Category Archives: Culture

One Less Car on the Road by Jim Tull

Drivers—and their passengers—drive because the flow of our systems (a torrent really) compels us to drive.

Drivers—and their passengers—drive because the flow of our systems (a torrent really) compels us to drive.

She knew it would fit. And she knew me as well as anyone did. In big letters on the back, the T-shirt read ‘ONE LESS CAR ON THE ROAD’. A crusading environmentalist biking alone past hundreds of motor vehicles stuck in traffic, a moving billboard: ‘ONE LESS CAR ON THE ROAD’. With politeness and gratitude for the thought, I declined the gift.

I passed on the prospect of being hollered and honked at, or worse. Just adds to the peril. Deeper, though, the shirt and message presents a distorted picture of both the problem and the solution in the too-many-cars department. The underlying assumption is that individual behaviors are the problem, and that individual behavioral change is the solution. This assumption is okay, on one level, but of very limited use. Clearly and more specifically, the message implies that the environmental crisis is reducible to:
(a) the ignorance and/or insensitivity of car drivers (the problem); and
(b) “why don’t you park your SUV and get on a bike like me, nooneyhead?” (the solution).

I bike for many reasons. It supports good health, I’m out in the open, freer to experience the environment (sometimes ugly, sometimes beautiful) and wave to friends, who can see me. Parking is convenient. Biking is very energy efficient and very clean. It is also less expensive—or quicker—than car driving, depending on the unit of measurement: time or money. This rationale needs elaboration. I average around 12 miles per hour in the city. On average, a typical, single car owner travels somewhere between 4 and 9 mph on average when all the purchase and maintenance expenses associated with the car are converted to the owner’s time working a job to get the money. Then actually driving the car takes more time (and money and then more time). Pretty slow, all totaled.

And then there’s huge pollution and resource depletion costs, collectively incurred. Car driving isolates people. Roads divide communities, plaster the Earth, allow toxic water to run right into rivers. Over 30,000 Americans die each year from car accidents. Even wars and military preparedness expenses should be factored in (to protect precious oil). Very hazardous. If all car owners had to absorb all the collective costs as well as their personal car expenses, they’d find themselves driving in reverse most of the time. Though a good bicycle is expensive, the cost in money, converted to hours, to support my bike habit doesn’t even slow me down to 11 mph.

Despite all the good reasons to bike rather than drive, it’s wholly inadequate and dangerously beside the point to blame or lecture the drivers (especially since many cyclists like me drive plenty as well!). Our culture relentlessly conditions us to notice and prioritize individuals and institutions and to assume that the isolated behavior of these agents can explain our problems in full. Systems thinking, in contrast, looks between and around individuals, institutions and events for patterns of systemic behavior. Seeing and understanding systems and the power they have to shape and drive what we do can make individual behavior much more understandable and predictable. And also forgivable, if and when forgiveness is necessary or appropriate.

Drivers—and their passengers—drive because the flow of our systems (a torrent really) compels us to drive. Our economic system, structures and patterns require car driving in all but a few places. The shortage of reliable mass transit is part of this pressure, but the incentives to drive run much deeper: government subsidies to oil, infrastructure, and car companies; where we (have to) work; the work we do; the location of houses (especially suburbs) and the location of stores, especially food stores. The forces of globalization, though permitting many to work from home, also lure many to move unbikable distances. In the U.S. in particular, self-contained communities, walkable and bikable, are relics of a slower past.

By all powers, go ahead and bike. It’s better, on balance. The personal and collective benefits of one more cyclist on the road accrue with each convert. Good. But campaigning to get individuals to buck the systemic flow is an insufficient solution to our environmental or social crises. Changing the flow is a more promising alternative. We start with the reality that the vast, vast, vast majority of us more or less do what the other people around us are doing. Nearly every one of us are good at adding our bodies neatly to the end of a line of other lined-up people, even when it just seems to be heading in the direction we want. We herd well, go with the flow. Humans are often chided for our sheepishness. “If only we can break people out of the driving habit (and bike seventeen miles down a highway to work everyday), we’re so lazy!” OK, on one level, we are lazy and, it appears, becoming lazier. But there’s no changing people in this regard in any direct or immediate fashion. Maybe one or two, usually for short time periods. It’s not the laziness we have to account for as much as the conformity.

The brighter side of the conformity coin is that we are all just as likely to adopt positive habits as long as the systemic flow is with us and enough people have adopted. Create systems and structures that make walking and biking (or mass transit) the paths of least resistance for getting round, and ordinary people with the usual mix of virtues and vices will stop driving. Something close to this describes cities like Boston and New York, still choked with car traffic, but also filled with residents who don’t drive, for reasons of convenience more than holiness.

It’s difficult to overstate how disposed the people of our culture are to pick out individuals and institutions to blame for social problems—and also to solve them. The CEO of one of the biggest banks reportedly confessed in the wake of the ’08 crash that he was well aware that his bank’s reckless investment frenzy was pushing the economy to the brink, but that he couldn’t help participating in and thereby reinforcing the frenzy. His competitors were in it full tilt, his bank was raking in the green and anyway he would quickly be replaced if he applied the brakes. No excuse? Yes, on a personal level, no excuse. There is a box within which personal accountability is very real and very meaningful. But outside the box of personal ethics, the CEO—and the rest of us—were pawns of a systemic tragedy. Clearly, our economic system selects for greed, so acquisitive types are rewarded and rise to positions of power and wealth. Our economic system also must grow simply to maintain itself. Put these systemic features together and bubbles such as we experience (bigger these days, and more frequent) are highly predictable. The exponential growth of our money supply begged for all the accumulated dough to get busy somewhere, somehow, anywhere, anyhow. This systemic necessity compelled the invention of impenetrably complex and risky investment tools, lending money to anyone in any manner.

The “too much greed” chorus doesn’t cut very deeply into the crisis, looked at this way. Only slightly more systemic-minded are those who blame lax oversight and regulation. But given the pressure to grow and invest, the laxity itself was predictable. In a system, the parts self-organize, or dance with each other, to serve the aim of the system (like growth), and generally the parts choreograph themselves with remarkably little awareness of the total effect. Certainly, tighter oversight of investment practices and regulating policies would manage the frenzy some. But the fact is, as of this writing, the Federal Reserve is lending 2.8 billion each day of fresh new dollars into the economy to keep a recession from dropping down into depression. This suggests that solving the crisis will require more than policy change and firmer oversight.

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The world is deeply indebted to Mahatma Gandhi for demonstrating the power of nonviolent resistance in overthrowing British rule in India. But his greater contribution to the social and ecological crises of both his day and ours is arguably his “Constructive Program”—his insistence on creating sustainable, local, very small scale economies. Many thinkers and doers since Gandhi (and before him) have developed theoretical frameworks and practical tools for redirecting the systemic flow that has been flushing us all into greater inequality, insecurity, and ecological ruin on a global level.

Clearly, failure to adequately redirect the current flow could spell the end of humanity in the near term, but the promise of the global ‘relocalization’ movement lies primarily in its systemic orientation. More precisely, this movement is more radical than prior liberation and libertarian movements because of how it contextualizes the essential roles large scale political and economic institutions play in sustaining the global industrial growth system. Yet relocalization is not ideological in any traditional sense. Old-fashioned, ancient, and indigenous wisdom and life skills are being worked into a variety of new experiments in community economics: small groups of people, bound to each other as equals and to their local geography, supporting each other to meet basic needs before selling their ‘comparative advantage’ surplus to the wider community or a network of communities.

For obvious reasons, relocalization is anything but a global, centralized movement. There is, for example, no unified rejection of large institutions or political regimes that might continue in some capacity to serve small communities and networks of communities. But the primary unit is the community, not the state or corporation. It does translate into a dramatic systemic shift in how we structure our lives. It will mean travelling less in general, and travelling shorter distances. And less driving.

Systems scientist Donella Meadows emphasized that the prime mover in systemic change is not the action itself of creating change, but the mindset, or paradigm, that powers and informs it. There is no way around changing minds to change systems. Public policy mandates forcing top down behavioral change that lasts can be effective mostly to the extent to which the coerced behavior becomes habit-forming and changes thinking over time. Upon seizing power in 1949, the communist regime in China outlawed the foot binding of women, among many other cultural practices deemed abusively archaic. Indeed, foot binding has stopped. States in the U.S. mandated recycling. Recycling is now considered de rigueur. Political revolutions and policy reforms change thinking through changing behavior, relying on coercion and good citizenship. Propaganda campaigns that accompany coercion, such as the DUI initiative in the U.S., reflect the need to change thinking to change behavior. It can work, but effective policy can never get too far ahead of popular culture, as the pathetic results of so many legal mandates such as alcohol and drug use prohibition demonstrate (In these instances, a culture of addiction pushes addictive behavior, the reality of personal decision-making and responsibility notwithstanding).

More deeply, the massive shift to relocalize is simply not likely to unfold in this way. And so far it hasn’t. Local government initiatives (notably in cities such as Copenhagen, San Francisco, Curitiba, Brazil, and Ogawamachi, Japan) have shown that government can play a vital role in re-empowering local, sustainable economies. Otherwise, thousands of conversations, starting with two people, have spawned thousands of promising alternatives to globalization worldwide that center on creating local, community-based economies. In my state of Rhode Island, there is a rapidly growing local food production and distribution system. Internationally, small groups of people have created over a thousand ‘Transition Initiatives’ to reclaim their own labor and local resources. In Auroville, India; Faoune, Senegal and many other communities around the world, communitarian eco-villages have experimented with localized alternatives to the global economy.

