Repost: Avoiding Climate Imperialism: A Leftist Vision of Geoengineering

(This article was originally published in The Trouble)

We are all familiar with the ongoing climate chaos. Levels of carbon dioxide have exceeded 410 ppm, the probability of avoiding 2°C of global warming is getting smaller, and a Hothouse Earth seems more and more likely. We are approaching the point of no return.

Climate change now threatens the process of capital accumulation and business-as-usual. Geoengineering, the large-scale engineering of non-human nature, is now invoked by the IPCC as an emergency solution.

Truthfully, global warming is geoengineering; capitalism is geoengineering — a massive, centuries-long project that has modified nature, torn open metabolic rifts, and altered the composition of the atmosphere as part of a class war, pursuing capital accumulation and sources of cheap nature. It has been unintentional, mostly — climate modification as externality is what has brought us to this precipice — but like intentional geoengineering, it has affected the whole of the biosphere.

Is it sensible to try and steer this geoengineering in an attempt to rectify capitalism’s scars on the biosphere? In a word: yes.

Geoengineering could easily perpetuate existing power structures and exacerbate the injustices we face, but these technologies should not be rejected outright. They “mandate caution and prudence”, but steered towards leftist goals they can help to both mitigate climate change and create a more just economic, political and social order.

Ultimately we may have no choice. Some temperature increase is “locked in” due to built-in inertia, and a “large fraction of climate change is largely irreversible on human time scales” unless massive atmospheric carbon removal occurs. Some models of future climate change suggest global biodiversity would suffer more from climate change than geoengineering. The aerosol emissions from decades of industrial activity have been masking the “true” warming associated with greenhouse gas emissions for some time. Cleaning up this aerosol pollution (and thus improving air quality and reducing deaths associated with air pollution) will induce up to 1°C of global warming.

The capitalist class can easily adapt to a warming world up to a point: wealth buys underground bunkers and gated oases; power obtains border walls and land grabs. A shared atmosphere does not mean we are in this together. To not engage in some form of geoengineering is to take a privileged position and condemn the poorest and most vulnerable of us to despair and degradation — 0.1 degree Celsius can mean the difference between life and death for millions of people.

It will surprise no one that geoengineering carries risks. Modifying the climate or weather, even on small-scales such as cloud seeding, tugs at the tapestry of life — and we don’t always see what threads we pull. But not all geoengineering is equal. There are big differences between reflecting sunlight back into space and sequestering carbon dioxide.

Let’s take a look at some of the more problematic forms of geoengineering.

“Solar radiation management” involves modifying the amount of solar energy entering the atmosphere system by injecting aerosols into the air, enhancing the albedo of Earth’s surface, or space reflectors. It is best compared to nuclear power: it requires centralization and a technocratic system of management. Despite decades of research, it is still not well understood, and scientific understanding of the potential impacts “remains poor”, according to the American Geophysical Union. The idea of reflecting sunlight away from Earth with giant space mirrors or the “Pinatubo option”, reducing global temperatures while maintaining levels of fossil fuel consumption and emission levels, is an appealing solution to the capitalist class. Instead of economic transformation, it encourages a quick-fix mentality, endowing technological processes and entities with the power to solve hitherto intractable problems — a problem that David Harvey called techno-fetishism.

What impacts could we expect from a world employing solar radiation management? It wouldn’t reverse the agricultural damage caused by climate change, for a start. It wouldn’t prevent further ocean acidification, as it has no effect on carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. It would increase the frequency of hurricanes, and it would cause massive decreases in tropical rainfall and disrupt the summer monsoons, adversely affecting precipitation to the food supply for billions of people who have historically had little role in causing climate change. Earth’s temperature and precipitation cycles are so tightly bound that even if temperature increases are reversed, the water cycle will not react the same way: solar radiation management is unlikely to restore the planet’s original climate.

There is also the problem of the “termination effect”, a rebound effect where global temperatures will suddenly increase if solar radiation management is deployed and then stopped prematurely. This would lock us into a program of anthropogenic temperature regulation, as it would be too dangerous to stop — by some estimates, decades worth of temperature increase could be induced in just five years. This effect is by no means certain, however. Other research claims such geoengineering is more robust than thought, and could be phased out slowly without triggering a temperature rebound. This merely highlights the uncertainty surrounding such methods of climate modification.

The administrative challenges of such a project would be huge, and could easily create an anti-democratic bureaucracy of experts and engineers with a command-and-control structure. Solar radiation management risks reproducing a techno-science agenda reminiscent of the Cold War without guaranteeing any positive results.

Are there more reasonable forms of geoengineering?

“Carbon dioxide removal” is the other wing of geoengineering, drawing down and sequestering carbon from the atmosphere rather than reflecting sunlight away. Its methods range from afforestation, biochar (storing carbon in the soil), iron fertilization and ambient air capture, aiming to address the source of the climate crisis: greenhouse gas emissions.

As deforestation is a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions (by some estimates the second largest source of carbon dioxide emissions after fossil fuels), the reforestation and afforestation of areas of Earth is an obvious method to reduce levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Described as the most efficient and environmentally benign method of geoengineering, it can have a “significant impact” on atmospheric carbon dioxide levels on a long-term basis.

