Dean Bubley's Disruptive Environment

Monday, March 16, 2009

Age of Stupid, the movie. Not impressed

After seeing an event invitation on Facebook, I went along yesterday to one of the premiere screenings of the new documentary film "Age of Stupid", which was pitched as being in the same general category as "An Inconvenient Truth".

I saw it in a small cinema auditorium in Leicester Square, only about 50 yards from the "stars' premiere" in a tent outside. The film was preceded and followed, by a live feed of an intro and platform Q&A from the director and producer, as well as footage of various people arriving.

I'm not going to write a full review, as there's plenty of those elsewhere on the web. Simply put, it involves the "Archivist" who lives in an armoured fortress full of the world's data and information and art, composing a video eulogy for the planet. This is narrated both by him (played by Pete Postlethwaite) and as the intertwined stories of various people - New Orleans-based oil industry worker, French mountain guide, Indian airline entrepreneur etc.

The actual editing and methodology is quite cool - you get a "computers-eye" view of him using a big touchscreen to pull up, display and combine various video clips and other material. Sort of a combination of iPhone, Minority Report display and Microsoft's Surface technology. Wearing my tech-analyst hat, it's quite realistic, and actually possible by 2015 rather than 2055.

Some of the content & commentary was interesting - for example the harrowing stories of (allegedly) Government-sponsored murder in Nigeria, and some NIMBY-type numpties trying to stop construction of wind farms in the UK.

Unfortunately, the stories were all designed to weave a crass narrative of how "life could be different, if only....". There was lots of thinly-veiled rhetoric about how we could all still be happy if we cast off material possessions, our desire to travel, our "consumption" of energy and resources and so forth. There was also plenty of emotive footage of Hurricane Katrina and floods in the UK, with the finger pointed at human-induced climate change.

My skin crawled while watching the French mountain guide, who seems happy to live in an "idyllic" rustic cottage and potter about in the countryside. Lots of pictures of him teaching his grandchildren to enjoy themselves without technology or other modern accoutrements. Good for him.

Basically, the film tried to convey the messages:

1) You can have a great and fulfilling lifestyle without "consuming"
2) Those advocating development are thoughtless idiots
3) Buy into the faith and evangelise it to everyone

Essentially, it tries to do for "militant" anti-capitalism, what "intelligent design" does to creationism. It attempts to make the ideology more acceptable to normal people, by creating blurred narratives full of non-sequiturs and straw men.

The Nigerian massacre was a case in point, clearly trying to link this to the "evilness" of oil company Shell. The focus on a couple of "useful idiots" complaining about wind farms and talking up mass air-travel in India were calculatedly selective.

Overall, it was trite, self-serving and narrow, with the intro and Q&A sections an exercise in fawning obsequiousness to various z-listers and political lowbrows like Ken Livingstone and Alistair Campbell.

There was no mention of nuclear power, no mention of population control, no mention of carbon capture, no mention of economic stimulus & investment in greentech from Obama & others. Not even any mention of tidal or wave energy - maybe because one of the "stars" competes with it with his wind turbines?

(I'd love to have asked its creators if they had considered the question "will humanity exist in its current form in 2055, or will we have hit Kurzweil's Singularity by then, and no longer have need of a corporeal existence? Not that I believe it's likely, but I'm pretty sure they've never even heard of the concept)

There was also lots of narrow thinking & soundbites about big companies & capitalism - I'd like to see some small companies try & build the next generation of computers (& especially chips) for climate modelling, or design of wind turbines.

As a final irony, I loved the nice subliminal touch to have Lisa (the wind company guy's wife) have a rucksack branded "Jeep", and for the oil guy to have Smith & Wesson branded sunglasses.... or maybe the continuity editing wasn't so good after all....

The most amusing moment was in one of the final "news reports" of future catastrophes, with a reference to "Lord Clarkson" as the UK Transport Minister....

In summary - I'm rather embarassed to have contributed via my attendance to the film's PR initiative about "the largest premiere ever". But at the same time, if I'm going to criticise things like this, I feel I need to see them for myself to judge.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

UK Chief Scientific Adviser makes a surprising amount of sense

I went to an interesting lecture at UCL last night featuring Professor John Beddington, who is Chief Scientific Adviser to HM Government.

