Friday, January 16, 2015


Sometimes in conversations, both in the real world and on the social media, the words 'anarchy' and 'anarchism' crop up.  And each time I feel I really ought to try to explain what I mean.  But usually there isn't space or time or I just can't be bothered.  Often I think it would be best to refer people to the very excellent thoughts of my late friend Dr. David Fleming, who, in his wonderful book, Lean Logic, wrote the following.  Please read it.

Anarchism.  “Anarchism”, from the Greek an and arches, means “no chief” – hence “no rule”, but there is more than one way of interpreting this, and it has been anarchism’s big problem that people tend to settle on the wrong one – the idea of anarchy as mere chaos.  It was in this sense that John Milton used it – as the state of affairs...
Where eldest Night                   
And Chaos, ancestors of Nature, hold
Eternal anarchy amidst the noise
Of endless wars, and by confusion stand;
For hot, cold, moist and dry, four champions fierce,
Strive here for mast'ry.                                                    (Paradise Lost, book ii, lines 894-899)
Secondly, there is the main body of anarchist literature.  We cannot really speak of “mainstream” anarchism, because anarchist writers, as you might expect, have tended to disagree with each other.  But there is a fundamental proposition in common: governments have a poor, even catastrophic, record, guided by almost any motive other than the interests of the people to whom they are in principle responsible.  If governments could somehow be persuaded or forced to back off, the people could make a far better job of things.
There are some famous names in this literature, and they deserve a mention: [i]
o     William Godwin (1756-1836)  argued that the guide to our actions should be reason, the logic of the Enlightenment.  Once people have a rational understanding of their duties, there is no need for such sensibilities as honour, generosity, gratitude, promises, or even affections; nor for such limitations on individual judgment as marriage, orchestras or the theatre, nor, of course, for government.  He did admit that this enlightened deference to reason would not be easy to achieve; it would require ceaseless vigilance and self-examination, he supposed, but beyond that, there were no suggestions about how it was to be done, and Godwin’s rule of logic lives on in the literature both as perhaps the most heroic of all statements of the perfect society, a fantasy with remarkable staying power, for here we are considering it two centuries later.[ii]
o     Max Stirner (1806-1856) took individualism as far as it would go: no state, government, private property, religion, family, ethics, love or associations beyond what individuals happen to want, when they want it. [iii]
o     Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) looked to the Gospels for the peace and love, which is all that is needed, he claimed, to sustain society without governments, laws, police, armies and private property. [iv]
o     Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865) was an early, and strong supporter of localisation: the best safeguard of liberty and justice lies in food producers and craftsmen working together in cooperatives. [v]
o     Michael Bakunin (1814-1876) looked to the violent overthrow of the state, and its replacement as a bottom-up federation of trade-unions (anarcho-syndicalism).[vi]
o     Peter Kropotkin (1842-1921) developed his advocacy of the abolition of private property and communal living in an extended and valuable discussion of land, biodynamic farming, decentralised urban planning, technology and the history of effective local action.[vii]
Matthew Arnold’s orderly anarchism
For Matthew Arnold (1822-1888), the cohesive principle is a common culture.  By “culture” what he had in mind was the very highest standards, “a pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world.” [viii]  Later critics picked him up on this: culture is not limited to the best; it is, less ambitiously, the common story and tradition of a *community – but Arnold’s point holds: the way in which a community can preserve itself from anarchy (in its chaotic, Miltonian sense), is to build a community which is interesting enough to recognise itself as a particular place with its own identity, loyalties and obligation.  The outcome, as Arnold put it (the above sentence fills in the logic which Arnold does not spell out) is that a community learns “to like what right reason ordains.”[ix]
The common factor for most of these (but not Matthew Arnold, box) is the desire to see the end of government, and the most explicit statement of this is Bakunin’s anarcho-syndicalism, which sees trade unions as the spearhead of revolution, destroying both the government and the capitalism that sustains it.  In this way, the strengths of traditional anarchism’s positive visions and insights were impaired by the tendency to focus on one ideal solution – an ideology in its own right – as the magic pain that had to be endured first, before anarchism itself could have a chance.  A broader, more real vision was suggested by Alexander Herzen (1812-1870), who warned of the consequences of *abstraction, and insisted, instead, on the case for focusing on the local, the feasible, the practical, tangible, the proven – on the freedom to make and care for the particular place.  It was this grounded vision which, a century later, was taken up by Colin Ward.[x]
For Ward, anarchy (or, perhaps less confrontationally, “anarchism”) is the study of organisation – of rule of a particular kind: self-rule, the orderly habits and interactions that come into being with the formation and maintenance of human groups.  Anarchism, as Ward explains,
is about the ways in which people organise themselves, [xi] 
Anarchists are people who make a social and political philosophy out of the natural and spontaneous tendency of humans to associate together for their mutual benefit. [xii]
As Ward points out, the reality underlying this is undeniable: the speed, efficiency and *imagination with which people bring order to a situation which has potential for chaos is revealed whenever a group of people are aligned, in the sense of having a common interests and a common purpose.  It applies, for instance, at times of protest – at Climate Camp in the United Kingdom in 2008, for instance, and in the uprisings in Budapest in 1956 and in Prague in 1968, when good order and altruism were as solid as the commitment to sustain the revolutions.  During the Hungarian uprising, it was the custom in Budapest... 
... to put big boxes on street corners, and just a script over them, “This is for the wounded and for the families of the dead”.  They were set out in the morning and by noon they were full of money.[xiii]
Happenings like these are exceptional, of course.  In due course the revolutions are either suppressed or successful, and things go back to normal, and yet they have something to tell us which could be useful.  Among the students of revolution who have noticed the remarkably competent groupings and councils that come into being if given a chance, Hannah Arendt writes ... 
Each time they appeared, they sprang up as the spontaneous organs of the people, not only outside of all revolutionary parties but entirely unexpected by them and their leaders.  They were utterly neglected by statesmen, historians, political theorists and, most importantly, by the revolutionary tradition itself.  [Even sympathetic historians] regarded them as nothing more than essentially temporary organs in the revolutionary struggle for liberation; that is to say, they failed to understand to what extent the council system confronted them with an entirely new form of government, with a new public space for freedom. [xiv]  
The emphasis here is on what can be done in practice (a bottom-up way of thinking), rather than on ambitions about having to do a lot of demolition first. 
On the other hand, the state’s natural reflex is to make things difficult, even without intending to do so.  The essential freedoms and resources which enable local action are eroded by governments, and, in some cases, such as education, their elimination is comprehensive.  And in terms of sheer practical possibility, too, the option of effective local community is becoming more remote: it is harder to make practical sense of things, for instance, in a locality which has lost its post office, hospital, school, surgery, shops, abattoir, railway station, local trades, church, magistrates court, probation services and local presence in farmland, and where it is difficult to decide on a collective celebration, owing to (amongst other things) prohibitions on grounds of health and safety, the fees and lead-times needed for an entertainments licence, and the sense that there is no cultural expression which does not exclude or offend many or most of the people living there.  
And yet, anarchism, in the cool, practical, local sense intended by Colin Ward, recognises that we innate community-builders ought to concentrate on what we can positively do.  We have a talent for order, and the inherited culture and accomplishments of the modern world are mainly the product of this talent.  The history of social inventions, the institutions and social capital that give us existence as a recognisable and living society, is the history of anarchism in this sense.  Medicine – the science and the institutions – were the product of voluntary persistence, backed by charitable donations, as were the schools and universities.  The whole of our inheritance of education was invented and made to happen by citizens, investing their time and talent in schools and colleges, in teaching as a creative skill in its own right, in sustaining diversity, and in increasing access.  Even such fundamentals as insurance against accident, sickness and loss of income – arranged through the friendly societies, and owned by their members – were voluntary enterprises and, from their start in the eighteenth century to their displacement by a state system in 1911, they had expanded their reach to almost universal coverage of working people.  The organic movement began as a citizens’ inspiration, developing its authority and its scientific standing by using its freedom to decide for itself.[xv] 
The weak point in that capacity for invention – in the spontaneous order that is the primary aim and accomplishment of anarchism – is that it is exposed to the distrust and jealously of centralising governments.  If it works, it tends to be taken over, and the spontaneous order tends to die. 
Anarchism has had its moments.  There are insights there that are relevant to a future of insolvent government, a deeply diminished economy, and no alternative for communities other than to invent everything for themselves, including the meaning of community.  Lean Logic will borrow from it, and will mix it with other lines of enquiry which most anarchists would have been horrified by.  But, then, anarchists have always had trouble with their allies.[xvi]

