Posted by: graemelaidlaw | April 25, 2010

final blog

As this is the last blog I’m going to try and pull together what we’ve been taught over the last semester into one blog, to show how all the topics impact on one subject.  So this blog, rather randomly is about fishing.

Climate change – the increase in the climate of 0.7℃ since pre-industrial times has impacted on the ocean in many ways.  Coral bleaching, which is a stress response in coral to high temperatures has had a huge impact on coral mortality, reaching 70% in some areas.  The oceans are also becoming more acidic as they are absorbing more carbon dioxide, much of which is thought to be the result of human activities.

Energy – Peak oil will have a massive impact on the industrial fishing fleets which travel further out from land to catch fish, and rely on refrigeration units to keep the fish fresh until it is landed.  Trawling, which is an extremely destructive fishing method is also highly energy intensive.  The price of fish may rise as fishing becomes more expensive as a result in oil prices.

Food production – Aquaculture is touted by some as the answer to the problems of over fishing, but it also has many problems.  Fish stocked in small pens are more susceptible to disease which is by-and-large treated by drugs which then enter the environment.  They also cause huge damage to the ocean floor due to the high concentrations of faeces which falls on a small area.  The food fed to farmed fish is also mostly wild-caught fish, often from already depleted stocks.  It also takes much more wild-fish to produce farmed fish, 22kg of wild fish for every 1kg of farmed tuna, or 4kg for every 1kg of salmon.

Future perspectives – The Irish fishing fleet is heavily subsidised and finds it difficult to compete with cheaper foreign imports

Responsible production and consumption –The transportation of goods vast distance is almost a necessity in the modern globalised economy.  There are as a result over 50,000 merchant ships in use today.  These huge ships are responsible for the depletion of the oceanic environment due to accidental spills of waste and sewage, and oil and chemicals.  They are thought to be responsible for a large amount of ‘hits’ on cetaceans.  Although shipping has a lower carbon footprint that flying, the shipping trade is still almost completely reliant on fossil fuels.

Critical thinking – There is a paradox in how the media handles the slippery issue of fish.  While on one hand they report the demise of fishing stocks, and the plight of fishermen, the lifestyle media often extols the health benefits of fish.  We are often told to eat more fish, the Irish Heart Foundation recommends eating oily fish twice a week to maintain a healthy heart.  Again the individual health of the western middle classes is more important than the average Mauritian fisherman who tries to compete against the massive Irish owned Atlantic Dawn trawler which can catch 7,000 tonnes in one trip to sea, but fished Mauritian waters thanks to a private deal with the corrupt dictator Maaouya Ould Sid’Ahmed Taya until he was ousted in a coup d’état in 2005.

Corporate responsibility – The large processed fish companies, such as Birdseye, have in recent years come out with their own sustainable fishing policies.  While companies make much of their move away from cod in their products, the replacement fish will no doubt follow the fate of the cod if sustainable fishing remains just a buzzword and the mode of fishing remains unchanged.  Donegal Catch in their TV advertisements try to portray their fishing fleet as small scale, and local.  But as a subsidiary of Green Isle it is unlikely that this is the case.

Sustainability metrics – catch quotas is the buzz word in fishing.  This aims to restrict the amount of fish caught.  There are of course huge arguments between the scientists who suggest the quota limits, the governments of countries who share the common stock, and the fishermen who see their livelihoods threatened by reduced catches.  The catch quotas also mean that non-targeted species are often thrown back into the water, dead or dying, so as not to be included in the quota. As seems to be the case with most other metrics laid out in regard to the environment, the actual catch quotas are always significantly higher than those suggested by scientists who study such things.  The immediacy of the economic issues seems to outweigh the future problems which the industry will face if fish stocks are depleted.  The problem, as highlighted in the book ‘the unnatural history of the ocean’ is that the decline of fishing has been ongoing since the medieval period.  Fish bones recovered in archaeological contexts show that fish were much larger than modern examples.  As decline has occurred generation after generation.  I suppose it is the same as not really seeing a friend you see every day age, whereas if you saw them after a ten year absence they would look much older than you remembered them.  The levels that scientists put forward are trying to sustain fishing numbers which are well below those that at the start of the 20th Century were seen as worryingly low.    

