Posts Tagged ‘BBC Radio 4’
A wonderful enlightened approach to the challenges facing our beautiful planet.
Rob Hopkins is a remarkable fellow. In so many ways he is the most unlikely person to have kicked off almost single-handedly, a gathering world-wide revolution.
He is the co-founder of Transition Town Totnes and of the Transition Network. This grew out of many years experience in education, teaching permaculture and natural building, and setting up the first 2 year full-time permaculture course in the world, at Kinsale Further Education College in Ireland, as well as co-ordinating the first eco-village development in Ireland to be granted planning permission.
He is author of ‘The Transition Handbook: from oil dependence to local resilience’, which has been published in a number of languages, and which was voted the 5th most popular book taken on holiday by MPs during the summer of 2008, and more recently of ‘The Transition Companion: making your community more resilient in uncertain times’, published in October 2011. He publishes the blog www.transitionculture.org, recently voted ‘the 4th best green blog in the UK’(!). He tweets as @robintransition, and and recently came 11th in the PeerIndex-driven Sustainability Drivers List.
I am as guilty as the next person in promoting ‘doom and gloom’ when it comes to what mankind is doing to this planet. I devoted a couple of thousand words to that theme in a guest sermon that appeared on Learning from Dogs a week ago. That’s not to say that unless mankind, in the millions, changes in significant ways then avoiding a catastrophy to our species, and many others, is going to be hugely difficult.
But motivating us all to change is far better undertaken from a position of positive guidance and inspiration, than out of fear!
So when Jean and I listened to a recent BBC radio broadcast by Rob as part of the BBC Radio 4 Four Thought series we were blown away by the guidance and inspiration that Rob presented.
This is how the BBC introduces the programme,
Rob Hopkins, co-founder of the Transition Culture movement, believes that “engaged optimism” is the best way to face the global challenges of the future, be it climate change, oil supplies running out or the economic downturn. He believes initiatives enabling people to produce their own goods and services locally – from solar powered bottled beer to micro currencies like the Brixton pound – are the best way to build community resilience. Four Thought is a series of talks in which speakers give a personal viewpoint recorded in front of an audience at the RSA in London.
Producer: Sheila Cook.
So do listen to the programme and then click across to the Transition Culture website where Rob has posted a transcript of his talk. Please, whatever your plans today find time to listen to the programme and read the transcript. Here’s how Rob closes his talk,
I often end talks I give with Arundhati Roy’s quote “another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day I can hear her breathing”. I think we might adapt her quote, so that, in the context of this bottom-up drive for more resilient communities, communities better prepared for uncertain times, it is not only a case of hearing another world breathing, but being able to see her around us, already setting up local businesses, reviving her local economy, setting up bakeries, breweries, food hubs, mentoring scores of young people with business ideas, attracting inward social investment finance, creating the models whereby people can invest in their communities and see them being strengthened and supported.
That’s why I get out of bed in the morning, because I feel that the potential in our getting this right is so exquisite that it’s all I can do, and because the grim predictability of what will happen if we do nothing is just unthinkable, especially in relation to the challenge of climate change. If we are able to turn things around on the scale we need to turn them around on, to replace vulnerability, carbon intensity and fragility with resilience, it will be an achievement our children will tell tales about, sing songs about. I hope I am there to hear them. Thank you.
Another world is on her way!
We really may be on the verge of a new geological period.
Just a couple of weeks ago, on the 16th May, I wrote an article called The Anthropocene period. It was based on both a BBC radio programme and a conference called “The Anthropocene: A New Epoch of Geological Time?”
So imagine my surprise when I collected this week’s copy of The Economist from my mail-box last Saturday. The cover page boldly illustrated a lead article within, as this picture shows.
The leader is headlined, ‘Humans have changed the way the world works. Now they have to change the way they think about it, too.’ The first two paragraphs of that leader explain,
THE Earth is a big thing; if you divided it up evenly among its 7 billion inhabitants, they would get almost 1 trillion tonnes each. To think that the workings of so vast an entity could be lastingly changed by a species that has been scampering across its surface for less than 1% of 1% of its history seems, on the face of it, absurd. But it is not. Humans have become a force of nature reshaping the planet on a geological scale—but at a far-faster-than-geological speed.
A single engineering project, the Syncrude mine in the Athabasca tar sands, involves moving 30 billion tonnes of earth—twice the amount of sediment that flows down all the rivers in the world in a year. That sediment flow itself, meanwhile, is shrinking; almost 50,000 large dams have over the past half- century cut the flow by nearly a fifth. That is one reason why the Earth’s deltas, home to hundreds of millions of people, are eroding away faster than they can be replenished.
