Archive for August, 2007

Quote of the day

Friday, August 31, 2007

[…] it’s entirely in the nature of the political process to hire firefighters, even at a time when no homes are burning. There is no reason to abandon long-term risk analysis and planning just because (some) political processes and practitioners are short-sighted.

– Richard Littlemore, writing about Bjorn Lomborg’s new sceptical book.


When raising the alarm, ‘KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid)’!

Friday, August 31, 2007

Many argue today that humanity is on the verge of global catastrophe – symptomised by global warming, the deterioration of productive land, and unprecedented species extinction amongst other things. Yet the way mainstream politics and media present issues like these would make most people think the problems are

  • easily soluble
  • someone else’s problem, or
  • too far gone and beyond redemption.

The presentation of the issues could be significantly falling short in terms of what it should be doing. For me, presentation of issues should both inform and engage people, enabling them to take action. I think the presentation is failing because it’s often too cool, too detached, too obscure and maybe too unimaginative.

So, coming across these guidelines on campaigning today struck a chord:

Consider the ‘fire’ notices you find on the door of a hotel bedroom. If you are asleep in a hotel and you smell smoke, you expect to find instructions a bit like this:


It gives the bare minimum of essential information. It fits the situation. It asks for action in the right order – you don’t want guests looking for a telephone to call the fire brigade – they should first get out. Yet so many ‘campaigns’ try explaining the issue. They would produce a fire notice more like this:


– adapted from, by Chris Rose. (Of course, presentation of issues depends on being clear at the outset what the issues are. In the case of such complexity as faced when addressing global warming etc. reaching clarity should be helped via systemic facilitation.)

This thinning road-cum-field IV

Friday, August 31, 2007

Alarm bells are going to continue ringing for a good while longer on a whole range of issues. And they should – news about the thinning road – the path into the future that is increasingly constrained – is alarming. Here’s Ian Sample, the science correspondent writing in today’s Guardian:

To keep up with the growth in human population, more food will have to be produced worldwide over the next 50 years than has been during the past 10,000 years combined, the experts said.

But in many countries a combination of poor farming practices and deforestation will be exacerbated by climate change to steadily degrade soil fertility, leaving vast areas unsuitable for crops or grazing.

Competition over sparse resources may lead to conflicts and environmental destruction, the scientists fear.

The warnings came as researchers from around the world convened at a UN-backed forum in Iceland on sustainable development to address the organisation’s millennium development goals to halve hunger and extreme poverty by 2015.

The researchers will use the meeting to call on countries to impose strict farming guidelines to ensure that soils are not degraded so badly they cannot recover.

“Policy changes that result in improved conservation of soil and vegetation and restoration of degraded land are fundamental to humanity’s future livelihood,” said Zafar Adeel, director of the international network on water, environment and health at the UN University in Toronto and co-organiser of the meeting.

“This is an urgent task as the quality of land for food production, as well as water storage, is fundamental to future peace. Securing food and reducing poverty … can have a strong impact on efforts to curb the flow of people, environmental refugees, inside countries as well as across national borders,” he added.

The UN millennium ecosystem assessment ranked land degradation among the world’s greatest environmental challenges, claiming it risked destabilising societies, endangering food security and increasing poverty.

Floating homes

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Not only is the construction profession beginning to design buildings with stilts (no doubt heeding my call) – see Environmental Graffiti’s post here – they’re also devising amphibious housing: built with wood and, with concrete foundations that rest in the ground, they’re designed in such a way as to float when the water rises.

Why I would vote Liberal Democrat

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Not so long ago, friends of mine learnt how I voted in the previous three UK general elections. Being more well-versed in politics than I, they guffawed, presumably thinking ‘wasted vote’, ‘dreamer’ or ‘ignoramus’! Well, I understand the logic of voting strategically. But when I learn of clear expressions of positive, progressive political vision, I find it inspiring and something of a relief, whatever the political affiliation behind the voice expressing it. The following refers to a blueprint for climate change reform, published yesterday by the UK’s Liberal Democrats:

Party Leader Sir Menzies Campbell explained that climate change needed to move up the political agenda, pointing to extreme weather in Australia, the New Orleans hurricane, and this summer’s floods in the UK. The document is a vision of a zero-carbon Britain by 2050, including the total replacement of petrol-powered cars by 2040 and an end to nuclear power stations.

