Making Our Environment Matter (Again)

30 04 2010

After a week away from blogging it now seems clear that this has not been the “green election” that many had hoped for. Neither has it been the first “internet election”. The campaign has been dominated by television and presidential style debates.

At least the news hasn’t been dominated solely by election coverage. The Icelandic Volcano eruption of a fortnight back provided many of us with a welcome distraction from the endless speculation over things like what colour tie David Cameron would wear for the big occasion and the meaning behind Gordon Brown wearing purple. Until at least the Volcano started to get a bit boring tooo. This article in the New Statesman by Slavoj Zizek provokes some serious thought. Zizek writes that there is:

[S]omething deceptively reassuring in this readiness to assume responsibility for the threats to our environment. We like to feel guilty because that suggests everything depends on us – if we pull the strings of the catastrophe, then we can save ourselves simply by changing our lives. The ongoing volcanic outburst is a reminder that our ecological troubles cannot be reduced to our hubris, to our disturbing the balanced order of earth.

Nature is chaotic and prone to wild, unpredictable and meaningless disasters, and we are exposed to its merciless whims – there is no Mother Earth watching over us. Indeed, in the case of a volcano, the danger comes from inside the bowels of the earth; from beneath our feet, not from outer space. We have nowhere to withdraw.

These three short paragraphs summarise a great deal of how many, myself included, see the challenges ahead and how to best deal with them:

Even if we blame scientific-technological civilisation for global warming, we need the same science not only to define the scope of the threat, but also, often, to perceive it in the first place. The “ozone hole”, for example, can be “seen” in the sky only by scientists. That line from Wagner’s Parsifal – “Die Wunde schliest der Speer nur, der Sie schlug” (“The wound can only be healed by the spear that made it”) – acquires a new relevance here.

How much can we “safely” pollute our environment? How many fossil fuels can we burn? How much of a poisonous substance does not threaten our health? That our knowledge has limitations does not mean we shouldn’t exaggerate the ecological threat. On the contrary, we should be even more careful about it, given that the situation is extremely unpredictable. The recent uncertainties about global warming signal not that things are not too serious, but that they are even more chaotic than we thought, and that natural and social factors are inextricably linked.

Either we take the threat of ecological catastrophe seriously and decide today to do things that, if the catastrophe does not occur, will appear ridiculous, or we do nothing and risk losing everything if the catastrophe does take place. The worst response would be to apply
a limited range of measures – in that case, we will fail whatever happens.

A call to action indeed. This is not a time to sideline our climate for short-term populist point-scoring over issues such as immigration and marginal national insurance increases. Whichever party wins the election must act decisively and commit to confronting difficult decisions relating to climate change head on.

Profiting from Earth Day

22 04 2010

The Bulletin laments how Earth Day has evolved into a “big business” event. Even Google’s Doodle is “green” to mark the occasion. The Mirror reports that the 40 greatest nature images of all time are being auctioned at Christie’s in New York today. And Big Green Smile stretches the point even further.

For some Earth Day inspired cartoons check out the msnbc website.

View from the US

21 04 2010

The Huffington Post analyses the surge in support for the LibDems and “Cleggmania”.

Grist heralds the fact that all three major UK parties take the issue of climate change seriously.

NY Times examines the differences in policy/rhetoric between the “big three” on the environment.

Earth Day video

21 04 2010

Beautiful video for tomorrow’s Earth Day. Watch it:

A call to Auntie!

20 04 2010

Both Iain Dale and Sunder Katwala have called for the live TV debate on Thursday to be screened on a terrestrial channel such as the BBC, ITV or Channel 4. As it stands, the debate between Brown, Cameron and Clegg will only be shown on Sky News. That could mean as little as 1 million watch the debate compared to the peak of 11 million that watched last week.

The second live TV debate will be moderated by Adam Boulton  for Sky at 8:00pm on Thursday evening. The location is Bristol and the debate subjects include International relations, UK defence, Climate change and International Development. In the name of democracy, one of the big three terrestrial stations must reschedule!

Five from the Web

19 04 2010

Forty years ago this 22 April, Earth Day was first celebrated by 20 million Americans. Visit to see how you can get involved in 2010.

An article in Treehugger looks at the energy impact of Twittering. How much does each Tweet cost in carbon footprint terms?

According to the Times, one side effect of the Eyjafjallajokull Volcano has been that carbon emissions have been cut dramatically over the past five days.

The Telegraph reports how the LibDem leader, Nick Clegg, today commited £3bn for a green jobs revolution.

And finally, Mark Lynas vowes to practise what he preaches.

“Dethroning GDP” and “Redefining Progress”

18 04 2010

The ongoing Icelandic Volcano saga poses many questions that are fundamental to the survival of mankind. Like what happens when your local supermarket can no longer fly in box upon box of pre-sliced pineapple chunks?

It also calls into question the very basis of our economic system. Many thousands of airplane journeys have been cancelled over the past five days. Countless numbers of people are stranded in foreign lands far away from home. And many, many less cartons of pineapple chunks have been consumed. In short, the daily routine of modern capitalism has been disrupted. Household passenger-plane companies are being hit with potentially knock-out blows to their profit margins, key workers such as teachers and nurses cannot get to work and the supermarket chains are having to deliver tinned pineapple rings in place of the real thing. But the wheels haven’t fallen off yet. Profits have surely slumped and many holiday-makers have been inconvenienced. But items such as this and this remind us of some of the advantages of economic “regression”.

In late March a diverse group of academics, NGOs and representatives from different US states met to discuss some of these very issues. An article in the World Resources Institute reviewed the meeting and its efforts to replace GDP as a barometer for progress and prosperity.

This article by Christopher Doll in Our world also examines the relationship between economic growth and sustainability. Amongst other things it looks at “Decoupling”, Amartya Sen’s “capability approach” and “Survivalism”. Well worth a read.

There are two issues that always need to be considered when thinking about the growth versus sustainability conundrum: (1) if climate change is, as Gordon Brown asserted prior to the Copenhagen conference, “the greatest challenge that we face as a world” then we must act decisively, but also that (2) those in the industrial/post-industrialised world are accustomed to seeing low-priced/out-of-season perishables in almost every supermarket in the northern hemisphere. Heaven forbid any national government impose restrictions on chunky pineapple pieces or other luxury goods.

It cannot be a question of either or. There must be compromise.