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A Tree Planting Update

I begin this post with an apology. I have posted only sporadically this past year, and the reason is not Covid as one might think. No, it’s simply that writing repeatedly about environmental, social and energy topics over the past several years, it seems like every little bit of progress on any of these fronts is wiped out by news headlines on events in politics, business or the weather. The actions any of us take to combat these developments always seem like too little and too late, so I learned to accept one possibility: that the world as a whole will not wake up to action until the planet is undoubtedly, unequivocally in peril; and then everyone will come together and frantically decide on measures that could have, should have, been taken decades ago. The Covid pandemic is a case in point; and the recent spate of droughts, wildfires and floods in many countries is another.

So here we are finally at a point where the world is waking up and ready to take action. At this juncture I would like to highlight the work of a small community of people working in a small village near the town of Tiruvannamalai in South India who have been working and learning and teaching and playing and planting in exemplary fashion for the past decade and more. Today, instead of writing my own blog, I’ve decided to simply post their tree planting update with photographs. I hope you find their post as inspiring as I did. Read on below:

Dear friends,
Greetings from Tiruvannamalai.Hope you are all doing well. We have been blessed this year to receive lots of rain from June itself and we have been actively involved in this season’s tree planting. We have completed the planting of more than 8000 trees in 7 locations which include 4 Eri bunds and upper slopes, on the hill, in the plains around the hill etc. We will be continuing the work in the weeks to come.
This year’s planting has had a different focus. One of the senior members of our team Shyam, attended an ecology course on native trees in Auroville and came back with a passion for evergreen tree species of the Eastern ghats. We have always planted indigenous trees of this region and over the years our nursery has produced more than 180 native species. While we continue with the same we have brought special focus on the Evergreens.
Here is Shyam’s brief write up on the evergreen patch:
The idea to have an evergreen patch came from most trees on the hill being deciduous and the hill looking quite barren in summer. Plus our recent planting places mostly had some tough evergreens surviving as most deciduous species are heavily grazed by deer leaving them stunted, to grow back to only be stunted again grazing. ( One of the outcomes of our successful afforestation has been the sharp rise in spotted deer population) The evergreen species are fast disappearing as more and more forests are being destroyed, so to find a home to these species was enticing and is very critical for the survival of these species. Many of them are already on the Red list of the IUCN. Obviously the dream is to imagine an evergreen canopy sometime in the future that may be our children will walk around even in summer times. So the idea was to plant tough faster growing evergreens that will eventually provide the conditions for other species usually found in more mature forests to grow in and eventually regenerate. We also tried planting a small number of saplings of species that were non-existent on the hill in an effort to introduce them. These were planted in selected places with good soil  and canopy conditions hoping to maximise their survival chances. 
Various strategies were tried out to improve their survival chances and to aid faster growth to clear the height the deer can reach, some are 1. Selecting a place with good soil and canopy cover conditions 2. Digging deeper pits and filling them back with a compost + top soil mix which helps with better moisture retention and root penetration 3. Making tree guards for few saplings of newly introduced trees that are prone to grazing 4. Making bunds with rocks from around to help with water percolation, top soil piling up from upper slope 5. Planting in direct/partial sun or even in very shaded spots based on their preferred growing conditions 6. Planting some taller saplings in bigger bags for species that need a tree guard as the bigger root systems will help them grow faster past the grazing height
We have planted around 700 saplings in this section so far. Around 90 saplings belong to species that aren’t found on hill at any stage and around 500 belong to species that preexist on the hill in a sapling stage. 
Here are the names of some of the species :
Aglaia elaeagnoidea
Drypetes sepiaria
Diospyros ovalifolia
Drypetes porteri
Diospyros chloroxylon
Chionanthes zeylenica
Chionanthes ramniflorus
Neolitsea scrobiculata
Pleurostylia opposita
Streblus asper
Memecylon umbellatum
Heterophragma adenophyllum
Polyalthia suberosa
Polyalthia korinti
Tricalysia
Psydrax
Putranjiva
Diospyros montana
Ficus microcarpa
Pleurospermum alatum
Celtis Phillipesis
Litsea glutinosa
Nothopegea beddomei
Manilkara roxburghiana
Manilkara hexandra
Pamburus missionis
Polyalthia coffeoides
Miliusa eriocarpa
Miliusa montana
Diospyros affinis
Diospyros melanoxylon
Ficus mysorensis
Ficus annamalayana
Ficus exasperata
Ficus tinctoria
Salvadora persica
Alphonsea sp.

