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.

****

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.

3 Comments

Filed under Culture, Ecological Footprint, Economy, Energy, Environment, Politics, Sustainability

Top 10 Policies for a Steady-State Economy by Herman Daly

Well before reaching that radical biophysical limit, we are encountering the classical economic limit in which extra costs of growth become greater than the extra benefits, ushering in the era of uneconomic growth, whose very possibility is denied by the growthists.

Well before reaching that radical biophysical limit, we are encountering the classical economic limit in which extra costs of growth become greater than the extra benefits, ushering in the era of uneconomic growth, whose very possibility is denied by the growthists.

Let’s get specific. Here are ten policies for ending un-economic growth and moving to a steady-state economy. A steady-state economy is one that develops qualitatively (by improvement in science, technology, and ethics) without growing quantitatively in physical dimensions; it lives on a diet – a constant metabolic flow of resources from depletion to pollution (the entropic throughput) maintained at a level that is both sufficient for a good life and within the assimilative and regenerative capacities of the containing ecosystem.

Ten is an arbitrary number – just a way to get specific and challenge others to suggest improvements. Although the whole package here discussed fits together in the sense that some policies supplement and balance others, most of them could be adopted singly and gradually.

1. Cap-auction-trade systems for basic resources. Caps limit biophysical scale by quotas on depletion or pollution, whichever is more limiting. Auctioning the quotas captures scarcity rents for equitable redistribution. Trade allows efficient allocation to highest uses. This policy has the advantage of transparency. There is a limit to the amount and rate of depletion and pollution that the economy can be allowed to impose on the ecosystem. Caps are physical quotas, limits to the throughput of basic resources, especially fossil fuels. The quota usually should be applied at the input end because depletion is more spatially concentrated than pollution and hence easier to monitor. Also the higher price of basic resources will induce their more economical use at each upstream stage of production, as well as at the final stages of consumption and recycling. Ownership of the quotas is initially public – the government periodically auctions them to individuals and firms. There should be no “grandfathering” of quota rights to previous users, nor “offshoring” of quotas for new fossil fuel power plants in one by place by credits from planting trees somewhere else. Reforestation is a good policy on its own. It is too late for self-canceling half measures – increased carbon sequestration and decreased emissions are both needed. The auction revenues go to the treasury and are used to replace regressive taxes, such as the payroll tax, and to reduce income tax on the lowest incomes. Once purchased at auction the quotas can be freely bought and sold by third parties, just as can the resources whose rate of depletion they limit. The cap serves the goal of sustainable scale; the auction serves the goal of fair distribution; and trading allows efficient allocation – three goals, three policy instruments. Although mainly applied to nonrenewable resources, the same logic works for limiting the off-take from renewable resources, such as fisheries and forests, with the quota level set to approximate a sustainable yield.

2. Ecological tax reform. Shift the tax base from value added (labor and capital) to “that to which value is added,” namely the entropic throughput of resources extracted from nature (depletion), and returned to nature (pollution). Such a tax shift prices the scarce but previously un-priced contribution of nature. Value added to natural resources by labor and capital is something we want to encourage, so stop taxing it. Depletion and pollution are things we want to discourage, so tax them. Payment above necessary supply price is rent, unearned income, and most economists have long advocated taxing it, both for efficiency and equity reasons. Ecological tax reform can be an alternative or a supplement to cap-auction-trade systems.

3. Limit the range of inequality in income distribution with a minimum income and a maximum income. Without aggregate growth poverty reduction requires redistribution. Unlimited inequality is unfair; complete equality is also unfair. Seek fair limits to the range of inequality. The civil service, the military, and the university manage with a range of inequality of a factor of 15 or 20. Corporate America has a range of 500 or more. Many industrial nations are below 25. Could we not limit the range to, say, 100, and see how it works? This might mean a minimum of 20 thousand dollars and a maximum of two million. Is that not more than enough to give incentive for hard work and compensate real differences? People who have reached the limit could either work for nothing at the margin if they enjoy their work, or devote their extra time to hobbies or public service. The demand left unmet by those at the top will be filled by those who are below the maximum. A sense of community, necessary for democracy, is hard to maintain across the vast income differences current in the United States. Rich and poor separated by a factor of 500 have few experiences or interests in common, and are increasingly likely to engage in violent conflict.

