subscribe to the RSS Feed

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Overshoot day August 20: will “economic” reality meet resource reality?

Posted by steve on September 22, 2013

Let us look at overshoot day from the point of view of economics. By economics I mean the technology of keeping track of housekeeping with resources and keeping track of material obligations to those around us.  Economics does not need to be restricted to counting with money. Other measures can be used. And it is fascinating to try it. In this case we can consider that a Nation has its own household that it needs to keep fed and housed, and has its natural resources to do it. We start with a situation however where many nations are living over their means. WAIT! There is more to read… read on »

Swedish Foundation postulates fees as cure for externalization of P and N

Posted by steve on January 6, 2013

coverphosph1 Inorganic phosphorus in the form of the phosphate PO3-4  is required for all known forms of life, playing a major role in biological molecules such as DNA and RNA where it forms part of the structural framework of these molecules. For humans it is essential in food and  Sweden imports some 730,000 tons of fertilizer a year, up to one third of it containing phosphorous. At the same time, much of it ends up in the Baltic seas causing algal blooming and other problems.  Some sources give our current system – reliance on phosphorous rocked mined in Morocco – as only having 35 years left,

Although nitrogen is not mined, it is extracted from the air in industrial processes to produce chemical fertilizer, the same issues exist with the massive import into the country and the resulting 120,000 tons  of emissions into the Baltic.

Both elements are in the top four the biggest challenges to humanity as exceeding or being close to exceeding planetary boundaries.

In this latest briefing paper, the TSSEF explains how changing the regulatory system can both restrict the amount of dependency on imported fertilizers and encourage new, green business to work with recycling and thereby radically reduce  the burden on the environment whilst stimulating organic food production.

Download the report here brief_phosphorousrc

Planetary boundaries already exceeeded

New course in sustainable living 27 – 30 Sep.

Posted by steve on May 15, 2012

People seek a sense of connectedness to nature. Many want to live in a way that is light on the earth and does not require huge amounts of debt and energy to function.  They want to invest in a way of life that they can believe in, economically and morally.  Since the 1980’s, systems ecologist Folke Günther has been developing a sustainable living concept called eco-units to do just this.
Eco-units answer the question of how we can create sustainable resilient communities that provide a standard of living whilst ensuring future generation can enjoy the same.
This workshop aims to provide you with sufficient insight into eco-units to enable you to convene a group and start your own project.
The course will be held in Southern Sweden later this year. Follow this link to read more and book your place!
I will present experiences from establishing our Swedish Eco-Unit.
Read more here,
DATES: Thursday, September 27, 2012 to Sunday  September 30, 2012 at 2pm
LOCATION: Conference Center, Södra Rörum, HÖÖR,  SWEDEN.

At Last! Dirt the movie…

Posted by steve on April 6, 2012

Anyone intereted in understanding the complexities of sustainable  world food and water situation should watch this film. It carefull goes over the importance of theat which we give a negative namen to – dirt that may well be the most important piece of technology we have available to us!

Follow this link here for a fuller explanation

Sustainable development to feed the planet

Posted by steve on December 2, 2010

I enclose my presentation from the Water and Food Award day on the 25th November 2010 (with soundtrack) explaining the Award’d sustainability approach.

The world may be smaller than you think. This is why we need to invest in securing land.

Posted by steve on November 10, 2010

  • There are total 14.8 billion hectares of land on the surface of the Earth
  • Only about 30% is inhabitable
  • There are 6.8 billion people on the planet
  • That gives 0,65 hectare per person to live on
  • 10% of land is arable (of that only a quarter is cultivated today)
  • That gives about 0.2 hectare per person to grow crops

To give you an idea of a hectare, (ten thousand square meters) see this picture below.
This running tack is 400 meters around on the inside. The straight sides are 100 meters long.
The grass on the inside is about 0.95 hectares.

0.2 hectare is about one large allotment or two small ones.

If we club together, land for a village can cost between say 4000-14000 Euro per hectare.
Just an investment of 400 Euro can secure as much as a tenth of a hectare to be stewarded sustainably for coming generations or as a lifeboat for yourself.

