Monthly Archives: June 2012

Civilization Faces Perfect Storm of Ecological and Social Problems by John Vidal

Abuse of the environment has created an absolutely unprecedented emergency, say Blue Planet prizewinners

Celebrated scientists and development thinkers warn that civilization is faced with a perfect storm of ecological and social problems driven by overpopulation, overconsumption and environmentally malign technologies.

In the face of an “absolutely unprecedented emergency”, say the 18 past winners of the Blue Planet prize—the unofficial Nobel for the environment—society has “no choice but to take dramatic action to avert a collapse of civilization. Either we will change our ways and build an entirely new kind of global society, or they will be changed for us”.

The stark assessment of the current global outlook by the group, who include Sir Bob Watson, the British government’s chief scientific adviser on environmental issues, US climate scientist James Hansen, Prof José Goldemberg, Brazil’s secretary of environment during the Rio Earth summit in 1992, and Stanford University Prof Paul Ehrlich, was published in February 2012 on the 40th anniversary of the United Nations environment program (UNEP). The paper, which was commissioned by UNEP, will feed into the Rio +20 earth summit conference in June.

Apart from dire warnings about biodiversity loss and climate change, the group challenges governments to think differently about economic “progress”.

“The rapidly deteriorating biophysical situation is more than bad enough [to get our attention], but it is barely recognized by a global society infected by the irrational belief that physical economies can grow forever, disregarding the facts that the rich in developed and developing countries get richer and the poor are left behind. And the perpetual growth myth is enthusiastically embraced by politicians and economists as an excuse to avoid tough decisions facing humanity.”

“The perpetual growth myth … promotes the impossible idea that indiscriminate economic growth is the cure for all the world’s problems, while it is actually the disease that is at the root cause of our unsustainable global practices”, they say.

“The shift of many countries, and in particular the United States, towards corporate plutocracies, with wealth (and thus power) transferred in large quantities from the poor and middle-classes to the very rich, is clearly doing enormous environmental damage.”

The group warns against over-reliance on markets, and instead urges politicians to listen and learn from how ‘poor’ communities all over the world see the problems of energy, water, food and livelihoods as interdependent and integrated as part of a living ecosystem.

“The long-term answer is not a centralized system but a demystified and decentralized system where the management, control and ownership of the technology lie in the hands of the communities themselves and not dependent on paper-qualified professionals from outside the villages,” they say.

“Community-based groups in the poorer most inaccessible rural areas around the world have demonstrated the power of grassroots action to change policy at regional and national levels…. There is an urgency now to bring them into mainstream thinking, convey the belief all is not lost, and the planet can still be saved.”

The answer to addressing the critical issues of poverty and climate change is not primarily technical, but social, say the group. “The problems of corruption, wastage of funds, poor technology choices and absent transparency or accountability are social problems for which innovative solutions are emerging from the grassroots.”

To transition to a more sustainable future will require simultaneously redesigning the economic system, a technological revolution, and, above all, behavioral change.

“Delay is dangerous and would be a profound mistake. The ratchet effect and technological lock-in increase the risks of dangerous climate change: delay could make stabilization of concentrations of CO2 at acceptable levels very difficult. If we act strongly and science is wrong, then we will still have new technologies, greater efficiency and more forests. If we fail to act and the science is right, then humanity is in deep trouble and it will be very difficult to extricate ourselves.”

The paper urges governments to:

  • Replace GDP as a measure of wealth with metrics for natural, built, human and social capital—and how they intersect.
  • Eliminate subsidies in sectors such as energy, transport and agriculture that create environmental and social costs, which currently go unpaid [and therefore unappreciated].
  • Tackle overconsumption in the rich world, and address population pressure by empowering women, improving education and making contraception accessible to all.
  • Transform decision-making processes to empower marginalized groups, and integrate economic, social and environmental policies instead of having them compete.
  • Conserve and value biodiversity and ecosystem services, and create markets for them that can form the basis of green economies.
  • Invest in knowledge through research and training.

“The current system is broken,” said Watson. “It is driving humanity to a future that is 3-5 degrees Centigrade warmer than our species has ever known; and it is eliminating the ecology that we depend on for our health, wealth and sense of self.”