4. Free up the length of the working day, week, and year – allow greater option for part-time or personal work. Full-time external employment for all is hard to provide without growth. Other industrial countries have much longer vacations and maternity leaves than the United States. For the classical economists the length of the working day was a key variable by which the worker (self-employed yeoman or artisan) balanced the marginal disutility of labor with the marginal utility of income and of leisure so as to maximize enjoyment of life. Under industrialism the length of the working day became a parameter rather than a variable (and for Karl Marx was the key determinant of the rate of exploitation). We need to make it more of a variable subject to choice by the worker. Milton Friedman wanted “freedom to choose” – OK, here is an important choice most of us are not allowed to make! And we should stop biasing the labor-leisure choice by advertising to stimulate more consumption and more labor to pay for it. At a minimum advertising should no longer be treated as a tax-deductible expense of production.

5. Re-regulate international commerce – move away from free trade, free capital mobility, and globalization. Cap-auction-trade, ecological tax reform, and other national measures that internalize environmental costs will raise prices and put us at a competitive disadvantage in international trade with countries that do not internalize costs. We should adopt compensating tariffs to protect, not inefficient firms, but efficient national policies of cost internalization from standards-lowering competition with foreign firms that are not required to pay the social and environmental costs they inflict. This “new protectionism” is very different from the “old protectionism” that was designed to protect a truly inefficient domestic firm from a more efficient foreign firm. The first rule of efficiency is “count all the costs” – not “free trade,” which coupled with free capital mobility leads to a standards-lowering competition to count as few costs as possible. Tariffs are also a good source of public revenue. This will run afoul of the World Trade Organization/World Bank/International Monetary Fund, so….

6. Downgrade the WTO/WB/IMF. Reform these organizations based on something like Keynes’s original plan for a multilateral payments clearing union, charging penalty rates on surplus as well as deficit balances with the union – seek balance on current account, and thereby avoid large foreign debts and capital account transfers. For example, under Keynes’s plan the U.S. would pay a penalty charge to the clearing union for its large deficit with the rest of the world, and China would also pay a similar penalty for its surplus. Both sides of the imbalance would be pressured to balance their current accounts by financial penalties, and if need be by exchange rate adjustments relative to the clearing account unit, called the “bancor” by Keynes. The bancor would also serve as the world reserve currency, a privilege that should not be enjoyed by any national currency, including the U.S. dollar. Reserve currency status for the dollar is a benefit to the U.S. – rather like a truckload of free heroin is a benefit to an addict. The bancor would be like gold under the gold standard, only you would not have to tear up the earth to dig it out. Alternatively a regime of freely fluctuating exchange rates is a viable possibility requiring less international cooperation.

7. Move away from fractional reserve banking toward a system of 100% reserve requirements. This would put control of the money supply and seigniorage (profit made by the issuer of fiat money) in the hands of the government rather than private banks, which would no longer be able to live the alchemist’s dream by creating money out of nothing and lending it at interest. All quasi-bank financial institutions should be brought under this rule, regulated as commercial banks subject to 100% reserve requirements. Banks would earn their profit by financial intermediation only, lending savers’ money for them (charging a loan rate higher than the rate paid to savings or “time-account” depositors) and charging for checking, safekeeping, and other services. With 100% reserves every dollar loaned to a borrower would be a dollar previously saved by a depositor (and not available to him during the period of the loan), thereby re-establishing the classical balance between abstinence and investment. With credit limited by prior saving (abstinence from consumption) there will be less lending and borrowing and it will be done more carefully – no more easy credit to finance the massive purchase of “assets” that are nothing but bets on dodgy debts. To make up for the decline in bank-created, interest-bearing money the government can pay some of its expenses by issuing more non-interest-bearing fiat money. However, it can only do this up to a strict limit imposed by inflation. If the government issues more money than the public voluntarily wants to hold, the public will trade it for goods, driving the price level up. As soon as the price index begins to rise the government must print less and tax more. Thus a policy of maintaining a constant price index would govern the internal value of the dollar. The Treasury would replace the Fed, and the target policy variables would be the money supply and the price index, not the interest rate. The external value of the dollar could be left to freely fluctuating exchange rates (or preferably to the rate against the bancor in Keynes’s clearing union).

