Nature & Joy

Colette & I on Dinedor Hill

Colette & I on Dinedor Hill

Yesterday Colette and I and an old friend of ours trudged through deep snow up to the top of Dinedor Hill. It was so magical to be immersed in the perfection of the natural world. We could tell from the way the snow stuck to the east faces of tree trucks that the wind had first come from that direction and that later it had become very still as more snow piled up deeply on top of tiny twigs. The weight of snow in the silent woodland weighed heavily on branches and from time to time a branch would come crashing down, breaking off with a sharp crack followed by a swooshing sound as it and a load of snow descended to the forest floor. I think we all experienced that pure joy at the shear perfection that the natural world can present us with. Something to treasure.

We returned home and watched Blue Planet Two. Again we were immersed in the perfection of the natural world, but tinged with its fragility and the damage we are doing to it. Seeing a man snorkelling off the coast of Sri Lanka as a pod of about 300 sperm whales swam past was wonderful. A pod this size probably hasn’t been seen since before the days of whaling, a couple of hundred years ago. Individual species and the whole planetary ecosystem can flourish if given the chance. We are a part of that whole interwoven tapestry of life and it is vital for our survival as a species that we treasure and protect it. David Attenborough, in very clear and simple language made the case that we need to stop the pollution and the damage. He and these programmes are an inspiration to millions of people. We need to absorb the message and use it to redirect our politics, our economy and the technologies we utilize. We also need to get out and experience nature first hand, in whatever way we can, in our own neighbourhoods. It is such a source of pure joy and something to celebrate often and deeply.

Time to Exit from Brexit

Farage: Putin's Puppet

Farage: Putin’s Puppet

It is now nearly eighteen months since the Brexit Referendum. The public mood seems to be coming round to the fact that the whole process was so deeply flawed that it should be declared null and void. We should ‘Exit from Brexit’. This will probably happen via a second referendum on the terms of any agreement that the UK government comes to with the EU. One option must be to cancel the whole process and stay within the EU, ideally on exactly the same terms we were on before the referendum of June 2016.

One of the most interesting themes to emerge over these last eighteen months has been the extent to which the main movers and shakers behind the movement to leave the EU were funded by a strange mix of ultra conservative Americans and the Russian government, cooperating through techniques coming from the weird world of psychological warfare. I would strongly urge readers of this blog to follow the investigative journalism of Carole Cadwalladr, J. J. Patrick, Adam Ramsay and Peter Geoghegan, the barrister and campaigner Jolyon Maugham and the Green MEP Molly Scott Cato. Between them they are doing the job that Woodward and Bernstein did to uncover Watergate. Brexit is part of a global assault on democracy. The Mueller investigation is uncovering the Trump end of this mess, while the Electoral Commission is beginning to investigate the UK end.

The lies that won the Leave campaign their victory are being revealed as just that, lies. The lie that if we left the EU there would be extra money for the NHS was perhaps pivotal in winning it for Leave. It is now clear that there will not be extra money for the NHS. Instead it will be decimated and privatized. The Leave campaign claimed that leaving the EU would be quick, easy and pain free, and now quite the reverse is plainly true. Businesses, scientific agencies, key workers and all manner of opportunities are leaving the UK just as many Remain people pointed out they would.

The one thing that politicians really are influenced by is how people vote. During the month of November there have been 35 council by-elections in Britain. Only eight changed hands, but they are very interesting. The Liberal Democrats gained seven and the Greens one. The Conservatives lost four, Labour two and UKIP two. This represents a gain of eight for the most pro EU parties and a loss of eight for the main parties supporting Leave. Some of the swings have been dramatic. The Conservative vote in Cradley and Bishops Frome collapsed from a high of 81.1 % in 2011 to just 28.8% last month as the Greens made an emphatic gain. The LibDems took seats from UKIP, Conservatives and Labour in vote Leave areas of the country, and they won them with some huge swings. This is only one month and only a few by-elections, but if it is a sign of more to come that could be very significant. It may well be that the public mood is now strongly to remain in the EU. UKIP have totally collapsed, and if Labour and the Conservatives don’t wake up they might follow UKIP onto the fire of a backlash to the Brexit lies and deceit.

