Forward Thinking Blog
Move FORWARD: explore the issues. Learn about the latest in innovation, design, and philosophy here. From high-tech possibilities, to no-tech solutions, to exciting new ways of living… we’ve the bases covered. Got a topic you would like to see explored? Get in touch with us and send the details. And of course, feel free to leave us your thoughts.
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A new Al Jazeera documentary follows reporter Juliana Ruhfud and producer Orlando von Einsiedel as they investigate Sierra Leone's multi-million dollar illegal fishing trade:
More reading on The Ecologist Website.
With food security a pressing issue globally and especially in the Asia-Pacific Region, finding ways to solve food challenges is moving up the political agenda. But how can an island city-state like Singapore take major action with its urban population and land limitations? On the sidelines of the International Conference on Asian Food Security 2011, our latest Forward Thought Leadership Series interview explores steps to solving the crisis with Prof. Paul Teng.
Prof. Teng is Dean for Graduate Programmes and Research, National Institute of Education (NIE), and Senior Fellow and Advisor to the Food Security Programme in the Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore.
Forward Thinking: Prof. Teng, perhaps to start off you could give us a quick snapshot of where the Asia-Pacific Region is at grappling with food security.
Prof. Paul Teng: Well, with over 60 per cent of the global population, half the world’s urban population, and more than 60 per cent of all undernourished, Asia’s food security challenges are formidable to say the least. It’s a challenge that will require a very holistic approach.
Could you shed some light on the complexity of the challenge and how people are affected by food insecurity?
There are four basic dimensions: availability, physical access, economic access, and utilisation. For availability, it’s all about the supply--is there enough to go around? This is determined by production, stock levels, food aid, and net trade. Productivity is a big issue, but it’s not sufficient to ensure household food security. Physical access to food is also another key consideration—households must have access to healthy, nutritious food. Conflicts, poor infrastructure, logistics issues, and market imperfections can all become barriers. Economic access is likewise critical, and purchasing prices must be in line with real income so people can actually afford to buy food. And of course, while a household may have the capacity to purchase all the food it needs, it may not have the ability to utilize that capacity to use it to the fullest. This relates more to the nutritional status of an individual— think in terms of feeding practices, food preparation, storage, etc. People living in slums may have living conditions affect nutritional status in the form of malnutrition and poor health. In the bigger picture, is also related the issue of investment. Are governments especially investing enough into agriculture and reserves, the mechanisms to alleviate potential for food security crisis?
FT: And governments of course take some pretty steep risks if they don’t adequately address risks posed by food security. We’ve seen this recently with riots in response to food price hikes in many countries around the world.
PPT: Indeed. As Kenyan MP Ruth Oniang’o recently put it “A hungry person with low blood sugar is a very angry person—virtually ungovernable.” Egypt recently showed us that surging food prices were one of many causes for the fall of President Mubarak.
FT: Turning to the local context, how do you think the issue of food security factors among the priorities of the local political establishment here in Singapore?
PPT: I think it ranks quite high. The National Security Council is funding a lot of think tank activity, the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) recently released another $5 million fund in addition to a previous $10 million fund to improve domestic farm productivity. National Research Foundation also has $50 million for centres of excellence to create new technology to help tackle food security issues.
There could be lots more done to support regional and international action. Currently there are no Asian funders at the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and other similar bodies. Our government could take a leadership role there. Singapore could also be encouraging entrepreneurs to go overseas to produce more food and perfect new technologies. HLH Pte. Ltd.
is currently one such company going into Cambodia to explore improving corn production. And of course Singapore could lead the way when it comes to finance, funding, and mobilising resources as investment is a key issue in agriculture and food security.
FT: So in this context there would be a lot of opportunity for business.
PPT: Absolutely. Beyond overseas opportunities, Singapore can be used as a knowledge hub to do a lot of the upstream work like breeding new varieties of seeds. There are world-class R&D facilities and support for this kind of work.
Could you give some examples?
There has been some great work done through an AVA partnership with Skygreens
to create new vertical farming infrastructure. The prototype is quite promising and will soon be tested in an urban context. Likewise, Aerogreen Technology
has been perfecting technology to grow vegetables locally using air as well.
FT: Beyond the technology, at the conference you raised interesting points about the urban context of Singapore and finding techniques and technologies that are practical here. Given the geographic constraints of the country, what are some key considerations when it comes to land use?
PPT: There are surprisingly a lot of excess land zoned for agro-parks across six areas, some 700 hectares in total. This could be producing a lot more. Likewise, rooftops, HDB estates, aerobridge greenhouses integrated into buildings—there are many applications to be explored for agriculture in the urban context. But so far the political will is just not there yet.
FT: So what do you think needs to be in place to help support development of urban and peri-urban landscape to improve food security?
PPT: More cohesive campaigns and incentives by government. We could build off existing social infrastructure like Communities in Bloom and the People’s Association to go after food security like we’ve worked on water conservation. There also needs to be the availability of technical advisory and support services—a lot of this expertise isn’t currently on the ground here. And of course we need hands-on experienced professionals, improved community gardens—like we see in many overseas cities globally—and better supplies and pricing for small inputs of things like fertiliser.
FT: So Singapore could learn a lot from countries like Cuba that have had to tackle their food security issues head-on in innovative ways, including with community focused agriculture.
Sure, and there are many other examples of how urban and peri-urban agriculture (UPA) are used to increase food security, reduce poverty, and enhance urban environmental management—there have been success stories in Hanoi, Shanghai, Beijing, Mexico City, and many other places. Likewise some great community garden projects in the US, UK, and the Netherlands.
FT: How might Singapore engage more immediate neighbours like Malaysia, Thailand, or Indonesia?
PPT: Through ASEAN and also community to community deals between the different countries.
FT: To conclude Prof. Teng, with the complexity of food security in Singapore taking so many dimensions that we’ve discussed today, do you think it’s time for Singapore to have its own Agriculture Ministry to champion the cause?
To date the AVA has been doing a great job, but if anything, perhaps a coordinating government agency could be created at the higher level to take a bird’s-eye view of the issue and work across the many players that need to be involved to tackle food security. Australia has recently proposed this, and I think to really get at a holistic solution, this is a great way to go for the future. There really is no silver bullet to this complex issue
and its going to need a broad-focused response.
Technology has brought us many modern conveniences that we often take for granted. Everyday appliances like refrigerators, water heaters, and stoves are so prevalent that it is quite hard for most people to picture a life without them. How about the estimated 20% of the world population without access to electricity (link: “Access to Electricity”)? We are going to briefly discuss how some of these modern conveniences can be brought to rural regions at a low-cost: both environmentally and economically.
Introducing the pot-in-pot refrigerator, also known as the Zeer pot, keeps the inner chamber of the device cool by the means of evaporative cooling (water absorbs relatively large amount of energy when transitioning from liquid to vapour). The device is constructed using easily obtainable items: two clay pots; a piece of cloth; some sand; water (which need not be potable as it is kept separated from the food storage), and requires no electricity. Below is a video on how you can make your own:
Food can be stored fresh for a longer period of time with refrigeration, this is important in places where there is a food shortage, extending the shelf life of food is a matter of survival. Farmers can also benefit from the increased profit from food sales as food can be stored for a longer period of time giving economic and social benefits to the community.
A modern lecturer Mohammed Bah Abba has modernized the evaporative cooling principle and commercialised it for modern Nigeria, distributing it under his company Mobah Rural Horizon. A Zeer pot only cost around £1 to manufacture and Bah Abba reportedly sells 30000 such pots a year in rural Nigeria (link: “The Shell Award for Sustainable Development”). In addition, an inventor Emily Cummins came up with the Sustainable Refrigerator that gave the pot-in-pot cooler a contemporary design.
Solar power can be harvested by solar panels, but often they require proper maintenance and may release toxic chemicals (e.g. lead and cadmium) in case of damages or improper disposal.Solar concentrators may serve as an alternative method to tap into solar energy and have already been use in solar power plants. The solar concentrators can also be used to cook food, it works by reflecting sunlight into a smaller area and therefore heating any object within that point.
Solar cookers come in a few different varieties and can provide an alternative to firewood in the absence of electricity and liquid petroleum gas. About 2 billion people still use firewood; introducing solar cookers will reduce the rate of deforestation and carbon dioxide emission. In addition, the cooker also allows people in rural area to pasteurize their drinking water, reducing instances of ingesting water borne pathogens. See how you can build one easily in the video above.
Solar cookers in various forms have been applied in other places like Africa, China, India and Gaza. Solar Cookers International is one of the non profit organisations that distributes and provides education to rural African regions regarding solar cooking. They have also commercialised their products and sell solar cooker merchandise on their website for other outdoor cooking purposes.
But I have refrigerators and kitchen stoves!
