Monday, November 30, 2009

A Sleight Of Hand

The lack of commitment to deal with the various aspects of the ecological challenges that civilization is facing is difficult to accept by those who believe that we are wise specie. But what if we are not? Could it be that we are much more interested in computing the number of angels that can dance on the top of a pin while the barbarians are at the gate? So much suggests that we have no interest in saving ourselves if that implies taking steps that demand change and sacrifice. I guess that in a weird kind of way we are in essence using a strange Cost-Benefit analysis that concludes that the cost of sustainability outweighs the benefits derived from it.
An excellent example to demonstrate the above can be seen in the calculations used to offset carbon footprints. The logic behind these calculations is simply astounding, astoundingly bad. Here is a brief explanation of how this is supposed to work. Large global corporations in the United States could buy vast areas of the tropical forest in Brazil for a relatively small some of money. Once the purchase is completed these international firms will send a group of consultants to number , measure and catalogue the trees in that “preserve” This would enable the owners of the forest, say GM, to estimate the volume of carbon that has been sequestered within the biomass of each of the trees. Some of the common estimates assign often 100 Kg of carbon to each tree. That is 1/10 of a ton and so if a ton of carbon on the exchanges is trading for say $20.00 then that typical tree has a value of $2.00. Furthermore we can assume that each acre has 400 trees and that the area of the preserve is 100,000 acres. The quick calculations show then that this preserve has trees whose value is $80 million of sequestered carbon. So why did GM buy this forest? Because GM is now in a position to claim a carbon credit worth 40,000 tons of carbon. GM can use this credit to offset part of its footprint or it can elect to sell this credit on an open market.
Did you follow the clever sleight of hand? The magic wand of the market created a certain sum of carbon and sold the right to a polluter. We convince our selves that we are polluting less when we are polluting more. Its sheer madness.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Copenhagen : One more time ...

As the world's biggest companies and their friends in
government continue to fight a transition to more just
and sustainable ways of living, climate change
threatens to turn our world upside down with water
shortages, crop failures, sea level rise and ecosystem
collapse. A million species face extinction by the end
of the century, and the people who have contributed
least to the problem will continue to be the hardest
hit. What can be done at this critical juncture, with
our future at stake?

Throughout history, social change has come about when
regular people get fed up with business as usual, get
organized, and take to the streets. If we leave
climate solutions up to politicians and corporations,
then we will lose - not just a political battle, but
the life-support systems of the planet. Time is
running out to avert the worst impacts of climate
change: the time to act is now.

A broad coalition of organizations working for social,
ecological, racial and economic justice has come
together under the banner of the Mobilization for
Climate Justice. Join us as we organize mass action on
climate change on November 30, 2009! November 30 (N30)
is significant both because it immediately precedes the
upcoming UN Climate Conference in Copenhagen and is the
ten-year anniversary of the protests that shut down of
the World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle,
demonstrating the incredible power of collective

Every indication is that any agreement that emerges
from Copenhagen will be nothing more than business as
usual-sacrificing real emissions reductions in favor of
market-based approaches that enhance corporate profits
while delaying a transition away from fossil fuels. The
current approach to climate change in the UN, and in
the US Congress, is based on the creation of a new
market in carbon emissions. Carbon trading (aka "cap
and trade") and carbon offsets do not address the root
causes of global warming, nor do they reduce emissions.
They are designed by and for corporations, and are a
dangerous distraction that should be abandoned.

We urgently need to implement real solutions like
ending excessive consumption, keeping fossil fuels in
the ground, re-localizing production and consumption,
and drastically reducing greenhouse emissions. We must
also protect the rights of workers, displaced peoples,
and others affected by the transition.

In recent months, people of the world have taken
valiant action for climate solutions. On Oct. 24th,
people in 181 countries staged over 5,200 actions
calling for global action on climate change. And on
November 4, African delegates walked out of pre-
Copenhagen negotiations in Barcelona - demanding that
rich countries commit to deeper and faster emissions
cuts - while European activists used civil disobedience
to disrupt the talks.

And now, we're asking you to join us in taking the next
step - a global day of action for climate justice on
Monday, November 30, 2009. Take the day off, get
together with friends, and take a stand for real, just
and effective solutions to the climate crisis!


Several actions are already being planned for November
30 - and many more will be coming soon - so if there's
an action happening in your city or region, we urge you
to join it! See the MCJ site for a map of N30 actions
across the country and across the world.

If there isn't an action being organized in your town,
organize one! If you're already involved in a campaign
against a company that's contributing to climate
injustice, organize an action on against them November
30. You can submit actions by clicking HERE.

If you're organizing an action from scratch, we'd
suggest you go after one of the following companies:
Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase, Morgan Stanley,
Chevron, BP, or American Electric Power. We picked
these six companies because they're all, through their
investments, lobbying, and day to day business, going
out of their way to obstruct real solutions to the
climate crisis.

Wind Energy:
Wind energy is very promising, so is thermal energy, PV, wave ... The only thing that is wrong is that we are not investing enough in any of them. Did you know that if all the declared wind turbines in the world for next year were to be built in China then that would meet only 40% of the expected increase in the demand for electricity on mainland China. This means that China would still need to build in one year the equivalent of 50 coal powered plants each delivering 1000 MW. That is exactly responsible ie it?

Some are blaming Christianity for the recent economic meltdown. The argument is as follows: An increasing number of the "prosperity gospel" school are advancing the argument that success in this life is also to be taken as a sign that God loves us. This leads people to borrow, overconsume and to take risks. Overleveraging and too much risk did not contribute only to the economic meltdown but have played a major role is ecological degradation. So maybe Lynn White was right after all?

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Lower Levels of Consumption

The following is an edited version of an article from The Oil Drum:

Over the past 150 years, the relentless combination of exponentially-increasing population and exponentially-increasing per-capita consumption has significantly depleted a wide-range of resources necessary for the continuation of our modern Industrial Civilization. These include both non-renewable resources and theoretically-renewable resources that are being abused to such an extent that they are becoming essentially non-renewable on useful timescales.