[i].              Note that Ted Honderich (1995), The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, is a helpful first reference on anarchy and its main thinkers (though it omits Colin Ward).
[ii].             William Godwin (1793), An Enquiry Concerting Political Justice and its Influence on Modern Morals and Happiness; William Godwin (1794), Caleb Williams.  For an accessible summary of Godwin’s anarchist thought, see Roy Porter (2000), Enlightenment, pp 455-459.
[iii].            Peter Marshall (2010), Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism, pp 220-234.
[iv].           Ibid, pp 362-384.
[v].            Ibid, pp 234-263.
[vi].           Ibid, pp 263-309.
[vii].          See Peter Kropotkin (1899), Fields, Factories and Workshops especially in the (1974) edition by Colin Ward.  See also Kropotkin’s The Conquest of Bread and Mutual Aid.  [Publication details to follow]
[viii].         Matthew Arnold (1869), Culture And Anarchy, p 6.
[ix].            Ibid, p 82.
[x].             For more detail on Alexander Herzen see Abstraction.
[xi].            Colin Ward (1985), Anarchy in Action p 4.
[xii].           Ibid, p 15.
[xiii].          BBC sound archive cited in Ward (1985), p 34.
[xiv].          Hannah Arendt (1965), On Revolution, pp 260, 267, 252-253, check. 
[xv].           A major influence on Ward’s thinking was Percival Goodman and Paul Goodman (1947, 1960), Communitas: Means of Livelihood and Ways of Life, at it remains a core text of the anarchist literature, especially in the context of land use and planning.  For brief histories of the evolution of medicine, education and social security in the United Kingdom, see James Bartholemew (2004), The Welfare State We’re In.
[xvi].          See also José Peréz Adán (1992), Reformist Anarchism.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Population growth – untangling confusion.

Global population growth and sustainability are sometimes confused with local and regional population and with sustainability, migration and nationalism. The UK-based campaigning organisation, Population Matters has done much valuable work in highlighting the issues, but has unfortunately also been adding to the confusion. Here’s an attempt to unravel some threads.

