Azara Blog: The Financial Times has a special "environment" issue in its magazine

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Date published: 2007/04/29

The Financial Times apparently re-designed their Weekend newspaper, not that you could tell this except in minor ways (e.g. the Weekend section was renamed Life and Arts). Possibly to celebrate this, the main stories in the magazine were dedicated to the environment. The headline on the magazine says "Can England's middle classes save the planet?". Well, this is a bit of a joke. The middle class (i.e. the rich, but not rich enough to have a title) consume far above the national average, and so pollute and, in particular, emit carbon (directly or indirectly) far above the national average and so far, far above the world average. The middle class are part of the problem more than being part of the solution. And needless to say, readers of the FT, on average, are at the top end of the middle class. And most of the FT reflects this wealth perfectly well, with travel articles featuring exotic locations and very expensive hotels, and advice columns telling you what to do with your million pounds in the bank, how to get a million pound mortgage, etc. But never let wealth get in the way of a bit of weekend reading about the environment.

One of the best parts of the FT magazine is normally the first article, called "First Person", where someone unknown writes about some (notable) aspect of their life. Heaven knows how the FT tracks these people down, but they usually have something interesting to say. In this special environment issue, the "First Person" was about some German chap who gets his food from supermarket garbage containers, out of principle, not poverty. This chap says:

It's amazing and frustrating to see how much perfectly edible food supermarkets throw away. I estimate that one-third of the food I find in garbage containers is edible. The waste is a result of our capitalist society. When the date of expiry is near or the package is dirty or dented, supermarkets throw away perfectly good food.

Well, the main problem is with the expiry date. And you cannot blame the supermarkets for having to throw away perfectly good food after the expiry date, it would be illegal for them to do otherwise. This is not the fault of the "capitalist" society, this is the fault of the health and safety nutters. In the UK (although perhaps not in Germany) supermarkets discount food that is about to hit the expiry date, and a lot of it gets sold off that way. Supermarkets are not stupid, after all. Better to make something rather than nothing (and they have to pay for waste disposal). Indeed, in the UK if you want decent cheap food you go to Waitrose an hour or two before closing and there are often plenty of bargains to be had.

Another regular feature in the magazine is "Lunch with the FT", where some well-known person gets interviewed over lunch (usually). This weekend the interview was with James Lovelock. Lovelock is known for one thing, the so-called Gaia hypothesis. The FT describes this as the idea that:

[T]he world acts as a single, self-regulating system, which can be thought of as rather like a living organism. Each part of the organism, each living thing, has an effect on the whole; if any one part should move out of harmony, this triggers reactions from other systems that eventually compensate to bring the whole system back into equilibrium.

Who would have thought it, the world is one big ecosystem. What a genius this guy is. But the word "harmony" is bizarre, because "harmony" has no meaning in the ecosystem context. If a cat kills three mice a year are we supposed to believe the world is in "harmony", but if a cat kills six it is not? And only an extremely naive person would ever believe that the world's ecosystem is ever really in equilibrium. It might be in a pseudo-equilibrium, so fairly stable over a long period of time, but the idea that it is ever in true equilibrium is just wrong. If nothing else, the universe is always changing (e.g. the distance of the Earth from the Sun has slight variation) so the "equilibrium" is always changing.

But there is a much more serious problem with Gaia. Where are the predictions? What allegedly are we supposed to deduce from this brilliant insight that the world is one big ecosystem? During the lunch interview Lovelock suggests that humanity has got only 30 years to avert global catastrophe. This is a trivial statement to make, similar to the equally trivial claim by Martin Rees that the human race has a 50/50 chance of being extinct by 2100. If you make your predictions far enough into the future nobody ever catches you out, because you are going to be dead and/or your predictions forgotten. So you can say whatever you want. Of course in order to sell books you make the predictions fantastic. Along the same lines, Lovelock says:

If we get away with 20 per cent survival by the end of the century, we'll be doing terribly well. I can't be certain, I'm a scientist. You can't be certain in science, but that's the probability.

It would be interesting to see what equations he used to arrive at the figure of 20 per cent. Since it is 20 per cent, and not 17.8% or something equally "not round", one can only conclude that he made the number up, perhaps off the top of his head, and therefore there is no science behind it. And he also says:

From a Gaian point of view, 20 per cent survival of the species is not at all bad. People will regroup, and the population will continue at a level more compatible with Gaia.

