Home » 2019
Yearly Archives: 2019
Here’s a story for the dwindling number (I hope) of climate change skeptics who still look forward to business-as-usual, or more-of-the-same as a blueprint for the rest of the 21st century. A HuffPost report in November reveals that, way back in 1956, the coal industry accepted the reality of global warming and did not feel threatened by it (the problem lay one generation in the future!). The same is true for the oil industry, according to a spate of lawsuits brought against it by various groups and several US States. In December 2019, Exxon won a major climate change lawsuit brought against it by the state of New York, but there are many more on the way.
The remarkable thing here is that the science of impending climate change was uncontested as long as the threat to the profits of fossil fuel corporations lay decades in the future. Here is the paradox at the heart of the debate about climate change. In the early days of global climate modelling, in the 1970s, the models were relatively unrefined and scientists themselves did not stake strong positions based on the results of their own models. Additionally, the majority of scientists subscribed to the myth that science has to be neutral in order to serve as an impartial referee that floated above the discussion, distributing facts where necessary. In reality, the discussions on the ground were becoming messy. The science began to be disputed as the soon as the deadline for meaningful action neared. Powerful polluters, mining companies, oil corporations, muddied the waters (both literally and intellectually) with arguments that played on statistical uncertainty to kick the decision a few decades down the road.
Meanwhile scientists sat back and redoubled their efforts, striving for ever greater accuracy in their models. They reasoned, logically, that once their results achieved greater accuracy, people would come round to their point of view. But that is not the way the world works. It has little place for logic and reason. So they toiled on, with ever more dense reports of double- and triple-checked facts and innumerable citations. Meanwhile the world went on guzzling gas and emitting CO2, methane, and worse. This is the point when the world drowns in despair or A MESSIAH APPEARS. Lo and behold! We have our unlikely messiah. Hundreds of thousands of school children, young people. Their face is that of Greta Thunberg whose single-minded focus has made her the global symbol of the movement.
If we look at simple facts, solutions to the problem are much more doable than we think. Elon Musk is mocked for saying that 10,000 sq. miles of the Nevada desert covered in solar panels could produce all the energy requirements of the United States. He’s right of course, but this is only intended as an example of scale. It wouldn’t be safe or desirable to have the entire nation’s energy needs produced at a single source. The following is a better example. An engineer acquaintance, Klaus Turek, calculates that in the case of a temperate country like Austria, just 0.391% of its surface covered with solar panels is sufficient to meet its electricity requirements. That works out to about 328 sq. km. for the whole country. The area covered by buildings is 2.4%, however (2,013 sq km approximately). Therefore, just 16% of the currently available roof space would be sufficient to cover all of Austria’s current electricity needs, with plenty left over for expansion.
Fake news is alive and flourishing in all parts of the world, including in India, where WhatsApp and Facebook (among others) are helping to spread misinformation (inaccuracies) and disinformation (intentional inaccuracies) about events around the world. The above headline about Gandhi’s death apparently appeared in a school textbook in Gujarat, and probably represents ongoing attempts by rightwing Hindu zealots to rewrite history to the party’s liking.
Biology teaches us that life forms flourish when they exist in robust interplay. An increase in biodiversity in an ecosystem results in increased productivity in the system, increased resilience against natural disasters and increased stability overall. In our tech-driven century, the opposite is happening in the financial and business world. Commerce and economic activity are being increasingly dominated by a handful of powerful corporations: Google, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook, Walmart, Tencent, Alibaba, and so on. The pattern is replicated within countries as well. In every case, in every country, Ambani, Adani, Li Ka-shing, Bezos, Zuckerberg, Ma… whatever their names, each and every one will use every means at their disposal to protect their wealth; economic biodiversity and planetary health be damned. It is truly easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle…
It is time for us, planetary citizens and voters, to stiffen the spines of our politicians so that they can take steps to curtail the planet-destroying power of the Putins and Murdochs of this world. It won’t be easy, but the survival of the planet is at stake. Unlikely beacons of hope at this juncture are the protests of thousands of school children around the world led by a Swedish sixteen year-old girl with Asperger’s. Theirs is an example for every one of us to follow, in every way we possibly can. The next few years will decide whether we can salvage our planetary heritage for coming generations.
I’m currently reading a book by Kate Raworth called “Doughnut Economics.” In it, the author pleads for a rethink of the traditional growth model of an ever-expanding economy to one of equitable development, keeping planetary boundaries in mind, and ensuring redistribution of resources so that the most disadvantaged in society are also looked after.
