Enviro-product savings

Review of the products featured on the Guardian’s eco-store today

Green Product Even more astonishingly green alternative Rating out of 5
Dyson Air multiplier An electric fan that looks like an i-phone, if Henry Moore had designed one in a fan format.
Cost: £199
A folded piece of paper waved about in front of your face with a fanning motion.
Cost £0
A minus number too huge to compute
Intellipanel A remote control device for switching off things connected to your tv so you don’t leave them on standby.
Cost: £29.95
Get up and switch off at the set and/or the wall
Cost £0
minus 3
This would be lower-rated than the elegant fan, except for the fact that it’s so much cheaper. At least the fan serves a purpose.
Organic beetroot juice Liquidised beetroot juice and a bit of apple
Cost:£3:09 per 740 ml bottle or £17.38 a case
Grow organic beetroots and apples. Stick them in a blender Cost: a couple of pounds per case equivalent.
(Or, even buy beetroots and apples and liquidise them. That might push the case cost up to a fiver.)
Shipping (unreturnable?) glass bottles all over the country marks it down. But at least it’s food and it’s organically grown and so it’s not really adding to the world sum of useless consumer goods that will be landfill in a year.
2 Recycled Grolsch bottles (turned upside down and with their ends cut off)
Cost: £12.95
No, I can’t imagine why you’d want one, either – let alone two – but, it’s easy enough to work out how to do it. Turn a Grolsch bottle upside down. Wrap a hot wire round the base and watch the bottom fall off. Sand it down a bit if you don’t want to cut yourself.
Cost: The cost of 2 bottles of Grolsch, plus you get to drink the beer first. A 20pack of Grolsch costs £20.99 from Drinksdirect. So, that’s under £3 for 2 full bottles of beer.
Or indeed Free, if you already have empty Grolsch bottles. Or any other bottles, as far as I can make out.
At least it aims to reuse an existing product. I’d mark it up if standard glass recycling didn’t already exist. But then I’d have to mark it down again for the fact that it implies that the outcome of recycling beer packaging costs the consumer 6 times the cost of the beer in its original container.
Pants to poverty men’s underpants
Buy normal underpants at about £1 and give ten pounds straight to a development charity if you need to feel that your underwear purchase is doing some global good.
Cost: £11
I don’t like the way that “charity” seems to involve paying massively over the odds for things, when it is unlikely that much of the cost ends up where you thought it was going. So, we all pay to feel better about world problems rather than to solve them.
Owl Wireless Energy Monitor (or – as they used to be called – an electric meter.) This shows you how much electricity you are using, so you will see how much it costs and use less (Replacing the traditional electric bill then?)
Cost: £29.95
Switch things off without getting a digital readout first. (Or if you really want to see numbers while you do it, look at your old-fashioned meter occasionally. or look at a digital watch display occasionally and remind yourself that digits mean “Switch something off”)
Cost: £0
Glow in the dark brick Stores up solar power in the day to light up an acrylic green brick.
Cost: £13
Can’t think of a way to make this at home. The only obvious alternative is just not to have one. That seems to be working out quite well so far for most of us.
Cost: £0
I am quite taken by the idea of having a glowing green brick. But despite the sop to my conscience provided by its use of solar energy, I’m still going to have to ruthlessly decide that I will try to manage without one.

Greenwash, don’t you just love it?

Green ranting, again

A Black Sun Journal post about the UK’s government’s cynical irrationality about diapers (that’s nappies to us) sparked this rant about other “green” things that turn out to be less than ecologically logical.

(I’m not completely convinced about the nappies argument anyway. Disposables may create less carbon-emissions in use but I’m not sure if the carbon-emission sums take into account other ecosystem effects of disposables – such as the source of the materials they are made from, or how long they stay in landfill leaking plastic toxins. I’m just saying that carbon-emissions aren’t the only way to destroy an ecosystem.)

Energy efficient lightbulbs.
These may be energy-efficient but they often can’t really be called “light”bulbs. They oftenn seem to be there just to illuminate their own presence.

