This blog by Tom Bliss is more of a ‘blook’ and essentially one post, broken into chapters. I’m afraid there is some scary stuff here below – but let me say now; we can and will fix this problem – and the Paris Agreement Dec 2015 was an excellent if small first step, with Glasgow providing more reasons for hope, if not any real fix.
These are just some suggestions that I hope might help people to understand the science and how it might be applied. They follow from the film I made in 2010 called The Urbal Fix, which explored the future management and design of cities in response to climate change. (‘Urbal’ is the polar opposite of ‘Rurban’ – a planning term meaning, effectively, the urbanisation of the countryside – and all).
Please visit Urbal.tv for the film (and others I have made since), the projects (Feed Leeds etc) and more.
And if you’ve come here looking for advice about misunderstandings in climate science – it’s here, (and if you really are completely and utterly convinced that climate change is a socialist plot designed purely to raise taxes or something, you might be better off stopping right here – as nothing I say below, sadly, is likely to change your mind. If you are convinced it’s a load of bull but think you might as well read on just to see what tosh I’ve come up with – thank you, but may I suggest you have a look at this cartoon first – or maybe skip straight to hearing from die-hard conservatives who have radically changed their views on this topic – you really will need an open mind).
Originally a Landscape Architect, then (and still, occasionally) a Writer/Producer/Director, who did very nicely though the 80s and 90s out of advising companies on communication matters (I thought of it as oiling the wheels of industry – including, to my current shame, even the oil industry) I became concerned about the climate and the ecological crisis while enjoying a lazy decade as a full-time folk musician. So I abandoned touring and returned to university to study it at Masters level (The Urbal Fix was effectively my dissertation). I was then asked to teach the topic part time, to Landscape Architects and Urban Designers, at Leeds Beckett University and I still do this today – along with much related pro bono research and project work (see Urbal.tv). Recently, I spent a few years with the United Bank of Carbon team at the University of Leeds, working inside the Priestly International Centre for Climate alongside 8 IPCC lead authors and 150 climate scientists, reporting directly to Professor Piers Forster, IPCC lead author and UK Committee on Climate Change. So, yes, that means I have earned money from the ‘Climate Change Industry’ – but I chose not to return to a much more lucrative career in TV to do so. NB: I am not a scientist of any description, I am a story-teller. And I do NOT speak on behalf of either university, nor any of the groups I am part of – only for myself.
References are linked from the text, and there is a handy list here.
“The difference between weather and climate is a measure of time. Weather is what conditions of the atmosphere are over a short period of time, and climate is how the atmosphere “behaves” over relatively long periods of time” Nasa
“Climate is what you expect – weather is what you get” Robert Heinlein (via Dame Julia Slingo)
Now. The main greenhouse gas is water vapour. But that’s not changed enough to explain any extra heat. CO2 ‘radiative forcing’ can. And if we calculate how much warming 400 ppm should deliver, we get the temperatures we see. It has to be this seemingly tiny amount of CO2.
But is the CO2 natural? No. The last caldera was 74,000 years ago, the last big meteor was 66 million, and natural weathering is insignificant. It has to be man-made.
And we can now clearly identify the fingerprint of man-made warming around the globe in the increasing frequency and intensity of storms, bush fires, ice / tundra melt, acidification, etc.
Modern Climate Science is today on a par with Evolution and Gravity. We can’t yet explain every detail, but what we do know demands rapid and radical action. If we’re wrong we may have changed the economy slightly, with some minor costs and a lot of major benefits. But if we are right we will have staved off a catastrophe for the human race – and many other species.
A handy list of references on topical debating points can be found here, and see below for more detail on many of the more common ones with links in-line.
Please bear in mind throughout this post that, as Jon Fuller reminds us:
• Every court in the world accepts that climate change is primarily caused by human activities. That is because the science has been proven beyond all reasonable doubt. The anti-science, climate change deniers cannot bring a single case to court because, in the eyes of the law, they lack all credibility.
• When all peer reviewed scientific research on climate change produced in 2013 and 2014 was recently reviewed it was found that of the 24,210 papers (by 69,406 authors) just 5 papers (by 4 authors) disputed that climate change is due to burning fossil fuels and other human activities.
• 99.99% of peer reviewed science shows that the climate change deniers are wrong.
• Every single science university in Europe says the climate change deniers are wrong.
• The Vatican, CofE and every major religion say the climate change deniers are wrong.
• The Pentagon, NATO and other national security agencies in Europe say the climate change deniers are wrong (climate change will cause ever greater international conflict and war).
• The IMF, OECD, World Bank, IEA, World Economic Forum and Bank of England say the climate change deniers are wrong (climate change might bankrupt us all)
• And finally; Remember – China has the death penalty, and China disproves the argument that there is a global conspiracy of scientists. China has hundreds of thousands scientists and science students in universities studying the effect of the various greenhouse gases, and how those gases alter climate. Those scientists have shown the political elite in the Communist Party that the science is real. Consequently that nation is spending hundreds of billions on low carbon technologies, trying to begin the shift away from coal. If any of those scientists were found to have deceived the Communist Party, causing the loss of hundreds of billions of revenue to the state, they would be executed.”
And we can add to China the other 196 countries that signed the Paris Agreement, most major NGOs and a rapidly growing number of businesses and corporations around the world – including even some from the fossil fuel industry.
Not to mention billions of citizens.
Piers Sellars, who agreed to launch the Priestley International Centre for Climate, but was, sadly, not well enough to attend, likened the Earth’s atmosphere to a Thin Blue Ribbon. All the greenhouse gases that are doing all the damage lie in the bottom half of that narrow strip.
Most diagrams designed to show how global warming works are misleading because they suggest a very deep atmosphere, but this is how big the gases around Earth would be if you scraped them all into a ball (the one on the right).
The size of all the water on the left is even more surprising. The fresh water ball is even smaller, see the video below – and the 12 inches of soil upon which all life depends is even smaller. And we’ve been chucking crap, chemicals and plastic into all of it for centuries.
Meanwhile, this is how much carbon-absorbing forest we’ve lost since humans first resorted to slash and burn agriculture. (A 2015 report estimates that the number of trees – not just forest trees – has fallen by approx 46% since the start of human civilization).
And we all know all about the extent of urbanisation and consequent pollution today.
Seen in these terms, it’s much easier to understand how humans could be damaging our seas and atmosphere to a point where they might no longer be capable of supporting civilisation as we know it.
Just in case this concept is new to you (can there still be anyone?) here is a short film which explains how man-made Co2 is rapidly warming the earth (on top of the very slow natural warming and cooling):
And here is the simple ‘proof’ you might be lacking – and by measurement, not modelling.
Tiny amounts of this gas really do have a massive impact:
YOU: But CO2 is a good thing – plants die without it.
ME: Yes, the right amount is essential, and not only for plants. Without an atmosphere containing CO2 and other greenhouse gasses, Earth would be a frozen desert. With too much CO2, it would be a hot desert. And by the way – too much CO2 is actually bad for trees.
YOU: But surely the planet has been much hotter and cooler in the past?
ME:It has. The sun’s heat varies very slowly over aeons, either because the Sun is a teeny bit closer or further away (our orbit wobbles), or because it’s a bit hotter or cooler itself, thanks to long and short solar cycles. And both these changes affect the amount of heat reaching Earth.
YOU:So it’s true then. The climate HAS always changed.
ME:Yup, it has, but very, very, VERY slowly. Slow enough for life to adapt by moving to a new location – or even evolving into new species (climate change is likely to have been the primary driver of species diversity).
YOU:Well, if Earth has been hotter in the past, what’s the problem?
ME: Two problems actually. The first is that today’s complex human society evolved in a period of calm, benign climate. So even if we had all the time in the world to adapt, we’d be looking at changes beyond contemplation today. We are too settled. We grow the wrong crops, rely on the wrong medicines. Our cities are in the wrong places. Our technology is wrong. And there are probably too many people for a hotter, more turbulent planet too.
YOU: But we can adapt…
Me:No. We can’t, actually. Because of the second problem;speed of change. Last time anything like this happened it was due to a meteor. Ok, it happened much faster than what’s happening today, but in geological time-frames they both count as very rapid. The meteor wiped out most of life on Earth because only a few species were suited to the new conditions. The rest failed. Actually, this is already happening again today, even with one degree of warming.
YOU: But that’s not only because of the climate, surely?
Me: True. There are various other human-caused factors like pollution, pesticides and deforestation, but the most important is that crops and the lower levels of the food chain (especially pollinators) are highly dependent on weather. Moisture, temperature and the synchronisation of food and prey are critical, especially for new-born young – and that’s going badly out of whack now. Also, while a warmer atmosphere with more CO2 is indeed better for many species in the short term, some are pests that we don’t want more of, especially in places where they have no natural predators. And random weather is good for nobody if crops are flooded or parched. Life on Earth is not at risk, but most current species are.
YOU: But humans are smart – we can change how we produce food.
Me:Not quickly enough. We still rely on ecosystem services which are already suffering. With our fragile and fractious society, we’re the most vulnerable species of all.
YOU:Ah – but I’ve seen graphs proving that CO2 actually increases because of natural warming, not the other way around. So your argument is just so much smoke. Ha ha.
ME:Ha ha indeed. But you’re not entirely wrong here. While the basic effects of CO2 are simple and well-understood, the science around it is actually very complex. Sometimes it does indeed increase as a result of solar warming, because hotter oceans release more CO2. But other times, as now, it causes heating by trapping radiation. (And this makes things even worse, of course, as the oceans then release even more CO2). Actually there’s quite a lot about CO2 that still puzzles scientists, but almost everyone is satisfied that we understand enough now to trigger drastic action.
YOU: But if you’re not 100% sure, then surely it’s irresponsible to act. You might be completely wrong.
ME:Yes, that’s possible, but the more we find out the more confident we are that it’s really happening.
YOU:But you don’t know everything…
ME: No, but let’s take an analogy; cancer treatment. Science is really getting a grip on this today, thankfully, but we still don’t understand everything. Never-the-less, medics have been treating cancer with increasing success for centuries. Should they have done nothing at all until they knew every single thing there was to know about cancer? Or do what they can, and learn as they went?
ME:Or say a pilot is taking the great circle route from Oslo to Vancouver when a warning light suggests the plane might be going to crash into the Arctic Ocean. But she can’t be 100% sure. Does she fly on in hope, or turn back to the nearest airport?
YOU: I see your point.
ME: Look. Science is never finished, it’s always developing – so by definition it’s always wrong. But sometimes it tells us enough to justify action. Like saying; this rocket will take you to the moon and back – jump in and give it a go. Or this plant will feed more people, grow some. Or this virus is going to infect 80% of the people on Earth – better take these measures now.
YOU:Touché. But climate science is so very, very complicated.
YOU: Well, what about cosmic rays and/or polar flips then?
ME: Not cosmic rays, that’s clear, or polar reversal because while we do think it’s a factor, we know there was no change in glacial extent last time it happened – when the magnetic field became very weak. So we can’t blame either. But do know we’ve been been pulling carbon out of the ground, burning it, and releasing it into the atmosphere for about 150 years – since around the point when predicted and actual temperatures began to diverge…
YOU:Hmm. So when you calculate what a couple of centuries of man-made CO2 would do to the temperature, how well does it match up?
ME: Pretty well. There’s still a lot we don’t understand, and there are still a few anomalies, but it’s a very convincing case – which is why so many nations, companies, organisations and people in the street are demanding that we decarbonise now, hard and fast.
ME:Hindcasting. You set up your model to describe the current situation, then run it backwards to see how well it matches the measured, historic data. It fits, so then you run it forwards and see where it takes you. It might be wrong, but the broader scientific community are confident that the new breed of climate models are reliable (the one in our department was used to develop the recent 1.5 degree proposals). More importantly, models are currently the only tool we have, so we have to use them. And in the absence of any other evidence or prediction, given that they advise radical action, we have to respond.
ME:Ok, if you’re not convinced, please watch this:
So how is this panning out today? Well, some people call this film below ‘alarmism’ – or even ‘warmism’:
If you think that’s ‘hysterical’ by both meanings of the word, and are not convinced that climate change (the direct consequence of global warming – both terms having been used since the phenomenon was first observed, as we saw above) is happening, that it’s serious, and that humans are largely to blame, may I humbly suggest that you ask yourself these four questions, which I’ve had to ask myself:
1)Do I really know enough about climate science to make an informed judgement?
There are effectively only two levels at which you can engage with climate science, the fairly superficial – as per this blog, and a proper full understanding of the whole shebang (which ‘proper’ climate scientists have).
Dipping in anywhere in between is risky – you can think you know what you’re talking about but be hopelessly wrong, because there’s a whole area of relevant science you’re not taking into account.
Because, although simple in principle, this is a highly specialised discipline; an ‘A’ level or even an MSc in chemistry or physics may not be enough.
If you really think you know enough, then I’d love to hear your hypotheses, theories and evidence, so they can be tested – as all science should be. There are always minority views which eventually prove to be game-changers, but they do have to stand up to expert investigation, and until they do, science treats them with caution. (Would you like to be treated for a fractured skull with a homeopathic remedy?) So far most maverick theories in this field simply have not panned out as reliable, but the scientists’ door is always open.
If, however, the answer to the question above is ‘no’ then, like me, you will have to decide who to trust. So the next question has to be:
2) Who provided the evidence that convinced me?
Where did their evidence originate, and how reliable was it? Did it come from a qualified team whose work was tested by qualified peers, or did it come from semi-qualified ‘experts’ or, worse, from unqualified people perhaps with a political axe to grind?
If the former, fair enough – contrary to popular opinion, good scientists are (mostly) alert to new ideas, and would be delighted to be proved wrong in this case. They really would – believe me. But if the latter, then the third question has to be:
3)Did I simply choose, or accept, the theory which made most sense to me?
If so, this would have been entirely reasonable – it’s what all sensible people do – but it doesn’t follow that your ‘logical’ theory is in fact correct. Counter-intuitive science often proves to be reliable – as in heavier-than-air flight. Or the earth going round the sun. Or even evolution – in fact pretty much everything we found out using science not storytelling. Each was discovered thanks to someone getting curious, doing some experiments and, crucially, waiting until there was enough evidence pointing in the same direction before starting to decide what they might be looking at.
“Science always has to ask open-ended questions, because science is not a method for trying to prove something. Rather, science is a method for trying to learn what is true. It is a method for setting aside your biases, testing possibilities, and discerning objective reality. Thus, science must always go from evidence to a conclusion. It can never go from a conclusion to evidence. Indeed, if you start with a conclusion, then look for evidence to support that conclusion, you are, by definition, doing pseudoscience. This fraudulent strategy of trying to prove a belief while operating under the guise of science is extremely common among science deniers.“
And people do that because they have already decided on a theory they find comfortable. So finally maybe you need to ask yourself:
If you think you know something that mainstream science does not, or if you favour the views of maverick scientists who mainstream scientists question, first of all; beware the Galileo Gambit. This can be paraphrased as:
They laughed at Galileo, and he was right. They laugh at me, therefore I am right.
People who use this gambit are usually accusing climate scientists of ‘group-think’ – the evil twin of consensus, about which more below. The longer definition goes: Because Galileo railed a lone voice against the consensus view, and was proved to be correct, we should champion lone voices over majority opinion. This is plainly stupid. If taken seriously, we’d have to champion the likes of Andrew Wakefield, David Ike and other dangerous Pseudoscientists as well as a wide range of ‘inspirational’ non-scientists, of whom there are a worryingly large number.
More importantly, Galileo was defended, and eventually vindicated, by scientists against a non-scientific consensus: namely The Catholic Church.
Galileo did use a method, but it was Descartes who is credited with initiating what eventually developed into the Scientific Method by the 19th or even 20th century. One of its many purposes was to discourage group-think – and it does this very well. The whole idea is to find fault with each other’s theories – and it is this ‘productive rivalry’ that drives scientists careers. And their salaries.
Here’s a useful thought from a very similar debate:
If scientists agree, it tends to mean that the argument has been won – for the time being, at least. Though of course there are lots of areas where strong disagreement abides, or where minority views later prove to be correct, or where something new overturns all previous opinion. That’s good and healthy – but if you need to act on science, it makes sense to at least start with the majority view – that’s the one the courts are most likely to judge you on if things go wrong!
Remember that while it’s tempting to back the little guy just because he’s the little guy, (we instinctively back the David against Goliath,) the little guy might not be properly qualified. Even if well-meaning he may be ignorant of key factors, or a victim of selection bias, or even survivorship bias.
