We are weeds, vegetation…

Yesterday I went down the allotment to harvest weeds.*

Specifically, I dug up a bunch of dandelion roots, and gathered a handful of what I suspected was (and now am sure is) chickweed.  I’ve been reading this fantastic herbalism zine, which told me that both of these are medicinally useful.

Dandelion root can be used to stimulate the liver, gallbladder, and kidneys; or just as a general tonic containing lots of minerals (including iron, potassium, and calcium, all particularly useful if you’re vegan).  To preserve it, dry the roots (wash them and leave them somewhere dark; if you split larger roots down the middle they’ll dry faster), and store them in a sealed container in a cool, dark place.  To use it, make a decoction by putting 1oz of root and 1pt of water in a pan and simmering until the water has reduced by 50%.  Strain and drink.

Chickweed is good as an infusion of dried herb for coughs and hoarseness; and as an infused oil to treat minor skin problems (burns, rashes, itching, dryness).  Alternatively you can just eat the leaves as a salad leaf.  I tried my sample plants after I’d IDed them, and found it quite tasty.  To dry it, it’s best to hang it somewhere dark and warm (but spread on a windowsill is fine if that’s the easiest option for you).  To make an infusion, pour boiling water over the dried herb, cover, and leave for 10-30 min.  To make an infused oil, macerate the dried herb in olive oil, place in a warm sunny window for 2 weeks, strain, and bottle in a dark glass bottle.  (You can make a stronger oil by adding more herbs and leaving for another fortnight.)

I can’t yet report back on how these work (or taste!) as I’m still in the drying stage.  I’ll update in a couple of weeks.

The best bit about all of this is that these are not plants which I have any trouble at all in growing.  Currently the chickweed is popping up all over the squash bed as the squash dies down.  I’m incredibly pleased to find out that there’s something useful (beyond just chucking it in the compost heap) that I can do with it. 

Next task: try to establish whether any of my other weeds are useful.  Sadly I’m not sure we have any yarrow. 

* I planted some broad beans and early dwarf peas, as well — we have an Aphid Problem which means that the only chance to get any actual broad beans is to get the plants up and producing in the spring before the aphids have woken up.  Which in turn means overwintering them.


What counts as work?

At the Anarchist Bookfair at the weekend I picked up a book called Making Stuff and Doing Things.  Among the collection of useful bits and pieces was an article by CrimethInc about getting active.  Point 2 — spend less to work less! — really spoke to me.  That’s what I’m trying to do at the moment: reduce my costs so I don’t have to work full-time and have more time to do the things that I want to do.

This raises questions about what counts as ‘work’.  I don’t get paid for the time I put in at the allotment (which at least in theory frees up cash as I don’t have to spend so much on food), and I enjoy it; but it’s physically tough (especially today as I spent yet another hour hacking away at the Blackberry Tangle).  I’ve just started a (paid) part-time job teaching cycling; something which I enjoy enough and think is important enough that in the past I’ve done it for free.  I do various volunteer things that don’t attract payment but are certainly ‘work’ in another sense (I do some sysadmin work, which in the past I’ve been paid for, for free at the moment). 

Feeding into this is perhaps the idea that ‘women’s work’ tends to be undervalued.  Growing things, making things, handcrafts, helping others, teaching… often, these things are not defined as ‘work’.  Unless you make money at it, anyway, in which case it may qualify as work.  Of course, it’s still more likely to be taken seriously if you’re male.

I find myself wanting to broaden the idea of ‘work’, and to blur the boundaries between that and ‘play’.  The CrimethInc article above is fundamentally saying something a lot like that: take yourself out of the traditional paid-labour market (as far as is possible), and support yourself by doing other sorts of work.  Support yourself directly rather than with paid labour.  Work out how to make that sustainable.  Create an alternative that doesn’t fit into that old joke about work being the unpleasant things you’re paid to do.  

That’s my sort of anarchism.


350 reasons why carbon trading won’t work

Rising Tide have just launched a new campaign: 350 reasons why carbon trading won’t work.  Well worth a read.

The theory behind carbon trading is that it encourages innovation and carbon reduction funded by the market.  The argument goes like this.  Imagine that you have a carbon limit of 100 units (for the sake of the argument, it doesn’t matter what your units are).  Company A and Company B both currently emit 110 units.  Company A, however, can easily reduce their carbon output; Company B would really struggle a lot to do so.  If all you do is charge for carbon output above 100, then A will reduce to 100, and B will reduce to maybe 105 (because they can’t reduce any further that quickly): total 205.

