Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Passing on the baton

The eagle-eyed among you will have noticed the photo that's appeared in the sidebar - of my colleague Maud Grainger - and the caption that says Maud will take over this blog when I retire.

I've been posting here for three-and-a-bit years, mostly weekly, and this is the last one I shall do as the Good Lives Programme Leader at Woodbrooke. This is my last day at work, and I'm 'retiring' (whatever that turns out to mean) . . . Maud will take over the blog from the New Year. I may, of course, appear occasionally on a 'guest post', and I shall certainly carry on as an Associate Tutor for Woodbrooke (look out for 'Global Restorative Climate Justice' in June 2013).

I thought I'd leave you with something heartwarming and inspiring to look at. I wrote two weeks ago about materialism and simplicity and re-using the Earth's wealth, not squandering it. Below is a link to a YouTube clip of joy, creativity, talent, work, discipline and ingenuity. They call themselves a 'recycled orchestra' but 'upcycled' would be better (see explanation two weeks ago).

So, here to inspire you is Landfill Harmonic.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Preparing for a Changed World

I posted a couple of weeks ago about the recent Woodbrooke course, 'Good Lives: Preparing for a Changed World', and mentioned the talk on the Saturday morning of that event, given by Oliver Robertson from QUNO Geneva. Here is the text of the talk he gave us.

The way the world will change in the future is a big subject, so this post will focus just on a couple of areas – climate change and the movement of people, and climate change and peace and conflict. Moreover, everything about the future in this post is guesswork. Educated guesses perhaps, but guesses all the same. When people’s guesses turn out to be correct, they get called a savant and if they’re wrong, they get called an idiot. So you may have over 1,500 words of pure idiocy coming at you.

Possibly the most important thing to say is this: most of the changes that will likely be caused by climate change will not be new. The types of things that will happen have already happened, are already happening, which means, critically, that we also have many of the solutions.

Climate change and the movement of people

You may have heard of ‘climate refugees’. It’s a phrase which is, on the face of it, self-explanatory: people who have been forced to move because of the impacts of climate change. However, when you look at it you do realise that it’s more complicated than it may seem at first blush.

For a start, there’s the numbers. A few years ago there was a rash of reports highlighting the issue and giving estimates of the likely scale of the situation. The numbers of affected people ranged from 25 million to one billion (though this large number was people affected rather than people moving). There are some methodological issues with this and many of the different numbers can be traced back to the same one or two sources, and nowadays researchers tend not to predict numbers but just to look at likely effects and impacts.

Secondly, there’s the difference between slow-onset and sudden-onset situations. Slow-onset impacts are gradual environmental changes such as sea level rise, regions becoming unbearably warm, desertification and salinisation; sudden-onset impacts are hurricanes, floods and other natural disasters. These are very different issues requiring very different responses. Sudden-onset is easier to see, though there is an expectation that slow-onset changes will affect more people.

Thirdly, there is the causation issue – how can we know that this Superstorm or that sea level rise would not have happened without climate change? And if a farmer’s crops fail, is this because of climate change or because she’s a bad farmer? If she can build an irrigation system, what then? The causation issue becomes a particular sticking point when you are trying to create legal obligations to help, such as creating a group of ‘climate refugees’ that governments should support. In addition, the phrase ‘climate refugee’ is disliked around the UN because in international law a refugee is something quite specific. It is someone who has crossed an international border and sought protection due to a well-founded fear of persecution on the grounds of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion. The environment doesn’t persecute in the same way, and politically there is a lot of fear about trying to redefine what a refugee is because it could well lead to a weakening of existing protection.

So instead the international approach is to look at soft law – non-binding standards which are frameworks of how to deal with environmental displacement. This is what was done with internal displacement and is the way things are going with other human rights or humanitarian issues. Last year the Norwegian government proposed a set of ‘Nansen Principles’ on displacement in situations of natural disasters, but they didn’t generate the hoped-for interest. So now, together with the Swiss, they have a Nansen Initiative, which is conducting research on the environmental displacement, and may later produce some recommendations based on these findings.

But why try to create a new category of ‘climate displaced persons’ at all? I think one of the reasons is that people want to move environmentally displaced persons from the category of ‘bad’ migrants (people moving to get a better job or lifestyle) to ‘good’ migrants (like refugees, though even they get a bad press these days). But it creates its own problems – what if that farmer I mentioned before had lost their crops because they’re a bad farmer? Are they not equally desperate? Are they any less deserving, any less worthy? (That is a slightly open question.) I think we’ll continue having these difficulties while we continue to categorise people into deserving and undeserving, rather than needy and unneedy. When I was in Oslo at the meeting where the Nansen Principles were created, the most interesting thing I found out was that after the first world war, when the Norwegian Fritdjof Nansen was the first high commissioner for refugees under the old League of Nations, a refugee was anyone in humanitarian need. I think this is one reason for the disconnect between the public perception of a refugee (people fleeing and in need) and the lawyers’ understanding (people meeting the Refugee Convention requirements), but it’s also a very helpful rebuttal to anyone who tells you that ‘we can’t change things and this is the way things are’. Not always they weren’t.

While most migration-related issues will not be new, one which might be is what are commonly called sinking islands, though a more accurate phrase is drowning islands. There are a number of nation-states, including the Maldives and Tuvalu, which are expected to completely lose all their land in the coming decades, and as one of the traditional features of a country is that it has land, this is could cause legal and well as human problems. There are some ideas about ways to circumvent this issue, such as buying up other land/islands (I understand that the Maldives has been speaking to India about this) or claiming that a country’s underwater continental shelf means it still has land. Politically, there is a feeling in some quarters that the world won’t be so vicious as to tell people who’ve just lost all their land that they no longer exist as a nation. But this could be a situation that gets ignored when it could be solved, where because we don’t have to deal with it yet, we won’t.

It can be easy in this issue to focus on the politics not the people. On the low-lying islands, people will have left before the last rock disappears under the waves permanently. Where to? That depends, and is an issue beyond small islands. The consensus is that most people will not come ‘flooding’ to Europe but will instead move a short distance. Particularly when there are sudden-onset disasters, people may return home, and displacement (whether for sudden-onset or slow-onset reasons) isn’t always permanent – some areas may be unable to support a population year-round, so circular or seasonal migration could be a more sustainable response.

It can be easy to consider the people who are moving, but it is also important to consider those who remain behind and the existing residents of host communities. People who stay behind may want to leave but be unable to do so. Often it is the poorest and most vulnerable who are left – think of Hurricane Katrina and who was left behind in New Orleans. Other times people may not want to leave – I remember hearing about one man who said “I can’t leave this island: this is where my father is buried”. At the other side, considering the hosts, who will also have needs, rights and concerns, will hopefully help to reduce levels of conflict and ensure a better outcome for everyone.

