Tag Archives: limits to growth

21. Communicating sustainability…in the beginning

OK Dear Reader, I am back to the blog! And yes, I know it has been a while, but this semester I hope to keep on top of things a bit better on a weekly basis, as a journal of stuff that is my passion: sustainability.

Since my last post I have had three amazing experiences. The first was to do a small presentation to the Innovation and Sustainability Centre at USC on our backyard veggie garden and aquaponics system. It was a bit nerve-racking but the PowerPoint held together and people asked questions at the end, so all good. As part of the presentation I developed a systems diagram of the inputs, outputs, throughputs and loops that happen in the backyard of our small suburban block. It looks messy (you should see the actual garden!) but it shows how we blend and interface, where we can, all component parts.

Backyard sys diagram_4

The second amazing thing was that I was asked to help critique the first semester course I had just completed: SUS101. What a privilege! The course was such an eye opener  in so many ways and has encouraged me to pursue some of my bigger (sustainability) passions, which include food and consumption. But being asked to feed back into that course (which had just been reworked and rewritten) allowed me an opportunity to ‘play it forward’: to contribute so that, I hope, the next cohort gets even more out of the course than I did.

The third, but certainly not the least, was the opportunity to attend a lecture by Tim Flannery at USC. Tim is an amazing man who is so knowledgable and so generous with his time. His half hour lecture was followed by a one-hour Q&A! For a bit more on Tim Flannery check out these links [http://www.claxtonspeakers.com.au/speakers_profile/752 and https://www.climatecouncil.org.au/contributors/tim-flannery]

So onto this semester and what it holds!

SUS202 is Communicating Sustainability. It’s a big area and I am hoping to find some answers. Why are we still having the global warming ‘debate’? Why, when Rachel Carson wrote and published Silent Spring in 1962 are we still poisoning our planet (in more ways than I can even conceive) 50 years down the track? Does the allure of money make us mute to speaking for our environment: that which will sustain us? Is there a silver bullet, a way that what should be heard, will be heard above the almighty din of disinformation?

In this first week we have been set reading tasks and also invited to watch a TEDTalk: Mark Pagel, a biologist whose topic is ‘How language transformed humanity’ [20 minutes: see: https://www.ted.com/talks/mark_pagel_how_language_transformed_humanity]. It is indeed interesting stuff, but I get it, that we have language and have been able to cooperate and communicate and refine ideas is peculiar to our species. That language divides and unites us at the same time is confounding. That language can be used to subvert and empower us is equally perplexing. Would one language solve everything? I go with no, but will let you be the judge.

Another TEDTalk I found (stumbled upon) is by Keith Chen, a Behavioural Economist from Yale. His talk is well worth the watch, but I ask you to substitute the idea of ‘saving money’ with ‘saving the environment’…now there’s an interesting area for study: that the language you speak has an impact on your ability to project: to live sustainably now to have a better future [12 minutes: see: https://www.ted.com/talks/keith_chen_could_your_language_affect_your_ability_to_save_money/]


15. Food glorious food?

Our current (group) assignment involves ‘food insecurity’ and sustainability. It is worth 10% … and yet I have read and read and read and I could indeed, just keep reading.

We are almost to the final draft, which I will then go and make pretty (as is my want) but it is safe to say that we have sliced and diced this thing to bits … all puns intended. In all honesty, instead of the 2,000 word essay, what I want to submit is something like the following:

On sustainability:

Just stop buying crap would be a good start. Oh, and listen to our climate scientists.

On food security/insecurity, I would borrow heavily from Michael Pollan of The omnivore’s dilemma (and other books) fame:

‘Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants’.

but I would add:

Your food should grow or live as close to you as is practicable.