8. Stop treating the scarce as if it were free, and the free as if it were scarce. Enclose the remaining open-access commons of rival natural capital (e.g., the atmosphere, the electromagnetic spectrum, and public lands) in public trusts, and price them by cap-auction-trade systems, or by taxes. At the same time, free from private enclosure and prices the non-rival commonwealth of knowledge and information. Knowledge, unlike the resource throughput, is not divided in the sharing, but multiplied. Once knowledge exists, the opportunity cost of sharing it is zero, and its allocative price should be zero. International development aid should more and more take the form of freely and actively shared knowledge, along with small grants, and less and less the form of large interest-bearing loans. Sharing knowledge costs little, does not create un-repayable debts, and increases the productivity of the truly rival and scarce factors of production. Patent monopolies (aka “intellectual property rights”) should be given for fewer “inventions,” and for fewer years. Costs of production of new knowledge should, more and more, be publicly financed and then the knowledge freely shared. Knowledge is a cumulative social product, and we have the discovery of the laws of thermodynamics, the double helix, polio vaccine, etc. without patent monopolies and royalties.

9. Stabilize population. Work toward a balance in which births plus in-migrants equals deaths plus out-migrants. This is controversial and difficult, but as a start contraception should be made available for voluntary use everywhere. And while each nation can debate whether it should accept many or few immigrants, and who should get priority, such a debate is rendered moot if immigration laws are not enforced. We should support voluntary family planning and enforcement of reasonable immigration laws, democratically enacted.

10. Reform national accounts – separate GDP into a cost account and a benefits account. Natural capital consumption and “regrettably necessary defensive expenditures” belong in the cost account. Compare costs and benefits of a growing throughput at the margin, and stop throughput growth when marginal costs equal marginal benefits. In addition to this objective approach, recognize the importance of the subjective studies that show that, beyond a threshold, further GDP growth does not increase self-evaluated happiness. Beyond a level already reached in many countries, GDP growth delivers no more happiness, but continues to generate depletion and pollution. At a minimum we must not just assume that GDP growth is economic growth, but prove that it is not uneconomic growth.

Currently these policies are beyond the pale politically. To the reader who has persevered this far, I thank you for your willing suspension of political disbelief. Only after a significant crash, a painful empirical demonstration of the failure of the growth economy, would this ten-fold program, or anything like it, stand a chance of being enacted.

To be sure, the conceptual change in vision from the norm of a growth economy to that of a steady-state economy is radical. Some of these proposals are rather technical and require more explanation and study. There is no escape from studying economics, even if, as Joan Robinson said, the main reason for it is to avoid being deceived by economists. Nevertheless, the policies required are far from revolutionary, and are subject to gradual application. For example, 100% reserve banking was advocated in the 1930s by the conservative Chicago School and can be approached gradually, the range of distributive inequality can be restricted gradually, caps can be adjusted gradually, etc. More importantly, these measures are based on the impeccably conservative institutions of private property and decentralized market allocation. The policies here advocated simply reaffirm forgotten pillars of those institutions, namely that: (1) private property loses its legitimacy if too unequally distributed; (2) markets lose their legitimacy if prices do not tell the truth about opportunity costs; and as we have more recently learned (3) the macro-economy becomes an absurdity if its scale is required to grow beyond the biophysical limits of the Earth.

Well before reaching that radical biophysical limit, we are encountering the classical economic limit in which extra costs of growth become greater than the extra benefits, ushering in the era of uneconomic growth, whose very possibility is denied by the growthists. The inequality of wealth distribution has canceled out the traditional virtues of private property by bestowing nearly all benefits of growth to the top 1%, while generously sharing the costs of growth with the poor. Gross inequality, plus monopolies, subsidies, tax loopholes, false accounting, cost-externalizing globalization, and financial fraud have made market prices nearly meaningless as measures of opportunity cost. For example, a policy of near zero interest rates (quantitative easing) to push growth and bail out big banks has eliminated the interest rate as a measure of the opportunity cost of capital, thereby crippling the efficiency of investment. Trying to maintain the present growth-based Ponzi system is far more unrealistic than moving to a steady-state economy by something like the policies here outlined. It is probably too late to avoid unrealism’s inevitable consequences. But while we are hunkered down and unemployed, enduring the crash, we might think about the principles that should guide reconstruction.