Climate change, conflict and cooperation

The other issue we have looked at is what often gets called ‘climate change and conflict’, the idea that the impacts of climate change, such as reductions in availability of natural resources like water, food or land, will cause more conflict. There have been retrospective studies about whether one or more wars were caused, ultimately, by the environment – Darfur was the one that received the most attention. However, one of the most significant differences between the study which found that the environment was to blame for Africa’s wars and the one that found the opposite was that they gave different weightings and importance to different factors when creating their computer models. Each thought that different things were important in predicting conflict. More generally, I think that the link between climate change and a particular conflict will probably never be drawn with certainty, not least because that won’t be the stated reason for the conflict: I think there will always be something more proximate, more immediate. “They have all the best land” might be a way of whipping up tension and encouraging violent conflict, but “Their economic and industrial policies have resulted in the gradual reduction of our soil quality” probably isn’t.

However, like the stoking of concerns about the ‘floods’ of climate refugees coming to Britain, warnings of ‘water wars’ have not gone unnoticed and climate change is on the radars of militaries in various countries, including in the UK’s 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review. At the Quaker United Nations Office we have tried to break this idea of a straight line going from climate change to conflict, and have looked at what has actually happened in the past. There are plenty of places in the world with existing resource scarcity, where there is – to use the issue we explored – limited water, but actually in reality not all of them are in conflict. Researchers in the University of Oregon looked at over 1,800 international water events and found that only 28% of them involved any conflict at all, most of which was verbal rather than physical. The only recorded water war in history was between the city-states of Lagash and Umma around 2500 BCE. However, there is a school of thought that because water is so crucial to life, it may be too important to fight over. Also, we have been looking at the international situation and at the regional or community level things may be very different. Colleagues of mine are looking into this right now, so this is not yet resolved.

This issue of environment and peace is one which has sparked the interest of many Quakers. In fact, I think that you are particularly likely to find Quakers working on the climate change and peace issue, because it’s at the meeting point between an issue of longstanding Quaker concern (peace) and an emerging one (climate change).

To be clear, I am not saying that bad things will not happen, and I am not saying that things won’t get worse. But I am saying that the human impacts of climate change depend in part on human actions and choices. I am saying that we have many of the answers to these problems already. And I am saying that even if we don’t stop climate change from happening, it doesn’t mean we’re powerless in the face of its consequences.

Many thanks to Oliver for sharing this text.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Do we love ‘things’ not enough, rather than too much?

The usual criticism of materialism, whether from an environmental or a spiritual point of view, is that we are too much in love with material ‘stuff’; and either that is bad for the planet, or it’s bad for our souls – or both.

But perhaps the problem is really the opposite – we don’t love our things enough. We pick them up and discard them, we throw them away and get a new one, we don’t like the colour or the style any more. We buy too much food and then throw it away because it’s gone off – only people who have never gone hungry can do that so carelessly.

We used to have students from developing countries spending three months at a time at Woodbrooke. Those who came from the tropics and sub-tropics would be warned to bring warm clothes, but if they were coming in our winter they had no idea what ‘cold’ meant. So we would take them to the Oxfam shop to get warm sweaters and coats. They were curious about our charity shops – why had people given away these perfectly good clothes? Well, we would reply, perhaps they don’t fit any more, or they’ve gone out of fashion, or . . . and we would see the expression on their faces and start to feel the obscenity of our throw-away culture.

There’s a song by Randy Newman called I Think it's Going to Rain Today that contains the words:

Tin can at my feet
Think I'll kick it down the street
That's the way to treat a friend

If we loved our things, we would see not only the object in front of us but also the minerals or metals mined out of the Earth; the wood or fibre grown in the Earth’s soil; the insects and birds that lived in the trees when they were growing; the wind and the sun and the rain; the billions of years old dead flora and fauna that make up our plastics and our dye-stuffs, as well as providing the energy that fuels the extraction, processing, manufacturing and transporting of our goods. We would also see the labour of our fellow humans who mined and dug and tended and felled and machined and packed . . . we would see that every object contains the whole world.
If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heartbeat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.
George Eliot, Middlemarch
If we practised mindfulness about all our things, if we were truly thankful for every thing, we would not lightly discard the labour of our sisters and brothers around the world, the material gifts of our Mother Earth.

So let’s go back to that old but serviceable mantra: reduce, re-use, recycle – and expand it a bit.

Before ‘reduce’ comes REFUSE: refuse to buy what you don’t need; refuse the seduction of the advertisers telling you, ‘it’s new, it’s better, you want it, you need it’. Don’t buy goods with excessive and unnecessary packaging – this includes reducing our consumption of processed, packaged food, instead buying raw ingredients and cooking properly.

Then comes REDUCE: even those things that you do truly need – food, clothes – reduce the waste, the excess; cherish each thing, see the whole world in every item.

Then there’s one that doesn’t start with an ‘R’: take care of what you’ve got. Polish your shoes to make them last longer, wash your clothes carefully, be mindful not to break things carelessly.

Next comes RE-USE: re-use something you have, rather than getting something new; and if you don’t need it any more, give it to someone who will use it – that way the labour and raw materials that went into its making are respected. Give it to a friend or to charity shop, preferably one in your local community, rather than putting it in one of the endless plastic collection bags that come through the letterbox; or sign up to your local Freecycle or Freegle.

If something is beyond re-use, there’s a step before recycle: REPAIR. Repairing brings something back into use rather than rendering it back to its components and raw materials. It’s patching and darning and mending clothes, it’s having your shoes repaired, it’s learning how to mend and fix things, skills that many of us have never learned – time to start.

And there’s yet one more before recycling: UPCYCLING – this is using something no longer needed to make something useful. The traditional craft of patchwork is a good example. So is making a garden shed out of old doors picked up at the dump.

And if it’s really beyond all of these, take it to a recycling centre (or put it in your Council's kerbside collection) from where it will be reduced to its component materials and re-manufactured into something new. If it’s organic it will be composted and ‘made’ into new growing plants.

And if you must buy something (apart from food, that is): first try to buy second-hand, or make a request on Freegle or Freecycle. Or, if suitable, see if you can borrow it via one of the exchange sites set up to do this, such as Streetbank if it exists in your area. Second-hand or borrowed reduces the total embodied carbon (the CO2 emissions that went into the making of the item) that your life is responsible for. If it has to be new, then apply as many as possible of the LOAF principles: Local, Organic, Animal-friendly, Fairly-traded.

This all starts to seem like a lot of complicated rules (and we could dream up a whole lot more) but really it all goes back to mindfulness and loving the whole-world-in-every-thing.

Other resources:
 - If you haven’t already seen it a million times, watch the short (20 minutes) video of Annie Leonard’s Story of Stuff; if you’ve only seen it once or twice, it’s worth watching again to be reminded
- Download the free pamphlet by Andrew Simms and Ruth Potts called The New Materialism
- For an institutional/economic bigger picture see the article by Terry Slavin, in The Guardian: Time to turn capitalism 'inside out'

The seasonal message, of course, is: and apply all this to Christmas! And what better New Year’s resolution could there be than to expand our practice of mindfulness?
PS: Addition a few days later: for another slant on all this, see George Monbiot's trenchant and angry piece in The Guardian of 11 December - On the 12th day of Christmas ... your gift will just be junk: ‘Every year we splurge on pointless, planet-trashing products, most of which are not wanted. Why not just bake them a cake?’

