Deliberate decay, the case for composting.

A few days ago I stayed up late reading about the hysteria that has ensued from various stock markets shedding a few excess pounds.

As these piles of fictitious wealth rot before our eyes, and industrial society slides a little further towards the metaphorical compost heap,  I felt moved to write about the actual compost heap that sits in my garden.

It is perhaps rather glib to suggest that the art of composting is more important than the stock market, but my hunch is that in a hundred, or so, years time the stock market will be largely, or wholly, irrelevant to the vast majority of people, whereas deliberate composting is likely to become one of the most ubiquitous and important aspects of human behaviour.

In a world without sufficient oil to manufacture, and ship around the globe, the vast quantities of fertiliser required to feed seven, or eight, or nine billion people, finding other sources of nutrients will become of the utmost importance. To give some idea of the scale of the problem; demand for nitrogen fertiliser alone is projected to be 112.9 million tonnes in 2015.

Composting is essentially about pulling the natural nutrient cycle into a nice tight closed loop. Taking certain ‘waste’ products, encouraging them to decompose, and using the resultant humus to improve the soil used to grow veg. Eat, compost, grow, repeat.

At present there are two gaping holes in the nutrient cycle. The first escape route is that a staggering amount of biodegradable waste is sent to landfill. Landfill may as well be defined as: mixing valuable materials with toxic and other materials, and burying them, in order to generate potent greenhouse gasses and toxic leachate.

The second escape route is the hole at the bottom of the modern flushing toilet. We are taking valuable nutrients from our farmland (as veg) and literally sh*tting them down the drain after we have eaten them. It is possible to extract the (terrible euphemism alert) ‘bio solids‘ from mains sewage, but I believe that it is preferable in terms of quality and efficiency to compost much closer to source. In addition this avoids the water companies from profiting from our poos. For these reasons I think that many more will delve into the mucky world of humanure in the not too distant future. I have yet to get my head around this and am therefore focussing my efforts on the common or garden variety of composting.

I have attempted my own composting with varying degrees of success. My current garden heap has proved to small to make decent compost and is plagued by flies in the summer. I have tried various things to remedy this and my next post will be a summary of my efforts.

The promised land

My last post highlighted some reasons why the best efforts of the environmental movement have generated more heat than light in recent years. This post will aim to share some thoughts about how to shake things up a little.
This starts with Nic Mark’s observation that Martin Luther King Jr. did not seek to throw off the “chains of discrimination” by shouting ‘I have a nightmare’ from the roof tops. Sure, he did not shy away from being explicit about the injustices that he perceived; but he did not dwell on the “manacles of segregation” at the expense of the dream. It is clear from what he says in the middle part of that famous speech that he is aware of the futility of simply using the nightmare to stir up resentment, hatred, fear and aggression. He uses the power of the dream to motivate and inspire positive action.
The rest of this post will outline some dreams that provide a different way of looking at responses to the challenges posed by environmental changes and the unravelling of industrial society as we know it. However, before examining what those dreams may look like, it is necessary to identify what they are not. The reason for this detour is because, in my opinion, consumer society schools us to dream about entirely the wrong things. Let’s be clear, the dream is not: a new car, a games console, a designer watch. The dream is not connected with advertising, war, power, or hedge funds. Fundamentally the dream that I am talking about has very little to do with the production and consumption intrinsic to the concepts of Gross Domestic Product/Gross National Product. The most eloquent and compelling warning about the folly of blind pursuit of GDP, that I have encountered, comes from a speech delivered by Robert F Kennedy in 1968. He sums up my own views about Gross National Product with the following phrase:

[G.N.P.] measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile”.

Worth a read

So if production and consumption of stuff is not the dream, what is? I think that the answer to that question is easy, and I propose to answer it with another question. Ask yourself this- if you have life’s essentials (food, water, shelter, healthcare etc.) would you rather be wealthy and miserable, or poor and happy? Tal Ben-Shahar, in his book Happier, describes happiness as the ‘ultimate currency’. If we accept this concept then surely the happiness of the population of a nation deserves to be given a higher priority than its production of goods and services. To a certain extent the two go hand in hand I’m sure. I’m not trying to argue that increased wealth is a bad thing when that leads to genuine increases in living standards. However, the current system is massively inconsistent at distributing wealth even within a single town, let alone worldwide; wealth creation does not eliminate poverty; ‘trickle down’ is just that, a trickle (at best). Indeed there are some who suggest that the flow tends to run in the opposite direction with wealth being pumped from poor to rich. In this context industrial society is as much a means of wealth concentration as it is a means of wealth creation (paragraph 12). It is sometimes tempting to see the division between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ as being the result of the choices made by the individuals in those two groups, yet it is much more likely to be almost entirely the result of the circumstances into which they were born.

