All Things Sustainable

ecology, economy, community

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Can Myopic Markets Save the World?

On January 17th 2015 NASA reportedly announced that 2014 was the world’s hottest year ever recorded and that this formed part of a continuing trend. It was also noted atmospheric CO2 levels are continuing, intermittently, to reach 400ppm. We are currently on a trajectory widely agreed to be heading for a temperature increase of around 5degC.
So is it possible that the strength of market forces could change the future, moving us from a pathway heading into a climate change disaster to one that instead leads us through the minefield to a safe haven? There are people who think this is a reasonable assumption and while I can understand the reasoning I must admit to being rather more pessimistic.

There are certainly many lights shining on a multitude of hills. The Chinese are moving quickly to reduce the use of coal and to ensure they return the atmosphere in their cities to pure clean breathable air and they have done some remarkable work rehabilitating degraded land as in the Loess valley, the USA is promising to move swiftly to control its emissions and even if its federal government fails to act there are several states which together are moving to take control and reduce greenhouse emissions. There are reports that the German State of Schleswig-Holstein has achieved 100% renewable power in 2014 and intends to triple that total. It may not be enough to change everything but it will be a serious commitment and as such could lead the world into a renewable future.
Yet in spite of these hopeful indicators it seems that we are already into planetary overshoot with resource use and pollution exceeding the natural ability of the world to absorb the waste or maintain our economy on a sustainable basis. The myopia of the market is reflected in pressure from corporate and government interests to open more coalmines, to extract oil from deep undersea sources, to increase coal seam gas extraction. At the same time the science estimates that to have a 50-50 chance of a reasonable climate future, a third of the world’s oil reserves, half the gas reserves and more than 80percent of the coal reserves cannot be used.

To help us all to change on 13th & 14th February will run a worldwide ‘divestment day’ to help the world to break up with fossil fuels, so check where your superfund invests, change your bank, re-assess your share portfolio if you have one. Another straw in the wind that perhaps suggests impending change.

There are serious questions to be answered about food production as well. Not only does our current monoculture agribusiness approach make quite large contributions to emissions it is also likely to be disrupted by climate disasters with floods or droughts hitting major food producing areas in the USA, or Australia. Some analysts have linked the Arab Spring to food shortages, triggered by drought and the associated reduced harvest size and high wheat prices. Other factors that might drive wheat prices higher are the use of agricultural land to produce ethanol for transport and fodder for feedlot cattle. Of course we should not forget the anticipated world population increase. The UN Food and Agriculture Association Asia-Pacific suggests that to avoid political turmoil, social unrest and civil war the world needs to increase food production by 60% by 2050

All this needs to be done without further stressing our natural ecosystems
Paul Ehrlich & Anne Ehrlich in a Simplicity Institute paper “Can a Collapse of Civilization be Avoided?” published by the Royal Society in 2013 pinpoints the likely triggers for collapse and looks for major cultural change for the hope of avoiding disaster:
Abstract : Environmental problems have contributed to numerous collapses of civilizations in the past. Now, for the first time, a global collapse appears likely. Overpopulation, overconsumption by the rich and poor choices of technologies are major drivers; dramatic cultural change provides the main hope of averting calamity.

Such a cultural change could be based on an underlying human tendency to cooperate rather than to compete. Can I hear ribald laughter in the gallery at such an unreasonable suggestion? Quite possibly, however a paper in published in Nature seems to support the idea… and also that cooperative behavior cascades to extend its influence through a population (Fowler & Christakis)

Then there are also suggestions that the capacity and perhaps a need to cooperate was an effective driver of the success story for early mankind. And surely markets were a part of that cooperation, markets that traded obsidian across hundreds of kilometers at a time when foot traffic reigned supreme. And another gem that paleoanthropology has thrown up is the idea that past climate change was also a trigger for the rapid evolution that saw homo sapiens out compete its rivals. Perhaps we are set for a great leap forward into a sustainable future and not a blind stumble that lands us in the trash can. A nice thought to end on perhaps.


Sour Cherries and Consumer Capitalism

Sour Cherries at Christmas
This Christmas I went up to the farm. Set between Canberra and Cooma the climate is cool enough to grow all the fruits and nuts that need winter chilling to produce their best.

