Bill Scott's blog

Thoughts on learning, sustainability and the link between them

Monthly Archives: May 2011

Wind Energy, the 2nd Law, EVs, Jim Bullis, David MacKay, ...

📥  Comment

Catching up this morning with the Economist's bloggers, I read a Babbage column on wind energy and the Californian dream.  As with many other science and technology blogs that I read, the interest comes as much from the discussion as it does with the originating column.  This was a case in point where a couple of contributors had a lively interchange about [i] the 2nd law of thermodynamics and the extent to which it applies to wind energy / power given that these do not derive from heat energy (with inevitable commensurate losses), and [ii] the extent to which electric vehicles [EV] can be said to be efficient.  It seems (see below) that the USA has followed the EU is deciding not to think about the source of the electricity when considering EV efficiency.  This has the advantage that EVs are portrayed as super-efficient compared to almost every other kind of road transport; its disadvantage is that the laws of physics have either been ignored, suspended or repealed in the process.  It also means that, in the short-term at least, EVs are more justifiable in carbon terms in a country like France (all that nuclear) or Norway (all that hydro), compared to the UK and Germany (all that oil / gas / coal – and CO2).  Do you suppose that this will be reflected in advertising for electric cars?  Neither do I.

The most interesting contributions to the column came from No Mist and Jim Bullis (who, like Babbage, writes from the USA).  Jim is no stranger to the Economist's blogs, as this link to a recent discussion shows.  Here, there is an interchange with Cambridge's David MacKay (whose book Sustainable Energy without the hot air I have already commented on), around the efficiency of EVs – which is also a feature of the Babbage column.

This is a far from arcane dispute about the rate at which electricical and thermal energies equilibrate.   Jim Bullis:

Look at the site and go to the electric vehicle tab. You will eventually discover that a gallon of gasoline represents 33.7 kWhr of electric energy.  A gallon of gasoline has never produced more than about 11 kWhr of electric energy. Not in the USA or the UK at least, due to that nasty old Lord Kelvin and his stupid law.  Under Kelvin's crusty opinion, the only equivalence is the amount of heat that can be produced by these two forms of energy. Seriously, MPGe as thus defined by our EPA is an outrageous lie. And it will trick people into buying electric vehicles that have no special merit in limiting CO2.

Of David MacKay's book, Bullis adds: "Other than the flawed promotion of the electric vehicle, this is a well written and useful book”.   In many ways, I think it a masterly book (which I have just finished).  I found it especially clearly written but missed this equivalence point.


Trains and Boats and Planes

📥  Comment

I travelled to Edinburgh to the HEA meets the EMF match by train.   Although this took a  bit longer than flying from Bristol, it meant I got to spend a comfortable and undisturbed time reading Stephen Sterling's Future Fit draft  for the HEA — and wondering whether it really was (more on that later ...).

The journey north turned out to be only marginally longer than by plane as there was no hanging around shopping malls masquerading as airports — and with the considerable bonus that no one demanded to test my toothpaste for explosives.  Coming back was an even better advert for trains as the winds were so fierce across Scotland that flights were cancelled (the ash had not yet arrived).  However, my express had to trundle through the south of Scotland at 50 mph and only speeded up (sort of) when safely in England, so I still had to stay in London overnight as I missed my connection home, and my trip to Taunton for a South West Learning for Sustainability Coalition meeting.  As I was supposed to be chairing the Coalition's AGM, and a regular meeting as well with two distinguished speakers, all this was doubly disappointing.


The Higher Education Academy meets the Ellen MacArthur Foundation

📥  News and Updates

This encounter took place on Monday in a very wild and wet Edinburgh.  Not quite the Festival (there wasn't even a Fringe), just a great deal about the circular economy [CE] — the Foundation has now produced a broad-ranging set of references to literature exploring this.    The session began with a substantial input from Ken Webster and Craig Johnson from the EMF on ideas underpinning the CE way of thinking.  This was followed by an exploration by Heather Luna from the HEA of CE concepts in practice: biomimicry, cradle to cradle, green chemistry, the blue economy and natural capitalism.  Following a brief 'on table' discussion, there was a modest lunch which didn't appear to be particularly circular – and I don't just mean the stark linearity of the baguettes.   After this, we got to talk to each other in (sort of) cognate groups about what we'd seen and its relevance to our work.  There was much discussion and a positive feel throughout – and there will be a rematch in London on June 6th.

