Non-Places

“An ever-increasing proportion of our lives is spent in supermarkets, airports and hotels, on motorways or in front of TVs, computers and cash machines. This invasion of the world by what Marc Augé calls “non-space” results in a profound alteration of awareness: something we perceive, but only in a partial and incoherent manner. Augé uses the concept of “supermodernity” to describe a situation of excessive information and excessive space.” – NON PLACES an Introduction to Supermodernity, is one of the most profound essays I’ve ever read. Marc Auge explains so much of day to day experience and alienation in this new world.

A non place- a place without history, social relationships (except transactions) or cultural significance. Often controlled as private property, under surveillance and control. Roadways, shopping malls, new apartment complexes, cruise ships. The world is increasingly made up of non places.

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Cancun, compromise and a clash of ideologies

Although many of us may not have noticed, the Cancun round of climate negotiations ended early last month. After the public concern driven media circus of Copenhagen, diplomats must have been relieved to be left alone to negotiate in the background as they are accustomed to doing. What coverage there was depicts a summit ending with the sleep deprived relief of a last minute deal pushed through, leading to an unexpected general consensus. Diplomats, the UN and big environmental groups mostly seem to agree that the outcome is akin to a warm beer: not ideal, but better than no beer. At least by having a beer there is the possibility for that beer to be cold in future, if next year’s summit at Durban proves conducive to refrigeration.

Victory has been claimed on two fronts. Firstly, participants agreed on some concrete targets and initiatives to work on at home and bring to the next round. Key agreements include;

  • For the first time, nations agreed that ‘deep cuts in global greenhouse gas emissions are required according to science …. to hold the increase in global average temperature below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels’. Provisions are made to reduce this to 1.5 degrees based on scientific reappraisal.
  • The establishment of a Green Climate Fund to help developing nations adapt to climate change and develop cleaner economies.  Developed countries reiterated their commitment to mobilise $US100 billion per year for the fund by 2020 (although sources of funds still need to be agreed)
  • The conference agreed the framework for ‘REDD plus’: reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, whereby developed nations can pay developing nations to preserve forest.
  • Agreeing on a system of rules for measurement, verification and financing for emissions reduction and actions in line with countries committments. This includes basics for a scheme known as “international consultation and analysis” for ensuring transparency in developing-country emissions-cutting efforts, and provision for a task force to develop the scheme; thus ensuring that China in particular is unable to fudge the numbers.
  • Agree to list under the UNFCCC emissions targets developed during Copenhagen , forming a foundation for a far wider set of commitments than provided by the Kyoto agreement, that also includes the biggest emitters; the US and China.

Secondly, the conference has been heralded as a step forward for the political process itself- keeping alive the possibility for further progress, and vindicating the withering UNFCCC. Previously antagonistic countries were able to compromise and the head bashing between developed and developing nations was reduced to more of a gentle bumping. Faith in the process shaken by Copenhagen was restored, pledges made at that ill fated conference were cemented into the formal UN process, and we’re well on our jolly old way towards stronger action next year. Tally ho!

So if even environmental groups such as WWF are tentatively pleased, why was Evo Morales’ Bolivian delegation so obstinate during the talks, why have ALBA Nations and La Via Campesina condemned the summit, and why is Meena Raman of the Third World Network so concerned (see the vodcast below)?

A number of third world and indigenous leaders are concerned for several reasons. Firstly, as Cancun replaces Kyoto, the distinction between developing and developed nations will disappear. Activists such as Ramen are concerned that coupled with programs such as REDD, responsibility is being shifted from countries which are ultimately responsible for climate change to those poorer countries which have not reaped the benefits of industrialisation or contributed largely to the problem.

Secondly, as this article by Bill McKibben (founder of 350) points out; the bottom line is that the environment is non negotiable. The targets established at Copenhagen and solidified at Cancun are more representative of political rather than scientific reality. Of course, attempting to overcome any global issue comes with its political realities, something people failed to grasp at Copenhagen. Another political reality, however , is that patience is being stretched thin. As Christina Ora of the Solomon Islands said last year when she addressed delegates at U.N. climate talks in Copenhagen. “I was born in 1992. You have been negotiating all my life. You cannot tell us that you need more time,”.

Thirdly, the major issue raised by the Bolivian delegation is that by utilising market mechanisms and framing solutions to climate change within the current neoliberal philosophy, we are essentially missing the point. They argue that our current version of capitalism caused the problem, and cannot therefore provide us with a solution. They propose long term cultural change, brought about by such the introduction of such concepts as environmental rights.

So should we feel optimistic or pessimistic about Cancun?

There’s no simple answer, unfortunately. Both positions are valid, and in the contest of ideas for a future world, everything needs to go on the table. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief when the agreement at Cancun was reached despite Bolivia’s refusal to participate. But it’s just as important that they were there.

