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Prosperity without Growth?


Thanks to Gary Friedman for leading me to the above web page with photographs of thousands of the world’s unsold cars. Every time I walk through a car-saturated city somewhere in the world (increasingly, these cities are in Asia), I wonder when this mad and mindless proliferation will stop. Having personally experienced  the dramatic improvement in quality-of-life since selling the family car a few years ago, it is definitely time for a planetary re-think. Of course a change like this is much easier when one lives in a city with good infrastructure, affordable public transportation, pedestrian-friendly built up areas, and safe bicycle paths that are separated from both pedestrians and cars.

Overproduction of cars is only the most visible and resource-consuming chunk of the overproduction of stuff in general. Which brings me to Tim Jackson’s influential book, Prosperity without Growth. In an age of quick soundbites, his message requires at least a few hours of thought to consider and digest. However, as a guest speaker in wide demand on platforms across the world, he has condensed the content of his book into 30 minutes divided in three roughly 10-minute chunks. The first part deals with the dilemma of growth; the second with exploring the economic and social systems that compound this dilemma. The third deals with avenues for change that lead to a different kind of prosperity. In the video below, hear Tim Jackson speak at a lecture in Australia in 2010.


For those in too much of a hurry to listen to the full 35 minutes of Tim Jackson’s talk, here are some of the most important questions, thoughts and ideas that came from the talk.

How can our economy continually expand on a finite planet? The answer is deeply philosophical and deals with who we are as humanity.

More than climate change, it is biodiversity loss that is furthest beyond planetary boundaries of sustainability.

To bring the poorest nations out of poverty under current patterns of growth, you need an economy that is 200 times bigger than at present, therefore growth is unsustainable.

Income growth matters in the poorest nations. As incomes increase, that distinction weakens. Beyond a certain threshold, income growth in rich countries does not lead to better quality of life.

Constant increases in labor productivity drives people out of work unless the economy keeps expanding. Constant growth is unsustainable. The answer is to de-couple the world economy and growth, but de-growth is unstable. In a world of 9 billion people, all aspiring to western levels of income, carbon intensity needs to be reduced from 770 grams per dollar to less than 6.

The consumption of novelty is the driving force behind the increased consumption of stuff.  Why do we consume much more than we need? In the words of anthropologist Mary Douglas we, as human beings, are helping to create the social world and find a credible place in it.

Consumer debt was encouraged. It led us to spend money we don’t have on things we don’t need to create impressions that don’t last on people we don’t care about; or worse still, who don’t care about us. So what was all that about?

Coming to face with planetary limits says to us that our prosperity hangs with the prosperity of those around us, as theirs does on us. Investment is a fundamental economic relationship between the present and the future.

An unrelated video entitled “Africa is Poor and 5 other Myths,” provides some pointers to avenues for change that lead to a different kind of prosperity.


Adam and Eve: the better version

Thanks to Erich Striessnig for drawing my attention to this story with a Facebook posting. According to the Old Testament version of the story, God created the earth, the waters, animals, birds and everything else in it, in the first 5 days of creation. And on the 6th day, he created man and woman, Adam and Eve. They were left to live in innocent delight in the garden of Eden. They could eat and drink all they wanted. The birds and the beasts of the earth, as well as the fruit of every tree were at their disposal. Except of course, the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. The well known story goes on to narrate that the evil serpent first approaches the “gullible” or “more easily corruptible” woman (words in quotes are my own interpretations of what the Old Testament text implies) and tempts her to eat the apple. Adam joins in the feast out of a sense of solidarity. The scales of innocence drop from their eyes. Adam and Eve realise they are naked and cover their bodies with aprons sewn of fig leaves. God finds out. God, of course, is angry. In the book of Genesis in the Old Testament, Adam comes across as a snitch and weak character. He immediately blames the woman, “the woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat.” Whereupon, God turns to the woman and asks, “what is this that THOU hast done?” Thereby laying the blame for mankind’s ills squarely in the lap of womanhood for all time.

