Tag Archives: sustainability


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

Dollarocracy and transitions to sustainability

John Nichols and Robert McChesney have a new book out, Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America. They discuss the many problems created by the infusion of massive money into our elections, particularly the erosion of locally-produced journalism (replaced by political ads) and the impact of that loss on the ideas that we discuss in our society. In their recent interview with Bill Moyers, I was struck by something that John Nichols said:

“Dollarocracy has the ability to animate dead ideas. You can take an idea that’s a bad idea, buried by the voters — Dollarocracy can dig it up, and that zombie idea will walk among us.”

This has profound implications for the ability of communities and regions to begin their transitions to more locally-based sustainable systems. When we are forced by the interests of wealthy elites and corporate interests to discuss (and defeat) the same bad ideas over and over again, it leaves us no time to discuss the transformative ideas that will lead us to more economically and environmentally sustainable systems. When we have to discuss the solvency of Medicare in every election cycle, we have no time to discuss local heath care cooperatives. When the national conversation about the continued malfeasance of Wall Street distracts us from the benefits provided by our local credit unions, we have a harder time supporting our Main Streets.

National conversations will always be important; we talk about ourselves first and foremost as Americans. However, the volume of national discourse has overwhelmed our local discourse, and we need to focus more attention on our ailing communities and what we can do to strengthen them, especially against the winds of monied outside interests.


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.

Yikes.


Bad news delivered well

This semester I am teaching a class on sustainability (Sustainability Science, Policy and Assessment), and I am struggling to decide whether I should show probably the most dispiriting and disconcerting documentary currently available on the topic of societal collapse, a very common topic in our class discussions.

Titled simply “Collapse“, the documentary is an interview with Michael Ruppert, one of the tallest lightning rods in the peak oil and sustainability circles. Ruppert’s methodology and conclusions are controversial, but that is not what makes his work so difficult to teach. There is a fatalistic quality to his work; that connecting fact A to B to C inevitably leads us all to D (collapse of civilization), when there are significant unknowns that may make those events truly unconnected and therefore D just one of many possible outcomes.

Indeed, it is the work of groups like The Resilience Alliance that try to understand these different pathways through destruction and renewal, and The Transition Network that tries to prevent D from becoming an inevitable outcome by guiding communities down different pathways.

I suppose I can understand how Ruppert’s history and career could lead him to see the worst in humanity…. his years in the Los Angeles police force surely required him to be open to the worst possibilities…. but hopefully I can teach my students the reality of the challenges we face without losing hope for kinder, gentler pathways through them.


Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without

This old quote (linked to both the Great Depression in the United States, and the Shakers) can be difficult to abide by in our high tech world. However, I think these iFixit folks are really on to something here….. free online manuals for repairing anything from smart phones to  automobiles to toasters. Check the site out first before you haul that appliance to the curb…..