Saturday, January 26, 2008

A googled Friday

When you leave the pub it's late and you don't have much time to catch the bus. The street is dark and unfamiliar. Even after five years here, the West End has remained a largely unknown territory. You pass advertisement agencies, Italian restaurants, closed cafes. You know well not to trust your sense of direction: the treacherous layout of this city frustrates expectations for logic and happy endings. So you have made sure to print a map from the google website before you set off for the gig. When you reach a junction, you take it out: your instinct says forward, the map says left. The map wins.

Above, a window opens, a missing voice is growling, something hits the ground. You do not look, you quicken your pace. You avoid the strangers of a Friday night: the stagger of heavy walking, the pointless anecdotes delivered in a high shrill voice ("cut a long story short!"). Suddenly you feel like you dropped something. You turn to look. There, on the ground, is a folded piece of paper, your map.

You should be nearly there but just to make sure, you turn back and pick the paper up. You open it to reveal a map, a google map, almost identical to yours, only the scale is enlarged. Your current location, in Great Thitchfield St, is marked with an X.

You will contemplate about coincidence and the Google-ization of human experience, as you wait for the bus. Throughout the twentieth century London has been encountered, understood, loved and hated through the A-to-Z street-map guides, and their simple strong logic: the combination of street name and post code resulted in a singular position. In mathematics, this is called a single-valued function. The real variable was the size of the A-to-Z guide: small ones could go into every pocket, but demanded strong eyesight and sometimes long meticulous observation. Big ones were heavier and bulky. Some people strapped it to their bikes. Others forgot it at home. All this is gradually made unnecessary: with access to the internet and a printer, and the details of address are being abstracted and obscured, an ephemeral paper replaces the London bible.

On the other side of Oxford Street, a young girl crouches and vomits.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Short term let

Since quitting squatting, I've had to become acquainted with the London renting market, in its least appealing sector, the short-term let. It appears that there are tens of thousands of tiny "studio flats" which are rented out for few weeks or months for ridiculous amounts of money: £300 per week for a soul-less shoebox (with wi-fi!). There are enough people in this city who need a place, have the money and don't know any other option. How can this take place in a city where thousands of houses stand empty? The logic of capitalism may be flawless, but it still doesn't make sense.

The other option, when a short-term place is needed, is subletting a room in a flat where one of the housemates is away.

Mink: Hi is this G? I'm calling about the three-week short term let, can I come and see the room?
G (young, American and just woke up) Yeah, sure. How old are you?
M: 33 (I don't know why I say this. I am 34).
G (put off): Ergh.. What kind of music do you like?
M: Excuse me?
G: What kind of music do you listen to? Our house is like really about music you know.

I try to think. There was a time I used to listen to music, when I had a real home and my own room. I used to listen to Drum and Bass and Gypsie music on my computer while writing my phd thesis. But since April I moved house 10 times, my hard drive died, and music disappeared from my life.

Actually, last night I listened to music. It was the Muppet Show soundtrack, I found it in the kiddie cds in the house we are cat-sitting at the moment. I even replayed three times Fozzie Bear's cover of Simon Smith and his Dancing Bear.

Somehow I have a feeling the Muppet Show will not go down very well.

M: hmmm all kind of music.
G: ok let's see if you know these bands. Black Dagger?
M: No
G: Clarence Dude?
M: No.
G: OK listen... I'll text you later about coming to see the flat
M: But you don't have my mobile number.
G: That's fine. Take care

Annoyed of this band-based discrimination, I start humming the song again:

I may go out tomorrow if I can borrow a coat to wear
Oh, I'd step out in style with my sincere smile and my dancing bear
Outrageous, alarming, courageous, charming
Oh, who would think a boy and bear
Could be well accepted everywhere
It's just amazing how fair people can be

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Coal is the new black

On new year's day, Robert Rapier won a thousand dollars. Rapier, an American oil engineer working in Aberdeen, had arranged a bet that oil prices would not reach $100 a barrel in 2007. As Rapier emphasised countless times on his blog and on the energy website the Oil Drum, he thinks oil should be $100 per barrel and more, because it is depleting much quicker than people realize, and we need to start adjusting to this fact; he just didn't think it would happen so fast.

In January 2007 prices were around $60, and Rapier thought that only a major disaster would make him lose (rapid production decline, or another US war). He was wrong: by November oil made it to $90 without any major catastrophe. The price hike had something to do with speculation and short gasoline inventories in the US, but mainly with what they call the "fundamentals" of the market: growing demand, and very tight supply. For regular visitors to Rapier's blog, like myself, the daily news of ups and downs of oil prices read like a thriller. I didn't want him to lose: he's a decent guy. "I feel like watching a car crash in slow motion" he wrote at some point, when losing seemed inevitable. He won, but with a whisker. On the second of January 2008 the psychological barrier of $100 dollars per barrel was breached.

In "normal" times, there would not be much in common between minks and Mr. Rapier. He works for a giant oil company. He believes in the law, and is not averse to capitalism. He shoots animals on holidays. His view of the world is judged, it seems, more by science and numbers than by words and the Arts. But these are not normal times. Under the double pressures of resource depletion and climate change, new alliances are formed; new understandings are reached. We all find unexpected fellow travellers; we all have to reach out of our bubble, out of our comfort zone. I find this aspect of environmental politics inspiring.