Relocalizing our personal and economic lives is an example of a systems thinking departure from the tendency to rely on comparatively unrealistic aspirations for either individual betterment at one end and government policy solutions at the other. Learning to see, understand and respect the power of systemic behavioral patterns and traps (once established, systems tend to generate their own behavior) amounts itself to a mindset change that enables structural innovations, including relocalization efforts. Additionally, relocalization recognizes that the global, industrial growth economy now with us is unreliable and unsustainable and must be displaced. Viable alternatives must answer to our deep human need to belong in community and connect to our land base. Our culture’s individualism is a bloated caricature of authentic individuality. Through relocalization we are connected to, not separate from or above, each other and the Earth.

As author Daniel Quinn insists, a change in cultural vision this deep has the power and know-how to transform systems, structures and behavior without programs, as we’ve come to know and rely on them. Still, most adopters of this change can and may grow into the evolving cultural vision as they settle into new living patterns carved out by others. Activists leading change need to recognize and appreciate that there is no shortcut around this deep complexity in building a just and sustainable world, but also that this ‘long haul’ approach may produce surprisingly quick results. In a world addicted to solitary motoring to get around, converting drivers one by one into cyclists will take much more time than we have.

Jim Tull is a teacher and social activist with 37 years of experience in confronting local, national and international social problems. For 15 years, including 12 as co-director, he worked at Amos House, a Catholic Worker-inspired hospitality house offering meals, shelter and social services to the poor and homeless in Providence. Since leaving Amos House in 1995, he has taught courses in Community Service and Social Change, Peace, Environmental and Global Studies and Philosophy at Providence College and the Community College of Rhode Island. He facilitates workshops and retreats on community building, cultural transformation and deep ecology.

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Ghana: Health Minister Calls for Teaching of Family Planning in All Schools

Madam Sherry Ayitey, Minister of Health for Ghana.

Madam Sherry Ayitey, Minister of Health for Ghana.

The Minister of Health, Madam Sherry Ayitey has stressed the need for the Ghana Education Service (GES) to introduce the teaching of family planning in schools to enable the adolescent to know much about their reproductive health.

According to her, the reported huge numbers of teenage pregnancy occurred as a result of lack of knowledge about the importance of family planning among the youth and that the teaching of the subject would help reduce the stigma associated with health education in the society.

Madam Ayitey, who was speaking at the National launch of the 2013 National Family Planning Week celebration in Ho, observed that the time had come for education on family planning to be regarded as a major development issue, because high population rate in the country would definitely have negative effect on national development.

She stressed that the theme for the Family Planning Week, “Your Future, Your Choice and Your Contraceptive” was timely, noting that the issues of girls’ education ought to be regarded more seriously, particularly when large numbers of abortion and maternal deaths are teenagers in the country.

Madam Ayitey said the teaching of family planning in schools ought to be seen as very important because it would go a long way to equip the youth particularly teenage girls to make an informed decisions concerning sex.

The Health Minister continued that traditional authorities and religious leaders should regularly invite expects in family planning in their communities regularly to educate the people on the need to produce the number of children that they could take care of.

According to her, in the world’s poorest countries, contraceptive health and family planning for adolescents have become a taboo, and in many parts of sub-sahara Africa, the issues of family planning and adolescents’ sexual health have been completely ignored, leading to pregnancy and childbirth complications

Madam Ayitey noted that there were still large numbers of the youth who did not gain admission to either Colleges of Education or the universities because of the large population rates, as well as the huge numbers of unemployed youth who completed school or dropped out of school due to early pregnancy.

She said the adherence to family planning education would go a long way to help in dealing with major development problems as reduced population would ensure effective development adding that her outfit would in future include other maternal health issues to the National Health Insurance Scheme to deal with reproductive health that would reduce maternal death.

The Director of the Ghana Health Services, Dr. Ebenezer Appiah Denkyirah said a number of activities had been lined up throughout the country to create the needed awareness about family planning and reproductive health and urged Ghanaians to visit health facilities anytime to be provided with the best family planning that would suit their needs.

Dr. Appiah Denkyirah emphasized that family planning helps to control population growth as well as protect people from contracting sexually transmitted diseases which should not be seen as the preserve for only women and asked men to actively participate in family planning activities with their wives to ensure a healthy family and society.

The Deputy Volta Regional Director in Charge of Public Health, Dr. Winfred Ofosu said family planning would help the nation to grow its population in a sustainable manner as a household, a community and a country in accordance with the resources of the nation.

The Volta Regional Minister, Joseph Nii Laryear Afortey Agbo, noted that family planning had become increasingly important, cost-effective and high yielding intervention that exists in the world.

Source: http://allafrica.com/stories/201402102023.html

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Art as Resolution by Eleanor Cleverly

Art and culture supports the betterment of individual character and social values, and is an important part of sustainable living.

Solar photovoltaic glass art by artist Sarah Hall.  Image courtesy of Sarah Hall Studios.

Solar photovoltaic glass art by artist Sarah Hall. Image courtesy of Sarah Hall Studios.

I was once, in college, admonished by a peer for a touchy-feely New Year’s resolution that I’d made. Although the full list included tangible experiences, such as travel to a new city and working out daily, the leader of the pack was much more nebulous: to be a little kinder.

Character-driven resolutions may be in style now, but they continue to pose a difficulty in measured impact. A list of “100 Things to Do Before I Die” provides the ease of tally—either you did it or you didn’t—and earnings in character or wisdom are left for the ether, or at best between the lines of a travel journal. Asking for a kinder, more compassionate outlook may be too vague for real activity to take place.

That said, there’s evidence that one timeless pursuit can promote intrinsic values. Participation in it increases the “capacity to trigger reflection, generate empathy, create dialogue, and foster new ideas and relationships,” as written by Shelagh Wright in The Art of Life.

It is engagement in art and culture.

This thesis states that whether it be in practice or participation, art and culture supports the betterment of individual character and social values.

First, the development of freedom, creativity, and curiosity are strengthened through the arts—values known to increase overall life satisfaction. Second, flow-conducive activities as practiced in art suppress focus on extrinsic concerns like financial success, image, and popularity—values known to decrease overall satisfaction. Finally, deeply disruptive experiences, such as the profound consideration of one’s own mortality, reorient people toward intrinsic values. Art and culture have the potential to be this healthy disruptor, shaking up our world perception and encouraging inward reflection.

Self-reflection is key in a society prone to prescribing identity, rather than nurturing it. Much of the messaging we receive emphasizes money, image, and status, all external concerns. As Tom Crompton notes, the more than 3,000 advertisements that whiz by us each day “invite us to think of ourselves as consumers rather than as citizens.”

Participation in art and culture offers relief. A study conducted at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Arkansas showed that students who visited the museum “demonstrated stronger critical thinking skills, displayed higher levels of social tolerance, exhibited greater historical empathy and developed a taste for art museums and cultural institutions.” This echos what most devotees have long known: art and culture is key, at any age, to reconciling with the human condition.

It’s unlikely that visiting a museum or listening to a symphony will allow one to achieve the full breadth of human kindness and compassion. Still, the historic words of John F. Kennedy, honoring Robert Frost, ring out to us today: “When power leads men towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses. For art establishes the basic human truth which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment.”

In 2014, I have a new resolution. Listen to more bluegrass music, stop in when I notice a neighborhood reading, and be more fearless in my own creative contributions. Then, kindness will come.

Source: Center for a New American Dream, January 14, 2014 : <http://www.newdream.org/blog/art-as-resolution>    Eleanor Cleverly is the Arts and Culture Fellow at the Center for a New American Dream.

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Crowded Planet: A conversation with Alan Weisman by Andrew D. Blechman

Alan Weisman

Alan Weisman

Over the course of the past one hundred years, we humans have grown in population at a rate rarely seen outside of a petri dish. Alan Weisman, author of the best-selling The World Without Us, spent two years traveling to twenty nations to investigate what this population explosion means for our species as well as those we share the planet with—and, most importantly, what we can do about it. His latest book is Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth? Orion magazine editor Andrew D. Blechman met with Alan at his home in rural Massachusetts, amid birdsong and the patter of rainfall, to discuss some of the most serious issues ever to face the human species.

Andrew Blechman: Population is perhaps the monumental topic of our time, and yet the title of your book ends in a question mark. Why is that?

Alan Weisman: I’m a journalist, not an activist. I don’t make statements, but I try to find the answers to big, burning questions. This is the big one to me, because it addresses whether we’ll be able to continue as a species, given all the things that we have been doing to our home.

Andrew: The human population stayed relatively stable, or grew at a manageable rate, for tens of thousands of years but exploded in the past century. What happened? How did we humans come to dominate the planet so quickly?

Alan: The explosion began during the Industrial Revolution. Jobs were suddenly in cities rather than on farms. People were living in tight quarters, and that became an incentive for doctors to begin dealing with diseases that were starting to spread much more easily. Beginning with the nineteenth century, medical advances, such as the smallpox vaccination, were either eradicating diseases or controlling the pests that spread diseases. Suddenly, people were living longer, fewer infants were dying.

