March 22, 2008

Ecocidal hen parties eating chocolate-covered waffles


The USA is usually vilified as the arch despoiler of the biosphere, but is little Britain actually the number one bad guy?

Tony Blair used to assert that Britain is reponsible for only two per cent of global emissions - but it depends which numbers you add up. The chart above, for example, plots the accumulation through time of anthropogenic (ie man-made) emissions. As founder and longtime powerhouse of carboniferous capitalism, Britain probably 'owns' a good chunk of the early post-1850 emissions, plotted here, that are still with us.

Next, consider (as Christian Aid did in a report last year) that, if account is taken of the UK's overseas investments, the country is responsible for as much as 15 per cent of current global emissions of CO2. The UK's integration into the global economy means that money raised in the UK - which comes from its pension funds, insurance companies and banks - is lent and spent all over the world, much of it without any questions asked as to whether or not it is contributing to the proliferation of greenhouse gases.

Now add the fact that Britons produce more carbon emissions from air travel a head than any other country. The average carbon emission for each British flyer was 603kg (1329lb) a year, more than a third higher than Ireland in second place with 434kg and more than double that of the US at 275kg, in third place. Britain's lead looks likely to grow: Nearly five million British tourists plan to take long-haul mini-breaks during 2008, according to another survey A desire for increasingly exotic stag-night, hen-night and wedding locations was reason enough for 17 per cent to spend seven or more hours in the air.

Britain's new prime minister has promised to keep these stag and hen parties flying by committing to build a third runway at Heathrow Airport. This one project will enable an additional 473,000 flights per year. Some of these are needed for the import of 14,000 tonnes of chocolate-covered waffles.

Mr Brown will no doubt continue to claim that Britain is only responsible for two percent of global emissions: the impacts of its international air travel flows - including those planeloads of waffles - are simply left out of UK emissions accounting.

Will Britain worry if starts being denounced as the Worst Polluting Country In the World? Probably not: I've been called by two journalists just this week who are writing pieces on "green fatigue".

Posted by John Thackara at 07:53 AM | Comments (0)

February 28, 2008

Coming with the flow

On arrival at Heathrow Airport Terminal 4 a sign says "Welcome To Britain" and you enter...a sleazy gift shop. Now, I understand why: The chief executive of BAA, which runs Heathrow, was promoted to the job from Retail Director. He's now been been sacked. But before we rejoice, consider this: His replacement's last job was running a water company, Severn Trent. What will await us next time we arrive at Heathrow - a sluice?

Posted by John Thackara at 08:23 AM | Comments (0)

January 29, 2008

Low entropy Doris


After reading this always-cheerful blog, are you just about ready to sell the hell up and set sail around the world? A friend of ours is selling a beautiful ship, the Doris, that will make someone a fine getaway vehicle. The Doris is berthed in Amsterdam, sleeps up to ten, has a Captain's cabin, and although she is extremely strong working ship, her sails are easy to handle by one person. Doors of Perception is not in the ship broking business - but we do try to serve our readers, and for someone out there of the Silverback persuasion, this could be a great opportunity. If you call the broker, do mention we sent you.

Posted by John Thackara at 07:32 AM | Comments (0)

January 15, 2008

Thirteen million lighters and it's still dark out there

A gem from CryptoGram."Surprising nobody, a new study concludes that airport security isn't helping: A team at the Harvard School of Public Health could not find any studies showing whether the time-consuming process of X-raying carry-on luggage prevents hijackings or attacks. They also found no evidence to suggest that making passengers take off their shoes and confiscating small items prevented any incidents." The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) responded that "even without clear evidence of the accuracy of testing, more than 13 million prohibited items were intercepted in one year...most of these illegal items were lighters". CryptoGram's editor Bruce Schneier comments: "the TSA has it completely backwards. The goal isn't to confiscate prohibited items. The goal is to prevent terrorism on airplanes. When the TSA confiscates millions of lighters from innocent people, it is reacting to non-threats. Now you can argue that this is necessary to make people feel safer, but it's certainly not evidence that people *are* safer".