The whole Marudam team with children, teachers and even parents have joined in a lot of the planting programmes and it has been an occasion to rejoice. 

We will end with wishes for a green and healthy planet.
Warm regards,

Arun

The Standoff explained: Modi government vs. Indian Small Farmers

The is basically a battle for the future of Indian agriculture. It is also a battle of two opposing philosophies: Small is Beautiful vs. Big is Better. On the one hand, 67% of India’s farmland is held by marginal farmers with holdings below 1 hectare. These farmers control 48% of irrigated land. On the other hand, 33% of farms are large, medium-sized or corporate holdings, and they control 52% of India’s irrigated land. It is important to remember this existing imbalance when considering the new laws.

Under the new law, a trader can approach any farmer anywhere in the country and buy their produce at any price that is agreed on. This may sound like a benefit for the farmer, but not when the buyer is a powerful corporation. In such situations, farmers will always be the weaker players. Indian farmers know it, and this is one of the reasons for their protests. The larger entities will always have the upper hand in case of disputes. The new law will also give large companies the freedom to accumulate stock of commodities and dictate terms to farmers. On a global scale, small-holder farmers provide 80% of our food on just 10% of arable land.

Add to the mix the fact that India’s two richest men, both reputedly close to Prime Minister Modi, have expressed interest in investments in the agricultural sector. In the US, for instance, the number of farmer suicides is twice the national average. As Sara Bissen writes in InsideOver, “Farmer suicide is in fact a universal reality with rates higher than non-farmers in almost every agricultural country. One only needs to look at France, India, Australia, or Japan.” Our lives depend on our food system. Large-scale agricultural practices degrade the world’s arable land and small-scale farms have the potential to redress climate change while securing global food supply.

The True Source of Wealth

Many years ago an economist friend told me to invest in stock index funds rather than property. He pointed out charts comparing property prices and real estate gains over a period of decades. Despite sudden sharp falls in stock values, the market always seemed to rebound after a few years or a decade and make up all its losses. I was swayed by that advice, but fortunately did not have enough disposable income to put that theory substantially to the test. I invested in an apartment and now, in retirement, consider myself fortunate not to have to worry about a roof over my head.

A nursery of trees that will clean air, bank carbon, retain rainwater, enrich
the earth, slow erosion, feed and shelter birds, and much more…

I look around at young people trying to find jobs, decide on a career, worry about whether they will find fulfilling occupations, or whether they can ever afford to start a family. At first glance, the odds seem stacked in favor of those whose parents left them with an inheritance; property or cash in the bank. The fragility of our economic systems and geopolitical power structures has increased considerably in 2020. A job in a bank, for example, does not seem as safe as it used to be, apart from the moral hazard of being involved in an exploitative business that has invested in fossil fuels and benefitted hugely from government handouts after nearly every crisis this century. There are no “safe” jobs any more, and the working world seems to be divided into two camps: those people with jobs who have to work increasing hours and work-life balance goes out of the window. They have money but no chance to have a life. The second camp consists of the unemployed who have time on their hands but don’t have a life either because they’re too worried about the future to enjoy the present. Somewhere between these two camps is a small minority of people who have just enough income to live a meaningful life!!!??? Of course that last statement is not true. Post-Covid, millions of people around the world, those with wealth and those without, are discovering that the best way to live a meaningful life is to go back to the earth and to nature.

