Turning the land from an emissions source to a carbon sink

Corinna Byrne

Farming and other land-based activities could do a lot to mitigate global warming. Ireland needs new policies to get its land to absorb CO2 rather than release it. The large amounts of carbon locked up in the country’s peatlands must be safeguarded and damaged bogs restored so that they can sequester carbon again. In addition, the use of biochar could reduce methane and nitrous oxide emissions and build up the fertility and carbon content of the soil.

Climate change is the most pressing problem of our time and one to which we all contribute in varying degrees. Those working on or closely with the land can do a lot to improve the situation. At present, their activities, especially in agriculture, contribute significantly to global warming by adding not just CO2 but also methane and nitrous oxide to the atmosphere. However, if policies were adopted which refocused the purpose of the land and the right methods were used to manage the different greenhouse gases (GHG), agriculture could be transformed from being a source of emissions to a sink.

In order to explore what these policies and methods might be, Feasta set up the Carbon Cycles and Sinks Network (CCSN) in late 2008 with funding from the Irish Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, which wanted advice on policies it could adopt to reduce GHG emissions from land-based sources in Ireland. The Network enables people with specialist knowledge of these emissions and ways of reducing them to help identify and develop the policies put forward.

Irish land-based emissions are the largest in the EU in relation to its other emissions so it is in Ireland’s interest to take a lead in developing EU policy in this area. Accordingly, the CCSN has not restricted itself to developing national-level policies but is also advancing approaches that Ireland could promote at EU and possibly at UN level. We have concentrated on what can be done to reduce emissions from the most important land activities: deforestation, the management of agricultural soils and the raising of livestock.

We consider that Irish climate policy should be developed on the basis that temperatures must be prevented from rising by more than 2ºC and even that figure is probably too high. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 4th Assessment report says that achieving the 2ºC target means stabilising GHG concentrations at about 445 to 490 ppm carbon dioxide-equivalent (CO2-eq). This corresponds to about 350 to 400 ppm of CO2 alone. Ireland should therefore press its EU partners to negotiate for a concentration target of 350 parts per million of CO2 by volume or less. Four eminent climate experts — Nicholas Stern, James Hansen, John Schellnhuber and Rajendra Pachauri — have all indicated that a target of 350ppm or less is required. The 350 level was passed in 1987 and, at present, the atmospheric concentration is around 390 and is rising by about 2 ppm a year. Returning to it means that all current emissions must stop and, at the very least, all the CO2 released since 1987 that remains in the air must be recovered.

At present, only land plants can be considered to be natural atmospheric carbon extractors as current scientific evidence indicates that the fertilisation of the ocean will not significantly increase carbon transfer into the deep ocean and thus lower atmospheric CO2 [1]. In view of this, CCSN concentrates on land-based carbon sequestration and aims to develop policies that should lead to the land taking up and holding more carbon.

Reducing and sequestering carbon dioxide emissions

Terrestrial ecosystems store about 600 billion tonnes of carbon in living organisms and decaying material and 1,500 billion tonnes in soil organic matter. The total, 2,100 billion tonnes, is almost three times the 750 billion tonnes currently in the atmosphere. Consequently, if fossil and land-based carbon emissions stopped today, reducing the atmospheric concentration of CO2 from 390 to 350 ppm would involve increasing the amount in plants and soils by 77 billion tonnes or about 3%.

Of course, fossil- and land-based carbon emissions cannot be stopped immediately. Fossil-fuel combustion will release about 29 billion tonnes of CO2 this year. If that release rate was phased out over 40 years on a straight-line basis, a total of 580 billion tonnes would be released before emissions stopped. Deforestation is releasing perhaps 7 billion tonnes a year. If it proves possible to stop that in ten years, it will add 35 billion tonnes to the atmosphere by the time it ceases. So, if other GHG emissions are ignored, 615 billion tonnes of CO2 will be added to the atmosphere by 2050. This converts to 166 billion tonnes of carbon. Adding that to the excess carbon already in the air means that the amount of carbon held by plants and soils needs to increase by over 11%.

Each year’s flow of carbon into and out of the terrestrial stock is huge, as Figure 1 below shows. It would only be necessary to reduce the outflow and/or increase the inflow by a small amount each year to achieve the 11% increase in the terrestrial carbon stock over, say, the next 50 years.

Figure 1: Annual carbon fluxes into and out of the atmosphere

Increasing above-ground biomass (AGB) by planting could do much more than take carbon out of the air. It could, for example, provide all the energy currently provided by fossil sources by 2035. It could also sequester 13 billion tonnes of atmospheric carbon a year, well above the 1 billion tonnes required to ensure that the 350 target is not exceeded by the end of the century [2]. It would also provide food. In addition, there is a strong possibility that the transpiration from the new growth would increase cloud cover and thus have a cooling effect. On the other hand, it would change much of the Earth’s surface but in a more benign way than a runaway warming.

Several policy conclusions inevitably follow from the adoption of the 350-or-less target. The discussion focuses on those directly concerning land-based emissions.

The Carbon Maintenance Fee

Rewards should be offered for holding and sequestering carbon and penalties imposed for carbon releases. All countries, not just developing ones, should be paid an annual carbon maintenance fee for maintaining each tonne of carbon in their soils and biomass as well as a higher, once-off reward for every tonne by which the stock is increased between one assessment and the next. It will not be possible for the average reward to be as large as the price being charged for the right to release a tonne of CO2 when fossil fuel is burned. This is because a large part of the revenue collected by governments or an international agency when emissions rights are sold will have to be recycled under an arrangement such as Cap and Share so that the poorest people in the world are not priced out of the market for energy as its price rises due to the artificial scarcity caused by a rapidly tightening cap. Governments that allowed their terrestrial carbon stock to decline should be required to pay a price based on the price of a fossil carbon emissions permit but with an allowance for the inevitable imperfections in the accuracy of the data in comparison for that from fossil-fuel use.

The carbon maintenance fee (CMF) would be paid in recognition of the fact that countries with forest or peat bog could potentially use that land in more immediately lucrative ways and that they therefore need to be rewarded for passing up those opportunities and retaining it as a carbon store. There are practical reasons for introducing a CMF too. For example, no government is going to like paying the charges involved if its terrestrial carbon stock is reduced. However, if the international agency levying the carbon-loss charge was also paying the government a carbon-maintenance fee, the deduction would be automatic.

Rewarding countries that increased their terrestrial carbon would put a very high value on maintaining forests. The Stern Review gives a figure of up to 1,000 tonnes of CO2 being held in a hectare of standing trees. At $25 per tonne of CO2 — a figure which is likely to be far below the price that users are likely to pay for the right to burn fossil fuel — the penalty for clearing the trees would be $25,000 less the value of the harvested wood. Stern gives a figure of up to $1,035 per hectare for the income from the sale of the wood and says that the cleared land, if it were to be used for high-value crops such as soya or palm oil, would be worth $1,000 per hectare. If his figures are correct, the penalty the state suffers for allowing the land to be cleared would be ten times the amount the landowner would get from going ahead with the clearance. This should be enough to make the payment effective, particularly as tropical forest can be expected to take in carbon each year.

A 2009 report [3] on the results of monitoring around 70,000 trees in ten African countries for 40 years shows that for at least the last few decades, each hectare of intact African forest has trapped 2.2 tonnes of CO2 per year. If the reward for each tonne of CO2 sequestered by this natural sink was 25, ($32) the government responsible for the forest could expect to be paid about $70 a year per hectare in addition to the carbon maintenance fee. When the researchers combined their African data with earlier figures from South American and Asian forests they calculated that tropical forests remove about 4.8 billion tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere every year, about 18% of the annual amount added by burning fossil fuels. African forests alone account for 1.2 billion tonnes. That could give the countries that have them an annual income of perhaps $38 billion plus a carbon maintenance fee. As sub-Saharan export earnings in 2007 were $268 billion if South Africa is excluded, that is a significant sum. The forestry chapter in the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment report quotes an estimate that at around the $25 figure (it actually uses $27.2 per tonne) “deforestation could potentially be virtually eliminated.”

As for the CMF itself, if it were paid on all the 2,400 billion tonnes of carbon in the Earth’s biomass and soil, the rate per tonne would be very low. Suppose just ten US cents per tonne of carbon was paid, which works out at 37 cents per tonne of CO2. This would mean the annual payment for keeping the carbon in the 1,000 tonnes of CO2 per hectare of forest mentioned by Stern would be $370 per year. The total transfer of resources involved (it would be a mistake to think of the payment as being a cost) would be $240 billion. This compares with the 2009 GWP of $70,000 billion. In other words, the transfer would involve about 0.3% of the world’s incomes, which would seem to be an affordable sum.

Other ways of rewarding countries for forestry planting under offset arrangements should be ended. Offsets enable fossil-fuel users whose emissions are controlled by a cap to exceed their emissions limit by reducing emissions in a country outside the cap. As a result, offsets do not reduce emissions. Because a reduction in one place justifies extra emissions somewhere else, the best they can do is to stabilise them. But, according to FERN, the Forests and the European Union Resource Network,

even this best-case scenario appears to be rare as it is not possible to verify whether any claimed reduction would otherwise have occurred. By allowing the release of extra emissions without the certainty of equivalent extra reductions elsewhere, any trading scheme involving carbon offsets may increase rather than reduce GHG emissions. On top of this, many of these projects also affect the rights of some of the world’s poorest communities, resulting in increased hardship and suffering [4].

In any case, because of the massive effort required of the land-use sector if it is to become a net sink and absorb the excess CO2 in the air, it’s unlikely to have the additional capacity to absorb the fossil-fuel CO2 emitted under offset arrangements as well. Moreover, if, as suggested above, a global emissions cap was put in place, offsetting would be unnecessary since, if a country or a company wished to emit more than it had been allowed, it would simply buy the permits to do so from a country or company with a surplus.

EU policy maintains that tropical deforestation should be reduced by at least 50% by 2020 compared to current levels, and the global forest cover loss should be halted by 2030 at the latest. Ireland should press for each of these targets to be brought forward by five years. The EU has failed to challenge the REDD approach of paying countries for the emissions they avoid by clearing forest at a slower rate than in the past. It wants to fund REDD by using voluntary contributions from rich-country governments to cover “readiness work and capacity building,” with the bulk of the remainder coming from offsetting via the sale on developed-country carbon markets of carbon credits covering the avoided emissions.

However, the EU is worried that these sales could undermine the carbon markets by overloading them with credits to such an extent that the carbon price falls and no longer acts as an incentive to developed countries to curtail their emissions. As a result, it has suggested a separate market for REDD credits. It’s not clear how this would work but the idea of keeping the two markets apart as a temporary measure until a global cap is in place is in essence a good one as it would prevent the land being used to offset current fossil emissions rather than having the task of removing the excess of CO2 already in the air.

The EU is also concerned about the possibility that carbon credits will be issued because trees are not being cut down at the previous rate in one part of a country while forests are being cleared faster in another. It therefore wants a whole-country approach to be adopted to prevent this “leakage”, something that might only be possible if remote-sensing measurements are used. Ireland should urge its EU partners to reject offsetting via REDD altogether or to tighten the limits on how much can be done with a view to phasing it out completely by 2020. Funding for whole-country REDD schemes should be come from the proceeds of auctioning EU emissions trading system permits (EUAs) after 2012 until a global system can be put in place.

Using remote sensing for carbon-emissions reporting

Because adequate whole-country measurement methods were not available when the Kyoto Protocol mechanisms were devised, the rich, high-emissions countries which signed up to it — collectively known as the Annex 1 countries because that is where their names are listed — had no option but to take an activities-based approach to measuring, reporting and accounting for their Land Use, Land-Use change and Forestry (LULUCF) emissions. Because this approach looks solely at the emissions that result from an activity such as planting or clearing trees and assumes that everything else is unchanged, it has allowed a lot of gradual changes to be ignored. Consequently, now that remote sensing techniques are being developed to enable all the emissions and emissions absorption from a country’s entire land area to be estimated with reasonable accuracy, Ireland should move towards land-based LULUCF measuring and reporting using remote sensing techniques. It may be possible for the country to achieve Tier 3, the most accurate and detailed level of emissions reporting, on this basis.

The two main types of remote sensing, Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) and LIDAR, can be used together and in conjunction with optical and infra-red images. SAR has been used to map ABG since the 1960s. Microwave pulses are sent out and the amount of that energy reflected back to the sensor is recorded. As it uses radar, it can operate day or night through haze, smoke and clouds. The microwaves penetrate forest canopies and the amount of backscattered energy can reveal a lot about the trees’ leaves, branches and stems. Rather than microwaves, LIDAR sends out pulses of light from a laser. This means that it cannot penetrate cloud. However, it has an advantage in that it can measure the three-dimensional vertical structure of vegetation in great detail. It has revolutionized the way vegetation is measured from satellites, but for forestry operations, aircraft-borne sensors are used. A 2009 assessment [5] of remote sensing techniques by a team from Woods Hole concluded

Satellite data enable reliable mapping of carbon stocks over large areas… This situation will improve further as new satellite missions come online in the next few years, several of which are designed specifically with the intent of improving estimates of the standing stock of carbon in biomass, and changes in those stocks through time. The UNFCCC process would benefit from refinement and application of these approaches and from improved data in developing policies designed to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation.

With remote sensing, a country could report and account comprehensively for everything that affects the types of land that, like pastureland, forests and bogs, can be either a sink or a source depending on management methods and the climate itself. This is particularly important because rising temperatures and altered rainfall patterns will play a large part in determining whether land releases carbon or takes it in.

At present, under the Kyoto Protocol’s Article 3.4, Ireland can choose to operate on Tier 2 and account for carbon gains and losses from forest management, cropland management and the management of pasture land. So far, Ireland has not accounted for these carbon gains and losses, mainly for lack of data, and operates on Tier 1, which uses default figures rather than country-specific ones to estimate emissions. To use Tier 2, for example, cropland and grazing land management require data going back to 1990. However, this data requirement would disappear if a switch was made to remote sensing as it would no longer be necessary to establish a trend line and estimate changes in the trend. All that would be necessary would be to use an aircraft to carry out a baseline LIDAR survey that was calibrated by on-ground sampling. The sampling would measure AGB, below-ground biomass and soil carbon. Leaf litter and deadwood could also be included if desired. The aerial survey would then be repeated regularly at the same time each year and a calculation carried out to establish the carbon gained or lost.

If the EU adopted remote sensing for its emissions returns it could pilot its use by the rest of the world at a later date. The adoption is likely to save money. Not only is it cheaper to gather the required information by remote techniques but New Zealand has also found that it can recover the cost about 22 times because it ensures that country’s eligibility to offset GHG emissions above the 1990 level of emissions and to participate in international carbon trading.

At least some of the revenue each member state received for holding and, in some cases, increasing the biomass and soil carbon stock should be used by the state to encourage further increases in the carbon held. A system of rewards to individual landowners would be impractical because of the difficulty of measuring soil carbon with sufficient accuracy, especially as the remote-sensing results are optimised to show changes from year to year rather than exactly what was on the ground when the over-flight took place. As a result, Teagasc, the Irish Agriculture and Food Development Authority, suggests that a new definition of best farming practice be devised and that the adoption of this be incentivised by the programme that is being developed to replace the Rural Environment Protection Scheme (REPS). This could include activities that lead to lower agricultural emissions and the increase in carbon in biomass and the soil. CCSN has been asked to help devise this “Carbon REPS.”

Irish land-based emissions: a three-gas problem

In global warming terms, carbon dioxide is not the most important GHG produced by activities on Irish land (see Figure 2 below). Methane produced by the national livestock herd is more serious, accounting for 45% of the land-based warming effect. CO2 makes up 32% and nitrous oxide 23%. Moreover, the CO2 figure is only as high as 32% because the emissions from peat burning have been included, although, internationally, they would not be included in emissions in the LULUCF category.

Nationally and internationally, all three gases need reduction programmes and targets of their own and methane and nitrous oxide should not be bundled with CO2 as “carbon dioxide equivalents” with exchange rates set at their Global Warming Potential (GWP) in relation to CO2. The bundling approach tends to limit the priority given to reducing the emissions of each gas to the latest estimate of their GWPs whereas a more holistic view of a gas’s total climate and environmental impact is desirable, something that can only come from a gas-by-gas approach.

Figure 2 compares the ways the emissions of the three greenhouse gases produced by the way the land are used. Indirect nitrous oxide emissions are those produced when ammonia has escaped into the air or nitrates have been washed into rivers get broken down. Direct peat land emissions are the methane released by intact bogs and the CO2 released by bogs that have been disturbed. (Compiled by CCSN).

Reducing carbon dioxide emissions from peatland

Peatlands are Ireland’s largest stock of terrestrial carbon, storing an estimated 1.2 billion tonnes [6]. This equates to 4.4 billion tonnes of CO2 so, as total Irish GHG emissions were 67.44 million tonnes CO2 in 2008, the peatlands contain
7 times the carbon in the country’s annual emissions. Peat bogs and the fuel that is taken from them are also this country’s largest land-use source of CO2. They add perhaps 9.1 Mt or over 13% (there is no agreed figure) to the country’s total GHGs and there is therefore no alternative but to act to bring down the emissions they generate. There are two components to these emissions; the use of peat as a fuel and the release of CO2 from disturbed bogs, primarily as a result of the extraction of fuel. There is also the opportunity cost of disturbing bogs because the damage means they do not take up carbon from the atmosphere. In their intact or undamaged form bogs are the most efficient terrestrial sink for atmospheric carbon dioxide as their persistently high water table ensures that the carbon entering the system through photosynthesis is greater than the amount leaving as organic matter is broken down [7]. A crude estimate based on data [8] produced by a team led by Dr. David Wilson of University College Dublin that annual sequestration by near-pristine bogs in Ireland could be anything between 60,000 tonnes and 140,000 tonnes of carbon.

The Irish Environmental Protection Agency’s National Inventory Report 2009 shows that in 2007, the burning of peat was responsible for 7.6% of the country’s fossil-fuel emissions but provided only 3.6% of the fossil energy actually used. It is therefore a very inefficient fuel in CO2 terms. To this must be added the emissions caused by extracting the peat. Draining a bog so that extraction can begin turns land from a CO2 sink to an emissions source. This is because the fall in the water table allows air to get to the peat and start oxidising it, so that the carbon in it slowly disappears. There is no specific Irish data for these releases but if Finnish figures are applied to Ireland, Bord na Móna’s bogs alone are responsible for the release of 454,400 tonnes of CO2 each year. This compares with the 2,700,000 tonnes of CO2 released when the fuel that it supplies to the power stations was burned. It can therefore be said that extraction adds at least 17% to the combustion emissions from milled peat. Estimates of the releases from bogs used for the production of sod peat amount to over 4 million tonnes of CO2 a year. If this figure is correct, as sod production amounts to an estimated 650,000 tonnes per year [9], sod peat production is especially emissions inefficient as, in addition to the emissions from the peat extraction, its combustion leads to 779,000 tonnes of CO2 being released. So for every tonne of sods burnt, over 8 tonnes of CO2 is emitted.

But peat is not only expensive in emissions terms, it is also costly in money terms when compared with other fossil sources, which is why its use for electricity generation has had to be subsidised in periods when the price of other fossil fuels has been low. A 2009 study, Burning Peat in Ireland by the Electricity Research Centre at University College Dublin, showed that electricity users subsidised peat-fired power stations by around 60 million in 2008 through the public service obligation (PSO) levy. To this must be added the value of the EU Emissions Trading System permits that the three stations had to be allocated so that they could burn the peat and which they could have sold if the fuel had not been used. If a price of 25 a tonne of CO2 is assumed, the 1.81 million tonnes of CO2 allocated [10] would have a market value of 46 million.

There are three peat-burning power stations in Ireland. The main reason for building them was energy security, the desire to have electricity from an Irish source that could be relied upon if there was ever any difficulty importing the coal, oil or gas required by the bulk of the country’s generating stations. The three stations are readily dispensable. When they are working, they supply only 6.6% of the electricity system’s demand. In the climate emergency situation we face, the energy security that peat provides must be achieved in some other way and peatland use must be refocused from energy to carbon storage and sequestration.

The extraction of sod peat for domestic use has damaged an estimated 46% of Irish peatlands [11]. The protection of peatlands is required by the EU Habitats Directive and by the Ramsar and Biodiversity Conventions. Ireland is legally required to maintain the area and range of these habitats as they were when the Directive came into force in 1992. Some effort was made in 1999 when over 160,000 ha of bog were designated as Special Areas of Conservation (SACs). At present, the SAC area is estimated to have risen to over 220,000 ha [12]. However, ownership of these sites remains largely in private hands and conservation depends on a management agreement between the state and the private owners [13]. This is not a secure basis for conservation as the integrity of the reserves remains partially dependent on the goodwill of the owners. Moreover, the state is not protecting SAC bogland as required by the directive. Thirty-two raised bog sites were designated in the 1990s as SACs under the directive. However, a ten-season derogation was granted in 1999 which allowed turf cutting to continue in the “protected” sites. In 2002, a similar ten-year derogation was given for raised bog SACs designated since 1999 and in 2004, an additional ten-year extension was given to allow continued digging on raised bogs designated as Natural Heritage Areas. Blanket bog conservation areas (SACs and NHAs) are effectively subject to an indefinite derogation. There is no provision in the Habitats Directive which allows member states to derogate in this way, and in this respect Ireland is in danger of being found to be in breach of EU law.

In order for Ireland to fulfil its climate obligations and those under the Habitats Directive, peatlands and the carbon they contain must be protected. In 2003, domestic turf cutting was going on in over 80% of the designated raised bogs. It is estimated that over 20,000 turbary rights exist on these bogs, of which over 2,500 were exercised in 2003 [14]. In 1999, the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) introduced a voluntary scheme to purchase turbary rights. This has met with very limited success and only about 5% of turbary rights have been purchased. This may be because the price available under the voluntary scheme, 3,500 per ha in SACs and NHAs, does not reflect the bog’s earnings potential for the landowner. It is said that a worked peatland can produce a profit of up to 1,000 per hectare per year [15].

So what is the solution? A greatly increased price would be needed to purchase turbary rights with this potential. Accordingly, an annual tax should be payable by the owner of every bog where turf cutting is being carried out or which has been drained so that it can be carried out. The tax would apply to all turf cutting, not just in protected areas. The amount payable for each site would be based on an estimate of the emissions released by the oxidation of the bog as a result of the drainage plus the emissions from the combustion of any peat dug.

It is reasonable to impose such a tax as emissions from peatlands are likely to be included in the returns that Ireland has to make to the EU in future under the Effort-Sharing Decision, and the country is almost certain to have to pay a cost per tonne to buy permits to cover its failure to meet the reduction target set for it. After the tax was in operation, the turbary rights to the protected sites, and probably the sites themselves, would be bought by compulsory purchase in cases where it had proved impossible to buy them voluntarily and the owners were not prepared or unable to restore the bogs to which they applied. The tax would obviously reduce each bog’s profit potential and thus the price paid for it, compulsorily or not. Moreover, the tax on drained but unworked bogs would encourage their restoration. If the government wished, the purchase offer, but not the compulsory purchase powers, could be extended to other peatlands.

The owners of any intact peatlands that remained in private hands after the tax had been imposed, and after harvesting in the protected areas had ceased should be paid an annual maintenance fee to reward them for the carbon they were keeping safe. The income for this, and for the purchase of turbary rights, could be paid out of the income that the state can expect to receive from the auctioning of EU ETS emissions permits after 2012. Alternatively, the Land Bond system, once used by the Land Commission to buy out the landlords, could be used to buy the turbary rights or the entire bog. The bonds would pay their registered owner a fixed rate of interest.

In addition to the threats to peatlands from peat extraction for energy, there are other threats, including extraction for horticulture, drainage for agriculture, afforestation and wind-turbine installation. All afforestation and planting on peatland and high-carbon soils should cease, wind-turbine installation should not occur on areas of peat and any peatland already taken into other uses should be restored if the carbon balance is favourable.

Reducing methane emissions from Irish farms

On a global level, the development of policies for the control and reduction of methane emissions is not helped by the fact that surprisingly little is known about the natural sources of methane, how long it persists in the atmosphere, the size of its warming effect in relation to carbon dioxide and what eventually causes it to break down. Figure 3 above is typical. It shows that emissions are estimated to have increased from 233 million tonnes of methane a year in pre-industrial times to about 600 million tonnes today.

Figure 3: The conventional view of methane sources, based on data from the Scientific American, February 2007. Wetlands are thought to be giving off more methane now than in pre-industrial times because of increased rice cultivation. The chart omits tropical forests, a large, recently discovered source.

Where does methane come from?

One of the biological sources of methane, are methanogens, single-celled micro-organisms that belong to a major division of life, archaea. These live in anaerobic conditions like those found in a stagnant pond or a cow’s rumen. After other micro-organisms have split any plant material in those environments into hydrogen and carbon dioxide, the methanogens use the hydrogen to turn the CO2 into methane.

Complexity of the methane problem

Uncertainty about how long methane stays in the atmosphere means that estimates of its warming effect as compared with CO2 have recently been revised twice. Half-life figures quoted in the literature range from seven to ten years. The atmospheric lifetime relates emissions of a component to its atmospheric burden and is 8.4 years for methane. In some cases, for instance for methane, a change in emissions perturbs the chemistry and thus the corresponding lifetime. The CH4 feedback effect amplifies the climate forcing of an addition of CH4 to the current atmosphere by lengthening the global atmospheric lifetime of CH4 by a factor of 1.4, making the estimate of its lifetime in the atmosphere is 12 years [16].

An important reason for this uncertainty seems to be that most methane [17] is broken down by combining with hydroxyl ions and possibly chlorine ions in the upper atmosphere to make CO2 and water. The hydroxyl ions are produced when the sun’s rays split an ozone molecule (O3) and each of the three free oxygen radicals that result joins with a water molecule to make two hydroxyl (OH) ions. If there are a lot of hydroxyl ions about, the methane is quickly destroyed but if a lot of methane is suddenly released, the supply of hydroxyls gets exhausted and the methane lingers on, continuing its warming effect. If this is correct, methane’s half-life is not a fixed number and, as a result, there is no fixed value for its warming effect in relation to CO2. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said it was 23 times worse until 2001 [18] but now prefers 25 [19]. What is beyond dispute, however, is that methane has a massive short-term heating effect that dies away as it gets broken down. Accordingly, reducing the amount released is a powerful way to have a big near-term impact on the rate the world is warming.

Emissions from the global herd of ruminants (cattle, sheep, goats and camels) contribute about one quarter of the methane production that is under human control and, consequently, consideration has to be given to reducing ruminant numbers. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation is very concerned about this and produced a report in 2009 jointly with the International Energy Agency. The report, Belching Ruminants, a minor player in atmospheric methane, concluded:

Since 1999 atmospheric methane concentrations have levelled off while the world population of ruminants has increased at an accelerated rate. Prior to 1999, world ruminant populations were increasing at the rate of 9.15 million head/year but since 1999 this rate has increased to 16.96 million head/year. Prior to 1999 there was a strong relationship between change in atmospheric methane concentrations and the world ruminant populations. However, since 1999 this strong relation has disappeared. This change in relationship between the atmosphere and ruminant numbers suggests that the role of ruminants in greenhouse gases may be less significant than originally thought, with other sources and sinks playing a larger role in global methane accounting.

A bespoke approach to GHG emissions

In view of these uncertainties about methane, and in particular about its comparability with CO2, the Feasta Climate Group considers it unwise to have a single emissions-reduction programme, with a common target, for the two gases. It is therefore suggesting that Ireland should advocate the adoption of a non CO2–linked methane emissions cap-and-control programme at an international level.

Having a common carbon-equivalent price for all land-use emissions would present problems because each emitting activity releases two or three different GHGs and involves a number of sub-activities. Moreover, as I have just explained, the relative importance of reducing each gas cannot be adequately expressed through Global Warming Potential calculations. To achieve the desired result, it may therefore be better to have a number of policies and prices. Emissions from the raising of livestock should not be lumped in with those from, say, deforestation or fossil-fuel use and the same carbon, or carbon-equivalent price applied. A more suitable approach to controlling the release of enteric methane might be a separate national market for livestock emissions permits, linked by a common international cap. Any flow of permits from one national market to another should be controlled by the two governments and regulated by an international authority to ensure that sales did not mean that global emissions increased because land had to be cleared to accommodate the animals or they were to be fed in a different way.

Methane: the case for ruminants and other livestock

Amongst the livestock, it is the ruminants that produce most of the methane, both as a result of their digestive process and the way their dung is handled. It has therefore been suggested that, because the potential to reduce their methane emissions in any other way is limited, their numbers should be reduced in response to the climate crisis. However, for any such reduction policy to make sense, it would have to be done under a global cap that applied to all livestock, not just ruminants, to avoid a switch to pork and poultry production. Such a switch would mean a diversion of soya and grain that people could eat directly for animal food. Moreover, if the land area under crops being grown for animal food increased, it could mean increased emissions from deforestation, from the loss of carbon in the soil and from the nitrogenous fertilisers used. The global cap would also avoid production lost in countries which accepted the cap being made up countries which did not.

Ireland, working through the EU, should therefore seek to have global livestock numbers capped at their current level and to have the animal units allowed under the cap allocated to governments according to the number of animals kept in each country at present. Once a world livestock cap was in place, the international community would have the ability to control animal numbers. It could decide, for example, that the global herd was to be reduced by 10% over the next ten years. In this case, each government would be required to surrender 1% of its original allocation each year and a government that had grandfathered the initial allocation by giving them to farmers in perpetuity would have to go into the market and buy back enough of the permits it had given away.

However, it might be that the international community decided that no reduction in the global herd was required. This could be for three reasons:

  1. People want to eat meat and milk.
  2. There are no alternative farming enterprises in many parts of the world. Cattle represent the best way that some types of land can be used for food production. Livestock-based cultures need to be preserved and poor people need sources of income.
  3. The methane the herd produces does not build up in the atmosphere beyond the point at which the rate of its breakdown into CO2 and water equals the rate at which it is being produced. Moreover, the CO2 from the methane is not a net addition to the atmospheric stock as it was originally extracted from that stock by the plants the animal ate. Consequently, a constant global herd has a constant global warming effect rather than the cumulative one produced by the emissions from the burning of fossil fuels. The additional warming produced by the animals has to be set against the fact that pasture land takes CO2 from the air and sequesters it in the soil, where it will stay unless the land is ploughed. Moreover,, while animals can damage land and reduce the carbon it contains, they can also be used to improve it and to increase its carbon content. Allan Savory’s award-winning work [20] in Africa, the US and Australia has shown that if run-down land is very intensively grazed and trampled and then the animals are taken away completely until the grass and other plants have completely regrown, the land becomes more drought resistant and the amount of carbon in the below-ground biomass and the soil itself increases rapidly too.

The livestock sector is so complex and so important to so many poor people that it should not be expected to compete for emissions rights with fossil-fuel use. It is therefore suggested here that in terms of Irish policy, livestock emissions should become a new negotiating category alongside fossil-fuel and LULUCF emissions within the UNFCCC. Parties to the Convention should be asked to agree to the imposition of a global cap on livestock emissions and discussions should be held about the distribution of the emissions under the cap and the way they would be managed by national governments.

Agriculture is estimated to be the single largest contributor to Ireland’s GHG emissions (26.8% in 2007). This is unusual for a developed country but it’s much lower than in 1990 when it accounted for 35.9% [21]. The EPA believes that this reduction reflects the fall in nitrous oxide emissions due to less fertiliser being used, and a fall in methane emissions due to a decrease in cattle and sheep populations. In 2007 alone, there was a 3.8% decrease in agricultural GHG emissions. The continuing decrease in agricultural emissions is shown in Figure 4. According to O’Mara et al (2007) [22], about 49% of agricultural GHG emissions are methane from enteric fermentation in sheep and cattle. This would mean that ~13% of Ireland’s entire GHG emissions arise from this source alone. Of this, 91% is from the cattle herd. Since these emissions are currently included in the non-Emissions Trading System emissions, which the country has to reduce by 20% relative to their 2005 level by 2020 [23], ways of reducing these enteric emissions need to be explored.

Figure 4: Nitrous oxide and methane emissions from Irish agriculture have fallen continuously since 1998 as a result of the decrease in livestock numbers and lower levels of fertiliser use. Enteric methane makes up just over half of these emissions in warming-effect terms. Source: National Inventory Report, 2009 [24]

Table 1 gives the best current estimates of what might be achieved in reducing enteric methane emissions from livestock. If all the techniques could be applied in conjunction with each other, enteric emissions might be cut by about 5%. These estimates could still be highly inaccurate, and some depend on market conditions. The uncertainties due to a lack of whole life-cycle analyses could also be significant, notably the amount of nitrous oxide released when concentrates and additives such as dietary oils are grown. If the principle of internalising externalities is adopted, reducing methane emissions by any of the strategies listed in the table becomes theoretically profitable.

