Thursday, May 27, 2021

Not Just Energy, but Everything.

The criticality of the global energy situation is emphasised by the release, on schedule (18-5-21), of the eagerly awaited “Net Zero by 2050” roadmap (NZE) from the International Energy Agency (IEA).

Not only does this document delineate the gargantuan quantities of energy currently used by humans on Earth, mainly from the fossil fuels, but the enormity of change necessary to bring their emissions to net zero by 2050. [It is thought this would give a 50:50 chance of limiting the rise in global average temperature to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels by 2100].

Although NZE is a guide, not a mandate, it fully identifies the steepness of the terrain that must be negotiated, with no new oil or gas fields to be approved, as of 2021. Instead, oil and gas producers would concentrate on output from existing fields, and in reducing any associated emissions. New coal mines and additional unabated coal fired power plants are also ruled out.

Given that various governments, including that of the UK, who commissioned the report, are set to endorse various new fossil fuel projects, and oil companies continue to invest in new production, this particular criterion may prove difficult to meet.

The publication of the roadmap is timed in anticipation of the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26) of the United Nations Climate Change Framework Convention in Glasgow in November, whose high-level discussions it aims to inform. Even if the climate pledges made to date by the world’s governments were entirely fulfilled, the resulting reduction in global energy-related CO2 emissions would be insufficient to bring them to net zero by 2050; hence, more drastic and urgent action is essential.

Broadly, the NZE emissions reductions are comparable with those scenarios set out in the IPCC Special Report on 1.5°C, published in 2018, that yield net-zero CO2 energy sector and industrial process emissions in 2050, although there are important structural differences, including avoiding “overshoot”. In particular, NZE depends less on bioenergy and carbon capture (CCUS/BECCS) technologies, but more on direct emissions reductions, with a greater share of wind and solar energy being introduced. Thus, the NZE vs (IPCC) figures for 2050 are: fossil energy use = 120 EJ (184); overall energy use = 344 EJ (404); wind/solar share = 70% (53%); CCS = 7.6 Gt (8.4); BECCS = 1.9 Gt (4.5); bioenergy = 102 EJ (152)

A doubling of current nuclear power (and also of hydroelectric capacity) is anticipated, which might raise some eyebrows. However, without it, much more solar PV and wind energy is necessary. Thus, in the NZE “low nuclear and CCUS” case (with nuclear 60% lower in 2050 than for NZE and only the existing planned CCUS projects completed) an additional 2,400GW of solar and wind capacity would be needed to compensate for the shortfall. In addition, around 480GW of battery capacity would be necessary, on top of the 3,100GW planned in NZE, and an extra 300GW of other dispatchable capacity to cope with seasonal energy demand.

Profound changes must already have been made by 2030, to garner sufficient momentum that the NZE target can be reached “by 2050”. Such intense transformation is also necessary given the very tight remaining global carbon budget, and to minimise locking-in high emissions infrastructure. Thus, an immediate and massive deployment of all available clean and efficient energy technologies must be undertaken, with respective annual additions of solar PV and of wind power to reach 630 GW and 390 GW by 2030. Together, this is four times the record level set in 2020. For solar PV, it is equivalent to installing the world’s current largest solar park [1,000 MW] roughly every day.

Energy efficiency (i.e. MJ of energy used per $ GDP generated) is also a significant feature of the roadmap, and which must increase by 4% per year, up to 2030, i.e. a trebling of the average over the past two decades. In 2030, 60% of new cars sold globally would be electric vehicles.

The NZE scenario has critical implications for global oil demand, which would need to fall from 88 million barrels a day (mbd) in 2020, to 72 mbd in 2030; reaching 24 mbd in 2050 (an overall annual decline of -4.2%). If all further investment in those fields now producing were to cease, the global oil supply would decline by -8%/year, but the IEA estimate that this can be braked at -4.5% by allowing continued investment in existing fields, including those already approved for development. However, a delicate balancing act is required, since if the resulting loss of oil is not adequately matched in step by alternatives such as EVs, discontinuities may appear in the energy supply chain, with impacts on critical functions, e.g. transportation.