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

OccupyXmas and the current climate talks in Doha

We've just finished a Good Lives weekend course at Woodbrooke, the last of the current Good Lives Project, that has been running for the past four years.

The event was called 'Good Lives - preparing for a changed world'. The main speakers were two British Quakers in the early stages of their respective careers, each with enormous contributions to make in relation to these difficult issues. On Saturday morning, Ruth Wood, a research fellow at the Tyndall Centre of Manchester University gave us a lucid and helpful trip around the current state of understanding of climate change. Oliver Robertson, Associate Representative at the Quaker United Nations Office in Geneva then helped us consider the implications of climate change for the movement of populations and 'climate migration'.

In the afternoon, Ruth's option group led people through an interactive online tool that lets you look at energy futures for Britain - if we insulate our houses, build windfarms, reduce our transport miles . . . and so on - how much contribution will that make to the decarbonising of Britain that we need to achieve? The tool was created by David MacKay and is based on the same data that you can find in his book, Sustainable Energy – without the hot air; the printed book may be bought in the usual way but it is also available as a free download. If you want to try the tool for yourself you can find the description and explanation (including a video of David MacKay explaining it) and also the interactive tool itself.

Oliver's option group led people through a kind of reverse 'balloon debate' - you know the kind of thing: you have six famous historical figures in a hot-air baloon that's losing height; who do you jettison and who is important to keep? Oliver had scenarios of people wishing to immigrate to Britain - we can't take everyone in, so who do you let in, and why?

My option group was about practical preparations now for a world in which governments aren't going to do enough, soon enough, so we all need to anticipate interruptions in our normal supply of energy, goods and services. How do we prepare? It's quite possible that electricity supply could start to become unreliable in the next five to seven years.

All this was very timely as Oliver had to leave Woodbrooke mid-morning on Sunday to join Jonathan Woolley (Director of QUNO Geneva) in Doha, Qatar, for the current round of climate talks. This is the first time that QUNO has had a formal presence at any of the climate summits. Oliver asked us to uphold the talks, the negotiators and the Quaker presence there.

It's also very timely in terms of UK politics around climate change. Greenpeace has recently released a secretly recorded film demonstrating apparent attempts by senior government figures to dismantle UK renewable energy commitments, and undermine the 2008 Climate Change Act. You can read the press release and watch the short video.

In amongst all these conversations at the weekend, the phenomenon of OccupyXmas was mentioned. This starts from Black Friday in the USA - the day after Thanksgiving, the day that Christmas shopping begins in earnest, the day that retailers say their accounts go from the red into the black (so this is black as a 'good' thing!). Anti-consumerism campaigners have chosen Black Friday to target as Buy Nothing Day. There's been a campaign this year to extend this to target the whole of the excessive consumerism of Christmas, and it's acquired the name of OccupyXmas.

So, everyone, here's a suggestion for an OccupyXmas action for next Saturday (1 December): that day will be the middle of the two weeks of the climate talks in Doha; so how about a vigil in your local shopping centre with explanatory posters and leaflets that say:

Buy Less
Save carbon
Pray for the climate talks

Friday, 16 November 2012

The whole story in one minute

Two aspects of my Swarthmore that a lot of people have commented on, to me, are the images of the Earth from space, and the sense of an enlarged time-span that I wanted to help make real to us all.

For this week's post, I just want to give you a link to a one-minute video that I hope you'll make the time to watch. It comes from NASA and was posted on their APOD site. APOD stands for A Picture A Day; it's a free public engagement initiative from NASA, and they post one picture a day - seven days a week, 365 days a year - of some space or astronomical or atmospheric or weather phenomenon. Some of the images are really beautiful, some are of technical interest, some manage to be both; some are stills, some are short videos. You can get it sent to you computer or phone via an RSS feed.

On 14 November they posted Our Story in One Minute - from the big bang to the present day. It's great - I urge you to watch it and give yourself a 60-second treat.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

The ten most influential . . .

Over the past few months, New Scientist magazine has been conducting a poll of its readers to find the ten most influential popular science books. They published the results a few weeks ago, printing them in rank order of the voting. I'm going to list them here chronologically by date of first publication, which I think is more illuminating - I give the rank ordering in square brackets next to the title:

[9] An Essay on the Principle of Population by Thomas Malthus (1798)
This highly controversial work examined the possibility of humans outstripping natural resources.

[1] On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin (1859)
Darwin's hugely influential book, which introduced what Richard Dawkins dubbed "arguably the most important idea ever", was selected by more than 90 per cent of voters.

[5] Silent Spring by Rachel Carson (1962)
Fifty years on, Carson's exposé of the impact of chemical pesticides continues to have a profound impact.

[6] The Naked Ape by Desmond Morris (1967)
One of the first books to portray humans as the animals that we are, The Naked Ape caused quite a stir when it was first released.

[4] The Double Helix by James Watson (1968)
An account of the discovery of DNA's double helix by one of the Nobel winners behind the breakthrough.

[10] The Ascent of Man by Jacob Bronowski (1973)
The work celebrates human ingenuity, from the early use of tools to breakthroughs in modern science.

[3] The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins (1976)
Taking evolutionary theory to a new level, Dawkins argued that individual organisms are "survival machines" for the genes that they carry. The book also introduced a now familiar cultural idea: the meme.

[8] Gaia by James Lovelock (1979)
Lovelock's book introduced the Gaia hypothesis - that everything on and of the Earth is an interconnected, evolving and self-regulating system.

[7] Chaos by James Gleick (1987)
This finalist for the Pulitzer prize was the first popular science book to tackle the emerging field of chaos theory, and helped kick-start the subject across many fields.

[2] A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking (1988)
Perhaps the world's best known book on cosmology - by its best known physicist - this modern classic tackles the big questions of the universe.

I didn't take part in the poll, but I agree with the 'wisdom of the crowd' that came up with these ten books. The earliest, by Thomas Malthus, is still cited today in concerns about global population. Darwin's theory of evolution changed fundamentally the way we understand ourselves as part of the natural world. Rachel Carson's book, published when I was a teenager, had an impact within the span of my young adulthood . . .  and so on.

This list has set me thinking about what would be the ten most important books about sustainability? I'm thinking of a reading list - ten books you should read if you want to get your head around the wider sustainability agenda.

And in fact, I'd start with one from the New Scientist list - James Lovelock's Gaia. This is key to understanding to deep interdependence of all life on Earth - everything we do affects everything else.

Then I'd go for Jared Diamond's book, Collapse - a historical survey and analysis of societal collapses to which environmental problems contribute.

