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September 2015 - Terra Infirma

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30 September 2015

Why don't people 'get' climate change? Because we're only human...

George_Monbiot_(cropped)I like George Monbiot – he's decent, principled and thorough – but I often disagree with the tenor of his arguments. Today he complained that there was more TV news coverage in 2014 of the 2007 disappearance of Madeleine McCann than the whole range of environmental issues.

This doesn't really surprise me.

As animals we are programmed to react to immediate risks to our family. What happened to Madeleine McCann taps into our deepest fears. As a parent, the idea of losing a kid to a stranger while taking a minuscule risk – eating on the same premises while the kids sleep in a locked room (which I've been known to do) – haunts me. And never knowing their fate... it makes me shiver.

By contrast, climate change is a creeping, gradual, sometimes distant threat. We can look at graphs of plunging Arctic sea ice, but they don't hit that primal chord in the same way because we can't relate to the risk. Boris Johnson famously questioned how the world could be warming when he could see snow outside his window – a silly argument on an intellectual level, but it illustrates the mountain to climb.

[BTW, in 2014 'Maddie' hit the headlines for a particular reason (which both Monbiot and the study he quotes fail to mention) – the Portuguese Police and Scotland Yard started digging wasteland up in the hunt for the young girl. There was a very real chance the mystery would be solved at long last. Studying 2012 or 2013 might give a more realistic comparison.]

What I'm trying to get at here is people aren't stupid as the title of Monbiot's article – "There may be flowing water on Mars. But is there intelligent life on Earth?" – implies. But they are human, and if we are failing to communicate the risks of climate change, then maybe, just maybe it's our fault, not theirs.


Photograph by Adrian Arbib, used under Creative Commons License.

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28 September 2015

There's no silver bullet in CSR

business angel

For those of us searching for ways of making business more responsible, it is all too easy to call for simple solutions. Unfortunately recent scandals have torpedoed many of the broad brush solutions held up as panaceas:

  • The German approach to business: VW;
  • Family owned business: VW;
  • Worker representation and strong unions: VW;
  • Co-operatives: The Co-operative Bank/Paul Flowers;
  • Nationalised industry: the NHS and Jimmy Saville's abuse of kids therein;
  • A higher calling: child abuse in the Catholic Church.

That's not to say that any of the above things are wrong or are not better than unfettered capitalism, just that they are in themselves no guarantee that unethical behaviour (or turning a blind eye to such behaviour) won't happen.

People are people. We take shortcuts and we chance our arm - some more than others, but we all do it. We are tribal, so we tend to defend our own – sometimes defending the indefensible. Simply changing business models or management structures won't weed out millennia of human evolution.

Culture is key – people need to stand up for what is right, whether the CEO or the software programmer who is asked whether they can they code a cheat into an emissions control system. Those who transgress need to be held accountable, those who blow the whistle on transgressions need to be cherished not shunned.

Nobody ever said it was going to be easy – and the examples above show us that it's more difficult than many of us thought. Me included.



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25 September 2015

A surfeit of -isms? Eco-modernism, new environmentalism, pragmatic environmentalism

world brainThis week saw the launch of 'Eco-modernism' the brainchild of Mark Lynas and a host of other green thinkers. It pretty much fills the same space as BusinessGreen editor James Murray's New Environmentalism concept and my own, completely ignored, idea of Pragmatic Environmentalism – viz we need to reclaim the environmental movement from leftwing politics and place it square in the centre so people of left, right and middle can relate to it and not fear it is creeping communism in disguise (the old 'watermelon' trope).

Under eco-modernism/new/pragmatic environmentalism, the anti-science of parts of the green movement (GM, fracking, nuclear are all EVIL*) are challenged as hard as the anti-science of right-wing neoliberalism (climate change denial). We do what works, what science indicates, what technology and society permits, not what dogma dictates.

The seeds of my pragmatic environmentalism were sown when I was part of a political team bringing in a new recycling system here in Newcastle. We proposed moving from a source separated system to a semi-mixed collection of recyclates to make it as easy as possible for as many people as possible to participate. The local green movement went apeshit, to put it mildly, accusing us of betraying our principles and screaming that the whole thing was doomed to failure. We decided to ignore them, and rightly so, as the already good recycling rate jumped by 50% overnight.

You could argue that most of the big wins in sustainability have come from pragmatic environmentalism. Last quarter the UK produced a record 25.3% of power from renewables, up from 16.9% last year and beating down coal for the first time. Add in nuclear and low carbon sources produced just short of 50%. That's been achieved by harnessing rather than smashing capitalism, using market levers to create a virtuous cycle of volume and economies of scale (sorry, Naomi, but that's how it is). Despite the UK Government sending out all the wrong signals, this rise is likely to continue for a few years at least.

