To know a lot about something, you need to know a little about everything.

Sharing insights into  new trends, new ways of living, appreciating the incredible that transpires in this world.

As a self-proclaimed generalist, I can’t resist discussing almost any subject, often finding ways to consider the concept of sustainability within.  No stone needs to be left untouched, technological to traditional, political to cultural, curiosity, science, nature, even love.  With of course, reflection on the joy of art & design in both function and beauty.

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Spring has sprung, hug a tree-better yet, plant one.

The northern hemisphere is finally heating up and seasonal affective disorder is becoming a faint memory, positivity is in abundance once again. The leaves haven’t yet sprouted here in Edinburgh, but each and every day one hopes to see those little green buds sprouting out.

Trees are great, and in dedication to such a great species, I give you three fabulous tree-dedications.

1) Best looking tree with the best view in 2010:

This beautiful tree stands in envy of  others.

Big,

well nurtured,

perfect foliage,

greener than grass

and  holding onto one of the best views of the Ngorongoro Crater around.

If only the old man could see…

2) Best Design Concept relating to a tree:

Bill McDonough-Cradle to Cradle discussion at TED in 2005

3) Funniest tree revenge commentary:

Dane Cook-Vicious Circle

The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago.

The second best time to plant a tree is now.

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Gauguin and Van Gogh, two friends, an ear full of a tale

VanGogh Self Portrait Earlier this week, two German authors published a report on what may likely be the truth to how Vincent Van Gogh lost his ear.  For the past 120 years, we have believed that an aging Van Gogh cut off his own ear as he slid deeper into madness. 

 Now, new details have emerged that this story of narcissistic mutilation may be nothing more than a cover-up for an embarrassing mistake between two friends.  Based on their research, Hans Kaufmann and Rita Wildegans have presented a strong case that Paul Gauguin, an expert fencer, accidentally or possibly intentionally sliced off Van Gogh’s ear.  The result of a long-running argument largely brought on from Van Gogh’s journey into madness. 

 Paul Gauguin Self PortraitThe story gets more intriguing as Van Gogh’s severed ear gets delivered to Rachel, a prostitute in the local brothel just down the road from Van Gogh’s “Yellow house”.  Rumours abound that both artists were in love with Rachel, their troubled friendship and whether any of this was a catalyst for their final confrontation.  Details of the story can be found in this Guardian link.  A somewhat lighter take on the cause of this drama can also be found on Frank Lesser’s site, having a personal dislike for dirty dishes, I am tempted to agree with Lesser’s story.

The tale is captivating to those who follow art, and even those that don’t.  To realise that what we have been led to believe for the past 120 years is untrue, makes you wonder.  What else may not be what it seems? 

Why would two of the greatest artists of the past two centuries keep the truth quiet?  Art relies so much on the viewers’ perspective, could Gauguin and Van Gogh have been worried gauguin tahitithat our perspective of their work would have fundamentally changed if the truth came out?  Think about this the next time you look at one of Van Gogh’s self-portraits or Gauguin’s Tahiti; has your impression changed? Do you feel more sympathy for Van Gogh or more critical of Gauguin’s work?

Art is one of the greatest forms of communication we have.  It captures life at a point in time, through artists’ hands and hearts we see history retold.  When left unadultered, far from the manipulative hands of power, art can give a dipiction of history that words can never recreate.

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Water water, not everywhere

Quality WaterI recently co-wrote a report on global water insecurity.  Second only to air, water is a topic that reaches every human being as one of our most basic sustenance needs.   Like many, I’m a little worried about our global water situation, with increasing climatatic change, a bulging population, and changing demographics, finding quality water is becoming harder and harder for people. 

The paper was accepted by Kyoto Publishing to be part of the third volume of the Sustainable Enterprise Report.  Much of the material it contains was inspired by a larger private report I wrote for the Ethical Corporation Research Institute in the fall of 2008. 

 It’s a satisfying thing to be published, and more so when you are able to share the experience.  My co-writer, Maura Dilley, is someone whom I admire very much, and I know this piece of writing is better because of her.  The water report was our second written collaboration together, our first piece, Oil or Energy?, explored the renewable energy potential for the United States if the same amount of money was invested in it as has been paid into fighting the war in Iraq.

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Erasing our Footprints with Nurturing Handprints

The world is full of footprints.  To many of us, it’s the only thing we’ve left behind as we’ve meandered across this amazing planet.  But there are other footprints, the kind we use as a form of measurement. 

 

Since Dr. William Rees and Dr. Mathis Wackernagel first coined the term “ecological footprint” in 1992, countries, organizations, and individuals have been busy measuring the ecological impacts as a result of their habits and lifestyles. 

 

Now, we have ecological footprints, carbon footprints, and even water footprints.   We are able to track our contribution to environmental degradation, the greenhouse gas emissions we release which heats the atmosphere, and the impacts of our water use. 

