Archive | Articles in-depth RSS for this section

The Baltic: a dying sea on the doorstep of industrial giants

At a Stockholm seminar on the 18th January held by the Baltic Works Commission,  scientists, government officials and NGOs came together to discuss the dying briny depths on their doorstep: the Baltic Sea. The general consensus is one of emergency where technology provides an as yet unproven ray of hope. This is only if the countries surrounding the Baltic are ready for bold investments, policy changes  and some bold pilot studies. If nothing is done, the nutrients contained in the dead sea floor could flow into the water body and – worst case – cause the whole sea to turn in to a dead algal soup. Read More…

Case Study: Dealing with transition to fossil-free food provision and refugees at the same time

food-securityPLACE: Sweden. Municipal level
SITUATION: Swedish municipalities are facing several resilience challenges at once. They have to provide shelter and care to the highest influx of refugees and migrants per capita in Europe whilst preparing for the ambitious government-led transition to fossil fuel independence and carbon neutrality by 2050. Food security is at risk too, as Swedish food provision field to plate is fossil-fuel dependent and food waste is high. Sweden is also dependent on food and fodder imports;  farmers are struggling to compete with imports from countries that have lower food safety and animal welfare standards, better soil and growing seasons, and lower costs.
FRAMING QUESTION: How can municipalities work towards a de-fossilised food provision system that reduces waste, manages the influx of migrants and refugees whilst ensuring the farming community can live on what it produces? Read More…

Opinion: Ericsson divorces Sweden and kills technology

Technology died today. Not the machines, but the paradigm. The belief that delivering high-tech creates jobs, prosperity and shareholder value got killed. The news hit this morning in Sweden’s newspaper SVD among others, that Sweden’s flagship, Ericsson, is shedding thousands of jobs and shutting down manufacturing in Sweden. The decision is sending shock-waves through the municipalities where Ericsson units are one of the largest employers. The likely effect is that whole communities will suffer in a domino effect decimating local suppliers then local services then house prices. And it’s probably the best thing to happen to Sweden for a long while. More on that later. First to the situation. Read More…

A circular economy needs a framework of rules and financial incentives to work

The idea seems logical: when a product or material enters the economy it should stay there – if it comes from below the ground. If it comes from nature it can return at a rate the eco-system can absorb it. The problem is, we are living in a society that has been weaving a complicated web of laws, rules and, taxes and fees since money was created. At the moment it just doesn’t pay. Ushering in the circular economy means making sure it pays by dismantling a few parts of this framework and replacing others. But where to start? Are there existing points of control that can be adapted to stimulate circularity? This article identifies a few essentials. Read More…

The economics of the circular economy

Economic Fiscal Reform calls for the economic system to align with the twin purposes of preserving and  indeed restoring the environment whilst providing a standard of living for citizens. Up to now, these purposes have not been central to the way economics has been practiced. We are, however, facing a pressing situation: soil degradation, atmospheric warming and mineral depletion are forcing us to rethink. The idea of the circular economy – where biological and mineral material circulate in the economy without being deposited – is gaining ground. Read More…

Community finance: a Permaculture approach

ABOUT COMMUNITY FINANCE:  We are living at the peak of human achievement, but also at the peak of our resources. A change towards sustainability includes handing over to future generations the possibility to create for themselves a standard of living at least equivalent to that we enjoy. This requires fundamentally re-thinking how we use resources, indeed many of the social arrangements we take for granted, including our relationship to money. And we need to start now. The basic values in this article come from Permaculture: People care, Earth care, Fair share. However, you do not need to know Permaculture to understand the article.  We will  explores ways, within the current financial system, to create communities that align to these values. Read More…

Zero-emission behavior. TIGE enquiry

Going sustainable by focusing on zero emission behavior.

Recently, together with Kabir Aurora, I led an inquiry group as part of TIGE: Trust and Integrity in the Global Economy conference, Caux Switzerland. The sessions focused on how to go from the present situation to a society with sustainable production and consumption. Read More…

A Marx moment manifests in McDonald’s

My partner and I were driving home and needed a coffee break. It was late Sunday night. Only motorway stops were  on offer. We opted for a McDonald’s.  As I walked over to the store I checked my mail: an update from Marxist economist Michael Roberts to read whilst I waited for our order. I was about to learn something.

Read More…

Suppose capitalism mimicked nature

Article updated June 6 after consideration of all the recent comments

We are stuck. On the one hand you have people who talk about economic growth as being the objective of policy – necessary to be able to pay back debts and achieve prosperity. On the other hand, you have the sustainable camp that claims infinite growth is impossible and therefore the whole economic system is bound to fail as it relies on it. You have people who claim we need GOOD growth as opposed to BAD growth. Bad growth would be the increased economic activity due to storms, break-ins and failures of products. Either way, the term capitalism comes up as if it were a system. Perhaps if we explored the idea of developing our thinking about capital we might find some ways forward.

