Bill Scott's blog

Thoughts on learning, sustainability and the link between them

Monthly Archives: December 2014

No wonder Druids are confused

📥  Comment, News and Updates

No wonder Druids are more confused than usual this time of year when sunset started getting later around December 15th, and the sunrise will only be earlier after January 1st – even though their blessed Solstice was on December 21st.  Actually, it was at 2303 on the 21st, as the Solstice and the shortest day are not the same thing.  Whilst hardy Druids were likely to be safely in the pub by then, no doubt drinking mead, metheglin, melomel and the like, I marked the Solstice (at 2303 GMT) by plugging in my electric car – more on that in the new year.

For rich detail on all this – and much more – go to Sciencegeek aka Stephen Hurley.  Meanwhile, the compliments of the season, to you all.

The widening gulf between HEFCE and institutional activity

📥  Comment, New Publications

At long last, HEFCE has published its policy framework on sustainable development: "Sustainable development in higher education: HEFCE’s role to date and a framework for its future actions".  You can access it here.

If you decide to read it – I fear it is a damp squib – you might do so in the context of another document: "Sustainable development in higher education: Consultation outcomes".  This (it's here) analyses the comments from academics, institutions and others on the draft framework which HEFCE put forward last Spring.  It is, of course, HEFCE's analysis, and the actual responses are not included.  Nonetheless, there is enough here to illustrate the gulf between institutions and the Council.  This, for my money, continues to widen, as HEFCE draws back from the challenges and leadership it used to provide to the sector.  Pretending, on the insistence of its CEO, that sustainability is just about the environment is no way to face the future.

Such a shame when it was once seen as world-leading ...


Separate tracks, real synergy or a strategic error?

📥  Comment, New Publications

Separate Tracks or Real Synergy? Achieving a Closer Relationship between Education and SD, Post-2015, is the title of a new article by Stephen Sterling based upon a longer concept paper: ‘Winning the Future We Want — the pivotal role of education and learning’ that was commissioned by UNESCO for the World ESD Conference last month.

Sterling says that the brief for the UNESCO paper was to make a strong case for ESD as a critically important means of realizing sustainable development goals, and was based upon UNESCO’s analysis that the sustainable development discourse – including high-level reports associated with the post-2015 agenda – largely doesn't recognize the central role that learning and education must play in supporting individual and social change.  The commissioned paper covers a broad sweep including the place and role of education and learning in the context of the need for urgent social change.  There is an outline of relevant ESD theory including learning strategies, a desk-based critical review of the post-2015 debate, and an outline of the role of ESD as a key to sustainable development.

Separate Tracks ... is a shortened and updated version of the UNESCO conference paper – the main points of which can be seen here.

As for me, well, I'm pretty sure that, in time, all this focus on an increasingly reified ESD, which only a tiny minority of educators and activists know about, will come to be seen as as distraction from the main business of changing learning experiences to bring sustainability into focus.  Only the narrow-minded and those with personal interests to foist on others, see that ESD is the way to do this.  For example, if you're a teacher with an interest in sustainability that you want to introduce to your students, you don't need to master ESD theory (whatever that is) before you are able to do this – do you.



My! How smart those Americans are getting

📥  Comment, News and Updates

A while back, The Economist recently had a brief piece (and nice graph) on grade inflation in the Ivy league, reporting that the median grade at Harvard is now A–, with A as the mode.  But hang on, the Economist said, citing data, in 1950 Harvard's mean (sic) grade was a C.  Of course, given who goes (and teaches) there, this might be expected, as the Economist noted in its characteristically measured fashion:

"The students may be much cleverer than before: the Ivies are no longer gentlemen’s clubs for rich knuckleheads."

However, it concluded its piece:

Universities pump up grades because many students like it.  Administrators claim that tough grading leads to rivalry and stress for students.  But if that is true, why have grades at all?  Brilliant students complain that, thanks to grade inflation, little distinguishes them from their so-so classmates.  Employers agree.  When so many students get As, it is hard to figure out who is clever and who is not.

This pumping-up couldn't happen here, could it?  Before you say: "Of course not!", read this.



COP out in Peru

📥  Comment, News and Updates

Is it any real surprise that 11000 'delegates' in Peru failed to come to a decisive outcome over the last couple of weeks in COP20?  How was that supposed to happen?  The COPs, which started out as modest affairs, have grown to be circuses with all sorts of groups and factions wanting to be seen to be contributing.

Compared to the process of the Montreal Protocol, all this looks like a tango in a muddy field.  Ironically, it's the Montreal Protocol that has made the biggest contribution to limiting the growth of greenhouse gases, or so said the Economist earlier this year – see this for some fine infographics.  Clearly, COPs are broken, and as Reuters pointed out today, the task of finding a better process is urgent.  The Economist argued that the Protocol process was one to be copied:

"The protocol won the backing of developing countries partly because they did not think its targets were being jammed down their throats, and partly because they were given plenty of money to comply with its measures. Even more important, it also won support from large chemical companies (including DuPont) which made money producing substitutes for CFCs. This widespread co-operation is a model to be copied. It will be harder with carbon, because regulating downstream emissions (which a carbon treaty must do) involves more parties than upstream production (which the protocol regulates). But the spirit—of generous financing and co-operation—is the same."

It's worth noting that the Protocol process didn't have COPs to get in the way and slow things down.


Climate Update – no change

📥  Comment, News and Updates

This morning's Guardian has a gloomy update on COP20 from Lima which shows that all the usual fault lines are still in place – not enough cash and bad faith galore.  The piece ends:

In addition to finance, one of the biggest areas of contentious is “differentiation” in UN parlance – which countries should bear the burden of cutting emissions that cause climate change.  The US and other industrialised countries require all countries to cut greenhouse gas emissions.  That would be a departure from the original UN classification of the 1990s – which absolved China, India and other developing countries which are now major carbon polluters – of cutting their emissions.

Developing countries are suspicious that the text being developed in Lima is an attempt to rewrite those old guidelines.  “I am certain that developing countries the majority of them will have a problem with the way they framed responsibility. Most developing countries will be concerned about that,” said Tasneem Essop, head of strategy for WWF.

Countries are also divided over the initial commitments countries are expected to make on fighting climate change – known as “intended nationally determined contributions”.  Rich countries, including the US, only want to commit to carbon cuts. Developing countries want those commitments to include finance for climate adaptation.  The rich-poor divide also holds over the issue of monitoring the scale of those commitments – with China, India and other countries opposed to outside review.

If only they'd asked UNESCO to sort this out!  Fresh from its triumph with ESD, it would surely have been a breeze for the boys and girls in Paris to bring all parties to agreement.  Why does no one listen to them?  Ironic, really, especially as ESD's historic role is the save the planet.


Strong Winds in Scotland – not many dead

📥  Comment, News and Updates

In fact, despite warnings of biblical proportion from an increasingly frit Met Office, there were no dead at all, and I did wonder whether that rather irked the media outfits that had spent £zillions sending news teams to north-west Scotland to cover what only amounted to crashing waves, bending trees and stranded ferries – that is, a typical winter storm.  Hurricane Alec, it wasn't.  Channel 4 News even send a hapless character to Blackpool; a first, I think.

I watched it all unfold, quartered safe in Wiltshire.  Thanks to Chris Townsend, I was able to look at the swirling air masses on-line via a link to a graphic of Earth wind and ocean currents.  If you click on 'Earth' at the bottom left of the page you can change a range of perspectives and parameters – and you can rotate the earth image as well.  I wish I'd had this when I was failing to learn much geography at school.

As for the UK's prevailing westerly wind and weather, happily, until the laws of physics governing angular momentum are repealed, all this will go on and on and on.


COP20 – are they really closing the gap?

📥  Comment, News and Updates

The United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP20, comes at yet another "crucial moment, and talks continue on a draft international climate agreement due to be fanfared in Paris in 2015.  Carbon Brief has a comment on proceedings so far, as governments back away from accountability and action.  The World Resources Institute has highlighted three issues to watch as negotiations come to a head.  This piece includes a neat diagram drawing together adaption, mitigation, and "support".  I think the latter means large transfers of  resource (cash and in-kind) from rich to poor.

But who's rich and what's poor?  Here's a prediction: the Saudis (and others wallowing in oil who've not bothered to diversify their economies) will be seeking huge compensation from more advanced economies if they are to be persuaded to leave the black stuff in the ground.




Who's afraid of Natural Capital?

📥  Comment, News and Updates

I know that some prefer not to use the concept of natural capital; this can be for a variety of reasons, ranging from its association with the idea of money and monetary value, and worries that they will be labelled 'neo-liberal', across to fear that influential greybeards will glare at them and cross them off their Earth Day greetings card list.  I use the idea all the time, and when Herman Daly writes about it, as he did the other week, I take notice.  His blog begins ...

Some people object to the concept of “natural capital” because they say it reduces nature to the status of a commodity to be marketed at its exchange value. This indeed is a danger, well discussed by George Monbiot. Monbiot’s criticism rightly focuses on the monetary pricing of natural capital. But it is worth clarifying that the word “capital” in its original non-monetary sense means “a stock or fund that yields a flow of useful goods or services into the future.” The word “capital” derives from “capita” meaning “heads,” referring to heads of cattle in a herd. The herd is the capital stock; the sustainable annual increase in the herd is the flow of useful goods or “income” yielded by the capital stock–all in physical, not monetary, terms. The same physical definition of natural capital applies to a forest that gives a sustainable yield of cut timber, or a fish population that yields a sustainable catch. This use of the term “natural capital” is based on the relations of physical stocks and flows, and is independent of prices and monetary valuation. Its main use has been to call attention to and oppose the unsustainable drawdown of natural capital that is falsely counted as income.

Big problems certainly arise when we consider natural capital as expressible as a sum of money (financial capital), and then take money in the bank growing at the interest rate as the standard by which to judge whether the value of natural capital is growing fast enough, and then, following the rules of present value maximization, liquidate populations growing slower than the interest rate and replace them with faster growing ones. This is not how the ecosystem works. Money is fungible, natural stocks are not; money has no physical dimension, natural populations do. Exchanges of matter and energy among parts of the ecosystem have an objective ecological basis. They are not governed by prices based on subjective human preferences in the market.

Furthermore, money in the bank is a stock that yields a flow of new money (interest) all by itself without diminishing itself, and without the aid of other flows. Can a herd of cattle yield a flow of additional cattle all by itself, and without diminishing itself? Certainly not. The existing stock of cattle transforms a resource flow of grass and water into new cattle faster than old cattle die. And the grass requires sunlight, soil, air, and more water. Like cattle, capital transforms resource flows into products and wastes, obeying the laws of thermodynamics. Capital is not a magic substance that grows by creating something out of nothing.

While the environmentalist’s objections to monetary valuation of natural capital are sound and important, it is also true that physical stock-flow (capital-income) relations are important in both ecology and economics. Parallel concepts in economics and ecology aid the understanding and proper integration of the two realities–if their similarities are not pushed too far!  The biggest mistake in integrating economics and ecology is confusion about which is the Part and which is the Whole. Consider the following official statement, also cited by Monbiot:

"As the White Paper rightly emphasized, the environment is part of the economy and needs to be properly integrated into it so that growth opportunities will not be missed." —Dieter Helm, Chairman of the Natural Capital Committee, The State of Natural Capital: Restoring our Natural Assets, Second report to the Economic Affairs Committee, UK, 2014.

If the Chairman of the UK Natural Capital Committee gets it exactly backwards, then probably others do too. The environment, the finite ecosphere, is the Whole and the economic subsystem is a Part–a completely dependent part. It is the economy that needs to be properly integrated into the ecosphere so that its limits on the growth of the subsystem will not be missed. Given this fundamental misconception, it is not hard to understand how other errors follow, and how some economists, imagining that the ecosphere is part of the economy, get confused about valuation of natural capital.

In the empty world, natural capital was a free good, correctly priced at zero. In the full world, natural capital is scarce. How do we take account of that scarcity without prices? This question is what understandably leads economists to price natural capital, and then leads to the monetary valuation problems just discussed. But is there not another way to recognize scarcity, besides pricing? Yes, one could impose quotas–quantitative limits on the resource flows at ecologically sustainable levels that do not further deplete natural capital. We could recognize scarcity by living sustainably off of natural income rather than living unsustainably from the depletion of natural capital.

In economics, “income” is by definition the maximum amount that can be consumed this year without reducing the capacity to produce the same amount next year. In other words, income is by definition sustainable, and the whole reason for income accounting is to avoid impoverishment by inadvertent consumption of capital. This prudential rule, although a big improvement over present practice, is still anthropocentric in that it considers nature in terms only of its instrumental value to humans. Without denying the obvious instrumental value of nature to humans, many of us consider nature to also have intrinsic value, based partly on the enjoyment by other species of their own sentient lives. Even if the sentient experience of other species is quite reasonably considered less intrinsically valuable than that of humans, it is not zero. Therefore we have a reason to keep the scale of human takeover even below that indicated by maximization of instrumental value to humans. On the basis of intrinsic value alone, one may argue that the more humans the better–as long as we are not all alive at the same time! Maximizing cumulative lives ever to be lived with sufficient wealth for a good (not luxurious) life is very different from, and inconsistent with, maximizing simultaneous lives.


There's more, and it can be read here.  But this is enough to see that it is possible to be both better informed and a little bit wiser.