Rebuilding the food system: who do we engage with for a just transition?

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

― Buckminster Fuller

This alluring quote from the American inventor and visionary Buckminster Fuller has sat uneasy with me in recent years. In 2017, I went from managing a progressive, community-owned food enterprise with impressive social, health and environmental principles, to put a good portion of my energies into work with large, corporate food companies. I made this move partly out of curiosity, eager to learn about the global food supply chains in which I still participated as a citizen. I suppose I also hoped I might have a bigger impact. Rather than complain from the edges, I’ve now had the opportunity to support a number of major food companies as they grapple with complex sustainability challenges, bringing to the table my knowledge and understanding of how they can be a force for good. 

Exciting as this may sound, in the short time I’ve been doing this work, I’ve often found myself feeling restless and frustrated. For decades, we’ve had many warm words and promising commitments from companies, yet overall, progress has been glacial and incremental, with companies regularly missing their targets, or having no targets at all. Even today, despite the widely acknowledged environmental crisis, many large corporates are operating with no commitments around critical issues such as deforestation that exist in their supply chains.

Figure 1. Data from the 2019 Forest 500 assessment, showing the proportion of companies in each region that have no commitments to protect forests in their production or sourcing: they found 140 (40%) of the most influential companies in forest-risk supply chains, including retailer Amazon, Dutch supermarket chain SPAR and luxury fashion group Capri Holdings, do not have any deforestation commitments.

From the fringes, I’ve watched as an industry of CSR has risen-up that self-congratulates itself in award ceremonies, while the world continues to frazzle and in many spheres, such as politics and the internet, can feel more fragmented. In the mainstream of businesses, success still very much centres around increasing sales, profits and market share; and employees often toil with little awareness of the trail of social and environmental damage that is neglected or deprioritised in pursuit of this misguided view of prosperity. 

Last year, at a sustainable agriculture conference in the USA, I listened to the Head of Sustainability from one of the world’s largest food companies comfort the audience by saying: “profit is not a dirty word”. It’s an uncomfortable maxim I hear often in these circles: that “we can’t invest in sustainability unless we’re profitable first”. She then went on to comfort attendees further, some of whom will have been suppliers, that despite their big climate pledge (which is one of those “by 2050” net-zero targets), change will be slow and steady, so that suppliers can move with the times and won’t have any major surprises. If only our Earth systems would also be so patient and obliging.

A post-Covid revolution by teatime?

Thinking about the sense of urgency versus the pace of change, let’s turn to Buckminster Fuller again. Writing about a utopian revolution, Russel Brand also quotes Buckminster Fuller, but suggests his positive vision is perhaps easier said than done:

Buckminster Fuller outlines what ought to be our collective objectives succinctly: “to make the world work for 100% of humanity in the shortest possible time through spontaneous co-operation without ecological offence or the disadvantage of anyone”. This maxim is the very essence of “easier said than done” as it implies the dismantling of our entire socio-economic machinery. By teatime.

Russell Brand (2013), On Revolution.

As we fret over the complexity and urgency of safeguarding our planetary health and living within a doughnut, perhaps we should also appreciate that for the most part, radical shifts often only happen when precipitated by economic and political crises. These crises may include civil unrest and it’s the subsequent interplay of new market rules, innovations in business models and practice that creates the new normal. This is the window of opportunity that COVID-19 offers us, not that we should be celebrating a pandemic. 

To help society rise-up and emerge out of this pandemic, much attention has been placed on the response of our governments. In the wake of COVID-19, we’ve seen 17 major economies invest approximately US$3.5 trillion in economic stimulus packages. Despite the many coordinated efforts from investors, business leaders, scientists and NGOs urging governments to seize this opportunity to #BuildBackBetter with a green stimulus, unfortunately, many of the packages do not seem that way inclined, as shown in this analysis from Vivid Economics, where in 14 of the 17 countries considered, potentially damaging flows outweigh those supporting nature:

Figure 2. Analysis from Vivid Economics on the “Greenness of Stimulus Index”.

Why trust in our governments and companies is so difficult

Perhaps governments could cough up a little more towards green measures if companies were more obliging in paying a fair share of taxes – and governments could prevent tax dodging for good. Some multinationals are now so rich and influential, their profits dwarf the entire tax revenues of small countries. As citizens, we must find ways to hold these companies to account, just as we try to do with our governments. 

How much trust can we have in large businesses to drive the change we need? I ask myself this everyday and I know I’m not alone. There’s many folks that think about this more than me. For example, a debate rumbles on about the authenticity and transformative power of the “purpose paradigm” that has captured many businesses, helping them embed a greater sense of moral fibre. Yet, even the purpose-driven companies still seem intent on operating within a conventional capitalist and at worst, a neoliberal mindset. Until we can find creative ways to move beyond these entrenched ideologies, I reckon we’re stuck with some variation of “business as usual”. (I wrote about this a little in a previous blog – see “conscious capitalism”).

I wonder if some of my peers will think I’m being rather negative? Large scale systems change does not happen overnight and trying to write with more positivity, it’s true that there are now so many “net positive” commitments from companies that it’s difficult to keep track of them. There’s also many examples of large organisations looking deep into the future and taking meaningful action to try and shape a more positive trajectory. All of this can be celebrated. But will it ever feel enough? 

For many years, some leaders in industry and government have been committed to a green growth mantra, the idea that we can decouple financial growth from resource consumption. Hard empirical data has recently shown that no meaningful decoupling has ever taken place and that the idea was an article of ‘faith’, devoid of any evidence. It reminds me that over 10 years ago, the UK Sustainable Development Commission (RIP) published Prosperity Without Growth (which was subsequently expanded into a book by Tim Jackson), making clear the need to re-define our definitions of prosperity. But I feel that the environmental movement has struggled to present any attractive, viable pathways towards new, alternative economic models. Or perhaps politicians and the public just aren’t ready to grapple with this yet. 

The spectrum of business models: some observations

In the corporate world, there are a spectrum of business models. They range from those that are highly extractive, with fairly rigid governance models due to shareholder primacy, towards more nimble and purpose-driven businesses, as you might find in the B-corp community

We often hear a hypothesis that it’s the purpose-driven, nimble businesses that will prevail, as they are more adept in responding to environmental and social risks, while more traditional corporates will lose significance and fade away. Does this scenario hold certain assumptions about how society and governments will reward or penalise companies in the future? There’s certainly more nuance to this, but perhaps that’s a discussion for another time and place.

Another, perhaps cynical observation that I’m interested to test is that the companies with the most impressive sustainability commitments, seem more likely to sell products that are less essential for society, such as fast food, luxury fashion, cosmetics and sugary drinks. Perhaps this is because it helps them to keep their license to operate, but it also introduces some ideological, moral challenges. Many of us enjoy ice-cream, fizzy drinks, steak and booze, but in a civilisation edging closer to the brink of irreversible collapse, should there be more efforts to limit this consumption? How stringent and restrictive should our society be in this emergency?

One fear I have about giving too much energy to working with large incumbents is that they are too stuck in their ways and unable to re-orientate their business models. Is there a danger I am facilitating a slow, managed decline of the outdated business models Buckminster Fuller suggests just need replacing? What if I have been giving some companies a false sense of security, to feel okay about themselves and operate a while longer while they trash the last of our planetary resources? Suffice to say, who we work with (as individuals and as organisations) and on what terms, is a very important question. 

Engaging companies on a just transition towards a regenerative food system

Recently at my work, we’ve been testing an idea that would involve bringing together, in a workshop, people from larger food businesses with those that sit more within the UK’s grassroots food movement. By grassroots, I refer to a fairly broad spectrum of organisations focused on influencing a more sustainable food system, from campaigners and smallholders, to alternative food businesses. The hope is to explore some of the common ground that I believe exists around sustainability ambition and what needs to happen to accelerate us towards these shared goals.