Under carbon trading, the argument goes, A will reduce further, because suddenly a reduction below 100 units will be worth something.  Because they still have some easy wins, they reduce to 90 units, and sell their extra 10 units of permits to Company B.  Company B don’t bother reducing at all, because it’s cheaper just to buy permits, so they still output 110 units: total 200 units.  Hurrah, that is less than 205 units, carbon trading wins!

What strikes me is that carbon trading assumes that the problem with the first scenario (i.e. why it doesn’t maximise the reduction) is to do with the lack of a market mechanism.  My suggestion would be that it is instead to do with where the limit is set.  What happens if we set the limit at 0, and companies have to pay for all carbon output?  Company A will (at least) reduce to that 90 that was their easy win.  Company B will reduce to the 105 that was all they could manage initially.  Total output: 195. 

In fact, under carbon trading, Company A may be discouraged from reducing as far as they can — because if they reduce too far, then their permits will reduce in value (supply/demand)*.  Under a more draconian limit system, they have the absolute encouragement to reduce as far as possible.

Of course, this means that the operating costs of all non-carbon-neutral companies will rise, possibly by quite a lot.  Which in turn presumably means that the cost of whatever product or service they’re providing will rise.  From where I’m standing, that’s a further positive outcome.  Currently, carbon output costs: it just doesn’t cost the polluters.  It costs everyone (and disproportionately, it costs the poor), just indirectly.  Currently, polluting companies are treated as if they have a right to pollute, which is (very) slowly being curtailed.  Let’s turn it around, and make them actually pay for their polluting activities.

Yes, that will have a knock-on economic effect.  Some companies may even go out of business, if it turns out that when customers are asked to pay the true cost of their goods, that those goods aren’t worth it.  Again: that doesn’t sound to me like a bad thing.  That implies that currently, the rest of the world is subsidising something which the purchasers themselves don’t actually value enough to pay for in full.**

Let’s start valuing our environment properly.  Carbon trading is just a way of putting that off — quite probably until it’s too late.

* This is basically what has already happened: too many permits were issued at the start of the scheme, so permit costs are through the floor and no one has any encouragement to make any reductions at all.  This might have something to do with the fact that the basis on which numbers of permits were issued was calculated from numbers provided by…. the polluting companies themselves.  Um.
** OK, maybe some of those goods or services will have a social value such that they shouldn’t be let go under.  In which case, governments may wish to subsidise them.  But again, let’s do that openly and explicitly, and without invisibly handing value from the world as a whole over to private shareholders.

growing things

Allotment plans for the next few weeks

I’m feeling a little unfocussed about a lot of things right at the moment.  For the food-growing, at least, one solution to this is to make a list of what I need to do before the end of November.


  • Planting:
    • broad beans, meteor pea, early dwarf pea.  Probably one lot of each this week, and another lot in a fortnight.
    • more kale and mustard greens; the germination rate for the last lot was a little low.  In fact I may start these off inside, then move to the balcony, then plant out in the cold frame on the allotment. 
  • Harvesting
    • more raspberries!
    • dig up the rest of the damn potatoes.
    • sweetcorn and squashes.
  • Tidying up:
    • finish cutting back the blackberry.
    • cut back the autumn rasps, once they’re actually finished (still going at the moment!).
    • check for any seed that can be saved.
  • Infrastructure: 
    • build the cold frame for the mustard greens and kale.  I want to at least start this this weekend.
    • get more planks down for the raised beds.
    • finish deconstructing the pallets so they’re out of the way.
    • dig over the compost heap, incorporating some of the blackberry cuttings.
    • amalgamate the extra compost heap (mostly consisting of blackberry cuttings…) into one location.
    • go out to collect leaves from the park for mulching down (needs to happen soon; easiest way to do this would be to use one of my old compost bags & take it round the park when I go round with the dog!).
  • Planning:
    • keep reading the Permaculture Book and actually take some notes.


  • Planting:
    • ? another batch of salad veg?  Don’t have any more room in the cold frame though!
    • maybe some meteor peas.
  • Harvesting:
    • keep eating the salad leaves.
    • dig up the potatoes.
  • Tidying up:
    • sort out all the old pots and work out where they should go.
    • work out where to put the salad veg cold frame that isn’t “on top of the wormery”.
    • bring the basil inside.
    • take up the dead peas.
  • Planning:
    • the best thing I could do this month, I think, is establish a routine of checking up on the balcony daily.
    • decide what to do about the wormery – the answer probably is “dig some worms out of the allotment compost heap and relocate them”.

