Carlos Rymer

Sustainability, Life, and More…

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.

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China: The New Big Hope on Climate Change

This past week, it became very clear that the United States will never get around to doing what it takes to lead on climate change. Last December, President Barack Obama went to Copenhagen promising the world the U.S. would cut its emissions 17% by 2020. That target by itself, while an important milestone, didn’t even come close to what the science says we need to do to avert catastrophic climate change. After tough health care and financial reform battles, Obama chose not to embrace a battle for climate change legislation, instead sending his own lobbyists  to work on “getting the votes” in the U.S. Senate. The bill in consideration, initially focusing on capping greenhouse gas emissions, got so watered down that it basically became an energy bill like the one passed in 2005 under the Bush administration, with no goals on cutting greenhouse gas emissions nor any renewable energy targets. All of this in a Democrat-controlled Congress that promised swift action to end our addiction to fossil fuels and spur a clean energy economy that creates hundreds of thousands of new jobs.

So, after more than 10 years of fighting and high public support for action on climate change since the days of Kyoto, the U.S. Senate has confirmed what we refused to admit. The United States will NOT lead on climate change, so we must not put our hopes on this nation. It seems that no matter what we do locally or globally, the ideology-based members of Congress will simply not agree to ensuring the U.S. economy doesn’t miss the great jobs and growth opportunity that clean-tech would bring. They will only agree to enriching the pockets of their fossil fuel friends, and ONLY with fossil fuels, as to them it seems that fossil fuel money is very different than clean energy money. As a result, it’s time to think not about nation-building through problem-solving, but about human survival through problem-solving. In other words, we have to think about how we can avert climate catastrophe at whatever cost instead of how we can do so at benefits to us (“us” being U.S. citizens). In the end, we’ll be better off averting climate catastrophe even if it’s not us who take the biggest piece of the clean-tech pie.

As it stands, the best hope we have right now to avert climate catastrophe is China. With all the press that people read about coal burning and ever-increasing consumption in China, it is the only country showing the incredible capacity we’ll need to muster to make the transition to clean energy. In only four years, China has become the world’s leader in wind and solar, beginning exactly from nothing. It took the developed world decades to get to where China has gotten in just a few years. On top of that, it takes China very little to make a decision that will strengthen their capacity to lead on clean energy, such as creating feed-in tariffs, investing twice as much on clean energy than the United States, and even creating a cap-and-trade system to price carbon directly. It can do this even while having one of the biggest supplies of coal. If what China has done in a few years is any indication of what’s to come, we MUST begin to put our hope on China as a major innovator in clean energy and, as such, the only leader that can and should be responsible for leading the world away from climate catastrophe.

To make this clear, let’s put out some numbers about how impressive China’s clean energy sector has been over the last few years. Five years ago, China wasn’t even up on the charts in the wind energy sector. In 2005, it approved major policy to drive growth of wind turbine manufacturing and wind energy installations. In 2009, it led the world in total installations of wind energy, installing a stellar 13.8GW of wind energy (compared to 9.9GW in the U.S.; China is expected to pass the U.S. in installed capacity in 2010). At the same time, it became the world’s top manufacturer of wind turbines, with 3 firms already in the global top 10. In photovoltaic (solar power or PV), it supplied nearly 40% of the world’s panels last year, making it the leader in PV manufacturing. In addition to these key technologies, it has broken it’s own goals in solar hot water, biomass, and hydro consistently. It is also building the world’s largest and most advanced high speed rail systems, and has one of the world’s most ambitious programs to manufacture electric vehicles, having its own target of becoming the world’s leader in just three years. A very long walk for such little talk.

We can’t fool ourselves. China is clearly today’s most capable nation of turning this crisis into an incredible opportunity. While the U.S. still has incredible capacity, its gridlocked politicians will never let it pick up momentum, especially now after everything indicates politics will just get worse after November 2010. In spite of the reality that there are key issues in relation to China’s jump into clean-tech (such as quality), these are gradually going away as China’s clean-tech sector matures. It is time for the world’s attention to shift away from the U.S. and onto China when it comes to climate change. Chinese authorities know they will lead, and it is why their game has been very simple: obstruct international negotiations that could lead to the U.S. being more aggressive on clean-tech. This buys China time to create its industries, fix any issues they might have, and drive them to incredible growth that can not only meet domestic clean energy targets, but also easily take the rest of the world on a transition to clean energy, EVs, high-speed rails, etc.

The sooner we admit this, the sooner the rest of the world can shift its attention to China, putting pressure on its authorities to drive the clean-tech bandwagon fast enough to cut greenhouse gas emissions on a scale that would prevent Greenland’s melting, the Amazon’s burning, and the Arctic’s disappearance. For us, it’s no longer about whether we will lead. It’s about whether we will survive.

