Different Shades of Green, or Brown, rather…

This was originally posted on www.differentshadesofgreen.org

A lot of the content of this blog seeks to discuss how ‘Green’ the City of Freiburg is. How sustainable is the city? How much do the people really care about environmental problems? Is Freiburg on the right track to becoming a truly Green city, if it’s not already?

Having now spent a month in Cairo I can tell you that a lot of these discussions seem nothing short of absurd, no better encapsulated than by the ridiculous discussion about tree roots and bike paths. Just in case you missed it, this was a complaint raised by one disgruntled MEG student that the roots of trees adjacent to the bicycle lanes in Freiburg slowed down his desired speedy journeys around the town, as he had to slow down to over the bumps that the roots had created on the path.

For a start, the average Cairoean would probably consider it something of a luxury to be able to cycle in his or her city in the first place. There are a few brave souls that try this, most notably bread delivery boys with massive trays of freshly baked bread stacked on their heads and also the odd small child here and there. I did once see a European/North American riding amongst the traffic in downtown Cairo but I do not think that he was long for this world.

The problem is, is that Cairo’s traffic is notoriously bad. Cars fill up almost every street and there aren’t many places in the centre that are free from cars for longer than a minute or two. And it’s not that the cars are ever travelling at a particularly fast speed: there’s seldom much opportunity to travel at more than 30 kilometers per hour before another approaching car will block the way ahead or move in from the ‘lane’ next to yours to grab the prized car-free space just in front of you.

Driving in Cairo is like a war. This was how it was explained to me during my first week here and there’s without a doubt no better way to describe it. You have to fight for your space, to get ahead. It doesn’t matter how you do it, you just do it. Having said that it’s mostly a rather civil war. You can steal space, barge into other lanes, stop the car for 10 minutes whilst you argue with a passenger (this happens rather often) but once you just carry on moving and put your hand out of the window to make a conciliatory gesture then everything’s ok after that. “That obnoxious scoundrel just stole the space in front of me even though he skipped the queue behind me to jam into this lane but never mind, he made the sign of peace after doing so” seems to be the predominant attitude. There are fights of course, mostly between microbus drivers, driving all day like that would probably make you very angry too, but considering the outrageous levels of space-thievery and what a European mentality would consider downright rudeness, the system functions. It doesn’t function well, but it somehow chudders along, defying the state of chaos that seems destined to engulf it but never actually does.

It’s this constant game of dodgems (dodgems are a popular fairground ride, see below) which makes cycling almost impossible. Almost impossible without injury at leastHaving lots of cars on the road would, if anything, aid cycling because the cars are never able to generate enough speed thus making it a bit safer for you to cycle. When the cars continuously fight for free bits of concrete right in front of them though, is when it gets dangerous for the modest cyclist.

The alternative to the car or bus is the metro. This is certainly a large network that stretches from North to South of the city and from the centre to the West but in a place as huge as Cairo it’s not enough for most commuters, making some part of their journey by road all but inevitable. The amount of time lost in traffic is tremendous. Perhaps much worse, the pollution is terrible. Breathing in Cairo air is like being constantly reminded of your mortality. You can feel the death around you. Once, I was in the unfortunate position of having to run after my microbus and there was no traffic in the way to slow it down! This happens rarely, I can assure you. Anyway, after a decent effort that I’m sure Mo Farah would have been proud of I was forced to give up. The bus was long gone and my lungs felt like they were stuffed with feather dusters. Feather dusters that had just cleaned the average student’s apartment at that. As a consequence of having been born in London I have asthma but luckily it’s barely noticeable in my day to day life. After this bus chase though, I shamefully had to sit down and take my inhaler, like a fat kid that had stuffed his face with sweets but through the necessity of survival was finally forced to inhale. I felt old and unfit. Perhaps upon my return my fellow students will have noticed a remarkable ageing in me. Ha! No longer shall I look like a youthful, joyful idealist but instead like a grey, hollow-eyed Grampa, which is actually a much truer representation of my character.