If you want to understand climate science properly, please follow the links in the text or here. They challenge the more common maverick views that I list in the next section.
Google will find you many other sites which support the mainstream or ‘consensus’ view – as well as some initially very convincing sites which say differently. Please treat these with extreme caution. (A lot of graphs and technical terms are no guarantee of authenticity).
The maverick sites are a product of the free-for-all that the internet now provides. Some are backed by publications, but none by peer review journals, so it’s something of a tragedy for humanity that it’s often the maverick sites, rather than reputable journals, which are referenced by journalists from – especially – the Mail, the Express and the Telegraph in the UK, and many other ‘libertarian-minded’ media outlets around the world. Sometimes this is because their proprietors have some agenda, and sometime it’s just because they’ll get more readers this way. Why, I’m not sure. Maybe they just tell a better story – but we’ll need to get to my second blog before we explore that one.
Meanwhile, remember; science does not care about your politics. It just is.
The sites I’ve linked to below are run by and/or monitored by professional scientists whose views are informed by sophisticated (and cross-verified) models, verified data, and peer reviewed opinion. Most of the others – including a terrifying slew of YouTube and similar sites – are run by people who do not do their own field research or publish in reputable journals, but have just enough expertise to appear to find technical fault with the mainstream view, for one reason or another – and it’s usually politics, if we are honest.
This, below, will probably have had a lot to do with it: Many people just don’t understand what the scientists are saying, and think, for example, that they are admitting to being biased (bias), or fraud when they are simply referring to the processing of data (as in ‘manipulating’):
Examined in any depth, these criticisms are usually based on what are now old chestnuts – misunderstandings or mischief which has long since been corrected by authoritative explanations (see, again, below). But it can be tricky for the lay visitor to untangle the rights and wrongs, facts, faiths and fantasies of these arguments – not least because the maverick nay-sayers always challenge every correction – and usually vehemently, and come up with impressive-sounding ‘experts’ to back their views.
Equally confusingly, proper scientists nuance their opinions, and typically use technical jargon supported by complex graphics. Maverick sites seemingly display just as impressive language and graphics as the mainstream ones, but, tellingly, they seldom display properly nuanced opinions, while frequently intermingle ideological rhetoric with their science. (Yes, I do this a bit here, but I’m not a scientist, and I’m not asking you to trust me. I’m asking you to go read the reliable science and trust that).
Each ‘side’ claims the other is doctoring the data, so you need always to follow rebuttal and counter-rebuttal, back and back, until you encounter something which is clearly reliable – i.e peer-reviewed by people who fully understand and can evaluate and replicate the experiments, and then published in an authoritative journal (not a politically-motivated blog or YouTube) – as you always will if you look hard enough.
There are those who say the peer-review process itself is flawed, but what else do we have? Religious faith? Pig ignorance? Google?
No. If you find yourself dismissing mainstream science out of hand, then you need to go somewhere quiet and have a good long think. Or go and actually meet a few climate scientists. You’ll soon see that they are genuine and very very worried people.
Society simply has to go with the best-informed opinions we have, in a spirit of productive debate – and perhaps with a bit of common sense. If that’s ok with you, please read on.
Some people fervently believe that climate science is like a balloon that can be popped by one error, disproven theory or damaged dataset. Not so. It’s actually more like a bramble thicket; rooted in the soil of basic physics, constantly growing and branching, and composed of tough, thorny, intersecting theories which all support each other. (This is called ‘concilience‘ in the trade).
You can cut out a great many stems without materially changing the thicket. But it will surely pop any maverick hot-air balloon which drifts into contact!
Meanwhile, many on the majority side love to claim that climate science is ‘settled.’ I never do because this implies that all the theories are fully proven – which they are decidedly not – though I think we can say, post Paris, that the debate is, finally, settled.
Climate science is actually relatively new. The basic principles have been known for centuries, but the discipline did not get going in earnest until 1984, when Farman, Gardiner and Shanklin discovered the hole in the Ozone layer and everyone started cramming on their thinking hats.
Like all science, it does and will evolve, but this is not evidence of incompetence or corruption: The evolution of ideas and theory is actually healthy and necessary. (Think of the advance of medicine – and how confident we are today when we slice open a patient).
It would be fantastic if new, robust discoveries could somehow let us off the climate hook, but, sadly, nearly all recent data has tended the other, more scary way:
And if you’d like to keep up to speed with the latest developments presented, usually, in layman’s terms and think you can deal with relentless bad news, just follow Climate Geek, (of which I am one of the admins).
Truth, Lies and Websites
In spite of the above, I am myself not professionally qualified to judge the veracity of the ‘majority view’ websites below. I have done my best to be critical, but this blog can only be my personal opinion – restricted, for sure, by my own paradigm. I will, however, gladly do my best to explain my opinion if you ask (hey – you may even change my mind!) – and I can report that climate experts who I know personally ‘tend to’ agree with me – and that caveat is the typical caution of thoroughly professional boffins!
For balance, you can explore the maverick views on WattsUpWithThat – but please be aware that no climate scientist I know would give (almost) anything there any credence – see here and here.
*The term skeptical, applied to science, really just means ‘thorough’ because all good scientists are always sceptical of both their own and others’ work. So Climate ‘Skeptics’ might be better termed ‘Contrarians’ if they hold an evidence-based minority view, or ‘Deniers’ if they flatly refuse to accept mainstream science because they don’t like the implications. I avoid the latter term because it has unfortunate connotations, and favour ‘Maverick’ or ‘Minority’ here. And if you stumble upon a load of very professional-seeming polemic which rubbishes John Cook and Skeptical Science, please look deeper into their arguments. It’s all mouth and no plus fours.
Here are some of the common objections to the mainstream expert view. There are scores more which you’ll find on the maverick links, very few of them even slightly convincing – to me, anyway:
MYTH: “There’s been no warming since 1998.“This is akin to seeing a wave falling back down a beach and concluding that the tide is therefore not rising. Also, the readings which suggested no surface warming, as measured by satellites (whose data is generally considered to be none too robust) on which this view was based, take no account of deep water heating. New evidence suggests major heat (denser water / more energy / heat) has been building up in the ocean depths throughout this period. 2015 was the hottest since records began, and the years since have been increasingly chaotic and alarmingly warm. More
MYTH: “The climate has always changed.“Yes it has, but much much much much much much (is that enough muches?) slower than we’ve seen in the last 150 years. These changes were mostly due to long slow solar cycles, which can’t explain current warming. More
MYTH:“It’s Volcanoes.” According to the US Geological Survey, human activity produces as much CO2 in a few days as all the Earth’s volcanoes produce in a year. Also annual human production of CO2 is roughly the same as one or two supervolcanoes. The last supervolcano eruption was about 70,000 years ago, and the only other thing big enough to cause climate change, an asteriod strike, has not happened for more than 66 million years, so it’s not that either. (Natural weathering of rock is way too tiny to be a factor).
MYTH:“It’s the sun.” No it’s not – we can track solar activity and wobbles in the earth’s distance from it (which are the two main variants) and the climate on Earth back many thousands of years, and the graphs match pretty well – until the Industrial Revolution, when they begin to diverge strongly. The sun is actually in a very slightly cooler phase at the moment, and the upper troposphere (beyond the greenhouse gases) is, as we’d expect, cooling. Yet inside the ‘greenhouse’, the temperature is rising. More
MYTH: “CO2 is not a pollutant.” In this case it is. Just as the definition of a weed is a plant in the wrong place, so the definition of a pollutant is a chemical (or noise, or light or anything), in the wrong place. And though we do need a balanced amount of CO2 for plants to grow, too much is certainly pollution. More
MYTH: “The Ideal Gas Law means that more CO2 cannot deliver more warming.” The Ideal Gas Law cannot explain the observable temperature profile of the troposphere. You also need to employ the laws of thermodynamics, the universal theory of gravitation, and the assumption that convection is the main form of heat transfer within the troposphere. While it’s fair to say “there’s no more capacity in CO2’s absorption spectrum” it’s very wrong to infer that additional CO2 has no impact. This is a common misunderstanding of how the greenhouse effect functions. If the atmosphere really was just absorbing all the infra-red (IR) radiation from the Earth, it would have roasted us all long ago. This doesn’t happen because as well as absorbing IR the air also emits it. So adding more CO2 reduces the rate of heat being emitted from the atmosphere to space. At the surface, the air is dense and most of the IR is absorbed, then emitted, reabsorbed, emitted, reabsorbed – up and up the air column. Eventually the air gets so thin that there isn’t much CO2 (or anything else) to absorb the IR, and the heat finally escapes to space. Adding more CO2 increases the density of CO2, and critically increases the altitude at which the density is low enough for IR to escape to space. As this altitude of escape increases, it cools, thus reducing the flow of energy to space. As such, the concept of saturation doesn’t really exist.
MYTH: “CO2 is a only trace element – at 400ppm it can’t be causing a problem.” A very reasonable assumption. But wrong. More. And here is a very good 24 minute lecture by Richard Alley if you want chapter and verse (and do check out his others on youtube too).
MYTH: “CO2 rise follows temperature rise, rather than causing it.” Yes, in the past this has happened, but now there’s so much CO2 in the system it is actually trapping heat – it’s all to do with how the oceans absorb gas. Last time there was this much CO2 it was indeed caused by warming, but very very slow warming, ‘forced’ by very very long solar cycles – which can’t explain the CO2 up there now. More
MYTH:“Manmade emissions are dwarfed by natural emissions.” True, but natural CO2 is reabsorbed by planetary cycles at the same rate it’s released, so is not increasing overall. The only change is the arrival of man-made CO2, which plants and the sea can’t absorb fast enough. (And meanwhile, sea life is also in additional trouble because of the build up in carbonic acid). More
MYTH: “CO2 is good for plants,and animals can adapt.” Not in the time available they can’t. Very small changes in temperature and moisture can have huge effects on microbes, soils, roots, pollinators, pests and diseases. Our ecosystem services (oxygen, clean water, plants etc.) are vulnerable, and the consequences are severe for bugs, crops – and therefore us. More
MYTH:“Antarctica (and/or the Arctic) are gaining sea ice.” No they are not. There are some small regional or seasonal gains, but these can be explained by melting land ice causing changes in salinity, currents which isolate Antarctica from the warming oceans, and the hole in the ozone layer (which is still there). Like a pot on a stove, global warming increases the energy in the system, which then presents as increased turbulence in both sea and air flows, exacerbated by temperature differentials between air and water at different latitudes (the poles are warming faster than the equator) – see below.
And the latest news from both poles is, frankly, terrifying.More
MYTH:“We had more snow/rain/wind here than usual etc.“See above. For example the Jet Streams (there are four) are slowing and meandering more because the poles are getting warmer compared with the equator. This can cause unseasonally long periods of unexpected weather – so basically the local weather being worse (or better) does not mean the average temperature of the planet is not increasing. More
MYTH:“We’re approaching a mini Ice Age /Scientists told us in the 70s the world was going to cool.“Before the full effect of manmade Co2 was properly understood, a few scientists did predict cooling due to solar dimming. But through the 60s and 70s there were only 7 published papers predicting an ice-age, while there were 43 papers in the same period predicting warming. Furthermore, the 7 that were predicting cooling weren’t predicting imminent cooling, just cooling earlier than had been expected. So the idea that the scientific consensus in the 60s and 70s was for cooling is simply wrong. We are in fact approaching a Solar Minimum caused by reduced sun spot activity, so without human emissions we would be in very slow cooling phase – circa 0.2 deg C per 1000 years. This cyclical phenomenon was indeed associated with the last mini ice age, from about 1645 to 1715, but other factors were also in play then, and thanks to global warming no cooling is predicted inside the greenhouse gas layer this time. (And as we saw earlier beyond the layer, the troposphere is, as predicted, cooling, while inside it is heating rapidly).
MYTH:“Sea levels are not rising.” Yes they are, and the latest data suggests a much faster rise then previously predicted. Don’t forget that there are two causes; warmer water is more bulky than cold, and melting land ice flows into the sea making it fuller. (Melting sea ice does not increase sea levels, as you’ll know from your G&T, but it does cause warming, thanks to the Albedo Effect). More.
MYTH:“Temperature measurements are unreliable” (sometimes expressed as “scientists are fiddling the measurements” – this being a misunderstanding of what the word ‘manipulate’ actually means). Almost anywhere you choose to put a thermometer on the surface of the Earth, there’s going to be local factors that need to be taken into account – such as the heat from a city, or ships’ engines etc. Adjusting for this (known as ‘manipulation’ in the trade) is not cheating, it’s good science. See here. Satellite data is more problematic, which helps to explain how ‘the pause’ obtained traction, but once properly processed (aka ‘manipulated’), this data largely supports the surface evidence. See here.
MYTH: “It’s actually atmospheric pressure that’s causing the warming.”Absolutely not.
MYTH:It’s the poles shifting: Nah. The lack of evidence for any change in glacial extent associated with the last polar reversal (when magnetic field strength became very weak) makes this highly unlikely. Electromagnetic shifts may be one area where we do need more research, but the idea is clearly, to quote one colleague, a ‘nothingburger.’
MYTH:“You can’t take the average temperature of a system as complex as the biosphere” Well, it’s not easy, but thanks to modern computer modelling we think we can. More.
MYTH:“Climate models are unreliable.” They may not be perfect, but they’re as good as the millions of other models on which most of modern life depends today. There were some minor discrepancies between projections (they are not predictions) made by early climate models and real world observations, which some view as a smoking gun, but in fact this was just normal developmental science in progress. Today the models largely agree with each other and are considered to be robust (and this is not because they’re all based on the same, flawed, data). Bear in mind that any lack of accuracy could just as easily be masking even worse trends (as recent observations do suggest). Remember; “Uncertainty is not a weakness. Understanding uncertainty is a strength, and a key part of using any model, including climate models.” – http://www.demystifyingclimate.org/More
MYTH:“One degree of warming means nothing when temperatures vary by tens of degrees every season.” It is not one degree in any given place that’s the issue. It’s one degree added to the temperature of ALL the water and gas in the entire biosphere. That’s a MASSIVE LOT of warm (8 zetajules-worth?) – creating a more energetic, turbulent and chaotic system, which holds a lot more moisture to fall as precipitation when the conditions dictate. More
MYTH:“The Hockey Stick was a fraud.” No. It was a best attempt, and it’s stood up very well indeed to scrutiny. Mann has been fully vindicated, exonerated and independently replicated multiple times. More
MYTH: “The UEA Emails prove it was a fraud.”No they did NOT. The UEA’S CRU have also been fully exonerated. They only did not share data because it was not theirs and the people asking for it were clearly seeking to rubbish it from an unqualified viewpoint, and the so-called damning phases like ‘Mike’s trick’ (aka trick of the trade) and ‘hide the decline’ (aka correctly avoid the visual confusion that might be caused by a fully-explained anomaly – NOT hide global cooling), and the rest, did not mean what Steve MacIntyre assumed they meant when he jumped the gun and went off on one.
MYTH:“It’s a political plot (and/or the UN are just promoting socialism, communism, green fascism or worse).“The IPCC volunteers (there are thousands) merely sum up a vast quantity of authentic independently-funded science, and offer a range of scenarios for others to base decisions upon. If anything, political pressure and the need for agreement would tend to make IPCC reports more conservative than alarmist. As we see below, it actually does turn out that the solutions to climate change can look at first glance more like socialism than neoliberalism, which annoys the right and makes them attack the scientists, but it’s not communism, or even conventional egalitarian socialism, and remember that science is not politics. Don’t shoot the messenger – (and if you’ve been triggered by a hysterical reaction to Agenda 21 / 30 – well, please enjoy and cheerio – you and I have nothing to discuss here). More
It’s crazy to suggest that climate scientists are somehow too dumb to have thought of these objections, which tabloid writers and bloggers love to claim a child could explain to them. They know them all backwards, and those that are relevant are always taken fully into consideration.
Here is Professor Stephen Schneider answering many of the points above to a theatre-full of doubters, in a wonderfully patient and clear manner, just weeks before he died.
Yet here we are, a decade later, and the same errors crop up time and time again.
