Measuring what matters in France

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has recruited two Nobel economists, Amartya Sen of India and Joseph Stiglitz of the US, to advise him on changing the way French economic growth is calculated. “We must change the way we measure growth,” said Sarkozy, adding that “the way gross national product is calculated should take into account the quality of life in France”.
Amartya Sen won the Nobel Prize in 1998 for his development 20 years ago (with Pakistan’s Mahbubul Haq) of the the widely used Human Development Index. As another reformer, “anti-economist” Hazel Henderson, has explained, “in our economy, everything has a price – but nothing, it seems, has a value. The yardsticks we have chosen to measure “progress” are economic ones: margin, GNP, jobs, the Dow Jones, the prime rate. Everything else — the health of our children, clean air, the safety of our communities, the feeling of belonging, a sense of meaning — has to compete on the same grounds. Environmental damage, or stress on workers, don’t get counted at all in such economic measures”
Now call me cynical, but I suspect that what the French president has in mind is to *add* France’s wellbeing score to its GDP, not to substitute one for the other. But Sarkozy’s move is nonetheless a breakthrough in the the fight to change the way we measure economic success.
Ever since we organised Doors of Perception 3 on “info eco” in 1995, our conferences have repeatedly asked what would it take to monitor our planet’s true condition in real time. We’ve been shown a variety of sometimes beautiful perceptual aids designed to help us understand the conditon of the invisible natural systems that surround us. (Inspired by these proposals, I then wrote in my book about systems literacy).
In Dott 07, we ran a project over two years called Vital Signs. It asked: “What would it mean to monitor the region’s vital signs in real time? How can we design indicators to look at ecological footprints, energy use of buildings, food miles, transport intensity, and housing density alongside traditional economic indicators? What technologies can we use to design means of benchmarking and communicating our progress?”. One outcome of the Dott project was that Lone Twin challenged us to move away from an over-concentraton on information artefacts (such as urban screens, or mobile phone displays) to human activity with their project Town Crier.

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Thirteen million lighters and it’s still dark out there

A gem from CryptoGram.“Surprising nobody, a new study concludes that airport security isn’t helping: A team at the Harvard School of Public Health could not find any studies showing whether the time-consuming process of X-raying carry-on luggage prevents hijackings or attacks. They also found no evidence to suggest that making passengers take off their shoes and confiscating small items prevented any incidents.” The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) responded that “even without clear evidence of the accuracy of testing, more than 13 million prohibited items were intercepted in one year…most of these illegal items were lighters”. CryptoGram’s editor Bruce Schneier comments: “the TSA has it completely backwards. The goal isn’t to confiscate prohibited items. The goal is to prevent terrorism on airplanes. When the TSA confiscates millions of lighters from innocent people, it is reacting to non-threats. Now you can argue that this is necessary to make people feel safer, but it’s certainly not evidence that people *are* safer”.

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Drops in the bucket

Further to my note yesterday on the UK going nuclear, my attention was drawn to Charlie Hall’s celebrated (in energy circles) balloon graph. As Kurt Cobb explains, “it is not always obvious to modern industrial people that it takes energy to get energy. The more energy we spend on finding, extracting, refining, and transporting energy resources, the less we have for all the other activities of society”. Hall’s graph challenges the notion that alternative energy sources will provide a smooth transition to a post-fossil fuel society, because scale and energy return remain such huge obstacles. Otherwise stated: look how tiny the drops of renewables are (bottom left) relative to the huge blobs of fossil fuel they have to supplant.

