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.

Renewables as Meta-Narrative

In last week’s blog I wrote about how humans interpret the World through stories. This is, of course, an old idea. It overlaps and merges with the concept of meta-narrative. Max Weber used the term Weltanschauung to describe the ‘World outlook’ of various cultures, communities, nations or religions. Economic growth and the relative strength of nations have been at the core of the dominant belief systems throughout ‘The Fossil Fuel Age’. That historical era is drawing to a close. It will either be replaced by an era of chaos, war and ecological catastrophe or something very much better: a new golden age, or the term I’ve been using for years, ‘The Solar Age’.

The continued existence of the human species depends on our ability to tackle the macro ecological challenges ahead, from climate change to habitat loss, from poor air quality to the plastics polluting our oceans. We need a pollution minimizing way of maximizing the benefits of a modern global economy that can bring prosperity to all humans while allowing biodiversity to flourish. The switch from fossil fuels to renewables is in itself important, but it also has a symbolic significance as a sign of wider social, political, economic and ecological renewal. This global energy transition is now happening far faster than many people expected. Governments, businesses and the media are all still caught up with the old story of how the World works and so failed to see the new narrative begin to unfold. In a way Trump, Putin and Brexit are manifestations of the fossil fuel industry fighting back to keep the old story alive.

Last year two thirds of all new global electricity installations were renewables, and solar was the biggest and fastest growing sector. Newspapers and technical journals are full of reports of the falling cost of renewables and how they are displacing fossil fuels. This trend is increasing in speed. The prospect of renewables supplying 100% of humanity’s need for electricity, heating, cooling and transport looks ever brighter. Most of the world’s major car manufactures are beginning to make announcements about quitting petrol and diesel in favour of either battery electric or hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. Change is also happening in myriad ways as everything from global megacities to the design of individual houses adapts to a post fossil fuel world.

I’m giving a talk, 3.30pm on Sunday 15th October, at De Koffie Pot in Hereford expanding on all of this. The talk is called ‘The Solar Age: Global Energy Futures’. It is part of the wider h.Energy events. Do come along if you’re in Hereford. Alternatively, if you’d like me to deliver this talk in your town, do please get in touch.

Telling a Better Story

Today is International Day of Non-Violence. To achieve a better, more peaceful future we need a new story: a new narrative of the future we all want.

In a very interesting article George Monbiot writes about how we humans need stories to navigate our way through the world. People tend to reject facts and views that do not conform to the narrative of the story through which they interpret the world. The two overarching narratives that have dominated the last seventy years of British, European and North American politics have been Keynesian social democracy and neoliberalism.

Many voices have been trying for decades to tell another story. It has not yet got one agreed name. Monbiot uses ‘the Politics of Belonging’; others have talked about an ‘Earth centred’ or ‘human centred’, ‘Green’ or ‘Gandhian’ politics. It is this other story and the telling of it that has appealed to me since childhood. I don’t think I am alone in this. I, like Monbiot and many others, believe this other narrative would be very appealing to most of the people of the world if they had access to the story and a way to help implement it.

Let me try and sum up what is the core of this other story. It is a story that puts the welfare of people at its heart and which understands our utter dependence on a healthy and thriving biosphere. Healthy populations of phytoplankton providing the oxygen we breathe, worms providing our soils fertility and bees the pollination for our plants are important indicators of success. The relative strength of nation states and their rates of economic growth have been the obsessions of the old Keynesian and neoliberal narratives. It is my belief that we can provide a comfortable standard of living for every human on earth and do so in ways that are not only ecologically sustainable but ecologically restorative. At the heart of this new story is the importance of liberating the human capacity for empathy, cooperation, connection and community. Only by sharing can we find individual happiness. Only by organising in our local and global communities can we hope to make this new story of universal peace and prosperity, ecological restoration and human fulfilment achievable.

The established media and major political parties still hang on to the old Keynesian and neoliberal stories of how the world is. Millions of us are trying to tell another story. For the last seven and a half years I’ve been writing this blog and giving talks under the title ‘Global Problems: Global Solutions’. We could solve many, or all, of the major problems facing humanity. Technologically and philosophically so much is possible. Changing the narrative that dominates the media, politics and what people believe is possible is our principle challenge. Only when enough people believe this new and more hopeful story can we possibly achieve a better future.

