Posts Tagged ‘Sustainability’

Community, ecology, herbal tea… More lessons in life from Findhorn

Jun 27 2012

Why have I just spent all afternoon on my knees, weeding tiny tufts of couch grass from a flower bed? I’d never do this at home. The reasons why I’m weeding are complex, but they’re all because I’m at Findhorn.

You can’t easily sum up the Findhorn Foundation in a paragraph, but here goes. It’s a spiritual community, eco-village and education centre in a beautiful setting near the sea in North-east Scotland, founded 50 years ago, and it’s been a major source of inspiration and practical learning for me since 1990.

Findhorn people talk about work as love in action, and they walk their talk: this is one reason I’m weeding.  At the start of any Findhorn work shift, there’s an attunement: the work team join hands, connect with the purpose of the task, and ask to be guided to do it well.  This really helps me feel that my mundane, repetitive task is worthwhile, and I stick at it cheerfully.

Since the start, the people at Findhorn Foundation have worked in co-operation with the spirits of the land and the plants, which they call devas.  You may believe it or not – I do believe in devas, and I find a sense of delight and nourishment in the gardens at Findhorn which is not unique, but rare: I feel it on other land which has been tended lovingly and consciously, such as Hazel Hill Wood or Hilfield Friary in Dorset.

If you’re interested in sustainability, Findhorn is well worth a visit.  It’s the only place I know in the UK which deserves the name eco-village.  They generate much of their own electricity, they have a plant-based sewage system, free minibus services, a range of eco-houses, and they grow much of their own food.  Some of this is at Cullerne, where I was weeding a flower bed: here they aim to make the whole place beautiful, not functional.

The Findhorn Foundation started in the Sixties, and there’s a good number of ageing hippies living here.  In fact the age profile of the community is worryingly skewed over 50.  The good side of this is the way they are pioneering new ways to support people with severe ill health or infirmity.

An interesting feature of Findhorn’s Community Care programme is that it trains those needing support in how to receive it.  Strong personalities can get bossy and stroppy when they are infirm, and they need to learn new approaches, such as gratitude, asking for help, admitting they can’t cope.  And those giving support need new skills, like valuing what they do, and making sure they don’t burn out.

I am back here to recharge my batteries, meet old friends, and learn from this community.  All of this I can do in an afternoon of weeding, if it’s at Findhorn!

Capitalism at Risk: Joseph Bower. Even big business feels the need for change

May 25 2012

It takes four hours by bus and train from my home in Bridport to central London.  The first time I’ve gone to London just for an evening was to hear Joseph Bower speak about his book, and see the response.  It was worth it.

Professor Joseph Bower is a heavyweight at Harvard Business School, sits on big-Company boards and all the rest of it.  His new book, Capitalism at Risk, grows out of forum sessions with top business leaders, in the US and internationally: these were held in 2007-8, before the financial crash, which many of these leaders foresaw.

In his talk, Bower briefed us on the concerns of these top business leaders, and played us video clips.  Income inequalities, and a backlash, from populist movements and the middle classes, were a top concern.  As one leader put it, “Even in the slums, people have TV: everyone can see how each other lives.”

Bower showed some striking figures about the big increases in inequality in the past 20 – 30 years, especially in the US and UK.  At one point in discussion, he tried the old line that when the poor get a bit richer, their concerns disappear, but even he could not sustain this in the face of the inequality issue.  He had no convincing answer, but voiced hopes that big business would clean up its own act, perhaps under pressure from shareholders.  This is happening occasionally in the UK now, but apparently not in the US.

Other concerns for these business leaders included: failure of the rule of law, growth of radical movements, environmental degradation and global warming, failures of public services like health and education, and state capitalism.  As Bower said, China may now use a form of capitalism, but it plays by very different rules than Western capitalism, and he sees conflicts as likely.

A key part of Bower’s suggested response to many of these problems is concerted action by a widely-based coalition of businesses: thousands per country.  A model for this is CED, which involved over 10,000 UK businesses during World War II in plans to create employment when the armed forces came home.  He also cited Colombia, where business exerted leadership to pull the country out of drug-dominated anarchy.  Another part of Bower’s response was that many of these problems are a business opportunity if approached creatively.  The growth of mobile phone networks and their inventive uses in rural areas across the world is one example.