And then Al Gore's work An Inconvenient Truth - either the book or the film (watch online). It's not perfect, but it sets the issues out clearly and understandably.

Something from the Transition movement - maybe the first Transition movie (In Transition 1.0) or the Transition Handbook.

The list needs something on economics - maybe several somethings.

Robert Skidelsky and Edward Skidelsky, How Much is Enough? The Love of Money and the Case for the Good Life. The story of how we 'came to be ensnared by the dream of progress without purpose, riches without end.'

Tim Jackson, Prosperity without Growth (available in paperback or as a free downloadable PDF). Arguing that ‘prosperity – in any meaningful sense of the word – transcends material concerns’, the book summarises the evidence showing that, beyond a certain point, growth does not increase human well-being.

And we need something that goes beyond the technical, that takes human, social, psychological, spiritual concerns into account. Alastair McIntosh's book Hell and High Water: climate change, hope and the human condition.

Only three more to go - the choices are difficult now.

We need to look at solutions as well as analysis of problems, so something on permaculture. The big, technical manual is Patrick Whitefield’s Earth Care Manual: a permaculture handbook for Britain and other temperate climates. If you'd prefer to start with something more immediately accessible, try Looby Macnamara’s People and permaculture: caring and designing for ourselves, each other and the planet.  (I'm offering these as alternative ways into permaculture, so I'm counting them as only one choice in my ten!)

Probably good to have a human-scale personal account of living with less - how to start to inhabit the interstices of our present society in a new way. There are several of these around now. Try Mark Boyle's The Moneyless Man: a year of freeconomic living. The book documents his first moneyless year, including many of the practical and philosophical challenges he faced. The author’s proceeds go to the Freeconomy Trust, towards purchasing land for the foundation of the Freeconomy Community.

And this leads me to my tenth recommendation, and it's a novel . . . or to be more precise, it's a trilogy of novels . . . well, I made this rule of ten, so I can choose to stretch it! It's the Science in the Capital trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson. The three books are Forty Signs of Rain (2004), Fifty Degrees Below (2005), and Sixty Days and Counting (2007). Set in Washington DC in the very near future, the series explores the consequences of climate change, both on a global level and as it affects the main characters. Buddhist philosophy s an approach to adverse change is a recurring theme in the trilogy, as are issues of economic justice for the urban poor in our affluent societies.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Energy saving &/or the nuclear option

In April last year, I posted a guest article about energy saving, written by Paul Parrish of QCEA. He was writing in response to an earlier post of mine about the then current state of the nuclear debate. I posted a comment in response to him, writing:
I don't, of course, disagree with anything that Paul says here. All of this is obviously necessary. The question is: is it sufficient? Sufficient, that is, to enable an orderly transition to a low/zero carbon world, and not a chaotic collapse of the present order. There's more interesting discussion of all this on the Political Climate blog.

Paul had planned to post a response to my comment, but there were technical problems . . . anyway, he's now sent me a piece, and I'm happy to post it here. It's also a 'farewell and best wishes' to Paul, whose position at QCEA ends in a few days' time.

Paul writes:

Second-order change: energy savings & social efficacy

It's a good question, thank you for your comment.

First of all, rationally, and as far as I am aware, even with 80% energy efficiency globally, we will still have to make difficult lifestyle choices elsewhere – making it a really difficult task, on the back of an incredibly big ask. So yes, by implication, you are correct. But if this vision looks implausible, consider the alternatives; we simply can not go on living beyond our means.

While it's true there is no silver bullet to meet our energy needs, there are also definitely a number of duds that we need to remove from further consideration as soon as possible. [Once again, and at the risk of repeating myself, there are faster, cheaper, and less environmentally damaging ways of realising our sustainable energy potential than by embracing nuclear.] By doing so, and grasping with both hands the genuinely sustainable energy solutions with the greatest potential (at the lowest cost!), we also bring the sufficiency threshold closer, making it easier to obtain.

It is also imperative that we avoid the self-fulfilling premise that energy savings and efficiency can't help to meet Europe's energy requirements. As long as the conventional wisdom remains that efficiency savings will be no more than a marginal contributor to our sustainable energy solution in the foreseeable future, policy-makers, private investors and members of the public will be less inclined to take the moon-shot that would allow truly sustainable energy to achieve its full potential.

For me, our supply of energy does not primarily depend on the availability of "natural resources", but on the awareness and the human potential we have at our disposal. First of all, we should recognise and counter the tendency in society to belittle and ‘fence in’ the change required – a tendency promoted so that people can carry on life as normal. Secondly, we need to actively counter the undermining effect of low self- or social-efficacy – the belief that nothing can be done. Research shows that where self-efficacy is low people do not adopt ambitious goals and give up easily when they encounter setbacks in pursuing them. This is, for example, the case with addicts who do not believe that they can maintain sustained control over their habit.

More importantly, as long as problems are seen as merely transactional decisions, and we continue to devote most of our resources to technological solutions, rather than scaling up human-change processes, we will only manage first-order change. That is to say, we will only manage the minor tweaks and the improvements at the margins of our existing cognitive, behavioural, social, and institutional systems that leave the basic goals, structures and – most importantly – outcomes of those systems in tact. Change that gets results – second-order change – is needed. Resembling a social alchemy of sorts, second-order change results in authentically transformative shifts in values, beliefs, and thought processes that produce fundamentally different types of behaviours, practices, institutions, technologies and policies. The challenge being, second-order change does happen(!), but principally through major crisis(!!).

And that is why this is a Quaker issue. Genuine sufficiency not only depends critically on our approach to risk, but also our inward transformation. While I agree, it is absolutely crucial to foster scientifically informed, evidence-based sufficiency policies, frankly, none of us yet has a convincing account of how humanity can get out of this mess, because no forecast, scenario or 'roadmap' is ever going to give a sufficiently correct prediction of our mutual future. Which is unfortunately anathema to a political class eager to believe that nature’s complexity has been mastered. But more significantly, because Quakers have distinctive gifts that the World needs, namely:

• our listening spirituality;
• our approach to discerning the greater good; and
• our experience of striving to live according to that discernment, even when it cuts against societal norms.

And thus, in the spirit of the radical Quaker tradition, by highlighting the tremendous potential and underutilisation of energy savings in our sustainable energy challenge, my purpose is to make hope possible, rather than despair (nuclear power) convincing.

Thanks to Paul for this post.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Why we find it so hard to act against climate change

Last week I commented on the fact that we know what we should be doing about climate change - the question is: why aren't we doing it?

This week's guest post comes from George Marshall who wrote this article for Climate Action, the Winter 2010 issue of YES! Magazine. Unlike the science, which evolves as we gather new data, the human behavioural conundrums are are pretty much unchanged in the almost three years since George first wrote this.

George is founder of the Climate Outreach and Information Network (COIN). He is the author of Carbon Detox: Your Step by Step Guide to Getting Real About Climate Change and posts articles on the psychology of climate change.

