Sunday, 31 July 2011

Fish wars

A while ago I contributed this line “It’s the fish John West reject that makes John West the worst” to the Greenpeace campaign to get John West to sharpen up their sustainability act.

Now here’s some good news on the CSR front. Most people know the bluefin tuna has been over-fished. As a result, this has become a key matter of CSR (corporate social responsibility) for companies dealing with seafood. Greenpeace has been a long-term critic of John West for its suppliers' use of purse seines, a particularly destructive fishing method. They were just about the last major company to resist committing to a more sustainable method of harvesting tuna, but they were also responsible for this cute ad where a bloke fights a bear for a salmon - "ooh look, an eagle!".  All square?


The two former adversaries have now tentatively joined hands to kick off a new sustainability program. A few days ago (July 29th), the company announced a staged programme to source 100% of tuna sold in the UK by 2016 using properly audited pole and line techniques, as well as to source from fleets that pledge not to use fish aggregating devices (FADs). FADS usually mean that a whole of other fish get caught at the same time and discarded, the prevention of which (discards) is the main thrust of Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall's magnificent Fish Fight. John West was one of the last of the major brands to come round to see sense. Princes did the decent thing back in March.

The "see food diet" - I see food and I eat it - was on track to mean nothing to future generations (what was seafood, Granpa?) but there is hope out there if people continue to pressure corporations and governments Share/Save/Bookmark

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Something more to worry about…

This is supposedly the video manifesto that Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian terrorist/freedom fighter/Judiciar Knight  posted  to Youtube shortly before his attacks. It might not stay as a live link on Youtube but will doubtless be uploaded elsewhere.

Friday, 15 July 2011

Snippets from the Interwebs 7

The US EPA conditionally approved a new herbicide – Imprelis - for sale last October.The chemical name of the product is aminocyclopyrachlor, one of a new class of herbicides that has been viewed as more“environmentally friendly” than earlier weed killers. Imprelis is used for “improving” lawns by killing broadleaf weeds like dandelion and clover and is sold to lawn care professionals only. Unfortunately reports are coming in of widespread severe effects to conifer trees such as Norway spruces and Eastern white pines. Investigations into the cause are continuing but the application of Imprelis to nearby turf looks to be a significant factor.

imprelis pine

Picture taken from New York Times article (click for source).

Dr. Cregg, an associate professor of horticulture and forestry and an extension specialist with Michigan State University who has fielded many calls from landscapers and inspected affected trees, said the problem existed across the country. He said

“This is going to be a large-scale problem, affecting hundreds of thousands of trees, if not more”


The Ford motor company are now using old car tyres and soy to make  gaskets and seals for their vehicles


Back in 2009, Volvo Trucks in North America joined 31 other companies in a ten-year energy efficiency challenge issued by the U.S. Department of Energy, and it looks like Volvo has beaten everyone else to the punch. The company has announced that it is the first to meet the energy efficiency goal of a 25 percent reduction for its New River Valley plant in Virginia, and then beating it with 30 percent.

Paragraph taken from


Ever wondered about those small bars of soap they give you in hotels? If you just stay one night or so it seems pretty wasteful if they just throw them away barely used, when they clean your room after you’ve gone. People around the world die every day from acute respiratory infection and diarrheal disease because, amongst other causes, they have no soap. Each year more than five million lives are lost to these diseases with the majority of deaths being among children less than five years old. Studies have shown that simple hand washing substantially reduces the spread of these diseases.

Clean the World gets soap to people who really need it. They organise soap collection schemes with hotels etc then sanitise it, ship it overseas, and distribute it


There may not be as much US shale gas as the hype suggested. This link to a June 25th New York Times article Insiders sound an alarm amid a natural gas rush  shows that concerns have been raised internally that economically recoverable reserves have been inflated to attract investment, and faster than expected field deterioration rates are suggesting  that fields will not last as long, or be as productive as expected. Shale gas was thought, in America, to be a bit of a get out of jail free card for their future energy “needs”, insulating them against many of the consequences of the peaking and decline of conventional oil reserves. Here’s another link Is shale gas a huge Ponzi scheme?



