31 December 2009

The Taxonomy of Sustainability

As humanity struggles to get to grips with the issues before it in the 21st century, a range of 'sustainabilities' are being defined and articulated - however all fall into two broad categories:

Safe Sustainability

The 'safe' species of sustainability, for which the narrative is to maintain the current trajectory of the human enterprise with a few green tweaks - namely promoting energy efficiency, purchasing greener products, and mitigating the worst aspects of the existing modus operandi that has brought us to where we are today.

It is typified by a focus on the 'T' element of the IPAT equation [where Impact = Population x Affluence, aka consumption x Technology, aka efficiency]. Resource efficiency through technical improvement is the focus of 'safe' sustainability, despite the warning of Jevon's Paradox - that overall expansion will negate any efficiency gains.

It does not dare to have an open, robust discussion about population and consumption issues in all countries.

It will not face the contradiction between its 'eat more' message of economic growth - increasing the numbers of people and the resources they need and want - and the 'eat less' message of use less energy, materials and water.

'Safe' sustainability is a double headed monster, with each head trying to drag the body politic in opposite directions. The result is inertia.

Savvy Sustainability

Then there is the sustainability which is prepared to face and tackle the uncomfortable, the contentious, the politically dangerous.

The sustainability that recognises we need systemic, political change as well as individual action.

The sustainability that acknowledges that climate change - which itself remains unresolved - is merely a symptom of the biggest conundrum facing humanity: the assumption that we can sustain the current 6.5 billion people on the planet on western industrial lifestyles when the planet – according to every source from the IPCC to Millennium Ecosystem Assessment – is saying its not coping now.

The 21st century question is how to ensure that everyone has a good quality of life – of which material living standards are only a part - within the biophysical limits of one planet. Many people will need to raise their material standards of living to secure their quality of life.

We cannot end extreme poverty unless we tackle this.

We cannot address climate change unless we tackle this.

Efficiency will buy us time, but will not address the other two elements of IPAT, the consumption and population issues which are so politically sensitive.

The discussion of limits challenges the policy position of all governments – economic growth. It would be tantamount to political suicide right now to question this consensus. We must abandon safe sustainability and break these taboos before decision makers (not just politicians) will have the legitimacy to address it.

This is the sustainability 'road less traveled' right now - but it is the only way to effectively and fully address this great challenge we face.

Why do we need to keep growing? Is the new purpose for humanity how to grow better, instead of bigger?

'Safe' sustainability might be politically palatable and allow us to stay within our Wizard of Oz poppy field - at least for what remains of a rapidly closing time frame in which to wake up and get on with it - but it won't be able to override the physics of ever greater numbers of people and consumption levels across the planet.

We need to be brave, eschew 'safe' sustainability, get savvy, and begin the task of reinventing the operating code of our human enterprise.

Think The Unthinkable

Reposted in full from Odessa to the Future, 10 December 2009

'Can you envision a society without money? Can you conceive of a functioning economic system without corporations or in which corporations as we have come to know them play a much-diminished role? Can you imagine a truly participatory governance system beyond Congress, Parliament, or Duma? The mere prospects seem jarring, if not subversive. And yet, I would argue, if you are not thinking these thoughts, you are not paying attention. Because looking across the landscape of deep global recession, environmental crisis, and ongoing technological transformation, it is clear that we are at the beginning of a large-scale organizational transformation that will impact everything we do—from how we organize production to how we grow our food to how we govern ourselves.

It is hard to imagine this today, but people have been conducting economic activities for millennia outside of formal organizational frameworks. In such “traditional” or “peasant economies,” humans were engaged in production of a variety of goods and services in which they sold or traded with others in their geographic proximity. You knew who was a good baker, a good shoemaker, who repaid debts on time, and who was a cheat. However, such transactions were limited in scale. The genius of the types of organizations we’ve perfected in the 20th century is that they allowed us to massively increase the range and scale of these interactions by aggregating resources among strangers and by becoming institutional proxies for the kind of trust we previously reserved for our neighbors and family. We needed large hierarchical organizations in order to find, aggregate, and allocate resources efficiently at massive scales.

What happens, however, if we can increasingly find, aggregate, and allocate resources without the organizational infrastructure we’ve created? What if we do not need organizational proxies, or at least, the kind of proxies we’ve come to rely on, for most things we do? In his book “Here Comes Everybody,” Clay Shirky, professor of new media at NYU, writes, “When we change the way we communicate, we change society.” Today, we are indeed changing the communications infrastructure and are just beginning to feel the reverberations of this transformation in our economic life. Publisher Tim O’Reilly calls the infrastructure we are building the “architecture of participation,” and its existence will lead us to re-invent ourselves as a society and as individuals.

After all, organizations we have built are not pre-ordained, inevitable, or immutable creations—they are products of particular times, outgrowths of existing technological, social, and demographic forces. Or as Doug Ruskoff, writer and media expert, puts it, “Economics is not a natural science.”

The new architecture of participation will cause us to reweave the social fabric that links the individual to others and to the larger whole in entirely new ways. It will enable people to find each other, to connect and trade with each other in efficient and productive new ways that are outside of established organizational structures.

So pay attention to new organizational forms that are beginning to dot our landscape. From Kickstarter and LendingClub (new platforms for giving, raising capital, and lending); to Patientslikeme and Curetogether (grassroots platforms for sharing detailed health and treatment data); to numerous mission-oriented project organization platforms like Groundcrew; these are all harbingers of things to come. What is important to study is not whether these particular organizations will survive but the larger shifts they represent. Their design usually does not emerge as a whole from the outset. Rather, we see new structures emerge little by little from the contribution of many. In this, they resemble biological structures in which complexity emerges without a grand central design.

The emergence of new organizational forms coincides with discoveries in neuroscience, biology, quantum physics, and increased ability to model and understand interactions in complex systems. This latest scientific knowledge will usher in new frameworks for how to organize people to get things done.

Scientific management of the 20th century was a brainchild of Frederick Taylor, mechanical engineer and efficiency expert. New gurus of organizational management and design may well be people like Frans De Waal, a primatologist studying empathy and cooperative behavior in groups.'

30 December 2009

They Said It...

From Truthout, December 2009

Jean-Baptiste Say: "Natural wealth is inexhaustible; otherwise, we wouldn't get it for free. Neither increasable, nor exhaustible, it is not the object of the economic sciences."

Chateaubriand: "Forests precede people, deserts follow them."

Gandhi: "The world contains enough for each person's needs, but not enough for everyone's greed."

Anatole France: "It is human nature to think wisely and behave absurdly."

Albert Camus: "It will be necessary to chose, in the more or less near future, between collective suicide and the intelligent use of scientific conquests."

Dennis L. Meadows: "Humanity has lost thirty years. Had we begun to construct alternatives to material growth in the 1970s, we could regard the future in a more relaxed way."

Herman Daly: "Adam Smith's invisible hand has mutated into an invisible foot, kicking nature and society into pieces."

Michel Serres: "If we make the bet of being environmentally imprudent and the future proves us right, we win nothing but the bet and we lose everything if the bet is lost; if we make the bet of being prudent and we lose that bet, we don't lose anything, and if we win that bet, we win everything."

Copenhagen Negotiators Bicker and Filibuster While the Biosphere Burns

Reposted in full from The Guardian, 18 December 2009

'First they put the planet in square brackets, now they have deleted it from the text. At the end it was no longer about saving the biosphere: it was just a matter of saving face. As the talks melted down, everything that might have made a new treaty worthwhile was scratched out. Any deal would do, as long as the negotiators could pretend they have achieved something. A clearer and less destructive treaty than the text that emerged would be a sheaf of blank paper, which every negotiating party solemnly sits down to sign.

This was the chaotic, disastrous denouement of a chaotic and disastrous summit. The event has been attended by historic levels of incompetence. Delegates arriving from the tropics spent 10 hours queueing in sub-zero temperatures without shelter, food or drink, let alone any explanation or announcement, before being turned away. Some people fainted from exposure; it's surprising that no one died. The process of negotiation was just as obtuse: there was no evidence here of the innovative methods of dispute resolution developed recently by mediators and coaches, just the same old pig-headed wrestling.

Watching this stupid summit via webcam (I wasn't allowed in either), it struck me that the treaty-making system has scarcely changed in 130 years. There's a wider range of faces, fewer handlebar moustaches, frock coats or pickelhaubes, but otherwise, when the world's governments try to decide how to carve up the atmosphere, they might have been attending the conference of Berlin in 1884. It's as if democratisation and the flowering of civil society, advocacy and self-determination had never happened. Governments, whether elected or not, without reference to their own citizens let alone those of other nations, assert their right to draw lines across the global commons and decide who gets what. This is a scramble for the atmosphere comparable in style and intent to the scramble for Africa.

