Carlos Rymer

Sustainability, Life, and More…

Archive for the category “Sustainable Development”

An Alternative to Banning Sugary Drinks in NYC

Recently, NYC’s Mayor, Michael R. Bloomberg, announced a plan to enact a ban on the sale of large sodas and other sugary drinks at restaurants, movie theaters, and street cars. This is great news because of the obesity epidemic, which is incurring a huge toll on society, especially children. The Mayor made the case by showing how much sugar a regular bottle of soda contains, and arguing that this ban would go a long way in helping reduce obesity in NYC.

Now, while this is a great step forward, I think it’s fair to ask a question: is a ban the best way to reduce obesity? I would argue that it is not. First of all, preventing people from getting sugary drinks will look like certain freedoms are being taken away, and in addition we will be losing economic activity created by the sales of sugary drinks from this ban. In addition, we’ll be denying sugary drinks to people who lead very healthy lifestyles and actually drink these occasionally.

I think a better way to do this, as discussed in the comments to a post of the original NYTimes article on Google+, is to tax these drinks. If NYC were to instead tax sugary drinks heavily, to the point where it’s cheaper to, say, purchase instead healthier options, then we would be doing two things at once: reducing obesity rates while increasing tax revenues. We could use the tax revenues to do another thing that would help reduce obesity: give people greater access to exercise opportunities. The government could provide incentives to build more gyms, give people with low-income credit to access gyms, build more public courts, create more bike paths, and even subsidize healthier drinks. This approach would go farther in reducing obesity without keeping sugary drinks away from people who may occasionally drink them.

Whether NYC would do this or not is another question. I think the idea of a tax would immediately make the politicians promoting the ban scared of the politics of the matter, even though it can be framed in a way that actually gains political points as well. Maybe some other city will follow up with a better approach that taxes instead of bans.


Urban Sustainability: Creating Lasting Prosperity in an Age of Transition

In 2008, humanity reached an important milestone that speaks to an ongoing trend. For the first time, more people lived in urban areas than lived in rural areas. This is important for various reasons, among them that cities can promise greater opportunities for people and help reduce people’s impact on the planet. It also presents key challenges. We have seen what lack of planning can do to large cities, including widespread sprawl and reduced quality of life for people. So, if the vast majority of people will eventually live in urban centers later this century, we have to make sure that we build cities to guarantee the highest quality of life for their residents while also minimizing the impact on their surroundings and the rest of the planet. How do we do that?

While there isn’t one clear way to guarantee that this happens, every city can work towards finding the right ingredients that will spur increased quality of life for people and lower per capita ecological footprint. As a goal, sustainability, or the ability for populations to endure for long periods of time while improving themselves, is the key to ensuring that every city guarantees the best quality of life for its residents while safeguarding the planet. Sustainability can lead to greater innovation, better-paying jobs, an improved urban environment, and lower resource intensity.

Throughout the world, many major cities are embracing the goal of sustainability through specific action plans drawn up by coalitions of government agencies, businesses, non-profit organizations, and individuals. In such action plans, everything that can help increase quality of life while minimizing the city’s impact is on the table. This includes replacing fossil fuels with clean energy, improving overall health of residents, increasing pedestrian-friendliness, building more energy efficient and livable buildings and neighborhoods, creating new and improving existing recreational opportunities, improving transportation, preventing urban sprawl through zoning, reducing waste, enhancing educational and job opportunities, and much more. All of these things not only help reduce a city’s ecological footprint, but also increase the quality of life of its residents through improved social conditions, greater outdoor opportunities, and enhanced economic growth.

One example of such an action plan is New York City’s PlanNYC, which not only initially set a host of specific goals to be achieved in the short term, but also sets long term ambitions to the year 2030. The plan is ever-evolving to align with technological improvements, economic conditions, and experiences. In addition, many of its goals include specific legislative provisions, economic incentives, and public engagement. It covers eighteen specific areas, among them Housing and Neighborhoods, Parks and Public Spaces, Public Health, Transportation, and Climate Change. It is a holistic plan that clearly states what the city will look like in 2030 and specifies how it will get there. It clearly understands the city’s challenges and impediments, and realizes that it needs to constantly evolve and engage politicians, businesses, and the public.