Time for Big Solar?

TuNur's proposal to build 4.5 GW of csp solar energy in Tunisia

TuNur’s proposal to build 4.5 GW of csp solar energy in Tunisia

The technology of concentrated solar power (csp) has been around for a long time. Augustin Mouchot pioneered its use in the 1860’s and Frank Shuman built an impressive system in Maadi, Egypt in 1912. I’ve long been a strong advocate. However prices remained high as rates of deployment were low, and rates of deployment were low because prices were high. This is now changing fast as several countries and companies compete to bring forward the technology. Over the last few years there have been significant price reductions of projects in Chile, Dubai, Morocco and elsewhere as the technology improves. In February I blogged about China starting work on 20 demonstration projects, and as they establish a supply chain of mass produced components prices will continue to fall. Concentrating solar power has the advantage over solar pv and wind in that energy storage is typically built into the projects so they can guarantee to supply electricity 24 hours a day. As techniques of thermal energy storage improve the advantages of concentrating solar continue to improve. Some very big schemes are currently under construction or have been announced.

At Ouarzazate in Morocco a 580 MW plant is being built in four stages, the first of which is already in operation. In Dubai they are planning a 5 GW mix of solar pv and csp. In 2014 I blogged about TuNur’s proposal to build a system in Tunisia which recently took a step forward as they applied for a permit to build a 4.5 GW plant over three stages, the first exporting electricity to Malta, the next to Italy and the third to France. A couple of weeks ago the Northwest Electric Power Design Institute proposed to build a vast 7.4GW CSP facility in Akesai County, in China’s remote Xinjiang region.

The Paris Climate Agreement incorporated the ambitious goal of keeping global warming to less than 1.5 degrees Centigrade. In many ways governments are failing to implement the policies necessary to achieve this objective. Collectively we are failing to curb our wasteful and profligate lifestyles. However there is one area where the news is consistently very good and that is the speed with which renewable energy is progressing. As the costs of renewables continues to tumble coal, gas and nuclear are all failing to compete.

In UK the falling cost of offshore wind received a lot of media coverage, undermining the viability of the government’s commitment to Hinkley and further nuclear power projects. In India numerous coal projects are being abandoned as India embraces cheap solar pv. The falling cost of concentrating solar power has received less media coverage, but is of just as great significance. If these giant csp projects all go ahead they will displace a lot of fossil fuel usage which of course will be very good news from a climate change perspective. If they are done with the right social and economic policies in place they could also transform the lives of many people, especially in poorer countries like Tunisia.

Aqaba Project

Sahara Forest Projects' new Aqaba facility

Sahara Forest Projects’ new Aqaba facility

A couple of weeks ago the Sahara Forest Project announced the opening of an exciting new facility at Aqaba in Jordan. It takes forward the concept of solar powered desalination and energy generation to make possible highly productive horticulture in hot dry deserts. This project has been a long time in the making; in February 2011 I blogged about seawater greenhouses and flagged up plans for a project near Aqaba. In January 2013 I wrote a blog about the Sahara Forest Projects excellent one hectare experimental project in Qatar. In October 2016 I wrote a blog about Sundrop opening the first commercial scale solar powered desert based horticultural project opening at Port Augusta in Australia. This new facility at Aqaba only has 3 hectares of glasshouses, with plans to expand to 20 hectares in a possible stage two of the project.

This Friday, 22nd September, I’ll be giving an updated version of my talk ‘Can We Feed Nine Billion People Sustainably?’ Of course my answer is an emphatic ‘YES’ with a few big ‘ifs and buts’. One of the ideas I’ll be including in this talk is how humanity might invest in some very big projects that could combat multiple problems simultaneously, from climate change to poverty, war and the factors creating so many refugees and migrants. One example I want to explore with the live audience is how one might invest say, £100 billion, or a trillion, to expand a project like this at Aqaba into thousands of acres of solar power, greenhouses, orchards and farmland in the desert and forming the basis of a new type of city devoted to sustainable and socially inclusive prosperity. Jordan currently hosts a very high number of refugees in a very generous way, especially given the poverty of many of its own citizens. Theoretically I want to explore if we could bring this entire population of about nine million people living in Jordan up to a Scandinavian standard of living and do it in ways that provided a model for other countries to follow? If you’re in Leominster this Friday do come and listen, ask questions and join in the discussion. I learn so much from your feedback.