Thus, governments need proactively to anticipate energy security risks surrounding market concentration, critical minerals and an increased reliance on electricity systems, including their vulnerability to cyber attack: in 2050, almost 50% of global energy would be used in the form of electricity, up from 20% in 2020. This will necessitate a huge increase in the production of lithium, cobalt, nickel, graphite, rare earths and copper, whose supplies must be secured by individual nations. As the mining or processing of these resources is concentrated in only a few countries, potential geopolitical problems seem almost inevitable.

If entirely implemented, the global energy landscape would be almost unrecognisable, as NZE summarises:

“By 2050, the energy world looks completely different. Global energy demand is around 8% smaller than today, but it serves an economy more than twice as big and a population with 2 billion more people. Almost 90% of electricity generation comes from renewable sources, with wind and solar PV together accounting for almost 70%. Most of the remainder comes from nuclear power. Solar is the world’s single largest source of total energy supply. Fossil fuels fall from almost four-fifths of total energy supply today to slightly over one-fifth. Fossil fuels that remain are used in goods where the carbon is embodied in the product such as plastics, in facilities fitted with carbon capture, and in sectors where low-emissions technology options are scarce.”

NZE is an attempt at “business as usual”: of trying to maintain the mechanics of current civilization, but with energy largely provided from renewable sources, instead of fossil fuels. In a practical sense, “renewable” is a misnomer, since although the power of the sun, and of the wind which it also drives, is effectively endless, acquiring useful energy, still depends on minerals mined from the Earth, and which are subject to the inevitability of depletion, the same as the fossil fuels are now. To some extent, this can be mitigated by recycling, but there are energy costs and the need to create new infrastructure on a very large scale to do this.

Meanwhile, until the new low carbon energy system has attained a sufficient size to feed back energy to build and maintain itself, fossil fuel energy will be required to subsidise its growth. Hence, the questions arise of, how much energy do we really need, and [how] might we manage with [a lot] less of it?

Indeed, while energy is the critical underpinning factor for future society, it is not the only point of issue, and we are presented with an opportunity to reimagine that society. It is noteworthy that the richest 10% of humans on Earth produce 52% of its total emissions (of which 15% are produced by the “top” 1%); hence, this is where the major behavioural changes (a critical feature of NZE) must be made.

In all probability, the NZE projections both in terms of energy saving and changing our behaviour must be transcended considerably, if we are to deal with all aspects of a changing climate. The fundamental concept of “net zero”, has recently been challenged as a “dangerous trap”, in that it might be used to defer action that should be taken immediately, continuing to burn fossil fuels as part of a business plan that assumes carbon emissions will be cleaned up later, using technology as yet to be applied on the massive scale.

Globally, the energy costs of transportation run to 21% of primary energy consumption; hence, a curbing of the unnecessary movement of people or goods (including food and energy) could considerably reduce the amount of low carbon energy that must be produced.

Indeed, relocalisation has been proposed as the best single approach to reducing demand for oil and resources of all kinds, while building resilience into our communities and societies. The process of relocalisation implicitly involves many other re-words, all of which ameliorate demand for energy and other resources, e.g. reduce, reuse, recycle... repair, repurpose, replace, refill, rethink, redesign, reimagine, reinvent, regenerate, restore, respond, refuse!

To tackle the global problem of climate change will require unparalleled coordination and collaboration across societies and between nations. Without the international cooperation assumed in NZE, the transition to net‐zero emissions “would be delayed by decades”, thus greatly increasing the chances of missing the 1.5 oC target. At a time when the peoples of the world are becoming increasingly fragmented and divided, along with potential production and supply issues, this does not appear unlikely.

In any case, to focus primarily on eliminating carbon emissions is too narrow: the problems confronting humanity are actually systemic in nature, and not resolved by changing the source(s) of our energy alone, while degradation of the natural environment and depletion of resources continue.

Indeed, we can list energy and carbon emissions along with many other of the “world’s woes”, such as loss of biodiversity and habitat, pollinator decline, soil erosion, and a consumption of close to 100 billion tonnes of materials every year (even allowing for a substitution of coal, gas and oil by other minerals), which, acting in concert, comprise what has been termed the “changing climate”.

The world food system and (as part of it) deforestation are major contributors to this overall degradative mechanism. Potential biodiversity threats from mining the necessary minerals for renewable energy, are also likely to be exacerbated.

