Tag Archives: Sustainability

This is not a chimney

A Cooling Tower

A Chimney

It looks like a chimney… but it’s not! At a fossil fuel burning power station the chimney looks like this:

So what are these enormous concrete monstrosities? These belching behemoths are cooling towers. In the UK’s creaking, outdated power stations coal is burnt to heat water to steam. The steam is sent through turbines at high speed generating electricity. Once through the turbine a huge amount of energy remains in the hot water. For some reason the geniuses who designed these power plants decided that instead of using this heat for something useful like… er… heating… they would call it ‘waste heat’ and fart it into the sky. Some power stations also fart the heat into rivers killing fish. Great move guys!

Cooling Towers at sunset

The really stupid thing is that this electricity is then transmitted along wires to houses where, yes, you’re not going to believe this; it is used to generate heat in electrical heating devices. This process is massively inefficient. More than 75% of the carbon in those lumps of coal is released into the atmosphere for no good reason at all.

This insanity goes someway to explain why countries like Denmark and Sweden are so much more efficient then the UK. When I was in Copenhagen for COP 15 it was exciting to see a small power station within the city limits. This power station only had a chimney. It didn’t need cooling towers because all the ‘waste’ heat was being piped into the city to keep the homes snug. There are no boilers in homes over there (so no need for a boiler scrappage scheme); just large tanks storing the plentiful hot water. Using the hot water produced from generating electricity to heat neighbourhoods is known as district heating or combined heat and power (CHP). Most exciting of all was the giant company name emblazoned on the side of the building… DONG energy. This is clearly the way to warm a city!

Dong Energy in Copenhagen: no cooling towers

It is almost certainly not a coincidence that the countries that lead the world in energy efficiency are also the countries with the highest levels of equality. Efficiency and equality are two noble steeds drawing civilization forth to a better future.

The flip side to the gross inefficiency that lies at the heart of our green and pleasant land is that enormous efficiency savings and therefore emission reductions are readily available. All the government has to do is legislate to pass an Emissions Performance Standard (EPS) to ensure our electricity supply is subject to similar efficiency rules as everything else in our lives (fridges, cars, homes). Simple, you might think. Well it is, but unfortunately, politicians tend to be the snivelling dishonest type. In their quest to service the needs of big business they fail again to serve their true constituency… the people.

The big 6 energy companies in the UK have a great time enjoying both a deregulated market and historic and ongoing megasubsidies (£1676 million a year since 1990). You would think all this money might be spent on innovation, new technologies or improving service. Unfortunately as with the deregulated rail network we get increasing prices and worse service. Deregulation was supposed to give the consumer more choice but the myth of the free market flounders yet again. The ‘Big Six’ meet regularly behind closed doors racking up profits by keeping domestic bills broadly ‘in line’ with one another, restricting energy supplies to competitors and demanding laborious accreditation and credit requirements for new companies. As MP Alan Simpson points out deregulation has delivered an energy cartel but not energy security.

The Direct Approach

The Big Six are: Scottish and Southern Energy, Scottish Power, British Gas, EDF Energy, E.ON UK and npower. The members of this exclusive club are now fat, powerful and greedy. They resist any regulation to reduce emissions whilst ripping off the consumer during a cold spell. Energy companies’ profit margins have increased for the fifth quarter in a row, while wholesale costs continue to fall. No doubt their CEOs are enjoying winter in the Caribbean on their yachts while your gran shivers at home wearing her entire wardrobe with a tea cosy on her head.

Yeah right

Instead of moving us to a new energy model the government is putting its’ efforts into an approach The Big Six approve of. It’s called Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS). This involves capturing pollution at the chimney and pumping it underground. Despite the fact that this makes power stations 20% less efficient and despite the fact that its effectiveness is yet to be proved the government is throwing a £9.5 billion subsidy at it in the building of four new coal-fired power stations. Describing this as throwing good money after bad is the understatement of the millennium.  This ‘solution’ is the same old bullshit with a new hat on.  It’s still big, it’s still dirty it’s still inefficient… and guess what?… you’re still paying for it! Families will  have to pay a new levy on electricity bills for at least the next 20 years in order to fund this dubious technology that keeps us bound to burning fossil fuels for years to come. The government continues to rein back the noble steeds backing instead the old inefficient knacker ridden by the big fat cats.

Instead of tackling the pollution at its source the government is focusing its energy down stream on the consumer despite the fact that by this point most of the enegy has been wasted already. In this Act on CO2 advert the government skilfully uses fear and the love of our children to try to create behaviour change.

However, there isn’t much point telling people to unplug their mobile phone chargers when the companies doing the charging have a carte blanche to tip us into apocalyptic meltdown and the electricity being delivered to your house is dirtier than an oil spill in the Persian Gulf. Yes, the future is scary, in large part because our leaders are cowardly and are not making the bold joined up move to a low carbon future we so desperately need.

The government should commit to building no more old-school power stations. Instead of enormous power stations in the countryside let’s see smaller power stations around cities burning waste, secondary bio fuels and other fuels and making use of all the heat generated by connecting up to district heating networks. All new homes built should be on brown field sites joined to such a grid.

If the government doesn’t join up it’s messaging to electricity users with that to generators it risks losing any credibility on climate change when we need leadership from government most. Right now this would be a disaster and would undermine a lot of the good work that Act on CO2 has done on the consumer side.  We need to prioritize our actions in such a way that those that reap the greatest reductions in emissions are enacted first. Of course, the biggest polluters must be looked at first and hardest. By wimping out of regulating Europe’s biggest polluters what message is the government sending to us?

The usual suspects?

The repeated failure of our government to take appropriate action and reign in the power companies gives concerned citizens only one course of action. As Al Gore, Sir David King and a UK jury have made clear civil disobedience is now urgently required. Is it is time to break the law for a higher cause?

Hasta la vista baby!

 

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Science is Great but God is Green

 

William Blake's God

More than anything else, the future of civilization depends on the way the two most powerful forces of history, science and religion, settle into relationship with each other.