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A few quick facts..

Each person’s environmental footprint has grown (2006 data) to a mean of 2.6 global hectares (gha) per person, yet the total biological capacity of the planet would allow only about 1.8 gha per person (www.footprintnetwork.org).

The United Nations’ Global Environment Outlook-4 report reveals a scale of unprecedented ecological damage, with close to 2 billion likely to suffer absolute water scarcity by 2025.

The Living Planet Report of WWF calculates that humankind will need 200% of the planet’s total biocapacity (forestry, fisheries, croplands) by 2050.

In december this year, we’ll reach a population of 7 billion.

If we ever needed a new path, it’s now..

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17 steps to a sustainable Australia

Jervis Bay on Australia's East Coast. One of my favourite places ( Credit to Katie Princess for Flickr photo)

One of the reasons I was originally drawn into the orbit of environmental sustainability is that it demands a commitment to remain optimistic in the face of overwhelming odds. It seems perverse, but there it is. Like this happy ending story by the New Economics Foundation, the imagining of a future where we live sustainably seems to excite us all into an brouhaha of innovative ideas that will time and time again be ignored by politicians and investors in favour of maintaining the Machiavellian status quo.  And yet the environmentalists trudge on, heads down, breath steaming and one hoof in front of the other as they slowly wind their way up the rocky face of a political Everest. The Australian Conservation Foundation  is one such mule. In this week’s edition of their magazine, Habitat, one article in particular caught my eye because of its perfect encapsulation of that beautifully stubborn refusal to give up hope I described. Graham Tupper, ACFs National Liasion Manager writes;

The election campaign is over and a new Parliament elected, bringing with it many new opportunities to make real progress on climate change and the environment. What can be achieved in the first 100 days, the first year, and the next three years of life of this Parliament? A great deal- if there is the political will and strong public support. 

He goes on to suggest 17 different policy proposals to dramatically restore Australia’s national sustainability over the next few years. Some of his suggestions include; ‘Build our ecosystems resilience to climate change, boost clean renewable energy, protect our forests and stop the importation of illegally logged timber products, protect our marine habitats’, and ‘stop subsidising pollution’.  I won’t reveal any more, read the full article here (page 10)….

The federal government’s approach to the development of a sustainable Australia remains fractured, ad hoc and reactionary to individual public demands months after the election. They would be doing themselves, Australia and the world a favour if they were to develop a holistic, consultative, science based sustainability policy agenda. And, let’s not forget, set aside the funding to support it. By bringing their own green paper to the table, they could lead the debate with some positive solutions instead of constantly playing catch up to climate action opinion polls. Maybe they ought to give Tupper a call…

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Greenies on laptops and dirty new tricks

For the sake of accuracy it should be a macbook

At three pm this afternoon, Sydney time, a handful of senior environmental activists from organisations around Australia all stared into the glow of their respective computer screens, scrying for solutions in the crystal ball of the modern age. Revolutionaries don’t meet in darkened cellars any more. They Skype. Today’s online meeting is a strategic discussion on how to collectively respond to what could become the next biggest environmental issue to burst into Australian politics. For the Sydney activists meeting today, it’s an issue that couldn’t be played out any closer to heart. It’s coal gas seam mining and it’s knocking on our door reeking, muddy and uninvited.

Two weeks ago at the cinema I saw the trailer for the much acclaimed American documentary on the devastating effects of coal gas extraction, ‘Gasland’ , released in Australia this week. I was left with a mixed emotional response. I paused to reflect with dismay on the proposal for coal gas seam drilling currently under consideration that could put Sydney’s water supply at risk. I felt an odd blend of exasperation and horror that mining companies have developed and been allowed to implement yet another environmentally disastrous and highly profitable enterprise. And yet, I was simultaneously thrilled that someone has gone and made a film about it, and that said film was receiving such acclaim and attention. As HG wells once said, ‘We are in a race between education and catastrophe’. But it never once occurred to me that in just a week I would be faced for the first time with the news that a proposal for coal gas exploratory drilling in my very own inner city community of St Peters has already been given the green light.

Scene from the film 'Gasland', where gas polluted water is demonstrated to be flammable.

In an astounding display of disregard for community consultation so unfortunately typical of NSW politics, the proposal by Apollo Gas to drill a well in the middle of one of the most densely populated parts of urban Sydney was approved without environmental assessment, and without the knowledge of local residents and councils. Apollo Gas unsurprisingly claim that the dangers are exaggerated because they will not be using the controversial ‘fracking’ technique. Other industry representatives such as Belinda Robinson (CE of the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association) play down the dangers of coal gas extraction, decorate it as a ‘green’ alternative to coal power, and dismiss renewable energy technology as underdeveloped. If the barrage of negative press coming out of Sydney’s major newspapers is anything to go by, however, we have not been fooled. Unfortunately for Apollo Gas (whose mining license extends across the entire city) it seems that no mineral executive can convince us that mining anything under the centre of a city of five million people built on porous sandstone is a sensible course of action, no matter how minimal the known effects.