Thus, in our quest for Net Zero carbon emissions, what if we exhaust our resources - of which the most precious is time - in a last ditch attempt to prop up a system that fails us anyway? What then?

Thursday, October 29, 2020

Covid-19, Fracking and the Global Oil Supply.

Talk by me, via Zoom, on 10.00 am, Wednesday November 4th, 2020, as part of the Scientists Warning Europe, Pre-COP26 programme.

Synopsis: "The price of crude oil has crashed in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis, and the consequent fall in demand for liquid transportation fuels. Ironically, it is the "success" of the shale industry, through fracking, that has provided much of the growth in overall global oil production during the past decade, and yet the current low oil price has raised questions over the future robustness of this industry.

While it is true that plans to revitalise the global economy "post-covid" must also create substantial and permanent reductions in carbon emissions, the prevailing oversupply of oil will in any case be attenuated by the background fall in production from existing oil fields, which has, so far, only been offset by production from unconventional sources: mainly shale and oil sands.

Since oil is a critical raw material for the running of global civilization, it is essential to anticipate how its supply may play out, against demand, in the coming decades, and this must be considered in the broader context of our use of energy, overall, and of resources in general."

I'm delighted to be hosting a free webinar as part of the Planet in Crisis series of online climate and environmental events running from 1-8 November. As this event is coming up soon, please make sure you book your free ticket now. You can register for a free ticket here - - and please share this link with your network.

Friday, October 02, 2020

Solving the Plastic Problem: from Cradle to Grave, to Reincarnation.

This is a write-up of a talk that I gave to the Conway Hall Ethical Society, in London, recently. It is due to be published in the Society's journal "Ethical Record", but this has been delayed due to the present Covid-19 situation.


It is ironic, amid the current consternation over plastic pollution, that the first synthetic plastic (a form of nitrocellulose) was intended to provide environmental protection, by reducing demand for ivory, from which billiard balls were made, although these ersatz versions would occasionally explode when struck. Indeed, it has been reported that the American inventor, John Wesley Hyatt, who introduced it for this purpose, commented that, “in spite of their tendency to catch fire, cellulose nitrate saved the elephant”.

The subsequent, and profound, incorporation of plastics into the commercial fabric of civilization, substantially contributed to its growth, and to the creation of a consumer society. Thus in 1950, a total of less than 2 million tonnes of plastics were manufactured, a tally that was estimated to have reached 464 million tonnes in 2018, and which, according to different projections, might reach 1124 million tonnes or 1900 million tonnes in 2050. The proliferation of plastic materials in society is underpinned by their durability, cheapness and ease of production, along with strength, but low mass, as compared to other materials, for example metals.

Thus, public and private transportation vehicles can now contain up to 20%, by weight, of plastic materials, and for the Boeing “Dreamliner” Jumbo Jet, the proportion is around 50%, thus allowing an expected 20% reduction in the amount of fuel needed to be burned for each flight.

As a result of unremitting media coverage, the discharge of plastic waste into the environment, particularly the oceans, is now generally accepted to be a serious global problem, as was superlatively emphasised in the final episode of the Blue Planet II series on BBC television, narrated by Sir David Attenborough, which has led to what is known as “The Blue Planet Effect”: a galvanization of action across society to curb the unnecessary use of plastic, and reduce plastic waste, particularly from packaging.

However, in 2020, so called “Covid-waste”, which includes items such as facemasks, disposable gloves and hand-sanitiser bottles, along with other means employed to deal with the pandemic, have contributed a further burden of plastic pollution.

Failure of the linear economic system.

While application of the linear economic model, which uses resources in a “take-make-dispose” manner, has generated unequalled levels of growth, it results in the production of insuperable levels of waste, and the resource production rates required to support it have risen to non-maintainable levels. As applied to plastic production, a global environmental calamity has ensued, since some 90% of the items made from plastics are for “single use”, after which they are thrown away. Of the 8.3 billion tonnes of virgin plastic, manufactured since 1950, 6.3 billion tonnes has ended up as plastic waste, of which around 79% has accumulated in landfills or in the natural environment, and in the region of 8-9 million tonnes is believed to enter the oceans annually, perhaps 2.4 million tonnes of which is delivered there by rivers.

