Concerning Nigel: taking on the Omega Male paradigm

Concerning Nigel: understanding the Omega Male from Ann Danylkiw on Vimeo.

The Omega Male is a new kind of man, in the last 30 years that has evolved out of feminism. Men's roles have changed alongside changes in social equity, but their roles and community have not been as well nor as effectively defined as feminism. The Man Collective is a group of men acting to redefine masculinity.

On 22 March, 2010 the Man Collective had their first Gathering in south London. Before the Gathering, I asked women what they wanted to know, and on the day, the men answered.

Lord Stern: the media had ought to “reflect… very carefully” on how they “behaved”

Lord Nicholas Stern gave a lecture at the London School of Economics on 16 March (last week as this is posted, listen here). In addition to calling Freakonomics “cute,” Lord Stern defined the role for the media in the dialogue surrounding climate change, a role that needs to be more socially responsible than it has been.

Here’s what he said:

“If you look at why it is that people are more skeptical about global warming and ask them is it because they read all about the emails at the University of East Anglia or the glaciers in the Himalayas. Some of them, most of them, it’s a cold winter… so I think laying out the evidence if it’s a bad winter… explain to people they live on a planet and different parts of a planet, and have different kinds of experience and here they are, this isn’t so mysterious right?

“And this is the kind of explanation we have to do and you there on Panorama [BBC documentary TV series] ought to be doing exactly this kind of-- you’re there to provoke responsible, serious discussion not to say-- I’m not accusing you directly, let’s talk about the media. If you find someone that says the earth is round and someone that says the earth is flat, do you give them equal airtime? If policy depends on this, giving them equal airtime is deeply irresponsible. And that’s the kind of thing you’ve got to think through.

“If you find out that somebody may have been less than transparent about emails less than transparent in their academic work and may have been because there’s a report coming in about what happened at UEA, you ask yourselves the question: if that person’s work was deleted what difference would it make? … Let’s just suppose it’s deleted, what difference would it make to the 200 year old scientific argument? Joseph Fourier the great French scientist, mathematics, and physicist, who first worked out by looking at the heat stability, heat equilibrium of the earth that something was trapping the green house gases in 1820. Was he part of a conspiracy? This must be a conspiracy with a time machine!

“This is absolutely incredible that people in the media do not ask what is the relevance of the news I’m reporting for the big issue that we’re trying to understand--that’s where the irresponsibility lies-- not in the reporting-- of course these things should be reported, of course we have to have transparent discussion, that’s absolutely fundamental, very important. Yet the IPCC report is 1,000 pages, there must be 15 or 20 mistakes there. It would be an incredibly low number of mistakes in 1,000 pages. But we must open them up to scrutiny, ask ourselves where they are; let’s discuss them, put them right. But also what difference does it make to the basic policy argument about the risks we run from global warming.

“… So there’s some very big questions of how the media have behaved in all this that I think they ought to reflect on and reflect on very carefully and talk to academics who do the work to try to help that process, not just you, it’s all of us. But I found the nature of that discussion, to be rather irresponsible.”

Think before you speak is a concept we all should have been taught as children. And the media has always had a role in history as a rallying force -- the point is, sometime after the second world war (in an abstract, vague sense) the media’s role became more as provocateur, espousing less actual news and more extreme opinion. There is an argument to be had for creating a useful dialogue in airing different opinions, even extreme points of view. But it’s become sloppy, like a great big pile of loose stools. Airing different sides of the argument is no longer constructive.

In the media’s quest for page hits, provoking controversy is the easiest way to go about that. Say something extreme on your channel (webpage, etc.), direct your users to your blog to comment -- your blog that you’ve filled every available centimeter with flashing adverts-- and voila, instant page hits.

I’ve pitched social responsibility in media as a topic for many an editor and I have yet to find one that wants to have this discussion, really and honestly.

