What Do We Mean by a Crisis?

Massive social lock down has closely followed the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic crisis. Like many I’m struggling with how this is being communicated and, more importantly, how the required actions are being implemented. More than ever we need clarity and understanding from everyone. Yet we continue to see pictures of breaches to the government mandate to socially distance when we shop or walk for exercise. We all face difficult decisions and painful dilemmas as we begin to understand the implications of the crisis we face. As one commentator recently suggested, we are in a kind of stasis, shrouded by deep anxiety, as the scale and urgency of the crisis unfolds.  And, we cannot fathom the transformative change we face, much of which is unknowable. ‘Experts’ have no access to infallible truths to guide us towards a safer and more sustainable future. Yet our political leadership continue to repeat the mantra that their actions are based on the best scientific evidence! Perhaps, it would be wiser to say based on the “best available evidence?”

The word “crisis ” is derived from the Greek “krisis” which means a decision or judgement. This derivation also includes a critical state or condition such as a medical state, which can develop positively towards a cure or, negatively and lead to long term ill health or premature death. Hence, the outcomes of a crisis are unpredictable and unknowable. 

Those of us who are deeply concerned about another crisis – the climate emergency, will inevitably look at Covid-19 and draw comparisons. But this is ultimately a flawed exercise because Climate Change does not have the same dynamic as that we are currently experiencing.  It is much slower to develop and so does not pose an immediate threat to our very existence. It doesn’t have the same imminent sense of threat that Britain faced as German troops massed on the other side of the channel, ready to invade. Therefore, it has less influence on our collective social consciences to initiate rapid behavioural change.

What does an emergency mean when we face a crisis?

An emergency is a situation where the normal ways we manage society and the economy cannot adequately deal with the risk we face. It implies, therefore, a change to what we do, commensurate with both the scale and urgency of the risk.

Declaring an emergency should result in the development of a plan, underpinned by strong leadership, that communicates, coordinates and deploys the practical capacity and financing to protect communities from the threat, including the most vulnerable. In most emergencies, only the state has the authority and capacity to act  in this way. All of us rely on the state  to do so.

As a result of Covid-19 we now better understand  the basic characteristics of an emergency response. As the Breakthrough Climate Centre describes it:

“In emergency mode we stop ‘business-as-usual’ because nothing  else matters as much as the crisis. We don’t  rush thoughtlessly in, but focus on a plan of action, which we implement with thought, and  all possible care and speed, to protect others  and get to safety.”

Could the devastating impact of the new coronavirus pandemic destroy the momentum that the climate movement has built up over the last year? Some say so, believing that the economic fallout will push climate down the list of priorities for governments. But rather than seeing the solutions to Climate Change and Covid-19 as independent, we should recognise that appropriate behaviour changes can  mitigate both risks concurrently. For example, good air quality improves people’s health and mitigates climate change.

In fact, I believe the last few weeks, as terrible as they have been for so many people, have taught us crucial lessons that we needed to learn in order to enter a new era of radical, collaborative action not only to plan for further disease outbreaks but also to cut emissions and slow climate change. Like everyone else, I can’t believe we’ve learned  so many devastating lessons in a matter of days. Once we are freed from this cruel threat we should face up to the absurdity of our unsustainable lifestyles and the precariousness of the human condition.

Matlock Floods investigated by East Midlands BBC News

On 6th March the East Midlands news team descended on Knowleston Gardens, site of the Bentley Brook pumping station. Contrary to local understanding the film crew took evidence from the Environment Agency who confirmed that the November 2019 floods were caused by surface water rather than flooding from the river. The volume of the water was such that the pumping station could not discharge this water in enough volume and rate into the river. Hence the water back flushed through the drains into the town centre causing the flooding that we all saw.

This is not the first instance of surface water flooding affecting the town; it occurred on 20 September 2018.

The housing secretary, Robert Jenrick, told MPs on Thursday that officials would review the policy of building homes on high-risk flood plains and bring forward changes “in the coming months”.

