Tuesday, 5 January 2010

A new year miscellany

Happy new year to you all! I thought I'd ease us gently into 2010 with a miscellany of short items on matters that have caught my attention over the past two weeks. Back to something more substantial next week . . .

How long it takes litter to decay
(without the help of the heat generated by a compost heap):
Paper bag: 1 month
Apple core: 8 weeks
Orange peel, banana skins: 2 years
Cigarette ends: 18 months – 500 years
Plastic bag:10-20 years
Plastic bottle: 450 years
Chewing gum: 1 million years
[Source: Keep Britain Tidy]

Surprise quote:
“If you ask me where in 15 or 20 years’ time I’d like to be, it will be probably on a farm somewhere close to the land, getting up early in the morning... I want to be near land. I want to be able to grow my own food. Look after my own farm animals, worry about the weather and get the timing of my harvest right.”
Peter Mandelson in The Spectator, 15 Dec 09

Having trouble visualising
all those tonnes of CO2 that we’re either emitting (or, hopefully, saving)?
Carbon Quilt will help you to visualise any amount from 1 gramme to billions of tonnes. Eg: one tonne would fill a cube with sides 8.12m, or a sphere 10.07m in diameter.

Food waste
On average, each UK household throws away £420 worth of good, usable food each year. If an amount is added for food that is composted, or liquids that are poured away, this increases to £480 per household – or 8.3 million tonnes for the UK as a whole. Source: Love Food Hate Waste

Globally, deforestation outstrips reforestation by about 7 million hectares (17.5 million acres) per year. Want to help? Visit The Woodland Trust and look at their campaign ‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Reforest – Woodland Carbon’. Also go to GreenMetropolis to buy and sell second-hand books and benefit the Woodland Trust at the same time.

Future technology?
“Having worked and played continually with computers since 1991, and with networks and programming languages since '97, in my humble opinion the technology of the future is plumbing.”
[online respondent to survey asking ‘what will be the most important technology in the next five to ten years?’]

James Hansen, Storms of my Grandchildren: the truth about the coming climate catastrophe and out last chance to save humanity, (Bloomsbury, 2009. £18.99)
Don’t look at the sensationalist title and dismiss this book. James Hansen (a senior scientist in NASA) has form – he was the one who said that the ice caps would respond quickly to global warming, and he was right. His message in this book: the situation is worse than we’re being told, “your governments are lying to you”, nothing is being done, you can’t ‘compromise’ with nature and the laws of physics . . . and consequently, civil resistance is now the only way forward – “it’s up to you”. The outcomes of Copenhagen give us nothing to change his view. Michael le Page, reviewing the book for New Scientist, said the book is “the most frightening I’ve ever read” and “could be the most important one you’ll ever read.”

Carbon emissions in England
Now about ¼ come from houses and another ¼ from road transport. This means that the collective actions of private individuals can have a significant impact. During this year’s recession the only industry to be given help by direct subsidy was motor manufacturing and retail (via the scrappage scheme).
“Today we expect the travel industry to be on a war footing for our personal convenience all year round . . . Travelling must bear the global externalities that it imposes on other users of the planet.”
(Simon Jenkins, ‘Don’t blame the system for winter travel chaos. Stay put’, The Guardian 23 December 2009).

Quakers at the Copenhagen Climate Summit
See Sara Wolcott's blog Quakers at COP. Her December 19 post 'The Morning After' reports an "extended discussion" among US, UK, and Asia Pacific/FWCC Friends present at Copenhagen. They suggest:
    1. organise a Quaker presence / network on climate and ecojustice issues
    2. encourage involvement by Young Friends
    3. plan for a worship space at the June 2010 climate talks in Mexico
    4. a QUNO-type body at Bonn, the headquarters of UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change)
    5. a collective Quaker effort to catch up with other churches. Other faith groups are much more organised.
Sara's December 20 post proposes a Quaker network focussed on UNFCCC work, and urges cooperation with the Montreal-based TckTckTck worldwide coalition of major NGOs (from Oxfam to Amnesty International to Religions for Peace and Christian Aid) which collected 15,243,644 signatures for climate action. That is a lot of allies.

An octopus using tools!
Australian scientists have discovered an octopus in Indonesia that collects coconut shells for shelterunusually sophisticated behaviour that researchers believe is the first evidence of tool use in an invertebrate animal. The findings are significant, in that they reveal just how capable the creatures are of complex behaviour. There is always debate in the scientific community about how to define "tool use" in the animal kingdom, but the findings are interesting: "It's another example where we can think about how similar humans are to the rest of the world. We are just a continuum of the entire planet" (Simon Robson, biologist).

