Ejo #129 – (It’s Easy) Bein’ Green

My friends Andrew and Chris were recently talking about all the work they’d done to their homes in an effort to make less of an impact on the environment. I’d been aware that they were pretty clued up about this kind of stuff but I was blown away to learn exactly how much they knew. I asked them if they would be interested in sharing the wealth of knowledge and experience they’ve amassed over the years with all of you, and they both said yes. You’re welcome, readers!!!

Chryss: So let’s get started with what people can do to reduce their energy consumption in the home.

Chris:  I think home efficiency first, including draught-proofing, double glazing, etc. Then maybe electrification; convert to an all-electric home including solar, heat pumps, aircon, heating and hot water.  Efficiency can be very cheaply done and have massive wins.  Whereas changing the house to all-electric is more of an investment.

Andrew: For house efficiency, draught-proofing is #1.  It’s very cheap, and will payback in a year.  Glazing; there are millions of types.  Maximum reduction is replacing the entire window (with either double or triple glaze) but it’s also highest in cost.  Best value for money in glazing is window insulation film.  The average house uses 40% energy for heating, 30% for lighting and 30% on the rest.  A well designed house basically chops the heating by 80%, the lighting by 70% and leaves the rest.

Think about reducing your consumption of energy.  Use the house like in the old days, open the windows at night and in the morning for fresh and cool air, and shut them during the day.  This costs zero dollars, but equals big comfort.  If you want to spend maximum dollars for maximum return, get a high coefficient of performance aircon.  High COP means that for each unit of electricity consumed from the grid, you generate five or six units from your aircon/heat pump/fridge etc.  Solar panels are a no-brainer in Australia.  You can payback in four years for most people in Melbourne now.  Which is a pretty nuts return on investment.  Plus you become more sustainable.  It wakes people up to what the hell they are consuming when they look at an app and see all the things chewing the electricity. 

So, the order in “bang for buck” is draught-proofing, then lighting, then curtains/blinds, then windows.  All of these are ‘passive’ improvements so they don’t use energy to be beneficial.  Also they can’t really break or become obsolete.  Then you can move towards energy efficient equipment. There’s no need to buy new, but just replace old appliances with the latest; things like fridge, induction stove, etc. (exceptions to this are getting rid of plasma TVs, or replacing an old dryer with a heat pump dryer – these are immediately beneficial).  Even the new kettles that can boil just one cup.  This is the important bit.   

Then you go active. With aircon, proper LED lights, a heat pump if you have cash for hot water, otherwise use solar hot water.  Then you reduce external inputs to the house.  Get solar panels.  As Chris said, if you can get off gas that’s great (I haven’t succeeded so far). 

Chris: Another thing is shading.  You can use natural elements to shade walls.  For example, a new house around the corner from me has a north-facing, double-storey, single width, BLACK brick wall, with NO insulation.  Talk about crazy.  Now, if they mounted a huge trellis over that wall, and grew a passionfruit plant, or grapevines, we’d have three things in great play.  Shading for a huge heat sink to prevent the wall from getting the sun, we’ve put in plants to help absorb CO2, and, the kicker, we’re growing delicious, home-grown food.  People often think of high tech when, really, we can use nature to our advantage in so many ways.  For example, in Coober Pedy they build houses underground. 

It “feels” more natural to work in harmony with nature than to fight against it with, for example, pesticides, herbicides, mono-cropping, etc.  But for betterment of self and the planet I like the word stewardship as it elicits a desire to look after something for a short period of time (our life), to pass on a better world to future generations.  We are stewards of the planet, which means we should be embracing appropriate technologies that allow that.  Sure, allow modern life to remain in place and to advance, but also embrace nature and natural processes that have been around for millions of years.  For instance, why make a CO2 capturing machine, which is highly complex, when you could just plant a forest??  Or, just use cows to restore soil, restore nature, and consequently capture carbon, and feed us at the same time.

Andrew:  I mean I could go to town on it all, but it will just bore people and turn them off. I have read the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) reports and actually worked with clients on trading carbon credits etc. so I do have some clue, but there’s still plenty to learn. 

Chris:  I don’t think people are that interested though, are they?  Solar, sure.  It’s perfunctory though; buy solar panels, move on with your life.  Big efficiency, lifestyle changes, lowering CO2, those are the much bigger life changes needed.  As Andrew said, no one is truly really engaged with those.  Or maybe they are, I dunno.  It’s a very big topic, way beyond solar.  Our goal should be reversing our impact on the planet.  Our goal with solar is to make our current lifestyle sustainable, but unfortunately if we sustained our current level of use of everything, we’d be toast.  Precious metals are being depleted at rates that simply can’t be sustained more than 30-40 years.  Arguably, our most valuable asset, top soil, has about 30 seasons left.  Instead of sustainable, the thing we need to think about now is regenerative. I think it’s important to point out that lifestyle change is needed, and that simply adding solar isn’t a “Well, I’ve got solar. I’m done now” proposition.  My perspective is that solar is but one of many steps we can take to address our impact.

Andrew: Learning about all of the things you can do, I realised that different elements can be prioritised; whether it’s reduced energy bills, more self-reliance, less carbon emissions or just a sense of shared help for others. Any step people take is a step in the positive direction!

Chris: It would be good to explain the “why” though.  People can make all the changes their wallet desires, but the “why” behind the change might put things into perspective and inspire more?  Long lasting change, that is. Solar panels and generation of electricity is pretty much a commodity.  It will save people money over five years, so it’s an easy sell.  As is cutting gas and going to an all-electric house.  Try convincing anyone they need a drop toilet though.

Chryss: Can I ask you both to talk me through your own personal journeys of how you arrived to where you are now, in terms of your commitment.  I’ve known you both for nearly 25 years, and I can’t remember you being this interested in saving the environment back in the day.  So how did you both get to this point?  Also, do you think that becoming parents has amplified it at all?