Ha, turns out that that’s quite a lot of things to be going on with.


Climate Change – take action this weekend!

At a loose end this weekend?  Based in the UK? 

Come on down to Nottingham and close down a power station for the weekend!  There’s something for everyone, whatever your direct action comfort level, from the Footsteps to the Future march to the Bike Bloc Critical Mass and the Take Back The Power bloc’s get-to-the-control-room mission. 

And to prove that this sort of direct action does work: we’ve already stopped Kingsnorth, and BAA have shelved plans for the third runway at Heathrow.  Come and help make a difference!


Positive goals

I read Little Light’s post on dangerous (hopeful) thinking today, and found it resonating strongly with my own attitudes.

The activism I try to embody is positive: it seeks solutions, a world that we want to see.  This is one of the things that I like about Climate Camp: it’s not just about protesting and trying to stop bad things, it’s about trying to build good things.  Providing alternatives; sharing skills and knowledge; building communities.  I take part in protest-oriented direct action, but I put more energy into promoting cycling, trying to get better at growing my own food, finding carbon-cheap ways to operate my life (and then promoting those).  For me, being the change you want to see in the world is vitally important. 

Having said that, the comments at the bottom by shah8 are also important: if we think only of the end and not of the means (or of how the end is operated), then we risk simply ending up with another set of wrongs to replace the ones we have.  For me, the way to avoid this is to treat your hopes and aims holistically.  It’s not OK to achieve one thing by sacrificing something else important. 

Of course, the problem then becomes: are all your aims compatible?  Can they be treated holistically?  If not, do you need to rethink them so that they can?  Sometimes it is legitimate to sacrifice one thing for another.  I’d love for it to be possible for everyone in the world to have the same range of choice and luxury as those who are well-off in the developed world, without causing poverty and environmental destruction.  That’s not possible, so instead what I want to move towards is everyone being able to survive with some level of comfort, in a sustainable and non-poverty-generating way.  (Which is of course an unpopular concept in the developed world, entailing as it does a lower standard of living for us.  Myself included.)

From a sustainability point of view: striving for a positive goal is arguably more personally sustainable in the long term than simply fighting a negative.  Sometimes it is necessary to put energy into fighting a negative; but having a positive vision of what you want to see instead, and trying to include at least some positive movement in your negative action (community-building is always a good one), will tend to help you hang on in there for the long haul.


Freecycle, free shops, and letting things go

There’s a couple of obvious advantages to using Freecycle (or Freegle, which is the new UK-based version).  Giving a home to things you don’t want or need any more, rather than throwing them away.   Getting hold of things second-hand — and free! — rather than having to buy new and generate more waste.  (I got a stairgate from Freecycle recently when we acquired a new dog.) 

But I’ve found that it also helps with the process of deciding whether you really need to keep something at all.  I’ve been trying of late to move away from a policy of “keep it just in case”.  As a policy, that leads to stacks of belongings festering in corners; reducing the space available for you and for the things that you genuinely do want and use.

Freecycle lets me have the attitude that if I need something at an unspecified later date, I’ll be able to get hold of it again at that point.  If I send out into the wild the stack of paint trays and rollers that have been in the bottom of a cupboard for 5 years, then should I ever need them again, I’ll be able to find another set.

Of course, that particular set of paint trays may never be in circulation again.  But the more stuff there is circulating in the free and second-hand un-market, the more likely it is that the stuff you need will be there when you need it. 

I’ve started to see “keeping things just in case” as a form of wastage.  It means that a useful thing isn’t in use, so when someone else needs it, they have to buy another one.  As opposed to using the one sitting unused in my cupboard.   In a similar vein, I share a bike trailer and various power tools with other people: they’re expensive things that we don’t all need at once so why own multiple versions?  I can treat Freecycle and free shops as something a bit like a large and less trackable version of a lending library.  End result: less stuff in the world and in my house.


Cheese, lentils, and carbon

I’ve been vegan for about 8 years now.  Primarily this was an animal welfare decision, but as I’ve become more climate-change conscious, I’ve also become aware of the fact that vegan foods are lower-carbon than meat or dairy.

More recently, I’ve been considering the issue of local eating and sustainability.  You can’t (sadly) easily grow in the UK the pulses I use for most of my protein (lentils, chickpeas, kidney beans, soya beans (tofu)1).  So that’s all being shipped in from — I don’t even know where, to be honest.  Somewhere Else.  On the other hand, I can get ‘local’ (within 100 miles) cheese or milk down the road at Borough Market.  Would that be better in terms of carbon footprint?