Over the coming decades, it is important for cities large and small to draft such comprehensive and inclusive sustainability action plans. Not only is this important because it can lead to innovation due to the uniqueness of most cities, but also because it will ensure lasting growth. We cannot continue to allow models where urban centers grow outwards into suburbs, leading to decreased quality of life, increased infrastructure costs and pollution, and greater ecological footprints. We need cities to lead in this wave and engage other cities in sharing what they have learned along the way. Sustainability needs to be taken seriously at every level by governments, businesses, and the public. And it needs to be seen as the way forward, not as a political tool or simply a nice thing to do.

As the human population increases and people continue to move towards cities, it is imperative that we act now before it is too late. We can do this through public engagement, city to city engagement, national policy, or international accords, but in the end it must be done if we are to reach sustainable levels of resource use that can guarantee better opportunities for future generations. Urban sustainability needs to become a bigger topic in the international public debate, not just in international conferences, but in mainstream media, government action, business outreach, and public advocacy. We now have enough examples throughout the world of how this can be done, and it is time for cities everywhere to take sustainability as their key to the future.

Why Leaders Ought to Communicate Frequently

Frequent CommunicationOne of the most difficult tasks for any leader — whether of a large organization or a small group — is to communicate frequently and effectively. Communication is not just important because it helps shape debates that lead to important decisions being made, but also because organizations need a sense of direction to keep the engine going. Leaders who don’t communicate frequently and effectively probably outnumber those who do. This is very noticeable when you take entire societies as an organized group, where the people are typically in constant distrust of their leaders because such leaders fail to communicate frequently and effectively.

Over the past two years, the importance of constant and effective communication has become so noticeable to me as I’ve witnessed different leaders employ very different strategies to communicate to the public. I want to focus exclusively on two very good government leaders to whom I can relate and whom I believe have very different strategies of engaging with those whom they represent. While I strongly believe frequent and effective communication is important for any leader, whether at the corporate, civic, or governmental level, I chose to compare two government leaders because of the impact their strategies have in shaping a nation.

The first leader, if you already guessed correctly, is President Barack Obama of the United States. Aside from having a highly successful electoral campaign in which records were set in terms of engagement, President Obama has made it a priority for his administration to communicate frequently and effectively to the public. Not only is he in constant communication with the public — from constant appearances on TV to town halls to news conferences to videotaped weekly addresses to Twitter updates — but his entire cabinet is fully engaged with the public through social media, conferences, and public appearances. It is arguable that this has been the most engaging administration in U.S. history, in spite of the anger some may feel regarding agenda items that have yet to be accomplished.

The Obama administration’s frequent and effective communication has not just helped achieve the most productive legislative Congress in many years, but has also helped rally a nation into debating issues previous administrations largely ignored. Although I feel some anger at the fact that the President has consistently taken a centrist approach towards many issues when they fully deserve and warrant a more aggressive approach, I admire how President Obama has used messaging — messaging that a majority of people can appreciate and understand — as a tool to achieve key goals. While words don’t necessarily translate into deeds, I think many people can agree that President Obama’s frequent and effective communication has helped his administration achieve quite a lot over the past two years.

Now, on the other end of the spectrum, we have President Leonel Fernandez of the Dominican Republic, my country of origin. Here we have a leader who not only understands how to keep an economy growing and is very capable of designing effective policies, but who has been elected three times in the last 15 years (1996, 2004, and 2008). While a majority of Dominicans agree that President Fernandez is one of the best leaders the country has witnessed, a majority of them will also say that they disagree with the way President Fernandez is handling the government. A sweeping 2010 election where the majority party (Partido de la Liberacion Dominicana) took almost full control of government can be used as evidence of the President’s popularity, but it doesn’t deny the fact that most Dominicans disapprove of President Fernandez, precisely a result of how infrequently and ineffectively he communicates to the people about issues that matter to them.