Think about it! Discuss it here and at your local Open World Café.

Beta site for teachers launched

Posted by steve on August 1, 2010

A new site, in beta format, has just launched to support maths and science teachers who want to convey a deeper understanding for sustainability to their students. The  site just now offers a few open-ended  problems for sutdents to practice their calculation and estimation skills on with problems around:

  1. How much land is available to each person?
  2. How much land is needed?
  3. How long can we use oil for?

The site welcomes more problems and model answers as well as advice from teachers on how to use the problems in the classroom.

There is an evolutionary biology story of stuff – are you ready to hear it?

Posted by steve on July 29, 2010

You would think that with signals everywhere about how world energy production has peaked, there would be more rational discussion generally about how to prepare for the future. In some ways, our way of living is ridiculously wasteful of energy. At least ten litres of fuel are used to get the 50 litres of petrol to your local filling station and into your car. And when you go and pick up the shopping in the car, you use more energy in the transport to do that than is embodied in the calories in the food itself. In fact we are surrounded by huge amounts of energy in embodied form. To make a car uses nearly as much energy as the car uses over its lifetime.

Embodied energy – emergy – and why we need so much of it is an evolutionary conundrum

For scientifically minded people like myself who like to put things in spreadsheets and do back of envelope calculations this all seems like dysfunctional behaviour gone mega. You would think there would be a drive for all of us to live better on less energy, more equitably at that, which would reduce wars and crime. However, the biologist in me has another explanation. To understand this conundrum you need to think about evolution.

When you go and pick up the shopping in the car, you use more energy in the transport  than is embodied in the calories in the food itself.

I remember being on a biology field-trip during my university studies way back in the 70s, and my lecturer pointing out the shape of one of the shells of the snails living in the woods.

“Isn’t evolution a mystery?” he said. “That large protuberance on the side of the shell has no function, and it has taken a lot of energy for the snail to make it. Still the snails survive. You would think evolution would make everything a lot more energy effective.”

At first thoughts one might be tempted to think that the snail shell shape was a snapshot in time of shells evolving towards a more energy-effective future and a better design. In fact, today, the discussion is very much alive in sustainability circles. The term emergy, short for embedded energy, means the energy required to get a product into your possession, for example for a car it could be from mine to driveway.

You  might  think mammals’ energy use is  a snapshot in time evolving towards a more energy-effective future. You would be so wrong.

However, looking at the animal kingdom, mammals and birds especially, although nature is highly energy efficient, you see peacocks with giant spectacular feathers, lions with huge manes, elk with magnificent antlers etc. There is something more than energy efficiency behind all this; and it has to do with mating.

A theory of evolutionary biology says that animals, often males, develop features signalling they have an excess of energy. This makes them more attractive to the opposite sex. Crudely put, the female thinks “if he has all that excess energy to make those stupid antlers then he probably has enough to look after me and all the wonderful kids we are going to have”.

What does this all have to do with the peak of oil production? Well, humans work the same way too. We don’t develop protuberances or fancy feathers, but we are nuts about making things look really neat, shiny, straight, flat, fancy, big … you get the idea. I could go on for ages.

This drive to make great stuff, including clothes and running all the way up past yachts to skyscrapers is in part down to a built-in evolutionary drive to procreate. As we are flock animals, the position in the flock is important for the couple so both males and females drive the creation and acquisition of possessions that signal excess of energy.

We are not going to address peak oil until we address our own built-in natural drives.

By now you will probably realise this drive is comparative. For the couple to establish their rank in the flock they need to be a little bit better than others they see around them. Put another way, there is an evolutionary drive in humans to use excess energy to form the environment around them. In a way, this is forming themselves, the environment and possessions define who they are.

Stepping aside from the deeper discussion of how this drive operates in society, we turn to the incredulous scientists – standing with an advanced calculator in their hand wondering how the population of the Earth can use so much energy and get so little achieved.

Some examples: despite the fact we have used up around half of the world’s oil reserves, more people are in poverty, without food and water and education than ever before. Despite years of research and development we are still driving around in cars that give the same gas mileage as the Model T Ford. And the third largest cause of death is in the transport system.