Let’s get a broader perspective on this, away from my own anecdotal evidence. In 2007 there were 6 deaths from road traffic deaths per 100,000 people in Germany. In Egypt it was 41.6.[1]  The mortality rate for children due to respiratory diseases is 120.86 in Egypt per 100,000 people and 0.51 in Germany. [2] A direct comparison between Freiburg and Cairo would be even worse I expect, as Cairo is worse than average for Egypt and Freiburg better than average for Germany. Different shades of Green indeed.

None of what I’ve written here has really captured the awfulness that is Cairo’s traffic. Professional writers/talented people have no doubt attempted this somewhere on the web. What I wanted to make clear however, is just how luxurious it is to live in a city with good public transport and the possibility to cycle everywhere without fear of mutilation. How glorious it is indeed to breath in clean air, almost as pure as when nature herself first made it all those millions or billions of years ago. To not spend 2 hours stuck in traffic for what should really be a 45 minute journey is a reason for celebration. To discuss how Green Freiburg is in comparison to cities such as Cairo seems almost pointless.

But this isn’t a pointless discussion. Humanity’s evolution has often followed the path of progress. In Freiburg there is still much room for this. As that now famous quote from the Mayor of Bogota goes, “A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transportation”. Freiburg does not yet match this vision, but it’s closer to it than many places. Let us be critical of Freiburg’s environmental failings and support the city in attaining this beautiful vision of sustainability and equality. Let’s not lose our sense of perspective however, and remain thankful for the blessings that we have.


Beware The Trojan Horse.

The Climate Wars could be entering the ‘end-game’ here if a new strategy deployed by the ‘denier’ lobby is successful. Denier is a term often used here to denote an individual who denies the science behind climate change. That will all change now.

Professor Richard A. Muller, head of the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature (BEST) project and physics professor at the University of Berkeley, has just written an article in the New York Times declaring his “conversion” to what has been mainstream science for a long, long time. Professor Muller has even gone one step further and declared that “Humans are almost entirely the cause” of global warming as opposed to IPCC reports which suggest that human industrial activity may only be one cause, in combination with natural cycles. (Check out the article here)

Excellent news, no? The war between sceptics and believers is over. All are agreed that climate change is caused by human activity. Natural sciences departments in universities across the world have rejoiced. UNEP offices will witness many a sunrise and dark moon as cleaners put them back in working order. Professor Michael Mann, vilified by the engine of denial and its boot-lickers, magnanimous in victory has congratulated Professor Muller for behaving like a “good scientist”. Blogs of poison can cease. Quite terrible name-calling is needed no more. Finding the solutions for a bright new world with a planetary temperature of no more than a two extra degrees can begin.

Sadly not. What we are witnessing instead is a very cunning shift in denier strategy. That game is up. No longer could they deny the science brought together by the IPCC and nor could they come up with a better theory as to why the planet was warming. They could not even keep on pretending that the planet was not indeed warming. They have, however, shifted the goal posts. Rather than deny that the basic science is accurate, they will now deny that climate change poses any threat to human well-being. This is nothing new but merely a shift in emphasis. Professor Muller’s article is the perfect Trojan Horse and could be the final tactic that makes sure this war is really over.

Muller’s article is uncontroversial except for the part where he predicts warming to increase to a level above IPCC predictions. That was worrying, but not as worrying as the paragraph where he essentially states that the threat of climate change is overblown, unsubstantiated or just plain false. He then goes on to list several examples to support his point. I’ll deal with those, courtesy of Skeptical Science, at the bottom of this page. For now though let’s focus on the New York Times article.

It’s written in a very clever way to achieve what the main objective of the denier lobby has always been – to delay meaningful action on climate change for as long as possible. Muller points out that the BEST methodology is indeed the best; better than the IPCC’s. He argues that his data is superior and therefore gives better results. It is important to link this to what I’ve written above. By framing the article in this way Muller seeks to position himself as the true scientist, the one with integrity who didn’t go leaping to conclusions just like those inferior scientists from the IPCC did. Now that Professor Muller and his team have truly, scientifically established that humans are warming the planet, he can now go on to find out what the negative effects from this warming will be. Do not trust what the IPCC has to say, for their methodology is weak and inferior. Wait for us to provide the real answers. It’s the waiting, as the sea ice caps melt and the deserts expand, that Muller wants. It’s the waiting which is what the oil industry needs, more and more time to extract that oil before those bothersome scientists obstruct their work.

