Monday, 26 September 2016

Wilderness lost

Australian researchers have found that about one tenth of the world's wilderness has been lost in the last twenty years. The lost area is over 3 million square kilometers and the losses have been greatest in South America (30%) and Africa (14%).

This is, unhappily, not a surprise.

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

The need for evidence

Sense About Science is conducting a campaign in favour of evidence-based policy making. They asked members of the public to say why evidence is important to them. Here's what I wrote:
Elected politicians are expected to claim total knowledge when seeking election. Any such claim falls somewhere between optimism and dishonesty but after a time politicians come to believe their own words. Attention to evidence is needed as a corrective to this 'optimism'.

But it's also essential if we want policies to work - ie achieve their stated goals. There are almost always conflicting opinions about the likely effects of a policy but an opinion is what you have when you lack knowledge. So to have the best chance of working policies need to be based on the best possible understanding of the situation. That requires evidence and sometimes trials of several policies to see what works.

This is demanding. it requires what Russell called humility in the face of the universe. To attend to the facts and not to ones own prejudices. It also requires a kind of political courage. To be willing to say to the public and the press "Actually, we don't know what would work best - but we are determined to find out!"

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

How Green is Meridian Water? Travel

Meridian Water is Enfield's flagship development.

Here's my view on the green credentials of its travel provision - based on the published Masterplan.

In a previous post I asked for:

  1. Green space within walking distance.
  2. Good walking and cycling routes to shops, entertainment, etc.
  3. Accessible routes for people with nobility problems. - ??
  4. Good public transport connections.
There are green spaces on three sides of Meridian Water and it looks easy to walk to them. The site offers good opportunities for recreational walking and cycling - notably up the Lea Valley and into the Lea Valley Park.

If you want to cycle to actually get somewhere it's on National Cycle Network route 1 which runs north-south through the Valley and not far from the north end of Cycle Superhighway 1 which gives access to the City. There's a greenway to Edmonton Green and, though less clearly, there will be cycle lanes along the North Circular in both directions.

The public transport picture looks good. We're told that "most of the site is presently within a 5-10 minute walk of a bus stop" and the new Angel Road station will be close. (And there will be buses for those who need them). There will be four trains per hour (each way I assume) from Angel Road travelling to Stratford,Cambridge and Liverpool Street and connecting with the West Anglia Main Line and the Victoria Line. We must hope that the additional station capacity and services will be enough to make train travel a pleasant experience.

Drivers will get the doubtful privilege of joining traffic jams on the North Circular and Meridian Way - though they will be able to escape onto the M25 if they choose their times well.

Overall I think the travel facilities will be excellent.

How Green is Meridian Water? Housing

Meridian Water is Enfield's flagship development. It's supposed to deliver 10,000 homes and 16,000 jobs. And, being on brownfield land, it leaves the Green Belt untouched.

I've studied the Masterplan, approved in July 2013, and I'll apply the criteria in my last post.

Of course, I can only comment on the document. As with many other schemes what we get eventually may be very different. And here the experience of the Council's approach to providing a 'community hub' at the Ritz Parade is fairly discouraging.

And because is a complex scheme I'm going to make this several posts, starting with the central issue - housing.

The Masterplan refers to "5,000 new homes" though more recent Council statements have claimed 10,000. I attended an exhibition on the scheme last year but came away more confused about the numbers.

You can get some idea of the intended residents by looking at the list of travel connections: Heathrow, Stansted and City airports and Cambridge, Stratford and Canary Wharf. It's clear that the focus is on jet-setting bankers and entrepreneurs.

We need more homes, especially for those who can't afford decent homes. Developments are supposed to provide 40% 'affordable' homes but this is a distraction because developers generally find ways to avoid providing so many and more because most so-called affordable homes are not affordable by people on average pay.

In my view this problem is insoluble if numbers continue to rise. It is certainly not soluble without some serious creativity about the interplay between population, housing, finance and benefits. And that probably needs a new national policy - or several!

So, while we work on the broader issue, we can ask for 50% affordable homes. It won't solve the problem but at least those 50% won't be luxury flats for offshore investors!

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Consilience: A Philosophy for Green Politics

It surprises me that I've only now read Edward O Wilson's book Consilience. The unity of knowledge. It was, after all, published in 1998!

In Consilience Wilson takes an uncompromising position on the superiority of the scientific method to other ways of establishing knowledge. This is a strong claim but one that I entirely accept. Science, unlike appeals to authority, personal revelation or popular opinion gives us knowledge that we can safely rely one. Or at least it does so more often then  the others!

Wilson then argues that the areas of study not usually seen as part of science - from literature and the arts to ethics - should both adopt similar methods and seek consistency - which he calls consilience - with the findings of physical science. There's is much to be said for this. Anyone who has read what passes for scholarship in, say, cultural studies, will recognise the need for a strong dose of scientific scepticism. And if I cannot, in the end, agree with all his claims, especially about ethics, I do think he's much more right than wrong.


He also makes a claim for the relevance of science to politics (page 313 et seq of the Abacus paperback). His distinctive position here is to insist that politics - the use of power in society - should be understood within a scientific account of what is possible given the resources we have. This leads him to a fairly conventional account of the planetary crisis. 


But the framing of politics as subordinate to the environment is profoundly correct and important. It requires, at once, a longer, wider and deeper view than is available from mainstream politics. It requires, in short, a Green, ecological approach to politics.

Friday, 29 July 2016

Wasting the Water of Life

I want to recommend the work of Prof. Arjen Hoekstra, University of Twente.

Hoekstra invented the Water Footprint, similar to the carbon footprint, and has published vast amounts of data. He also has emphatic views:
In Europe, the average consumer’s domestic use is typically only 1 to 2 per cent of their total water footprint: the vast majority relates to the products you consume ... about 90 per cent of our global water footprint relates to food. About one-third relates to the production of feed for the animals we consume.
In California, for instance, the state’s biggest water use is for feed crops. Meanwhile, you have this drought going on, and all of the time the focus is on how terrible it is to have a drought. But the real focus should be on how stupid it is to have such a big water demand in a region where droughts are fully expected.
You can use less and less water per unit of production, but if your population is growing and your consumption booming, then that is simply not sufficient.

Because it imports so many goods, three-quarters of the UK’s water consumption is actually outside of its borders. And about half of that usage is not sustainable.  

We in northern Europe should realise that we are actually quite well off with water, and ask why we import water-intensive goods from water-scarce areas. It doesn’t make sense that we produce so little of our own food.
 All round the world we are mining water rather than recycling it. Ground water WILL run out and if we aren't ready we will all be in bad trouble.

Silly Questions about Air Pollution

I've just filled in the survey that forms part of the Mayor's consultation on air pollution. Since air pollution kills nearly 10,000 Londoners each year (70 times as many as die in road traffic accidents!) this is a big issue. And I'm pleased to see Green Assembly Member Caroline Russell working on the issue.

But the questions!

Take question 2:  Q2. To what extent do you think each of following is responsible for air pollution in London? - diesel cars, petrol cars, taxis, etc.

The contribution of, eg diesel cars, to air pollution is a matter for scientific study - not public opinion. And its something that the Mayor should tell us before asking our opinion on policy options since he and his advisers have access to scientific advice and time to read it. We don't. Without that the results will reflect some mixture of self-interest, time spent with good quality news sources and random prejudice.

Or take question 15: Do you think that residents should receive a 90% discount from the Emissions Surcharge?

To answer that I need to know what proportion of travel is due to residents's vehicles. That sounds simple but if a discount was introduced you can be sure that some smart residents would find ways to hire their vehicles to non-residents so that proportion would appear to increase.

And for every proposed policy we need to know simply this - How many lives will it save?

This is a poor quality consultation and a missed opportunity. Please, Mr Khan, do better next time!