01 May 2010

[sleep mode]

Crux is taking a six week hiatus traveling overseas - consequently there will be no new posts during this time.

However, there will be lots of news in the lead up to the winter solstice on 21 June, so watch this space!

The Global Phones-to-Toilets Ratio

Excerpt from Change.org, 15 April 2010

'Right now, India has more cell phones than toilets. That's the headline buzzing over the wires today, thanks to the latest phones-to-toilets ratio released by the United Nations. It's certainly a dramatic factoid. But it's not just true of India's 1.2 billion-strong population — this lopsided statistic is true around the globe, as well.

It's a "tragic irony" that India is wealthy enough to provide its people with so many phones, and yet so many "cannot afford the basic necessity and dignity of a toilet," says the director of the UN think tank behind the new report, Zafar Adeel. It's an irony that applies globally, too: this year, the International Telecommunication Union reports, the number of mobile subscriptions is expected to surpass five billion. By contrast, some 2.6 billion people — or nearly 40% of the world population — live in conditions with dismal sanitation. Fully 16% of the world is still forced to defecate in public every day...

But why does the number of cell phones so radically outstrip the number of toilets out there, when the latter are literally necessary to keep populations alive?

Polar Bear Sugar Cubes Melt Away in Your Morning Coffee

Sourced from Inhabitat, 27 April 2010

'These days it’s hard to deny that global warming is melting away our precious glaciers, and, sadly, the animals living in the polar regions are the ones that are suffering most. Using this dire fact as her inspiration, Jovana Bogdanović from Young Serbian Designers sends a clear and provocative message regarding a specific endangered species – the polar bear. Showcased during Milan Design Week, Sugar Bear is a sugar cube in the shape of a polar bear that will slowly melt away in your morning cup of tea or a coffee.'

29 April 2010

Earth's Nine Life Support Systems

Note that the big two are not climate change - but species loss and the nitrogen cycle - both intimately connected with human appropriation of land, for food in particular...

click to enlarge

Excerpt from the New Scientist, 24 February 2010

'Up to now, the Earth has been very kind to us. Most of our achievements in the past 10,000 years - farming, culture, cities, industrialisation and the raising of our numbers from a million or so to almost 7 billion - happened during an unusually benign period when Earth's natural regulatory systems kept everything from the climate to the supply of fresh water inside narrow, comfortable boundaries.

This balmy springtime for humanity is known as the Holocene. But we are now in a new era, the Anthropocene, defined by human domination of the key systems that maintain the conditions of the planet. We have grabbed the controls of spaceship Earth, but in our reckless desire to "boldly go", we may have forgotten the importance of maintaining its life-support systems.

The demands of nearly 7 billion humans are stretching Earth to breaking point. We know about climate change, but what about other threats? To what extent do pollution, acidifying oceans, mass extinctions, dead zones in the sea and other environmental problems really matter? We can't keep stressing these systems indefinitely, but at what point will they bite back?

Last year, Johan Rockström, director of the Stockholm Environment Institute in Sweden, sat down with a team of 28 luminaries from environmental and earth-systems science to answer those questions. The team included Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen, NASA climate scientist James Hansen, Gaia researcher and "tipping point" specialist Tim Lenton, and the German chancellor's chief climate adviser Hans Joachim Schellnhuber.

They identified nine "planetary life-support systems" that are vital for human survival. They then quantified how far we have pushed them already, and estimated how much further we can go without threatening our own survival. Beyond certain boundaries, they warned, we risk causing "irreversible and abrupt environmental change" that could make the Earth a much less hospitable place (Ecology and Society, vol 14, p 32).

The boundaries, Rockström stresses, are "rough, first estimates only, surrounded by large uncertainties and knowledge gaps". They also interact with one another in complex and poorly understood ways. But he says the concept of boundaries is an advance on the usual approach taken by environmentalists, who simply aim to minimise all human impacts on the planet. Instead, he says, boundaries give us some breathing space. They define a "safe space for human development"....


Boundary: Annual species extinction rate no more than 10 per million per year
Current level: At least 100 per million per year
Diagnosis: Boundary far exceeded

Humans are driving species to extinction by ploughing up or paving over their habitats, by introducing alien species like rats and weeds, by poisoning them with pollution, by hunting them for food and, increasingly, by changing the climate. Individual species may not matter much on their own, but collectively they form ecosystems that provide a range of vital "ecosystem services", such as recycling waste, cleaning water, absorbing carbon and maintaining the chemistry of the oceans.

Although we know that high levels of biodiversity are essential to healthy ecosystems, it is not yet clear how much can be lost before ecosystems collapse, nor which species are the key players in a given ecosystem. So Rockström's team settled on crude extinction rates as the best "interim indicator" of the state of ecosystems. They put the current extinction rate at more than 100 extinctions per million species per year, and rising. That compares with a natural "background" extinction rate of around 0.3. Up to 30 per cent of all mammal, bird and amphibian species will be threatened with extinction this century.

This cannot go on safely. Current rates may even mirror those of the "big five" mass extinctions of the past half-billion years, including the meteorite strike that did for the dinosaurs. While the world carried on after those events, it was massively transformed. To avoid a repeat, they suggest a safe long-term annual extinction rate of no more than 10 per million species per year. By that measure, they say, "humanity has already entered deep into a danger zone... if the current extinction rate is sustained"


Boundary 1: No more than 35 million tonnes of nitrogen fixed from the atmosphere per year
Current level: 121 million tonnes per year
Diagnosis: Boundary far exceeded and effects worsening...

Nitrogen is an essential component of all living things, yet only a small amount of the planet's stock of nitrogen is in a form that living things can absorb. This is "fixed" out of the air by bacteria in a range of leguminous plants. But you can have too much of a good thing. So other microbes "denitrify" ecosystems, converting the element back into forms not available for living things. This is the nitrogen cycle.

