August 2010 Archives

Halcyon Days in Maine

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This summer has been spectacular. After a few days of rain last week, the sun has returned in its full glory. Tonight, after the wind died down, the bay turned into a mirror reflecting the dark tones of the setting sun. Tomorrow promises to repeat today's beauty.

I spend much time thinking about and composing the posts to this blog. As those of you that follow from time to time know, I try to connect whatever I write to sustainability. Sometimes it's easy when I chance upon something out there that is simply begging to be the subject of barbs and arrows. Listening to events of these days, I find it more and more difficult to keep a positive, optimistic view of the likelihood of sustainability coming in my lifetime (next to zero), or in my children's life (still close to zero), but maybe in my grandchildren's time on Earth.

But then ever so often I wake up to days like these, and the discover again the meaning of flourishing: the quality of life that sustainability is all about. It's not about business that lasts forever, or getting out of recessions, or an "Airtight Compost Pail [that] Keeps Your Kitchen Odor-Free." It's an inner peacefulness, full of appreciation for just being. The mirrored water, like the magic portal in "Through the Looking Glass" reaches out and draws me into it, and all my worries and concerns for the sad state of the world disappear, if only for just a moment.

The word "halcyon" popped into my head as I started this post. It describes a time in the past that was peaceful and supremely happy. Now that the sun has gone down and the mirror lost, the moment is past, and the word stands correctly. The etymology of the word comes from "a mythical bird (thought to be a kingfisher) said to breed at the time of the winter solstice in a nest floating on the sea and to have the power of calming the winds and waves." It's far from the solstice yet, and the real belted kingfisher (pictured above) that flits around the house didn't show up tonight. But the bay was so calm that one could easily believe it was due to a magical spell.

An Inconvenient Sandwich

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This is the title of a recent report from nef (the new economics foundation), an independent UK "think-and-do tank that inspires and demonstrates real economic well-being." These are the same people that have developed and promoted the Happy Planet Index and other topics relating to sustainability. Their topmost objective is to transform the economic system at its roots in what they have called, The Great Transition. While much of their research is derived from the UK, the findings and implications are highly relevant for the US. For those of us that grew up with Schumacher's Small is Beautiful, the nef has updated the subtitle of his book to read "economics as if people and the planet matter."

I have used the publications of nef for my own research and in my classes. I find them to be carefully thought out and executed, and often compelling. The one I headline above is a long report on the effects of the trend toward fast food in the UK. The situation is much like that in the US. I found this paragraph that pretty well summarizes the general tenor of the report.

The ‘food system’ encompasses all the activities involved in growing, processing, manufacturing, distributing, serving, and selling food. The adverse impacts of this system, known for decades, are now seen to be at crisis point: the exploitation of workers, the low value placed on animal life, the damage to the environment, the effects of climate change, and the recognition that even as the world’s population expands, the natural resources on which food production depends are being depleted. The existence of a billion overweight and obese people alongside another billion who do not have enough to eat is an affront to justice. And there is growing realisation that the foods being produced are not best suited to maintaining healthy human beings. The challenge, therefore, is to produce more and better quality food, more ethically, from less land, using fewer resources and with fewer negative impacts, and to share it more equitably - this, broadly, is what is meant by the transition to a more sustainable food system.

That's about all I am going to say about the work, except to note that this title doesn't work as well as Gore's version. But it is nonetheless on target. I encourage my readers to download it from the link above and read it in its entirely, substituting images of the US for those of the UK. The names may be different but the stories are very close. And while you are on the nef web site, gather a few more of their reports and read them. They're all free when you download them. Many readily implementable ideas for transforming the economy toward sustainability can be found in them.

What Is a Green Economy?

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This is the opening question in a brand new publication of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The title of the report is A Guidebook for IUCN’s Thematic Programme Area on Greening the World Economy (TPA5). It can be downloaded from the IUCN website. It a great collection of sources on this subject.

This guide is intended to offer an overview of available literature relating to the main topics covered by IUCN’s Thematic Programme Area on Greening the World Economy (TPA5). It is a compilation of papers, reports, and articles that can be freely accessed on the internet. It is not intended to serve as a complete bibliography of available literature, but more as an overview of the different concepts and discourses that animate ongoing discussions on the topic of the ‘Green Economy’.