Carbon farming” is another geoengineering technique.This involves changing agricultural practices, including the use of biochar and agroforestry to enhance carbon sequestration. This coupled with reforestation can incidentally also help to reverse the desolation of the world’s soils and mitigate the declining carbon sequestration ability of existing forests, and help to contribute to what Murray Bookchin called radical agriculture.

Moving from land to the sea, the “fertilization” of phytoplankton blooms with iron nutrients is another method of carbon drawdown that avoids land-use conflicts, although scientific uncertainty persists. The sequestering of carbon as organic detritus that fall to the ocean floor can remove carbon from the carbon cycle for thousands of years, but as the plankton decay they can create oxygen-deprived dead zones. Some phytoplankton species can produce dimethyl sulfide, which on a large enough scale can enhance cloud cover and increase cloud albedo, but like other forms of solar radiation management would negatively affect precipitation and water resources in Europe and parts of Africa and the Middle East. Plantations of algae is another method of drawing down carbon dioxide while avoiding competition for agricultural land or freshwater, and will prove extremely effective when integrated with bioenergy.

Another method is to utilize what the Royal Society called “carbon capture and storage infrastructure”. This involves extracting carbon dioxide from the air and using the captured gases for agriculture or synthetic fossil fuels. This machine-driven carbon capture may be necessary if biological limits are reached, but it is easy to see how such approaches can be absorbed into existing capitalist practices — in 2015 Bill Gates was the world’s top funder of geoengineering research.

All of these techniques are huge steps towards reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. But the necessity of scaling them up to be effective will have negative effects. Based on current estimates, the land requirements for forest carbon sequestration could be immense, affecting food security by competing for fertile soils in the same way biofuels did earlier this century. The researchers behind the Atlas for the End of the World are more direct: there will not be enough land “to utilize forestry as the single mechanism for carbon sequestration.” As Holly Jean Buck writes, Carbon Dioxide Removal is complex and possibly perilous — and it needs to be talked about.

All forms of geoengineering need to be reviewed and scrutinized, but some of these techniques will be more conducive to a leftist approach, whereas others are likely to entrench capitalist power structures. Whether geoengineering is a leftist project or a capitalist project depends on the extent to which it can be used to maximize democracy and accountability, broad participation, and produce a fair distribution of its consequences. If a technique would further entrench economic inequality, give power to a small ruling elite, and maintain an extractivist, ecocidal approach to the natural world, it must be jettisoned. A capitalist geoengineering is another way for capitalism to extend its tentacles into the web of life, maintaining its extractivist nature, wasteful levels of production, and providing a “lifeline” for the survival of business-as-usual. It is a geoengineering that is already taking place.

Dozens of countries currently maintain cloud seeding programs, with China’s weather modification over Tibet occupying the boundary between tweaking rainfall and full-blown geoengineering. In the future, individual countries — pursuing their own agendas and self-interest — will not hesitate to pursue geoengineering programs to save themselves in a warming world, reducing local negative impacts regardless of the impact on their neighbours. This would encourage the weaponization of the climate, ENMOD be damned — “one nation’s emergency can be another’s opportunity.”

This would be a world disciplined not just by capital but by a technocratic elite, profiting from climate inaction and patented geoengineering technologies while allowing climate-induced scarcity to ravage the rest of us: a world of green and gated oases of affluence surrounded by a population under siege.

But what would a leftist geoengineering look like?

Socialism is the democratization of production. This would involve democratically-organized, decentralized, coordinated control of the technologies that can modify the atmosphere, on small and large scales. It would involve collective control over energy technologies and industrial processes with the removal of the profit motive from all decision-making. It would be a high-tech planned economy, in which greenhouse gas levels are monitored via remote sensing technologies and local observatories via horizontal coordinating committees.

The science behind proposed geoengineering must be sound and transparent. Under capitalism there is a disincentive to communicate information — knowledge is patented, hidden, squirrelled away for short-term competitiveness, encouraging technocratic cultishness. We need “socially responsible science” in the interests of wider society, not for the interests of capitalism and the state. Something like the Durham Resolution, written by the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science, is a good starting point.

The infrastructure required for socially just geoengineering is in the hands of the capitalist class — like all means of production, it needs seizing and utilizing for the global good. It will cost trillions of dollars to sequester enough carbon dioxide to stave off climate catastrophe. This will be a Herculean feat, something never before achieved. It is imperative that the working class controls and steers these programs, or the biosphere will be the latest (and maybe last) victim sacrificed to the appetite of capital.

To paraphrase Albert Camus, geoengineering is a danger only in the way that it would be employed under capitalism. The benefits must be accepted even if its ravages are rejected.

Leftist or not, geoengineering is not a silver bullet. Technocratic solutions which reject popular participation or understanding will do nothing to rectify the climate crisis. As science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson emphasized, the best geoengineering technology is “a rapid shift to social justice and an end to capitalism.” And we have reasons to be hopeful — we already have the know-how to properly mitigate the climate crisis. It won’t be easy, but it is possible.

But geoengineering has a part in a broader leftist strategy to halt the biocrisis and evolve beyond capitalism. It has to work together with systems of degrowth, reducing economic growth and redistributing wealth. Geoengineering can easily mesh with the goal of full decarbonization and 100% renewable energy generation.

At the same time, it can help soften the blows of climate change impacts too late to stop, helping us to create socially-just adaptation infrastructures, promoting networks of mutual aid, resistance, and disaster communism.

