New Blog at Sustento website

Dear All,

I’m transferring the blog to the Sustento website.

See you there

Raf

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June 6, 2007 at 8:46 pm 1 comment

Food Miles – Consciousness is Growing

Barely a week passes without a new campaign in the UK around the issue of food miles and NZ produce. Though this has been thoroughly debunked by the report from Lincoln University the story continues to rumble along.

This is just the beginning of a more serious debate on the issue of environmental costs otherwise known as externalities. Food miles is just a simple way of engaging the public and media just as the phrase “think global, buy local” has always done.

We all like to support our local farmers whether in NZ, UK, France, Japan or the US. However we all like to sell as much as our produce into markets where we can achieve a better price (even after taking account of transport costs). NZ is heavily geared towards exporting and with a large productive base and small local market it is more exposed than many other larger countries.

Stepping away from the hype and hysteria we can see that the Food Miles debate is both important and necessary. Consumers should be paying the full price for the goods they buy and that includes the basic inputs of energy and matter as well as ecosystem goods and services.

Whilst food miles comes across as a marketing ploy and is somewhat simplistic in its formulation, it can be seen as the start of a serious attempt to bring Trucost pricing into the mainstream economic system. Of course it makes sense to buy your veggies from the farmer down the road but the supermarket system is all pervasive and has driven costs down so far that they have been able to get away with an international supply chain as well as shipping domestic produce many miles further than necessary.

Pricing ecosystem services in at the primary level would see a vastly different pricing mechanism: one which included the price of nutrient and effluent run off, mining run off, soil depletion, air quality processing, clean water provision and the numerous other services which have enormous economic value.

If this happens then maybe we can relax a bit as the produce in our supermarkets and farmers markets will be priced on the same basis.

Only then will we really know which is really cheaper.

June 4, 2007 at 5:47 pm 4 comments

Sustainable Business – Costing the Earth

I wrote this article for a business paper here in NZ about 3 years ago. I don’t think alot has changed really though the issue of Food Miles and Carbon Pricing has reared its head. Pricing the ecosystem is an emotive subject but i believe we must recognise its value in monetary terms in order to enable true economic comparisons to be made.

We know in our hearts that we need to consume less and make better. We don’t do it because we are time constrained as we slave away in our jobs to pay off huge mortgages, large rents and all the bills we have incurred in our consumption binge. If we really knew the true cost of our goods and services we may change our behaviour with increased speed.

And yet see the seething anger when petrol prices go up……we may be in position to control and destroy the planet but it may well do that to us first. Anyway this may or may not resonate. See what you think:

March 2004.

‘Greens take us back to the Dark Ages’ screams the Business Round Table. ‘Business doesn’t care about anything apart from money’ whines the Green Party. Sound familiar? This is generally what passes for debate between the official representatives of the economy and the environment. It is reminiscent of a long running stand off between a teenager and parent. Will the environment and business ever resolve their disagreements live together in sustainable harmony?
To answer this question we need to explore how the economy and the environment interact. The word economics is derived from the Greek ‘Oikonomos’ meaning household steward or home economist in modern diction. In ancient times, the household was the central functioning unit of any economy and most economic activity took place within that framework. Now the household is a place where we live and sleep but rarely do we produce anything that is identified as part of the economy, reflected by GDP. Business is now the place where most economic activity takes place and it is now the steward of the environment.
Our technological capabilities have also moved on giving us DVD recorders, microwaves, mobile phones and other similar gadgets but they are still all built from materials taken from the same source as thousands of years ago. As, John Muir, the founder of the modern ecology movement, said “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything in the universe”. In simple terms, the economy is simply a subset of the environment, and economics a framework for understanding our transactions with the environment. They are one and the same, not distinct and separate entities as often portrayed in the media.
We have become expert in transforming natures’ goods into new products to satisfy our ever increasing desire for material consumption. At the same time, the waste products from manufacturing, some 90% of actual inputs, are becoming harder to absorb and process. Whilst nature provides obvious goods in the form of wood, minerals and fossil fuels, little attention is paid to the crucial services it provides in acting as a both a source and a sink for economic activity. These services include waste processing, climate regulation, water supply and regulation, soil formation, nutrient cycling, food production, erosion control, pollination and even recreation and cultural values.
The value of these services has been largely ignored by the mainstream economics profession rather like the value of unpaid labour in the economy. A mother who goes out to work and hires a nanny to look after her children suddenly finds out the monetary value of her work in the household. Previously no value was attributed to looking after children but as soon as someone is employed formally then the value is recognized. Of course anyone who has children knows too well the value of unpaid labour in the home.

