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Sunday, February 26, 2017

Water and food security should be at the heart of transforming to a low carbon economy

Posted by steve on January 24, 2010

With energy availability peaking and demand still rising, many are promoting the idea of transitioning to the low carbon economy. But what are the priorities? Light bulbs? Ethanol cars? From my perspective we should be concentrating on that which we need everyday and that takes at least one quarter of our weekly budget: food and water. Food and water security should be the cornerstone of sustainable development. Already the system is failing and one billion of six billion go to bed hungry of an evening. How can we expect to support a growing population on less fossil fuel that costs more? We should start now, we have little time to loose.

Let me start with a few key concepts and then go on to explain why NOW is the time to work to create water and food security globally, and to set up the provision of water and food up so it is not fossil fuel dependent.

Key concept – Water and food security

Water security is closely linked to food security: During the second half of the 20th century, world population had a twofold increase, agriculture doubled food production and developing countries increased per capita food consumption by 30 percent. However, while feeding the world and producing a diverse range of non-food crops such as cotton, rubber and industrial oils in an increasingly productive way, agriculture also confirmed its position as the biggest user of water on the globe. Irrigation now claims close to 70 percent of all freshwater appropriated for human use.

Source: Land and Water Division FAO

Food security is one of the cornerstones of society for health, peace and prosperity. People who are well fed are also people with the means to change their situation.

Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life. Household food security is the application of this concept to the family level, with individuals within households as the focus of concern. Source: FAO

Key concept – sustainable development

The Bruntland commission defined sustainable development thus: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

A more detailed model describes the dynamic balance between factors balance to ensure future generations the fair chance to a standard of living.


Key concept – Ecology

From an ecological point of view, a sustainable condition in an area is very much like an area of ecological maturity. Left alone, living systems tend towards ecological maturity. Key characteristics of mature ecosystems include:

• Very little leakage of mineral and biological nutrients

• High degree of capture of energy from the sun

• Retention, of especially of phosphor

• Water flow from the system is minimised, water is held as long as possible before being released as evaporation and transpiration.

• Animal populations in balance with the plant and tree population.

Mature eco-systems are able to provide a wide range of ecological services, like food, timber, firewood, water purification as well as recreational services.

Key concept – Resilience: the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganise while undergoing change, so as to retain essentially the same function, structure, identity and feedbacks

Resilience is perhaps a more useful concept than sustainability. It describes the ability of our society to withstand outside pressures.

Systems for water and food provision need to be resilient, to be able to deal with among other things, climate change, populations pressure and fossil fuel depletion. Applicant’ solutions are judged on the resilience of their solutions. The higher the resilience, the higher the ranking of the application.

Key concept – That the right to water and food is part of human rights

Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control. ARTICLE 25. PARAGRAPH ONE OF THE UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS.

“The human right to water is indispensable for leading a life in human dignity. It is a prerequisite for the realization of other human rights” THE UN COMMITTEE ON ECONOMIC, SOCIAL AND CULTURAL RIGHTS

Food and water security are precursors of peace and thereby prosperity.

The state of sustainable development in the world today

The ambitions of sustainable development stated by the Bruntland Commission (above) and today’s situation in the world do not match. In fact, many factors indicate that societies are developing in a worrying counter-sustainable direction.

Inability to feed inhabitants


FAO estimates that 1.02 billion people are undernourished worldwide in 2009. This represents more hungry people than at any time since 1970 and a worsening of the unsatisfactory trends that were present even before the economic crisis. The increase in food insecurity is not a result of poor crop harvests but because high domestic food prices, lower incomes and increasing unemployment have reduced access to food by the poor. In other words, any benefits from falling world cereal prices have been more than offset by the global economic downturn.

Destruction of ecosystems’ ability to provide services

Initiated in 2001, the objective of The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) was to assess the consequences of ecosystem change for human well-being and the scientific basis for actions needed to enhance the conservation and sustainable use of those systems and their contribution to human well-being. Some key messages of this United Nations-backed study:

Among the outstanding problems identified by this assessment are the dire state of many of the world’s fish stocks; the intense vulnerability of the 2 billion people living in dry regions to the loss of ecosystem services, including water supply; and the growing threat to ecosystems from climate change and nutrient pollution.

