RIP MCA – Why Adam Yauch’s death will be a great loss to music

Adam 'MCA' Yauch of the Beastie Boys (1964-2012)
Photo: Flickr User: Michael Morel

“I’ve got more rhymes than I’ve got grey hairs / And that’s a lot because I’ve got my share”

With lyrics like these, it’s obvious that Adam ‘MCA’ Yauch was no ordinary rapper. Self-aware, self-deprecating and acutely witty to the last, he was the creative heart of the Beastie Boys and his death, at the age of 47, will be felt throughout the music scene, from hip hop to punk and beyond.

At the time of MCA’s death, the band were reportedly planning a return to their roots in the form of a full-band punk tour, making the news so much more of a shock when it emerged earlier this weekend. Not that it was completely out of the blue – Yauch’s health had been a matter for concern ever since he was diagnosed with cancer of the salivary gland back in 2009.

A true musical pioneer, Adam Nathaniel Yauch co-founded the Beastie Boys in New York in 1981 with Adam ‘Adrock’ Horovitz and Michael ‘Mike D’ Diamond. Originally a hardcore punk act, the band spanned the genres as the years went on, famously supporting Madonna on tour in 1985 and being banned from the UK in 1986 for provoking the trend for stealing VW badges from cars and wearing them as oversized necklaces.

True pioneers of both white boy rap and rap rock, without Yauch and the Beasties we quite possibly wouldn’t have Rage Against the MachineEminem or Linkin Park. MCA’s deep gravelly voice was integral to the band’s sound, providing a perfect counterpoint to the nasally tones of Mike D and Adrock.

Beyond music, Yauch was a committed activist with many causes to shout about, from environmentalism (the band appeared at the 2008 Live Earth concert) to non-violence. He even went public with his views on peace in the Middle East during the band’s 1998 VMA awards acceptance speech and the Dalai Lama paid tribute to Yauch upon hearing the news of his death:

Adam had helped us raise awareness on the plight of the Tibetan people by organizing various freedom Tibet concerts and he will be remembered by his holiness and the Tibetan people.

For many, the Beasties were the first hip hop act to reflect this left-wing liberal sensibility. From the late 90s onwards, they railed against bigotry in all its forms, proving that rap music doesn’t have to be all about self-aggrandisement and blatant machismo.

To read the rest of this article on Virgin Red Room, click here.

UPDATE 10/08/12: Beastie Boys star Adam Yauch’s will bans music in ads – what a legend!

A Hitchhiker’s guide to ethical travel

Since the monumental anti-climax of the Copenhagen conference in December, it has been very hard to find interesting and relevant environmental journalism. The media disenchantment is palpable. As a refreshing change, this weekend I discovered the BBC’s Ethical Man blog, written by Justin Rowlatt. Rowlatt’s approach to ethical living is rooted in science and in his latest post he sums up his attempts to calculate the most energy-efficient mode of travel, with a few controversial conclusions:

Cars are greener than public transport

fairly empty bus
Flickr User: MBK (Marjie)

Except, they aren’t. Well, they can be if they’re full and the bus/train isn’t. Rowlatt claims that the average UK bus only holds nine passengers (rising to 13 in London), so a four-seater car would be more eco-friendly, on a person per person basis. This argument is effective in highlighting the surprising state of affairs at the moment, but the only logical conclusion to be drawn is that more of us should take public transport. The more people use it, the more efficient it becomes.

Walking can be more polluting than driving

This may seem absurd, but there is a twisted logic at work here. Walking is energy-intensive and as a result of exercise we have to eat more food to refuel our bodies. With the aid of some rather rough science, Rowlatt concludes that the average human walking at 3mph has the carbon efficiency equivalent to 42 mpg (miles per gallon), and some hybrid cars are more efficient than this. Furthermore on an all-beef diet, this drops to 10mpg, making you the human equivalent of a Chevrolet Corvette. Whether you let his calculations stand or not, the fact remains that the vast majority of road cars are less efficient than 42mpg, by quite some way, so walking is almost always the more eco-friendly option.

