The final countdown

28 07 2010


There’s nothing like a deadline to galvanize the mind. The final hurdle before attempting my channel crossing was the prospect of a marathon six hour qualifying swim. This presented two major challenges. Firstly, I’ve never spent more than two and a half hours in the sea. And even that was thanks to the steely determination of the Dover crew, who do not take ‘I’m so cold I can’t feel my limbs’ as a reasonable excuse to get out early.

Secondly, the swim must be completed in open water that’s less than 16C. Which meant I had little time to spare before the water would be too ‘warm’ to count. You might wonder if there’s an element of sadism to all these rules. After all, no one expects Everest aspirants to climb with the primitive equipment that Hillary used in 1953.

But the real reason you need to complete your qualifier in less than 16C is that if you don’t, you won’t have a hope lasting twice that time in water that’s only a degree or two warmer when you make your attempt.

Goosy gander

And this is where the fat comes in. Not the goose fat that’s lodged in the public consciousness. It’s what people ask about more than anything else. And they seem genuinely disappointed to find that boiling some unfortunate gander to a paste and smearing it all over your body is in fact an urban myth. Modern channel swimmers just use a bit of Vaseline, and that’s to stop the chafing. Greasing up does little to protect you from the cold, it’s the fat you have under your skin that helps.

In the world of channel swimming, portliness is next to godliness.

So as the deadline for my qualifier loomed, my diet became as important as doing lengths in the pool. To survive the insidious cold of the channel, you cannot be too vain to gain. At first I reveled in indulging in the kind of food I normally eat sparingly. But having your cake and eating it is not all it’s cracked up to be. Having a lot of what you fancy quickly wears thin. With pasta and pizza on the menu most nights, I find myself dreaming of salad.

But if you want an excuse to eat for two, without having a baby, then channel swimming could be your thing. Though there is a labor of sorts at the end.

‘Try again. Fail again. Fail better’

Despite all this carb loading, I failed my first attempt. So with my last chance in sight, I arrived at Dover Harbour to find the choppiest conditions of the season and the odds stacked against me.

I stepped into the water at 9am in torrential rain. Like a giant washing machine, the sea flipped me onto my back several times as I struggled to breathe. But somewhere in my mind I convinced myself this water torture was a game. And that lasted me until the first feed at two hours, and then three, and then four. At five hours you couldn’t have dragged me from the sea. I finally emerged just after 3pm, last out of the water, when normally I am first.

It seems I failed better than I ever expected.

Crunch times can bring out the best in us. But not every deadline should be ridden to the wire. Just as the oil spill in the Gulf is stemmed, it seems the cap is spinning off planned emission cuts. There may be just 77 months to save the world from an irreversible tipping point for CO2 levels and environmental disaster, but that’s more than the term of office of our political leaders.

Which gives you some indication of where it currently sits on the global agenda. And where it should sit on yours.


Green your eats

31 03 2010


The journey to make my channel swim carbon neutral has an obvious starting point. And it’s not in the pool, but the kitchen. The fuel that powers the engine, otherwise known as the fragile human body, can have one of the biggest impacts on our carbon footprint.

We are preoccupied with food. From bite size to supersize, what we put in our mouths is an enduring obsession. And I am no exception. As someone who has never officially been on a diet, I still know the calorific value of everything. In my defense, this is partly because I am used to scanning ingredients for bits of animals masquerading as candy. And partly because I have a superhuman capacity for remembering useless information. On a recent first aid course, I was able to correctly guess the sugar content of a famous brand of tomato ketchup. I had no idea I knew this.

And everyone stared at me like I was some kind of Kim Peek for condiments.

Luckily I recall some of the useful stuff too. So, the fact that ketchup contains 23.7g of sugar per 100g, also makes it as good as a bar of chocolate if you’re having a hypo. And it doesn’t contain bits of animals masquerading as anything.

If you haven’t guessed already, I am vegetarian. Not a vegetarian. I don’t belong to a new race or social order. I don’t follow a religion or suffer from an eating disorder. I just don’t eat meat or fish, or the parts they try to hide in candy bars. So you might think that when I focus the carbon microscope on my diet, that I’m already doing enough. I should feel good about myself, right?