Around the garden perimeter there are numerous bushes growing sour cherries and this year they are all fully laden. Sour cherries are bright red and very small when compared with the commercially grown sweet cherries. If you have not tasted them before the flavour might come as a surprise to you, this year they are tart and clean and without sweetness but to my taste they are delicious. The Christmas turkey was cooked outside in a barbecue and served garnished with the cherries. I would have liked to experiment with making a sour cherry sauce to serve in lieu of the cranberry sauce but time did not permit.
Christmas turkey
I picked a large basin full, about a kilo, and brought them home with me. I have preserved some in kirsch and some in brandy, they will remain untouched until the winter weather arrives, then I will decant the flavored spirit to warm a winter evening and perhaps do something creative with the boozy fruit as well even though I didn’t remove the pips.
Sour cherries
I next pitted the rest of my harvest. A sour cherry with the stone removed weighs about 3 grams and as I wanted a total of 500gms that was quite a time consuming job but once done the rest was easy. I was making a cherry bake, similar to a clafoutis, whisking together eggs, sugar and softened butter, adding in plain flour and some milk then putting the mixture into a shallow baking dish. I put the 500gms of sour cherries on the top and popped it in the oven for half an hour.

Served warm with a sweetened vanilla yogurt it was so good.

Community & Consumer Capitalism 1st January 2015
As I never make the traditional New Year resolution this year I decided to break with my personal tradition. I decided that I would definitely do some research and some writing that explores the way our local communities are developing. This has been triggered by some of my own choices, one if which was joining a choir. This brought me into closer contact with the amazing musical fraternity that exists in the area. At a New Year’s Eve bash I attended, a continuous live show put on by some great local performers who created a fabulous low cost evening for the whole community and who for the most part actually paid to attend the gig.

Looking at newly emerging views on evolution that suggest our forbears actually out performed our hominin rivals due to a superior ability to cooperate, empathize and work together I am wondering if the competitive model of consumer capitalism is actually the main problem we need to deal with if we are to avoid climate disaster.

Time to do some more reading I think!!

Why Don’t We Get the Climate Threat?

Has the carefully orthodox behavior of climate scientists and the willful blindness of politicians led the world up a blind alley into a four degree or more dead end? Sadly I fear that may be the case and it is not due to careless science or incorrect claims about possible futures, it is the result of language and of politics.

On the language side, science, it seems, is incapable of making definitive statements about possible futures, instead everything is qualified, which would all be fine but for differing interpretations of the terms as understood by mainstream non-scientific members of the community. The general public will interpret ‘moderately likely’ as signifying that there is very little to worry about whereas the same phrase to a scientist might be interpreted as ‘get your skates on and pack the bag – in case.’

On the political front we face a different challenge. In the first instance few politicians have any scientific training and for a variety of reasons they tend to underplay the alarm calls. Assuming there is no preconceived bias or hidden agenda, once made aware of the gravity of the climate threat one might imagine that there would be an instant and effective response but this is not the case.
The conventional view assumes that economic growth is always good and we have to “grow the pie” if we would see wealth distribution more evenly spread through society. This view is promoted through platitudes like “a rising tide lifts all the boats” forgetting to mention that it may also drown those lacking a flotation device or that big boats take up much more space in the harbor.

Politicians see a growing economy as way to keep everyone happy, a guarantee of jobs and money for the next three or four years so that they (the politicians) can feel comfortable about re-election for another term. But they fail to see that the illusory rising tide of wealth brings with it a rising tide of pollution.
We live in a finite world, we fill it with the detritus of everyday life, industrial waste, pollution from coal-fired power plants and factory farms and we expect to escape unscathed. We require services from the natural world to maintain clean air, to filter our drinking water, to provide our food but we spray it with chemicals, cut it down, dig it up, build on it and in doing so we destroy the ecosystems on which we are dependent.

In 1994 Mathis Wackernagel and Professor William Rees of the University of British Columbia developed the concept and established the methodology for calculating humanity’s “ecological footprint”. In essence it is way to calculate our impact on the earth’s capacity to maintain clean air and water and re-establish natural systems disrupted by humanity..
Mathis Wackernagel explains the concept in this youtube clip outlining a way to estimate natural resource use and avoid ecological bankruptcy.

According to the Global Footprint Network the world is already in overshoot and annually uses 50% more resources than can be regenerated and produces 50% more waste than can be absorbed by the planet in a year.

