It may seem like stating the obvious to point out that the beauty lies on the inside of a book. I could continue with a stream of clichés that convey the idea of not judging a book by its cover, but there’s no need because we know them all by heart. There’s a good reason that phrase is so popular.
For me, nowhere is it more true than when applied to this issue. Books are my music; literature my life companion. I dithered over getting a Kindle for a while but living in a country where English is not the first language, it quickly became a no-brainer as I devoured weighty paperbacks long before the next arrived, complete with hefty shipping bill. Since the Kindle arrived I have spent more on books than ever before in my life, and feel all the more enriched for doing so.
There are a number of troubling implications of this new trend towards the ‘beautiful book’. Firstly, it is an insult. Are we really all shallow consumers who value form over content, blinded by pretty colours and pictures, effortlessly coaxed into somnambulant shopping? Secondly, these assumptions actually devalue the real product. Adding a superficial layer of ‘art’ in order to capture the attention of potential customers is also – I think – insulting to the author, part of whose soul lies within those pages.
That’s why I found Julian Barnes’s recent comments particularly baffling. Paying tribute to those involved in the creation of his Booker winning novel, Barnes said, “Those of you who have seen my book, whatever you think of its contents, will probably agree it is a beautiful object. And if the physical book, as we’ve come to call it, is to resist the challenge of the ebook, it has to look like something worth buying, worth keeping.”
Resistance? This is not a battle, this is an opportunity. Ebooks are not a challenge to be overcome, they are the means to make access to literature truly democratic, not to mention a new market with huge economic potential. Just because an ebook can be copied, that does not mean it will be stolen. I could have downloaded the last 20 books I read for free, but I didn’t, because I recognise their intrinsic worth. If they want to save their industry, publishers (and authors) threatened by this brave new world would do well to do the same.
An eclectic line-up of apparently unrelated topics came together beautifully today at TEDx Berlin, with themes curving in a topical arc through this thoughtfully curated event.
Katherine Lucey, CEO of Solar Sister, ignited our imaginative kindling with a moving account of the power of electricity to change lives in rural Africa. Her company provides people with solar lights that cost a one-off price of $20, making it a more financially viable option than the toxic kerosene lamps that cost $2 a week to run. Working with local women in hardest-to-reach communities, the solar lamps improve quality of life and can kick start cycles of increased prosperity and self-sufficiency. Katherine argued that energy poverty and energy prosperity are gender issues – an angle that seemed to cause controversy amongst the audience, judging from post-presentation conversations.
Next, Alexander Voigt, CEO of Younicos, talked us through the potential of renewables, in particular photovoltaics (PVs). He showed that the challenge lies not with technology but our relationship to it. Solar panels are increasingly efficient and affordable, so why aren’t we all installing them?
It may have been due to the moving start that the first TED video talk seemed particularly overwhelming. Using biomimicry, Markus Fischer and his team created their SmartBird, an achievement that has to be seen to be believed:
Design duo Mischer’Traxler create products based on the history visible in the rings of a tree. A solar powered machine threads and dyes cotton around a mold, so that rings are produced and different colour intensities depending on how sunny it is (thus how fast the solar powered machine feeds the thread). A time lapse video and examples of their work demonstrates the ingenuity perfectly.
To end the first session, climate engineer and director of Trans Solar, Wolfgang Kessling, complemented Voigt’s earlier points well by showing that only 20m2 of PV panels is required to supply a family’s energy for a year. This would cost just €5000 and, of course, reduce energy costs significantly. Another 20m2 would be enough for 15,000km in an electric car.
As we shivered uncomfortably through the session, Kessling talked about ‘high comfort’ and making a building comfortable by controlling the air temperature and the radiant environment. We often underestimate the importance of ensuring the passive efficiency of a building before investing in energy to heat it. What’s more, he said, “We overestimate what we can do in the future and underestimate what we can do today.”
Things warmed up in session two as we were told we would be part of a real time experiment in ‘high comfort.’ Fittingly, Nils Lindell was next up to divulge his experiences of attempting to live a One Tonne Life with his family in Sweden.
Martin Cordsmeier of Million Ways, then called for creative tenders to help society move towards a more person-focused system. There are surely few more focused people than Lewis Pugh, who is widely regarded as the world’s greatest cold water swimmer. His efforts at swimming in a lake left by a melted glacier at 5,300 metres aim to raise awareness of climate change, “The Mount Everest of all problems.”
Verena Delius, CEO of Young Internet, delivered a thought-provoking analysis of dynamism within companies and that dangers facing those that do not adapt to evolving markets. Despite its focus on industry, we agreed in chats afterwards that such approaches can be equally applied to interpersonal relationships. Strike while the iron’s hot!