It’s stating the bleedin’ obvious but many of the world’s problems would be lessened if the global population grew no further. In many areas of the world the rate of growth has already come close to zero and this has mostly come about without coercive government intervention. Key factors are improvements in women’s education and status, perinatal health-care, access to family planning and social security. Those areas of the world that still have high population growth rates tend to be places with low levels of women’s status, poor health services and general poverty.

From the CIA World Factbook 2014 we learn that the global average Total Fertility Rate (TFR) is about 2.5. For the UK it is 1.9, for the EU it’s 1.6. For Niger it is almost 7. The replacement rate for industrialised countries, with their low mortality of women before they reach the end of their fertile years, is about 2.1. For the EU, including the UK, we can, in the long term, expect a declining population. There may still be growth for some time, despite TFR being less than replacement rate, while the age distribution reaches equilibrium. The UK has a slightly higher crude birth rate (12 per 1000) than most other EU nations (average 11 per 1000, Germany 8 per 1000) but compare this with Niger and Mali where crude birth rates are 46 per 1000.

And then there is migration. Of course migration does not change total numbers – it just moves people! But there are a couple of secondary effects. Net migration is from countries with high fertility rates to low and the immigrant tends to experience a cultural shift. Thus a girl migrating from Mali to the UK is unlikely to have 7 babies. Migration is likely to have a suppressing effect on global population growth. It may not all be good news, however, as her ecological footprint is likely to be greater in England than it was in Mali. But that’s the matter of behaviour rather than numbers.

To reduce global population, effort made in those areas with very high TFRs is likely to have a bigger pay-off than where the demographic transition has already run its course and populations are close to stable or even declining. Of the 214 territories identified by the CIA World Factbook in the 2014 TFR List, the top 40 have a TFR above 4, and only half a dozen are not in sub-Saharan Africa. None of the hundred countries with a TFR below 2 are in Africa. Thus, to a first approximation, population growth is an African problem.

A ‘sustainable’ or ‘optimal’ population is hard to define. Much depends on lifestyle and behaviour. It has been suggested that the sustainable population for the British Isles is close to 30 million, but are these millions eating beef, driving fast cars and taking frequent holiday flights, or are they growing their own food and reading poetry? Do they work for a bank that invests in the fossil fuel industry or are they a baker in the community bread store? Behaviour varies greatly making it at least an order of magnitude more significant in terms of global ecological footprint than raw population numbers.

Suggesting that the UK population might reduce to 30 million is fanciful, at least in timescales that are meaningful in policy terms. Even with a TFR as low as the lowest in Europe (Lithuania TFR=1.29) we still get a population well over 50 million at the end of the century. Such fanciful notions may suggest where Utopia lies and therefore serve to provide a direction for travel. The danger is that they also provide a target for criticism and even ridicule that besmirches the whole green movement. Here is an example from Conservative Home, a mainstream blog supportive of the Conservative Party:

“The Optimum Population Trust, (now renamed Population Matters) for those of you who haven't yet come across them, are an odd bunch. Bluntly, they believe the best way to save the planet is to get rid of as many human beings as possible.
"On the plus side, at least they are being more honest than most greens in their open contempt for human beings. The reality of many in the environmentalist movement is at core a deep anti-humanism, an arrogant dislike for people who are somehow too stupid to see the problem with their pursuit of a happy life and a healthy family.
“On the down side, the OPT's aims are actually pretty worrying - verging on sinister, even. Buried in their website is a detailed spreadsheet laying out their ideal "sustainable" populations for each country. And those ‘ideal’ populations are a little worrying, if you try to imagine the reality of them. For example, the UK should shrink to 29 million people, from the 60 million we currently have. We are of course a small island, but ask yourself which half of your friends you would rather did not exist?”

For today’s UK politics we have to be mindful of the May election and Population Matters have issued what they call a UK election manifesto: ‘Why population matters for the 2015 UK general election’. 
Given that the most effective action on population growth has to be directed to those nations with the highest population growth rates, the focus should be on the Department for International Development. One might think that DfID does not put sufficient emphasis on population, yet prominent on their website is this interesting piece:

Nowhere on that webpage does the word ‘population’ occur yet the policies are exactly those that most directly address the issues that have the greatest impact on population. The heading is “Improving the lives of girls and women in the world's poorest countries”. It seems that the UK government gets it, the policies reflecting what it says on the lid, while Population Matters introduces a number of spurious issues.

System boundaries
Some campaigners on population make the mistake of focussing on UK population but this plays straight into the hands of the far-right, the racists, the xenophobes, the little-Englanders and, electorally, of UKIP and BNP. It is, firstly, unnecessary, in as much as the UK population growth is not a significant contributor to world population growth.

Secondly, there is the issue of sustainability, which as I’ve described above, is contingent on behaviour. But there is another aspect: where the system boundaries are drawn. National boundaries are arbitrary, emerging from history, and should not be given too much significance. There is nothing particularly wonderful about a nation being self sufficient in food, energy or any commodity. Trade is not a bad thing in itself, though transport has its ecological footprint. The UK is only about 60% self-sufficient in food, but that is a function of system boundaries. London is not self-sufficient but staves off starvation by trading financial and other services for food. Lincolnshire, on the other hand, produces a vast surplus of food.

There is nothing, technically, to prevent the UK producing more than enough to feed itself, but currently we find it convenient to work in manufacturing and service industries and buy large quantities of food from elsewhere in the world. It is our choice to leave much of the land agriculturally unproductive so that we may enjoy golf courses and grouse moors and to work in offices rather than in labour-intensive horticulture.

