Monday, 28 December 2009

The American Ponzi Scheme

The Economist double Christmas edition was full of interesting articles to read over the holiday ranging from an analysis of modern politeness to climate change and forests. Looking backwards, the Economist provides an excellent commentary on the developments that have brought society to where it is. Inevitably a conventional economic view prevails. A focus on economic methods and economic outcomes has been a successful recipe - if rising GDP is the measure of success. Some of us have started to see that a globalized world of ever rising GDP and ever rising consumption is a Ponzi scheme that must eventually collapse. Conventional economics is weak on the tools and concepts to break out of the problems that the word will encounter in the coming decades.

The Economist wrote about America under the title ‘A Ponzi scheme that works’. In the article, The Economist explained that ‘immigrations keeps America young, strong and growing’. It quoted the view of an American think-tank (the New America Foundation) that the US population could grow to 1 billion by 2100. For a country that is already over consuming resources at a rate that is 100% greater than its ecological capacity, this seems impossible. Now, America could reduce consumption to the average European level to live within the capacity of the resources within its own borders. A population of 1 billion will need to walk on the planet with very small ecological boots. The Economist has chosen its words well – Ponzi schemes always appear to be sound until they collapse and the underlying logic is exposed as a scam.

I am not accusing the US of knowingly running a scam, but the US needs to learn that it is in the midst of a Ponzi scheme of huge proportions. It would be better to spear it now, than to await the reckoning that must follow later this century. I admire America, and many Americans, but the American way is not the direction for the world to follow.

Monday, 21 December 2009

Copenhagen Hard Truths

I did not expect very much from the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference. In making my assessment of the future path of civilization I factored in the assumption that there would be a weak deal in Copenhagen. I did not expect that it would quite as weak as the toothless declaration ‘noted’ in the concluding session of the conference. This was political face saving at its most extreme. An observer ignoring the political spin could only conclude that nothing of substance had been achieved.

It is very sad to see that humanity remains very firmly on the path to destruction. This is the logical outcome I describe in the opening pages of my book Victim of Success; Civilization at Risk. I am not in the depths of despair – yet– because I am certain that we have the capability to change direction. The problem is a lack of political will and a lack of popular support for tough measures.

I hope that we acknowledge the outcome from Copenhagen for what it is – failure. From abject failure only a fool would stand up and try to repeat the same process. An intelligent reaction to such total failure is to pause, reassess the situation, rethink the approach and then push for a solution based on different parameters. My book, Green Outcomes in a Real World, to be published in 2010 builds on the ideas in my book Adapt and Thrive presenting new thinking, new methods, new ideas and a new approach. This is what we need; not more of the same.

Monday, 14 December 2009

Salute the Engineers

The Boeing 787 Dreamliner is due to fly on Tuesday. If it lives up to expectations, it will use 20% less fuel than other comparable aircraft. The design has pushed the boundaries of commercial aircraft design using lightweight materials such as carbon fibre.

On a much smaller scale, the McManners family has taken possession of a prototype E-Mini at a ceremony at the BMW car plant in Oxford. My fellow drivers (E-Pioneers as we are called) will be testing a fleet of 40 cars on the roads of Southern England over the next six months. These are not electric milk floats with racing stripes down the side. These perform like a good car should, handle as you would expect from BMW and are quality cars. The E-Mini has the feel of the 21st century about it.

Both the Boeing 787 and the BMW E-Mini are bold moves that have required engineers to work outside their comfort zone. The business leaders in these traditionally conservative industries should be praised for pushing ahead. A car built today could be on the road for well over a decade; an aircraft could still be flying 30 years or more from now. A weakness in the design could be a time bomb waiting to sink the company. It takes courage to bet the future on novel design. This is the sort of courage the world needs more of.