Farmers have always interfered with the cycle, because nitrogen availability often limits the fertility of soils. They have boosted production by planting more leguminous crops, like clover.

Then, a century ago, the nitrogen cycle changed forever when Fritz Haber, a German chemist, invented an industrial process for fixing nitrogen from the atmosphere to make chemical fertiliser. Today, 80 million tonnes of nitrogen is fixed from the atmosphere in this way each year and poured onto the world's fields.

But farming inefficiencies mean that most of this nitrogen runs off the land into rivers and oceans. Much of the nitrogen that does get into crops is later excreted by humans into sewers. We further fix nitrogen by cultivating legumes and burning fossil fuels, timber and crops. Put all that together, and we fix around 121 million tonnes of nitrogen a year, far more than nature does - and nature cannot cope.

The excess nitrogen is acidifying soils, killing vulnerable species and saturating ecosystems so that they lose the ability to recycle the nitrogen back into the air. Meanwhile, some over-fertilised lakes and seas in heavily farmed regions fill with "blooms" of aquatic life which then die and decompose, sucking all the oxygen out of the water in the process. The legacy of such blooms is anoxic "dead zones". At the last count there were more than 400 such zones in the oceans, covering 250,000 square kilometres, including parts of the Gulf of Mexico, the Baltic Sea and waters between Japan and Korea.

Rockström tentatively sets the safe level for human additions to the nitrogen cycle at about 35 million tonnes a year, one-quarter of the current total. Reaching that figure while continuing to feed the world is, to say the least, a tough ask...'

The Shock of the Old: Welcome to the Elderly Age

Reposted in full from the New Scientist, 8 April 2010

'Some worry that an older workforce will be less innovative and adaptable, but there is evidence that companies with a decent proportion of older workers are more productive than those addicted to youth. This is sometimes called the Horndal effect, after a Swedish steel mill where productivity rose by 15 per cent as the workforce got older. Age brings experience and wisdom.

Think what it could mean when the Edisons and Einsteins of the future, the doctors and technicians, the artists and engineers, have 20 or 30 more years to give us.

Of course, many older people do need healthcare, but many others are fit, competent and self-sustaining. Across Europe, typically only one retired person in 20 lives in a care home. In the UK, of 10 million over-65s, just 300,000 live in care homes (that's about 3 per cent). So the majority of Europe's elderly resemble Okushima in Japan. They are the councillors and counsellors, the social secretaries and neighbourhood wardens, the carers of other elderly people, and even the political and social campaigners and agitators - the glue that holds busy societies together. Far from impoverishing societies, says John MacInnes, a demographer at the University of Edinburgh, UK, all the evidence is that "mass longevity facilitates affluence".

The "silver market" is huge. You have only to watch US network television to see the constant advertising aimed at the elderly, from Viagra and holidays to equipment and leisure wear. Oldies have savings and cash from selling large houses they no longer need. The money is available for purchases and investment - and ultimately for their children.

But this is not fundamentally about economics or retirement. It is about society's zeitgeist, its social wellsprings. The cultural historian Theodore Roszak at California State University, East Bay, once took me to task over an article on the threat of ageing societies: "Ageing," he wrote, "is the best thing that has happened in the modern world, a cultural and ethical shift that looks a lot like sanity."

At 50, we do not expect to act or feel as we did at 20 - nor at 80 as we did at 50. The same is true of societies. What will it be like to live in societies that are much older than any we have known? We are going to find out, because the ageing of the human race is one of the surest predictions of this century. If the 20th century was the teenage century, the 21st will be the age of the old: it will be pioneered by the ageing baby boomers who a generation ago took the cult of youth to new heights. Without the soaring population and so many young overachievers, the tribal elders will return. More boring maybe, but wiser, surely.

The older we are, the less likely we are to be hooked on the latest gizmos and the more we should appreciate things that last. We may even reduce pressure on the world's resources by consuming less, and by conserving our environment more. We must especially hope for that, because unless the boomers can pay reparations for youthful indiscretions with the planet's limits then we may all be doomed.

The 20th century did great things. We should be proud that for the first time most children reach adulthood and most adults grow old. But after our exertions, perhaps we need to slow down a bit. Take a breather. Learn to be older, wiser and greener. Doesn't sound so bad, does it? Here's to Ushi Okushima.'

Insulation Nation: Cutting the Cost of Cosy

Excerpt from the New Scientist, 26 March 2010

'Cosy isn't it?" says Amanda James. We are in the kitchen of a modest terraced house in Sheffield, in the north of England, and James is part of a city council team overseeing the regeneration of this down-at-heel neighbourhood. Apart from looking a little smarter than the other houses on the street, there is not much to distinguish it from its neighbours. The difference will only start to show when the heating bills come in: though gas and electricity prices have soared, this is one property that will still be cheap to keep warm.

If everyone lived and worked in such well-insulated spaces, we would be well on the way to a low-carbon world.

The European Union alone uses the equivalent of 6 million barrels of oil a day just to heat its buildings, a figure that could be halved by insulating them properly, according to a 2006 report by Dutch energy consultant Ecofys. The report estimated that this would cut €270 billion a year from the EU's energy bills, and 460 million tonnes from its annual CO2 emissions, meeting its Kyoto commitments at a stroke. It would also create 500,000 jobs.

Until now, most of the effort to make housing more energy efficient has focused on newbuilds. In 2007, the UK government pledged to make all new houses carbon neutral from 2016. In Germany, where regulations are tight already, the pace is being set by even more ambitious standards set out by the PassivHaus Institute in Darmstadt. PassivHaus buildings should use just 10 per cent of energy consumed today by a typical house. Fitted with small-scale solar and wind generators, high-tech homes like these should be able to produce more energy than they consume.