The left must not be afraid to make demands for a progressive geoengineering. Reforestation projects with mass public participation, improving soil carbon stocks on local farms, calling for the public ownership of carbon removal infrastructure, demands for public investment and research into the risks and uncertainties of geoengineering — these are just some ways to integrate geoengineering into our climate demands and at the same time time educating the public on what a leftist geoengineering would look like.

To ignore the possibility of large-scale environmental modification leaves the battlefield of ideas open to exploitation by the forces of reaction, of distant technocrats and remorseless capitalists.

We cannot let the planet’s thermostat be controlled by the invisible hand. We’re stewards of this world, whether we want the role or not.

(This article was originally published in The Trouble)

Hope Before the Ruins


Occupy Sandy

To paraphrase the anarchist revolutionary Buenaventura Durruti, we are not afraid of ruins because we know how to build a better world.

We have the technological capacity to abolish a fossil fuel powered global infrastructure and switch to renewable energy. Wind, water, and solar energy can “reliably supply the world’s needs” (Jacobson & Delucchi, 2009). We already have the “fundamental scientific, technical, and industrial know-how” to solve the climate crisis (Pacala & Socolow, 2004). Even under the global capitalist framework “market trends” are driving “new renewable energy deployment” (Anderson, 2017) and “investors” are increasingly divesting funds from fossil fuel developments (Johnston, 2016). We even have appropriate forms of geoengineering we can use to slow down and stabilise the biosphere while we put our global oikos in order (Lehmann, 2007; Becker et al., 2013; Biggers, 2015).

So what is stopping us?


Photo by Evergreen Energy Solutions

As Roberts (2017) warns “political and social barriers will do more to slow that growth than any technical limitation.” Clear leadership is needed to ensure clean technologies are promoted rather than the technologies of the entrenched fossil fuel industries (Jacobson & Delucchi, 2009). But this leadership must come from below, not above:

“The historical record shows very clearly that deep, enduring changes in energy industries require the mobilization of mass social movements. We cannot simply wait for visionary politicians to forge the way.” (Podobnik, 2010)

These social and political barriers will need overcoming if we are to ever properly confront the Biocrisis. Although we have the technology for a 100% renewable global system, the changes needed are monumental – “We can’t slap on a carbon tax and call it a day. We have to remake the world, and we have to talk about it” (Battistoni, 2012). To quote Chaudhary (2016), we must address the fact that “the crisis is not now, the crisis has already been for some time”. If we don’t, we risk facing a future with “the same winners, the similar losers, the crimes, the human degradation”.

A society powered by clean and renewable energy “is a necessity for a sustainable and equitable society, but not a guarantee of one” (McBay, 2011). But we do have an innate capacity for cooperation rather than competition, a capacity that is not encouraged in today’s capitalist society (Cott, 1980; Schwartzman, 2015; Taylor, 2016). Our future society will have to be modelled on values above and beyond commodification and profit if we are to survive. It will focus on democratic management of resources to prevent pollution and waste (Löwy, 2007), an “economically rational” society with needs guided by ecological standards (Bookchin, 1991). Whether we like it or not, we will have to transition to a situation where we accept and live within biophysical limits (Levy, 2012). As for green growth, it is a dangerous oxymoron if there ever was one.

Surviving and repairing the damage of the Biocrisis will

“require more ability to improvise together, stronger societies, more confidence in each other. It will require a world in which we are each other’s wealth and have each other’s trust.” (Solnit, 2009)

We should take hope in the rebellions already taking place. The story of the US National Park Service going “rogue”, at least on social media, presents a model of subversion within traditional institutions (Jacobin, 2017). Calls for the global science community to involve itself in protest and “rebellion” against climate change continue to mount (Klein, 2013; Johnston, 2017), a promising development in an otherwise detached and aloof institution. People everywhere are “turning to mutual aid, collectivity, cooperatives, communalist ventures and the commons for an alternative” to the status quo (Curl, 2016). A growing “climate insurgency” aims to use “activities the authorities claim to be illegal” in order to “create an irresistible momentum of escalating popular action for climate protection” (Brecher, 2017). Indeed, for multitudes of people across the world, these struggles are far from over – their resistance is just beginning (Bosworth, 2016).

From joining Blockadia to supporting divestment campaigns to standing in solidarity with refugees, there are many ways to fight climate chaos in the immediate future (Out of the Woods 2015; 2016). But to fully address and solve the host of problems that constitute the Biocrisis we will have to “raise long-range, transformative demands that the dominant economic and political systems may prove unable to accommodate” (Tokar, 2014).

Despite our optimism, it may well be that the transnational actors that control the global economy and enforce the world’s borders may be unwilling to adapt to or accommodate our demands for a better world. They may prefer to necrotise the entire planet (McBrien, 2016) rather than change their ways – after all, “one might more easily persuade a green plant to desist from photosynthesis than to ask the bourgeois economy to desist from capital accumulation” (Bookchin, 1980). We may inherit a world of irreversibly damaged ecosystems and little energy resources left to build our dreams (Keefer, 2009).