The kind of responsibility Stern is talking about may or may not step beyond the “unbiased” media paradigm. But I believe media has never been unbiased, there’s no such thing as unbiased. Even if a news story is reporting the facts-- which facts are being reported, why was the story covered at all, what makes news news and what parts of it are news worthy? Everything is a judgement call. Even considering the nature of being “unbiased” implies a judgement call.

We, the media, have always played an important role is shaping, broadly, the public dialogue on any topic. We need to think about that role again, not only for the future of the planet but perhaps more importantly, for the future of journalism.

Localized is beautiful OR how I learned to love the UNFCCC after Cop15

I was at a panel of experts Thursday night given by FIELD entitled "Road to Mexico." (Cop16)

The consensus isn't good: for a legally binding, comprehensive, international agreement on climate change isn't likely at Cop16 in Mexico this year. And next year, Cop17 in South Africa, well... that's not looking too likely either.

But this is actually good news (and not just because it means I’m right;) ! Here's how:

I've been toying with the idea that a larger international agreement -- a fully comprehensive one-- isn't necessary, practical, or prudent.

While panelists stressed the need to get going immediately, Jan Hyvarinen (Director, FIELD) said, “concrete stuff on the ground is important this year. This year in a way needs to be a year of implementation and that will help bring the trust.” Panelist and LDC group Chair Bruno Sekilo from Ghana said that trust had gone from the process after Cop15. He sited the circus surrounding Obama’s appearance as a key undermining factor, saying “later it’s said he’s not coming to the end because it’s the outcome that is more acceptable to him. You have a group of negotiators here and they hear that the outcome is already known in the first place so that Obama can come. That was really demoralizing and it’s the timing of everything.”

Trust, the panel explained, will be built by countries doing individual adaptation and mitigation actions on their own to show, ostensibly, how committed they are to combatting climate change.

The audience, full of environmentalists, NGOs, and other professionals all echoed the itchiness to get going with climate change and not wait for certain countries that might never come a long.

Andy from Oxfam asked: “Is it not time to actually plow ahead and forge alliances between European Union, progressive countries and G77 and go ahead and start mapping out those norms and principles and rules that a majority of the world does agree are actually needed to start tackling this problem? And let the United States and other countries come along later, as and if they will.”

An audience member from ICE and a barrister both asked if perhaps now would be the best time for countries like certain small island states to bring proceedings in international courts against developed countries who have fallen short of their Kyoto emissions cuts or aren’t willing to cut emissions according to what’s dictated by the science.

Damian Morris from Sandbag asked about the possibility of global energy sector emissions cap, saying that power is the single largest sector and represents ⅓ of world wide carbon emissions, it’s capable of deeper cuts than whole economies, the global power sector could cut 60% by 2030, power cuts by biggest electricity emitters could widen Kyoto cuts 40%.

Panelist Camilla Toulmin (Director, IIED) said that it was perhaps best for countries to do what needed to be done, and that other countries’ efforts might goad those lagging behind on climate action into progress.

The undercurrent running through all of this is rather obvious: ultimately, what will matter most is localized solutions to combat climate change.

At a sociological level, we related better to each other face to face. If we think about that and extend it to policy, the discourse in international development policy has stopped being about finding a model for development but involving individual stakeholders to find solutions that work for them based on culture and geographical location (habitat) (i.e. what works in Guatemala won’t in Guyana). The success or lack thereof in combating climate change will come at a local level.

According to the OECD report on cities, “Local governments in OECD countries are already responsible for 70% of public investment and 50% of public spending in environment.” The report also says that local level policies are excellent incubators to “fine-tune national enabling frameworks.” Hint: keywords used; the words framework and enabling both imply broad policy measures, specificity is to left to the local level to figure out what works best in a given environment.

It’s worth noting that the most successful reforms whether it be in environment or development or governance work when national governments allow for autonomy in local governance to experiment. The largest examples of this are China’s democracy experiments (varying provinces and towns to varying degrees) and Kerala in India, not to mention 10:10 in the UK.

