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Archive for May, 2008

Earlier this week, Erik Hershman, co-founder of Ushahidi, presented his project to our Stanford Peace 2.0 group.

Talk about exciting stuff! Ushahidi is a brilliant example of smart web and mobile technology put to the service of a very worthwhile social cause, in this case violence in Kenya. What enthralled me, was Erik’s announcement of the soon to be released, Ushahidi 2.0, ‘a free, open source version, rebuilt from the ground up that anyone will be able to use around the world’. Ushahidi just won the 2008 NetSquared Challenge

I can very well see having several Ushahidi sites, to cover various aspects of the climate  crisis, from food, to water, to natural disasters, to the witnessing of environmental deterioration. This way, citizens from all over the world can become live witnesses of the negative changes taking place in their environment, and get connected with the solutions to remedy these changes. 

Erik is also the guy behind Afrigadget, another project well worth checking out. 

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Better four years late than never, . . . The White House finally issued a comprehensive climate report, confirming the man-made origin of global warming, and validating earlier U.S. specific predictions from the IPCC.

Nothing that we did not know already, but still, it is a step towards more transparency from the top. Bad news have never sounded so good.

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Wilting agenda: Britain loses its appetite for green initiatives‘ made the front page of the Financial Times yesterday. We have a lot to learn, however, from the Brits as they struggle through hard economic times and demonstrate to us what can happen then. Some facts, first:

  • With the economy rising to the top of Brits’ concerns, environmental concerns are no longer top of mind. In January 2007, 19% cited the environment as their top concern. A year later, it is down to 8%. 
  • Echoing its citizens’ change of heart, Gordon Brown and its government are backpedaling on green policies, from landfill, to transport, to renewable targets. 

Most interesting, is the public narrative from some of the powers in charge, dismissing the green agenda as if it was either some despicable idea, as in, “People hate this green stuff” – senior member of shadow cabinet -, or some de facto dicy proposition,  “Politicians will need nerves of steel to continue with this (the green stuff, he means). If the economy is doing well and we are prosperous, we can afford the luxury of dealing with climate change – or that is how it is seen. But when times are difficult for the economy and we are caught in the vice of inflation, from a politician’s point of view it becomes much more difficult to press ahead with policies that will increase prices.” – John Roberts, from Bank of Canada and United Utilities -

That’s one camp. 

Then there is Together.com, a group of British businesses that are choosing a much different approach: “People can save hundreds of pounds a year by making greener everyday choices. The green penny is definitely dropping for British shoppers feeling the pinch from rising living costs.” Joined by no less than Phil Woolas, the environment minister, with some surprisingly good news: “The green pound really can go further – people can cut their carbon footprint and save money into the bargain. The signs are encouraging. We know that people want to cut their impact on the planet – recycling rates are at a record high, emissions from people’s homes are dropping, and since last June we’ve had nearly a million visitors to our online carbon calculator.” 

Two paths. The latter one, the smart one, is led by the business sector. Last weekend, I caught a talk from Amory Lovins, from the Rocky Mountain Institute, and was struck by his insistence that business be the path to our salvation. Not the citizenry, not our government. One of the advantages of businesses, and even more so American businesses, is their emphasis on getting things done and on the bottom line. If business can smell money with green, as more and more do, we will have won a big part of the battle. 

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For all of us climate deniers, in various states, as in here and here and here, Meryn Stol found a new argument, for why we should all care, and take quick action, no matter what:

Donald Brown is Associate Professor of Environmental Ethics at Penn State University, and the head of the Collaborative Program on the Ethical Dimensions of Climate Change, as part of the Rock Ethics Institute.

I could see a series of climate ethics workshops with decision-makers both in the business and policy fields. For instance, the next G8 Environment meeting could open up with a climate ethics session led by Donald Brown. This way, the debate would rightfully shift to a deeper level, that of underpinning values. Any other thoughts?

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If you are as interested as I am, in planning for our global future, I suggest you pay a visit to permaculture guru, David Holmgren‘s new website. Future Scenarios is impressive by the depth of its thinking regarding the long term  implications of peak oil and climate change. Most importantly, “Scenario planning allows us to use stories about the future as a reference point for imagining how particular strategies and structures might thrive, fail or be transformed.” – David Holmgren

David Holmgren anticipates four possible energy scenarios:

Techno-explosion depends on new, large and concentrated energy sources that will allow the continual growth in material wealth and human power over environmental constraints as well as population growth generally associated with space travel to colonise other planets.