7 billion people and rising (click for full size graphic).  Courtesy of Infographic List: http://infographiclist.com/2012/03/21/7-billion-people-and-still-growing-infographic/

7 billion people and rising (click for full size graphic). Courtesy of Infographic List: http://infographiclist.com/2012/03/21/7-billion-people-and-still-growing-infographic/

Andrew: Before that, we were basically at a replacement rate?

Alan: Pretty much. Women would have seven or eight kids, and if they were lucky, two survived. Two is replacement rate. If a male and female have two kids, then they have essentially replaced themselves. Population remained stable because as many people were dying as were being born.

The other thing was that suddenly we learned how to produce far more food than nature could ever do on its own. Nature’s ability to produce plant life has always been limited by the amount of nitrogen that bacteria could pull out of the air and provide as food for plants. In the twentieth century, we discovered how to pull nitrogen out of the air artificially. As a result, we suddenly came up with artificial fertilizer that could produce much more plant life on this planet than had ever existed before. We were at about 2 billion in 1930 when we started using artificial nitrogen extensively. Today we’re at 7 billion. Between 40 and 50 percent of us would not be alive without artificial nitrogen fertilizer. It nearly doubled the food supply.

Andrew: They say that, in some ways, too much abundance isn’t actually good for a population, that it can actually stress it because it leads to overpopulation. For example, if you overfeed city pigeons, they have more babies and the population starts maxing out, whereas if you don’t overfeed them, the population keeps itself in check.

Alan: That’s the paradox of food production—it can ultimately undermine the viability of a population. At a certain point, it expands beyond its resource base, and then it crashes. Wildlife managers, for example, well know that if we don’t keep population in balance with food, a species can run into serious problems. They know that they can either relax controls on natural predators, or issue more permits to hunters—that is, human predators.

Andrew: What does it mean for the Earth to be full? For example, 350 parts per million has been identified as the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere beyond which we set in motion changes that will threaten the future of life as we know it. Is there a comparable figure for global population numbers?

Alan: That was one of the big questions that I set out to answer, or to try to see if it’s possible to answer: how many people can fit on the planet without tipping it over? It’s completely related to what we are doing. If we all lived an agrarian life, self-limitations would set in and our numbers wouldn’t grow much beyond our ability to grow our own food. However, if we are force-feeding our crops through chemistry, we can produce a lot more food, and a lot more of us, too. At a certain point, a downside kicks in to that.

But the answer to your question isn’t really known because we’re finding it out right now. We’re all part of a big experiment to see how many of us can live on this planet without doing something to it that is going to destabilize it so much that our own future is in jeopardy.

Andrew: Isn’t it almost impossible to predict the future, given how variables change? What if the population problem is self-correcting? After all, we’re no longer doubling, and many developed nations are experiencing population decline.

Alan: Some argue that population is in fact self-correcting, and that the correction is already underway. But it’s a little like saying a house fire is self-correcting, because it will eventually put itself out. Unfortunately the damage is done. One way or another, when a species exceeds its resource base, the population will come down. Nature does that in 100% of the cases in the history of biology. The question that I keep coming back to is, how soon is that going to happen?

Andrew: And will it be in time?

Alan: Exactly. If our population is coming down because nature is going to do it for us, well, it’s going to be, frankly, unpleasant to watch. When nature does in a horde of locusts because they eat themselves out of sustenance, it’s interesting for us to observe. When it happens to our own species, it’s not going to be very pretty.

So Many new consumers in Shanghai. Photo by Austronesian.

So Many new consumers in Shanghai. Photo by Austronesian.

Andrew: Is it the sheer number of people or is it the amount that we consume that matters, particularly in the so-called developed nations. Or is it simply that we live too long?

Alan: The answer to all of that is yes. All of those things are involved. I’m always curious about what people are thinking when they say, “It’s not population; it’s consumption.” Who do they think is doing all the consuming? The more consumers there are, consuming too much, the more consumption.

Andrew: And, as you mention in your book, there’s no condom for consumption.

Alan: I think, in the twentieth century, when our population quadrupled, we got to the point where we kind of redefined original sin. Just by being born, we’re part of the problem. There’s also no question that the most overpopulated country on Earth is actually the United States, because we consume at such a ferocious rate. We may not be as numerous as China or as India, but our total impact is huge.

That doesn’t mean that poor people in developing nations don’t have a severe impact on the environment. I was in Niger, which has the highest fertility rate on the planet now. Its average is around eight children per fertile female. In every village, I heard, “Had you been here twenty-five years ago, you couldn’t have seen that house over there for all the trees that we used to have.” Where did the trees go? Well, they needed them for firewood, and then the climate began changing and there’s less rain now. They’re not responsible for the industrial pollution that has gunked up the atmosphere, but when you take down trees, things change. You graze too many animals, and things really change. They’re now in chronic drought. In every village, hundreds of children have died.

What will ultimately carry the day in Niger is the dawning realization that they don’t have the luxury of continuing life as they used to live it, where men had multiple wives and wives had many children. And it’s not just in Niger, but many countries on the planet. Education seems to be the key. Any time you start to educate people, they start to put these things together, particularly if you educate women. Education is the best contraceptive of all.

The more you educate women, the faster the birth rate drops. Photo courtesy of Development Diaries: http://developmentdiaries.com/ethiopia-angola-double-number-of-girls-in-school-in-10-years/

The more you educate women, the faster the birth rate drops. Photo courtesy of Development Diaries: http://developmentdiaries.com/ethiopia-angola-double-number-of-girls-in-school-in-10-years/

Andrew: That’s what I gather from your bookthe more you educate women, the faster the birth rate drops, and the quicker a population adopts a family-planning mentality.

Alan: It was one of the wonderful things about doing this book, which could otherwise have been very grim and sobering. I went to so many countries, twenty-one including all my travels around the United States. I saw human beings confronting some of the most difficult questions in our history. How are we going to survive? What are we doing to ourselves? Yet one of the easiest things that we can do that can make such a huge difference is one of these blessed win-win situations. You educate women, and give women rights that are equal to anybody else’s on this planet, and they generally choose to have fewer children, because they have another way to contribute to society that would be difficult if they had seven kids to care for.

Every place where you’ve got really educated women, you’ve got a society that is more and more livable. The more women decision makers we have, the better our chances. All we have to do is offer fair, equal opportunity to half the human race, the female half. This problem will start taking care of itself really, really quickly. A whole lot of environmental problems, within a couple generations, will also ease up because there’ll be a lot more space on this planet for other species.

Andrew: It’s amazing how flexible we can be as a species. Humans seem to adapt to having large families, and they seem to adapt just as easily to having very small families, even single children.

Alan: There’s a moment in the book with four hundred brilliant, animated students at Guangzhou University in China. Their parents or grandparents had been denied education in the Cultural Revolution and led limited lives. But these Chinese kids believe the twenty-first century is theirs. They’ve got education and incredible opportunities to do interesting work. The sky is the limit for them—but also literally, because they know that Guangzhou’s factory pollution hangs over their lives, and that it would be even worse if China hadn’t curbed its population.

Something occurred to me out of the blue. I asked my translator, a young woman in her twenties, “Hey, are they all only children?” She said, “Sure. We all are.”

Many people appalled by China’s one-child policy think it must be so unnatural not to have siblings. I asked these kids whether they missed having siblings. They admitted that yes, they did. But then they said, “On the other hand, our cousins have become our siblings. Sometimes our best friends have. We’ve reinvented the family.”

That, to me, was yet another example of the great flexibility of the human race, that we can make adjustments when we need to.

Andrew: Now that it’s entered its fourth decade, what other lessons can we learn from China’s massive social experiment with the one-child policy?

Alan: In one sense, the one-child policy has been successful—there would be 400 million more Chinese otherwise. And we’ve learned valuable lessons about population management, like the threat of discrimination, even lethal, against female babies.

We’ve also learned that while a draconian edict may have worked in one place, it’s not going to work everywhere. We have to take the culture of a country, a nation, a political system, a religious system, into account if we’re going to talk about managing population, which I think we have to do. Look, if we manage populations of predators and prey in parks because they have limits, we need to realize that we’ve now come to the limits of our planet. We occupy the whole thing—in a sense the Earth is now a park, it’s parkland. We live in it, and we have to manage it ourselves. There’s no way around that. Sure, maybe we can learn to consume less. But frankly, if we try to attack consumption to solve all of our problems, by the time we change human nature enough so that people consume a lot less, I think the Earth will be trashed in the meantime. So I think there are other things we have to do.

Andrew: It seems like contraception is a lot easier to encourage.

Alan: Yes, and it’s improving enormously. We’re no longer overloading women with estrogen the way that we used to. Even better, there are several male contraceptives that are becoming available that involve much simpler chemistry.

Andrew: As you’ve said, restricting the size of families through legislation is usually viewed with disdain. After all, for many, children represent hope, the future incarnate, and reproduction a fundamental human right, even a biological imperative. But can we really tackle global population without resorting to this sort of intervention?

