Friday, July 06, 2007

It's Live Earth. So is there hope for the planet?

Yesterday I attended the Sustainable Development UK conference - "Global Challenges - Local Change" at the QEII Conference Centre, London.

A quick look at the speakers on the above link will show you it was a high level affair and there were plenty of delegates from public sector bodies all over England present.

As a veteran of these talkshops I've heard all the hot air before - there's nothing much new. However there were a lot of people who might never have attended such an event in the past, so it is mainstreaming.

The general mood was "Enough talk, let's get on with it".

We haven't got much time to do so, if we are to believe Al Gore and David King (who gave a very good succinct summary of the case for global warming and how dire our state is. He was less convincing on the need for nuclear power and our future energy policy. That depends totally on political willpower.)

Radical climate change is happening faster than was predicted a few years ago, and could render much of the planet unoccupiable, and displace millions. The net cost of taking action now is almost zero compared to the cost of doing nothing, which would be catastrophic.

"Sustainable" communities?

A couple of asides. I was shocked to hear a director of Barratt's homes - talking apropos their development of "sustainable communities" in east London - say they allowed 4 weeks for consultation with the public on what they would like in their community.

In my experience it tkes at least 6 months because many people just don't know how to respond and are inarticulate or busy or lack confidence. And how can a community become sustainable if it is not fully engaged?

Virgin or recycled paper?

Secondly I tackled a director of Virgin Trains (thank you for the free First Class ticket down - I've never travelled First Class before and thoroughly enjoyed it) - on whether they recycle all the rubbish they collect on the trains.

He said they'd started doing it and it was separated at selected stations and they sold it on. He said they did this not for the money - negligible - but because people asked for it.

Really? How many people? And how many people had to ask for something before they did it?

He couldn't say but was totally adamant both the recycling and the motivation for it were true.

I said I'd never ever seen staff separating rubbish - all those papers and plastic and cans go in one bag. And I travel on Virgin a lot.

He swore it was done - although perhaps some cleaners hadn't been trained properly.

Is it in their job description to do it? I asked. He couldn't say.

So on the way back last night I watched a cleaner come round three times and put all the rubbish in one bag. I asked her if she'd ever been told not to. She said no.

In fact, recycling the rubbish is something it is hard for all the train operators to do as they all share stations and some are owned by them and some by Network Rail. The processing facilities would need to be available at each major stop.

Therefore it is something that we ought to lobby not just the operators and Network Rail about but also the Association of Train Operating Companies.

Of course all this would have been much easier in the days before privatisation.

A long way to go

This tiny story - of corporate greenwash and practical difficulty in such an important but small part of the overall picture - shows how far we really are from sustainability.

And that Live Earth, although a great event, is just a tiny step near the start of a very tough journey which there is every likelihood we will never successfully complete.

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