Posted by John Thackara at 08:59 PM | Comments (0)

August 17, 2007

The movement dilemma

Can transport and tourism ever be sustainable? The movement of people and goods around the world consumes vast amounts of matter, energy, space, and time - most of it non-renewable. Could transport intensity be de-coupled from economic progress - and if so, how?

This event in October's series of Dott Debates begins with two keynotes from international speakers. Antony Townsend , research director at the Institute of the Future in Palo Alto, asks: "must we keep on moving?" And Sunil Abraham talks about "open systems as sustainable infrastucture".

These two introductions are followed by a review of Dott 07’s Move Me project which explored the potential to transfrom transportation resource efficiency in one village, Scremerston, in Northumberland.

After the break, the results of three Dott 07 projects - Welcomes , Sustainable Tourism Design Camp and Mapping The Necklace - introduce a discussion of in the North East's strategies for tourism and transport.

The event brings together citizens, policy and tourism professionals, site owners and managers, and designers. Its aims are to start debate about decoupling transport intensity from economic progress; to understand opportunities to transform transportation resource efficiency (eg using ICT networks); and third, to discuss proposals for sustainable tourism solutions

Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead, UK, Thursday 18 October. The Dott 07 Debate on the movement dilemma takes place Monday 22 October, Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead 10h-17h. Tickets are free. But you absolutely have to reserve your seat by emailing

Posted by John Thackara at 05:42 PM | Comments (0)

July 05, 2007

New concept of mobility - in three lines

I was asked by Seung Yoon Lee, at Korean Design Research Institute, for a three line quote on "a new concept of mobility due to ubiquitous technologies". (It's for an upcoming issue of Asian Design Journal).
So I sent this: "Reducing the movement of matter - whether goods, or people - is a main challenge in the transition to sustainability. Technology, in this context, can help us use resources in a radically more efficient way - and by 'resources' I do not just mean matter and energy, but also space, and time." Not bad eh? That's another perpetually half-finished book I can chuck in the bin.

Posted by John Thackara at 07:52 AM | Comments (0)

June 23, 2007

Design and sustainable tourism


The next Dott 07 (Designs of the time) Explorers Club meeting on Thursday 14 July, to be held at the Robert Stephenson Centre in Newcastle. Our focus this month is Sustainable Tourism.

In terms of someone's carbon footprint, a single holiday in New Zealand is equivalent to 60 short visits to the North East. But those sixty trips to the region will not be sustainable if they stimulate a wasteful use of finite resources by visitors and their host businesses. This is a real and pressing dilemma. Tourism is fundamental to the North East's Regional Economic Strategy. The region is committed to increasing its share of tourism expenditure in Britain, and to do this by accelerating the rate of investment in tourism facilities, new accommodation, and attractions. How might we re-shape this economic strategy to be consistent with a commitment to sustainabiity? What might sustainable tourism in North East England be like? Our expert speakers are:

Chris Little, who heads the Tourism Development Unit at One North East. The unit is responsible for directing and influencing investment in development of North East England tourism.

Leandro Pisano and Alessandro Esposito are partners in Ufficio Bifolco, a marketing and cultural planning companythat works on ICT strategies for development of rural areas in South Italy. They are producers of two festivals in Southern Italy - Interferenze, and Mediaterra - that bring together nature and technology, tradition and vanguard, past and future, local and global. This unique convergence of sounds, images, landscapes and carnival rites of a rural land, are signals of new ways we might visit and experience new locations.

Beth Davidson is the mapping creative lead on Mapping The Necklace. This ongoing project in Durham asks: Could a public park be more than grass and benches? Durham’s Necklace Park is a 12 mile stretch of spaces – and experiences - linked to the River Wear. You create your own park by mapping tracks, forests, picnic and fishing spots.

Ross Lowrie is a project leader of the Tyne Salmon Trail. A celebration of the river, its heritage, and its increasingly diverse ecosystem, the project explores low-impact ways to improve access to the River Tyne and its plethora of different species.

