Category Archives: Sustainability in the Curriculum

Environmental Justice Gets a Makeover: How the field of Ecological Economics has changed the way we think about EJ

[This is a post from Ronesha Strozier, a MS student in the Environmental and Energy Policy program here at Tech. This was an assignment for our Ecological Economics course.]

Environmental justice seems like it would be an important part of any hot, environmentally related, conversation; but for some reason over the years it has disappeared from the rhetoric. When I joined the Environmental & Energy Policy program at Michigan Tech I was flabbergasted when I didn’t hear these words thrown around more often, but I had been deceived; it was there all along.

My grandmother always used to tell me that there is nothing new under the sun and she is right. Ideas are always being recycled and mixed together to make what we call new ideas and this same theory can be applied to the field of environmental justice.  So I finally figured out why no one was using the term; it was because the name changed. Due to globalization and time, environmental justice has now become just distribution.

Just distribution is one of the three main goals of a new field of economics called ecological economics. Environmental justice tends to focus on the more social, political, and legal aspects of a particular problem primarily within the United States. Just distribution takes the whole argument a step further by incorporating our now globalized world. It focuses on providing the same resources to every citizen in the world and has added ideas from ecology and economics to help create better solutions for today’s problems.

Once I knew the new name of environmental justice I breathed a nice long relaxing sigh; I knew that I no longer had to worry if my fellow colleagues cared about environmental justice, because they did. My colleagues care so much that they have allowed the terminology to evolve into something that will help them better solve the problem.

Since the name changed I wanted to see if there were any other changes to the field. I searched and found some differences within the terminology.  “Just distribution” seems to be primarily used by academics, but “environmental justice” has successfully made it past the walls of academia and is widely used by the public.  Environmental justice representatives are talking about the same things that academics are talking about. For example, Dr.  Jalonne L. White-Newsome discusses climate change in a post on the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Environmental Justice Blog. In the post the author strongly pushes for the President to include issues related to environmental justice in the President’s Climate Action Plan. White-Newsome issues a call to action to make the importance of climate justice a reality in the American political system.

Although environmental justice is changing I don’t think that it is a bad thing, it’s just different. The field is changing to meet the needs of our current society and that is what all environmentalists want. We want change.


Solar Photovoltaic Tariff Wars

[This is a post from Edward Louie, a MS student in the Environmental and Energy Policy program here at Tech. This was an assignment for our Ecological Economics course.]

Tariffs are normally imposed to protect and support domestic manufacturing, in particular emerging industries, by disincentivizing the purchase of imported equivalent products. The higher market price encourages greater supply of the domestic product. Neoclassical economists tend to view tariffs as regulations that distort the free market.  They argue that tariffs help domestic producers and the government via increased revenue and taxes at the expense of consumers, and they artificially shield an industry from competition, delaying collapse, but also slowing the innovation needed to be competitive. Tariffs only make sense if the financial gain by the government and increase in domestic demand outweighs the efficiency loss from reduced overall demand due to higher prices.

Throughout the 1990s and into the mid-2000s the cost of solar panels has decreased at a snail’s pace remaining at 3 to 4 dollars a watt that is until 2008 when Chinese manufacturers began mass producing solar panels with low cost labor on an economy of scale. Since 2008, the price of solar panels has plummeted breaking the one dollar per watt barrier in 2011. Beginning in 2012, the U.S. Department of Commerce imposed a 31 percent tariff on solar panels imported from China. The tariff was imposed when several manufacturers of solar panels in the U.S. (including SolarWorld and six others) complained to the Department of Commerce that Chinese factories are subsidizing manufacturing costs in order to flood the market and kill off competition with below-market price panels. These complaints came after several solar manufacturers in the United States and Germany filed for bankruptcy, while the market share of Chinese panels rose to nearly two thirds. However, more than 700 other firms, organized under the Coalition for Affordable Solar Energy, opposed the tariff. The opponents, which include manufacturers, installers and others involved in the solar industry, argue that the tariff will make solar energy less affordable. In 2013 the tariff wars continued with China imposing a 6.5% tariff on U.S. solar polysilicon suppliers. American companies defended their low prices, attributing them to inexpensive hydroelectric power. The European Union also imposed a tariff on Chinese solar panels and Chinese glass used to make solar panels.

