Some energy(carbon)-saving ideas…

Croft Carbon College - exciting and enjoyable workshops on carbon saving and more.

This great new initiative got me thinking about saving carbon. Click on the picture to see the huge range of exciting courses they are offering!

Here is an idea I came up with recently, inspired by the recently launched Croft Carbon College project, operated by Leith Community Crops in Pots and supported by the Scottish Government’s Climate Challenge Fund, which got me thinking about such things. I am generally very mindful of keeping my energy consumption low (turning off lights when I leave a room, for example), but I realised I could do more…

Turn off the water heater (boiler) and save ‘waste’ hot water from the kettle and stove in a vacuum flask.

vacuum flask

The vacuum flask – a great energy-saving invention, and an ally in the fight against climate change?

My property has no gas, only electricity (though it took years to convince British/Scottish Gas that this was the case!), and the shower heats up its own water when I use it, not relying on the boiler. I only need a little warm water for shaving and washing dishes. Although I try to boil only as much water as I need when I use the kettle,  I generally have to boil a bit more, because the element needs to be covered. Rather than leaving excess water in the kettle, I now pour it into a vacuum flask and use it later for shaving, washing dishes or, indeed, refilling the kettle when I next come to use it. In this way, I do not need to operate the boiler (which heats a large volume of water) and I can switch it off. I save electricity in two ways!

When I have used a hotplate on my stove it remains warm for some time afterwards. Rather than letting this residual heat go to waste, I put a pot of cold water from the tap on the cooling hotplate (with a lid and a dishcloth on top of it to insulate it) and leave it there for a few minutes. I then decant the heated water into the vacuum flask.

Cooking rice in a vacuum flask

This use of the vacuum flask reminded me that my mother uses a wide-mouthed vacuum flask to cook rice: she simply pours rice into it, followed by boiling water, and then closes it. After a while (half an hour, perhaps?) the rice is perfectly cooked.

Hay Box/Wonder Box/Wonderbag

This. in turn, reminded me of the wonderful Wonderbag initiative in South Africa, based on the old hay box idea. Click on the pictures below to learn more! All of these websites/publications are highly recommended.

Information on the Wonderbag initiative

‘The Wonderbag was developed to ease the social, economic and environmental impacts of the current global circumstances.
‘The Wonderbag is a non-electric, heat-retention cooker that allows food that has been brought to a boil on a stove fire, to continue cooking for hours after it has been removed from the fuel source.
‘It’s taken years of passion, energy, and perseverance to get Sarah and the brand where it is today – 600,000 bags distributed in South Africa, first round of carbon credits registered and issued, production capabilities in Rwanda and Turkey, pilots poised to launch in Kenya, Nigeria and Somaliland, and over 4,500 bags sold in the UK, with a buy-one-give-one model to support getting Wonderbags into humanitarian relief.’

The 49M Cookbook. Great tasting energy savings.

This is a fantastic free publication from South Africa on all aspects of low-energy cooking, complete with recipes. Highly recommended!

Thermal + Haybox cooking: new ways to use an old technique

This is a summary of what you do and how it works.

Hay Boxes or Fireless Cookers

This is a good general introduction to the topic.

How to make a Wonder Box, thermal-retention cooker.

This site gives you detailed instructions on how to make your own Wonder Box in handy printable PDF format.

Yuppiechef website selling Wonderbags.

…And on this site you can find some commercially available Wonderbags from South Africa!

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GMB and Unison leaders betray trade union values and urge Labour Party to adopt pro-Israel antisemitism definition

Jewish Voice for Peace and many other Jewish groups say that the IHRA definition of antisemitism is harmful.

Many Jewish groups oppose the pro-Israel definition of antisemitism being pushed by the GMB and Unison leadership, amongst others.

I am extremely distressed to hear that the leaders of both Unison and GMB – large UK trade unions – have joined the pro-Israel bandwagon and urged the Labour Party to adopt the pro-Israel IHRA definition of antisemitism in full (a definition which the BBC persists in disingenuously describing as ‘internationally accepted’ and the Guardian – poor excuse for an intelligent left-of-centre paper – glibly describes as ‘standard’).

Netanyahu delighted

Netanyahu probably delighted as UK trade unions support IHRA definition of antisemitism.

Netanyahu and his far-right cabal of racist oppressors must be laughing with delight as trade unions urge Labour to adopt their preferred definition of antisemitism, which many Jewish groups believe precludes legitimate criticism of Israel.

Netanyahu and his far-right cabal must be laughing up their sleeves and patting themselves on the back, just as many Jewish groups the world over are deeply troubled by these developments.

Yes, it won’t be known to you if your only source of news is the British mainstream media, but many Jews do not support Israel’s ongoing and extreme violations of human rights, and explicitly reject the IHRA definition of antisemitism because it deligitimises criticism of Israel (whatever the GMB leadership might say).

Many Jewish groups do not support ‘internationally accepted’ definition

Here is what over 40 Jewish groups, the world over, including many in the UK, say about the IHRA definition:

Of particular concern is the usage of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, intentionally worded such that it equates legitimate criticisms of Israel and advocacy for Palestinian rights with antisemitism, as a means to suppress the former.


I call on the members of the GMB and Unison to express their disgust with their leaderships’ position on this issue, which surely amounts to a betrayal of what should be the values of any trade union worthy of the name: support for human rights and solidarity with the oppressed, the world over.