But as Gastón Gordillo and Andreas Malm agree, rubble is a gateway to the future. Malm (2017) prepares us for the fact that “we must accept that loss is a major predicament of our time”, but this loss, as Gordillo (2014) notes, represented by the rubble of the old world – a world of divisiveness, cruelty, and injustice – is “an invitation to remake the world differently”. A world of fairness, ecological balance, justice, and hope. A world where each contributes according to their ability, and each receives according to their need. Let us scoop the rubble into our hands and join together as “heroes in an army of construction” (Keller, 1916) to build our better world.


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Taylor, S. (2016). How Natural is War to Human Beings? Accessed 2nd May 2017.

Tokar, B. (2014). Toward Climate Justice: Perspectives on the Climate Crisis and Social Change (2nd edition). New Compass Press, Porsgrunn.

Hilary Clinton and Ecological Survival


Hilary Clinton at the 2014 National Clean Energy Summit in Las Vegas. Photo: John Locher/AP

Although clearer and more progressive on climate policy and environmental issues than Donald Trump, presidential candidate Hilary Clinton is by no means a friend of the environmental movement. Her role in politics will now be a lesser one after the victory of Trump’s presidential campaign.

This was a politician who made clear that she supported fracking and fossil fuel pipelines in order to “fuel our economy”, supporting renewable energy alongside oil and gas extraction in a confused “all of the above” approach (Norton, 2016). As Secretary of State it was Clinton’s staff who cooperated with TransCanada on the Keystone XL pipeline and she had accepted the false dogma of using natural gas as a “bridge fuel”towards a renewable economy (Cousins, 2016 – see also McJeon et al., 2014 and Hausfather, 2016).

The International Energy Agency has predicted that the majority of the world’s energy will still come from fossil fuels in the next few decades (Tweed, 2016), and a politician who had received “more than $6.9 million from the fossil fuel industry” would have likely ensured that this pattern continued in the USA (Coleman, 2016). Clinton had, in fact, raised more money from the oil industry than her presidential rival (Harder & Mullins, 2016).

Her support for continued fossil fuel extraction occurred with a backdrop of climate chaos. Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have recently surpassed the symbolic 400 parts per million (ppm) threshold (Kahn, 2016) with the fear that “today’s greenhouse gas levels may already commit Earth to an eventual total warming of 5 degrees Celsius” over the next millennia (Snyder, 2016). The devastation of Hurricane Matthew, according to CNN, “looks a lot like the future of climate change” (Sutter, 2016). Heedless of this devastation, like the rest of the US political system, Clinton continued to promote the orthodoxy that capitalism is compatible with a stable climate.

Ultimately Clinton shares the same hypocritical approach to climate change that her democrat predecessor Obama had – “tackling [climate change] aggressively on the consumption side but continuing to boost fossil fuel supplies” (Adler, 2015). This involved maintaining a “studied silence” when it came to the controversy of Standing Rock and the Dakota Access Pipeline (McKibben, 2016; Ortega, 2016).

The issue however, is now moot. Donald Trump has already begun planning his climate policy, which largely revolves abolishing the Clean Power Plan (Worland, 2016), wanting to “cancel” the Paris Agreement (Mufson & Dennis, 2016), and abolishing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) (Plumer, 2016). This, despite the fact that climate change has been recognised as a “major national security risk” by the Climate Security Consensus Project (Papenfuss, 2016).

Indeed, to the rest of the world, “the U.S. citizens’ choice to elect Donald Trump seems like a death sentence” (Chemnick, 2016). We must now support the efforts of Blockadia (Martin & Fruhwirth, 2013) and stand in solidarity with indigenous nations and migrants in the fight against climate chaos (Out of the Woods, 2015; Bosworth, 2016). Climate change is not just a sociogenic process – it is violence:

“That’s a tired phrase, the destruction of the Earth, but translate it into the face of a starving child and a barren field – and then multiply that a few million times. Or just picture the tiny bivalves: scallops, oysters, Arctic sea snails that can’t form shells in acidifying oceans right now. Or another superstorm tearing apart another city. Climate change is global-scale violence, against places and species as well as against human beings. Once we call it by name, we can start having a real conversation about our priorities and values. Because the revolt against brutality begins with a revolt against the language that hides that brutality.” (Solnit, 2014)

With that in mind, we must contend with the fact that this is not just something “on a list of things to worry about” – in order to prevent climate chaos in the new right-wing political landscape “we have to remake the world, and we have to talk about it” (Battistoni, 2012).


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New posts coming soon

It has been a while since we last posted a series of posts as a team so we thought it was high time to get our act together.

In the coming months we shall be posting on a range of subjects all key to understanding how the environment will fair in the UK post-Brexit. We shall be spotlighting MPs, many newly appointed to the Cabinet by our new PM Theresa May, and definitely touching upon the abolition of the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC). Their background prior to being assigned their new roles will be analysed as this if often a good indicator of what they will be like in office. We hope to cover topics including farming, fisheries, forestry, climate change and energy to name a few. In addition to these series of posts there may be reviews of TV programmes that focus on the environment. Personally, I am hoping to watch the latest installment of Hugh’s War on Waste (this evening at on BBC One at 9pm for those interested). Stay tuned!