So, with many thanks to George for his permission to use this text, here is his take on:

Solving the 'It’s Not My Problem' problem: a psychologist's view on what keeps us from coming to terms with the climate crisis.

It should be easy to deal with climate change. There is a strong scientific consensus supported by very sound data; consensus across much of the religious and political spectrum and among businesses including the largest corporations in the world.

The vast majority of people claim to be concerned. The targets are challenging, but they are achievable with existing technologies, and there would be plentiful profits and employment available for those who took up the challenge.

So why has so little happened? Why do people who claim to be very concerned about climate change continue their high-carbon lifestyles? And why, as the warnings become ever louder, do increasing numbers of people reject the arguments of scientists and the evidence of their own eyes?

These, I believe, will be the key questions for future historians of the unfurling climate disaster, just as historians of the Holocaust now ask: 'How could so many good and moral people know what was happening and yet do so little?'

This comparison with mass human rights abuses is a surprisingly useful place to find some answers to these questions. In States of Denial: Knowing About Atrocities and Suffering, Stanley Cohen studies how people living under repressive regimes resolve the conflict they feel between the moral imperative to intervene and the need to protect themselves and their families. He found that people deliberately maintain a level of ignorance so that they can claim they know less than they do. They exaggerate their own powerlessness and wait indefinitely for someone else to act first—a phenomenon that psychologists call the passive bystander effect. Both strategies lie below the surface of most of the commonly held attitudes to climate change.

But most interesting is Cohen’s observation that societies also negotiate collective strategies to avoid action. He writes:
'Without being told what to think about (or what not to think about) societies arrive at unwritten agreements about what can be publicly remembered and acknowledged.'

Dr. Kari Marie Norgaard of the University of California reaches a very similar conclusion, and argues that 'denial of global warming is socially constructed'. She observes that most people are deeply conflicted about climate change and manage their anxiety and guilt by excluding it from the cultural norms defining what they should pay attention to and think about—what she calls their 'norms of attention'.
According to Norgaard, most people have tacitly agreed that it is socially inappropriate to pay attention to climate change. It does not come up in conversations, or as an issue in voting, consumption, or career choices. We are like a committee that has decided to avoid a thorny problem by conspiring to make sure that it never makes it onto the agenda of any meeting.

There are many different ways that the proximity of climate change could force itself onto our agendas. We already feel the impacts in our immediate environment. Scientists and politicians urge us to act. The impacts directly threaten our personal and local livelihoods. And, above all, it is our consumption and affluence that is causing it. 

However, people have decided that they can keep climate change outside their 'norms of attention' through a selective framing that creates the maximum distance. In opinion poll research the majority of people will define it as far away ('it’s a global problem, not a local problem') or far in the future ('it’s a huge problem for future generations'). They embrace the tiny cluster of skeptics as evidence that 'it’s only a theory', and that 'there is still a debate'. And they strategically shift the causes as far away as possible: 'I’m not the problem—it’s the Chinese/rich people/corporations'. Here in Europe we routinely blame the Americans.

In all of these examples, people have selected, isolated, and then exaggerated the aspects of climate change that best enable their detachment. And, ironically, focus-group research suggests that people are able to create the most distance when climate change is categorized as an 'environmental' problem.

If we take a step back we can see that the impacts of climate change are so wide-ranging that it could equally well be defined as a major economic, military, agricultural, or social rights issue. But its causes (mainly pollution from burning fossil fuels) led it to be bundled with the global 'environmental' issues during the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in 1992. From that point on it has been dealt with by environment ministers and environment departments, and talked about in the media by environmental reporters.

The issue was then championed by environmental campaigners who stamped it indelibly with the images of global wildlife and language of self abnegation that spoke to their own concerns. The current messaging of climate change—the polar bears, burning forests, calls to 'live simply so others may simply live' and 'go green to save the planet'—has been filtered through a minority ideology and worldview.
Thus, within a few years, the issue had been burdened with a set of associations and metaphors that allowed the general public to exclude it from their primary concerns ('I’m not an environmentalist'), as could senior politicians ('environment is important but jobs and defense are my priority').


Progressive civil society organizations also avoided the issue because of its environmental connotations. Two years ago I challenged a senior campaigner with Amnesty International, the world’s largest human rights organization, to explain why Amnesty did not mention climate change anywhere on its website. He agreed that it is an important issue but felt that Amnesty 'doesn’t really do environmental issues'. In other words it was outside their 'norms of attention'.

Far more aggressive responses that stigmatize environmentalists create further distance. In a 2007 interview, Michael O’Leary, CEO of Ryanair, the world’s largest budget airline, said:
'The environmentalists are like the peace nutters in the 1970s. You can’t change the world by putting on a pair of dungarees or sandals. I listen to all this drivel about turning down the central heating, going back to candles, returning to the dark ages. It just panders to your middle-class, middle-aged angst and guilt. It is just another way of stealing things from hard-pressed consumers.'

O’Leary’s diatribe—which could be echoed by any number of right-wing commentators in the United States—plays further on the cultural norms theme. By defining climate change as an environmental issue that can be placed firmly in the domain of self-righteous killjoys who want to take away working people’s hard-earned luxuries, his message is clear: 'People like us don’t believe this rubbish.'
But, as is so often the case with climate change, O’Leary is speaking to far more complex metaphors about freedom and choice. Climate change is invariably presented as an overwhelming threat requiring unprecedented restraint, sacrifice, and government intervention. The metaphors it invokes are poisonous to people who feel rewarded by free market capitalism and distrust government interference. It is hardly surprising that an October 2008 American Climate Values Survey showed that three times more Republicans than Democrats believe that 'too much fuss is made about global warming'. Another poll by the Canadian firm Haddock Research showed half of Republicans refuse to believe that it is caused by humans.

This political polarization is occurring across the developed world and is a worrying trend. If a disbelief in climate change becomes a mark of someone’s political identity, it is far more likely to be shared between people who know and trust each other, becoming ever more entrenched and resistant to external argument.

This being said, climate change is a fast-moving field. Increasingly severe climate impacts will reinforce the theoretical warnings of scientists with far more tangible and immediate evidence. And looking back at history there are plentiful examples of times when public attitudes have changed suddenly in the wake of traumatic events—as with the U.S. entry into both world wars.

In the meantime there is an urgent need to increase both the level and quality of public engagement. To date most information has either been in the form of very dry top-down presentations and reports by experts or emotive, apocalyptic warnings by campaign groups and the media. The film An Inconvenient Truth, which sat somewhere between the two approaches, reinforced the existing avoidance strategies: that this was a huge and intractable global issue. The film was carried by the charm and authority of Al Gore, but this reliance on powerful celebrities also removes power from individuals who are, let us remember, all too willing to agree that there is no useful role they can play.