An effective methane-abatement policy should seek to raise emissions efficiency in relation to output rather than just cutting absolute emissions. At the current stage of research, the only feasible methane-reduction techniques are simple management strategies such as sending a beef animal for slaughter as soon as the average rate at which it is putting on weight begins to decline. These strategies could be part of the proposed Carbon REPS programme. However, a further reduction in the size of the nation’s herd or in milk and meat production must be opposed in the absence of a global livestock cap as otherwise “leakage” will occur.


State of development

Financially viable without payment for emissions saved?

Abatement possible
(% reduction in enteric methane)

Annual value of mitigated CH4 when CO2 is €25/tonne

Replacing roughage with concentrate for dairy cows

Being applied on farms

On a minority of farms



Replacing roughage with concentrate for beef cattle

Being applied on farms

Yes (with further research required)



Genetic improvement of the dairy herd

Being applied on farms




Improvement in milk yield additional to genetic progress

Being applied on farms




Genetic improvement of beef cattle

Being applied on farms


Lifetime management of beef cattle: halve number of cattle slaughtered over 30 months

Being applied on farms

Depends on market conditions



Lifetime management of beef cattle: increase number of young bulls slaughtered to 100,000/year

Being applied on farms

Depends on market conditions



Feeding dietary oils to beef cattle

Ready to apply on farms




Feeding dietary oils to dairy cows

Establishing scope of measure (no programme currently in place to do this)

Propionate precursors for beef and dairy cattle

Ready to apply on farms

Not currently

Feeding maize silage to dairy cows

Establishing scope of measure (no programme currently in place to do this)

Feeding maize silage to beef cattle

Establishing scope of measure

Feeding other cereal silages instead of grass silage

Establishing scope of measure

Improved grazing management

Establishing scope of measure

Forage species and legume inclusion

Basic research stage/Establishing scope of measure


Basic research stage

Halogenated compounds

Basic research stage

Table 1: Summary of potential methane emissions reductions. Adapted from O’Mara et al. 2007 [25].

Reducing nitrous oxide emissions from Irish farms

The reduction of nitrous oxide emissions needs to be given much higher priority than even its high global warming potential, 298, and long life in the atmosphere, 114 years, would seem to warrant. It currently contributes 7.9% of the total anthropogenic warming effect. Its atmospheric concentration, 319 parts per billion in 2005, was estimated to be 16% above pre-industrial levels.

The reason for giving nitrous oxide much higher priority is that, now that emissions of chlorine- and bromine-containing chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and halons are declining sharply as a result of the Montreal Protocol, nitrous oxide is now responsible for destroying twice as much ozone as the next worst ozone-depleting anthropogenic substance, CFC-11, a refrigerant [26].

The destruction is damaging in two ways. Firstly, ozone filters out ultra-violet radiation coming from the sun, leading to an increase in skin cancers and cataract-induced blindness. Secondly, ozone destroys atmospheric methane. Consequently, an increased nitrous oxide concentration is likely to lead to an increased methane concentration and thus a greater total warming effect than from the nitrous oxide alone. It is not the nitrous oxide itself that destroys the ozone but two other nitrogen oxides, nitric oxide (NO) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2), which some of it becomes when the gas reaches the stratosphere, the second major layer of Earth’s atmosphere, between 10 and 50 km high. There, sunlight splits a fraction of it (~20%) into the nitrogen oxides via various reactions, while the major portion is converted to inert nitrogen gas (N2) [27]. Nitric oxide’s destruction of the ozone is catalytic — the gas is not itself broken up by the process — so one molecule can go on doing damage until it is either broken up itself or floats out of the ozone layer, probably to fall to earth as acid rain.

The destruction of atmospheric N2O in the stratosphere by photolysis and photo-oxidation is the only sink considered in global climate models. Very little seems to be known about other ways the gas is broken down, although two German scientists [28] working in a Norway spruce plantation in Bavaria recently found that long drought periods can turn the forest soil into a N2O sink, while wetting it turns it back into a source. The overall global balance between the sink function of soils and the source function is unknown.

Irish agricultural N2O emissions accounted for 9.9% of the country’s total GHG emissions and 37% of agricultural emissions in 2007. Fortunately, the prospects for reducing those emissions are much better than those of cutting methane. Significant reductions of around 20% nationally can be made immediately via:

  • Full adherence to the Teagasc Nutrient Advice. In general, Irish farmers still over-fertilise [29].The Teagasc Nutrient Advice 2008 [30], coupled with a soil nutrient test, is the primary source of information on optimum fertiliser amounts, taking account of current legislation (e.g. Nitrates Directive), plant-nutrient (including nitrogen) requirements as they vary over time and with soil and crop type, and the fertiliser-replacement value of land-spread manure.
  • Replacing slatted sheds with out-wintering pads. These have a purpose-built outside drained surface to replace slatted sheds for winter housing of livestock, and are becoming increasingly popular due to their lower cost (around 65%), completing the farm forestry cycle by using wood chips in its construction [31], and increased animal health [32].
  • Partial replacement of calcium ammonium nitrate with urea; on average urea causes 80% less N2O emissions than calcium ammonium nitrate [33], depending on soil and environmental conditions.
  • Adopting white clover-grass swards. White clover, a nitrogen-fixing legume, can be grown together with grass to add nitrogen to soil, replacing synthetic fertiliser and thus reducing fertiliser-induced N2O emissions.
  • Using only low-emission slurry spreaders. Most Irish cattle slurry is spread with a splash plate that results in high NH3 volatilization and NO3 leaching and hence indirect N2O emissions. The use of low-emission surface spreaders such as band and trailing foot/shoe could reduce NH3 volatilization by around 60% [34] and reduce the resulting indirect N2O emissions.
  • Separating slurry into liquid and solid fractions, and storing the latter as “solid storage”. Emissions from slurry fertiliser can be reduced by separating into liquid and solid fractions [35].

Cuts of a further 40-50% could be made if some or all of the following techniques were adopted:

  • The urea spread on pasture and arable land had nitrification and urease inhibitors added to it by the manufacturers. This adds very little to the cost and, because less nitrogen can be applied since less is lost, promises to save the farmer money. Inhibitors could also be added to slurry before it is spread.
  • More slurry was digested anaerobically. This would cut methane emissions as well. Inhibitors could then be added to the liquid digestate before it was injected into the land or the nitrates and the phosphates it contains could be secured by being taken up by biochar which would then be spread on the land.
  • Changes were made to animal diets, more cover crops were grown to take up the nutrients that might otherwise be lost if the land was bare between crops, and passing run-off water through a “bioreactor”, wood chips or sawdust — which absorbs almost all the nitrates it contains.

Policy should be focused on reducing nitrous oxide releases, taking in reductions in methane emissions whenever these are compatible, such as in the use of anaerobic digesters.

Biochar: A way to improve the soil as a sink?

The use of biochar is one of the few strategies that gives any basis for optimism that the excess CO2 in the atmosphere can actually be removed. Biochar is the charcoal produced when biomass such as wood, manure or leaves is heated in a closed container with no oxygen. This treatment is known as pyrolysis. A typical biochar sample is fine-grained and consists of between 50% and 80% organic carbon. Pyrolysis also produces a gas that may be burned to provide the heat the process needs and bio-oil, a liquid that may be upgraded to a liquid fuel.

The current world-wide interest in biochar stems from the possibility of using it to sequester carbon extracted from the atmosphere in a way that boosts a soil’s fertility. It does this by improving the soil’s ability to retain nutrients and water while simultaneously reducing the amount of methane and nitrous oxide it gives off. It is also claimed that including biochar in the soil boosts a symbiotic relationship by which the plants themselves increase the carbon content of the soil. They are said to do this by sending sugars through their roots to feed the fungi and microorganisms living in the soil in exchange for the nutrients that the micro-organisms release from the stock held by the biochar.

From a climate policy perspective, there is no point in supporting the application of biochar to the soil unless it can be shown to reduce GHG emissions and/or increase the carbon in the soil in addition to its own weight. It would be better to burn the biochar instead of coal if all that was achieved by applying a tonne of it to the soil was to sequester 600 kg of carbon.

The benefits claimed for biochar are:

  • Carbon will be sequestered in the soil
  • The crop yields from land to which biochar is applied will be significantly greater than those grown on untreated soil, increasing the amount of carbon sequestered by the biochar alone.
  • Because biochar locks up nutrients, less fertiliser is required and this in itself cuts emissions.
  • Biochar reduces methane and nitrous oxide emissions from the soil to which it is applied.
  • Biochar improves the soil’s water-retention capacity
  • The production of biochar could lead to the development of a network of rural biorefineries that turn biomass into energy, foodstuffs and chemicals as well as producing char.

Some of these benefits would go to the farmer, while the climate-related ones would accrue to the whole world. In deciding how much support the state or the international community should give to biochar use, a value needs to be put on both categories of benefit so that farmers pay for their benefits and, if a top-up is required to get biochar into use on the scale required to reduce the atmospheric concentration of CO2 as rapidly as required, the international community should pay the difference.

The International Biochar Initiative (IBI) has been campaigning for biochar use to generate carbon credits to offset emissions in Annex 1 countries. If this was allowed without careful and detailed planning and strict sustainability criteria in place and the value of the credits rose because of determined climate policies, the price put on biochar might rise so high that its production booms and becomes damaging. The level of demand might, for example, cause the clearance of natural forests and price the charcoal used for cooking out of the reach of the world’s poor. There might also be competition between food production and biomass-for-biochar growing for land. We therefore believe that at this stage, support for biochar should be limited to financing research and village-scale demonstration projects that utilize waste feedstocks, such as municipal solid waste, forest residues and agricultural residues, that do not compete with food and other land uses. In response to these fears, the IBI recommends that waste materials from agriculture and forestry should be “the primary near-term source of biomass feedstock for biochar production.” It writes [36]:

Large amounts of agricultural residues, municipal green waste and forestry biomass are currently burned or left to decompose and release CO2 and methane back into the atmosphere…. Using only 27% of the world’s crop and forestry wastes (the portion of wastes not currently used for anything else) for biochar, could by 2030 sequester 0.25 gigatonnes of carbon a year from biochar alone. If the energy co-product of biochar production is used to offset fossil fuel use, then the annual carbon mitigation potential of biochar more than doubles to 0.6 gigatonnes of carbon annually by 2030. A scenario utilizing 80% of crop and forestry residues shows that by the year 2050, approximately 2.2 gigatonnes of carbon could be stored or offset annually, reaching the gigatonne scale of carbon sequestration that is the benchmark for significant climate mitigation technologies.

Using waste material for biochar would avoid competition with food production and land conversion from forests to plantations. It would also create none of the pressure that forces indigenous people from their land. Furthermore, food security would be greatly enhanced by integrating biochar into food-cropping systems and turning crop residues into biochar for use on the farm.

Ireland’s efforts in the biochar arena should concentrate on research to demonstrate its effects in Irish soils and on developing a network of rural bio-refineries that would produce it as a by-product. This is how a local refinery might work. It could take in a crop such as miscanthus, crush it and extract the juice. These crops contain sugars and plant protein. The protein can be extracted and made into animal food and the remaining sugars can be anaerobically digested to create methane. That leaves the crushed stems, which are mostly cellulose. These could be pressure-cooked at 200 deg. in dilute sulphuric acid to break up the molecules into furans, levulinic acid and lignin, the glue that holds the plant fibres together. The lignin can then be charred and some of it heated with steam to produce hydrogen and carbon monoxide. These gases can then be mixed with the methane from the digester to give a synthetic natural gas that can either be piped to people’s homes, used to power an engine to generate electricity or compressed for use in cars. The furans would be transported to a regional refinery to become a diesel fuel. The levulinic acid would be sent away too as it is the starting point for a whole range of chemicals including nylon. Meanwhile, the remaining char would be used by the local refinery to purify the liquor coming from the digester. The char would tie up the plant nutrients it found there and would be put back on the land both to sequester carbon and increase fertility. Taking all these steps together, a whole new set of rural activities would be born.

For this vision to be realised, a detailed research programme for biochar is needed. This programme should do the following:

  • Identify and characterise potential feedstocks for biochar production from wastes, agricultural and forestry residues and energy crops.
  • Develop a classification system for biochars produced from different feedstocks.
  • Optimise pyrolysis technologies and operating conditions for different feedstocks and for biorefinery residuals.
  • Examine the stability of biochar in soils (lab-based trials, leading to field trials) to determine the changes that occur when biochars are applied to different soils. The most important parameters that affect stability for carbon sequestration, plant growth and the health of the soil need to be determined.
  • Investigate soil and plant growth improvement by biochar addition and the potential for fertiliser displacement.
  • Investigate the potential reductions in nitrous oxide emissions from fertiliser application through the use of biochar.
  • Investigate the potential human health implications from biochar production and application.
  • Develop a standard system for production of biochar from different feedstocks.


A number of measures are urgently needed to mitigate or avoid the worst effects of climate change. A separate reduction programme is needed for each major gas from each major source so that its special characteristics and the circumstances of its release can be taken into consideration rather than just its global warming potential. The four land-based programmes are:

  1. Enteric methane from ruminants.
  2. CO2 emissions from the clearing of forests, the extraction of peat and the conversion of land from one use to another.
  3. Methane from all non-enteric land-based sources.
  4. Nitrous oxide from all land-based sources.

It might be that the reduction programmes for nitrous oxide and methane could take in releases from all sources rather than just land-based ones but the implications of doing so need further consideration. However, in general, emissions trading between the different programmes, and thus different gases and different types of source, should not be allowed as that would effectively make them one programme and would dilute the priorities and the incentives being given for those with the highest urgency.

Table 2 below shows a summary of current land-based GHG emissions in Ireland and the possible emission savings to be made by implementing the reduction measures outlined in this report. Biochar does not feature in the table but it could play a significant role in carbon sequestration and emissions reduction besides bringing other benefits. A key aspect of its production is that it takes biomass that would otherwise have rotted away, dissipating the energy it contains, and the pyrolysis, besides making the char, turns the plant material into synthetic natural gas and diesel fuel and also into chemicals that are currently produced from oil.

If we are to survive the current emergency we need to look closely at how our land-based activities could mitigate global warming if we refocused their purpose. This will involve a serious re-think not only of policy and management methods, but also of our attitude and connection to the land. Land has always had a special significance for the Irish. In the future, it will continue to be important to us but in ways that are different from those at present. For the sake of our own health and that of the planet, we must use it well today if it is to be the resource we need it to be in the future.


Current Emissions

Possible Emissions Savings


Peatland CO2

9.1 million tonnes CO2eq

(4 million from peat combustion; 5.1 million from peat oxidation)

3.2 million tonnes CO2eq

(>80% reduction)

4.6% of national emissions





Peat cutting must stop.

Agricultural N2O

37% of agricultural or 9.9% of national emissions

1.4-3.4 million tonnes CO2eq



2-5% of national emissions



Management CH4

2 Mt CO2e (14% of

agricultural emissions)

Estimated 75% reduction

2% of national emissions


research needed.

Enteric CH4

9 million CO2e (~13% national emissions)

Reduce by 450,000 t CO2eq (5% reduction)

0.7% of national emissions

National herd not







excluding CH4)

reduction in

national emissions


Table 2: Summary of current land-based GHG emissions in Ireland and of possible emissions savings to be made by implementing the reduction measures outlined in this report.


  1. Surface Ocean Lower Atmosphere Study, an international research group based at the University of East Anglia, issued this statement in June 2007: http://solas-int.org/aboutsolas/organisationaandstructure/sciencesteercomm/sscmins/positionstatement.pdf
  2. Read, P. and A. Parshotam, 2007. “Holistic Greenhouse Gas Management Strategy (with Reviewers’ Comments and authors’ rejoinders)”. Institute of Policy Studies Working Paper 07/1, Victoria University of Wellington. Wellington New Zealand.
  3. Simon L. Lewis, “Making the Paper”, Nature 457, 933 (19 February 2009) ,
  4. “Reducing Emissions or Playing with Numbers?” Forestwatch no. 136, March 2009.
  5. Mapping and monitoring carbon stocks with satellite observations: a comparison of methods by Scott J Goetz et al, Carbon Balance and Management 2009, 4:2,
  6. Based on total island of Ireland. Tomlinson, R.W. 2005 Soil carbon stocks and changes in the Republic of Ireland. Journal of Environmental Management 76 (2005) 77–93; M.M. Cruickshank, M.M., Tomlinson, R.W., Devine, P.M. and Milne, R.1998. Carbon in the vegetation and soils of Northern Ireland. Proceed RIA.Vol. 98B, NO. 1, 9–21 (1998).
  7. Wilson, D., Alm, J., Laine, J., Byrne, K.A., Farrell, E. and Tuttilia, E.S., Rewetting of Cutaway Peatlands: Are We Re Creating Hot Spots of Methane Emissions? Restoration Ecology 2007
  8. Wilson, D., Tuittila, E.-S., Alm, J., Laine, J., Farrell, E.P., and Byrne, K.A. , Carbon dioxide dynamics of a restored maritime peatland, Ecoscience, 14, 71-80. Ecoscience 2007., 14, 71-80
  9. Foss, P. J., O’Connell, C. A. and Crushell, P. H Bogs and Fens of Ireland – Conservation Plan 2005, Irish Peatland Conservation Council, Dublin; 2001.
  10. 68.5% of emissions . EPA, 2008. Emissions Trading—Final Allocation Decision; Tuohy et al., 2009
  11. Ibid 10
  12. Douglas, C., Fernandez, F., and Ryan, J. In Peatland habitat conservation in Ireland, International Peat Congress, 2008
  13. Schouten, M.G.C. 2008. Peatland research and peatland conservation in Ireland: review and prospects. In: Feehan, J. (Ed.), 13th International Peat Congress. International Peat Society, Tullamore, Ireland
  14. Ibid 10
  15. According to Galway East Fine Gael TD Paul Connaughton “Turf ban will hurt Galway families”-Galway Independent March 2008.
  16. Wuebbles and Hayhoe (2002) surmise that reaction with hydroxyl radicals account for about 90% of the removal of methane, while transport to the stratosphere (~5%) and dry soil oxidation (~5%) account for almost all the rest.
  17. Ibid 16
  18. IPCC, 2007. Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
  19. Ibid 18
  20. A video of a lecture by Allan Savory in which he explains his work can be found at
  21. Ibid 14
  22. O’Mara,F.,P., M. Ryan, J. Connolly, P. O’Toole, O. Carton, J.J. Lenehan, D. Lovett, B. Hyde, E. Jordan and M. Hawkins Climate Change – Estimation of Emissions of Greenhouse Gases from Agriculture and Strategies for their Reduction: Environmental RTDI Programme 2000-2006, Wexford: EPA. 2007.
  23. EPA, Ireland’s Greenhouse Gas Emission Projections 2008-2020 [online], available:
    http://epa.ie/downloads/pubs/air/ airemissions/ghg_Emission_Proj_08_12_30032009.pdf [accessed 30 Jun 2009]. 2009.
  24. EPA, National Inventory Report, 2009 [online], available: http://coe.epa.ie/ghg/nirs/NIR_2009_IEv1.2.pdf [accessed 30 Jun2009]. 2009.
  25. Ibid 22
  26. Ravishankara, A.R., Daniel, J.S., and Portmann, R.W., Nitrous Oxide (N2O): The Dominant Ozone-Depleting Substance Emitted in the 21st Century Science 2009. 326(5949): p. 123-125.
  27. Warneck, P., Chemistry of the natural atmosphere. 1988, San Diego: California: Academic Press.
  28. Goldberg, S.D. and Gebauer, G. 2009. Drought turns a Central European Norway spruce forest soil from an N2O source to a transient N2O sink. Global Change Biology 15: 850-860.
  29. Coulter, B.S., Murphy, W. E., Culleton, N., Quinlan, G. and Connolly, L., A survey of Fertilizer Use from 2001-2003 For Grassland and Arable Crops. 2005.
  30. Coulter, B.S., & Lalor, S., Major and Micro Nutrient Advice for Productive Agricultural Crops. 2008.
  31. Kennedy, E., French, P., O’Brien, B., Low fixed cost expansion options with increased labour efficiency. TResearch, 2009. 4(2): p. 44-45.
  32. O’Driscoll, K., Boyle, L., French, P., Hanlon, A., The Effect of Out-Wintering Pad Design on Hoof Health and Locomotion Score of Dairy Cows. J. Dairy Sci., 2008. 91(2): p. 544-553.
  33. De Klein, C.A.M., Sherlock, R.R., Cameron, K.C., van der Weerden, T.J., Nitrous oxide emissions from agricultural soils in New Zealand– a review of current knowledge and directions for future research. Jour. of the Royal Soc. of New Zealand, 2001. 31(3): p. 543-574.
  34. Ryan, D., A Slurry Spreader to Meet Farming Needs and Environmental Concerns 2005, Teagasc.
  35. Bertram, C., Allusion, F., Avatar, L., van Groningen, J.W., Veto, G., Grinning, C., Pig slurry treatment modifies slurry composition, N2O, and CO2 emissions after soil incorporation. Soil Biology and Biochemistry, 2008. 40(8): p. 1999-2006.
  36. Letter to the UK Parliament, 23 October, 2009. Download pdf file

Featured image: Peat bog. Author: Colin Broug. Source: http://www.sxc.hu/browse.phtml?f=view&id=1348032

Collapse or no collapse: we need to respect to survive

Lucy McAndrew

Respect for ourselves, for others and for nature is fundamental to survival because it is what gives us a sense of our place in the world and, when we lose that, we float free of the very network of relationships that sustains us.

Aretha Franklin famously sang about it, and the concept has been widely discussed in arenas as diverse as politics and psychotherapy, but what does respect really mean in the 21st century? I believe that in this time of increasing volatility and uncertainty, it has new resonance and a deeper meaning: that we can acknowledge and consider the needs of others, without losing sight of our own. In short, as I explain below, it means choosing to take responsibility for our actions and for their consequences, wherever and by whomever they are felt. And if we are to have a stable future, it means doing this now, irrespective of whether or not we are poised for collapse.

As a sceptic I find it particularly hard to read all the predictions of imminent global financial [1] and, possibly, ecological [2] collapse without wanting to question the grounds on which they’re made. After all, if one cliché could be used to sum up our experience to date, it’s that “the future is hard to predict”[3].

But rather than predicting what we might do if the world we know dissolves, I want to explore what we might do regardless of what the future holds. What might the key be to a transition to a better place — personally, socially, politically, ecologically and economically? I believe that the key is respect. Respect is fundamental to survival because it gives us a sense of our place in the world, and when we lose that, we float free of the very network of relationships that sustain us. And since we are not islands, as John Donne so memorably reminded us, free-floating doesn’t work for us: we die. Only by respecting what we are and taking responsibility for how we interact with one another and the world can we hope to manage a collapse or gradual subsidence of society, or even a stable transition to a civilised future.

There is no doubt that today we exist in an uncomfortably and unnecessarily parasitic relationship with one another and, critically, with the natural world. Buying cheap electronic goods at the price of someone else’s childhood is possible only because the children in question live elsewhere, out of sight. Faced with the horror of their daily reality, few of us could stomach the end product, just as few who watched Fast Food Nation [4] found eating McDonald’s thereafter anything other than a queasy experience.

This lack of focused reflection on the basic laws of cause and effect allows us to tolerate the intolerable. It’s like any other behaviour that is damaging to the self. Because we cannot see what is happening to our insides when we eat junk food, binge drink, smoke or snort drugs, we are able to put the impact to one side. And in doing so, we can choose not to reflect on the abusive relationship we’ve created with ourselves; to do so would demand that we take much more responsibility.

So, even though we have the capacity to reflect, we’re able to compartmentalise our thinking because often there’s no immediately visible effect that we have to face as a result of our behaviour. This compartmentalisation means, however, that we can wilfully ignore exploitation and abuse.

What has brought us to this state? I believe that it is our extravagance, which, when combined with willful ignorance, frequently overrides the one ability that, more than any other, has ensured our survival as a species: our ability to think.

This ability to think, including our ability to imagine, analyse and digest, is a highly sophisticated and versatile tool. To maximise this versatility, we need to change the way(s) we think to become more flexible in our responses and gear our skills more towards enhancing our survival than to parasitism or exploitation.

We are capable of broadening our understanding of our place and our responsibilities — we have to if we are to survive — providing we feel positive about the potential impact of any action we take [5]. This demands that we become extravagant in a new way — in our thinking. Integrated thinking that takes into account all systems, animate and inanimate, is essential because it embraces and accommodates the whole complex web of interests in the world.

Some people claim, however, that exploitation is fundamental to the nature of life [6]. I would counter that the ‘nature red in tooth and claw’ view is outmoded as a way of seeing relationships in the biotic community [7]. Frank Ryan’s book Virolution makes clear that even humans and viruses can interact to the benefit of both, albeit in an aggressive symbiosis. And I believe that it is symbiosis, not parasitism, that will enable our species to ride out the consequences of our past and present detrimental acts. In fact, it is far more ‘natural’ for us to be conscious of our attachment to, and responsibilities towards, the world than it is for than it is for us ravenously to consume to the point of fracture and explosion.

More than anything else, it is our ability to empathise, to imagine ourselves in someone else’s position, which has enhanced our survivability as a species. [8] This ability probably evolved from having to spend so long looking after dependent young. We then extended it and found that it worked in groups. We now know that it works in whole nations and even internationally. It works to our benefit. And we must now use it in our approach to nature as a whole.

But could a shift of mindset actually mitigate some of the worst potential effects of our present blindness? I believe strongly that it could. Our relationship with nature to date has been one of attempted domination and control over what has often threatened to annihilate us: “we shall overcome”. We have attempted to submerge the natural beneath a layer of urban dust, to subjugate the “beast” to meet our needs (and wants). The world’s current difficulties — ecological, social and economic — show us that this relationship is no longer useful. Nature, and society at large, is in dire need of our capacity to think critically and to solve problems. And without a crucial shift from this old attitude of ‘we will overcome’ to one of ‘we have to take responsibility’, we face the horror of fragmentation which, when it comes to problem-solving, will leave us high and dry.

To bring about a change of attitude from willful ignorance of exploitation to one of respectful and responsible engagement requires huge courage. Violent panic can come from the fear induced by having to take control of something we haven’t taken control of before. And if fear is allowed to overrun the required transition to a more stable world, we are likely to see scenes of extreme aggression. So we need courage to overcome the fear.

If we survive such conflict, what remains of us? The risk is that the aftermath of this kind of madness and aggression can bring with it a broken mind, one that seeks further avoidance or dies. If we are, as many in this book argue, poised for collapse, or even if what we are witnessing in the world is a slow disintegration, we must understand that our current direction, with our wilful refusal to see what we are doing, can only end in internal disintegrity. Disintegration is not conducive to people pulling together to imagine and create a better relationship, to repairing the damage, to reconstructing society with positive aims in mind. It’s possible that disintegration will create a spiral of destructive behaviours for humans which could repeat itself until either the species wipes itself out, or we learn to open our eyes [9]. This is anti-evolution, and it’s not a direction we can afford to take.

The alternative is that we remain calm. We examine ourselves in the context of what we know: that we are evolved living systems, along with every other organism and biotic system on the planet. And we fit in to that system not at the top, but as one piece in the puzzle.

For respect to mean anything, there must be a rationale on which we can base our attitude. Traditionally, this has involved reference to an external power: we respect our fellows, for example, because they, too, are made in the image of God. I want to suggest that there is a far simpler, more rational argument on which we can base our attitude of respect.

At the heart of this argument is the idea that all evolved living systems have something fundamental in common: certain goals and conditions that can be termed their ‘good’, which they pursue, sometimes consciously, more often inherently. This is what inherent worth is: a ‘good’ pursued. In many cases, the conditions for a life in pursuit of that good are simple: unpolluted water and air, space and a source of energy.

By why respect a ‘good’, especially if it is in conflict with my own? The answer is based on our inherent ability to recognise this qualitative aspect of life, this ‘good.’ The American author and psychiatrist Mark Goulston has argued, convincingly, that humans are physiologically hard-wired to empathise with other human beings, once we see what their experience is. And precisely because we can empathise — because we think, see, understand this common ground — means we have an obligation to acknowledge it. That we are thinking entities, to use Descartes’ phrase [10], thus puts us in a unique position in relation to any knowledge we have: we have the capacity to act on that information consciously, with deliberation. In other words, we understand that we have a choice about any action we take. And that the process of making that choice begins with the idea that, knowing what we do, we owe it to the world to respect it and to respect the systems and people within it. We cannot recognise something and then ignore it. Integrating our knowledge and our actions becomes imperative. We have to act on what we know.

Some would argue that this is not viable. For a start, it’s too time-consuming to consider each individual organism when making a decision about what to do. But this is fear talking — fear, perhaps, of being overwhelmed. We cannot avoid our impact on the world; we have to take responsibility for it, to respond collectively and individually to what we are doing. Respect requires that we think about it, not ignore it or see it as someone else’s problem. Cutting off knowledge is, then, wilful self- and species-destruction.

Very simply, respect, coming from a latinate root, “to look back at,” implies the sweeping of one’s mental eye over something. Respect means we have to look back at what we are and at what we have done, and identify what has worked and what has failed. This doesn’t require profound intellectual talent. It requires only a little thought. And because thinking is what humans do, it is perfectly natural to reflect in this way.

Respect is not neutral. It is, in fact, many things at once: an evaluation and a recognition of the worth of something; an acknowledgment of less-than-perfect knowledge, and a willingness to learn more; self-recognition and acknowledgment, but without prioritisation of the self; realisation of the needs of others, but without prioritising those over the needs of the self; and, finally, and most importantly, because most often neglected, it is an awareness of the needs of the natural community of living organisms, from complex to simple, on the basis that the good of life in them is owed acknowledgment by the good of life in us [11].

And first in line for such acknowledgment is nature itself, which is now at our mercy. We need to respond responsibly, respectfully, if our control of our situation is not to continue to come at the expense of so much of the rest of the living world. This realisation is also an awareness of payback time: our existence as creatures of culture and technology has been at the price of reduced value overall [12]. We owe a debt of restitution to the rest of the living world. But even if we didn’t, we cannot afford to continue to cost this much, for our own sakes, though this is a weaker argument for changing our attitude [13].

Say, however, that we are now facing a situation of hardship, a situation where our ability to maintain an attitude of respect is challenged by, for instance, a failure to meet basic needs like food, and a lack of infrastructure, jobs, money or security. How, under these circumstances, might an attitude of respect prove beneficial?

It is empirically evident that respectful engagement during crises is more effective as a strategy for enabling a successful distribution of goods to survivors, than fear- or profit-driven engagement, providing (and this is important) that the dice are not weighted in favour of profit-driven engagement benefitting more participants, or benefitting them to a degree that outweighs respectful engagement [14]. All other things being equal, respectful engagement allows people to distribute goods equitably, to maintain the natural environment to the common good, to create or maintain a sense of control amongst those involved and to develop resistance to aggressive exploitation by outsiders.

In contrast, engagement that relies on imposition of rules, or on fragmentation, results in lowered immune responses to disease, fragmentation within groups in response to community requirements (less help given to rape victims, for instance), ‘learned helplessness’ and less self-reliance in the context of basic survival responses (less initiative in terms of crop growing or developing community-building projects) and less interest in the environment, resulting in fewer attempts to protect or preserve the ecology or habitats in which human populations subsist.

And so, where are we now? Our current position in Ireland is complex. On the one hand, our debt far outstrips our assets, which has knock-on effects in terms of social and personal respect (drug and alcohol abuse, suicide and depression, marital breakdown and community fragmentation associated with job loss). On the other hand, the ‘learned helplessness’ associated with an overly controlling, institutionally and politically powerful religious community (one that perpretrated sexual, psychological and physical abuse), and the added problems associated with poverty and deprivation, have to a large degree been tackled.

Even traditionally marginalised groups (asylum seekers, travellers) have been more or less accommodated. Unfortunately, the possibility of economic and environmental crisis also threatens the stability of this new-found tolerance. Unfortunately, too, while an overt attempt to address treatment of land and biota has been made through EU-funded programmes (the designation of areas as Special Areas of Conservation, for instance) the covert understanding has remained that, if and when necessary, human interests will always trump those of the natural world. But fragmented thinking like this will not enable us to deal with the problems we face now, or those we might or are likely to face in the future. As I explained above, now is the time for truly integrated thinking, extravagant thinking, which accommodates the whole complex web of interests.

‘You can’t eat the scenery’, one local politician once lectured me. And it’s true: considering all interests is time-consuming. In a collapse situation, it is hard to imagine individuals or even communities thinking beyond their own immediate needs. Yet humans have reacted throughout history to emergencies in a variety of ways, and every time, it is the reactions that involve more forethought, and take a broader view of the situation, which most benefit the individuals involved.

There are many examples in human history that support the contention that living with respect for one’s surroundings, however extreme the conditions, is a survival asset. From the Himalayas to Nazi Germany, from the Andes plane crash described in Alive to the stories of children surviving in refugee camps, living with respect for where one is, who one is with, and what one is, is the most profoundly life-protecting principle one can learn [15].