So, if you are so tall that you are in danger of bumping your head on the ceiling, it acts as a safety device – at least you’d know there was lightbulb there and avoid it.

As the standard energy-efficient lightbulb gives off approximately 1 candlepower, the user who is hellbent on actually seeing anything has to use a dozen at once.

And, whatever you do, don’t break them or touch a broken one. Another reason why they have to be bright enough to stop tall people cracking their heads on them is that they turn out to be stuffed with mercury.

What exactly are you supposed to do with them when they wear out? Will there be dedicated hazardous waste collections?

Eco-alternatives: No idea about this. Normal flouresecents? I don’t even know if candles would create more light per unit of carbon.

Energy-efficient washing machines

UK washing machines work by taking so long to clean clothes that natural processes of decomposition could easily have kicked in and half the dirt might have biodegraded by itself.

It bet that a two hour wash cycle in the most “energy-efficient” washing machine uses more power overall than a more powerful washing machine that finishes the washing in a few minutes. (Ditto, driers)

Eco-alternatives: Old tech could easily be adapted. There used to be a whole complex washing technology of washboards and wringers and dollies and maidens. No, I don’t know exactly what most of them were but there must be enough bits and pieces in antique shops to work out some ways to adapt them.

Old fashioned twin-tubs took a couple of minutes to ruthlessly swirl the clothes around in the washing half of the combo. The rinsing bit could be done with minimal effort and no electricity at all by directing a hose into the other tub.

Better still, there was some sort of hand-powered eco-washing machine on sale about 15 years ago. it was like a barrel that was meant to be suspended over the bath, connected to a tap by a hose and with a handle that you turned to do the washing.

Road pricing and congestion charges

These seem to operate on the principle that the richer you are, the less ecological trouble your vehicle causes. Blatantly useless except as an income generator for local authorities.

Eco-solution: So simple that it’s embarrassing. Excellent and cheap public transport – trains, trams and buses. What about building Simpsons-style monorails?

My favourite solution: Canals – there is a national network of canals. Canals are already built, ffs. They were built to move goods in large quantities. They are even already full of water. Horses could pull the barges along, as they used to.

New Eco-towns
Where do you start on this? No matter how bloody “energy-efficient” these planned new towns are, they eat up the countryside, damage any residual wilderness, threaten the survival of birds and insects and mammals and plants and add to the volume of energy-using road traffic.

In any case, the whole idea really annoys me because I work in a building that was supposed to be the last word in eco-friendly construction. It was basically assembled from a kit, like a cheap wardrobe. As you might expect, if you’ve ever tried to assemble a cheap wardrobe, within a few months, it was close to decrepit and needs constant incredibly expensive repairs.

(Aspects of its eco-friendliness are so weird that you can’t even imagine what eco-model they were following, anyway. The car park is huge. Turn on the water to wash your hands in the toilet sinks and you get enough hot or cold water to bathe a medium sized dog. There is no way to stop it. I am tempted to buy a large vacuum flask and start taking the excess hot water home. )

Eco-solution: Fix up the existing buildings and build on derelict land before deciding it’s a great idea to spread London across the whole south of England.

Traditional materials like brick, and wood and stone last more than few months before they fall to bits in ugly ways and become fit for landfill. You can reuse them almost indefinitely. There are traditional building methods – like using cob and thatch – that could be used to create genuinely energy-efficient homes.

Traditional construction skills aren’t just disposable. They can’t be replaced by a skill level that would barely put together a stable IKEA table.


More from Ted. Following my triumph at posting the Dawkins video link, I’m following up with another. I’m posting this video link because I’ve never seen anyone express such perfect good sense about food. It’s Mark Bittman on what’s wrong with what we eat.

This is something on the blog for those people who come here looking for “5 fruit and veg” posts.

Dying of consumption

Green is the new black…..

“Eco-clothing, fair and far from square” (The Times)

The Guardian has a whole Eco-store

The Independent has an eco-living section in its store

And so on. Some of these products would save energy. Some are made out of natural products by hand…. Some of these products are complete crap. They are all basically spreading the message- spend more, buy more goods to save the environment.