But of course this is far too simple for what is a really complex, multi-dimentional problem, but hey—I think it would be a damned good place to start 😀

As I have said, I have read so much stuff. For the purposes of a university paper, it has involved searching for and finding original research, and combining that with other papers, and segments from books. It is, after all, a piece of academic writing. I do struggle though to set limits as to what and how much I read, as the internet is both a blessing and a curse in the way you can find so much material. Mostly I am compelled to read it.

I cannot complain about my head being full—it is indeed a wonderful state.

What I have found to be truly inspiring is the material in TED Talks. I had known about TED Talks before I started studying, but I do turn to them, on the whole, for much more palatable information—most of the speakers are great entertainers as well as being very knowledgeable. A few gems I have watched recently on the topic of food and would recommend:

and just now, looking for, copying and placing these links I have found even more I think I need to watch (maybe today):

And just for fun, here is the graphic I made for our report—taken from some data (actually taken from two sources and melded). It shows the  results of a survey of university students: the amount of food they consumed from each of the five food groups is shown as a percentage, while the number of recommended daily servings from this group, is the big number at the top.


At the ripe old age of 53, I discovered so much about food groups and serving sizes and serves per population segment. And yes it is, or can be complicated—overly so, as also evidenced by the myriad diets on the market. It makes me think that Michael Pollan actually nailed it!

11. Stuff on the fly

Busy, busy, busy trying to read and keep up with things, but two items that came across my desk today that are worth adding (read: I need to get back to these/distribute to others):

… an excerpt (as supplied online):

What is your personal carrying capacity for grief, rage, despair? We are living in a period of mass extinction. The numbers stand at 200 species a day.[3] That’s 73,000 a year. This culture is oblivious to their passing, feels entitled to their every last niche, and there is no roll call on the nightly news.

There is a name for the tsunami wave of extermination: the Holocene extinction event. There’s no asteroid this time, only human behavior, behavior that we could choose to stop. Adolph Eichman’s excuse was that no one told him that the concentration camps were wrong. We’ve all seen the pictures of the drowning polar bears. Are we so ethically numb that we need to be told this is wrong?

There are voices raised in concern, even anguish, at the plight of the earth, the rending of its species. “Only zero emissions can prevent a warmer planet,” one pair of climatologists declare.[4] James Lovelock, originator of the Gaia hypothesis, states bluntly that global warming has passed the tipping point, carbon offsetting is a joke, and “individual lifestyle adjustments” are “a deluded fantasy.”[5] It’s all true, and self-evi­dent. “Simple living” should start with simple observation: if burning fossil fuels will kill the planet, then stop burning them.

And something on the positive end of the scale: something that could well make an immediate difference for researchers:

  • The rise of citizen science via the Climate Council (see: http://www.climatecouncil.org.au/the-rise-of-citizen-science). I had a look at and indeed downloaded the link to BOINC: compute for science to allow the idle power of my computer to be used to run programs by whichever project I choose (Oxford University are running the climate prediction project)There is a stack of projects you can lend your individual computing power to, including astronomy, cryptography, chemistry, epidemiology … the list goes on! (see: http://boinc.berkeley.edu/projects.php)

10. Nature and all her glory

I am up late, a bit tired, but pushing through readings and summaries for work on the group assignment. I have headphones in with some rather uplifting strains of Jordi Savall delivering Boccherini straight to my brain (currently listening to my fave track on this album: Boccherini: Quintet In D, Op. 31, G324, “La Musica Notturna Delle Strade Di Madrid” – 5. Passa Calle. Allegro Vivo P). Love. It.

Classical music works a treat by blocking out the TV in the other room without itself being too distracting, but between tracks, I can hear the blessed rain pounding on our tin roof. We have not heard that here for a long time.

Our not-so-traditional water tanks (read recovered and repurposed IBCs) are all full to the brim 🙂 Yay—4,000 litres of precious water for the soil garden.