 

An Autobiographical Blog

Me July 2015

As a child I recall my sense of outrage at the damage humanity was doing to the natural world and the injustice and violence we were doing to each other. I wrote to Lynden B Johnson to protest the bombing of Vietnam and was horrified as Russian tanks rumbled into Czechoslovakia to crush the Prague Spring in August 1968.  I gave my first talk on climate change, habitat loss and the macro ecological impacts of industrial civilization in 1972, to the school sixth form assembly, while studying for my A levels.

Going to university, having a career or starting a family all seemed rather pointless. After leaving school I wanted to explore other ways of seeing the world and other ways of living. I had no money. Hedonism or pre-packaged belief systems were not for me. I wanted to try as diverse range of jobs as possible in as many countries as possible, and to live as frugally as possible in order to save money for further travel or self directed projects. In order to come close to other cultures it felt best to travel alone, forcing myself to communicate with as wide a range of people as possible.

I hitch-hiked back and forth across Europe, working on vineyards in Luxembourg and France, cleaning hotels and working as a waiter and building labourer in Germany. My father had been in a German prisoner of war camp, my uncle killed in the Second World War and my grandfather injured in the First. It was important for me to build strong relationships with Germans. In my confused and youthful way I wanted to explore how one might live that old hippy adage, ‘make love not war’. I rejected the damage coming from capitalism and communism. I lived in Berlin partly in order to have frequent access to the communist East, where I went most weekends.

At 21 I bought a one way ticket to Cairo and started on a series of long overland trips across Africa. I thought of settling and living in Kenya. I was humbled by the extraordinary hospitality and generosity of the very poorest Africans. I recall being the only white person sleeping by the railway tracks in Khartoum and sharing breakfast with a group of camel herders returning home to Darfur having made their annual walk across the desert to sell camels in Egypt.

Wherever I went I always read widely, and I had a lot of time to think and to reflect. The question of how one might lead a life that was more interesting and fun, more ecologically sustainable and socially just was always at the back of my mind.

I returned to England in 1981 feeling that, for better or worse I was English and this was where I wanted to make my home. I bought a tumbled down ruin in a lovely old Herefordshire orchard, and took on a lot of debt and a lot of work. I also threw myself into supporting all the local environmental groups and causes. I joined the Ecology party, soon to change its name to the Green Party.

Now, decades later, I’m still in Herefordshire, living in town, married with step sons and grandchildren. As I approach what for many people is retirement age I feel like my career is just beginning. I am now a pretty much full time writer and speaker and earn less than I have for any other job I’ve ever done but enjoy it infinitely more.

Over these decades of campaigning for a better world I’ve become ever more excited by what is now philosophically and technologically possible and ever more frustrated by the poor quality of most of our politicians and media. There are so many good ideas, projects, policies and technologies that are not being discussed in the mainstream at all. Getting these things discussed and hopefully acted upon is the focus of my work now and I hope to carry on as long as possible. No retirement plans for me!

Methanol Fuel Cells

Methanol fuel cell boat

MS Innogy, the world’s first methanol fuel cell powered boat

I’ve never mentioned methanol on this blog, yet it is important both as a fuel and in many aspects of the chemical industry. It has a huge range of uses and can be made in many ways, many of which are very polluting. However some new innovations, making methanol from renewables and using it in fuel cells, look very good and may play an important role in the evolving cleantech revolution.

Methanol use is expanding, and has mainly been based on methanol made from coal and shale gas. An alternative and very much better way of making methanol has been pioneered in Iceland by Carbon Recycling International. They use carbon dioxide from a geothermal power station and combine it with hydrogen, which they make by electrolysis, splitting water into oxygen and hydrogen, driven by surplus renewable electricity. Carbon Recycling International market geothermally made methanol as a fuel under the trade name Vulcanol.