Maybe a little too self-satisfied, according to a new study which claimed that being green could make you mean. Ethical consumers are less likely to be kind and more likely to cheat and steal. It seems that there’s a moral trade off when you fill your locally sourced, ethically reared, seasonally produced shopping trolley. A sort of get out of jail free card for do-gooding.

This is not news to me. It is endemic across the green spectrum, from recyclers to raw food vegans. The trouble with vegetarians is that they give other vegetarians a bad name. There’s a tendency to be smug, superior, sanctimonious.

Meat is murder… to chew

So it’s really not enough that I’m already vegetarian. The truth is I find it easy: it’s a joy, not a life sentence. I love vegetables, we’ve come a long way together. I no longer require them to be diced within an inch of their lives before letting them near my plate.

I don’t miss meat at all because it’s so long since I ate it, that I really don’t know what I’m missing. It’s questionable whether I ever did. Thinking of the indigestible off-cuts we were served at school, all I remember is that meat is murder… to chew.

If I’d ever experienced a beautifully cooked steak in adulthood, I might find giving it up harder to swallow.

So I will try a dairy-free day alongside the increasing numbers of people who are going meat-free for 24 hours a week, including the town of Ghent and right on my doorstep, Exeter College, Oxford. Why not give it a go? You might find that veggie cooking is full of variety and flavor: think delicious, not denial.

Carbon pawprints

But it’s not just my diet that’s been under scrutiny. I have a confession to make. I’ve been secretly harboring a meat eater and encouraging his habit much in the same way that some people act as feeders for the morbidly obese. My dog has flirted with vegetarianism over the years but has of late been a resolute meat eater. And when I say meat, I mean the kind of animal parts that masquerade as dry dog biscuits.

This of course makes me a hypocrite. But hypocrisy is so hardwired in the human condition it’s a wonder we have a word for it at all. Or that we don’t have dozens, as the Inuits do for snow.

Luckily my dog, as most dogs that are not kept as accessories by the likes of Paris Hilton, eats almost anything. For the record, my dog is from a shelter. He is not a fashion accessory. But he is black, which means he just happens to go with everything.

Apparently dogs can have a carbon footprint equivalent to a 4×4, and it’s no surprise that one of the biggest culprits is diet. Or presumably their wardrobe in Tinkerbell’s case. Of course dogs aren’t a patch on cars for getting around, unless you have several of them, a sled and some snow. But they beat anything else for garbage disposal.

In fact I am in awe at the palate of an animal that takes equal delight in eating your best culinary efforts and eating shit.

So my dog is now vegetarian, or more accurately a freegan, given that he also benefits from my housemates’ leftovers. Which makes him officially greener than me. By rights, he should be on a fast track to a life of crime. But really he’s none the wiser.

Flog it

And somehow I’ve managed to come to the end of this flog (food blog) without once having mentioned the obvious health benefits of a meat-free lifestyle, or how it could help to save the planet. But you know that already.

I just couldn’t help the smugness creeping in.

Channel challenge: treading water

22 02 2010
Training in the channel, October 2009

Last week was a milestone: it is six months until my channel swim. If all goes well, I will be standing on Shakespeare beach near Dover in the early hours of 18 August with just 21 miles of sea between me and France’s nearest fingertip, Cap Gris-Nez. Of course the English weather, unlike the tides, is far from being an exact science. In reality I could be on call anytime that week: waiting for the phone to ring with my very own self-imposed emergency.

But in many ways I feel lucky to be faced with an insurmountable challenge. The New Year arrived with a bang, or rather twelve of them, when hazy with flu I took a shortcut down my stairs. It was a month before I could limp more than a few hundred meters and six weeks before I got back in the pool. In this case, I could walk before I could crawl.

Tongue in cheek

As an unwelcome souvenir I have a large hematoma, much like an extra butt cheek, jutting from my thigh. It appears my bones, if not my blood vessels are unbreakable. After the medical equivalent of ‘phone a friend’ my doctor found a scissor-happy surgeon willing to excise it – for cosmetic reasons. But given that it will eventually go away naturally, and an operation would further set back my training, it’s a no brainer.

On the plus side, maybe it will distract me from fixating on the rest of my butt.

After six weeks off, I should be very nervous about the challenge ahead. But to take on something this big, you need to have a sort of perverse attraction to hardship and adversity. And to a degree, I can fall back on my previous fitness. Having started training last autumn, I was already strong before my injury.

