Category Archives: Miscellaneous

Three Great Initiatives

On this blog I usually pick a technology of the year, and a person, or people, of the year. This year what has inspired me most is small groups of people taking action to change things in all sorts of positive ways. The old quote from social anthropologist Margret Mead comes to mind: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world: indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.” Many such small groups have inspired me this year, and whose actions I will be following with interest in 2022. I want to highlight three.

First while the UK government is still paying tax payers money to companies to develop more oil and gas fields this needs to be challenged. Paid to Pollute is a tiny organization which has taken the UK government to court. There is a video of the three key people, Mikaela, Kairin and Jeremy explaining their actions. It is worth watching all 56 minutes.

Awel Aman Tawe is an amazing Welsh charitable organization that does great educational work around climate change and has initiated some excellent projects. It set up the Awel as an energy coop to build and run two Enercon 2.35MW wind turbines at Mynedd y Gwrhyd, near their headquarters at Cwmllynfell, twenty miles north of Swansea in South Wales. They have also set up Egni, the UK’s largest rooftop solar coop, with 88 photovoltaic systems on schools, village halls and other community buildings across South Wales, with a combined capacity of 4.4MW. It is an excellent and ambitious renewable energy coop. Well done Dan, Rosie, Mary Ann, Carl, David and the rest of the team.

The term agrivoltaics combines the words agriculture and photovoltaics. If done well many benefits can be achieved, from biodiversity gains to more productive farming systems and solar electricity, all from the same land. Byron Kominek set up the Colorado Agrivoltaic Learning Centre on five acres of land on the outskirts of the city of Boulder, Colorado, USA. He works with a small team experimenting with various crops under the solar panels and running educational workshops. In the hot dry climate of the American southwest saving water appears to be one of the key advantages, but in other climates other factors will be more important, such as protecting crops from frosts or extreme weather events.

The changes we need in society are many and complex, but challenging the government’s irrational subsidies for fossil fuels is certainly a necessary first step. Developing more renewable energy is also of course necessary and doing this by utilizing agrivoltaic systems and cooperative structures seems the best way to go. Well done to these three teams of pioneering people at Paid to Pollute, Awel Aman Tawe and the Colorado Agrivoltaic Learning Centre.

2021 By-Elections: Greens gaining ground.

I’ve blogged a lot about council by-elections this year. Election Maps is run by a heart surgeon as a hobby, and he produces excellent graphics and data. On Christmas Eve he published this. It shows the aggregate results of all the council by-elections held during 2021. It shows the Conservatives, Independents, Labour, SNP and UKIP all losing seats and the Greens, Liberal-Democrats and Plaid Cymru all gaining seats. In my last blog I mentioned the Green Party gaining eight seats in by-elections over the last few months and now this shows them gaining twelve over the year. It does not mention the main round of local elections held each May, where of course many more seats change hands, and where over the last few years the Green Party has been making impressive gains, as I’ve previously reported on this blog, here and here

2021 Council By-Elections Aggregate Result:

CON: 64 (-10)

LAB: 50 (-2)

LDM: 36 (+10)

GRN: 14 (+12)

IND: 14 (-5)

SNP: 6 (-2)

PLC: 4 (+1)

UKIP: 0 (-1)

Others: 8 (-3)

The Tide is Turning on the Tories

Helen Morgan the LibDems new MP for North Shropshire

On this blog I have frequently argued in favour of some kind of progressive alliance. It is the only way in which we will rid ourselves of this ghastly government and bring in some sensible and more democratic ways forward. Although I’m a passionate supporter of the Green Party I want to celebrate the LibDems historic victory in the North Shropshire by election. They have comfortably overturned a huge Tory majority. It is the third biggest swing to the LibDems, or Liberals, since the Second World War. It is such an interesting result for a number of reasons.

There was no formal progressive alliance, but many Labour and Green voters lent their votes to the LibDems as it became apparent that they were the best bet to get rid of the Tories. This is very much evidence for a kind of bottom up led progressive alliance, led by voters rather than the leadership of national political parties.

