Category Archives: Miscellaneous

My person of the year is… many millions

Maria Kalesnikava, one of the many brave women leaders in Belarus, currently in prison

This year my person of the year accolade goes not to one person, or to a few, but to the many millions of people around the world active in trying to make it a better place. To all the people who are striving for justice: social justice, economic justice, climate justice, ecological justice, every kind of justice. Thank-you!

Many of the big powerful countries have been dominated by ghastly politicians over the last few years; the very best in terms of national governments have tended to be small countries, very much less covered by the media. If Trump, Putin, Bolsonaro, Duterte, Modi and our very own Boris Johnson represent all that is bad, who represents all that is good? Finland’s Sanna Marin, Iceland’s Katrin Jakobsdottir and New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern I think are the three outstanding Prime Ministers currently in office. However each of these is governing a small country with a long history of democratic governance. Obviously it is much harder to take over a country which has had a long history of corruption and poverty. Maia Sandu is the new Prime Minister of Moldova and she seems to be trying to set the country onto a better path.

Yesterday there was a global wave of relief as the inauguration of President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris put an end to the Trump presidency. It is not to Biden or Harris that I want to pay tribute today, but to the millions of activists who have worked for this change over the last four years.

Recent days have seen extraordinary scenes in Russia. Alexei Navalny, the opposition leader poisoned with polonium by Putin, returned from Berlin to Russia and was immediately arrested. Along with the young Russian climate activist Arshak Makichyan, these are two very brave and inspirational Russians.

In neighbouring Belarus we are now into the 165th day of continuous street protest. These protests have represented something powerful: well organized, brave, creative and peaceful protest actively supported by the majority of the population, and led by some truly remarkable women. Hopefully sooner, rather than later, Lukashenko will fall.

Worldwide there are millions of great climate activists and today I’d just like to acknowledge the tireless campaigning of three young women from Africa, Patricia Kombo from Kenya, Kaossara Sani from Togo and Oladosu Adenike from the Lake Chad Region.

Thank-you one and all.

My technology of the year

One of GivePower’s new solar desalination projects

On this blog at about this time of year I usually choose my ‘technology of the year’, and a person of the year. Today I’ll cover my technology of the year and in a few days I’ll write a blog about my person of the year.

My technology of the year is the solar photovoltaic panel. Of course, these panels have been around for decades. This year the very long term falling price has passed a critical threshold, and now solar is the cheapest form of electricity in most parts of the world. Costs are predicted to keep falling for years to come. The implications for every part of the global economy are profound. Oil, coal, gas and nuclear industries will become increasingly uncompetitive, their assets will become stranded, and bankruptcies are inevitable.

Photovoltaics will have many new uses. I’ve blogged before about numerous ground breaking solar technologies, from the first solar powered ship and plane to circumnavigate the Earth to the first car with integrated solar cells. Today I want to highlight three uses of solar that I think will be significant.

The first is the new Aptera solar powered car launched a few weeks ago in San Diego, California. It is very light weight, super aerodynamic, covered in photovoltaics, and, it is claimed, can travel one thousand miles without the need to stop and re-charge. It is very much more energy efficient than just about any car I can think of, with the possible exception of the Riversimple Rasa. If both cars and humans are to have any future, this is the way they all must go.

Solar powered desalination is as yet a tiny industry, but I think it will grow massively in the near future. An organization called GivePower has recently installed a few systems, including a couple in Kenya at Kiunga and Likoni, each capable of providing water for up to 35,000 people all day every day, using solar panels, batteries and a reverse osmosis desalination unit. There is a vast global need for this kind of technology to provide the approximately one billion people who do not currently have access to clean water with it.

How we integrate solar power into our agricultural landscape is going to be an important issue. The goal is to grow more and better food, and to produce clean energy, off the same land. This is our best hope for creating space for rewilding, tackling climate change and feeding humanity. BayWa and Groen Leven are developing clear photovoltaic panels under which crops can be grown. They are working with Wageningen Research centre and five Dutch fruit farms to test different levels of translucency on various types of fruit. Early results are looking promising. This system may well replace polytunnels as the maintenance costs look lower, the agricultural productivity higher and the ecological impact less damaging. These photovoltaic panels may replace ordinary glass in greenhouses, just as global greenhouse use expands rapidly.

