Category Archives: Opinion

Why Climate Change needs its Playboy Bunny.

This is inspired by an interaction between George Marshall, author of a great book “Don’t even think about it. Why our brains are wired to ignore climate change” and Professor Dan Kahan, the head of the Yale Cultural Cognition Project. When talking about Climate Change in the Media, Dan Kahan is a straight shooter. “Face it”, he says, “even if it does get mentioned on MSNBC or Fox News, ten times more people will always be watching funny animals”. He then urges George Marshall to watch “The Crazy Nastyass Honey Badger” [1]  on YouTube, a video which has gained over 82 million views. Over on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change YouTube channel [2], the climate scientists have a hard time reaching an audience in the thousands combined with a poorly performing Instagram account. There are a couple of concerns here. Firstly, Climate Scientists are not good at getting their message out to a big enough audience and secondly this message isn’t as “cool” to share with your friends as a badass Honey Badger.

Later in the interaction, Kahan argues that people obtain their information through the people they trust, or, beyond that, from parts of the wider media that speak to their worldview and values. Most of the time, this is a highly effective shortcut and works fine, unless, in Kahan’s words, the information becomes “contaminated” with additional social meaning and becomes a marker of group identity.

Kahan uses Gun Control as a case in point. Polls in West Virginia show that 62% of people want more gun control but, you would be a fool to run for election in the state campaigning for gun control. In fact, 85% of the people in West Virginia know you can’t trust politicians who say that they want gun control [3]. Why? Because gun control in politics is associated with college educated liberals, a group the people of West Virginia have a hard time trusting.

Climate Change is similarly contaminated, where activists are again, for the most part, college educated liberals. In fact, I have fallen into this trap by beginning this post with George Marshall and Prof. Kahan. When people get their information from people they trust and these people don’t include the college educated liberal type it’s clear all the facts in the world won’t convince them. Allow me fall into the trap once more and quote philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer “Hence the uselessness of logic: no one ever convinced anyone by logic… To convince a man, you must appeal to his self-interest, his desires, his will”.

Keeping in mind that to convince people we must appeal to their self-interests and desires, allow me to introduce you to a man you will most likely know well, Hugh Hefner, the founder of Playboy. Now here is an individual who knows how to appeal to man’s self-interests and desires. So, what can we learn from Hugh Hefner? In fact, a lot. He was way ahead of his time, not just in making the topic of sex more socially acceptable but also tackling two big issues in American history, the civil rights movement and the Vietnam war. It begins with the TV show ‘Playboy’s Penthouse’ in 1959. This was going to be one of the first times that black and white people were seen socializing on television, with guests like Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald. As you might guess in 1959, southern broadcasting companies were going to refuse to air the TV show. So, Hugh had a tough decision to make, either cut Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald or lose half the potential audience. He chose talent over views in the end, putting both Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald in the first episode [4]. The southern broadcasting companies were true to their word and refused to show the TV show. Regardless ‘Playboy Penthouse’ aired for two seasons and in the late 1950s this was huge for the civil rights movement.

Playboy didn’t stop here. In the famous uncensored interview section of each magazine, it gave a voice to Martin Luther King[5] and Malcom X [6] when no others would. It condemned the Vietnam war [7] long before Time magazine and other media sources at the time as well as using its magazine to educate Americans about HIV/AIDs during the 1980s. It is clear that Playboy used its platform to instigate social change. This was a magazine that was selling millions of copies each month, hitting a broad audience and using this to tackle some of the most important issues in human history. Climate scientists and activists need something similar, to distract from the additional social meaning associated with climate change and create a platform to show people the problems and how we can solve it. Climate change needs its playboy bunny.

What I propose is to use influencers on social media, particularly Travel Bloggers. I am talking about the people who travel the world putting up wonderful pictures and telling us stories of places we can only dream of going. Why would these people make good Climate Change bunnies? Well they are interesting, showing us a life we’d all love and more importantly they travel the world. Scientists are always telling us about various places affected by climate change, but these people have actually been there. I envision interviewing such a blogger who has just visited an exotic island in the pacific and asking what the place it like. The response is perfect, as I am told “the island is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. It is awful that rising sea levels is resulting in most of the island’s inhabitants having to relocate”. This is brilliant and let me tell you why. Firstly, rising sea levels have been brought up without politicians, liberal celebrities or scientists losing that contamination. Secondly, there is the potential to hit the million or so followers that this blogger has. Finally, as Prof. Kahan had mentioned, people obtain their information through the people they trust, or, beyond that, from parts of the wider media that speak to their worldview and values. Travel bloggers I believe fall into this category. They consistently tell their story, keeping you up to date with their daily doings and issues which such an openness that it creates an almost friendship like relationship. I imagine there are even people who know more about a blogger than they do about a good friend.

Travel bloggers are already using their platform for good. Take Jonny Ward for example with his blog One Step 4 Ward[8]. He has cleverly developed an audience with his travels, storytelling, good advice and motivation and as I write this he has just finished riding around Sri Lanka in a tuk tuk, over 1000km and you should check out his Instagram @onestep4ward to see more. With this audience he has, thankfully, decided to give back with a current project to build a playground for the Burmese migrants in Thailand with an aim to “inject a little fun, a few more smiles and a bit of colour”. This is on top of other projects he has completed in Senegal and Gambia. This is the kind of platform and audience climate scientists need capitalise on. There is no doubt that Johnny Ward would make a good playboy bunny.

So, what am I trying to say with all this? Firstly, climate change activists are in competition with funny and cute animals in terms of getting the message out there, and even when they manage to get their message out there it is often contaminated with this additional social meaning. So, to generate a larger audience I propose we, like Hugh Hefner with his bunnies, use or create a platform which appeals to people’s desires and avoids this additional social meaning  to spread the message and inspire solutions. Travel bloggers are ideal for this. Their use of social media is some of the best out there and they help us imagine, understand and care about places on earth we may never get to.

