Adaptation = Survival

This blog first appeared on the website of think tank and strategy consultancy SustainAbility

Riding home recently on a “Boris Bike“ – so named after London’s inimitable mayor, Boris Johnson, credited with conceiving the new bicycle sharing scheme – I witnessed a phenomenal collision between two riders that resulted in one of them flying several feet through the air at head height.  Spectacular! Moments earlier, I had felt a prescient discomfort as I rode behind the perpetrator of the accident that was about to happen.  Just as I am ultra-wary when I see motorists maneuvering half a ton of steel while speaking on a mobile phone wedged between shoulder and crooked neck, as I approached this chap in his late 30s – wobbling around on his Boris Bike like a 3 year old – I decided to give him a very wide berth as I overtook.  He was apparently enjoying himself as his front wheel invited him to randomly explore the full width of the road ahead.  On hearing the surprisingly loud collision behind me, I turned in time to see a Lycra-clad helmet-wearing cyclist launch from his mangled racer in a graceful arc towards the road surface.  Ouch!

Apart from feeling immense sympathy for the poor victim, my thoughts turned to what can happen to us when our environment suddenly changes.  If this seems an unlikely mental leap, I should explain that I’m currently engrossed in a fabulous book called Deep Survival by Laurence Gonzalez that explores, among other things, how human beings respond to unexpectedly changing circumstances.  Gonzalez recounts the tale of MP William Huskisson, run over and killed by George Stephenson’s famous Rocket steam locomotive on its maiden journey along the Liverpool & Manchester Railway in 1830.  Until that moment, it is conceivable that Huskisson’s only experience of locomotion had been the humble – and relatively slow – horse and cart.  Perhaps he was so taken aback by the dawning railway age that his survival instincts failed to prepare him for this sudden change in his environment.

In the case of my cycling anecdote, the appearance of thousands of Boris Bikes on London’s roads in the last few weeks has introduced a rather exciting random element to navigating the city streets: numerous spirited folk who probably haven’t been in the saddle for their entire adult lives.  I’m expecting a string of early casualties, both cycling novices and other road users coming into contact with them.  Paris went through a similar experience when it implemented its own bike share scheme three years ago.

In the future, adapting to our changing environment will be – as it has always been – critical to our survival.  This of course means adaptation to the impacts of climate change, resource depletion, water scarcity, migration, etc.  But it also means adapting to the technologies and systems we develop in an effort to mitigate those impacts.

Take electric vehicles.  It’s now almost universally accepted that their high energy efficiency and compatibility with the full range of sustainable carbon-free energy sources make EVs an essential piece of the sustainability puzzle.  But already one of the unique selling points of electric vehicles – that they’re incredibly quiet and therefore reduce noise pollution – has been portrayed as a grave danger for pedestrians, in particular the blind and partially sighted.  In response, Nissan is fitting a synthesiser to its forthcoming LEAF EV, to warn bystanders of its impending arrival.

I have to question whether implementing technology fixes atop technology fixes might be distracting us from the larger challenges facing us: we need to redesign our urban landscapes so that low-impact mobility modes that already exist (walking, cycling, and mass-transit) are preferred by the majority because they’re safer, cheaper, nicer, and more convenient than higher-impact alternatives.  At the same time, we will inevitably need to behave differently in order to thrive within our changed environment.  And along the way, we need to be prepared for a few bumps in the road. 

BP: Tainting by Numbers

This blog first appeared on the website of think tank and strategy consultancy SustainAbility

At the time of writing, it appears BP’s desperate attempts to contain the Deepwater Horizon spill are drawing to a close.  Although the oil seepage would appear to have been halted for good, it seems wholly inappropriate to label this a success.  As Exxon found with their Valdez spill (which was ‘only’ one-fifth the size of this episode), the full scale of the tragedy won’t be known for many years to come – and it may yet culminate in what would have seemed ludicrous at the start of this year: the disappearance of the BP brand.  

So many thousands of column-inches have been dedicated to the disaster over the last few months, what more can be written about the estimated 5 million barrels of oil that escaped into the Gulf of Mexico?  Well, I thought it might be interesting to visualise this headline number – 5 million barrels – in terms that are meaningful to the majority of folk left cold by the oil industry vernacular.  When numbers get serious, as Paul Simon sang, we see their shape everywhere.  But sometimes we need a little help to appreciate their scale and significance.  For instance, companies are fond of presenting their energy efficiency gains and greenhouse gas reductions as “like taking 175,000 cars off the road”, or “equivalent to closing a coal-fired power station”.  