It is strange that climate communications seem to be so deeply embedded in this 19th-century public lecture format, especially in America, which leads the world in the study of personal motivation. Al Gore, after all, lost a political campaign against a far less qualified opponent whose advisors really understood the psychology of the American public.

How people get involved
How can we energize people and prevent them from passively standing by?

We must remember that people will only accept a challenging message if it speaks to their own language and values and comes from a trusted communicator. For every audience these will be different: The language and values of a Lubbock Christian will be very different from those of a Berkeley Liberal. The priority for environmentalists and scientists should be to step back and enable a much wider diversity of voices and speakers.

We must recognize that the most trusted conveyors of new ideas are not experts or celebrities but the people we already know. Enabling ordinary people to take personal ownership of the issue and talk to each other in their own words is not just the best way to convince people, it is the best way to force climate change back into people’s “norms of attention.”

And finally we need to recognize that people are best motivated to start a journey by a positive vision of their destination—in this case by understanding the real and personal benefits that could come from a low-carbon world. However, it is not enough to prepare a slide show and glossy report vision that just creates more distance and plays to the dominant prejudice against environmental fantasists. People must see the necessary change being made all around them: buildings in entire neighbourhoods being insulated and remodeled, electric cars in the driveway, and everywhere the physical adaptations we need to manage for the new weather conditions. If the U.S. government has one strategy, it should be to create such a ubiquity of visible change that the transition is not just desirable but inevitable. We need to emphasize that this is not some distant and intractable global warming, but a very local and rapid climate change, and we need to proclaim it from every solar-panel-clad rooftop.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

How many months to save the planet?

You may remember the big publicity campaign that was launched on 1 August 2008 called '100 Months to Save the Planet'. What interests me about this is that, at the time, '100 months' sounded frighteningly short (quite rightly so) but looking back now, August 2008 feels like a long time ago. This is an effect of our media-induced very short-term attention-span. As I pointed out last week, the big panic about the Arctic ice-melt faded from the news media faster than an ice-cube in a sauna.

But now we're down to 50 months - half of that very short time has vanished already, during which Britain's 'greenest government ever' has been exposed as a sick joke, the new Minister at the Department of the Environment reportedly doesn't believe in human-induced climate change, and the George Osborne, as chancellor, wants to reduce and weaken the few 'green' requirements that we have. The big worry of governments and business is 'lack of growth', whereas a contracting manufacturing economy might buy us a little breathing space - a few months, perhaps - in relation to the damage we're doing to the planet.

But what is it that will happen in '50 months' (or thereabouts)? This is about what are called climate 'tipping points', where events occur from which there is no turning back, and this is why the arctic ice-melt is so significant. When large areas of open water become ice-free in the summer, the winter freeze produces a much thinner ice layer, which in turn melts more quickly the following year. When the Arctic warms so that the permafrost starts to melt (is no longer 'permanent') the melting of this soil, rich in decayed but frozen organic matter, releases methane into the atmosphere; methane is a greenhouse gas, so warming produces more warming . . . and so on. After such events become established we lose the capacity to return to the climate state that we had before, and something new and unknown is inevitably coming down the tracks at us.

Andrew Simms, of new economics foundation, is heading up a new 50 month awareness initiative. There's an interactive section on The Guardian's website where invited contributors and readers propose new ways forward. Andrew's own article for The Guardian explains the position, and the actions needed. To people on nef's email list, he asks, 'What will you do?'

In my Swarthmore Lecture book, addressing the same question, I wrote that it involved
all the easy things we already know about, but may not have yet implemented in our own lives – and we are aware what they are: insulate our houses, use less gas and electricity, reduce our travelling and change our means of travel, eat less meat (or none at all), reduce all consumption and waste, re-use, repair and recycle everything we can, shop less and shop local, reduce food miles, grow your own, compost food waste, buy without packaging, cook fresh food from scratch instead of buying processed food . . . and so on. Many of us are already doing some of this, some of the time; we all need to do all of it, all of the time, consistently and reliably, forever.
These are all individual actions - we know what to do, and the question is why we aren't doing it. I'll write about that on another occasion. In the book I also wrote:
Beyond our private lives, how about tackling the carbon emissions of the places where we work? This might involve us in difficult conversations with management; if we are ‘the management’, then it might involve us in difficult conversations with trustees or shareholders; if we are the trustees or shareholders, then it’s time we faced the fact that increased costs or reduced profits in the short term are not an argument for doing nothing.

And then there’s our local area, the place where we live and the local government structures there. Have we got Transition Town activity already happening? If so, are we involved? If not, can we, as Quakers, help to start it?

Do we know what our local councillors are doing, or not doing, about sustainability? Are they actively supporting local food initiatives and markets? Are they actively seeking land to supply more allotments and get hopeful growers off the waiting list? Can we find out, question them, make it an election issue for next time? Might a few more of us be called to take our Quaker values into the public, political arena and stand for election as local councillors.

What about our local MPs? Do we know their views? We can start writing letters, holding public figures to account. These are all the basic minimal things that every responsible citizen needs to do, whether or not they have any religious underpinning. For those of us who profess a faith, how can we countenance doing less?

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Seek out abundance

I was going to write a whole article this week about the melting arctic ice . . . but what more is there to say? It's reached a record low, it's serious, it probably (though not certainly) means that in 2013 we'll have another year's weather like 2012 . . . and the issue has vanished from the news agenda even faster than the ice melted. With unbelievable idiocy Shell wants to drill for oil in the newly-opened water . . . excuse me, why exactly has the ice melted? At least an all-party committee of MPs has come out trenchantly against it, though whether they can influence the government remains to be seen.

What can we do? Reduce our own carbon footprints - that's the first and most important. Write to your MP in support of the committee report. Support campaigning organisations that are working on the issue, such as Greenpeace or World Wildlife Fund. If you send Christmas cards, try these from WWF, or - even better - reduce carbon emissions by sending e-cards and give a donation instead.

If you want to get better informed about the social and political, as well as the climatic, issues then I recommend you read Laurence Smith's book The New North (it's only £5 in paperback, and less than that in a Kindle edition).

That's enough on that . . . I want us all to do all of this, of course, but direct our hearts and spirits elsewhere. This weekend I've been out in my garden, harvesting. Yes, it's been a dire year but some things are there. Outdoor tomatoes are starting to ripen at last, beans and peas are heading for their last picking already, having got going late and slowly in the first place.
Rosa rugosa hips

But the Rosa rugosa are heavy with big fat rose hips, which I'm about to make into jelly - and if there were no imported fruit available, that would be my vitamin C for the winter!

My apples have done very well - I think I was just lucky, as many people are reporting poor crops. At the moment I'm just picking up windfalls, but there's a good crop coming soon.

The cranberries and lingonberries have also done very well, so that's another jelly-making session.

But more than even all of these, it's the astonishing abundance of the blackberry crop. They've liked the rain and they're fat and juicy - though, alas, not very sweet or flavourful because they haven't had the sun on them to increase the sugars. So they're for jam, and pies or crumbles, rather than just eating raw.

