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Posts Tagged ‘environment’

Media, Materiality and the Environment: Exploring the Ethics and Sustainability of Hardware on Prezi

Here’s a link (it seems that WordPress doesn’t like Prezi’s embed codes) to the Prezi presentation I made for the Mediating Environmental Change: Exploring the Way Forwards symposium in Bournemouth which took place on Friday 4th March 2011. It was a really fascinating event which brought together a diverse group of researchers, practitioners and activists who work in areas around media and environmental change, and I’m hoping to find some time to blog about some of the talks which were given there. I’m also going to post up a collection of links to some of the sources I’ve used for the information contained in the presentation, and that should be up sometime later in the week.

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I’m currently working on a paper for a MECCSA one day symposium called Mediating Environmental Change: Exploring the Way Forwards. The event takes place in Bournemouth on Friday 4th May and judging by the line up it promises to be a great event.

My paper’s titled ‘Media, Materiality and the Environment: Exploring the Ethics and Sustainability of Hardware’ and will explore a range of ways that the life cycle of the hardware that enables the creation of digital media has numerous detrimental environmental and social consequences, alongside a range of alternative practices which could constitute a more sustainable and ethical hardware life cycle. I’ll try and post some more details up once the paper’s finished

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While being ill over the last week or so, I’ve spent some time playing the beta version of Fate of the World, a forthcoming PC game based around climate change which has generated quite a lot of interest in the mainstream media ( see here and here)

The game essentially puts you in command of a global organisation whose mission is to prevent catastrophic climate change (defined in the beta mission as 3 degrees of warmth), maintain a human development index above 0.5 and keep people happy enough to stop more than a certain number of geographical regions from kicking you out by the year 2020.

To achieve these goals you have a variety of tools at your disposal; projects which include boosting renewable energy, deploying CCS technology and subsidising electric cars, environmental and social adaptation/mitigation measures such as drought prevention measures, healthcare programmes and advancing regional water infrastructure, policy measures such as banning oil from tar sands or deploying algae based biofuels, and political measures such as deploying peacekeepers to troubles regions and black ops (including covert steralisation programmes?!).

From a game studies perspective the game is interesting as it provides users with a complex simulation whereby numerous interdependent factors are required to be dynamically balanced in a way that goes far beyond the usual kill or be killed binary prevalent inb most computer games. While there are of course alternatives, particularly in the realm of sandbox simulation games from SimEarth to Civilisation 5, Fate of the World is interesting insofar as it uses data taken from climate models to simulate not a fictional alternative world, but possible futures of this planet, presuming that the current data from climate models are broadly accurate. As such by experimenting with different variables users can glean a different kind of insight pertaining to the challenges posed by Anthropogenic Climate Change to engaging with traditional forms of media, such as watching a documentary or reading the scientific literature. By being able to manipulate how regions react through play, users get a different kind of experience, one driven by feedback, configuration and systemic thinking rather than narrative, affect or rhetoric. While such models will always be highly reductive simplifications of real world complexity, they could provide a useful way of approaching some of the complex social and environmental issues currently facing us, and indeed this kind of argument has been powerfully advanced by game studies scholars such as Stuart Moulthrop, who have advanced the argument that when dealing with complexity, configurational thinking is likely to present users with a better understanding of the area than linear narrative based approaches.

One criticism I have of the game in its current state is that the processes of feedback which reveal how a user’s interventions are effecting the relevant systems are often relatively obscured by their placement two menus deep, and I suspect that many players will struggle to find the data which actually spells out what the the consequences of their actions have been, and without this crucial information actions can appear opaque and indeed this criticism has been made on gaming forums discussing the beta. Hopefully this will something that is addressed before the game is released, as if players don’t understand what effects their decisions have entailed, then the game isn’t achieving its goals.