A growing number of scientifically educated people, me included, are baffled by the apparent disinterest in doing anything about creating a standard of living using planet friendly levels of energy.

But of course we still love our shiny stuff, we scientifically minded still want to establish our position in society so we still exhibit high emergy behaviour. We have to find a way – and you could call it new technology of you like although not the kind of technology that requires machines – to act as responsible stewards of the planet whilst living with the genetic drives built in to us. We need if you like, an inner way to come to terms with these animal drives. We already have advanced practices to deal with aggression (laws, policing) and sex drive (moral codes, marriage). This technology (maybe I should use another term – like cultural value and practice) could include rites of passage into adulthood, ceremonies, training from elders, self-imposed limits, all kind of things.

Which brings me to my final reflection: these things are probably to be found in ancient tribal cultures. Tribal cultures appeared in a context where the amount of energy available was constant (for example what the forest, in walking distance, gave in terms of fruit and animals). Let us find the bearers of these cultures and go and talk to them before they disappear from the face of the earth, killed by fast food, runaway trucks or fossil-fuel powered war.

350 is the number to aim for!

Posted by steve on May 28, 2010

BOOK REVIEW Storms of My Grandchildren by James Hansen

Posted by steve on February 21, 2010


Storms of My Grandchildren by James Hansen, December 2009. In Storms of My Grandchildren, James Hansen, 68 years old and one of the world’s leading climate scientists,  gives us the results of his lifelong work to understand the climate changes that are now  occurring, and offers advice on how to minimize them. As a scientific description of climate science  and climate change, this book is one of the best, written in an accessible tone with excellent metaphors  and simple explanations that non-technical readers can easily understand. But Hansen also  provides the depth and detail that make the book interesting to readers with more background and  previous reading in climate science. What also makes this book both enjoyable and unusual is that it  reads almost like a suspense story, we are pulled along through the more detailed explanations by  Hansen’s teacher-like encouragements (“Bear with me a few paragraphs more, or if you don’t have  the patience, skip to the next section”) and by his candid accounts of a decades long effort to make  politicians aware of the seriousness of the climate problems facing humanity. Along the way, Hansen  takes up in the book, as he has done in real life, the major arguments of the climate contrarians  (sceptics), and puts them to rest with indisputable facts and clear logic. At the same time, he is ever  the honest scientist and teacher, taking pains to show where the data is poor (for example, concerning  aerosols, needed to accurately calculate the net heat balance of the earth) and where the models  lack realism (for example, in describing the melting of ice-sheets). On the whole Hansen argues  mostly from historic data, referring back to earlier geologic periods in the earth’s history when the  climate changed, and uses models only to study hypothetical events or special questions.

This empirical approach is highly convincing. Thus are we led to understand that the current  climate, with a warming of a 0,7 degree C, is near the highest of this interglacial period (the last  12000 years) and probably about like previous interglacial warm periods. Those warmings, however,  were caused by gradual, small changes in the tilt in the earth’s axis and in its orbit, and thus  were temporary, while our current warming, caused by mankind’s release of CO2 into the atmosphere,  is still on the rise and will not stop until centuries or millennia after we stop putting CO2  into the air. We find that the 2 degrees so much talked-about by politicians is not a safe limit, but  what Hansen calls “a disaster scenario”, since the last time the earth was that hot, around 3 million  years ago in the Middle Pliocene period, sea level was 25 meters higher than today and earth was “a  different planet”.

What is a safe limit, then? Hansen today argues for 350 ppm CO2 (note: less than the current  concentration of 387 ppm) corresponding to about a 1 degree maximum warming (0,7 already, the  rest will come gradually in decades ahead). The reason: the earth systems are non-linear and almost  certainly have tipping points, beyond which change speeds up, reinforcing itself, and taking the  climate to another state. The key factors affecting these tipping points are: 1) ice sheet melting 2)  methane hydrates on the ocean floor (and in the frozen tundra). These are wild cards, since the current  warming apparently is occurring ten or a hundred times faster than earlier warmings in earth’s  history. Research on these factors is scanty and current models do not include them. Their major  effects, however, are well known: a speeding up of the warming (the uncertainties concern the  temperatures at which they begin, how fast they proceed and the time needed to reach a final state).  Pointing to Arctic summer ice melting, mountain glacial melting, coral reefs dying and measured  warming on land, Hansen says: “Relevant scientists—those who know what they are talking about  —realize that the climate system is on the verge of tipping points.” Therefore are we strongly  advised to limit ourselves to 1-degree, only slightly above where we are now.

