Saturday, November 28, 2009

Overcoming the crisis of perception

Schumacher College

Newsletter December 2009

At this time we are living with a “crisis of perception.” People tend to see the world’s problems as largely unrelated and fragmented, with limited understanding of their common ecological basis. At Schumacher College, we are continuously inviting visionary and inspired teachers who eloquently challenge these misperceptions. Our new year courses will explore this crisis through three approaches: science and spirit, economics and happiness, and the implications of the Copenhagen summit. The time to challenge the crisis of perception is here. Join us at Schumacher College.

Moving from materialism to happiness

Tomorrow (November 28) is national Buy Nothing Day, started in the early 1990’s by Adbusters. How many of us pay attention to the effects of our purchasing decisions as they impact humans and non-humans along the supply chain? What motivates us to buy things, and does buying stuff make us happy? Can the concept of happiness work as an economic indicator? These are some of the questions we will be asking and exploring in depth in our February short course, The Economics of Happiness, featuring Tim Kasser, Dasho Karma Ura, Per Espen Stoknes and Andrew Simms. Today was also the last day of our one-week short course, Growth and Consequence: rethinking our economic future, which has featured Jonathan Porritt and Susan George, as well as Andrew Simms, who will be joining us again in February. He says:
Our obsession with economic growth means we measure the success of the economy as if crime, pollution and illness were as positive as health, education and clean, green energy. We need new measures that reveal how environmentally efficient we are at using resources to create long, happy lives. National accounts of wellbeing are as important as national income accounts. Andrew Simms, Policy Director and Head of Climate Change Programme, nef

Photo: Michael Beaton

The consumer backdrop to Copenhagen

In contrast to Buy Nothing Day (see above) as we approach Christmas, we will no doubt be fervently reminded across all media channels first, how many shopping days we have left. This “noise” will form the backdrop to the Copenhagen Summit this December, arguably the most important UN gathering in modern history. Let us all hope that those with power who can influence what agreements are made at Copenhagen awake from their crisis of perception before it’s too late.
The latest suggestion from the rich world is that a legally binding deal be replaced with a collection of politicians’ promises, wrapped up in a photo-opportunity at Copenhagen. That’s a gift the world can do without this Christmas. Better no deal at all than we go forward with a bad deal, whistling in the dark, as we walk toward catastrophe. Kumi Naidoo, Greenpeace International Executive Director as reported on CNN

Schumacher College in Copenhagen

Schumacher College will be highlighting the critical skills and new approaches needed for radical change at next month’s Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. Along with the worlds NGOs, activists and movements like the Transition Network, we will be taking part in Klimaforum09, the civic society conference which is running alongside the UN organised COP15.
On the 14th December international delegates will join us for a briefing session on Sustainable Living, Localism and Resilience (organised in collaboration with the Transition Network) and following this on the 16th December we have been invited to deliver a workshop on Ecoliteracy: Critical Skills for Radical Change to the Association of Danish Academics.
We’re also organising an exhibition stand between the 14th and 16th December to share information about the College. If you’re planning to take part in Klimaforum09, anticipate a few hours to spare between these dates and would like to help run the stand, we’d love to hear from you. Please email

Stop Press

After Copenhagen: Opportunities and challengesNigel Topping, Chief Development Officer of the Carbon Disclosure Project, will discuss the role of business in exacerbating or helping address climate change. He joins Richard Heinberg and Rob Hopkins in week 2 of this course at Schumacher College in March 2010.

An opportunity to combine intellectual wisdom and environmental responsibility

Schumacher College will bring together teachers from an extraordinary variety of scientific and spiritual disciplines to address a fundamental question of our time: How do we find a way through to a more enlightened understanding of our role on this planet, which embraces the wonderful intellectual achievements of our age whilst putting them in a context of responsibility, sustainability and wisdom? Across three weeks of Science Meets Spirit: The search for meaning experts in biology, physics, philosophy, Eastern spirituality and cosmology will take participants on a journey to explore the challenge of reconnecting with the values that could guide us through a turbulent future.
Teachers: Elisabet Sahtouris, Arthur Zajonc, Mary Midgley, Bernadette Brady, Ravi Ravindra
To view more details about our short course in January Science Meets Spirit: The search for meaning

