Sunday, August 31, 2008

Transition gathering, 19-21st September 2008

Mike Grenville of Transition Forest Row tells me that there will be a 'Transition Gathering' in September. More precisely...

"This first transition gathering will provide a space to meet transitioners from other places at an event that welcomes all the family.

The timing of the gathering leads up to the autumn equinox which will mark the emergence of transition initiatives.

From a basic framework of activities, the gathering will also provide space for sessions you would like to offer. Unplugged music, story telling, skills, questions, debate, open fires and much more. It will be a time to gather together, a time to celebrate, to share good food, visions for our future, skills and knowledge, have fun, to connect and just be with each other.

The camp site is on a beautiful organic farm in the heart of Sussex at the end of the Bluebell railway line and close to the Ashdown Forest.

Elena's kitchen will offer delicious food and a there will be a yurt sauna. Children most welcome.

Suggested donation for the weekend camp Friday and Saturday nights:

Adult £25 and child £10 family £50. (no day tickets) Register on the website:

Event Flyer

For more details contact Mike Grenville:
01342 825169 "

Go. Support them.

Environmental ironies no.11 million or so

So a few days ago a satellite photograph is published showing that for the first time in 125,000 years, we can now circumnavigate the North Pole. It is a moment of genuine tragedy – another stake in the heart of life as we know it. Far from having to wait until late in the century to see the Arctic ocean ice-fee in summer, it could be any year now. Some scenarios even suggest 2013. Bearing in mind that practically every environmental worst-case scenario turns out to be the best-case scenario, even that may be optimistic.

But what is the media story that goes along with this moment of dreadful pathos? That politicians everywhere finally come to their senses? That we take some real steps to stop and reverse this trend? Not at all. Yesterday John McCain appoints as his running mate the incumbent governor of Alaska (of all places!), who tells us that the scientific jury is still out on global warming. And even the Independent on Sunday – the newspaper in which I read this story, and generally pretty conscientious about the environment – goes on to report that this means that shipping companies trading between Europe and Japan will be able to cut 8000 miles off the round-trip – which will no doubt encourage more long-distance trade, bigger carbon footprints and still faster melting.

I hope someone up there is laughing, because I doubt that anyone down here is.

The ratchet effect

One problem with powering down is the difficulty of overcoming the commitment to excess. It is not simply the volume of consumption on the individual level (reducing which would be directly threatening to manufacturing capital’s need to continually expand production) but also the built-in excess required for transient competitiveness which then becomes the entry level for all future products and services, even though it no longer serves any purpose – not even competitiveness.

For example… Just yesterday I was in the London Underground in a bleary kind of post-work state, so it took a while to notice that I was standing opposite a large electronic advertising hoarding. About 5 metres long, I can’t imagine how much energy it must have been using. Of course, from the advertiser's point of view, it was, great – a real edge over the competition. But then they all join in, and then there are thousands and thousands of them. In fact, given that every single advertising display on the main escalators in some major underground stations is a little electronic screen too, they will soon be filling up the entire system.

So then what? The competitive edge has been lost, because everybody’s doing it. There is no longer any benefit, to advertiser or client, is using a screen rather than an old-fashioned poster. Yet electronic advertising hoardings become the entry level medium. So it doesn’t buy you any advantage, but you can’t stop doing it. So advertisers have successfully ratcheted up the energy costs of advertising for short-term gain, and now they can’t get back down again. A transient advantage to a single company becomes a permanent burden on the environment.

I wonder how many such arrangements there are? Millions, I have no doubt – in public and private life, at every level, in every sphere. What can we do about it? Is there a process for getting us back down again, without any winners or losers?

Saturday, August 30, 2008

And now, a word from the President of the United States

"We have become rich through the lavish use of our natural resources and we have just reason to be proud of our growth. But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron and the gas are exhausted, when the soil has been further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields and obstructing navigation."
Wrong president, alas. These words were from Teddy Roosevelt, speaking in 1908. A century later, the White house is inhabited by a walking environmental denier, fantasist and all-round ecological menace.

Monday, August 25, 2008

How to make capitalism part of the solution

Capitalism is not inevitably part of the environmental problem. It is wholly indifferent to the problem it is true, so if it is not managed and the world is allowed to continue on its current way, then it will be as happy to wreck it as to save it. In fact neither outcome would even register on its radar, except insofar as it hit the bottom line.

Yet capitalism must either be made apart of the solution or abolished. On the assumption that the latter is unlikely to be on anyone’s real agenda until it is probably too late, it is crucial that it be made to be part of the solution.

In particular, it must be forced into a position in which the only way to achieve the constant increase in profits on which it relies consists of making the world a cleaner place. We cannot even afford to continue the level of physical damage to the environment at the present level, let alone allow it to grow, so in the absence of specific policies and mechanisms to shrink that damage even while allowing capitalism to increase its profits (without which it will fall into recession and the world’s economy will grind to a halt), we are simply to going to be able to prevent environmental collapse.

So what can be done? Here are some ideas.

