2015 and all that

Doctor, doctor…

New_1_thesis

Finally on the ‘write’ lines… (picture source: author’s photograph)

 

In an earlier post many months ago, I noted how I’d passed my PhD viva, although it didn’t feel like it at the time, and was given 12 months to attend to corrections that the examiners felt my thesis needed.

It’s been a while since I posted here (I will try to post more often in future). Since my viva in January, my 2015 has mainly been about working on corrections to my thesis while working part-time in a betting shop, with a brief respite while presenting at the Royal Geographical Society annual conference at Exeter University in early September.

I’ve had a little foray into politics too this year. I stood as a ‘paper’ candidate for the Green Party in my local ward of Castleton in the Rochdale council elections in May. Admittedly, I came 5th of 5 with 166 votes, but only 174 votes behind the 4th-placed Liberal Democrat candidate – not bad, considering Castleton has never had a Green candidate before, and that I don’t have 166 relatives!

I finally submitted the corrections to my thesis on October 27th and, on December 11th, I received an email from Coventry University saying that the examiners were satisfied with my corrections, and recommending the award of PhD.

So it’s official – I’m now Dr Jonathan Kershaw. I’VE GOT MY PHD!!!!!!

It was fantastic news with which to end the year – I now correspond with my nickname ‘Doc’, which I’ve had for over 20 years! Hopefully, I’ll find a suitable position in which to make my PhD work; the future starts here. Exciting times lie ahead. It’s time to update my LinkedIn profile!

Here’s to a happy, prosperous, and sustainable new year. Here’s to 2016!

Dispatching diesel

On 26th January, an episode of Channel 4’s series of ‘Dispatches’ documentaries series claimed we’ve been ‘conned’ into automotively contributing towards local pollution. Is this really the case?

Exhausting... (Picture source: Wikipedia)

Exhausting… (Picture source: Wikipedia)

Traffic, as powered by the internal combustion engine, creates air pollution. It burns, ergo it pollutes, and yet ‘externalities’ such as the health and environmental impacts of fossil fuels seemingly go unregarded, or at least uncosted. I’ve blogged about this issue before but, last week, it made main prime-time television.

The premise of the Channel 4 ‘Dispatches’ programme entitled ‘The Great Car Con’ (available to view until late February) was that the general public was ‘conned’ into buying diesel cars under the premise of their ‘greenness’ and that impending environmental legislation means that those who thought they were doing the right thing may soon be penalised, something I alluded to in a blog post for the Tyndall Centre.

The main justification for diesel’s claimed environmental benefits, and one that was repeated during the programme, was that they do more miles per gallon and, therefore, they emit less carbon dioxide (CO2).

This isn’t strictly true. Diesel contains more carbon than petrol – for example, it was noted in a 2003 paper that there was 2.7kg of embedded carbon in a litre of diesel, compared to 2.4kg in petrol. However, the greater fuel economy of diesel cars does permit lower CO2 per km figures compared to petrol cars, if not a specifically lower CO2 figure per litre, something that wasn’t made clear in the programme.

It may seem pedantic, but would diesel have been thought of as clean or ‘green’ if the specific carbon content of these fuels was initially made clear to the motoring public?

Indeed, the notion or perception of diesel as ‘clean’ is incongruous, as anyone who has stood in the vicinity of a bus as it has pulled away from a bus stop will testify. CO2 aside, all fossil fuels emit a cocktail of pollutants when burned, and their differing combustion characteristics mean that diesel vehicles emit more of such pollutants as particulate matter (PM) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) – now more recognised as life-threatening – than do petrol ones, up to 3×NO2, so the programme claimed.

One thing that the programme seemed to illustrate was the efficacy of fiscal levers – in diesel’s case, CO2/km-based VED (or ‘road tax’) bands – in changing consumer patterns; indeed, new diesel car sales recently overtook new petrol car sales.

Manipulation of the EU’s soon-to-be-replaced NEDC (New European Driving Cycle) laboratory test – something noted by European NGO Transport and Environment (T&E) – was also highlighted in the programme, and brought an interesting quote from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), who claimed that car makers ‘can only meet the regulations’.

However, as we now know more about the health and environmental impacts of fossil-fuelled transport, and if the internal combustion engine is to remain with us for some time yet, here’s a radical idea – how about car makers meeting the science? If being seen to be green is important (and, apparently, it is), imagine what a PR coup beating legislation – rather than merely meeting legislation – would be, and not with some of the spurious manufacturers claims noted by T&E.