Unfortunately, most people aren't in a position to move to expensive state-of-the-art new homes. Of the UK's 26 million homes, more date from before 1919 than have been built since 1980. At current building rates, 85 per cent of existing housing will still be in use in 2050.

So how much does it cost to achieve a house with a climate-friendly carbon footprint? Not as much as many people may think.

Take the "Banana Farm", the house of energy-efficiency advocate Amory Lovins. In 1983, prompted by the oil shock of the previous decade, Lovins built a radically designed house in Snowmass, Colorado, that used only 10 per cent as much electricity and 1 per cent as much energy for heating as a typical American home of the time. The energy-efficiency elements to achieve that contributed a mere $6000 to the overall $500,000 cost of the house. Energy savings meant that extra investment was recouped in just 10 months.

Last year, Lovins completed a major refit of his property. An energy-management system that uses data collected from 200 monitoring points around the house fine-tunes heating and lighting. A new bank of photovoltaic panels has brought the Banana Farm's peak electricity-generation capacity to 9.7 kilowatts, more than enough to run the sort of low-energy appliances found in a modern home.

Lovins views Banana Farm 2.0 as a laboratory for the future rather than a solution for today's homes. It's the original, low-cost energy savings we should focus on, he says. "Whatever your income, a 10-month payback is about the highest riskless return in the whole economy. Today, the economics would be even better."

Lovins's house was built to be energy-efficient. Old buildings like the Sheffield terrace were not. Tests on the building before work started showed how appallingly draughty it was. Air permeability is measured in cubic metres of air lost per hour per square metre of the house's external area when it is pressurised to 50 pascals. In Germany, building regulations demand an air permeability value no greater than 3.8, and the PassivHaus standard is less than 1. The unimproved Sheffield Eco-terrace scored a carbon-guzzling and uncomfortable 22, but after the refit it scores 6, well within the current UK limit of 10 for newbuild homes.

Although the Eco-terrace refit couldn't run to the expensive gizmos used in Lovins's new house, some clever solutions were still required. Insulating a house that has been built with solid brick walls used to mean fitting thick, foam-backed wallboard to the inside of external walls. In a small house this eats into an unacceptable amount of floor space, so the builders, advised by the industry and government-backed Energy Saving Trust, used a high-performance insulating wallboard made by the UK company Spacetherm.

The insulating layer on the back of the Spacetherm board is made by drying a silica-based gel at high temperature and pressure. This extracts water, leaving a silica matrix that acts as a highly insulating layer. The board used in Sheffield was just 50 millimetres thick; a conventional panel providing equivalent insulation would have had to be 125 millimetres thick.

James argues that homeowners should look on such retrofits as a financial investment like any other, whose return comes from savings in energy costs. To work out what is worth investing in, consumers need accurate figures on the likely payback. With that in mind, the Department of the Built Environment at the University of Nottingham, UK, is running a three-year study into the cost-effectiveness of various energy-saving technologies. Central to the project, which is sponsored by energy company E.On, is a replica of a 1930s semi-detached house that has been built on the Nottingham campus. Three million "semis" like this were built in the UK, and they still form a substantial fraction of the housing stock. "The house provides us with a unique test facility to measure the exact cost-benefit and carbon reduction figures achieved through the various measures," says Mark Gillott, who is leading the research.

"We have the technologies we need," says Catalina Spataru, who is also taking part in the Nottingham project. The question is whether people will use them. Most homeowners can't wait 30 years for their retrofit to pay for itself: people usually move house far more frequently than that, so they have little incentive to invest for the long term.

Finding the right balance of regulation and financial incentive can help solve this problem. In Germany, a combination of cheap finance, tough regulation and market stimulation seems to be doing the trick. German building regulations set energy performance standards for existing buildings as well as new ones: if you want to renovate your house, you have to improve its energy performance. To help homeowners meet those standards, the state-owned development bank KfW offers a programme of grants and cheap loans. The federal government has invested €6.4 billion into the scheme since it started in 2001, with encouraging results. "Since 2006 we have been able to renovate 800,000 homes to a higher energy standard," Wolfgang Tiefensee, the then building minister, said last year.

A pioneering project in Berkeley, California, has shown how the financial benefits can be used to persuade Americans to invest in emissions-saving modifications to their homes. In 2007, Berkeley launched itself as a Sustainable Energy Financing District, lending funds to homeowners wanting to install thermal or photovoltaic panels on their roofs. The loan will be repaid through local taxes over 20 years - though this cost should be more than offset by lower energy bills. A crucial feature of the scheme, known as Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE), is that the debt stays with the house, so if it changes hands the new owner, who reaps the benefit from its energy-saving features, also pays their fair share of the installation cost.

Following in Berkeley's footsteps, 16 US states have passed legislation that would enable PACE schemes to go ahead, and another dozen are considering it for 2010. "It's extremely promising," says Cliff Staton of clean energy consultants Renewable Funding, who are working on PACE schemes with 200 local bodies and the state of California. He reckons 7 out of 10 Californians will be eligible for the programme by the end of this year.

One criticism of these renewable-energy schemes is that investing in energy efficiency would bring better returns. A PACE scheme being introduced in San Francisco will require homeowners to do just that, Staton says, and use PACE bonds to improve energy efficiency before they are eligible for funding to install solar panels.

A report entitled Unlocking Energy Efficiency in the US Economy, published last year by the consultancy firm McKinsey, calculated that the US could cut its energy demand in 2020 by 23 per cent, saving $1.2 trillion over the next decade in the process, just by improving efficiency. The economic stimulus package introduced by President Barack Obama in February 2009 in the wake of the banking crisis set aside $5 billion to insulate 500,000 of America's poorest homes by the end of 2010.

