Tag Archives: Environment

The future of obsolescence

My regular readers will know I am not a big fan of ‘green’ policies. I want to protect the environment and green policies invariably end up damaging it. These policies normally arise by taking too simplistic a view – that all parts of the environmental system are independent of each other so each part can be addressed in isolation to improve the environment as a whole. As a systems engineer since graduation, I always look at the whole system over the whole life cycle and when you do that, you can see why green policies usually don’t work.

Tackling the problem of rapid obsolescence is one of the big errors in environmentalism. The error here is that rapid obsolescence is not necessarily  a problem. Although at first glance it may appear to cause excessive waste and unnecessary environmental damage, on deeper inspection it is very clear that it has actually driven technology through very rapid change to the point where the same function can often be realized now with less material, less energy use, less pollution and less environmental impact. As the world gets richer and more people can afford to buy more things, it is a direct result of rapid obsolescence that those things have a better environmental impact than they would if the engineering life cycle had run through fewer times.

A 150g smart-phone replaces 750kg of 1990s IT. If the green policy of making things last longer and not replacing them had been in force back then, some improvement would still have arisen, but the chances are you would not have the smart phone or tablet, would still use a plasma TV, still need a hi-fi, camera and you’d still have to travel in person to do a lot of the things your smartphone allows you to do wherever you are. In IT, rapid obsolescence continues, soon all your IT will be replaced by active contact lenses and a few grams of jewelry. If 7Bn people want to have a good quality of digitally enabled lifestyle, then letting them do so with 5 grams of materials and milliwatts of power use is far better than using a ton of materials and kilowatts of power.

Rapid engineering progress lets us build safer bridges and buildings with less material, make cars that don’t rust after 3 years and run on less fuel, given us fridges and washing machines that use less energy. Yes, we throw things away, but thanks again to rapid obsolescence, the bits are now easily recyclable.

Whether greens like it or not, our way of throwing things away after a relatively short life cycle has been one of the greatest environmental successes of our age. Fighting against rapid obsolescence doesn’t make you a friend of the earth, it makes you its unwitting enemy.


Coal power is making a comeback – an own goal by greens

I tweeted recently that Europe has the stupidest greens in the world.  I meant it. Today I have time to explain.

The Greens of course are political party in many countries now, but the term green applies generally to left wing environmentalists where things only ever seem to benefit the environment if they simultaneous result in wealth redistribution. It is that entire group that I am talking about here. There are lots of environmentalists who aren’t socialist and lots that aren’t idiots, with a very strong overlap in those groups. Many are very smart and support policies or develop solutions that actually benefit or protect the environment. But the greens do seem mostly to fall into the idiot camp. Sorry, but that is a fact of life.

Thanks to green pressure and proselytising of their CO2 catastrophist religion, the EU has gone nuts implementing ludicrously expensive policies to reduce carbon emissions, but has demonstrated mainly negative effects after hundreds of billions investment, often achieving exactly the opposite of what was intended. The greens’ almost universal refusal to engage in proper science or logical reasoning has resulted in very clear demonstration that nature doesn’t care about political ideology or intent, only what is actually done. Some examples are called for:

Many people have been driven needlessly into fuel poverty, their energy bills rising dramatically to pay for wind farms that often actually increase CO2 emissions over their life because they are built on peat-lands. Solar panels on UK rooftops produce more CO2 than they save too, again the opposite of the intent, while managing to successfully divert cash from the poor to the rich, also presumably the opposite of the socialist greens driving it. Industries have been forced to close or relocate overseas due to rising subsidies for renewables, severely damaging the economy and destroying working class jobs, where the intention was to revitalise with a green economy and create jobs, while again pushing up CO2 emissions when the relocation is to countries that produce more CO2 for the same energy. Recession and economic misery has been far deeper and longer with slower recovery thanks to the huge costs resulting directly from green policies, with the poor taking much of the burden. Millions in far away countries have also been pushed into starvation by rising food prices or have been forcefully relocated to make room for palm oil plantations to meet the demand caused by European regulations that biofuels must account for 5% of the fuel in our cars. The peat bogs drained and the rainforests chopped down to make space again increase CO2 emissions.