Alfred North Whitehead

Technology is presented as the solution to environmental problems but wasn’t it technology that got us into this mess in the first place? This won’t sit well with the people trying to sell us green gadgets but we may have to change more than just our light bulbs. The environmental crisis we face is more than just a technological challenge. It is also a moral challenge. Whether it is fashionable or not to bring it up most people on earth still belong to the world’s great religions. Could these huge collections of people hold the key to the widespread behaviour change needed to save civilization?

Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind.

Albert Einstein

The success of science is the foundation of the modern age. Science has enabled us to build new technologies, live longer and accrue unprecedented material wealth. However, the ongoing expansion of human capital is marred by the looming spectre of environmental collapse. Humans are expanding into, and at the expense of, the natural world upon which we depend. Humans also have a track record of using smart technology in stupid ways. Exploding thermonuclear devices above cities, engineering viruses and building gas chambers all demonstrate the immense harm we can do ourselves with technology. Holding up science and technology as the solution to environmental problems passes the buck away from the simple truth that it is what we do with technology that is the problem. To paraphrase Ghandi we need to be the change that we want to see in the world; our behaviours and cultural norms must change in line with our changing ecological context.

Indian Cow

A scientific interpretation of religion sees it as a complex adaptive system of beliefs that persists because it instils an advantage on practitioners. For example, the reverence of the holy cow in India effectively prevents the slaughter of cattle. Anthropologist Marvin Harris has shown that cows play a critical role in the Indian economy and the greater good is served by not slaughtering them. The dung is fuel, their traction pulls ploughs and they provide an ongoing supply of milk for children. Thus religion can act as a means of optimizing behaviour.

Religion is culturally ubiquitous and acts as social glue. It provides the common values necessary to make individuals want to do what they must do if social order is to be achieved especially in times of hardship or scarcity. Examples can be found from every religion of peoples’  faith providing a narrative allowing them to make sense of their universe and optimize behaviour in the face of overwhelming unknowns and challenges.

The Pope: useful priorities?

Clearly, religion has its dark side. History is made up of bloody competition between warring tribes. Often it is religious belief that gives a human superorganism its sense of superiority and it readiness to fight and destroy other groups. However, just as modern nations are increasingly multicultural; could not religions coexist with a shared sense of duty towards the planet? An expansion of the religious approach from being tribal or ethnic to planetary could transform modern religions into powerful forces for nature conservation. Just to take Catholicism as an example, if the Pope invested a fraction the energy he spends on sexual morality encouraging sustainable resource use the gains for everyone would be huge.

Voluntary (material) simplicity, revering creation and showing love to fellow humans will be pivotal ethics in the campaign to reduce the total human ecological footprint and are core teachings of many religious leaders including Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha and Ghandi. Yet to date there seems to be little coming together of environmental and religious worldviews. Are religious people so focused on the afterlife they aren’t concerned with progress down here on the earthly plane? Perhaps new and more relevant interpretations of what the religious founders were saying are called for?

Buddha

The root etymological meaning of religion, the Latin religio, translates as ‘to connect’. A modern interpretation of our religions could connect all humankind to itself and to this planet. By combining with religions a more sophisticated understanding of our mutual interdependencies and the physical limits of our planet a common cause between religions can be identified and a common route into future existence mapped out.

This is in actual fact the completion of a circle. The first religions were invariably based on nature worship. For our ancestors the environment was more immediate and vital. Food, predators and the seasons determined life and death from one day to the next. So it is fitting that as our environmental conditions again become a matter of survival the focus of our religions should pan back and once again incorporate all of the natural world not just human affairs.

It is hard to hear the first voices of dissent opposing never ending economic growth in the face of the deafening roar of development. Indeed environmentalists have been branded radicals and terrorists for opposing the apostles of the free market. Greens with a spiritual dimension to their campaign are derided most: ‘New Agers’. However the ‘idealism’ behind moving to an ecological age is in fact the only rational future for humanity. Prophets or shamans may see outside the consensual reality tunnel and report back and precipitate change.

Mi'Kmaq Warrior Chief and Peace Pipe Carrier, Sulian Stone Eagle Herney with Alastair McIntosh, 1994. (Photo: Murdo MacLeod, The Guardian, 1994)

Alastair McIntosh was one such man. He stood firm in the face of development and preserved his home island. The Isle of Harris was chosen by Redland Aggregates as the prime location for a new massive quarry to supply aggregates for new motorway construction. At 10 million tonnes output per annum, the proposed quarry at Lingerabay would have been 50 times larger than a conventional large British quarry. The area is a designated National Scenic Area. Alastair a Quaker joined forces with Donald Macleod the Calvinist and Chief Stone Eagle Herney a Mi’Kmaq Warrior from Nova Scotia to lead an irresistible campaign preventing construction. They all testified at the public enquiry not by engaging in a scientific debate but by drawing on a sense of profound connection to the land, reverence for God and entering into a “dynamic of service to the natural world”. Their testimonies supported by the pluralistic, democratic campaign proved an unstoppable force.

The Awakening Universe... what next?

For these people religious thought is clearly more than just an adaptive behavioural trait. It is an expression of the spirituality available to all people. Life has evolved into ever more complicated forms on this planet for 3.6 billion years. This increasing complexity suggests a direction and purpose. Opposed to the onward march towards entropy of the rest of the universe life is becoming ever more complex and organized. Humans sit atop this apex of development and our conscious minds, composed of atoms created in suns, is the awakening universe knowing itself.

God sleeps in the rock
Dreams in the plant,
Stirs in the animal,
And awakens in man.

Sufi Teaching

The development of human consciousness and the science and religious thought associated with it allowed humans to expand out of our ecological niche and spread over the world. An expansion of this consciousness further will allow us to shift from competition driven on by our so called ‘selfish genes’ to cooperation. Once society becomes sustainable the world is literally our oyster. Technology can be called upon to once again enhance the human condition. We can explore our planet; celebrate and study other life forms; realize the full creative potential of our imaginations and ultimately head for the stars.

