A tide of change is sweeping the world, changing all before it. Where we will end up, no-one knows, but things will not be the same again, nor will Coronavirus – COVID 19 – go away in a few short weeks. Yet amidst all the fear lies a golden opportunity to reset the way we live, change the world economy and mitigate the worst of climate change. The outcome could be a better society and quality of life, but there are no certainties it will happen.
Fifteen or so years ago, I thought the world crisis would be about energy as we hit “peak oil” and supplies started to become more expensive. In July 2008 oil costs hit an all-time high of $147/barrel and was part of the cause of the recession of that time. Energy demand appeared to outstrip supply, although the surge may also have been brought about by speculative trading. According to the IEA, peak conventional oil production occurred in 2006; if so, this has since been masked by the production of unconventional oils and the rapid rise of solar and wind, which are now cheaper than coal. The crisis was postponed, then forgotten by the majority. Right now, in the midst of this C19 crisis, crude oil prices have fallen, in some cases to unparalleled lows. This will price fracking and shale oils out of the picture, but will damage the renewables market too.
In recent years, the climate has come into focus and a global outcry arisen at the lack of concerted government action. This outcry was 20 or 30 years too late, although it may have needed a generation who would actually look at the issue. The high level of action demanded to counter the climate catastrophe never materialised, instead it took a microscopic virus to galvanise the world into drastic action. The action, of course, was for self preservation against C19, yet has the (temporary) effect of being action against the world’s level of carbon emissions. Why we couldn’t see the need for such self preservation against an uninhabitable planet, I don’t know; a matter of scale, perhaps. If we live just nine meals from anarchy, then it implies we also don’t look much further ahead than that. At least governments can no longer argue that we can’t put in place climate solutions quickly; Coronavirus has blown that myth out of the water.
So the question is, what happens next, once C19 is “under control”? I believe that governments and business the world over, will try to kick-start the same old system, get the economy going again, and resume business as usual. Or try to. I don’t think that the C19 story will be over that easily; I’ve heard from people that know better than me that it likely to return in waves, or cycles, perhaps as often as three-monthly. Even if this only happened every few years, the economy would get hit and stall again, start up again, stall again. Governments will respond in one of two ways: totalitarianism, like China and populist regimes, or co-operation and people-centred policy like some more enlightened countries. Certainly, those with populist leaders appear to be heading into deep sh*t, like Brazil and the USA. Time will tell, we can but watch.
This on-going wave of multiple crisis will eventually cause a global rethink and a difficult switch to a circular economy. Resilience and just-in-time linear supply are not really compatible, as has been shown by recent events. So far we have been lucky in that the shortages on the shelves have not actually been production shortages but those caused by excessive demand, but the next wave of them may be as companies struggle to fulfill orders and deal with near-bankruptcy, staff and material shortages and transport problems. God only knows how this will play out in third-world countries.
We may never be able to travel the world again in the way we did before and that will be a good thing overall. Travel has become easy, cheap and taken for granted. As a result, I don’t think people actually appreciate the value of the experience and the environmental costs are high, not just in terms of aviation. Global hotel chains and the hospitality industry now sway on the brink. I speak here as one who loves travel, and I have often worked in the Middle-East. I was in Dubai in February, which seems surreal now; it may prove to be my last visit.
I read of the intentions of huge mega-projects in Saudi (for example), aiming to get right back on track as soon as possible, to build vast new resorts, even cities. Even if such things can now be afforded, I just cannot see tourism ever being quite the same again; the blind insistence in business-as-usual worries me a lot.
On the positive side, we may come to see travel as more of a land-based adventure. When I was twenty, I traveled (hitch-hiking) over land and sea from the UK to Tunisia; it took 16 days and was an amazing experience, better than the actual arrival at my destination and the short flight home was an anticlimax. Travel broadens the mind, but that cannot be said for a lot of tourism, where there is minimal contact with cultures and holidays become a voyeuristic selfie-fest.
Business will travel less and go virtual, both nationally and especially, internationally. A lot of meetings that I used to travel to London for are now virtual and will probably remain so afterwards; as with many conferences and seminars.
One good thing that has been emerging over the last few weeks has been the reprieve of nature from the effects of pollution. Images of murky waters turning clear, wild animals wandering empty streets, clear air over smog-riddled urban centres, empty roads, quiet skies. It’s as if the world was acting in concert to mitigate climate change. Again, it’s showing up the lie that we can’t act faster to bring carbon under control; which is the larger threat to our survival? We act from a place of fear to an imminent medical emergency, whilst barely moving on the slow-motion tsunami that is on the horizon.