Sadly, some would dismiss Stephen and others like him out of hand. This ‘ad hominem‘ habit is both silly and dangerous. If we can’t trust those most expert in this field, regulated as they are by the peer review system, who are we going to trust? People from other disciplines who did not like the way the science was going, and decided to self-educate just enough to blow a likely-looking hole in it? Mining engineers? TV weathermen? Alt-right journalists? Random bloggers? Preppers? The Spiritually Superior?
I think not.
MYTHS: “Scientists are only in it for the money. There is no consensus. There are many thousands of ‘contrary’ scientists. ‘Warmists’ need to shut down the debate, so they just attack anyone who questions them.“
Let’s take these points one by one.
Obviously, if you were only in it for the money, there would be FAR more reward in researching (and/or promoting) ‘business as usual’ than climate change, as many journalists and politicians (and even a few scientists) have found. The bottom line is that for the ‘contrarian/refusenik’ position to hold water, thousands of senior scientists around the world would have to be either stupid, or corrupt, or both.
There is just too much data and expert interpretation (imbued with a healthy level of internal argument I’m glad to say) for the consensus to be explained as mere fund-wrangling. And as for being agents of government – most western governments would greatly prefer easy ‘business as usual’ to difficult decarbonisation, so there’s no incentive for money chasing to do the exact opposite.
In fact one of our senior professors, a solar expert, said to me recently,
“If I could only prove that warming was actually caused by the sun or something rather than CO2, I’d be ecstatic. It would mean a knighthood, a Nobel Prize, and all the funding I’d ever need – for ever! But sadly, I can’t. We’re very confident it isn’t the sun or any of the other ideas that have been floated. CO2 really is by far the most likely cause – it explains the phenomenon very well.”
This established, it’s important to admit that we should not say, as some do, that the science on AGW is settled, because, by definition, science never is. What we can say is that there’s currently a very high level of agreement – a strong consensus – among those fully qualified in this field about where the science of global warming is at the moment.
This said, establishing if there’s a consensus or not within any area of science does not add any extra credibility to that science: It simply informs us about the level of agreement, not about whether or not the science is right per se. That’s determined by the science, the understanding of which may change at any time, as new ideas are pursued and accepted or rejected by other experts.
John Cook from Skeptical Science, suggests a 97% consensus on AGW, which some dispute, often vehemently (it looks about right to me from what I’ve seen on the inside), but regardless of the true percentage, anyone working in the field knows that the science around AGW is now very well established, and that it’s mostly only questioned by, at best, semi-qualified people, using provably weak arguments.
Making this clear, so that we can move on to assessing the relevance of the science, is important, because if at any time someone needs to look at current scientific thinking to inform any political, economic, engineering, medical or other key decision, they need to know the strength of any consensus, and the science it agrees upon, so that this can inform their choices rather than some minority view that happens to appeal to them for some random reason; that way lies risk, error, blame, and repercussion.
There IS a very strong consensus on AGW, which demands urgent action. To ignore or dismiss this is, frankly, irresponsible.
If you still doubt the strength of the consensus or its value to society, talk to any scientist who spends his or her time freezing on the ice, slogging up mountains, lurching on the sea, hacking through jungles, wrestling with Python, juggling with data, yawning at conferences, arguing with colleagues around the world, writing papers, reading papers, writing reviews – as happens every day in our department. They can see what’s really happening out there, and they’re confident they’re on the right track for the causes.
The last point, ‘warmists need to shut down the debate, so they just attack anyone who questions them’ is plain silly.
There’s a big difference between pointing out that someone’s theory is bad science and shutting down the debate (though no doubt it does feel like you’re being shut down when you find your cherished theory does not stand up to expert scrutiny). Science IS debate, by definition.
A few scientists are now speaking out (Michael E Mann most notably – he has good reason to), because they know that the consequences of their work not being taken seriously will be horrendous for mankind. And various writers close to scientists are working hard to explain the science and its consequences, and to explore potential solutions. But that’s NOT shutting down the debate, it’s promoting it.
To be clear, the basic science is accepted by the vast majority: Greenhouse gases cause global warming, and global warming drives climate change. CO2 is a greenhouse gas, and humans are emitting it on an unprecedented scale. And this is making a significant contribution to the measured warming. There is, it’s true, a range of opinion about how much of a contribution humans are making – so the degree of risk is not universally agreed.
The IPCC position, expressed by a range of projections (not predictions, note), is roughly in the middle of this opinion – obviously – because it’s a summary of all of that expert opinion. So, at a risk of being overly simplistic, perhaps we can identify four basic positions:
A (for Antis?) There are a tiny handful of qualified scientists (I don’t include among these all the chemistry teachers and mining engineers and tv weathermen who believe they are experts on climate, but are more obsessed about the size of government or something – and who happen to be good at making YouTube videos), with honestly-held maverick views, which the majority are currently not impressed by but which could and would change the consensus one day IF they can produce evidence / data which can be independently replicated, as all science must be, by definition.
B (for Blasés?) Then there are a few more relatively relaxed climate scientists who are not expecting an apocalypse tomorrow, but who still believe we should decarbonise. These are sometimes called ‘Lukewarmers.’
C (for Conservatives?) The IPCC ‘position’ (endorsed by all major scientific institutions, nearly 200 governments in Paris, and, now, a huge number of corporations – including fossil fuel companies) comes somewhere here. This group is known by the ‘Antis’ as ‘Warmists.’
D (for Doomers?) And finally there are the many deeply worried scientists at the other extreme, who think the situation is already very serious, and that the IPCC position is a dangerous compromise. Now, I can’t give you a percentage, but my genuine feeling is that this is by far the largest group. And that it’s growing – as researchers increasingly find that climate change is happening much faster than the last IPCC summary, AR5, anticipated.
Given that we know that there’s about a 30 year lag in the climate system (so CO2 emitted today will continue to warm the Earth for three decades even if all further emissions were stopped tonight), the precautionary position has to be the only responsible one. (I should mention here that a collegue recently explained that there would in fact be a significant drop in temperature if we did suddenly stop all emissions, but the lag effect would still be significant and persistent).
So given that the IPCC is the only official summary of the science we have, it has to be on IPCC projections that policy must be based.
Arguing against this makes no sense. Decarbonisation is almost certainly a good idea for any number of reasons other than the climate, and if creatively pursued can also give us a healthier economy – as we shall see below.
Global Warming (and Tipping Points)
Some say that the near 1o rise measured since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution is trivial, but actually 1o (which translates to much bigger rises and reductions locally due to the changes it causes in air and sea currents, see above) can mean the difference between water or ice in one place or another. The presence or lack of ice is one of the key factors in the climate system, so this small change can have major impacts not only on local weather, but also on the rate of climate change – especially in terms of potential tipping points (see the ‘albedo effect‘, for example). Remember that it’s the local rate of change that puts pressure on local ecology (small creatures can be very moisture and temperature sensitive when breeding, especially microbes), and therefore on us, as much as the global average change, which affects things like sea level rise. (Melting water ice is not a massive problem of itself because ice displaces water – it’s the land ice that’s the worry – along with the greater bulk of a warmer ocean).
Many believe that 2o (the unofficial target throughout the period between the Copenhagen and Paris talks) is already too hot, risking further damage to ecosystems, limiting agriculture and so causing migration, increasing extreme weather, raising sea levels dangerously, disrupting and even reversing sea and air currents, and possibly even increasing seismic activity due to the release of continents from the weight of ice sheets. All these have happened before, of course (there used to be crocodiles swimming at the North Pole) but then we did not have a complex global infrastructure depending on no change.
The commitments made just before the Paris talks are estimated to deliver about 2.7o of warming, which is certainly too hot for comfort. Of course, at the last minute, the Paris accord did do its best to commit the world to 2o, and even added an aspiration towards 1.5o, which would still be too hot to avoid major problems, but is perhaps achievable – if radical action is taken by every government in the world over the next couple of years. And here is my ex boss Professor Piers Forster on what 1.5 needs to look like here.
But what happens if the world fails to act?
Here again is the scary map published by New Scientist in 2008 which I used in The Urbal Fix, with its prediction of what 4o could look like by 2050: Much of the middle band of the planet has become inhospitable, so humans are having to migrate north or south. Nothing has come along since seriously to dispute this scenario.
But, as we heard in The Urbal Fix, many now believe that the rise (if no action is taken) could be as much as 6o , and as Jonathan Porritt says in the film; “6o would be a death sentence for human civilisation. That doesn’t mean to say there won’t be lots of human beings left over after a 6o rise, but I assure you, they won’t be having much of a time.”
And, of course, if certain tipping points are exceeded, it could be even worse than that. Much, much worse:
“ A [small] rise in ocean temperature would melt the ice caps, and cause the release of large amounts of carbon dioxide from the ocean floor. Both effects could make our climate like that of Venus, with a temperature of 250 degrees.” Professor Stephen Hawking
Now, I blame no-one for starting with an opinion that this simply can’t be happening – I thought the same myself for many years. It is just so counter-intuitive that suspicion must be the default position.
But the truth is that major disasters do occur, and they can be huge – witness the poor old dinosaurs. Science is now largely in agreement with Walt Disney – it was indeed an asteroid, and the CO2-induced warming caused by that impact – (the dust did cause an initial global winter, but did not remain in the atmosphere for long), was about the same as is associated with a doubling of energy use from 2009 levels.
IE: Roughly what happens if we fail to implement the Paris Accord, and continue with ‘business as usual.’
IE: Jonathan Porritt’s 6o scenario.
So, frankly, it’s not surprising that so many people are fighting tooth and nail to deny this is happening – after all, as TS Elliott wrote to Tennessee Williams; “Humankind simply can’t bear too much reality.”
But evidence is evidence, and we have plenty.
I’d love to report that my detailed and pretty much constant enquiry into this topic over the past 6 years had reassured me. But it hasn’t. Unfortunately it really does seem we are at the lip of a crisis, and, worrying though that is, climate change is not the only challenge we’re facing.
There are in fact three problems caused by the way we’ve been consuming our home planet. Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Government, Professor Sir John Beddington, called them The Perfect Storm – a veritable dangling trident of threats; climate change, economic debt-rooted chaos, and rapidly dwindling resources (especially oil, key minerals like phosphorus, clean water, healthy soils) – losses exacerbated by the pollution of what remains. This diagram shows the extent of the problem:
(The green disc is the ‘safe area’ – the red shows how far we have moved outside it)
Now. We need to be clear, the major threat from climate change is not extreme weather or sea level rise per se, (these could in theory be resisted with existing, if massive, engineering technology) – it is food security, because in spite of all the carbon-emitting, oil and chemical-consuming, polluting new technology, the global food system remains as always totally dependent on a healthy ecological system, something that engineering, even GM, can only hope to tinker with.
These are the countries whose food is most at risk from climate change:
(Note that India and China, whose emissions are often cited as being a reason why the west should not bother to decarbonise, are shown white. This is per capita emissions – surely the only fair bench-mark, so even with recent new coal-fired power stations, they’re not even on the scale).
we seem to be looking at a causal chain which goes something like this:
Neoliberalism (the ideology of unregulated markets) > market failures (aka ‘externalities’) > environmental degradation and collapse > food scarcity > starvation > local social unrest > local war > migration > non-local unrest > regional war > further pressure on remaining ecology > etc.
Which is why the New Scientist map above is so scary.
Now, let me say again in big letters, in case you are feeling a little queasy just now;
WE CAN AND WILL FIX THIS!!
But to know what to do, we have first to go back to the beginning, to understand how we got here.
Green politics and economics are based on an understanding of ecology – the branch of biology that deals with the relations and interactions between organisms and their environment (aka territory), including the other organisms within it.
Ecology is, like climate change, a relatively new science and one little understood, or even considered, by many climate change sceptics. And ecology is intimately connected with the study of evolution – a science also rejected by some climate change contrarians.
One area of exploration which looks back to the very birth of humanity, but has not been greatly pursued to date, is enquiry into the emergence of consciousness and its perhaps inevitable companion; the ‘world-view’ – or as I prefer to call it (because ‘world-view’ doesn’t sound sufficiently overwhelming); the ‘personal paradigm’ – from the Greek paradeigma: to show side by side. (Actually, I really prefer to call it The Paradumb – you’ll soon see why).
“Sometimes people hold a core belief that is very strong. When they are presented with evidence that works against that belief, the new evidence cannot be accepted. It would create a feeling that is extremely uncomfortable, called cognitive dissonance. And because it is so important to protect the core belief, they will rationalise, ignore and even deny anything that doesn’t fit in with the core belief.” Frantz Fanon; Black Skin, White Masks
The paradigm resides at the very heart of our consciousness. Debra Yearwood sums it up nicely: “Paradigms help us to interpret, define and engage in the world around us. Without our paradigms we would constantly be struggling to determine and define what we see, what we hear, and what we should do about it. Our paradigms help us to move through our lives seamlessly.”
But I’m more interested in how it behaves, and why, than in the physiological workings, because properly understanding the Paradumb, and finding out how to convert, subvert, bypass, evolve or otherwise diminish what are now becoming negative effects, are rapidly becoming critical. Because it turns out that while your paradigm does help to carry you (and/or you group) through a time of crisis, it can also impede rationality – even to a point where it puts you in more danger than the threat you are facing.
We could debate whether the paradigm is 1) a purely personal phenomenon which has group functionality and is therefore of benefit to your gene pool, 2) a group function; a manifestation of the herd mentality which forces individuals think and act in consort for the good of all, or 3) a manifestation of colonial hive thinking or collective consciousness.
I rather suspect the last, but there’s really not much evidence yet. In any event, we do know that our own framework of beliefs is certainly intertwined with what our family, close friends, colleagues and/or congregation believe. No-one likes to look a chump, and even fewer are happy to admit they were wrong.
Some of us are individualists, but very few are comfortable with complete isolation. Most of us want or need the comfort of shared values and explanations – aka a group paradigm. The problems come when we need to hold two or more of these at the same time; personal beliefs at odds with the teaching of a church, say, or political convictions at odds with our family lifestyle – resulting in cognitive dissonance.
This is, we now know, the chief reason it’s so hard to change your personal paradigm: Not only may your subconscious be hard-wired to conform, you are likely to be aware that the adoption of beliefs different to those of people you care about and rely upon may cause you to lose your place in your group hierarchy, or even risk ostracisation. (I know I struggled with this when I first started to study climate change properly at MA level, returning from a week of back-to-back lectures in Machynlleth to, then, bemused and dubious family and friends).
So even the most maverick thinker is bound to compare their ideas with people he or she admires and respects. And wherever there is agreement, that idea gains weight as a belief. And the stronger the correlation, the greater the risk of confirmation bias.
Today, it is becoming apparent that the echo-chamber effect of social media (plus possible reinforcement by Google autocomplete results), is now helping to unleash a new globalised form of group paradigm, one that authoritarian religions (for all their faults) and authoritative media (for all its faults) used to keep in check: The Post Truth Society.
At one end of the spectrum the problem can be partially explained by the Dunning Kruger effect: Some people simply do not have sufficient intelligence to appreciate that they are not as clever as everyone else – therefore anyone using evidence or arguments they can’t fathom must be lying for some nefarious reason.
This may well explain the whackier belief systems such as Flat-Earth-ism and (since Darwin) Creationism: The science-supported theory (being ‘still’ a theory does not mean it’s not true, by the way) is too complex to grasp, so the believer clings to a simpler more powerful narrative / fairy story which ‘works’ for them. Staggeringly, today these and similar beliefs are gaining, not losing, traction – as we have seen to a terrifying extent during the coronavirus emergency – where people quickly became convinced that the SARS-CoV-2 virus was caused by 5G network – perhaps because of the Chinese coincidence – or believe beyond challenge that Biden rigged the 2020 presidential election (as getting on for half US citizens seem to have done).
This phenomenon is especially prevalent among less-well educated people who’ve been taught that their group’s religious narratives are more truthful than science, and never had reason to move away from that position. (Here’s a great blog about flat earthism and creationism, and one on how to convince someone when facts fail).
(I rather like the view that Susan Bell shared on Facebook recently. “I think it starts as an inability, or unwillingness, to understand the evidence. Then an arrogance in believing that because they can’t understand the more complex parts that no one else can. At this point the woo-woo merchants come into their own. They offer easy to understand “explanations” that the denier can then wave around saying “Look. It really is simple. They are just lying to us”. The woo-woo merchants get their reward with an increased power base (and usually lots of financial reward through sponsorships). Then there are those who are shit scared, but can’t admit it even to themselves. So, they would rather deny than face up to this.” )
But we can’t just blame lack of IQ or poor education, because at the other end of the spectrum we have plenty of very clever, well-educated people suffering from the same disability. In fact education, especially self-education (something the internet both facilitates and deregulates), can often exacerbate the problem. (Perfect examples of this can be found in the deeply troubling Global Warming Policy Foundation – including one former Chancellor of the Exchequer, no less, whose understanding of climate science is more muddled than that of most ten-year-olds).