Respectful engagement thus protects us in times of crisis, but, more importantly, I would argue that it also enhances our chances of survival even when we’re not in crisis. Whether in the personal or the political sphere, the ecological or the economic, relationships can be shattered by disparagement, distrust and fear.

An example of what happens when respect disappears is found in Colin Turnbull’s book The Mountain People [16], in which he reflects (albeit controversially) on the experience of the Ik tribe after their lands were drastically reduced when the government decided to section off part of their former ranging ground as a national park. The result, tragically but inevitably, was that the Ik suffered dreadful privation as a result of this reduction in space. They starved. According to Turnbull, so complete was the fragmentation caused by the move, that individuals displayed no empathy towards one another. Turnbull presented evidence that respect had disappeared entirely by the time he wrote of his own attempts to intervene, and highlighted the derision with which such attempts were met.

Can you learn to respect? There is strong evidence to suggest that, yes, people can. First, they can be taught the rationale behind respect — who to respect, and why — and then they can practice it between one another and the world. It is a cumulative effect; the more people who do it, the more authority it has. This is obviously useful during emergencies. However, even if no emergency occurs, developing such an attitude towards not only other people but also towards the rest of the living world is something worth pursuing for its own sake.

If nothing changed about how our society operated, but we centred ourselves on the notion of respect, we would no longer be able to justify buying cheap clothing from factories that employ children in India, or plastic games made by a labour force of indentured slaves in China. We would fundamentally change our relationship with other countries, our trade agreements, our toleration for war or forced migration. This would not necessarily weaken our economic position. In fact, if we acted strongly on this, the likelihood is that our international reputation would benefit.

If we took seriously the notion of respect for nature, even if nothing else altered, we would put aside land specifically for other creatures’ use, ensure there were migration routes between fields and consider the impact of water use not just on human communities but on all the organisms, fish to foul, bacteria to blue-green algae, for whom water is a ‘good’. We could even consider ‘reparation’ for the abuse of ecosystems and species in the past. Rather than decreasing our yield, however, this alteration in land use could actually increase the output, since a more balanced agriculture will rely on advanced technologies, or none. The exploitative and abusive tools we’ve used will be obsolete.

This would, obviously, dramatically alter our society, even if the economy limped on. It would, of course, dramatically alter the economy too. Would it make us weaker, or more vulnerable to aggressive moves by other societies that did not centre on respect? No. Balancing interests does not mean subsuming our own interests for the interests of others, so self-defence (personal as well as military) would be encouraged, but in balance with other interests rather than to their exclusion. If communities strengthened, our resilience to aggression would increase, not decrease. If our economy operated differently from those of our neighbours, this would not necessarily put us at a disadvantage but might even increase our ability to trade successfully. Respect tends to breed respect.

Now, what of the crash? If the current prevailing attitude which fails to centre on respect does not change and economic and then social breakdown ensues, we face an exponential increase in violence, fear, suspicion, the closing of borders, panic, mental-health problems and environmental degradation [17]. If the predominant attitude is one of fear or contempt, there will be huge obstacles to overcome. And if we pay only lip service to the idea of respect and how it might be disseminated, there will be little incentive to believe in ‘good’ as common ground. Bringing respect to the fore will require extraordinary extravagance of thought, which will, in turn, require bravery and courage.

Better for all, then, to envisage a scenario where respect has taken hold as the prevailing point of view. If we begin to centre our attitudes and actions on respect, then we will be able to focus on what we can do together, for the common good. In such a scenario, what benefits us individually can be balanced with what benefits the wider community and the non-human environment. And while it is hard to imagine a human society that is in perfect harmony with its landscape, it is still possible to imagine a society that has such harmony as an underlying goal, in recognition of the fact that drawing ourselves into a respectful relationship with our environment — people, biota, place — is to our benefit. Such a strategy allows us to survive, even thrive, in better balance than the strategy we have pushed ourselves towards to date: short-term thrill at long-term cost.

The state of the world is potentially perilous but predicting an apocalypse is risky. We could be wrong. However, one thing is certain: we exist in an unsustainable relationship with nature, with one another and, to a large degree, with ourselves. We can argue that this is a time to retreat, or we can do what we do best: increase our sense of responsibility, intervene, act, care. Exploitation will exhaust us and the planet. We need something more regenerative if we are to develop resilience. Respect provides that regeneration. All it takes is the effort to look back.


  1. M. Chossudovsky and A. G. Marshall, The Global Economic Crisis: The Great Depression of the Twenty-First Century, Global Research Press, CA, 2010
  2. J. M. Hollander, The Real Environmental Crisis: Why Poverty Not Affluence is the World’s Number One Enemy, University of California Press, 2003
  3. S. Pilorz, a NASA physicist and personal friend who was involved in cosmological programmes, reflecting on his experience at the cosmological level.
  4. Fast Food Nation, Eric Linklater, Director, 2005
  5. Self-respect and a sense of control are integral to one another. Without a sense of being able to influence the situation, self-respect in regard to that situation is absent. C. Peterson, S. Maier, M. Seligman, Learned Helplessness: a theory for the age of personal control, Oxford University Press, 1995.
  6. Exploitation is fundamental to the nature of life: this notion comes to us from Darwin and even before, when the understanding of natural selection as the process by which evolution occurred was seen as one purely of competition. In the years since the theory of evolution first became widely known, the mechanisms of evolution have been studied in more depth and it has become increasingly evident that competition for survival is only one element of energy output. Strategies to allow cooperation or, at the very least, some balance between species survival, have become evident as a far more successful and predominant mode of evolution. See Margulis. L, Symbiotic Planet: A New Look at Evolution, Basic Books, 1998.
  7. F. Ryan, Virolution, Harper Collins, 2009.
  8. R. Joyce, The Evolution of Morality, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 2007.
  9. The notion that we repeat destructive patterns of behaviours even though they have brought us no benefits is written about extensively, but one interesting take has been S. Sutherland in Irrationality (Constable & Co., 1992), where he talks of the tendency to ignore or contort evidence and to become entrenched in a position, regardless of what happens next. As a psychologist, he recommends that we practice open-mindedness (tolerance) and acting with kindness towards one another as the only viable antidote to the irrational tendencies that are particularly prevalent in emergencies.
  10. R. Descartes in Meditations 6 proposed ‘res cogitans’, the thinking thing, as a means of our conceiving of our mental processes. While he was undoubtedly mistaken to think of the world as dualistically divided into mind and body, his ideas have been enormously influential in how we see ourselves and our relationship with the world.
  11. For a full discussion of respect for Nature, and in particular, for the idea of ‘good’ as a basis on which to found inherent worth, P. Taylor’s book, Respect for Nature: a theory of environmental ethics, Princeton University Press, 1986, is essential reading.
  12. R. Elliot, Faking Nature: the ethics of environmental restoration, Routledge, 1997, discusses our impact in detail.
  13. Instrumental value is contrasted with inherent value: the former is value only for something else; the latter is the perception of value in something which exists because that thing exists. A hamburger has instrumental value to me if I only need to eat to live. A place has inherent value if it is perceived as worthwhile regardless of what good it can do anyone else.
  14. The Great Famine in Ireland resulted in land-grabbing by some individuals at the cost of their weaker neighbours. Undoubtedly, the fragmentation of the community and the imposition of rules by external forces whose policies were felt to have caused the famine in the first place allowed people to justify illegitimate behaviour in their own lives.
  15. P. Paul Reid, Alive, the story of the Andes survivors, Lippincott, 1974.
  16. C. Turnbull, The Mountain People, Touchstone, 1987
  17. H. Rolston, ‘Why Study Environmental Ethics?’ in Environmental Ethics: the big questions, ed. D. R. Keller, Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.

Featured image: Children’s hands. Author: Eastop. Source: http://www.sxc.hu/browse.phtml?f=view&id=1330423

Re-thinking business structures – how to encourage sustainability through conscious design choices

Patrick Andrews

Business could be the most powerful force in the world in achieving higher levels of sustainability and resilience. Unfortunately, its potential is blocked by laws and by hierarchical structures that mean that shareholders’ interests are put before those of society and the planet. Some firms, however, are adopting new structures that free them to place proper emphasis on social and environmental concerns.

“That government is best which teaches us to govern ourselves”
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Our generation faces a massive challenge. We have to steer human society away from its present destructive path and towards a new era of peace, responsibility, social justice and low carbon emissions. If we are to succeed, we need everyone working together: individuals, communities, governments and, perhaps most of all, businesses. Business has become the greatest power on the planet but can we rely on businesses, and the talented people who work for them, to help?

Frankly, the signs are not good. Big businesses seem to have their own drivers, detached from ordinary life. They are focused above all on wealth maximisation. Saving the planet may be important but it cannot get in the way of short-term profit and long-term growth. As the CEO of oil giant Shell, Peter Voser, explained recently when asked why Shell was cutting back on its investments in renewable energy: “I have a business to run, and the purpose of a business is to achieve returns, to achieve long-term sustainable growth.”[1]

We cannot expect governments to step and in and correct this. Even if we could dream up legislation that would oblige businesses to make environmental considerations their highest priority, it is too much to expect our political system to adopt such a radical measure until there is far greater consensus about the need for urgent action. So, what can be done?

The premise of this chapter is that if we organise business differently we will see different behaviour. My contention is that the structure of most businesses, and particularly of large public corporations, holds back the people in them from acting to address climate change and other social and environmental issues. These structures are a hangover from a bygone age of feudalism and slavery; they are ripe for change. They foster unhealthy relationships amongst participants and uphold a belief system that places financial interests above human and ecological needs.

In this chapter I will examine the way in which business structures influence the development of these unhealthy relationships, and look at the root causes. I will also share some examples of businesses that have already adopted alternative structures, pointing the way to a healthy and more sustainable future. In doing so I hope to encourage us all to re-think the purpose of business in society and to support the development of alternative businesses consciously designed to bring out the best in their people and to serve the entire community of life.

About business

“It is in exchanging the gifts of the earth that you shall find abundance and be satisfied. Yet unless the exchange be in love and kindly justice it will but lead some to greed and others to hunger.” Kahlil Gibran.

Business at its best can be something creative and beautiful — one person or a group of people meeting the needs of other people, for mutual benefit. The hairdresser, the corner shop, the local plumber, all have a significant and meaningful place in the community, as their predecessors have done for hundreds or thousands of years.

What stood out in the 20th century was the emergence and rapid growth of large businesses in the form of corporations, wielding huge power and influence. Such businesses now dominate our airwaves, our high streets and our supermarket shelves. Through their lobbyists they exert a powerful influence over our public policy.

Their list of achievements is impressive. They have helped shape our modern world, achieving miracles in engineering (cars, aeroplanes, high-rise buildings), medicine (vaccines, low-cost drugs such as aspirin), retailing (low-cost food distribution), communications, computing and world trade.

At the same time there is much that these corporations do that is frivolous and, in the worst cases, positively harmful. They profit from the sale of weapons, drugs, tobacco, alcohol and polluting chemicals. They dig up wildernesses in pursuit of minerals and lobby governments to water down environmentally friendly regulations. They pay their staff as little as they can get away with while systematically increasing executive remuneration well above the rate of inflation.[2].

They hop from country to country in search of higher subsidies, lower taxes, lower wages and more relaxed labour and environmental standards.[3] And every now and then they crash spectacularly, leaving society and the planet to pick up the pieces. Think of Enron and WorldCom, Railtrack, the banks recently in Ireland, the US, UK, Switzerland and elsewhere, to name but a few.

To many outsiders, corporations have a disturbing amorality, caring little for what they do so long as it makes money. You might say the corporation is the ultimate cynic — knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing. I have seen all this as an insider. Employed by powerful corporations, I plied my trade as a lawyer for 14 years. I had my generous salary and bonuses, my company car, my business class flights around the world and sojourns in fancy hotels. I enjoyed the lavish Christmas parties, and conferences in sunny places. And, in return, I knuckled down to help these corporations grow and profit.

For a long time I saw nothing wrong with what I was doing. I earned a good living, I liked and admired my colleagues and the work was stimulating and challenging. It didn’t occur to me to question the aims or morals of the businesses where I worked. But at a certain point a personal crisis caused me to wake up and start asking questions. What was the purpose of business, I wondered? The answers I received seemed banal. Business is about “making a profit” or “creating wealth”, or “delivering long-term sustainable growth.” Yet I knew that money can never be an end in itself but merely a means to an end. There had to be something more meaningful.

The only answer that really made sense came from the poet Kahlil Gibran. In The Prophet he wrote: “You work that you may keep pace with the earth and the soul of the earth…. When you work you are a flute through whose heart the whispering of the hours turns to music…. Work is love made visible.”[4]

Work is love made visible. This spoke to my soul in a way that talk of profit and long-term sustainable growth never could. So what was I to make of my role at the time, which was to lead merger and acquisition projects for a multinational retailer? Did helping this behemoth grow have any meaning for me? I realised with increasing dismay that it didn’t. My work had become fundamentally disconnected from my deepest values. I had to leave.

That was the start of a journey of exploration, as I sought to make sense of my experience. I read widely, spoke to lots of people and took on various roles in charities and social enterprises. Slowly a pattern began to emerge from the fog in my head.

We are not free

“Aboriginal man always been free… just Aboriginal. But white man… he was slave one time… maybe he slave himself.” Bill Neidjie

“Non voglio piu servir” (“I no longer want to serve”) Da Ponte[5]

It all starts with individual human beings. Every single action or omission by an organisation ultimately translates into a decision by an individual or group of individuals at some level in that organisation. In order to understand an organisation we need to understand humans.

Our starting point is to understand that we are not free. We feel that we are our own person, free to make our own decisions. Yet we are unconsciously influenced in all sorts of ways from many directions. Our upbringing, our life experiences, what our peers, our family, our parents think or expect, societal norms of behaviour, the physical environment [6], the weather, our physical and mental health, all affect our decisions in subtle ways and to varying degrees.

In organisations we are influenced by the rules, the practices and the culture of the group we belong to, particularly in large organisations or those with a long history. The influence of this institutional framework can be so powerful that the people can change with no effect on the institutional behaviour. This can be seen in the grand old institution of Britain’s parliamentary democracy, where it gets harder and harder to distinguish between one party in power and the next.

Over time, in response to these influences, we adopt habitual patterns of thinking and behaviour, which become part of us, in the way a tall man who continually stoops ends up with a permanent hunch, unless he exercises to correct it. This is what Buddhists refer to as a samskara: a habit of thinking that locks us into patterns of behaviour over which we have less and less control with every succeeding repetition. We don’t react appropriately to a new situation, we react out of habit.

Sometimes these patterns of behaviour are passed down from generation to generation. As Karl Marx put it: “Men make their own history but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.”[7]

One of the common patterns we have inherited is the habit of obedience to authority. Historian Theodor Zeldin observed that we are all descended from slaves [8] and the history of work is rooted in feudalism and slavery. You can see this in language; for example the Russian word for “work” is derived from the word “slave” [9].

The institutional structure of the corporation exploits this tendency. This is not surprising since the structure has been passed down for centuries, as Canadian law professor Joel Bakan points out in his book The Corporation. This structure has been designed to allow capital (the shareholders) to control labour (the managers and staff). And it works. Each day across the planet millions of people come together to offer obeisance at the altar of “shareholder value.”

In a corporation, so-called “shareholder value” is the highest value — higher than basic human values such as honesty, respect, compassion or responsibility. It is the bottom line, the alpha and omega. As Bakan puts it: “in all corporate decision-making, life’s intangible richness and fragility are made invisible by the abstract calculations of cost-benefit analyses.”[10] Did BP really give proper weight to environmental considerations when designing their deep-drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico, the one that failed so dramatically? It seems likely that cost savings had too high a priority.

Prioritising the interests of capital is so embedded in the corporate culture that it is rarely, if ever, questioned by those involved. I never heard a fellow employee challenge those two great pillars of shareholder value, the pursuit of growth and the primacy of profit. But don’t take my word for it. Listen to the words of Roger Carr, Chair of the Board of iconic British chocolate maker Cadbury, which was taken over in early 2010 by the American corporation Kraft after a long, proud history of independence. You might think the board decision to agree to the takeover would be a complex matter, involving consideration of issues such as the effect on staff and the local community. Yet Roger Carr didn’t worry himself with such matters. “I am paid to do a job and that job is to deliver the best value for shareholders,” he told the London Evening Standard [11].

The power that shareholders wield is somewhat mysterious. Why do people serve shareholders at all? After all, it seems quite unnatural for human beings to willingly serve a group of people they have never met, have no connection with and no ability to influence.

Of course shareholders do provide the money, and money has long been associated with power in our society. Those who pay our wages expect to be able to control us. There is also the law. For example, in Britain, section 172 of The Companies Act 2006 requires directors to consider first the interests of shareholders and then of other participants such as staff when making decisions. This was intended to oblige directors to take their responsibilities to stakeholders more seriously. However, the way the law is drafted, shareholders’ interests still prevail, as law professor Andrew Keay has pointed out [12].

There is another factor, operating on a more subtle level, which is the power of capital at the top of the hierarchical order. Shareholders are too remote to interfere with the day-to-day business but they hold a very powerful weapon, the ability to sack the executive, and they don’t have to use this weapon very often to ensure they get what they want. All they need is for executives and employees to be aware that the weapon is there and may be used at some point.

Professor Stephen Lukes of New York University [13] points out that there are different ways in which power is manifested. At the most obvious level there is coercion — using force or threat of force to get what you want. At the opposite end of the spectrum is latent power, power so subtle that people don’t know it is being exercised. As he puts it: “…is it not the supreme exercise of power to get another or others to have the desires you want them to have?” This is the nature of shareholder ownership. Like Big Brother in George Orwell’s book 1984, shareholders do not show themselves in public yet their influence is felt everywhere.

Critics see corporations madly pursuing growth and blame the executives. Yet it is the subtle influence of capital, in the shape of the shareholders, which encourages such a strategy. In this sense, shareholders as a group are just as much responsible for the near-collapse of the Royal Bank of Scotland as the CEO, Sir Fred Goodwin.

In effect we have a “tragedy of the commons” situation [14]. Everyone in the system is behaving rationally in their own self-interest, but the system as a whole is not serving anyone. In this situation it is largely unproductive (although satisfying!) to blame individuals. It is far more useful first to look at how the system affects each individual and then look to change the system.

How the corporate structure affects individuals

The shareholders

“Men should not be ruled by an authority they cannot control.” R.H. Tawney

Shareholders are the owners of the corporation but it is a strange sort of ownership; they have no involvement in or legal responsibility for the actions of the business. Like absentee landlords, they only need to turn up and collect their rent. They are not expected to care about anything other than returns.

You might think that the shareholders, as human beings, would care about the behaviour of the corporation they own, and its social and environmental impact, but they are too distant from the business to know or care.

As humans we care for things we feel a connection to. Something close to us matters more than something far away. We are interested in a flooding 15 miles from our home, not so much in a flood that happens 2,000 miles away.

Small shareholders feel distant from the business and very insignificant in the scheme of a large corporation. Their holding is a tiny fraction of the whole, they are one among tens of thousands, and lack the detailed information to question effectively the full-time executives who run the business. How could they hold these people to account? The only formal chance to express their views is the annual general meeting, which is controlled very tightly by the board.

As for the large institutional investors, they are run by professional fund managers who are very focused on the financial bottom line (they have to be, since their remuneration depends on it). They have no incentive to take a long-term perspective — many of them “churn” their shares regularly, buying and selling in rapid succession to take advantage of temporary rises or falls in prices. Why should they care about the long-term social or environmental record of individual corporations?

Thus investors are discouraged by the system from taking an interest in anything other than returns. A German investor in a British utility provider has no incentive to care how much the company charges or overcharges its customers, so long as he gets dividends and capital growth. It is a question of distance. By contrast, distance does not stop investors caring about money. £1 is the same whichever bank account it is in.

In summary, the role of the shareholder is a remote one, marked by lack of emotional involvement and undue attention on financial returns.

The executives

“I was having a drink with the CEO of one of the largest oil companies in the world and he admitted, “Yes I’m concerned. You are absolutely right. This world is going to pieces.” And then he said, “But, hey, what can I do?” ‘ Ichak Adizes [15]

The senior executives sit at the heart of the corporation. Wielding huge power and carrying huge responsibility, these are our modern-day generals, leading armies of foot soldiers in the brave fight for greater efficiency, lower prices and wealth creation.

Heroes or villains, it is hard to say. In many people’s eyes the executives are the real cause of corporate wrong-doing. Yet before we blame them we need to understand the pressures they are under. For they, too, are not free.

When a CEO sits down to write his list of things to do for the day, it is a long one. Every day he (or she) has to consider the needs and expectations of many people including staff, customers, suppliers and shareholders. At the same time he has to keep an eye out for what the competition are doing whilst ensuring the business complies with the law. He also has his own personal needs and dreams to consider.

At the bottom of his list are some nice-to-haves. These are things that he hopes to get around to but will never be fired for failing to achieve. These include social and environmental matters.

Not surprisingly, few CEOs reach the end of their daily list. They simply don’t have the time or the energy or the thinking space to deal with all these often-conflicting matters. Fortunately for them, they usually don’t have to. Provided they keep shareholders happy, and don’t break the law, they will keep their jobs. No one can hold them to account for failing to serve social or environmental needs, provided they hit their financial targets.

In fact, CEOs have considerable autonomy. Uniquely in the corporate structure, they have no direct supervisor. What’s more, they amass great power through the hierarchy, which concentrates power just as a magnifying glass concentrates light. This is what concerns many people, because the combination of autonomy with power can lead to moral corruption and excess.

Power is intoxicating — it goes to people’s heads. Not to everybody’s, perhaps, but to most ordinary mortals’ heads. They begin to believe that they are wiser, more charismatic and more beautiful than ordinary men or women. They start to listen less and become detached from reality. They surround themselves with people who tell them what they want to hear.

They also, given half a chance, pay themselves and their close colleagues extremely generously. Executives as a group have proved adept over the years at systematically increasing their salaries, bonuses and share options, irrespective of the company’s performance [16].

Looked at from a human perspective, these patterns of behaviour are understandable. As we have seen, the executives are obliged by law and by the corporate structure to put money for shareholders first. Yet the pursuit of money on its own is meaningless; it can never satisfy our highest yearnings as human beings. The need for meaning in our lives is hardwired into our system, as the social observer Dana Zohar has commented [17]. Without meaning or purpose, we lose our bearings and sink to a frivolous pursuit of wealth, power or other distractions.

The staff

“Organisations of all kinds are cluttered with control mechanisms that paralyze employees and leaders alike… We never effectively control people with these systems, but we certainly stop a lot of good work from getting done.”[18]
Margaret Wheatley

Below the senior executives are layers and layers of managers, supervisors and low-level staff, arranged in a rigid hierarchy. A hierarchy is a power structure that lowers some and elevates others in an often arbitrary manner, with the aim of achieving control from above. It is inefficient at distributing information and, as we have seen, leads to excessive power at the top, but the main trouble with hierarchy is its effect on the human spirit.

A hierarchy does not teach employees to accept responsibility for their actions — it encourages them to hand over responsibility to their “superiors.” There is little need to think for themselves; they can simply follow orders and blame the manager when things go wrong. Equally, it can be demoralising for managers since they have the unrewarding task of motivating staff whilst trying to keep their own bosses happy.

Hierarchy could theoretically work well in an ideal world where all the managers were talented leaders with no ego, who lead by example and inspire their staff to give their best, while the staff were self-motivating, enthusiastic and humble. In the real world, however, this is rarely the case. Managers and staff are humans, with human failings, and a hierarchy doesn’t bring the best out of them.

We all like to feel in control of our work; in fact psychologists point out that this is a vital ingredient in mental and emotional health. [19] Being given orders can undermine our self-respect. The result is that in these institutions, staff seek survival routes. Some rebel and eventually leave. Some choose blind conformance, relinquishing responsibility in return for a steady income and a quiet life. Others become cynical, pretending to work while quietly doing as little as possible and passing the hours until it is time to go home. [20]

The net result

If we understand each individual’s position, we can start to explain why corporations systematically subordinate social and environmental interests. It is a natural tendency in humans to care for others and for the environment but these instincts are suppressed by the corporate structure.

Many, including Joel Bakan, think that if we want to improve standards of corporate behaviour, we should increase regulation [21], but regulation is rarely the best long-term solution. Regulators are always playing catch-up since they lack the detailed knowledge of what is really going on.

Far better, to my mind, would be to change the institutional framework to encourage the sort of behaviour we want to see. If organisation is the “mobilisation of bias”, as one social observer suggested [22], let’s change the bias of the corporation. RH Tawney put it best 90 years ago:

It is obvious indeed that no change of system or machinery can avert those causes of social malaise which consist in the egotism, greed or quarrelsomeness of human nature. What it can do is create an environment in which those are not the qualities which are encouraged. It cannot secure that men live up to their principles. What it can do is establish their social order upon principles to which, if they please, they can live up and not down. It cannot control their actions. It can offer them an end on which to fix their minds. And as their minds are so, in the long run and with exceptions, their practical activity will be. [23]

There are two things we need to change. We must make the ownership of corporations more democratic and their governance systems more open and less hierarchical. The good news is there are existing models we can learn from, as I discovered once I left the corporate world.

Alternative approaches

“If you want to build a ship, don’t herd people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” Antoine de St Exupery

In the last 15 years or so we have seen the emergence of a new term, the social enterprise, which I think of as “business with a purpose.” Social entrepreneurs tend to have a sense of mission; they are not simply trying to make money, but using business as a way to achieve something meaningful.

A leading example of a social entrepreneur is the Nobel Prize winner from Bangladesh, Professor Muhammed Yunus. He founded the Grameen Bank, a microcredit provider owned by its customers, and subsequently set up 31 other social enterprises, including a phone company that is now the largest company in Bangladesh.

There is no single legal structure associated with a social enterprise, but very few are owned by external shareholders. Mainly they are owned by “stakeholders”, those directly involved in the business. Many are customer-owned businesses, such as building societies, consumer cooperatives and mutual insurance businesses and some are employee-owned, such as workers’ cooperatives.

One notable group of social enterprises are fair-trade businesses. The whole fair-trade movement can be seen as a reaction to the inherent unfairness of the shareholder-ownership model. Not all fair-trade businesses have adopted a stakeholder-ownership structure [24] but they all share a commitment to serving the interests of their supplier producers and placing them above or at least equal to the interests of investors.

The beauty of stakeholder ownership is that it aligns the interests of the participants, thus encouraging the formation of a genuine community of interest, with a high level of trust and cooperation, an invaluable asset to any business. It also reduces, but does not solve, the governance issues of excessive executive power and staff alienation. We have to look elsewhere for solutions to these issues.

The most compelling solution to excessive executive power is what Australian academic Shann Turnbull describes as a “compound board.” [25] This is where the traditional responsibilities of the board are divided up between several bodies, rather than being concentrated in one. Well-known examples of compound boards can be found in Mondragon, the highly successful Spanish federation of workers’ cooperatives, and in the John Lewis Partnership (see below).

And what can you do about motivating staff and bringing the best out of them? Perhaps the answer can be found in the quote above from St Exupery. You have to inspire people and unite them around a common goal. The most passionate and articulate advocate of this way of organising is Dee Hock, the first CEO of VISA International and the driving force behind its creation. He emphasises clarity of shared purpose as a key organising principle, uniting people in pursuit of something meaningful [26].

Another source of inspiration for me has been the work of Elinor Ostrom. The first woman to win the Nobel Prize for Economics, this US professor studied communities that have successfully managed and maintained common resources, many of them for hundreds of years. These communities serve as a reminder that people are more than capable of sharing fairly the planet’s natural wealth, if we can just organise ourselves properly. [27]

We can then remove the control systems and scrap the hierarchy. This is not unheard of in creative, people-based businesses but it can also work in more traditional manufacturing industries. W. L. Gore, manufacturers of Goretex and other hi-tech products, has been in business since 1958 and has 9,000 staff. It has what it describes as a “team-based, flat lattice organisation that fosters personal initiative. There are no traditional organisational charts, no chains of command, nor predetermined channels of communication.” [28]

Michel Aumont playing Harpagon, the rich money-lender, in Moliere’s play The Miser in a scene from a 1969 production.

Finally I need to mention one of the most radical and exciting organisational developments of the last 20 years, which is the emergence of on-line communities collaborating to produce free software (Linux and Mozilla), free encyclopaedias (Wikipedia) and even a map of the human genome. These adaptable, anti-hierarchical structures hint at the radical possibilities opened up by new communication technology and particularly the internet. [29]

There is a question in my mind. Given that there are options available, and they appear to be successful, why have they not been more widely adopted? Why do people cling to the established corporate model? The answer I believe is in the mindset.

The mindset

The mindset is the fundamental beliefs that lay behind a system. If you want to cause a significant change in a system, according to systems theorist Donella Meadows, the mindset is the highest place you can intervene [30]. We seem to be stuck with an out-of-date mindset. I have identified four key beliefs that lie behind the corporate structure:

An acceptance of domination and subservience.

Our society views it as normal that the powerful dominate the weak. This manifests itself in many ways, in particular through male dominating female, humans exploiting the non-human world, and shareholders ruling over staff and the board.

Some would say the root of this is in the book of Genesis: “And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the Earth.” [31]

Property rights as a superior form of right.

Property rights are treated as superior even to human rights. If you are starving and take an apple from a tree on someone else’s land, you can go to jail (in Saudi Arabia, you might even lose your hand!).

Shares are a form of property, and the ownership rights that come with shares are not counterbalanced by matching responsibilities. Power without responsibility breeds immorality.

Growth is the best measure of success.

In businesses, as in most of our society, there is the unchallenged assumption that growth is the best, indeed the only valid, measure of success. We are obsessed by it and recognise no limits to it. By contrast, once a natural organism attains maturity it stops growing and develops in other ways.

If we are willing to go deeper and look at root causes, we might consider this fixation on growth is rooted in fear of death. By making believe that we can grow forever, we temporarily forget our mortality.

Profit is pursued above all other values.

We have become a society of Shylocks, Scrooges and Harpagons. As EF Schumacher put it “Economically, our wrong living consists primarily in systematically cultivating greed and envy and thus building up a vast array of totally unwarrantable wants.” [32]

Choosing an alternative mindset

An alternative mindset, one that serves us better, might look something like this:

Old mindset

New mindset

An acceptance of domination and subservience.

Equality (but not sameness), balance, dialogue, no-one in control. Giving back to Mother Earth more than we take.

Property rights as a higher form of right.

Human and ecological rights as more important than property rights. Ownership rights balanced with responsibilities.

Growth as the best measure of success.

Growth as one of many measures, and not the most important one.

Profit is pursued above all other values

Profit and wealth as a means to an end, not as ends in themselves.

It may seem too much to hope that a new mindset will emerge in the near future. Yet I see signs that change is coming. For example, there are signs of recognition of ecological rights at the international level. [33] The power structures we have lived with for so long are being shaken. The rich Western countries are saddled with debt, while new powers such as Brazil, China and India are growing in strength and confidence. Many corporate giants of the past are collapsing (investment banks, the American auto majors) and more will follow.

We are near the end of the industrial age and moving into the information age. Information in the form of words or data is being shared at the speed of light and this is having a profoundly disruptive impact on business and society.

The country of Bhutan has shaken off the constraints of GNP and officially adopted the measure of Gross National Happiness (GNH). Even President Sarkozy of France recently suggested that happiness and well-being should be part of a country’s gross national product. [34] Most significantly I feel, change is coming because we are approaching a major global crisis, a combination of the ecological, economic, social and energy crises, and this will precipitate the adoption of new thinking and new approaches. From this new mindset, new structures will emerge.

The way forward

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” Buckminster Fuller

What might these new structures look like? I cannot give you one set recipe; each organisation will need to work out how to make these approaches work in their own particular circumstances. But I can give you four essential ingredients:

  1. The business is owned by those who are involved with or affected by its activities, and the executives are obliged to balance the interests of all involved.
  2. The business has a meaningful purpose, one that inspires and unites all participants.
  3. The business adopts governance systems that strive for balance between two apparent opposites, freedom and accountability.
  4. The participants are prepared to accept the responsibility that freedom brings!

Some inspiring examples

John Lewis Partnership — large-scale employee ownership

The John Lewis Partnership, including the John Lewis department stores and the Waitrose supermarket chain, is very familiar in the UK. In 2009 it was voted by readers of the Consumer Association Which magazine as the best UK retailer.

The purpose of the partnership is the happiness of the staff. The business is structured accordingly; it is owned by a trust on behalf of the staff. The original owner, John Spedan Lewis, started sharing profits with staff in the 1920s and transferred ownership of the business in 1950. Since that time it has thrived and now boasts nearly 70,000 employees in 29 department stores and over 200 food supermarkets.

John Lewis is owned on behalf of, but not controlled by, the employees. In fact, no-one is really in control; control is shared amongst employees and management. Half the board are appointed by the Partners’ Council, a representative body elected by staff. The other half are appointed by the Chair, who presides over the meeting. The Chair is powerful, but ultimately he can be dismissed by the Partners’ Council.

