David Mitchell’s Soapbox

Comedian David Mitchell is doing a series of videos for the Guardian newspaper about a variety of topical subjects.  Two recent episodes have been on environmental topics.

In this first video, David talks about using market forces to drive sustainability, in focussing on the short shelf life of cheap modern goods and air travel.

In terms of my ‘smart sustainable home’, it has made me give some more thought to the issue of longevity of furniture, fixtures and fittings.

In this second video, David takes on climate change doubters.  He makes the point, in his inimitable style, that in addition to the scientific consensus that man-made climate change is happening, from a precautionary point of view we should tackle climate change because we aren’t sure it isn’t happening.  A very good line of argument indeed.

When confronted with climate change sceptics, I have always sought to broaden the argument to include other problems relating to burning fossil fuels.  For instance, carbon dioxide isn’t the only thing coming out of chimneys and car exhaust pipes.  Nitrogen oxides and particulate matter are proven to cause health problems.  So surely, making more efficient use of fossil fuels and switching to alternatives must be a good thing.

Fossil fuels will one day run out.  Already we are having to go to more remote locations to take advantage of more difficult-to-extract sources.  Some would even say that global politics and wars are ruled by the availability of oil.  This too suggests that making more efficient use of fossil fuels and switching to alternatives must be a good thing.

Finally, fossil fuels are increasingly expensive.  Using less not only is good for the environment, but is good for your pocket too.

The whole series of David Mitchell’s Soapbox videos can be found here.

Shedding a Light on Appropriate Technology

Appropriate technology is, according to Wikipedia“technology that is designed with special consideration to the environmental, ethical, cultural, social, political, and economical aspects of the community it is intended for.”

For me, appropriate technology is about using the materials and human resources that are to hand to provide a technological solution.  Basically, don’t over-engineer technological solutions.

My sister sent me this link to a Youtube video last week and it is a great example of appropriate technology.  It features a slum community in the Philippines where they are using something as simple as a plastic bottle, water and a little bleach (to prevent algal growth) to bring light into the homes of people who cannot afford to use electrical lighting.  The Youtube clip is approaching a million hits and the BBC have also been out there to see this in action.

What gets me excited about this sort of thing is not just the immediate consequences, in this case lighting someone’s home, but the greater potential that it has.  Light in the home can lead to a better quality of life but also brings opportunities for increased productivity and education that can lift people out of poverty.  Quite simply, the ability to read at home for me is the greatest value that this can bring.

If you are interested in finding out more about appropriate technology, there are some great charities out there, such as Practical Action, that work to promote development through promotion of appropriate technology.

my current home – sustainability

the flat i live in was built in 2006.  it has a number of features that mean it’s pretty energy efficient by nature of its design.  it has flats above and below and to either side, meaning there are only two surfaces of the ‘cuboid’ through which to lose significant amounts of heat.  it has big windows, but good double glazing.  the windows may well still be responsible for the biggest heat loss, but we get loads of natural light pouring in reducing the need for artificial lighting.  i’ve already mentioned the fantastic waterloo sunsets we get every evening.

http://photozou.jp/photo/show/262775/27916981

a real life waterloo sunset

the one thing i am surprised at is that the block of flats i live in has no natural gas supply for heating, hot water and cooking.  unfortunately this means everything is electric and therefore more carbon intensive.  to mitigate this i have chosen ecotricity as my electricity supplier.  the electricity i get is still just normal ‘grid’ electricity, the same as anyone else, but at least i know that the money i spend gets invested in clean forms of power like wind energy.
so with heating and lighting largely covered, there’s not a huge amount i can do in terms of big ticket energy savings.  our flat came with all white goods supplied, so we had no part in selecting energy and water efficient models.  in fairness, they were all A rated, so without going to great expense, there is no sense in replacing those.

as i’ve mentioned in a previous post, our location, in waterloo, central london, provides great access to public transport, with two tube stations and a multitude of bus routes on our doorstep.  for the five years we’ve lived here we haven’t had a car, nor have we had need of one.  and although we have great access to public transport, most of my journeys are on foot.  i can walk to work in 35 minutes, and the south bank, covent garden and the west end are all within easy walking distance for all my leisure and shopping needs.

looking across the thames to waterloo

looking across the thames to waterloo

my biggest sustainability failing, i have to admit, is recycling.  but i do have to apportion at least some of the blame to my waste collection authority, lambeth council.  when we first moved to this area, i was full of enthusiasm to recycle and even bought a special bin that hid nicely in a cupboard and yet helped us segregate materials.  the trouble was that we filled our council-provided recycling bags within a couple of days.  what then were we supposed to do with them?  according to the council, they were supposed to be put out on the street only every sunday evening, ahead of the collection early on monday morning.  but where is anyone living in a compact flat (as a good proportion of lambeth residents do) supposed to store bags of (recyclable) rubbish for days on end?  with non-recyclables, you just chuck each full bag in the wheelie bin outside as it becomes full but there was no such provision for recyclables.  this was the question i put to lambeth council and over four years later i have yet to get a response.

in perhaps another peculiar design move, my block of flats has a single water meter for all occupants, so we just pay for water prorated on the proportion of floor area wach flat occupies.  therefore there is little incentive to save on water becuase you have such little influence on the bill.  my household with three occupants having daily showers/baths will pay the same as a theoretical single man with an adversity to personal hygiene in the same size flat.  and regardless of financial incentive, apart from the basics such as turning taps off while toothbrushing and not spending overly long in the shower, we are restricted in other potential savings.  we have no direct access to our cistern as it integrated in to the bathroom behind some tiles.  when replacing heating elements in our hot water boiler, the plumber noted that it is possibly oversized for even the three of us.  with limited resources and a potential house move on the horizon that is not something i would consider replacing, even with something more efficient.

in terms of sustainability, i believe that the aspects discussed above are all that i have within my direct control for my current home.  there are others down the supply chain, particularly in areas such as food, clothing and technology, where i might be able to exert some choice or even influence, and that is undoubtedly an area i will be exploring in more detail in future posts, but my influence there is limted as an individual consumer.  other aspects are completely outside my scope.  biodiversity, for example, because i neither own nor have any sort of stake in any outdoor space.  but outdoor space is a requirement for my future home, so this, and other aspects will form part of the agenda!

smart sustainable home

what is a smart sustainable home?  there are clearly two aspects to this.  taking the smart part first, there is an emerging trend for integrating technology in the home, with lighting and media controls integrated and much, much more.  take a look at this video on bbc news for microsoft’s take on this.

what about a sustainable home?  this is something that has been growing steadily for years, particularly in the last decade with an increasing number of people improving their homes’ energy efficiency and even generating electricity at home.

to some, a smart sustainable home must sound counter-intuitive, and there are inevitably some conflicts.  more tech around the home must mean more energy use for one.  and then there are the other aspects of sustainability.  much tech is made in countries where abuse of labour is known to occur – look at the recent reports of abuse at factories supplying apple (i’m sure they’re not alone in this). economically there are also aspects to be considered, not least whether i can afford any of this!

so plenty of challenges ahead.  right now i’m trying to buy a house and i’ve got plans for that place which i will be looking into in this blog.