30 March 2011

Protect the environment, protect the people

By David Seddon

In prehistory, human society depended on the exploitation of natural resources that seemed abundant and effectively limitless. Even after the development of agriculture, when the cycles of the seasons and the pattern of rainfall became a matter of more than passing concern – for the harvest depended on it, and on the harvest came to depend the whole complex structure of civilization – it seemed that bountiful nature almost always provided, if only the husbandman (and woman) prayed correctly to the gods who were responsible for the weather. But civilization became increasingly dependent on the exploitation of the physical resources of the earth – not only on the growing and harvesting of crops, but the extraction of minerals for the manufacture of tools and artefacts of all kinds, including weapons.

Through the ages of copper, bronze, iron and steel, until the modern age, with its hungry reliance on a wide range of minerals, its factory farming and massive trawling for fish and other sea-food, its devastation of the forests and pollution of water supplies, humankind has become more and more reliant on the exploitation of the earth’s physical resources, on land and in the sea.

We are only just beginning to recognise that our depredations have had a devastating effect, not only on our immediate environment in the cities and the villages, in which some two thirds of the world’s population now live, but in the rural areas beyond, in the scrub and the forests and jungles, in the streams and rivers and even in the oceans. The destruction, pollution and general degradation of our environment has reached a peak in the last over-industrialized century. Our farming relies increasingly on artificial pesticides and insecticides, and on mono-crops, all too vulnerable to disease, on livestock and poultry production with intensive methods of rearing, using inappropriate foodstuffs and inflicting terrible living conditions on the animals and birds involved.

Our own living conditions in the villages, towns and cities in which most people now live have in many ways deteriorated, as private affluence and gated ‘communities’ develop side by side with slums and shanty towns, and all come to share the pollution and litter of the modern urban environment. And now we are dimly beginning to realise that not only have we devastated our immediate physical environment, the very water we drink and the very air we breathe, but we have also affected the climate – bringing global warming and unknown changes to our weather patterns around the world.

Some extreme physical events, such as volcanoes, earthquakes and tsunamis, like that which recently devastated Japan, may be unrelated to human activity, and the closest things to ‘natural disasters’ – largely unpredictable and almost entirely unavoidable – but these too are compounded by economic, social and political decisions, such as to promote reliance on nuclear power for the bulk of domestic energy requirements, with all of the risks of breakdown, explosion and the release of nuclear radiation that we are now seeing realised, tragically, in Japan. But most of the so-called ‘natural’ disasters are extreme physical events, probably now made more likely by climate change, with adverse effects on economy and society that are substantially affected by patterns of settlement, industrial and agricultural practices, reliance on certain sources of energy, and so on.

Our vulnerability to ‘natural disasters’ is increasing as we devastate our own environment; the vulnerability of the poor and disadvantaged is generally the greatest, for they tend to live in more hostile and/or degraded environments and have fewer resources with which to respond to environmental crises. Protecting our environment is no longer – if ever it was – a diversion from the important task of improving human welfare and wellbeing; it is an essential part of it and may even be a pre-condition for our survival as a human race. Certainly it is for the millions of people now living in areas that will be effectively uninhabitable in a few decades – the arid and semi-arid areas of the world, the low-lying especially coastal areas, and small islands, the high mountains and the Arctic.

Increasingly, the issue of ‘climate change’ has come onto the agenda of governments and international organisations, like the United Nations, and gradually even the most sceptical have become convinced that there is something here to be concerned about. But so far, the commitment of national governments and what is often termed ‘the international community’ to face up to the realities and begin to address the enormous problem that we face is extremely limited. Various international conferences, most recently in Copenhagen in Denmark and Cancun in Mexico, have addressed the issue and confirmed that there is much to be done. But real willingness to take serious action remains elusive.

Some measures are being taken by the most developed countries, and by the emerging developing countries, to reduce carbon emissions and other activities contributing to climate change; aid to the least developed countries is beginning to include a ‘climate change’ component, but it is usually ‘added on’ as if an afterthought. Far more money has been devoted in the last two years to saving the banking community and the global financial architecture, than to the measures urgently required to prevent serious levels of global warming, to mitigate the major impact and to adapt, where possible, to the changing world in which we shall be living in only a few decades from now. Protection of the environment is not just a ‘green’ issue, involving recycling and the reduction of pollution; it is a crucial part of sustainable living. Every act that contributes to global warming and the degradation of the environment is a crime against humanity. Already the death toll is rising and the likelihood that environmental degradation, and with it the destruction of civilization as we know, it is becoming irreversible increasing. Act here, and now!