? Human activities have taken the planet to the edge of a massive wave of species extinctions, further threatening our own well-being.

? The loss of services derived from ecosystems is a significant barrier to the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals to reduce poverty, hunger and disease.

? The pressures on ecosystems will increase globally in coming decades unless human attitudes and actions change.

Lack of self sufficiency, use of ghost and fossil acres in the developed world

The diagram above (courtesy of Transition training UK) shows how food security is achieved in England.

Clearly, all three means create environmental challenges as well as challenges of food distribution equity.

By importing food from other countries, taking from future generations by over-harvesting and by depleting non-renewable energy sources, the UK is living with a counter-sustainable system of food provision.


Vulnerability to fuel prices

Even if food is available, the present system creates inequalities, especially because of price. As fossil fuel is non-renewable, sooner or later demand will exceed supply and prices will soar.

“This (commenting on food price rises due to oil price hikes) is the new face of hunger. There is food on shelves, but people are priced out of the market. There are food riots in countries where we have not seen them before. We will have a significant gap if commodity prices remain this high, and we will need an extra half billion dollars just to meet existing need.” Josette Sheeran, Head of the UN’s World Food Programme February 2008

Lack of resilience in food and water provision systems

Of concern too, is that the arrangements for food provision that have developed over the recent decades lack resilience.

The following comes from Rob Hopkin’s keynote article in the magazine Resurgence No. 257 November/December 2009

Let’s take a supermarket as an example. It may be possible to increase its sustainability and to reduce its carbon emissions by using less packaging, putting solar photovoltaics on the roof and installing more energy-efficient fridges. However, resilience thinking would argue that the closure of local food shops and networks that resulted from the opening of the supermarket, as well as the fact that the store itself only contains two days’ worth of food at any moment – the majority of which has been transported great distances to get there – has massively reduced the resilience of community food security, as well as increasing its oil vulnerability. One extreme, but relevant, example of where sustainability thinking falls short was Tesco’s recent ‘Flights for Lights’ promotion, where people were able to gain air miles when they purchased low-energy light bulbs!

The turning points

Several turning points that impact food provision have happened during the last few decades.

Carbon Dioxide concentrations pass 350 ppm in 1990.

Some climate scientist, including NASA’s own expert James Hansen, believes that levels of carbon dioxide over 350 ppm (part per million) put the climate system in danger of becoming unstable, with uncontrollable warming as one possible result. Already, climate change is forcing many farmers to leave what were once fertile areas. Massive Australian rice farms, that could supply millions with rice, have been forced to close because of drought.

Fossil fuel use in developing countries surpasses that of the OECD in 2005. Competition for fuel is likely to grow, raising prices.

As much as one quarter of the world fossil fuel use is for food provision, food prices are likely to rise too.

The peak of oil production

According to some experts, including Prof. Kjell Aleklett of Uppsala University, Sweden , the peak of oil production is near or been reached already. Again, as populations increase and countries force ahead with their plans for economic development, demand pressures will raise prices, raising food prices in turn.

Agreements to limit fossil fuel use

The recent COP15 Copenhagen Accord sets the stage for reductions in fossil fuel use, which potentially reduces the amount of fuel available for food provision.

The need for true innovation

(The British department of food, DEFRA) … will discover (not so surprisingly) that real food security and real sustainability are in fact one and the same thing. JONATHON PORRITT, FOUNDER DIRECTOR OF FORUM FOR THE FUTURE WWW.FORUMFORTHEFUTURE.ORG, AND CHAIRMAN OF THE UK SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT COMMISSION

There is, therefore need for true innovation to provide solutions to the three challenges to increasing food insecurity:

• Effects of climate change

• Population pressure

• Fossil fuel dependence

The solutions need to be innovative rather than narrow technical solutions as they must work for those who are poor, in areas where fossil fuel may not be available, and where the climate is ever more unpredictable.


Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future

For more information on Ecological maturity,, see System Ecologist Folke Gunther’s website

Transition Towns founder Rob Hopkins discusses resilience in relation to the UK government’s plan for a low-carbon society in Resurgence No. 257 November/December 2009

Uppsala University:

the UK Sustainable Development Commission

Brave new world, insects, whales and sustainability

Posted by steve on January 13, 2010

On holiday recently I had a real serendipity experience with a couple of books.

Part of the research for the blog involved looking at books which took a similar approach – that is to say envisioning a sustainable future in order to stimulate thought leadership. Imagine my surprise when I walked into a tiny village near the holiday cottage I was renting to see a book town library.

Why serendipity? Well book towns was an idea Book town founder Richard Booth got back in the 60s when he met a descendant of author of Utopia, Sir Thomas More. She ( I forget her name) turned up in a pony and trap. Booth’s insight was that that second hand books are “a re-saleable economy with a product which has no sell-by date and is available in its billions”.

Villages would concentrate on book binding, antique book shops, writers’ circles and so on. This particular book town housed a rather eccentric form of bookstore: the books were arranged by colour of binding. The blue room was especially overwhelming.

I found a book on Utopia, and Brave New World Revisited, by Aldous Huxley.

Brave New World was written in the 1930s, before the second world war and the explosion of population growth. I guess it is a book with a purpose similar to this blog –  to enable thought about the future by envisioning different outcomes.

In Brave New World revisited from 1950, Aldous Huxley talks about how his book tried to warn people of the threats of overpopulation and urbanization together with a desire for the GOOD ORDER. This urban pressure, bringing so many individuals together, would encourage the mindset that sees people more as insects. This in turn leads to dehumanizing of society, albeit the basic intention may have been good. He goes on to reflect how his predictions were coming true even faster than he thought possible.

Amazing power of foresight that man had: the world population passed 50% living in urban environments around 2005. And look at how so many sit of an evening alone in the blue light of the TV screen.

Let’s consider insects as a societal model: every individual has a specific task to perform. If she does not perform it she is punished and evicted from the insect society by soldier individuals. Individuals in insect communities are born into their roles, which are not learned but genetic. That an insect community survives has much to do with how each individual performs their tasks exactly in conjunction with the others, where simple patterns of communication go on between each individual.

So you could say that insects’ culture is inherited and adapted to their situation.

There’s more: a few days earlier I had sat transfixed in front of a nature programme on TV about killer whales.

These whales are the most widespread species of mammal after man. They are extremely adaptable. In some areas they eat small fish, in others larger ones. Some live on dolphins, others on seals. Each group of whales has developed their own patterns of behaviour which require complex communication (for hunting in packs) and teaching. Behaviour of one pack of whales in one situation, like the ones who live on seals, is completely different from the ones who, for example, live on small fish. And the behaviour and communication are learned.

The programme described how “playful” the whales are. They experiment. When radar and sonar techniques meant fishing boats could get to the fish before the whales researchers thought whales would starve. But before long, the whales had worked out that fishing boats were travelling toward the big shoals, so they went in that direction and got there before them. They didn’t starve.

So mammalian culture is learnt, developed and passed on to coming generations. Playfulness and experimentation is required for the group to adapt to its circumstances. And communication and learning are key.

So I learned a lot on my holiday – two books in the spirit of PORENA – and that any societal development towards forming human society in the pattern of insects is going against our nature.

And confirmation of my original observation: that it is through the development of our culture that we will survive, not through the promulgation of mechanistic solutions that see humans as insects.

We need to play, experiment, work together, communicate and pass on what we know that is appropriate to the next generation. How I don’t know. Only that we must,

Connecting people to sustainability: the uncomfortable truths

Posted by steve on January 11, 2010

Attending  a recent workshop on sustainable development and regional development, I got involved in a working group looking at the challenge of connecting people and sustainability. The whole exercise gave food for thought so I thought I would share my notes here on my blog.

Suppose you were on the management team of an organization that was failing to live up to the expectations of its owners and, more worrying, showed even less prospects of doing it in the future. What would you do? How would you approach the challenge?

