On Thursday, the eldest child and I set off on our bikes to Amsterdam – Harry had won the ferry tickets in a prize draw from a cyclocross race he'd won. We made a little video about our trip which you can watch below – and yes he really did slide into a stinking stream on the way to the ferry. He was very lucky he wasn't injured, but we both had a whiff of stagnant water about us for the rest of the trip.
As always on journeys abroad, I had my eyes peeled for different approaches to Sustainability. Eight years ago, a business/pleasure trip to Belgium had really brought home the difference between that country and the UK on renewable energy at that time. However this time the difference wasn't apparent; the number of wind turbines we saw approaching the Dutch coast was similar to the number we saw along the North East coast of England on our way back to the Tyne on Sunday morning.
The biggest difference I noticed was the cycling infrastructure. A friend of mine, on seeing our video, said we had managed to make the Tyneside cycle paths as good as the Dutch ones, but there is an extremely important difference. By chance, the old riverside railway on the north bank of the Tyne has been converted into Hadrian's Cycleway, connecting our neighbourhood with the ferry dock. If the dismantled railway route wasn't there to build the cycle path, I doubt we would have cycled at all – we'd have been dodging lorries the whole way.
In the Netherlands, there is no such lottery. Every route has a cycle route. Every roundabout had a outer cycling ring. Every junction is properly signposted.
When we hit Amsterdam, we didn't need to work out a good cycle route to get through the bustling city centre to our hotel – we just picked the roads that went where we wanted to go (although if you watch the video, Harry was a bit overwhelmed by the sheer number of Amsterdamers shooting past us on bikes and mopeds as we made our stately way along the canals).
The generic lesson from this experience is: we must make every option a Sustainable option. Customers, employees and stakeholders ideally shouldn't have to make a choice between Sustainability and non-Sustainability, and, if they do, the decision making process should be heavily tilted towards the former.
To break up the monotony (as if) of rock pooling for the kids in our lovely coastal holiday location, we took them to Edinburgh Zoo yesterday. Like many, it always takes me a while to get over the confinement of the animals, until it is driven home to me what an essential job they do in terms of conservation, awareness and education.
It is indeed sad to see two bored Sumatran tigers pacing along in synchronicity where their cages meet, but as soon as you find out about that there are only 500 left in the world, it puts their individual situation into a wider perspective. I know there are some purists who would rather see the species go extinct than be in zoos, but I think they're idiots.
Mid-afternoon, we went to the 'meet the insects' session which went down great with the kids and adults alike (see pic) and which gives people that deeper connection with the animals. The keeper, Barry, who led this session then went on a whirlwind tour of other exhibits - some scheduled, some just 'cos he felt like it. His commentary was brilliant, mixing animal physiology, conservation and fascinating factoids (like the sun bear being the main source of Chewbacca's voice).
Barry's emerging theme was that the biggest threat to many of the endangered animals is palm oil production in SE Asia leading to loss of habitat. My homework is to investigate further as, due to the nature of my clients, this is a bit of a blindspot in my Sustainability knowledge.
We're holidaying just north of the border from where I live in North East England – in a very secluded location. To get here from the main road, after a short wiggle through some minor roads, we had to unlock a gate, drive down a rough track with a precipitous fall to some jagged rocks and the sea one side, and stop outside a tunnel in the hillside. Just inside the tunnel is a wheelbarrow which we had to unlock, load up with some luggage and walk 50 metres in the dark towards the light, then out and 200m across a beach path and up some steps to our cabin.
The tunnel bit was enlivened by bigger children telling the youngest it was full of zombies who would "suck out his brains." It took about 3 shuttles with the barrow, and lots of reassurance to small child about the undead (or lack thereof), to get all our stuff in (and about 10 minutes to log onto the wifi.)
It's a glorious location, watching the tide roll in and out of the harbour, leaving rock pools full of fish, prawns and hermit crabs for the children to harass. House martins are nesting in the cliffs above us, swooping around feeding on the midges and trying not to feed the sparrowhawks in turn. The midges seem to be taking it out on me, and me alone, putting me in a special place in the food chain.
When we climb back out of the cove, we're surrounded by low carbon energy – Torness nuclear power station dominates the skyline to the west and we have major wind farms to the south and east. The latter two form an impressive backdrop to my cycles/hunts for a decent coffee stop.
We've been here for five days and have hardly 'done anything' – just being here is enough!