Two more key elements to the governance structure are the registrars, a type of ombudsman responsible for ensuring that the partnership remains true to its principles, and the in-house newsletter, produced by staff for staff to allow free flow of information within the organisation. Thus, as Australian academic Shann Turnbull has pointed out [35], the John Lewis structure has the four elements of a democracy: executive, legislature, judiciary and free press.

John Lewis is intriguing because it is a rare example of a large-scale employee-owned business. Employee ownership is not uncommon at a small scale (up to around 50 staff), but when such businesses try to grow beyond that size, the complexity increases significantly. With so many owners, the management can get tied down in too much explaining or politicking. Just imagine a democracy where every decision is made by referendum! It appears that John Lewis, by adopting a relatively sophisticated structure that balances control amongst the board and the staff, has found a way to avoid the problems of simple democracy where one person equals one vote. As a consequence the business has grown and prospered.

OBI and Media Markt — local autonomy

OBI and Media Markt are two German retailers, leaders in their fields (respectively home improvement and electrical goods). Both have thrived in what is reckoned by many to be the toughest, most competitive retail market in Europe. They are each very different but they share a belief in the power of local autonomy. Most large retailers retain tight, centralised control of how their stores are run. They have a powerful head office that decides strategy, locates new stores, determines store layout and negotiates with suppliers.

OBI and Media Markt, by contrast, entrust the stores and their local managers with considerable responsibility. At OBI, for example, it is the store manager who decides the range of goods the stores will sell. Rather than a “head office,” OBI has a central service centre that supports the stores by delivering a range of services on request.

The principle of local autonomy extends to store ownership. OBI has a mixed franchise model — some stores are owned 100% by OBI, some by local franchisees and others are joint ventures, part owned by OBI and partly by locals. Media Markt gives each store manager a 10% ownership stake in his or her store.

These two retailers represent another example of a healthy balance of power, in this case between the centre and the stores. The centre has the high-level strategic view, gathering information from across the network of stores, sharing best practice and helping to co-ordinate activity. The stores have sufficient freedom to ensure that they respond to the particular needs of their customers, and they hold the centre to account whenever it fails to deliver a good-quality service.

The Forest Stewardship Council — stakeholder ownership in a not-for-profit

The FSC is the world’s leading timber certification body. It is a not-for-profit business, reinvesting its profits rather than distributing them. The FSC ownership concept is based on the triple bottom line of economic, social and environmental. Its members are divided into three “chambers”: in the economic chamber there are retailers, wholesalers and plantation owners; in the social chamber there are trade unions and indigenous peoples groups; and in the environmental chamber there are NGOs like WWF and Friends of the Earth.

There is a similar structure at board level. The board has nine members, three appointed from each chamber, and no decision can be passed at the board unless a majority of each chamber approves it (this ensures consensus but prevents any one person blocking a decision).

The FSC has been very successful — it now certifies more than 13% of the world’s managed timber, and has seen off a number of commercial competitors. The former CEO of the FSC, Heiko Liedeker, accredits this success in large part to the ownership structure. As he points out, the FSC is the only timber certification body endorsed by Greenpeace and other NGOs; it thus has legitimacy, a priceless marketing asset that commercial certification bodies can’t compete with. As Liedeker commented to me once: “If a commercial organisation were structured this way, it would be unbeatable”.

There are certainly challenges with this structure. In particular the board, who lead the business, is composed mainly of amateurs rather than professional business people. According to Liedeker, this means they don’t always appreciate the commercial necessities of running a business and need to learn a lot before they can usefully contribute. Board meetings last three days and need a lot of facilitation.

Its main strength is that by embedding the triple bottom line into the structure, it forces those who usually oppose each other, such as retailers and NGOs, to sit around a table and thrash things out. As with the other companies described here, there is a healthy balance of power, from which well-thought-out decisions emerge.

Riversimple — a shared-ownership model

The last business I want to describe is still at an early stage in its development, and its structure is relatively untested. However, there are reasons to believe it represents a new paradigm, where stakeholder ownership is truly embedded in the business. Riversimple is a revolutionary transport business, which is developing a highly efficient hydrogen-fuel-cell-powered electric vehicle. Its purpose is to build and operate cars for independent use whilst systematically pursuing elimination of the environmental damage caused by personal transport.

Riversimple’s technology demonstrator June 2009

Riversimple began life in 1999 as a gleam in the eye of Hugo Spowers, an Oxford-trained engineer and former racing driver. A committed environmentalist, he quit the motorsport world in 1997 when he became convinced that the internal combustion engine would have to be replaced with something more benign. He decided he would have nothing more to do with cars! However, he was introduced to the work of US physicist Amory Lovins, who had conceived of a lightweight electric vehicle powered by a hydrogen fuel cell. Spowers decided to take on the challenge of developing this concept, pursuing his vision of truly sustainable transport.

The first milestone came when he successfully led a research project, in collaboration with Morgan Cars, Oxford University, Cranfield University, BOC and others, and part funded by the UK Department of Trade and Industry, to create an energy-efficient sports car. Known as the LIFECar, the vehicle drew much attention when shown at the Geneva Motor show in 2008.

In 2007, Hugo and a team of collaborators formed Riversimple LLP, with funding from the family of Ernst Piech, part of the Porsche dynasty, who have committed nearly £2m to the project to date. The funding was used to develop the strategy and build a demonstrator vehicle which was unveiled to the public at London’s Somerset House in 2009. The vehicle is a two-seat local car powered by hydrogen, with the following characteristics:

range on 1 kg tank of hydrogen

240 miles

top speed

50 mph

fuel consumption

300 mpg (energy equivalent)

carbon emissions

31 g CO2/km

As this book goes to press, Riversimple is in the middle of a round of capital raising, aiming to raise £25m to go to the next stage, which is further development of the vehicle, and pilot projects in the UK cities in 2012, leading to vehicle production in 2013.

When looking at the corporate structure, Spowers took the same approach as he did to the car design, starting with a blank piece of paper. The aim was to harness the goodwill and support of the various stakeholders in the business. The challenge was how to do this while attracting and retain capital. The structure that Riversimple devised looks like this:

There are three particular features I want to point out. Firstly, the business is owned by six “custodians” who serve and protect the various benefit streams that the business is aiming to deliver to the environment, investors, staff, users/customers, commercial partners (e.g. suppliers) and neighbours (e.g. local government). The board is instructed to strive to deliver multiple benefits, serving the community as a whole, not any one group.

Secondly, the intention is that profits will be distributed amongst all stakeholders. Of course investors will receive the lion’s share, since this is their primary interest in the business. But since the business is a creation of all stakeholders, it is right that all should share in the financial rewards.

The other notable feature is the stewards’ council, which has a function rather like the Registrar in John Lewis partnership. This function is really important for holding the board to account and encouraging high standards of decision-making. The theoretical justification for the stewards’ role can be found in the famous experiments by Stanley Milgram at Yale University in the 1960s [36]. Milgram conducted tests on students and members of the public, asking them to give electric shocks to a volunteer (in fact it was an actor, and no shocks were actually given). The results showed that the average person, when ordered to by an authority figure, would inflict a surprising amount of pain on another. Milgram found that people were far less likely to obey orders automatically if there was someone else present in the room putting the case against —a rival authority figure. In Riversimple’s structure, this is the role played by the stewards.

This structure is very new so there is not much else to say, except that those involved in devising it are convinced that it matches the purpose of the business and provides a solid basis for future success.

But are they more sustainable?

Are these businesses more ethical, more caring, more kind to the planet than their shareholder-owned competitors? I can’t pretend to have done any rigorous analysis. To my eyes, compared to their peers, the John Lewis partnership food stores put more focus on quality and customer service and less focus on pushing cheap food to cash-strapped consumers at any price. They play less with prices and use fewer gimmicks. Rightly or wrongly, I trust them more.

I am not a regular customer of OBI or Media Markt. What can be said is that these businesses have proved successful over the long term and long-term success is a fairly reliable indicator of a business that finds a balance between its various stakeholders. As for the Forest Stewardship Council, it is the only timber certification body supported by WWF and Greenpeace, which speaks for itself.

These businesses succeed because, fundamentally, they acknowledge that to thrive they need to get the best from the people involved. They empower their staff, and they stretch their organisational boundaries to encompass those who are normally considered to be outside, such as customers and suppliers. They make them all feel like owners, whatever level they work at. The result is that the people show a greater sense of commitment, stewardship, compassion and joy in their work, and the business thrives as a consequence, as does the community as a whole.

Treat your customers like friends and they will return and recommend you. Treat your suppliers like partners and they will work harder to deliver a better service. Treat your staff like collaborators, rather than “human resources”, and you’ll see the difference. Brad Bird, director of the blockbuster cartoon films “The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille” for Pixar, explained it this way: “In my experience, the thing that has the most significant impact on a movie’s budget…is morale. If you have low morale, for every $1 you spend you get about 25 cents of value. If you have high morale, for every $1 you spend you get about $3 of value.” [37]


“We are the ones we have been waiting for.” Thomas Banyacya Sr, Elder of the Hopi Nation

Ultimately it is up to each of us. We can choose to see ourselves in our daily lives as powerless, subject to the whims of politicians and corporate leaders and awaiting our fate with trepidation. Alternatively, we can choose to see ourselves as free, powerful, self-regulating, autonomous and creative individuals with a role to play in the birth of a new age of responsible business. Individuals who “resist more, and obey less.” [38] as Walt Whitman urged. If we do this, we free ourselves to make better, more conscious choices about the type of organisations we buy from, work with, participate in, create and own. The result will be businesses that demonstrate the best that humans are capable of. I can’t wait.


  1. See www.shell.com/home/content/aboutshell/swol/2010/pv_jan_2010/
  2. Thomas Clarke, in his recent paper “A Critique of the Anglo American model of Corporate Governance” (2009), pointed out that in the 1980s the average CEO in a publicly traded company in the US earned 42 times what the average worker earned. In 2002 this had risen to 400 times. As William McDonough, President of the New York Federal Reserve Board, said in 2002: “I can assure you that we CEOs of today are not 10 times better than those of 20 years ago.”
  3. For examples of this behaviour pattern, see No Logo by Naomi Klein (2000). Published by Flamingo.
  4. Kahlil Gibran (1926) The Prophet.
  5. Words sung by Leporello, the servant to Don Giovanni, at the beginning of Mozart’s Don Giovanni opera. First perfomed 1787.
  6. Architect Christopher Alexander wrote a trilogy of illuminating books discussing the influence of physical space on human activity. These are The Timeless Way of Building (1980), A Pattern Language (1978) and The Oregon Experiment (1978). Published by Oxford University Press.
  7. Karl Marx and Freidrich Engels “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,” in Marx and Engels Selected Works 1962, vol 1:247.
  8. Theodor Zeldin (1994) An Intimate History of Humanity. Sinclair-Stevenson.
  9. The Russian word for work is “rabota” and the word for slave “rab”.
  10. Joel Bakan (2004) The Corporation, Constable and Robinson. p65.
  11. Quote from London Evening Standard, 25th November 2009.
  12. “Moving towards stakeholderism? Constituency statutes, enlightened shareholder value, and all that: much ado about little?” Andrew Keay, available for download at http://hq.ssrn.com/Journals/RedirectClick.cfmurl=http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1530990&partid=503514&did=61040&eid=82567606.
  13. In Power (second edition 2005), Professor Stephen Lukes suggests that power manifests itself in three ways: (i) decision-making and behaviour; (ii) non-decision making, a refusal to countenance discussion of certain matters; and (iii) our very wants are influenced and shaped by the influencing force. It is this third type of power, which is tremendously subtle and all the more powerful as a result, that is exerted by shareholders.
  14. In a now famous article in 1968 published in the journal Science, Garrett Hardin described a situation in which multiple individuals, acting independently and rationally consulting their own self-interest, ultimately deplete a shared resource even though it serves no-one’s interest for this to happen. He called this dilemma “the tragedy of the commons”.
  15. Ichak Adizes, founder of the Adizes Institute, quoted in the magazine What is Enlightenment? March 2005.
  16. According to The Guardian newspaper survey of executive pay, salaries amongst corporate executives rose by 10% in 2009 in a time of world recession and fall in share prices. See http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2009/sep/14/executive-pay-keeps-rising
  17. Danah Zohar and Ian Marshall (1994) The Quantum Society. William Morrow and Co. Chapter 11.
  18. From Goodbye, Command and Control (1997) by Margaret Wheatley. Available for download at www.margaretwheatley.com/articles/goodbyecommand.html.
  19. For example see R. Karasek (1979) “Job demands, job decision latitude, and mental strain: implications for job redesign.” Published in Administrative Science Quarterly, 24, 285-308.
  20. This is the approach recommended by Corinne Maier, an economist at state-owned Electricité de France, in her bestselling book Bonjour paresse (Hello Laziness) (2004) sub-titled, “The Art and the Importance of Doing the Least Possible in the Workplace”.
  21. See The Corporation (cited above), chapter 6.
  22. Elmer E. Schattschneider (1960) The Semi-Sovereign People: A Realist’s View of Democracy in America. Holt, Rinehart and Winston. P71
  23. R.H. Tawney (1921) The Acquisitive Society. G. Bell And Sons.
  24. Those that have adopted such a structure include Cafedirect, Liberation and Divine Chocolate.
  25. Shann Turnbull (2002) “A New Way to Govern: Organisations and Society After Enron”. Available at http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=319867
  26. Dee Hock (1999) The Birth of the Chaordic Age. Berret-Koehler Publishers Inc.
  27. Elinor Ostrom (1990) Governing the Commons. Cambridge Univ Press. For her work in this field, she received the 2009 Nobel Prize for Economics.
  28. http://www.gore.com/en_xx/aboutus/culture/index.html
  29. For a thorough analysis of the potential for new technologies to transform our society, see The Wealth of Networks (2006) by Yochai Benckler, available for download at http://www.benkler.org.
  30. Donella Meadows (1999) Places to intervene in a system. The Sustainability Institute. Available from: http://www.sustainer.org/?page_id=106
  31. The Bible, King James edition. Genesis 1:26.
  32. E.F. Schumacher (1974) Small is Beautiful. Abacus edition published by Sphere Books. p30.
  33. See www.treeshaverightstoo.com for more information.
  34. See www.guardian.co.uk/business/2009/sep/20/economics-wealth-gdp-happiness
  35. See “A New Way to Govern” cited at 25 above.
  36. Described at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milgram_experiment
  37. Quoted in an interview in the McKinsey quarterly, April 2008, see http://www.mckinseyquarterly.com/innovation_lessons_from_pixar_an_interview_with_oscar-winning_director_brad_bird_212
  38. Walt Whitman (2001) Leaves of Grass. Random House. First published in 1855.

Influencing high-level, strategic decision-making towards a sustainable, low-carbon economy

Julian Darley

Decision-making at a global level is governed by both economic and non-economic factors. If the new systems required to deal with climate change effectively are to be introduced, and a sustainable, low-carbon economy established, more knowledge of the non-economic factors will be required.

The world has changed a lot since 2008. America now has a president who is deeply concerned about climate change, the environment and renewable energy. China is showing much greater awareness of these issues and so are many smaller economies. The world economy is going through an extraordinary phase of contraction which, while both alarming and destructive, is also generating new and unexpected opportunities for change.

Across the world many thinkers are working on economic, social and policy frameworks designed to address carbon emissions, fuel insecurity and a host of environmental problems. These problems of sustainability are being confronted by scholars in an ever greater range of disciplines and analytical streams, from many of the physical sciences through to the social sciences of risk, organisational theory, decision science, behavioural economics, ecological economics, econophysics, game theory, choice theory, management science, leadership research, sociology, anthropology, social psychology, evolutionary psychology, cognitive neuroscience, cultural research, and political science. Research approaches include both quantitative and qualitative techniques, scenario building, modelling, systems analysis, and increasingly frequently, combinations of different techniques and disciplines.

On this reading, the world should therefore be well on the way to a sustainable low-carbon economy. In reality, many of the government policies and industrial strategies being discussed and developed, no matter how well backed up by economic, physical and social evidence, remain calls and exhortations rather than action. They are all too rarely turned into government mandates and business plans. There are exceptions to be sure, but these still tend to be isolated, and we won’t know for some time whether the economic crisis will stall these efforts.

Increasingly there is a palpable sense of frustration in some corridors of power. We know at least some of the measures we should take, but at every level, from the individual to the institutional, we see that the right action is not taking place, either at the scale or speed that is needed. Often we are still going in the wrong direction, and even when we are not, as the International Energy Agency points out, we must consider non-economic barriers concurrently with more conventional economic factors [6].

Getting ‘there’ from ‘here’

The question that comes through powerfully from these considerations is how do we get ‘there’ from ‘here’? In other words, what are the obstacles to developing a sustainable, low-carbon economy and what are the conditions that could enable such an economy?

Unless we actively and deliberately discover how to remove the obstacles and create the enabling conditions, we risk a continuation of decades of difficulties that policy researchers and sustainable business strategists have had in seeing good ideas turned into action. Civil society finds similar frustrations. Over a number of years, many people have witnessed the burnout that so often happens when good intentions at the citizen level are carried out largely in isolation from government and business.

Closing the ‘sustainability gap’

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that without high-level action, vital civil society efforts will continue to be stranded. It is arguable that the efficacious, long-term involvement of citizen and consumer may in reality depend, however ironically, on ‘sustainable’ high-level decision-making. There is of course a reciprocity in the sense that high-level decision-making is not sustainable in any sense without the active agreement and participation of civil society.

Even as civil society has tended to have an uneasy relationship with power (be it corporate or political), so business is often not sure of what government is going to do, on the one hand, and on the other, government has tended to reduce its policy levers to market mechanisms, correlating with, though not necessarily caused by, the rise of public choice.

There are now many reasons why the relationship between those primarily engaged in supply-chain decision-making (business) and those primarily engaged in setting the direction of society (government) need to develop a different and more reflexive relationship—one that can begin to close the ‘sustainability gap’ [1]. That already complex relationship will also need to engage and keep civil society involved. The rising new tools of social media (particularly instant broadcast platforms such as Twitter) seem set to play a new and fascinating role in future relationships and engagement between the different sectors of society.


Even if government, business and civil society do engage with each other in ways that we have not often witnessed yet, there are important questions about the potential to create a sustainable economy within a democracy. Although there are clearly special difficulties for democracies in addressing energy security and climate change, the problematic can be framed in the positive light of the dynamic possibilities of ‘path creation’. 

More specifically, on the one hand, in democratic systems, there is bound to be competition at every level, meaning that ‘pure strategies’, such as green blueprints, tend not to fare well. On the other hand, dynamic strategies, which feature continual adjustment and frequent decision-making, are likely to be essential in a sustainable economy and will likely be much easier to foster in a democracy than in other political systems, which tend to discourage citizen innovation and be more centralised.

Innovation will be vital—and challenging—in terms of sustainable decision-making, most likely at every level. There is far more literature on business innovation than either political or civil society innovation – it is possible that the latter could learn from the former. How different kinds of innovation are perceived by high-level decision-makers and wider society will become an important factor in how different groups engage, accept or reject sustainable policies.

Against the hope of dynamic strategies there will be opposition from actors who prefer the status quo and there will be manifestations of path dependency and ‘lock-in’. Since surely we all have an interest in discovering what can influence decision-making towards sustainability (not just what is blocking it), it will be important to investigate attitudes to and possibilities of path creation, which is an emerging positive response to policy-technology ‘lock-in’ [9].

This leads to another key question: what influences or can influence high-level decision-makers towards a sustainable, low-carbon economy? This question focuses attention on key decision-makers in the economy, such as those running fossil-fuel and renewable-energy companies, and politicians in departments dealing with energy and climate.

The Feed-in Tariff lens

To say anything usefully specific about the question of influence, however, one must the narrow the scope. For this essay, consideration will be given to national experiences with the Feed-in Tariff (FIT). FIT is a ‘policy mechanism designed to encourage the adoption of renewable energy sources and to help accelerate the move toward grid parity’ [13]. Generally, looking at FIT adoption allows some exploration of certain vital parameters (in particular risk) and the drawing of some larger conclusions about society, sustainability and decision-making. Here, and in brief, using the FIT lens, I shall focus on some interesting factors in decision-making and make some tentative observations based on or drawn from existing literature.

Proponents of FIT claim that it has been dramatically successful, and many nations that have adopted it have higher penetrations of solar renewable energy generation than those that haven’t [10]. However, this is not the issue of most help in understanding and developing decision-making for sustainability; the real question is: why is a new and important policy, such as FIT, so much easier to introduce in some nations than in others?

Furthermore, using FIT as a case study can offer the possibility of including, in greater or lesser detail, some of the most intractable decisions now before us, including how we can shift from an economy dominated by an oil-based transport system to a renewable electricity-based system.  

FIT also encourages the study of the cultural dimensions that may be some of the most significant non-economic factors influencing high-level decision-making. For instance, Hofstede [5] alludes to the possibility that nations with a high MAS (Masculinity) Index combined with high levels of individuality find collective decisions for the common good very challenging. This may be in part because liberal economics is built on privileging means over ends. Certainly, in most of the Anglophone world, despite early beginnings in California, FIT has not (yet) been adopted and implemented. This may be changing; for instance, the Department of Energy and Climate Change in the UK announced in October 2008 that it will bring in FIT. However, it will remain the case that nations like Germany are far in advance of Britain and the USA in developing a renewable-energy industry, and understanding why this is so could shed light on better decision-making in future.

Path dependency

I mentioned path dependency. This can be split into physical and policy path dependencies. An example of a physical path dependency is that of the conventional power industry, which has built an enormous physical infrastructure, including the transmission grid with its associated control systems and power generation units, which until the advent of wind power have usually been very large centralised objects. FIT is an example of a policy path dependency, though one imagines it could in extremis be revoked (if there were a war or some other cataclysm). Nevertheless, for practical purposes a 20-year legally binding FIT is an example of a path that cannot easily be changed and is going to enable or disable many other major decisions. There are many other vital but occluded factors in current decision-making, including historical, business and geographical factors, which may also create path dependence.

Path dependence can shed light on complex interlocking mechanisms. Two quite different examples are Prohibition in the US and the advent of collateralised mortgage obligations. Both developments have had extraordinary unintended consequences, from the growth of the Mafia to the recent financial crisis. Though not as dramatic, the development of a certain type and layout of power grid can of course have short- to medium-term benefits, but in the long run, if the grid is not flexible, as conditions change, a nation may be left with problems not dissimilar in scale to the two rather unfortunate examples just mentioned.

FIT is also an example of the kind of long-range policy making that is surely to be considered vital in combating climate change [3]. Thinking long term is also clearly indispensable for national and international energy policy, and FIT may be an example of how energy policy, as opposed to climate change policy, could be an easier pathway to the twin goals of energy security and carbon reduction.  

FIT is not only a significant long-term policy with energy and climate implications, but it may also shed light on other long-term strategic policy-business problematics with inter-national dimensions, such as cultural dimensions. Germany, for instance, has some measurable cultural similarities with the US and UK, but also some major differences, along with major differences in terms of their economic systems.

Cultural dimensions are important for any long-term policy designed to combat climate change and enhance energy security. FIT is therefore a good example to examine, since it requires government to create the long-term conditions that then allow business to create the supply chain in reality. But government can create these conditions only if the public participates and accepts higher power charges, and by implication is willing to balance long-term benefit against short-term cost. Any future study on this issue would also have to consider FIT in different economies and cultures, as this offers the possibility of examining different long-term reflexive government-business relationships, with the public’s attitude measurable both at the ballot box and by survey. We already know that some nations are much more willing to think long term than others; the question that needs to be answered in detail for different nations is why and what, if anything, can be done about it. This is one of the key questions for future research.


FIT does not present an issue of dramatic, sudden or catastrophic risk, the kind that, in some ways, humans find easier to comprehend. It is not the sort of policy that is likely to elicit great fear even though it may be disliked by some with certain economic or other beliefs.  FIT may be compared with nuclear power, which certainly evokes strong emotions and offers a much larger risk profile. Nuclear power is slated to undergo a major renaissance. It would be interesting indeed to explore a scenario in which nearby residents were offered a nuclear power station versus a wind farm. With nuclear power now very much part of the debate on climate change and energy security, such a comparison is no longer of merely academic interest.


Although specific research on how to create the conditions for and actually influence high-level, strategic decision-making for a low-carbon economy remains to be undertaken, some provocative conclusions can be drawn now in addition to the suggestions already made. 

The key contention here is that there may be some non-economic factors which are more important than economic factors in strategic decision-making. If so, far more attention should be paid to non-economic factors than appears to be the case at the moment. A summary of these factors follows.

Path dependency and lock-in often severely constrain what a government or business can do to make major or sudden change in policy or product. It is true that Roosevelt famously switched the US auto industry from cars to planes and tanks practically overnight, but that was in the face of the type of threat that homo sapiens knows how to deal with — an external attack. Whether President Obama will be able to do something similar — for instance turning Detroit into a hub of wind turbine manufacture and electric car production — remains to be seen and, given the difficulties he faces, looks unlikely. If major change is to become feasible or acceptable to decision-makers and/or the public, either climate change or energy security will have to seem far greater threats than they do now.

There are a number of often interlocking cultural factors that make long-term decision-making for a distant benefit difficult, such as, societies that

  1. favour the individual over the collective;
  2. attenuate the idea of the common good;
  3. stress means over ends, in effect being unwilling to discuss the good whether it be common or personal;
  4. stress competition as a very high virtue;
  5. promote aggression as an acceptable way to solve problems and an aggressive attitude as a preferred modus operandi.

Attitudes to risk, innovation, entrepreneurialism, fairness, justice and economic polarisation also have a vital effect in enabling or disabling strategic and long-term decision-making. The level of democratic participation and engagement may play a significant role in many ways, including in the ability of policymakers to deploy policies known to be effective but only if the public is engaged at a very granular level, such as by direct personal contact with someone representing a government agency operating a particular policy.

Increasingly, it appears that much will depend on human psychology, at the individual, group and societal levels. Nowhere is this more true, perhaps, than in the matter of leadership, which is closely related to decision making. New work on leadership, informed by recent advances in the understanding of how evolution has shaped human and primate psychology, may offer powerful tools in comprehending why good decision-making is so hard to do and so hard to enact [12]. It is emerging that there are core contradictions between the kinds of leadership that we have evolved to accept (and are able to offer) and the conditions of work and decision-making we have created in late industrial society.

We evolved in quite flat, small societies where leadership was often distributed according to performance: the best hunter led hunting, an elder would administer justice and peacemaking, and so on. There should be no illusion that this was utopia; conflicts, often leading to homicide, abounded. It is only to say that we found evolutionary advantage with a very different kind of leadership from the kinds we are now usually faced with. There are several further factors compounding our difficulties with modern leadership—and by implication decision-making—including, ironically, that leadership by prestige (akin to leadership by performance), which can be a more acceptable leadership mode, may find itself in competition with and overwhelmed by leadership by dominance, or aggression, to put it more crudely.

These leadership contradictions appear to be so legion that it is not clear that it will be possible to implement many strategic decisions for sustainability without understanding these factors and putting in place some measures to ameliorate the more difficult conditions. The same can be said for the kinds of cultural factors mentioned here. They too could doom efforts to create a sustainable economy, though it is possible that cultural factors may be more malleable, at least in theory, than evolutionary factors, such as our propensity for certain kinds of leadership and our concomitant willingness to follow or not.

It may seem daunting that not only do we face the prospect that much of the low-carbon, physical infrastructure of the 21st century will need to be different from that of the high-carbon 20th century, but also that we will need to make major societal and cultural adjustments. Approached in the right way, however, these challenges could become opportunities to develop conditions to which human beings are better adapted and in which they might actually flourish and be happier. Right now, this may not seem the most likely path, and clearly some pathways are locked in, at least for the moment. But there are new pathways opening up, and sometimes the demise or contraction of a system (such as the conventional car industry) can allow something much better to be developed to replace it. Armed with careful research and appropriately prepared, we could influence decision-making in meaningful ways that effect meaningful change. That is something devoutly to be desired and clearly possible – if not yet obviously probable.


  1. Ekins, Paul (2000) Economic Growth and Environmental Sustainability: The Prospects for Green Growth. London: Routledge.
  2. Ekins, Paul, Sandrine Simon, Lisa Deutsch, Carl Folke, and Rudolf De Groote (2003) “A framework for the practical application of the concepts of critical natural capital and strong sustainability.” Ecological Economics Volume 44, Issues 2-3, March 2003.
  3. Giddens, Anthony (2009) The Politics of Climate Change. London: Polity.
  4. Heap, Shaun Hargreaves, M Hollis, B Lyons, R Sugden, A Weale (1992) The theory of choice: a critical guide. Oxford: Blackwell.
  5. Hofstede, Geert (2001) Culture’s consequences: Comparing values, behaviors, institutions and organizations across nations. London: Sage.
  6. Frankl, Paolo (2008) Deploying Renewables: Lessons learnt from IEA RE Policy Analysis. Paris: IEA REMAP Conference. 16 December 2008.
  7. Jackson, Tim (2005) Motivating Sustainable Consumption: a review of the evidence on consumer behaviour and behavioural change. London: Policy Studies Institute.
  8. Jackson, Tim (2009) Prosperity Without Growth. London: Sustainable Development Commission.
  9. Stack, Martin & Myles P. Gartland (2003) “Path Creation, Path Dependency, and Alternative Theories of the Firm.” Journal of Economic Issues Vol. XXXVII No. 2, June 2003.
  10. Mendonca, Miguel (2007) Feed-in Tariffs: Accelerating the Deployment of Renewable Energy London: Earthscan.
  11. Stern, Nicholas (2008) The Economics of Climate Change. American Economic Review: Papers & Proceedings.
  12. Van Vugt, Mark, Robert Hogan and Robert Kaiser (2008) “Leadership, Followership, and Evolution: Some Lessons From the Past” American Psychologist April 2008.
  13. Grid parity, is ‘the point at which alternative means of generating electricity is equal in cost,
    or cheaper than grid power’.
    – Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feed_in_tariff (accessed 2 September, 2010.

Featured image: More questions. Author: Chris Baker. Source: http://www.sxc.hu/browse.phtml?f=view&id=1238452

Calculating the Energy Internal Rate of Return

Tom Konrad

With a constant technology mix, EROI (Energy Return on Investment) is the most important number because you will always be making new energy investments as old investments outlive their useful lives and are decommissioned.  However, in a period of transition such as the one we are entering, we need a quick return on our energy investments in order to maintain our society.  We have to have energy to invest; we can’t simply charge it to our energy credit card and repay it later.  That means that if we’re going to keep the non-energy economy going while we make the transition, we can’t put too much energy today into the long-lived energy investments we’ll use tomorrow.

To give a clearer picture of how timing of energy flows interacts with EROI, I will borrow the Internal Rate of Return (IRR) concept from finance.  IRRs compare different investments with radically different cash-flow timings by assigning each a rate of return that could produce those cash flows if the money invested were compounded continuously. Except in special circumstances involving complex or radically different sized cash flows, an investor will prefer an investment with a higher IRR.

To convert an EROI into an Energy Internal Rate of Return, EIRR, we need to know the lifetime of the installation and what percentage of the energy cost is fuel, compared to the percentage of the energy embodied in the plant. The chart above shows my preliminary calculations for EIRR, along with the plant lifetimes I used, and the EROI shows as the size of each bubble. 

The most valuable energy resources are those with large bubbles (High EROI) at the top of the chart (High EIRR).  Because of the low EIRR of photovoltaic, nuclear and hydropower, emphasizing these technologies in the early stage of the transition away from fossil fuels is likely to lead to a scenario in which we don’t have enough surplus energy, to both make the transition without massive disruption to the rest of the economy. Jeff Vail, the author of The Theory of Power (See www.jeffvail.net) refers to this front-loading of energy investment for renewable energy and nuclear as the Renewables Hump. Note that the three fossil fuels (oil, gas, and coal) all have high EIRRs.  As we transition to lower-carbon fuels, we will want to keep as many high EIRR fuels in our portfolio as possible. 

The area of each bubble represents the energy return on energy invested — EROI. The most valuable energy resources are those with large bubbles – a high EROI – at the top of the chart because this shows that they also have a high Energy Internal Rate of Return – EIRR. In other words, they pay back the energy invested in developing them rather quickly. Photovoltaic, nuclear and hydropower have low rates of energy return. Graph compiled and redrawn specially for Feasta by Jamie Bull, oco-carbon.com

Energy efficiency and “smart” strategies

I have been unable to find studies of the EROI of various efficiency technologies.  For instance, how much energy is embodied in insulation, and how does that compare to the energy saved?  We can save transportation fuel with “smart” strategies such as living in more densely populated areas that are closer to where we work, and investing in mass transit infrastructure. The embodied energy of mass transit can be quite high in the case of light rail, or it can be very low in the case of better scheduling and incentives for ride sharing.