Techno-stability depends on a seamless conversion from material growth based on depleting energy to a steady state in consumption of resources and population (if not economic activity) all based on novel use of renewable energies and technologies that can maintain if not improve the quality of services available from current systems. While this clearly involves massive change in almost all aspects of society, the implication is that once sustainable systems are set in place, a steady state sustainable society with much less change will prevail. Photovoltaic technology directly capturing solar energy is a suitable icon or symbol of this scenario.

Energy descent involves a reduction of economic activity and complexity and population in some way as fossil fuels are depleted. The increasing reliance on renewable resources of lower energy density will, over time, change the structure of society to reflect many of the basic design rules if not details of preindustrial societies. This suggests a ruralisation of settlement and economy with slower and less turnover of energy and resources and a progressive decline in human populations. Biological resources and their sustainable management will become progressively more important as fossil fuels of technological power declines. In many regions, forests will regain their traditional status as symbols of wealth. Thus the tree is a suitable icon of this scenario. Energy Descent, (like Techno Explosion) it a scenario dominated by change but that change might not be continuous or gradual. Instead it could be characterised by a series of steady states punctuated by crises (or mini collapses) that destroy some aspects of Industrial culture.

Collapse suggests a failure of the whole range of interlocked systems that maintain and support industrial society as high quality fossil fuels are depleted and/or climate change radically damages the ecological support systems. This collapse would be fast and more or less continuous without the restabilisations possible in Energy Descent. It would inevitably involve a major “die-off” of human population and a loss of the knowledge and infrastructure necessary for industrial civilization if not more severe scenarios including human extinction along with much of the planet’s biodiversity.

I wonder about the timeframe used. Most recent climate studies I have read seem to indicate an even closer tipping point, when we and our children will start to be seriously affected. Thinking in great-grandchildren terms may be overly optimistic.

David Holmgren is betting on the Energy Descent scenario. How about you? 

Thanks to Gary Peters for leading me to the Energy Bulletin article that introduced me to Future Scenarios

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Until today, I resisted the urge to comment on Wired provocative article on Inconvenient Truths: Get Ready to Rethink What It Means to  Be Green.  Lynn Miller‘s comment on Goeff Livingston‘s post about Wired piece, gave me the push I needed. 

First, I agree with Lynn. Anything that can draw people into thinking about their carbon footprint, has my full endorsement. Second, I would also hope that the information that is being conveyed does not further confuse citizens. People need clarity, not controversies. Third, I agree with Goeff Livingston, that any respectable journalism medium, such as Wired magazine, ought to do its homework, and convey only accurate information, to the best of their knowledge.

About Wired‘s  ‘10 Green Heresies‘, here is what I think:

  1. Live in cities: YES and NO; I have written before about supporting research for YES. At the same time, there is something about living closer to nature that supports  greener behavioral changes. It may be that we have not found yet the way to optimize the way we live in non urban settings.
  2. A/C is OK: NO; The fact that A/C is less of a villain than heating, does not make it right.
  3. Organics are not the answer: YES and NO;  I do not agree with the whole setup for their argument. The bigger issue is of conservation and proper use of natural resources. Their point about the role of transportation in carbon footprint is also highly debated. I do support their point about limiting read meat and pushing a vegetarian diet.
  4. Farm the Forests: YES and NO; I am aware that trees are a complex issue; on the whole however, more trees is better than less, and deforestation in the Amazon is never good. 
  5. China is  the solution: YES and NO; it is hard to ignore the polluting of the rivers, and of the air, and the exponential growth of coal plants
  6. Accept genetic engineering: NO; I am no expert. Still that one does not feel right. I say, let us address the issue of growing population with family planning and education, and conservation strategies. Let us eliminate the food waste, let us eat less, and less processed food.
  7. Carbon trading doesn’t work: YES; Carbon trading is an easy way out, that does not solve the fundamental problems of needing to produce less greenhouse gases at each source. 
  8. Embrace nuclear power: YES (reluctantly); I know I will get a lot of grief for that one, from some of my antinukes friends. The issue here is, if not nuclear energy, so what? Can we say with confidence that renewable energies, and conservation measures will be set in place soon enough to win the race against greenhouse gas emissions?
  9. Used cars – not hybrids: YES and MORE; as in retrofitting old cars, biking or walking instead of driving, carpooling, and hopefully soon electric cars that will be recharged with renewable energies. I do own a Prius, but I agree with them, a little old car with good gas mileage would be just as good. 
  10. Prepare for the worst: YES.

