The Endless Optimists

I know it’s like standing in front of a large orange oncoming train, but may I please say something about this huge book? It’s wrong in its basic assumption. The assumption (as it says in huge letters there on the cover) is that 75% of us will live in cities by 2050. But that number, along with the book’s 500 pages of similar projections, takes no account of some rather likely discontinuities – the most plausible being what John Michael Greer describes as the catabolic collapse of the industrial civilization that keeps these global cities lit. Global energy, money, food and water systems are in crisis now, for goodness sake – never mind in 2050. Do the distinguished editors of The Endless City seriously imagine that billions more people will want to be in cities when the average supermarket contains three days supply of food – and that’s when things are running smoothly?

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I am reading with nervous enjoyment a semi-samizdat French magazine called La Decroissance (De-Growth). An offshoot of the French equivalent of Adbusters, La Decroissance fills a big gap: critical discussion of the politics and economics of environmentalism. The issue I’m reading includes a sharp critique of the myth of ‘transhumanism’ and a mocking review of a right-on new book by Veolia’s head of sustainable development. The reason I’m nervous is that the paper describes as an “ecotartuffe” a leading Le Monde columnist, Eric le Boucher, who has become prominent as “a grand inquisitor of productivist society”. Now a tartuffe is defined in my dictionary as a “religious poseur” and I know there are those who think I’m one of those, too. Tant pis: if my turn comes I’ll take it on the chin. The academic wing of La Decroissance held its first conference last month, in Paris, and there are some english pages online. “De-growth” is a ghastly buzzword but the subject is important and if you can read a bit of French the paper is much livelier.

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Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity

“Nature provides human society with a vast diversity of benefits such as food, fibres fuel, clean water, healthy soil, protection from floods, protection from soil erosion, medicines, storing carbon (important in the fight against climate change) and many more. Though our wellbeing is totally dependent upon these ecosystem services they are predominantly public goods with no markets and no prices, so they often are not detected by our current economic compass”. So begins an important new report on the Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB). Crucially, this document begins to develop an economic yardstick that is more effective than GDP for assessing the performance of an economy. “We are consuming the world’s biodiverse ecosystem at an unsustainable rate and this is starting to have serious socio-economic impacts”, say the authors, led by Deutsche Bank economist Pavan Sukhdev. He went on, “we are trying to navigate uncharted and turbulent waters with an old and defective economic compass and that this was affecting our ability to forge a sustainable economy in harmony with nature.” The TEEB review is modelled on the UK government’s Stern review of climate change which in 2006 warned that the global economy would effectively collapse if countries did not address greenhouse gases, and that countries could not afford not to act.

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Eco ‘standards’ blitz

“These are my principles. If you don’t like them, I have others”. Groucho Marx could have been talking about environmental standards. Visit any supermarket and you’ll encounter hundreds of labels and displays making claims about the environmental attributes of different products. Organic, Fairtrade, FSC Certified, “sustainable”.
This blizzard of assertions is confusing – in some cases, one suspects, intentionally so. It’s tough for consumers to know who’s telling the truth and who’s greenwashing. At the UN Climate Change Conference in Bali, 85 per cent of respondents agreed that “some companies are advertising products and services with environmental claims that could be considered false, unsubstantiated or unethical”. Greenwashing Index allows users to post, rate and comment on “green” advertisements.
Sites like Greenwashing can help police the worst excesses, but how otherwise are we are to decide which issues are most important, and which labels we are supposed to trust? Similar questions confront those companies – a growing number – that genuinely wish to communicate the environmental attributes of their products and services transparently. All UK registered companies will have to disclose their greenhouse gas emissions publicly under legislation passed by the House of Lords as part of the Climate Change Bill. Campaigners for the introduction of such measures believe it will make them more accountable to consumers and investors, and drive emission reductions.
What issues should they highlight? How can they best communicate with citizens?
Forum for the Future and Business for Social Responsibility address these questions in a report called Eco-promising. Ryan Schuchard, BSR’s partner in the project, concludes that consumer-facing labels are just one aspect of this complex story. “Doing this is challenging, because environmental standards are emergent, and companies often lack meaningful supply chain data. Leaders are investing in better information systems internally and among their peers and suppliers.”
Companies have several schemes to help them.The Greenhouse Gas Protocol (GHG Protocol), for example, is the most widely used international accounting tool for government and business leaders to understand and manage greenhouse gas emissions. The GHG Protocol, a decade-long partnership between the World Resources Institute and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, is working with businesses, governments, and environmental groups around the world to build a new generation of credible and effective programs for tackling climate change.
In a similar space, the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), started by Paul Dickinson eight years ago, gets companies to act by working with institutional investors; CDP’s connections have combined assets of over $57 trillion under management. On their behalf, CDP seeks information from3,000 of the world’s largest companies on the business risks and opportunities presented by climate change and greenhouse gas emissions.CDP says it has become “the gold standard for carbon disclosure methodology and process”, and that its website is “the largest repository of corporate greenhouse gas emissions data in the world
Then there’s the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI). This large multi-stakeholder network boasts thousands of experts in dozens of countries. GRI has pioneered the development of “the world’s most widely-used sustainability reporting framework” which is used “to benchmark organizational performance with respect to laws, norms, codes, performance standards and voluntary initiatives; demonstrate organizational commitment to sustainable development; and compare organizational performance over time”.
Another specification for the assessment of lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions in products and services is being developed by the British Standards Institution (BSI), at the request of the Carbon Trust and Defra, sponsors of the UK-based project. The result will be a Publicly Available Specification (PAS 2050) to improve measurement and communication of the GHG performance of products and services. A Product-related Emissions Reduction Framework (a PERF) is also being developed by the Carbon Trust, this time with the help of consultants Arup, OneWorldStandards, the Pacific Institute and E4Tech.
Some global companies are also beginning to measure the value of ecosystems they rely on. For example, the drinks industry depends on ecosystems to supply fresh water; agribusiness relies on grasslands for insect pollinators, nutrient cycling, and erosion control; and the insurance industry benefits from the fact that coastal marshes reduce the damage caused by hurricanes and that wetlands absorb water from floods. A host of other industries rely on forests for benefits ranging from wood to genetic resources, carbon sequestration, and tourism. Based on the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, World Resources Institute has developed the Corporate Ecosystem Services Review to help managers take more explicit account of their company’s dependence and impact on ecosystems.
Given this plethora of similar-sounding initiatives, I was surprised to discover that there already exists an international standard on environmental reporting.This gives guidance to an organization on “general principles, policy, strategy and activities relating to both internal and external environmental communication”. It is applicable to all organizations regardless of their size, type, location, structure, activities, products and services, and whether or not they have an environmental management system in place.
We need standards to ensure that companies measure what matters – and that they do so within frameworks that enable independent monitoring and comparison against meaningful targets. But there’s a real danger right now that, if we end up with too many standards, they’ll cancel each other out.
Is there a role for design in tackling this conundrum?
It is not for designers alone to decide what gets measured, and against what targets. But if global environmental standards are indeed ‘emergent’, then designers should make themselves part of a broad discussion about the kind of standards we end up with. Stated more bluntly: let’s hear no more designers complain that “we only design with the information we are given.”
When it comes to displaying information in clear and meaningful ways, designers have a huge role to play – not just in the specialized domain of information systems design but also, more broadly, in shaping the contexts in which information is presented and used.
Crucially, designers can also help deploy peer-to-peer ratings and review systems to counter-act the disingenuous greenwashing which is not about to disappear.

