erikars: (Default)
Worldchanging presents some interesting data the real decrease in the standard of living of most Americans. I find the article interesting, but I disagree with the author's conclusion that what we need is aid for low- and middle- income individuals and legal caps on carbon emissions.

We should not use aid to solve this problem because this problem spans a wide income range. Aid is not the solution to what is really a systemic problem in our society; it is a bandage. Caps on carbon emissions are not a solution to the problem of decreasing spending power (although the investments spurred by such caps are likely part of the long term solution). I suppose you could say that aid is too short term a solution and legal caps are too long term a solution.

I do not know what the best solution is. It may have elements of aid and legal caps on carbon emissions. Aid for the truly needy is fine (I support welfare, just not as a way of life). Laws that will spur long term investment are worth looking into. Raising the minimum wage might help. But it seems that solving this problem will involve many more components, the most fundamental of which is a change in the attitude of employers which makes them realize that they have a moral obligation to look after the livelihood of their employees, and a change in the attitude of investors which makes them realize that they should hold a company responsible for more than just profit. (The negative consequences of seeing investing as a way to make money rather than as a way to have part ownership in a business could fill an essay I am not qualified to write.) Fundamentally, the problem is that money and goods are seen as more important than people and changing that attitude is a necessary condition for long term equity and prosperity.
erikars: (Default)
Finished Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet by Jeffrey D. Sachs. This book describes why general prosperity is a good thing, how the changing global environmental and demographic situations changes the traditional story with respect to prosperity, and ideas for how general global prosperity might be achieved.

Sachs argues that the 20th and 21st centuries will see the end of American and European economic dominance. This is largely due to the fact that the population is increasing much more quickly in the rest of the world than in the U.S. and Europe and the standard of living is improving in (most) of those countries much more quickly than it is in the U.S. Even though most of the world is unlikely to meet the standards of living in the developed countries for many years, the sheer number of people in countries with growing populations and growing economies will cause their total economic output and consumption to vastly exceed that of the developed countries.

Sachs also points out the danger of excessively large population growth coupled with fast economic growth. As the population of the world increases, we will stress our environmental resources more and more. This pressure is a danger to global security, especially as economies become more intertwined (think about the rising prices of oil and grains).

However, we (being the developed world) cannot just tell the developing world to stop developing. For one thing, we do not have the power to enforce such a demand. For another, it would just be wrong and hypocritical for us to forbid others from trying to reach the standard of living we enjoy (or even from trying to reach a standard of living that allows for basic food, shelter, and security needs).


So that is the depressing part. Sachs also goes into detail on some solutions. I will not detail them here (the book is 300 pages, and I am already over 300 words). In brief, we need to 1. figure out sustainable systems for energy, land, and resource use (climate change increases the need, but is not the only reason for it). 2. Stabilize the global population at about 8 billion by voluntary reduction of fertility rates (part of this is decreasing child mortality rates). 3. End extreme poverty and increase economic security in rich countries (because, even as income is increasing, personal economic security is decreasing). 4. Revitalize global co-operation in solving these global scale problems.

I am very stupid about these sorts of things in general. I would love for someone more versed in these types of issues to read the book and give their opinion on it. But given that, I found it a very interesting and educational read.
erikars: (Default)
The media keeps making a big deal out of corn grown for ethanol contributing to the food crisis, and this may have a tiny bit of merit (and corn based ethanol is just stupid anyway). However, what seems likely to be just as large of an impact is meat. It takes a lot of resources to raise meat animals (I have heard something like 7-13 pounds of grain for each pound of cow, the variance coming from the age at which the cow is slaughtered and whether you count the whole cow or just edible parts of the cow.) If we are going to blame ethanol for diverting grain that people can eat, certainly we should blame cows for dramatically decreases the amount of grain available for human consumption.

Now, I am not saying we should give up meat (although in the US we do tend to eat more than is healthy). I am quite fond of a well prepared steak. What I want to illustrate, rather, is the shallow nature of media reporting. Ethanol is controversial, so the media jumps all over the opportunity to imply that it is bad. They are not going to do the same thing for meat.

If anyone has numbers on productive acreage used for meat production and the productive acreage used for ethanol production, I would appreciate it (either in the US or globally).

ETA: For those ethanol numbers, I am interested in current land usage, not predicted land usage to satisfy a significant amount of US fuel needs.
erikars: (Default)
Finished Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger. First things first, this book is not claiming that environmentalism is dead. It is making the equally contentious but distinct claim that environmentalism, as it currently stands, should die.