Challenging Global Oligarchy

ssange, Trump and Putin: disrupting government and liberal norms. Composite: Geoff Caddick/Jim Watson/Mikhail Metzel/AFP/Getty

Assange, Trump and Putin: disrupting government and liberal norms. Composite: Geoff Caddick/Jim Watson/Mikhail Metzel/AFP/Getty

The Panama Papers, and then the Paradise Papers, reveal much more than just the murky world of how the very wealthy avoid paying tax. They provide an insight into how democracy is being undermined by oligarchy. Phil McDuff, writing in the Guardian, shows how tax havens and offshore accounts have been set up as a direct result of government policy. They could and should be closed down. However, they will not be closed, not until we have some pretty radical political change. We live in a global oligarchy where the institutions of democracy have been captured and are being used to further enrich a tiny class of international billionaires. One might ask why a billionaire would want more money; surely they own every material possession they could possibly desire?

One explanation is that what they want is ever greater influence on the political process to promote their own vision of how the world should be. ‘Throughout history, oligarchies have often been tyrannical, relying on public obedience or oppression to exist’ (Wikipedia) Globally the super rich are pouring more money into buying up the allegiance of ever more politicians and the media outlets that can promulgate their views. This increasing global trend toward oligarchy is being driven by a strange mix of American libertarians and autocrats, racists and misogynists, Putin’s Russian state machine, some extreme right-wing ideologues and organised crime networks and the limitless greed of already obscenely wealthy individuals.

In 2015 former President Jimmy Carter stated that the United States is now “an oligarchy with unlimited political bribery” (Wikipedia). The election of Donald Trump, the Brexit Referendum and many other elections and political processes were swayed by the flows of dark money and divisive propaganda flowing from the global oligarchy. This is a complex area. Challenging this will require the actions of many people. The best journalists will be needed to uncover this labyrinthine, secretive and dangerous world. Politicians capable of taking a lead and painting a vision of how society could be better organised will need to step up to the task. It will also require the efforts of millions of us ordinary citizens of the world to work together to win the many millions of victories that need to be won in order to implement change.

The oligarchs may have more money and power at the moment, but they can be toppled. Our little local victory that I blogged about last week is one tiny step in the right direction. Millions more steps will be needed. Globally a broad movement that desires a more egalitarian and ecological political and economic system is globally growing in momentum. The limitless greed, belligerent nationalism and ecological damage of the current oligarchy cannot go on much longer.

Ellie wins for the Greens!

Ellie on election night

Ellie and some of the team on election night

Some great news! Ellie Chowns has just won the Bishops Frome and Cradley council seat here in Herefordshire. This is another emphatic win for the Green Party, following several others in recent months in West Midlands and across UK. (Leominster East, Leominster South & Knowsley, Cannock & others). Ellie was a very strong candidate and will make an exceptionally good councillor. She got 471 votes for the Greens, Robert Carter got 299 votes for the Tories, Jeanie Falconer got 251 for the LibDems and Roger Page only managed to get 19 votes for the Labour Party. This brings the green group on Herefordshire Council up to four. For the last ten years this had been a Tory seat, but before that it had been held for the Green Party by Guy Woodford.

I’ve helped out for the Green Party and before that the Ecology Party in a small way at many elections since the 1970’s. This one was remarkable. We had a bigger and more highly motivated team than I can ever remember. Guy at 82 was fired up with enthusiasm and his encyclopedic local knowledge was invaluable. Mike Abbott organised the many volunteers with a spirit of love and joy that was so at odds with the anger and hate that seems to dominate so much of politics these days. The big team included several councillors and members from It’s Our County, a locally focused political party. They had decided not to put up a candidate themselves and to support Ellie. This cross party cooperation I found particularly rewarding. I wish we had more of it at the national level, and I hope it is a positive sign of things to come here in Herefordshire.

This victory in the picturesque hills and valleys of east Herefordshire was also impressive because many people think of rural Herefordshire as very strongly Conservative, or the kind of old Independent councillors who usually end up propping up the Tories. Most of It’s Our County’s councillors represent the more urban seats of Hereford and Ledbury and the Greens other three councillors all serve the people of market town of Leominster. For a coalition of Greens and It’s Our County to have any chance of replacing the Tories and running Herefordshire Council we will probably have to win some of the many rural seats. This campaign in Bishop’s Frome and Cradley really did show how it could be done! Thanks to everyone who helped out, and most of all to Ellie for being such a great candidate!

Bonn and Climate Leadership

Bonn conference

The Bonn Climate talks: where will the required leadership come from?

The Bonn Climate Change Conference has ended. Plenty of fine ambitious rhetoric but a failure to grasp the nettle and do what is necessary. Bill McKibben, writing in the New Yorker, is clear about the dilemma. Most politicians are caught in a bind, realising the need for action but constrained by a desire to protect old polluting industries. Angela Merkel has said “Climate change is an issue determining our destiny as mankind – it will determine the wellbeing of us”, yet she remains protective of the German coal and car industries. Canada’s Justin Trudeau and California’s Jerry Brown are similarly conflicted.