My only worry about eco-modernism was the strange bedfellows at its launch. Ex-environmental minister Owen Patterson and shamed banker Matt Ridley used the event to explain that everything was alright really. That's not the point. The threats are real and they are coming thick and fast. We have no time for either neoliberal complacency or anticapitalist utopianism – we've just got to knuckle down and get the job done.


* Note: I have reservations about all 3 technologies, but I try to base those on science rather than gut instinct. This annoys the antis more than it annoys the pros.


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23 September 2015

Al Gore, the CBI & Greenpeace: which big gun will make a difference?


The heavy artillery of the climate movement parked its tanks on the (metaphorical) lawn of the UK Chancellor this week. Al Gore, John Cridland of the CBI and John Sauven of Greenpeace lambasted his approach to clean energy at a Green Alliance conference. Each took a different tack and I thought it would be interesting to compare and contrast.

Gore appealed to the UK Government to show leadership:

"The UK’s historic legacy of leadership on the most important moral issues faced by humanity, including the climate crisis, is long and has been recognised with respect by the community of nations,” he said. “It is time for the UK government to honour and live up to that legacy, and return to its global leadership position, domestically and abroad, by supporting an ambitious international agreement in Paris that unleashes the power of the private sector to create a global clean energy economy."

Cridland looked at the risks of inaction and economic benefits of action:

"Supermarket chain ASDA estimates that 95% of its supply chain could be at risk from changing weather patterns and increased extreme events – which are both accelerated by climate change. And we’ve already seen how global technology companies in the US – in particular - had to stop trading when flooding in Thailand shut down the factories they relied on.

But besides the ‘costs’ of inaction, the ‘benefits’ of seizing the opportunity and growing the green economy are also clear. We know the UK’s green economy has sales of over 120 billion pounds a year. And whilst people might describe ‘China’ or ‘India’ as ‘emerging markets’, the green economy is a high-growth ‘emerging market’ in its own right. Between 2010 and 2013, the green economy grew at more than 7% a year, compared to less than 2% a year over the same period for the UK economy as a whole.

Today, 164 countries have renewable energy targets. That’s 164 potential markets worldwide for the UK’s renewable industry – for example."

Sauven took a more combative approach:

"From Britain’s business leaders to the government’s own advisers, the chorus of opposition against George Osborne’s ideological assault on clean energy just keeps growing. His increasingly erratic and capricious policies are not only harming UK businesses and ripping off consumers but are also isolating Britain ahead of a crucial climate summit.

When Al Gore ironically remarks that Osborne is not the prime minister, he makes a very good point. David Cameron should take heed of it and start wresting back control of energy and climate policy from the chancellor’s hands."

My assessment is that, in the short term, the Government will be embarrassed most by Gore's argument – every politician likes to think of themselves as showing leadership. However, Cridland's cost-benefit analysis may have more long term effect on a business-loving Chancellor, particularly if it is followed up with some invitations to see that burgeoning green sector in action (Osborne likes nothing more than swanning about a factory in hi-viz). I'm most disappointing in Sauven's line – he should know by now that experienced politicians have an inner noise-cancelling switch which is activated by insults and words like 'ideological'. You've got to preach to the congregation, not to the choir.


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21 September 2015

Is there any mileage in unethical business?

vwIt's well known that car makers use all kinds of tricks to bump up the apparent fuel efficiency of their vehicles (surely easily sorted by the authorities with a little effort), but the revelation that VW had engineered their diesel cars to only switch on emissions controls when they are being tested beggars belief. The company faces fines up to $18bn in the US, an expensive recall programme and untold reputational damage.

As an engineer, it pains me that (presumably) a whole bunch of engineers were in on this scam. They would've been much better off putting all that effort into creating engines which meet standards and give great performance.

The VW boss Martin Winterkorn has ordered an 'external investigation' into the scandal, but the question he needs to ask himself is how he let a culture develop where this kind of thing was deemed acceptable.


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18 September 2015


plan b

Something I missed earlier in the year was the discovery that when we sit on the toilet, we are literally sitting on a goldmine. US researchers found that the amount of gold in our faeces is about the same as that in mineral deposits. Another study estimated that, by extracting all metals, the annual excrement of a million Americans could be worth $13 million. There are over 300 million Americans, and a further 900 million plus living in OECD countries whose consumption patterns are broadly similar. You do the math.

In addition, extracting toxic metals such as lead would make it more viable to use composted human waste as fertiliser – maybe extracting gas first – turning a waste material into a potential product.

