Author: almayer

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.


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 price of gold and the loss of forests

“Everything is connected” is something we say so often in ecology that it often loses its meaning. However, this new study published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences really exemplifies the real world impact of these connections.

Skyrocketing gold prices, driven mainly by speculators, has spurred an epidemic of illegal mining (and consequently deforestation) in the Peruvian Amazon. These mines are dangerously close to a major river system, increasing the risk of mining pollution entering the Madre de Dios River watershed. Mining and deforestation often go together, as we know very well here in the UP.

Greg Asner and his colleagues used remote sensing imagery to detect these mines and measure deforestation caused by them. The images themselves provide a powerful message. Each hectare lost to mining can support hundreds of tree species, and thousands of animal species which depend upon them. The loss of these forests and risks of pollution are difficult to calculate, and therefore difficult to balance against the fluctuating value of the gold retrieved from the mines.


UP Landscapes exhibit at the Beaumier Center at NMU

A new art exhibit, “U.P. Mosaic: A Working Landscape and its People” will open this month on the Northern Michigan University campus. Although the information is not yet up on the Beaumier Upper Peninsula Heritage Center‘s webpage, you can find details about the events on opening day (October 26th) through the Marquette Monthly magazine. The exhibit will run from October 26 through January 15, 2014, and will be open 10am to 4pm Monday through Saturday.


30 years in the blink of an eye

Time, NASA, USGS and Google have joined forces to create a stunning tool to visualize the extensive change that has occurred on our planet at human hands. Dubbed “Timelapse“, millions of Landsat satellite images from the past 30 years have been joined to allow the user to pan across a landscape and witness deforestation in the Amazon, glacial retreat from climate change, tar sands mining in Alberta, mountaintop removal in West Virginia, and urban sprawl in cities like Shanghai, China and Las Vegas, New Mexico (with the accompanying water withdrawal from Lake Mead).

It is often difficult for us to conceptualize and understand the scale at which our natural resource and land use reconfigures our world, but this tool helps immensely. Take a few minutes to check it out……


Botanical Medicine courses in the Keweenaw, Sept. 14-16

If you have ever been interested about the medicinal properties of plants (note that the billion dollar pharmaceutical industry is!), there will be several classes offered in mid-September at the Marsin Nature Retreat Center just outside of Houghton; see the “Keweenaw Peninsula: Plants, People and Planetary Healing” section on the “Special Events – Classes” page.

Also note that the Houghton & Keweenaw Chapter of the group Herbalists Without Borders will be having a potluck at Marsin on the evening of September 17th.


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.