In the traditional testosterone model (my own term) of economic growth, the rich prosper while the rest of the population benefit from the trickle-down effect of an expanding economy. Trickle down is a euphemism for the rich pissing down on the rest, thus validating the term piss-poor long after the expression came into use. I have examined the disastrous effects of testosterone based decision-making in two earlier blog posts: in 2015 (Golden Skirts vs. Testosterone in the Financial World), and in 2018 (Leadership Hope for a Warming World). Another reflective piece, published on this website in 2018, is related to the topic of the current post (Three Score Years and Ten: Planetary Health and your Lifetime).
It’s clear now to all but the most self-absorbed amongst us that we’re already consuming much more than the planet can sustainably provide. If Mother Nature and the earth’s resources were assumed to be a bank account, then we’re no longer living off the interest alone but are drawing down its capital. Since 1971, the Global Footprint Network has calculated Earth Overshoot Day for each year. In the website’s own words:
The Global Footprint Network calculates the number of days of the year that Earth’s bio-capacity suffices to provide for humanity’s ecological footprint. The remainder of the year corresponds to global consumption of Nature’s capital. Earth Overshoot Day is computed by dividing the planet’s bio-capacity (the amount of ecological resources Earth is able to generate that year), by humanity’s ecological footprint (humanity’s demand for that year), and multiplying by 365, the number of days in a year:
(Planet’s Biocapacity / Humanity’s Ecological Footprint) x 365 = Earth Overshoot Day. (EOD)
In 2018, Earth Overshoot Day was calculated to have happened on 1 August. In 2004, the overshoot fell on 1 September! By this calculation, the last time mankind was truly sustainable was in 1969 or 1970 when overshoot day fell in a subsequent year!
Since this planetary over-consumption was first computed in 1971, we have been steadily increasing our ecological debt, and the interest we’re paying on that mounting debt is measured in food shortages, soil erosion, rising temperatures, increasing atmospheric CO2 concentration, biodiversity loss and much, much more. The problem is huge and solutions seem daunting and unreachable to us as individuals. Before we sink into despair, Kate Raworth tells us that there’s plenty we can do as societies to reverse this state of affairs and restore the planet to health. Doughnut Economics, the term she has coined, outlines the solutions that society needs. In the diagram above, the light green space denotes the resources mankind can safely take from the earth while restoring it to health. The dark green lines are the planetary boundaries that have to be respected if we wish to do this. The blue segments are the labels of the various sectors that have to be addressed. The book outlines broad prescriptions to deal with the problems of each of these sectors. In reading through this and other books written in a similar vein, we see that the answer to climate change lies in social change, not in new technologies. Technology alone is useless without the human will to adopt them and to adapt.
So here is the answer to the initial despairing question. What can we do as individuals? There’s plenty one can do. The EOD website lists hundreds of steps individuals can take to mitigate planetary health. Therein lies our power as individuals. Out of many, one.
Doughnut Economics: Kate Raworth, Random House Business 2018, 384 pp.,
When I was a small child, wealth meant the ability to buy different kinds of imported food. There were no cold stores then, only a single ice factory in town, so exotic food meant things like tinned preserves, Danish ham, Australian Cheddar, canned sardines and chocolates. These delicacies usually came as gifts from visitors and were saved for special occasions, treasured long after the guests had left.
As I grew older, found a job and struggled to become economically self-sufficient, wealth meant money in the bank. Money was saved to finance the luxury of travel, buy a car, savor the security of owning an apartment (or even that impossible dream, owning a house with a garden), to provide a cushion against unexpected job loss. All these hurdles were crossed and there was a steady job with enough money in the bank to survive for a year. Yet the insecurity remained.
Then came the unexpected day when confronted with the deep contentment of someone who had nothing but a small suitcase of possessions, the clothes on his back and confidence in his life skills. Using this person as an inspiration, I gave all my possessions away, keeping only a (t)rusty old car and a part-time job. The nagging insecurity vanished, leaving behind a surge of confidence that the universe would provide; that the intangibles of life were more important than possessions or money in the bank. Where did this faith come from? I don’t know. It was a deep, gut feeling that I trusted. For many people faith comes from religious belief, but in my case I had no strong adherence to any religion although I respected the universal truths of all religions.
Security is such an elusive thing. Ultimately it can be defined as a state of mind. But although this definition is largely true, it does break down at times. Try telling refugees fleeing from bullets and bombs that security is a mental attitude. “Whose mental attitude? Not ours,” they’d say. I believe that Gandhi’s appeal to the World War II allies to counter Hitler with non-violent resistance was ill-advised and would not have succeeded. Civil disobedience worked with the British Empire because, despite rampant colonial hypocrisy, they ultimately respected their own rule of law. Today we see this respect for the rule of law and human rights breaking down in many countries around the world.