You couldn’t make it up. The evidence now seems incontrovertible to all but the looniest of greens that CO2 doesn’t matter anywhere near as much as was suggested, and we are certainly not threatened by environmental catastrophe due to global warming. But if we were, all the activities of the European greens so far would have made a huge contribution to making catastrophe worse and much earlier. Green is rapidly becoming synonymous with stupid. Greens are repeatedly shown to be the worst enemy of both the poor and of the environment, both of which they aim to help. Stupid almost isn’t a strong enough word.

Meanwhile, in the USA, where they refused to sign up to the worst of the policies, simple capitalist market forces forced the development of shale gas, reducing energy prices dramatically and stimulating the economy, making people richer and creating jobs, while replacing dirty, CO2-producing coal with clean CO2-light gas. Many business are relocating from the EU to the US, the only successful but entirely unintended CO2 reduction resulting from EU policy so far.  Meanwhile, greens even there have managed to get the government to throw billions away on futile projects to create a mythical green economy, with remarkably few actual jobs to show for the huge investment. It is the diametrically opposite force that has created them in any numbers.

However, because the USA has made so much progress reducing CO2 via shale gas, and is benefiting from greatly reduced energy prices, even it that wasn’t intentional, the price of coal there has been forced down so far that Europe is buying it in. Germany is now reinvesting in coal fired power stations that will greatly increase CO2 emissions, hilarious considering how much cash they have so far wasted on renewables to supposedly reduce them. Meanwhile, although large reserves of shale gas have been found all over Europe, the greens have managed to prevent and delay development of this abundant resource that would revitalise the economy while reducing CO2 emission and reducing pollution. Only now are some mainstream politicians starting to realise the stupidity of such policy and encouraging development of shale gas. In a decade or two the greens might finally understand too.

Japan too is now making a dash for coal. Having closed their nuclear stations, they have to make up the power deficit and with coal being so cheap, is their new fuel of choice. Again, the indirect result of environmental policies have caused a rise in demand for the worst CO2 emitter of them all. But at least the Japanese can also demonstrate that they are exploiting methane clathrates, which would have a CO2-reducing effect while reducing energy costs.

It seems to be Europe where the policies are greenest and stupidest, with the most harm and the highest costs for the least benefit and the consequential wealth redistribution from poor to rich. The only good thing is that since it tuned out that CO2 doesn’t matter as much as they claimed after all, at least they haven’t yet managed to bring about environmental catastrophe. If the greens had been right about CO2, given the policies they’ve so far forced through, we’d really be in a mess.

I rest my case. Europe has the stupidest greens in the world.

Water companies to deliver Gbit broadband over wet string

Warning: to avoid wasting your time, and since it is no longer April 1st, be aware that this was published as an April Fool joke. Please enjoy it but don’t take it seriously:

Optical fibre is sometimes laid in conventional cable form just like copper wires, but because the actual fibres are so light, they can be coated with a rough surfacing that lets them be blown through plastic ducts using compressed air (the plastic ducts are under 1cm diameter). The fibre wiggles its way to the far end, carried by the air flow. It is simply called ‘blown fibre’ and is used extensively where ducts can easily be laid.

The water industry obviously has huge experience in making smooth channels for water to flow through to every building in the land. Blown fibre technology can adapt to this. Several years ago, advised by future technology consultants Futurizon, research produced a soft furry coating that makes it easy to flush coated fibres down water pipes. The coating is based on sugar and has the consistency of candyfloss. The clever breakthrough was making it so that it lasts until installation is complete and then dissolves harmlessly away in less than an hour.  It is of course safe to drink the tap water even soon after installation.  The remaining problem was how to route the fibres when they come to a junction. The inspiration came from optically guided missiles, which have steerable nose cones, that allow the missile to be routed in the required direction just by rotating the cone. Adding a tiny reusable nose cone capsule to the head to the fibre, and knowing the architecture of the pipework, the fibre can be routed correctly at each junction.

A global consortium of water companies now plans to install nationwide fibre networks via the water supply via a company called Fallopior. The main offices and roll-outs will be in the UK, New Zealand, Australia, and the USA, all of which face issues of getting access to ultrafast broadband for rural areas and all of which have the carbon subsidy economics to make it work. The name of Fallopior presumably emerged because the system uses tubes for delivery and perhaps to try to tap into the female broadband market. At the home, a broadband ‘tap’ is installed that allows the fibre to emerge. Once the fibre is delivered and connected, it is pushed through a silicone plug that is pushed into the tap to completely seal it.

