I’ve written before about how the “eat local” movement just doesn’t attract me too much while I live in London. Unless I want my family to subsist on parsnips, cabbage and tasteless strawberries, we absolutely must eat things that are not grown not only locally, but also not in the UK. The whole volcano vs. the modern world phenomenon might be putting an end to that though. A large percent of the produce and other food items sold in the UK arrive here on airplanes. And of course, there are no airplanes arriving to the UK at the moment (except, this morning, to a select part of the northern most Scottish islands).

As an illustrative anecdote, yesterday all of the green beans normally available from my on-line grocers were “temporarily out of stock.” That’s because almost all the “fine” and “extra fine” green beans sold in the UK are imported from just two countries: Kenya and Zimbabwe. And of course getting those beans to the UK takes an airplane (or two). I’m starting to wonder if the three browning bananas I have on my kitchen counter will soon have an exorbitant value on the black market (seeing as most bananas come from Ecuador, Costa Rica and several other Latin American countries, and I suspect are air freighted rather than shipped the old fashion way – i.e. on a ship). Perhaps my aging bananas will have as exorbitant a value as a colleague’s Eurostar ticket to Brussels (which he purchased pre-volcano):  this morning he was considering selling it to some desperate “volcano exile” sitting in London St Pancras station at a mark up of 900%…


Eyjafjallajokull Effects

April 17, 2010

Modernity was nice while it lasted, wasn’t it? An Italian friend called while I was bathing my son this evening. Due to the complete closure of British airspace after Eyjafjallajokull’s eurption, she’s stranded in Belfast, and was calling from the port, where she was on a waiting list for a boat crossing the Irish Sea to Liverpool. From there, she hopes to take a train down to London, stay with us for a night, and then assess her options for crossing the Channel before making her way by train, bus or foot back to Rome.

In the meantime, and thanks to the same unpronounceable volcano, I’ve been on hold with the Canadian branch of British Airways for more than an hour because my husband is stuck at a conference in Montreal. Some of his colleagues report that they’ve been allocated return flights to Europe in 10 days time. A ship could cross the Atlantic in less time: in fact, a trans-Atlantic passage from New York to Southampton on the Queen Mary 2 takes less than 7 days (but would cost more than $3,000). I’m starting to wonder which century I’m living in. Even my great-aunt and her parents were able to fly from New York to Rome in 1950 (albeit with many re-fueling and meal stops along the way).

Other than the millions of stranded passengers contemplating pre-20th century modes of transport, the Icelandic volcano is having other, more global effects. Like potentially on global warming. Much reported in the news is the cooling effects of volcanic eruptions. A major eruption in the Philipines in 1991 apparently cooled the earth by almost 1 degree Farenheit, significantly more than humans have been able to manage by signing accords about carbon output.

While scientists suggest that so far, Ejafjallajokull’s eruption has been a) too small and b) not sulphuric enough to cool the earth’s temperature, I wonder if anyone has looked at the amount of carbon emissions saved by closing all air traffic in and out of Northern Europe for several days (or weeks?). Surely we’re doing something good for the planet by walking home from Belfast to Rome?

Recently I learned that man is predisposed to imagine islands, to conjure small pieces of land that do not exist.  In the nineteenth century, maps of the sea drawn by the British Navy included more than 200 non-existent islands.  As the article I learned this in poetically described: “It’s easy to imagine how the mistakes were made. A dark band of sea fog is mistaken for an atoll. A distant alto-cumulus seen through heat is taken for a sea cliff, towering over a bronze sea. A hydrographer jots down the discovery, before the ship gets veered away by weather. The data is returned to Greenwich’s cartographers – and so the geological and the chimerical get mingled.”

Thanks to a family friend visiting London from the US via Fiji, I also recently learned about a very small equatorial island, moored in the South Pacific, 300km from the tiny country of Nauru, which itself is hundreds of kilometers from anything.  It’s history and present seem imagined as well: too complex to fit its tiny size – just 6.5 square kilometers.  The island has two names: Banaba and Ocean Island, the first meaning “stony” in the local language and the second (and contrasting) name given by the British.   Its remote location didn’t protect it or its people from the violent and material tendencies of the 20th century: the British discovered that it was rich in phosphate in the early 1900s and by 1980, 90% of its land surface stripped away through mining.  The Japanese colonised it during World War II, killing off a massive proportion of its population.  Those that survived were forcibly moved to a small island in Fiji, called Rabi, by the British at the end of the war.