 

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4r7wHMg5Yjg

[2] https://www.youtube.com/user/IPCCGeneva

[3] https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=yz4kAwAAQBAJ&pg=PA23&lpg=PA23&dq=gun+control+west+virginia+politician+poll&source=bl&ots=XXKtWmaeDw&sig=ZOsGbvLABWTKIT0wNwRPHUaLmtk&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiIhYXr29HTAhVHCMAKHaesDR4Q6AEIQzAF#v=onepage&q=gun%20control%20west%20virginia%20politician%20poll&f=false

[4] http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0052503/fullcredits?ref_=tt_cl_sm#cast

[5] http://www.creativeloafing.com/news/article/13065559/mlks-1964-playboy-interview

[6] http://www.malcolm-x.org/docs/int_playb.htm

[7] https://www.researchgate.net/publication/284001876_The_Playboy_Way_Playboy_Magazine_Soldiers_and_the_Military_in_Vietnam

[8] https://onestep4ward.com         

 https://onestep4ward.com/help-us-build-playground-burmese-migrant-kids/

The case for freeganism and flexitarianism

I take the following definitions from the excellent (if containing rather too many exotic ingredients) cookbook ‘V is for Vegan’, by Kerstin Rodgers (aka Ms Marmite Lover).

Freegan: a portmanteau word combining ‘free’ and ‘vegan’; freegans do not buy animal products. This is an anti-consumerist, anti-food waste movement, so they will eat animal products if they would otherwise be discarded.

Flexitarian: semi-vegetarians. They occasionally eat meat. These are people who are ‘meat reducers’, that is, trying to reduce the amount of meat they eat, or at the very least, trying to source meat from ethical suppliers.

A DIFFICULT STANDPOINT

The environmental issues relating to the meat industry are numerous and this blog would be incomplete in its approach without addressing them. However, as the nephew of a butcher who consequently worked in my uncle’s butchers shop for over eight years, I hope you understand it is tricky to maintain a position which both avoids hypocrisy and maintains respect for my uncle and his business. Without the experience of working at the butchers I would certainly not be in the position I am in today, and would certainly have far less of a work ethic.

In 2014 I started to become very uneasy about the conflict of interests between my part-time job and having deep concerns for the well-being of the environment. The carbon footprint of the meat industry, largely due to methane emissions from the animals themselves, but also due to CO2 released during transportation of feed, livestock and meat products, accounts for almost 15% of the emissions from the entire world. That is considerably more than the aircraft industry. The energy requirement to make the meat eaten world-over comes with an increased need to grow crops, just to feed the farmed animals. If meat continues to grow in popularity as it has recently, this will require yet larger fields for growing crops. All of this comes at a time when we are failing to sustain millions of poor and hungry people across the world. Much, much more energy is being consumed feeding intensively-bred cattle to feed ourselves than would be required to feed the entire planet on those crops alone.

Aside from the environmental concerns, there are of course many arguments from ecological and animal rights. Deep ecologists recognise that there is value in all living creatures beyond their usefulness for our purposes and, further, animal rights activists insist that farm animals be kept in far better circumstances than the almost industrial ones they frequently find themselves at present. Beyond (but not far from) the meat industry, cows are periodically artificially raped by a farmer so that they become pregnant and can therefore lactate the milk which people enjoy on their cereal world over. This is the real, sickening answer to the commonplace myth that cows somehow need to be milked constantly. They do not, this is very unnatural. And when the cow does have her baby, this calf is stolen away, never for her to see again. Heavy stuff.

For some time I had been happy with the idea of only eating leftover meat I got from the butchers, which was going to be thrown away anyway. But after learning of the things I have mentioned above, the contradictions and excuses were becoming too much. Eventually, in the September of 2015 I put it to my uncle that I was going to become vegetarian (with the consequence of my resignation being somewhat obvious). You can imagine the response I got from that, and who could blame him, as someone whose career is built around the sale of delicious meats? Despite the upset my departure initially caused, along with my transition to veganism (well, freeganism) soon after,  I greatly respect my uncle for his eventual understanding and acceptance of my way of life. This recently included his recommendation to me of a vegetarian restaurant!

On a personal level, I feel the best side-effect of becoming a vegan was completely unexpected. Previously, being a good Northern lad, I enjoyed a meal of meat, carb, veg and some form of gravy for every evening meal (i.e. tea). Consequently, due to the delicious marinated meats I got cheap from the butchers, my cooking skills were somewhat lacking. Ripping up this whole cooking routine involved combining different foods, trying new things and structuring meals in a way which means the plate doesn’t revolve around a piece of meat. This is not only an interesting and enjoyable exercise, but also made me really appreciate what I was eating and the effort which had been made to get it to my plate. Cooking is so much more interesting within (even relatively minor) constraints.

NOTHING WORSE THAN A WHINGY VEGAN, EH?!

Veganism has been traditionally sidelined in public opinion, just like environmentalism. Stereotypes of the former involve vegans being attention seeking, whingy and with a lofty sense of superiority (all of which have been applied to the latter, too). I am not saying no vegans possess these traits, as some certainly do, but by and large the intention behind this particular lifestyle choice is heart-felt, not selfish. As what has been a tiny proportion of the population, little media attention has been paid historically. As I am writing now, I realise that none of ‘veganism’, ‘freeganism’ or ‘flexitarianism’ are words in the WordPress dictionary.

However, with 350% rises in veganism in the UK over the past few years, there has been much new media attention, particularly being drawn by 2014’s highly controversial documentary Cowspiracy and Simon Amstell’s feature length film of this year, Carnage: swallowing the past (currently available on BBC iPlayer). The mockumentary Carnage imagines the overhanging shame of a society which previously relied so heavily on the meat industry, but where in the vegan utopia of 2067 the exploitation of animals for any purposes whatsoever is strictly outlawed. However, as with action on climate change, blaming and shaming is not the way forward. Blaming a person for the worlds ills because they eat meat is unlikely to generate a positive response or reaction. The more likely outcome is the strengthening of the aforementioned stereotypes.