Every age has its own definitions of wealth. In Biblical Old Testament times, wealth was measured in nomadic terms; cattle, goats, large families and many servants. This was traditionally also true among the Maasai, the Baktiari, and most other nomadic tribes. The Book of Proverbs defines wealth thus: the rich rule over the poor and the borrower is servant to the lender; i.e. neither a borrower nor a lender be. Modern day banking practices seem to have upended this rule and if you’re a big enough borrower, you might end up owning the bank.
Today, in the face of unprecedented anthropogenic climate change, true wealth needs to be redefined as the health of the planet. This basic fact is easy for billionaires and the world’s rich corporations to overlook. They think in terms of quarterly returns to shareholders, GNP, or other artificial indicators and forget that all wealth ultimately depends on two measures of health; planetary and personal. The planet is sending us enough warning signs. It’s time for all of us to stop counting money as a measure of success and concentrate on living healthy lives while improving the health of the planet.∞
Hans Christian Andersen said it best more than one hundred and fifty years ago. Children have the capacity to speak truth to power when sages are silenced for daring to state the obvious in a climate of denial. Scientific studies have shown, with ever-increasing certainly, for more than four decades now, that human action is changing the planet in alarming ways. What was at first a trickle of change has turned into a flood. Despite years of unseasonal floods, droughts, ice melts, desertification and habitat loss, it is only now, when children take to the streets in protest, that there is any real hope of progress.
And this childrens’ movement has an unlikely heroine; sixteen year-old Greta Thunberg, who didn’t mince words while addressing self-important bodies like the UN COP24 conference or to EU leaders. “You lied to us. You gave us false hope. You told us the future was something to look forward to. Those who will be affected the hardest are already suffering the consequences, but their voices are not heard. Is my microphone on? Can you hear me?” Her words shamed members of the UK Parliament who took the unprecedented step of declaring the climate crisis an emergency.
At the COP24 conference in Poland, she told the assembled delegates: “You only talk about moving forward with the same bad ideas that got us into this mess, even when the only sensible thing to do is to pull the emergency brake. You are not mature enough to tell it like it is. Even that burden you leave to us children. But I don’t care about being popular. I care about climate justice and the living planet.”
Greta Thunberg’s words and actions are a reminder of the eternal truth of a tale by Danish author Hans Christian Andersen. In his tale, the Emperor’s New Clothes, everyone pretends to see and admire the marvellous garments that are supposedly visible to everyone but the foolish. Until one child cries out, “But the Emperor has no clothes!” At that moment everyone sees the truth and repeats the child’s words. In our real-life parable, Greta Thunberg is the unnamed child in Andersen’s story, and the Emperor stands for the corporations and big businesses that stand to lose their profits if climate change is accepted as an issue that is vital to humanity’s future.
A quick internet search reveals that the name ZOE means “life” in Greek and is usually a girl’s name, although it can be used for boys as well. A website called “Behind the Name” tells us that the name ZOE was adopted by Hellenized Jews as a translation of EVE. Two early Christian saints of this name were martyred under Hadrian and Diocletian. A few weeks ago I bought the Zoe pictured below. This Zoe has nothing to with saints or martyrdom but it could be one of a tribe that will help a gasping planet to breathe a little easier.
When one lives in a city with well-designed public transport there is little need for a private car, but after hearing a few acquaintances talk about range anxiety and the impracticality of electric cars, I decided to buy one and rent it out on a daily basis. This is intended as a small step to allay common fears and misconceptions about electro mobility. Some of these misconceptions are due to society’s resistance to change; others are spread by petrol heads, addicted to imported oil and oblivious to environmental costs and the thousands of kilometers conventional fuel has to travel before it enters the tank. Contrast this with electricity that is generated much closer to home (or even at home with your own solar panels!), and potentially available at every city street corner. Then there are the car companies with their armies of highly qualified technicians and engineers whose skills will suddenly become obsolete. Instead of powertrains and cooling systems, they suddenly need software engineers to tweak more power out of lithium ion batteries, or optimise charging speeds at various levels of charge, or find ways to enhance the power density of the cells they use. For example currently, the batteries of the BMW i3 carry a charge of 170 Wh/kg compared to the 250 Wh/kg of a Tesla. That’s a 32% advantage in battery weight alone, which translates into range, efficiency and price. And a company like Tesla makes improvements all the time, continuously upgrading even its older cars with over the air software updates. So conventional car companies have a vested interest in maintaining the manufacturing status quo and will produce more affordable electric cars only when more customers demand them.