Whist ecosystem services have always had value they have never been recognized in monetary terms and therefore incorporated into the economic framework. In 1997, a study, led by Robert Costanza at the University of Maryland, attempted to value global ecosystem services. The findings estimated very conservatively the value of ecosystem services to be in the region of 2-3 times global GNP. In 2000, a study into the external costs of UK agriculture by Jules Pretty at the University of Essex, showed a value of ₤2.3bln, based on actual financial costs incurred. This equated to ₤208 per hectare of arable and permanent pasture. Again this was a conservative estimate of all agriculture related externalities.
What these and other studies have shown is that there is a real and attributable value to these services previously taken for granted. If any business has any doubt about the relevance of these costs, they should have another look at their insurance bill. Munich Re, one of the world’s largest re-insurance companies, puts the annual global costs of climate change at US$300bln by 2050. Even the Pentagon, a normally conservative institution, is recognizing the potential security issues of serious environmental changes. One thing Greens need to recognize from their side is that without security, law and order, the issue of environmental damage is likely to be an irrelevance.
Actually incorporating external costs at the company level has proved difficult. However Trucost Plc, a London based but Christchurch born company has designed an external cost calculator and an environmental rating system, which incorporates the externalized costs of any organization into their actual accounts. Initially there was strong resistance from some in the environmental movement, concerned about placing a value on nature. However, now there is an understanding that if you don’t value something then it will be treated as if it has no value. It is an unashamedly anthropocentric view to place a monetary value on nature but one which in the long run will lead to a more sustainable economy. Mainstream economics needs to acknowledge the importance of externalities and not spend so much time pouring over inflation statistics. Economics is fundamental to how society organizes itself and surprisingly can be fun and understood by anyone, as demonstrated by Diane Coyle in her recent book, “Sex, Drugs and Economics”, which succinctly analyses everyday activities in simple language.

Whilst the economics profession needs to wake up, the environmentalists must also acknowledge that expecting society to make a wholesale change of consumption habits without strong financial incentives is naïve. The only way to make them change their current ‘unsustainable’ consumption patterns is for goods and services to properly reflect the externalized costs that make them unsustainable in the first place. The true sustainable business is one which internalizes all its costs, instead of passing them to the taxpayer to pick up at some future date. Therefore, in order to create a sustainable economy, we must recognize the value of the environment in real terms. Then maybe business and the greens can redirect their energies to work out smarter and cheaper ways of living well and enjoying life.

May 29, 2007 at 10:17 am 3 comments

Human Joysticks

This video is so much fun so thanks Kaila for posting it up. What i love is its simplicity and how people are seriously happy and loved up by the end of it.

May 19, 2007 at 3:12 pm Leave a comment

Personalizing Search

I mean really personalizing it, making you the filter and not your search history, which let’s face it is a private matter.

As Kaila Colbin writes personalization is really a major issue for Google and they realize how important it will be to create a truly relevant experience for the web user.

There are so many different services available online now from the usual dating, general networking to photo and music sharing and no doubt many more will be coming shortly such as online data storage and here in NZ online accounting from Xero

At some point we will have had enough of creating multiple profiles and sign ins. So to make the whole process more personal it will help to have one profile which slots in wherever you go and helps to reorganize and make viewed pages relevant to who you are. Perhaps VortexDNA will be part of that.

May 17, 2007 at 1:53 pm Leave a comment

Incoherent System

Professor Peter Brown from McGill University in Canada is here in New Zealand speaking about our dysfunctional economic system.

He’s not wrong there. He was speaking on Radio NZ but the interview never really got going. He had enough time to talk about the incoherent nature of our economic system, how GDP measures income and consumption but not well being and how triple bottom line accounting was a waste of time. Agreed!