So what happens next? The exact arrival moment of oil-depletion awareness to the mass media and public is impossible to predict; and so are its implications. But one thing I have become convinced in recently is that the next big challenge is coal. Unlike petroleum and natural gas, coal is plentiful; it is found in many more locations around the world, "safer" countries, that is safer to the western energy-Moloch. Coal is about to make a big comeback. It is already happening: after 30 years, the UK is planning to build a new coal-powered power plant.

Coal will be used more and more for power generation; in the West, and in India and China. It will also be increasingly used for transport. The black stones can be made into liquid; this alchemical procedure was first used by Nazi Germany during the war, when its oil supply was cut off. Then it was used by Apartheid South Africa, attempting to ensure self-sufficiency in the face of an increasingly hostile world. This shady past is not a good start. If liquidised coal becomes seen as a panacea, these are bad news.

Coal is bad because its CO2 emissions are higher than oil or natural gas. Since according to the UN inter-governmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) we are within reach of the 2 degrees tipping point in global warming, beyond which the future is bleak, turning to coal would effectively mean an end to the climate change targets. The other old-school mass scale "solution" is nuclear power plants, with much lower carbon footprint, but they are hugely expensive and take longer to build. Coal really will have no serious competition in terms of price, the energy reward, availability and reserves.

So is the fight against Climate Change lost? In a recent lecture I attended "CO2 capture and storage" was presented as a real and only hope. That is, we'll be burning coal, but somehow the emissions will be captured and stored in a safe place - like former oil fields. The oil companies, after making a lot of money by getting the Ginnie out of the bottle, are hoping to make some more by putting it back. The technology does not yet exist, yet the lecturer was confident it is within reach. I dislike such promises, more so when the future of the planet is at stake. Furthermore, even if "Capture and Storage" works, I have an aversion to the idea; it means more or less business as usual. True, if coal will be used anyway, then capture and storage is better than nothing. But it is a temporary fix to a problem which cannot be solved without a major social and economic change. If we continue to burn our resources, to consume our world, we'll just hit the wall of consequences a little later. Coal is also a finite source, and if 9 billion people will use it, it will not last very long, however plentiful. In energy terms, the only long term solution is to move to renewable sources. It's simple, no? What is not renewable, will run out.

I believe that anyone interested in environmental politics has to prepare to fight the comeback of coal. There is an alternative: using less energy, and from sustainable sources. This will mean an economic slow down, which may not sound nice to those who believe in the round robin of over-production, consumption and perpetual growth , but they too will have to realize that one day the music will stop, and we will find ourselves sitting on funny plastic ponnies that can't go anywhere.

The scope of the oil depletion/climate change challenge means that we have to pursue broad alliances, and leave behind ideological puritanism. At the same time, we have to insist on the basic reasons for the looming catastrophe: not a natural phenomena but a human-made disaster, not geological constraints but a direct result of a wholly unsustainable way of life.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Out on the streets

I expected cellophane wrapped flowers and messages to appear at the spot the next day, but they never materialized. The street corner where it happened, and where I thought I could still see the blood stains for some days, remained unmarked and nondescript (the flowers, I learned later, were left outside his council bloc home, on the next street). The other London ritual associated with violent death was, however, inescapble. The yellow and black CAN YOU HELP US notice boards appeared in both ends of my new street, crying MURDER. In the strange and awkward police language they tell of a large street fight on Saturday before Christmas. "One male has since died, and another male has received severe wounds". Notice the passive form of the sentence, so popular in British English, and the almost zoological description of the victim.

The local papers have their own lingo, succinct and blood thirsty. "Teen Dies in Party Brawl" (Hackney Gazette) "26th Teenage Victim 2007" (Evening Standard; there was to be a 27th). Because of the holidays, the headlines remained in front of the shops for many days.

It is not the first time for me in London to come close to violence, or even to murder. The street is a quiet one; it feels much safer compared to some places I've lived in, but this is no more than a feeling. Violence is always a possibility, throughout the city. Like every Londoner, I have learned that in some situations it is best to look the other way, move to the other pavement.

On that night I came back and there was something wrong in the air: the sound of angry voices of teenage boys. Passed the street corner and from the neighbourhood club I could hear loud good hip-hop music. It felt alright again. But an hour later the music suddenly stopped, and all I could hear were the angry voices. When I went out to put the recycling, I saw a group of kids chasing two or three other kids. There were hatred and fear in the eyes. This was not a game.

Once before I had seen a young man in his twenties chased by a group of 10-15 teenagers. I can still see the look in his eyes: the raw panic of a hunted animal. I was cycling down Cable Street, and just passed the big mural commemorating the street fight against the Fascists in the 1930s, when I passed a man running from his cheering pursuers. I saw them catching up with him, bringing him down to the floor, and the kicking started. I cycled away, as fast as I could. I would have probably called the police but I didn't have my mobile. The next day I looked in the papers for a mention of the incident. There was nothing.

This time, again, I went inside and closed the door behind me. I wondered if any of the neighbours called the police. Shortly afterwards there was a siren, but only one. Nothing happened then, I thought, just some kids having a fight. The police always make a big hu-ha whenever they arrive, it's part of their tactics. Always more than one car, never a single siren. But the next day the street was blocked. A sixteen year was stabbed to death.

The street remains quiet as it was before. Old men in the morning on their way to the local clinic. Fathers and mothers taking their kids back from school in the afternoon. A couple of council estates; one gated-community and a building of converted over-priced "lofts". Turks, Africans, English and other tribes; and a very tall tree, and a pile of rubbish, just next to the police notice board, which will probably go soon.