Tag Archives: climate change

Anthony Giddens on the Politics of Climate Change

I have been trying to work out quite why I found Dame Ellen MacArthur’s vision of a circular economy so compelling.

I think it is at least in part due to some recent visits to a council tip. I had been helping a friend clear his late mother’s flat; my job was to drive the car, full of unwanted things, to the tip. The feeling of waste was palpable: huge mounds of waste and junk, most of it destined for landfill. We recycled what we could, separating paper, wood, metals, glass and paper, but we could see council workers laying into the piles with forklift trucks. Perhaps some of the disused (and for all I know unusable) electrical goods would be stripped down and the metals and rare elements they contain recycled, but it seemed unlikely. (Interestingly, the council’s rules forbid anyone removing items from the tip – so even if I saw something I might have had a use for, I couldn’t have taken it. That said, it looked like a few people were on the look out for something the might scavenge.)

This came to mind when, again at the RSA, I saw Anthony Giddens talk about the politics of climate change. Where MacArthur was upbeat, Giddens felt very downbeat; indeed, with politicians so unable to cope with climate change, civilisation felt beaten down.

Giddens identified many difficulties for politicians in dealing with climate change. Solving the issues with ameliorating or even reversing climate change requires long term action across national boundaries, when politicians are elected (or appointed) with local or national responsibility over a short time span: ours have four or five years between elections, so getting them to worry about expensive action to be taken over twenty to fifty years which may not benefit their electorate (since many of us will be dead by then) seems an impossibility.

Giddens made two powerful points which felt prescient. The first was his strong view that we shouldn’t assume technological solutions will come to our rescue. The belief that it might may act as a counter to more concrete action – we might just shit around waiting for technology to save us until it is too late for anything else. (That said, recent developments in carbon capture and storage may give us hope, and Giddens said that we must search for ground breaking technological initiatives which may help.)

The second was that many believe we are past the tipping point – a long way past.

The political will to solve these problems seems lacking. Obama has been disappointing, failing to take radical action, in part since his hands are tied by a Republican congress – Giddens was critical how the debate on climate change is largely polarised along political lines when it is such a big issue that it should be beyond politics. In the UK, David Cameron’s desire for this government to be the greenest ever seems empty rhetoric.

Giddens identified four areas that needed progress if we are to avoid the worst ravages of climate change:

  • bilateral and regional agreements in place of “legally binding” worldwide agreements which have failed to deliver
  • searching for ground breaking technological, social and political initiatives
  • in-depth intellectual and policy work to underpin our understanding of the impact of climate change – what will climate change and its amelioration mean for us in terms of employment, prosperity, growth and so on; this is needed he said at a very basic level – how will we need to change the way we think about our lives in a truly sustainable environment?
  • transforming the way we live our lives: actually putting these things in to action – for instance, if industrial society has run its course, how can we live our lives at a very basic level

Giddens said that this was a message of hope, not despair; I’m not sure the audience agreed with him.

After the talk, Matthew Taylor asked for a show of hands: who in the audience felt the solution to the problem of climate change lay in the hands of either governments and politicians, individuals changing their lifestyles, or market forces. Hardly anyone believed the answer lay with governments, with lifestyles and markets split roughly equally.

Clearly, these aren’t either/or questions: the answer must be “yes” to all three mechanisms of change: governments must develop policies to motivate markets and individuals to do what they can.

But looking at the mountains of waste at the council tip which our lifestyles contribute to, throwing things out rather than fixing and reusing, I don’t feel hopeful.

“Re-imagining Business”: a discussion at the RSA

Last week saw a discussion at the RSA on “Re-Imagining Business: the transition to the circular economy”. The main presentation was by Stef Kranendijk of carpet-tile manufacturer Desso, who explained how his company had adopted “cradle-to-cradle” manufacturing methods to greatly reduce the resources they use and damage caused to the environment. There is extensive recycling, with new processes developed with suppliers to minimise waste. By incorporating cradle-to-cradle into their standard business model and processes, Desso had become more innovative and business focused – they had to be to make it work. Kranendijk named Ray Anderson as an inspiration. It was an impressive session, and if it sounded like a business working out how to profit from sustainability, that felt fine.