At no point has the injustice at the heart of multilateralism been addressed or even acknowledged: the interests of states and the interests of the world's people are not the same. Often they are diametrically opposed. In this case, most rich and rapidly developing states have sought through these talks to seize as great a chunk of the atmosphere for themselves as they can – to grab bigger rights to pollute than their competitors. The process couldn't have been better designed to produce the wrong results.

I spent most of my time at the Klimaforum, the alternative conference set up by just four paid staff, which 50,000 people attended without a hitch. (I know which team I would put in charge of saving the planet.) There the barrister Polly Higgins laid out a different approach. Her declaration of planetary rights invests ecosystems with similar legal safeguards to those won by humans after the second world war. It changes the legal relationship between humans, the atmosphere and the biosphere from ownership to stewardship. It creates a global framework for negotiation which gives nation states less discretion to dispose of ecosystems and the people who depend on them.

Even before the farce in Copenhagen began it was looking like it might be too late to prevent two or more degrees of global warming. The nation states, pursuing their own interests, have each been passing the parcel of responsibility since they decided to take action in 1992. We have now lost 17 precious years, possibly the only years in which climate breakdown could have been prevented. This has not happened by accident: it is the result of a systematic campaign of sabotage by certain states, driven and promoted by the energy industries. This idiocy has been aided and abetted by the nations characterised, until now, as the good guys: those that have made firm commitments, only to invalidate them with loopholes, false accounting and outsourcing. In all cases immediate self-interest has trumped the long-term welfare of humankind. Corporate profits and political expediency have proved more urgent considerations than either the natural world or human civilisation. Our political systems are incapable of discharging the main function of government: to protect us from each other.

Goodbye Africa, goodbye south Asia; goodbye glaciers and sea ice, coral reefs and rainforest. It was nice knowing you. Not that we really cared. The governments which moved so swiftly to save the banks have bickered and filibustered while the biosphere burns.'

Plan B 4.0 By the Numbers – Data Highlights on Selling our Future

Reposted in full from Earth Policy Institute, 17 December 2009

'In Chapter 1 of Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization, Lester Brown underscores important indicators of global stability and resource consumption. The following are summaries of key datasets that inform these discussions.

Each year, the Fund for Peace and Foreign Policy magazine rank 60 “failing states,” countries which on some level fail to provide personal security or basic services, such as education, health care, food, and physical infrastructure, to their people. The countries are evaluated using the Failed States Index, a ten-point scale for each of twelve political, social, economic, and military indicators (i.e., a state that is failing completely receives a score of 120).

Failing states have much in common. Seventeen of the top twenty have high population growth rates (several close to 3 percent per year or twenty-fold per century); these countries have seen enough development to reduce mortality but not fertility. In fact, birth rates in five of these seventeen states exceed six children per woman. Soaring population growth puts strain on educational facilities, as well as food and water supplies. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that almost half of the top twenty failing states depend on food from the UN World Food Programme or that in fourteen of them, at least 40 percent of the population is under fifteen.

As breeding grounds for conflict, terrorism, drugs, and infectious disease, failing states represent a threat to global order and stability. In 2004, only seven countries had scores of 100 or greater. In just four years, the number of states in this category doubled.

Another concern addressed in Plan B 4.0 is how the growing consumption of the earth’s resources is clearly unsustainable. Examining commodity consumption in merely two countries, the United States and China, makes this point.

China now consumes more grain than the United States. It consumes almost twice as much meat, roughly three times as much coal, and nearly four times as much steel. But what would happen if China’s 1.3 billion people were to consume commodities at the same rate as the United States’ 300 million?

For this exercise, we look at how an eight percent annual economic growth rate in China (a conservative projection) would put per capita income in China at U.S. levels by 2024.

At that point, if each person in China were to consume paper at the current American rate, China would need more paper than is produced worldwide today (there go the world’s forests). China would require over half of the current world grain supply. China would also need 90 million barrels of oil per day; however, the world currently produces less than 86 million and is unlikely to produce much more than that in the future.

These projections serve not to blame China for its consumption but rather to illustrate that the western economic model—with meat-rich diets, fossil-fuel powered utilities, and automobile-dependent transportation—will not work on a global scale because there are simply not enough resources. Plan B puts us on a path toward new kind of global economy, one that is powered largely by renewable sources of energy, that has a much more diversified transport system, and that reuses and recycles everything.'

Hypermobility - The Opium of the People

Spot on, on many counts, however therein is the conundrum:

The extension of that [travel] dream to millions of poorer people is one of the most obvious outcomes of prosperity.

...why should only those who can afford to pay, and travel more, be able to travel? Should some travel less so that others may have an opportunity? Vexed questions!

Excerpt from The Guardian, 22 December 2009

Nature loves irony. As Copenhagen's Glastonbury of gloom ended last week and the global warming groupies jetted home, they were greeted by, of all things, a freeze...

My solution to winter travel chaos? Don't travel. Stay indoors. Build a fire. Live and shop within walking distance of civilisation. Associate with neighbours. See distant relatives some other time of the year. Above all, do not complain if you insist on laying siege to motorways, stations and airports and the weather or the labour force let you down, as they do every year. It is not their fault, it is yours for being there.

Of all human activities that bring out the selfish in mankind, nothing compares with travel. The externalities of travel economics should be on every school curriculum. We see mobility through our own eyes alone, with no view of the similar demands of others. I am a free and independent spirit innocently enjoying the right to roam; you are a travel-mad lemming who thinks he has a God-given right to tarmac, train or plane just when I am there. Get out of my way.

[Australian author David Engwicht's 1992 book 'Towards an Ecocity' is an excellent resource re: planning, exchange and mobility - crux]

I need not dwell on the miseries of Copenhagen, except to suggest that it illustrates the problem rather than the solution. The craving to move and to congregate – not least by those who bore all and sundry on the glories of the internet – has been the greatest contributor to CO2 emissions over the past half century, above all from the internal combustion of carbon...

Travelling does as much damage to the earth's atmosphere as all other domestic activities put together. Yet powered movement is a craving no government is willing to curb. Hypermobility is the totem of personal liberty...

As the geographer, John Adams, points out, mobility may seem "liberating and empowering for individuals", but it also destroys the propinquity essential to more efficient living and to community and civic cohesion. Like the internet, which paradoxically appears to boost travel by making it more efficient, hypermobility has replaced real neighbourhoods with pseudo ones.

People rush anywhere that delivers a new experience, from a weekend break to a global warming conference. Hypermobility is the opium of the people. It panders to instant gratification while dulling a sense of community.

Before the invention of jet travel, the idea of a winter holiday was unthinkable for any but the very rich. It was near certain that some hazard would make any journey a dice with disaster...

Since hypermobility both dilutes a sense of place and (mostly) increases carbon emissions, governments should be charged with curbing or at least not promoting it. This means planning the town and country so as to minimise the need for ever longer journeys...

The extension of that [travel] dream to millions of poorer people is one of the most obvious outcomes of prosperity. But it has come at a price, now recognised as higher than previously understood. That price should be acknowledged in fuel duty, road tolls, rail fares and airport taxes, anything to curb demand.

There are no two ways about this. Travelling must bear the global externalities that it imposes on other users of the planet. There is no absolute right to roam. There is no free trip. We must initiate the rebirth of domestic space.'

Thinking Entropically

Excerpt from Gaian Economics, 26 December 2009

'...The first law of thermodynamics is about quantity - there is only so much energy in the universe and it can only be changed from one form to another, never created or destroyed. The second law is about the quality of that energy, which changes as its form changes, and with an inherent tendency towards a higher level of entropy, or disorder.

The first economists to consider why our economy was growing out of control and why economists had no concern for the physical limits of the universe soon identified the cause: the pseudo-science of economics pre-dates the discovering of the laws of thermodynamics by some fifty years. Its Promethean optimism about what humans can achieve operates outside physical reality, and has never been brought into line...'

Ecosystems Strain To Keep Pace With Climate

Excerpt from Planet Ark, 30 December 2009

'Earth's various ecosystems, with all their plants and animals, will need to shift about a quarter-mile per year on average to keep pace with global climate change, scientists said in a study released on Wednesday.

How well particular species can survive rising worldwide temperatures attributed to excess levels of heat-trapping 'greenhouse' gases emitted by human activity hinges on those species' ability to migrate or adapt in place.

The farther individual species - from shrubs and trees to insects, birds and mammals - need to move to stay within their preferred climate, the greater their chance of extinction.

The study suggests that scientists and governments should update habitat conservation strategies that have long emphasized drawing boundaries around environmentally sensitive areas and restricting development within those borders.

A more 'dynamic' focus should be placed on establishing wildlife corridors and pathways linking fragmented habitats, said research co-author Healy Hamilton of the California Academy of Sciences.

'Things are on the move, faster than we anticipated,' she told Reuters. 'This rate of projected climate change is just about the same as a slow-motion meteorite in terms of the speed at which it's asking a species to respond.'

