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Several years ago, an Italian acquaintance said to me, “The growth of the Roman Empire was driven by testosterone, you know.” He was a polyglot polymath; a materials scientist by profession, and a keen historian who sometimes spouted Greek and Latin quotations to illustrate the points he made. Julius Caesar, as a promising young general in his thirties, felt like an under-achiever and a failure. He is known to have lamented that Alexander had conquered most of the known world by the age of thirty, while he himself was only a Quaestor (a local magistrate) in Rome. Caesar was forty years old when he formed the first Triumvirate with Crassus and Pompey. He then went on to defeat the Gallic tribes of modern day France over the next eight years, killing more than a million Gauls and Germans in the process (according to Plutarch) and enslaving a million more. Presumably, by the mores of his time, these deaths were considered necessary to establish rule of law, discipline unruly Roman citizens with firm leadership and ensure stable government.
After the Second World War, with American leadership and the newly instituted United Nations organizations in 1945, it was widely believed that conquest and rule by force of arms was a thing of the past. Post-1945 the world entered an era of global peace and the longest absence of major wars mankind has ever known. If today’s world outlook seems bleak, blame it on the internet and social media, which are able to convey local impacts of minor skirmishes into our homes with larger-than-life images. Brutal killings appear immediately on the screens we carry in our pockets, or on laptops and smart tablets in homes and offices. When the Cold War ended, American philosopher Francis Fukuyama famously declared the end of history. In a nutshell his thesis was: with the spread of globalization and its accompanying prosperity, liberalism would spread around the world. Fukuyama’s book “The End of History and the Last Man” was published in the heady post-Cold War days of 1992. Today Fukuyama confesses: Twenty five years ago I didn’t have a sense or a theory about how democracies can go backward. And I think they clearly can.” (Washington Post article here)
On the other hand, Harvard psychologist and popular science author Steven Pinker argues that humanity is currently experiencing decreasing levels of violence (TED talk, 20 minutes) However he argues that liberal values are under threat from authoritarian populism, religious fundamentalism and radicalism of the left and right. There is no doubt in my mind that liberal democracies will do better than dictatorships and autocracies in tackling the gravest problem facing humanity today, global climate change. And it is mainly in democracies that the #MeToo movement is taking shape. People involved in the movement are asking questions and demanding action from their governments. Have we reached a tipping point? Can this watershed moment go beyond words to drive meaningful action? My answer to these questions is an emphatic yes. The fact that the movement has unexpectedly taken root in Asia is an enormous portent of things to come.
African press reports indicate that in many countries on the continent, women are afraid to talk about sexual harassment, especially in many of its conflict zones. According to this Zimbabwe newsletter, four of the five riskiest cities for sexual assault and rape are in Africa. There also appears to be a direct correlation between sexual harassment and geopolitics. The greater the gender equality that exists in a country, the less likelihood of autocratic leaders. Strongmen (and wannabe strongmen) look on the exercise of power as a kind of pissing contest, with the Trumps and Erdogans of this world trying to outdo the Putins, Kim Jong-Uns and Dutertes. More women leaders coming to power in countries around the world as a result of the #MeToo movement would be the best news for global climate. Women are less likely to indulge in geopolitical pissing contests. On the one hand women are generally more inclined to collaborate and cooperate and and on the other, their plumbing discourages such childish displays, leaving them with more time to get on with the urgent tasks of governing.
The world is full of stuff and many parts of the world are drowning in it. Except for those parts of the world where people don’t have any stuff at all. Nothing to speak of.
Within our family, we stopped giving stuff as gifts quite some time ago. Nowadays, we mark occasions such as birthdays, anniversaries and significant celebrations with the gift of time.
The planet has plenty of time to spare, even though humanity does not. In a few hundred years, or a thousand years, even if mankind has pursued its current illusion of prosperity to oblivion, the planet will sedately roll on, and prosper without us. Just as it prospered long after the last dinosaur ceased to exist.
When Isaac Watts wrote his hymn, based on the 90th Psalm, he was not thinking of humanity’s self-induced annihilation as he composed the following lines.
Time like an ever rolling stream, bears all its sons away
They fly forgotten as a dream, dies at the opening day.
For those ‘successful’ busy people who have no time at all to spare, here’s a suggestion for a gift of stuff that’s actually a gift to the planet and buys us time. This gift has the added benefit of helping people who don’t have much stuff at all. Here’s a link to an Impact Calculator from Solar Aid. With enough gifts like these, perhaps one day we can sit down with Gaia and have the last laugh together.