The same must be for an international climate agreement. Certain issues will be necessary to flush out at an international level, and others must be left up to individual countries to flush out for themselves and perhaps compete with each other on (in a good natured sort of way-- not the sort that leads to trade protectionism and sanctions).

At the international level, it is clear that there will need to be unified metrics for carbon emissions and tracking. This is the most important. There will also need to be clear regulatory framework that can be used at national levels to govern carbon offsets as well as some sort of international clearing house for carbon offsets that will also allow seamless carbon trading across borders.

But things like sectoral caps on emissions, carbon price floors (and ceilings) should be left to national governments. It will be left to municipal governments (state, city, village level) to come up with the best transport, resource distribution channels (food, water, for example) based on local capabilities and income levels.

I don’t think it’s coincidence that there have been many intercity and inter-region cooperative agreements about climate change adaptation already. The state of California (combined state and city level) may in fact now be more involved with equivalent level governments in China than either national governments are themselves (which offers further support of the notion that California really need to be its own country;). Five cities in the Mediterranean region (Fez, Barcelona, Haifa, Stuttgart, and Nouakchott) signed an agreement in January to agree to collaborate on innovative solutions to climate change. The EU and South Africa will be collaborating on transport reform in the run up to the 2010 World Cup and 2012 Olympics. And more news of small collaborative unions like these hit the news everyday.

As to finance, it’s been clear for some time that financiers are ready to get the money flowing towards profits coming from a low-carbon future. This is everything from increasing supply chain sustainability and efficiency to profiting on carbon trading. Insurers are calling for businesses to factor climate change into risk management. Up until now financiers have insisted they need firm national policy. Let’s see how fast that changes as the UNFCCC process drags on for years.

As a climate agreement is hashed out in however many years (and it will take years), as international and national governments drag their feet on policy it is up to regional and municipal governments to push ahead with what needs to be done. We need to recognize what can realistically be achieved at each level of governance and allow that guide advocacy. This non-sense about pushing for an absolute legal agreement at Cop16 will not help to achieve the desired outcome and instead foster frustration and negativity and cannot be productive.

Localize solutions and the future will be clean and green.

The Yuan and the Chinese Labour Market Shortages

Something funny’s going on in China. There’s a labour market shortage.

David Baille of CamSemi noted in an email interview last month (before the Chinese New Year holiday) that the South Korean firm that manufactures part of his product in China was short on workers because, “so many skilled workers left the coastal manufacturing areas over Chinese New year last February and have not returned.” That trend was expected to repeat this year as well.

Workers, according to Geoffrey Crowthall at China Labour Bureau, must be paid more to endure hazardous working conditions because factory conditions and wages (taken together) currently do not exceed the value working on a farm.

Liu Shinan writes in China Daily that labour shortages are due:

“First, the Chinese government's policy to give top priority to the development of agriculture and annul the agriculture tax has paid off. Rural residents are earning more from farming.
Second, the government's strategy of boosting development in central and western regions has achieved initial success.
The rural surplus labor has more employment opportunities in the manufacturing industries in towns near their home.
Third, China's earlier recovery from the economic recession has significantly increased orders for coastal manufacturing plants, which are eager to retrieve the workers they laid off when the economic crisis struck.”

But he also writes, “The average wage level is 10 times lower than that in the United States. It will take a long time for Chinese labor costs to catch up with developed countries.” Of course, this isn’t the right comparison to make. Recently, companies manufacturing in China have begun opening factories in other developing countries. It’s not developed country wages Chinese have to worry about.

The ease of doing business in China (without looking) probably isn’t very much different from many other developing countries. Not to say that there aren’t other advantages to do with things like geography and finance-- but that these other advantages probably don’t outweigh labour costs too much.

If wages are increased and the price of other inputs is relatively stable, the cost of production has to be bourn somewhere-- either this is in higher final price or reduced profit margins. Let’s also assume that benefits aren’t cut to make up the price cost of wages because working conditions are a problem as well. Depending on the sector, it’s also possible that the number of workers will be cut and that higher production quotas will face workers. In reality, it’s probably a combination of all of the above.