A graphic on the BBC that shows how much space there is for everyone on the planet. There were 8.91 hectares for each person on the planet in 1900. There are 1.83 now. This, in itself suggests a species that’s too successful for its own ecosystem so is well on its way to extinction.

Being humans rather than pond snails, we aren’t just passive victims – we could solve many of the resulting problems. We all have to consume things to survive. But is ever-more fashionably “green” consumption really the direction we should be going in?

It’s a “guilt-trip you, then offer you a way to buy your way out of the guilt, then sell you something” solution.

Which is pretty much a solution that meets the needs of manufacturers to get customers, but I have to admit to extreme scepticism about its value to the environment.

Though even “green” consumerism has an edge over the general direction of government environmental policy which seems to be based on the counter-intuitive idea that the rich don’t cause ecological problems. Because – when they don’t involve denying there are any problems – government policies on the environment usually consist of making people pay more for energy, fuel, water, sewage disposal, garbage collection and road use. (As well as building shiny new eco-friendly nuclear power stations, of course.)

My today’s-favourite piece of eco-*** comes from Nigel’s Friendly Eco-Store.

Life’s a Picnic – an eco bag and cutlery set, for an eco picnic and day out
This great eco friendly picnic set is great for spontaneous and carefree picnics with a conscience. Fitted into a jute bag with Life’s a Picnic print are plates, cups, glasses, cutlery and napkins – all fully biodegradable/compostable. …….
Every part of this eco picnic set comes from sustainable plant sources and is ethically produced. The plates, cups, glasses and cutlery can all be re-used several times, if gently washed and dried after use. Available for four or eight people

So, forgive me if I’m misunderstanding here – too busy counting all the “eco” words – this is a disposable paper picnic set? You can use it a few times if you are very careful. Wow. That’s so much more planet-friendly than that stuffy old earthenware or metal picnic set that you can re-use thousands of times…..

Wild things

What is the best survival strategy for wild animals? The evidence suggests that it’s being hated by humans. There is nothing like a programme to bring any species’ numbers down to boost the population. This seems to bode ill for pandas and polar bears, but it’s working out fine for for magpies, rats, mice, pigeons, flies and fleas.

On the Guardian website, Graham Holliday says that there’s a war on wild boar in France.

In the UK guidance by Defra on how to cull the growing wild boar population was published in February. The British government has decided against a state-led cull saying that the damage currently caused by wild boar is too minimal to be of concern, but some people in France are seriously worried.

There are 1,000 feral boar in the UK, apparently. DEFRA have given advice on how to kill them, which doesn’t seem too hands-off to me, but, then, I haven’t read the guidance.

The French are apparently taking the threat of wild boar rampaging through their celtic villages, snuffling their magic potion and overturning their roundhouses seriously. Oh sorry, that was in Asterisk.

And if you read the Observer article about the French, it seems their imaginary wild boar rampages caused

…. an estimated 20,000 car accidents a year involving the animals and hundreds of millions of pounds of damage to crops and property

To reference another meat animal – Bull. Those figures are so blatantly spurious, they are hardly worth challenging.

The surprising thing is how many people see wild creatures as threats to people, rather than welcoming them as signs that we still haven’t managed to destroy the ecosystems that support us..

One commenter (Trxr) says

where you get the munters (including certain celebs who should concentrate on paying their divorce settlements to their temporary trophy-wives) screaming about a roo cull here in Australia. There’s a lot more than a thousand of the things roaming about here.

Another commenter (the aptly monikered “Ishouldapologise”) on the Guardian article says, in what I assume to be a sarcastic way:

Bring back the Weald, I say. Bring back the bears and the wolves and the wildcats. Bring back the eagles and the adders and packs of wild dogs. Bring back a little magic into this overfarmed country. Who cares if the occasional tourist or country inhabitant gets killed or eaten. That’s what the same people want for Africa and the Amazon, don’t they.

Well, yes, actually, that sounds like a pretty good idea to me.