I have a cultivated blackberry in my garden, which has hardly any spines, so you don't shred your hands while picking. It's also very easy to manage - the branches that have fruited this year are cut right back to the ground at the end of the season, and this year's new growth is tied in to supports and will fruit next year. This means you don't get a massed thicket of brambles, as happens in the wild, which is really crucial in a tiny garden like mine. Even so, I can't reach all of the fruit, so a fair bit gets left for the birds, which is good for the ecosystem.

 But if you don't have a garden, get out and find a hedgerow and pick blackberries, rose hips, and anything else edible you can find. (Elderberries, for instance can be made into pies, jam, jelly, cordial or wine.)

When I was a child, all sorts of people went out blackberrying at this time of year, and there was fierce competition for the best wild hedgerows - get there too soon and the fruit wasn't ripe; leave it too late and someone else would have picked it all!

We're surrounded by bad news and tales of scarcity - the ice is melting, there's been drought in the world's grain-growing states, farmers have had a bad year, food is going to get more expensive, economic conditions aren't about to improve and people in the lower half of the income distribution in this country are going to get poorer . . . it's all very grim.

But don't forget the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins in his poem God's Grandeur (1918) - what could have been a more grim time to be writing than the closing stages of World War 1?

THE world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod? *
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs --
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

We need to seek out experiences of life, of abundance.

* The word 'reck' is a short term for recognise; the 'rod' is a scepter, a symbol of authority. The words 'then now' suggest  the ongoing nature of humanity's lack of  awareness: people of the past ('then') and people of the  present ('now') do not 'reck' or recognise God's authority, God's 'rod'.  

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

2012 Earth Overshoot day - 22 August

Global Footprint Network has released its 2012 calculations.

Today, August 22, is Earth Overshoot Day, marking the date when humanity has exhausted nature’s budget for the year. We are now operating in overdraft. For the rest of the year, we will maintain our ecological deficit by drawing down local resource stocks and accumulating carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

In 1992, Earth Overshoot Day fell on October 21. In 2002, Overshoot Day was on October 3. Given current trends in consumption, one thing is clear: Earth Overshoot Day tends to arrive a few days earlier each year.

Earth Overshoot Day (from a concept devised by the UK think tank new economics foundation) helps conceptualize the gap between what nature can regenerate, and how much is required to support human activities. Similar to the way a bank statement tracks income against expenditures, Global Footprint Network tracks humanity’s demand for, and supply of, natural resources and ecological services. Global Footprint Network’s calculations show that in just eight months, we have used up the renewable natural resources and CO2 sequestration that the planet can sustainably provide this year.

In the past year, severe economic and environmental crises have reverberated across the globe—ranging from the European debt predicament and extreme weather events to grain shortages, groundwater depletion and overfishing—affecting many among a world population that has surpassed the 7 billion mark.

Dr. Mathis Wackernagel, President of Global Footprint Network, said:
Nations around the world, and particularly in the south of Europe, have started to painfully experience what it means to spend more money than what they earn. The resource pressure is similar to such financial overspending, and can become devastating. As resource deficits get larger, and resource prices remain high, the costs to nations become unbearable.
For most of human history, humanity has used nature’s services—to build cities and roads, provide food and create products, and absorb the CO2 generated by human activities—at a rate that was well within Earth’s budget. But sometime in the 1970s, we crossed a critical threshold. Human demand began outstripping what the planet could renewably produce, and we went into ecological overshoot.

Today, humanity is using the equivalent of just over 1.5 Earth’s worth of ecological resources and services. If current trends continue unchanged, we are on track to require the resources of two planets well before mid-century. Our ecological overspending has become a vicious cycle, in which we draw down more and more principal at the same time our level of consumption, or 'spending', grows. The social and economic costs could be staggering.

Dr. Wackernagel added:
From soaring fossil fuel prices to crippling national debts partly due to rising natural resource prices, our economies are now confronting the reality of years of spending beyond our means,” “If we are to maintain stable societies and productive lives, we can no longer sustain a widening budget gap between what nature is able to provide and how much our infrastructure, economies and lifestyles require.
Organizations around the world are observing Earth Overshoot Day today with events to raise awareness of humanity’s Ecological Overshoot. Global Footprint Network is hosting a Tweet Chat on Twitter (@EndOvershoot) using the hashtag #OvershootDay at 8am, 1pm, and 6pm (Pacific Standard Time) today to discuss Ecological Overshoot and how the Ecological Footprint is calculated. That's 4pm, 9pm and 2am UK time.

Ecological Overshoot and the Global Economy

The global recession that began in October 2008 slowed humanity’s demand for resources and CO2 sequestration, but our consumption is still rising. To truly reverse trends without risk of greater economic downturns, resource limits must be at the core of decision-making. Current resource trends already cannot meet the needs of the planet’s 7 billion—and growing—population. About two billion people lack access to the resources required to meet their basic needs. As millions in emerging economies join the middle class, our resource consumption and the world’s ecological deficit will only increase.

China’s total Ecological Footprint—that is, its demand for natural resources and the services they provide—is the world’s largest, yet its per person Footprint remains modest. As its economy grows and its people prosper, China’s large population and increasing per capita consumption will have an ever-greater impact on the world’s widening ecological deficit. Already, we see how consumption patterns of individual countries grow global Overshoot.

- The per capita resource demands of the United States, which went into Overshoot on March 28, is still equivalent to the supply of more than four Earths.
- The per capita demands of Brazil, which went into Overshoot on July 6, requires the resources of just under two Earths.
- In Qatar, the typical citizen requires the resources of six and a half Earths.

Over the past few years, financial crises, civil unrest and environmental catastrophes have shaken several nations. Earth Overshoot Day offers a sobering reminder of the risks of ecological overspending—not just to humanity as a whole, but to nations, cities and businesses, whose long-term success and stability depend upon continued access to and sustainable consumption of natural resources.

It is possible to turn the tide and reverse current consumption trends. Global Footprint Network and its network of partners are working with organizations, governments and financial institutions around the globe to make decisions that are aligned with ecological reality—decisions that can help close the ecological budget gap and provide for a prosperous future in the face of changing and challenging resource trends.

If you would like to learn more about Earth Overshoot Day and Global Footprint Network’s work, or to make a donation to their work, go to www.footprintnetwork.org .

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

"You are all individuals" . . . "I'm not!"

If you've seen the movie Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979), you'll probably recognise these words. When the hapless Brian has been followed - pursued, even - by credulous and demanding crowds, he takes refuge in the house of a woman friend. After spending the night with her, he flings open the shutters in the morning and is horrified to see the crowd waiting for him below. They start to chant and hail him as their leader.

'You've got it wrong,' he cries, 'you're all individuals.'

'Yes, master, we are all individuals,' they chant, as one.

'I'm not!' shouts a wag from the back of the crowd, jumping up and down.