The announcement, made at the end of a wide-ranging speech on the future of planning, will have significant implications for the government’s aim to build 300,000 homes a year by the mid-2020s to ease the chronic housing shortage.
It comes after the Guardian revealed that one in 10 of all new homes in England since 2013 have been built on land the government considers at the highest risk of flooding, with more than 11,000 planned for high-risk flood zones in the counties battered by storms in November and February.
Building on land prone to flooding is a risk to new homeowners and compounds the danger for surrounding areas, experts have said, as flood water that could otherwise be soaked up by green space instead runs quickly off concrete and into rivers.
Greenpeace’s chief scientist said “The government has provided no details on this, but it seems as if ministers may have finally realised that building new homes in areas with high flood risk and inadequate defences is a recipe for continual disaster.
“This is one of many examples where for far too long, the government has talked about the climate emergency without treating it as if it was real. The widespread damage and human suffering from the recent flooding have shown just how real it is.
“The government should work up a more sensible policy that empowers local councils and the environmental watchdog to stand up to pressure from developers who are putting profits before people’s safety.”



Human history is littered with stories of plagues and we are currently facing yet another. This latest one is a respiratory virus, first detected in the Chinese city of Wuhan, which has now infected thousands of Chinese citizens and spread to several other countries. It has been declared a global emergency by the World Health Organization and has prompted Chinese authorities to quarantine several major cities.

Here in Derbyshire our last plague was in the village of Eyam, in the Peak District National Park. It began in 1665 when a flea-infested bundle of cloth arrived from London for the local tailor. Within a week his assistant George Vicars was dead and more began dying in the household soon after.

Eyam became famous because the villagers eventually agreed to quarantine themselves within the village to prevent the bubonic plague from spreading into the north of England. The plague ran its course over 14 months and one account states that it killed at least 260 villagers, with only 83 surviving out of a population of 350. But the surrounding towns and villages were not infected – so the villagers achieved their objective, but at great personal cost.

What can history tell us about quarantine and a more sustainable way of living which might contain such massive contagions?

In a society where everything is global – how can we possibly isolate ourselves for a few weeks to prevent human to human contact? Our food chains are so long and complex that even here in the UK we cannot feed ourselves for more than a few days. How can cities of 11 million people be isolated? Long distance travel is the norm and people can be halfway round the world in a day – longer than it takes an infection to incubate and show symptoms.

Another wicked sustainability issue?

Infectious diseases are a part of the cycle of life, but it is our lifestyles that turn them into pandemics. Can our political leadership enable us to develop a more sustainable lifestyle where quarantine is the standard response to an infection but where it does not  destroy individual livelihoods?

Higher Education for Sustainability: Seeking Intellectual Independence

Late last year I received the manuscript of a book from a reputable publisher asking for my views on its strengths and weaknesses. I have done several book reviews in recent years, but I must admit this one was both a pleasure and surprise. I had heard of Kerry Shephard from a previous review of a huge tome on research on a similar theme.

This book has taken  a very different and more accessible perspective. It frames the research in terms of  the role and purpose of universities in the 21 Century:

  • It  addresses what role universities should play in educating for a sustainable world.
  • It explores the role that education can play in creating critical thinkers with the behavioural disposition to act and realise the potential pathways towards a more sustainable future.
  • It explores what forms of teaching and learning might facilitate such dispositions.
  • It addresses some of the barriers to realising the transformation processes needed, including critiquing the current role and approaches to learning offered by most academics and students, including experiential community programmes in  which both act as co-creators of  transformative learning.
  • And, it offers some challenging and thoughtful approaches to institutional evaluation on learning outcomes related to critical thinking and in turn to those co- related dispositions.

Repurposing the University

By framing this book through the lens of critical thinking Shepherd offers a more realistic and grounded exploration of how we might judge the effectiveness of a university education. He avoids the pitfalls of ESD and EFS and other adjectival descriptors of current educational approaches to sustainability.

 Moreover, he argues that if universities  develop and enhance individual critical thinking and related dispositions, this captures more precisely the social, environmental and ethical needs of civil society in a complex and rapidly changing world. In the absence of this kind of explicit purpose, then as one Finnish academic has recently commented, the university “has already become an empty shell, or a soulless organism reduced to dead matter”.

An outstanding read!

Policy Coherence and the Sustainable Development Goals


Since the early 1990s, the OECD has been at the forefront of international efforts to promote policy coherence for development (PCD). The OECD has a strong track record in monitoring policy coherence efforts in its Member countries through peer reviews. While PCD has traditionally been
seen as the main responsibility of countries that are providers of development co-operation, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development adopted by all United Nations (UN) Member States calls for a broader approach to policy coherence. The 2030 Agenda states that the SDGs are indivisible, and
that they balance the economic, social and environmental dimensions of sustainable development and calls for no one to be left behind. To help make progress toward this balance, the SDGs include SDG Target 17.14, which calls on all countries to enhance policy coherence for sustainable development
(PCSD) as an essential means of implementation for all the Goals.