Many efficiency and smart technologies and methods are likely to have much higher EIRRs than fossil fuels.  We can see this because, while their embodied energy has not been well studied, their financial returns have.  Typical investments in energy efficiency in utility run demand-side management programmes cost between $0.01 and $0.03 cents per kWh saved, much less than the cost of new fossil-fired generation.  This implies a higher EIRR for energy efficiency, because part of the cost of any energy-efficiency measure will be the cost of the embodied energy, while all of the savings are in the form or energy.   This relationship implies that higher IRR technologies will generally have higher EIRRs as well.  Smart strategies also often show extremely high financial returns because they reduce the need for expensive cars, roads, parking, and even accidents. See http://www.vtpi.org/winwin.pdf.

Brain rather than brawn

The Renewables Hump does not have to be the massive problem it seems when we only look at supply-side energy technologies.  Demand-side solutions, such as energy efficiency, conservation and better public transport, enable us to avoid running into a situation where the energy we have to invest in transitioning from finite and dirty fossil fuels to clean renewable energy overwhelms our current supplies.  

Efficiency and smart strategies are “Brain” technologies, as opposed to the “Brawn” of traditional and new energy sources. As such, their application requires long-term planning and thought. Cheap energy has created a culture where we prefer to solve problems by simply applying more brawn.  As our fossil-fuel brawn fades away, we will have to rely on our brains once again if we hope to maintain anything like our current level of economic activity.

Featured image: Light bulb. Author: Ale Paiva. Source: http://www.sxc.hu/browse.phtml?f=view&id=1307071

Future energy availability: the importance of ‘net energy’

Chris Vernon

There is a lot of oil still left in the ground but unless, when it is put to work, it yields perhaps four times the energy it took to extract and refine it, it might as well not be there. As a result, the supply could contract very rapidly indeed and the world may have run out of useful oil by 2050.

All life needs energy. Organisms depend for their survival on their ability to gain energy from their environment with which to weather the elements, survive pathogens, fight or flee from predators and, of course, procreate. The unique genius of Homo sapiens lies in our ability to manipulate our environment’s energy system. Tools are a means of focusing the energy in our muscles, a knife focuses energy onto a fine edge, and a lever multiplies mechanical force. The development of tools elevated us beyond other species and enabled Homo sapiens to colonise the planet successfully.

Focusing internally metabolised energy with tools was just the first step, however. Humanity’s dominance of the Earth today, which has led to the Anthropocene being regarded as new geological era, has come about because we no longer rely solely on the food we eat to energise our way of life but employ secondary and greater sources of energy. A recent book, Catching Fire, by Richard Wrangham, a biological anthropologist at Harvard, claims that a breakthrough in human evolution happened 1.8 million years ago when our forebears tamed fire and began cooking. This use of fire by Homo erectus led to anatomical and physiological changes that adapted us to eating cooked food.

Offshore wind and tidal barrages give good energy returns

Illustration 1: The world does not need just energy – it needs energy that is delivered with very low levels of carbon dioxide emissions (that is, a low-carbon intensity) while still giving a lot more energy back than it took to produce it. This chart, by Evan Robinson, shows the most promising technologies and those to ignore. The half dots indicate where a technology is beyond the limits of the chart. Source: http://evanrobinson.typepad.com/ramblings/science_nature/.

Wrangham argues that hominids’ jaws, teeth and guts were able to shrink, and more calories were available to fuel their expanding brains, because cooking made it easier for our bodies to extract energy from food.

Then, in the Neolithic period, approximately 9,500 BC, the domestication of animals provided a new source of energy, and for the next 10,000 years, Homo sapiens steadily increased its access to energy by burning biomass, using draught animals and, eventually, harnessing water and the wind. The amount of energy that humanity harnessed from transient energy flows provided by the sun increased steadily for many years. The rate of growth in the energy supply accelerated somewhat when the Romans started to employ limited amounts of coal and soared dramatically after the development of James Watts’ condensing steam engine in the 1770s and, more generally, the start of the industrial revolution.

Coal represented something new. For the first time, energy from a different time period was accessible and, more importantly, available on a larger time scale. Before coal, the available energy was limited to the proportion of the transient energy flows the technology of the day could capture. Coal (and the other fossil fuels) enables us to access a stock of energy sequestered over millions of years in the distant past and, to release that energy over a few short centuries.

Just as tools enabled early man to exceed the physical limits of his body by focusing the energy of his muscles, fossil fuel enables us to use more energy than we could obtain from current natural flows by tapping into vast stocks of ancient energy. The rate at which we are drawing down this ancient stock can only lead to its depletion. The characteristics of this depletion are already becoming apparent, years before its total exhaustion. As the stock diminishes, it becomes harder to extract energy from it. In other words, more energy is required by the extraction process, which reduces the net energy available to society.

Net energy

A tree must gather more energy from the sun through its leaves that it expends constructing the foliage. Similarly, a fox must gain more energy consuming the hare than it took to chase it down. Our exploitation of fossil fuels is no different. In order to extract fossil fuels and utilise their embodied chemical energy, the amount of energy expended must be less than the amount we get to use. In the early days of its exploitation, a resource is abundant, easily discovered and takes little energy to extract. The principle of ‘best first’ is adopted automatically, so the large coal seams near the surface and the large onshore oil fields are both the first to be discovered and easiest to exploit. This ease of exploitation results in large amounts of net energy as relatively little energy needs to be expended to extract the fuels.

As the resources become depleted, however, the task becomes harder. In the case of oil, new extraction is increasingly coming from deep-water deposits. The recently announced Keathley Canyon discovery in the Gulf of Mexico is under 1,259 m of water and the well depth is 10,685 m [1] below the sea bed; that’s a greater distance below the surface of the earth than Everest rises above it. Unconventional resources such as shale oil and Canada’s tar sands require the use of a lot of energy to produce a useful product while coal-to-liquids, biofuels and gas-to-liquids require a great deal of post-extraction processing before the fuels can be used [2]. The net energy — the energy return on invested (EROI) — delivered by all these processes is much less than the return from, say, the first oilfields in Texas.

Illustration 2 summaries the concepts of surplus energy and the EROI ratio. Eout represents the magnitude of energy available after the energy extraction costs, Ein, have been accounted for. This is the energy available to society.

Energy has an energy cost

Illustration 2: An energy source can rarely be used directly. An energy extraction process is required to discover, extract and process the resource before its energy is available to society. This process consumes energy itself, a deduction from the energy otherwise available. The energy return on invested is the ratio of surplus energy to energy required to drive the process.

EROI is a dimensionless ratio. If the extraction of 50 barrels of oil takes the energy equivalent of 1 barrel of oil, the ratio is 50:1 and 98% of the embodied energy in the source is net energy available to society. This ratio has dramatically declined over time. Professor Charles Hall at the State University of New York has calculated that for oil extracted in the US:

The EROI for oil… during the heydays of oil development in Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana in the 1930s was about 100 returned for one invested. During the 1970s it was about 30:1, and from about 2000 it was from 11 to 18 returned per one invested. For the world the estimate was about 35:1 in the late 1990s declining to about 20:1 in the first half decade of the 2000s [3].

This decline has occurred almost invisibly as total extraction has increased. This has been possible as the decline from 100:1 to 30:1 to ~11-18:1 only represents a move from 99% energy availability to 97% to 93%, a trivial change in the face of the magnitude of total production which increased almost four-fold. There has been a large increase in net surplus energy compared with a small decrease in the EROI. However, projecting forward, this is not linear system. Illustration 3 illustrates how the net energy available declines rapidly as the EROI continues to fall.

Impact of declining EROI on energy availability

Illustration 3: When an energy resource’s EROI is high (>10) then most of the gross energy is available as net energy to society. Over time the EROI declines; however, the net energy does not fall significantly until the ‘knee’ of the curve is reached at approximately 5:1. Once the knee is reached, a rapidly increasing amount of gross energy is consumed by the extraction process itself until it is no longer energetically profitable to continue to extract the resource.

Very low-EROI sources (Canadian tar sands, for example, at <5:1 [4]) are already being used; their exploitation is sustained through energy cross subsidy from high EROI sources like natural gas. Large volumes of water (2-4.5 barrels of water for every barrel of synthetic crude) are also required in this case so it is likely that extraction rates will not depend on the tar sand resource at all but rather on other inputs [5]. This works in the short term, for a small volume, and whilst the gas and water is available, but does not guarantee the continued exploitation that some assume going forward.

Calculating EROI

Calculating EROI is not simple, largely because our current system is denominated in monetary terms, not energy terms. Two significant challenges are energy quality and system boundaries.

To a physicist, energy is a simple concept. Measured in joules (after 19th-century physicist James Prescott Joule), it quantifies the amount of work performed on the environment; work against gravity to raise an object, work performed to increase the temperature or velocity of an object, for example. Quality does not come into it. However, for practical applications energy can be considered to vary in quality, complicating direct comparison. The ten megajoules of chemical energy released as heat when 3 kg of coal is burnt cannot power a television for a day because the heat cannot be used directly. An indication of relative energy quality can be obtained from market price. The price for a megajoule of electricity is typically around three times higher than that of a megajoule of natural gas, and represents a willingness to waste as much as two-thirds of the primary energy in the gas when converting it to a higher quality energy, electricity.

System boundaries are particularly troublesome. A simple analysis may look at an oil well and consider the electrical energy used to pump the oil from beneath the ground compared with the energy content of the resulting oil. This is reasonable, and returns the EROI on the day the measurements were taken. However, energy will also have been expended in discovering the oil field, drilling the well (including the three preceding dry holes) and in the manufacturing and transporting of the pumping equipment itself. This will produce a fairer result because to extract oil, one must first discover it. This line of thought can be extended to include the energy costs of the petroleum engineer’s education, food and health care.

Finally, simply producing surplus net energy with an EROI ratio greater than one still is not enough. A barrel of oil at the wellhead cannot be used as it stands. First, it must be refined into products such as petrol or diesel and transported to where it is required. Secondly, the infrastructure with which to use this fuel must be manufactured; the cars, trucks and the very road surface upon which they travel.

The energy used to extract the energy is only one part of the picture. Further energy must be expended in order to use the energy. Too often EROI discussion is centred upon whether a proposal is greater than unity, whether it breaks even and provides a net energy surplus. This break-even point is not nearly enough though. If our energy system were merely to break even, human civilisation would do no other activity apart from energy gathering. There would literally be no energy available for anything else.

EROI must be greater than one, but how much greater? What is the minimum EROI required for civilisation? Three types of energy use can be defined: energy used to harvest energy (this is Ein from Ilustration 1), energy used to build and maintain the infrastructure to use the energy, and energy used for everything else that makes us civilised.

Charles Hall’s research group address the first two in their paper titled “What is the Minimum EROI That a Sustainable Society Must Have?” [3]. They conclude that for oil and corn-based ethanol, the minimum EROI is 3:1 at the wellhead or farm-gate. Below that 3:1 figure, oil and corn-based ethanol cease to be a viable energy source because the energy output would not cover the first two types of energy use listed above: the energy used for extraction or growing and harvesting and for the construction of the roads and vehicles in which the fuel is to be used. There would be no energy left over for all the other activities of society. Civilisation therefore requires energy sources to have an average EROI significantly higher than 3:1. Hall estimates that the overall EROI of the US energy system in 2005 was between 40 and 60 to one. Coal is extracted at high EROI and oil (domestic and imported) lower than this average [6]. Europe achieves similar complexity of society on approximately half the energy per capita, suggesting that significantly lower EROI can support complex society.

Peak oil

Fossil-fuel resources are finite and, on human timescales, non-renewable. It follows that their extraction rate starts at zero and returns to zero once the resource is exhausted. The simplistic representation of this is a bell-shaped curve with extraction rate plotted against time, and the area under the curve being equal to the extractable resource. Graphs showing the output from many oil-bearing provinces have had this bell-shaped form and their extraction rates have steadily declined after a well-defined peak. However, whilst the extraction rate may be approximately symmetrical about the peak, the first half of a province’s life can be characterised by a small number of large, fast flowing fields. The EROI is high. In contrast, the second half of the province’s extraction is made up of many more smaller and more complex fields, requiring secondary or tertiary recovery techniques. The EROI is low. This is only natural since the best first principle leads to the lowest-cost resources being exploited first.

Illustration 4 projects a possible global oil-extraction scenario. It is made up of a peak extraction rate in 2010 followed by a 2% per year decline rate. In the year 2000, the EROI for global oil is taken to be 30:1, which leaves 97% of the energy available to society as surplus. The blue and red curves illustrate how the surplus energy available from oil declines as EROI declines at 2% and 5% per year respectively.

By 2000, 30 years past its peak, US oil extraction had an EROI of 11 to 18:1, down from approximately 100:1 in the 1930s. This represents a rate of decline of a little over 2% per year. Under a 2% decline scenario, the global oil EROI falls to 11:1 by 2050 with 92% of the energy still available to society. However, if EROI decline at the steeper rate of 5% it passes the minimum threshold of 3:1 in 2045.

Energy from global oil

Illustration 4: The continuous black curve projects the annual energy contained in the global oil supply assuming a decline rate in extraction of 2% per year from 2010. The dashed and dotted curves illustrate the net energy available to society. In 2000, the EROI is taken to be 30:1 (97% surplus). The dashed curve assumes EROI declines at 2% per year, dropping to 11:1 by 2050, the dotted curve declines at 5% reaching 2.3:1 by 2050, below the minimum to be considered an energy source.

In other words, although there might be enough oil for global oil-extraction rates to be approximately half today’s level by 2050, how much usable energy humanity will get from it depends on the rate at which EROI declines. If the EROI declines faster than it did in the US during the 20th century, it is possible that the average EROI will be so low that, by then, oil will cease to be the significant net energy source.


Our unique relationship with the energy system has defined our species. Our current reliance is on previously sequestered stocks of energy, which must suffer depletion and, with it, declining energy return on the energy invested in its extraction, processing and distribution. The pre–fossil fuel existence of our ancestors was reliant on the Earth’s energy flows and suffered no such systemic decline. It is imperative that we find a way to move society away from its current reliance on declining, finite energy stocks and back to an energy system based on flows.


  1. BP Press Release, BP Announces Giant Oil Discovery in the Gulf of Mexico, September 2, 2009.http://www.bp.com/genericarticle.do?categoryId=2012968&contentId=7055818 Accessed 14/09/09
  2. Brandt, A.R., Farell, A.E., “Scraping the bottom of the barrel: greenhouse emission consequences of a transition to low-quality and synthetic petroleum resources,”
    Climatic Change, No. 84, Springer Science, 2007
  3. Hall, C.A.S.; Balogh, S.; Murphy, D.J.R. “What is the Minimum EROI That a Sustainable Society Must Have?” Energies 2009, 2, 25–47.
  4. Hall, C.A.S. Unconventional Oil: Tar Sands and Shale Oil – EROI on the Web, Part 3 of 6
    http://www.theoildrum.com/node/3839 Accessed 14/09/09
  5. Canada’s Oil Sands – Opportunities and Challenges to 2015: an update, National Energy Board, June 2006, pp. 38 http://www.neb.gc.ca/clf-nsi/rnrgynfmtn/nrgyrprt/lsnd/lsnd-eng.html Accessed 14/09/09
  6. Hall, C.A.S., Lambert, J.G.L., The balloon diagram and your future http://www.esf.edu/EFB/hall/images/Slide1.jpg Accessed 14/09/09

Featured image: Power. Author: Rodolfo Belloli. Source: http://www.sxc.hu/browse.phtml?f=view&id=709105

Proximity 2.0: Cutting transport costs and emissions through local integration

Emer O’Siochru

Rather than bringing similar activities closer together to reap the benefits of scale and agglomeration, different activities should be situated beside each other to be more energy and carbon efficient.

“is ar scáth a chéile, a mhaireann na daoine”
Seanfhocal Gaeilge

“In the shadow or shelter of each other, live the people”
Old Irish saying

This old saying tells us there was a time when it was an uncontested fact in Ireland that living close to each other was essential for a happy human life. That human life thrives when human actions are so confined in space as to impact on others today seems strange given our current desire for ever more expansion and separation in our living and working arrangements. Did this old saying emerge from a need to make the best of a bad situation or is it a forgotten but essential truth that still has resonance today?

This paper will advance the case that closeness, or ‘proximity,’ was valued as life enhancing in the past — and for good reason, despite the propaganda of the rural revisionists. It describes what I call the Proximity Principle 2.0, the idea of a redefined and augmented ‘proximity’ that has a great deal to offer communities in the troubling times ahead. There’s more than a little bit of magic about the notion that something unexpected and wonderful can come simply by confining and combining existing elements differently, but that’s exactly what the Proximity Principle 2.0 offers us.

In Ireland over the past 50 years, we’ve invested heavily in putting distance into our living and working arrangements. We live apart from each other, work far from where we live, shop far from where we work, grow food far from where we eat and so on. Our support systems are all fall-flung and invisible; electricity is generated remotely, waste is processed remotely, knowledge is generated remotely to our everyday experience. Something profound has happened to the way we live.

Fig 1. The way we live now: scattered houses, Co. Galway, Ireland.

This paper does not explore what happened; others better able to do so will contribute to that topic in this book. Instead it will look to the past for clues to the immediate future.

Irish settlement patterns myths

First we need to debunk some myths. Contrary to what is generally believed, the Irish people are not culturally predisposed to isolated settlement patterns. In fact, the historical records and the maps show that Irish people consciously chose to live close together where and when they had the freedom to do so. The Vikings founded many of our coastal towns but the Irish had their own proto town, set in the fertile plains and river valleys. These were the monastic settlements of the early Christian era and were centres of trade as much as of learning and piety.

What is less well known is that as the population increased, Irish society was developing the village structure along the European model in the 16th and 17th centuries, i.e. farmer and farm labourer families living alongside artisans and small-scale merchants in compact mixed settlements. In these villages, farmers travelled from the village everyday to the tillage and orchard in-fields and further to the out-field pastures.

The Cromwellian re-conquest put an abrupt halt to this evolution; towns and villages were broken up and new settlers and the non-rebellious installed on isolated farms. Only in the areas protected by the powerful Norman Butler family around Counties Kilkenny, South Tipperary and Waterford can we see surviving evidence for this farm/village from the 1830 OSi map records.

Fig 2. The way we lived then 1: this 1816 map of Listrolin, a farm village in Co. Kilkenny, shows how farms and houses were clustered together in the past.

The displaced Irish were prevented from coming together in the better lands, but, given the relative freedom of the poorer lands on coasts and hillsides, they again formed settlements. We can see evidence of this in the many clachán settlements on Ireland’s western seaboard, today mostly abandoned. This seaboard contained the highest density of rural population in Europe in the first half of the 19th century, when the entire island hosted and fed eight million people.

This evidence is countered by those who claim that the Irish had little choice but to live in these dense settlements because all of the better land was retained by the absentee landlords and let out to conforming tenants. Another argument is that famine was brought on by the unrestrained breeding of the Irish, who foolishly ignored the fact that the poor land could not maintain their families. In fact, the land maintained them pretty well for many generations; they did this by using the nutrients from the sea to feed the soil, having well-organised pasturage systems and using the efficient lazy-bed system of cultivation — until, of course, the potato failed. Contemporary accounts tell of healthy, handsome, happy people, even if a bit unwilling to take instruction from their “betters”.

Fig 3. The way we lived then, 2. Terman, a clachan village in Co. Kerry, demonstrates how densely people once chose to live together.

The native Irish had to wait until the 18th century for the political and economic conditions that would foster the founding of the market villages and towns most of which survive today. These new villages and towns were centres of trade and exchange, not the homes of farmers. While they were often laid out by the freehold-owning landlord, they were built by Irish Catholics who had won a significant interest in their property in the form of long leases and lifelong leases.

This model was in complete contrast to the village-development model in England, where the landlord offered only limited tenancies in buildings that he built. This newly propertied merchant and professional class of Catholics led the struggle for the Land Acts, a struggle that was ultimately to redistribute the agricultural land and which, from that platform of security, later led to the national struggle for nationhood. So it can be said, not unreasonably, that the Irish villages and towns can be thanked for national independence.

The loss of Proximity 1.0

Fig 4. Castlepollard, a market village in Co. Westmeath, also shows a compact development pattern

Over the years the native Irish began to accept that living in isolated farm-steads was the natural order, its original imposition forgotten. This loss in folk memory led to a second great scattering, this time guided by well-intentioned motives.

After the terrible Famine of the 1840s, the improving Congested District Boards consolidated the fragmented holdings of clachán dwellers into separate freehold farms and individual farmhouses, breaking up the settlements in the processes. It never crossed the minds of these public servants that the villages had any value in the new Ireland they were building, nor that consolidated farms could be provided at the same time as retaining the existing settlements in use.

Not only did this policy undermine the survival of the Irish language by making it synonymous with isolated rural life, it also destroyed much of the potential for economic development by destroying the potential for specialisation.

Figs 4a, 4b and 4c. The Congested Districts of the 19th century shown in the map on the left were in most of the same places as today’s Clar areas of Disadvantage (middle map) and where the National Spatial Strategy has identified a “weak” village structure.

Figs 5a and 5b. These cartograms show the areas of the counties drawn in proportion to their populations. They reveal how some populations, particularly in the West, shrank from their level before the Famine while the population of Dublin soared. Source: Martin Charlton, (2007), NUI, Maynooth. http://ncg.nuim.ie/content/media/downloads/CartogramsQuantumLeap.pps

The evidence for this conclusion is convincing. Today, the area where the Congested Districts Board operated along the Western coast coincides almost exactly with the areas of disadvantage and population loss identified by the government’s ‘Clar’ designation (Fig. 4b) and the areas identified in the National Spatial Strategy (NSS) as having weak village structuration (Fig.4c).

The loss of village structure and thus of the benefits of proximity led to the loss of opportunity, especially for non-farming families, which in turn led to mass emigration of the young and enterprising. Martin Charlton’s cartographic project which adjusts the areas of counties according to their population makes the results of this very clear. The first map illustrates the population before the Famine; the second population loss and gain by county size in 2002. (Fig.5a and 5b)

Proximity 2.0: some definitions

Proximity has recently been rediscovered and to a certain extent reinvented as a positive principle, having earlier been eclipsed for many years by the potential of globalisation and the elimination of distance by cheap fossil fuels. A Google search brings up a surprising number of incarnations in widely differing contexts. Each context illustrates a particular attribute, and the combination of all these is what I term Proximity 2.0.

Definition 1, the most familiar interpretation or use of the term, comes from the environmental sector and refers to waste-management systems.

“The proximity principle advocates that waste should be disposed of (or otherwise managed) close to the point at which it is generated, thus aiming to achieve responsible self-sufficiency at a regional/or sub regional level”

Basel Convention 1989

In this case, the proximity principle enables and delivers “responsible self-sufficiency” which is something we will need in times of emergency.

Definition 2 comes from the technical field of industrial processes.

“Proximity is the main tool used in manufacturing to enable one-piece flow, flexibility and to quickly assist another station on the U shaped production line”

Principles of Product Development Flow 2009.

Here, proximity fosters smooth-flowing processes where glitches can be spotted and rectified quickly. This kind of flexibility is essential to resilience building, again a useful attribute in uncertain times.

Definition 3 comes from the knowledge economy discourse.

“In spite of increasing global flows of ideas, capital, goods and labor, the rise of a knowledge-based economy and changes in the organization of the innovation process have actually increased the value of geographical proximity to innovation.”

Sonn and Storper 2003

Geographical nearness fosters the random encounters that spark new ideas, something that no IT media has been able to replicate. This runs counter to the argument that all you need for innovation in the countryside is fast broadband.

Definition 4 comes from town and country spatial planning and is familiar to local government administrators, professionals and social and environmental advocates.

“Proximity should be favoured over dispersal in settlements to encourage community interaction, make public transport, local services and environmental initiatives more viable”

Campaign to Protect Rural England 2008

Rural services are in decline in Ireland and will be under greater threat with the New Emergency. The more dispersed the settlement, the greater the cost of providing its population with the services and maintenance it needs. Even though councils coped reasonably well with floods and snow of Winter 2009-10, rural roads remain potholed and pitted as budgets were exhausted by the immediate emergency measures. A second harsh Winter would render some roads impassible.

Definition 5 stems from economics and the theories of US economist and writer Henry George.

“This premise that parks have a positive impact on property values is known as the ‘proximity principle’. It suggests that the value of living near a park is captured in the price of surrounding properties.”

Frederick Law Olmstead 1856 (Olmstead was the architect who laid out Central Park, New York City).

This aspect of proximity is the most revealing and useful when we plan for the future because it tells us that investing in useful infrastructure or desirable amenities can be paid for from the increased value of the nearby/adjacent land. Proximity, here, generates value, and if recouped by the community, also generates money to pay for further services.

In sum, then, Proximity 2.0, combining all of its benefits of its various aspects, offers the following:

  1. Enables recycling of waste especially for energy
  2. Creates flexibility and resilience
  3. Fosters innovation
  4. Makes services viable
  5. Adds value to land

What Proximity 2.0 is not is about is agglomeration. Agglomeration is a term used to describe the benefits of putting similar uses together. It is familiar in retail studies i.e. retailers benefit from other retailers selling similar goods nearby as consumers are attracted to the choice and convenience offered and increased footfall leads to increased turnover for everyone. The agglomeration effect often outweighs the advantage of a local monopoly in particular classes of goods. Neither is Proximity 2.0 linked to ‘benefits of scale’, such as the efficiencies made possible by building and servicing a large number of similar houses or other buildings in a limited area.

On the contrary, Proximity 2.0 describes the advantages of placing very different, not similar, uses and functions in close relationship. The advantages that accrue to agglomeration and scale are dependant on cheap energy and globalization, and this produces an apparent simplification locally that masks a remote and therefore opaque and potentially vulnerable complexity.

‘Localisation’ is an emerging concept used by environmentalists advocating the reversal of globalization. But it is a modest and uninspiring concept on which to base an emergency response. Proximity 2.0 goes beyond negative definitions to suggest potential synergies that emerge when different activities and functions are linked at the local scale. The next section describes some examples of these benefits.

Applications of the Proximity Principle:

The Natural Step [1] is a framework for industry and business covering the generation and processing of waste. The framework builds on a basic understanding of what makes life possible, how our biosphere functions and how we are part of the earth’s natural systems. It points out that in a sustainable society, nature would not subject to systematically increasing concentrations of substances extracted from the Earth’s crust or created by scientists and that people would not be subject to conditions that systemically undermined their capacity to meet their needs. The Natural Step seeks to make these systems apparent to producers through a rigorous checklist process and the use of a non-political logic that eliminates pollutants through design.

Similarly, Natural Capitalism [2], developed by the US-based Rocky Mountain Institute that researches and advises on sustainable settlement, building and transportation design, describes the objective of ‘industrial ecology’. This strategy discourages forms of amoral purchasing arising from ignorance of what goes on at a distance and implies a political economy that greatly values natural capital and relies on what Amory Lovins calls ‘instructional capital’ to design and maintain each unique industrial ecology.

These principles converge and locate in the concept of ‘Industrial Symbiosis’. The tasks of identifying and eliminating the unsustainable increase in substances and deleterious conditions and of eliminating ignorance of far-flung effects is solved through the Proximity Principle 2.0 because it places different but related production systems physically adjacent to each other. This makes the problems and solutions clear without the need for checklists and renders those problems solvable without a huge investment in instructional capital.

The Municipality of Kalundborg in Denmark was one of the first to introduce the world to Industrial Symbiosis when it applied the Proximity Principle 2.0 in industrial-estate planning. In Kalundborg, all waste is someone else’s raw material. Symbiosis here means the co-existence of diverse organisms that may benefit from one another. A symbiosis network links a 1500MW coal-fired power plant with the community and other companies. Surplus heat from this power plant is used to heat 3,500 local homes in addition to a nearby fish farm, the sludge from which is then sold as a fertilizer. Steam from the power plant is sold to Novo Nordisk, a pharmaceutical and enzyme manufacturer and a Statoil plant. This reuse of heat reduces the thermal pollution of hot wastewater discharged to a nearby fjord. Additionally, a by-product from the power plant’s sulfur dioxide scrubber contains gypsum that is sold to a wallboard manufacturer. Almost all of the manufacturer’s gypsum needs are met in this way, reducing the amount of open-pit mining needed. Furthermore, fly ash and clinker from the power plant are utilized for road building and cement production.

Industrial symbiosis

Fig 6. This flow chart illustrates how the waste and by-products of companies on a municipal industrial estate in Kalundborg, Denmark, become the raw materials for other companies.
Source: Ecodecision, Spring 1996.

This kind of symbiotic co-operation has developed spontaneously over several decades and today comprises some 20 projects. The exchange of residual products between the companies is laid out in Fig.6. The collaborating partners also benefit financially from the co-operation because the individual agreement within the symbiosis is based on commercial principles. All projects are environmentally and financially sustainable. It’s a win-win scenario for all concerned. (Fig.6)

According to Amory B. Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute, 19th- and 20th-century model power plants had a higher cost and outage rate than the grid, so both supply and demand had to be aggregated through the grid to make sure that electricity production continued without interruption. In the 21st-century model, in contrast, power plants have a lower cost and higher reliability than the grid, so affordable and reliable supply should now logically originate at or near the customer for security of electricity supply. Indeed this has been happening in Fig. 7 below we can see that non-utility i.e. non–power company electrical generation, has been increasing since the mid 1980s.

Fig 7. This graph, from Amory Lovins’ book Small is Profitable, shows how, after a period in which very few US consumers produced their own electricity, more are beginning to do so at the expense of the commercial utility companies

In his book Small is Profitable, Lovins measured the benefits of ‘distributed’ or electrical generation in proximity to consumption at two to three times that of remote generation, more if the grid is congested or reliability required. If the heat from electrical generation can be used, then the benefits double again. There are often other extra-over benefits or positive side effects or ‘externalities’ as economists call them for certain sites.

We can see these benefits in Güssing, a small town in Austria that today has a rape-oil refinery for the production of bio-diesel, a district heating unit supplied with wood, and a state-of-the-art biomass-power plant with a generation of 2 MW electricity and 4.5 MW heat. The town is now 45% self-sufficient in energy and has attracted 50 new companies, more than 1,000 new jobs, and total increased sales volume of 13m Euro per year. An eco-tourist business now sees 1,600 visitors per week visit the town, eager to learn how it reinvigorated itself.

The German town of Lünen, north of Dortmund, will use organic material from local farms to provide electricity for its 90,000 residents, producing 6.8mw to power and heat 26,000 houses. The gas is distributed through a new biogas pipeline network being built underground using a horizontal drilling robot.

Fig 8. Farm anaerobic digester Wexford.

Using the process of anaerobic digestion (AD), biogas can be produced from agricultural wastes, mainly slurries, of which there is an abundance in parts of Ireland. However, manure-only AD will not generate enough biogas and thus sufficient electricity to give a good return on its costs, as manure at best produces 20 cubic metres of biogas per tonne. Mixing bio-waste from commercial and municipal brown bins transforms the economics of farm-based ADs. An AD facility would be financed easily through gate fees (the fee chargeable for accepting wastes for processing or transformation), along with the money earned from the extra energy production that comes from the higher energy content of bio-waste. Hauling bulky manure from many widespread locations to a central point is expensive; taking the smaller quantity of pasteurised bio-waste to a rural location near or in a livestock farm has lower costs and lower CO2 emissions. It also returns food waste to where it was generated, thus closing the nutrient cycle.

If the 1.5 million tonnes of manure produced annually by 200,000 adult cattle, about 5% of the Irish herd, was augmented with 300,000 tonnes of bio-waste to give a 60/40% mix in dry matter terms, rural ADs could produce 180GWh per year. This digestion of 1.5 million tonnes of manure would also reduce greenhouse emissions by about 150,000 tonnes per year in terms of CO2 or its equivalent in other gases. This is 2.5 times the reduction required from manure management by the Irish government’s 2000 Climate Change Strategy, and there are also energy-related savings. Another significant benefit would come from the reduction in artificial fertiliser nitrogen use by around 400 tonnes per year of nitrogen, thereby preventing about 100 tonnes per year of nitrogen getting into watercourses.

Simply combining food production and consumption close together brings benefits to consumer and producer by cutting out the middleman and eliminating transport costs. Traceability is not a problem in the Herrmanndorf farm market in Hanover, Germany. Herrmanndorf, originally a sausage manufacturer, vertically integrated all aspects of food production, processing and sales in one location. Beef, milk and pork are produced on the farm and neighbouring farms using own-grown grass and cereals. Animals are farmed, slaughtered and processed on site using energy from their wastes. Beer is brewed and bread is baked from local cereals and sold in the farm market in the same way. Accommodation for workers and trainees is provided on site. The farm is a popular weekend destination for Hanover residents who enjoy a day out while doing their shopping.

Fig 9. Herrmannsdorf shop and animal housing, Hanover, Germany.