The fibre is routed all the way to the home by this means, and then the broadband tap is opened. A few litres of water later, and the fibre is delivered. It is far more environmentally friendly way of installing the fibre than digging up pavements and roads. The carbon savings and the selling of the associated credits are calculated to reduce the cost of installation to almost zero. This even works in remote areas since the carbon savings are of course far higher here too. The costs of the fibre are low enough to be absorbed into even a low rental agreement. Fallopior say that they can will offer 1Gb/s to any home even in the remotest parts of the country for as little as £5 per month, and this is easily enough to deliver all the high definition TV and internet a home.

Broadband providers have struggled with the economics of fibre to the home and many homes still have to suffer slow broadband, even though they pay far more than this, especially in the country. But all homes have a water supply, so this technology is perfectly adapted. Since the roll-out plans of the other UK providers are so sluggish, the water companies expect to seize massive market share almost overnight.

Some homes questioned about the potential service insisted they don’t want ultra-high speed broadband with the temptations it brings, and amazingly would prefer to have a slower service, even if it means they have to pay more to get less. Engineers have solved this one too. The coating allows very smooth thin nylon string to be coated temporarily and flushed down the pipes in the same way instead of fibre. Since the water keeps it lubricated, wear would be very low and it will only need replaced every 5 years. But that re-installation increases the cost to £7.50 per month.

Now to every nerd’s dream – just like two cans with string between them, this wet string will transmit high audio signals, 100KHz. With the phenomenal ability of today’s coding and compression schemes, this allows 3Mbit/s to be delivered, comparable with what many people receive today on their low speed broadband. Those questioned said they would be happier with this limit which lets them do basic internet access but not much else. It still competes extremely well on price with offerings from other providers so again Fallopior expect massive demand. In an emergency, when there is no electricity supply, a home-owner can still signal the emergency services by making a short series of tugs on the string. Simple Morse code SOS can easily be sent this way. 

A string plant in Cornwall has secretly been built in preparation and has stockpiled  over 100 million km of string. Others have been established on similar basis in the other consortium countries. As another carbon-subsidised activity, the UK site is attached to a 3MW wind turbine. This one looks a little unusual since the spinning motion of the blades is used directly via gears rather like a traditional windmill) to spin the string and power the machinery. String output therefore varies according to wind strength, hence the need to stockpile supplies. Nevertheless, the result is string that is entirely paid for via carbon subsidies. Location in remote Cornwall was chosen because of high winds and proximity to seaside resorts with easy access to local expertise from candyfloss experts. The late arrival of spring and hence the candyfloss market has meant that many were available and willing to assist on the project.

In spite of all the many benefits and promises of very low cost ultra-fast broadband, there is just one problem – as hinted by the unusual just-after-midnight timing of the press release by the Fallopior’s HQ in Auckland, New Zealand, and of course the company’s name.

Quality of life sustainability

I write and lecture occasionally about various aspects of sustainability. I don’t think we have a big problem from population growth or running out of physical resources, as long as we are sensible. It is perfectly possible to support a much larger human population without destroying the environment, by harnessing human ingenuity to improve land productivity and to minimise resource use thanks to advanced technology. There are some obvious limits though. I summarise some in this diagram. As you can see, I don’t think there is room for complacency, but nor do I think the problems are insurmountable, and with willingness, we can ensure a healthy environment.

Personally, I think the problem of man-made global warming has been exaggerated, and I don’t lose any sleep on that issue, but we could still reduce atmospheric pollution generally to good effect. Particulates from fossil fuels, aerosols, HFCs, CFCs and so on could all be reduced. And even if CO2 isn’t an urgent issue yet, it still is definitely a greenhouse gas so we should limit avoidable emissions. However, over-fishing of the oceans is a real and urgent issue. A lot of people rely on fish as their main protein source, and with good fish farming and better fishing practices, we could probably get by OK, but right now, there are some very stupid fishing practices in place, resulting in enormous waste as well as over-fishing. Some species are in real danger, mainly thanks to poor regulation and policing.