Meanwhile, the Copenhagen climate conference has reached the half-way stage. The tiny Pacific ocean archipelago of Tuvalu has been speaking up, calling for a binding agreement that will limit climate change to 1.5 degrees Celsius, much more ambitious than the big nations are contemplating. We have another week to wait before we know the nature of the deal our leaders will hatch. I suspect that Tuvalu will be ignored. It will be politically easier to resettle the 11,000 islanders than find a way to reduce carbon emissions enough to save their homes from being swamped by rising sea levels.

The 787 Dreamliner and the E-Mini are small first steps in the transformation of society. If we think that Tuvalu should be rescued, we will have to give our engineers the brief to start taking giant leaps. I believe it can be done. Where there is a will, there is an engineer who can deliver.

Monday, 7 December 2009

Admire my Carbon Boots

I write this on the eve of the Copenhagen climate conference. Carbon footprints are all the rage. Many people now understand the case for low-energy light-bulbs and choose to buy less thirsty cars. People want to be seen to be reducing the size of their carbon footprint. For big business in Europe it has become a requirement. Carbon footprints are now important for facilities managers and are coming onto the radar screens of financial directors and chief executives. For many, this is in response to the carbon reduction legislation, changes in car tax and the threat of higher energy costs in the future.

There are also businesses and individual people that want to go further. They want to reduce their carbon emissions because they believe that it is the right thing to do. It is becoming ‘cool’ to show off smaller carbon boots, even if they are a more expensive.

For some other people, the fashion remains to arrive in the largest, butchest SUV on the market. These cost more than other cars of course, but that may be part of the attraction, to display the ability to pay. To these people, big carbon boots are still the fashion accessory of choice.

It is not just the rich who like to show off. In a street on the less affluent side of my town there is a competition running. One house has Christmas lights that include Father Christmas and his reindeers in full neon glory. There are lights around every part of the house where a cable could be strung. The owner must be very proud of his (or her) creation and not too worried by the numbers ticking rapidly on the electricity meter. This house is not the ‘winner’. Further along the street another house has surpassed even this, with a similar Christmas light display but also the ground of the front yard is covered in a carpet of lights.

The fashion needs to shift to smaller carbon boots so that those who currently take pride in big clodhopping carbon boots are made to feel old fashioned and out-of-date. This fashion shift could be far more powerful than legislation. Over time, smoking has made the transition from ‘cool’ to ‘offensive’. Big carbon footprints will also go out of fashion in a similar way. Big SUVs and conspicuous energy consumption will be seen as naff. This shift in society will come whether there is an agreement at Copenhagen or not.

Monday, 30 November 2009

Climategate – Who is being Stupid?

I have been watching the debate over the so-called “climategate” with close interest. Scientists have been caught cooking the climate data. The exchanges that have followed have been highly emotional and often vitriolic. Youtube has a range of videos produced by people taking great delight in presenting climate change as an elaborate hoax.

The same people delighting in the mistakes made by the scientists were active recently opposing wind turbines. They now see their position of opposition vindicated, but who is being stupid?

I listened to a wind protester at a public meeting recently and the argument was based on the health hazards of wind turbines. The protester spoke about wind turbine syndrome. He pointed out that there was no proof that the condition existed but, on the precautionary principle, wind turbines should not be erected anywhere near human habitation. These same people are now gleefully jumping onto the mistakes made by a few scientists, citing this as a reason not to make efforts to make the changes in society required to reduce carbon emissions. Where is the precautionary principle now?

Human society is putting the ecosystem at risk of major damage. The only solid incontrovertible evidence will be when we are living in the consequences. Climategate has exposed the human instinct to live for today, despite evidence (some of which is now tainted) that there is a need for fundamental change to protect our future.

The scientists at fault should resign and play no further part in the IPCC, but it is the people who claim that climate change is a hoax who are being stupid.

Monday, 23 November 2009

‘Eco’ Selling – Beware the Climate Con

We are being inflicted with a con so insidious that even the perpetrators believe their own sales pitch. The con is based on a number of true statements and a few apparently logical deductions. Beware, because this con is sweeping through the shopping malls, mail order catalogues and internet sales sites.