Pick any of these key resources and the annual extraction rate data will likely show an exponential increase from the mid-1800’s to the present. Ask scientists about the resource and they will tell you the bad news: the annual extraction rate curve is near, at, or past the point of collapse. Ask conventional economists or politicians and they will tell you the good news: “Everything’s going to be OK; the market will take care of it; It always has.” So who do we believe?

The Easy Stuff’s Gone

As modern Industrial Civilization built momentum, the easiest resources, the “lowest hanging fruit,” were logically picked first. While the ease of extraction and high quality of these resources gave us a great confidence as a civilization, ever-increasing consumption rates actually became ingrained as a necessity for the continuation of our industrial economies. As this consumptive frenzy gained momentum, however,as the easiest stuff was skimmed off every year, the resources that remained were of increasingly lower quality.

What remains now are resources that are much more expensive, of much lower quality, and much more difficult to extract. These are the low-purity metal ores thousands of feet underground; heavy crude oil and gas laced with toxins that must be coaxed with great effort from beneath thousands of feet of ocean, rock, and salt; sparse schools of lower-quality fish requiring monstrous nets and huge ships for their economical extraction; and the nutrient-depleted, thinned-out top-soil requiring significant inputs to obtain reasonable yields.

The Difficult Stuff’s Too Difficult

What remains is so increasingly difficult to access that it would require actual extra-terrestrial energy inputs for their complete extraction. Here’s the dark irony of our resource predicament: The low-quality, difficult half of the resources that remain require an infrastructure for their extraction that can only exist in the presence of the high-quality, easy half of the resources -- the ones that no longer exist. In other words, a relatively large percentage of the low-quality, difficult resources that remain will likely never be extracted. The age of cheap, easy, high-quality resources to power the current version of Industrial Civilization is over, and the age of expensive, difficult, low-quality resources to power a future version of Industrial Civilization will simply never occur. Our beloved Industrial Civilization, this pinnacle of human ingenuity, this shining beacon of light in an otherwise backward Universe, (this destructive monster killing the biosphere) is just about out of fuel. It’s time to get out and start walking.

So what does all this “bad” news mean for our everyday lives? The short answer is that we can expect a rather drastic involuntary reduction in resource use in the not-too-distant future, gradually worsening, and extending into the distant future. This coming resource supply-reduction may well proceed in a stair-step fashion -- unexpected drop, period of stability, unexpected drop, period of stability…etc, giving repeated temporary illusions of “the bottom.” The steady erosion of the resource pipeline will not only utterly cripple our growth-requiring Industrial economy, it will send ripple effects through every facet of our formerly-industrial lives, changing them almost beyond belief.
This decline will be involuntary, it will not be preventable by any combination of political, social, or technological solutions. It will simply occur, and we must simply respond to it.

How we respond, of course, will make a great deal of difference as to whether our predicament becomes disastrous or just very difficult. Moral guidance will be greatly needed throughout. Many important facets of our lives need not decline in the upcoming future – indeed, they may even increase: personal connections with our families, communities, and the natural world; block parties and potlucks; tag-football and pickup-basketball; joking around and shooting the breeze; love in our hearts, etc. In other words, it’s quite possible we just may find a lot more important and fulfilling things than we’re losing. Much is still up to us.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Copenhagen, One more Time

The peace Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu sent a letter to the EU parliament in which he berated them for not acting to slow down climate change. Mr. Tutu said in his letter " The rich world is historically responsible for the emissions causing climate change and they have a moral obligation to provide the means for the countries on the front line to survive and prosper."

Mr. Tutu was in effect urging the countries of the North to overcome their differences and to live up to their moral responsibility by agreeing; during the Barcelona negotiations; to find a way out of the current impasse before Copenhagen . The developing countries have made it clear that they expect financial transfers from the developed countries of around $148 billion a year by 2020 if they are to do their part of reducing their expected carbon footprint.

But since climate change is a global issue then it does require a global solution. Again it seems obvious that we cannot have a global solution if the largest, well second largest , emitter is not ready to participate in the game. Copenhagen is exactly one month away and the US climate change bill is still languishing in the Senate sub-committee. Senator Boxer , the chair of the Environmental Committee, remains hopeful that a bill will leave her committee before Copenhagen. That is not assured because a number of the Republican senators promise not to attend the committee mark up sessions. If they do not attend then no bill can be presented to the senate at large. Even if a bill is to emerge some very powerful Democratic senators such as Max Baucus promise to hold up the measure in his powerful Finance Committee by delaying funding for the measure. What is even worse are the proposed targets. Kyoto which was initially agreed to by the US was to cut carbon emissions by 5 % from the 1990 level by 2012. The US is estimated to have released around 5 Billion tons of carbon in 1990 and thus the implicit target by 2012 would have been 4.75 billion tons.The new bill is aiming for a 20% reduction from the 2005 levels by 2020. Since the 2005 emissions are estimated to be 6 billion tons then the 20% reduction will take the US back to 4.8 billion tons by 2020. That is irresponsible behviour besides being a cruel joke on the aspirations of those that take these existential matters seriously. The US is targeting to potentially reach by 2020 a level of carbon emissions that it was supposed to have hit by 2012 and yet they want the world to call such measures responsible action. Go figure.

Mr. Yao de Bar, the UN Climate Change Secretariat said it best when he stated the need to "Step back from self interest and let common interest prevail" Nothing else will work.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Biophysical Economics

The following is the coverage that appeared in the NYT of the conference on Biophysical Economics that I attended last week end at ESF.

The New York Times
Printer Friendly Format Sponsored By

October 23, 2009
New School of Thought Brings Energy to 'the Dismal Science'

SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- The financial crisis and subsequent global recession have led to much soul-searching among economists, the vast majority of whom never saw it coming. But were their assumptions and models wrong only because of minor errors or because today's dominant economic thinking violates the laws of physics?