Without the wealth of the earth, every business in the world is meaningless and doomed to fail in a matters of days, weeks, months or years. There is no need to elaborate on this theme. Here’s a list of apocalyptic movies that will educate you on what could lie in store for mankind if we don’t change our ways. The Day after Tomorrow, Mad Max Fury Road, Planet of the Apes, Nausicaa of the Valley, On the Beach, Independence Day, The Road… you get the idea. When it comes to possible futures, we’re only limited by our imagination. If there’s one thing the Covid crisis has done, it’s to trigger imaginations worldwide. Amidst all the hype about AI, high tech and new technologies that will save the world, there’s one underlying trend. People going back to the earth. Maybe we haven’t realized it yet, but that’s the true source of our planet’s wealth, and planetary heroes are the countless millions who work with soil, harvest our food crops and plant trees. Certainly not the multinational corporations that are responsible for the vast monocultural landscapes of the present day.

Tree cover nurtures all species of life and the earth itself

If only the bright minds inventing clever carbon sequestration technologies would rather invest in natural processes that restore the soil, the earth would grow richer, and all of us along with it.

The American Way of Life

In 1992, at the first world environment conference in Rio de Janeiro, attended by 192 heads of state or of government, George HW Bush (a.k.a. Bush ’41) refused to accept certain terms and conditions of the draft agreements that had been worked out by international negotiation teams. The teams involved experts from all UN member countries on agriculture, forestry, and environment and they had thrashed out details of the various agreements over months of preliminary meetings, painstakingly modifying or eliminating wording that was unacceptable to this country or that, Of course the richest countries carried the most clout when all these decisions were made. At that time, in 1992, the US consumed a quarter of the world’s oil, a third of its paper, and 40% of its beef and veal. Some of the terms of the agreements would have impinged on the US’ ability to continue consuming so much of the world’s natural resources, so at the final meetings President George HW Bush insisted on last minute changes to some of the previously agreed text. The reason he gave: the American way of life is not negotiable.

This statement naturally did not go down well with the other countries, but as the 800 pound gorilla at the UN, the nations of the world grinned and bore it. A host of watered down agreements were signed, and the world went back to business-as-usual. Environmental activists sighed and thought: at least we’ve managed to bring all these issues to the world agenda; kings, dictators, prime ministers and presidents of 192 countries came to Rio, the first such meeting in the history of the world, so surely we’re beginning to make progress.

Today, 28 years later, the American way of life is indeed being re-negotiated, but it is Nature that is doing the re-negotiating, not the UN or other countries. As Covid, climate change, and repeated financial meltdowns are showing us, the American way of life is indeed negotiable.

Opium: The unlikely poster child for renewable energy

On 27 July 2020, Justin Rowlatt, Chief Environmental Correspondent of BBC News, published an article with the headline: What the heroin industry can teach us about solar power.

I missed that, but a month later found it reported in an issue of Zac and Jesse’s amusing and informative blog called “Now You Know.” about issues related to electromobility and renewable energy. This particular episode of the blog was called: Solar Panels: Proof is in the Poppies where they highlighted the findings reported by Justin Rowlatt.

Solar Panels for sale in Afghanistan: stacked three stories high. Image courtesy BBC News

So what’s the story here?

In 2013, the first Afghan farmer used solar panels to power a pump that brought water up to the surface from 100 meters below ground. Prior to that, his only alternative had been diesel pumps. Pumps ran on dirty diesel that fouled his motors and caused frequent breakdowns, in addition to intermittent supply. Running on solar power was clean and free, the pumps worked reliably, and the farmer was able to grow 2 or even 3 crops a year, in addition to increased yields per crop. The following year, a few panels were available for sale in local markets. Since then, the sale of solar panels has taken off in the province, with 67,000 arrays counted in Helmand Valley alone in 2019. The negative effect of this bounty is that opium output has more than doubled in the intervening years.

If only we could see that kind of exponential growth of renewables in rich countries, the world’s environmental outlook would not be the bleak picture it is today. But there is a surprising amount of misinformation in the educated, industrialised world. This is partly due to the existence of powerfully entrenched corporations that jealously guard their own turf and discourage innovation. The second negative factor is the advertising industry that has spent decades fine-tuning their ability to spread the message of their paymasters, however detrimental to the planet. Time to take a leaf from an Afghan farmer’s book on energy, if not for choice of crops.