So were we conned into buying diesels? I think ‘conned’ is a bit strong – perhaps ‘misled’ is nearer the mark, largely because the fact that there’s more to car emissions than CO2 (a key greenhouse gas, don’t forget) was somehow overlooked. However, if ‘meeting regulations’ is really all car makers can do, then perhaps it’s time that governments, whether at national or supranational level, addressed NO2 and PM emissions as they have previously done CO2 emissions – measure it, levy it (at least in the nearer term) until it is sufficiently reduced.

One thing that is clear is that whether as a consequence of petrol’s CO2/km emissions compared to diesel, or of diesel’s NO2 and PM emissions compared to petrol, it seems we can’t have it all ways with the internal combustion engine.

Viva survivor

Well, I’ve done it. I’ve passed my PhD viva voce exam. Go me!

No, not that kind of Viva... (Picture source: Wikimedia Commons)

No, not that kind of Viva… (Picture source: Wikimedia Commons)

Doctor Jeckythump, I presume?

Er, not quite (at least, I don’t think so). My PhD has been awarded a pass, albeit with ‘major corrections’. This means that while my thesis was deemed original enough to warrant a PhD, there’s still some work to do on it. So I’ve passed, but somehow it doesn’t feel like it.

I noted earlier this week that I was nervous about my viva. I couldn’t help thinking that despite positive comments and feedback I’d received over the last four years or so – from the quality of my writing, to faculty- and university-prizewinning posters, to presentations at conferences held under the auspices of the Tyndall Centre and the Royal Geographical Society (both Postgrad and Annual RGS conferences), to other ‘impacts’ outside of academia such as a post for The Green Car Website and an interview for Road & Track magazine – it could go wrong here.

It was a gruelling experience, and I did rather tie myself up in knots on a couple of occasions. My Director of Studies was present (at my request) though wasn’t permitted to say anything throughout and, as we left the room for the examiners to begin their deliberations, all I could think was “Crap”. Speaking with him after the final verdict, he said I’d had quite a grilling and was pleased with how I’d handled it.

The upshot was that the examiners felt that while my thesis was an engaging read, I could have made more of my data and some aspects of my epistemology needed polishing, though more details about the exact corrections needed will follow in due course.

So my thesis is still a work in progress – at least I won’t have to do the viva again!

It’s been a while…

My PhD was duly submitted – now it’s crunch time.

On the 'write' lines? My PhD thesis manuscript (Picture source: author's photograph).

On the ‘write’ lines? My PhD thesis manuscript (Picture source: author’s photograph).

It’s been some time since I last blogged – in May last year, in fact. Back then, as I embarked upon finalising draft(s) of my PhD, I blogged about ‘geographical inspiration’, about the practical, philosophical and analytical walls and subsequent doubts pertaining to my PhD and how, despite this, I might actually know what I’m on about after all.

Much of my blogging silence was due to finalising my PhD manuscript, which was submitted in September, with other various bits and bobs, such as my part-time job in a bookies, also providing a distraction from blogging since then. Now it’s crunch time as I head down to Coventry later this week for my viva voce, the formal ‘defence’ of my thesis.

Preparation for my viva has included reading – and re-reading – my thesis, and gleaning tips from websites like Medium.com and also from other viva survivors (thanks Mark Horton & Sue Challis); reading about the viva in Patrick Dunleavey’s ‘Authoring a PhD’ has assuaged some viva worries (for now, at least). Even so, I’m nervous about the questions I’ll be facing.

What is the PhD about? How was it done? Why was it done? Why was it not done another way? What was the point? What is it’s contribution to knowledge? Where next? Another question to ponder is whether or not I’ll be a gibbering wreck at the end of it.

I’ve no idea if my viva be a forensic, in-depth grilling or a huge expansion of the presentations of I’ve given at various conferences during my academic ‘career’ so far. Either way, I’ve been assured by several people – my PhD supervisors, family, colleagues (both PhD and in the bookies) – that I’ll be okay. We’ll see.

Wish me luck – I’ll no doubt be posting the outcome on here later this week.

Oh, and a belated Happy New Year!

A geographical inspiration

A PhD is very much a marathon and, no matter how interesting or ground-breaking your research may be, maintaining momentum over three, or even four, years can be difficult.

Geographical inspiration - a Santorini sunset (Picture source: author's photograph).

Geographical inspiration – a Santorini sunset (Picture source: author’s photograph).

I began my university ‘career’ as a mature student, only embarking upon a BSc geography degree in my early/mid thirties, going straight onto an MSc in Environmental Management and Sustainable Development and, after a slight hiatus, embarking upon my PhD.

I recall one lecturer imploring us callow 1st–year Bachelors during one of those group lectures attended by the entire year’s intake – BSc physical geographers, BA human geographers, BSc geographers, BSc environmental scientists, BSc GIS-ers – that, during the course of our degrees, ‘you’ve got to do what you’re interested in, otherwise you’re wasting everybody’s time, especially yours’. Or something along those lines, anyway.

