Bill Scott's blog

Thoughts on learning, sustainability and the link between them

Monthly Archives: July 2012

Steady as she goes

📥  Comment, News and Updates

I confess that I struggle with issues around economic growth, in particular wondering how more people can enjoy a decent life – Sen's idea(l) of living a life one has reason to value – without it.  I subscribe to the Daly News as I seek enlightenment.  A recent posting by Brian Czech was a helpful one.

His first paragraph describes me in all my glorious gullibility, ignorance and confusion:

Before we think about the steady state economy, let’s think for a moment about economic growth.  Economic growth still has such positive connotations in domestic politics, especially American politics, that the vast majority of citizens simply assume that whoever can do more for economic growth is the better statesman (man or woman), better Federal Reserve chair, better economic advisor, etc.  That’s why the definition of economic growth bears repeating over and over again, to pull the magic cloak from a purely material process.  Economic growth simply means increasing production and consumption of goods and services in the aggregate.

And this almost describes me as well:

Yet many activists, scholars, and ‘think-tankers’ are afraid to talk openly in public about the steady state economy, much less to go on record as supporting it. They think the phrase “steady state economy” has negative connotations. They think this makes the steady state economy too difficult to promote.

... but it's not the promotion that bothers me, it's its achieving.

For example, I am still wondering at what scale all this operates – the world, I guess (though it's hard to see how that can be operationalised) – the country, most certainly, as sometimes it seems a big GDP machine – and  the family perhaps?  I read the CASSE position statement to find out more, and was surprised at how much seemed common sense.  I liked its language and logic.  Well-written, which is a nice change.

Something to come back to ...


Quote of the year – so far

📥  Comment

From a 2012 UK report to UNESCO ...

"... a lack of coordination and support for project projects which often results in duplication ..."

Just so: must be a recurring problem.

Rather sadly, I did not spot this myself ...


Peak Gas anyone?

📥  Comment, New Publications, News and Updates

A long special report in last week's Economist on natural gas and its rapidly increasing availability.  Looks like peak gas has been put off for a while yet, and, given that natural gas is increasingly substituting for oil across its usage, that may delay the inevitable for oil as well.  Tough on those of us who want to see renewables advance, as all this acts to depress prices and the need for innovation.  The good side to this is that gas is displacing coal in many markets (especially the USA) where carbon emissions have fallen – they're on the rise in the EU, so much scope for gloating from across the pond.

Although there's a world oil price, and the price of gas is linked to this in many places (including Europe – and how the Russians love it), this doesn't apply to gas across the board because of the difficulties of transporting it between continents, and so the price reflects regional issues.  The range is eye-popping; below $3 per  million btu [1] in the USA with its shale gas and sophisticated national gas hub – above $16 per million btu for LNG in Japan where there's no anything very much to compete with it (2012 prices).

Anyone teaching about peak oil needs to factor all this in.  The Economist article is a good place to start.

Note [1] Quaintly, gas is measured and sold in btu (British thermal units) – a ridiculous energy unit I remember struggling with at school.  A btu is ~1.056 kiloJoules.  It's approximately the amount of energy needed to heat 1 pound of water from 39 to 40 °F.  Madness.  Just to be complete about this: 1 btu / hour is ~ 0.293 Watts.  You can see how easy these numbers are.  No wonder I had difficulties even though I could do percentages!


Rio ± 20

📥  Comment, New Publications, News and Updates

In his latest blog posting, Arjen Wals shares some of his recent experiences at the hands of UNECO editors, and looks back both at Rio+20, and Rio -20 in Stockholm.  He notes ...

I was invited to Rio to present the review of the UN DESD which UNESCO commissioned me to write up in the report “2012 DESD Full-length Report”.  Basically there are three reports: the one I submitted to UNESCO, the full report as edited and authorized by UNESCO and an abridged, glossy version for policy-makers that contains a selection of texts from the full report made by UNESCO’s ESD section.  Some of the rough edges and critical notes of the original report were taken out somewhat to my dismay.

Dismay?  I suspect his concerns are understated.

Now, I'd be the first to admit that the readability (and sometimes sense) of anything I write can always be improved (and I have ~3 people whose judgement I invariably accept without another thought).  That sort of editing is welcome and necessary.  However, that's not what Arjen is talking about here.  He has experienced something quite different and which is always unwelcome and testimony to a failure of process.