Source: The Guardian (UK), 20 February 2012, <http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2012/feb/20/climate-change-overconsumption>  John Vidal is the environment editor for The Guardian. This report appeared in the environmental section of The Guardian’s website titled “Global Development”. The report is based on a synthesis paper created from individual papers written by the past 18 winners of the Asahi Glass Foundation’s Blue Planet Prize. The Blue Planet prize is reported to be the “unofficial Nobel for the environment”.

• Source document: <http://www.UNEP/Blue-Planet-Synthesis-Paper>

• The Blue Planet Prize: <http://www.af-info.or.jp/en/blueplanet/about.html>

FROM THE TEXT OF THE UNEP PAPER

Demographic Challenges

The global population (which has now passed 7 billion people) and the average per capita energy consumption have both increased sevenfold over the past 150 years, for an overall fifty-fold increase in the emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. And both are still increasing.

As a global average, total fertility rates (TFR) are decreasing, as a result of more females completing primary and secondary education, along with availability of fertility control. But this global average conceals many local difficulties. In some parts of the world fertility remains high—and decline in these countries is by no means certain. More than 200 million women in developing countries still have unmet needs for family planning, and increased investment in reproductive health care and family planning programs along with education programs will be critical. Although the desire and the need [for family planning] are increasing, it is estimated that funding decreased by 30% between 1995 and 2008, not least as a result of legislative pressure from the religious right in the USA and elsewhere.

The ageing of populations in many countries around the world is also a relevant sustainable development issue. The economic, social and environmental implications are as yet unclear—but this trend will undoubtedly have an impact. Whether it is positive or negative depends to a large extent on how countries prepare; e.g., in evaluating what an ageing population will mean for economic productivity, consumption of goods and services, and in terms of urban planning, financial, health and social care systems.

Both culturally and genetically, human beings have always been small-group animals, evolved to deal with at most a few hundred other individuals. Humanity is suddenly, in ecological time, faced with an emergency requiring that it quickly design and implement a governance and economic system that is both more equitable and suitable for a global population of billions of people, and sustainable on a finite planet.

 Economic Challenges

Uncontrolled economic growth is unsustainable on a finite planet. Governments should recognize the serious limitations of GDP as a measure of economic growth and complement it with measures of the five forms of capital, built (produced), natural, human, social and institutional/financial capital, i.e., a measure of wealth that integrates economic, social and environmental dimensions and is a better method for determining a country’s productive potential.

The failure of the economic system to internalize externalities leads to the continuation of environmentally damaging activities. If externalities are uncorrected then markets fail: they generate prices that do not reflect the true cost to society of our economic activities.  Emissions of greenhouse gases represent a market failure as the damages caused by emissions from the burning of fossil fuels are not reflected in prices. The price of fossil fuels should reflect the true cost to society, resulting in a more level playing field for environmentally sound renewable energy technologies, and a stimulus to conserve energy.

There are a number of other relevant market failures that must also be corrected if we are to manage the risks of climate change. For example, there are failures in the provision of information, and there are failures in valuing ecosystems and biodiversity. In addition, environmentally damaging subsidies in areas such as energy, transportation and agriculture, which total about $1 trillion per year, cause further market distortion and are in general leading to environmental degradation and should be eliminated.

The benefits that we derive from the natural world (biodiversity and ecosystem services) are critically important to human well-being and economic prosperity, but are consistently undervalued in economic analysis and decision-making. Recognizing the value of ecosystem services would allow the world to move towards a more sustainable future, in which the benefits of ecosystem services are better realized and more equitably distributed.

Technology Challenges

The over-reliance on fossil fuel energy (coal, oil and gas) and inefficient end-use technologies has significantly increased the atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. We are currently putting one million years worth of sequestered carbon into the atmosphere each year. Recent efforts to reduce the carbon intensity (CO2/GDP) were made in a large number of countries particularly in China and Russia where the carbon content has declined significantly in the last 30 years (albeit from very high levels). However the carbon intensities of India, South Africa and Brazil (including deforestation) have not declined significantly in that period. It is therefore clear that all countries have to take serious measures to reduce their CO2 emissions in the next few decades.