Like environmental movement, vegans and vegetarians are divided. Divided in their reasons, divided in what exactly they will and will not eat and divided on other aspects of animal rights such as whether or not to keep pets or go to zoos. Building upon these issues, my opinion is that the clear way forward is provided by freeganism and flexitarianism. Of course, very few people would ever actually label themselves with these names. In fact, it is suggested in Carnage that it is better to name those who eat meat as carnists than to endow a plethora of confusing titles to those who do not. My sister recently told her boyfriend’s grandma that I was a freegan (for some reason) and apparently she now thinks I only eat free food, following another usage of the term. Whilst dumpster diving can be an attractive prospect, completely consistent with the form of freeganism I refer to, that isn’t really what it is about. I use the names here merely for reference purposes and would not recommend labelling people as one thing or another. (The reputation of veganism in some circles already highlights the damage labelling can do.)

Flexitarianism focuses on reduction of meat and dairy consumption. Given the environmental and ethical problems mentioned above, it is hard to make a case that such a reduction would be a bad thing. By eating meat only a couple of times a week, as a treat, and by avoiding red meats, it is possible to drastically reduce one’s carbon footprint, be less at risk to heart disease and save the lives of numerous creatures. I recently met a woman on the tube who, after asking about what I was eating for lunch, remarked “I’d really like to stop eating meat, but I could never give up chicken!”. I feel flexitarianism is exactly what she was looking for, where you can still have a Sunday roast chicken, yet are making an effort to reduce your impact on the world. Besides, things are often more delicious when you only get them once in a while.

Freeganism is somewhat different in motive to flexitarianism, but shares the values of reduced consumption for the aim of a greater goal. As kindly defined by Ms Marmite Lover,  freeganism is a waste-free movement. As a freegan, I will never buy any animal products. However, if I happen to find myself somewhere where animal products are about to be disposed of, I will eat them. This is about efficiency, but also allows the reminiscent vegan the potential to enjoy that spot of blue cheese they found so hard to give up. In addition, situations where the vegan diet has not been accounted for. Those awkward conference lunches with only cheese sandwiches and times when you order chips at a pub and they bring you a little pot of mayonnaise that almost certainly will be thrown away if you leave it, are no longer the drama that some vegans are known to make them. (“What do you mean you don’t have soya milk for my latte?!”)

MOOVING FORWARD

I take much inspiration from John Burnside’s column on nature in New Statesman, which appears every three weeks in between pieces on both food and wine. Many of the things he promotes there remind me of what I feel drives the movements of freeganism and flexitarianism, with efforts made to rebuilt relationships with nature, reduce environmental impact and become more aware as a person. His first column of 2017 urged the reader to start the year by making the most of simple things and reads as follows.

‘As Ronald Reagan said: “just say no”. No to shiny, homogeneous fruit. No to bulking agents. No to farmed meat, unless it comes from a source we can verify ourselves. No to roundup. No to sick bees. No to subsidies for fat landowners and corporations.’

The environmental problems faced in the world today are most likely not going to be solved by hypothetical quick-fixes like a worldwide switch to nuclear fusion (which has been 20 years coming for decades), widespread application of (also as yet uninvented) geoengineering techniques or the shuttling off of millions of people to live on another planet (at precisely the time when many once space-faring countries’ interest in space exploration is at its lowest). These problems can only truly be faced by a widespread change in attitude towards consumption, collective responsibility and the kind of lives we wish to provide for ourselves and the generations who will follow. For, if there were no attitude and yet a quick-fix was found, we would be left still with a complex of over-consumption and therefore merely postponing an impending climate disaster.

In my opinion, the key lies in virtues such as those supported by Burnside above. That is, the key to solving the grandest of problems posed by climate change is to take time to reconsider the way in which we are living our lives, and thereby find happiness in alternative ways much more harmonious with nature. I believe freeganism and flexitarianism are steps in that direction.

On the tube, after meeting the stranger who was interested in vegetarianism, we arrived at Green Park, said our goodbyes and she went to exit the train. She then ran back and exclaimed “I’m gonna do it!”. What exactly it was is unclear, but whichever branch of vegetarianism she referred to, I am glad she felt so impassioned to act upon it and wish her the best of luck.

[Header image source]

[Originally posted to my personal blog Cut Waste, Not Trees (Down)]

Don’t just wait for a movement

A SUPER-WICKED PROBLEM

In my previous blog piece, I referred to climate change as the ‘grandest of all problems’ ever faced by mankind. Imperial College London’s Grantham Institute’s briefing paper ‘Towards a unifying narrative for climate change’ states that the problem posed by climate change is an example of a ‘super-wicked’ problem. This relates to four factors which make it such a fiendishly difficult issue: the requirement for a solution is increasingly imminent; a co-ordinated central authority is required, in a neoliberal age where business trumps government; those who continue to cause the problem are the very ones who seek to find a solution; and policy responses often disregard the future in an almost irrational way.

A powerful quote comes from John Ashton of Chatham House and is as follows:

“Humanity has never faced a problem like climate change. Unlike poverty, hunger, disease and terrorism it affects everybody. Climate change is a ticking clock that we cannot stop or slow down… The essence is not what we must do but how quickly we must do it”.

How on Earth to proceed in this minefield situation?

ONE PROBLEM, MANY NARRATIVES

It has been argued – notably by Al Gore – that the science of climate change is well researched enough and that we have the solutions available. Therefore in order to succeed in solving this grandest of problems we face the bigger issue of getting anybody to care and do something about it. Whilst this may well be the case, scientific study and technological innovation remain crucially important in analysing the problem of climate change, assessing our approaches to its solution and improving the technologies we apply to this end. We should be wary, however, in placing too much hope in a ‘techno-fix’ geoengineering-type solution appearing to the problem. Partly because the prospects are somewhat lacking, but mainly because of the consequent feeling of being off the hook with respect to emission reduction. Indeed, most geoengineering solutions which have been proposed merely mask the effects of climate change and do not account for vital factors such as ocean acidification.