As I’ve tested the idea with friends in the sector, it became apparent that for some in these communities, there would be two key issues to overcome. The first is around trust. For understandable reasons, many working in the grassroots food movement have little trust in “big food” players: around their authenticity and capacity for radical change. There might be a lot of suspicion. Careful facilitation would be required to ensure discussions are constructive, healthy and purposeful.

The other challenge relates to the working hypothesis that people hold about how a transition towards much greater societal sustainability will play out. From my experiences, I know some people working in the grassroots food movement believe we need to “tear down” the existing food system and allow a new community of sustainable food enterprises to rise up. In this scenario, our food system can become much more diverse and nutritious. In the enlightened agriculture vision that’s painted by thinkers such as Colin Tudge, agroecology, food sovereignty and economic democracy are core aims. Communities will have proper control over their food supply and Britain will have a million more farmers, many smallholders, selling direct to citizens and cutting out the “middle players”. Major retailers will presumably be pushed to the fringes and collapse, their businesses no longer viable. 

This scenario depends on some radical enabling policy from our government and while I am often an advocate this, I struggle with its realism, especially in the short term. The power and grip large companies yield over politics and our food system should not be under-estimated, and in any case, how many citizens are really on board with this vision?

At the other end of the scale, the more progressive corporates with grand sustainability commitments are struggling to wrap their heads around what the radical transition looks like within their rather inflexible structures. I expect they find it difficult to imagine a scene that’s too far removed from their existing business models, where citizens are offered a seemingly unlimited choice of cheap food.

Figure 3. “Tear it down” (reform) vs “Radical transformation” (rebuild)

For a rapid transition in our food system, what might the realistic version of events be? I suspect there’s a reality somewhere between the “tear it down” version of events, and the unrealistic “radical transformation” of mainstream incumbents. It seems helpful to think of this like some continuum, and for many working in sustainability, this reform vs revolution debate is of course, not new. 

Might it be valuable to bring some of the more grassroots organisations in our food system together with larger food companies to explore major transition pathways? This may – or may not – help us move forwards and depends a great deal on how it’s facilitated. It may rustle some new ideas, partnerships or innovations that are so desperately needed. It might also help us get a clearer view of what a just transition looks like for society. It seems an idea worth testing further.

While living through unprecedented losses of wildlife, Knepp offers us hope

This piece also appears on Ecohustler right here.

The announcement of newborn Royalty this week quickly displaced a stark headline that reminded us about the unprecedented destruction of wildlife happening today. The latest global assessment, the most comprehensive to date, found that one million animal and plant species are threatened with extinction within decades.

Inextricably tied to this crashing of biodiversity is climate breakdown (one of several drivers of biodiversity loss) and in recent weeks, it’s provided some hope to see action on climate change having a spotlight in our media and politics. Thanks to the Extinction Rebellion and the #YouthStrike4Climate protest movements, increasing numbers of governments, cities and politicians are considering declaring a “climate emergency” and with that, there’s hope that these issues will be taken with the seriousness they deserve. It’s been energising to be a part of this.

Amongst all this excitement, I have been finding new hope in projects such as the wilding of Knepp Estate on 3,500 acres of degraded farmland in West Sussex. Since 2001, the land – once intensively farmed and highly degraded – has been devoted to a pioneering rewilding project that has seen extraordinary increases in wildlife, including extremely rare species like turtle doves, purple emperor butterflies and peregrine falcons.

The story of Knepp Estate is beautifully described by Isabella Tree in her book Wilding and the video below provides a good summary:

Visiting Knepp

A few weeks ago I enjoyed a peaceful, inspiring weekend at Knepp Estate to see the experiment with my own eyes. We arrived on Saturday afternoon and after pitching our tent in their rather luxurious campsite, we enjoyed a walk across the northern section of the estate, through various habitats including lakes, meadows, woodland and messy scrub. We spotted various free-roaming grazers including Exmoor Ponies, Tamworth Pigs, Longhorn Cattle and Fallow Deer. Each providing a different force of natural disturbance that stimulates a complex mosaic of habitats for other species, as well as highly nutritious food for humans.

Deer at Knepp Safaris

The pigs, for example, rootle the landscape with their powerful snouts, overturning clods of turf which kickstart the creation of anthills (a great food source for woodpeckers) and provides good spots for solitary bees to settle. The exposed soil also allows pioneer plants like sallow to colonise (the food source of the purple emperor butterfly) and other plant species, increasing the complexity of the landscape.

Upturned soil in the landscape, a sign of pigs rootling about

I found it exciting to see the dense, messy, thorny scrub that Isabella Tree describes in her book. A giant playground for many birds and insects that are so often pushed to the edges of our environment. So much so, that for some species, observations at Knepp have been challenging our understanding about preferred habitats:

“We assume we know what is good for a species but we forget that our landscape is so changed, so desperately impoverished, we may be recording species not in its preferred habitat at all, but at the very limits of its range.”

Isabella Tree, Wilding
Scrubland at Knepp

As we finished our walk, darkness fell and almost all the birdsong had settled. All but for the call of a tawny owl and the famous song of nightingales which we were overjoyed to hear – a first for me.

At dawn the following morning, we joined a walking safari which guided us through a riot of bird song. On the walk, we spotted a yellowhammer, whitethroats, white storks, as well as hearing nightingales, cuckoos, chiff-chaffs and jackdaws.

Dawn sunrise

The hope of rewilding

Despite growing up with keen bird-watching parents, the hobby never rubbed off on me. Only now am I starting to feel an interest, and with that, a greater curiosity in what we’ve lost and the efforts to conserve what remains. But with the startling facts about how much we have lost, “conserving what remains” is not enough. This is one of the attractions to Knepp and rewilding. It’s not a ‘conservation’ project in the traditional sense. It’s an open-ended experiment, using “process-led” rewilding principles such as grazing ecology to generate habitat complexity and biodiversity.

With no recollections of how the natural world used to be, it was striking to read Isabella Tree describing historical recollections of the abundance of wildlife in our landscapes – and the generational blindness to the environmental destruction that has been taking place. This tendency to normalise what surrounds us is known as ‘shifting baseline syndrome’:

…due to short life-spans and faulty memories, humans have a poor conception of how much of the natural world has been degraded by our actions, because our ‘baseline’ shifts with every generation, and sometimes even in an individual. In essence, what we see as pristine nature would be seen by our ancestors as hopelessly degraded, and what we see as degraded our children will view as ‘natural’. (Hance, 2009)

Rewilding presents a positive vision to help overcome a “shifting baseline syndrome”, by creating spaces that draw on an understanding of how our landscape once looked and how the ecology evolved. Now 20 years old, the Knepp experiment is deepening our understanding of ecology further and reminding of us of the severe negative consequences to wildlife from the intensification of agriculture and overgrazing of livestock in our national parks.

Hotly opposed by many farmers and conservationists, the gradual shift away from pasture-based farming systems towards intensive farming that accelerated after the Second World War, greatly increased yields but caused devastation to wildlife and is exhausting our soils. As we start to scramble desperately for solutions, Knepp shows one positive path forward for some of our most severely degraded landscapes. Not only for the sake of wildlife, but also for soil restoration, carbon sequestration, improving water quality and reducing flood risk.

With so many species hanging on for dear life at the fringes, we don’t have long to turn this around. Visiting Knepp gave me hope, inspiration and a heap of motivation to help rewild this planet. I highly recommend it for anyone else feeling a desire to take action.

Useful resources:

  • Rewilding Britain: a charity that is working to demonstrate a model for rewilding that works at a scale new to Britain
  • Isabella Tree’s book Wilding
  • George Monbiot’s book Feral

Mindsets for changing systems

Many of the global challenges we face are highly complex and intractable. They can often feel daunting, frustrating and require mountains of patience to work on. The practice of systems thinking offers a way to understand and start tackling these challenges. Some academics talk about the most difficult challenges as being “super wicked” problems because:

  • The challenge is urgent, putting large populations at risk;
  • Time is running out;
  • The central authority needed to address it is weak or non-existent;
  • Those seeking to solve the problem are also causing it;
  • Policies discount future irrationally.