And even if Liu is accurate that “According to authoritative investigations, the money paid to laborers make up only 10 percent of the total operational cost of an enterprise in China; but it is 50 percent in developed nations.” Any way you look at it, the price of China’s exports increase.

China is facing dual pressures related to worker wages: working conditions and a second, less direct external pressure to increase the value of the Renminbi. The usual argument goes that currency devaluation will hurt China’s workers because it will drive the cost of exports up, increase costs of inputs, which will result in decreased demand for Chinese exports, cuts in production and as a result job cuts, and lower wages for workers, higher production quotas for those remaining (and thus a general deterioration of working conditions).

This article says that in the past, when the price of manufacturing products (exported by China to other countries) increases, the cost is passed on to the buyers. It sites a study from the US Fed Bank that says when the Yuan appreciated slightly in the past, consumer and capital goods prices didn’t change much, but industrial products increased quite a bit. Enough of the increased price was passed on to the consumer.

What happens if China does both-- increases wages enough to make a short term difference and values-up the Yuan?

The results will depend largely upon the level and ratio increase in wages and currency value, but the outcome is inescapably the same: China’s rate of employment decreases (relative to previous periods, you understand, but not overall) and the price of its exports increases.

Both Yuan revaluation and increased wages will erode China’s comparative advantage in cheap labour. But Chinese companies are also moving up the value chain in manufacturing, and the lower value manufacturing inputs are moving to Vietnam, North Korea, and Egypt, for example. As China begins to manufacture green products, it will have established ties to cheaper labour markets.

Right now, China is also facing a (increasing in short-run?) skills displacement. There aren’t enough candidates to fill relatively more high skilled services positions in cities (university level skill set being insufficient) and also in unskilled manufacturing jobs that might require as much physical labour as a farming job (the wages and physical exertion being relatively the same, workers won’t bother to leave home).

While it’s clear that Chinese companies are beginning to break into the next value level of development as more and more innovate on their own, there will be more pressure on demand for skilled jobs. Government policy has properly driven higher levels of academic achievement and Chinese universities (though currently no match for Western ones) are catching up.

The question is-- will the government be able to hold annual GDP growth at 8%? Will China have a bumpy few years? Will this delay China’s rise?

And what economic principles have I left out in my inexperienced naiveté (feedback please)?

After thought: another strain of thought to consider, that might have an overall effect on employment levels is that the Chinese government has made agricultural policy that keeps small farms lucrative. Where developed countries are mostly dependent upon imported food (not that China isn’t but) and have driven small, private farming out of business, and where people like Colin Tudge argue that we have to demechanize farming and make it hard labour again so that we value food and time more, presents another interesting tangent to consider. A skill displacement won’t necessarily be fixed by, as the WSJ article suggests, lifting China’s one child policy. In future, where will China’s illegal, unskilled, migrant workers come from? And how long with this pro-small farmer policy continue?

Climate Change Gaming: Please, good people, we'd like some more!

Corporate social responsibility is big these days. As important as it is for companies to act responsibly, they also need to respond to the needs of our society. This is one of the key concepts behind social entrepreneurship-- those who are responding to the surging moral undercurrent in our society that’s tired of governments stalling (or outright failing, ahem, Iceland, Greece) and corporate insincerity (spinning a product as good for you, instead of making a product that actually IS good for you).

The new climate change game from Red Redemption is a product that responds to social needs of a society and will do good at the same time.

From the Guardian:

“Climate Change 2010 is a turn-based affair that gives you control of the earth. The downside is that all the consequences of your actions are accurately modelled over the 200 virtual years of game time.”

Commentators in the US and UK have often marveled about a public’s willingness to sign up to social movements like 350 degrees, 10:10, 38 degrees, Avaaz, memberships that result in declarative support but lack change substance. People more often say they are willing to change their behavior but lack the follow through.