After a musical interlude from Studnitzky, Rune Nielsen, co-founder of Kollision, clarified what is meant by ‘media arcitechture,’ and how it can be used to make the invisible, visible; the abstract tangible and the boring playful. Projecting interactive light shows onto the sides of buildings provided opportunities to engage the public in a conversation about the facts of climate change, and their interactive nature encourages communication between strangers.
Closing the loop on session two, Lehna Malmkvist of Swell Environmental Consulting, brought us back to the biomimicry theme by arguing that we need to reject one-way systems of resource management. Ecosystems are the most complex and efficient systems on earth and we should take a leaf from nature’s book and move towards integrated systems where one stage’s waste is another’s resource. Swell’s project at Dockside Green near Victoria, BC is a work in progress that practices what they preach, and they are learning by doing whilst implementing an economically and socially viable urban design project.
A glance at the programme for the third session indicated a sinister aside that seemed somewhat off-topic. Axel Peterman, criminologist and consultant to cult TV series Tatort, began with an advocation of interdisciplinary criminology that includes profiling suspects’ personalities. Interspersed with gruesome photos and more captivating than an episode of CSI, the talk was a rare, if somewhat tenuously fitting insight into a world we all find so morbidly fascinating.
Of all the amazingly inspirational and industrious people that spoke at TEDx today, magician Thimon V. Berlepsch, taught me the most valuable lesson; something new about myself. He showed us that our human need for routine also has a detrimental side, in that it can blind us to childlike wonderment. Breaking the patterns of mundanity brings the magic back to life. For Berlepsch, this break comes in the form of travel, adventures into the unknown. I’ve always wondered what that feeling is when travelling; that unique euphoria which melts into an elusive sense of homecoming perspective. Some people tell me the urge to travel is a sign of instability, unwillingness to settle or a means of escape. They are right, but that’s not a bad thing.
The transition to Pamela Meyer’s How to Spot a Liar video talk was surprisingly smooth. An interesting speech, whose most poignant argument in today’s context was that in order to avoid deception we must be self-aware enough to know what it is we are hungry for:
J Henry Fair’s aerial photographs make beautiful images out of horrible situations, and it is this dissonance, he claimed, that makes them affective and therefore effective:
Nik Nowak’s presentation, entitled ‘Sound as Weapon’ was not as menacing as it sounds. The title related more to the recent Occupy events where microphone bans were subverted with creative and peaceful innovation in the form of human mics. Nowak then demonstrated his Soundtank during the break before the final session.
If we were becoming fatigued by this deluge of inspiration, Benedikt Foit and Habib Lesevic woke us up with a start. Their game, Energy Streetfight, uses play as a way of engaging people to make real reductions in their CO2 footprint. Passionate critics of the ‘consumerism virus’, the pair advocate the importance of individual action in combatting simplified but currently dominant notions of progress as economic growth. Consumerism affects our perspective and leads to psychological passivity and the logic of taking. While culture spreads the virus, it is also culture that can cure us, one revolutionary mind at a time.
Johnny West is a journalist, transparency activist and proponent of a direct citizen dividend for oil-producing countries to combat the resource curse.
Finally, Daniela Schiffer’s highlighted the need for energy-saving efforts to be visible and tangible. Her company, Changers, is an ingenious scheme that makes combating climate change an individual, measurable, comparable process with results that mean something in the real world. An antidote to the sense of helplessness in the face of this mammoth issue, in a playful format with visibility and economic viability, where the individual feels a sense of worth and community, Changers is, I realised with pleasant surprise, the culmination of today’s discussions.
These ideas have been whirling around for a number of years now, and to see them form into real solutions delivered by remarkable and passionate people gave me hope when I’d almost given up. As John Perry Barlow pointed out in his closing address, via video from California, today was consistently inspiring and in some places depressing. The climate crisis is lacking in hope, and events like TEDx are essential for momentum to gather and positive change to occur. As we teeter on the edge of the tipping point, these aren’t just ideas worth spreading, they are ideas that must spread if we are to overcome man’s greatest challenge yet.
TEDxChange, an initiative of the Gates Foundation, will be in Berlin on 5th April 2012.
My train bends serpentine into St. Pancras and I am intoxicated by the familiar homecoming cocktail of awe, comfort and ennui. Stepping into the newly refurbished international terminal, that sense of awe is temporarily heightened to the detriment of those other, more mundane emotions. As the gateway to London from the continent, St. Pancras railway station puts the dreary peripheral airports to shame, so arriving here is well worth the extra travelling time.