If we take the principles of Gaia, or just think in terms of natural systems, C19 could be the planet – Nature – giving us a really big shake up. It seems that these viruses (there are many, many more) are emerging from an over-intensive contact and abuse of nature, specifically in the harvesting of wild animals for meat. Gaian principles might well expect to re-balance an out-of-kilter system, for we humans have become a cancer in our destructive habits and for all our consciousness, we act without thought or regard to the consequences. Nature would do far better without us, something we should keep in mind.
On the positive side, there is much effort to bring about the emergence of regenerative agriculture, socially responsible business, environmentally beneficial ways of living and reduced consumption and pollution. These are nice – and essential – ideas but you only have to look at how Trump is wiping out environmental protections, how big business is maneuvering for the come-back and how China is commissioning vast new coal-powered energy capacity to see this is not likely to go well.
What MAY force through the necessary changes of behavior, is going through the cycle of pandemic-recovery-pandemic that I outlined at the beginning; the old system needs to be shaken and broken up thoroughly before the new can emerge. Unfortunately, we are in for a pretty rough ride.
Better buckle up, and see how we can all adapt and prepare.
I’ve been reading several websites by visionary developers in Azerbaijan, who are proposing some massive Dubai-style developments to the Bay area of Baku, the country’s capital. One, the http://khazarislands.com/ seems like an ambitious Dubai-competitor, an ultra-sleek development on up to 30 artificial islands (think the Palm Jumeirah), the other is based on an existing island and whilst just as pretentious, http://www.ziraisland.com/ at least aims to generate all its own energy from renewables, and to be carbon-neutral.
The buildings are all based on the forms of nine iconic mountains in the Caucasus Range. Actually, not a bad idea from the point of view of seismic safety and thermal efficiency etc. Serious plans to make a huge modern metropolis that is self-sufficient are rare, with perhaps only the Chinese actually trying this with some of their Eco-Cities.
What is needed is to develop a coherent urban greening policy to integrate technologies like living walls and urban tree planting and care, with a carefully thought out irrigation policy. People still don’t see how essential green walls will be in integrating ecosystem services into a buildings basic functionality, but it will come. Let’s watch with interest.
Happy New Year! With the seemingly “non-event” of the end-of-the-world, what was/is really going on – anything? We’re all keen now (I guess) to get on with the new year, but there are some interesting parallels between modern civilization and the ancient Mayans. For a start, they were an incredibly complex society, with high levels of art, trade and agriculture and of course, architecture. Their knowledge of the stars and their (many) calender systems were incredible, with levels of accuracy we can achieve today, but with the aid of computers and powerful telescopes. That a “long count” cycle has just ended, only means another cycle has begun, they just didn’t record it – being rather a long way ahead of their time.
So why didn’t the Mayan culture survive? In fact it did, right up until the Spanish invasion of 1697 but there was a major collapse between 800AD and 900AD, with the southern cities and areas largely abandoned. Many reasons for this collapse are speculated, but it seems that a growing and prosperous civilisation largely out-grew its resources, changed its environment, exhausted its agricultural resources and was subject to climate change. I suspect too that their kings and leaders didn’t have their eye on the bigger picture, were too confident in their own power and ability to continue – and to grow.
Sounds familiar? It should…!
That we’re just as vulnerable to collapse or decline should be a no-brainer, but our global society seems just “too big to fail”; but this is simply just not true. We’re becoming more and more subject to exactly the same kind of pressures that the Mayan civilization faced – but amplified many times over. These pressures are increased largely because of our use of fossil fuels and we are highly vulnerable to their exhaustion. Whilst it took the Mayans some 150 years to “collapse”, we could fail far more quickly, since we have almost no in-built resilience or self-sustaining abilities any more. We live in a just-in-time society; let’s hope that we have enough time to adapt and change to the many forces that will come to bear on us during the coming decades…
A good cause to dedicate the new year to – and if you will, a new era. If 2013 heralds anything, it could be the beginning of change in levels of human consciousness – I’ll leave you with the oft-abused Einstein quote: “You cannot solve a problem with the same level of consciousness that caused it”. Way to go.
I came across an interesting article by Ruth Potts with the above title (http://www.thenewmaterialism.org/), which summed up pretty well where we need to be headed as a society to make the transition to a resource-scarce future. The crucial thing is, that this could be a much better future. Aren’t we all exhausted with the endless demands on our time, energy and finances that consumerism makes? In the run up to Christmas, how many of us are taking out loans or maxing out our credit cards to pay for the “pleasure” of giving, and how long will we remain in debt for that brief moment?