Unlike President Obama, President Fernandez only speaks to the public on rare occasions, such as for his annual address to Congress or updates on emergency actions. As a result, the people don’t feel like they need to follow their leader to get a sense of direction of where the country is going and what they should strive to accomplish. When President Fernandez does speak directly to the public, he does so in such language that people do not understand or feel interested in what he’s talking about, often focusing on statistics rather than telling a story to which people can relate. Not only is this a bad way to negatively impact what is in fact good leadership, but it’s also a waste of power, as President Fernandez squanders all the opportunities he has to get people to think and behave in ways that could help his nation race for a better future.

Good leadership is not just based on how well you can manage a team, but also on how well you can communicate to that team so it knows what it must do to accomplish its goals. All too often leaders fail to understand how valuable a position they’re in, where they can easily grab an audience’s attention and shape a debate, a decision, a common cultural problem, or even behavior. Clearly, some leaders tend to achieve goals from the top down regardless of who is alienated at the bottom or in the middle. Yet oftentimes it is better to achieve goals by having all people on board the ship rowing forward. Leaders who want to become better at what they do should understand the importance of frequent and effective communication if they want to add further momentum to their organization’s engine.

Are We Already Practically Cooked?

These days, it feels as if the climate debate has entirely fallen off the agenda (even Obama is not allowed to say “climate” anymore). So much has the debate shifted that it feels like we’re already practically cooked, waiting for the climate to warm up to levels that will simply reorganize Earth in a way that won’t be very comforting for anybody. We have gone from the days of Texas mega wind farm Ads on TV and the constant mention of climate and energy in the presidential campaign to a time where climate change is no longer in the agenda of U.S. politics. Obviously, this has thrown people off even as a global movement to address climate change has grown to record levels.

At the same time, we have experienced early warnings of the catastrophic effects severe climate change will bring to society. From floods of biblical proportions in Pakistan, Brazil, and Australia to massive snowstorms in the U.S. and Europe to record low winter sea ice extent in January, we are coming to grips with the reality of climate change. It is becoming all too clear that climate change is already affecting us directly in many ways, from rising food prices causing social instability to massive property losses due to increasingly frequent extreme weather events.

Given these realities, can we say that we are practically cooked? An optimist will rightly say we have to keep hoping, while a pessimist would say there’s nothing we can do. Yet the reality is very different from both of these views. While it may look hopeless, the fact is that a revolution is cooking. The world is realizing that clean energy technologies are not just good because they help fight climate change, but also because they provide real market stability, jobs, and hard currency. In spite of real economic problems, both advanced and emerging nations are joining a race that is set to intensify this decade. And if you’ve heard the trade debate lately, it has a lot to do with just that.

Nations are betting that whoever is the best at developing high-end clean energy products will win precious advantage this decade. That is why emerging nations like China are throwing a lot of money at clean energy and why the Obama administration opened an investigation into the matter, why Secretary Steven Chu wants the cost of solar energy to drop 75% by the end of the decade and Vice President Biden announced over $50 billion for new and improved high-speed rail lines, and why investments by major corporate players are now focusing a lot more on innovations that will change how we move around and use energy. From surging wind and solar manufacturing in China to the big bets automakers are making on EVs and plug-in hybrids, the race is clearly on.

My personal bet is that this race is set to intensify in dramatic ways, with investments surging over the next few years and game-changing innovations driving a shift away from fossil fuels and energy waste. While the question of whether this will be enough to slow and reverse climate change remains, it is clear that we aren’t practically cooked yet. In addition to this race, we will need to find ways to actually remove carbon from the atmosphere or adapt to a significantly warmer world, and my hope is that the fruits of this global race will create enough capacity for us to figure out how to do that in a way that is beneficial and does not change global ecological stability. In five years, we will know whether in fact we won’t be cooked by a fast warming planet in the future. Stay tuned for those news.

Revista Refugios: El Green Team

Comparto una pieza en la revista Refugios en Republica Dominicana sobre la situacion critica en la cual se encuentra el medio ambiente (y por ende la sociedad) y los esfuerzos que se llevan a cabo por la sociedad civil en busqueda de un mejor futuro.