My aim here is to clarify the idea of using capital as a central social planning approach, using the idea of settlement maturity. This is the idea that settlements, and the societies in them, like an eco-system, can mature. If society can mature, then maybe its capital profile will mature too.To be able to take this analytical line we need to understand first what ecological maturity is.

Let us look, then, at how nature grows and see if we can find some insights into how capital can grow, and what economic growth would look like through the eyes of sustainability.

Growth =net increase in mass

Growth (rapid increase in biomass)is a stage the ecosystems go through on their way to ecological maturity

There is still growth in mature eco-systems. Trees still grow, albeit slower. However, for the system as a whole there is little net increase in biomass.

Ecologists describe how all eco-systems strive to become mature. You probably have the idea somewhere in the back of your mind, how smaller animals give way to large predators, small plants become forests, rushing water becomes a swamp, etc.

One well-known description of maturity comes from the ecologist Odum,(ref 1) (table below)

Let’s take it bit by bit:

  • Gross production. This means the total amount of biomass that accumulates in the system. Note that as a system matures, the slower biomass increases. For example, young trees grow very fast, older trees grow much slower.
  • Biomass supported. As the system matures, more biomass is in the system – more trees grow, more animals and plants more in, and they are larger.
  • Total organic matter. As above, the more mature the system, the more in the eco-system.
  • Size of organism. In immature systems, the organisms are small. As the system matures, and there is more for predators to eat, for example, the more and larger the organisms become.
  • Niche specialism. As the system matures so does diversity. More specialized organisms move in.Mineral cycles. Eco systems need minerals to cycle in them in order to function, so to have more biomass they must retain nutrients.
  • Nutrient exchange rate organisms <> environment . Immature systems “leak” both heat and nutrients to other eco-systems.Role of detritus in nutrient cycling. As the system matures, detritus is more and more important as a source of minerals and energy for the organisms in it.Nutrient conservation. Mature systems conserve minerals and do not leak them to other systems.

We now need to explore the idea of capital.

The diagram below breaks down the categories of capital often used.
The categories should be be self evident. But from the point of view of accounting, human capital and social capital are not normally put on the books.
Financial capital is divided into that owned by the organisation and that borrowed. In English the terms foreign capital is used for money lent and equity is the money put into the company by its owners.

Now let us apply the idea of maturity using the idea of the built environment; a settlement.

An immature settlement might be a few tents that settlers might bring with them. They have no agriculture, there is no infrastructure, but they are surrounded by the bounty of nature and can begin to convert, for example, trees to buildings.We can envision an immature settlement, but can we envision a mature one? Surely our cities act like immature settlements: nutrients are lost to surrounding environment, metals and minerals end up in tips, and even our building reflect heat rather than gather the energy from the sun. The list below is an attempt to bring together ideas of what a more eco-mimicking city or settlement might look like.

GROSS PRODUCTION. Here we would see the production of buildings and transport infrastructure as complete, only repair and upgrade would be needed. Most production activity would be turned to food and heating and lighting.

BIOMASS SUPPORTED. The mature settlement would have a high level of biomass supported in the form of tree, and food -producing facilities.

TOTAL ORGANIC MATTER Total organic matter would be higher, to provide eco-system services like shade, energy capturing, building and clothing materials etc. A field does not represent this vision, we would expect more organic matter intensive methods, like forest agriculture, food forestry, would be used.

SIZE OF ORGANISM. It can be imagined that in this case, for a society organism means body, like an organization. As society matures, more specialized and larger organizations can provide efficiency of scale and specialization.

NICHE SPECIALIZATION. People could have more specialized jobs as society matures. Early settlers might need to master a broad range of tasks without being able to go too deeply. In the specialized society everyone could master subjects deeper.

MINERAL CYCLES. It makes sense that an immature society digs up iron and other materials to get started. But after a while, the extraction of these substances can become polluting and maybe lead to scarcity. In this case, minerals already extracted should be recycled ad not released in to the biosphere. This approach is being pioneered by the natural step and Cradle to Cradle. The mature settlement is a mineral recycling society

NUTRIENT EXCHANGE RATE WITH ENVIRONMENT. The same here as for minerals. The mature society will retain nutrients for recycling, and do the surrounding environment a favour by not putting this burden onto it, as well as minimizing the work needed to obtain nutrients. These building blocks of life can stay within the settlement. More are only needed for growth.

ROLE OF DETRITUS Early settlers could make waste without it creating a problem or being seen as a loss of valuable resources as there probably were not much of them. Not so for the mature settlement, where the amount of biomass is high. Detritus is a resource and in the mature society there may be much of it. It can also accumulate and be a pollutant. So it needs recycling. This will mean a soil to soil perceptive for food systems – from soil to plate back to soil.

