Sunday, 19 October 2014

Do I have Ebola Virus or a Hangover?

I feel hot. my head aches, I'm sweating, my muscles and joints ache, my throat is sore, and I can't seem to move. Am I sick?

The planet is warmer than it used to be, has heavily polluted oceans and atmosphere, is experiencing sea-level rise and Arctic sea-ice decline, is losing forests and biodiversity, seems to be experiencing more extremes of weather (in impact, if nothing else). Is it sick?

There are good reasons why doctors accumulate evidence before proceeding to diagnosis, even while sometimes treating symptoms. Two things are important: context and range of symptoms.

Why context? Take the first example. If I've been working as a nurse in a hospital in Liberia and I exhibit the symptoms described, one potential diagnosis which requires evaluation is the Ebola virus. Which would be bad.

On the other hand, if I played rugby yesterday in heavy rain, in the scrum, drank ten pints of beer afterwards during a lively singalong in the clubhouse, then walked home, and haven't been anywhere near West Africa or anyone who has been there recently, I might well describe the same symptoms to my doctor, but the diagnosis is most likely to be that a) I'm hung over, b) I'm too old to play serious rugby in the scrum and should know better - how do I expect my body to react? and c) Even if you are too drunk to feel it, walking home in just a shirt in forty degrees may have stimulated a reaction.

It is not just important to look for the context, it is essential. To answer the question 'why' requires proper investigation.

Why range? If I describe just one of those symptoms, say a sore throat, with none of the others, there could be several explanations or diagnoses, but hundreds can be eliminated because the symptom is not tied to any others. A sore throat and a headache might suggest a head cold. Add a temperature and aching muscles, perhaps influenza. Even with a large range of symptoms, placed into a context, a likely explanation is reasonably easy to find.

So, to Climate and the internet. There are very good reasons why it is important to gather evidence for a range of global conditions before attempting a diagnosis. Isolating one element is not very helpful, and cannot provide enough information on which to make any secure conclusions. One way to check out the 'records' is to use the IPCC assessment summaries, since they provide a reduction to readable size of a huge amount of very diverse information.

But you will very often see people arguing about, for example, whether the global temperature record is reliable, or if it is showing that the world is warming, or if the physics of AGW is a reasonable explanation. The reason that many of these people try to focus a reader's attention on any one of the possible 'problems' with the world and attempt to cast doubt on it's validity is because anyone who looks at the big picture cannot possibly be fooled.

As soon as anyone with a reasonable degree of intelligence looks at the range of evidence- the symptoms of the health of the world's natural and human systems - it becomes clear that there are a lot of bad signs in all sorts of places, that there are long-term persistent trends in many diverse measurements (the distribution of beetles, the volume of Arctic sea ice, global ocean temperatures, etc etc) -in other words, that the World is sick.

So it is extremely rare to see any genuine 'climate sceptic' looking at all the evidence. Or any of the evidence. Most often, what you will see is a recycled meme picked up second hand and spouted without thought as demonstration (as often as not) of a person's political or metaphysical world-view (okay, I'm being generous here).

So here is a suggestion. When you read a comment stream or argument on the web, ask yourself - is there more than one 'symptom' at question, or a 'single issue' focus? If someone is insisting on dealing with a specific 'fact' (often, these are actually false anyway), ask yourself (or them) whether they are seeing the big picture.

It's not about whether this year is warmer than last year in Alaska, or whether there is more or less ice than the long-term average this year in the Arctic, or whether any one scientist or another is correct. It is, and you know it is, much, much bigger than this.

Monday, 6 October 2014

Emergent Properties of World Views

One of the strange things about politics is that a large proportion of the voting populus seem to make voting decisions based on intuition and 'broad understanding', which is like ignorance, but with a better accent. 

This doesn't make voters dumb - just (frequently) indifferent. Part of the reason for this, I believe, is that people learn fairly early on where their 'interests' lie, and where their own world view coincides with the range on offer in their local political spectrum and, having established whether they are more or less liberal or society-oriented, conservative or libertarian, in their morals, standards, ethics and norms, they then stick with their decisions and go for what works for them. On the assumption that the real differences between political ideologies play out in action terms as smallish differences, we tend to get lazy and, eventually, fixed in our ways.

Having an interest in being a bit more rational than this, relying on intuition to guide my choice of representative, I thought it would be worth laying down a few 'policy guidelines' and working out where my actual knowledge and understanding take me in terms of who to support. So, today's post lays out a couple of thoughts about each of a number of issues, then reaches a conclusion about what this implies about 'my' politics.

Energy: pro-renewables, anti-fossil, dubious about nukes and scathing about  fracking.

Climate change: mitigation and adaptation are real and present necessities for future well-being.