La Empresa Sostenible

Debido a la crisis socio-ambiental en que el mundo vive – desde el cambio climático a la perdida de ecosistemas a la deterioración social en comunidades marginadas – ha surgido presión pública demandando responsabilidad de parte del sector privado. Tal presión ha surgido por las centenas de casos de parte de empresas multinacionales donde se ha abusado del medio ambiente, la fabrica social de los trabajadores, y comunidades marginadas simplemente por el lucro al corto plazo. Ejemplos típicamente apuntan a las malas condiciones en las cuales trabajan los pobres en muchos países para multinacionales, la destrucción de ecosistemas vitales para la existencia de servicios ecológicos, y la negligencia de las comunidades marginadas en las cuales muchas empresas operan.

Como resultado de tal presión, en los últimos años muchas empresas han enfrentado la realidad de pérdidas económicas por falta de responsabilidad socio-ambiental, ya sea porque los consumidores se concientizan y dejan de comprar productos de tales empresas o porque tales empresas han chocado con la perdida extrema de los recursos naturales de los cuales dependían. Al chocar con tales realidades, han entendido que la única vía hacia un futuro prospero es mediante la sostenibilidad empresarial, también denominada como responsabilidad social corporativa.

Simplemente, la empresa sostenible es aquella que valora los tres aspectos pilares de la sociedad – ambiental, económico, y social – de forma balanceada. Tal empresa tiene como estrategia minimizar su impacto al medio ambiente, contribuir lo más posible en las comunidades en las que opera, y asegurar el buen trato y la felicidad de sus trabajadores. Además de tal estrategia, tiene un enfoque en la innovación, el servicio comunitario, el mejoramiento continuo, y la prosperidad de la empresa en el largo plazo. No es suficiente simplemente hacer uno o dos proyectos para crear una imagen de responsabilidad. Es necesario tener una cultura interna que en realidad construya el sentido de que la empresa debe cambiar continuamente como parte de su estrategia de minimizar impactos mientras se mantienen beneficios económicos satisfactorios.

La empresa sostenible normalmente tiene un plan estratégico que categoriza su labor en cada una de las áreas fundamentales – ambiental, económica, y social. En el área ambiental, no tan solo trata de minimizar su impacto mediante la reducción de desperdicios y contaminación, el uso de tecnologías y productos sostenibles, y la concientización de los trabajadores, sino que también busca la sostenibilidad en las comunidades donde opera. En el área económica, trata de incrementar la producción vía la innovación, creando productos y servicios con impactos mínimos y con mayor enfoque en la calidad de vida de los consumidores. Y en el área social, invierte en sus propios trabajadores y en el desarrollo humano de las comunidades en las que opera.

La tendencia a nivel global para las empresas es clara. Las empresas que se están reformando están cada vez más segura de su futuro porque tienen una base de consumidores y clientes fieles, además de ser cada vez más competitivas. El comportamiento en el área socio-ambiental de cada empresa ya es un gran factor determinante para el público. En el futuro, habrá más oportunidades para la empresa sostenible que para la empresa que siga operando irresponsablemente. Aunque también falte mucho que hacer a nivel de políticas públicas, el sector privado tiene un gran papel que desempeñar para asegurar un futuro prospero y sostenible para la sociedad.

Our Bet On Clean Energy Innovation

The time to decide on a strategy to remain as #1 is slowly coming to an end. The U.S. has seen a jolt in economic activity as a result of the Recovery Act, but it’s all too clear that this alone won’t bring the U.S. economy back to sustainable growth over the long-term. We have entered a period where huge deficits are in order and the private sector won’t make a comeback where it used to prosper. Instead, something new must arise to fill the gap in economic activity after the U.S. government can no longer sustain the economy by issuing debt. The Obama administration has repeatedly said that it is “confident” that clean energy is the only sector that can fill that economic gap and pave the way to lower deficits, a higher trade surplus, and a better overall fiscal status.

