Energy Efficiency: Running to stand still?

Pickering Traction Engine Rally, P. StevensonIs energy efficiency a key factor in reducing greenhouse emissions?

Matthew Taylor of the RSA thinks home energy efficiency should take priority, and Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute is also very keen on large scale efficiency gains.

The Jevons Paradox is the idea formulated in 1865 that making coal-burning more efficient will lead inexorably to the burning of yet more coal. Newcomen’s steam engine dramatically increased the use of coal in England and William Jevons’ (1835-1882) book The Coal Question noted this. but Jevons  also saw that James Watt’s more efficient version was what made coal-burning really take off, truly inaugurating the ‘age of steam’. He wrote: Continue reading “Energy Efficiency: Running to stand still?”

Talking outside the Box? – Patrick Holden on a new agenda for organic farming

The director of the UK’s Soil Association, a peak organic farming body, has been in Australia talking about a new agenda for the organic movement.

There’s a chance to hear what Patrick Holden  said on Radio National.

Patrick Holden in Sydney Feb 2009

The   broadcast talk spoke of a ‘Rob Hopkins effect’ – referring to the impact on Holden’s thinking of the originator of the Transition movement – a grassroots push to plan for communities that will be more resilient in the face of the twin threats of peak oil and global warming.

Holden’s words are like a primer on the Egalitarian mode of understanding the world. He speaks of major threats to civilisation, of population size as a problem, of a need to change our values, not just our living arrangements. He extols the benefits of bottom-up, as opposed to top-down planning, and of localising the economy.

Towards the end he also speaks of the need for the organic movement to go beyond merely speaking to itself. And this is where the issue lies. How can an almost text-book Egalitarian agenda communicate beyond the self-imposed ghetto of Egalitarianism? Is there a way of talking outside the box of one’s own worldview?

Continue reading “Talking outside the Box? – Patrick Holden on a new agenda for organic farming”

Australian Bush Fires: the ‘ground zero’ of meaning

The intensity and scale of the Victorian bush fires stuns the imagination. The photos of those killed are heartwrenching. For Australia this is an example of what Alain Badiou has called a ‘truth event’ – a moment prior to emotional or intellectual assimilation, an interpretative vacuum as yet unready to be filled with meaning or ideology.
Fires, of course, don’t speak, and they don’t deliver messages. To seek to understand what they say to us is inevitable, though, the start of a ‘truth process’. It is to come up against ‘the Real’, as Lacan put it.
For grid-group Cultural Theory, these kinds of events are a kind of ‘ground zero’ for the ongoing creation of meaning and organisation that is culture. Watch how quickly commentators now step into the breach and start to name the un-namable.

What, so far,  is the message of the fires?
For Egalitarian scientist Tim Flannery , the message is obvious: global warming. For many politicians, the message is more traditional, if still Egalitarian: we must all pull through together, or not at all.
However, with fires at one end of the country and floods at the other, many Australians will, as ever, be filling the vacuum with a Fatalist message: nature is capricious. Keep your head down, make the best of it you can, and put the rest down to sheer luck.

A mutual alternative to markets and hierarchies

science pendulum by midiman

The trouble with a bi-polar view of the world is that there only ever seem to be two rival ways of doing anything. The choices are strictly limited. In the midst of the financial crisis, the pendulum has swung from the private sector ownership of banks to public sector ownership, as though these were the only two conceivable possibilities.

Grid-group cultural theory offers an analytical prism through which to see that there are not two but four ways of organising (and of disorganising) anything. The Individualist approach (Privatise!) and the Hierarchical approach (Nationalise!) are complimented by the Fatalist approach (it’s all a lottery!) and the Egalitarian approach. For reeling financial institutions it’s this latter that now has great potential.

While private banks are go under and governments struggle to work out how to salvage the wreckage into nationalised institutions, the mutual sector has survived relatively unscathed and remains robust. Now it the time to consider expanding it, not least by re-mutualising the institutions that were aggressively de-mutualised during the zenith of free-market triumphalism.