You most likely have access to powered refrigeration and cooking facilities and I doubt anyone is preparing to go without them any time soon. However it has been shown by people like Bah Abba and Solar Cookers International that low-tech solutions could commercialised to various degrees of success in niche market, partly due to the low cost of implementation and high availability of their building materials within the local market. While they could have easily been dismissed as mere life-hacks, innovations have turned them into profitable (financially and/or socially) businesses.
Having spent a good part of my life in the island state of Singapore, I recently had the opportunity to spend two weeks living in the city of Cologne, Germany. I was pleasantly surprised at the involvement of residents’ everyday life in their local sustainability efforts, most of which are bringing more convenience. It is not my intention to paint a completely rosy picture of the city, but I think the positives are worth mentioning.
On my first evening in Cologne, I was offered a drink by a friend when I noticed that the glass and plastic bottles looked like they have been used for a long time. My worries were alleviated when I found out that the bottles were sent back to the manufacturers (via local shops) to be cleaned and reused. So whenever you run out of drinks, the shops send new bottles and take in your empty bottles, bypassing the need to manufacture new bottles or recycle any materials. Plus you get drinks delivered to the doorstep, brilliant.
It was also Women’s World Cup season in Germany and I was fortunate enough to catch one of the matches. Being thirsty post match, I bought a cup of water and they came in thick plastic cups. “How wasteful it must be to dispose the cups!” Until I realised that I was suppose to return the cups for a dollar back. No more disposable plastic or paper cups. Less consumption, less waste, we are going reusable!
For used products that were not sent back to manufacturers for reuse, they are disposed into trash bins – sorted properly of course. All post consumer wastes are separated into colour coded bins, papers, plastics, biological stuff and others are separated at consumer level. Glasses are separated by their colour (clear, brown and green). A quick internet search revealed that separation of coloured glass from clear glass is important because only clear recycled glass can be used to manufacturer new clear containers (link: “How Glass is Recycled”) . Efforts were not spared even on used cell batteries, I walked past some electronics store and saw containers inviting consumers to dispose batteries properly.
The city’s recycling efforts are no doubt assisted by convenient and ready placements of compartmentalized waste bins, which can be found on streets as well. But perhaps the most encouraging thing I saw was the compliance by the residents, they took effort to sort out their waste at household level, which is less convenient than simply dumping their wastes collectively. More information about their system of recycling can be found here: “All About Recycling”
I’d also made a few trips to the supermarket to purchase daily foodstuff. Being spoilt by the conveniences in my home country, I was half expecting the staff at the checkout counter to place my purchases promptly into plastic bags so I can bring them home and line my trashcans with those bags. I learnt quickly that I would need to fork out money for each plastic bag to be taken, which makes sense, because the bags are treated as any other items for sale. Most people in the supermarket brought along reusable shopping bags to haul their groceries, consumer behaviour changes when plastic bags are no longer available for free. While scientists are trying to make biodegradable plastic bags, people are working collectively to reduce the number of plastic bags consumed in their daily lives. I had my backpack on.
A while back, I wrote a blog post regarding the potential of smaller vehicles in the future (link: “Downsizing vehicles to upsize productivity”) and I was extremely excited to see the sizable number of smaller vehicles scooting on the streets in the city. These microcars appear in a few different makes, from the Japanese manufacturers to more commonly, German manufacturer Smart. Often these cars are very practical to operate in the confines of a densely populated city. It’s common to see microcars wedged comfortably between larger cars in parking spaces, score! I would suspect that higher pump prices due to government taxes (link: “Gas prices around the world”) are encouraging more car owners to favour smaller; more efficient vehicles. Some opt to take the public transport system, or bicycles.
A bicycle is a wonderful mode of intra-city transport: no emission; less traffic congestions; independent of feeder buses and all the health benefits that come along. However I have few concerns and the chief of which is safety, both the safety of pedestrians when sharing footpaths and the increased probability of being a roadkill when cyclist and motorist share the road.
Observing a sizable population of cyclists, I rented a bicycle to explore the city on two wheels. The cyclist lanes made the trip safer and I found it encouraging that bicycles are allowed on board trains and trams. I could explore places further away from the city centre on my bicycle. With proper infrastructure in place, cycling has become a viable mode of transport within the city, from the lady going to buy groceries to the man in suits and ties; it has become just part of everyday life.
Nothing new has been brought to table: no cutting-edge technologies or radical ideas. While scientists and engineers are working to bring us greener technologies; harnessing new energy sources and drilling deeper to get more oil, environmental awareness are driving groups of people to alter their behaviours collectively towards a sustainable existence. With proper policies and infrastructure in place, environmentally responsible behaviours can become a social norm, bridging the gap between humans and technology
One of the issues challenging aspiring farmers dwelling in cities is space (or the lack thereof), people do not always have the luxury of having vacant lots and large lawns. However it is entirely possible to start a small farm for personal consumption and as the videos have shown, for commercial purposes.
In the videos, there are two examples of commercial rooftop farms: one in New York City and another Chicago, both farms are able to supply their produce for consumption in some local restaurants. These examples offer up a look at two different techniques that can be applied to start a rooftop farm: layering water drainage system with a layer of topsoil; using troughs to contain the soils.
If you cannot start a rooftop farm, it is still possible to grow food inside a city apartment. Using hydroponics, people have started window farms, using easily available materials to build their set up. Even though it is not a commercial operation like the rooftop farm, nonetheless it is certainly a proof-of-concept that even city dwellers are capable of growing some food.
The idea of green rooftops isn’t a radically new idea, people have recognised the benefits of having plants on rooftops. For example a green rooftop can insulate the building and lower the interior temperature; it can also act as water storage to prevent huge amount of runoff during a rain event, which could potentially challenge the water drainage system. However from the perspective of improving food safety and security and from the standpoint of sustainability, it just may be worthwhile to start looking at the concept of farming in the city
Some rather sharp people in Malta created a carbon lottery especially designed to lure people to fighting climate change. Simple concept too: buy verified offsets for voluntary carbon offset projects, choose numbers as you would on any ordinary lotto ticket, and get entered into the draw for a £4m prize. Each entry only costs £2. There is a footprinting tool built into the process, and information on each of the projects worldwide that the funds go towards enabling. While we personally don't like the idea of lottery, we realise others have a different view. Seems like a good approach to harness existing behaviour and channel the money towards something useful. Why try and fight existing behaviours, when a slight tweak could enable them to positive outcomes?
Modern agricultural model have given the human population more food supply with high efficiency, however there are issues surrounding it. The environmental damages from the use of pesticides and fertilizers; resource intensiveness of farming operations (e.g. machineries and transports); the lack of food security in heavy reliance on imported food, are just a few of the examples on why it may be time to take a serious look at alternative farming models. These two videos take a look at how some people are taking agriculture into urbanized areas and explore the intentions, technologies and the benefits behind urban agriculture.
The first video takes a look at some of the technologies behind Science Barge, a floating platform on Hudson River in New York City; it is a sustainable urban farm project. Science Barge grows plants using hydroponics and generates energy from renewable sources; uses water from the river and rainwater collection and discharges no harmful wastes by a clever nutrient recycling system. Did I mention that they are able to grow fish as well?
The second video documents the growing urban agriculture community in Atlanta. Unlike the Science Barge, the community gardens grow their produce on soil. They have come up with an alternative business model call the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) where consumers have to pay farmers upfront and can collect the food periodically, therefore the risk of crop failure is spread across consumers and the farmers.
Growing food locally in an urban setting not only allows consumers to feel safer, knowing the origins of their food, it also gave the opportunity of connecting people in the community and provides a platform to discuss about sustainability. Maybe the next farm plot could just be within our neighbourhoods.
“Sustainability is important for every decision that you make and that decision that you do make is dependent on where you are and what is available to you”
Working alongside our local Tiong Bahru community, together with the Seng Poh Residents Council, Tanjong Pagar Town Council, and NParks, we're happy to announce that the Seng Poh Community Garden is now officially launched.
It is a work in progress and still a lot of things need to get done, but off to a good start with some very good momentum from the local community. If you're in the area, please feel free to join us. Planting days are every Sunday from 8:30 a.m. outside Block 21.
This video takes a brief look at some of the issues surrounding a world built on fossil fuels, like environmental destruction and economic instability. Alternative energy sources have not been able to replace fossil fuel due to technology and existing infrastructures that were purposed to support fossil fuel consumption. It asked an important question regarding the sustainability of the current model of economic growth.
Here are a four points that were suggested:
-Learn to live without fossil fuel
-Relook at our current economic model of growth
-Stabilise human population to 7 billion
-Mitigating the negative human impact on the environment
Even with the technological advancements in the field of alternative energy, humans will still have to find a way to live within nature’s budget of renewable resources and at the rate at of natural replenishment for a more resilient future.
“Resilience – the ability to absorb shocks and keep going”
Check out other interesting videos on Post Carbon Instiute's YouTube channel too.