I was really impressed by Dame Ellen MacArthur. I had no idea what her connection to sustainability was, and I had been surprised to see her on the panel; but she made her interest completely clear. When she had been sailing single-handed around the world, she said, she had an epiphany: isolated in the oceans, thousands of miles from port, she realised her resources were distinctly limited: the only energy, water and food she had access to were what she had packed. (Ok, she could have fished…) This made her think about how precious the world’s resources are (presumably she had a lot of time to think) – it is a closed system, after all, like her boat – and on her return, she decided to stop sailing and focus instead on learning about those limited resources – the stuff she wasn’t taught at school. And she set up the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which aims to “inspire people to re-think, re-design and build a positive future”. It worked for me.

MacArthur realised the need to move from a linear model of consuming resources to a “circular” model: increasing efficiency of the linear model can only buy us a bit more time – we are still going to run out of resources one day. Most products are designed to be disposed of, not recycled. MacArthur described the circular economy as one in which waste is designed out – and the rise of commodity prices (a result of the linear economy and finite resources) makes recycling more economically viable: products can be remanufactured, as Ricoh are now doing for its printers and copiers. By designing recycling into every aspect of a business – its products, services, processes, everything – a business – and the economy – would be re-envisaged: and new, profitable business models would be built. She described an A-level student who said that he now looked at every product he used in a different light – what it would look like if the future had been designed in. we need to rethink everything we use.

The last two speakers focussed on what this might mean for different sectors. Paul King talked about the built environment, and how we needed a revolution in the way we think about buildings. Working with companies that are adapting to the green agenda, he said people often ask him if he doubts the motives of such companies: never, he said – he knows that they are purely driven by profits, and that there is nothing wrong in that if it also drives them to develop green solutions. One of the problems is that even if all new building was designed for low carbon-usage, only 20% of buildings would be so adapted by 2050: most of our structures pre-date new standards, building methods and designs. So ways to retrofit low- and zero-carbon technologies – we need to reimagine our relationship with the built environment, he said.

Penny Shepherd talked about the financial environment; building on MacArthur’s theme, she said finance needed to be redesigned too, with a wholesale systemic change (and given the economic turmoil in the Eurozone, who can doubt her?).

It was a fascinating, enlightening and ultimately positive discussion. I reckon that if the true environmental costs of extracting finite minerals (especially for technological uses – mobile phones, computers and the like are dependent on rare minerals, and are rarely recycled), more companies would be prompted by the profit motive to move to circular models. A role for government, perhaps?

“Engineering the Future”: climate change and infrastructure #EarthHour

Tonight, in a couple of hours, is Earth Hour. Last summer and autumn, I spent several days working with engineers, discussing climate change and its effects on national infrastructure. Now that the report has been published, “Engineering the Future”, I want to describe what I learned from the process. (These are my own views, prompted by the published paper; I have only described things which are in the public domain.)

My role was small – I and a colleague acted as rapporteurs, making notes and then pulling together early drafts for reports from a series of workshops. This was very much a recording exercise for me. It wasn’t my usual sort of gig, but it sounded (and was) interesting, and tied in with my interest in climate change.

There were four workshops, focused respectively on transport, information technology and communications, water and energy infrastructure, and then a final washup pulling it all together. The essential assumption – the basis of the workshops – was that climate change is a fact. Taking the UK climate projections as their starting point, what would the impact of the projected changes on our climate be in the long term? What would it mean for society? And how could society adapt its infrastructure to manage this change?

I was impressed by the calibre of the people attending the workshops; their views ranged from conservative to revolutionary, and there was active debate between them. They were all very engaged in thinking about the issues.

That said, little of what they discussed required much technical input: there were occasional detailed discussions – about the effect of increased atmospheric humidity on the attenuation of phone signals, for instance – but most of what was talked about flowed logically from the key assumptions without needing to know much about how the infrastructure actually works.