With that in mind, here’s my take on 5 million barrels of oil.  I invite readers to continue adding to this list – it might even be a cathartic experience: 

5 million barrels of oil…

  • Amounts to 210 million gallons – or 800 million litres – of liquid black gold
  • Which is enough to fill 320 Olympic-sized swimming pools
    • or half fill the old Giants Stadium (which is more than the Red Bulls ‘soccer’ team ever managed)

5 million barrels of oil…

  • Would produce in a typical US refinery around 100 million gallons – or 350 million litres – of motor gasoline
  • Which is enough to drive a Ford Focus roughly 4.3 billion miles – or 7 billion km
    • or more than 9,000 return trips to the moon (assuming the roads were nice and clear)

5 million barrels of oil…

  • Would have fetched around $735 million at the July 2008 record high oil price of $147/bbl
  • Which is equivalent to ~18 hours worth of BP’s 2008 revenues
    • or the entire annual GDP of The Gambia

5 million barrels of oil…

  • Contain roughly 8 TWh of energy
  • Which is equivalent to 2 × 500 MW coal-fired power plants running non-stop at full capacity for a year
    • or the energy consumed annually by 320,000 average UK households

The Five Stages of Climate Change Denial

This blog first appeared on the website of think tank and strategy consultancy SustainAbility

On July 29th I attended yet another “Global Summit on Sustainability”, this time jointly hosted by the UK-based World Council for Corporate Governance (WCFCG) and the Indian Institute of Directors (IOD) at the National Liberal Club in London.  Our very own co-founder John Elkington adroitly side-stepped the kind of technology failure that would torpedo a lesser public speaker by discarding his prepared speech and instead delivering a riveting keynote off-the-cuff.  It culminated in the warning that inter-generational equity is becoming an increasingly significant sustainability driver, with a potentially explosive sense of outrage rising among young people, directed toward the baby boomer generation judged to have acted so irresponsibly with their legacy.

John was followed by Lord Anthony Giddens, Emeritus Professor at the LSE and author of the excellent book The Politics of Climate Change.  Whereas John had emphasized the systemic nature of the challenges we face – The Sustainability Survey which we conducted with GlobeScan in 2009 highlighted twelve separate (but related) threats deemed by global sustainability experts to be “urgent” – Giddens zeroed in on what he called the defining issues of the 21st century: climate change and energy security.

Climate change is different from the other urgent threats (like water shortages, poverty, biodiversity loss, food security, economic instability, etc.) in that it is a cumulative phenomenon that cannot easily be reversed.  The Earth’s climate system may change – indeed, may have already changed – irrevocably, while we are mostly too busy to notice.  Furthermore, climate change is historically unique because, as Giddens stated, no other civilisation in world history has been remotely this close to “changing the very nature of nature”.

According to Giddens, June 2010 was the 304th consecutive month in which the global surface temperature exceeded the 20th century average, as evidenced in The Met Office graphs.  Still, incredibly, we hear loud dissenting voices.  But the nature of the dissent is definitely changing, and here I offer what we might call the 5 stages of climate change denial – please feel free to challenge or build upon these.  I do believe it’s essential to identify where people stand in the debate, in order to know on which level to engage.  Also, watch carefully as those with powerful vested interests – hell-bent on obfuscation and delayed action – flit effortlessly from one stage of denial to another (often apparently without realising the internal inconsistency in their arguments):

1) Climate change isn’t happening

This point of view has all but completely disappeared in the face of an overwhelming body of scientific evidence to the contrary.  These are the “flat Earthers” of the climate change debate, and it can be difficult to know whether to feel anger or extreme sympathy towards them.

2) Climate change is happening, but it’s part of the Earth’s natural cycles

Harder for the layman to refute when presented with the largely obvious fact that our home planet has cycled through several ice ages over the millenia, but a huge body of scientific evidence points to a human signature in the types of changes we are currently experiencing.

3) Climate change is happening, it may well be due to human activity, but it’s generally beneficial

“So what if sub-Saharan Africa fries and Bangladesh goes under?  The frozen wastes of Siberia will become the new bread-basket of the world!”  It’s incredible to think that otherwise reasonable people are advocating a planetary-scale experiment – with human civilisation at the centre – in which we would knowingly create conditions that have not existed since hundreds of thousands of years before homo sapiens first walked the Earth.  (Modern humans are understood to have appeared around 150,000-200,000 years ago, while atmospheric GHG concentrations are now higher than at any time in the last 800,000 years.)

4) Climate change is happening, it’s probably due to human activity, but it’s not going to be as bad as the computer models suggest

This is a relatively new one, and it’s quite sophisticated because it is really difficult to refute.  The basic argument is that computer-based projections of the climate sensitivity to growing GHG concentrations have been over-stated, and that we can continue to dig stuff out of the ground and set it on fire with impunity.  This point of view was expressed by Pat Michaels in last week’s Financial Times.

5) Climate change is happening, it is caused by human activity, it’s a really bad thing, but there’s very little we can do about it and there are lots of other bad things we should attack first

Bjoern Lomborg has virtually trade-marked this position.  It’s very clever because it casts those who would advocate for monumental efforts to embrace a truly sustainable model of human development as well-meaning but ultimately misguided.  However, it falls over because unless we do successfully tackle climate change, the future of human civilisation as we know it hangs in the balance, and an unimaginably difficult existence awaits billions.