Tear up your cards

If the trade union leaders will not change their policies on the IHRA definition, then I expect members’ consciences will give them little choice but to tear up their membership cards.

In doing so, they would have my support and, I am sure, that of all the Jewish groups mentioned above (as well as, it goes without saying, the oppressed and dispossessed people of Palestine).

Footnote: Please see what MediaLens has to say about the mainstream media’s role in this sorry saga.

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Kill the ‘natural capital’ approach before it kills us.

Nature Note For Sale website image

This image comes from one of the websites listed below amongst the references on the topic of ‘natural capital’. Click on it to visit the website.

I have touched on the topic of ‘natural capital‘ before. At a time when we are experiencing catastrophic loss of biodiversity and are arguably already at the tipping point when it comes to climate change, I feel compelled to raise it again. The superficially seductive notion of financialising and commoditising natural ‘resources’ and ‘ecosystem services’ (supposedly to make people appreciate how valuable they are) is potentially a fatal attraction at this critical time. We cannot afford to make the mistake of going down this route; we might never recover.

Rather than write at length on ‘natural capital’ myself, I thought it might be more useful to compile some references and resources on the topic. However, I shall first outline three of my related thoughts and concerns.

(1) The subtle and pernicious influence of words

We should be mindful of the connotations of the words ‘nature’ and ‘environment’. Used without thought, these deceptively innocent terms serve to perpetuate the often-subconscious false belief which arguably lies at the root of many of our problems: that man is outside ‘the natural world’.

The belief that we have a separate existence, and that nature is an ‘externality’, fuels the conviction that we can use it as we see fit. Part of the ‘galvanising alternative philosophy’ called for by Bruce K. Alexander must include the notion that we are part of the biosphere, not separate at all, and I am attempting to develop a version of such a galvanising alternative philosophy (as all of us should be) which I suggest might be called ‘biosphere-ism’, for want of a snappier term.

If the word ‘biosphere’ is unfamiliar, this reinforces rather than weakens my argument; the need to raise awareness and change mindsets has never been more apparent. Children should grow up with this concept, and news bulletins should give regular updates on the biosphere rather than the stock market (and the former should not be subservient to and subsumed by the latter, which is where the ‘natural capital’ notion leads).

(2) The importance of values and frames

We cannot begin to have a sensible conversation about ‘natural capital’ without an understanding of values and frames, which is why the first reference below is a primer on these.

A few years ago I attended an event on global issues hosted by the erstwhile World Development Movement, now Global Justice Now. (It may well have been on ‘natural capital’.) An attendee related the story below, of which he said he had direct personal knowledge. I thought it might be a good ‘teaser’ for the topic of values and frames, and for that of ‘natural capital’ in general.


The forest remnant was destroyed because its spiritual value had been supplanted.

A forest remnant was surrounded by a monoculture commodity crop [I cannot remember which country this relates to, but I think the crop was coffee]. The indigenous people had preserved the pocket of biodiversity because it was sacred to them, i.e. it had spiritual/religious significance. Well-meaning environmental campaigners told them that the bees (and presumably other pollinators) harboured by the forest had an economic value as they boosted the yield of the crop. In time, this became the main reason for preserving the forest, the people losing their spiritual/religious rationale.

Unfortunately, the price of the commodity plummeted and it was replaced by a more profitable wind-pollinated one [I think it was maize]. Because the people had come to understand that the main/only value of the forest was economic – to harbour pollinating insects whose only value, in turn, was boosting the yield of the insect-pollinated crop (note that they had not even necessarily been told this in so many words) – the land on which the forest grew was now more valuable to them as fields on which to grow the wind-pollinated crop. The forest remnant was destroyed.

(It is also possible to imagine an embellishment of this story, in which the destruction of the sacred forest led to a drying up of the streams which allowed the agriculture in the first place. This sort of thing certainly occurs, as anyone who has seen The Salt of the Earth can testify.)

There are several lessons in this anecdote:

  • It underlines the danger of undervaluing/disrespecting/losing traditional customs and beliefs. Their teleology is neglected at our peril, i.e. what may appear to be primitive superstition (e.g. the preservation of sacred groves, exogamy linked to a system of totems…) may actually serve a highly practical purpose (i.e. it has survival value) and have persisted largely for that reason.
  • It flags the danger of short-term financial considerations taking precedence over others.
  • It demonstrates the risk of over-reliance on the international commodities market. (Monoculture cash crops sold into this market are not a dependable source of income.)
  • Related to the last two points, it also illustrates the danger of appealing to people on the basis of extrinsic values (in this case money) as opposed to intrinsic ones (in this case spiritual ones) – of framing things in terms of extrinsic values – as this can result in intrinsic values being supplanted by extrinsic ones, rendering people deaf/blind to appeals on the basis of the former: ‘No, I won’t donate to your campaign to clean up the neighbourhood because I need to save up for a flashy car to compete with my neighbour.’

The last three lessons very much relate to the concept of ‘natural capital’, as a glance through the reference material below should make clear.

(3) Why is the ‘natural capital’ approach so seductive?

I think the ‘natural capital’ approach appeals for several reasons. Probably not all of them will be relevant to any single advocate. (Wanting to think the best of people, I certainly hope not!)

(a) The appeal of the simplistic discipline of neoclassical economics

Henry Hazlitt quotation

He should have added ‘for the biosphere too’.