MSc in Holistic Science, application open for bookings

The reductionist explanation of nature through scientific discovery has now proved itself to be unable to give a full and balanced story of our place in the world. It has led us to assume that by analysing the mechanical workings of nature we can predict and hence manipulate it. Central to expounding a new vision at Schumacher College has been the qualitative scientific approach that continues to be adopted by the College’s resident and visiting science faculty. Click here for more details about the programme

Courses open for booking

Schumacher College
MSc in Holistic Science
September 2010
Schumacher College
(T) +44(0)1803 865 934
Schumacher College is an initiative of The Dartington Hall Trust, a registered charity, bringing ideas on sustainability to life.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Urban Farming for Empowered Communities (and Sustainable Cities)

by Thor Ritz 


Over the past year, folks here at the Institute have become more and more interested in the practice of urban farming.  We have been particularly keen about it’s role (mostly potential but sometimes actual) in the project of building more sustainable cities.  They can convert dis-used, industrial land into green spaces which could help to improve air quality, control storm water run-off, mitigate the urban heat island effect, etc.

Just as important as these ecological considerations, however, are the social dimensions of urban agriculture.  Many cultivation projects in American cities dedicate their produce to alleviating food insecurity and design their programs for community empowerment (right here in NYC there is Bed-Stuy Farm and East New York Farms).  The video above, courtesy of PopTech, sums up the issues at stake quite nicely and features an icon of this blossoming movement, Will Allen of Growing Power.  For those of us fighting for urban sustainability, these sort of projects represent a crucial opportunity to prioritze the tenet of equity (a concept better expressed as social justice, I think) in the work that we do.

Urban Food Growing in Havana, Cuba

Strengthening the role of R&D in boosting eco-innovation and eco-efficiency

RTD:Workshop "Strengthening the role of R&D in boosting eco-innovation and eco-efficiency" (13/11/09)

»   Session I: Research priorities 8 pontose@cec

»   Session II: How to measure Eco-innovation and Eco-efficiency 7 pontose@cec

»  i  Background paper    pontose@cec 65K 10/11/2009 1.0  English (en)    
»  i  Participants List    pontose@cec 27K 20/11/2009 1.0  English (en)    
»  i  Workshop agenda    pontose@cec 102K 11/11/2009 1.0  English (en)  


»  i  Arnold Black    pontose@cec 13342K 20/11/2009 1.0  English (en)    
»  i  Catia Bastioli    pontose@cec 79140K 20/11/2009 1.0  English (en)    
»  i  Doreen Fedrigo    pontose@cec 15599K 20/11/2009 1.0  English (en)    
»  i  Martin Charter    pontose@cec 15K 20/11/2009 1.0  English (en)    
»  i  Martin Jänicke    pontose@cec 3722K 20/11/2009 1.0  English (en)    
»  i  Rainer Walz    pontose@cec 308K 20/11/2009 1.0  English (en)    
»  i  Theodoros Staikos    pontose@cec 10071K 20/11/2009 1.0  English (en)    
»  i  Uffe Bundgaard-Jørgensen    pontose@cec 1889K 20/11/2009 1.0  English (en)  


»  i  EUROSTAT    pontose@cec 1520K 20/11/2009 1.0  English (en)    
»  i  Igor Jelinski    pontose@cec 4412K 20/11/2009 1.0  English (en)    
»  i  Raimund Bleischwitz    pontose@cec 1673K 25/11/2009 1.0  English (en)    
»  i  René Kemp    pontose@cec 1220K 20/11/2009 1.0  English (en)    
»  i  Roberto Zoboli    pontose@cec 170K 20/11/2009 1.0  English (en)    
»  i  Tomoo Machiba    pontose@cec 4716K 20/11/2009 1.0  English (en)    
»  i  Ugo Pretato    pontose@cec 3804K 20/11/2009 1.0  English (en)  

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Seattle as North America's First Carbon-Neutral City

by Alex Steffen, 23 Nov 09

Article Photo
Last week, I stood on the stage at Seattle's Town Hall and called on Seattle to become North America's first carbon-neutral city, dropping its per capita climate emissions to nothing by 2030.