Land is often misused too. We may be able to feed more people with less land, but we should still prioritise food production over biofuels and other misuses while people are going hungry. Biofuel production causes a great many environmental problems as well as human ones: incentivising chopping down of forests and draining bogs, increased global food prices and consequent starvation, forced relocation of poor people and probably others I have forgotten. Land that can grow food should not be wasted making fuel for cars and trucks at least until such time as we have eliminated undernourishment for everyone.

Sustainability isn’t just about the environment. We must also ensure that human systems are sustainable too, i.e. we don’t kill each other, or go back to a new dark age, or reduce quality of life potential. It is no easy trick to manage the environment and humanity for mutual benefit, but it can be done. When we look at the whole system, it is tempting to see humanity as the enemy of the environment, but the evidence in the developed world is that by developing new technologies, we can clean the environment up and restore it. So fostering human creativity is one of the keys to achieving sustainability environmentally too.


Many of these human issue are normally ignored in environmental discussions, but things that affect human society often have system wide effects that impact on the environment. Recession, diversion of funds and prioritisation of values have obvious impacts but more indirect impacts are also likely. So we should consider human social and political issues as an important part of the environmental system. Man is part of nature too.

What is a climate scientist? Indeed, are there any?

We hear the term frequently, but what qualifies some people and not others to be classed as climate scientists?  You might think it is just someone who studies things that affect the climate. But very many people do that, not just those who call themselves climate scientists. The term actually seems to refer solely to a group who have commandeered the term for themselves and share a particular viewpoint, with partly overlapping skills in a subset of the relevant disciplines. In recent times,it seems that to be an official ‘climate scientist’ you must believe that the main thing that counts is human interference and in particular, CO2. All other factors must be processed from this particular bias.

To me, the climate looks like it is affected by a great many influences. Climate models produced by ‘climate scientists’ have been extremely poor at predicting changes so far, and one reason for this is that they exclude many of the relevant factors.

I am struggling to think of any scientific discipline that doesn’t have something to say about some influence on climate. Many branches of chemistry and physics are important in understanding how the atmosphere works, and the oceans, and glaciers, and soil. We have some understanding of some natural cycles, but far from all, and far from complete. We need biologists and chemists and physicists to tell us about soil, and forests, and ocean life, and how species and entire ecosystems react and adapt to changing circumstances, with migrations or adaptation or evolution for example. We need to understand how draining bogs or chopping trees to make room for biofuels affects the climate. How using bio-waste for fuel instead of ploughing it into the ground affects soil structure, plant growth, and carbon interchange. We need to understand how cosmic rays interact with the earth’s magnetic field, how this is affected by solar activity, how sunspots form, and even gravitational interactions with the planets that affect solar cycles. We need to understand glacial melting, how glaciers move differently as temperature changes, how black carbon from diesel engines affects their heat absorption, how clouds form, how they act to warm or cool the earth according to circumstances. We need to understand ocean cycles much better, as well as gas and heat interchange between layers, how this is affected by weather and so on. I could go on, endlessly. We need to understand the many different ways we could make energy in the future, the many options for capture and containment of emissions or pollutants, or positive effects some might have on plant growth and animal food chains.

But it doesn’t stop with science, not be a long way. We also need people skilled in anthropology and demography and sociology and human psychology, who understand how people react when faced with choices of lifestyle when presented in many different ways with different spins, or faced with intimidation or eviction because of environmental policies.  And how groups or tribes or countries will interact and distribute burdens and costs and rewards, or fight, or flee. And religious leaders who understand well the impacts of religious pressures on people’s attitudes and behaviours, even if they don’t subscribe to any organised religion. Clearly environmental behaviour has a strong religious motivation for many people, even if that is just as a crude religion substitute.

We even need people who understand animal psychology, how small mammals react to wind turbine flicker for example, and how this affects the food chain, ecosystem balance and eventual interchange with the atmosphere and the rest of the environment.

And politicians, they understand how to influence people, and marketers, and estate agents. They can help predict behaviours and adaptation and how entire countries may or will interact according to changes in climate, real or imagined.

And we need economists to look at the many alternatives and compare costs and benefits, preferably without ideological and political bias. We need to compare strategies for adaptation and mitigation and avoidance. Honestly and objectively. And we need ethicists to help evaluate the same from human perspectives.