Socio-Political Challenges 

There are serious shortcomings in the decision-making systems on which we rely in government, business and society. This is true at local, national and global levels. The rules and institutions for decision-making are influenced by vested interests, yet each interest has very different access to how decisions are made. Effective change in governance demands action at many levels to establish transparent means for holding those in power to account. Governance failures also occur because decisions are being made in sectoral compartments, with environmental, social and economic dimensions addressed by separate, competing structures.

The shift of many countries, and in particular the United States, towards corporate plutocracies, with wealth (and thus power) transferred in large quantities from the poor and middle-classes to the very rich, is clearly doing enormous environmental damage. The successful campaign of many of the fossil fuel companies to downplay the threat of climate disruption in order to maintain the profits of their industry is a prominent example.

Cultural Challenges 

The importance to reducing inequity in order to increase the chances of solving the human predicament is obvious (just in the differences in access to food and other resources) caused by the giant power gap between the rich and the poor. The lack of funding for issues (such as the provision of family planning services) contrasts sharply with the expenditures by the United States and some other rich nations to try to assure that oil flows to themselves are uninterrupted. The central geopolitical role of oil continues unabated despite the dangerous conflicts oil-seeking already has generated and the probable catastrophic consequences its continued burning portends for the climate.

3 Comments

Filed under Climate, Consumption, Economy, Energy, Environment, Family Planning, Growth, Human Rights, Natural Resources, Population, Sustainability, Women's Rights

2011: A Year of Weather Extremes, with More to Come by Janet Larsen and Sara Rasmussen

The global average temperature in 2011 was 14.52 degrees Celsius (58.14 degrees Fahrenheit). According to NASA scientists, this was the ninth warmest year in 132 years of recordkeeping, despite the cooling influence of the La Niña atmospheric and oceanic circulation pattern and relatively low solar irradiance. Since the 1970s, each subsequent decade has gotten hotter—and 9 of the 10 hottest years on record have occurred in the twenty-first century.

Each year’s average temperature is determined by a number of factors, including solar activity and the status of the El Niño/La Niña phenomenon. But heat-trapping gases that have accumulated in the atmosphere, largely from the burning of fossil fuels, have become a dominant force, pushing the Earth’s climate out of its normal range. The planet is now close to 0.8 degrees Celsius warmer than it was a century ago. Hidden within annual averages and expected variability are startling instances of new temperature and rainfall records in many parts of the world—weather extremes that would once be considered anomalies but that now risk becoming the new norm as the Earth heats up.

Worldwide, 2011 was the second wettest year on record over land. (The record was set in 2010, which also tied 2005 as the warmest overall.) Heavier deluges are expected on a warmer planet; each temperature rise of 1 degree Celsius increases the amount of moisture the atmosphere can hold by about 7%. Higher temperatures also can fuel stronger storms.

Brazil started the year with the deadliest natural disaster in its history: in January, a month’s worth of rain fell in a single day in Rio de Janeiro state, leading to floods and landslides that killed at least 900 people. That same month, flooding in eastern Australia covered an area nearly the size of France and Germany combined. Overall, it was the third wettest year in Australia since recordkeeping began in 1900.

The most expensive weather disaster of 2011 was the flooding in Thailand in the second half of the year, which ultimately submerged one third of the country’s provinces. At $45 billion worth of damage—equal to 14% of Thailand’s gross domestic product—it was also the costliest natural catastrophe the country ever experienced.

In October, more than 100 people died as two storms—one from the Pacific and the other from the Caribbean—pounded Central America with rain. In western El Salvador, nearly 1.5 meters of rain (almost 5 feet) fell over 10 days. And in December, Tropical Storm Washi hit the Philippines, creating flash floods that killed more than 1,200 people.

The 2011 Atlantic hurricane season had 19 named storms. Hurricane Irene brought extreme flooding to the northeastern United States in August, with total damages topping $7.3 billion. The year was the wettest on the books for seven states in the country, while it was among the driest for several others. Although the extremes appear to balance out, making for a near-average year, in fact a record 58∞ of the contiguous United States was either extremely wet or extremely dry in 2011.

