Face to Face with Ultimate Catastrophy

Oil refinery burn off flareIf you feel good at the moment, maybe you should move on or read this at a more appropriate time.

That out of the way, humans have passed the 7 billion people mark and mankind is still growing in size. Despite the most successful and largest campaign to put it under control – the one undertaken in China over the last few decades – that growth not only remains strong, but is also accelerating.

We have taken a large part of potentially arable land – the best, most fruitful parts, basically – away from the rest of the live world and dedicated it to producing food for ourselves and for the food of our food. And the food of our machines, as of late. Aside from all the nutrients, what we need from food is energy. At least 90% of that energy now comes from fossil fuels. In terms of food production, we are eating oil: look at your plate at your next meal and see how you feel about that. Many oil-extracting countries (the more wide-spread euphemism is “oil-producing”, but oil is not actually produced) have reached peak oil extraction: a point at which they cannot extract oil as fast as it is being consumed. Other oil-extracting countries treat the amount of oil they can still extract as a state secret of the highest rank, but Continue reading “Face to Face with Ultimate Catastrophy”


Books Have Nothing to Do with Paper

This tree deserves to become a better newspaper
"This tree deserves to become a better newspaper"

A few weeks back I stumbled upon this advertisement for a newspaper which in loose translation says “This tree deserves to become a better newspaper”. Seeing it was one of those events which short-circuit my mind by causing a storm of concurrent reactions, like hearing religious leaders speak out against using preservatives, for example. The thought vortex went something like this: “It’s like showing a picture of a lamb with the punch line that that lamb deserves to become a tender, juicy steak”, “Is this conclusive proof that there is no such thing as bad publicity?”, “Advertising your way out of a job…”, “Who are these people?!”, “Blissfully detached from the world around them…”…and so on. That advertisement is therefore one of the reasons why I would like to say a few words about books, newspapers and paper publishing in general.

A newspaper is a proper industrial society, 20th century product: it is mass-produced daily in up to millions of copies, packed into vans, trucks, trains and planes, sold in a massive network of points of sale where people stop by to pick them up, read up to 20% of their contents and throw them away at the end of the day. It is worth mentioning that while 80% of paper does get recycled, paper recycling is always a downcycling process (i.e. it can only be done several times) and other used resources (like transportation, storage, various sale costs) cannot be recycled at all.

As for books, Continue reading “Books Have Nothing to Do with Paper”

Winter Cycling

Winter DownhillThere are lots of resources on the web about cycling in winter, but since more often than not, people still (incorrectly) perceive near-zero temperatures as way too cold to cycle around town, here is my take on the subject.

I cycle year-round, roughly 10 to 30 km per day, in an urban environment in a continental European climate. Of the two main obstacles to comfortable cycling – rain and cold – in this article I will address the later: 3-4 months of daily sub-zero temperatures in the morning with minimums of -15 or -20 °C.

There are two keys to winter cycling: gear and best practices. Continue reading “Winter Cycling”

When People Don’t Think: Terrace Heaters

heated terrace: Bogoviceva, ZagrebSeveral years ago, I was amazed (and quite repulsed) to read about a café in Paris which supposedly had an open terrace and kept it heated throughout winter, with tropical plants in pots and matching décor and guests. It sounded to me a bit like a golden toilet bowl, or a personal shopping assistant, or drag racing – roughly equally senseless. I was caught unprepared by the idea that it might appeal to people, but didn’t think much about it at the time.

In the short years since then and now, these heated terraces have stopped being a foreign curiosity and have instead become a frequent sight in the café-inundated parts of the city. Cafés, restaurants, fast food stands, pizzerias – they all have people sitting in jackets and scarves, sipping their tea and coffee, chatting away about one thing or another. Heated terraces have become so pervasive that there are café catalogues which list them as a category and tick it off for the cafés which have one. Some places promote them as their unique selling point: “[…] It also has an envied feature of a heated open air roof top terrace […] makes this bar unique amongst other bars in the area. With a wide selection of…” Then they go on about various kinds of fabulous drinks, the atmosphere, work hours, special programs and so on.

Continue reading “When People Don’t Think: Terrace Heaters”

Cars? Really? You can’t be serious.

Perhaps the most appropriate summary of modern transportation is “the car”. It is an invention only a century old, but it literally and fundamentally changed the way civilization works: this is equally true in the business, social and cultural context. Millions of people drive to work tens of kilometres from where they live, asphalt has in a sense become a criterion for measuring the reach of civilization (one can hardly talk of civilization in any place detached from the global road network), classes of cars have become status symbols and so on. The same way the Vespa liberated a generation of Italian youngsters during the ’50s, the car is seen today as a precondition of a free and comfortable life in the West. People in the rest of the world desire it, but it is still out of their economic reach.

The car has had its problems, too, and we will get to them in a moment, but it is important to notice that the global automotive industry is effectively addressing one issue and one issue only: electrification, the cause of the current hybrid and electric drive hype. What car makers are working on is increasing range and decreasing price of electric cars, mostly because people no longer feel as comfortable as they did burning petrol to move around and because people assume hybrid and electric vehicles do less damage to the environment.

Knowing that for every 100 litres of fuel burned about 2 litres are spent on actually transporting the driver from point A to point B (details below), one has to be grateful that a major efficiency problem is being looked into. However, there are two issues with the effort. Continue reading “Cars? Really? You can’t be serious.”

Plane travel? Not a very good idea.

Nightmare TakeoffThere are two questions people usually think about when it comes to air travel: can I free my schedule for the trip and how much is the ticket? The reason this happens is because these are the only two criteria directly impacting the person in question. However, there are a few other….

A British physicist called David MacKay was frustrated by the amount of hand waving and vague assertions of “huge amounts of this” and “gigantic amounts of that” which people frequently mention when discussing energy use. He decided to put an end to it so he prepared a framework for people to intelligibly discuss the issues: it comes in form of a brilliant book called Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air. The reason the book is brilliant is its basic idea which is to list key energy sources and uses, provide simple models to get rough estimates and in doing so, allow people to get a feel for where we are in terms of energy use and what it means to be sustainable. One of the chapters of the book has something to say about air travel considerations other than time and money.

Continue reading “Plane travel? Not a very good idea.”

More cyclists than you can comfortably ignore…

More cyclists than you can comfortably ignoreThis afternoon a meeting took place in front of the Mimara museum in Zagreb. Everyone riding bicycles – or anything which could be called one, with a moderate stretch of the imagination – was invited. The idea was to show a glimpse of the total cyclist population in Zagreb, i.e. the size of the population which would be happy to see Zagreb turn into a cyclist-friendly city.
As it stands, Zagreb has around 180 km of cycling lanes. Allow me to put this into some kind of sensible perspective:

  • about 50% larger than the Arena shopping centre
  • less than one third of one percent of city surfaces dedicated to motorised traffic
  • less than one tenth of one percent of the total city area (roughly 20×10 km)

When we get the city to invest 0.5% of the city’s surface into cycling, I am quite certain that it will be possible to measure and register a clear improvement in air quality as well as a heart disease and obesity reduction. If it were easy to measure exact happiness levels, it would certainly be on the list as well.