Cultural behavior is something that results from the pervasiveness of ideas, concepts, and values that pervade a society and in order to carry through a true paradigm shift, something modern Western society is only flirting with at the moment, it needs use cultural tools to subversively spread ideas more than it needs overt support for such ideas. A climate change game like this and the earlier Sim City style game from the UK’s DECC, do just that: they subversively support and instill values in a way that no amount of lecturing from Frannie Armstrong and an army of 10:10 volunteers can achieve. These games and more like them can be even more effective if used in conjunction with school curriculums, especially in elementary schools during time allotted to earth sciences and biology, for example.

Please, society needs more of these! Awake game developers of the world! Please, we'd like some more!

Ann, Live from Cop15

I probably should have posted each of these links as I wrote them, but oh well.

Here are links to my body of work from Cop15:


Micro Insurance Protects Poor Farmers From Climate Change

Climate Change Insurance: A Nuanced Approach

S&P, World Bank Launch Emerging Markets Index

China's Entrepreneurs Are Ready, But Is Their Government?

Is China Still a Developing Country?

iCET Piloting Voluntary Carbon Registry in Southern China

Can China Do Transparency?

Conference Parties Take Note of Accord

Post Cop15: Mexico City Offers Clearer Setting for Agreement

Hosted by the lovely Adam Shake of

Live Dispatch from the Climate Express: The IPCC is not the University of East Anglia

The Bigger Picture, Pictures Cop15

Climate Express Dispatch: You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet!

Chinese Youth Call-Out Leaders on Climate Change

Fairtrade Chocolate Keeps A Diplomat Happy

Blue Box Solution to Climate Change

Algae to Oil Cop15 Interview with Solzyme CEO

NGO's Banned From Cop15 Bella Centre

Will China Teach Developed Countries a Lesson At Cop15?

What to Read and Watch on the Last Day of Cop15

My pictures from the events

Biochar: How to make the market work

In short, it's darn-near impossible:

“Biochar Will Save the World!” proclaims a group page on Facebook. Popular Mechanics writes of an “ancient charcoal” that can “put the brakes on global warming.” More than its prospects as a carbon sink or a fuel, it has massive prospects for development (the economic kind) for developing countries and emerging markets. A very wise Finance professor* once told me, “Anytime anybody tells you they have a market for that, be very suspicious.” It’s not that biochar couldn’t work, but that the market to make it work would have to be nuanced and highly regulated.

“One of the dangers of a biochar industry in developing countries is that you can divert your biochar to fuel or that you can somehow create more of a demand for wood which would be completely counterproductive. What is a more sustainable system is to use agricultural and wood wastes,” explains Dr. Simon Shackley, at the UK’s Biochar Research Institute in Edinburgh.

Biochar as a fuel is in the middle of a hierarchy of fuels commonly used in developing countries. Dr. Shackley explains that the poorest tend to use wood, then charcoal, then propane. In developed countries charcoal is a luxury fuel, and it would be “absurd” for people in developed countries to all of a sudden switch to heating our homes with it. There in lies the problem: biochar is viable on the market as both an agricultural tool and as a fuel in developing countries.

The best strategy then, according to Shackley, is to find sustainable feed stocks. He gives an example, “if you’ve got a rice paddy system... the rice husks are thrown into the paddy field and they decompose for methane, which is a very powerful greenhouse gas. So in that case, it’s much more efficient to put the rice husk into a pyrolysis or gasification machine, carbonize it, and put that into the field and you’re returning the nutrients to the soil.” And then you get a carbon negative process. Depending on the machine, the pyrolysis process itself can produce energy that can be used as well.

Sounds great, right? In principle, sure.

Few problems:

In terms of accounting biochar is only carbon neutral or negative if the biochar is replanted into the soil right away and not used as a fuel. More likely is that it is stored. Shackley says that common practice is not to count pyrolysis process in the CO2 footprint. Pyrolysis does produce CO2. And if the biochar isn’t planted but used as a fuel then it is carbon positive. Sure it emits less carbon than fossil fuels, but using it as a fuel would distort its price as an agricultural input.