Consider me. Or consider yourself. Presumably an average human being of average weight. These averages vary considerably in different parts of the world, from 60 kilos or less, to 90 kilos or more. Looking back at the various means of transport that I have commonly used in the past five decades, I made a list of their approximate weights for comparison. My own weight has changed (increased!) by 5 kilos during this period, from 75 to 80 kg.
Bicycle: Throughout my schooldays, I used a single speed bicycle to take myself (40 to 65 kg.) to school and back. I assume bicycles weighed around 25 kg. in those days. In any case, the means of transportation was around a third of my own body weight. I loved the song of the open road. Most days I arrived at school in a lather of sweat, but no one really bothered about that.
My first job was as a travelling salesman and the most efficient way to do this at the time was with a motorbike or scooter. Traffic congestion was not yet a problem in the 1970s to 90s. I loved the song of the open road. Most days I arrived at work or at a customer feeling dapper and cool, even though a bit windblown. The weight of the motor-scooter or motorbike I owned or rode at various times in this period varied from 130 to 150 kg. My own weight at this time was a svelte 75 kg.
From the late 70s to the 1990s my preferred mode of transport was a private car. I loved the song of the open road, although traffic was constantly increasing. Loved to drive long distances on holiday. Car weights varied from 840 kg (1976 first generation VW Golf) to 1400 kg (same model 25 years later) to 1700 kg (minivan). In spite of long distance holiday travel with family, 90% of the annual miles were clocked commuting to work and back. i.e. 1000s of kilometers with just one occupant. i.e. using 1400-1700 kg to transport 80 kg of human being. Forget the song of the open road! Most daily commutes were exercises in creeping through congested streets and highways, impatiently waiting to get to work or home.
From the early 2000s onwards, my thinking about the daily commute evolved (?) as follows. Car (1700 kg, 40 minutes), bus (kg irrelevant, 80 minutes), bicycle (16 kg., 70 minutes). The bicycle was definitely a step forward in efficiency and economy. It cost practically nothing, and also gave added health benefits, although I arrived in a lather at work, as I did in my school days, and had to repair to a toilet for a cat-wash and a change of clothes.
Around 2005, I began to yearn for pedal assist on my bicycle and began to look around for electric models. There were none available as far as I could see. Sometime in 2006, I found a German website on the internet that advertised an electric bicycle with a 1 year guarantee, a 7 kilo NiCad battery pack, and no range specifications. I was tired of a steep hill on my daily commute (36 km per day), so I ordered the bike sight unseen and two weeks later, took delivery of a giant cardboard carton with MADE IN CHINA printed on the sides. It weighed 32 kg with battery, had seven gears and was a real pain to carry up and down to the cellar where I stored it overnight.
But it did the job nicely. The hill was a problem no more. And the range was around 30 km. Unfortunately, NiCad batteries suffer from a memory effect, and I could not charge it in the office for the ride home, so I got minimal assistance on the dreaded hill with a fading battery.
Ah, the perfect solution! Sometime around 2008, I saw a beautiful 24-speed KTM with the cutest little Li-ion battery that was good for 60 kms of pedal-assist riding. By this time, I had moved homes and my daily commute had increased to 50 km. Here was the answer to my commuting problems. The KTM bicycle weighed 22 kg, I weighed 80 kg., and the electricity cost me around €0.30 for 100 km (30 cents). My friends considered the electric bike expensive. It was expensive, in bike terms, but in reality cost about as much as the annual service of the average 1700 kg. monster. Maybe that’s comparing apples and oranges, you say. But such comparisons are ok when you’re riding an apple, and have gotten rid of the orange. Needless to say, I sold the 1700 kg. monster and have lived happily ever after.
Nowadays people tell me, you can’t ride around on a bicycle at your age! It’s too dangerous to ride a bicycle in this murderous city traffic. True. But I wear a helmet and try to ride cautiously. I’m happy carrying my current 79 kg. on two wheels weighing 22 kg., and wouldn’t dream of carrying it in 1700 kg. as I used to do. The difference in weight (ca.1,678 kg) I like to think of as the weight of fear. That’s quite a lot of fear to carry around in one’s life. Best to get rid of it!
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The Climate Action Tracker posts regular progress reports on how well various countries are doing to adhere to the Paris Agreements. It tracks emissions from 32 selected countries and the list of the good, the bad, and the ugly is quite surprising even to this seasoned watcher.
Only two countries are on track to fulfil the Paris goal, of limiting emissions to keep global temperatures from rising above 1.5 degrees C; Gambia and Morocco.