A small but growing group of academics believe the latter is true, and they are out to prove it. These thinkers say that the neoclassical mantra of constant economic growth is ignoring the world's diminishing supply of energy at humanity's peril, failing to take account of the principle of net energy return on investment. They hope that a set of theories they call "biophysical economics" will improve upon neoclassical theory, or even replace it altogether.

But even this nascent field finds itself divided, as evidenced by the vigorous and candid back-and-forth debate last week over where to go next. One camp says its models prove the world is headed toward a dramatic economic collapse as energy scarcity takes hold, while another camp believes there is still time to turn the ship around. Still, all biophysical economists see only very bleak prospects for the future of modern civilization, putting a whole new spin on the phrase "the dismal science."

Last week, about 50 scholars in economics, ecology, engineering and other fields met at the State University of New York's College of Environmental Science and Forestry for their second annual conference on biophysical economics. The new field shares features with ecological economics, a much more established discipline with conferences boasting hundreds of attendees, but the relatively smaller number of practitioners of biophysical economics believe theirs is a much more fundamental and truer form of economic reasoning.

"Real economics is the study of how people transform nature to meet their needs," said Charles Hall, professor of systems ecology at SUNY-ESF and organizer of both gatherings in Syracuse. "Neoclassical economics is inconsistent with the laws of thermodynamics."

Like Hall, many biophysical economic thinkers are trained in ecology and evolutionary biology, fields that do well at breaking down the natural world into a few fundamental laws and rules, just like physicists do. Though not all proponents of the new energy-centric academic study have been formally trained in economics, scholars coming in from other fields, especially ecology, say their skills allow them to see the global economy in a way that mainstream economists ignore.

Central to their argument is an understanding that the survival of all living creatures is limited by the concept of energy return on investment (EROI): that any living thing or living societies can survive only so long as they are capable of getting more net energy from any activity than they expend during the performance of that activity.

For instance, if a squirrel burns energy eating nuts, those nuts had better give the squirrel more energy back then it expended, or the squirrel will inevitably die. It is a rule that lies at the core of studying animal and plant behavior, and human society should be looked at no differently, as even technologically complex societies are still governed by EROI.

"The basic issue is very fundamental: Why should economics be a social science, because it's about stuff?" Hall said.

'Peak oil' embraced

The modern biophysical economics movement may be relatively young, but the ideas at its roots are not.

In 1926, Frederick Soddy, a chemist who was awarded the Nobel Prize just a few weeks before, published "Wealth, Virtual Wealth and Debt," one of the first books to argue that energy should lie at the heart of economics and not supply-demand curves.

Soddy also criticized traditional monetary policy theories for seemingly ignoring the fact that "real wealth" is derived from using energy to transform physical objects, and that these physical objects are inescapably subject to the laws of entropy, or inevitable decline and disintegration.

The sharpest difference between biophysical economics and the more widely held "Chicago School" approach is that biophysical economists readily accept the peak oil hypothesis: that society is fast approaching the point where global oil production will peak and then steadily decline.

The United States is held as the prime example. Though the United States is still the world's third-largest producer of oil, its oil production stopped growing more than a decade ago and has flatlined or steadily fallen ever since. Other once-robust oil-producing countries have experienced similar production curves.

But the more important indicator, biophysical economists say, is the fact that the U.S. oil industry's energy return on investment has been steadily sliding since the beginning of the century.

Through analyzing historical production data, experts say the petroleum sector's EROI in this country was about 100-to-1 in 1930, meaning one had to burn approximately 1 barrel of oil's worth of energy to get 100 barrels out of the ground. By the 1990s, it is thought, that number slid to less than 36-to-1, and further down to 19-to-1 by 2006.

"If you go from using a 20-to-1 energy return fuel down to a 3-to-1 fuel, economic collapse is guaranteed," as nothing is left for other economic activity, said Nate Hagens, editor of the popular peak oil blog "The Oil Drum."

"The main problem with neoclassical economics is that it treats energy as the same as any other commodity input into the production function," Hagens said. "They parse it into dollar terms and treat it the same as they would mittens or earmuffs or eggs ... but without energy, you can't have any of that other stuff."

Nor is conservation or energy efficiency the answer. In his presentation, Henshaw noted that the International Energy Agency's own data show that energy use is doubling every 37 years or so, while energy productivity takes about 56 years to double.

In fact, the small world of biophysical economists seems to agree that energy and resource conservation is pointless in the economic system as it is now construed, contrary to what one might expect. Such efforts are noteworthy as it buys the world a bit more time, but the destination is inevitably the same -- a gallon of gasoline not burned by an American will be burned by someone else anyway.

Other peaks?

Though not as closely studied, biophysical economists theorize that the peak oil phenomenon holds true for all non-renewable resources, especially energy commodities. Proponents of the field say they are moving closer to understanding "peak gas" and "peak coal." Consumption of many of the world's most valuable minerals could likewise see those resources nearing exhaustion, as well, they say.

And no amount of technology can fix the problem. Hagens points out that oil extraction has evolved by leaps and bounds since the early 1900s, and yet companies must expend much more energy to get less and less oil than they did back then.

"It isn't that there's no technology," Hall said. "The question is, technology is in a race with depletion, and that's a whole different concept. And we think that we can show empirically that depletion is winning, because the energy return on investment keeps dropping for gas and oil."

The most pessimistic of the biophysical economics camp sees the oil-fueled world economy grinding to a halt soon, possibly within 10 years. They are all working to get the message out, but not all of them believe their peers in other professions will listen.

"Of course I'm trying to send a message," said Joseph Tainter, chairman of Utah State University's Department of Environment and Society. "I just don't expect there's anyone out there to receive it."