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UK goes nuclear

Yesterday’s announcement that Britain is to ‘go nuclear’ was a foregone conclusion, but is nonetheless a dispiriting reminder of the institutional inertia that stands between us and a radically lighter economy. As Polly Toynbee points out in The Guardian today, “no voice in cabinet queried this decision. Faced with persistent cabinet and industry lobbying, and professors bearing heavy statistics, MPs have simply caved in (under) the sheer grinding pressure of the nuclear industry, the engineering institutes and a host of powerful interests”.
It’s not that government ministers and parliamentarians are bad people. But, as Toynbee asks, “how are ordinary politicians (or journalists) to know which group of distinguished professors bearing statistics is right?” As an example of the problem, I spent two hours last evening trying to find out about the embergy (embodied energy) that the vast UK programme will entail. That’s to say, what is the total impact not just of the energy output once the things are up and running, but also the extraction and processing costs of all the steel, concrete, new materials, nuts and bolts and electronics in the reactor pressure vessels, steam generators, and turbines, large pumps, control systems – not to mention the concrete and steel for the containment and other buildings, and distribution infrastructure? I found a small number of much-cited studies – and a lot of vitriolic disagreement about their veracity and meaning.
Now, imagine you are a new minister of energy. No, don’t: in the UK the decision was in fact taken by the ‘Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform’. You arrive in your new job. (The British minister had been in his job since June). You walk in the door to be confronted by hordes of civil servants and eminent professors whose careers, identity and self-esteem are predicated on a perpetually more energy-intensive economy. The media are screaming about an impending ‘energy crunch’. What are you to do? Go home and Google “nuclear versus renewables” ? No. You sign on the dotted line, that’s what you do.
This does not make the minister a bad person. He is trapped in an institutional framework that disallows him the time and context to think clearly. Besides, he is confronted by the wrong question. The real question is not whether nuclear is “bad” and renewables are “good;” it’s whether the energy regime of our economy as a whole is sustainable.
And it ain’t. We lack the net energy needed to keep the show going. As ever John Michael Greer puts it better than I can so I will use his words to explain. “Net energy”, Greer explains, is a simple concept: “it takes energy to get energy. To calculate the net energy available from an energy resource, you add up the energy used to find, extract, process and deliver that resource and then subtract that amount from the amount of energy the resource contains. Uranium contains a very high concentration of energy, but the complex systems needed to mine, process, use, and clean up after it probably use more energy than the uranium itself contains. Once we no longer have the nearly free energy of fossil fuels concentrated for us by half a billion years of geology, concentrating energy beyond a certain fairly modest point will rapidly become a losing game in thermodynamic terms. At that point, insofar as progress is measured by the kind of technology that can cross deep space, progress will be over”.

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Wikinomics vs Getting Real

Don Tapscott’s new book Wikinomcs gallops along at a heady pace. “The knowledge, resources, and computing power of billions of people are self-organising into a massive new collective force”, it gushes. This marvelous news is tempered by the suspicion that either I, or the Web 2.0 world, is afflicted by a severe reality deficit. Wikinomics promises us an internet-powered business utopia, but the words climate change, peak oil, and catabolic collapse, are notable for their utter absence from the book. Tapscott is the finest tech booster of our age, but I can’t help feeling the name of his company, New Paradigm, is a misnomer. Although, as Bruce Nussbaum comments this week, companies are demanding that their managers be more creative , surely they should be creative with their eyes open? For me, a better text than Wiknomics for CEOs is John Gray’s Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia . “The pursuit of utopia must be replaced by an attempt to cope with reality” writes Gray. Warning that “an irrational faith in the future is encrypted into contemporary life”, the laugh-a-minute philosopher recommends a diet of Spinoza and Tao-ism for those whose new year resolution is: Get Real.

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The big chill

Shopping for a snack in central London yesterday evening I counted an extraordinary 78 metres (256 feet) of chiller cabinets in one small central London branch of Marks and Spencer.
Marks and Spencer have made a laudable commitment to make all it UK and Irish operations carbon neutral within five years. “We’ll maximise our use of renewable energy and only use offsetting as a last resort” pledges the firm in its Plan A. In Plan A, M&S is committed to act on waste, raw materials, healthy eating, and fair trade. For example it has banned white veal and calves liver from its shelves, and is playing a leading role in an industry consortium called WRAP.
But M&S’s Plan A has a huge, glaring omission: refrigeration. More than 50 percent of food in developed countries is retailed under refrigerated conditions – a factor due is large part to the open display cabinets of the kind I paced-out in Notting Hill yesterday. As a consequence, food retailers waste insane amounts of energy: a single open-fronted freezer costs 15,000 pounds (22,000 euros) per year to run in energy bills alone – and that does not include the embergy (embodied energy) involved in each unit’s manufacture. Unchecked, air conditioning units and chiller cabinets will cause hundreds of billions of tons of CO2 to be released into the atmosphere in the next 50 years.
Off course, M&S may reply, if food were not refrigerated, a good proportion of it would rot or spoil. Up to 40 percent of fruit is lost post-harvest in some food systems. Such a loss of produce represents a waste of energy on its own account, since wasted food embodies the energy used in its production, processing and transport. Nonetheless, as things stand today, it looks as if M&S is resigned not to reduce, but to offset, the massive energy emissons from its supply, storage and retail operations when its five year deadline for Plan A expires.
The alternative would be for M&S to change its business model to one of shopless shopping, and close down most of its retail outlets. And why not? Refrigerated trucks, warehouses, and high street stores, are expensive and wasteful steps, and therefore profit-reducing costs, in the journey from farm to table. M&S is well-placed to become the radically de-centralised distribution and quality assurance platform that all towns and cities need to relocalise their food systems.