Tariffs on solar panels will likely backfire and actually hurt the U.S. solar industry because 52% of U.S. solar jobs are in installation, another 18% in sales and distribution, and more in polysilicon manufacturing (the raw material of solar panels) (Lubin, 2012). In the midst of these tariffs, the average installed price of solar panels in the U.S. has continued to fall. However, it would be a large step backwards if this trend were to fall victim to escalating trade wars. Only time will tell if these tariffs have a positive or negative effect on the U.S. solar industry. With the U.S. solar industry continuing to grow, it may be difficult to identify out the percentage of additional growth or decline that could have been realized had these measures not been implemented. In today’s highly globalized world, it is often difficult to know for certain which economic policy tool to use and its effects and unintended effects.


Inside Job – Where are they now?

[This is a post from Brent Burns, a PhD student in the Environmental and Energy Policy program here at Tech. This was an assignment for our Ecological Economics course.]

After seeing Inside Job, a documentary detailing the global financial crisis of 2008 through research and extensive interviews with financiers, politicians, journalists, and academics, I was curious to see how the accused perpetrators (banks, economist, etc.) are doing today as we approach 2014, so I did a Google search on “2008 financial meltdown where are they now” and found some good, yet concerning, updates.

In September of 2013, Allison Fitzgerald from The Center for Public Integrity published Ex-Wall Street chieftains living large in post-meltdown world, detailing the current luxurious lifestyles of five of the worst Wall Street offenders partially responsible for the 2008 meltdown.  The article discusses leaders from Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, and Merrill Lynch, describing how each of the leaders made off with hundreds of millions of dollars, as the majority of the nation’s middle class lost their life savings and homes.

Brayden Goyette, from ProPublica, wrote another good article in October 2011, Cheat Sheet: What’s Happened to the Big Players in the Financial Crisis, describing some of the political and government figures involved in the crisis.  For example, Larry Summers went on to serve as Treasury Secretary and was almost nominated to serve as head the Federal Reserve for President Obama.  The Guardian’s Rupert Neate provides one of the best summaries with his August 2012, Financial crisis: 25 people at the heart of the meltdown – where are they now?. This article reviews the bankers, politicians, and others involved in the crisis and their current lifestyle (as of 2012).  Judging by the S&P 500 index (a leading indicator of investment returns) for the companies headed by the individuals referenced in the article, the year 2012 was a good one: the index has increased 27.42%.  However, the gains experienced by these companies has not translated into good times for all. To illustrate, Dave Gilson and Carolyn Perot’s 2011 article, It’s the Inequality, Stupid graphically displays the inequality growth in the United States over the past 30 years.  The recent stock market gains have only increased the gap and rewarded those who helped cause the 2008 crisis.

After reviewing what has happened to those responsible for the financial collapse of 2008 and how they were financially rewarded for their poor (and some would argue, criminal) performance, the prospects of a sustainable economy are very dismal.  There has not been any deterrent to the behavior which led to the 2008 meltdown.  Without any criminal prosecution, it’s only a matter of time before the next financial crisis happens.  In January 2011, Glenn Greenwald from the Guardian wrote The Real Story of How ‘Untouchable’ Wall Street Execs Avoided Prosecution. In summary, the Department of Justice and the Obama administration never even tried to prosecute, which is a failure of justice.  Right now, banking and political leaders are leveraging new loop holes to maximize the profits of few at the expense of the many, without fear of any personal consequences.


Sustainability discourse in Islam

[This is a post from S.M. Mizanur Rahman, a PhD student in the Environmental and Energy Policy program here at Tech. This was an assignment for our Ecological Economics course.]

Scientific study encourages us to rationally approach the universe and establish the relationship of humans with nature in a positivist way. Theological trends however approach the entire relationship based on metaphysical or transcendental forces that control the whole universe. Although there is a sea of difference among approaches to science and theology, successful works that explain the influence of religion on human beings with a sound scientific approach are not rare.  For instance, Max Weber through his pioneering work ‘Protestant Work Ethics and the Spirit of Capitalism’ described how the motivation of Biblical text encourages and influences people’s morality in the work place and results in material success in the west.

