Baltic peat moss in Hong Kong?

May 16th, 2013 atam Posted in Climate change, Food, General, Greenwash 1 Comment »

If we need further evidence that the government will not take the lead in addressing climate change in any real way, this is it: Baltic peat moss spread all over a flower bed in a public park.

Here we are fretting over our mountain of waste, much of it food waste that can be treated and used as compost, and where and what does the Leisure & Cultural Services Department – you know, the one that gives us those artificial turf pitches – use to grow its flowers and shrubs? This is peat moss extracted from wetlands in northern Europe which have served as carbon sinks for thousands of years, until the horticultural industry sold gardeners the idea that it is a good growing medium and proceeded to destroy these wetlands, in the process releasing the sequestered carbon, to make its profit.

And here we have the LCSD buying peat moss from the Baltic region, which has to be transported half way round the world to be used in an East Asian public park. How much transportation emissions is added to the amount released by extraction of the peat moss? I guess that depends on just how much of the stuff the LCSD is using all over Hong Kong.

One university that has installed a biodigester on its campus to turn food waste from its food and beverage outlets into compost says it produces enough compost in one day to cover all its landscaping for one month. This is a campus that, for all its greenery, is still pretty much covered in concrete though. Imagine the surplus compost being taken up by LCSD. Imagine, in fact, all the compost that can be made out of Hong Kong’s food waste being used to fertilise the few organic farms we have as well as to rehabilitate the agricultural land that has been ruined by years of abuse. We can then improve Hong Kong’s food security, but no, the government wants to seize the land and build more housing, choosing not to tackle the unsustainable small house policy while inflating its population forecast.

Nobody in government really understands climate change beyond spinning its efforts to achieve “sustainable development”.  Worse yet, it’s not only ruining Hong Kong; it’s ruining the ecosystem in northern Europe too.

Animals are not a utility

April 5th, 2013 atam Posted in Animal welfare, Climate change, Earth, Food No Comments »

Bird flu, swine flu, mad cow disease….

What’s the solution then? More culling of innocent animals bred in horrendous conditions just to meet the global demand for meat?

Whenever it is suggested that we should eat less meat if not forgo it altogether, some clever soul would point out that our ancestors were hunter-gatherers who ate a mix of meat and plants. Well yes. They had to hunt or search for days on end, either for half-eaten carcasses left by other animals, or animals that they could kill themselves. They did not eat animals everyday, at every meal.

Today we are eating meat on such a scale that we’ve forgotten that animals are living beings and not manufactured goods that can be turned out on a production line. Infectious diseases spread rapidly in cities because of the density of urban populations, which makes it so easy for viruses to jump from one person to another. For the luckier ones who don’t have to live 20 to a tiny room, there are at least walls to act as barriers between neighbours. No such luck for the animals bred for human consumption. They are packed in close quarters at factory farms where viruses happily cross from one victim to another, quickly mutating in the process.

To turn a quicker profit, these animals are fed anything from antibiotics to steroids so they can grow faster, leaner, whatever.

When are we going to learn that animals are not a utility there to satisfy our unhealthy obsession with meaty diets? They are part of the ecosystem, not a factory product. Permaculture recognises this; that’s why, instead of promoting vegetarianism, its idea is to develop farming methods that respect the way nature works. Chickens eat the worms on the vegetables patch, their droppings going to fertilise the soil and feeding the fish in the pond so that a balance of animal protein and vegetables can be harvested. The chickens can roam around, the vegetables are grown organically and the soil is not degraded by artificial fertilisers.

Instead, we are making ourselves sick eating too much meat while the planet runs out of resources. Someone’s making lots of money though, from pushing meat products produced in conditions that are conducive to disease.

What is technology for?

March 20th, 2013 atam Posted in Food, General No Comments »

I don’t have a microwave oven. Don’t understand why it’s needed. It’s one of those things that help us develop bad habits, and then we find we can’t do without them – to the extent that other things have to be developed to help us perpetuate those bad habits.