The big take-away lessons for me were

  • everything is connected. All our infrastructure systems need energy (mostly electricity); energy generation and distribution depends on computers and telecoms. Without either – and loss of one generally means loss of the other – and things grind to a halt pretty quickly
  • society is fragile. Analysis of the effects of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans showed how quickly society can break down. In New Orleans, flooding meant a loss of electricity, so cash machines stopped working. People ran out of money. Even if they had money, shops’ payment and till systems depended on energy, so shops stopped selling anything. People quickly ran out of food, and resorted to looting just to find food. It didn’t take long for people to change their behaviour in order to survive
  • significantly increasing infrastructure resilience will cost money. Obvious, really: increasing resilience means building in excess capacity, the opposite of the drive in recent decades to improve efficiency
  • there is a lot that could be done today, sometimes simply and sometimes cheaply. For instance, if rainfall patterns change as the UK climate projections suggest, water may become scarce in some parts of the country. Technologies already exist for dramatically reducing water consumption, such as low-flow appliances
  • increasing resilience may mean devolving projects down to a local level, with networked rather than hierarchical systems
  • much if not all we would need to do is being done elsewhere in the world now – the changes needed are not necessarily ground breaking
  • the way we behave – and I guess that means the sum total of human behaviour (the world is a single, closed system) – will have to change radically over the next few years. This might be decades away, but it will change how we live. Social factors, not technological changes to our infrastructure, will determine whether we successfully adapt to climate change

Indeed, I couldn’t help but feel incredibly lucky and privileged to have grown up in western Europe in the second half of the 20th century: those technological developments that have now become part of the way we live – televisions; telephones; refrigeration; computers; clean, accessible water; constant availability of energy (as electricity, gas and petrol) – seem essential to us. It wouldn’t take much to lose a lot of them.

The world – at least, the developed world, my world – could be a very different place without always-available energy. Many of the things we currently do – driving when we feel like it, putting on air conditioning, maybe even switching on a light – could become expensive or even unsustainable. (I must emphasise that these are my thoughts, not the reports!) We live our lives based on expectations which are dependent on assumptions from the late 20th century, which are probably not appropriate to the mid 21st century.

There are broader implications for society, too. Migration from parts of the world where the impact of climate change could be more severe could strain our infrastructure further. Immigration is already a major political issue, but it could be bigger.

There is clear linkage without many of the things that Vinay Gupta and Dougald Hine talk about – the “collapsonomics” agenda. They describe a post-collapse society, exploring ways we might get by.

It could of course be a scary future.

Which leads me to my last observation. After all this talk of climate change over the last few years, the workshops’ discussions of infrastructure and its resilience, and others talking through ways in which we may survive – after all this, I don’t think my behaviour has changed much in the last couple of years. I live my life in ways which, in the future – near or far – won’t be sustainable. Even looking at Japan in the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami, and the impact that they had on infrastructure (not least the capacity to generate energy), I doubt I will change my behaviour.

So do we need to wait for a major infrastructure failure here before we change our behaviour? Or will we just blame someone else – utility suppliers, engineers, government… – and wait for them to fix it?

An evening with TEDxOrenda…

Last week, I went to TEDxOrdenda – an evening of talks sanctioned (but not organised) by TED. I’ve been to a couple of TEDx events before, and I’ve watched lots of TEDtalks. TEDxOrenda was organised by Drew Buddie (Digital Maverick on Twitter), who did a sterling job; it was associated with BETT – “the biggest UK trade show of educational technology” – and so had an education focus, though that felt co-incident rather than necessity. (Drew explained that “orenda” was a Huron native American word which means the opposite of “kismet” – that is, rather than fate, the future lies is our own hands – it is down to us and our choices.)

It was a very interesting, mixed evening; some of the speakers stayed close to a motivational model, others had more content to share. Despite the pleasure I take from TED, their model is very much about content delivery: it is people standing up on a stage, talking to others in an auditorium. I understand it explicitly excludes debate and discussion (I might be wrong!), and speakers rarely take questions. Despite the varied programme Drew put together, I think I would have benefited from an opportunity to engage more – either with the speakers through questions or with those around me through discussion of the ideas raised.