A few years ago, I wrote about this in relation to the future of food and farming. Other obvious “super wicked” challenges are responding to climate breakdown and biodiversity collapse. In my work with Forum for the Future, systems change is a speciality. One of the important aspects I’ve learnt over the last couple of years is the “ways of a systems thinker”. These are the capabilities and mindsets we need to have when working to shift entire systems.

The table below shares some of these capabilities for people, organisations and society at large. This is taken from Forum’s Future of Sustainability 2018 report and draws on the work of my colleague Anna Birney, who is a fountain of knowledge on systems change and wrote this practitioner’s companion about it after her PhD:

Mindsets for systems change at different levels (individuals, organisations, society)

Perhaps it’s confirmation bias but it does feel that systems thinking is gaining more traction in sustainability. Another organisation putting systems thinking into practice is the Omidyar Network who have put together this helpful video on systems thinking mindsets:

Key notes from this video on systems change mindsets:

1) Seek health, not “mission accomplished”: More often than not, complex challenges don’t get solved. They are constantly evolving without a finish line, and we must constantly work to improve the health of the system. Leading a healthy lifestyle is a good example of this. Another example is climate change, which has often been talked about like it’s a problem we can solve. However, it’s now becoming clear how climate change will always be a problem, and that’s not to diminish its seriousness and profound consequences.

2) Seek patterns, not just problems: we have a natural inclination to tackle problems head-on. Rather than focusing on the problem itself, it’s important to find the patterns behind a problem. These patterns are what’s driving an unhealthy system.

3) Unlock change, don’t impose it: when looking at a complex challenge, we can easily get fixated on looking for the broken part of the system and parachuting in a fix. This doesn’t often work in complex challenges. Instead, we need to weaken the forces making the system unhealthy and strengthen the forces that make it healthier.

4) Plan to adapt, don’t stay the course: we often have a tendency to find a solution and stick to a fixed course until it’s solved. But dynamic systems are always shifting and our understanding changes as we learn more. We need to be flexible in our solutions as we work to improve the health of a system.

How It Ends: Another Incomplete Timeline Of Events

Okay, this piece might be a bit gloomy for some, but writing it was strangely therapeutic. It’s inspired and provoked by Debbie Urbanski’s An Incomplete Timeline of What We Tried. A rough timeline of notable moments, told from the future, in reverse order. Here we go:

Small pockets of human settlements endure, connected via primitive telecommunication technologies

Earth enters a post-Anthropocene geological period, an era known as the Dead Earth Ages

Efforts continue to hold back the deserts rapidly expanding across Europe

Music continues to be a uniting force for all communities

The age of commercialism ends. Trust in digital currencies is dead. Humanity predominately runs on a gift economy.

The Internet fragments

90% of energy comes from renewable sources

Debates on whether the climate and ecological collapse could have been averted rumble on quietly, painfully

World population estimated at 2.5 billion

Participatory budgeting grows in popularity

All investments into fruitless space exploration are stopped, following the launch of four envoys on a one-way expedition to explore new frontiers, three of which are reporting serious difficulties

Stand-up comedy acts thrive. People agree that laughter is excellent medicine

Online trust and participation reaches an all-time low, with difficulties in verification, separating reality from fiction

In some regions, resilience is fought through an era of co-operation, marked by strong civil society movements, cooperative business models, food sovereignty and collective action

Global food shortages cause widespread, devastating hunger and human loss

Google’s parent company, Alphabet goes into administration

World population estimated at 3.5 billion

Those few who purchased apocalypse bolt-holes are disappointed

Sunken cities are remembered: including London, Miami, Shanghai, Mumbai, New Orleans, New York, Guangzhou

Money is no longer printed

Human’s role in inducing climate breakdown still debated

China leads an effort to inject sulphur dioxide particles into the atmosphere to induce a cooling effect, with mixed results

A coalition of countries begin marine cloud brightening and creating ocean mirrors

The world cup is cancelled

Another war breaks out: cyber warfare shuts down the internet, hospitals and food supply chains collapse

Advertising bans for high-impact consumer goods in the public sphere

Organisations say we need more evidence to understand what’s happening

A call on all golf courses to be regenerated into farmland

Incentives for having one or no children

Rapid decay in the efficacy of antibiotics, now the greatest threat to public-health

Another global pandemic hits, borders are shut down, some for good

Children have identification implants, igniting protests

Every school grows food

Permaculture design enters the school curriculum

Farmers work collaboratively with farm bots, achieving highly diverse, zero waste, cropping and harvesting systems

Water wars

Launch of the World Council for Deep Adaptation: focused on strategies that build resilience, relinquishment and restoration

Religious leaders urge compassion for all those that have been displaced

Class action lawsuits launched on Amazon and 6 other global retailers for systematic climate complacency and denial

Laws restricting seed saving and commons overturned, Bayer-Monsanto appeal

World shortages declared in lead, copper, zinc, antimony and indium

National food policies push for radical increases in crop diversity

One billion people displaced due to climate change

Food systems start to re-localise

Conscription for community and land regeneration work days, enforced for all adults

The three day work week

Food rationing begins

Plain packaging for confectionery food products

Nationalism a new political force in multiple countries, replacing globalism

Six hurricanes occur in one season, wreaking devastation on communities and supply chains

People debate regenerative capitalism vs socialism

Rapid increases of methane detected from melting Arctic permafrost and deep-sea methane hydrates

Facebook becomes a community-owned business

A ban on private car ownership comes into place

Redundant car parks turned into housing

Advertisements for flights are banned

The last orangutan passes away

Progressive taxation on frequent flying for leisure and business, helps subsidise low-impact travel solutions

Landfill mining is big business, driven by the search for rare earth metals

The last coral reef collapses

Incentives for businesses that promote the sharing economy

Sea turtles declared extinct

Efforts to manage human population debated

The first year of an ice-free Arctic

Insect farming for animal feed booms

Large-scale wilding and projects spread across national parks and marginal, unproductive farmlands, to repair soils and slow the rate of ecosystem collapse

Heavy incentives for net positive building retrofits

Water rationing begins

A meat tax is introduced, then withdrawn

Global climate crisis declared by government pacts concerning the unstoppable positive climate feedback loops detected

A ban is imposed on major food and agricultural company mergers and acquisitions

Fossil-fuel vehicle scrappage scheme introduced

Every new home must be carbon-positive

Chocolate and coffee prices rocket, now 40x more expensive, a rare luxury for the few that can afford it

Global financial markets crash

IPPC and UN agree to use the term climate breakdown

Bans on plastic straws, single-use cups and non-biodegradable glitter

A funeral service is held at Parliament Square, publically mourning humans having wiped out tens of thousands of animal species

The first new deep coal mine in 30 years is approved, but construction is never completed

The last male northern white rhino dies in Sudan

Christmas reflections, preparing for 2019

My new year resolutions often include an ambition to write more. This year, I’m keen to write shorter, more regular reflections on what I’m learning. Even if they are rough and perhaps unresolved thoughts. My current work and colleagues at Forum for the Future provide me with so much interesting sustainability fodder that I’ve been keen to capture and put into words, as a means to help make sense of what is important and true in creating a more sustainable future. Let’s see if I can keep this up.

The Christmas break provided space to evaluate my existing work and projects. Working at Forum has led me to focus on global-level sustainability challenges and developing strategies to catalyse system-level change. This inevitably requires collaboration between influential and prominent organisations. So we position ourselves as the go-to experts to deliver this, with the experience to design and lead a process that will identify the best strategies to accelerate systems change. The approach and ambitions are big and bold, grounded in pragmatism and deeply needed in today’s world.