So I did. I managed to pursue several interests during the course of my geography degree, covering everything from cultural geography to post-socialism to vulcanology to quaternary environmental change. My dissertation was about the semiotics of the car.

It was during my MSc that I became further interested in, and pursued subjects on, the environment, climate change and low carbon mobility, with my thesis concerning the environmental impacts of football supporter transport.

I am currently in the final throes of writing up my PhD on socio-cultural regard for the car and the potential impacts of this upon an uptake of low carbon vehicles. Writing about cars and the environment, washed down with a large slug of philosophy – marvellous. At least, in theory.

Actually, it is marvellous – I wouldn’t swap it at all. I’ve spent the last three-and-a-bit years thinking, reading, writing on and around subjects I’m passionate about and, looking back, it’s been brilliant; throw in all the conferences and the contacts with other academics and postgraduates – in person and via the twittersphere – and it’s been a cracking experience. It hasn’t all been plain sailing though.

All postgraduate researchers struggle at some point, hitting practical, philosophical and analytical walls. These walls can take some climbing, and no matter how capable we are, or how immersed or interested in our research we may be, doubts can rise, morale can flag and confidence can wane.

I’ve suffered bouts of that recently, feeling a bit thick at times. I’m sure I’m not the only one. When you live 120 miles away from uni, it can all feel a bit solitary too.

Anyway, a week or so back, a picture appeared in my twitter timeline. It was a retweet by Bangor University’s geography department (@BUGeography) of a tweet posted by the geography department at St. Edmund’s School in Salisbury (@Stedsgeography).

And repeat... (Picture source: @BUGeography @Stedsgeography)

And repeat… (Picture source: @BUGeography; @Stedsgeography)

I retweeted it too. I don’t know where St. Edmund’s got the picture from, whether it was sourced or created, but thanks anyway guys. For some reason, @BUGeography’s retweeting of it woke me up a bit. Just in time for a run of colloquia and conferences, I’m adopting it as a mantra during my writing up – ‘this is my new jam’, as some would say.

So begone, doubt! I am a geographer. I am encouraging others to think a bit differently. I do know my stuff.

And, despite what you may feel sometimes, so do you.

I’m getting on with it – first full draft here we come!

Best of British?

Autocar magazine has released a list of the top 100 British cars, as voted for by its readers. But how exhaustive and/or authoritative is it, and what is a British car anyway?

Original and best - the BMC Mini (Picture source: Wikipedia)

Original and best – the BMC Mini (Picture source: Wikipedia)

The original BMC Mini has topped a poll of the 100 best-ever British cars, as voted by Autocar readers. This isn’t really much of a surprise. After all, Issigonis’s baby was a truly revolutionary car that transcended class, becoming a much loved icon and as much of an emblem of national automobility as the Citroën 2CV, Volkswagen Beetle, Fiat Nuova 500 and Ford Mustang.

That the Mini should be followed in the poll by the McLaren F1, Jaguar E-type and Range Rover (surely the original Rangie, rather than it’s current, somewhat bling, iteration?) is also unsurprising, as they too are all automotive icons in their own way. After that, things get a bit muddier.

Nissan Qashqai. Subaru Impreza. Honda Jazz. Renault Megane. All make the list, but are hardly ‘British’ nameplates, although the Qashqai and the Jazz are built in Sunderland and Swindon respectively. On that basis, surely the iconic Citroën DS qualifies, built as it was in Slough for a time in the 1950s/60s.

Number 5 in the list is the Yamaha MOTIV.e. The ‘what’, you ask? Well, the Yamaha MOTIV.e is only a concept at the moment, developed by Gordon Murray Design in Surrey, though one which promises to revolutionise the car manufacturing process. A great British car? It could certainly be a great British engineering success story. But it isn’t just yet.

So what constitutes a British car? One that’s built here? Designed here? Engineered here? Maybe it’s wood and leather interiors, or some intangible ‘other’ – an underdog-ness perhaps, or a stiff-upper-lip-ness?

I think that two quotes can help provide the answer to this question. Noted academic John Urry from Lancaster University has previously described the car as “the quintessential manufactured object”, while writer and former Design Museum director Stephen Bayley noted in his 1986 book Sex, Drink and Fast Cars that “more than any other manufactured product, the car enshrines and projects the values of the culture that created it”.

Storming the poll at number 80 - Triumph 1300 (Picture source: author's photograph).

Storming the poll at number 80 – the Triumph 1300 (Picture source: author’s photograph).

This would suggest that what makes ‘a car’ is the time, the outlook, the prevailing zeitgeist of where and by whom it was created, whether this pertains to a car’s inspiration, engineering or manufacture – all qualities exemplified by national automotive icons like the Beetle, Fiat 500, Ford Mustang and, yes, the Mini.