  1. We must introduce regulations that steer industry away from the most gross forms of environmental damage. We have done this often enough, and we can do it again. Business has always protested that unleaded petrol or abandoning the use of CFCs is impossible – and yet with sufficiently robust handling, they have always managed to extract a profit from solving the problem. This kind of regulation should include the requirement that any new product is less environmentally damaging than any other product of that type available anywhere in the world, taking into account its entire lifecycle environmental cost – development, production, use and disposal.
  2. We must introduce taxes that correctly reflect the real environmental costs – including the costs of clearing up the mess. This should apply to the use of such products too, to make sure that demand also reflects real environmental costs. And it is crucial that such a policy is couched in such terms – not as a tax on industry or consumers, but as a simple accounting procedure to bring out the real environmental costs of our lifestyle.
  3. We must subsidise environmentally responsible behaviour and so make cleaning up profitable. It is equally essential to recognise that most of the technology that is needed to clean up industry is not currently profitable. And it won’t be profitable for a long time, perhaps in some cases ever. Yet this is not a difficult problem: after all, there are many aspects of our current world that we routinely subsidise without any expectation that capitalist companies will ever be able to turn a profit at them (even if we were foolish enough to let them try). Long-term mental health care, for example. Indeed, most aspects of the welfare state are state-run primarily because they cannot be provided at a profit. At the moment we are trying to prove the opposite, and the collapse of many aspects of the welfare state as a consequence is proof enough that the experiment is not working.
  4. We must recognise the other side of cleaning up industry evne though it is not currently profitable, and may never be. That is, we must subsidise innovation and development in clean technology that capitalist industry cannot yet profit from. A huge amount of contemporary research is publicly funded, so why not apply the same logic on a literally industrial scale? At the moment when we do this, it is by allowing businesses lead academic institutions by the nose, so met their short-term profit targets; but there is not reason why this logic should not be reversed.
  5. We absolutely must extend our reach into the developing world. If just China were to ‘catch up’ with the standard of living of industrial countries without a radical reduction in environmental impact, we would double the world’s current environmental burden – an impossible problem to solve. Yet we cannot expect the Third World to refrain from developing. So we must make that development as environmentally painless as possible. This will have to include both taking a disproportionate share of the responsibility for the world’s environment problems on ourselves, and directly supporting environmentally friendly development elsewhere.
  6. Even more importantly, we must restore the fundamental idea that capitalism is the servant of society, not vice versa. We must flatly contradict the idea that the function of government is to contribute to business’s ‘competitiveness’, that business is a credible model of how society as a whole should work, and that its organisations and its leaders are in any way free of social responsibilities. This may be the hardest of all, given the way public policy is increasingly dominated by the idea that business and markets are the answer to every problem. But business itself is helpless to solve any problem that cannot be profited from, and the environment is absolutely one such problem.
  7. But most importantly of all, governments must re-learn to do something they seem to have abandoned, which is to make sure that they don’t just wring their hands as social problems follow from such economic changes. For example, the British government did practically nothing even to palliate the disasters caused by Thatcher’s obsession with market economics, let alone actively move society to a position that positively reflected the new economic reality. If they do as little management of society in the face of environmental change as they have in the face of economic change since the Second World War, we can expect an even more bumpy ride than is necessary.

The alternative, of course, is that we leave capitalism as part - and the biggest part - of the problem. And then, given its strange, autistic logic, it will only make the problem much, much worse.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

New Olympic sports

Normally it’s quite hard to think of the Olympics without laughing, but alas we now enter that quadrennial nightmare when there’s nothing else in the media but sport, and particularly stupid sports at that. So I already hate the 2008 Olympics, and they haven’t even started. In the spirit of ridiculing the ridiculous, I suggest that the following new sports have exactly the same claim to inclusion as any others.

We have the 100m sprint. This is completely pointless, so what about replacing it with the more useful ‘Typing 100 words really quickly’?

No? Then what about adding to dressage and surreally ludicrous synchronised swimming (but sadly not the equally pointless wushu) the widely practiced sport of ‘ironing and putting your hankies away neatly’?

No? Well, what about pandering to the fantastically stupid tradition of allowing each host country to introduce a sport that they are guaranteed to win forever (e.g., the USA and basketball), and allowing China to introduce ‘crushing all resistance’, 'devastating your own environment while threatening to bring the world to the edge of ecological collapse' and (in honour of their acquisition of Hong Kong) 'shopping’? Of course, they would face competition in the latter from Japan, but the Japanese might be a bit distracted by their struggle with Italy for the ‘Political corruption’ gold.

No, it’s not clever to spend your life pushing a talent for running really, really fast to extremes or being able to shoot a gnat between the eyes. It’s not an accomplishment to he able to sail better than anyone else in the world or lift more weight. It is clever and it is an accomplishment to be a teacher, run a refugee camp, bring up a family in adversity, write music, be generous, cook well, fight for what you believe in or even (god help me) be an accountant, and to do any of these things to the best of your ability is an excellent thing.

But why should I admire someone whose sole achievement is to perfect the ability to do something that is completely and utterly selfish and useless? If they put a tenth of the effort and devotion that goes into their sport into being socially useful, they might be - well, socially useful. Instead of a bunch of self-aggrandising jerks whose physical achievements are no more admirable than stamp collecting or building sand castles.

In any other sphere these people would be regarded as a waste of space and in need of a good talking to. Why is it different with sport?

(Howefver, if you want a real sport to add to the Olympics, how about free running/parcour?