I wasn't planning on blogging today – in fact I had intended to be waking up for my fourth morning under canvas (well, nylon) at Wooler at the north end of the Cheviots. However our deliberations on the weather came to an abrupt conclusion when the cheap gazebo we used for cooking took off yesterday morning, leaving me standing in a field, holding a full cafetiere in a stiff northerly wind, with a surprised expression on my face. However difficult it was to dismantle the tent in the wind yesterday, it was going to be easier than doing it with the same wind plus precipitation this morning.
But before that slightly dramatic end (thank god most people left our field on Monday – that flying gazebo could have done some real damage) we had a fantastic time. Breakfast with buzzards soaring overhead then swooping down and scattering rabbits, some really gorgeous walks with picnics, the boys playing in the stream that runs through the camp site, dinner al fresco and bedtime stories as the sun went down (see pic). I also got to sneak off for a 46 mile coffee ride on my brand new carbon fibre road bike (well I have just turned 45 so I had to buy one).
I try not to get too romantic about the 'back to nature' element of camping – all the high-tech fabrics, sleeping bags, inflatable mattresses, gas cooker and cool bags make our annual family forays very comfortable. But there is something wonderful about being buffeted that wind, hearing the peep of the oystercatcher protecting its young in the middle of the night and watching the kids really get down with nature (although the 'slug licking' maybe went a tad too far).
Is the model of embedding oneself in nature while wearing a Polartec fleece and a Gore-tex cagoule the one for our sustainable future? Appropriate technology allowing us top quality of life in harmony with our fantastic natural world sounds like a winner to me.
Although the fate of our gazebo, now lying mangled in Wooler's household waste recycling centre, reminds us what happens when we get it wrong.
Anyone noticing/blessing my absence on social media action for the last 6 days need fear no longer, I'm back on-line after 6 days camping at Lost Lake, 950m up in the Oregonian Cascades. It was absolutely wonderful too, with the backdrop of old growth forest and the towering Mt Hood like one of those cheesy 70s wilderness posters that many of us grew up with.
Amazing wildlife, too. Just after I took the picture above, an Osprey dived to scoop a fish out of the lake and head back towards its perch. Our daily campsite routine was tolerated by ever entertaining chipmunks doing their chipmunk thing. The potential, if unrealised, appearance of a bear or even a cougar gave the stay a frisson we don't get back in Northumberland.
Despite the compromises of staying in a camping trailer on a site with running water, (compost) toilets, garbage bins and a store, I do like the way camping makes you very aware of your relationship with nature and the benefits/impacts of modern life. There is no way we could have survived here for more than a few days without food supplies. Finite gas/electrical power and a single rubbish bag and the need to empty waste water manually makes it very clear what you are consuming/wasting.
The absence of my favoured deluge of bite-sized internet information forced me into doing something I've let slip recently – reading books properly, 50-60 pages at a time, rather than in 10 page chunks. I'll be bringing something from one of those books, Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, back to the business later in the week.
Anyway, this morning we're packing for an afternoon flight and I'll be home with the little 'uns tomorrow. Blogging will continue slightly erratically for the rest of the summer.
So, I'm in sunny Portland with the family, recently declared the most sustainable city in the US by the Mother Nature Network and the second most sustainable in the world by Grist back in 2007 (annoyingly Portland wasn't included in the recent global sustainability ranking of 50 cities – other US cities were – so it is difficult to judge how it stands up against, say, Copenhagen.)
The city is renowned for being achingly hip, so much so it has even spawned its own sketch show, Portlandia. I overheard an unwittingly hilarious conversation at a cafe about the traumas of trying to survive on a vegetarian, gluten-free diet which could have been straight from the show. But the upside is organic food aplenty, craft beer (OK, we took the kids to a beer festival... above) and more people on bicycles than I've seen anywhere else in the US (albeit in my limited experience).
Portland seems to be the Prius capital of the world – I've certainly never seen so many in one day's walking. But through European eyes, any carbon savings from the Prii will be more than obliterated by the sheer number of humungous SUVs which many Portlanders seem to drive for no discernible reason other than because they can. Even the hipsters seem to prefer unhealthy sounding elderly station wagons than something leaner, cleaner and more modern.
There's a drought on here. Not enough snow in the winter or rain in the spring has depleted reserves. Most people in this neighbourhood have respected calls not to water lawns – most are parched brown.
Last but not least, the people we have encountered so far are delightful. Not just the 'have a nice day' clichés, but ordinary passers -by going out of their way to be helpful to a family of Brits trying to negotiate a strange city.