Until very recently, the climate movement in the US, largely led by youth, was the main reason why clean energy had a future. The idea was that we had to develop clean energy to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and slash our oil bill, which was financing “terrorists” and making the trade deficit worse. The youth climate movement was successful in making it clear that we better develop a clean energy economy to also create the jobs of the future and become the leader in this all-too-important sector. So today, the Obama administration understands that developing clean energy is all about creating jobs in the US and cleaning up the Federal books (though more importantly it’s about preventing runaway climate change). Whether “clean energy” means wind, solar, and geothermal or nuclear, clean coal, and biofuels is another debate. We know that nuclear, clean coal, and biofuels would not produce enough jobs compared to wind, solar, and geothermal, so I assume the outcome will be a mix, as Obama actually intends in his strategic political plan.  However, Obama may be overoptimistic in thinking that the US can win the clean energy race under his plans.

First of all, unlike other industries of the past that generated big economic growth (think cars, Internet, IT, etc.), clean energy is something the entire world knows about and is working hard to get its hands on. While it takes Washington years to make any decision on clean energy, Asia and Europe have already been racing to develop the best clean energy technologies in the world. Out of the top 10 clean energy companies in the world, only one or two are from the U.S., while increasingly more and more Chinese clean energy companies are going public. That’s because China made the decision to take this market a few years ago, and it’s already succeeding.

According to the Apollo Alliance, a US labor organization that promotes a clean energy economy, the US already imports over 70% of all components for renewable energy projects. Most of this manufacturing is happening in China, which has already become the world’s largest manufacturer of wind turbines and solar components. With an economy that’s less than half the US economy, China is already spending more than twice as much than the US on clean energy, and plans to ramp it up further. And while experts have believed that China would focus on manufacturing while the US focuses on innovation, China is spending big on creating breakthrough technologies as well. Already, it is funneling $1 billion into the world’s first clean coal power plant that will capture carbon dioxide, and only because there’s less red tape in China to begin construction of such a plant.

The Breakthrough Institute has analyzed how much the U.S. would need to spend in order to remain competitive in this sector and truly create the technologies that will lead the market. According to its analysis, the U.S. will spend about $175 billion over the next five years on clean energy, including R&D and tax incentives. On the other hand, China alone plans to spend $397 billion, leaving the other “Asian Tigers” out. This leaves the U.S. at a significant disadvantage, making it highly unlikely to create the leading clean energy technologies that can fill it’s economic gap. Even passage of a climate bill in Congress, which would certainly put all serious action until at least 2014, would be insufficient to close this gap.

In the end, the numbers do show that the Obama administration’s bet on clean energy will probably not hold out. Asia will end up taking all the manufacturing jobs and exporting their technologies to the U.S., and the U.S. will have to look elsewhere for innovation in order to fill the economic gap. And while cloud computing has its promises, it will not create a market big enough to fill the gap. So, I wouldn’t bet on clean energy making it for the U.S. economy, even if there was a change in Washington. It is time for a drive in innovation in a variety of sectors, not just clean energy. It’s really the only way out.

Author’s note: I didn’t make any mention of EVs and high-speed trains because they’re in the transportation sector. While they are clean technologies, I wanted to focus on clean energy. Readers should know that the US is also behind in these other clean techs.

A Brief Action Plan for Haiti

Last January 12th, Haiti was hit by a 7.0 earthquake that left its capital – Port-au-Prince – virtually destroyed. It left over 1 million Haitians homeless and resulted in more than 150,000 dead, making it not only the most tragic event in recent history in the Western Hemisphere, but also the event that could cost Haiti all the incredible progress it had made. In spite of the huge cost the earthquake incurred on Haiti, the surge in international support that followed to restore progress in Haiti could potentially put it on the path to sustained progress.

I have written before about the need to focus on more than just bringing in foreign investments and strengthening institutions in Haiti. While the two are very important, they cannot replace the need for restoration of natural resources and entrepreneurial citizens that can manage such resources while making a living. Here I outline 5 actions that should be part of a broad development plan for Haiti.