What we need is a better connection between our biophysical system and our economic frameworks like Trucost for example.

We also need to ask ourselves some basic questions such as

– what is our economy for? speculation or sustenance.

– what size should it be? as big as possible or big enough.

Simple questions but rarely asked. The mantra of economic growth at all costs is intellectually flimsy. Its lazy thinking……..the assumption that GDP growth is all that matters is quite clearly false.

What about crime, illness, pollution? What about the increasing gap between rich and poor.

As individuals we search for coherence but as a global economy we struggle to find that because there are no tools to do so. So perhaps by becoming more coherent ourselves we will aid and enable a global coherence.

As the Mahatma said “Be the change you wish to see”.

Let’s keep asking questions of our system.

May 15, 2007 at 3:57 pm Leave a comment

The Next Generation of Search: mywebDNA

The web is an amazing resource with so much information at the touch of a button. But so much of it is rubbish and completely irrelevant. What if we could make search more relevant to the user by harnessing the power of the system itself? I’m not talking about recording your search history or your demographics. It’s more about who you are. You act as the filter and create a world that is relevant to you. It’s early days yet but the folks at VortexDNA have made a start.

A Cyberspace For You?


A Cyberspace For You?

NZ Tech start up seeks volunteers to test an innovative Web hypothesis

Technology start-up VortexDNA is asking for volunteers to test the hypothesis that there is not just one Web.

Embedded within cyberspace, the organisation claims, there could be hundreds or even thousands of different web-worlds, each relevant to a group of people who share a similar outlook on life.

“This could lead to a profound change in the way we think about cyberspace and create a better web experience for everyone, “comments Christchurch-based VortexDNA director Branton Kenton-Dau.  

Called the ‘MyWeb’ hypothesis, the idea of thousands of web-worlds embedded in cyberspace is now being tested.

“Just as Newton passed sunlight through a prism to discover the entire spectrum of colour, VortexDNA wants to pass Google search results through a prism of your ‘DNA’ to see if your purpose, values and life focus provide you with a better search result,” explains Kenton-Dau.

Internet legend Vint Cerf, currently Vice President and Chief Internet Evangelist at Google, said recently that there was still a problem finding relevant information on the Web. “My guess is that the next step in search will require making things more relevant, which may require things like the semantic web that Tim Berners-Lee has been working on,” he said.

“Making things more relevant is exactly what the My Web hypothesis is all about,” says Kenton-Dau. “Our aim is to prove that there’s a direct correlation between the web sites that interest you and the most profound definition of who you are.”
Downloading the MyWebDNA plug-in to the Firefox browser is easy, and no effort is required to use it—simply search as normal. Once installed, the plug-in circles the Google search results that are most relevant to the searcher.

The VortexDNA team says it already has statistically significant results and is now engaging with experts to review the findings before making them public.

“The experts can tell us if our math is right, but what we really want is users to tell us if we’re making a difference,” points out Raf Manji, Kenton-Dau’s collaborator. “The purpose of VortexDNA is to transform your experience of the web. The true test of our hypothesis is when you download the plug-in.”

The technology is completely anonymous, and VortexDNA doesn’t track the user’s search history in any way. They take the privacy issue very seriously.

Should the VortexDNA team succeed in discovering hundreds, or even thousands of web-worlds, the web experience will become more relevant for everyone—better news content, job hunts, dating partners, recipes, vacation ideas… the content of the Web could become ordered around an individual.

“We believe that until now the Web has been like a radio without the ability to tune into the different stations.” says Nick Gerritsen, another member of the VortexDNA team. “That means our experience of cyberspace to date has been mostly noise.” To demonstrate what they mean, the team have created a movie that can be viewed from the VortexDNA website: http://vortexdna.com/content/vortexdna-video.html.

Gerritsen, Manji and Kenton-Dau hope that the VortexDNA technology will provide the tuning knob to the radio—enabling people to find the Web content that is aligned with who they are. At present the technology is capable of identifying 78,125 different DNA types. “It’s a hypothesis,” says Manji, “that may just be web history in the making.”

May 3, 2007 at 9:58 am Leave a comment

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