Sunday, October 18, 2009


“There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch” has been traced to the late nineteenth century when saloons in the US offered free lunch for their paying customers. Obviously the idea has since become a corner stone of economics by emphasizing that whenever we make a choice then we have to sacrifice something else in exchange. The same principle governs all activities in the scientific world that is governed by the entropic nature of the universe. We can never produce something out of nothing.
It is unfortunate, in light of the above, that so many thinkers, institutions and organizations have chosen to remedy what is arguably the greatest challenge to civilization; environmental degradation; by advocating policies that are not guided by that most basic of ideas. Sustainability, an inevitable phenomenon of an increasingly complex systems, is being promoted by each and every government in the world, by the United Nations and all its agencies and many think tanks and educational institutions of higher learning through arguments and models that seek more economic growth when it is very clear that sustainability came to the forefront; as an existential issue; as a result of the destructive activities of economic growth. Major concerns about sustainability, the ability to continue the current scale of operations into the future demands that we adopt a radically different methodology rather than the current paradigm that glorifies economic growth and unfettered markets. As the proverb says "If you always do what you've always done, then you'll always get what you always got." Business as usual will only result in severe shortages and unthinkable environmental degradation.
Kenneth Boulding, the preeminent economist is reputed to have said: “Only mad men and economists believe that infinite growth is possible in a finite world”. He actually went further as to characterize that kind of irresponsible behavior as a “cowboy economy” when he suggested that we need to think of the delicate balance of a “spaceship” earth. A society without limits is a fiction.
This idea of the absolute need for limits to growth has been adopted by many thinkers in all sorts of fields, physics, anthropology, biology, ecology, philosophy and economics just to name a few. But the most effective proposition has been the one made by Herman Daly who revived the old idea of the classical economists in general and that of J. S. Mill in particular, namely steady state economics. This notion has become the foundation for all environmental visions that seek to steer human activity in such a way as to avoid the imminent collapse that we are heading towards. How far are we from the abyss is debatable but many of the models such as the Club of Rome, global ecological footprint, Pimentel estimates of the limits to the size of global population or the Energy Return on Investment (EROI) speak in terms of decades and not centuries.
Add to the above the bleak Environmental assessment of the group of 1300 scientists assembled by the UN, the dreadful outlook of James Hansen of NASA about the severity of the upcoming climate change in addition to the dire predictions of James Lovelock who has been described as “one of the environmental movement’s most influential figures” and one cannot help but be bewildered when we hear the politicians suggest more growth when it was growth that created the problem in the first place. When would we understand that more of the same is a recipe for disaster and that sustainability is not compatible with economic growth. It is simply one or the other.
Under the best of circumstances growth can be justified as a means to an end but it is pure madness when growth becomes an end in itself as it has become in the developed world. Why is it so difficult to connect the dots and conclude that since pollution is a by product of economic activity and since economic growth demands a greater scale of human activity then economic growth is the cause of environmental degradation. Maybe when all is said and done Homo sapiens (wise humans) we are not.
The world is at a critical proverbial fork in the road. We can either change direction and hope that we can avoid the abyss or we can pretend that there is a free lunch and we can have it all, economic growth and sustainability in a finite world. The choice is very clear, either follow the principles and the models that show unmistakably he absolute need for a radical change in the whole architecture or continue the pretense that we can have our cake and eat it too. Lipstick on a pig just won’t cut it.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Copenhagen, Again.

"Progress toward high industrialized world emissions cuts remains disappointing during these talks. We're not seeing real advances there," Yvo de Boer, the head of the U.N. Climate Change Secretariat, told reporters.
That just about sums up all the progress or disappointment at the on going pre Copenhagen discussions taking place at Bangkok, Thailand. The discussions are scheduled to end on October 9, 2009 and are being attended by delegates from 180 different countries who are attempting to nail down a global agreement to cut carbon emissions that will be finalized at Copenhagen. Unfortunately , the differences between the developed world and the developing world are just as wide as they have ever been. Even the targets for the developed world seem to be way out of reach.
Such an outcome should not be surprising to all of those who are familiar with the logic behind the “Tragedy of the Commons”. Each country wants to decrease the cost of its own targets hoping that somebody else will pick up the slack. When each country attempts to lower its own cost by shifting it to another country then the earth suffers because the global targets will be missed and only ruin will result.
The US position has posed the greatest challenge to the participants so far. "Not knowing what the United States is going to be able to bring to Copenhagen really makes it very difficult for other countries in that Kyoto discussion to increase the level of ambition of their numbers," said John Ashe, a senior diplomat who chairs a key U.N. group negotiating expanded Kyoto commitments. So far it does not look very promising for the developed world to agree on the up to 40% carbon emissions cut by 2020 from the 1990 levels that scientists deem to be essential.
To make things even more complicated the developing nations refuse to accept anything less than a 40% cut by the developed world in addition to financial transfers that do not appear to be forthcoming. As you can see both sides are playing a game of chicken when the health of the entire planet is at stake.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Can Copenhagen Deliver on its Promises?