Since then, I've gotten a whole slew of great emails and calls from people who are thinking that goal through, and have questions. Mostly, folks have been wildly supportive, generally wanting most to know how they can help build the movement to do that. I'm a writer, not an organizer, and I don't have the plan, but I can explain a little more my thinking, and share some observations about what seems to be needed right now. Hopefully those will help.

The timing and target come from the now-common observation that we need to aspire to return the level of CO2 in the atmosphere to 350 ppm. In order to do that, we need to at very least level off at 450 ppm mid century. To do that, while billions of young people in the developing world rise out of poverty (and escape the problems of poverty), we need to create a new bright green model of prosperity, one that can be shared equitably and sustainably by all. For that model to be widely adopted by 2050, I reckon, we need to have it up and running by 2030. Because of the vastly unequal distribution of formal research and innovation capacity in the world, because of the developed world's near-complete responsibility for the climate problems we already face and because of the central role of cities in climate action, that model needs to come from the wealthier cities of the Global North. We have to invent that model and be living it in 20 years.

Building bright green cities: that's the great moral and political challenge of our day. That is our generation's Abolition, our era's World War Two. If we can achieve this, we'll provide component innovations, new mental models and more time for billions of people around the world to blaze their own trails to their own new models of prosperity. We'll address the major causes of planetary environmental destruction, relieve the suffering of hundreds of millions of people and protect the rights of future generations -- all while improving our own lives and preparing our region for the economy of the 21st century. This isn't just a win-win proposition, it's the possibility of multi-dimensional, cascading, feedback-loops full of win.

The only "non-win" about it is that it will involve change -- not sacrifice, because all the evidence suggests that most people's lives will improve; and not expense, because all of the steps we need to take return more money than we'll spend, over time (and if it makes money it's not a cost, it's an investment). Of course, people hate change. Most people want everything to stay exactly the way it was about 10 or 20 years ago; and the idea of plunging forward into a future of dramatic transformations makes many people grumpy, and a few downright psychotic.

Of course, change is the only given; and when it comes to our collision with planetary boundaries, our choice isn't whether to change or not, it's whether to act or be acted upon by vast forces we're unleashing as a consequence of our way of living today. Our current way of living is toast in either case, and will vanish within the next few decades; the only question is, what will replace it? Will our way of living be followed by millennia of ecological impoverishment, increased human suffering and diminished cultural possibilities; or will it be followed by a better way of life, one that prevents catastrophic collisions with ecological reality, and leaves us (and billions of others) wealthier, healthier and happier? That's the only real choice we have in front of us.

Now, we are really and truly on terra incognita here. No one knows exactly what a carbon-neutral North American city would look like, or what the best, fastest routes there will turn out to be. There is no map for these territories, and we'll need to cultivate an attitude of experimentation, innovation and learning as we go.
Even some of the most basic questions will demand debate: How do we define carbon-neutrality? What do we include in our carbon footprint and what do we leave out? How much can we ethically rely on offsets or other "shifted changes" to make up for the damage caused by some of our existing systems that are very slow to change? How do we wrest away the regulatory authority and fiscal capacity to make these changes, in the face of what has already been determined opposition from those industries most invested in continued ecological destruction? How do we envision the end result and help our fellow citizens connect to it as a goal? The questions go on...

But developing answers to those questions in ways that make sense in our context is part of the model we're trying to create: the conversation about change is itself part of the change we seek. Indeed, having made the case for this shift to those in our own region who are skeptical (or in some cases, directly hostile) is part of what will arm other cities, in different contexts, with information and insight to build their own cases for change. All of this is hard work, but it isn't wasted labor.

The most important part is the standard: if any sustainability plan we find ourselves discussing isn't hammering out a pathway built of measured steps and leading to zero impact in a definable and relatively immediate time-frame, it's just no longer good enough. I think zero carbon emissions by 2030 (with the interim goals of 10 percent immediate cuts and a 50 percent reduction in the next 10 years) makes sense. Others may differ. The important point is that we stop investing energy in small steps that cannot add up to the large leaps we know we need to make, and stop accepting modest (or even lame) goals as sufficient.

