Eastbourne People’s Assembly rises to slay the dragon of austerity!

July 3, 2015 1 comment

I’m very pleased to welcome Carol Mills as a guest to this blog with this piece of hers below about the London Anti-Austerity March that took place on 20th June 2015. I was enormously proud to be on the march myself, alongside Carol and quite a few other people from Eastbourne. As a result of that march moves have begun to start an Eastbourne branch of The People’s Assembly, and Carol has been instrumental in those moves, showing great initiative and determination to get such a worthy enterprise off the ground. So here’s Carol to explain things more:

Eastbourne presence at the London Anti-Austerity March 20th June 2015

by Carol Mills

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Last Saturday local Eastbourne groups united together in order to have a presence at the London Anti-Austerity March. Local groups included members from:- Eastbourne & District Friends of the Earth; 38 degrees Eastbourne; Transition Town Eastbourne; The Eastbourne Labour Party; Eastbourne Green Party and Eastbourne Community Energy. The march was organised by The People’s Assembly which was formed in 2013. The People’s Assembly is a non-party political, broad united national campaign against austerity, cuts and privatisation in our workplaces, community and welfare services. It provides a national forum for anti-austerity views.

The march started with a rally in the City of London, the financial capital of the world, outside the Bank of England and the Royal Exchange. The march snaked its way through the centre of London setting off from the City on to Fleet Street, passed the Royal Courts of Justice and onward passed Trafalgar Square, along Whitehall, passed Downing Street and finishing up in Parliament Square. The organisers estimated over 250,000 people attended. There was a full programme of speakers including Natalie Bennett (Green Party Leader), Jeremy Corbyn (Labour Party Leadership Candidate), Journalist Owen Jones, Caroline Lucas (Green Party MP), Martin McGuiness (Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland); Len McCluskey (General Secretary of Unite) and celebrities Charlotte Church, Russell Brand, Juliet Hesmondhalgh (Hayley Cropper off Coronation Street) and many more.

This was a peaceful march with the police stating there were no arrests. The day saw a collaboration of people from across the nation, travelling from all parts of the country and from Scotland, Ireland and wales. They represented a broad array of diverse groups including:- Housing activists E15 mums; NHS campaigners; the CND; Stop the War Coalition; Unionist and public sector workers eg Unite, Unison, CWU, PCS & the NUT; various political parties; disabled groups eg Disabled Peoples Against the Cuts; youth groups eg Youth Fight For Jobs; lawyers and many more. There were young people, families, older people, Black, White and Asian and people from many religions.

The people spoke with one voice. The marchers called out vibrantly with drumming, whistles, saxophones and chants voicing their rejection of the cuts and austerity measures. Owen Jones spoke out against corporate tax avoiders; Caroline Lucus said ‘austerity isn’t working, it is dividing our country, it is punishing the poor’. Charlotte Church branded austerity as ‘unethical, unfair and unnecessary’. Jeremy Corbyn gave a rousing speech, ‘it’s possible to have a different world’ ‘1 million people in Britain use food banks regularly and we are the 4th richest country in the world. Is that necessary? Is that right? The social media was buzzing with messages and images from the march.

One of the organisers, John Rees from the People’s Assembly against the Cuts, urged people to start local action groups and join in with future national actions.It’s only a beginning; we can’t win with only one demonstration’. Owen Jones said the march was a launch pad for people to organise in their communities and stand for a ‘politics of hope’. Meanwhile, back home, there are many people affected by austerity living here in Eastbourne. There are people relying on food banks. There are homeless people. There are people affected by the bedroom tax. There are people affected by cuts to the services they rely on. There are people needing to choose between either eating or being cold in the winter. There are unemployed people. There are people working on zero contract hours or working fulltime on a minimum wage who need to claim benefits in order to make ends meet. There are young adults still living with their parents as they cannot afford the rents. So, are there people in Eastbourne who would like to see an end to austerity? Are there people in Eastbourne who would like to see a local People’s Assembly?

NB Since writing this article (for the Eastbourne Herald), a group of us have begun the first steps towards forming The Eastbourne People’s Assembly. We have now a Facebook page:  https://www.facebook.com/groups/890376414357498/

We will shortly be sending out formal invitations to all interested organisations and individuals.

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End Austerity Now

June 20, 2015 Leave a comment

IMAG0383What a week! The mass lobby of Parliament on Wednesday 17th June by the Climate Change Coalition saw more than 9,000 people engaged in conversations with their MPs about what’s urgently needed to avoid catastrophic climate change. Several members of Eastbourne & District Friends of the Earth were there to lobby Eastbourne MP, Caroline Ansell, which is fantastic testimony to the strength and vitality of the environmental movement in the Eastbourne area.