It is really lucky – in terms of survival of some species, if not biodiversity – that all the creatures we hate and fear seem to thrive on our opposition if they don’t get made extinct. Any creatures that we like seem to be going extinct in direct proportion to how much we value them. Except for pets, but I doubt that the pet species could survive for long without Pedigree Chum and Whiskas.

One BBC writer on hating magpies on the grounds of an almost universal UK superstition:

The sight of another lone magpie still stops me short. Far from wanting the numbers to halve, I instantly want them to double.

Maybe the point is relevant in a wider context. Our desire to wipe out certain wild species might just serve to double their numbers, following some obscure law of nature….

Yet another badger rant

The science shows that culling badgers would spread, not limit the spread of cattle TB, according to Roy Hattersley, writing in the Guardian today

.. the assumption that culling will reduce the incidence of the disease is wrong. Indeed, unless we brush aside the work of Britain’s most distinguished conservation scientists, we have to conclude that the sort of cull proposed by Sir David King, the government’s chief scientific adviser, will do more harm than good.

Well said, Roy. He points out that killing badgers will only placate the influential National Farmers’ Union leaders who have either no rational idea what to do or who see more effective responses as too costly.

The argument is that limited killing of badgers would be counter-productive. David McDonald of Oxford University calculated that a cull in Cornwall – the central focus – would cut the TB incidence there by 20% but increase the level outside the cull area by 27%.

An unlimited culling of badgers would surely be an environmental crime of immense proprtions. No government needs to placate farmers that badly. Can’t we just pay them to leave the badgers alone or to vaccinate their cattle?

Roy Hattersley, points out that, even if the government doesn’t follow the simple moral path and refuse the cull, there would be a serious political fallout.

there is no doubt that, should ministers decide to follow his (the chief scientist’s) advice, they would unleash a countrywide campaign that would make the pro-hunting protesters seem half-hearted.

Well, I’m not holding my breath on the government’s taking an ethical stance on this. However, as a distinguished old-Labour politician, Hattersley is probably pretty shrewd when it comes to judging what might have influence on the Department of the Environment. Let’s hope that a government keen to paint itself as green doesn’t miss his message.


You might be a tad depressed by today’s news item frrom the World Conservation Union (IUCN) Here’s an extract from their press release:

Life on Earth is disappearing fast and will continue to do so unless urgent action is taken, according to the 2007 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
There are now 41,415 species on the IUCN Red List and 16,306 of them are threatened with extinction, up from 16,118 last year. The total number of extinct species has reached 785 and a further 65 are only found in captivity or in cultivation.

Obviously, for creationists it’s a simple matter to solve. Just pray loads to the big guy to create another few thousand species. That’s bound to work. And anyway, humans are above the animal kingdom aren’t they so we probably don’t depend on biodiversity to survive. Etc.

Unfortunately, for the rest of us, who are pretty confident that this world is all there is, it’s not so easy to face the the news that, for instance, “apes, corals, vultures, dolphins are all in danger” or that “99% of threatened species are at risk from human activities.”

There’s an interactive map that links to case studies of some dying species on your continent.

Fun, not. Sorry.

Pope turns out to be Catholic

Chernobyl not a wildlife haven is one of the most bizarre headlines you could come across.

Were people really suggesting that massive irradiation was an ecological plus?

It does appear so. Apparently, a paper in American Scientist had suggested that

“the benefits for wildlife from the lack of human activity outweighed the risks of low-level radiation….. It can be said that the world’s worst nuclear power plant disaster is not as destructive to wildlife populations as are normal human activities.”

(Well, the BBC said this research was in American Scientist but I couldn’t find it, although the researcher, Robert Baker reports his findings on his website.)

Well, that suggests that nature can repair even the most extreme damage if we just butt out and leave it to it. (Although, sterilising large swathes of farmland may not be to everyone’s taste as sensible use of land.) Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to be the case, according to the research by A.P. Møller and T.A. Mousseau.

In fact their study, published today in the Royal Society’s Biology Letters suggests that the reverse is the case and that the ecological effects are actually even more damaging than expected.