In Denmark Anders Korsgaard and Mads Bang worked on developing methanol fuel cells while at the University of Aalborg and have since founded Serenergy to commercially develop the most sustainable path to a methanol based economy. They recently spent five months working with the German energy company Innogy to convert an old diesel powered boat into the world’s first methanol fuel cell powered boat. On 25th August they launched the MS Innogy at Lake Baldeney on the Rhur, where it will act as a passenger ferry carrying over 100 passengers. Innogy has also developed a small experimental unit making methanol from electricity at the local hydro electric dam at Lake Baldeney and carbon dioxide captured from the local air, to supplement the methanol they import from Iceland. Methanol fuel cells look like being a competitor to hydrogen fuel cells for a whole range of transport technologies from boats to cars, trains, trams and buses. They might possibly one day be important in the global shipping and aviation industries.

Serenergy are already selling their methanol fuel cells for a variety of uses, including for a few cars and to generate electricity for off-grid situations, or to help the grid in times of peak demand. One of the most interesting is for the telecommunications industry that requires very reliable power for phone masts, often at very remote locations.

Good luck to Carbon Recycling International, Innogy and to Serenergy, between them they are pioneering what might prove to be a key part of the transition to a post fossil fuel future.

Floods, Climate Change & Human Life

Flooding in Mumbai 29th August 2017

Flooding in Mumbai 29th August 2017

Hurricane Harvey continues to bring unprecedented flooding to Texas and is now making landfall in Louisiana. Large parts of India, Nepal and Bangladesh have been flooded in heavier than usual monsoonal rains. Niger in the African Sahel is also now experiencing higher than normal flooding with more than 40 deaths.  Earlier this month torrential rain caused a devastating mudslide in Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown, and Typhoon Hato battered Macau, Hong Kong and parts of South-Eastern China. There are two points I would like to highlight about how these events are covered in the media.

First is about the relative importance we put on human lives. Hurricane Harvey has attracted vastly more media coverage than the South Asian monsoon. Both situations are still on-going, but at the time of writing the death toll from Hurricane Harvey is 30 while for the South Asian monsoon it is 1,200. If the media, and their readership, which I guess includes us all, really valued all human life as having equal value would we reflect this in our reporting and give greater media attention to where the death toll was higher? Let us simply say that our hearts go out to all those who are suffering from these extreme weather events wherever they live and whoever they are.

The second point is about the causal relationship between climate change and these types of events. This has been particularly heated in the USA where climate change deniers and over simplistic arguments saying climate change caused the hurricane scream at each other. David Roberts, writing on the Vox website, makes a very intelligent and nuanced analysis of the complex relationship between individual weather events such as Hurricane Harvey and climate change. Of course hurricanes and monsoons have always killed people and the death toll is made worse by many factors such as how and where we build our settlements, but to exclude the role of climate change is simply wrong. Climate change is certainly making Hurricanes like Harvey worse as the waters of the Gulf of Mexico are warmer than was historically the case, leading to greater evaporation and precipitation, which coupled with rising sea levels, has resulted in more flooding. The US military describe climate change as a ‘risk multiplier’ or ‘threat multiplier’. They rightly see it as exacerbating many pre existing threats from flooding to terrorism in ways that are both complex and highly nuanced. The simple truth is wherever we can reduce threats and risks we should do so and rapidly reducing carbon emissions is a very doable policy. And a second simple truth is that we should value all human life equally.

Snowdonia & Hafod y Llan

660KW hydro at Hafod Y Llan

660KW hydro at Hafod Y Llan, with me peeking out from behind it.

Hafod y Llan is a farm covering over 2,600 acres of the south-eastern slopes of Snowdon. I’ve just got back from holidaying in the area and was very impressed by how the National Trust, who own the farm, are managing it. 60,000 people climb the Watkins path across the farm and up Snowdon each year. The National Trust run a lovely campsite on the farm and maintain the footpaths and in other ways welcome the many people coming to this magnificent scenery. They are also managing the land to increase its biodiversity by reducing sheep numbers, introducing Welsh Black cattle, and employing a couple of shepherds to focus the grazing animals onto those areas that need it and away from the sensitive ridges where grazing might be detrimental.

Three years ago I wrote about how the National Trust is working to produce half their energy needs by developing local on-site renewables, and also to reduce their energy needs by 20% by 2020. Then I wrote about the impressive marine source heat pump they had installed at Plas Newydd on Anglesey. Last week in Snowdonia we were very lucky to meet the very knowledgeable Wynn Owen who works at Hafod y Llan and who showed us two of their recently installed hydro electric systems. They had integrated the work into the landscape in a very sensitive way. One of the systems is a small 15KW turbine, the other, pictured above, is a 660KW system, which, as far as I’m aware, is the National Trust’s biggest renewable energy project to date. They also have a couple of other hydro systems, including the Gorsen 18KW at Hafod y Llan and a 45KW system on the neighbouring 2,100 acre Gelli Iago Estate, also owned and managed by the Trust.