The new research suggests that denizens of mountainous habitats will experience the slowest rates of climate change because they can track relatively large swings in temperature by moving just a short distance up or down slope.

Thus, mountainous landscapes 'may effectively shelter many species into the next century,' the scientists wrote in the study, which is to be published in Thursday's issue of the journal Nature.

This is especially crucial for plant species, which due to their being rooted in the ground cannot migrate at nearly the pace of animals in response to habitat changes.

Climate change will be felt most swiftly by inhabitants of largely flat landscapes, such as mangroves and prairie grasslands, where the rate of warming may more than double the quarter mile per year average calculated for ecosystems generally, the study found...

Lowland deserts are likewise subject to a higher velocity of climate change, although the trend toward protecting large swaths of desert may ease the problem there.

By contrast, much of the world's forest habitats and grasslands already have been severely fragmented by development, making mitigation of climate change in those landscapes harder and leaving their species more vulnerable...'

28 December 2009

Gifts That Tell Good Stories

Reposted in full from Dangerous Intersection, 25 December 2009

'Geoffrey Miller has written an extraordinary book, Spent, that challenges us to recognize that our ubiquitous efforts to decorate ourselves and others with goods and services are primarily to project image and status.

“Many products are signals first and material objects second.” The result is that we often engage in a vast orgy of spending mostly to look good in the eyes of others.

What does this have to do with Christmas? We humans are also creatures who are always looking for shortcuts. Many of us have deliberately chosen to work long hours as part of “career” choices in order to make more money. Most of us who have who have made extra money as a result of those long hours at the office would much rather burn off some of that money at a store than to spend our severely limited amounts of time creating goods or providing services. We’d like to believe that our gift-giving is a display of our good intentions and of who we are, but as Miller points out, the store-bought gifts so many of us buy serve only to display only a narrow range of qualities regarding who we are:

"Buying new, real, branded, premium products at full price from chain-store retailers is the last refuge of the unimaginative consumer, and it should be your last option. It offers low narrative value–no stories to tell about interesting people, places, and events associated with the product’ design, provenance, acquisition, or use. It reveals nothing about you except your spending capacity and your gullibility, conformism, and unconsciousness as a consumer. It grows no physical, social or cultural roots into your local environment. It does not promote trust, reciprocity, or social capital. It does not expand your circle of friends and acquaintances. It does not lead you to learn more about the convention, manufacture, operation, or maintenance of the things around you.

Retail spending reveals such a narrow range of traits: the capacities to earn, steal, marry, or inherit wealth, and the perceptual memory and media access required to spend the wealth on whatever is advertised most avidly now." (p. 271 ff).

Those who procure gifts with a moment’s thought or two, and with the help of credit cards, often fail in their attempts to impress. Retail spending pointedly fails:

"...[a]s a costly, reliable signal of one’s dedication to a particular person (in the case of gifts), or to a particular acquisition (in the case of things bought for self display)."

Miller reminds us that creating something yourself speaks much more loudly than a premade thing purchased at retail. The proof is that gifts which require personal time and creativity make much better “stories” to tell to family and friends.

I largely agree with Miller, though I think that retail spending can make a compelling story in some circumstances. For instance, what if someone has limited financial means, yet digs deeply in order to purchase a nonfrivolous gift that another person truly needs (e.g., assume that someone of limited means provided a student with books that were desperately needed for a coming semester).

During the Christmas season, however, Miller’s version of retail spending is a common occurrence. Most of us patronize retail stores in order to send out ready-made gifts. This much is not disputed. What can be disputed in an interesting way, is why . Many people would claim that we give gifts to each other because we “care about” or “love” each other. Miller’s writings dig several levels deeper, recognizing that we are human animals who have come equipped with deeply felt needs to display our traits to each other, and that we resort to retails gift giving to serve these deep urges. In other words, Miller resource to biology rather than folk psychology:

"Biology offers an answer. Humans evolved in small social groups in which image and status were all important, not only for survival, but for attracting mates, impressing friends, and rearing children. (p. 1)"

During this Christmas season, and at all other times of the year, it is fascinating to re-frame the widespread displays of gift-giving as anciently-honed and deeply-rooted biological impulses geared to ensure survival.'

The Chicken Boom

All aspects of any complex society - information technology, heart surgery, rock concerts etc - is only able to exist because of agricultural surplus that frees human beings from having to be dependent on subsistence food production...

Reposted in full from
Sydney Morning Herald, 28 December 2009

'We think the society around us is solid but there is an old political aphorism: the difference between social order and disorder is 36 hours without food. Think about that for even a moment and you know it's true. Food security is the basis of everything we call civilised. This is the perfect time of year to consider the subject because at this time of abundance, we need to know that Australia's food security is declining.

With the onset of the Great Depression in 1929 came a chicken boom. The humble, productive backyard chook helped America, and Australia, get through the greatest financial crisis and highest unemployment of the last hundred years.

Eighty years later, in an era of factory farming, cheap food and pervasive obesity, this boom in backyard chicken-raising in America is a telling detail because the levels of unemployment, debt, foreclosure and political anger are all far higher in the United States than in Australia.

The world's largest mail-order poultry operation, Murray McMurray Hatchery in Iowa, is shipping almost 2 million live birds a year and has been unable to expand production in pace with demand. (McMurray sells about 170 breeds of birds, including black swans.) The online forum BackyardChickens.com has 40,000 members and is only one of several big chicken online communities in the US. When the American writer Susan Orlean decided to buy a chicken coop and keep a few hens, she stumbled into a social phenomena: ''The chicken movement seems to be expanding exponentially.''

Even the White House has been caught up in acknowledging the long and damaging decline of home-grown food. In March, the first lady, Michelle Obama, became the first occupant of the White House since the Depression to have a working vegetable garden, the last being Eleanor Roosevelt.

Note the symmetry between economic hardship and backyard food.

The Obama plot is producing vegetables on the South Lawn, a site chosen for its visibility to outside visitors. Michelle Obama wants to educate her daughters and the general public about the need for healthy, local, seasonal food at a time when obesity has become America's No.1 health problem. She expects every member of the family to participate in the necessary weeding, including the President, although out of deference to the Commander-in-Chief, she is not growing beetroot because he doesn't like it.

There has even been talk of a chicken coop, which would be a wonderful symbol because every chicken in a backyard is at least one less bird subjected to the grotesque cruelty of factory farming, which we pretend is not the real cost behind every cheap chicken breast, wing and pale egg.

The hidden costs of our food system are high. There is the obvious cost in health as our diets have an abundance of bulk and taste but an increasing paucity of nutritional value. The energy cost is extremely high, with a mass-distribution system built on transportation, packaging, refrigeration, storage and preservation. The moral cost is also high as food animals, especially chickens, live out their lives in an abject state of constriction.

The solution is partly within our grasp. One of Australia's sustainability visionaries, Michael Mobbs, whose famous inner-city house is completely self-sufficient in energy and water, has developed the embryo of a system of urban street gardens - communal food production in the spare space on our footpaths.

His street, Myrtle Street, Chippendale, has multiple but unobtrusive fruit and vegetable patches, and communal composting bins. If you didn't know, you might not even realise it. You'd just think the street was unusually bushy. His scheme has had no problems from City of Sydney council, quite the contrary. ''The council has taken what we've done in Myrtle Street and made it draft policy for the whole council area,'' he says. ''That's a real win.

''I know of a dozen streets that I'm directly involved with that are doing street gardens,'' Mobbs said. ''I think there must be hundreds more. Food transcends party politics. Food is the future of politics.''

The council is even considering setting up an urban farm on one of its green spaces to grow vegetables and produce eggs.

A more advanced variation on this grassroots theme is the Landshare program set up by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, the Devon-based TV chef and organic food producer. As a food and media impresario, Fearnley-Whittingstall has not wasted his celebrity on mere fame but championed self-sufficiency, organic food, and the consumption of local, seasonal produce.

Landshare uses the internet to match people with spare land and those who want to grow vegetables. It has become nationwide, with 1300 landowners, 3500 gardeners and 500 helpers across Britain.

Australia, in contrast, is going in the opposite direction. Much of the rich farmland surrounding Sydney and Melbourne has been replaced by urban spread. There are just 1050 surviving market gardens around Sydney and half are in the sights of the developer-dominated NSW Labor Government.

Australia's food security is going backwards. Our lax food-labelling laws are being exploited by the giant retail chains to import cheap food from abroad, mix it with Australian product and, if more than 50 per cent of the value of the mix is Australian, to label it ''Made in Australia''. The consumer is being duped and the practice is sending some local farmers broke.

If Australia's population keeps growing at a rate of 1.2 million people every three years, and the Murray-Darling Basin continues to degrade, and the arid zone continues to expand, and cheap imported food continues to out-compete local product, Australia will become a net importer of food sooner rather than later. Hard to imagine, but inevitable on present trends.