Plastics are extremely durable, and although this makes them highly useful in a myriad of applications, they are estimated to persist in the open environment for hundreds of years, and indeed, it has been argued that plastic never fully degrades, but merely fragments into increasingly smaller pieces (microplastics, and nanoplastics) that may impact, adversely, on marine life, and which are entering and propagating up the food chain. Hence, it is not only necessary to seek solutions to the problem of plastic pollution that already exists in the environment, but to achieve a future in which further such contamination by plastic is ameliorated.

The resource depletion/plastic pollution problem may be partly mitigated via the reuse economy, which involves some degree of reusing or repurposing of items, although non-recyclable waste is still generated, while the circular economy aims to avoid the production of waste altogether, with maximum recycling as an essential component, being modelled on the way natural systems operate, such as a forest, where outputs from some processes become inputs for others, e.g. the annual leaf litter from trees is cycled into the creation of new soil, which provides a medium for new growth, and nourishes and nurtures the entire ecosystem.

Thus, we see that improved design, in all respects of our civilization, may serve to address and mitigate many of the issues, including plastic pollution, that presently confront us, acknowledging that these are not individual problems (“the world’s woes”) that can be approached in isolation, but are interrelated symptoms (“cracks in the wall”) of a broader reality of global systemic failure. Thus, the term “the changing climate” has been used, rather than ”climate change” – i.e. as driven by fossil fuel burning/global warming – to encompass the many aspects of transformation that we currently experience.


Bioplastics are more correctly termed “biobased polymers”, and have been proposed as alternatives to petroleum derived plastics. However, it can be concluded that to replace the present ca 400 million tonne annual production of largely petroleum based plastics by biobased polymers would require ca 150 million hectares of arable land, or 11% of the total available on Earth, while to thus meet a projected growth in production/demand to 1900 tonnes, by 2050, some 52% of the Earth’s arable land would need to be commandeered, leading to a serious competition between using land to grow crops for food or plastic, similar to the issue of creating first generation biofuels from land based crops (i.e. should the priority be to feed people or to fuel cars?). Polylactic acid (PLA) has attracted particular interest due to the expectation that it will degrade more rapidly in the environment than the more usual petroleum based plastics, and thus be prevented from similarly accumulating there.

However, although items made from PLA, such as tumblers for drinks, are often labelled as “100% degradable” and “100% compostable”, both descriptors may be misleading. In particular, although the term “biodegradable” means that the component polymer molecules are expected to break down eventually, under the influence of microbial action, it does not specify any definite timescale for the process, which might take very many years. Similarly, the material does not readily break down in a garden compost heap, but requires the more aggressive conditions of an industrial composting facility to be decomposed into actual “compost.”

The ubiquitous presence of microplastics.

The U.S. National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration categorises microplastics as being less than 5 mm in diameter. Primary microplastics are plastic particles that were originally manufactured at those sizes in which they are encountered in the environment, and include microfibres from clothing, microbeads, and pellets (nurdles) from which plastic items are made. Secondary microplastics are formed by the degradation of larger plastic items, including bottles for water and other drinks, plastic bags and fishing nets. Evidence for the ubiquity of microplastic pollution is accumulating rapidly, and wherever such material is sought, it seems to be found.

Thus, microplastics have been identified in: Arctic sea ice, the air, soils, rivers, aquifers, remote maintain regions, food, drinking water, the oceans and ocean sediments, including waters and deep sea sediments around Antarctica, and within the deepest marine trenches of the Earth. They have also been detected in the bodies of animals, including humans, and as being passed along the hierarchy of food chains, up to marine top predators.

Using less plastic in the first place.

Although there are significant potentials that might be realised through technological advances, both in the manufacture of conventional plastics, and the design of items made from them (to make them more conveniently recyclable), through the introduction of biobased polymers (so long as food production is not compromised), and improved collection and recycling methods, these are all largely means to alleviate the status quo, but essentially to preserve business as usual. However, various lifecycle analyses identify the importance of reducing our demand for plastic materials per se.

Around one half of plastic waste (by mass) arises from plastic packaging, and if the 90% of all plastic items that are used once, and then thrown away, are tallied together, some 50% of the total mass of manufactured plastics is thus accounted for. The “Blue Planet Effect” has stimulated several UK supermarkets to offer plastic-free alternatives, although in some cases such “loose” fruit and vegetables are more expensive to buy than their plastic wrapped counterparts.