 

Little of what we do that’s damaging is now left unmeasured.  Well, we could still likely do to know more about the impacts of our actions in contributing to biodiversity loss, the release of toxic chemicals, and socially undermining other people from meeting their needs.  I guess we still could do with three more footprint measurements.  By achieving this, we would more or less be able to measure all the bad things one well-meaning person is doing people and the planet over the course of a lifetime.

 

If time permits, I am brave enough and have enough support from peers; I hope to be a part of developing one or more of these missing footprints.  Most especially, the social footprint, a measure of your actions and consumption choices as it affects other people on the planet, would be a valuable venture.  Albeit hotly contested. 

 

Recently, the Center for Sustainable Innovation announced the development of a social footprint calculator.

 

Attempting to quantify social degradation will never make everyone happy, but giving people a rough idea of their social impacts on the world is better than giving them no idea at all.

 

Could you imagine if we all knew, with reasonable certainty, how much bad we are doing in the world, would we then be able to make the change needed?

 

There are many arguments against this, but let’s be blue sky thinking people for a bit.  Yes, many of our impacts are not the fault of our own but due to the environment we live in (i.e. living in a community with no public transportation).  We can all be vegans, growing our own food and clothing, and only taking holidays by bicycle.  Even with this ‘off the grid’ lifestyle, we can still have a negative ecological and possibly even social, impacts.

 

What exactly is a footprint?

The ecological footprint represents the area of biologically productive land and water a population (or individual, city, etc.) requires to provide the resources it consumes and to absorb its waste, using prevailing technology.  For North Americans, this amount on average equals nearly ten global hectares.  For Europeans, the amount is roughly five global hectares.

 

In 2003, the globally available biocapacity was 1.8 global hectares per person.  And this doesn’t take into account the needs of other wild species to share the same land.  What this means is if we were all North Americans, we would need five planet Earths to survive in the long run without changing our habits.  For Europeans, still another 2.5 planets are required. 

 

Personal Footprint calculations are still an emerging science, and the calculator you choose will dictate how big of a footprint you are given.  In the Carbon Footprinting world, there are now over 2000 carbon footprint calculators available online, and all of them are definitely not created equally.

 

Last night I visited three ecological footprint calculators to see how I would fair: Best Foot Forward, WWF’s Footprint Calculator, and the Global Footprint Network, which is led by Mathis Wacknernagel.  My results between the three varied significantly; Best Foot Forward gave me the ‘best’ footprint at a respectable 1.7 planets (2.8 G Ha) and just 5.4 tonnes of Carbon emissions.  WWF calculated a more severe 2.61 planets and 14.57 tonnes of Carbon emissions (41% due to my travel habits). 

 

Under the Global Footprint Network’s newly updated version, I came in at 3.3 planets and nearly 20 tonnes of Carbon emissions, again mainly because of my use of flying over the past year.  Ah the brutal truth.

 

Maybe 3.3 planets in this day and age is not terrible when compared to the North American average of 5, but it’s not exactly inspiring for someone that works in the sustainability industry, has already become a vegetarian, swapped his car for a bicycle, composts his organic waste, transitioned the investment portfolio to low carbon and SRI products, habitually recycles, buys local organic foods and second hand goods almost exclusively. 

 

I really have two options that can get me to that desired level of one planet and a per person allocation of only two tonnes of carbon per year (or at least slightly above this level to account for the delay in our inefficient national infrastructure coming in line with our own efforts):

 

  • I can completely sacrifice all the travel and cheese from my diet, which would bring me close, but likely leave me in a state of malaise and hopeless despair.

Or

  • I can offset my excess, and pay a fair price for a real reduction in environmental damages and greenhouse gas emissions from somewhere else on the planet. 

 

Yes, again many frugal folks are keen to argue the offset debate and I welcome them to take a read of my other blog posting (Offsetting Works).  Very simply, if you can understand the value in fair-trade coffee, you can understand the value in offsetting.  Both involve the consumer choosing to pay an extra amount which ensures that the damaging business as usual approach is mitigated (a.k.a. paying for a negative externality currently outside the financial system).

 

Is there any other way? It doesn’t seem right, to conserve as much as possible and still have to pay for the left over wrong doing.  I’m a good person, we’re all good people at heart, and many of us are working our butts off to do positive things in our society.  What’s wrong with this picture?

 

Well, there actually is something missing, something these footprints aren’t able to consider.  It’s our Handprint. 

 

I’m not sure who first coined the term ‘Handprint’ in response to the Footprint mania developing from the 90s.  Alex Steffan wrote about in mid 2000, and others have spoken about it since (see here, here, and here).  Put simply, the Handprint is the Ying to the Footprint’s Yang.  It is conceptualised as all the good one individual, organization, city, or country can do. 