Proposed well site in St Peters, c/o the Sydney Morning Herald

In search of further information on Monday, I put out a few feelers. Alex Morrissey, Environmental Engineer responded to the news I sent with this somewhat reassuring deconstruction;

“Luckily we dont use groundwater to drink so most of the issues they(in the film gasland) have are non issues for us…I do however consider a project like this in an urban centre a very stupid idea. They have obviously tiptoed around local government and the community. Also an exploration licence is just that.. its for exploration.. any further development would likely have the land and environment court to go through. Surprisingly little is known about the effects on groundwater systems of this sort of work. The organisation would have to prove there was no irreparable damage to the environment (difficult) and no risk to people (even more difficult)”.

I agree that Apollo Gas will have a very difficult time getting approval for coal gas drilling in Sydney’s urban centre. In an ironic twist to the story, they have unwittingly chosen a site which is home to the largest number of anti-corporate anarchists, socialists and environmentalists in Sydney,  all of whom will be thrilled that they no longer have to travel to get to their sit in. But the expansion of coal gas seam mining in NSW will not stop at St Peters. Drilling proposals have all been submitted for sites near Casino, Gunnedah, Singleton and Camden, and there are already two mines in existence near Appin and West Rocks. With exploratory coal gas extraction wells in Queensland found to contain carcinogenic contaminants that the company responsible assured the public would not be there, it is supremely irresponsible to rush drilling proposals through without in depth, independent environmental assessment. But the real elephant in the room, however, is long term sustainability.

Strangely enough for such an environmentally controversial practice, as a lower emitting energy source coal gas seam approvals in Sydney are being pursued as part of the Sustainable Sydney 2030 project. Aside from issues of contamination, replacing one polluting finite fossil fuel energy source with another  does not fit particularly well with the principals of sustainability. Eventually we are going to have to transition to a grid made mostly of renewables anyway. Why draw out this transition by investing in a host of potentially environmentally damaging ‘interim’ technologies?  It seems that ‘sustainable’ has become a flexible term, imbued with an almost religious power to absolve ill thought out decisions for the sake of reducing a few tonnes of carbon emissions..never mind other greenhouse gases or the host of other pressing environmental issues we face. 

My further email enquiries bore little fruit. My local greens councillor responded with the firm and expected statement that the Marrickville Greens are “calling for a moratorium on coal seam gas exploration and extraction by the state government until they put some environmental assessment parameters around it”. Meanwhile, the office of my local state MP has so far not responded to any of my enquiries.

Therein that last fact, I think, is the second big issue here again. Environmentally damaging enterprises seem to go hand in hand with political systems that allow government and business to ignore local communities and bypass local development approval processes. As Jeff Angel, Director of the Total Environment Centre pointed out rather ominously today; ”The gas companies and their coal mining allies have very ambitious plans in and around Sydney about which they have not told the public,”. In his opinion, a public enquiry into coal seam gas extraction around Sydney is needed. I couldn’t agree more. It’s entirely possible that such a demand will be borne from this afternoon’s modern green revolutionary Skype Session. Watch this space.

 

Update; 17th November, 2:46 pm

The activist conference concluded last night with a fracture between some environmental groups, and possible alliances between others. Government funded and more conservative environmental  research bodies argued in favour of coal seam gas, claiming that if contaminants are controlled the resouce could present us with a cheaply acquired alternative to higher emitting fossil fuels. Coal gas extraction is low tech, does not require the development of new infrastructure and uses the same or similar technology and expertise as we already have. It could assist in mitigating climate change while we transition to more technologically advanced harvesting of renewables. So it goes.

This appears to be a reasonable argument, if one assumes that contaminants are the only problem associated with this form of energy. Recent research by scientists such as Robert W. Howarth, professor of Ecology and Environmental Biology at Cornell University,  demonstrates that coal gas seam extraction frequently involves significant amounts of methane leakage, to the extent that this offsets the reduction in other greenhouse gases (methane is 72 times stronger than CO2  as a greenhouse gas). So the advantages are in question.

marcellus shale is the source of coal seam gas

The other side of the online activist debate last night consisted of a range of Non-Governmental Organisations and groups, from small local groups to national organisations dating back half a century. They responded to support for coal gas extraction with a break down of the real politik of the situation as well as questioning the science. They argued that not only will coal gas involve the replacement with one environmentally damaging, finite resource with another, but that political and economic investment in this technology will divert resources and support away from the development of renewable energy sources that are truly sustainable. So, (they argue), while it may seem cheaper and easier to use gas in the short term, in the long term it will prove to be a costly and dangerous diversion with no real benefit at the expense of real positive change.