Historians of the Bible were always convinced that the story of Adam and Eve was based on other, older legends about creation. However, until recently, there was apparently no written or historical evidence to prove it. The so-called Ugaritic clay tablets were found in Syria in 1929 and partially translated in the 1970s. Ugaritic is a northwestern Semitic language and the clay tablets were discovered by French archaeologists in Ugarit (modern day Ras Samara, Syria) in 1929. American scholar Cyrus Gordon Herzl calls Ugaritic “the greatest literary discovery from antiquity since the deciphering of the Egyptian hieroglyphs and Mesopotamian cuneiform”. In their recently published book: Adam, Eve and the Devil, two scholars from the Protestant Theological University of Amsterdam have re-interpreted the texts in their Biblical context. These cuneiform writings are around 800 years older than the Biblical texts (i.e. from 400 BC).

In the Ugaritic version, Adam is portrayed as a (good) God who has to fight against an evil one. This evil God disguises himself as a serpent and poisons the tree of life, thereby depriving the first couple of immortality when they eat its fruit. The Sun Goddess consoles Adam and the good woman by his side (Eve). They will nevertheless achieve a kind of eternal life through natural reproduction.  This older version of the story seems much more logical and sensible to me and, importantly, does not make one half of humanity less worthy than their male counterparts. This small shift in perception will, I’m convinced, go a long way to curing many of the ills in the world today, two millenia after these stories were written.

Adam, Eve and the Devil: a new beginning (Hebrew Bible Monographs)
Marjo C.a. Korpel, Johannes C. de Moor
Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2014, 346 pages

Literary Oasis: Shakespeare and Company, Vienna

“Let yourself be found by a book” is the slogan that captures the spirit of this bookstore in the heart of old Vienna. The Ruprechts Viertel, or quarter, dates back to a venerable several decades BC (if not earlier) and is the oldest part of Vienna. Located just a short stroll away from a crowded St. Stephen’s Cathedral Square, the spiritual and geographic heart of Vienna, on a quiet side street, this is the quintessential booklovers’ store. Run by bibliophiles for bibliophiles, the shelves house an eclectic collection, books densely packed from floor to high ceiling. If you don’t find what you’re looking for, ask one of the knowledgeable owners who take turns minding the store; chances are they have it in stock and will quickly find it for you.

This is a store that keeps literary traditions alive in several ways, regularly hosting book readings by itinerant authors, celebrating 14 June (Bloomsday) with a vegetarian breakfast that Leopold Bloom would approve of. In James Joyce’s Ulysses, Leopold Bloom sees someone “chump chop from the grill. Bolting to get it over,” and decides to go meatless. Many years ago I was one of a crowd in the packed bookstore when Anthony Burgess roared in, trailed by the British Ambassador, and plunged into a vigorous reading of passages from “A Clockwork Orange,” and “Earthly Powers” before signing copies of his books and roaring out again, leaving behind an empty stillness, as though he had taken all the air out of the room with him. On another occasion, Carl Djerassi, a chemist and co-inventor of the birth control pill, who later became an author and playwright read excepts from his science-in-fiction in the store.

The most recent reading on the premises was the author of (ahem) “The Ironwood Poacher and Other Stories.” If you find yourself in old Vienna with some time on your hands, my advice to you would be, wander past the Synagogue on Seitenstettengasse, in the heart of the Bermuda Triangle (so-called because the area is packed with eateries and drinkeries where you can lose yourself) to this sign on Sterngasse 2 and let yourself be found by a book. P1000336

Shakespeare and Company, Sterngasse 2, 1010 Vienna, booksellers@shakespeare.co.at, tel. +43 1 535 5053, http://www.shakespeare.co.at/


Three Cheers for Perovskites

Perovskites are a class of crystalline mineral compounds found in several places on earth. They have recently been experimented with for possible use as a base material for solar cells and have rapidly attained efficiencies of upto 15%, comparable to conventional silicon based cells. The attraction of perovskites is that solar cells based on them are much cheaper to manufacture, and can be produced using simple evaporation techniques. Experimentation with this class of materials began only in 2008 and cell efficiency has jumped from 3 to 16%  in just 6 years. It took decades for silicon based cells to make comparable gains and despite the years of experience, are still expensive to manufacture. Many research groups around the world look on perovskites as the “next big thing” in photovoltaic technology, with theoretical efficiency gains of 30 and 40% possible using techniques used to produce multi-junction silicon based cells, but at much lower cost.