1) Rebuild Elsewhere

While the first instinct might be to rebuild right away in Port-au-Prince with better building methods and materials, the best thing to do might be to begin to focus the country’s main activities elsewhere where future earthquakes could cause little damage. This would mean a shift in government public works spending to a less vulnerable city, like Cap-Haitien. The goal of this would be to decrease the impact of a similar earthquake in the future if it were to happen. Of course, the location should also keep in mind vulnerabilities to hurricanes and sea-level rise.

2) Focus on Natural Resource Restoration

One of the most notable characteristics of Haiti is its lack of natural resources. A long history of resource degradation fueled by foreign policies and government corruption has virtually deforested the country, leaving it with little valuable topsoil for agriculture and water retention. While the situation is extremely critical, it is possible to embrace a long-term program of natural resource degradation that would reforest the country, restore valuable topsoil for agriculture, and make the country an attraction not only for tourism, but also for citizen-led natural resource based activities. Without natural resources, few industries will be able to prosper and Haitians themselves will have little opportunity to develop entrepreneurial activities.

3) Link Natural Resource Restoration to Jobs and Education

A large portion of Haitians live in the countryside where natural resource restoration is needed the most. Many of these Haitians survive on poor topsoils that produce very little food. Productive jobs are lacking and basic education is not always available. The process of natural resource restoration should be directly linked to jobs creation and educational programs. Those who currently live on exploiting what’s barely left should be given real jobs reforesting watersheds, strengthening creeks and rivers, and implementing sustainable agricultural systems overtime. At the same time, young people should receive hands-on education on natural resources restoration and management practices so as to leave the restoration effort to Haitians themselves when the time comes. This can have the effect of not just eliminating the need for citizens to clear hills, but also to lock in a strong incentive to continue conserving and restoring natural resources.

4) Promote More Local Entrepreneurship

Haitians have an impressive capacity to figure out how to make useful products from whatever they may have. This spirit could be a big source of income generation through small enterprises. Resources should be allocated to the promotion of local entrepreneurship to make use of natural resources as they are restored and to entice sustainable agricultural practices. Microfinance, local workshops, and NGO-led capacity-building could go a very long way at creating informal jobs with very little economic resources, and this has the effect of creating security and establishing a safe environment for bigger investments.

5) Establish More Partnerships

The UN Mission in Haiti, MINUSTAH, has played a key role in improving stability in Haiti. With the solidarity shown by the international community, it is time to ensure that more partnerships are established between Haiti and foreign institutions. Haiti should seek to partner with government agencies from other countries that have been successful at doing something that could be replicated in Haiti. It should seek to partner in a wide range of sectors that could bring great capacity to Haiti and create new opportunities for sustainable growth. While it is extremely important to make sure that Haitians feel empowered to lead their own development, it is also crucial to take advantage of what potential partners could offer to Haiti at little or no cost.

Clearly, a lot more needs to be done in order to ensure sustained progress in Haiti. There needs to be more done on security, on government institutions, and emergency response. But the five points I mention should be crucial elements of an Action Plan if Haiti is to make most use of the international support it will receive over the coming years. For too long have some of these elements been neglected by international supporters. It is time to wake up to these realities and embrace them as if they are equally important to what has been the focus in the past.

The Real Crisis Isn’t New

With the collapse of the financial markets in September 2008, society marked a new chapter in history books. This new chapter covers what we know as the great economic crisis, as measured in flowing US dollars. Economies all around the world either contracted or slowed their growth as measured in gross domestic product (GDP). Lives were directly impacted everywhere as millions of jobs were shed, entire industries collapsed, and the ability to purchase goods and services significantly declined. Many will look back and say that lax government regulations on banks spurred the housing bubble that largely brought down the number we so much have trusted to measure how we’re doing: the GDP. But in reality, those of us who understand what was going on decades before this “economic crisis” know that the real crisis is nothing but old and persistent.

The problem with marking a new chapter in history because of the GDP measure is that it fails to capture reality in big ways. While there was more money flowing before and therefore people could at least purchase basic goods and services to live, the real value that measures our satisfaction with life was never increasing; in fact, in many cases, it was declining. GDP, a very old measure of economic performance, unfortunately does not measure quality of life as we assume. In the past, it was true that higher GDP coincided with higher quality of life, but that goes mainly for developing countries. Clearly, if a poor farmer goes from having to work tirelessly to grow food to living in an urban city with basic services met easily, there’s a big change in quality of life. But when you already have basic needs met, GDP doesn’t always coincide with higher quality of life, and that’s exactly why we’ve been wrong to think that the crisis is new.