Muscles it seems have memory. Which is more than can be said of my brain cells after one too many glasses of merlot.

Speaking of which, now that I’m back in training I’m off the booze, apart from special occasions. I have yet to define exactly what that constitutes, but I’m guessing that it might legitimately include birthdays but probably not weekends.

A sobriety sorority

To keep me company, a handful of my female colleagues at Earthwatch have volunteered to sign up for a buddy month of sobriety. And after hundreds of hours worth of training, I’ll also need to spend the month before my swim in a carb loading, pasta eating frenzy to ensure I have enough insulation to keep the icy seas at bay.

I have no shortage of male volunteers to join me in that.

 Training over the months ahead will not only be about building stamina. With successful crossings taking an average of 14 hours, I will also need to raise the bar on my boredom threshold. In the time it will take me to swim the channel, you could fly from New York to Mumbai, take a train from Paris to Vienna, or drive from Denver to Las Vegas.

Under the carbon microscope

To ensure the challenge is as sustainable as possible, I’ll be viewing my lifestyle under a carbon microscope, from choosing the most ethically sourced swimwear to following the lowest footprint diet. Do feel free to offer me your tips on training and treehugging, and in return I’m happy to answer any queries you might have, such as why I go swimming in a blouse.

I’ll also be looking for a more reliable training partner/coach than my camera-shy canine. Despite his enthusiasm for swimming, he is very short on advice and swift to abandon me for anyone with a ball.

Milestone or millstone?

And for your entertainment and my reassurance, I’ll seek expert guidance from survival gurus, marine scientists and fellow adventurers in a bid to find answers to the critical issues of the day, such as: “How can I take a cold shower without screaming?”, “Can you die from jellyfish stings?” and “Do I really have to do a Paula Radcliffe when nature calls?”

Milestone or millstone, the time for backing out has passed. I have booked my crew and support boat: the Viking Princess. I only hope I can live up to her name.

Gimme shelter: the rising tide of homelessness and climate change

31 01 2010

credit: Earthwatch

Homelessness is often seen as someone else’s problem. Over Christmas I decided to make it mine, by trading my traditional family gathering to volunteer for homeless charity Crisis. The non profit relies on a small army of volunteers to provide food, shelter, support and entertainment for hundreds of London’s homeless during the festive break.

People become homeless for varied and complex reasons. And unless you can guarantee that you’ll never face any serious issues with family, relationships, employment, health, abuse, alcohol or drugs, then you may be vulnerable to homelessness at some stage in your life.

We are all said to be just two strikes from the streets.   

Now, our basic right to shelter is under threat from a new phenomenon: climate change. According to the International Organization for Migration 20 million people were made homeless last year as a result of sudden-onset environmental disasters. But that could rise to one billion in the next 40 years as the effects of climate change take hold, testing not only public attitudes but our capacity to provide support and accommodation.

The Pacific island nations, so vocal at Copenhagen, are already experiencing the effects of climate change. Tuluva recorded a 7cm rise in sea levels in the 13 years leading up to 2005. If this doesn’t sound significant, bear in mind that the highest point of the low lying coral atolls – home to 10,000 people – is just 3.7m above high tide. “We live in constant fear of the adverse impacts of climate change,” Prime Minister Saufatu Sopoanga attests. “The threat is real and serious, and is of no difference to a slow and insidious form of terrorism against us.”

In the UK, the threat of climate change and homelessness isn’t seen so much as a crisis, but as a development opportunity.

Hull, in East Yorkshire, which has the misfortune to occupy a long term tenancy on ‘worst places to live in the UK’ polls, could be transformed into the Venice of the North, according to a recent report by The Institution of Civil Engineers and the Royal Institute of British Architects.

Gondolas traversing the Humber may seem terribly cosmopolitan, but it will take more than a civic makeover to help the 10 million people living in flood risk zones who face displacement. Fortunately, Britain has decades rather than days to prepare for the waters to rise, which is just as well, because even developed nations are hopelessly unprepared when it comes to environmental crises.

Over the past ten years, floods have been responsible for more death and destruction in the US than any other natural disaster. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, more than 1,000 people lost their lives and 500,000 residents were forced to flee or take temporary shelter. A year on, less than half had returned.