The array of articles and reports is quite extraordinary and should become a great resource for anyone working on issues around sustainability and economy. The content is great, but language used to set the conceptual frame is flawed. The report answers the question above as follows:

The first challenge in the exploration of this new topic consists in understanding what the Green Economy concept is about. Simply put, the ‘green’ economy can be considered synonymous to a ‘sustainable’ economy. However, the Green Economy concept often carries a more distinctive meaning, one that focuses specifically on the fundamental changes that are required to ensure that economic systems are made more sustainable. It results that the ongoing discourse on the Green Economy is often animated by ambitious and forward looking views on how to overcome the deeply rooted causes of unsustainable economic development.

The mistake comes simply in equating green with sustainable. This might work in other times, but today the meaning of green has become so bastardized that it is often given to things and processes that may actually run away from sustainability. Sustainability is more than greening, no matter how the word is used. Greening is often associated only with the environmental dimensions of sustainability, but not the human side. It is not surprising that the IUCN with its focus on the natural world would frame the issues as they have. But this is really only a small complaint about a excellent and most useful work.

Pricing Fat Away

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The Nike way, "Just Do It," is not the solution to the many addictive consumption patterns in the US. The core of my book is an argument that these patterns are deeply embedded in the cultural environment, so deeply that the best intentions of individuals fail in the struggle against the cultural pressures. Writing in the New York Times, Natasha Singer finds this true in the particular case of obesity.

Unfortunately, behavior changes won’t work on their own without seismic societal shifts, health experts say, because eating too much and exercising too little are merely symptoms of a much larger malady. The real problem is a landscape littered with inexpensive fast-food meals; saturation advertising for fatty, sugary products; inner cities that lack supermarkets; and unhealthy, high-stress workplaces. . . In other words: it’s the environment, stupid.

The solution lies in part in changing the food supply system at its roots so that healthy eating is cheaper than the present alternative. Economists would describe obesity as an externality in the food delivery marketplace. The cost in terms of medical expense, loss of self-image, lost opportunities in the workplace, and so on are not included in the price of groceries or institutional meals. The food we do see out there is skewed toward the stuff that is a major cause of obesity--high caloric, fatty items--because it is artificially made cheaper than the good stuff through a long standing mix of policy-based subsidies.

Fast-food restaurants can charge lower prices for value meals of hamburgers and French fries than for salad because the government subsidizes the corn and soybeans used for animal feed and vegetable oil, says Barry Popkin, a professor of nutrition at the Gillings School of Public Health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Market subsidies were designed decades ago to support farmers during times when the market was weak and uncertain, and to expand exports, but those reasons disappeared along with the demise of the family farm and the availability of crops from other parts of the world. Similar to many other instances of public policy, these supports are locked in by the political strength of the farm lobby and come back year by year.

The article, and many other sources as well, argue for a reversal of this practice. These goods should be made to be more expensive than junk food through policy interventions. Some companies are putting in workout centers with healthy snacks and deliberately reducing stress, another causal agent in obesity. These firms have recognized that obesity is costly and that it is economically worth while to spend money to reduce the incidence in their employees. Restrictions on advertising "bad" food and eating habits has been instituted in the UK. The article points to a clever program in the UK that aims to teach children in school how to cook healthy meals so that they will not be so dependent on fast food when they grow up. This reminds me of the home economics course I had to take in high school. I can still remember making applesauce and burning the biscuits. Perhaps, it was part of my life-long interest and involvement in cooking good meals.

The Beauty of Summer

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Summer is winding down and I will soon have to get back to the real world. I have been blessed for any years to be able to head for Maine every May, and linger there until the beginning of the Fall. This season has been memorably spectacular for the long succession of perfect days. Last year was also memorable, but for the torrents of rainfall that seemed to cascade down almost every day. Today the sky was cloudless and the bay sparkled, but the wind was much too strong to chance going out on the water.

Tomorrow morning, I will head over to the local Saturday Farmer's market with one of our many grandchildren. I go early so I will not miss getting my weekly dozen or two of the huge eggs from my favorite farmer. It never ceases to surprise me when I crack one, and two yolks pour out. I usually scramble a couple every morning.

The eggs go quickly and, if I dilly-dally, I am forced to buy only the regular size, but still delicious, offerings of all the uncaged hens whose gifts are offered up for sale. Then, I rush to get my pain d'amande from Barack, who bakes some of the best bread I have ever tasted. The lines in front of his stall are always the longest of all, and these delectable goodies disappear very quickly. Add a coffee from one of the several local roasters and my day becomes fully started. Next a couple of scones from Beryl for Sunday breakfast. And then, I wander, having done the essential, to sample and bring home other of the wondrous wares.