Water scarcity is like the lesser known cousin of the other environmental issues that are more prominent in the media, for example global warming and decreasing oil supplies. In part, the lack of attention may also be due to clean, safe water being readily available to residents in modern cities at low cost (relative to oil). This documentary tells the story of three different places facing two kinds of water management problem.
In the Everglades, Florida, urban developments are hindering flow and supply of water into the Everglades, resulting in record low-level in water level. Furthermore increasing water demands from nearby region contributes to the decreasing water supply. One of the possible environmental consequences is salt water infiltration into the aquifers, which will alter the eco-system of the Everglades and decrease freshwater availability.
Lake Mead in Nevada faces a similar issue with low precipitation and over consumption because of increasing population and water demand downstream. The water level in the lake has decreased drastically and 25 million people depend on the lake as fresh water supply.
Hebei in Northern China is facing droughts from over consumption by nearby cities such as Beijing. In addition it also faces the problem of pollution from untreated sewage and careless disposal of toxic chemical waste which is quickly making its remaining water sources unusable.
However ordinary citizens are beginning to realise the importance of water conservation and they are coming up with initiatives in attempts to mitigate the problem. In Florida, an environmental group tries to slow down the rate of development and in Hebei, citizens are taking it upon themselves to analyse and monitor their local water resources. In addition to that, local Non-governmental Organisations in Hebei set up a publically available database which monitors the water quality of freshwater sources. Water treatment technologies for both domestic and industrial waste are already available. If environmental laws were to be put in place and duly enforces, further degradation to the water resources is possible.
Water is an integral part of life, making up an approximate 70% of a human body weight. But the social and environmental impacts of freshwater extend far beyond, biodiversity; agricultural activities; industrial operations all hinge on the availability of water. The society as we know it depends greatly on this resource.
“When we were young the environment was beautiful, but we damaged it. So we have to do something about it now for the sake of the future generations"
Mondragón Worker-Cooperatives Decide How to Ride Out a Downturn
If the economy is any indication, it should have prompted us to rethink the economy as it is currently. From its stubbornness to recover from a slump to the increasing polarization of wealth distribution between the rich and the poor (source: Key Household Income Trends, 2010), it should have provided good motivations to look at alternative economical models to the usual top-down management.
In comes the Mondragón Cooperative Corporation (MCC). It is a consortium of worker-owned companies that is worker-centric. The business is driven by egalitarianism: workers are each given equal voting powers on issues; all workers are subjected to distribution of profit and loss because success is a result of collective efforts.
MCC’s innovation in doing business ensured that workers were safe unemployment during the global economical downturn, furthermore generating revenue of $24 billion in 2007. Their success should give even the toughest of sceptics enough reasons to take a long hard look at MCC’s business model.
“Mondragón is proof that a commitment to the common good is not an obstacle to commercial success. Instead, a dedication to innovation and training at all levels can bring forward the best of the community. That quality of life continues outside the workplace, multiplying the benefits for those who choose a cooperative path.”
Now we can all discuss the possibility of social equality without the tough sell of forgoing commercial success.
Further reading: The Old Economy's Not Coming Back. So What's Next?
This video documents how manufacturers shift from the making quality products that were designed to have a long service life to deliberately shortening life of products to drive consumption and economy. Product engineers were made to adopt different values and objectives in their designs while consumers had to accept this newfound disposability as a norm. In a modern context, new products are made available to consumers at a rapid rate, enabling consumers to retire and replace their products unnecessarily.
The documentary also explored one of the potential environmental and social impacts of careless electronic consumption. As computers and electronic devices are disposed, a significant portion of the waste is shipped off to developing regions such as Africa. The electronic waste contains toxic components such as lead and cadmium and they are liberated when locals try to obtain scrap metals using primitive methods. Therefore causing health problems and polluting the environment surrounding the electronic waste dump.
While the manufacturers have created the consumer’s society as we know now, there is an increasing awareness of the finiteness of earth’s resources and the need for sustainable development. Some people are taking a step towards improving the sustainability of the consumer’s society. From consumers working to help other consumers bypass predetermined time for failure in an electronic device, to filing lawsuits against corporations that have unsustainable policies, to manufacturers taking a different approach to production design.
Perhaps we could all then take a moment before retiring our phone for the spanking new one that we have been coveting.
“It’s not like there is a green world and a business world, I think business and sustainability go hand in hand is actually the best basis to build a business on. And the only real way to do that is to factor in the true cost of the resources that have been used and also look at the energy consumption and also the indirect energy consumption of transportation. If you factor all that in to all the product that you manufacture, then there will be huge incentives for manufacturers to entrepreneurs all over the planet to make products that last forever” – Warner Philips (Lemnis Lighting)
Here's an intriguing case study of an environmental lawyer helping villagers fight a lawsuit against an ore mine owned by the provincial government in the Yang Chow village, China. Villagers in nearby areas are affected by the lack of treatment of mine effluent; the villagers crop's yield and quality have been affected, as well as their health.
It was reported that the river water contaminated by the mine effluent is high in some heavy metals (i.e. lead and cadmium), however existing technologies are capable of removing them from the effluent wastewater. One of the common methods of heavy metal removal is chemical precipitation, in which precipitants are added to raise the pH of water decreasing the soluble portion of heavy metals, then the precipitated heavy metals can be removed by conventional solids removal techniques. This illustrates that the corporations are negligent to not provide appropriate treatments even though they are available and that authorities are not taking enough actions to enforce existing environmental laws. The corporation stands to damage its own reputation in addition to setting itself up for potential liabilities in the future.
The villagers and their environment are paying the bills accrued by rapid economic development while reaping none of its benefits. How much monetary value can be assigned to the human health and environmental damages caused by careless economic exploits?
As the world attempts to transit slowly towards renewable energy to satisfy global energy demand, the true environmental and energy cost are often not considered. Perhaps more effort could be done to contemplate ways to reduce global energy demand.
"The holocaust of extinction we are causing is due primarily to the taking of so much habitat by humans. We should be returning very large areas to natural state, not contemplating the taking of more."
John Thackara briefly highlights the potential cost of implementing existing renewable energy solutions.
Energy: A Sense of Loss
This video discusses the solution to traffic congestions on a global scale: smaller vehicles.
The number of vehicles globally will double between 1990 and 2025 while the length of commonly used road in cities remains largely the same. Traffic congestions increases the unpredictability of traffic conditions and travel time, increasing the amount of non-productive time. Taking a cue from the maneuverability from motorcycles but with safety in mind, smaller and safer vehicles may address the problem of limited infrastructure falling behind growth of vehicles.
However, even though smaller vehicles can bring a partial relief to congested roads, some questions remain to be answered before deciding if it can be a long term solution. For example the energy efficiency of the vehicles compared to other modes of transport (i.e. public transports) should be considered. If the vehicles are inherently the less energy efficient mode of transport, can developing intracity infrastructures to support such form of transportation still be a sustainable long term solution?
Times are shifting with economic dramas and a raft of natural disasters. Governments and businesses are trying to keep up, and one of the trouble areas is the education system. Worldwide, there will be a battle for talent in the years ahead to help meet urgent economic needs and global challenges like climate change. This website showcases many new initiatives that train young people, using technology as an enabler, with many amazing real-world outcomes. It also discusses mega-trends like social networking, virtual offices, and training, and how businesses can innovate to meet impending shifts. Buckle up, it's a cool read.
"Right now, in the Arab world, it has been suggested that hikes in food prices have encouraged populations to challenge their regimes, to date leading to two changes of governments and widespread unrest in other countries. If it is true that food price hikes provided the spark for the demonstrations, and if changes in the climate have had a role in those food price rises, wouldn’t that make recent events the Middle East a case of “good” climate change destabilisation?"
Rachel Godfrey Wood via The Guardian
An alternative to oil palm, sugar palm has huge potential in terms of a valuable commodity that can be grown without the need for large scale plantations, providing a livelihood for people across Southeast Asia without distruction of native forests. Willie Smits explains more at Qi:
The Amazing Power of Sugar Palms by Dr. Willie Smits from Qi GLOBAL on Vimeo.
This month we're pleased to be featured in Singapore's Good Paper where we go further into the notion of thrivability. Check it out. Hard copy hits shelves around the island at the end of the month.
Forward's Chris Tobias discusses "The Next Step in Human Evolution" at TEDxNTU:
TedxNTU from Chris Tobias on Vimeo.
Why should we be "less bad" when we could be doing more good? Targeting a university audience using momentum and large doses of humour, Chris explores global challenges like climate change and resource security, and questions the notion of sustainability in this TEDx talk. Find out where humanity is headed in the future, and why the TEDx audience rated this talk the best of the event. Download available: PDF of presentation can be found here.