There’s also a video on The Economist website of an interview with Dr. Erle Ellis, associate professor of geography and environmental systems at the University of Maryland. That video link is here.
That Economist lead article concludes,
Recycling the planet
How frightened should people be about this? It would be odd not to be worried. The planet’s history contains many less stable and clement eras than the Holocene. Who is to say that human action might not tip the planet into new instability?
Some will want simply to put the clock back. But returning to the way things were is neither realistic nor morally tenable. A planet that could soon be supporting as many as 10 billion human beings has to work differently from the one that held 1 billion people, mostly peasants, 200 years ago. The challenge of the Anthropocene is to use human ingenuity to set things up so that the planet can accomplish its 21st-century task.
Increasing the planet’s resilience will probably involve a few dramatic changes and a lot of fiddling. An example of the former could be geoengineering. Today the copious carbon dioxide emitted to the atmosphere is left for nature to pick up, which it cannot do fast enough. Although the technologies are still nascent, the idea that humans might help remove carbon from the skies as well as put it there is a reasonable Anthropocene expectation; it wouldn’t stop climate change any time soon, but it might shorten its lease, and reduce the changes in ocean chemistry that excess carbon brings about.
More often the answer will be fiddling—finding ways to apply human muscle with the grain of nature, rather than against it, and help it in its inbuilt tendency to recycle things. Human interference in the nitrogen cycle has made far more nitrogen available to plants and animals; it has done much less to help the planet deal with all that nitrogen when they have finished with it. Instead we suffer ever more coastal “dead zones” overrun by nitrogen-fed algal blooms. Quite small things, such as smarter farming and better sewage treatment, could help a lot.
For humans to be intimately involved in many interconnected processes at a planetary scale carries huge risks. But it is possible to add to the planet’s resilience, often through simple and piecemeal actions, if they are well thought through. And one of the messages of the Anthropocene is that piecemeal actions can quickly add up to planetary change.
We are living in interesting times!
Finally, more of Dr. Ellis may be watched on the following YouTube video.
Is this a new geological age?
Before moving to the thrust of this article, let me say that of the few things that I miss now living in Arizona, British draft beer and BBC Radio 4 are top of the list. Radio 4 have long broadcast a splendid 30-minute summary of science matters under the banner of Material World. It was the broadcast on May 12th that had a very powerful except that I will present here. The programme is available to listen online. This is how the BBC wrote up the summary,
Researchers from all over the world and various disciplines gathered together in London for a conference called “The Anthropocene: A New Epoch of Geological Time?” The term “Anthropocene” was coined by Professor Paul Crutzen of the Max Planck Institute in 2002 to suggest human activity has had such an irreversible affect on our planet, that we have entered into a new geological period, influenced by humans. The conference aimed to discuss the various research projects studying the Anthropocene, as well as to discuss whether or not it should be formalised as a geological “Epoch”. What actually is the Anthropocene, why are so many disciplines researching it and what difference will it make if it is formalized? Quentin finds out from Leicester University geologist Dr. Jan Zalasiewicz, and ecologist Professor Erle Ellis from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
Elsewhere on the BBC website, a fuller summary of the conference was written up by Howard Falcon-Lang, Royal Holloway, University of London. I have taken the liberty of publishing that summary, minus the photographs, below, simply because it’s so important a read.
Anthropocene: Have humans created a new geological age?
By Howard Falcon-Lang Royal Holloway, University of London, 10th May 2011
Human civilisation developed in a cosy cradle.
Over the last 11,700 years – an epoch that geologists call the Holocene – climate has remained remarkably stable. This allowed humans to plan ahead, inventing agriculture, cities, communication networks and new forms of energy.
Some geologists now believe that human activity has so irrevocably altered our planet that we have entered a new geological age.
This proposed new epoch – dubbed the Anthropocene – was discussed at a major conference held at the Geological Society in London on Wednesday. Yet some experts say that defining this “human age” is much more than about understanding our place in history. Instead, our whole future may depend on it.
The term, the Anthropocene, was coined over a decade ago by Nobel Laureate chemist, Paul Crutzen. Professor Crutzen recalls: “I was at a conference where someone said something about the Holocene. I suddenly thought this was wrong. The world has changed too much. No, we are in the Anthropocene. I just made up the word on the spur of the moment. Everyone was shocked. But it seems to have stuck.”