Apologies

I think it is about nine weeks since I posted a blog, so apologies to regular readers. That is I think the longest gap I’ve had in over ten years of blogging. I have been rather engrossed in thinking about a book I’ve wanted to write, and have had several attempts at. Just starting again: daunting and exciting.

I’ll be posting a blog in a few hours…

Quaker Identity & Climate Activism

I was recently asked to write an article for our local Quaker newsletter. This is what I wrote.

Identity & Activism

What does it mean to be alive now, in the summer of 2020, and to be a Quaker living in Herefordshire?

We humans are at a critical time for our species: perhaps the most dangerous time since we first evolved about two million years ago. During that time we’ve had many challenges. We survived the last Ice Age. For the last ten or eleven thousand years we’ve thrived and multiplied during the benign climate of the Holocene era. That era is now over: we have entered the Anthropocene, the era in which we, our one single species, is now shaping the planet’s climate, the acidity and warmth of the oceans and causing the decline and extinction of countless other species. Over the eleven thousand years of the Holocene atmospheric carbon dioxide was relatively stable, fluctuating around 285 parts per million. The burning of fossil fuels since the industrial revolution has pushed this figure up to 416 ppm, and it is still rising. We need to stabilize that figure and then get it back down to 350 ppm or less, and do so as quickly as humanly possible. That in itself necessitates changing almost everything we associate with our contemporary way of life.

But climate change is far from our only problem. Our democracies are under threat. Huge and powerful forces are funding campaigns that create hatred and anger directed towards the poor and vulnerable, foreigners and refugees. Inequality has grown more extreme. An Oxfam report recently stated that there are 2,153 billionaires in the world and that they own more than the 4.6 billion poorest people. Old problems like poverty and war persist.

We as a species now have the most extraordinary tools at our disposal. We have sufficient money, resources and technology to feed, clothe and provide a comfortable way of life for all 7.7 billion of us. But that comfortable way of life would have to be quite different from how we live now. As Mahatma Gandhi said, ‘The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed’. In the current context we have to say the world has not enough for anyone’s greed.

The rich and powerful shape our politics, our media and the impact we as a species are having upon ourselves and the planet. Their greed seems limitless. Their desire to keep making profits from doing business as usual seems to blind them to seeing how things could be different, and how they could be happier while being less wealthy. For humanity to have a future we will need to redeploy resources on a truly massive scale, away from fossil fuels and towards renewables, away from the rich and powerful towards the poor and weak.

The British government is failing us. They care not a jot for the poor and vulnerable, and their attempts at energy transition are confused and misguided. Many of us make personal decisions to stop flying, or not to own a car, or to reduce our overall consumption and waste by simply buying less stuff. However the impact of individual lifestyle choices is limited. We can only choose from the options available, and most people are not prepared to give up on things if others are still enjoying them. In the Second World War people accepted rationing because it was seen to be fair. Then we came together as a national community in the face of a common enemy. Now we have to come together as a global community to face a common crisis.

Would we accept some rationing, of things like flights, fuel or clothing? Would we accept very much higher rates of taxation on wealth, higher incomes and inheritance, on fossil fuels, plastics and pesticides? Would we accept the loss of our white privilege?

Of course a sustainable and better future is not all about giving things up. Money instead could be invested in wellbeing. There is so much that needs doing. We could provide useful work for billions of people deploying renewable energy and developing a hydrogen economy, in farming in ways that increased biodiversity and sequestered carbon into the soil, and in caring for one another so much better through better health and social care, better education and training. All this needs active government and intergovernmental action supporting global leadership.