See: http://steadystate.org/top-10-policies-for-a-steady-state-economy/

Leave a comment

Filed under Economy, Growth, Politics, Sustainability

Climate Change: The Least We Can Do by Robert Walker, Population Institute

People trying to get out of war-torn Syria, the first country to officially slide into civil war due to climate disaster-caused severe drought and overpopulation.

People trying to get out of war-torn Syria, the first country to officially slide into civil war due to climate disaster-caused severe drought and overpopulation.

As the IPCC’s (intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) Fifth Assessment Report makes clear, we are long past the point of avoiding climate change. The best we can do now is to avoid the worst effects. The situation is more dire than previously projected and the consequences of inaction more starkly drawn than ever before:

Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia. The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, sea level has risen, and the concentrations of greenhouse gases have increased…. Over the last two decades, the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets have been losing mass, glaciers have continued to shrink almost worldwide, and Arctic sea ice and Northern Hemisphere spring snow cover have continued to decrease in extent (high confidence)…. Continued emissions of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and changes in all components of the climate system. Limiting climate change will require substantial and sustained reductions of greenhouse gas emissions.

In a perfect world, the IPCC’s report would summon forth our best efforts at mitigating climate change and its effects. We would be doing whatever is necessary and prudent to avoid a human and environmental catastrophe. By now, however, it is evident that governments—and the people they represent—are shrinking from the challenge. Hope for concerted global action on any kind of meaningful scale has largely evaporated.

Instead of asking what is the most that can be done to mitigate climate change and alleviate its consequences, perhaps we should be asking, “What is the least that can be done?”

The “least” we can do is to mitigate the scale of human suffering and displacement, and the single most cost-effective means of doing so is to prevent unplanned pregnancies. Nearly 40 percent of all pregnancies in the world are unwanted or unintended, and preventing them would make a valuable contribution to climate change mitigation and adaptation.

Giving every woman the power to avoid unwanted pregnancies would dramatically lower projected population growth rates. According to the latest UN population projections, world population, currently 7.2 billion, is likely to reach 9.6 billion by mid-century and continue rising, but if the total fertility rate (i.e. the average number of children per woman) were to fall by just half a child, world population would rise to only 8.3 billion and gradually decline during the second half of the 21st century.

It’s particularly important to prevent unplanned pregnancies in the United States, where our carbon footprints are, on average, nearly twice as high as they are in many European countries and twenty or more times higher than many developing countries. A study released five years ago found that the average “carbon legacy” of a child born in the U.S. would produce about 20 times more greenhouse gases than the mother or father would save by adopting a lower carbon lifestyle (i.e. driving a highly fuel efficient vehicle, using energy efficient appliances, etc.).

But even where carbon footprints are relatively small, no one should discount the contribution that birth control could make to lowering projected greenhouse gas emissions. A 2010 study of energy use and demographics by Brian C. O’Neill concluded that slowing global population growth “could provide 16-29% of the emissions reductions suggested to be necessary by 2050 to avoid dangerous climate change.” That is not insignificant.

Even if preventing unplanned pregnancies in developing countries contributed absolutely nothing to reducing future greenhouse gas emissions, there is a compelling moral case to be made for expanding international family planning services and information. That’s because women and children in countries like Mali, Niger, Somalia, Uganda, Bangladesh, and Ethiopia find themselves on the front lines of climate change. Subsistence farmers, in particular, are vulnerable to the crop damage that will be inflicted by heat, drought, flooding, and rising seas. Some of the most vulnerable and food insecure countries in the world—countries that are already in a struggle for survival—could likely see their populations double or even triple in the next half century. Denying women in these countries the ability to space and limit their pregnancies will compound the suffering that is likely to be caused by climate change. Large families in environmentally-stressed communities will be less resilient and inevitably suffer more from disease, food insecurity, and water scarcity.

Access to reproductive health services is recognized by the United Nations as a universal right, but in many parts of the developing world it is far from being a reality. Making that right a reality for women everywhere may not save the world from climate change, but it would go a substantial way toward alleviating the human suffering that will accompany it. The costs of empowering women and providing family planning services are trivial compared to the benefits that would result from giving women reproductive choice. It really is the least we can do—for climate change—and for the women and their families who will endure some of its worst effects.

