Wednesday, January 31, 2007

A tragic death in the family

Yesterday I learned of the death of my cousin, Jono Parr, a young man, killed by a lorry while cycling to work.

I'm not going to talk at any length about how I feel - this is a public blog, and that is not the sort of thing I do. But I am deeply shocked and saddened, and outraged at the manner of this death. However I am moved to say something about the risks of cycling.

I used to cycle everywhere and I shudder to think of some of the risks I took and near misses I had. After moving to Sheffield and spending a couple of years panting and sweating my way up the hills, I decided I need some assistance and switched to a motorbike. After another near miss or two and lots of freezing weather, I went for the kind of motorbike with 4 wheels and an enclosed cab.

This was all despite being in some ways a fairly militant environmentalist. Today the traffic is worse, cars are constantly weaving around to straddle speed cushions, cycle lanes of 18 inches have been painted at the side of roads to narrow too fit 2 cars and 2 bicycles. I would not consider cycling on these roads. I would rather grow fat. But we hear the message: leave the car at home - you ought to cycle. My reaction: Get a sense of proportion.

Don't get me wrong. If you want to cycle, if you enjoy it, if you need the exercise, if it is the only practical way to get around, if the risks are minimised, then go for it. (And I don't know what Jono's reasons were for cycling.) But don't tell me that it is morally better. It is morally better not to get killed by a lorry.

Environmentalism is stuck in this rut of asking people to make sacrifices. As if somehow environmental problems were insoluble without some great moral reawakening. But this is rubbish - they are just practical problems. You will no more save the planet by cycling or recycling than you will abolish the national debt by donating your share of it to the treasury. Big practical problems need big solutions, involving money, technology, and political will.

And transport related risks are a huge practical problem, not just for cyclists; as are congestion and access to transport. I think one proportionate step would be to remove lorries from the roads during rush hours. Yes, it would push haulage costs up a certain amount, but, frankly, haulage is dirt cheap. And it would ease congestion and improve safety for millions of commuters, cars, bikes and buses. Please sign the petition:

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Carbon Offset standards to rise

This story caught my eye because there is a lot of rot talked about carbon offsetting. I am delighted that there is going to be a stricter standard because, for various practical reasons, it is not clear that offsetting today does an awful lot of good.

However I would first like to deal with the common objection in principle to offsetting, that frequently is heard from the environmentalist left: that offsetting is wrong because it allows people to carry on polluting rather than thinking about reducing their carbon footprint.

On the face of it, this position is merely inexplicable and incoherent. If you clean up after yourself, what is the problem? Pooper scoops are wrong because they encourage people to let their dogs poop in the park? I have argued before that carbon emission shouldn't be considered sinful, but even if they are, redemption is available. So the anti-offset lobby views carbon emissions as not just sinful but irredeemable. And why? It is your net emissions that do the damage. Soak up the carbon, or otherwise undo the harm, and you have undone the harm.

The next objection is this: offsets allow the rich to carry on polluting while the poor will have to do without. This is true of more or less every product on the market, not just offsets. You may not like it, I don't particularly like it, but lets not pretend that this is something wrong with the concept of offsetting. If the fact that not everybody can afford something makes that thing wrong, then everything we buy is wrong, including all public services. What nonsense. And to insist that it is a bad idea for some people to undo the harm they do, simply because not everybody could do the same? Worse than nonsense.

No, this objection to offsetting comes from a shift in values away from not damaging the environment and towards self-denial. If self-denial rocks your boat then go for it, but please don't mis-sell it to the rest of us.

However, principles aside, offsetting has its problems. How do you account for the carbon benefit of a renewable energy project? How do you account for tree-planting, particularly if it was going to happen anyway? How do you know the scheme is honest? Newsnight's ethical man blog carries lengthy tortuous comment-debate over how to account for the benefit, if any, of his green electricity tariff.

I've not done any offsetting yet. I was about to at one point, but the price demanded was so low, I concluded that it was probably impossible to buy extra carbon capture at that price. Of course had it been high enough I may have balked at the price. And in any case, I have a normal consumer's skepticism regarding the chances that a website asking for money is on the level. Standards needed.

Friday, January 12, 2007

A level standards set to fall

Of course we would like more young people to stay in education. Further education was particularly valuable in my experience because by then all the troublecausers and time-wasters had left. Those of us who remained actually wanted to learn something. It was a revelation.

It was so great, perhaps everybody should have to do it. Groan.

It is a serious problem that many school leavers lack basic qualifications and skills, but lets not pretend that they were all making fantastic progress in years 9 to 11. They don't have these qualifications because they weren't making good progress. We are failing to engage them, and more of the same will not help.

What alternative do we have? How about less compulsion in education? Why not make half the school day (a longer day) optional in years 9-11? Those who want to learn can stick around and learn, unmolested. Those who don't - well we'd actually have to find a way to entice them back. Something that might benefit them? It is inevitable that 25% of the population will end up in the bottom 25% in educational qualifications. The rewards for people who aren't academically oriented working hard for positional advantage over their peers are pretty slim. The rewards for learning something useful and employability skills are immense.

Now I suppose, with this suggestion, I am failing to address the problem of a lack of ambition. True. Maybe we aren't ready for treating 13 year olds like adults and expecting them to take this much responsibility. But we have to let go at some point. Learning that learning is something to do even if you don't have to, has to be learned before it is too late. And 18 is much too late.

These guys said it.