The Zoe pictured above has a maximum range of 150 km, which translates to somewhere around 120 km in the real world, depending on driving speeds, terrain and temperature. In my fossil-fuelled car-owning days, I usually drove around 50 km a day during the week. On weekends, a jaunt to the surrounding countryside might mean a trip of 200 kilometers. The big surprise driving the Zoe in 2019 was to find that a good network of charging stations already exists around the country and in most countries in Western Europe. The big problem is they are not well marked, even on highways. The various charging points are not necessarily shown on a common app. These are all deficiencies that have to be overcome in the coming months, and I will try and talk to companies about these points. But the bottom line is, if one is willing to do some homework before a journey and map out a choice of charging points along the way, one can cover most of Western Europe emission free. Of course, I hear someone say, but ah, what about the emissions caused by the production of electricity. Good point. All the more reason for Europe to phase out its remaining coal-fired and natural gas power plants and switch to PV, wind and hydro.
Oh, but wind and PV are intermittent! You’ll still need fossil fuelled power to provide a stable base load of energy. This used to be a valid argument, but no longer. Efficient software, smart meters and battery backup can do the job at much lower rates. Additionally, countries like Norway, Spain and Austria are geographically favoured and have enough sites where pumped hydro can do the job at competitive rates. While writing this article I came across an interesting site listing existing pumped hydro storage (PHS) and future potential for six countries (Austria, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Ireland and Spain).
The above work shows that conditions in various EU countries differ widely due to varying geography, political will and regulatory systems. There are many choices we can make as individuals to lower our carbon footprint. The quickest three steps may be to lower thermostats in winter, switch to a plant-based diet and either walk or use a bicycle for errands within a 5 kilometer radius of the home. If we must drive, then an electric car is not only better for the planet, it costs less to run and maintain in the long-run. The good news is that by now there are used electric car models available for the price of a small used car like the Volkswagen Polo. If you’d like to rent the Zoe pictured above for a day, a week or more, look for it on the car-sharing website at drivy.at and take it out for a spin. You will enjoy the drive.
According to economic historian Angus Maddison, in the year 1820, the Chinese economy was the world’s largest, accounting for approximately 33% of global GDP. At the same time, India’s was half that, with 16%, and a youthful United States around 1.8%. Europe ranked second in this GDP league table with 26.6%. (Here’s a link to the 200-page OECD report. If you’re interested, see p.46)
It was around this time that British opium traders began to export Indian-grown opium to China, an act, ostensibly in support of the principles of global free trade, that impoverished both India and China. The import of opium was illegal under Chinese law, but the fading Qing dynasty was unable to stop the smuggling, principally through Canton, or Guangdong as it is known today. In this period began what the Chinese now call “the century of humiliation” where they could not compete with superior western naval power and suffered internal fragmentation. In subsequent decades, China ceded territories to Germany, to Britain, to France and to Japan. One of the few happy results of these forced occupations is that China’s best beer, Tsingtao, comes from the Jiaozhou Bay area that was ceded to Germany. Tsingtao beer was listed as the world’s top-selling beer in 2017.
By 1952, the picture had changed dramatically. Europe’s share of world GDP was 29.3%, the US 27.5%. China’s GDP had dropped to 5.2% and India’s to 4%. Today, nearly 200 years after the first opium war, it looks as though China is resuming its old dominance, with close to 20% of world GDP; this time as a united country that willingly trades with other countries around the world. So, contrary to what is often written in the media, maybe China’s expanding global influence is not really so threatening. From the Chinese perspective, they are merely returning to their rightful place in the international world order. Rightful place this may be, but the accompanying geopolitical shifts are worrisome to many countries, especially Asian ones. India now wears a necklace of potentially hostile naval bases in Bangladesh, in Sri Lanka, and in Pakistan, all built and financed by China. Until Duterte came to power, the Philippine leadership worried about Chinese occupation of the Spratly islands that are claimed by six countries: Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Philippines, Brunei. China has now pre-empted the discussion by building a military base there.
The increasingly authoritarian rule of supreme leader Xi Jinping does not bode well for China. Neither does the crackdown on Uighur ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, or independence movements in Taiwan and Tibet. Meanwhile, climate change looms over the entire world, so amidst rising prosperity in the region, there are tough geopolitical questions to be dealt with in every corner of it. So here’s a toast to some schoolgirl or boy who, unknown to the world today, will come to power and find answers to some of these questions in the decades ahead.