Since the adoption of the 2030 Agenda, the OECD has been working on aligning its approaches to policy coherence with the principles and nature of the 2030 Agenda, and develop tools and guidance for implementation in collaboration with the European Union, the UN specialised organisations and
agencies, and other stakeholders. It is also collaborating with UN Environment and OECD Members to develop methodologies for tracking progress on policy coherence at the global and national levels. The Recommendation on PCSD responds to the growing demand by OECD Members and non Members to deal with the “how” of coherent 2030 Agenda implementation.

According to the OECD[i] enhancing policy coherence for sustainable development (PCSD) has emerged as one of the most difficult challenges to implementing the SDGs[ii].  And, they claim, there is growing demand for peer learning opportunities as well as for tools and guidance that can be tailored to specific national needs and contexts. So, along with approximately 70 other policy wonks from as far afield as Mexico and Korea and with some trepidation, I decided to attend the 15th(!) meeting of the “National Focal Points for Policy Coherence”, in Paris .

The 8 Principles for promoting policy coherence

Vision and Leadership
1. Political commitment and leadership
2. Strategic Long Term Vision
3. Policy Integration
Policy Interactions
4. Whole of Government Coordination
5. Subnational Engagement
6. Stakeholder Engagement
7. Policy and Financing Impacts
8. Monitoring, reporting, and Evaluation

What did I learn?

Well, perhaps unsurprisingly, the Scandi delegates from Sweden, Norway and Finland are much further ahead on this front (more focused perhaps?) than many other nations. Although I was both surprised and delighted by the Spanish delegate’s presentation, along with those from Holland and Germany. Where was the UK government representative you might ask: a no show again? No, it seems they have found other more pressing matters to deal with…

All of these well focused countries have set up a wide range of institutional policy structures to enhance PCSD. For example, setting up PCSD units within their Foreign Ministries, along with clear and substantive links to civil society organizations with both process and outcome measures for monitoring and evaluation of PCSD. Some even mentioned that they had developed guidance on PCSD for municipalities too!

For me, the most interesting input came from Norway. Its Policy Coherence Forum reviews national policy priorities on the SDGs and reports to parliament annually, often with some “heavy” criticism. Their delegate claimed that “dilemma free” policy was not an option and that constructive disagreement is essential for change. I would also agree that constructive disagreement is essential for PCSD and for enhanced wider and deeper social coherence in order to facilitate civil society action and implementation of the SDGs.

One of the most memorable comments from these steadfast early global colonisers (Vikings) was the idea that shoehorning the SDGs into existing national policy is not the answer. Instead, we must find ways of shoehorning our policy priorities into the SDGs!

 Shoehorning has come to mean “inserting and forcing things into other things”. It can also refer to fitting something where it does not easily fit.

[i] Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development

[ii] According to the Voluntary National Reviews presented so far to the UN High Level Political Forum ( SDG target 17.14) www.oecd.org/pcsd/Report%20on%20PCSD%20Survey%20Findings.pdf

[iii] www.oecd.org/governance/pcsd/15thmeetingofthenationalfocalpointsforpolicycoherence.htm

The Roaring 20’s?

A useful blog from Felix Dodds outlining key global sustainability events for 2020

Key Dates for 2020 – As we start to embrace the new decade – is this the roaring 20’s?