Our Cosmic Crib

The environmental crisis is an outward manifestation of the collective psychological crisis of humans struggling within the existential void of existence that comes from the false belief that we (our egos) are independent entities separate from the rest of the universe. This crisis represents an opportunity. In choosing to move into a sustainable, ecological age we must necessarily open our hearts to our fellow humans and deepen our connection to nature. The ultimate spiritual revelation, as reported back by the great sages independently in disparate religious traditions is called the Perennial Philosophy.  It is the “the confidence that we have devolved from a single Source and the process of spiritual development is completed and perfected in our return to that One” It has been stated thus:

“Thou Art That” or Tat Tvam Asi (Sanskrit: तत् त्वम् असि or तत्त्वमसि), one of the Mahāvākyas (Grand Pronouncements) in Vedantic Hinduism

“Be still and know that I am God!”  Psalm 46:10

“If thou knowest thine own self, thou knowest God.” Ibn-Al-Arabi

This has been re-encapsulated in our time by the environmentalist David Suzuki who said:

“We are the environment.”

Of course this is a scientific truth too. Humans are dissipative structures. Our organizational structure is maintained through the consumption of our environments. We eat other living organisms and the atoms of their bodies become the atoms of ours. There is a flow of energy and matter from the universe around us into the temporary structures that make up our bodies. So ultimately scientific and religious thought converge. The take home lesson is that you should love your environment, your planet and indeed your cosmos as if it was yourself… because it is.

Understanding this not only leads to the conclusion that what we do the environment we do to ourselves and that a species going extinct is like the death of a part of our soul but that everything around us, including ourselves is, for lack of a better word, God.  This expansion of consciousness is our next evolutionary step. We have reached what Buckminster Fuller called our “final evolutionary exam”. Choosing existence and starting the shift to an ecological age is an opportunity to reinterpret our existence. At best sustainability will be a triumph of our better nature and shared adventure into spirit. At worst, we will survive.

Zen

Climate sceptic!? You do the maths…

Our Atmosphere: you gotta love it!

The process behind altering the earth’s atmosphere and therefore its climate is now well understood. Humans mine from the earth and from the bottom of the oceans the compressed fossils of organisms that lived on the planet eons ago. These beings were sustained by the energy captured from ancient sunlight beamed through space in an epoch before the first mammals had even evolved.

Geological Time Spiral

Photosynthetic organisms use the energy of sunlight to turn CO2 from a gas in the atmosphere into the living matter of all the creatures on earth. When these plants, algae and plankton are eaten the matter is passed up the food chain. When living organisms die if they are not consumed by another they may be transformed to soil, sedimentary rock or the infamous, so-called fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas). Thus the total mass of organic matter has been increasing on earth continuously since the dawn of life.

Prehistoric Life

The industrial revolution and subsequent, derived technological expansion reverses this process. Power stations, the boiler in your cupboard and the engine in your car take the fossilized remains of ancient animals and burn them. This combustion releases the energy that was captured back in the day and returns the complex organic carbon matter back to molecular form (CO2 and water). Because we live in a ‘fossil fuel economy’ almost everything we do has a carbon footprint. However, because this is a new science and only recently taught in schools many people struggle to understand what a carbon footprint actually is. A carbon footprint is the carbon released into the atmosphere from whatever you do…  but how can we conceptualize this?

People discussing climate change often use the unit of a tonne of co2. We know that on average in the UK we release 11 a year, about 1 a month. In the US it is about double this. Specific activities can be given a carbon footprint. For example, flying to New York releases about 3 tonnes of co2 and flying to Australia about 10.

What is this tonne? Where is this tonne? What is it doing? Even within the low carbon world this practical information is not well understood. Presumably this is because we are discussing an invisible gas. This may get to the heart of the climate challenge. No one can see it happening. The ‘greatest threat humanity has ever faced’ is invisible and gradual (until it goes non-linear that is; if feedback loops amplify change so that it ‘runs away’ change will be fast and irreversible).

Last year I worked with a crack squad of artists, architects, event producers and the world’s leading projection company to construct a sculpture the size of 1 tonne of co2 at COP 15 and project upon it a range of climate themed audio visuals.

Standing in front of the work of art elicited a range of psychological, emotional and physical responses. This mega monolith manifested in downtown Copenhagen was so big (8m x 8m x 8m) it was shocking; but it was the accompanying data that really knocked the wind out of you. In total humans release 80 million of these suckers every day (2006 data). Stacked on top of each other these would go to the moon and back 1.5 times (every day). In a year the figure is 28,431,741,000 tonnes. In other words we have got cubes coming out of the ying yang!

The Cube from the Air

The exhibit culminated with a Kenji Williams performing Bella Gaia in front of the cube with exclusive NASA footage projected in the background.

This staggering scale is even more sobering when it is made relative to the total volume of the atmosphere. From the scale of us humans busy with our daily endeavours on the planet’s surface the atmosphere seems enormous. It dwarfs us. However, at the scale of the planet the atmosphere is almost unnoticeable. The atmosphere and oceans are so small in comparison to the overall earth it is comparable to a film of water on a billiard ball. Even all the mighty oceans only make up 1/4000 of the earth’s total mass.  The scale height of the atmosphere is about 8.5 km.[8] Whereas the radius of the earth is 6,371.0km[3] in other words the earth is more than 1000 times bigger than the atmosphere.

 

The third rock from the sun contains around it a thin layer of water, gases and vapour at a temperature of between −89 °C to 57.7 °C (mean = 14 °C). Within this exists all of the known life in the universe and all that most of us holds dear. For astronauts in space seeing this can be an epiphany. Here are some reactions to seeing our home from space:

An Astronaut

Looking outward to the blackness of space, sprinkled with the glory of a universe of lights, I  saw majesty – but no welcome. Below was a welcoming planet. There, contained in the thin, moving, incredibly fragile shell of the biosphere is everything that is dear to you, all the human drama and comedy. That’s where life is; that’s were all the good stuff is.

– Loren Acton, USA

For the first time in my life I saw the horizon as a curved line. It was accentuated by a thin seam of dark blue light – our atmosphere. Obviously this was not the ocean of air I had been told it was so many times in my life. I was terrified by its fragile appearance. – Ulf Merbold, Federal Republic of Germany

A Chinese tale tells of some men sent to harm a young girl who, upon seeing her beauty, become her protectors rather than her violators. That’s how I felt seeing the Earth for the first time. I could not help but love and cherish her.  – Taylor Wang, China/USA

The total annual emissions of greenhouse gasses from human activity are a not insignificant percentage of the total atmospheric mass. If our atmosphere was the size of an apple, every year we are sticking a pea size amount of poisonous gas into it. We have been doing this since 1750. It is not unbelievable that doing this would create a change to our atmosphere and to our climate. It is unbelievable that we have been doing this for 250 years and we are still around to talk about it. Why aren’t we already extinct!? The resilience of the earth’s atmosphere is largely down to the dynamic nature of the ecological systems that make up the biosphere. At this point it may be worth pointing out that at the same time as pumping vast amounts of gas into the biosphere we are also removing the great forests of the world which draw co2 out of the atmosphere.