One of the reasons that clever people wind up believing untruths is psychological phenomenon called apophenia ““the tendency to perceive a connection or meaningful pattern between unrelated or random things (such as objects or ideas)”
“Every cloud has a shape that can look like something else. Everything that flickers is also a jumble of Morse code. The more information that is out there, the easier it is to allow apophenia to guide us into anything. This is about looking up at the sky and someone pointing out constellations.
The difference is that these manufactured connections lead to the desired conclusions Q’s handlers have created. When players arrive at the “correct” answers they are showered with adoration, respect, and social credit. Like a teenage RP, the “correct” answer is the one that the group respects the most and makes the story the most enjoyable. The idea that bolsters the theory. The correct answer is the one that provides the poster with the most credit.
It’s like a Darwinian fiction lab, where the best stories and the most engaging and satisfying misinterpretations rise to the top and are then elaborated upon for the next version.”
Apophenia might be enough to explain the problem on its own. But there a second reason; weaponisation of language – something Trump and Cummins, for example (there are many others) have become surprisingly adept at – though whether by accident remains to be seen:
‘Language works by activating brain structures called “frame-circuits” used to understand experience. They get stronger when we hear the activating language. Enough repetition can make them permanent, changing how we view the world.’ … [Trump is] a super salesman with an instinctive ability to manipulate thought by 1) framing first 2) repeating often, and 3) leading others to repeat his words by getting people to attack him within his own frame.’ (Guardian).
Both phenomena show that while the paradumb tricks us into believing the most believable narrative we can find or create, which then ossifies into granite in our soul, it is not static.
It can be influenced – even to the point where it becomes a threat to its owner, rather than the protection it evolved to be.
And this creeping influence is driven by the self-justification process that we all use to manage our cognitive dissonance.
This is a journey which can turn mild-mannered people into murderers, upright officers into torturers, and socially-committed politicians into tyrants. It is explained brilliantly in what is probably the most enlightening book I have ever read: Tavris and Aronson’s “Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me)” – which explains wisely that no-one EVER thinks they are the bad guy.
This is from the Guardian review:
“when the authors need to sum up the mechanics of self-justification in one pithy line, it is a British politician, Lord Molson (1903-1991), who provides the soundbite: “I will look at any additional evidence to confirm the opinion to which I have already come.
MRI scans confirm that when we are confronted with dissonant information, the reasoning areas of our brains all but shut down. And it’s not only politicians who indulge in self-justification. For which of us, on buying the more expensive appliance, has not then spent weeks kidding ourselves the cheaper model would have been unreliable or downright dangerous?
But how do we square two dissonant cognitions when one of them is the belief that we are decent people and the other is the knowledge that we have inflicted pain on an innocent victim?
Ask any kid who wallops a younger brother. “I’m decent, but I hit him,” the argument runs, “therefore he must have deserved it.” It’s the most vicious of circles. Aggression begets self-justification, which begets more aggression, and thus do the authors lead us, one small step at a time, down the road to Abu Ghraib and to all those deeds throughout the ages whose doers were never the monsters we’d prefer them to be but just decent people like us.”
And at each small step along the road towards the Big Mistake, our paradumb clicks round one more notch, to provide a new unshakable foundation upon which to transit to the next, ever more erroneous, position. (Though of course the journey from error to truth can be just as tortuous).
So today we have huge numbers of intelligent, well-educated people who cannot begin to accept climate science (here is a great talk from George Marshall, who wrote Don’t Even Think About It, on this very topic), or are blinded to other basic fields of knowledge, such as medicine (have you seen what some say about vaccines over there? sheesh), and instead cling to ever madder and madder and madder conspiracy theories.
At the most extreme end, we encounter political and/or religious fanaticism, which may or may not be closely linked to mental illness, which manifests in unhealthy religious practices, the election of dictators like Trump (and they usually are elected – or have huge popular support – at first), at least some of the support for Brexit, some bug-eye belief such as man never going to the moon or us all being poisoned by chemtrails, and – most worrying of all – this refusal to accept that the Earth is warming dangerously.
Incidentally, if you want to insure yourself against the tyrany of the paradumb, you should read two books back to back: Factfulness by Hans Rosling and family, which is an absolutely life-changing explanation of exactly how world-views manage to override truth – essential reading for every person on the planet in my opinion, and The Tiger That Isn’t: Seeing Through A World of Numbers by Dilnot and Blastland (who present More of Less on BBC Radio 4).
If not challenged – something that needs evidence, confidence, clear thinking, lucidity – and those books, perhaps, to achieve (you could even say the scientific method emerged in the Age of Enlightenment specifically as a means of defeating the paradigm phenomenon) – the paradumb can and does frequently override both fact and logic to the point of putting an individual or group at risk.
You might even say that the paradumb has outlived its usefulness and is now, like the appendix, no longer needed. And, like the appendix, not a problem until it fills with poison. And then bursts.
A genetic trait which damages both individual and troupe is NOT an evolutionary advantage. So why did the paradigm emerge, and how did it become such a central force in human behaviour?
We don’t know for sure when early humans became self-aware (and was this, intriguingly, caused by a virus?), but it’s obvious that our first attempts to understand a complex universe would have been rudimentary. So much would have been inexplicable that our developing brains would have struggled constantly to cope with new and often terrifying information – even to the point of mental illness.
Anne Applebaum expresses it very well in this article about Donald Trump and his use of conspiracy theories to win power:
“In its essence, a conspiracy theory is the modern equivalent of a myth: It’s a story that people tell to explain otherwise inexplicable events. The appeal of conspiracy theories is deep, because the human need for meaning is so profound. Why does the sun rise in the morning? Because that’s when the God Apollo rides his chariot across the sky. Why did Antonin Scalia die right now, in the middle of a presidential campaign? Because someone is pulling strings behind the scenes, trying to manipulate events.
“The human brain is designed to reject the random, the haphazard, the arbitrary. It’s just too much for many people to accept that accidents happen, planes crash, ships founder on the rocks, and elderly people die in their sleep: A dramatic event must fit into a larger narrative. For others, conspiracy theories are a useful way to explain personal failure: It wasn’t me, it was the freemasons/capitalists/Jews/immigrants/murderers of Scalia who deprived me of success.”
Yuval Noah Harari goes a step further in his excellent book, Sapiens.
He writes that the key point in human development was not the development of consciousness, perhaps 700 million years ago, but the invention of fiction, in what he calls The Cognitive Revolution which he dates at only 70,000 years ago.
Many other species, (including, as far as we can tell, all the other hominids alive at the time, and there were many), had, and still have, DNA-driven language and thought processes to describe physical truths – ‘there is a lion coming,’ ‘this fruit is good to eat’ etc. but no way to have, or to describe, ideas.
We did not have the largest brain of our sister species (Homo neanderthalensis was better endowed in that department), but somehow our brains were smarter – possibly thanks to a diet of shellfish rich in omega 3, the search for which may have made us both naked and upright as postulated by Alister Hardy and others), but somehow we worked out not only how to lie, but how to believe – passionatley – in our lies.
And this new ability to create believable explanations for the passage of sun and moon, weather, sickness, death, predators, pests and other threats was a massive development, because – as Harari explains – these fictions, and the belief systems which they infected, permitted the management of much larger groups – even up to the creation and administration of empires.
It was, he suggests, fiction which set Homo Sapiens apart from the other hominids, and led to our eventual domination of the planet.
And it seems fair to assume that those best able to tame explicable happenings and coax them into a coherent, comforting story – in other words to use their imaginations to fill in the gaps in any factual narrative and so provide an appearance of reason – would flourish better than those who did not – thus passing their ability on to their young, and so, eventually, by natural selection, hard-wiring the paradigm into our ‘wise’ brains.
There is even some evidence to justify going as far as to suggest that the paradigm originally evolved not just as a way to provide reason – but as a system which would guarantee that the smartest person always won the argument, and therefore would survive to pass on their genes.
Mercier and Sperber suggest in “The Enigma of Reason” that narrative actually evolved to ‘prevent us from getting screwed by the other members of our group. Living in small bands of hunter-gatherers, our ancestors were primarily concerned with their social standing, and with making sure that they weren’t the ones risking their lives on the hunt while others loafed around in the cave. There was little advantage in reasoning clearly, while much was to be gained from winning arguments.‘
Actually, not only do facts frequently fail to change minds, contrary evidence can even reinforce the paradumb – via something called the Backfire Effect:
“The Misconception: When your beliefs are challenged with facts, you alter your opinions and incorporate the new information into your thinking.
The Truth: When your deepest convictions are challenged by contradictory evidence, your beliefs get stronger.”
And this has been going on ever since humans first started to think. So today, a function which once helped to ensure our survival is doing the very opposite – pressing our feet down on the accelerator, when we desperately need to be stamping on the brake.
So maybe we can say that the phenomenon we call the paradigm, and the phenomenon we call narrative, or story-telling, are no more than internal and external manifestations of the same thing: Both rely on imagination to corral perceptions into a memorable and seemingly logical ‘truth.’
It’s been suggested that the chief reason Homo Sapiens succeeded was not superior eyesight, opposable thumbs, an omnivorous diet or even a larger brain (Neanderthals were as well endowed in that department, and much stronger). It was the development of language.
But how would narrative offer an evolutionary advantage?
Well, unlike other animals, who rely on showing their young what to eat, how to kill, what to avoid, how to heal, we – uniquely in the animal kingdom as far as we know – are able to share stories which impart vital survival information in a neat, memorable package. It is this memorability – propelled by the skill with which the story is told – which allows the information to be accessed by the listener long after the story-teller has departed. In fact detailed information can be passed from generation to generation, and in a nuanced form which greatly enhances whatever genetic memory may exist in humans, and so provide a major advantage to the species. (The genetic memory passes instructions directly from parent to offspring – as in swallows, who never fly with their parents, but still manage to navigate all the way to Africa without ever touching the ground).
Stories also allow hunters and gatherers to tell others where the food and dangers are – somewhat like the bees’ waggle dance – only much much more effectively, because the information can be passed on to others, adapted, amended, and retained almost indefinitely.
It is worth mentioning that the way humans seem to have developed the story as survival strategy may have delivered one specific consequence which is now causing major problems – the binary choice.
Robert McKee, in his famous book and seminars (which I have attended) entitled ‘Story’, suggests that there is an essential narrative – to which all other stories defer – which has at its climax a simple, single choice that the protagonist must make to achieve either redemption or retribution. Whether this is a cause or consequence of human society’s obsession with binary states (married / single, guilty / not guilty, male / female, friend / enemy, good guys / bad guys, migrant / refugee, Left / Right, Leave / Remain, etc) when plainly all of these are in reality nuanced, complex situations, I don’t know. But I do know that most people prefer to boil down their personal decision-making to a binary choice if they possibly can (it is usually essential, in fact) – and the easier politicians can make this for them, then the more support they seem to get.
So our personal paradigm is, effectively, our over-arching story – the one against which all other stories and experience must be measured, before being given credence as ‘truth’ – and our paradigm adapted accordingly.
And story-telling is the very means by which we form and police a group paradigm – as is necessary for the survival and advancement of our troupe.
So the paradigm has to be, and has thus become, robust. In fact it is downright obstinate. Unless and until the evidence is overwhelming, the paradumb – which is formed quickly upon the arrival of a conundrum, will Trump (sorry) any new thinking, to the point of being anti-intellectual.
And this is justified as an expression of personal rights (as in ‘free speech’):
And it’s not just Americans who do this, sadly.
In general, paradumbs are stubborn, though it does seem that not everyone is as wedded to theirs as everyone else. It’s actually possible that the flexibility of the paradigm may vary according to circumstance. The perception of an advancing threat may encourage or discourage change – but I’m not myself aware of any research on this.
I’ve actually changed my own a few times as a result of major evidence. I even had a short period as a born-again evangelical Pentecostal Christian (a paradumb I toppled into from the claustrophobia of an English public school, and it was much harder to move on from than it was to to adopt). And I had to have another major rethink when I began to study climate change properly – just as these guys did.
But many seem never to alter, or even to question, their major belief system – though whether this is because of their DNA, their early upbringing, or their learned experience as an adult remains unclear.
Desmond Morris suggests in The Naked Ape that we are a strange hybrid between a) the hairy, placid, vegetarian, largely matriarchal, herd ape that swung from Late Cretaceous jungles, and b) the far-ranging, ruthless, small-family, largely patriarchal and naked omnivore which we decided to become when we emerged upright from the trees, and began to compete with the big carnivorous predators of the open plains.
Morris suggests we have never fully resolved this transition, which may explain various strange anomalies in human behaviour – not least the selfish (or even sociopathic) / altruistic conundrum, which presents differently in colonial and predator animals.
Altruism – as much of a survival strategy as selfishness – is another strange phenomenon not yet fully understood by science.
Kin Selection Theory posits that usually we support ourselves and our own progeny at the expense of all others, but are more likely to sacrifice ourselves for relatives than non-relatives. A good example would be helping your tribe by not having offspring yourself (and so reducing pressure on resources), and thus contributing to the success of your genome though those with the closest genetic code to your own.
Group Selection Theory demurs.
By pure coincidence, Wilson was a guest on the BBC’s The Life Scientific on the very day I was writing this section of this blog. He confirmed Jim Al-Khalil’s summary of Group Selection as this:
“Altruism cannot be explained away as genetic greed. Selfishness beats altruism within a group, but altruistic groups will always beat selfish groups.”
If Dawkins in right, we are in big trouble (see the Tragedy of the Commons below). But if Wilson is, then there are grounds for hope – but only if the whole of mankind can be persuaded to behave as a single group, in a context of a universally recognised, finite territory aka global ecosystem.
I would suggest that whatever the rights and wrongs of the above theories, there does seem to be a barrier, or even a binary switch, between selfish and altruistic behaviour – with those at either end or side largely incapable of understanding the motivation of those at the other.
Only the other day I heard a lecturer refer to ‘the human condition’ – as if this was single and universal. My experience is that it’s not at all universal – in fact, huge and largely unchanging (unchangeable?) differences exist in how selfishly people behave (though obviously people do behave differently at different times and in different contexts).
It’s been said that outright conservatives believe that all humans are intrinsically bad, and so yearn for a tight ship to protect themsleves, (I worry that these demand too much misery in return for their comfort), whereas firm liberals think everyone is intrinsically good, and are only turned bad by environmental or social factors (and I worry that these may be dangerously naive).
And never the twain shall meet. For example, I have close, life-long friends, whose intellect and experience I respect, who simply cannot begin to accept that anyone is ever motivated by anything other than selfishness. Even sainted altruists, they think, can only be behaving like that for ultimately selfish reasons; because it makes them feel good, or because they want to go to Heaven.
Likewise I know many people to whom selfishness is pure anathema, and who are equally convinced that co-operative altruism is the natural state of humanity, and even mild self-justification is de facto criminality. (George Monbiot finds, with some good references, that “We’re Not as Selfish As We Think We Are” here).
So how did this disparity originate?
Could this be because my friends are disposed towards different applications of altruism – within a group, or between groups, perhaps? – according to how they interpret their ‘group’?
If so, then socialists and progressives might envisage a very large group (how large is very variable from person to person – but anything from, say, ‘Trade Union’ to ‘All of Mankind’)
Conservatives and libertarians (as opposed to liberals), on the other hand, might think in terms of immediate family only. And of course sociopaths (and is that condition genetic or environmental, I wonder?) think only of themselves, and often not even, it would seem, of their own progeny.
I recently heard about the Izraeli psychiatrist Aaron Antonovsky (who coined the term Salutogenesis), interviewing concentration camp survivors after WWII. He found that even an experience as disturbing as that failed to change most people’s personal paradigm. The empty-cuppers (conservatives?) thought the holocaust merely proved that humans were indeed monstrous, while the full-cuppers (liberals?) remained convinced that it was merely a freak blip in an essentially healthy society caused by a few rogue individuals.
There is some intriguing research on the role of threat values in the development of political opinion. But how deep does the phenomenon go?