It has been argued that plastic packaging results in food lasting longer, with less being wasted; however, this is only necessary as part of a global/industrial food production/distribution network, and a counterargument is that it leads to more food being bought, e.g. “buy one get one free” deals, but which is often then thrown away. However, when food is grown locally, more of it tends to be eaten, and more quickly, with a reduced necessity for plastic packaging. In addition, such a more “localised” approach means that fewer vehicles are necessary, and hence less plastic is needed to fabricate their various components, along with a reduction in microplastic pollution, e.g. from tyre abrasion on road surfaces.

Campaigns to reduce waste from carrier bags (Polyethylene) and drinks bottles (PET) in Europe suggest that behavioural adjustments are possible, but plastics are such a deeply entrenched feature of our modern, consumer society that to break free from them entirely seems a remote prospect, at least without drastic changes to the fabric and mechanism of that society. Given that only 20% of global plastic waste is recycled, currently, considerable and fundamental amendments are required, and urgently, to make a real impact on eliminating plastic waste.

The future of plastics.

Despite the concern for the environment engendered by plastic pollution, which has led to a current sense of “all plastics are bad”, and the declaration of a “War on Plastic”, it is very unlikely that society can manage entirely without plastic materials, at least for the foreseeable future. The availability of cheap and diverse kinds of plastic has underpinned the growth of the consumer society, by unleashing a flood of consumer goods, e.g. the vast proliferation of mobile phones and related devices might not have occurred if they had to be made of something else, such as metals, and while plastics are indeed wonderful, they serve to drive and maintain a culture of modern consumerism. To reduce our use of plastic would necessitate fundamental changes to our behaviour and value systems. In the main, plastics would be best reserved for particular applications where they are not easily substituted for by other materials.

It has been reckoned that, in 2050, 20% of the global oil supply will be consumed by the plastic industry. Oil is needed for many other purposes, but depletion means potential problems in maintaining overall production, in particular if the fracking industry, which is currently running at a financial loss, stalls. In 1955, the American, Life Magazine, celebrated the dawn of “Throwaway Living”, but we have since learned that there is no “away” where we can throw anything. Plastics are indeed wonder-materials, and have facilitated the creation of the modern, industrialised world. However, their robustness means they degrade only slowly and poorly in the environment, and are now identified as a ubiquitous source of pollution throughout the planetary bodies of land, air and water.

The emergence of nanoplastics in the environment poses a new set of potential threats, although, as with microplastics, any human health consequences are as yet unknown, save, as indicated from model studies. Nonetheless, there are significant grounds for concern, and indeed, plastic pollution is just one element in the overall matrix of a changing climate ("the world's woes"), and must be addressed as part of an integrated consideration of how we use all resources, and the need to change our expectations, goals and lifestyles. Hence the word “reincarnation” in the title of this article, refers to a future civilization that is recast in using its resources to achieve regeneration, rather than degeneration, of the natural environment.


Rhodes, C.J. (2019). Solving the plastic problem: From cradle to grave, to reincarnation. Science Progress. 102(3), 218-248. Rhodes, C.J. (2018). Plastic pollution and potential solutions. Science Progress. 101(3), 207-260.

Sunday, August 16, 2020

What Kind of a World do We Want? (...really?)

Although this question is both enduring and familiar, its present urgency is fully accentuated in a typically brilliant, but viscerally terrifying, exposition by Noam Chomsky on the current frangible condition of the world, and its near-term prognosis. However, I am also reminded of the strapline from the International Permaculture Conference, held in London in 2015, offering the intention and perhaps the means for “Designing the world we want.”

Chomsky never pulls a punch, as he strikes at layer on peeling layer of mendacity and fragility, from a prevailing framework whose groans, under the cumulative stresses of "growth", should be heard as cries of threatening systemic collapse. The intermeshing quality of the world’s many woes has been conveyed by the term “the changing climate” (i.e. with "climate change" = carbon emissions and global warming per se, being just one item on the list), and amid a morass of such magnitude, positives are apt to remain obscured and muffled. Thus acknowledged, there could hardly be a better time than now, for a recasting of the world, having decided how we want it to be, in the broadest context, while there is still sufficient residual integrity to the whole that change might yet be managed, and full collapse is not yet inevitable, or already crumbling out of our hands.