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Pssst: how much do you weigh?

California’s strategy for sustainable mobility is to run sixteen lane traffic jams on ethanol. In Sweden, Volvo have launched this hybrid-drive trash truck which I saw in Goteborg yesterday. It’s silent at low speeds when it’s collecting bins: the all-electric drive is for moving off from standstill and for acceleration up to 20 kph (12 mph); at higher speeds, the diesel engine kicks in. Both the machine that lifts the bins and the trash compactor are powered by liquid hydraulic rams – so it’s pretty near silent in operation, which is boon comnfort-wise. But, being a boring killjoy, I can’t help but wonder what the embergy of this chunky vehicle must be: a million pounds weight equivalent? More? The Pssst is a small silent step in the right direction; the step-change will come when we design away the need for it to exist.

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Emerging Economy Report

Our friends at CKS in Bangalore have published a hefty research document called Emerging Economy Report. Key regions of the world, the report states, are being transformed by the phenomenon whereby soft infrastructure – such as, especially, mobile phone networks – is installed despite the absence of hard infrastructure (such as roads, or nation-spanning power grids). This is a crucial element of what Ezio Manzini calls the “leapfrog hypothesis” in which developing countries jump over the environmentally most damaging stages of industrial development. The CKS report confirms that emerging economies are indeed innovating environmentally efficient modes of energy consumption, whilst also achieving unprecedented economic growth. The Report contains a rich variety of images of real people in real places in India, China, Indonesia, South Africa, Kenya, Egypt and Brazil. It argues strongly for the importance of informal settlements in large cities where tens of millions earn their livelihoods in the informal economy; in developing countries, for example, the majority of urban retail is conducted outside the corporate sector. Favelas contain very few chiller cabinets. Although most micro-entrepreneurs operate outside the formal economy, they offer a dynamic and flexible variety of goods and innovative services in response to changing market needs. The irony is that although fifty per cent of all poor households practise home-based income generation of one kind or another, street traders are routinely rounded up and placed in compounds or cooperatives as part of a city’s “clean-up” programmes. Delhi, for example, is trying to get rid of 200,000 street food vendors in order to ‘clean’ the city for the 2012 Commonwealth Games. If the “clean up” is successful the effect will be to shift millions of citizens from a diet of freshly cooked food to one based on fat, burgers and frozen meals. Some 4.6 million informal economy workers have been displaced in South Asia in recent times and another 25 million are under threat of displacement. We can be pretty sure that these 25 million informal traders operate in a far more sustainable and efficient way than the heavy formal systems that would displace them. Let’s hope that the CKS report helps to persuade the private sector and governments that the informal sector is a vital and natural part of all efforts at social reconstruction and environmental sustainability. Every major company and government agency with an interest in emerging economies should buy this report. And then one of them please lend it to me because the cover price is euros 3,000.

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Green fatigue league table


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The fake-space race: Design and the future of travel

My mates at Adobe found some great pix (including this one) to accompany my piece on travel and its substitutes

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Travel without moving: jacket from Djibouti please

Luca Pizzaroni has been working for three years on building a sculpture which is made of garment clothing from every country in the world. For the artist, this this is a “mind travel escape” – and I know we have visitors from most countries at this blog – so I’m happy to pass on the fact that the labels project still needs an item of clothing each from: Angola, Azerbaijan, Central African Republic, Djibouti , Eritrea, Gabon, Iraq, Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, Liberia, Libya, Mauritania, Moldova, Mozambique, Niger, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan, Tajikistan, Zambi.

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