Alan: I don’t think we need to legislate population management. What we need to do is make it very attractive to people, and let them manage their own population. I’ve got several examples in this book, big examples, of where this has worked brilliantly. There are a couple of Muslim nations that I refer to that have brought their populations down to replacement levels without draconian controls from above, without any edicts. They’ve done it through making family planning available, and making it available for free in one case, and also opening up the universities to women and encouraging them to get educated.

Andrew: Like Iran.

Alan: Like Iran, yes. Iran is the place that has had the most successful family-planning program in the history of the planet. They got down to replacement rate a year faster than China, and it was completely voluntary. The only thing that was obligatory in Iran was premarital counseling, which is actually a very nice idea. You could go to a mosque, or you could just go to a health center. They would talk about things to get you prepared for getting married, including what it costs to have a child, to raise a child, to educate a child.

Andrew: It’s interesting to hear about such a program being embraced by a theocracy. Do the world’s major religions generally differ when it comes to family planning, or do they share similar beliefs?

Alan: The Catholic Church is somewhat unique in its adamant opposition to birth control. Unless it’s the rhythm method, so-called natural methods of determining when to have sex that might lead to procreation or not, it’s simply unacceptable.

I went to the Vatican for my book. It’s a very curious place. It’s the smallest country on Earth, only 110 acres, and populated by just 1,000 people, virtually all of them old men. They’re making these rules that many Catholics outside its walls are paying no attention to. Italy and Spain, for example, have two of the lowest birth rates on the planet. That’s because women are using contraception.

Other religions argue within themselves on these issues. You find conflicting opinions in all three of the major monotheistic religions. In Evangelical Christianity in the United States, there has been an anti-abortion, even anti-contraception movement that’s very strident, restricting women’s access to the birth control of their choice. Yet I interviewed an Evangelical leader who absolutely supports contraception and campaigns hard for it. They’re citing the same Bible.

Andrew: When it comes to protecting species, how many can we save? Are we at the “Sophie’s Choice” moment of being forced to choose?

Alan: We really don’t know. We know that the extinction rate is accelerating very fast as our presence on this planet pushes other species off the edge. At a certain point, potentially, we could push something off the planet that we won’t know that we needed until it’s too late. There is a terrible dilemma for ecologists, particularly conservation biologists, who are trying to conserve enough biology to keep ecosystems viable, and that includes viable for Homo sapiens. We’re just another species in that ecosystem. It’s hard for them to know which ones to save. How do we decide? Could we even control it if we knew which ones?

Say there is a species out there that we depend on; let’s say for food. Everything we eat is the sum total of everything that it ate, and all the things that these things ate before they were eaten. We use the phrase “food chain” but that’s not really descriptive. Pretty much every animal species on land has to consume ten times its weight of other terrestrial species, including plant life, because only about 10% of what we consume converts to body mass. That means that everything that we eat has eaten ten times its weight. We’re at the apex of a very large pyramid. When you lose a species, or more than one, the whole pyramid starts to crumble.

For this book, I wanted to see how we might establish a more harmonious relationship with our species and the rest of nature, as opposed to the mortal combat that we find ourselves in. I wanted to know what the happy medium is, if there is one, a happy medium between a world without us and the one with us, which we’re currently overwhelming. When I started to look at what we are doing—the numbers were so boggling. I did some long division to make it more understandable. It came down to every four to four-and-a-half days, there’s a million more of us on the planet. That just doesn’t seem like a sustainable figure, and that’s pretty much where we are unless we start to do something about it.

Interestingly, some wildlife ecologists have started taking family planning into their own hands. In Uganda, for example, the country’s fabulous biodiversity, such as its gorillas, which tourists are willing to spend a lot of money to see, is getting chipped away by an unmitigated human population explosion. The ecologists began to realize that in order to preserve the wildlife, as well as the tourist-related income for the people who live in these areas, they needed to convince residents to have fewer children.

Andrew: What about the other side of the population coin? If you look at the European democracies, their birthrates are so low that they’ve resorted to paying their citizens to have children. For them, among other concerns, it’s about economics. How are economies such as theirs going to cope with shrinking populations? It seems like calibrating or recalibrating such a thing—trying to mesh just the right amount of people with just the right amount of economy—is a tough thing to do.

Alan: It’s a tremendously tough thing to do. We’ve never had to do it before. We’ve always had room to expand, or thought we had room to expand, until it turns out we were encroaching on other things that were really important to us. China kept expanding by just knocking down more and more forests, and then suddenly, they lost all their flood control. Now they’re trying to put the forests back.

We’ve never had to manage our population before, and our economies were always a reflection of our natural increase. All of our conventional determining factors for the health of the economy regard whether it’s growing. Bill Clinton even turned economic growth into a transitive verbWe have to ‘grow’ the economyas if we were planting seeds and watering them.

It turns out that population growth and economic growth is inextricable. For an economy to keep growing, you have to have growing populations, because you need more laborers to produce more products, and then you need more consumers for those products.

If we have to start limiting our population, then we’re going to have to come up with a way to redefine prosperity that doesn’t involve perpetual growth. A shrinking population or a stable population can’t be a perpetual-growth society.

Andrew: How will countries with declining populations care for all of their elderly?

Alan: It’s an oft-repeated fear that circulates in the business and economic world out there that an aging population is terrible for the world, because there’ll be all these unproductive people and there won’t be enough productive young people paying into the social welfare coffers to take care of them.

Yes, some countries have shrinking populations. But they’re not looking at a situation that goes on into perpetuity, in which they have far more older people than younger people. They’re looking at a generation or so of a bubble where they’re going to have more older people, and then, as that generation dies off, the number of older people and younger people are going to balance out again, and it’s not going to be a problem.

How do they economically get through those bubble years? As an American, I can think of an awful lot of things that my government is spending money on right now that if it dedicated those monies to taking care of a generation of older people until our population evened out, we’d be a much better society.

Andrew: I was really surprised by the fact that the future of the planet, in many ways, rests on whether women on average have a half child more or a half child less.

Alan: Those are pretty shocking numbers, and I got them from a couple of different demographers. By the middle of the century, our population will be nearly 10 billion. But that assumes that all the family planning programs we have in place will remain in place. And it’s a pretty fragile network, dependent on a few donor countries, the most important one being the United States. Had the last presidential election gone differently, the United States may well have withdrawn a great deal of its support for family planning programs all over the world.

If family planning does not keep up with our population growth, or, if suddenly, for whatever reason, the supply lines break down and birth control pills or whatever contraception they’re using is not available to women in a lot of places around the world, a half a child more per fertile woman means that by the end of the century we’re going to increase to 16 billion people. A half a child less per woman means that we’re going to be back down to 6 billion really quickly. Then we can decide at that point if we want to bring it down further. But the difference is, on average, half a child either way.

Andrew: As a species, we seem somehow hard-wired to have difficulty seeing beyond our immediate surroundings or thinking beyond the short term. If that’s the case, what do you think motivates humans to change their ways? What do you think is going to work in this instance? How do you convince a species to rein itself in?

Alan: If we could convince people that it’s in their own best interest to limit the number of children they haveto limit the size of their familiesthen we’ve got a fighting chance.

It turns out that having fewer kids helps virtually every family. You see billboards in countries all over the world—they’re kind of clichés at this point—with a woman surrounded by thirteen ragged children. Then you see a couple with only two kids, and they’re all dressed well. Everybody looks healthy. People get that message pretty quickly.

Andrew: After researching this topic so intensely, what gives you the most hope?

Alan: The fact that there is something so sensible, so wonderful, and with so many benefits that can alleviate the pressures that we human beings put on this planet and improve our own existence as humans-and that’s simply educating women.

If we give women all the opportunities that they deserve, they’re going to take care of this problem, and frankly, we’d have a much better society all the way around. That goes for any religion. That goes for any culture that I’ve ever visited. Any place where you run into women who are empowered, things improve. Everybody lives better, males and females. Women who are educated are going to have fewer children, and that gives me a great deal of hope.

In addition to that, making birth control available on a global level is also very doable. We’re not there yet in terms of distribution—nearly a quarter of a billion women who might use contraception don’t have access to it. However, it would only take about $8-9 billion a year to ensure that everybody did. It’s just not a lot of money on this planet, and it would have such a wonderful, multifaceted impact. We’d have fewer unwanted children. We’d have fewer abortions. We’d have happier people.

Best of all, none of this involves high technology. This does not involve coming up with renewable energygiven all of our best efforts, we still don’t know how to power all of our vehicles and all of our industries with just the sun or wind. This is technology that we already have. In fact, the education part of it employs the best of human technologyour own brainsto convey information and wisdom to our children. Those young brains can absorb it all, and get very creative with it, and do amazing things, as human beings are capable of doing.

Source: Orion magazine <http://www.orionmagazine.org/index.php/articles/article/7694> Reprinted with permission. Orion is an award-winning, non-profit, and ad-free publication. Anyone can request a free copy by going to <www.orionmagazine.org/freetrial>. Or you may subscribe for just $19 for 6 issues, nearly half off. An audio recording of the complete interview of Alan Weisman by Andrew Blechman is available at <www.orionmagazine.org/audio-video>.

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15 Years of Telling Stories and Changing Lives Around the World from The Population Media Center

A family in Burkina Faso. Photo courtesy of the Global Environment Facility (GEF).

A family in Burkina Faso. Photo courtesy of the Global Environment Facility (GEF).