New research shows that adverts can "implant false memories" in order to manipulate consumers.

Taken from the New Economics Foundation blog

For anybody who worries that the advertising and marketing industry is artificially creating insatiable wants in people, the latest edition of Wired magazine makes disturbing reading.

It describes a new study in the Journal of Consumer Research, and it is all about how advertising can trick the part of the brain that deals with long-term memory (the hippocampus).

The experiment used 100 students and introduced them to a non-existent new product, Orville Redenbacher’s Gourmet Fresh Microwave Popcorn.  Some of them watched adverts based on slogans and text about how delicious it was; some of them watched what are called ‘high-imagery’ commercials, of happy people enjoying the popcorn at home. 

Then they were divided again.  Half went to a room and given a sample of the popcorn; half were just given a survey.  A week later, they were asked what they remembered.

Here’s the scary bit.  Those who watched the high-imagery ad were just as likely to say they tried the popcorn as those which actually did.

Even more scary, they rated the product just as highly as those who had actually tasted it.  Also they were extremely confident about their memories.  They knew why they liked it – not because of the advert, but because it tasted so good.

This whole story is disturbing on a whole range of levels.  But one of them is just how subversive the system is.  It desperately tries to keep economic growth higher by selling us things we don’t actually want, and our poor befuddled brains say ‘more!’


After San Francisco banned styrofoam in 2007, over 50 other municipalities in the state of California followed suit, and now, the entire state is poised to make it official–35M+ people will now get their take-out food in containers made from reusable or renewable materials as opposed to the lightweight plastic known as expanded polystyrene. The shift this law (beginning January 1, 2014) will have on the take-out industry as a whole is hard to fathom…it’s realistically the beginning of the end for styrofoam.

Taken from


Starting in October, the 7,000 McDonald’s across 39 countries that serve 13 million customers daily will have the option to eat a locally named fish sandwich that is MSC-certified (Marine Stewardship Council). The MSC has, however, received some criticism from NGO Food and Water Watch

Like that of the FSC (Forest Stewardship Council), this eco label should not be regarded as giving carte blanche to consumers to use/eat as much as they want!


Food price inflation is going to reach severe highs by 2030 and many of the world’s poorest people will not be able to afford to feed themselves. A recent FAO report stated that approximately 1.3 billion tons of food gets lost or wasted every year. It goes on to elaborate that consumers in rich countries waste almost as much food (222 million tonnes) as the entire net food production of sub-Saharan Africa (230 million tonnes). Here’s a 2010 map of global hunger to think about (red areas are regarded as “extremely alarming”). Click on the image for a much larger, higher definition, version.


The report is probably the first of its kind to distinguish between food loss and food waste. Food waste is an entirely preventable phenomenon mostly occurring richer countries involving throwing perfectly edible food away by consumers and retailers alike. Food loss on the other hand occurs mostly in developing economies where poor infrastructure does not ensure optimal preservation of food during processing, transporting and other intermediate steps.

The report states that per capita waste by consumers is between 95-115 kg a year in Europe and North America, while consumers in sub-Saharan Africa and South and Southeast Asia each throw away only 6-11 kg a year. Considering that agricultural land accounts for roughly 36% of the Earth’s land surface, wasting food is tantamount to wasting nature. Agricultural land is often land that was previously a habitat like grasslands, forests, and even deserts which were previously supporting complex ecosystems. Apart from land usage, agriculture is extremely energy intensive using vast amounts of fuel, fertilizer etc. Food wastage therefore is one of the worse kinds of preventable abominations.



Unilever has been recognized as a sustainability leader in a 2011 survey by SustainAbility, and the Ethical Corporation awarded the company its Responsible Business Award in the High Performance category. CEO Paul Polman talks about how the company has lowered its carbon emissions by 40 percent in the last ten years, how, as a large palm oil producer it is looking to move toward sustainable palm oil, and how it is working to change consumer habits to aid in conservation.