Keen to engage your crowd? From TEDx to Green Drinks, educational institutions to conferences-- we've helped raise awareness and motivate action. If you'd like us to inspire people at your event, please contact us.
This award-winning documentary explores one of our most important resources: water. It traces how supplies in many places are dwindling, and in many cases, the driving factor behind the scarcity is greed. Explore the politics, pollution, human rights, and the emergence of a domineering world water cartel in this stellar film. (thanks to The Natural Eye for your entry)
Thanks to everyone who came out to the talk. It was really enlightening discussion. Please find a copy of the presentation here for reference.
Ever wanted a big picture snapshot of the world’s state-of-play? We got access to a spirited discussion between KS Jomo, the Asst. Secretary General for Economic Development at UNDESA, and Ambassador Burhan Gafoor, the Chief Negotiator of Singapore for Climate Change. You’re about to get the top level points on what’s afoot, how the issues relate, and where we need to move for the future: businesses, governments, and people. [Editor’s note: assume most snippets are attributed to KS Jomo, with some reformatted from Burhan Gafoor, and our commentary alongside.]
Right now our global society is facing numerous consecutive crises:
- economic meltdown following sub-prime mortgages that were sold on globally,
- food price spikes due to geographic and climate issues, and speculation,
- increased inequality in the global South brought on by decades of deregulation, trade imbalances and liberalization, and so-called “immeasurizing growth”
- onset of global climate change in the form of severe and erratic weather that is severely affecting conditions around the world (and will continue to do so)
Economically, how’d we get here?
In sum, the 1970’s began a transition era with Nixon sacking the Bretton Woods
System (read: no more gold reserves backing $$$). The 1980’s rolled on with less taxation and government involvement in financial structures. There was lower growth, higher inequalities, growing market instability, and trade liberalization; in general, trade terms moved against developing nations.
The 1990’s saw immeasurizing growth in many of these same countries, showing that more did not necessarily equate to better opportunities. There was a loss of tariff revenues, and shifts in production and export capacities. Many countries couldn’t afford the high costs of building competitive/new industries in this environment, and a backslide ensued.
Entering the new century, global money shifted from South to North, with hallmarks including higher volatility, lower growth, higher instability, and widespread “jobless growth”. Now, enter into this progression the era of cheap and easy money in countries like the U.S. and U.K. The big economies borrow themselves to the rafters, savings plummet while in Asian savings increase, and debt-fueled overconsumption ensues. Mega-multinationals use this cheap era to overinvest in capacity. You know what happens next: Lehman Bros. et al, catastrophic banking collapse, and the falling of financial dominoes around the world. Destruction of value. Not pretty.
Now the U.S. has dropped a lot into stimulating the economy again, Europe has done a bit but petered out, and in general--even though the money’s still cheap-- corporations have little incentive to invest. They still have far too much capacity available, and it’s underutilized already. Why buy more?
When the last fish is caught, only then will they learn money cannot be eaten
So, against this economic backdrop, many countries—both developed and especially developing—are not in good shape. With the global economy royally rooted by the turn of events, investors turn to “safe havens” like certain currencies and commodities including food stocks. Now food security comes into play, with speculation driving price spikes that reach all time highs in early 2011. Food stocks like grain go sky high for the average guy on the street.
Not only that, but production of first generation biofuels (e.g. certain ethanols) were already affecting prices of staples like maize, and spikes in the cost of crude oil (another commodity) also added to the transport cost of food. Chronic issues like environmental degradation, overfishing, loss of farmland, and deforestation further complicate the global situation. Big instability brews in developing countries and some riots ensue. According to the World Bank, some 44 million worldwide slip into poverty and go hungry from June 2010 through early 2011… and it’s not over yet.
Climate change another destabilizing factor
But wait, the food issue gets more complicated. Fires in Russia and Floods in Australia brought on by climate anomalies destroy large amounts of wheat and other essential food crops, further knocking up prices. So as intense weather episodes (and floods, fires, etc. come with it), we can expect more of this in the future with further food insecurity. Climate change isn’t happening “over there” anymore: it’s coming to a market shelf near you.
And what are we doing about it? While UN COP 16 in Cancun at the end of 2010 made some traction on consensus, there’s still a lot that needs sorting, and with an ever shortening time horizon. Even if consensus can be reached among the United Nations countries, the best result will be stabilizing greenhouse gasses like carbon around 450ppm—still not low enough to stem off a temperature shift of 3-6 degrees Celsius or so (read: major detrimental effects on environmental stability worldwide will still ensue)—and that’s if we’re lucky.
So what needs to happen, if even to get that far? Well, low emissions economic growth isn’t going to just come about from the market. A growing body of evidence (Economist, Financial Times, et al) is supporting the fact that carbon trading has not helped speed progress on mitigation (e.g. cutting emissions), nor helped solve financing issues towards mitigation and adaptation to climate change—as we’re already starting to experience.
The UN and others advocate that the world needs a radical shift from dirty fossil fuels to renewable energy, and helping developed nations to make this leap lest they follow the same old polluting industrial model. This is going to take big investment and mechanisms from governments and international organizations to get passed the initial costs and risks. Raising living standards while reducing climate change is no easy task, and markets alone won’t solve it.
So what’s it going to take to get out of this mess?
In short: political will, leadership, the ability to push back on the power of bond markets, investments in areas neglected before the economic crisis (especially renewable energy and small holder agriculture), increase in agricultural research, and a revamp of the global economic system—complete with better oversight and legislation. Gee, piece of cake.
Governments have their work cut out for them to make some tough decisions around their long term futures. Business as usual is gutting the global population from the bottom up. Sooner or later it will affect everyone. As individual governments make progress, collectively groups like the UN can take further action on these combined, intertwined global issues—speeding worldwide responsiveness as it has with other historic global threats like CFC’s on the ozone with the Montreal Protocol in 1989
. Global action can, and has, taken place successfully and it needs to happen again.
Business and industry has its part to play-- especially multinationals with their cross-border reach. Investing in new business models, cleantech, and renewable energy, as well as sustainable agriculture are good bets. Where there are risks, there are opportunities: if the crises we face don’t provide business with suitable impetus for action, they shouldn’t be in business.
The public sector likewise has its own role to play, and that is an active one politically and financially. Pressure needs continual application on governments and business to help drive recovery. Right now, the market conspires against recovery in every sense of the word—vocal and visible public action is needed to help change that.
Will we have the wherewithal to tackle these monumental challenges? Answer that question not with words and thoughts, but tangible actions.
(this article originally appeared on Ecopoint)
In January of this year, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization
reported an all-time high in its Food Price Index. In early February, the index rose even higher, causing food related riots and global uneasiness that more dramatic surges were coming.
It was an ironic backdrop when Lunar New Year celebrations in many Asian countries focused on family gatherings, platefuls of food, and themes like abundance and prosperity. Could the Year of the Rabbit bring an increase in hunger and insecurity?
According to Earth Policy Institute’s Lester Brown
, our world is now heading into unchartered territory. As countries like Algeria have experienced recently, political instability has a close link with prices of basic commodities that people use on a daily basis.
While the poorest countries will bear the brunt of rising food prices, no country is immune. At Centre for Non-Traditional Security Studies
based at NTU, numerous studies are underway to better understand food security in the ASEAN context, and how they can be better managed in countries, especially high-risk ones like Singapore. As a small island nation-state, the country imports some 97% of its food. With minimal hinterlands, farming currently takes place at roughly 275 sites around the island, taking up a total land area of about .75m hectares.
According to Dr. Wong Hon Mun, Director of Agri Establishment Regulation at Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA)
, Singapore’s key strategy to food resilience is diversification of the sources of supply. “Diversification enables us to hedge our risks and to import quality and safe food from as many sources as possible, at competitive prices,” he says. “Farmers can also apply to the Food Fund to enable R&D in agro-technology and for upgrading of their farms.” The government created this $10 million Food Fund to improving productivity on existing farms administered by AVA. Several local farms have successfully participated in this programme.
The Kranji Countryside Association (KCA)
, which represents some 20 larger farm businesses in the northwest of Singapore, supports the government’s actions to date but would like to see attention focused beyond the productivity issue. They feel planning hurdles and policy issues need urgent action, cultural shifts in motion, and also promising technology on the horizon.
Farmers urge more, broader support
KCA member Chelsea Wan’s family owns business Jurong Frog Farm in Kranji. She summarizes many of the obstacles facing local farmers currently operating around the country, and anyone who would want to follow into agriculture.
“Our biggest problems and also its solution is working with the government,” she says. “All our farmland is given out in 20 year leases, which makes it difficult for investment in expensive technology, improvements and training. Some regional farms now have their leases extended with three year options, so there’s the mentality to just wait it out and see if there's another extension, rather than improve farm productivity.”
Not surprisingly in this context, many of these businesses specialize in high value ornamental flowers and fish for export when they could be serving a valuable role as a long term hedge against food price spikes. It’s a classic trader mentality: get in under tight conditions, make big bucks, and move on.