I feel good about working with an organisation that has such a positive purpose. The work does require buckets of patience, perseverance and astute skill. Trying to get the right businesses who can influence a systemic challenge to raise their ambitions and play ball is no easy feat. Time is not on our side. We need to move forward at an impossible speed to avert the unraveling of a global ecological collapse. Yet the sense of urgency and scale of change we know is needed is often misaligned with the track-record of businesses, whose progress has traditionally involved small, incremental improvements. The trouble is, if everyone does a little, we’ll achieve only a little. Despite the warnings of an impending collapse of the planet’s ecosystems and human civilisation, many businesses are unable to move away from prioritising short-term profits over long-term viability. It’s a tragic situation.

But I’ll persevere for now. When I recently described one of our systems change collaborations to a friend, whose expertise and opinion I value, he responded with how draining such a project sounds to work on. I know what he means.

In 2018, we witnessed another year of extreme weather events. A new IPCC report and series of COP 24 climate talks helped remind us of the urgency to work together and step-up action. It’s hard to tell how much this sense of urgency is being felt. Certainly, the USA has taken many steps backward. Meanwhile, our diagnosis of planetary problems is becoming more sophisticated and systems thinking is being more recognised as a discipline to navigate solutions. The greatest challenge is moving influencers beyond a diagnosis of problems, to acting collectively and quickly, without getting paralysed through the process.

One of the interesting discourses for me in 2018 was the Deep Adaptation Agenda introduced by Jem Bendell. I wrote a little bit about it here. As I move into 2019, I feel drawn to thinking more about what resilience, relinquishment and restoration might look like for communities. It’s becoming increasingly likely that radical paradigm shifts will not come about in a managed process. We’ll see many chaotic disruptions. So how can we build resilience to cope with them? And what must we be prepared to relinquish in the world to come? In recent conversations with friends that work in sustainability, it feels like we are now mourning an imagined future we’ve held for so long, and searching for new dreams to fill the void left by the old ones.

Whether society collectively acts or not, the future is going to be highly disruptive. My hope in 2019 is to get a better grasp of this disruption and discover the pathways for responding to it.

Leaving BedZED

A version of this blog post appears here on Bioregional’s website.

On a crisp, early morning a few weeks ago, I took a final stroll around BedZED, my home for the last four years. I’m excited to be moving to the Dorset coast. Yet there are many things I’ll miss about living here and it’s been an important part of my life.

Built over 15 years ago, BedZED (short for Beddington Zero Energy (fossil) Development) is a pioneering 100-unit ecovillage of homes and workspaces initiated by sustainability charity Bioregional in partnership with the Peabody Trust and ZEDfactory architects. I learned about BedZED soon after it was built whilst on work experience at a chemical engineering company in Finland. With very little to do and plenty of time to browse the internet, I stumbled across WWF’s 2004 Living Planet Report which featured BedZED as a case study. Feeling alarmed by the state of our ecosystems, I was inspired to hear of practical actions being taken. I kept a mental note of Bioregional and went off to University to study engineering. Four years later and eager to pursue a career in sustainability, I was over-the-moon to land my first job at Bioregional.

So before living at BedZED, I worked there for several years, commuting in from various leaky homes across South London. One part of my job was being a tour guide for the development. Each week I would take groups around the site, discussing different aspects of the design. Some of our work at Bioregional involved taking the learnings into other built environment projects. We also used BedZED to help inform our understanding of One Planet Living. Being based at BedZED felt important for working in sustainability, providing some first-hand experience of the benefits and challenges of designing more sustainable communities.

Much has been written about BedZED over the years but less on what it’s like to live there. So as I move away, here are five things that I’ll miss the most.

1. BedZED looks different

BedZED looks noticeably different from other developments. Its unique character comes from the combination of its colourful tops, curved edges, green roofs, weathered oak cladding, cabin door-windows, walkways, bridges and roof gardens. I find there’s a lot to enjoy looking at.

Whenever I’ve explained where I live to other locals they will often say: “oh, that place with the colourful things on the roofs?“. Those distinctive things are wind cowls, helping to provide ventilation for the buildings. They spin around with the wind and you’ll often find a cute line-up of small birds perched along the ridge. They are the most iconic feature.

The way that BedZED looks does have something to do with its sustainability but not as much as you might imagine. Curved edges and bridges, for example, aren’t environmental features, rather they are attractive features that would have added costs. As a comparison, one of the developments Bioregional were involved with after BedZED was One Brighton, which was 172 apartments plus offices. Many of the same principles were applied, yet these flats appear much more conventional and the project turned a profit, which was impressive given that it was built during the depths of a recession.

2. The warmth

The all-year-round warmth and natural light is one of the most noticeable differences. For the last four years, I haven’t had to think about heating. There was no heating system to turn on! I have found it warm enough in the winter and certainly hot enough in the summer. This is thanks to the homes being south-facing with thick, insulated walls, good quality windows and sunspaces to help trap the heat. Every home should be built like this and it’s a great pity to now be moving to a home that requires heating.

3. The neighbours and the BedZED bar

Once a month, one of the ex-residents runs a community bar in the BedZED Pavillion. Children play in the field while the adults unwind with a refreshing beverage. Lately, there’s even been a chef cooking dinner too. What a great way to get to know the neighbours. I will miss the BedZED bar and the lovely neighbours I’ve been able to spend time with there.

4. Car-free streets

The road skirts around the outside of the estate with walkways between the units. Many have climbing plants that cut across from the ground level gardens up to the roof gardens, creating a little oasis of greenery. Children can play safely in these walkways and will run around the blocks without the worry of cars. As the sun sets in the evenings, there’s a feeling of intimacy around the estate as dinners are being prepared. The architecture is clever because despite the homes being close together, there’s enough privacy and it doesn’t feel like you’re living on top of each other.

The car-free streets are one of the reasons I believe it’s easy to meet and get to know neighbours. Roads divide us. In the city, more often than not, they are places of pollution, danger and fear. It’s better when they are quiet or simply removed away from the front door.

5. The BedZED field

I was lucky to live with a view of the BedZED field. For many years, this field was a blank canvas. There were many inspired ideas from residents to do something, but little action. However, in the last few years, the field has come alive and has turned into an ecologically diverse, permaculture garden. Residents Tony and Danielle have been instrumental in making this happen and there are weekly gardening sessions every Saturday for anyone that would like to join in. While I can claim no part in helping out with this, I have a huge appreciation for everyone that goes out to make this space what it is.

Final thoughts

Living at BedZED, like many places, isn’t always bliss. You’ll hear neighbours often complain about Peabody, who manage the estate. The wider area is not much to speak of, in my opinion. Yet the homes are warm and the immediate landscape is clean and green. The neighbours are friendly and well-connected online and in-person. There’s a fantastic community centre, that’s in daily use by local residents. A green gym and permaculture garden. As a result, it’s an attractive place to live, particularly for families, many of whom don’t leave. One neighbour, I’m aware, has moved house three times within the development as their family has grown in size.

For a few years, I managed a nearby farm called Sutton Community Farm that was also initiated by Bioregional and is now a thriving community-owned business. I often said to visitors at the farm, that if it wasn’t for BedZED, this farm would probably not exist. The ecological footprint studies of residents at BedZED, which showed food being the largest impact category, provided an important rationale for my colleagues to want to improve the local food system through a farm. I think having the experience of BedZED (not to mention Carshalton Lavender and other Bioregional enterprises) gave us more confidence to start a farm. In designing for sustainable communities, we found that it’s not enough to just build homes that perform well on energy and materials. To achieve One Planet Living, it’s necessary to design our communities with much more in mind.

I sometimes found pessimist folk remind me of the inconvenient truth that BedZED was an expensive project with many failures. Well, I’m an optimist and my take is that BedZED was a pioneering and important development that’s gone on to inspire many. Indeed, it turns out the 99 electric car-charge points were excessive for the time (only now are electric cars starting to gain some popularity). The solar array system is not working (it was installed before the incentives of feed-in tariffs and has suffered from poor management). The Combined Heat and Power (CHP) plant was far too experimental and sized wrong (it’s now been placed by a biomass boiler). The Living Machine, a biological system for wastewater treatment that mimics the water purifying functions of wetlands, was also rather ambitious. It’s important to experiment though; that’s often how we learn the best lessons. Thankfully, many of the important aspects do work and BedZED provided a comfortable, warm and friendly place to live.