It’s the same with energy. It is our choice that we live in poorly insulated houses, are profligate with our transport fuel and object to wind-farms, preferring to buy imported oil and coal. That is a choice we may come to regret and certainly could be changed so that we become entirely reliant on renewable energy produced within and around the British Isles. If we are worried about energy, then this is the practical way to go, rather than halving the population.
It’s a similar story with minerals. We could be self-sufficient in copper but have decided not to dig up Snowdonia. There are richer deposits elsewhere in the world and we are willing to trade. By all means campaign for better recycling and reuse, efficient use of limited supplies and less consumption generally. These are the timely ways in which we reduce our ecological.

System boundaries are especially important in discussions about ‘overcrowding’. While some prefer the wide open spaces of remote countryside, many people prefer to live in cities. Most people choose to spend their days in urban areas, places far more ‘overcrowded’ than the UK as a whole, most of which is a green and pleasant land and too far to walk to the pub from. About 50 countries are more densely populated than the UK, including India, Japan, and Belgium. Interestingly, Population Matters cherry-picks system boundaries here, emphasising the density of England & Wales, rather than the UK, which still includes Scotland where population has changed little over a century. It is when people talk of ‘overcrowding’ that they are most likely to be associated with xenophobia and racism. So when campaigning organisations question Britain’s sustainability, complain that immigration exceeds emigration and say that the UK is ‘overpopulated’, one might be forgiven for looking for the UKIP logo.

Some conclusions.
  1. Migration is not a global population issue. 
  2. The UK is a very small part of the planet and is hardly relevant to global population. 
  3. Sustainability is much more about behaviour than about numbers. 
  4. The key to stopping global population growth is empowerment of women. 
If we are to stop and even reverse global population growth, and thereby address humankind’s adverse impact on the planet, point 4 above has to be central. Care must be taken to avoid adverse criticism by inappropriately introducing spurious arguments that lead to the Little Englander mentality.
Population Matters has done much fine work and it would be tragic if a rift between them and the wider green movement, which focuses more on behaviour than simple numbers, were to open. But some of their current campaigning is little short of disaster, pandering to the worst elements of the Little Englander mentality, undoing the trust we had vested in them. Their name has already changed from the Optimum Population Trust. It has been suggested that they should drop the ‘P’ word altogether and change further to Women Matter.

This article was first published on 30th December 2014 by The Ecologist.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

After COP20 Lima

There are plenty of folk (eg at CarbonBrief and Adopt a Negotiator ) searching the entrails of the climate conference for clues as to what happened and what the meaning of the finally agreed document will turn out to be. Let's step back from the details and try to catch the big picture.

First the positive. At Lima there really was nobody questioning the science; climate denial is all so last decade that it has become fine to just ignore anybody who doubts that burning fossil carbon will inevitably lead to catastrophic global warming. If you should still meet such a character just point to the Moon and ask him to fetch the cheese.

The game now is brinkmanship, and it's the biggest such game ever. The poor world, after centuries of colonisation, exploitation, theft and unfair trade has seen an opportunity for reparation. They didn't invent the industrial revolution, the fossil carbon complex that is set to destroy the habitability of the planet. They hold the moral high ground (though some of it is perilously close to sea level).

The rich world knows the score but wants to minimise its pain. The newly industrialising nations must not be allowed to become the new polluters just because they have no historical legacy of guilt. Adaptation payments may be deserved but its not easy to give away one's wealth. And, though is can't be admitted for fear of frightening the horses, the rich world's wealth is not so very secure. Economies, post 2008, are known to be fragile enough and with a quarter of the global stock-market based on potentially stranded assets of fossil carbon, any mismanagement of the transition to zero-carbon could bring the house of cards crashing down.

Maybe the collapse of Western capitalism isn't much to worry about when one's home environment no longer affords a sustaining livelihood. For some nations taking the risk of calling the rich world's bluff is no relative risk at all and the rich will have to blink first to avoid mutually assured destruction.

Let's keep the science in mind. I just saw this from @CraigBennett3 Director of Policy and Campaigns at Friends of the Earth UK, who used his 140 characters thus:
Some judge #COP20 against what politicians say is "possible" I prefer to judge against what scientists say is "necessary" &what is equitable
It's just one of countless such expressions of the sentiment that political leaders and the system they operate in are not up to the job.

Now herein lies a danger. It's rather easy to blame the politicians and to blame the system, but is that not just creating a scapegoat? If a politician announces big time consumption cuts, life changes to put fossil carbon-burning into history, and soon enough to avoid climate disaster, will she become Prime Minister in May 2015? No, not even if her name is Natalie Bennett. Most folk have not yet understood the peril. And some who think they have, have not properly.

The science is clear: business as usual has set us on a path to catastrophic warming that will surely see a mass die-off this century; BAU is not an option. Even the mitigation and adaptation pathways discussed and not yet agreed upon at Lima imperil billions. There is an optimism bias built into the way we interpret science. There is uncertainty in climate science but the probability space of error is skewed to the bad side.

In their excellent essay, The Collapse of Western Civilisation, Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway fictionally recount, from the viewpoint of a historian way in the future, how climate change wreaked catastrophe in the late 21st century. They point out our convention of statistical significance leads to scientific 'truth' being accepted when there is some 95% confidence. The one in twenty chance, the low probability high consequence event, is ignored. When politicians talk of staying below 2°C they may not acknowledge that there's only a 66% chance of meeting their goal. Poor odds for survival of civilisation.