And we need loads of mathematicians, especially statisticians. Climate science is very complicated, and a lot of measurements and trend analyses need in-depth statistical skills, apparently lacking in official climate science, as evidenced by the infamous hockey stick graph. But we also need some to model things like traffic flows so we can predict emissions from different policies.

And we need lots of engineers too, to assess likely costs and timescales for development of alternatives for energy, transport, entertainment and business IT. We need a lot of engineers!

And don’t forget architects, who influence energy balance via choices of shapes, materials and colour schemes as well as how buildings maintain a pleasant environment for the inhabitants.

Ah yes, and futurists. Many futurists are systems thinkers with an understanding of how things link together and how they may develop. You need a few of them too.

I have probably forgotten lots of others. The point is that there are very many factors that need to be included. No-one, and I mean no-one, can possibly have a good grasp of all of them. You can know a bit about a lot of things or a lot about a few things, but you can’t know a lot about everything. I would say that there are no people at all who know about all the things that affect climate in any depth, and therefore no group deserves a monopoly on that title.

So, if you only look in any depth at a few interaction in the oceans and atmosphere and ignore many of the rest of the factors affecting climate, as ‘climate scientists’ seem to, it is hard to see a good reason to continue to hold the title any more than anyone with another label like astrophysicist, or politician. ‘Climate scientists’ as we currently classify them, know a bit about some things that affect climate. So do many other groups. Having skills in a few of the relevant areas doesn’t give any right to dismiss others with skills in a different few. And if they consistently get it wrong, as they do, then there is even less reason to trust their particular viewpoints. And that’s before we even start considering whether they are even honest about the stuff they do talk about. And as Donna Lamframboise has pointed out recently, they don’t deserve to be trusted.


Environmental and engineering convergence

My best friend Dave Faulkner runs an environmental consultancy. I host a couple of his papers on global warming on the Futurizon web site. We have many a beer over debate about environmental issues. Over the years, I have worked a few times with both Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace. I have a lot of respect for Jonathon Porritt and Doug Parr. We share a passion for a healthy environment, though we disagree on some of the ways to achieve it. It’s the same with my friend Dave. I can like and respect a person without agreeing with everything they say. It is nicer still when some common ground appears.

Only a small bit of my work involves environmental issues so I am far from expert in the environment field, though I do have my own embryonic environmental consultancy now. But I am expert at studying the future overall and pretty good at making predictions – I get it right 6 times more often than I get it wrong – and as I look at the many factors affecting the way the world is going, I feel hesitantly optimistic. There is some potential for a techno-utopia but I know we won’t get that. We will take a sub-optimal path that creates as many new problems as we solve. The world of 2050 and beyond will still be a mixture of good and bad, just with different goods and bads.

The approach to our environment though is one area I think will improve. On one side, we have the likes of Porritt and Parr, leading much of the green community and doing what they can to motivate people with the desire to live in a nicer world in harmony with nature. I can’t fault that, only in some of the policies they recommend to achieve it, which I think come from occasional flaws in their analyses. On another side, engineers are racing to develop better technologies, sometimes deliberately to help the environment, but more often almost coincidentally making better toys that happen to be better for the environment. Engineers are mostly driven by market forces, but they are still human, and many also care passionately for the environment, so will generally seek solutions that do their job but are better for the environment where the choice exists. In fact, it is hard to spot examples of new technology that are worse for the environment than their predecessors. Market forces, mediated through well motivated engineers, can make the world better just as well as any green. Both can help us move to a better world. 

I see a lot of needless worrying by environmentalists though, some of whom (I won’t name names) think of scientists and engineers as the enemy. Needless worry, and sometimes counter-productive. One of the big worries this week is that a lot of resources are scarce that we need to make renewable energy, or to make batteries to store it. But almost at the same time, articles appear on inductive power delivery to cars that circumvents the need for large batteries and hence the need for lithium – I even proposed that solution myself a few years ago, so it is good to see it appearing as a project somewhere. New materials for IT are being developed too, so we won’t rely for much longer on the other things that are scarce. So, no worries, it’s just a short-term problem. For the last few years it has been recommending spending trillions to avoid carbon dioxide production. But even without spending any trillions, future energy technology that is being developed anyway will make fossil fuels redundant, so it will take care of itself. Panic is expensive but unnecessary, the worry needless and counter-productive, serving only to slow down the race to sustainability by diverting funds to the wrong areas.