Today, for various reasons, sustainability is still not at the forefront of the building industry. Sustainable builds are not happening with the ambition or at the pace they should be. My hope is that we continue to learn from BedZED but also remember it’s over 15 years old now. It’s old news. There should are hundreds of other developments we can look to for inspiration – unfortunately, I am struggling to name many of them.

Useful information

To find out more about BedZED, Bioregional’s website has lots of information including the history, key stats and performance data:

How to prepare for life in a hothouse

In abandoning hope that one way of life will continue, we open up a space for alternative hopes. Tommy Lynch (2017).

The week started with a bit of a downer. While we were sweating through the peaks of this summer’s heatwave, several articles about climate change were doing the rounds. Nathaniel Rich’s captivating novella “The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change” took over the New York Times Magazine. It reads like a movie script, covering the period of 1979-1989 when we started coming to a broad understanding of the causes and dangers of climate change. The article centres around the efforts of two individuals, Rafe Pomerance and James Hansen, who worked tirelessly to bring climate change to the forefront of the public and government’s attention. As the piece sweeps through their efforts over a decade, it then questions who is to blame for the inaction on climate change. Rich argues that it was not the fossil fuel industry, nor the politicians, but rather something that’s in our human nature.

Soon after this was published, Naomi Klein delivered a well-articulated critique of its central assertion and a number of scientists disputed some details in the narrative. Human nature, Klein argues, is not what killed our climate momentum, it’s the reigning ideology of deregulated capitalism, a topic she so elegantly writes about in “This Changes Everything”.

Then, the Stockholm Resilience Centre released a paper saying that even if the carbon emission reductions called for in the Paris Agreement are met, there is a risk of entering a state they dubbed “Hothouse Earth”, where several positive feedback mechanisms come into play, driving temperatures to an average of 4-5°C higher than pre-industrial temperatures with sea level 10-60m higher than today. As I read this, I recalled the moment, many years ago, when I felt a quiet surge of panic reading James Lovelock’s stark warnings about positive feedback loops causing non-linear shifts in our climate. While our climate modeling has presumably become more sophisticated since then, it feels the less optimistic forecasts have remained roughly the same and are in line with what we’re experiencing.

While taking this in, a colleague at my work shared a new paper from Professor Jem Bendell on the subject of Deep Adaptation, which invited readers the opportunity to reassess their work and life in the face of an inevitable near-term social collapse due to climate change. A heavy subject matter but a much-needed discourse for our times with some useful framings.

As we witness the impacts of extreme weather across the world this season, some people’s fears of climate change have been heightened. A friend of mine was feeling particularly despondent with this pending sense of calamity. She felt a powerlessness and judgment that many people around her, people that she loves, seem not to care about impending ecological collapse. She can’t understand why they are carrying on as normal. She asked me to provide some words of comfort, to which I could only say:

  1. You’re definitely not alone in feeling the despair, sadness and panic. I’m right here with you. We’re in this one together.
  2. One positive thing we can do, which is important no matter what, is to love each other and party hard. This suggestion came from my wife’s colleague, who is having a similar discussion about life and purpose in the face of climate change. Another friend of mine once said we should “dance while we got the chance”. I like that.
  3. Third, for all our predicaments, there’s some light. It may only be a small glow, but as Steven Pinker says in his TED talkwe are doing way better on homicide, war, poverty, pollution and various other measures, than 30 years ago. While we will never have a perfect world, he says, when we apply knowledge to enhance human flourishing, there’s no limit to what we can attain. While this feels disputable in the face of climate change, it’s still important to recognise some of the positive progress. When interviewed after his presidency, Obama also had a similar sentiment: “the world is healthier, wealthier, better educated, more tolerant, more sophisticated and less violent than just about any time in human history…If I had to choose any time in history to be born, I’d choose now”. There is so much to be thankful for.

I’m not sure that we can simply “solve” climate change. We’ve designed systems (food, energy, waste, economic, ideological and so on) that are extremely difficult to maneuver through a radical transformation. Yet, we must respond to climate change with bold action, shift what we can shift, with compassion and cooperation – leaving as positive of a trail as we can in our lives. This is no small task at all. How can we have compassion when we see others wilfully or unwittingly killing the planet?

There’s something about compassion or love being at the centre of this change that I’m now thinking about. How can we build and maintain a deep love both for our environment and of each other? There’s something about trying to be compassionate in the company of taking positive, radical actions that feels right to me. Both in our work and personal lives. It feels much better when we are able to participate in building a better world and not just talk about it from afar. That’s why the simple act of growing food or planting a tree is so powerful. It provides a positive narrative and some sense of hope in the chaos around us.

Jem Bendell, in his Deep Adaptation paper which I recommend reading, writes further about how we might guide discussions once we recognise climate change as an unfolding tragedy. It’s also a conversation I know the Dark Mountain project has long explored. While difficult, we shouldn’t shy away from this conversation, it’s too important.

Hackbridge Ecology Park

Over the last few years I’ve been working with my neighbours in Hackbridge to try and establish a 25 hectare ecology park on some disused fields, opposite to where I live at BedZED. The park will help connect people to Beddington Farmlands (a 400 acre nature reserve) and the wider green corridor of the Wandle Valley Regional Park, a new park that winds along the River Wandle, stretching from Croydon and Sutton through Merton and Wandsworth to the Thames.

The land we are considering is unused and neglected, without official public access. We would like to see this land become a productive, sustainable, engaging space that demonstrates how we can benefit from and improve our natural environment. It will be an outdoor hub for recreation, education and most importantly, habitat restoration. Some of the ideas include:

  • Outdoor activities: such as nature tours, cycle paths, bird watching, photography, walking and running.
  • Renewable energy generation: solar panels that generate renewable energy for the community and income to cover the ongoing running costs for the park.
  • Habitat restoration: increasing the ecological value of the land whilst also creating places for people to engage with and learn about the wildlife.
  • Sustainable food growing: providing healthy, sustainable produce to the local area.
  • Natural swimming pool: a low impact pool providing a unique, local place for people to swim and exercise.
  • Social support services: providing volunteering, mentoring and construction opportunities to help people integrate with the community, gain skills and confidence.

About the land

The land is divided into two sections by existing woodland habitat, as shown in the map below. It has a range of planning designations, including Metropolitan Open Land, Site of Metropolitan Importance for Nature Conservation and Safeguarded for Mineral Extraction.

The bottom section of land is owned by Sutton Council and was previously used for gravel extraction and sewage works. The upper section of land is owned by Day Group and was also used for gravel extraction – once this was halted, it was utilised as a non-hazardous landfill by SITA. On the upper section of land we have been exploring the feasability of integrating a solar park into the ecology park.

Hackbridge Ecology Park Map

A place for wildlife

The 2016 State of Nature report, compiled by over 50 wildlife organisations reveals the severe loss of nature that’s occurring in the UK. More than one in ten of all the species assessed are under threat of disappearing from our shores altogether. The biodiversity index also suggests that we are among the most nature-depleted countries in the world. Biodiversity is the backbone of our ecosystems which we depend on for survival and there’s no time like the present to act on conserving and enhancing natural habitats, which is why projects like this are vital.

One of my heroes in Hackbridge is Peter Alfrey, a zealous ecologist who works tirelessly on bird and wildlife projects across Hackbridge and Beddington Farmlands. Peter is a key person that helps document the wildlife on the nearby Beddington Farmlands; this includes 258 species of bird, 476 species of moth, 9 species of bat and over 300 species of plants. One of the central parts of Hackbridge Ecology Park will be enhancing the neighbouring landscape which connects to Beddington Farmlands, helping make better spaces for wildlife to thrive, such as wetlands, grasslands, scrub, additional trees and hedgerow.