To understand why Nordhaus and Shellenberger make this claim, it is first necessary to understand what they mean by environmentalism. According to the authors, environmentalism today is based on a "politics of limits". The mode of operation for environmental organizations is to limit or prohibit activities that are seen as harming the environment. This in itself is not problematic, but what is problematic, according to Break Through, is that modern environmentalism limits itself to these sorts of activities.

Nordhaus and Shellenberger given the example of harmful development in Brazil. They describe the environmentalist approach to saving the rain forest as limited trying to pressure the Brazilian government to pass laws that are beneficial to the rain forest. However, these actions ignore the reasons for Brazilian deforestation. Brazil actually has some protections in place (e.g., some percent of land must be left in tact by the owners), but those protections are not enforced (it is not easy to police a giant remote forest). Furthermore, violations of those protections are almost encouraged by other laws which say that homesteaded land can only be kept if it is used, leading people to large scale clearing of the land to show they are "using" it.

The second issue that the authors claim is ignored by environmentalists is the widespread poverty in Brazil. Going out and destructively homesteading the rain forest is appealing to many because there are not opportunities for them to make a good living in the cities.

Nordhaus and Shellenberger do not think that laws limiting destruction of the rain forest should be completely ignored. However, they criticize environmentalists for thinking that issues such as stable governments, poverty, and enforcement of the law are outside of the interests of environmentalists. Nordhaus and Shellenberger advocate policies that get at the root cause of environmental problems, not just the symptoms.

The authors claim that the politics of limits work even worse when it comes to solving a problem like global climate change. Deforestation, air pollution, water pollution, and other traditional environmental problems are very visible and, therefore, very easy to make people aware of. However, global climate change is not very visible. There are images of the effects of global climate change, but images (however sad) of polar bears lacking ice are not nearly as visceral are images of rivers on fire or pollution over Los Angeles.

The authors also claim that the politics of limits is a politics that only work when people feel secure. When people feel their job is secure, their mortgage will be paid, and they can put food on the table, they are willing to address at issues with more long term negative effects such as pollution or global climate change. When they fear for their jobs, homes, ability to put gas in their cars, as has recently been and currently is the case in the United States, they tend to focus on those primary needs and to reject anything that could threaten those needs in the short term (such as environmental limits). Nordhaus and Shellenberger are claiming here that modern environmentalism, despite its sometimes anti-development stance, is actually a product of prosperity and security.

This is why they propose replacing the "politics of limits" of current environmentalism with a "politics of possibility". They propose that environmentalism should have a wider range of interests that appeal to people's desire to have physical and emotional security. Thus, they propose shifting some, if not most, of the focus of environmentalism from limits to things like job creation and clean energy. These are things that people can get behind because they make them feel better about their lives, and they address root problems of many environmental problems. People in developing nations are not (and should not) going to accept being told that they have to continue living in poverty so that pollution does not increase. People in those countries, will support initiatives that help get them out of that poverty, and saving the world, under hopeful conditions, will just increase support.

I really enjoyed the core message of Break Through. I do agree that environmentalism should be about assessing and addressing root causes as well as obvious problems, and I do agree that a politics of possibility has a lot more potential than a politics of limits. However, I do have some criticisms of the book. The tone the authors use often implies that those people who are part of the politics of limits did a little that was useful and are now completely useless. I disagree with this implication. It is not bad for existing organizations to feel that they should stay focused on their mission statement. Instead of criticizing them, the authors should show them that there are more effective methods and they will either change or obsolete the existing organizations (note that the authors have started the Break Through Institute, so they are doing something. It is just their sometimes tone I find off putting).

My second criticism is of their desire for the "death of environmentalism". First, I do not think they really believe it. I think it is mostly an eye grabbing technique. However, if they do need it, I do not think it is called for. I think that the actions of current environmentalism have a place in a new environmentalism. That place may be less central, but the types of problems current environmentalism is effective at solving have not been completely solved, so the organizations are not obsolete.

However, overall Break Through is a very interesting and insightful read and was certainly worth my time.
erikars: (Default)
Via No Impact Man I found The Story of Stuff. This is a little cartoon/talk on how stuff is produced, consumed, and disposed of. It does not tell the whole story; the video does not address any advantages of the consumption system, slight as it might be, and it does not provide a full plan of the consequences of changing the system (the rest of the website might address this; I didn't check). However, the video is much more fact filled and persuasive than most pieces deriding or defending or current ways of consumption.

It is a bit long (~20min?), but good. Watch it!
erikars: (Default)
Here is why religious fundamentalists should be for reducing carbon emissions. Increased carbon dioxide emissions cause women to use contraceptives!

I love abusing data from time to time.

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Erika RS

May 2012

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