Chris: About eight years ago I went on a health journey that started with, “You need to take statins”.  After researching that and deciding I didn’t actually need them, I ended up learning a lot more about food, and health.  I lost 40kg, and 33cm off the belly, cured a lot of other ills I didn’t even know I had, and I am now in the best health of my life.  Part of that health journey led me into looking at food, and resulted in me doing a course in permaculture, which is about sustainable living, sustainable lifestyles, growing food, and living a life more in line with nature.

We need to be able to pass on a better world to our children (or to future generations, for those without kids).  This doesn’t mean sacrificing modern lifestyle – it’s just about being more mindful, and making positive informed changes.  Sure having my own child has maybe brought that to bear a little more, but I’d like to think I care enough about everyone else that I would have made those changes anyway. 

Andrew: So I got into what I call acting sustainably in a very slow fashion, starting as a teenager, thinking about why the snow in the mountains was greater or lesser each year.  I read STARK by Ben Elton as a late teenager, and later the IPCC, which is the entity that publishes the climate change research and the various consolidated scientific models on this.  I was focused on what the impact would be in the various places that I cared for (Melbourne, France, the mountains). 

I also disliked the very emotive language used (little did I know how pervasive it would become).  This was early 2000s, before Al Gore etc., and I wanted to get to the analysis sitting under it, to protect myself and my investments.  Since becoming a father, this has not changed, I believe.  The action that I take will not make one bit of difference.  I am doing it to simply say to myself that I did something to reduce my impact on the world, and also to reduce my financial risks (i.e. if I have lower electricity costs, then I need less income/salary to live day-to-day). 

ChryssWhat exactly have you guys done to your homes?  And why?  Could you please go into as much detail as you can.

Chris:  I’ve converted my entire home from using gas and electricity to an all-electric house.  We completely decommissioned the gas.  In place of the gas central heating, gas hot water and gas cooktop (which are all very inefficient) I’ve installed a 6.6kw solar system, heat pump (often called reverse cycle) heating and cooling in each room and a heat pump hot water system (which heats during the middle of the day only).  For a couple of years we had a portable IKEA induction cooktop simply positioned on top of the unused gas cooktop, but recently we bought a new oven stovetop with induction built in. Those portable IKEA induction cooktops are excellent though, as a temporary measure, for $59.  By switching from gas to electricity it did several things.  We’re safer, as gas leaks account for a LOT of the methane in the atmosphere and can often leak into the house.  We also ditched the connection fee for gas, leaving us with a single, low connection fee for electricity (with Tango Energy, which also has a low kwh charge, and a good feed-in tariff). 

In addition to those things I personally sealed up the house, making a priority of draught-proofing.  This was the first step I took in improving my home efficiency.  Any gaps in walls, floors, doors and windows got either a tight silicone strip or a silicone seal, to ensure no air leaks.  I also sealed up all the internal air vents, all the internal central heating vents and all the gaps behind appliances and under sinks.  Building contractors just smack holes in walls for wires and plumbing, so sealing up these big gaps is crucial to efficiency.  Check your entire building envelope for air gaps!  I also sealed up all the chimney cavities with cut up bits of foam mattress bought from Clark Rubber. 

We use to have on-demand gas hot water.  A stored heat pump hot water system is by far the most efficient when used in combination with solar.  I know some dudes who did in-depth analysis on all of the hot water heat pumps, and Sanden was the winner so we got that.  We only heat between 12pm and 2pm (peak solar times), and it’s perfect hot water at any time of day.  We bought other new appliances too.  We now have four Mitsubishi reverse cycle coolers/heaters.  The old dishwasher, washing machine, large commercial freezer, oven and cooktop, kitchen extraction fan, light fittings, wall/kitchen and bathroom fans were all replaced with low energy efficient versions (with backdraft protection, to prevent air leaks).  We reduced the number of appliances needing power.  We turn them off, replaced them, or just got rid of them. 

I replaced all the windows in the north facing kitchen area with double glazing myself, and even managed to feature in the ReNew Magazine a couple of times with my home handyman work.  We invested in a full roof replacement, using lighter coloured Colorbond sheets, and we installed R6 roof insulation (due to limited space we used foil lined foam panels specifically designed for cathedral ceiling spaces).  We installed a 6.6kw solar system, fed back into the grid to effectively use the mains grid as a “battery” so we can draw back when there is no sunlight, and to minimise costs.  For about five months of the year we have zero electricity costs, for another four months it’s about 50% and the three months over winter it’s about 10% fed back into the grid.  We’re on track to pay off our solar in less than four years. 

Outside, I put in plants that provide shade for north and west facing walls in summer.  These produce food (grape, raspberry, kiwi berry), draw CO2 from the atmosphere, and they look pretty.  I installed a measured irrigation drip system with a solar powered pump for efficient use of water, a 3000 litre water tank for rain water collection and I also diverted all downpipes to the water tank.  We got a bee hive to pollinate our plants and also to provide honey (not that we eat it, but we can trade with it or give it away).  I removed all the non-productive plants, for example the 15 metre lilly pilly plants at the rear of property, and replaced them with three apple trees, three pear trees and other productive food plants, allowing more sunlight to the backyard, for us.  We grow a lot of our own berries and fruits in water-efficient wicking beds (hundreds of plants in total).  It’s no secret that a LOT of the food we buy is one of the biggest carbon footprints.  For instance, where did that banana come from? And where was that Coles/Woolies bread made?  Where was the soy in that Bonsoy milk grown?  So one of the biggest things we can do to reduce our impact is to buy local, in-season produce, and direct from farmers.  For example, the beef I buy is from a farmer I know who is less than 100km from my house.  We can reduce our own fossil fuel use, but we also have to consider first, second or third hand usage too!