In addition to direct gains of the science, the fact there exist (some very high-profile) climate change deniers is proof enough that scientific research into climate change can still be justified. There are plenty of people who are still not convinced either that climate change is happening or it is an issue. Yet many suggest we now live in a ‘post-truth’ era, wherein facts count for nothing and emotive statements possess the most power. How is it possible to make a case for action on climate change when such arguments rest mainly on science and often only stir in us emotions of fear and worry?

As was discussed at the Royal Meteorological Society’s February meeting, a major issue for the environmental movement is the lack of consistency of narrative. Previous arguments have left many with the view environmentalists only care about polar bears and (hypothetical) future generations. Peter Wadhams, Arctic scientist and author of the excellent book ‘A Farewell to Ice’, argues what is not being communicated enough is the fact the call for action on climate change is no longer about saving polar bears (not that it ever specifically was). It is about saving the human race. The ‘future generations’ narrative is also unhelpful. Psychologists have long-established that humans (and apes) will always choose a small gain in the short term than a greater gain in the long term –  be it with respect to getting one banana now or five later, or with respect to driving the kids to school in a comfy SUV rather than emitting less in the hope they might have a safer future.

The ‘doomsday is near’ narrative is one which is in vogue in some parts of the scientific community (which should be worrying in itself). Clearly such an approach, seen to be advocated by many ‘whingy environmentalists’, is not the way to proceed, no matter how much truth it may or may not hold. In the face of disparity comes the turn to denial and/or ignorance. Such ignorance is a contributor to the ubiquitous ‘disconnect’ between everyday actions and their environmental impacts. This refers to the disconnect between boiling a kettle and the CO2 emitted to generate the required electricity; between having cute pets and eating emission-heavy meat.

But we should not be too quick to lay blame for CO2 emissions. This has historically been the approach of many environmentalists and the result is highly polarising. It is much more productive to provide solutions than to go around blaming people.

THE MOVEMENT WON’T START ITSELF

Millions of journalists, bloggers and activists have already written about ‘what we must do now’, with a vast spectrum of ideas. This array is a manifestation of the lack of consistent narrative that I refer to. Here lies the Catch 22 of climate change: climate change is a problem requiring action on scales unseen before, but proposing a solution merely adds to the lack of consistent narrative, weakening the argument for action. Is all hope lost?

Of course not, and it is hope and positivity which provide the answer, as alluded to earlier. Hope lies at the heart of the many pieces written about the path forward. Only by aiming toward a better future can a movement ever be built. But don’t wait for the mass movement to emerge. Start it. Regardless of whether you go on big marches or arrange protests, you are part of the movement if you speak to people about the promise of acting on climate change. You are part of the movement if you do things in your everyday life like taking few flights, cutting down waste or eating less animal products. You are part of the movement if you convince just one more person that it is not good enough for the status quo to continue.

But just in case you do like to go to marches, there is one in London soon: https://www.facebook.com/events/747422225425039/.

Zero waste living: Minimising waste in the 21st century

THE NEW STATE OF AFFAIRS

Every day millions of products are sold in single-use packaging, usually a form of plastic or ‘mixed-material’: sandwich containers, plastic films, coffee cups, bubble wrap and the like. The resulting vast swathes of disposables discarded, along with many recyclable items, find their way to landfill sites, to clusters in the oceans* and to garbage incinerators. The consequent effect on the geosphere is both detrimental and escalating day by day.

Fundamental studies of geology teach us that the geologic timescale of Earth is divided into periods (perhaps the most famous being the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous), which are themselves divided into epochs. The current epoch is known as the Holocene epoch and  it began roughly 11,700 years ago, following the end of the last ice age and the Pleistocene epoch. What an epoch refers to is the structure of the rock deposited during a certain length of time, perhaps providing us with knowledge concerning the type of creatures which existed then (through examining fossils), the constitution of the atmosphere or the relative sea levels. Until the Holocene, the defining characteristics of each epoch were all derived from natural processes. However there is now so much waste buried in the ground and the atmosphere has changed radically enough that some geologists believe it is time we declare a new geological epoch: the Anthropocene. This name was coined in 2000 by Paul Crutzen in the journal Nature.

The advent of the Anthropocene means mankind has had such an enormous effect on the constitution of the geosphere that humanity’s industrial byproducts are recognisable from examining rocks and also through proxies such as ice cores and tree rings, for example. As mentioned above, it is not just the ground beneath our feet which is changing. It is an almost universally accepted fact that the atmosphere which we breath has changed beyond recognition due to human influence, for example through an increase of around 100pm of carbon dioxide composition in the last 250 years. The consequent alterations comprise what we call (anthropogenic) climate change.

WHY SHOULD WE CARE?

As is mentioned in the excellent, inspiring review paper ‘The Anthropocene: From Global Change to Planetary Stewardship’, whose list of authors includes the pioneering Paul Crutzen, the Holocene is the only state of the Earth system wherein we can be certain that contemporary human civilisation can exist. This epoch is known to have been relatively stable, allowing mankind to develop to the highly intelligent state as in the present. The Anthropocene, on the other hand, is far less certain to be so gentle on us. In the vastly altered environment which we are increasingly finding ourselves, extreme weather events such as severe storms, floods, heatwaves and droughts will become only more frequent. This is threatening for the many people who live in delicate geographical circumstances, particularly in equatorial countries such as those surrounding Saharan Africa and low-lying coastal regions such as Bangladesh and the Netherlands.