Personally I sincerely wish it was true that a group of scientists had invented climate change as an elaborate plot to usher in a world government who will curtail the rights of US gun toters, ban Christianity and create a homosexual communist utopia. The inconvenient truth that just will not go away is that thousands of different scientists in different parts of the world, using different techniques and speaking different languages are measuring and monitoring the same phenomena. We are changing our atmosphere and our climate.

Whatever your ideological stand point you need a healthy atmosphere to breathe. The people who are slowing down and hampering global efforts to preserve our atmosphere fit into 3 different categories. They are either not educated to the level to enable them to understand the science; they are stupid or they work for the fossil fuel industry. If you can’t understand the science for whatever reason, we politely ask you: please step aside; your ignorance is deadly. Those who can understand the science are aware of an enormous imminent threat and are working hard to find solutions. For the other category you are worse than irresponsible. You are traitors to your species, your planet and this grand evolutionary adventure. Your greed is endangering all of the life on this planet. The best thing we could do with you would be to stick you on a planet that doesn’t have an atmosphere and see how you like it when your eyes pop out of your skull rapidly followed by your evil little reptilian brain.

Sunrise on Earth

How Deep Is Your Love?


What we buy and what we give has far more of an effect then we might think. Whilst all products have an ecological footprint impacting some part of the planet; some have dire, specific consequences for both ecological systems and people. Beef from the Amazon, palm oil products from South East Asia and farmed tropical prawns are well known examples. Less well known is that a massive surge in sales of cheap roses imported from Lake Naivasha in Kenya is ‘bleeding that country dry’ and drawing hundreds of thousands of people to the dusty edge of a rapidly retreating, once beautiful lake of regional ecological significance.

A Happy Hippo

An African Eagle

85% of all roses sold in the UK come from Kenya. Lake Naivasha’s cut flower industry amounts to nearly 75% of the countries horticultural exports. In 2008, 93,000 tonnes of flowers were exported. About 97% of exports are to the EU.  The following year President Mwai Kibaki’s government warned that nearly 10 million people – more than a quarter of the population – were at risk from food shortages.

The rapid growth of this industry in a unique and biodiverse ecosystem has had disastrous consequences. The lake’s water level has dropped by three metres from its maximum and its surface area has shrunk to half its size. Precious wetlands have been degraded and wildlife no longer comes to drink at the crowded and polluted shores.

The cost for the people is terrible too. The international companies that extract the water (and money) and grow the roses have been repeatedly slammed for failing to protect workers. Hundreds at a time are sacked for trying to protect their rights. Workers are exposed to extremely harsh conditions but so many job seekers come in from the surrounding parched landscape that workers who complain are simply sacked and replaced. Finally the evil was exposed for what it was with the murder of a celebrated (68 year old, female) environmentalist, Joan Root, who tried to make a stand.

A receding and polluted shore of Lake Naivasha

In the mean time, the international companies operating there extract ever more water, diverting it from agricultural production and its ecological purpose of sustaining the land. University of Leicester biologist and Earthwatch scientist Dr David Harper who has conducted research for over 25 years at Lake Naivasha: “Roses that come cheap are grown by companies that have no concern for the environment, who cut corners and avoid legislation, who sell their flowers into the auction in Amsterdam so that all the buyer knows is the flowers ‘come from Holland’.  In reality, they have come from Kenya where the industry is – literally – draining that country dry.”

Food & Water Watch, in their report, Lake Naivasha: Withering under the Assault of International Flower Vendors, write: “I witnessed chemical spraying while people working nearby wore no protective gear…The pesticides applied on the farms and in the greenhouses eventually end up in Lake Naivasha and in the groundwater, threatening people and wildlife.”

Lake Naivasha Today

This is scorched earth capitalism of the worst kind. These flower companies are making vast amounts of money, the majority of which will not return to Kenya, whist degrading the land. Once the lake is gone they will simply move to similar ecosystems in Ethiopia or elsewhere. They will leave a parched dust bowel reminiscent of the Aral Sea catastrophe, surrounded by dead animals and starving people staggering over the dying land.

The people who defend the import of roses from Kenya do so because they say it provides money and jobs to the local people. Floriculture is estimated to employ over 50,000 directly. However, the benefits are transient and superficial. The flower industry lobbyists are using a timescale so short as to be historically insignificant. At current rates of extraction the lake will be gone in 10 years. What will happen then to the 300,000 people who have been drawn to the shores? When the natural systems that support us goes, everything goes; including the economy. People will die. The economy that should be built around Lake Naivasha is a sustainable local one. By focusing on growing indigenous crops which require low levels of water people can be fed for generations and the lake can remain intact.

The evolution of capitalism has transformed us from beings to consumers. Working for money, and then spending it, is now central to our lives. Our transformation from life form to hungry ghost, mechanized consumers is writ large in the modern manifestation of our festivals. Pre- Christian Christmas celebrated nature by bringing a tree into the home. Then it was a celebration of the birth of Christ. Now it is the biggest consumer event of the year.

Bloody roses

Many corporations now depend on the spending patterns of these festivals to exist. As such, much effort is exerted to compel consumers to conform to the requisite behaviours and spending patterns. This Valentine’s Day, as last, millions of brainwashed, randy young (mostly) men will obediently trot to their local supermarket and hand over hard earned cash to get the requisite 12 cheap, imported roses to prove their love to their target mate. Harmless fun you might think. Unfortunately not, as with all mindless consumption there is a cost born by the biosphere and externalized to another part of the world.