We are already witnessing the beginnings of a barrage of saturated media coverage about climate change and the upcoming Copenhagen conference. By the time the COP15 Conference at Copenhagen arrives it might be the only item in the news all over the world and that is good. We need to take some meaningful measures that could get us to move in the right direction. Who knows, we might even avoid the apocalypse.
The failure to reach an agreement to adopt an effective and clear plan of action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions would be a major setback to the environmental efforts to avert a catastrophic climate change, an increase in temperature greater than 2 degrees Celsius. Sea level will rise, major ocean currents would be disrupted, monsoons and hurricanes will increase both in their frequency and intensity, crop failures will become more common, desertification will increase; life as we know it will become disrupted. What is at stake is surely the greatest challenge that civilization has ever faced and a successful Copenhagen meeting is a must.
Yet if we are to act as dispassionate observers of this process we will have no choice but to note the major logical fallacy upon which Copenhagen is built. The issue is not whether the world can afford not to decrease its GHG emissions; it can not. The real issue though is whether Copenhagen can deliver us out of this self inflicted quagmire? How can it possibly do that when we even refuse to look into the root cause of this problem? Anthropogenic emissions are simply the product of human economic activity and no one is proposing that we limit economic growth. The position at Copenhagen is nothing else but an exercise in a combination of major logical fallacies such as “argumentum ad populum” combined with “argumentum ad baculum”; a false argument based on the appeal to the majority and to fear.
Let me explain. One of the major efforts that the nations, represented at Copenhagen, will confront is that of reducing car emissions. It is widely believed that the move to hybrid engines and electric plug-in vehicles, in addition to more efficient engines, will turn out to be a major contribution in achieving the sought reduction in carbon emissions. But would it? The world produced over 70 million new vehicles during 2007 but under the best estimates all the hybrids and electric plug-in will not amount to more than 2 million units a year by 2015. If these numbers hold then that is a miserly 2% of the new cars, not to mention that China and India alone are slated to replace the United States as the number one producers of vehicles in the world. Emissions from China and India, both of whom are neighbours of Bangladesh, will not be regulated. Climate change is the largest infringement on the sovereignty of Bangladesh and yet it goes on each day of the year without firing a bullet or creating a political standoff. Even if we are to assume, as unlikely as it might be, that by 2020 one fifth of the newly manufactured in the world each year would be powered by either a hybrid or an electric engine, what about all the raw materials that has to be mined and processed in order to build all of these cars not to mention all the tires, spare parts, accidents and highways that they will generate and require? Would supplying all of these resources by “developing” countries be without a carbon footprint?
A more efficient car is a welcome development but a more efficient car will be useless in reducing the human impact on the ecosystem unless we are to simultaneously build fewer cars and consequently fewer garages, less highways, less spare parts use less resources and conserve our natural capital.
It is not sufficient to set up a goal. We must set up a goal accompanied by a workable plan otherwise the goal would best be classified as a wish. Imagine ,if you will, that all the water bottling facilities in Fiji ; whose products are shipped to North America and the rest of the world; are to become totally powered by energy acquired through either thermal solar , photovoltaic or wind turbines, would that then make the consumption of such water environmentally friendly? You decide.
As you can see from the above the need to cut down on GHG’s and carbon emissions is not questioned. What is at stake is our ability, or rather inability, to accept that climate change is nothing more than a manifestation of a systemic failure and such failures demand a total redesign of the system. If we cannot understand this most basic of all facts then all our efforts, as well intentioned as they might be will be for naught.

A podcast of the above can be heard at:

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Clean Water Act: Is It Time For A New One?

The following post is copied (with permission) from Although ENV111 does not emphasize specific environmental problems, I urge you to read the attached especially if you plan to attend the panel discussion on September 22nd at 6:00pm. Please visit the blog for many other interesting and informative articles.

Friday, September 18, 2009
Imagine No Pollution

The Future & the Failed Clean Water Act

Copyright 2009, John Cronin

The Clean Water Act has failed. It is time for a new law.

There is a mistaken, popular belief that the central purpose of the 1972 Clean Water Act is to bring to justice the bad guys who are polluting the nation’s waters.

The Clean Water Act was written to create a global market place based on American innovation that would end pollution in our lifetime, and “restore and maintain the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the nation’s waters.”

But a list of the law's failed policies reads like an indictment of the law itself.

The first policy goal on the first page of the Clean Water Act is the elimination of the discharge of pollutants by 1985.

The law also sets a goal of making the nation’s waters fit for sports and recreation, and for fish and wildlife by July 1983.

It calls for management plans to end pollution from runoff, protect watersheds, and enhance water resources, in keeping with the 1983 and 1985 goals.

It requires the cessation of toxic discharges in toxic amounts.

It establishes a sweeping domestic and foreign policy on water designed to protect life and health here and abroad.

Indeed, the enormity of the Clean Water Act’s failure can be measured in lives. The law directs the Secretary of State to assist other nations in eradicating their water problems to “at least the same extent as the United States does under its laws.” But since the Clean Water Act was enacted, as many as 100 million people, mostly children in the developing world, have died from diseases related to water pollution. The Pacific Institute estimates that between 36 million and 70 million will die by 2020.
On the Hudson River, where I live, thousands of tons of municipal and industrial wastes are dumped annually. Sewage overflows are commonplace and people routinely swim near industrial and municipal outfalls. At least 7 major fish species are in decline and health advisories about toxins in fish have been in place for 34 years. At least one city has a drinking water intake within two miles of its sewage plant discharge, and another has an intake 35 miles downriver of a PCB Superfund site. As with most places in the nation, there is no regular monitoring or investigation of illnesses likely to have been induced by water contamination.

How was the Clean Water Act supposed to prevent such things?

It promised massive, continuing funding of research and development to transform the science and technology of pollution abatement and treatment worldwide.

It promised permanent capital funding of publicly owned municipal treatment facilities.

And it created a permit system to halt pollution. The National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System was supposed to accomplish precisely what its name says: systematically eliminate the discharge of pollutants.

It would be an exaggeration to say that these programs, and others in the law, have come to naught. But it is accurate to say that there is no date by which their goals can be accomplished -- and, obviously, no longer a date by which those goals must be reached.

We are left with this absurdity: the priority objective of the Clean Water Act today is to eliminate pollution 24 years ago.

It is not possible for EPA or the states to create a sense of purpose about clean water when the milestones of the Clean Water Act, the nation's most ambitious environmental law, came and went two and a half decades ago. A law that has been substantially unchanged for more than a generation cannot intelligently address “best available technology.” The EPA cannot even design new clean water programs and initiatives that are meaningful, since the very time line on which they would be founded is impossible, unless you own a time machine.

