Category: sustainability

‘Sylvan Cities’ published on 2 May

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My new book, Sylvan Cities, An urban tree guide was published by Atlantic in May 2019.

Sylvan Cities is a potted-journey through our cities’ woody places and a literary hunt for where their wild things are.

Inviting readers on an illustrated journey into the urban forest, it’s both a practical guide to identifying some of the most common trees standing sentry on our street corners, and a lyrical, anecdotal treasure trove of facts and history, culture and leafy lore.

A few reviews:

‘Dulce et utile. (I’m allowed the Latin for “both sweet and useful” here because the botanical science is as sound as the cultural, historical and poetic aspects.) This is a delightful book: clever, pretty, fun and informative – what more can a reader ask for?’
– Sara Maitland, author of Gossip From the Forest

‘Full of gems; a manifesto for green cities. Babbs will turn us all into urban rangers, an unquiet army of neighbourhood watchers.’
– Max Adams, author of Wisdom of Trees

‘A thoroughly enjoyable read, and a beautifully illustrated practical, cultural and historical guide to some of the most common trees in our cities.’
– Tony Kirkham, Head of the Arboretum at Kew Gardens, writing in Gardens Illustrated

‘This assured book reflects on the “quiet colossi” that frame urban life… [It’s] a practical, portable companion for city walkers. Her read-aloud pen portraits on common varieties are a joy.’
Financial Times

Connect | autumn winter 2017

09C2D023-946A-4E99-AC41-2533D34408C6The autumn winter 2017 issue of Connect – the magazine I work on as a freelance writer and editor for Greenpeace UK – was published in December.

Our cover feature – ‘The people versus oil’ – was about how Greenpeace is challenging the oil industry on all fronts, from the Amazon to the Arctic, and from boardrooms to court rooms.

The issue also featured an interview with Sir David Attenborough, an article about how offshore wind is powering ahead, and an update on a growing campaign to stop the flow of plastic pollution into our oceans.

Connect | summer 2017

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The summer 2017 issue of Connect – the magazine I work on as a freelance writer and editor for Greenpeace UK – was published in July.

Our cover feature – ‘Sailing for sea life’ – was about Beluga II’s expedition to some of Scotland’s most beautiful waters to collect first-hand evidence of how plastic pollution is threatening marine wildlife.

We want to show the world how amazing the UK’s sea life and coastal areas are, but also how vulnerable.

Blackout: living without electricity

IMG_1540This feature was first published by Wellcome Collection.

22:45, Saturday 5 December, 2015. Power cut. Blackout.

Storm Desmond was wreaking havoc across southern Scotland, northern England, Wales and Northern Ireland that weekend, and the national news was dominated by stories of terrible floods. But in Lancaster it was loss of power that was proving most challenging for local people.

Elizabeth Shove, a professor at the University of Lancaster, was out of town at the time. Observing from a distance, she decided to pack her car full of camping equipment and head into the city on Monday. Generators were being brought in, and power was promised to have been restored, but she took the gear, just in case.

As she drove into Lancaster that Monday evening she noticed the traffic lights weren’t working. Almost 48 hours after the city first plunged into darkness, the power was off again.

Elizabeth directs the Demand Centre, and her research is all about energy in everyday life. There’s nothing quite like a blackout for illustrating just how reliant on electricity we have become. “We just don’t know, and would never know, really, how far that dependence has gone,” says Elizabeth, “until the blackout, which is illuminating.”

And actually a power cut is much more than a blackout. Sure, the lights go out, but a lot of other things stop working too, as Elizabeth explains:

Phones didn’t work. Electronic door-locking systems defaulted to open, letting anyone in. Fire alarms that had only limited battery backup failed after a while. Lots of building energy management systems didn’t work. Cash machines didn’t function, nor did credit card payment systems, or traffic lights, or petrol pumps.

In a way it didn’t matter that people could no longer charge their computers or phones, because the power cut also meant, for many, there was no Internet or mobile phone signal. Keeping in touch was tough, and listening to the news impossible if you didn’t own a battery-powered analogue radio. Many people simply didn’t know what was going on. Lancaster is near Heysham Nuclear Power Station, and vague rumours about a problem with the power plant led some to fear the worst.

