Tag: sustainability

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.


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…..

Sacrifice Zones

Journalist Chris Hedges recently appeared on “Moyers & Company”, and was interviewed by Bill Moyers about the “sacrifice zones” across the United States where economic, social, and environmental injustice combine to destroy local communities. These are excellent examples of why all three dimensions must be analyzed simultaneously to understand sustainability, and to design effective sustainable development strategies.

See the full interview here.

(Time) frame of mind

Last week I attended the 2012 Trans-Atlantic Research & Development Interchange on Sustainability (TARDIS) workshop, in lovely Seggauberg, Austria. The theme of this year’s workshop was “Time and time frames for sustainability”, and the attendees did not disappoint on the theme. Much of the discussion visited two main issues:

  1. How do we manage our systems for sustainability if we can’t predict the future?
  2. How do we identify and correct the mismatches between the rate at which catastrophes occur, and the rate at which humans and political entities can respond to them?

While we came a bit closer to understanding these two issues, sadly we did not solve them. While it was encouraging to see the diversity of approaches that have been attempted to arrive at a solution, we seemed to be constrained by solutions that wouldn’t feel like a “shock doctrine” approach to the status quo…. individuals to societies tend not to respond politely to this approach, even when it might be the fastest way to a better quality of life.

One interesting sidebar was the notion that while Western cultures tend to think of time linearly (it only flows in one direction, usually towards progress but occasionally over a cliff), Eastern cultures think of time as cyclical or circular. It occurred to me that this also may simply be a function of the time frame; if systems evolve as the Panarchy folks advocate, then a very short-term view of a system in the process of maturing or reorganizing may seem linear. Take a step back for a longer-term view, and you may see that the system does follow a cycle, with a systemic reset every so often to clear the system of dysfunction. However, step even further back, and a progressive system of cycles may emerge. Of course, there may be a step further back than that, as our five previous global mass extinctions remind us.

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Losing a global carbon sponge

A paper published last week in Nature reviewed a growing body of evidence that suggests that a profound loss of forest cover in the Amazaon would have worrying consequences for the rest of the planet.

In “The Amazon basin in transition“, Davidson et al. describe how the impacts of agricultural expansion and climate events such as El Niño can conspire to destroy even more forest through drought- and fire-induced deforestation. When trees die or burn, they release carbon into the atmosphere. If more trees are destroyed than grow to replace them, more carbon is released than is absorbed; the Amazon sink becomes a source. According to the article, the Amazon rainforst currently sequesters roughly 100 billion tons of carbon, an amount equivalent to the carbon release from a decade’s worth of fossil fuel use.

Currently forest cover has been reduced to about 80% of its original area; the article suggests that if forest cover approaches 40%, a critical transition from forest to savanna may occur, given feedbacks between tree cover and precipition (see our summary in Science). If this occurs, we might witness what happens with the lost of “the lungs of the planet“.