The environment has some very good friends in engineering now. Biomimetics is the engineering field of copying ideas  or at least inspiration from nature. I’ve occasionally use biokleptics when an idea is blatantly stolen. Nature doesn’t have any lawyers defending her intellectual property rights, but has been using random trial and error for 3 billion years to develop some fantastic engineering solutions and if anything encourages their copying. So, someone looks at spiders and develops a new kind of architecture that produces better structures with less material. Going way back to the 80s, I looked at evolution and made the tiny deductive leap to thinking of evolving software and hardware, then soon after looked at embryo growth and came up with ideas of how to self organise telecomms networks and sensor nets. I love biomimetics.  So do many other engineers, and the whole field is exploding now. It will help to make systems, objects, fabrics, materials, architecture and processes that are more energy or resource efficient, and quite often more beautiful.There are a few purists who insist on copying something exactly as nature does it, but mostly engineers are happy to be inspired and make their own tweaks to adapt it to needs. So, long ago, Icarus started the field by copying nature but a century ago we discovered we could make planes more easily with metal fixed wings.

Synthetic biology essentially completes the relationship by adding human design into biology. This embryonic field will expand vastly, and will be used for a wide range of tasks from resource extraction and processing, to computing. Nanotech and insights from neuroscience will add more to allow rich interaction between organic and inorganic devices, often bridging the gap to allow us to put electronic devices in direct connection with our bodies, or those of other creatures. This field also allows the wonderful possibility of undoing some of the damage done to the environment, and even making nature work better. Gaia 2.0 will be with us this century. Of course, if we don’t develop all this science and technology, we will be stuck with a human world that is immensely resource hungry and getting worse, using far more resources than would otherwise be needed, damaging the environment, with no hope of repairing the damage. There wouldn’t even be a plus side, because people would also live poorer lives and be less fulfilled and less happy.

Having been highly convergent on the goal of making the world a better place, this is where engineers often part company with greens. Most engineers think better engineering is the best route to a sustainable world, most greens (and, it has to be admitted, some engineers) think we should slow it all down. This superficially suggests lower environmental impact, implying that people will consume less if they swap devices less often, or don’t get that next pay rise, but it doesn’t deliver. It is a wrong deduction. In much the same way that poor people are often fatter than rich people, what it does change is the access to a better diet, in this case, of environmentally friendlier technology that really needs extra R&D before it is with us. That funding comes from market demand and the ability to pay, and that needs more people to be richer. For the next several decades, what we need is economic growth, selectively. Again, I start to agree with Porritt here. It isn’t just any growth we need, but growth that is spent wisely, using growth to improve peoples lives, and improving the environment we live in either directly or via R&D and the greener technology it will deliver.

Is greed more sustainable than frugality?

Sustainability is much misunderstood. Certainly government and corporate sustainability policies often point completely the wrong way.

To be sustainable, we must ensure that future generations are able to live decent lives. Not much argument about that usually. But conventional wisdom in the field is that this means we should cut back on consumption.  That leap of logic is flawed. Cutting back reduces environmental impact in the short term but that doesn’t necessarily mean it will reduce it in the long term, or overall over any significant length of time. The full lifetime, full system impact is what counts. Achieving a reduction in overall impact well be best served by increasing consumption in the short term, if this leads to development that reduces the later impacts enough to offset short term damage.

An excellent example is in mobile phone design. Vigorous marketing and encouragement to replace mobiles frequently seems to many people to be wasteful and environmentally unsustainable. However, the rapid obsolescence cycle here has given us 150g mobiles that essentially replace 600kg of previously needed IT equipment. If everyone wants a mobile phone, or to access to the functions they provide, then the lowest environmental impact is achieved by using ultra-high tech phones that do far more with far less. Increased consumption has led to lower environmental impact. If instead, we had held back development and demanded that people use their phones till they fail, we would still be using a lot of heavy and resource intensive kit that needs lots more energy, generates far more waste, and would need far more mining, nasty heavy metals and pollution. And it wouldn’t work half as well, so we’d have less happy lives too.

Greed v frugality? Greed is the more sustainable. Because it leads faster to more advanced technology that is invariably better for the environment.

For a fuller analysis of sustainability and technology, download http://futurizon.com/articles/sustainingtheearth.pdf. It is free.