Probably all of us in Hereford Quakers make lifestyle choices at least partly conscious of the social and ecological impacts of our decisions. Most of us also try to influence things for the better through signing petitions, writing to our MP and campaigning actively within political parties and pressure groups, by helping charities and being good citizens. Some of us no doubt see prayer as an active part of the process of change. Many of us are aware that we have tried all of these for decades and still so many aspects of the global situation continue to get worse. The urgency of the situation cannot be overstated. We have to reduce carbon emissions to zero as fast as humanly possible, yet our governments are sill aligned so closely to the fossil fuel industries. This is why so many children are on school strike, why so many of us support the actions of Extinction Rebellion and others who are taking to the streets in protest.

Sometimes climate change can feel like a distant problem that does not much effect a place like Hereford. However in an ice free world sea level would rise to a point where Hereford Quaker meeting house would be under the ocean. That I find a useful image to think about while contemplating if and when we shall all meet again in that special space, when at last we emerge from lockdown.

Billionaires and emissions

Humanity currently emits around 40 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide every year. That is 40,000,000,000 tonnes. There are 7.7 billion of us, so that works out at about 5 tonnes per person per year. Of course our emissions are not evenly spread. National averages vary a lot, with high emitters like Bahrain emitting 24 tonnes per person while the people of Burundi emit on average 0.0, or too little to measure. The figures for USA are 15.7, China 7.7, UK 5.7 and India 1.8.

Finding data on carbon emission by the wealth of individuals is very much harder than finding these national averages. One thing is very clear; these individual emissions would be very much more widely spread. The typical billionaire lifestyle involves the use of private jets, super yachts and other aspects of excessive consumption. There are currently 2,153 billionaires in the world, and by my calculations they each emit on average at least 1,000 tonnes per year, and this is almost certainly a very considerable underestimate.

Oxfam figures reveal that these 2,153 billionaires own more than the 4.6 billion poorest people. If we compare their emissions with the poorest billion or two of the population, who’ve never been in an aeroplane or owned a car, then it becomes apparent that the emissions of these couple of thousand individuals will be equal to many hundreds of millions, if not billions, of the poorest people.

Climate change is spiralling out of control at exponential speed. It is abundantly clear that we need to reduce emissions from 40 gigatonnes to zero as fast as humanly possible. There is much we can do technologically. Technical change alone will of course not be enough. We will need redistribution of wealth on a massive scale, and the abandonment of consumer driven capitalism and the massive levels of waste and excess that these lifestyles entail.

We will have to do many things that are currently considered impossible. One of the most important will be the rapid elimination of all billionaires, not through genocide but through taxation. The taxation would need to be globally administered and all tax havens and tax loopholes closed.

Humanity faces multiple crises simultaneously: climate, ecological, social and political. They are all intrinsically linked. We can only solve one by solving them all. Any ecologically sustainable future will also inevitably be more equal and fairer. Humanity cannot carry the dead weight of so much excess.

An academic analysis of the damage that excess affluence causes is beginning to emerge. In a sense this echoes what Mahatma Gandhi said: “The world has enough for everyone’s needs, but not everyone’s greed”. Extreme wealth almost inevitably causes extreme damage. We see this across everything from how it distorts politics to how it breaks social cohesion. It also carries unacceptable levels of carbon emissions.

Covid Comparisons

Death rates from Covid 19 have been highly variable. The worst four countries all have populist leaders.

This is one of the Financial Times’ excellent Coronavirus graphics. The red line was added by Tim Walker, who tweeted ‘If this chart shows nothing else, it shows that popularism and respect for human life are incompatible.’ I agree. Now, nearly six months into the pandemic, I want to take stock and compare the best and worst responses to the pandemic. Today the FT reports the global figures, 5.16 million confirmed cases and 331,300 known deaths. The real numbers are no doubt much higher. What is really becoming clear are the staggering differences between the low death rates in countries with compassionate and competent governments and the high death rates in countries lead by incompetent populists.

The populists, principally Trump, Putin, Bolsonaro and Johnson have behaved abysmally. Many people have died, and will continue to die unnecessarily as a result of their incompetence. George Monbiot wrote a good article about why the UK failed to follow its own preparedness planning. But it is not these stories of stupidity I want to focus on.