The very next day we had the public launch of the encyclical Laudato Si by Pope Francis, a very well researched, comprehensive, and inspiring call for the whole world to act upon human-induced climate change and the poverty that is deepened by the impacts climate change brings in its wake. In his encyclical, Pope Francis used the life of St Francis of Assisi to highlight the interdependency of caring for nature and caring for others.

Which is why today’s End Austerity Now march organised by the People’s Assembly followed on so naturally from all the climate campaigning going on this week. For policies based on austerity not only hurt the poor hardest, but also weaken efforts to deal effectively with climate change, again affecting the poorest hardest. For example, the spending cuts introduced in 2010 immediately reduced the budgets for maintaining and improving the UK flood defences, leading to the present situation where such budgets are now £500 million less per year than what is needed to keep up with the pace of climate change and prevent flooding risks from increasing. That should concern everybody in Eastbourne, which is very much in the front line of climate change given that sea level is rising fast as the world’s ice sheets melt, and most of the town is at, or very near, sea level. Indeed, some of the most vulnerable parts of the town happen to be where the poorest live!

I was proud to be part of the London anti-austerity march today, and it felt very empowering to be amongst such a large crowd that understands just how damaging austerity economics is for both people and planet. My feet hurt right now after so much walking and standing, but my spirit is reinvigorated for the struggle ahead to restore both nature and the common good of our public realm.

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Holding the Line: the politics of our watery future

June 19, 2015 1 comment

IMAG0501On Wednesday, 17th June, the biggest ever mass lobby of Parliament by climate campaigners took place, organised by the Climate Change Coalition. It was a huge success, with over 9,000 people petitioning hundreds of MPs about the actions needed to avert catastrophic climate change. I was sorry to be unable to attend that mass lobby, but I did talk about climate change as much as I could during the recent 2015 general election campaign, and here is an edited version of a speech I gave during Waterweek at Hertsmonceux Castle in March 2015:

We’ve all heard about the story of King Canute and his attempt to stop the waves. Actually he didn’t really intend to stop the waves. The first written account of the Canute episode was in Historia Anglorum (The History of the English People), written by Henry of Huntingdon, who lived within 60 years of the death of Canute (1035 AD), and according to this account, the king had himself and his throne carried down to the shore, where he ordered the incoming waves not to break upon his land.

When his orders were ignored, he pronounced: “Let all the world know that the power of kings is empty and worthless and there is no King worthy of the name save Him by whose will heaven and earth and sea obey eternal laws,” (Historia Anglorum, ed D.E.Greenway).

This story is probably a clever piece of political propaganda by King Canute or his supporters, designed to emphasise the religious piety and humility of Canute himself through this symbolic demonstration of how even a king cannot overcome God and his natural laws. The story is a legend, and there is no historical evidence for it actually happening, but it is indicative of King Canute’s wish to be seen as a pious king, humble enough to accept that there are things beyond his control, principally nature. If the sea is rising and the tide is coming in, then ultimately not even a King can stop this force of nature.

But now the seas are rising far faster than in King Canute’s time, and the tides and storm surges are becoming remorselessly higher and stronger. All the governments of the world within the United Nations recognise this and the science behind the global warming that is driving the rising seas is available in the many Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports. There is now a consensus that unless drastic action to reduce carbon emissions is taken soon, then the chances of even adapting effectively to the rising seas will be swept away by the sheer pace and scale of runaway climate change. But the trouble with the IPCC reports is that it takes so long to produce one that the science in the report is out of date by the time it’s published! The latest report, which took 7 years to compile, says that sea level will rise by at least 1 metre by 2100, which sounds bad, but not disastrous and 2100 seems reassuringly far off. Yet the latest science is showing that positive feedback loops are kicking in and accelerating the pace of sea level rise to a level predicted in the most pessimistic scenario of the IPCC, which shows that sea level could be 2 metres higher by 2100, double the 1 metre increase that the government is assuming! To put that in context, most of the Pevensey Levels, and Eastbourne itself, is less than 1 metre above sea level. And this rise in sea level takes no account of the fact that storm surges are several metres higher than whatever the average sea level is! Furthermore, the Sussex coast is slipping into the sea by several millimetres every year, increasing the impact of sea level rise. Yet a trawl through the various flood risk planning documents of our local authorities show a profound lack of awareness of the acceleration in the pace of climate change and sea level rise, and a consequent insouciance about how effective current planning is. For example, one document about the South Foreland to Beachy Head Strategic Management Plan says, in effect, that sea level rise will be just over 1 metre  by 2115, and that therefore the plan “with respect to tidal flooding is to ‘hold the line’ for the next 100 years. Consequently no reduction in the design standard of tidal defences protecting Eastbourne should occur as a result of climate change as the defences are planned to be maintained to prevent flood risk increasing with the effect of climate change”. Even assuming enough money will be pledged to maintain the existing flood defences (a big political ask!), it’s breathtakingly over-optimistic of the planners to assume that just tweaking the existing sea defences will be enough to cope with such a rapid and ever increasing pace of sea level rise!