The division of the environmental movement on this is fascinating as an exercise in the evolution of the human organism. Like species, different ideas contend with each other until the strongest survives. In political terms though, it could seriously hinder their capacity to affect change. With environmentalists more divided than the consistently hostile press coverage, the joe bloggs of Sydney may form the steering force of politics on coal gas extraction. ‘Gasland’ couldn’t have arrived on our shores at a more opportune time.

As usual, I find myself coming back to the same questions. If it just means more of the same, then why bother even changing at all? What is it exactly that we are trying so hard to preserve? Why are we as a society so reluctant to turn away from the fossil fuel industry for the provision of our energy? Turn any stone over, and the answer will be there wriggling away like nest of grubs. Its politics, baby, and it’s a stingy creature of habit, easily led by powerful vested interests and always looking for the easy way out. If you’re in Sydney, expect an increase in civil unrest over this hot potato.

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On a suicidal body politic and the three ‘Rs’ that might save it

The Coborra Coal Project (the coal mine above) in its current form will provide subsidised coal to energy producers for the next decade

The last few weeks of environmental politics in NSW have been an arena for the backwards Olympics, with the NSW Government emerging as the clear winner. Ensuring tax subsidised coal power for the next decade, the slashing of renewable energy feed in tariffs, and the approval of coal gas extraction underneath Sydney’s water supply were all gold medal decisions. Ignoring all of the environmental and electoral indicators that say ‘we need to invest in a sustainable future’, the Government has gone and done the exact opposite, demonstrating what can only be a desire to commit suicide on both a political and a very real societal level.

That the retrograde behemoth doused in cheap aftershave that is the NSW Government should prioritise short term political gain over the development of a sustainable state is no surprise to any long term resident of NSW. You cannot expect progressive policy change to be borne from a political institution that has grown ideologically idle from years of simply turning the cogs of society. Nevertheless, being no surprise makes it no less a cause for alarm.

As I have explained previously in reference to Kotter’s Eight Steps, organisational change is key if we are to transition to a sustainable society. Alan Deutschman, author of ‘Change or Die’ , presents us with some further insight into how this might be achieved.

Deutschman

He begins with the assumption (based on research) that people are unlikely to change our behaviour, even when faced with our own impending death. In fact, he suggests that the odds of changing our behaviour in this circumstance are nine to one against change. Using the example of lifestyle choices in the US that lead to early death, he demonstrates the difficulty of trying to persuade people to change their behaviour. According to Dr. Edward Miller, the dean of the medical school and CEO of the hospital at Johns Hopkins University, an astounding 90% of coronary-artery bypass grafting patients do not change their lifestyle in the years after their operation, even though doing so will likely prevent further operations and death. Like Kotter, Deutschman argues that in business and society, as in health “The central issue is never strategy, structure, culture, or systems. The core of the matter is always about changing the behavior of people.” Although I take some issue with this  individualistic take on change, and his playing down of the importance of culture and systems- he nevertheless pushes a few interesting and valuable buttons.

 In this paper, he raises several questions that are particularly relevant to the green revolution considering the multiple crises we are facing; “The conventional wisdom says that crisis is a powerful motivator for change. But severe heart disease is among the most serious of personal crises, and it doesn’t motivate — at least not nearly enough. Nor does giving people accurate analyses and factual information about their situations. What works? Why, in general, is change so incredibly difficult for people? What is it about how our brains are wired that resists change so tenaciously? Why do we fight even what we know to be in our own vital interests?”

He turns to Kotter for an answer, who posits that “Behavior change happens mostly by speaking to people’s feelings..This is true even in organizations that are very focused on analysis and quantitative measurement, even among people who think of themselves as smart in an MBA sense. In highly successful change efforts, people find ways to help others see the problems or solutions in ways that influence emotions, not just thought.”

Most activists and NGOs understand this intuitively, as part of regular practise- as do those in marketing and branding.  Take this add by the World Wildlife Fund, for example;

Rather than use statistics demonstrating the negative affects of climate change, or reasonably presenting factual information that demonstrates how much we will benefit from changing our behaviour, they ‘sell the sizzle’ instead, associating sustainable living with innovation and concepts such as modernity and a positive future. The unique perspective that Deutschman adds to our understanding of change is how to apply these lessons drawn from the psychology of change to large organisations. His answer? Relate, Repeat and Reframe.

In his words..

Relate

Form a new, emotional relationship with a person or community that inspires and sustains hope. If you face a situation that a reasonable person would consider “hopeless,” you need the influence of seemingly “unreasonable” people to restore your hope—to make you believe that you can change and expect that you will change. This is an act of persuasion—really, it’s “selling.” The leader or community has to sell you on yourself and make you believe you have the ability to change. They have to sell you on themselves as your partners, mentors, role models, or sources of new knowledge. And they have to sell you on the specific methods or strategies that they employ.