Furthermore even for those of us lucky enough to have been born in a developed nation the link between increasing G.D.P. and increasing living standards is inconsistent and after a certain point it seems to take massive increases in G.D.P. to yield modest increases in living standards.

The government needs ‘the consumer’ to live up to their name and consume (as much useful and useless stuff as possible) so that the economy will grow and the books will balance again. However, the metric that we use to measure growth: G.D.P. takes no account of the costs of growth. This would be rather like a company balance sheet that only records turnover. In other words it completely misses the important points- is the company profitable? Is the product useful or harmful? Are the staff and customers satisfied etc etc? Returning to G.D.P., I am led to ask again and again “what is the point of all of this stuff”?

There are a wealth of alternative things that we could measure instead of G.D.P., all intended in some way to overcome some of its shortcomings.  There are several reasons why I have chosen to focus on happiness. The first is simply that I agree with the assertion that happiness is the ultimate currency. The second reason is that happiness is not necessarily linked to consumption of goods. Pursuing happiness therefore breaks the link between our overall aims and our consumption of energy and raw materials. The third reason is that happiness is flexible; it can be pursued on a national, organisational, and personal level. It is a truly universal metric; whilst it can be difficult to measure, it is meaningful for just about everyone that has ever lived. No one is excluded; rich and poor, young and old, disabled and able-bodied people are all capable of experiencing and pursuing happiness. In a happiness agenda therefore all would be equally important. Although this may sound massively idealistic, wouldn’t it be great if every member of every nation was seen to be as important as any other? Wouldn’t it be great if the happiest people were perceived as the most successful rather than those with the largest bank balances?

An example of this principle at a national level can be glimpsed in the announcement by the UK prime-minister David Cameron in 2010 that the office for national statistics would begin to measure the nation’s well-being. He made the announcement in a speech plagiaristically reminiscent of RFKs words spoken 32 years earlier. I am deeply sceptical that a Conservative (or any other prospective UK) government will make any serious attempt to pursue what might be termed a happiness agenda, let alone attempt to wean the country off its addiction to growth. It will be interesting to see how quickly this policy disappears (if and) when the economy begins to grow again. But this has got to be a (small) step in the right direction.
For an example of more radical action Bhutan has gone out on a limb and decided to unilaterally pursue Gross National Happiness. It is difficult to assess how well Bhutan is doing with this; the reason being that they are going it alone and there is nothing to compare them to. Certainly discrimination and gender inequality are issues that were highlighted by outsiders as being impediments to G.N.H., something refuted by the Bhutanese government. In any event I salute them for their efforts to do things differently.

An even broader attempt to promote the happiness agenda can be found in the Happy Planet Index. The basic premise of the HPI is to measure “the extent to which countries deliver long, happy, sustainable lives for the people who live in them. The Index uses global data on life expectancy, experienced well-being and Ecological Footprint to calculate this.” Essentially the index balances   average life expectancy and well-being of a nation’s citizens against the environmental impact of the nation as a whole. The HPI is therefore described as an “efficiency measure.”

As with any measure of this type there are some issues about which variables have been deemed important enough to be included in the calculation, which data is used, and how the variables are combined to achieve an overall ranking. Inevitably this leaves the HPI scores open to  criticism. Largely critics of the HPI seem to take umbrage with the weighting given to environmental factors which can lead to some surprising countries ranking highly. In my opinion this is exactly the point: we live on a finite planet people! Crucially for me the HPI are pretty transparent about where their figures come from and their methodology for working with those figures. The proponents of the HPI are also keen to point out that it does not “measure everything.” For example the HPI does not take into account many forms of human rights abuses, unless such abuses affect the wellbeing of a significant proportion of the population. For this reason the HPI website advises the following caution: “Blind pursuit of a single objective, whilst disregarding the means to achieving it, is dangerous.”  To me this sounds like a rather sensible caveat to the measurement of anything.

There is some hope within the data collected by the HPI which points to Costa Rica as a nation that is happier (using their measures) than any other using a fraction of the resources of the United States of America. Anyone who has visited Costa Rica is likely to have noticed how their national motto “pura vida”- pure life seems to permeate the national consciousness.