Other details include Labour’s climate change levy on industry being replaced with a formal carbon tax; the EU’s “cap and trade” system of emissions trading made more ambitious by EU-wide agreement; and a campaign to push Europe towards collective taxation of aviation fuel, regardless of whether America and other countries comply.

The document goes significantly further than anything proposed by the Conservative leader, David Cameron, despite his self-professed green sympathies. If anything, the Lib Dem blueprint may be overambitious, leading to criticism that it is untenable and idealistic. It envisages international post-Kyoto agreements designed to prevent global temperatures from rising above the 2°celsius level which is thought to make alterations to the environment irreversible. Post-Kyoto target agreements are often hampered by debate about the role of developing countries in emissions, and the Lib Dems want tighter carbon emission targets for developed countries (calculated per capita) which would gradually be extended to developing states in a multi-stage approach. Green technologies would be given to poor and industrialising nations to assist them in reducing emissions.

Sir Menzies attacked the Prime Minister for his repeated anti-green policies, and proposed a “tax pollution not people” approach: cutting income tax, and reverse the decline in green taxation – which has dropped to Thatcherite levels under Labour, Sir Menzies said.

The Party Leader stated that “This time it’s different”: “Climate change is a global problem that requires an international solution. Under our proposals the UK would set the green standard for others to reach.”

Hopefully such a bold statement of action on climate change from a major political party will raise the bar for all parties to start taking green issues seriously as parties compete for votes ahead of the general election expected in 2009.

– from Environmental Graffiti. (Sir Menzies Campbell has often been portrayed as too old or too politically naive to survive, let alone contribute effectively, in the cut and thrust of professional politics. Personally, I thought his voice as the Lib Dem’s Foreign Affairs spokesman to have been the most measured of all the mainstream political parties in the run up to the Iraq war; somehow he lost that gravitas when he became party leader.) Good that the ‘contraction and convergence‘ approach to addressing global warming, or something like it, is creeping into mainstream politics.

Update (30.8.07)

Here is Leo Hickman’s take, published in today’s Guardian, on the Lib Dems’ move:

The Lib Dems’ policy document is about as bold as a mainstream party is likely to go in today’s political scene. But the political climate is changing almost as quickly as the planet’s. It is highly likely that, even if voters reject this vision in the short term, it will drag the other parties’ policies in the same direction. No one is likely to run on a ticket of “Let’s burn lots more of the black stuff” ever again.

Update II (30.8.07)

And here’s Chris Huhne, the Lib Dems’ Environment Spokesman, published today, being positive:

We are also committed to 100% carbon-free renewable electricity by 2050 by providing new incentives. Subsidies should go to the new and developing technologies like wave, wind, solar and tidal power not to an old and failed technology like nuclear: no private investor has built a nuclear power station anywhere in the world without lashings of taxpayer subsidy since Chernobyl and Three Mile Island.

By contrast, a Severn barrage or lagoon scheme to harness the world’s second strongest tidal surge could generate 5-7% of all UK electricity on its own. Add Airtricity’s supergrid for wind farms in the North Sea. Add microgeneration and localised solutions. Add energy efficiency, including green mortgages to fund upgrading of our homes. We can do it.

Between here and there

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Please God, may this never become a reality…

“As we will shortly be beginning our descent into the Much Greater London Area, I have an announcement for those who will be continuing their journey from the airport by car, bus, train, ferry, wave-piercing catamaran, bicycle, foot or bathing suit.

“In case you haven’t noticed, we have yet to cross the English Channel. This is because we will be landing first. London-Sangatte, Gateway to the Home Counties, is conveniently located yards from the southern entrance to the Channel Tunnel, giving easy access not only to Central London (82 minutes), but also to the glories of Ashford and Ebsfleet, Picardy and Paris.