A globalised and interconnected world, however, aided and abetted by car manufacturers’ predilections for platform-sharing and badge engineering, necessarily makes it harder to define the national identity of a car, as the ‘time’ and the ‘place’ of a car become less distinct. Would a BMW Mini be any less British if it was manufactured abroad? Is the Citroën C3 Picasso any less French for being manufactured in Slovakia? Was the last generation Fiat Panda any less Italian for being made in Poland or, for that matter, any less ‘Panda’ for sharing a platform, its underpinnings, with the current Fiat 500 and Ford Ka? Does any of this matter?

My PhD concerns how we ‘consume’ the car as avatar, artefact, icon and experience, and I would contend that only we can answer the question of what a car ‘is’, and decide how a car answers back to us (or not, as the case may be), based on our own nature, our own essence, our own affect. Whether a particular car is attractive, desirable, offensive, or even nothing at all, only we know.

This means that, in addition to the observations above, what also makes ‘a car’ is the time, the outlook, the prevailing zeitgeist in which a car is regarded and consumed, and by whom. How we answer the question of what a car is can be manifest in surveys such as the Autocar best of British poll. Yet there are some who claim that the meaning of such ballots can be baseless or even arbitrary.

They may have a point. After all, the meaning of a car is very much negotiated and contested, and can change over time; memories and reputations of cars can be both trashed and rehabilitated. However, it is because of this negotiation and contestation that these polls can also provide a snapshot of the national automotive psyche.

As for the Autocar top 100 itself, I’m just rather chuffed that the Triumph 1300 made the list, beating the Triumph Dolomite Sprint in the process. Although I would like to know what happened to the Austin Metro…

Oh Metro, where art thou...? (Picture source; Wikipedia)

Oh Metro, where art thou…? (Picture source; Wikipedia)

Smog on the Seine

Well that lasted ages, didn’t it? On Sunday 16th March, it was reported in the Guardian that half Parisian motorists would be banned from driving their cars into the city because of the smog caused by high PM10 (particulate matter of 10 microns in size) levels and the prevailing weather conditions which had beset Paris over the last few days.

Traffic leaves Paris fuming (Picture source - telegraph.co.uk)

The environmental impacts of traffic – and of its amelioration – leaves Paris fuming (Picture source – telegraph.co.uk)

Air pollution from transport is a real issue, and Parisian authorities have pondered banning vehicles before – this time, though, they meant it.

Not all motorists would be banned – drivers of electric vehicles, for example, were still allowed to use their cars but internal combustion-engined cars would be permitted depending on whether their number plates were odd or even.

Free public transport and Vélib – the Parisian bike hire service – use was provided over the weekend, at some expense to the transport authorities, to dissuade people from using their cars and ameliorate the pervading air quality. You never know, perhaps one outcome of this measure is that more people may make use of these modes of transport in the future.

Anyway, on Monday 17th, less than 24 hours later, the Guardian was reporting that the ban was to be lifted because air quality levels – along with the weather forecast – had improved. The exercise had been a success.

Had it really been that successful? Both the article and the perceived wisdom from reader comments suggested that Parisians would routinely flout the ban, with some quoted in the article that a €22 fine was worth paying – indeed over 3,500 drivers were penalised. Had conditions really improved that quickly, or was this a response to public reaction?

It seems one thing that the ban had achieved, if only for one day, was reduced congestion. As for air quality – well, if it had improved sufficiently then, if nothing else, the one-day ban has provided a graphic illustration of the nature of traffic pollution and of the difference a transport modal switch can make towards the health of our cities. Of course, it may also be that weather conditions are better placed to disperse excess air pollution, allowing the turning a blind eye to traffic pollution. Again.

After all, it was reported that even those who had complained about traffic pollution were still prepared to use their cars, citing their essentiality. What does this say about our mobility demands and expectations, our mobility rights?

In my last blog post, I pondered the ethics of a similar, longer term, banning of older petrol and newer diesel vehicles from London’s ultra low emission zone (ULEZ), however necessary it may be, noting that if we are to promote a truly sustainable low carbon automobility, a draconian disenfranchising of ordinary motorists is not the best way to go about it. In a consumer society, it seems meeting the environmental imperative is a PR exercise in itself. We need to bring motorists with us.

The car is ingrained into our way of life; it has utterly shaped our landscapes. However, perpetual prevarication over air quality and emission measures may well have left us with no alternative but to apply such stark automotive sanctions. The environmental imperative isn’t going to go away, and we have to consider what price we put on our respiratory health; are we really prepared put our cars and our mobility before our ability to breathe?