Polman urges other businesses to move toward sustainability. “It is a very simple message: you can wait for governments and use it as an excuse, you can wait for technology and use it as an excuse, but there are many things we can simply do now, and that business can do now. And it does make good business sense. There may be a slight cost in acting in some cases, but I think they are the exception. The cost of not acting and the cost of failure is going to be far higher.”



Many products that one can purchase have “planned obsolescence” built in. They are designed to last a certain length of time and then fail – usually they are also designed to be too expensive to repair economically, forcing most to have to buy another one or the “next generation” model over and over again. Good for GDP but bad for pollution, energy use and depletion of resources not to mention bad for one’s wallet. In short, not very sustainable on several levels.

Marcin Jakubowski has started a project (click link for his Ted talk) to give away blueprints of the 50 most vital machines that are needed to run civilisation. Like Firefox or Linux in the computer world, these are open source so anyone can modify them or improve them. These machines are designed to be built with basic tools and to be robust, long lived and economically repairable. Once people have them, they have them for a long time and a lot of time and effort does not need to be wasted buying them over and over again

Using wikis and digital fabrication tools, TED Fellow Marcin Jakubowski is open-sourcing the blueprints for 50 farm machines, allowing anyone to build their own tractor or harvester from scratch. And that's only the first step in a project to write an instruction set for an entire self-sustaining village (starting cost: $10,000).


Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Plastic bag makers break out lawyers to continue wrecking the planet!

Plastic bags are starting to look really naff nowadays when you see people carrying them. However, those wacky American plastic bag manufacturers are fighting back.  Three of the largest plastic bag manufacturers are actually suing Chicobags - a maker of stylish reusable bags - for "irreparably harming" their business.  The same unholy Trinity also sued the city of Oakland, California over their single-use plastic bag reduction ordinance.

Are these people out of their minds? - answers on a postcard to your grandchildren, please. Here’s a couple of links

Here is a video of Chicobag’s bag monster attacking San Fransciscan citizens

On the other hand, look what can be done with A FEW bags as street artist Joshua Allen Harris creates street art that inflates trash bags using air blasts from subway ventilation shafts

Historic uses of subway ventilation blasts included this




Thursday, 7 July 2011

Relying on the Chinese economic miracle? You’ll have to have another one shortly afterwards to keep you going

Our local economic geniuses, such as Senators Terry le Sueur, Philip Ozouf  Alan Maclean and Geoff Cook, seem to rate the joys of attracting finance industry business from China/Asia. Here’s an account from the BBC of their recent (June) £20,000 trip to China, which they seemed to think was a jolly good wheeze!

Le Sueur in China

They were, as the road to hell is well known to be paved with, full of good intentions because the purpose of the trip was to proactively address local unemployment, declining tax receipts and economic slowdown. What’s not to love? Fat tail risk chance!! - that’s a clever economic joke, BTW. What Le Sueur and co have just done, all bright eyed, bushy tailed and full of yuppie over-confidence, was the equivalent of going to Wall Street looking to drum up new finance business. In 1929. Before October 24th…

If anyone promoting the joys of unending exponential growth (which anyone with their heads screwed on should realise is a sure recipe for disaster) directs you to look at the Chinese economic “miracle” to back up their ideology, consider that it is always brightest before the storm.

Perhaps the following might be the proverbial “cloud no bigger than a man’s hand” that foreshadows that storm.

A US hedge fund manager has just (November 2010) launched a fund (Corriente advisors) that bets on the imminent implosion of the Chinese economy - click for link to Telegraph article.

Most of the Chinese GDP is in fact spending on building infrastructure such as new cities, airports etc. This article from the New York Times (July 6th) lays the true nature of the “miracle” bare. With all the apparent success of someone with access to a huge credit line that enabled buying fast cars and foreign holidays, jewellery and mansions just before the bills came in and their house of cards collapsed, Chinese municipalities have taken out gigantic debt obligations, kept discretely off their balance sheets using arcane financial instruments.

As municipal projects play out across China, spending on so-called fixed-asset investment — a crucial measure of building that is heavily weighted toward government and real estate projects — is now equal to nearly 70% of the nation’s GDP. It is a ratio that no other large nation has approached in modern times. In absolute terms, it’s an Armageddon amount that, as far as I am aware, the world has never seen before.