In the UK, it is local government that has been taking the lead. For example, the borough of Kirklees in West Yorkshire launched a £20 million programme in 2007 called Warm Zone that offers free loft and cavity-wall insulation to every household in the borough. The aim is to retrofit half of the area's 172,000 homes, cutting its total carbon footprint by 2 per cent, or 55,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year, which is equivalent to taking 18,000 cars off the road. Around 70,000 homes will have been insulated by the end of 2010, the council says. Kirklees also offers interest-free loans for householders who want to install domestic renewable energy systems.

The national government in the UK is slowly catching up, and this month it announced a scheme of long-term loans for energy retrofits. As with PACE bonds, the debt stays with the house, and loan repayments should be more than offset by reduced energy bills.

Even in developing economies, which use far less energy per head than industrialised nations, there is a growing appetite for using energy more efficiently. China's Development Research Centre estimates energy efficiency measures implemented by state-owned heavy industry could cut China's predicted 2020 power needs by a quarter. The country is also beginning to look at energy use of buildings and has tightened its building codes. There are economic benefits as well as environmental ones: the Asia Business Council calculates that the work needed to save a megawatt of power by making buildings more energy efficient costs less than a quarter as much as installing a megawatt of new generating capacity.

As with most things to do with energy efficiency, it's combining good intentions with economic payback that drives real change. For old houses, the future looks cosy....'

Flooding for Peace

Well, that's that solved, then!

Reposted in full from the New Scientist, 14 April 2010

'Finally, global warming has done its bit for world peace, Feedback hears. Rising sea level in the Bay of Bengal has submerged New Moore Island, resolving a long-standing dispute between India and Bangladesh, which had both claimed it.'

Flushing Forests vs Recycled Content Toilet Paper

Reposted in full from New Scientist, 24 April 2010

'Next time you reach for the toilet roll, consider this: 60 million rolls of toilet paper are flushed away in Europe every day. And the average American gets though 57 sheets a day, six times the global average.

In a report last week, the Worldwatch Institute in Washington DC highlighted the wastage of paper in rich and rapidly developing nations. In the US, 14.5 million tonnes of office paper and newspaper will be dumped this decade, despite being ideal for recycling as toilet paper.

The potential savings are huge: recycled paper consumes 64 per cent less energy and 50 per cent less water, and creates 74 per cent less air pollution, compared with paper made from virgin wood pulp. The biggest obstacle to recycling, says Worldwatch, is a preference for luxury, multi-ply tissues. The problem is growing: western nations are the biggest users of toilet paper, but its use is increasing in China and Africa.'

28 April 2010

Sudden Tipping Points

Cripes! See last sentence!

Reposted in full from the New Scientist, 24 March 2010

'It's not just Iceland's economy that is volatile. The Eyjafjallajökull volcano spewed lava last week - and in the past, such eruptions have set off neighbouring Katla, one of the largest volcanoes on the island.

Katla blew every 40 to 80 years in the thousand years before the last time in 1918. "The eruption is long overdue," says Dave McGarvie of the Open University in Milton Keynes, UK.

"There is quite a bit of anxiety in Iceland about the potential size." Communications links could be cut and transatlantic flights could be disrupted by high-altitude dust.

Katla, beneath the Mýrdalsjökull glacier, has a reputation for triggering jökulhlaup - the sudden release of meltwater from glaciers and ice sheets. Its last eruption generated a peak discharge of 1.6 million cubic metres per second within 4 to 5 hours and moved so much debris that Iceland's coastline was extended by 4 kilometres.'


From The Word Spy, 28 April 2010

n. Distress or melancholy caused by a significant change to one's local environment.

'Whereas nostalgia is homesickness for a place, solastalgia is a yearning for the way a loved place used to be.'

—Des Houghton, "Pain has a brand new label," The Courier Mail, February 27, 2010

'Ecological degradation is not only affecting our external landscape; it's also influencing our psychic one. Neologisms paint the picture: solastalgia is the depression caused when your local surroundings are damaged significantly; eco anxiety is a generalized worry about the environment.

—Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson, "Eco anxiety," The New York Times, April 20, 2008'

Super Size Jesus


Reposted in full from the New Scientist, 24 March 2010

'Over the past 1000 years, Christ and his disciples have been enjoying an ever bigger Last Supper, an analysis of 52 paintings has shown.

Portion size, plate size and bread size have grown respectively by 69, 66 and 23 per cent (International Journal of Obesity, DOI: 10.1038/ijo.2010.37).'

The Climate Flip Side of Shipping Pollution Reduction

Interesting comment from reader on this article:

'SO2 regulated because it harms temperate notherners.

CO2 not regulated because it harms tropical southerners.'

Excerpt from the New Scientist, 17 March 2010

'Environmental paradoxes don't come much bigger. In July this year, the world's shipping lines will begin to apply pollution-cutting rules that will save tens of thousands of lives a year. Yet these very measures - which will radically cut sulphur emissions from ships - have a downside: they will also increase global warming.

When it meets next week, the Marine Environment Protection Committee of the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the UN body that regulates world shipping, will not even be discussing setting limits on regulating the carbon emissions of shipping. Yet it will confirm plans to slash the permitted sulphur content of fuel oil burned by most of the world's ships. Sulphur dioxide (SO2) emissions will diminish by as much as 90 per cent, and with them the resulting haze of sulphate particles.

That's where the problem lies. By shading the planet, the haze partially masks the warming effects of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide also produced by the world's fleet of 100,000 ships. Almost a billion tonnes of CO2 are emitted annually by shipping, some 3 per cent of the global total, and it was originally planned that measures to reduce these emissions would also be introduced at next week's meeting.