Although 500 NGO’s have signed The Lofoten Declaration no leading politicians have done so. Many politicians want to be seen to be leading in the world of cleantech and renewables, but are unable to grasp the concept of managed decline. Most of the known fossil fuel reserves need to be left in the ground, and the industries that depend on them need to be wound down. This needs to done in ways that are socially just. Green politicians like Caroline Lucas, Jesse Klaver, Isabella Lovin and Andrew Weaver understand this, but none of them are leading their nations. Many small and vulnerable countries such as Fiji are trying to offer leadership, so too the UN. People are looking for political leadership from the elected leaders of major economies who have the power and money to create the top down political momentum. Technologically and philosophically the opportunities are amazing, but political leadership has long been lacking. Where might it come from?

It is absolutely not coming from USA or UK. Trump is utterly isolated as the only leader to quit the Paris Agreement. Britain is caught up with the parochial fantasy of Brexit. Angela Merkel, Justin Trudeau and Jerry Brown would like to be seen to be leading but are too constrained and too timid. Manish Bapna and Lailai Li, writing on the World Resources Institute website sound a positive note about Xi Jinping and China. Frances Beinecke writing on the Natural Resources Defence Council website has encouraging things to say about India. Probably leadership will be a collaborative venture, and I think the person most likely to draw the key players together may be France’s Emmanuel Macron. He has vision and ambition, seems to be able to break with old patterns of doing things and to work with others to make progress. He may not want to move as radically as the science suggests or greens advocate, but he is in a position of power and does clearly have leadership skills. The test will be whether he can lead France’s managed decline in fossil fuels while ramping up the cleantech sector, and do it in ways that are socially just. If he can collaborate with the rest of the EU, and with India and China to make this the new global norm, then he will have achieved the kind of leadership the planet and it’s people so desperately need.

Greenhouses

Seawater Greenhouse's Somaliland Project

Seawater Greenhouse’s Somaliland Project: super productive fruit and vegetable production, where it is needed most

In blogs over the last couple of weeks I’ve looked briefly at the unsustainability of current systems of farming. As the global population continues to rise there are many predictions of further food shortages and yet more ecological damage. I remain convinced that we could feed 9 billion or more people and simultaneously restore biodiversity. To do so will require changes to systems of grants, subsidies and economic justice, which I’ll cover in a future blog. Greenhouses, and other systems of protected cropping, seem to me to be the most important technological change.

I grow a huge range of fruit and vegetables in my two small unheated greenhouses and little polytunnel, all in an urban back garden. We have plenty of organic fresh green salad crops to feed family, friends and neighbours every day of the year. For six months of the year we have an abundance of tomatoes. However it is at the bigger scale that the real possibilities open out.

Thanet Earth is the largest greenhouse complex in the UK. Inside each of their five huge greenhouses is a gas combined heat and power plant, utilizing the heat and Co2 within the greenhouses and selling electricity to the grid at times of peak demand. In Australia Nectar Farms have recently built a 40 hectare greenhouse project, linked to a local wind farm and battery storage system, to provide heat and light for greater year round cropping. Sundrop Farms Port Augusta project uses concentrating solar power to provide desalinated water as well as heat and electricity for their innovative desert based farming system. They, like Thanet Earth, Nectar Farms and many modern greenhouses can control temperatures very precisely, so ideal growing conditions can be maintained year round. They grow hydroponically, and use light, as well as heating and cooling, to maintain year round cropping. Yields per acre are huge.

Plenty Farms in California are expanding rapidly as Silicon Valley billionaires are pouring money into this new start up, which is organically growing leafy green vegetables under a system of vertical hydroponics and relying just on LEDs for light. Around the world others too are growing crops in old shipping containers, factories and warehouses, often in inner city areas, close to where the people are.

I’ve blogged before about solar desalination and mentioned pioneering projects in Australia, Jordan and Qatar. The team at Seawater Greenhouse have just completed construction of their project in Somaliland, which uses cheap shade netting and evaporative walls to create cool moist conditions in the hot dry desert. This is a tiny project yet it shows one possible way to rapidly and sustainably increase food production. It could be hugely significant in the future. Christopher Rothera’s blog and photos really give a good sense of this project.

Another system that I’m passionate about is aquaponics; I blogged about this in 2011 (here and here). Kate Humble and her team, together with Aquaponics UK have built a great system near Monmouth. Again it is a tiny project that could well be a prototype for much larger systems. They’ve some great videos on their website.