Reposting from Electrifying: All-Time Highs for Renewables in 2020

As the blog ELECTRIFYING noted this week: Renewable electricity generation has hit all-time highs in the first half of 2020. And this despite the slowdown in utility scale renewables installations as a result of Covid-19. Read more at the link to the original posting below.

Renewables have seen all-time highs in the first half of 2020

Xi’s Napoleon Moment – Reposting Sandomina’s blog

For anyone interested in Asian Geopolitics, I can highly recommend “Insightful Geopolitics” by a writer whose pen-name is Sandomina. The posts are well-researched and, well, insightful. I sometimes don’t know the sources of the statistics quoted in the blog, but my gut feeling is that they are all from reliable sources.

Many people in the West are concerned about China’s growing economic might and how dependent their own industries are on Chinese supply chains. In Asia, Sandomina remarks, China has 14 neighbours with a common land border and 7 maritime neighbours. China has territorial disputes with all of them.

People everywhere would be well advised to take note of China’s rise. Depending on the way it’s internal politics develops, it can become a powerful engine for development and international growth. At present, all signs point to a belligerent China that reflects Xi Jingping’s personal thin-skinned sensibilities rather than statesmanship with a global perspective.

Having said this much, go to the link below and read about more about Xi’s Napoleon Moment here

Post-Covid: We must save the Future, not the Past

When Austrian-born American economist Joseph Schumpeter spoke of creative destruction, he was referring to cycles of innovation in industry as new technologies displaced older, less efficient ones. As a new technology gained the upper hand, older industries died out, giving rise to a period of disruption and major unemployment.

In a chapter in his book Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, Schumpeter writes: “The same process of industrial mutation—if I may use that biological term—that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one. This process of creative destruction is the essential fact about capitalism,” he said. Schumpeter was more right than he knew, not only about industrial mutation, but in regard to natural mutation. As a passionate environmentalist, I would assert that Schumpeter’s insight is primarily applicable to natural systems. More than 60% of the world’s wealth is embedded in nature and natural systems. Heedless of that, we, in developed industrial societies and all aspiring, developing industrial societies, are recklessly plundering our planet’s natural resources in order to fuel economic growth; in pursuit of the cachet of success, of material wealth far beyond basic human needs of food, clothing and shelter.

Nature’s beauty is free. Raintree blossoms in Schönbrunn Park.

Studies show that most forest trees need to be exposed to fire every 50 to 100 years to invigorate new growth. Epidemiologists have long predicted pandemics like the current one, but societies at large have been too busy chasing prosperity to pay much attention. Now that Nature has targeted humanity with some creative destruction of its own, it’s up to us to learn the lessons of the forest; clearing away the dead wood of outdated industrial practices, investing in lifestyles and technologies that eliminate waste and support planetary health.

What need for annual trillion dollar subsidies for fossil fuels when 99% of scientific studies say we should stop carbon emissions? What need for continued economic growth when wealth accrues to the 1% of the population and leaves the other 99% behind? What need for new technologies when the best ones currently available are not being used widely enough?

Political leaders won’t ask us these questions. We must ask it of them. Our survival as a species depends on it.

Nikola vs. Tesla

Growing up in a country where English was the language of higher education, I inherited an Anglo-centric view of most developments in science and technology. For example, thinking about the history of printing, the names of Johannes Gutenberg and William Caxton came to mind. When I mentioned Caxton to a German friend, they looked blank, having only heard of Gutenberg. Six hundred years before Gutenberg and Caxton, however, there were nameless Chinese monks who used carved wooden blocks coated with ink to print Buddhist texts. Subsequently, movable metal type was used in both China and Korea, two hundred years before Gutenberg’s printing press.

Language matters! The point was driven home to me when I travelled in Central Europe in the 1970s and came across a book. Lightning in his hand: the life story of Nikola Tesla. I read about his discoveries and inventions and thought, it couldn’t possibly be true. Most of these were Edison’s discoveries. The light bulb. The generator. Alternating current. Wrong on all counts apparently. Edison merely perfected the lightbulb and was a savvy marketer. He was also not above using dirty tricks to discredit competition. He is said to have publicly electrocuted dogs and cats with alternating current (ac/which we use today) to prove that his direct current was safer than Tesla’s ac. All this happened in the late 19th and early 20th century. For an amusing take on Nikola Tesla’s many accomplishments compared to Edison’s, see Why Tesla was the greatest Geek who ever lived.