It is no surprise that Covid-19 is a principal feature on the current global stage, and is probably the major focus of our concerns and attentions just now. While we cannot know how exactly everything will pan out, it is likely that the virus will be with us for some time, and we are entering a period of "recalibration" rather than a Post-Covid "back to normal". Hence, focussing more on local and community resilience increasingly seems to make sense. We will certainly need to share support with our family, neighbours and friends, in the time to come. 

That said, whatever our moves might be to rebuild the economy “Post-Covid” - as this term seems to be sticking – if they do not also usher in a definite and sustained mitigation of carbon emissions, it is highly unlikely that climate targets will be met. In short, the time is now or never, yet as set against a backdrop of “business as usual”, opportunities to address climate change are not merely slipping through our fingers, but wilfully being cast aside. For example, not only is new investment going toward high carbon industries, but an intention has been announced to raze ancient forest to create 40 new coalfields in India, on the grounds that “the economy comes first.” 

Thus, dangerously, falling pieces of the carbon framework are being nailed back into place, with scant consideration of “what”, over the world and how we want to live in it. Rob Hopkins has nicely reframed this interrogative as “What if”, to animate an exploration of possibilities beyond the humdrum, the accepted and the mundane. This time is undoubtedly critical, to decide on our definitions of economy or wealth? What, indeed, is most precious to us? How would we like the world to look in the year 2050, against which many climate action targets are benchmarked?

Most climate action plans are set as adaptations of where we presently are, working forward from now, which almost tacitly assumes that the future will be substantively like the present. Backcasting is the reverse of this way of thinking, used in the Transition Towns ideology, which sets a series of steps back, say, from 2050, to the present, in order to provide a logically progressive sequence toward attaining desirable attributes identified for that later date. By setting year-stones conveniently along a defined pathway, a practical and ideological “rack and pinion” gear is engaged to propel the journey forward, with reduced risks of straying or derailing. Covid, of course, may have shifted the landscape, not necessarily of our wants, but of the possibilities available to us, and how we order our list of priorities.

While Chomsky is sanguine that we will conquer the coronavirus, he hammers home the point that really it is the least of our worries; that is, in comparison with the escalating prospects of nuclear war, and climate change. Thus, the doomsday clock, originally set at seven minutes to midnight in 1947, was reset to the closest value so far, of merely 100 seconds (1 minute and 40 seconds) before midnight in January 2020, taking account of the increased threats to global stability posed by "a nuclear blunder", aggravated by the gradient of climate change.

In his book “The Wayfinders” ("Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World"), Wade Davies poses the question “What kind of a world do we want to live in?” in the context of the value of cultures with alternative comprehensions of the world than our own. While the loss of any single one – especially in some far flung corner of the world, as we might opine it - may not appear to much affect our own daily experience in the West, their more progressive loss begins to weaken the cultural web of civilization, as the loss of biodiversity begins to fracture the web of the biosphere, with consequences that are both wholesale and probably irredeemable. Thus, any reply or strategy elicited by the title's question must be broader than our “wants” at the personal, or even national level, but must consider “the world” in its full dimension.

Davies highlights the Tendai monks in the mountains of Japan, outside Tokyo, who must endure such a gruelling initiation (Kaihigyo) that only 46 have completed it during the past four centuries, which he describes as:

“a ritual path of enlightenment that brings the initiate to the realm of the dead, all with the goal of revealing to the living that everyone and everything are equal, that human beings are not exceptional, and nothing in this world is permanent.”

Hence, our choices made on the local scale must further consider their impacts more globally – not only in a geographical sense, but across the swathe of beliefs and views that different cultures hold as their framework to make sense of existence, to give value and meaning to life, and to decide upon which goals count as being worthy of achieving. In the industrialised West, we have become increasingly focussed on money as a goal and the accumulation of personal wealth, and it’s trappings, as our measure of success. It is telling that, from a survey of college freshmen in 1966, only around 44% gave making a lot of money as “very important” or “essential”, but this had risen to 82% by 2013. This is a clear indication that Western culture has changed, and is probably still evolving, since according to a more recent Ipsos-MORI report, 45% of the much maligned “Millennials” score as “materialistic”, while only 24% of the UK sample think it is important to “be rich”. 

