City of the future?

Alex Steffen has delivered a TED talk in Edinburgh looking at the shareable future of cities. It is essentially a summary of views from the excellent but defunct Worldchanging website – If we can’t generate enough clean energy to replace fossil fuels then we must stop and think of alternative solutions. For Steffen, one such solution is walkable urbanism. He advocates planning, building and refabricating cities so that they are high-density and, by virtue, more sustainable.

The problem I have with Steffen’s utopian vision for the city of the future, is that it is top-down and prescriptive. It provides answers to some important questions but fails to countenance the possibility that people may not want to live in high-density areas.


The Olympics

Last month there was a protest against staging the Olympic Equestrian events in Greenwich Park by NOGOE.

Like many others, I was quick to judge the protest as a classic case of Nimbyism. Through rose-tinted glasses, I saw the Olympics as a wholly positive thing for London. In the midst of recession, the regeneration of some of the most deprived areas of our city – so I thought – could only reap benefits. The ‘greenest games ever’ would bring communities together and inspire Londoners to get active.

Having seen the consequences of staging the Equestrian events in Greenwich Park up close and personal, I have softened my stance considerably. Much of the grass behind the Queen’s House is ruined and some areas of the Park are still fenced off to the public. This, despite initial assurances that disruption and damage to the Park would be minimal.

We were also told that the London Olympics would be the first ‘Sustainable Games’. According to the Olympic website:

sustainability’ is far more than being ‘green’. It’s ingrained into our thinking – from the way we plan, build and work, buy, to the way we play, socialise and travel; ultimately everything that we do.

So why then, instead of the original 20% renewable energy target, have Locog downgraded their pledge to just 9%? And why has Locog refused to commit to making the Games plastic-bag free?

I am glad to see that the Greener Upon Thames campaign group has launched an e-petition urging Locog to ban the use of plastic bags in all Olympic venues.

Here are some other suggestions that I think could make a positive impact next summer.

Continue reading “The Olympics”

The end of growth?

Richard Heinberg’s new book, The End of Growth, is generating a lot of publicity. It claims that, despite what many politicians and policymakers are saying, growth will not return to the major economies. The enormous sums that governments around the world have spent trying to stimulate growth during the recession have brought no meaningful gains. For Heinberg, the very idea of ‘perpetual growth’, shared by both Keynesian New Deal economics and trickle-down Reagonomics, is over.

Heinberg claims it is unlikely that developed economies will adapt to this new reality voluntarily or anytime soon. In fact, governments, corporations and large-scale institutions will most likely try to obstruct changes to the status quo. As a consequence, Heinberg focuses on what individuals and local communities can do to help with the transition towards a zero growth economy.

I find myself firmly on the ‘growth is good’ side of the debate. This article, by Daniel Ben-Ami, sums up my position. Up to a point.

A black hole at Dale & Co.?

Contributors to Dale & Co., the new collaborative current affairs blog, might have editorial independence over their articles but it doesn’t look as though many of them have an inclination towards discussing the ‘greatest challenge’ facing the world today, climate change.

In fact, after three weeks and hundreds of posts from hundreds of contributors from across the political spectrum, climate change has barely registered as an issue at all.

There was a post by ‘wine expert’ and self-styled ‘environmental entrepreneur’ Jerry Lockspeiser, lamenting how the wine industry may suffer due to global warming.

Another post under the ‘climate’ category looked at Christopher Monckton’s recent trip down under. It is written by Shane Stone, a name within the Australian Liberal Party, who praises Monckton and recommends he be appointed to the House of Lords. That’s the same ‘eccentric’ Christopher Monckton who disputes that there is a correlation between increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and climate change.

To his detractors, Monckton is referred to as an irrational ‘denier’. To his allies, he is a rational ‘skeptic’. I subscribe to neither of these labels. I find both to be crude and misleading.

I highlight the two labels to demonstrate just how polarised the climate debate is at present. It is this polarisation that has fed the mistrust of many environmentalists. We monitor the mainstream media with beady eyes and try to call out misrepresentation of climate data whenever we see it.

So, I apologise in advance if this post reads as slightly neurotic, but I am genuinely curious as to whether there is an editorial decision at Dale & Co to marginalise climate change as an issue.

5 Ways to save climate change…

…from becoming yesterday’s news…

Speak in plain English. We have to stop being a closed shop and start talking to people. That means fewer acronyms and clearer explanations of scientific terms and concepts. After all, many newspaper readers will only give an article a cursory glance before deciding whether or not to read it in full. If it is littered with terms like Carbon capture and storage (CCS) or Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW), they may flick straight to the next page.

Listen, engage and do not judge others for the decisions they make. People choose to shop in large multinational supermarkets because they are cheap and convenient. Buying fresh, organic, free-range produce from the local farmers’ market is simply not an option for most people.

Keep it real. Statistics, percentages and diagrams are important, but what about the human element? How will the figures represented in the graph affect me and my world?

Be practical. Talking in abstract terms about climate change can be difficult to relate to. How can people make a difference either as individuals, communities or as part of larger organisations?

Emphasise the positives. There is a sense of climate fatigue. This isn’t because people don’t care, but they have been overwhelmed by stories of flooding, drought and melting icecaps. For good measure, report and analyse green success stories.

Top ten green books

Here are my top ten green books. Some of the choices may seem rather tenuous and they feature in no particular order.