So let's drop the scapegoating, internalise the science truthfully, and work out what we, each of us, individually, can contribute to being part of the solution rather than part of the problem. The government does not have it within its power to force us to make the change. Governments in democracies, may be able to nudge, but are essentially followers not leaders. We have to push our own lives to carbon zero.

Just as the poor nations can risk all in the game of brinkmanship so too can we. At the end of the game we can stop shopping; it's our ultimate weapon. That would collapse the system in short order. And its outcome is no worse than climate catastrophe. On the way we can use every piece of engagement in the economy as a political tool.

For every purchase we make, be it a plane ticket, a chocolate bar, a garden fork or an entry to a poetry recital, our first thought should not be can we afford it but can the planet afford it. Will the transaction increase the amount of fossil carbon burnt or will it increase the sum total of human happiness at zero carbon cost?

We have the power to take the required action and when we do the politicians will be empowered to follow our lead.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Searching for Unburnable Oil in Lincolnshire.

In 2013 Egdon Resources applied for planning permission to drill an exploratory oil well at Biscathorpe, a particularly pretty spot in the Lincolnshire Wolds.  The local community voiced their many and varied objections and my own letter to Egdon's Managing Director, Mark Abbott, can be read here.  Once the Highways Department of the County Council objected on the grounds that the access roads were inadequate for the proposed lorry traffic, Egdon withdrew their application.

A new application was submitted this year but the site was moved a few hundred yards distant from the earlier proposal.  It remains a mystery as to why Egdon didn't pick this new location in the first place, presumably they just didn't think about it enough, but the new site removes many of the objections.  It's on an old quarry site, reclaimed for agriculture.  There is little issue relating to archaeology, biodiversity, scenic interruption, noise, lighting, or traffic on a small lane.  No newts will be harmed.

Taking the planning guidance at face value it seems likely that planning consent will be granted.    But the planning legislation was constructed with particular objectives in mind and that did not include saving the human race from catastrophic climate change.  Narrowly defined, our planning rules are no longer fit for purpose.

Here is what I have written to the Lincolnshire County Council's Planning and Regulation Committee:

In the foreword to the World Bank’s November 2014 report, Turn Down the Heat: Confronting the New Climate Normal, Dr. Jim Yong Kim, President, World Bank Group, wrote:

“Many of the worst projected climate impacts outlined in this latest report could still be avoided by holding warming below 2°C. But, this will require substantial technological, economic, institutional and behavioural change. It will require leadership at every level of society.”

“Every level of society”; Kim is calling for leadership from you, the councillors of Lincolnshire County Council. Similar calls have been made recently by Christiana Figueres, Head of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) and from Ban Ki-moon, Secretary General of the United Nation.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has made it clear that most of the fossil fuel already discovered must be left underground and unburnt if catastrophic climate change is to be avoided. There can be no justification for searching for further sources of oil and gas.

The planning rules, under which you are considering the current application for an exploratory oil well near Biscathorpe, were designed for a purpose other than climate change mitigation. If they are narrowly interpreted you will likely grant planning permission. These rules, however, are not fit for the purpose now called for. You have it within your powers to step up to Jim Yong Kim’s call, to show leadership, and to refuse planning permission for any search for new sources of fossil fuel in Lincolnshire. You owe this to our future generations.

Saturday, November 01, 2014

Turned Out Nice

Last February, when there was a wet spell, I wrote a little piece, Turned Out Wet in which I discussed probabilities of extreme weather events. I followed it a few days later with
Turned out Wet (and still raining).  If you didn't read them at the time, or need a refresher, please take a look before proceeding.

Right, done that?  Good.

Yesterday we had another one, another extreme weather event.  Ok, nobody's home was destroyed, it was just a rather pleasant day.  Up until yesterday, the highest temperature recorded in England on the last day of October had been 20°C.  This year the temperature reached 23°C in several places in North Kent, with Gravesend seeing 23.6°C, and over 20°C across a large part of England. (Let's ignore central London where the heat-island effect kicks in.)  So that's three degrees warmer than had ever been recorded. Does that make it another 3-sigma (or more) event?

Well, there's a kind of cherry-picking there if I say yes. There's nothing that special about a particular day.  I mean, we couldn't claim any significant record if there had been warmer days close to the 31st of October.  But there aren't. The nearest nearby record temperature was November the 4th 1946 when 21.7°C was recorded in Prestatyn.  In 2011 there was a very warm spell at the beginning of October (I remember it - I went swimming off the Lincolnshire coast) when Gravesend (again) reached 29.9°C.  But that was October the 1st, a whole month earlier.

So was yesterday's weather another portent of doom, more evidence for global warming?  Frankly, it really doesn't matter.  Writing this on the eve of the release of the IPCC AR5 Synopsis, we should understand that we already have enough knowledge and understanding to realise that we have to stop all burning of fossil carbon fuels now if we are to avoid catastrophic climate change.  And even then a lot of people are going to have to adjust to not living close to the current sea level.

We no longer need a thermometer to know that the patient is critically ill.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Ski-Slope Diagram*, the 2°C Meme and the EU Climate Agreement.

I gave a little talk at the Transition Town Horncastle Skill-share day last Saturday. Eschewing the all too common PowerPoint presentation, I had painted, in oils, a rendition of the Ski-slope diagram from WBGU German Advisory Council On Global Change. Solving the climate dilemma: The budget approach. 2009.

