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Cambridge Forum for Sustainability and the Environment


The Forum meeting on 17th January 2017 was the first I have been to. I came away with a list of innovations I wanted to research and papers to read, but I also left feeling exasperated at the scale of these different, complex problems and despondent at our failure to take action. Surely we need individual action as well as systematic change.

Despite this it was a very interesting discussion with a broad range of perspectives. Even as someone who has been lucky enough to be in a proudly interdisciplinary building for over a year, it was unusual to be at an event with chemists, zoologists, plant scientists, architects, public health researchers, directors of policy institutions and a former MP.

The conversation was wide ranging from growing algae in the deserts to the role of information brokering in public health to mobile phone use and charcoal ovens in sub-Saharan Africa to correlations between smoking and Alzheimer’s risk.

Here is my stab at framing these conversations under a few themes; others may have walked away with very different impressions. 

Technological innovations could change the heuristics for making sustainable decisions

My PhD topic focuses on how can we reduce the environmental impact of diet, my heuristic for that is “getting people to eat more plants and fewer animal products”. I was fascinated by Micheal Obersteiner’s presentation that algae could be grown in desert areas with saline water then fed to livestock. The argument is “eating livestock then becomes an environmental good” because you can re-wild land that would otherwise be used to grow crops for human consumption. I wonder if this technology will ever be scaled up in such a way that the balance will shift and meat requires less non-desert land and emits fewer greenhouse gases than crops. Or maybe, as Marco Springman suggested suggested, people can eat algae directly. In the meantime I am wary of exceptional cases being mis-used to make generalised rules.

The difficulties of rebound effects in non-closed systems when trying to achieve different goals and difficult trade-offs

If we introduced a Greenhouse Gas Tax on food, would people switch to buying more sugar which has a low environmental footprint but a high human health cost?

We discussed an economic study on air pollution which was hoping to find that reducing air pollution saved governments money. Instead there was a net economic cost, although the population was healthier and more productive (economic benefit) they also lived longer which required extended care provision in old age (economic cost). A similar thorny issue is that improving the sustainability and health of global diets leads to people living longer (see Marco Springman et al’s paper); this brings its own sustainability costs and partially offsets the environmental savings of more sustainable diets. Beware optimising one outcome metric to morally complicated conclusions.

What use information? And living up to your ideals is difficult

Sumatra Ray’s presentation focused on information brokering from health care professionals to the public to bring about better health outcomes. Although I would agree that information is often necessary, I am very sceptical of it being sufficient to bring about change. A recent study led by Jean Adams at the Centre for Diet and Activity Research (CEDAR) in Cambridge argues that interventions which require high levels of personal effort or “agency” (such as information provision) are less effective than low agency interventions (such as supplementing widely available foods with vitamins and minerals) and are more likely to exacerbate health inequalities. Being able to access, understand, remember and act on information often necessitates a good education, a good memory, plenty of time and mental “bandwidth”: not everyone has access to these. Additionally we are up against vested industry interests and an evolved predisposition to binge-eat when food is available.

After more than two hours discussing socio-economic inequalities and the health risks and huge environmental costs of red meat we sat down to a delicious three course dinner and the default option was lamb. Even though the Forum events for the rest of this year now have a default-vegetarian menu, I would still say: information isn't enough and living up to your ideals is difficult.