Next week, I've got a meeting with the City Council to hear how they are delivering sustainability in the city – expect a post next week.
As of today, I'm on my usual summer mixture of holiday, work and childcare - blogs will be less frequent, less regular and more informal.
The good news is that for the next three weeks, I'll be based in Portland, Oregan, renowned as a sustainable city, and I've got a meeting booked with the City Council to hear what they've done and how they've done it. Salves my conscience a little for the most carbon-hungry trip I've taken in a decade...
I've just spent a wonderful long weekend doing exactly the same thing I've done on the spring half-term the last 2 years – camping in Wooler at the North end of the Cheviot Hills with varying numbers of family (and, this year, friends). The picture was taken at the top of Humbleton Hill, at just under 300m, a modest climb for adults and a challenge for the kids, but, given its 'last high ground' position, graced with stupendous views across Northumberland and up into Scotland.
Our boys had a fantastic time, largely ignoring the new adventure playground on the camp to go splashing along the two streams which run through the campsite. We had an 'emergency iPad' hidden in the car in case of traditional British Bank Holiday weather, but it went unused. No screens for 72 hours is quite an achievement for this generation.
After a couple of days of rambling around our campsite, we decamped to the Farne Islands. With tens of thousands of nesting pairs of puffins and guillemots, not to mention over a thousand psychopathic Arctic Terns (right), the islands are a Mecca for anybody who loves nature – yet on a Bank Holiday Monday we had no problem rolling up on spec and getting tickets. There's nothing like seeing with your own eyes a puffin land with a mouthful of sand eels and disappearing down its burrow to feed its young.
I've realised in recent years that the wanderlust of my younger years has dissipated significantly – nothing to do with carbon footprints, more I've realised just how spoiled I am by all the treasures on my doorstep!
I'm down in our capital city with the family for a short break. The two bigger boys were very keen to come because of various school projects, and the little one – well as usual he just has to lump it!
As usual, on holiday, I have my eyes peeled for anything sustainability-related.
I remember musing on my way back from Bruges back to Newcastle by train in 2009 that in Belgium you saw at least one solar array in every village or suburb, but virtually nothing on the English side of the Channel. Oh, how that has changed. Not only is there a huge amount of roof-mounted solar along the East Coast Mainline, but we passed at least 3 field-sized solar farms and plenty of wind turbines dotted here and there. It is no surprise to me now that UK solar installed capacity doubled in 2014 – you can see it.
We're staying at a genuine Airbnb house – a real family home as opposed to a regular rental – and our first proper use of the new sharing economy. The house is lovely, but you do have to put up with your host's tastes – there is no cafetiere, garlic press or, believe it or not, wine glasses. We can improvise on the former two, but bought them 4 cheap wine glasses (I hope that isn't taken as an insult as we can't take them with us). The other problem is trying to stop 3 rather excited and rambunctious boys from trashing the place...
Another thing I've noticed is you can now use a contactless debit/credit card in lieu of an Oyster card for London transport. This opens up the flexibility of London public transport for the casual visitor. Anything to remove barriers to the greener option wins in my book and, when my Oyster card runs out/gets lost again, I think I might give up on it.
As well as the tourist traps, yesterday we went to the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust London in Barnes, not that far from the heart of the City - amazing to see what you can achieve if you leave a little space for nature in our urban sprawl.
I know I'm an irrepressible optimist, but going on a holiday allows you to see things afresh in a way you don't on a business trip. I am utterly convinced that, no matter what the doomsters claim, we are moving in the right direction.
I'm into phase II of my summer holidays - back in our favourite spot of Askrigg in Wensleydale. In the past, I've always refused on principle to holiday in the same place twice, but we love this old croft house so much, this is our third visit. First time we had one child, second time two, this time three. And no, we won't be continuing that particular trend...
You can't miss the Tour de France paraphernalia still adorning every house from the Grand Depart almost six weeks ago. I've been pedalling up hill and down dale a couple of times already, giving the old muscles a warm up before I hit the 'Côte de Buttertubs' that Nibali, Froome, Contador et al made look like a speed bump. Unlike them, I'll be stopping for tea and cake or a pint halfway around my circuit.
Naturally, I like to seek out local sustainability efforts when I'm on holiday. The amount of rooftop solar installed had increased once again, but the biggest permanent change I noticed was this fantastic archimedes screw on the river Bain in nearby Bainbridge - capable of powering 45 houses and generating £35,000 per annum for the community group which installed it - once the investors are rewarded, the profits are being invested in the local environment.