Alongside the problems posed directly by climate change, there are numerous other serious, related issues, including a shortage of food resources and (fertile) land in many areas of the world, all with the ominous backdrop of an exponentially increasing population. In the paper mentioned above, the authors outline the necessity of a renewed approach to the way in which mankind views and is treating the world, both for its sake and our own. This movement is not completely new – James Lovelock in particular has long supported the notion of a vengeful ‘Mother Earth’ Gaia interpretation of nature, which is very much capable of evolving of its own accord in order to outlast the threat posed by humanity, and encouraged a much more co-operative approach to civilisation than is currently exhibited. In terms of problems posed directly by the waste issue, landfilling and over-production of packaging not only inflates land shortage, but can pollute nearby soils and rivers, damaging delicate ecosystems, and lead to an increased level of shipping.**

WHERE TO GO FROM HERE?

Some researchers refer to the status quo production methodology of the modern era as a ‘linear economy’, in that materials are mined, farmed or grown, then made into single-use products, which are thereby used by the consumer and disposed. In this paradigm, products are often cheaply made in order to maximise profit and therefore are not built to last. Above I have made the case that this is simply unsustainable and infeasible. An alternative approach is sometimes known as a ‘circular economy’, wherein there is a real focus on making the most durable products as possible, using the minimal quantity of resources, and always giving preference to regeneration and recycling of materials, rather than extracting anew.

There are multiple movements which fit within the remit of a circular economy, including the break free from plastic movement and the Zero Waste Europe movement, the latter of which is making waves across the continent, with many local councils and companies already pledging to move towards a zero waste-to-landfill regime. On a more personal note, as of 1st  October 2016, I have committed to becoming a zero waste individual. All new products I have purchased since then either come in recyclable or compostable packaging, or indeed in no packaging at all! If absolutely necessary, I allow myself up to 500g of disposable waste per year, as other zero wasters suggest.*** I have found that in going waste free, it often naturally follows that one reduces one’s carbon footprint also – for instance, buying fresh in-season fruit and vegetables from local markets, collected in reusable bags. One thing that has really helped me on my way is the discovery that supermarkets across the country, including Sainsbury’s, have installed plastic bag recycling points in their stores to account for those awkward products such as toilet roll that you just can’t buy without a plastic film wrapper.

I have heard many people argue that the waste problem is not directly related to climate change – that recycling alone is not going to save the world. This is of course true, but through aiming to tackle the enormous waste problem that is now afoot in the world, the approach of a circular economy refocuses our influence not on endless (or so we think) extraction for maximal profit, but on making the most of what we have and ensuring there are enough resources remaining to sustain many, many generations to come. In making this change of purpose, one also takes a step towards a greener economy, and moves to provide a safer and more stable future for all. There are many pieces to the grandest of puzzles that is solving the problem of climate change, but surely committing to reduced waste is one clear step in the right direction.

 

FOOTNOTES

*: My fellow MPE CDT colleagues, Ben Snowball and Birgit Sützl, are currently undergoing MRes projects centring around mathematical models for tracking plastic waste in the world’s oceans.

**: I was disgusted to find out from a friend who works in the shipping industry that the main physical export of the United Kingdom is… waste! There have also been numerous cases of illegal smuggling of waste out of the UK.

***: I still feel ‘zero waste’ is an accurate term even if one creates a small amount of it. After all, the average American produces over 500kg per year!

One fine day

I finally got a chance to listen to the new album of Sting, one of my favourite artists: “57th and 9th”. By definition, it’s good – Sting has never recorded any unsuccessful songs! But why am I talking about some CD on a blog about maths and climate science?

Because this album contains a single that drew attention of my inner climate activist. In “One Fine Day”  Sting touches on the problem of the climate change. The artist points out at different types of climate sceptics. So we have optimists, histories, apologists and even scientists, who believe there’s not much we can do.

The singer makes an appeal to political leaders to heal the planet quickly. Some say it’s rather wishful thinking but, come on, we’re talking about a song, not an IPCC report! Although “Three penguins and a bear got drowned” part is a bit too cheesy for me to handle.

The lyrics aren’t the best and I know that Sting can do better. I mean, he’s the author of such jewels as “Englishman in New York” or “Fragile”. So why did I get so excited about this particular song? Because people like Sting and listen to him. This is what we need right now: a casual message about the dire issue of climate change, conveyed via a catchy song. I don’t care how people realise that we have a problem, as long as they DO realise is somehow. Buying a new CD is as good a way as any other.

Some criticise Sting for hypocrisy. Well, the truth is that an owner of eight residences scattered all over the world who travels between them on a private jet does contribute to the climate change quite significantly. However, as I stated before: it’s ok not to be perfect. It might be the case that Sting’s popularity will raise awareness of climate change, which can do more good to the planet than his flights to numerous concerts.

I hope we won’t see the times  “when snakes can talk and pigs will fly”. It’s up to us!

Image from MetroLyrics. Article originally posted here: https://paularowinska.wordpress.com/2016/12/20/one-fine-day/.

Think grey

Recently someone told me that they believe in the climate change but are not doing anything to help the planet because they do not want to sacrifice everything. That there are things they could not possibly give up. Conclusion? They might as well change nothing.

To prevent the climate change or at least to reduce its negative impact, we have to work together. In an ideal world, every inhabitant of our planet would change their behaviour and live an environment-friendly existence. However, it is not going to happen. We have too many climate sceptics and people who, while accepting that the climate change is a jeopardy, do not believe it is worth it to worry too much. Their main argument is that next generations will suffer most of the consequences – so why should we care?

Explaining to climate sceptics that they might be wrong is one of my main goals. I am not a psychologist but to my mind the other group will be also very hard to persuade. In this article I will focus mostly on the majority of the society: people who believe in climate problems, would like to change something but do not want to sacrifice their whole life to save the world. Please bear in mind that when I say majority, I base it only on my observations, not any data. Even if I am wrong, it is still a large group that should be targeted.

Where does that black and white thinking come from? Why can’t we accept that we do not have to be perfect? Perfectionism has been researched in numerous psychological studies. Yet, still so many people have to deal with consequences of this character trait in many areas of their lives. Instead of helping us to do an amazing job, it hinders all our efforts. Better is the enemy of good. Even when we are saving the planet.