It's free, but you need to reserve a place with Beckie Darlington:

Posted by John Thackara at 09:13 AM | Comments (0)

December 03, 2006

Think More, Drive Less

News reaches me from Los Angeles, via Bruce Sterling that, in the corporate imagination of General Motors, "the Hummer could be transformed from the SUV that environmentalists love to hate to an algae-infused, oxygen-exuding buggy that would open up like a flower." (GM's sketch for the "Hummer O2" was named the winner on Thursday of a design contest at the Los Angeles Auto Show that challenged major automakers to design a vehicle with a five-year life span that could be fully recycled).

This, I'm sad to say, is another example of the creative class - in this case, auto designers - fiddling-while-the-biosphere-burns. The fudamental probelm with the car is not that it burns too much of the wrong kind of fuel. The problem is that cars enable, and perpetuate, patterns of land use, transport intensity, and the separation of functions in space and time, that render the whole way we live unsupportable.

Rather than tinkering with symptoms - such as inventing hydrogen-powered vehicles, or turning gas stations into battery stations - the more interesting design task is to re-think the way we use time and space. Rather than enable long-distance patterns of movement, at accelerating speeds, we should add a ton of new functions and value to local patterns of activity so that we no longer need or want to move so much, except on foot or by bike. There's plenty of evidence, after all, that self-propulsion is central to everything from tackling obesity and climate change to creating high quality liveable cities.

In the immortal words of Janine Benyus, "nature does not commute to work" - and neither, at the end of the day, should we.

Posted by John Thackara at 08:51 AM | Comments (1)

August 14, 2006

Bag free flight

I enjoyed my bag-free (in the cabin) flight from France to London yesterday. Forcibly unencumbered by artefacts, we sauntered lightly to the plane. Once aboard we strolled smoothly to our seats past cheerful cabin crew - a promenade rather than the usual roller-derby. Lacking laptops, we couldn’t invent work. The nosey among us were kept busy looking at the contents of other peoples' clear plastic bags. I hope this new security regime is made permanent.

Posted by John Thackara at 08:07 AM | Comments (0)

August 10, 2006

Mobility, death, and progress

How was the traffic on your vacation drive home this year? Any near misses? Twenty thousand citizens are killed in traffic accidents in Europe each year, so you probably saw more than one car crash or its aftermath. For the European Commission, these deaths are a price we must pay for progress. As a de facto marketing agency for the mobility services and equipment sector, the Commission appears to be unaware that a mobility strategy could be based on access - to conveniently-sited services - rather than movement to reach them. The nightmare fact that freight transport has increased by 30 percent in a decade, and will rise another 50 percent by 2020, is reported with apparent satisfaction in its recent review of transport policy. Walking and cycling are not mentioned, at all, in this document. For John Whitelegg“we have to move from an energy/emissions perspective to a wider "total impact" perspective on mobility. After 30 years or more of debate about transport and environmental impacts, we still miss or downplay things like: land take (when land taken for transport infrastructure is lost to food production and biodiversity); fragmentation (a tiny land take (for a road) is a 100% change in character if it physically divides and separates a formerly unified area); landscape noise; and fiscal matters: who determines that spending billions on roads or high speed trains is a good way to allocate resources against competing demands in health care, education, poverty, pensions?" More on this at New Mobility/World Transport Agenda.To subscribe to the mailing list:

Posted by John Thackara at 07:35 AM | Comments (0)

May 25, 2006

Sublime mobility project


This has my vote for most sublime mobility project of the year. A team of Karachi vehicle decorators has transformed a Melbourne tram to bring the experience of a journey on a W-11 Karachi mini-bus to the streets of Melbourne. Vibrant dancing colour in hand-cut sticker collage, sparkling reflection of sculpted stainless steel panels, and dazzling flashing lights. The tram is complete with conductors from Karachi & Melbourne, the music that you would hear on the Karachi W-11, and a special edition of collectable tickets that feature popular Urdu poetry seen on the side of buses and trucks in Karachi. Since the mid 1990’s, Mick Douglas has led a project called Tramjatra in which tramways communities and artists of Melbourne & Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) have explored relationships between their cities through the medium of tramways – a transportation mode shared from their British imperial past. After a decade of artful interventions there's now a Tramjatra book. It unfolds a story of friendship, dialogue and imagination, and the potential of tramways to connect people together in their differences.