The extensive farmhouse and buildings at Hafod y Llan house National Trust staff and volunteers, a holiday cottage and the campsite with its showers, washing machine and recharging point for an electric car. On site they have a range of other renewable energy projects, apart from the hydro systems, including a good sized photovoltaic array on a barn roof, ground source and air source heat pumps, 18KW wood pellet boiler and are hoping to develop a number of other projects in the future including an anaerobic digester.

So far most of the electricity that the National Trust generates has been sold to Good Energy, and as we are Good Energy customers it is nice to think that some of our energy is coming from them. Recently the National Trust has started selling some of its electricity directly to local people which is both more profitable for the Trust and cheaper for the local energy consumers as it cuts out the middle man.

The way the National Trust is managing Hafod Y Llan successfully combines tourism, biodiversity, renewable energy generation into a productive organic farm and has increased on-farm employment. It shows how land can be managed in ways that are good for ecology and for the economy at the same time.

Thanks to Keith Jones and Wynn Owen for providing useful information for this blog.

Trump: Beyond the Moral Pale

Heather Heyer, killed by Neo Nazis in Charlottesville

The situation in USA is very dangerous as Neo Nazis are on the rise, egged on by a President who at times seems merely narcissistic and incompetent, but at times simply evil. The Guardian has a very good editorial which puts the case that Trump is ‘beyond the moral pale’. To me, USA now feels to me much like Germany must have felt in 1934, with a clearly deranged and hate filled leader supported by a fanatical band of supporters. In many countries and at many times in history small far right racist groups exist, but then in Germany and now in USA they have taken over the reins of power. The task humanity is faced with is getting rid of Donald Trump and all he stands for as quickly as possible, yet peacefully and in such a way as to strengthen democracy. If this is not done USA faces the real danger of civil war, or of Trump making a pre-emptive attack on another country just in order to try and unite Americans behind him.

Heather Heyer was killed in Charlottesville while peacefully protesting against the Neo Nazis assembling there. Her last words on Facebook were ‘If you aren’t outraged, you aren’t paying attention.’ Trump’s failure to clearly condemn the forces that killed her means he is totally unfit for office. Theresa May foolishly invited him on a state visit to the UK, which apparently he still intends to accept. This is comparable with inviting Hitler on a state visit to the UK in 1934, at that stage where he was in power, but while there was still an opportunity to limit the damage he was to do. Evil leaders must be opposed, strongly, peacefully and by the vast majority of ordinary citizens standing up for what is right. If Trump visits Britain the demonstrations will probably be the biggest in the history of this country. I would expect millions to be on the streets. One of the lessons from the Nazi era was that by staying silent we are complicit in evil. Good people must stand up and speak out.

In USA the ordinary citizens must join together to oust Trump. We have seen many Republicans distancing themselves from Trump: they need to go much further. I would like to see the majority of people encouraging politicians from across the spectrum of respectable political beliefs to work together to create a less confrontational and hate generating system of politics. The key is local people organising in their own communities but some top down leadership would also be useful. I’d like to see Jill Stein of the Greens, Bernie Sanders, Hilary Clinton, Jerry Brown and Barack Obama from the Democrats sitting down with respected Republicans such as George Bush, George W Bush, John McCain and perhaps Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan. They may not agree about much, but rescuing American democracy ought to be a sufficiently unifying project. The most important thing is to change the tone of political debate. It has been too adversarial, confrontational and tribal for years. Putting proportional representation on the agenda might be the first step to help bring about a more collegiate atmosphere. American people are desperately insecure and atomized. A universal citizen’s income, free health and education would help to transform American people to feel more safe, secure and less susceptible to give their support to hate filled populist leaders. But these are just my ideas.

The new ideas and main opposition to Trump has to come from within American Society. Today I want to pay tribute to Heather Heyer and to the millions of Americans who are standing up, speaking out and putting their bodies in harm’s way in the interests of democracy.