Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Garrett Hardin, Tragedy of the Commons


Garrett James Hardin was born in Dallas in 21 April 1915. At age four he contracted polio which left him with one leg 5cm shorter than another and eventually confined him to a wheelchair. Hardin studied zoology at the University of Chicago and was awarded a PhD in microbiology at Stanford University in 1941. He moved to the University of California in 1946, he served there as Professor of Human Ecology from 1963 until his retirement in 1978, although he continued to write, teach and lecture for another two decades.

Hardin is best known for his 1968 paper, The Tragedy of the Commons, published in Science which called for regulation of population in order to preserve the future of the human race. His later pronouncements on abortion and immigration led to condemnation from the left and right of the political spectrum. In 1994 Hardin was one of the 52 scientific signatories to a letter to support the authors of ‘The Bell Curve’, a book on intelligence whose chapter on race and intelligence had caused much controversy.

A long-time believer in euthanasia, Hardin stuck by his beliefs and committed suicide along with his wife in September 2003 having been diagnosed with heart disease and Lou Gehrig's disease respectively. However despite his views on population he was succeeded by five children.


Hardin based the central parable of ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ on a 1833 pamphlet by William Forster Lloyd entitled “Two Lectures on the Checks to Population”. The commons in question is a pasture open to all. If there is a small number of herders and cattle on the pasture there is no problem. But from one herder’s point of view, every cow he adds to his herd makes him richer whereas the resulting negative impact on the commons is borne by all the herders. If the herder decides to do the right thing for the sake of the common good while others increase their herds, he gets all the disadvantages and none of the benefits. Therefore it is in the interest of all the herders increase the number of cows until the common is devastated and everyone loses.

Hardin uses the classical definition of ‘tragedy’ as “the solemnity of the remorseless working of things” as opposed to “unhappiness” per se, but his point is the same – a laissez faire approach to the management of a finite or exhaustible resource will end in its destruction. He illustrates this with a number of examples such as global fish stocks – every nation will want to maximise their catch, but without regulation, stocks will eventually collapse. But the overall purpose of the paper is to demonstrate that an exponentially increasing population cannot survive on a finite planet.
“A finite world can support only a finite population; therefore, population growth must eventually equal zero.”

In the paper, Hardin notes that freedom to procreate is widely seen as a basic human right, including in the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights. But, he argues, we often restrict one right in order to preserve others, for example our laws against theft, he argues, make us more free, not less free.

Hardin makes it clear in The Tragedy of the Commons that he believed that there were no technological solutions to sustainability – he saw it as purely a moral issue. His solution to the population is "mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon".
"The population problem has no technical solution; it requires a fundamental extension in morality."

Many of the criticisms of Tragedy of the Commons revolve around its historical accuracy, with many arguing that in real life users of common land would co-operate to ensure its well being. Others saw the paper as a call for privatisation of public space and resources. In my opinion, both of these criticisms are wide of the mark. The commons story is a simple parable to illustrate what would happen in the absence of regulation – it would be very insulting to the actual users of common land to suggest that they couldn’t see the problems arising from the lack of regulation and put the necessary arrangements in place. Hardin certainly wasn’t the first to flag up the dangers of over-exploiting common resources, with Aristotle having said "what is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it,"

Where Hardin gets really controversial is in a 1974 essay on what he calls “lifeboat ethics”. He argues that if 50 people are in a lifeboat that can only hold 60 and 100 are in the water, they can only let 10 more people in the lifeboat or everyone drowns. He uses this analogy to argue that immigration from poor to rich countries should stop and that food aid is prolonging the population problem. Again Hardin is dismissive of liberal guilt.
"I feel guilty about my good luck," say some. The reply to this is simple: Get out and yield your place to others.

Personally I believe this logic is flawed. Hardin is assuming that all countries are self sufficient in food and other essentials, ignoring international trade in commodities, and that people are starving because there isn’t enough food in the world. Neither of these conditions was true in 1974 and neither is true now. The concentration of human beings geographically is not a problem now or in the future. More worryingly, his argument offers an opportunity for others rationalise their xenophobia. “Too many people” often becomes “too many of them” in arguments about population.

Garrett is less famous as the author of Garrett Hardin's Three Laws of Human Ecology:
First Law: We can never do merely one thing (ie everything is connected).
Second Law: There's no “away” to throw to.
Third Law: I = PAT

In the latter Law (often known as “i-pat”), P is population, A is affluence per capita (ie consumption), and T is the damage done by the technologies used to supply that consumption. Hardin rightly attributes this law to ecologists Robert Ehrlich and John Holdren who also argue that population is the key issue in sustainability.