If this is the case then it could signal a slight shift in the debate from one that argues over what was fairly established science, and thank God for that at least, to one that is certainly less established – predicting the future. We cannot know what the future is, but good science can help us to make good predictions. The war will now rage over what is good science in this department and what makes a good prediction. But before these new battles commence we have to beware this Trojan Horse sent to us by Professor Muller. It would be a disaster for progress if climate scientists were to come out en masse and congratulate Professor Muller, or not to challenge the inevitable news coverage, because it would give him legitimacy, therefore making it easier for the “sceptical” lobby to employ the argument I outlined above. Muller has been the closest thing to legitimate that the denial industry, filled with crackpots, has. For the scientific community to ignore what is blatantly a new way to further delay investments in renewable energy, energy efficiency and wholesale system change is to allow it to succeed.

And how does this all fit together? Oil money. It’s no secret that the Koch brothers have funded this project and it’s no secret that big oil has funded the denial machine, just as the tobacco industry did for lung cancer. People were shocked, and many environmentalists satisfied with the delicious irony, when the Koch-funded BEST project results came in and confirmed what was already known for a very long time. If big oil could fund a project that confirmed the scientific consensus then clearly we can now trust oil-funded research. Now it’s all very clear why this was done. It began the implementation of a long term strategy of delay. It is still not yet time to party – or it really will be game, set and match to the oil industry.

What Muller is probably wrong about in the article

Skeptical Science provides the rebuttal.

1) Polar bear populations are decreasing http://www.skepticalscience.com/polar-bears-global-warming.htm

2) The Himalayan Glaciers will not be gone by 2035, but most are retreating. An excellent deployment of the cherry picking tactic. http://www.skepticalscience.com/himalayan-glaciers-growing-intermediate.htm

3) Hurricanes. Even if they are decreasing in frequency in the US, it is certainly not possible to claim with much certainty that they are decreasing globally. http://www.skepticalscience.com/hurricanes-global-warming-intermediate.htm

4) The warming in the US is offset by cooling elsewhere in the world. It seems contradictory to ‘discover’ that global temperatures are increasing but then somehow imply that the warming witnessed in the US cannot be attributed to global climate change? Perhaps the BEST results are only for the US?

5) Medieval warm period. http://www.skepticalscience.com/medieval-warm-period-intermediate.htm

Carrotmob Freiburg 2.6.12

Freiburg’s 5th Carrotmob was a deliciously sunny affair, with excellent carrot cake, carrot soup and carrot quiche in abundance. The carrot cake sold out actually, much to the disappointent of some late ‘mobbers. ChezFine, an organic restaurant specializing in French cuisine, pledged to give 90% of the revenue made from the day towards making environmental improvements in the restaurant. A special ‘gunstig’ menu was prepared by the ChezFine team so that everyone could enjoy the food at what is normally a more upmarket establishment – internalizing those externalities has to cost more by definition.

Andrea and Miriam enjoying some first time ‘mobbing!

In total 623 euros, 50 eurocent was raised for improvements to be made at ChezFine. To get an idea of what that could achieve consider the assessment made by energy assessors from energie-sparen-freiburg.de. A new radiator at a cost of 400 euros could save an estimated 10,000 kWH (kilo-watt-hours) per year and an average saving of 2320 kilograms of Co2 per year. Amazingly this would save ChezFine an estimated 2100 euros per year in energy costs.

The total investment that could have been made at ChezFine according to the energy assessor was 4,886 euros, which would have resulted in monetary savings of 2931 euros per year, with an energy saving of 13,956 kWh and Co2 of 3617 grams per year. In just two years the restaurant would make back the money if they were to invest in all of the improvements! Obviously most of this would come from a new radiator. It’s amazing to think that a 400 euro investment could save so much. I’ll have to email the energy assessors to see if they can explain how this is so.