Thus came news from the Consumer Council advising caution in the use of plastic containers in microwave ovens, because not all such containers can withstand high temperatures and may leach plasticizers when the food they contain gets too hot.

Because we like the convenience of ready meals or can’t be bothered to, say, set up the steam rack to re-heat some food, we’d just stick food stored in a plastic container in the microwave to heat it up. And because of this, plastics manufacturers developed heat-resistant plastic containers so that we don’t even have to go to the trouble of taking the food out of the containers and putting it in something without chemicals in it. The wonders of technology.

Not so long ago a friend and I met up for lunch and found ourselves with some leftover at the end of the meal. Not wishing to waste takeaway packaging, I offered to lend her the plastic container I carried around for buying things like bread, to take the leftover home. It was something that could be easily re-heated with a little bit of stir fry or steaming, but no: her sister plonked my pre-microwave-age plastic container into the microwave. Guess what happened?

How often has technology been used to cultivate bad habits that give rise to new problems that are then solved by technology again – or not? Styrofoam was invented to keep food warm without scorching our hands; what’s wrong with using a good old thermal flask that could be used again and again? We eat freeze-dried instant noodles full of chemicals and additives in easily stored but wasteful packaging, even though an ordinary cake of noodles can be cooked in just as little time.

And while the hoi polloi stick their meals into microwaves and eat their instant noodles, those who run the factories that make the microwaves, plastic containers and instant noodles are raking it in and eating at Michelin-starred restaurants.

Chopping trees for the Climate Group

January 14th, 2013 atam Posted in Climate change, Earth, Food, Greenwash No Comments »

When people talk about going green, what have they got in mind? If you ask someone on the street, chance is the answer will have something to do with using fewer plastic bags and doing some recycling.

Few will mention reducing wasteful use of resources, and certainly absolutely no one will talk about something as arcane as life cycle cost.

But a leader of the Climate Group??

Failing to persuade Hong Kongers to opt for plastic Xmas trees that they can reuse year after year, if they insist on having a Xmas tree, the Hong Kong Environmental Protection Association has done the next-best thing by collecting the now-abandoned real trees for recycling into fertiliser.

This in a place where food waste alone is enough to produce fertiliser for all the greenery in the city, with plenty to spare. And yet, here’s where the association’s collected a 9-metre tree from HSBC – you know, the bank that sends its staff to far-out places to tag trees and track deforestation for their environmental education. You’d expect them to know something about the life cycle cost of the giant Xmas tree-now-turned-fertiliser – the amount of water used in growing it and the energy cost involved in growing it, chopping it down and shipping it to Hong Kong, and finally the cost of removing it for recycling into fertiliser. Water that would have been better used to grow crops for human consumption; energy that could be saved, along with the carbon emissions associated with it. Instead, the bank’s probably patting itself on the back for arranging the tree’s recycling.

Someone from the association expressed the hope that Hong Kongers’ would learn more about the importance of recycling wood and timber. In a place where retail renovations of the same shops happen every year or two as landlords hike rent and drive out tenants, and where homeowners hankering after the magazine look think little of razing their homes every few years to bring in new flooring, new sofas, new shelving, etc etc. Good luck.

Ever ask why there’s so much recycling to do in the first place?

Can we eat real estate?

January 12th, 2013 atam Posted in Building, Climate change, Earth, Food, General No Comments »

Here’s a suggestion for Henderson Land chief Lee Shau-kee: how ’bout him moving into a 300 sq ft flat and let several families now stuck in subdivided flats move into his palatial mansion?

Taking advantage of the government’s predicament with regards to Hong Kong’s housing supply, he’s suggested that he should be allowed to convert his agricultural land holdings into land for residential use without paying extra land premium. The bait: he’d build 300 sq ft flats on them to be sold for HK$1 million each.

Considering how little he must have paid to acquire those plots over the years, he’s effectively proposing that taxpayers subsidise his property development plans by forgoing the additional premium, which as public revenue could then be spent on the provision of facilities to serve society as a whole. What’s more, he’s got the clever accountants on-side. For an example of how professional training can lead to tunnel vision, look no further, for the accountants just figure: ah, land shortage for housing, Mr Lee’s got a great idea! Next thing you know, they’ll be nodding enthusiastically at proposals to build bedsits. What a great idea for wealth redistribution – from the poor to the rich.