How might things start to collapse? The collateral for many loans is local land valued at lofty prices that would collapse if China’s real estate bubble burst. As an example, in Wuhan - China’s ninth-largest city - land prices have tripled in the last decade. But the land is only highly valued because there is an expectation that there will always be new building projects to initiate. It is widely documented that there are shopping malls and even whole cities that are virtually empty, with no-one to live in them or use them. Click here for the ghost cities of China. Clearly one of the biggest bubbles ever blown. Probably the loudest bang is due.

According to the following rather mixed messages will blow your minds…

China’s dominoes of destruction

15 factoids about China that will blow your mind

15 more factoids about China that will blow your mind

When China falls, probably Australia will be the first domino (scroll down the page about half way) in the rest of the world to directly collapse. Après moi le deluge, cobber.

But no, Nick, I hear you cry with all the yuppie uber-confidence shared by our glorious leaders, surely the glass must be half full – we’ve lived our lives – we’ve built our lives - quoting this – all our friends know this is the attitude to have because we live in Jersey – we have a charmed and cushy life – nothing can puncture our happy optimistic bubble? Can it?

Sorry to burst your bubbles. Reality is starting to intrude.



Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Prince Charles tells it like it is

Here is the whole of Prince Charles’ recent address to the Chartered Institution of Water and Environment Management (CIWEM). He mainly focuses on water, but brings in ecological economics and the necessity of putting a real value on the “services” which the ecosystem provides for us for free so that the market would work in favour of sustainable approaches in future as opposed to today where  the market mostly discriminates against sensible ways because ecosystem services do not appear on the accountant’s “bottom line”. _____________________________________________________



Marking the 25th anniversary of becoming an Honorary Fellow of CIWEM, HRH the Prince of Wales considers the changes that have taken place in the environment sector and the challenges ahead

It hardly seems possible that I have been an Honorary Fellow of the Chartered Institution of Water and Environment Management (CIWEM) for 25 years.  I remember accepting the invitation because I wanted to encourage the wider world to see the crucial importance of environmental management as a profession.  Believe it or not, environmental management was then still seen by many as something to be added to the job description of health and safety managers.   At about the same time I found myself in distinctly hot water for venturing to suggest that we should no longer use the North Sea as 'a bottomless pit for our waste,' so an alternative view is that I was looking for safety in numbers.  Either way, those days are long gone.  The Institution has played a remarkable leadership role in establishing and guiding the profession, and long may that continue.

The problem, of course, is that over the same period the range and severity of the environmental problems we face has grown exponentially.  The challenges are no longer just about 'cleaning up after ourselves;' they are about taking action to ensure the survival of our own species, against the clock of climate change and natural resource depletion. 

Water is at the heart of many environmental challenges, as it is of life itself.  The availability of water has shaped both human existence and geography, defining where and how we live, and constraining our ambitions.  It remains the essential natural resource, on which all else depends.  Yet, perhaps because wherever there is life there is water, we take it for granted.  As Rachel Carson, author of  Silent Spring, put it:  'In an age when Man has forgotten his origins and is blind even to his most essential needs for survival, water along with other resources has become the victim of his indifference.'

That indifference, coupled with a view that we can engineer our way out of any conceivable difficulty, may yet be our undoing.  Sometimes achieving sustainability may require what appear to be backward steps.  I remember seeing a vivid example of this in Rajasthan.  Traditional, village-based systems of harvesting the monsoon rains, developed over thousands of years, fell into disrepair in the 1950s when powerful pumps allowed groundwater to be extracted instead.  But this turned out to be an unsustainable, short-term solution because the groundwater was not being replenished.  Levels eventually dropped below the reach of the pumps, irrigation became impossible and the villages began to decline as people drifted away to look for work in the cities.  The breakthrough came from a remarkable man called Rajendra Singh.  He encouraged a local self-help approach to rebuilding the ancient system of dams and ponds and started harvesting the monsoon once again.  Groundwater levels crept back up, previously dried-up rivers started flowing again and, 20 years later, more than half a million people in Rajasthan are feeling the benefit.

