Archives—June 2013

The meaning of money

I will be teaching a graduate level course in “Ecological Economics” this semester, a field of interdisciplinary economics that is usually classified under “heterodox” economics or, as the French like to call it, “post-autistic” economics. The fundamental principle of ecological economics is that our economy is dictated by physical limits (such as the second law of thermodynamics) and does not adhere to the assumption that different forms of capital are substitutable… there is an insufficient amount of human labor that can substitute for the work done by pollinators like bees, for example.

Along those lines, I’ve been thinking about what money means to us, specifically how the pictures we put on our currency might shape the way we think about what is valuable.

In the United States, our paper currency and coins all have the head of (most often) a President, Founding Father or Treasury Secretary on one side (we do have dollar coins with Susan B. Anthony or Sacagawea on them), and on the other side generally either a pyramid and Eye of Providence and/or an eagle clutching olive branches in one talon and arrows in the other. With these designs I believe we are emphasizing the value of our past, of our country’s “social capital” as a democracy. But aside from the bald eagle (our national bird), our currency doesn’t recognize our natural capital. Does that lead us to devalue it?

What about other countries? Brazil’s currency features memorable rainforest animals on one side… Brazil is a country famous for its Amazon rainforest and the natural capital it represents. Likewise, many of Australia’s coins feature species such as the kangaroo and platypus that are endemic to the country and hold great cultural value. Granted these two countries have dramatically altered their land use and resources – Brazil still suffers from a positive deforestation rate – so a symbolic link between natural and financial capital may be a good first step but not sufficient to promote more sustainable resource use.

One of the most significant conclusions from the ecological (and heterodox) economics field is the realization that selling capital and calling it profit is not good economics. Just as you wouldn’t take $100 from your bank account and say that you made $100 in profit that day, it is unsound economic policy to sell our forests, fish, or other natural capital and call that profit… it is simply the exchange of one kind of capital (natural) for another (financial). I wonder if putting pictures on our money of our natural capital would allow us to make the distinction between capital and profit more clearly.

Obama’s Climate Speech

Yesterday, President Obama gave a speech at Georgetown University on the issue of climate change. The biggest news to come from that speech is his directive to the EPA to limit carbon pollution from both existing and new power plants through federal regulations. There are, of course, different opinions about whether this speech and the President’s intentions are a significant step forward, or not. Many are extremely disappointed by his continued ambivalence about the Keystone pipeline, and Americans throughout the country are taking action this summer in support of more radical steps than those outlined in the President’s speech.

I find it interesting that this speech came just days after a detailed article in Rolling Stone magazine declared the inevitable disappearance of Miami by the end of the century. This article caught my attention because, in this year of 2013 and given increases in life expectancy, is it possible that some people alive today could actually experience the disappearance of Miami? Is it possible that some of the college students here could experience it in their lifetimes? Other parts of the world are already experiencing the disappearance of inhabited lands, but an article about the disappearance of Miami hits much closer to home for most Americans – perhaps we have vacationed there, or know someone who lives there or has lived there. Perhaps it is the sheer size and abundance of such a prosperous and modern city that makes the potential of loosing it seem so momentous. Climate change is a huge and multi-faceted issue. It is difficult for me to even think about it without thinking about all of the issues related to social justice and international relations that are inevitably intertwined; add to this the scale and complexity and the potential that it is simply too late to avert, and the whole thing can become quite overwhelming.

For me, the most important part of President Obama’s speech is hidden in two simple sentences; he said: “Don’t tell folks that we have to choose between the health of our children or the health of our economy.  The old rules may say we can’t protect our environment and promote economic growth at the same time, but in America, we’ve always used new technologies — we’ve used science; we’ve used research and development and discovery to make the old rules obsolete.” If the “old rules” suggesting that environmental well-being and economic well-being are inevitably contradictory are truly made obsolete, what kind of innovations and decisions and policies could we pursue? Throwing out these old rules seems like the most significant way to pursue sustainability in this country, opening doors to more consequential change in energy usage, certainly, but also in other fundamental ways that could shift both practice and perspective for the sake of the planet, and ourselves.

Ironic hypocrisy

For all of the teaching and research I do on sustainability…. living it, measuring it, valuing it…. I am occasionally a very poor example of it. In the past couple of weeks I have traveled to Scotland, Argentina, and Washington D.C.; ironically, those last two trips were meetings focused on the sustainability of carbon-neutral biofuels. Although I am very anxious about calculating my carbon footprint over these three trips (since I’d probably have to stop breathing for five years to get back to something close to carbon neutral), I am going to do it here as a form of very public shaming. I am hoping that it will motivate me to insist on more virtual trips…

Using this calculator, my total carbon footprint for the flights for these three trips was:

Houghton –> Scotland (measuring sustainable landscapes workshop) –> Houghton: 1.18 metric tons.

Houghton –> Argentina (Pan-American sustainable biofuels workshop) –> Houghton: 1.81 metric tons.

Houghton –> Washington, D.C. (NSF Sustainable Energy Pathways meeting) –> Houghton: 0.31 metric tons.

Total: 3.30 metric tons.

That’s roughly the same amount of carbon that a person in the Maldives emits PER YEAR. It would take roughly a hectare of forest a year to sequester the carbon from those three trips.