Food for thought.'

Rediscovering The Vanishing Face of Gaia

Review of James Lovelock’s most recent book The Vanishing Face of Gaia

Excerpt from Worldwatch Transforming Cultures blog, 23 December 2009

'Ultimately, one of the most important cultural changes needed is an understanding that we are part of and completely dependent on a living planetary system...

As Lovelock notes, our current understanding of climate regulation is shaped by our view that Earth is but a ball of rock rather than “a live planet that regulates itself.” Once we understand Earth in systems terms, we see just how dire the climate situation really is.

The idea that temperature will slowly and uniformly inch up - as is described in IPCC consensus models - is inaccurate according to Lovelock. Rather, we’ll hit a discontinuity where the system shifts rapidly from its current state to a “hot state.”...

Lovelock’s ideas - perhaps because they’re complex and not reductionist like today’s science and because they’re outside the dominant cultural mythos (e.g. that man is separate from and above nature and not a mere organ of a larger entity)—barely penetrate the discussions even within the environmental community and have not been pulled into climate modeling on which IPCC projections are made...

Vanishing Face also reminds us that embedded in a culture of sustainability will necessarily be an understanding of our utter dependence on Earth and an understanding of it as a living complex system. What this specifically looks like will certainly vary across cultures - some may deify Earth as in millennia past, others may revere but not worship the planet, and others still may describe this dependence in purely intellectual and scientific terms - in “geophysiological terms” as Lovelock is fond of saying. But this is one cultural evolution that will surely be central to our survival as a flourishing part of Earth - whether in its current state or in a hotter one.'

Funding Wars the Climate Way

EXCELLENT recasting of the issue!

Excerpt from Worldwatch Green Economy blog, 18 December 2009

'At the Copenhagen climate conference, one of the key sticking points is finance - adaptation support for those countries that are most vulnerable to the repercussions of a destabilized climate, yet are least culpable and least able to undertake measures to reduce the negative consequences of living in a warming world...In our deeply compartmentalized world, few ask why governments are super-cautious and stingy in the face of this danger, but are quite happy to keep feeding their war machines?

In times past, pacifists would half-jokingly say that they looked forward to a time when governments would have to hold a bake sale to finance their next armaments purchase. So, a subversive thought occurred to me: Let’s finance and govern warfare the climate way. Eternal peace can’t be far behind.

Just think: Money for war would depend on meeting tough conditionalities that are subject to an elusive international accord. Governments in military alliances would pledge that they “are prepared to work with other countries toward a goal” of mobilizing an aspirational sum of money for the military. And the bulk of the financing would become available in the distant future—and essentially consist of existing funds presented as a new package.

Governments would announce their expectation that “funding will come from a wide variety of sources” - because if carbon markets are such a great way to finance climate programs, then shouldn’t the same principle be applied to raising funds for war? Let countries exceeding their allocation of AWUs (assigned warfare units) purchase additional war indulgences from those that have stayed within their martial limits.

A farce, you say? Indeed! The point here, of course, is to raise questions about governmental priorities and long-accepted, yet badly outdated conceptions. If melting glaciers, rising oceans, failing harvests and raging storms portend growing upheavals that could shake the foundations of human society, then is it too much to ask that climate challenges be treated with at least the same degree of seriousness as the toys sought by the boys?

In a world where military spending in 2008 ran close to $1.5 trillion, the haggling at Copenhagen over the comparatively small climate adaptation budgets has an unreal quality. Refuse to make adequate resources available now, and be prepared to spend far, far more in the not-too-distant future—on humanitarian operations, disaster relief [COP15 webcast], migrant and refugee flows … and on dealing with the conflicts that will likely sharpen because of climate chaos.'

From the Now Show, 18 December 2009 - Marcus Brigstocke gives us a Dr Seuss-style take on events at Copenhagen.

23 December 2009

Shaping Australia’s Resilience: Policy Development for Uncertain Futures

Conference to be held at Australian National University, 18-19 February 2010

From Australia21 conference announcement:

'Resilience is rapidly gaining attention in government, industry and academia all over the world. What does it mean and why is it important? How will it impact on the decisions made in the private, public and community sectors in coming decades?

Briefly stated, resilience is the capacity of complex systems to respond to external shocks and insults without losing their essential functions and identity. This capacity is not a fixed entity, and resilience can be lost or enhanced in various ways, including changes in the composition of the system. The concept is increasingly being applied to man-made and social systems, having grown from new understandings about complex adaptive systems, many of which have come from the natural world.

Resilience is not always a good thing. Sometimes a complex system needs to adapt and transform in response to external shock. Better understanding of complex systems, feedback loops and resilience thinking is urgently needed as the human world confronts the interwoven challenges of overpopulation, climate change, peak oil, and the fragility of man-made economic systems.

Australia 21 has in recent year’s undertaken exploratory work on the application of resilience thinking to Australian society. Several Australia 21 publications have laid the groundwork for this first national conference, which will bring thinkers, researchers and policy makers together to determine how a resilience lens can help to build a brighter future in deeply uncertain times.
For this first meeting we have invited experts and thinkers from many domains of Australian life and from overseas to assist policymakers at all levels of Australian society to develop their ideas on the application of resilience thinking. We expect that one outcome of the meeting will be the development of a set of principles that are widely understood and shared as a policy basis for our future as a nation.

The four parallel workshops on Day 2 of the conference will be an opportunity for policy makers who are relatively new to the resilience concept, to explore with others the application of resilience thinking to their own field of expertise.'

Economic Degrowth Today - International Conference, 25-28 March 2010, Barcelona

Excerpt from Growth in Transition, 11 September 2009

'This is a preliminary call for a second conference on socially sustainable economic degrowth, linking economic, environmental and social perspectives, with emphasis on practical policies & concrete proposals...

The economic crisis of 2008-09 has actually implied unplanned economic degrowth in Europe, United States, Japan, Latin America. A positive side effect has been a small decrease in CO2 emissions, breaking the totally unsustainable trend until 2007. Material flows mobilized by the economy have also decreased in 2008-09. This brings a new perspective. Economic degrowth can be good for the environment but it must be socially sustainable.

The 2nd international conference on economic degrowth for ecological sustainability and social equity follows the first international conference (Paris, April 2008, http://events.it-sudparis.eu/degrowthconference/en/), that took place with the support of the European Society for Ecological Economics, Club of Rome (Brussels/Europe), Telecom Sud-Paris and SERI (Sustainable Europe Research Institute) and was attended by 150 participants, involving presentations by some 90 scientists.

The first conference was a breakthrough and opened the way to a change of paradigm (see the declaration of the conference). The second international conference on degrowth will focus on the new conditions posed by the economic crisis and work to develop clear policy proposals and strategies for action on degrowth and define the key open questions and research agenda. The conference will foster interaction between participants and put emphasis on the development of cooperative research.

This second conference builds on the success of the first conference and the momentum of a community of scholars and scholar-activists developing research on degrowth. The proceedings of the first conference was downloaded by thousands of people and a special issue is under preparation for the Journal of Cleaner Production. The need for research on degrowth is even higher than two years ago. Managed well, the current slowing down of the economy may be a good opportunity to avert climate and environmental catastrophe and at the same time improve human well-being and social equity, if the right actions are undertaken...'

Greens Should Revel in Christmas, Not Shun It

Reposted in full from The Ecologist 21 December 2009, from deep green economist Molly Scott Cato

'Most of the time I find it is not only easy being Green, but a positive pleasure. Christmas, however, is a different matter. Christmas is a time when it is difficult to be green without seeming rather like a curmudgeonly Ebenezer. Greens tell each other not to send cards, not to buy gifts, not to over-indulge. The annual Christmas stuffing is a waste of energy, while the marketing campaigns distort and commodify our childhood memories, as though comfort and joy could be summoned merely by donning Victorian clothing and a liberal sprinkling of glitter. So can we find a way of celebrating that is not offensive to our new consumption ethic?

For several years now I have seen my Christmas spending as having a double effect, what a conventional economist might like to think of as a 'multiplier effect'. I make sure to buy gifts locally and, if possible, produced from materials grown in the local environment, such as a hand-made wicker hamper filled with wines and cheeses bought in the farmers’ market. This spending gives pleasure to my friends and family and also reinforces the bioregional economy — a new twist on ‘two for the price of one’.

However, this year I can go one better by doing all my Christmas spending in Stroud pounds. We launched our local currency in September and have over 100 members of the scheme and more than 30 traders. From vintage clothes for my kids and CDs for my parents to the festive drinks, turkey and Christmas tree — all are available in a currency which is designed to serve the local economy rather than the global banksters. The value of the multiplier has now reached three since this spending is supporting local producers, giving pleasures to those who receive the gifts, and reinforcing the Stroud Pound Co-operative.