Neoclassical economics is a theoretical discipline, i.e. one which disregards the complexity of the real world. It supposedly predicts how people (and therefore markets) behave on the basis of the simplifying assumptions that people are inherently and predominantly self-interested (a dangerous – to some extent self-fulfilling – flaw, if one considers the impact of inequality on people’s mindsets) and ‘rational actors’ (a term with a strict definition in this context) with perfect knowledge (an obviously problematic assumption) of ‘the market’ (a problematic concept, as what is included or excluded is subjective).

Upon these flimsy foundations, vast edifices of influential doctrine have been constructed (including the particularly flawed one of neoliberalism, arguably ultimately responsible for the massive societal and ‘biospherian’ crisis we now face). Never mind that empirical evidence demonstrates the falseness of many of its predictions, neoclassical economics is impervious to this. It appears internally consistent, and tinkering with its parameters has great appeal for certain mindsets (dare I suggest ‘left-brained’, reductionist, ‘typically male’ ones?) Just like certain computer games, it gives one the illusion of being able to predict and solve problems – a false sense of knowledge, power and control – and its simple notions are relatively easy to convey.

I contend that for some, the appeal of the simplistic discipline of neoclassical economics is similar to that of the connected concept of ‘natural capital’.

(b) A desperate attempt to rein in the transnationals (large international corporations)

‘Well, nothing else seems to have worked. Let’s try to talk their language. That’s the only way to make them listen.’

This is an understandable and ‘decent’ motivation. However, when one appreciates the concept of values and frames, it becomes clear how perilous this line of thinking is. (You will find other powerful reasons for it being dangerous in the references below but, in short, those well-meaning environmentalists – ‘biospherists’ –  who go down this route are like people who first touched a pack of playing cards a day ago and are now sitting down to high-stakes poker with seasoned professional players. What could possibly go wrong?)

(c) Financial motivations

For reasons which will be obvious soon after you start browsing the reference material, the ‘natural capital’ idea is supported by big business entities. Of course these entities have money at their disposal, and they would be happy to invest in directly or indirectly rewarding those organisations or individuals who go along with this project. Charities constantly need money. Tempting, then, to make oneself believe that what one is doing is for the greater good and not examine too closely the gift horse’s mouth… (It would be interesting indeed to look into the funding of the supposedly environmental organisations that support the ‘natural capital’ idea.)

(d) Ego, status and power: rubbing shoulders with the big boys

How exhilarating to be jetting around the world, rubbing shoulders with important, ‘successful’ and powerful people – billionaire CEOs, the Gates-Monsanto-Bayers of the world – and be treated like one of them: someone who really counts, a mover-and-shaker on a grand stage, a far-sighted visionary ‘saving the planet for future generations’!

I find it difficult to believe that this is not a factor influencing at least some of the supposedly environmental lobby who have been suckered into championing the ‘natural capital’ agenda. (This could be dismissed as a facile ad hominem attack, had I named anyone. I am not naming anyone. I am merely speculating on the basis of what I know about human nature.)

(e) The one-way valve hypothesis: once you’re into ‘natural capital’ you can’t get out

As you may already have come to understand, the ‘natural capital’ approach tends to view the world through the frame of extrinsic values (specifically money), and once one has started to view the world through such a frame it becomes very difficult to return to appreciating things from the perspective of intrinsic values. That’s just how human nature works. See the first reference below.

Furthermore, once one has invested time and energy in a cause, and publicly committed one’s organisation to it, it becomes very difficult to admit one was wrong and back down, especially if one has or is receiving financial benefit for supporting such a cause. I urge readers not to attack but to praise any organisation having the courage and integrity to admit to having made a mistake in supporting the ‘natural capital’ agenda. Come on, SWT and WWF, we’ll forgive you!

References and Resources on ‘Natural Capital’

Extracts from the linked sites are given below, but please click on the links and read the full articles.

Common Cause Foundation Research and Resources

[See pages 26 and 27 of Common Cause Communication: A Toolkit for Charities to get the gist in a few seconds. Note the irony of the involvement of WWF in this, as WWF is now advocating the ‘natural capital’ agenda!]

Our work, drawing on extensive collaboration with some of the world’s leading social psychologists, establishes several key principles:

1. Engaging compassionate values is an achievable and highly effective way of promoting action on social and environmental problems, e.g. Common Cause Communication: A Toolkit for Charities or Communicating Bigger-than-self Problems to Extrinsically-oriented Audiences

2. Most people underestimate the importance that a typical fellow citizen places on compassionate values, and the greater this misperception about others’ values, the less inclined a person is to vote, volunteer or become politically engaged, e.g. Perceptions Matter: The Common Cause UK Values Survey

3. Causes which may at first glance seem far removed from one another are intimately connected through values, e.g. Common Cause Communication: A Toolkit for Charities or No Cause is an Island

4. Many communications and campaigns aimed at deepening people’s concern about social and environmental issues risk inadvertently undermining the very values upon which proportionate and lasting change will need to be built, e.g. Common Cause Communication: A Toolkit for Charities or No Cause is an Island

Global Justice Now. Campaign briefing: World forum on natural capital

Forests are not commodities!

Forests are not commodities!

The first world forum on natural capital in Edinburgh, attended by global corporations, banks, accounting companies and governments, continues a process started in Rio+20 of privatising nature.