Figure 3.2-1
Examples of global emission pathways for the period 2010–2050 with global CO2 emissions capped at 750 Gt during this period. At this level, there is a 67 % probability of achieving compliance with the 2 °C guard rail (Chapter 5). The figure shows variants of a global emissions trend with different peak years: 2011 (green), 2015 (blue) and 2020 (red). In order to achieve compliance with these curves, annual reduction rates of 3.7 % (green), 5.3 % (blue) or 9.0 % (red) would be required in the early 2030s (relative to 2008).

I added an asterisk to the title, a footnote of warnings. Here they are:

*Warning: several assumptions which may turn out to be invalid are embedded within the diagram. Errors are likely to be on the bad side.

  • The commonly talked about 2°C limit isn’t really a limit, rather it’s a two thirds probability. (Would you fly a plane with a one in three chance of crashing?)
  • The 2°C limit is a political, not scientifically based, obligation.
  • Global average warming of 2°C is disastrous for the climate over large areas of the world.
  • That much CO2 in the atmosphere spells disaster for marine ecosystems through ocean acidification.
  • The emission scenarios associated with 2°C limit are based on Global Circulation Models (GCMs) that have two significant limitations:
  • The Butterfly Effect, whereby outcomes are tightly dependant on initial conditions. These are known unknowns that can at least be dealt with statistically.
  • The Hawkmoth Effect, whereby outcomes are tightly dependant on the models’ accuracy in representing the real world. This is an unkown unknown, much more difficult to control.
  • Even supposing the 2°C had some valid basis, we are currently heading on a trajectory that overshoots it by a disastrously wide margin.
Last Thursday the EU leaders agreed to limit our greenhouse gas emissions, reducing them by at least 40% on 1990 rates, in order to meet our obligation to keep average global warming to 2°C, but as we can see, such a figure is pretty meaningless. For any rational use of the precautionary principle, we have no ‘carbon budget’ left. The area under the Ski-slope graph has shrunk to nothing if we are looking for a sensible probability of over 90% of avoiding disaster. For those low-lying parts of the world that will be affected by the already crossed threshold of polar ice melt tipping points, disaster is already locked it. The game we have to play is adaptation and maximising mitigation. Setting up carbon budgets to avoid 2°C warmings is just so much tilting at windmills.

Kevin Anderson warned David Cameron and Ed Davey of the folly of the 2°C meme in his open letter, but to little avail. Poland may not have had her way but that is cold comfort. Here’s the text of the EU Agreement: European Council (23 and 24 October 2014) Conclusions on 2030 Climate and Energy Policy Framework

David Spratt, whose book Climate Code Red: The Case for Emergency Action was published in 2008, has recently presented Dangerous climate change: Myths and reality and delivered a lecture on the topic at the Breakthrough Forum.

Some good things do come out of Australia.

And Canada, from where Naomi Klein has told us This Changes Everything.

The time for emergency action is now.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Climate March London September 21st 2014

Are you coming too?

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Bishopthorpe Farm Wind Farm Inquiry

The Planning Inquiry into the Bishopthorpe Farm (Newton Marsh Extension) Windfarm in Lincolnshire was having its public session today.  Most people speaking were concerned about the view, some quite passionately. This is what I told the Inspector:

People will be worried about the appearance of the windfarm and its effect on landscape but the overriding issue is global warming. People of my generation may be lucky to avoid the worst effects of climate change but our grandchildren’s lives will be made impossible by our reckless burning of coal, gas and oil. We have already burnt too much, enough to ensure the melting of the Greenland and West Antarctic Ice Sheets. Mitigation of some of the further damage is still possible if we stop our greenhouse gas emissions quickly. That requires the rapid decarbonisation of our electricity generation. Onshore windfarms are currently the fastest and cheapest tool for the task.

No matter what one’s feelings of aesthetics or passion for a particular landscape, to object to this windfarm proposal is a denial of climate science, an abrogation of our responsibility to future generations who cannot yet speak for themselves, who are not given a say in this Inquiry.

We have to stop burning fossil carbon. If we want to use electricity it must be generated without burning fossil carbon. Once electricity demand has reduced enough and renewable generation capacity increased enough to allow us to close all the gas and coal power-stations, we will then have the luxury of choosing where the best location for windfarms might be. Until then the overriding consideration has to be to increase capacity as fast as possible. If a developer is willing to build a windfarm, reducing our need to burn fossil carbon, we should encourage them by all means at our disposal. To do otherwise is to demonstrate denial of the urgency and seriousness of the global warming problem.

We currently have a government in confusion, with some ministers openly denying the science and others unclear about the urgency of the issue. Our democratic system produces politicians who have to please their electors rather than do what is right. Sadly, many people just do not have the required grasp of climate science to be able to form rational opinions and so rely on their prejudices and personal perceptions of aesthetics.

Absurdly, the planning system ignores global environmental effects. The failure to replace fossil fuel burning with renewables will lead to catastrophic climate change. A local impact is that the site of Bishopthorpe Windfarm will become flooded as sea level rises and becomes part of the Greater North Sea as the ice caps melt, but that is not considered in the planning process.

From this inquiry we should send a clear signal to government that we want planning decisions to maximise climate change mitigation. This is the existential issue of our time and the responsibility we bear for the sake of future generations. This windfarm should be built with all possible speed.

Monday, August 04, 2014

I Will Not Commemorate the War

I will not commemorate the war
That started a hundred years ago,
Until the war has ended.