Finally, we grow azolla, a plant that draws nitrogen from the atmosphere and turns it into a great fertiliser, while being a great habitat for water animals.  Also, bees can land on it and get water without drowning.  We also grow comfrey, another nitrogen fixing plant used as fertiliser (both of these mean I don’t need to import fertilisers, and it’s all organic) and we keep all organic material (cardboard, kitchen scraps etc.) for the garden.  There are lots of ways to be efficient beyond just electricity, but all have an impact on either energy use, or conservation.

Chryss: Andrew, how about you? 

Andrew:  My list is in priority order, meaning bang for buck, and not necessarily the order I actually did it chronologically.  Bang for buck meaning maximum reduction in energy costs/liveability factor for minimum cost.  I personally believe this is the only way to get people to move, which is slightly different to Chris’ view (I mean, I agree with his view, I just don’t think that other people will behave altruistically.  I don’t behave altruistically so why should I expect others to).

Draught-proofing and sealing up gaps.  I paid someone to come to the house and do this professionally.  It cost me 1,200AUD.  The person put dropdown seals on all the doors, filled in around all the windows, put draught stoppers in the bathroom exhaust fan, and silicon sealant in various gas wall vents.  Payback on this is probably a year or so in winter heating bill reduction (our house was leaky, and still is)

LED lighting.  First we replaced bulbs with LED globes.  This works and is cheap to do. Everyone can start with this and reduce the lighting part of their bill by maybe 60-70%.  It causes some heat loss due to the design of bulbs though, so I ultimately replaced them with full LED units (these have a computer inside the unit and are fully sealed so no leaks from your roof, which is a big deal with heat loss).

Roof insulation.  Hot air rises. Melbourne is a heating dominated climate so we need to focus on improving heat retention.  I put R6 insulation in the roof (actually R4 plus another lot of R2).

Solar panels.  We paid way too much for very high end solar panels (with a slightly tricky install due to shadowing).  Nevertheless, my panels output crazy amounts of kw.  I have 8kw of panels, which means that for three months of the year I get paid, three months I pay nothing, and six months I pay a bit (we still use a lot of electricity).  I installed a lot of panels, partly because whoever buys the house after us will always need a lot.  Current payback period is about four years.

Underfloor heating.  We replaced ducted with underfloor heating.  This is NOT economic.  I mean it’s 20% cheaper than the gas-ducted heating to run. But we will never recoup the installation cost.  It was installed for allergy and comfort reasons.  It’s very pleasant to have the house at one temperature, and a smart sensor means it switches off when it’s not needed.  We also installed underfloor insulation (though there’s no need to do this unless you do something like underfloor heating).

Double glazing.  We paid a lot of money for very well sealed double glazed units from Paarhammer.  We could only afford to do the bedrooms.  We like very quiet bedrooms so it was a key element.  There is a good firm called Thermawood that can replace just the glass, keeping your wooden frame, which saves a fair bit and is quite useful for Melbourne houses.

Induction cooktop.  This is good for cooking.  Modern ones are much better than the previous models (we still have both gas and induction).

Dryer.  Obviously the best option is to dry your laundry outside.  But if you are going to have a dryer (and we do), then buy a heat pump dryer.  These use fridge technology in reverse, are very mild on clothes and use very little energy

Heating/cooling.  Similarly, install reverse cycle air-conditioning for the same reasons (it uses fridge technology, which means that each 1kw you consume gives you 6-7kw of cooling/heating).

Pool pump.  Install one with variable speed pump and auto chlorinator.  We don’t have a pool, for environmental reasons (and they are a complete schlep to maintain).  But if you do, installing these reduces electrical and chemical usage.

I mean there’s lots of other things I have done that I don’t want to bore you with.  For example, I bought a thermal camera (which plugs into an iPhone) to see where gaps are.  I bought a meter to track consumption, planted trees, I’m riding my bike more, not buying replacement stuff.  The old reduce, reuse, recycle (in that order).  But there are still large errors in my behaviour.  I am happy to fly (which, by far, has the biggest CO2 impact).  I still use gas (as the cost to move to underfloor electric is astronomical).  I still buy food from France.  Hence I am not comfortable to say anything to anyone.  Any step that someone takes is great as far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t matter how small. 

Chryss: Seriously impressive guys.  Hats off to you both.  Now here are some questions that I’ve fielded from people who are interested in making changes but don’t know where to start. 

What size unit would we need to cover our average daily energy usage?

Chris: You’d need to check your electricity bill to work that out, but my personal view is to maximise solar generation on your roof.  I think most of the deals going around now are about $2000 for a 6.6kw system (after rebate). This is about 20-22 panels, so that’s fair chunk of roof.  I have a 6.6kw system, 22 panels.  This gives us five months electricity bill free, about four years payback.  Current deals pay back in two years.

Andrew:  Divide your daily bill by 3.5 so, for example, 35kwh of usage would need 10kw of panels. To be clear you will (in Melbourne anyway) generate 1.5x your panel size in winter and 5.5x in peak summer.  Chris is right though. Panels are so cheap you should just get the maximum size that fits on roof, given labour versus panel costs.  IKEA have a good offer at the moment.  Payback period on that, assuming all self-consumption, is about two and a half years. Assuming just feed in tariff is five years.  You get a return on your cash of around 30%p.a. for the self-consumption version.  That’s not bad to feel good about your impact on the environment.

Is the additional cost of the top quality solar cells worth it for the extended warranty (25 years versus 10 years)?

Chris:  Not sure I have an opinion on the warranty (I’d probably say top of the range is never, in any technology, the best bang for buck), but I will say this; most package deal systems out there use Tier 1 panels, e.g. Jinko Tier 1, and they come with 25 years warranty anyway. 