One aspect of the game which I found highly intriguing is the disparity between the aims and activities the game sets for users and the claims and actions of really existing nation states and supranational institutions. The beta mission in the game sets success as avoiding a rise of 3 or more degrees over pre-industrial temperatures by 2120, which is  below the midpoint of the IPCC projections of 1.5-6 degrees of warming this century (dependent on a range of factors, but primarily human measures), but which is considerably higher than the figure of a 2 degree rise which nation states couldn’t agree upon at the COP15 conference at Copenhagen last year. The reason states couldn’t agree upon that figure wasn’t the complete lack of concrete measures designed to practically bring about that change, but because a large number of nations, primarily the 131 countries represented by the G77 group, declared that a 2 degree temperature rise was too high. Earlier this year those nations convened in Bolivia at the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, where they drafted a people’s agreement which stated

If global warming increases by more than 2 degrees Celsius, a situation that the “Copenhagen Accord” could lead to, there is a 50% probability that the damages caused to our Mother Earth will be completely irreversible. Between 20% and 30% of species would be in danger of disappearing. Large extensions of forest would be affected, droughts and floods would affect different regions of the planet, deserts would expand, and the melting of the polar ice caps and the glaciers in the Andes and Himalayas would worsen. Many island states would disappear, and Africa would suffer an increase in temperature of more than 3 degrees Celsius. Likewise, the production of food would diminish in the world, causing catastrophic impact on the survival of inhabitants from vast regions in the planet, and the number of people in the world suffering from hunger would increase dramatically, a figure that already exceeds 1.02 billion people. The corporations and governments of the so-called “developed” countries, in complicity with a segment of the scientific community, have led us to discuss climate change as a problem limited to the rise in temperature without questioning the cause, which is the capitalist system…

Our vision is based on the principle of historical common but differentiated responsibilities, to demand the developed countries to commit with quantifiable goals of emission reduction that will allow to return the concentrations of greenhouse gases to 300 ppm, therefore the increase in the average world temperature to a maximum of one degree Celsius.

With atmospheric CO2 concentrations currently at 387ppm, and even the most ambitious campaigners in the developed world calling for a reduction to 350ppm, the aims set out at the World People’s Conference appear laudable, but completely unrealistic. Indeed, the goal loosely set out at COP15 of reducing warming to no more than 2 degrees, but with no mechanisms to try to achieve this have been widely criticised by groups such as the International Institute for Environment and Development;

The Accord is weak. It is not binding and has no targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions (countries that signed it have until 31 January to list their voluntary actions in its appendix). The low level of ambition will make preventing dangerous climate change increasingly difficult. What countries have so far proposed will commit us to a 3 to 3.5-degree temperature increase, and that is just the global average.

In some ways this may be the most useful role the game plays; highlighting the distance between the rhetoric of political and business leaders who are currently seeking to greenwash the issue, and present their inaction beyond rhetoric as somehow being constitutive of a viable solution to the problems posed by ACC. Despite taking concerted action throughout the game it is hard to maintain warming of under 3 degrees without society collapsing due to a lack of mitigation and adaptation measures, widespread war and civil unrest or widespread poverty and famine in the face of increasingly severe climate related disasters as the next 110 years unfold. In some ways this isn’t that much fun; being told that your actions are resulting in millions starving and armed conflict doesn’t spread warmth and joy, but it does give some indication of how hard things are likely to get as time passes.

One thing that becomes abundantly clear from the game is that the sooner action is taken to dramatically curb CO2 emissions (particularly in wealthy nations where emissions per capita are far higher), the less severe the consequences will be further down the line. This is a lesson we would do well to heed.

World People’s Conference on Climate Change

and the Rights of Mother Earth

April 22nd, Cochabamba, Bolivia

PEOPLES AGREEMENT

Today, our Mother Earth is wounded and the future of humanity is in danger.