22 March 2011

Decentralised ‘Yes to AV’ campaigning moves into action

By Rupert Read

Living in Norwich, I am all-too-aware of what a bad system ‘First past the post’ is. For the MP elected in Norwich South last year won just 29% of the votes cast.

The great thing about Alternative Vote (AV) is that it ensures that in virtually every seat the winner will have the majority of the votes cast behind him or her.

To help explain and communicate this and more, in visual user-friendly ways, a new ‘Yes to AV’ site has just been launched.

This is a new, independent site with loads of Yes2AV e-postcards to choose from. You can send the appropriate postcard to the appropriate person you know, in a bid to enthuse them about voting Yes on May 5.

It’s a sort of http://www.mydavidcameron.com/ with the work already done for you…

The site is the product of Matt Wootton, with editorial help from myself; it is a 'Green Words Workshop' production. (See our joint blog on reframing and values, of which this new site is an offshoot).

We think that this is the kind of thing that could potentially be transformative, over the next several weeks. The Yes campaign needs independent support; it needs a bit of razzmatazz and innovation; it needs to go viral.

Go to http://www.yes.greenwordsworkshop.org/ and help this to happen.

Lastly: Matt and I don’t think what we’ve done is particularly ground-breaking, yet (and here’s the important thing) neither the Yes nor the No campaigns appear to have much like it. The No camp has postcard-like adverts on their front page (compared to the Yes site’s uncommunicative photos of people holding a placard saying “YES”). But they don’t allow them to be sent.

This is not just a technical issue, it’s a political issue, one of messaging, and one of public engagement. It’s not just that emailable postcards don’t exist. It’s not just that more tools for online engagement don’t exist. It’s that many of the political messages themselves don’t exist, because the campaigns are not creating them.

That’s where we’ve come in . . .

12 March 2011

Water, water, every where, nor any drop to drink*

By Marguerite Finn

It is World Water Day on 22 March and the theme for 2011 will be “Water for Cities – Responding to the Urban Challenge". The day is an initiative which grew out of the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development (the Rio Earth Summit) and it will also be one of the key dates in the lead-up to the 2012 (Rio + 20) conference. On World Water Day this year, we know that there are seven billion people in the world and that half of them live in towns and cities. That’s a lot of urban dwellers – especially when you realise that each one of them is entitled to sufficient, safe and affordable freshwater and sanitation as a fundamental human right. Economic reasoning dictates that an increasing number of people will move to urban areas to seek a higher quality of life. It is estimated that by the year 2030, approximately five billion people – that is 60 percent of the world’s population – will be residing in urban areas.

This has important ramifications for the supply of fresh water. In this increasingly urban world, water supply is related to costly urban infrastructure, which must be financed. Recent studies show that within the next twenty years water demand in many countries will exceed supply by as much as 40 percent. Scientists, policy makers and water economists have all been looking at this problem at a recent meeting in Canada. They believe that a new way of thinking is needed because looming shortages caused by climate change and population growth are threatening communities, industry and agriculture. The world we live in is mostly made of water; but, only 2.5 percent of the world’s water is fresh water and less than 1 percent is available for use.

So how are we using our water today? Agriculture is the biggest water user and is responsible for seventy to eighty percent of a country’s water consumption. Billions of dollars are spent in subsidies to farmers throughout the world but they are allocated without any consideration to water problems, thus creating artificially a water crisis, which will manifest itself as a food security crisis. Margaret Catley-Carlson, a renowned water economist, argues: “The water problem is as much a financial problem as a water problem. There is no solution to the water problem without some overhaul of the way agriculture is subsidized”.

Industry and manufacturing also use a disproportionate amount of fresh water and produce almost as much pollution, which affects rivers, streams and drinking water." However, let us look at the situation locally. The ‘per person’ count is what really matters. With higher levels of development come higher demands on water. That is why the announcement in the EDP of 28 February that the “region needs a growth plan to boost economy” is so alarming, when you realise that the same growth plan is based upon building over 34,000 new houses in Broadland and South Norfolk. This will put at least another 34,000 cars on already crowded roads – along with the desire to wash them every weekend!