This farmer's market started about 10 years ago and has been growing every year. The variety of locally produced goods gets larger all the time. I can sample all kinds of cheeses and dairy products, and usually come home with something. Another favorite is a pepperoni that is to die for.

It's not just the wonderful merchandise that makes this place special. It has become a true community of farmers, bakers, weavers, other kinds of merchants, and people from the community, many with their dogs. There is even a booth that places abandoned dogs in new homes. The importance of local economic activities to sustainability is stressed in the readings I assigned to my students this trimester. The Saturday market in Brunswick brings the theory to life.

There is something about summer that brings out the closeness we are to one another and to the Earth. We are fortunate in New England that Fall makes the transition to Winter comfortable and smooth. It sneaks in days even in October that fool us into thinking it is still July. But by then the feeling of flourishing that comes with the beauty of summer starts to fade. It's still there, but more distant from the senses. I am told by the passing of the seasons a little of what sustainability means. It is, in part, just the expectation that next summer will be just as beautiful as the last.

The 0.1 Percent Solution

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The most recent issue of the New Yorker has two articles that piqued my interest. The first is the periodic financial column by James Surowiecki, titled "Soak the Very, Very Rich." The second was a longer article (subscription required) about a dealer in exotic foods located in Las Vegas. I found this second piece more about how these very, very rich folks manage to spend all their money.

Surowiecki presents some startling statistics. I knew the top of the income spectrum lived in rarified air, but I was stunned with the numbers. The top 0.1% earn as much as the rest of us put together (120,000,000). Not only has the income distribution become more unequal for the whole population, but has also for the those at the top. These very, very rich have put a big margin between the merely very rich. That's the first part of the story.

The second is replete with tales like that of a single fish garnering $5000 when served up. It was an ombrina, whatever that is. I certainly have never seen one in the restaurants I frequent. Another example is a collection of perfume vials holding balsamic vinegar from 1890, "most likely served to high rollers, after supper, on mother-of-pearl spoons." The subject of the article, Brett Ottolenghi, mainly deals in truffles, with these other exotic items thrown in. The deal making involved makes the specialty food biz in Las Vegas sound like Chicago during Prohibition.

It's nothing to have stuff airfreighted from France or gotten via a round trip van ride to the Santa Monica (CA) Farmer's Market or "flown in as often as five times a week from the Mediterranean, in coolers equipped with microchips to monitor the temperature during the voyage." Not only is this whole scene reminiscent of the obscenity of the story I posted a few days ago about Slum Tourism, it contributes to climate change far in excess of the mere transactions. I can't think of much else, except perhaps the diamond trade, where the contribution to global warming per ounce is greater. Those involved know what they are doing to the globe. The famous chef, Paul Bartoletta-the Med fish buyer-"has no patience with sustainability. He quips that "Las Vegas is a pilot project to see if man can live on the moon."

This alone would be enough to accentuate the folly of hyper consumption and vast inequality, but there is another indirect implication and possibility for sustainability. My Marlboro class has been grappling with the conflict between the need to attain a steady-state economy, which is consistent with the resources of the one planet we occupy, and the pain many would suffer in the process of getting there. Unemployment and support of retired and elderly people in general become more problematic if the economy were to stop growing. This problem is frequently cited as one reason that a steady-state economy is not realistic and so we must work harder to make this one more efficient. Wrong solution to a difficult problem.

But just imagine if instead of eating all that beluga caviar, the very, very rich would accept just being plain, old rich. I don't have the numbers to make an accurate calculation but I am guessing that there would then be enough money to offset the transient hardships of getting to a no-growth state. The development of such great disparities in income and the ability to flourish is one of the contradictions of capitalism This example turns the theory into a stark reality.

Awaiting My "Guaranteed" Millions

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My wife asked me to complete the entry form for the Publishers Clearing House (PCH) periodic sweepstakes that just came in the mail. This one is all about useless things, not the old standard list of publications at reduced rates. I look on the process as a game, "How can I find all the hidden sticky things I have to put on the form without noticing any of the objects for sale?" The contest designers already know about this game that I and others play, and have designed the package so that it is virtually impossible not to scan the items.