At the Rio+20 conference on sustainable development in 2012, rich country governments and corporations tried to capture discussions on a green economy. They proposed bringing nature into the markets in order to protect it (and make a profit). However, in reality this will lead to the commodification and privatisation of nature, taking control of how it is used and protected away from people and placing it in the hands of corporations and the finance sector…

Global Justice Now website. The great nature sale. 

[I highly recommend this article in its entirety as it gives several detailed examples of the dangers of the ‘natural capital’ approach.]

The green economy the UK government and others are pushing at Rio is based on the idea that we are trashing the global commons because we don’t value it properly. Therefore, they say, we need to put a financial value on nature and the services (clean air, water, resources like trees, food, fuel) it gives us. Then we can bring these things into the market and pay the proper price.

At first glance, this might seem like a good idea. Proponents of the false green economy often sound like they are saying all the right things. They appear to accept the need to protect the environment and reduce carbon emissions, and they talk of placing a proper ‘value’ on nature. But they are confusing value with price, and by doing so they open the door for green markets that price everything but value nothing…

Global Justice Now website. Myth 3: We need to have faith in the financial markets to solve our problems

Screenshot of Global Justice Now infographic on faith in the market.

Screenshot of Global Justice Now infographic. Click on it to visit the site and interact with it.

[Great interactive infographic on this page. Go on and click on it!]

We live in the age of big finance. Despite the 2008 crash exposing the dangers of handing over too much power to bankers, more and more of our lives are influenced by the whims of the stock market. Now plans are in place to create markets in nature itself. But if we look at the facts, the evidence shows that we should reconsider our blind faith in the ability of markets to solve the world’s problems…

Nick Dearden article in The Guardian: Putting a price on nature would be disastrous

A spoof 'Great Nature Sale' protest at the Edinburgh meeting of the World Forum in Natural Capital.

A spoof ‘Great Nature Sale’ protest at the Edinburgh meeting of the World Forum in Natural Capital.

[…] Like advocates of the market for more than 200 years, the drafter of the declaration cannot abide the idea of “the commons” – commonly held resources whose reproduction and use is not subject to the laws of finance. The English enclosures, starting around the 15th century, and the Scottish clearances, from the 18th century, turned most common land in our country into private property, generating the profits that fed the Industrial Revolution.

In its quest for new markets today, finance is again intent on privatising the “global commons”. The first step, as is clearly expressed in the natural capital declaration, is to start thinking of the environment as if it were capital, and to price it accordingly…

George Monbiot article in The Guardian: The UK government wants to put a price on nature – but that will destroy it

Defining Earth’s resources as ‘natural capital’ is morally wrong, intellectually vacuous, and most of all counter-productive…


[…] In support of Natural Capital, Jonathan Hughes (Scottish Wildlife Trust) offered the argument that our efforts at nature conservation have thus far, all failed.

He (and the Natural Capital movement in general) propose that it’s time we handed the process over to market-based economics, which requires that we sit down to discuss the “true value” of nature in monetary terms.

Two rebuttals from the panel to this argument seemed particularly on task:

  1. Invoking a system of Natural Capital is essentially giving up on our efforts, and handing control of the issue over to the banks, big business, and financial markets.
  2. Once you put a price on something, someone will come up with the money to pay for it. That someone won’t be a local indigenous tribe, it won’t be a polar bear, it won’t be a politician. It will be a company with billions of dollars…

Nature Not For Sale website. New report on the risks of Biodiversity Offsetting

“Nature destruction cannot be compensated for” say NGOs warning communities against biodiversity offsetting

Nature Note For Sale website image

Click on this image to visit the website.

As the world’s forests, lands and waters keep being destroyed, the people whose livelihoods are deeply linked to these places cannot continue their way of life and are often pushed into poverty and hunger. At the same time, the very actors profiting from this destruction have found a way to come across as friends of Nature. How is that possible?

Exposing the absurd logic behind this paradox is the goal of a new booklet published by the NGOs Re:Common and Counter Balance. “Biodiversity Offsetting, a threat to life” is a short publication aimed at explaining what biodiversity offsetting is and how it is deployed by private companies – with the support of governments and the legitimization of some conservation organizations and academics ­– to greenwash their reputation and continue with business-as-usual…


[…] The World Forum on Natural Capital is organised by the Scottish Wildlife Trust and backed by other major green groups. Due to take place on November 23-24 in the Edinburgh International Conference Centre, it is expected to attract 500 delegates from more than 35 countries. Other speakers include First Minister Nicola Sturgeon; the Scottish Government’s chief economist, Gary Gillespie; Virgin’s Sir Richard Branson; and David Nussbaum, chief executive of WWF UK.

The aim, according to the conference blurb, is to explore how risks to the world’s £47 trillion worth of natural capital can be “turned into opportunity”. Natural capital is the world’s stocks of natural assets such as geology, soil, air, water and all living things.

A coalition of 14 groups issued a joint statement calling the conference as “a con”. They are calling on organisers to demand companies “come clean on criminal negligence, social injustice and environmental destruction before lecturing on how to make ecosystem protection compatible with corporate profiteering”.

Eurig Scandrett, from Scottish Friends of Bhopal, argued corporations would always put their shareholders first, saying: “Putting a price on nature won’t change that. They will still dump where there’s least cost, which means on the poorest. We should be forcing these companies to be accountable, not helping them profit from greenwash.”