Ken Webster has a good line from Heraclitus: Everything flows; nothing abides, which is troubling to those of a conservative mind.  He also likes to quote Lakoff, in particular that: [1] thought is mostly unconscious; [2] the mind is inherently embodied; and [3] abstract concepts are largely metaphoric.  The first of these ought to be troubling to those of us of a liberal and rational disposition because it raises questions about the premise that underpins much of our curriculum thinking (and beyond): if only we can provide (young) people with opportunities to consider, explore and think about the issues ... .   As Ken (nearly) says:

Liberal education provides a poor fit with reality as new ideas bounce off a fixated mind

Ken puts it better than this, but you get the (Lakoffian) point.

The Enlightenment tends to get a bit of a bashing in such meetings as well (a risky tactic in Edinburgh where they seem to think they own its genesis) with our view of nature's linearity, understandability,  predictability, controllability seen as the core problems in our thinking.   However, such problems are, to my mind, no reason to throw out the whole Enlightenment project (as some with their Old Testament future certainties would do), and retreat into a time when we relied on experts to interpret matters and tell us what to think.  I get up every day thinking this – which is why I never listen to the BBC's flagship Today programme, much preferring my own prejudices to start the day.


There was an architect, an engineer, an energy manager, ...

📥  Talks and Presentations

... and me.

We all met at Bristol's Create Centre last week as part of a panel to discuss the idea of the sustainable school from the perspective of building design, construction and operation.  This was part of the Bristol Architecture Centre's Spring Green programme which extends into the summer through a number of varied events.

We each contributed 10 minutes of thoughts from our veery different perspectives, and this was followed by 75 minutes of discussion with the audience.  All in all, a well put together evening, I felt, and I certainly gained new perspectives on BSF and BREEAM, and on what could be achieved in a new-build school.  There was a gloomy view about the future of new builds following the dispiriting James Report [which I have blogged on previously].  Not quite back to the 60s (some standards have improved over time), but not building on the very best we can aspire to and achieve, either.  What a crying shame that such stunted vision has now come to the fore.

I should say that everyone's powerpoint slides except mine were full of nice pictures of fine schools and colourful, sweeping graphs — but they weren't all sweeping in the right direction: a lot of the electricity usage graph gradients were positive rather than negative, for example, which is all very embarrassing, and some new builds had worse energy performances than somewhat older ones.  Well, here's what I had: only one slide which tried to provide a critical summary of  the experience of the sustainable schools initiative in 7 easy points:

The positives …                                          But …

1  An atmosphere of permission                there has been no coherence across government departments

2  Language that resonated                        the doorway metaphor was too limited to carry the burden expected of it

3  Strong vision; useful guidance              there was a focus on parts, not the whole

4  No prescription, targets, or funding    the evaluative criteria were useless for what was needed

5  An emphasis on learning & change    this was too individually-focused, at the expense of the social

6  Strong agency support                              there was too much focus on behaviour

7  The idea of a sustainable school           what does it mean?



Chinese ESD

📥  Comment

I listened recently to an address by Dr Shi Gendong, the Excutive Director/Chiarman of Beijing Association of Education for Sustainable Development, who spoke in a plenary session at the third GRESD conference in Uppsala [GRESD is the Swedish Graduate School in Education].  The extent to which the Chinese state has embraced and encouraged ESD is, at one level, astounding with humungous numbers of agreements, protocols, initiatives, schools, projects and activities —  but not quite so surprising, perhaps, given the size and scale of China and its economy, and its recently-espoused internationalism.  The talk focused at a number of levels of activity, but dealt in some detail on the Chinese "ESD Roadmap":  2-1-3-3-2-3-4 (for short), and ESD school assessment indicators (which I think ought to be "evaluation indicators", but never mind), and which aims to ensure "ESD quality from the perspective of curricular and teaching, school management, topic education, campus culture, students' quality, etc"., so as to "provide useful experience for the international community in further promoting ESD at the school level".