Ms. Wan doesn’t believe the pace of development in suburban Singapore has been echoed in the infrastructure in place for the countryside. “There needs to be more representation for agriculture in the government, and better understanding of the issues.”
The marketplace also offers challenges. “It’s not an Asian characteristic to go for quality over cost. We can't compete with the prices from China and Malaysia, and presently it is cheaper for us to import livestock from overseas than raise ourselves,” Ms. Wan says. “The ideas popular in western counties like 'Food Miles', eating organic, and eating local haven't taken off here yet. We need to be able to produce more livestock and pass on savings to consumers. Consumers need awareness on how the food gets to their supermarkets and benefits of buying local. Then the issue of food security will start to be addressed.”
Local quail farmer William Ho agrees. “Locals need to be educated on the importance of food security
and also to appreciate the role local farmers can play,” he says. “Singaporeans are very lucky as we can enjoy every type of food the world can offer, but it’s very sad many children don't even know the difference between a cow and a goat, or where their eggs come from.”
Feedback reflects the existence of a robust agriculture industry in Singapore would depend on tackling underlying issues like these. But beyond policy and market conditions, is the culture starting to shift? Could a new era of urban agriculture be sprouting, and could it mean new business opportunities? Local sentiment seems to be shifting, and with the right combination of players, it’s possible a whole new industry could grow out of what would seem like a major threat.
Rethink the urban landscape
With food security as a key issue facing Singapore and other ASEAN countries, a lot of attention goes to productivity and conventional agriculture. Ivy Singh, owner of Bollywood Veggies and KCA President thinks that beyond traditional notions of farming, food production could be integrated into housing estates in the form of community gardens and small-scale agriculture.
“If every housing board estate is converted into a kampong
garden, people can actually add quite a bit more food production,” Ms. Singh says, referencing the community gardens that used to be commonplace in Singapore. “We need to get rid of the prim and proper landscaping, move away from concrete and bougainvillea which do nothing for us, and replace with an edible landscape.”
“The AVA acknowledges our role in engaging the farmers to raise productivity. We also actively promote local produce to improve business for the farmers, which in the long run will lead to sustainable agricultural practices,” she says. “Because of the presence of KCA, there is a movement in the country to start community gardens, and there is also a greater movement of ground-up initiatives by various groups who consult us,” she says.
She also notes lifestyle shifts starting to emerge, with an interest in sustainability and increased appreciation for food. “Because we are tied in with LOHAS [Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability], we have garnered a lot of interest in the countryside, and this will stimulate a strong ‘locavore’ [eating food raised locally] movement in Singaporeans who have not been previously exposed to such an idea.”
Public sector interest on the rise
But Singaporeans might be closer to this reality than many believe. A recent article on community gardening
indicated that some 390 projects had grown around the island in the last five years, and that interest is on the increase. National Parks even has a Community in Bloom programme
to connect people. Indeed, anecdotal observation on the ground in many housing estates and neighbourhoods would reveal a vibrant “backyard” culture still remains where plots and pots exist-- if only to grow a few kitchen seasonings. It’s not inconceivable this groundswell of interest could be harnessed in a bigger, collective push towards national food security.
To help reach out to this growing sector of the population, the KCA is planning a Go Local Campaign later in 2011, focusing on local production and champion food security.
New technologies, economic opportunities
While community involvement is promising, NUS student and researcher Heather Chi thinks the implications are deeper. With case studies ranging from London to Japan, Ms. Chi has looked into a wide range of urban applications addressing food security.
Her outlook goes beyond agriculture and community initiatives, to how food security can even catalyze new industries and economic opportunities. From composting and recycling of food and water wastes, to better utilizing small parcels of land, to having food production serve as a rehabilitative option for older age groups, or as a career choice for less conventionally-minded individuals—there are numerous ways that food security might be tackled in the urban context, while at the same time addressing other local issues and creating jobs.
In a land-strapped country like Singapore, this would mean a major rethink on how urban space is utilized as part of developing a value proposition for any business or emergent industry. One obvious application though, is to move up, not out with food production.
Championed overseas, vertical farming
technology is being explored to make use of high rise space and maximize what land area is available. According to Dr. Wong Hon Mun at the AVA, it’s an avenue already undergoing research and development.
“AVA collaborates with private companies in R&D to develop technology,” he says. “Our collaboration resulted in the development of an innovative vertical farm system prototype
. This prototype is suitable for intensive farming in the tropics, especially in land-scarce Singapore. It is expected to yield at least five times more leafy vegetables than that of a conventional soil-based farm.” It’s a promising new development in a country known for its engineering prowess.
In recent years, Singapore has begun to tackle other challenges like water security by developing advanced technology and infrastructure. Could food be the NEWater
? With agriculture industry urging action, the local population increasingly engaged, evolving concepts of land use in the works, and new opportunities coming to the surface, it wouldn’t take much to transform food security into another world-changing industry, and a major victory for the little Red Dot.(this article previously appeared in two part series on Ecopoint)
From Olympics to World Cups, COP15 to Coachella-- events worldwide are re-examining the role they can play in creating thriving economies, vibrant communities, and healthy environments. The notion of “sustainability” is a newer one in this space, but is gaining traction, especially with larger events.
What can be learned and applied regionally? How can businesses and destinations around APAC stay current in a global context?
Major summits picking up sustainability agenda, gleaning economic value
In 2009, driven by the UN and Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, COP15 climate talks in Copenhagen were mammoth in scale. Bringing together some 34,000 participants from around the globe, there were 2500 official meetings to discuss how to deal with climate change. The Danish Government set out to run the proceedings as sustainably as possible
They focused on providing locally sourced organic meals (75% organic), eco-efficiency measures in hotels (53% hotels certified), getting participants on public transport (93% success rate), and offsetting carbon emissions (100% offset) from the event amongst other initiatives. They achieved British Standard (BS) 8901 certification, and won the IMEX Green Meetings Gold Award 2010. While COP15 cost the Danish government €41.2 million to stage, it resulted in €220 million (est.) in revenue and some positive international credibility for its efforts.
The Business for Environment (B4E) Summit in Seoul, hosted by the Korean Government with the UNEP, UNGC, WWF and Global Initiatives, attracted some 1000 global business and government leaders. The crux of the event raised awareness on issues like biodiversity and climate change, and gave South Korea an international stage to promote its leading green policies. While not as comprehensive as COP15, there were sustainability plans in place, including making the event as paperless as possible, and numerous video tie-ins for overseas speakers.
Green the goal in sporting events: governments and business big winners
In sporting events, the FIFA World Cup in Germany in 2006 was noteworthy for a number of reasons. With nearly 3.4 million attendees, it was staged at 12 locations across Germany. A variety of environmental initiatives were organized and executed by a wide range of stakeholder groups including the German government, UNEP, FIFA, as well as major corporations like Deutche Telecom.
Organizers met 13 of 16 “Green Goals
” in areas like energy savings and waste management. Overall, they shaved 89,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions through energy efficiency measures, purchased 100,000 tonnes of Gold Standard offsets for projects in Africa and India, slashed packaging waste by 15%, and reduced water consumption by 20%. Businesses also helped raise their own profile with a number of interactive initiative including hydrogen powered delivery bikes and buses, reusable/refundable drink containers, and greenhouse gas emissions themed “penalty kick” competitions that equated to purchase of carbon offsets.
Subsequently, FIFA World Cup South Africa, Winter Olympics Vancouver, and 16th Asian Games in Guangzhou have taken action, covering everything from public transport to green buildings.
Organizers for London Olympics 2012 are calling it the “first sustainable Games”. Preparation by UK government agencies in concert with the IOC is aligned to the BS8901 standard. With a view to creating a “One Planet Olympics”, the London Olympics 2012 sustainability
policy covers five major themes: climate change, waste, biodiversity, inclusion, and healthy living. Updates to the plan are due for release in 2011/2012, and some criteria for inclusion are carbon footprint and reduction strategy, remediation and construction waste targets, waste management strategy, biodiversity strategy and key projects, and sustainable food strategy.
Taking strides beyond the World Cup events, London 2012 will serve as a catalyst for urban renewal, public engagement, enhancement of natural areas
, and to make the Olympic Park a long-standing blueprint for sustainable living. Major parts of economically depressed East-London are undergoing extensive refurbishment. There are strategies being developed to inspire and involve young people in volunteering, cultural and physical activities. The event will rejuvenate a number of rivers and wetlands, creating a “green corridor” from Lea Valley to River Thames. The upshot: rather than have outcomes of fringe spaces that become disused after the games, the area and its infrastructure, economy, environment, and culture will be greatly improved.