This talk was hosted by the Harvard Club of London, with plenty of Business School alumni.  The response from the audience was somewhat muted and bewildered: it felt like no one had answers to issues of this magnitude.  There was certainly no flicker of a coalition of business leaders about to emerge.

One ray of hope which I see is the recent pushbacks from shareholders on excessive pay at the top.  If charities, ethical funds, universities and other big institutional investors started to collaborate to use their influence and define some standards, it could be a powerful move. 

Your world is getting smaller

Mar 27 2012

Peak oil is more real and alarming than you want to think!

This 2009 book is by Jeff Rubin, who is apparently an independent authority on the oil industry.  He was Chief Economist at CIBC World Markets (a North American investment bank), who is consulted by oil producers, ie he’s not a greenie or militant.

Rubin is readable, clear and convincing.  He provides a lot of info I did not know before, to show why Peak Oil is here, and worse than most of us realise.  The biggest surprises for me were not about the lack of supply, but about the factors propelling continued growth in demand.

But let’s start with supply.  Rubin explains that oil producers, both sovereign states and organisations, have motives to overstate their reserves, as that boosts their prestige and bargaining power.  He broadly accepts the Hubbert Curve forecasts, and offers plenty of evidence to support them.  For example, he explains that in depleted oilfields, the output ratio of natural gas to oil rises, and this is now true in Saudi Arabia.  He is confident that global oil prices of well over $100 per barrel will be the norm.

Rubin says that over 90% of global oil consumption is for transport, and he is pessimistic about the scope for substitution.  As he points out, the conversion of corn into ethanol for motor fuel makes no ecomonic or energy sense once the subsidies are taken out.  He expects we will all be driving less, and using public transport.

He is horribly interesting when explaining what economists call the rebound effect.  This means that a big rise in oil prices typically leads to rises in efficiency of use, but these lower the real cost (of car or air travel, for example) which then actually stimulates consumption.

Whilst oil consumption per dollar of GDP in OECD countries has reduced impressively, Rubin gives some big and alarming reasons why the growth elsewhere in the world is growing rapidly:

  • Most oil producing countries are committed to providing unlimited cheap oil to their own population, meaning US$ 0.25 per gallon!
  • These low oil prices are also applied to electric power generation, desalination plants, petrochemicals and more, which further boosts demand growth in oil producers.
  • China and India, two huge and fast-growing economies, are heavily subsidising their domestic petrol prices at below world price levels to assist economic growth.

The disappointing part of Rubin’s book is about the consequences.  He’s convincing that rapid oil price rises are unavoidable, and he expects economies to become more localised as transport costs rise.  This suggests that many products where freight costs are significant are likely to be repatriated to developed economies from places like China.  Food costs will ratchet even higher than recently.  He comments that as global trade is squeezed, so too will immigration.  However, he makes no comment on the social and political implications of all this.

He spends about two pages on the impacts in the developing world: for example Kenya, where 14% of the population depend on income from air-freighted flower exports. As he says, this implies serious economic contraction for many developing countries which have depended on cheap oil.  He comments, ‘How all this will affect our culture is a topic for others to explore in depth’… Let’s hope those others speak out soon.

Facing the 2020s: a job for the elders? Creative simplicity or dismal austerity is a CHOICE!

Feb 24 2012

Most people I talk to, even the alert ones, are in denial or despair about the future.  I’ve been terrified, but I’m starting to feel hopeful.  Many of the threats could be blessings: all it needs is a rapid, radical, miraculous shift of attitude by most people…

The future I’m on about is the medium term: the 2020s and decades beyond.  Try to read this without denial or despair.  The challenges include: peak oil, climate change, crop failures, debt crises, economic contraction and lots more.  The potential blessing is a move to a more local, more sociable, less materialistic way of life.

A few months ago, I wrote a list of the crucial questions for the next twenty years: not only the challenges, but also responses to them which could maintain a fair quality of life.  Although many of these challenges are global, my questions focus on the UK, to keep the scope manageable.