Hitchhiking is the most carbon-efficient form of transport

Now this seems to be written with a hint of tongue in cheek, and rightly so. Rowlatt postulates that in a hitchhiking scenario, the driver was going to make his trip anyway, so by picking up a stranger he is nearly doubling his efficiency. Rowlatt concedes that hitchhiking is highly dangerous, although he does have a pretty amusing anecdote of hitchhiking to Glastonbury festival to commend this mode of transport. Having undertaken a similar journey myself, I can add another criticism – hitchhiking is incredibly slow! Perhaps even slower than walking. In my experience, you can be waiting hours to be picked up at any one location, and compared to that, the much maligned public transport system suddenly seems quite alluring…

Hitch-hiker heading for Glastonbury
Would you give this man a lift? A fellow hitch-hiker on the way to Glastonbury 2007

Kingsnorth is dead, long live Nuclear

Drax coal-fired power station in North Yorkshire: a Victorian relic
Drax coal-fired power station in North Yorkshire (Flickr user: Jonobass)

Great news today for eco warriors everywhere – E.ON have pushed back their plans for the Kingsnorth coal-fired power plant by three years. As a result, the project will not be completed until 2016, if at all. The German electricity company cite the state of the economic market as their reason, but they are callous not to acknowledge the impact of Green protest groups such as Greenpeace and Climate Camp.

Kingsnorth has long been seen as a symbol of backward-thinking policy, and this delay will be celebrated as a huge victory, mainly because it makes the project all the less likely to ever be completed. If E.ON think the conditions for building a coal-fired power station are bad now, then enthusiasm for burning fossil fuels is unlikely to improve in seven years time as we approach peak oil. For Green activists, this should be seen as evidence that protesting and lobbying does work and can make an impact on multi-national corporations, just don’t expect them to admit that you’ve won.

Many will be sceptical of the impact that Greenpeace and Climate Camp have had and claim that global economic factors play a much larger role  in these decisions. Even if this is true, it should still provide encouragement for environmental protesters. Recent predictions suggest that the recession has resulted in a 3% global reduction of greenhouse gases. There has never been a better time to drive home the point that there are cheap, workable and cleaner ways of producing electricity. The time and effort spent on Kingsnorth could have been much better spent researching alternatives. E.ON claims to be leading the charge in developing Nuclear power to tackle the global threat of climate change (their words, not mine), now they need to put their money where their mouth is and give up on Kingsnorth for good. Coal is dead and should be resigned to the Victorian age.

Branson Takes One Giant Leap

Richard Branson
Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Group (Photo: Flickr user riz94107)


Business maverick Richard Branson hopes to boldly go where others wouldn’t even dream with the launch of his latest venture, Virgin Galactic. Forget what you thought about the cost and carbon footprint of space tourism: by launching their craft, SpaceShipTwo, from a mother-ship cruising at 50,000 ft, Virgin Galactic say they can cut out 90% of the CO2 emissions of a traditional rocket launch and the price per passenger is reduced by a staggering 99%. The result –
space tourism is no longer just for millionaires.

This project is green to the core. Virgin Galactic claims that its two-hour flights, which reach heights of 110km above the earth, will burn just 1.5 tonnes of CO2 per passenger – 40% less than the carbon footprint of a London to New York return flight on a commercial jet. Branson has also stated that his New Mexico spaceport will take all its energy requirements from natural, renewable  resources. It has been designed, by Lord Foster of Gherkin fame, to draw on wind, solar and geothermal energy.

James Lovelock, environmentalist doomsayer and author of the Revenge of Gaia, will be one of the first passengers to get a taste of this $200,000 zero-gravity experience and Branson believes a VG flight could change the way the rich and powerful think about the world. “Seeing the planet from out there, surrounded by the incredibly thin protective layer of atmosphere, helps one wake up to the fragility of the small portion of the planet’s mass that we inhabit,” says the bearded one.

The $200,000 price tag may seem prohibitively steep, but it is significantly cheaper than the $20m that the first space tourist Dennis Tito spent on his trip in 2001. Since then, five self-funded space tourists have followed in his footsteps, with Hungarian-American Charles Simonyi currently on his second orbital jaunt.

