18 February 2010

Digital Doomsday: The End of Knowledge

Reposted in full from the New Scientist, 2 February 2010

'"IN MONTH XI, 15th day, Venus in the west disappeared, 3 days in the sky it stayed away. In month XI, 18th day, Venus in the east became visible."

What's remarkable about these observations of Venus is that they were made about 3500 years ago, by Babylonian astrologers. We know about them because a clay tablet bearing a record of these ancient observations, called the Venus Tablet of Ammisaduqa, was made 1000 years later and has survived largely intact. Today, it can be viewed at the British Museum in London.

We, of course, have knowledge undreamt of by the Babylonians. We don't just peek at Venus from afar, we have sent spacecraft there. Our astronomers now observe planets round alien suns and peer across vast chasms of space and time, back to the beginning of the universe itself.

Our industrialists are transforming sand and oil into ever smaller and more intricate machines, a form of alchemy more wondrous than anything any alchemist ever dreamed of. Our biologists are tinkering with the very recipes for life itself, gaining powers once attributed to gods.

Yet even as we are acquiring ever more extraordinary knowledge, we are storing it in ever more fragile and ephemeral forms. If our civilisation runs into trouble, like all others before it, how much would survive?

Of course, in the event of a disaster big enough to wipe out all humans, such as a colossal asteroid strike, it would not really matter. Even if another intelligent species evolved on Earth, almost all traces of humanity would have vanished long before.

Let's suppose, however, that something less cataclysmic occurs, that many buildings remain intact and enough people survive to rebuild civilisation after a few decades or centuries.

Suppose, for instance, that the global financial system collapses, or a new virus kills most of the world's population, or a solar storm destroys the power grid in North America. Or suppose there is a slow decline as soaring energy costs and worsening environmental disasters take their toll.

The increasing complexity and interdependency of society is making civilisation ever more vulnerable to such events (New Scientist, 5 April 2008, p 28 and p 32).

Whatever the cause, if the power was cut off to the banks of computers that now store much of humanity's knowledge, and people stopped looking after them and the buildings housing them, and factories ceased to churn out new chips and drives, how long would all our knowledge survive? How much would the survivors of such a disaster be able to retrieve decades or centuries hence?

Even in the absence of any catastrophe, the loss of knowledge is already a problem. We are generating more information than ever before, and storing it in ever more transient media.

Much of what it is being lost is hardly essential - future generations will probably manage fine without all the family photos and videos you lost when your hard drive died - but some is. In 2008, for instance, it emerged that the US had "forgotten" how to make a secret ingredient of some nuclear warheads, dubbed Fogbank. Adequate records had not been kept and all the key personnel had retired or left the agency responsible. The fiasco ended up adding $69 million to the cost of a warhead refurbishment programme.

In the event of the power going off for an extended period, humanity's legacy will depend largely on the hard drive, the technology that functions as our society's working memory. Everything from the latest genome scans to government and bank records to our personal information reside on hard drives, most of them found inside rooms full of servers known as data centres.

Hard drives were never intended for long-term storage, so they have not been subjected to the kind of tests used to estimate the lifetimes of formats like CDs. No one can be sure how long they will last. Kevin Murrell, a trustee of the UK's national museum of computing, recently switched on a 456 megabyte hard drive that had been powered down since the early 1980s. "We had no problems getting the data off at all," he says.

Modern drives might not fare so well, though. The storage density on hard drives is now over 200 gigabits per square inch and still climbing fast. While today's drives have sophisticated systems for compensating for the failure of small sectors, in general the more bits of data you cram into a material, the more you lose if part of it becomes degraded or damaged. What's more, a decay process that would leave a large-scale bit of data readable could destroy some smaller-scale bits. "The jury is still out on modern discs. We won't know for another 20 years," says Murrell.

Most important data is backed up on formats such as magnetic tape or optical discs. Unfortunately, many of those formats cannot be trusted to last even five years, says Joe Iraci, who studies the reliability of digital media at the Canadian Conservation Institute in Ottawa, Ontario.

Iraci's "accelerated ageing" tests, which typically involve exposing media to high heat and humidity, show that the most stable optical discs are recordable CDs with a reflective layer of gold and a phthalocyanine dye layer. "If you go with that disc and record it well, I think it could very well last for 100 years," he says. "If you go with something else you could be looking at a 5 to 10 year window."

