more or less buy staples plus enough for the week so you won’t run out and some of that then ends up being unused. [ It would help too if say, broccoli wasn’t being sold with half a kilo of inedible stalk on it, but perhaps that helps to keep it fresh].

The corner stores which used to exist in most suburbs died out because they couldn’t compete with the larger stores. When I had my small business, I was paying more wholesale for say, Coca Cola than people could buy it retail in the supermarkets because of the much smaller volume which I sold and the same applied to most other goods, but I am deeply envious of places like South Korea, where every block of flats had basic supplies available in a little business on the ground floor which meant that I didn’t have to go into the city to pick up vegetables and everyday items. Stay at home Mums in the same block didn’t need cars just to be able to feed their families either. 

As economies start to decarbonise and more and more people are forced to live in flats and highrise apartments, small 7 -11 type shops will become more economically viable. Far better to have one truck delivering to twenty smaller outlets than thousands of people having to drive five kilometres to buy a litre of milk. This would not only reduce congestion and emissions, but create a lot of employment. If the big retailers wanted to stay ahead of the game, this is what I would be looking at. Perhaps there should be some type of cash incentive for same and certainly councils should be making it a condition before approving any new large residential development.

Perhaps it's something to think about during our various enforced shutdowns.

Meanwhile keep well, stay safe and keep your distance!

·         Must be marked AS 5810, AS 4736, ASTM D6400 and EN 13432

Thursday, March 19, 2020

International Forest Day March 21 – What did forests ever do for us?

Did you notice that yesterday was International Forest Day? Unfortunately that message got a bit lost in all the concern about Coronavirus, so I’ll just talk a bit about it here.  The two events are not unconnected. For example, John Vidal, writing in the Guardian, notes that it is precisely activities such as the clearing of rainforest which exposes humans to hitherto unknown pathogens, Ebola being a case in point and Zika another.

What forests do for us

There is no doubt that forests are repositories of boundless diversity with up to 80% of the world’s plants, insects and animals being found there, but they also do many things for us, apart from supplying timber, firewood, food, paper, packaging, medicine and even fibre. They all sequester carbon and the Amazon alone – what’s left of it, supplies around 20% of the world’s oxygen. They trap pollutants and clean the air and influence weather and rainfall. They also trap and filter water, slow run –off, bind soil and prevent erosion. And if that wasn't enough, they also provide cooling, warm cold places and create wind breaks. See the lovely clips below for more.


The children might appreciate this one from last year.

So what do we need to do for forests

It goes without saying that we should protect forests as much as possible. Please take note Victoria, Australia, which has already lost half its tree cover due to bushfires. While trees are technically a renewable resource, existing forests have more biomass and provide a more complex habitat that can support more species than newly planted ones, especially if the new trees are a monoculture plantation of some kind. Young trees  also convert far less carbon dioxide than established ones and, according to Tatiana Schlossberg in “invisible consumption” (2019: 189) studies have shown that it will take ”decades if not centuries” to make up for the carbon released by cutting or burning. 

Under Threat -The Toolangi Forest, Victoria
Unfortunately, due to a loophole, the UN only counts carbon released by cutting trees but not that from burning them. This has led to substitution of wood pellets for coal in many industrialised countries such as the UK and even poster child Scandinavia, a false economy when counting emissions as more wood or more wood pellets are required to give the same energy yield as coal.  Not that I am advocating for more coal or nuclear or gas, since they all have their problems, only that we need to look for better solutions.  In the meantime, if your trees have gone and or you must still cut them, then do what Scotland and Bangladesh are doing  -plant, plant, plant as quickly as possible. Make sure too, that wherever you live, that any timber or wood products you buy – decking, furniture etc. come from accredited sustainably- harvested sources. 

In this context I want to put in a special plea for the Congolese Rainforest which is currently under threat from all the usual suspects – mining, illegal logging, roadworks and the demand for timber, fuel and agricultural land. This is the concern of Ugandan environmentalist, Vanessa Vash, the young woman whose image was cropped from the photos of young activists at the World Economic Forum.  In much of the Congo, it is however, the demand for wood for cooking and charcoal –making (also mostly used for cooking) which drives much of the deforestation.

Africa's proposed new road and rail projects bring some benefits but will also cause major disruption, especially to Subtropical regions such as the Congo.Sub Saharan Africa isalso most vulnerable to Climate Change 

Although the UN initiated Program Sustainable Energy for All seeks to ensure that all have access to clean energy by 2030, it is falling behind in its schedule. It’s most recent report states that although 89% of the world now has electricity of some kind, 840 million do not, and 573 million of those live in Sub Saharan Africa. In addition 3 Billion people still do not have clean cooking solutions, again, 2.5 billion of them in Africa.  Both renewable electricity supply and cooking solutions sound like massive green industry opportunities to me.  What’s needed is a visionary like Irish businessman, Denis O'Brien who, with limited local materials, was able to provide cheap mobile phone coverage to most of Vanuatu’s 83 scattered islands, long before Australia had decent coverage outside its major cities.

The global demand for wood powered energy needs to be fixed as well and at the very least be counted in emissions.  Among those things which you can do personally to help, is to make sure too, that wherever you live, that any timber or wood products you buy come from accredited sustainably harvested sources. Some of the sources – not always reliable, can be seen on the map below the graphic. Many countries such as Australia, Members of the European Union and the USA prohibit imports of uncertified products, but illegal logging continues.
Indonesia, whose forests are being depleted even more quickly, has just begun to export its first shipments of accredited timber. Although logging in native forest has declined somewhat in consequence, problems regarding enforcement and corruption remain.

Countries which officially practice sustainable logging
On a more cheerful note, especially if you are stuck in self isolation or quarantine, I leave you with some delightful forest scenes and sounds. 

*Tatiana Schlossberg, “inconspicuous consumption,” (2019, Grand Central Publishing, New York)