Like Christianity, Islam has also rich Koranic text that establishes the ecocentric approach that puts human beings at the center of nature as khalifah (steward), yet ties  them to work along with the system of nature as amanah (protector). In the words of Allah, animals and birds are included in the same community of human beings, Ummah;(6:38).Therefore, when using the natural world, the Koran warns human beings of extravaganza  by stating “eat and drink [freely], but do not waste: verily, He does not love the wasteful!(7:31)”.

The second most important source of Islamic ethics is the sayings of the prophet.

The prophet predicts the dire consequences (hell) of a Muslim woman who had put her cat locked in the house until death and a prostitute (who is usually denigrated in Islam) woman is predicted to go in the paradise as she quenched  a dog’s thirst (Gar, 2002; Volume 3, Book 40, Number 553). Regarding tree plantation, the prophet said that if someone is holding a plant before the last moment of his death, his duty is to finish planting it before he dies.  Regarding just distribution, the prophet states that Allah (God) will not talk to one of three kinds of people who will withhold extra water that hinders natural  growth of grass along the banks of  a downstream water body.  grass in the downstream (Volume 3, Book 40, Number 543). One of his companions was doing ablution (washing hands, face and feet before praying, which is an obligation) within a full stream of water. The prophet asked him to reduce the flow of water and told him that you will be held accountable for what you spend beyond that what you need, even in the occasion of worship.

The environmental dimensions of Islam have implications in the Muslim world, related to encouraging behavior of the people that would promote conservation, preservation, and protection of nature and discourage consumption and exploitation of nature.

Thus, Islam has orchestrated a sound ecological management system that is based on the transcendental values in the contemporary discourse of environmentalism. As some experts point out, the lack of contemporary environmentalism may have a pure secular origin (Qadir, 1992). When promoting a healthy ecosystem, an all encompassing framework is needed that is based on sound scientific reasoning and also on transcendental values.

References:

  1. Smith, Gar. 2002. “Islam and the Environment.” Earth Island Journal, Summer, 26. http://search.proquest.com/docview/213828849?accountid=28041.
  2. Baker, Iljas. 2003. “Book Review: The Environmental Dimensions of Islam.” The Environmentalist. 23 (1): 97-98. http://search.proquest.com/docview/221762473?accountid=28041.
  3. Quadir, T., (2013),Traditional Islamic Environmentalism: The Vision of Seyyed Hossein Nasr, University Press of America, ISBN-13: 978-0761861430

Wendell Berry: Writing the Poetry and Economics of Ecological Responsibility

[This is a post from Katie Snyder, a PhD student in Rhetoric and Technical Communication here at Tech. This was an assignment for our Ecological Economics course.]

As far as I can tell, there’s not much conversation between economists and poets of late. This is unfortunate, in a way, because both are so closely attuned to the inconsistencies of human emotion. Economic news reporters, for example, will discuss “nervousness” in the market, or “optimism,” as if “the market” had feelings of its own. Poets, at the same time, are deeply concerned with emotive experience, adhering to schemes of rhythm and sense.

But it’s hard to find someone who can engage intelligibly in economics and poetry at the same time — harder still to find someone who can articulate a meaningful relationship between these two in the context of current ecological crises. Maybe there are more examples than one, but Wendell Berry is the best I can think of at this point.

Berry, now 79, is a poet and farmer, among other things. A graduate of the University of Kentucky, and winner of myriad writing prizes and awards, he’s taught and farmed and served as a local activist for most of his life. His writing is lovely and unexpected. Read, for example, “The Peace of Wild Things.”

Last spring Bill Moyers interviewed Berry as part of an ecologically-themed conference at St. Catharine’s College, located outside Louisville. The interview aired in Oct 2013 on Moyer’s program, and highlights the pragmatic and humble logic of Berry’s perspective.

Berry argues, for example, that it should be little wonder that the industrialized world finds it increasing difficult to keep human beings “employed.” He says that one of the two goals of industrialization was to replace people with machines, and points out that we’ve met this goal quite successfully—though politicians are loathe to make that connection. Berry says its his job, because he has “no power,” to call out this kind of inconsistency.