I remember reading an article in New Civil Engineer about a decade ago suggesting that hydro-projects at this scale are very cost-effective and avoid the impacts of large scale hydro. Nice to see a good, (presumably) successful community energy project too.
Another thing I like about Askrigg is the local produce, whether Wensleydale Cheese, local bread and honey, and, of course, the eponymous local ale. Don't worry, I'll have one on you!
Last Thursday, on the last full day of my Cumbrian holiday, I took the elder two boys back to Hodbarrow nature reserve and, after an hour's Biblical battering of wind and rain, the clouds parted for a few moments and, lo, the Walney Wind Farm appeared on the horizon. The sheer scale of the installation was breath-taking - and we could just make out two other distant farms, all turning, all generating clean power.
It is very easy to get caught up in the hurly-burly of the sustainability debate and forget that we are winning, if only by a nose. But seeing is believing - and it was a scene of ecological devastation that drove me into this career and it is the sights of such progress that drive me on. Let's do it!
Half term holiday and our family - extended to include my parents - are staying in a farmhouse in the South West of the Lake District. We're pretty much off the tourist trail here - the towns and villages have something of a Wild West feel. The weather hasn't been too kind so far, but I've got some short cycles in and a fantastic if wind/rain beaten trip to Hodbarrow Nature Reserve (above) - featuring a huge brackish lagoon created by old ironstone mining. For the birders: Slavonian Grebe, Goldeneye and more Red Breasted Mergansers than I could shake a stick at.
On the way here, we got a fantastic view of one of the new wind farms off Barrow. I'm not quite sure which one as there are about three or four in that area, but if it was the Walney Wind Farm then it was the largest in the world when commissioned in 2012 but its title has already been usurped a couple of times by bigger British installations. That just illustrates how fast renewable energy is expanding in this country.
The least eco-friendly thing we've seen so far is the outdoor hot tub here at the farmhouse - who on earth would want to sit in a hot tub when it's 6°C and pouring with rain? Apparently it can't easily be turned off, but I have asked for it to be turned down to salve my conscience...
I woke up early yesterday morning and got out onto the veranda of our holiday apartment before the rest of the family. A vulture wheeled high in the sky and a low bank of bright white cloud obscured the horizon. Suddenly what looked like the black blades of scissors snipped their way through the cloud, which then fell back to reveal a wind farm (constituting itself in its white form), the Rock of Gibraltar, murky mountains in Africa beyond and ships plying their way in between. Martins and swallows circled in front of the veranda, feeding and getting nest materials. This is my kind of place - natural beauty, wildlife, chilled atmosphere, sunshine and lots of renewables.
Gaucin is a pueblo blanco - a white village - that once formed part of the frontier between Christianity and Islam in this part of Spain. You can certainly see the Islamic influence in the winding streets and the architecture. The old hill fort is open tomorrow, so we're hoping for an historical insight then - the village is so sleepy that the guidebooks hardly mention it, preferring to concentrate on Ronda half an hour away with its Hemingway connections. We spent about 36 hours and six different trains to get from Newcastle to Seville and then two hours driving here - we've found out the hard way that kids don't appreciate slow travel as much as adults...
En route I devoured Solar by Ian McEwan - a novel about a Nobel prize-winning, but washed up academic hoping to jump on the climate change/renewable energy bandwagon to revitalise his career. The themes include what happens when science hits the real world, originality/plagiarism, and chickens coming home to roost. The scientific and technical issues are pleasingly well handled, and it avoids the obvious controversies to concentrate on the human failings that can undermine technological progress. Highly recommended.
I'm now onto The New Rules of Green Marketing by Jacquelyn Ottman - should be able to post a review next week. In the meantime, plenty of laziness is on the agenda, punctured by the odd outbreak of gluttony.
By the time you read this, I'll be on one of four trains to Seville in Spain before heading by car to Ronda in Andalucia. So Terra Infirma Towers will be closing for a couple of weeks while the family and I get used to the fact I'm four decades young over many bottles of Rioja.
Blogging here will be on holiday frequency - once or twice a week depending on whether the villa's wi-fi works. Full service will re-commence on 11 April.