He criticised Dow, which took over the company that ran the Bhopal plant, for trying to evade liability for the disaster. “We will be protesting outside the conference centre and targeting the companies which have been invited to speak,” he said...

Miles King: Natural Capital thinking leads us astray

[This is an excellent article which not only looks at the etymology of terms like ‘capital’ and ‘services’ (which throws very interesting light on the debate) but also provides several very solid objections to the ‘natural capital’ approach. It ends with an account of what happened in Bali when the traditional intrinsic value-based approach to agriculture was supplanted. Fortunately there is a happy ending to this story!]


Balinese water temple

A belief in the sacredness of nature also helps people to work with Nature, rather than against it. Bali’s thousand year old water temples are a good example of this. Click on this image to visit Miles King’s article and read about this.

Wealth Creation
Natural Capitalism tells us that the current economic system values natural capital at zero, and therefore ignores it. So, if natural capital is suddenly given a value (where previously it had none), then new economic value will be created. We could call it a magic money tree.

The Office for National Statistics tells us that UK natural capital has a value of £750Bn. This may sound like a lot, but London’s residential property is worth twice that.

One of the reasons why London is worth so much is because of Quantitative Easing: The last time the Magic Money Tree was harvested, £435Bn was created out of nothing – and that capital flowed into many places, not least property – here and elsewhere. How much of it flowed offshore, outside jurisdictions, away from tax payments for public good? Nobody knows. The National Crime Agency estimates that nearly £100Bn a year of stolen money is laundered through the UK (and into UK offshore territories), much of it from Russia.

Capital is always flowing to places where it can’ pool’, away from the grasping claws of Regulators and Taxmen. Land in the UK is a good example of this. Farmland (75% of the UK) has become a massive tax shelter. It’s a tax haven, hiding in plain sight. Tens of billions of pounds a year are lost to the Exchequer via this tax haven. Are all those tax reliefs providing any benefit – is Nature, let alone Natural Capital, benefitting from them?

If the value of the UK’s natural capital really was converted into financial capital i.e. real money – where would it flow? One thing we can be sure about – it will not flow back to the “providers” of the “services” i.e. nature itself. It becomes just another asset to be traded, and, like QE, it will contribute to asset price inflation…

Sian Sullivan’s review (titled On ‘Natural Capital’, ‘Fairy Tales’ and Ideology) of Dieter Helm’s Natural Capital: Valuing the Planet.

Prof Sian Sullivan

Please read Sian Sullivan’s moving and highly evidenced take-down of the ‘natural capital’ approach. She is Professor of Environment and Culture at Bath Spa University.

[This is an outstanding and detailed critique of the ‘natural capital’ approach written by an anthropologist with extensive first-hand knowledge of traditional cultures’ approach to the environment. She writes, for example:  ‘People [in traditional cultures] arguably perceived themselves as serving […] other-than-human contexts, rather than only vice versa, as forms the basis for much current ecosystem services rhetoric (critiqued in Comberti et al., 2015; Plumwood, 2006; Sullivan, 2009). The unwelcome and often forced displacement of people from these places has reduced their ability to continue such care. It has created loss described as heartbreak, and disaffection through alienation from “their” lands and associated natures, now “valued” instead through global tourism markets.’

Professor Sullivan skewers many tenets of the ‘natural capital’ lobby, including that old and tired ‘tragedy of the commons’ myth and the ‘natural capital aggregate rule’, a notion that would allow, for example, a ‘unit’ of biodiversity in one area to be traded off against another elsewhere. Her essay ends with a very appropriate reference to George Orwell’s 1984. Please read her moving and richly evidenced take-down of the ‘natural capital’ approach.]

[…] I speak from an environmental anthropologist’s concern that diversities are lost in the world-making mission to fashion and fabricate the entire planet as an abstracted plane of (ac)countable, monetizable and potentially substitutable natural capital. In the vein of much natural capital thinking, Helm seems to assume, or perhaps to desire, that we all inhabit a world that is rationalized, experienced and accessed in the same way. This perspective displays little appreciation either of the historical conquests shaping capitalism’s particular truth regime, within which natural capital thinking is set (Chakrabarty, 2000); or of the significant alienations of peoples from natures that established the privileges and enclosures under which captured ‘natural capital assets’ have been depleted (Federici, 2004). I find the relative absence of such contexts alarming. It minimizes and depoliticizes the moral relevance of a world structured by neoliberalism and destabilized by the equality-preventing dominance of rentier capitalism (Piketty, 2014; Storm, 2013; Vitali et al., 2011). Moreover, and as discussed further below, new proposals for investable natural capital conservation seem set to enhance rather than curtail the ability of a few to monopolize property and profits. These concerns are among the reasons why suspicion and resistance have greeted the depoliticized ‘pragmatism’ (Helm, 2014) of incorporating numbers representing ‘natural capital’ into balance sheets accounting for costs and benefits under capitalist economic structures…

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A review of 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism

I have just written a review of 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism for Bella Caledonia.

review of Ha-Joon Chang's 23 Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism

My review of Ha-Joon Chang’s 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism has just been published on Bella Caledonia. Click on the image to read it.

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GM: a red herring, a straw doll and the elephant in the room


Click on this to read a summary of the issue.

UPDATE, November 2017. Here’s an article on how Monsanto operates, published in :  ‘How Monsanto Captured the EPA (And Twisted Science) To Keep Glyphosate on the Market’

I just sent the letter below to the BBC’s DG. It’s self-explanatory.

