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Friday 29th June 2012
'Co-management' as a way of fostering resilience
Contributor: Will Bugler

Resilience is a worthy goal, but fostering resilience in social-ecological systems can be challenging. Adaptive co-management might offer a method of governance that can help communities find resilient solutions. In this video Tim Daw from Stockholm Resilience Centre discusses challenges and opportunities in countries like Kenya and Tanzania to develop sustainable management approaches.

 

Saturday 23rd June 2012
Detached from reality, posturing ‘environmentalists’ are a dangerous distraction
Contributor: Jeremy Bugler

There are plenty of books with titles like “The Joy of Gardening” and “The Well-Tempered Garden”.  There are few books called “The Misery of Gardening” or “The Ill-Tempered Garden.”  In truth, the balance should be redressed, even though sales might be slow.  For gardening is often is an infuriating business, provoking the gardener to curse out loud and kick the cabbages.  Vegetable gardening is a useful source of resilience - think of war times, when dig-for-victory campaigns get started – and allotments actually produce more food per square yard than do farmers’ fields.   But gardening is as much about dealing with disappointment as with success, and with sheer drudgery.

In this soaking summer, with my runner beans and courgettes shivering and turning yellow, I was reflecting that the growers of food have to have iron morale to keep going.  The high rate of depression amongst farmers is well-attested, and usually put down to their isolation.  In my view, disappointment plays as big a part, as does the repetitiveness of much farming (and gardening work).   Beyond a certain level of competence, a great deal of the food-growers work is a list of the same low-skill tasks performed over and over again.  Think of moving an electric fence to give sheep or cattle fresh grazing.  It is usually straightforward; it has to be done, and there is absolutely no sense of achievement when it has been done.  The same goes for feeding the stock, mucking out, and so on and so on.

I was having these thoughts (just having moved an electric fence) when I read a piece in The New York Times that really struck me.  It relates how young people in Thailand are turning away from rice-farming. They regard the work, probably correctly, as back-breaking and boring, requiring hours of work bending over to transplant the rice seedling, one at a time.  The rice farmers, their faces burnt by the sun, are seen by the Thai media as low-caste, even ugly.

Young Thais now head for the cities, notably Bangkok, where they want to work in air-conditioned offices and have more exciting sights than that a rice paddy at a distance of a foot.  Only 12 per cent of Thai farmers today are younger than 25, down from 35 per cent in 1985.  A Thai rice-farmer, Boonmee Khammon, speaks bitterly of his two daughters’ refusal to help him with the rice harvest. “They live in their own world”, he is reported as saying.  And indeed who can blame them?

But the Thai government is worried, as indeed is that of Vietnam which has the same problem.  Rice accounts for $6 billion of Thailand’s exports and the government is worried about finding enough people to work its 13 million hectares of rice paddies.

James Lovelock, often called an environmental guru, should also be worried.  In his latest exposure to a typically unchallenging interview (The Guardian, 16 June, 2012), Lovelock puts forward his most recent idea: that humankind in the globally-warmed future should all live in vast, air-conditioned cities. To quote him: “Instead of trying to save the planet, by geo-engineering or whatever, you merely have to air-condition the cities.” (My italics)

For some time now, I have regarded Lovelock as the Martin Amis of environmental ideas.  Martin Amis wrote one or perhaps two good novels early on (though the much-lauded Money came across as derivative if you’d read Elmore Leonard beforehand) and since then has a written a stream of indifferent books.  One can always tell: each new novel is greeted by his enthusiastic critics (a minority now) as ‘a return to form.’  Yet they have never told their readers that he had lost form. And yet again, each new Amis novel receives vast coverage on publication, the reviews mostly saying the book is a failure (as with his new novel Lionel Asbo).

So it is with Lovelock.  Since Gaia, his writings and utterances have been below par, and often marked with extraordinary spleen against those environmentalists who disagree with him. His warm embrace of nuclear energy, for instance, is matched with venom against those who support renewable energies such as wind.   (Notable fact: Portugal is now producing the clear majority of its energy from renewables, not least wind.  There have been days recently when all the country’s energy came from renewables.)