The second best choice made in Paris was, if not 1.5 degrees, then at the least 2 degrees C. Just 5 of 32 countries meet this target. Bhutan, Costa Rica, Ethiopia, India and Philippines. All of the remaining 25 countries fall into the category of emitters that will lead to a world of 3 degrees warming or more. See the original list here.
Of course this predicator of doom and gloom relies only on official government policies. The reality on the ground may be a bit different in many of the countries on the list. For example, despite their governments, a few cities, power companies and private individuals already find it cheaper to produce unsubsidised renewable energy, a trend that will speed up, just a cell phone sales did in developing country markets worldwide.
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Most media outlets seem to operate under the principle that bad news is good news or alternatively, good news is not news. They may be right, in terms of profitability. But they are definitely wrong, in terms of the collective well-being of humanity. This blog is not dependent on readership or advertising revenues, so it can afford to print good news without fear of losing its readership. So here for a start is good news from the energy front.
All of the electricity used by two of the world’s largest corporations, Apple and Google, were from renewable sources by the end of 2017. This is a remarkable achievement, considering that each of these companies uses more electricity than many small nations, not least to power immense data centers scattered around the world. So now, if you have worries about the amount of personal data Facebook & Co. are collecting about you because of their opaque terms of usage, rest assured that they’re not polluting the planet in the bargain.
But seriously, there’s lots of impressive news in the energy area alone. Here’s a chart, courtesy of National Resources Development Center, showing how prices have come down for major clean energy technologies.
Since clean energy is one of the basic requirements for human development, there’s not much stopping world-wide implementation, is there? Capital for investment? It’s increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few–rich corporations and rich individuals. So are we ordinary mortals totally helpless? No, not at all. But we have to make smart choices as customers. We can enrich our lives, and the planet in the process, by getting off the mindless consumption lifestyle that the glossies would have us aspire to.
In one hour, the earth receives more solar energy than the world uses in one year. Now that’s good news and worth repeating, even if its not new. So why are companies producing more dirty diesel cars and building more fossil fuel power plants? Because switching technologies means moving out of comfortable niches of expertise that would otherwise become useless; it would mean new investments, experimenting with new technologies, and why should they take all these risks when customers are flocking to buy new models anyway? As engine size and horse power of new automotive offerings increase, so do their profits, and they see even less reason to invest in new technologies. It’s only we, the customers, who can break this vicious cycle.
English speaking news readers tend to digest information from an overwhelmingly anglocentric or eurocentric point of view. Hence I was not surprised recently to hear a friend accuse the Chinese of polluting the planet when actually, despite (or perhaps because of) a totalitarian regime, they are doing more to clean up the earth than any other nation. For example, the southern Chinese city of Shenzen alone runs a fleet of 16,000 (yes, thousand) electric buses; more than the rest of world combined. So while air quality in Beijing might be abysmal, this past winter, particulate pollution was 50% less than in the previous year. This from no less a source than the US Embassy in Beijing! One reason for the lower levels of pollution might be that China installed more than 53 GW of solar power in 2017.
The above facts don’t make me an apologist for an autocratic government where power is increasingly concentrated at the top. This is undoubtedly a very worrying tendency, one that is being seen in several other large countries like India, Russia, Turkey, China and the United States. In the US case, its robustly democratic political system has been hijacked by corporate lobbies. Nevertheless there is good news coming from each of these countries, and I will try to highlight these bright spots in future posts.
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Ever wanted to go on an ocean liner? Cruise ship advertisements idealise the high life to be had on the high seas. What they never say is how much ships pollute. The average ship runs on low grade oil, which can be likened to a sludge that emits more particulate matter than a million cars; more sulfur than seven million cars. And that’s just one cruise liner!
Several Scandinavian ferries now run on hybrid diesel-electric systems but, as in most advances in electric propulsion these days, China is taking the lead, as a cargo ship with a 2.4 MWh battery pack launches in Guangdong. Ironically, the ship will be used to transport dirty coal!
Car makers have a problem. They don’t admit it yet. Or maybe they do admit it to themselves, although not in public. Why should they, when enough people are buying bigger cars? Global car sales in 2017 were close to 90 million vehicles in all categories, including SUVs and light trucks. That’s roughly 1 car for every 77 people. Less than 1% of these were electric. How many more cars do we need? Car companies are powerful entities that are in the business of selling dreams; dreams of freedom, of the joy of the open road, dreams of independence. The irony is that as we buy into the dream, we destroy the very foundation on which our dreams are based.
