ISBN 9781906860141. “Energy and Carbon Emissions: the way we live today” was written by fellow Transitioner from Cambridge Nicola Terry and published by UIT Cambridge Ltd in 2011. You get 241 pages of ten major sections followed by Afterword, Glossary, Bibliography and Index. Nicola contacted me in March 2010 to ask for details of the Transition Town High Wycombe’s “Home Power” scheme (a referral scheme mainly for solar PV using discounts with trusted local suppliers). She contacted me again in September 2011 to plug her new book (the one being reviewed here). You can learn more about the author from her blog here. I don’t think there is any link between THIS book and our earlier conversation (nor any link to the TT Cambridge Solar PV wiki here) but the personal contact guaranteed that I put her book on my Amazon Wish List. Nicola is qualified in computers and engineering (sounds like my CV) and is an active member of Transition Cambridge Energy Group and is a surveyor in Cambridge Carbon Footprint’s Climate Friendly Homes project. (Echoes of Transition Town High Wycombe’s “Warm Home Heroes” project.) Yeah, yeah, so we have a lot in common… Mutual appreciation to one side what is this book all about? It is an exploration of the carbon footprints of modern folks in the minority north. Of course this is not new. More years ago than we care to remember we were reviewing the likes of Mark Lynas’s “Carbon Counter” and the Vales’ “Time to eat the dog“. Is this really anything new? There is an argument (that we have long adhered to) that talking about carbon footprints is the WRONG way to engage the public. It turns them off. Indeed have a browse through Rob Hopkins’s own “Transition Handbook” and review his perceived differences between Environmentalists and Transitioners; Environmentalists do “carbon footprinting” but Transitioners do “resilience measures”. This is NOT to say that there is anything wrong with the science and statistical-babbling-brook that you see in the likes of “How bad are bananas?” or “How to live a low-carbon life” but these books are destined for book shelves of specialists such as myself and Nicola. The work will become useful if your local museum asks you to undertake some research on the carbon footprints of local industries (as we have been asked to) but don’t use it to talk to your next door neighbour. They will glaze over.
This sort of research is invaluable when you ask yourself about the choices you make. For example there is an irony here in that I read this book on a transatlantic flight to New Jersey. A Business trip that was lucrative but probably not entirely necessary (something I only found out some time later). This perfectly illustrates where we are in the carbon-measuring world. Even us who are intimately familiar with the true-cost of carbon sometimes have little choice about some parts of our lives. Our economy demands a high-carbon activity even if your personal lifestyle does not. But we can make informed choices and indeed I do: unavoidable flying probably makes up 90% of my carbon footprint so as soon as Business becomes relocalised we’ll be sorted. Peak Oil and pricing will somewhat limit our choices in future.
How is Nicola helping us with her book? Well she assures me that she has written a book that “a lot of my Transition Cambridge friends have found very interesting”. Hmmm, interesting. Early on Nicola tells us in her book that
“This book contains data. There are no politics, no ethics, and no grand designs…”
This is a good start in some respects as there is no attempt to preach, only to arm the reader. So, how much carbon do you save if you stop eating meat? Should I scrap my car and buy a new one? Should we go back to horses? It is all here. But these are complicated questions and the answers depend upon your assumptions. Facts and figures are all very well but no choice can be made outside the baggage of our world-view.
So, as an example, should you get a horse? Surprisingly: no, modern electric vehicles and photovoltaics would be 500 times more efficient. But these technologies can’t self-reproduce. These sort of conclusions are good ones in an over-populated world. Horses are great but they require a lot of grassed field to feed them. The grass captures solar energy as chemical energy quite inefficiently. The horse converts that back into work quite inefficiently too (although probably better than man-made machines). So a return to primitivism is not on the cards. My fellow airline passengers can rest easy. But there is no reason to rest on our laurels; some technologies can be locally scaled and “appropriate” whilst others will not.
We can play philosophical games with the numbers all day long but it will be a cliquey chat. Tuck a book like this in your back pocket where you need a few facts and figures for a debate on the matters. Otherwise put it on your book-shelf for the day when you need to settle that argument down the pub. For now focus on the positive outcomes resulting from a more re-localised resilient community life. The carbon-footprint will drop in the wake of the new renaissance we are building. This book? A recommended sword in the battle.