 

Robert Walker is the President of the Population Institute in Washington, DC. 

Prior to joining the Population Institute, Mr. Walker was President of the Population Resource Center. He formerly was the Executive Director of the Common Cause Education Fund, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization working to promote open, honest and accountable government.

He also served for three years as President of Handgun Control, Inc. and the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence.

Leave a comment

Filed under Climate, Family Planning, Human Rights, Sustainability

The Downfall of the Plastic Bag by Janet Larsen and Savina Venkova 

plastics

Cattle dine in an illegal dump site.

Worldwide, a trillion single-use plastic bags are used each year, nearly 2 million each minute. Usage varies widely among countries, from over 400 a year for many East Europeans, to just four a year for people in Denmark and Finland. Plastic bags, made of depletable natural gas or petroleum resources, are often used only for a matter of minutes. Yet they last in the environment for hundreds of years, shredding into ever-smaller pieces but never fully breaking down.

Over the last century, plastic has taken over the planet. On the one hand, plastic seems a miracle material, with beneficial uses ranging from medical devices to making vehicles lighter and more fuel-efficient. On the other hand, it is a curse, allowing for the seemingly cheap mass production of disposable materials that fill up landfills, cloud the oceans, choke wildlife, and sully vistas. Filled with additives that lack a safety record, plastics have been linked with a slew of health concerns, including certain types of cancer and infertility. While plastics can be used and recycled wisely, the majority of those produced are neither. Perhaps no other item symbolizes the problems of our throwaway culture more than the single-use plastic bag.

Given the multitude of problems associated with plastic bags, many communities around the world have attempted to free themselves from their addictions by implementing bag bans or fees. The oldest existing bag tax is in Denmark. Passed in 1993, this regulation affected plastic bag makers who paid a tax based on the bag’s weight. Stores were allowed to pass the cost on to consumers either in bag charges or absorbed into the prices of other items. The initial effect of this system was an impressive 60 percent drop in plastic bag use.

One of the most well-known bag measures is Ireland’s national bag tax, adopted in 2002. It was the first to charge consumers directly, starting at a rate of 15 euro cents (20ȼ) per bag. Within five months of the measure’s introduction, bag usage fell by over 90 percent. Litter was greatly reduced as well. Over the years, bag use started to creep up, however, so in 2007 the charge was increased to 22 euro cents, and in 2011 the law was amended with the aim of keeping annual bag use at or below 21 bags per person. Frank Convery of University College Dublin calls Ireland’s plastic bag levy “the most popular tax in Europe” and believes that it would be politically damaging to remove it.

Indeed, many communities looking at plastic bag reduction measures hope to emulate the Irish success. Other European countries where consumers pay for plastic shopping bags—either through law or voluntary initiatives—include Belgium, Bulgaria, France, Germany, Latvia, and the Netherlands. Throughout the European Union, member states will soon be required to take measures to reduce plastic bag use 80 percent by 2019.

Reducing the amount of plastics in the marine environment has been a major driver of bag regulations in Europe and elsewhere. In a memo on its bag reduction proposal, the European Commission notes that “in the North Sea, the stomachs of 94 percent of all birds contain plastic. Plastic bags have been found in stomachs of endangered marine species: green turtles, loggerhead turtles, leatherback turtles, black footed albatrosses, and harbour porpoises.” In sum, “at least 267 different species are known to have suffered from entanglement or ingestion of marine litter.” The desire to protect the whales that migrate off the coast of Tasmania led to Australia’s first local plastic bag ban in 2003. Now half of Australian states and territories ban plastic bags.

Beyond the seas, the reasons for taking action against plastic bags vary from malaria outbreaks associated with bags collecting water in Kenya to sewers clogged with plastic bags exacerbating flooding in Bangladesh, Cameroon, and the Philippines. Cattle choking on plastic bags gave impetus for bag regulations in Texas ranch country and in Indian communities concerned about the sacred cow. In the capital of Mauritania, an estimated 70 percent of cattle and sheep deaths are from plastic bag ingestion; in the United Arab Emirates, the concern is for camels. (Additional details on anti-plastic bag initiatives around the world are at http://www.earth-policy.org.)

In South Africa, where plastic bags caught in bushes and trees had become so common that they were called the national flower, a ban on the very thin non-biodegradable bags that tear readily and easily blow away went into effect in 2003. Thicker bags are taxed. Botswana’s plastic bag fee, which began in 2007, is credited with cutting bag use in half at major retailers. All told, at least 16 African countries have announced bans on certain types of plastic bags, to varying levels of effectiveness.

In China, where plastic bag pollution was widespread, a few cities and provinces tried to introduce policies to limit bag use in the 1990s, but poor enforcement led to limited success. Before Beijing hosted the 2008 Olympic Games, a national law went into effect banning extra thin bags and requiring stores to charge a fee for thicker bags. The Chinese government reported that bag use has dropped by more than two thirds, although compliance appears to be spotty. A number of cities in Southeast Asia, the source of many of the world’s plastic bag exports, have come up with legislation to reduce bag use.

In the United States, 133 city- or county-wide anti-plastic bag regulations have been passed. Bag bans cover one of every three Californians and virtually all Hawaiians. Chicago’s city council voted for a bag ban in April 2014. Dallas and Washington, D.C., are among the handful of jurisdictions that charge 5-10ȼ for each plastic or paper bag; in both cities, charges were instituted to reduce the number of bags in local rivers. In Canada, much of the anti-bag action is voluntary, with a number of retailers participating. The provinces of Ontario and Quebec have each halved their plastic bag use through a variety of measures, including store incentives for using reusable bags and retailer-imposed fees. Liquor stores in Manitoba, Quebec, and Nova Scotia have tossed out the plastic bag for good.

Latin America also hosts a number of initiatives to reduce plastic bag litter and waste, including bans in the Chilean cities of Pucón and Punta Arenas and in the states of Buenos Aires and Mendoza in Argentina, to name a few. Carryout bags in a couple of Brazilian states are required to be biodegradable. São Paulo state banned free single-use plastic bags starting in January 2012, allowing heavy reusable or biodegradable bags to be sold for 10ȼ, but the measure was removed by an industry-supported court injunction, despite the backing of the supermarket trade association. Similarly, Mexico City banned plastic shopping bags in 2009, but, under pressure from plastics manufacturers, the measure was replaced before enforcement began with a recycling initiative—a common tactic used by industry groups around the world against stricter bans or fees.

Plastic bags clearly have a cost to society, one that is not yet fully paid. Reducing disposable bag use is one small part of the move from a throwaway economy to one based on the prudent use of resources, where materials are reused rather than designed for rapid obsolescence.

From our friends at Earth Policy Institute. Additional information, including a timeline of the plastic bag and a collection of international plastic bag initiatives is available at www.earth-policy.org

Leave a comment

Filed under Consumption, Ecological Footprint, Environment, Sustainability

What Has Happened to Earth Day? by Joe Bish, Population Media Center

Photo from Getty Images.

“It is wrong to bludgeon, beat, eviscerate and burn the natural world to suit the vagaries of human desire.” – Joe Bish (Photo from Getty Images.)

Over the last several years, I have found that few things provoke a deeper sense of cynicism in me than Earth Day. Granted, the first official “Earth Day” took place several years before I made my grand entrance into this world—but even so, during my formative years in the late 1970’s, what was conveyed to me was that Earth Day was grounded in a legitimate revolutionary essence—perhaps 80 parts “protest” and 20 parts “celebration”—that held in contempt the machinations of industrial civilization as it stuffed denuded, dismembered and destroyed parts of the living Earth into its gaping maw.

It’s a deeply ethical thing for me, and I suspect for many others: It is wrong to bludgeon, beat, eviscerate and burn the natural world to suit the vagaries of human desire—and at this point, in the “developed” countries, where mass consumerism mesmerizes an already satiated bourgeois into purchasing ever-more throw-away toys, trinkets and travesties, these “desires” are of such vanity and grotesque proportions as to be almost unspeakable. That this brutal exploitation of the Earth continues moment-to-moment, day after day, year after year—all the while scaling up, as the human-load on the Earth ratchets up by over 1 million people every 5 days—is, at its heart, a senseless and idiotic tragedy.

I can’t in good conscious forfeit the whole idea of Earth Day: after all, all the protests and teach-ins and celebrations were, and to some extent still are, based on love. Love for the Earth, love for the potential of human beings and our relationship with the Earth. Love of life. And, from my experience, there is determination to be found in this sort of love.