NUTRIENT CONSERVATION. Gathering nutrients requires a lot of work in an immature settlement. Mature settlements recognize the energy and effort needed in obtaining nutrients is far greater than the effort and work required to cycle them.

What we are describing, then, is that the concept of economic growth is not an end in itself but the process by which economic maturity is reached. At this point, capital is accumulated, analogous to the build up of bio-mass in the mature eco-system.

The effect on capital.The diagram below illustrates how capital is converted and increased in the maturing society, using money merely as a medium of exchange.

Natural capital to man-made capital (A) : For example, minerals and nutrients would be used to create housing and machines. At the same time, man-made capital should be in place to promote development of natural capital(B). Man-made capital cannot increase at the expense of natural capital, the two must grow together. Otherwise, the services that natural systems provide (like building materials, food, clean water, etc) will be unavailable.

Conversion of human capital to man-made and natural capital(C): human capital conversion works uniquely. Taking knowledge and applying it to solve the problem of creating man-made capital and natural capital can, if applied right, increase human capital through learning.This knowledge could be institutionalized in social capital in organizations and information systems.

Social capital, the development of organizations (D), would in turn be needed to run, organize, and develop the man-made capital (E) and natural capital(B).

The role of Financial Capital. In this diagram, money represents an accounting system that has significance in that the value of the whole increases over time. (If all forms of capital can be valued using the same system of measurements.) As the system matures it will accumulate biomass and minerals for recycling and organizations that accumulate knowledge. An accounting system could be developed that calculated in this way. Growth would slow down as the settlements matured- I leave it to later articles to explore how such an accounting system might work.

REFERENCES

1) Odum, E. P. 1969. The strategy of ecosystem development. Science, 104:262-270.

Research Accelerating Transition in the Stockholm Region

Län2

Stockholm County, home to 2,1 million. Suitable to study as a bio-region?

I got asked yesterday by a friend involved in an EU project about my ideas for accelerating transition in the Stockholm area.

The project is called ARTS (Accelerating and Rescaling Transitions to Sustainability) and  is committed to understanding the role and impact of transition initiatives in cities and examining the conditions that can aid accelerating change towards a sustainable low-carbon society.

I was busy yesterday and today is too late, but as an academic exercise I thought I might give my two-pennies worth. They have already decided direction for the next season.

I think that the research project should build on the experience so far of Transition Network, the organisation started in England to promote grass-roots action to building a resilient society. Top of the list of objectives with resilience is boosting inclusiveness, food security, adapting to de-fossilisation of society and coping with climate change.

EXPERIENCE # 1 Sense of place

A world driven by fossil fuels tends to look same-y. When transitioning and relying on local sources of energy and food, as well as dealing with local climate, solutions tend to look different. For example, highly urbanised areas in cold climates have a challenge of keeping food available all year round affecting diets, storage techniques and transport solutions.

In order to deal with place it is necessary to define the place. This is one thing transition initiatives tend to give some thought to…. what geographical area are they targeting, and how this area relatse to juridical boundaries and bio-regional considerations.

Suggestion #1

Define whether the county of Stockholm is the target or the region of Mälardalen is the target under study. The ARTS Web-site identifies Stockholm County, but the call for input described the Mälardalen valley where Stockholm is situated.

Is the region of Mälardalen one bio-region or does it comprise several others?

Suggestion #2 Inventory and map

The bioregionalist perspective opposes a homogeneous economy and consumer culture with its lack of stewardship towards the environment. Using this perspective researchers could:

  • Match political boundaries with ecological boundaries.
  • Highlight the unique ecology of the bioregion.
  • Identify local foods where possible.
  • Identify which    local materials are available
  • Identify where native  native plants of the region are being cultivated
  • Look into  transition  in harmony with the bioregion.[8]
  • Identify bio-region stewardship stakeholders.

(Information adapted from Wikipedia)

Suggestion #3

Map edges. Edges in this case are where the bio-region is not able to, or close to not being able to, support the people living in it.

Of particular importance is water shed and water shed management. Mälardalen is an area identified as a potential water challenged area.

Another edge might be Phosphorus and Nitrogen flows. How much rock-based phosphorus and fossil fuel-based nitrogen fertilisers are imported to the bio-region. How much exits via the water shed.

A third “edge” to map is the use of fossil fuel in the bio-region. How much is used, and for what. Particularly blue light services and agriculture.

Focussing on a region, understanding its bio-regionality and mapping edges gives a good basis for understanding the potential of smaller initiatives to contribute to whole. For example, what would be the resiliential impact if everyone had urine-separating toilets?