Andrew:  Yes and no.  Focus on what percentage the panels are scheduled to generate after ten years.  Also better quality panels will have lower reduced losses if temperature is higher (look for a low temperature coefficient).  If you want maximum output, generally it’s easier to just add more panels.  The key to keep cost down is to check if you have any shadowing due to chimney/trees etc.  If you do, then you need to look into optimisers or microinverters, which are mini computers that optimise the output of each panel if there is shading (if you don’t have them, then in one line of panels you can only produce at the lowest output of any of the panels, which can significantly chop your output).

What kind of solar panels are good, and why?  What inverters would you recommend?

Chris:  I recommend Tier 1 manufacturer, with a moderate panel.  I wouldn’t choose the most efficient, but probably 3rd or 4th down in the range (about 330w).  Like all tech, don’t bother with the top of the range – it will pay you back, but it will be a much longer timeframe.  I’m sure Andrew will touch on this, but a decent panel with Enphase microinverters is probably considered the “best” but only because it handles shading, and partial solar generation.  If you don’t have much shading, like me and unlike Andrew, then you can get good Tier 1 panels with a string inverter, and you end up producing just as much (maybe more as there is less wiring) pound for pound than more expensive options.  The price difference in setup?  We’re talking $15k+ versus around $2k.  Shading on the roof is the factor in determining this.

Andrew:  Bang. Nothing to add. 

Any idea what impact solar panels have on roofing?  For instance new Colorbond roofs state that the warranty ill be invalidated if solar panels are installed.  Any idea why?

Chris:  I don’t know.  They pull up screws in your roof, and attach the frame through those same holes, so there are no extra holes.  The impact solar panels do have, a very positive impact in my opinion, is that they provide shading on your roof.  The sun never hits the sunniest parts of your roof, so this keeps your roof from getting as hot, and thus lowers your cooling requirements!  Win-win.

Andrew:  Agree.  If you get a decent installer, there is no problem as they mount on a frame (having said that I have tiles, so I don’t have specific experience).  One thing I’d suggest is to make sure you put as many panels west facing.  You can thank me later.  But generally put as many panels as you can fit on.

How much more would we need, if we wanted to charge an electric vehicle every day?

Chris:  Good question.  I’m not sure I have the specific answer as it varies by the amount of charge/energy you use in the car, and when you’re charging it.  If we go back to the previous point, get the most number of solar panels/setup you can afford, and use the electricity you generate to power everything you need during the day, feeding back into the grid any excess so you can draw back electricity when you need it over night.  I’m presuming electric cars would be charged over night, so, yeah, you’ll need to be feeding back into the grid as much as possible.  From a pure energy view point, in a Nissan Leaf, if you charged in the middle of the day, then for the 10kwh needed for 100km travel, you’d likely need a 2.5kw solar system just for that single car.  The same car to charge in winter, you’d need a 25kw solar panel system – in Melbourne anyway.  There are so many factors, and too little detail in the question to fully answer though.

Andrew:  From the reading I have done, you will struggle to have enough excess to charge your electric vehicle.  A Tesla car battery is 75kwh.  So on its own, it needs say 20kw of panels to charge from empty.

How much do we reduce our carbon impact on the environment with an electric vehicle charged by solar rather than from the grid?

Chris:  Damn, that’s a complicated one.  Probably less that you might think.  Your panels are made of plastic, silicone, glass, etc.  They are manufactured in China, transported here, trucked around, and need to be replaced every 20 years.  Compare that to charging from the grid in Melbourne, which is now becoming more and more wind and solar powered every day.  It’s easy right now, home solar is better.  But it’s a tough call what the lower impact will be in five years.  I suspect in the next ten years there will be very little difference in environmental impact, grid versus home solar.  But you will find home solar electricity is cheaper/free.

Andrew:  Large losses due to transmission mean home production is always better.  For instance, 100kw produced in Mildura might only be 30kw by the time it hits your meter, due to losses in the power lines and transformers.  Electric vehicle versus petrol?  A simpler car means less to break down, less replacement costs/maintenance.  The main one is battery recyclability and degradation.  Petrol cars are very efficient.  Honestly, the analysis I’ve read is that for an identical car, EV versus petrol, you would be better to buy the petrol car and buy CO2 credits with the saving.  That doesn’t get you the green status symbol though.

Should we get a battery?  

Chris:  A battery is not worthwhile at present.  The economics don’t work out well.  Better to treat the grid as your “battery” by feeding back into it with your solar setup, and drawing back from the grid at times when your solar setup isn’t providing all the energy you need.  Batteries are not worth it on several levels.  

The big advantage of a battery would be being able to use power when it’s dark, and selling power at a better time of day (though there’s no flex pricing at the moment), and if you were completely off-grid as the only option. The downside is that batteries degrade more quickly than panels and need to be replaced, they contain toxic chemicals (so if my goal is to improve the environment, this conflicts), and ultimately you will still need a grid connection as backup, as we use more power than we generate over winter months, meaning the connection fee is fixed.  Until there are some significant improvements in battery technology I think this is probably a good compromise.

Andrew:  I agree with Chris on the economics. I also agree that recyclability of batteries is terrible at moment.  Actually charging at night helps stabilise the network (it doesn’t help climate change but it does reduce instability, and hence the possible need for extra gas-powered quick-start plants).  You’d need the Tesla battery price to be $7000 installed, for the economics to work in Melbourne.  It would need to be half the price, or prices need to vary intraday by 20-30% more than they do currently.  Basically a way better to spend the $12k of a Tesla battery is on reducing your household leakage. For example, there are houses out there that can keep warm with only human heat (and sun, during the day).  Hence the only consumption at night is for lights, and that’s tiny.