There were five speakers I really appreciated. First of these was Vinay Gupta, who raised some important and challenging questions about the way our society uses its resources and our place in the world. What does poverty look like? Despite downturn and recession, for most people in the world Vinay asserts that it is whether one can access water without fear of disease: lack of simple infrastructure kills 20m people a year. Our “failure of governance is killing the planet”, despite the availability of solutions to many of the world’s problems. (For instance, Vinay described how a bucket filled with alternating layers of sand and grit – I think! – can be used to purify water.) Vinay can be confrontational, but we probably need to be confronted by these issues; the thing is, how do we actually bring about change as a result? And – more fundamentally – how much do we – I – want to change?

Sydney Padua covered lots of geek bases in her discussion of her online comic, 2dgoggles, featuring the crime fighting due of Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage. In an alternate universe, naturally. All the ideas in her comic are based on ideas and beliefs that Lovelace and Babbage held or that were extant in their 19th century mileu – just abstracted and warped slightly…

Building on the “fun” aspect of Lovelace and Babbage, Alex Fleetwood of Hide & Seek described the role of novel games in learning. When people talk about games in education, I tend to think of complex eLearning environments – a World-of-Warcraft for learning. All the games that Alex described were shocking in their simplicity. Tate Trumps sounded like the most technological, a way to create interaction with the pictures at Tate Modern. The others were based more accessible technologies – a board, a playground, a piece of paper – and engaged users to think about the issues (such as what a Norman battlefield was actually like).

Simon Raymonde of Bella Union Records (and late of the Cocteau Twins) talked about his philosophy around running a record label – kind of how he got here. It was an interesting story. Simon invited questions after his talk – the only speaker to do so (and presumably moving off the TED script!), leading to a discussion of the role of a music industry in the digital age. (Simon was pro (free-)downloading, reckoning that it created demand for paid for music.)

Last up was Lloyd Davis, discussing various aspects his role as “social artist” and serenading us with his ukulele and singing. I’ve worked with Lloyd and he’s cropped up a fair few times on this blog. He’s preparing to cross America in the hands of his social media network. An interesting prospect – more kismet than orenda, perhaps!

Immediacy and Impact v Consideration and Analysis: the £1.40 Unconference and the Wave

I have been trying to gather my thoughts around the recent £1.40 Unconference for several weeks, and not really getting very far.

There are probably several reasons for this: a lack of creativity or desire on my part; but also a reaction to one of the themes of the unconference: the immediacy of new media.

This was the first Amplified event I have been to, and I really liked the unconference format. There were lots of good conversations and lots of good ideas – which is what I look for in a gathering like that.

On the other hand, though, it wasn’t clear what would happen next. Was this just an exchange of thoughts or could we do something more concrete?

There were three sessions: one on the role of social media in politics; one on social media and news; and a plenary discussion trying to tie the whole thing up. The idea of the immediacy of social media ran through it all: the fact that social media let you get information out there, quickly.

I come from a different place: I value reflection and analysis; I like to let things lie and filter thoughts and ideas through my unconscious. Some don’t surface again, but some – like this post! – do, and get conjoined to other thoughts or events.

In this case, the Wave – a protest march I went on yesterday in support of governmental action to combat climate change. I’m not going to go on about climate change or politics here – I have done that before, and others do so more eloquently. But for me, it brought home the occasional need for immediacy.

During yesterday’s march, I tweeted about what was going on, where we were and what I thought. Several people tweeted back saying that they appreciated my comments, and some of them got picked up and retweeted by organisations involved in the Wave, too.

I also took photographs of yesterday’s march. I take a lot of photographs, and, coming from a tradition of processing and editing pictures (after years of working in the darkroom), I usually take the same approach to processing digital photographs. It is because of this that I have hundreds – possibly a thousand – unprocessed digital photos going back to June. The photographs I took yesterday, though, have a certain currency: they are only of use now – well, yesterday really. So when I got in from the march, I sat down and edited them quickly – not quite immediate (I didn’t post them directly from my phone to Twitter, for instance), but a pretty fast turnaround for me.