So while the island is part of the nation of Kiribati (which my friend taught me is actually pronounced “Kiripas”), its people  live in Northern islands of Fiji, as an ethnic minority who enjoy limited political and economic rights.   Ocean Island sits there in the South Pacific, all but deserted, and with mountains of old mining equipment rusting on it.  The Banaban descendants in Rabi administer the island, and send money to support a population of about 200 people who still live there.  They spend an out-sized proportion of their limited income on Banaba because if they and their people leave the island completely, the government of Kiribati is likely to claim it as their own.

The question is why would Kiribati want a tiny, uninhabited, rocky island far from everything with no natural resources left to exploit? The answer is a side-effect of globalisation: climate change.  At 266ft above sea level, it is the highest island in the Gilbert Chain which forms Kiribati, a country which is at risk of being gobbled up by the Pacific if sea levels rise much more.  That makes Ocean Island an attractive place to imagine a Kiribati future, a place that is not at risk of becoming imaginary once again like the nation’s other atolls, dispersed over more than a million square miles of the South Pacific.

Drive to save the world

March 16, 2009

On my five minute walk from the tube station back to my house today, I counted 5 Prius sedans either passing by or parked on Elgin Avenue: that’s a Prius a minute.  And while these seems to represent a massive increase in the number of Prius I’ve seen in London, they aren’t nearly as many as in for example, Palo Alto, California, where I noticed last year that the hybrid car was as ubiquitous as Starbucks take-away cups and iphones.

While London leads on many trends (music and strange fashions being two of them), we often lag the US on other trends.  Take for example movies.  Movies are always released a month or so later in the UK than in the US – much to the disappointment of visiting friends who see movie advertisements in the tube for things that they’ve already seen.  The Prius could be one of these products to lag.  But will the Prius ever be as popular in London as it is in Palo Alto?

Toyota announced in May last year that they had sold 1 million Prius models globally, but  Europe accounted for only 130,000 sales.   This is despite the fact that environmental consciousness is generally higher in Europe, and fuel efficiency standards are higher.  In fact in London, the Prius is a neat way to avoid paying the “congestion charge:” a fee of £8 daily charged to any passenger car entering central London.  The mayor included the Prius as exempt because of its hybrid engine and high fuel efficiency.  So why are Prius sales still much lower in Europe than in the US?

My walk from the tube to the house provided the answer.  In London, the Prius is BIG.  Compared to the average European car, the Prius is “super-sized”, a bit like a venti Starbucks latte in a land of Illy espresso cups.  In fact, a number of popular, small European cars get even higher fuel efficiency than the Prius: the new Fiat 500, the Smart for two, the super-cute Citroen C2, and several others.  And most of them have two additional bonus: they cost a lot less, and are easier to park in small European spaces.  Thus, Toyota might do better with it’s new hybrid mini-car, the iQ, which is the same length as the Smart, but seats 4.

Of course, Prius sales could expand regardless as it becomes a status symbol.  In my neighbourhood, driving a Prius is probably the equivalent of pushing your baby in a Bugaboo stroller (which really are ubiquitous).  In fact, I’m pretty sure it’s the same demographic driving both over-sized vehicle.  Tomorrow I’m going to be on the look-out for passing Pri-i with Bugaboo’s in the back, and venti Starbucks take-aways in the cup holder…

Big foot

February 24, 2009

My one year old son’s foot fits comfortably in the palm of my hand, yet his carbon footprint is huge.  Using an online carbon emissions calculator, I calculated the carbon emissions from the flights that he had taken in his young life.  Turns out his per capita emissions based on his flights alone are greater than those of approximately 70% of the world’s, despite the fact that he weighs less than 25 pounds and his entire vocabulary is comprised of “mommy,” “daddy” and “juice.”

So, how does N.’s carbon footprint stack up?  Well, like I said, I only calculated his emissions from flying, as the calculations from the house and ground transport seemed too complicated and were likely to be much smaller as we don’t own a car and have a small apartment.  This chart, which shows per capita distribution of carbon emissions, shows that N.’s 6.31 tonnes of carbon emitted through his flights puts him exactly on par with the average Iranian (in 2004).   And therefore his emissions are larger than the average French, Mexican, Thai or even Chinese citizen.  Quite sobering.

Of course, N. is an innocent victim of his parent’s irresponsible travel habits, which are contributing to global warming.  He didn’t ask to go to Texas for Christmas, though he definitely enjoyed playing with his grandparents and harassing their dog.  And that’s my only excuse.  Since his grandparents live in two different countries, and we live in a third, almost all of his flights are explained away by visiting them.  Since he was born in November 2007, he’s flown round-trip to the US three times from London, taken one domestic US flight, flown round trip to Italy four times and flown once from Italy to Germany and from Germany back to the UK to attend a wedding.  Makes me wonder if there is a special offset mechanism for keeping globalised children in touch with their grandparents…