“In the 1900s, as part of my research in the cognitive and brain sciences, I undertook to answer a question in my field: How do the various policy positions of conservatives and progressives hang together? Take conservatism: What does being against abortion have to do with being for owning guns? What does owning guns have to do with denying the reality of global warming? How does being anti-government fit with wanting a stronger military? How can you be pro-life and for the death penalty? Progressives have the opposite views. How do their views hang together?
The answer came from a realization that we tend to understand the nation metaphorically in family terms: We have founding fathers. We send our sons and daughters to war. We have homeland security. The conservative and progressive worldviews dividing our country can most readily be understood in terms of moral worldviews that are encapsulated in two very different common forms of family life: The Nurturant Parent family (progressive) and the Strict Father family (conservative).
In the strict father family, father knows best. He knows right from wrong and has the ultimate authority to make sure his children and his spouse do what he says, which is taken to be what is right. Many conservative spouses accept this worldview, uphold the father’s authority, and are strict in those realms of family life that they are in charge of. When his children disobey, it is his moral duty to punish them painfully enough so that, to avoid punishment, they will obey him (do what is right) and not just do what feels good. Through physical discipline they are supposed to become disciplined, internally strong, and able to prosper in the external world. What if they don’t prosper? That means they are not disciplined, and therefore cannot be moral, and so deserve their poverty. This reasoning shows up in conservative politics in which the poor are seen as lazy and undeserving, and the rich as deserving their wealth. Responsibility is thus taken to be personal responsibility not social responsibility. What you become is only up to you; society has nothing to do with it. You are responsible for yourself, not for others — who are responsible for themselves.”
Is it too simplistic, I wonder, to render Lakoff’s Nurturant Parent Family and Strict Father Family as simply Maternal and Paternal?
But whether we call it kin vs group, nurturant vs strict, matriarchal vs patriarchal, altruist vs selfish, progressive vs conservative, or left vs right, we seem to be looking at the same basic scale, with behaviours driven by a fixed perception of evolutionary success guided by either one system or the other.
So what would cause people to interpret their ‘altruistic unit’ differently, and how fixed is that interpretation? Is it genetic or learned? To what extent is it locked inside our personal paradigm? And what evidence or experience do we need to overcome the Backfire Effect and trigger a ‘paradigm shift’ – a change in our belief system, and therefore a shift our behaviour – individually or in groups – along that scale?
There are a few bold assumptions.
In terms of the ratio of donations to income, rich people often appear to be more self-justifying (‘because I worked for it,’ or ‘because I’m worth it’ as in Kin Selection theory – as explained in the Mistakes book), while poorer people often seem to be more generous (perhaps because the pooling of resources is a better strategy when you don’t have a lot – as would be required by Group Selection Theory).
There is another intriguing idea; Attractive people are, research suggests, more likely to be right wing because, regardless of wealth or privilege (which as we’ve seen can also draw people to the right), they’re typically treated better and so have more trouble empathising with the less fortunate. If true it would help to explain why some otherwise charming friends are worryingly unable to think rationally about social problems. Plus, of course, evolution theory suggests that attractive people are more likely to breed successfully – so once again, political preference may be DNA-rooted.
But to what extent is the split between left and right based on intelligence? Certainly, the great majority of academics are left-leaning. But is this a result of a predominantly higher IQ – or a side effect of being trained to think rationally, and base their opinions on evidence?
Because also takes brains to be a successful entrepreneur – so maybe we are talking about different type of IQ (remember that the tests are written by academics, and dyslexics like me, for example, always come out badly).
Entrepreneurs need a risk-taking intelligence (we might call it wits), where getting bogged down in evidence can be unhelpful. To make money, you need to be able to weigh up your strategy quickly before making a deal, and then strike at what seems to be the most advantageous moment – sometimes more on hunch and a sense of weakness in your ‘opponent’ than too much hard evidence. But then, once the ink is dry on the contract, you need be able to subvert your fears, and adopt a fatalistic stance, because if you can’t, you won’t remain an entrepreneur for very long, (however, it’s worth noting that larger, well established businesses do present as more altruistic, though they are, perhaps, not always as truly altruistic as they present).
I’ve certainly observed that nearly all of the entrepreneurs I know (SME directors, farmers and others that I’ve heard in media reports seem to have similar traits) tend to be intelligent and well informed, but also pro-Brexit without any real idea of how it will work out, worryingly non-committal about Trump, and at best dubious about climate change. I find that these friends are usually willing to listen to my side of an argument at first, but soon get bored with nuanced evidence, and demand instead a leap of faith.
This may be a good strategy when it’s just your own money at stake, but it’s less sensible when whole communities (or, in the case of climate change, mass extinctions and pandemics – even the entire human race) are facing major damage. Interestingly, nearly all these entrepreneurs come from comparatively privileged, wealthy backgrounds – as is typically the case.
Of course, some well-off people are very generous and philanthropic (but sometimes not until they have more moment than they know what to do with, or even only for tax reasons – miaow!), and some poor people are ruthlessly selfish and/or criminal, and not just because they need to be or have not be taught right from wrong. (And are some people only poor because they are, in fact, too generous? It is, as they say, complicated).
But in any event, there would appear to be no statistical correlation between level of income and commitment to altruism. So how to explain these different strategies?
Chimps and Champs
Jared Diamond postulates in The Third Chimpanzee that it is all to do with the availability of new territory and resources, into which to expand your tribe – or lack of it.
Diamond noticed that the (largely patriarchal) chimps were free to range and ‘capture’ new territory, whereas the (largely matriarchal) Bonobos had become trapped in a niche between the Congo river and the mountains. The chimps, with plenty of land to fight over and fly from, had became war-like and even cannibalistic, whereas the bonobos had simply had to learn to co-operate – because it was better than internecine war, and the likely collapse of the breeding population.
He suggests that when there’s new territory available, the chimpanzee’s aggressive, masculine approach seems to work best for us – as in the USA – ‘Go West’ mentality, (aka Kin Selection behaviour). When there is not, then the bonobos’ feminine, co-operative strategy can avoid having us all fighting in selfish lumps – as in the UK in 1939, (aka Group Selection behaviour).
One fascinating insight can perhaps be suggested by the story of a group of boys marooned without adults on a desert island. No, I’m not talking about the classic William Golding novel, ‘Lord of the Flies’ in which the effect of being trapped in limited territory causes the fictitious youngsters to turn competitive and increasingly savage – though this entirely imagined scenario has somehow entered the public consciousness as powerfully as if it was based on the most rigorous scientific research.
Mr Peter Warner, third from left, with his crew in 1968, including the survivors from ‘Ata. Photograph: Fairfax Media Archives/via Getty Images
So does the difference come down something as simple as a patriarchal or matriarchal system? It might – though history is littered with almost as many (kin-selecting?) ruthless women as (group-selecting?) male tyrants.
In either event, the availability of new territory and resources seems to be an underlying imperative.
Naomi Klein, author of the highly recommended This Changes Everything, recently said prior to a visit to Australia;
“Climate denial is pervasive in English-speaking countries such as Australia, Canada, the U.S. and the UK because of a “colonial settler mentality. Countries founded on a powerful frontier mentality have this idea of limitless nature that can be endlessly extracted. Climate change is threatening to that because there are limits and you have to respect those limits. Where that frontier narrative is strongest is where denialism is strongest.”
The UK would not, one would think, fit the frontier descriptor – but perhaps we could blame Thacherism for the similarity. But theory is compelling for the others.
Could these countries have self-selected as chimpish (because the entrepreneurial types were the most likely to emigrate) , while the stay-at-homes in the old European countries became ever more bonobo-like? In which case, could these traits have now become at least partially genetic – or are they purely learned?
Humans are generally thought to be more like our war-mongering cousin than our touchy-feely one. But actually we do display both behaviours – and the split is not (at least, I don’t think it can be) a purely male-centric / female-centric thing.
Recently the University of Nabraska published some fascinating research, which suggests that our political bias may be genetic, rather than learned. If so, could this be this because our selfish/altruistic bias is also genetic?
On the other hand, new evidence from Berkley University suggests that selfishness may be learned, because, it seems, the more treasure we amass, the less altruistic we tend to be – and the more we self-justify our advantage. Danny Doling explores similar evidence in Inequality and the 1%, as do Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson in The Spirit Level – but the most convincing explanations come from the aforementioned Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me.
If true, this would also make sense in evolutionary terms, and could be applied to both individuals and family groups (who benefit from the aggressor’s wealth – directly and by Kin Selection).
It’s even been suggested that the various traits may emanate from different hominid ancestors – which diverged (maybe proto chimp and proto bonobo?), adapted to new survival strategies, and then interbred again. How you behave could be just a matter of which code is predominant in your genes, so that only very strong environmental or intellectual stimuli can change your view (which might then, of course, tend to revert as soon as the pressure abated).
If so, this might help to explain the sociopathic tendencies of some company directors (a self-selecting ruthless largely male group if ever there was one), who seem genuinely incapable of fathoming the damage that their business models inflict on people and/or environment – regardless of the weight of evidence placed before them.
So maybe we can summarise all this by saying that there seem to be three axes upon which we can plot the forces which define our paradigms and position in the Kin / Group selection model:
Intelligence (which may in fact have three termini; ‘Dunning-Kruger’ stupidity, academic capacity, and entrepreneurial ‘wits’)
A preference for evidence against a preference for an easy-to-believe story
Genetic predisposition (which may or may not include attractiveness and/or ancient bonobo/chimp DNA).
And there may be three drivers which can change in our beliefs and therefore our position on that graph:
Education, with movement towards academic capability or entrepreneurial wit depending on the nature and quality of that education)
Experience, with evidence demanding movement on one direction, and mystery or a personal crisis pushing in the other
Wealth/comfort, which can insulate against all of the above in either direction, according to better or worse circumstances.
And most movement is slow, because of cognitive dissonance, self justification, peer pressure etc but Damascene conversions (paradigm shifts) may occur when external stimuli are strong enough.
So, we might ask, to what extent are our own conclusions concerning climate change being fixed by our personal paradigm?
Well, I’m willing to accept that mine must be (as you’re no doubt spotted – this whole blog is no more than an exposition of the Tom Bliss Paradumb), but I do hope that I’m doing my best constantly to challenge my beliefs, and to remain open to new opinion and evidence. (I even read the ‘denialist’ blogs on a regular basis, just in case)!
So. To what extent are your views being fixed and/or skewed by your own paradumb? It’s not an easy question to answer, is it?
I do think one thing is for certain, though; the altruism / selfishness / (sociopathy?) phenomenon is going to present major challenges when it comes to fitting 14 billion people onto one small planet – a large part of which may well be, by then, a very hostile environment indeed.
Territory and Growth
As we saw in The Urbal Fix, modern human society has now developed to a point where it may already have reached ‘Overshoot’ – exceeding a range of planetary boundaries which define the carrying capacity of the Earth, and so risking ecological collapse.
This act of collegiate self-destruction is often presented as a Tragedy of the Commons – an ecological term which describes a situation where individual members of a group acting independently and rationally (according to each one’s self-interest) actually damage the interests of the group as a whole – and thus the individuals, by depleting a common resource.
The concept derives from William Forster Lloyd, who noted that if one commoner was to increase his herd on the common grazing land he would reap a benefit. But if too many other commoners did the same thing, the land would soon become overgrazed, and would eventually be destroyed.
Planet earth is our ‘common’ and we are overgrazing it. In fact we are figuratively and literally running out of world, and have entered a sort of compression zone which pushes up against the absolute limits of the biosphere. Witness the increasingly dangerous efforts to extract resources from the deep ocean and the Arctic, and the accelerating destruction of rain forest and the depletion of water tables. (It has even been suggested that the current turmoil in the Middle East and Africa has its roots in climate change as well as in dwindling fossil fuel reserves).
It was not always so. Once, as with all animals, the root of all human prosperity was territory – of which there was plenty – which could be captured and held.
From this territory could be extracted produce (as long as the local ecosystem services were healthy), raw materials (until they ran out) and rent (as long as there were people who could afford it). And upon the trading of these the economy developed. We called it classical economics – and the greatest growth could be derived, not surprisingly, from land speculation. It still can, for now – as Mark Twain said, ‘Buy land – they’re not making it any more’.
There were obvious benefits; wealth for more people, improvements in health and living standards, increased consumer choice and much else – but it was all predicated on a system which literally took no account of the size or fragility of the planet.
Originally, of course, growth was slow – almost imperceptible in modern terms – and only a tiny percentage of the population was wealthy. But with the creation of commercial banking in the 18th C, the extraction of fossil fuels could begin in earnest – seeing the exploitation of coal, then oil, then gas (along with heavy and rare earth metals) quickly becoming exponential, along with the concomitant consumption – and pollution.
Then about thirty years ago, the authorities started to realise that the economy was not growing as quickly as they believed it should (or as quickly, perhaps as a growing world population, educated by a growing global media, demanded).
The capitalist system had always required money to be made, without effort, from money. This is justified as fair recompense to the lender by the borrower for lack of access to his treasure. But this was becoming increasingly difficult, because of increasing pressure from the compression zone mentioned above. Sadly, few realised this (though the writing was on the wall, not least in Limits to Growth and Silent Spring).
Most believed, as they still do, that the by then Gordian trading systems merely needed axing. So instead of reigning in consumption to a sustainable level, and starting to rectify environmental damage to ensure the future viability of human society within the global ecosystem, they decided to break the link between wealth and territory.
The constraints which protected necessary and benign debts (like buying a house, health insurance or a reasonable pension) were removed, and gambling replaced territory as the main source of growth. It was known as neoliberalism.
The gold/dollar standard was abandoned, and fractional reserve banking was unleashed, while intrinsically unsafe extraction, destructive agricultural practices and polluting industrial development were – behind cosmetic environmental laws – given the (un)green light.
It worked – in the short term. Consumption boomed – but so did the cost, and not just to the environment. Gradually it became clear that ‘consumer choice’ is not actually a good thing.
In fact, as Dan explains in Enough is Enough, after a short gratification period. it mostly makes people less happy and less healthy, and the longer term damage to consumer communities (health and wellbeing problems, criminal and social dysfunction etc) can be severe – as can the damage to producer communities, many of whom in the Global South pay a terrible price for their ‘Westernised’ lifestyles.
So by the turn of 21st Century, and especially after the financial crisis of 2008, (triggered, predictably, by land speculation expressed as unsupportable mortgages) the system was in crisis. And none of the supposed solutions – from left, centre or right – were going anywhere near the right direction.
The old political system had proved it could simply not deliver the necessary change, and there was, and remains, an urgent need for a new ‘green’ economic model – one which could deliver self-advancement without causing a tragedy of the commons.
This lecture by William Rees explains the problem perfectly
There are, of course, other behavioural triggers which go back to early human evolution but may have now outlived their usefulness as survival strategies.
Much of what drives consumerism goes back to our hunter (‘boy’s toys’) / gatherer (‘retail therapy’) origins, so these urges will surely need to be satiated – but in ways that don’t create the terminal damage we are seeing today.
Another semi-conscious driver is the biophobia / biophilia spectrum (as explored by David Orr in Earth in Mind).
Different humans have very different attitudes to nature – Woody Allen is a psychotic biophobe, for example – but most of us find flowers attractive – supposedly because they inform us that later they will become fruit. (The evolutionary theory / savannah hypothesis of Heerwagen and Orians suggests that humans respond emoptionally to flowers because they signal food availability).
Most find the seaside fascinating, possibly – as Alister Hardy suggested in 1960 – because we spent some time in our evolution as semi-aquatic creatures – which could explain our upright stance, subcutaneous fat layer (the only ape to have one – all other are marine dwellers), large brains and shell-crushing teeth (David Attenborough made two utterly fascinating programmes about this in 2016). This is disputed by some scientists (more here), but it’s well-established that humans have frequently spent periods in the littoral and near-shore zones (especially when the sea was warmer than the air), so we may have acquired a genetic attraction to this rich food source.
And then – an appreciation of rural views is explained as offering a good prospect for hunting, and so on. (There is also some very interesting work on why men and women navigate differently – but that’s for another time).
But of course nature can also be capricious, dangerous and damaging. It can snatch away vital resources in a trice, and decimate a tribe. So as the human paradigm evolved, so did a need to protect beneficial nature (mainly food), to separate from harmful nature (pests, predators and poisons), and eventually in modern man a strong desire to tame or even defeat nature.