One approach is to use six sigma tools and the process called SIX SIGMA RDMAIC. Here is an overview:

  • Recognize what is most important for your organization, and identify the key initiatives that will have the most impact to your organization.
  • Define the problem, the voice of the customer, and the project goals, specifically.
  • Measure key aspects of the current process and collect relevant data.
  • Analyze the data to investigate and verify cause-and-effect relationships. Determine what the relationships are, and attempt to ensure that all factors have been considered. Seek out root cause of the defect under investigation.
  • Improve or optimize the current process based upon data analysis using techniques such as design of experiments, poka yoke or mistake proofing, and standard work to create a new, future state process. Set up pilot runs to establish process capability.
  • Control the future state process to ensure that any deviations from target are corrected before they result in defects. Control systems are implemented such as statistical process control, production boards, and visual workplaces and the process is continuously monitored.

Each of these steps has a whole tool-kit associated with them. you can choose tools from the tool-kit and use them separately, or choose to run the whole RDMAIC process using several tools for each step.

Suppose the organization was Europe. And the management team recognises that Europe is well on the path of coutner sustainabiltiy and will face major problems related to resource and envrinmental depletion, and that more economic gowth will not guarantee better living.

Our group took a couple of the tools of six sigma and applied them to defining the problem.  The first tool is called asking why five times. You can read more on this tool here.

Here are the results of our group’s  work which was given the issue: People in Europe not connected to sustainability

  1. Why? Because they do not know about it or ways to support it
  2. Why not? Because they have not come into contact with it in their lives
  3. Why not? Because none of the major contact points include it or are set up to encompass it
  4. Why not? Because they would become politically unpopular or economically non-viable if they did
  5. Why is that? Their organisations find themselves in such a context for historical reasons

To analyse the root causes further, we applied the tool called an (Ishikawa Diagram) or a (Cause-and-Effect Diagram) or a (Fishbone Diagram)

(Click on the diagram to enlarge it.) This exercise was extremely uncomfortable to do.  The more we discussed, the more we could see how the very fabric of society is imbued with counter sustainability, from deepest held beliefs to physical infrastructure. As an individual, even with years of working with sustainability behind you, you live in a world that is talking and acting as if action on sustainability is not urgent, indeed it is under discussion if it is needed at all. And well inside any conference room in a gathering of sustainability- oriented individuals, the way forward is often still something for discussion.

These findings were given the title “the uncomfortable truths”.

Standard practice is to study which areas to prioritize, and to create an improvement or remediation plan.

In our case, the aims of the conference host CURE, the Convention for Urban and Rural Europe are:

  • to offer – at the time of the Mid-Term Reviews of EU programmes in 2008-9 – recommendation on policy frameworks and measures which will assist a sustainable approach to the future of urban and rural areas in Europe, achieved through effective partnership between governments and civil society
  • to build a partnership of organisations who are committed to building sustainable urban-rural relations throughout Europe

Studying the diagram, we felt the root causes we could influence were

  1. Indicators
  2. Information and education
  3. Paradigms
  4. Policies

To get started on working with these root causes the deepest held beliefs – our paradigms – is an obvious place to start.

To return to the Management Team analogy for one second: corporations often face this problem, that deep–seated beliefs that have been at the root of the very success of the organization no longer apply in a changed business environment. The process of addressing them is one of the cornerstones of the work of management guru Peter Senge, which he terms “mental models”.

The discipline of mental models starts with turning the mirror inward; learning to unearth our internal pictures of the world, to bring them to the surface and hold them rigorously to scrutiny. It also includes the ability to carry on ‘learningful’ conversations that balance inquiry and advocacy, where people expose their own thinking effectively and make that thinking open to the influence of others. (Senge 1990: 9)

One simple exercise is to have a two column list. On the left, the paradigm or mental model. On the right, reasons why it is counter productive given the current or future expected environment.

The notes below show how far we came in our session.

We need to reach a level of economic growth in order to be able to clean up our society Drives economic growth further, and more counter.sustainable investment
Green means putting back progress People become negative to change
People NEED cars Sustainability becomes “what can we put in our fuel tanks”