It was in fact a flood at an electricity substation that saw the city’s power cut that Saturday night in December. Generators were brought in on the Monday, but they were quickly overloaded. Things didn’t get back to normal until Friday, when the city was fully reconnected to the mains. As the government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Mark Walport says in the Royal Academy of Engineering’s ‘Living without Electricity’ report, “life for more than 100,000 people in Lancaster reverted to a pre-electronics era”.

The power cut affected households, businesses, banks, hospitals, schools, and transport, even other utilities like gas, water and sewage. Did you know your gas central heating needs electricity to work, or that some modern taps and toilets require a power supply to run or flush?

“A blackout reveals to us how dependent we are on the electrical system,” says historian David Nye. “The history of blackouts is also the history of the consumption of electricity, and the history of our dependence and how it grows.”

Nobody knew how long the Lancaster power cut was going to last. For Elizabeth it revealed the temporality of energy use. If the power supply isn’t always on, you find out which power dependent things are flexible, and which ones are not. On a domestic level, it might be working out what you can delay doing – the laundry, say – and what you can’t – mealtimes, for example. “Suddenly things that haven’t been visible before come into view,” says Elizabeth. “There were lots of surprises.”

One surprise happened at the Lancaster Royal Infirmary. Like most district general hospitals it had standby diesel generators, which meant it was one of the only places in the city with light, functioning plug sockets and hot food. As such it was a beacon in the dark, and quickly overwhelmed by power-hungry people.

According to the ‘Living without Electricity’ report:

The hospital was seen by many as a community centre. People with nowhere else to go wandered in off the street. The canteen served a record number of meals. A group of students arrived with a six-way extension lead and their mobile phone/tablet battery chargers which they connected to the first free 13A socket they could find. As a community centre, it was serving a valuable function – increasingly important as other facilities were closed – but well removed from its core business.

It’s perhaps tempting to gloss over what happened in Lancaster with talk of a community rallying round, of a ‘Blitz spirit’. Elizabeth cautions against this, warning it’s a way of disguising more serious problems. “Valuing community spirit is not the same as being better prepared for disruption,” she says. “The power cut showed that our depth of resilience is really very shallow. People didn’t have cash, students didn’t have food. The hospital was exploited for its power, they weren’t expecting it, or prepared for it.”

So what else did Elizabeth learn during that week without power?

The difference between mains power, and generated power; that the light being on isn’t as important as the Internet being on; that people with wood burning stoves and landlines were in an infinitely better position than those without. We learned that we’re completely in the grip of the grid, but also that power cuts aren’t uniform, that the geography and extent of the situation shifts all the time. And that a mobile phone can work as a radio, even without a signal!

What did it teach us about future energy use, not least in the context of climate change and the global movement towards renewable power? “If the future really involves a lot more renewable power, then the power supply will be more intermittent,” according to Elizabeth. She continues:

It doesn’t necessarily mean full blackouts, but it probably will – and actually hopefully will – involve a much more calibrated ebb and flow of demand. So, not everything is available to be on absolutely all the time. Closer connection with the seasons is really very likely to happen. The practices that depend on electricity will have to be rethought in terms of their timing.

Perhaps it’s also worth casting our eyes back to blackouts of the past. David Nye explains that, “The very beginning of the use of this term was in the 1930s, when people were intentionally blacking out cities or airports or military bases as a military tactic – the intentional control of light and the reduction in the use of electricity.”

There are self-imposed blackouts, of a sort, today too. This year saw the 10th Earth Hour where people across the world chose to turn the lights out for an hour, to “shine a light on the need for climate action”. David calls this a “greenout” rather than a blackout. “The choices we face now with electricity are fundamental,” he says. “Will we continue on the high energy binge of the 20th century? Are we going to treat the electrical grid’s technological power and momentum as something that’s inevitable? Or will we consume, maybe, a little less?”

This article was inspired by, and quotes from, ‘Electricity – where now?’, an audio installation produced by Simon Hollis for Electricity: The spark of life.