Repeat

The new relationship helps you learn, practice and master the new habits and skills that you’ll need. It takes a lot of repetition over time before new patterns of behavior become automatic and seem natural—until you act the new way without even thinking about it. It helps tremendously to have a good teacher, coach or mentor to give you guidance, encouragement and direction along the way. Change doesn’t involve just “selling,” it requires “training.” 

Reframe

The new relationship helps you learn new ways of thinking about your situation and your life. Ultimately, you look at the world in a way that would have been so foreign to you that it wouldn’t have made any sense before you changed. This may sound simple at first, but let me assure you that it’s not. This is all the “theory” that you need to get started.

So how could we apply this to an organisation such as, well, the NSW Government?

 

Relate:

There are a number of key stakeholders that could inspire new ways of thinking for the NSW Government, and whose relationships would be critical to the success of the sustainable state. Of key importance is the rocky government relationship with the ‘green sector’, and with renewable energy companies in particular. In the current power hierarchy, these companies play second fiddle to unsustainable industries such as mining and fossil fuel based energy companies. Elevating their status and reversing the current subsidy trend that favours polluters would definitely be a start. By developing stronger partnerships with environmental groups and experts such as the Climate Institute, and the Sustainability Learning Institute the government could draw on outside innovations, utilise existing knowledge rather than reinvent the wheel, and outsource creative solutions to those who are, well, more practised at being creative.  Finally, the government would seriously benefit from reconnecting with their biggest stakeholder group, made of millions of people all of whom can bring unique perspectives to the table; the citizens of NSW.

Repeat

This is where things become more bureaucratic and much more complex. In order to ensure the repetition of new behaviours, they have to become government policy, and that policy must be enforced. When it comes to a legislative issue such as the introduction of industrial scale feed in tariffs for renewable energy plants, for example, this would of course have to be passed in parliament (This is where ‘Relate’ comes in, ie; the importance of relationships supportive of good environmental policy when trying to get bills passed). But there are a number of internal government behaviours that could be altered through repetition even without legislative change.

The level of hierarchy within the NSW government means that policy makers rarely receive input from key stakeholders at the bottom. There is a degree of detachment between government and community that often results in a lack of consultation. Old political alliances mean that certain groups in society are given more attention than others.. and rest assured, those groups in favour are generally not environmentalists. Fear of public scrutiny often leads to a lack of transparency, in turn leading to public frustration with politics and counterproductive feelings such as powerlessness. A culture of political donations skews the democratic process. Competition for funding means that many departments and sections are reluctant to collaborate or share information.

These are all examples of ongoing problems that are rife within the NSW government (and, I imagine most governments), and will remain regardless of which party wins elections. These problems can only be dealt with internally, for example with the development and enforcement of departmental policies and the introduction of tools to support them. Certainly, these new behaviours would need to be ingrained through repetition; it’s how they ended up so established in the first place. The transition to a sustainable society requires us to embrace new ways of thinking. This neccessarily means we have to scrutinise and restructure current habits that inhibit innovation and positive change, whether they are on personal, political, industrial or societal levels.  

Reframe

As the World Wildlife Fund demonstrates in their video, the key to reframing sustainability is to associate it with development and other positive concepts such as innovation, modernity, happiness, equality, progress and good health, rather than using scare tactics (although these sometimes have their place). This position is best illustrated in this article,‘Sell the Sizzle’ by Futerra Sustainability Communications.  The NSW government certainly has alot of work to do in appealing to people’s hope for positive change. By capitalising on the post ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ environmental resurgence and becoming the first Australian jurisdiction to put in place significant targets to tackle climate change in 2005 they were off to a fairly good start. (These included a 60% cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, and the return to year 2000 greenhouse emission levels in NSW by 2025).

Unfortunately, because these targets were not accompanied by the necessary organisational change and policy agenda they have turned out to be little more than lip service. The government failed to really integrate the principals of sustainability into their operations; and no-one likes a hypocrite. What they seem to have completely overlooked is that in sustainability they have a fantastic opportunity to really improve their deplorable image. By implementing meaningful positive change and framing it as a progressive and hopeful agenda, they could develop a new raison d’etre for themselves and possibly steal a few votes back from the Greens.

 Unfortunately, I’m not holding my breath for any of this to happen. It would take a significant shake up (such as a change in government) for any new ideas to hammer their way in through the walls of sheer inertia that have built up around the Government over the last two terms like calcium. Of course, it’s not to say that a NSW Liberal government would perform better; given their environmental record, in all likelihood they would perform worse. But thinking with a bit of long term vision, these are all ideas that ministers and public servants in the current government may want to consider for the Labor party’s next term down the track, or they may find the green bandwagon being hijacked by the conservatives as it has been in the UK.