The war continues, the battles rage on,
In Syria,
In Palestine,
In Iraq,
In Ukraine,
In a dozen other places,
The war continues, the battles rage on.

I will turn away from monuments and memorials,
I will not join the men at their cenotaphs and graves,
I will not wear a red poppy
Until the war has ended.

I will not blame warmongers afar
Without first blaming those at home,
The warmongers who make and sell the weapons,
The politicians who make the mongers' trades possible,
The savers whose investments oil the wheels of the industry.
No, don't give me your lame excuse of jobs and economy,
You who would make a hundred year war last to eternity.

There was a lull, a truce, they called it armistice,
But it was not the end of the war,
Just a moment of hesitation,
An opportunity to regroup,
To fight under different flags,
Over different lines.

I will leave nostalgia aside for now,
I will stand apart from the crowd,
Alone maybe,
And say that a hundred years is enough to show
The war to end all wars is a lie.

You are still fighting.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Gleaning Vegetables in South Lincolnshire

Hi, we are urgently requiring volunteer gleaners for a huge haul of broccoli due to be gleaned in South Lincolnshire Tuesday 15th July. Please, please would you be able to share this message far and wide!
Call out to fellow gleaners – a bounty of broccoli is beckoning!
 An exciting summer of gleaning is upon us – please spread the word far and wide!  We have found thousands of beautiful broccoli going to waste on a farm in South Lincolnshire!  On Tuesday 15th July, we’ll be going on a mission to save as many as possible of these tasty delicacies for charity! All produce is going to our good friendsFareShare to be distributed to charities dealing with food poverty.
 With a promise of monthly gleanings from our friendly Lincolnshire farmers topped up with some days on our Cambridge farms, Suffolk and Norfolk farms we are looking forward to a busy and ‘fruitful’ summer with lots of valuable fruit and veg to distribute to various food charities throughout the UK.
We had some fantastic opportunities earlier this year to spread the word after two fantastic leek gleans in Lincolnshirewhere we saved almost 2 tonne of leeks over two days resulting in interviews on BBC local radio and television, which some of you contributed to. Along with some follow up in the local press and a story in the Farmers Weekly, this coverage has seen lots of new Lincolnshire gleaners and farmers across the region getting in touch. Here are a few photos of the event for you to enjoy.
Our farmers have formed partnerships with Gleaning Network UK, alerting the food waste campaign when opportunities come up to save healthy, fresh food for those who most need it. Our volunteers spend several hours harvesting and then packing the fresh veg – which is then collected and distributed it to food poverty projects such as homeless hostels and food banks to benefit those suffering food poverty.
Next gleaning day on Tuesday 15th July 10am-5pm (TBC):
Travel expenses are covered for those travelling from Cambridge, Peterborough, Boston and nearby in SouthLincolnshire – just check with us first!
Please join us in the fields! If you can make it, please contact me at to confirm whether you can make the whole day, and send me your phone number and where you’ll be travelling from (e.g. Cambridge, Boston, etc.) so we can group you with fellow travel companions. We’ll then send you finalised details closer to the time.
Please get in touch asap so we have an idea of numbers – the more people we have, the more broccoli we can save! Also, please do check whether you can make it, as lots of drop outs at the last minute can jeopardise the gleaning day going ahead!
Please spread the word to your friends and networks, and do recommend any groups you think we should get in touch with! If you can't join us this time, watch this space – we’ll have more gleaning days coming up over the coming year!
See you in the fields!
All the best, 
Vicki Beers
Cambridge Gleaning Coordinator
We are 2014 BBC Food and Farming Award winners for Best Initiative in British Food.
Follow us: 
Sign the Feeding the 5000 pledge against food waste!

Tuesday, May 27, 2014


We went to a funeral
In the rain.
A green burial
A poem.

When most folk had left
A lone woman stood by the grave
Singing a song
In a strange language
In the rain

Then we went to the pub and had cakes and ale.
There will always be Sunshine.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

An Open Letter to Mark Abbott, Managing Director of Egdon Resources.