SHELBURNE, VT – In Burkina Faso, François and his wife listen to a popular radio program, Yam Yankre (The Choice), when he gets home from work. François earns meager wages as a mason, which makes it hard to support his wife and six kids.

“Through Yam Yankre,” says François, “my wife and I learned that there are ways to keep from having children. I am very happy now because of this program.”

François explains that he and his wife did not go to school and never learned there was any way to prevent having more children. If it were not for Yam Yankre, François is sure that he and his wife would already have a seventh child.

For 15 years, Population Media Center (PMC) has been reaching audiences around the globe through mass media. Burkina Faso, a country approximately the size of Colorado with a population of almost 16 million located in Western Africa, is one country where PMC works. To date, PMC has had a hand in telling stories that address important health and social issues in more than 50 countries. These stories repeatedly demonstrate the power of entertainment-education to improve the health and well-being of families.

“Impact evaluations and results from our programs provide compelling evidence that entertainment-education can help people adopt healthier, more prosperous lifestyles,” says Bill Ryerson, PMC’s Founder and President.

PMC’s primary activity has been to create long-running radio serial dramas, like Yam Yankre, that engage audiences with authentic characters and culturally appropriate challenges and opportunities. PMC also produces dramas for television, provides training in effective mass-media communications, advises other media productions, and creates national media strategies – all focused on entertainment-education that use the Sabido methodology to create culturally-specific stories with “positive,” “negative,” and “transitional” characters to model behavior.

François began listening because of his wife. He came home from work, and his wife said, “There is a François just like you in this story…you should listen.” In Yam Yankre, the transitional character’s name is François.

“I recognized myself in the character of François,” says the real-life François. “He is being pushed to have too many children without knowing what to do.”

PMC’s serial dramas address numerous issues, ranging from reproductive health and family planning, to environmental preservation, to child protection, to population stabilization. The goal of every program is to model various viewpoints and interpersonal communication, so that locals talk about the issues and ultimately make their own choices.

Throughout its 15 years, PMC can point to very specific accomplishments on a range of issues. In Ethiopia, 63 percent of new health clinic clients seeking reproductive health services said they were listening to one of PMC’s dramas. In Rwanda, listeners to Umurage Urukwiye were 1.5 times more likely than non-listeners to want three or fewer children. In Nigeria, 67 percent of reproductive health clients in the four northwest states named Ruwan Dare as the motivation to seek health services.

“I spend the majority of my days traveling globally, mostly to places you won’t find in vacation brochures,” says Ryerson. “I see firsthand how the increasing number of people on the planet is affecting the lives of many and hindering development. I have witnessed the struggles with hunger, poverty, and environmental degradation. It drives home to me the continued importance of PMC’s work in partnership with global agencies and foundations. We’re striving to improve opportunities and the health of people in need and to bring about a sustainable planet.”

ABOUT POPULATION MEDIA CENTER (PMC):
Population Media Center (PMC) is a nonprofit, international nongovernmental organization, which strives to improve the health and well-being of people around the world through the use of entertainment-education strategies, like serialized dramas on radio and television, in which characters evolve into role models for the audience for positive behavior change. Founded in 1998, PMC has over 15 years of field experience using the Sabido methodology of behavior change communications, impacting more than 50 countries around the world.

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Don’t Worry–Be Resilient by Charles Hugh Smith

Family fun. Photo by Keith Brofsky/Artville

Family fun. Photo by Keith Brofsky/Artville

At some point, absorbing more information about the unsustainability of modern society yields diminishing returns. It becomes emotionally draining and thus counterproductive. Part of this exhaustion results from recognizing our powerlessness within the Status Quo, where independent thinking and structural innovation are intentionally winnowed out as threats to existing institutions and industries. Another part arises from the burden of knowing that the supposedly permanent Status Quo is far more vulnerable than generally believed.

A related factor that is never publicly discussed is the negative impact on our mental health of all the propaganda that we are force-fed by the Mainstream Media.  When truth is incrementally undermined by massaged data and behind-the-façade manipulation, we lose faith in key State and media institutions and suffer from a propaganda-induced disconnect between what we see and what is reported as fact.

These “burdens of knowing” can diminish the small but real joys of the present: work we like, a home-cooked meal, and time spent with our friends and family. As a result, many smart, well-informed people consciously refuse to dwell on our systemic problems because doing so “is a downer.” These folks hold the perspective that anxiety about the future should not get in the way of the simple pleasures of living.

This attitude can be described as “don’t worry ~ be happy.” And it certainly makes sense when life is still comfortable and enjoyable.

But the philosophy of “thinking about the future is a downer, so I live in the present” ultimately rests on a false confidence that the future will take care of itself, regardless of what happens to the large-scale systems of State, finance, and resources. It overlooks the reality that not all responses to instability or devolution are equally successful. Those who are totally dependent on the Central State and speculation-based markets will have a much more difficult time maintaining their “happy” view if the systems they depend on erode or fail.

Perhaps the wiser response is “don’t worry ~ be resilient.”  The resilient household can be happy not only in the present surplus of energy, entitlements, goods, and services, but can also thrive in a future where the current surplus of cash, credit, and speculative gains has dried up.

Life will out. Photo by RayinLA/Flickr/cc

Life will out. Photo by RayinLA/Flickr/cc

What is Resilience?

What is resilience?  A dictionary definition is “an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change.” In other words, it is on the other end of the response spectrum from fragility, brittleness, and vulnerability.

In terms of individual psychology, resilience can be characterized as being able to roll with the punches, maintaining a positive attitude through difficult times, and focusing on developing successful responses to misfortunes and challenges. American culture extols individual resilience, and we are taught to think that the individual can overcome anything and everything with the right attitude. But if the Status Quo is vulnerable to disruption on a systemic level, then it is prudent to think of resilience in a systemic way as well.

One way to describe the difference between systemic vulnerability and resilience is to conduct a thought experiment:

  • What if it didn’t matter to you and your household if the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA on the NY Stock Exchange) was 14,000 or 4,000? Or if gasoline cost $3.50 or $7.50 per gallon?
  • What if it didn’t matter to you and your household if Central State [government] entitlements were slashed by half, or vanished altogether?
  • What if it didn’t matter to you and your household if your land and house were worth $1 million or $100,000?

In other words, what if the machinations of Wall Street, the Federal Reserve, the Central State and, indeed, all of Central Planning’s promises and speculation-boosting had little effect on your life or well-being? Would this make your household more resilient or more vulnerable? Clearly, the less we are dependent on systemically brittle Central Planning systems, the fewer adjustments we will have to make should these large-scale systems devolve or fail.

The important point being made here about resilience is that it does not require a sacrifice of present happiness. Nor does it profit from the devolution or failure of Central Planning. The resilient household is able to enjoy the present surplus of energy, credit, State entitlements, and consumerist abundance, but it doesn’t rely on it.

If the Status Quo is indeed as permanent as it is presented, the resilient household has the same measure of happiness as the household that is totally dependent on Central Planning promises and boundless credit. The difference between fragility and resilience is how much security and happiness will be available to the two households should the Status Quo credit-based consumption and speculative wealth turn out to be decidedly impermanent.

Debt, Fragility and Vulnerability

The easiest way to increase resilience is to reduce fragility and vulnerability. We can understand the dynamics of what we might call anti-resilience—debt, fragility, and vulnerability—with another thought experiment:

Household A’s gross income is $5,000 a month and their net income (less Federal, state and local payroll and income taxes) is $4,200 a month.  The mortgage is $2,000 per month, both wage earners have substantial monthly payments on student loans, and the household also has an auto loan. The household’s healthcare insurance is partly paid by payroll deductions, and the household remains responsible for a percentage of any major medical costs.  Basic living expenses eat up the rest of the net income; the household saves nothing and has minimal savings.

Household A hopes housing valuations keep rising, as they plan to borrow money off this resurgent home equity to fund a vacation, something they haven’t had for four years.

This household’s financial situation is precarious because its expenses equal its income, and most of these expenses are debt-related and cannot be trimmed. This greatly increases their fragility to financial misfortune; any reduction in take-home pay or any increase in expenses will push this household into default.  To increase consumption, they plan to borrow more money once their only collateral—their home equity—increases enough to support more debt.

Household A has a high and inflexible cost-basis. Any significant reduction in income cannot be offset with equivalent cuts in spending.

Household B owns their land and home free and clear; the only housing-related payments are property taxes and property insurance.  (Recall that 30% of all homes are owned free and clear in the U.S., so this is not as unusual as you might imagine.)

One wage-earner paid off her modest student loans within a few years; the other never took on student loans in the first place. They own two older vehicles free and clear. They are debt-free. Their gross income is $4,000 and their net income is $3,200. Since they have no mortgage interest deduction, their income taxes are higher as a percentage of income than Household A. Their living expenses total $1,500 per month, so they save 50% of their net income.  If one of the wage earners loses their job, the household can maintain its current budget without sacrifice. Their substantial savings protect them from unforeseen medical expenses not covered by healthcare insurance, and they can pay for vacations with cash, not credit.

Let’s say that one wage earner in each household loses their job and must take a job that pays 20% less. Household A cannot cover its expenses and must default on one of their debts. Household B’s monthly savings decline, but they are still saving a substantial portion of their income.