“This Valentine’s Day, it’s important that we finally stop these international operations from depleting the lake’s waters, poisoning the surrounding environment with pesticides, and exploiting workers. Unless we end this, these industrial floriculture factories will continue sowing the seeds of poverty, water deprivation, and environmental carnage.”
Maude Barlow, national chairperson of the Council of Canadians

Inhabiting our vast megacities nature is far removed. Yet its resources are needed to supply our voracious, over-stimulated appetites. Our excessive consumption requires that in distant parts of the world forests are felled, lakes are drained and mountaintops removed. We can stroll in comfort on mahogany decking while the mighty forests of the world burn. As mass consumption becomes the norm around the world companies reach further and dig deeper to transform nature into products. The result is that natural systems everywhere are collapsing. Our eyes are blind to the fact that it is our pounds spent, our vote from the wallet that is destroying the natural world.

Skull & Roses

Ten thousand tons of roses bought in Britain for Valentine’s Day are imported from Lake Naivasha in Kenya.  If your lover gives you roses you have to wonder whether the gift comes bundled with the blood of Africans and the death of an ecosystem.

It is no longer possible for educated people to claim ignorance; despite the media’s vested interest in helping to maintain the normal man and woman as obedient consumers. Stories constantly come through to us of extinctions, habitat loss and a dying biosphere. The penny must drop. The lines must connect. The neurones must grow between the synapses. It is us. We are doing this. We are harming the biosphere every time we buy something that is forced from nature. There is only one solution and that is to stop buying unessential consumer products. First stop; do not buy cheap imported roses on Valentine’s Day.

Notes

Valentine’s Day does not have to be a consumerist nightmare with grave ecological and humanitarian consequences. Here are some sustainable gift alternatives for your lover:

  • A delicious seasonal and local meal cooked or bought in your favourite restaurant
  • A prolonged erotic massage accompanied by Prince on the stereo
  • A poem, song, love letter, painting, photo, mix tape drawn from your creative juices
  • A weekend (not too far) away
  • Flowers grown sustainably in the UK. Check out Wiggly Wigglers
  • Fair trade flowers

Remember, we grow magnificent roses in this country. You just have to wait for the right season. So give your lover some other gift now and this summer you can stick a bunch of roses in her face, fill the bath with petals and generally live the rose scented dream. Just not in February and not with roses flown in from Kenya.

Useful articles:

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/africa/where-have-all-the-flowers-gone-thorns-among-the-roses-418489.html

http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2007/feb/14/kenya.conservation

http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2006/feb/13/gifts.kenya

http://www.edie.net/news/news_story.asp?id=14204

http://www.foodandwaterwatch.org/world/publications/reports/lake-naivasha-international-flower-vendors

Eat Your Pet

Snacking for the Planet

Yeah… we love animals! We love animals so much we chop them up on an industrial scale stick them in tins full of gravy and then feed them to other animals we call ‘pets’. In 2007 sales of food for cats and dogs alone amounted to US$ 45.12 billion . Ironically this is almost the exact cost as an estimate for conserving total global biodiversity, $42 billion (UNEP 1992).  The hot spot approach could make total biodiversity conservation even cheaper.

Yangtze River Dolphin

Conserving biodiversity is as urgent and important as stopping climate change; we are living through the 6th great planetary extinction event. This means that species are being lost at at least 100 times the natural rate. An estimated 34,000 plant and 5,200 animal species face extinction. The last such loss of species was 65 million years ago and saw the departure of the dinosaurs. Recently, the Yangtze River Dolphin was announced as gone forever. Losing such characterful species is tragic but more significantly ecologists have compared the loss of species to rivets falling off an aeroplane. Losing 1 or 2 rivets isn’t a problem but lose too many… and you’re up shit creak without a paddle… and there are no friendly dolphins to save you either.

Woof!

The climate impact of pets is enormous. An article in New Scientist reports that A typical medium sized  dog has an ecological footprint more than twice that of a 4.6-litre Toyota Land Cruiser. There are many other dark ironies about our peculiar love for certain species. We really love cats, 7.7 million felines live in the UK even though they decimate the local populations of small mammals; things we don’t like e.g. the endangered field mouse, voles and shrews. Scientists estimate that each year in the US domestic cats kill hundreds of millions of birds, and more than a billion small mammals, such as rabbits, squirrels, and chipmunks .

We also love birds. The RSPB has over 1 million members (including 150,000 youth members), making it the largest wildlife conservation charity in Europe.[3] Bird lovers like to feed birds in their garden. Done responsibly this can boost biodiversity. Unfortunately, at the commercial scale this is likely to be boosting UK biodiversity whilst depleting it elsewhere. Most bird seeds sold in shops will contain imported nuts. We may not know exactly where or how these nuts were grown but most likely it was in countries with weaker agricultural and environmental legislation then the EU. The mass production and consumption of these products may decimate biodiversity in the producer countries.

Peanut Bird Feeder

Peanuts are found in most bird seed mixes. Brazil is 1 of the 5 major producers/exporter countries (United States, Argentina, Sudan, Senegal) accounting for 71% of total world exports. It is well reported that agricultural growth in Brazil is largely responsible for the loss of the Amazon Rainforest, one of the most biodiverse places on the planet. This means that sweet old animal loving Mrs Blogs is effectively trading the Amazon for a few blue tits pecking outside her window sill…. Bad trade!

All animals are part of the global eco-system that we conflate to call ‘nature’. If we love animals the most important thing to do is to ensure our behaviour and choices support, conserve and protect nature as a whole (aka Gaia). In general, supporting nature means consuming less. This is especially true of imported products which may have a huge environmental impact and meat which requires much land to produce. If some of the energy resources and love currently channelled by UK citizens into the pet industry were diverted into nature conservation we could save a large number of species from going extinct.

Baby Orangutan and Mother

The love that we feel for a pet can be an egocentric love. We may desire the companionship, adoration, and unquestioning love that the pet-human relationship establishes. This love is focused down onto an individual creature onto which we project many of our emotional needs. This love for an individual animal can be broadened and expanded to incorporate all of the life on the planet. We gain many well being benefits from expanding our pet-love relationship to a wider love and respect for all nature . The forests, birds in the sky, fish in the sea and all wild creatures can be our friends too.