Climate Imperial: Geoengineering and Capitalist Hegemony (Part Two)


The Root Cause 

“As capitalism is an ‘externalizing machine’, the system as a whole will not observe and respond to externalities like climate change.” — Buck, 2012

It is important to first address the basics of capitalism, the economic system we live in, and how it relates to the climate crisis. A basic introduction can inform us that capitalism is characterised by three things – wage labour, private ownership of the means of production, and production for exchange and profit (libcom, 2011). These three characteristics result in “huge differences in wealth and income” in society, causing “class divisions” which unfortunately for most “induce huge differences in decision-making influence and quality of life” (Albert, 2004: 8-9). In essence “society’s surplus product (the total product minus what is necessary to meet the population’s basic needs)” under capitalism “is controlled by a privileged minority that forms the ruling class” (Li, 2009). But one of the most important problems that arises from capitalism is its grow-or-die imperative, encouraging perpetual change and dynamic evolution in order to survive regardless of its social or environmental impact (Bookchin, 2003). Later in the series there will be further detail how this is important.

Capitalism as the prime economic system for the past few hundred years has brought us to the beginning of the climate crisis. Anthropogenically-induced climate change has been an undeniable scientific fact for some time (NASA, 2015), but importantly the longstanding “guardrail” idea of limiting global warming to a “safe” +2°C threshold has been recently derided as inadequate (UNFCCC, 2015: 18). Despite this, the year 2015 is “likely to be the warmest on record” (WMO, 2015) and is set to be the year that global temperatures “reach [the] 1°C marker for first time” (Met Office, 2015). Some climate scientists claim that the historical inaction in limiting GHG emissions means temperatures could rise by 4°C to 6°C degrees this century (World Bank, 2012; Connor, 2015). From next year the Earth’s climate will be entering a new “permanent reality” of high CO2 concentrations and corresponding ecological disruptions (Vaughan, 2015). The increase in global temperatures is already predicted to have a variety of effects, from ocean acidification (Mora et al., 2013) to crop yield loss (Challinor et al., 2014) to widespread coastal flooding (National Research Council, 2011). Additionally the danger of large-scale climatic “tipping points” occurring is likely to increase as temperatures rise (Lenton et al., 2008). The impacts of global warming, according to the IPCC, are likely to be “severe, pervasive, and irreversible” (IPCC, 2014).

As Keefer (2006) maintains capitalism is inextricably linked with fossil fuels and the resulting climate change as “at the root of industrial capitalism and its astonishing conquest and transformation of the world in the past 250 years is the fossil fuel powered machine” (8). “Perhaps, one day,” Eric Pineault muses, “capitalism will succeed in breaking away from its dependence on fossil fuels as a source of energy…but all signs indicate that for the moment, this material dependence is only becoming more profound” (2015: 3). The idea that capitalism can “save the world from a crisis caused by capitalism” has been thoroughly disproven (Klein, 2014: 252) and attempts at “green” economic growth have been ambiguous and abortive (probablyasocialecologist, 2015). This, as Wallerstein (1979) asserts, is because capitalism is based on the “endless accumulation of capital” (272). A “crisis of justice”, climate change in fact represents a potential source of profits for capitalism as it seeks opportunities in disaster (Klein, 2007; Schneider, 2014). Janet Biehl summarises it well when she says “capitalism and the global ecology simply cannot coexist indefinitely” (1998: 140).

Part One 

Part Three coming soon


Radical Agriculture in the UK: Soil as Social Property (Part Six)


The transition to a future radical agriculture, in the UK and elsewhere, is not utopian or a “distant proposal” but “an unavoidable, immediate, and immense challenge that will call for unprecedented levels of creativity” (Heinberg, 2007). But as we prepare to make our agricultural systems sustainable, so do we have to pay attention to our economy and society. Our methods of food production and distribution and the wider economy are inextricably linked, each mirroring the other. To change one is to change both:

“It is impossible to attain sustainable development of society without a sustainable agricultural sector and the safe food production it produces, and vice versa.” (Wright, 2009: 213)

A future radical agriculture will have to be as decentralised as possible, following the principle of subsidiarity, but rejecting parochialism and regressive localism for a diverse interconnected web of food production, distribution, and consumption. Farms will be smaller and more diverse, with systems of intercropping and polyculture boosting productivity and food security and providing much needed resilience for the years of climate chaos we may face (Lyons, 2015).

It will be renewably powered, minimising the impacts of peak oil and taking advantage of the explosive growth in renewable energy technologies (Steiner, 2015) and the recent predictions that the world’s energy infrastructure could be fully transferred from fossil fuels to renewable energy in a matter of decades (Jacobson and Delucchi, 2010; Schwartzman and Schwartzman, 2011).

It will use as little nonrenewable inputs as possible to ensure the sustainability of the land and its suitability for farming, mimicking ecosystem flows, minimising ecological disturbance, and being “self-regulating and self-renewing” (Warner, 2006: xiii). As Marx said,

“Even a whole society, a nation, or even all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not the owners of the globe. They are only its possessors, its usufructuaries, and, like boni patres familias, they must hand it down to succeeding generations in an improved condition.” (1894: 546)

It will use agricultural technologies deemed appropriate not by scale but “according to their role in enhancing human freedom and integrating human society with natural processes” à la social ecology (Out of the Woods, 2014), avoiding the nature/society binary. It will combine agroecology and organic farming with “high” technologies such as integrated pest management and vertical farming and culturally “outlandish” techniques such as entomophagy and algae farms.