Christmas was ruined for me, only a few year’s ago, when I read that the quintessential Father Christmas as we know and love him, was “invented” by Coca Cola in the 1930’s (yes, I have now stopped believing!). Fortunately, that is not quite true (about Coca Cola), but there is no doubt that the figure of FC has been mercilessly exploited by commercial interests, and this gets worse every year. In fact, most retail shops now depend upon Christmas to make their yearly sales quotas and profit, so they are not likely to give up the “right” to promote consumerism any time soon.
You may wonder why I write about such things, since my interest really is focussed on vertical and urban greening; actually, my interest is in the survival of the human species and in the retention of a habitable planet, interests we should all have in common. At the core of our dilemma is not carbon emissions: in our typically linear-thinking, reductionist way, we focus upon these as the problem, when in fact they are a symptom of underlying factors. The biggest driver in all our systems is the act of consumption. You can figure out for yourself that there are only so many resources to go around and that the more people you cram into the world, and the more those people demand, the less there is to share out; sooner or later there will be nothing left. And we are hitting so many tipping points right now, we really should be far more concerned than we are, and should be taking far more action. Yet to mention it is almost taboo. We just don’t want to face it; it’s too scary. And what can we do, the little people? I would say quite a lot, actually. As an example, look at how Zara, one of the world’s biggest retail chains, has been forced to commit to producing toxic-free clothing, all within the space of a two-week campaign run by Greenpeace. That’s powerful.
Fact is, if we want a sustainable future, no; if we want a future, we have to kick the consumption habit, before it consumes us all. If we don’t, no amount of urban greening will make any difference…
I’ve just finished reading one of the most important books of our time; on the planet, climate change, the economy and the plight of humankind, so I’m going to review it here. This should be at the top of everyone’s reading list if you want to understand what is happening to us at this moment in time.
McKibben is an environmental writer and wrote an important book on the subject 20 years ago, called “The End of Nature”; I never read it, I guess I wasn’t reading environmental books at the time, which is a pity. Twenty years ago we still had time to do something about the state of the planet, but we chose not to. After all, we were having a recession. In fact an earlier landmark publication put the writing on the wall for us back in 1972 – the Club of Rome issued a report called “The Limits to Growth”. We didn’t listen then either, or rather we stopped listening, after we recovered from the shock of the OPEC oil embargo, and we went shopping instead. Retail therapy.
McKibben’s book starts with the simple but stark premise that the old Earth is gone; that we effectively live on a new planet, one that is not so nice, and which will get worse. He calls it Eaarth. His reasoning is simple, the Earth is now cascading through a series of tipping points, from which it cannot now recover from, at least not within a humanly conceivable time-scale. Perhaps the chief of these is the amount of carbon we are pouring into the atmosphere; currently around 390ppm and heading inexorably to >600ppm. The safe level for a habitable planet is 350ppm. See the problem?
McKibben links environmental change firmly with consumption and economic growth. As I have been writing, we are fixated on this as the only possible way of living our lives. Of course it is true that everything is geared for growth and the inevitable consequence of no growth is failure – or so we believe.
But the book, though stark, doesn’t just fill us full of doom; McKibben believes we can, with concerted grass-roots effort, get the carbon emissions back down to 350ppm and he in fact instigated a movement, 350.org to promote – with some considerable success – the need to achieve this goal.
I am reading a number of other books on similar subjects, including Richard Heinberg’s “The End of Growth”, which I shall review in due course.
I gave a talk last week on Internal Bio-Systems for buildings, to eFIG, the European Federation of Interiors Group (http://www.efig.eu.com/) which was reported on swiftly by Horticulture Week . They picked up on my use of the phrase “war-footing” for the kind of response levels needed to deal with the issues at hand. Why? Well, climate change is now more of a real-term threat than terrorism, yet which do we spend the most money on? With Obama and Romney not even talking about the issue, what is the point of “defence” if for political and business reasons we don’t allow ourselves to see the biggest threat of all which is looming large, and which we’re not even taking defensive actions on?
Bio-Systems need to become an integral part of our solutions to environmental problems, but they need designing and implementing wholesale to make a difference – and what a difference they could make! We can regulate building temperatures and energy use, clean air and water, create biodiversity, quieter streets, rehydrate the local hydrological cycle, grow food where we consume it… so much! But the odd enthusiastic building owner/user doing it won’t make enough difference – we need critical mass; did I mention CRITICAL?
I’ll post a link to my talk here, once it’s loaded onto Vimeo…
What a title! Yet it is becoming increasingly clear that this is where we are at. What does it mean? It means we have finished one phase of human development and we are about to enter another phase, that of the steady-state economy. It is also increasingly clear that if we don’t adopt this approach, we will overshoot the Earth’s carrying capacity (indeed we already are in many respects) and cause long-term ecosystem collapse, taking us all down with it, along with many forms of higher life.