 22nd May 2014
Dear Mark,
Thank you for coming to Donington-on-Bain Village Hall in Lincolnshire on Wednesday 21st May 2014 to present your plans for oil exploration at Biscathorpe in the Lincolnshire Wolds Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.  And thank you for having the patience to listen to me politely for over half an hour while I told you to change your job.  I found it an interesting conversation.
You and I both started our careers as geologists; you became a successful businessman and I a campaigner against the exploitation of fossil carbon.  We have some common ground but we are operating in different paradigms.
You came to our community to assure us that you operated in a well-regulated industry, acting at all times within the law, in accordance with UK government policy, and that you took your responsibilities towards protection of the local environment seriously.  You think you can manage your planned operations in such a way as to produce little nuisance for local residents and with little risk to the natural environment including the world-wide rare habitat of a chalk-stream.  By and large, I believe you.  There is the issue of low-risk/high-consequence events such as a major well-head explosion but let’s keep fingers crossed and leave that to one side.
I was disappointed, but not at all surprised, to see no mention of global warming and climate change on your display material.  When I questioned your colleague, Martin, who has responsibility for environmental protection compliance, it became clear that he was only concerned with the ‘local environment’.  Somehow the atmosphere is not part of this.  In common with other oil and gas companies involved in the UK prospect, you appear to be happy to engage with the public about the local environmental threats, which, perhaps correctly, you regard as manageable risks, but are reluctant to draw attention to global warming caused by greenhouse gasses, the end waste products of your industry.  Carbon dioxide, you might argue, is the responsibility of he who burns the carbon, not the producer.  An arms manufacture would deny responsibility for the actions of the man with the trigger finger in the same manner.  That logic cannot be applied to fugitive methane, a much more powerful greenhouse gas in the short term.
I was also disappointed, and actually quite surprised, that you had not heard of Christiana Figueres, the Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.  Here’s her website: Her job is to deliver an agreement between 194 nations at the Conference of the Parties in Paris in December 2015, replacing the Kyoto Protocol, to provide a mechanism for carbon reduction that leads to a safe climate.  Her many recent speeches to the oil industry, governments and other significant players have highlighted the danger of the ‘carbon bubble’ and stranded assets.  These are matters that directly affect the profitability of your industry and as a managing director I am surprised that you are not keeping abreast of these developments.  You told me that you had heard of fellow geologist Jeremy Leggett and were aware of Carbon Tracker but, again, you seemed unaware of the significance of the issues raised.  I suggest you seek a meeting.  He can be contacted here
You pointed out that Egdon is a very small player and that these are really matters for the big boys.  Did you read the letter from Shell last week?  They say “In summary, Shell does not believe that any of its proven reserves will become ‘stranded’ as a result of current or reasonably foreseeable future legislation concerning carbon”.  Thus they believe that Christiana Figueres will fail in her task and COP21 will not deliver the agreement required to limit climate change safely.  Sadly, they may be right, but that will spell the end of civilisation as we know it and perhaps worse.  The consequences of failure have begun to be spelled out by the World Bank particularly in their report Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4°C Warmer World Must be Avoided Shell admit the problem in their 16th May letter: “We concur with the view in the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report that there is a high degree of confidence that global warming will exceed 2° by the end of the 21st century.”
From our conversation, Mark, it seems to me that your position is aligned with that of Shell.  You accept that global warming and the consequent climate change are real and are caused largely by man’s emission of greenhouse gasses.  You expect the continued use of fossil carbon, though declining over, as you put it, ‘the next few decades’.  You argue that exploiting the UK’s resources of oil and natural gas, in line with government policy, helps the UK economy and energy security and the generated wealth can be used to speed the transition to a low-carbon future.
All well and good, if only we had the luxury of time.  Sadly we don’t; there is no longer a ‘carbon budget’ left.  David Spratt explains this in his blog this morning at 
Last night the topic of ice melt came up in our conversation.  You said that you had read about it on the BBC website.  I was disappointed that you use the main-stream media as a filter for information central to your industry’s long term future.  As a geophysicist, you are part of that small proportion of the population able to read und understand the scientific literature, even in a field not directly your own.  Yet rather than reading the source papers you rely on journalism for a lay audience.  I suggest you follow the references given here by Roz Pidcock at Carbon Brief just the day before yesterday.  You will see that we are already committed to the loss of many of the world’s largest cities and vast stretches of the best agricultural land to rising sea level, even if we stopped all carbon burning today.  On your journey to Donington-on-Bain, perhaps you visited the nearby market town of Louth.  Next year we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the completion of the church spire.  In another 500 years it will only be visible to the jellyfish.  The areas most at risk are graphically illustrated in this piece published yesterday by the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme:
In announcing the forthcoming UN Climate Summit 2014 in New York this September, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said “I challenge you to bring to the Summit bold pledges. Innovate, scale-up, cooperate and deliver concrete action that will close the emissions gap and put us on track for an ambitious legal agreement through the UNFCCC process.”  He was addressing all of us but particularly those of us who are privileged to hold positions where we can make the required pledges.  That means people like you, Mark, who have an influence in the fossil fuel industry as well as people like me who have the resources to campaign.  No matter how small our individual influence may be, we have to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.  Veteran campaigner, Bill McKibben, released his ‘Call to Arms’ yesterday asking that people come to New York in September, engaging in the democratic process that you talked about last night.  Democracy, Mark, cannot be left to an occasional vote (and I trust you voted Green in today’s EU election) for as 20th century history has shown, the most evil governments can arise through democracy.  Your reasoning that Egdon acts within the law and according to the policies of a democratically elected government form a weak defence, the defence of ‘only carrying out orders’.  Ultimately we all have to take personal responsibility for our actions.
So Mark, I think you are an honest man, trying to do your best for the world as well as for yourself.  I ask you to step out of your comfort zone, study what real Earth-systems scientists are saying, unmediated by politicians or journalists, and confront the inescapable conclusion that we have to stop burning carbon pretty damn quick.  Use the resources at your disposal to turn our path so that you may one day say to your grandchild, I was part of the problem but then I tried to be part of the solution.  It’s a big ask, because the first step will be to forego submitting that planning application to drill for oil at Biscathorpe.
Regards, Biff Vernon.

27 May 2014

Dear Biff

Many thanks for your emailed letter dated 22 May and for attending the exhibition in Donington on Bain Village Hall last week about our proposals for a conventional exploratory oil well at Biscathorpe. It was good to meet you and hear your views.

I hope you found the information in our displays and discussions with the Egdon team to be helpful.
We will continue to inform the local community of our plans by updating our project web page:!Wellsite Biscathorpe

You will have another opportunity to submit your views when Lincoinshire County Council’s planning department undertakes its statutory public consultation, following receipt of our planning application.

Yours sincerely

Mark Abbott

Managing Director
Egdon Resources U.K. Limited Tel: 01256 702 292