In a business context, the bottom line is likely to retain centre stage for quite some time, as the businesses that survive are inevitably those that remain profitable most of the time. However, there are a growing band of people who believe that a happy workforce is more likely to result in a successful company. This seems to make logical sense; on a basic level employees who are happy at work are surely more likely to show up each day willing to put plenty of effort into achieving the aims of the organisation. Imagine a marketing team that are trying to promote a company that they loathe, day after miserable day. Now imagine trying to recruit and retain the very best staff in a workplace that is a genuinely happy place to be. I love the low tech approach to measuring happiness found here.   The same company also offers some interesting thoughts on happiness and productivity.

If like me, you live in a country where governmental efforts to improve happiness are little more than a few questions on the census, and if like me, you work in an organisation where low morale is the default state, you do still have options. Each individual can do things to improve their own level of happiness. I intend to write about some of the ways that I find to pursue my own happiness agenda in future posts. I think it is unlikely that many of those little revelations will be the result of indulging myself on amazon or ebay.

Time to stop thinking about saving the world

In his inspirational TED talk The happy planet index statistician Nic Marks argues that the environmental movement has got it hugely wrong in its efforts to bring about the significant changes that many believe are necessary to ‘save’ the planet. This post, as it progresses, will outline why I agree with him and what I think would be a more constructive model for environmental activism.

Mr. Marks believes that the overriding message from high profile environmental groups has been one of almost unrelenting gloom. Its not unusual to hear about the latest environmental catastrophe and we are often told that time is running out.

Media sensationalism is nothing new, but is is helpful for environmental groups to pander to this to get their message across? It is probable that the more apocalyptic stories gain a higher profile within the media and grip the consumer with the same kind of morbid fascination that leads to rubbernecking at the scene of a car crash.

So far so good; environmental disaster stories get high profile media attention and an audience that cannot tear themselves away from the coverage of the latest doom laden proclamation. However, there are, in Nic Marks’ opinion, serious and perhaps fatal flaws in using fear to motivate people to change their behaviour. I for one happen to agree with him and here is why:

For any campaigning organisation raising awareness cannot be enough, behaviour must change as a result. Rubbernecking at planet earth’s own slow motion car crash is not sufficient to prevent it. Using fear may grab peoples attention but does it result in constructive behaviour change?

Nic points out that fear inspires the fight or flight response. To put it crudely fighting and fleeing are pretty futile in terms of bringing about positive environmental changes which are likely to require a rather more measured approach. On an individual level flight perhaps has the edge over pugilism, because at least scarpering from an environmental disaster means that it happens in a place where you are not.

I would like to highlight four other factors that help to explain why so much environmental hype translates into so little meaningful activity by the masses.

Firstly technological development and increasing wealth generation since the industrial revolution have become firmly engrained in the collective psyche as measures of progress. Each generation in the western world has become accustomed to having more material possessions than their parents generation. In trying to alter this expectation the tree huggers are fighting the behavioural equivalent of Newton’s First Law of motion whichs basically says that an object or entity will keep right on doing what it is doing now unless acted on by an external force. This is otherwise known as inertia. This effect is particularly potent if the proposed changes are perceived as a loss of material wealth, in comparison to ones peers who may not wish to make the same change.

Secondly problems such as climate change or any other environmental causecélèbre are often described in such a way that they appear totally overwhelming. Its therefore hardly surprising that many in the western world disengage with the discourse about climate change when its easy to perceive the problems as insurmountable.

A third snag with the doom based method is that an inescapable dollop of blame is usually either implied or applied. My own instinctive response to blame tends towards defensiveness rather than positive engagement, a process that I think will be familiar to many. My guess is that this process is at work in the minds of some of those, rather blame-fully labelled as ‘climate change deniers’. Few would disagree with the assertion that blame and the associated defensiveness, guilt and shame is not a good basis for a positive collaboration.

The final impediment to a green revolution resulting from today’s popular environmental discourse, is a phenomenon known as the bystander effect. When a group is presented with a problem, such as a man choking on a mint imperial innocently provided after a meal at his local curry house, it is not unusual to find that individuals within the group, who would attempt some form of Heimlich manoeuvre if they were alone, shrink back in their seats and studiously pretend not to notice as the hapless victim turns blue. The reasons for this are complex, but simply put accountability for the plight of the chokee is diffused across the group so each individual feels little personal responsibility to help despite the obvious costs. The same could be said of action on climate change; here the group most cited as being in the position of responsibility is the western world, although it could be expanded to include the whole population of planet earth. Responsibility does not get much more diffuse than that. In these circumstances it is tempting to look to our political leaders for some… er .. leadership. However, you only have to look at the débâcle of climate talks in Copenhagen 2009 to see what happens when an important issue becomes a political football. A fascinating perspective on what went wrong can be found on John Michael Greer’s blog.