Rural settlements in Ireland are uniquely well-positioned to respond to the developing crisis. Local agriculture can produce food, biomass for energy and structural materials and fibre for construction, providing all the materials for village production and reproduction. Hemp is a neglected but particularly versatile crop that offers seeds and oil for human consumption, fibre for paper and clothing and hurd for use as an insulant and binder in construction. Combined with lime, hemp forms a composite material that has many useful qualities. Hemp-lime is insulating, fire-proof, rot-proof, vermin-proof and moisture-buffering. With passive design, it can eliminate the need for space-heating systems in new homes. Hemp-lime with timber construction saves 50 tonnes of CO2 and stores 5 tons of CO2. Hemp can be grown locally in normal crop rotations with low inputs, and is easily harvested and processed with conventional machinery. Lime and other additives are widely available in Ireland.

We now come to the most overlooked form of waste, human sewage. It’s not usually included in waste-management plans but lumped under a special category called ‘wastewater’ in government and local government regulations. Water could hardly be described as a waste so it must be something we have put into the water and the question is why? Conventional sewage systems consume scarce freshwater and dilute useful nutrients. The nutrients are carried to rivers and the sea, where they are extremely harmful causing eutrophication. In turn, more nutrients have to be produced for agriculture, causing depletion of fossil resources and high energy demand. Considerable fossil energy is used to treat sewage and grey water this way. There is, however, a better way than gravity sewerage pipework to transport human waste to treatment and processing facilities. Vacuum-based transportation, another Victorian invention, is already used successfully in virtually every train, airplane and ship.

External and/or internal vacuum wastewater systems give design flexibility; small pipes 25-100mm can go up to 6 metres vertically and 3 km on the flat. Costs are low for installation, maintenance and future modification as the many vents and traps of the gravity system are eliminated. Importantly, water is conserved; a vacuum system uses 1 litre of water per flush. Multiple collection tanks and pumps can be used to separate different types of wastewater. Vacuum transportation is the final component of a re-designed domestic system that can recover all energy and nutrients in the food cycle. There are a few examples of such a complete system in place. A small housing development in Lubeck, Germany installed a completely independent sewage and domestic food waste–treatment systems. (Fig.10)

Fig 10.  A chart illustrating the flows of energy and nutrients in a small housing development in Lubeck, Germany, which has installed completely independent waste-treatment systems for sewage and domestic food.

Cellulosic waste or woody wastes, of which there is a vast amount left over from food production, forestry and construction, are not suited to anaerobic digestion, which deals better with green or wet bio-wastes. Burning cellulosic waste recovers energy but leaves little of the original nutrients or carbon to return to the soil. Far better is pyrolysis, the process of heating without oxygen to release the volatile gases of the cellulosic material. Pyrolysis is a new name for the old-fashioned process of charcoal making. If applied in a certain way, it produces a ‘biochar’ that locks up the CO2 of the biomass and returns it to the soil where it stimulates and supports the soil organisms. (Others will describe the benefits of biochar in this volume). (Fig.11)

Pyrolysis is not yet a commercial reality in Ireland, nor has it been convincingly established elsewhere. Its promise is enormous, as it can deliver renewable electricity to the grid, considerable heat for a local factory, bio-oil for heating and transportation, and biochar for commercial agriculture and possible future carbon-credit sales. High rate of investment return can only be delivered if all of the co-products are realised i.e. when production of biochar is in the right location and is integrated into other production and consumption activities. In other words, proximity is a sine qua non for biochar to reach its potential as a climate-saving technology.


Energy was an already an important element of proximity 1.0 in the past. Before oil was exploited for energy, settlements were often established near energy sources. An example can be found in Co. Offaly on the foothills of the Slieve Bloom mountains, where a necklace of villages grew up around watermills on the Silver River. In the 1930s, the source of energy changed to exploitation of the bogs for turf. As the source of energy shifted, so too did the economic and political power. Ballyboy ceased to be the chief county town, and little-known Frankfort, renamed Kilcormac, rapidly developed with new worker housing because of its proximity to the turf works. As the bogs lost their importance as the importation of oil and gas rose, Kilcormac also fell into sleepy decline.

Figure 12: The watermills in Ballyboy and Cadamstown villages were once the heart of the community.

In 2005, EOS Future Design participated in a research project entitled ENLIVEN to prepare for a European funding submission exploring how renewable energy resources could once again be used as an engine for village development. We identified hydro, wind, forestry bio-energy and agricultural bio-waste resources available to the villages of Cadamstown, Ballyboy and Kilcormac. It was a first attempt to outline a new vision for rural communities using renewable energy sources located close by. In the past, rural development policies have sought to preserve threatened ways of life or to revive those that had already passed into history. The ENLIVEN study looked to the future instead of the past and actively prepared for largely predictable events. But the report did not overlook local place and local culture; the plans were rooted in specific natural and social contexts. The study easily identified a potential 43% reduction in fossil-fuel use and CO2 emissions in a rural community of 1,200.

We proposed a new plan-led process of village development that would shift from incremental one-off house development in the rural village hinterland, or the sudden huge developer-led anonymous housing estate at the edge of the village, to a more controlled process. The following is a slightly amended version of this process that takes into account political fiscal changes.

The first stage of the ENLIVEN development process covers planning and design.

  • The community of a village in decline or under potentially damaging development pressure would request a framework plan for the village.
  • A revolving fund would be available to manage the upfront costs of the plan and the infrastructure development that follows.
  • The local authority would contract a team of consultants directly or approve a set chosen by the community and would partner the team in the preparation of the plan.
  • A ‘Charrette’ in which all stakeholders participate to plan their village is facilitated by the planning and design team on location over a number of days.
  • Agreement would be sought as much as possible with landowners about what land should be developed within a five-year time horizon guided by sustainability objectives and community needs.
  • These identified lands would be prioritized for new infrastructure and investment
  • New access roads, parks, water, drainage and waste-treatment and energy-generation facilities and amenities and services required would be located, sized and costed.
  • A three-dimensional plan would show the new roads, squares, parks and also the heights, shapes and uses of the buildings that enclosed them.
  • A design guide would be developed which reflected the local building vernacular and the distinctive qualities of the local settlements and set energy and other ecological standards for the construction.

Implementation would be carried out in two stages: a) Infrastructure, services and public spaces and amenities; and b) building construction on sites.

  • The local authority would use its powers to clear title and/or acquire key land where the community and authority as a whole thought it was necessary for the benefit of the wider community.
  • The local authority or, in partnership with a private or not-for-profit infrastructure developer/s–under building licences from the land–owners, would carry out the infrastructure works and agreed amenities and service buildings. Equity partnerships are the optimal vehicle to align everybody’s interests.
  • Landowners would build on the fully developed sites or sell them to self-builders or in small groups to local builders in accordance with the design guide.
  • The community, or at least the landowners in the community, would have control of the sale price and to whom it sold the houses and sites.
  • In addition a portion of the land (equivalent to Part V of 2000 Act) should be given over to a Community Land Trust in the form of an Equity Partnership, which would provide housing for rent or purchase at a lower-than-market cost as it would not include the land element. This would ensure that locals were never priced out of their own area despite the high values created and that the key skilled people (mechanics, teachers or nurses, for instance) that the community needs for its development and maintenance would be attracted into the area.

The Proximity Principle tells us that the land values created by the development of infrastructure, services and amenities can be recouped by the upswing in land values of served and adjacent property. Section 49 of the 2000 Act provides for the recouping of investment by a local authority directly relating to a served site i.e. roads and pavements. The value added by the combined renewable-energy and waste-processing plant will attach to all land in the vicinity including developed properties. A new Site Value Tax (SVT) promised in the programme for government will provide the means to collect that value created. The SVT will also ensure that the developed sites are sold quickly and the revolving fund recouped to be made available to other communities.

Over a year, ENLIVEN showed that it could deliver 100% net renewable-energy services through electricity and hot water mini-grids in the participating villages. However, at any one time, the villages could be exporting or importing non-renewable energy from the national grid. The balancing of supply by suitable demand uses will be pursued through the planning process (the Framework Plan) and by the active participation of local development agencies to identify energy-hungry, job-creating uses.

It may be advantageous to involve an ESCo (an Energy Services Company) to undertake the ‘top up and spill’ technical and pricing interface with Eirgrid and the billing of customers. Again an Equity Partnership structure would include consumers, investors and energy producers in a sustainable relationship. Activities that are flexible enough to use off-peak electricity generated by the wind turbine, such as refrigeration or kilns, will be attracted by very cheap rates to the participating rural villages.

A local ESCo could make the extra costs of peak electricity use visible to users so that they have the option of postponing discretionary electricity use, such as the drier or dishwasher, until the energy demand and price are lower. Metering and billing systems should be intelligent so that using electricity or hot water at the high demand times will cost more than the off-peak times.

We estimated that the energy savings arising from intelligent design, construction and retrofit could eventually reach 6,282,000kWh as a direct result of the ENLIVEN project for the three villages which amount to 3,700 tonnes of CO2 saved every year. At 22.47 per tonne, this represents a saving for tax-payers of 83,228 per annum if emission rights have to be bought by the government.

Because of the insolvency of Irish banks and the pressure on public funds due to the crash in fiscal receipts, the more pessimistic observer might argue that the funding is simply not available for this kind of ambitious energy and waste infrastructure. But the Proximity Principle tells us otherwise.

Funding has been allocated under two different category streams for rural development. The first is the Rural Development Programme which was set up to tackle the quality of life in rural areas and to promote diversification within the rural economy. 50% funding for private projects up to 150,000 is available which not-for-profit community groups will be eligible for a higher rate of aid at 75%. Administration and training is funded up to a generous 100%. 30,000 per project is offered for analysis and project development.

This funding is appropriate for the Plan and Design Stages of the ENLIVEN process and would be available for reuse by further communities when recouped under SVT and Section 49 of the 2000 Planning Act.

The second major source of funding is that allocated under the Water Services investment in the NDP, a total 4.7 billion. 89 million investment was planned in the 2009 budget although final figures were reduced. To illustrate, small Wastewater Plants for six Villages in North and South Tipperary cost 10.80m (1.9 million each on average).

1.9 million will easily cover the costs of a combined agricultural and human waste-processing anaerobic digester with combined heat and power energy generation and nutrient recovery to ensure the agricultural input quality for a rural village. The private sector will be willing partners in such a facility, thereby making these funds work for other communities.

Opportunities for Proximity 2.0 in Ireland

  • The Environmental Pillar is now recognised as a ‘Social Partner’ at national level. Social Partners have to be included in ‘partnership structures’ at every level and every Leader Company (32) has to have an environmental representative, as do City and County Development Boards. So for the first time, environmental activists have a voice at local government level.
  • Many of these representatives have taken their places on these boards. I am on the County Westmeath Special Policy Committee for Environment and Water Services and I have put an item on the agenda to reconsider Westmeath’s existing specification and procurement of wastewater-treatment systems. Others will follow.
  • Site Value Taxation is now contained in the Programme for Government thanks to policy-development work by the environmental network Smart Taxes, which is led by Feasta. As the time of going to press, the network had been invited to discuss implementation issues with the Department of Finance. Those who follow Irish governance will know that this is a big advance.

Obstacles to Proximity 2.0 in Ireland:

  • The myth of an historic model for single houses and the under-valuation of the rural village still persist today as remote “one-off” houses are still being granted planning permission and built despite the downturn, even by self-proclaimed environmentalists.
  • There’s no easy way to capture the land value created by new energy and waste facilities to help fund investment until SVT is implemented and it has many enemies. Worse, even SVT political friends underestimate its vital underpinning of the economics of sustainability as it can be a difficult concept to explain.
  • Outdated drainage and wastewater building regulations and planning practices that stifle any innovation. On the positive side, these are under revision not least because of budget constraints.
  • Outdated electricity grid and cost/reward structure. The new ‘Refit Tariff’ for bio-energy is an advance, but more is needed especially commitment to the distributed and embedded energy model by government and a Cap /Tax and Share of carbon allowances.
  • The Limited Liability Partnerships legal structure needed for Equity Partnerships is not yet available under Irish Company Law.
  • Specialist, siloed scientific, technical and professional education and practice is a persistent obstacle to proximity 2.0 and one that is difficult to solve in the short term but keeping our young qualified graduates from emigrating would be a good start.


As I have shown, there are numerous tangible benefits that come from applying the Proximity Principle 2.0, not least greater energy and food security in the long term, and in the short term — rural jobs in waste treatment and energy generation. The kind of synergy that comes from placing different services and uses in proximity to each other in rural settlements is a matchless opportunity to rapidly build circuit breakers at the mid or community scale to halt complete systemic collapse. Proximity Principle 2.0 really is a case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts, always allowing that the different parts are close enough to interact. There’s no sleight-of-hand involved; it is simply good integrated design using best-practice technical knowledge.

The payment for these manifold benefits is the abandonment of a desire for isolated living in the countryside — a settlement pattern that was never native to us anyway.


  1. The Natural Step is a non-profit organisation founded in Sweden in1989 by a scientist,
    Karl-Henrik Robèrt, which promotes a systematic, principle-based definition of sustainability. See http://www.naturalstep.org/
  2. Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution, by Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, and L. Hunter Lovins, Little Brown and Company, 1999.

Cultivating hope and managing despair

John Sharry

Societies are struggling to come to terms with the nature and extent of the changes facing them both now and in the future. Modern psychological models of motivation and change, and of how people deal with threat and loss, suggest strategies that can be used to help individuals change and to galvanise communities into collective action.

In the last few years there has been a growing public awareness of the twin challenges of climate change and peak oil/resource depletion. The popular awareness has been championed by figures such as Al Gore and many other environmentalists and scientists. In their presentation of the message, many scientists and educators try to delicately balance the prediction of catastrophe with a focus on the positive action that people can take, whether this is recycling, using efficient light bulbs or more actively lobbying government. Most presenters try to be upbeat, presenting a positive vision of the future with a clear call to action. A common message communicated is the idea that we have ‘ten years left to act’ in order to curtail climate change and save the planet.

Despite this positive focus in public, many scientists are much more gloomy in private. Chris Goodall [1] calls this ‘the second glass effect’. After his hopeful presentations about the different technologies that could save the planet, during the post-lecture wine reception he may begin to share his pessimism as to whether collectively we have left it too late to adopt these technologies or whether the will or political capital exists to introduce them. Indeed, many scientists think the news is far worse than what is publicly broadcast; they believe that we have already bypassed many of the tipping points to avoid dangerous climate change, that catastrophe cannot now be averted and that future generations will suffer on a scale we cannot fully comprehend.

For fear of sending their audience into despair or alienating them and being written off as a ‘doom and gloom’ merchant, many scientists and environmentalists filter the message through a more optimistic lens than reality suggests. If scientists are guilty of this, politicians and government officials are even more so. Focused solely on re-election in a year or two, the last thing a politician wants to do is to talk about the reality of challenges for fear of making people despairing and fearful or, worse, vote not to re-elect them.

Of course the public audience is complicit in this arrangement. Despite the emerging evidence to the contrary, the vast majority of people are happy to live in denial about the severity of problems or imagine that ‘easy’ solutions will be found. The general public belief is that we can more or less continue our current lifestyles as they are. Okay, we might turn down the heating a degree, but the most common belief is that we can continue our current lifestyle and at the same time save the planet. The scale of the impending catastrophe simply hasn’t sunk in, nor has the scale of action needed for humanity just to survive. Even with the current economic crisis, most people simply hope that we can ‘restart the party’ and return to the unsustainable economic growth cycle that caused the problems in the first place. To consider radical changes is too scary at the moment and invites just too much despair.

Addiction, denial and fear

The only pain that we can avoid in life is the pain caused by trying to avoid pain
RD Laing

One way to understand the enduring widespread denial of the consequences of our lifestyles and actions is to consider it in terms of an addiction. We are addicted to the comfortable life that cheap oil has afforded us and are so terrified of being without it that we will deny for as long as possible all evidence of harm. Fear underpins most addictions and causes addicts to refuse to think long term and to keep living day to day, chasing the next fix. This is why advertising campaigns that try to scare the public with the effects of smoking, drinking or drugs rarely work with addicts. The fear that they won’t get their drug today is far greater than a vague fear of long-term consequences. As a result, confrontational and fear-based therapeutic approaches to treating addictions have largely been discredited.

More successful therapeutic approaches focus on removing the fear that underpins the addiction and helping the recovering addict envision a positive, drug-free life that is far more attractive and appealing than what the drug has to offer. In a similar way, many of the innovative movements within the environmental field have focused not just on warning about the dangerous consequences of our current trajectory, but also tried to ‘sell’ the benefits of a low-carbon future: closely connected, sustainable communities that are far happier than the disconnected modern world in which we currently live.

While this positive approach has been successful to a degree and led to many people understanding and taking on board these aspirations, sadly it has led to very little actual behavioural change in terms of sustainable lifestyles (even among those who are zealots of the environmental movement) and we are as dependent as we ever were. The reason for this lack of change is the absence of the second important factor necessary to create the conditions for addicts to change: consequences. People with serious addictions are unlikely to change unless they experience directly the negative consequences of their addiction. Given the strength of our enjoyment of and dependency on our Western lifestyle, the threat of consequences somewhere down the line is simply not enough to make us change. It is far easier, in fact, to listen to the many dissenting voices and vested interests that deny that any actual harm is being incurred.

That resource depletion and climate change remain, for many people, only a vague threat, means that these people will simply not change until they have to. Even though early change or adaptation is far preferable to emergency change and forced adaptation, it’s likely that our collective denial will only be punctured when our addicted society is beset by an unending set of crises and catastrophes. Once this happens, it will of course be a very perilous time. People who have been hitherto in comfortable denial will become fearful and desperate and may engage in desperate actions, leading to social unrest, war and societal breakdown. Preparing to manage these social difficulties in the future is likely to be as significant as managing the economy.

Managing despair

The greatest challenge now facing our leaders is to manage the nation’s mood as much as it is to manage its economy.

The famous psychologist Kubler Ross [2] proposed a five-stage model of how an individual responds to bereavement or pending loss: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and, finally, acceptance. Once denial is passed, a person may experience great anger at their loss, which is often accompanied by seeking to apportion blame and even seek retribution. This can be followed by bargaining or engaging in wishful thinking or unhelpful strategies to mitigate the loss and then by depression and grief as the impact of the loss finally comes to bear. Kubler Ross argues that once this grief work is done, the person can reach some level of acceptance and integration. Interestingly, many writers in the environmental field describe their own personal journey of awareness in similar terms. They describe a period of denial, before having a ‘peak oil moment’ when they realise that the world on which they depend is unsustainable. This is often followed by a period of despair and, finally, by some acceptance and a commitment to constructive action and hope.

Such a grief model may also suggest the stages we will collectively go through as the denial about the unsustainability of our current lifestyles is punctured and we are beset by crises and consequences. If the first half of the age of oil has been characterised by exuberance, ever-increasing expansion, and an almost manic consumption of the world’s resources, the second half will be characterised by contraction, scarcity and depression. Once the denial falls away and it becomes clear that the decline of our Western industrialisation is chronic and long term, collective anger is likely to be widespread. People will seek to blame someone for the situation they are in, and many will look for easy answers or scapegoats. It is at these times that people can choose radical and extreme political views. Just as the economic turmoil and the great depression of the 1930s led to the rise of dictatorships and totalitarian states in Europe, so these times will be fraught by similar dangers. In addition to anger, there is also likely to be widespread depression and despair. This is just as dangerous and has the potential to make people feel helpless in the face of negative forces within society, disabling them from taking action and missing the positive opportunities in their midst.

Just as it’s important to prepare for the economic challenges ahead, so it is also important to prepare for the associated psychological, community and societal problems that will emerge. Once the crises occur, community and society leaders will have a particular responsibility to manage the public anger and despair that will emerge in order to avoid the destructive paths of social disorder. The twin challenge will be to help people channel their anger into constructive rather than negative courses of action and to present a vision that inspires hope in the face of widespread difficult circumstances. Such plans will be as crucial as economic and technological ones in helping people survive the transition.

Cultivating hope

It is in the deepest despair that is born the greatest hope
Miguel de Unamuno

While the Kubler-Ross model provides a useful understanding of the stages of dealing with loss, critics often say that it misses a final step of hopeful and constructive action. Many people who experience loss move beyond acceptance, try to make meaning out of their experience, and channel their energy into constructive action. Many people who have lost a loved one to an illness will put their efforts into supporting others with the same illness, or dedicate themselves to educating others so they can avoid the loss they experienced. In addition, many people report that despite the pain and suffering, the experience of a trauma in the long term can actually have some benefits and help them reorient their life for the better. Many people in the environmental movement describe a similar process after they have been through the initial despair following their ‘peak oil realisation moment’. They move beyond acceptance of the facts and commit themselves to constructive action, whether in terms of educating others or building sustainable communities. Many report their life as being better, more integrated and even more hopeful once they became aware of the coming crises.

A second criticism of the five-stage grief model is that it is too simple and linear and that, in fact, people dealing with the prospect of a serious loss oscillate between positive and negative emotions. At times people can be in denial and at other times feel acceptance; they can alternate between anger and despair at their predicament and other times feel hope about what will come to pass. The family therapist Carmel Flaskis [3] talks about the co-existence of hope and hopelessness in working with people dealing with trauma and loss. People can move from great sadness, pain, despair and injustice to, at other times, great hope, courage, forgiveness and resilience. The key is to achieve some sort of balance between the two and to learn to cultivate hope in the face of despair. Helping people cope with trauma is about helping them express, understand and manage their despair, as well as helping them cultivate hope and new meaning beyond the original experience. Good therapeutic work is characterised by compassion (accepting the person whatever feelings they have and wherever they are on the grief process) reflection (highlighting to the person that they have choices in how they respond to the trauma they are affecting them) and empowerment (helping the person channel their energy into constructive courses of action).

Such approaches can be applied to whole communities dealing with actual or potential trauma. The Buddhist Joanna Macy [4] leads ‘despair and empowerment’ workshops designed to help groups express and process the feelings of grief at the destruction of the people and the planet, with a view to helping them overcome helplessness and hopelessness and reach a more empowered, constructive position. Such work may prove to be more important in the future when the consequences of climate change and resource depletion begin to bite and community despair is more widespread.

Building resilience

Anything that does not kill me makes me stronger
Frederick Nietzsche

In my work as a mental-health professional I have been struck at how differently various people cope with adversity or challenging life events. Some people become traumatised and damaged by what has happened to them and can become embittered or angry even for years after the original events. Other people are able to move on from the trauma and not let it damage them in the same way; in some cases they’re able to learn from it and even turn it into a positive force in their life. Modern psychologists are very interested in the concept of resilience; they want to understand what qualities and protective factors allow an individual to cope with trauma and adversity. Many different things seem to make a difference, but the ability to be flexible in challenging circumstances is crucial. Whether a person can think constructively (making the best of the situation as it is) or take an active rather than a passive coping stance (such as taking action to make life better or combat the negative effects), and whether they have access to good-quality support at the time of the trauma and afterwards, can all contribute to better coping and survival.

In his great work Man’s Search for Meaning, the psychologist Victor Frankl [5] describes his experience as a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp and shares his observations of how differently people coped there. Some were overwhelmed and descended into despair; others were better able to survive, depending on how they responded to circumstances imposed upon them. For Frankl, the crucial factor was finding meaning in the experience and making positive choices no matter how much the person’s freedom was curtailed. After the war, he went on to develop his therapeutic method on finding meaning in all forms of existence, no matter how traumatic or difficult. It is this meaning that provides the person with a positive reason to continue living. In the future, how we cope with the new conditions of contracting resources and curtailed freedom will depend not only on our collective resilience and adaptability but also on our ability to make sense of and find meaning in our new circumstances.

A community of hope

Hope is something you create together
Kaethe Weingarten

Recent psychological research has highlighted the importance of hope as an essential precondition to human happiness, particularly in the face of difficult change and adversity. Charles Snyder [6], one of the leading researchers in the field, has defined hope as born out of having a clear goal/vision and the sense of the means to make progress towards it. While hope is often considered an individual human trait or feeling, Kaethe Weingarten [7] has conceived it as a shared creation between people. When people are overwhelmed by adversity and feel hopelessness or despair, it is their contact with other caring people that lifts them or creates the conditions for renewed hope. For this reason she argues that people in despair should resist isolation and seek connection, and people who possess some hope should resist indifference and reach out and support others. This is the basis of a resourceful, and resilient, community.

One of the most innovative movements that is meeting the challenge of the coming crises is the Transition Towns movement [8] By bringing people together around shared concerns, building collective vision and common meaning, and focusing people on constructive action, the movement does much to create hope in individuals and communities in the face of despair. Furthermore, the movement not only builds resilience in local economies by reducing dependence on fossil fuels etc., but it also builds resilience in communities that will be havens for the many people who will feel despair and loss as the future crises deepen. Critics of the movement who argue that many of the local actions are not sufficient for dealing with what are global problems miss the point completely. While the current actions may not be the ones to solve the problems (indeed no-one knows exactly the correct actions needed), over time the movement creates a resourceful community that will be best placed to adapt to future challenges and thus preserve hope for future generations.


‘Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense regardless of how it turns out’
Vaclav Havel

‘Hope is the process of arriving at a goal — no matter how much it has shifted — and making sense of the journey there.
Kaethe Weingarten

We are facing very uncertain and difficult times. In addition to the twin challenges of peak oil and climate change and the resultant economic and societal problems, we face very deep challenges to our collective psyche and spirit as people. When we consider the scale of the problems we face, it is easy to retreat into denial or wishful thinking or feel despair, helpless or hopeless about change.

How we cope will depend largely on how resourceful we are and whether we can build communities that nurture hope rather than despair, keep people together rather than apart and cultivate creative adaptation in the face of adversity rather than destructive action. This is the best chance for our children.

When despair threatens to overwhelm us, rather than being lured towards anger or hatred, we can remember the words of Kaethe Weingarten, who said ‘you can do hope without feeling hope’. Creating hope is largely a choice about taking constructive action and you don’t have to wait until you feel hopeful to take this action. I think this is what Shaun Chamberlain [9] means when he speaks of the ‘pessimism of the intellect and the optimism of the will’. While we may doubt that our actions may work, we still act in the best faith we can. Furthermore, when we take collective, concrete and constructive action, in the process we generate hope and a sense of movement and possibility. We also counterbalance the cynicism, despair and inaction that could hobble the next generation. In this way, we can give them the freedom and encouragement to embrace their future. Now that is something to be hopeful about.


  1. Chris Goddall (2008), Ten Technologies to Save the Planet, London: Green Profile
  2. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross (2005), On Grief and Grieving, London: Simon and Schuster
  3. Carmel Flaskas (2007), “The Balance of Hope and Hopelessness”, in C. Flaskas, I. McCarthy, J.Sheehan (Eds) Hope and Despair in Narrative and Family Therapy East Sussex: Routledge
  4. As cited in Richard Heinberg (2007), Peak Everything, London: Clairview
  5. Victor Frankl (1959) Man’s Search for Meaning, Boston: Simon and Schuster
  6. Snyder, C. R. (2000) Handbook of hope: Theory, measures, and applications. New York: Academic Press.
  7. Kaethe Weingarten (2007), “Hope in a Time of Global Despair”, in C. Flaskas, I. McCarthy, J.Sheehan (Eds) Hope and Despair in Narrative and Family Therapy East Sussex: Routledge
  8. Rob Hopkins (2008), The Transition Handbook: From oil dependency to local resilience,
    Devon: Green Books
  9. Shaun Chamberlin (2009), The Transition Timeline, Devon: Green Books

Featured image: Stones in water and reflection of the sun in the water. Author: photoshu. Source: http://www.sxc.hu/photo/1290692

Why Pittsburgh real estate never crashes: the tax reform that stabilised a city’s economy

Dan Sullivan

Pittsburgh and Cleveland have adopted diametrically opposed strategies, with dramatically different results. In Pittsburgh, foreclosure rates are low despite the downturn, home prices are climbing slightly and construction rates are increasing. Cleveland, meanwhile, is struggling to stem a complete collapse of its housing market. The difference lies in the fact that Pittsburgh has had a site-value tax, which steadies the market, and Cleveland has not.

130 miles apart, Pittsburgh and Cleveland are similar cities in many ways. Pittsburgh lies at the junction of three major rivers and Cleveland on a natural harbour on Lake Erie. These navigable waters connected them to coal and iron ore mines and made them industrial hubs but the decline of steelmaking and related industries has left them as the two largest “rust belt” cities. At the beginning of the last century, Cleveland was the nation’s fifth largest city and Pittsburgh was eighth, and Cleveland was the third largest corporate headquarters (behind New York and Chicago) until it fell in rank to Pittsburgh. Both have seen their populations decline with migrations to the suburbs and to the south and west of the United States. Both now have fewer than half the residents they had during their peak years.

Cleveland has never fully recovered from the collapse of “big steel,” while Pittsburgh rebounded easily. This was because Ohio never gave Cleveland the option of having a land tax similar to that in Pittsburgh, and as a result, it relied less on real estate taxes for raising revenue. Its lack of a land tax means that its property prices tend to be higher than in Pittsburgh and purchasers consequently have to borrow more. In 2005, Cleveland had an affordability index [median house price divided by median household income] of 3.61 compared to 2.44 in Pittsburgh. Although 3.61 was not high by national standards, it was the highest of any northeastern industrial city.

In 2008, just after the housing bubble broke, Cleveland led the nation in mortgage foreclosures per capita while Pittsburgh’s foreclosure rate remained exceptionally low. Since then, the foreclosure rates in Las Vegas and many Californian cities, none of which collect significant real estate taxes, have passed Cleveland’s foreclosure rate. However, on September 15, 2010, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that while at the end of the second quarter of 2010, 21.5% of America’s single-family homes had underwater mortgages (the American term for negative equity), only 5.6% did in Pittsburgh. As a result Pittsburgh was top of a list of the ten markets with the lowest underwater mortgage figures. [37]

How land value tax prevents speculation

Land value taxes discourage the bidding up of land prices and it is cheap land coupled with lower taxes on productivity that attracts productive investors to Pittsburgh. During the boom decades, land-taxing cities like Pittsburgh could not offer the speculative gains that California did but now they not only offer lower land prices and lower productivity taxes, but, importantly in these volatile times, they also offer land prices that are unlikely to fall in the future simply because they never became inflated in the first place.

This came about because investors are not just interested in the return to their investment but in the after-tax return. If land is increasing in value by 9%, and there is a 1% tax on land values, the net return is 8%. However, a 5% tax on land values cuts the net return to only 4%. Similarly, if the return to a productive investment such as a building is 9% and the taxes on productivity are only 1%, the net return is 8%. If the productivity taxes take 5%, they reduce the return to only 4%. If an investor has the choice of putting all his money into building a small number of houses or into buying up a much larger number of vacant lots, he will choose whichever course of action yields the highest after-tax return. That is, he will choose to build in a land-tax economy and choose to buy up land in a productivity-tax economy.

Pittsburgh has not always done so well during recessions as it is doing today. It suffered badly in the real-estate crashes up to and including the 1906 depression but its property market has been remarkably stable ever since and is continuing to attract investors despite the present recession. This transformation is linked to a series of economic reforms adopted between 1906 and 1913. Before 1906, Pittsburgh gave special tax breaks to large landholders under “agricultural” and “rural” classifications. During Pittsburgh’s reform era, the city not only eliminated those breaks but also changed its property tax to fall more heavily on land and more lightly on improvements. Productive land use became less costly while idle speculation became unprofitable. As a result, city real-estate prices did not crash during hard times because they hadn’t inflated during boom times.

America’s early depressions were sometimes as severe as the Great Depression, which was “great” partly in the sense that it was global, just as World War I was originally called The Great War because it was global. (In fact, far more Americans lost their lives in the Civil War than in both “great wars” combined.) America’s most severe panic was probably in 1837, which closed more than 40% of the banks [1] and wreaked havoc on the economy.

According to historian Stefan Lorant, “The panics of 1819, 1837 and 1857 hit the city [Pittsburgh] with particular severity. Business slackened and factories closed; and workingmen and merchants alike felt the impact of the hardships.”[2] Lorant notes that the depressions of 1873, 1884 and 1893 were also severe in Pittsburgh. He quotes The Growth of the American Republic, by professors Morrison and Commager:

Prices and wages hit rock-bottom and there seemed to be no market for anything. Half a million laborers struck against conditions which they thought intolerable, and most of the strikes were dismal failures. Ragged and hungry bands of unemployed swarmed the countryside, the fires from their hobo camps flickering a message of warning and despair to the affrighted townsfolk.[3]

In 1894, “Coxey’s Army” of unemployed began its march on Washington, D.C., from western Ohio, with members having arrived by train from as far as Texas. Their ranks nearly doubled when they passed through Pittsburgh and Homestead.