The agriculture of the future will also be part of an anti-capitalist economic system that recognises the limits to growth (probablyasocialecologist, 2015) and the absurdity of private management of farmland, abolishing the disinformation and speculations of markets (O’Neill, 1998: 153) and recognizing that each and all of us has the right and entitlement to food regardless of contribution, occupation, or identity.

Returning to the beginning, as Dr Bob Scholes told us, the soil of the UK – and elsewhere – is “social property because humankind depends heavily on it for food production”. But with the biocrisis looming with its hydra heads of climate chaos, energy depletion, and perhaps most importantly soil depletion, we have to consider, in the transition to an unknown, fairer future:

“Can mankind regulate its affairs so that its chief possession — the fertility of the soil — is preserved? On the answer to this question the future of civilization depends.” (Howard, 1940: 20)

Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five


Review: Natural World: The Pygmy Hippo

Pygmy hippo. Image from:

Rating: four star

I always really enjoy the Natural World series from the BBC, and this brilliant programme on pygmy hippos was no exception. During the episode we follow the many exploits of Australian ecologist, Wei-Yeen Yap who is trying to research the elusive pygmy hippo.

Pygmy hippos are, as their name suggests, small and also nocturnal just to make the search harder! They live in a small area of West Africa, and the research Wei is doing takes part in the Tai National Park, in the Côte d’Ivoire. The park faces many pressures including illegal logging and poaching. Bush meat can often be a vital source of protein, and during the programme they visit a market on the border where many different kinds of animals are for sale, including mangabeys. Although they find no pygmy hippos for sale, they meet someone who confirms people do still hunt them. Where forest isn’t protected cocoa plantations are cropping up, so make sure next time you buy chocolate that it is Fairtrade or Rainforest Alliance certified. This will help give something back to the community and hopefully protect these, and many other, beautiful animals.

To start with Wei and fellow researchers are seen surveying the park for signs of hippos. They set up camera traps in areas where they find tracks and it isn’t long before they are rewarded with footage of the animal they came to look for. It is then that we learn of the next stage of their plan. They want to capture and tag a pygmy hippo. The team builds several traps along the tracks they know to be frequented by the hippos thanks to the camera trap video footage. To start with they don’t set the traps to shut, in the hope that the hippos familiarise to walking through them. Unfortunately, just as the first veterinary trapping team is due to arrive Wei falls ill. She ends up having to go to hospital where it is confirmed she has malaria and a stomach bug. This just goes to highlight the risk that researchers go to work in these conditions. You can take anti-malarials, but still catch this horrible disease. Luckily after a few days she is back and the trapping starts in earnest. They record pygmy hippos going into the entrance of the traps, but not all the way in. The problem is soon spotted, other animals are eating the bait before the hippos arrive, so there is no incentive for them to enter.

The trapping team has to leave, so Wei gets back into researching what else she can. She discovers a hippo burrow that extends back well under the bank, and even has an air pocket. There are even marks on the walls that look like they could have been made by the hippos’ ‘tusks’. If this is true it is definitely new to science. It is great to this being uncovered right in front of your eyes. I believe she uses a GoPro on a stick to find this out, and just shows even the best research involves improvised equipment. She also reanalyses some footage from the traps and finds she has just caught the edge of a hippo spraying poo and urine with its tail. This is believed to be how they mark the edge of their territories and communicate. Wei soon finds plenty of poo to analyse back at the lab which should hopefully reveal information about their diet.

The team finding evidence of pygmy hippos. Image from:

Unfortunately a second trapping team come and go, but still they don’t have any luck trapping and tagging a hippo. However, by the end of the programme the team have recorded three different hippos on their camera trap footage. One male and female look like they are coming to and from the same den, which would be an interesting development because until now it was thought that pygmy hippos lead a solitary life apart from mating. Wei even thinks that one of the males is one previously recorded in 2010, showing it had survived in the forest for 3 years. With the current pressures on the forest, it would be great to think that it is the same male.

Wei-Yeen Yap at Marwell. Image from:

I really did enjoy ‘Natural World: The Pygmy Hippo: A Very Secret Life’ because we just don’t know much about it. In fact at the beginning of the programme Wei visits Marwell Wildlife Park to show us up close what the pygmy hippo looks like, as you are very unlikely to meet it in real life in the wild. I do hope that Wei eventually manages to tag a pygmy hippo, because it would provide some fascinating insights, such as where do they go, and how far do they travel. If you still haven’t watched it, it’s available here until the 17th May.

Ecobuild 2014


My hours have been significantly reduced since the Christmas peak and I’m pretty much down to weekends and the occasional weekday. Good news is that I got to take a trip down to London for Ecobuild 2014, also taking a look at an exhibition at The Architecture Foundation on the way back.


Ecobuild is a three-day event that brings together those interested in sustainable building practices. There were lots of interesting stands and features of varying sizes. Some promoting generic environmental and sustainable organisations looking to build networks and launch campaigns with other like minded people in the field, others were there to sell their stuff; solar panels, green roofs, living walls, eco-concrete, rainwater harvesting systems, electric cars, you name it.


One of the seminar arenas marked out by wooden pallets; a popular building material for upcoming up cycling DIY-ers

One of the seminar arenas marked out by wooden pallets; a popular building material for upcoming up cycling DIY-ers

Then there are the seminars, and talks with appearances from celebrities, MPs, and ‘starchitect’ leaders in the industry. Exploring and debating issues such as fracking through to the Green Deal initiative. One talk I didn’t manage to get to (I’m hoping to find a recording released soon) explored what we need to do to build resilience for future water management. Floods AND droughts. A very current issue given the record breaking floods we’ve seen this winter.