Garrett Hardin must the most controversial guru in this series. Uncompromising and never afraid of controversy, he tackled problems many of us feel uncomfortable with head on and took pride in saying the unsayable - seemingly revelling in politically incorrectness. "There's nothing more dangerous than a shallow-thinking compassionate person," he told The New York Times. "God, he can cause a lot of trouble." But this apparent urge to offend liberals seems to have led him to create artificial scenarios such as the ‘lifeboat ethics’ analogy which are, in my opinion, dangerous as they can turn a rational and sensible debate about population into an irrational and largely irrelevant argument about immigration and, by extension, race. Overall, Hardin must be included as a green guru for the sheer debate that The Tragedy of the Commons produced. But he himself has made discussing population a taboo subject in many circles, holding back progress on the issue that he held so dear.

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Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Ray Anderson: Green Business


Ray Anderson was born in Georgia in 1934. He attended Georgia Institute of Technology and worked for a food company before switching to the carpet industry. In 1973, he spotted a new opportunity – to import European carpet tile technology to the US where broadloom carpet was the norm. This led to the foundation of his carpet tile company Interface, the largest in the world with about 40% of the market.

In 1994, Anderson was challenged by an employee to say what the company was doing to protect the environment. By coincidence he had been passed a copy of The Ecology of Commerce by Paul Hawken, so he read the book to give him some background for his response. He has described the impact of the book as “a spear in the chest”. He declared a goal of the company having zero impact on the planet by 2020 with a long-term ambition to become a “restorative company” – ie one which would have a net positive effect on the environment.

As a result of his efforts, Anderson has been awarded a raft of awards and honorary positions, for example, co-chairman of the President's Council on Sustainable Development in 1997, and the inaugural Millennium Award from Global Green in 1996. In 2001 he became the first corporate CEO to be awarded the prestigious George and Cynthia Mitchell International Prize for Sustainable Development from the National Academy of Sciences. He has written two books describing his experiences, Mid-Course Correction in 1998 and Confessions of a Radical Industrialist.

During a speech to the UCLA Anderson School of Management in January 2010, Ray Anderson announced he had been diagnosed with cancer.


Ray Anderson’s company, Interface, is the least likely champion of green business that you could imagine - it is the world's biggest manufacturer of carpet tiles; products made from oil-based chemicals using huge amounts of energy and producing tonnes of toxic waste. As Anderson says:
“If we can do it, anyone can. If anyone can, everyone can.”

Anderson’s response to his "spear in the chest" is the radical ‘Mission Zero’ commitment to have a zero ecological footprint by 2020. In order to achieve this, Interface developed the idea of ‘Mount Sustainability’ which has seven faces - all of which have to be climbed:

1. Zero waste

2. Eliminating emissions and effluent

3. Renewable energy

4. Recycled or renewable materials

5. Making transport resource efficient

6. Sensitizing stakeholders

7. Redesigning commerce

Anderson estimates that Interface is 40-50% of the way to achieving Mission Zero. There are too many examples of how they have progressed to list here, but here are a few key examples of innovation:

• TacTiles - a new carpet fixing tape, inspired by the tiny hairs that allow geckos' feet to cling to any surface, to eliminate the need for glue and make the carpet easier to recover.

• the Entropy carpet tile, again inspired by nature - this time leaves on a forest floor, which can be laid in any direction.
• Fairworks, a ‘fairly traded’ carpet tile made from natural materials by social enterprises in India.

These are great examples by any measure, but what lifts Anderson and Interface above the crowd is their ability to find a business opportunity where others see problems. For instance they turned the perceived cost of installing solar energy in one factory into a new product. The solar panels would generate zero carbon energy equivalent to the whole supply chain's carbon emissions, but wouldn’t give a realistic return on investment on energy savings. So they installed the system and branded the carpet from the factory “Solar-Made”. This product has won huge public sector contracts, worth at least 20 times the original investment.

Another success factor is Interface’s willingness to kill off products and services that do not comply with their goal. This ruthlessness is a spur to innovation as the deleted products need to be replaced by new products which score well ecologically as well as commercially.

A third key achievement is the embedding of sustainability into the DNA of such a large international industry. Anderson tells the story of a forklift driver who, when asked what his role was by a visitor, told her “Ma’am, I come to work every day to help save the earth.” I was told by a director of Interface’s European arm that “You can’t talk to anyone here for more than 5 minutes without the conversation turning to sustainability.”