1. Amartya Sen – The Idea of Justice

Sen proposes a fundamental shift in the focus of economics, from the means or material wealth of individuals, to the actual opportunities they possess in order to do things they value. Factors such as age, gender, disability, one’s physical environment and social climate can have an impact on the quality of life or capabilities of individuals and entire communities. The idea that GDP can act as the sole marker of success is finally laid bare.

2. Nassim Nicholas Taleb – The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable

For Taleb, Black Swan Events are unforeseeable, they have major, wide reaching repercussions, and after having been recorded, many people attempt to rationalise the event with hindsight. It is the randomness of events, and our inability to predict outcome that animates Taleb the most. Ultimately, he advocates a society that is able to weather such events.

3. James Scott – Seeing Like a State

The ‘high-modernist’ ideology and resulting policies of the previous century were top-down and harmed many of the people they were supposed to help. Scott argues that in order for schemes to improve the human condition to flourish, they must consider local conditions and specialist knowledge, or metis.

4. Rachel Botsman – What’s Mine Is Yours

Botsman has tapped into the times with this book. She describes an explosion in sharing, swapping, trading and renting due to the internet and peer-to-peer technologies. This new way of consuming, according to Botsman, is very similar to how we did things in the days before ultra-consumerism. At last, ‘we’re becoming smart and social again’. Once you’ve finished reading this book, register with the CC website and ‘recycle’ it for others to enjoy.

5. Ayn Rand – Atlas Shrugged

The Randian hero, personified by the character John Galt in Atlas Shrugged, is I suspect the antithesis of what most environmentalists would aspire to. But it’s important to know your enemy. And better the devil you know etc. Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism completely rejects the idea of altruistic behaviour – ‘rational self-interest’ is king. Frightening stuff.

6. Ryszard Kapuściński – The Soccer War

Kapuscinski takes us to the heart of countless revolutions, coups, civil wars and hotspots across the emerging ‘Third World’ of the 1960s. Many of these conflicts are the result of disputes over who controls what natural resources. Kapuscinski writes a ‘new kind of literature’ – one ‘by foot’. He dismisses the traditional ‘fabricated narrator describing a fabricated reality’ and favours an explicitly personal style. For Kapuscinski, writing is only authentic if it is being lived. I wish there was more of this style of writing from contemporary environmental correspondents.

7. Cormac McCarthy – The Road

The Road affirms belief in the tender pricelessness of the here and now. In creating an exquisite nightmare, it does not add to the cruelty and ugliness of our times; it warns us now how much we have to lose.

8. David MacKay – Sustainable Energy (Without the Hot Air)

Where are we going to get our energy from in the near future? This book probes this question with plenty of numbers and data. An entertaining and informative primer.

9. Jonathon Porritt – Capitalism as if the World Matters

Porritt holds an unashamedly reformist position. If capitalism is still the only economic game in town, then we need to make it work. Our fixation with growth is unhealthy and Porritt offers some compelling solutions to the current free-market approach.

10. Stewart Brand – Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto

Some of the holy cows of environmentalism are demolished in this book. Brand is refreshingly solutions-orientated and therefore offers prescriptions as well as diagnosis to issues. A welcome manifesto that rebukes the glut of pessimistic material that has prevailed in recent years.

Cucumber Globalization

People may not take a cucumber crisis very seriously, but they should. It is representative of a wider problem that exists within our globalized economy.

If a cucumber is contaminated in Spain, it has grave consequences for multiple countries. One result is that the lever of the export machine becomes momentarily jammed. Cucumbers from Spain are rejected by other countries. The farmer, the packer, the shift supervisor and the company overseeing the distribution of cucumbers lose out. The free flow of perishable goods is interrupted. Shoppers from Berlin to Brno may become anxious and avoid buying Spanish cucumbers. They might even steer clear of them altogether for a period of time.

OK, not a travesty. But cucumbers are only, if you’ll excuse the salad based pun, the tip of the iceberg.

As we have seen over the past twelve months, nature has the potential to disrupt what many of us take for granted – the ability to travel by air, unimpeded. The consequences of the recent Japanese tsunami were felt all over the world. Car assembly lines were closed in the UK owing to the delay in the delivery of components. Toyota suffered a significant slump in productivity and sales. Similarly, the Icelandic volcano saga of 2010, and to a lesser extent last week, highlighted our sensitivity to air travel disruption.

The grounding or disruption to freight flights also reveals just how reliant some countries are on exporting single commodities. This is a ludicrous situation. Countries that possess the natural conditions or resources to grow a range of crops or produce materials domestically have been restricted in doing so. Instead, they channel most of their resources, time, labour and expertise into exporting a single commodity. The words eggs and basket spring to mind. When things go wrong, as they frequently do, the pain is intensified by the fact that there is nothing to fall back on. No plan B, let alone a Plan C.

The global economy can be dynamic when it works but it is also susceptible to disruption when a small cog in the machine temporarily jams. We cannot predict when such jams will occur or how consequential they will be. It is important, however, that we are aware of their potential and do not think – as many so-called experts did in the pre-recession boom years – that the status quo is infallible. In fact, the one thing we can be sure of is the uncertainty of the future.

With this in mind, I reach for my well-thumbed copy of Keynes’ General Theory.

Update: Spanish farmers have accused Germany of making unfounded allegations about the origin of the E.coli outbreak. The Spanish government is now considering whether to take legal action.