The United States needs a new Clean Water Act with new goals and milestones to take the place of the old, failed ones. The law must embrace, encourage and reward 21st century innovation. There should be generous incentives to exceed the requirements of law. It should create a brain trust of the most innovative minds, from research universities and private corporations in particular, charged with creating a pollution elimination marketplace that will equitably serve the entire planet. It should foster methods and technologies that are more effective, more robust, and cheaper to operate and maintain; expensive, antiquated technologies are enticements to violate the law. Unlike its predecessor, a new Act should make a priority of ecological and human health.

But Secretary of State Hillary Clinton does not need a new law to take substantive action on international water crises, and fulfill her obligation under the current law. More than 1.2 billion people live without potable water -- a statistic that should be unthinkable in 2009. Secretary Clinton can and should make global water assistance a priority of her portfolio. (See my posts on Iraq and Kenya.)

We need a vibrant, 21st century Clean Water Act that that will create a new sense of national and global purpose about water. Water is fast eclipsing climate change as a universal, environmental priority. Had the United States the political will to carry out the purposes of the original Clean Water Act it would today be a global leader on water issues, just when the world most needs it.

Can we imagine no pollution, as the courageous drafters of the 1972 Clean Water Act did? First we must swallow hard and admit that their original effort failed. Only then will the Congress and the president muster the courage to imagine that mission once again with a new, and better, Clean Water Act.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

It Is Time To End GDP Fetishism

Most common discussions, by all kinds of media outlets all over the world, of the concept of social welfare of a particular society never fail to mention the state of the Gross Domestic Product, the GDP. This all popular macroeconomic variable has grown, despite its enormous shortcomings, to become a metric of what it was not designed to be in the first place. Very simply stated, the GDP is a money measure of the value of final goods and services that are produced by a particular society. Note that the concept does not pretend to say anything about the level of welfare but is only the summation of all what is produced without even deducting the damage that ensue from such levels of production and consumption . A simple common example might help illustrate this absurdity. If during a particular year, the number of expensive medical procedures undertaken in a state increases then the overall size of its GDP increases also. So if the GDP is such a good indicator of the social level of welfare then why not promote cigarette smoking in order to increase the incidence of lung cancer which will keep the surgeons busy and lead to a large rate of growth in the GDP? Of course such a policy would be rejected by all. But isn’t this exactly what we do when we allow firms to dump their toxic wastes into rivers and when we encourage workers to commute long distances from where they reside to their place of work. The concept is rife with problems that are too many to list and that economists and environmentalists have been pointing out for decades chief among them is the inability of GDP per capita to say anything about the all important income distribution. Wouldn’t it be more important to learn who had access to the increased output rather than to just say that output went up? It has often been the case that the all the growth in the GDP accrues to a small group of privileged economic class when ¾ of the population has in reality lost ground.
Environmentalists in general and environmental economists in particular have been in the forefront of an unremitting attack on the method of assembling national income statistics and in particular the GDP. These efforts have been helped over two decades ago by the work of Amartya Sen, the Noble laureate in Economics, through his pioneering work on how to measure poverty and social well being. His work has led, among other things, to the increasingly popular Human Development Index by the United Nations. The HDI ranks countries by creating an index that takes into consideration the level of GDP per capita but combines that with measures of literacy and life expectancy. As a result it becomes possible to rank a country with high literacy rate and a high life expectancy above one that enjoys a higher GDP per capita but lags in the other two indicators.
Two days ago Joseph Stiglitz, another Noble laureate in Economics, a Professor of Economics at Columbia University and an ex Chief Economist of the world Bank has joined ranks with the above group of advocates for a change in National Income Accounting. He called, in his capacity as a member of a group advising president Sarkozy of France, upon world economic leaders to “avoid GDP fetishism and… to stay away from that.” What a welcome message during these perilous economic times in a world that is clearly not sustainable. Bravo Dr. Stiglitz.
So what are the implications of such a change? You tell me. Is a growing GDP, accompanied by a growing poverty rate, inequitable distribution of income , larger public debt, higher unemployment, less electric power, a construction boom for the super wealthy, privatized public beaches, low minimum wage, environmental degradation in all fields and rampant corruption a sign of social justice and better social welfare?

Thursday, September 10, 2009

No Real Global Commitment To Slow Down Climate Change

There is unanimity that climate change poses an enormous challenge to our specie. That is no longer debatable. But assessing the enormity of the problem is one thing and doing something meaningful about it is another. History is replete with examples of catastrophes that were hastened because of our inability or unwillingness to act. Every aspect of environmental degradation from climate change to desertification, from overfishing to deforestation, from population growth rates to malnutrition , from overproduction to overconsumption, from diminishing biodiversity to the unabiding trust in economic growth, from unjust distribution of income to neo imperialism, from unsustainable practices to the rejection of intrinsic value and from the conviction that the whole of creation was meant for our own whimsical use to the strong belief that humans are hard wired to be selfish is a vivid demonstration that “Homo Sapiens” ( wise humans) we are not. Yet we pretend that we are and furthermore we make believe that we are earnestly looking for a solution.
The upcoming COP 15 at Copenhagen scheduled for December 2009 was supposed to demonstrate our earnest desire in finally seeking a solution that is commensurate to the existential challenge of keeping climate change within an increase of 2 degrees centigrade. Well don’t hold your breath. The UN Development Chief Helen Clark has just issued a statement preparing us for the upcoming disappointment. She declares: “"If there's no deal as such, it won't be a failure. I think the conference will be positive but it won't dot every 'i' and cross every 't'." That does not make you very confident in the quality and commitment of international governance does it?
Kyoto and Copenhagen are about one issue only. If we believe, truly believe that climate change must be stopped and that it is essentially the result of human activity then we need to act and act promptly. Global calamity is about to strike and we have no one to blame but us. The Pogo Cartoon said it best over forty years ago” We have met the enemy and he is us”.
So what is the US, the worlds largest economy, doing about this problem? The US seems to have finally accepted the idea that it is its duty, nay its obligation, to reduce its carbon footprint since it is the greatest contributor to the anthropogenically produced carbon since the onset of the industrial revolution. Give the Obama administration its due credit. It plans to submit a plan to reduce the US contribution to the worldwide carbon emission through a cap and trade program. The proposed reductions are no where close to what they should be but they are greater reductions than what the previous administration has been willing to commit to. Under the proposed system of Cap and Trade the government will set a total level of emissions and issue against that standard permits. The emitters cannot collectively exceed the level mandated by the government but they are free to trade these permits among each other as they see fit. That does not sound so bad except the reduction in overall emissions is no where as major as the challenge dictates that it should be. The other problem, and may I suggest that this is just as major if not even more so, the government plans to give away gratis, for free, these permits to the corporations that pollute instead of auctioning these permits and raising the 100’s of billions of dollars that they are worth. Think about it, instead of asking the polluter to pay we are asking the already burdened tax payer to subsidize pollution. That is madness. But why would anyone give away for free that which is worth billions? Well we have already answered that question. Homo Sapiens we ain’t neither are we rational or even committed to the idea of biodiversity and sustainability.
And finally Iet me say that the US is not the only obstacle to finding a solution to climate change. China, India ,Brazil and Saudi Arabia are even more adamant that they do not have to apply any restraint to their level of economic activity, let the health of the global ecosystem be damned. One can easily add Russia and Indonesia to the group of countries that have to be dragged to adopt proforma carbon emission reduction targets. (The combined emissions of the above seven countries is over 56% of global carbon emissions). Enough said about our real concern for sustainability and biodiversity.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Human-Animal Bonds

Any way you look at it, E O Wilson is one of the greatest thinkers and most creative minds in the world. Besides being a professor at Harvard, having won two Pulitzer Prizes, is considered to be the world most renown authority on Ants, has established the controversial field of sociobiology,is given credit for popularizing the term Epic of Evolution has also coined the two words Consilience and Biophilia to describe a theory of knowledge and the innate tendency that bonds humans to other living things.

A new book by Meg Olmert , in the relatively young field of anthrozoology presents a strong argument about the strength of the attachment between humans and living things especially pets. As it is to be expected, this new book is in essence a total endorsement of the idea of Biophilia as originally explained by Wilson and also as might be expected he has offered his strong endorsement to the book.

Ms. Olmert shows rather convincingly that the strength of this relationship is totally biological. It is explained by the presence of the chemical Oxytocin which has been used to explain the bonding relationship between mothers and their children.

I have no doubt that Oxytocin is powerful and that it plays a major role in explaining our love for pets. But what I find difficult to accept is that Oxytocin is the only explanation for that special relationship between us and animals. If it were so simple then does that mean that Oxytocin injections will stop the mistreatment of animals and that we can all become Vegans?:-)

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Monkeysphere / World Population/ Carbon emmissions

(1)The following URL should take you to an article suggested by Aaron Fetto from the NYC campus. It is a rather lengthy post but a very interesting read. Hat tip to Aaron.

(Just copy and paste into your browser)

(2)A world population calculator in addition to CO2 emissions by country are nicely displayed on the following web site suggested by Fred Wolf. Tnx Fred.

(Copy the above into your browser)

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Water Water Everywhere But Not A Drop To Drink

The old rhyme of "The Old Mariner" has become an excellent description of the state of fresh water scarcity in the world. The UN and other international organizations have predicted that water will become one of the most sought after assets during the twenty first century. Actually geopolitical conflicts about water are not uncommon and with the approaching climate change and increased demand for water the conditions can only intensify.

Calculating carbon and ecological footprints has been common , at least in some circles, for a while. But now an organization has been attempting to highlight what it calls the water footprint per capita per year. As you look at the figures in the accompanying table you must resist the temptation of treating water as a non renewable resource. Water is not oil although the increase in demand makes it more scare.

A selective list of cubic meters of water used annually per capita:

Nation.................Cu. Meters/cap/annum






Furthermore it has been estimated that to produce a liter of milk requires 1000 liters of water , a kilogram of wheat 1350 liters of water and for each cup of coffee 1120 liters of water!!!!

Note: Does this mean that the Prius drivers should not stop at Starbucks any longer? :-)

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Urban Sprawl

A major criticism of conventional, mainstream thinking is its inability to distinguish the forests from the trees, so to speak. There seems to be an overwhelming urge to be satisfied with describing symptoms when the urgent need is for an understanding of the root cause for the phenomenon in question.

"Descrirtive" analysis might not be totally useless but it fails to advance , meaningfully, our understanding of the dynamics behind the issue of concern.To suggest that environmental degradation is caused by excessive pollution is a "no brainer" when in fact what is instrumental is an understanding of the reason why we pollute.

This line of "shallow environmentalism" has become so widely spread that it is not an exaggeration to suggest that it might have become the norm. And that is tragic. One current example where this "shallow" analysis has become often applied is that of Urban Sprawl. There is no doubt that urban sprawl is one of the most destructive developments that we are confronting but to suggest that urban sprawl is related to numbers of inhabitants goes a long way in mismanaging the problem. No doubt that numbers can and often do play a role but may I suggest that the single most important issue in urban sprawl is NOT connected to numbers. Urban sprawl is very much the result of a life style, a habit of consumption and an accepted standard of living. Urban sprawl is very much a product of a feeling of entitlement that every family is to live in a ranch home spread over an acre of land with a swimming pool in the backyard and a three car garage in front. A recent study by the EU concluded that 65% of material use and 70% of global warming potential is related to urban areas. And yet uncontrolled, rampant urbanization is not only accepted but is even encouraged the world over.
Yet, is there a justification for the following:

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Unintended Consequences

It has been well known for years that Global Warming cannot be reversed. The best that we can hope for is to adopt policies and enact measures that are commensurate to the challenge i.e. reduce the level of emissions to such an extent as to avoid what scientists consider to be a catastrophic outcome.
Unfortunately the latest comprehensive studies and the latest sophisticated computer models done by the EU show that if the growth in carbon emissions is to be maintained at the current global rate of 1.9% annual growth then the catastrophic increase of 2 degrees Centigrade would be assured. That will cause the Greenland Icesheet to disappear, floods to become more frequent and more severe, oceans level to increase, crops to fail, rate of extinction to gain and disease to spread.
As bad as the above scenarios might be, at least they do not threaten to change the globe into a wasteland and to visit upon all species the dangers of strange mutations and nuclear winter. So why would we want to fight global warming by encouraging the wider adoption of nuclear energy? Could it be because Homo Sapiens (wise humans)we are not?

