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August 2017 - Terra Infirma


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29 August 2017

Anybody can do Sustainability

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My summer of cycle action continued yesterday with another first – I entered a race. A proper race with entry fees, commissionaires, rules, closed roads and a number pinned to my backside. It wan't any old race, though, it was the UK's only urban cyclocross in the Ouseburn Valley in Newcastle with road, path, grass, dirt and cobbled sections, plus a couple of obstacles requiring a dismount.

I don't have a cyclocross bike and my road bike has neither low enough gearing for the tough climbs nor tyres chunky enough to handle the off road bits, so I removed the pannier rack from my clunky old hybrid and used that. As I lined up (at the back of the bunch) on the start line, I realised I was one of just two riding flat handlebars and platform pedals.

So how did I do? Well I lapped the other guy on a non-specialist bike and beat 12 of the others, coming 11th out of 24 novices. I was delighted! I spent the rest of the afternoon watching the other races, drinking beer and berating my cycling buddies for not giving it a go.

How would I have done on the 'right' bike? Looking at the finish times, I'd have been lucky to move up one place on the standings. The main limiting factors were the power in my legs, my mediocre descending skills and the mechanical problem which led to a skipping chain on the last lap and a half. The last was bad luck, the first two could have been improved with some dedicated practice of which I did zilch, relying on my road cycling fitness and working it out as I went along.

Last week I had another of those phone calls with a potential client who spent most of the conversation telling me why his business couldn't do Sustainability. I've heard it all – too big, too small, customers, suppliers, employees, bosses, buildings, technology – there's always an excuse to do nothing. However, I have rarely seen anybody who gives Sustainability a real go fail miserably – even those few who managed to alienate the rest of their organisation got plenty of good stuff done before they were shuffled out – and some of my favourite case studies involve small businesses with minimal resources.

Sustainability success is largely in the mind –  and those who don't line up on the start line are destined to stand watching the race from the sidelines, wishing they had taken part.

 

 

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25 August 2017

Some Sustainability ideas just weren't meant to happen...

IMG_2743One of my (many) pet hates in Sustainability is people and organisations trying desperately to make a trendy concept work when all the evidence points to failure.

Back in my last job, the 'in thing' was the eco-park – colocating recycling businesses around a materials recovery facility to provide a local zero waste solution. Sounds great in theory, but when my team was delegated the task of reviewing existing and planned eco-parks around the world as part of a feasibility study, we found that all of them had failed with the exception of one in Singapore where they have a centralised planning system and the businesses were given no choice as to their location. We presented our findings, but they were politely ignored, and the project trundled on regardless, soaking up more public money, until the sponsors couldn't secure the huge public investment required to make it happen.

I've long been sceptical about Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) as not reducing emissions seems like an odd way to reduce emissions – along with my nagging gut feeling that the second law of thermodynamics suggests that it will never work. I was very amused by with this piece by Tom Baxter of Aberdeen University pointing out that CCS will save as much carbon being emitted to the atmosphere as would not overfilling our kettles – hardly an impressive return for all the infrastructure required. Many green commentators have lambasted the UK Government for not investing a promised £1bn in CCS, but maybe they should be asking why the Government has got cold feet.

Public bike hire schemes are another I remain unconvinced about. Don't get me wrong, I like the concept of having readily available bikes, but the one in my own city, Newcastle, failed and there are reports around the world of either failures, low take up, theft and/or requirements for heavy subsidy. I can't help thinking that the main driver for each city to set up a scheme is keeping up with the Jones'.

The big question in all these concepts is are they really worth it? In the eco-park example, businesses will co-locate organically if there is economic reason to do so, in CCS, the cost/benefit ratio is surely crippling, and I can't help thinking the 6/7-figure subsidies/sponsorship required to maintain a bike hire scheme could be better invested in other cycle infrastructure to allow cyclists to move around our cities faster and more safely. Maybe we should be quicker to ditch ideas which don't seem to work, and invest our time, money and effort in those which do.

 

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21 August 2017

Demand Sustainability – it's the only way

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We've had a steady stream of pro-electric vehicle news stories this summer – R&D investment, supplier pledges, far off in the future pledges to ban petrol/diesel vehicles, but the one that encourages me most is the pledge by 100 UK organisations to buy at least 5% of their fleet electric. Why? Because we can plan and innovate all we like, but only demand will make a sustainable economy happen. Demand drives investment, innovation, reduces costs, improves quality and focusses minds.

