Deep thought - Dec 9
Jules Peck, The Diplomat
In Bhutan they’ve scrapped GDP in favour of Gross Domestic Happiness. Is it also time for the West to re-consider its attitude towards growth? Jules Peck weighs up the arguments.
In conventional wisdom, economic growth and higher incomes mean richer lives and improved quality of life. But, as the Happy Planet Index ( www.happyplanetindex.org ) shows, true prosperity goes beyond material pleasures. Surely it resides in the health and happiness of our families, in the strength of our relationships and our trust in the community? Yet in our search for prosperity, we seem to have lost our way.
Growth has delivered its benefits, at best, unequally. Twenty per cent of the world’s population earns just two per cent of global income. Far from improving the lives of those who most needed it, growth has let much of the world’s population down.
And as the economy expands, so do its ecological impacts. We live now as if we have one and a half planets and peaking in key resources – such as oil – may be less than a decade away. Swedish diplomat and former UN weapons inspector Hans Blix notably warned that climate change was a greater issue than global terrorism, and leading figures in the military have been outspoken about the risk to global security in not taking serious and rapid action to deal with threats such as climate change.
So, as the rich world uses far more than its fair share of the planet, surely we in the wealthy world must radically cut back our planetary consumption if developing countries are to have any hope of their own prosperity?
...What is urgently needed is a new political philosophy and vision. None of this will happen without the political will to make space for audacious change, but, for those brave enough, there is voter support for government action on these issues.
Prime Minister David Cameron has in the past been outspoken about the need to dethrone growth and he commissioned the Quality of Life Review which I directed and which gave recommendations on a new well-being economics. But more recently we have heard little about this from him and his Big Society vision is as yet untested.
The UK government’s Sustainable Development Commission has been working on ideas for a Growth In Transition Commission which would carry on the great work done for President Nicholas Sarkozy by the Stiglitz Commission.
Luckily, work by think tank nef is already under way in the UK to model what an economy no longer reliant on growth would look like. In Canada work has shown such an economy could bring high employment, greater equity, a stable economy and combat climate change.
Other leaders are engaging with this debate. German politician Horst Köhler has been clear that growth does not bring happiness. President of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, has said: ‘GDP is unfit to reflect many of today’s challenges such as climate change… We cannot face the challenges of the future with the tools of the past’. Meanwhile EU Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas has stated: ‘There is political consensus on the need to go beyond GDP’. The OECD and European Commission are currently seeking ways of measuring progress and well-being more broadly than by taking GDP as the sole measure which Angel Gurria, OECD Secretary General, has said ‘will constitute a major contribution to stability and democracy’. As well as at EC and OECD level, countries like Austria, Finland and New Zealand are examining these issues. Bhutan uses an alternative to GDP in their Gross Domestic Happiness measure. And many US states are now developing their own indicators of progress beyond GDP.
(1 December 2010)
From the man who brought us an Open letter to the Queen in answer to Her Majesty's query as to why the economic crash of 2007-2008 was not foreseen.
Finding Rootedness in the Age of Vulnerability
John Cavanagh, Robin Broad, Yes! Magazine
It seems that almost everyone we know is feeling vulnerable these days—whether they are rich or poor, employed or unemployed, their lives are feeling fragile. So we are setting out to discover places where people are finding ways to counter that vulnerability, creating more secure paths of living based on a concept we are calling "rootedness." We are learning from communities in the United States and also abroad—in the Philippines, Trinidad, and El Salvador.
Fifty years ago, when our parents deposited money in the bank, it was almost certainly a local bank, which then lent the money to people and businesses in that very community. Today, money goes to giant financial institutions that partake in casino-like activities that undermine local economies. Fifty years ago, most farmers grew a variety of crops from traditional seeds and most regions were largely self-sufficient in food; today, most farmers produce a single crop with seeds purchased from global firms.
We are setting out to discover places where people are finding ways to counter that vulnerability, creating more secure paths of living based on a concept we are calling "rootedness."