The paper’s abstract says

Recent conclusions from the UN Chernobyl forum and reports in the popular media concerning the effects of radiation from Chernobyl on animals have left the impression that the Chernobyl exclusion zone is a thriving ecosystem, filled with an increasing number of rare species…. We conducted standardized point counts of breeding birds at forest sites around Chernobyl differing in level of background radiation by over three orders of magnitude. Species richness, abundance and population density of breeding birds decreased with increasing level of radiation, even after controlling statistically for the effects of potentially confounding factors such as soil type, habitat and height of the vegetation. ……These results imply that the ecological effects of Chernobyl on animals are considerably greater than previously assumed.

Given that there is an increasing push to present nuclear power as the carbon-friendlier alternative to fossil fuels, it’s salutary to be reminded that nuclear radiation is not a healthy and natural boost to species diversity. The fallout (lame pun intended) from any accident will be poisoning the land for many generations.

This result was pretty predictable from what has long been known about radiation. So why is it a surprise? Will this research be as widely reported as the “good news”?

Petitions work then?

That magical tiny number of people who can change government policy (see the post about the government bowing to “pressure” to allow the creation of human-animal hybrids) obviously didn’t sign the road-pricing petition. Millions of people took the time and effort to sign it but they weren’t the right people, obviously.

The government just ignored the whole thing, except for adding insult to injury by sending everyone emails with Blair’s name on it to say in effect “Thanks for participating but f*** off. Now I will tell you why you were wrong…” (Well, that’s what the anti-ID petition got)

On a personal note, I would never have signed the no road-pricing petition. I don’t have a vehicle. I am against cars. Well, against cars as much as anyone can reasonably be who sometimes gladly takes advantage of riding in other people’s and who takes the occasional taxi. I do object to breathing in secondhand vehicle emissions all day. I don’t like fearing death from some metallic monster every time I go out of the house. I don’t like living in a world so dependent on oil that any amount of evil seems OK, if it will secure it. And so on.

BUT, I am not so divorced from reality as to think that car journeys are the luxury jaunts of the privileged. Even ignoring the fact that people who live outside a few city centres have basically no alternative but to use a car to earn a living, get food or get their kids to school, I don’t think road pricing will cut urban car journeys by more than a miniscule amount. Bloody hell, people spend hours every day on the M25. Would anyone choose to do that if they had an alternative?

The UK has a rubbish public transport system. I live in a city. It normally takes me about eight times as long to get to work (2 buses) as it does when I have been lucky enough to get a lift. (It takes me an hour and a half to walk, on the days when I can still face the walk after a day’s work. The bus journey takes an hour a best – two at worst.) I could replace part of one bus journey with a train but this wouldn’t cut the time by more than a minute or two and would cost more.

My recent experiences of travelling by train have involved unbelievable expense with appalling service standards. It is cheaper to buy a used car and throw it away than to pay the train fare for 3 or 4 people to get to London from the North of England. (And you could breathe in less germs, have the certainty of getting a seat, smoke if you choose, stop when you choose and not have to listen to incomprehensible welcoming speeches every few minutes nor use toilets that would be considered below par in a hurricane refugees’ camp.)

With regards to the quality of service, last year, I made at least two train journeys that were a net loss to the train company. I.e. the service was so bad that they had to pay for me to use it. Both arrived hours after any possible connections were running and, on each occasion, I had to be taken by taxi for close to 50 miles. And was given a refund 🙂

Basically, there are currently no feasible alternatives to using a car for most journeys.

So this road pricing idea is just going to be another tax. Unlike direct taxation, the ability to pay will be irrelevant. What will affect how much you pay will be how close you live to workplaces, public services, schools and shops. So, also unlike direct taxation, there will be an impact on a wide range of apparently unrelated things like house prices.

So, the rich will be able to carry on driving at will, just getting irritated by the attendant bureaucracy of it. Other people will just get more and more stressed trying to stretch their wages far enough to cover the cost of the journey to earning them.