The distinctive Lovelock trait is not to think things through.  He supports the rapid growth of nuclear power – and oh yes, now gas-fracking – without spelling out how in the climatically chaotic world of the future, there will still be technicians and support around to service those nuclear stations.  So now it is with his new bizarre idea that we will live in vast air-conditioned cities.  The queries fall over themselves.  How will this astronomic energy demand be fed?  (More vast nuclear power stations?  See objection above).  What happens to those who cannot get into those vast cities  - much of the humanity in the developing world?   It seems that Lovelock thinks that’s how the natural-selection cookie crumbles. And – not least – who grows the food for these vast cities?

We come back to the struggling Thai rice-farmer, now working in the temperatures perhaps of 45°C, coping with huge storms. Can we count on him? No, we can’t.  And mechanisation will only get us so far.

The danger of Lovelock’s pronouncements is not in themselves – they are too nutty – but that they act as distractions. They allow people to avoid the hard action needed to restrict damaging climate change.  Lovelock says he is now spending his time thinking.  But not thinking things through.

Tuesday 12th June 2012
Jeremy Bugler listens as 'Eight Brains' MacKay and panel discuss de-carbonisation in the last of his Hay Festival green blogs
Contributor: Jeremy Bugler

At this year’s Hay Festival, I have been to green events which have been as quiet as Quaker prayer meetings.  I have been to others which have been like Hell Fire sermons from the pulpit of one of the Rev Ian Paisley’s black-coated preacher-men.  And at the end of the Festival I went to a green event which was nothing less than a rationalist seminar, attended by quietly-spoken people working in the belief that global warming can be brought under control by the application of reason and intelligence.  The session’s subject was “How to Decarbonise by 2050”.

The panel was well-made for this reasoning approach.  First, there was David MacKay, a man so brainy that he makes David ‘Two Brains’ Willetts, look like a thumb-sucking dunce.  MacKay showed worrying signs of brains early on.  By the age of 18, he was representing Britain at the International Physics Olympiad, receiving the first prize for experimental work.  His achievements include the re-discovery of low-density parity-check codes, don’t you know, but he is best known as the author of that terrific book Sustainable Energy – Without The Hot Air.   In this book, he applies simple and not-at-all-simple maths to measure the contribution that different sustainable energy systems can make to the UK’s energy needs.   He used £10,000 of his own money to publish the book  (its initial print run sold out in days) and made it available for free on-line.   His mantra is that he is not for one kind of sustainable energy or another; he is in favour of maths.   He rides bicycles; he is a vegetarian and obviously a thoroughly decent man.   And oh yes, he is Chief Scientific Advisor to the Department of Energy and Climate Change, who sponsored this Hay Festival session.

Next on the panel was another David, Lord Howell of Guildford.   Once David Howell was a well-known politician.  Now if you google his name, you are offered first a golfer called Dave Howell and then the Rev. D. Howell, Dean of St David’s Cathedral from 1897 to 1903.   In truth, Lord Howell blows these obscure fellows out of the water; he has made a considerable contribution to British public life and is now a Minister of State in the Foreign Office, looking after International Energy.  And again, a decent, rational man.

The third member of the panel was Julie Hill, a former director of the Green Alliance, always a hot-bed of rational thinking, and author of a wonderfully intelligent book “The Secret Life of Stuff”, which explores how much energy we use in things we buy and consume and the infuriating truth that often when we save energy in one way (say by insulating our home) we go and blow the money and the C02 saved on a flight to Morocco.   

The three intelligent people set to work on the issue.  Eight-brains David Mackay set out DECC’s pathway to get to a position where 80 per cent of the UK energy sector is decarbonised by 2030 and 100 per cent by 2050.  We’ll be going for more efficiency, for replacing oil and gas by electricity, hydrogen and biomass, with carbon-storage and capture (CCS) playing a part, along with nuclear energy and renewables.   As he talked of DECC’s 2050 Pathways Calculator and other matters, the way forward seemed sensible and achievable.

Surprisingly, it was the serving politician who upset the apple-cart, not the free-thinking advisor or the writer.  He set out a world in which decarbonising electricity seems a pipe dream.  Flying as he does to energy conferences everywhere, he says he finds a world in which countries everywhere are discovering massive new gas fields.  They are asking themselves in these countries: “why worry about renewables” when we have so much gas?  Now phasing out coal and replacing it with gas may lead to a drop in C02 emissions, but gas is still very much a fossil fuel.  “For the next ten years, Europe will be a gas economy,” said David Howell.  He hoped then that there would be a lot more contribution from renewables and perhaps nuclear “though nuclear is very, very, very expensive”.   The triple “very” is a testament to this Minister’s honesty.