What a pity that UNESCO doesn't have the confidence to face up to a bit critical comment!  How much more seriously we'd all take it, the Decade, and maybe even ESD.


EAUC's eloquent response to the QAA

📥  Comment, New Publications, News and Updates

EAUC has submitted a well-argued response to the QAA about its marginalisation of sustainability in the new UK quality code.  See this post for a comment on the very poor fist QAA made of all this.

EAUC begins ...

In the face of failing economic, social and ecological systems, it is our view that tertiary education has a key responsibility to equip learners with the knowledge, skills and values required to meet these profound challenges and threats.  We ask that QAA acknowledge this more explicitly by placing learning and quality issues in to proper context.  Our members would argue that any discussion of quality that fails to recognise the imperatives of that global and societal context would be a missed opportunity.  We feel that now is a time to be bold and we encourage QAA to recognise the opportunity that exists in the Quality Code to demonstrate a new value both to future learners and society at large.  ...

It is our view that sustainable development must become a lens through which all education must be viewed and quality assessed before we can be confident that UK universities and colleges are stepping up, taking responsibly and are fit for purpose.  ...

Quite so.   An eloquent and positive response.  Really hard to see how QAA can ignore it!


Keep America beautiful by recycling less

📥  Comment, News and Updates

I once got into trouble during a talk at a school by suggesting that they should try to reduce the amount of stuff they recycled, and that cutting waste in the first place was a better project.  It fell on deaf ears because of a conventional mindset which says I recycle and therefore I'm green / sustainable / doing my bit / living a moral life / etc..

I was reminded about this by a Keep America Beautiful competition called Recycle-Bowl, which is sponsored by Nestlé and its bottled waters.  I saw all this in NAAEE's recent news update.  It's wearily predictable:

The 2012 Keep American Beautiful Recycle-Bowl challenges K-12 students to collect as much recyclable material as they can over a four-week period for the chance for their school to win a $1,000 prize. A national champion will be selected as well.

At least they don't have to make a collage, I thought, and wrote to Keep AB suggest a parallel competition to find the school most adept at cutting its waste at source.  This is their response:

Thank you for your email. I’m glad you’ve been on the website.  I’m not sure of the UK’s K-12 school recycling status but in the US not all schools are recycling.  It is not a law (federally or even in most states), it is not a municipally provided service and many schools can’t even afford educational resources like books.

We hope at some point in the future to grow the program (this is only its second year) and help quantify not only recycling but waste reduction.  However, that requires much more work on the part of the school.  Not only do they have to track and report recyclables, they have to track and report their waste. This will many times be a barrier for schools to participate in that portion of the contest.  Many schools in the US don’t recycle at all.  In rural and less populated areas, teachers, parents and students haul recyclables to a drop-off, a collection service is not offered.  I would like the competition to focus just on recycling (for now) to help bridge that gap and get more schools recycling than do now and then bite-off a bigger piece of the apple in year 4 or 5 to do waste reduction.  We are looking to pilot the waste reduction piece in an AZ community this  year.  We know the town provides both the recycling and waste collection service and should have good data.

Our sister program, RecycleMania, for colleges and universities has been in operation for around 8 years.  They did ultimately build in a waste reduction component. We’ll get there eventually.

Thanks again for your input.


Having your cake and eating other people's

📥  Comment, New Publications

This Michael Leunig cartoon wafted its way from Australia the other day.  My reaction was: doesn't this satirise affluent developed-economy lifestyles, especially those enjoyed by my generation, rather than the idea (or, for some, ideal) of sustainability?

On being provoked to think again, this is another view, ...

Up to now, I suppose, the someone else in question whose cake is being consumed (though not by the two philosophers in the picture, by the look of it) is that of the current and future poor.  However, if resources are actually at last running out, and if the biosphere is as badly placed as we're told it is, then it could be everyone's future cake that's being gobbled up.

But "sustainability" is supposed to help prevent this, whether by sharing cake more equitably (the socialist vision), baking more cake (the capitalist version), or by doing without cake in the first place – banning it, more like (the let's go back to the golden age, aka miserablist view).

There are, of course lots of folk who think that they are being sustainable because they've been on all those ESD1 courses and are doing what they're told: driving more carefully, walking to the shops, recycling, composting, wearing thicker sweaters, drinking fair trade whisky (I've made that up), etc., etc.

But they would never say what the cartoon blokes say because they're not all that self-aware.  Neither are they usually cynical.  They really believe they've cutting down on other people's cake.

I suppose I am having trouble identifying who the cartoon characters are.



John Clare day

📥  Comment

In Monday's Guardian, George Monbiot suggested that today ought to be John Clare Day (his birth date in 1793).  Well, fine by me, and I'd join any queue to be the first to agree with this.  Monbiot's argument is that John Clare was the poet of the environmental crisis – 200 years ago – who showed how the era of greed began with the enclosure of the land.

I read Clare because of his understanding of the natural world and human interaction with it, and because his poetry describes a past world whose echoes you can still feel all around you – if you look –  despite enclosures, loss of species (and rural jobs), neo-liberalism (and other evils).

This is JC's Emmonsails Heath in Winter where a bumbarrel is a long-tailed tit.

I love to see the old heath’s withered brake

Mingle its crimpled leaves with furze and ling,

While the old heron from the lonely lake

Starts slow and flaps his melancholy wing,

And oddling crow in idle motions swing

On the half rotten ash tree’s topmost twig,

Beside whose trunk the gipsy makes his bed.

Up flies the bouncing woodcock from the brig

Where a black quagmire quakes beneath the tread,

The fieldfares chatter in the whistling thorn

And for the awe round fields and closen rove,

And coy bumbarrels twenty in a drove

Flit down the hedgerows in the frozen plain

And hang on little twigs and start again.


The university contribution to the green economy

📥  Comment, News and Updates

The Guardian last Friday carried a story from the CBI about the current contribution of green growth to the UK economy.  The headline was:

Choice between 'green or growth' is a false one, CBI chief says.

The CBI's chief executive, John Cridland, is reported as saying:

The government has to end the political ping-pong. The so-called 'choice' between going green or going for growth is a false one.  With the right policies in place, green business will be a major pillar of our future growth.  ...  Compared to the slowdown or stall we fear could result from the current approach, a green business boost could increase the UK's growth rate by 0.5% by 2015, a gain of nearly £20bn in GDP and it could add £800m to net exports.  That's a big prize.  The UK could be a global frontrunner in the shift to low-carbon ... tapping into a global green market currently worth £3.3 trillion a year.

Only those who are anti-growth in principal, are likely to dispute these sentiments, though the detail in the figures might be unfamiliar.   Cridland continued, ...

But mixed signals from the government are setting the UK back.  If we can't be sure that the policies of today will still be the policies of tomorrow, we simply won't build business confidence or secure the investment we need.


I read all this (and more) and wondered about universities, and all that they do to stimulate the green economy, and found myself wondering whether anyone had put a figure on this.  This is not something, sadly, that People & Planet puts into its league tables.  The web is full of folks saying that HE should contribute, and does contribute, with much going on about skills, but what's it worth?  Anyone know?

Update 16 July

I'm grateful to David Parsons from Cranfield for pointing me towards case studies from his work for Hefce on carbon brainprinting , and for reminding me of a report from NEF / UUK: Degrees of Value: how universities benefit society (although this doesn't really focus on sustainability).

The idea of brain printing was not quite what I had in mind, but it does neatly highlight some of the (technical) ways that HE makes a difference in terms of sustainability ...

Universities make tremendous intellectual and technical advances that help other organisations and individuals reduce their own carbon footprints.  This is the universities’ carbon brainprint.   The initial project developed a set of approaches to estimating the carbon brainprint of an activity, such as research, development, consultancy or training.  These were applied to six case studies from Cranfield, Cambridge and Reading Universities, which demonstrated the large impact that higher education institutions can have.

The case studies are here.


The most comprehensive publication on sustainability at universities ever produced

📥  Comment, New Publications, News and Updates

This is not my claim; I'm just passing it on.  It comes from Walter Leal (Filho) and describes the forthcoming book: Sustainable Development at Universities: new horizons – edited by Walter Leal.  This arises from the "World Symposium on Sustainable Development at Universities" (sic) that was held at Rio+20, and which I'm told was a low-cost, highly participative event with lots of Latin American input.

There is a You Tube video from the conference which includes Walter passing on his knowledge of universities and sustainable development.  It does not take long.