The suggestion that he has “no power” should be clarified however, because he believes that “the people” have power if they choose to take it, and that ecological damage can only be reversed in local and long-term schemes developed by communities who are devoted to their land. It is out of this commitment to rehabilitation and reclaiming that he advocates for the 50-year farm bill.

The bill proposes to move away from monoculture and return more crop diversity and more people to rural lands. Berry admits this proposal would take patience … and faith … and hope. But he is adamant that we must try. Even in the face of impossible odds he says,

“We don’t have a right to ask whether we are going to succeed or not. The only thing we have a right to ask is, ‘What’s the right thing to do? What does this earth require of us if we want to continue to live on it?’”

And while these are philosophical and spiritual and ethical questions, Berry points out that they are also very pragmatic economic questions. Toward this end, he is intensely critical of modern capitalism. He argues that its “natural logic” is to take as much as you want, by whatever means you can devise—and this logic is simply unsustainable.

Berry’s love for, and obligation to, nature plays out in his economic perspectives as much as in his poetry.  He says his writing gives an account of “precious things,” most of which are now in danger of falling away. His hope is that we can again begin to see the world in terms of its preciousness—its sacredness—rather than simply in terms of its immediate economic value.


Is Population a Threat to the Environment?

[This is a post from Mayra O. Sanchez Gonzalez, a PhD student in the Environmental and Energy Policy program here at Tech. This was an assignment for our Ecological Economics course.]

Is population growth a threat to the environment? My first answer to that question without thinking too much about it would be: Yes, because more people means more depletion of natural resources to support them. I am sure Paul Ehrlich will agree with me, because the Earth’s capacity to support a human population is finite (Ehrlich, 2009). I also think that the organization World Population Balance may consider me one of its members because they believe that overpopulation “is a root cause of resource depletion, species extinction, and rising poverty” (WPB, 2013). To support this statement they present some news, articles and a global population number updated every second. Another organization that might consider me as part of its membership is How many?. This organization states that “population growth is a root cause of many environmental and social problems” (HM?, 2013) and presents a long list of many issues caused by population growth, as well as a second-by-second tally of the number of people in the world.  At the moment I write this, we are 7,148,513,537 people on this planet, and by the time I finish writing this line the number will change because we gain 140 new babies every minute. These numbers, statistics and information make me feel overwhelmed and motive me to answer yes to the question that I presented before. However, when I start to think more deeply about the relationship between population and environment, I realize that it is very complex and that my answer cannot be simply Yes or No.

It is a fact that more people consume more natural resources, however not everybody consumes the same way. For instance, people from developed countries consume more resources than people from developing countries. One example of this is the United States. The US has only 5% of the population of the world but it consumes 25% of all world energy (Mazur, 2010). Also, sometimes developed countries go to developing countries to consume or pollute their natural resources because they want to conserve their own or because they have almost exhausted them.

It is not just the amount of natural resources that people consume, it is also about the reasons behind this consumption. These are important because they are shaped by different needs, values and beliefs. People from developing countries might consume resources because they need them to survive, whereas people from developed countries might consume resources not only to survive, but also to have more luxuries or feel more comfortable or to have the newest technological device available, such as cell phones, computers and cars.

I believe that the complex relationship between population and environment should be addressed with different strategies. For instance, we should educate people about the connections between the environment, population, consumption, inequity and human rights, considering different social and cultural contexts. We can emphasize women’s empowerment, so that they can make free decisions and can have free access to services such as contraception. We should also create policies that consider the complexity between the population and the environment. Finally we should support the consumption of local foods, goods and services.

However the most important is to start with ourselves by changing our life styles; it is not enough just to read, discuss, write, and think about these issues if we are not able to change the way we live now. We must think and act in a more sustainable way. We can start by adopting the three R’s strategy in our lives: Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. If we are able to do this in our daily life we are definitely contributing to a sustainable present and future for people and the environment.

References

Ehrlich, P. R. & Ehrlich, A.H. (2009) The Population Bomb Revised. The electronic journal of sustainable development, Vol. 1(3), pp. 63-71.

Mazur, L. (ed.) (2010) A Pivotal moment. Washington, DC: Island Press.