Today we do not live in a world that has room to expand and grow without let or hindrance, that world ended about fifty years ago. Rather we are faced with a planet under stress from over exploited resources, an economy still based on planned obsolescence and a world polluted by its own waste. We frantically dig up any useful minerals, turn them into electronic toys like iPads, smart phones and notebooks that are discarded within 2 or 3 years and mostly then go into a landfill that leaches poison long into tomorrow.
Our world is a world created by a market economy that is addicted to economic growth and this is often overlooked and excluded from the climate conversation, or perhaps only referred to in terms of avoiding the need to take action. In Bermagui recently at a talk covering “The Politics of Climate Change” Dr Ken Henry explained the economic conundrum in terms of a market failure due to environmental impacts being treated as externalities. An externality is something that is not included in the accounting because it has no effect on the bottom line.
Business pollutes the atmosphere, the land and the water only because we do not require them to pay for the damage caused by their emissions and their waste products.
If we are to meet our global warming target of not more than 2degC increase above pre-industrial global average temperatures we must control these externalities and we will also need to abide by a “carbon budget” that does not exceed 1000 GigaTonnes of emitted CO2 as has been demonstrated in the United Nations Environment Program Synthesis Report ‘The Emissions Gap Report 2014’ published in November 2014 There is also an Executive Summary available to download.

In order to stay within the 2degC boundary it seems that we will need to be carbon neutral by 2055 and have zero net emissions worldwide by 2080. Unless there is a massive change of direction we will miss our 2degree target and end up in a world with four or five degrees of global warming.

In the book ‘Four Degrees of Global Warming – Australia in a hot world’ (published by Routledge and edited by political scientist Peter Christoff) some of our top scientists explore the likely consequences of a Four Degree World for Australia.
Scientists Will Steffen and David Griggs look briefly at historical records of collapsed civilizations and conclude that while climatic shifts were certainly important in the collapse there were probably other contributing factors. They suggest that, in line with ideas expressed by Joseph Tainter and Jared Diamond, societies that cling to core values which have become dysfunctional due to changing circumstances (like perpetual economic growth perhaps) or have become so complex that they lose resilience, may have predisposed themselves to a negative outcome.
In the chapter on Marine Resources Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, Elvira Poloczanska and Anthony Richardson point out that the ocean has buffered us from some of the effects of global warming by absorbing over 90% of the heat generated by the enhanced greenhouse effect and 30% of the additional carbon dioxide pumped into the atmosphere by our industrial activities and life choices.
It is not clear to what extent the oceans can continue to protect us but it is clear that they have become warmer and more acidic and that this will impact on marine life and on economically important fisheries

Science seems generally unwilling to make pronouncements about sea-level rise, due perhaps to a lack of precise understanding about mechanisms involved in the melting ice sheets of Antarctica and Greenland. These large ice sheets will melt if the world continues to warm unabated and when they do all the world’s major cities will be battling for survival just as Venice is today.

Records for heat are constantly tumbling, 2013 was the hottest on record and now we hear that 2014 will probably match or even exceed that. As we move into this 2014-15 summer we are already facing record heat in many parts of NSW and we have not yet even reached 1degC above pre-industrial levels. The bush fire season is fast approaching, much of the State is still very dry if not actually in drought and there are questions about whether or not it will be an El Nino year.

It seems likely that at 4degC of global warming Australia will become very uncomfortable and looking fifty years into the future some parts of it may even become uninhabitable.

To Change Everything we need Everyone

From National Science week through to the September Climate events in Bega and Moruya (and the rest of the world) we have seen a multitude of actions, walks, marches, picnics, church bells rung by the Anglican Church all round Australia and more. Hundreds of thousands of people trying, with limited success, to “speak truth to power” on the subject of weather, sea level rise and the likely impacts of dangerous climate change.

Ringing the Church Bell and celebrating the Anglican Church divesting its fossil fuel holdings at the Moruya Climate Action Picnic

Ringing the Church Bell and celebrating the Anglican Church divesting its fossil fuel holdings at the Moruya Climate Action Picnic

All this is just the latest skirmish in a battle that started at the Rio Summit in 1992 when a spotlight was turned on the patterns of production, toxic components and poisonous waste. The summit recognized the need to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy, to develop public transport in order to reduce pollution and congestion in our ever growing cities and the recognition of a growing fresh water scarcity. Our current report card is looking pretty sick when it is compared against this list of problems that were known and assessed twenty-two years ago. Had we acted responsibly at that time we would now be in a position to really look forward to safe and clean future for ourselves, our children and our grandchildren but as it is we are faced with a world that is teetering on the brink of disaster sometime in the next 30 years or so.

The planet has its own mechanisms that maintained the comparative stability of the climate throughout the 3.8billion years since life first took hold. During that time the climate has shifted from very warm to icy cold and back again more than once, so it seems that sometimes the control mechanisms are overwhelmed. But the planet works on a time scale so different from our human perspective that the whole of human existence is but the blink of an eye.

The fingerprints of humanity and particularly advanced economies is clearly evident in the rise of carbon dioxide levels since the industrial revolution. While the rate of increase may be slowing the total is still going up. In the last twelve months atmospheric CO2 reached 400ppm a level that has not been seen for the last eight hundred thousand years and possibly not for the last 20million years. And emissions are still rising. The CSIRO Global Carbon Project advised that CO2 emissions in 2013 were in excess of 40billions tons of which 36billion tons came from burning fossil fuels and from cement production. There has been an increase of approximately 65% in fossil fuel emissions since the Rio Summit.