The Canute story is said to have taken place on Thornbury Island in the Thames. That island is where Westminster now stands, a richly ironic twist given that Westminster is now having to ‘hold the line’ with regards to both its own political legitimacy and the crumbling architecture of the Houses of Parliament itself! The Palace of Westminster only survives because of London’s embankments and flood defences, which themselves only survive and get improved through the easy access to power and finance that London, the wealthiest part of the UK, provides. The political importance of Westminster, as well as London as a whole, guarantees that London will always receive the best possible flood defences, and if the Thames Barrier becomes increasingly ineffective in protecting London, as will happen within the next few decades, then a new, improved Thames Barrier will be created. Already plans are on the drawing board for creating such a barrier. But the onrush of new data on sea-level rise indicates that even a new Thames barrier will be increasingly less effective even before it is finally built. This creates a nightmare in planning and flood risk management. Anyway, London will get the very best flood defences money can buy, because London is where the big money is.

But what about elsewhere? What about Eastbourne? Again, the lucrative seafront of Eastbourne will probably get the very best of local flood defences, but what about the areas around Eastbourne? What about the Pevensey Levels and the towns and villages around the Levels? There simply will not be the political will and the financial resources to defend every area, to ‘hold the line’ in every place where hold the line is the declared strategy, especially given the government’s present miserly spending on flood defences (the Committee on Climate Change, the government’s own official advisors, report that spending on flood defences is  £500 million per year less than what it should be to maintain and improve the country’s flood defences in line with the rising risks from climate change). What then? How does one begin to make the political choices about priorities, about what to defend and where to beat a managed retreat? Given the pace of sea level rise, that kind of debate should start now, as indeed it has in London. But it has not started here in Eastbourne, even though it has started next door in the Ouse Valley between Lewes, Newhaven and Seaford! Why?

It is a political decision to even start having a debate and political leadership has to be exercised to initiate such a debate. The EU showed that leadership by giving funds for the Environment Agency’s Coastal Communities 2150 Project; yes, there are some benefits to being in the European Union! There is now a lively, at times sparky, debate in the lower Ouse Valley area, and there is an ongoing engagement with local communities and local political representatives to begin to deal with the realities of sea level rise and the implications of that for how people can live and work in a physically changing valley. There is therefore a real hope that such a debate will lead to truly informed, evidence-based decisions in a timely fashion that will allow the residents of the valley to decide exactly where to hold the line and where to beat a managed retreat, as well as how to not only adapt to climate change but also to enhance the local environment.

And here’s the thing; it turns out that although climate change is the biggest challenge ever to human flourishing, the things that need to happen to meet that challenge are exactly the sort of things which help create a safer, cleaner, healthier, stronger communal future for all! For example, planting more trees to aid water retention, prevent flooding, and increasing the locking in of carbon into soils; the creation of local wildlife and wetland areas around towns and villages to store flood water; the redesign of houses and factories to be more resilient to flooding incidents; the installation of renewable energy systems to create power and heat, together with energy saving and energy efficiency measures, to reduce carbon emissions and fuel bills at the same time; the creation of safe cycling and pedestrian infrastructure to help reduce air pollution from road traffic and encourage people back to a healthier lifestyle; and so on. A zero-carbon society is both possible and better than the society we have now. All that is needed is the political will. Just as our parents and grandparents generated the collective will to win the Second World War and save the free world from fascist tyranny and in the process created the post-war New Jerusalem of a welfare state and NHS for the immeasurable benefit of us all, so we can follow their example and come together in our communities to help build the climate-resilient world of tomorrow that will increase everybody’s well-being.