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.

Can Obama Succeed On Clean Energy?

Today, Senators John Kerry and Joe Lieberman, joined by a strong coalition of business groups and NGOs, unveiled “comprehensive” climate change and clean energy legislation and emphasized their confidence in getting it passed during the current Congress. Immediately afterwards, President Obama applauded the Senators for introducing legislation that would spur clean energy innovation and ensure the U.S. meets its climate change pledge to the international community under the Copenhagen Accord. Regardless of how anybody may feel about this (i.e. too late, too weak), it is a major milestone. We’ve marked off the checklist for everything that needs to be done to pass a climate bill, except getting the Senate to pass one. Now, it is up to President Obama to fight hard to get climate change and clean energy legislation passed. Can he do it?

Ever since he signed health care legislation over a month ago, President Obama has been wavering among a host of issues ranging from climate change legislation to wall street reform to nuclear proliferation. Unfortunately, he hasn’t decided to choose or two of these priorities and go with them as aggressively as he did with health care reform. What’s worse, he’s failing to live up to one of his core principles he repeatedly mentioned throughout his campaign for health care reform, and that is that his choice to act wouldn’t be influenced by “politics or the polls,” but instead by what “is the right thing to do.” With the upcoming Congressional elections, it seems that President Obama is being influenced more by the polls than “the right thing to do” as he has chosen not to fight aggressively for anything. A great example is his rather short period of campaigning for wall street reform, which lasted a couple of weeks to be left to Congress again.

If President Obama wants to succeed on climate change and clean energy legislation, he will have to push it as hard as he pushed health care reform. So far, President Obama hasn’t dedicated any town hall meetings or domestic visits to climate change and clean energy legislation. He’s only spoken about it during a few times during his weekly addresses and when he announced lifting the ban on offshore drilling in many areas. A quick search through the White House website for health care yields 616 entries as of today, while for energy and the environment there are 64 (that’s roughly 10%). Clearly, if President Obama wants to succeed on climate change and clean energy legislation, he’ll have to campaign more aggressively for it to tip the political balance towards getting the necessary votes in the Senate to pass the strongest bill possible.

Furthermore, he will have to come up with the kind of language that will resonate with people across the country. When he campaigned for health care reform, he spoke of insurance industry abuses, unreasonable premium hikes, and a ballooning federal deficit, all of which were key messages that resonated with people across the country. However, when President Obama speaks of climate change and clean energy, he talks about innovation, leadership, and job creation, failing to emphasize the loss of jobs to other countries, the impacts of floods, droughts, and rising temperatures that are not uncommon across the country, and the damage that fossil fuels incur on the environment, health, and the pockets of U.S. citizens. It is  important to emphasize how climate change and clean energy legislation will spur new industries and create new jobs, but it is also important to emphasize how action will benefit citizens directly, just as he did with health care.

This is perhaps the best time to get it right. The BP oil spill and the coal mine disasters have exemplified our need to eliminate our dependence on fossil fuels altogether, while our continued loss of clean energy manufacturing jobs to other countries will continue to make it harder to fight the high unemployment rate. We all witnessed how President Obama mustered public support to pressure Congress to act on health care. There is no doubt it can happen again for climate change and clean energy legislation, but it will require President Obama to “do the right thing,” step up to the plate, and campaign aggressively for legislation before campaigning for the Congressional elections erases all chances to get anything done this year. This one is just as up to the Senate as it is to President Obama.

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.

Eliminating the Income Tax

The global economic downturn has created the need to spur spending and investments. Despite central banks all around the world lowering interest rates to commercial banks to spur lending, we have not seen the kind of economic recovery that people expected, at least in the developed world. One of the reasons why the recovery has been particularly slow, especially on the jobs front, is because people are still generally cautious about spending and businesses are not investing nearly enough to create new jobs. I’m not a trained economist, but it doesn’t take an experienced one to know what is preventing more jobs from being created in the United States.

The Obama administration should be praised for taking the downturn to a stop. The Stimulus package clearly spurred an increase in productivity and brought job losses to a halt. With another year to go, it is expected that it will continue to at least keep the economy recovering at a reasonable pace. But as we see what’s happening with Obama’s agenda, from health care to climate change to financial reform, we know that people really would like to see a faster economic recovery. The question then would be if a faster economic recovery is possible. In the short-term, probably not. The government can choose to provide more stimulus, especially for local and state governments, but it can’t do anything innovative that can really create a big change in a short period of time.

Nevertheless, the government can secure faster economic growth over the long-term (say the next decade) if it did a few things. Surely, we need health care reform, financial reform, and a tax on carbon to spur innovation in clean energy. But we also need to reform a tax code that prevents jobs from being created and discourages saving and investing. After all, a lack of saving and too much overspending is what caused the economic crisis in the first place. It would therefore be prudent to encourage saving and investing, and discourage overspending to prevent future bubbles and secure steady, long-term economic growth.