This means that any organisation worth its sustainability salt should be using their buying power to drive change amongst their suppliers. Every dollar spent on more sustainable products, materials and/or energy not only reduces that organisation's own footprint, but makes it easier for others to reduce theirs.

 

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16 August 2017

Food for thought or gut instinct?

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I really enjoyed the piece in last week's Guardian pricking the balloon of the 'clean eating' movement whose proponents claim that modern life is killing us. I can get quite grumpy about happy-clappy pseudoscience and how it inveigles its way into everyday life. My local coffee shop proudly presents its 'gluten-free' brownies, even though the vast majority of people who think they are gluten intolerant simply aren't. I asked for one with gluten recently and the poor guy behind the counter looked utterly confused.

But the really disturbing part of the article is the author's anecdote of sharing a stage alongside a qualified dietician and one of the beautiful young champions of the clean eating movement. Whenever either of the first two questioned some of the claims made in the best-selling books of the latter, the audience got aggressive, and they were mocked later on social media. How dare these two criticise something we've invested emotional capital in using mere facts? Read the rest of this entry »

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14 August 2017

Ignore Lawson et al, get on with the job in hand

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You can't have missed the furore. Al Gore was touring the British media last week promoting his new climate change movie, An Inconvenient Sequel. After his interview on Radio 4's Today programme, the BBC (disclosure, a Terra Infirma client) let climate sceptic Lord Lawson spout a few climate/clean energy zombie myths by way of 'balance'.

Twitter went into meltdown. Scientists, environmentalists and environmental scientists tore into the BBC for 'false balance' (presenting a minority view with equal weight to the consensus). Carbon Brief did their usual methodical debunking of Lawson's claims which forced Lawson's Global Warming Policy Forum to withdraw his erroneous claim that global temperatures were flatlining. Everybody else, huffed and puffed as if it was the end of the world.

Now I agree with the frustration, but I think the sound and fury is misplaced. Why?

  1. You ain't gonna stop Lawson. He's invested too much personally in this bunkum to back down, he is/was a significant political figure, and we have free speech in this country, which means hearing what you don't like as well as what you do. He will get on the media whether we like it or not.
  2. When was the last time you changed your mind on a subject because you heard a politician say something? The listeners probably came away with the view that Lawson didn't agree with Gore rather than believing Gore was wrong. I would be very surprised if anyone changed their minds.
  3. If people are susceptible to Lawson's message, then we're not going to bring them back on board by screaming at either Lawson or the BBC. It just creates more noise and plays into the sceptics' claims that environmentalism is a religion rather than based on sound scientific evidence. We need cleverer ways to sell sustainability to those people (I would of course recommend Green Jujitsu).
  4. Lawson, along with Monckton, Ridley, Lomborg et al, have been spectacularly unsuccessful at slowing the shift to a low carbon economy (see graph of the UK's renewables growth as an example). Yes, it could always go faster, but I would suspect that institutional inertia, the planning system, the immaturity of supply chains, and short termism are all more potent brakes than a few smart arses writing newspaper columns, tweeting or getting a few seconds on the wireless. UK_renewables_generated
  5. We each have limited time, energy and cash. We can choose to spend those resources moving our society to a more sustainable footing, or we can jump up and down in rage. I responded to Donald Trump's election by making a modest investment in renewable energy as it was the only thing I could think of which would make me feel better at that moment. It did, and it will have a much more positive effect on the planet, and my sanity, than spending the same time raging ineffectually on social media.

When I made this point on social media, a colleague responded that we had to "remove ALL barriers to climate action". This is not the case: perfectionism is the enemy of success. Some barriers are insignificant and should be ignored as they are a waste of energy. We need to focus on the significant barriers, remove those that can be removed, and work around those that can't.

Let's do it!

 

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9 August 2017

A Cycle-logical Summer

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Just back from my second camping trip of the school holidays and the third this year – we're getting close to packing everything we need first time, now. But my personal highlights of the summer have all been on two wheels. My main target was my first century ride on the Cyclone sportive – 106 miles and the equivalent climbing of riding over Mt Snowdon and Ben Nevis (give or take 50m). Then, on a whim, I entered the Great Dun Fell sportive which finished at the radar station on top of the titular mountain via the UK's highest tarmac road. The 25-30% ramps and howling gale on this climb had me almost at a standstill at several points.