The state of the world is not what we would have hoped for in 2015 when Heads of State agreed to the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Climate Agreement.  This seems to have been a consistent trend in global sustainable development affairs. Something that we pointed out in what is called the ‘Vienna Café Trilogy’. The first book of that Trilogy – ‘Only One Earth’ was written with the father of sustainable development Maurice Strong and Michael Strauss looked at the development of policy at the global level from the mid-1960s to 2012. What it showed was that after each advancement there was a negative reaction caused by a number of global events. After Stockholm 1972  (the first UN Conference on the environment)  we saw the impact of the Yom Kippur War – where oil prices rose significantly and focus moved away from environmental issues. Around the time of the UNEarth Summit in 1992, we saw the breakup of the former Soviet bloc with much of the peace dividend that we had hoped would be used to fund Agenda 21 going to help stabilize the newly independent countries in Eastern Europe. Coupled with the impacts of the first Iraqi war. In the runup to the World Summit on Sustainable Development, we had 9/11 and the possibilities for additions to the Millennium Development Goals in areas such as energy, consumption and production & oceans disappeared until the Sustainable Development Goals. The two other books in the trilogy ‘From Rio+20 to the New Development Agenda (written with Jorge Laguna-Celis, Liz Thompson) and Negotiating the Sustainable Development Goals (written with Ambassador David Donoghue, Jimena Leiva Roesch) both explored the challenges that we would face in the coming years as well as explaining how we had got there.   There is no doubt that we are in a better place as far as the agenda that needs to be addressed being much clearer and in many cases the roadmap to delivering it much better understood than we were in 1972, 1992 and 2002 but we have lost decades of opportunities to make the path to sustainable development easier. This is because of the lack of delivery of the previous agreements, there is little room for mistakes that will not result in more and more people having their lives impacted.   We seem to have the wrong politicians in power to address these challenges but then we should question how much we have contributed to that in not engaging enough with people to help them choose a better world. So, we now have ten years until the Sustainable Development Goals have to be delivered and the Paris Climate Agreement updated and a transition to a none fossil-fuel world in place. Every action we take should be put into the frame of is this helping us deliver this and where do we need to be in 2023 at the midterm review to be on course. So the main global meetings that will contribute to this year will be the following: February 2020

February 8-13th  – The World Urban Forum: The delivery of the SDGs and the Paris Climate Agreement will be won or lost in our cities and urban areas. The WUF should be the place where the work on helping to do this happens. As yet it is not fit for purpose and the local and state-level governments have too many diverging organizations not working together to help this happen. The UN body that leads in this are UN-Habitat is not tooled to deliver it…. perhaps the time has come to look and see if a merger of UN-Habitat back into UNDP or into UNEP might not be a better way forward. 
February24-28  UN Convention on Biological Diversity Second Working Group (Prepcom): It will consider the outcomes of regional and thematic consultations and other contributions received regarding the post-2020 process. It will look at potential elements of the structure and scope of the post-2020 global biodiversity framework; future work programme of the Working Group on Post-2020.March 2020March 3-6th – Statistical Commission: this will agree with any of the changes to the indicators for the SDGs. These will be again reviewed in 2023 and adopted changes in 2024 …so if you feel that there are better indicators than the ones adopted you have three years to work on developing them and then proposing them. April2020April 3rdUN Partnership Forum: The ECOSOC Partnership Forum provides the opportunity to listen to the world’s most influential thinkers and actors. The Forum engages high-profile representatives from governments and non-state actors for dynamic discussions on how to define and promote effective partnerships and how partnerships can best advance the sustainable development agenda and the 17 SDGs

April 20-23rd – Finance for Development Forum: Set up as the follow up to the Finance for Development Conferences after a shaky start is really a vital place for discussion on what types of financing can help deliver the SDGs and other commitments. Perhaps too much focused on the Aid/Debt/Trade discussions it is trying to move more into the private sector investment area with last year’s investment fair. There is no question there are serious issues in the Debt/Aid/Trade areas but to deliver the SDGs and the Paris Agreement will take trillions and a lot of this will be about reforming the private sector to help deliver the investments for sustainable development and not against it. It’s clear in four days the FFD Forum does not have enough time to address these issues and for that reason, it was great to see the UNGA in November adopt its first resolution on investment for sustainable development AND that this will be an annual resolution in the UNGA.  
April 22nd – Earth Day 50th anniversary theme for Earth Day 2020 is climate action. The enormous challenge — but also the vast opportunities — of action on climate change have distinguished the issue as the most pressing topic for the 50th anniversary. Climate change represents the biggest challenge to the future of humanity and the life-support systems that make our world habitable.May 2020May 5-7th – UN Second Sustainable Transport ConferenceThe second Global Sustainable Transport Conference will draw upon discussions and action on sustainable transport in intergovernmental and other fora. Advances in sustainable transport will contribute to the attainment of many, if not all, of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), outlined in the 2030 Agenda. Some SDGs are directly connected to sustainable transport through targets and indicators, such as SDG 3 on health, which includes a target addressing deaths and injuries from road traffic accidents (3.6), and SDG 11 on sustainable cities which includes a target on providing access to safe, affordable, accessible and sustainable transport systems for all and on expanding public transport (11.2). Many others are also connected through the enabling role of sustainable transport across the 2030 AgendaThere is no question that moving our transport system towards a non-fossil fuel one will be one of the critical developments that we need in the next ten years. Hopefully, this conference in Beijing will map out clearer stages for the transport community to make this happen. 
May 12-13th – UN Multi-stakeholder Forum on Science, Technology, and Innovation:  This as one of the outcomes from Rio+20 and the Finance for Development Conference has the chance to be the pace where new technologies can be peer-reviewed and their delivery accelerated.  June2020June 1-11th – UNFCCC Prepcom There is no question that 2020 is a critical year for ensuring we are on the path to only a 1.5-degree increase world and not a 3-4 degree world. The need for stronger commitments and more funding for the Glasgow UNFCCC COP  will be made possible through this being a successful preparatory meeting in Bonn…or not. 