Is it better to have solar panels or get electricity from green energy companies like AGL Green Energy.

Chris:  With a two year payback on a 6.6kw system priced at $2100 after rebate, with a life span of 20-25 years, get solar.  It’s a no-brainer.

Andrew:  As per above, economically.  And also note that buying green power costs you more and doesn’t change the retailer behaviour.  It is actually cheaper for them to source renewables now, so you’re paying them to do something they would do anyway.

Ejo #128 – BLM: How To Be An Ally

When you take the time to learn about African American history as a white person, it can be empowering. How? Well, you realise how we got to where we are, to this tipping point in history. You realise the part that we’ve all played in the subjugation of Black people. You realise that their subjugation is so ingrained in our way of life that, unless you are subject to it, it’s actually difficult to see it. This realisation can give you the power to effect change. Yes, you, the white person who actually gives a shit, can make a difference.

And it starts with acknowledging your white privilege, acknowledging that we live in a society in which white people are born with (and continually given) advantage. And that black people are born with (and continually dealt) disadvantage. Being able to admit that is a great first step. Racism is a system, and the hostility that exists between white and Black people isn’t just a symptom of that. It’s a design feature. The default “race” being white is also a deliberate component (check out Peggy McIntosh’s essay “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” to see exactly how).

A lot of people misunderstand the meaning of the term “white privilege”, imagining that because they’ve had to endure hardship (despite being white) that it doesn’t exist, that it’s some kind of a liberal construct. But white privilege isn’t the same as regular ol’ privilege. It’s not the same as class privilege, or economic privilege or academic, political or social privilege. To be blunt, it is the privilege of being insulated from racial stress. That’s all it is – but that is huge. It’s a very powerful thing to possess, whether you’re aware that you possess it or not. If you are white, regardless of your situation in life (even if you are the poorest white person on earth) you have white privilege. You cannot renounce it. You cannot give it away. You cannot ever lose it. You are born with it, and you will die with it.

I challenge anyone to watch the full video of Derek Chauvin crushing the life from George Floyd’s body and tell me there isn’t a race problem in America. The policeman, knowing he is being filmed, casually looks into the camera, pressing his knee onto George’s neck. And he does it so indifferently, with one hand in his pocket.  The way you would deflate an air mattress, just waiting for all the air to be squeezed out. He continued to push his knee down, three long minutes after his fellow cops had ascertained that there was no longer a pulse, in a show of…. what? Superiority? Dominance? It is terrifying that people exist in this world that can hold such little regard for human life (even more terrifying that they’re given a badge and a gun). It is devastating that Black lives are deemed so insignificant that they can be murdered on film by people who barely bat an eyelid while doing it. The reason “Black lives matter” is a thing and “all lives matter” is bullshit is that it’s the Black lives that are routinely and casually being taken by cops in this way. As Barack Obama recently said, “Black lives matter – no more, but no less”.

When I decided to actively get involved in the Black Lives Matter movement, after George Floyd was murdered, I had no idea where to turn for information on how I could help. I didn’t know the best way to become an ally. But I knew that I wanted to be one. My only resources were social media, predominantly Instagram and Twitter. I wanted guidance. I wanted to be told exactly what to do to help. But guess what, it doesn’t work that way.

We cannot expect marginalised people to educate us about the injustices of racism. How fucking entitled is that? We need to do our own research. We need to find out ourselves how we got to this place. And then we need to figure out ourselves what we can do to to get out of it. We need to put in the leg work. And I’m so sorry, but the work will be difficult. It’s going to be hard. It’s going to be challenging, even for the most progressive amongst us. Because we need to somehow wrap our heads around something that we usually don’t ever have to think about, something as taken for granted as breathing. As Dr. Camara Jones says, “It’s difficult for us to recognise any system of inequity that is privileging us”.  Because that is our version of normal. But it’s time to wake up to the fact that our version of normal is messed up.

So, the responsibility to fight racism absolutely does NOT lie with Black people. It is the perpetrators, the enablers and people like you and me, people who have inherent advantage in the system, that need to do the work. And if you are white, that means you. Racism might directly affect Black people, but it’s something that infects us all. You are infected. I am infected. Racism is our problem to solve, and we need a cure, now. For the sake of humanity.

America’s obsession with individualism has fostered a culture in which people are able to rationalise extracting themselves from the collective. “No, I’m not a racist, and therefore I am not part of this problem”. But when everyone believes that, the problem becomes impossible to address, let alone fix. As white people, as part of that larger collective, we need to look inward, even if we don’t think we are racist (hell, even if we aren’t racist). We need to look inside and acknowledge that the very fabric of the society we are a part of is structured in a racist way. And then we have to change that. And that may mean changing ourselves. And that’s OK. Because the status quo is fucked. Society is broken. We can’t change racists one at a time. We need to change the system that teaches and allows and encourages people to be racist, whether they realise they’re doing it or not. And it will take time, but it’s worth the effort, and we have to start now. Black history is white history too. We are all part of it. We are living it, right now. How will future generations come to look at us and the role that we played in this historic moment?

Our silence, our inaction and our passivity is not benign. Being open-minded and progressive does not absolve you or me from the embedded racism of the world in which we all live. Non-racism is no longer enough (it never was enough, but OK, we can’t change the past). All of us now actively have to be anti-racist. As OluTimehin Adegbeye writes in The Correspondent, “To be anti-racist is to actively promote black safety, black prosperity, black health, black innocence, black freedom, black wellbeing and black life”. Does that seem like something you can do? I hope so.  But if not, perhaps you need to ask yourself, why not?