Work to date

The project is voluntary-led and has been slow to develop while we all have day jobs and other commitments. Despite this, we’ve done a fair amount of work so far, with particular thanks to the drive of Sue Riddlestone, co-founder of Bioregional and an instigator of BedZED, the famous ecovillage in Hackbridge. Sue’s team at Bioregional have helped raised some initial funds for our group to complete a pre-feasibility study, facilitate community workshops and undertake a solar feasibility study.

The pre-feasibility study examined the current status and issues surrounding the site, identifying key stakeholders and delivering some initial consultation to determine a vision for the land. This included:

  • Briefing presentation to local Councillors (Jan 2015)
  • Visioning event (Mar 2015)
  • Briefing presentation for Area Committee (Mar 2015)
  • Briefing provided to quarterly Board Meeting of Mitcham Common Conservators (Mar 2015)
  • Engagement with Hackbridge School community and design team (Mar 2015)
  • Community engagement for solar feasibility study (Summer 2015)
  • Engagement with Day Group on land use

Little Owl in Beddington Farmlands, taken by Peter Alfrey
Little Owl in Beddington Farmlands, taken by Peter Alfrey

Resulting from the visioning workshops, the following objectives were established for the ecology park:

  1. Enable the proposed site to become a safe, publicly accessible piece of open land;
  2. Facilitate and enable the community to engage with nature in a sympathetic and positive way;
  3. Carry out grassland, scrub and wetland habitat restoration and preservation to maintain the natural and wild feel of the land;
  4. Provide amenities for the local residential and school community, such as formal and informal play areas;
  5. Provide the opportunity for food growing and associated training opportunities;
  6. Engage with the community and encourage volunteering;
  7. Educate and train the local community on the importance of nature conservation;
  8. Incorporate renewable energy generation where feasible;
  9. Position the site to visitors as a gateway to the wider Wandle Valley Regional Park.

The solar park

In 2015, our group won funding from DECC’s Urban Community Energy Fund to progress a solar feasibility study. The area of interest is the northern section of the land, which may be contaminated and has four large electricity pylons cutting across the field. Potential public uses for this section of land are limited, so ground mounted solar panels could be an ideal solution. This could allow the land to remediate for a further 25 years or more, while providing green electricity to the local area and generate an income for the Ecology Park to be used for maintenance and visitor facilities.

Image of a solar park

Climate change policy advocates for more renewable energy and this also fits with The Mayor of London’s target to supply 25% of London’s energy from local sources by 2025. A study of decentralised energy capacity by the GLA concluded that Sutton has the potential to generate 230GWh of electricity and save just under 100,000 tonnes of CO2 by 2031. Installations like this are an important part of this decentralisation. Furthermore, Sutton Council’s One Planet Living Policy BP6 seeks to maximise the potential role of renewable energy sources and de-centralised energy infrastructure in Hackbridge. Policy-wise, everything points in the right direction. 

The study examined various site issues such as land designations, connection points to the grid, key stakeholders, market demand and drivers, biodiversity impacts, business models and generation capacity. Layout configerations were also considered, for 1.5MW and 2MW installations:

Solar power configurations on Hackbridge Ecology Park
Solar power configurations on Hackbridge Ecology Park

In early 2016 the government made an 87% cut to feed-in tariff income that has made the financial feasability of solar less attractive. Our study still shows promise and one of the routes that remains financially viable is to sell the energy generated to a customer through a power-purchase agreement.

In terms of investment, we are interested in raising finance through a community share offer. To support this, Repowering London have stepped forward with an interest in working with us. However before we can continue on this, further work needs to be done to secure the land.

What next?

The pre-feasibility work helped us have a solid understanding of the routes forward. This year, Viridor were granted permission to build an incinerator to burn South London’s waste, very close to the proposed ecology park. While bad news for air quality and wildlife, it ironically could provide a route for funding the beginnings of an ecology park. Viridor are in the process of launching a grant programme to support community projects with funding up to £30k, with preference for projects within 2km of the incinerator. However from what I’ve seen of the grant criteria, it does not cover staff or running costs of a project – a frustrating spanner in the works, but perhaps not insurmountable.

What’s certain is that the project will have to be implemented in phases. In the next phase, we need to work with the landowners to open up the land for limited public access to deliver some practical, educational activities for the community, helping them learn about the wildlife already on site. We’ve began these dicussions with the landowners.

We also want to make some simple improvements to make the site safe such as installing paths and fencing, creating routes for the public to use. We then need to deal with longer-term land governance issues and establish a more comprehensive development plan, working with stakeholders such as the Wandle Valley Regional Park. Ultimately, this is a multi-million pound project with grand ambitions and it’s exciting to be here at the beginning.

Further resources

Photo courtesy of Lukas Becker
Photo courtesy of Lukas Becker

Photo courtesy of Lukas Becker
Photo courtesy of Lukas Becker

Photo courtesy of Lukas Becker
Photo courtesy of Lukas Becker

Is it right to put a price on nature?

I’ve just spent a week trekking along Wainwright’s coast-to-coast route, walking the first section from St Bees to Penrith. The walk took us across the vast and stunning landscape of the Lake District, as described in Wordsworth’s poem ‘Daffodils’:

I wander’d lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Extract from ‘Daffodils’ by William Wordsworth (1804)

Along the walk, I was pondering a question posed on the discussion forum of a course I’m studying on Agro-Ecosystem Services at Bangor University. The question was whether it is relevant to put a monetary value on ecosystem services? Can it improve policy and management decisions? Is it too reductionist? Is uncertainty too high to produce credible values?

The motivation behind monetary valuation is that it provides decision makers, such as policy-makers and planners, a means to translate a complex subject into the more familiar language of money, which then helps guide an appraisal of its importance and can support decisions. Monetary valuation may also be a helpful way to engage certain audiences such as economists and investors, who can yield significant influence.

My initial reaction to introducing a monetary value on ecosystems is heavy caution. It’s against all common sense to put a price on nature. The Lake District offers a variety of what we call “ecosystem services”, a term that means the benefits that humans obtain from ecosystems. The ecosystem services concept helps us understand the value of ecosystems, which can help us make better land management decisions. From an ecosystem service perspective, my experience of the walk was social, cultural, aesthetic and spiritual, benefiting my health and wellbeing. I also accessed fresh water along the way, as well as oxygen and food, all vital to my survival. Was that experience worth £50 or £100,000? If forced, I could put a personal, entirely subjective financial value on it but it would be a flawed calculation and I would never want to do it. Likewise, how could I put a financial value on Wordsworth’s poem? It would be an insult to the Lake District and Wordsworth to reduce what they provide into a monetary figure.

The flaws of monetary valuation

Some people rightly argue that in many cases, valuation is a meaningless idea as ecosystem services are vital for human survival; therefore they have infinite value (Chaisson 2002, McCauley 2006). Technology is unable to deliver planet-scale services such as climate regulation, soil formation and air quality maintenance, so there are no comparable means to value it in financial terms. Even if we do put a monetary value on it, the figure is so high that it becomes meaningless. Furthermore, if ecosystems are dynamic and inextricably linked to one another, how is it possible to segregate one ecosystem service or geographic area and put a value on it?

There’s another reason to be highly cautious of ecosystem valuation. When we start associating a financial value to nature, we are walking on a path that exposes ecosystems to commodification or privatisation (Monbiot 2002, McCauley 2006). The concept behind valuation is that it can reduce market distortions and align economic incentives with social and environmental incentives. This can sound attractive, however by aligning everything in monetary terms, we are trusting that market-based mechanisms will deliver the right decisions to protect nature. It’s perverse, as George Monbiot argues, to use the same processes (commodification, economic growth and financial abstractions) that are driving the world’s environmental crisis to try and solve them.