Lord Tony Hall
Director-General and Editor-in-Chief

Dear Lord Hall

GM: a red herring, a straw doll and the elephant in the room

I am writing, not for the first time, to challenge the BBC’s apparent lack of integrity in its approach to the issue of GM food crops. This time I am addressing you, the Director-General, directly, as I have not previously received a satisfactory response. I feel compelled, as someone with social and environmental awareness as well as a scientific background, to continue to call your organisation to account for what could be perceived to be uncritical support for companies such as Monsanto, Syngenta and Bayer, the former of which was recently condemned by an international tribunal of five judges:

‘The judges conclude that Monsanto has engaged in practices which have negatively impacted the right to a healthy environment, the right to food and the right to health. On top of that Monsanto’s conduct is negatively affecting the right to freedom indispensable for scientific research. … International law should be improved for better protection of the environment and include the crime of ecocide. The Tribunal concludes that if such a crime of ecocide were recognized in international criminal law, the activities of Monsanto could possibly constitute a crime of ecocide.’

In ‘The Life Scientific’, broadcast on Radio 4 on the morning of 16 May 2017 , Professor Jim Al-Khalili addresses Professor Ottoline Leyser, Director of the Sainsbury Laboratory Cambridge University (SLCU), as follows, ‘We’re all aware of the need for a sustainable and secure food supply. How might your knowledge, of how plants grow, help?’ After Professor Leyser’s response to this seemingly innocuous question, Professor Al-Khalili goes on to say, ‘We hear a lot about modern technologies, like GM, playing an increasingly important role in agriculture. How might GM fit into this new, holistic picture?’

Professor Leyser answers, ‘GM can play a really important role. The role is very specific and limited: where there are traits that you can introduce into a crop that depend on a single gene, or a very small number of genes. One very good example is disease resistance, and there are single genes that can make a huge difference in protecting plants against major plant pests.’

Professor Al-Khalili continues, ‘Obviously a lot of people are nervous when they hear “GM”, so should we be worried?’

Professor Leyser replies, ‘No. GM has very little to define it uniquely that’s different from anything that we have been doing for a very long time. We used to be thinking about the collection of genes that plants have as very kind of stable, fixed things and the idea that adding one in through genetic modification was somehow a big disturbance to that system, but what we’ve learned about genomes over the last two decades is that they are frankly a mess, and the kinds of things we’ve done to them through conventional breeding – the scrambling kinds of effects – are far stronger than anything we can do by putting in one gene by GM, and it would be a good thing if we moved forward into a discussion about how do we deliver [a] safe and sustainable supply of high quality food that was distributed with some improvement in the level of social justice. There are no simple solutions and it is certainly the case that having GM or not having GM will make no difference on that landscape at all.’

Professor Al-Khalili says, ‘Of course, people often tend to think of any changes we make to the environment as unnatural, and therefore bad.’

Professor Leyser responds, ‘This is another key area where if you think like a plant, very rapidly it’s clear that that way of thinking is absurd, so let’s think like a plant. The thing we are eating, as people, is mostly seed: seed – plant babies. Plants do not want you to eat their babies, so most plants are hotly defending this seed. It’s indigestible, it’s small; some of the nastiest toxins we know about come from seeds. What we have done in 10,000 years of agricultural domestication, is essentially unilateral disarmament, to take out from the natural plants the things that make them poor crops, not so good to eat, not so easy to cultivate. So again we have to move away from this natural-unnatural dichotomy, because it’s a false dichotomy.’

There is a disturbing amount of disinformation/propaganda packed into this short exchange, much of which could come from a standard Monsanto crib sheet, given the similarity of the content to that of previous programmes and to the utterances of GM advocates in other fora. I attempt below to analyze what was said. (For a more detailed and referenced set of arguments on GM, please see my blog article – Pro-GM = anti-science. – in which I critique the statements of GM advocates on the Sense About Science website. You will also notice my reference to another BBC programme.)

Credibility of the interviewee

It is surely the duty of professional journalists to establish interviewees’ expertise on the specific topics being discussed, and also to reveal any vested interests such interviewees might have. Here, as happens all too often, we have an expert on gene expression being asked broad questions about the wide role of GM crops and concerns about this technology, with no revelation of her financial ties to the industry.

There is no reason to believe, from her research background, that Professor Leyser knows more about the de facto impact of GM crop technology, as pushed and implemented by Monsanto et al., on the environment (biodiversity), economics, social justice and health, than the average person on the street. Furthermore, as the Sainsbury Laboratory and Cambridge University have multiple financial links to these organisations (and the Sainsbury Laboratory is part funded by Lord Sainsbury, one of the UK’s biggest GM supporters with shares in the industry), she has good reason to avoid criticising GM. (See  Scientists’ hidden links to the GM food giants: Disturbing truth behind official report that said UK should forge on with Frankenfoods.)

In short, Professor Leyser is not a credible witness on the wider issues she was asked to address, and the BBC failed to make this clear.

Red herring

As per the putative pro-GM crib sheet, Professor Al-Khalili started his apparent attempts to elicit pro-GM statements by invoking that old red herring, albeit subtly, that a fundamental issue is a global shortage of food, and then trying to get his guest to state that GM technology addresses this supposed issue. While he does not explicitly say that there is an absolute global shortage of food (‘We’re all aware of the need for a sustainable and secure food supply’), the uninformed listener would probably have interpreted his words to mean that there is.