Wealth: Each of us should be able to enjoy the benefits of our labours and sustain ourselves and families on a living wage. Taxation should be proportional to earnings. Corporate welfare (profit) should be subservient to general welfare (health, well-being, pollution, etc.). 

Animals & Nature: The general principle is that all of Nature needs protection from exploitation, abuse or harm and that utilitarian measures of least harm should guide actions.

Health: universal healthcare for all, as much as possible free at point of need.

Transport: for local transport, support best local low-carbon solutions, personal or public systems, seek improved solutions for trade/goods transport & logistics.

Other matters:

Personal liberty: each individual retains all rights over their own body and how they choose to use it. Freedom of religion where it does not conflict with the above. Freedom of expression where it does not do harm to the above. Freedom to conduct trade where it does not harm the above or Nature. The right to own property (but land??)

Personal responsibility: inherent in each right of liberty is the responsibility to support or permit the rights and liberties of others and the duty to protect such liberties on the behalf of others as well as oneself.

Looking at these 'principles of a decent society', and then comparing them with the avowed policies and practices of various political parties, I found that the Party which came nearest to sharing my world-view in the UK was - the Green Party. This surprised me, since I am not a vegetarian or vegan, don't fight for animal rights, and though I try to live sustainably, I don't live 'morally'. Till I realised that my assumptions about Greens were based on my own, lazy habits of thinking. I used to be a liberal, have never been a conservative, don't like libertarians at all, and am dubious about socialism, less because of its intentions than its history.

So, by chance, I have discovered that I am, after all, in my tweed and Barbour, public school education, ethical and concerned 'gentle' liberalism, a closet hippie*. Which, on reflection, is fine by me.

The point here being, by actually comparing the values espoused by political groups rather than assuming their prejudices from habit, I have learned something useful about myself and the world. Next time, I'll be voting Green.
*note: spelling changed out of respect :)

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Virtuous Circles – a trillion dollar business opportunity that might help save Society

I was quite surprised the other day when an American friend, who is quite active on climate and environment issues, responded to my references to the Circular Economy with 'what's that?'

Since a good proportion of this blog's readers (by the analytics) come from the USA, and since it is anyway a growing, rather than a well-understood concept/practice, I thought a quick introduction might be helpful.

Because the idea is, to my eyes, an important one. As Walter Stahel, the person accredited with first defining 'cradle-to-cradle' industrial process models describes it, this is a paradigm shift in the way we not only do business, but also in the way we understand our relationship with the world as an economically active society.

The basic ideas behind it are summarised on wikipedia, here. The idea is that products and services are designed from the outset to cycle back into their own production processes, creating a system which replicates Nature, by turning what was once called 'waste' into 'reusable material'. It is a long way, almost the opposite to, the idea of a Consumption Economy, which takes resources, makes products (with built in redundancy), then dumps the cast-off.

Not only is a Circular economy (and businesses operating on circular economy principles) hugely better for the planet (since finite resources are used much more efficiently, vastly reducing the dependence on new resource exploitation), but it is also potentially hugely profitable, to the tune of perhap a trillion dollars added to the value of the Global Economy. This alone makes it worth exploring more deeply.

One of the current champions and leaders in the field is a foundation with an implausible central figure, the gamine, 5'2" heroine of global sailing, Dame Ellen Macarthur. There is a nice article on her and her work on euronews, here.

In 2010, this extraordinary person, having conquered the World's oceans and broken numerous records along the way, and having become the youngest Dame in modern history and a Companion of the Legion d'Honneur, put competitive sailing to one side and launched the Ellen Macarthur Foundation (here), designed to promote a Circular economy.

So, some basic resources for you, if your interest is piqued:

 This provides a summary of the main ideas and links to other material. is a core set of reports, compiled with McKinsey, giving detailed information and a considerable amount of inspiration - all three reports are free to download. is one example of a media outlet, The Guardian (UK), both supporting and informing on various initiatives and actions around the World.

The underlying principles are powerful enough that the EU, by 2012, announced that it would be looking at using these concepts to inform future policy decisions. Perhaps it is time in the USA for similar initiative and corporate engagement.

Why this, here, now? Because we are fairly clear that Business as Usual is a really, really, bad idea, for Nature, the environment, poor people, climate change, social order and the future of human society - and this is more than an idea, it is a considered and sophisticated new operating model for a sustainable and healthier society, which might help us turn the corner from what looks like an impending crisis, with real world examples, case histories, financial analysis and substantial corporate engagement.

Hopefully, this will have given you some reason to hope - yes, I think we do need an international agreement to mitigate CO2 emissions, but I also think that our resourcefulness and initiative will move us, step by step, towards the goal of a better kind of world, on the way.