The image featured at the top of this article is taken from a public information poster now stored in The National Archives. It was designed by Tom Gentleman some time between 1939 and 1946.

Connect | spring 2017

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The spring issue 2017 of Connect – the magazine I work on as a freelance writer and editor for Greenpeace UK – was published in March.

Right now, up to 12 million tonnes of plastic are entering our oceans every year, and the UN has called the situation a ‘toxic time bomb’. To protect our seas, we’ve got to be bold. Our cover story is about the launch of a major new campaign to stop plastic ending up in our oceans.

The cover shot is by Mandy Barker, who uses ocean trash to create stunning, but spiky, artworks.

Adrift | now in paperback

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My book about the people, politics, history, and wildlife of London’s canals and rivers – Adrift, A Secret Life of London’s Waterways – is published in paperback today.

‘A compelling exploration of river living’ – Homes & Gardens

‘One of the best waterways books for decades’ – Waterways World

‘Chapter after chapter of utterly captivating prose’ – Caught by the River

‘A serious and fascinating book’ – Hackney Citizen

‘Waterways writing at its finest’ – The Book Barge

‘Babbs is an excellent nature writer’ – The Bookseller

You’ll find Adrift for sale in all good bookshops, in the real world and online, priced £8.99.

Connect | winter 2016

img_1185The autumn / winter 2016 issue of Connect – the magazine I edit for Greenpeace UK – has just been published. Our cover star this issue is a titi monkey, photographed by Valdemir Cunha in the Amazon.

img_1186Our cover story is about the fight to protect the Tapajós River Basin in the Brazilian Amazon. Over 40 dams are planned in this extraordinary place, projects that will have catastrophic consequences for the wildlife and communities that call it their home. A global campaign has already seen one of the biggest dams cancelled. This article is about why we have to ensure the others are scrapped as well, and how Brazil could create huge amounts of clean, renewable power if it focused on increasing wind and solar instead of hydro.

img_1187This is one of my favourite spreads this issue. It features the work of street artist Dr. Love, which we’ve used to illustrate an article that argues we have to be bold if we’re going to solve Britain’s toxic air pollution problem. Right now, air pollution is causing around 40,000 early deaths in the UK each year. Positive action will save lives, as well as reducing CO2 emissions.

Connect | summer 2016

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The summer issue of Connect – the magazine I edit for Greenpeace UK – was published this month. The cover story this issue brings fantastic news from the Norwegian Arctic, where the world’s biggest fishing companies have voluntarily agreed not to exploit a huge part of the Arctic Ocean, from Svalbard all the way up to the North Pole. Our cover star is a beluga whale, or white whale, photographed under the sea ice © WaterFrame / Alamy.

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We also have a beautiful photo-led feature about a new campaign to protect the Tapajós River Basin in the Brazilian Amazon. It’s an extraordinarily biodiverse place, home to creatures like ocelots, jaguars and pink dolphins. It acts like a huge pair of lungs that help regulate our planet’s climate. The Munduruku community that call Tapajós home have a deep connection with the river and forest, and depend on them for food and transport, as well as cultural and spiritual sustenance. Shockingly, this region could soon be sacrificed to a mega-dam of monstrous proportions. The fight to save Tapajós is on.

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I’m especially pleased with how this double-page spread is looking. It is an eye-opening start to an article about plastic pollution in our oceans, and features the magnificent artwork of Mandy Barker. Her SOUP series features images created using plastic trash found on beaches around the world. Right now, up to 12.7 million tonnes of plastic are entering our oceans each year, some of it so tiny it’s barely visible. Some marine life is mistaking microplastic for food, filling up on it and starving as a result – just one reason why tackling ocean plastic pollution is so important. Image © Mandy Barker.

Sunday Times | The life aquatic

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This feature was first published in the Sunday Times

The year I turned 30 was the year me and my partner bought our canal boat home. After ten years renting rooms in shared flats, we craved a space of our own. Buying a flat would have been a more sensible investment, but we live in a city where £450,000 is officially considered affordable for a ‘starter home’.

