Category Archives: Miscellaneous

Improving Cities

Helsinki: Declining Deaths on the roads, due to good policies

Cities around the world are beginning to implement policies that are creating a modal shift away from cars and towards walking, cycling and public transport. Multiple benefits can flow from such policies. Death and injury from traffic accidents can be reduced, or eliminated entirely. Air quality can be improved leading to declines in respiratory illness. Carbon emissions can be reduced. People can enjoy spending time on the streets, so strengthening social cohesion and acting to reduce crime. There are also tangible economic benefits as people eat, drink and shop on the city streets. Time can also be saved as traffic volumes decrease and as services are re-localized. Maybe most important of all, people enjoy hearing bird song, human conversation and children playing, rather than the continuous roar of traffic: there are improvements to mental health.

Many cities exemplify this process. The above graph shows road traffic deaths in Helsinki, which have declined dramatically over recent decades. The Belgian city of Ghent has achieved dramatic results by splitting the city into zones and limiting car connectivity between them while increasing access for public transport, walking and cycling. Birmingham is planning to copy some of the lessons from Ghent. Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, is planning to reduce, by 60,000, on-street car parking spaces, and to re-localize services in order to create the 15 minute city. In many cities (notably Berlin) electric cargo bikes are beginning to replace diesel delivery vans. It’s good to see the Co-Op are trialling this at one of their London stores. One innovation that is proving popular in France and Holland is the pedal powered school bus. Even here in Hereford we have Pedicabs and the Beryl bike share scheme.

Many of these changes can be implemented cheaply and quickly. Much more cheaply, more quickly, and with many more benefits than can ever accrue from road building. As governments and local councils lead on these kinds of changes they can also help in the roll-out of hydrogen fuel cell and battery electric vehicles. With the right mix of new policy and new technology cities may yet become safer, cleaner, less polluted and happier places to live. It is good to see many politicians at last beginning to understand this and to act to bring about these changes.

Politics: Populism & Protest

Writing in the London Review of Books Ferdinand Mount surveys the political landscape the UK is now in post Brexit. Apparently his article is being much discussed by Tory grandees. It certainly mentions all the figures of historical and economic thought to whom many Conservative MP’s look for inspiration. Under the influence of the ‘terrible simplifiers’ all checks and balances to the ‘elected dictatorship’ of Boris Johnson’s regime are now under attack, from the BBC to the Supreme Court, from local governance to the House of Lords. He cites Edward Luttwak prophetic predictions on the re-emergence of more fascistic forms of governance in these times of capitalism run rampant. Johnson is following a cohort of demigods from Trump to Putin, Orban to Bolsonaro down this most dangerous of paths.

Across much of the world the forces of centrist moderation, or of organised labour, are exhausted and spent. They represent no challenge to these emergent fascists. Ferdinand Mount’s prescription seems to be to battle to save what is left of the old checks and balances to moderate the excesses of these populist demigods. However he fails to mention the elephant in the room.

Other forces are at play. Rampant capitalism is running up against the laws of physics, of biology and of chemistry. These scientific realities are immutable. Humanity is easily expendable. Our dependence on a well functioning biosphere is absolute. Without forests and phytoplankton we would suffocate, without bees and worms we would starve, without nurturing nature and human community we would all go insane. Pure unpolluted air, fresh clean water, supportive human communities are fundamental to life in a way that gold, jewels, oil and coal simply are not. Capitalism, socialism or any of the old economic ideologies failed to understand this simple reality.

Greta Thunberg and the school strikes movement, Extinction Rebellion, and countless indigenous, environmental and community groups embody this different understanding of the World, that is both ancient and emergent. The nation state and national politics are not for them the main focus of attention. The World is one. We either all thrive or we all collapse as one single species. Atmospheric carbon dioxide is one simple calibration of planetary health. For most of human history it jogged along at about 285ppm. When I was born in 1955 the figure stood at 314 and it is now 413ppm. Humanity’s future is on a knife edge. Our survival must inevitably involve many rapid political changes, nearly all of which are beyond the scope of current political discourse. But the Overton Window is shifting. What is now beyond the pale could soon be mainstream orthodoxy: global free movement of people, global governance with globally redistributive taxation and a global health care system free at point of use may be a few of the changes. The end of throw-away consumer capitalism and the whole fossil fuel economy are necessary first steps. There is much to be done and not long to do it. This is the simple reality. It is a reality based on scientific understanding of the way people and planet must coexist. The old centrist politics failed to grasp the scale of the changes required, and the current crop of neo-fascist populists don’t give a damn.