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News from the G8 Environmental Summit in Kobe, are not encouraging:

The European Union has pledged a 20 percent emissions reduction by 2020, and has offered to raise it to 30 percent if other nations sign on. A U.N.-brokered agreement last December included a footnote referencing the need for cuts of between 25 percent and 40 percent. The United States, however, has not committed to a midterm goal, demanding that top developing countries like China also commit to reductions. Japan has called for emissions by industrialized countries to begin to fall in the next one or two decades, but it too has stopped short of setting a 2020 target.

I read this and I wonder, how old are these people?

Sounds like deja vu to me . . .

Future summits may benefit from the help of a master group facilitator to help address some of the psychological barriers facing our leaders? This one very powerful cluster needs to get moving fast in the right direction.

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There is no disputing the importance of the social factor, in moving citizens along the greener path. One additional element to take into account, is the issue of personal relevance. How does one turn global warming solutions into personal benefits? Research shows that most direct way to interest people is through their pocketbook. Last, I would add the availability of technology to enable desired behavior changes.

Short and sweet for the bottom line, here is my secret green sauce recipe:

P (personal benefit) + S (social network) + T (enabling technology) 

Best examples of green ventures that understand the power of the PST formula, are in the area of home energy efficiencyAgilewaves, Greenbox, and Lucid Design Group show great promise.

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Some very exciting research in the field of social networks psychology, could revolutionize the way green ventures approach citizens. The latest study, by Dr. Nicholas Christakis of Harvard Medical School, and James Fowler of the University of California, San Diego, reports on the social factors in quitting smoking. It was published this morning in the New England Journal of Medicine, and is already creating ripples throughout the media, starting with the New York Times. From the study’s abstract:

The study examined the extent to which groups of widely connected people quit smoking together.

The results showed that:

  • Whole groups of people were quitting in concert 
  • Smokers were also progressively found in the periphery of the social network
  • Smoking cessation by a spouse decreased a person’s chances of smoking by 67% Smoking cessation by a sibling decreased the chances by 25% 
  • Smoking cessation by a friend decreased the chances by 36% 
  • Among persons working in small firms, smoking cessation by a coworker decreased the chances by 34% 
  • Friends with more education influenced one another more than those with less education. 
  • These effects were not seen among neighbors in the immediate geographic area.

Conclusions are :

  • Network phenomena appear to be relevant to smoking cessation. 
  • Groups of interconnected people stop smoking in concert, and smokers are increasingly marginalized socially.

These results are similar to results of a prior study from same authors on obesity. The network effect is at work not just in the halting of negative behaviors, such as smoking or unhealthy weight gain, but also in the spreading of positive life changes such as happiness. The latter will be documented in a forthcoming study by the authors on,’The Dynamic Spread of Happiness in a Large Social Network’.

The implications for climate strategies are obvious. Behavioral change conservation efforts, will work best if focused on groups, not just individuals. This is a confirmation of the research done by the ‘Nudge‘ team at University of Chicago. The smoking study also shows which clusters to focus on. Friends, as in Facebook or Twitter, coworkers as in Carbon Rally, spouses as in family systems

Thanks, Meryn, for all the links

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More potent than the most virulent tirades from flaming climate deniers, are the silent thoughts that circle in our minds and negate even our greenest intentions. It takes trained attention to catch these thoughts. Right now, for instance, I am about to go grocery shopping at Whole Foods. Only a few miles away. No objective reasons for why I can’t bike. Still, my mind is already made up:

I am going to drive. Don’t ask me to be good. Don’t ask me to be green. I don’t feel up to it. Need to be pampered. Out of sight, out of mind. Plus I am angry about stuff. Can’t deal with all that other shit. I fall back on what’s familiar, what I know best. Can’t, don’t want to make the extra effort. Right now, it is just me, me. Could care less about the planet, and what’s going to happen in ten, even a few years from now. It is too much work. I want simple. No room for other considerations. 

See what I mean?

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