So Eastbourne, which is every bit as much in the front line of climate change as Seaford and Newhaven needs the kind of political leadership that led to the Coastal Communities 2015 initiative next door in the lower Ouse valley. So far it is not forthcoming. I once attended a local community environment panel meeting and asked if Eastbourne had a climate adaptation plan. Amused, wry grins erupted around the table, especially on the faces of the councillors and council officials present, and the answer I got was: this is it! The panel, which has no budget and no legislative or executive power of its own, no premises of its own, no staff of its own, and which only meets a few times a year, mainly attended by volunteer community representatives and very poorly attended by the statutory agencies invited to come along, is expected to be the ‘climate adaptation plan’! Of course, to be fair to local councils, the government scrapped the legal requirement for them to develop such plans, slashed the number of people at DEFRA working on climate adaptation to less than 20 for the whole country, while massive cuts to local council grant funding by central government has meant that developing such plans are the least of council worries when faced with the savage cuts in public services they have to make anyway! Thus does the political process undermine the readiness of Eastbourne and other places to prepare for the reality of climate change. Political choices are being made now that will have dramatic impacts in years to come, especially when flooding incidents occur.

But whatever the extent of skilful local adaptation to climate change that is achieved, we will still be in the Canute-like situation of having to accept that whatever decisions we make, nature will always have the final word, and that climate change will always defeat our adaptation measures if we are not humble enough to accept the signals nature is giving us. And the biggest signal nature is sending us is that if we do not drastically reduce carbon emissions right now and reduce them fast enough to keep the global warming to under 2 degrees centigrade,  the pace of climate change will eventually overtake whatever adaptation measures we take, no matter how fast we adapt and no matter how much money and energy we expend on that adaptation. Which is why the climate talks in Paris this December are so important. For time is not on our side. Whatever debate we have about mitigating climate change is taking place against the backdrop of increasingly intense and frequent climate change impacts, such as the wettest winter ever that we experienced in the winter of 2013/14, a winter which very nearly saw the overtopping of the Pevensey Bay sea defences. That was a close call then, and there will be very few close calls left before the inevitable storm surges sweep away our military mind-set of ‘holding the line’ wherever we feel we should.

During my work as a volunteer environmental campaigner for Friends of the Earth, and my brief time as a parliamentary candidate for the Green Party locally during the 2015 general election, I frequently had to confront denial about the very existence of human-induced climate change, as well as confronting the lack of awareness about the fierce urgency of dealing with climate change now rather than later. Fortunately, most people do understand that climate change has to be dealt with, but it’s important to emphasise the politics of hope, not fear. Whatever the grave risks of climate change, there are huge opportunities that arise from meeting the challenge of climate change. The rising seas have to be met by us, the people, rising to that challenge. And because climate change changes everything, that means we have the chance to make everything change for the better and create a fairer, healthier, more equal, and more just society in the process. But it requires everybody to get on board, show political leadership in ways of their own choosing, and work together for the safe climate future that is the most important common good of all. We cannot just leave the challenge to our elected political representatives alone. We, all of us, are the people we’ve been waiting for to save us all, both present and future generations, from the risings seas!

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Reflections upon the General Election 2015 in Eastbourne

May 14, 2015 3 comments

Another General Election is over and the hoary rituals of Parliament begin all over again, complete with pink ribbons for tying swords to coat hangers and having a pinch of snuff from the doorkeeper at the entrance to the House of Commons. For full details of just how stuffy, bizarre and out-dated some of the Parliamentary rituals are, just read Caroline Lucas’s new book Honourable Friends? Parliament and the Fight for Change.

Honourable Friends  Parliament and the Fight for Change   Caroline Lucas

More seriously, the most out-dated aspect of Parliament is the first-past-the-post voting system, which has delivered a parliamentary majority for the Tory party on just 37% of actual votes cast and about 25% of the total electorate. That’s just not fair and undermines both the credibility and legitimacy of Parliament itself. The Green Party got well over a million votes, roughly quadrupling its total from 2010, yet it remains marooned on just one MP, the incomparable and highly respected Caroline Lucas. The need for voting reform has now become acute and is likely to be a running sore throughout the new Parliament, especially if the Tories implement in full the austerity cuts planned for the next 3 years.

As for my part in the General Election, my role as the Green Party parliamentary candidate for Eastbourne & Willingdon was simply to put the Green Party on the map given that the party had no candidate for this constituency in 2010. I’m proud to have achieved that, gaining nearly 3% of the vote and establishing a bedrock of support the Green Party can build upon for greater success in the next General Election. Given that Eastbourne is now an even more marginal seat than it was before the election, with the winning candidate now only having a majority of less than 800 votes, the next election will be a hard fought one, and all the candidates then will have to take note of the fact that the level of the Green vote could be decisive in getting over the finishing line to victory. That guarantees that green issues will now feature significantly in the local political landscape over the next 5 years, and already I’ve been heartened by the messages I’ve received from local politicians since the election, signalling renewed intentions to act on green issues over the next few months. As for me personally, the election campaign was intense but immensely rewarding and very enjoyable. Despite our political differences, all the candidates got on quite well with each other on a personal level, and the hustings were very cordial affairs.