Virgin Galactic's mother-ship EVE, during a test-flight (Photo: Freddie Weston-Smith)
Virgin Galactic's mothership EVE, during a test-flight (Photo: Freddie Weston-Smith)

But the age of exclusivity characterised by Tito et al is coming to an end. Virgin Galactic is not a far-flung fantasy of the distant future. Work on SpaceShipTwo is well advanced and last month its mother-ship EVE  completed its longest and fastest test flight. All being well, the company should begin commercial operations within the next two years.

Will Whitehorn from Virgin Galactic insists that this project is more than just a millionaire’s plaything: “We have radically changed the economics of getting to space and built the most advanced aviation system the world has ever seen,” he says. “Training only takes three days – within years you could go to space for a week’s holiday.”

Given the state of the environment and the economy, this does all seem a bit frivolous, regardless of the massive savings in cash and carbon. But Whitehorn insists on the importance of investing in such innovation: “Over the past 15 years we have become so reliant on space technology. We could not even feed the population of the earth anymore without satellites to predict weather forecasts for farmers and GPS systems to guide food deliveries  to the stores.”

But can they really be immune to the global recession? Surely VG must be feeling the pinch? Nothing of the sort, according to Whitehorn: “We have seen a massive surge in interest lately. Over 300 reservations have already been made, totalling more than $40 million in deposits.” One thing seems clear, this project certainly has momentum.

Despite Branson’s many successes, or perhaps because of them, Britain has never really warmed to him. Maybe its got something to do with how self-satisfied he always looks, but then again, if you were worth $2.4 billion, you’d be pretty smug too. For those of you who would be glad to see the London-born entrepreneur shot into space and never return, here’s Babylon Zoo’s 1995 electro-rock hit (I couldn’t resist).

UK Aware 09: The great, the good and the green

This weekend saw the UK’s only green and ethical living expo come to the Kensington Olympia 2. What better opportunity to try out my new found multimedia skills? Please let me know what you think of my first attempt at video blogging.
(I categorically refuse to say vlogging. Ever.)

The atmosphere in the exhibition hall was buzzing. Around 100 stalls promoted ethical banking, fair-trade foods and clothes swapping, to name but three good causes. You could almost feel the self-satisfaction of punters and stall holders alike.

However, I was very disappointed to find out that the Tesla Roadster, the star attraction, was not on show. The organisers declined to name the motoring journalist responsible for its absence.

Later when I approached The Ecologist magazine, they were very cagey and refused to go on the record about the recent choice to go on-line only, although they did confirm that the new site will have a subscription area to ensure future revenue. Seems like some troubled and uncertain months lie ahead for this invaluable publication.

Overall, the event was exciting, inspiring and packed with innovation. Many thanks to Ed Franklin, James Lloyd and Ptolemy Elrington for their contributions. Please visit their sites and support their fantastic green products.

G20: Protesters strike back

Just when I thought the G20 protests would get swept under the rug, the events of this week have re-stoked the fires of dissent and unrest. The alarming second post-mortem on Ian Tomlinson revealed that the 47-year-old newspaper seller died of internal hemorrhaging not, as was previously thought, a heart attack. Reports suggest that the officer involved could face the charge of manslaughter, so this is definitely one to keep an eye on.

This seems to have garnered genuine public interest and the Evening Standard’s splash yesterday ‘What Have You Got To Hide?’ pours further scorn on the tactics of the Metropolitan Police. It seems this one is not ready for a rug sweeping just yet.

Nicola Fisher does seem to be milking her altercation for all it’s worth and her decision to hire Max Clifford does raise serious doubts about her real motives (as if you need reminding, this is the man who juiced the last days of Jade Goody). Hugo Rifkind acerbically dissects Fisher’s anti-capitalist credentials in a typically witty column for The Times.

But the really impressive footage to arise this weekend comes from Climate Camp in the City. At 9 minutes 50 seconds, this professionally-edited documentary pushes the upper time limit of YouTube, but it is well worth a watch as it wonderfully encapsulates the mood at Climate Camp and exposes some disgraceful police behaviour to break up the protest after dark.