Arts and culture: engaging and educating for behavior change
Shifting into cultural festivals, in Singapore the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) and Smartlight Singapore (SLS) recently took a similar approach with 2010’s iLight Marina Bay Festival[full disclosure: the editor served a sustainability advisory role for this event]
. Similar to what London is planning for its 2012 festivities, the URA and SLS sought to activate the newly completed Marina Bay development with a light art festival, coined “Asia’s First Sustainable Light Art Festival”. The idea: get people out to explore the urban landscape of Marina Bay, draw attention to sustainability issues, and use of light in the urban environment.
Efforts included the majority of pieces used energy efficient LED technology, the largest art piece on the powered by locally sourced and processed biofuel, boat tours powered by renewable energy, an energy efficiency campaign with local property owners which saved 15 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions, and many points for public education—from event markers, website, and even an iPhone app. Utilizing the advanced urban planning and transport of Singapore, visitors could arrive at points around Marina Bay by bus or train. Key sustainability criteria were carefully planned, monitored, and reported on at the conclusion of the event. Beyond the successful environmental thrust, the event drew approximately 500,000 visitors and had an estimated economic value of some SG$22 million.
Like iLight Marina Bay Festival, the annual Coachella music festival in the U.S. has also taken many steps to engage attendees. The most recent event in 2010 had some 225,000 people attend. In partnership with an NGO called Global Inheritance, the event sustainability initiatives included
carpooling, recycling, and powering of numerous art pieces with renewable energy sources. There was also a “DJ at Coachella with Kinetic Energy” set, where 18 friends could power a sound system and DJ gear using exercise bikes.
Benefits for better events
Whether your destination is bidding for a major sporting event, host a major summit, or appealing to the ever growing breed of hip, socially conscious traveler, there are many benefits for bring sustainability into your event planning. Positive publicity, economic return, urban renewal, engaging stakeholders and participants, enhancing biodiversity, efficient/cost effective use of resources, and award opportunities are there for Asian Tigers to pounce on. Businesses likewise can capitalize in many of the same ways, and use sustainable event planning to reinforce their corporate social responsibility (CSR) programmes and commitments to tackling global issues like climate change. The benchmark to go for is BS8901 certification for sustainable event management until the new ISO 20121 comes online in 2012.
(this article previously appeared on Ecopoint)
John Elkington has been a one man tour de force. Approaching four decades working in the corporate world on numerous CSR, sustainability, innovation, and social change fronts, he’s had privileged access into the headspace of upper management, as well as the pulse of evolution of social movements in recent years. In a Forward Thinking exclusive, we caught up with Mr. Elkington to discuss developments globally, and progress on sustainability issues in Asia Pacific.
Globally, do you think we can wean ourselves off of our endless growth economic model and onto what many have dubbed a “steady state economy”, e.g. where population and consumption are stabilized within sustainable levels with the resources we have on Earth? What would enable this, or be holding us back?John Elkington: There has been much discussion in ‘deep ecology’, academic and related circles over the years about the prospects for a ‘steady state economy’. My view is that, while this may be – indeed has to be the ultimate long-term objective – demographic pressures mean that we will be forced to grow parts of the economy for quite some time. And breaking down the economic and business models we inherited from the 19th and 20th centuries and creating new ones fit for purpose in the new century will mean enormous, disruptive transformation processes that, I find, ‘steady state’ deflect the mind from.
FT: While many reference sustainability as a journey, with the global situation evolving as it is (from climate change to food security to economic crisis), one could wonder if we have enough time for such a leisure trip. Do you think businesses and countries across APAC especially are really geared up for the challenge, and recognize the true scale of the threats at hand?
JE: Recent surveys suggest that very high percentages of CEOs in major corporations worldwide think they are doing rather well on sustainability. A recent Accenture survey of 760 CEOs for the UN Global Compact showed that no less than 81% believed that they had already “embedded” sustainability. This is encouraging as we read this as a belief that they need to embed. But if they mean that having a chief sustainability officer or that they produce a series of annual sustainability reports is embedding sustainability, I am afraid that we can only conclude that they are deluded.
Corporate social responsibility and accountability are necessary conditions of what needs to happen next, but may even be misleading if they persuade corporate C-Suites that the sustainability agenda can be addressed by a few fractions of one percent of change in some areas of the business. Think of what happened to Communism in 1989 and some Arab dictatorships in 2011: these are small-scale convulsions compared to what we will need to cope with as climate change gets a grip – and we embark on the transition to low carbon economies.
What companies are or industries are bright spots on the horizon that might have emerged since the Volans Phoenix Economy
Business leaders are using the sustainability language with growing facility, but most do not understand the implications. Among other things, they should read ‘Vision 2050
’, a new study by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. It’s exciting that WBCSD is now talking about transformational change in markets and technologies, but most companies aren’t there yet, even at the level of understanding. So most of the encouraging developments we have seen since we launched ‘The Phoenix Economy’ have been happening elsewhere, in areas like clean technology and social innovation and social enterprise. We have also seen growing activity at the level of cities and city-states, which can be way more powerful in terms of driving market change than individual corporate initiatives, important though those may be.
FT: Have you come across any useful adaptation blueprints or guides that might help businesses and governments around the region anticipate and manage the changes ahead?
JE: I see the work of government agencies like Singapore’s Economic development Board as modeling what the public sector now needs to do, in terms of developing clusters of innovation and enterprise around areas like clean technology and social enterprise. There is no overarching blueprint that can guide any and all countries or regions, but there are a growing number of models that can be copied, at least in part.
FT: Some think that globally, we need some kind of wake-up call for action on any number of global issues— a tragedy or cataclysmic event that shakes humanity into action. Yet, from 9-11’s, to economic crisis, to catastrophic floods and fires, nothing seems to be providing the stimulus for a sustained turn. What do you think it would take to shake humanity from its slumber?
JE: Oh, I think young people increasingly understand that their future prospects are at risk, from climate change and from a range of other security issues, around food, water, energy and so on. The fact that their elders are still struggling to grasp the scale of what is happening could become a real cause of intergenerational tensions. This is something we are just beginning to explore at Volans alongside our partner, the ad agency JWT.
FT: You recently completed a whirlwind trip across Asia. With the many companies and organizations you engaged with in your travels, what were the high and low points? Any interesting realizations after you returned to the U.K.?
JE: The growth trajectory of so many Asian economies both blinds key decision-makers to some of the challenges that their counterparts in other parts of the world have been forced to face, but also the rapidly growing appetite for natural resources is likely to shock growing numbers of people awake. Think of the dispute between Canada and China on potash last year, or between China and Japan on rare earth minerals. Just wait until the peak oil challenge engages!
FT: In your “Cultural Revolution” 4x4 matrix, you illustrate how change progresses from individual mindsets, to behaviours, to collective cultural activity, to an overall paradigm shift. With the urgency of challenges we face, have you identified any specific pressure points in cultures across Asia Pacific that might help jump-start this progression?
JE: It’s clear that family-owned and operated businesses are even more important in Asia – and we are hoping to engage them increasingly in the coming years. The very fact that there is an intergenerational dimension to their ownership may help engage them on some aspects of the sustainability agenda.
FT: As a champion for social innovation in recent decades, you’ve highlighted the efforts of many social entrepreneurs trying to tackle global issues, and acknowledge the connection between economy, people, and planet. Many social innovators identify strongly with the former two categories, and omit environmental outcomes as outside their scope. Why do you think so many people, innovators included, are divorced from our environment in their thoughts and actions, when it is our environment that shapes our way of life?
JE: When I came up with the ‘triple bottom line’ in 1994, I was trying to say to business that beyond the conventional financial bottom line there are wider economic, social and environmental considerations that should be taken into account. The fact that some people then boiled that down into a ‘double bottom line’ was fine for social mission businesses and organisations, but very often they are blind to the environmental dimensions of what they do. I am all for concepts like ‘blended value’ and ‘integrated reporting’, but only if the environmental and natural capital aspects are strongly represented.
FT: Of your many board engagements, which do you find the most personally satisfying, and why?
JE: Insanely, I sit on 25 boards or advisory boards – and all the organisations have their ups and downs, but in a way what I like best is the ability to move between agendas and cultures and act as a cross-pollinator.
FT: What advice would you give young people, especially entrepreneurs and new graduates who seek to make a positive change in the world in the years ahead?
JE: Get out there and talk to people whose work interests you. Some of the busiest people in the world often also turn out to be among the most open – they’re always trying to learn. Don’t spook them by asking them to be a mentor - just see if you can get close enough into to start a conversation. Other than that, try to do things that you love doing – then when you find yourself having to do them 24 hours a day you’ll be better placed to survive, thrive and drive real change in the wider world.
From the Center for the Advancement of Steady State Economies, check out some thought provoking reads on how to move away from endless growth economies while enhancing people's lives. Very thought provoking material!
Thanks to everyone who came out today and joined in our interesting discussion. Feedback welcome, and presentation available here. See you again later in the semester!