On current projections the world is looking at a probable increase in average global temperature of around 3.2 – 5.4degC above the pre-industrial levels. Given that we have accepted that a 2degC rise is likely to lead to dangerous climate change the mind boggles as to how the political class and the fossil fuel lobbyists will sell this concept as an acceptable outcome. One rather thinks that obscuring the information may suit them better.

There are other problems that come with delayed action, in particular the inexorable rise in sea levels. Once we see the ice sheets of Antarctica and Greenland start to melt we may never be able to stop or slow the melting ice.
Over time the sea levels will rise. It will probably take centuries, there is no real understanding of how or how fast the ice will melt, but it does seem that eventually all our coastal cities will vanish beneath the waves.
We are of course also losing our biodiversity at a rate that is believed to rival or even exceed the great extinctions of the past. This loss of complexity makes our ecosystems vulnerable and regardless of our skills and determination to control the natural world we remain dependent on functioning ecosystems.

There are hopeful signs on the horizon, we still have time to change our current direction and avoid the worst predictions. Action by China to limit pollution by burning less coal, and actions in the USA including the State based renewable energy initiatives are hopeful signs. Even here where we have seen so many initiatives undermined there is still massive public support for renewable energy. At a recent forum held by the Solar Council in partnership with Solar Citizens and supported by the multitude of small businesses specializing in renewable energy prospective attendees had to be turned away as they could not be accommodated in a hall that seats 600.

There are things that we as individuals can do as well, things that may just help to tip the balance. Small things like buying local produce, maybe selecting grass fed instead of feedlot or grain finished meat, being aware of the food miles that are in the shopping trolley and taking action where and when we can to move our own consumption patterns onto a sustainable trajectory. It will not be the easy transition that we would have had, had we acted in 1992 and it will take us all to make the change.

The worldwide climate action that took place on Sunday 21st September this year was initiated by and it was undoubtedly a magnificent success. Their mantra was “To Change Everything We Need Everyone”

Four Winds at Easter

Four Winds is a biennial Festival held at Easter on alternate years in the little town Bermagui and at an amazing outdoor location in Barragga Bay. It is a festival of music and artistic endeavour and it takes place over four days.
There is always a free concert held in Bermagui and this year it was held at the Bermagui Fishermen’s Wharf. The proceedings opened with a Welcome to Country, a sandy space had been created for the Djaadjawan indigenous female dancers who were part of the welcome.
The Pelican, an ocean going research catamaran formed the stage and performers were ferried to their destination on a punt.

Taking a punt, a great way to travel to the gig.

Taking a punt, a great way to travel to the gig.

As the evening progressed the Pelican revealed she was really well dressed for the occasion, the sun went down and the lights came on..The Pelican at 4 Winds
It was great evening although some of us on the balcony found that from time to time the chatter drowned out the music. But this was Friday and just the start of a weekend full of magical music in a location widely referred to as Nature’s Concert Hall. It is hard to imagine a more beautiful or more appropriate setting for such musical talent. The Sound Shell that provides brilliant acoustics, the natural amphitheater, the lake and the water lilies that could have been taken from a Monet painting…GE
And of course the music. Whether it was the string quintet performing against a backdrop of waterlilies, music so beautiful it catches at your throat and almost brings tears to your eyes..4 Winds string quintet or Dejan Lazic demonstrating the depth of his talents on the new Overs piano took us on trip through time with the work of three composers that stretched across three centuries. Domenico Scarlatti who was writing in the early1700s, Franz Liszt from the nineteenth century and finishing with twentieth century composer Bela Bartok… or Giovanni Sollima who can do such wonderful things with a cello that you think he must have somebody else with another instrument hidden somewhere close by…GE
Four Winds was all this and so much more.

Things that go bump in the night

Living so close to the natural Australian bush means that I have visitors in my garden at night. Sometimes the possums seem to be having a dance party on the roof, they jump onto the deck and sample almost anything that is growing in containers. Then there are bandicoots that explore the vegetable garden, digging up who knows what, but certainly including seedlings. There have also been some diggings that look as if they may have been the work of the locally endangered potoroo so with help from the NPWS (National Parks and Wildlife Service) I tried to explore the creatures that come out at night.
First cab off the rank was the little antechinus, a carnivorous marsupial that looks a bit like a mouse. These little creatures live fast, die young and mate once only. They sometimes move inside where they have been known to build their spherical nest inside old handbags or rarely used drawers but in the wild they apparently use tree hollows. They mostly live on things like spiders and insects and they should not be regarded as vermin.