I think it is a mistake for greens to ignore Christmas; rather we should reclaim it from the tawdry offering of the corporations. Our native British traditions created a joyful and hopeful connection with the natural world, at a time when the flame of life can seem at its most dim. Bringing the yule log and mistletoe into the home reinforced our relationship with nature, while the preserved fruits in the Christmas pudding recalled the sweetness of the summer which had passed, but would return.

Christmas was also an opportunity for a bit of seasonal anarchy, under the temporary reign of the Lord of Misrule. This indulgence and escape from work routines lasted for a full twelve days and has survived into the 21st century, suitably downsized, in the form of the annual Christmas party, when drunkenness is used as an excuse to subvert the hierarchy for an evening. The campaign to displace the X-factor single with a re-release of the Rage Against the Machine classic ‘Killing in the Name Of’ is your chance to turn the world of popular music topsy-turvy this festive season.

Kate Soper writes of what she calls ‘alternative hedonism’, which sounds a lot more appealing than the hair-shirt and sandals of the greenie stereotype. It is a phrase that describes the pleasures we can achieve without vast expense and without a trip to the global supermarket. In Stroud the alternative hedonists congregate in the Prince Albert on the Sundays of December to sing traditional English carols. None of your Once in Royal David City for them, but rather the old Cornish favourite Sound Sound Your Instruments of Joy and other such lusty remnants of pagan Britain. Festive cheer accompanied by a roast lunch and a pint — both for sale in Stroud pounds of course.'

21 December 2009

Mini Ice Age Took Hold of Europe in Months

Excerpt from New Scientist, 14 November 2009

'Just months - that's how long it took for Europe to be engulfed by an ice age. The scenario, which comes straight out of Hollywood blockbuster The Day After Tomorrow, was revealed by the most precise record of the climate from palaeohistory ever generated.

Around 12,800 years ago the northern hemisphere was hit by the Younger Dryas mini ice age, or "Big Freeze". It was triggered by the slowdown of the Gulf Stream, led to the decline of the Clovis culture in North America, and lasted around 1300 years.

Until now, it was thought that the mini ice age took a decade or so to take hold, on the evidence provided by Greenland ice cores. Not so, say William Patterson of the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, Canada, and his colleagues.

The group studied a mud core from an ancient lake, Lough Monreagh, in western Ireland. Using a scalpel they sliced off layers 0.5 to 1 millimetre thick, each representing up to three months of time. No other measurements from the period have approached this level of detail.

Carbon isotopes in each slice revealed how productive the lake was and oxygen isotopes gave a picture of temperature and rainfall. They show that at the start of the Big Freeze, temperatures plummeted and lake productivity stopped within months, or a year at most. "It would be like taking Ireland today and moving it up to Svalbard" in the Arctic, says Patterson, who presented the findings at the BOREAS conference in Rovaniemi, Finland, on 31 October...

The mud slices from the end of the Big Freeze show that it took around two centuries for the lake and climate to recover.

Patterson says that sudden climate switches like the Big Freeze are far from unusual in the geological record. The Younger Dryas was brought about when a glacial lake covering most of north-west Canada burst its banks and poured into the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans. The huge flood diluted the salinity-driven North Atlantic Ocean mega-currents, including the Gulf Stream, and stalled it. Two studies published in 2006 show that the same thing happened again 8200 years ago, when the Northern hemisphere went through another cold spell...

Patterson's team have now set their sights on even more precise records of historical climate. They have built a robot able to shave 0.05 micrometre slivers along the growth lines of fossilised clam shells, giving a resolution of less than a day. "We can get you mid-July temperatures from 400 million years ago," he says.'

Clearing Oasis Trees Felled Ancient Peru Civilisation

Reposted in full from New Scientist, 7 November 2009

'The ancient Peruvian Nazca people, famous for creating giant, elaborate lined images on a desert plateau that are visible from space, may have brought about their own destruction by cutting down trees that protected the land they lived on.

That's the verdict of new research into pollen remains in the Ica river valley in southern Peru, where the civilisation thrived for 500 years until the people started to disappear at the start of the 6th century AD.

The prevailing explanation for the Nazca people's demise is that a huge flood wiped out not only their settlements but also their delicate irrigation systems, leaving a desert where no one has lived since.

The new findings agree that the flood was what finished off the Nazca, but suggest the people would probably have survived it if they hadn't already cleared native huarango trees to make way for maize, cotton and beans.

With roots reaching as deep as 60 metres underground to seek out water, lifespans beyond 1000 years and leaves that trap airborne moisture, huarango trees (Prosopis pallida) were a "keystone" species that turned otherwise arid river banks in Peru into oases flanked by fertile flood plains. They also fertilised the otherwise poor soil by dropping leaves and fixing nitrogen.

Their extensive root systems physically anchored the oases in place, and protected them from periodic floods; their huge branches deflected the wind, which can be fiercer than 100 kilometres per hour. Once this protection was gone, the huge flood in around 500 AD destroyed the agricultural systems with which the Nazca people had replaced the huarango, turning the terrain into desert.

The civilisation is best known for the Nazca lines, a series of hundreds of enormous images including human figures, hummingbirds, fish, llamas, lizards, monkeys and spiders. They were created by scraping away red surface pebbles to reveal white rock beneath, and some are more than 200 metres across.

David Beresford-Jones of the University of Cambridge and Alex Chepstow-Lusty of the French Institute for Andean Studies in Lima, Peru, analysed 1.5-metre-deep profiles of pollen distribution in soil from Nazca oasis sites.

In the oldest, deepest layers, about 70 per cent of the pollen is from huarango trees. Around 1.2 metres down, pollen from crops such as maize and cotton joins that of the huarango, showing the beginnings of agricultural expansion.

And around a depth of 80 centimetres, corresponding to around 200 AD to 400 AD, the crop pollen starts to dominate, and huarango pollen rapidly diminishes, showing that most trees had been felled.

Suddenly, about 50 centimetres down – corresponding to about 500 AD – the only pollen is from plants of the Chenopodiaceae and Amaranthaceae families, which thrive in salty water, marking the flood that doomed the Nazca. Thereafter, the salty soil could no longer support crops.

The researchers also found hundreds of huarango stumps, confirming the trees had been chopped down.

They warn that protecting trees like the huarango that thrive in arid regions might be crucial as a fifth of the world's poorest people live on arid land, much of which has suffered degradation induced by humans. Planting trees, on the other hand, has helped reclaim desert in Niger.

What happened to the Nazca carries lessons for us, says William Laurance, an authority on deforestation at James Cook University in Cairns, Queensland, Australia. "As they say, those who don't learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them."'

Scraping the Bottom of the Barrel

...why do we persist in investing our energy into developing finite [and ever more polluting] fuel resources instead of working out how make renewable energy more widespread and robust?

Excerpt from New Scientist, 5 December 2009

'Eighty-five million barrels. That's how much oil we consume every day. It's a staggering amount - enough to fill over 5400 Olympic swimming pools - and demand is expected to keep on rising, despite the impending supply crunch.

The International Energy Agency forecasts that by 2030 it will rise to about 105 million barrels per day with a commensurate increase in production (see graph), although whistle-blowers recently told The Guardian newspaper in London that insiders at the IEA believe the agency vastly over-estimates our chances of plugging that gap. The agency officially denies this.

Wherever the truth lies, it is widely expected that by 2030 we will have passed the peak of conventional oil production - the moment that output from conventional oil reserves goes into terminal decline. A report from the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC) published in August said there was a "significant risk" it would happen before 2020. And that means we will soon be staring down the barrel of the ultimate oil crisis.

Some governments and corporations are waking up to the idea and beginning to develop alternatives to keep the world's transport systems moving when cheap oil runs out. These include biofuels, more energy-efficient - or electric - cars, and hydrogen. But
none of these is likely to make up the global shortfall in time. The pressure is on to keep the black stuff flowing and so the next two decades will see an unprecedented effort to exploit increasingly exotic and unconventional sources of oil. They include tar sands (a mixture of sand or clay and a viscous, black, sticky petroleum deposit called bitumen), oil shale (a sedimentary rock containing kerogen, a precursor to petroleum) and synthetic liquid fuels made from coal or gas.

Purely in terms of geological abundance, these sources look more than sufficient to meet global demand. According to the IEA, taken together, they raise the remaining global oil resource to about 9 trillion barrels (see map) - almost nine times the amount of oil humanity has consumed to date. The trouble is that the name "non-conventional oil" hides several dirty little secrets and a whole host of huge challenges.

Conventional oil refers to liquid hydrocarbons trapped in deep, highly pressurised reservoirs, which means that when the wells are drilled, the oil usually gushes to the surface of its own accord. Non-conventional oils are not so forthcoming, and need large amounts of energy, water and money to coax them from the ground and turn them into anything useful, like diesel or jet fuel.