So how do we do that? Robert Frank, a Cornell economics professor at the Johnson School, explains why eliminating the income tax would be a good thing. It would spur higher levels of consumer spending as incomes would be higher. This would have the effect of putting more dollars into the economy, which in turn would create more jobs. For those on the upper income brackets, it would lead to an increase in saving and investing as those with more money will have a higher amount left over after total consumption. This, too, would have the effect of creating more jobs.

Now, in a time like this we would like to have higher spending, but for the long-term, when economic growth is stable, it would not necessarily be too good to encourage overspending. This could lead to what we saw with the residential real estate market, where over-lending led to overbuying until the bubble burst. On top of that, eliminating the income tax without creating an additional source of government revenue would balloon the federal deficit, something that would be politically and fiscally unsustainable. So, in place of the income tax, professor Frank suggests implementing a “progressive consumption tax.” The idea here is pretty simple. You get a tax on how much you spend on goods and services annually, and the more you spend, the higher your tax bracket.

A progressive consumption tax would have the effect of increasing revenues for the government, especially from higher spenders. In effect, this would shift the tax burden away from the middle class and into the highest earners. While this may seem a bad thing for very wealthy people, in reality it may turn out to be good for them as well. Here’s why. A higher tax on big spenders would provide an incentive to spend less on luxury (reader: “what?” author: “wait, read on”) and invest more on things that provide actual returns, which would not only create more jobs, but also bring up wealthy people’s productive assets. When the financial markets crashed, a lot of people lost more than what they should’ve lost because they had not invested in productive assets. Instead, they had overspent on luxury, fueling others from lower income brackets to overspend as well and therefore fueling bubbles. So, in the end, it’s better to have an incentive to invest in productive assets than one to overspend on luxury. And this is what a progressive consumption tax would do.

In effect, these tax changes, coupled with new taxes on externalities to get rid of waste and harm, would create new and better jobs, increase federal revenues, lower unnecessary government spending, slash the federal debt and deficits, and create a more competitive environment in which society can prosper. Now, what are the chances of this being considered in the short term? Definitely closer to zero than to one hundred. The upcoming elections, the Obama agenda, and the public’s discontent with government will make something like this unlikely to come up soon, but talking about it consistently to give people an idea of what it would mean could increase its chances of becoming reality in the future.

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.

Response to Letter for McKibben

Response to a letter to Bill McKibben (here).

Good arguments. I agree that Obama is not the only person to blame for all of this (no climate deal at Copenhagen). One thing to keep in mind is that Obama and his negotiators were all tied with a rope that was being pulled back every time they tried to move forward. We all know that in the U.S. it’s going to come down to Congress, particularly the Senate, and not to President Obama. Kyoto died because the Senate killed it, and I have no doubt they would do the same if Obama decided to go ahead and commit hundreds of billions per year to pay climate debt and stick to European-like emission targets (40% by 2020). Somewhere around the web is an interview with Stern where he explains that the Obama administration wanted to make sure they didn’t commit the same mistake as the Clinton administration, just to have legislation killed by the Senate. And we know how hard it’s been to even get climate legislation considered in the Senate.

On the other hand, I think Obama clearly disrespected the rest of the world when he decided to come up with an “accord” with only a few nations (those that in the first place were holding back any agreement). It doesn’t matter whether you’re a major polluter or not; as a sovereign nation working under a framework that includes everybody’s opinion, you have to respect what others think and not just sideline them. If you heard the discussions that went on from heads of state, you noticed that people were very angry for very good reasons… their people were becoming victims of a problem they did not create. And so for Obama to ignore that, I think it’s extremely disrespectful, no matter if you’re one of the two big polluters, and especially when you promote the idea of improving lives globally. After all, I think it was the U.S. that got the rest of the world working under the “framework” that mentioned in the letter.

So, if we want all of this to change, I think we’ve taken away two things. The first is that the rest of the world is really ready to do what it takes. The second is that the U.S. really isn’t… because of the Senate. So we have to really try to change how the Senate thinks if we want to get on the right path. I don’t see hundreds of billions coming out of the Senate for clean energy and energy efficiency the way you see $125 billion for Iraq and Afghanistan. That in itself is also a disrespect to the rest of the world and to all Americans. It means that unnecessary, special interest based wars are bigger priorities than survival, and that’s just wrong. We can’t blame Obama for everything, but Obama needs to step up his efforts on climate like he did on health care. He has done very little to rally people to make, for example, the 1 million phone calls to Congress he’s getting from Americans in support of health reform. He needs to do the same for climate change, and we haven’t seen the beginning of that yet. I hope 2010 is all about that.

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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