But the election proved to me in a very dramatic way how crucial newspapers are in forming people’s views about how to vote. A massive amount of money was put into political advertising of various kinds during the campaign by various candidates, but what was possibly decisive in swinging the election here in Eastbourne was the 4 page ‘wraparound’ advert by the Tories on the last edition of the Eastbourne Herald just before polling day, cleverly designed to look like a front page ‘editorial’ by the Herald itself. You had to look hard to realise that it was just an advert. Moreover, the advert itself screamed the politics of fear, especially the fear of the country running out of money (therefore justifying more austerity) and the fear of Scots having too much influence in Westminster (therefore justifying voting against against everybody except the Tories, who promise to impose austerity upon the Scots as well as us English). Money, especially the big money of big corporations and banks, clearly still swings elections, and the use of fear as a tool of negative campaigning rather than the use of hope and a positive vision as a way of motivating voters is still, it seems, a hallowed part of electoral campaigning. I have already submitted a statement to the Electoral Commission about the infamous Eastbourne Herald wraparound, and judging by the feedback I have received from many Eastbourne voters, it is clear that the Herald will lose readers as a result of its electoral advertising policy. The Herald is, I understand, carrying out a review of that policy, which is a clear signal that it realises that its commitment to objective journalism and its credibility as a politically independent newspaper has been undermined.

As for the next five years, things don’t go quiet on the campaigning front. The Green Party is part of a broad grassroots movement for progressive change, and I’ll be an active part of exciting developments in Eastbourne that involve many of the issues that Greens are passionate about, such as developing community renewable energy projects, and setting up food growing projects such as community orchards. The transition to the zero-carbon society we need to deal with climate change is proceeding apace, without waiting for the Westminster elite. For example, the clean energy revolution is sweeping the world, and an alternative financial world is evolving from the grassroots to fund that transition, a world in which community shares, peer to peer lending, community banks, credit unions, and crowdfunding platforms are undercutting the need for accessing the dysfunctional and untrustworthy financial institutions of the “too big to fail” banks and the City of London. I’m a passionate supporter of credit unions, and we’re very fortunate in having the East Sussex Credit Union now operating in Eastbourne, which is even offering loans to small businesses. I have recently opened an account with the East Sussex Credit Union and I would heartily recommend you doing the same if you’re an East Sussex resident, especially if you’re looking for a much fairer and much more affordable alternative to pay day lenders!

My first ever foray into politics has made me feel more empowered as a citizen and able to have more of a say, no matter how small, in this flawed democracy of ours. Telling truth to power and providing another choice for my fellow citizens at the ballot box has been both an exhilarating and enriching experience and I’m deeply grateful to the fantastic support I’ve received from my colleagues in the Eastbourne Green Party in my parliamentary campaign. It’s been a team effort from the very beginning, and it’s as part of a team that I go forwards into the challenging political future for the next few years, fighting for a fairer, more sustainable society.

FutureLearn Climate Change course (Univ. of Exeter): Week 1

January 17, 2014 1 comment

As part of the futurelearn.com course on Climate Change currently being run by the University of Exeter, I am keeping a blog record of my responses to the course. This week, the first week of the course, I have been asked to reflect on these key questions:

  1. What the key scientific principles that explain climate change including the greenhouse (blanket) effect? heat absorbed by earth’s surface (70%), heat reflected from earth’s surface (30%), heat radiation back to earth from ‘blanket’ of gases that absorb heat radiated from earth’s surface, such as CO2 , water vapour, ozone, methane, and nitrous oxide
  2. What are the key feedback mechanisms that help to explain why our climate is able to “self-regulate”? water vapour feedback, ice albedo feedback, and radiation feedback.
  3. How can our climate be conceptualised as a system containing a series of components that interact with one another? the hydrosphere– this is dominated by the oceans but also includes fresh water, rivers, lakes, and groundwater; the biosphere– all the living things and soils; the cryosphere– ice sheets, sea ice, and mountain glaciers; and finally the lithosphere– the surface of the Earth’s crust.