Although this blog was begun to publicise my own fiction, there are so many interesting things to write about that the fiction element has been displaced by other kinds of stories; stories about geopolitics, concerns about global change (of which not least, climate change), and new developments in science and technology.
It currently seems to me, as an informed layperson, that the answer to the planet’s global warming crisis lies primarily not so much in technological advances as in social engineering for change. For example, livestock farming produces 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Halving the consumption of meat, to take only one measure, would have enormous health benefits for individuals and at a stroke, reduce greenhouse gas emissions. That’s the equivalent of removing the 2015 contributions of the two most populous countries, India and China! According to a 2006 FAO report, Livestock’s Long Shadow (416 pp.), cattle alone are responsible for more global warming than all forms of transportation put together.
Another quick fix would be to reduce national defence budgets and invest the money in women’s health and education, easier said than done, considering the political madness that one sees in countries around the world. This too can be changed if enough people around the world set their minds to it and realise that we, the people, are the drivers of political change. Politicians are servants. They are merely people responding to our collective angsts and biases.
As global temperatures rise, people try to cope by installing air-conditioning units. This compounds the problem, since electricity consumption multiplies and heat dissipates to the outside world, creating urban heat islands and causing yet more global warming. It’s like polluting an ocean. Imperceptible when only one person does it, but massive when done by millions. Here’s an exciting technological fix in the works that might help to solve the air-conditioning problem: thermoacoustic cooling.
The principle was apparently observed by glassblowers more than two centuries ago. They noticed a sound was created when blowing a hot glass bubble at the end of a cold, long tube. 19th century scientists figured the sound was produced by the thermal gradient, and resonance was giving extra energy to the air in the tube. Apparently the first modern application to capture this energy for cooling was used in NASA’s Space Shuttle Discovery in 1992. Today, there seem to be two companies, in the Netherlands and in France, who offer solutions based on this principle for pollution free cooling. Here’s a link to the websites of Dutch company, SoundEnergy and France-based Equium. The sooner such companies are commercially successful, the better for the planet. Here’s a simple demonstration of the principle showing the working of a thermoacoustic engine.
It happened one evening in the new year, driving back to the city on the autobahn from a visit to the town of Petronell-Carnuntum (once home to Marcus Aurelius’ Roman legions as they fought against the barbarians, so colorfully depicted in Ridley Scott’s movie, Gladiator). I was travelling at about 100 kmh, overtaking a column of trucks travelling at their legal speed limit of 80. There was a gusty wind blowing. The road was clear although it had snowed a day or two earlier. The temperature was close to freezing. Suddenly in the gathering twilight I saw something large and white swirling towards the windscreen of the car. Travelling in the middle of three lanes, with trucks on the right and faster cars on the left, there was neither time nor space to avoid it. A bone-jarring thump, and the windshield of the car dissolved into a criss-cross of lines as the safety glass shattered but did not break apart. Recovering from the shock, I realized it was a block of ice, the size of two or three bricks, that had dislodged from the roof of one of the trucks ahead of us. A harder gust of wind or a few km/h faster and I, with my precious cargo of three other people in the car, might all be dead.
Thinking about the incident later brought to mind the phrase “the hand of God.” Being of a non-religious bent, I am inclined to ask: was it the hand of God that threw the chunk of ice, or was it the hand of God that blocked it? Or was it both? A display of divine power? An attempt to impress that seems unworthy of an all-powerful being!
The beliefs of various religions claiming to know the origin of the universe and to give its creator a name; be it Jehovah, Jahveh, Allah, Brahman, etc. seems to me to be just that; beliefs. And the claims made by brilliant scientists like Stephen Hawking who said that the universe was decided by the laws of science simply fails my common-sense test.
“So then science is your God?” I ask Hawking in my dream.
“Well yes,” he replies. “If you like you can call the laws of science “God,” but it wouldn’t be a personal God you could meet and put questions to.” (see USA Today, Oct. 17, 2018)
So to my mind, the beliefs of both science and theology are limited, rather like the motto of the New York Times; “All the News That’s Fit to Print.” Although admittedly a superior newspaper, the claim is, in global terms, ludicrous. As ludicrous as the claim of any religion or science to know all the truth. As someone who has been close to death on two occasions, I can assure you there’s nothing to fear on the other side. On the contrary, the overwhelming feeling is a warm sense of peace accompanied by deep, wordless joy. One comes out of the experience loving life more than ever, but in a detached kind of way that is infinitely liberating. As to what really lies on the other side, I’m sure no one really knows for sure, so if it comforts you, go ahead and cling to your beliefs. But for God’s sake, don’t go starting wars or fighting over it.