In this blog I’ve mentioned some very diverse types of greenhouses and related technologies. The one thing they all have in common is that they produce a lot of food in a limited area and do it in ways that are energy efficient and, to varying degrees, ecologically sustainable: just what we need to feed nine billion people.

Arable Farming & Ethical Eating

Maize, like other grain crops, is usually grown in unsustainable ways

Maize, like other grain crops, is usually grown in unsustainable ways

Last week I wrote about meat and whether it can be part of a diet that is ecologically sustainable. Today I want to look at the alternatives. The ethical complexities are many, and are one reason why I’ve never been a vegetarian, let alone a vegan. Take the choice between whether it is more ethical to eat Welsh lamb or Egyptian new potatoes. I decided many years ago that on purely ethical grounds the spuds had the greater negative impacts. When poor countries such as Egypt export relatively low value food items like potatoes, which require a lot of water and land, it pushes up the price, and Egypt’s urban poor are forced into ever greater food insecurity. Growing for export favours the bigger produces and pushes small farmers growing for the local market out of business, and thus land ownership becomes more concentrated. There are also of course the environmental impacts of growing the crop in a water stressed country like Egypt, and the pollution and carbon emissions of such long distance trade.

Most of the world’s arable farming is now dependent on a range of fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, fungicides and systems of ploughing that are destroying the soil and its complex microfauna. Bees, butterflies and the broad range of insect species seem to be in global decline. As the smaller and simpler life forms die off so to do the birds and mammals that feed upon them, all the way up to the iconic apex predators. These systems of farming have been responsible for a decline in organic carbon content of soil, typically from say 5% to 0.5%, which is very serious from both climate change and food security points of view. In most cases the use of genetically modified crops is only exacerbating the damage for a very small increase in global food production.

Traditionally environmentalists have argued the case for small scale, mixed, organic farming, or systems of permaculture. Such farming practices are certainly very much more ecologically sustainable, but either tend to produce less food per acre, or to require more labour. They also have not had the political support, and therefore grant subsidies, that more ecologically damaging systems of farming have had. I would certainly like to see more support for these sectors.

One area of food production that is expanding, and where huge increases in productivity per acre can be achieved in ways that are potentially very ecologically sustainable is greenhouses, polytunnels and other forms of protected cultivation. This is not to say that all such systems are ecologically sustainable, but some are. On the very small scale I have two small greenhouses and a little polytunnel in our back garden from which I harvest a huge diversity of fruit and vegetables all year round. The productivity per acre is extraordinary. However it is time consuming and the old green idea of the self provisioning economy has singularly failed to take off in this world of busy, time-poor, modern urban living.

In the next week or so I’ll write about a few of my favourite farms that are developing highly productive systems of greenhouse cultivation that show we could feed a very much larger global population with a predominantly vegan diet on a relatively small area. This could leave a considerable area of land for rewilding and for some pasture fed meat and dairy farming.

Meat

Can eating meat be ecologically sustainable?

Can eating meat be ecologically sustainable?

Meat is a complex and controversial issue. Can it be part of a diet that is ecologically sustainable and socially just? Arguments rage about this issue. One of the complexities is that meat is produced in very variable ways. The very best systems of pasture management can, it is argued, sequester more carbon into the soil than is necessary to offset the methane the cattle produce. They can also be part of restoring biodiverse habitats. In a blog in June I sang the praises of Will Harris of White Oak Pastures. However this represents the very apex of good meat production. The vast majority of meat production is very much less sustainable. Most animals raised for human consumption are fed on grain and soya that would be much more beneficially eaten directly by people. Even the best systems of meat production use a lot of space per unit of food produced. It would certainly be a good thing if humanity could massively reduce its meat consumption, say by 80 or 90%.

One of the common assumptions people writing about population and diets was that as people get richer they would eat more meat. Throughout the Twentieth Century this held true: not any more. Veganism is growing rapidly in many countries, and it seems especially so among the young and better educated. Also for many of us who are omnivores we are eating a lot more meals that are plant based, with a very much reduced intake of meat and dairy.

Globally levels of meat consumption vary a lot. Argentina and Uruguay top the table of per capita meat eating. India and China traditionally ate very much less but as people are getting wealthier they are eating more. Total global meat consumption is still rising but this may not go on much longer if veganism, vegetarianism and low meat lifestyles become more common, as I think they probably will.

If humanity could reduce its meat consumption dramatically, (say by 80%) that would free up an enormous area of land for other purposes. Some of this could be used for agroforestry or renewable energy projects, but the vast majority could be used for rewilding. Increasing the area of forests in the world could help restore habitats thus allowing biodiversity to flourish again, and it would be a very effective way of sequestering carbon, so vital in helping combat climate change.