You might think that we, climate scientists, young researchers who care a lot about the dire situation in which the Earth is now, are doing everything right. It is not exactly true. Yes, we are trying to do what we can – but not more. We are still human beings, with all our flaws.

Remember that we work together. This often means commuting quite far, many times even flying. What can I do about the fact that the conference relevant for my research takes place in Philadelphia? I have to use the plane, no matter how badly I want to avoid it. Because planes are one of the worst enemies of our planet, this is the fact. However, in order to do my research, I need to know about results of other scientists all over the world. In principle we could use video conferencing. And we do but it is far less effective than meeting other researchers in person. Because most of the ideas are created when we talk outside the official conference events.

Some universities tried to introduce travel funds not according to the money one spends on the travel but on the carbon footprint produced by the journey. I hope they will forget about such ideas soon. Yes, we should encourage alternative ways of travelling when they are feasible, for example one can get from London to Paris in a reasonable time by train. However, if one is unlucky enough to have a meeting in the U.S., it is just not fair.

Let us assume that we are already in the meeting. We switch on the lights, the computer, the projector, the air condition… There is coffee and water served in plastic cups. There are biscuits prettily wrapped in plastic bags. Another coffee break, another cup (because I managed to lose mine). And it continues…

These little things are what matters. I am not happy that they happen and I think we should change them. However, I still attend these meetings because I find them valuable for the climate research. Also, in my everyday life I try to waste as little as possible, save electricity etc. I know I could carry a mug with me and use it instead of plastic cups. But you know what? I would rather carry my laptop so that I can do some work on the train. Especially now that I cycle to the train station (no greenhouse gases produced!) and I do not want my backpack to be too heavy.

Later we go to the lunch. I do not remember a meal without any conversation about vegetarianism and its impact on the climate. I believe that reducing the meat consumption is an important part of helping the planet. Veganism is even more environment-friendly. Having said that, I do not think that meat eaters are doing something wrong. Especially when they are aware of how much greenhouse gases are released in the process of meat production and they try to reduce the amount of meat they consume. Cultivating the myth that we have to cut everything out in order to make the positive impact does not help our planet. Of course if we all went vegan, the release of CO2 would decrease but a traditional (in some countries) meat-free Friday has a good impact too. Why would we condemn them people for indulging in a favourite steak once a week? Every little step counts!

When it comes to the actual research, there is no weather and climate prediction without computers. Supercomputers. Super-power-hungry-computers. We cannot forget that every weather prediction releases large amounts of greenhouse gases. Should we then stop doing our research to prevent it? I doubt it would do us any good. Work is being done to develop more effective and less harmful algorithms but the problem will persist.

Can we be fully environment-friendly then? Yes and no. There are people who take it to the extreme. They eat only unprocessed plant-based foods, they live completely waste-free, do not travel, do not use electricity etc. It seems to be doable and if this lifestyle works for them, then it is great, but… I refuse to live like that. I am sure that we can live quite relaxed and pleasant lives and still do not do too much harm to the planet. The point is that we all have to do that. We all have to make some changes, no matter how small they would be.

You do not have to be perfect. If you feel that you can change something, then go for it! Do not beat yourself up for taking a super long shower because it was so pleasant. Do not feel like a failure for using a car when you were too tired to cycle to work. Just think about what you can do to reduce the harm that we, the whole of society, do to the planet. Listen to Paul McCartney: Don’t carry the world upon your shoulders. Do what you can – and enjoy what you do not want to sacrifice.

Article originally published on my personal blog.

More Than Just Symbols

 

When you think of a mathematics textbook you probably imagine a series of intimidating pages with a few words and a bunch of strange (often Greek) symbols. I don’t think I’m alone in thinking that the fact that a lot of modern mathematics is only presented in this form is a bit of a crime. For instance, Tristan Needham expresses a similar feeling in the pre-amble to his text “Visual Complex analysis.” Professional mathematicians can usually get some idea of what is going on in the pages of a paper or textbook. However, anyone who hasn’t had as much training in their past loses out. Particularly since, to the untrained eye, there is no way to associate these abstract symbols with anything visual or otherwise.

Reading a mathematics textbook is not like reading a novel–it can be a slow and arduous process. Despite this, someone with mathematical knowledge might eventually be able to understand what is going on. To draw an analogy with computers – it is as if you need the “correct software” installed in your mind to process the text. The same concept applies to reading novels written in other languages – if you don’t have the “correct software” installed in your mind then all that you will see is a series of random symbols. An education in mathematics allows you obtain this “software”, once you have this you can “speak” about things you have never spoken about before.

The important thing to draw from above is that the symbols are simply placeholders for various ideas and concepts just as they are in any other written language. In my opinion adding visuals or graphics to a piece of mathematics significantly helps us to tie down what the symbols are trying to suggest (even if it is just a crude analogy). On the other hand, it is probably true that even illustrations and graphs on their own are probably not enough. Without the proper context, graphs or illustrations may simply appear as static creations with no further meaning. I think additional understanding can be achieved by playing around with the image in your head (or by sketching variations with a pen and paper). This playful approach to imagining visualising mathematical concepts no doubt inspired artists such as M. C. Escher (M. C Escher was a Dutch graphic artist who is well known for his often mind boggling and mathematically inspired work).

Nowadays we can go significantly further than Escher with the power of computer graphics. As an example I have listed a few of my the coolest looking pages and blogs related to visualising mathematics and mathematical concepts below:

  • http://www.graphonaute.fr/ A selection of animations and images created by French engineering student Hugo Germain. Makes me think of what Escher’s work may have been like if he were born into the digital age!
  • http://blog.matthen.com/ Lots of nice visualisations and a few cool visual proofs of well known mathematical theorems as well. The code for the visualisations is also available allowing anyone to play around/ learn how to create their own!
  • http://imaginary.org/ Imaginary is an interactive platform which designed to showcase mathematical media content. The site contains plenty of pictures, videos and interactive demonstrations!
  • http://visualizingmath.tumblr.com/ A tumblr page full of math related visualisations.
  • http://geometric-aesthetic.tumblr.com/archive Tons of geometrical patterns and fractals.