Then came his real bombshells.   “I was Energy Secretary thirty years ago”, he said “and we were talking about just these things then.  And we’ve made hardly any progress!”  (My exclamation mark.)   He spoke further about needing reforms and then “battling with them in Europe, and then battling them through the World Trade Organisation…”  One felt exhausted just sitting there, even with the prospect of a cup of tea a few minutes away.

Now these downers were only some of them.  The able chair Andy Fryers, who organised the Hay Festival’s rich panoply of green events, pointed out to David MacKay that he’d asked the boss of EON, the energy giant, what contribution he thought that carbon capture and storage would make by 2030 and he’d said “pretty much zero.”  (MacKay was more hopeful for CCS.)

David MacKay dealt ably with the inevitable Denier, this time in the shape of a Financial Times writer who specialised in the coal industry.  In a calm way MacKay set out how scientists are judging that global warming is taking place, that the level of global warming by the end of the century may be 1.8C, or 2.5C or 4.5C.  “All these scenarios are very disturbing and we have to be responsible.”

Say that again.  Yet I feel that many of the audience will have come away thinking that the policies and approaches outlined were rational, sensible - and wholly not up it.  After all, some of them will have attended the session in which Professor Anthony Giddens set out how the world has moved into an age which is discontinuous with all the ages before us, because of the way human activity is changing the climate.  They were reminded by Giddens that that conservative organisation the International Energy Agency estimates that warming by the end of the century will reach a horrendous 6 degrees C.  Quiet rationalism, based on premises such as the need for continuing rising living standards, seems not enough.

I left this excellent festival reflecting on the wisdom Vice-President Al Gore, who said that the minimum action needed to halt climate change was still way out of line with the maximum that could be achieved politically.

Sunday 10th June 2012
Talking about the future that we want is more powerful than speaking of the problems that we have
Contributor: Will Bugler

When discussing environmental problems with many of my friends - whether it be peak oil, climate change or biodiversity loss - I am struck by two things: First the ever-so-slightly glazed look on their face and second (once they have realised that I am intent on persisting with this line of conversation) the highly defensive and sceptical attitude that is adopted. Both of these are significant. Communicating environmental issues is far too often couched in the language of doom and despair.

The shock-and-awe approach has repeatedly been shown to be a specacularly bad way of pursuading people of your possition - and is a tac avoided like the plague by advertisers. But on top of that people are genuinely tired of hearing of the problems. People are aware of the dangers of climate change. That is not to say everyone fully appreciates the seriousness of the problem but most people are aware that we are facing some serious environmental problems. The glazed-eye response is only natural when someone expects to be dragged, yet again into a series of doom-laden scenarios with no obvious, concrete connection to their lives.

This leads me to the second typical response; defensive-sceptisim. 'My actions won't matter', 'what can be done anyway?', 'it's all too late' or simply 'I don't care', these reactions are a response to how environmetal issues have been framed. Advertisers have been sucessful in convincing people that they need everything from ready-grated cheese to 'on-the-go loopaper', how is it possible that the environmental movement has failed to sell the environment?

People's sceptical reaction over envionmental issues seems to stem from a perception that being more environmental means endless suffering and hardship: hair-shirts, dry musli and compulsory meditative chanting sessions. The reality of course, is that to live more sustainably means cleaner air, more green spaces in cities, less traffic, more social interaction and closer, safer communities. The very things that people value above all else. 

Some weeks ago I wrote about the importance of imagining what a sustainable, resilient future might look like. One of the great strengths of resilience was is that it is forward looking in nature and focusses on solutions. Of course we need to be fully aware of the threats that we face, but to stimulate change it is vital that people see sustainability as a positive force that can enrich our lives, not as an albatross aound our necks.

Watch Robert Costanza, Distinguished University Professor of Sustainability Institute for Sustainable Solutions (ISS) at Portland State University and Editor in Chief for Solutions magazine, present scenarios for future environmental policies. 

Friday 8th June 2012
Professor Bill McGuire and Anthony Giddens convince Jeremy Bugler of the urgent need for resilience in his third Hay Festival blog
Contributor: Jeremy Bugler

This has been a week in our household which has cried out for resilience-thinking. First, we got a letter from Royal Mail saying that in future all the letters coming in and out of our home will be sorted not in our local town of Hereford but in a distant city called Birmingham.   So any time there is bad weather or a big accident on the M5, our post will get delayed.   Our local Postman Pat  (or rather Geoff)  has had his resilience mugged by that familiar villain: centralisation in aid of efficiency.