The traditional con involves fooling people into thinking they have stumbled across some easy money. Con artists often play on a person’s weakness such as loneliness, insecurity, poor health or simple ignorance. This con is based on people’s growing awareness that climate change is a potentially serious problem. It is widely known that reducing our carbon footprint is one action we should take and this is starting to influence purchase decisions. It is scandalous that this change of attitude is being exploited by unscrupulous traders.

First, we need to understand the mechanism of the con so we do not get trapped by it. The scam relies on ignorance that climate change is part of a greater challenge. The prime challenge is to make society sustainable. Reducing carbon emissions is only part of the change required. Focus too hard on carbon and we will miss spotting the greater issue. This is like the con artist that grabs our attention to persuade us to part with our cash whilst hiding the true nature of the transaction.

The example I came across this week was a throw-away consumer product that was presented as ‘eco’ because of the carbon reductions associated with its use. Buy this product and you will drive less and consume fewer other throw-away products. The product itself was a classic example of buy it for Christmas, use it for a while and then chuck it when the novelty has worn off. Watch out for this green spin marketing ploy. It will trap a lot of people until we start to see ‘sustainable’ and ‘eco’ as more than a carbon counting exercise.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Pumping Money into the Economy

Should the Bank of England be pumping money into ‘banks’, ‘bubbles’ or the ‘real economy’? The only choice we can rule out for sure is ‘bubble’. The choice that Alistair Darling has taken on behalf of the government is to pump money into the banks in the hope that it will be channelled into the real economy. That is not what is happening. The money is going into the financial system and appearing as a surge on the stock market. This is exactly where we do not want tax-payers money to end up.

There is a lot of talk about persuading banks to take action to support the real economy. They are being urged to be more prudent and to lend more to small businesses (not easily compatible aims). There are also proposals to cap banker’s bonuses but this may be more political posturing than trying to fix the financial system. When money flows into banks it enters a system which is the same as it was prior to the crisis but with some of the more extreme elements neutered (for now). It is not banks that need the money, it is the real economy.

The central bank can make new money at the flick of a switch. Quantitative easing is a very easy option. It is hoped that this then helps the economy. This is lazy policy making; like the government’s action to reduce VAT early in the crisis. The real challenge is boosting the real economy and getting people back to work. It will not be easy.

One way would be channel government money to the insulation of all the housing stock in the UK, starting with that in public ownership. The money will go direct to employing people from the hard-hit construction industry and deliver long-term reductions in carbon emissions as well as improve security of energy supply for the country. This would pump stimulus directly into the real economy. The effects would ripple out, allowing people to get off the dole, back to work and pay off their mortgage arrears. This is not an easy option, to implement quickly, but governments should not be in power looking for easy options. This could be up and running now if our leaders had more vision and more drive.

Monday, 9 November 2009

Time for World Leaders to Act

We like to listen to optimists, and I am an optimist, but I am also a realist. My new book, Victim of Success: Civilization at Risk contains a blueprint to save the world but it is not a small change to business as usual. Decades of denial that a problem is brewing means that now it is not possible to avoid difficult and painful decisions. This is the uncomfortable and worrying reality that we don’t like to hear.

I remain optimistic because I know that when people really understand the risks we are taking on behalf of the next generation, they will be willing to enter crisis mode. The current set of proposals, being worked on for the climate talks in Copenhagen in December 2009, is not enough. A deal will be agreed, but it will then stifle the debate for the next decade whilst we invest in more nuclear power, ramp up carbon trading and then miss the ambitious targets that were agreed.

By then, climate change will be hitting many countries hard, the world population will still be expanding and natural habitats will have been destroyed. We will stop, think, and try again to come up with another blueprint for the planet, but by then the problems will be much more intractable.

