Thursday, October 29, 2020

Covid-19, Fracking and the Global Oil Supply.

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

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 -
https://www.eventbrite.com/e/126302589445 - 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.


Introduction.

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.

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.


References.

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 thinking...no 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).



Friday, July 31, 2020

Economic Recovery from Covid-19 and Climate Action: Twin Challenges.

The following has been published by the Royal Society of Arts (RSA), of which I am a fellow:

The decisions nations make this year to recover economically from the Covid-19 crisis are likely to set in motion the extent to which, over the next three years, we control carbon emissions. This could set the course of the climate crisis up to 2050 and beyond. Chris Rhodes FRSA explores the dual challenge that nations face in recovering economically from Covid-19 and tackling the climate crisis.

Awareness that if we are to mitigate climate change we need to curb our use of fossil fuels is now part of the public psyche; although the vast scale of change needed to check global warming to within necessary limits is less readily comprehended. Likewise, the hugely varied consequences of a rise of two degrees Celsius – rather than one or just half a degree less than this – does not seem obvious unless we appreciate the massive amount of additional energy absorbed into the earth system that this represents.

It is sometimes tempting to despair that zero-carbon will be attained by 2050, and the chances of doing so by 2030 appear far less compelling. Nonetheless, the reduction in carbon dioxide emissions that have been ‘achieved’, as an inadvertent consequence of locking down to control the transmission of Covid-19, might be taken to indicate that significant progress along this path is indeed possible. According to a study published by Nature Climate Change in May, the daily global emissions of carbon dioxide in April 2020 was almost one sixth of 2019 levels in the same month.

The question arises, however, of whether such an ameliorated emissions level might be preserved in the longer run. The subsequent ‘rebound’ in CO2 being poured into the atmosphere to within about 5 percent of 2019 levels, somewhat dilutes optimism about this.

Clearly, by simply curbing the billion tonnage of fossil fuels that we burn, CO2 emissions would be attenuated, but with economic catastrophe as an unwelcome bedfellow. Huge sums of money are being pledged by governments across the globe to stimulate their economies post Covid-19, totalling $9 trillion (about £6.5 trillion). Since, with the aid of these fiscal booster-jabs, the die will be cast for the global economy over the next three years, how the money is spent is critical. If it does not coincide with a dramatic and permanent fall in CO2 emissions, climate targets will become unattainable. In short, the time is now or never.

However, according to a recent International Energy Agency (IEA) report, a ‘green alternative’ is within our grasp. Not surprisingly, this requires a principal emphasis on the proliferation of wind and solar energy, but also that buildings and industries be made more energy efficient, and that electricity grids are remodelled and updated. The creation of millions of new jobs across the world is vital, particularly in those nations where very many have been rendered unemployed, as a result of the lockdowns imposed to hold the Covid-19 crisis in check.

The report concludes that rather than injecting finance into the prevailing high-carbon economy, more jobs can be created by investing in such activities as retrofitting buildings, fabricating wind farms, installing solar panels, inaugurating new power networks, implementing greater numbers of electric vehicles, improving the energy efficiencies of industry, long-distance transportation, and appliances in general. In addition, a substantial shift would be needed towards more end-use renewables, biofuels production, and creating environmentally sound urban infrastructure. It is thought that such a ‘sustainable recovery plan’ could generate an annual 9 million new jobs.

While the European Union, for example, appears poised to initiate a swathe of green as part of its recovery, globally, little money has so far been directed toward low-carbon industries, with the majority of the pledged funding aimed towards their high-carbon counterparts. For example, the aviation industry is targeted for a $33 billion (nearly £24 billion) bailout.

As the Executive Director of the IEA, Fatih Birol, has commented, governments had an excuse to support these industries, as a first reaction to dealing with the suddenness and scale of the Covid-19 crisis, since “the first recovery plans were more aimed at creating firewalls round the economy.” However, some governments are still investing in high-carbon projects, such as coal-fired power stations.

There is an additional danger, namely that the currently available cheap and plentiful oil might act to derail the essential transformation to renewable energy. Especially at this critical time, to allow this to happen would be very short sighted, to say the least, and it is the longer game we must prepare for. As has been stressed elsewhere, the oversupply of oil is temporary and will finally be drained away into the enlarging backdrop of declining conventional fields.

A considerable opposing force to making such vital changes is the incentivisation of global capitalism, which, as a result of its massive resource consumption is now reckoned to be eroding the safe, operating space of human civilization, leading to breaches of key planetary boundaries, such as land-use change, biosphere integrity and climate change. There are also indications that it may be more difficult than is generally thought to transform to a low-carbon society, and until renewables have been established on a sufficient scale to achieve net energy payback, a large-scale expansion of low-carbon energy capacity will rely upon subsidies from the fossil fuels, which are, in any case, becoming increasingly scarce.