Another challenge with monetary valuation is that it’s often flawed due to poor data availability and quality: this includes both coverage and resolution, where data can often be inconsistent and incomplete, requiring proxies which can have a high potential for error (Eigenbrod 2010).

Despite its troubles, there is a lot of interest in monetary valuation and it’s a growing science. In the UK, we have projects that refer to monetary valuation, such as the mega interdisciplinary National Ecosystem Services Assessment. There’s also a number of smaller studies across the UK, as presented in the BESS database. Robert Costanza, a prominent ecological economist has even had a stab at estimating the global value of ecosystem services – about $46 trillion/yr if you’re interested!

Making the case for monetary valuation

With all these criticisms and flaws, what is the case for monetary valuation? Robert Costanza is a prominent voice in academia that advocates for monetary valuation and has some compelling arguments.

Firstly, Constanza argues that valuation is unavoidable since it is already done implicitly when we make decisions involving trade-offs; therefore improved transparency through monetary valuation can help us make better decisions (Costanza et al. 2014). Constanza also emphasises that it’s a misconception to assume that valuing ecosystems in monetary terms is the same as commodifying or privatising them for trade. Rather, most ecosystem services are public goods or common-pool resources, which makes conventional markets work poorly, if at all. In addition, the values do not relate to exchange values, rather use or non-use values.

“If nature contributes significantly to human well-being, then it is a major contributor to the real economy, and the choice becomes how to manage all our assets, including natural and human-made capital, more effectively and sustainably” (Costanza et al., 2014).

There are case studies that demonstrate how ecosystem valuation has led to market-based mechanisms have helped make the right decisions. A commonly cited example is the Catskill Delaware Watershed, where New York City invested in conserving a watershed that filters its water as effectively as a filtration plant, and more cheaply. Yet these examples of success are far and few between so far.

Using valuation in the right circumstances?

There are many interesting uses for monetary valuation that convince me it can sometimes have a place, but it shouldn’t be a go-to tool in the first instance. Monetary valuation may convince decision-makers to realise the irreplaceable services of nature, to treasure them deeply as sacred, delicate systems that we must protect and help thrive. However we should be very cautious about when it’s used. My pragmatic view is that monetary valuation can have an appropriate place in the discussion but in proportion with other tools and communications. Its purpose must be well communicated, together with its accuracy, as it’s no use bringing shoddy evidence to the table.

I also believe that we should also not allow monetary valuation to dominate the debate when the moral arguments are clear. Douglas McCauley, a professor at Stanford University argues against the central role of monetary values in decision making, suggesting that protecting ecosystem services should be framed predominantly as a moral issue; as the right thing to do, rather than reduced to the financial bottom line. McCauley suggests that policy-makers can be driven by more than the financial bottom line and believing otherwise is “akin to saying that civil-rights advocates would have been more effective if they provided economic justifications for racial integration” (McCauley 2006). 

Many social and environmental justice campaigners have experienced how decision making in the real world often does not follow evidence-based, rational processes. The reality is that decisions are made rashly and that the those in power can be manipulated or will act selfishly to win favour with one group over another. While monetary valuation clearly has some flaws, both practically and philosophically, it is another tool we can add to the toolbox. You never know when it might come in handy, but we just need to be very careful how and when to use it.


Chaisson, E.J., 2002. Cosmic Evolution: The Rise of Complexity in Nature. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.

Costanza, R., 2006. Nature: ecosystems without commodifying them [Correspondence]. Nature 443, 749.

Costanza, R., de Groot, R., Sutton, P., van der Ploeg, S., Anderson, S.J., Kubiszewski, I., 2014. Changes in the global value of ecosystem services. Global Environ. Change, 26, 152–158.

Eigenbrod, F., Armsworth, P.R., Anderson, B.J., Heinemeyer, A., Gillings, S., Roy, D.B., Thomas, C.D. and Gaston, K.J., 2010. The impact of proxy-based methods on mapping the distribution of ecosystem services. Journal of Applied Ecology, 47(2), pp. 377-385.

McCauley, D. 2006. Selling out on nature [Commentary]. Nature 443, 7107: 27-8.

Monbiot, G., 2012. Putting a price on the rivers and rain diminishes us all. The Guardian.

Getting to grips with a “super wicked” problem: the future of food and farming

“Nothing less is required than a redesign of the whole food system to bring sustainability to the fore”.
Foresight: The Future of Food and Farming, 2011

The abundance of food lining our supermarket shelves and providing millions of people with an affordable and reliable food source is a small modern-day miracle. However beyond the glistening aisles of the supermarket, our food system causes an often untold destruction of the ecosystems we depend on. This is compromising our ability to achieve a secure food supply in the future1 – both in the near future and long-term. As we witness this destruction with heavy hearts, we are being called by leaders, scientists and other experts to rethink and reshape an entire industry, to help repair damaged ecosystems and avoid major societal collapse. What a mountain we have to climb! It’s tempting, as with climate change, to either look the other way and pretend everything’s okay, or adopt a philosophy which basically concludes that ultimately, we’re all doomed, collapse is inevitable and so let’s sit back and enjoy the ride while we can. To put it bluntly, both of these positions are nonsense and we must face up to the facts, get a grip and try to be part of a movement of change that’s collaborative, bold, honest and positive.

Representing the food system

Getting a strong grasp of the challenges is critical because implementing effective policy is a delicate affair. We don’t have the luxury of designing a new food system to replace the old one. We are stuck in the thick of a deeply complex system, made from a mostly self-organised set of interacting parts. Academics are constantly exploring different approaches to representing the food system, to support those trying to get to grips with it. Here’s one example of a representation:

Representation of a food system (Arnall and Pope, 2015)
Representation of a food system (Arnall and Pope, 2015)

One common problem is that almost everyone is a “specialist”. Yet the complexity of the challenge calls for us to take a broad view, stepping outside our narrow specialty to take stock of the bigger picture. We are fortunate to have a wealth of collaborative projects, publications and resources that help us make sense of the challenges in our food system and suggest approaches to improve its sustainability. The most relevant example in recent years is the comprehensive Foresight Future of Food and Farming Report (Foresight 2011) that involved around 400 leading experts and stakeholders, drawing on a breadth of scientific and other evidence. Here’s some very brief notes taken from this report that give a brief flavour of its overall messages:

Notes from the Foresight project: the Future of Food and Farming.
Notes from the Foresight project report on the Future of Food and Farming. Click here for a PDF version of this graphic.

This is a ‘super wicked’ problem

When thinking about the actions required to transform the food system, it’s useful to appreciate the type of problem we’re dealing with. Last year, I attended an IFSTAL lecture on food systems thinking by Dr. Alex Arnall at Reading University which introduced different categorisations of problems, drawing on a social science theory developed by Rittel and Webber (Rittel 1973). In brief, there are ‘tame‘ problems which are complicated but solvable (e.g. increasing drought resistance of a certain crop) and ‘wicked‘ problems which are complex and intractable, often transcending boundaries such as organisations, disciplines or geopolitical  (e.g. the problem of food waste). A relatively new category was suggested in 2012 called ‘super wicked‘ problems, defined as having the additional characteristics (Leven 2012):

  • “Time is running out;
  • The central authority needed to address it is weak or non-existent;
  • Those seeking to solve the problem are also causing it;
  • Policies discount the future irrationally.”

In Dr Arnall’s presentation, he describes overfishing, obesity and climate change as having the characteristics of ‘super wicked’ problems. Based on their definition, it feels reasonable to suggest the challenges facing future food production is also a ‘super wicked’ problem. When these features listed above combine, Leven et al. describe the result a policy-making “tragedy” where “traditional analytical techniques are ill-equipped to identify solutions, even when it is well recognised that actions must take place soon to avoid catastrophic future impacts” (Levin 2012).

Why a different approach to policy making is required

A conventional approach to policy often involves identifying single goals, such as efficiency, and applying a variation of cost-benefit policy analysis3. However this approach is unable to deal with the open, non-linear characteristics of the food system, where humans and organisations often interact in unpredictable ways. Levin et al. therefore suggest applying a “forward reasoning” approach that “identifies possible policy interventions and reasons forward to how the problem and interventions might unfold over time“. In short, the use of scenarios and futures tool. Their paper does not advocate discounting historical forces that shape politics and outcomes; rather they should be embraced and used to open up creative solutions to address “super wicked” problems. Progressive incremental trajectories are suggested as the best resolution for “super wicked” problems, rather than one-shot logical solutions, which often get trapped and fail in their ambition.

Levin et al. identified three helpful questions for policymakers that are designed to address the tragedy of super wicked problems:

  1. What can be done to create stickiness? This is the idea that makes reversibility of the policy immediately difficult. In this, it’s important that interventions do not legitimise low standards or worse, lock in lower standards (e.g. aiming to low in our targets).
  2. How might protocol be designed to foster deliberations to entrench policy interventions?
  3. How might protocol be designed to foster deliberations to expand policy interventions?

In exploring the above questions, Leven et al. go into much further detail, suggesting that analysts designing policy also pay greater attention to:

  • The role of coalitions;
  • Values and deeply held views about right and wrong by segments of society;
  • Fostering norms that define and regulate appropriate behaviour – this can trigger positive feedbacks.

Involving this type of approach in policy making feels appropriate for addressing “super wicked” problems, which demand a different type of analysis.

While much more could be said in this post, my intention is just a brief personal exploration. The challenge is enormous, frustratingly complex and as such, it’s clear that food cannot be treated like any other commodity, By finding ways to broadly understand food security and appreciate it as a “super wicked” problem, we have a much better chance to head on a positive trajectory, for the sake of future generations.


1. For in depth further (acedemic) reading on this, refer to the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report on Climate Change (IPCC, 2014).

2. An example of conventional analysis being applied to a “super wicked” problem is mentioned in the European Nitrogen Assessment (ENA)  which describes how existing environmental policies related to reactive nitrogen have been established in a fragmented way, separated by media (air, land, water, etc), by issue (climate, biodiversity, waste etc) and by form (Sutton 2011). While this specialisation has advanced understanding and helped achieve some progress, the ENA calls for a more comprehensive understanding of the nitrogen cycle to establish policy that ensures nitrogen management is addressed holistically.


Arnall, A.; Pope, H. (2015). What is systems thinking and how can we use it to confront the ‘wicked problem(s)’ of food? IFSTAL Lecture 2 Systems Thinking. Available at:

Foresight (2011). The Future of Food and Farming. Final Project Report: Executive Summary. The Government Office for Science, London.

IPCC (2014). Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Core Writing Team, R.K. Pachauri and L.A. Meyer (eds.)]. IPCC, Geneva, Switzerland, p. 13.

Levin, Kelly; Cashore, Benjamin; Bernstein, Steven; Auld, Graeme. (2012). Overcoming the tragedy of super wicked problems: constraining our future selves to ameliorate global climate change. Policy Sciences. 45 (2): 123–152. doi:10.1007/s11077-012-9151-0. Available at:

Rittel, Horst W. J.; Melvin M. Webber (1973). Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning. Policy Sciences. 4: 155–169. doi:10.1007/bf01405730. Available at:

Sutton, Mark A., et al., 2011. The European Nitrogen Assessment: Summary for Policy Makers. 1st ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

It’s worth it.

We are making incredible discoveries from observing nature every day. Just recently, scientists recorded two dolphins having a conversation for the first time. That’s mindblowing.

For all the inspiration and love we feel for our fellow inhabitants, the 2016 ‘State of Nature’ report published today tells us the tragedy that 1 in 10 UK wildlife species faces extinction. There are birds, insects and animals we have seen in our lifetimes that we will never be able to show our children.

The way we grow and consume food is one of the major contributors to this damage. What we put on our plates shapes the landscapes and habitats we leave for wildlife. The governments we elect can have a powerful role in shaping this, yet they are failing to articulate the urgency, put in place the right mechanisms and stand up to the powerful forces of big food companies.

I’m discovering Wendell Berry’s writings where he was describing with great clarity over 40 years ago the contradictions we live with; the gap between what we think or say and what we do. Living undestructively in an economy that is overwhelmingly destructive often feels impossible and we are by no means divided into saints and sinners. But with every step taken towards a lighter footprint, a deeper understanding of our ecological interactions and turning our backs on highly consumptive and individualistic lifestyles, we can feel more liberated, more resourceful and more connected. I’m definitely far from there but working on it and I reckon it’s worth it.

Photo credit: “The Encounter” by Rene Mensen

When the Arctic melts

Will there be no ice at the north pole by the end of this summer? I have a friend who believes this is the year it will happen. Looking at the data and taking into account positive feedback loops, it’s certainly possible. Whether or not it happens this year, when it does happen, the moment will mark another major wake up call. A call to adapt, to redesign, to invest, to rethink and reassess. How can we transition peacefully to new models of enlightened agriculture and food distribution, water conservation, circular economies, low-carbon travel, magnificent reforestation and working cooperatively rather than competitively?

Fortunately, many of the solutions and ideas are already here for us to engage with. The even better news is that they don’t always mean giving things up. Our freedoms, our characters, our relationships can stay intact. We just need to be open to changing how we go about our lives, radically reframing what is valued as important. Luckily, many solutions that create a more sustainable society also happen to create a healthier society, with cleaner air, more empowering jobs and communities with a greater sense of belonging and connectedness. Living with a lighter footprint may just be a convenient bonus.

Transition will unlikely be smooth or easy. It will be rather messy with lots of people and companies pushing against the grain, fighting for outdated paradigms. That’s no excuse for us to remain in our old ways. Which story we are part of is a daily choice. With every meal and every move and every purchase.

Arctic Sea Ice Graph
Arctic Sea Ice Graph

Finding hope and optimism in a stressed world

We live on a planet under great stresses. Collectively, we are struggling to look after each other and the natural world we depend upon. Many of the environmental and social trends suggest we’re in for a tough time ahead. For many of us, we live with an uncomfortable gap between our everyday actions, and the actions required of us to lighten our footprint, easing the destruction we leave for our children to inherit.

I’m an optimist and a realist. Against my greatest wishes, I live in expectation of further anthropogenic climate change. The confluence of other trends too, both environmental and social, lead me to expect that many will suffer great difficulties in accessing the most basic resources. With great sadness, I live with doubts on whether equality and the eradication of poverty will ever be achieved.

Yet while holding all of this fear and despair in one hand, with the other hand, I simultaneously hold tightly onto an optimism and hope for a better world to rise.

I believe we can build our communities to have more resilience: to more resourceful, productive, fairer, safer and more inclusive. I believe that the neoliberal, capitalist values that currently dominate our economy, which struggle to acknowledge limits to growth, can undergo a great transformation to become fairer, serving both people and the planet. I believe that compassion can be infectious. That people have huge capacities for empathy, peace-making and sacrifice. I believe in our long track record of creativity and ingenuity. If focused in the right way, we can accelerate the social, cultural, technical innovation required for a better future.

We must not wallow in apathy and despair. It is possible to simultaneously live with our doubts, our fears and disappointments, yet hold onto optimism and hope. What else can we do but try and construct a better society? To be part of a struggle for something better.

It is often imagined that there is a destination in all of this. Yet this is a rough journey with no definitive end. Generations will rise and fall, each facing new, unexpected challenges that we cannot predict. They, like us, will be tasked to be brave, forgiving, to seek truth and develop intelligent, caring responses that helps us to move forward.

While we can’t predict the future, we can look to the horizon, anticipate future challenges and construct responses that support a more harmonious, sustainable society. It’s a difficult truth to accept that we cannot fix all the world’s problems. Perhaps it helps to imagine an arc-shaped trajectory. The best we can do is bend this arc a little more, towards something better.