These days, the notion of a transport portal being anything more than a necessary but insignificant part of our travels seems widespread, yet we’re often told it’s all about the journey. My impending stay at the St. Pancras Renaissance hotel seems all the more magical because I’ll finally get to live the reality of that vague but overused cliché.
Railway stations have historically been “our gates to the glorious and unknown”, as E.M. Forster once wrote. The hotel, first opened in 1873, was surely built in this spirit of adventure. Designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott, the project symbolised with gothic grandeur the sanguinity of the age.
Surrounded by this movingly restored splendour, we ascend one floor from the Eurostar platform in a glass lift and walk straight through the old Booking Office, now a stylish bar and restaurant buzzing with locals and visitors alike. At reception I am distracted by the stunning attention to detail of both the restored, original features and the unique modern touches. The staff are welcoming and friendly, with endless patience for their entranced new arrivals.
Although not in the original Chambers section of the hotel, ours was a club room in the converted Barlow train-sheds. I was not disappointed for long – the room was magnificent. Dominating the space was an original ecclesiastical window overlooking the concourse and providing an odd frame for the futuristically streamlined noses of the Eurostar trains that arrive keenly and protracted, like greyhounds in the traps. No expense has been spared in this restoration, even down to the decor and furnishings, which manage to stay true to their era whilst exuding an unmistakably contemporary extravagance.
The St. Pancras Renaissance is a dream come true for trainspotters and architecture fans alike, but its charm reaches many more than the already converted. Indeed, this hotel will make an impression on anyone looking for luxury and inimitability at the heart of London’s international hub.
As my sense of awe began to subside I was left with another of those feelings with which this adventure started: comfort. This magnificent building is a reassuring homage to a time past, an epoch of optimism about human triumph over environment. Spending time inside brings that optimism to life and I was allowed to temporarily forget the familiar pangs of modern guilt. Here in the centre of London, amid the chaos of King’s Cross, is an unlikely sanctuary that delivers an elusive brand of escapism other hotels can only dream of.
One grim irony – and there are many – of the international debt crisis, aside from the obvious problems of limitless growth within finite resources, is that despite global attempts at austerity, waste continues to occur at unimaginable levels. Italy, for example, whose debt mountain is the second largest in Europe, wastes over 30 per cent of its food, which works out at about $53 million. Reducing waste certainly won’t be the dynamite that blows a hole through that mountain of debt, which is a mind-boggling €240bn this year alone, but it will make a small dent, and surely save as much as some other individual austerity measures already suggested or implemented. It is not just Italy where this happens. The US wastes the equivalent of 350 million barrels of oil a year in uneaten food. In the UK, half the food produced on farms is thrown away, amounting to an eye-watering £20bn food mountain.
So why does such waste happen? Firstly, consumers are led by omnipotent advertisers to believe that appearance is an indicator of quality. The UN Food & Agriculture Organisation advises people to consider safety, nutrition and taste of food rather than the way it looks. An outrageous amount of perfectly edible produce gets discarded daily because it looks ‘off’, or in other words, not the technicolour stuff we’ve become accustomed to seeing in ads (and on the shelves).
That freegans can survive almost solely on the contents of skips outside supermarkets is testament to the senseless waste that occurs in the name of aesthetics. In addition, consumers are urged to buy much more than they need, whether it be larger portion sizes in restaurants or two-for-one offers in shops. Financial efficiency has been so misaligned that it actually became, in many cases, cheaper to waste food than to just buy what was needed.
In the end, of course, just as with homes, loans and everything else, there comes a point when the bubble bursts. The sudden gaping hole, never invisible but until now ignored, between the abstract ‘market’ and concrete reality threatens to swallow us all. We can no longer afford to waste. Food, money, resources, time are all precious and we must use them wisely. This is arguably more important right now than ever before.
Instead of amending or fixing the system that got us into this mess, it seems like those in charge are building it up again identically, brick by brick; taking back their abusive but irresistible lover, hoping this time things’ll be different. The waste that uncapped capitalism encourages continues, as does environmental degradation and widening social inequality. That people in Somalia (and across the developing world, for that matter) starve to death in droves while Italy alone wastes food that could produce 580 million meals a year is nothing short of obscene.
I’ve just read that in a drive to boost sales, a bottled water company called Real Water have labelled tap water ‘damaged’ and are claiming that it is harmful to health. It’s either overwhelmingly stupid or –having made the Guardian and probably a number of other blogs – a brilliant PR trick. Whether it’s garbage or genius is not the point, because above all it is another example of the irresponsible and irrational capitalist propensity for putting profit before principle, and as usual it’s the environment that bears the brunt of this habitual lack of integrity.