But is Professor Crutzen correct? Has the Earth really flipped into a new geological epoch – and if so, why is this important?
Back to the beginning
Dr Jan Zalasiewicz of the University of Leicester is one of the leading proponents of the Anthropocene theory. He told BBC News: “Simply put, our planet no longer functions in the way that it once did. Atmosphere, climate, oceans, ecosystems… they’re all now operating outside Holocene norms. This strongly suggests we’ve crossed an epoch boundary.” Dr Zalasiewicz added: “There are three ideas about when the Anthropocene began. Some people think it kicked off thousands of years ago with the rise of agriculture, but really those first farmers didn’t change the planet much. Others put the boundary around 1800. That was the year that human population hit one billion and carbon dioxide started to significantly rise due to the burning of fossil fuels in the Industrial Revolution,” he explained. Dr Zalasiewicz continued, “However, the really big changes didn’t get going until the end of the Second World War – and that’s another candidate for the boundary.”
To formally define a new epoch, geologists must show how it can be recognised in the layers of mud that will eventually form rocks. As it turns out, there is enormous practical advantage in fixing 1945 as the beginning of the Anthropocene.
“1945 was the dawn of the nuclear age,” explained Dr Zalasiewicz. “Sediments deposited worldwide that year contain a tell-tale radioactive signature from the first atom bomb tests in the States”. So, thousands of years from now, geologists (if any still exist) will be able to place their finger on that very layer of mud.
Nonetheless, the choice of 1945 for start of the Anthropocene is much more than just convenient. It coincides with an event that Professor Will Steffen of the Australian National University describes as the “Great Acceleration”. Professor Steffen told the BBC: “A few years ago, I plotted graphs to track the growth of human society from 1800 to the present day. What I saw was quite unexpected – a remarkable speeding up after the Second World War”.
In that time, the human population has more than doubled to an astounding 6.9 billion. However, much more significantly, Professor Steffen believes, the global economy has increased ten-fold over the same period.
“Population growth is not the big issue here. The real problem is that we’re becoming wealthier and consuming exponentially more resources,” he explained.
This insatiable consumption has placed enormous stresses on our planet. Writing in the prestigious journal Nature, Professor Steffen and colleagues recently identified nine “life support systems” essential for human life on Earth. They warned that two of these – climate and the nitrogen cycle – are in danger of failing, while a third – biodiversity – is already in meltdown.
“One of the most worrying features of the Great Acceleration is biodiversity loss,” Professor Steffen said. “Species extinction is currently running 100 to 1000 times faster than background levels, and will increase further this century. When humans look back… the Anthropocene will probably represent one of the six biggest extinctions in our planet’s history.” This would put it on a par with the event that wiped out the dinosaurs.
But perhaps more alarming is the possibility that the pronounced global warming seen at the start of the proposed Anthropocene epoch could be irreversible. “Will climate change prove to be a short-term spike that quickly returns to normal, or are we seeing a long term move to a new stable state?” asked Professor Steffen. “That’s the million dollar question.”
If the Anthropocene does develop into a long-lived period of much warmer climate, then there may be one very small consolation: the fossil record of modern human society is likely to be preserved in amazing detail.
Dr Mike Ellis of the British Geological Survey told BBC News: “As a result of rising sea level, scientists of the future will be able to explore the relics of whole cities buried in mud”.
In New Orleans, large areas of the city are already below sea level. The disastrous combination of rising sea level and subsidence of the Mississippi Delta on which it is built suggest that it will succumb at some point in the future. Although the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts less than a metre of sea level rise over the next 90 years, more than five metres of sea level rise is possible over the coming centuries as the Greenland and West Antarctic ice caps melt.
Sea level rise of this magnitude will mean that the lower storeys of buildings will be preserved intact. Such “urban strata will be a unique, widespread and easily recognisable feature of the sedimentary deposits of the human age”, Dr Ellis commented.
Geologists of the future may also hunt for other, more unusual, “markers” of the Anthropocene epoch, such as the traces of plastic packaging in sediments.
But geologists like Dr Mark Williams from the University of Leicester hold much more serious concerns: “One of the main reasons we developed the Anthropocene concept was to quantify present-day change and compare it with the geological record,” he explained. “Only when we do so, can we critically assess the pace and degree of change that we’re currently experiencing.”
Dr Williams added that while the Anthropocene has yet to run its course, “all the signs are that the human age will be a stand-out event in the 4.5 billion year history of the Earth”.
We certainly do live in interesting times!