Interface isn't afraid to fail either. Their much talked about "Evergreen" carpet leasing service (part of face 7) was a marketplace failure - mainly because their customer's financial systems and the US tax system couldn't cope with carpet being a revenue item rather than a capital item. But they continue to innovate, developing the ReEntry 2.0 carpet takeback system as they know to hit that zero footprint they need to close the loop on their own products.

Ray Anderson is in many ways an unlikely green guru. An industrialist, a Southern Gentleman, self deprecating and almost impossibly polite, he is as far from a tree-hugging tub thumper as you could imagine. But nobody else has delivered green business improvements on this scale. He has taken the theories of gurus like Amory Lovins and Janine Benyus and demonstrated that if done correctly they do make good business sense. By transforming an archetypal ‘dirty’ industry such as floor coverings, he has demolished the excuses from other sectors that it can’t be done. And he is committed to spreading the world, reportedly delivering around 150 speeches and interviews a year. When it comes to industry, Ray Anderson is the green guru.

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Saturday, January 2, 2010

David Holmgren & Bill Mollison: Permaculture


David Holmgren was born in Fremantle, Western Australia in 1955. He joined the Environmental Design School in Hobart, Tasmania in 1973, where he met Bill Mollison, who was then a lecturer at the University of Tasmania. Holmgren started writing a thesis on sustainable agriculture and, with additions from Mollison, this text became the legendary book Permaculture One, published in 1978. Holmgren has gone on to establish his own permaculture settlement at Melliodora and the larger eco-village of Fryers Forest. He works as a permaculture consultant, author and trainer.

Bruce Charles 'Bill' Mollison was born in 1928 in Stanley, Tasmania, Australia. He claims to have spent his life up to the age of 28 as “living in the bush or on the sea”, hunting or fishing. He became a scientist with the Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and the Tasmanian Inland Fisheries Department. He began teaching at the University of Tasmania in 1968 where he met David Holmgren. He started lecturing on Permaculture in 1976 and, following Permaculture One’s publication, he resigned his position in 1979 to develop and teach practical permaculture courses full time. He received the Right Livelihood Award in 1981.


According to Holmgren, “The word permaculture was coined by Bill Mollison and myself in the mid-1970s to describe an "integrated, evolving system of perennial or self-perpetuating plant and animal species useful to man". Mollison claims “I coined the term ‘permaculture’” for the system the two jointly developed, which he describes as “a framework for a sustainable agricultural system based on a multicrop of perennial trees, shrubs, herbs (vegetables and weeds), fungi and root systems”. The word itself is a contraction of the words ‘permanent’ and ‘agriculture’.

Holmgren later defines permaculture as "consciously designed landscapes which mimic the patterns and relationships found in nature, while yielding an abundance of food, fibre and energy for provision of local needs", but he goes on to say “more precisely I see permaculture as the use of systems thinking and design principles that provide the organising frame work for the above vision”. Mollison talks of permaculture being like aikido, working with the natural systems and turning adversity into strength, unlike conventional agriculture which he likens to karate, trying to kick and punch nature.

"All my life we've been at war with nature. I just pray that we lose that war. There are no winners in that war..." Bill Mollison

The archetypal permaculture set up resembles a small holding arranged in concentric rings, or zones. The dwelling at the centre of the system is surrounded by the crops and animals requiring most attention with more self sufficient systems in the outer zones. This simple ring system is distorted by radial sectors that reflect natural conditions, such as wind, sun, fire, water and slope. Within each resulting area, the system is designed to maximise the use of natural synergies and to exploit the “stacking” of plants ie their different vertical layers, the natural foraging of animals, and the edge effects where different eco-systems meet. Each element in the design ideally provides at least two functions (eg fodder and nitrogen fixing) and each function should be provided by at least two elements for resilience. These design principles were laid out by Holmgren and Mollison in the now out of print ‘Permaculture One’ which went on to be something of a counterculture classic.

It is not clear how close the two men were or are. In “Principles & Pathways” Holmgren refers to “an intense but relatively brief working relationship with Bill Mollison” before going on to refer to “[Mollison’s] charisma, his ego, and his abrasive and confrontationalist manner” Certainly they appear to be chalk and cheese in terms of personality - in the Foreword to the same book Prof Stuart Hill contrasts Holmgren - “the modest, reflective, thorough, follow through person” - with Mollison - “the wild ideas man with the public persona”. It also appears that they see permaculture from quite different perspectives.