The Russell Sage Foundation’s famous Pittsburgh Survey of 1910 showed how severe the poverty was here. “One third of all who die in Pittsburgh… die under five years of age. One fourth… die under one year of age.”[4]

Fighting land monopoly and speculation

Until recently, Americans had always opposed the kind of land monopoly that had oppressed Europe. The Articles of Confederation called for even the federal government to be funded from a tax on the value of privately held land. [5]

The minor parties that formed the Republican Party also formed the roots of the progressive movement. They regarded land monopoly as a second form of slavery, and opposed both forms vigorously. The Free Soil Party advocated “the free grant to actual settlers,” as opposed to selling large tracts of land to privileged elites. [6]

Abraham Lincoln had gained his reputation defending homesteaders against “land sharks” who would file counter-claims and demand payment to drop the challenges. In 1843, Lincoln wrote:

“An individual, or company, or enterprise requiring land should hold no more than is required for their home and sustenance, and never more than they have in actual use in the prudent management of their legitimate business, and this much should not be permitted when it creates an exclusive monopoly. All that is not so used should be held for the free use of every family to make homesteads, and to hold them as long as they are so occupied….

The idle talk of foolish men, that is so common now, will find its way against it, with whatever force it may possess, and as strongly promoted and carried on as it can be by land monopolists, grasping landlords, and the titled and untitled senseless enemies of mankind everywhere.” [7]

After the Civil War, progressives witnessed the closing of the frontier and saw land speculators out-bidding those who wanted to put the land to use during the boom years, fueled by the expansion of bank credit that contracted during recessions. Besides monetary and banking reform, progressives advocated real-estate taxes, particularly on land, to make such speculation unprofitable. [8]

The Pittsburgh battle for reform

Although land speculation was a problem everywhere, it was particularly bad in Pittsburgh, which had been carved up for the benefit of officers in the Revolutionary War. Speculators and large estates in the city got special “farmland” and “rural” tax rates at the expense of urban properties. The price of land, and the taxes on urban real estate, became so high that workers lived in tiny houses on tiny lots. [9]

Henry W. Oliver, president of the Pittsburgh Common Council, complained in an 1872 speech of “the great landholders and speculators, and the great estates which have been like a nightmare on the progress of the city for the last thirty years.”[10]

The same Pittsburgh Survey that exposed Pittsburgh’s poverty showed that this classification system had “enabled big real estate holdings to get out from under the full share of their local responsibilities.”[11] Corrupt assessment practices also shifted taxes off of speculators. However, that government was swept away after perhaps the largest municipal scandal in American history resulted in 41 indictments against city councilmen, bankers and industrialists.

In 1911, the reform government abolished special tax breaks for large estates [12] and abolished the taxation of machinery. [13]

In January 1912, the Pittsburgh Civic Commission, headed by H. D. W. English and H. J. Heinz, reported that land prices were extraordinarily high in Pittsburgh at that time, second only to those in New York City. “Industries will be slow to locate in Pittsburgh if rents or prices of land are higher than in other cities,” the report stated.

It also noted that a few individuals and families had owned large tracts and that some owners, by making ground leases or by improving to a very small extent, had received sufficient income to enable them to hold their land for increases in value due to the city’s rapid growth.

A few individuals have been enabled by circumstances to place and hold land prices at a figure which prevents the profitable use of the land by others. Can this paralyzing grip on Pittsburgh’s growth be broken? We recommend twice as heavy a tax on land values as on building values as the remedy. This means to place a penalty on holding vacant or inadequately improved land and to offer special inducements and premiums for improving land. [14]

Mayor Magee endorsed the measure on learning that Vancouver, British Columbia, had enjoyed considerable success after replacing their building tax with a land value tax (LVT). [15] Supporters got a state law introduced for second-class cities (Pittsburgh and Scranton) requiring those cities to adopt the Civic Commission’s proposal, with a phase-in spread over ten years.

Even the Pittsburgh Real Estate Board (now known as the Association of Realtors) had joined with the Single Tax Club of Pittsburgh, the Civic Commission, the Pittsburgh Board of Trade, the Civic Club of Allegheny County and other organizations in support of the bill. The Pittsburgh Dispatch wrote: “The realty board endorsed the act and recommended its passage and is anxious to have the Governor approve it.” They sent a delegation to Harrisburg to urge passage of the bill. [16]

It passed in the House by a vote of 113 to 5 and in the Senate by a vote of 40 to 0. [17] A repeal campaign was launched by the largest landowners, including agents of the Schenley estate, the biggest of all. Some opponents of the graded tax said that “unimproved landowners are the poorest of property owners” and that the graded tax was disturbing to the economic and financial situation in Pittsburgh and that it would bring depression and hard times.[18] Former Mayor Magee traveled to Harrisburg to defend the bill. He said the opposing delegation from Pittsburgh didn’t represent the small property owner but the large interests of the city. “They come here weeping and wailing,” said Magee, “and you would think the small property owner would be wiped out of existence. They tell you it is a terrible experiment.”[19]

The Pittsburgh Press also defended the law, stating:

The law is working to the complete satisfaction of everybody except a few real estate speculators who hope to hold idle land until its value is greatly increased by improvements erected on surrounding territory. Everybody endeavoring to gain a big profit in this parasitical manner is naturally opposed to the law and to the principle which it represents; it is nevertheless endorsed by and is clearly in the interest of the vast majority of the public.[20]

The repeal bill passed both houses, but was vetoed by Governor Brumbaugh, who said:

This repealer is opposed by the largest group of protestants that have been heard on any bill…. It is advocated by those in charge of the fiscal policy of one of the two cities concerned. Inasmuch as there is such a conflict of opinion, and inasmuch as the law has scarcely yet been tried, it is well to allow it to operate until a commanding judgment decrees its fate. To disturb it now, when a preponderance of opinion favors it, is unwise.”[21]

Pittsburgh’s experience with land value tax

Land prices only rose 14% in Pittsburgh during the 12 years after the graded tax was adopted in 1913, while they boomed in the rest of the nation. [22] Real-estate interests complained that LVT was robbing Pittsburgh landowners of gains enjoyed elsewhere. However, Mayor Magee saw these gains as speculative, and stood by his actions. He noted in 1924:

I am principally interested in two things regarding taxation: the progress of the graded tax law and the problem of assessments for public works. Both concern the unearned increment, the profit of land owner who becomes rich through growth of the community without effort on his own part. I am frankly opposed to him…. [H]e is a parasite on the body politic.”[23]

Magee was proved correct. National land prices peaked in 1925 and plummeted with the Great Depression, except in Pittsburgh. Despite the great flood of 1936, Pittsburgh’s land prices fell only 11% between 1930 and 1940, compared to 58% in Detroit, 50% in Los Angeles, 46% in Cleveland, 28% in Boston, 27% in New Orleans, 26% in Cincinnati, 25% in Milwaukee and 21% in New York. Land prices in Pittsburgh even fell less than in Washington, D.C., where the New Deal was booming. [24]

Of course, times were still tough in Pittsburgh, especially for those who depended on steel or other industries tied to the global economy. Still, Pittsburgh was spared the added problem of a real-estate crash because its graded tax had discouraged speculators from bidding up land prices during the previous boom.

After World War II, other industrial cities got hammered once again, but even though Pittsburgh had been the world’s number-one supplier of armor plate during the war, it enjoyed a renaissance that was the subject of at least 26 national and international news articles. [25]

The most amazing aspect of Pittsburgh’s renaissance is that it had a construction boom without a real-estate price boom. In 1960, when real estate went into another recession, Pittsburgh continued building.

During that recession, House & Home, the construction industry’s leading trade journal, recommended that other cities prevent land bubbles by doing what Pittsburgh was doing — taxing land values more heavily than building values. It quoted Pennsylvania governor and former Pittsburgh mayor David L. Lawrence as saying: “There is no doubt in my mind that the graded tax law has been a good thing for the city of Pittsburgh. It has discouraged the holding of vacant land for speculation and provides an incentive for building improvements.”[26]

Over the years, Pittsburgh adopted other taxes that eroded the effect of LVT on speculation. In December 1978, however, Pittsburgh council president William J. Coyne rejected the mayor’s call for increased wage taxes and convinced council to nearly double the LVT. The next year Pittsburgh raised the LVT to five times the building tax rate, and two years after that raised it again. These were also Pittsburgh’s last overall tax increases for twelve years.

Another spectacular surge in construction followed as owners of underused land became more willing to sell. The only eminent domain controversy involved land acquisition for the PPG complex the year before LVT increases went into effect.[27]

1978 was also the year that California passed Proposition 13, which sharply curtailed real-estate taxes in that state. From that point on, cities in California got smaller shares of their revenue from property taxes than cities in any other state. While Pittsburgh enjoyed steady land prices in the midst of a building boom, California was consumed by a land-speculation frenzy. Foreign interests acquired more California land within the first 18 months after Proposition 13’s passage than they had accumulated in the entire history of that state.[28]

Most foreign land acquisition was by Japanese concerns. How did they get enough US dollars to buy up California land? Early in 1980, US Steel chairman David Roderick accused Japan of “dumping” cars on the US market, noting that Toyotas sold for 17% less in the US than in Japan.[29] Japan had already been increasing exports to the US for some time, but lightly taxed California land made American dollars even more attractive to Japanese land speculators.

In 1979, Pittsburgh’s largest employer, the Jones & Laughlin steel mill, shut down. Even this didn’t prevent Pittsburgh from enjoying the biggest construction surge in its history. The real-estate editor of Fortune credited the LVT with playing a major role in Pittsburgh’s “second renaissance.”[30]

Councilman Coyne was elected to Congress in 1982. In 1983, council president Ben Woods convinced council to reduce taxes on buildings and make up the shortfall from higher taxes on land values, even though there was no need for more revenue.

However, Pittsburgh and its school district also levied an aggregate 4% wage tax, and research requested by mayor Masloff indicated that this tax was driving renters and potential home buyers out of the city at an alarming rate. In 1988, Masloff determined that the city had a surplus, and reduced the wage tax by five-eighths of one percent.

In 1989 she proposed to lower the wage tax by another 0.5 % and make up the revenue with a conventional property tax increase of 10 mils (1 percent) on both land and buildings. Council president Jack Wagner proposed to put the entire increase on land values instead. A storm of protest raged at the public tax hearing against increasing overall property taxes, but most testimony with regard to Wagner’s LVT alternative was in favor of it. In a compromise with the mayor, Wagner’s council increased the tax on land value by 33 mils and on buildings by 5 mils. Pittsburgh’s real-estate values and construction levels remained steady during the recession of 1990.

As Pittsburgh’s economy continued to grow and land values remained stable, California’s land prices rapidly rose and its economy became strained. California’s housing affordability index (median house price divided by median income) had been only 10% higher than the national average when Proposition 13 passed. By 2005, it was three times the national average. 23 of the nation’s least affordable cities were in California. The median house price in San Francisco rose to 12.8 times the median income. Even dusty, miserable Bakersfield, the most affordable city in California, had an affordability index of 5.6. Pittsburgh’s index was 2.44, among the lowest of any northeastern industrial city.[31]

Once again, the real-estate collapse missed Pittsburgh because LVT prevented the bidding up of Pittsburgh’s land prices during the national boom decades of the ’80s and ’90s. In 2008, with the nation’s construction industry coming to a near standstill, the business agent of Pittsburgh’s Carpenter’s Union announced that they were looking for 250 additional carpenters and apprentices to fill the increased demand Pittsburgh was enjoying. Meanwhile, California, which had curtailed real-estate taxes at the behest of those who said that those taxes were “forcing people out of their homes,” led the nation in housing foreclosures.

Undoing the graded tax

Support for taxing land values more than buildings remained so strong in the City of Pittsburgh that efforts to repeal the policy consistently failed.[32] many years, the chief city assessor was also the head of the Henry George Foundation of America, which championed LVT throughout North America [33]

In 1942, however, responsibility to assess land values was shifted to the county, where opposition to LVT was stronger and support weaker.[34] A provision of Pennsylvania law was added to the second-class county code requiring Allegheny County to assess the value of land and improvements separately. Although the law reflects preferred assessment practices anyhow, it was put in place to protect the city’s LVT.

County assessors gradually came to ignore land values, keeping those the city assessor had put in place and putting subsequent changes onto building values whenever possible. 1980 assessments were a fairly accurate reflection of 1950 land values.

This meant that land values became relatively over-assessed in declining neighborhoods and under-assessed in advancing neighborhoods. However, the city’s shifts to LVT in the 1980s were followed by substantial land-assessment reductions in Shadyside, the trendiest neighborhood in the city, and smaller reductions in Oakland and Squirrel Hill, the city’s two most prosperous and politically prominent neighborhoods after Shadyside. This marks the point when county assessors crossed the line from neglect to overt malfeasance. Even so, home owners in the poorest neighborhoods still saved under LVT, and many in the richest neighborhoods paid more. Middle-income neighbourhoods saved the most.

However, opponents of LVT dominated the county board of assessors. They hired a private assessment firm, Sabre Systems, which assessed land values with such a terrible lack of uniformity that the city was forced to abandon the tax in 2001. Sabre Systems assessed lots with buildings on them six to ten times as high as identical, adjacent vacant lots. They did this only in Pittsburgh, even though there were three smaller cities in the county, Clairton, Duquesne and McKeesport, that also relied on LVT.

Wildly erratic land-value assessments forced Pittsburgh City Council to abandon LVT in 2001. The increased cost to home owners was partly offset by special exemptions, but this was done at the expense of renters and business properties, who have had to pay higher taxes into a shrinking budget. Many council members blamed the assessments and said the tax change was temporary. Only one council member blamed the LVT itself.

After losing a long series of court cases and appeals, the county is today finally addressing assessment irregularities under court order. The city controller and several city council members have expressed interest in returning to LVT if realistic land assessments are made because, if Pittsburgh is to be protected from the next recession, it must end these abuses and reinstate LVT before the next boom era.

Pittsburgh is not alone

Every one of the 19 land-taxing cities in Pennsylvania enjoyed a construction surge after shifting to LVT, even though their nearest neighbors continued to decline. Clairton, Altoona and Aliquippa have shifted farther than any other cities toward a pure LVT, and are enjoying unrivaled economic vitality. LVT has also been far more extensively employed in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Denmark and other countries, with similar success. Those who dispute the effects of LVT and suggest that Pittsburgh is prospering for other reasons have not put forward an answer as to why virtually all land-taxing cities in the world out-perform their neighbors.

Even states that rely heavily on conventional property taxes (with equal rates on land and buildings) have done far better than states that have curtailed property taxes.

Claims that Pittsburgh is prospering because of its efforts to become a “green” city do not explain how Pittsburgh held its land values during the Great Depression, when it was the dirtiest, smokiest, most polluted city in the nation, nor why Pittsburgh land values failed to inflate as it cleaned itself up during what were boom years for other cities, nor why the much greener cities of Portland and Seattle have suffered serious economic setbacks.

Claims that Pittsburgh was saved by its economic development projects try to gloss over the many disastrous projects, where one subsidy after another went to businesses that opened, sucked out the subsidies and then failed, or to over-subsidized corporate businesses that drove out competing, fully-taxed smaller businesses in a process known as “economic cannibalism.” Those who suggest that the new casino helped the economy have to admit that the city with the highest foreclosure rate in the U.S. is Las Vegas, the casino capital of the nation.

If anything good can be attributed to our changing policies, it is that the changes were either thwarted or came too late to do the damage done in other cities. Pittsburgh fought unsuccessfully to get a “commuter” wage tax like the 2% tax in Cleveland or the roughly 4% tax in Philadelphia. However, those cities’ commuter taxes drove out businesses even faster than residency taxes drive out residents. Some suburbs of Cleveland even made a science of stealing businesses by charging the tax on workers and then rebating half of it back to the employers. Meanwhile, Philadelphia’s flight of businesses has been so bad that even the Philadelphia Association of Realtors has advocated shifting from wage tax to LVT.

What will become of Pittsburgh?

If Pittsburgh can either force the county to assess land properly or retake control of its own assessments, it will once again be able to boast the most recession-proof real estate in the nation. However, if it does not do so before the next real-estate price boom, it will not be able to prevent the next crash either. This is because LVT prevents booms and preventing the booms is the only way to prevent busts.

Lessons for environmentalists

Extending LVT to air, water and non-renewable resources

Some pollutants are so noxious that they must be banned outright, but most must merely be reduced. The principle that the earth is a commons applies to air, water and non-renewable resources. A pollution tax on emissions begins with the premise that everyone has an equal right to enjoy the air and water, and that those who use the air and water to hold their pollutants owe rent to the rest of use, whose enjoyment of that air and water is diminished. Thus, while a local LVT might not prevent factory pig farms, local taxes on water pollution certainly would.

The difference between land and non-renewable resources is that the latter are consumed, while land is merely held. Therefore, non renewables cannot be rented. Still, the principle that resources are part of the commons means that it is proper for the community to decide how quickly or slowly it wants those resources to be consumed, and to set royalty charges accordingly.

Cap and trade and the Enclosure Acts

Cap and Trade, on the other hand, is based on the idea that those who have been polluting all along have somehow earned a “property right” to continue polluting, and that those who want to pollute, even if they produce more and pollute less, must purchase “pollution rights” from the entrenched polluters.

It is put forward as a liberal environmentalist idea, but it has its origins in the “pollution tax credit” schemes of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. It is a very dangerous approach, as it not only rewards past polluters, but enables them to punish cleaner, greener competitors.

For example, a company that can produce electricity with half the emissions must first purchase pollution credits from the established polluters. If the established polluters don’t want to sell, or want to charge enough to make the greener alternative unprofitable, their Cap and Trade privileges actually hinder the transition to greener technology.

The burden of Cap and Trade falls on ordinary people for the benefit of the privileged. It is analogous to the Enclosure Acts of England and other countries, where, “for the sake of game,” ordinary people were prohibited from hunting or disturbing wilderness land, while nobles were allowed even more latitude to run roughshod over the environment.

There are various sound alternatives to Cap and Trade, from pollution taxes to Cap and Share, in which every citizen gets pollution tax credits to sell to the polluters. The differences between these proposals are minor, and the best alternative is probably the one that is simplest to administer. The essential feature is that polluters must pay the community to pollute, rather than greener industries paying dirtier industries to pollute less.

LVT vs. rural building restrictions

Many environmentalists think of sprawl as building in rural areas, and try to fight sprawl with restrictions that hamper the economy. Supporters of LVT see the demand for rural land as caused by the failure to build compact development in urban and inner suburban areas. Rural land is prized by developers for one reason only: it is less expensive to buy than urban and suburban land. A tax on the value of land draws that development inward and reduces the demand for rural and agricultural land. Removing land speculation as an obstacle to urban development has a positive effect on the economy, compared to imposing restrictions on rural land. The notion that “good environmentalism is good economics” is true with regard to LVT. It is hard to make a case that it is good with regard to building restrictions and the bureaucracy that inevitably accompanies them.

Problems with exemptions

Some environmentalists argue for exemptions for land owners who hold their land as farmland or in a “clean and green” state. Those who hold “clean and green” land are invariably wealthy, for who else can afford to hold large tracts of land out of use? Often, land is held back where demand is high, forcing development to “leap frog” over that land into more rural areas. As the editors of House & Home noted half a century ago,

Suburban sprawl is what makes homebuyers drive past miles of unused or underused countryside to get home to their tiny 60’ x 120’ lots. (Open fields, cow pastures, private golf links, and millionaire estates are fine, but it is much better to drive out five miles beyond your home to enjoy seeing them when you want to than to have to drive five miles past their “No Trespassing” signs when all you want is to get home.)

House & Home thinks “development easements” are the worst idea yet. They just aggravate and perpetuate the sprawl by using tax money to keep golf links, orchards, and cow pastures where houses should be built, and push homebuilding out beyond to where the golf links, etc., should be. Green belts should be planned for maximum, not minimum, public use and enjoyment of the land. The 1,200 acre Field estate will make a fine state park, but as a fenced-in private property it was little or no good to anybody except the owners.[35]

Many who first hear about LVT fear that it will lead to “overdevelopment” of land, with no green space or human scale. However, Pittsburgh is reputed to have more trees than any other city in the U.S. While this is partly due to the city’s hilly terrain, it is also due to very large city parks, many of which were sold or donated to Pittsburgh by its largest land owners.

Municipal parks are an appropriate way to maintain green space; that is, space that is maintained for the benefit of all should be under the control of democratic institutions. In contrast, open land has often been held by private interests that enjoyed tax breaks while waiting for land values to “ripen,” and was then sold at a profit. Meanwhile, development leap-frogged over that land.

“Special farmland assessments” whereby land is assessed at its farm value instead of its market value, are similarly flawed. In genuine farming areas, the farm value is the market value. Farmland assessments mostly protect farms within or adjacent to the suburbs, and force the suburbs to leap-frog into farming areas.

“Smart growth” development zones and density zoning

Development zones, often based on the Portland model, are artificial attempts to offset the effects of automobile-based sprawl. They impose incentives for developing within the zone and penalties for developing outside the zone. However, where land is inadequately taxed, the price of land inside the zone will simply rise until it swallows the value of the incentives, and the price of land outside the zone will fall until it offsets the cost of the penalties.

The problem is further aggravated by density limits within the smart-growth area. Laws that prohibit high-rise buildings in low-rise zones, low-rise apartments in townhouse zones, and townhouses in zones for free-standing houses with minimum lot sizes, prevent development from occurring within the zone, both by preventing the developer from doing more with less land, and by keeping land prices high within the smart-growth zones. Abolishing density limits within urban areas is a lot smarter than imposing arbitrary smart-growth zones.

These smart-growth zones assume that development should occur within a large circle, but a look at development patterns prior to the automobile reveal that this was rarely the case. Rather, development was dominated by small, self-contained towns, connected to urban hubs by rivers, rail lines, or even roads. However, the roads were lightly traveled, as people tended to work and shop in the same small towns where they lived, and buy a substantial share of their foodstuffs from local farmers.

The bottom line is that it doesn’t matter how far a new development is from the center city. What matters is how far the people in the development will travel from their homes to the places where they routinely work and shop. This is impossible to manage via zoning laws, but substantial taxes on pollution and resource consumption will give people an incentive to arrange their lives accordingly, while substantial LVTs would make it easier for them to do so. Meanwhile, taxes on their own productivity could be reduced.

Alternative energy subsidies

Alternative energy subsidies take money from ordinary taxpayers, including those who have arranged their lives to consume very little energy and give it to people who consume energy, merely because they consume “less.” Thus the person who bundles up and lives in a cold house subsidizes high-efficiency furnaces, and the person who mostly gets around by walking and bicycling subsidizes electric and hybrid vehicles for those who cling to the automotive lifestyle. Replacing productivity taxes with LVTs and resource consumption taxes still gives the owner of the high-efficiency furnace and the electric car an advantage over the person with a dirty furnace and a gas-hog car, but it also gives the sweater-wearing walkers and cyclists an advantage over all energy wasters.

The same is true of public transit, which is extended via subsidies into sprawling suburbs where it just doesn’t work. Taxing land values and eliminating zoning creates the kind of environment where transit can compete with very little subsidy. What subsidies transit needs can come from the land-value increases that transit creates.

Ecological economics

The bottom line is that ecology and economics come from the same root and mean almost the same thing, the former from “study of the house” and the latter from “management of the house.” However, it is not enough for environmentalists to insist that good ecology is good economics, for the corollary is that bad economics makes for bad ecology.

Environmentalists naturally rankle at economics, which has been a tool for maximizing wealth from the time when kings sought to out-produce rival nations to modern times when corporate monopolies seek to out-produce rival corporations. That obsession has caused economics to become increasing divorced not only from environmentalism, but also from principles of justice and even from rationality.

Still, disdain for economics on the part of environmentalists perpetuates that logical disconnect. Fortunately, environmentalists do not have to wade through neoclassical econobabble. Rather, if they start with the same key premises that classical liberal economists and philosophers started with, the solutions become clear. Those premises are:

  1. that the Earth is a commons and that the rent of land belongs to the whole people,
  2. that the right to the Earth is a usufruct right, not a right to leave it in worse condition than one found it in, and
  3. that what a human being produces is entirely his own, so long as he has compensated the community for what he has taken from them or foisted on them.

Following these principals, one no longer has to argue whether global warming is apocalyptic or merely detrimental. The one form of energy that is wasted when it is not consumed is human energy. So long as human energy is taxed, following these principes make it obvious, even to global warming deniers, that taxes on non-renewable energy should replace taxes on human energy. So long as human beings sit in forced idleness, it becomes obvious that keeping non-renewables out of use is preferable to keeping human beings out of use.

The limits of resource consumption were not an issue in Thomas Jefferson’s day. Yet Jefferson recognized that forced idleness was caused by monopolization of the earth. Observing wretched poverty in France, he wrote:

Whenever there are in any country uncultivated lands and unemployed poor, it is clear that the laws of property have been so far extended as to violate natural right. The earth is given as a common stock for man to labor and live on. [36]

The global warming issue has been polarized into a battle between what may be called the alarmist camp and the denier camp, to the detriment of all. Stepping back from this battle, environmentalists can “cut the Gordian Knot” by realizing that it is not necessary for others to agree with their analysis of the problem, but only for others to agree with their solutions.

Shifting taxes off labour and legitimate (labour-produced) capital by placing as much of the tax burden as practible on land, natural resource extraction and pollution is a proposal that many in the “denier” camp can support.


  1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panic_of_1837
  2. Lorant, Stefan, Pittsburgh, The Story of an American City, 1999 edition, p. 101
  3. ibid, p. 196
  4. Ibid. p. 287, citing Homestead chapter of The Pittsburgh Survey.
  5. Articles of Confederation, Article VIII, “All charges of war, and all other expenses that shall be incurred for the common defense or general welfare, and allowed by the United States in Congress assembled, shall be defrayed out of a common treasury, which shall be supplied by the several States in proportion to the value of all land within each State, granted or surveyed for any person… http://www.usconstitution.net/articles.html#Article8
  6. Article 14, Free Soil Party Platform of 1848. http://www.angelfire.com/indie/ourcampaigns/1848.html
  7. Letter from Lincoln to Martin S. Morris, Springfield, March 26, 1843, included in Basler, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln
  8. Terence Powderly, head of the Knights of Labor, wrote that, if not for banking privilege, there would be no need for labor unions. The KoL listed one of its purposes as “To prevail upon governments to establish a purely national circulating medium, based upon the faith and resources of the nation, and issued directly to the people, without the intervention of any system of banking corporations, which money shall be a legal tender in payment of all debts, public or private..”
    -Thirty Years of Labor, chapter 9, “The Circulating Medium.”
    Powderly also wrote, “The demand of the order of Knights of Labor is, ‘that all lands now held for speculative purposes be taxed to their full value.’ The great difficulty is to ascertain to what extent lands are now held for the purpose of speculation…. If the Knights demanded that ‘all lands held by parties, other than the government, shall bear an equal proportion of the taxation required for the maintenance of the government, and unimproved lands shall be assessed at the same rate as the nearest improved land,’ they would come nearer to the establishment of a just rate of taxation, and whether lands were held for speculation or not, they would not escape their just proportion of taxation. -ibid, chapter 8, “Land, Telegraphy and Railroads.”
    See also, George, Henry,
    Progress and Poverty, Book V, Chapter 1, “The primary cause of recurring paroxysms of industrial depressions.”
  9. Some of these tiny-house neighborhoods survive today, most notably in the bottoms of Lawrenceville.
  10. Henry Oliver Evans, Iron Pioneer, Henry W. Oliver, New York, Dutton, 1942, pp. 65-6.
  11. Civic Frontage: The Pittsburgh Survey, “The Disproportion of Taxation in Pittsburgh,” pp. 156-213; 455-68.
  12. Pennsylvania Laws, 1911, p. 273, approved by Governor John K. Tener, May 11, 1911.
  13. ibid, pp. 287-88, approved, May 12, 1911.
  14. Pittsburgh Civic Commission, Civic Bulletin, January, 1912; also An Act to Promote Pittsburgh’s Progress, published by Pittsburgh Civic Commission in 1913.
  15. “But before finally committing himself to the plan, he [Mayor Magee] sent a special investigator, Thomas C. McMahon, a member of the board of assessors, to visit municipalities in western Canada where similar tax systems had been in operation and were attracting favorable attention. The City of Vancouver had entirely exempted buildings from taxation by gradual steps over a period of fifteen years. That community was enjoying a remarkable building boom, conditions were very prosperous, and the city was receiving ample revenue under its new tax plan.
    “Mayor L. D. Taylor of Vancouver came to Pittsburgh about this time to address the Oakland Board of Trade and gave a first-hand report which was decidedly in favor of shifting the tax burden from improvements to land values. Mayor Magee then gave his endorsement to the proposed law and ever thereafter was a consistent supporter of the graded tax plan, bringing to its support many of those who were closely associated with him in political life.”
    -Williams, Percy, The Pittsburgh Graded Tax Plan, Its History and Experience, citing Robert M. Haig, The Exemption of Improvements from Taxation in Canada and the United States, 1915, pp. 170-1 (a report prepared for the Committee on Taxation of the City of New York).
  16. Pittsburgh Dispatch, May 6, 1913, headed “Real Estate Board Committee Goes to Confer with Governor”
  17. Pennsylvania Legislative Journal, 1913, Vol. 2, pp. 1635-36, 2453
  18. Pittsburgh Post, April 28, 1915
  19. op.cit., Williams, Percy
  20. “Graded Tax Repealer Jolted,” Pittsburgh Press, May 18, 1915
  21. Pittsburgh Press, June 10, 1915, p. 1.
  22. op. cit., Williams, Percy, appendix, table 2, “Assessed Valuation – Land and Buildings – City of Pittsburgh” http://savingcommunities.org/docs/williams.percy/gradedtaxtables.html#table2
  23. ibid, http://savingcommunities.org/docs/williams.percy/gradedtax.html#f128
  24. ibid, http://savingcommunities.org/docs/williams.percy/gradedtax.html#f159
  25. Saturday Evening Post, August 3, 1946; June 9, 1956; Commonwealth, September, 1947; Pittsburgh Bulletin Index, January, 1948; Business Week, March 12, 1949; June 21, 1952; April 2, 1955; Greater Pittsburgh, April, 1949; National Geographic, July, 1949; Time, October 3, 1949; Architectural Forum, November, 1949; The American City, July, 1950; Town and Country, August, 1950; Harper’s, January, 1951; August, 1956; The Atlantic Monthly, May, 1951; Fortune, June, 1952; The Spectator (London), December 19, 1952; Real Estate, March, 1953 ; January, 1960; Collier’s, May 30, 1953; USA, Tomorrow, October, 1954; National Municipal Review, March, 1955; Reader’s Digest, May, 1955; Liberty Magazine, February, 1956; Life, May 14, 1956; Look, January 8, 1957; The Nation, February 8, 1958; Holiday, March, 1959; Engineering News-Record, November 19, 1959; Esquire, September, 1960; Newsweek, October 24, 1960
  26. House & Home, August, 1960, Time-Life Inc., p. 139
  27. “Plan in Pittsburgh on Building Fought; Merchants Oppose Taking of Their Property for Downtown PPG Industries “Headquarters Protest from Diocese,” New York Times, June 3, 1979, page 51
  28. California Department of Agriculture. (Further citation needed.)
  29. “Steel exec thinks Japan ‘dumping’ cars in America,” The Bulletin, Bend, (Deschuttes County), Oregon, Feb. 5, 1980, p. 24.
  30. “Pittsburgh raised its tax rate on land from 4.95% to 9.85% of assessed valuation in 1979, while leaving the rate on buildings at 2.475%. New construction, measured by the dollar value of building permits issued, rose 14% as compared with the 1977-78 average. In 1980 the city widened the differential still more, to a tax rate of 12.55% on land vs. the .475% building rate, a ratio of 5.07 to 1. … Construction in 1980 leaped 212% above the 1977-78 average, reflecting ground-breaking for a new crop of office skyscrapers that is giving the city its so-called second renaissance (the first came in the 1950s with the redevelopment of the Golden Triangle). The adoption in 1980 of three-year tax exemptions on all new buildings – but not the land – also boosted construction. In 1981 construction peaked at nearly six times the 1977-78 rate. “Some of the dozen new office towers that have gone up in Pittsburgh would have been built with or without tax concessions; downtown office space had been growing scarce. But the widening differential between the taxes on buildings and land undoubtedly helped. It cut the annual bill for owners of some skyscrapers by more than $500,000 a year when compared with conventional 1-to-1-ratio taxation.” – Breckenfeld, Gurney, “Higher Taxes that Promote Development,” Fortune, August 8, 1983, pp 68-71
  31. Buffalo is the only large northeastern industrial city with a lower affordability rank, but Buffalo is notoriously slum-ridden. “Housing Affordability Rank of 243 US cities with populations of over 100,000.” http://savingcommunities.org/issues/taxes/property/affordabilityrank.html
  32. A study by the Pennsylvania Economy League (Weir and Peters, 1986) alleged that a consensus of experts claimed land value tax did not aid development and hurt home owners in poor neighborhoods. However, this study was so tortuously contrived and so easily refuted that city council ignored it and continued shifting the tax burden to land values. Statements from development experts who had contradicted the PEL’s desired conclusions were either twisted or ignored by the researchers. For example, former director of economic development Ed DeLuca had said land value tax did encourage development, but thought that further shifts would be necessary to have a sufficient effect. They claimed there was a consensus that the tax had no effect and that further shifts would also have no effect. Donald Stone, professor of economic development at Carnegie-Mellon University’s School of Urban and Public Affairs said that interviewers responded to his positive comments about land value tax by changing the subject. Also, a check of the poor neighborhoods cited in the PEL study showed that most properties paying more were absentee-owned, and that owner occupants actually saved in those neighborhoods. A subsequent study by city finance director Ben Hayllar suffered from exactly the same failure to distinguish owner-occupied from absentee-owned properties. Owner-occupied properties in Hayllar’s own sample also saved in poor districts where he alleged land value tax was punitive.
  33. Percy Williams was executive secretary of the Pittsburgh Real Estate Board from 1918 to 1921. A Democrat, Williams was appointed to the board of assessors by Mayor Magee, a Republican, in 1922. The first Democrat mayor Appointed him Chief City Assessor in 1934, where he remained until the county took over assessing in 1942. He had been Secretary and a trustee of the Henry George Foundation since it was chartered in 1926 until his passing in 1978. http://savingcommunities.org/docs/williams.percy/gradedtax.html
  34. Almost all of the testimony against land value tax in the city’s public hearings came from non-city residents within the county, particularly from the affluent Mount Lebanon Township. These suburban residents either owned city real estate or represented organizations of real estate interests. In contrast, most civic leaders and ordinary voters in the suburbs do not live in the four cities that have taxed land values (Pittsburgh, McKeesport, Duquesne and Clairton) and are oblivious to the issue.
  35. House & Home, Time-Life, Inc., August, 1960, page 115
  36. “Property and Natural Right,” Letter to James Madison, Sr. from Fontainebleau, France, Oct. 28, 1785
  37. http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/10258/1087527-28.stm?cmpid=business.xml#ixzz0zomHgS8m

Featured image: A map of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with its neighborhoods labeled.
Author: Tom Murphy VII
Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Pittsburgh_Pennsylvania_neighborhoods.svg

The nutritional resilience approach to food security

Bruce Darrell

Very few soils have a perfect balance of minerals. As a result, their fertility is limited and the crops grown on them cannot provide all the nutrients people need. As people can get food from elsewhere at present, these local deficiencies do not matter too much. However, if the option of filling one’s plate from all over the world disappears, human health will likely decline unless the missing minerals are applied over the next few years.