My book is not the blueprint to save the world. It is a call to action, a plea to open our eyes to reality and an indication of the nature of a new direction for society. The time for complacency and reassuring optimism is long past. Civilization is at risk and it is up to this generation of world leaders to take steps to protect it.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

De-Carbonising Europe

Gerry Wolf, of Desertec-UK claims that, using proven technology, Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) could deliver the entire world’s current electricity demand using less than 5% of the world’s desert area. This could mean that the deserts of North Africa could power Europe.

These ideas have been around for a while. I wrote in my book Adapt and Thrive that the deserts could provide ‘liquid sunshine’ as a viable transport fuel. I used the term ‘liquid sunshine’ in order not to be prescriptive over which technology would win out. Some people argue for hydrogen; my personal favourite is a bio fuel produced by photosynthesis perhaps from algae grown in tanks. Of course this needs water and the sunniest places are deserts where, by definition, water is in short supply.

This is where CSP can work along-side liquid sunshine plants. CSP uses mirrors to concentrate the sun’s heat which is then used to generate steam to power conventional turbines. The engineers have developed clever design concepts to store the heat so that the turbines can continue to run when the sun goes down. This means that solar electricity from the desert can provide the steady reliable power that our grids demand.

There is another fortunate development that engineers are working on. The CSP has ‘waste’ heat that can be used to operate desalination plants to extract fresh water from sea water. It is technically feasible to combine a CSP plant sending electricity to our cities over low-loss power lines with a plant to produce a bio fuel (my liquid sunshine) to be shipped and used in transport.

The engineers have the solution to de-carbonising Europe; all that is needed is the business case. That business case hinges on the price of fuel and energy. It is simple; we must accept much higher energy costs to give companies like Desertec the business case to deliver the engineer’s designs. ‘All’ we have to do is to overcome the political difficulty of much higher energy prices.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Civilization at Risk

Each week that goes by, civilization is one week closer to collapse. My book, Victim of Success: Civilization at Risk outlines the sequence of the collapse if human society does not change direction: my preface begins:

In this book, I write about the pending collapse of human civilization brought on by the pursuit of economic success at any cost. I also write about how to prevent it. This will mean introducing dramatic changes into society, including constraints on our behaviour and adopting measures that may hold back economic growth. The challenge, as an author, is to write about the changes required in such a way that the reader understands the necessity to act. This means tackling the unpleasant truth about the risks to civilization in order to set the context within which to counter them.

Sales are being taken on Amazon. I have written this book to wake up our leaders to the need to act, and act soon. If we can get a surge of orders then it will rise up the Amazon rankings and the delegate at the climate talks in Copenhagen in December will have to take note.

Click here to order and support my call for action.

Monday, 26 October 2009

21st Century Mobile Power

The mobile phone has become a standard accessory for all people throughout the world. In affluent Finland, the home of Nokia Corporation, the mobile phone has been ubiquitous for decades. At the other extreme, in the poorest regions of the world there may be one mobile phone per village, hired out one call at a time. In the developed world, this flood of mobile technology allows us to text, twitter and surf the net. In the developing world, people can avoid the expense of a long trip into the nearest town by transacting their affairs over the phone for the first time. There is no need to install a fixed-line infrastructure; poorer countries can jump straight to a network of base stations to serve the mobile phones.

Through this explosion of mobile phone sales we have been blind to the consequential impact of the manufacture and then disposal of the phones. We must move beyond the out-dated concepts of the 20th century throw-away society to true 21st century cradle-to-cradle design. Products should be designed for a full lifecycle of manufacture, use and recycling at end-of life that is sustainable indefinitely.

It is heartening to see the first small step. The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) has given its stamp of approval to an energy-efficient one-charger-fits-all for new mobile phones. There will no longer need to be a new charger for every new phone sold. This may be a small step but it shows that corporations can cooperate to deliver sustainable solutions. The next challenge in this industry would be to make the phones themselves entirely recyclable. There are some examples of covers made from recycled plastics but these are superficial attempts. The 21st century mobile phone must have all components designed to be fully recyclable, particularly the batteries.