As a result, non-conventional oil production to date has been slow to expand - with current output of just 1.5 million barrels per day. Not only that, because they take so much energy to produce, they are responsible for higher carbon emissions per barrel than conventional oil.

But, slowly, things are beginning to change. Growing awareness of the impending oil shortage and its ramifications - Deutsche Bank predicts a barrel price of $175 by 2016, for example - has driven a surge of investment in new technologies to recover non-conventional oil more effectively. "Canada could eclipse Saudi Arabia," says Julie Chan, vice-president of finance at E-T Energy, a Canadian company developing a new technique to extract oil from tar sands. So are non-conventionals poised to swoop in and confound the peak-oil doomsayers? Can we expect a new era of expensive, technologically demanding and environmentally damaging oil?

The most famous of the non-conventional resources are the Canadian tar sands, where proven reserves are second only in size to Saudi Arabia's conventional crude. Today, production stands at 1.2 million barrels per day. Tar sands containing bitumen are extracted from huge opencast mines and processed to produce oil. But mining and processing the raw bitumen is expensive and requires huge volumes of water (see diagram). In Canada, the industry is already reaching the legal limits of what can be drawn from the Athabasca river in winter. Worse, mining is only possible for deposits less than about 75 metres deep, and that's just 20 per cent of the total resource. So a whole range of new technologies is now being explored to extract the deeper bitumen...'

Are We Heading for a Uranium Crunch?

Excerpt from New Scientist, 28 November 2009

'As the world prepares for the largest investment in nuclear power in decades, owners of uranium mines last week raised the prospect of fuel shortages. To make things worse, the reliability of estimates of the amount of uranium that can be economically mined has also been questioned.

Volatile oil and gas prices, along with the threat of global warming, have pushed governments to reconsider nuclear energy, partly because it is a low-carbon technology and partly because uranium supplies seem plentiful.

Mined uranium caters for about 60 per cent of the global demand for nuclear fuel. The rest comes from secondary sources, including stockpiles left over from the 1970s and 1980s, reprocessed fuel and the conversion of old Russian nuclear warheads...

But the supply may not be as secure as first thought. The price of uranium has plummeted from a peak of around $130 per pound of uranium oxide ($286 per kilogram) in 2007 to $45 today (see graph). Some of this decline is due to slumping fossil fuel prices and some from the uncertainty surrounding the industry.

For example, investors do not know how many of the world's older reactors will be decommissioned and when. They are also unsure about the supply of secondary uranium...

This uncertainty is stifling investment in new mines, which could lead to future shortages, says Jean Nortier, chief executive of Uranium One, a mining and exploration company based in Vancouver, Canada. "Current prices are much too low to provide the incentive needed to meet the medium and long-term demand for uranium," he says.

Added to this are concerns that uranium resources may have been overestimated. The International Atomic Energy Agency and the Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) publish biennial estimates of global uranium resources in the so-called Red Book...

The 2007 Red Book estimates that there are 5.5 million tonnes of uranium that can be mined for less than $130 per kilo, up from 4.7 million tonnes in 2005. The uranium resources that make up these estimates are split into two categories: reasonably assured and inferred. In the normal process of geological discovery, Dittmar says, increases should be to both categories. But "almost all the increase comes from this second category", he says.

Other changes also seem odd, Dittmar says. In Niger, for example, resource estimates since 2003 have fluctuated in a way that is hard to explain geologically. The changes may be politically motivated, he says, perhaps to influence investment in the country.

Robert Vance, a nuclear energy analyst at the NEA, says he cannot rule out this kind of activity, but adds that there are strict rules governing resource estimation. "We work very hard to ensure that the data is reliable," he says.

The Red Book shows that there are more than enough resources to meet future demand, Vance says, adding that the industry is aware of the dwindling secondary resources and is prepared to ramp up the supply from mines. For example, Kazakhstan is increasing uranium production at a rate of 30 per cent per year, making it one of the world's largest producers.

However, mining companies in developed nations will be unable to increase production at a similar rate because of strict environmental laws. "Western countries planning to expand their nuclear capacity without their own source of uranium ought to be looking at the figures very carefully," says Dittmar.'

African Conflicts Spurred by Warming

Excerpt from the New Scientist, 28 November 2009

'Africa is poised to experience a surge in civil wars, causing nearly 400,000 additional battle deaths by 2030 – all as a direct result of rising temperatures. This bold prediction is one of the most alarming results yet toemerge from attempts to discover how climate change will affect patterns of human conflict. It is already proving controversial.

Previous attempts to model the effects of climate on patterns of conflict in Africa have mostly concentrated on rainfall. But now researchers led by Marshall Burke at the University of California, Berkeley, and David Lobell of Stanford University have studied both rainfall and temperature. They found that warming was much more
strongly associated with civil strife than precipitation.

Burke and Lobell analysed data on the incidence of African civil wars alongside local temperature and rainfall measurements from 1981 to 2002. They found a strong relationship between spikes in temperature and the likelihood of civil war. Because climate models give fairly consistent predictions for warming across Africa, the researchers were able to forecast a 54 per cent rise in the incidence of civil conflict by 2030, resulting in an extra 393,000 combat deaths. The prediction assumes that global carbon dioxide emissions are not curbed in the short term and that future wars are as deadly as recent ones.

Other researchers agree that temperature changes may affect conflict, but some are sceptical that the effect will be as large as Burke and Lobell claim. "I'm just not convinced," says Peter Brecke of the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, who has previously found a global link between increased conflict and the Little Ice Age, which lasted from around 1400 to the late 1800s.

One issue is that the two-decade period studied by Burke and Lobell may have been unusually conflict-prone, amplifying the apparent effect of temperature. Cullen Hendrix, a political scientist at the University of North Texas in Denton, points out that some countries were destabilised when the superpowers withdrew aid to African dictators as the Cold War ended. "This is probably going to wind up being the first salvo in a pretty significant debate," he says...

If the link bears further scrutiny, policy-makers will need to know how warming triggers conflict. Burke and Lobell say the most likely explanation is that warmer temperatures reduce crop yields or other aspects of economic productivity, increasing social tension. But some studies have suggested that it's inherent in people to become more violent when the mercury rises.

Rich nations can provide economic aid or share plant-breeding technologies that allow crops to withstand extremes of climate, says Hendrix, "but we can't change human nature".'

19 December 2009

Breaking the Population Taboo

Excerpt from Dangerous Intersection, 9 December 2009

'...many people are too horrified to even consider this topic. One such person repeatedly vilified me in the comments, arguing that I was an elitist (and worse) because I merely dared to raise this issue.

But this issue of overpopulation is too important to ignore. The bottom line issue is this: In terms of human animals, what is the carrying capacity of the Earth? Thoughtful people immediately recognize that this question inevitably dovetails with the issue of quality of life. For instance, if we’re willing to settle for a degraded standard of living in the US, we could add three billion more people to the US and live a desperate disease-ridden scorched-earth existence. That is what you would expect, of course, unless you were one of those people who plans on multiple new scientific revolutions (including a massive new green revolution) that will save the day, allowing us to pack even more people onto the planet. In my mind, though, rational people don’t plan on miraculous good things. Yes, they are hopeful that some good things will happen, but rational people have the courage to acknowledge the clear evidence of our highly stressed resources and they make their plans based on these limitations and dangers.

As I mentioned at the top, overpopulation is an issue that makes many people go ballistic. They ridicule those who even raise this issue at all, accusing them of things that they are making up in their heads. These accusers don’t want the issue discussed at all – they want to pretend that the degradation of our environment and our dwindling natural resources have nothing to do with the the fact that we are adding people to Planet Earth at a ferocious clip.

Based upon numerous articles I’ve referenced at this website over the years (regarding energy, food, water, soil), this issue of overpopulation desperately needs to be discussed. It should even be the headline story on a regular basis. Every time a news source reports on an oil war, or climate change, or food shortages, there should be an asterisk reminding the reader that this issue has been exacerbated by overpopulation. Overpopulation is rarely raised by news publishers, however. They dare not raise it starkly, for the reasons sketched above.

GPSO has recently announced its GPSO 2010. Here is the idea in a nutshell:

The idea of Global Population Speak Out (GPSO) is that those of us who care about this issue need to discuss the issue publicly, and that the best way to do this is to speak out together. Here is the position of GPSO:

The size and growth of the human population are fundamental drivers of the ecological crisis we face — no less crucial than emissions, over-consumption in developed nations, habitat loss and toxic pollutants. If we hope to avert worldwide catastrophe, many experts agree, we’ll need to continue working strenuously on those issues but also conduct a massive shift of attention and resources toward humane, progressive measures designed to stabilize and ultimately reduce world population to a sustainable level.

Yet there exists today a taboo of sorts against public discussion of overpopulation. Outside the scientific community, calls to address overpopulation often meet vigorous, ill-informed criticism and blatant hostility from both the left and right. Most of these sorts of objections are either obstinately ideological or stem from financial interests dependent on population growth for profit. There are also well-known historical instances of shockingly coercive, involuntary birth control measures being implemented by misguided state policy. Understandably, few in a position to speak out on the population topic care to do so under such conditions.

Change does not spring from silence, however. We must find a way to break down the taboo and bring the population issue — which is absolutely fundamental to sustainability — back to the center of public discussion.

Over the decades, writers such as Paul Ehrlich have sounded the alarm, arguing that we are headed for a disaster. Ehrlich’s estimates turned out to be overly-pessimistic and he was vilified by many people, including many people who refuse to face up to the dangers of failing to address overpopulation. All indications are, however, that only Erlich’s time line was inaccurate, and that we human inhabitants of earth truly are in a desperate situation that is being exponentially compounded by our sheer numbers.

It is again time to raise this critically important topic. Until we frankly acknowledge the fact of overpopulation, we will be unable to discuss potential solutions to the problem (one potential solution involves focusing on the resource-hog lifestyles of many developed countries). It is not presumed by anyone I know that the solution involves casting most of the blame on third-world populations. We are all part of the situation and we can all contribute to solutions.

Earth is a big blue Lifeboat spinning through space. Imagine a real life lifeboat holding 50 people, and eking out subsistence for its occupants thanks to occasional rainfalls and through modest success in fishing. Imagine that the no rescuer appears, however, and that over a period of years, many of the occupants of the lifeboat start having babies. Imagine that this boat was designed to hold 50 but that it is now carrying 75 people, and that the meagre resources are being stretched to the breaking point. Imagine, further, that no one on the boat wants to raise the topic of the carrying capacity of the lifeboat. Imagine that they won’t raise the topic because when they tried to do so in the past they were shouted down and told to shut up.

Would that be a smart way to run any sort of lifeboat?'

17 December 2009

Feeding The 5000

From Feeding the 5000

'On the 16th December a free lunch made from delicious ingredients that would otherwise have been wasted will be prepared for 5000 people. Everyone is welcome. Our aim is to highlight the ease of cutting the unimaginable levels of food waste in the UK and internationally.

In the days and weeks before 16th December Feeding the 5000 will receive tonnes of generously donated fresh produce from farms, packers and markets – from the tonnes of produce that are ‘outgraded’ for being cosmetically imperfect and which would have been wasted though they are still good to eat.

The produce will be delivered to the food depot of our main partner, FareShare. From there it will be taken to the commercial kitchens which have been kindly given over to us for the event. Here it will be prepared into soup and other food for the day by an army of volunteers trained in food handling and preparation.

The food will be delivered by FareShare to Trafalgar Square on the 16th December and prepared in time for the free lunch, starting at 12 noon. Meanwhile, smoothies from fresh surplus fruit will be made by a team of bicycle-powered smoothie makers and handed out to passers-by.

Leading chefs, including Thomasina Miers, will perform live cooking demonstrations and there will be speakers from the food and farming industries as well as civic and spiritual leaders, including the Bishop of London.'

World's Mayors Tackle Climate Change On Their Own

Excerpt from COP15 Copenhagen, 14 December 2009

'Copenhagen's lord mayor Ritt Bjerregaard (photo above) and some 80 other mayors and local officials of USA, Tokyo, Jakarta, Toronto and Hong Kong, have converged on the Danish capital in their own climate and energy summit.

They'll compare notes on how cities can combat climate change and save money on energy and other costs.

Today's cities and towns consume two-thirds of the world's total primary energy and produce more than 70 percent of its energy-related CO2 emissions, the International Energy Agency reports. That will grow to 76 percent by 2030, the agency says. Most comes from electrifying and heating private, commercial and municipal buildings...'

Mint Map - The World's Resources

Excerpt from Mint Map, 6 December 2009

click on image to enlarge...

16 December 2009

C02 Offsets for Destroying Biodiversity

...why one should approach carbon offsets, and indeed even accredited offsets, with extreme caution...

Excerpt from Rainforest Rescue, 11 December 2009

'A UN board has decided that soya, palm oil and other agrofuel plantations can now receive carbon credits through the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). The agrofuel industry, already boosted by EU and US targets, incentives and subsidies, can now look forward to hundreds of millions from extra subsidies. Vast carbon dioxide emissions from coal power stations in Europe can now be officially ‘offset’ by companies paying for soya plantations in Brazil or palm oil plantations in Indonesia or Thailand, which in turn will cause more deforestation and other ecosystem destruction and thus, also, more climate change.

The CDM was set up under the Kyoto Protocol and allows Northern countries to ‘offset’ greenhouse gas emissions by paying for projects in the South, instead of cutting their own emissions. There is clear evidence that most of the CDM carbon credits go towards polluting industries in the South, routinely at the expense of local communities, their rights and their environment. In future, more and more CDM carbon credits will go towards monoculture plantations in the South – now including soya, palm oil and jatropha plantations for agrofuels.

The new CDM rules for agrofuels state that plantations must be on ‘degraded and degrading land’. This definition is so wide that, for example, any land where vegetation is declining because of increased droughts and heat due to climate change would fall under it, also any land suffering from soil erosion or soil compaction. Yet industrial monocultures are the quickest way of degrading soils, destroying biodiversity and polluting and depleting water...'

Civil Resistance the Only Way to Combat Climate Change

Climate researcher Jim Hansen [ex NASA] says civil resistance only way to combat climate change

Excerpt from New Scientist, 15 December 2009

'..."Your governments are lying through their teeth," he says. He believes the Kyoto protocol is a dismal failure, and its proposed successors, along with the cap-and-trade schemes favoured by President Barack Obama, have no chance of achieving what is needed either. "Unfortunately, nature and the laws of physics cannot compromise - they are what they are," he points out.

It gets worse. Decades of experience with US governments have led Hansen to believe that the political systems in the US and many other democracies are incapable of delivering effective action, because politicians serve the short-term interests of special interest groups with plenty of money to throw around - like the fossil-fuel industry - rather than the long-term welfare of citizens.

Extraordinarily, Hansen thinks civil resistance is now the only way forward. "It is up to you," he concludes...'

What Matters Now - Ideas for 2010

Via Six Figures, December 2009

'Seth Godin has compiled an inspirational free e-book 'What Matters Now', which is over 80 pages and brings together more than 70 big thinkers who share their ideas and thoughts to think about for the new year...'

14 December 2009

Prosperity Campaign

The story of a man who ran for election to Colorado Springs council on a platform of challenging the growth consensus.

He lost the election - but he started a debate!

'Highlights from growthbuster Dave Gardner's city council campaign, promoting a modern, sustainable economic model for his community rather than continuing to chase perpetual growth, which no longer provides community prosperity.'

13 December 2009

The Greatest Shortcoming of the Human Race

...is our inability to understand the exponential function.

Stick with this clip, even if you feel like you are back in high school maths class - because that's clearly where we all need to be once the implications of this sink in! The chess story at 4.20 helps us understand the predicament we face if we persist with growth.

This clip has had over one MILLION views...

Hooked on Growth: Our Misguided Quest for Prosperity

12 December 2009

The Third Martin Luther?

Martin Luther #1

Challenged Catholic Church indulgences salesman Johann Tetzel and nailed his 95 theses to the door of a church, sparking The Reformation in 1517:

Martin Luther [King] #2

Catalysed the Civil Rights movement in the US in the 1960s, helping end racial segregation, winning a Nobel Prize and becoming a symbol of human rights:

Is this an historical trend? Is there a third Martin Luther lurking anywhere to help bring us forward out of the current hash of peak everything?

Maybe we all need to be Martin Luthers!

11 December 2009

Newspapers Around the World Call for Action on Climate Change

This editorial [from The Guardian, 7 December 2009], calling for action from world leaders on climate change is published today by 56 newspapers around the world in 20 languages:

'Today 56 newspapers in 45countries take the unprecedented step of speaking with one voice through a common editorial. We do so because humanity faces a profound emergency.

Unless we combine to take decisive action, climate change will ravage our planet, and with it our prosperity and security. The dangers have been becoming apparent for a generation. Now the facts have started to speak: 11 of the past 14 years have been the warmest on record, the Arctic ice-cap is melting and last year's inflamed oil and food prices provide a foretaste of future havoc. In scientific journals the question is no longer whether humans are to blame, but how little time we have got left to limit the damage. Yet so far the world's response has been feeble and half-hearted.

Climate change has been caused over centuries, has consequences that will endure for all time and our prospects of taming it will be determined in the next 14 days. We call on the representatives of the 192 countries gathered in Copenhagen not to hesitate, not to fall into dispute, not to blame each other but to seize opportunity from the greatest modern failure of politics. This should not be a fight between the rich world and the poor world, or between east and west. Climate change affects everyone, and must be solved by everyone.