But the rain reminds me of how much we need water: how our life literally depends on it. And we squander it and we pollute it and in so many ways we just don’t seem to be aware of it being finite (as with some many other parts of this system). I remember watching one of those BBC productions with Prof. Brian  Cox, not that long ago, where he was talking about our planet and he came to explaining about water. He was sitting in a rowboat, on a lake, with a bucket of water in front of him. He explained that all of the water in the bucket represented all water on Earth. He cupped his hands and dipped into the bucket and what was held in his hands, he suggested was the amount of available water. He then uncupped his hands and said that the thin film of water clinging to just one hand represented the amount of available fresh water. It was a very salient demonstration.

I went to find it online but couldn’t. In the searchI found some other great explanations about Earth’s water from:

The other piece of information that made me sit up and think how much we truly take this planet and its resources for granted and how we need to be mindful of our consumption, was a magazine article featuring an Irishman called Mark Boyle who decided to live a year without money (see: http://www.trueactivist.com/the-man-who-lives-without-money/)

My favourite bit, I have to admit, is this:

“If we grew our own food, we wouldn’t waste a third of it today … If we made our own tables and chairs, we wouldn’t throw them out the moment we changed the interior décor. If we had to clean our own water, we probably wouldn’t shit in it”.


8. Powerful words from an amazing woman

I met, for the first time today, an amazing woman called Lynne Twist. She came to me via FaceBook in a post by Pachamama (see: http://www.pachamama.org/blog/getting-out-of-ecological-debt-lynne-twist-at-tedx-wall-street?utm_content=bufferbcdba&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer)

Lynne is co-founder of Pachamama and well known philanthropist. The following, from her website,  gives you some background on her:

For more than 40 years, Lynne Twist has been a recognized global visionary committed to alleviating poverty and hunger and supporting social justice and environmental sustainability.
From working with Mother Teresa in Calcutta to the refugee camps in Ethiopia and the threatened rainforests of the Amazon, Lynne’s on-the-ground work has brought her a deep understanding of the social tapestry of the world and the historical landscape of the times we are living in.

The TedX Talk I watched featuring Lynne was inspirational. In it Lynne argues, that as a species, we are in deep ecological debt. As a whole, humanity uses 41% more resources than the Earth can regenerate. She says,

“We are living off an ecological credit card we can never pay back.”

According to Lynne the economy is a subset of the world’s ecology because everything that we sell within the economy comes from the Earth. Thus, the only way to fix the economy is to live within our ecological means.

Lynne states that it is our responsibility to reverse this trend and create a better world for everyone. (The above information was gleaned from the above Pachamama link.)

Watch this TedX Talk. It is well worth it.


Respect, Lynne Twist. Respect!

Oh, and now I have two more books to add to my(ever-growing) list:

7. Climate Change recharge

So today, dear readers, I watched and completed the first module on Climate Change through Open2Study, as hosted by Dr Tim Flannery and Prof Lesley Hughes. Really, really informative and well presented. See: https://www.open2study.com/courses/climate-change

I encourage anyone who has even the vaguest interest in the concept that humans may be impacting on our climate to give this a bit of a go. It is totally free! And it won’t bite you!

I have also started collaborating with those in my group on the second task in my course. It’s a bit of a mind spin—I have never been keen on group projects: instinctively I like to run my own show, and having been in groups and having assessed group assignments I know that inevitably there are stronger and weaker contributors—although I think our group is pretty solid. We only have two weeks to come up with the report (on poor diets of Uni students in the context of sustainability), and using the tools, including a group think-tank area called the Wiki, is a new thing for this old dog.