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Tools for survival

Imagine that you have the attention and presence of 80,000 designers and architects. Which five tools, business models, platforms, or applications, would you badly want them to learn about – and use? Tools for Survival is such an opportunity. The event and encounter, which Doors is directing for the St Etienne Design Biennial, takes place in November. We have a 5,000 square metre (50,000 square feet) shed to fill with tools and people – and hope you will help us do so. My idea is to arrange the whole space as a kind of caravanserai of informal stalls. Each stall, or carpet, will feature a tool, and people discussing its use. Live projects, in which communities from the region explore ways to use these tools, will run throughout the event. But Tools for Survival is not about green consumerism: Its focus is on platforms, models, base tools and system components – not discrete end-of-pipe products. A tool, in this context, can be a product, system. model, book, gadget, software, video, map, hardware, material, or website that is ready to be used now (or will be available for use soon). Each tool will probably entail a degree of social and collaborative use. The main zones will be grouped around the themes of food, water, energy, shelter, mobility, monitoring, and designing. The look-and-feel of the event will be more Bladerunner than Little House on the Prarie. That’s because most people will stlll live in cities, not in cutesy little homesteads, as the going gets….different. Right now, please just note the dates: the Biennial opens on 12 November and runs for two weeks. Over the coming period we will organise partnerships with other organizations, including a network of design schools. And we’ll soon start a blog/wiki as a public domain place to assemble and select your suggested tools.
COMMENT from Andrew Otwell (
“Be careful not to turn this into just a trade show, though. The appearance of endless choice between models, gadgets, material, or whatever is going to be overwhelming. Would it be possible to reduce this down to “five tools, business models, platforms, or applications” as you say at the beginning? I think it would be great if everyone could walk out of the event understanding Five Great Tools and how to apply them in various contexts.
“The mechanical age was founded, in a sense, upon the “simple machines”: the pulley, lever, wheel, screw, inclined plane, and wedge. What is the set of “simple machines” of the next age?”

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No new lists!

My new year’s resolution is to stop writing sustainability to-do lists. I’m supposed to be an expert, but it still gives me a headache trying to keep track of: the Triple Bottom Line; the Three Main Components (and Four System Conditions) of The Natural Step; the Five Capitals Model promoted by the Forum for the Future (along with its Twelve Features of a Sustainable Society); One Planet Living’s Ten Guiding Principles; the Ten Principles for Sustainable City Governance at the heart of the Copenhagen Agenda; the World Wildlife Fund’s Three Forms of Solidarity; Peter Senge’s Four Basic Shifts; the Framework of Eight Doorways of the Sustainable Schools Network; and the ten Hannover Principles promulgated by Bill McDonough. I’m as guilty as the rest, having cobbled together Six Design Frameworks as the conclusion to my book, In the Bubble. There are doubtless other important to-do lists out there that I’ve missed. But can we please agree: enough already?

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Of doomers and bottle fillers

In Sao Paulo before Christmas someone referred to me as a “doomer.” I had not heard the word before, but was told that it describes sad, train-spotter-like people who can’t stop talking about peak oil, climate change, the instability of financial markets, the impending food crisis, and what John Michael Greer calls the “catabolic collapse” of industrial civilisation. Now it’s true that plenty of people out there are unhealthily thrilled by the prospect of apocalypse. Their number includes, or so we are told, George W Bush. But you don’t have to be an End-Days nut to conclude that we are headed for what one might call, to put it mildly, a discontinuity. If you look under the hood, the life-support systems of industrial civilisation are coughing and spluttering alarmingly. Even mainstream politicians, who hate being associated with bad news, are promising rough times ahead. But I reject the label “doomer”. The word implies that, faced with these scary prospects, we have to choose either to join a cult, or head for the hills with a truckload of guns and baked beans. As a bottle-half-full kind of guy, I’m headed for a third space – between despair and flight – where a lot of creative and collaborative work needs to be done, much of it involving design. This newsletter – and Doors of Perception projects – will focus on those kind of activities during 2008.

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