A brief intro on China vs. US emissions here, but note that the tool found here can be used to compare any nations on the list at the right hand side. Great way to visualize how development has increased emissions over the decades.
Some great facts from Lester Brown at Earth Policy Institute that can really help shape understanding of many global issues:
We are facing issues of near-overwhelming complexity and unprecedented urgency. Can we think systemically and fashion policies accordingly? Can we change direction before we go over the edge? Here are a few of the many facts from the book to consider:
- There will be 219,000 people at the dinner table tonight who were not there last
night—-many of them with empty plates.
- If the 2010 heat wave centered in Moscow had instead been centered in Chicago, it
could easily have reduced the U.S. grain harvest of 400 million tons by 40 percent
and food prices would have soared.
- Winter temperatures in the Arctic, including Alaska, western Canada, and eastern
Russia, have climbed by 4–7 degrees Fahrenheit over the last half-century. This
record rise in temperature in the Arctic region could lead to changes in climate
patterns that will affect the entire planet.
- Half the world’s people live in countries where water tables are falling as
aquifers are being depleted. Since 70 percent of world water use is for irrigation,
water shortages translate into food shortages.
- In Sana’a, the capital of Yemen—-home to 2 million people-—water tables are
falling fast. Tap water is available only once every 4 days; in Taiz, a smaller city
to the south, it is once every 20 days.
- Virtually all of the top 20 countries considered to be “failing states” are
depleting their natural assets—-forests, grasslands, soils, and aquifers—-to sustain
their rapidly growing populations.
- The indirect costs of gasoline, including climate change, treatment of respiratory
illnesses, and military protection, add up to $12 per gallon. Adding this to the
U.S. average of $3 per gallon brings the true market price closer to $15 per gallon.
- Between 2007 and 2010, U.S. coal use dropped 8 percent. During the same period,
300 new wind farms came online, adding 21,000 megawatts of U.S. wind-generating
- Algeria has enough harnessable solar energy in its vast desert to power the entire
- One of the quickest ways to cut carbon emissions is to change light bulbs.
Switching to more-efficient lighting around the globe could save enough energy to
close more than 700 of the world’s 2,800 coal-fired power plants.
“We can get rid of hunger, illiteracy, disease, and poverty, and we can restore the
earth’s soils, forests, and fisheries. We can build a global community where the
basic needs of all people are satisfied—-a world that will allow us to think of
ourselves as civilized.” –Lester R. Brown
Fantastic article on varying models of microcredit: how some alleviate poverty and how others exploit poor people. A must read for those wanting to understand the topic.
In this week's Resource Roundup, big news and global developments:
- Food Security: With droughts and heatwaves affecting areas like wheat producing Russia, as well as floods engulfing large amounts of agricultural land in Australia, issues of food security are high on the radar for 2011. Food prices to increase dramatically, and in some areas they already are. With a surging world population, there's less arable land to work with, impacts of severe weather are taking a huge toll, and nations competing for commodities will drive up prices and create scarcities. The year ahead is tipped for some big challenges. Read the full article here for a bird's-eye view. According to Lester Brown:
"As the new year begins, the price of wheat is setting an all-time high in the United
Kingdom. Food riots are spreading across Algeria. Russia is importing grain to
sustain its cattle herds until spring grazing begins. India is wrestling with an
18-percent annual food inflation rate, sparking protests. China is looking abroad
for potentially massive quantities of wheat and corn. The Mexican government is
buying corn futures to avoid unmanageable tortilla price rises. And on January 5,
the U.N. Food and Agricultural organization announced that its food price index for
December hit an all-time high."
- Climate Change: With weather disasters playing such a big part in interrupting food production, you'd think that legislators in various parts of the world might be taking climate change a bit more seriously.
Well, it appears they're still not-- and in part, its because of some flawed economics being cited to predict the impacts climate change will have on the economy, when weighed against the perceived cost of taking action. The outcome? Little serious action, when some bold steps are needed-- at least in some places. What are the true costs of climate change to our way of life?
[Side note: Seattle seems to be doing some interesting things in anticipating how climate change may affect the city in the years ahead. Worth keeping tabs on how this develops.]
- Sustainable Farming: "An amazing thing is happening within the EU...A few years ago everyone said these farms were irrelevant and policy favoured competitive farms. Now small-scale farms are seen as valuable for food and landscape, with massive benefits for flood and fire control, biodiversity and mitigation against climate change. They are increasingly appreciated as vital for Europe's future."... says Nat Page of ADEPT, an organisation devoted to sustainable farming practices. They're doing some amazing work and learning from one of the most unlikely of places-- Transylvania-- where farming practices largely haven't changed in centuries, provide people a sustainable living, and protect local biodiversity at the same time. How does this work? Find out.
- Mobility: According to a study by Lee Schipper and Adam Millard-Ball, automotive transport may be reaching its limits due to a number of factors, and it seems people might in fact be travelling less in some developed nations. Among the interesting snippets, Schipper says:
"My basic thesis is, 'There ain't room on the road,'" he said. "You can't move in Jakarta or Bangkok or any large city in Latin America or in any city in the wealthy part of China. I think Manila takes the prize. Yes, fuel economy is really important, and yes, hybrid cars will help. But even a car that generates no CO2 still generates a traffic problem.
"Sadly, what is going to restrain car use the most is that you can't move."
In other mobility news: to encourage people to drive less (and hence burn less fossil fuel, create less carbon), California has approved "Pay as You Drive" car insurance, and Massachussetts is considering introduction as part of it's Clean Energy and Climate Plan, along with numerous other programmes.
- Biodiversity: Recent mass animal deaths are highly unsettling. From crabs in the UK to birds in the US to fish in Brazil, what's the cause? An interesting article explores potential common threads and possibilities. [Side note: someone recently chimed in quite aptly on the matter: "Seems to me the event is th canary in the coalmine for humanity."]
In other (slightly more optimistic) news in biodiversity is that whaling is pretty close to not breaking even. But if it is a loser from a business point of view, will the practice still continue with nations like Japan and others willing to throw government subsidies at continuing such an industry?
- Alternative Energy: India claims Asia's first tidal power plant-- a 50MW facility to be constructed in the Gulf of Kutch by Atlantis Resources and Gujarat Power. Pretty brilliant stuff.
We've been toying around (again!) with drivers for consumerism, and delving (again!) into the subject of happiness. What we're starting to see the outline of-- in a very rough theoretical way-- is that at the crux of it, people seek happy experiences. Buying something can deliver that, perhaps in a short-term way. But it isn't necessarily the object bought that makes the person happy. The experience of buying something new, perhaps the packaging, or who the person went shopping with all have an impact.
What we're driving towards was neatly described on the Bobulate blog by designer and educator Liz Danzico: "Investing in experiences over objects amplifies happiness. Money, as it turns out, can’t buy happiness."
She gives mention of Walmart actively offering "staycation" products as a complete package in their stores after the onset of the economic downturn. Clever idea to sell more stuff, but we're wondering if the same idea can be applied with product-as-service models that are starting to emerge.
Take a big company like Interface for example. In many parts of the world, their products are more of a service: the company still "owns" the carpet tiles, they merely lease them to the user for a set period of time, at the end of which the worn tile can be reclaimed and recycled, and the user gets a new tile for a new set period. Big generalization of a complex process, but you get the idea.
Well, what if every product were viewed as not just a service (which we think is a good step), but also an experience, aimed at providing maximum happiness? What if the whole experience of this service were carefully managed and delivered to provide an end user not only a good feeling, but also take into account product life-cycle and supply chain issues, maximizing the business' positive impact on the communities it operates in, etc.? Could the whole value-chain be maximised for a positive "happy" experience? How could brands create and capitalise on this feel-good factor as a key point of differentiation?
Especially if you go to market with such a strategy at a time when many consumers are depressed and looking to improve their disposition, wouldn't such an approach make some great business sense-- in addition to making the world a better place if the right considerations were met (e.g. social outputs, sustainable supply chain, good company governance, etc.)?
More from Jem Bendell:
"...Economic fairness, about the ethics of the use of power, and we will see increasing cynicism about how business behaves, and a growing spirit of critique. Consequently, there will be more calls for corporate accountability, and a clearer understanding that a responsible business is one that seeks more systematic transparency and accountability from business as a whole. We will also see ISO26000 becoming referenced as the definition of CSR, for good or ill. The implications of Web2.0 for business-society relations will unfold further, with particular implications for fashion brands. We will begin to realise that these new communications tools mean that everything in commerce has an alternative. Even the currencies we use."
... and other interesting trends/musings on a similar thread here.