I like many millions of people am now increasingly committed to non-violent direct action as the most vital and necessary act of political expression. Yes, I vote, and yes, I am an activist within a political party, but party politics in this country and in nearly all countries has failed to deliver the changes required to ensure humanity can flourish in the future. In the past all meaningful progress in human history has come from below. The streets now, perhaps more than ever, are where real politics is alive, exciting and transformative.

Over the next few months I’ve got three speaking engagements booked, in Presteigne, Hereford and Newtown, Powys. All three will be on various aspects of what needs to be done about climate change. More details on the events page of this blog.

Rage, Resistance & Gratitude

Almost everything this government are doing is wrong. We are leaving the EU, intentionally increasing inequality, doubling down on austerity, investing in over-priced and inappropriate infrastructure and most importantly of all failing to tackle the Climate and Ecological Emergency.

I’ve opposed every government over the last fifty years and have never voted for any party that has formed a government. I’ve been on countless protest marches, written letters, lobbied my MP, leafleted for the Green Party and been a member of countless pressure groups. I’ve given talks and led evening classes articulating how we could have a very different future.

Last weekend we had an Extinction Rebellion training weekend: lots of people, energy and determination, love and courage. Tomorrow I’m off to Birmingham for the West Midlands Green Party regional conference, which is a sell-out event. I’m also getting more involved in the Quakers and their Yearly Gathering has the intriguing title ‘Listening, prophecy & reconciliation: allyship in a climate emergency’. In this extraordinary Planetary Emergency we have countless allies in all countries on Earth.

Those still promoting socially and ecologically destructive policies control the media, and have the money and the power, and seem able to hoodwink sufficient numbers of people to vote for them, as is evidenced by Johnson, Trump, Bolsonaro, Duterte, Modi and so in a way Putin and Xi Jinping. Change is inevitably coming. The future could be dreadful: ecological and social collapse, war, famine and quite possible extinction of our species. We could also be on the verge of something very much better, an era of ever greater ecological restoration and growing global equality, of social and environmental justice. As many of the young climate protestors have written on their banners, ‘Everything Needs to Change’.

To effect that change we need many millions of us active in multiple ways: legal, political, non-violent direct action, entrepreneurial and academic. So this week I want to say ‘Thank-you’ to Client Earth for taking the UK government to court over their mad decision to build a vast new fossil gas power station, going against their own climate guidelines. Thanks too to Caroline Lucas and Ellie Chowns for being politicians to be proud of. Thank-you to Extinction Rebellion, to the School Strikes movement and to the vast number of activists for Ecological and Social Justice in every country on Earth, and thanks too to all the academics and entrepreneurs developing the ideas and technologies that might make rapid decarbonisation possible.

Australia, Bush-fires & Climate

Bushfires are raging across the length and breadth of Australia, twenty-five people and over a billion animals have died. You will no doubt have seen countless images of the destruction. The scale of the fires is unprecedented. Months of hot dry weather have turned the country into a tinder box.

The above graph shows the mean average temperature for Australia for the month of December and charts how it has changed over the last 110 years. Note how the peaks have increased from the 1970’s compared with the previous decades. 2018 was a record hot year, but this was massively surpassed in December 2019. For decades many of us have been warning about global warming. This is what it looks like. This December has been an example of what 2.75 degrees of warming looks like. Ed Hawkins, the eminent professor of Climate Change at Reading University in UK, who made this graph tweeted it with the headline ‘Australia: you have just experienced the future.’

I have blogged numerous times about how Australia has failed to develop its renewable energy potential and what a succession of useless leaders they have had (See here, here, here and here). Their current prime minister, Scott Morrison, plumbs new depths of scientific illiteracy. He is the coal industry’s man.

In a blog in October I quoted the Australian Chief scientist Alan Finkel calling for an extremely rapid roll-out of renewables, from the current 20% of electricity generation up to about 700% to cover the electrification of transport, heating, cooling and industrial processes, and for major exports of electricity and hydrogen. Now Australia desperately needs the politicians capable of driving this through.