Indeed, as is expected on a hotter planet, while some parts of the globe were overwhelmed by rain in 2011, others were distinguished by dryness. A severe drought in the Horn of Africa that began in 2010 devolved into a crisis situation in 2011, characterized by crop failure, exorbitant food prices, and widespread malnutrition. Exacerbated by chronic political instability and a belated humanitarian response, the death toll may have exceeded 50,000 people. The same happened in the Sahel (southern Sahara)  region of Africa, where the desertification disaster is still unfolding.

Back in North America, a drought that began in late 2010 and worsened over 2011 led hundreds of farmers from northern Mexico to march to that nation’s capital in January 2012 to draw the government’s attention to their suffering. Nearly 900,000 hectares of farmland (some 2.2 million acres) and 1.7 million head of livestock were lost due to the dryness—the worst in Mexico’s 70+ years of data collecting.

Scorching heat, drought, and wildfires across the U.S. Southern Plains and Southwest caused farm, ranch, and forestry damages that exceeded $10 billion in 2011. Wichita Falls, Texas, experienced 100 days over 100 degrees Fahrenheit—far more than the previous record of 79 days set in 1980. Oklahoma and Texas had the hottest summers of any states in history, breaking by a wide margin the record set in 1934 during the Dust Bowl. James Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, writes that the likelihood of such extreme heat waves “was negligible prior to the recent rapid global warming.” Texas also had its lowest rainfall on record. Invigorated by the heat and drought, wildfires burned across an estimated 1.5 million hectares (3.7 million acres) in the state.

For the continental United States, summer 2011 was the second warmest in history. Nearly three times more weather stations hit record highs than lows in 2011, in line with a trend of increasing heat extremes. Whereas in the middle of the 20th century there were close to the same number of record highs and lows—as would be expected absent a strong warming trend—in the 1990s highs began outpacing lows. In the first decade of this century, there were twice as many record highs as record lows.

Worldwide, seven countries set all-time temperature highs in 2011: Armenia, China, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Republic of the Congo, and Zambia. Interestingly, Zambia also was the only country to experience an all-time low temperature when it dropped to -9 degrees Celsius (16 degrees Fahrenheit) in June. Kuwait experienced the year’s highest temperature, with thermometers measuring a searing 53.3 degrees Celsius (127.9 degrees Fahrenheit), the highest temperature ever recorded on Earth during the month of August. Even more threatening to health than daytime highs are extra hot nighttime minimum temperatures, which do not allow any respite from the heat. The world’s hottest 24-hour minimum ever—41.7 degrees Celsius (107 degrees Fahrenheit) —was recorded in Oman in June 2011.

Even the Arctic had a notably warm year, with the 2011 temperature a record 2.2 degrees Celsius (4 degrees Fahrenheit) above the mean for 1951–80. Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost U.S. city, spent a record-breaking 86 consecutive days at or above freezing, far more than the previous record of 68 days set in 2009.

In fact, over the last 50 years temperatures in the Arctic have risen more than twice as fast as the global average, melting ice and thawing permafrost. Arctic sea ice has been shrinking more rapidly, falling to its lowest volume and second lowest area on record during the 2011 summer melt season. With the summertime ice loss outpacing wintertime recovery, Arctic sea ice has thinned, making it increasingly vulnerable to further melting. Scientists expect a completely ice-free summertime Arctic by 2030 or even earlier.

As the reflective ice disappears, it exposes the dark ocean, which more readily absorbs solar energy, further warming the region. This sets forth a climate cascade, accelerating ice loss both in the ocean as well as on nearby Greenland, which contains enough ice to raise global sea level by 7 meters (23 feet) if it completely melted. The warming also thaws Arctic permafrost, releasing carbon dioxide and methane, further accelerating global warming.

Even without fully incorporating such climate feedback, models show that continued reliance on fossil fuels could raise the global temperature by up to 7 degrees Celsius (over 12 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of this century. Such an elevated temperature would amplify temperature and precipitation extremes enough to make the weather events of recent years look tame in comparison. Only a rapid, dramatic reduction of greenhouse gas emissions can hold future temperatures in a range bearing any resemblance to what civilization has known. 