Those plans are now on hold. As a result, the world is set to suffer a double warming effect from shipping, says Jan Fuglestvedt of the Centre for International Climate and Environmental Research in Oslo, Norway: "one from CO2 and one from the reduction of SO2" (Environmental Science & Technology, vol 43, p 9057).'

Nature's GPS

Book review reposted in full from the New Scientist, 17 March 2010

'Another week, another news story about a driver led astray by their car's satellite navigation system. What is remarkable about these stories is not that satnavs make mistakes, but that the drivers ignored what their eyes and ears were telling them and blindly followed the advice of an automated voice, even as it guided them into a field or to the edge of a cliff.

As we become ever more reliant on GPS systems, the art of navigation is being lost. Tristan Gooley wants to do something about it. The Natural Navigator is full of advice on how to read nature's signposts: the sun, moon, stars and land.

Gooley has flown and sailed, solo, across the Atlantic; in fact, he is to date the only person to have done both. But The Natural Navigator is not just for daring explorers. Even if most of us are unlikely to have to navigate a wilderness, learning to read nature can enhance a walk in a city park or a stroll along the beachfront. Read this and you will never look at the sky or a tree the same way again.'

Game Theory - Self Interest vs Collective Interest

This stuff can get pretty complicated, but in a nutshell, here is what its about - highly relevant to resolving the sustainability challenge:

Excerpt from the New Scientist, 17 March 2010

'The classic example of a problem in game theory is the prisoner's dilemma. It was formulated in 1950 to illustrate a situation where cooperation is the best policy overall but is trumped by raw self-interest, leading to a less-than-ideal outcome for everybody. It goes something like this.

You and your partner in crime have been arrested and placed in separate cells. You are each offered the following deal by the prosecutor: confess, or remain silent.

If you confess and your partner remains silent, all charges will be dropped against you and your partner will go to prison for 10 years.

If you remain silent and your partner confesses, he will go free and you will go down for 10 years.

If you both confess, you will both be sent to prison for 5 years.

If both of you stay silent the prosecutor will rustle up some lesser charge and you'll each do 6 months.

Neither you nor your partner will learn what choice the other has made until after you have both announced your decision.

The dilemma is that, whatever your partner does, you're better off confessing. So the rational choice is to confess. But when you both confess, the outcome is far worse than if you had both remained silent.'

Property Shortage Hits Crisis Levels

There are a whole load of factors, and population is not the only cause, but it is a factor...biology, meet physics; physics, meet biology!

The right to decent, affordable housing is a basic human right - or should be. Its in the interests of a healthy society to make sure people and families are in a stable housing situation.

Reposted in full from Nine MSN Money, 28 April 2010

'Australia is facing a property shortage crisis amid surging population growth and ineffectual government policies, experts have warned.

The National Housing Supply Council (NHSC) says the current gap between housing demand and supply has grown by 100,000 in the last 12 months and warns that Australian must build 300,000 new properties by 2014 to close the gap.

"There is a very, very substantial increase in population. It's just simply unmatched on the production side of the housing market," said Dr Donald Owen, NHSC chairman.

"It defies the laws of economics. It's not what should be happening in any well-run marketplace, but it's certainly what's happening in Australia and we need to understand a whole lot better why."

According to the NHSC’s research, property supply was keeping pace with demand until 2005 when Australia’s population began to increase rapidly.

The yawning gap between supply and demand is expected to continue to push property prices higher. Prices rose by 12.7 percent in the 12 months to February and further gains are expected despite a series of interest rate rises.

"The bottom-line is that the Reserve Bank can’t solve the housing crisis by lifting interest rates," said Craig James, chief economist at CommSec.

"This only would serve to temporarily depress demand and reduce incentives for investors and developers to increase supply."

The NHSC, which was convened by the Federal Government but is an independent body, warned that all levels of government must work together to solve the problem saying "clarity about the roles and responsibilities of the different levels of government in the planning system is needed".

Mr James said the NHSC research, which was made public yesterday, shows that action is needed on the property shortage crisis now.

"The time for fine words and statements of intent has passed," he said.

"The latest report will also give the Federal Government more ammunition to press ahead with planning reform if state and territory governments continue to drag their heels in addressing the fundamental housing issues."

Dr Owen warned that even if supply is radically increased in the coming years, many families had already been priced out of the housing market.

"Even if the market responds to excess demand by increasing supply over time, it is unlikely to provide sufficient housing for people whose incomes are towards the bottom of the household income distribution," the report says.'

Population & Climate Change

Its an uncomfortable topic if you have children; its an uncomfortable topic if you do not have children...but its a topic we must discuss if we are to ensure a quality of life for those children in their lifetimes.

How coy we are about it - even in this article, there is pussyfooting around the issue:

'Is there a link between population and climate change?'

Is this a rhetorical question?!

Reposted in full from G Magazine, 21 April 2010

'One of the big issues now is the relationship between population and environmental damage.

In a recent address to the National Press Club in Canberra, reported here, Harvard University health professor Aaron Bernstein said climate change and population growth were the two biggest threats to civilisation.

With the global population soaring to nine billion, he said we are now seeing more diseases emerging, including respiratory ailments, that are the result of damaged ecological systems.

“Ecological barriers that once kept these infections at bay have been broken, opening the door to their passage of the human population,’’ he explained.

Melbourne University reproduction expert Roger Short argues that Australia’s population growth – apparently increasing by one person every two minutes - is out of control, increasing the rate of global warming.

A proposal published in the Medical Journal of Australia, and reported here, suggests governments should impose a carbon tax on babies. Barry Walters, an associate professor of obstetric medicine at the University of Western Australia, argues that parents having more than a defined number of kids should pay a carbon tax.