A selection of some of the many stands

A selection of some of the many stands

It is absolutely massive, so much so it took up both halves of the ExCel arena and would have been impossible to fully engage with everything there in one day without a bike! I joined for the second day and the morning of the third.

Main themes

Whilst there could have been many other focus areas for my trip (green energy, Building Information Modeling (BIM), refurbishment and retrofitting etc.) My primary interest was the biodiversity pavilion, and that’s where I made a beeline for. However, there were a few interesting talks on adapting towards a ‘circular’ building economy that caught my eye and I ended up also spending a bit of time there too. I went to two separate talks for each area and will post about them more later.


Designing for Nature

Man-made environments don’t usually bring good news for wildlife and biodiversity, yet when we incorporate nature into our buildings there can be multiple benefits for both man and beast (and plant!) alike. Did you know, for example, that some bees do better in cities than the open countryside? Neither did I. There were plenty of nature-friendly green roofs, living walls and nature bolt-ons one could add to their ecobuild such as integrated brick birdhouses (pictured) and these basically took up the majority of the south arena.

I really think our future cities will literally be a lot more green if they truly are to be sustainable. There is a massive potential to make the most of our ecosystem services and in combination with the longer term economic benefits their value is still unrealised, in my opinion. Imagine a housing estate that INCREASES the biodiversity!

Circular Economy

There is a transition occurring, amongst industry, from a linear way of thinking (extract → produce → use → throw away) towards a more circular approach, diverting ‘waste’ from landfill and championing “reduce, reuse, recycle” attitudes, and pretty much any verb that starts with ‘re-‘; recycle, remodel, recover, rethink…

Sustainability proponents of course have long been campaigning for this, and it is interesting when we take those considerations to the scale of entire buildings. How can we make our buildings more ‘circular’? Should we build for longevity, so the time until end-of-life is prolonged for as long as possible; or easy deconstruction, so materials can be easily recovered after a building’s change of use?

“Building for the end, from the beginning”

In the corner of the South Hall was RESOURCE. An entire sub-section dedicated to the circular economy. This area was much bigger than before, if not completely new, indicating  the scale of how important this really could be. The theatre held talks about how we can incorporate the circular economy into the designing of our products and really how far this thinking has got.

Programme schedule for day 2 at the resource theatre

Programme schedule for day 2 at the Resource Theatre

Sir Ian Cheshire, the Chief Executive of Kingfisher gave really good insight into industries such as retail and commerce. Kingfisher owns home DIY store organisations such as B&Q and Screwfix and are one of the leaders in bringing sustainability to retail – B&Q are now able to trace 100% of its wood to source and are developing the market for renting tools and equipment to people (rather than the customer wasting products that are only used for a relatively short time).


Another one of the main exhibitors, I’m not sure if they were a sponsor, was Interface; now these guys were really exciting to talk to as they are the leaders in sustainably designed carpets. They were one of the first companies to take up cradle-to-cradle manufacturing and have used biomimicry (my favourite thing) to eliminate the toxic dyes and glues in their products producing high quality, fully recyclable, environmentally safe solutions for hundreds of customers worldwide. Take a look at their Net Effect range, inspired by the ocean, and see how they’re getting fishing nets out of the ocean and into a usable resource cycle. The Ray C. Anderson Foundation, re-launched after the death of Interface’s chairman in 2011, is a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to create a brighter, sustainable world through the funding of innovative projects that promote and advance the concepts of sustainable production and consumption.

A great place to be!

Ecobuild 2014 was a fantastic place to be. If there were any negatives I would say that amongst the smaller stands I felt slightly overwhelmed at the choice there was on offer. It really was too big at times. Clustering similar fields together was a good idea but you could walk past dozens of solar panel fitters or green roof ‘solutions’ then find yourself asking “what really is the difference between all these companies?” “Why should I bother with any of them?”. There was quite a trade-fair feel to it but my overall experience was one of encouragement and optimism. The positives were knowing there are thousands of others who share our passion for a more sustainable world and that real, proactive solutions are out there for people to get stuck into, I used my two days as a giant careers fair – finding out what is going on in the industry and whats out there. Its a great place to be; for graduates, for designers, for builders, for thinkers, for consultants, for students, for change makers. Did I mention its free?! See you there next year.

Hi all, my name’s David

Hi all, my name’s David

I thought I’d use my first post to briefly introduce myself as one of the writers for this blog.


I’m a 22-year-old dreadlocked nature loving Christian, and I graduated with the same degree as everyone else this summer. I’m now living back home with my parents in Swindon where I’ve managed to get a job on the sales team at Currys, not quite the world-changing career path I know, but it’s a job and a job that I enjoy. Maybe I’ll write a post one day about working in retail and how it relates to fighting the biocrisis!

It gives me the flexibility to look for something more career-related on my days off. When people ask: “So David, what do you want to do with your life?” I direct them to the film (and book) ‘We bought a zoo’ starring Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson based on the true story of Benjamin Mee at Dartmoor Zoo – just without the dead wife.