Other interesting developments of today:

  • the interchange happening between me and my partner is amazing. He is a big Lean Thinking advocate and there are really lovely synergies in what I am studying and how he thinks about processes. In a lead-up to starting my study I did a bit of research to decide if this was going to be ‘it’ for me…and in the process I discovered aquaponics. Being the ‘can do’ kinda man he is, it was literally a matter of a week from talking about it, until we had our system up and cycling. 6–7 weeks into the experiment we are harvesting vegetables and watching with wonder how the fish (mostly Jade Perch) have grown from 1cm to 7cm and put on considerable bulk. He has now taken over my white board with ideas of a community based sustainability group, and this loops back to one of our original discussions about local, community-based aquaponic installations as a feature of future communities.
  • I read on the FootprintNetwork blog that Earth Overshoot Day was on my birthday last year 😦 Translated, that means that as I was celebrating my 52nd birthday, on the same day (approximately) humanity’s ecological resource consumption exceeded what Earth can renew. See more at:  http://footprintnetwork.org/en/index.php/GFN/blog/#sthash.HOTQlC7i.dpuf
  • I have more books to read (thanks Lisa), including:
    • Lindsay Tanner’s Dumbing Down of Democracy;
    • Mark Lynas’s Six Degrees;
    • Jared Diamond’s Collapse; and
    • Juliet Shor’s The Overworked American

I think I need many more hours in a day!


6. Population and consumption

I had a big win yesterday as I managed to find two of the three books I wanted in the library:

  • Confronting Consumption, Thomas Princen, Michael Maniates & Ken Conca [Eds]
  • The New Economics of Sustainable Consumption: Seeds of Change, Gill Seyfang

I was looking for, but did not find, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring which is the seminal work on environment and human impact on it written in 1962. It’s probably something I should buy anyways.

My head is in a bit of a spin, and comically, only after three weeks of doing this course I feel like I can and should try to change the world. I have NEVER felt like this before.

The lecture yesterday covered two main areas of concern: population and consumption. As a species we have been thinking about limits and population since the late 1700s and it seems from then until now, we still seem to apportion the ‘blame’ for ‘overpopulation’ on the unwashed masses—in the 18th century the church firmly blamed the unbelievers and today we do the same with ‘the Third World’ or developing nations. How crass.

As of this week, world population sits at around 7 billion souls. The projections for population growth are on a J-curve, are exponential so we will, as a planet, continue to grow and grow at an alarming rate. But what is the carrying capacity of the planet? There are many studies into this with a wide variation in opinion, but most scholars have agreed on a range of of 8–16 billion. But of those, let’s say we top out at 8 billion souls (and that is conservative), at what level can this population be sustained? The simple answer is that we cannot all be a Gina Rinehart 😦

I completed the Footprint Calculator exercise (see: http://footprintnetwork.org/en/index.php/GFN/page/calculators/) and to sustain my lifestyle, it would take 2.1 Earths. This is a shock, as I have what I consider to be a smallish footprint—I work from home so I don’t use the car a lot (in fact going to uni to participate in this course is my biggest journey creating a bit of personal cognitive dissonance), we grow a lot of our own food, we keep chickens for eggs and recycling, have a substantial solar panel array (we feed into the grid), 4,000 litre capacity rainwater tanks for the soil garden, and a small but viable aquaponics system). Indeed it IS a smallish footprint, as most Western consumers would need 5–7 Earths to sustain their consumptive lifestyle.

So peeps…what the hell are we going to do about this?

It’s a tricky subject as we are so entrenched in this, our consumer society. I am a big consumer, and in the past, was an even bigger consumer. My reading this week is of the above books and probably other things I will inevitably find on the Net. So much of who we believe we are is invested in the possessions we have—and most of this is driven by corporations wanting to derive a profit through sales via the very persuasive advertising and marketing industries.

My interest in human behaviour—what motivates and drives us, and something which I could have spent more time on in my undergrad Psych degree, is being reignited in me.

As a closing note, two contrasting costs presented in the lecture:

  • cost for establishing clean water and sanitation for everyone on the planet = $9billion
    vs the money spent on ice-cream in Europe in one year = $11billion
  • cost for basic education for the whole planet $6billion
    vs the money spent on cosmetics in the US in one year $8billion

Oh, and in Australia, we spend more on our pets in one year (excluding purchase and vet bills—so focussing on food and toys and such) than we do on foreign aid.