He argues that there should be a levy per child of at least $5,000 at birth (to purchase the land needed and plant trees) and an annual tax of $400-$800 thereafter for the life of the child (to pay for maintenance of the afforestation project). By the same token, contraceptives, intrauterine devices and sterilization procedures should come with carbon credits.

Indeed, Andrew Revkin from the New York Times has raised the possibility of baby avoidance carbon credits and suggests that condoms might be the ultimate green technology (read his blog here).

All this is important at the moment, with the debate raging around Australia about Treasury forecasts that our population will hit 36 million by 2050. Greens leader Bob Brown says we don’t have the infrastructure to deal with 21 million people, let alone something approaching 36.
It’s a point that Bernstein alludes to in his piece here.

“The population debate has heated up in Australia for many very good reasons, but one of those reasons, which in its own right has serious implications, is not getting much attention. While we - as a species of this planet - may squeeze through the current population-climate bottleneck, others may not," he writes.

"Treasury are now predicting Australia’s population will swell to 36 million by 2050 and globally, a massive human population is estimated to peak at nine billion people. Combined with climate change, this population increase will conspire to exert a tremendous strain upon the planet.

"Unless unchecked, the continued increase of our numbers on the planet is more than likely to result in serious consequences for human health and we risk placing short-term advantage over long-term gain at our own peril.”

But then, maybe we just need better planning. Australia, after all, is a big country, and maybe there has been too much focus on Melbourne and Sydney.

Farida Akhter, the Executive Director of UBINIG, a policy and action research organisation in Bangladesh, questions the link between population and climate change. She argues birth rates are coming down and in areas of the world where they are high, as in sub-Saharan Africa, emissions are actually low.

The other problem is how do we actually stop population growth? Is population the problem or is it more about our lifestyles and the way goods are produced?

Is there a link between population and climate change? And what do you think of the Federal Government looking at a 36 million population? Will that affect climate change?'

Collaborative Consumption

From The Word Spy


n. An economic model in which consumers use online tools to collaborate on owning, renting, sharing, and trading goods and services.

Example Citation:

'From social lending (Zopa), to car sharing (Zipcar) to co-working (HubCulture), to peer-to-peer rental (Zilok), to collaborative travel (Air BnB), to neighborhood sharing schemes (WeCommune)... people are already using the principles and dynamics of Collaborative Consumption — organized sharing, bartering, lending, trading, renting, gifting and swapping through online and real-world communities — to get the same fulfillment and benefits of ownership with reduced personal burden and cost and as well as lower environmental impact' —Rachel Botsman and Roo Rogers, What's Mine Is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption, HarperBusiness, April 1, 2010 (approx)

Earliest Citation:

'Collaborative consumption is a phenomenon that is sweeping the globe. ... Consumers collaborate on-line to exchange goods and services through web sites such as eBay and Gumtree, share hospitality experiences through Trip Advisor (featuring five million reviews and rising) and pool their collective purchasing power on www.12thshare.com to co-own, in a process known as fractional ownership, high-value assets such as prestige cars, property and airplanes' —Ray Algar, "Collaborative Consumption," The M&C Report, April 1, 2007

26 April 2010

Beyond Green Growth

Reposted in full from The Guardian, 15 April 2010

'Last March, Tim Jackson put forward the idea of prosperity without growth in a report published by the United Kingdom's Sustainable Development Commission and followed up with a book of the same name released last November. The book is a best seller (ranked 1,729 on Amazon) and in it he argues convincingly that we can still prosper without adhering to the encoded mantra of expansion and growth that permeates modern market economies.

More recently, in January 2010, Andrew Simms and Victoria Johnson at the new economics foundation (nef) published a more emphatic message in their report entitled Growth isn't possible. They argue that we should abandon the notion of growth altogether. The premise is that we need a new economic model "that allows the human population as a whole to thrive without having to rely on ultimately impossible endless increases in consumption".

In influential forums — like the G8 or G20, for instance — while it is acceptable and even desirable to use the word 'sustainability' in communiqués, it is most certainly taboo to equate 'no economic growth' to a social good. However, such heresy nonetheless finds traction (if only in book sales), even when our world is suffering from the ills of economic recession.

When addressing our environmental ills, the closest we ever seem to get is 'decoupling'. This idea has been around for decades and essentially suggests that we can break the links between economic growth and nasty side effects like pollution (e.g., carbon dioxide). Decoupling is done by producing things more efficiently — using less (and preferably renewable) energy, or using technology to capture the pollution. However, Jackson says that this relative decoupling is only possible to a certain level. He believes absolute decoupling is a myth — simply the acceptable face of sustainability that leaves our complex social and economic systems unchanged.

Stuff, stuff, and more stuff

Generally, we humans don't really like complexity or understanding how things work too much. For many of us, it is a bit of a shock to be confronted by some of the realities. You can find a good illustration of this in The Story of Stuff, which does a nice (albeit heavily politicised) job of illustrating the linkages within the modern economy: from where we get our resources, to their production, consumption and disposal.

You either love or truly hate this story. Some of the more inquisitive may want to look more deeply into "stuff", but I suspect many will convulsively reject it as heresy. After all, growth is good and without wealth there is no progress and what you don't know, doesn't hurt you.

At the same time, there are several important and accepted norms that dictate how the economy works and the role that consumption plays. For example, companies' first obligations are to shareholders, governments plan their spending based on the assumption of growth, and investors expect interest on their monies lent. Our role as consumers is to fuel that growth (preferably borrowing money in the process).

It is therefore entirely understandable that governments, businesses and consumers have little choice but to be obedient followers of the Growth God: otherwise uncertainty would prevail, revenues would fall and social stability would be threatened.