Indigenous tribes attribute personalities to wild creatures which are pivotal parts of their world view. We can too. Clearly global ecosystems benefit when we can attribute a personality to the whole biosphere. Gaia, The Great Mother / Great Mystery is dying while we sit divorced from nature in our heated cubeoids stroking our well fed pets. Let’s open our eyes and see the whole world is full of ‘pets’ and we don’t need to own them to love them.

Racing the Red Queen to oblivion

“It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.”

Queen of Hearts

Queen of Hearts

The Red Queen Effect (or hypothesis) is an evolutionary hypothesis named after the Red Queen’s race in Lewis Carroll‘s Through the Looking-Glass and describes the way in which we must constantly improve to remain competitive in an evolving world.

The RQE explains why no matter how much we evolve and perfect our immune systems we still get ill and still get parasites. The bacteria and parasites are evolving too and as we evolve resistance they evolve new ways of conquering them. If gazelle evolve to run faster, the cheetah must become faster too to keep up. Thus there is a constant evolutionary arms race between competing species, a key driver in evolutionary specialization.

A related biological phenomenon is habituation. Habituation is the physiological process in humans and animals in which there is a decrease in psychological and behavioral response to a stimulus after repeated exposure to that stimulus over a duration of time. Habituation explains why advertisers must constantly seek new ways of stimulating their targets. Consumer’s minds become progressively less receptive to the same message.

Escher's_Relativity

Escher's Relativity

A related psychological phenomenon is the ‘hedonic treadmill’ which refers to the fact that striving for happiness tends not to create significant changes in one’s base level. People consistently over-estimate the amount of happiness that they will gain from events in life and from their life circumstances. For example, we are conditioned to believe that we will be significantly happier when we earn £30,000 rather then £20,000 but in actual fact we will rapidly adapt and begin longing for £40,000 a year . Well-being fails to increase as income grows.  Similarly, acquiring new possessions may give us short bursts of pleasure but we adapt and there is no net improvement in our quality of life. Should we seek happiness through the accumulation of material things we will rapidly discover we need a new item. Thus a materialist outlook predisposes a person to lower levels of well-being.

For some people acquiring resources is a means to show superiority over peers and helps secure a mate and thus increases chances of successful procreation. However, any rewards derived from securing resources are relative to the quantity of resources secured by peers. Herein lies a root cause of the so called ‘rat-race’. We need to secure ever more resources in order to be equally as successful as our peers. This sexual selection in society is paralleled in nature with the emergence of traits such as the peacock’s tale or moose’s antlers which have grown enormous as a result of sexual competition between males.

hellebores-and-peacock

The Peacock's Tail

What the male peacock gains in reproductive success with his large tale he loses in his agility and flying capacity. Many male peacocks will have died prematurely due to the handicap of their tails. However, they could never have joined the dots between their untimely death and their engorged secondary sexual characteristics.

Our societies are highly competitive places as a result of the highly competitive processes driving the selection and dispersion of our genes. We are genetically predisposed to behaviour patterns that have now become pathological when multiplied by six billion people in the modern world. Now on a global scale our competitive resource acquisition is unbalancing the planet’s eco-systems and could lead to humanities untimely extinction. However, unlike the peacock, we are aware of what we are doing.

Economically, The Red Queen Effect manifests as the necessity for continuous growth economies. No country can relinquish hallowed economic growth less it falls behind competing nations; hence, the international Tragedy of the Commons , climate change and the collapsing biosphere. A widely held belief (enshrined in conventional economics) is that consumption is a proxy for well being. In other words, the more you consume the greater your well being (or happier you are). This has been repeatedly disproved and for over 50 years human well-being has been decoupled from economic growth in rich countries. For example, people today in Britain are richer than ever before. UK national income has tripled in real terms over the last 50 years. However, people’s well-being has not improved proportionally. As societies grow wealthy, differences in well-being are less frequently due to income, and are more frequently due to factors such as social relationships, enjoyable leisure pursuits, purpose in life and enjoyment at work.

4 stags

Stags

How can we stop over-consuming, devastating the biosphere, polluting the atmosphere and competing head to head within our own species, like horny stags with antlers locked, when these seem to be genetic components of who and what we are, formed back in the primeval crucible?

Human redemption is possible through the privileged and superior perspective of consciousness. Evolution of the human mind has allowed us to the study the universe, biological systems and our own nature. It also allows us to step back from our evolutionary prerogatives and take stock of the remarkable improbability of our own existence. A radical conclusion is that there is nothing to do or achieve. We can opt out of competition and reject the notion that more of any thing is better.

Instead of a social, cultural and economic emphasis being on acquiring wealth and consuming products we should change our values to shift our focus to life-long learning and creativity. We could completely change the education system so children spend more time working creatively. Sport, music, art and many of the creative things humans love doing need not have any ecological footprint at all. By consciously changing the values that underlie society we can celebrate all we have and our interdependence with the rest of the living universe.

The universe, biological systems and technology are going to keep evolving irrespective of what we do. An option available to the opened mind is to stop rushing to keep up and focus on cooperation to improve well-being rather the competition to acquire wealth. So long as you are competing to ‘get ahead’ in life or working to get more things you are a rat in a race and the finish line is extinction. Alternatively, by connecting to a deeper reality, embracing creativity and a philosophy of voluntary (material) simplicity we can enjoy the best of life without consuming our own life support system.

Entanglement DMT

'Entanglement DMT'

 

 

For brands, green = transparent

St Petersburg

Climate change awareness has crossed a tipping point. This discussion has shifted from ‘is it going to happen?’ to ‘what will the impacts be and how can we best respond?’ Enlightened business leaders understand that reducing their environmental impacts shouldn’t be an additional cost, tacked on to their operations but an integral part of their business strategy. The reasons are manifold; reducing emissions improves business efficiency; builds brand loyalty (consumer and investor) and motivates employees. All of which increase the bottom line. Putting money into environmental performance is no longer a cost; it is an investment.

Green Dollar?As consumer, investor and legislatory pressure build the return on investment of reducing impacts increases. This is an opportunity few companies can afford to miss. For a company to position itself as green it must be able to back up claims with evidence. Just reducing emissions by 20% isn’t good enough anymore; that’s standard practice in a warming world. Consumers want to have confidence that brands have a bullet proof sustainable and ethical approach.