In summary, the “beauty” of mathematics may be something “cold and austere” (as Bertrand Russell puts it), however, I believe everyone can gain if we do more to visualize the concepts involved. As well as helping our understanding, it allows us to think up strange new worlds (such as those depicted in other M.C Escher’s work – and potentially Einstein’s general relativity). Given the amount of maths out there I’m sure there is a lot of potential for mathematically inclined artists out there!

Matt
References and Further Reading
[1] This post is a continuation on themes I previously wrote about in about Maths and Visualization

Cover Image:

http://i.vimeocdn.com/video/458881089_1280x720.jpg

Why studying random dynamical systems matters

If I said I was studying multistability in random dynamical systems driven by Brownian motion, why should you care?

Martingales, filtrations, ergodicity, synchronisation, Monte Carlo methods: mathematics is full of words which invoke colorful ephemeral imagery for heavy, abstract concepts. Even if we explained the concepts and brought them to life, it wouldn’t be obvious how they were related to your world. Mathematics is powerful exactly because it exists a few steps away from reality, in a place where anything which obeys its structured rules is possible. But this means that to answer the question of why we study what we study (apart from that it’s beautiful and fun) we have to step out of mathematics and back firmly into the physical.

When we think about the Planet Earth mathematically we often think about understanding and capturing each of its parts, studying technical topics like turbulence, boundary currents, atmospheric waves, sub-gridscale processes or atmospheric chemistry. These are the building blocks of the Earth and investigating them shows us patterns and connections which let us project their behaviour forward a few days into the future by running them artificially faster inside our super-computers, predicting the weather or the dissipation of volcanic ash.

There is another powerful way to think about our Earth, though. For the past decade or so, biologists, for example, have stepped away from the reductionist  approach of looking at the components of their system (protein and DNA) to start looking at the high-level systems behavior. The pieces slot together intricately into such a complex system that some of its behavior (consciousness, for an extreme example, or an ant colony) is nearly impossible to discern by looking at the parts. They find that sometimes it’s better to drop the details and start at the top and work down, characterising as much of the emergent behaviour as possible since it’s part of understanding the animal, even if we can’t quite see where it comes from.

In the study of Planet Earth we’re lucky that we’ve been so driven early on by prediction even while we’ve been studying the pieces. We’ve always had an eye on the whole system, trying to simulate it in weather models since predictability is equivalent to safety and success as we try to flourish as a species. These models do an amazing job of mirroring the massive weather beast, especially as we tweak them year on year, checking them against reality and improving them. But what we don’t often do is explore theoretically the range of behaviour the complicated highly non-linear and multi-dimensional system we live within is capable of. We don’t often look at it from the top without the baggage of the details of the pieces. This is the truly “systems” approach.

Perhaps the simplest example of what you might see if you took a systems perspective is multistability: the idea that the Earth might have different states (or rhythms) it could comfortably fall into which would self-perpetuate themselves, even if in the same conditions another state would have been possible. The mathematical example is always a ball rolling down into a valley with another valley next door; the ball could stop at the bottom of either valley, both are stable states, but it can’t get from one to another easily. Ecosystems exhibit multi-stability – the same patch of land could be a birch forest or a grazed field and stay that way indefinitely. Even bodies exhibit multistability if you look at them from the right perspective: something alive generally keeps itself alive, but dead also stays dead.

A schematic view of bistability, in which the “ball” can be in either “valley” happily, but finds it difficult to transition between the two. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Whether or not our climate has multiple stable states is vitally important because if it does and we start to push it, we could very possibly push it out of one and into another and it might be very hard to return. How would we know if it did? One way (the reductionist way) might be to carefully build a replica of it, to the very best of our ability, then start pushing it around and see if it switches. Not a bad idea, but with obvious drawbacks too: our model might not be quite perfect and it takes a long time to run these pushing experiments on a computer, so it’d be hard to draw solid conclusions. Another way is to think theoretically about what is required of a system to be a jumping system then study whether the Earth satisfies the conditions, looking back at the record we have about our real Earth system to see if we can see signatures of jumping. To do that, however, we need to know what jumping looks like.

That’s why we’re interested in a class of mathematical constructs called random dynamical systems. They’re an abstract construct and could be interpreted into the real world in lots of different ways so, like most everything in mathematics, they’re probably useful in a lot of fields. What they can do for us, though, is to represent the Earth like a point moving between states according to some update rule, complicated or simple, which summarises the evolution of our climate in time. What makes them even more complicated than the dynamical systems people like Ed Lorenz have been studying for decades is that we now allow the update rule to be a little bit random thanks to a Brownian motion term: to send the Earth up the valley when it should have gone down, occasionally. Suddenly, a whole new class of behaviour is exposed: with bistabilitity in the update scheme and additional noise comes stochastic resonance, the seemingly regular jumping of our proverbial ball between valleys depending on which way the wind (which wouldn’t usually be enough to move a ball between valleys!) blows. They also might simplify dynamical systems, with noise-induced synchronisation meaning that even if we don’t know where exactly the point started, it’ll end up in a similar place if it undergoes the same noise.

It’s not that the Earth is a random dynamical system (it’s a planet, not an abstract mathematical concept), it’s that we hope that by trying to represent it as one, we’ll learn more about it. Climate certainly has some random elements: weather provides unpredictable and sometimes large change in local climate, not to mention volcanoes. We also have stochastic resonance-looking jump-like events recorded in the history: the Glacial-Interglacials and maybe Dansgaard-Oeschger events in the past million years. If we find that to some extent our reality fits well into this concept, we will be able to draw conclusions from the concept back out to the real world. It probably won’t be as revealing as complex wave functions were for quantum mechanics, but having a new way to account for the world around us is almost surely a good thing.