Which household is vulnerable to even modest financial misfortune?  Clearly Household A. Will a positive attitude be enough to save the family from insolvency?  It will help it transition into and hopefully through bankruptcy, but a positive attitude alone is no substitute for financial resilience.

Though Keynesian economists argue that nations are not like households, in truth debt/financial fragility is scale-invariant, meaning that rising debt, a high cost basis, and zero savings/investment lead to fragility in households, enterprises, communities, and nations alike.

Conclusion

The United States of America shares a lot in common with Household A: It has a high and inflexible cost-basis, and it is dependent on borrowing to fund future consumption and on speculation to create collateral. It is also tied into spending a significant share of its income-servicing debt. History offers few examples of major nations that prospered by borrowing vast sums for consumption.

Charles Hugh Smith writes the ‘Of Two Minds’ blog <www.oftwominds.com/blog.html> which covers an eclectic range of timely topics: finance, housing, Asia, energy, long term trends, social issues, health/diet/fitness and sustainability. Smith’s books include “Weblogs and New Media: Marketing in Crisis” (2008) and “Survival+: Structuring Prosperity for Yourself and the Nation” (2009). He is currently completing “An Unconventional Guide to Investing in Troubled Times” (June 2011). Published on ‘Peak Prosperity’  <http://www.peakprosperity.com, February 12, 2013. Reprinted with permission.

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Workers of the World: RELAX! by John de Graaf

How We Can Create a Successful Economy Without Continuous Economic Growth

Relaxing by the fountain. Photo by PolandMFA/Flickr/cc

Relaxing by the fountain. Photo by PolandMFA/Flickr/cc

The late, great environmentalist David Brower used to say that there will be no profits, no corporations, no economic growth, and by implication, no successful economies on a dead planet.

Brower, who made the Sierra Club a powerful force for conservation and founded Friends of the Earth, often delivered what he called his “sermon.” He compressed the age of the Earth, some 4.6 billion years, into the Biblical week of creation.

The Earth forms on Sunday morning, and by Tuesday afternoon, the first life-forms arrive. Over the next few days, they grow larger and more complex. On the last day of the week, at 10 a.m., the dinosaurs show up. They last until 3 p.m., when an asteroid ends their reign. Only three minutes before midnight on the final night, humans arrive. And only in the last tiny fraction of a second before midnight do we get the consumer society that began after World War II.

So perhaps we should be asking a different question: Is continuous growth undercutting our efforts to create a successful economy? I think so.

In that last fraction of a second, we have used more resources than all human beings who ever lived before that time, reduced our soils and fisheries by half, caused the extinction of countless species, and changed the climate. Our leaders believe that what we’ve been doing for that last fraction of a second can continue indefinitely. We consider them normal and reasonable, Brower observed, but actually, they are stark, raving mad.

We can’t grow on like this.

Already, our “ecological footprint” is well in excess of what is sustainable for future generations. And beyond a modest level of income, growth doesn’t make countries happier either. So perhaps we should be asking a different question: Is continuous growth undercutting our efforts to create a successful economy? I think so.

Economic growth, our current indicator of success, is measured by the rise of the gross domestic product (GDP), the market value of the goods and services we produce, the sum total of things bought and sold. It’s commonly agreed that GDP is a blunt instrument; it doesn’t measure valuable activities that are not monetized (e.g., housework) and it counts (as a plus) expenditures that only alleviate things gone wrong (e.g., cancer treatments). Perhaps Bobby Kennedy put it best when he said, “It measures, in short, everything except that which makes life worthwhile.”

By all accounts, the United States’ economy has grown faster than those of Europe over the past two decades, when measured by GDP. We trumpet that fact as indicating the success of our economic model. But Italian economist Stefano Bartolini makes a powerful case for a different view. He says our more rapid growth rate is a symptom of American economic decay, not dynamism. In his new book, Manifesto for Happiness, to be published in English this year by the University of Pennsylvania, Bartolini calls the United States “the example not to follow.”

In short, his argument is this: Growing inequality has left median American hourly incomes flat for a generation while GDP doubled. We were able to purchase the increased volume of consumer goods produced by working longer hours and by taking on excessive personal debt. But more work and more stuff have left us lonelier and less connected with each other, while growing debt has led to calls for slashing taxes, leading to higher prices for public goods such as higher education or access to public parks.

We have been encouraged to counter these losses by purchasing even more private goods (Want friends? Buy a hot car… Want nature? Fly to a tropical paradise…), leading to even heavier debt and workloads. Moreover, our lifestyles, built around private consumption, have created low-density sprawl that makes public transit too expensive and encourages automobile dependence, longer commutes, and even less social connection, while further reducing public space and access to nature. It’s a vicious circle.

Bartolini argues that free or publicly provided and often non-material need-satisfiers have atrophied or been crowded out by costly private consumer goods.

The outcome is poor health (the worst in the rich world), time stress, greater anxiety, and diminished happiness, including a suicide rate that now exceeds that for traffic fatalities. Yet our expenditures to soften these impacts (the highest health care costs in the world, for example) mean our economy grows faster than Europe’s, where people work and consume less and devote more time to social relationships. We are hamsters, turning the wheel faster and faster but never moving forward to better lives.

This result can scarcely be called a “successful” economy. Economic success is better measured the way Bhutan measures it. Since 1972, that tiny Himalayan kingdom has been promoting Gross National Happiness rather than GDP. With Bhutan’s encouragement, the United Nations is now advocating “equitable and sustainable well-being” as the goal of development instead of mere economic growth, while asking member nations to measure their success in pursuing happiness. A better measurement of “success” is the first step toward well-being.

In the United States, an organization called ‘The Happiness Initiative’ has been working with colleges and communities on such a measurement of progress, using a comprehensive but short survey that measures life satisfaction in ten “domains” identified by researchers as essential for happiness: financial security; environmental quality; physical and mental health; education; arts and culture; government; social connection; workplace quality and time balance.

“Time Balance” scores for Americans are uniformly low, leading to my own recipe—supported by Juliet Schor, Gus Speth, and others—for strategically moving towards a successful economy without continuous economic growth: work reduction.

High unemployment is certainly no indication of economic success; indeed, it contributes greatly to unhappiness. As productivity increases, employment must be maintained either by greater production (with attendant environmental costs) or by sharing and shortening work hours through reduced work weeks, longer vacations, liberal family and sick leave policies, and greater opportunities for decently remunerated part-time work with benefits.

Work reduction would provide more economic security and more time for self-chosen activity—exercise, gardening, volunteering, environmental restoration and stewardship, socializing, stress-reducing leisure, personal caregiving. Yet, this obvious answer to the question of how to create a successful economy without continuous growth has been systematically excluded from American politics since the Second World War.

Some argue that it will be very difficult to change the laws that permit work without end.  They forget that it will be far harder to change the laws of physics to permit growth without end. Conrad Schmidt of British Columbia’s Work Less Party, puts the solution in simplest terms: “Workers of the World, Relax!”

John de Graaf is a documentary filmmaker who has produced more than a dozen prime-time national PBS specials and has won more than 100 filmmaking awards. De Graaf is the Executive Director of Take Back Your Time and co-founder of The Happiness Initiative. He is the co-author of the books Affluenza and What’s the Economy for, Anyway?  Source: Center for Humans & Nature,  

 <http://www.humansandnature.org/economy—john-de-graaf-response-68.php>  Reprinted with permission.   The Center for Humans and Nature brings together philosophers, biologists, ecologists, lawyers, political scientists, anthropologists, and economists, among others, to think creatively about how people can make better decisions—in relationship with each other and the rest of nature.

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A New Dream Built on Resilience by Asher Miller

A new way of seeing our place within the web of life.

A new way of seeing our place within the web of life.

If you’re a lazy pessimist, times are good. After all, you don’t have to look far to see evidence that things are tough and poised to get tougher.

There’s a growing wealth chasm between the rich and, well, everyone else. Significant changes to our climate are already underway and are now largely unavoidable. Our industrial food system is having a malignant influence on people’s health and our politicians. And we are going to increasingly desperate lengths to feed our fossil fuel energy addiction. The list goes on.

And while national and international leadership are key to navigating the bumpy road ahead, thus far, that leadership is sadly wanting.

I’ll be honest—in the face of all this, I’d probably count myself among the lazy pessimists. But having kids ruined both the laziness and the pessimism. I’m sure many of you can relate.

But that doesn’t mean that we can ignore the painful reality that’s just outside the window. And if you’re anything like me, you’re wondering what can be done. One approach is to build resilient communities:

  • Resilient – because the complex economic, energy, and environmental challenges we face not only require solutions to make problems go away, but responses that recognize our vulnerabilities, build our capacities, and enable us to adapt to an increasingly unpredictable future.
  • Communities – because the future is grounded in local relationships—relationships with the ecological resources that feed and sustain us, among families and neighbors, and through the institutions we use to govern ourselves.

Thankfully, a small but growing movement of engaged citizens, community groups, businesses, and local elected officials is leading the way. These early actors have worked to reduce unbridled consumption, produce local food and energy, invest in local economies, and preserve local ecosystems. While diverse, the essence of these efforts is the same: a recognition that the world is changing and the old way of doing things no longer works.