Our hearts go out to the people suffering the effects of fire, drought, flooding and other climate change induced misery in Australia and in many other countries. Things will inevitably get very much worse, but with radical global system change, a rapid end to fossil fuel use and consumer driven capitalism, we could yet avert the worst. But the time window available gets ever narrower as the hotter the planet gets the more feedback loops kick-in, making the changes more extreme, more chaotic and more difficult to either adapt to or to mitigate.

This blog’s awards, 2019

Mark Z Jacobson et al

On this blog I usually pick a Person of the Year, and/or a Technology of the Year. Globally, and in the UK, the political landscape looks bleak. Leadership is coming from the street, from academia and from entrepreneurial start-up companies.

As I did last year, this year Greta Thunberg is undoubtedly my person of the year. She is an extraordinarily articulate leader who has inspired millions of people to engage with the realities of Climate Change. Many of the young climate protesters are truly remarkable individuals, making their voices heard despite many challenges, especially in China, Russia and other countries where the police routinely harass protesters. Greta speaks for many people, both young and old, me included.

Mark Z Jacobson leads a team of academics and researchers at Stanford University in California. They produce, and continually update, a possible route-map to 100% renewable forms of energy, for all countries and for all purposes, including electricity, transportation, heating/cooling and for industry. Their plans are workable, costed, and jobs lost and gained are taken into consideration. A book titled ‘100% Clean, Renewable Energy and Storage for Everything’ is due for publication this spring, and many draft sections are available to read.

On this blog I’ve not written about food, farming, diets and land use as much as I should have. Over the next few months I’ll write about a number of the best examples of sustainable land use. Holland is remarkable in that it is a small densely populated country, yet manages to be the second largest agricultural exporter in the World. A long article in National Geographic points to how this was achieved and the important role of Wageningen University and Research, which has spun out dozens of tiny agricultural start-up businesses pioneering new ways to grow more food, more sustainably, with lower inputs of chemicals, energy and water. I’ll post a blog shortly about this.

Hong Kong & UK elections

Pro-democracy landslide in Hong Kong
Pro-democracy landslide in Hong Kong

Hong Kong has just had district council elections. Normally these would not elicit much reaction in the international media or even much enthusiasm within Hong Kong itself. But these are not normal times. Hong Kong has experienced many months of anti government street protests. Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam and her Beijing backers gambled on there being a silent majority who supported them, and the police reaction to the protesters. The youth dominated pro-democracy activists stood candidates for all 452 seats and amazingly won 388 of them. The pro government and pro Beijing candidates dropped from having 298 seats to just 59, an absolutely catastrophic collapse. Critically turnout leapt from 47% to 71%.

Here in UK we have a general election on 12th December. The polls are predicting Boris Johnson will win. The debilitating chaos that is Brexit will continue to dominate our media for many years to come, whoever wins. Meanwhile the climate and ecological crisis relentlessly unfolds and governments everywhere are totally failing to take the required action. The School Strikes movement and Extinction Rebellion express the pent-up rage of ordinary people at the lack of governmental leadership on this, the most important challenge humanity has ever faced.

If the Hong Kong elections prove anything of relevance to the UK it is that people can vote for what they really believe in, and not what their governments or the media expect of them, or for the candidates and parties that they habitually supported in the past. It would be like the millions of people who all are concerned about the climate and ecological emergency suddenly all realizing the Green Party has the best policies and all voted for them. It is of course pretty well inconceivable that the Green Party could form the next British government, even if that would be the best outcome for what very many people are deeply concerned about.

After every UK general election for many decades I’ve been disappointed by the outcome. One tribal party forming the government, others the opposition, and always the big issues left unaddressed. Even I, as a passionate supporter of the Green Party over many decades, don’t expect them to make massive gains. However a couple of extra Green MP’s would be great, so I’m off to help in Bristol West where the wonderful Carla Denyer stands a good chance of winning. If we can’t have the sixteen year old Swede Greta Thunberg as the British prime minister I can think of no one better than Carla Denyer. She would lead the UK towards a useful role in the World by leading on climate action, so getting her elected seems like a very necessary first step. As today’s news from Hong Kong shows, the unexpected can happen and elections can mark real moments of change.