I was not sure whether to be amused or appalled when public consultation over the establishment of a stunning rare wild-flower meadow produced an outraged response that it was ‘all just long grass and weeds – and it made my dog wet.’ Many house-buyers immediately set about cutting down trees and bushes around their new property, and often pave their new garden too. Millions of ‘metrosexuals’ adore urban environments, consume their countryside in antiseptic packages – and, more importantly, completely fail to use their votes on behalf of the nature upon which their very existence depends.
The extent to which this is genetic or learned is unclear, but our attitude to nature would certainly seem to form a large part of our paradigms, and as such, it must represent another major ‘stickage’ which we will certainly need to address – if we are to learn again to live in ‘sufficient’ harmony with the biosphere.
These films explain better than I can why we need to change the way our economy works.
Green Economics is often referred to as Steady State Economics, but that phrase fails to express the essential concept of sufficiency, hence my preferred term: Neosufficiency – a deliberate antidote to Neoliberalism.
Dan O’Neill and Rob Dietz did express it very well in their book, Enough is Enough, in which they addressed resource use and waste, population, debt, wealth distribution, the money supply, the measurement of progress (what’s wrong with GDP = everything), working hours, and much more, most of which concurs with my own view – which is why I made a film about it.
At least, as the film shows, the Green Party do appear to get it. But sadly, before the 2015 UK election they fell into the trap of trying to hoover up disaffected socialists who’d been abandoned by New Labour, and this was a fundamental mistake.
I said on Facebook at the time: People can be forgiven for thinking that the green party are utopian socialists because they went all ‘watermelon’ (green on the outside, red all through) at the election. But actually green socialism is not at all utopian – that’s the Marxists, and others who approach social construction from an equality perspective, (lovely though this would be if it was in our gift to deliver it – which, as we saw in Mind the Mind, it is unfortunately not)
Whatever the genetic / deliberate drivers may be in the left / right / selfish / altruistic / bonobo / chimp behaviour melange, we do know one thing: You need a BiG majority of people to sign up to any kind of rights-based utopia for it to work.
And they have to stay signed up – not undermine it with black economics, corruption or tyranny – which is what has aways eventually happened in every experiment to date – the reason being, of course, that too few humans are currently bonobo-activated.
So though I doubt there’s a person on the planet who would not like to see a fully-functioning utopian socialist society in theory, there are far too many people who’d never trust their neighbours (or themselves for that matter) for it to be a bankable option – especially in the short time we have in which to manage a transition – which is why so few vote that way.
(This is all, of course, notwithstanding my support in The Urbal Fix for Victorian Utopian Socialism – during a time when utopianism really did have strong popular traction. If it was ever going to work it would have done so back then – as it almost did).
We’ve had lots of experiments in utopian socialism around the world, even a pretty good bash here in the UK – with the Welfare State and Keynsean economics on the back of the bonobo imperatives of WWII – but even this soft socialism could not survive the negative forces of globalisation, the resurgence of the right, and the plain shortsightedness (/selfishness?) of the left.
No, Green Socialism is not Red Socialism. It does in fact arrive at near-equality (or fairness, anyway), but not through any utopian egalitarian approach. It is not ideological, it is logical – rooted in ecological science, which tells us how animals exploit the niches they inhabit, and what happens when that niche changes, or begins to prove a limit to its inhabitants.
Fight or Flight – or Allright Mate?
Disputes between animals, and we are no exception, trigger three reactions, Fight, Flight or ‘Allright Mate’. (People often forget the negotiation option).
Sadly, some Fighting in this case seems inevitable, but I would hope that all my readers would prefer one of the other two to a global conflagration. Flight is out of the question – Kepler 2.0 anyone? So that leaves ‘Allright Mate’.
We will need to negotiate, first to conserve the one planet we do have, but second to accommodate a still-growing population.
Population and Global South Development
This is not as impossible as it sounds. Zero population growth is achievable, even inevitable, some say. Education, the emancipation of women and reductions in child mortality are already reducing the birth rate rapidly – in the global North, the rates are almost vertical.
Yes, I had kids – two actually.
Population is, of course, the elephant in the room. Paul Chafurka is very pessimistic in that link, and he may well be right. The UN suggests that human population (currently 6.9bn) will stabilise at 11-12 billion – but can the world support that many?
Well, modern estimates for human carrying capacity have ranged from 1 or 2 billion people living in prosperity (as targeted by Paul), to 33 billion people fed on minimum rations and using all suitable land for high-intensity food production. A recent report suggests we will be able to feed 9bn by 2050, while other scientists now believe that the carrying capacity of a world with a low-consumption, steady-state global economy may be about 12 billion. (The major challenge then will be demographic, but only while the senior generation survives).
In any event, the key is for population to stabilise – which it can only do if people stop producing large numbers of children (and living for longer too). Luckily, the evidence is that once people are confident that they’ll be secure in retirement, and that their children are likely to outlive them, they settle for 2 or 3 kids – providing, that is, that they have access to birth control and the freedom to use it (this, of course, requires the emancipation of women, and an absence of controlling dogma).
So quite apart form the fact that the Global North has largely caused this problem, and has a moral responsibility to even up the score, it is essential that the Global South is allowed to continue to develop largely along conventional democratic lines for the time being (as Lord Giddens says in The Urbal Fix).
This is scary at first glance because consumption (and therefore emissions) in India, China and Brazil seem to rising exponentially, but when calculated per capita, compared with Europe and North America their footprints remain negligible, and will continue to be so until they finally approach western figures.
So what IS needed is a globally agreed contraction and convergence policy, to bring the South up (and the North down) to a permanently sustainable level – and this is what the UN and others are now working towards. There’s a video clip on this topic here.
Some Pigs Are More Equal Than Others
So. We need a non-destructive global system for, eventually, a stable population, and this demands a zero or very low growth economy – which in turn calls for a much more equal society.
Wait – that was a big jump, you say – specially after you just shafted socialism.
No, because, as Dan O’Neill quoted in Enough is Enough, “Growth is a substitute for equality of income. So long as there is growth, there is hope, and that makes large income differentials tolerable” (Henry Wallach – Federal Reserve).
Ergo, if we prohibit growth, then large income levels will become intolerable. And mayhem will ensue – not just within our own borders (that would be bad enough), but on a global scale.
Like the chimpanzee – in fact all animals (the difference merely lies in how big a group we are selfish for) – we are born both ambitious and competitive. We simply can’t help trying to get one over on our rivals, not least because wealth and territory in excess of sufficiency are status markers essential for successful breeding – another thing we’re programmed to do.
So consumption is an evolutionary compulsion. And if we can’t progress by one means or another we either get nasty, (conventional crime for the poor, corporate crime and corruption for the rich), or we just give up, and become an additional drain on the commons / resources of the community.
So we have to find ways to permit personal progress, which means that green equality cannot be flat (as Natalie Bennett accepts in the film).
But how to deliver this when there is no more new territory to colonise, and we can’t let our progress be at the expense of others?
Two things: The first is to offer ways to out-perform your rival without damaging the village green, and the second is to find a way to facilitate ‘planetary altruism,’ (rather than traditional family or tribal altruism).
Does that demand a Marxist solution? Definitely not.
Marx did a brilliant job pointing out the flaws of Classical Capitalism in Das Kapital, but he offered very little of value as an alternative. His egalitarian, equality, rights-based utopia was instantly corrupted by the majority selfish gene gang, and always would have been.
Even the much more benign and British Welfare State was gradually eroded – so a flat, traditionally socialist society is not an option.
A triangular power structure based on fear worked for early hominids and tribes, and though we certainly don’t want that, we have never lost our obsession with leaders (hence tyrants, religion and, heaven help us, their inevitable corollery; ‘celebrities’) as this, also, seems to be genetically programmed into us.
Actually, it would seem that a need for leadership is as ingrained as (or even buried within?) our personal / social paradigm. I’m constantly amazed by the way people will flock to anyone who shows even dim glimmer of charisma. And if you appear to be offering a vision for the future with some tasty cod philosophy, or mumbo jumbo chutney, they’ll soon be carrying you aloft in shouty circles (I’ve even been there too, in my own humble-mumble way).
As Morris said in the Naked Ape, we do remain a tribal / social animal. Perhaps this is why so many people still seem to prefer some kind of pyramidal system (so mainly vote to the right) – they need to have leaders, who they will generally trust to make them better off. By securing new territory and resources on their behalf.
But globalisation (and more recently the internet) have put paid to the respect required for that trust.
So there needs to be a pyramid, but a low one. And people need to feel that they can move up the flanks, without that growth causing problems for the environment.
Can it be done? Yes. Because green philosophy sets social and personal development (learning, creativity, skills, cohesion, wellbeing) above economic growth (though it does allow some differential of wealth, because our animal natures demand it – but only within reasonable limits).
Achieving this ‘sustainable equality’ will, as we’ve seen, require majority agreement (as equality always did and will do) – which can only be reached through a universal understanding of a common threat (as in the UK in 1939).
It is time to stop aping the chimps, and learn to live like bonobos – which, if EO Wilson’s Group Selection theory really is the dominant trait, may not be as hard as we fear.
Consumerism, Markets and Other Runaway Trains
I explored relationship between the economy, society and the environment in The Urbal Fix, and the conclusion was clear – the economy must be subservient to society, and society must be subservient to the biosphere. And that calls for neosufficient thinking.
Mickey Mouse Economics
The Three Legged Stool Economics
But neosufficient thinking demands the reigning-in not only of the consumer/casino capitalist model, but also of our own selfish impulses – many of which are hard wired for reasons outlined earlier.
So if we try to impose a command system which fixes the consumption problem, how to permit sufficient self-serving to prevent civil unrest, and possible resort to arms? How to remain competitive; encouraging innovation, entrepreneurialism and self-advancement – without damaging the biosphere?
This is always going to present a challenge, and no doubt there will always be territorial wars, but we can at least try to manage our commons effectively.
The term ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ (see Mind the Mind) was actually coined from Lloyd’s work by Garrett Hardin, who later tried to adapt the term to ‘Tragedy of the Unregulated Commons.’
And regulation remains the key today: Regulation to internalise the ‘externalities’ which are currently damaging our commons.
An externality is defined as an inevitable cost which is not reflected in a commercial transaction. It’s also called a market failure.
Margaret Thatcher famously said ‘you can’t buck the market’, and she was right. Command economics, especially the nationalisation of anything apart from a few complex systems (such as the rail network) which need to be run as a single entity, but are too important to be handed over to a single private owner, only results in stultification – as we found in the 1970s.
The market has proved itself to be the only reliable way to drive an economy – otherwise we are back to Marx and the corruption and stagnification that red socialism caused. (And we do need to drive the economy. Slowly).
But you can skew a market by failing properly to regulate, and thus externalising important the costs. And in deregulating so many markets, Thatcher and her neoliberal followers created externalities on a scale never before seen. Which are now about to cook us all.
At the moment, when we buy a product or a service we do not pay a true price for it. We pay what the producer, wholesalers and retailer feel they can persuade us to pay (including whatever margin they feel they deserve). But we almost never pay what at good is really worth – in terms of the transaction with society and the biosphere as a whole.
This is because we’re not paying for many of the social and environmental costs that were involved in the creation of that product, and they’re not paying for problems associated with its use or disposal either. But even more seriously, we are very seldom paying a realistic price for the raw materials we use.
The assumption has always been that the earth is huge and there’s always plenty more. So the price is set by a market which effectively assumes an infinite supply. But there’s not an infinite supply of anything on Earth (except sunlight). So the price should frequently be far far higher. After all, how much will the last ever bucket of coal in the world be worth? Or the last ever cup of fresh water?
A recent United Nations report found that almost no industry would be profitable today if all market failures were internalised. But as these failures must be mended if we are to survive, we need to find some way to internalise all relevant costs – a way will permit a rapid evolution from damage and waste to permanently sustainable business models.
The world at large still largely thinks that the economy is paramount, and financial growth, which is supposed to deliver some semblance of wealth to all by trickle-down effect (but which in fact only benefits a few) is the only way out of the current crisis.
But that belief must dwindle as the intractability of the situation becomes more clear, and as we saw in Enough is Enough, the negative effects of measuring progress though only GDP (which counts wars, famines and diseases as beneficial because they appear to boost the economy) is compounding the problem.
Many activists still believe that society should be considered equal to the environment, saying ‘if we fix the ills of society, then the environment will be healed.’ But although we are slowly making progress towards social justice, human rights, gender equality, free speech, the eradication of poverty and so on – and these things must remain a priority whatever steps we do take – we need urgently to recognise that these issues are also intractable (note how little real progress has been made around the world in the last two centuries) and are not likely to be fixed, globally, within the next thirty years – and even this may be more time than we actually have.
If we try to fix the environment by fixing society we could be in real trouble. Because the environment – (and that doesn’t mean bird-watching and nice country walks – it means food, which requires healthy soil and pollinators, and water and air and many other things that nature provides for us that we take for granted, and which are seldom internalised in financial transactions) – is in trouble.
At the moment it is mainly only the cultural services which are partially internalised in our system, and although recognised, the others are not given economic values which protect them against detrimental exploitation or co-lateral damage.
I wonder why – because without the ecological services the environment provides, there will be no society and no economy to fix. As Jonathan Porrit says in the film “It doesn’t mean to say there won’t be lots of human beings left over after a 6 degrees centigrade rise, but I assure you they won’t be having much of a time.”
And we might add that the social breakdown implied in that ‘not much of a time’ is likely to make fixing social problems even more difficult, (specially if the men with the guns take over). So we need to fix the environment first – and quickly, and if we are smart, we may even manage to fix some of the major social problems in the process.
But how exactly do we move away from ‘mickey mouse’ and the faux-balanced ‘stool’ to hit a ‘target’ economic system which puts a proper value on these services?
Well, one way would be to establish a Marxist-inspired control economy (as was employed in the USSR), but this is almost certain to result, as it usually does, in a stagnent rather than a steady state economy.
The only other available method at our disposal (unless someone knows something I don’t) is market force.
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with a free market system, as long as prices accurately reflect the real and total costs (which they currently don’t – and worse; the profits always go to those at the top of the economic food chain, supermarket shareholders, for example, instead of the farmer trying to invest in greener growing).
I can think of only two ways to embrace market forces but manage to avoid the two chief areas of externality – damage to the environment, and damage to the poor and dispossessed.
Damage Taxes and the Citizens Income
I have set out some proposals on how Damage Taxes could be introduced strategically, via the introduction of Tim Lang’s Omnistandards food labelling idea, in Thought for Food.
But controlling consumption is only half of the story – the poor and disenfranchised also need to be protected against damage. The current system – where some languish on benefits that the community can ill afford, some work stupid hours yet still need to be supported by the state, while others work stupid hours for good money but have no time to spend it wisely, and a final group amass ridiculous wealth and capacity to inflict damage – cannot be healthy.
In theory, this protection could be internalised into a damage tax regime, but I suspect it would not be sufficiently robust. I think a better solution would be the introduction of the Citizen’s Income.
The first task of Neosufficency is to create a safe, stable income platform upon which a new type of economy can be built – and we dealt with this at length in Enough is Enough (EiE). (The second task is, of course, to control externalities – see Damage Taxes).
The current system not only elevates some far above their true worth to society, but also dashes people who could be making a useful contribution to the bottom of the cliff.
And literally speaking, many earn a completely unacceptable amount.
Natalie Bennett’s suggestion in EiE of setting a percentage differential between the minimum and maximum incomes paid out by any one endeavour makes perfect sense to me. It leaves plenty of room for chimp-style motivation and self-advancement (see above), while preventing the system from becoming an externalised mess.
And it makes equal sense to reduce the working week to a social norm of around 21 hours.
Of course you can never legislate against people working overtime or having more than one job, but you can make it the legal maximum before overtime. It would have to be phased in as Dan suggests in EiE, but this would change the status quo very quickly. (The New Economics Foundation have some excellent thinking on this).
The book of Enough is Enough sets out many more credible suggestions for the advancement of Neosufficiency than we had time for in the film – but there’s one idea that I don’t feel was given as much attention in the book at it deserves, so I’d like to correct that here.
Citizen’s or Basic or Universal Income
The current UK tax, pensions and benefits system – balanced, as it now is, on the casino banking pyramid – is clearly unsustainable.
The belief that all affluent baby-boomers should be able, as of right, to retire early and spend the next 20 years jetting round the world consuming without contribution has been as big a driver in the overheating of our debt-based economy as advertising or externalised purchasing. (And non-mutual mortgages, secured for profit rather than for shelter, only rub salt into the wound).