Just back from a superb 2 week holiday in the Yorkshire Dales. Askrigg, where we stayed, has its own bakery, microbrewery and dairy, loads of walking routes and some challenging cycling (with some gruelling 1:4 hills). That to me is pretty much heaven.
But it wasn't a complete holiday - every morning I was up at 5:30 working on my second book, The Green Executive, until 7:00 when the rest of the family started to stir. People often ask me how long it takes to write a book - my usual glib reply is "forever!". To give you an idea, that 18-odd hours of intense, uninterrupted effort was long enough to read through the entire draft manuscript once through, annotate changes and make the edits (but not those which require any research). I need to do that at least twice more...
... I'm off on my holidays tomorrow. We're spending a fortnight in Askrigg in the Yorkshire Dales - same house as last year as we enjoyed it so much. If the weather's as good as last year we'll be laughing, as the walking, cycling, scenery and lazing about is fantastic - I hope the bakery is still serving freshly baked croissants at 7am.
It's not a complete break, though. I've just printed off the complete manuscript for The Green Executive for the first time ever having slotted the interviews into place. This needs to be finished by the end of July, so I'll be putting in a couple of hours work every day.
Through the wonders of technology, I'll still be posting on Twitter, you might get a few posts here as well, and of course it's my day on the virtual working summit next Tuesday.
I'm taking break from doing the final proof edits on The Three Secrets of Green Business. This is extraordinarily tedious, but I have found one big clanger so it is necessary. Despite the tedium, I'm getting really excited. I'm organising a launch event in January - more details when I have them. In the meantime, the Green Executive is really starting to shape up and I hope to get the first draft to the publisher early in the new year.
Also coming soon is the new branding, website and Low Carbon Agenda. Just the final tweaks to go, but looking very good indeed.
Part of me worries that all this excitement is displacement activity to distract me from yet another impending new arrival. My second child is due on 1 November, although his mother's maternal vibe is that this one could be early. So if this blog suddenly goes quiet, it probably means I'm up to my elbows in nappies again and/or taking no 1 son to the park. I intend to take two weeks semi-paternity leave - keeping things tapping along but not running any workshops or intensive pieces of work.
Just back in Newcastle after a wonderful break in Askrigg in the Yorkshire Dales - walking, cycling and lazing about in the sun (honest!) reading and drinking coffee. And the local beer. I got a chance to catch up on a few back issues of ENDS, finished EF Schumacher's classic Small is Beautiful and started on the works of the deep ecology founder Arne Naess - both of which will turn up on Green Gurus soon.
One of our walks was around the dramatic limestone pavements and cliffs of Malham Cove (see pic) and brought an important issue home to me. First we walked to the still waters of Malham Tarn then along a stream leading from it until the water simply disappeared into unseen subterranean tunnels. We then followed the dry stream bed down to the top of the cliffs where the stream obviously once spilled over the top in a spectacular waterfall. When you climb down, a river appears from the base of the cliffs. Given that we'd been following the route of the original stream, you would think that this was it simply re-emerging from its underground course, but it isn't! Somewhere in the unexplored depths of the limestone, that stream of water crosses another without ever joining forces. The complexity of such hydrogeological systems is one reason why groundwater is the most protected natural resource. Pollution and the impacts of over-extraction are extremely difficult to 'fix'. This in turn is a factor the heavily populated South East of England has a water shortage, whereas the North, which depends on surface water reservoirs and is much less populated isn't.
Terra Infirma is celebrating its third birthday today! In those three years, we've worked with hundreds of businesses and public sector organisations ranging from the third biggest organisation in the world (the UK's National Health Service) to micro-businesses and solo entrepreneurs. While I'd be lying if I said the recession hadn't made things frustrating sometimes, we're finding there are plenty of people out there who realise that sustainability is the future.
And there's an exciting and challenging year ahead. We're bringing new clients and partners on board as we speak, the Three Secrets of Green Business is out in December and I'm planning to have the manuscript of book#2 (working title "The Green Executive") finished by this time next year. We also have plenty of other exciting ideas working their way towards fruition.
I'm off on holiday to the (hopefully) sunny Yorkshire Dales for a couple of weeks, so things will go a bit quiet on the blogging front. If you want more to read in the meantime, check out Green Gurus which now features the godmother of the modern environmental movement, Rachel Carson. I'm taking books by EF Schumacher, Arne Naess and David Pearce away with me, so they're in the pipeline along with economist Herman Daly and climatologist James Hansen. And don't forget, there's always the back issues of "The Low Carbon Agenda"...