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February 2018 will mark five years after my retirement from IIASA. These five years have been full of new experiences, travel and writing. My wife and I have also attempted during this time to modify our lifestyle to be as carbon neutral as possible. Measures include living without a car, using a bicycle for shopping and public transport for travel where possible. Trips by air are unavoidable in the lifestyle we’ve chosen, and we’ve attempted to offset this carbon by buying solar panels for a farm school in India and a solar farm in Austria, 8 KW in all. These panels will apparently offset around 8 tons annually, but there’s still more to be done.
I first heard about sea level rise in a talk by paleo-climatologist Herbert Flohn at IIASA sometime in the late 1970s. At that time, many of the information requests that the IIASA library received were about global effects of a nuclear winter in the aftermath of nuclear war. Research themes changed quickly; interest moving to carbon dioxide emissions from fossils fuels, global warming, acid rain and stratospheric ozone.
In the intervening years, the reality of human-induced global warming has been accepted by all but the most ideologically blinkered societies worldwide. Travelling through parts of rural India soon after retirement in 2013, I saw repeated instances of people taking actions to adapt to climate change; water harvesting to compensate for unprecedented droughts, reforestation efforts; introduction of organic farming methods and drought resistant crops. I’d like to think that much of the credit for these adaptation and mitigation actions goes to studies by IIASA and other research institutions worldwide; scientific studies whose results filtered down over decades through the media and drew attention to these problems early on. There’s no way to prove this, and some of the water harvesting systems I saw were really ancient structures brought back into use. See more about that here
Efforts in 2015 and 2016 to help establish a rural education and vocation center failed for a very positive reason. The five acres of land (2 hectares) that had been donated to us for school use by a well-wisher is worth approximately € 300,000 (€65,000 per acre at today’s prices). The donated property was fertile agricultural land and classified as such. The local administrative authorities refused permission to reclassify the plot for use as a school and insisted that the land remain in use for agriculture. This was a positive outcome, because one of our reasons for this choice of location of a school was to prevent displacement of the rural population by expensive housing projects that would only benefit urbanites.
However the effort was not wasted. Since then our local partners have decided to build an organic farm on the land and use the experience gained to encourage the farming practices of communities in neighbouring villages. One function of this farm would be to develop markets for organic produce. We discovered several small companies in the area that offer free midday meals to their workers. They were happy to find a local supply of good vegetables. One enterprising factory owner offered his workers three free meals a day, sourcing all the vegetables from his own backyard. The vegetables he showed us were grown in plastic tubs lined with mats made of nutrient-rich hemp fibers. In fact, the method is so successful that he gives away growing kits free to any of his workers who want one for their own families’ use.
An encounter in early 2017 with a conservationist who runs a hatchery for Olive Ridley turtles on the sea coast near Chennai city led me to Tiruvannamalai, a town 200 km to the south-west. Here is an organic farm school where text-book sustainable living is practiced in the most lively and joyous manner possible. There are around 100 children in the school, ranging in age from 8 to 18. The links below will give an idea of activities at the school.
In addition to organic farming, environmental conservation and education, the school also works with villagers in the surrounding countryside, reforesting the hill that dominates the temple town, planting around 15,000 trees a year. The school’s efforts inspired us (myself and a few friends in India) to help them become energy self-sufficient, adding 5 KW of solar panels to the three they already had. Together with battery backup, the school is now completely independent of the grid. (photo attached).
This activity led me to a thought. If IIASA’s work ultimately inspired these kinds of sustainability acts, what about IIASA’s own carbon footprint? IIASA’s alumni are scattered all over the world. What if we joined together, wherever we are, and worked to offset IIASA’s carbon emissions? Such actions would benefit our own communities, wherever we may happen to live. To kick-start this effort, I’ve decided to fund the planting of 1000 trees in 2018 through the farm school mentioned above. If each tree sequesters 25 kilos of carbon (as a rule of thumb, regardless of species), this would offset 25 tons of the Institute’s annual carbon emissions.
Should this be a formal organized effort? Readers’ suggestion welcomed here. All we would need is a virtual platform where one can document one’s own efforts and have a running tally. Ultimately the goal is to achieve carbon neutrality, not only for the Institute, but also for the communities in which each one of us lives. But, as for so many initiatives, IIASA could be a starting point.
On a personal note, the years since retirement have been very fulfilling. Thanks to my wife’s job, we were able to spend 2 idyllic years on an island paradise near Hong Kong. This provided background material for a work of fiction, Grace in the South China Sea. There are two sequels in the pipeline (The Trees of Ta Prohm, and Heartwood), to appear in 2018. Look for the earlier books and announcements on the Amazon author page here.
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