Meanwhile we have a benefits system which simultaneously traps people into poverty and removes both dignity and any desire for self improvement.
At first glance it seems hopelessly utopian and unsupportable financially, but there are plenty who disagree.
Recently the news has been full of stories about states or cities who are experimenting with, or considering, varieties of CI, for example this in The Conversation: “Experiments are either getting underway or have taken place in parts of Canada, Finland, India and the Netherlands. Now Scotland could become the first part of the UK to trial such a system. Fife and Glasgow councils have both held discussions recently, while a new body, Citizen’s Basic Income Network Scotland, has launched. Scotland is at a useful crossroads for such an experiment because it will soon have a new social security system after a number of benefits are devolved from London over the next couple of years. The citizens’ basic income has long been a policy of the Scottish Greens, but political support has been widening this year after the SNP voted in favour of a motion supporting it at their spring conference.”
Let me deal with the advantages as I see them first.
Advantage 1 CI would be much cheaper and easier to administer than the current system.
The removal of the means testing associated with benefits will reduce costs and free up labour, permitting both to be invested more productively elsewhere.
Advantage 2 CI will lead to the creation of many more businesses and jobs – which should please both the left and the right.
At the moment there is a dead band between benefits-only income, and means-tested earnings of sufficient worth to make work a logical choice. It’s simply not reasonable to expect people on benefits to seek work unless it will be sufficiently well paid to replace and substantially improve on their state-funded income. And of course most entry-level employment these days is in the gig economy which at the bottom of the scale means zero hours contracts and borderline hourly rates, to the extent that huge numbers have to go on claiming means-tested benefits even when working. And Universal Benefits are still means tested.
A central tenet of CI is that it MUST be free of means testing to work. It is the absence of a means test that allows people to take jobs that are suitable to them as individuals, at an appropriate time in their lives, without worrying about loss of benefits. You can do as little or as much as your skills and circumstances permit, while still having the safety net of basic food and shelter. This creates a natural and available continuum of commitment; from purely volunteering at one end, through minimal hours in paid work, towards more conventional employment patterns with overtime if you want and can get it, or – if you are an entrepreneur perhaps – working flat out to make a success or your endeavour.
When I was a freelance TV director with Yorkshire Television in the 90s they kept allocating crews to me who were about to be made redundant – as most were then. Understandably, these guys (they were mainly male) who’d enjoyed very generous terms thanks to the huge power of the broadcasting unions and so had expensive commitments, were very worried indeed about entering the freelance world. However, as someone who’d been pretty much self-employed my whole adult life (still am, really – I think of my university work as an important hobby!) I was able to explain that when you work for yourself you pay yourself in time as much as money. Yes, you do have to get your outgoings under control, and that can be traumatic if you have a huge mortgage (as many TV people did), but it wouldn’t kill you. Once you’d got your life on a sensible footing you could work flat out when the work was there, and then afford to do other things when it wasn’t. Most of the best things in my life have been achieved unpaid or for much less money than most would require. (Ok, I was born very lucky, but time IS as valuable as money, trust me).
So, if we do manage to move to a Neosufficient world, it will become the norm to measure one’s self worth by your contribution to society (and the personal benefits that flow from that), rather than by your income (Bonobo thinking). With a CI safety net in place, there’s no longer any need for a minimum or living wage, because the state is guaranteeing both – effectively helping to finance small business start-ups without any need for loans or supervision. This is a very Tory concept, and it works. Many of the new small businesses will stay small, but if they have good enough ideas and work hard they can and will grow – employing more people, and paying better wages as they do.
Advantage 3 CI will secure workers rights (there’s one for the Left), while introducing a genuinely merit-based and free employment market (for the Right).
Under CI, work ceases to be a survival strategy, so anyone who does not enjoy their job can just walk out. Therefore the proper value of the job must now be agreed by negotiation between employer and employee. This could be set at any level from pro bono(bo?) / volunteering or some form of barter, to very high stakes – according to the skills of the employee, the unpleasantness of the job, and the importance and/or success of the venture. So workers will now have a proper stake in the business rather than mere wage-bondage. If a business requires people to undertake unpleasant jobs then they will have to incentivise people to do them by paying well – or develop machines to do it instead (thus, again, encouraging more start-ups). Jobs such as sewage work suddenly need to be highly paid, whereas nice, intrinsically rewarding jobs like, err – university lecturer, will become lower paid. Of course skills and education will still be important, especially at the upper end of the job market, but in the band between the current benefits system (which includes jobs supported by the state), and the current low-waged sector, a new entrepreneurial freedom emerges.
Objection 1 Opponents usually ask; with a guaranteed living wage for everyone, who would ever bother to work?
Well, the answer is almost everyone. The key is to set CI low – a little way below the current level of the State Pension, probably. CI needs to function as a permanent dole, high enough to live on without luxuries, but low enough to encourage people to go out and find work. Once they’re in work they can then apply themselves and gain skills to earn more money – as people usually do want to do. Don’t forget, there are many other benefits to employment than just a wage: Job satisfaction, social interaction, contribution to society, status and – of course – the opportunity for both personal and financial self-improvement. (Again, very Tory).
Objection 2 But could we afford it?
Well, bear in mind that we currently do – rather randomly and very inefficiently – provide a lot of state support to the population, though benefits, pensions and, of course, tax relief. Most of these would be dismantled as no longer necessary with CI, and I’m advised that this alone would come very close to paying for a universal CI. But we are not getting rid of Income Tax. You would start paying income tax as soon as you started to earn a penny. But it would begin with a fractional amount – certainly not enough to discourage people from going out to work. And people should not mind paying this small tax so much, because they themselves would be beneficiaries of it – and that would include the highest paid mogul in the land. Remember that in a Neosufficent society, much of the tax revenue comes from damage not income taxes, so we can all now choose how to spend our money much more responsibly. And good, healthy, local food would be virtually tax free. QED.
Objection 3 But what about people who can’t work because of age or disability?
Of course, it would not be fair to force these to subsist on CI alone, so top-ups would be necessary for sickness benefit, state pension, and – probably – differences in regional economies – and yes, means testing would be needed here. But alongside CI this would be a much smaller and simpler system than the status quo. The amounts paid, being only top-ups to the CI, would be relatively small, so much easier to set and monitor. And people could still have private pensions or health care if they choose to – but these would be subject to the same damage taxes as everything else, so – with the externalities of the current system removed – only good and fair options would be available.
Objection 4 And how do you stop people just having huge families and so becoming professional parents?
Yes – that’s a fair challenge, and the solution is not likely to go down well (we’re back to hardcore Chimp thinking here, or even Lion). Clive Lord suggests, and I reluctantly agree, that large families will have to be discouraged, not just for the above reason but because we also need urgently to reign in population growth as fast as possible without adopting draconian measures like the Chinese one child policy. So CI will have to tail off with each successive baby. The first would receive a fair percentage of an adult CI, and that percentage then dwindles with each successive birth, until having more kids actually becomes a financial burden. (Adopted children could perhaps receive a higher CI to promote the rehousing of climate migrant children – of whom we can expect many).
Recently the Tories suggested that child tax credits should be limited to two children, and this produced a howl of anger from people furious at the suggestion that any child should be deemed more valuable than any other. But that only applies if your paradigm insists on associating the money with the individual. In the wild, all creatures have two basic reproductive strategies: Have as many young as possible and accept that many or even most will perish (this has even been the human strategy in times gone by), or assess the limits of your ecological niche, and limit your reproduction accordingly. The latter is, for the time being anyway, our only option. So we will need to learn to see our social income as such; set according to the needs of the family, not the individual. (Children in social care would probably receive a special top-up). There would be nothing to stop people having bigger families, just as there’s nothing to stop people buying expensive things, but they would have to be sure that they could earn enough on top of their combined CI to afford them, and behave accordingly. I think that’s fair enough.
There would be implications around divorce, and the death of a carer which might need some additional measures, but I believe that this system would tend to strengthen family bonds and encourage more responsible parenting – again, very Tory.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this and discussing with colleagues. It’s whacky, but the more I’ve thought, the more convinced I’ve become that Citizen’s Income not only could work – it has to.
There is much about food on the Urbal.tv website – not least links to Feed Leeds, FoodWise Leeds, Leeds Edible Schools Sustainability Network, Leeds Edible Campus, KEEP and Back to Front, which between them take up a great deal of my time. This is largely because I know that the global food system is deeply vulnerable to ecological damage caused by climate change, and as a landscape architect I can see that growing food more locally is a sensible approach for any number of reasons, (though local food is not necessarily best, as it may cause collateral damages, including a higher carbon footprint). In fact, the vegetation of all kinds is rapidly becoming a critical issue – hence my work with United Bank of Carbon. But my study of the food system has also delivered another unexpected outcome.
In Neosufficiency I argued that one solution to the problem of overconsumption might be damage taxes. We’re probably all familiar with the concept of carbon taxes and environmental taxes (which are technically known as Pigovian taxes, after the visionary Arthur Pigou) – which must surely form part of the solution. But effective and necessary as these may be, there’s always going to be a problem fixing where the boundaries of the taxation should lie (much like the problem fixing the boundaries of means-tested benefits).
For example, both Japan and Denmark recently introduced fat taxes, but Denmark soon had to repeal them – because they were a nightmare to administer, and people merely bought food from Sweden or Germany instead. But that doesn’t mean that the concept of damage taxes (my preferred term because it signals why the tax is being applied) has no merit. Introduced into a single country and picking out only one form of social damage, the fat tax was always likely be doomed. The only way to make Pigou’s approach work would be to tax anything and everything that causes harm, regardless of the nature of the damage, to set the tax precisely according to an independent assessment of the scale of the damage (so there can be no quibble or complaint), and to do it as part of a radical systemic change in the fiscal system. And, ideally of course, it should be introduced globally. Some ask, you’ll say – but which would be better? A complex and difficult social change, or the end of civilisation as we know it and the possible deaths of millions? So bear with me as I suggest how this might be done. Call me a fool, call me a seer, call me a cab – I really don’t mind.
If damage taxes were introduced overnight there would likely be a massive rejection from producer and consumer alike, so here’s a possible solution. I have put the case elsewhere for the convening power of food, and I think it’s possible that efforts to sort out the food industry might help to deliver a benign, strategic means of introducing damage taxes right across the board. I suggest five stages:
1) The Development of Omnistandards
We may soon be seeing the introduction of food label Traffic Lights, but this is some way short of true ‘Omnistandards’ labelling.
This innovation was suggested by Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy at City University (he also invented the term ‘food miles‘). Environmental and social damage (aka ‘market failures’) are measured, and then given a score between one and three – as represented by the colours below.
Tim suggests assessing ‘greenhouse gas (perhaps this should include all atmospheric pollution)’, ‘fair trade,’ ‘biodiversity’, ‘packaging/waste’, ‘animal welfare’, ‘nutrition’, and ‘water.’ A graphic label then alerts consumers simply and quickly to the real whole-life costs and consequences (extraction, production, distribution, sale, consumption, recycling, disposal) of the purchase they are making. Here’s some alternative options from Tim.
Researching and defining values for food-based omnistandards will be a very challenging task, but I agree with Tim that it can be done.
In fact I would go further – much further. I believe that omnistandards can and should be applied to all products and services from food to transport, to education to power generation to pensions – to everything that is purchased.
To this end I would add ‘security’ (i.e risk and consequential weight of breakdown – re nuclear fission, criminality or terrorism, for example), ‘human health/wellbeing’ and – crucially – a ‘raw materials accumulator’ that puts a realistic conservation value on finite resources.
(There may also be a case for other standards, perhaps a ‘jobs’ score which reflects the ratio of jobs to production output, to rebalance the economies of scale created by mechanisation and robotisation, but this will need to be debated).
I would also suggest a five band range: Green (benign/beneficial), yellow (neutral), orange (minor damage; for ‘treats’ only), red (major damage; avoid unless essential), and black (serious damage; avoid at all costs).
Tim’s system does give consumers valuable information on which to base their choices, and it has the advantage that different consumers can make different decisions according to their personal views on each on the issues measured.
But it is also confusing because it’s difficult to weigh up, say, greenhouse gas damage against, say, nutrition. How does one value a flower with four green, two red and one yellow petal like the one on the right against another flower with the same numbers of coloured petals, but in different places?
The solution can only be to find a fair and reasonable formula which allows these very different values to be summed together, much like a balanced scorecard, to provide one simple central value.
We might call this the Externalities Code.
This algorithm will resolve anomalies like the following: In their book ‘Time To Eat The Dog?‘ Robert and Brenda Vale have suggested that the carbon footprint of a medium-sized dog is the same as a Toyota Land Cruiser driven 6,000 miles a year, while a cat is equivalent to a Volkswagen Golf. But if we add, for example, human health/well-being into the calculation, then the target score is mitigated by the psychological and health benefits provided by the pets – as it should be (though cats, and some dogs under some circumstances, would also be marked down on the biodiversity score because of the damage they do to birds and small mammals).
‘Fair and reasonable’ will, however, be the challenge, because in setting comparative values across these topics we will be making deeply political decisions. Would the health benefits of pets, for example, actually save them? We don’t yet know. Just as we don’t yet know if running an SUV does in fact have health benefits which could be offset against the carbon tyre-print. So we need to find out. We will need accurate internalised values, and if we base our decisions on empirical evidence, using ecological assessments on a global scale, I believe can reach an equitable solution.
The system can and should be dynamic, so that it can reflect changes over time and to allow for continuous improvement. One way of doing this would be to have an independent, worldwide body (or perhaps a number of competing bodies) who would maintain databases upon which the omnistandards would be founded. It might even be possible for these to function a little like the financial indexes we have today (these will all disappear along with the financial markets, of course).
The summed target values / externalities code could in theory now be represented by a single coloured dot, one traffic light – but this is probably too simplistic, as a single dot would fail to give people sufficient information to make sensible decisions, because there must still be room for personal choice and responsibility.
Two similar products may display the same colour traffic light, but because of the way have been made, and are expected to be used and disposed of, the individual scores in each of the 10 categories may be very different.
Consumers will also have personal preferences which they should be free to express. If the scorecard has been accurately calculated, this choice will not affect the total environmental and social impacts.
I would suggest small ‘petals’ around the larger central dot, which would provide an at-a-glance explanation for the colour of the central dot. Additional labelling and other consumer information in note form will still be necessary and advantageous.
Five traffic lights, of course, will tend to create five distinct bands of product, which might prove to be too clumsy. If so, then more bands could be introduced (the more bands, the more accurate the system). Numbers will need to be included for the colour-blind.
2) Voluntary Omnistandards Labelling
The second step would be to introduce voluntary omnistandards labelling.
If supported by political parties and the media, even voluntary labels would begin to have an impact straight away – helping to change people’s purchasing behaviour, and gradually making it socially unacceptable to buy products with black or red petals.
This would immediately begin to internalise market failures, and would go a long way towards fixing the problem, but consumer choice will likely not be powerful enough to change the system while consumers are still being bombarded and brainwashed by advertising and marketing campaigns.
Well, it’s a tempting option and it has been suggested by the Green Party. (scroll down).
But we are still proposing a free market system, where citizens make their own choices based on real costs and values, and if the system we are proposing is as good as we think it is, then some advertising would be not only tolerable but beneficial.
Businesses will still need to start up and succeed, and competition will still be a differentiator of quality (a quality now forced to be about benign innovation and creativity), so customers must have ways of knowing what is available.
One way to focus the power of advertising is to make it a legal requirement that all adverts, packaging and promotion must display an omnistandard flower.
A truck displaying products on its sides would need to carry a flower representing the balance of all the products therein, for example.
And I agree with the Story of Stuff director, Annie Leonard, that we do need to outlaw manufactured demand, so some types of advertising will need to be curtailed – as will ‘aspirational’ TV programmes like Top Gear, The Gadget Show, Grand Designs and so on, which can encourage both unreasonable consumption and personal debt. We’ll still want some programmes like them, but they will need to be much, much more responsible in the messages they peddle.
Adverts aimed at children might need to be outlawed, along with any for products with a red or black traffic light. Loyalty schemes would also have to be looked at because they are essentially anti-competitive and manipulative.