Also consider:

  1. What are the most important themes you have learned this week? That the greenhouse is not a good analogy for how climate system is regulated. Blanket is a better analogy. Also, that there is a range of greenhouse gases that make up the ‘blanket’, and that changes in the climate feedback cycles can affect the quantity of some or all of the gases in the blanket.
  2. What aspect of this week did you find difficult? Understanding the Planck/Stefan Botltzmann radiation effect
  3. What did you find most interesting? And why? Finding that there are specific numbers for things like the albedo of ice and the amounts of solar radiation absorbed by earth (70%) and reflected from earth (30%) was fascinating
  4. Was there something that you learned this week that prompted you to do your own research? Yes, the Planck/Stefan Boltzmann radiation effect
  5. Are there any web sites or other online resource that you found particularly useful in furthering your knowledge and understanding? climatica.org.uk and skepticalscience.com
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The collapse of societies, then and now

January 2, 2012 3 comments
Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed

Image via Wikipedia

I’ve just finished reading Jared Diamond‘s book, Collapse: How Societies choose to fail or survive. Apart from being a fascinating and completely absorbing read, it is a book that is so relevant to our times precisely because we need to understand the factors that primarily determine whether or not a society, any society, will survive challenges to its very existence or succumbs to those challenges and collapses. Diamond is not just another academic professor, but one who combines a vast breadth of knowledge across many different scientific disciplines with a vast record of experience travelling the world, especially to places where societies have actually collapsed. And he applies all that knowledge and experience to considering just how we can learn from all those past collapses in order to avoid the very real danger we face now of our own society collapsing through such accumulative pressures as global warming, environmental and ecological damage through modern industrial practices, globalisation, overpopulation and other factors.

Diamond has constructed a five-point framework for helping to understand how any particular society collapses: the damage that people inadvertently inflict on their environment, climate change (whether that be in either a hotter or colder, wetter or drier  direction), hostile neighbours, decreased support by friendly neighbours, and the society’s responses to its problems. He then applies that framework to detailed case studies of actual societies that have collapsed throughout history, ranging from the distant past to very recently, showing how some or all of the five points may have been involved in the collapse and how those points  interacted with each other in each collapse. The detail of his analysis and the range of evidence he assembles from so many different disciplines in order to support his analysis is breathtaking and convincing, and makes me realise just how vulnerable all societies are to collapse, either rapidly or gradually over several centuries. Obviously not all societies collapse, but the ones that do flourish do so because they usually have to take stock of serious challenges to their very existence and take action, sometimes very drastic action, in order to overcome those challenges and survive. What is also very sobering, and should be a great lesson for our own times, is just how often many of those challenges include dealing with dramatic climate change and environmental or ecosystem destruction that is either deliberately or inadvertently caused by that society’s activities.

A very simple and dramatic example, perhaps the most vivid one,  is that of Easter Island: there a once flourishing society destroyed itself by cutting down all of its trees. Once the trees were gone, that society collapsed very quickly. Trees are essential to ecosystems rich enough to permit humans to carry out essential activities, such as agriculture. Without trees, you eventually have no soil, or soil in the wrong place, or soil lacking in sufficient nutrients, and so forth, and then growing enough food becomes too problematic. And without enough food, well, any society would have trouble coping with that, no matter how prosperous or powerful it is. The people on Easter Island weren’t stupid, and they did value trees very highly, but all societies have within them ways of behaving and thinking that can possibly lead to an inability to be aware of just what problems are emerging, or if there is awareness of the problems, an inability to act upon that awareness by taking the necessary remedial action.

The climax of the book is the final chapter in which Diamond applies his five-point framework to today’s society, which can be considered a truly global society due to the global spread of industrialisation, urbanisation, and the deeply interdependent trading links between economies that is at the heart of globalisation. In the past, some societies could collapse in isolation without having knock-on effects on other contemporary societies. No such chance now, especially not with global warming, which effects all societies today, and if one major economy collapse, then it will have significant knock-on effects on other economies because of today’s global economic interdependencies.

In the final chapter, Diamond isolates the 12 most serious environmental problems that face our present societies and discusses them in detail:

  1. Destruction of natural habitats, especially forests. Diamond says: “Deforestation was a or the major factor in all the collapses of past societies described in this book”
  2. overfishing
  3. loss of wild species, populations and genetic diversity. For example, bees are declining in numbers and health. But without bees, how do we pollinate most of our crops?
  4. Loss of agricultural soil from water and wind erosion, and salinization, acidification, or alkinisation.
  5. The growing scarcity of fossil fuels, the world’s major energy sources, leading to greater financial and environmental costs of extracting the still available reserves.
  6. increasing scarcity and decreasing quality of freshwater
  7. the shrinking terrestrial photosynthetic capacity for growing greater amounts of food, made more acute by the rapid rate of population increase.
  8. toxic chemicals released into the environment by industry.
  9. environmental damage caused by alien species of plants and animals transferred intentionally or inadvertently from places where they are native to ones where they are not.
  10. Gases released into the atmosphere by human activities, causing environmental damage, such as destruction of the ozone layer or causing global warming through exacerbation of the greenhouse effect, thereby leading to climatic changes that can impact adversely on crucial human activities such as agriculture. Here Diamond does, I think, significantly understate the seriousness of global warming as  an environmental problem. He does accept that it is happening and that human activities are contributing to it, but he pulls his punches about just how serious it is. Most climate scientists now accept that global warming is now happening  faster than even the most pessimistic forecasts of the IPCC and that the manifestations of that warming in terms of extreme weather events and significant climate shifts is already happening on a large and rapidly increasing scale around the globe. Diamond even say at one point that “it turns out that global warming will produce both winners and losers”; that is simply wrong as whatever short-term gains there might be in, for example, higher agricultural yields in some areas (and I don’t think there is enough evidence in yet that there are, in fact, any short-term gains at all), will be massively outweighed by the losses, losses which will quickly wipe out any so-called short-term gains. With global warming on its current trajectory, we are all losers, now and much more so as time goes by. And if we don’t get a grip on solving this one environmental problem right now, then our chances of solving all the other problems becomes increasingly more difficult if not impossible to address. Yes, all 12 problems need dealing with now, but the absolute priority is global warming; its threat is that existential.
  11. rapid growth of the global human population
  12. the impact of that growing human population upon the environment.

Diamond makes the very telling point that we need to solve all 12 problems:

because any of the dozen problems if unsolved would do us grave harm, and because they all interact with each other. If we solved 11 of the problems but not the 12th, we would still be in trouble, whichever was the problem that remained unsolved. We have to solve them all.

But Diamond does have a message of hope for us. He describes himself as a cautious optimist because he says that a realistic acknowledgement of the severity of the problems facing us will lead naturally to a willingness to take those problems seriously and deal with them now. And the problems are not insoluble. As he says:

Because we are the cause of our environmental problems, we are the ones in control of them, and we can choose or not choose to stop causing them and start solving them. The future is up for grabs, lying in our own hands. We don’t need new technologies to solve our problems; while new technologies can make some contribution, for the most part we ‘just’ need the political will to apply solutions already available.

The other major reason for hope that Diamond gives is that the prevalence of education and information available today to most of us gives us an awareness about the past and what makes societies survive or fail that was not available to most of the past societies that collapsed. We can learn from history and we have so much information about the past now that we have no excuse as a society for failing to learn from the past. Our society is not immune to the danger of collapse; it has no unique privilege or right to survive where others have failed. Our society will survive  only if it faces up to its problems and changes in radical ways in order to solve them. That means changing the way we think and behave, including our attitudes, values and customs if need be, as well as changing the way we use technology. Diamond’s book is an invaluable contribution towards the necessary consciousness-raising that must precede such positive change.

New Year predictions for a wild year ahead

January 1, 2012 2 comments
Reduction of flood and associated extreme weat...

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The start of a new year is a traditional time for making predictions about the coming year, so here I go with mine. Not that I usually make predictions, but the ones I’m making are about trends so massive and important, in my humble opinion, that I feel the need to emphasise those trends by making predictions about them in order to highlight the pressing imminence and intensity of those trends.

The most important prediction is that global warming will manifest in 2012 in the form of even more extreme weather events than last year, or any previous year, for that matter. That does not necessarily mean that the frequency of weather events will increase, although it is worth noting that some places in the world had a record-breaking sequence of extreme weather events, most notably the USA. But I do feel that whatever extreme weather events that do occur will occur with record-breaking intensity and especially in places not used to such extreme events. Climate scientists predict that global warming will make droughts and floods more extreme and frequent and the increased heat energy of the atmosphere will make storms and  heatwaves more extreme than they would otherwise be. We saw these predictions amply borne out by the extreme weather of 2011 , so it’s a no-brainer that 2012 will see more, perhaps a lot more, of the same, especially now that it is so clear now that there is massive (and, in places such as the Arctic, exponential) loss of ice occurring across the world. This throws into sharp relief the complete inadequacy of the Durban deal in the most recent round of the IPCC COP climate summit talks.  We simply cannot wait until 2020 for a legally binding deal for reduction in carbon emissions to kick in. Given the present lack of global political will to deal with climate change now, what will reduce carbon emissions quickly enough? At this stage it looks like  only a massive global economic recession will do the trick. Not that I would welcome that, but it is a fact, according to the Global Carbon Project, that global carbon emissions dropped significantly only in 2009, at the height of the global financial crash that started  in 2007, and that drop has probably only lasted one year as a recovery of sorts began in 2010.