I’m still working out what saying “I’m going to live on a zoo” really means. And how it ties together with my other interests in urban agriculture, sustainable buildings, social enterprise, and the circular economy. The longer title I give is “A wildlife and sustainability park that focuses on UK conservation”. I think there is a lot to admire about wildlife in the UK, and the prospect of a fully self-sustaining educational facility that’s been designed from the ground up to provide its own food, water and energy really excites me. It would be great if I could make a buck or two out of such a radical enterprise but as long as it can promote and enhance local wildlife AND the local community then fantastic.

As you may very well have picked up, I’m very idealistic and have a lot of stuff going round in my head. One day I might put my thoughts into words through the medium of this blog, unfortunately I’ve just been too busy to really commit as much stuff as Grace and James, I’ll try and aim for a post every three or four weeks on average.

In my down-time I play PC games, my favourites at the moment are SimCity and the Sims because I enjoy designing houses and eco mega-cities, I’m buying a playstation 4 in the new year. I play a few musical instruments ranging from the tuba to piano, although I’m out of practice on all of them!

Anyway, nice to meet you all, peace out, god bless, safe, TTFN

Key Concept | Peak Oil | Economics, Geology, and Technology

Image: Richard Masoner

In Peak Oil article #3 we discussed the differences between conventional and unconventional sources of oil. This article will focus on the role of technology in “opening up” new oil sources, and how the peak oil debate often devolves into a conflict of economics vs. geology.

Technology tends to be the main factor in whether an oil deposit can be exploited or not, usually determining whether oil is conventional or unconventional and thus increasing the amount of oil readily available for society. But Robert Hirsch (author of the Hirsch Report) demonstrated in 2005 that technology was not able to offset declines in oil production. Using data of the Contiguous United States oil production he found that despite “large improvements in oilfield technology, including affordable 3D seismic imaging, low-cost directional and horizontal drilling, greatly enhanced geochemical understanding, dramatically improved geological modelling, etc” production declines continued.

Oil Prices and Oil Production in the Contiguous United States [x]

Oil Prices and Oil Production in the Contiguous United States [x]

Additionally new technology for oil extraction and production may simply exacerbate the problem “by increasing production rate and depletion without increasing rates of discovery and replacement“. Improved technologies may “temporarily maintain production at the expense of subsequent more rapid decline” and “increases resource supply and decreases the resource price for a while but results in sharply higher prices in later periods because the resource is exhausted faster than it would have been without the new technology“.

Technological advance masks impending production declines [x]

Technological advance masks impending production declines [x]

It goes without saying that a steeper production decline means less time for society to adapt to a post-peak world, and thus “could have unpleasant effects on the economy“.

Speaking of economics, it is often posited in the “economical” view of peak oil that scarcity of oil supplies will drive market signals, triggering technological development and exploitation of previous uneconomical resources and eliminating the danger of peak oil. They often argue that the “allocative and dynamic efficiencies of the market” will present solution because “as oil becomes scarcer, its rising price will encourage innovation and technology to develop alternatives“, and that “scarcity is a relative, not absolute, concept and that there is nothing unique about any particular productive input, including petroleum” (or as geologist Kenneth Deffeyes said, “The economists all think that if you show up at the cashier’s cage with enough currency, God will put more oil in ground“).

In comparison, the geological view is absolutist, emphasising physical limits, especially those regarding laws of energy and thermodynamics:

“According to the geological view oil reserves are ultimately finite, easy-to-access oil is produced first, and therefore oil must become harder and more expensive to produce as the cumulative amount of oil already produced grows…the recently observed stagnant oil production in the face of persistent and large oil price increases is a sign that physical scarcity of oil is already here, or at least imminent, and that it must eventually overwhelm the stimulative effects of higher oil prices on oil production. Furthermore they state, on the basis of extensive studies of alternative technologies and resources, that suitable substitutes for oil simply do not exist on the required scale and over the required horizon, and that technologies to improve oil recovery from existing fields, and to economize on oil use, must eventually run into limits dictated by the laws of thermodynamics, specifically entropy.” [x]

Or to summarise, “Geologists explain peak oil as an inevitable geological phenomenon. Oil was created in a process taking millions of years, and reserves are not being added to. Although the precise scale of total recoverable reserves is hard to know, their finite nature is certain.” It is clear to see the great divide between the two sides of the issue, but it is important to identify bias or vested interests when attempting to explain peak oil. For example, forecasts of future oil production will be optimistic when made by governments or multinational oil companies whose survival is tied to steady production increases, whereas pessimistic predictions are usually made by independent analysts. “Official” forecasts made by institutions such as the International Energy Agency or US Energy Information Administration will also tend to “project that plentiful oil supplies will be available, that supply will balance with demand” compared to more pessimistic outlooks informed by independent petroleum geologists. It is interesting to note here that a report commissioned by the International Monetary Fund states that, although their final views are not as “pessimistic” as geological arguments, there are definite “resource constraints” on future oil production and that peak oil is “uncharted territory for the world economy”.

Recent evidence that seems to confirm the geological view over the economic view was presented by James Murray and David King in the journal Nature, where they showed that despite price increases (and thus increased demand) oil production reached a “cap” where oil production did not increase regardless of price.

Oil Production Hits a Ceiling [x]

Oil Production Hits a Ceiling [x]

In the next Peak Oil article we’ll look at the issues of oil “reserves” versus oil “resources”, and how that can affect the timing of peak oil.