The mutual option has been overlooked or denigrated for a long time because it reflects neither the Individualist nor the Hierarchical worldview. It is an Egalitarian way of organising, with owners, tellingly, being termed members.

But mutuality doesn’t really need cheerleaders. As mortgages and other forms of loans increasingly dry up, people are likely to get together to solve the problem themselves. After all, this is how the mutual sector arose in the first place. The chief question is whether or not those who are opposed on ideological grounds to Egalitarianism, will now get out of the way.

Having said this, it would surely be damaging to the overall ecology of finance if mutuality, or for that matter any other model, were to come to dominate. This is unlikely in the long term, given the fluid and dynamic nature of the environment in which it finance operates. The short term danger is that, refusing to see that we always have four options, we may seek to promote one alone, to the exclusion of all else. This is the recent history of the financial sector and it hasn’t been pretty. As the Cultural Theorists might say, the only thing worse than a clumsy but workable solution is the elegant but disastrous failure we see all around us.

See more on clumsy solutions.


Resolving the GM debate with Open Access Knowledge

Might the polarised debate over GM crops be partially resolved by freeing up the commercial restrictions on GM patents? These can make GM highly profitable but also tie in farmers and other end-users (See also How to Resolve the GM Debate).

A problem many Egalitarians have with GM crops is that they seem  to representa shifting of power from farmers towards biotech companies. And the trend seems to be towards a strengthening of these binds.

An article in the Economist referred to the issue of biotech ‘piracy’. This is supposedly compounded by weak IP protection:

‘just as with software, GMOs suffer from piracy. In Argentina and China, the hostile stance toward intellectual-property rights has been blessed by the government itself.’

Meanwhile a report into the financial implications of adopting GM in Australia noted that one of the challenges facing GM adoption in emerging economies was:

‘Strengthening intellectual property rights to enable a greater level of foreign investment in research and development.

However, this is only one possible (Individualist) approach to the issue. An alternative would be not the strengthening of IP rights, nor (as in Argentina and China), their weakening, but rather the diversification of IP models to include and expand open-source knowledge and technology. This would enable knowledge to be shared and advanced, while avoiding much of the commercial lock-in that key biotech corporations aggressively seek. For instance, the main concern of Canadian farmers using Monsanto-derived GM canola was that they had become tied into commercial exploitation in ways they previously had not been. Terry Boehm, Vice President of the Canadian Farmers Union, said:

“Farmers now are forced to largely to sign technology use agreement to pay expensive fees in order to access seeds for their canola production. There is no possibility essentially to grow canola that is non-GE, there is simply are very few known varieties of non-GE canola available and farmers are actually under the threat of legal action frequently if they’re utilising seeds, as farmers always have, saving and reusing seeds. This is forbidden with GE canola.”

The key argument against open  GM technology is that research and development costs money and no-one will pay unless they believe they will receive a return on their r&d investment.

‘commercialisation requires secrecy in the interests of appropriating the benefits of knowledge’ (OECD, 2008: 161-162).

Some arguments in favour of open access are as follows:

  • It’s happening anyway, in sub-optimal fashion, where jurisdictions have weak IP regulation. This is termed ‘piracy’. In music, software, etc it is increasingly clear that the momentum is unstoppable and that the best strategy is: if you can’t beat them, join them. In other words, the vanishing economic value of information is not destroying commercial opportunities but creating new ones, supported by new business models.
  • Monopolistic hoarding of IP leads to a stagnation of innovation. The classic example is that of the Cornish Engine. Booulton & Watt held the patents for steam engines to pump water out of Cornish tin mines. Their machines were inefficient, but for thirty years there was no stimulus to improve them, since mine owners were tied in to paying licence fees for the existing technology. Tiring of the status quo a group of innovators, gathered around Richard Trevithick, modified and improved the steam engine design, carefully avoiding breach of patent. The result was greater efficiency and lower cost. The products were not patented but were used freely by Cornish mines. The Cornish engine was the outcome of this patent-free shared innovation. Note that Trevithick was not in principle opposed to patents and indeed patented several of his inventions.
  • GM commercialisation is a good example of what Michael Heller calls ‘the tragedy of the anti-commons’ resulting in ‘the gridlock economy’.