For those of you who don’t have 10 minutes to spare, the highlights are:

4:50 – An officer is clearly seen smacking a protester across the head with his shield.
7:49 – An officer punches a protestor in the face.


Whilst I can partially sympathise with the police who must have had one of the hardest days of their careers, the assaults shown here are simply indefensible. In my last post, I called for a bigger stick to beat the police with. I think the protesters have found it.

The Metropolitan police haven’t seen the back of this one yet.

Lights out for the G20

My view
My view

As I’m sat here in the darkness I’m wondering if this is all worth it. An hour without lights seemed hard enough, but I felt compelled to go the extra mile and forgo all electrical appliances. All that’s left is me and my guitar. Sounds romantic, but it’s too dark to see the frets and my Biffy Clyro impression sounds lousy. I can hear clearly that my neighbour is watching Matrix Revolutions. Seems I’m in this alone.

Last night, in case you missed it, was more than just the beginning of British Summer Time. At 8.30pm WWF’s annual Earth Hour began – an idea which struck me with its simplicity and symbolic power last year, but I never got around to contributing to it. With G20 protests bringing alive the spirit of activism, it felt right to do something personal to try and change the world.

Only to the world I probably looked like a lone nutter. The first few minutes were bizarre – I anticipated 8.30 with mild trepidation as I wondered if I would go through with it or just lame out. As it happened, Earth Hour inconsiderately began half way through my dinner, so I started the hour fumbling with my curry like a diner at Dans Le Noir? After a couple of minutes, however night vision came surprisingly easily. I opened my curtains to let in some natural light. Instead of moonlight, my room was lit up by the distant yellow glow of a million other Londoners happily ignoring this hippy protest.

Newcastle glows with electrical power
Newcastle at night; glowing with electrical power

Symbolic gestures weren’t too scarce (The London Eye, The BT Tower and The Coca-Cola Lights at Piccadilly Circus were all blacked out), but looking out over central London it seemed like few had taken it on themselves to join in.

In truth, I got used to the darkness. It was oddly relaxing not to be hammering away at my laptop or flipping through channels trying in vain to find an episode of Top Gear that I haven’t already seen. Half an hour in I received an encouraging text from my fellow eco-nut and darkness dweller Abby Edge. “I’ve still got my laptop on,” she admitted, “does that count?” I felt proud of my puritanical effort.

I strummed another chord trying to remember some Bob Dylan. Whilst my guitar work leaves a lot to be desired, that is probably more down to a lack of practise than a lack of light. In the end I got so engrossed in my practice that I happily played on in darkness for an extra four minutes at the end of the hour.

What the G20 protests this week show us is that for politicians to really make difficult decisions on the economy or the environment, they need the public pressure. Marching on the city is a great start, but for individual actions to make a difference it’s going to take long-term commitment as well as widespread co-operation. If we don’t then blackouts might not be voluntary in the future.

The good news, I can report, is that Britain is on course for meeting its Kyoto target for 2012. But now is not the time to get complacent. Far from it – now is the time to get active.

By all accounts, WWF seems to be praising Earth Hour 2009 as a huge success. Total figures of CO2 saved have not yet been calculated, but the symbolic power of plunging landmarks into darkness will surely have a worldwide impact.

Plankton To The Rescue!

Obama? A joker. Ethical Living? Pointless. So how are we going to save the world from climate chaos? The answer lies with plankton.

Yes, plankton. The tiny little grubs that whales feed on. It seems environmental scientists have started to get desperate. Either that or the nation’s journalists are resorting to desperate measures to stave off ‘green fatigue‘.

In a nutshell, boffins from the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton have just completed an experiment in which they dumped iron filings in the South Seas to boost plankton levels. The little buggers are quite useful in taking in CO2 from the environment, something we sorely need. Whilst this may have worked, it fell short of the projected amount of CO2 taken in by a factor of 15 to 50 times. (Not sure how that can call themselves scientists and be that imprecise, but nevermind…)

This latest attempt to solve the environmental mess we’ve got ourselves into may be way off the mark, but it does raise for me an interesting issue. Plankton fertilisation is a prime example of geo-engineering. In plain English, the scientists have resorted to messing with the natural balance of things to correct the damage we have already done. Frank Pope at The Times opposes this by arguing that we are meddling with complex eco-systems that we don’t fully understand, but if we can’t use out ingenuity to solve this problem, then how else can we find a way out? It seems logical to put faith in our ability for innovation to ensure the survival of the human race, but if we shy away from experimenting in this way, then surely we are just conceding defeat? Dumping iron filings on plankton is essentially polluting to save the environment, and I’d like to see a Government give funding to that!