If global warming increases by more than 2 degrees Celsius, a situation that the “Copenhagen Accord” could lead to, there is a 50% probability that the damages caused to our Mother Earth will be completely irreversible. Between 20% and 30% of species would be in danger of disappearing. Large extensions of forest would be affected, droughts and floods would affect different regions of the planet, deserts would expand, and the melting of the polar ice caps and the glaciers in the Andes and Himalayas would worsen. Many island states would disappear, and Africa would suffer an increase in temperature of more than 3 degrees Celsius. Likewise, the production of food would diminish in the world, causing catastrophic impact on the survival of inhabitants from vast regions in the planet, and the number of people in the world suffering from hunger would increase dramatically, a figure that already exceeds 1.02 billion people. The corporations and governments of the so-called “developed” countries, in complicity with a segment of the scientific community, have led us to discuss climate change as a problem limited to the rise in temperature without questioning the cause, which is the capitalist system.

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The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has recently released a report entitles State of the Climate 2009, which is downloadable in its entirety as a pdf from here, with a web page summarising the report available online here.

The findings of this report, which involved over 300 scientists from 48 countries around the world are further corroboration of the evidence that ‘t the past decade was the warmest on record and that the Earth has been growing warmer over the last 50 years.’ What is interesting about the report, is that it uses a methodology which is well suited to examining a broad range of climactic indicators to build a fairly comprehensive overview of numerous ecological systems and so to be able to map the changes these systems are currently undergoing.

Based on comprehensive data from multiple sources, the report defines 10 measurable planet-wide features used to gauge global temperature changes. The relative movement of each of these indicators proves consistent with a warming world. Seven indicators are rising: air temperature over land, sea-surface temperature, air temperature over oceans, sea level, ocean heat, humidity and tropospheric temperature in the “active-weather” layer of the atmosphere closest to the Earth’s surface. Three indicators are declining: Arctic sea ice, glaciers and spring snow cover in the Northern hemisphere.

By utilising a broad range of indicators, and finding such broad agreement between them the NOAA report provides a good example of the way in which the science behind anthropogenic climate change is based on a vast array of observations which corroborate with the physics behind the greenhouse effect, which gives a causal mechanism to the observations seen in these global climactic systems.

As John Cook from SkepticalScience points out in an article for the Guardian, this kind of rigorous scientific research which seeks to give a good overview of global systems by combining and comparing the observed data for numerous global systems is diametrically opposed methodologically to the kind of material promoted by most climate change skeptics, who seek to prevent meaningful action being taken to reduce the severity of ACC by entirely ignoring the bigger picture – the enormous breadth of data from global systems – instead focusing on minute details such as the choice of proxies used in decade old papers on paleoclimatic reconstructions (the repeatedly vindicated Hockey Stick paper published by Mann Hughes and Bradley) or the choice of wording in private emails between climate researchers (such as Phil Jones’ phrase ‘hide the decline’ to describe the divergence between one particular set of trees used as as a climate proxy and the observed temperature record, which was covered in the published literature on that proxy set).

As the NOAA report highlights, when you look at the big picture, rather than concentrating on minute details, the evidence is that the planet is heating up, that human activity is largely the cause, and that the medium to long term ramifications of these changes will make life far harder for hundreds of millions of people as well as causing the extinction of innumerable other species less capable of adapting to a changing climate. As time goes by and more research is being done, that evidence is only getting stronger as more and more datasets which confirm the findings of the IPCC emerge. However despite this mountain of evidence, the political action that would make meaningful action to mitigate the worst of the potential consequences is still a long way off, with the US Senate’s decision not to even try to get a massively compromised bill through following in the wake of the inability of the world’s political leaders failure to reach any deal at COP15 in Copenhagen last December to succeed the emissions cuts of developed nations agreed under the Kyoto Protocol. With the US seemingly steadfast in its refusal to make any kind of cuts to its emissions, it seems unlikely that other developed nations are going to volunteer further reductions to their own emissions, no matter what the science says, as politicians are too fearful for their own careers, which are largely dependent on short term economic success rather than longer term sustainability.

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Wow… Naomi Klein quite accurately described this as ‘a bit like the Marlboro man doing grief counselling in a cancer ward”

Without a doubt one of the most laughable and simultaneously frightening pieces of greenwash I’ve seen in quite a while.