"Most companies try to be innovative, but the enemy of innovation is the mandate to “prove it.” You cannot prove a new idea in advance…" - Roger Martin, Dean of Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto
A very true quote indeed. You might find the rest of this (slightly older, yet very relevant) article useful. Written by Jem Bendell and Ian Doyle, it explores Design Thinking and how it might be applied to CSR and responsible business. Useful in definining not only the trend and how it can be applied, but also some of the typical pitfalls an organisation can face when embracing a creative process like Design Thinking.
This is a pretty amazing story of a family that's taken enormous strides towards self-sufficiency. They call their project Path to Freedom. We've come across other success stories out there, but these people do an amazing job of documenting each improvement they've made-- from growing 6000 lbs of produce on their 1/10 acre of land, to installing solar panels, and numerous other projects. Incredibly inspiring to see what can be done with a bit of quiet persistence and elbow grease.
Not sure I entirely agree with the following article/study, but it poses interesting food for thought. The "Happy Planet Index" reveals the ecological efficiency that delivers human happiness [research report found here]. A nice and tidy breakdown of the research can be found here. The basic premise: the amorpheous concept of "happiness" has been mapped worldwide. Based on the research/mapping technique, colour codes are assigned to countries that rate their happiness-- appears as green. High correlation here between material "stuff" prosperity and being "happy" -- note many Western countries fitting this profile.
Right, so then the research goes on to explore life expectancy which correlates somewhat similarly to GDP. Similar picture emerges.
Then we move on to ecological destruction-- the process by which the local environment is destroyed to create material prosperity, and calculate each nation's footprint accordingly. Red is bad.
Western countries coming in with big big footprints. No surprise here. Then demographers smush all these three data sets (happiness + life expectancy/GDP + environmental footprint) to reveal how each country is really doing. In this case, green is good, red is bad:
The whole picture looks pretty bleak once you combine these factors. Can't say that outcome is particularly surprising.
What's worth further questioning is their underlying definition of happiness having such a strong correlation with materialism. People can be happy without stuff, and many would comment that travels in developing countries reveals people who are, perhaps sometimes surprisingly, very happy-- even if they have a minimum of material wealth. What they do have is community, family, cultural identity, traditions, etc.-- intangible things that we often forget can make us quite happy.
So, first off the bat, why define happiness for this study's sake in such close terms with material wealth?
Second, why is it that Western countries that have astounding rates of depression, anxiety, use of medications/substances to tackle those problems, suicides, etc. are seen as "more happy"?
Whether you're talking UK, US, Japan, or NZ-- each of these developed nations (and plenty of others) is gripped with many ills that are characteristic of a severely unhappy population.
While this study is interesting in what it proposes, a redefinition of happiness from step one might be in order to get a more accurate sense of what it actually means to be happy from a non-materialistic approach. It would also be interesting to weigh those socially negative pressures in Western countries in a more realistic and accurate way.
Still, ambitious project, interesting findings, and we'd like to see this tweaked and updated in the future.
... busy Q1 ahead with guest lectures planned.... stay tuned for more info.
Climate Change: a quick recap on Cancun Climate Talks:
Check out the debrief on SustainableBusiness.com. A few minor points were agreed on, including a target of stopping climate change at (an admittedly severe and totally inadequate) 2 degrees Celsius (bad news as runaway climate change could easily cut much higher and action on greenhouse gas emissions is slow to come). Also, a Green Climate Fund of US$100bn is to be established to help poor nations save forests and develop cleantech. Where's the bling coming from? Good question... to be decided. At least they got that far. No replacement for/extension to Kyoto seems to be in the cards as big polluting countries are still in deadlock.
Forest Stewardship: At least not all the news out of Mexico was bad-- local forest management programmes handled at a community level are turning some very positive results on economic, environmental, and social fronts. Model worth repeating elsewhere perhaps?
Peak Fertiliser: As with other commodities in deminishing supply, fertiliser is likely going up which will have knock-on effects for conventional food production. Natural gas is getting in tighter supply, and it is a major ingredient in making ammonia in fertilisers. Phosophorous is also getting harder to come by. Perhaps it's time for some organic alternatives...
BioChar: ... which segues nicely to BioChar (check out this article on the pros and cons of the stuff) as a potential alternative for enriching soil quality and locking up carbon at the same time. Does take energy to produce, as well as organic matter which could come from numerous sources-- not all of them necessarily good. Worth exploring though.
-In other more light-hearted news-
(This article appears courtesy of Newsweek. Thanks to our colleagues at ABC Carbon for highlighting these amazing findings)
Lucky Last Word: Science nails the blame game.
Finally, climate scientists see a way to stop being so wishy-washy and start assigning blame, through a technique called “fractional risk attribution.” This technique uses mathematical models of how the atmosphere would work if we had not goosed carbon dioxide to 389 ppm (from 278 before the Industrial Revolution), plus data about ancient (“paleo”) climates and historical (more recent) weather. The idea is to calculate how many times an extreme event should have occurred absent human interference. Sharon Begley sets out the basis on this climate whodunit for Newsweek.
By Sharon Begley in Newsweek (6 December 2010):
To those who are convinced that the science of global warming is sound, as well as to those on the fence, the refusal of climate scientists to attribute any single episode of extreme weather to greenhouse-induced climate change has been either exasperating … or suspicious.
You mean you guys can’t definitely say human-caused climate change is why 135 daily rainfall records were broken along the East Coast during September’s deluges (Wilmington, N.C.: 19.7 inches over three days)? You can’t say climate change is why 2010 is eclipsing 1998 as the hottest year on record, or why in August an ice island four times the size of Manhattan broke off from a Greenland glacier? How about why 2000–09 was the warmest decade on record, that 153 of the 1,218 U.S. weather stations recorded their hottest summer since 1895, why Moscow suffered a once-in-centuries heat wave this summer, or why one fifth of Pakistan flooded?
In short, no. No matter how bizarre the weather, the mantra of climatologists has been that one cannot attribute any single event to changing climate. All science can do is conclude that extreme events are getting more likely as humankind pumps more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
Finally, climate scientists see a way to stop being so wishy-washy and start assigning blame, through a technique called “fractional risk attribution.” This technique uses mathematical models of how the atmosphere would work if we had not goosed carbon dioxide to 389 ppm (from 278 before the Industrial Revolution), plus data about ancient (“paleo”) climates and historical (more recent) weather. The idea is to calculate how many times an extreme event should have occurred absent human interference, explains climate scientist Ben Santer of Lawrence Livermore National Lab, and the probability of the same extreme event in today’s greenhouse-forced atmosphere. Result: putting numbers on extreme weather.
In their biggest success, climate scientists led by Peter Stott of the British Met Office analyzed the 2003 European heat wave, when the mercury rose higher than at any time since the introduction of weather instruments (1851), and probably since at least 1500. After plugging in historical and paleo data, and working out climate patterns in a hypothetical world without a human-caused greenhouse effect, they conclude that our meddling was 75 percent to blame for the heat wave. Put another way, we more than doubled the chance that it would happen, and it’s twice as likely to be human-caused than natural. That’s one beat shy of “Yes, we did it,” but better than “There’s no way to tell.”
Scientists are now applying the technique to other extreme weather, especially deluges and droughts. They have reason to be optimistic. One of the signal successes of climate science has been identifying the “fingerprints” of the culprits behind rising temperatures, fierce storms, and other signs that a 10,000-year-old climate regime has been knocked for a loop. Fingerprinting has shown that the rise in global temps follows the pattern you’d expect from the greenhouse effect and not an increase in the sun’s output, for instance. A hotter sun would heat the upper atmosphere more than the lower, but in fact the upper layers have cooled while the lower have warmed, Santer explains. Fingerprinting has also nailed the greenhouse effect for warming the oceans. Natural forces such as El Niño warm some seas and cool others, but every major ocean is hotter than in the 1950s. Similar analyses have been done for today’s extreme rainfall patterns (drought followed by deluge, not precipitation spread out evenly) and the retreat of arctic sea ice. “Natural causes alone can’t explain any of these,” Santer says. “You need a large human contribution.”
The word “interesting” covers a lot of sins, which is why it’s the perfect word for the world’s current response to climate change. That response is no response, as shown by the low expectations for the international climate meeting this week in Cancún, by China’s voracious appetite for coal, and by the Senate’s failure to pass a climate bill. It’s interesting that people refuse to make changes today to stave off disasters years hence. It’s interesting that memories—of killer storms and heat waves—are so short, with people apparently viewing them as one-offs rather than harbingers of what we’ll suffer regularly in a greenhouse world. It’s interesting that we saw Muscovites and Pakistanis dying, and blithely thought, too bad, but hey, it isn’t me. All of which means that the climate we are creating will be … interesting.
Sharon Begley isNEWSWEEK’s science editor and author of Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain: How a New Science Reveals Our Extraordinary Potential to Transform Ourselves.
Great documentary on a variety of community focused solutions to stabilising the economy, connecting people, living/working greener (finally some GOOD news out of the US!):
Watch the full episode. See more NOW on PBS.
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