Living aboard isn’t cheap – the boat itself cost tens of thousands of pounds to buy, then there are annual licence fees, insurance, fuel and maintenance costs. But it was something we’d long dreamed of, and properly researched. I lodged aboard a friend’s narrowboat for a month first to learn the ropes. Although avoiding London’s over-inflated property market was a factor, the move wasn’t all about money. We saw it as a chance to try living off-grid, to simplify things and strip back, to have a multi-fuel stove and a set of solar panels.

Plain on the outside, it was our boat’s innards that made us want her. Dark wood floors, oak panelling, painted pine tongue-and-groove, and plenty of brass. The cabin is long, low and narrow, with walls that curve gently inwards. It’s a space you learn to move through in a certain, stooping way. Boat life demands us to be conservative with power, but the cabin is lovely in candle- and firelight, the cosiest place you could possibly be. Flame light is forgiving, it hides the coal dust and cracks.

We’re not pioneers. There have been people living on London’s navigable waterways for decades, although there’s no denying numbers have risen as prices have rocketed on land. Residential moorings in London are rare, so most newcomers cruise rather than moor permanently in one place. It’s a joy to slowly wend your way through London, experiencing life afloat in the north, south, east and west. But, continuous cruisers give up mains water and mains electricity, as well as a fixed address.

It’s important not to idealise life on the water. Living like this is full of its own specific concerns: the fear of running out of fuel to burn and freshwater to wash with, the blight of condensation and damp, flat marine batteries and mysterious leaks. The boat’s climate is tricky to control, freezing in winter, too hot in summer. We’re free of earthly ties but also free of everyday conveniences. We have to deal intimately with our own waste, emptying our caravan-style toilet by hand.

Living in a low impact way and being close to nature are, for me, boating’s greatest appeals. London’s manmade canal network has become increasingly important for wildlife, as natural standing water like ponds and ditches have disappeared. But urban waterways aren’t bucolic, and itinerancy comes with stigma attached. A peripatetic life fascinates some people but confuses others.

It was a shock to discover I had to register as homeless if I wanted to vote. Without a postcode, other things become complicated too, including banking and healthcare. I’m uneasy about my credit rating. I also worry about the future. Currently a haven for a resourceful few, there’s a concern London’s waterways are gradually becoming less open to boats without permanent moorings.

It’s completely legal to continuously cruise across the canal network as long as you move on every two weeks, a right enshrined in the 1995 British Waterways Act. But recently stay times in popular areas have been reduced to seven days, sometimes even less. The Canal and River Trust has also said it won’t renew the licenses of boats without long term moorings that it doesn’t consider to be moving far enough, despite not having the power to define what an acceptable distance is.

While I’m happy with my decision to swap bricks and mortar for a boat, I wouldn’t encourage you to do the same. Many of us are desperate to find a way to be in London that isn’t financially crippling. But, while living aboard works brilliantly for some, it’s a precarious way of living. It’s definitely not for the faint hearted. Nor are boats a solution to London’s housing crisis – that requires fair prices on land.

That said, my boat is very much my home and I believe we should actively protect London’s boating community, both the continuously cruising and the permanently moored. As our capital becomes increasingly homogenous, amid a flood of anodyne new developments and luxury flats, it is the canals with their boats, bustle, weeds and wrecks that offer some much needed idiosyncratic charm.

Connect | spring 2016

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The spring issue of Greenpeace UK’s Connect magazine has just been published, with a focus on forest fires in Indonesia and the devastating effect deforestation is having on orangutans. Our great ape cover star was photographed by Markus Mauthe. The pollution from the fire crisis has been disastrous for people too – the region has been cloaked in a choking haze that causes severe breathing problems.

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Other features this issue include ‘Tainted tuna’ and ‘Fracking hypocrites’. One of the articles I’m most happy with is about the Arctic Ocean – it begins with this magnificent jellyfish double-page spread, inviting the reader into the fascinating underwater world beneath the sea ice. Magnificent creatures like this Scyphozoan jellyfish – photographed by Alexander Semenov – are threatened by industrial fishing fleets that are moving into the Norwegian Arctic, as climate change causes the ocean’s once-protective shield of ice to melt.

I edit and help project manage the production of Connect, which is sent to Greenpeace UK’s regular financial supporters.