Transforming a company so that it is socially and environmentally acceptable requires vision, strong leadership, innovation and good management. For companies without these skills ‘green washing’ can be a seductive option. Green washing describes the act of misleading consumers regarding the environmental practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a product or service. It is easily detectable when it is clear that a company has spent more money on eco communications then eco implementation. Familiar examples are chemical homecare products with ‘natural’ branding or oil companies whose advertising focuses on renewable energy whilst their underlying business model remains the same (or worse).

Green washing is not a successful strategy for companies to pursue. Firstly, it puts off making changes that will be necessary at some point. This delay gives competitors a head start in innovation and effective differentiation as an environmental choice. Secondly, it risks damaging consumer and investor faith in the brand should the disparity between green claims and performance become known. Once broken, trust is hard to rebuild and people are already cynical; four in five people believe that many companies pretend to be ethical just to sell more products.  Any claims must be genuine and provable. Ethical dialema

It is a sounder strategy for a company to invest in environmental performance rather then exaggerated green claims. Today, consumers, employees and stakeholders are increasingly engaged in ongoing, 2-way relationships with brands. For example, the evolution of the internet has meant that popular brand websites listen as well as talk. Indeed for many leading brands user driven content makes up an increasing component of their sites. For example the interactive sections of these websites of Howies, Timberland and lush. The more ethical a company the more comfortable it will be entering into a dialogue with its customers.

Web 1.0 saw the development of content. For brands this was a new communication channel with which to talk to consumers. Web 2.0 saw the development of web platform’s on which users can participate, upload exchange, share and generate content. For brands this was an opportunity to open a dialogue.  Web 3.0 sees the devolution of content management shift further towards users. Increasingly all consumers will continuously rate content meaning that the internet is shaped by what people value. Successful brands will increasingly be co created by consumers.

Business on a networked planet is different. It is becoming harder for companies to operate behind closed doors and with people providing real-time feedback on performance a misstep can be costly. One just needs to Google a brand name to find out what has been posted about the brand by satisfied or unsatisfied consumers. With access to more information then ever at the click of a mouse a company dumping toxic waste in Africa (e.g. Trafigura) or destroying pristine rainforest in Indonesia (e.g. Fonterra) or attempting to “ethnically cleanse two of the world’s last remaining uncontacted tribes” in the Amazon  (e.g. Perenco) can be globally shamed in minutes. Transparency has become the golden rule for successful operations. Deforestation

For businesses to create value without eroding natural systems the best approach is to embark upon an honest journey to sustainability with consumers and investors on board. Transparency, interdependency and interconnectedness are defining characteristics of both the evolving internet and the coming ecological age. So shitty companies run by blood-sucking scumbags who want to slice up what’s left of the biosphere and sell it at the highest price beware… your days are numbered. Dr. Evil

Childhoods End?

monolith2

Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the underlying nature of humankind? How much hope do you invest in our future? Depending on your perspective global warming will seem like either a crisis or an opportunity.

If you are pessimistic about the nature of humans then you probably believe that we are competitive creatures whose purpose in life is to consume resources acquire land and wealth and ensure we get laid to pass on our selfish genes. For people with this mindset the solution to global warming is depressing. In order to survive we must create a global treaty to limit the emissions of fossil fuels which in a fossil fuel powered economy means limiting consumption, travel and almost everything else. I.e. the solution is a cost that must be borne.
Gene
An alternative perspective is that the current crisis is actually a period of punctuated evolution. Humanity is undergoing a rapid transition to a higher emergent evolutionary stage.

The follow up to the Kyoto Protocol is a treaty designed by humans to determine the composition of the atmosphere. That we could even influence such a thing would have seemed impossible even 1 generation ago. However, it is true, and the composition of the atmosphere will determine more then just what we are breathing; it will also determine the surface temperature of the entire planet, which has ramifications for every ecosystem on earth.

Humanity has been transformed within a few thousand generations from a gawky primate emerging blinking from the forests out onto the Savannah into a planetary force. Not since the first bacterial cells appeared in the primeval soup has one species been so responsible for the future of life.

As our activities change the planet’s chemistry our electronic neural network is increasing in density. Humanity’s collective mind is going global. Soon there will be more neural connections in the global brain then there are in an individual’s brain. A tipping point is being approached.

It’s too late to go back to the trees. We have already changed the planet so drastically that only we can restore ecological balance by creating the structures necessary to regulate ourselves. This requires an ethical and philosophical leap of the same magnitude as the technical leap which has turned us from mammoth clubbers to planetary engineers.

The solution to global warming requires that we shift from competitive economies in which well being has been declining whilst wealth increases to cooperative economies in which creativity and wellbeing are paramount. We must consume less, share more, protect the natural world and work together as a unified species with a shared set of goals for the first time in human history. The needs of nations must give way to the needs of Gaia… planetary cooperation… sounds pretty damn good to me.

The precise ways in which a sustainable society will be more fulfilling are explored further in Green & Happy.

Childhoods End

Appetite for Armageddon Porn a Sign of the Times

There is a disturbing proliferation of ‘armageddon porn’ coming out of Hollywood which may reach a grim, apocalyptic climax with 2012.

The Terminator; he needs your clothes, your boots, and your motorcycle.

Hollywood has dealt with human extinction for some time. The angle most commonly explored has been the Icarian possibility of humankinds’ technological evolution going out of control leading to death by angry computer or machine (2001, Terminator, The Matrix). This doomsday scenario seems preferable to the new breed of fables in which humanity dies out, by the billions, at their own hands (Watchmen, The Day After Tomorrow, 2012).

The stories we tell ourselves reveal the dominant themes of our cultural psyche. It is clear that our perception of human extinction is no longer science fiction, but what effect does seeing this on the big screen have on us?

Psychologists who have explored whether or not fear leads to behaviour change tell us that typically, people feel debilitated and disempowered by fear when they feel that they lack agency to change their circumstances i.e. there is a perceived disconnect between their actions and the outcome. This is suspected to be the reason that the danger posed by global warming has failed to elicit an appropriate response. It is like the fear of the sky falling on our heads, overwhelming yet intangible.