The emphasis in advertising will need to be on providing true facts about products, not focusing on aspirations and self gratification (because, frankly, we are NOT ‘worth it’). We might consider outlawing the use of music in advertising (dramatic, but as a composer myself I know how emotive music can be), or there may be a case for banning all TV advertising and product placement (in fact perhaps all public advertising, as suggested by Compass) – though this would probably be impossible to achieve on the web.
Incidentally we will also need new TV shows which help to educate people on how to insulate their homes (Changing Rooms installing Kingspan, perhaps?), how to take up the Marshalls blocks they put down after watching Ground Force, and turn them into raised beds to grow vegetables, how to grow vegetables and what to do with your apples, how to mend things – and so on.
(Obviously, without advertising – and much corporate sponsorship, which will also need to develop, TV will play a somewhat smaller role in our lives anyway).
All this will be highly contentious, and a workable code will not be easy to develop, but major change is essential as George Monbiot concurs.
4) Compulsory Omnistandard Labelling
The next step is for governments to make Omnistandard labelling compulsory. This would immediately weed out much of the worst behaviour by manufacturers and retailers, and would also prepare the population for the next stage:
5) Fiscal Policy
The final stage is the most important.
For this, we work out an economic cost for each of the colours on each of the petals. This also will not be easy, but it will not be as hard as it might at first appear, (there are people working on it already). These values will be summed in the same ratios used when calculating the colour of the central dot.
Now we are in a position to introduce damage taxes which reinforce the consumer decision, but which also, more importantly, provide resources to repair any damage caused by the product.
At the same time, we do away with as many existing taxes as possible (some generic taxation, for health and community/business support etc will still be required, and Rates would be retained – see below), and instead start charging a fair price for the true cost on all products and services.
The omnistandard colours now announce percentage bands in the tax calculation.
Products with a green dot are (initially) subsidised (say 10% off), yellow has no tax, orange 10%, red 100%, and black 1000%. (Ok, those numbers will be wrong, and maybe we need more or fewer bands, but the principle is worth thinking about).
The money raised is then re-invested as required, to rectify whatever damage the production of that good or service has done back down the supply chain.
Benign products will thrive, while toxic products will be squeezed out as people wean themselves off them. Re-cycling (or to be more accurate, up-cycling) will become ever more efficient, while the amount of energy and materials being lost with every change of use/renewal will diminish over time.
Business and domestic rates would also be subject to the omnistandard system, but perhaps the categories would be different as this is an annual levy rather than a purchase decision – with green investment being the primary objective. Insulation/thermal and fuel performance would be the key measure, with site biodiversity, productivity, water control and microclimate also being taken into account.
Certainly those who choose to cover their drives with concrete paviours or tarmac would have pay for the damage this causes, as should those who prefer to have no trees, or no wild areas – or who seal their territory with fencing that prevents small mammal migration.
The end result should be a free market system, but one without the crippling market failures which have caused all the damage we see today. It will look superficially like a communistic system, but being untouched by the dead hand of control economics, it will in fact be truly (rather than neo-) liberal – something that has never really been tried by mankind.
There are some challenges, of course.
1) It will not be easy to ensure that the money raised actually gets to the point of damage, and there is a major risk that funds will be stolen by corrupt intermediaries. But that is no reason not to adopt the principle, and over time the system should improve.
2) The rich will be able, initially, to go on buying damaging products, so these will not die out as quickly as we might like. But at least the damage will be ameliorated to an extent as products become first unfashionable, and then increasingly socially unacceptable.
3) Once the system has worked, there will, in theory, be no more damage, so the punitive taxes will cease earning revenue. At this point an income-based system closer to the status quo will need to be gradually reintroduced. Perhaps even the green dots will start to accrue a purchase tax, while the other percentages are reduced. But however the system is changed, it must continue to reflect the true social and environmental globally-calculated cost of products and services.
4) The steady state model has been criticised for not offering a solution to existing debt. This is indeed a big challenge, but it’s worth bearing in mind that most of the debt in the world today exists only on paper. It is indeed owned by people – some rely on it for their pensions, some governments rely on it for their economic stability – but most of it sits in banks creating unearned income for the Global North. A constructive global debt concatenation (or even a global domino default) would remove much of the problem.
The delivery of a neosufficient society is not going to be easy. It calls for both new laws (‘top down’ change) and new behaviours (‘bottom up’ change).
Community/third sector-driven (bottom up) change is healthy in the UK, with many excellent initiatives taking place, but progress is slow because of the inertia created by social structures and habits. Likewise political/legislative (top down) change is taking shape, but nothing like fast enough for the same reasons. Meanwhile, academics produce illuminating papers that either never see the light of day or are bowdlerised by vested-interest media, while entrepreneurs launch innovative ideas which struggle to thrive in the current economic climate.
I am in fact suspicious of the ‘bottom up’/’top down’ paradigm. It forces an unrealistic triangular structure and an over-simplistic positive/negative charge on a society which is in reality vastly complex, presenting, as it does, a set of competing pyramids (politics, commerce, academia, celebrity etc.) each with conflicting forces driving in diverse directions.
As I said in 2012, in the foreword of André Viljoen’s book “Sustainable Food Planning: Evolving Theory and Practice“, ‘Top down’ is anyway only ‘bottom up’ fed very imperfectly – thanks, largely, to commercial interference – through the political machine, which is why progress to date has been so painfully slow. (I sometimes liken it to a letter G – that gap on the right represents the problem. Bottom up feeds on the left up to top down, but on the right it meets the barrier and gap where the top down system fails to connect).
I prefer to think in terms of ‘centre out’ change, by which I refer to an energising of the expertise within every citizen (specially those who consider themselves to be ‘experts’ and have therefore accepted what they feel are appropriate responsibilities, and rewards, within society); be it food growing, entrepreneurship, social organising, communication, education, academic analysis, professional practice, political power, or any number of other offerings.”
(I recently encountered this more academic definition of ‘middle out‘ change, from Janda and Parang. It seems I’m not such a lonely pioneer after all!)
The delivery of a neosufficient society (with it’s ‘Urbal’ cities) will depend on a surge of centre out energy, which will change behaviours as the legal framework is changed. This is not likely to happen soon. While there are many who are already convinced by the arguments for urgency, we are still a tiny minority (in the Global North, anyway).
That said, most people, when approached at the right moment, will admit to disquiet at the current situation, along with, often, an acceptance that major change is probably inevitable – and even, when pressed, a willingness to play their part.
The real issue is one of time-scale – how long do we actually have to play with?
There are those who think it is already too late, and those who think we may have a century or so. The truth is that science cannot help much here. It is too opaque, too nuanced, and the probabilities are too complex to call.
The reality is that it’s going to take an escalating scale of catastrophes to change public opinion – some economic (the Euro, oil supply), some environmental (extreme weather, ecological collapses), some social (wars and worse). This is not going to be a conventional dogmatic revolution. It will be event-driven and reactive
But it’s not a simple matter of opinion for or against change. Most people actually hold a simultaneous belief in both the need for urgent change, and the necessity of carrying on as usual (this paradigm conflict is similar to the denial systems employed by smokers and adulterers). One may be in the ascendent when watching a documentary about polar ice, and the other when booking a skiing trip.
There is effectively a membrane between these belief systems. Whatever the genetic and/or behavioural technicalities we explored earlier, I choose to believe (see what I did there?) that it is wafer thin – but elastic, and the elasticity comes from the flexibility of social habits, systems, patterns and forces (laws, prices, ownerships, debts, etc.) which make it easier to continue with ‘business as usual’ than to revalue and change behaviours. (This is why we continue to hear that economic growth is the solution to the current financial/ecological crisis, when actually it’s the cause of the problem).
But gradually the zeitgeist will adapt – driven partly by events, but also by the arrival of attractive alternatives.
So the struggle to warn and advise must continue, but our main challenge today is to seek good ‘centre-out’ thinking, to find optimal ways to link the ideas, and to stress test them as robustly as possible – so that as the membranes rupture (and each person has his or her own break-point according to where they are in the scheme of things) we will, with luck, reach a point where bottom up and top down start to circulate properly, and we move – just in time – from Plan A (failed) to Plan B (sustained).
This pages is for other topics I think relevant. These are just some initial thoughts which I will develop over time.
Ecological and Visual Impact
At the moment, planners, and the professionals who advise them, focus on visual, economic and ecological impact (within the law) when deciding whether to approve a new development or not. We’ve talked about a new economic framework above, but we also need to redefine what we mean by ecology, and then (as James Copp says in the Urbal Fix) develop a new aesthetic which is compatible with both new approaches.
When stressing the importance of ecological design, we are not talking about re-wilding to some pre-industrial Natural History utopia. We are not even talking about conservation, or protecting the status quo. Ecological design in future will be dynamic (the term ‘steady state’ is an economic concept – the global ecology has always been in a state of flux, aka Evolution). It must include responding to rapid climate change and the effect this will have on species distribution. Major alterations to weather patterns are catastrophic (for some species – some other species always benefit) only when they happen too fast for the ecosystems to keep up – as is happening now. We’re already seeing extinctions on a massive scale, and rapid changes in the distribution of more mobile species, such as insects, birds and, crucially, pests and diseases. Given that many plants and animals are only able to survive and reproduce within very narrow temperature, daylight, frost, rainfall or other climate-related windows (and the whole system is co-dependent – so the loss of one species or niche may decimate an entire food chain or ecosystem), we’re going to have to monitor and skilfully manage the changes to maximise productive biodiversity. If we want humans and their supporting species to survive in significant numbers, then simply maintaining the ecological status quo is not going to be an option. We will need to accept the loss of some species, some deliberate rebalancing, and even perhaps some very careful use of genetic modification (instinctively anti though many of us are – and for good reason – it may prove to be the lesser of two evils in the short term).
In short, some fundamental beliefs and values around nature and beauty will have to change. Neat and smart, if that means high carbon, ecologically inflexible or non productive, will soon need to be perceived as ugly. Natural but unproductive will need to be ugly. Productive but biolimited will be ugly. Sustainable, even if scruffy, tatty or apparently foreign – must quickly become beautiful. (Ref The Urbal City) and this on Designers). Todmorden shows one way forward.
Buildings and Gardens
The simplest way to insulate our homes is to insulate ourselves. A government campaign to persuade people simply to wear a jumper indoors in winter (and to turn down the thermostat a few notches to compensate) would be a fantastic start.
But as we hear in The Urbal Fix the thermal performance of new buildings are not a major problem as long as they are built to ever-tighter sustainability criteria, and the current UK legislation is getting there.
The big challenge is how to improve the performance of the existing building stock – especially housing. (Good thoughts on how it can be done here). At the moment the investment/pay back equation simply does not work, specially in the rented sector where tenants pay the fuel bills, so the landlord has no incentive to invest – and the Green Deal was a disaster.
What’s needed is simple and generous grants. If all the money wasted trying to fix the banking crisis has been invested in small businesses tasked to improve the performance of our building stock, the cash would have stayed into the real economy instead of vanishing into the virtual one, and we’d have been able to reduce fuel consumption without anyone minding a jot.
Another great idea is to persuade energy companies be sell mean temperature rather than energy? Rather than flogging gas or oil to customers, British Gas, for example, would sell to householders – for the same price – a ‘guarantee of comfort.’ This would set a mean temperature at, say, around 48 degrees, (or perhaps more for the sick or elderly), all year round – with, where necessary, cooling in summer. The long term income this would generate would finance investment in retrofitted insulation and other energy-saving measures, because over time, as the housing (and other building stock) becomes more thermally efficient, consumption will dwindle until very little fuel is being used, and the company’s income would be mostly profit. This would keep more fossil fuel safely in the ground for longer.
The chief problem encountered by the energy companies who are already looking into this (as some apparently are) is that if customer payments are not affected by their energy use, they simply leave the heating on full blast with the windows open. So to make this work, houses will need to be fitted with remote energy monitoring and/or, to retain some cost-for-use element within the transaction – via damage taxes.
Another big issue that needs to be addressed – by whatever method – is the insulation of party cavity walls. Most people who have these are not aware of it (they were built for sound rather than heat insulation, and tend to occur in semis built in the 50s and 60s). Thermal bridging is a major problem, and party wall cavities tend to have air bricks below floor level and also above loft level, which bypasses all other insulation and creates a convection chimney that sucks heat from both houses and pours it into the sky.
Solid walls (and walls with cavities too narrow for filling) presents a major challenge. Interior retrofit must be carried out to exacting specifications or else it can make the situation worse – and there are potential problems with lack of training and performance monitoring. Also, interior insertion is highly disruptive and uses up what consumers believe is valuable space, so external insulation may be the way to go. It has the advantage that it can be fitted without disruption and – if the aesthetic issues can be successfully managed – could even become a home-improvement must-have show-off fashion. (Perhaps we need TV shows to make it so).
There is much criminally wasteful use of refrigeration, heat and light in urban areas. The omnistandard model will not address excessive office block lighting, excessive shop heating (temperatures set for the comfort of staff, not customers – who are wearing outdoor clothes anyway, open doorways with hot air curtains etc), unnecessary food chilling or unnecessary building illumination (especially Churches and public buildings), because it will apply to the purchase of electricity, not how it is used. These issues may need to be dealt with by legislation, possibly within the Council Tax system.
Gardens and corporate land will need to be drawn into the urbal land use system. Urbal rent-rates (see above) will address some issues, such as excessive paving and fencing, but other legislation may have to be considered.
A good example of holistically designed ‘eco-settlement’: Hockerton. (specially reed bed local sewage treatment)
Sustainable Urban Drainage aka SUDS
This essential initiative (which sees rain and ‘grey’ water collected and used locally, and/or allowed to soak into the ground rather than being channelled to sewers or running off to cause flooding) is to an extent being hijacked as a ‘sustainability tick-box’ planning exercise. Local authorities seem to be satisfied with a new development or re-development-scale exercise, where water is managed within the demesne of individual properties, without ever looking at the urbal picture.
To have any real value, SUDs needs to be managed at watershed scale. This may call for upland planting to reduce run-off, changes to agricultural land use, the creation of swales and planting in urban parks and green spaces, and changes to paving and garden design as well as local development site issues.
As such it is primarily a retrofit issue – and one perhaps as important as building insulation and thermal performance. Water management is also a key element in microclimate management and soil productivity, so this not just a utility planning issue, but a key element in general urbal thinking. And water supply and usage is, of course, the yin to SUDs’ yang.
Thinking in the sustainability field generally has it that we should maximise public transport, and minimise car use – while encouraging cycling and walking. Fair enough, but after a century of private vehicle freedom, and the travel patterns thus engendered, this may be easier said than done. There are also some major anomalies in the sustainable transport mantra. For example, the whole-life carbon footprint of a train journey is about the same as a similar distance by plane (Vale, see above). This is because of the massive groundworks and infrastructure required by in the former. Also, high flying planes do far more damage than low-flying ones; not only is jet fuel burned at altitude 1.3 times more polluting than CO2, but also propeller engines are much less polluting than jet engines.
So perhaps our objective needs to be twofold: First, we need to ration distance of travel to encourage people to live near their work (season tickets would anyway attract a high omnistandard penalty) and to think very carefully about days out and holidays, (the omnistandards system will also impact on fuel, vehicle and infrastructure costs). And second, we need to find new transportation systems with much smaller carbon footprints (and social damage) which still permit a high level of individual freedom. When we finally manage to secure sufficient genuinely renewable energy, then leg/electric-powered vehicles, and fully electric vehicles, will become much more viable. Generally speaking, the smaller and lighter the vehicle in proportion to its payload the better, so we are liable to have quite frail, slow cars in future (people can still have gas guzzlers, of course, but because of damage taxes they’ll cost £1,000 a mile to run). However, the technology already exists to create car-trains; GPS-guided pods (to minimise collisions) which can be connected up into a Flock for maximim fuel efficiency on long (motorway/train-style) journeys. This would be greatly preferable to conventional trains, busses and planes, and much more efficient than conventional cars.
One immediate step would be to make it impossible for anyone to hold a taxi or minicab licence for anything other than an electric car (in cities like Leeds, after 9pm 50% of the vehicles in town are private hire). Drivers may need two cabs – one to charge while the other is in use, but we’d see a rapid reduction in emissions – specially if they were also only allowed to use renewable electricity to charge up their cars. (Step two would ban all but electric cars fuelled by green juice from towns and cities).
Another idea would be gradually to introduce slower and slower speed limits, perhaps reducing trunk road speeds by 10 miles an hour per year to 40mph, to reduce emissions, and discourage unnecessary travel. This will not, however, be popular.