Anti-racism doesn’t mean repudiating Blackness.  It doesn’t mean that we are all the same.  Because we’re not.  We must acknowledge the differences, celebrating Blackness as something unique and wonderful and of equal value to whiteness.  Saying you don’t see colour doesn’t mean you’re anti-racist.  It simply sends the message that you choose to not see, or acknowledge, the sustained and violent degradation that’s been passed down to Black people through generations of imposed suffering and adversity. Let’s not whitewash and filter out the colour of someone’s skin as inconsequential.

Black people have never recovered from being enslaved. Humanity never recovered. To this day, the spectre of slavery casts a putrid shadow over the shiny façade of the United States of America. Black people have had to claw their way up every single step and still, they are always collectively below the ladder than whites who have had to expend no energy, no effort and no thought to their place. People like you and me. Who may not even be aware that we are on a ladder, or that a ladder even exists. The system just sets us there, on the upper rungs. And we get used to that, and some of us never even bother to look down. And that just sucks.

But you want to help.  Here’s how.  First and foremost we must read. We must learn about our terrible history, the one that they don’t teach in schools.  We need to teach our children how to be allies, no-one else is going to do it.  We must learn more about the key figures who have furthered the movement – from slavery to segregation, through the momentous civil rights movement of the 60s to the battle that is being fought right now.  We need to know the names of those who devoted their lives, sometimes sacrificing them, in making a stand.  Those who said no.  Those who said enough.  There is so much that we don’t know.  So much we should know.  So let’s start reading, right now. Even if you can spare just ten minutes a day, there are resources that can point you in the right direction.

Then, we listen.  We listen to Black voices and we hear what they have to say.  Even if we don’t like what they’re saying.  We don’t argue.  These voices have been muted for so long, it’s time to just step back and listen.


Be prepared to be schooled, be prepared to be wrong, be prepared to do what it takes.

Donate.  Give money to the BLM organisation.  These are the people on the frontline, working tirelessly to transform the system from the inside, through legislation, through policy, through governance.  Every cent helps.  Donate to the victims.  Donate to the protestors, to Black owned business.

Protest.  Not everyone can get involved in protests, but if you are able to, it’s a great way to add your voice to the symphony.  Turn up when they need you to turn up.  Be there.  Of course we’re still in the middle of a pandemic so be cautious about joining in.  Don’t forget to wear your mask. And of course we’re still at the tail-end of a Trump administration.  Don’t put your own personal safety at risk.  Be there, but be safe.

Make amends, co-sign reparations.  Find out the best way for you to do that.  It will be different for everyone, but the deep and sustained injustices that Black people have endured must be mended.

As Nafeez Ahmed optimistically posits in his article, dismantling the system into which racism is inextricably woven isn’t just a matter of focussing on giving Black people equality. We are way past that. The last four hundred years have been spent building a complex society and way of life where our environment, our financial markets, our culture as a human race, our very existence is framed and tarnished by racism. It’s time to smash that system, as we head towards a reckoning. To borrow a phrase used by the organisers of BLM, now we transform. Now, as a species, we evolve, we move forward, we do better. Now, finally, we do right.

Ejo #127 – Dear Doug, Black Lives Matter

This ejo was going to be a discussion about our responsibilities as white people to help combat systemic racism (and I’ll be publishing that next month, right after this quick detour). One of the things I was going to mention was that we should all keep talking about the problem, even when the conversation becomes difficult. My former colleague, Doug, commented on my last ejo and I decided to publish my response in an open letter.

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Dear Doug, I miss you since you’ve retired. I miss our silly jokes in the tower, I miss your generosity and how you always made me a pot of coffee on the morning shifts. I even miss our lively political discussions on those quiet, weekend afternoons (despite them occasionally becoming quite heated). While we might have fundamentally similar principles, we mostly tend to arrive at those from different directions, and even though that means you sometimes infuriate me (as I’m sure, I do you) I actually think it’s healthy to have an opposing point of view in the room. And so I would like to thank you for your comments on my last ejo.

I must admit that when I first read them I was a little annoyed. Mostly because your comments didn’t actually relate to the contents of my ejo, in which I talked about the US civil rights movement, as well as the history of racism in America, and how it became institutionalised. Instead, your comments seemed to be a knee-jerk reaction to the subject of the Black Lives Matter movement. I was tempted to just ignore what you’d written (as I’d heard it from you all before anyway), and move on. But because those comments came from you, and because I know that you are a good person with a big heart and good intentions, I decided to delve deeper and address all of your points, some of which I agree with and others with which I don’t. Let us begin.

I have not spoken to one person or seen a single news outlet that has not condemned what happened to George Floyd. It was hard to watch the video and what that single one cop did was wrong and was murder. This is something everyone agrees on. And hopefully there will be some police training that things like this don’t happen again. But 99% of cops are good (we do not taint all Muslims bad because of the deed of one suicide bomber. The same goes for cops).
It is true that one cop murdered George Floyd, but three others watched him do it, and did absolutely nothing to intervene or to prevent it. We may all agree it was murder, but it remains to be seen whether justice will be served, or not. I’m wondering where you get your statistic that 99% of all cops are good? When Daniel Pantaleo murdered Eric Garner he was not convicted. When George Zimmerman murdered Trayvon Martin he was not convicted. When Darren Wilson murdered Michael Brown he was not convicted. When 12 year old Tamir Rice was murdered by Timothy Loehmann, the cop was not convicted. When Dominique Heaggan-Brown murdered Sylville K. Smith he was not convicted. When Betty Jo Shelby murdered Terence Crutcher she was not convicted. When Ray Tensing murdered Samuel DuBose he was not convicted. When Howie Lake II and Blane Salamoni murdered Alton Sterling, they were not convicted. When Caesar Goodson Jr., Garrett Miller, Edward Nero, William Porter, Brian Rice and Alicia White murdered Freddie Gray none of them were convicted. When Jeronimo Yanez brutally murdered Philando Castile on camera, he was not convicted. When Terrence Mercadal and Jared Robinet murdered Stephon Clark, they were not convicted. When Jonathan Mattingly, Brett Hankison and Myles Cosgrove murdered Breonna Taylor as she slept in her bed, they weren’t even charged with anything.