When it comes to complex systems that we count on for our survival, no one approach can be relied on. We don’t have a reason to believe that there’s a single bit of mathematics that nature obeys on this scale, but there will be patterns and properties at all scales which fit into mathematical frameworks. Random dynamical systems let us look at the pattern of stability and large changes in the whole system and is, as both a mathematical field and a climate perspective, relatively new and so very exciting.

When the mathematicians meet…

What’s the difference between an introverted mathematician and an extroverted mathematician? The extrovert looks at the other person’s shoes. You probably have heard this joke (very funny) many times and might believe that mathematicians work stuck in their offices (and their own heads). It was probably true a couple of centuries ago. However, things have changed after the rapid development of maths, especially applied maths. Why?

Nowadays we have to specialise, at least a little bit. We don’t have Da Vinci’s any more; it’s just impossible to fully understand more than your very narrow area. But while mathematics research narrows more and more, it tries to tackle more and more complex and multidisciplinary problems. What do we do now?!

We, as mathematicians, must get out of our comfort zones and collaborate. We need to accept our lack of understanding of certain aspects of each maths problem while, at the same time, being aware of how we can contribute to the solution. We have to identify what kind of experts we need to ask for help to make some progress. This is how it all begins.

When I started my adventure in maths, I certainly didn’t anticipate this. I was prepared for working alone and talking to colleagues only in my free time. While it could possibly work in pure maths, I would totally fail to succeed in applied fields if I tried to do so.

Examples? Mathematics of Planet Earth Centre for Doctoral Training! Yes, we pursue our individual degrees and work on our own projects. However, we operate as a cohort too. Sharing experience, tips and asking for help are essential for this programme to exist. I can’t even count how many times computer science experts saved my life (or at least my precious laptop) by preventing me from running a code that would destroy the system1 . In exchange I could give them a hand when they got lost in abstract multidimensional spaces (although I don’t claim I can visualise anything in more than three dimensions, though it disappoints my first year lecturer!). We all learn from one another.

Recently I realised that it’s not just a fake academic set-up, this is how the “real world mathematics“ works. I spent 5 days at the 116th European Study Group with Industry in Durham, UK (http://www.esgi.org.uk/). This event brought together about hundred mathematicians, physicists and industrial partners. The latter proposed eight problems they wanted to solve in fields as diverse as agriculture, banking and sepsis diagnosis. We divided ourselves into groups according to our interests — I chose the problem proposed by a digital bank. They needed help with marketing their product to the best target audience (of course the ultimate goal was to spend less and earn more). We sat down in a room and…well, and started thinking, talking, brainstorming and arguing. Within 3 days we managed to produce whole models and get some useful results for the industrial partners. Something infeasible for one genius became a reality for a group of people with different backgrounds.

Yes, you might still meet a mathematician staring at her/his own shoes while talking (or avoiding any contact) to you. But this is not a norm anymore. And definitely not the only way to succeed. We can tackle real world problems together because together impossible becomes possible!

  1. Note, not everyone is as lucky as me, you can read what happens when you’re not careful while programming here.

Not “too silly”, not “too girlish” for maths

– “What do you study?”
– “I’m doing PhD in maths.”
– “Wow, you must be so smart! And you’re a girl!”

I hear it so often. I’ve done a small amount of research and my results are sad: my friends studying linguistics, architecture,medicine and so on don’t get such a routine reaction. Why is it the case? Where does the assumption that a mathematician must be smarter than the rest of the society come from? And why are we still surprised that women are capable of pursuing this career path?

I had thought the same before I decided to study mathematics. It shouldn’t be surprising. As a ten-year-old I fell in love with John Nash (or rather Russell Crowe starring in A Beautiful Mind). Than I laughed at how nerdy and out of touch with life the characters of The Big Bang Theory were. Media portrayal of mathematicians didn’t make my decision to study maths easy. Would I become like them? Would I spend my adulthood bending over equations, unable to engage in social life and relationships?

Moreover, I was afraid that I wasn’t smart enough, that one needs a brain of Gauss or Newton to be a mathematician. But I took up the challenge and… I’m still here! Even though my IQ isn’t high enough to join Mensa. Even though I’m a GIRL!

Einstein nailed it: Genius is 1% talent and 99% percent hard work.During my undergraduate studies I’ve seen apparent geniuses being expelled from the university because talent and intelligence aren’t enough. Nobody is born with maths knowledge, it takes years of hard work to gain enough experience  experience to earn a diploma.

I believe that talent is helpful but what counts most is your interest in whatever you’re doing and determination to work hard. Although if you truly enjoy maths, the work might be turn in to fun, as crazy as that sounds. I’m not claiming that I loved every evening spent going through some complicated proofs (especially the ones beginning with the words “It’s obvious that…” – maybe it’s obvious for you, author, but it isn’t for me!). But some problems and ideas were really my thing. I even kept reading about them after the exam!

Ok, but what about the girl part? Is mathematician really a job just for men? Does the gender matter at all? Personally, I get very annoyed when someone admires me for studying maths despite being a female. There’s no correlation between the excellence in mathematical subjects and gender. Neither positive nor negative – I don’t agree with the common statement that girls are more hard-working so they get better results than “smart but lazy” boys.

Unfortunately not everyone agrees. Last year I went to my first mathematical conference. The organiser (male) came to me the day before my talk just to say something along the lines of: You don’t need to worry about your talk. You’re a women, you can’t be as good in mathematics as your male colleagues so nobody expects you to give a good talk. I was shocked! I did well because my research was of good quality, not because of or despite the fact that I’m a woman.

To sum up, if you feel that you like maths (or some parts of it) but are afraid of pursuing the degree because you’re not a genius or (even worse!) you’re a girl, don’t hesitate to give it a try! You have every chance of success and you don’t want to regret not having done something you really wanted. It’s far better to regret something you’ve done!

If you’re interested in articles about the need (or lack of need) for extraordinary mind to do mathematics, take a look at: