Urbal Institute | Blog | Food

The Urbal Institute is not a political organisation. We have no history of socialist, anarchist or anti-globalist/capitalist activism (just a brief spell supporting Greenpeace, post Chernobyl, and the usual woolly liberalism), and now feel that the old left/right struggle is largely irrelevant. Solutions seem to require social and entrepreneurial thinking in equal measure,and both 'wings' will have to embrace concepts they have traditionally rejected. These ideas - which have only emerged through very recent research - are offered, robustly, for discussion, in the hope that soon a consensus will begin to emerge that can drive the debate forward. Progress could in fact be in a completely different direction, but if it looks as though it's going to work, then we'll support it.



This is how much water and air there actually is on Earth.


The Global Challenge

The world is currently facing a trident of threats; economic debt-rooted chaos, rapidly dwindling resources and - most alarming of all - potentially catastrophic climate change. Many are now coming to believe that this is happening because the current global ecological/economic system is fundamentally flawed.

The problem is that we are figuratively and literally running out of world.

Once, as with all animals, the root of all human prosperity was territory. From this could be extracted produce (as long as ecosystem services were healthy), raw materials (until they ran out) and rent (as long as there were people who could afford it), and upon the trading of these the economy developed.

Originally, of course, growth was slow - almost imperceptible in modern terms - and only a tiny percentage of the population was wealthy. But with the creation of commercial banking in the 18th C, the extraction of fossil fuels could begn in earnest - first coal, then oil, then gas (along with heavy metals) - and growth, with its concomitant consumption and pollution, soon became exponential.

There were obvious benefits; wealth for many more, improvements in health and living standards, increased consumer choice, much else - but it was all predicated on a system which literally took no account of the size or fragility of the planet.

And now we have entered a compression zone which ripples back from the absolute limits of the biosphere, and the situation has become terminal. The territory exploited by mankind, exclusively for mankind, has exceeded the reasonable space available, and is now encroaching into the unreasonable, (witness the increasingly dangerous efforts to extract resources from the deep ocean and the Arctic, and the accelerating destruction of rain forest and water tables).

The economic engine which drives this growth is now facing two unplanned-for calamities: Imminent critical shortages of key resources such as oil, obviously, but also other minerals (especially phosphorus), and water, and a climate-induced reduction in the earth's carrying capacity.

Here again is the map published by New Scientist.


And as we heard, some believe that the rise may be 6 degrees - (though if certain tipping points are exceeded it could be catastrophically higher than that, including, as is now suggested, potentially increased seismic activity).

But a major problem would exist even if these predictions proved to be unfounded, because a major problem exists today, in the territory we inhabit now, and while welcome, the Durban Deal could still deliver too little too late. (Useful thoughts on Climate Myths here)

About thirty years ago, the authorities started to realise that the economy was not growing as quickly as they believed it could. The economic system required - nay demanded - that money could be made, without effort, from money. But this was becoming increasingly difficult.

The reason was that the global economy was encountering - for the first time - an immutable compression zone. It was starting to push against the finite limits of the biosphere. Literally; the world was running out of territory from which to deliver wealth. But few understood this. Most believed, as they still do, that the already gordian trading systems merely needed yet another knot here or there.

So instead of reigning in consumption to a sustainable level, and starting to rectify the environmental damage to ensure the future viability of human society within the global ecosystem, it was decided instead to break the link between wealth and territory.

The constraints which protected necessary and benign debts (like buying a house, health insurance or a reasonable pension) were removed, and gambling replaced territory as the main engine of growth. The gold/dollar standard was abandoned and fractional reserve banking was unleashed, while intrinsically unsafe extraction, destructive agricultural practices and polluting industrial development were - behind cosmetic environmental laws - given the (un)green light.

It worked - in the short term. Consumption boomed - but so did the cost, and not just to the environment. Gradually it became clear that 'consumer choice' is not benign. Actually - after a short gratification period - it mostly makes people less happy and less healthy, and the longer term damage to consumer communities (health problems, criminal social dysfunctionality and worse) can be severe - as can the damage to producer communities, who often pay a terrible price for their 'westernised' living.

But maybe there is a way to cut the knot - a way which might conceivably support roughly the current world population (over-population is not actually the problem - yet, see below), in reasonable comfort, on this single planet - and for a matter of millennia, not decades.

A locally-rooted 'steady state' system (a steady state economy features a stable population and stable consumption of energy and materials at sustainable levels), with very low / slow financial growth but with very strong growth in personal well-being, happiness, justice, equality, and spiritual health (and that doesn't necessarily mean conventional religion) might just work - specially if it employs ecologically balanced production methods that minimise pollution and maximise biodiversity (see below). (Dan O'Neil on The Steady State here - recommended - and Tom Bliss in the Yorkshire Evening Post).

With the current system in obvious need of urgent curtailment, and in the absence of any alternatives, it really does seem worth a try. But it's going to call for a lot of change.


Economic Context

We have described Urbalism thus:

"We are used to viewing cities as having an historical-commercial heart feeding arteries that radiate through the metropolis and out into the rural hinterland. This is the model which has given us 'Rurban' consumerism - and most of the problems we face today. The 'Urbal' model suggests a polar opposite where the heart of the city is described as the surrounding countryside with its fresh food, fresh air and fresh water, and its psychospiritual power. From here green veins inject local produce, ecosystem services and well-being into the city, while helping to encourage a new localised, productive, ecologically robust and equitable walking-based social structure."

But Urbalism can only flourish if it is given the right growing conditions - which means finding a new, viable economic system. Tim Jackson's book 'Prosperity Without Growth' offers one compelling solution. (George Monbiot in The Guardian and Jeremy Leggett on Prosperity Without Growth). Clive Lord's' 'Citizens' Income and Green Economics' also offers some hugely hopeful ideas.

At the moment, when we buy a product or a service we do not pay a true price for it. We pay what the producer, wholesalers and retailer feel they can afford to let us pay (on which they, of course, make whatever margin they feel they deserve), but we almost never pay what it's really worth. This is because they're not paying for many of the social and environmental costs that were involved in the creation of that product, and they're not paying for problems associated with its use or disposal either. But even more seriously, they are very seldom paying a realistic price for the raw materials they use. The assumption has always been that the earth is huge and there's plenty more. So the price is set by a market which effectively assumes an infinite supply. But there's not an infinite supply - of anything (except sunlight). So the price should really be far far higher. After all, how much will the last ever bucket of coal in the world be worth? Or the last ever cup of fresh water in Kenya?

The relationship between the economy, society and the environment is explored in The Urbal Fix.

UFmickey1 UFstool1 UFtarget1

The world at large still thinks that the economy is paramount, and financial growth, which is supposed to deliver some semblance of wealth to all by trickle-down effect (but which in fact only benefits a few) is the only way out of the current crisis. That belief must dwindle as the intractability of the situation becomes more obvious.

Many activists still believe that society should be considered equal to the environment, saying 'if we fix the ills of society, then the environment will be healed.' But although we are slowly making progress towards social justice, human rights, gender equality, free speech, the eradication of poverty and so on - and these things must remain a priority whatever steps we take - we need urgently to recognise that these issues are also intractable (note how little real progress has been made so far) and are not likely to be be fixed, globally, within the next thirty years. This may be more time than we have, so if we try to fix the environment by fixing society we could be in real trouble.

This is because the environment (and that doesn't just mean bird-watching and nice country walks - it means food, including healthy soil and pollinators, and water and air for our very survival), is in urgent need of life-saving attention. Without the ecological services it provides, there will be no society and no economy to fix. As Jonathan Porrit says in the film "It doesn’t mean to say there won’t be lots of human beings left over after a 6 degrees centigrade rise, but I assure you they won’t be having much of a time." And we might add that the social breakdown suggested in that 'not much of a time' is likely to make fixing social problems much more difficult, (specially if the men with the guns take over). So we need to fix the environment first - and quickly, and if we are smart we may even manage to fix some of the major social problems in the process.

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment 2005, identified the following vital ecosystem services:


At the moment it is mainly only the cultural services which are partially internalised in our system, and although recognised, the others are not given economic values which protect them against detrimental exploitation or colateral damage.

The United Nations has recently established a new Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecological Services and the first meeting took place in Nairobi in October 2011. The IPBES will work alongside the IPCC (Climate Change).

But how exactly do we move away from 'mickey mouse' and the faux-balanced 'stool' to hit a 'target' economic system which puts a proper value on these services?

Well, one way would be to establish a control economy (as was employed in the USSR etc), but this is almost certain to result, as it usually does, in a stagnent rather than a steady state economy. (It has worked quite well in Cuba, but that is with massive political goodwill which would not be forthcoming from neo-liberal converts). The only other available method is market force. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with a free market system, as long as prices accurately reflect costs (which they currently don't - and worse; the profits always go to those at the top of the economic food chain, supermarket shareholders, for example, instead of the farmer trying to invest in greener growing).

So how to use market forces to internalise market failures? There is only one obvious solution: First, to introduce new 'consumption purchase taxes' (or 'nanny taxes' if we must) that replace VAT, Income Tax - in fact most existing levies - to re-balance the consumption equation. Second, to establish copper-bottomed systems to feed the money thus raised back to the points of environmental and social damage, wherever they've occurred around the world, so that negative impacts can be nullified.

In general, the further up the supply chain (i.e. towards the raw materials end) control measures such as 'green' taxes are applied the better, because it's far more efficient to prevent externalities than to repair them. But that doesn't mean that measures can only be taken at source. The introduction of the Landfill Tax, for example, has had a massive ripple-back effect, to become the main driver of recycling systems in the UK. So purchase taxes could be effective if applied universally.



The following is is presented purely in the interests of debate.

We would suggest four stages:


1) Development of Omnistandards

'We'll soon bw seeing the introduction of food label Traffic Lights, but this is some way short of true 'Omnistandards' labelling. This innovation was suggested by Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy at City University (he also invented the term 'food miles'). Environmental and social damage (aka 'market failures') are measured, and then given a score between one and three - as represented by the colours below. Tim suggests assessing 'greenhouse gas', 'fair trade,' 'biodiversity', 'packaging/waste', 'animal welfare', 'nutrition', and 'water.' A graphic label then alerts consumers simply and quickly to the real whole-life costs and consequences (extraction, production, distribution, sale, consumption, recycling, disposal) of the purchase they are making.


Researching and defining values for food-based omnistandards will be a very challenging task, but we agree with Tim that it can be done.

In fact we go further. We believe that omnistandards can and should be applied to all products and services from food to transport, to education to power generation to pensions - to everything that is purchased. To this end we would add 'security' (i.e risk and consequential weight of breakdown - re nuclear fission, for example), 'human health/wellbeing' and - crucially - a 'raw materials empty tank accumulator' that puts a realistic conservation value on finite resources such as oil and uranium. (There may also be a case for other standards, perhaps a 'jobs' score which reflects the ratio of jobs to production output to rebalance the economies of scale created by mechanisation, but this will need to be debated).

We would also suggest a five band range: Green (benign/beneficial), yellow (neutral), orange (minor damage; for 'treats' only), red (major damage; avoid unless essential), and black (serious damage; avoid at all costs).

Tim's system does give consumers valuable information on which to base their choices, and it has the advantage that different consumers can make different decisions according to their personal views on each on the issues measured.

But it is also confusing because it's difficult to weigh up, say, greenhouse gas damage against, say, nutrition. How does one value a flower with four green, two red and one yellow petal like the one on the right against another flower with the same numbers of coloured petals, but in different places?

The solution can only be to find a fair and reasonable formula which allows these very different values to be summed together, much like a balanced scorecard.

This will resolve anomalies like the following: In their book 'Time To Eat The Dog?' Robert and Brenda Vale have suggested that the carbon footprint of a medium-sized dog is the same as a Toyota Land Cruiser driven 6,000 miles a year, while a cat is equivalent to a Volkswagen Golf. But if we add, for example, human health/well-being into the calculation, then the target score is mitigated by the psychological and health benefits provided by the pets - as it should be (though cats, and some dogs under some circumstances, would also be marked down on the biodiversity score because of the damage they do to birds and small mammals).

'Fair and reasonable' will, however, be the challenge, because in setting comparative values across these topics we will be making deeply political decisions. Would the health benefits of pets, for example, actually save them? We don't yet know. Just as we don't yet know if running an SUV does in fact have health benefits which could be offset against the carbon tyre-print. So we need to find out. We need accurate internalised values, and if we base our decisions on empirical evidence, using ecological assessments on a global scale, we believe can reach an equitable solution.

The system can and should be dynamic so that it can reflect changes over time and allow for continuous improvement. One way of doing this would be to have an independent, worldwide body (or perhaps a number of competing bodies) who would maintain databases upon which the omnistandards would be founded. It might even be possible for these to function a little like the financial indexes we have today (these will all disappear along with the financial markets, of course)

The summed target values could in theory now be represented by a single coloured dot, a traffic light - but this is probably too simplistic, as a single dot would fail to give people sufficient information to make sensible decisions, because there must still be room for personal choice and responsibility. Two similar products may display the same colour traffic light, but because of the way have have been made and are expected to be used and disposed of, the individual scores in each of the 10 categories may be very different. Consumers will have personal preferences which they should be free to express. If the scorecard has been accurately calculated, this choice will not affect the total environmental and social impacts.

We would suggest small 'petals' around the larger central dot, which would provide an at-a-glance explanation for the colour of the central dot. Additional labelling and other consumer information in note form will still be necessary and advantageous.


Five traffic lights, of course, will tend to create five distinct bands of product, which might prove to be too clumsy. If so, then more bands could be introduced (the more bands, the more accurate the system). Numbers will need to be included for the colour-blind.


2) Omnistandards Labelling

Everything, EVERYTHING should be labelled. Initially, this would be voluntary, but if supported by political parties and the media, the labels would start to have an impact straight away - helping to change people's purchasing behaviour and increasingly making it socially unacceptable to buy products with black or red petals. This will begin to internalise the current market failures, and will go a long way towards fixing the problem. But to be sure, and to facilitate a genuinely steady state economic system, we need to take it further.


3) Advertising and the Media

Consumer choice, however, will not be powerful enough to change the system while consumers are still being brainwashed by advertising and marketing campaigns. So should we simply ban advertising? Well, it's an option, but we are still suggesting a free market system, where citizens make their own choices based on real costs and values. Businesses will still need to start up and succeed, and competition will still be a differentiator of quality, so customers must have ways of knowing what is available - and, of course, the omnistandard flower must be displayed on all adverts and other marketing material to help them choose responsibly.

But we agree with the Story of Stuff director, Annie Leonard, that we do need to outlaw manufactured demand, so some types of advertising will need to be curtailed - as will 'aspirational' TV programmes like our personal favourites Top Gear, The Gadget Show, Grand Designs and so on, which encourage both unreasonable consumption and debt (we'll still want some programmes like them, but they will need to be much, much more responsible in the messages they peddle).

The emphasis in advertising will need to be on providing true facts about products, not focusing on aspirations and self gratification (because, frankly, we are NOT 'worth it'). We might consider outlawing the use of music in advertising, and there may be a case for banning all TV advertising and product placement (in fact perhaps all public advertising, as suggested by Compass). Certainly, adverts aimed at children should be outlawed, along with any for products with a red or black traffic light. (Loyalty schemes should also be looked at as they are essentially anti-competitive and manipulative).

Probably the best approach would be to restrict advertising only to the outlet - so consumers would make uninfluenced decisions to buy, and then rely on in-store or web-page adverts to help them to choose between the available products. Word-of-mouth reputations will become more valuable, so local businesses will triumph over bigger concerns, and quality will triumph over brand.

Incidentally we will also need new TV shows which help to educate people on how to insulate their homes (Changing Rooms installing Kingspan, perhaps?), how to take up the Marshalls blocks they put down after watching Ground Force, and turn them into raised beds to grow vegetables, how to grow vegetables and what to do with your apples, how to mend things and so on. (Obviously, without advertising - and much corporate sponsorship, which will also need to develop, TV will play a somewhat smaller role in our lives anyway).

All this will be highly contentious, and a workable code will not be easy to develop, but major change is essential as George Monbiot concurs.


4) Fiscal Policy

The final stage is the most important.

For this, we work out an economic cost for each of the colours on each of the petals. This also will not be easy, but it will not be as hard as it might at first appear, (there are people working on it already). These values will be summed in the same ratios used when calculating the colour of the central dot.

Now we are in a position to introduce purchase taxes which reinforce the consumer decision, but more importantly provide resources to repair any damage caused by the product.

This is not an additional tax burden. At the same time, we do away with as many existing taxes as possible (some generic taxation, for health and community/business support etc will still be required, and Rates would be retained - see below), and instead start charging a fair price for the true cost on all products and services.

The omnistandard labels now become compulsory, with the core colours announcing percentage bands in the purchase tax calculation. Products with a green dot are (initially) subsidised (say 10% off), yellow has no tax, orange 10%, red 100%, and black 1000%. (Ok, those numbers will be wrong, and maybe we need more or fewer bands, but the principle is sound).

The money raised is then re-invested as required, to rectify whatever damage the production of that good or service has done back down the supply chain. Benign products will thrive, while toxic products will be squeezed out as people wean themselves off them. Re-cycling (or to be more accurate, up-cycling) will become ever more efficient, while the amount of energy and materials being lost with every change of use/renewal will diminish over time.

Business and domestic rates would also be subject to the omnistandard system, but perhaps the categories would be different as this is an annual levy rather then a purchase decision - with green investment being the primary objective. Insulation/thermal and fuel performance would be the key measure, with site biodiversity, productivity, water control and microclimate also being taken into account. Certainly those who choose to cover their drives with concrete paviours or tarmac would have pay for the damage this causes, as should those who prefer to have no trees, or no wild areas - or who seal their territory with fencing that prevents small mammal migration.

We would also we hope see Howard's 'rent-rate' system finally come into its own.

The end result will be a free market system, but one without the crippling market failures which have caused all the damage we see today. It will look superficially like a communistic system, but being untouched by the dead hand of control economics, it will in fact be truly (rather than neo) liberal - something that has never yet been tried by mankind.

There are some challenges, of course.

1) It will not be easy to ensure that the money raised actually gets to the point of damage, and there is a major risk that funds will be stolen by corrupt intermediaries. But that is no reason not to adopt the principle, and over time the system should improve.

2) The rich will be able, initially, to go on buying damaging products, so these will not die out as quickly as we might like. But at least the damage will be ameliorated to an extent as products become first unfashionable, and then increasingly socially unacceptable.

3) Once the system has worked, there will, in theory, be no more damage, so the punitive taxes will cease earning revenue. At this point an income-based system closer to the status quo will need to be gradually reintroduced. Perhaps even the green dots will start to accrue a purchase tax, while the other percentages are reduced. But however the system is changed, it must continue to reflect the true social and environmental globally-calculated cost of products and services.

4) The steady state model has been criticised for not offering a solution to existing debt. This is indeed a big challenge, but it's worth bearing in mind that most of the debt in the world today exists only on paper. It is indeed owned by people - some rely on it for their pensions, some governments rely on it for their economic stability - but most of it sits in banks creating unearned income for the Global North. A constructive global debt concatenation (or even a global domino default) would remove much of the problem.



The delivery of a steady-state, urbal society is not going to be easy. It calls for both new laws ('top down' change) and new behaviours ('bottom up' change).

Community/third sector-driven (bottom up) change is healthy in the UK, with many excellent initiatives taking place, but progress is slow because of the inertia created by social structures and habits. Likewise political/legislative (top down) change is taking shape, but nothing like fast enough for the same reasons. Meanwhile, academics produce illuminating papers that either never see the light of day or are bowdlerised by vested-interest media, while entrepreneurs launch innovative ideas which struggle to thrive in the current economic climate.

We are in fact suspicious of the 'bottom up'/'top down' paradigm. It forces an unrealistic triangular structure and an over-simplistic positive/negative charge on a society which is in reality vastly complex, presenting, as it does, a set of competing pyramids (politics, commerce, academia, celebrity etc.) each with conflicting forces driving in diverse directions.

'Top down' is anyway only 'bottom up' fed very imperfectly - thanks, largely, to commercial interference - through the political machine, which is why progress to date has been so painfully slow. (I sometimes liken it to a letter G - that gap on the right represents the problem. Bottom up feeds on the left up to top down, but on the right it meets the barrier and gap where the top down system fails to connect).

I prefer to think in terms of 'centre out' change, by which I refer to an energising of the expertise within every citizen (specially those who consider themselves to be 'experts' and have therefore accepted what they feel are appropriate responsibilities, and rewards, within society); be it food growing, entrepreneurship, social organising, communication, education, academic analysis, professional practice, political power, or any number of other offerings.

The delivery of an urbal society will depend on a surge of centre out energy, which will change behaviours as the legal framework is changed. This is not likely to happen soon. While there are many who are already convinced by the arguments for urgency, we are still a tiny minority (in the Global North, anyway).

That said, most people, when approached at the right moment, will admit to disquiet at the current situation, along with, often, an acceptance that major change is probably inevitable - and even, when pressed, a willingness to play their part.

The real issue is one of time-scale - how long do we actually have to play with?

There are those who think it is already too late, and those who think we may have a century or so. The truth is that science cannot help much here. It is too opaque, too nuanced, and the probabilities are too complex to call.

The reality is that it's going to take an escalating scale of catastrophes to change public opinion - some economic (the Euro, oil supply), some environmental (extreme weather, ecological collapses), some social (wars and worse). This is not going to be a conventional dogmatic revolution. It will be event-driven and reactive

But it's not a simple matter of opinion for or against change. Most people actually hold a simultaneous belief in both the need for urgent change, and the necessity of carrying on as usual (this is similar to the denial systems employed by smokers and adulterers). One may be in the ascendent when watching a documentary about polar ice, and the other when booking a skiing trip.

There is effectively a membrane beween these belief systems. It is wafer thin - but elastic, and the elasticity comes from the flexibility of social habits, systems, patterns and forces (laws, prices, ownerships, debts, etc.) which make it easier to continue with 'business as usual' than to revalue and change behaviours. (This is why we continue to hear that economic growth is the solution to the current financial/ecological crisis, when actually it's the cause of the problem).

But gradually the zeitgeist will adapt - driven partly by events, but also by the arrival of attractive alternatives.

So the struggle to warn and advise must continue, but our main challenge today is to seek good 'centre-out' thinking, to find optimal ways to link the ideas, and to stress test them as robustly as possible - so that as the membranes rupture (and each person has his or her own break-point according to where they are in the scheme of things) we will, with luck, reach a point where bottom up and top down start to circulate properly, and we move - just in time - from Plan A (failed) to Plan B (sustained).




Recentralising food within human culture is an urgent priority, ecologically, economically, politically, aesthetically and spiritually.

See this on food, and some excellent ideas from Linda Hull here. And we will need to establish Master Gardeners and Street Champions to help communities learn how to function sustainably.


Ecological and Visual Impact

At the moment, planners, and the professionals who advise them, focus on visual, economic and ecological impact (within the law) when deciding whether to approve a new development or not. We've talked about a new economic framework above, but we also need to redefine what we mean by ecology, and then (as James Copp says in the film) develop a new aesthetic which is compatible with both new approaches.

When stressing the importance of ecological design, we are not talking about rewilding to some pre-industrial Natural History utopia. We are not even talking about conservation, or protecting the status quo. Ecological design in future will be dynamic (the term 'steady state' is an economic concept - the global ecology has always been in a state of flux, aka Evolution). It must include responding to rapid climate change and the effect this will have on species distribution. Major alterations to weather patterns are catastrophic (for some species - some other species always benefit) only when they happen too fast for the ecosystems to keep up - as is happening now. We're already seeing extinctions on a massive scale, and rapid changes in the distribution of more mobile species, such as insects, birds and, crucially, pests and diseases. Given that many plants and animals are only able to survive and reproduce within very narrow temperature, daylight, frost, rainfall or other climate-related windows (and the whole system is co-dependent - so the loss of one species or niche may decimate an entire food chain or ecosystem), we're going to have to monitor and skilfully manage the changes to maximise productive biodiversity. If we want humans and their supporting species to survive in significant numbers, then simply maintaining the ecological status quo is not going to be an option. We will need to accept the loss of some species, some deliberate rebalancing, and even perhaps some very careful use of genetic modification (instinctively anti though many of us are - and for good reason - it may prove to be the lesser of two evils in the short term).

In short, some fundamental beliefs and values around nature and beauty will have to change. Neat and smart, if that means high carbon, ecologically inflexible or non productive, will soon need to be perceived as ugly. Natural but unproductive will need to be ugly. Productive but biolimited will be ugly. Sustainable, even if scruffy, tatty or apparently foreign - must quickly become beautiful. (Ref The Urbal City) and this on Designers). Todmorden shows one way forward.


Buildings and Gardens

The simplest way to insulate our homes is to insulate ourselves. A government campaign to persuade people simply to wear a jumper indoors in winter (and to turn down the thermostat a few notches to compensate) would be a fantastic start.

But as we hear in The Urbal Fix the thermal performance of new buildings are not a major problem as long as they are built to ever-tighter sustainability criteria (and the current UK legislation is getting there). The big challenge is how to improve the performance of the existing building stock - especially housing. (Good thoughts on how it can be done here). At the moment the investment/pay back equation simply does not work, specially in the rented sector where tenants pay the fuel bills, so the landlord has no incentive to invest.

The new Green Deal could work - it has many attractive features, but being still a voluntary scheme it may not deliver results quickly enough.

So could energy companies be persuaded sell mean temperature rather than energy? Rather than selling gas to customers, British Gas, for example, would sell to householders - for the same price - a 'guarantee of comfort.' This would set a mean temperature at, say, around 48 degrees, (or perhaps more for the sick or elderly), all year round - with, where necessary cooling in summer. The long term income this will generate will thus finance investment in retrofitted insulation and other energy-saving measures, because over time, as the housing (and other building stock) becomes more thermally efficient, consumption will dwindle until very little fuel is being used, and the company's income is mostly profit. This will also keep more fossil fuel safely in the ground for longer. The chief problem encountered by the energy companies who are already looking into this (as some apparently are) is that if customer payments are not affected by their energy use, they simply leave the heating on full blast with the windows open. So to make this work, houses will need to be fitted with remote energy monitoring and/or, to retain some cost for use element within the transaction.

Another big issue that needs to be addressed - by whatever method - is the insulation of party cavity walls. Most people who have these are not aware of it (they were built for sound rather than heat insulation, and tend to occur in semis built in the 50s and 60s). Thermal bridging is a major problem, and party wall cavities tend to have air bricks below floor level and also above loft level, which bypasses all other insulation and creates a convection chimney that sucks heat from both houses and pours it into the sky.

Solid walls (and walls with cavities too narrow for filling) presents a major challenge. Interior retrofit must be carried out to exacting specifications or else it can make the situation worse - and there are potential problems with lack of training and performance monitoring. Also, interior insertion is highly disruptive and uses up what consumers believe is valuable space, so external insulation may be the way to go. It has the advantage that it can be fitted without disruption and - if the aesthetic issues can be successfully managed - could even become a home-improvement must-have show-off fashion. (Perhaps we need TV shows to make it so).

There is much criminally wasteful use of refrigeration, heat and light in urban areas. The omnistandard model will not address excessive office block lighting, excessive shop heating (temperatures set for the comfort of staff, not customers - who are wearing outdoor clothes anyway, open doorways with hot air curtains etc), unnecessary food chilling or unnecessary building illumination (especially Churches and public buildings), because it will apply to the purchase of electricity, not how it is used. These issues may need to be dealt with by legislation, possibly within the rating system.

Gardens and corporate land will need to be drawn into the urbal land use system. Urbal rent-rates (see above) will address some issues, such as excessive paving and fencing, but other legislation may have to be considered.

Video Urbal Fix sub-clip on buildings here. Permaculture here (and see also Greening the Desert and related films from Geoff Lawton

A good example of holistically designed 'eco-settlement': Hockerton. (specially reed bed local sewage treatment)


Sustainable Urban Drainage aka SUDS

This essential initiative (which has rain and 'grey' water collected and used locally, and/or allowed to soak into the ground rather than being channelled to sewers or running off to cause flooding) is to an extent being hijacked as a 'sustainability tick-box' planning exercise. Local authorities seem to be satisfied with a new development or re-development-scale exercise, where water is managed within the demesne of individual properties, without ever looking at the urbal picture.

To have any real value, SUDs needs to be managed at watershed scale. This may call for upland planting to reduce run-off, changes to agricultural land use, the creation of swales and planting in urban parks and green spaces, and changes to paving and garden design as well as local development site issues.

As such it is primarily a retrofit issue - and one perhaps as important as building insulation and thermal performance. Water management is also a key element in microclimate management and soil productivity, so this not just a utility planning issue, but a key element in general urbal thinking. And water supply and usage is, of course, the yin to SUDs' yang.



Thinking in the sustainability field generally has it that we should maximise public transport, and minimise car use - while encouraging cycling and walking. Fair enough, but after a century of private vehicle freedom, and the travel patterns thus engendered, this may be easier said than done. There are also some major anomalies in the sustainable transport mantra. For example, the whole-life carbon footprint of a train journey is about the same as a similar distance by plane (Vale, see above). This is because of the massive groundworks and infrastructure required by in the former. Also, high flying planes do far more damage than low-flying ones; not only is jet fuel burned at altitude 1.3 times more polluting than CO2, but also propeller engines are much less polluting than jet engines.

So perhaps our objective needs to be twofold: First, we need to ration distance of travel to encourage people to live near their work (season tickets would anyway attract a high omnistandard penalty) and to think very carefully about days out and holidays, (the omnistandards system will also impact on fuel, vehicle and infrastructure costs). And second, we need to find new transportation systems with much smaller carbon footprints (and social damage) which still permit a high level of individual freedom. When we finally manage to secure sufficient genuinely renewable energy, then leg/electric-powered vehicles, and fully electric vehicles, will become much more viable. Generally speaking, the smaller and lighter the vehicle in proportion to its payload the better, so we are liable to have quite frail, slow cars in future (people can still have gas guzzlers,of course, but they'll cost 1,000 a mile to run). However, the technology already exists to create car-trains; GPS-guided pods (to minimise collisions) which can be connected up into a Flock for maximim fuel efficiency on long (motorway/train-style) journeys. This would be greatly preferable to conventional trains, busses and planes, and much more efficient than conventional cars.

One immediate step would be to make it impossible for anyone to hold a taxi or minicab licence for anything other than an electric car (in cities like Leeds, after 9pm 50% of the vehicles in town are private hire). Drivers may need two cabs - one to charge while the other is in use, but we'd see a rapid reduction in emissions - specially if they were also only allowed to use renewable electricity to charge up their cars. (Step two would ban all but electric cars fuelled by green juice from towns and cities).

Another idea would be gradually to introduce slower and slower speed limits, perhaps reducing trunk road speeds by 10 miles an hour per year to 40mph, to reduce emissions, and discourage unnecessary travel. This will not, however, be popular.


Pensions and Benefits

The current UK pensions and benefits system - balanced, as it now is, on the casino banking pyramid - is clearly unsustainable. In fact, the belief that all affluent baby-boomers should be able, as of right, to retire early and spend the next 20 years jetting round the world consuming without contribution, has been as big a driver in the overheating of our debt-based economy as non-mutual mortgages secured for profit rather than shelter. We should not need a huge income in our older age, and what's available should be much more fairly distributed.

Steady-state theory suggests the use of a Citizen's Income (CI) instead of both pension and benefits. This is "an unconditional, nonwithdrawable income for every individual as a right of citizenship" (Clive Lord's reissued book on the topic is highly recommended). CI would replace all state benefits (special case medical benefits would continue) and pensions - and by doing so remove the expensive, wasteful and often demeaning and disincentivising bureaucracy demanded by the current system. (If people wish to have a casino pension as well, they can - but it will cost plenty under the omnistandards scheme).

