The Environmental Network

Date: Thursday 2nd June, 2011
Venue: Aspen Environment Forum, Aspen, Colorado
Chair: Ned Breslin
Speakers: Ken Banks, William Powers, Courtney Hight, Charles Porch

The Environmental Network

“Recent social movements in North Africa and the Middle East have shown the power of social media and mobile devices to accelerate change at the grassroots level. What lessons does that experience hold for the environmental movement? Can Facebook and Twitter somehow catalyze an environmental revolution as well – and is it happening already?”

Ken Banks is Founder of

William Powers is a prize-winning writer and author of the New York Times best-seller “Hamlets BlackBerry: Building a Good Life in the Digital Age”

Courtney Hight is the Co-Director of Energy Action Coalition and Power Shift

Charles Porch heads up Facebook’s efforts to help non-profits utilise the platform

Ned Breslin is CEO of Water for the People

The 2011 Aspen Environment Forum is presented by the Aspen Institute in partnership with National Geographic, and provides a critical framework for committed voices to address a significant milestone:  A global population of 7 billion and how to reconcile Earth’s finite resources with its ability to sustain our expanding human needs.

The Aspen Environment Forum. In tweets.

Last week I was fortunate to attend the three-day Aspen Environment Forum (#AEF2011) in Aspen, Colorado. It gave me the perfect opportunity to “leave the tech behind” and immerse myself in some of the bigger environmental issues and challenges facing the planet today.

The event boasted a fantastic line-up not only of speakers, but also delegates. Some of the smartest people in their field were there to discuss, debate, challenge and collaborate. One of the highlights was getting the chance to meet some of the people who featured heavily in my anthropology dissertation way back in 1999, which looked at the role – or lack of – anthropologists in the creation of national parks.

So, in the spirit of my “Tim Smit. In tweets” post last year, here’s a few highlights of the Forum in 140 character chunks.

Context: Talk of a crowded planet are often over-exaggerated. As this statement demonstrates, in reality it’s more an issue of resources, not a lack of space (even though seven billion is a big number).

Context: It’s not just the scientists and politicians we need to get onside in the climate change debate. There’s a general apathy among the general public, too. Engaging the man and woman on the street emerged as one of the key challenges at the Forum.

Context: Some people are willing to make lifestyle changes when they recognise a problem, but they’ve got to be simple, affordable and as least disruptive to their daily lives as possible.

Context: It’s easy to make demands if you’re never expected to deliver. As the green energy message gets louder, the day of judgement looms.

Context: Switzerland is the first country to pass a law encouraging the use of “living roofs” (also known as “green roofs“) on new buildings. Proven benefits are spiritual and social, as well as environmental.

Context: Dispelling a popular myth that cutting down trees is the only way of unlocking a forest’s value.

Context: Great quote on how we need to think more holistically about the value of our forests.

Context: Over consumption is a bad thing, regardless of what you eat.

Context: Conservation organisations need to start putting people back in nature. Some are – I was fortunate to work at Fauna & Flora International earlier in my career.

Context: One of the bigger surprises for me at the Forum was the increasing importance of urban agriculture. Growing food? In cities?

Context: Farmers don’t just grow food. They have a wider responsibility, something we – and they – need to recognise.

Context: Size is relative. A small farm in the US is not the same as a small farm in East Africa.

Context: If you thought food was expensive now, you’re in for a shock.

Context: Good friend Jerry Glover highlights the folly of littering the soil with fertiliser when most of the action happens much further down. More on Jerry’s work promoting more sustainable agriculture is available here.

Context: Farmers shouldn’t be paid for what governments want them to grow. Consumers – voting with their wallets – should be the ones to tell them.

Context: A sharp reminder that we’re heading down a rocky road with our mono-culture farming practices. Diversity isn’t just king. It’s common sense.

Context: One of the more eye-opening statements of the week. Taking into account the chemicals, machinery, storage, packaging and transport, large “high-tech” American farms aren’t much more productive than their smaller “low-tech” African counterparts.