I had no sense, however, that any of this, undoubtedly extensive and careful, development, was related to a particularly sound conceptualisation of sustainable development.  Nor was there any sense that there was a convincing means by which progress (or progression) could be measured.  But perhaps the message lost something in its translation and mediation.  What was needed was a seminar rather than a presentation.


The Naming of Parts

📥  Comment

Every year, as spring arrives, and I walk along the nearby Kennet & Avon canal, I feel a strong need to know the names of the huge number of plants that I see.  Not content with their beauty and the pleasure of seeing them, and with what simply is – and, sadly, not too interested in the fine detail of the ecology – it’s their naming that seems to matter.  This always brings Henry Reed’s ironic poem to mind.   Written in 1941, it contrasts some very natural and unnatural processes: nature’s eloquence, procreation, and knowing your rifle – and shows the futility of the NAMING OF PARTS.

To-day we have naming of parts.  Yesterday,

We had daily cleaning.  And to-morrow morning,

We shall have what to do after firing.  But to-day,

To-day we have naming of parts.  Japonica

Glistens like coral in all of the neighbouring gardens,

And to-day we have naming of parts.

This is the lower sling swivel. And this

Is the upper sling swivel, whose use you will see,

When you are given your slings.  And this is the piling swivel,

Which in your case you have not got.  The branches

Hold in the gardens their silent, eloquent gestures,

Which in our case we have not got.

This is the safety-catch, which is always released

With an easy flick of the thumb.  And please do not let me

See anyone using his finger.  You can do it quite easy

If you have any strength in your thumb.  The blossoms

Are fragile and motionless, never letting anyone see

Any of them using their finger.

And this you can see is the bolt.  The purpose of this

Is to open the breech, as you see.  We can slide it

Rapidly backwards and forwards: we call this

Easing the spring.  And rapidly backwards and forwards

The early bees are assaulting and fumbling the flowers:

They call it easing the Spring.

They call it easing the Spring: it is perfectly easy

If you have any strength in your thumb: like the bolt,

And the breech, and the cocking-piece, and the point of balance,

Which in our case we have not got; and the almond-blossom

Silent in all of the gardens and the bees going backwards and forwards,

For to-day we have naming of parts.


Greatness thrust upon me

📥  News and Updates

Sometimes, you just sit there and something nice happens.  This was my experience recently when I was invited to be President of the National Association of Environmental Education — NAEE.   This, almost venerable by now, institution has survived whilst national policies have waxed and waned,  curriculum reviews (and institutions) have come and gone, and the Department for Education has changed its name more times that a typical nuclear reprocessing site or dodgy Spanish property outfit.  I have great admiration for the efforts of the very dedicated people who have kept the flag flying despite all the funding issues they have faced.   That the Association's journal Environmental Education is still published, is another testament to their dedication — and is evidence that there is still a need for what the Association has to offer.

I went to a meeting of the Executive at the weekend after a gap of at least 10 years — it was just like old times.


Watts Up

📥  News and Updates

After much research and deliberation, we decided to ignore the doubters (George Monbiot, perhaps), and are now helping out the National Grid by generating photo-voltaic electricity.  We went on line last week, so don't hesitate to have that extra-hot shower as the grid's capacity to support your needs and wants is just that little bit greater (and "greener").  As for me, well, in future, when the  Paddington train crawls past Didcot's designer power station, I shall gaze at its gazillion tonnes of coal with a superior, zero-emissions, sort of stare – even if it is producing slightly more electricity than we are – and at night!