I love this kind of thinking – urban mining in the true sense of the word where everything from road-sweepings to our own poo is seen as a potential goldmine. Where there's muck indeed...


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16 September 2015

Who is going to champion the UK's green industry now?

Lisa_Nandy_MP_addressing_the_NCVO_Acevo_fringe_(6192110384)As the details of new Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn's shadow cabinet trickled out this week, I became increasingly depressed. Carolyn Flint, the existing Energy & Climate Change shadow minister and Ed Miliband, who was once DECC minister, refused to serve Corbyn. So new face Lisa Nandy (right) was announced in their place.

Whereas many on the left cheered due to her opposition to fracking, I did a quick Google of her name and 'climate change' and found nothing of substance. The 'They Work for You' website ranks her voting record on climate change as 'ambiguous'. She has no prior front bench experience. Her boss's position that we should open the coal mines again and tackle climate change is hardly a coherent position.

With the Conservative party busy dismantling the subsidy system for renewables, while boosting those for oil and gas, investor confidence in the renewable industry has plummeted. On the blue side, only maverick MP and London Mayor wannabe candidate Zac Goldsmith is pushing for the green economy.

Of the traditionally pro-environmental parties, the Greens only have one MP and the Lib Dems eight.

This is not good.

My only optimism is that history tells that politicians have generally followed the green economy, not led. It is up to business to deliver.


Photo by NCVO London used under creative commons licence.


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14 September 2015

Being right isn't enough

Angry managerYou'd have to have the heart of Katie Hopkins not to be moved by the refugee crisis – a humanitarian disaster unfolding in front of our eyes. The reasons for this huge movement of people are many and some commentators have linked the mass movement of people to the impacts of climate change.

To me, this is wrong. Not wrong as in factually incorrect, but the wrong argument to make at the wrong time. It comes across as opportunistic bandwagon jumping when emotions are high – and will make the general public, the people we need to win over, less likely to hear the warnings on climate, not more – "There they go again..."

One of the reasons I don't join pressure groups is this kind of one-eyed hectoring. It frustrates me when I hear it from all parts of the environmental movement from cycling lobbyists to anti-fracking militants (for the record I'm very pro-cycling and moderately anti-fracking). It's fine if campaigners just want to feel good about themselves, but if they really want to make a difference, they need to be much better attuned to the public mood.


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11 September 2015

Thinking Fast and Slow about Sustainability

KahnemanYears ago, I got into a lengthy, but pretty pointless e-mail argument about climate science. On paper, I had no chance. My opponent was a pre-eminent chemist with a lengthy publication list and a reputation for debunking bad science in his field – including exposing a high profile 'breakthrough' which made the mainstream media. But, the debate soon settled into an unexpected pattern, the inverse of what you would expect.

He, the scientist, would challenge me using unsupported 'evidence' copied and pasted from right-wing libertarian US websites (his own politics were firmly left of centre) and I, the layman, with much needed signposting from, would come back with peer-reviewed research which debunked his debunking. Eventually, he half-backed down with a much caveated admission that maybe, just maybe, carbon emissions were driving long term climatic trends.

The question that has bugged me ever since is "How could someone so clever be so dumb?" Reading Nobel-prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman's superlative book Thinking, Fast and Slow this summer has answered my question – and it's all about how our brains really work.

Sciences such as chemistry are carried out under very controlled laboratory conditions. After years of working in a particular field, practitioners build up a strong intuition for what is probable and improbable (the 'fast' thinking of the title). They can generally trust their intuition as long as they keep to what they know.

More unpredictable, real world, highly complex issues like economics and politics (and, almost certainly, climate) cannot be judged by hunches – 'expert' pundits in these fields are wrong in their 'off the top of the head' predictions far more often than they are right. Kahneman argues that in such disciplines even the simplest mathematical model based on data from past experience (ie slow, analytical thinking) will comfortably out-perform expert intuition.

My colleague had got himself into a vicious cycle of trying to back up his intuition by grasping at anything, no matter what its provenance, that supported it. This is classic 'confirmation bias' – where instead of the analytical part of our brain keeping the intuitive part in check, it tries to find evidence to justify the hunch. His biggest mistake was backing his scientific intuition over the knowledge of others (those climatologists I was quoting) in a field he knew little about – a little humility would have saved him a lot of embarrassment.

I've believed for a long time that psychology is the missing piece in the sustainability. Nothing will change unless people start making different decisions – whether that's choosing to recycle a cardboard box at home or setting ambitious national climate targets. And if you want to encourage people to make different decisions, you have got to learn more about how they make those decisions and what can possibly change them.

