Archive for the “Environment” Category

Today is Blog Action Day highlighting the issue of water. I don’t want to bang on about this and make you feel bad so I’ll keep it brief.

I take my taps and my toilet for granted but for many there is a daily choice to go thirsty (which isn’t an option you can keep taking for long) or to walk miles to get water from a source that may make you sick or even kill you. Until earlier this year, I had no idea how big an issue water and sanitation is. These are the two statistics that sold me on trying to do something about it…

884 million people in the world do not have access to safe water – roughly one in eight of the world’s population.

2.6 billion people in the world do not have access to a clean and safe toilet – almost 40% of the world’s population.

This week, Britain’s chief scientist John Beddington said that water shortages will be the world’s most pressing problem in the next decade. It is the world’s poorest who will suffer the most.

If you want to do something, my suggestion would be to give some money to WaterAid or you could twin your toilet with one in Burundi.

A final fact – for every dollar spent on sanitation at least 9 dollars are saved in health, education and economic development. That’s efficient giving!

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Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better
Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett
11 May 2010, 19.30-20.30
St George’s Bristol

Peace and the Plundered Planet
Paul Collier
12 May 2010, 18.00-19.00
At-Bristol, Bristol

How Are We to Live?
With Sarah Bakewell, John Cottingham and Michael Foley
13 May 2010, 19.30-21.00
Arnolfini, Bristol

The Future of Capitalism
Will Hutton
24 May 2010, 19.30-20.30
St George’s Bristol

Pandora’s Seed: The Unforeseen Cost of Civilisation
Spencer Wells
26 May 2010, 18.10-19.10
Watershed Media Centre, Bristol

The Story of Stuff
Annie Leonard
26 May 2010, 19.40-21.00
Watershed Media Centre, Bristol

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It’s becoming harder to justify eating meat these days. Three of the major challenges we face as a world at the moment – clean drinking water, feeding everybody and stopping climate change are all linked to livestock farming. Here are some interesting statistics I hadn’t heard before:

  • Agriculture is the largest user of fresh water (~70% in the developed world and more in developing countries). It takes somewhere between 10 and 100 times more fresh water to produce a kilogram of meat than a kilogram of wheat/vegetables (depending on the meat/vegetable).
  • A piece of land the size of 5 football pitches can produce enough meat to feed 2 people. That same piece of land could feed 10 people if planted with maize, 24 people with grain or 61 people with soya.
  • The UN say that the livestock industry is responsible for 18% of harmful greenhouse emissions. To put that into perspective, the entire world transport system only contributes 13.5%.

I think I’ve probably eaten significantly less meat this year. Living with vegetarians has probably helped subliminally but it’s been more because meat is more expensive and when cooking for one, even the small packs of mince or chicken are more than one meals-worth and I found that the other half of the pack would go off before I get round to eating it. Unfortunately, like many people, I do really enjoy a good steak / sunday roast / bacon sandwich / quality burger and was very happy on Christmas day that my lunch did not look like this…


… but maybe this year I’ll try to cut my meat consumption again. It’s probably healthier anyway.

(Cow photo by mnmlbeats)

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This is a response to John‘s post titled “We Need Radical Green Policies” in which he suggests that the way to make people live sustainably is to hit them in their wallets. This is a topic on which I have quite a lot to say!

I agree with John that the only way to persuade more than a minority of people to make material changes to the way they live is to make it expensive to be wasteful. At the moment sustainability for the common man is costly in both time (eg sorting your recycling) and money (eg taking public transport which usually takes longer and costs more than driving (except within London)). Given a choice between two options of equal cost where one is “greener”, I’m sure most people would choose sustainability. Unfortunately that isn’t a choice we are often able to make much at the moment in a world where the price we pay for many products does not reflect their true cost (I’m looking at you Primark) so we are used to paying prices that don’t factor in the long term environmental (or human) cost. In that environment, it is very hard for the sustainable option to be priced competitively.

Unfortunately, one big problem with making it expensive to pollute is that many of the ideas that are thrown about (such as increasing fuel duty) hit the poorest in society hardest (those that can already barely afford to heat their houses) while we, the middle class responsible for much of the problem, can afford to buy our way out of having to face up to the inconvenience of changing the way we live. Unlike John, the increasing price of petrol made no difference to the way I drove. Even at the peak of petrol prices, it was still a cheaper (and much quicker) way to get to London than taking the train and on a Friday night after work, I just want to get there as quickly as possible. As John says, his behaviour changed out of motivation to save money more than out of motivation to save the environment. For me the petrol price didn’t reach the point where my own personal cost/benefit analysis motivated me to change my behaviour to save either! I need to be incentivised just like everyone else.

As John implied, government policy on climate change all comes down to discount rates – how you balance the costs/benefits of action now with the costs/benefits of action later. For us, the benefits of convenient and cheap travel now will certainly result in costs down the line but, unlike in business, it’s very hard to estimate those costs and it will be someone else who pays the price anyway. For all the money parents spend on giving their children the best future they can through education, health care etc, we haven’t yet found a way not to steal from them by using up as many resources as we can from the pot that we share with them.

I’ll take this opportunity to recommend the New Economics Foundation. They’ve been talking for a while about a “triple crunch” – the financial crisis, climate change and increasing energy prices. Interestingly, at the moment the recession caused by the financial crisis has resulted in a reductions in energy prices but this will only be temporary. However, in the long run, as non-renewable fuel prices go up again (as they surely will being a finite supply in a market with demand growth that shows no signs of stopping any time soon) and as renewables technology is refined in efficiency and lowering cost of production, green electricity will eventually become competitive and then cheaper in real terms (ie excluding the green subsidies).

Hopefully this will be the case in other areas where we need to move towards sustainability too (manufacturing, transport, water supply, etc).

Through innovation in policy and technology we need to make saving the world not only possible but easy!

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Here’s an interesting one…

What day of the year do you think we used up all the natural resources the Earth will produce this year?

According to the Global Footprint Network it was 23rd September this year and is (unsurprisingly) getting earlier every year. To put it another way, since 23rd September we have been living beyond our ecological means.

Now living beyond our financial means is something that many in the West have gotten quite used to. Even our governments do it. We see talentless “celebrities” living lavish lifestyles in the tabloids and think that we deserve that lifestyle too. Unfortunately, many who’ve fallen into this trap don’t have the celebrity income to pay for it. I watched In Debt We Trust (you can watch it here) last week. It highlighted to me again that we have developed this sense of entitlement in western culture – “the people on TV have fancy cars and the latest fashions so I deserve to have those things too”. However, just because you can’t afford doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have it, just put it on credit.

In recent months, we’ve started to see the fruits of our behaviour. The credit has dried up and people and businesses are feeling the force of a mess that has been repeatedly covered up by borrowing more (or by Gordon Brown manufacturing growth by redefining it).

How long before we have a similar ecological crunch?

Here’s a final thought – we now need 1.4 Earths per year for our existence to be ecologically sustainable. Until that number goes down to one, we are stealing from our children.


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I mentioned Sarah Palin’s fight with the polar bear a few weeks back. Today the Guardian have some more details for us:

The Republican Sarah Palin and her officials in the Alaskan state government drew on the work of at least six scientists known to be sceptical about the dangers and causes of global warming, to back efforts to stop polar bears being protected as an endangered species…

Read the full Guardian article here… (it gets more ridiculous as you read it)

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“She sued the Department of the Interior for classifying polar bears as an endangered species”

Read more about her environmental non-credentials at New Scientist here…


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