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 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.

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.

The Carbon Budget

Hats off to David Cameron. He has smacked down the “dark forces” within the Treasury by approving the fourth carbon budget, as recommended by the Committee on Climate Change. James Murray at Business Green endorses the proposed budget as:

[G]enuinely world-leading in its breadth and ambition. It will impose legally binding targets requiring the UK to cut greenhouse gas emissions 50 per cent by 2050 and 60 per cent by 2030, in the process ensuring that the country’s electricity infrastructure is all but decarbonised within 20 years.

If the plan is enacted fully, the UK will generate 40 per cent of its energy from renewables and 40 per cent from nuclear by 2030, the remaining 20 per cent coming from relatively clean fossil fuel power plants, many of which will feature carbon capture and storage technology

Moreover, by 2025, 2.6 million homes will have highly energy efficient heat pumps, and almost a third of new cars will be electric. Every component of the economy will face similar levels of revolutionary change, ensuring that the UK will almost certainly become one of the world’s premier low carbon economies, generating billions of pounds a year from exporting green technologies and expertise.

Certainly, Cameron deserves praise for his boldness in passing the budget. However, the Osborne-Cable alliance did win some important concessions. As Joss Garman points out at Left Foot Forward:

[I]t appears that whilst the government will accept the CCC’s advice on the scale of the carbon targets for the mid-late 2020s, they won’t accept the recommendation that short term cuts need to be increased.

Understandably, some will rightly point out that it’s convenient for the prime minister to agree to a 50% cut in UK emissions by 2025 – when he’s unlikely to still be in power, but to reject the advice of raising the 2020 target. Equally, it is understood that government will announce tomorrow it will rely on carbon offsets to a greater extent than is recommended by the climate committee.

This is a classic case of politics influencing policy. But no matter what some doom merchants may say in tomorrow’s papers, be in no doubt, this remains a radical piece of climate legislation. It commits to concrete action. It is to be welcomed.

“Tarnished Earth”

Last week, I made a trip down to Brighton. As you can see, it was a beautiful sunny day. Whilst strolling down the promenade, I came across a series of billboards put up by The Co-operative. I had a camera at the ready so I started to snap away.

The billboards are part of the Tarnished Earth campaign.


I’ve said before on this blog, I don’t think negative campaigning works – especially when it is so abstract and removed from everyday life. So next time, why not show alternative (and realistic) visions for a more sustainable future? Brighton has plenty of potential.

Green five

The Big Issue #947The power of the New Society: Coming together. Consuming together. Campaigning together’ is no longer available from street vendors. But you can purchase a back copy by clicking here. It has an interesting double page feature from Rachel Botsman, she of collaborative consumption thinking.

In ‘Shaking the Tree’, George Monbiot reports that David Cameron’s “greenest government ever” presents the greatest ever threat to our environment.

Mark Lynas says it is time to stop arguing and time to start decarbonising.

James Delingpole rallies against the so-called Watermelons and what he perceives to be “efforts by green campaigners and their sympathisers in the EU to besmirch the name of shale gas in favour of their preferred (and – of course – disastrously expensive and environmentally destructive) power source, renewable energy.”

The Economist has a piece on Africa’s “soaring” population growth.