Source: Earth Policy Institute, January 31, 2012  <www.earth policy.org/indicators/C51/temperature_2012> Media Contact: Reah Janise Kauffman (202) 496-9290 ext. 12 | rjk@earthpolicy.org

1 Comment

Filed under Climate, Energy, Environment, Natural Resources, Population, Sustainability

Governments Spend $1.4 Billion Per Day to Destabilize Climate by Lester R. Brown

Perverse subsidies distort reality

We distort reality when we omit the health and environmental costs associated with burning fossil fuels from their prices. When governments actually subsidize their use, they take the distortion even further. Worldwide, direct fossil fuel subsidies added up to roughly $500 billion in 2010. Of this, supports on the production side totaled some $100 billion. Supports for consumption exceeded $400 billion, with $193 billion for oil, $91 billion for natural gas, $3 billion for coal, and $122 billion spent subsidizing the use of fossil fuel-generated electricity. All together, governments are shelling out nearly $1.4 billion per day to further destabilize the earth’s climate.

The government of Iran spent the most on promoting fossil fuel consumption in 2010, doling out $81 billion in subsidies. This equaled more than 20% of the country’s gross domestic product. Saudi Arabia was a distant second at $44 billion. Rounding out the top five were Russia ($39 billion), India ($22 billion), and China ($21 billion).

Kuwait’s fossil fuel subsidies were highest on a per capita basis, with $2,800 spent per person. The United Arab Emirates and Qatar followed, each spending close to $2,500 per person.

Carbon emissions could be cut in scores of countries by simply eliminating fossil fuel subsidies. Some countries are already doing this. Belgium, France, and Japan have phased out all subsidies for coal, for example. As oil prices have climbed, a number of countries that held fuel prices well below world market prices have greatly reduced or eliminated their motor fuel subsidies because of the heavy fiscal cost. Among those reducing subsidies are China and Indonesia. Even Iran, which was pricing gasoline at one fifth its market price, dramatically reduced its gasoline subsidies in December 2010 as part of broader energy subsidy reforms.

In contrast to the $500 billion in fossil fuel supports in 2010, renewable energy received just $66 billion in subsidies—two thirds for electricity generation from wind, biomass, and other sources, and one third for biofuels. Not only do fossil fuel subsidies dwarf those for renewables today, but a long legacy of governments propping up oil, coal, and natural gas has resulted in a very uneven energy playing field.

A world facing economically disruptive climate change can no longer justify subsidies to expand the burning of coal and oil. The International Energy Agency projects that a phase-out of oil consumption subsidies by 2020 would cut oil use by 3.7 million barrels per day in that year. Eliminating all fossil fuel consumption subsidies by 2020 would cut global carbon emissions by nearly 5% while reducing government debt. Shifting subsidies to the development of climate-benign energy sources such as wind, solar, and geothermal power will help stabilize the earth’s climate. 

Source: Earth Policy Institute press release, January 19, 2012, <www.earth-policy.org/data_highlights/2011/highlights24> This data highlight is adapted from World on the Edge by Lester R. Brown. For more data and discussion, see the full book at www.earth-policy.org

Leave a comment

Filed under Climate, Consumption, Economy, Energy, Environment, Growth, Natural Resources, Population, Sustainability

Gross National Happiness by Richard Heinberg

An excerpt from Chapter 6 of  ‘The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality

After World War II, the industrial nations of the world set out to rebuild their economies and needed a yardstick by which to measure their progress. The index soon settled upon was the Gross National Product, or GNP—defined as the market value of all goods and services produced in one year by the labor and property supplied by the residents of a given country. A similar measure, Gross Domestic Product, or GDP (which defines production based on its geographic location rather than its ownership) is more often used today; when considered globally, GDP and GNP are equivalent terms.

GDP made the practical work of economists much simpler: If the number went up, then all was well, whereas a decline meant that something had gone wrong.

Within a couple of decades, however, questions began to be raised about GDP: perhaps it was too simple. Four of the main objections:

  • Increasing self-reliance means decreasing GDP. If you eat at home more, you are failing to do your part to grow the GDP; if you grow your own food, you’re doing so at the expense of GDP. Any advertising campaign that aims to curb consumption hurts GDP: for example, vigorous anti-smoking campaigns result in fewer people buying cigarettes, which decreases GDP.
  • GDP does not distinguish between waste, luxury, and a satisfaction of fundamental needs.
  • GDP does not guarantee the meaningfulness of what is being made, bought, and sold. Therefore GDP does not correlate well with quality of life measures.
  • GDP is “Gross Domestic Product”; there is no accounting for the distribution of costs and benefits. If 95% of people live in abject poverty while 5% live in extreme opulence, GDP does not reveal the fact.