I was pretty impressed by what I heard - it helps that he has a background that blends various scientific disciplines plus a bit of economics and philosophy thrown in as well.

His big pitches were around insulation for buildings, and also carbon capture and storage (CCS). He also nodded to the roles of wave/tidal power, near-term use of nuclear fission - and, unusually for someone in a prominent role, even seemed interested in ways to accelerate the emergence of fusion. He even dropped in a slide on geoengineering, speaking in a way that acknowledged its controversial status, but implying an open mind.

He had some very compelling charts that put climate issues into a more human context - specifically, talking about expected population growth, urbanisation and poverty. He also highlighted that whatever we aim to do with CO2 or methane emissions, we need to factor in a likely need for 50% more food, 50% more energy and 30% more water by 2030.

The food / water issues are clearly intertwined with the environmental issues here, given the importance of climate on crop yields, fresh water supply etc. And of course crops need water, food production implies the need for arable land - and the fact that "wealthier" (ie >$2 per day) people in emerging countries tend to demand more meat and dairy products.

He also seemed pragmatic about the realistic role of renewable energy sources globally - pointing out that in order to satisfy the demand for cheap energy by another couple of billion people in near-poverty, it was inevitable that a large amount of the gap would be serviced by coal and natural gas. Yes, we can put up expensive windfarms in Europe, but ultimately nobody is going to persuade people of the need subsidise their costs for all of China, India and other places, when they have abundant supplies of local coal.

So the logic goes: more people = more energy = more coal use = need for CCS, irrespective of everything else. And if we have to develop CCS anyway for that reason, we might as well look to use it in developed economies as well, as we should benefit from the scale economies. And therefore we should start investing much more in it right now. I agree.

He also made very sensible points about the need for much better climate models, as well as data collection from monitors and sensors. Again, I agree - although I then asked the question "Clearly, computing & communication technology is going to be an essential enabler of all of this. How do we protect the IT industry to make sure that otherwise worthy environmental concerns and controls don't dampen its development?"

His response "Good question, but I don't know the answer" should raise some concerns.

Overall though, a highly intelligent & thought provoking talk. Two last nuggets:

"The only UK government department which doesn't have a chief scientific adviser is The Treasury"

"Rather than breaking into airports and offices campaigning against flights, maybe activists should instead break into homes and install cavity wall insulation"

Monday, February 02, 2009

Population - the elephant in the room

It's pretty rare that I find myself agreeing with Jonathon Porritt, who chairs the hideous and misanthropic "Sustainable Development Commission", but I have to agree with his stance on a move to encourage people to have a maximum of two children. I hadn't realised that he is also involved in an organisation called the Optimum Population Trust, which seems to be much less objectionable than most environmental campaign groups.

Population is the elephant in the room when it comes to climate change. It's easy to criticise people who bring the topic up - usually it takes about 5 seconds before the word "Malthus" crops up. Also - as I found when I raised it as a question at a recent debate on climate change policy and lifestyle, the discussion inevitably gets side-tracked by references to developing economies. I was pretty shocked that the FoE participant said that the organisation didn't have a policy on this area, when after he'd cited Roosevelt's "Four Freedoms", I asked if the right-to-breed was a fifth.

My view is that China has long got it right on this issue. I'd go further and say that in all the discussion of "personal carbon allowances", there needs to be a quite specific category for "having children" alongside "driving", "flying" and "energy use in the home".

It's a choice. The CO2 footprint of a newborn child is huge. If you want one, go ahead. But don't expect me to give you a "carbon subsidy" to satisfy your whims.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Anti-Cancer GM Tomato: Towards "Food 2.0"

The knee-jerk bias against GM crops in the UK and Europe is a classic example of the type of Luddite-mentality numptyism all too prevalent in this part of the world.

But to be fair, the food industry has hardly done itself many favours, historically positioning GM food as only useful to those in the agricultural industry. It's hard to get the skeptical public excited about pesticide resistance, or the ability to grow in sub-optimal soil.

For a while, I've believed that the way to position GM is as a way to make food *better*, not just cheaper or more available.