The Wrong Values

📥  New Publications

In the aftermath of the 1953 uprising in East Germany, which arose because of the population’s failure to appreciate government efforts to build a socialist paradise for them, Bertolt Brecht wrote the following in Die Lösung:

After the uprising of the 17th of June

The Secretary of the Writers Union

Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee

Stating that the people

Had thrown away the confidence of the government

And could win it back only

By redoubled efforts.  Would it not be easier

In that case for the government

To dissolve the people

And elect another?

I was reminded of this, somewhat obliquely, and no doubt unfairly, as I read Andrew Darnton’s recent report for Oxfam / DfID: Finding Frames: new ways to engage the UK public in global poverty.   The report begins:

The aim of the study was to explore the potential for frames theory to be used as a practical tool to re-engage the UK public in global poverty – an objective not pursued in concert by the development sector since Make Poverty History in 2005.  In exploring the uses of frames theory, we have built on work by Tom Crompton at WWF-UK, who began the task of linking values to frames and thereby suggesting new ways forward for engaging the public in environmental issues and actions.  An important finding from his Common Cause paper is that there is a common set of values that can motivate people to tackle a range of ‘bigger than self’ problems, including the environment and global poverty.  The implication is that large coalitions can – and must – be built across third-sector organisations to bring about a values change in society.  This report responds to that call.

This is a very interesting read, and I do commend it to you, especially the parts around values and framing, but the implication could hardly be clearer: the trouble with the British is that we've got the wrong values.  To put this even more starkly: we don't share DfID's and its associated NGOs' values in relation to addressing global poverty – not that I wish to imply that anyone is going to be calling on Russian tanks any time soon to impress their seriousness on the public.

In relation to all this, the report's discussion of public reaction to the notion that corruption might be a factor in global poverty and the problems alleviating this, is illuminating.  This citing of corruption is widespread, as various research studies have pointed out and seems a reason that people give for inaction – the report calls this an "excuse" which is not quite the same thing and shows something of its bias.  The report suggests that corruption or the ineffectiveness of aid is something that campaigners should shy away from.

These [Corruption / Aid effectiveness] are cited as examples of current negative framings.  Other such negatives are:

Charity         Aid           Development             Communications         Campaigns

Rather than emphasise such activity and ways of thinking, alternative, positive frames are put forward.  These are:

Justice / Fairness         Movements / NGOs         Mutual support / Partnership

Well-being / Freedom / Responsibility                 Good / bad governance / Fraud

Conversations                Engagements / Dialogues

The report notes:

"These alternative frames should be regarded as range finders, suggested to help others find positive ways of framing their messages."

You will need to read the report, however, if you are to understand just why talking about corruption is bad whilst discussing bad governance isn't, as I'm not sure I can do justice to the argument, especially in a blog which is already over-long.  Perhaps you should read this report as it affects how you will be targeted by NGOs in the future.  As a reward, if you persevere to page 109 you'll find a provocative section on charity shops, and by now you'll understand something of their problem, given that how we refer to them is doubly negatively framed.


The most Important, Urgent and Practical Things

📥  Comment

I was asked the other day by someone from a Community Interest Company:

What do you think are the most important, urgent and practical things that can and should be done in schools and in the community to advance ESD?
My response was two-fold.  Firstly, to say:

help school leaders understand the learning and other (often very tangible) benefits that can accrue from taking sustainability seriously

help teachers make connections between what they and other teachers teach, and with the management of the school, and what's going on in the community

help learners make some collected sense of the disparate sustainability-focused experiences they have in and out of school – and

help them develop the skills of citizenly activity so that they are able to work with others to foster positive socio-environmental change.

And then I said:

The trouble, though, is that these are rather abstract ideas because they are not [yet] grounded in the real context of a school – a community, in its community.  Thus, the most useful & urgent things that might be done will differ from school to school – as will, just to complicate matters, views on what is useful & urgent.  So, if you're looking to work with local schools, there's no short-cut to finding out what they do and would like to do.

So, what would you have said?