During the past few years, criticism of GDP has grown among mainstream economists and government leaders. In 2008, French president Nicholas Sarkozy convened “The Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress” (CMEPSP), chaired by acclaimed American economist Joseph Stiglitz. The commission’s explicit purpose was “to identify the limits of GDP as an indicator of economic performance and social progress.” The commission report noted:

“What we measure affects what we do; and if our measurements are flawed, decisions may be distorted. Choices between promoting GDP and protecting the environment may be false choices, once environmental degradation is appropriately included in our measurement of economic performance. So too, we often draw inferences about what are good policies by looking at what policies have promoted economic growth; but if our metrics of performance are flawed, so too may be the inferences that we draw.”

In response to the Stiglitz Commission there have been increasing calls for a Green National Product that would indicate if economic activities benefit or harm the economy and human well-being, addressing both the sustainability and health of the planet and its inhabitants.

One factor that is increasingly being cited as an important economic indicator is happiness. After all, what good is increased production and consumption if the result isn’t increased human satisfaction? Until fairly recently, the subject of happiness was mostly avoided by economists for lack of good ways to measure it; however, in recent years, “happiness economists” have found ways to combine subjective surveys with objective data (on lifespan, income, and education) to yield data with consistent patterns, making a national happiness index a practical reality.

In The Politics of Happiness, former Harvard University president Derek Bok traces the history of the relationship between economic growth and happiness in America. During the past 35 years, per capita income has grown almost 60%, the average new home has become 50% larger, the number of cars has ballooned by 120 million, and the proportion of families owning personal computers has gone from zero to 80%. But the percentage of Americans describing themselves as either “very happy” or “pretty happy” has remained virtually constant, having peaked in the 1950s. The economic treadmill is continually speeding up due to growth and we have to push ourselves ever harder to keep up, yet we’re no happier as a result.

Ironically, perhaps, this realization dawned first not in America, but in the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. In 1972, shortly after ascending to the throne at the age of 16, Bhutan’s King Jigme Singye Wangchuck used the phrase “Gross National Happiness” to signal his commitment to building an economy that would serve his country’s Buddhist-influenced culture. Though this was a somewhat offhand remark, it was taken seriously and continues to reverberate. Soon the Centre for Bhutan Studies, under the leadership of Karma Ura, set out to develop a survey instrument to measure the Bhutanese people’s general sense of well-being.

Ura collaborated with Canadian health epidemiologist Michael Pennock to develop Gross National Happiness (GNH) measures across nine domains:

  • Time use
  • Living standards
  • Good governance
  • Psychological well-being
  • Community vitality
  • Culture
  • Health
  • Education
  • Ecology

Bhutan’s efforts to boost GNH have led to the banning of plastic bags and re-introduction of meditation into schools, as well as a “go-slow” approach toward the standard development path of big loans and costly infrastructure projects.

The country’s path-breaking effort to make growth humanly meaningful has drawn considerable attention elsewhere: Harvard Medical School has released a series of happiness studies, while British Prime Minister David Cameron has announced the UK’s intention to begin tracking well-being along with GDP.  Sustainable Seattle is launching a Happiness Initiative and intends to conduct a city-wide well-being survey. And Thailand, following the military coup of 2006, instituted a happiness index and now releases monthly GNH data.

Britain’s New Economics Foundation publishes a “Happy Planet Index,” which “shows that it is possible for a nation to have high well-being with a low ecological footprint.” And a new documentary film called “The Economics of Happiness” argues that GNH is best served by localizing economics, politics, and culture [ Helena Norberg-Hodge, Steven Gorelick, and John Page, "The Economics of Happiness," a documentary movie, International Society for Ecology and Culture, 2011].

No doubt, whatever index is generally settled upon to replace GDP, it will be more complicated. But simplicity isn’t always an advantage, and the additional effort required to track factors like collective psychological well-being, quality of governance, and environmental integrity would be well spent even if it succeeded only in shining a spotlight of public awareness and concern in these areas.