Anyone who still believes that politics has the answer please raise your hand...

So there are the problems; but what can be done? How can environmental groups be more effective in bringing about change? How does one person begin to change the world? I will begin to explore these questions in my next post and suggest a couple of (other people's) ideas that seem to be heading in the right direction..

Ideas worth sharing

So the first ever TEDxExeter takes place tomorrow with the theme of “Sustainability and our interconnected world”. The TED conferences, so they say, are all about “ideas worth spreading.” The beginning of their mission statement reads as follows:
“We believe passionately in the power of ideas to change attitudes, lives and ultimately, the world. So we’re building here a clearinghouse that offers free knowledge and inspiration from the world’s most inspired thinkers, and also a community of curious souls to engage with ideas and each other.”

My mind is already buzzing with thoughts about the ideas that will be discussed. In particular I am keen to hear Satish Kumar talking about “Soil, soul and society”, Peter Cox “Thinking outside the low carbon box” and Scilla Elworthy considering how to “deal with a bully without becoming a thug.”

With so much gloom around in the popular media it is easy to underestimate the power of people working collaboratively. Events like this highlight the incredible changes that ordinary people can bring about working together often on unglamorous, seemingly insignificant projects and with little recognition. I find it so tempting to be drawn into discussions about how to change the world only to feel to daunted by the scale of the task to fully commit to anything meaningful.

I have come to realise that I value action so highly that I often discount the power of ideas. Yet the actions of one individual when viewed in isolation rarely amount to even a microscopic change in the bigger picture. One person cannot build a cathedral or a pyramid. However, one person can think of an idea so powerful that it can affect the entire world so much more profoundly than any cathedral ever could. For example take the oldest of chichés about good ideas; who invented the wheel? The simple fact is no-one knows. It has probably been ‘invented’ many times by many people. What matters is not the number or quantity of wheels that these people churned out but the revolutionary idea that they had.

So here’s to the power of ideas…

The worm in the apple.

During idle moments over the last few years there has been a thought gnawing away at the back of my brain like a worm in an apple. Each time I try to eradicate that pest by giving some serious consideration to the issues the worm becomes larger and hungrier; the gnawing becomes more prolonged and intrusive. I am left feeling as if the difficulties are to large for me to comprehend, let alone influence. Therefore I do nothing, shackled by my own sense of inadequacy.
It is my hunch that wheels are in motion that have brought the earth and all who sail in her to the verge of a period of change so profound and so fundamental, that in a few decades the lifestyles of today will be unrecognisable and will seem, in some ways, absurd. To say that “the times they are a changin’” is nothing remotely new; in fact it is a truism so universal that many wise folks have arrived at the conclusion that change is the only thing that remains constant. So what makes my hunch about this period of change different from the enormous changes that took place during the 20th century? From my perspective many of the changes that were a feature of the 20th century were driven by human endeavour, seemingly unconstrained by the natural world. For example as a child in the 1980s and 1990s I witnessed innovations in healthcare, communications, and transport that seemed to offer the promise of limitless ‘progress’. It is my expectation that the forthcoming changes will be driven largely by the hard limits imposed by basic ecological laws from which we cannot escape, or by the simple (and interlinked) fact that we are running out of some of the things that make our lives the way that they are. Simply put the boot is on the other foot, and the laws of nature that we have fought so hard to avoid or overcome may be about to kick humanity in the arse.

Nonetheless I do not wish for this blog to be a repository of gloom, misery, and scaremongering, in my opinion this way of thinking has not served us well thus far. This blog is my way of gaining greater understanding of the challenges ahead and helping to shape my personal responses to them.  Therefore, by definition, the reader will find posts about cataclysmic change cheek by jowl with posts about the mundane minutiae of the life of one human being. The posts will be in no particular order and without any particular theme beyond that outlined above. Ideosyncracies will no doubt abound. My own hypocracy is likely to be exposed and hopefully challenged. I am not a scientist and do not intend to apply any more scientific rigour to my posts than is necessary to help me understand the issues enough to apply the relevant lessons to my own life. If readers can add something in this respect I would be most grateful.
I would welcome comments, and suggestions with open arms. I will try to welcome constructive criticism in the same manner, provided that it is delivered with some degree of courtesy.