In the 21st century, there’s a face-off between two companies that both borrow the great Serbian genius’s name. Nikola and Tesla. Tesla, as some of you might know, became the most valuable car company on the planet this week, based on market capitalization, overtaking Toyota.

Image courtesy Transport & Environment via Clean Technica

Nikola Motors is far less known, and aims to compete head-to-head with Tesla’s electric semi, a heavy duty battery electric vehicle slated to appear in 2021. Nikola claims its trucks, powered by electricity from a hydrogen fuel cell, will provide driving range comparable to a diesel truck. They say that pure battery electric vehicles (BEVs) will have to compromise either on range or haulage capacity, simply because of the weight of its batteries. Nikola has no sales and no revenue, yet has achieved market valuation of $34 billion in 2020. Hmm! Why is there no end of people willing to bet their money against Tesla?

On the other hand, Tesla has a brilliant track record of achieving seemingly impossible goals, its cars outperforming every other electric vehicle on the road today, and it already has several prototype semis on the road. CEO Elon Musk reiterates at every opportunity that he relies on first principles of physics to base technology choices and manufacturing decisions. The above image, courtesy of the non-profit Transport and Environment (via Clean Technica), seems to support his opinion, that producing hydrogen with current technologies to run vehicles on electricity produced by a fuel cell just does not make economic sense. Many engineers at Toyota, Hyundai, Honda, BMW and Mercedes disagree with Musk and are putting a chunk of their considerable R&D resources into FCEVs* using hydrogen. None of them seem as yet to have prominent plans to roll out extensive hydrogen charging infrastructure so this indicates a future for FCEVs as niche products in the coming two decades.

All the legacy automakers are in a bind because of Tesla’s rapid roll-out of increasingly attractive and popular electric models. They face a triple whammy, locked in to their traditional supply chains, with highly qualified and experienced ICE workforces who need to either be retrained or made redundant, and confronting dramatically decreased car sales in 2020. Post-Covid, the only automotive growth segment seems to be in EVs.

A case can be made for FCEVs in the case of heavy duty, long-range transport vehicles that only need point-to-point charging infrastructure rather than a widely distributed one; think cargo ships, passenger ferries, trains. Aircraft powered by hydrogen? I don’t know whether the concept will take off (pardon the pun), although Zero Avia has short haul aircraft that run on hydrogen fuelled electricity. Whatever the case, the sooner we come off conventional ICEs, the better for our planetary future.

*FCEV – Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle
**ICE – Internal Combustion Engine

Miyawaki Forests

Anyone who reads the news today, whether on social media, newspapers, television, blogs, or whatever, is confronted with a litany of disastrous news about global warming, climate change, natural disasters, political crises, corruption, conflict and so on. True to the adage that good news is no news, there are few in-depth news stories about far-reaching events, running mostly in the background, that have potential to change the world. To give them credit, most news outlets nowadays are aware of this deficit and pepper their front pages with good news, most of which are one-offs; heart warming stories that are categorized as “human interest” stories. Don’t get me wrong. I love human interest stories, and devour them with my morning coffee. But they are not weighty enough to counter the leadbelly that results from reading the rest of the news. So how to counter that?

A perceptive listener once corrected me when I quoted: knowledge is power. No, they chided. Knowledge is only potential power. You have to do something with your knowledge to make it powerful. If you think about it, the converse holds true for bad news. Too much knowledge can be disempowering and reduce us to abject helplessness unless we do something about it. But what?

In an earlier blog entitled “Three score years and ten” I outlined a series of actions one can take to counter planetary leadbelly, beginning with baby steps. Meanwhile, here’s another link to a website that tells in-depth stories of people taking action around the planet to restore its health. Today, this particular story about Miyawaki Forests caught my eye. Tell your planetary gloom to take the day off. Follow the two links above, read, and enjoy.