The countries that have acted with intelligence, compassion and competence are a large and diverse group. New Zealand, Taiwan, South Korea are often cited as those countries that responded best, and have kept death rates very low. South Korea and Taiwan both experienced the SARS epidemic a few years back and really learnt important lessons. Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s Prime Minister, I rate as the best leader in the World and she embodies that mix of compassion and competence that the World desperately needs more of. Iceland, Finland, Norway, Denmark and Germany have all demonstrated leadership and competence, but that is what we’d expect from them, wouldn’t we? Afua Hirsch draws our attention to some remarkable stories of success from Africa, focusing on Ghana and Senegal.

However if you read just one story of success let it be this, from the state of Kerala in India. I, like most people outside Kerala had never heard of KK Shailaja the health minister of Kerala until a week or so ago. Now I’d love her to be our health minister. But it is not just about personalities, it’s about the political systems that make them possible. Kerala has long had a particularly practical breed of highly competent communists forming their state governments. Health, education, equality and life expectancy are all better in Kerala than elsewhere in India, thanks to them. Contrast that with the idiotic ideological inflexibilities Monbiot portrays in UK governance.

The Spanish flu pandemic that ravaged the World in 1918-19 is still being debated. In years to come this Covid 19 pandemic will be analysed. There is still much we do not know, about the disease itself, about a future vaccine and about how and when this pandemic will end. However one thing is becoming clearer every day. Good governance saves lives.

New video

I was due to give a talk on the politics of the Climate Emergency in the Cathedral. It was cancelled due to Covid 19. We have now made a video version of me showing slides and John Daniels asking me a few questions at the end. I do hope to do more such online talks. Please watch it and let me have any feedback.

My talk is the third one down on this page of the Cathedral website: here

A Global Health Service?

A couple of weeks ago Yuval Noah Harari wrote in the Financial Times what has been one of the clearest and most insightful articles I’ve read on the coronavirus pandemic and the longer term effects it will have on society. In this crisis decisions are being taken and policies enacted in a matter of hours that in normal times would take years of deliberation or would never even be considered possible. Harari shows how temporary emergency legislation has a habit of becoming entrenched and shaping long term policies. He identifies two key choices, one ‘between totalitarian surveillance and citizen empowerment. The second is between nationalist isolation and global solidarity.’ Harari powerfully advocates the benefits of citizen empowerment and global solidarity.

My belief in these principles of citizen empowerment and global solidarity are what underpin this blog. My concern for many decades has been about the climate and ecological emergency, and about inequality, poverty and human suffering. All these areas of concern, like the current pandemic, should be addressed in a spirit of global solidarity, with a globally empowered citizenship. So what might this mean in practice?

Pandemics, like climate change, terrorism or tax dodging require a degree of international coordination which in these weird days of Brexit and Trump has not been on the agenda. It is time to reverse that. Between 1966 and 1980 humanity cooperated and eradicated smallpox. Perhaps this has been humanity’s greatest achievement to date. Let us now cooperate with renewed vigour.

Perhaps now is the time to bring in a Global Health Service, free at point of use to all 7.7 billion of us alive today, and funded so as to provide excellent levels of care to all. We could also bring in excellent free education systems for all people of all ages in all countries. And of course we need a global green new deal providing renewable energy, good housing, clean safe water and sanitation, peace and prosperity as well as health and education. It’s all part of a package. It all goes together.

In a recent talk I presented these ideas and suggested how it all could be funded. Taxes on extreme wealth and internationally earned income, on carbon and other pollutants, on advertising, on resource extraction and on many other things could be levied globally. Business has long been globalized: it is time taxation, governance and service provision caught up. While there is a crying need for radically better global cooperation there is also a similar need for decentralisation. Local government needs massively more investment. We have for far too long concentrated power and resources at the level of the nation state.

Mark Z Jacobson and his team at Stanford have calculated the transition to a global zero carbon, 100% renewables based economy to be about $73 trillion, spread over 30 years. This may sound a lot but is cheap in comparison with dealing with the consequences of not taking action. My proposal here is for something bigger and more costly, adding generous health and education services to the global green new deal. With so many of the world’s big problems the cost of inaction is far greater than the cost of action.

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.