Thursday, 25 June 2009

All We Ask For Is Commitment

Jonathan Porritt and Andy Middleton gave a qualified endorsement of the Welsh Assembly Government's commitment to reduce CO2 emissions by 3% on radio Wales this morning.

Jane Daidson, minister for Environment Sustainability and Housing, will announce Wales is to spend £300m cutting carbon emissions as part of its commitment to tackling climate change.

The BBC Wales report emerges the morning after a Newsnight report on the Obama administration's problems in honouring the election commitment to pass a radical climate change bill.

With no big oil and coal lobby to grapple with, perhaps the Welsh Assembly finds it easier to make progress on climate change. Similarly US state governments have provided progressive leadership on GHG emissions while the federal Bush administration failed.

The Newsnight report and subsequent discussion suggested that the Obama administration has been thwarted and the climate change bill, if passed, will be considerably weaker than was proposed by the man himself during his election campaign.

We all know that politicians who are supposed to represent us are often compromised by powerful lobbies. We the electorate know its tough at the top but like in any relationship all we ask for is a bit of commitment.

We could make it easier for politicians to remain faithful to their ideals by demonstrating in that we want leadership on climate change and that we are prepared to live with the consequences of difficult decisions.

Monday, 22 June 2009

A Time For Heroes Like You

I recently went to a session in which Dr. Chris Johnstone and Sue Weaver tried to help a group of environmental professionals come to terms with the burden of knowledge that the earth system is in crisis.

Chris works a lot with helping people overcome addiction. I am struck by the fact that our society is addicted to oil and cheap energy. Cold Turkey is going to be interesting to put it mildly. Frankly the prospect terrifies me but that's what Sue and Chris were trying to help us with.

I recently encountered the story of Tricia Morgan, a voluntary worker in Swansea who through her work on Swansea Community farm underwent transition from an ex-addict on probation to director of a community regeneration trust. The message is clear: individuals can change. Their efforts are heroic. As society is made up of millions of individuals, it too can change.

Chris publishes a newsletter called Great Turning Times. Through this he develops ideas of positive visions giving routes through adversity, creating resilience.

Often what is needed for change is a positive vision to aspire to. This is true for individuals and societies. That's the most important thing I got out of the day. The burden of knowledge that climate change and peak oil threatens our way of life can result in a paralysis of despair. But while we fail to act, others will. A political solution is part of the answer. A positive political vision that recognises that salvation will come from what we have in common not from that which divides us. The battle lines are drawn - recall the results of the recent Euro elections. Sustainable Development is the movement towards a more equitable, less greedy, slower, more peaceful and harmonious way of life. Lets work on that vision and learn to articulate it so that it can inspire others and overcome fear.

As Chris says, 'this is the time of the Great Turning'. We are all heroes in this epic struggle.

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Information Age

Information exchange is central to the work of Cynnal Cymru-Sustain Wales. As explained in previous blogs, information is rich in embodied energy and a key component of any sustainable system is fluid information exchange.

Information and communication precedes change. All agree that in the face of rising global temperatures and falling supplies of easily accessible oil, change is needed on a major scale.

Events in Iran dramatically illustrate this point. Read here how mobile phones, and internet communication platforms such as Twitter are being used to co-ordinate protest. The same technology has been used by Ant- Globalisation protestors in the West and by President Obama’s team during his election campaign.

The sustainable development movement needs to use this technology as effectively. Cynnal Cymru has a Facebook and Twitter page. But we and our partners could go further. Ultimately, the power to bring about change resides in individuals not organisations. I await the day when a critical mass of citizens demanding change develops. This may not be until the price of oil and rising sea levels curtail the freedoms we in the west all take for granted.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Surfers View of Climate Change

Surfers are people embedded in the coastal environment. If the climate is changing or if the water quality is deteriorating they should know.

A new film "On The Push" by young Welsh surfer and award-winning film maker Ann Gallagher gives a surfers perspective of climate change.

You don't need planning permission to start an allotment

Some local authorities in the UK have expressed reluctance to release land for allotments saying that planning permission would be required. This is apparently not the case as is concisely explained here.

Friday, 5 June 2009

The Oil Crunch

The Oil Crunch is a report by the UK industry taskforce on peak oil and energy security.

It is backed by ARUP, The First Group, and Virgin amongst others. It reports reliable and respected analysis that predicts peak oil as occurring between 2011 and 2015. After this point the depletion of existing oil reserves can no longer be replaced by additions of new capacity.