The report

It just goes to show what an excellent idea Carrotmob is. Local businesses can be supported, the environment aided and people made happy (that cake was amazing). Before we get too happy though we still need to confirm that the restaurant have used the money as they said they would. Will keep you posted. In the meantime enjoy these photos of a lovely Saturday in sunny Freiburg. Thanks to all those who came!

Enjoying the sun and music

A lot of international student love.


ChezFine. Or CHEzFINE.


For more information about Carrotmobs in Freiburg see on see http://www.carrotmob-freiburg.de/ and for the Carrotmob concept in general http://www.carrotmob.org.

Carrotmobs are go…

If you’ve never heard of a ‘Carrotmob’ before then you’ll belong with the rest of the 99.99999% of the human race that assume a Carrotmob is an intimidating gang of walking carrots (and for anyone else that grew up in the ’90s, no it’s not a cheap rip-off of this…)

Carrotmobs: no more sticks

No! Carrotmobs are much more exciting than a gang of lethal carrots of Italian origin could ever be. That’s because Carrotmobs are about being environmentally friendly. Now that I’ve got you barely contained with anticipation I’ll get to the point.

Carrotmobs are in essence the exact opposite of a boycott. So instead of not going to a store because you don’t like what they do, you go to a store because you like what they do. How they work is simple. A bunch of people, the organisers, will approach a series of stores with a simple offer: “if we get loads and loads of people to turn up to your store on this day how big a percentage of the profits would you commit towards making your store more environmentally friendly?”

The store that thinks this sounds like a good idea and makes the highest offer wins. The organisers tell their friends, “hey go buy stuff from here, we like them”, and then voila, the store uses some of the extra money to make their store more environmentally friendly. Perhaps they buy some insulation or special devices for fridges that reduce the energy consumption or improve their composting and so forth.

This is small scale stuff making small changes in local communities but the guys behind Carrotmob are ambitious. They envisage one day being in the position to influence big corporations like The Coca-Cola Company. Just picture it – an interlinked web of consumers the world over that can sway the decisions of corporations. Pepsi want to become more environmentally friendly? Great, we’ll buy Pepsi the world over and watch Coke regret not making the offer first.

Check this video out for a better explanation of what a carrotmob is. 

Why is this great? Because it’s positive, it’s fun and it’s effective. It rewards good behaviour (that carrot reference, remember?) and entrepreneurship. It views businesses as partners, not as adversaries. It’s an innovative form of environmentalism that is needed now more than ever before.

Would it be surprising to think that 50 years from now, it’s Carrotmobs and not boycotts that will be the dominant form of organised consumerism? Let’s hope so.

For more information see http://www.carrotmob.org

Why we disagree but where to go from here?

Our class had a very interesting set of lectures the week before last. Given by Heiko Roehl from the German Development Agency (the GIZ), we were introduced to a number of knowledge and organizational learning concepts. It touched upon a lot of the things that I have been thinking about recently, like the nature of truth, why it is that people – even intelligent ones – can disagree so vehemently about such a wide range of issues and how it is that we as individuals can come to make more of an effort towards understanding each other.

Something that really crystallized all of this rather well was a wee diagram explaining a concept called ‘Relevance Systems’. This theory or way of thinking about individual beliefs and knowledge can help us to understand why and how it is that we can come to have such radically different views of the world. This struck me powerfully because I have been trying for a while to get a better idea of why it is that people disagree about climate change. This helped me to understand the why a bit better, but I’m still not sure if it helps to form any solutions. Time will tell.

The Model

a) To start off with we have our set of beliefs. Our beliefs about reality are constructed from our experiences and the environment in which we grew up. Our parents might have instilled in us a belief in God or the belief that it is the right thing to help others. We might have grown up in a Western society where we are taught the primacy of the individual. Some may have grown up in societies that teach the primacy of the community.

b) This model also recognises that our brains filter information. It has to do this to stay functional. If we were to process every bit of information that our senses detect then it would be overloaded. This happens to people with autism – their brains don’t filter out information and so their social systems can be said to be impaired. They perceive the world in a radically different way to non-autistic people and so act in a very different way too.

We often ignore information that we don’t want to hear or don’t believe in, although this is mainly an unconscious process. Information that rejects our beliefs is, on the whole, rejected. Information that supports them is absorbed. I was taught to value empirical science when growing up and thus perceive the world as spherical because the information I have acquired, I saw on TV scientists explaining why the earth is a sphere, supports or does not contradict my beliefs. Another child, perhaps an unfortunate that had medieval re-enactment enthusiasts for parents, might perceive the world as flat. The information that he gets, from his eyes, tells him that it is so. He might sometimes see on TV the earth referred to as a sphere but rejects this knowledge. Scientists are just phony wizards, or so his parents keep telling him. We both ‘see’ the same information but our belief systems interact with this in different ways to produce different perceptions of the world from us.

c) Information is never absorbed independently though. We combine it with our judgement. Our judgement is also strongly influenced by our early experiences. Being raised in a family where cleanliness is very important then shapes your judgement – and you will judge cleanliness as a good thing. For example, when you go to a foreign country your impression of it may be formed by its cleanliness. For someone else it might be the quality of food that determines their judgement of the country.  Therefore it is our judgement, “I judge cleanliness as important” plus the information we receive, “I read in the newspaper that French people wash the least often” that constructs our knowledge, “France is a bad country”.


d) It is thus our beliefs, judgement and the information we filter that form our perceptions of the world. The lines flowing from the belief circle out towards the world represent this ‘relevance system’ that determines how we perceive reality. Never in its completeness and never without some truth.

Link to Climate Change

This was a highly simplified explanation partly so I could explain it but also so that the model is understood. It’s not a perfect model. Perhaps some people see more of reality than others because they are more intelligent or have access to more information. The beliefs we grow up with can all too often be rebelled against. But I hope the framework is there and makes sense, so let’s apply it to the climate change example.

I often read a report or blog decrying climate change as a left-wing conspiracy. As someone who believes in climate change my initial reaction is always, “did no one ever tell these people that the Left couldn’t organise a piss-up in a brewery?”. I then look to see if there any flaws in the report, or I look up the authors on the internet to see if they have any connection to the oil industry – which they often do. Failing this I then consult ‘climate friendly’ websites to check the arguments of the sceptical report/blog. Most of the time I end up convinced that climate change is happening and that the sceptical blog is just another paranoid old man that needs to get out more. Even writing about it you can see that I’m quite unwilling to even realistically treat the subject impartially here – although that’s also to make it slightly more readable.

It’s easy to see how this can happen the other way around – with a sceptic and climate change. They read the latest IPCC report, find some errors in it or find information that some of the authors are also members of Greenpeace and their beliefs remain unaltered. They absorb the information, this clashes with their beliefs and they judge the information faulty, perhaps by finding additional information to support this. End result: beliefs unchanged. Exactly as in my example.

You can this set of examples on this very blog, on the post below. Justin gives one argument and backs it up with a web link. I dismiss his link and then provide a link of my own. He then does the same and so on and so on, and we go in circles forever.

It’s quite easy to see this, fancy diagram or no. What’s now harder is how to change this situation. How can I and Justin come to some sort of understanding? Does one of us have to give up our beliefs in order to do this? That won’t happen easily – it would take a massive event or crises to do that. Perhaps tomorrow morning I see in The Daily Telegraph photos of Rajendra Pachauri[i] playfully wiggling his rump from under the duvet of his bed whilst Jim Hansen[ii] rubs money into his back, both cackling at the world’s stupidity for buying that rubbish about the earth warming.

In our class we were also taught that engaging in dialogue is important to understand how our systems of relevance overlap and thus where our disagreements stem from. This may sound like wishy-washy-hippy crap at first glance but I feel it’s something very important to consider – especially with regards to climate change. For so long ‘believers’ and ‘sceptics’ have been debating, for decades, and it’s getting no one anywhere as the debate gets uglier. Death threats against climate scientists, the hacking and distortion of personal emails – very vicious name calling by Greens. We’re at a dead end and perhaps dialogue is the first step towards a solution. We were introduced to a number of dialogue tools to resolve conflicts, which I may blog about some time in the future.

[i] Rajendra Pachauri is the chairperson of the IPCC

[ii] James Hansen is head of the NASA institute for Space Studies

Many thanks to Julia Koch, Jonathan Niessen and Aurange Kreamsicle for helping me to articulate this a lot, lot better. It is still a work in progress.

The most important environmental article written in a mainstream newspaper…

…was written by Sunny Hundal in last weeks Guardian. I won’t post a link, because the Guardian doesn’t need the juice, but just type, ‘The climate change message is not being heard. Here’s how to change tack”‘ into google.

Here Sunny fluently explains what the green movement has been doing wrong about getting across the message to act on climate change. I’ve read one or two other blog posts a year or two back that said basically the same thing, but was extremely pleased to see that this message had made it onto a large newspaper in the UK.

If you’ve been following the climate change issue then you’ll have noticed that success hasn’t exactly been forthcoming. There are some massive obstacles in the way of progress. Big oil, big business, a system that won’t tolerate anything other than an increase in GDP per capita. There’s another one too – the environmental movement.

Look at one example. How many marchers were there in London just before the COP 15 at Copenhagen 2009? It was 50,000. 400,000 marched against the fox hunting ban in 2002. There’s a 7 year gap between the two, but it’s clear to see where the strength of public opinion truly lies when it comes to climate change, and other issues. To a city dweller such as me, that 400,000 could protest against a ban on a medieval practice of animal hunting seems absurd, but clearly this issue was extremely important to the people who live in the countryside and others.

So why doesn’t climate change – supposedly a threat to global prosperity and security – provoke the same sort of feeling? One reason is the environmental movement itself, besides the other challenges mentioned, and Mr. Hundal presents a few reasons why:

1) Doom-mongering – we don’t concentrate on solutions, we just bang on about how the world’s going to end. A crass generalisation about environmentalists from me, but the point would ring true for many I believe. Let’s be more positive and offer solutions rather than catastrophe.

2) Anti-capitalist – as Mr. Hundal rightly points out, we’ve been preaching to the converted.    It’s left-wing people that are largely behind the message to act on clmate change, but we’re losing the right, who are just as, if not even more, important than the left. Activists with dreadlocks threatening to smash capitalism isn’t the best way to win supporters from the right-leaning people.

3) Failure to address the economic argument – the right-wing tabloids continue to insist that green projects will cost the economy. Whether you believe in economic growth or not is irrelevant. Stopping climate change is one of the most important challenges the world faces – along with eradicating hunger and poverty. To do that there needs to be a broad concensus, or at the very least, a strong majority amongst the population on the need to act. We’re not there yet, and we should have been there years ago. Greens need to show how economic and environmental improvement can go hand in hand. Referring to arguments such as Potocnik’s here is a good example of this http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/dec/29/eu-environmental-resources-new-recession (ok I said I wouldn’t link to the guardian but never mind)

The UK government is largely committed, at least in legislation, to slashing it’s consmption of emissions. This was achieved largely because of the dedicated work of a number of brave and industrious activists and NGOs. But we can go further and we need to, as do our friends in the US and Canada. We would all do well to learn from Mr. Hundal’s article.

A brief introduction



I think that environmental issues need to be discussed more often. Everyone should be talking about the environmental crisis much more often.

Yes, it is a crisis. Sometimes it’s hard to see a crisis coming, but this one, if you look closely at the information available, is not all that hard to see.

So let’s talk more about it, and see what we can learn from each other. And enjoy this quote.

“When asked if I am pessimistic or optimistic about the future, my answer is always the same: if you look at the science about what is happening on earth and aren’t pessimistic, you don’t understand the data. But if you meet the people who are working to restore this earth and the lives of the poor, and you aren’t optimistic, you haven’t got a pulse.” – Martin Keogh.