Anglian Water said at the recent Examination in Public into the Joint Core Strategy (which came up with the figure of 34,000 houses) that they could provide the water required for the new housing developments but “it will cost you”, because after 2016, new methods will have to be developed to supply water. They did not say how much it would cost and, oddly enough, nobody asked – perhaps being too frightened of the answer! And before we take personal consumption into account, we must not forget the huge amount of precious fresh water that will be used in building these houses – which are unwanted on this scale. One of the most stupid things about our management of water in the developed countries is that we use purified potable water for everything: recreation, irrigation, food processing, sanitation, clothes manufacture, armaments, refining oil into petrol etc.

Water cannot be created – it can only be managed – and we are making a bad job of ‘managing’ our water use. We need to manage our demand – and the first logical way of doing that is by metering water. Anywhere there is metering, demand drops and the “waste not, want not” principle is invoked. There are other ways of conserving and reusing water: rainwater harvesting is just one of them, using ‘greywater’ (collected from showers and baths) for flushing the loo is another. It would not be rocket science to incorporate these methods into the design of all new houses being built. These water conservation measures could reduce household demand in developed countries by 70 percent. But the area I believe that most people do not even think about is that of “virtual water”. Virtual water is embedded in the production process of almost every thing that touches our lives – want we eat, what we wear, what we use. Manufacturing a desk-top computer, for example, requires 1,500 litres of water or 1.5 tonnes.

A pair of denim jeans uses up six tonnes, a kilogram of wheat uses one tonne, a kilogram of beef uses up to 30 tonnes. As ‘consumers’ we must start asking questions about the goods we buy – how much water was used in their production? Gradually the message will get through to the buyers and producers. This World Water Day we are being given a “wake up” call – at an individual level we can make great savings by using water sensibly – that is, where appropriate, using harvested rain water for our gardens and using grey water for disposing of our waste. I think we would be surprised at the difference that would make. *Title taken from The Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

5 March 2011

Reclaiming The Field

By Charlotte Du Cann

"Did you just say Monsatan?" asked the lawyer. "I did," I said and laughed.

We were at the Spring Regional Conference of the Suffolk Agricultural Association in Ipswich. The subject was Climate Change and Food Security. But you could have retitled the conference: Climate Change: What a Great Opportunity to Promote Bio-Tech (and all the agri-business corporations that own the seeds and pesticides and fertilisers that make it possible).

We have to feed the 9 billion! declared the Chair, former minister for agriculture, John Gummer (now Lord Deben), and provide those miraculous loaves and fishes. East Anglia has to become a bread basket for the world!

So to prepare us for our destiny we listened to the scientist who talked about the perfect storm of climate change and how emissions from agriculture, principally nitrous oxide (from fertilisers) and methane (from intensively-reared animals) contribute to it. We saw maps that showed how Britain would remain part of the fertile strip as global temperatures rose and graphs that our home production of both grain and livestock were down and our imports up. We listened to the agriculture manager of Waitrose explain how they have plans to double their profits by 2016. And most scary of all we listened to MEP, Robert Sturdy who had no time for smaller farms, believed agriculture should be market-driven and regretted that so many good fungicides and herbicides had been withdrawn by the EU.

Basically we were confronting an impossible task: to produce more food with less land, less water, less pesticides, less fuel within a low-carbon economy, that is also a growth economy where no one is giving an inch.

“This is biggest issue agriculture has faced,” summed up the Chair, "And unlike the Depression of the 30s or the Black Death we are not facing this in ignorance we are facing this in knowledge. And because we know therefore we are responsible. People don’t want to know of course," he added, "Because once you know it changes you and you become ashamed.”

The farmers with their sunburned faces and tweed jackets remained for the most part quiet. The room was filled with their silence, like the mute East Anglian fields of wheat and barley, sugar beet and rape. Obliged to grow commodity crops, following the dictates of agronomists, governmental ministers and the demands of the market, they have been listening to these clever patronising voices for a long time, in a feudal land that has been under the plough for thousands of years. Their harvests are now utterly dependant on fossil fuels and agro-chemicals. And they know it will take more than a sermon on Genesis to bring those once-fertile soils back to life.

I am not a farmer, an agronomist, a scientist, nor any kind of expert. But I recognise when words are being used to dominate people rather than liberate them. The elephant in the conference hall, the beast who has already slouched his way across the planet, is our present global industrial food system. Manipulated by giant invisible corporations and made possible by a vast and complex distribution network it’s a machine that munches through eco-systems 24/7 and seems impossible to halt. But like all machines it has a crucial dependency that no-one likes to mention: its energy source.