 

Where a Footprint measures all the damage we are doing to the planet, a Handprint measures all our nurturing and giving to society and the planet.  As the argument goes, if you are doing a lot social and ecological good, your handprint should be larger you’re your footprint. 

 

Imagine again, as blue sky thinkers, that we could get everyone to have a larger Handprint than Footprint.  We would create a completely restorative society, promoting peace, preserving health, happiness, well-fair, and rebuilding eco-systems on the verge of collapse. 

 

A net-benefit society isn’t as far away as we may think. 

 

We’ve shown that we can do a great job of measuring the bad things happening around us, it’s time we started learning how to measure the good things. 

 

We live in a world where many people will not do something ‘just because’.  People need to understand the why behind things in order to be part of the solution.  By enhancing the Footprint measurements with Social Footprinting, etc., and adding in a Handprint measure, we can finally create a balanced measurement from which global citizens can work against. 

 

What gaps remain in us becoming net-positive influencers on people and the planet; for the time-being, hopefully offsets will be a strong enough opportunity to make a difference financially where personal efforts falls short..

 

Sound like a challenge? It is.  Why not help make this a success.  If you would like to help develop a social footprint and/or a handprint calculator, please email me Dermco[at]gmail.com.

 

 

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Offsetting Works

Yes, I’m an offsetter. Does that mean I can now live without guilt? Unlikely, but it is the right thing to do.

Many people, even sustainability people, make fun of offsetting and try to discredit it whenever they can. They point to the fact that it isn’t real, “it’s just passing the buck” said one marketing manager ironically working for carbon finace company that makes its money sourcing and financing large scale offset projects.

The lack of reality in offsets is inaccurate. Offsets are real and companies can produce them ethically. The challenge lies in the lack of oversight and regulation that needs to be present in order to mitigate profit-seekers and market scammers. I agree that some offsets are better than others, some are really good, and some currently are a scam. I could spend the rest of the time telling you which ones are better than the others, but I have something more important to do, to convince you that paying a little extra for our carbon intensive lifestyles will prevent global climatic change and avoid huge natural disasters in the process.

If you are concerned about climate change, the first step is to do all you can to reduce your emissions, travel less, eat better, shop and invest smarter, be more efficient in everyway. Even with all these measures, each of us will still have above acceptable emission levels, so we need to leave some things to the market to take care of for us and, as they say, put our money where our mouth is.

Voluntarily paying to offset your green house gas emissions means that you’re responsible enough to cover the costs of a negative externality for which you know has a cost. A cost that isn’t currently included in the price of our plane tickets, gasoline, and other fossil fuel purchases.

There is no fundamental difference between buying offsets, and purchasing fair trade coffee, certified organic food, or Rainforest Alliance bananas. All of these consumer choices currently result in us paying a premium to counteract something negative that has been occurring in our world.

So why do people criticize carbon offsets and not these other ethical purchasing habits? Well, for one it’s harder to comprehend, you don’t get to enjoy a warm roasted coffee or a fresh banana after your purchase. You have to give someone, often a company you don’t know, money to invest in some project possibly on the other side of the world that will prevent more of these invisible heat trapping gases from being emitted into the atmosphere. And to make matters even more challenging, offsetting is going to cost you something.

Unlike paying an extra twenty cents to buy your ethical coffee, purchasing offsets will be felt on your pocketbook. It might even hurt enough to actually deter people from choosing the carbon intensive activity in the first place. But that’s the whole point isn’t it?

Our current economic system created over 200 years ago, wasn’t designed to determine the true cost of what we are buying. Through offsetting, we pay for our negative actions by making something positive happen somewhere else.

For the skeptics out there, stop the griping, if you say you care about climate change, show it through your purchase choices.

Still in disbelief? Don’t think our offset funds can do much to save the day?

Why not consider how much investment in the low carbon economy we would have if every human on the planet paid for our personal carbon excess.

The United Nations believes a climate stability target can be reached at two tonnes CO2 per person per year (two tonnes per person is the calculated amount that has been estimated as the Earth’s maximum ability to absorb the green house gases that we produce). Paying the difference is similar to the carbon rationing system proposed by George Monbiot. This is the best option we have unless governments can collectively agree on a policy that restricts all greenhouse gas emissions and charges for the pollution at the source.

Currently, roughly 2.67 billion people on the planet are living in countries where their per capita carbon footprint is over two tonnes per year. The citizens of United States, amongst the highest nations for per capita emissions, is now over 20 tonnes each, making them liable for 18 tonnes of carbon a person. The Chinese now have annual emissions totaling 3.9 tonnes per person, making each citizen there responsible for 1.9 tonnes of carbon. All told, these 2.67 billion “rich and lucky” citizens of the planet Earth would be responsible for 14,676,400,000 tonnes. Nearly 14.7 billion tonnes with costs to be covered. At a fair price of $30 US per tonne of Carbon, this amounts to a huge sum of $440 billion paid by global citizens every year, or on average, $165 each. Sound like a lot? $440 billion is, nearly three times the total investment in Cleantech (clean technologies: renewable energy, low carbon technologies, etc.) in 2007 of $148 billion.