After those two brutal challenges, a ride with an old pal taking us from SW London out into Surrey on Sunday was a pleasant day out, but it was also a real eye-opener. I'm used to the almost empty roads of the North Pennines and Northumberland, so the traffic levels (powered and unpowered) were a real shock – more like a sportive than a coffee ride. Our route took in some of the most popular cycling stretches in the country (Richmond Park and Box Hill according to the the training app Strava) and the friction between the two-wheels and four was noticeable – "get a car!" was one bizarre piece of heckling, and my yell of remonstration against a Bentley driver who almost grazed my elbow was countered with an object hurled from the passenger window. Classy.

As we returned into Kingston, however, we were able to take a lovely long and interrupted car-free path along the river. Unsurprisingly, this is where we saw most families out riding. The centre of the town itself was undergoing a cycling/walking renewal with the previous slatherings of coloured road paint being upgraded with proper cycle paths, signals and signage.

I'm convinced the UK is undergoing a real transformation of attitudes to cycling, although the aggression we encountered shows there is a way to go. Here are some conclusions relevant to wider change for Sustainability:

  • You can't expect more sustainable behaviour in a system designed for business as usual;
  • Use demand to indicate where you should focus your effort as the 'bang for your buck' is highest;
  • Don't abandon people halfway – one nightmare of cycling (or any transport) is when cycle paths/direction signs evaporate just when you need them most;
  • Expect resistance, some understandable, much entirely irrational. Use the former as feedback, ignore the latter.

And lastly, get out and ride!

 

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3 August 2017

This makes me wanna scream...

screamEven as a committed carnivore, I found this article in the Observer on the increasing number of elite athletes turning to veganism really interesting at first. Then came the backlash in the second half – the sanctimonious hardcore vegans saying things like:

"However, there are many high-profile vegan athletes who never mention anything but their personal, selfish benefits from avoiding animal products and eating more plants."

Or

"I’m always sceptical when I hear that a sportsperson or celebrity has become ‘plant-based’ for health reasons. It dilutes veganism into being just a diet when in fact veganism is an ethos, a lifestyle of non-violence and compassion towards all living creatures."

[My emphases]

This really makes me mad... do they want people to give up animal products or not? The message is "never mind what you do, unless you believe everything I believe then you are morally inferior" – how arrogant is that? It is the epitome of the self-appointed moral priesthood which crosses from veganism into the deep-green end of the environmental movement – raising the bar to entry rather than lowering it.

That lowering of the bar to Sustainability is my life's ambition – getting more and more people on board, enjoying a more sustainable lifestyle, imperfections and all. That is why I formulated the idea of Green Jujitsu – to reach out, rather than push away. Because that is the only way we will do what we need to do. And you'd better believe it!

 

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1 August 2017

Happy 11th Birthday Terra Infirma!

Terra Infirma is 4 years old!So, it is 11 years to the day that I jumped off the cruise ship of salaried employment and onto the windsurfing board of solo consultancy – just before the tsunami of the 2007/08 financial crisis gave me a rather brutal lesson in business survival. Looking back over the last year, as I always do on this date, the uncertainty created by Brexit has certainly caused similar choppy waters as many people who would like our help are either unable to invest, or afraid to.

This has led to a year of ups and downs. A good illustration is that, while our North of England-based Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group is going from strength to strength, hitting the maximum membership limit this year for the very first time, I was unable to get a critical mass together to launch a Southern chapter. Brexit was quoted by several otherwise very interested contacts as a reason they couldn't commit. The great irony of course is that during the financial crisis companies with a strong commitment to Sustainability weathered the storm better than those who didn't.

But that grumble aside, here are some more highlights of the last 12 months:

  • Continuing to work with our wonderful roster of existing clients including the BBC, NHS Blood & Transplant, Johnson Matthey, Newcastle NHS Hospitals Trust and Stanley Black & Decker;
  • Some great new clients including Durham University, Esh Construction, the Thirteen Group and Elopak;
  • The publication of our latest white paper Seven Steps to a Successful Sustainability Strategy;
  • Some fantastic questions for my regular Ask Gareth YouTube series (If you haven't subscribed to our YouTube channel, get over there straight away and do so);
  • Continuing success of our regular Green Academy training programme;
  • And, more recently, the launch of our new online training course: Green Jujitsu: Smart Employee Engagement for Sustainability.

And things are looking pretty good for the six months ahead with an strong focus on helping clients to implement their Sustainability Strategy. The good ship Terra Infirma sails on!

 

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