Some people think that cultured meat, grown in laboratories, will replace traditional meat eating. Others see vegetable based meat substitutes, like textured soya protein as having a major role. Some argue we should switch from traditional meats to insects. Maybe meat eating will simply decline without the need for ersatz meats. Any of these perspectives may prove to be true. It is too early to say.

China gets serious about pollution

Air pollution in Beijing

Air pollution in Beijing

This week China has shut down about 40% of all its factories, approximately   80,000 of them. Some may be shut down permanently, some just until they can clean up their act. The early evidence is that fines are being strictly imposed as the tax bureau acts in tandem with the pollution inspectors. Some factory managers and owners may well be sent to jail. There will be disruption in global supply chains. The price of Chinese made things, from clothing to car components will increase a bit in the short term. A few percentage points may be knocked off Chinese GDP figures. However all these things seem a small price to pay for the benefits at stake.

China has a public health emergency in terms of local pollution. In rapidly reducing this local pollution many macro ecological threats from climate change to ocean acidification can also be mitigated. In a blog a couple of weeks ago I wrote about the need to create a pollution minimizing way of maximizing the social and economic benefits of a modern economy. By shutting down obsolete and dirty factories cleantech innovation will be stimulated, leading to more sustainable forms of prosperity. Just in purely economic terms China will probably benefit in the longer term.

Over the last sixty years or so successive legislation has helped clean up most of the rivers of Europe and North America. London’s air quality improved rapidly after the 1956 Clean Air Act. Cleaning up pollution always requires strong government leadership. This week Sadiq Khan introduced the new £10 toxicity charge for bringing older more polluting cars into the centre of London. Although this is to be welcomed, it is too little, too late. The pace of shifting to a cleantech economy needs to speed up dramatically.

The medical journal, The Lancet, estimates that 50,000 people in the UK, and 9 million globally, die each year due to poor air quality. It is time governments the world over took more radical steps to tackle pollution. It will mean shutting down thousands of businesses. This needs to be managed in ways that create greater social and economic security while cleaning up the mess. To me this seems quite doable. Stop subsidies to polluting industries, introduce hefty fines on all forms of pollution, introduce a universal basic income and incentivise cleantech innovation.

In numerous blogs I’ve sounded an optimistic note that China’s carbon emission might plummet over the coming decade. These factory closures will contribute to that goal, and they will also help ensure China is a leading economic powerhouse in the future. As USA under Trump and Britain under the quagmire of Brexit both look back to a fantasy of past glory China is forging ahead, creating the kind of economy which will typify the post fossil fuel age. China has a long way to go to reduce its horrendous pollution, but it is making a very bold start, and that is to be welcomed.

War, Atonement & Healing

Ken Burns

Ken Burns, whose documentary on the Vietnam War helps our understanding of it, so making possible atonement and healing.

Last night I watched another absolutely gripping double bill of the epic ten part TV documentary on the Vietnam War by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. They interviewed a thousand people and spent ten years making the series. Eighty of those interviews are included and they reveal the deepest feelings and thoughts of American soldiers, generals and anti war protestors as well as Viet Cong, South and North Vietnamese soldiers and civilians, all reflecting on the conflict many years later. There was also a very powerful selection of contemporary footage. Quite the best television I’ve seen in years. The current deep divisions in American Society, exemplified by the support for and resistance to Donald Trump, have, at least in part, their origins in the divisions created by the Vietnam War.

Ken Burns talks about these divisions in American Society in an interesting interview in the Guardian. His film was intended to help heal the scars of Vietnam. Burns is optimistic that the institutions of American democracy are, and will continue to be, reinvigorated as they rise to the challenges that Trump represents. I hope he is right. In my darker moments I fear USA is teetering on the verge of civil war.

An interesting parallel exists with Germany and how they came to terms with their own dreadful responsibility for Nazism. In West Germany there was a deep period of self reflection in the decades following the Second World War. This laid the foundations for their very sensible and mature style of democracy of these last seventy years. In communist East Germany there was much more of an institutional and personal denial of guilt, responsibility being shifted onto the capitalist west. The recent election results in Germany mirror this history, with support for the racist AfD strongest in the former East Germany.

All warfare inevitably involves atrocities by all sides. People are traumatized, and often brutalized, by the experience of war, as some of the interviews in Ken Burns documentary show. They commit acts that are essentially insane. The period of healing, for individuals, nations and for our species is long and complex. At the core of it is recognising the horrors of our individual and collective histories. If we fail to acknowledge and take responsibility for them, we are much more likely to repeat more conflict, warfare and collective insanity.