So, today, let us observe a moment of silence for this mysterious and knowable Earth. And I hope in that moment some sense of reverence for life, some sense of reverence for non-human species, some sense of reverence for your own self finds you … and, if so, that from this moment onward you will keep that respect and love close to your heart in all your worldly decisions and behaviors. After all, you are the only hope the Earth has.

Leave a comment

Filed under Sustainability

If the World Were a Village of 1,000 People by Donella Meadows

If the world were a village of 1,000 people...

If the world were a village of 1,000 people…

This was originally published in 1992. The percentages are slightly out of date because world population has grown so much since 1992. In 1992 world population was about 5.5 billion; in 2014 it is 7.2 billion. However, the concept still holds true.

If the world were a village of 1,000 people, it would include:

  • 584 Asians
  • 124 Africans
  • 95 East and West Europeans
  • 84 Latin Americans
  • 55 Soviets (including for the moment Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians and other national groups)
  • 52 North Americans
  • 6 Australians and New Zealanders

The people of the village have considerable difficulty in communicating:

  • 165 people speak Mandarin
  • 86 English
  • 83 Hindi/Urdu
  • 64 Spanish
  • 58 Russian
  • 37 Arabic

That list accounts for the mother tongues of only half the villagers.  The other half speak (in descending order of frequency) Bengali, Portuguese, Indonesian, Japanese, German, French and 200 other languages.

In this village of 1,000 there are:

  • 329 Christians (among them 187 Catholics, 84 Protestants, 31 Orthodox)
  • 178 Moslems
  • 167 “non-religious”
  • l32 Hindus
  • 60 Buddhists
  • 45 atheists
  • 3 Jews
  • 86 all other religions
  • One-third (330) of the 1,000 people in the world village are children and only 60 are over the age of 65. Half the children are immunized against preventable infectious diseases such as measles and polio.
  • Just under half of the married women in the village have access to and use modern contraceptives.
  • This year 28 babies will be born. Ten people will die, 3 of them for lack of food, 1 from cancer, 2 of the deaths are of babies born within the year.  One person of the 1,000 is infected with the HIV virus; that person most likely has not yet developed a full-blown case of AIDS.
  • With the 28 births and 10 deaths, the population of the village next year will be 1,018.
  • In this 1,000-person community, 200 people receive 75 percent of the income; another 200 receive only 2 percent of the income.
  • Only 70 people of the 1,000 own an automobile (although some of the 70 own more than one automobile).
  • About one-third have access to clean, safe drinking water.
  • Of the 670 adults in the village, half are illiterate.

The village has six acres of land per person, 6,000 acres in all, of which

  • 700 acres are cropland
  • 1,400 acres pasture
  • 1,900 acres woodland
  • 2,000 acres desert, tundra, pavement and other wasteland
  • The woodland is declining rapidly; the wasteland is increasing.

The village allocates 83 percent of its fertilizer to 40 percent of its cropland – that owned by the richest and best-fed 270 people. Excess fertilizer running off this land causes pollution in lakes and wells. The remaining 60 percent of the land, with its 17 percent of the fertilizer, produces 28 percent of the food grains and feeds 73 percent of the people. The average grain yield on that land is one-third the harvest achieved by the richer villagers.

In the village of 1,000 people, there are:

  • 5 soldiers
  • 7 teachers
  • 1 doctor
  • 3 refugees driven from home by war or drought

The village has a total budget each year, public and private, of over $3 million – $3,000 per person if it is distributed evenly (which, we have already seen, it isn’t).

Of the total $3 million:

  • $181,000 goes to weapons and warfare
  • $159,000 for education
  • $l32,000 for health care

The village has buried beneath it enough explosive power in nuclear weapons to blow itself to smithereens many times over. These weapons are under the control of just 100 of the people. The other 900 people are watching them with deep anxiety, wondering whether they can learn to get along together; and if they do, whether they might set off the weapons anyway through inattention or technical bungling; and, if they ever decide to dismantle the weapons, where in the world village they would dispose of the radioactive materials of which the weapons are made.