Probably not, it turns out.  The study described there was conducted in the US, but the figures won’t be far off for the UK.  Food miles turned out to be only a small part (around 11%, with only 4% being the producer-retailer leg) of the carbon footprint of any given food.  Most of it was in the production stage, and both red meat and dairy are high-carbon-producers.

The graph they have at that link is irritatingly uninformative, as it doesn’t (seem to) allow for quantities of consumption.  (Broadly speaking, what is interesting isn’t what percentage of food-related greenhouse gas emissions are related to red meat, but how that compares with the percentage of red meat that is eaten with food.  If the Average Diet is 30% red meat and red meat produces 30% of the carbon output, that’s probably fine.)  However, the fact that a 21-23% shift away from red meat towards chicken and fish would cut as much carbon as buying all-local would indicates that the carbon footprint difference between red meat/dairy, and pulses, is genuinely significant.

I then managed to locate a chart showing the carbon cost of various foods.  It doesn’t include pulses but they’ll be somewhere down there with the carrots: very obvious that the carbon footprint is tiny compared to cheese.  

Of course, there’s another factor: if you’re eating for protein, how much protein do you get for your carbon?  Turns out that the protein content of cheese and pulses is close-enough to the same.  Around 100g protein per pound of cheese (exact rate depends on what cheese); 115g/lb lentils, 102g/lb (raw) kidney beans; an impressive 166g/lb for (raw) soya beans2.  So the high carbon cost of cheese isn’t compensated for by higher protein content (although it is higher-calorie).  Milk is low-carbon; but it’s also low-protein (15g/lb or so). 

So I don’t have a good climate-related excuse to start eating cheese again, which is a shame!  The figures might be a bit different if I had my own goat/cow, on otherwise not agriculturally useful land, and was making my own cheese, but unfortunately I don’t think I can fit a ruminant of any sort on the balcony.

Here’s another couple of links for further reading, if you’re interested:

  • The carbon footprint of cheese (theory only, no numbers).  This is less accurate if you’re buying organic artisan cheese from a proper dairy, but there’s still a lot of CO2-emitting there which doesn’t apply to pulses (and it’s accepted that it’s more efficient to put the pulses straight into the humans rather than detouring them via a cow). 
  • An assessment of the carbon cost of a cheeseburger (headline conclusion: the US cheeseburger consumption is responsible for the same sort of quantity of carbon as is the US SUV habit).

1. If you want to try soya beans in the UK, try Elena — the yield isn’t great though for any pulses of this sort
2. 1lb of soya beans would make about 2 medium-sized blocks of tofu.  Not sure exactly the weight of that, but there’s not enough difference to seriously screw up the figures.  Soya beans before being made into tofu are not particularly tasty.



After realising just how much tissue paper I was going through with my cyclist’s sniffle1, even if it does then go in the compost, I’ve made the decision to switch to handkerchiefs. 

I had one cotton one kicking around in my box-of-fabric-bits, but also ordered a box of 8 organic cotton flannel hankies which arrived yesterday.  Conclusion: nice and soft (more so than the old regular cotton one), although if I had a full-on cold I’m not sure if they’d be as soothing as the disposable aloe vera ones.  (I can however try applying actual aloe vera in this instance, from the very healthy plant in the living-room.)  The advantage of cotton though is that it softens with use and washing. 

(I have a discount code for these people now which I’m free to hand on — let me know if you want to use it.)

Discussion with a friend gave rise to the question “but if you have to boil or boil-wash them is it actually environmentally better?”.  After due consideration I can’t really see the need to boil them: I don’t do that with any other piece of clothing that I might get bits of bodily fluids on (& we’ve just acquired a dog: I’m not about to boil any clothing that gets dog-slobber on it either), and I don’t see that hankies would be that much more germ-laden as a rule.  As & when I actually get a cold I’ll probably rinse & maybe soak in hot water before I chuck them in the wash. 

(Amnesty also do fair-trade organic hankies if you want to try those.)

This Times article (scroll down) discusses the environmental benefits of hankies: the average European tissue usage is 13kg per person per year, which is kind of boggling.  I’m even more pleased now that I’ve ditched the disposables.

1. Going fast and/or cold weather makes your eyes water, which makes your nose run.  There’s a reason why bike gloves all have that little soft absorbent patch on the back of the thumb.  In fact my sniffle doesn’t seem to be entirely cycling-induced, either; most annoying.