June 2-6th – Oceans Conference The follow up to the one held in New York in 2017 this time hosted by Portugal and is part of a number of countries taking the lead for different SDGs or parts of them.The General Assembly through resolution 73/292 decided to convene the 2020 United Nations Conference to Support the Implementation of Sustainable Development Goal 14: Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development. The overarching theme of the Conference is “Scaling up ocean action based on science and innovation for the implementation of Goal 14: stocktaking, partnerships and solutions” A number of the targets for the SDGs Ocean Goal are due in 2020 and so far it is unclear what will happen with them. It is attended by trade ministers and other senior officials from the organization’s 164 members, is the highest decision-making body of the WTO. Under the Marrakesh Agreement Establishing the WTO, the Ministerial Conference is to meet at least once every two years.
June 2-4th UNESCO World Conference on Education for Sustainable Development UNESCO is kicking off its new framework: ‘Education for Sustainable Development: Towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals’ – ESD for 2030 and its roadmap for implementation during the UNESCO World Conference on Education for Sustainable Development in Berlin, Germany.
800 participants from around the world will gather for the occasion: policy-makers working in education and sustainable development, education practitioners, civil society, development community and private sector experts.
June 8-11 – Twelfth World Trade Organization Ministerial  It will be in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan. It will be chaired by Bakhyt Sultanov, Kazakhstan’s Minister of Trade and Integration.July 2020July 7-16th – High-Level Political Forum: This will be the first HLPF after the 4-year review and will address the theme will be “Accelerated action and transformative pathways: realizing the decade of action and delivery for sustainable development “.
July 27-31stUN Convention on Biological Diversity Third  Working Group. It will be preparing the development of the post-2020 global biodiversity framework. The negotiating process will culminate in the adoption of a post-2020 global biodiversity framework 
August 2020August 23-28th World Water Week – Water and Climate Change: Accelerating Action Now is the time to engage and we invite you to be part of the most prestigious annual focal point for international water issues. The theme for 2020 is “Water and Climate Change – Accelerating Action” with a focus on innovation, science and actions needed to tackle one of the greatest threats to our planet and our very existence.September 2020

September 15-30th – UN General Assembly Heads of State annual session will be focusing on the 75th anniversary of the UN….is it fit for purpose? It will be important to recognize what has been achieved while at the same time looking at the world today and the next decade and how multilateralism can survive this difficult period in history. To mark its 75th anniversary in 2020, the United Nations will launch the biggest-ever global conversation on the role of global cooperation in building the future we want. There will be a Special UN Secretary General Day on Biodiversity

October 2020October 5-16th  UN Convention on Biological Diversity: There is no question that as much as we are in danger of missing the climate targets we are equally if not more likely to miss stabilizing the loss of biodiversity. This is a critical COP because it will deal with the replace or not of the CBD 2020 targets. The critical question here is can any targets replace the ones in the SDGs or are we in danger of setting up the second division for targets in the CBD which will have much less political support and therefore even less likely to be delivered.  
October 18 to 21th – the third UN World Data Forumwill be hosted by Swiss Confederation and Federal Statistical Office, of Switzerland with support from the Statistics Division of the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, under the guidance of the United Nations Statistical Commission and the High-level Group for Partnership, Coordination and Capacity-Building for Statistics for the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Thecall for session proposals for the UN World Data Forum 2020 is open Please submit your proposals from 2 December 2019 through 31 January 2020.