Mollison’s point of view appears to be an extension of his own martial arts analogy above – permaculture is a fairly fixed framework to be taught by elders to newcomers who through study and practice can pass on the system to the next generation. Indeed he is reported to have attempted to protect the word ‘permaculture’ legally as he felt the interpretation of some proponents was diluting the core framework.

When a reviewer described Mollison as “seditious” his riposte was:

I teach self-reliance, the world's most subversive practice. I teach people how to grow their own food, which is shockingly subversive. So, yes, it’s seditious. But it’s peaceful sedition.

Demonstrating his pithy humour, he went on to declare in the same interview:

I hate lawns.

Holmgren, on the other hand, appears to see permaculture as more of a philosophical mindset to be applied across all aspects of human activity. Holmgren's main theoretical inspiration has been the American ecologist Howard T. Odum and his use of ‘emergy’ (embodied energy) to design systems. In Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability, Holmgren lists 12 design principles:

• Observe and interact
• Catch and store energy
• Obtain a yield
• Apply self-regulation and accept feedback
• Use and value renewable resources and services
• Produce no waste
• Design from patterns to details
• Integrate rather than segregate
• Use small and slow solutions
• Use and value diversity
• Use edges and value the marginal
• Creatively use and respond to change

But in its attempt to apply permaculture principles more widely, “Principles & Pathways” exposes the limitations of Holmgren’s experience. While the application of the principles to Australian agricultural practice is assured, much of the rest of each chapter is, in my opinion, rambling and often self-indulgent. In particular, when he ventures into the industrial field, his lack of practical experience is exposed, relying on tenuous examples or simply quoting Amory Lovins. My view is that these principles can be, and to an extent have been, applied to the wider field of sustainability, but Holmgren’s attempt falls short.

The biggest external criticism of permaculture itself is the lack of scientific assessment of its effectiveness either in terms of productivity or ecological protection. While researching this profile, I tried searching academic literature and found no meaningful results. A lack of academic interest in permaculture is of course not the fault of its originators, but it is odd. But it makes assessing the impact of Mollison and Holmgren in quantitative terms difficult.

In summary, the two men have provided an sustainable horticulutre/agricultural/self sufficiency design framework which many hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people have engaged with to some extent or another. This new way of thinking (in modern cultures at least) of working with natural systems rather than against them, is clearly laudable - even if Holmgren may have over extended himself later. Permaculture principles underpin the Transition Movement which, at the time of writing, is developing into a popular movement to address the twin risks of climate change and peak oil.

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Wednesday, November 25, 2009

M King Hubbert: Peak Oil


Dr Marion King Hubbert, known to all as “M King”, was born in Texas in 1903. He studied for undergraduate and graduate degrees at the University of Chicago getting his PhD in geology and physics in 1937. He taught geophysics at Columbia University until 1941 then joined the United States Board of Economic Warfare before becoming a research geophysicist with the Shell Oil Company in 1943, where he made his famous predictions about the ‘peaking’ of US oil production. After he was retired from Shell in 1964 , he became a senior research geophysicist for the United States Geological Survey until he retired again in 1976. He also held professorships at Stanford University and Berkeley during this period. Hubbert received the Rockefeller Public Service Award in 1977 and Columbia University's Vetlesen Prize in 1981. He died in 1989.


Hubbert made many contributions to geophysics, but his name will live in perpetuity as the man who gave us the bell shaped oil production curve that bears his name and, as a consequence, was a substantial contributor to the hotly debated topic of ‘peak oil’.

In 1948 Hubbert predicted, for any given geographical area, from an individual oil field to the planet as a whole, the rate of petroleum production of the reserve over time would resemble a bell curve (strictly speaking a logistic distribution curve). This became known as the “Hubbert Curve”. Based on his theory, he predicted in 1956 that petroleum production would peak in the United States between the late 1960s and the early 1970s. This and later warnings were dismissed, if not ridiculed, at the time as other predictions of oil peaking had proved false. When US oil production did indeed peak in 1970, Hubbert was proved correct. The Arab oil embargo in 1973-74 and the resulting energy crisis led to an national interest in energy efficiency. In 1975 the US National Academy of Sciences acknowledged that Hubbert had been correct and that the Academy had been wrong in its own predictions.