Indeed, today, so much of what we eat, invest, borrow, and purchase is the product of global assembly lines. As a result, all of us are vulnerable to external shocks. So when the 2008 Wall Street crash spread like wild fire around the world, it hit families and communities everywhere, accelerating unemployment, suffering, inequality, and uncertainty. That same year, billions of people in poorer nations found that wildly fluctuating prices of wheat, corn, rice and other key food products increased their chances of going hungry. And extreme weather events related to climate change have been hitting people hard, in all parts of the globe.
In the United States and around the world many people and some governments are working to reduce their vulnerability to these global shocks by becoming more rooted.
This year, the two of us are taking a pause from our other work to dig into a fascinating array of communities and countries that are finding rootedness in this “age of vulnerability.” We are discovering the same yearning for roots and community in such far flung places as the Philippines, Trinidad, and El Salvador that we are seeing in communities across the United States. We feel it ourselves in our community of Takoma Park, Maryland.
But how does one define and measure rootedness? There are, we would suggest, several ways:
- There is economic rootedness, which focuses on producing as much as possible locally, then nationally, then regionally, and only then globally. This notion is sometimes called subsidiarity, and it is very different from old-fashioned protectionism.
- There is environmental rootedness, wherein communities control their water, their forests, and other natural resources, and hence have a vested interest in managing them sustainably.
- And there is social rootedness, wherein (among other things) a society is more healthy if it is more equal and it also has a stronger sense of community.
To write this blog, we will visit Filipino rice farmers who are abandoning chemical farming in favor of organic farming, and finding that their finances, their health, and their environment are all benefiting. We will travel to Trinidad, where fisherfolk are fighting to protect their local fishing grounds against giant shrimp trawlers and oil drilling. We will visit communities in El Salvador that have rejected the get-rich-quick promises of gold mining firms in order to preserve their fresh water and their communities. And, we will report on several U.S. communities that are re-rooting different aspects of economic life, such as the rapidly expanding “slow food” and “slow money” movements.
We will also pay attention to nations like Mexico that were overly dependent on global markets and, as we are discovering, are faring the worst in this crisis—exactly the reverse of what mainstream economic theory predicted...
(6 December 2010)
Transition: The Sacred, The Scared, and The Scarred
Carolyn Baker, Speaking Truth to Power
I read with great fascination, Rob Hopkins’ critical response to Michael Brownlee’s November 26 article “The Evolution of Transition In The U.S.” In it, Rob begins by listing a number of criticisms of Transition in recent years and adds that criticism of Transition has been a positive process which has helped to shape what it is today. However, he finds Michael’s proposal to put the sacred at the center of Transition “concerning.”
Despite my deep respect for Rob and the enormous legacy to which he and Transition in the UK have given birth, I cannot be silent about his concerns. The first seems to be Michael’s assertion that Transition initiatives in the U.S. must “declare independence,” from Transition in the U.K. Here I recall one of the things that first drew me to Transition, namely its focus on local solutions based on the needs of a particular place. Having been an activist for decades, I was beyond disillusioned by groups that claimed to depart from the hierarchical, corporate functioning of most organizations of industrial civilization but in fact, mimicked them. I was thrilled to discover that the Transition model as outlined in the Transition Handbook, was at long last, a genuine exception to this. In more recent months, however, I have started to feel as if a kind of creeping corporatism is beginning to emerge which as Michael notes, we need to declare independence from. Specifically, what I have noticed is an implicit assumption that however Transition is implemented in a particular place, it must defer to the leadership of Transition in the U.K. and in the U.S. So on the one hand, “declaring independence” from a tendency to become monolithic in thinking and action may well be necessary, but in no way is this synonymous with renouncing a “spirit of collaboration.” Throughout Michael’s article, I hear a deep desire for collaboration, but also for resilience in our approach to implementing Transition in the U.S.
As for economics, Rob’s argument against putting all his eggs in the basket of any one economic theory, misses the point. The point is not to choose a particular theory and defend it, but to put all the theories he mentioned on the table and engage in deep, protracted dialog about all of them. The U.K. is presently enduring a horrible winter in which people are freezing to death, losing jobs, police and fire personnel are being laid off by the hundreds, and at the same time, the nation is facing the same severity of economic meltdown now occurring throughout many other industrialized nations. All of this is happening in the vicinity of Rob’s local place, and one does not need to be an economist to understand that conditions are becoming increasingly dire all across Europe. Transition initiatives in all parts of the world will ultimately find themselves confronted by these grim economic realities, and they should be talking about them with as much focus as they are directing toward Peak Oil and climate change. As frightening as the consequences of Peak Oil will be, the consequences of a global economic collapse are beginning to bring similar or worse realities to our doors with dizzying speed. In fact, currency wars, gargantuan amounts of debt, and a worldwide crisis in food production and food prices—all of which are happening now, may ultimately make the consequences of Peak Oil seem anticlimactic.