During my MA at King’s we studied a module called Water Resources & Policy. My professor, John Allen, is a respected expert and Water Prize Laureate; what he doesn’t know about water isn’t worth knowing. He taught us that access to clean water is a miracle of engineering and human ingenuity (I always remember his grimace at our bottled water until we assured him that, of course, they were merely refills from the tap). Professor Allen hates bottled water because it is superfluous and pointless. Our tap water is clean and perfectly safe. It is so good and so cheap, yet we pay about TEN THOUSAND times more for a bottle of the same stuff.
Did you know that the water you flush your toilet with is the same water that comes out of the kitchen tap? It is totally unnecessary to waste good, clean drinking water on flushing, but we still do it. Why? It might be costly to update the infrastructure but the savings would be seen immediately in the decreased cost of water processing. The reason is that people feel – rightly of course – that cleanliness and safety go hand in hand. To start a system that has two different water supplies (drinking and flushing etc.) might be accepted as the logical solution, but we’re not starting from scratch. Today we have a long-standing system in place, so to ask people to accept the changes is to ask them to switch to a ‘dirtier’ water supply. Although it is rational, it is rejected because the idea that cleanliness equals health is so important to us that we lose sight of the meaning of clean.
This principle also applies to our attitude towards bottled water, and it is one that the bottled water companies love to exploit. The notion of fresh spring water straight from the belly of nature and imbued with its goodness is the main selling point of bottled water, yet the irony is that the oil used in making and transporting the bottles is ravaging said nature to breaking point. The problems with bottled water are well documented, but it is a booming, billion dollar industry. Consumers can change this by simply choosing to drink tap instead of bottled water. In doing so we’ll be ten thousand times better off, and not just financially.
The divisive and emotive nature of the current nuclear debate has caused fissions throughout society, from political infighting to awkward moments between friends over dinner. Despite this, some German citizens have expressed satisfaction (if not pride) in their leaders’ definitive response: a U-turn on nuclear and a move towards renewable energy.
A €5 billion scheme to expand wind parks in the North and Baltic seas will launch in autumn, and in order to improve efficiency of process the planning restrictions have been slackened. Speeding up the switch to renewables seems like a breath of fresh air in a country known for an atmosphere thick with bureaucracy. Unfortunately, many people do not see it that way. Perhaps the lack of restrictions is construed as insufficient process, negating the procedural transparency that Germany has worked so hard – and with exemplary success – to achieve.
Nevertheless, resistance to the wind-energy drive, in Germany as elsewhere, manifests itself in the NIMBY (not in my back yard!) response (not only to the turbines themselves but also the bulky infrastructure required to transport the electricity). Der Spiegel Online, for example, has taken a particularly conservative stance on the matter. The Age of Stupid film highlights a British example of this, where local hero Piers develops a groundbreaking turbine-based energy solution, only to be stopped in his tracks by local residents worried about the effect of the view on their property prices. Similarly, in the Netherlands a case is about to be heard by the nation’s highest court. If the residents win, plans for the country’s largest wind farm, which would meet the energy needs of 900,000 people will be unable to proceed.
I find resistance like this incomprehensible because it represents such a closed-minded outlook. The same people who are supposedly empathetic with the people of Japan are also denying those much closer to home the opportunity to harness safe, clean energy; encouraging those dangerous contemporary alternatives (coal and nuclear) they’d just been fretting about.
A degree of short-sightedness and self-interest is to be expected, we are only human after all. But as humans we are uniquely able to contemplate the consequences of our actions and look at the big picture, ironically an image many are blind to when trying to protect their own precious view.
It seems that these days there is always something going on. Of course, there always has been, it’s just that now information exchange happens so efficiently we all know about it instantly. Even given this daily data deluge, we are currently seeing a global glut of particularly significant events. From Japan to Libya, the Ivory Coast to austerity cuts, you could say it’s kicking off.
Maybe this is why other important affairs are slipping under the radar. Today is the penultimate day of the UN climate change conference in Bangkok where 1,500 participants from 173 countries are trying to improve an agreement made at Cancun last year and working towards a post-Kyoto protocol.
Perhaps predictably, negotiations are painfully slow. By yesterday, delegates had hardly penetrated the nitty-gritty and were still trying to agree on the agenda itself. When so many parties – representing even more interests – are involved, deciding what to talk about is potentially as difficult as tackling the issues themselves. For all voices to be heard, all interests considered and all agendas addressed, much time is required; it’s a painstaking process.