This level of investment for just one year could provide clean electricity for over 150 million Americans, or 500 million Chinese.

Okay, so this is definitely idyllic, but it shows what’s possible. The majority of residents in places like China can’t afford to individually pay for their excess carbon, and quite often it should be the responsibility of their government and the businesses proliferating there.

Let’s look at what could really happen in the next few years if just all the wealthy global citizens and residents of the traditionally developed world (Western Europe, Japan, the United States, Canada, Australia, etc.) paid for their excess emissions. Removing most of the 1.2 billion Chinese and the like, we are still left with roughly 1 billion people and 10.56 billion tonnes of carbon obligation (remember the population responsible has dropped significantly, but the developed countries pollute the most per capita, so total CO2 has not decreased at a similar rate).

Before we calculate this final number, we will be even more rational, according to several reports, due to national inefficiencies in infrastructure, each citizen is only likely accountable for 45% of their total emissions. For instance, because of the coal heavy power structure and other trademarks of the US economy, 8.5 tonnes of CO2 emissions per person is unavoidable. A 2008 MIT study found that a homeless person in the United States had a carbon footprint of 8.5 tonnes, and a US Buddhist monk is still over 10 tonnes no matter what they do.

At 45% of what we can control, our carbon obligation is 4.75 billion tonnes, 4.75 tonnes each. This leaves us with a bill of $142.5 billion or $142.50 each per year. If paid in full, we would effectively nearly double the level of investment in Cleantech last year. Enough to take almost 43 million Americans or 143 million Chinese off coal power in just one year.

If each of us chose to be accountable for our carbon emissions, by reducing and then paying for what we can’t reduce, we would be well on our way to dealing with the climate challenge. In fact, we would be making real, large scale reductions before the world governments have a chance to organize another conference to talk about the problem. Offset critics take a rest and reflect, isn’t it time we just fixed the problem and moved on?

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Was Overfishing the Catalyst for a Somali Pirate Epidemic?

I recently caught this article from one of my favorite sites, treehugger.com

All too often we get caught up in reacting to the problems in front of us. If Somali pirates have a hostage, we react by figuring out how to kill them while leaving the hostage safe.

 We are rarely composed enough these days to dig a little deeper and seek out the “why?” to the problems that exist.  The Somali pirate epidemic is a symptom of the social and enviromental challenges that this East African nation faces.

We can continue to react to each piracy incident as it appears, or consider the bigger picture problems of the whole system.  If we address the root of the problem (diminishing fish stocks and no government = no income) instead of the symptom (Somali pirates), we may actually find solutions that are humane, cost-effective, and successful in the long-term.

Like a small child always playing in a street of broken glass.  We have two solutions, treat each new cut with a bandaid or remove the shards of glass.

“Thousands of Somalis once made their living as fishermen. But Somalia has been without a central government for nearly two decades—so there’s no active body that’s able to effectively protect the country’s rights to its coastline, and the once-abundant supply of fish it held. So now, due to the willingness of foreigners to exploit fisheries off Somalia’s coast, and the lack of a governing body to stave them off, many of these fishermen are finding their nets empty. It’s estimated that $300 million worth of seafood is stolen from Somali waters altogether every year—(source-Treehugger.com)

Source: Treehugger/War is Boring

Source: Treehugger/War is Boring

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S&P 500 Launches a Carbon Efficient Index

Even without a global government consensus on climate change action, the business world continues to move ahead.  Recently the S&P 500 launched a ‘Carbon Efficient Index’ to assist investors and fund managers in finding companies that are responding best to climate change.

http://www.greenbiz.com/news/2009/03/10/pg-wal-mart-chevron-join-sp-carbon-efficient-index

The S&P Index aims to profile companies doing the most on climate change and uses a metric of total emissions to total company revenues in order to determine the most ‘effiicient’ companies in each sector.  This is a simple and interesting approach; unfortunately, their work focused more on excluding the 100 worst than finding the best.   If 400 of the 500 companies in the S&P 500 are actually carbon inefficient, this index will still only screen out at most 100 of them, leaving the other 300 inefficient companies with a ‘carbon efficient’ label.  Additionally, the desire to maintain a 50% market cap weighting in each sector means that potentially even big inefficient polluters will have to be included. 

At the end of the day, if you’re an investor that is concerned about climate change, it is still better to follow the S&P Carbon Efficient Index than the S&P 500. 

Valuing of externalities continues to grow and putting a cost on climate change (or carbon in particular) is just the first step towards true cost pricing for resources currently outside the economic system like water and ecosystem services.

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