The flash-memory drives that are increasingly commonplace are even less resilient than hard drives. How long they will preserve data is not clear, as no independent tests have been performed, but one maker warns users not to trust them for more than 10 years. And while some new memory technologies might be inherently more stable than flash, the focus is on boosting speed and capacity rather than stability.

Of course, the conditions in which media are stored can be far more important than their inherent stability: drives that stay dry and cool will last much longer than those exposed to heat and damp. Few data centres are designed to maintain such conditions for long if the power goes off, though. A lot are located in ordinary buildings, some in areas vulnerable to earthquakes or flooding. And if civilisation did collapse, who knows what uses the resource-starved survivors might find for old hard drives?

The physical survival of stored data, however, is just the start of the problem of retrieving it, as space enthusiasts Dennis Wingo and Keith Cowing have discovered. They have been leading a project, based at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, to retrieve high-resolution images from old magnetic tapes. The tapes contain raw data sent back from the five Lunar Orbiter missions in the 1960s. At the time, only low-resolution images could be retrieved. The tapes were wrapped in plastic, placed in magnetically impervious metal canisters and remain in pristine condition. "It is a miracle from my experience with similar commercial tapes of a similar age," says Wingo.

But to get the raw data off the tapes, the team first had to restore old tape drives saved by a former NASA employee. That was the biggest challenge, says Cowing. "There was a lizard living inside one of them." Once they began to retrieve the raw data, converting it into a usable form was only possible after a three-month search uncovered a document with the "demodulation" equations.

If today it takes a bunch of enthusiasts with plenty of funding many months to retrieve the data from a few well-preserved magnetic tapes, imagine the difficulties facing those post-catastrophe.

Even with a plentiful supply of working computers to read hard drives, recovering data would not be easy. Much data nowadays is encrypted or readable only using specialised software. And in a data centre left untouched for 20 or 30 years, some drives would need disassembling to retrieve their data, says Robert Winter, a senior engineer with Kroll Ontrack Data Recovery in Epsom, Surrey, UK, which in 2003 rescued the data on a hard drive from the space shuttle Columbia.

Indeed, rescuing data if things go wrong can be tricky even in today's fully powered world. Last year, for instance, after some servers malfunctioned, it took Microsoft many weeks to recover most of the personal data of users of Sidekick cellphones.

Post-catastrophe, the lack of resources - of people, expertise, equipment - might be a far bigger obstacle than the physical loss of data. And resources are likely to be scarce. Restarting an industrial civilisation might be a lot harder the second time round, because we have used up most of the easily available resources, from oil to high-grade ores.

Would the loss of most of the data stored on hard drives really matter? After all, much of what we have inherited from past civilisations is of little practical use: the Venus Tablet of Ammisaduqa, for instance, consists largely of astrological mumbo jumbo. Similarly, an awful lot of what fills up the world's servers, from online shops to the latest celeb videos, seems dispensable too.

Even the value of much scientific data is questionable. What use would it be knowing the genome sequence of humans and other organisms, for instance, without the technology and expertise needed to exploit this knowledge? With some scientific experiments now generating petabytes of data, preserving it all is already becoming a major challenge. The vast quantity of material will be a problem for anyone trying to recover whatever they regard as important: while it is relatively easy to find a book you are after in a library, there is usually no way to be sure what's on a hard drive without revving it up.

What's more, what is likely to survive the longest from today's digital age is not necessary the most important. The more copies - backups - there are of any piece of data, the greater the chances of its survival, discovery and retrieval. Some data is much copied because it is so useful, like operating systems, but mostly it is down to popularity.

That means digital versions of popular music and even some movies might survive many decades: Abba might just top the pop charts again in the 22nd century. However, there are far fewer copies of the textbooks and manuals and blueprints containing the kind of distillation of specialised knowledge that might matter most to those trying to rebuild civilisation, such as how to smelt iron or make antibiotics.

Perhaps the most crucial loss will occur after half a century or so, as any surviving engineers, scientists and doctors start to succumb to old age. Their skills and know-how would make a huge difference when it comes to finding important information and getting key machinery working again. The NASA tape drives, for instance, were restored with the help of a retired engineer who had worked on similar systems. Without expert help like this, retrieving data from the tapes would have taken a lot longer, Cowing says.