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So last night was the UEFA Champions League Final between Manchester United and Chelsea. The neutral venue for these two English teams to play was not somewhere geographically sensible like Northampton, but Moscow. As in Moscow, Russia.

The distance from London to Moscow for Chelsea fans to travel was a mere 2498km each way, whereas the Manchester United fans had to travel 2551km, meaning that both sets of fans had about a 5000km round trip, almost exclusively achieved via commercial flights.

According to the BBC over 40,000 English football fans made this voyage to watch their team contest the final of Europe’s premier club tournament.

Flying from London to Moscow and back is estimated to emit around 1.5 tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere[1]. The effect of releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at the height a plane travels at is believed to have a radiative forcing – or total effect on the climate – of 2.7 times higher than had the carbon dioxide been released at ground level[2]. This means that the effect that each passenger has is equivalent to 4.05 tonnes of carbon dioxide released at ground level.

Now if we multiply that figure by the 40,000 fans (which according to the BBC’s figures is a conservative estimate) we end up with 162 000 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent being emitted by a bunch of football fans going to watch one match. This is more than the annual carbon dioxide emission of the whole of Chad, a country with over 10 million citizens whose annual emissions of CO2 are a mere 125 000 tonnes [3].

Writing this, has been a massively immiserating experience for me as an activist. I don’t fly for personal reasons, well currently I don’t fly at all, but there are activist related causes for which I would fly, and I certainly don’t believe that aid workers shouldn’t be flown to Burma and China for fear of their environmental impact. However when events such as last night’s pass not with sadness and reflection, but with celebration throughout all sections of the media here I am left to wonder what effect I can possibly have that would even begin to counteract the actions of British football fans over the last week.

A second thought I had about the Champions League final was more about the kind of culture surrounding the sport. At full time the game was tied, one team had dominated the first half, the other dominated the second half. This led to extra time being played, again the teams were evenly matched, one team hit the crossbar, the other team had a shot cleared off the line by a defender. And so the tied game went to penalties. Chelsea were poised to win the game, when their captain unfortunately slipped and sliced his penalty wide. Moments later and another Chelsea penalty was saved and Manchester United had won.

It all seemed entirely ridiculous. The teams were so evenly matched that they could not be separated. Even after extending the duration of the game. They both played well. Yet the rules dictate that one must win and the other must lose, so after comprehensively drawing at football, an entirely arbitrary extra is added to decide which team is the winner. And right on cue, the winners cheered danced and sang, while the losers cried on the pitch distraught at… Having drawn? Having been equally good at the game they play? No they were distraught because they had ‘lost’. But what does that mean? Their name doesn’t get etched on a bit of silver. Big deal, millions of people all over the world had enjoyed watching them demonstrate their proficiency at their chosen game. Shouldn’t they be proud of how well they had done, of all they had achieved?

In a zero sum culture, we are taught that what is important is winning; defeating and vanquishing the ‘other’ is what is necessary. What is not important is having an enjoyable game, working together with all sides for any greater good. The idea that if we work together then everyone can be a winner is refused as an unfortunate leftover from the bygone era of socialist ideology. The black and white winners and losers scenario however fits perfectly with a culture dedicated to competitive individualism, to a society where we are brought up told to do what we can to get ahead in the rat race, and for us to be ‘winners’, we need to accept that others will be ‘losers’.

One of the consequences of living in such a culture is that the long term effects of our competitive individualism and consumer excesses are that resource depletion and climate change will multiply the woes of the hundreds of millions of humans who have already been impoverished by the legacy of colonialism and industrial capitalism. But in a world where we are told to look after number one, it shouldn’t be surprising that rich football fans have more of an environmental impact in a few days than 10 million people will in a year.

[1]http://www.carbonplanet.com/home/shop_flight_emissions_calculator.php?gclid=CK3qirXEupMCFQbclAodVxviCA

[2] http://www.grida.no/climate/ipcc/aviation/064.htm

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_carbon_dioxide_emissions

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