October 16-18Fifteenth session of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD 15). This will be in Bridgetown Barbados. The quadrennial conference is the highest decision-making body of UNCTAD at which member states make assessments of current trade and development issues, discuss policy options and formulate global policy responses.November 2020

November 9-19th UNFCCC COPThis will be in Glasgow and will it be a success like Paris or a failure like Copenhagen? It will be happening at the same time as the US election. Which could either give it a big boost or a huge downer depending on the result?  Madrid COP last year sowed some distrust where we saw a small “selected set of delegations” consulted – and others not. This has echoes of the approach that had led to the collapse of the Danish talks in 2009. So the UK will need to do some rebuilding of trust. A LOT was left unresolved for the Glasgow COP including:

  • The critical issue of long-term climate finance – we are not going to meet the $20 billion a year by the next COP and the commitment to this was lukewarm;
  • The issue of common time frames for nationally determined contributions (NDCs), not resolved; 
  • The procedures for the Clean Development Mechanism again not resolved not the rules for the operation and use of a public registry relating to NDCs; nor,
  • The revision of the UNFCCC reporting guidelines on annual inventories for Parties.

The roaring 20’s

The last roaring 20’s saw the increase in inequality, the great depression and the roots of fascism growing. 
There are similarities with the world of 2020 with that of 1920. 
We are due for another financial crisis, while still recovering from the last one yet. Do we have robust institutions to be able to cope with a new financial crisis? 
As the world goes through major changes due to the fourth industrial revolution is society able to absorb these changes? Do people generally know they are coming and what kind of impacts they may have on their lives? 
The impacts of climate change are coming quicker than we thought they would. I write this as Australia is still burning. I was in the UK when we saw the floods in November due to changing weather patterns. In the Uk since the second world war over 40% of new houses were built in flood planes. I am sure this is the same in other countries. Was this inevitable? No politicians decided not to prioritize what needed to be done when they were given the evidence by science. 
Of course, it’s important to have very good science but alone that is not enough to win the arguments for action. We have massively underestimated the need to address these issues through culture, storytelling and creating positive visions of the future which people can relate to.

I am very grateful to Felix for this concise summary of those events which set the Sustainability Agenda for 2020. These events will either gain more traction for the implementation of the SDGs or be subsumed by short term issues mostly of a political nature. We seriously need to see more earth literate leadership of the kind Rolf Jucker and I advocated after the Earth Summit in Johannesburg 2002.

Educating Earth-literate Leaders

Journal of Geography in Higher Education, Vol. 29, No. 1, 19–29, March 2005

We are now citizens of the Earth joined in a common enterprise with many variations. We have every right to insist that those who purport to lead us be worthy of the task. Imagine such a time! (Orr, 2003)
STEPHEN MARTIN* & ROLF JUCKER** *University College Worcester and Centre for Complexity and Change, Faculty of Technology, Open University, UK, **Department of German, University of Wales, Swansea, UK
The World Summit for Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg made it clear that political leadership the world over is incapable of rising to the challenges of sustainability. Yet, most of the hundred or so world leaders who attended have a higher education degree from some of the world’s most prestigious universities. As we look back on the World Summit for Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg and reflect on its impact, it seems apparent that political leadership the world over has so far failed to rise to the challenge of sustainability (UNED-UK, 2002). And yet in all likelihood most of the hundred or so leaders who attended will have a higher education degree from some of the world’s most prestigious universities. This raises some serious questions for our university administrators and the governance structures. Why, as David Orr once remarked, is it that the people who contribute most to exploiting poor communities and the Earth’s ecosystems are those with BAs, MScs and PhDs and not the ‘ignorant’ poor from the South (Orr, 1994)? Why is the illiteracy amongst the world’s politicians as to how the world works as a living system so widespread? Why is it so rare that we encounter in our leaders the qualities needed to enable sustainability: humility, respect for all forms of life and future generations, precaution and wisdom, the capacity to think systemically and challenge unethical actions? And more worryingly on the basis of current performance, what hope of improvement is there for future leaders?



We face a democratic tipping point in responding to the climate emergency as the choices of business as usual(no change) or incremental change can no longer command majority support. Global tipping points now demand urgent action at scale and urgency. Our systems of governance need to respond in parallel to this critical emergency. We now have abundant evidence of significant alterations to various global processes, involving melting of sea and mountain ice, shifts in, and warming of, oceanic currents, oceanic acidification, possible tundra melt, rainforest drying and latitudinal movements in monsoonal patterns. All these events are taking place now.