...At its inception, the Transition movement went to great lengths to avoid a reference to the sacred or spirituality. At that time, this circumvention was probably appropriate. The point Michael is trying to make, it seems, is that because Transition and the world are evolving, such avoidance is no longer congruent with humanity’s dire predicament which now necessitates digging deeper into the core of the human species.
I began researching Peak Oil, climate change, and economic collapse in 2002, and in 2007, well in advance of the unleashing of an official Transition movement, I came to understand that the ramifications of these were so enormous that they were literally challenging our species to look more incisively than ever before in human history not only at its place in relation to the earth community, but into its very essence. In fact, I realized that these daunting challenges would ultimately confront humans with the fundamental question of what it means to be a human being inhabiting planet earth. It became increasingly clear to me that these challenges were no longer simply challenges of energy, climate, economics, or politics, but that in fact, they were profoundly existential. I came to understand that if we follow the reverberations of them into the farthest reaches of the human psyche we will confront something greater than the human ego and the rational, linear mind. In fact, we will confront the mystery at our core and at the core of the human community at large. Thus, I began viewing the collapse of industrial civilization not as a calamity befalling the human species, but rather as an opportunity for humanity to become a uniquely new species—that as a result of navigating the loss of the way of life as it had known, it would become a species that could never again permit the kind of existence on this planet that industrial civilization has created.
...So now you may ask, what do I mean by “sacred”? For me, the word simply means “something greater” that is at the core of humanity and the earth community. The mathematical cosmologist, Brian Swimme speaks of conscious self-awareness, that is to say, the universe being conscious of itself through the human species. To grasp the implications of this notion, we need only ask a few simple questions: What would our world be like if human beings understood and lived as if they are the universe being conscious of itself? What would be the implications in energy, environment, economics, health, law, education, human relationships, and relationships between humans and non-humans?
(8 December 2010)
Carolyn's post is a follow-up post to an exchange about spirituality and the sacred in the Transition Movment:
Michael Brownlee The evolution of Transition in the U.S.
Rob Hopkins A critical response to Michael Brownlee’s call for ‘Deep Transition’
Joanne Poyourow The power of positive
For Energy Bulletin, we think the discussion has reached the point of diminishing returns and we refer people to the discussion that is continuing beneath Rob's article at Transition Culture. -BA
Treading Softly: Paths to Ecological Order
Elaine Graham-Leigh, Counterfire
Princen's book treads much the same ground as his previous work, but with the added point that the economic crisis has now shown up the flaws of the capitalist system in sharp relief.
Thomas Princen, Treading Softly. Paths to Ecological Order
(The MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass./London 2010), xii, 210pp.
Thomas Princen is a major proponent of the ‘sufficiency strategy’ strand of green thinking – the idea that dealing with climate change requires us all to reduce our consumption of food, consumer goods, travel, and so on, to a minimal level – and is the author of several other books arguing that our environmental problems are at base problems of overconsumption.
Princen’s argument, in line with the sufficiency strategy, is that we are not ‘living within our means’, and that the economic crisis is further evidence of this fact. He says that ecology, economy, energy and ethics are all now pointing to the conclusion that we are exceeding our resources. Thus the economic crisis reflects and is part of the wider environmental crisis: both are caused by unchecked consumption, and both underline how the system has to be changed.
Although the focus here is on consumption, Princen manages to avoid attributing it to individual greed and irresponsibility. There is a worthwhile discussion here of how claims that consumer choice drives production are used to justify the worst excesses of capitalism. It is indeed often argued against green campaigns that people must want more and more consumer goods, as if capitalism did not have to devote enormous energy to persuade consumers to buy what it had already decided to produce. However, that we need fundamental changes to the system is something of a given. The real questions are what we might replace the system with, and how we might get there, and on these, Princen is much less sympathetic.