We all talk about food but our discussions are generally confined to our own spheres of interest. So, while food links farmers to CEOs, advertisers to aid agencies, community activists to urban planners, gardeners to chemical engineers, geneticists to nutritionists, lorry drivers to commodity traders, and cooks to economists in a complex web, crucial relationships and unifying issues are missing from most conversations.

Moreover, we usually assume that the issues we don’t discuss are unrelated and unchanging. Indeed, those working on one issue usually have beliefs that preclude engagement with those working on others. For example, urban planners assume that farming yields are the same regardless of scale and context. This leads them to discount urban agriculture as a fringe pursuit rather than a productive and essential use of urban and peri-urban land. The disconnect between production and nutrition is perhaps more critical. Farmers and nutritionists rarely discuss the nutritional quality of a carrot and how it could be improved through farming practices. Farmers are more concerned with yield and appearance while nutritionists typically assume that all carrots are created equal.

At this critical point in human history it is essential that we gain a more holistic understanding of food. We need ways of thinking about food which not only encourage engagement between specialists but also allow more integrated systems-wide approaches to develop.

Food security is perhaps the most effective lens through which to see the complexity of food systems as an integrated whole. There are numerous definitions of food security but most would have a lot in common with that used by one of the world’s largest food security organisations:

The Community Food Security Coalition (CFSC) is a non-profit North American organization dedicated to building strong, sustainable, local and regional food systems that ensure access to affordable, nutritious, and culturally appropriate food for all people at all times. We seek to develop self-reliance among all communities in obtaining their food and to create a system of growing, manufacturing, processing, making available and selling food that is regionally-based and grounded in the principles of justice, democracy, and sustainability. [1]

Described this way, food security is a positive goal, in much the same way that financial security is. It can be approached incrementally — the numerous components of the food systems, and each of the many transformations that are made, can be evaluated to determine whether they increase or degrade food security. Alternatively, the entire food system can be evaluated holistically to identify key weaknesses or opportunities. Food security is a scalable concept, useful for a community or region, or at an individual family scale, or for the entire global population. It is also descriptive without being prescriptive, recognising that there are many ways of achieving food security and the forms that it takes could vary radically for each person, community or region.

There are two general approaches within the broader food security movement, neither of which have adequately addressed the critical issues facing us. This is because both generally assume that the broader context of economic growth, cheap energy, resource abundance and environmental stability will continue. The first approach, and the most common, focuses on achieving an advanced degree of self-reliance. This approach, which is evident in the CFSC statement, is more likely to ensure the security of a community’s food supplies in an economic collapse as well as during energy and resource shortages. The supply will be protected through greater reliance on local inputs, better relationships between producer and consumer, and the increased resilience of the local social and economic systems that results from having a local food system. However, the supply will likely falter in the event of extreme weather conditions in the region, sustained social disruption or war.

The second approach is to ensure a diversity of supply. This is often the goal of global organisations such as the FAO [2] which recognise the need to ensure “timely transfers of supplies to deficit areas” in order to respond to “harmful seasonal and inter-annual instability of food supplies” caused by climate fluctuations, drought, pests, diseases, war, as well as natural and man-made disasters. This approach is essential if regional disruptions in food security are to be mitigated but will be less useful during a global economic collapse and while energy supplies are contracting rapidly after the energy supply peaks. However, it is overly dependent on the global supply of energy-intensive inputs, stable economic and political systems, and complex financial relationships.

In view of the complexity of crises we face, we need both approaches — for now. In future, though, the global system that ensures the diversity of supply will be weakened by economic collapse and decreased fossil fuel availability and the self-reliance approach will inevitably turn out to be more effective at achieving and sustaining food security. Even so, we will need to increase the resilience of local production to make up for the fact that surpluses from other areas may not be available in times of crisis.

A resilient system is one that is able to withstand or recover quickly from difficult conditions. While several factors contribute to making food production more resilient, nutrient and water availability are by far the most important. Water is a renewable resource, at least on a global level, and in many places its availability can be managed through careful conservation and use. Water is also very visible; we can see it flow and it is relatively easy to determine when there is too little or too much.

This paper will not focus on water directly, despite its importance, but will instead concentrate on nutrients as these are essentially invisible and do not regularly fall from the sky. Although there are natural processes that renew nutrient levels, they tend to be slow, working on long time-scales. We do not see nutrients flow through our systems, nor can we easily determine through casual observation which field or food is deficient in which nutrients, or where there is toxic excess. Yet without sustainable and balanced nutrient availability, a decline and eventual collapse of the food supply is inevitable. Moreover, it is far easier to develop resilient food systems if we start by establishing high and balanced fertility in the soil.

The global industrialised food production system is very poor at managing nutrients. It relies on energy-intensive processes to pull nitrogen from the air and to mine a few other nutrients, primarily phosphorus and potassium, from depleting geological reservoirs. These concentrated fertilisers are then dumped in excess on fields, causing ecological contamination, unbalanced growth and the depletion of other nutrients in the soil. Nutrient cycling, the process of returning nutrients to the land, is virtually impossible because of the great distances between the fields and consumer, and there is inevitable contamination of the waste streams as they pass through cities and communities.

Organic farming methods are much better at sourcing and managing nutrient resources but as most organic food is produced for distant markets, nutrient cycling is just as difficult. Local food systems are more capable of developing sustainable nutrient cycles, though very few of them have done so, especially in the developed world. Instead, the small scale of many of these systems permits a reliance on relatively abundant supplies of clean organic material, nutrient reserves in the soil or imported concentrated fertilisers. The supply of many of these resources will diminish as the number and scale of these systems increase to meet the challenges we face.

There are very few examples of holistic approaches to nutrient management that incorporate strategies for increasing and balancing nutrient levels as well as developing efficient nutrient cycling. Perhaps this is not surprising when dealing with something that is essentially invisible and which has no generally recognised name as a concept. I use the term nutritional resilience for an approach that extends from ecosystem resilience and productivity, to soil health, plant health and productivity, human health, resource management, community viability and systems resilience.

There are two strategies for developing nutritional resilience whether one is dealing with the global food system, a broader community, or a small garden plot. One is a transition strategy, the other a sustaining one. The transition strategy combines aspects of the globalised, industrial food systems with those of local, predominately organic food systems to build fertility where it is most useful. The sustaining strategy focuses on balancing and maintaining fertility through nutrient cycling and would develop as the transition was completed or after the decline or collapse of the global industrial system.


We rarely think of the origins of the components of the food we consume. The bulk of what we eat is energy in a variety of forms. It was created by plants using solar energy to extract carbon, oxygen and hydrogen atoms from carbon dioxide and water and then to recombine them into simple sugars. These simple sugars are then further combined into more complex carbohydrates (literally carbon and water) by plants, and the fungi, bacteria and animals that consume them, all of which contain C, H and O in a wide variety of structures. Fats, which are essentially another form of carbohydrate, contain C, H and O in different proportions and structures. So are alcohols. All of these forms of energy are relatively easy for an ecosystem to produce except where air, water or sunlight are lacking.

Proteins are created by combining amino acids, which are essentially nitrogen atoms mixed in with the carbohydrates, adding an N to the C, H and O mix. N is the most important nutrient that cannot be readily added to the mix that becomes our food. Despite its abundance in the atmosphere, it takes a significant amount of energy to “fix” it to oxygen or hydrogen atoms. This can be done by industrial processes using fossil fuels, by lightning or by special bacteria that are fed a lot of sugars by their host plants. Once fixed, nitrogen is a volatile, energetic and valuable nutrient that can easily become unfixed and escape back into the atmosphere. In many natural ecosystems, productivity is limited by the amount of available nitrogen.

All the other nutrients we need can be divided into two general groups — minerals and compounds. The minerals include calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, sodium and sulphur as well as numerous trace minerals including boron, copper, iodine, manganese, nickel, silicon, tin, zinc and many more. These nutrients are needed by our bodies as basic elements, though we rarely eat them in their pure form. Over 30 different minerals or elements are need in total [3] (and perhaps over 60 [4]), some in significant quantities, some in a few parts per billion, but all of them essential for healthy life. The compounds include vitamins and other complex molecules produced by plants and animals which we need to eat in their organic compound form. These compounds contain C, H, O, N as well as the diversity of other elements.

The old saying “you are what you eat” reminds us that our bodies are composed of the reconstituted pieces of what we eat, and, more subtly, that the quality of what we eat will be reflected in our bodies. In his book In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan takes this concept one step further with the statement that “you are what what you eat eats, too” [5], highlighting the fact that the quality of what an animal eats is reflected in the meat that we eat. The same can be said of plants. Although we generally don’t think of plants eating in the same way, plants are made up of what they ‘extract’ from the soil, water and air, and the quality of what they eat is reflected in the plant tissue that we consume directly or by eating the animals that eat the plants. We can trace this chain of consumption back to its origins and say that “we are what is in the soil or water that produced our food”.

Nutritionists and many other people working in the fields of food and health are very aware of the complexity of carbohydrates, proteins, fats, minerals, vitamins and other organic compounds that we need to eat in order to stay healthy. All of the minerals needed by humans and other animals — either directly or in compound form — are also needed by plants to be healthy. Unfortunately, most farmers are unaware or unconcerned about most of the diversity of minerals that are needed, and are concerned only with supplying the major nutrients of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. Calcium and occasionally other minerals are added too but only when they show up as serious deficiencies. This is the most critical disconnect in our food systems. If these minerals are not in the soil or water, in a form that the plants can use, then they can’t be in the plant and thus can’t be in our food. Deficiencies progress up the food chain. In many ways deficiencies in our diet are more critical to our health than avoiding excess consumption of sugars, fats, etc. We are told to eat our vegetables to get essential nutrients and other compounds, but if the plant cannot extract the essential nutrients from the soil because they are not there, they cannot be in our food. A different way of thinking starts to form: “you are what you don’t eat” or “you are what what you eat can’t get.”

Most farmers assume that, beyond the major fertilisers, everything that a plant needs they can get from the soil. To understand why this is rarely the case, we must understand how soils form and the processes of mineralisation. Soil is essentially ground-up rock, which is nothing more than solid aggregates of minerals. As the rock is broken down, most of the minerals remain as essentially inert chunks of smaller and smaller pieces of rock; from gravel, to sand, to silt and finally to the smallest particles of clay. Some of the minerals dissolve in water and wash away. A wide range of minerals stays in the soil either as inert elements, or chemically bound to other minerals, perhaps clinging to particles of clay; or they can be absorbed into the cycle of growth and decomposition involving microorganisms, fungi, plants and animals. This cycle of life brings additional elements, particularly carbon and nitrogen, out of the air and into the soil. The decomposition of the carbon-based life forms adds an additional component to the soil in the form of humus which plays a role similar to clay by holding onto loose minerals and compounds in the soil, as well as holding onto water.

While many microbes can extract the mineral nutrients that they need from the rock particles and complex compounds within the soil, the higher plants, the ones we eat, need a more refined diet. They generally absorb nutrients that are dissolved in water, loosely held in the soil by clay and humus, or which are fed directly by symbiotic microorganisms. This bio-availability is a critical aspect of the extent to which soil can support life.

It is important to understand that C, H, O, N and sulphur can all be found in gases in the atmosphere. This allows them to be transported easily to any ecosystem. All the other nutrients can only be transported in a solid or liquid form [6], making them more difficult for an ecosystem to obtain.

Of course, the Earth is a very dynamic place, and the extent of soil building and mineralisation is not limited to what can be extracted from the bedrock in a particular place. There are many processes that move minerals and soil particles from one place to another. The most dramatic — and the slowest — process is the advance and retreat of glaciers which grind up rock from one place and transport it long distances to where it is washed away by the melt water to form alluvial plains. Another process is the wind blowing smaller particles across continents. This has created huge deep drifts of loess soil in places such as the fertile farmlands of China and the midwestern United States.

As water falls on land as rain and flows towards the sea, it washes away dissolved minerals and silt and deposits them on floodplains as both soil and fertility. Ancient Egypt was sustained for thousands of years by the annual transportation of soil from the uplands of Ethiopia to the lower floodplains of the Nile valley. Volcanic activity brings fresh nutrient supplies from the molten core of the Earth to be deposited in the form of ash on the surrounding land, sustaining fertile ecosystems and productive farming such as those that developed in Java and Bali. Most of the early large human settlements developed in areas with significant deposits of soil and minerals.

Animals are responsible for significant movements of nutrients from one place to another. Some species of salmon make a remarkable journey from the sea to spawn and then die in the smallest tributaries inland. Their journey transports the valuable nutrients that make up their bodies from the fertile sea to points high up in the mountain. This is a substantial annual flow of nutrients on which the entire ecosystem depends. Similarly, seabirds have created huge reservoirs of fertility under their nesting grounds, bats leave huge piles of guano in caves, and numerous other animals have deposited nutrients over wide areas along their migration routes. Humans have participated in this process throughout the ages, often for their own benefit through farming and, more recently, on a much more advanced, pervasive and damaging scale.

This movement of nutrients and soil leads to concentrations in some places and deficiencies in others. However, the basic reason for most mineral deficiencies is that not all bedrock contains the full spectrum of minerals in the proportions needed by plants and animals. In addition, when rain falls on the land, many of the minerals that are there dissolve in the water and either filter deep down into the soil, beyond the reach of plant roots, or flow downstream. Floodplains and other landforms do trap and hold some of the nutrients and silt but this is only a temporary pause on the inevitable path to the sea. Unfortunately, the water cycles that evaporate from the sea and deposit rain far inland do not bring back any of the nutrients. The increasing amount of nutrients dissolved in the sea and settled on the sea floor only gets back inland through the relatively small-scale actions of animals, the rising of the sea bed and the movement of tectonic plates to create mountains of new rock to be eroded into life.

Human activities over thousands of years have accelerated the natural nutrient loss through inappropriate land-management practices such as burning vegetation cover and ploughing the soil, both of which increase erosion. Humans have also removed large quantities of organic material to use as food, fodder, fuel, wood and other materials. All this organic material contained valuable nutrients that the ecosystem had worked hard to obtain, which were then concentrated in other areas or lost to the sea. Since the development of larger communities and broad-scale agriculture, this removal process has accelerated. Now, rather than removing a small portion of material from an ecosystem, agricultural processes generally remove much of the organic matter from the land, or at least the nutrient-dense fruit, vegetables, oils, protein and seeds. Even if the soil was very deep and fertile initially, nutrients are removed with every harvest, generally much faster than they are naturally replaced. It does not take long for deficiencies to develop and the only way to stop this depletion is to add nutrients to the soil either by recycling those that were extracted or importing new ones from elsewhere.

Agronomists are confident about which minerals are required, and in what proportions. As an example, most plants use a lot of calcium, but for every six to eight measures of calcium, they’ll also need one measure of magnesium, maybe a sixteenth measure of sulfur, and one ten-thousandth measure of boron. If they have heaps of calcium but are short of magnesium, then they won’t grow any more than the amount allowed by the quantity of magnesium they’ve got. If they have adequate calcium, magnesium, and sulfur, all in the right proportions for ideal growth, but are desperately short of boron, then they will grow as poorly as though they were short of calcium and magnesium and sulfur. [7]

This passage from Steve Solomon’s book Gardening When it Counts describes why mineral balance is critically important in soils. Plants will take up unbalanced proportions of minerals, if that is what they find in the soils, but their health and productivity suffer. Plants, like humans, will struggle on in less than optimal conditions.

A natural woodland, bush or grassland ecosystem, on reasonably good soils, will generally develop a balanced but low mineral fertility level in the soil. Minerals that are in excess won’t be absorbed by the plants and as a result are more likely to wash away or otherwise become unavailable. Minerals in short supply will be sought out. Once a reasonable balance is achieved, an increase in balanced fertility develops very slowly as more of the limiting nutrients are found. David Holmgren, in his book Permaculture; Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability, describes what happens when humans move into this landscape, disrupt the ecological processes and transform the land for agriculture. In the first stage they degrade the soil and create imbalances, producing low and imbalanced soil fertility. The second stage sees the introduction of imported fertilisers. “However, imbalances typically remain or new imbalances have been created that are reflected in the poor quality of food and the increased rates of fertility loss,” [8] he writes. Most farmland and gardens remain stuck at this stage, requiring considerable effort and resource-input to maintain a high level of fertility, but persistent and serious imbalances remain. Very few farmers attain the “Holy Grail” of balanced but high fertility.

People whose food was grown mainly on the limestone soils of Derbyshire in England suffered so frequently from goitre, which is caused by an iodine deficiency, that the complaint became known as Derbyshire Neck . Since the 1930s, a diet grown over a wider area has led to its disappearance but it could return if most food had to be grown locally again before the mineral balance of the Derbyshire soils had been improved.

In view of this, perhaps we should assume that all soils throughout the world are deficient, that all food produced on that land is therefore deficient in minerals and has minimal nutritional value, and that it is consequently very difficult for people to have a nutritionally complete diet, even if they eat all their vegetables.

Fairly similar fertility-management practices using concentrated soluble fertilisers have been used on much of the world’s farmland over the past half-century. This will have produced common mineral imbalances — excess amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, but general deficiencies in minerals such as magnesium and calcium. But the bedrock and mineral reserves in the soils vary widely. As most of the food grown on these soils is distributed through the globalised system, on any given day we could be eating food that had its origins on dozens of different fields spread all over the world. While general mineral imbalances may persist, and the overall nutritional quality may be low within this system, it is unlikely that specific trace minerals will be deficient in all the food we eat. If we had an industrialised farming system without the global distribution system, then local deficiencies would become much more apparent when clusters of illness and disease developed. Soil mineral deficiencies and the effects that they have on health are currently hidden by the global trade and distribution system.

As many families and communities begin the process of developing localised food systems, and get much more of their food from a single allotment plot, a few neighbouring fields, or a broader region with similar bedrock and soil conditions, deficiencies could begin to damage the people’s health. This is a fundamental flaw in local food initiatives and the grow-it-yourself movement. Growing your own food is a great idea, and is perceived as an easy thing to do, but most people growing food do not know how to produce healthy plants, or even what a really healthy plant looks like. While the freshness and the unforced quality of the produce will convince people that they are eating truly healthy food, especially when compared to what they buy in the supermarket, in many cases they won’t be. Unless there is a fortunate choice of growing sites and fertility management, people growing their own food or producing for a local community will need to focus on the nutritional balance and fertility level of the soils if the short-term benefits of local food systems are not to create long-term difficulties.

Health of plants, people and communities

What happens when a soil has achieved the Holy Grail of soil fertility — high, balanced levels of minerals? David Holmgren describes how, in following the work of William Albrecht and others in creating an ideal balanced soil, all crops grown on this soil will produce high yields of good-quality food, and that the structure and water-holding capacity of the soil will improve, as will the processes of decomposition and nutrient cycling within the soil. Holmgren suggests that:

…this represents the biological optimum soil in which all plants will thrive. Within the constraints of climate, this balanced soil will support the most productive biological systems in terms of total energy capture and storage. Thus balanced and fertile soil is nature’s integrated and self-reinforcing design solution for maximising power of terrestrial life. [8]

In this way, balanced fertility in the soil is the key to a productive garden, farm or natural ecosystem, allowing all of the ecological processes to work effectively in producing a greater yield of better food or material. This is the primary objective in developing nutritional resilience.

Many organic gardeners and farmers believe that the best way to minimise damage by pests and disease is to provide the conditions in order for the plant to be as healthy as possible, with the purpose of strengthening the plant’s immune system and defences. Elliot Coleman approaches the issue of pests in a more direct way:

There is a direct relationship between the growing conditions of plants and the susceptibility of those plants to pests. Problems in the garden are our fault through unsuccessful gardening practices rather than Nature’s fault through malicious intent. The way we approach pest problems in the garden is to correct the cause, not treat the symptoms. The cause of pest problems is inadequate growing conditions. [9]

Taking this idea further, Francis Chaboussou, author of Healthy Crops; A New Agricultural Revolution, believes that “the relations between plant and parasite are above all nutritional in nature” and that “plants are made immune to the extent that they lack the nutritional factors that parasites require for their development. In short, what is involved is a deterrent effect not a toxic action.”[10] A pest will essentially starve on a truly healthy plant, or at least will not be able to obtain the energy needed to reproduce or develop. The basis of this theory is that most pests and parasites depend on an abundant supply of amino acids — they are reliant on an easy source of nitrogen — but in a healthy plant amino acids are quickly used to synthesise proteins, and are therefore unavailable to the pests. A fertile, balanced soil is one of the key elements to plant health (together with adequate water availability, appropriate weather, etc.) and this leads to the possible elimination of the need for pest and disease control, both chemical and organic. Reducing the risk of disease and pests also significantly increases food security.

Food from plants grown on soil with balanced minerals should therefore be nutritionally complete, in that there will be no deficiencies, and yields should be greater as less is lost to pests and disease. But there is more to the story. The overall nutritional value of the food can also be substantially increased, so that it gives higher quantities of sugars, minerals, proteins, etc. per kilogramme. Wine producers have known this intuitively for centuries, and more recently have used simple optical refractors to measure the amount of sugars dissolved in the juice, picking or purchasing grapes only when they have a certain concentration. This concentration of sugars, vitamins, minerals, amino acids, proteins, hormones, and other solids dissolved within the juice is measured in BRIX (ratio of the mass of dissolved solids to water) and the same method can be used to determine the nutritional density of most foods, and the sap of plants. When plants are grown in soil with balanced and high fertility, the BRIX reading of the plant sap and juice of the produce is significantly higher than the same plant grown in less than ideal conditions.[11] The BRIX reading of one carrot can be more than twice as high as that of another carrot grown in poor-quality soil, and therefore it will contain at least twice the amount of sugars, vitamins, minerals etc. Given that this is what we eat a carrot for, we can eat less than half a carrot to get the same nutrition as we can get from a whole poor-quality carrot of the same weight.

This higher nutritional value can drastically increase the real yield achieved by growing on high-quality soils. Not only is it possible to achieve a higher total yield in weight, but each kilogramme can provide more nutrition. The overall nutritional yield can easily be several times higher within a given area, providing good nutrition to more people from the same piece of land. There are other advantages to high nutritional density in plants and food. The additional solids in the plant sap act as a form of antifreeze, allowing plants to better withstand frosts and deeper cold spells. This extends the growing season in many regions, and helps the crop withstand abnormal and extreme weather conditions. While low-quality food tends to begin to decompose fairly quickly, requiring refrigeration, quick delivery, and processing, food with high nutritional density tends to last much longer and is more likely to dehydrate rather than rot. This allows a significant reduction in the amount of wasted food as well as the amount of resources, energy and infrastructure needed to store and preserve food that is produced locally. But, perhaps the greatest benefit is that nutritionally dense food tastes better — you can literally taste the greater density of sugars and minerals.

If we can produce nutrient-dense food, which people (especially children) will be more likely to want to eat because of the great taste, what does this mean for their health? Many diseases and health problems are caused or exacerbated by malnutrition, and the increasing prevalence of poor health over the past few decades seems to parallel the decline in mineral content in food over the same time period [12]. How can people be healthy if their food is nutritionally deficient? Or, a more important question is: what will happen to peoples’ health if they consume food with high nutritional density and no mineral deficiencies? If poor-quality food decreases the health of the population, and food of moderate nutritional quality can sustain health, will the consumption of high-quality food make a person healthier and more resilient? Can it help heal a sick person? Beyond the personal and social benefits that come with good health, a community cannot be resilient without a population that is healthy and physically capable, or if a substantial portion of its resources is spent on health care.

Progress towards nutritional resilience

Nutritional resilience starts with mineral qualities of the soil and extends to plant health and productivity, nutritional density of food, human health and community viability, as well as incorporating sustainable resource management and the resilience of the entire food system. Nutritional resilience also extends to natural landscapes, through which we can assist ecosystems to become more resilient and productive with the benefits of greater biodiversity, ecosystem services, and carbon sequestration. Nutritional resilience is the foundation upon which broader resilience can be more easily built, and without it, the journey will be slower and much more difficult. Given the current economic context, the climate crisis, and the possibility of a systemic collapse in the near future, it is essential to prioritise anything that increases the speed and ease of transformations.

As I said earlier, there are two different strategies or processes for developing nutritional resilience. The transition strategy focuses on building and balancing fertility in key areas. The sustaining strategy focuses on developing effective nutrient cycles, fine-tuning mineral balance and expanding the areas of resilience. While these two strategies can in many ways progress simultaneously, it is important that sufficient attention is given to the first, as it is this aspect that will require most energy, resources and inputs, all of which may be of limited availability in the near future. Many local food initiatives and alternative farming projects currently fail to give the transition strategy enough priority.

The primary objectives of the transition strategy are to capture the existing material flow, to facilitate effective decomposition, to enable nutrient storage and to correct excessive mineral imbalances. The specific methods used will vary widely with each location, depending on the nature of the existing soils, as well as on existing infrastructure and cultural bias, but there are common approaches. There is a massive amount of organic material and fibre flowing through most settlements and capturing and using the nutrients available in this flow should be a key concern everywhere. All food and green ‘wastes’ are very valuable sources of nutrients and many trace minerals. Although the use of human ‘wastes’ are also important, it could be more appropriate to deal with the complexities of transforming the sewage system later in the process.

Paper, cardboard, a fair amount of other packaging and most waste wood are all valuable sources of carbon and some minerals and they should be processed and used locally. These materials are much more valuable as part of biological nutrient-management processes than they are as recycled fibre if the aim is to build local resilience. Much of this material combines well with the other, more nutrient-dense organic matter for composting, or can be used directly as mulch to facilitate the conversion and maintenance of lands, or as a substrate for beneficial fungi, or it can be converted to biochar. Through these processes, a lot of the original carbon is converted to humus, or to charcoal, which serves many of the same valuable functions as humus, but can last much longer. The processing and decomposition of this material should be done carefully to prevent the loss of minerals and carbon through leaching or off-gassing, as often happens at large municipal composting plants which treat the material as waste for disposal rather than as a resource to be valued.

This captured supply of nutrients and carbon should ideally be added to the local farmlands, fields and gardens that will be used for local food production. If the land is not available yet, then the processed material should be stored for later use in such a way that its quality can be maintained or improved over time. The lack of growing space and capacity should not prevent conversion of the easiest parts of the material flow and the building up of a store of fertility and humus. This build-up of raw material for future productivity is similar to the gradual collection of materials before you start to build a house.

The existing soil should be tested for major and trace mineral levels as well as for toxicity. Significant mineral imbalances should be corrected by importing organic or synthetic concentrated supplies. Many organic and natural farming methods emphasise more gradual processes for building fertility, primarily through composting local biomass, and tend to avoid importing concentrates as well as restricting anything synthetic. This may be the movement’s Achilles heel. Although concentrated nutrients can cause problems through inappropriate application, their continued deficiency in the soil is more detrimental in the long run. Trace mineral levels should be generally improved by incorporating rock dust, seaweed meal or sea solids, or through the use of concentrates to correct specific deficiencies (such as using borax to boost levels of boron). Nutrient accumulator plants can also be used to mine supplies of both trace and major minerals from the broader landscape and concentrate them in key areas, but this process would tend to exacerbate deficiencies and undermine the health and productivity of the surrounding ecosystem.

Excessive concentrations of some minerals can cause a detrimental imbalance in the soil and care must be taken to ensure that imported supplies do not contain significant amounts of these minerals, or the imbalances will continue or worsen. Some excessive concentrations can be reduced through the use of accumulator plants or dispersion of soils over a wider area. Toxic levels of nutrients, especially of lead and other metals, and contamination by industrial and chemical compounds, should be mitigated either through careful bioremediation or avoidance. The same testing should be done with the flow of decomposed organic matter so that it does not further disrupt the balance of nutrients or introduce contamination. Within this process, it is important to focus on key areas of productivity rather than on having a diluted impact on broader areas. It is also important to see the transition stage as a temporary process. There is little sense in developing substantial facilities to handle material flow which will not be available once this phase reaches its natural end, or is abruptly halted by collapsing economies.

The sustaining strategy can start fairly early, running in parallel to the transition phase, and would take over entirely when nutrient levels have reached a high and generally balanced level, or when economic conditions interrupt the easy flow of material or cheap energy is not available to process and transport nutrients from outside. The key focus of this strategy is to prevent the loss of nutrients through leaching, erosion, exporting products, and through sewage and waste water. Nutrient cycling systems need to be developed, including composting toilets and urine separation, as well as grey-water management systems to minimise loss of fertility and minerals. Trade restrictions may need to be put in place so that excessive amounts of minerals, especially those that are not in abundance in the local soil, do not leave the area in the form of food and material.

Land-management practices need to be developed to reduce the amount of nutrients and soil that washes away or leaches underground. Deep-rooting trees and plants should be used to pull leached nutrients and a fresh supply of trace elements from deep in the soil, and catchment basins should be established to intercept the nutrients that flow away during extreme weather events. As the overall ecosystem develops it will be important to continue to monitor and correct the mineral balance where possible, and to develop ways to increase the overall fertility levels gradually.

Once the key production sites have been adequately developed, it may be possible to gradually expand the land under management, either the adjacent fields, or the broader landscape. Focusing first on the key areas and then using these as a base for improving other areas, or for helping neighbouring communities, is a useful strategy for developing broader nutritional resilience in the uncertain future that we face.

In the future (perhaps within a hundred years), after the fossil fuel energy subsidy to agriculture has declined, the mineral fertility and balance of our farmlands and entire catchment landscapes will become one of the most important issues in resource management and economics, and yet the powerful means that are currently available to achieve this on a large scale will be very costly or simply unavailable. In this situation we will once again be dependent on the slower, low-energy processes of building and balancing fertility.[8]

I fear that, when writing the above passage, David Holmgren may have significantly overestimated the amount of time that we have.


  1. http://www.foodsecurity.org
  2. FAO, Rome Declaration on World Food Security,
  3. Mineral Information Institute, The Role of Elements in Life Processes,
  4. Folke Gunther, http://www.holon.se/folke/kurs/Distans/Ekofys/Recirk/Eng/phosphorus.shtml
  5. Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, Penguin Press, 2008
  6. As [4]
  7. Steve Solomon, Gardening When It Counts, page 17-18, New Society Publishers, 2005
  8. David Holmgren, Permaculture; Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability, page 40, Holmgren Design Services, 2002
  9. Eliot Coleman, Four-Season Harvest, page 147, Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 1999
  10. Francis Chaboussou, Healthy Crops; A New Agricultural Revolution, page 7, Jon Carpenter Publishing 2004
  11. http://www.crossroads.ws/brixbook/BBook.htm
  12. Anne-Marie Mayer, Historical changes in the mineral content of fruits and vegetables,
    British Food Journal, Volume 99, 1997