A century or so after a major catastrophe, little of the digital age will remain beyond what's written on paper. "Even the worst kind of paper can last more than 100 years," says Season Tse, who works on paper conservation at the Canadian Conservation Institute. The oldest surviving "book" printed on paper dates from AD 868, he says. It was found in a cave in north-west China in 1907.

A century or so after the power goes off, little will remain of the digital age except what's on paper.

Providing books are not used as a handy fuel, or as toilet paper, they will persist for several hundred years, brittle and discoloured but still legible. Again, though, the most popular tomes are the most likely to survive. Imagine risking your life exploring dangerous ruins looking for ancient wisdom only to find a long-hidden stash of Playboy magazines.

It is not just what survives but the choices of those who come after that ultimately decide a civilisation's legacy, however. And those doing the choosing are more likely to pick the useful than the trivial. A culture of rational, empirical enquiry that developed in one tiny pocket of the ancient Greek empire in the 6th century BC has survived ever since, says classicist Paul Cartledge of the University of Cambridge, despite not being at all representative of the period's mainstream culture.

As long as the modern descendant of this culture of enquiry survives, most of our scientific knowledge and technology could be rediscovered and reinvented sooner or later. If it does not survive, the longest-lasting legacy of our age could be all-time best-sellers like Quotations from Chairman Mao, Scouting for Boys and The Lord of the Rings.'

The Empathic Civilization

Reposted in full from the New Scientist, 10 February 2010

'In The Empathic Civilization, Jeremy Rifkin argues that before we can save ourselves from climate change we have to break a vicious circle. He explains why to Amanda Gefter:

What is the premise of The Empathic Civilization?

My sense is that we're nearing an endgame for the modern age. I think we had two events in the last two years that signal the end. In July 2008 the price of oil hit $147 a barrel. Food riots broke out in 30 countries. That was the earthquake; the market crash 60 days later was the aftershock. The second event was the breakdown at the Copenhagen climate summit. Why couldn't our leaders anticipate or respond to the global meltdown? And why can't they deal with climate change?

So why have our leaders failed us?

They are using 18th-century ideas to address 21st-century challenges. The Enlightenment view is that human beings are rational, detached agents who pursue their own self-interest; nation states reflect that view. How are we going to address the needs of 7 billion people and heal the biosphere if we are all agents pursuing our individual interests?

A lot of new discoveries suggest that human nature might not be as the Enlightenment philosophers imagined. For instance, the discovery of mirror neurons suggests that we are not wired for autonomy but for empathy. We are a social species.

How does an empathic view of human nature change the picture?

We see how consciousness, which is wired for social engagement, changes over history. My belief is that when communications and energy revolutions converge, this changes consciousness by shifting our boundaries, causing empathy to expand.

For instance, wherever there were agricultural societies based on large-scale irrigation, humans created writing. Writing made it possible to manage a complex energy regime. It also changed consciousness, transforming the mythological consciousness of oral cultures into a theological one. In the process, empathy evolved. Oral communication is limited: you can't extend empathy beyond blood ties. With script you empathise further.

In the 19th century, the printing press converged with coal and steam. This led to mass literacy. In the 20th century the second industrial revolution, the electronics revolution, gave rise to psychological consciousness.

Each convergence of energy and communications technology extended our social networks and in turn expanded our empathy.

But all of that happens at the expense of the environment.

It's the conundrum of history that more complex civilisations bring more people together, but they create more entropy in the process. If we are going to ward off the dangers posed by climate change we need to find a way to increase empathy while decreasing entropy. The question is, how do you do that?

You argue that the answer is another convergence of technologies. Can you explain?

In the last 15 years we have had a very powerful communications revolution with the internet. This revolution is beginning to converge with distributed renewable energy. When they converge, it's likely to change consciousness once again.

How will this "third industrial revolution" change our consciousness?

As people begin to harvest renewable energy, they can share electricity peer-to-peer across an energy grid that extends across nations. With everyone taking responsibility for their swathe of the biosphere and then sharing their energy, that would allow us to think biosphere politics and give us a possibility of breaking the empathy/entropy paradox. It's a tough challenge, but if human nature really is Homo empathicus we can begin to create new institutions that reflect our core nature. Then I can see how this revolution will happen.'

Talking Aliens

...time for some comedy

Reposted in full from Letter to the Editor, New Scientist, 10 February 2010

'Stephen Battersby discussed the current debate over broadcasting messages into space with the intention of their being detected by extraterrestrial life forms (23 January, p 28). The editorial in the same issue (p 3) endorses the idea.

As an astronomer who has been involved in topics relating to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) for 30 years, and as a former member of SETI advisory panels, I feel there is an arrogance in the transmission of these messages by small groups who have claimed the right to shout on behalf of Earth without consulting anybody else.

Many SETI researchers and others, including the editorial board of Nature, have asked for there to be a moratorium on these messages until broad international discussions can take place. These should involve biologists, historians, ethicists and members of the public.

That doesn't seem much to ask, given the importance of the matter and our ignorance of the cosmos. However many technological species there are out there, we are almost certainly the youngest children, suddenly shouting in an unknown forest. The daunting silence in the sky has its creepy aspects.

Can't we discuss the implications and satisfy reasonable concerns before yelling "Yoohoo"?

The message zealots label as paranoid anybody who wants open discussion. With their peremptory broadcasts, they bet our future on the assumption that all technological alien species will be altruistic. In doing so they ignore all the indications from human or biological history that suggest this is highly unlikely to be the case.

They deploy a host of blithe excuses, such as "aliens have already picked up our radio leakage" and "harm cannot span interstellar distances", but they do not hold up under scientific scrutiny.

Eagerness to achieve "first contact", while laudable, should be tempered by awareness of the history of first contacts between human cultures, and between previously isolated Earthly biomes. These make a sad litany that suggests patience, caution and lengthy discussion are in order before we make our presence known to the cosmos at large.'

17 February 2010

Australia's Local Hero 2010 - Ronni Kahn, Founder of OzHarvest

Reposted in full from Australian of the Year Award website, 28 January 2010

'Ronni Kahn is the founder of OzHarvest, a service that collects and delivers surplus food to charities. She originally ran an events business and was horrified by the amount of left over food that was thrown out. She began driving it to a hostel rather than let it go to waste. But she knew there was much more that could be done, and in 2004, OzHarvest was born. Five years later OzHarvest has over 600 food donors and delivers more than 110,000 meals each month to 163 charities in Sydney, Canberra and Wollongong.

Ronni plans to go national next year. Due to the perseverance of Ronni and others, the law has been changed in NSW, ACT, QLD, SA (and soon will be in WA) to ensure that food donors are safe from liability. OzHarvest has had a profound impact on the environment by saving thousands of tonnes of food from landfill, and on clients of charities who are able to eat quality, nutritious food.'

Paul Hawken's Winning Investment Strategy

Reposted in full from GreenBiz, 11 February 2010

'If you believe that companies that are strongly committed to socially and environmentally sound practices will outperform their peers in the long run, then you would expect so-called socially responsible investment (SRI) funds to deliver superior returns to investors.

The trouble is, they don't. Sure, some years the mutual funds run by the Calvert, Domini, Parnassus and the rest do very well - they excelled during the tech boom of the late 1990s because they tend to eschew heavy industry - but other years, they lag market indexes. Over time, most track the broader market.

Over the three years ending December 31, 2009, for instance, among the big SRI funds, Calvert Social Investment is down by a cumulative 13.02 percent, Domini Social Equity is down by a total of 16.2 percent and Parnussus Equity Income is up by 0.14 percent. Only Parnussus performed significantly above the S&P500, which was down by 15.9 percent.

Why haven't they done better? Some of us have long believed that the problem with conventional SRI funds is that their definition of "socially responsible" is not nearly as rigorous as it could or should be.

Paul Hawken has been vocal in his critique of the SRI establishment, and since 2005 he has put his money where his mouth is. In a partnership with Baldwin Brothers, a Massachusetts-based investment firm, Hawken has overseen the Highwater Global Fund, a fund for qualified investors (i.e., the rich) that invests in companies "that have a clear sense of current global trends and future societal needs." His results have been impressive, to say the least.
Since inception in the fall of 2005, Highwater is up by a total of 52.55 percent. During the three years ended in December (the same period cited above), Highwater is up by a total of 19.75 percent. This is, in part, because Hawken and the other fund managers are very picky about what stocks they hold. More than 90 percent of the FORTUNE 500 fail their screens.

If you don't know about Paul Hawken, you should. He's a path-breaking thinker and influential writer whose books include The Ecology of Commerce (1993), Natural Capitalism (1999, with Amory and Hunter Lovins) and Blessed Unrest (2007). He's an entrepreneur who founded Erewhon and Smith & Hawken, and an advisor who has worked with to Wal-Mart and Ford. These days, he's focused on a startup in stealth mode called OneSun, a a solar energy company based on green chemistry and biomimicry.

I had the great pleasure of visiting with Hawken last week at his office in Sausalito, CA. Mostly, we talked solar. OneSun's chief science officer is John Warner, a pioneer of green chemistry, a longtime researcher at Polaroid and author (with Paul Anastas, now EPA's top researcher) of Green Chemistry: Theory and Practice. OneSun has hired more than a dozen PhD.'s and aims to produce "solar beneath the cost of nuclear and coal," Hawken says, but he's not ready to divulge much more yet.

Highwater is an equally interesting story, in part because it seemss to validate Hawken's critique of social investing. When his Natural Capital Institute analyzed SRI funds in 2004, he found that "90 percent of FORTUNE 500 companies were represented in their portfolios," as a group. (I did a brief story about this headlined Are Green Funds True to Their Colors? in FORTUNE.)

Some funds weren't very strict about who they let into their club. Others adopted silly screens. A few have been rethinking their approach–Calvert, for example, now offers a range of choices for investors, as it explains here. I'm a believer in social investing and an investor in Calvert and Domini funds.

But I think Hawken is on the mark when he writes:

Many of these [SRI] funds employ the term sustainability. This is a catchall term that…has come to mean less than it could and more than it should. At Highwater, we also use the word, but we believe that sustainability is a scientific concept, not a feel-good term. It is rooted in biology and physics, and describes the limits within which society can grow and prosper over time.
Hawken, as a result, is a tough grader. "We think Portfolio 21 [an environmentally-focused mutual fund based in Portland] has the best screens, and only 40 percent of their portfolio would qualify for ours," he told me.

So, for example, Whole Foods Markets, which is widely held by SRI funds, doesn't pass muster with Hawken and his analysts. Why? "Unethical behavior by the CEO," says Hawken, referring to John Mackey's antics on a Yahoo! message board, where he demeaned a competing chain under a pseudonym. What's more, he says, Whole Foods' global supply chain needlessly undermines local food markets. Did you know that some organic frozn vegetables sold under Whole Foods' 365 brand - even an assortment called the California Medley - come from China?
(Here's a Whole Foods' blog post about "Chinese organics," followed by skeptical comments.)

Most global banks and pharmaceutical companies failed Highwater's screens as well. "We spurned money center banks because of liar loans, teaser rates and usurious interest rates on rampant consumer credit," Hawken says. Of course, that turned out to be smart when stocks of the big banks cratered during 2008. Most SRI funds held big banks as well as big pharma.
Hawken seeks out companies with a compelling purpose, as evidenced by what a company does, not what it says it does. He writes:

'Our main question is straightforward: Are the company's products or services helpful? The reasoning here is simple: If a company is heading down a path that does not serve society into the future, it matters little how it gets there. For example, the values statement at Kellogg's has lofty goals. However, at no point does it mention children or health. There is a children's health crisis in the US due to obesity and type 2 diabetes. Advertising and promoting Cookie Crunch, Frosted Flakes and Star Trek cereals, all of which contain more than one-third simple sugars, during Saturday morning cartoons, belies Kellogg's value statement.'

So who passes the screens? Google, whose purpose is to make all of the world's information available to everyone. "That's a reason to go to work in the morning," Hawken says. The Danish wind company Vestas qualifies, as does First Solar, which makes photovoltaic panels. (Some Chinese solar firms do not because of their workplace and environmental practices.) Ford and Honda pass as well. "I was driving 100 miles per gallon cars in Dearborn two years ago," says Hawken, an advisor to Ford. He drives a Ford Escape hybrid.

Other firms that qualify include eBay, which enables thousands of small business owners to flourish, and Amazon, which has begun to deliver digital books, magazines and newspapers.

"Trees are being saved because of the Kindle," Hawken says.

Highwater's performance, it must be said, doesn't prove that Hawken's approach works. Much of the credit for the fund's success goes to the managers at Baldwin Brothers, who decides when to buy and sell the securities held by the fund. Luck can also come into play.

My takeaway?

It's become a cliché to say that companies can do well by doing good.

A more intriguing idea is that a small number of companies that set out to do the most possible good will, in the long run, do very, very well. This is what Hawken believes, and my gut tells me he's right.'

16 February 2010

Business Calls for Urgent Action on “Oil Crunch” Threat to UK Economy

Reposted in full from Industry Taskforce on Peak Oil and Energy Security, 10 February 2010

'A group of leading business people today call for urgent action to prepare the UK for Peak Oil.

The second report of the UK Industry Taskforce on Peak Oil and Energy Security (ITPOES) finds that oil shortages, insecurityof supply and price volatility will destabilise economic, political and social activity potentially by 2015.

Peak Oil refers to the point where the highest practicable rate of global oil production has been achieved and from which future levels of production will either plateau, or begin to diminish. This means an end to the era of cheap oil.

The report, “The Oil Crunch - a wake-up call for the UK economy”, urges the formation of a coalition of government, business and consumers to address the issue.

The Taskforce states the impact of Peak Oil will include sharp increases in the cost of travel, food, heating and retail goods. It finds that the transport sector will be particularly hard hit, with more vulnerable members of society the first to feel the impact. The Taskforce warns that the UK must not be caught out by the oil crunch in the same way it was with the credit crunch and states that policies to address Peak Oil must be a priority for the new government formed after the election.

Having assessed the systemic changes caused by the global economic recession, coupled with the projected growth from non-OECD countries, ITPOES predicts Peak Oil will occur within the next decade, potentially by 2015 at less than 95 million barrels per day. (In 2008, production levels were 85 million barrels per day.)

The study finds that the recession has delayed the oil crunch by two years. This provides invaluable time to plan for a future which will see structural increases in oil prices coupled with shortages and increased market volatility. The UK will be particularly badly hit by these factors with a tightening of supply leading to greater oil import dependency, rising and volatile prices, inflationary pressures and the risk of disruption to the transport system.

Key recommendations from the report include the acceleration of the “green transport revolution” to see the ongoing introduction of lower carbon technology and trials of sustainable bio fuels. This would cover private vehicles, but also extend to the general transport network, with the government urged not to cut investment in public transport. A focus on new clean technologies should be combined with wide scale behavioural change promoted through incentives and education to produce a modal shift to greener modes of transport.

ITPOES’ membership includes Arup, Foster + Partners, Scottish and Southern Energy, Solar Century, Stagecoach Group and Virgin Group. The report will be launched at an event at the Royal Society with presentations from Richard Branson, Founder of Virgin Group; Philip Dilley, Chairman of Arup; Ian Marchant, CEO of Scottish and Southern Energy; Jeremy Leggett, Chairman of Solarcentury; Brian Souter, CEO of Stagecoach Group; and Will Whitehorn, President of Virgin Galactic.

The Taskforce recognises that oil demand in the OECD area (developed countries) is now flat or declining but also recognises that demand in non-OECD (developing countries) continues to expand rapidly, having already recovered from the recession. Demand in the non-OECD areas already accounts for 45% of global oil demand and is expected to reach 50% by the middle of the decade.

The report issues a range of recommendations including:

General policies:
  • government, local authorities and business must face up to the Peak Oil threat and put contingency plans in place
  • a package of policies are required to deal with the economic, financial and social impact of potential high oil prices
  • there is a need to accelerate the green industrial revolution

  • government support should be boosted for alternative technological solutions and associated infrastructure, such as electric vehicles
  • policies and fiscal measures to support and incentivise a shift from the traditional car to more fuel- and carbon-efficient modes of transport to be established
  • government investment in public transport must be maintained

Power generation and distribution policies:
  • government must provide a stable pro-investment regulatory and political climate
  • the nation’s power generation and transmission distribution infrastructure must be changed to adapt to new demand patterns, price spikes and supply interruption

Retail and agriculture:
  • measures must be taken to protect the public, particularly the most disadvantaged, from the impact of rising fuel costs on food and other consumer goods prices

Quotes from Taskforce members

“Working together, we must ensure that the Government takes action to address the impact of the oil crunch and ensure the UK is better prepared to withstand higher and more volatile oil prices. UK competitiveness will be hampered unless we can develop viable, affordable and secure long term sources of alternative energy.” Richard Branson, Founder of Virgin Group.

“The UK’s freight network, cars and public transport systems are almost entirely dependent on oil. The twin threats of the oil crunch and climate change make that unsustainable. We need urgent Government action to support alternative technologies and incentivise behavioural change to protect business, consumers and our environment.” Brian Souter, CEO of Stagecoach Group.

“There is the danger of creating a social recession as the poorest households get hit the hardest by higher prices. Economic growth will be endangered as prices rise, costs of raw materials increase and consumer spending ability is suppressed.” Ian Marchant, CEO of Scottish & Southern Energy.

“As we reach the maximum rate of oil extraction, the era of cheap oil is behind us. We must plan for a world in which oil prices are likely to be both higher and more volatileand where oil price shocks have the potential to destabilise economic, political and social activity.” Philip Dilley, Chairman of Arup.

“Practitioners in the low-carbon industries know just how fast we could mobilise technologies able to soften the blow of the energy crunch while abating climate risk, given the chance. At one level, only two things are standing in the way: a collective sense of urgency consistent with peak-oil risk, and effective yoking of industry and government in strategic harness.” Dr Jeremy Leggett, Chairman of Solarcentury.'

2010 Intergenerational Report - Australian Treasury

The third Intergenerational Report was released by the [Australian] Commonwealth Treasury recently. The 2010 version follows on from the previous versions released in 2007 and 2002.

The Report (see further comments and web link below) is an interesting example of taking a long view of things, of course one of the prerequisites to sustainability.

It appears to be a very comprehensive policy document but of course is heavily biased in favour of the incumbent government’s policies and initiatives.

While budget outlays are the major focus it also covers topic such as:

· Water availability in the Murray Darling Basin
· Threatened and endangered species
· Vegetation cover
· Investing in clear energy
· Welling being/Sustainable Society/Social Capital
· Household Incomes
· Productivity
· Population dynamics
· Infrastructure

And for the first time it starts to discuss the requirements and spatial organisation of our cities as an area which we have to prepare for the future.

Here is a link http://www.treasury.gov.au/igr/igr2010/ to the summary (26 pages) and full report (164 pages).

Full Report [PDF 1MB]

Foreword [PDF 110KB]

Executive Summary [PDF 229KB]

Chapter 1: Long-Term Demographic and Economic Projections [PDF 171KB]

Chapter 2: Growing the Economy - Productivity, Participation and Population [PDF 165KB]

Chapter 3: Long-Term Budget Projections [PDF 101KB]

Chapter 4: Ageing Pressures and Spending [PDF 186KB]

Chapter 5: Climate Change and the Environment [PDF 144KB]

Chapter 6: A Sustainable Society [PDF 194KB]

References [PDF 125KB]

Appendix A: IGR 2010 Projections Summary [PDF 88KB]

Appendix B: Sensitivity Analysis of Long-Run Economic and Fiscal Projections [PDF 76KB]

Appendix C: Methodology [PDF 235KB]

Appendix D: IGR 2007 Projections [PDF 129KB]

15 February 2010

Nine Meals from Anarchy

'A reflection on the vulnerability of our oil-dependent society and recommendations about how we might rebuild resilience.'

...or, indeed, transport infrastructure crippled by extreme weather events...

From the new economics foundation, 26 November 2008

'Imagine that the the petrol stations ran dry. The trucks would stop rolling. The supermarket shelves would be bare within three days. We would be nine meals away from anarchy.

In this pamphlet, nef Policy Director Andrew Simms explores the chronic vulnerability of our oil-dependent society. Originally given as a talk at Schumacher North in Leeds, Nine Meals from Anarchy examines how climate change, competition for resources, decline in oil production and the international food crisis will cause system collapses far greater than the economic crisis.

Simms proposes that we need to act quickly to rebuild resilience into our economy. By looking to countries that have already faced energy descent - such as Cuba - and to periods of the UK's own history when resources were scarce - such as during the Second World War - we can learn how best to act now. Drawing on the Transition Town movement, nef's work on the core economy and the gathering demands for a Green New Deal, Simms charts a course towards a sustainable, resilient and careful future.'

Extreme Weather Events - Hot AND Cold

Climate change induced extreme weather events - its not just hotter extremes that will create a cost burden [although the definition of 'lost productivity' is debatable!] and require adaptation...

Excerpt from Planet Ark, 15 February 2010

'The Northeast began to dig out after two blizzards in a week brought the region to a standstill with record snowfalls, creating a multimillion-dollar mess for cash-strapped cities and states.

From Washington to Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York, cities began to clean up and airports tried to reopen runways for flights possibly later on Thursday but residents were advised to stay home while crews tried to clear streets.

Airlines, already facing economic troubles, were trying to resume their schedules, but airport officials said that it would likely take until Friday to get back to normal, with hundreds of flights on Thursday already canceled.

Washington Dulles International Airport was open but the airfield at Reagan National Airport was closed. The two main runways were open at Baltimore/Washington International Airport, while airports in Philadelphia and the New York City area were open.

The federal government in Washington said agencies in the U.S. capital region would remain closed for a fourth straight day on Thursday, a decision that costs an estimated $100 million in lost productivity each day.

District of Columbia Mayor Adrian Fenty said he was seeking federal financial aid to cope with the storm aftermath. Many city and state budgets have been stretched by a sagging U.S. economy combined with three big snowstorms since December...

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has said the blizzard cost taxpayers $1 million for each inch that fell. Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley said he was hoping for a federal disaster declaration to help ease the financial burden.

With the 10 inches to 20 inches that fell this week across a large patch of the East Coast, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington have received more snow this winter than any time since record-keeping began.

New York City public schools reopened after being closed on Wednesday for just the third time in eight years. But schools were closed in the Washington metropolitan area and some canceled classes until after a federal holiday on Monday.

Emergency crews were working to restore power to tens of thousands of customers in Pennsylvania and New Jersey where strong winds downed lines. Other concerns include heavy snow buckling roofs and ice falling from buildings as it melts.'

14 February 2010

Endangered Species Condoms

Excerpt from Center for Biological Diversity

'Human overpopulation is the driving force behind the current mass-extinction crisis endangering:

• 12 percent of mammals
• 12 percent of birds
• 31 percent of reptiles
• 30 percent of amphibians
• 37 percent of fish

Through a network of more than 3,000 volunteers, the Center for Biological Diversity is distributing 100,000 free Endangered Species Condoms in all 50 states to highlight how unsustainable human population growth is driving species extinct at a cataclysmic rate.

At 6.8 billion people, the human race is not only the most populous large mammal on Earth but the most populous large mammal that has ever existed. Providing for the needs and wants of this many people — especially those in high-consumption, first-world nations — has pushed homo sapiens to absorb 50 percent of the planet’s freshwater and develop 50 percent of its landmass. As a result, other species are running out of places to live.

To help people understand the impact of overpopulation on other species, and to give them a chance to take action in their own life, the Center is distributing free packets of Endangered Species Condoms depicting six separate species: the polar bear, snail darter, spotted owl, American burying beetle, jaguar, and coquí guajón rock frog.

The beautifully designed packages, featuring clever slogans, are being distributed by a network of 3,000 volunteers ranging from ministers to grandmothers to healthcare providers to college students and biologists. The condoms will be handed out at concerts, bars, universities, spiritual groups, local events, and farmer’s markets. Along with two condoms, each package contains original artwork and information on the species, facts about overpopulation and the extinction crisis, and suggestions on how the human population can be stabilized.

To help ensure a world that is livable for other species — and healthy and prosperous for us — practice responsible reproduction, learn more about the Center’s campaign to address overpopulation, and sign up to win a life supply of free Endangered Species Condoms.


The largest cat in North America, the jaguar formerly roamed the borderlands of California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. It disappeared as human settlements spread further and further into its wilderness habitat. The U.S. population was put on the endangered species list in 1997.


The Puerto Rico rock frog, also known as the coquí guajón, lives in caves, grottos, and streamsides in southeast Puerto Rico. It was put on the endangered species list in 1997 due to destruction of its habitat by urban sprawl and roads, garbage dumping, deforestation, and pesticide poisoning.

Design donated by Lori Lieber. Artwork donated by the Endangered Species Print Project. © 2010. All rights reserved.'