At a personal level, all this talk of growth focuses on the consumer cycle. Most of us like new things and the feeling of satisfaction (sometimes fleeting) that these things provide. And a large part of our modern society is optimized to meet these consumption habits with ever more innovative products delivered with ever increasing efficiency, even to the point of not having to leave the comfort of your home.

Ironically, it is this increasing efficiency — coupled with advancing technology and connected trade systems — that often breaks the link between the consumer and the consequences of their manufactured goods and results in social vulnerability when growth slows. Individually, we are often unwittingly runners on this treadmill.

Fortunately, it is the buzz of this consumer exercise that helps us deal with the stress it creates. Governments are hopelessly addicted and try frantically to get us back on the treadmill like the overbearing trainer whose job is on the line if you don't perform. Far from this latest financial and economic crisis being a time of reflection, the main priority is to get growing again.

Yet, as American author Edward Abbey once wrote, "growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell". Reforming an economic system that mandates growth on a finite planet requires drastic changes in how we do business. Therefore, in order to avoid the pain of environmental chemotherapy, many are developing alternative therapies.

Better, not bigger

The notion that our progress (and happiness) equates to our consumption became very strongly embedded in economic policy not least because we can measure consumption, and although we know it's imperfect at some level, it works. There is however, a whole array of proposals aimed at redressing this.

For example, the Redefining Progress approach is based on broadening our conception of affluence beyond Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to the Genuine Progress Indicator. The 'capability approach', articulated by India's Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen and others, has provided the basis for the Human Development Index and mainstream acceptance of wider measures of welfare.

Some are advocating economic changes that address the key problems affecting the world's resources and climate systems. Jackson, believes, as many have long warned, that we must recognise that exponential growth interacts with resources so that we may begin to adjust our economic activity in the face of scarcity and constraint. (This notion seems to be experiencing a revival, see our recent Survivalism back in vogue).

"Prosperity consists in our ability to flourish as human beings — within the ecological limits of a finite planet," states Jackson in the report. "The challenge for our society is to create the conditions under which this is possible. It is the most urgent task of our times."

So, beyond concepts of green growth or sustainable growth there is also that of 'no growth'. The latter is distinguished by the fact that it does not equate 'development' with economic expansion. The so-called steady state economy would look very different than our current system. We may share jobs, which would mean less income but, if we must still believe that time is money, increasing our time capital would afford us the luxury of doing the things that money can't, or would no longer be needed to, buy.

The Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy has summarised a number of policies from leading thinkers in this area.

Changing attitudes

How does such a thing happen? Will everyone come on board? The reality is that changing any system is always hard because we are not rewarded for doing things differently or because we receive perverse incentives not to change (i.e., fossil fuels still heavily subsidized).

Some of the ideas laid out in the above-mentioned publications may initially sound awfully undesirable. But are they really? Or is it just because they don't fit with how we currently define prosperity?

"As long as you are using that word 'consumer', you will be degrading the quality of the public discussion as we go into the very difficult future that we face." — James Howard Kunstler

The tricky part is getting individuals to think about changing. The provocative author and new urbanist James Howard Kunstler puts it simply: people need to stop thinking of themselves as consumers. He argues that consumers do not have obligations, responsibilities or duties to their fellow human beings.

"As long as you are using that word 'consumer', you will be degrading the quality of the public discussion as we go into the very difficult future that we face."

So while today we cannot deny that we are part of a mass consumer culture, it is a culture that to which we should begin waving goodbye. Perhaps luckily, mass consumerism is still a relatively new phenomenon; it is essentially a leftover of post-war excess productive capacity allied to ingenious marketing that plays a crucial role in stimulating various desires and dissatisfactions and keeps the consumer ball rolling. The culture-jamming magazine Adbusters considers advertising to be akin to intellectual pollution and aims to reform current perceptions of advertising in modern society, often using subversive counter advertisements.

Maybe what we really need is more space and time to reflect on these issues. Interestingly, Clay Shirky coined the term cognitive surplus to describe the little free time that our structured working lives allow. He explains how this time is currently filled largely by watching television (and shopping). Some of his figures are astounding: 200 billion hours of TV are watched in the US each year and 100 million hours/weekend are spent just watching adverts.

This vast cognigitve surplus could be better employed, he argues, by using our time creatively rather than consumptively. The creative awakening enabled by the internet is transforming some of us from consumers to producers and sharers of music, video, knowledge and so on.

It is early days, and we still don't fully comprehend the way the internet is altering our social and economic norms and it will certainly be employed on both sides of the consumption debate.

But, if we can change the way we use media, then why not also the way we consume material things?'

Mathis Wackernagel: Ecological Footprint

Reposted in full from social innovation think-tank Volans web site, 13 April 2010

'The Global Footprint Network is emerging as a leading player providing solutions to how companies, governments and cities can measure and track their natural assets. In this 2009 interview, Alejandro Litovsky talks to Mathis Wackernagel, President of the Global Footprint Network about strategies to amplify the impact of the footprint.

Humans are the most successful species on the planet, but are using more resources than the Earth can provide. The Global Footprint Network was established in 2003 to address this overshoot, by providing ways of measuring human demand on the Earth through the use of the Ecological Footprint — a resource accounting tool that measures how much nature we have, how much we use, and who uses what.

The Ecological Footprint is a data-driven metric that tells us how close we are to living within the means of planet Earth – or whether we are running an ‘ecological overshoot’. Footprint accounts work like bank statements, documenting whether we are living within our ecological budget or consuming nature’s resources faster than the planet can renew them. Global Footprint Network provides the scientific data necessary to drive large-scale, social change.