This leads to the second problem: logistics. Shackley describes the process, “You’ve got a lot of movement of material: you’ve got to grow it somewhere, you’ve got to use quite a lot of land to grow it, you’ve got to move it [left over wastes], you’ve got to store it, you’ve got to process it, you’ve then got to store the biochar before it goes onto the field. And if you’re talking about very large volumes, you’ve got to store it somewhere.”

In biochar manufacture and use there is a temporal delay: Shackley says often the feedstock waste from agriculture will come from the end of a harvest, but the most useful time to use it would likely be the following spring or summer. Logistics are a huge part of the process but those details are often glossed over.

Only loosely mentioned is a third problem: no one is entirely certain of the optimum composition of biochar for maximum temporal carbon sequestration. An article about biochar on MNN mentions in passing, “Plowing biochar into soil sequesters the carbon for a long time -- biochar fields have been found in South America dating back thousands of years and still full of their carbon solids.” A long time sure, but it depends on what it’s made of.** Scientists may be able to test terra preta to see what it’s been made of in the past, but other materials will be used to create modern biochar.

So why not only make biochar from certain specific materials? Simplistically: Soil contains bacteria and mineral nutrients that help plants grow. Biochar contains minerals as well that are beneficial to plant growth, which makes it beneficial as a fertilizer. Different biochar compositions could provide optimum minerals depending on the soil composition. It’s common sense that in order to be sustainable, biochar be composed of native organic materials. So, wherever it’s used its make up will vary.

Biochar can be made of almost any material and some materials, according to Dr. Saran Sohi, a soil specialist at the UK Biochar Research Institute, are more stable than others. Stability determines how long carbon will be trapped (sequestered) in the soil. There’s not yet been enough research to determine how long certain materials will sequester carbon.

“When you pyrolyze material you end up with a complex substance. And some of that is volatile,” explains Shackley. Any biochar used as an agricultural fertilizer (carbon sink) will have to be stable for well over 100 years, “Ideally we want to keep 75-80% of carbon in a stable form for hundreds of years. If it all comes out as CO2 after 100 years, in my view, it isn’t worth it.... Because if we haven’t solved the problem, and it all comes out again in 100 years time could get billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide back in the atmosphere and we might be having a severe climate crisis and it could be disastrous.”

Forth, the market model is uncertain on several levels: Sohi says that more research must be done on biochar composition so that the benefits to farmers (i.e. increased crop yield) can be clearly enumerated. Until then a market price for biochar as a fertilizer will be hard to pin down. It will also be difficult to displace traditional chemical fertilizers with this “natural” alternative, where the added yields are certain. Any market in developing countries where charcoal is used as a fuel (even as a low-carbon alternative) and an agricultural input must be heavily regulated: in order that charcoal remains cheap enough to be used as a low cost agricultural input, to prevent people trading the biochar at profit to be used as fertilizer (rather then fuel too), then from turning to another fuel that might degrade the environment.

After years of colossal f-ups, the development community has to come to an agreement that aid must be nuanced-- that is, designed specific to the environment in which it’s implemented. The financial crisis(es) have shown us that we need heavy market regulation, not just of financial markets but commodities as well. In order to address climate change we need to use all of the technology at our disposal, which includes biochar. But unless we take our time, and correctly implement its use, biochar could do more harm than good. The US’s biochar bill might be something to be weary of. Shackley points out that such a bill will drive more investment into research and make certain that regulators ask the right questions about safety and benefits. On the other hand, history has shown that governments dolling out money must be monitored to make certain processes are safe. More research must be done on biochar, its use should not be rushed into, and the market must be heavily regulated.

* Dr. Paulo dos Santos, SOAS.
**For example manure, palm tree litter are more volatile.

Ann is a freelance new media journalist, educated in Finance Economics. She considers herself to be a citizen of the world, though she is American by nationality, and a legal resident of the state of Wisconsin (yeah, go ahead and chuckle). See her other blog: Missing The Bear.
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