All initiatives should be mapped, and categorised against the edges. These initiatives can be used to address the edges.

Even some edges can be mapped against bio.region resources, for example, housing shortages against local materials available, food security against wild food plants, transition initiatives addressing edges – like community supported agriculture that addresses food security.

EXPERIENCE #2 Action is preceded by awareness to knowledge.

People “do” Transition  as soon as they understand what it is all about and have reached a point within themselves where they have the conviction to move to action. For some, they watch a film like “in Transtion” and immediately commit to growing some of their own food on allotments. Others, see the film and continue to be doubtful as to what they could personally do and how. Some go into research mode and learn and learn and learn until they, to are ready to act.

Suggestion #4

Identify Transitioners, that is to say people in the region who are involved in Transition Initiatives. It would be useful to understand the route

that these people took from information to action. Not that all will follow, but conclusions might be drawn on the kind of information that helps people transition, especially the kinds of information barriers, that once overcome, will lead to active involvement.

This research holds potential for understand how Transition can happen just in the Swedish Culture, even in the city culture and the cultures in the city (various religions and ethnic culture but also youth, hipster, etc) and play a role in understanding how Swedish media and arts and culture can help.

EXPERIENCE # 3 Trash catchers are we all.

Looking at waste says a lot about a society. Several initiatives have focussed on turning waste into something useful.

Suggestion # 5 Useful research would be to understand the waste stream contents and handling in the region. This is to underpin the transition to the circular economy, And to identify those projects that have successfully captured waste streams. This might present opportunities for scaling up. It would also be an opportunity to see which barriers through local practices and regulations prevent waste streams from being sustainably exploited. (For example, Stockholm burns a lot of its waste…. an opportunity or a missed opportunity?)

EXPERIENCE #4 We all have to eat.

Food security must come high up on the list of any transitioner. With the large involvement of fossil fuels in food provision today, food insecurity as a result of defossilisation must be a priority to study.

Suggestion #6: identify all initiatives in the region that have the potential to scale into fossil-free agriculture solutions. Inventory those with the capabilities and skills, even if their production volumes are low. Investigate these initiatives to see what the barriers and opportunities there are to scaling.

Suggestion #7: Do an analysis of the bio-region’s ability to feed itself. This requires mapping where fertile soil is, where market gardens are, where food distribution is taking place etc. And competence. Identify all those who can contribute to showing and teaching other ways. For example, of highest importance in CUBA were the oxen breeders and trainers who were pivotal when tractors stopped working as the supplies of diesel dried up thanks to the crash of the soviet union.

EXPERIENCE #6 New forms of organisation are badly needed

Most people are either workers in organisations or manage organisations. The forms of these organisation are given by law and workers are used to following orders, doing their jobs, and getting paid. It doesn’t work like that in Transition which is individual impetus driven. It’s up to the people who are doing it, most is voluntary and there are no bosses. But there are leaders. Different kinds of leaders.

The whole idea of what work is, how to organise it and share the results is up for grabs. Old paradigms of the corporation and corporate control through command and control are probably not going to take us to meet the challenges of the 21st century. But what else is there?

Suggestion #8: Identify new forms of organisation and identify what is being practised in the area.  (Examples: holocracy, sociocracy, dragon dreaming, gift society, circle way, intentional communities, CSA, etc ) These form potential centers of learning and can be potentially scaled. We can even learn a lot from failed attempts at new forms of cooperation.

EXPERIENCE # 7 It’s  resilience, not sustainability

Transition Initiatives have identified that they want to create resilience in their areas, rather than sustainability. It is possible to be environmentally good, but not resilient. You can have a low ecological footprint but be unable to handle the knocks and pressures of, for example, global economic downturn, climate disturbances, or fossil fuel shortages. So being environmental is but a step on the way to becoming resilient.

The opposite of resilience is efficiency. Efficiency is often about having one solution (not bothering with other, redundant, solutions). Resilience is about having more options. I like the idea of three. The idea of three is taught in survival classes: have three ways to make fire, three ways to get water, three ways of keeping in touch with your group, etc.

You can make a crude measure of resilience by listing the essential services in the bio region, and identifying the number of alternatives that are available for each.

The more alternatives, the higher the resilience.

This diagram below gives you an idea of what such an analysis might look like.

 

Municiapl_analysis

The analysis will give you an idea of where to start work. I’d say that those services that are both non-resilient and not performing efficiently are targets for investigation. In the example above, provision of health services is both inefficient and has low resilience. The next study object might be the payments and transactions systems. In the Swedish case, they are going more and more to rely on digital money. If the internet and electricity fail, there will be no money system. Here, experiments with more resilient, robust forms of money would be important to study.

Read more

The idea of regional resilience is explored in other posts about the municipal matrix tool

and how to measure it.