Most probably, a redesign of our system of industrialised civilization to use less energy overall, is the critical approach to addressing these issues. Primarily this will need to be through strategies of relocalisation: producing more of what we need – including food and energy – at the local level, and growing local economies. Energy efficiency is of equal importance to local, low-carbon energy generation, for example, better insulation and draught-proofing of buildings, while working from home or locally, avoids commuting and reduces demand for transportation fuels.

In order to address the most pressing challenges of society, it is necessary to move beyond sustainability and towards regeneration. This means embracing complexity and interconnectivity, rather than the separateness and linear thinking that has led to the current industrialised system, which is failing. Permaculture is an integrated, systems-design methodology that can be applied across a range of different situations and scales, and may provide the best route toward achieving future resilience. As a fusion of indigenous knowledge with modern science and technology, permaculture offers a means to meeting both essential material needs for energy, food, water, sanitation and also non-material requirements, across all societies, while preserving autonomy and harmony with nature.

This is a largely ‘grass roots’ approach, made through the efforts of individuals, but united by a sense of shared values and common purpose. We can continue to ask how long we have but the changes are already with us, and the cracks in the walls of the prevailing structures signal us to take urgent action. We must largely work within the framework that already exists, since there is neither time nor resources to raze it down and begin again from scratch, while total collapse would be catastrophic. Actions can be taken on the scale of communities, for example, taking the Transition Towns approach and – on the level of local businesses – adopting circular economies. Both underpinned by permaculture thinking, they follow the example that, in nature, there is no such thing as waste, only resources.

Professor Nate Hagens, a former Vice President at investment firms Salomon Brothers and Lehman Brothers, who now teaches ecological economics at the University of Minnesota, has said: “Not only are we speeding, but we are wearing energy blind-folds at the same time. But the momentum of our current system forces us to have conversations about a bigger system not a smaller one – so the correct and valid plans and blueprints are not discussed… It is a perfect storm – and when the waters recede we are going to have smaller, simpler and more local, regional economies.”

Hence, preparing the ground in advance of any collapse might prove the sounder strategy; this means shifting the focus away from the proverbial global village towards a globe of villages. The currently enforced working from home may become the new normal.

Chris Rhodes left school at 16 and went on to become the youngest professor of physical chemistry in the UK. As well as his peer-reviewed academic publications, he has written a novel, University Shambles, poetry and a children's book. He is an advisor on low-carbon energy to the European Commission, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry and of the Linnean Society of London and has been involved with the Transition Towns movement for 10 years.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Will the Virus Go Away – “Post-Covid”, or Recalibration?

I am suddenly filled with a mixture of confusion and uncertainty, moments of disbelief (or more truthfully, denial), and, at times, near panic. Then, my more logical perspective resurfaces from the mire of those other emotions, bringing with it a sense somewhat closer to calm and reflection, and attempts at forward thinking. Naturally, to think too far ahead, and in too much detail – trying to second guess the future – is not of great comfort when negotiating uncharted depths, and so I try to anchor myself into the present moment, and as far as possible, salvage the positives. Such is my visceral reaction to the UK “lockdown”, announced yesterday evening [March 23rd] by the Prime Minister, following what has been done in other countries, and while this strategy appears absolutely necessary and correct, the psychological dimension feels almost more difficult to confront than the practical aspects entailed by it. I think this may be connected with a sense of loss of control, which I imagine others might feel too, in all nations across the world, in the midst of the present crisis. That said, I am just guessing, as these are really weird times, the likes of which we have not seen before, certainly not in Britain.


...now, the above was a “note to self”, rattled down on March 24th, and some four months on, having weathered the initial blast of the lockdown, I still find the “one day at a time” approach helpful. In more difficult moments, it also serves as a necessary lifeboat, although where this might be drifting is not in full view. The term “post-Covid” has entered the popular lexicon, which seems to imply that there is a certain destination in sight; a kind of “before and after” line of demarcation, having ridden out the Covid-19 storm, and which promises, if not a “back to normal”, a socially and economically more spirited time ahead, which undoubtedly, all governments are anticipating with bated breath, while those of the EU nations wrestle together over how to fund the post-Covid “economic rebuild”.