Law, policy – Since the 1970 in principle all EU fishermen should have equal access to member states water.  In an Irish perspective this means  that of the 1.9 million tonnes of fish taken from waters around Ireland, only 10% were taken by Irish boats.  Each country seems unable to impose its will on its own waters without infringing in European law.  Plans to restrict fishing quotas throughout Europe will also be opposed vigorously by countries with large fishing fleets, such as Spain.   An example of the ‘The problem of the commons’

Building sustainable communities – If fishing, and the oceanic food web is not to collapse completely drastic and urgent changes have to take place.  For centuries as soon as one fishing ground was depleted technologies advanced so that new grounds could be reached and fished.  There are no virgin grounds left to fish.

A sustainable fishing will probably need to see the demise of the destructive practise of bottom trawling, which removes 5-25% of the area’s seabed in a single run.  The virtues of line fishing

• Proportionately the amount of fished caught dead is almost nil.
• Proportionately the amount of fish undersize is almost nil and are almost always returned to the sea live and as such participates in a sustainable fisheries regime.
• Proportionately line fishing is almost entirely species selective, very few fish other than cod are caught.
• With line fishing – no lost nets or netting contributing as ghost nets or seabed debris.
• Line fishing provides jobs in terms of infrastructure support from shore i.e. baiters.
• Line fishing is even carbon friendly needing no high power options unlike trawling.
• Fish are always fresh and undamaged at point of sale thus creating a better product for the consumer

Posted by: graemelaidlaw | April 23, 2010

Food resiliance essay

food resiliance

Posted by: graemelaidlaw | April 22, 2010



Posted by: graemelaidlaw | April 20, 2010

From the bottom up

Our lectures were about the layers of bureaucracy which touch our lives, the final thought was ‘how can we make our individual voices heard when we don’t really understand the system we want to change.  The thought I came away with was that when politicians are fighting to get re-elected every 4 or 5 years, they reflect the people who voted for them.  I know that sounds simple but in the last decade in Ireland the majority of the population wanted ‘progress’ at any cost.  The government would pay lip service to the european directives but nothing stood in the way of progress.  Duchas, who used to be the centralized body in charge of Ireland’s archaeological heritage, were quickly subsumed into the department of the environment when they were felt to be encouraging the proper excavation of sites prior to construction, and therefore holding up development.  There was no groundswell of support for environmental or archaeological protection in the face of development, which is why Bertie Ahern could get away with saying that that major road schemes were being held up “because of swans, snails and the occasional person hanging out of a tree”.  And how people laughed.  Ahern for all his faults was at least savvy enough to have a feel for public opinion.

If you compare this attitude with that in Germany, they are hardly comparable.  In Germany I could not imagine a politician, never mind the head of state, stating an opinion similar to Ahern’s.  The Wildlife Crossing on the 26 Motorway in the Hardt Forest in Germany is a wildlife corridor that allows mammals to safetly access land on either side of the motorway.   The habitat overpass includes board fences to reduce road noise and lights. Rocks are placed at the ends of the overpass to prevent vehicular use.  And there also no black bin bags filled with rubbish dumped all over the place.

It will take an awful lot of directives from Europe to change the attitude of most Irish people about the environment, and until the attitude at the bottom is changed the politicians will refuse to take the environment seriously, and Ireland will continue to have an awful record implementing european legislation

Posted by: graemelaidlaw | April 13, 2010

sustainability metrics

our lectures this week were about producing metrics and numbers that can be used to put across the messages about sustainability and climate change.  There are a few points that stuck out in particular, the first is that it seems incredibly difficult to produce in any way meaningful figures relating to something as complex as climate change, but somewhat easier to pick them apart and create mistrust in them.  I think this is often because scientific reports are so condensed for public consumption, to have a ‘take home message’ , that the nuances are completely lost.  But is it the scientists job to explain things in an easily consumable way, or to present the complex results as they are?  Unfortunately it seems that the climate change deniers are winning the argument at this moment. 