Donella H. Meadows was a pioneering environmental scientist, author, teacher, and farmer widely considered ahead of her time. She was one of the world’s foremost systems analysts and lead author of the influential Limits to Growth. She was Adjunct Professor of Environmental Studies at Dartmouth College, the founder of the Sustainability Institute and co-founder of the International Network of Resource Information Centers.

Leave a comment

Filed under Sustainability

The Beauty of Native Plants: Designed by Mother Nature to Thrive by Sheryl Eisenberg

LOVE IRISES? Instead of an exotic species, find an iris native to your area. The beautiful specimen above is an Iris versicolor, which is local to me.

LOVE IRISES? Instead of an exotic species, find an iris native to your area. The beautiful specimen above is an Iris versicolor, which is local to me.

The essence of living green is working with nature, not against it. I can think of no better example than planting your garden and yard with plants that are native to the place you live.

The beauty of these species is that they know in their genes how to defend against local pests and diseases, deal with the climate and get by with conditions on the ground. Their ancestors have seen it all—and evolved to cope. As a result, native plants don’t need your daily ministrations to survive. Once established, they don’t even need regular watering.

The same can rarely be said of “introduced” or “exotic” species, which evolved to succeed in other environments. While some naturalize easily (or even take over in the case of invasive plants), most can’t make it on their own. Your help is necessary for their survival—and not just at the start, when all plants need special treatment, but on an ongoing basis.

Natural landscaping with native species is a breeze in comparison. In a year, after becoming established (with care) the plants will practically take care of themselves, saving you time, effort and money. Moreover, you won’t run the risk of exposure to toxic fertilizers or pesticides because none will be needed.

For the environment, there are equally impressive benefits. They include less water waste, less polluted runoff, more wildlife habitat and greater biodiversity. It’s a win-win situation.

So, what exactly are native species and how do you go about finding and choosing them?

In the U.S., native plants are generally defined as species that were in an area prior to the arrival of European settlers. To find out what the native plants are in your area, you’ll need to do some research. Good sources of information are:

Keep in mind the obvious: not every area of a state is the same. Most states include more than one ecoregion where different things naturally grow.

Nor do ecoregions respect state boundaries. For instance, the shoreline areas of Brooklyn, where I live, share more in common, ecologically speaking, with coastal areas of New England than most other parts of New York State.

For this reason, you might want to narrow the field of your search to your particular area and, beyond, to your own property, which may not be typical for your area at all. Whether because of prior development or a unique microclimate, it might be wetter or warmer or rockier or…who knows?

In fact, identifying the properties of your property is, ideally, the first step you would take—before you even think about looking up plants, native or otherwise. The second step is figuring out what you want to do with your property. Only then should you start looking into species. Plant Native offers an excellent guide to the whole process.

PLANT SWAMP MILKWEED to attract monarch butterflies and help sustain them during migration. Widely distributed throughout the U.S. and Canada, this native plant is tall, fragrant and deer-resistant. Milkweed photo: Teune at the English language Wikipedia [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], from Wikimedia Commons

PLANT SWAMP MILKWEED to attract monarch butterflies and help sustain them during migration. Widely distributed throughout the U.S. and Canada, this native plant is tall, fragrant and deer-resistant.
Milkweed photo: Teune at the English language Wikipedia [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], from Wikimedia Commons.

Finally, if you have been concerned about the plight of monarch butterflies and bees—or the fate of our food supply should pollinator numbers drop too low—or the decline in songbirds—or the state of our water—consider planting one of these:

You may wonder if, when all is said and done, your native garden will be visually beautiful. Well, beauty, as you know, is in the eye of the beholder. Take a look at these examples (not all planted exclusively with native plants but all naturally landscaped) and judge for yourself. For me, the answer is a resounding yes.

Sheryl Eisenberg is a writer, web developer and long-time advisor to NRDC. With her firm, Mixit Productions (mixitproductions.com), she brought NRDC online in 1996, designed NRDC’s first websites, and continues to develop special web features for NRDC. She created and, for several years, wrote the Union of Concerned Scientists’ green living column, Greentips, and has designed and contributed content to many nonprofit sites. Sheryl makes her home in Tribeca (NYC), where—along with her children, Sophie and Gabe, and husband, Peter—she tries to put her environmental principles into practice. No fooling.

Leave a comment

Filed under Sustainability