In fact, I'm increasingly suspicious of any proposal to make something less unsustainable, rather than following a measured path to zero impact. Surrounded by a global leadership culture that values above all else civic incrementalism, compromise and moderation (sometimes for very good reasons), many of us tend to assume that progress is gradual and that steps in the right direction are at very least a good start. But that thinking is dysfunctional for the times in which we find ourselves. We need (for really direct and documented reasons) bold, rapid action and the completion of goals on a strict timetable. If any particular action can't make a case for itself as part of a bold and rapid shift, I increasingly suspect it's a sparkly distraction, not a stepping stone.

That absolutely does not mean that everything we do must be perfect, or even produce a specific measurable impact. Steps that are specific and limited, but lead nonetheless to a larger goal are great, even if they alone won't solve the whole problem. Compact fluorescents will not save the planet, but they clearly lead to reduced energy usage, and so there's nothing wrong with encouraging their uptake as part of a march towards zero emissions in twenty years.

Even more important are cultural actions. All of the largest barriers to bright green innovation are cultural and conceptual, not technical. The technical challenges of implementation are pretty huge, but they can't be faced at all without changing the way at least an active core of people see these issues. What does a zero-impact society look like? What is the definition of prosperity? What actually makes us happy? What parts of our lives already fail to work as advertised, and what would it feel like to transform them? How would we live in this new world?

These are questions that, fundamentally, we can only tackle through art and design, creative inquiry and intellectual exploration, conversation and media. We need a movement of people engaged in this work. For while it's true that changing attitudes alone is not enough, inspired minds driving forward a cause is the only formula for real change that has ever worked: free your mind, and your ass will follow.
Free your mind, Seattle.

Image credit: Craig Allen, CC

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Searching for a Miracle - ‘Net Energy’ Limits & the Fate of Industrial Society

by Richard Heinberg

Perhaps the most significant limit to future energy supplies is the “net energy” factor—the requirement that energy systems yield more energy than is invested in their construction and operation.
Searching for a Miracle
‘Net Energy’ Limits & the Fate of Industrial Society
Post Carbon Institute & International Forum on Globalization - September 2009
Read the full report:
»  Download the PDF (2.61 MB)


THIS REPORT IS INTENDED as a non-technical examination of a basic question: Can any combination of known energy sources successfully supply society’s energy needs at least up to the year 2100? In the end, we are left with the disturbing conclusion that all known energy sources are subject to strict limits of one kind or another. Conventional energy sources such as oil, gas, coal, and nuclear are either at or nearing the limits of their ability to grow in annual supply, and will dwindle as the decades proceed—but in any case they are unacceptably hazardous to the environment. And contrary to the hopes of many, there is no clear practical scenario by which we can replace the energy from today’s conventional sources with sufficient energy from alternative sources to sustain industrial society at its present scale of operations. To achieve such a transition would require (1) a vast financial investment beyond society’s practical abilities, (2) a very long time—too long in practical terms—for build-out, and (3) significant sacrifices in terms of energy quality and reliability.

Perhaps the most significant limit to future energy supplies is the “net energy” factor—the requirement that energy systems yield more energy than is invested in their construction and operation. There is a strong likelihood that future energy systems, both conventional and alternative, will have higher energy input costs than those that powered industrial societies during the last century.We will come back to this point repeatedly.
The report explores some of the presently proposed energy transition scenarios, showing why, up to this time, most are overly optimistic, as they do not address all of the relevant limiting factors to the expansion of alternative energy sources. Finally, it shows why energy conservation (using less energy, and also less resource materials) combined with humane, gradual population decline must become primary strategies for achieving sustainability.
The world’s current energy regime is unsustainable. This is the recent, explicit conclusion of the International Energy Agency1, and it is also the substance of a wide and growing public consensus ranging across the political spectrum. One broad segment of this consensus is concerned about the climate and the other environmental impacts of society’s reliance on fossil fuels.The other is mainly troubled by questions regarding the security of future supplies of these fuels—which, as they deplete, are increasingly concentrated in only a few countries.

To say that our current energy regime is unsustainable means that it cannot continue and must therefore be replaced with something else.However, replacing the energy infrastructure of modern industrial societies will be no trivial matter. Decades have been spent building the current oil-coal-gas infrastructure, and trillions of dollars invested. Moreover, if the transition from current energy sources to alternatives is wrongly managed, the consequences could be severe: there is an undeniable connection between per-capita levels of energy consumption and economic well-being.2 A failure to supply sufficient energy, or energy of sufficient quality, could undermine the future welfare of humanity, while a failure to quickly make the transition away from fossil fuels could imperil the Earth’s vital ecosystems.