We all know the alternatives, if there really were any serious concern to cut the number of cars on the road:

  • An efficient and cheap public transport system
  • Encourage working from home
  • Planning decisions to stop cities and services from sprawling out endlessly
  • Stop closing down locally based services like post offices and schools

Too much trouble, hey? Don’t bother then, just get another source of revenue from drivers.

Wild birds don’t pay taxes

We seem to have escaped one potential side-effect of the Bernard Matthews bird flu. The first news of the out break focussed on wild birds as the carriers of the disease. After a few days, in which it bcame obvious that importing turkeys from an area hit by bird flu was probably not wholly unconnected, wild birds were temporarily off the hook. For how long?

On 17th February, the BBC had the grace to recover some of its credibility on the issue by running an interview/article by Dr Leon Bennun, of BirdLife International. He argues that wild birds are likely to get blamed and that threatened species are likely to be culled or be subject to deliberate destruction of their habitats. However, he argues that bird flu infections in wild birds are limited and unlikely to spread to humans. He argues that the global poultry industry is the most likely vector of the disease.

It may also be time to take a long, hard look at the way the world feeds itself, and to decide whether the price paid for modern farming in terms of risks to human health and the Earth’s biodiversity is too high.

OK, I have to declare a vested interest here. I am a long time vegetarian (though I can’t claim any moral high ground because I eat milk and eggs.) I can’t see why there is such a necessity for everyone to have access to ultra-cheap although taste-free chicken and turkey. Taking up a morality in food theme that I already did to death a few weeks ago, I can’t understand how we have become so confused that we talk about “being good” when we mean passing up an extra biscuit but believeg we have no responsibility for the conditions in which our meat is produced.

These poultry are reared in conditions that defy belief. They are stuffed in their thousands into barns where their “lives” must make a mockery of the term. The scale of the Bernard Matthews operation is breathtaking. When the news broke, the numbers of turkeys reported Killed was a lot more than I would have believed there could be in the whole country. And they were in a handful of barns. Is it any surprise that these conditions give rise to diseases.

A few hundred workers were laid off by Bernard Matthews today, with more job losses likely if the public don’t forget their temporary revulsion. The government scientists are doing their best to reassure us. The reassurances have even been rephrased from the original self-contradictory message last week, which was that there was no chance that bird flu could get into the food chain but make sure you cook all poultry thoroughly.

We are now so squeamish compared to people of a couple of generations ago. We don’t even buy poultry if it can be visibly distinguished from Quorn. This makes it much easier for us to ignore what goes on to bring that prepackaged and blamelessly sterile-looking product to the supermarket.

And what goes on is much more repellent than killing creatures to eat, which is what people have done for our entire history. It first involved hunting wild creatures (clearly the best bet from the creatures’ point of view.) Then it involved capturing them and keeping them confined in a simulation of their natural environment until we wanted to kill them (next best bet, although even this is starting to threaten the ecology of the planet as more and more of us need feeding and more and more forest is burned for cattle.) But, what about keeping animals indoors in terrifying and insanitary conditions and feeding them wholly unnatural foods, including the ground-up brains of their own species (does anyone remember BSE?).

There are laws of cause and effect. We are indeed animals ourselves but we somehow believe we can escape the natural laws that seem to govern ecosystems. Species that grow too numerous for their environment and start disturbing its balance too drastically are pretty likely to become extinct. We are turning our planet into a potential hellhole for ourselves.

But, bizarrely, as Leon Bennun points out, we don’t question the global meat industry. We turn on the few escapees from our destructiveness and blame them, failing to understand the role they play in keeping the ecosystem going. I assume this is because wild birds don’t employ people. They don’t pay taxes.

The massive “agricultural” companies employ a fair number of people. Many more people would be employed if the law compelled turkey and chicken “farmers” to rear their poultry using free range methods. It might cost a little more for poultry, but then, it might actually taste of something, so value for money would be about the same. It would surely be safer. The bird flu outbreaks that affected humans in the far east did involve small producers. However, they were localised in their effects. Can anyone even begin to imagine the scale of the effects of an outbreak that could infect humans if it originated in one of these monster turkey/chicken production units?