The problem is not total production; rather it is the interconnected issues of financial speculation, economic inequality, poor distribution, waste and spoilage. Far from tackling these issues, GM-crop technology fosters monopolies over seed and food production, promotes an environmentally destructive and inefficient agro-industrial approach to food production and widens inequality. Despite all the promises made by the advocates of GM crops over the years, and the vast amount of money spent on research, there are only two developments with major impacts (and these are overwhelmingly negative): so-called ‘Bt’ technology (the introduction of Bacillus thuringiensis genes to make plants pest resistant) and glyphosate resistance (which allows the increased use of herbicide).

Furthermore, the evidence that GM actually boosts food production is mixed, to say the least. There is abundant evidence that GM crops are expensive and have a high environmental impact and that the absolute yields from much more environmentally benign and cheaper forms of agriculture (for example, those described by such not-necessarily-exclusive terms as ‘eco-agriculture’, ‘organic farming’, ‘permaculture’, ‘agroforestry’ and ‘analogue forestry’) are at least comparable, if not higher, particularly in conditions found in the developing world. Of course the yields of GM crops, in relative terms (relative to cost or fossil fuel input, for example) are hugely higher, and this is a far more important point, especially in the context of absolute food production not being an issue.

Highly questionable assertion

There are several questionable statements made by Professor Leyser, but the one that particularly stands out is her assertion that GM makes no difference to the issue of social justice. Is she not aware of the fact that this technology is patented and monopolised by a handful of ruthless organisations, whose last concern appears to be social justice? Given the conclusions of the recent Monsanto tribunal, referred to above, it was surely remiss of Professor Al-Khalili not to challenge her on her amazing statement.

Straw doll

When proponents of GM crops are attempting to defend the technology they often avoid mentioning the more serious and grounded concerns raised by sceptics (such as the huge amount of money spent by the industry fighting the labelling of their produce, something which would facilitate large-scale investigations of the possible impact of this produce on human and animal health – see Opponents of GM Labeling Triple Lobbying Spending in 2014). Instead, they tend to mention spurious and/or ‘less scientific’ objections, seeking to use such straw dolls to damage the credibility of their critics, and to imply that they are ‘anti-science’ ignoramuses.

Professor Al-Khalili apparently sought to do exactly this, with his (disingenuous?) remark about ‘any changes […] to the environment [being] unnatural, and therefore bad’. We are not talking here about ‘any changes to the environment’. We are talking about a technology that is destroying the biodiversity upon which a future food supply depends, by fostering a monoculture-based agroindustry which displaces indigenous varieties and the people who developed and propagated them over centuries (an issue of which laboratory-bound ‘GM experts’ appear blithely unaware). This is to say nothing of the effects of glyphosate. We are talking about the attempted control of a major proportion of the global food supply by a handful of companies. We are talking about a technology which goes hand-in-glove with the destruction of food sovereignty, which is the elephant in the room at most BBC discussions of GM crops.

The elephant in the room: food sovereignty

I would be grateful if the BBC stopped its apparent championing of the GM food industry and addressed the balance of its coverage of it, setting it in the context of the global struggle for food sovereignty ( Please interview people such as Vandana Shiva , some of those who attended the recent European forum for food sovereignty (I can put you in touch with Scottish delegates), representatives of La Via Campesina, the authors of ‘Who benefits from GM crops? The great climate change swindle.’, etc.

To conclude on a more general point, please stop presenting as experts on Topics B-Z people who only know about the thin end of Topic A, and please reveal any vested interests of your interviewees (and interviewers). To fail to do so is surely to be complicit in misinforming the public.

Thank you for considering this. I look forward to your response.

Yours sincerely

R. Eric Swanepoel PhD (zoology/ecotoxicology), MSc (ecology), BVSc, MRCVS

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Tribunal finds Monsanto an abuser of human rights and environment

I am reblogging this as I think the topic is so important. You will find many articles on the topic of GM food on my blog!

Systemic Disorder

The corporation most determined to acquire control of the world’s food supply, a behemoth determined to bend the world’s farmers to its will, douse the world with pesticides and place genetically modified organisms on everyone’s dinner plate, Monsanto Company has long operated beyond effective control.

Although in no position to alter that status by itself, the International Monsanto Tribunal believes it could set an example of how international law could be used to counter the immense power of the company. The idea behind the tribunal, convened seven months ago, is that an international panel of legal professionals and practicing judges would provide victims and their legal counsel with arguments and legal grounds for further lawsuits in courts of law.

The tribunal, consisting of five international judges, has found Monsanto guilty. The tribunal is not a court of law and it has no power to enforce any judgment. The decision…

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Cheap 48x magnifier with large screen for visually impaired

UPDATE, May 2017.

I have been commissioned to make another of the items described below. This one will involve a table-top box, on which the TV will sit, and to which the arm holding the video camera will be attached. The precise design will depend on the details of the video camera I have ordered, which might not arrive until mid-July. Details will be published on this blog in due course.

Introduction: two projects to help the visually impaired

This is the second of two posts on projects to help the visually impaired, motivated by the desire to assist an elderly relative with macular degeneration who is not computer-literate. Anything to help her had to be simple to operate and not involve computers. A further restriction was that it should not be too expensive. (You can find the first post here:
Audio books for the visually impaired: cheap alternative to special MP3-player.)