Nonetheless, it remains a commonly held assumption that alternative energy sources capable of substituting for conventional fossil fuels are readily available—whether fossil (tar sands or oil shale), nuclear, or a long list of renewables—and ready to come on-line in a bigger way. All that is necessary, according to this view, is to invest sufficiently in them, and life will go on essentially as it is.

But is this really the case? Each energy source has highly specific characteristics. In fact, it has been the characteristics of our present energy sources (principally oil, coal, and natural gas) that have enabled the building of a modern society with high mobility, large population, and high economic growth rates. Can alternative energy sources perpetuate this kind of society? Alas, we think not.

While it is possible to point to innumerable successful alternative energy production installations within modern societies (ranging from small homescale photovoltaic systems to large “farms” of threemegawatt wind turbines), it is not possible to point to more than a very few examples of an entire modern industrial nation obtaining the bulk of its energy from sources other than oil, coal, and natural gas. One such rare example is Sweden, which gets most of its energy from nuclear and hydropower. Another is Iceland, which benefits from unusually large domestic geothermal resources, not found in most other countries. Even in these two cases, the situation is more complex than it appears.The construction of the infrastructure for these power plants mostly relied on fossil fuels for the mining of the ores and raw materials, materials processing, transportation, manufacturing of components, the mining of uranium, construction energy, and so on. Thus for most of the world, a meaningful energy transition is still more theory than reality. But if current primary energy sources are unsustainable, this implies a daunting problem. The transition to alternative sources must occur, or the world will lack sufficient energy to maintain basic services for its 6.8 billion people (and counting).

Thus it is vitally important that energy alternatives be evaluated thoroughly according to relevant criteria, and that a staged plan be formulated and funded for a systemic societal transition away from oil, coal, and natural gas and toward the alternative energy sources deemed most fully capable of supplying the kind of economic benefits we have been accustomed to from conventional fossil fuels.

By now, it is possible to assemble a bookshelf filled with reports from nonprofit environmental organizations and books from energy analysts, dating from the early 1970s to the present, all attempting to illuminate alternative energy transition pathways for the United States and the world as a whole.These plans and proposals vary in breadth and quality, and especially in their success at clearly identifying the factors that are limiting specific alternative energy sources from being able to adequately replace conventional fossil fuels.

It is a central purpose of this document to systematically review key limiting factors that are often left out of such analyses.We will begin that process in the next section. Following that, we will go further into depth on one key criterion: net energy, or energy returned on energy invested (EROEI).This measure focuses on the key question: All things considered, how much more energy does a system produce than is required to develop and operate that system? What is the ratio of energy in versus energy out? Some energy “sources” can be shown to produce little or no net energy. Others are only minimally positive.

Unfortunately, as we shall see in more detail below, research on EROEI continues to suffer from lack of standard measurement practices, and its use and implications remain widely misunderstood. Nevertheless, for the purposes of large-scale and long-range planning, net energy may be the most vital criterion for evaluating energy sources, as it so clearly reveals the tradeoffs involved in any shift to new energy sources.

This report is not intended to serve as a final authoritative, comprehensive analysis of available energy options, nor as a plan for a nation-wide or global transition from fossil fuels to alternatives. While such analyses and plans are needed, they will require institutional resources and ongoing reassessment to be of value.The goal here is simply to identify and explain the primary criteria that should be used in such analyses and plans, with special emphasis on net energy, and to offer a cursory evaluation of currently available energy sources, using those criteria.This will provide a general, preliminary sense of whether alternative sources are up to the job of replacing fossil fuels; and if they are not, we can begin to explore what might be the fall-back strategy of governments and the other responsible institutions of modern society.

As we will see, the fundamental disturbing conclusion of the report is that there is little likelihood that either conventional fossil fuels or alternative energy sources can reliably be counted on to provide the amount and quality of energy that will be needed to sustain economic growth—or even current levels of economic activity—during the remainder of the current century.

This preliminary conclusion in turn suggests that a sensible transition energy plan will have to emphasize energy conservation above all. It also raises questions about the sustainability of growth per se, both in terms of human population numbers and economic activity.