So it’s adapt or die time. Does it feel like it? Probably not; the sun is shining, life is busy, all feels normal – it’s just another day. But we are on an exponential growth curve and the doubling effect has mind-boggling consequences, which are not apparent for many years. To illustrate: take a chess board. Place a single grain of rice on the first (say bottom – left) square. Place double the number of grains on each subsequent square; easy, right? Wrong. There are NOT ENOUGH grains of rice in the whole WORLD to fill the quantity needed for the last square. This is exponential growth; by the time you get to the vertical bit of growth (where we are now) the consequences are catastrophic.
Human population is doubling every 35 years. In the last 35, we used 25% of the planet’s resources; in the next 35 years, we will demand 50%. Now you can see plainly the consequences of our current trajectory. We will crash, unless we change course. Changing course is as easy as us all, or at least enough of us, deciding to do so. It’s also as difficult as that, and looking at our short-sighted natures and inbred politics, what will actually happen is anybody’s guess. And plenty are guessing…
I was travelling on the tube the other day and saw an advert which said: “Limits? I don’t think so!”, you know, said in that kind of voice. This is a part of our cultural problem: we see limits as an affront to our personal freedom, our right to be who we are. We are told to expect more; actually, we’re told to consume more. All current economies depend on consumption, because consumption means debt, means interest, means growth based on debt. I read somewhere recently: whenever you see the word credit, scrub it out and replace it with debt; that way, you understand more what is involved. We’re all in debt, to our credit cards, banks, mortgages and lease agreements. Next month marks a personal milestone: I will no longer be in any kind of debt. We have to become personally resilient, and I would urge you to remove yourself from debt as fast as you can. Easier said than done, as I know too well.
What do we do, once we have no debt? Grow veggies, insulate your house – make it off-grid if possible – move if where you are is not conducive to independent living and build community, wherever you are. I’m working at the second-to-last and rubbish at the latter.
Most of all, we have to understand and talk about steady-state economies, energy decline and resilience. These subjects can make you unpopular, but doing nothing is not really an option. I’m going to post some reviews on books I’ve been reading soon, there’s some good stuff out there. We have to be active, aware, doing something to change our lives. Chances are we’ll all be better people for it anyway; closer to nature, closer to our communities, less demanding of the Earth’s diminishing resources, grateful even, for the simple bounties of life…
I watched the documentary on this awful crash the other night, re the Air France Airbus 330 which crashed onto the Atlantic Ocean in 2009. Several things struck me about this – and I mean absolutely no disrespect to the crew or passengers, or relatives, but it is a modern-day metaphor of what could happen to our global economy.
Our economy is a highly complex machine – a plane, like the one in question. Those at the controls know how to pilot it under “normal” circumstance; no problem. But they rely more and more on automated systems to run things and have an incomplete grasp all the complexities of the beast they control; nor do they know, for they haven’t really been trained, how to fly manually in an unprecedented situation.
For the Airbus, it seems to have started with instrument failure resulting in the plane switching out of auto-pilot. The pilot took over and, misinterpreting the conditions, gave the plane the wrong actions, causing it to stall. With our global economy, the reaching of planetary limits and tipping points is sending signals which have caused a global economic crash; the “pilots'” reactions are to rush to resume growth, precisely the opposite of what is required now to stabilise the planet and allow mankind to resume life on Earth with some kind of normality, albeit a different one from before. To the pilot of the Airbus, the actions needed must have seemed counter-intuitive to what he perceived of as correct, or he would have done them. A wider understanding of the situation (such as we now have with hindsight) would have told him what to do, and so it is with the future economy. One difference with our metaphor: in taking the necessary evasive action, the flight won’t resume in the same way as before – it can’t.
In desperately trying to re-start the engine of growth, our financial leaders are making a big mistake. It always staggers me how intelligent people can convince themselves that infinite growth on a finite planet is even possible, never mind logical, for anything but a short while. In nature, all exponential growth is an exception, a reaction to temporary abundance. So it is now, and it is plain to see – for those who look – that now is the moment of transition, where growth must stop and a steady-state philosophy must take over. From this point on, we can consume no more than we can recycle and capture from sunlight (our sole source of external input), for we have little reserves left with which to work. If we use those reserves in blind insistence that it is business as usual, they will run out, and we, as a race, will be stuffed. The crash is coming, unless we see the big picture, change our actions and do the thing we are not used to doing.