Time, of course, is one resource we don’t have when it comes to climate change mitigation. Another big revelation that has gone largely unreported is the result of a recent scientific study, which concludes that it is already too late to limit the temperature increase to two degrees. To achieve anything like this, the study claims, we would have to have an immediate drop in emissions to practically zero. The chances of successfully combating a dangerous rise in global temperatures diminishes with every day of fruitless negotiations.
There is no easy solution to the difficulties of such weighty diplomacy and this is understandable, given the task at hand. We shouldn’t feel hopeless, however, despite the temptation to react with exasperation to our querulous leaders. As individuals we are far from powerless; in fact, we are far more powerful in many ways, because when we make a decision to change something we don’t need to consult the rest of the world about it. The cumulative effect of individual action should not be underestimated.
Addressing the big issues of industrial and national carbon emissions is, of course, imperative; but large things move slowly. Using this lack of governmental progress as an excuse for individual inaction is counter-intuitive. Instead, we should be leading by example and making the most of our strengths. Any personal lifestyle adjustment that contributes to lowering emissions is important and worthwhile, because no matter how small, it has great significance in its immediacy.
As a passionate naturalist, Sir David Attenborough has been an inspiration to me for as long as I can remember. He’s probably one of the main reasons I’m an environmentalist at all.
Is his address to the RSA (Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) Attenborough alludes to population growth as the primary factor driving ecological exploitation and destruction.
The world is a big place. It can, in fact, sustain a lot more people than already exist. The environment, however, continues to suffer increasingly and intensely. It’s reasonable to jump to the conclusion that if there were less people there would be less exploitation, but that is simply not the case. It is an understandable assumption though, because one falls into the trap of taking over-consumption as a given, of capitalism as the natural, fixed state around which everything else must adapt.
The fact is that most of the population growth occurs in poorer countries, where people have the least per capita impact on the environment. In terms of carbon emissions, for example, Americans today are equivalent to around four Chinese, 20 Indians, 30 Pakistanis, 40 Nigerians, or 250 Ethiopians. Despite developing nations being responsible for the majority of population increase, their environmental impact is negligible and massively disproportionate. Look at it another way: in the US, almost half of food produced is wasted, that’s about 40 million tonnes a year. There are approximately 1 billion malnourished people in the world.
Ironically, despite this waste, the problem is over-consumption. If we consumed less, the world would be able to sustain all 6.5 billion of us, and more. This does not mean we all have to live in squalor without electricity or access to clean water. On the contrary, a model of sustainable development that rejects uncapped capitalism would lead to more equality and a higher standard of living for those currently living below the poverty line.
Such opportunities speed up rather than hinder development, so that access to education, medicine and contraception increase. The population will plateau as a side effect of a better quality of life, as it has done consistently throughout history. To argue the opposite is to reify a flawed system and misjudge what it means to be human.
When a rogue website reported that a small Pacific state had legalised cocaine the country’s denial was resolute, but the truth reveals a more disturbing story.
Yesterday I momentarily fell for what now seems like a ridiculously implausible hoax. A website called CBS published a story about how the Marshall Islands had legalised all substances and opened its borders, dropping all visa restrictions. The authorities promptly issued a strong and defensively emotional response, calling it libelous, yellow journalism.
It wasn’t just the name of the website that misled me for a moment (it’s unrelated to CBS News,of course); it was because I really wanted this story to be true. Anyway, is it so unfeasible that a country would legalise drugs? It’s certainly not unheard of. And the lack of visa restrictions might not be such a big deal when you’re surrounded on all sides by 2000 miles of unforgiving ocean.
The Republic of the Marshall Islands is a diminutive country made up of dozens of atolls and islands, lying in the Pacific Ocean west of Hawaii. It’s history is reminiscent of many previously isolated communities; the islands had been home to self-sufficient indigenous people for millenia. Due to their strategic position, however, the land and its people have been exploited in recent years, standing witness to wars of which they were never a part, victims of colonisation and reckless atomic testing.
The idea of the Marshall Islanders taking these independent, drastic and (dare I say) forward-thinking steps to generate revenue for climate change adaptation measures was appealing in the context of the country’s oppressed history and bleak future. The inhabitants of these islands are still paying for other peoples crimes and have little control over their destiny. These people who have lived low carbon lifestyles for thousands of years will be the ones to suffer first and worst.
At around the same time, on a slightly larger island on the other side of the world, a chancellor made some similarly preposterous announcements, but these ones were real. It’s no longer just the Marshall Islanders who have that sinking feeling.