In 1974, Hubbert projected that global oil production would peak in 1995 "if current trends continue". Two years later he modified this to say that the actions of OPEC could flatten the curve and delay the peak by a decade. The peak oil debate has continued to the current day and it is difficult to judge whether Hubbert was ‘right’. The whole issue is a political and economic hot potato as our modern economy is built on a supply of cheap fossil fuels.

Governments around the world use the International Energy Agency (IEA) outlook for their economic planning. In 2008, the IEA predicted that there would be no peak until 2020. This conclusion was disputed by the UK Energy Research Centre and the Swedish University of Uppsala who concluded that “we are already in the peak zone”. This debate got more controversial in late 2009, when the Guardian newspaper reported that two “whistleblowers” claimed that the IEA had come under undue pressure from the US Government to present an optimistic scenario. One was quoted as saying "we've already entered the peak oil zone." If these earlier peak dates are correct, then Hubbert's 1976 prediction isn't far off the mark.

In 2005, the US Government commissioned a report into peak oil known as the Hirsch report after its lead author. It concluded that the peak was coming soon, but the actual date was unimportant as it would take at least a decade to prepare for the decline in production, so there was no case for delaying preparations. Hirsch also demonstrated that where production had peaked, it was not obvious even a year beforehand and the descent could be rapid – in the UK production fell away in just a year.

Other commentators disagree with Hubbert’s theory. A 2006 report by Cambridge Energy Research Associates (CERA) concluded that a peak will not occur until 2030 and at that point oil reserves will undulate along a plateau for decades. They conclude that Hubbert’s curve falls away too quickly and cannot be applied to global reserves. They, and others, point out that technological advances means that more oil can be extracted from each reserve and include the role of unconventional oil reserves like tar sands and coal to liquids. Critics have countered CERA’s approach saying they haven’t released the data behind their analysis or factored in the likely high cost of unconventional fuels. Reading the company’s press release, the company appears churlish to point out that 2005 US oil production is 66% higher than Hubbert had predicted in 1956. After all, he got the peak spot on, and he was correct in his conclusion that very soon after the peak US production would drop so far that the country would be dependent on foreign imports. It should be remembered as well that it is half a century after the prediction was made and few human predictions have been that close over that timeframe.

Whether the IEA data has been massaged or not, or whether Hubbert’s analysis does or doesn’t prove valid at the global scale, it is surprising that Governments have not engaged in the peak oil debate the way they have with, say, climate change, given the risks involved. Even a 2020 peak requires action by 2010 to prevent chaos in a decade. Hubbert himself would have recognised this form of denial:

"Our ignorance is not so vast as our failure to use what we know."

Hubbert’s main contribution as a green guru is to bring some rigour to the analysis of the exploitation of non-renewable resources. His curve translates the abstract concept of finite resources into the concrete language of the technocratic world that policy makers inhabit. His 1970 prediction was pretty much bang on - given the number of variables involved, the uncertainties and the long timeframes, this was quite remarkable. Of course, if political action is taken to conserve oil (eg OPEC rationing, the US energy efficiency drive in the 1970s) the actual oil production curve will obviously change. But with the whole global economy based on a supply of cheap oil, we may live to regret ignoring the fundamental message that oil will peak.

There is some irony in Hubbert being employed by Shell during his most famous predictions. The oil giant was found to have been exaggerating its reserves in 2004, and had to downgrade its claims twice by 20%, causing a furore amongst shareholders. At the time of the Hirsch report it had one of the most optimistic views of a possible peak (2025), although Shell CEO Jeroen van der Veer stated in 2008 that the peak could be as early as 2015.

Hubbert’s curve has also been applied outside the oil industry. It has been shown to fit patterns of other non-renewable resources like minerals, and has even been applied successfully to renewable but depletable resources including fisheries and aquifer water.

The man himself is reported to have been “abrasive and having a short temper. He did not suffer fools gladly and was always a centre of controversy”. Given what he was up against, these “flaws” may well be seen to be strength of character in years to come.

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Friday, October 23, 2009

Herman Daly: Steady State Economics


Born in 1938, Herman Daly is one of the pioneers of environmental economics. His book “Steady State Economics” was released in 1977. He taught economics at Louisiana State University for twenty years. In 1988 he became Senior Economist in the Environment Department of the World Bank where he developed its policies in relation to sustainable development before leaving to take up his current post as a Professor in the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland. He is a recipient of the Honorary Right Livelihood Award (Sweden's alternative to the Nobel Prize), the Heineken Prize for Environmental Science from the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Norwegian Sophie Prize.