I don't know how many separate items are included, but every one I did look at was pretty much useless: "Genuine Tiger's Eye Handcrafted Turtle, A DVD with the title, "32 Ways to Please your Lover," Erasable Address Book, Cat Rain Gauge, and hundreds more. Many were in the $15-20 price range, payable in three or four easy payments. I can think of no better metaphor for our consumptive ways. Enjoy the pleasure of buying something you did't need and get a (very tiny) chance of winning something big at the same time.

I found this video of an old PCH television ad from 1987, shown below.

I have just finished my course on "Exploring Sustainability" at Marlboro College Graduate School, and am reading the students' essays and comments on keeping their journals. Many reflect on being stuck in the middle of their own desires to shift into a more basic and sustainability-driven consumption pattern and the incessant pressure to buy stuff coming from every direction. I am also in the midst of a very interesting on-line conversation with my colleagues in a sustainable consumption project about the same dilemma. The gist of the thread is that both individual and institutional change are necessary for the shift to occur, but neither the micro or the macro is willing to take the lead.

Consumers and citizens alike are in deep denial. One of my students compared our collective condition to that of Gautama Siddhartha, the Buddha, who woke up to the state of the world and his own alienation only after being thrust, metaphorically naked, into that world from his sheltered place in the palace. Heidegger writes that we must face and accept the reality of our death before we can live authentically. We are all living through the death throes of our cultural world and the support system on which it absolutely depends, but have yet to recognize or accept what is happening before our very eyes.

The PCH program is designed to lull us away from facing that reality. So is just about everything we see, hear, and live through every day. But it is, in fact, happening. I ask my students to keep a journal, partly in hopes that it will help them break out of denial. It works sometimes. It took a dramatic encounter for the Buddha to wake up. Heidegger and others offer hopes that we can find our authentic self, one which transforms need to care, without the necessity of such a stark awakening. I am not sure which is right, but I do know that without breaking out of the denial we are in, we will still eagerly await the arrival of the latest PCH sweepstakes package in the mail or hurry to scratch off the surface of the instant lottery cards that our local supermarket starting handing out this summer.

Does Slum Tourism Count as Experience-based Consumption?

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One of the alternatives to materialistic, status-driven consumption is said to be activities that provide experience-based satisfaction, like travel, services, and activities that bring people together. That may be true, but I do not think the kind of travel described in an article headlined, "Slum Tourism," fits the bill. The article paints a picture of rich folks traveling to see how the "other half" lives, a practice that that has roots in antiquity. Even sovereigns went out into the streets in disguise to see how the hoi polloi lived.

The article mentioned popular destinations like Mumbai and Rio, both with massive slum populations. The smash hit movie, Slumdog Millionaire, has brought crowds to see the scenes so dramatically pictured in the film. The article is eloquent and made me feel small. The author, Kennedy Odede, has come from such a place to being a student at Wesleyan College, but she has not forgotten her growing up as she writes:

I was 16 when I first saw a slum tour. I was outside my 100-square-foot house washing dishes, looking at the utensils with longing because I hadn’t eaten in two days. Suddenly a white woman was taking my picture. I felt like a tiger in a cage. Before I could say anything, she had moved on.

There is much more to chew on and I urge you to click the link and read the whole article. What lingers on for me are the unreflective solutions that are showing up to solve the overconsumption problem in the US and other affluent countries. Sure, travel seems to be more happiness producing than things like Rolexes or Rolls Royces, but it's still buying things and services to satisfy some inner need. At least that's what the marketers and many psychologists tell us.

Maybe that's the wrong model entirely. Think of the difference it would make if we were driven by care, not need, including taking care of ourselves, but also others and the world we live in. I believe that on deep reflection that is the way we act whenever we get in touch with our human core. Slum tourism is so one-sided as to be almost obscene. It turns human beings born into circumstances so different from those who travel to gaze on them into mere curiosities. Odede finishes her piece with these two paragraphs.

Nor do the visitors really interact with us. Aside from the occasional comment, there is no dialogue established, no conversation begun. Slum tourism is a one-way street: They get photos; we lose a piece of our dignity.
Slums will not go away because a few dozen Americans or Europeans spent a morning walking around them. There are solutions to our problems — but they won’t come about through tours.