A few months ago, my organization, Post Carbon Institute, launched a new website called ‘resilience.org’ to provide connections for concerned folks just like you and me: connections to timely information and thought-provoking essays; connections to like-minded grassroots groups and nonprofit organizations that are working to build robust, thriving communities; and connections to innovative resources and models that help us individually and collectively face these challenges head on.

Here are just few recent examples of articles and resources you can find at resilience.org:

•  A conversation with Mark Lakeman of City Repair: On the development of sustainable public places.

As part of this task we’re also publishing a series of Community Resilience Guides to capture some of the most promising and replicable of these efforts: investing in the local economy, producing community-owned renewable energy, and growing local food security.

These are uncertain, challenging times. But they are also full of opportunity. And so if you’re like me (and the thousands of other folks who visit resilience.org regularly) and feel compelled to take action, I hope you’ll get engaged in the necessary, daunting, and rewarding task of building resilience at home and in your community. It’s all-hands-on-deck!

Asher Miller is the Executive Director of Post Carbon Institute and on the board of Transition US. Visit <resilience.org> to find a resilience group near you. Source: Center for a New American Dream, March 7, 2013. <http://www.newdream.org/blog/a-new-dream-built-on-resilience&gt;

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Happiness: Santa Monica Well-Being Study to Examine the Health and Social Connectedness of Residents by Marilyn Hempel

Santa Monica Third Street Prominade

Santa Monica Third Street Prominade

Santa Monica, California, is known for its progressive social consciousness. The Los Angeles County coastal city now wants to find out how its citizens are feeling. The City of Santa Monica has won a $1 million grant to develop an index to measure the satisfaction of residents, all in an effort to improve public policy.

Bloomberg Philanthropies, led by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, offered the ‘Mayor’s Challenge’ prize to cities to discover “innovative local solutions to national problems”. Providence, RI, took the top spot, winning $5 million to launch its ‘Providence Talks’ program, which is designed to improve the language skills of children born into low-income homes.

Houston, Chicago and Philadelphia were also named runners-up alongside Santa Monica. They too will receive a $1-million prize to kick-start projects such as a “one bin for all” recycling program and an analytics platform that will make city government more efficient.

“The competition has provided evidence that cities are really the new laboratories of democracy,” Bloomberg said.

Santa Monica will develop its happiness index over the next two years. City officials and Rand Corporation researchers propose tracking the physical health, social connectedness and community resilience of residents. Once officials pinpoint how residents are faring, they can direct money and resources where needs are greatest. The city has already completed a youth well-being study that found most students were healthy and felt safe at school.

The city of Santa Monica is not only interested in becoming more sustainable, it is already working to achieve that goal. It has had an Office of Sustainability and the Environment since 1994. Dean Kubani is director of the office and its programs.  In describing the development of a happiness index, he stated:

“Research shows that the conditions that make people happy are (among other things): strong family and community connections; positive physical and mental health; a feeling of comfort and safety in one’s surroundings; gainful and fulfilling work; and a pleasant environment to live in.

“In Santa Monica we plan to measure local wellbeing through a combination of subjective data (basically interviewing a lot of people about how they perceive their own wellbeing and the conditions that impact their wellbeing) and objective data like crime rates, public heath indicators, educational data, economic and jobs data, environmental indicators and others that address all of these various conditions and ‘happiness factors’.

“We will aggregate this into a Wellbeing Index that will inform our City Council and other community leaders on directing resources to those areas (both geographic and topical) identified by the data as wellbeing ‘gaps’.  The ultimate goal is to continually collect this data, and use it to increase the wellbeing of our community. Making more informed decisions will hopefully result in better outcomes for our residents. This is similar to the way our sustainability indicators and targets inform our decision-making process now.”

The ultimate goal is to build sustainable, resilient communities where the residents connect with each other and with nature—all within the means of nature. That way of life will help people thrive and be happy. As Dean Kubani said,  “If we can help each other along, we can sleep well at night.”

For more information, contact the City of Santa Monica, Office of Sustainability and the Environment, 200 Santa Monica Pier, Ste J, Santa Monica, CA 90401. Phone: 310-458-2213. Website: <www.sustainablesm.org>

Sustainable Santa Monica Background

On September 20, 1994 Santa Monica’s City Council adopted the city’s first Sustainable City Program to ensure that Santa Monica can continue to meet its current environmental, economic and social needs without compromising the ability of future generations to do the same. The program has evolved since its adoption and has been responsible for many positive changes in the community. In 2003, City Council adopted an expanded version of the program called the Sustainable City Plan, which was developed by a diverse group of community stakeholders and lays out far-reaching sustainability goals for the community. In 2012, Santa Monica began a comprehensive update of the Sustainable City Plan in order to lay the foundation for future sustainability successes.

Additional information is available at <www.sustainablesm.org>. If you have questions, please contact the Office of Sustainability and the Environment at: (Phone) 310-458-2213 or (Email) environment@smgov.net.

10 Guiding Principles provide the basis from which effective decisions are made.

1. The Concept of Sustainability Guides City Policy

2. Protection, Preservation, and Restoration of the Natural Environment
is a High Priority of the City

3. Environmental Quality, Economic Health and Social Equity are Mutually Dependent

4. All Decisions Have Implications to the Long-term Sustainability of Santa Monica

5. Community Awareness, Responsibility, Participation and Education are Key Elements of a Sustainable Community

6. Santa Monica Recognizes Its Linkage with the Regional, National, and Global Community

7. Those Sustainability Issues Most Important to the Community Will be Addressed First, and the Most Cost-Effective Programs and Policies Will be Selected

8. The City is Committed to Procurement Decisions which Minimize Negative Environmental and Social Impacts

9. Cross-sector Partnerships Are Necessary to Achieve Sustainable Goals

10. The Precautionary Principle Provides a Complimentary Framework to Help Guide City Decision-Makers in the Pursuit of Sustainability

Sustainable Santa Monica ~ 2012 Achievement Highlights

Resource Conservation

  • Expanding Efficiency: More than 700 water saving devices were installed in homes and businesses throughout the city.
  • Solar Success: To date, there are 377 grid connected solar projects in the city representing 2.945 megawatts of solar capacity.
  • Compost Collection: The food waste composting program kept more than 4,000,000 pounds of food waste out of the landfill.

Transportation

  • Biking is Big: Bike lanes and routes were installed on 18 miles of city streets.
  • Pedal Parking: The bike valet program parked 24,000 bikes for free at 217 community events around the city.
  • Friendly Fuels: Public electric vehicle charging stations were installed at 24 locations adding to the more than 100 EV charging stations already available at private locations.

Economic Development

  • Community Commerce: 518 businesses joined ‘Buy Local Santa Monica’ and demonstrated their commitment to our local community.
  • Local Leadership: Nineteen businesses were recognized for their exceptional commitment to sustainable practices through the ‘Green Business Certification Program’.

Environmental and Public Health

  • Diligent Disposal: Community members using the Household Hazardous Waste Programs kept nearly 250,000 lbs
  • of hazardous materials and 32,000 lbs of household batteries out of the landfill.
  • Resource Reuse: More than 64,000,000 gallons of urban runoff were harvested and treated for reuse at the Santa Monica Urban Runoff Recycling Facility.
  • Market Madness: Sales are up 5% at four thriving farmers’ markets that provide fresh, locally grown produce to nearly a million visitors each year!
  • Better Bags: Implementation of the ‘Single Use Carryout Bag Ban’ eliminated 21,000,000 plastic bags from circulation throughout the city.

Open Space and Land Use

  • Outstanding Open Space: Santa Monica’s open space system now includes 245 acres of state beach and 27 community parks.
  • Total Trees: An additional 1,384 new trees were added to the existing 34,500 public trees in Santa Monica’s urban forest.

Human Dignity

  • Homeless Help: ‘Project Homecoming’ helped 266 previously homeless individuals reunite with family and friends able to offer permanent housing and ongoing support.
  • Safe Streets: Serious crimes against persons and property dropped 4.8%.
  • Community Care: The Human Services Grants Program provided over $7,400,00 to support local family, disability, employment and homeless services.

Housing

  • Housing Hope: 101 affordable housing units were completed and construction began on an additional 354 affordable housing units.
  • Complete Communities: More than 90% of all new housing units are within a mile of a transit stop, open space and a grocery store.

Arts and Culture

  • Adding Arts: City Council approved the addition of an ‘Arts and Culture Goal Area’ in the Sustainable City Plan.
  • Creative Culture: The full spectrum of cultural, artistic and design goods and services known as the ‘Creative Sector’ employ 43% of Santa Monica residents.

Community Education and Civic Participation

  • People Participate: Nearly 9,000 people participated in the Santa Monica Festival and 20,000 people attended the AltCar and AltBuild Expos.
  • Environmental Education: More than 800 people participated in the ‘Sustainable Works Community Greening Program’.
  • Individual Input: Voter turnout in the November 2010 off-year election was 65%, exceeding the Sustainable City Plan target of 50%.

Sample of Future Goals

  • Become water self-sufficient (i.e no water from the Colorado River or northern California – only local well water, rainwater and recycled/reclaimed water) by 2020
  • Achieve 95% waste diversion from the landfill by 2030
  • Get community greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to 80% below 1990 by 2050 (Santa Monica is already 14% below 1990 levels now).

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Open Borders and the Tragedy of Open Access Commons by Herman Daly

Immigrants are people, and deserve to be well treated; immigration is a policy, and deserves rational discussion.

