Dr Vandana Shiva at Cambridge Department of Engineering

Cambridge Sustainability Lectures – Dr Vandana Shiva

7th March 2012
Making peace with the Earth
Dr Vandana Shiva (Navdanya International, India; International Forum on Globalisation)

Dr Shiva’s lecture won’t leave me anytime soon. I truly feel privileged to have been able to hear this amazing physicist, philosopher, ecologist, feminist, humanist….(add all the ists you like) speak. Although she probably had most of the audience close to tears with the horrendous statistics on Indian farmer suicides (at an unfathomable quarter million! truly a genocide) after the introduction of Monsanto’s genetically modified seeds (especially bt cotton, now apparently in its third incarnation because the first two forms have killed the good insects while breeding resistance in the pests they were supposed to control).  The agricultural policy that sanctioned the introduction of Monsanto seeds and chemicals, along with monocultural cash crop farming, which demands big upfront investments as well as more water than available, has left farmers unable to feed their own families while spiralling into such debt that death seems the only way out. Death of farmers, death of the land, death of biodiversity and the eco system that sustains life, because a large corporation is monetising the food supply.  This has been going on for 16 years and I am truly ashamed of my ignorance. Where have we been?  What have we done about it? Here’s are just some of many articles and links:

Of course demonising a single company isn’t enough. Political decisions are made all over the world to support such schemes, out of desperation, greed and ignorance, and the misinterpretation of silo science. We’ve all been led to believe that “GM crops are required to feed the world”, when in fact the opposite seems to be true. Dr. Shiva quoted some hugely impressive results from the research at Navdanya International, showing that both the crop yield and nutritional content of foods grown on small, biodiverse, organic farms is miles ahead of the industrial monocultural output. My farming knowledge is limited, but I’ve been learning every day from the experiences shared by the organic farmers who provide my veg boxes, and from scientists who study and debunk the conventional wisdom on large-scale industrial farming.

The scale of the shift in paradigm that’s needed is depressing, but there is hope. Through the blogosphere and social networking (which I’ve always regarded with some trepidation and only joined reluctantly) I can now see that the ability to inform, form communities and action groups almost instantly gives a real voice to people who’ve had no say, and who can react much quicker than the glacial movements of large corporations.

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Jonathon Porritt at Cambridge Department of Engineering

Cambridge Sustainability Lectures

29th February
Sustainable capitalism: if not now, when?
Jonathon Porritt CBE

I had the privilege of hearing the legendary writer and commentator Jonathon Porritt, CBE speak at the Cambridge University Department of Engineering Sustainability Lectures recently.  He is the former Chair of the UK Sustainable Development Commission,  runs the Forum for the Future and is Co-Director of the Prince of Wales’s Business & Sustainability Programme.  Jonathon was as entertaining as he was inspiring. He has a unique way of presenting the dilemmas faced by Western capitalist societies as they grapple with the sustainability agenda.  Although I missed a more concrete “action plan” for individuals as well as organisation, the talk nevertheless made one spring into action; for example to find ways that we, as an SME, can make a difference in supporting other SMEs in the sustainability field, giving them a competitive advantage over the hydrocarbon giants that control the political agenda. Without cynicism, and fully admitting we’re in business to make a sustainable profit.

Some of the main points I took from the lecture, and the Q&A session afterwards:

  • Jonathon highlighted the recent IEA Clean Energy Report and its stark warning that only a 5-year timeframe  remains to make the shift from fossil fuels to renewables
  • We are currently locked in to assets such as fossil fuels without an exit strategy. Economically this means an asset is managed for the rest of its life, unless there is a disaster; but what if the asset never delivers a real return on investment?
    • If you foreclose on the investment it means a massive dislocation in capital markets
    • If we use the asset throughout its lifetime it means ecological disaster
    • => a no-win situation
  • The key is to evolve investment into renewables and especially storage capacity
    • Drivers are Awareness, Time and Technological Advance
  • He has personally started to see technology as an essential part of the sustainability solution(along with a fundamental shift in paradigm, including power structures and the political will to act decisively on sustainability).
    • This has previously been rejected by significant parts of the environmental movement as it worried about the wrong emphasis.
    • What particularly his thinking was the World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi, which took place in January 2012 and hosts the world’s biggest prize for renewable energy technology.
  • Solar PV is especially significant, and China will make it happen on a big scale
    • The 4 leading solar technology companies are in China, and Suntech reckons it can reach grid parity (solar energy costing the same as energy derived from fossil fuels) within only 3 years, and be 20% cheaper within 5.
  • We can blame Big Business – but we need Big Business to make the transition to renewables
    • The big 6 oil companies have a quasi-corrupt incumbant relationships with our politicians – deeply entrenched in power politics. This has got to stop.
    • But we need the capital-raising powers of big business to build the new sustainable energy infrastructure
  • It’s the “Software” (political paradigm) that’s the problem, not the “Hardware” (renewable energy technologies)
    • Hardware: Efficiencies, renewables and storage capacity will be solved soon
    • Software:  The industrial capitalist model of atomised individualism is a huge barrier to concerted action in sustainability. It’s a distorted view based on false premises (individualism, ‘social Darwinism). The cooperative model based on collaboration has gained new scientific underpinnings, and would need to be the way forward.
  • Profit can be a positive driver, depending both on its definition and its deployment.
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Wind Power and hard facts on energy economics and ERoEI