I can't adequately summarise Kahneman's book here, except to say that it will change the way you think about how other people think. For example, if you try to force change on someone, their brains will exaggerate the downside and ignore the benefits. However, if people come to that conclusion by themselves, that flips around – they exaggerate the benefits and downplay the risks. I have made a career out of doing this – facilitating change rather than proposing it – and now I know why it works!

Highly recommended.


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9 September 2015

The Circular Economy Rules

In the latest edition of Ask Gareth, I consider the Circular Economy concept and propose some rules of thumb for success.

We are always after fresh questions for Ask Gareth. If you have one, please check out the past editions in case it has already been covered, and, if not, fire it through by clicking here.


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7 September 2015

One photo beats a million statistics

me and charlie IILast Thursday morning, with a lump in my throat, I finished the newspaper and folded it carefully. I didn't want the kids to see the pictures of the lifeless body of three year old Syrian refugee Aylan Kurdi lying in the surf on a Turkish beach. Later in the day, I came into our living room to find Charlie, our three year old, snoozing on the sofa in almost the same position, bum in the air, one arm along his body, the only difference his thumb stuck firmly in his mouth. I lifted him up and hugged him close, tears in my eyes.

Many people have asked why it took these pictures to make so many sit up and take notice when the refugee crisis has been building for so long. Countless other little kids have drowned in the Med, out of sight, their parents trying to get them to physical and economic safety, yet it is only now that the on-line petitions have started, charitable donations have surged and politicians have started to do something more than mouth platitudes.

The answer is human nature – we relate emotionally to individuals, not numbers. We cannot comprehend the six million-plus who perished in The Holocaust, so we focus on Anne Frank. By all accounts, Anne Frank was a perfectly normal little girl, who happened to keep a diary, caught up in one of the blackest periods in history. Her posthumous fame doesn't detract from the suffering of the millions of others, it simply helps us get out heads around it by scaling it down to the personal level we can engage with.

I've been aware of the refugee crisis for a long time, but the photos of little Aylan made me act - if only to sign petitions and pledge some cash. I feel guilty that I didn't made these small efforts months ago, and I'm certainly in no position to criticise others for 'jumping on the bandwagon' now. At the end of the day, we're just being human.


If you'd like to make a donation, The Guardian has a list of appropriate charities here. The petition to the UK Government is here.



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4 September 2015

Digging an ethical hole...

sustainability climate CSR

Interesting example from Daniel Kahneman's excellent psychology book, Thinking, Fast & Slow:

A hardware store has been selling snow shovels for $15. The morning after a large snowstorm, the store raises the price to $20.

Is this Fair, Acceptable, Unfair or Very Unfair?

A whopping 82% of participants in the experiment rated this as Unfair or Very Unfair, despite the fact it is a simple case of supply and demand – the economic principle which determines everyday vital commodity prices such as oil or grain. Kahneman concludes that a basic rule of fairness is that you shouldn't use market forces to impose losses on others (the price hike was voluntary).

To me, there's a wider implication. Milton Friedman-style thinking says that the only social responsibility of the hardware store is to maximise its profits. However, this assumes that the consumer will accept such thinking as fair and yet it is clear from many real-life examples as well as psychology experiments like this one that they don't.

Fairness matters to people, and customers are people.


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2 September 2015

If it looks like a SUV...


We've just bitten the bullet and bought a new family car. Having three kids needing car seats/boosters limited our options massively – few 5 seaters have enough space across the back seat, so, after much head-scratching, we settled on a Ford S-Max 7 seater (above).

Despite being a much bigger beast, the S-Max has slightly lower CO2 emissions per km than our old VW Golf (138 g/km compared to 143 g/km). That salved our carbon consciences somewhat (along with the fact our annual mileage is low and much of what we do do offsets flying).

One option we didn't consider was a spacious SUV – for obvious reasons.

Hold on. For 'obvious reasons'? What are those?

Er, that SUVs destroy the planet with their gas-guzzling and their carbon-belching?

Do they? A Nissan X-Trail SUV emits 129-138 g CO2/km depending on whether you go 2WD or 4WD. The lower end of that is not far off the average for the UK and better than our S-Max.

If I'm honest, I didn't check whether the received wisdom on SUVs was correct until it was too late. If I'm really, really honest, the more powerful motive was that I didn't want to be seen to be driving an SUV no matter what.

Over the summer, I've been reading Thinking, Fast and Slow, Nobel prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman's brilliant treatise on decision making. The central premise is that we generally make decisions on intuition based on previous experience, rather than careful, objective analysis. And, it seems, the 'SUV = evil' meme was more deeply embedded in my mind than I'd ever realised.

I'll be musing more on Kahneman over the next few weeks, but, in short, every sustainability practitioner should read it.


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