Globally, around 1,400 countries have declared a climate emergency and in the UK 250 councils have done the same, representing around 70% of the population. A decade ago, commentators rightly argued that there was no evidence of a democratic tipping point. Greta Thunberg and XR/Friday Strikes changed all of that! Back then there was, no common “enemy” (except, uncomfortably, us). We were carbon obsessed and dependent. Most of the electorate were still too unaware of the possible outcomes of not changing their cherished, carbon using, behaviour. We now have “internet democracy”, “citizen surveillance” of web-based scrutiny and activism, and the emergence of local sustainability politics. And, the emergence of new forms of democracy, like Citizens Assemblies/Jury’s.

Indeed, this weekend the first national citizens climate emergency assembly began its deliberations in Birmingham. It was commissioned by parliament not by the government. Expert evidence sessions can be watched live here: https://www.climateassembly.uk/. Its randomly selected members were selected from a mail out to 30,000 randomly selected UK citizens, from which a representative sample was chosen to make decisions on how to implement a zero carbon and more sustainable future.

Another example at local level is one created in Leeds last year. Between September and November 2019, twenty-five randomly selected residents from across the city region were recruited to take part in the first Leeds Climate Change Citizens’ Jury. The twenty-five were recruited through the delivery of four thousand letters across the city region. The profile of the jury membership reflected the diversity of the region’s population and is a mini version of Leeds. The group met for nearly thirty hours of deliberation over the course of eight weeks to answer the question ‘What should Leeds do about the emergency of climate change?’ The jury worked hard to listen to each other and to share experiences and opinions. Challenging each other and learning from each other. To help them, with their task, the jury received presentations from twenty-two ‘commentators’ (like expert witnesses in a legal jury), who they questioned or cross examined. In order to ensure the process was robust, fair and unbiased an Oversight Panel was formed to agree the recruitment methodology, the overarching question and the identity of the commentators. This panel met parallel to the jury and was made up of some twelve key local stakeholders (including the public, private and community sector), from the City Council to Extinction Rebellion. The Citizens’ Jury is an example of a deliberative process, like a Citizens’ Assembly, but smaller. It was commissioned by the Leeds Climate Commission and designed and facilitated by the social enterprise Shared Future.

What is a Climate Emergency?

Many of our governing bodies at both national and local levels are declaring a climate emergency. But what does this mean? Do we carry on as before or are we meant to do something differently?

We usually think of an emergency as some event that has happened that requires an urgent need for action to counteract unpleasant consequences. The key words being “action” and “urgent”. But when we look at what our politicians are doing, we do not see any action. It seems that once they have declared a “climate emergency” andposted it on their websites and social media pages they consider that they have done enough.

So why do they declare an emergency? Because even our politicians can no longer ignore the fact that our land is either on fire or under water; and that these are not ‘one in a million-year events’ but are becoming annual events. They are also having to acknowledge that the unpleasant consequences are loss of homes & livelihoods, food & water, resulting in mass migration and a breakdown of civil society as we know it. So, they declare a climate emergency.

Then our governments continue with business as usual: they claim that there are no resources to do anything else and that no one knows what to do because they cannot agree on the underlying causes, and it is always someone else’s problem. Our political classes are not willing to acknowledge that it is the way we currently manage our society and economy that is at the root of these problems.

The urgent action that is required is the reformation how we run our economy: to halt the use of fossil fuels and halt resource extraction, to create a circular economy where there is no more waste (because all waste is treated as a resource) and to reverse the decline in biodiversity and allow all living creatures to live with us on this planet. But this requires the transformation of our economic, agricultural, industrial and energy policies. It also means that those currently benefiting from the exploitation of life on earth will face a reduction in their income and their powerbase – and these are the people who control our politicians. So, no action is taken, even though our Governments have declared an emergency.

And what did Winston Churchill say about World War 2 (12 November 1936)?

Owing to past neglect, in the face of the plainest warnings, we have entered upon a period of danger. The era of procrastination, of half measures, of soothing and baffling expedients of delays, is coming to its close. In its place we are entering a period of consequences… We cannot avoid this period; we are in it now…” 

What is a climate emergency and does the evidence justify one? This report from CISL Fellow Paul Gilding reviews the evidence about the scale, timing and urgency of the risks posed by climate change to determine whether an emergency response is both necessary and feasible.