Sinking and swimming: understanding Britain's unmet needs
The Young Foundation's latest report 'Sinking and Swimming: understanding Britain's unmet needs'  explores how psychological and material needs are being met and unmet in Britain. It looks at why some people can cope with shocks and setbacks and others can't (which will be important as we move further into the consequences of peak oil and climate change), and it draws out the implications for policy, philanthropy and public action. The welfare state that was built up after the great economic crisis of the 1930s was designed to address Britain's material needs – for jobs, homes, health care and pensions. It was assumed that people's emotional needs would be met by close knit families and communities. Sixty years later psychological needs have become as pressing as material ones: the risk of loneliness and isolation; the risk of mental illness; the risk of being left behind. New solutions are needed to help the many people struggling with transitions out of care, prison or family breakdown, and to equip people with the resilience they'll need to get by in uncertain times. This study is a guide to the changing landscape of need - and a guide to how we can reduce the unnecessary suffering around us. You can read the full report (294 pages or the summary (28 pages).

Species survival and climate change
Global warming creeps across the world at an average of ¼ mile per year – but this average hides radical differences between, eg, tropics and poles, mountains and plains. The speed of change links directly to survival prospects for plant and animal species, which will have to displace geographically to remain in the right temperature zone for their survival. Many of the world’s protected areas (nature reserves, national parks, etc) are not large enough to accommodate the necessary displacements. Maybe 1/3 of the globe could see climate velocities higher than the most optimistic estimates of possible plant migration speeds. Some species might have to be moved by people, and protected areas joined up and enlarged. The full scientific report may be found at: ‘The velocity of climate change’, Scott R. Loarie, Philip B. Duffy, Healy Hamilton, Gregory P. Asner, Christopher B. Field & David D. Ackerly, Nature vol.462, no.7276, pp.1052-55 (24 December 2009)

Generation-X and their midlife crises
Alice Yaxley points me to:
A new age group is entering midlife - and some members are tackling it differently than those in generations past. Historically, the excuse, "I'm having a midlife crisis," was often used to justify reckless, self-indulgent behavior, from infidelity to splurging on sports cars. But now, some Generation Xers and younger baby boomers are quietly refusing to have their midlife crises the old-fashioned way. More mindful than their parents about the psychological perils of middle age, they are anticipating midlife unrest and trying to turn it to positive ends.”
And she comments: “Now we only have to work out if we can get any of them (re)interested in Quakers and the Society might stop dying out . . .”

Archbishop Rowan Williams – sermon at Copenhagen Cathedral
at the time of the Copenhagen Climate Summit: Act for the sake of love’, Sunday 13 December 2009.

Bring home the externalities!
The ‘externalities’, in economic terms, are those items or processes which are assigned no accounting value. So, for instance, the money we pay for our tap water pays the water company to deliver it to us. No-one pays anything for the actual water – it falls from the sky, it’s a ‘free’ resource. On the other side of the balance sheet, an environmental disaster, like a major oil-spill (or decommissioning a nuclear power station), can increase the GDP of the country concerned, because of the jobs created by the clean-up. GDP is an accounting fiction (or ‘convenience’ if you like), a 20th century invention, that adds up all the goods and services in an economy, costed at current market prices. Intangibles can be given financial value – for instance, in health budgeting a human life is assigned a notional financial value, in order to make decisions about the cost-effectiveness of screening or treatment programmes. This may seem callous, but at least it recognises value. Similarly, there is now a significant lobby to assign financial value to environmental ‘goods and services’. Thus we might all pay ‘rent' for the ‘environmental services’ provided by rainforests, paying the governments concerned to maintain them. The costs of road-building and motoring would include a charge for the environmental damage they cause (currently railways have to pay such a levy, but road-builders and motorists don’t). A recent paper 'Nature's role in sustaining economic development' by Prof Partha Dasgupta explores this whole area in detail.explores this whole area in detail.

Living on what an affluent society throws away:
an interesting article by Katherine Hibbertand a preview to her book to be published on 14 January: Free: adventures on the margins of a wasteful society (Ebury Press, £11.99)

Right-brain / left-brain: a new look at our brain structure,
and it’s interesting in terms of our collective inability to respond appropriately to long-range issues like climate change. Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary: the divided brain and the making of the western world (London: Yale University Press, 2009). The Guardian published an interesting and informative review by Mary Midgley.

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