Posted by John Thackara at 08:23 AM | Comments (0)

April 01, 2006


I was not able to attend the car share service masterclass that ends today in Monaco - but the site describes an encouragingly diverse group of schemes. They're mainly European, and the US has further to go. Outside my hotel here in DC, two absolutely enormous SUVs are parked in front and behind the parking bay for zipcar. The Zipcar sedan looks David-like next to the SUV Goliaths - but at least it's here. The dinosaurs, and their pea-brained owners, should be worried.

Posted by John Thackara at 02:23 PM | Comments (0)

February 28, 2006

Carsharing masterclass

The growth in carsharing is accelerating. Up to 600 cities now have carsharing schemes. But most of these schemes have emerged bottom-up; few cities have thought strategically about their city’s relationship with this new transportation mode. Even the best cities improvise as they go along: They help in a piecemeal way with parking, or sometimes subsidy; sometimes they help link carsharing to other transport systems. But it's not systematic, and it's not integrated. This is where the forthcoming Monaco Cities Carsharing Implementation Workshops come in. Organised by New Mobility,they will connect officials from cities and public agencies with the best car sharing schemes in Europe. Your help is requested in identifying the people in your country who might wish to attend. In France, for example, a group called GART brings together all the city officials responsible for transport matters across the country. There is also a national mayors association. Are there similar networks where you live? Please find out, and let them know about the event. 31 March to 2 April, Grimaldi Forum, Monaco.

Posted by John Thackara at 07:07 AM | Comments (0)

February 19, 2006

Longer? smarter? stronger?

Transhumanists believe in efforts by human beings to "reshape their inherited physical, cognitive and emotional identities by extending lifespan and enhancing human capacities". I admit to a prejudice that transhumanists share this enthusiasm because they are all bald, bearded, and barking. But not all transhumanists are death-fearing loony-tunes and word reaches me from Lucy Kimbell of a seriously heavyweight event called "Tomorrow's People: The Challenges of Technologies for Life Extension and Enhancement". Speakers will discuss the prospects for human beings to live longer, smarter, stronger and happier lives. The closing plenary should be entertaining: it features techno-uber-optimist Peter Schwarz from the Global Business Network, and Lord Rees of Ludlow who studies the threats posed by asteroid impact, environmental degradation, global warming, nuclear war, and unstoppable pandemics. The organizers are especially keen for artists and designers to participate if their work investigates, and invents, the future - if we have one. Said Business School, Oxford 14-17 March 2006.

Posted by John Thackara at 01:27 PM | Comments (0)

February 17, 2006

Walking & mapping across continents

The subject of car-free mobility sounds necessary but unappealing. But news reaches me of a sublime-sounding event called The Walking Project. It's an exploration, on foot, of desire lines - the paths made by people who walk across fields in South Africa - and across vacant lots in Detroit. Collaboratively developed with US and South Africa-based artists during a series of residencies in Detroit and KwaZulu-Natal, many of the participants created poems and stories and renditions of walking songs. The project "examines how changing patterns of movement can alter attitudes and perceptions; how people make their own paths; and the influences of culture, geography, language, economics and love, The Walking Project asks how and why people’s paths cross and how taking a different path might alter a life".