Why has nobody taken a leaf out of the Steve Jobs school of marketing and tried to make GM food cool - almost saying "Why would you want old, boring food, when you can get the awesome new Food 2.0, with all these great features!"

So it's great to see the publicity around the purple tomato with the extra anti-oxidants, which have improved the longevity of mice in terms of cancer. Predictably, lots of organic-minded muesli-knitters from the Soil Association and other lobby groups have decried it, which just goes to show that they recognise the power of this new strategy.

Let's see more moves towards "Food Plus".

Thursday, May 29, 2008

FoE grudgingly mentions carbon sequestration

Friends of the Earth, the evil and duplicitous political organisation masquerading as an environmental lobby group, has made a surprising reference to carbon capture and storage.

In a press comment the misanthropic anti-developmentalists opined against nuclear energy with desperation:

"Rather than trying to breathe fresh life into this dangerous and expensive white elephant, the government should investing in far safer and cleaner solutions such as energy efficiency, clean renewable energy, combined heat and power, and potentially carbon capture and storage"

Up until now, FoE has been a staunch advocate of the sustainability nihilism. At least they've now smelled the coffee and woken up to the idea that CO2 can be managed.

My general view is that FoE is actively malevolent and dangerous, whilst Greenpeace is merely idealistic and misguided.

I'd exhort readers to pick holes in FoE's Stalinist-era ideology at any opportunity. For the sake of humanity, they must be driven to oblivion.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Personal Carbon Allowance - how do you sort Opex and Capex?

I see that the UK's Environmental Audit Commission has been busy blithering away about personal carbon allowances again.

This concept is flawed on so many levels it's unbelievable.

The main issue that I have is that it seems solely based CO2 emissions from the equivalent of what companies call "operating expenditure", or Opex. These are the things that individuals or companies buy on a day-to-day basis - fuel for vehicles, heating bills, holidays, food and so on.

What it excludes is a way to treat CO2 from "Capex" - capital expenditure. This is from the one-off purchases of big things - houses, cars, children, electrical items and so on. These all include a huge amount of CO2 involved in their raw materials manufacture, as well as implicit ongoing "lifecycle" CO2 from their use.

Having a new house made of concrete or brick is probably the least environmentally-friendly thing someone could do in their lives. It would (or should) attract a huge penalty in terms of CO2 credits against your allowance. But how do you deal with people who buy an existing house, made from bricks made years ago? Or people who have an existing property? Do you "amortise" the CO2 emissions in construction over a period of 20 or 50 years? What about if you rent?

This is a huge minefield, which offers great opportunities for the Green equivalent of "creative accounting".

Some other fun things to look out for:

- Whose allowance do gifts come out of? Say I buy you a flight... but you decide not to take it. Do you (or I) get a refund?
- What about family purchases? Say Dad buys a family holiday. Does it come out of his allowance, a pooled family allowance, or each family member's individual quota?
- Do children get a full quota? Can parents use it for their own purposes?
- If I own a company (as I do), how do I treat my business' emissions? If I have to fly to see a client, does it come out of my allowance, my company's, my client's?

Put simply, it's unworkable, and undesirable.

And if they bring it in anyway, I'm going to be the first in line to set up a company to play the loopholes.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Debunking the nuclear myths

It's not often that I feel the desire to congratulate the UK's Labour government. But I have to say a big "bravo" for Gordon & co for standing up to the shrill, misanthropic voices of the 'sustainability' numpties yesterday.

No, nuclear power is not easy, nor ultra-cheap. It is, however, predictable and reliable, and exactly what is needed as a base load.

Yesterday's decision is one in the eye for those ideological, anti-developmentalists masquerading as green crusaders. Anything that could possibly mean that we end up with more energy per person, and more money, safer pensions, and sustainability of democracy & capitalism is anathema.

Then there are those hypocrites on the 'renewables' side of the equation who all seem to conveniently overlook their own massively subsidised, hugely concrete/materials-intensive, climate-dependent limitations. Not to mention forgetting to mention their patents and that the 'pot of money' will wind its way to their own pockets under other energy scenarios.

Spiked! has an excellent rebuttal of some of the gibberish spouted by these people.