I also thought about trying out some “social recording”, too, using Audioboo (now available for Android phones like mine as well as iPhones). I decided not to – I am more comfortable producing writen and photographic media than audio (that inability to edit…).

To have any currency, then, my thoughts and images from the Wave as it happened needed to get out there quickly. My further consideration, ponderings and analysis can easily be postponed, filtered and synthesised.

We need both. As the £1.40 unconference discussed, Twitter provides an information stream – it isn’t journalism (and I would never, ever pretend that I was a journalist. Not even a very poor one!). Journalism needs that further consideration and analysis of the information gathered. We need both the quick, unthought-through gossip that Twitter provides – the stream-of-consciousness information flow – and in-depth, journalistic coverage.

Immediacy and impact v consideration and analysis. It isn’t either/or – it is both.

Changing the World (part n…)

A couple of weeks ago, Francesca’s post on “how do we change the world?” prompted me to write about something I thought we needed to change – our approach to climate change.

This in turn prompted others to respond (and challenge…) [I particularly liked a blog someone linked to about changing the world by dancing – I can’t find the link now!].

Then we saw the Trafigura/Carter-Ruck gagging order farce, and the way the twitterverse and blogosphere reacted. (Joanne Jacobs has pulled together lots of different reports and responses to Trafigura here.)

Days later, Jan Moir’s careless comments following Stephen Gately’s untimely death prompted another flood of tweets and postings, resulting in the largest ever number of complaints to the Press Complaints Commission.

These may be small events in the greater scheme of things: the planet hasn’t been saved; no war has been stopped; no lives have been saved1. But people and organisations have been shown that they have to be accountable.

People of all political flavours have new tools available to make their voices heard, and we are finding out how to use them most effectively.

This is important. I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s. It was hard to have an impact, but people tried – including me. For me, politics is always personal. In the 60s and 70s, people went on marches – I went on many to make my voice felt (Rock Against Racism I remember best). The food we bought sent messages – neither South African wine nor apples, citrus from neither Franco’s Spain nor Israel. There were lots of boycotts (Barclays Bank sticks in my mind, which was easy – I didn’t have a Barclays account!).

These are all small things, but buying food became a political act. I think it still is – I believe that buying organic food sends a message (though it worries me that the message might be that I am middle class and can afford to buy organic food…). Buying Fairtrade products is saying that “this is important” – and many supermarkets have reacted by increasing the range of Fairtrade products they stock.

Lots of small things add up. These things do matter. Hundreds of thousands – perhaps evens millions – of people marching in protest of the Iraqi war may not have been able to change Government policy, but they certainly influenced a lot of other people, and made MPs accountable for their votes in Parliament.

Francesca’s point was that

I’m not doing a lot, and a big part of that is because… it’s not clear how to go about it. I sign petitions, but I don’t go out looking for them – I sign the ones that are tweeted or posted on my friends’ lists. I write Amnesty letters, because Amnesty makes it very easy for me to do it, but nowhere near as many as I ought to. And I also have work and family and friends and I never have a clue when to stop with anything, so quite often I don’t start.

But there is a lot we can do. We can make our voices heard – whatever our views or politics. We can bear witness. We can write, we can hold people and companies to account, we can influence our MPs. Indeed, I can’t think of a time when it was easier to do this.

We have the technology.

In a couple weeks, Amplified’s £1.40 “unconference” aims to

consider the ways social technologies have completely changed the environment for news makers and consumers, and also the changing landscape for politics, democracy and governance

That seems pretty much like what I – and others – have been whining about, so I’ve signed up for it.

Because these things are important – and we can make a difference.

1I can’t help but hope that some people’s lives might be improved by making others aware of homophobia through the scandal created in the wake of Moir’s lazy, nasty comments.

The View from the Thirty Second Floor

Today is Blog Action Day, and the topic is climate change. This is something I think is very important. Every time I hear someone lecture on the subject, the more important I think it is.

Yesterday, I was stuck in a lift for nearly an hour in a tall tower in Canary Wharf with thirteen other people. It got very hot. Once I was trapped there, I wished I had walked down the thirty two floors, but obviously that wasn’t really a viable option – and I’d never have walked thirty two floors up.