Is it actually possible for millions to live in dressed-up subdivided flats or even caged homes and remain sane? Suppose we manage to fit in a population of 9 million on every square inch of available space, will the city’s infrastructure and welfare provisions be able to cope?

Meanwhile, the government’s housing adviser Michael Choi is suggesting that families be provided with a subsidy so they can afford to have both children and their own homes. Er, fancy having kids screaming and jumping about in a 300 sq ft flat?

In a world stricken by climate change, where food shortages become increasingly frequent, the millions squeezed into tiny homes will struggle to afford the most basic foodstuffs – as many already do. Melting Arctic ice is triggering a severe winter that has caused vegetable prices to shoot up and even the middle class is finding it hard to cope. As climate change gets worse and food becomes even more expensive, will we then find ourselves looking pensively at the former agricultural plots, wondering what might have been had they been made productive again, producing vegetables to meet the needs of a smaller population.

If the government invests its surplus in seeing the population over the demographic hump rather than seek to increase the population in order to have enough people of working (slaving) age to pay for the services needed by the aged, then we could all live in a much more pleasant, spacious environment. Always looking to increase the population is like what they’re saying about the Americans’ temporary solution to the fiscal cliff: kicking the can down the road without solving the problem. At some stage the population will simply get too large for the ecosystem to cope, and then who’ll solve the problem?

Diabetes’ Alzheimer’s link

October 13th, 2012 atam Posted in Food, General No Comments »

The alarming thing is, there are many more fatalities linked to the promotion of a consumerist society than the one associated with a “beauty treatment”, and no regulation is in sight.

The government knows that obesity is bad news and uses silly public announcements to urge us to eat more healthily, but nothing is actually done to regulate the food industry – which, it must be said, has a powerful lobby.

Through experiments, scientists are now showing that a poor diet full of calorific foods can not only trigger diabetes in the young, but lead to Alzheimer’s in the old. The link is so strong they’re now calling Alzheimer’s “Type 3 diabetes”. By upsetting our body’s response to insulin, sugary foods, it turns out, also impact on the way our brain functions and pave the way for its decline.

While governments are keen to ban smoking due to the cost of treating smoking-related diseases, many have remained blind to the danger of junk food. Progress is being made in places like the US, where junk food retailers are forbidden to target advertising at children. In Hong Kong, though, ads that associate junk food with positive things like family bonds are regularly aired.

As young Hong Kongers swarm to the many dessert buffets around town when they get off work that already forces a largely sedentary lifestyle on them, it’s doubtful anyone is thinking about what their sweet teeth could mean for them some years hence. Yet this is a global epidemic with much greater medicare implications than tobacco: the prognosis for lung cancer sufferers is typically poor, while those with diabetes or dementia could lead impaired lives for a considerable period during which they will require regular medication, check-ups and care.

Those who are into conspiracy theories may speculate that governments are encouraged to do nothing about the diabetes epidemic by a pharmaceutical lobby that stands to reap huge profits from it. So what if our health is poor, who cares as long as the money flows?

The environment portfolio and sustainable development

September 14th, 2012 atam Posted in Climate change, Earth, Food No Comments »

Bad news for all those who want to preserve their rural way of life: redeveloping agricultural land in the northern New Territories into new towns is compatible with “sustainable development”.

That’s because “sustainable development” is a convenient oxymoron used by those who don’t really understand what sustainability means to justify projects and policies that destroy the ecosystem rather than maintain it for future generations. Now more than ever, Hong Kong needs to revitalise its agricultural sector to lessen the impact of an impending food and energy crisis whose impact on a place like Hong Kong will be high prices rather than shortage. While there’s a segment of society who can afford to continue buying air-freighted food, many are already struggling to put a nutritious meal on the table everyday.