Interwoven in the scientific explanation of climate change, Hansen tells the story of his only  moderately-successful attempts to make the public aware of global warming and get climate change  put on the political agenda. Hansen’s experience indicates, sadly, that national governments, in the  U.S. and elsewhere, are largely uninterested in real, effective action. He attributes this to money:  special interest groups (coal, oil, …) use lobbyists to convince politicians that climate change is  uncertain, natural and not dangerous. And as with the tobacco industry earlier, vested interests seek  to keep the issue seen in the media and the public eye as an open issue to be debated, not an imminent  danger to be acted upon.

Time and again, Hansen urges young people to take charge of their  own futures by voting new politicians into the arena and putting new, transparent, politics to work,  going back to the original ideal of the American revolution: one man, one vote (in which special  interests could not rule). Young people yes, but this is something at which we can all work, regardless  of age.

What shall we work for, in the political agenda? First, to phase out coal until the emissions can  be successfully captured and safely stored—that means a moratorium on new coal plants today  since there are currently no capture and storage facilities in operation—it is only an idea. Second,  put a price on carbon, through taxes at the source (the mine, oil well, port of import, etc.). This will  work to the disadvantage of fossil fuels so that they gradually will be phased out. Such taxes can be  implemented nationally, then successively adjusted to be fair (in the sense of international business  competition) through bilateral and international agreements.

Hansen believes the Kyoto idea of cap  and trade is hot air—political greenwash intended to give the impression of doing something, while  not changing anything at all (emissions have in fact continued to rise since Kyoto was agreed upon  1992). Third, a crash program on fourth generation (breeder reactor) nuclear power that runs on  uranium waste from old reactors plus from decommissioned nuclear weapons, and generates almost  no long-lived waste. The purpose would be to develop a cost-competitive, standard reactor that  could be readily and quickly deployed around the developing world (particularly in China and  India) instead of building more coal-fired plants. Coal is currently the cheapest power source, and  the one that developing nations are using to build their economies on. Hansen’s plug for breeder  reactors may be hard to understand or swallow for many environmentalists, accustomed to thinking  of nuclear power as the costliest, most dangerous mistake of the past century.

But perhaps we  should read up more on this issue , and even supposing an unfavourable review, accept nuclear  research and development as one of many lines to pursue, in order to not prematurely close the door  on anything which might help us out of a the big bind we are in.  Regardless of how one feels on the nuclear issue, Hansen’s integrity and genuine concern for his  grandchildren and ours shine throughout this important book and make it probably the best available  work for understanding both the climate science and the politics behind the current state of  inaction at national and international levels. (A less technical description of the science, but not the  politics, can be found in Mark Lynas’ excellent Sex Degrees).

It is well worth reading, even if you  choose other political priorities on the details of how to phase out fossil fuels on a planetary scale.  Hansen’s main political message is that if we are to avoid dangerous climate change, most of the  oil, gas and coal must remain in the ground. Since we cannot expect the owners of fossil fuels to  stop selling them, we must tax and legislate them out of existence, and provide workable alternatives  for all of us to live on in the near and foreseeable future. Otherwise, our children and grandchildren  will see increasingly violent storms, exacerbated by rising sea level that will make life  more costly, more difficult and more unpredictable than it already is on this crowded blue planet,  third from the sun.  N.B.: Dr. James Hansen is a brave man who has fought censure and intimidation through much  of his career, and kept speaking out in the service of what he believed in. Now, with this book, he  writes for his and our grandchildren. Much of what he writes is available free online at his website: For a short description of his criticism of “politics as usual”, see the  November 2009 article: Is there any real chance of averting the climate crisis? listed on that  website.

Archie Duncanson, Stockholm, February 2010