Once more, I was reminded how fragile life is.

From the thirty second floor, there was a superb view of London Docklands and the Thames: there is lots of dense building there, residential and commercial. Much would be flooded if the level of the Thames rose much – a metre or so, and these stately skyscrapers and lowly dwellings would be unuseable.

The building – and its lifts – depend on electricity: it couldn’t function without an easy (and possibly cheap) source of power. Without it, there’d be no lifts to carry people up and down; no air-conditioning to keep the people (and their lifts) comfortable; no computers for them to use and to control the building (and those blasted lifts – when it stopped, and remained stopped, I wanted to tell the engineer to switched it off, and switch it back on…); no electric lights; no tube trains or DLR to bring people in and out.

There would be no Canary Wharf.

Not just Canary Wharf: without electricity, I can imagine much of London would become uninhabitable.

This may sound catastrophic, but at least much of Britain would remain habitable – unlike many of the low lying island states which would be at risk [PDF] if the sea level rose by a appreciably. (The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggest a rise of a metre or so is likely.)

Perhaps we should be planning for such catastrophes, like the people at the Institute for Collapsonomics is trying to do.

It sometimes feels like we in the west are living in a curious age, a narrow Panglossian time squeezed between pre-industrial hardship and post-industrial chaos.

It might be a strange, strange future.

How Can We Change The World? Two Months to Copenhagen

Back in January, I saw – and wrote about – climate change campaigner and free-market proponent James Cameron talking about life after the Kyoto protocol and December 2009’s up and coming Copenhagen conference.

One of the things Cameron said was

“why are young people not angry with those who got us into this situation?”

It was a powerful message: here is the most important issue facing the whole of the world, and, frankly, not a whole lot is being done about it. Why isn’t everyone getting angry about governments throughout the world failing to get to grips with this issue?

Two things have got me thinking about this again. Firstly, Francesca raised the question how do we change the world? A pretty good question to ask, and when we really need to change the world – whilst we still have a world to change – why are governments so far failing to do it?

Secondly, and probably more directly related to Cameron’s talk, Graciela Chichilnisky gave a talk to the RSA on the topic “Saving Kyoto” (also the name of her new book…).

So: another talk on climate change. Another really scary talk: when the meeting’s chair Mark Lynas described the best case scenario of current models and what such an average increase of 4°C would mean, there was disbelieving laughter, as if one had to laugh because the likely outcome was too hard to contemplate.

There was also a lot of hope in Chichilnisky’s talk: but it was only hope that we might stabilise atmospheric emissions at this best case scenario, so we’d better get used to planning for this – and not a lot seems to be going on there.

Chichilnisky was one of the brains behind the market in carbon, and she reckoned that the short term solutions to climate change were different from the long term – short term solutions include “negative carbon” power generation incorporating carbon capture and storage whilst long term include utilisation of renewable resources such as solar, wind, bio- and nuclear power – so we need both short and long term solutions, but the short remains a fossil fuel economy at odds with the long term renewables agenda.

She foresaw that one of the big barriers to addressing climate change is the standoff between the US and China – what she called “a new cold war”.

Despite the new US President’s clear participation in the climate change debate, the Energy Bill 2009 has yet to be passed by the Senate and be signed into law: the USA signed up to the Kyoto protocol, but has not ratified its involvement.

Chichilnisky even put a price on solving climate change – that is, using short and long term solutions to stabilise the damage caused to climate at an average rise of 4°C: $200bn per year. That sounds a lot – but what was spent in stabilising the world economy from the ravages of the credit crunch? The US economic stimulus cost $787bn; the US Federal Reserve bought $1,200bn worth of debt to support the economy; the UK government spent $88bn rescuing banks and injected a further $350bn into the financial system to support short term debt; Germany spent $68bn on one of the countries banks; and so on. (All the figures cames from this BBC report on the credit crunch). From just these five interventions that I noticed, that’s nearly $2,500bn – over twelve years’ of spending needed to stabilise climate change.

And yet it seems like nothing is happening.