If we are ill equipped to deal with natural born disasters, some of which, like Katrina, are thought to be exacerbated by climate change, how will we prepare for catastrophes of the man-made kind?

Homes destroyed by freak natural events can be rebuilt. But land blighted by drought, or lost to a rising sea, can no longer support communities. The legacy of unsustainable western lifestyles is not only going to haunt us in the future, it is already having a devastating impact on the developing world.

Building our cities on stilts does not address the underlying causes of climate change, or the inequalities its consequences impose. And while a replica Ponte dei Sospiri (Bridge of Sighs) may add some Venetian glamour to Hull, it’s worth remembering, as Byron observed, that the bridge held ‘a palace and prison on each hand’.

In terms of climate change, the more we spend, the more others suffer.

Rolling up our architectural pants will not stem the rising tides. We need a global commitment to setting binding targets to reduce carbon emissions. But the opportunity to bring a meaningful deal to the table in Copenhagen has passed, and with it another chance to prevent millions of people from losing not only the roof over their heads, but a sense of identity, security and community.


COP15: Clueless about carbon?

18 12 2009

credit: Earthwatch Institute

We all know the size of the footprints we leave behind. For the record, mine’s a size 8 (42), which is bigger than many I guess, but I’m tall and I need the ballast or I’d fall flat on my face. My carbon footprint is another matter.

In the U.K., the average person emits 10.92 tons of CO2 — you can almost double that for the U.S. But of course there’s no such thing as the average person. Grassroots campaigns such as 10:10 are doing a great job to build awareness, but the difficulty is working out where to start. It’s easy to track your progress on a diet because you know your weight, but how do you reduce your carbon footprint by 10 percent, if you don’t know what it is in the first place?

Measuring your carbon footprint should be simple. There are dozens of calculators out there to help you with the math, but almost all of them have a major flaw: they are selective with the truth. The U.K. government’s widely advertised Act on CO2 Web site for example, places the carbon blame squarely with home and transport. But it fails to factor in two of the top three causes of an individual’s carbon emissions: recreation and diet (at number one and three, according to Carbon Trust).

Light bulbs, however, feature prominently. So it’s no surprise that a survey by the HSBC Climate Partnership last year, found that consumers rated using energy efficient light bulbs as the biggest contribution they could make to reduce their emissions. But lighting your home accounts for just 1 percent of your carbon footprint. What of the remaining 99 percent?

We are being kept in the dark about changes that will make a real difference. And you can recycle until you are green in the face, but it remains a relatively modest contribution to cutting your carbon count. How you spend your leisure time, heating your home and the food that you eat, are the heavy hitters on the carbon scale. Surprisingly, driving and flying figure way down the top ten, at seven and eight respectively.

Climate change is all about the numbers. Baselines (1990), emission targets (4 percent, 10 percent, 17 percent, 30 percent), CO2 parts per million (350; 387), deadlines (2020, 2050), even climate change conferences. How many people know what COP15 stands for? The clock is ticking and we have just 100 months to save the world, or 8.333333333 years, which doesn’t sound nearly as sexy.

It’s hard not to be dazzled by the data and the trouble with all these numbers is that they are not words. Unless you are fluent in binary, figures are difficult to digest. We need to simplify the message or no one will take any action at all. Not because people choose to defy impending climate doom, but because the science is impenetrable.

The biggest communications challenge with climate change is that it doesn’t make easy reading: It’s more Tolstoy than Twilight.

As science writer Ben Goldacre said last week, “we could discuss everything you needed to know about MMR and autism in an hour. Climate change will take two days of your life.” And the MMR/autism comparison is significant here. Much like the climate science email leaks, which were vindicated by a recent Associated Press investigation, MMR faced a massive scare based on one study which was later discredited. But that didn’t stop hundreds of thousands of parents refusing to vaccinate their children.

It seems we are willing to fly in the face of the weight of scientific evidence when it involves changing behaviour, but when it comes to protecting our own, a lone voice in the research community is enough to make us sit up and listen.

And this is the problem with attitudes towards climate change in the western world. We just don’t see the risk of it around us — yet. This perceived lack of threat translates into little concern or action. Climate change may be causing havoc in the third world, but if it isn’t happening in your back yard, then what’s the worry?