I could go on. Not all cops are bad?? According to this independent study conducted by a Philadelphia lawyer, 20% of current police officers and 40% of retired police officers made public posts or comments on social media that reinforce negative police bias towards Black* people. These are comments that cops made publicly, unafraid of consequences. Knowing that the system would allow it, and protect them. “This blows up the myth of bad apples, by the sheer number of images and numbers of individuals who are implicated,” said Nikki Jones, an associate professor of African American studies at the University of California, Berkeley.

You say it’s just one bad cop, I say the system is bad. Do you remember when that police officer in Buffalo, New York shoved an elderly man to the ground causing him to crack his head? That police officer was labelled a bad apple. But what about the other 20 cops who simply walked around the injured man as he lay bleeding from his ears? What about the 57 cops who quit in protest when the offending officer was suspended? You know what they say about bad apples, Doug. One can spoil the whole bunch, and when it comes to police, the whole barrel is rotten. One cop’s insider account of how bad the system actually is explains why police “training” doesn’t work. And Alex S. Vitale, professor of sociology (and coordinator of the Policing and Social Justice Project) at Brooklyn College punctuates that point in his book “The End Of Policing”. He says, “The problem is not police training, police diversity, or police methods. The problem is the dramatic and unprecedented expansion and intensity of policing in the last 40 years, a fundamental shift in the role of police in society. The problem is policing itself.

We can discuss why blacks commit more crime percentage wise than white Americans. That is a fact. That will help discover what the solution to this is. But inner cities where most black on black crime happens, is run by Democrats who will not address the problem. They won’t fix what they don’t acknowledge. Crap education and no school choice. Resulting in no jobs or poor paying jobs. Gang and crime proliferates.
We agree on this. Black Americans are disproportionately more likely to commit crime. You blame local Democrat governments, and by saying that you actually demonstrate an understanding of what institutionalised racism is. It’s a system that unfairly disadvantages people of colour. A system that forces them into “rough” neighbourhoods, where crime skyrockets as a direct result of that deep disadvantage. A system that has been in place since before the USA was founded. It continues today, and we need to fix it. Black Americans might have a crack at the equality promised to them in the 14th Amendment if we fixed the education system, if we improved the job situation, if we repaired healthcare, if we reformed policing and if the justice system was cleaned up. Until that happens, collectively, they don’t stand a chance. By design, Black people do not stand a chance. I’m more than willing to concede that a Democrat administration contributed hugely to this problem when Bill Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act in 1994. From my perspective both parties are accountable. This issue is not a partisan one and pointing fingers at the Democrats or the Republicans actually achieves nothing.

You bring up “black on black” crime which, whilst being statistically accurate, feels to me like a deflective argument. Police brutality against Black people is real, and it’s something that I am seriously interested in effecting change in, which is why I’m writing these ejos and why I’ve set up a regular donation to the BLM org. It’s why I’m striving to educate myself and to listen to Black voices.  Urban crime in Black neighbourhoods is also very real, and if you are equally interested in the problem of “black on black” crime, please tell me what you are doing about it? Are you actually concerned about crime within Black communities, or is it just your go-to, straw-man rebuttal in discussions about police brutality against Black people?

Let’s go even deeper, Doug. A paper published by the US Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs and the Harvard Kennedy School titled “The Police And Public Discourse on “Black-on-Black” Violence” discusses why there are issues with using the term “black on black”. The paper states that the term is simplistic and emotionally fraught, allowing for media distortions which perpetrate unsubstantiated stereotypes of Black people as being inherently more violent. Black people are not more “prone to criminality” as Harry Houck, a former New York Police Department detective, once claimed on a CNN panel on the topic. They are systematically forced into socio-economic circumstances that lead to increased incidents of crime (the kind of crime you refer to as “black on black”). But the fact remains that people who live in poverty are statistically more likely to commit, and be victims of, crime – regardless of their skin colour. And sadly, Black people are more likely to live in poverty. Poverty and crime go hand in hand, colour and crime do not.

A huge majority of homicides are intra-racial, with 93% of Black victims killed by Black people and 84% of white victims killed by white people. It’s a problem across the skin colour spectrum. But you do not hear the terms “white on white crime” or “white on white violence”? Why do you think that is?

According to the Harvard paper, another problem with the phrase “black on black” crime is that it’s been shown to encourage cops to “pursue harsher and less thoughtful approaches, concentrating intensive enforcement efforts or zero-tolerance policies on Black people”. This results in the police using excessive levels of force against Black citizens in the most disadvantaged neighbourhoods. It also discourages people living in those neighbourhoods from calling the police, perpetuating the cycle.

But BLM do not care what happens in inner cities where they have been absolutely silent on black on black crime in cities such as Chicago and Baltimore with over 4000 shootings last year and nearly 800 dead. And in one single day this year 18 dead in Chicago. All black on black. Not a word from them.
Black Lives Matter is a non-partisan movement formed in 2014 (during the Obama administration) in the wake of Michael Brown and Eric Garner’s murders by white police officers. The Black Lives Matter movement and organisation were not created to deal with the kind of urban crime that you are referring to (which is a symptom of institutional racism). That is the responsibility of local government and police. BLM was formed in response to disproportionate police brutality against Black people. It was formed to battle the racial disparity that is woven into the very fibre of American society (i.e. the root cause of the problem, not the symptom).  As Glenn Loury, a Brown University scholar said in a discussion on the matter, “It’s unfair to ask a movement demanding justice from the police to be responsible for patterns of behavior that are deeply embedded in a system over which Black people don’t exercise any control.