A new dilemma for those who advocate Veganism is on the agenda of the forthcoming Oxford Farming Conference. Farming and other interests are now arguing that it is vital we eat more lamb and beef because some crop plants and fish are being drained of essential nutrients.
A heart specialist who is speaking at the conference is claiming that key nutrients in some fruits, grains and vegetables have declined by up to 50% over the past 50 years.
Alice Stanton, professor of cardiovascular pharmacology at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland says that nutrient levels have dropped because farmers were trying to meet demand for cheap food. The declines in nutrients includes vitamins and key elements essential for sustaining a healthy metabolism within the human body. She also highlights the fact that the genetic selection of crops which look good, have an even shape and appearance also reduces mineral uptake from the soil. If the genetic selection process prioritises above ground appearance to the detriment of below ground root development, then this will restrict nutrient uptake.
But, it is much more complicated than this analysis advocates because there is a growing body of empirical evidence that the increasing atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide from our use of fossil fuels and of course intensive farming practices such as factory livestock production, leads to plants increasing their carbohydrate concentrations at the expense of nutrient uptake. Over the past 50 years carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have increased from around 290 ppm to current levels of around 400 ppm, leading to hugely damaging climate change. So, which is more damaging : low levels of minerals in our veg or the damaging influences on climate change of intensive meat production from livestock farming? Meat and Two veg – now there’s a wicked problem ?

Rice and wheat provide two out every five calories that humans consume. Like other plants, crop plants convert carbon dioxide (or CO2) from the air into sugars and other carbohydrates. They also take up minerals and other nutrients from the soil.

The increase in CO2 in the atmosphere that has happened since the Industrial Revolution is thought to have increased the production of sugars and other carbohydrates in plants by up to 46%. CO2 levels are expected to rise even further in the coming decades; and higher levels of CO2 are known to lead to lower levels of proteins in plants. But less is known about the effects of CO2 levels on the concentrations of minerals and other nutrients in plants.



This is the front-page headline carried by the Daily Mirror on New Year’s Day. Will this be the year transformative change happens? Or will we face another decade of business as usual?  One relatively simple test of our current trends in decarbonising our lifestyles is to ask ourselves this question: How many cars can the UK take? In 1971 there were 15.5 million cars on the road. By 2000 there were 27 million. Today, the number is 38 million and still rising! So, despite the clear and undeniable impact of climate change around the world ,we keep growing our dependency on fossil fuelled transport. As one commentator has ruefully claimed: “jam today has become part of our way of life”.An exciting and thoughtful new book offers a more optimistic view of the next decade:

A Finer Future; Creating an Economy in Service to Life

A Finer Future is the blueprint for an inspiring regenerative economy that avoids collapse and works for people and the planet. https://www.moralmarkets.org/book/a-finer-future/

I met two of the authors ,Hunter Lovins and Stewart Wallis at an OECD meeting on Wellbeing in Paris in 2019. This is a summary of their story:

Humanity is in a race to forestall a global catastrophe. We face a future ravaged by global warming with 65 million migrants brutalised by the social and economic consequences, along with widening inequality, and political gridlock.

As fires and flooding sweep the globe, the spectre of collapse looms ever larger. A Finer Future demonstrates that humanity has a chance, a real choice to take a different route, based on the principles of a regenerative economy.

The authors describe in some detail an evidence-based roadmap for achieving this by:

  • Transforming finance and corporations
  • Reimagining energy, agriculture, and the nature of how we work
  • Enhancing human well-being
  • Delivering a world that respects ecosystems and human community.

As this eloquent and hopeful book suggests: can the world ease down on the global gas pedal and avoid collapse? Is there time? Is there enough money, technology, freedom, vision and foresight ? Their answer: “We think a transition to a sustainable world is technically and economically possible, but we know it is psychologically and politically daunting”

They argue that the world needs a new and transformative narrative; one which seeks to create a world that works for 100% of Humanity. This new narrative is based on an economy in  service to life as exemplified by the Wellbeing Economy Alliance which re-frames the current neoliberal paradigm which dominates our thinking and actions.

Postscript: The City of York to Ban Cars within the Next 3 Years


York, which attracts millions of tourists every year to its medieval walls, cobbled streets and 13th-century Gothic cathedral, does not escape the smog. According to the data, compiled by Friends of the Earth, 12 locations in the city centre exceeded national air quality standards of 40 micrograms of nitrogen dioxide per cubic metre (ug/m3). A bus stop on Rougier Street was the city’s most polluted spot in 2018, the data shows, followed by a taxi rank outside the railway station (59.9 and 57.7 ug/m3 respectively).