The result will either be a gradual descent as oil becomes increasingly scarce or a sudden collapse in supply.

Descent is maintained by the exploitation of alternative "not-so-easy" oil sources such as tar sands and ultra deep water reserves. Exploitation of some of these have serious ecological implications.

The report argues that the threat to our society of an oil crunch is more imminent and therefore more deserving of a priority policy response than climate change. The current policy perspective, the report says, prioritises climate change and so the time scale for bringing in alternative energy sources is too long for the 2011-2015 window.

The report makes a number of recommendations. A brief summary can be read here.

Thursday, 4 June 2009

Precious Information - the gift that keeps on giving

I make no apologies about using this blog spot to promote the work of Howard T. Odum. As mentioned previously I am reading “A Prosperous Way Down” – a book in which Odum succinctly explains his theoretical world view of how human society and the environment interact at the energetic level. Since all matter is energy, this amounts to ecological theory of everything. This may sound glib – well a blog is not the place to explain Odum’s thinking in detail – you’ll have to buy or borrow his books and read the many scientific papers written by his former students.

Odum offers the observation that the most energy-rich material we have on this planet is information. Energy-rich is to be understood as rich in embodied energy, rich in the sense that a great deal of effort by nature and humankind has gone into producing it. A seed is rich in information. All the information needed to make a mighty oak tree is contained in an acorn. The genius of Einstein (and Odum), the magnificence of our greatest athletes and artists is contained in a single cell.

With this stated Odum considers modern societies – highly powered with fossil fuels, highly structured, complex and overflowing with resources. What characterises such a society – our society - is that it overflows with information. We live in an information age, they say.

Of course, most of this information is useless. Hello magazine contains information as does the chat show of Jonathan Ross but does that compare to the wisdom to be found in books, professional journals or even humble blogs?! And yet a profusion of information sources and outlets is what Odum’s theories predict for highly powered societies. If we removed cheap energy (peak oil) there would be a fall off in inane chatter as people sought out the most vital, useful information. In hunter gatherer societies for example, all information is instructional and essential for survival – read Jay Griffiths’ wondrous book “Wild” in which she fully explores the deep and resonant worlds of so called primitive savages – our ancestors.

In a hunter gatherer society there is little or no surplus energy. All information is valuable and highly prized. Stories instruct. Gossip cements social bonds or gives tips on where the best food is to be found.

Useless information is quick and adaptable. It spreads easily. The more useful information is, the more embodied energy it contains, the slower it is to impart and explain. Think how long it takes to train a doctor or for someone to become a master craftsman or that genetic information is the product of millions of years of evolution.

Two examples of the role of information are in the news this week. The one is MPs expenses, the other is calls for compulsory MMR vaccinations. What makes the headlines is pretty low grade stuff. In both cases there is a more complicated set of facts behind the headlines that require sober, reasoned analysis. One story raises questions about the fundamental structure of our system of governance and the values upon which it is founded, the other raises questions about the role of drug companies in our medical system and our perceptions of risk.

We need politicians so how do we get ones motivated by principle and not material gain?
At what level of risk do we rely on naturally acquired immunity over commercially produced vaccinations?

And all of this presents the sustainable development movement with big questions. We know that society needs to change in order to survive. We know that the spread of information precedes major social change. Ayatollah Khomeini distributed tape players and cassettes to spread his revolution in Iran. Joseph Goebbels distributed radios tuned to the state controlled station.

This summer and autumn, Cynnal Cymru-Sustain Wales will be addressing the issue of social behavioural change. We have invited leading thinkers to submit essays on the topic and it will be the theme of our annual public conference in Carmarthenshire on the 25 and 26th September. Our colleagues in BBC Wales are also addressing the same issue later this year.

What type and quality of information will convince people that it is necessary and possible to plan for and develop a low carbon, resource efficient, environmentally harmonious society? Is the situation so desperate that we should resort to the cunning of Khomeini? When an idea’s time has come, it spreads like a virus. But by then it may be too late. What follows is revolution not evolution. Instead of reasoned, planned change based on high quality complex information you get rapid and destructive change based on slogans and fear.

One point that Odum makes that we should all consider: he says that information is too valuable to be held and used for profit. Good quality information is vital to our survival. The stories of our ancestors told around the camp fire were given freely and with love. They were necessary for survival. Having read the chapter on information in Odum’s book, I now understand why a colleague and fellow Odumite gives books away to those he knows will cherish them.