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The shoe fits

Rees

William Rees is best known as the inventor of the ‘ecological footprint’ concept along with his PhD student, Mathis Wackernagel, in the mid 1990s. An academic focused on ecological economics, Rees has made a reputation for himself as critic of cartesian dualism and the modern project of material growth. Less well known is the story of how he became so interested in the problem of our modern disassociation from nature.

In this interview with Rees by Mike Gismondi he reveals more of the character behind the philosophy, starting with his childhood;

I suppose you could say that the whole idea of the ecological footprints started when I was eight years old, or nine years old. I was a farm boy in southern Ontario, at least on my mother’s side we had a family farm. About eight of us cousins were used as, well, cheap labour. This was back in the pre-tractor days, we didn’t even have electricity in the late forties and early fifties. One wonderful warm July summer in about 1952 or 53, I was nine or ten years old, we were in my grandmother’s country porch, thirteen of us or so, having lunch after a hard morning’s work in the field. I happened to glance down at my plate full of young new carrots, little potatoes, fresh lettuce, and so on, and to make a long story short, I realized that there wasn’t a single thing on the plate that I hadn’t had a hand in growing. That thought hit me like a rush of cold water being poured down my back. I was riveted. I suppose it was like an epiphany kind of experience. I was so excited by that notion, I don’t think I was able to eat my lunch. At any rate, years later this thing just kept popping up over and over again, it was what made me want to go into zoology and biology at university. I went all the way through in population ecology to my Ph.D. So, it has very deep roots, being interested in that connection to the Earth, or the environment.

Throughout university I was constantly in search of what I thought should have been obvious, something called human ecology: the study of human beings as species of organism. I couldn’t find it anywhere. It astonished me that academic ecologists and professional ecology had no focus at all on humans; it was all oriented to non-human species. I failed miserably to find any course that treated human beings as species. We were just beginning to think of environmental studies and that sort of thing, but that’s not human ecology, that’s really impact ecology.

Global Ecological Footprint. Note that China and India have a much lower per capita level of consumption than Europe and the US, but due to population size appear larger. The per person footprint in the United States is almost five times the world average, and almost ten times what would be sustainable

I sought in vain for what I thought I really wanted to do. Ultimately, when it came time to apply for jobs, I tried desperately to create a niche for myself or at least to find a job where it would be possible to study humans as species of organisms as components of ecosystems. To my delight, a chance came up at UBC. The director of the planning program there Crawford Hawling, Buzz Hawling, one of Canada’s premier ecologists, one of my mentors from way back created a joint position between the Institute of Resource Ecology and the School of Planning at UBC. I competed for that position and wound up going out there, ultimately moving most of my teaching into the planning school, where I, in a sense, created an environmental or resource oriented part of the planning program and developed a couple of courses in human ecology and ecological economics. That’s where it all began, way back when I was a kid interested in human ecology.

His academic convictions clearly have their roots in a more personal relationship with humanity and nature. Opening the following engaging talk, he confronts us almost brutally with our own collective contradictions. He reminds us that on an international scale we are neither intelligent, forward planning, nor compassionate- as much as we would like to think we are (and when I say we, this primarily means us irresponsible consumers in the west). His thoughts are a strong reminder of the fact that we cannot address environmental issues separately from social justice and a reevaluation of our collective attitudes.

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If you play with fire..

Geoengineering Schemes

In 1978, the United Nations General Assembly passed Resolution 31/72, banning the use of environmental modification techniques for the purposes of war. Despite the fact that this ban does not extend to peaceful uses, there has remained a level of stigma attached to the concept of geoengineering because of it’s Pandora’s box of associated ethical, environmental and political implications. Until recently, it seems.

Dana Milbank of the Washington Post wrote an article last weekend lamenting the lack of investigation in the US into geoengineering solutions to climate change.

She writes…

The ideas range from simple to sci-fi. To remove carbon from the atmosphere, we could bury wood and agricultural waste, or burn them into biochar. We could “weather” soil by mixing in carbon-devouring minerals, or make oceans more alkaline by adding lime. Chemical solutions could capture carbon dioxide from the air; “fertilizing” the ocean with nitrogen or iron could promote carbon-consuming algae; or high-carbon water from the ocean surface could be pumped to the depths…Sun reflectors could be put into orbit, or a ring of dust, like Saturn’s, could be built around the equator using satellites. Metallic “sunshades” could be placed between the Earth and sun, or, as Britain’s Royal Society described it, 10 trillion refracting disks could be “launched into space in stacks of a million, one stack every minute for about 30 years.”

