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.