... Despite these hints of a distinctly unegalitarian argument trying to get out, it would be unfair to brand this as a solely right-wing text. The main thrust of the book is towards a fairer society which would provide everyone with a better life (within a given definition of ‘better’). When he extols the virtues of nineteenth-century US small towns, it seems genuinely not to have occurred to Princen that his paradise of the petty bourgeoisie was not attainable for everyone. The most serious difficulties arise from the way in which the argument remains stuck within the overconsumption school of thought about climate change. This imposes limits on Princen’s thinking of which he may not have been aware, but which but which prevent him from seeing the real connections between climate change and the economic crisis.
There clearly can be a tension between the overconsumption arguments and campaigns against cuts or for jobs. If you argue against the cuts from an environmental perspective, you get used to hearing the counter-argument that because we have been ‘living beyond our means’, cut backs are the only sustainable way forward. Princen is obviously not happy with the position that we all just have to sacrifice, but is unable to find a way out of it except to explain how ‘positive sacrifices’ feel so much better than negative ones, and if we would just embrace them, we wouldn’t realise we were sacrificing at all.
What is lacking here is the understanding of how the structural problems of capitalism have brought us to this economic and ecological pass, and how these are now the reason why we are facing massive cuts to public spending as a result of the bailout of the banks. Campaigning against the cuts from a green perspective is not campaigning for more damaging growth, but recognising that resistance to the cuts is resistance to the causes of climate change as well.
(3 December 2010)
Written from a left-wing perspective. -BA
The “Stuff” of the American Energy Footprint
Sarah "Steve" Mosko, Culture Change
Americans today are generally aware that we consume far more energy per capita than most of the world’s peoples, over four times the world average and double that of regions like Japan and Europe which enjoy a similar standard of living. Most of us reflect on home gas and electric bills plus the fuel pumped into our cars’ gas tanks when judging our personal energy footprints.
But in reality it is all the “stuff” Americans accumulate that contributes most heavily to our total energy consumption. To understand why this is true, it is necessary to first get a handle on the ways societies utilize energy.
...A run-down of the energy-sapping steps involved in the production of a hypothetical polyester/cotton blend T-shirt, abstracted from the book “Stuff: The Secret Lives of Everyday Things” by John C. Ryan and Alan Thein Durning, drives home the point.
The shirt’s polyester component derived from a few tablespoons of crude oil pumped up from a mile-deep well in Venezuela and shipped to a refinery on the island of Curaçao before being piped into a 12-story steel cracking tower where the many different hydrocarbons which make up the crude are separated out. Additional oil was burned to heat the crude to the 750°F needed to yield petrochemicals like ethylene and xylene from which polyester is synthesized.
Those chemicals are then shipped to a chemical plant in Delaware where high temperature processes convert them to intermediary chemicals which, in turn, are linked into long molecular chains of polyethylene terephthalate (like the PET in plastic beverage bottles). Polyester fibers are formed by drawing out the PET resin into hair-like filaments.
Growing the shirt’s Mississippi cotton is also energy intensive from the start because of the heavy irrigation (electrically-driven) and frequent dousing with synthetic pesticides that is standard practice in the cotton industry. In addition, a crop duster burning diesel fuel from Mexico applies a defoliant before harvesting. To pick the cotton, a worker sits in the air-conditioned cab of a diesel-powered cotton stripper manufactured in the United States from parts imported from 20 countries. Once a cotton gin separates the fibers from the seeds, the fibers are trucked to a textile mill in North Carolina to be spun into yarn. Another mill knits the cotton and polyester into fabric.
A woman in Honduras sews the T-shirt which is mounted on a sheet of cardboard made of pinewood pulp from Georgia wrapped in a polyethylene bag made in Mexico. The finished product is shipped back to the United States where the consumer most likely carts it home in a plastic bag made in Louisiana.
The point here is not that anyone who cares about energy conservation should never buy a T-shirt, but rather the T-shirt saga illuminates how an individual’s purchasing habits contribute so heavily to his/her personal energy footprint.
(9 December 2010)