She caps off her humanity-as-gods-of-the-earth reverie with a disturbing clincher, a small paragraph that light-heartedly dismisses the ethics and dangers of intervening in the earth’s natural processes as a product of unfinished research.

Some of these ideas could bring unwanted side effects, including catastrophic droughts, famine and the destruction of ocean life — all the more reason to spend time and money on researching the alternatives before we reach a tipping point that requires us to try one.

A look at Google news today reveals a strange amount of attention to this topic of late… along curiously uncritical lines. Most articles seem to express the same sense as Milbank, that fertilization of our oceans, scattering solar mirrors around space and provoking volcanoes into eruption are all activities that we may find ethically uncomfortable but will inevitably be driven to undertake in order to ‘save the climate’. The Bill Gates foundation already invests in geoengineering research, the neo-cons at the New America Foundation have described it as ‘The Horrifying Idea Whose Time Has Come’ (strangely enough they endorse geoengineering, even though they deny the existence of climate change), and the US and Britain have established a bipartisan task force to investigate it as a potential solution.

Has the world gone mad? Or, should I say, are the significant number of mad people in the world getting louder? It seems as though the political impasse manifest in the failure of Cop15 has waved a red flag at those advocates of geoengineering who have waited patiently in the shadows for their time. The line being towed is that if we can’t rely on the politicians to come together, and both people and industry selfishly refuse to reduce emissions.. the only answer is to hire a team of mad scientists and supervillains to deflect the sun’s rays using giant cosmic mirrors blasted into orbit. Mwah ha ha ha! Sequestering carbon and maintaining biodiversity by simply not cutting down so many trees doesn’t quite have the same sex appeal (and, lets face it, wouldn’t involve a lucrative contract for anyone really).

See this excellent Youtube clip for a perfect illustration of that approach.

Aside from the environmental consequences of massive intervention in environmental conditions that we will then be unable to control…

Enthusiasm for geoengineering solutions to climate change is growing…While such actions [as the use of atmospheric aerosols] theoretically could reduce temperatures globally, they would do nothing to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations or ocean acidification, and would require an artificial and potentially unstable tradeoff to be maintained between increased greenhouse gas concentrations and reduced solar radiation over centuries. Some aerosols also have the potential to acidify precipitation and increase ozone depletion, while all have potentially substantial impacts on regional climates through modification of precipitation patterns. Thus, whilst stratospheric aerosols might mitigate global warming, they also might have negative effects on different components of biological diversity. (TREE Horizon Scan, 2010) [and that’s just aerosols]…

There is the troubling political scenario in which the developed countries would most likely demand a monopoly over environmental manipulation….

Unfortunately the debate about initiating such research is probably minor compared to the debate that would ensue if and when serious discussion began on deploying climate-cooling measures. Look at how tough it’s been to agree on blunting an (originally) unintended alteration of climate. Imagine the debate over who gets to set the thermostat. (Andrew Revkin)

And, of course, there is the underlying ethical issue that geoengineering lets everyone off the hook; no need to reduce carbon emissions, re-evaluate our relationship to nature or restructure our economic system to one that involves less consumption when you can just throw iron in the sea.

Pursuing abatement is an admission that industrial society has harmed nature, while engineering the Earth’s climate would be confirmation of our mastery over it — final proof that, whatever minor errors made on the way, human ingenuity and faith in our own abilities will always triumph. Geoengineering promises to turn failure into triumph. (Clive Hamilton)

Finally, there is that pesky climate change trump card again.. finite fossil fuel resources. Even if we were to use some of these bizarre technologies, we’d eventually have to transition to renewable energy anyway. This would mean we’d essentially be duplicating efforts with no long term benefit and potentially disastrous consequences.

At the UN Convention on Biological Diversity currently underway, delegates are considering further limitations on geoengineering, this time by restricting solar mirrors. They are approaching large scale geoengineering projects with caution, apparently unconvinced by the hype. According to John Holdren, Science Adviser to the Obama Administration, they are right to be cautious. He has dismissed claims that the administration are seriously investigating the use of geoengineering, stating that “The ‘geo-engineering’ approaches considered so far appear to be afflicted with some combination of high costs, low leverage, and a high likelihood of serious side effects.

Hopefully any further discussion on geoengineering will take into consideration a few important lessons from history. As we’ve learned from the disastrous environmental consequences of industrialisation, once you start playing God with nature.. it’s very hard to turn back.

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Climate skeptics miss the point

Linzden

BBC One Planet: Interview with Richard Linzden

I listened to the above podcast this morning and was struck by a number of key similarities between Linzden’s reasoning and the arguments of other more radical skeptics I’ve listened to recently. Linzden being a fairly conservative scientist would be horrified to know the sort of new age hippy conspiracy theorists I’m about to compare him to… but perhaps they have more thinking in common than they would care to admit.