Daly’s basic maxim is that, as the economy approaches the scale of the whole Earth, it must observe the physical limitations that the Earth places on it. This would create a steady state economy, a concept that can be traced back to the classical economics of Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill.

“The global economy is now so large that society can no longer safely pretend it operates within a limitless ecosystem. Developing an economy that can be sustained within the finite biosphere requires new ways of thinking.”

Daly argues that the current economic system only worked at a time when, say, the amount of fish you could catch was determined by the number of boats you have, whereas today the limiting factor is the number of fish in the sea.

He developed the idea of “uneconomic growth” – the point at which the negative impacts of each unit of growth outweigh the benefits of that growth. Further beyond this point comes the futility limit where increased growth is not adding any benefit whatsoever.

"There is something fundamentally wrong with treating the earth as if it were a business in liquidation."

The current economy, according to Daly, resembles an aeroplane in that to stay airborne it must move forwards. This analogy sums up the current paradox in the world economy. We have been unable to decouple economic growth from resource use and/or environmental damage. Past a point of sufficiency (roughly a GDP of $7,500 per person), there appears to be little or no increase in quality of life as the economy grows. So we destroy the planet just to maintain quality of life. On the other hand, if an economy starts shrinking, as we have seen in post-Soviet Russia and a number of failed economies, quality of life falls rapidly.

The challenge is to redesign the economy to be more like a helicopter – able to stay aloft without having to move. Daly suggests this state would resemble the Earth itself, constantly changing and evolving, but with a stable overall size. In this model, the production side of the economy would be designed to maintain the goods and services we require rather than drive the economy itself. Durable goods would be leased rather than sold, shifting towards a service economy.

Daly’s time at the World Bank appears to have been frustrating for him. At his leaving address, he asked the Bank to adopt four policies, presumably having failed to get them adopted during his tenure. The four were:

1. Stop counting the consumption of natural capital as income.

2. Tax energy and material extraction, not income.

3. Maximise the productivity of natural capital and invest in increasing it.

4. Move away from globalisation and towards national production for internal markets.

Afterwards, Daly is quoted as saying the audience reacted to his speech “much better than I had hoped”. He was optimistic that the first two points could be adopted and possibly the third, but that the last would be “a real battle”.

Unfortunately, Daly’s words seem to have largely fallen on deaf ears. For example, one of the four elements of the UK Government’s definition of sustainable development is “maintenance of high and stable levels of economic growth [and employment]”. When the UK Government’s own Sustainable Development Commission produced a report in 2009 on steady state economics entitled “Prosperity Without Growth?”, the Treasury’s response, according to the Commission’s outgoing chairman Jonathon Porritt, was “a weird mixture of hostility and indifference”.

Donnella Meadows described Daly as “depending on your point of view, either the most dangerous economist in the world, or the most visionary”, but a more pessimistic verdict might be “the most ignored”. The world nods as if to say “you’ve got something there” and then goes back to business as usual.

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Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Arne Næss, Deep Ecology


Arne Næss (pronounced ‘Ness’) was born in Slemdal, near Oslo, Norway in 1912. He studied philosophy, with an initial focus on the vagueness/preciseness of language. He became a professor of philosophy at the University of Oslo in 1939 but left academia in 1969 to pursue his environmental passions. Næss took part in a protest in 1970 against the building of a dam in a Norwegian fjord. During the protest he chained himself to the rocks of a waterfall and was removed by police, but succeeding in stopping the development.

In 1973 he published the first description of deep ecology, the branch of green thinking with which he will always be associated. He believed that eco-philosophy was personal and developed his own which he called Ecosophy T.
Outside philosophy, Næss’ great passion was for mountaineering and he took part in a number of significant expeditions. The love of mountains was influential in his work – the ‘T’ of ‘Ecosophy T’ stands for the Tvergastein mountain hut in the Hallingskarvet massif where he spent much of his time contemplating nature. He has also stood unsuccessfully as a candidate for the Norwegian Green Party.

He was knighted by King Harald in 2005 and made a commander with star of the Royal Norwegian order of St Olav First Class. He died in 2009 at the age of 96.


Arne Næss invented the concept of deep ecology. The basic difference between deep and shallow ecology is that the latter takes an anthropocentric (human-centred) view of the world, whereas deep ecology is eco-centric, placing equal value on non-human organisms and, indeed, physical features. A shallow ecologist would tell us to respect biodiversity as we might find the cure to cancer deep in the rainforest, whereas a deep ecologist would argue that protecting biodiversity is a moral imperative - full stop.