Fuel from Seawater: a conversation with my grandfather

My grandfather died in 1962 at the age of 76, so the heading is merely a hook to underline the passage of time and relativate (verb?) the content of  this posting. If the idea of making fuel from seawater seems preposterous, try to picture the news as seen through my grandfather’s eyes. I was fortunate to go on many long walks with him before he died. I was in my early teens then, and he was in his seventies. My grandfather was a retired  physician, a surgeon. He was born in 1888, as a subject of Queen Victoria, and at the time of his death, India had become an independent republic. He studied at the Madras Medical College, an institution that the then governor of the East India Company, named Yale, was instrumental in developing in the late 1600s. Thirty years later around 1720, Elihu Yale was the benefactor of another college on another continent, also a British colony at the time. Yale College and University were subsequently named after him. My grandfather proudly told me that one of his mentors at Madras Medical was Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy, who was among the first women graduates of medicine in the world, and certainly the first Indian woman to do so, at a time when women were not allowed to join medical colleges in Britain.

As a freshly qualified young surgeon in the early 1900s my grandfather was 24 years old when the world’s first radio distress signals at sea began to come from the Titanic in April 1912. During his lifetime, he experienced the birth of wireless radio transmission, saw the first motion pictures, watched telephones become a part of everyday life, began to use antibiotics to ward off post-operative infections, and flew in Mr. de Havilland’s new-fangled Comet jetliner. So what would he have made of the news that the US Navy will power ships with fuel made after extracting carbon dioxide from seawater or that a University-based research group has perfected a solar cell that produces electricity from sunlight with conversion efficiencies of upto 43%? As a comparison, the solar cells that are commonly seen on rooftop arrays today have efficiencies ranging from 10 to 18%. I believe he might have been surprised, but would have quickly taken the news in his stride. After the monumental changes witnessed in his lifetime, the two developments above might seem to be fairly insignificant. But these technologies are potential game changers. Here’s why.

With efficiencies of over 40%, utility scale solar farms become feasible and cost effective, producing electricity at prices below that of conventional power plants. To make fuel from seawater, carbon dioxide and hydrogen are first extracted from it using a catalytic converter. This mixture is then converted by polymerisation to longer chain hydrocarbons which are the building blocks for a range of fuels of different grades for ships, cars and aircraft. The entire process is carbon neutral because the carbon used for combustion is extracted from the environment. Too good to be true? At the moment, yes. The process is roughly at the stage where the Wright brothers’ heavier-than-air flying machine was in the early 1900s.

In the link below, it states that we are 60% towards cost-effective utility scale solar power. Cells with almost three-fold efficiency gains will produce electricity at lower cost than conventional plants today.

Clean and green vs. might and blight Many acquaintances who are not averse to renewables but are still captive to the current energy paradigm, remark that wind and solar farms take up too much space and that too many windmills or panels are a blot on the landscape. But so are open cast mines, oil wells, fracking sites and many of the other wonderful extractive technologies that power much of the world today. Just because they are tucked away in remote places does not make them any less environmentally destructive. The images below speak for themselves.Unknown DSCN0679 images-1 Unknown-1Which brings me back to my grandfather. World population doubled in his lifetime, but there were still large chunks of virgin territory around the globe. Today there are 7.2 billion of us around and it behooves us to tread lightly on this planet and conserve what we can of its considerable beauty. We owe it to our children and grandchildren, if not to ourselves.