Linzden does not deny that the climate is changing, and that increasing temperatures are partly a result of human activities. His skepticism is focused on the extent of the changes, what effect they will have on humanity, and what we should do about it. He considers the IPCC to be biased, and subject to the influences of the political agenda of UN bureacracy. He views government climate abatement schemes as ineffective, expensive, and designed to curtail the rights of citizens. He views the precautionary principal as somewhat ridiculous. He considers greenhouse gas reduction an impingement on the rights of people in the third world to develop. In short, he sees action on climate change as wasteful, unneccessary and ineffective. In other words.. carry on with business as usual, stop being absurd with all of this nonsense, and take care of your own rights and money because the Government or UN bureacracy or whoever runs the show have their own misguided interests at heart.

Now, all of the regular capital L liberalist suspicions of bureacrats aside (political representation of governments is another debate entirely), the key phrase I’m looking at there is ‘business as usual’, because that is essentially what the argument boils down to. I’ve never met a climate skeptic whose logical underlying conclusion wasn’t that we should just carry on with precisely what we’re doing. And this is where the entire debate is missing the point.

IEA peak oil production by barrels

Even if climate change had never existed… would we really want to carry on with business as usual? And more to the point, is it even possible? With peak oil on the horizon, our mineral resources becoming exhausted, our ocean stocks at an all time low, thousands of species on the brink of extinction, landfill piling up, a garbage island in the pacific, coral bleaching, worldwide inequality rising, the human population exploding, mass deforestation and even the rich consumer societies feeling insecure, alienated from nature and from their own communities…

Do we want to just go on with business as usual.. and is it even possible that we can?

The funny thing about the climate debate is that it’s not just about the climate, or even just about the environment. It’s about how we choose to live. Scientists like Linzden, as much as I disagree with his take on the world, raise valid questions about the response to climate change. Many existing government climate schemes are ineffective and expensive (although not as expensive as recovery). Some schemes are certainly ill thought out, and involve far lower targets than we realistically need. But we must embrace the idea of change for two reasons.

Firstly, we are running out of our artificially cheap finite fossil fuel resources. We just can’t continue to burn them at our current rate for very long, and certainly not affordably. With or without climate action, the price of fossil fuel energy will become exorbitant over the next fifty years, with a very real likelihood of riots and energy crises occurring at increasing frequency. We can either slow down and change to clean alternatives at our own pace, or wait for change to be forced upon us.

Secondly, what those such as Linzden fail to see are the opportunities emerging from the climate debate for a rethinking of human development. For the first time since the postwar period, we have an opportunity to reevaluate the direction that we’re headed and and the potential for positive change. There are a number of flow on effects from climate mitigation that are beneficial for everyone and should be considered in their own right, aside from the risks associated with ‘business’ as usual: the raised consciousness of our effect on nature, the increase in people taking up cycling and other healthy and sustainable habits, the growing emphasis on the local community, improvements in resource and energy efficiency and the general reevaluation of what is for the majority of the world population, quite frankly, an unsatisfactory status quo.

Beavan with his daughter

If there was a polar opposite to this negative attitude towards potential change it’s Colin Beavan, better known as ‘No Impact Man’. No matter how many books I read that raise my awareness of the dangers of environmental degradation, no other author so encapsulates the positive effects of changing our behaviour. As he discovered, living  in ways that were environmentally sound for a year and becoming an advocate for sustainability had a lasting impact on his health and happiness. ‘Live a happier life’ is his catchcry, reminding us to strive for something better than business as usual on a personal and societal level.

It’s this half of the debate that’s forgotten by those who view climate action in terms of restrictions imposed by corrupt and self serving bureacrats. They choose to ignore all of the proactive grassroots movements like Transition towns and the Green Belt Movement that are popping up all over the world in response to inadequate government responses to environmental problems. They say that action on climate change will disadvantage developing nations; forgetting  that developing nations have been left behind precisely because things have been left to business as usual. They forget that in our current system the first victims of environmental degradation are the poor (and most often, women). They fail to see the potential of the human response, to see that not only is climate change a problem, but also a catalyst for wider systemic change that is very much needed.

Whether or not you ‘believe’ in human induced climate change, business as usual is just not ok; climate change helps us to recognise that. That’s the point.

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Living it up in a floating garbage island home..

Richard Sowa cares as much about the aesthetics of his home as he does about it’s sustainability. Not only has he made his floating island home out of garbage, he’s also made it beautiful. By growing mangroves over plastic bottles wrapped in fruit bags he’s managed to turn trash well and truly into treasure. With the addition of a floating bedraft, a working shower and a composting toilet, it’s truly a unique sustainable home that kills two birds (too much rubbish, not enough land) with one stone. I wonder if it could or will ever catch on, and whether it’s feasible to implement solutions such as this on a larger scale?

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