On the eve of a climate change deal or no deal in Copenhagen, the question is not only about governments agreeing the right emissions targets, but how they will effect behaviour change in millions of people. Taxation and rationing have been suggested, but they are unpopular, and with a fickle electorate, politically risky.

Last year, the government launched the world’s first carbon footprint standard for all products in the U.K., tracking the carbon journey of everything from strawberries to steak. But the scheme is currently voluntary, so no one has to do it. And like the early days of nutritional labeling, it may only be the carbon leaner products that boast of their environmental credentials.

Given that imposing change wins no votes and carbon labeling is marginal, perhaps in the future consumers will face a social conscience choice. The kind of graphic images we now see on cigarette packets may be levied on our food, flights and fuel: a visual warning of the consequences of our actions, not on ourselves, but on the planet.

Instead of blackened human lungs, we could see a snapshot of ailing rainforests stamped on every globe traveling, carbon guzzling goods and services we use. A constant reminder that as we recklessly consume, the planet struggles to breathe.

Far fetched? Possibly. The question is, what would it take to change your ways?

All at sea

22 11 2009

In the days before Big Brother, children used to dream of being famous for doing something. I wanted to be an archaeologist when I grew up. On horseback. That is, until I discovered those particular combination of skills didn’t constitute a recognized job description – not since the 19th century anyway. Luckily I had another big idea up my sleeve, and it wasn’t so much a career choice as a statement of intent. I was going to swim the English Channel. What I hadn’t figured, was that it was highly unlikely my parents would sanction a five-year-old to swim the 21-mile crossing to France. But there was one unassailable fact my youthful ambition glossed over: I couldn’t swim.

Three decades on, and finding myself single for the first time in years, I decided it was high time I should call my own bluff. I am going to plug the man-shaped hole in my life with 300 trillion gallons of sea water. Come to think of it, a few pints would have been enough. But it’s not just a relationship hiatus that’s motivated me to take on the Everest of distance swimming. As Head of Marketing and Communications for Earthwatch, an international environmental charity, I am all too aware of the increasing threat of climate change and pollution to the world’s oceans. The Channel alone is home to a billion pieces of floating plastic. And while this time next year I may secretly curse the fact the water isn’t a couple of degrees warmer, rising sea temperatures would have a devastating impact on the huge diversity of life in our seas.

Channel swimming isn’t compared to Everest for nothing: fewer people have successfully swum from Dover to France than have climbed the Tibetan giant. Amongst this elite club of just 1000 members, swimming the Channel is often described as being 10% physical and 90% mental. And I really wish this were true, because then I could just book one session with Dr Phil, rather than doing endless lengths in the pool for a whole year. Of course what it’s actually getting at is the cold, because it doesn’t matter how fit you are if you can’t convince your body it’s not on a crash course with hypothermia. You see, the trouble with Channel swimming is that you’re not allowed the luxury of a wetsuit – just a regular swimming costume is permitted between you and the icy waves. This is why you face a bigger battle with your body temperature than the sea. And I don’t mean to underestimate the achievement of anyone who has scaled the highest mountain in the world, but you don’t have to climb Everest in your underwear.

Since announcing my challenge, the question I get asked the most, apart from ‘Are you crazy?’ is whether I’m a good swimmer. Well, I have run half marathons, skied valleys, climbed mountains (ok, not Everest admittedly) and ridden wild horses. But I have no claim to fame with swimming. No haul of medals, no badges, not even a certificate for doing the most lengths. Or any lengths.

In swimming I am all at sea, in unchartered waters, not waving but drowning.

What I do have is better odds than my younger self. I can actually swim. Besides, where would be the sense of achievement if I was already some mermaidesque aquatic champion? Surely that’s the point of a challenge: it’s not your nine to five. After all, you wouldn’t sponsor a model to do a 24-hour fast. 

Over the next year I aim to raise thousands of pounds to support vital Earthwatch projects, including our youth programme. What better than to inspire the next generation not to treat the planet like an inexhaustible drive-thru? And rather than just a tedious account of how many lengths I’ve done, I’ll meet some interesting people along the way and ponder about the environment and life in general. A kind of George Monbiot meets Bridget Jones. And when I step into the Dover surf next summer, smothered in vaseline, I hope more than anything that I make it to the other side.

Of the Channel that is, not the afterlife.

I wonder when someone told me ‘there’s plenty more fish in the sea’ if I got the wrong end of the stick?