“I suspect from the ruckus in row 56 that some of you may have been ill-advised by your travel agents or failed to read the small print during the online booking process. Please calm down. Fully flexible one-way fares to London from nearby Calais Fréthun start at just €202.50, and we have negotiated special wind surfboard hire rates . . .

“Ouch! Kindly take your seat, sir, or I may be forced to have you arrested on landing. Those still in doubt as to Sangatte’s right to host London’s newest airport may like to know it is 30 miles closer to the capital than ‘Madrid Sur’, formely Ciudad Real’s regional airport, is to Madrid; also, that under new regulations approved by the Association of Dodgy Airport Operators we will shortly be launching services from Belfast-Douglas (on the Isle of Man) to London Southwest (attractively located in Bodmin), and from Naples-Palermo to London North, aka East Midlands International. We wish you a pleasant onward journey.”

– one of today’s leaders in the Times. It’s not where an airport is located that worries me so much; it’s the effect it has on our sense of place. It strikes me that, as soon as we build an out-of-town development, the rationale for filling in the gap – in terms of building on the land between here and there – becomes that much easier for planning authorities to consume.

This thinning road-cum-field III

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

As if right on cue…

Consumers are likely to be hit by price rises for meat and dairy products as the Far East competes with the West for stocks, market analysts claim.

Farmers are facing increasing costs for livestock feed and the supermarkets will, sooner or later, pass the increases on to the consumer, according to Deloitte & Touche LLP.

Prices for livestock feed are being forced up by poor harvests, demands from the biofuel industry and rapidly rising consumption in Asia. The rising costs of feed have been compounded in Britain by the summer floods, the poor weather and the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease that have damaged crops, reduced yields and halted meat exports.

Increased demand for grain and meat worldwide has been led by China and India, where consumers have more money to spend on foodstuffs because of their expanding economies.

Demand for dairy products has also been rising, particularly in China, and in Britain milk prices could rise as farmers turn to supplying the powdered milk export market.

– from the beginning of an article in today’s Times.

This thinning road-cum-field II

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

This is an update of the last-but-one post.

It turns out that Lester Brown, the former president of Washington DC’s Worldwatch Institute, wrote about China’s agriculture and food requirements in a book titled ‘Who Will Feed China – Wake Up Call for a Small Planet’ (available here). The amazing thing is that he wrote the book in 1995 – maybe not so prescient when one thinks about the work of those before him, such as that of Donella Meadows from the 1970s… but still. The book’s dramatic-sounding blurb says,

Brown shows that cropland losses are heavy in countries that are densely populated before industrialization, and that these countries quickly become net grain importers. We can see that process now in newspaper accounts from China as the government struggles with this problem. In an integrated world economy, China’s rising food prices will become the world’s rising food prices. China’s land scarcity will become everyone’s land scarcity. And water scarcity in China will affect the entire world. China’s dependence on massive imports, like the collapse of the world’s fisheries, will be a wake-up call that we are colliding with the earth’s capacity to feed us. It could well lead us to redefine national security away from military preparedness and toward maintaining adequate food supplies.

Nice to learn from their website that the Worldwatch Institute has China-based partner organisations with whom they work.

Building where the sun don’t shine

Saturday, August 25, 2007

If I had my millions, lived in a part of London where there are strict conservation laws, and couldn’t think of better things to do with my money, I’d probably enjoy building underground. Apparently, the uber-rich are doing just this, sometimes digging fifty feet below their Georgian mansions, and propping up the original house with steel stilts. Et voilà, listed-building headaches avoided! Installations of choice include tennis courts and swimming pools with adjustable depths – paddling pools for the kids transforming to diving pools by nifty hydraulics. And for the really lazy swimmer, there’s even a home in north London that

has a bespoke chute covered in a special slippery paint, which enables the owner, who loves swimming first thing in the morning, but hates the fuss of dressing, to step out of bed and slide straight into the water a couple of storeys below.

Article in the Times, courtesy of BLDGBLOG. (Mind you, isn’t the water table in London supposed to be rising a rate of about 3cm a year? don’t quote me on that. If city, subterranean living isn’t your kind of thing, and you’ve got enough dosh to stick two fingers up at rising sea levels, you could always buy a Fijian island on eBay. Bye bye.)