In January 2012, I approached two of the leading UK organisations already exploring these issues, to ask what answers are currently available, what research they are planning, and how I could help.  It’s important that none of us feel useless or irrelevant in this situation.  I’m not an expert in global sustainability, but I do have some relevant local experience (see www.living-organically.org), and I have some funds in a charitable trust which could help pay for some of this work.

The response from both New Economics Foundation and the Transition Movement was rapid and positive, and in February I’ve had promising initial meetings at senior level with both organisations.

These meetings show that some useful data already exists, but there are major gaps.  For example, NEF tell me there are no good UK forecasts through the 2020s and 2030s for economic and social trends, especially taking account of commodity shortages (oil, precious metals, etc), and the global debt crises.

Based on these meetings, I am now exploring with NEF and Transition a joint research project, which may also involve other organisations or individuals.  The 3 phases of this are currently envisioned as:

  1. A UK forecast through the 2020s of the economic and other impacts of major global trends, including scenarios for the social pressures, eg unemployment, arising from them.
  2. Gathering relevant successful responses to these economic, environmental and social pressures, from the UK and elsewhere, including local Transition Towns.  Highlight issues where responses cannot be identified, and seek to create responses.
  3. Explore how the knowledge, skills and desire to use these responses could be encouraged in local communities around the UK, and among policy-makers.

If you’d like further progress reports, subscribe to this blog.  If you have relevant skills or funds which could help this project, please contact me.

The Hubbert Curve: why we all need to know about it

Jul 26 2011

Whatever your age and gender, the Hubbert Curve predicts huge changes which will have a big impact on your life, and everyone worldwide.

M. King Hubbert was an American petroleum geologist with Shell, who in the 1950s started to calculate global supply and demand.  His work has since been updated, and the current Hubbert Curve is shown below.  Just Google it to find out more: this is not some cranky astrologer talking, it’s a respected tool within the industry.

Take a few minutes to sit with this: the implications are so huge that it is easy to zone out and turn away.  I heard about this from a Canadian expert, Nicole Foss, who says that it’s impossible for alternative energy sources to make up this shortfall – her website is worth visiting: http://www.theautomaticearth.blogspot.com.

What we must be heading for is large reductions in global energy use, and huge rises in the cost of oil, and oil-derived products such as plastics, fertilisers and many more.  Demand for oil is pretty inelastic, ie there are no quick, easy substitutes, and the activities which consume it can’t readily be cut back, except marginally.  This means that as output declines, prices will be bid up very fast.

Predictions like this are not new, but now they are more authoritative, more imminent, and we have already had a foretaste: remember in 2008 when oil hit $145 a barrel?

The obvious question, what can we do about it, is painfully hard to answer.  The Transition Town movement was a well-conceived attempt to provide answers, but its uptake and impact so far I would say, sadly, has been quite low.  Governments have election cycles of a few years, so we can’t expect much from them until things become extreme.

Having pondered this over the past few months, I have a few starter suggestions – but this post is more a plea for others to join a conversation and offer their view, which may be much more deeply based than mine:

  • Tell people about the Hubbert Curve, ask them to consider its implications: I have been amazed how few of my contacts know about it.
  • Study precedents for handling severe economic and social change, and ways to disseminate this when things get severe.
  • Look at social structures which would enable households to share resources, such as transport, and food production.  Various small-scale structures already exist, but would need to be scaled up dramatically.
  • Research and imagine how, UK and worldwide, people can enjoy good quality of life amid large, ongoing drops in real income.
  • Explore models to help the many developing countries whose economies are now dependent on relatively cheap road and air transport.  Cuba offers one potential role-model, but they had the benefit of a strong central government.
  • Try a Google search on ‘social impact of peak oil’: I got over 5 million results.  One of the interesting ones, which came second of all in my search, was dated 1st October 2007, from http://www.theoildrum.com/.  This is a vast website, which can guide you through to an equally vast range of other websites and blogs.  This 2007 posting is useful in giving some specific forecasts of the economic and social impact of major declines in global oil production.  You will find plenty more good reading from your Google search.  If you want more facts and validation about peak oil and its implications, try http://www.oilcrisis.com/and http://www.peakoil.net/.

I look forward to other responses, including blogs and websites focussed on these issues.