Project Two: a cheap way of achieving huge magnification

Background: TVs and video cameras

Many people these days have TVs with AV input sockets which accept jacks from video devices, and many video cameras come with cables and jacks which fit. When such cameras are plugged in, to the AV1 or AV2 sockets, the appropriate input source is selected on the TV, and the camera is switched on, the TV screen effectively becomes the camera’s viewfinder, showing whatever the camera is pointing at.

However, most inexpensive video cameras do not have macro capability, i.e. they cannot focus on objects near the lens, which means they are not of much use for reading newsprint and the like.

Even if one has a video camera which can focus on objects a few centimetres away, the least movement renders the image unstable and/or out of focus, and therefore impossible to read. Given that people will sometimes want to read very large items with small print, such as newspapers, any means of mechanically supporting a camera must not get in the way of such items, or make it difficult to move them.

The solutions: attaching magnifying glasses to the camera and attaching the camera to a fold-down boom


The completed unit in action at the lowest magnification (12x)


The completed unit in action with the camera zoom set to 4x, giving an effective overall magnification of 48x.

I found a cheap video camera through Gumtree. It was a Telefunken TVC-500 5 MP, almost brand new, but going for less than a sixth of its new price, possibly because the manual was missing – what a bargain! This camera has a 4x zoom.

I then looked for good magnifying glasses, and found this one in a local discount store (Game in South Africa, the country I was visiting at the time):


This cheap magnifying glass comes with 12 LEDs to light up whatever one is looking at, although it only offers 3x magnification.

I then played around with this and other old magnifying glasses and found that by holding the one I had bought and a smaller one tightly together in front of the camera’s lens I could get the camera to focus on objects less than 20 cm away, making significant magnification possible.

Next, I wound tape around the handles of the magnifying glasses, and then used wire and an old hose clamp that happened to be handy to attach the lenses to each other:


Magnifying glasses attached to each other using tape, wire and a hose clamp.

The next step was to attach this magnifying glass unit to the camera. I found that the best focus was obtained with the lens of the large magnifying glass virtually touching the front lens of the video camera.

First I mounted the camera on a piece of hardboard, attaching it to the hardboard by drilling a hole and then bolting it on using the hole on the camera meant for a tripod. (Fortunately I found an old bolt of the right diameter and threading parameters. It was a bit long however, so I put several washers on it, including a rubber one to give the attachment a bit of resilience.)


Camera removed from finished unit to show how magnifying glasses are attached.

Then I made a little rectangular frame from a strip of wood with a square cross-section of sides of about 15 mm. This was attached to the ‘front’ end of the hardboard, around the camera’s lens, such that it sat virtually flush with the front of this lens. I used both glue and small screws for this, drilling pilot holes for the screws so that the wood would not split. I then attached the magnifying glass unit to this frame. In order to do this, I played around with pieces of cardboard, cutting various shapes until I had fashioned two odd-looking shapes which would hold the frame of the large magnifying glass flush against the wooden frame around the camera lens when screwed to this frame. I used these pieces of cardboard as templates to trace out their designs onto the thin plastic of the lid of an old ice cream container. I then cut out the shapes from his ice cream container and screwed them into place. They held the magnifying glass unit in place very well.


The magnifying glasses were attached to the camera unit with plastic strips cut from the top of an ice cream carton. I designed the strips by playing with pieces of cardboard until I was happy with the shape, and then used the cardboard pieces as templates, which I traced onto the ice cream container before cutting out. Above you can see one such template and its traced outline.


The bookshelf end of the boom (raised position), showing the stopper to hold it in place when lowered.

The next thing I wanted to do was to attach the camera unit to a boom (made of the same 15 x 15 mm square cross-section wood I had already used), such that it could be held in place the perfect distance above a small table on which reading material could be put. (Of course, it also needed to be such a length that the camera would remain within the length of the connecting cable from the TV, when plugged in.) While most reading material would be thin, I wanted to allow for the reading of thicker items, such as telephone directories and food packets. I found an empty box, which could be put on the small table to raise thin items and removed when thick items were to be viewed.

I then attached the boom to the camera, in the way that can be seen in the photographs, and attached the boom to a bookshelf next to the TV. The camera can be rotated slightly thanks to a wingnut arrangement. It’s easier for you to understand this from the photographs than for me to explain it in text!

I drilled a hole about 20 cm from the bookshelf end of the boom such that it would fit loosely around a screw I drove into the side of the bookshelf. The boom then rotated around the screw and could be lowered into position such that the camera was above the reading table. In order to hold it in the right position, I screwed a small piece of wood to the bookshelf to act as a stopper for the boom.

The next step was to tie a small piece of cord to another bookshelf so that it could be looped around the protruding wingnut and hold the camera out of the way when not is use.


Camera unit from the side in the raised position, showing the cord looped around the wingnut to hold it up.

The final set-up works perfectly. Without the camera zoom it gives 12x magnification. When the zoom is fully activated (4x) it gives 48x magnification.

My visually impaired relative can now easily read small print. All she has to do (if she is not using the zoom) is switch the camera and TV on (assuming the TV is left switched to AV1), position the table and what she is reading, and lower the boom.

The total cost of this (as I had tools, scrap wood, and other materials to hand, and the TV was already there) was R350 for the camera + R99 for the new magnifying glass, which is less than £30.

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