Posted by John Thackara at 08:05 AM | Comments (1)

February 06, 2006

From my car to scalar

To a car company, replacing the chrome wing mirror on an SUV with a carbon fibre one is a step towards sustainable transportation. To a radical ecologist, all motorised movement is unsustainable. So when is transportation sustainable, and when is it not? Eric Britton, an expert on the subject, had the good idea of posting a text at Wikipedia which will evolve as a shared description, if not definition, of the concept. In a new mobility discussion group Chris Bradshaw emphasizes that "light" transport systems are not, per se, sustainable - only less unsustainable than commuting by car. "Light rail supports far-flung suburbs, while street cars support, well, street-car suburbs" says Bradshaw; "likewise, a smaller, more efficient, or alternative-fuel vehicle is only less unsustainable than another private vehicle. It will still take as much space on the road and in parking lots, it will still threaten the life and limb of others, it will still create noise, and it still will require lots of energy and resources to manufacture, transport to a dealer, and dispose of when its life ends". It is an important part of sustainable transport and communities, says Bradshaw, to respect what he calls the scalar hierarchy, in which the trips taken most frequently are short enough to be made by walking (even if pulling a small cart), while the next more frequent trips require a bike or street car, and so on. "If one adheres to this then there are so few trips to be made by car that owning one is foolish".

Posted by John Thackara at 11:38 AM | Comments (0)

September 06, 2005

Trans-Siberian mobicast

If mobility is a new place, then this event is the place to be. Capturing the Moving Mind is a conference on board the Trans-Siberian train. It's about new forms of movement and control, war and economy, in the current situation. An opening discussion of the blurring borderlines between art, economy and politics takes place at Kurvi tomorrow. After that, m-cult and Kiasma have organised web documentation of the event as it moves from Helsinki through Moscow and Novosibirsk to its destination in Beijing. 50 international researchers, artists and activists participating in the mobile conference will form a mobile production unit aboard the train. For the audiovisual streams, Adam Hyde and Luka Princic have developed a 'mobicasting' platform which enables mobile transmission of material on the web from tomorrow (September 7).There will also be a moving radio station on the train

Posted by John Thackara at 09:55 AM | Comments (0)

August 13, 2005

Always on, not

We're taking a break. See you back here Monday 22 August.

Posted by John Thackara at 08:19 PM | Comments (0)

April 29, 2005

The true costs of mobility

As a system, mobility is locked into a mode of perpetual growth in a world whose carrying capacity is limited. The status quo policy—“predict and provide”—promises more travel (of people and goods), forever, but using new technologies and integrated systems to make mobility more efficient. A second design strategy is mobility substitution—doing things at a distance that we would otherwise move to do. But mobility substitution is an added extra, not a viable alternative, to mainstream mobility. The only viable design option is to design away the need to move and foster new time-space relations: from distance to duration, from faster to closer.And that will oipen when we start paying the true costs of moving around by whatever means. The latest edition of World Transport Policy & Practice an excellent quarterly journal edited by Professor John Whitelegg, which is just out, includes a salutary "Sustainability risk analysis of the Low Cost Airline sector". Meanwhile, in New Zealand, the true cost of that country's road and rail system is spelled out in a report published today by the Ministry of Transport.The main findings of the study are: That the charges paid by road and rail users do not cover the costs of those networks, and that some costs are not paid by anyone at all; Rail users pay a higher proportion of their costs than road users; Users of urban local roads pay a lower proportion of costs than users of rural roads; and, in many cases the costs of remedying a problem (eg congestion) are much lower than the cost of the problem itself.

Posted by John Thackara at 05:04 PM | Comments (0)

December 17, 2004

The information society and land take

Land is a finite resource but we consume it as if it were limitless - especially for mobility. John Whitelegg, a transport ecologist, reports that in Switzerland, the land allocation for road transport is 113 m2 per person - and for all other living purposes (houses/gardens and yards) it's 20-25 m2 per person. The knowledge economy, far from reducing our consumption of land, accelerates it: the spread of car parking around universities, hospitals and airports stimulate higher levels of car commuting, demands for more road space, and hence land take."Cars are only used for 2.8% of the time and then often by one person; the rest of the time they are parked somewhere doing nothing. Allocating land to such inefficient uses is bad value for money and bad prioritisation given the many pressures on land" says Whitelegg. John Whitelegg. "Transport and Land Take". A report for Council for the Preservation of Rural England.Eco-Logica. 1994

Posted by John Thackara at 08:38 AM | Comments (1)