The second point that was raised was just how unqualified most of our politicians would not have the time to read a full scientific report, or able to understand it.  A 400 page report being reduced to a 2 page summary for a government minister, and we wonder why the public at large have not been persuaded.

The final point was about the aggregation of information, that detail produced on a local level are lost when this is included in a report on national or international level.  I can’t help feeling that when reports are consumed in such summarised version by policy makers, as mentioned above, that the micro-level, from which everything derives, is overlooked.  Policy would perhaps be better if it was implemented from the ground up rather than from the roof down. 

Prozac should definately be distrubuted freely before every sd lecture to take the edge off the general ‘we’re all doomed’ message that is being put across about the environment, climate change, government, energy use, the food chain, over manufacturing of goods and problems with disposal, the fact the media lie to us, etc etc etc

Posted by: graemelaidlaw | April 5, 2010

critical thinking

Our lectures this week were on critical thinking and about the history of rubber in the Congo.  The film ‘White King, Red Rubber, Black Death’ was well worth watching.  The history of the Congo, right up to the present day, is a very depressing list of abuses perpetrated mainly from Europe, but also from Arab slave traders who operated in the country.  I had never heard about King Leopold’s private kingdom before, or the abuses that went on in the country.  The fact that Leopold, who died in disgrace and whose funeral procession was heckled, is now thought of as a civilising King who brought civilization to darkest Africa is pretty unbelievable.  The natural resources that should help improve the lives on people in the Congo or Nigeria for example, have brought nothing but suffering and death for the majority of their populations, and enrichement for the few. 

Sweatshops in the 3rd world are spoken of by the corporations who use them in much the same way as the colonies of old.  The argument goes that sweatshop economies enable countries to get on the first rung of the ladder that will lead them toward prosperity, and that every modern economy went through  similar phase in their own development.   I would agree that most countries have gone through this phase in their own industrial development.  In Britain the conditions in the coal mines or textile factories were said to be awful, and large amounts of children worked long hours in these conditions.  In Britain child labour was outlawed by parliament 150 years ago because of the impact that it was having on children, so why is what is deemed unlawful in Europe and the USA ok in developing countries?  I think most people would agree that the pay and conditions in sweatshops should be improved, and that workers should not be abused by factory officials, but apart from this they are not all bad.   An average Honduran working in a sweatshop would be paid 0.5% of the retail cost of the garments they produce, yet the wages are double the average wage in Honduras.  Also when legislation in the USA concerning child labour meant that factories producing American goods could not use children, the children were thrown out of the sweatshops and were forced to work in harder jobs such as stone-crushing or even prostitution, according to a UN report compiled in 1997.  Well meaning legislation in the West rarely works and often causes unintended suffering instead of improvement.  Companies  will not instigate improvements unless their profits are being affected, yet as people have heard about sweatshop conditions for well over a decade, yet we still buy the products; which is essentially acceptance of the situation and complicity, the companies will keep on doing the same thing.  I think Flight of the Conchords sum up the situation pretty well:

They’re turning kids into slaves
Just to make cheaper sneakers
But what’s the real cost?
‘Cause the sneakers don’t seem that much cheaper

Why are we still paying so much for sneakers ?
When you got them made by little slaves kids
What are your overheads?

Posted by: graemelaidlaw | March 25, 2010

Tax 2030

Hopefully this will work, lot harder than i thought it was going to be


Posted by: graemelaidlaw | March 14, 2010

Product life

Our lectures this week were about product life-spans and the impact that manufacturing items have on the environment.  I’ve decided to try and discover the product life of a bottle of coca cola, the devil’s milk!