But the whole point of Gaia is that we are one big ecosystem. How can the population level of any species be "compatible" or not? The world is as the world is, and the ecosystem follows dynamical equations that will tell you that species numbers can go down as well as up. There is no "compatible", there is no "incompatible", there just is. Or is Lovelock claiming that Gaia is wrong now but will be right if only most of humanity dies out?

Lovelock likes nuclear power and (bizarrely) coal, in preference to wind farms, which allegedly despoil the countryside. His main argument against wind power seems to be that "we've little enough countryside left". This is rubbish, the vast majority of the UK is countryside. Why anyone treats anything Lovelock says seriously is a mystery. (Gaia attracted a certain amount of new age enthusiasts because there is a certain amount of mystic mumbo-jumbo attached to it. But nobody takes new age people seriously.)

The next article in the magazine is about Ashton Hayes, a small village in north-west England which is trying to be "carbon neutral". Like many leafy villages, the residents of Ashton Hayes are richer than the UK average, so (surprise) have a bigger carbon footprint than the UK average. Well, half the village wants to do something about it. And at least they seem to have gone about it by not only trying to do something but also by asking questions, so they realise the world is not black and white. For example:

"We've planted 14,000 trees but we're not sure that they work". How much carbon a tree absorbs depends on its age and on the soil -- young trees absorb very little. There have been discussions on introducing wind-turbines to the village but it was concluded that, given the amount of energy they would provide, "it was probably a waste of time".

and

Is it better to use an electric power shower or to heat a full tank of water? What do you do about a draughty Georgian front door if you live in a conservation area? If the Ocado grocery delivery van is making just one delivery in the village, is it really better than driving to the out-of-town supermarket? And is it worth buying an energy-efficient fridge if it's less easy to repair than old ones -- and therefore has a shorter life?

The article unfortunately does not address other issues, such as that the accounting being used on carbon emissions is false in any case. One of the ways the UK (and Europe) hides its carbon emissions is by exporting them to China or India (or wherever). If you import steel from China then you are responsible for the emissions, not the Chinese, but under normal (Kyoto-style) accounting, you would not be deemed to be responsible. As a first rule of thumb, the more you earn (or the wealthier you are), the more carbon emissions you are (really) responsible for.

The next article is about food miles. The so-called environmentalists have spent a lot of time the past few years demonising food that is imported from abroad (or even from the next county), because of the transport (which is a large source of carbon emissions). The article in the FT goes over well-known territory discussing this all but includes the obvious observation that transport is only one part of the entire equation (which somehow the so-called environmentalists always manage to conveniently ignore). And on top of this, it is difficult to even know how to calculate carbon emissions correctly:

Another big question is to what extent consumer actions should be counted in the carbon assessment. Cooking, for example, is an energy-intensive activity. Take potatoes. By the time a packet of processed dried mashed potato reaches the supermarket, it would have a far heavier carbon weighting than raw potatoes, particularly those grown in the UK. Yet if the energy use of the potato after it left the supermarket were included, the picture would be difference since boiling a potato is the most energy-intensive part of its life cycle.

Along similar lines, there was one interesting observation:

"We found that a key element of carbon embedded in a crisp [ potato chip ]is the energy required to fry the potato", says Tom Delay, chief executive of the Carbon Trust, which studied Walkers crisps. Because farmers sell to Walkers on the basis of weight, explains Delay, they humidify potatoes with water, which requires energy to remove when frying the crisp. The Carbon Trust, a government-funded consultancy, reckons that simply changing the way potatoes are traded would allow Walkers to cut emissions generated in potato frying by up to 10 per cent.

But would it also cut emissions (and for Walkers, cost) end-to-end? Hopefully yes. The Carbon Trust, like all quangos, is generally a waste of money, but perhaps they have at least managed to do something to justify their existence.

The final article on the environment in the magazine is about "what could tip us into catastrophe". The article goes through various "feedback" mechanisms. Funnily enough, with climate change most feedback mechanisms that people have thought about seem to be positive (which is bad). This could because the scientists lack imagination to list all the negative feedback mechanisms, or perhaps it really is just that way. If so, we're screwed.

The one topic that the articles did not mention, and the most important topic of them all, is population. If the world population crashes this century by 80% as Lovelock suggests, then that in itself will probably avert the worst kinds of climate change. Less people means less emissions. No politician and hardly any so-called environmentalist is willing to stand up and state this obvious point. If UN predictions are correct and the population increases by 50% between now and 2050, then the situation is going to be 50% worse in 2050 compared with today even if nothing else happens (and generally the world economy grows per capita, which generally means more per capita carbon emissions).

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