Occasionally at question time other voices were raised. “What about peak oil?” asked my fellow Transitioners in the room.
“And what about peak phosphate and peak nitrates?” asked Lady Cranbrook of the Alde Valley. “Do we have a national food store? Or are the lorries our larder?”

Lord Deben laughed: That one I can answer, he said. We don’t have a national store.

We are, as the fuel protests by farmers and drivers showed us in 2000, famously 9 meals from anarchy.
The voices of the politicians rose as they imagined a formula that would conjure manna from heaven. In the future, declared the scientist, bio-fuel crops will spread across the landmass of Europe the size of France and Spain! We will have genetically manipulated, input-free, flood-resistant rice! We will run vehicles on electricity! We could argue about that for decades, he said.(Decades? As the carbon emissions in the atmosphere have risen to 380 ppm and the price of petrol has risen to £6 a gallon? As the price of wheat has doubled? As food prices in Britain are rising more steeply than any other developed country?)

Gummer’s argument (more theologian than politician) was that because we know about bio-tech we have an imperative to use it, the assumption being it gives higher yields. But we also know about organic farming, practiced for millennia without pharmaceuticals, that a fertile soil locks in carbon and that we can eat lower down the food chain and not waste a third of food we buy.

If you watch documentaries about modern agriculture such as Food, Inc. or read books by Felicity Lawrence or Michael Pollan, you also know that in order to feed 6 billion people fairly and squarely, let alone 9, we are going to have to radically alter our Western diet and powerdown, both in terms of what we eat (less meat and dairy) and the energy it takes to produce. We’re going to have to shorten our food supply chains, build up an infrastructure of small local producers and distributors, learn how to cook and grow, and get used – in austere times – to paying the real price of food.

At present we pay a mere 10% of our disposable income for what we eat. This is because cheap oil has created cheap food and because we don’t care to look at its provenance. We have fallen into what the writer Thomas Berry, calls the industrial trance. As we enter the shiny supermarket malls our minds glaze over the environmental damage caused by farmed salmon, or the reality that “local pork” is fed on Brazilian soybeans or that behind each colourful packet there are workers in fields and packing houses being brutally exploited. To pay the real price of food means giving up an escapist consumer lifestyle that makes our own hard working existences bearable.

And the present business model, as local farmer Lucy Wyatt pointed out, is going in the opposite direction. It’s encouraging us to keep disconnected and under its spell.

Maybe it was when the MEP started talked about the “moral imperative to grow more food and embrace this technology.” Or maybe when the man from Waitrose explained how they monitored “the eating experience of our customers” that I remembered Mourid Barghouti when he spoke in the Jubilee Hall in Aldeburgh just down the coast from here. The Palestinian poet was urging writers to use real words to keep a certain world alive and another at bay. Those in power, he said, live and talk in grandiose and abstract terms. They do not name the physical things of this earth: the ordinary, the beautiful and diverse. The names of plants and places and people. This was our duty. And maybe this is the right and only response to a “conference” at which a small elite spoke and most of us kept silent, where a cow was called a “product” and all the attention was on the latest marketing deal with South Korea. To name, without shame, what all of us really know.

There are farmers in Norfolk who grow amongst the commodity crops a heritage wheat known as Blue Cone. In Darsham an ex-mechanic called Malcolm treasures an oasis of kale and squash and spring lettuce on his smallholding. On a roadside stall in Reydon each day a woman called Sarah puts out jars of marmalade and fresh eggs for sale. On my windowsill there is a plant that has held glowing red chillies all winter. Its name is Ring of Fire. These humble relationships connect us with the fabric of life, which, whether the storm hits or not, is our only real security.

There is network of growers, allotment holders, writers and cooks in East Anglia working to re-establish a right relationship with food. Some farm, some teach schoolchildren, run shops, advise on sustainable food distribution. Some of us are relearning skills: how to grow leeks and raise chickens, swap seeds, share community kitchens and gardens. We're learning how to store apples, how to graft cherry trees. How to relish a simple dish of potatoes and beans, to eat radically outside the system controlled by corporate agri-business. It’s a different kind of culture. It’s not feudal. It's not dominated by those voices. Civilisations famously rise and fall according to their ability to feed their people. But sometimes it’s the people who start to feed themselves.

All photos from the Transition Norwich Low Carbon Cookbook project: Deconstructing the Dish, Sprouts and clover from Oak Tree Low Carbon Farm by Richard Mudhar; handful of dry field beans by Mark Watson.