Context: As Christian Aid once put it, “We believe in life before death”. Ultimately, feeding people should be more about quality than quantity.

Context: Factoring in drinking, cooking, showers, toilet breaks and the amount of water needed to produce the food they eat, average water consumption in America is staggering. Unsustainable on a global level? You bet.

Context: Busting the myth that a clean, tidy environment is something you only aspire to when you’re wealthy.

Context: Poverty – the root cause of much evil.

Context: Only one percent of our oceans are protected in any meaningful way. Amazing.

Context: The challenges may seem unsurmountable, but that’s not an excuse to do nothing.

Context: We need to reframe the renewable energy debate.

Context: If living within our means is a measure of development then we have much to learn from the ‘developing’ world. Let’s not kid ourselves that ‘we’ have all the answers.

More on the Aspen Environment Forum can be found on the Forum website, including videos of many of the Panels. A few photos from outside the Forum are available on my Flickr pages here.

Our breathing earth.

Breathing Earth

Breathing Earth is described as a “real-time simulation which displays CO2 emissions from every country in the world, as well as their birth and death rates”. The data used comes from reputable sources, although the site admits that a simulation on this scale can never be 100% accurate. Worryingly, they note that the CO2 emission levels shown are much more likely to be too low than too high.Yikes.

This is a fascinating site, and one which throws up numbers on a scale large enough to scare the best of us. Since I started writing this brief blog post, for example, the world population has risen by over 2,000 and total CO2 emissions have exceeded an incredible 760,000 tons. The United States alone was responsible for approximately 175,000 of that.

If you ever need reminding of the relentless march of global population growth, and the increasing impact that our growing numbers are having on the planet, there can’t be many sites better than this.

Dispelling the myth?

I spent the best part of spring and summer ’99 working on my anthropology dissertation, passionately arguing that anthropologists had been wrongly excluded from much of the earlier global conservation process. The rationale behind my several-thousand word essay was that the view of indigenous peoples as ‘outside of nature’, or ‘a blot on the landscape’, with no place in the growing world view of pristine, natural environments was wrong. There seemed to be, after all, plenty of examples of indigenous peoples living in harmony with their environments, and that humans weren’t always a destructive force.

But maybe they were.

My three years at Sussex University studying a blend of development issues and social anthropology allowed me to carefully develop my thinking and combine two of my three passions in life (the third being technology). So, it is with great irony that a decade later I find myself reading a book which squarely blames indigenous peoples for many of the the mega-fauna extinctions in their environments. And the catalyst for this destruction? Technology.

In “Techno-Cultural Evolution“, author William McDonald Wallace highlights the rise of hunter-gatherer kill-offs with the rise in the use of technologies – hunting technologies such as spears, knives and bow-and-arrows, and later guns. He also argues that “one of the reasons many people resisted the idea of human causes for the disappearance of the mega-fauna was a romantic notion”. Perhaps there was a little of this clouding my judgment all those years ago, but is it wrong to think that it’s possible for people to live in harmony with their environments? Whatever the case, we certainly seem further away from it today than we ever have been.

William McDonald Wallace also argues that today we’re seeing a new environmental awakening underway. With mega-events such as the global Live Earth ‘gathering’, we could very well see this spearheaded by increased climate change awareness. Once again, the catalyst for our troubles has been a boom in technological innovation and all the energy consumption that goes with it. It is quite astonishing how far we have come in just over a hundred years.

But are we now not in a truly ironic situation where new technologies are being rapidly developed to counteract the negative impacts of others? If things go wrong later this year in Copenhagen – where World leaders meet to discuss the follow-up to the soon-to-expire Kyoto Protocol – then we could see a shift from a policy of applying technology to avoid climate change to one of applying it to help us simply adapt to it.

It’s a poor second choice, and one that just goes to show that, whether you’re a small community in the 21st century about to lose your island home to rising sea levels, or a buffalo in the 19th century roaming the plains of North America, technology can’t always be seen as a good thing.