Closer to home, water harvesting is just as important.  Yet we still need to identify the best strategies and it is clear that there are no easy answers, especially when energy use and ensuring public health are added to the equation.  With the wisdom of hindsight it would, of course, have been better if our domestic water supply systems had been developed with separate potable and non-potable networks.  That may be one way ahead but, in the meantime, we need to identify the best strategies for the systems we have.  Building large scale reservoirs and filling them at times of peak river flow is one approach to rainwater harvesting.  At the other end of the scale it is clear that much more can be done to harvest rainwater and grey water for non-potable uses, though I note some important caveats in the Institution's position paper on that subject.  Equally, it seems there may be a role for greater reuse of sewage effluent, at least for non-potable uses.

Similarly, there have been problems ever since urban man first began to requisition rivers and streams to take away his wastes.  As early as 1388, it became illegal to dump animal waste, dung or litter into England's rivers.  Environment Agency employees might like to note that the penalties for offenders then included hanging!  As with clean water, managing wastewater brings network issues.  In particular, the legacy of combined sewers taking both human waste and surface water run-off causes capacity problems, leading to damaging overflows to rivers, which have in all other respects been cleaned up.  Once again there are no easy answers, especially in large conurbations where space is at a premium.

I know that these are the issues with which many members of the Institution will be grappling on a daily basis, so the last thing I am going to do is offer any advice.  What I would like to encourage is closer involvement by water and environmental management professionals in what, to me, seems to be the most important development in a wider field of interest.

As the economist Herman Daly pointed out, the environment is, 'the envelope that contains, sustains and provisions the economy,' - not the other way round.  Yet in a world where economics has, rightly or wrongly, the greatest possible influence on decision-making, the environment is always in danger of being discounted.  The answer, surely, is to find ways of measuring the economic benefits provided to mankind by the environment - in the form of biodiversity and ecosystems. 

The concept of 'ecosystem services' has been discussed for a number of years, but the debate has moved on considerably with an initiative known as The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity, or TEEB for short.  There is now a series of  TEEB reports setting out not only the benefits of taking into account the value of ecosystem services and biodiversity in making decisions and choices, but also explaining how this can be done, with some excellent case studies.  There are reports addressed to policy-makers, to business, to regional and local government and to citizens. 

TEEB's reports also reiterate something I have long tried to encourage businesses to recognise - that we should not regard this type of valuation and pricing as a tax. We should see it as an incentive for powerful investment for the future; something to be achieved not through imposition and dictum, but through reassessment and realignment of thinking and exchange and discussion.

In this regard, it is perhaps worth noting that looking forward to 2030, research by McKinsey & Co. for the Water Resources Group indicates that global water requirements will be 40 per cent greater than the current sustainable supply, assuming current rates of economic growth.  This is because agricultural demand is expected to grow substantially, while urban and industrial use will also grow strongly.  At the same time the need to maintain environmental flow requirements to prevent the collapse of important riparian ecosystems will place additional limits on water availability. 

Most of our natural capital has not been properly valued and charged for, because assets like fish in the oceans, water in rivers, rainfall, a clean and temperate atmosphere and communities, have always been thought of as limitless and freely available. It is also, of course, because valuing these things and charging for natural capital can be difficult when the assets do not necessarily belong to a particular individual, organisation or country. In short, providing quantitative figures for qualitative values has proved a somewhat elusive science.

Measuring the contribution to the economy made by ecosystems and biodiversity could be an important step towards maintaining the productivity of the natural resource base on which we all depend.  It could also help to quantify the risks of both action and inaction, thereby helping to drive good decision-making. 

This is not just a job for economists, or for policy-makers, or even for scientists and practitioners.  It is a role for the whole of society and I do hope that the Institution will build on its commendably concise and readable position papers by identifying the distinctive contribution it could make to the discussion on valuing ecosystem services.  There is no time to lose.

The profession of environmental management has come a long way in 25 years, but the decisions you take, encourage and inform in the next few years will have a cumulative effect upon humanity's ability to survive in the long-term.  So I will continue to watch your progress with the greatest of interest.