At this moment in history, as GDP growth becomes an unachievable goal, it is especially important that societies re-examine their aims and measures. If we aim for what is no longer possible, we will achieve only delusion and frustration. But if we aim for genuinely worthwhile goals that can be attained, then even if we have less energy at our command and fewer material goods available, we might nevertheless still increase our satisfaction in life.

Policy makers take note: Governments that choose to measure happiness and that aim to increase it in ways that don’t involve increased consumption can still show success, while those that stick to GDP growth as their primary measure of national well-being will be forced to find increasingly inventive ways to explain their failure to very unhappy voters. 

Source: http://richardheinberg.com/museletter232. Reprinted with permission of the author. Author of ten books, Richard Heinberg is widely regarded as one of the world’s most effective communicators of the urgent need to transition away from fossil fuels. Senior Fellow-in-Residence at Post Carbon Institute, Richard is best known as a leading educator on Peak Oil and the resulting, devastating impact it will have on our economic, food, and transportation systems. But his expertise is far ranging, covering critical issues including the current economic crisis, food and agriculture, community resilience, and global climate change.

Leave a comment

Filed under Consumption, Economy, Growth, Sustainability

There’s Hope for a New Economy in the New Year by Brent Blackwelder

Grassroots mobilizations are laying the groundwork for a steady state sustainable economy.  

Early in 2011 UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon issued a profound condemnation of the global economy’s ill-conceived pattern of growth: “For most of the past century, economic growth was fueled by what seemed to be a certain truth: the abundance of natural resources. We mined our way to growth. We burned our way to prosperity. We believed in consumption without consequences. These days are gone …. Over time, that model is a recipe for national disaster. It is a global suicide pact.” (Spoken at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, January 2011).

That’s a somber statement, but there’s hope that the U.S. will break free from this “global suicide pact” and develop a fundamentally different economy. My prediction for 2012: decentralized forces, formed in response to the unsustainable and unfair economic situation, will begin to fundamentally change how our national economy works. People in the ‘Occupy’ movement and groups working on human rights, public health, clean energy, and social and tax justice are laying the groundwork for a shift to a steady state—a dynamic and sustainable economy that pursues prosperity and full employment without GDP growth.

The grassroots mobilization to support clean energy and a healthy environment is a sign of the shift to come. The work of diverse groups protesting the dirty tar sands pipeline from Canada to Texas motivated a huge turnout at the White House, with over 1,000 people being arrested. These protests were strong enough to get President Obama’s attention.  He delayed a decision on the pipeline, and the publicity elevated the issue to center stage on the Republican agenda.

Statistics give us another hint that we’re headed in the right direction toward a steady state economy in 2012. Despite efforts by the Republican Congressional Leadership to undermine environmental protections (e.g. ongoing denial of climate change and attempts to gut EPA regulations), U.S. emissions have dropped by 7% in the last four years and are in line to drop further. Vehicle miles driven have declined, and ridership of public transportation is up 2%.

A cynic might say that the reason is simply the recession, but that’s only a small part of the story. Important actions such as renewable energy standards at the city and state levels are helping. Religious congregations participating in the ‘Interfaith Power and Light’ initiative are reducing their carbon footprints. The campaign to shut down coal power plants and the substitution of natural gas for coal are also significant. Coal used to be the source of over half of U.S. electricity, but its share dropped to 43% in the first half of 2011 and is scheduled to drop even further.

As we enter 2012, we should redouble our support of those groups pushing for an economic paradigm shift based on sound governance and the principles of a just democracy. And it’s time to build a broad coalition of such groups to include those working on clean energy, public health, climate stabilization, financial reform, and other pieces of a sustainable economic system. Growing support for these groups and mutual reinforcement among them will provide the necessary spark to ignite the economic shift.

As we push for a just, environmentally sustainable world, we must continue to highlight the unabashed attempts by the richest one percent to continue fleecing the rest of us. December has featured a full array of proposed new financial gimmicks and tax breaks to benefit the very rich. For example, corporations with billions stashed in offshore tax havens are now seeking to bring these funds back to the U.S. with minimal tax under a so-called “Repatriation Act.”

They’re angling for a repeat of their lucrative repatriation flim-flam in 2004, a plan that saw 15 corporations bring back $150 billion at a 5% tax rate instead of 35%. The Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations found that these 15 companies did not add jobs or increase research expenditures, but rather increased spending on executive pay and stock buybacks.