That brings me to the next prediction of 2012: that there will be a severe recession within Europe which will have a severe impact upon the USA, especially given the rapidly growing sovereign debt problems of the US, and there may even be a severe impact upon the ability of the Chinese economy to maintain its own growth. The irony of the present situation is that the agonies of economic recession will have the unexpected, unintended effect of increasing the chances of avoiding catastrophic climate change, or at least delaying it, which would impose the most severe economic catastrophe of all as the natural capital we all rely upon – such as fertile agricultural land, reliable rainfall patterns, etc. – would be irreversibly damaged and unable to sustain the basic indsutries we depend upon, especially the food industry.

Of course, the zero-sum game of economic growth versus planetary salvation can be massively mitigated by an immediate and sustained shift towards a zero-carbon economy that is primarily based on renewable energies and more efficient use of scarce resources, with less emphasis on growing GDP and more emphasis on increasing quality of life. But few places in the world have shown the political will so far to push on with such a long-term, sustainable strategy. Instead, the overwhelming focus of most politicians and government officials is on how to regain the economic growth rates of the recent past, as their perceived urgency is to reduce the debt burden that consumers, banks and countries have built up and which cannot be maintained, let alone paid off, unless there is enough new revenue  created to at least pay the interest on that debt. But most of that debt is simply unsustainable and has to be written off somehow. Debt forgiveness will have to feature large in any realistic scenario for containing the debt problem. The global financial crisis of 2007/8 has left a toxic legacy so great that it cannot be overcome without massive change to the global financial and banking system, which is now in a chronic state of crisis. Indeed, because governments and policy makers are now so focussed upon dealing with the immediate debt and banking crises, the focus is not on the even greater challenge of dealing with the threat of catastrophic climate change, a threat much greater than that of a collapsing Euro or a string of banking failures.

But here’s the thing: what will prevent GDP growth rates returning to anything like the historical norm for the most advanced industrial societies is the rapidly growing impact of peak oil. Peak conventional crude oil as a geological fact occurred in 2006, according to the International Energy  Agency in its 2010 report. Crude oil production rates globally have been declining at over 4% a year since then, so it is no surprise that the price of oil has risen from about $20 a barrel to over $100 a barrel since then. So my final prediction for 2012 is that the price of oil will go even higher. That’s not much of a prediction, but what I think we might see is that the price will go even higher despite a major recession in much of the industrialised world. Why? Because India and China are still industrialising so fast and their demand for oil is so great, and still increasing, that whatever reduction in oil consumption is achieved by the OECD countries is more than offset by the increase in consumption by China and India. Plus there are so many growing constraints – goelogic, economic and political – on the ability of the major oil producers to maintain present oil output let alone increase that output, and many of them, especially within OPEC, are reducing the amount of oil they export in order to fuel their own growing economies and populations. Particularly pertinent here is an analysis by Chris Skrebowski, one of the best peak oil analysts, that shows that 2012 is bound to be another oil crunch year because of the lack of new oil production megaprojects coming on stream this year. And, of course, there is always the danger of political crises erupting which create an immediate spike in the oil price to economically devastating levels; think of an attack on Iran by Israel and an immediate closing of the Straits of Hormuz by Iran.

But again, as in the case of a debt and financial crisis induced economic recession that leads to a decrease in carbon emissions, a sustained spike in the oil price could be the catalyst for a dramatic decrease in the consumption of oil as unintended price rationing crushes demand, and that in turn would lead to both a dramatic reduction in carbon emissions and a faster switch to non-oil dependent forms of transport, such as electric cars, than would otherwise be the case, thereby further contributing to a delay or prevention of catastrophic climate change. Yet again, short-term pain could lead to a massive, unexpected long-term gain, always assuming, of course, that this is facilitated by a political will to drive through the necessary social and economic changes.

But what I cannot predict is how all these three factors – global warming, the debt crisis and its associated banking crisis and suppression of economic growth, and the onset of peak oil – will actually interact with each other in 2012 to mitigate or enhance the effects of each, or manifest in various political, social, or economic crises. Who would have predicted that the Arab Spring occurred when it did, or where it would manifest next, or how it will still evolve? But what is clear already with hindsight is that oil price rises ultimately led to food price rises, which were a powerful factor in creating the social and political tensions that led to the Arab Spring. These are indeed turbulent times, with wild weather, wild economic oscillations and wild fallout from peak oil. You could ask the same question that W.B.Yeats asks: “and what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”

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