CI removes the dead band between a benefits-only income, and means-tested earnings of sufficient worth to make doing any kind of work a logical choice. With a CI safety net, there is no need for a minimum wage, and far less opportunity for the exploitation of workers, as work ceases to be a survival strategy to become worth whatever the employer and employee together agree it is worth in a free market - from pro bono or barter to high stakes according to skill and the success of the venture.

Opponents usually ask, with a guaranteed living wage for everyone, who would ever bother to work? Well, the thinking goes that the CI is set low, so that most people will still want to work to improve their living standards and to gain the many other benefits of employment - job satisfaction, skills and personal development, social interaction and investment and - of course - more money,- for there's no upper limit to earnings, only what the market can supply. Conventional CI theory envisages an income tax system not unlike the existing one - but see above re potential alternatives.

CI makes it possible to take low paid and/or part time work because low incomes are now added to the CI, so become worth having. The absence of means tests also allows people to take jobs that are suitable to them as individuals, at an appropriate time in their lives, without worrying about loss of benefits, and with a natural continuum of commitment from volunteering, through minimal hours of paid work through towards more conventional employment patterns. It will become the norm to measure self worth by one's contribution to society (and the personal benefits that flow from it), rather than one's income. (Clive Lord suggests that large families could be discourages by having the CI tail off with each successive child - so large families are no linger a'professional' option, but can be supported if the parents are willing and able to find sufficient work - see below re contraception).


Working Hours

Would setting a limit on working hours help? A steady state system would require us all to do less paid work - though those who can will still need to contribute (and should be rewarded fairly for that contribution). Some - those with very rare skills - may still need to work long hours, (because we can't all be brain surgeons), but the suggestion is that we should share out the available work, reducing both the overwork and underemployment, to settle on an average working life of - perhaps - about 21 hours per week. This will free up time for barter-based earning ('lets' and local currencies will have their place), voluntary work and hobbies/personal development. (The Guardian)


Population and Global South Development

Population is, of course, the elephant in the room. Paul Chafurka is pessimistic in that link, and he may well be right. The UN suggests that human population (currently 6.9bn) will stabilise at 11-12 billion - but can the world support that many? Well, modern estimates for human carrying capacity have ranged from 1 or 2 billion people living in prosperity (as targeted by Paul), to 33 billion people fed on minimum rations and using all suitable land for high-intensity food production. A recent report suggests we will be able to feed 9bn by 2050, while other scientists now believe that the carrying capacity of a world with a low-consumption, steady-state global economy may conveniently be about 12 billion.

In any event, the key is for population to stabilise - which it can only do if people stop producing large numbers of children (and living for longer too). Luckily, the evidence is that once people are confident that they'll be secure in retirement, and that their children are likely to outlive them, they settle for 2 or 3 kids - providing, that is, that they have access to birth control and the freedom to use it (this, of course, requires the emancipation of women, and an absence of controlling dogma). (See Faith and Denial below).

So quite apart form the fact that the Global North has caused this problem and has a moral responsibility to even up the score, it is essential that the Global South is allowed to continue to develop largely along conventional democratic lines for the time being (Giddens, in The Urbal Fix).

This is scary at first glance because consumption (and therefore emissions) in India, China and Brazil seem to rising exponentially, but when calculated per capita, compared with Europe and North America their footprints remain negligible, and will continue to be so until they finally approach western figures.

So what IS needed is a globally agreed contraction and convergence policy, to bring the South up (and the North down) to a permanently sustainable level - and this is what the UN and others are now working towards.

Video clip on this topic here.


To come...

Carbon-negative sites and Bioremediation

Newcastle University

Co-operatives and Mutuality

Rediscovering old values with a new relevance. See here


Carbon footprint v wellbeing challenge re cosmetics, hair driers, clothes etc.

Health and Safety

Hand dryers in public toilets, street lighting (and building illumination)




Professional re-skilling, undergraduate/postgraduate education, community skilling, the role of schools.


Life expectancy etc.


The carbon cost, global balance, the peace dividend.

New housing and settlements

New Eco Garden Cities. Cimate Migrants. Brownfield infill. Co-housing and new development finance models.


See above

Renewable energy

Wind, waves, tide - efficiency. Solar (Pros and cons - rare earth metals, silicone etc). Nuclear fission, Radar Fusion? Heat pumps etc.


Carbon capture. Cloud shields etc.

Faith and Denial

Psychology and political control. (Food for thought while awaiting more - is left and right wing thinking pre-determined?)


.. more to follow.



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