Now more companies are petitioning Congress to allow them once again to bring the loot back home with the same tax break.

Although the U.S. Chamber of Commerce strongly supports such repatriation, the Women’s Chamber of Commerce, with 500,000 dues-paying members, opposes it. The members of the Women’s Chamber of Commerce aren’t benefiting from the offshore tax havens or the repatriation scams.

As 2011 gives way to 2012, outrage is in the air.  But that can be useful for uniting and motivating people of conscience across the political spectrum to work for change—to break free of the suicide pact described by Ban Ki-Moon. Mr. Ban has called on governments to supply “visionary recommendations” for the upcoming Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development in June of 2012.

Here are two recommendations that, at this point in history, seem obvious, but would certainly be radical in the business-as-usual economy:

•  Stop pursuing the ruinous pipe dream of continuous economic growth and work toward a steady state economy.

•  Take power back from the oligarchy of the 1% to reclaim our democracy.

Source: Center for Advancement of the Steady State Economy (CASSE) blog: < http://steadystate.org/theres-hope-for-a-new-economy-in-the-new-year/>  Aside from being one of the friendliest people you’ll ever meet, Brent Blackwelder is an advocate for environmental protection and economic sanity.  Brent recently retired as the president of Friends of the Earth where he was renowned for speaking truth to power.  He testified in front of the U.S. Congress more than 100 times.  He also was a founder of American Rivers. His entire career has focused on serving the public and making our communities and our planet better places to live. Reprinted with permission.

Leave a comment

Filed under Consumption, Economy, Growth, Sustainability

Fate of the World by Marilyn Hempel

“It’s the Economy, Stupid …”

How do population growth, the Earth’s life support system, the economy and the growing gap between the super rich and everyone else fit together? That is the question we examine in this edition of the Population Press.

Pundits generally agree that the economy will drive the national conversation this 2012 election year, but only rarely do we hear anyone mention the population dimension.  If one listens carefully, there has been some reporting.  In passing, The Wall Street Journal noted, “According to most estimates, employers need to add 125,000 jobs per month just to keep up with population growth.” (October 2011).  And CBS News stated that the US would have to create 250 thousand jobs each month for the next year just to lower the presently unemployed, not even taking into account new young job seekers. (March 2012). This is a big deal—involving big numbers!  The pressures of a growing population ought to be a major part of the conversation. Instead we are treated to national radio and television voices loudly debating whether to deny American women the right to modern contraception.

From an economic and quality-of-life point of view, it appears that everyone has an urgent need for family planning, in order to assure jobs for all who need one, and prosperous and happy families.

Bill Moyers stated recently, “The growth of inequality in this country is the biggest story of our time. The ‘have-nots’ now have less than they ever did. The ‘have-it-alls’ now have more than they ever did. Since 1979, 40% of the growth of income has gone to 1% of the population.  Even more of this shift, in relative terms, has gone to the top 0.1%.  This is changing us radically.”  But can anyone honestly argue that adding more people is going to solve this problem?

Central in the jobs/wealth/equality conversation should be an examination of population stabilization as a vital means of ‘Progress’.  Redefining our definition of ‘Progress’ may be one of the most important steps required for creating a sustainable economy that works for all people, not just the wealthy few.  Progress tied to family planning issues is especially needed in this era of uncommon sense and campaign-financed vendettas against women, the poor, and the middle class.

So in this issue of the Population Press, we focus on the interplay between population, the economy, inequality, climate disruption, and our hopes for the future.  Realizing our hopes means that we must do a better job of conquering our fears, and the starting place for that is to think carefully about the number of people we can sustainably support on a finite planet.

In 2008, the director of the US Central Intelligence Agency, Gen. Michael Hayden, said that the most troublesome threat facing the US and the world today is not terrorism or global warming, but overpopulation, especially in the poorest parts of the planet.

The rapid growth of the world’s population, according to Hayden, will lead to further instability and extremism, along with exacerbating climate change, and making fuel, food and water much more expensive. Population, Hayden argued, is the prime multiplier for all types of human ills.

2 Comments

Filed under Economy, Population, Sustainability