See also:

Fourcultures on How to Resolve the GM Debate

John Wilbanks on The Future of Knowledge

Science Commons Video

Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Devlopment, OECD (2008). Tertiary Education for the Knowledge Society: OEWCD Thematic Review of Tertiary Education. Paris: OECD

Dear Davos, How much is there?

Rupert Murdoch at the World Economic Forum
Rupert Murdoch at the World Economic Forum

News channel  CNN is giving ‘influential bloggers’ a chance to ask world business leaders a burning question at the forthcoming world economic forum.

The question Fourcultures would ask is:

How much is there?

This question is deceptively simple. Think about it for a moment, then if you like, take the little poll to the right of this page.

The answers given at Davos would increase awareness of the way our assumptions are conditioned by the four biases described by grid-group cultural theory. Given the context – a meeting of world business leaders – it can be predicted that the most popular answer by far would be:

‘There is plenty, as long as we  harness our ingenuity and hard work’.

It would speak of, in Rupert Murdoch’s words, ‘what happens when human talent, ingenuity and ambition is given free rein’. This is the world view of the individualists, for whom the world is a cornucopia, to be unlocked by innovation and personal prowess.

The second most popular answer would be:

‘There is enough, as long as we regulate it properly’.

This is the hierarchical approach, and it is to be remembered that, internally,  many large businesses are effectively hierarchical bureaucracies.

Way behind would be

‘There’s not enough – we’ve got to change our values, share more and be more frugal’.

Unfortunately this is the answer of most egalitarians, including a large part of the green movement. I say unfortunately, simply because it’s hard for them to see that when they speak with business leaders they’re often speaking a different language.

Also unpopular would be

‘How should I know how much there is, let’s just spin the wheel and see where the ball lands!’

This is the fatalist worldview, and it’s extremely populareverywhere except Davos. But in their spare time, the business leaders of Davos may well apply exactly this approach to life; indeed there was something of this about the financial markets prior to the recent crash.

These four answers to the question ‘how much is there?’ don’t just contradict each other, they actively compete.

So when the Transition Culture website (a meticulously egalitarian and wonderful endeavour) works out its question for CNN, it’s hardly surprising that the question chosen starts with the words

‘On a finite planet…’

Picture the business leaders at Davos rolling their eyes and saying ‘Let’s just stop right there – who says it’s finite?’

For as long as business leaders think the environmentalists are really just defeatists, we have a big, big problem. Conversely, when the environmentalists learn to translate their words for the benefit of their hearers, we begin to have a solution.

Grid-group cultural theory and hierarchical churches

The Gag WarehouseIt came to my attention recently that there are still churches which don’t let women preach or lead worship.

Choosing the leaders because they are men is a hierarchical approach to social organisation and needs to be set in a context. The other ways of choosing leaders should be noted:

Egalitarian – ‘priesthood of all believers’ (become more like the Quakers and be suspicious of activities that require structured leadership)

Individualist – ‘work out your own salvation’ (become more like the new age and construct your own tailor-made religion out of bought pieces. Leaders are entrepreneurs).

Fatalist – ‘the lot fell upon Matthias; and he was numbered with the eleven apostles’ (Acts 1.26) (become more like a lottery and embrace chance. After all, leadership is pointless –  who remembers what Matthias ever did?) Continue reading “Grid-group cultural theory and hierarchical churches”

So… what should I believe?

Psychologist Dorothy Rowe has a book out about religious belief, entitled What Should I Believe? She says,

it is possible to create set of beliefs, which allow us to live at peace with ourselves and other people, to feel strong in ourselves without having to remain a child forever dependent on some supernatural power, and to face life with courage and optimism.

What I find interesting about this is the acceptance of the idea that belief  as such presents itself as some kind of choice, while the content of belief is in need of construction by each and every would-be believer. It seems that DIY religion is not so much an option – it’s the only real possibility.

But I think there may be at least three alternatives… Continue reading “So… what should I believe?”