Since the 1970’s, it’s been pretty clear that quality of life in the United States has remained flat or even worsened. We may have more purchasing power, but our satisfaction with our lives really hasn’t improved. Social problems, for instance, have increased in severity as more people suffer from modern diseases, more work has meant less leisure, and technology obsession has meant less time being outside, spending time with people we care about, and doing the things we actually want to do.

On top of all this, add to it our ever-increasing total debt to our children and grandchildren. While we think we’re better off, entire communities continue to deteriorate and many have been destroyed, perhaps forever. While we think we have made it pretty far, entire ecosystems will probably never be what they once were. And while GDP has grown, we’ve never really been able to reduce our gross economic debt at all, even during the “great” Clinton years. We have ignored to invest in people, decided that destroying vital ecosystems is more important than using the services they provide, and wasted money in special interest giveaways (wars, lax regulations on banking, insurance companies, food subsidies, etc.). All of this under a political framework that supposedly should work pretty well. The fact is that it hasn’t and it probably never will unless it’s drastically changed (Note: I strongly believe in the power of democracy AND markets!).

So, when we put together the real value that comes closer to measuring actual quality of life, we realize that we’ve been in a real crisis for more than three (as in 3) decades. The difference between the “financial crisis” and the “real crisis” I refer to here is that one couldn’t be hidden from people while the other could. The financial crisis couldn’t be hidden from people because they felt the impacts directly. They saw their own lives change for the worse. The “real crisis” was hidden from us because we always said GDP was growing, and since people had basic needs met and didn’t think their social deterioration was really a result of their society’s decisions (but rather personal or community decisions), not that many people could figure out that we were going right into a cliff, as we continue to do. The figure below, from an organization called Redefining Progress, shows the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) for the last several decades.

The differences between GDP and GPI are not complex. GDP measures the value of total final products and services (whether they’re purchased or not), including the use of dangerous weapons to kill innocent civilians, the destruction of mountains to extract coal, and even the care provided to those affected by the same epidemics we indirectly promote. It also includes corporate profits handed as giveaways, NASA missions to find life on other planets, and lobby money to make sure politicians continue to keep this “real crisis” from ending. GPI, on the other hand, is the GDP figure minus all the bad things I just mentioned and more, except for a few. GPI takes into account the cost of ecosystem services we destroy and the cost of social deterioration. An improvement would be to also deduct a portion of lobby money to keep the status quo, “life discovery” NASA missions, and the appropriate portion of corporate giveaways that do nothing to improve lives.

The central idea behind this measure (GPI) is sustainability, the fact that we are fools to measure quality of life simply by our valuation of the goods and services we produce ourselves, regardless of their actual impact on society. Sustainability is a wake-up call that reinforces the notion that to improve quality of life, we have to balance out several needs. Those include the need to preserve valuable ecological services, the need to enhance communities and social cohesion, and the need to have working institutions instead of decision bodies masked with “progress as measured by GDP” in the surface.

The biggest mistake we can do is to come out of this “financial crisis” thinking that restoring GDP growth is success. We have to first recognize that we’ve already put a huge ecological and economic burden on our children in the form of climate change, the loss of vital ecological services, and a staggering economic debt that nobody knows how it will be paid. Then, we have to decide to stop investing in things that don’t really matter for people’s well-being now and in the future and invest in people themselves, in restoring ecological services, and in preventing economic waste. It doesn’t just mean changes at the government level; it also means cultural changes in main street and beyond. The Obama administration is quietly making a change in that direction, but unless it decides to actually talk about it, the “real crisis” will stay with us and perhaps worsen for decades to come.