The science is complex but the facts are clear. The world needs to take steps to limit temperature rises to 2C, an aim that will require global emissions to peak and begin falling within the next 5-10 years. A bigger rise of 3-4C — the smallest increase we can prudently expect to follow inaction — would parch continents, turning farmland into desert. Half of all species could become extinct, untold millions of people would be displaced, whole nations drowned by the sea. The controversy over emails by British researchers that suggest they tried to suppress inconvenient data has muddied the waters but failed to dent the mass of evidence on which these predictions are based.

Few believe that Copenhagen can any longer produce a fully polished treaty; real progress towards one could only begin with the arrival of President Obama in the White House and the reversal of years of US obstructionism. Even now the world finds itself at the mercy of American domestic politics, for the president cannot fully commit to the action required until the US Congress has done so.

But the politicians in Copenhagen can and must agree the essential elements of a fair and effective deal and, crucially, a firm
timetable for turning it into a treaty. Next June's UN climate meeting in Bonn should be their deadline. As one negotiator put it: "We can go into extra time but we can't afford a replay."

At the deal's heart must be a settlement between the rich world and the developing world covering how the burden of fighting climate change will be divided — and how we will share a newly precious resource: the trillion or so tonnes of carbon that we can emit before the mercury rises to dangerous levels.

Rich nations like to point to the arithmetic truth that there can be no solution until developing giants such as China take more radical steps than they have so far. But the rich world is responsible for most of the accumulated carbon in the atmosphere – three-quarters of all carbon dioxide emitted since 1850. It must now take a lead, and every developed country must commit to deep cuts which will reduce their emissions within a decade to very substantially less than their 1990 level.

Developing countries can point out they did not cause the bulk of the problem, and also that the poorest regions of the world will be hardest hit. But they will increasingly contribute to warming, and must thus pledge meaningful and quantifiable action of their own. Though both fell short of what some had hoped for, the recent commitments to emissions targets by the world's biggest polluters, the United States and China, were important steps in the right direction.

Social justice demands that the industrialised world digs deep into its pockets and pledges cash to help poorer countries adapt to climate change, and clean technologies to enable them to grow economically without growing their emissions. The architecture of a future treaty must also be pinned down – with rigorous multilateral monitoring, fair rewards for protecting forests, and the credible assessment of "exported emissions" so that the burden can eventually be more equitably shared between those who produce polluting products and those who consume them. And fairness requires that the burden placed on individual developed countries should take into account their ability to bear it; for instance newer EU members, often much poorer than "old Europe", must not suffer more than their richer partners.

The transformation will be costly, but many times less than the bill for bailing out global finance — and far less costly than the consequences of doing nothing.

Many of us, particularly in the developed world, will have to change our lifestyles. The era of flights that cost less than the taxi ride to the airport is drawing to a close. We will have to shop, eat and travel more intelligently. We will have to pay more for our energy, and use less of it.

But the shift to a low-carbon society holds out the prospect of more opportunity than sacrifice. Already some countries have recognized that embracing the transformation can bring growth, jobs and better quality lives. The flow of capital tells its own story: last year for the first time more was invested in renewable forms of energy than producing electricity from fossil fuels.

Kicking our carbon habit within a few short decades will require a feat of engineering and innovation to match anything in our history. But whereas putting a man on the moon or splitting the atom were born of conflict and competition, the coming carbon race must be driven by a collaborative effort to achieve collective salvation.

Overcoming climate change will take a triumph of optimism over pessimism, of vision over short-sightedness, of what Abraham Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature".

It is in that spirit that 56 newspapers from around the world have united behind this editorial. If we, with such different national and political perspectives, can agree on what must be done then surely our leaders can too.

The politicians in Copenhagen have the power to shape history's judgment on this generation: one that saw a challenge and rose to it, or one so stupid that we saw calamity coming but did nothing to avert it. We implore them to make the right choice.

This editorial will be published tomorrow by 56 newspapers around the world in 20 languages including Chinese, Arabic and Russian. The text was drafted by a Guardian team during more than a month of consultations with editors from more than 20 of the papers involved. Like the Guardian most of the newspapers have taken the unusual step of featuring the editorial on their front page.'

10 December 2009

Environmentalists Have Lost Their Way

Reposted in full from The Ecologist, 9 December 2009

'Former deputy editor of the Ecologist, Paul Kingsnorth, tells Matilda Lee why an obsession with CO2 has distracted environmentalists, and why we may already be beyond the point of no return...

Matilda Lee: You’ve said the environmental movement has lost its way – too focused on reducing emissions, and not enough on nature. Isn’t this dismissive of the gains that have been made in the past 5 to 10 years?

Paul Kingsnorth: What I’m suggesting is that environmentalism, which has become mainstream, is so obsessed with carbon emissions reductions that it has kind of lost sight of all of the other things it was supposed to be doing. The main narrative is that we have to reduce emissions by a certain percentage within a certain period of time and there is a small window we’ve got to act, and if we don’t use it, there’s global doom approaching. If we are honest, there is no window. It closed a long time ago.

ML: You are saying you think we are past the point of no return?

PK: Yes, in terms of emissions reductions. If you accept the argument that we’ve got, say 95 months left to save the world then yes, we have certainly passed the point of no return. Even if the politicians managed to cobble something together at Copenhagen - which they probably won’t - it won’t be kept to anyway because at the same time they’ve got to promote constant economic growth. As environmentalists, in our private conversations, we know this stuff, but in public we are saying we’ve got to hit targets, the problem is that when it doesn’t happen, which it won’t, we’re going to be in big trouble because people aren’t going to listen to us anymore.

ML: But isn't there a need to galvanise people to act now, and help shift our worldview towards a focus on what we are leaving for the generations ahead of us?

PK: That’s the line, but it’s not working. Climate change is something that all the politicians are talking about and it’s in all the front pages, you would think we would be changing things. But we’re not in any significant way. The number of people who are in denial about climate change is going up, so this idea that if we just keep shouting about it, everyone will act... They are not; they are almost resisting acting, because the consequences of acting look so disturbing to people’s lifestyles. I’m not making an argument for doing nothing, or saying that environmentalists are wrong, but I am saying that the mainstream narrative on climate change is obviously failing.

ML: Aren’t you really just lamenting the world’s obsession with economic growth?

PK: It’s not so much a lament. There is a cognitive dissonance amongst mainstream political and business establishments. At the same time as they talk about wanting to prevent climate change and create sustainable societies, they are also promoting constant growth. The more growth you get, the more climate change and resource depletion and destruction of the natural world you get. Until you start talking about that, you are wasting your time talking about emissions reductions. There is going to have to be an economic contraction and a kind of social contraction if we are going to survive within the resource limits that we’ve got. I’m not suggesting that environmentalists have forgotten that, but the mainstream environmental debate around climate change is pretending that that is not the case.

ML: If you aren’t talking about deindustrialising society and a ‘back to nature’ kind of society - what are you envisaging?

PK: If you don’t have cheap fossil fuels it’s very hard to have a transport system that is based on cheap cars, hard to see how you can run a retail system based on superstores and lots of lots of transportation, and industrial agriculture. I would expect to see far more economic localisation, less easy transportation around the country and the world, far fewer cheap consumer goods. Serious climate change will result in climate refugees, which will result in a whole set of new political tensions as well. There will be political action, but it will be too little too late. I think it means becoming more self-sufficient, learning to live with less and learning to reconnect with communities and places. Some people have said, 'you’re being despairing and we need hope'. I don’t think the mainstream green narrative is actually giving people hope, I think it is quite despairing. I think that if you start saying 'OK, we are going to have to face a depleted future, but let’s start thinking about it together, interestingly', that seems to give people more of a sense of hope, and ability to act, rather than wishing for the impossible.

ML: So the future of the green movement means...

PK: We need to move towards an ecocentric view – this is not a new concept but it needs to become more central to the movement. A lot of environmentalism now still acts as if humans are the point of the planet and that we are saving the planet to save people.

ML: There is the argument that market forces are so powerful that in order to save nature, we’re going to have to bring it into the economic fold and put a price tag on it.

PK: I can see the appeal, but I think it is a short term appeal. The market is far more likely to destroy nature than to save it. We seem almost incapable of judging anything anymore unless we bring it into the market system –whether it’s our schools, hospitals, or the woods we walk in, or the sky – I think that is far more threatening than it is liberating.

ML: Tell me about your latest project, dark-mountain.net

PK: [It's] a cultural response to the way we see the future going – to say that part of the reason that we’ve reached this point as a culture is that we’ve been telling ourselves particular stories about who we are – the founding myths of our culture are all about endless progress, human centrality, the idea that we can control the natural environment and that we are separate from nature, that our technology will save us. We need to start writing as if the world is going to become a very different place and expressing through various cultural forms. We are trying to gather a movement of people who see the world in that way. The plan is to start publishing a journal next year.

Paul Kingsnorth is a former deputy editor of the Ecologist.'