Beyond the wants of individuals, are necessities of preservation, shared in common across all cultures – however different these might at first appear – required to conserve the biological integrity of the Earth, and sustain its Earthlings, i.e. all passengers on Spaceship Earth, be they human or other living creatures. This line of thinking takes us beyond the confines of human cultures, and considers more broadly our place on this planet, within the context of all life.

The Kogi (Kággaba) are said to be the most isolated of the four indigenous peoples who live in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains, on the Caribbean coast of Colombia. Although they have neither the wheel nor writing, their advanced comprehension of ecology, and the nature of the universe takes the breath away from even distinguished Western scientists. Their mountain home is like a microcosm of the rest of the world, since it hosts the various different microclimates and habitats necessary to support the range of life that exists on Earth. 

The Kogi (Elder Brother) noticed that the clouds were missing, that snow and ice no longer covered the mountaintops, that the lakes in the highlands, which are the source of the rivers were dry, and they realised that by destroying “sacred sites” further down, as a result of mining and oil and gas exploration, outsiders (Younger Brother) are causing the rivers to die: without water, everything else dies too.

Thus, the message is not just one of yet another traditional way of life being driven to extinction by climate change, but that because the Earth system is an interconnected and “living” organism, impacts on any component of it will be felt throughout, causing the body to sicken and die. I would recommend the documentary film “Aluna” which conveys all of this far better than I can, in these few words. 

Elder Brother hopes that Younger Brother will take away this message, and stop cutting into and damaging the organs of the Earth, as though we are injuring a Mother, who sustains us. While the Kogi’s way of life and universal view are very difficult to understand from a Western perspective, it is clear that our approach must change, and that of the rest of the world in trying to emulate it, otherwise environmental destruction and climate change can only be accelerated more rapidly.

To cut carbon emissions, and therefore stabilise the climate (in general), the most significant action at our disposal is to use less. Change is frightening, and uncertainty even more so; thus we tend to cling to a familiar craft, even as it sinks. But, if we want a world that is both habitable and agreeable into the future, for all Earthlings, our choices are limited to those which also reduce the conjoined burdens of our rapidly consuming finite resources and the carbon emissions and other pollution that are discharged in the process. Opponents to the idea of climate change and adapting to ameliorate it often level the accusation that this would involve “going back to the stone age”, and yet probably an adjustment to the living standards of the 1970s would be enough

However, due to the tardiness of our efforts, the scale and rate of the changes now required are staggering, amounting to an 8-10% reduction in carbon emissions per year in the wealthiest nations of the world, which presents as a practically insurmountable challenge.

Albert Einstein is quoted, perhaps apocryphally, as saying (something like): “The world we have created is a product of our thinking; it cannot be changed without changing our thinking. If we want to change the world we have to change our problem can be solved from the same consciousness that created it. We must learn to see the world anew.” Therefore, to decide on how we want our 2050 world to look, we need to find a new narrative; perhaps a new tradition; a release of imagination – maybe with more “What if?" – to make sense of our own image on a rapidly transforming global canvas.

As Mikhail Gorbachev has exhorted

“We badly need a new economic model… We cannot continue living by ignoring environmental problems. The planet is overburdened… We do not have enough fresh water for the people.. Billions of people are subject to hunger today. So the new model must consider all these needs. This model must be more human and more nature oriented… We are all interconnected but we keep acting as though we are completely autonomous.”

Almost half a century ago, E.F.Schumacher wrote Small is Beautiful, (“a study of economics as if people mattered”), in which he warned of the perils of treating natural capital as income, urging that we “think globally, act locally”, as the term has been coined. Our wants, then, cannot simply amount to selfish, short term acts of acquisition, that impoverish others elsewhere, or the overall system must finally fail, and the place and culture of each and all of us along with it. Hence, while our actions are best served on the local scale, it is necessary to be aware that the choices we make may also have global consequences.

In this regard, the three guiding ethics of permaculture - Earth Care, People Care, and Fair Shares - can provide a frame of reference for our decisions, while instilling benevolence into our actions, enabling us to chart a course toward the kind of a world we want (...really).