As a previous post has already shown, there isn’t so much a housing shortage as expensive properties that ordinary people can’t afford. The government may not be able to do anything with the low interest rates that have driven people to property speculation, but it’s certainly within its powers to reform its land policy and wean itself of its dependence on land revenue, a policy which has prompted it to force the redevelopment of buildings occupied by the impoverished, in order to sell them to developers at a premium. When the poor are pushed out this way, it’s no wonder rural land has to be resumed. Quite how the problem of poverty can be addressed by shunting those on the periphery of society to the physical periphery of the city is a mystery.

Also, much less land will be needed if the small house policy is abolished. It’s a policy that has benefited profiteering indigenous villagers and no one else; imagine the number of people that can be accommodated in public housing blocks on a piece of land that is being claimed for the construction – by sons only – of three-storey high villas served by dodgy roads and drainage services.

Although ex-Civil Exchange head Christine Loh once called for a reform of the small house policy, she’s long since switched her focus to climate change and clean air issues. And even though, as undersecretary of the environment, she now has the opportunity to be involved in policymaking, it remains to be seen what good that will do to Hong Kong.

For starters, her remit is to tackle air pollution; “sustainable development” is someone else’s job. She may be able to launch a trial of Nissan Leaf taxis if Toyota, which currently supplies all the LPG taxis on the road, doesn’t put up a fight against its rival’s electric vehicles; but she can’t stop the northern breeze from blowing the foul air from the Pearl River Delta or as far north as Beijing into Hong Kong lungs. It is also doubtful whether she could actually reverse the government’s years of devotion to road-building as a way of solving the congestion problem and finally bring in a congestion charge instead. Her colleagues in the Transport & Housing and Development Bureaus would have much to say about that.

Basically, we can’t have a decent environment if the government’s population policy is to have more and more people. Nor can we address poverty while shrinking the amount of agricultural land that would produce local food and sequester some of the carbon we generate. And even if all the taxis go electric, the air would still be bad so long as the black smoke-belching lorries zoom up and down our roads, there is no congestion charge and a freight rail is entirely off the table.

It’s all interconnected you see? The government, though, thinks it can put all these issues in separate boxes and, voila, they’ll all be solved.

What’s toxic?

August 7th, 2012 atam Posted in Earth, Food No Comments »

The plastic pellets that have washed up all over Hong Kong have shown up the government’s structure.

One day it’s the Environment Secretary visiting a beach; the next it’s the Food & Health Secretary visiting fishermen. The former said the pellets weren’t toxic and therefore not something to worry about; the fishermen complained to the latter that their fish had lost appetite and might have eaten some of the pellets.

The government line, that the pellets are non-toxic, is hardly reassuring. Are they not aware of the harm caused to marine life by plastic waste? Fish are so stuffed with it that their stomach has no more room to take in proper nutrients, and they die. If we catch and eat them before they die from lack of nutrients, the plastic ingested travels up the food chain to us, and who really knows what the chemicals leached from these plastics do to us.

There’s an interesting book out there called Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History, that explores all aspects of this body part. The author, American writer Florence Williams, apparently submitted her own breast milk to a German laboratory for testing – and discovered that it contained 10-100 times the level of flame retardant in the breast milk of European women. Would American mothers feel assured to be told that the breast milk given to their babies is safe? Flame retardants were considered safe once upon a time, but scientists aren’t so sure now.


Vicente’s lessons

July 27th, 2012 atam Posted in Building, Climate change, Food, General 1 Comment »

On a hillside nearby there’s a glorious banyan which, I’m sure, has single-handedly cleaned the air for hundreds of residents in its vicinity.

Over the years many of its air roots have reached the ground and turned into small trunks as it extends its reach. As its root system reaches far and wide, holding more and more soil in place, the new trunks support an ever-bigger canopy that provides much shade and is also strong enough to cope with ferocious storms like Vicente.