Change Is Coming

A solitary climate striker in Russia. Last week she was one of 7 million globally on climate strike

Change is coming. As planetary systems are collapsing a new global consciousness is beginning to emerge. The climate and ecological crisis that has long been building, and which the global political and economic system has singularly failed to address, is now being bravely flagged-up by a new generation. This generation clearly is demanding profound, global, system change. This is not about anything as superficial as a change of government here or there, or even a global switch from capitalism to socialism; it is something much, much more profound.

At last people are beginning to think about the welfare of our species as a whole. We all require a stable climate, clean air and water, shelter and security, food, family and friendship. We need a new political and economic system that unites us in our common humanity. Longer term many exciting possibilities emerge for excellent free global health and education, for global ecological restoration, for new forms of global and participatory democracy. But today I want to focus on the short term.

The global strikes for climate from 20th to 27th September saw over 7 million people take to the streets. It was a truly global phenomenon, led and organised by teenagers, inspired by Greta Thunberg. On Monday 7th October Extinction Rebellion’s international rebellion will kick off again. I’m intending to be there on the streets of central London. The rise in ecological and climate activism on the streets can and does influence public opinion and political outcomes. Examples abound.

Austria had an election on Sunday, and the Greens tripled their vote to nearly 14%, resulting in them going from no seats to twenty-six. The Sydney Morning Herald put this surprise leap in the Green vote down to the ‘Greta Thunberg effect’, as following massive school strikes for climate action the issue has risen up in the public’s perception and concerns. This result in Austria is part of a wider European and global trend. Last May Green parties did exceptionally well in the European parliamentary elections and in the local elections in England and Wales.

Here in Herefordshire since May we’ve had a new council, and what a breath of fresh air they are. Last week I went with a number of people from Extinction Rebellion to a council debate on the climate emergency. It was thrilling to hear the heartfelt contributions from the public and to hear the sensible and constructive response of our councillors. Our new administration is a coalition of Greens, Independents and a local group called ‘It’s Our County’, and talking to individual councillors about how well they are working together is wonderful. They all understand the need for change and want council policy to rise to the challenge of the climate and ecological emergency.

The coming weeks will not only see the ongoing school strikes and the next wave of Extinction Rebellion action, but also demonstrations for freedom and democracy continuing in Hong Kong, Moscow and many other places. These things are all related. The yearning for system change, especially among the young, is overwhelming. This old man says ‘Bring it on!’

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.

Population

Today, 11th July, is the UN World Population Day. There are now nearly 7.6 billion of us, and the predictions are that by 2050 there will be 9.5 billion, and 11.2 billion by 2100. Global fertility rates are falling, but still we have an extra 83 million people to feed, house and cloth each year. Africa has the fastest rate of growth and Europe the slowest.

There have been many predictions of imminent famine and collapse due to overpopulation, as global food production would fail to keep pace with population growth. Also as the world’s poor aspired to rich world lifestyles the total ecological footprint of humanity would become catastrophic. Pollution would become more extreme and resources ever more scarce and the reason for endless wars.

However there is another possibility. Through peaceful cooperation humanity can collectively pioneer a new kind of global economy that rapidly eliminates the hunger and poverty of the world’s poorest people and the excess and waste of the world’s richest people. Together we as a species have the opportunity to work out sustainable solutions to all our problems, to restore biodiversity while feeding clothing and housing our growing population in ways that are socially just and ecologically sustainable. I’m sure it can be done, at least theoretically. To make it a reality will require the almost infinite creativity and capacity to cooperate that our species is capable of. I meet a growing number of people who are keen to play their part in this great transformation of the global economy. As Buckminster Fuller said back in the 1960’s ‘We are called to be architects of the future, not its victims’.

“Can we feed 9 billion people, sustainably?” is the title of a talk I’m giving tomorrow evening at De Koffie Pot, and was the theme of last week’s blog.

Seed Festival

Seed Festival

The Seed Festival will be taking place at Hawkwood Collage, near Stroud, this weekend. The line up of speakers is terrific, including Caroline Lucas, Molly Scott Cato and Rob Hopkins, all of whom I’ve heard before and am keen to hear again, and also lots of not so well known names speaking on a great range of interesting themes. I’m on a Choices Panel with Louise Davies of the Vegan Society and Ed Downing. There will be varied other activities and music amid a lovely setting. Tickets are still on sale, so if you’re looking for something inspiring, with lots of positive solution focused thinking, do come and join us!