Bottle:  Most plastic bottles are made from polyethylene terephtalate (PET) plastic, and almost all of the plastic come from virgin plastic; an estimated 30% of the world’s PET goes into plastic bottles.  Coke has a goal of using 25% re-cycled plastic in its bottles in Europe by next year. The plastic bottles must be sterilized so that they are safe for beverages, and then they are filled, capped, labelled, packed into cases, and prepared for shipping. Coke has stated that packaging is responsible for 30-70% of the drinks carbon footprint, with plastic bottles being between the less energy intensive aluminium cans and the high intensity glass bottles

Contents: Coke contains water, sugar, caffeine, phosphoric acid, coca extract as well as vanilla, cinnamon and kola nut flavourings. 

Coke used over 283 billion litres of fresh water worldwide in 2004, 63% of which (178 billion litres) became waste water. Communities across India have become enraged that Coca-cola bottling plants are depleting groundwater reservoirs in areas which are facing water shortages.

All coke products contain 68g of sugar per bottle.  None of the sugar is organically grown and therefore uses large amounts of pesticides during the growing process.  A large amount of energy is used processing the sugar cane. A 2004 report by WWF, titled “Sugar and the Environment,” shows that sugar may be responsible for more biodiversity loss than any other crop, due to its destruction of habitat to make way for plantations, its intensive use of water for irrigation, its heavy use of agricultural chemicals, and the polluted wastewater that is routinely discharged in the sugar production process.

Coke is flavoured with coca extract which is derived from spent coca leaves which have been through a cocaine extraction process

Shipping: The Coca-Cola Company only produces syrup concentrate which is then sold to various bottlers throughout the world In Ireland’s case the bottling plant is in Drogheda.  The syrup and the empty bottles are imported however.  All the coke products in Ireland are therefore distributed from Drogheda by road. 

Shops: The coke image ‘enjoy ice-cold’ means that it is always contained in fridges.  Many of the fridges in shops are open fronted and highly energy consumptive. 

Post consumption: Once the bottle of coke has been purchased it will usually be consumed within a very short period of time. It then has three possible fates: it may be reused, recycled, or thrown away. Despite the fact that most plastic bottles are made from PET plastic and this plastic is very easy to recycle, recycling rates for plastic bottles are actually very low, globally. Anywhere between 15-35% of plastic bottles make their way into recycling facilities, depending on the region, with the rest ending up in landfills or as litter. Many people believe that re-use, followed by recycling, is the best use for a plastic bottle.

Coke has stated that 0.46MJ are used for every litre of coca-cola produced, with each can embodying the equivalent of 170g of CO2. The coca-cola company says that it appreciates its environmental responsibilities and it attempting to improve its energy efficiency although it is unclear whether this is a case of green-washing.  The true cost of the product goes beyond the environmental impact, as the social impact of the product is only now becoming clear as children weaned on fizzy drinks are now showing signs of diabetes and other health problems on an alarming scale.

Posted by: graemelaidlaw | March 7, 2010

Black swans and dead kings

Our lectures this week were about tax and economics, which did not initially fill me with enthusiasm but they were far more interesting than i would have thought.  We have to try and think of a sustainable taxation system which would work in 2050, which will require a bit more thought than my usual blogs, and therefore i wont write too much about the actual lectures here.  One point that did strike me however was in Stephen Kinsella’s lecture on the Thursday.  He spoke about ‘black swan’ events – defined by Nassim Nicholas Taleb as ‘ high-impact, hard-to-predict, and rare events that are beyond the realm of normal expectations’. 

Writing in the New York Times, (but copied straight from Wikipedia) Taleb asserted, “What we call here a Black Swan (and capitalize it) is an event with the following three attributes. First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme impact. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable. I stop and summarize the triplet: rarity, extreme impact, and retrospective (though not prospective) predictability. A small number of Black Swans explain almost everything in our world, from the success of ideas and religions, to the dynamics of historical events, to elements of our own personal lives.