The problem with these films is that aside from a leading male character leaping from a helicopter there isn’t much anyone can do to avoid obliteration. This is, of course, in stark contrast to reality in which the population of Earth is fully empowered to save itself… should we so desire.

Unfortunately, in America the apocalypse isn’t considered a bad thing by everyone. Indeed for many fundamentalist Christians the 4 horsemen will lay waste the earth just before the second coming. They have even developed the rapture indexto measure how close to midnight we are getting on the doomsday clock. For them increasing nuclear weapons, climate change and anti religious misunderstandings are all healthy signs that Jesus is on his way back. As we saw from the huge, unexpected success of the Passion of the Christ, in which churches in the US blocked booked cinemas for their congregations… Christians love a bit of torment on the big screen. No doubt the producers of 2012 are getting ready to rake in the doomsday dollar.

Entertaining... but would Christ watch it?

Aside from the wonga there seem to be 2 explanations for why we are making films like this now:

  1. The films are projections of profound fears gripping society. This fear and its artistic manifestation will spur concerted global action leading to the avoidance of calamity.
  2. These films are echoes of a future calamitous event. We are going to go extinct. We know this in our collective unconscious and these are the bedtime stories our species tells itself before it finally signs out.

Those of us who hope to see humanity get out of the diaper stage of social evolution and begin to work on more exciting collective projects then war and mass consumption are rooting for the former. We should know fairly soon which option it is. Current scientific projections are clear that human society needs to completely change course in a very short space of time to avoid annihilation by dangerous, runaway climate change. In other words, the only generation that can save humanity is ours and we can only do it in a window of a few years. Our film hasn’t finished being written yet and we are the authors; a low throughput, ecological society or oblivion… the choice is ours.

Dying by Alex Grey

Why bikes shouldn’t have to follow the rules of the road

Bike salute at Buckingham PalaceWhen you cycle in London you have to do so using road and traffic infrastructure designed for the car. Traffic lights and lanes are designed for large, heavy, metal box’s to manoeuvre in. The laws too are designed for cars. It is currently presumed that cyclists in London should use the roads like cars and follow the same laws, like cars. In other words bikes should stop at red lights and stay off the pavements.  This is dangerous and disingenuous. It is time for cyclists to make the case for a totally different set of rules to apply for them… to make cycling easier, safer and more popular.

Cars are far heavier and bigger then a person. This means that when they hit a pedestrian things get messy; often involving broken bones and pools of blood. Many incidents are fatal. This is not the case with bikes. The reason why cars MUST stop at red lights is because a miscalculation on the driver’s part and people may die. If a cyclist comes to a red light and looking from side to side sees no traffic there is little risk to her continuing. Indeed if the cyclist has a blind spot and cycles straight into a pedestrian it is likely to be embarrassing but nothing worse. A sincere apology should make amends.

Waiting at a red light is very dangerous for a cyclist. Especially if the cyclist intends to turn left and a lorry comes up behind also wanting to turn left. When the lights change the lorry turns left crushing the cyclist against the metal grill ‘pedestrian protector’. The cyclist is slowly pushed through the grill like scarlet mash potato; a nasty walk to work for the passers by. More female cyclists then males are killed at red lights. The reason for this is that men are more likely to jump the reds.

Cyclists surround a taxi that just rode over a bike on Critical Mass

Cyclists are safer to carefully go ahead of traffic and jump reds because this makes them more visible to cars. Making this illegal endangers lives. If it is legal for pedestrians to cross a road anywhere irrespective of lights… why can’t cyclists? We are of comparable size and shape and weight. The cyclist and the pedestrian are actually interchangeable. Simply by jumping off the bike and pushing it you become a pedestrian. So having laws that insist that cyclists wait at red lights in front of a moaning heap of polluting metal which is itching to spill forward and break your bones seems sadistic at the state level.

Cars have so taken over London’s streets that there are some areas that it is almost impossible to cycle. The cars are backed up spilling out fumes at dangerous levels. The drivers are getting mad and start switching their cars from lane to lane in such a way that a cyclist can be slowly crushed to death at any moment. At times like these the logical and safe response for a cyclist who wants to one day be old is to get off the road and slowly and carefully cycle past the section of road in which death hovers above like a giant stale mist. When completing this action occasionally an anti-progress-pedestrian, probably obese and a proud car owner will block your way and rant in your face about obeying the law. Is this person serious? Are they seriously suggesting that following an inappropriate law is more sensible then staying alive? Who made these laws? Presumably the same people who thought it was a good idea to fill our most densely populated urban settlements with metal machines that kill and pollute.

Cycling culture in London

If pedestrians have issues about not having enough space, which is totally valid, take it up with the corpses riding around in their motorized coffins. They are the ones using up all the space. I might add:

Yo freakoid! I don’t want to ride on the pavement, I want to ride on the road, but if you haven’t noticed it’s full of maniacs who think they look ‘sporty’ sitting in traffic in an SUV. If you are allergic to the odd cyclist getting to work using the pavement, take it up with the people in cars. If we get 90% of private cars off the roads of London, think how much space there would be. We could have more markets, and play grounds and sports pitches. There would be more space for inner city kids to get some exercise. We could grow trees and food, cleaning the air, cooling the city and reducing the city’s eco-footprint. The benefits of taking the cars out of London goes way beyond improving health, reducing congestion and saving lives. It is an absolutely crucial step towards building a climate change resilient city which will still be habitable centuries from now.

Unfortunately by this point the anti-progress-pedestrian has shuffled off to the high street to buy more plastic tat to hoard in their cluttered little warrens before sending it off to landfill and buying more.

Cycling in a group is safer

People who want to ‘crack down’ on cyclists are failing to see that the fossil fuel and industrial era is over (almost). Human powered transport (walking, cycling, scooting, whatever) will become the main way of moving around cities (after mass public transport). Eventually, we will have the appropriate investment in this mode of transport to ensure there are bike lanes and bike traffic lights and suitable infrastructure for the most efficient mode of transport yet invented. Until this point let’s give the people trying to get around London in a clean and safe manor a little leeway. Building a safe and sustainable future for our children is hard enough without having to fight a constant rearguard action against post industrial-luddites who are desperate to cling to their internal combustion engines. Step aside… or go suck a tail pipe, human powered transport is taking over this city!