Stop Googling To Save The Planet – Has It Come To This?!

Happy New Year! I’ll drink to that. Milk, please. Two sugars.

Don't overfill the kettle, don't fly if you can help it, and oh, stop using Google...
Don't overfill the kettle, don't fly if you can help it, and oh, stop using Google

2009 – It’s the year to save the world, right?

Not if you’re reading this. Chances are you got here via Google, or you’ve at least used it once today, correct? The monopoly Google holds over the search engine niche is comparable only to Tesco and supermarkets, but until now no-one has raised major concerns about the Californian giant’s near total dominance.

Stop press!

In an infuriating article in this week’s Sunday Times, we are told that performing two Google searches produces as much CO2 as boiling a cup of tea and, more frighteningly, that the technological industry gives off more CO2 annually than the aviation industry. The reason for this, according to new research from Harvard, is that Google operates several huge data centres across the world which are all consulted each time you search, resulting in more comprehensive results, but more CO2 emitted on net.

The choice of comparison here is particularly cutting. Not boiling a full kettle of water and cutting down on flying are two simple steps to reducing your Carbon Footprint, and by placing Google emissions above them makes personal small steps seem all the more pointless. It makes me feel like it’s too late to reverse all the bad we have done, and that my petty efforts are insignificant.

I wrote last month of how hard it is to cut back on air travel because of personal inconvenience, but we cannot hope for people to cut back on their internet usage. I shudder to think of the millions of times I have Googled something out of sheer curiosity or laziness. Google is a key research tool for journalists everywhere, and is usually the first port of call. Furthermore, many people, my parents included, set Google as their homepage and search for “hotmail” instead of bothering to type the URL into the address bar.

In both cases it’s just like Pandora’s Box – once we have developed this technology and have seen the amazing things we can do with it, we cannot simply close the box and go backwards. In this case, the onus lies with Google to clean up their act and make their search engine more energy efficient. But is there anything we can do to help? Is it realistic to ask people to use the internet less for environmental reasons? Or is this just needless scaremongering?

It’s The Planes, Stupid!

We’re all in favour of saving the planet nowadays, just as long as it doesn’t get in the way of our lifestyle.

Beautiful, but unnatural
Beautiful, but unnatural

Recycling and Hybrid cars are all the rage, but who wants to give up flying? … anyone?
This is not a widely publicised way of cutting our carbon footprint, mainly because it’s so damn unpopular. Almost as unpopular as population capping. No-one wants to limit their horizons, we all want to see the world, but cutting back on short-haul flights is seen by many as the single most significant thing we can do to save the environment.
According to my tutor Bibi van der Zee, you could live in a mud hut, eating leaves for sustenance, and one flight a year would undermine all that good work. The melting polar-ice caps have led Bibi to contemplate giving up and accepting the inevitable demise of our fragile eco-system.
But one group that refuse to give up are Plane Stupid. This month they stepped up their protests by controversially breaking into Stansted Airport. Eight of the 49 protesters appeared in Harlow Magistrates’ Court today and, by a lucky co-incidence, I was there to see their case get passed on like a hot potato. The case will now go to Chelmsford Magistrates Court after the Harlow Magistrates refused to even deal with the simple criminal matter of trespassing. Clearly they were scared off by the estimated £2.5m in damages quoted by the Crown Prosecution Service.
Regardless of the outcome, you have to admire the audacity of Plane Stupid and their boldness to take action over what they believe in.
At this point, I feel obliged to play my hypocrite card and admit that I am flying to France next month. I love going snowboarding and don’t want to give it up. But, at the rate things are going I may have to start going further afield to find real snow…