GFN works with cities, nations, international agencies, leading business, scientists, NGOs, academics and a network of 100+ global partners on six continents. It is committed to advancing the relevance and use of the Footprint in the world, applying it to practical projects and sparking a global dialogue about the desirability of a one-planet future.

GFN’s aspired to a future where ministers get as worried about growing ecological deficits as they fret already about skyrocketing unemployment or inflation; and where human demand on nature is monitored as closely as the stock market. GFN works for the time when designers shape products, buildings, and cities that have one-planet Footprints.

Q: Why should GFN be important to decision-makers?

A: The 21st century will be defined by ecological overshoot and humanity’s ability to deal with it productively. In a severely resource constrained world, those countries that understand the risk, and adapt themselves early on will be the winners, since adaptation takes preparation considering the longevity of stocks: our infrastructure, populations, and industrial plants with set energy efficiencies. Hence, a good understanding of a nation’s demand (or “Footprint”) on – and availability of – biocapacity become crucial metrics for securing a country’s success.

Because financial managers and policy-makers are largely resource-illiterate, the current financial crisis is leading to rather disastrous recovery plans. Even Obama’s $800 billion plan only contains $50 billion so-called ‘green economy investments’. First of all, anything non-green is building traps and needs to be de-constructed in a few decades. We need stimulus packages to accelerate sustainability rather than to repeat the mistakes of the past. We also need to look at what is called “green” and see: “is it green enough?” Not for moral and esthetic or fundamentalist reasons, but pragmatically: Are these investments realizing the highest possible social returns on investment?

Q: What are the biggest barriers you face in scaling up the impact of Global Footprint Network?

A: The biggest limitation still is that many countries and their administrations do not recognize the resource risk. If a country is ill prepared for a resource-constrained world, a significant portion of its GDP is in jeopardy.

Instead, many countries perceive even climate issues to be merely a moral question, not a key concern –or a survival issue. Many international agencies and governments are far too timid in engaging. Still, addressing climate issues in isolation from other resources is a strategic mistake. We are moving into a ‘peak everything’ situation; A crisis of water AND food AND climate AND fisheries AND biodiversity AND oil AND etc.

Once countries and regions understand their self-interest, things start moving fast. We are seeing this in our ‘Ecological Creditor Initiative’, which rallies ecological creditor countries – those who have more biocapacity than they consume, and who by now only host 20 percent of the world population.

Here’s the argument: Resource constraints are reshaping our world map. The 20th century distinction between “developing and developed” countries is vanishing, and the 21st century division will be between ecological creditor countries (with a larger biocapacity than their Footprint) and ecological debtor countries (the reverse). Much of Latin America, as well as New Zealand, Gabon, Finland, Botswana, Australia and others are still in an ecological creditor situation, which if managed well can significantly affect their future economic standing and competitiveness. Recognizing this new geopolitical shift will also put the climate negotiations on a much more productive path.

Once countries recognize that what is at stake is a considerable fraction of their future GDP –as we see in countries like Haiti, investment in strong biocapacity metrics will skyrocket because the social return on investment for such efforts are unsurpassed.

We need to look at who will be the future winners in that scenario, and work with them since they need to focus on opportunities. Still some of those have a hard time understanding the new threats. But once they do, things progress like wildfire.

Q: What relationships and partnerships can accelerate your impact?

A: There are a number of partnerships we are building– and they change over time. WWF has been a crucial communication partner. They are present in the 60 largest countries, are effective communicators and have a great reputation. While they continue to be wonderful partners, we now need to significantly expand our collaborations beyond the WWFs of the world.

We are now also engaging with more mainstream organizations, such as the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD). We collaborate with WBCSD to help spark a conversation among their leading corporate members about the significance of planetary limits for business success. We use our metrics to ask: what do planetary limits mean for their business case? What kind of markets will vanish and which ones will open up?

Another important set of relationships are partnerships with Ecological Creditor Countries – in Latin America, Australia, Europe and Africa — and inter-governmental organizations such as the World Bank and the United Nations, although their bureaucracies are typically far slower than leading business and pioneer countries.

We are participating in the UNEP Governing Council where we expect to be able to discuss our proposal with many government representatives from around the world. We have had a number of research collaborations with national governments, and now the Ecological Creditor Initiative has caught-on like fire. We got the first grant to develop the initiative on Dec 31st 2008 and one month later we are already in full swing, possibly with CAN (the Community of Andean Nations) in a leading role, but with many other countries and regions highly interested –including Brazil.

Q: Should there be credible ’social’ equivalents of your Footprint work?

A: Ecological Footprint is not a thing, but a short form for a specific and clear research question: how much of the biocapacity of the planet is occupied by human activities?

Our approach is a scientific inquiry into one particularly relevant question of our time. This question has ecological, social and economic ramifications, so the Footprint is not just this ecological thing with other social equivalents. Of course there are other relevant questions as well, such as: Are people satisfied? How are income and access to resources distributed? How well are ecosystems doing?

Q: Do you see competition building? Is there a growing ecology of actors accelerating the systemic change you are after?

A: We wish there was more competition. It is ridiculous how little work is being done in the resource-limits area, particularly in the current financial crisis. The mainstream barely acknowledges how resource constraints are aggravating and systematically exacerbating the negative impact on business cycles.

Certainly most economic advisors are rather oblivious of resource constraints. We find this pretty scary. Deans of prestigious business schools continue to ponder how we can subsidize sprawl and consumption to get us out of the slump while both phenomena are getting us deeper into the current trap of needing to continuously increase our resource consumption – just to be “economically stable”.

Articles in the Financial Times have acknowledged the problem of GDP-type thinking, but we are a long way to go from building widespread buy-in and recognition of the implications of planetary limits on our economic lives and on business. Much more needs to be done. We are looking for help and for partners who want to join us.'