Immigration is a divisive issue. A good unifying point in discussing it is to recognize that every country in the world has a policy of limiting immigration. Some allow many legal immigrants. Other countries (China and Japan, for example) allow very few. As the World Bank reported in its Global Bilateral Migration Database, “The United States remains the most important migrant destination in the world, home to one fifth of the world’s migrants and the top destination for migrants from no less than sixty sending countries. Migration to Western Europe remains largely from elsewhere in Europe.” 

Herman Daly

Herman Daly

Questions of how many immigrants are consistent with the welfare of the receiving community, and which prospective immigrants should get priority, are legitimate, and are answered differently in different countries. There are political arguments in every country for more or for less immigration, and for different selection criteria. There are also arguments about freedom to emigrate—what are the obligations of emigrants to the community that educated and invested in them (e.g. the brain drain)?

Immigrants are people, and deserve to be well treated; immigration is a policy, and deserves rational discussion. It seems that neither expectation is adequately fulfilled, perhaps partly because the world has moved from largely empty to quite full in only one lifetime. What could work in the world of two billion people into which I was born, no longer works with today’s world of seven billion. In addition to people the exploding populations of cars, buildings, livestock, ships, refrigerators, cell phones, and even corn stalks and soybean plants, contribute to a world full of “dissipative structures” that, like human bodies, require a metabolic flow of resources beginning with depletion and ending with pollution. This growing entropic throughput already exceeds ecological capacities of regeneration and absorption, degrading the life-support capacity of the ecosphere.

The U.S. is indeed a country of immigrants; but it is also a country of law. Within the rule of law there is a wide range of legitimate opinion about what limits and priorities best balance the interests of the sending and receiving communities, and of the individual migrants. In the US most population growth is due to net immigration, so population stabilization absolutely requires immigration limits. To advocate population stability while refusing to accept limits to immigration is self-contradictory. Some open-borders advocates argue that because population at a global level is the result only of birth and death rates (migration is irrelevant since the Earth does not receive people from other planets)—that therefore nations should not be concerned with immigration as a cause of their own population growth, but only with their own natural rate of increase. This is a non sequitur. With open borders, why would any country any longer try to limit its birth rate, if it is (a) possible to export its excess population, and, (b) impossible to limit its population, given unlimited immigration? Evading an issue by “globalizing” it is a cop-out.

In addition we have in the U.S. a strong cheap-labor lobby that uses immigration (especially illegal immigration) to force down wages and break labor unions, as well as weaken labor safety standards. This is less the fault of the immigrants than of our own elite employing class and pandering politicians. The immigration issue in the U.S. is largely an internal class battle between labor and capital, with immigrants as pawns in the conflict. This class division is more important than racial issues, which nevertheless receive more attention because racial discrimination is rightly illegal, whereas class exploitation is often legal, protected by laws that need to be democratically changed—just have a look at the U.S. tax code, or the Citizens United ruling of the Supreme Court.

Unlike Europe, the U.S. has a large population of citizens whose recent ancestors were forcefully brought over as slaves (involuntary immigrants). Many Americans, including me, think that Black American heirs of slavery deserve priority in the U.S. job market (including job training) over new immigrants, especially illegal immigrants. Likewise for the many Americans of all races still living in poverty. Other Americans, unfortunately, seem to feel that if we can’t have slaves, then the next best thing is abundant cheap labor—another way of saying lots of poor people! Nevertheless, I would favor temporary legal immigration at about half of the current level of one million per year, but diminishing gradually every year to a level consistent with population stability. Population stability means that births plus immigrants equal deaths plus emigrants.

What immigration policy would critics of U.S. immigration limits advocate for other countries? Say for Japan, or Germany, or Greece, or for an independent Catalonia, if that should come about? Do any political parties in member countries advocate open borders for the European Union with respect to the rest of the world? Should the areas of the Amazon reserved for indigenous people be open to free immigration? Should Bhutan, bordered by the world’s two most populous countries and trying to preserve its culture and ecosystems, declare a policy of open borders?

Outside the rule of law there is of course illegal immigration that renders moot all democratic policy deliberations about balancing interests for the common good. Again, there are legitimate questions about how best to enforce immigration laws, making the punishment fit the crime, etc. But it is hardly democratic to refuse to enforce democratically enacted laws, even though difficult individual cases arise, as with any law. Humane provisions for difficult cases must be worked out, e.g., children brought here illegally by their parents twenty years ago.

Some people propose quite a drastic change in immigration law. They advocate a policy of open borders, which at a stroke would do away with illegal immigration and enforcement problems. This is at least a more honest position than just refusing to enforce democratically enacted laws. It is attractive to anarchists, if there are any left, and to libertarians, their modern descendants. Libertarians are mainly found today among neoclassical economists, whose view is that of atomistic individualism. Only the individual is real. The community is just an aggregate of individuals, nothing more. Their focus is on individuals maximizing their own welfare. Since the community is not considered real they commonly neglect effects of mass immigration, both positive and negative, on both the sending and receiving community. They see the world as one big free market, which of course entails free mobility of labor, as well as goods and capital—a globally integrated economy all guided by a global invisible hand—deregulation taken to the limit! In developed countries they are especially interested in opening their borders to young workers to help cover social security shortfalls resulting from the older age structure caused by slower population growth. The cheap-labor lobby is joined by the cheap- retirement lobby. Apparently the immigrants are expected to die or go home as soon as they reach retirement age and would start receiving rather than paying into social security. Also, while working they are expected to boost fertility and population growth sufficiently to postpone the necessity of raising the retirement age or lowering benefits. Population growth is expected to continue indefinitely.

Even some environmentally-minded economists seem to favor open borders. They  have swallowed the basic atomistic individualism of neoclassical economics while opposing other aspects of the paradigm. Nevertheless, people are in fact not atomistic individuals but persons-in-community—both social and biophysical community. Our very identity as persons is constituted by internal relations in community—with family, friends, and place, including one’s ties to country, biome, customs, religion, language, and history. Community is real and important to the welfare of real persons—it is not just an aggregate of externally related, atomistic, interchangeable individuals—of “economic men” running all over the world in mass numbers seeking their own utility maximization.

Within limits individual freedom to migrate is certainly a value to be protected—including against its own self-defeating extreme of open borders. To make political progress toward consensus on immigration policy we should first clear the air with a “referendum” on the policy of open borders. If that policy is rejected then we can talk seriously about the total number of immigrants and the selection criteria that best balance the needs of all people. If the open-borders policy is adopted then one must forget about controlling the movement of people across national boundaries.

Indeed, open borders eliminates or at least diminishes control of the border crossings of goods and capital as well—something consistently advocated by neoclassical economists under the banner of “free trade” and “globalization”. National boundaries are in effect erased, and without national boundaries there need be no border patrol, indeed no military to defend those former borders—just one big happy “world without borders” in the words of the song. After two world wars the abolition of the nation state admittedly has its appeal—but a “world without borders” is an expression of sentimentality, not reason. If you are poor and your country provides no social safety net, you move to one that does. If you are rich and your country makes you pay your taxes, you move to one that doesn’t. That is the “world without borders” —and without community either!

Global community must be a “community of communities”, a federation of nations cooperating for a limited number of important global purposes. Erasure of national boundaries would mean that there are no communities left to federate. The invisible hand of the free global market (along with unrestrained global corporations) will unleash growth in global GDP (unhindered by national policies of cost internalization). The population of atomistic cosmopolitan individuals, free from national laws and constraints, will grow with renewed pace. External costs, if recognized at all, will presumably fall on the “non-existent” community, and to the extent that some fall on real individuals, they can be escaped by freely migrating somewhere else.

Realistically however, a policy of open borders obviously invites the tragedy of the open access commons. It is its own reductio ad absurdum, as indicated in the previous paragraph. Probably that is why, in the full world of today, no country practices it, and few people advocate it. Nevertheless, it should be fairly discussed, because some people certainly do advocate it. In addition to the cheap-labor and cheap-retirement lobbies, advocacy of open borders comes both from the politically correct faction of left-wing economists, and from the libertarian faction right-wing economists. The politically correct reflexively label any limits on immigration as thinly disguised “racism”, apparently the only evil they can recognize. The libertarian neoclassicals label any restriction on immigration as a “market distortion”, their single cardinal sin. Both consider themselves advanced cosmopolitans, morally superior to the national populists whose “provincial” concern is first for the poor in their own community. This surprising agreement between opposite political extremes in support of open borders is evidence that ideologues of both types have difficulty thinking clearly. Unfortunately, lack of clear thinking—aided by moralistic pretension, ethnic politics, and class interest—is often a political advantage.

 

Herman E. Daly is one of the world’s foremost ecological economists. He is Emeritus Professor at the University of Maryland, School of Public Policy. From 1988 to 1994 he was Senior Economist in the Environment Department of the World Bank. His interest in economic development, population, resources, and environment has resulted in over a hundred articles in professional journals and anthologies, as well as numerous books, including Toward a Steady-State Economy. He is co-author with theologian John B. Cobb, Jr. of For the Common Good which received the 1991 Grawemeyer Award for Ideas for Improving World Order. Over his career, Herman has taken a courageous stance, swimming upstream against the currents of conventional economic thought. Printed with permission.

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