Monday, April 22, 2019

Climate change: dematerialisation and online learning

The number of young adults with driving licences has fallen dramatically, so that over half of American 18-year-olds do not have a driving license. This is partly due to the internet and their alternative investment in mobiles, laptops and connectivity. This is good news. I have never, ever driven a car, having lived in cities such as Edinburgh, London and now Brighton. I’ve never really been stuck, in terms of getting anywhere. I walk, take trains or public transport more than most. This has meant I’ve habitually learnt on the move, largely in what Marc Auge calls ‘non-places’ – trains, planes, automobiles, buses, hotels, airports, stations. I’m never without a laptop, book or mobile device for learning. Whether it’s text, podcasts or video; m-learning has become my dominant form of informal learning. This has literally given me years of extra time to read, write and learn in the isolated and comfortable surroundings of buses, trains and planes. I actually look forward to travel, as I know I’ll be able to read and think, even write in peace. Being locked away, uninterrupted in a comfortable environment is exactly what I need in terms of attention and reflection. I calculate that over the last 35 years of not driving, I’ve given myself pretty much a couple of extra degrees. 

At the risk of sounding like a hobo, I also have only two pairs of shoes and a minimal amount of clothing. I never buy bottled water and have a lifelong principle – Occam’s Razor – use the minimal amount of entities to reach your given goal. 

More importantly, all my life I have worked in technology, which has delivered much to the world in terms of eradicating poverty, mindless labour, disease and hardship. Technology has dematerialised many activities. Mobile comms has replaced atoms with bits. Take music - we no longer have to listen on vinyl in paper sleeves (except for nostalgists) or unrecyclable compact discs, as most music is now streamed and literally has no substance.

Newspaper circulation has plummeted and my phone delivers an unlimited amount of knowledge and communications that, in the past, would have been infrastructure heavy and hugely wasteful. Paper production is a massive, global polluter on land, water and air. It is the third largest industrial, polluter in North America, the fifth biggest user of energy and uses more water per ton of product than any other industry and paper in landfill sites accounts for around 35% of all waste by weight. Recycling helps but even the deinking process produces pollutants. Paper production still uses chlorine and chlorine based chemicals and dioxins are an almost inevitable part of the paper production process. Water pollution is perhaps the worst, as pulp-mill, waste water is oxygen hungry and contains an array of harmful chemicals. Harmful gases and greenhouse gases are also emitted. On top of this the web has given us the sharing economy, where bikes, cars, rooms and so on can be reused and shared. It would seem as though we're nearing what Ausuble called 'Peak Stuff'. This is all good as the best type of energy saving is not using energy at all or at least minimising the effort and resources needed.

Online learning and climate change
I have spent the whole of my adult life delivering a green product – online learning – which stops the need to travel and reduces the need for carbon-intensive, physical infrastructure. This is a lesson, in particular, for Higher Education, where hte must be a move towards Blended Learning. The ridiculous Erasmus program at €28 billion paying to 'travel' is completely wrong-headed. Academic conferences wasteful.

More recently, we have built and delivered a large amount of online education around renewable technologies, targets, policies and solutions. Knowledge is power and with knowledge we have the power to solve this problem. That’s why this project was so important. We used AI to create online education content in minutes not months, from just a few basic documents. Most of the projects we’ve created in WildFire have been without face-to-face meetings and this was no exception. We plan, deliver and project manage online.

Additionally, on climate change, the power of online education is not only its green credentials but also its power to inform. Even active protesters show precious little awareness of what the Paris agreements were, how the technology works and what the science actually says. We need to move beyond the bombast to practical, pragmatic and informed solutions.
First up was content on those huge triffid-like wind turbines. What do you call the thing that sits on top of the tower? (nacelle) What lies inside? (lots of things) What controls are there in terms of direction and so on? (Yaw, pitch and speed) What is the wind equation? (P=pav3 this explains exactly why wind speed is the key variable). We have a huge offshore wind turbine field just off Brighton and I’ll never see them in the same light.

It’s all very well demonstrating for zero emissions but this has to be achieved through practical policies. Decarbonising economies requires the adoption of the right policy levers and accelerating electrification is top of the list. Renewables are great but not enough, as rather than producing less we must minimise energy use per unit of economic output. Rather than ranting against the ‘man’ we must use technology and market based instruments. Without a change in mindset, this will be difficult, so it’s all hand to the political pump to get things moving.

Technology – wind turbines, solar, electric vehicles, battery technology, AI driven IOT and all sorts of future solutions will solve this problem but without cheaper, greener education and an awareness of what we have to do and why, this is unlikely to happen. One contribution is the rapid rise in online learning. This has already led to the disappearance of those large training centres I remember back on the day. Less people travel to train. It also means access to learning for anyone with online access.

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