Consumption in the US is a deep-seated, pervasive, and pathological practice. All living creatures must consume to live, and human beings need, beyond mere subsistence, to have and consume what have become over time the necessaries of life. We will never successfully transform consumption to a level and manner that is consistent with sustainability until we stop thinking primarily of ways to avoid its materiality. We have to stop and think why we consume anything beyond those necessaries. As long as we believe that such activities are driven by some "need," we will not be able to transform our economy. All the forces at play will find a way to convince us that we always need more. Slum tourism will simply become a metaphor for narcissistic, insensitive, uncaring, unsustainable consumption.

From Genetic Engineering to Geo-engineering

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Yale's Environment 360 reported this little, but very significant, squib a few days ago. Reporting a finding from the just concluded Ecological Society of America, the article was headlined, "Scientists Find First Evidence Of GM Crops Reproducing in the Wild." This is not supposed to happen as these crops are designed to be infertile, requiring farmers to buy seeds every year. I know it's not kosher to copy stuff more or less in its entirety, but the Yale report is very terse.

Scientists conducting research in North Dakota have found the first evidence of established populations of genetically modified crops in the wild. After testing and photographing 406 canola plants found along more than 3,300 miles of roads, the researchers discovered evidence of transgenic plants in 347, or 86 percent, of the plants. Specifically, some of the crops were identified as Roundup Ready, which are engineered to be resistant to the herbicide Roundup, commonly known as glyphosate; and some were identified as Liberty Link crops, which are engineered to be resistant to glufosinate. In two cases, the crops were resistant to both. “Varieties with multiple transgenic traits have not yet been released commercially, so this finding suggests that feral populations are reproducing and have become established outside of cultivation,” said Cynthia Sagers of University of Arkansas, one of the co-authors of the study which was presented at the annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America. The findings, she said, have significant implications for the ecology and management of native and weedy species and for the management of biotech products in the United States.

Those promoting geo-engineering solutions to climate change should pay close attention to this finding. The undesired outcome here springs from a better understood system than the Earth's global environment. GMO crops can be put on the market only after a rigorous testing protocol, and still we get unexpected results. The photo shows herbicide-resistant weeds in a corn field that can virtually stymie harvesting. Geo-engineering requires that we take the plunge into the unknown with a minimum of testing at the global scale. Mother Nature is sending us a message with the unexpected crop findings. I hope we will listen carefully.

Cognitive Dissonance

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I came home late last night from a 2-day gathering of the faculty of the Marlboro College Graduate School MBA in Managing for Sustainability. It was the first time we have met in numbers more than a few at a time for a year or so. The program is just about three years old, but has greatly matured judging from the richness of the conversations that took place. As we exchanged details of each of our courses with one another, I realized how complex and challenging the program is.

An MBA degree implies that the holder will most likely work somewhere in the world of business, although the Marlboro students have a much broader view of where they would like to end up. This means that the curriculum must carry a strong dose of business-as-usual theory and practice. Even as these students leave and find a place in an entirely new sustainability world, they will still have to deal with institutions and customers deeply rooted in the present ways of doing business.

At the same time, the school is committed to turn out professionals with a starkly different vision of what sustainability means. The entering students are a self-selected group with aspirations to change the way business is done in hopes of creating a world that works. This combination of two separate and often conflicting world views poses a huge challenge to the teachers and the students. How do you teach so that the students learn and unlearn at the same time?

Someone talked about the process of unlearning racism as a analogy. The foundations of consumerism are buried deep in our culture and in everyone's bodies. It's not enough to make or buy "green" or "sustainable" products if the goal is to turn the economy completely upside down such that we flourish within the limits of the world's resources. Or reverse the direction of inequality. Most of the students accept the idea that growth cannot continue without limit, but study how to create growing businesses. This is only one of the many dissonant threads of the Marlboro program and a few others like ours.

Unlearning is a much harder process than learning. The predominant norms are reinforced by the existent cultural institutions. The best of intentions are thwarted by the power of current beliefs and norms. Many more are committed to the status quo than want to change it, even as their lives are not what they long for. But that longing is driven by visions of a future largely shaped by the past. No matter how hard one tries to escape the confines of the past, it is always there until an unlearning takes place.

I usually try to end each blog with a concluding sentence or two that grabs its shape from what has preceded it. This time I am just going to stop and leave things hanging. That's the way I felt at the end of our sessions, knowing that I had much left to understand before I could deal with the dissonance of learning and unlearning at the same time.