Ambientalismo vs. Justicia Ambiental

greenjobsEn República Dominicana, es típico llamarle a alguien que luche para proteger el “medio ambiente” un ambientalista. Esta persona, en el entendimiento público, trabaja para conservar áreas protegidas, especies en peligro de extinción, y la sanidad urbana. Típicamente, se le relaciona con el frente que lucha contra la depredación de recursos naturales, la contaminación del agua y el aire, y la concienciación sobre los ecosistemas nacionales. Mientras estos enfoques son sumamente importantes, son parte de lo que es denominado como el “movimiento ambientalista,” y lamentablemente no hacen muy claras las conexiones entre problemas críticos y la población en general.

El “ambientalismo” es simplemente la promoción de acciones que conserven ecosistemas. En República Dominicana, “ambientalistas” son aquellos quienes tienen como prioridad la conservación de las áreas protegidas. Esto incluye la protección de costas, especies, y bosques, pero también la protección de zonas urbanas de la contaminación. En el otro extremo está la “justicia ambiental,” la cual tiene que ver con temas ambientales directamente relacionados con la población en general. Estos temas no incluyen las áreas protegidas, pero incluyen contaminación directa en comunidades marginadas, los impactos del cambio climático como son las sequias, la subida del nivel del mar, y las inundaciones, y cualquier otro impacto ambiental que afecte a los más marginados desproporcionadamente.

En este sentido, el “ambientalismo” es para los que tienen el tiempo libre y las necesidades básicas satisfechas, mientras la “justicia ambiental” es para los más marginados de la sociedad, los cuales son la mayoría en la República Dominicana. En otros países, este ha sido un grave error porque crea una amplia brecha entre los “ambientalistas” y los que promueven “justicia ambiental,” causando que estos dos grupos no puedan trabajar juntos aunque al fin del día tengan muchas cosas en comunes y deseos similares para la sociedad. El enfoque de uno en lo que le interesa más por su estado socioeconómico causa que cada grupo trabaje por su propio lado y algunas veces hasta que se critiquen.

Esto no es nada bueno para ninguna sociedad, ya que más se logra cuando la gente encuentra áreas en comunes y colaboran para implementar planes efectivamente que beneficien a ambos grupos y a la sociedad en general. Un buen ejemplo de esto, en mi opinión, es el caso del movimiento para los “empleos verdes” en Estados Unidos. Este movimiento es una unión de los que en antes se enfocaban en el cambio climático por los efectos que tendría en ecosistemas y aquellos que han sido marginados en comunidades con empleos sumamente no deseados y exposición a actividades contaminantes. Este movimiento busca la creación de empleos que puedan sacar a los más marginados de la pobreza mientras se incrementa la eficiencia energética y se producen tecnologías de energías renovables. Ha sido tan popular este movimiento que han conseguido gran resultados directos en cuanto a fondos para entrenar a comunidades marginadas para tomar los empleos del futuro.

Entonces, ¿como pudiese República Dominicana aprender de tales ejemplos? Creo que primeramente los llamados “ambientalistas” tienen que entender que existen otros problemas además de las áreas protegidas, las especies en peligro, entre otros intereses, todos de los cuales son sumamente importantes para un desarrollo sostenible. A la vez, los que ven a los “ambientalistas” como un grupo marginal tienen que también entender que sin lo que ellos promueven no se puede asegurar un futuro sostenible donde ecosistemas puedan ofrecer servicios ambientales necesarios. Cuando eso suceda, entonces se podrá ver las conexiones entre los problemas de comunidades marginadas y los referentes a sostenibilidad a largo plazo. Esto es lo que el desarrollo sostenible intenta hacer. Es un proceso de desarrollo donde la protección ambiental y el desarrollo humano van de mano a mano.

Un país sostenible no puede ser sumamente verde cuando su gente no tiene suficiente agua, los precios de la canasta básica están por el cielo, y el desempleo lleva a la juventud a perder su gran valor social. Un país sostenible se encarga de sus problemas ambientales a largo plazo a la vez que involucra a los más marginados en las soluciones esenciales que también beneficien a esos mismos grupos. Esto es lo que está ausente en República Dominicana, y lo que el “movimiento ambientalista” debe entender y ejecutar.

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