Friday, February 06, 2009

Is This For Real?

We have all heard the term shallow environmentalism but I never thought that shallowness could become sooooo thin.
The upcoming Grammy Awards is planning on promoting the annual music bash as a Green event. Only in la la land would a person have the temerity to speak about becoming green by advocating high fashion , stylish items , extravagant consumption, a 4 hour gala with all sorts of sumptous food and a bag of totally unnecessary but expensive freebies.
This years Grammys is being congratulated for its environmental commitment and its devotion to mother nature. After all,each of the lucky participants will be given a free Infinity Sun treatment in addition to traditional "bag of swag" and the "green with Music" celebration. All environmentalists should take note that a sunless anti aging tan is such a major step in fostering environmental awareness and spreading the belief in simple life styles, no growth and sustainability that we should all rejoice at this development. Please tell me that all of this is a dream or more aptly a nightmare.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Who Would Have Thunk It?

It is always most gratifying when positive developments occur at a place where they were least expected to happen. Environmental awareness is an idea that is not expected to be compatible with the operating philosophy of the largest retail establishment in the world; WAL MART. The company had become a symbol for profligate consumption, wrong labour practices, stingy health care, irresponsible corporate behaviour and a monopolistic price fixer. To be candid with you, the above is an adequate description of my views regarding this firm. But then I learned about the relative success that they have had with their sustainability initiatives over the past 2-3 years.

Wal Mart is so big and so powerful that no one, and I mean no one, can afford not to play by its rules, not even General Electric or Proctor and Gamble. When the retail behemoth adopted its sustainability initiatives it forced GE to supply it with 100's of millions of CFL (light bulbs that save 75% on electric use and last for 8-10 years). Thanks to Wal Mart's new policies P&G has was encouraged to reinvent the way laundry detergents are produced. As a result the consumers have saved millions of gallons of water,millions of pounds of plastic, millions of pounds of cardboard in addition to the millions of gallons of diesel fuel.

Am I seriously suggesting that these few developments are enough to lift Wal Mart into the pantheon of environmentally friendly companies? Of course not but I am suggesting that we need to commend Wal Mart for what it has done and we need to make sure that management understands that they have an obligation to continue to implement "sustainability initiatives" all across the company and all across its departments. To pick up the low fruits is not enough.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Arguably the most eloquent case for biodiversity , sustainability and environmental justice has never been made clearer than in the words of Aldo Leopold when he wrote:

"A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise."

But is it possible to liberate nature and preserve its integrity without first liberating ourselves from discrimination and injustice? Of course not. But this time around there is more optimism in the air than at any other time. I know that the honeymoon would not last for long but maybe, just maybe this time will be different and this land will be really and truly made for you and me. Pete Seeger has managed to restore to the glorious Woody Guthrie song the two stanzas that have been excised for decades:

As I was walkin' - I saw a sign there
And that sign said - no tress passin'
But on the other side .... it didn't say nothin!
Now that side was made for you and me!

In the squares of the city - In the shadow of the steeple
Near the relief office - I see my people
And some are grumblin' and some are wonderin'
If this land's still made for you and me.

We are all in your debt Pete Seeger for having the courage to use the above words as you lead thousands of US citizens in a sing along during the pre Obama inauguration festivities.

Frivolty is in the eye of the Beholder

Only the Necessities of Life

I have always found it sad and amusing at the same time that very few, if any, practice praxis. It seems that individual humans are endowed with an uncanny ability to ask others to abide by certain principles that they hold themselves to be exempt from. The sad thing about the above is that, more often than not, they do not realize the logical absurdity of their position.

These seminal contradictions are found across all fields and they span all regions. One of the most absurd positions is to be found among the practitioners of the new religion of environmentalism. Often the strongest advocates of the need to act in an ecofriendly way are the rich and the wealthy. They campaign for alternative clean energy, take a strong stand against industrial farming and demonstrate to prevent deforestation.

Each of the above is a noble goal in itself but the irony is that those who are the most vocal in their demands are often the largest abusers of what they want us to protect. Many of these advocates who favour a smaller footprint are the most extravagant consumers. They are more often than not the ones who take the ski trips to far away places, live in homes of over 5000 Sf, but with an expensive PV system on the roof, subscribe to every imaginable magazine and do their food shopping at WholeFoods.

The same phenomenon is to be observed among those who advocate high tariffs against imported goods. They are the jet set that drives the Benzes, Beemers in addition to the Lexuses and Infinitis. This is often the same crowd who is worried about the trade deficit and wants measures that would reduce the availability of Chinese made goods at Wal Mart as long as the availability of the $50,000.00 Patek Phillip watches , the $2,000.00 Gucci hand bags and the $500.00 Italian shoes is not reduced.

This disconnect between what we say that we want and what we do has become so widely spread as to not spare anyone. Infamous Judge Robert Bork [linked story] whose failed nomination to the Supreme Court preoccupied the nation for months has written, lectured and campaigned vigorously against frivolous suits brought up by individuals against corporations and other large institutions. What is unbelievable is that the same judge, Bork, slipped as he was leaving the dais at Yale University during one of his appearances and he promptly sued the University for negligence and for physical pain and psychological traumas. The same person who has campaigned tirelessly against frivolous law suits brought one himself asking for a million dollars in compensation. Ironically he denied, with a straight face, the contradiction when he was confronted with it.

I guess that frivolity is in the eye of the beholder.