Why aren’t people more angry?

Why aren’t there marches through the streets in support of the 43 small island nations whose very existence Chichilnisky expects to be threatened by rising sea levels caused by climate change?

What can ordinary people do – and do quickly – to stabilise climate change? (I keep writing “stabilise” because remember, the best case scenario is that we might manage to stabilise global emissions at a level that causes an average of 4°C temperature rise – leading to melting ice caps, rising sea levels and changing weather patterns.

Well, we can sign up to 10:10 – though I greatly reduced my emissions years ago (I got rid of my car; reduced my air flights; buy carbon-offset; use low energy light bulbs; switch my PC off when I’m not using it…) [see – I believe in this stuff – and yet I am quibbling about what action I might take: you can see how governments will squirm to be able to keep their carbon footprint up there!]. We can write letters to our governments – though I wouldn’t expect to be able to influence the negotiating stance at Copenhagen.

I’m doing these things.

So how can I change the world? Before the world changes so much through our neglect that it is too late to do anything about it?

Things I talked about at Tuttle last week

I have written about Tuttle recently. I was there again last Friday, and whilst I spoke with few people, I was once more amazed and pleased at the breadth of topics people were discussing.

So, mostly as an aide memoire for me rather than a full blown blogpost, I wanted to keep track of the topics of conversations at Tuttle.

On Friday, I had conversations about:

  • debt management and the recession
  • social media and marketing
  • green energy production
  • sound environments and installations for children
  • political transparency and activism in Northern Ireland
  • new media strategies in government departments and quangos
  • the nature of social enterprises
  • innovation and what governments and universities can do to promote it

and a couple of other things that I meant to scribble down but didn’t.

Variety, as they say, is the spice of life!

“The Long Doom”

Dougald Hine was talking to Long Now London last week about “the Long Doom”: what an extended economic decline might mean for the way we live our lives. Dougald is part of the Institute for Collapsonomics, and is interested in how – well, a collapse would effect us: how we interact with objects and each other.

He was keen to point out that he is an optimist with a strong belief in the resilience of the human race. That said, he thinks that by asking pretty fundamental questions we can prepare for what might happen. In this context, an extended economic decline. Dougald’s approach is that the questions matter, and he doesn’t have the answers – the questions are a starting point for the debate, helping us to imagine a range of different futures.

Most people think the future is going to be like today, only better. With economic decline, though, “better” might just be different. Decline could be a long, slow extended process or a catastrophic fall. Apparently, we might bounce back the latter faster – with a gradual inexorable contraction, knowledge would be lost.

Dougald envisaged

  • products which are designed with economy in mind – easy to fix and recycle, open to hacking and redevelopment – “convivial design”
  • changing relationships to workspaces, homes, and “the third place, requiring different forms of architecture and building as we “huddle around the fire”
  • different forms of working and consumption – more co-operative working (finally producing the flatter structures and “extended organisations” that management gurus have been pushing for the past couple of decades) and a return to older models of consumption (local shops and markets appearing more sustainable than megamarkets)
  • a focus on creating easily maintained infrastructure – botch-and-patch if one can’t rely on central services to fix everything.

As often happens, the discussion after the talk was illuminating and interesting. Dougald didn’t really cover social and political structures, but these would change a lot. If transport becomes difficult (an assumption, I think, behind the move from supermarkets to local retail), what would hold Britain together (and larger countries would have bigger problems!)? It was the coming of railways which introduced a standard time to Britain – before that, local time was the norm. Without transport, could the center hold? It seems to me that all possible decisions would be devolved to a local level, whether planned or out of necessity.

There would probably be de-industrialisation and a move away from cities and towns – a return to the rural economy; @hexayurt suggested this might be driven by a need to secure a supply of food – it is easier to grow your own than rely on someone else to meet your needs.

Someone else (and it might have been Dougald!) posited that our view of identity would change, too – as co-operatives become a valid way of organising economic activity (out of necessity), we might return to a more tribal view of ourselves.

It was a fascinating discussion; a little scary – simultaneously optimistic and pessimistic. Still, best to be prepared…