Last week, I wrote that I had one more 'money' post to write, and I still do, but it can wait, because I want to think about something else this week. The Life of Brian quote reminds me of another, from Alan Watts, the Zen teacher. It's a fundamental mistake, he wrote, to imagine that a human being is an individual ego running round inside a bag of skin (see his book The Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are).

I've found myself particularly thinking about all of this during the past two weeks of the Olympics. Stay with me . . . this post isn't actually going to be about sport per se, but about what the whole phenomenon of the Olympics can teach us. I'm no sports fan (except for singles tennis) but have found myself fascinated by the social-psychological event that has been going on. It's been a powerful reminder of the degree to which we are social beings, not individual isolates.

Many of the athletes spoke of the importance of the huge support they got from the crowd, and what a  difference it made. On the final Saturday, Britain's Mo Farah was running to win the men's 5,000m track race in the main stadium (after winning the 10,000m just a week before); one of the BBC's commentators said that the crowd was 'roaring him home', that there was a Mexican wave of sound following him round the circuit. In the men's tennis, Andy Murray swept past world number one, Novak Djokovic, in straight sets in the semi-final, and then went on to demolish his nemesis, Roger Federer, also in straight sets (6-2, 6-1, 6-4), to win gold. It wasn't the usual Wimbledon crowd there on Centre Court, but a vocally patriotic Olympics crowd, and they roared for Andy Murray without the undertone of anticipated disappointment that has accompanied British men's tennis for many decades. Not only that, Roger Federer - accustomed for so many years to being the darling of Centre Court - wasn't getting that kind of crowd support. Roger's game was flat, and Andy was just flying.

And many of the athletes, especially those in individual rather than team sports, spoke of the importance of being part of 'Team GB', and the difference it made to them. A couple of years ago Djokovic stepped up to a new level of tennis after winning Davis Cup for Serbia, and spoke of the difference that came in playing for his country. One of the tennis commentators at the Olympics said of Andy Murray: 'Ever since he put that Team GB shirt on, he's been a different player.'

So, what's going on here? What lies behind this phenomenon called 'home advantage'? A research  team has been following athletes of nations hosting the Olympics for many years now. In each case, in the period between being awarded the games, and the games actually happening, the home nation's athletes show a steady rise in testosterone levels, in both men and women - and raised testosterone results in better performance (which is why artifically raising it by doping is so effective). So the 'home advantage' isn't 'just psychological', it affects the physiology, the bodies, of the athletes.

There's something ancient, in evolutionary terms, going on here. Monkeys also show raised testosterone, giving them a fighting advantage, on their home range. If the moving gang fight strays off their own territory, their testosterone levels drop and they lose their advantage.

Way back in human evolution, when we lived in small bands of hunter-gatherers, even a tiny advantage made a huge difference in a very uncertain world; your group was everything - a sole individual would die, and the tribe was the unit that survived. A band that worked together well, that was successful in getting food and keeping other groups off its home range, would pass it genes down to more people. So gene mutations that coded for high group cohesion and successful group peformance under pressure would be passed down to future generations. Hominids without these beneficial adaptations would eventually die out, being out-competed for essential resources by the more successful bands.

And the fact that we are here, now, in an industrial and post-industrial twenty-first century, tells us that our ancestors were the ones that survived. We are the inheritors of those genes, and this tribal physiology is hard-wired into us. At the Olympics we saw the tribe roaring for its champion, time after time. This is something ancient and primitive and all our modern 'sophistication' does not erase it. We roar for the champion, and the champion responds with enhanced performance.There were many, many Team GB athletes who, while not winning gold, posted a new personal best in their sport.

This deep and powerful sociality of the human species is often masked in our modern world, but it comes to the fore at times of powerful emotion. The Olympics constitute one such example, and other sporting contests often display such characteristics - the tribal nature of football is well-known. It may also come to the fore in families when someone dies - there's an experience of not quite knowing whose grief is whose; there's just an amount of 'family grief' washing around, and different family members experience and express it at different times. Some corporations deliberately seek to stimulate these emotions by rituals to consolidate loyalty to the company. And military training is designed to create close bonds between members of a platoon. Times of national mourning, and times of warfare are other obvious examples, and this variety demonstrates the different ways we define our 'tribe' at different times and for different events - out ancient behaviours have adapted and attached themselves to modern circumstances.

So, what can we take from all of this? In last Sunday's Observer newspaper, Will Hutton tried to draw some political and economic lessons. In his article 'Olympics: the key to our success can rebuild Britain's economy' he sought to draw lessons for the mainstream of politics:
We need politicians who understand why we were so successful at the 2012 Games. Cameron and Osborne do not. The lesson is simple. If we could do the same for economy and society, rejecting the principles that have made us economic also-rans and which the coalition has put at the centre of its economic policy, Britain could be at the top of the economic league table within 20 years.
But what of the community politics of sustainability, the informal economy, campaigning, working for a different way of doing things? The following day, Sarah  Bakewell had an article in The Guardian about something completely different (a novel way of attempting a crewed space mission to Mars) in which she wrote:
Also, what about Earth? The big puzzle facing Earth-dwellers at the moment is how to motivate ourselves to do things clearly worth doing, but lacking immediate pay-offs. Our feeble response to the environmental crisis is a glaring case. To outwit ourselves, we need to harness our own psychology in new ways, and trick ourselves into doing good.
Could there be a genius of human motivation out there, ready to dream up some psychologically astute Earth One project? It might rest on some strange or frightening ploy at first, but if it rescues life on Earth, we'll have it.
The task is harness this deep, and deeply effective, tribal instinct that we have seen during the Olympics and widen its application to all humanity, and the biosphere. Humans are an adaptable species, and we've already seen some of this during the Games. The roar of the crowd for our women athletes is already one such extension - the primitive tribe wouldn't have females in that position in the first place. The acclaim for Jamaica's Usain Bolt showed that we can move beyond national chauvinism. The next steps need to happen, and to happen fast for the preservation of life on Earth. This won't happen without disciplined spiritual practice (just for starters!) and one good place to begin - if you don't know it already - is the Buddhist practice of Loving-Kindness Meditation, which starts with ourselves and moves outwards to the whole cosmos.

And if you want think more about our hunter-gatherer ancestry, and what it can teach us now, I can't recommend too highly a book called The Old Way: a story of the first people by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas. She was nineteen when her parents took the family to live among the Bushmen of the Kalahari. Fifty years later, after a life of writing and study, Thomas returns to her experiences with the Bushmen, one of the last hunter-gatherer societies on earth, and discovers among them an essential link to the origins of all human society. It's beautifully written, both detailed and evocative; one of the recommendations on the back cover says:
This is the owner's manual we need for humankind. The Old Way gives us critical insight into our past at a turning point in human history, from one of the few people who has seen our kind living as we have lived for most of our species' existence.

It throws a searching light on our modern world, and our modern ways of being and relating. It shows us where we came from, and what kind of physical and social world we are really best fitted for.