"[we should] not only protect the planet for the sake of humans, but also, for the sake of the planet itself, to keep ecosystems healthy for their own sake".

In 1973, Næss published the eight basic principles of deep ecology:
1. The well-being and flourishing of human and nonhuman life on Earth have value in themselves. These values are independent of the usefulness of the nonhuman world for human purposes.
2. Richness and diversity of life forms contribute to the realization of these values and are also values in themselves.
3. Humans have no right to reduce this richness and diversity except to satisfy vital human needs.
4. The flourishing of human life and cultures is compatible with a substantial decrease of the human population. The flourishing of nonhuman life requires such a decrease.
5. Present human interference with the nonhuman world is excessive, and the situation is rapidly worsening.
6. Policies must therefore be changed. These policies affect basic economic, technological, and ideological structures. The resulting state of affairs will be deeply different from the present.
7. The ideological change is mainly that of appreciating life quality (dwelling in situations of inherent value) rather than adhering to an increasingly higher standard of living. There will be a profound awareness of the difference between big and great.
8. Those who subscribe to the foregoing points have an obligation directly or indirectly to try to implement the necessary changes.

Næss was fundamentally a philosopher and his work draws heavily on the teachings of Spinoza and Gandhi. To explain in detail his personal eco-philosophy, Ecosophy T, is impossible here. But essentially the core element is the aim of Self-realisation where the capital ‘S’ on ‘Self’ refers to our position in the wider world (the ‘ecospheric whole’) rather than an ego-driven, internal ‘self’. Acting in a way which will harm the wider world, or if we do not know whether it will harm the wider world, breaches the idea of Ecosophy T.

Three important principles (or ‘norms’) of Ecosophy T are the natural principles of complexity, diversity and symbiosis. These are supported by a secondary level of norms of decentralisation, autonomy and self-sufficiency. In turn, a third level of political principles are no exploitation, no subjection, no class societies and self determination.

Intuition is also an important element of Ecosophy T. Like EF Schumacher, Næss believed that our use of science is too often blind to the limitations of that science – we have to be aware of what cannot be quantified or otherwise measured. Intuition must fill in the gaps. In the introduction to Næss’s most important book, Ecology, Community and Lifestyle, the editor describes Næss breaking off from an hour long lecture to pluck a leaf from a potted plant. He held it up and told the audience “You can spend a lifetime contemplating this. It is enough. Thank you.”

Næss was clear that Ecosophy T was his own personal eco-philosopy. The use of the T qualifier gives space for others to develop Ecosophy A, B, C, P, Q or R (presumably he chose ‘T’ as it is more outward looking than ‘A’ or ‘N’ – more Self than self.)

As a guru, Næss invented the whole idea of ‘deep ecology’ which underpins much of the thinking of environmental protest groups. However, the extreme fringes of the movement like Earth First! and the animal rights movement have used the equal rights for non-human species principle as an excuse for sometimes violent direct action, conveniently ignoring Næss’s Gandhian non-violent principles.

Deep ecology has variously been dismissed as ‘inconsistent rubbish’ and ‘eco la-la’, but to me it is a valid world view, if one which is more eco-centric than my own. I agree with the moral right for a species to exist (although as a meat eater I do not extend this right to individual organisms) and I strongly believe in Næss’ theory that not only are we are part of nature, but that nature is a part of us. You only have to stand at the lip of the Grand Canyon or watch a whale breaching from the sea to experience our spiritual affinity with the natural world.

On a practical level, whether you agree with deep ecology or not, it does exist. Those in Government and industry who take an anthropocentric world-view would benefit from an understanding of an eco-centric viewpoint to help avoid or defuse conflicts with the environmental movement. And if you want to understand it, the teachings of the master are the best place to start.

© 2009 Terra Infirma all rights reserved

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Monday, August 24, 2009

James Hansen: Nasa Climatologist & Activist


James Hansen was born in Iowa, USA on 29 March 1941. He took bachelors, masters and doctorate degrees at the University of Iowa before joining Nasa’s graduate programme. His work started with modelling the climate of Venus and before long the models were extended to analyse Earth’s climate. In 1988 he testified to the US Congress that there was a long-term upward trend in average temperatures and that this was largely due to man’s carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels. In the next 20 years his modelling developed in sophistication and his predictions became ever more bleak. In recent years he has stepped outside the world of science and become involved in a number of environmental campaigns to the delight of activists, disdain from some in the scientific community and even more opprobrium from climate change sceptics.


In Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth”, there’s a short clip of Senator Gore in a 1989 hearing bullying a civil servant into admitting that the science of climate change was being systematically suppressed within the US Government. Fast-forward twenty years and that same civil servant is arrested with actress and activist Darryl Hannah for trying to block the destruction of a mountainside to access coal. Google “James Hansen” and you will be met with an outpouring of professional and personal abuse – “the high priest of global warming alarmists” is one of the more polite descriptions. Why would so many go out of their way to make such personal attacks on a professor with over 30 years’ experience in his field and an impeccable track record in academic publications? The short answer is that Hansen has never been afraid to lift his head above the parapet.

Hansen’s scientific contribution to the climatology of Earth emerged from his analysis of the atmosphere of Venus. In 1974, a team of NASA scientists including Hansen published the GISS atmospheric circulation model for the Earth’s climate modelling, a major breakthrough in the field. This model has been through several stages of development as the science of climatology evolved. In 1981 Hansen was lead author for a paper in the journal Science concluding that the anthropogenic (man-made) contribution to global temperatures would become significant much earlier than previously thought.

In 1988 Hansen made his famous presentation to the US Senate that carbon emissions from man’s economic activity were contributing to a long-term change in climatic conditions. At this moment, the whole concept of climate change came out of the academic and environmental backwaters and into the public domain - and the bearpit of US energy politics. Hansen began his address by summarising three conclusions:

1. The earth is warmer in 1988 than at any time since measurements began;

2. This warming can now be associated with the greenhouse effect with a 99% confidence.

3. The warming is already severe enough to start causing dangerous impacts such as heat waves.

Hansen presented three different scenarios to the Senate, relating to different levels of future carbon emissions and the effect of a potential volcanic eruption which did indeed come to pass. However when Patrick Michaels, a consultant representing oil industry interests, made a statement to Congress ten years later, he compared only one of Hansen’s predictions, which excluded the eruption, to what had happened in the intervening ten years to ‘demonstrate’ that Hansen had been 300% out in his analysis. As Hansen’s ‘eruption prediction’ was pretty close to what had transpired in that decade, Michaels lied by omission. This groundless attack on Hansen’s scientific competence is still a prevalent myth circulating in the ‘denialosphere’.

In 2005, after a speech warning of the impacts of climate change and alleging many of the implications of his work had been watered down by the powers that be, Hansen was informed by senior staff within Nasa that there would be “dire consequences” if such statements were repeated. A number of subsequent media interviews were cancelled by senior staff.

The attempts at censorship didn’t work, or even made things worse for the would-be censors, as Hansen has since broken out of the constraints of the traditional scientific and became a public voice calling for urgent action and attacking vested interests. He has lambasted fellow scientists for refusing to go public on likely sea level rises, claiming that they will predict catastrophic changes in private but are too frightened to publish their findings.

In 2008 he entered the public arena completely with his high-profile intervention in the trial of the ‘Kingsnorth Six’ Greenpeace activists who had shut down a power station in the UK. He testified of the dangers of climate change and the activists were found not guilty. He used the resulting publicity to call for the CEOs of fossil fuel companies to be “tried for high crimes against nature and humanity” and attacked them for trying to suppress the evidence. These blunt statements are a stark contrast to the careful, measured approach he took in his 1980s publications and presentations. Indeed, one media appearance where he came close to likening coal trains to the trains used to transport Jews to their death during the holocaust led to a retraction and an apology.

Hansen’s entry into the political/activist arena is an interesting one. He justifies it by saying that it is the right thing to do under the circumstances, which he claims are more urgent than ever.

"We must raise the pressure to do what is right – for our children and the planet – not for the wallets of the few.”

Environmental activists are jubilant that they have the heavyweight backing of someone with the scientific track record to justify their actions. But there have been grumblings from the scientific community that these actions conflict with the role of a scientist. Certainly his enemies can now use his ‘political’ activities to cast doubt on the objectivity of the evidence he has been presenting for the last 30 years. Should he sit back and risk being ignored, or stand up and be counted?

There are few other scientists whose contribution to the understanding of man-made climate change could be argued to be equal to Hansen’s. But he is included here for his role in developing the science and bringing it to the attention of the public and politicians – despite the backlash and personal abuse he has received in the process. One thing is certain, his story isn’t over yet.

© 2009 Terra Infirma all rights reserved

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