I like the fact that so much of world history seems to have hinged on such small pieces of luck, or lack of it – on such small events that then have such major reprecussions.  Seeing Braveheart at the weekend brings one  such event to mind – the whole event that the film is so roughly based on(the scottish wars of independence) came about because the Scottish king 20 years previosly, Alexander II, was without a male heir, so decided to marry a fine young french queen.  He had been out hunting a drinking one day but decided that he wanted to return home to his wife – he got on his horse and rode along the cliff-side path on a dark stormy night and surprisingly died.  As there was no direct heir to the throne a civil war started that the kind King Edward of England decided to adjudicate over. That one event, and bad drunken decission had repercussions that were felt for hundreds of years.  I’m not sure if this technically counts as a black swan event as riding a horse while drunk, on a stormy evening next to big sea cliffs can have only a very limited number of outcomes, but i’m sure at the time no-one would have predicted that this one evening would signal the onset of hundreds of years of war and turmoil.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book ‘The black swan’ enumerates ten principles for building systems that are robust to Black Swan Events: (which once more I have copied straight from Wikipedia)

  1. What is fragile should break early while it is still small. Nothing should ever become too big to fail.
  2. No socialisation of losses and privatisation of gains.
  3. People who were driving a school bus blindfolded (and crashed it) should never be given a new bus.
  4. Do not let someone making an “incentive” bonus manage a nuclear plant – or your financial risks.
  5. Counter-balance complexity with simplicity.
  6. Do not give children sticks of dynamite, even if they come with a warning.
  7. Only Ponzi schemes should depend on confidence. Governments should never need to “restore confidence”.
  8. Do not give an addict more drugs if he has withdrawal pains.
  9. Citizens should not depend on financial assets or fallible “expert” advice for their retirement.
  10. Make an omelette with the broken eggs.

It all seems very sensible, although point 11. should perhaps include late night drunken horse rides

Posted by: graemelaidlaw | February 28, 2010


Our lectures this week were all about food. The lectures covered food security,  and the energy required to produce, and transport food, and whether we have the ability to feed to rapidly growing global population.  It is shocking to hear how utterly dependent on oil the entire agricultural system in ‘developed’ countries is, not just to move farm machinery, but the pesticides and chemicals which are used so widely are also all oil-based.  Despite all the technological advances and the green revolution it appears that our agriculatural systems are much less energy efficient than less developed countries.  It is such a luxury to have fresh fruit and vegetables regardless whether they are actually in season or not, but you have to wonder for how long this will be able to happen.   I had a look at at UK government paper on food security and one points it makes is that there is enough food presently to food the global population, but bad distribution, political instability and poor governance mean that 850 million people are under-nourished, while  2 billion people are overweight. 2 billion! But how do you feed a global population that is growing by 6 million people every month, while also taking climate change and other environmental factors into consideration, especially when people in India and China for example are starting to move from their traditional vegetarian diet towards a more western diet with more meat and dairy. When biofuels are thrown into the equation things get even worse, apparently 27% of the USA’s 2008/9 maize harvest was used for ethanol production.  As seems to be the case with several topics covered in this course it seems that each country needs to get their own house in order.  Ireland seems to be doing pretty well in terms of self sufficiency, and produces much more meat than the country needs.  The Department of the Agriculture states that ‘Ireland is self sufficient in beef (820%), pigmeat (163%), sheepmeat (303%), poultrymeat (101%), butter (1054%), cheese (354%) and milk powder (1088%). In the case of cereals, Ireland’s level of self-sufficiency is 90%’.  I’m not sure how it does with fruit and vegetables however. How will the Irish agricultural sector cope with rising fuel prices and more expensive agro-chemicals?  The issue is being looked at by the government–on-the–menu-1441723.html.  Cuba is an inspiring example of what can happen.  With the collpase of the Soviet Union Cuba almost overnight lost its supply of 50% of its oil, crippling the agricultural and transport industries.  Food was scarce so people started to grow their own, turning almost every available space over to food production, all without oil based pesticides.  It is very inspiring.  I don’t think Ireland really has the climate to be able to do what Cuba did, but we could certainly grow more vegetables in our gardens.  There does seem to be a shift towards growing your own food, with requests for allotments going throught the roof, it is a bit daft if your allotment is  twenty km away though!  Bit of exercise and good healthy food may help there to be a few less  processed food-munching fatties.

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