So what did Typhoon Vicente, which led to the raising of the No 10 signal for the first time in 13 years, teach us about Hong Kong? Well, here are a few things:

  • The city’s public transport system, as good as it is, can’t cope with millions of people living in faraway new towns and having to reach workplaces in a handful of places, like Central, Tsim Sha Tsui and Causeway Bay. This is not a sustainable urban form.
  • Concrete/shotcrete all round trees and they won’t grow a proper root system to support them against something like Vicente. The government wants to control how we move by putting up railings everywhere; it wants to control how trees grow too, by restricting them to tiny tree holes/pots. The trees are saying: sorry, we can’t live like that. The human beings are pretty fed up too.
  • Notice any exotic conifers that had keeled over thanks to the typhoon? A sub-tropical city is no place for English gardens.
  • Concrete exacerbates flooding. In urban areas maybe it can’t be helped, but in rural areas when farmland is concreted and converted into townhouses or whatever, whole villages disappear under water when there’s heavy rain. Then, while the developers pocket the money from selling those properties, taxpayers pick up the tab for installing flood control systems.

And solutions that the government won’t contemplate?

  • Introduce rules to allow workers in this cyber-age to work from home wherever possible, especially in inclement weather, to lessen the burden on the public transport system.
  • Create an urban form that offers homes and employment opportunities within the same districts.
  • Give the trees room to grow properly; otherwise people could die too when they collapse. (And as the national education controversy shows, people too want to develop properly.)
  • Protect farmland. Apparently only 3% of vegetables consumed in Hong Kong are supplied locally; as far as resilience goes, that’s, well, no resilience at all. More farms mean more vegetables as well as more permeable land that will absorb rainwater.

Finally, are you impressed by the speed of the cleanup? I am. One day after the storm and with the skies still dark with rain, most of the debris had already been swept up and placed in garbage bags neatly tied up and left on the pavement to await collection. Shouldn’t the government be nicer to all these, predominantly Nepalese, cleaners, in terms of pay, educational support and overall welfare?

Can we eat real estate?

July 24th, 2012 atam Posted in Building, Climate change, Food No Comments »

Hong Kong’s rapacious developers are at it again. As if the city hasn’t lost enough agricultural land, Henderson has applied to the Town Planning Board to change the land use of a plot in Yuen Long from government, community and institutional uses to residential, so that it can build 18 luxury townhouses there.

Part of the land in question is public land, but some of it is currently occupied by a farm. Green Sense, which has started a campaign to object to the change-of-use application, suggests that only abandoned farmland and brownfield sites should be used for the development of mass housing.

They have a point, but in the long run we need to go even further than this. Currently some of the housing shortage is artificial because buyers are treating them as investments rather than homes, which means many of them are in fact vacant. If measures are implemented to release these units back into the market and developers are made to build genuinely livable flats rather than glorified subdivided units, chance is there is no need to destroy any more farmland, which the city will need to feed not just those who love organic produce, but everyone.

If we look at the havoc wrought by climate change so far this year – the floodings in the UK and China, the drought in North America, etc – it should be obvious that today’s reliance on imported food could cause major disruption to our lives further down the road. Echoing the trend all over the world, more and more people in Hong Kong have taken up farming/gardening as a way to learn more about nature or just to live healthier lives. An active government policy that supports agricultural development will not only improve the city’s resilience against climate change stress, it could also contribute to a virtuous cycle under which compost derived from our food waste is locally recycled on organic farms/allotments.

Right now, developers don’t even need to destroy farmland; they just buy them up and let them go to waste while they wait for the perceived housing shortage to reach a level that makes it ludicrously profitable for them to throw away precious topsoil and pour some concrete in its place. Do you know that, worldwide, we have lost so much arable land that pretty soon we won’t have enough for growing the food to feed a human population projected to reach 9-10 billion by 2050?

Note that in Hong Kong not a few people, including the new CE, firmly believe that we need to grow the population – for the sake of growing the economy. Not that this approach has done anything to improve our quality of life, if the Chinese University’s survey is anything to by. Its latest Quality of Life Index shows that we are doing even worse than the SARS period of 2003.

The Chinese government has been seizing land bought by developers but left undeveloped. Hong Kong should do the same and, instead of wasting this precious resource, put all the farmland back in production once more.