Antechinus exploring the peanut butter lure

Antechinus exploring the peanut butter lure

Then the possum arrived, and spent some time discovering and then destroying the lure to get to the peanut butter.
A possum discovering the peanut butter lure

A possum discovering the peanut butter lure

Showing curiosity
Curious possum examining the peanut butter lure

Curious possum examining the peanut butter lure

and agility
Agile and smart, the possum attacks the lure

Agile and smart, the possum attacks the lure

and determination
Dexterity is a  possum seeking a feed

Dexterity is a possum seeking a feed

and then success…
OMG I've done it!

OMG I’ve done it!

The lure vanished that night and I hope the possum enjoyed its picnic as much as I enjoyed looking at the photos.
I didn’t manage to get a photo of a potoroo but the bandicoot put in an appearance one night, not nearly as entertaining as the possum but interesting just the same.
A bandicoot in the garden

A bandicoot in the garden

He thought the lure was a bit boring, but then this one didn’t have any peanut butter in it…
but there may something over here….

but there may something over here….

I placed the camera in my newly fenced vegetable garden just to see what was eating my tomatoes and low and behold it was a bower bird, later in the week the sweet potato, which was just recovering from a wallaby attack, was again half stripped of its foliage this time I think it was bored juvenile king parrots. It now has a net as well as a fence and I am waiting for the next development.


The last week of the Climate Change MOOC

The eighth week of the “Climate Change, Challenges and Solutions” MOOC has come to a close and for me it has been a really worthwhile experience. In the final week we approached the question “Is the future of the climate still in our hands?” Very clearly it is within our reach to either maintain the current path of high, and growing, CO2 emissions or to change our direction.
If we choose not to change the way that we create power by burning fossil fuels, if we persist with a culture based on a dig it up, use it and throw it out philosophy then our outlook is very poor indeed. Travelling that path, by the year 2100, atmospheric CO2 will have reached levels that exceed 1000ppm and will possibly be as high as 1500ppm. This will mean that the average world temperatures will perhaps be 6degC warmer than today. It would take one million years for the earth’s natural weathering systems to remove this amount of CO2 from the atmosphere.

CO2 reached 400ppm late last year. It hasn't been that high for 650,000 years

CO2 reached 400ppm late last year. It hasn’t been that high for 650,000 years

Travelling this path will mean more violent weather events, more floods, heat waves, wildfires and droughts. I doubt that our current flawed economic and social system will survive these shocks but if it did survive we would then be facing a slow but inevitable rise in sea level as the Greenland and Antarctic Ice Sheets melt, an unstoppable increase that will raise sea levels by up to 70 meters. CO2 persists in the atmosphere for a long long time and this is one reason why we know that the timelines for reducing our emissions are critical.
An info graphic put out by the Climate Council

An info graphic put out by the Climate Council

There is an alternative.
The current trajectory will see us locked into rising emissions, higher temperatures and long term devastation but we can change this outcome and still make a measured transition to a new way of living. If we base our future on fairness, sustainability and equity we could actually use this crisis to embrace change. Science has given us the tools and the all the information that we need to move to a sustainable and resilient world, only vested interests and politicians stand in the way. We can change the politicians and now even some of the vested interests are beginning to recognise that they too need a sustainable world order.
Clearly we must price pollution at a rate that is proportional to the damage caused to the ecosystem, the economy, the society and the individual. We probably need to support sunrise industries that will help to cut pollution, industries like wind and solar power and of course we must stop burning fossil fuels. These critical first steps need to be taken in the near future so that we can start to reduce our emissions during this decade, meet or preferably exceed the undertaking we made to reduce our emissions.
Once we have started along this path we can turn our minds to finding effective ways to draw down atmospheric CO2. Maybe carbon capture and storage will finally become a viable option, although I doubt if it will ever be a cheap one. Leaving forests standing is a very good way of locking up carbon for hundreds of years and the amount of carbon stored continues to increase throughout the life of the trees. Tackling our throw away society and demanding that industries find a use for all their waste products so that instead of a linear system of constant through-put we have a circular system that minimises new resource input and virtually eliminates waste.
Bearing in mind that true sustainability also requires equity to be successful, wealthy nations like ours should be prepared to help disadvantaged nations to move directly to a clean renewable energy supply skipping the dirty coal fired power that destroys the climate. They may be more successful than we are, because the large vested interests that are keeping fossil fuels alive and preventing the development of distributed power are not in such a powerful position as they are here.