Some interesting articles (and even more interesting reader responses) about wind power in the UK got me thinking about energy subsidies and real energy payback periods or Energy Return on Energy Invested (ERoEI).  Some non-thinking respondents who shouted “cut it off now if it can’t survive without subsidies” seemed to be extremely ill-informed about energy subsidies. Luckily a few people have pointed out that fossil fuels, and nuclear, of course, have long enjoyed massive subsidies.  I’ve started to collate some links to articles and research that provide some properly researched figures on sustainable energy, subsidies and Energy Return on Investment.

Recent UK Wind Power Articles:

THE ENGINEER:   The Wind Knocked Out of Our Sails

THE ENGINEER:  Wind Farm Investment Could Create 600 Jobs in Scotland

Energy Economics Links:

Chris Martenson:  The Crash Course in Economic

Barry Brook:  Burning Energy Questions

Smart Planet:  What EROI Tells us about ROI

Business Green:  IEA Demands End to $409bn a year fossil fuel subsidies

Ernst & Young:  Financing Offshore – Where we are Now and Where we are Heading

Dr Tim Morgan for Tullett Prebon:  Money is Energy – an Exponential Economics Primer

International Energy Agency (IEA):  International Energy Statistics
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“Riding on the Coattails of Sustainability”?

Our dilemma is this:  we’re a pretty ethical company. We are proper engineering geeks. We love to get into the technical nitty-gritty. But we also develop engineering design software, which we need to sell. Marketing and promotion, especially self-promotion, don’t come so easy to the generation that didn’t grow up with the Internet. It’s all a bit uncomfortable.  A case in point: the directors have decided to offer a  70% discount on our software to sustainable energy companies.  It’s a way that we can contribute to grow the community. It’s also a way to get new customers, of course. But we won’t be putting this in a press release, because we don’t want to be accused of cynically riding on the coattails of the sustainability movement…

We’re in the thick of a moral dilemma where the much less ethical companies get the most marketing exposure. Those of us who want to make a difference don’t want to be seen as cynically exploiting the “topic de jour”.  But how else to be heard?

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Cambridge Sustainability Lectures

Cambridge Sustainability Lectures

We’re coming to the end of the 10th Annual Lecture Series in Sustainable Development 2012 at the University of Cambridge Engineering Departmenthttp://www.eng.cam.ac.uk.  Regrettably, I’ve only managed to catch the last three lectures. They were inspiring, depressing and hope-inducing all at the same time. Getting your head around the paradoxes and complexities involved, and the fundamental shift in thought as well as action that is necessary – whether it be the social “software” Jonathon Porritt discusses, which needs to be reconfigured in order to give meaning and effect to the sustainability “hardware”;  Dr Vandana Shiva’s discussion of the skewed perception and disconnect between earth, household and market economies and the central role of biodiversity; or Professor Randers’ condemnation of silo thinking and “political short-termism” in parliamentary systems – is a true challenge.

29th February
Sustainable capitalism: if not now, when?
Jonathon Porritt CBE

Read my summary of Jonathon Porritt’s lecture

7th March
Making peace with the Earth
Dr Vandana Shiva (Navdanya International, India; International Forum on Globalisation)

Read my summary of Dr Shiva’s lecture

14th March
The Next 40 Years
Professor Jorgen Randers (Professor of Climate Studies at the Norwegian Business School)


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