The Tory vote collapsed, but interestingly these voters did not switch to the far right parties. Reform, Reclaim and UKIP all stood and all got pretty risible votes. The three main left or centre left parties, LibDems, Labour and Greens, got 61.5% of the vote between them, which given the nature of North Shropshire’s political history and the makeup Shropshire Council is pretty remarkable.

It is also interesting that North Shropshire was strongly pro-Brexit, yet now has swung decisively toward one the UK’s most strongly pro-EU parties. Perhaps now the reality of Brexit is sinking-in. It has been the greatest self inflicted damage on the economy, society and reputation of this country. Reversing it and re-joining the EU will take decades, but eventually that will become possible.

Every Friday morning I read the Tweets from the English Elections Centre and Britain Elects, as most local council by-elections take place on Thursdays, and every Thursday there have been a few local elections. Over these past few months both the LibDems and the Greens have been taking seats off the Tories pretty well every week. Some of the swings have been impressive, and often some kind of tactical voting or informal alliance emerges and either the Greens or LibDems focus on one seat. The collapse of the Tory vote in rural and small town England is not confined to North Shropshire. Over the last few months the Greens have won victories in Horndean Downs (East Hampshire) Ardingly & Balcombe (Mid Sussex) Gorrell (Canterbury) Hartfield, (Wealden) Castle (Tonbridge& Malling) Highfield (Ashford) and two in Brundall (Broadland). These eight Green victories have all been in the Tory heartlands of southeast England. The LibDems have also won a good number of new local council seats, again mainly at the Tories expense. Even Labour has won the odd few seats, but less I think than the Greens or LibDems.

The tide seems to be swinging against the Tories. I, and millions of others, am delighted by that. The Greens and LibDems, and a few of the Labour MP’s, are most enthusiastic for a progressive alliance. The SNP and Plaid Cymru would have much to contribute. Still most of the Labour leadership hold on the outdated idea that winning as a single party is the only worthwhile way to win. I would argue that alliances often bring out the best of both parties. Our county of Herefordshire is better governed than it has been for many years, thanks to the Green and Independent coalition now in charge. Most of Europe is very well served by such coalitions and with any fair voting system coalitions become inevitable.

Eve of COP26 Anticipation

On Sunday 31st October COP26 is due to start. It ought to be the most important and influential meeting in human history. We as a species are at a precarious tipping point. We are heading toward climatic and ecological breakdown. Our very life support systems are being destroyed by greed and stupidity. We could change direction, but tragically the whole COP process is in the hands of the most greedy and venal politicians imaginable.

The UK government is hosting proceedings in Glasgow. Yesterday Rishi Sunak presented his budget. It featured a cut in aviation taxes, ongoing expansion of oil, gas, airports and roads, and other detrimental policies which indicate a total lack of action in terms of planetary healing. Sewage is being dumped in our rivers and seas while privatized water companies rake off obscene profits and squirrel them away in offshore tax havens. Serco’s 37 billion pound track and trace system was an utter failure in helping combat Covid yet siphoned this enormous sum of money away from the NHS and into the hands of the most greedy and incompetent people imaginable. Brexit Britain is in a weaker, more divided and more isolated political position in the world than at any time since the Suez crisis, or probably very much longer.

There will be many people at COP26 who want to help steer a very different path for humanity. A path that gets to zero carbon emissions as fast as possible, and does so in ways that promote global social justice. Those pressing for such a change of direction are a very diverse group of actors, each with somewhat different perspectives, but complementing each other. Perhaps some countries may emerge as leaders. The most likely candidates are small islands states like the Marshall Islands, or countries like New Zealand and Finland that have the best of governments. There will be companies and agencies promoting a solar and cleantech revolution and there will be the activists from the myriad groups around the world trying to lobby for change. New leaders may emerge, big ideas will be discussed. I will follow the news via many sources, including George Monbiot’s COP26.TV and the tweets of many inspiring activists and participants, as well as the mainstream media. Last week Greta Thunberg wrote an excellent article in the Guardian setting out what needs to emerge from COP and particularly the crying need for honest climate leadership. I will of course be interested in her reports from Glasgow. She is the outstanding leader of our times. We need people like her in positions of power. Instead we have evil clowns like Boris Johnson. The shear tragedy of it.

My own feelings on the eve of this momentous meeting are a mix of love and hope, frustration and rage.

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.