Next, I went to the Hay Festival to hear the world’s only Professor of Climate Hazard. I emerged needing a serious drink to steady me. Professor Bill McGuire of University College, London, is a re-assuring-looking man, round-faced with a well-padded frame.  This appearance is wholly deceptive. Bill McGuire is a frightener on an epic scale.  He has just written a book Waking The Giant which looks into a climate-changed world in a new and highly disturbing way. 

McGuire is a geologist and scientist who has specialised in studying the `lithosphere’  - the earth’s crust and just below.  He is convinced now that climate change “is starting to affect the solid Earth.”  We are in within one degree of the highest average temperature for a million years, he said, with C02 levels the highest for 15 million years.  As a result, the ice sheets are melting, with so far 52 million cubic kilometres shifted from the ice sheets into the ocean basins.

At this stage, I was only moderately disturbed, my pulse barely raised.  I expected more stuff about rising sea-levels  But Bill McGuire than went to new territory.  The massive ice sheets bear down on the earth.  Putting up a slide headed “What Goes Down Must Come Up”, he showed how the lessening of the pressure of the ice sheets is causing magma to come up.  The increase of water in the ocean basins causes new pressure on the earth in new places.

In short, climate change is going to lead, and is already leading, to a major increase in earthquakes, volcano activity and tsunamis.  The three major tsunamis of recent years are only a portent of things to come.  Alaska is the canary in the cage, he said, where many volcanoes are intermixed with a melting ice sheet.  He predicted, with chilling confidence, giant floods and general weather-terror.   We have, he said, about ten to thirty years to save great Greenland ice-sheet, and was frank in saying that he was not cheerful about the prospects for effective action to halt global warming.

The portly professor gave out the smallest grain of comfort to his Hay audience.  Asked where the best place to live in this future world, he said Britain - though we’d have to get used to hurricane-type winds. Thanks for that, Bill.  His introducer was the journalist Rosie Boycott, who warned his audience at the start that his lecture would be “fantastically depressing.”  She looks at the world, I think, through rose-tinted glasses. 

My next port of call was a lecture given yesterday by Professor Anthony Giddens on the politics of climate change.   Professor Giddens is lean and even scary in appearance.  But compared to Bill McGuire, he is a raving optimist.   At one point, he even (rashly?) declared “Armageddon is not going to happen.”   He started by setting out clearly why he considers “we are in a civilisation that has moved off the edge of history.”   He is convinced that our civilisation is discontinuous with those that have gone before us.  Identifying population growth, nuclear weapons and climate change as the forces that make us different from previous civilisations, he remarked how earlier cultures worried about what Nature could do them, while we worry about what we do to Nature.  (Well, he hadn’t heard Bill McGuire.)  

For me the most novel part of his talk was when he reflected on ways in which political progress on climate change can still be effected.  So far, he said, “we are nowhere.  We haven’t got anywhere.” However, progress might be made if we no longer tried to depend on universal agreements, on the lines of Kyoto or Copenhagen.  The politics of these are too complex, not least because of the US’s paralysis on the issue.  But progress can be made on bi-lateral agreements, and local agreements, and one-state action by countries such as Brazil and China.

Next, there is hope in civil society, in the work of voluntary groups and other organisations.  He cited the 350 cities in the world aiming to be zero-carbon in the next twenty years.  And lastly, he called for “innovation, innovation, innovation” – the inventiveness of scientists and technologists to bear down on the problem.

It was a useful talk, though bizarrely Tony Giddens was sabotaged by his introducer Peter Oborne, former political editor at the Spectator.  Oborne plainly has not got beyond the denial stage of climate change thinking, and it is a puzzle why he was put there.    This week  at the Hay Festival has seen very good green-chairing,  notably from Geoffrey Lean, who writes a good green column in the Saturday The Daily Telegraph (otherwise a nest of deniers.)   Lean showed that a chair can be sympathetic without fawning and usefully humorous about difficult subjects.

At the end of the day, I walked away in the sheeting rain of Wales reflecting that work on resilience is more urgently needed than ever.  If McGuire and Giddens are only half right, we are going to need, badly, societies structured to resist shock, whether geological, meteorological, or social.

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