The reported cumulative numbers of COVID-19 cases (and deaths) are available from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, currently amounting to a global total of over 14 million, of whom more than 600,000 have died. However, when excess deaths are considered, in the majority of places, a greater number is obtained – sometimes massively so - while in Belgium, Switzerland and Germany, it is somewhat less, and in Norway and South Africa, even below what would be expected under “normal” circumstances. Clearly there are some subtle undercurrents, but precious little doubt that more infections, and indeed deaths, will follow.

The impacts of Covid-19 and its lockdowns on the global economy are of a scale not seen since the Second World War, and yet the World Economic Forum has identified the current situation as one of potentially great opportunity, where economic policy can be redesigned to reduce poverty and increase social mobility. It is indeed typically the poorest and most disadvantaged who have been hardest hit by the effects of the pandemic, which has highlighted the disparities, inequalities and divisions across societies.From a mathematical modelling study, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society A, it was concluded that lockdowns alone are not enough to control the pandemic, but if combined with the majority of the population wearing facemasks, vastly less transmission of the contagion could be expected, with a flattening of second and tertiary waves, and the disease being brought under control. Should no mitigations be put in place, it has been estimated that from a second wave “a “reasonable” worst-case scenario would see between 24,500 and 251,000 deaths related to coronavirus in hospitals alone.” The peak would be in January/February 2021.

In the UK, as of July 24th, it will be compulsory to wear facemasks in shops and supermarkets, with a non-compliance penalty of up to £100, even though there are warnings that the facemask law might prove unenforceable The effectiveness of facemasks is also supported by a German study, which indicated a 40% drop in infection rate when they were worn on public transport and in shops, while the risk of transmission is lower in outdoor environments. However, the largest study to date, in the UK, has also emphasised the importance of maintaining social distancing. Methods to expand tests onto the scale of millions a week are also being urgently sought, as is thought will be of considerable assistance in controlling the virus; it is also believed that contact tracing will prove a highly effective strategy.

Naturally, the question arises, of whether the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus will eventually go away, or if we must learn to live alongside it, as we have with other viruses, although that of our present woes seems far more virulent than colds and flu. It is an alarming prospect that the immunity from protective antibodies toward the coronavirus may last for only months, and it may prove that "Vaccines in development will either need to generate stronger and longer lasting protection compared to natural infection, or they may need to be given regularly." The idea is also challenged, that because someone has already had Covid-19, they are subsequently immune to it, despite initially becoming antibody positive. David Nabarro, the World Health Organisation's special envoy for Covid-19, has warned that since it is unknown how long it might take to develop a treatment or a vaccine, "We have all got to learn to live with this virus, to do our business with this virus in our presence, to have social relations with this virus in our presence and not to be continuously having to be in lockdown because of the widespread infections that can occur. "

This is an extremely sobering prospect, to say the least of it, and it may well be that the practices of social distancing, handwashing, wearing facemasks, will be with us for as long as the coronavirus is, and it is not that the world is currently experiencing a second wave, but never recovered from the first Meanwhile, with the lifting of the lockdowns, we enter the “post-Covid” period, but where economies struggle to fully recover, unemployment rises, and barely accustomed behavioural changes need to be maintained; hence, this time may be more of a recalibration, rather than setting a new chapter. Not surprisingly, there are psychological implications attendant to living with Covid-19, which also must be considered

The need to adapt to a virus that may be with us for some while yet, might serve as a broader prompt to forge social equity, community resilience, and a necessary redirection of resources. It is greatly heartening that the US Senator, Bernie Sanders, has exhorted that “this unprecedented moment in American history – a terrible pandemic, an economic meltdown, people marching across the country to end systemic racism and police brutality, growing income and wealth inequality and an unstable president in the White House – now is the time to bring people together to fundamentally alter our national priorities and rethink the very structure of American society.”

As part of this effort, he has proposed that the US military budget be cut by 10%, and the money instead used to address inequalities on home territory; Sanders has also acted to stop funding being available for a war against Iran.

Perhaps this might be the dawn of a new kind of "attack", one that heals societies from within, and dissipates the anger and fear that drive conflicts of all kinds, and on all scales? In this spirit, The World Economic Forum’s proposition that economic reform be introduced in the service of social equity is similarly to be applauded. Living in an industrially advanced, Western European country, infectious diseases had appeared to be long since vanquished foes, from my childhood memories, and in family histories, but I am rudely reminded that complacencies, of all kinds, are both inappropriate and misguided.

In the strange manifestations of this odd and awkward year – undoubtedly one that has provoked great existential contemplation for all of us – life appears all the more precious, fleeting and impermanent, and maybe a time to be inspired, to imagine what might be achieved by the human family uniting in shared purpose, action and identity.