You point the finger at Democrat city governments in Chicago and Baltimore, which have huge crime problems, and you cite the issue with education as one of the causes. And you are absolutely right, but that problem appears uniformly across the United States, and not just in blue cities. As I’ve mentioned before, this is not a partisan issue, Doug. Across the country, Black kids are statistically learning less than white kids. A study done at American University and Johns Hopkins University showed that white teachers have significantly lower educational expectations of their Black students. Another study found that all teachers tend to evaluate the behaviour of Black students differently, resulting in increased suspensions, expulsion etc. Black students across the board are offered fewer opportunities to take part in advanced learning classes, or to even finish high school at all.

And it’s a fact that all of these early disadvantages are likely to have far reaching implications. We do agree on that. In fact you hit the nail on the head. Poor education leads to lower paying jobs or unemployment, which leads to crime, which leads to gang involvement, which leads to prison exposure, which ultimately leads to increased homicide and a never-ending cycle of incarceration. Black Lives Matter is tackling each of these issues at an institutional level. Their efforts will eventually (hopefully) lead to less crime of the type that you describe as “black-on-black”. BLM take on the massive inequality within the criminal justice system in the hopes of loosening the figurative (and literal) chokehold on Black people. Their aim is to provide, not an advantage, but simply an equal footing for Black people in the eyes of law enforcement and law making.

The graph below demonstrates how Black people are targeted by police officers. They are pulled over more often, are significantly found to be carrying less contraband, and yet are still arrested at twice the rate of white drivers in Ferguson, Missouri.

A Department of Justice investigation following the Ferguson riots sparked by Michael Brown’s murder found that “nearly every aspect of Ferguson’s law enforcement system” disproportionately impacted the African American community. And, once more, that’s how systemic racism manifests – an underlying assumption of white innocence and Black guilt. A system in which a 12 year old kid with a toy gun is seen as a threat and killed, but militia wannabes armed to the teeth, storming government buildings in the name of “liberty” are seen as heroes executing their constitutional right. A system in which police violently assault NYC residents for breaching social distancing rules in Black neighbourhoods, while in the white neighbourhoods the cops hand out masks and smiles. A system in which white people are more offended by the looting of a Target store than the incident which sparked it – the cold-blooded killing of yet another Black man by yet another white police officer. A system in which property is deemed more valuable than life. Black life, anyway.

Do I think racism exists. Yes. White on black racism; black on white racism and so on. But almost all Americans are not racist. They voted in a black President twice. I think the last 20 videos I have watched has shown black on white assault and not the other way around. So both exist. Maybe more blacks racism against whites and not the other way around.
Sorry Doug, but this is where our opinions diverge. Let’s start off by talking about what racism is, and equally important, what it isn’t. When I say “racism” I’m not talking about the kind of one-on-one, racially inspired hatred and violence that you are talking about. I’m not talking about racial slurs. I’m not talking about “black on white” assault or even “white on black” assault. These are all symptoms of racism, and might better be labelled as racial prejudice. Of course white people can be the victims of racial hatred – and, as you pointed out, they often are. But that does not exist on a systemic, institutional, macro level. Historically, and presently, white people yield the power over Black people in America. The examples that you mention might hurt someone’s feelings, or might even hurt them physically – shit, it might even kill them. But racial prejudice doesn’t hurt an entire demographic. Systemic racism does.  Systemic racism is not hatred. It is power. We must be careful to not conflate the two.

Do I think most Americans are racist? No. But after Barack Obama was elected to office, violence against Black people, both by police officers and white civilians, increased. And that is why BLM formed during a Black presidency. One Black man’s success is not proof that racism doesn’t exist.

Is there institutional racism in the police forces in different States. I don’t think so. Is there institutional corruption in Democrat run inner cities resulting in this carnage of poor and no school choice; and the lack of response to arson, looting and destruction of property and assaulting. Yes. George Floyd’s name has now been forgotten. He was road kill or collateral damage to a bigger issue that is still playing out with the destruction of statues etc.; that has everything to do with the failure of inner city governments to look after its people – and nothing to do with systemic racism. And the MSM has been silent on all of the real issues.
Doug, you and I have had the statue discussion privately, and I don’t really have the space to go into it here. Suffice to say that I think statues commemorating bad people should be taken down. They are not art, they are not history. They are a celebration. And it’s an affront, not just to African Americans, but to all Americans, to celebrate the slave owners of the past.

George Floyd’s name will never be forgotten. I think it’s disrespectful to say that he was roadkill, or collateral damage. His murder was a pivotal moment in history.  And I think it’s appalling that you think the bigger issue is the destruction of statues. We don’t need a statue of George Floyd to remember his name (though I think it would be nice). We will never forget. He is a part of history now.

Doug, you lean towards a conservative political disposition, while I lean towards a liberal one. But while we fervently disagree on a number of political topics, I do believe that our core values are essentially the same. At the end of the day, I honestly think that if one of your friends told you they were experiencing racial discrimination and they needed your help to overcome it, you would do everything you could to help them. That is the reason that you and I are still friends, despite our differences. You are a good guy.

But I am seeing something that perhaps you are not.  I see that the problem of racism is widespread and needs action on a mass scale in order to address it, and I want to do whatever I can to become part of that solution. I’m hoping that after reading this letter, you’ll want to join me.


* You might have noticed that in my ejos I have been capitalising the word Black, but not doing the same for the word white, when it relates to race. I have done a great deal of research on this topic because I want to make sure that I’m doing the right thing. A lot of sources suggested doing it this way, and this article from the Associated Press explains why.